My Favorite Writing Exercises

I only have time for a quick post today, so I want to share three of my favorite writing exercises. I don't often do exercises just because I like to feel like I'm in the middle of writing a story too much, and an exercise feels like a detour. This is amazingly silly of me, but it's how my brain works, so the best exercises that I've found work for me are ones that either give me new stories or make me feel like I'm making progress on the ones I want to be working on more directly. Each of these does one of those things, either by giving me new story seeds or by directly informing stories that I'm working on:

Exercise 1: Read for an hour, or for however long it takes you immerse yourself in the work. Then, depending on the kind of writer you are, free-write an impromptu, 500-word story that evokes either the form or the feel of the thing you read. Choose the form variant if structured writing (diction, syntax, etc.) is your weakness, and choose the feel variant (emotional resonance) if intuitive writing is your weakness. You should do the thing that makes you feel less comfortable. "Form" and "Feel" in this exercise are very broad by design and are meant to give you the ability to tailor the process to fit your needs as a writer. I've found that I'm very comfortable dealing with writing on a concrete level (I was a professional copy editor for two years, not that my blog posts always tell to that fact -- this post went up in a rush, for instance, and has yet to be edited at all! -- and I tend to think of writing as a mechanical process) so I like to use the feel variant of this exercise because it forces me to engage with the abstract, intuitive, free associative, and otherwise intangible elements of the process. Reading selection can add to the challenge and creative reward of this exercise: Once you've got a few goes under your belt, try reading outside the genres you like or the genres you're comfortable with. Write science fiction? Read James Baldwin essays for an hour and then write an SFF story that evokes whatever qualities of his writing you're the least comfortable reproducing. And so on like that.

Exercise 2: If the first exercise is primarily about inviting discomfort to yourself and your writing process, this second exercise is about inviting discomfort to your character. This seems obvious because so much of good writing is seeing what happens when your characters are faced with some kind of discomfort. The goal here, though, is to stretch your understanding of the character, so your first job is to think of a situation that your protagonist will never ever once encounter in the story you're writing. Then, write 500 words or so of that character in that situation. This exercise got my buy-in the very first time I did it because I was working with a protagonist who operated on kind of a low-key level, lacked self-confidence and often held back emotionally and socially. What I ended up finding through the exercise was the character's breaking point. Suddenly, I had a story where this low-key guy was in a raging froth, and suddenly I understood the kind of thing that could send him into any sort of heightened emotional state. And I liked it so much, learning this whole other unrestrained side to a character I'd been unable to push that far otherwise, that I actually ended up finding a way to fit that emotional trigger, if obviously not the exact situation, into the real story.

Exercise 3: If the first exercise is about making yourself uncomfortable and the second is about making your protagonist uncomfortable, this exercise is about making both of your uncomfortable. There are two variants: In the first, imagine a place that is safe for you, where you have control and feel powerful. Imagine yourself there, the kind or queen of your castle, and then imagine your protagonist walks in. Write the encounter that follows. In the second, reverse this. Imagine a place that is safe for your protagonist, that gives them the comfort and the power. Imagine them already there, and then imagine yourself entering the scene from the side. Now, write that encounter. I like this exercise because it helps you see how your character responds to having control of a situation and to being in a similar situation without control. Reversing the power dynamic first lets you explore what happens when you control your character, and then when your character controls you (making a concrete scene out of two abstract experiences in fiction writing). This directly engages your relationship with the character, as the writer, and allows you to explore the different ways that relationship functions for you.

Those are my exercises. This also gives me the opportunity to add to the other sections of my site over the next couple of weeks. As time passes, I will do each of these exercises and post them in the exclusives section of the site. Look forward to it!