Last night (December 5, 2005), I did a 10-minute standup-comedy act in a Scandinavian city, to an audience of mostly students.
I was one of 6 people doing their acts - mostly beginners - but I had the advantage of previous experience: I had done standup several years before - in that town and in Dublin, Ireland.
And my December 5 act was, according to the three workmates who sat in the audience, and the manager of the comedy club, a success. People laughed and applauded, for instance when I enacted my explanation of why women in the Herbal Essences TV commercials shout "Yes! Yes!" (you see, they are disguised aliens whose genitals are placed on the top of their heads).
Furthermore, I poked fun at the monarchy, plastic surgery, the former Prime Minister, UFO abductees, and myself.
So what has this got to do with writing?
Well... In order to become (any) good at standup-comedy, I had to learn that it's not at all the same as "acting". You can't "act yourself", rigidly following a script - the audience sees through that immediately. You have to be yourself on stage - warts and all, and be prepared to improvise. It feels great once you get the hang of it.
Writing prose fiction is similar to stand-up comedy, in that your writer's voice has to be your own voice. If you try to fake that, the prose will come off as false-sounding. It doesn't ring true.
Be yourself - warts and all. Not necessarily in the sense that you must serve up your life's story, but... you have to believe in what you write. It can't sound like a committee wrote it, or a by-the-numbers collection of clichés. Perhaps this sincerity comes with long practice, or a good mentor. I have no idea.
Bad fiction is like failed stand-up: the author appears to stand rigidly before a microphone, reading from the script in a strained voice: "I AM BEING SPONTANEOUS NOW..." (Argh.)
Good fiction flows like the machine-gun delivery of a Robin Williams or a Billy Connolly: You buy into the act at once. Suspension of disbelief is total.