Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Writing exercises

When commenting on the last post, Dingo said:
"Thanks for sharing this process. It's really eye opening. So, tell us, where do you get your writing exercises? Do you still do them? How do you know if what you've written is any good?"
I got a lot of the writing exercises I use through taking creative writing classes both in college and after college. There are tons of books and websites dedicated to writing prompts and ideas to give your brain a jump start.

I don't use writing exercises in a formal way as much as I used to. I use writing exercises primarily to develop characters, and right now, I have several characters I've developed that I want to work with once my rewrites are done. I do, however, allow myself to free-write things about my characters that aren't necessarily relevant to the story I'm telling. These little detours often get edited out later, but writing them is very helpful.

I was a theatre major when I was at Ithaca. When we did scenes in class, we were encouraged to know the back story of the characters we were playing. I had a teacher who would ask us things like, "What's your character's favorite meal?" or "What was her first day of first grade like? Did the other kids like her? Did she have a pretty new dress, or did she wear badly patched hand-me-downs?" These weren't questions that related to the scene at hand. And they didn't have answers that could be found anywhere in the script. We had to decide these things ourselves, using the other clues we had about the character to create stories for them that were consistent with who they appeared to be.

As habit, I still make it my business to know these kinds of things about the characters I'm working with, even though now I work with characters in a very different way. Sometimes, if I'm really stuck, I write these stories down. I'll make a list of favorites, or a 100 Things type of list of random facts about my characters. Other times, it's just about thinking about them. In the car, waiting at the stoplight, I'll play with the radio until I find a station my character would stop on, instead of the one I would choose. Listening to music can shake up all sorts of ideas. Why does a particular song mean something to your character? Was it the song they listened to over and over during a painful breakup? Was it playing the first time they ever got asked to slow dance? It doesn't have to ever end up in your story, but the more you know about your character, the more you'll feel confident in making decisions for them.

If you're looking for a simple writing exercise, use the Explore section of Flickr to find an image that attracts you. Then write about it. What happened 5 minutes before the picture was taken? Are the emotions in the picture genuine or forced? Is someone pretending to be happy when they aren't? If the photo is just a location and there aren't any people in it, who would inhabit that space? Do they fit in or stick out like a sore thumb?

Or hit shuffle on your iPod, pick a line from the first song you hit, and use it as the first line of your writing exercise. Set a timer for five minutes, and just write. Don't edit yourself. Don't worry if it's stupid of it doesn't make sense. You're not writing a story. It's just an exercise. Just write.

If there's even the tiniest little glimmer of something you like in one of your writing exercises, work with it. Ask yourself more questions and see where the answers take you.

How do I know if it's any good? Well, for starters, I read everything I write out loud to myself. It's a great way of catching bad dialogue, sticky sentences, and to put yourself in the position of being a reader. I also meet with a writing group regularly. It's important to find people who will give you honest and constructive feedback. And now, I'm lucky enough to have an agent and an editor who are both wonderful with giving constructive feedback and sharing their ideas. There's also something to be said for that gut feeling. Trust it.


Courtney said...

So cool! This makes me want to go create a bunch of imaginary friends for myself. :)

Dingo said...

This sounds like what my friends and I used to do in college (and what I still do, actually): make up stories about the people we see.

I'm looking forward to reading your book.