Thursday, October 30, 2008

Get Some Practice With This Writing Exercise

This is a terrific exercise to do with a friend but also perfectly fine to do alone. It can really stretch the imagination and warm up your brain to work on that novel or short story.

Here's how it works:

Randomly choose five nouns and five adjectives or verbs. Both are fun though the noun/verb combo is particularly challenging. This is where a friend comes in handy. One of you picks the nouns and one the adjectives/verbs. Then, share your choices and combine the nouns and adjectives/verbs in the order given. You want the combos to be as random as possible.

You should have two columns: five nouns on one side and five adjectives/verbs on the other. Now, write five sentences, one for each combo. The adjectives and verbs must modify the nouns they're paired with.

Here's an example of one I did with a friend:



The farm dipped into the horizon as we drove up the hill.

The results can be silly but also rewarding. And it's great for getting down to details and honing your craft.

Get Writing!


Your goal: Don't worry about being too serious. Focus on writing creative, well-crafted sentences. Have fun!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Brainstorm Away with These Three Fun Techniques

Now that you have an idea, where do you go with it? Some ideas may blossom all on their own but others may need some time and a little prodding. To help you out, I've reviewed three of my favorite brainstorming techniques.

I love this technique. There's something about the circular thinking that gets ideas to connect. This is what you do:

Write the initial idea in the center of the page and circle it. Branch off of that circle and write the first thing you think of related to the first idea. Then, if you think of something related to the second one, branch off of it. Or, continue branching from the first idea. As you spread across the page, you may find it's hard to stop. Ideas can come rather quickly with this method, and with all of them before you in no particular order you may see things come together that will surprise you. But that's the fun of it.

Below is a small example of clustering I did for one of my older stories. It's a lot of fun so go crazy.

My mom was a master lister and often approached problem-solving by making lists. I tend to default to list-making, especially when I'm in a time crunch (I listed for this entry while at a friend's house). But it works equally well when you have all the time in the world, and can help you access connections that are buried deep. This is what you do:

Write down the main idea. Start writing (underneath or next to it) all the things you think of without editing or second-guessing. Even if it sounds preposterous - write it down. Even if it doesn't seem at all related - write it down. Never dismiss anything at this stage. You don't know where ideas will take you. Trust your instinct to take you where you want to go.

In the process of searching for examples to show you, I found a lot of lists in my notebook. This is one good example from a couple of years ago.

This is one of the very first brainstorming methods I ever used. By free associating and not thinking too hard, your first idea may take you to surprising places. This is what you do:

Write down the first idea. Set a timer for however long, say 10-20 minutes. Start writing. Don't think, don't edit, don't follow grammatical rules. As my mom always told me, just put pen to paper and go. Don't let your mind inhibit the process.

When you start out with one of these techniques you may feel uncertain about where to start. But once you get going, idea will lead to idea and you'll be turning pages before you know it.

Next week: Maybe you've come up with several directions to take your story. Or maybe just ideas for several different stories. Which do you choose? Some tips to help you along next week.

Get Writing!
This week use one of the brainstorming techniques above that you haven't tried before or one you don't use often. Your goal: Discover one idea that takes your story in a surprising direction, or one story idea that takes you in a surprising direction.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Animals (and Writers) at Play

I did this interesting writing exercise a while back from Josip Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop. He asks you to write one paragraph, throwing a few animals together into a scene involving an odd action. I don't usually focus on animals in my writing so it was a bit challenging. This is what I came up with:

The wolf corpse sagged across the fence, its head lolling to one side. Flies covered its body and scavengers had torn away chunks of its flesh. The cats made a game of taunting it. One would tap its nose and dart back but once they were sure of its death, they struck at its nose and paws, slicing and gashing in turn.

Practice your craft and try this exercise for yourself in the next few days. What interesting paragraphs have you written from writing exercises or prompts? Email me with one and I may include it in a future entry.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Six Ways to Get Ideas

In the dressing room of a mall store, I once heard a woman say to her friend in the middle of discussing the pitfalls of clothing stores, "Jane and John are having problems. They're seeing a marriage counselor." The serious turn in the conversation caught my attention. I made a point to remember it and wrote it down first chance I got. There are many moments like this - moments that could be scenes in a story or at least a place to begin - in everyday life. So let's look at 6 easy, effective ways to find them.

1. Listen to and watch the people around you.
Observing others can easily fill your notebook with ideas. Once while stopped at a traffic light, I saw a guy walk across the street holding his shoes but still wearing his socks. Why did he take his shoes off? Why didn't he take off his socks? Where was he heading and how far? Lots of questions that could lead to a story.

You're surrounded by people all the time. At work, school, the market, the department store, the coffee shop. Do all these people have something to offer? Absolutely! Train your ears and eyes to pay attention to people. You never know when they'll say or do something intriguing. Watch how they interact, what they do while talking, how they eat, what they buy, who they're with when they buy it. If you do, you will have plenty of interesting things to add to your notebook.

2. Listen to the experiences of others.
Grandparents and other relatives may have hidden gems in their past. Ask questions. Get people talking. In the midst of an entirely normal conversation you may find something to use in your writing.

3. Remember your own experiences.
Reliving the past through writing exercises and prompts can lead to interesting discoveries. You may find characters for stories or events to place them in. Flannery O'Connor once remarked that living for 18 years provided enough experiences to write for a lifetime. No matter how old or young you are, you have plenty to pull from in your own past. Just spend a little time exploring it.

4. Write about your travels.
Whether you go near or far, write about the places you visit - in detail. Write down what the houses look like, how people live, what you smell when you take a walk. Write it down as you go, or take time to write it later. You won't remember things as vividly as time goes by so write all the details you can while it's still fresh in mind.

5. Learn new things.
What else are you interested in? Develop that interest. Between magazines, books, television, and the Internet, there is an abundance of education out there. Find something that interests you and go with it. I love history (especially certain periods) and I watch and read pretty much anything I find related to it. Because of that I have a lot of interesting tidbits I would never have found otherwise.

6. Read or watch the news.
I've gotten a lot of ripe ideas from news reports. There's a lot of weird stuff that goes on, as well as surprising and just plain intriguing. So while a lot of it may seem plain, paying attention can lead to original ideas.

In short, write down anything that strikes you, no matter how small. You never know where it will lead. So use one of these suggestions or all six of them and you will find more than enough ideas.

Next week: So now that you have an idea, how do you develop it? I'll explore some effective brainstorming techniques to get your ideas moving.

Get Writing!
As you go about life this week, make a conscious effort to listen and watch wherever you are. Your goal: Fill one standard notebook page with observations: a conversation between a mother and daughter, an interesting group across from you at a restaurant, or that decorated VW Beetle you parked next to. Pay attention to the details, and you may fill it and then some.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Stories in the Shadows

In September, I toured the Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, USA. This vine-covered arbor was one of my favorite parts of the garden. Don't you see a story in these shadows? It could be romantic. Or it could be suspicious. And with deeper exploration, it might be something unpredictable. A picture may be worth 1,000 words but it may also inspire as many.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Entering Through the Fireplace

I wrote this run-on sentence story as a challenge a couple of years ago. If you're in the mood for something a little off and a bit pointless, read on.


My dress lit on fire, probably because I came in through the fireplace, which those insolent girls set ablaze without my knowledge, though it’s seventy degrees outside and clearly too warm to roast marshmallows, plus it’s daytime and no one roasts marshmallows in daytime, and now I have a blackened, crispy rear end so I’ll have to walk like a crab during the party, which I’m guaranteed to hear about tomorrow.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Prowling for a fresh character name?

Whether you're writing an historical novel or need a modern name with a twist, this week's list will go down in your name collection. They're a sampling of the best from my favorite cateogry - English. You can smell smoke and pine and roasting meats with these names. Take a look below to see what I mean.



What fiction writer doesn't need a good stock of first and last names? You must have some of your own. Send 1-6 of your faves and I'll share them in a future entry. Categorize them (like this entry) or randomize them, it's up to you. But do tell me why you picked them or even how you've used them before. And feel free to include how you choose character names and tips you have for other writers.

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