A few of our favourite writers share their go-to writing exercises.
Finding writing seeds
Put a piece of music on. It can be slow or quick; classical or punk. Pick a song that calls to you in that moment, because that will help your writing to breathe. Sit down with a pen and a piece of a paper, if you can, rather than a keyboard. And write without stopping for the whole song. Notice if you write to the swell of the music or whether your writing has its own beat. At the end, read through. Most will probably be a chaotic mess, but there will be parts that are not. Mark lines and images that interest you. Maybe only two words out of two hundred. These are your writing seeds.
Choose a topic and write for twenty minutes every day for a month about that same topic. Don’t miss a day. Don’t read over your work. Just write for twenty minutes a day, every day. Stop at the end of twenty minutes. Don’t write more, or less. The same topic, every day for a month. Don’t edit or check or read over. Give your self permission to explore the depths, to fly, to write badly, to be repetitive, to to be cliched, to be personal, and to write in detail. Twenty minutes, same topic, every day. Go for it.
Get to know your characters with a Q and A. Write some personal questions to your characters and then write their answers in their voice. Try and ask personal questions and have them answer as if you they are talking to a close friend. The purpose of the exercise isn’t just to lead you to think about who your characters are. It’s also an opportunity to learn how they speak when they are opening up in an intimate space.
Taking out the letter ‘e’
This is a good exercise to try if a section of your manuscript isn’t zinging, is feeling hackneyed or is relying too much on clichéd descriptions that aren’t evocative. You take the section, usually just a few paragraphs, and rewrite it keeping the same meaning but omitting the letter ‘e. For example, the previous sentence, when rewritten without the letter e, might read, ‘This is a good workout to try if a part of your manuscript isn’t zinging, looks stodgy or is using too many obvious worn-out portrayals of individuals or locations. Try another go at this sluggish part without the secdnd consonant.’
Take your character for a walk, ideally somewhere you haven’t been before, preferably somewhere you can walk around for a bit. Imagine yourself looking at your surrounds through the eyes of your character. Ask yourself the following questions and take notes on the answers:
What would stand out for this character in the landscape (or cityscape), given their state of mind? What might they overlook? Are there particular objects that might resonate or jar with how they are feeling? Take photos if you like. What effect might the presence or absence of other people have on their thoughts and emotions?
When you get home, write a scene that describes your character’s thoughts and emotions as they walk through the landscape/cityscape. Weave their observations about their surroundings into the scene, relating these observations to their thoughts and emotions.
Find an old photograph of yourself, one in which you are alone. Study it carefully before writing. With pen and paper write a detailed description of what you see, as if you were looking at a picture of a stranger. So you would say, for instance: ‘a girl of about four is sitting on a rocking horse’. Go into as much physical detail as you can. Then begin a personal narrative in which you own the scene you have just described. For instance: ‘I remember the old rocking horse in our neighbour’s hallway’. Continue to write as freely as you can for twenty minutes, roaming among feelings and thoughts as well as among recollections of physical details.
Write a letter
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. Now write yourself a letter. The first word is ‘Dear’, the second 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.
(The exercises by Angela Savage, Carmel Bird and Max Barry were originally published on writersvictoria.org.au.)
This article was published in The Victorian Writer.