Letters From the Edge of a Cliff

Being new to blogging as a form of writing practice, I always get excited when I read the email that comes in that says something along the lines of “So and So liked your latest blog post. Why don’t you take a look at what they’re doing?” I’m always amazed by the number of talented writers I find at the other end of those links.

In just such a way, I stumbled across the Write Tribe. If you want some truly great writing exercises, give them a try, everything from writing a story in exactly 55 words, to writing prompts for haiku, to writing full-fledged stories. But their newest edition, “Whispering a Secret” http://writetribe.com/whispering-a-secret/ is very cool. Basically one blogger begins a story and passes it to the next blogger and so on, with each blogger adding to it until the last one in the line, who gets to write the end of the story.

As writers, a lot of us don’t get out much. Our “out” is generally into our own fictional worlds, and to our day jobs. We may write in coffee shops or out in the park, and we may even get out to socialize with other groups, but getting together to share your passion for writing is something entirely different. Mostly it happens by reading and commenting on other blogs, or by going to conventions. But how often do we really write with one another? Share that spark inside that says “I need to tell this story” with someone who not only understands it, but can contribute to it.

Being in your own head all the time can lead to writing that always sounds the same. Although I, like most writers, have stories in my head with my own characters and my own plotlines, I’ve found that back and forth sorts of writing games really spark creativity that breaks through the stagnation. Reading about the Write Tribe’s exploits reminded me a lot of a couple of writing games my friends and I started in high school and that I’ve played on and off ever since. Thought you might like to try them.

The first game is all the fault of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. My friend Kelly and I went to see Raiders of the Lost Arc and were blown away by the story. We got all the magazines about the movie with our allowance, and read all the interviews and ‘making of’ articles to see how they had done what they did. In one of the interviews, Steven (or George, can’t remember which) said the idea for the movie was based on the serials of the 30’s and 40’s.

Serials, for those of you under 40, were short films of a sort of multi-chapter story. Every week, the theater would play one chapter before the Saturday matinee along with newsreels and cartoons (and you got all of that plus the matinee for a dime). But the best part was that each week’s episode of the story would always end in a cliffhanger. If you wanted to see what happened next, you had to go back to the theater the following Saturday, and the Saturday after that, and the Saturday after that…

Kelly and I looked up from reading that interview, and grinned, knowing that we could totally do that. We called ourselves “Cliffhangers, Inc.” and set about gathering all our friends who wrote stories to play with us. The original rules were simple. Each story would have twelve cliffhanger-ended chapters plus a resolution (for a total of thirteen chapters), so your team could have any number of people (other than one) that was divisible by twelve. Each person would start a story in a spiral or composition notebook and leave it off at a really nasty spot – the hero is dangling over a pit of spikes by one finger and the villain is about to stomp on that last grip with his steel-toed boot, while a giant anaconda is squeezing the heroine and she can’t quite reach the machete on the bedside table…you get the idea.

Once we left the heroes hanging, we would pass the notebook to the next person in line, who had to get the characters free from impending doom, advance the plot, and put them into another cliffhanging situation. Finally, the notebook would be given back to the original author, who would have to get them out of that last earth-shattering cliffhanger and end the story.

After the first go round, we worked out a couple of kinks by adding two additional rules. First, we added a “Dramatis Personae” page to the front of the notebook to add names and short descriptions of each character we created (or added). The description had to include one of two all-important words: expendable or non-expendable. Being writers, we tended to get attached to certain characters and get grumpy if another author killed them off for dramatic effect, so adding those words would let the next person in line know not to kill off your baby.

Second, we agreed there would be no Deus Ex Machina. No miracle gadget would drop out of the sky. No sidekick ninja hamster that hadn’t shown up previously would appear in a puff of mist to disarm the bomb. Whatever cliffhanger was dealt, you had to figure out a logical way of defeating it.

Some of us got very good at this. To this day, twenty-eight years after Gigi wrote the last cliffhanger for “Straight on ‘til Morning” (the story I started), I still can’t figure out a way to get all the non-expendable characters out of all the different traps she put them in. I take it out every now and again to work on it, trying different methods of hero-saving, but Gigi will always be number one at cliffhanging. Hopefully I will figure out how to end that story at some point before I pass over into the great beyond.

For this game, we found that, while you could do a twelve person cliffhanger, three or four players was the optimal number for good storytelling, and that a composition book is a good place to put the stories. It’s easy enough to mail one to people cross-country. There was no email when we started our games, and it somehow feels more comforting when we do it the old-fashioned way rather than electronically. It’s far too easy to turn off the computer and not look to see that someone sent you a chapter. But when that composition book is sitting on your desk staring at you, and you know somebody is waiting on you so they can write, it’s a bit more motivating.

The second game we play started as a result of reading a truly awesome book by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer called Sorcery and Cecelia. You can find it on Amazon along with its two sequels: The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician. All three books are worth the price of admission for the storytelling alone. But the added gem is the interview with the authors at the back of the first book. Caroline and Patricia talked about something called the Letter Game where each author writes letters to the other in character in a shared world. Sorcery and Cecelia started out as a Letter Game between the two authors, and it created an epistolary novel like no other. I got sucked in and couldn’t put the adventures of Kate and Cecy down.

The rules are pretty simple. No pre-plotting is allowed, with the possible exception of character names and time period, but if you really want a challenge, you can ignore even that rule. Each author works with whatever comes in the last letter. There has to be some reason the characters aren’t together so that they can write to each other, and both plots should be connected somehow and get toward a conclusion at about the same time.

It’s the Letter Game that led to our first book, The Stolen Songbird, which will be out later this year. My friend and coauthor Vicki hadn’t written for fun in years, and one day while walking the hamster trail, I suggested that we play the Letter Game to get her back into it. We agreed on character names and chose a turn of the century setting in a steam age world where magic worked.

I wrote the first letter and advised her character (Shay) that based on the dispatches, she should have good weather while sailing the North Atlantic. She then told my character, Harry, to be careful in Nairobi. What this did was have me scramble to figure out why my character was in Nairobi in the first place, and have her trying to decide what she needed in Iceland.

It really took off, each of us challenging the other to create on the fly using our own ideas and also working in the clues we threw at each other. Essentially, we got caught up in building the world and the characters and the history through their letters to one another, and when we looked up, we realized we had something special. Now, two years after we started, that first set of letters will be book five in the series, and book one, which is the adventure in which the three main characters meet, is at 98,000 words and nearly completed.

These two games led to some of the best writing I’ve done over the years, and part of that was sharing that writing spark with someone else. Share your spark with another writer. You might be surprised at what comes from it!

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Letters From the Edge of a Cliff

  1. Thanks for sharing the info and inspiration! I’ll check out Write Tribe.

  2. Thanks for the mention. Loved reading your experiences.

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