The reason I bring the book up at all is what she talks about in Chapter 24—The Rules of Improv. (I'm struggling with whether to refer to her here as Tina, which makes it sound like we are friends, or Fey, which makes me sound like a newspaper reporter. So I am opting for TF for the rest of this post.)
TF's first professional "acting" gig was with a touring company of Second City, a famous improv group. As she began talking about the rules of improv, I thought to myself, "It's exactly like co-writing!" See if you agree.
THE RULES OF IMPROV
1. RULE ONE: Agree. Always agree and say yes. According to TF, if your partner begins a scene with "Freeze, I have a gun," you are not supposed to respond with, "That's not a gun, it's your finger."
Yes, of course. In a co-write, if your co-writer says, "What if we write a song about the beauty of grace," your first response can't be, "I just wrote about grace yesterday, so I don't want to write about it again today" or "The word 'grace' isn't really in right now." In other words, your first reaction should never be "no." I know there are writers who pull the "What else you got?" card on a young co-writer. I wouldn't, couldn't EVER do that. And I don't recommend it for anyone, ever. Start by agreeing at least on some level. Don't let your first reaction be "no."
2. RULE TWO: Say "yes... and." Add something of your own. Don't be afraid to contribute. Add something to the conversation. If your partner says, "Freeze! I have a gun," you might add, "Not the gun I gave you for Christmas!"
You're already ahead of me here, aren't you. My job as a co-writer is to put my ideas out there, not bring the conversation to a screeching halt. I might say, "We could write about grace. We could write about the way grace changes a person from the inside out. Or maybe we just write about being changed." (See what I did there? I ever so subtly threw my idea out on the table, hopefully without making my co-writer feel rejected.)
3. RULE THREE: Make statements. Don't just ask questions all the time. Don't put all the pressure on your partner to move things forward. Be part of the solution.
Some co-writes can end up with you spending lots of time discussing who's looking, what they're looking for, why you should aim for one artist rather than another, where the market is heading, what radio wants, why you should write up tempo rather than a ballad... an endless of analysis of how and what to write. Sooner or later it all comes down to writing what you are passionate about. Just write a great song. The rest will somehow take care of itself. I can't prove this is always true, but even if it isn't, I know I would rather leave a co-write feeling like I was part of a great song, not simply a commercially viable song.
4. RULE FOUR: There are no mistakes, only opportunities. According to TF, you can't do it wrong in an improv if you're doing the first three things, so relax.
I wonder if TF has ever used the expression "Dare to suck?" Rule number four is what we live by. The line you think is all wrong, might just be what sparks the right idea or line from your co-writer. You can't do it wrong. Relax, be brave, and have fun.
So thank you very much, Tina Fey, for a fun insight into improv and a great reminder about the rules of co-writing! And thanks for making my drive back to St. Louis yesterday really fly by!