Saturday, July 21, 2012

Both Feet!

So my husband, Tony, started using the phrase, “Both feet!” (usually bellowed) after he learned it from an elderly southern woman. (Who else?) She had made sweet potato pie, and after he complimented her on its deliciousness, she said, “I put both feet in that pie.” Ah yes, a phrase, in that context, at once disgusting and fantastic.

Tony, a jazz musician, will sometimes yell it after a band mate lays down a particularly perilous and striking improvised solo. I’ve been known to shout it out when I make some crazy, intuitive leap in the kitchen, like putting a dash of Pernot in linguine and clams. (Delicious, by the way.)

“Both feet!” means commitment. Full-on commitment to the moment. If you’re going to do this thing, then take some risks, allow for the possibility of it being great. Don’t waste your time dibble-dabbling your toesies in the water to check the temperature and/or for sharks –plunge right in. Often, artistically, there are great rewards. Sometimes, of course, there are sharks.

Improv comedians, the really great ones, are gonzo with the “Both feet!” mentality. I’ve done a bit of improv in my life, and I was always a ‘glue’ sort of performer. I responded well to others, kept the scene moving, and occasionally got a laugh. I was middle-of-the-road. The great ones are a pleasure to watch. They propel a scene forward with the most unlikely choices, and the utmost commitment – which is the source of the funny. Here’s an example. This isn’t the best Whose Line is it Anyway out there, but it’s typical.

The nice thing about improv comedy is that you’re usually working with at least one other person, who can hopefully catch that crazy curve ball you just threw, even if it was ill-advised.
Not so in writing. You’re on your own, baby. Unless you happen to have a fantastic writing group – or even just a friend or two who give you excellent feedback.

My fellow Scribberati gave me stellar advice on a particular chapter of my WIP, Ursula Evermore and the Case of the Man Who Wasn’t. I made the classic mistake of showing the gun, but not using the gun, metaphorically speaking. “If you’re going to threaten that this crazy, disastrous thing might happen,” said my group, “Then have it happen – otherwise your readers will be disappointed.”  But, I thought, it would be disastrous, and I have no idea how I could possibly get my characters out of such a corner!
Ah, but of course, that’s exactly what makes great, exciting fiction. So I did it. I threw them into that situation, and then spent the next few days pondering just how in the hell they were going to get out of this crazy mess. I figured it out. And of course, the story is far better for it.

Both feet!

So, yeah. I’m trying to remember that lesson throughout my second draft, even in small moments. Sometimes, admittedly, this practice can lead to the aforementioned sharks: crazy plot twists that make no sense, pointless tangents, irrational behavior in your characters. But that’s where we writers have the advantage. Unlike improv comedians, we have a delete button.