Write yourself a letter

A portrait of Max Barry
Max Barry
29 January 2015
With: 
Max Barry

This is a ten minute exercise. By then, you won’t want to stop, so really it’s longer. But I’m saying ten minutes because that’s all you need to discover it’s working. Because if you give this ten minutes, you get one of the best characters you’ve ever written.

You have to be ready to write. Don’t read this on the train and think about it and then by the time you get home your thoughts have wandered to the cleaning or the TV or whether the dog needs a walk. Don’t do that. Wait until you’re actually at the keyboard, and you have ten minutes. If you’re not there now, go away.

Okay? Okay. Now write yourself a letter. The first word is “Dear.” The second word is your name. Someone is writing you a letter. You don’t know why, just yet. You will discover that later. I don’t want to spoil this for you, but I have a feeling that what they say they’re writing to you about, that’s not the real reason. They’ll get to that later. But for now, it’s because of the bins you keep leaving out, or how they can see into your bathroom from their window, or the scratch they saw you leave on their car. I don’t know. I’m not writing this letter. You know your life better than I do. And it doesn’t really matter, because, like I said, the real reason will come later.

You can start in reality, or invent from the get-go. Your character can be based on a real person or not. All this is up to you. But what you’ll find, around the ten minute mark, is that this letter is dripping with personality. You’ve animated someone. You just made a real character.

Why this works: All the technical writing decisions are made for you. You don’t need to choose a tense, or a point-of-view, or much of a setting. You don’t even have to choose the first two words. It pushes aside the logical part of your brain, the part that’s constantly interfering when you’re trying to start something new, and uncorks your creativity. It’s short, so you don’t need to plan. It’s an exercise, so it doesn’t need to be brilliant. It’s a letter, so it doesn’t need beautifully crafted sentences. You just dive in and go.

Why are you still here? You’ve got a letter to write.

About Max Barry

Max Barry is the author of five novels, including ‘Lexicon’, named by Time Magazine (USA) as “the year’s smartest thriller” and one of the top ten novels of the year; and the New York Times Notable Book ‘Jennifer Government’. His novels have been optioned for film by some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, Matthew Vaughn, and Darren Aronofsky.