Writing Exercises: Techniques for Generating Ideas and Getting Started

Techniques for Generating Ideas and Ideas for Getting Started Writing

Generating Ideas


The best way to do this is to do it fast. Number a page from one to ten or twenty and go!

Drawing from your own life:

1. Jobs you’ve had
2. Careers
3. Passions
4. Obsessions
5. Quirks
6. Pet peeves
7. Loves
8. Interests
9. Favorite authors and their themes
10. Habits
11. Places you’ve lived or visited.
12. Hobbies
13. Your daily routine
14. Family members
15. Pets you’ve had
16. Names of streets you’ve lived on.
17. Items of clothing you’ve loved
18. Cars you’ve owned
19. Lovers/Relationships
20. Dreams you remember
21. Favorite movies, their themes
22. Favorite phrases, where did they come from?
23. Your most-used cliches

Now take a look at your lists. Do you see any themes emerging? Do all your passions and obsessions coalesce around one main idea with offshoots? Can you start to write about items on your list? For instance, under places you’ve lived, write what you like and don’t like about them. Start to cross-pollinate. If you want to write a piece of fiction, you could transpose your daily routine onto living in a different place.

What would your current life be like in a totally new environment? Even changing none of the details of your daily routine, in a new place it would be different. If you moved to a small mountain town in the winter, for instance, suddenly you’d have to build in time every morning to shovel the snow away from your car. Of if you moved to LA from a smaller city, the morning commute would be much different. If you moved from LA to the country, you’d suddenly free up tons of time you used to spend in the car.

What if you crossed the authors on your list and imagined them writing about another author’s themes? What if a very macho male author wrote about domestic issues? What kind of story would result? For non-fiction, what kind of essay could you write linking several contemporary authors and exploring their themes in terms of a current social issue?

Drawing From the World:

1. Places you’d love to go
2. Political issues that make you crazy
3. Social problems you’d like to solve
4. Politicians you love
5. Politicians you hate
6. Celebrities you love
7. Celebrities you hate
8. TV shows you love/hate

Other ideas:

1. What you’d buy with a million dollars
2. What you’d take on a round the world journey
3. What three items you’d want with you on a dessert island
4. What people from your life you’d want with you on that island
5. Would you rather be too hot or too cold?
6. Other deep questions from childhood (like #5)
7. The first three things you’d do if you ruled the world

You can think of numerous other ways to cross-pollinate from your lists, and you can also think of other things to add to it. Write new ideas for lists as they occur to you. Keep going back to the lists and use them as the basis of a journal entry or a free-write. The thing about ideas is once you start cultivating them, they come fast and furious.

Word Games

1. Choose 20 verbs, 20 nouns, and 20 adjectives. Write them each on a separate piece of paper and put them, according to category, in separate containers. When you are ready to write, draw one of each, make a sentence of it, and start writing.

2. A variation on the above is to choose 20 occupations, 20 personality traits, and 20 locations. Draw one of each, create a character from it and start writing.

3. Take a thesaurus, photocopy random pages from it. Run your finger down the listings with eyes closed, stop, and use that word to create a sentence and then a paragraph.
4. Take first lines of poetry and use them as starting points. Or take a poem, photocopy it, cut up all the words and put them back together again into a sentence or several.

5. Use Refrigerator Word Magnets to create sentences and spark ideas.

If you have a vague idea, but aren’t sure how to develop it, try the following:

1. Utilize the five Ws and the one H. Who, what, when, why, where and how. Answer all of these in depth for your idea.

2. Explain the idea, in writing, as if you were explaining it to an alien who does not understand the mores of society. For instance, if you had an idea about the history of desks, you’d have to start by explaining what a desk is. If you had an idea to write about marriage, you’d have to explain what marriage is. This is an excellent way to go deeper into the heart of the idea.

3. Look at it through different lenses. How would a reporter, a poet, a screenwriter, a novelist, a short story writer, an essayist, a letter writer approach it?

4. As above, put through the eyes of people you know.

5. The old standby, do a cluster.

6. Quickly cut pictures from magazines that remind you of your idea and make a collage.

7. Do a repetitive activity, like walking or sewing or knitting or weeding. Some thing about this jars ideas loose.

The Big Questions

1. Why do you want to write?
2. What moves you?
3. What stops you?
4. For whom are you writing?
5. How can you be true to yourself as a writer?
6. What causes you to get blocked?
7. What is your legacy?

Other Useful Techniques

1. Brainstorming. Take one of your lists and force yourself to go deeper, writing as many ideas from it as you can in one minute.

2. Over-responding. Similar to above. Take an idea, a problem, a concern and over respond. Similar to over-reacting, except over-reacting is desperate and over-responding is positive. Think of all the ways you could possibly solve a problem and then push yourself to list more. This would be great for character development—over-respond to a character’s problem and think of all the possible things that could happen to her.

3. Utilize your sub-conscious. Tell it you need an idea. Tell it you need to develop an idea you have. As you are falling asleep, read over what you have and tell your sub-conscious to work on it in the night. Or do that right before you go for a walk.

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Being Critiqued, Part Two

Last week I wrote a post about being critiqued.

Today I was talking with my friend Suzanne about this getting critiqued and I thought a bit more about it.

What we talked about was that feeling you have when you are confident in your work, and in you step sprightly to meet with the agent or editor or critique group–the judges.  They treat you harshly.  Or maybe they don’t even treat you harshly, but they do what you asked them to do–critique your work. 

And it is so damn hard.

You thought you had a story ready to be accepted, but they find all kinds of things wrong with it.  You have heard over and over again, not to take criticism personally, that it is not about you.  But, damn, at the time it sure feels like it, doesn’t it?

I’m sorry, but no matter how adept I am at receiving criticism (and I’ve received a lot of it, so I think I’m pretty good at it) I still take it personally.  And I remember feeling, after a rough critique, that if my work is no good, then what does that say about me?  I was so aligned with the work that when it was critiqued harshly I felt like my world was over, like I had no worth, like nothing was worth it.

I don’t take it quite that personally any more.  Here’s the deal, though: if you are able to be very zen about it all and not be affected by criticism of your work, then that means you have to be very zen about it and not bask in the praise when it comes.

That’s a tough one, too. 

I’ll report back when I’ve mastered the art of listening to neither criticism or praise.  It’ll be in about 50 years or so, if I’m lucky. 

I Want Patti Smith To Play at Armageddon

414pxpatti_prayer I saw Patti Smith last night at The Bite of Oregon.

I’m in complete and total awe of how incredible she is. 

It was a cloudy day, with some rain showers (you would not believe what a crappy summer we’ve been having here) and so we almost didn’t go.  But the rain held off and mid-way through her set there was the most beautiful sunset, with the clouds turning brilliant orange and yellow over the lights of the city.  Audience members were taking pictures of Patti and the sunset.

But back to Patti.  According to her website, the woman is 60, and she is still the most kick-ass rocker in the world.  She played full out for two hours.  Her voice, that deep throaty growl, is still in great shape and she uses it, baby.  I didn’t keep a list of songs, but some she played were Gloria, Gimme Shelter (amazing), Because the Night, Are You Experienced, Smells Like Teen Spirit, and others.  She did play several from her covers CD, Twelve.

Apparently she was hanging out in the Music Millennium booth earlier, signing CDs.  From the stage, she talked about how she’d enjoyed walking around the festival and stood in line to eat 6 tacos from the Canby Asparagus Booth.  Wouldn’t you love to be standing in line for a taco and turn around and see Patti Smith behind you?

She played the clarinet and the harmonica and the guitar and I adore her spoken word interludes.  Over the course of the evening she referenced the meteor showers, Barry Bonds (a "flawed hero") and her beloved H.P. Lovecraft several times, since Portland is the home of the H.P. Lovecraft film festival.

She came back out and did an encore, even though this was technically a festival setting and she said encores usually weren’t done out of respect for all the other artists who had played.  I’m so glad they came back out because she did a heart-stopping cover of Lou Reed’s A Perfect Day. 

What does all this have to do with writing?  Everything.

I watch Patti sing and play and just put herself out there, and she does it in front of thousands of people, and all I have to do is sit at my computer and put myself out when I’m all alone in a room, so why is that so damn hard sometimes?  Watching someone give their all, full out, no holding back, no apologies, no justifications, in front of thousands of people gives me chills.  It’s the essence of rock and roll, it’s the essence of writing, and it’s also the essence of all creativity that is worth a damn throughout all of time.  So let us all go forth and do it.

Photo courtesy of Gareth Owen under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2.  I found it on the Patti Smith entry on Wikipedia.

Keep The Writing Inspiration Going

Jason, over at Blog Catalog, asked how to stay on track with a longer project.  He said he had started several novels and tended to lose interest by the second or third chapter.

Losing interest in a long-term project happens.  I tend to get an idea, get all excited about it, start a notebook and start jotting down ideas, and then sometimes the idea never goes anywhere.  Then, when it doesn’t immediately catch fire it begins to seem tainted and no matter what I do I can’t seem to get back to it.

But on the other hand, I have written two complete novels.  (Actually, if you count the times I’ve rewritten those two novels, I’ve probably written about ten novels.)  So what is it about them that keep me compelled?

Well, character and theme come to mind.  For me, staying absorbed in a novel for the amount of time it takes to write the damn thing is all about characters  who interest me, that face problems similar to what I confront, and then do odd and unexpected things in response.  It is in the character’s reactions to conflict that themes emerge.  And that is what keeps things interesting.

But that still doesn’t answer Jason’s question about how to stay on track.  Several things spring to mind:

1. Write short stories.  Ugh.  Never mind.  No, some people do like writing short stories and I admit to have written quite a few myself.  But if you really want to write a novel–and to me, there is nothing more satisfying than immersing myself in the world of a longer story–than telling you to write short stories is not particularly helpful.

2. Preparation.  Perhaps the reason some projects run out of steam is a lack of preparation.  Its fun to sit down in the first blush of the idea and start writing.  But then that initial buzz wears off and you start to wonder where your story is going, and what should your characters do next?  Not knowing what happens next in your novel is the fastest way to get derailed that I know.  So I advocate preparation.  Nothing too detailed but at least take the time to give yourself a general idea of where you are going.

3.  Force the issue.  Confused about where to go next, perhaps because you didn’t follow my advice and prepare?  Is it getting harder and harder to open the computer file that has your novel on it?  Are  you practicing avoidance and procrastination? Don’t give up the project quite yet.  Try forcing the issue.  Brainstorm.  Make a list of 100 things that could happen in your novel.  Write down 50 character traits.  Make yourself write 5 descriptions of various places or things that might appear in your novel.  Start making up lines of dialogue.  And while you are doing all this, loosen up and play.  Have fun.  See where it all goes.  Maybe it will lead you further on the road to finishing this current novel, or maybe it will lead you down a different writing path. 

That’s the best thing about writing.  Nothing is ever wasted.  Even all those false starts may someday be resurrected and turn into something new.  Or maybe the time simply wasn’t right for them.  But that doesn’t mean your novel’s time won’t come around again.

So take heart.  And keep writing down ideas.  And, most important, just keep writing.

(By the way, I haven’t forgotten my vow of bringing you writing exercises.  Stay tuned.)

I Have Seen The Light, and It Is…Writing Exercises

It has come to me in a blinding flash that A. this blog needs something and B. that something is writing exercises. 

Eureka!  (Or as my late father would say, E-Da-Ho!  He was from Idaho, and he always said the way the state got its name was when the Native Americans saw the light coming over the mountains and yelled, "E-Da-Ho!" Which is supposedly Native American for light over the mountain.  I know, I know you kinda had to be there.)

Anyway, back to the need for writing exercises.  I've been dipping back into my neglected love of knitting lately, and well, the truth of the matter is that today I've been reading knitting blogs.  Gasp.  I know.  Not only am I betraying you all by going over to the other side of….dare I say it…crafts, but I've also been seriously neglecting a ghost-writing project I'm supposed to be finishing up today. 

(For the record, the knitting blogs I read regularly, even when I'm not knitting, which unfortunately is more often than when I'm knitting are Mason-Dixon Knitting and the Yarn Harlot.  Where do you think I got the inspiration for the name of this blog?)

Most knitting blogs tend to have commentary, information about knitting, and free patterns.  Which is where I had my light-dawning moment.  This blog has commentary, information about writing, and….well, that's when it occurred to me.  We need free writing exercises, the virtual equivalent of free knitting patterns.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, I can't write patterns for novels, or patterns for screenplays, or patterns for a personal essay.  But I can give you exercises that will help you develop skills to write that novel or article or poem. 

I remember reading an interview with the Mexican writer Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate(who, by the way, sold over 3 million copies in 30 different languages, I just learned as I was looking up how to spell her name) in which she talked about how writers need to do warm-up exercises to keep limber, just as a concert pianist practices scales.

The more we write, the less necessary this is, I find, and yet I still think there's a huge place for writing exercises in every writer's life.  They can be incredibly helpful when you find yourself stuck, for instance, and I think that in certain forms they are indispensable in planning a novel or any long piece. 

So.  Writing Exercises.  Stay Tuned. 

Anybody have any specific needs they'd like an exercise for?

Life in Writing Hell: Being Critiqued

I don’t care what anybody says, its hard to have your work critiqued.  I know, I know, its not personal, and we shouldn’t take it as such, and blah blah blah.  Do you know anybody who doesn’t take critiques personally?

And yet, learning to be critiqued is an integral part of the writing process, because from good critiques we learn so much about our work.  For the same reason that we take critiques personally, its hard for us to be objective about our own work.

Last weekend when I was in LA, my Nashville friend Walt was attending the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference.   I went over to the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza to meet him, where a glass of Ravenswood Zinfandel cost $10 (I buy a bottle for less than that at Fred Meyer).  We had a blast, and Walt was really excited that he had an appointment with an editor who had read his work ahead of time.

She gave him quite a thorough critique, and emailing with him about it made me think again about the nature of critiquing and what a delicate balance it requires.

It’s also on my mind because I’ve recently been rewriting my first chapter in order to spiff it up to send to an agent.  This chapter went through my critique group and then I rewrote it according to their comments.  I hadn’t read either version in a couple months, so it was illuminating to pull both versions out and have a look at them.

The original version had a drive and force and energy that was completely lacking in the second version, which by contrast felt dead and lifeless.  (Let me just point out here that I love my critique group, and their advice is generally stellar.  I blame all the lifelessness on operator error)It was pretty amazing to see the difference.  Now here’s the crucial thing–my task today has been to go back and fix the plot problems that led to the rewrite in the first place without editing the life out of it. 

A wee small task.

Actually, it went pretty well.  I think that sometimes we have to go way far off on a bad tangent in order to get the yayas out, so to speak, and be able to come back to the center.  Sometimes we throw the baby out with the bath water in rewriting, when all that is really needed is to scrub that baby a bit harder in a couple places.

The other thing that often happens in critiquing is that someone will make a comment that doesn’t quite ring true, yet from that comment stems an idea that you implement that works perfectly.  That’s the magical alchemy of critiquing. 

And the overall point to this?  You da man.  You’re the one who felt the impetus to pull the words out of yourself and put them on the page.  You’re the one who got up early or stayed up late to writer.  You’re the one who ultimately knows what advice to take and what to reject. 

So listen to your critiquers, but learn to know when to accept their advice and when to ignore it.  And figuring that out is probably a post for another day.

Blog Carnivals

One of my blog catalog friends, Jimbozs2000, has started a blog carnival.  Its pretty cool, all the moreso because he picked up one of my posts.  Head on over to his blog and check it out.  You’ll see me if you scroll down a bit and you can also lclick on the Why I Write heading.

While you are there, check out some of the other great blogs he has linked to.  A lot of them are people from blog catalog, which in my not-so humble opinion is the most user-friendly and fun blog networking site.

By the way, Jimbozs maintains about 10 blogs.  I’m not quite sure how he has the time to keep them all going.  I am in awe!

Courage and Good Writing, Round Two

The post I wrote last week on courage and good writing seemed to strike a chord with lots of people.  In it, I repeated the question that Carol Harper, one of the Mayborn workshop participants, asked me:  does courage equal good writing?

I wrote that courage doesn’t necessarily equal good writing, yet courage is a necessary precursor to all good writing, because it flat out takes courage to sit down and put words on paper, knowing that you will eventually be judged on what you have written.

My bud Renny from Norway, asked the question, how do you find the courage then?

Well, honestly.

It’s a damn good question.  I’m not sure I have the answer. However, I will write what little I do know about continually finding the courage to express oneself.

For starters, I think it is important to remember that the risk of not expressing yourself far greater than the risk of expressing what is within.  In other words, if you have a novel or a screenplay or a literary non-fiction work smoldering within, and you don’t let it out, you create bad juju.  You’ll get resentful and bitter and angry, and if you don’t turn that resentment and bitterness and anger against others, you’ll turn it against yourself.  Either way, its not pretty.

So now that we’ve established that writing (or creating any work of art) is better than not writing, what’s the best way to conquer those fears, screw up your courage, and get to it?

Oh, God, I hate to be the one to tell you this…but the best way is to just do it.  I know, I know, it sounds trite and facile and all that.  But it is true.  The best way to get the courage to write is to write one word, and then another, and then another.  Until you have a whole page, and then another page, and then a chapter, and then a book.  It’s the snowball theory.  Once you get it rolling, it picks up a lot of snow as it goes along.

Courage is cumulative.  It is generally made up of many small acts.  The feats of bravery that get all the glory are the big bold actions.  But just as important to me is the kind of courage that involves listening to the still, small voice and doing its bidding.  The kind that involves rising every morning to face down the demons of your past traumas and transmute them on the page.

And the best–and only–way I know how to gain that kind of courage is to find it one small step at a time.  You can do it.  I know you can.

Mayborn Wrap-Up

Did I mention that the Mayborn was chock full of informative lectures and panels?  I know I’ve talked about my fabulous, amazing workshop, and the Oprah Incident, and a few social events here and there.  But lest you think that the entire conference was held in the bar, I now present a run-down of a few memorable presentations.

I loved Melissa Shultz.  She started the conference off on Saturday morning with a lecture on free-lance writing that had lots of meaty information.  She presented Ten Keys to Success in Free-lancing, ranging from "establish a plan" to "learn how to market" to "be an armadillo" (i.e., learn how to take rejection).  I especially liked her advice that sometimes you might want to generate a concept for a potential client.  For instance, a client may not understand that he needs to utilize good SEO techniques to drive people to his website. Once you explain SEO to him, perhaps he will hire you to write it.  Or maybe you can convince a small business owner that she needs a newsletter.  It pays to be creative in conceptualizing.She also gave me a couple good tips about the business side of things and reminded me I need to be much more organized on the book-keeping.  If I pay attention to her, maybe next year it won’t take me a whole day to go through receipts come tax time.

Melissa shared several websites for free-lancers and I list them here:


American Society for Journalists and Authors

Media Bistro

I had the opportunity to get to know Melissa a little at the Joyce Carol Oates reception, where we had a fine time talking about mid-life crises, and more the next day.  She is also a literary agent with Jim Donovan Literary.

For a good interview with Jim Donovan, click here.

I also enjoyed Rob Kaiser, who is the writing coach for the San Antonio Express-News.  He did a great lecture on Impressionistic Writing.  Kaiser says that Impressionistic Writing is "not beholden to the timely or the famous but to truths of the world that transcend those things." 

I just loved that.

He talked about how, really, with the right treatment any event or person can become a story and he urged writers to "stick to the sights and sounds of a scene as you saw it," and then with your own sensibility turn it into a story.

Here’s my take-away quote from his presentation:  "Electronic media is the mirror on the living-room wall that reflects back at us but print media can be the impressionist painting."  Nice.

Christine Wicker wrote Not in Kansas Anymore and also Lily Dale, The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead.  She says she writes about the "nut factor," or what people really want to know about the story.  That you’ll find the meat of the story when you figure out what it is that people really want to know.

On the difference between journalism and book writing she says, "If it happened and it’s interesting–that’s sufficient" for a journalist to write about.  However, for an author, "interesting is not enough.  You have to know what your readers care about."

She also made what I thought was a great point–that one thing the reader always wants to know about is the author of the book.  That sometimes that can be the thing that pulls readers through the pages.  Think about it.  Isn’t that true?  If you are reading a novel, aren’t you always glancing back to the author photo, reading the bio, wondering how closely the book echoes the author’s life?  And if you are reading non-fiction, aren’t you wondering how the story was researched and written? 

Finally, I want to talk about Erik Calonius, who wrote The Wandered: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy that Set Its Sails. He gave such a great talk on the process of writing his book, how he discovered the story, how he researched it, and how he shaped the narrative.  And even though it was Sunday morning and I could barely see, I hung on every word.

Does Courage Equal Good Writing?

One of the participants in last Friday’s Mayborn book manuscript workshop, Carol Harper, asked me a question via e-mail today. 

Does courage equal good writing?

I love this question because nobody’s ever asked it of me before, and in all the years I’ve been pondering writing and talking about writing, I’ve never heard it discussed.

Carol raised the question, I believe, because in our workshop we discussed several memoirs which covered intimate, personal matters.  There was quite a bit of talk about the courageousness of the participants.

Perhaps such talk, and the word courage, is cheap.  It’s like I often point out to new writers–they need to get away from the generalities and into the specifics.  Courage, to be sure, is a generality.   It’s also the word Dan Rather used to sign off his newscasts with until everyone reacted with such hilarity and mirth that he had to quit.

Maybe that right there tells us something about how we view courage.  But back to the original question.  Does courage equal good writing?  Another reason Carol might have asked me that question is that in talking to an agent about the memoir form, he said something along the lines of what is important to the writer is not necessarily of interest to the reader.

So, what takes enormous courage for the writer to put down on paper does not automatically become good writing. 

Here’s what I believe (you knew it was coming eventually):

I believe that every time any one of us sits down to put words on paper, it is an act of courage.  If we are sitting down to write about painful personal memories or events, it takes even more bravery.  It is hard, damn hard, to put yourself on the page for the world to see–and judge, because you know they will–over and over again.

Writing in and of itself is an act of courage. 

But once we’ve mustered the strength and valor to face the blank screen or the empty page, there’s another act of courage required, and that is the courage to learn how to best present the information so that it is of interest to the reader.  That’s a different kind of courage, the courage to learn and change and transform what doesn’t work on the page into what does. 

Transforming what doesn’t work to what does is the life work of some of us, maybe all of us.  I like to think that practicing on paper makes it easier.

Bottom line?  No, courage does not equal good writing per se.  But courage is a necessary precursor to all good writing.  So in a way, courage does equal good writing.

And maybe the word courage isn’t so cheap after all.