Fall has reached southern Tennessee. I spent yesterday raking leaves, and today the Cumberland Plateau is shrouded in a cold, shifting mist. In other words, it’s the perfect weather for curling up beside a fire and writing. In that spirit, I thought I’d do a post about writing exercises. Some of these I have used quite a bit; others I have merely heard about or seen others do. But I believe all of them have value. You might find that one of them (or several) are exactly what you need to get you past a rough spot in your current project.
1. An Exercise to Help with Descriptive work: This one comes by way of my older daughter’s English teacher. He has the kids in his class doing several of these a week, and my daughter has been enjoying them immensely. The basic idea is that you observe someone as he or she engages in some common activity. As you watch you write, describing in detail everything that this person does. The key is to make the passage into more than just an instruction manual for the selected activity. You need to draw upon the senses. If the person you’re watching is, say, making a fruit salad, then you should describe not only what he/she does, but what you see and hear and smell as you watch. You also might watch the person’s facial expressions and body language as the task moves through stages in which it’s easy and/or more difficult. So far, my daughter has written about me playing my guitar, making dinner, and driving our manual transmission car. But this just scratches the surface. You could follow someone around a golf course, or watch an electrician or plumber, or stake out a construction site and watch the workers there. The possibilities are endless. And no matter what you choose to write about, it should free up your descriptive prose and get you to write through your senses.
2. Three Exercises to Develop Character: I’ve probably mentioned some of these before, but they remain valuable tools for character work. A) If you’re developing a character for a new project, I would strongly urge you to take an incident from his/her past and turn it into a short story. This will help you get to know your character better, it will help you develop the character’s voice, and it will give you something to sell as you shop your novel around. B) Another way to meet the same goals is to begin a character sketch of a new character — write it as the beginning of a story rather than as bullet points, and write it in this new character’s POV. Give this character one secret, something that he/she doesn’t want revealed, and that you only hint at early in your sketch. Don’t tell your reader what it is, at least not yet. And then introduce a second character, preferably (but not necessarily) someone else from your new project, and have this person either directly or indirectly force the first character to reveal the secret. How? That’s up to you. It can be confrontational, it can be inadvertent. Listen to their interaction and let them tell you how it happens. C) If you have a character already, but are having trouble with the character’s voice and mannerisms, you might want to try this: Write a scene in which you and your character meet for lunch or drinks or in some sort of chance encounter. Write it in first person from your own POV and describe your character as you see and hear him/her.
3. Three Exercises to Help with Worldbuilding: These are similar in a way to the character exercises above. A) I usually like to begin with a map when I’m worldbuilding, so this first exercise is map-based. Find three landmarks on your map — you can use anything: swamps, rivers, mountains or mountain ranges, cities, monuments, whatever. Give them names that imply some sort of back story (Examples from my own past maps include Einar’s Fen, Blood Falls, and the Weeping Wood) and then write the tales of how those names came to be. Again, this can help with finding the voice for your new project, and it could produce a publishable piece of short fiction. B) Come up with at least one exotic name for something simple — a term for units or time or measurement, for example, or a name for a common household item — and write the story of how this thing got its name. It doesn’t have to be a long story; it doesn’t have to be publishable. But it should give you a feel for the land in which you’re setting your story. C) Write mythologies for your world’s Gods. (Think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s SILMARILLION, or, if you’re not familiar with that, think Old Testament.) You can write them in the high language of myth, as Tolkien did, or you can write them in a scene with a parent or grandparent relating the tales to a child, or you can find some other way to convey the information. Have fun with it.
4. An Exercise to Help with Plotting and/or Marketing Your Book: What kind of exercise can work for plotting AND for marketing? This one: Open a blank document on your computer (or take out a blank page of paper — but you’ll see in a minute why the computer might be the better choice) and write down what your book is about. Take as many words and/or pages as you need to get down all that you think is necessary to convey about the project. Then open a second document and do the same, but limit yourself to 500 words (doing it on the computer allows you to use the “word count” function). On your third version limit yourself to 250 words. Then 100. Then 50. And finally get it down to a single sentence or, if absolutely necessary, two. But no more than 20 or 25 words. This will help with your plotting by forcing you to whittle down your story to its most important elements. And it will help with your marketing by allowing you to distill your project down to a quick pitch.
All of the exercises above should prove helpful in one way or another, but also keep in mind that they’re intended to be fun. So give them a try. And if you have exercises of your own that you think would benefit the rest of us, by all means share!David B. Coe