Thursday, August 5, 2010

Party like it's 2008

The eighth-odd CompuServe Books and Writers Forum House Party is currently winding down into its last day, and since I've been occupied with exactly nothing but that for six days, I thought I'd talk about it today- particularly since it ties in perfectly with what Rachel talked about yesterday.

[NB: As flagged last week, I probably won't be getting into my Ricki debate until the two of us have time to set our thoughts down on paper coherently, which hasn't happened yet].

So, house parties. I've mentioned them in passing before. I created the first one in 2007 after realising that the participants in the Writers Exercises had come to know each other's writing so well that they could just about write for each other. Month in, month out, our little community of writers posts snippets of their work and completes various exercises designed to stimulate and inspire, and when the work is posted it inspires everyone else, too.

Myself and a couple of other participants (Deniz and Maggie) decided that hey, it might be fun to actually try to write each other's characters, just for something completely different. We figured that sticking our people in a completely different place and time would bring out all kinds of interesting aspects of their personalities- take an Australian farmer/ soldier from conservative 1914 and stick him in the decadent court of King Charles II, and you can be guaranteed all his prejudices will be showing within a page. That is, assuming you're writing your character with enough verve and vigour...

The house parties have grown and grown since that first one, and have now evolved from a simple post-by-post thread in which one person wrote a bit, then the next wrote a bit that lead on, and so on, to monumental extravaganzas with weeks of scene setting and development, character introductions, and a contiguous commentary thread in which the writers talk through their nefarious plans and hatch plot point after plot point before going back and writing some more.

The parties have now been held in:

The Australian outback, 1914
A Scottish ceilidh in the 17th century
A Halloween party in the present day in Nebraska
As a series of therapy sessions in the present day- this one was unique and amazing :)
At the Washing of the Lions in the court of King Charles II (17th C)
In contemporary New Zealand, in a party that fondly became known as Skiing in Armageddon
In Blitz London, 1940
And now celebrating July 4th weekend in Georgia, 2008

I'll probably dig up the links. Probably. But at the moment I'm a little exhausted. In the last six days, I've written around 20,000 words. Sounds like plenty, but not when you hear that between the dozen participants this time, we've cracked 143,000 words all told, still with one day to go.

No other exercise I've ever done has been as helpful to my writing as these house parties. I'll tell you why.

1. Community. There's absolutely nothing like writing with people who are not only fabulous writers themselves, but who actually get your characters so well that they can write whole scenes with them, and when you read them you think, "Did that come out of my head? Or his/ hers?". You will never, ever feel more understood as a writer than you will at a house party.

2. Freedom. There are no rules at a house party. No required scenes. No ramifications for your story, no matter what happens. Heck, both of my major male characters have had long-term house party affairs with other women, which have extended over several parties. This doesn't impact the story in any way, shape or form. It's just another way to explore those characters, and it works wonders. The ability to write off the cuff, anything at all, at the warp speed required to keep up, brings out amazing things.

3. Enthusiasm. House parties will make you laugh, cry and shout out loud in the space of one page. They are full of energetic, high stakes writing. No boring bits. It's impossible not to feel the enthusiasm.

4. Deep understanding of your characters. Like I mentioned earlier, sticking your characters in a different context is a surefire way to learn about them in unprecedented detail. I always come to a house party with a particular problem in mind, and I aim to explore it in every possible way.

I shall elaborate on that last, by telling you how to get the best from your house parties.

The purpose of the exercise is not just to have fun and practice writing. It's to get to know your characters better, and to untangle fundamental issues that may be causing you problems. So, the best way to learn from the party is to pick a point in your story where there's unresolved conflict or confusing plot issues, and take your characters from that point.

Have them start the house party in that frame of mind. Make all their responses come back to what they're feeling at that time. Get them interacting with characters who are dealing with similar issues- or polar opposite ones. Trust the other writers to pick up your cues and go with the flow. They always do.

In my case, this time I wanted to explore the post-war relationship with Bill and his brother Len. So complicated. And I also needed to decide how Len was going to die- fighting with his brother, or fighting against him. I had to take them to the party in this mode, and just go for it.

And 20,000 words later, I not only have a whole lot of amazing revelations, but I also have around 4000 words that are suitable for transplanting directly into the story, including two very tough scenes that I'd been struggling to write before now.

That's probably enough from me on that topic- but if you've never been involved in a house party before now, I urge you to give it a shot. First you need to get to know your collaborators, preferably by coming over and doing some exercises with us. But we've had brave souls lob in before with no prior experience, and it's worked perfectly, too. All comers are welcome.

Go here and check it out if you haven't seen it yet :) It's a rollicking good read, full of action, adventure, romance, loss and love, and featuring characters ranging from Australian WWI soldiers to contemporary FBI agents to King Charles II himself, and everything in between.


  1. Oh, Claire! Thanks for this post. It's exactly what a house party is like. This is my fifth and, maybe because I'm the host in Cherry Hill, GA, I have found it to be the best. Thanks to all of you for coming to Laura Grace's little party. ; ) See you in Cherry Hill!

  2. House parties are a completely unique experience for both the writer and her characters. Invaluable, entertaining, enlightening.

    They're a mini-vacation that enables me to return to my wip with renewed insights and energy. It's amazing what collaboration with other writers will spark in my own writing.

  3. You know, I've never been able to get into the house parties. I have a hard time writing for other people's characters -like I'm invading their bodies or something. lol. Gives me heartburn just thinking about it. Funny how the mind/creativity works so differently for people.

  4. I love the energy and enthusiasm of house parties! And it's not only the romance I've started this time around - I've figured out what it is that makes me write all day at these events; it's the feedback, the back and forth, the bouncing off ideas and the stuff that makes it easy: the setting is there, you don't need to focus on description, you can explain things away in one line or two in the commentary, and all you have to do is concentrate on the interaction and excitement.
    Can't get enough!