In this post I want to discuss writing exercises. I also include one of my own writing exercises.
Imagine you want to run 10km, but have never run before. What do you do? Put on your training shoes, go outside and just run 10km first time?
To run 10km we need to train. We start with short runs, interspersed with walking. Gradually we build up our running distance.
And we also do something else. We build up our upper body strength and our core strength. Our upper bodies help act as a pendulum to propel us forward. And all good running should come from our core muscles.
It’s the same with writing, too. We can’t just write a novel straight off. We need to build up our strength, not only in novel writing, but in other aspects of writing. Things like dialogue, plotting, maintaining a story arc, foreshadowing, characterisation, and so on.
Of course I learned this the hard way. My first attempt at writing was to dive straight into a novel, without really know what it was about or how it was structured. And I had no fiction-writing experience to help me. That first novel was a creation story, about how a world came into being. It never went beyond 67 pages.
My next attempt at fiction-writing was my first novel, All Fall Down, the first in the planetfall trilogy. I’ve lost count of the number of times I started, deleted and started again on this book. But one thing started to become apparent amongst those re-starts: I needed to practice different parts of my writing.
I took a break from that book to write a short children’s story, which had a story arc - it told the surreal tale of a young girl called Ayla who suddenly found herself on a bus, not really knowing how she got there. Her quest is to find a ticket so she can stay on the bus, and to evade the dreaded Bus Conductor. I was lucky to have a friend illustrate the book for me. (By the way, you can download a black and white Kindle version of the book here: Ayla’s Journey.)
Having plotted a story over seven chapters or so, I went back to planetfall. I’ve blogged before about my attempts at storyboarding, and how I became more proficient at it.
There were other writing exercises, too.
Dialogue is a particularly weak point of mine. I love writing flowing description, and I’ve become pretty good at pinning it to a story structure. But relating characters’ thoughts through dialogue is a hard skill to master. So I set myself some writing tasks – short stories comprised, mainly, of dialogue and little prose. One of those is below (Frankenstein).
I also set myself tasks like this:
- write a story in 1 side of A4 (actually this is how planetfall started in the first place)
- write a description of the interior of a church in 1 side of A4, but importantly fill the page
- write something which generates an emotional response in under 500 words
- write biographies of characters for stories I’ll never write
- create characters from the people around me in a coffee shop
- create characters so different from the way I think, that I hate them, then write a short story about them and make them do and say things I don’t agree with (this can be as simple as voting the opposite way to my own political preferences, as normal as hitting people when angry or as extreme as murder)
These writing exercises are akin to going to the gym and doing sit-ups or lifting weights. They build our writing muscles in different parts of our creativity.
At the moment I’m writing a short story about a character from the film Robocop. A sort of, What happened next story about one of the minor characters. I’m constrained by the world and character someone else created, which means I have to find a way to understand an established character and write something true to them and true to a unique story.
If you’re just starting on your writing journey, bear this in mind. Writing a novel needs training. Training means distractions from your novel. It’s a long journey. And at the end of it, you’ll be fitter, creatively, than you’ve ever been.
Here’s a writing exercise. It’s based on two men in an art gallery, looking at a painting called The Psychoanalytic Puppeteer Losing His Mind (shown below, not my photo)
“What’s that creepy girl doll with the man’s body?”
“Painting of me, darling,” says John.
“Says ‘George Condo’. Listen, you know what we talked about? Will you do it?” Seb looks at John. Museum visitors move around them.
“That’s what it reminds you of?” John looks side long at Seb and squints.
“It’s been a year, John. Our anniversary.”
“You’re Brian Sewell, now? Painting as sexual identity?”
“Can we not talk about this here. It looks like my grandmother being caught doing something she shouldn’t.”
“As opposed to you not being caught doing something you should.”
“Can’t you just… Fine then.”
Seb turns from the painting. “Tonight?”
“When the time’s right.”
“For God’s sake, John. There’s no right time. You just have to do it.”
John clenches his hands. He snaps his head to Seb. A group of older people stand next to them and comment on the painting.
“Look, it freaks me out is all.” He speaks through tight lips.
“It freaked me out when I told my parents. I still did it.” The group moves away. John and Seb are left standing alone.
“I just don’t wan’t them to think of me as some sort of freak. Like Frankenstein or something.”
“You’re just coming out, John.”
“You’re all so grown up. I feel like I’ve a child’s head on an adult’s body. You know what my Dad said.”
“Yes, ‘Don’t mind ‘em but wouldn’t have one in the house.’”
“Will you be there?”
“I’ll look after you. Creepy doll’s head and man’s body and all.”
“Who’s the next painter?”
“Says, ‘Francis Bacon’.”