Improving as a writer is all about practice. That’s why it has been said that you write a million words of crap before you write anything really good. After being involved in writing groups and online communities, I’ve come across quite a few little exercises that have helped me with my writing. Here are a few.
The Inanimate Object
This is about getting into the mind of your character, with a bit of a twist. You pick an inanimate object – a wine bottle, an old mobile phone in the back of someone’s drawer, a broken sign post, an apple in a fruit bowl – and you tell a story from the point of view of that object. What does it want? What thoughts and feelings might it have about its situation? What does it hope humans will do?
These generally turn out as monologues with very little plot, but that’s okay. You’re considering the point of view of something you haven’t considered before, and that’s good.
The Fight Scene
At the age of 16, I realised I wasn’t so good at fight scenes, so I decided to write one in which my friends names the participants and the weapons used. Well, they came out with pirates vs teddy bears, fighting with forks, and someone liked it enough that they paid me NZ$4.50 to put it in their magazine. (Yes, I published something before Ailith’s Gift.) It was a lot of fun to write and helped me to think about movement and pacing, without having to worry about plot.
Prompt-based exercises are generally about generating ideas and putting them on the page. Word prompts work nicely too, but I think picture prompts can have a huge amount of scope. How can you express the idea or concept encapsulated in this picture? Can you use the location, the emotion, the tone? What does the picture mean to you – and what might it mean to a character?
The Story without an E
There was an American author called Ernest Vincent Wright who wrote a novel called Gadsby, which is over 50,000 words long and doesn’t contain the letter E. Given that E is the most common letter used in the English language, this is quite the challenge. Have a go at it. I did this with a friend – we each had a go and set a 15 minute timer. In wordwars, we were rather competitive and generally topped 800 words each in 15 minutes, but for this challenge each word had to be chosen very deliberately, and I think we each managed about 100 words. Give it a go, and see what you can come up with.
The Absent Protagonist
This came from something that happened on BBC Radio 4’s soap opera The Archers, a few years ago. The storyline involved one particular character in quite a significant capacity, but the voice actress was ill or otherwise unavailable when recording day came around, so they rewrote the script, keeping the plot (as it was planned out some way in advance already), but in which the other characters talk about what the missing character has done or said. It was praised as being very “post-modern”, but it was really just an innovative way to work around the voice actress being unavailable.
So the aim of the challenge is to write a short piece in which you only get the side characters. The protagonist, the person who is being proactive, around whom all the action revolves, must not make an appearance. You can write scenes after the protagonist has left, as the person they’ve just spoken to sets about completing the tasks the protagonist has given them. You can have characters gossip about the protagonist’s latest project and their opinions of its success. You can show the fallout when something goes wrong, and end with a character running off in pursuit of the protagonist, determined to give her a piece of his mind. But the protagonist does not appear.
It’s tricky, but it can be fun and it forces you to think of consequences of what your characters are doing, how others might view them, what happens after they’ve left the scene or before they arrive.
So what exercises have you come across that have given you the chance to practice writing in a different way? What are your favourite writing exercises?