Exercises and Tips for Fiction Writers (Part Two)
First I have to apologize to anyone who's been waiting patiently for this second portion of the Exercises andTips for Fiction Writers miniseries. Life has a way of throwing random stuff at you at the most odd of times. Enough excuses, on to the writing!
Welcome to part two of my three part series on giving your writing the special attention it deserves. Last time we went into some basic writing exercises designed to give you better mastery over the fundamentals of bringing together your paragraphs and sentences.
In this installment we'll go over more exercises, compositional and otherwise, that will help you develop the most important part of any writer's repertoire: your ideas!
On the Development of a Good Idea
I will be the first one to admit that not everyone has good ideas all the time. In fact, many of the best writers in the world go through so many horrible ideas that it would make the non-writers head spin. The truth of the matter is that coming up with an idea is much harder than expanding on one. This is why I've decided to dedicate the first portion of this article to creating ideas, while the second goes into detail about details.
I have met some few writers that seem able to come up with four ideas at a time, or even ten ideas, and have half of them be workable stories, plots, or characters. Most writers do not sit down and do that. More often than not you will see a writer come up with two pages of random, nonsequitor plot only to throw it out again and again.
The thing most people often don't realize is that this is a good thing!
The human mind is an incredibly diverse and powerful engine of creation. Every time we have a thought that is different from what we see in the real world, we have just created something. Need some proof?
How about that fantasy you have about flying (and getting sucked into the jet engine)? When you imagine hitting your boss with the stapler just so he stops going on about TPS reports? How about the worst nightmare you've ever had? All of this is creation at its finest (and weirdest).
You might be asking by now why I''m going on about how weird your brain is, and it's because that is the only thing you need to create ideas. It's going to be that understanding of how your brain is always creating that allows you to use the following exercises effectively. While you're going through them, try and remember that it's ok to let your mind wander while you're working; you never know where it might land!
Exercises for Making Ideas Happen
Here a are a few exercises designed to get your grey matter into overdrive and start cranking out those ideas. Keep in mind that not everything that comes out is going to be Pulitzer material, nor will 99% of it be publishable. What I want you to keep in mind while you're working is that we're simply taking the thoughts and such that you would have had eventually, and bringing them forward a little quicker. Everyone has the potential to have every thought possible, that's the nature of our minds, but making them come out artificially is an art as much as actually writing them down!
Task 1: Brainstorming
This is the simplestof exercises and one I use the most. When I'm writing a paper, article, whatever, I tend to think the entire thing through without writing a word, to get my thoughts in order. This is what I want you to try as well. For about 10 minutes every day for a week, sit down somewhere quiet and moderately free of distractions. This means turn down or turn off the TV, step away from the computer, and put down your book.
Now we're just going to think. Are you working on a story? Who's the main character? Do you even have a main character? What's the setting; what does it look like; who lives there; what're the major features? Do your characters have a goal; why not? Give them a goal, even if it's small and dumb. Do they want to go somewhere, find something, meet someone, stop some event, start some event? What stops them; who opposes them; what prevents them from doing whatever it is they want to do? Did they decide to do it; did someone tell them to; did something force them to? How does it end; does everyone die; does everyone live; are they all happy; do they succeed? How does it begin; who is the most interesting person; do we start with action or story or plotline? What neat stuff can the characters do; what is the Law of Nature if your world; how does it differ from our world; is there magic, crazy technology, or something else neat? And finally, what makes your story so much better and more readable than anyone elses; what's your catch, hook, line, and sinker to get readers?
These are all viable questions, and you should be able to come up with so many more on your own just by thinking. If you can't answer a question, skip it! Move on to one you can answer, and eventually you'll come back to that one you skipped with a lot more knowledge of your story. A good trick to understanding what you want to write is to answer questions you've never considered. The expansion of this exercise is to have someone else throw these questions at you randomly and have you answer. Then have them come up with new ones, and do it again. Don't write anything down yet though, because the stuff you forget wasn't worth using, and what you remember is going to be more useful in the long run.
Task 2: Writing it Down and Understanding the Story
We just talked about the act and art of thinking through your story from every angle you can come up with. This is a good practice when you start, but eventually you need to write something down! That's what we're going to do now. Take those questions from Task 1, and start writing down your answers. Organize them by Character, Plot, and World, or by Start to Finish; use whatever organization logic makes sense to you at the time. If you find yourself more drawn to working up the characters as opposed to the world or plot, then do so. Never stifle your creative tendencies when you're writing, else you'll get used to using a formula or set of rules as opposed to your creative instinct.
While you're writing, try and remember that you're creating for an audience, and not just for yourself. If you were the reader, what would you be asking about your main characters? What would be the most interesting thing about them? Actually go the next step, and ask someone what they look for in your type of story or character or plot. While I'm not suggesting you follow the whims of the media driven machine too closely (that would be stifling your creativity again), I am suggesting that understanding your readers is useful. Once you understand your audience, you tend to understand the story a bit more.
Now you've got all this stuff written down, what the heck do you do with it?! On to the last task.
Task 3: Throw it Away and Do it Again
I know, this is going to hurt. Just take whatever you did in the ten minutes or so of brainstorming and writing, and chuck it in the trash (or recycle bin). Do it, it'll help I promise. There, now you aren't constrained by your old ideas, and are free to make new ones!
Now you don't actually have to throw away your work and start 100% fresh. The point of this advice is that sometimes when you think you have a good idea, you tend to dwell on it too much, and this can cause other good ideas to get pushed out. We want to keep our minds open to new possibilities that could move our work forward. If the great idea you came up with yesterday is really that amazing, then your ideas in the next brainstorming and story questioning sessison will most likely be usable with that one great idea.
An Example from Real Life
I have two examples for you about how these exercises can help, and one that points out the shocking truth that not everyone writes the same way.
First, in my own writing I have a basically eclectic style. I once sat down to write and came up with exactly...nothing...for about 45 minutes. This is the first time I tried the brainstorming technique I described earlier. I moved away from the computer, turned off the TV, and just laid in bed in my dorm room at college (white and bare walls are great for concentration).I started with what I had to write (term paper; any topic) then thought about the class so far (all about making arguments, half of which were controversial), and then moved to stuff I like that might piss someone else off (yes, I was looking for someone to argue with, and I ended up on Dungeons and Dragons). Now I had my topic, based off a court case I had heard about in passing years before about some mother trying to ban the table-top roleplaying game because her son was a bit crazy. Is it fiction? No, but it works the same way, as you'll see next.
A girl I knew at college was writing and getting stuck. She had seen my advertisement in the Campus Bulletin for editing and general writing help. Not wanting to use the University Writing Center, she chose to come to me instead. She keeps getting stuck on this one part and can't get past it without rewriting her whole story (40 pages so far). So I start asking her questions, all the while using the brainstorming technique to expand on the questions as I go. After about an hour we had found out that the main character, a snarky wizard loosely based on Harry Potter and Harry Dresden mixed with some Merlin, wasn't able to control something or other, and that he was trying to fix it. The part she couldn't get through was how to steer him towards the solution without using Convenient Plot Holes. In the end, she had about ten pages of notes from our session, and ended up rewriting half the story because she had written herself into a corner. It took extensive thought and consideration (brainstorming) to convince her that a good bit of writing was worth the extra work.
Lastly, a note on how this technique doesn't always work. Some people do not do well with this type of activity and it simply doesn't hold. One such person was in my Fiction Workshop class. We one day discussed how we write our pieces for the class, and most people said they just sat down a bit ahead of time at the computer and wrote. I explained my method of just thinking until I felt like writing (usually the night before or day of the class) and everyone looked at me like I had two heads. One guy even looked down his nose at me and said that good writers write, not think. He was the kind of guy who wrote page after page of dribble and crud until he hit something useful. All in all, some people do their work differently, but we all end up doing the same amount of it to produce what we do. Whether you think it through, or write it through, you have to choose the path best for you.
I prefer to think.
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