I have been trying to perform at more storytelling venues and I was lucky enough to be booked at the Sacred Storytelling show here in Los Angeles. The reason why I mention this is because I had a set deadline, and a set topic – surrender. All I had to do was write the piece. Going through that process, I am not ashamed to admit, took me seven drafts (!!!) not including my initial notes.
In the process of honing my story, I realized how each phase of rewrites brought the topic to where I wanted it to be. Since it was a personal story, and one that is still emotional for me, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t trading being artful for being angry or telling an “insider” story. No one wants to hear a “work gone wrong” story if they do not work there.
In each draft, I noticed a process of what edits I focused on that I think will be helpful for anyone considering writing for a storytelling series or performing on stage. I use a combination of straight editing and making voice recordings and editing while I listen.
Phase One: Notes
This is a light sketch of moments, characters, details I would like to use.
Oh those ugly first drafts! I wrote through it and wondered who would want to listen to such a convoluted story. This is just a bowl of lumpy mashed potatoes.
I start to pick out each of the scenes I am going to separate the story into. I ended up with 7 stories within my stories and labeled each one in the draft.
I took to polishing each of the seven stories one by one. Each one needed to have their own setup, pacing and payoff. At this point I am starting to figure out if some material needs to go or be beefed up. I recorded this version using a mic and Quicktime (but you can do it straight into your phone as a voice memo).
I edit as I listen to the audio of me telling the story. Sometimes I find that the transition isn’t strong enough between “bits” so I add a sentence that either sets the scene, introduces a character, or just flat out say time has passed.
Now I am beginning to realize that this will be read aloud and I’d better think about how it will be perceived. There is a lot of anger in this piece and it ends with a big FU. I need to come up with a way to end on a different note, or I risk being looked at as a sore loser.
The ending is removed and I record I again. I edit again while listening to the audio and come to see that one of the parts I first thought was weak is actually very funny when I do it in a character’s voice. At this draft I find and hone a few more jokes, add pauses, highlight beats*, and put in italics for punch lines that I want to make sure I nail with emphasis.
This is the final draft so I record it one more time. I look for words that are not doing enough work – drab words, overused words, add some adjectives, edit out anything extraneous. I also ended up adding the previous ending back in that seemed angry in the first draft but seemed justified after I worked harder on the dramatic arc. You have to earn that payoff and if it isn’t in the details then it cheapens the ending.
In researching the stories that I love the most I also listened to some of the top ten Moth stories. I was surprised by which ones rose to the top as most viewed. At the time, writer Neil Gaiman, columnist Andy Borowitz, actor Steve Burns (Blues Clues), and Dan Savage were among the most viewed. None of these were my favorite stories, but each of these media-savvy figures are comfortable on the stage and also knew how to speak with dramatic impact.
If you don’t have the amazing delivery of an actor or an unusual voice such as Starlee Kine or Edgar Oliver, which are unmistakable, then you need to have at truly unique and startling story like Ed Gavagan’s Drowning on Sullivan Street.
* A “dramatic beat” according to Wikipedia, in acting, units of action, otherwise known as bits (or beats), are sections that a play’s action can be divided into for the purposes of dramatic exploration in rehearsal.