I have a fascination for reality shows that let you see into other people’s lives — yes, one of my favorite things is to walk the neighborhood at twilight and peer into lit living rooms to get a glimpse of decor and people and mostly ghostly glows from widescreen TVs. Now I know the reality is about as much as in any piece of fiction — it’s filtered through an editor, producer’s, camera man’s view. But, still, there are glimpses. And last night on the newest lose weight show a woman said she’d never learned how to exercise. Which got me thinking.
Over several workshops that I’ve taught, I’ve noticed that writers tend to only want to use material from their work in progress. If I assign an exercise, out comes the manuscript and a chunk of it is used. This is not a bad thing, but it does defeat the purpose of exercising — as in, it’s not stretching out the writing muscles. Folks also struggle with the idea of a writing exercise that is about writing a few pages that are never going to make it into any book — the pages may be about trying a new viewpoint, or exaggerating a technique, or it may be about backstory that needs to be real (meaning it needs to be on some pages, just not the ones that go into a reader’s hand). So I’m wondering — do folks need to be taught how to do writing exercises?
It seems obvious to me that if you do any sport, you don’t just do the sport. When I rode, I also trained so that I could ride (yucky sit-ups which I loath, stretching, weights). The exercise wasn’t part of the sport, but was an important factor — there wasn’t much to learn, except that some exercises helped more than others, and nothing helped as much as the drills you actually put in on horseback. (Lots of rising trot without stirrups.) But I was taught by riding instructors, and part of that was about ‘hey, you need to do more than ride, if you’re serious about this.’
In the interest of passing along info, writing exercises — ‘hey, you need to do more than write the book, if you’re serious about this.’ So what is that more? What’s worked for me?
POV Exercise 1
Take a scene. Write it from one character’s POV only. Now rewrite that scene from the viewpoint of another character in that scene. Now rewrite that scene from yet a third character in that scene (and if there wasn’t one invent one — could be a cricket under the carpet eavesdropping.) Point here is to try multiple viewpoints — can be very helpful to unblock a book.
POV Exercise 2
Write a scene that is first person. Now shift the writing to third person. Helps to develop deeper third person POV.
Write a description of a setting in your book. Write this as one sentence. Now write this as three paragraphs. Now write this as three pages. As you develop the setting, layer in more details–use all the senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell).
Interview your main character–ask them deep personal questions (as if you are a reporter for a tabloid). This works particularly well if you’re working on a scene and it’s not working–ask the character about this, what’s wrong, and what does that character really want to do in that scene?
Backstory Exercise 1
Write a critical scene in your main character’s life that happened when that character was very, very young and which forever shaped this character’s core beliefs and personality.
Backstory Exercise 2
Write a two page profile of a secondary character — in first person as if you are that person.
Story Idea Exercise
Write the back cover copy for your story — in two to three paragraphs, how do you convey the idea and get someone to buy this book?
Write the opening for a story and only TELL the story to the reader — use only the narrative voice. Now rewrite that same opening and only SHOW the reader information by showing the character in action and show the character’s thoughts and feelings to the reader with dialogue and detailed, layered descriptions that convey how that character expersses that emotion.
Each exercise should result in work that you DO NOT use in your manuscript. You may get ideas and insights, but the goal is to treat these like sit-ups — useful to strengthen muscles. If you even have a vague idea you might use the writing in a manuscript, this will affect how you treat the exercise. You want the freedom of writing only for yourself here.
There are lots other exercises, but these are good for core writing strength. Like any exercise program, try not to do these all in one day. Apply them in a regular program of writing every day, and repeat the exercises as well — this is not something you do once and that’s it. These are great ways to limber up if you haven’t written in a long time. They’re also great if you feel ‘blocked’ and need something to break you out of a rut.
And you really, really don’t have to use everything you write in the book. Sometimes is about performance on the page, and sometimes it’s about warming up with exercises.