Writing Exercises

Warming Up, or The Art of Recycling Manuscripts

In writing, nothing is ever wasted.  I'm forever saying this to clients, and, well, just about everybody I meet, and it is true.  Your words are never wasted because if they need to be cut from one project, they might become useful in another.  Doesn't matter if you have a bad experience, because, at least you can write about it.  (As a matter of fact, I've coaxed myself into many an event I don't want to attend with that thought–at least I can write about it.)

But I've recently rediscovered a way to literally and physically not waste words by recycling manuscripts.  And I don't mean throwing them in the recycling bin.  Here's the deal:  I've been organizing my office for the last, oh, six months, and at the rate I'm going I'll be working on it for the next six months. Part of why this is taking so long is that I'm going through everything--old stories, old notes, everything. 

In my most recent pile, I found a sheaf of slender pieces of paper, rubberbanded together.  Curious (of course I have to look at everything), I pulled the rubber band off and found that what I had were sentences.  Some were hand-written, and some were cut from a printed manuscript page. 

I realized immediately what I had found–story starters.  Oh, okay, call them prompts, though for some reason I don't like that word.  Clearly, at some point in the past, I had meticulously written down sentences that captured my attention, and spent time cutting apart manuscripts.

So I decided to experiment with these sentences.  Earlier this week, I used one as a starter for a writing session, though I kept it specifically focused on the new novel.  And it was great.  To me, that is one of the best use of prompts–write from them with a specific focus, hopefully whatever it is you are working on. 

Digging further through this file, I found three pages of an old manuscript.  I mean, this was old–it had been printed on a dot-matrix printed.  Remember those?  I used to love the ritual of tearing the edges off the paper.  Anyway, the writing on the page was as old as the printer and, how shall I say this so as not to hurt my own feelings–it needed some work.  It is not a project I'm going to return to as I have no interest in it. 

But then I thought–aha!  I have a use for this old manuscript!  I shall cut it up, sentence by sentence, and use it for a story starter.  I put all the thin pieces of paper containing the sentences into a box with my old hand-written ones,and draw one when I'm ready to write.  Here's several to get you started, and note that some of these may be copied from books.  But it doesn't matter, take them and make them into your own wonderful work:

  • Grandma sat in the armchair in the dim light, knitting.
  • They tell me I should never let anyone know what happened.
  • "It's not much further now," he called, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead.
  • I know it's dangerous to pick up hitch-hikers, but I stopped anyway.
  • Although there was nothing wrong with his leg, he walked with a cane anyway.

To me, writing to prompts story starters is an excellent way to warm up.  Musicians practice scales, athletes stretch, and we writers need to warm up, too if only to get the blood in our fingers going.  Writing freely  for 10 to 15 minutes can be an excellent way to get the brain moving in the correct direction as well.

Now the problem is that I have an excuse to keep all those old manuscripts.  Good thing I've thrown most of them out already.

How about you?  What's your favorite way to warm for writing?

Say Hello To Your Critic

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.Holidays 085

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.

The Final Top Takeaways From the Writer’s Loft

I've been writing a series of posts on what I learned at the Writer's Loft last weekend.  You can find the links for Part One and Part Two at the end of this post, or just click on the highlighted words.

Today's post is about the lecture that one of our favorite mentors, David Pierce, gave, which he called "Tools for Stories."  I have to give David a huge thank-you, as he stepped in at the very last minute to give this lecture after one of our mentors was not able to attend due to a family illness.

David offered the following six tools:  Bookcover

  • Trouble
  • Cause and Effect
  • Reversal and Revelation
  • Expectations
  • Dramatic Irony (when the audience knows more than the character)
  • More Trouble

The important concept here is that these are tools that you can use as you write stories or novels.  Stuck?  Give your character more trouble.  Don't know what to have happen next?  Figure out what a logical chain of cause and effect might be.  The plot just won't budge?  Throw in a reversal or a revelation.  You get the idea. 

I love these tools and can see how truly helpful they are to have in your bag of tricks.  These are real, specific, craft responses to writer's block in fiction–and they probably work pretty well for creative non-fiction as well.

By the way, David is the author of "Don't Let Me Go," a wonderful memoir about climbing mountains and running marathons with his daughter.

As my father would say, thus endeth this series on Top Takeaways from the Writer's Loft.  Here are the links for the first and second parts:

You can read Part One, about social media and Kory Wells, here.

And Part Two, about Richard Goodman, here.

When Is A Food Journal Not For Your Diet?

Journal_80101_l  Well, after a brief break for Christmas and sloth, it is time, finally, to resume my series on journal writing with a final flourish. It is a flourish because what I'm going to discuss is my current favorite type of journal writing, though I reserve the right to have a different favorite next month, because, well, that is what happens with journal writing.  And maybe even regular writing, too, if there is such a thing as regular writing.

So here goes.  My current favorite type of journal writing is the Chronology.  This is my name for actually writing about the things that happen in your life, the people you run into, the day to day events that make up your existence. 

The desire to write a chronology of our days is why may of us are drawn to journal writing.  It is the urge to make meaning of our lives, or perhaps the desire to leave something for posterity.  The chronology records history in the making if we're lucky–witness the diaries of pioneer women that have been such wonderful records of that era. 

The chronology is also fertile ground for practicing the writer's craft.  In noting the details of your best friend's outfit and how she never seems to wear things that match yet she always looks great, that you start to understand how to create characters that come alive on the page.  In writing a description of the coffee shop you visited the day before, the seeds of description and setting are created.  And so on, through all the aspects of observing a day to day life.

The chronology is what fills our journals with rich detail and interesting tidbits.  And yet, this kind of writing is what is often sorely lacking in my own diary.  Why?  Because when writing a journal on a regular basis, I tend to get lazy.  (Um, this seems to be a theme for me this week.) It is far easier to indulge in a whiny emotional outburst or write quick morning pages that are really more about the day's to-do list than to really write about the what happened the day before: how the sun looked on the river as you crossed the bridge, or the way your son's face lit up when he took a bite of chocolate.  

I realized how the quality of my journaling had deteriorated when I read My Life in France, by Julia Child this summer, after seeing the movie, Julie and Julia.  If you saw the movie, there were several scenes where Paul, Julia's husband, is seen sitting at a desk writing letters to his twin brother back home.  Those letters were apparently so filled with detail and wonderful tidbits that they were used heavily by Julia and her nephew in writing her memoir (which is, by the way, delightful, and well worth reading).  Upon reading this I was struck by what a rich vein of gold letter writing results in, and then I realized that journal writing could be the same thing.  My journal writing could be a rich vein of gold, if only I weren't so indulgent about all those whiny outbursts.  Or obsessed with to-do lists.

So I resolved to actually write something of worth in my diary and began to sit every morning and write an account of the day before.  Yet this chronology meandered and lacked cohesion.  (I know, I know, its a journal, it is not supposed to be perfect.  But, as with all writing, I need to feel comfortable inside the form before it takes off for me.)  And then I read a charming article in O magazine.  I'm sorry I can't point you to the exact month because I tore it out and gave it to my daughter, but it was sometime this past fall.  The article was written by a woman who had recently had a baby.  During her pregnancy, she wrote down every single item she had eaten and with whom, the idea being that her baby was the sum total of all of this food and company.

And from this I got my brilliant idea–keeping a Food Journal.  No, not the kind that nutritionists and diet experts tell you to keep, though that can easily be incorporated.  This kind of food journal notes not only what you ate, but where you ate it, who you ate it with and what they were wearing, what song was on the radio as you drove down the freeway with a McDonald's breakfast sandwich in hand, whatever.  And then that leads to a paragraph about how, you guessed it, the sun shone on the river as you crossed the bridge over it and so forth and so on and before you know it you've written a chronology of your entire morning, full of lush detail and interesting anecdotes and now you're onto lunch, which is a whole other story in itself, because your numbskull co-worker told that stupid joke and then your boss yelled at all of you while she had a piece of toilet paper stuck to her shoe.

So what the Food Journal really does is give you an excuse.  It gives you an excuse to write about everything that happened in your day, and in giving you a structure, it makes it so much easier than to meander about in your brain and try to remember what you did.  Food is life, as we know, and it turns out that writing about food makes remembering life easier.

This kind of journaling takes a long time.  Writing about your entire day could easily take your entire morning.  So you might want to limit yourself to one aspect of it.  Or not.  What I find is that this kind of writing, the loving attention to the detail of reality, leads me back into the writing that I truly love doing–writing novels.  And then the hell part is that I get so engrossed in writing novels that I don't have time to keep a food journal or really any kind of diary.

But that is okay, because my journal will be there waiting for me, as it always is, when I feel the need to write morning pages to get myself back on track again.  Or to do some writing exercises because I've lost my way and feel blocked.  Or because something happened to me of such import that I feel the urge to write about it.  That's the great thing about journals–they are always there for you.

Here are the links to the other posts in this series:

Journaling: One Path to Writing Abundance

Practical Considerations for Journal Writing

All the Wonderful Forms of Journal Writing

Journaling, Part Four: Morning Pages

Journaling, Part Five: Whiny Emotional Outbursts

Photo used under Creative Commons 2.5 license.

Creating Characters: Mai, Oui, Marcel Proust, I Could Use Some Help

Having some difficulty creating full, true-to-life fictional characters?  Why not let Marcel help you?

Yes, that Marcel, the most famous one of all–Marcel Proust, author of Remembrance of Things Past, the only part of which I remember is when he waxed poetic about Madeleines, the shell-shaped, mini-cakes that melt in your mouth.

Thanks to the wonderful Kate Lord Brown, fellow denizen of Alltop, I found this fabulous questionnaire that purports to be the Proust Questionnaire.  You can answer the same questions that our Marcel did at age 13, and at age 20.  Supposedly. 

In truth, I don't really care if Proust did answer these questions or not.  What struck me in looking them over is how useful they could be for character development.  The questions go way beyond Barbara Walter's famous, "If you were a tree, what tree would you be?" query to delve deeply into such things as:

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

Your favorite virtue?

What in your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?

And more, so much more, all written in that language from another time.  So put yourself in your character's state of mind and take the questionnaire.

Also, head on over to Kate's blog and read the post about the questionnaire.  Its quite clever.

And, one more thing–stay tuned to learn details of the awesome contest that is coming up.  I'll give you a hint.  It has something to do with this site.

Writing Exercise: The Bluebird Canyon Special

The Santa Anas are blowing and fires are erupting all over southern California where I am currently ensconced at the top of a canyon overlooking the Pacific.  It is not quite as idyllic as it sounds, though I admit it is stunningly beautiful here, because I am here to care for a friend.

Perhaps it is the change of locale, but yesterday I awoke with a writing exercise resounding in my head.  Weird, huh?  Then again maybe it is due to the physical exercise I am getting.  This morning I ran down the canyon, so very proud of myself because I was not out of breath at all.  Then it was time to turn around.  And I realized I was at the bottom of a very steep hill.   Suffice it to say that I did not run back up said steep hill.   But I did make it.  And despite the sore legs, of which I am reminded numerous times a day in this house of stairs, I feel great.

And so here is the writing exercise that my subconscious created, The Bluebird Canyon Special.  This one is probably good for generating material for a new story, or if  you get stuck in your current story and need to jazz it up with a new character.  I've not had a lot of time to play with it, so give it a whirl and let me know how it works out.

Here we go:

1.  Pick 10 names of people ( such as Tara, Brunhilde, Eric, Sam..)
2.  Pick 10 locations  (LA, Boulder, Portland,Taos…)
3.  Pick 10 adjectives (blonde, lanky, beautiful, lush..)
4.  Pick 10 occupations (police officer, artist, CEO, waiter…)
5.  Pick 10 nouns (pen, journal, phone, table, car…)
6.  Pick 10 verbs (threw, jogged, spiraled, blasted…)

The key is to do this fast and don't over-think it.  You are simply generating material here, okay?

Now take the first four items and make a character with them:  Blond Tara from Boulder is a police officer.  Take the next two items and put your character into action:  Blond Tara from Boulder is a police officer who threw her journal out the window of her car.

Voila!  Now you have a character in action.  You can use this sentence as a prompt for generating a scene or a vignette or whatever you need.  Write the sentence at the top of a piece of paper, set a timer and write for 20 minutes without stopping. 

The other thing you can do with blond Tara is put her in the middle of a cluster.  This is hard to describe on a computer, but it is the same thing as Mind-mapping and it is also called webbing or spidering.   Write blond Tara's name in the middle of a piece of paper, and circle it.  Then write another bit of description and draw a line from the circle in the middle to this new bit of description.  Another detail of her appearance goes on the same line.  Then you get an idea about her family–that's a new line.  And perhaps up pops a thought about the conflict she faces–another line.  Pretty soon you will start to have quite a few ideas about ole Tara floating about in your mind.

But ole blond Tara needs a conflict, right?  Here's the fastest way to find her one: either in your clustering or your freewriting, answer the following question:  what does she desperately want or what is she desperately afraid of?  In the case of wanting something,  put obstacles to her getting it in front of her.  In the case of fearing something, make her face it.

Follow these steps and before you know it, you should have Tara waltzing about your novel or story.  Let me know how it works out for you.