Phantom of the Hip-Hopera: An Experiment in Improvised Novel Writing

They tell you to start your column with your best line, so I’ll start by telling you this is a story about a new way of writing fiction.

And now I can get to the extremely boring second line: I do a podcast.

If I was good at promoting myself, I’d link it here. But I’m not.* Plus, it’s the worst kind of podcast: just an idiot talking about anything, no format, all nonsense.

Every October, I do something called Podoween (that was the best name I could come up with. See, you don’t want to listen), which is 31 days, 31 podcasts.

These are usually short, spooky, Halloween episodes about real-life horrors. This year, however, I tried something different: a 31-part semi-improvised fictional short story that I call: Ghost of Hip Hopera.

And what it turned into was an experiment in writing a novella through improvisation.

Here’s how it worked.

Part 1: Concept

I had this idea a while back: wouldn’t it be fun to put together a story about someone in the ’90s trying to write a “hip, kid-friendly” version of a classic novel?

For example, imagine someone tasked with writing an update Frankenstein where Frankenstein is a drummer in a ska band.

I tried the Phantom of the Opera for my particular story because, well, the Phantom is perhaps the meanest of literary monsters. It is funny.

I had chosen my classic, I had the era in which it would be revived, but there was a problem: I didn’t know how to make it work.

Part 2: Format

How do you write something that makes fun of something else without rewriting the whole thing? Or how to spell Ghost of Hip-Hopera so that people who have not read the Phantom of the Opera 100 times will still enjoy? How do you explain what you are doing while also doing what you are doing? How the two layers mix together – the original Ghost and the Hip-Hopera version?

Part 3: Fall together

I needed something, a structure for the story to emerge, a format, a character to lead everyone into. I needed to produce a new kind of thing, and to do that, I needed to write in a new way.

My character is Werther Delight Johnson, the pseudonym of an MFA holder who found himself in the world of fiction, specifically the creatures series and Killer Klown from deep space. He has the task of writing Ghost of the Hip-Hopera, and as someone unfamiliar with the original Ghost, Werther guides the listener through the original, the key changes and the process. For better and for worse.

And he keeps an audio journal so that once he’s famous, which he sure will become after writing this thing, he’ll be able to put together a memoir.

Boom, done.

Part 4: Scheme

I set up a basic outline for all 31 chapters and discussed them, one chapter per episode of the podcast.

I’m not usually an delineator, but I took an approach I’d heard of Curb your enthusiasm: the improvised parts happen with the actors knowing where the scene begins, where it has to end, and the rest is magic.

“Magic” is more than a little over the top in my case, but it’s more descriptive than “and the rest is stuff”.

Part 5: Impromptu

Falling from grace is impossible when you live full time in the basement.

I’m not the improvisational type. I’m more “Wait, what?” than “Yes, and”.

Even after recording a couple of episodes, I wasn’t sure about everything. What if people hated him? What if you fell face down doing something pretty embarrassing on the ALL THE DAMN INTERNET!?

But then I remembered the advantage of having an unpopular podcast and an undistinguished writing career: You can do whatever you want.

Seriously, if it sucks, who’s gonna be mad? It’s not like I have investors I answer to, million dollar budgets, unsold action figures rotting on the shelves at Target.

The only benefit of being extremely unpopular is that you don’t owe anyone, you can afford to fail.

Falling from grace is impossible when you live full time in the basement.

And with that rosy attitude, I managed to tape all 31 episodes.

Part 6: Transcript

Now comes the worst part. And the fun part: transcribe everything I said.

Speech transcription is the most boring activity in writing. How do we speak so fast and write so slowly? It’s a miracle we’ve ever done anything remotely resembling journalism. If I was in charge of journalism, I would have simply said: “Fuck writing all this, we all promise to tell 5 people, and everyone can promise to tell 5 people. It will work.

The transcription sucks. But in this case it is also the fun part. Why with Ghost of Hip-Hopera, it wasn’t just a word-for-word transcription, I was adding things, moving things, normal rewriting things, but it felt different. I had to write this story again for the first time.

It was actually a lot of fun. And it was a quick way to get to a finished second draft.

Why you should try

It might be a little easier to speak in a character’s voice than it is to write it. It might be easier to let the story take you to a place when you start out loud. On the second step, it’s very easy to let go of what sucks because, well, it was just thrown out there, not something you worked on for hours. The cracks, the spots that need more attention, are most apparent when you start out loud and then put it in writing.

You have to commit to the bit. You really have to talk about it, like you’re playing a character on a stage. You have to try to make it feel real, just for you anyway.

Sounds silly, but it’s worth it. I got a manuscript out of it, it went fast, and it was, honestly, pretty fun.

Try it. What have you got to lose?

Besides, yours won’t be worse than mine, guaranteed. Mine is called Ghost of Hip-Hopera. I have set a very low bar for all of you to pass.


Get The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux on Bookshop or Amazon

Gain How to be the greatest improviser on Earth by Will Hines on Bookshop or Amazon

[*Helpful Snowman Radio —Editor]

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