Writing Exercises for a Chilly Autumn Day


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

22 comments to Writing Exercises for a Chilly Autumn Day

  • Mikaela

    Raking leaves? If only! We had the first real snow storm recently. Brr.
    Thank you for the exercises , David! I am doing prewriting, which is fun and nervous. Fun, because I am exploring something new. Nervous, because it is my first WIP that is Contemporary fantasy.

  • Sounds like an exciting time for you, Mikaela. What do you mean by “prewriting”? REsearch? Worldbuilding (magic systems and such)? Or something else?

  • Great ideas, David. I particularly like the Following People Around description-thing. Remind me to cite this post when I’m arrested 🙂 Seriously, though, these are great: the kinds of practices that should probably become habits.

  • Great timing, David. I’m between projects right now and haven’t quite formed the next story. These kind of exercises not only keep up ones chops but also can get the creativity flowing. And they also stop me from watching youtube! 🙂

  • A.J., I think you’ve stumbled across a topic for some future post: The Thin Line Between Observation and Stalking. I think it would be particularly appropriate for distribution at cons… Thanks for the comment.

    Stuart, yeah, as one who is approaching the “in between projects” phase, I thought this list seemed particularly apropos. Will be contacting you soon, btw, about the book and our story.

  • David, I still do exercises too, and I can how the observing/stalking one could, indeed, land me in jail. Misty! We should stalk together! We could share a cell!

    It could also be used for learning how to use transitions. Write the action/activity withour ever using the word *then*!

  • Mikaela

    David, I tend to be very fluid when I pre-write. I might start doing research, then jump to doing notes. After that I might do some characterization, which leads me to outline some scenes. 🙂

  • The first one can work for locations too. Just going outside in the yard and describing the area, sights, smells, sounds, and even the breeze, or lack thereof on the skin. Walking in the woods, sitting in an old room, even walking around in pitch black darkness (though that last one is hard to write until you turn the lights back on).

    I sometimes think of a scene and jot down everything I can possibly see or sense about the location in short sentences to help with writing out the scene.

  • Faith, that is a great idea for an exercise, and one I should work on with the book I’m finishing. I think there are too many “then”s in there….

    Mikaela, I’m that way, too. In fact, in doing the proofreading of the MW How-to, I just came across my post about this very topic. And I said then that the groundwork phase for me is incredibly fluid, because it’s an organic process. Worldbuilding leads to plot work, which leads to character background, which leads back to worldbuilding, which demands research, which spawns more plot ideas, etc. Sounds like your mind words the same way.

    Daniel, that is a great point and a wonderful exercise idea. Thanks!

  • Mikaela

    David, one of the most devasting comments I got was: ” You cannot do that. You have to do worldbuilding first.” Let’s just say that wasn’t especially helpful. I did finish the story. Eventually. 😀

  • David> Great exercises. Though I can say that if I were the object of number 1, I’d be really uncomfy. I hate the idea of being studied.

    I like the worldbuilding exercises. I did some worldbuilding and its in a world that doesn’t use iron–faeries are allergic–I realized how much we use it when I sat for five minutes trying to figure out how someone would cook *anything* until the lightbulb went on, “oh, pottery! Right!” And stone, of course. 🙂 I think I will use the first one–the map idea–for my current WIP, even though I know the area since it is set in a real place. I think it will help me some with spacial relationships in the city.

    And I’m definitely trying the plotting/marketing one!

  • Mikaela, yeah. Not helpful at all.

    Emily, thanks. Glad you like them. I have to admit that I felt very self-conscious under my daughter’s scrutiny. She didn’t want me reading what she wrote, and I think I’m just as glad. The worldbuilding exercises are the ones I’ve used the most, and they really do help me. Especially the map one. And I hope that the plotting/marketing one helps.

  • Sarah

    Thank you, David. That third character exercise is really helpful. I’m doing some serious WIP editing at the moment and I find that in my dialogues there’s a distinct difference between character actions in which I saw the character behaving naturally so I wrote down what what character was doing and the moments when I was just trying to make the scene keep moving and so I thought “I need a beat here. What should I have the character do?” The former actions are smooth and character driven. The second type are clunky and formulaic.

  • Great set of exercises, David. These could keep a person busy all week (or longer). I’ll let you know for exactly how long when I’m done trying them all out myself. This could be fun.

  • Sarah, yes, if you force actions and mannerisms onto your characters, they can come off as, well, forced, unnatural. Same as when you try to force a plot point for the sake of action or some such thing. The advantage of exercise three is that you take your character out of the story and let him or her behave “naturally” in a neutral setting. I hope it works for you.

    Ed, thanks. Hope they do you some good.

  • Tom G

    Pea Fairie, just because they don’t use iron doesn’t mean there is no metal. Copper, tin, bronze all were used before iron, though I’ve never heard of anyone cooking with bronze. But cooking with earthen ware sounds interesting.

  • Tom G

    David, I’ve actually did idea 2A. In fact, I have two short stories I wrote to explore characters, but never wrote the novels, but did sell the short stories. I guess it wasn’t wasted effort, right? LOL

  • David, your timing is perfect. It is raining here today, and I have the day off. Of course, I wish I’d checked MW before sitting down to write… *facepalm*

    This is a good list. I really like the worldbuilding exercises. I’ll definitely try these out next time I feel stuck.

  • Tom, if you managed to sell the short stories you wrote as exercises then they were not at all a wasted effort. That’s great! Well done!

    Moira, the great thing about these exercises is that you can do them any time and you can do them again and again. So I hope you’ll find them useful when you’re stuck, or when you’re developing your next project. Best of luck.

  • Unicorn

    Yay! I love writing exercises! I’ll be sure to try these out, especially the descriptive one – it sounds like a lot of fun.

  • Young_Writer

    I’ll get the cell across from Faith and Misty for stalking my poor classmates and talking to “invisible people”.
    Great post, thanks.

  • Unicorn and Alexa, thanks. I hope you find the exercises helpful. And I hope they don’t get you arrested.