Tag Archives | writing exercises

In Training for Writing: A Dozen Ideas

 

RansomnoteEvery night after dinner, I do a little work and then by 8 PM you'll find me cozied up on the couch beneath my favorite quilt, ready to watch the Olympics.   The Winter Olympics are my absolute favorite, so I've been in heaven since they started last week.

These athletes inspire me.    Ski jumpers, snowboarders, downhill racers, figure skaters–I watch them contort their bodies and think, I'll never know what it feels like to move like that, but it sure is fun to watch someone else do it. 

The other huge benefit is that it makes my job look easy.  Really easy.  (And it is, something we'd do well to remember on those days when the words aren't flowing so well and we're wringing our hands over writer's block.)

On the surface, we writers have little in common with Olympic athletes.  (Stop laughing–I know even the comparison is funny.)  They exercise their bodies, we exercise our minds.  They are super-fit and we are…well, I'll speak for myself here, but let's just say sitting at the computer all day is not the best recipe for fitness.

However, there is one arena in which we can compare ourselves and that is with our training regimen.  Olympians train hard for months out of the year, and when they aren't training in their specific sport, they are lifting weights, running, and keeping themselves fit.  And we writers train, too.

Right?

Um, maybe not.  Because who has time for training when there's real writing to be done?  When there's only one hour in the busy day in which to find time to write  that hour, by necessity, must be devoted to one's beloved WIP.

Well, hold on a minute.  Training for writers is not such a bad idea.  Just as Olympians rely on it to create muscle memory in their bodies, so, too, can we utilize the idea of training to facilitate ease and flow in our writing.  (And, if you are a beginning writer, you might focus solely on training until you have a few gazillion words under your belt.)  Think of training for writing as warm-up exercises, or practicing scales, or hitting a tennis ball against the wall five thousand times, or…you get the idea.

What follows are my suggestions for training.   Train for 5-15 minutes a day and see if it's helpful to you. If so, keep doing it.  If not, ditch it.  The idea here is to loosen up and have fun, get your fingers flying across the keyboard or page.  Train first thing in the morning, before your writing session, when you have a few minutes to spare, on your coffee break. Do what works, is my motto.  

1.  Free Writing.  The classic.  Set a timer for 10-20 minutes and move your hand across the page without stopping.   Don't worry about following any particular train of thought, just write. To engage in free writing, the following are useful:

2.  Prompts.  These are one-line starters that are either random sentences (Snow fell, covering the shoulders of her green coat), or sentences that make you think (Write about a time your character felt sorrow).  Write your prompt at the top of the page and have at it.  You can find prompts  under the Punch for Prompt tab, or by asking the Google.

3. Use your thesaurus or dictionary.  Open to a random page and choose a word.   See how many different ways you can use it in a sentence.  Or combine it with another word, make it into a sentence, and use as a prompt.  

4.  Write morning pages.  First thing in the morning (okay, you can get coffee) write three pages.  It's free writing on steroids.  Just write.  Get your yayas out.

5.  Write poetry.  Write bad poetry.  Write good poetry.  Play with images and symbolism in the poetic microcosm.   Even if you don't consider yourself a poet, you can learn much from arranging words this way.

6.  Write flash fiction.  300-1000 words, a complete story with all the usual elements.   Keep it loose, keep it easy, keep it fun.

7.  Keep a stash of writing exercises handy.  There's some on this blog–just scroll down and look in the left column under "Pages."  And you can also ask the Google for help with finding more. Here's a page that has some interesting ones.

8.  A to Z.  Start at the top, with A.  Write as many words that begin with A that you can think of in five minutes.  Then choose a couple of those words, make sentences, and write.  Or just use the word itself as a prompt.  Add to your list as you go throughout your business. The next day, move onto B.  (If you like to be contrary, you can start with Z and work backwards.)

9.  Make ransom notes.  Recycle old manuscripts by cutting them up into sentences and words and pasting those together.    Make these into a story or use them to kidnap your neighbor's dog or rob a bank.  Kidding!  

10.  Keep a God box.  I don't know where the name for this came from, but it's a box full of stuff. Like cool things you pick up in your travels–ephemera from trips or a night on the town, fun little things, found objects, bits of jewelry.  Open the box, pick an object, and write about what the object evokes.

11. Practice description.  Grab your journal, or your computer.  Close your eyes.  Now open them.  What's the first thing you see?  Write about it as if you're describing it to an alien from another planet who has none of the same references you do.

12.  The sentence game.  Write a sentence.  Now use the last word of that sentence to start the next sentence.  See how long you can keep this going.  You can also do this with first words of sentences.

Okay, these ought to keep you going for awhile.  Do you train for writing?  What are your favorite training routines?  Please share.

Photo by theloneconspirator.

14

The Radical Act of Play

Wonderbook-coverI'm reading two books about writing at the moment, and together they are making my head explode. In a good way.  It's exploding with ideas.

The first one is called Wonderbook, and it is by Jeff Vandermeer.  I'm only at the very beginning of this baby, having just gotten hold of it last week.  This book is like no other writing book you've ever seen, I guarantee it.  Wonderbook is a lavishly illustrated feast of information, essays, and tips for the writer in all stages of writing a novel.   Just go check out the site to see what I mean. It's an amazing book in conception and finished product.

In the opening section, on inspiration, Vandermeer writes about play and how we sometimes (more like often) sneer at it, as if it is beneath us, as if play, at its heart, is not the very essence of creativity.  To wit:

"Modern ideals of functionality and the trend toward seamless design in our technology have taken the very human striving for perfection and given us the illusion of having attained it (which, ironically, seems very dehumanizing).  In this environment, some writers second-guess their instincts and devalue the sense of play that infuses creative endeavors: "This antique Tiffany lamp must provide light right now, even before I screw in the lightbulb and plug it in, or it's worthless."

Vandermeer goes on to point out that the idea of play thus becomes "immature and frivolous" and we come to think that "all creative processes should be efficient, timely, linear, organized and easily summarized."

I think this also has to do with our emphasis on time, or more to the point, the lack thereof. Taking time to play and be creative seems like at time-waster when it doesn't immediately produce a finished piece.  This attitude can lead to a reluctance to use prompts or writing exercises, or to do anything that isn't directly related to our WIP.

Which leads me to the second book I'm reading, The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way From Inspiration to Publication, by Dan Millman and Sierra Prasada.  (Please note, the publisher, New World Library, graciously provided me with a copy of the book for review. I'll be sharing more about it in a future post.)  The authors delineate five stages that the writer goes through Dream, Draft, Develop, Refine, Share.  Right now I'm reading about the first stage, Dream, in which, "a sticky idea calls you on a quest, and you set out to slay your own dragons."
Creative-compass

The authors talk about starting a conversation with yourself, and then take it further to a technique they call Dreaming in Dialogue.  (Which I'm not sure is the best name, because whenever I see the word dialogue in a writing book I presume it's talking about the act of writing about conversation between characters.)  But, I love, love, love the technique itself and I think it is a fun writing exercise–worthy of taking time to play with.

The idea is to initiate a conversation with your alter ego, as they call it.  So, on the page, you actually have a back and forth about your plot (or whatever).  So (I made all the following up):

Writer: And then the angel landed right in front of her and she got scared so she ran away.

Alter Ego: Why did she get scared?

Writer: Because angels are scary, with their big wings and the whooshing noise they make as they fly.

Alter Ego: They make a whooshing noise as they fly?

Writer: Yes, and they also sing loudly.

I can see how this technique would be useful in furthering a writer's knowledge of the story he's trying to get on paper.  To use it a slightly different way, the authors mention that Harold Robbins, he of the glorious potboiler novels, started each day out with a conversation with his typewriter, who spoke to him as a female.  So you can use this technique with yourself, an imaginary person, or an inanimate object.

I know exactly who I'm going to try it out with: a character who resides within in named Passionate Creator.  She's the one responsible for all the writing I churn out.  She lolls about on a tufted chaise lounge, eating chocolate and sipping wine, and writes and writes and writes.  She can't be bothered with anything having to do beyond actually getting words on the page (that would be the job of Layla, Business Lady, who Passionate Creator ordered from a catalog).  But man, oh man, is she good at getting the writing done!  So we're going to have us a conversation about where the novel is going, she and I.

(I wrote about play a little bit a couple years ago, in this post. )

What books have inspired you lately?  What playful techniques have you used to engage your creativity?

 

6

The Usefulness of Writing Exercises

I am a terribly fickle person.
Paper_sixties_sixty_269029_l

Most often, this fickleness applies to activities.  Like cooking, for instance.  I'll go on a kick where I'm interested in cooking.  I buy cookbooks, I look up recipes, I watch the Food Network, I actually cook meals and occasionally even bake things.  Then it all falls apart.  My interest wanes, and it's back to cooking the simplest of dishes, buying dinner from the take-out counter at Whole Foods, or going out.

Same thing with knitting.  I'll get inspired and suddenly I vow to be the best, most prolific knitter ever.  I browse websites for patterns, visit the yarn store, start a million new projects.  And then, poof.  It's all gone.  I set my knitting down and it may be months before I pick it up again.

I've gone through this with painting, and sewing (though I did sustain an interest in that long enough to actually design and sell clothes for awhile).  I go through it regularly with gardening.

Honestly, the only thing that has ever sustained my interest over the long haul is writing. As I've often repeated to anyone who will listen to me, writing never gets boring because there is always something new to learn about it.

However, I will admit to some fickleness around my allegiance to certain aspects of the writing life. Writing exercises spring to mind.

I've been known to advocate for writing exercises at certain points in my writing life.  And then, fickle me will abandon them.  I'll get rolling on my latest project and convince myself I don't need writing exercises any more.  I may even get a little snotty in my own brain and tell myself that writing exercises are for beginners.

Until the writing stalls.  And then, fishing about for ways to get the words flowing again, I hit on writing exercises.

It's funny, because practitioners of other creative genres rely on exercises and warm-ups as an integral part of their practices–dancers and musicians spring readily to mind.  Yet we writers (because I don't think I'm alone in my sometimes-disdain for them) are far too apt to dismiss them as irrelevant.

Last weekend, after not having written for a couple of weeks due to the fact I was in Louisville for the Spalding MFA spring residency and then had a gazillion things to catch up on, I cast about for a way to get started again.  And remembered a handout I'd gotten during a workshop in Louisville that had a writing exercise on it. I resisted for awhile, convincing myself I could just launch in on my own.  But that didn't happen.  So I followed the writing exercise (it is a multi-part thing, semi-complicated, or I would reproduce it here).

And damned if that didn't do the trick.

So, I'm suddenly enamored of writing exercises again.  I found an old book by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood called So You Want to Write, and discovered it has some good exercises at the end of each chapter.  I'm looking through my library of writing books for more ideas. 

We'll see how long this enthusiasm for writing exercises lasts.

Here's why I think they work: because they give you some structure to hang your words on.  No longer are you facing the empty page (or screen).  You've got somebody telling you what to do.  Which is helpful when you don't exactly know what to do.

And here's my best tip for working with writing exercises: use them in relationship to your current project.  This helps me to convince myself that I'm not wasting my time, since I'll be generating ideas and scenes for my WIP.  The other thing I find is that while doing this, ideas for other projects come up.  I just had a brilliant (she said modestly) image for a short story appear, for instance.

Over the years, I've put up a few pages and posts that contain writing exercises.  Since I'm on a writing exercise high, I list them here:

The DaVinci Device

Techniques for Generating Ideas and Getting Started

The Bluebird Canyon Special

7 Ways to Use Writing Prompts With Your Current Project

That's enough about me and the writing exercises I like.  What about you?  Do you use writing exercises?  Do you have a favorite one you would like to share?

Photo by brokenarts.

13

An Aid To Kicking it in Your Writing


KITW_400_wideThis is a book review for which I did not receive compensation, but did receive a free copy of the book.

"I would go as far as and I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations.  And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple.  When you hit a wall, just kick it in."  Patti Smith

Such is the advice that playwright Sam Shepard gave to singer, writer and all-around awesome person Patti Smith and it is this same advice that inspired Barbara Abercrombie's book of writing exercises and prompts.

The book is called Kicking in the Wall: A Year of Writing Exercises, Prompts, and Quotes to Help You Break Through Your Blocks and Reach Your Writing Goals.  At the top of each page, you'll find an inspirational quote on writing and then two or three writing prompts.  Abercrombie encourages writers to spend five minutes on each prompt.  At the end of the book, she includes examples of exercises completed by her students–which gives inspiration to see how far-ranging you can go in just five minutes.

Here's a sample of some of her prompts:

–Write what you know of your parents' courtsthip.  Is there one common story, or are their two versions?  Or more? Or no stories?

–Write about an apology that failed.

–Write what you are.  Start with "I am…"

–Write about a transformation you once had.  Or need to have now.

–Write an opening of a scene with someone asking a question about a pair of shoes.

As you can see, this book is not a book that you read for information on writing, there's none of that in it.  Rather, this is a book you keep beside your computer and use when you get stuck.  So often we writers tend to stare off into space when we're blocked, when really the best thing to do is figure out a way to get writing again. 

Prompts and exercises can be very useful to get words on the page, and I recommend using them in a variety of ways, which is why I think this book can be very helpful for writers from beginner to professional.  (I have my own page of prompts, which you can access here.  Mine are of a bit different type, simple made-up sentences which encourage creative responses.)

Kicking in the Wall is due out May 13th.

Do you use writing prompts to jump-start your work?

 

3

The Ordinary Day

Interior_design_bedroom_221920_l

How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.   Annie Dillard

So, I'm working on the rewrite of my novel.  And one of the things I am attempting to do is deepen the secondary characters.  To do this, of course, I must first deepen my understanding of them.

Easy, right?

Well, no.  Because if I had a deeper understanding of the characters, I would have put it in the novel in the first place.  Duh.  So it is back to the drawing board, or journal, as the case may be. And I've returned to an old exercise I learned years ago, I think in a screen writing class I took as a lark. 

The Ordinary Day.

You're might be familiar with this one.  What you do is take your character through and ordinary day, from the moment he or she wakes in the morning until he or she goes to bed at night.  Every blessed moment of it.  Write it all down, every bit of it.

I am finding this to be the most useful window into a character's psyche imaginable.  Because, when you relax and really let yourself go with it, your character will begin talking to you.  And she will tell you all kinds of interesting tidbits, and explain many things from her past that you probably didn't know.

This is because Annie Dillard is right–how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.  How your character spends his day is how he spends his life and by really understanding that, you can understand him.  Plus, as your character goes through her day, her mind is busily engaged.  And the mental dross of an average day is gold, absolute gold.

For instance.  You start your character out by having her wake up in her bed.  What does her bedroom look like? Perhaps it is done up in whites and neutral colors like the photo above.  The first thing your character, call her Susie, sees upon waking up is this peaceful room.  Which she hates.  It's her husband, Ralph, who wanted this kind of design, because it feed his spiritual soul.  Spiritual, smeeritual.  Susie thinks that is all a bunch of crap.  She's not interested in spirituality, she's interested in success, and right now success would mean getting herself out of bed and out of this boring, drab bedroom and into her running clothes so she can get her three miles in before breakfast.  And hopefully she can run off some of her anger at Ralph, who seems to be getting as boring and drab as the bedroom he chose.

And so on.  Just the simple act of locating your character in her bedroom as she begins her day has already netted you a wealth of information about her: she is impatient, lively, likes things colorful and bold, far more interested in success than spirituality, energetic, and probably a classic type-A personality.  Plus her marriage is in danger and she's got quite the judgmental streak.  Not bad for a few minutes in the life of your character!

As you take your character on through the day you'll learn more and more about him.  Not only that, with luck, with any luck at all, your character will begin talking to you.  In his voice.  In his one and only truly unique voice.  And soon you will know him every bit as well as you know your best friend, or your child, or your spouse.

By the way, the Ordinary Day is a cool exercise to do for yourself when you want to change your life.  What you do is write out your dream Ordinary Day.  If you could do anything, without regard to the usual limitations of time, money, fear, etc., what would you do?  Where would you live?  Who would you be with?  Write it out, starting from the second you wake up.  This can become a powerful road map to where you want to go.  And the really great thing is that by writing it as a day in the life, it seems doable. 

How do you get to know your characters?  Have you ever successfully used the Ordinary Day exercise for a character or for yourself?

7

Back to the Basics, Or Not

Book_research_information_237974_l Writers can always benefit by going back to the basics, right?  Or not?  And more to the point, if you've been writing for awhile, have you tried going back to the basics recently?  It is not that easy.

Going back to the basics seems like a good idea.  You get the desire to strip it down, make things simple, relearn from the beginning again.  Except you are no longer the person that you were when you started out so very long ago.  And it is hard to fit your expanded self into that smaller box.

What is called for is a framework.

I went to high school during the heyday of the Open Classroom movement.  Education wasn't working and a new approach was needed.  So, no, it wasn't back to the basics, it was the opposite–a very free and easy approach where students directed their learning to a large extent.

Consequently, I became quite the free thinker.  But to this day, I have huge gaps in my education, particularly when it comes to reading the classics.  (Ironic, no? Considering as how I am a writer.)  Oh, I read some of them on my own, but when it comes to classics, reading in an educational setting is much better.  I needed a framework.  And finally I found it when I started working toward my MFA.  (I won't call it studying, because it was so much fun.  Two years devoted mostly to writing and reading.  Heaven.)

Once I had the framework of writing an essay about my reading, with mentors responding to those essays, I could dip back into some of the classics that I had missed.

What got me thinking about all of this is knitting.  I'm an off and on knitter and a terrible finisher.  I love starting a new knitting project more than anything–choosing the yarn, casting on, seeing the work start to grow!  But then I get bored and set it aside.

Lately, though, I've realized that perhaps I get bored because I don't know enough about what I'm doing.  Despite the fact I've been knitting since I was a wee child, there's lots I don't know about it.  I was taught by the odd 4H leader here, my aunt there.  Much like my high school education, there was never a consistent framework for it.

This weekend I found the framework, a book called Fearless Knitting, written by a technical writer, bless her heart, who knows how to translate confusing information into plain English.  The author, Jennifer Seiffert, had the bright idea to take a line of traditional knitting instruction, then not only explain what it means, but why you are supposed to do that.  Brilliant.  Each explanation illustrates a larger technique and you make a square to well and truly learn how to do it.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if there could be such a framework for writing?  An explanation of not only the how, but the why?  Alas, I don't think it is possible, because the craft of writing is much more amorphous than the craft of knitting.  Many of the why explanations would be something along the lines of, because you want to entertain the reader.  Or, because you want to create an emotional response in the reader.

Or am I wrong?  Can you think of any aspects of writing that could be explained in a succinct why explanation?  What does going back to the basics in writing mean to you?  Practicing writing exercises?  Reading or re-reading books about writing?  Are there any basics you'd like explanations of?  Comment away.

2

When Art Gives Up its Secrets

Yesterday, I wrote about the fabulous workshop that Darnell Arnoult gave for the Loft and talked about how she presented an exercise called "Finding Fiction in a Photo," wherein we looked at pictures (amazingly enough) for a full five minutes and then wrote about them.

I can't express how important this kind of deep connection with an
image or piece of writing can be to your work.  I started my free-lance writing career
writing about art.  Wrote a few facile articles that got published and
then had the great good luck to get assigned to a very hard-ass
editor.  One of the first pieces I wrote for her she rejected, and told
me to go back to the gallery and start over.  She insisted that I go
back to the gallery and look at the paintings until they gave up their
secrets and I knew enough about those secrets to write about them.

(By the way, that assignment resulted in one of my all-time favorite lines I've ever written in an article:  "Watercolors, like earth girls, are easy."  Yes, this was a very long time ago, a couple years ago after the release of the Geena Davis movie, Earth Girls Are Easy.  There are probably some of you reading this who haven't ever heard of it.  Lord, there might be some of you reading this who were not yet born when that movie came out.  But no matter how old you are, you must admit–best line ever.)

And
so I learned to deconstruct art by looking at it–truly looking at it. 
Anybody who has ever taken art history will be familiar with the
process.  I'd taken a year of art history in college, one of the best
things I ever did, and so once I allowed myself to sink into the
paintings I had to write about, I remembered studying art history
slides and doing the same thing.  And soon I recalled how much I had gleaned from all those late nights of leafing through Jansen's,  History of Art and memorizing the details.  (I still have that book–it is smoke damaged and water stained from having lived through a fire but I couldn't bear to give it up.)

When I began my MFA program,
years later, and needed to learn to deconstruct pieces of writing in
order to write about them these experiences served me well.  My dear
friend Cate McGowan, who had majored in art history, and I agreed that
a firm grounding in the field is actually a very fine training ground
for writing.   One cornerstone of a good MFA program is writing critical essays about literature, the theory being that one of the best ways to learn about writing is to read it, and my art history and writing about art background gave me a way into to do this.  I was accustomed to staring at paintings and sculpture and now I could transfer those skills and stare at literature until it, too, gave up its secrets.

So if you're stuck or blocked, don't overlook the idea of finding a photo or image to write about.  One great source for this is the Google image search.  You can find all kinds of cool photos on that.  Choose one, stare at it until it gives up its secrets (which may be quite awhile) and then start writing about it.

2

The Writing Loft Recap

I promised a run-down of the recent orientation weekend my partner Terry Price and I put together for the Writer's Loft, at MTSU in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Terry and I took over the program last March, (geez, it seems much longer ago than that) and so this was the first orientation on our watch.  We were delirious with excitement over how it turned out, mostly because of our wonderful presenters.

The event started on Friday morning with a three-hour workshop given by Darnell Arnoult.  People who live in Nashville, North Carolina, and really anywhere across the south are familiar with Darnell's workshops which are so full of information and inspiration I could sit through day after day of them, even if she said the same thing over and over again.

In her workshop, "Writing Out of Chaos, OR How to Write a Better Story than You Know," Darnell presented the specifics of her system for writing a novel.  She believes avidly, as I do, that story comes from character, and that the first draft is a learning draft.  Where Darnell departs from common creative writing wisdom is in her insistence that one can write a novel without knowing much about the plot or having to tackle it chronologically.    She advocates getting to know your characters by setting them in motion through exercises that she suggests.  And one thing I love about Darnell is that she is adamant that you can get a lot of writing done in 15 minute chunks.  You can complete a character exercise in that amount of time, or write the beginnings of a scene.

Darnell also has an exercise that she does called "Finding Fiction in a Photo," which is a very useful idea generator.  She passes out photos and asks you to choose one and then she has you literally stare at the photo for five full minutes.  Just sit there in silence and stare at it, taking in every detail you possibly can.  Then she has a whole list of questions that you can answer about the photo.  Things like List five observations about the scene in the image, List five physical characteristics of the person you've chosen in the photograph, what is the person's full name? and so on, through over fifty questions.  (of course, we only got through the first few questions in the workshop.)

The total of all of this was that I came away re-energized to work on my novel, and I've been working on it, to the detriment of all my other writing projects ever since.

I'll have more info about the other Loft lectures and workshops in the coming days.  Meanwhile, enrollment in the Loft is not just for people who live in Nashville.  We videotape the entire weekend, and since the heart of the program is one-on-one mentored writing, you can do it from wherever you live.  Check our website for more info, or email me at the address listed at the top of this page.

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