Never Say No; Say “Yes, And …”

Originally Posted: April 2013

by Primwatee Groover

Mystery writer Chris Grabenstein, who co-authored the recent New York Times number one bestseller I Funny with James Patterson, lured audience members onstage at the March professional lecture for a hilarious demonstration of how comedy improv techniques can work for writers.

Grabenstein thinks writer’s block comes from trying too hard to find the perfect word, and improvisation, a skill he learned years ago when he was a comedian, can help eliminate it. Improv taught him that “There are no mistakes, only opportunities and beautiful, happy accidents. ‘No’ makes the scene stop. ‘Yes’ keeps you going,” he said. So if writers say, “Yes, and … And then? And then?” to every strange idea they get and keep moving forward, they will write past the block.

Grabenstein demonstrated by having audience volunteers improvise skits in situations suggested by interesting pictures, with additional prompts from the audience. He also showed how similar prompts could result in a written story.

Grabenstein then described his own writing practice. He said he writes about 2,500 words a day. First, he spends an hour going over his work from the day before, making slight tweaks. This helps him get back into the story, and then he can move forward. He knows his characters and puts them into a situation to find out what they will do. Often it’s not until the third draft that he finds out what he really wants to say.  This process has helped him write 20 published books in the last eight years.

He began writing in 2001, and his first, second, third and fourth manuscripts were all rejected. It was four years before he published his first book, an adult murder mystery called Tilt the Whirl. It went on to win an Anthony award for best first mystery. This summer, the eighth book in this series will be out. Yet, Grabenstein says, he still gets about two books a year rejected.

In 2002, he turned one of his adult manuscripts into a ghost story for middle-grade readers, cutting it down from 120,000 to 50,000 words. The Crosswords went on to win both Anthony and Agatha awards, and was the first of many ghost stories and mysteries for middle-grade readers. Grabenstein says he prefers writing for children because he thinks they are better readers and ask better questions.

“Finding your voice in writing is important,” Grabenstein said, “that unique voice which is not like anyone else’s and will make you stand out. And say ‘yes, and …’ to everything!”

For more information, see Grabenstein’s


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