While I’m in France, teaching writing, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating good cheese and bread, and drinking lots of wine, I’m offering either a collection of writing prompts, story starters, or exercises each week. Today I have a couple of writing exercises for you. I hope you will use them to jump-start your writing!
Sometimes writers think that writing exercises are for beginners. Wanna-bes. Not for serious scriveners like you and me. And then the writing stalls. And you don’t know what to do with yourself. That is when, my friend, you pull out the writing exercises. Because they will help you.
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.
When you are stuck, when you have been away from your writing for a while, when you are fishing for ideas—pull out the writing exercises! 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.
Here are two that I’ve used over the years. I hope you find them helpful!
Sometimes you gotta spend most of your time writing, and some times you gotta spend most of your time doing all the stuff that surrounds it. This is something all creatives (do we like calling us that? I can't decide) struggle with at times. And I believe if you can master the art of separating the two, you'll have a lot more success.
Or at least be happier.
I'm talking about the acts of creation and implementation.
They are two distinct stages of the creative process, and need to be treated as such. And yet, we–myself included–tend to muck them up and mix them up and try to do them at the same time and that just doesn't work.
Creation. I think of creation as anything related to the actual act of putting words on the page, like:
Implementation is anything related to the act of getting your work out in the world, such as:
Querying agents or editors
Formatting a manuscript for publication
Promotion and author platform
You may not even realize you are mixing up the two. You might find yourself spending long hours on researching potential agents before your novel is completed, for instance, or learning everything there is to know about self-publishing before you've written a single word. Or you might find yourself adding words to a short story even after you've decreed it finished and are in the process of sending it out.
The thing is, you need to make time for each aspect. At different stages, one will take precedence over the other. When you've polished your novel, for instance, and are ready for it to take the world by storm, you'll either begin that agent search or start the self-publishing process, and you'll likely spend more time doing this than actual writing. Or when first you begin a blog, you'll spend a lot of time setting it up and not quite so much writing blog posts.
Ultimately, however, if you're not spending most of your time in creation, then you're not going to have anything worth implementing. I know this is obvious, but in our crazy social media, information-obsessed world, its easy to convince yourself that its more important to write a Facebook post than get a few more hundred words ranked up on the novel.
So here's my simple rule:
Creation, first, implementation second.
If you live by it, you'll be a happy creative.
Discussion? How do you get sidelined in the creation versus implementation teeter-totter?
Note: I grew up in the printing plant my father owned, and he had a whole stack of pads titled While You Were Out, with check boxes and lines to fill in about things that happened in his absence. I am going to be out for a few days at a wedding, so I thought I'd fun some oldies but goodies. Here's the first, from back in 2010:
Since I seem to have been writing a lot lately about fear, and how to keep it at bay while you write, I thought it might be time for a little practical exercise. This is one I present in my Writing Abundance workshop. I did it for the first time years ago and have found the results of it–a way to deal with my critic–incredibly useful.
One of the problems that I often hear about is people being sidelined by perfectionism. They get paralyzed because they are afraid they won’t do something right. What this problem really is about is listening to your own inner critic, who constantly tells you that you are not good enough. It is one thing to tell your critic to shut up, but it doesn’t really work. Instead—meet your critic head on and disarm him. Here’s how, by giving him and image and a name. I met mine years ago. His name is Patrick and he looks like a Will Ferrell in Elf, only small and not nearly so goofy and friendly. Instead, Patrick is a bit of a prig. Let’s go ahead and have you meet your critics and then I’ll tell you a trick to deal with her or him.
Meet Your Critic
1. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths 2. Think about how you feel when you are being critical of your writing. 3. See if any images come up—color, energy, sound, smell? 4. Hold with whatever you are getting and let it come into form. It might be an animal, a human-type creature, or something totally abstract 5. Now open your eyes and write. More details will emerge as you do. Write a description of what you saw and then see if you can give it a name. Even a purple circle with the name Stan works.
Here’s the deal: after you have identified your critic, you can talk to him. I made a pact with Patrick years ago: he lies quiet while I write rough drafts, write in my journal, and do free writing. In return, as soon as I begin editing and rewriting, Patrick is up and at ‘em, ready to help me out. Because that is where Patrick excels—at being critical. Sometimes I forget about Patrick and he gets cranky, very cranky. But then he jumps up and down to get my attention, generally when I am first starting on a project. Then I remind him of our deal. And then he's content to go hang out wherever it is he hangs out until I call him forth.
So give it a try. And report back if you feel so inclined. I'd love to hear what shape your own critic takes.
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:
At the fall orientation for the Loft, author Debra Moffitt (Awake in the World) did the keynote speech, which was really a workshop, and a presentation the following day.
She began with a meditation designed to take us into our “secret garden,” the place of sanctuary for our spirit and creativity. And after we had visited, she passed out boxes of crayons and had us draw one aspect of our garden and share it with another person.
I liked the whole secret garden thing. Mine was actually in a glorious cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows and just as we finished up the meditation, a man swathed in a royal robe with an amazing velvet hat of many colors glided up to me. Alas, I didn’t get to hear what he had to say, as the meditation was over.
Debra also talked about the value of using dreams, and gave us a few clues on how to remember them:
Keep a pad of paper and pen by your bed
Write about the dream as soon as you wake up
Write in the present
Give the dream a title
You can ask a question and put it under your pillow to induce an answer
The whole idea of accessing my dream life fascinates me, and I’m terrible at it. I rarely write down my dreams and, no big surprise, also rarely remember them. Do you?
And now for the part that will make you nervous: Debra talked a lot about the value of play. It can activate our right brains and heighten our creativity. Hence, the crayons. And yet play makes us nervous. So nervous it has become nearly a radical activity in our society. We’re obsessed with work. And control. And getting things done. And sticking to a schedule. Who has time for play?
I have to admit, I have a hard time with it. I’ll do “playful” activities but they generally have a purpose: knitting, which makes useful things, hiking, which is exercise, gardening, which makes a pretty yard. I like to paint, and yet I rarely do it. Too close to play, I suppose.
It was interesting to watch the reactions of some of the workshop participants. They were uncomfortable with the idea and in some cases, outright resistant to it. I get it. I felt somewhat the same way. And yet there’s value in the idea of play.
What about you? Does working with your dreams or engaging in play appeal to you? And here’s a deeper question: would you do it just for sake of it, without knowing it would help your creativity?
*Don’t forget to capture your dream of writing a book by signing up for my free Ebook, Jump Start Your Book With a Vision Board. You’ll also receive a subscription to my biweekly newsletter, The Abundant Writer. The form is to the right of this post.
So, we teaching and coaching types love to give advice (except that the true essence of coaching is not so much giving advice as pulling what you yourself already know to be so out of yourself).
I, for instance, love to tell people to do Morning Pages. (If you don't know what Morning Pages are, they are three pages of glumping on the page all your crap and good stuff as well, first thing in the morning.)
But find something that does. The point is, not everything works for everyone. But my offerings are based on working with dozens of clients and students over the years. And how will you know if they work for you until you try them?
Truly, I don't care if your favorite technique to get the words flowing is to stand on your head and rub your belly button. If it works, do it. I'm all about getting the words onto the page and I know full well that even though we like to haughtily say that writer's block doesn't exist, it really does. Because I've experienced it, and so have you.
But just because it exists doesn't mean it can't be dealt with. It can. Keep trying things until you get over it.
Okay, that's my rant for the summer. I promise. Now tell me what kinds of techniques work for you to get the writing flowing? Alcohol? A nap? A brisk run? Chaining yourself to the computer? I'm all ears.
***Guess what? I'm offering the book proposal teleclass again this September. And right now, there are crazy fast action bonuses: an early-bird price AND a free coaching call. But hurry, because the fast action bonus is time sensitive. Check it out here.
Before we begin this brilliant post about my (ahem, sideways) alien (does anybody know why my Iphone turns photos sideways when it sends them to my computer?), I would like to point out that I'm once again offering free coaching sessions. You heard me.
All you have to do is head to this link, where you can click on a time that works for you and we will chat. About your writing, your life, whatever is not working for you. Can't wait to talk to you!
And now, to the real meat of this story, my sideways alien. Who is actually right-side up in my office where he hangs, watching over me as I write. I bought my alien at a Rose Festival parade umpteen years ago now. And he has been my muse ever since.
What brought him to mind was a Saturday night stint working as a Rose Festival Star Light Parade marshal. Those of you who subscribe to my newsletter already heard me talking about this. (If you don't subscribe, just fill in your name and address in the form on the right. Plus you get a cool Ebook.) Briefly, being a marshal involves crowd control and radio-ing into the mothership on issues of parade pacing.
One of the crowd control issues, besides herding drunks, was to move along a vendor who had parked her cart laden with blow-up dolls of various sorts amongst the crowd, thus blocking many people's views and pushing them out into the street onto the parade routes. In my efforts to get her to go on her merry way, I had the opportunity to inspect her wares.
Her cart was bedecked with some flags and banners of no import and the afore-mentioned blow-up dolls. Sponge Bob and a variety of lame animals seemed to be the order of the night. No cool weapons and no aliens. Not that I was looking to replace him or anything, because if I did I'm not sure I'd be able to write. My alien has been with me so long, and he's worked so hard to inspire me. Plus, he is purple. Need I say more?
My alien is also the inspiration for a writing exercise that I might have shared before, but if so, it doesn't matter, because a few clients have lately told me how helpful it was to them. And so it is worth mentioning again.
Here it is:
Practice writing description as if you were describing to an alien.
The great beauty of this is that it forces you to go deep. It forces you to really think about the essence of what you're describing. It forces you to push beyond the first words that come to mind. So, for instance, I have a red file folder on my desk beside this computer.
But, what's a file folder? A folded over piece of paper used to organize papers. But, what's paper? Something we write on. What's writing? What is red? A color? Great, thanks, but what is a color?
I know, you can drive yourself nuts doing this. I may have just driven you nuts in that last paragraph. And most likely it is not description that you'll actually end up using. But what will happen is that it will get you thinking about the world you're describing (or creating). It will allow you to get not only more understanding of that world, but more creative about bringing it to life on the page.
Its very simple. Write about something as if you are describing it to an alien who just landed on this planet.
So, for example:
The book is heavy and has a red cover, with glossy pages and lots of photos in it.
Descriptive, if a bit bland.
But, wait a minute.
Does an alien know what a book is? Maybe not. You can't be certain, can you? So describe it a bit more. What does it look like? Use all your senses to describe it. Then move on. Red? What's red? A cover? What might that be? Glossy pages? What's glossy? What's a page?
Beware that you can go crazy doing this. Its a documented fact. For instance, say you describe the book as a rectangle. Well, what's a rectangle? A geometric figure? What's that? And so on.
I rest my case.
On the other hand, have you ever read a book, often a creative non-fiction work, where the description of the most basic of things is what draws you in? I have, and I admire these writers tremendously. I think the trick to their ability is that they don't assume you know anything. They respect your intelligence, but presume nothing.
Which is what this exercise does for you.
Here are some things to describe:
a china cabinet
Remember, you're telling this to an alien new to this planet. Put the results in the comment section if you so desire.
By the way, besides pugs and cats, my favorite things are aliens. Which is why my office mascot (in photo above) is a purple one. I like purple too, in case you hadn't guessed.
Some people swear by them, while others shudder at the thought of using a writing prompt in their work. Because, too often, using random writing prompts can lead you astray. And let's face it, most prompts are a bit on the random side, aren't they? Those books of prompts are great, but they have about as much as common with your novel in progress as flying to the moon does to a wedding dress.
Say you're stuck on your writing project, so you open one of your books of writing prompts, choose one and begin writing. All well and good. Except that you're just writing, not really writing about anything of much interest or use to you.
Now, I'm a great one for writing something, anything, on a regular basis. And I often exhort people to do just that–particularly when they are stuck. But writing mindlessly for any great length of time can be as frustrating as not writing. Writing aimlessly is bad for your creative morale, because your heart and soul won't be in it.
The trick is to find a way to make your writing prompts relevant to your current project, so that they are enhancing your writing, not taking away from it. When used in this manner, writing prompts can be wonderfully helpful in a couple of ways:
To generate actual writing
To get a flow of ideas going
To get yourself unstuck
And, remember, the best way to use prompts is as freely and loosely as possible. Take your prompt, write it at the top of a sheet of paper, and set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes. Then write. And write and write and write, without stopping, until the timer goes off.
If you want to use writing prompts with your current project, here are some suggestions:
1. Take the last line of the previous scene or chapter and use it as a prompt. Or take the first line. Using a sentence from your work is a great way to drive deeper into the writing. Because you are writing freely and loosely, your inner critic is silenced and you may be surprised what you come up with.
2. Put a location from your book into a sentence and use it as a prompt. You can do this for the city or area your book is set in, or do it on a smaller scale, using a building such as your character's workplace or his home to write about. This technique can help to uncover details you'll later use in description, or even ideas your character might have about her surroundings.
3. Put your character in a sentence. Of course, this is sort of the whole point of writing a novel, but do this in a random way, having your character do either something unexpected or completely mundane and then write about it for 20 minutes. You'll be amazed what you'll learn.
4. Use a line of dialogue from your project.
5. Use keywords as prompts. Quick, tell me three words that describe your writing project. Now use those words as prompts–either one at a time or putting them into a sentence.
6. Use theme as a prompt. Maybe you don't know what the theme of your book is–don't laugh, it takes many a draft to figure it out sometimes–or maybe you have a vague idea of it. Make a sentence out of what your don't know or that vague idea and use it for a prompt.
7. Riff on the title. Most works-in-progress have a title, even if its only a working title. Use that for a prompt and see what comes up.
Those are some ways I've used prompts with my work-in-progress. Any more suggestions?
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.
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?