Six impossible things

DIY Exercises

For a very long time, I thought (and I’ve said here) that I hated writing exercises and writing prompts. Then I started talking to people about writing, and some of them demanded that I give them exercises. After much thought, I came to the obvious conclusion that in order to be useful to a writer, a writing exercise or prompt has to provide them with something they clearly need, in a way that is at least a little stretchy and tolerably scary for the particular writer.

This means that many writers will be best served by making up their own writing exercises. But to make up a writing exercise that you will find helpful, you need some idea of what you want/need to work on, how to get yourself there, and what is or isn’t going to be stretchy or scary for you. (And also, whether you are really, truly, actually going to do the exercises you come up with, because just thinking about them won’t help much, if at all.)

Since I didn’t start making up writing exercises until people started demanding them, what I made up was generally aimed at a specific problem that those people were having, which I think works pretty well as a way of constructing one’s personal exercises.

The procedure I used went something like this:

  1. Decide on the length of the exercise. I prefer short exercises – a few hundred words, a page or two at most – because I get impatient to be off doing my real writing (aka pay copy) if it gets to be more than that. Also, I have a strong feeling that an exercise should be something one can do in a single sitting.

An “exercise” that takes two or three days is, for me, either a longer experiment (also OK, but occupying a different space in my head), or else the exercise has taken on a life of its own and is about to turn into a short story (an excellent thing to happen, but not anything I plan or count on). If you like longer exercises, feel free. But figure out in advance how long you want, because a short exercise doesn’t have room to be anything but specific.

  1. Identify the exact problem you want to solve, or the technique you want to play around with. Problem identification can end up becoming an exercise in itself, especially if you know the general area that’s weak, e.g. “dialog,” but you don’t really know whether the problem is your phrasing, a lack of description, too much or too little emotional reaction, or something else that you haven’t even thought of. Techniques to play with are usually easier, because it’s mostly a matter of picking out something interesting that you want to experiment with, like writing the same scenelet in first person, then second person, then tight third, then omniscient to see how you have to change it.

One way of spotting a problem area is to consider what stuff you do your best to put off or avoid writing entirely. If you stall whenever you get to an action scene, or you leave out your POV character’s internal dialog, or you avoid more than the least and barest physical descriptions of your settings…those might be areas you want to work on. Not all at once, though. Part of the point of exercises is that you can focus on one thing at a time.

  1. Think of several different approaches to working on the problem. You actually only need one, so if you hit on something great the very first time, go for it. I started off inventing exercises for other people, so I wanted several backup possibilities in case the first one I’d come up with didn’t work for that person.

What I mean by “different approaches” covers everything from reading and analyzing famous work, to comparison with movies, to reading out loud, to acting out a scene to see if the words make sense, to diagraming sentence rhythms, to watching a movie with the sound off, or with the picture off. Writing exercises don’t all have to be about you writing something; sometimes, they’re about learning to see your writing or your process in different ways.

Setting arbitrary limits also makes for interestingly stretchy exercises – everything from writing 300 words without using the letter “s” to describing a room your first-person POV can’t see.

  1. Look at some writing exercises other people have made up to address similar problems. Writing textbooks are full of them; so’s the Internet. When I was making up exercises for specific people’s specific problems, I almost never found anything that addressed it exactly (or I could have just said “Check this url and that textbook, page 84”). I did, however, find plenty of different exercises “in the general area” that gave me ideas for how to design something that would fit the person I was working with. It also gave me a lot more confidence in my ability to come up with interesting writing exercises.
  2. Make up three or four exercises that address your specific problem from two or more of the angles you came up with in #3, bearing in mind the length limit you decided on for #1. Or adapt one of the exercises you found in #4 so it addresses your problem more closely. Remember, it’s an exercise: it doesn’t have to make sense in a larger context, or be useable in a story, as long as you learn something from doing it.
  3. Do the exercise. If it’s a disaster, scale it back: instead of trying to do a detailed description of the reception for an imaginary head of state (complete with room decor, attendees, clothing, food, and entertainment), make a list of what your character has in his pockets (lint, hands, One Ring).
  4. Think about what you learned and how/whether you can apply it. If you want, do the exercise again, or one of the others you made up.
  1. Writing exercises don’t do much for me, as my difficulties are on a much larger scale—character motivation and plot resolution.

    That said, one of the best writing exercises I encountered went something like this: Describe a barn as seen through the eyes of a man who just learnt his son was killed in the war. Do not mention the boy, war, or death.

    • And if you could get a decent story out of it, you would send it to the New Yorker.

      In which I once read a story that, I suppose, told you nothing about a family except what they stored in every single room of their large house.

    • Yeah, I was thinking something similar — I struggle with plot, and with characters experiencing slow emotional growth (especially if this person learning and growing is supposed to be the primary plot).

      I might find an exercise fun. But I’ve only done a few where I felt like I learned something, or stretched unused writing muscles.

  2. Writing exercises don’t do much for me, either. But writing prompts do sometimes result in a worthwhile story.

  3. a detailed description of the reception for an imaginary head of state (complete with room decor, attendees, clothing, food, and entertainment)

    Side note: this is pretty much exactly what I’m going to need a little farther on in my WIP! I’m a little worried about pulling it off, especially because there’s the added complication that the visiting head of state and the host of the reception are from different cultures that have been at odds for a long time.

  4. Judging from yesterday’s effort with the WIP, I need an exercise for writing small talk.

    (And someone to stand behind me with a loaded gun, because I can’t think of anything less that would make me do one minute more of that than I absolutely have to!)

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