writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Exercise One

I didn’t post last week, but not because I was lazy, or had nothing to say. (I almost never have nothing to say). I was busy attending and hosting the 22nd South Coast Writers Conference, in Gold Beach, Oregon. A good time was had by all.

And I have lots I will share with you over the next few weeks.

The most memorable workshop I attended was called “Writing from Zero” and presented by Bruce Holland Rogers, creator and host of www.shortshortshort.com and a specialist in flash fiction. As indicated by the title, the workshop concentrated on techniques and tools to generate ideas. (Something every writer at some point struggles with; the battle with the blank page is a universal one).

Today, I’d like to share one of the techniques we tried during the workshop that worked much better than I’d expected. It’s called “Arbitrary Subject.”

What you’ll need:

Ten random, unrelated nouns and noun phrases

Ten slips of paper

A timer

Your writing materials: notebook or paper

How it works:

In the workshop we generated the ten nouns by having the class suggest them, but you can generate them in any number of ways: the third noun on the hundredth page of ten books, the seventh noun on random pages of a dictionary, or you could use a computer application to generate the ten subjects. They can be as interesting or mundane as you wish. Some of the subjects we started with were: a neighbor, a ghost, and picture on exhibition.

Now you write the subjects on the slips of paper in order to randomly draw the subject you will write about.

Do not look at the subjects until it’s time to write. Part of the effectiveness of this exercise is the inability to over analyze what you are about to write about. You need to be surprised.

Now set the timer for two-and-a-half minutes. It helps if you have a timer that can quickly and easily be reset because you will need to reset it twice, for two-and-a-half minutes each time.

The object of this exercise is to write a complete story, with beginning, middle, and end, in seven-and-a-half minutes, based on the subject you randomly draw from the ten subjects you began with.

Draw a subject from the ten you began with. (In our case, it was “Picture on Exhibition.”) Start the timer and begin to write your story’s beginning. When the timer goes off, two-and-a-half minutes later, reset the timer and move to the middle of the story. When it goes off the second time, reset the timer and move to the end of the story. When the timer goes off the third time, stop writing.

We did this three times, with three different random subjects, over the course of thirty minutes. Somewhat to my surprise, it was fairly effective. Of the three stories I produced during the exercise, none were finished, polished stories, but that wasn’t the point. The point of the exercise was to get the creative process started. In that respect, the exercise was very successful.

Of the three stories I generated, one was a throwaway, but another had a solid kernel I think I can polish and revise into a good story. The third, was not as good, but still holds the promise of being something I can work into an acceptable story.

So in this thirty minute exercise, I generated one pretty good story and another moderate one. That’s a pretty good success rate, in my humble opinion.

For those who might be keeping track, the good idea was for “Picture on Exhibition,” and the moderate one for “Ghost.” I didn’t have much for “Neighbor.”

The object of this exercise is to combine the benefits of “free writing” with the motivational benefit of a deadline. By drawing a subject at random, the hope is to bypass our critical self-editor and tap directly into the creativity of our subconscious. Of course, for this to work well, you have to write continually (as much as possible) and continuously (as much as possible). Do not worry about grammar, spelling, or logic; just get the ideas on paper as quickly as they come to you. This is a first draft; grammar and spelling can be fixed in re-write.

The timer gives you the incentive to do it now. Something, personally, I truly need more.

Like I said earlier, I was mildly surprised at just how productive this exercise was. I will use it again in the future. You should give it a try.


An Exercise in Description

A couple of months ago (November, to be precise) I was invited to teach a mini-writing workshop for several middle school classes in one of the school districts near my home. I accepted readily; it offered a new challenge; I would gain local exposure (assuming that kids talked to their parents and teachers to each other); and perhaps most important, it would give me the chance to encourage and maybe inspire the next generation of writing talent.

I firmly believe that all children are, by nature, artists. They love to draw, paint, sing, and compose stories and poems. Sometime around the onset of puberty, this love of artistic expression goes away, whether because of time limits, distractions, or because they are told they are no good and even if they are, there is no way to make a living with their art. In short, they’re wasting they’re time.

I disagree. Obviously, I don’t think artistic pursuits are wastes of time.

So I devised my workshop to be encouraging what they are currently doing and, perhaps, give the students a hint at how to develop their craft.

The subject was writing description, because that is usually what the neophyte writer first attempts and so often gets wrong. I used the device of the senses as a way of crafting vibrant descriptions. All humans experience their universe through the various senses, so it can be a readily available common language.

In preparation, I made three lists of senses: the primary physical senses, secondary physical senses, and what I call the social senses.

For the first exercises, I gave the students the list of five physical senses:






Among most humans, sight is the strongest sense and that is usually reflected in description. Asked to describe a room, most people will describe what they see. That can seem cardboard and contrived. Which leads to exercise 1.

Exercise 1

Write a short paragraph—three or four sentences—describing a room, using at least three of the five primary senses.

Exercise 2

Write another short paragraph describing a room, but this time don’t use the sense of sight. How would a blind person experience the room?

After discussing the results of the first two exercises, I then introduced (by having them think of them) the secondary senses:



Where your body is (hands, feet, nose, etc.)









The students seemed to enjoy coming up with the list of senses as much as they did the writing. Next comes exercise 3.

Exercise 3

Write another short paragraph, but this time, use only one from the primary physical senses and two from the list of secondary senses.

Finally I introduced the list of what I call social senses:





Being watched

Déjà vu






Exercise 4

Write another short paragraph describing a place or situation, but use a sense from all three categories to describe it.

The whole point of these exercises was to get the students to think outside the zones they were used to thinking in. From their reactions and the paragraphs they wrote, it seemed to work. They were suddenly thinking in ways they hadn’t tried before.

And to all those who tell us that young people today are not interested in learning, or working to improve their skills, I can tell you every student wrote in my workshops and most shared their efforts with the rest of the class. I was impressed and pleased.

Whether I encouraged any of them to continue writing is a different story, one whose ending has not yet been determined.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing Manuals Revisited

Interesting, isn’t it? Those of us who have decided to trod the writing path usually did so because, above all, we are dedicated readers. Before we learned to write, we loved to read. One leads to the other. So, naturally, one of the first things we do (at least one of the first things I did) once we come to understand that writing, and writing fiction in particular, is not really as easy as simply making up a story is to turn to a book for help.

Enter the writing manual.

There are literally dozens of books designed to help the newbie writer. Some are good; some aren’t worth the paper. Over the years, I have settled on my favorites, as much as for how much they inspire my efforts as for any concrete advice they offer.

But first, a general warning: there are some things you honestly cannot learn from a book. Yes, you can learn the general principles and guidelines, but the art itself can only be truly mastered (if it can at all) by old fashioned trial and error.

Reading a writing manual makes you a good writer in exactly the same way that a sex manual makes you a memorable lover.

That said, I do have some writing manuals on the shelf in my office. Yes, I will share them with you.

On Writing by Stephen King.

By far my favorite book on writing. Ever. Part manual and part writing memoir, this book does much more to convince the writer that she can do it, she can be a good writer, than telling her how to do it. It does, however, offer great writing advice—such as removing every word ending in –ly from your rough draft. (He then, a few paragraphs later, uses an adverb, saying that the rules holds unless using an –ly word works. Then ignore the rule.)

Perhaps the best feature of the book and the one that keeps drawing me back is the tone Mr. King uses. It’s a friendly, low-key narrative. Reading it is not like reading a normal textbook, or even a normal writing manual. Reading this book is more like sitting on the back porch, sipping iced tea and chatting about writing while the kids play in the yard.

He makes you feel like an old friend and he’s just telling stories. By far it is my favorite book on writing.

Technique in Fiction by Robie Macauley and George Lanning

Another of my favorites, though this is less a hardcore manual of methods of writing as an in depth look at how various accomplished writers handle aspects of their stories. With chapters titled “Beginnings,” “Characterization,” and “Point of View,” their study is like a short cut for aspiring writers to examples of how the masters handled various problems. The best way of learning is to imitate those who do something well, whether your intent is to write a novel or to build a chest of drawers. The fun part is finding and remembering a novel where a master dealt with a problem similar to the one you’re facing. This volume finds them for you.

It is also great background information for general writing knowledge.

Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich

Like its title implies, one of the great features of this book is the writing exercises included at the end of each chapter. Just like taking a live writing workshop, the idea is to immediately make use of the tips and ideas you’ve just been exposed to. And just like a live workshop, the best way to do that is to make use of them immediately in an exercise. A wise teacher once told me that you never really have learned anything until you could perform the activity on your own, outside the classroom.

An example from the chapter “Plot”: “Take a character, a place and a time, and write three one-page plot outlines of potential stories. In the first place the right person, at the right place, at the wrong time. In the second, the right person, at the right time, at the wrong place. In the third, the right time, right place, wrong person. In the end, choose the outline that promises to become the best story and write one page, plunging into the main action in detail.”

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

This was one of my early favorites, but has dropped as I matured and found better sources. As indicated in its subtitle, this book is directed to young writers just starting out and that is where its value lies. It too, has exercises, which is what initially drew me to it, but they are relatively basic.

The drawbacks to this work are its basic nature and the amount of time Mr. Gardner spends arguing against the value of literary criticism. While his points may be valuable (aspiring authors shouldn’t be writing so as to impress the literary critics) he does beat us over the head with it a bit.

Still, it is a good beginning manual.

These are the writing manuals I keep on my bookshelf. There are others, concentrating on a particular aspect of fiction, such as characterization, description, et cetera, but these are the general manuals I have and use. They’ve done me good over the years.

Perhaps they will do you some good also.

writing, Writing advice

With the Muse on Hiatus, Exercise

Sometimes the muse seems to take a few days off, a mini-vacation if you will. When that happens, the inspiration we writers come to rely on dries up like a creek in a hundred-year-drought.

Some of us call this situation writer’s block.

We have all felt it. We have all survived it.

The key to overcoming writer’s block (or any other kind of slump for that matter) is to wait it out. Don’t go changing your writing routine and rituals, your methods that have worked for you in the past. Most of all, don’t lose faith in your talent and abilities.

Like the hundred-year-drought, your writer’s block will eventually end, but only in its own good time. Nothing you can do will end it earlier, or lessen its duration any more than the desperate farmer can end the drought, no matter how much he prays or how many rainmakers he hires. Trying to force the issue will only leave you frustrated and even more likely to doubt yourself.

Patience is important.

So we need to wait while our muse finishes her week at the beach in Pago-Pago. But what do we do in the meantime. What about that novel we need to finish? That short story?

We step away for a moment and do exercises.

It’s one of the tricks I use to overcome writer’s block. By working an exercise rather than an actual story or poem there’s no pressure to perform, yet it can still cause the creative juices to flow. (Sometimes the muse even gets jealous and returns early.)

So here’s a writing exercise I do on occasion. In the interests of full disclosure, I based this exercise on one offered by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction. I just expanded upon his idea.

The Situation

A farmer steps out on to the back porch of his house and looks out over his property. There is a barn, a corral with several head of cattle, a tractor, and several fields ready to plant. Trees dot the landscape.

Exercise # 1

Take the initial situation and render it from the farmer’s point of view, describing everything as he sees it the day his girlfriend accepts his marriage proposal. Do not mention the girlfriend, proposal, or upcoming wedding.

Exercise # 2

Same as Exercise # 1 except this time describe everything as the farmer sees it the day his first son is born. Do not mention the son.

Exercise # 3

This time, describe the scene as the farmer experiences it the day his wife moved out. Do not mention the wife.

Exercise # 4

Describe the scene as the farmer sees it the first day after he purchased the farm. Do not mention the purchase.

You see the pattern here. The object is to describe the same location differently with emotionally charged language. A very powerful skill. Think “show, don’t tell.” You won’t have to the reader what is going on because she’ll be able to feel it.

Plus, it might just be the spark that burns away your writer’s block.

writing, Writing and Editing

Storytelling With Collage

Last February, I told you I was interested in the concept of “collage storytelling” and would be taking a workshop on the subject at the South Coast Writers Conference to learn more about (and maybe how to create) it. Well, I did. Now I will attempt to pass along what I learned to you.

First though, what is “collage storytelling?” It is a manner of relating events (does not have to be fiction) that dispenses with the normal, more traditional, narrative structure of “A happened, then B, followed by C,” etc. Instead, the structure (yes, it is still there) is much more subtle, shadowy.

The example we were presented as an illustration was from the visual arts. When an artists paints a still life of an apple sitting on a table, her message to the viewer is fairly straightforward. This is what she sees and this is what she thinks of it. The viewer is left only to decide whether he agrees with her and likes how she expressed her idea.

With collage, the artists might have assembled twenty images of apples in different places, varied states and assorted relationships to each other. Now the artist’s message is still there. It could even be the same message. It just isn’t as obvious as in the traditional painting. The viewer has to expend some effort in order to see and understand the message.

With collage storytelling as in visual collage, the audience is asked to participate much more in the process. They cannot be a passive observer. Collage is a challenge.

So how does one tell a story with collage?

The exercise we did involved taking a word—in our case the word was “blue”–and brainstormed every thing we associated with the word blue. Everything. We probably had fifty or sixty terms listed on the board, everything from “baby blue” to “feeling blue” to “black and blue” and “blue heron.”

The assignment was to then select five or six of the terms that resonated most deeply with us and write a short passage illustrating each. We would then have to decide in which order to present them. When finished we had a short impressionistic piece centered around the term “blue.” That was the underlying structure of the work.

It was left, however, to the reader to figure this out.

Or perhaps they would find some other underlying structure the author was unaware of creating.

The example we used was pretty basic (which, of course, made it much easier to use in a large group) but the principal can be used in many other ways. Instead of the word “blue”what if we used “loneliness” or “fear?” Or what if we used “good dates?” Or “robots?” The technique of brainstorming associations, then picking the most powerful and rendering them can be used for any type or genre you wish to write.

writing, Writing and Editing

Deliberate Practice (part two)

“I don’t do exercises. I write stories that don’t work.”
Ernest Hemingway

I, however, am not Hemingway. I need to practice.

Last time, I wrote about the concept of “deliberate practice.” This is the idea that while practice is always of great importance, it is a better investment of time and energy to target that practice on our weakest skills.

The example used is that of a basketball player practicing his game for an hour. Well, if that player has a couple of hours to practice he does not necessarily practice every aspect of his game during that time. If she’s already at an advanced enough level, she probably won’t practice dribbling very much because she’s already pretty good at ball handling. She probably also won’t spend much time practicing shooting from half-court; offensively, it is not a very valuable skill. However, if she’s only making 50% of her free throw shots, she will spend most of her time practicing that shot.

The basketball player will spend her practice time working on the weakest part of her skill set. Anything else is a waste of time. Her practice sessions are deliberate.

We, as writers, need to practice our craft with deliberation. Just writing whatever comes to mind is better than not writing anything, of course, but to progress the most from our daily writing sessions, we need those sessions to be deliberate, targeted.

So how do we do that?

First, we need to identify the strengths and weaknesses in our own writing skill set. Deliberate practice is impossible unless we know what we need to work on. Most of us have a general idea of the areas we struggle. I, for instance, am well aware that I struggle rendering a scene involving more than three people interacting. I also struggle somewhat to keep my characters from all sounding like educated, middle-class, white Americans. You are probably aware of similar issues in your own writing.

What most of us may not be aware of are issues we think we do well, but actually don’t. This is where a trusted writing partner, editor, or critique group can be so valuable. Look back at their past critiques of your work and see whether there are areas they consistently mark up. These would be the skills we need to work on the most.

If you don’t have such past examples, you could ask your writing partner, critique group friends, or editor. It may be a little awkward, but most people are more than willing to help when they find out why you’re asking.

If you don’t have a writing partner or editor, or you don’t belong to a critique group, by all means, I urge you to find someone, or join such a group. It can be very difficult to judge our own work; we’re too close to it, too invested. We all need an objective eye to help us find flaws in our work.

The second part of deliberate practice is finding or devising exercises that will help you improve your weakest skills. This can be relatively easy. For instance, I did a generic internet search for “fiction dialogue exercises” and came up with multiple sites offering dialogue exercises. We could do the same with nearly any skill we want to improve. Other areas are even simpler. If I have trouble describing rooms or people, I can just take a few moments at the local coffee shop to write a paragraph or two describing it. I can do the same with people, scenery…whatever I want.

A studious writer will also make a point of learning from the authors she reads. She will read a scene, be impressed, then go back and study exactly how the author did it. One can even copy it word-for-word if you really want to deconstruct the author’s technique. (It’s a good way to pick up their style too).

To sum up, in order to benefit the most from our hours of practice. To do that, we need to identify our own writing weaknesses and design our writing regimen to work on those weaknesses. Otherwise, too much of our time spent writing is wasted. As the wise man said: don’t work hard; work smart.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

An Exercise in Point-of-View

Most of us who have spent some time at this avocation called fiction writing are familiar with the most common aspect of point-of-view: first person, second person, and the many variations of third person (omniscient, limited omniscient, absolute, etc.). Odds are we have tried several of them in various works at one time or another. Through experimentation and experience, we have learned that each has its particular advantages and limitations.

That isn’t what I want to talk about today. Today I’m going to discuss a different aspect of the point-of-view question: which character exactly do you choose to tell the story?

Any psychologist or cop will tell us (and common sense confirms) that any time several people witness an event, they will report just as many different experiences of the same event. This is because we all view the events around us through the filter of our individual experiences. Our personal history colors everything.

The same holds true for our characters. The story told by character A will not be the same story as that told by character B, even if they are both involved in the events. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we make an informed, conscious decision when we choose our work’s central character.

A perfect example of this is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald could have chosen many different characters as the point-of-view character: Gatsby himself, Daisy, Daisy’s husband, as well as Nick. Each would be a legitimate central character; but the story would be different than the one Fitzgerald finally chose. So why did he choose Nick? Probably because Nick was the social outsider, a semi-objective observer of the social excesses and Gatsby’s doomed love. His distance from the drama made it all the more dramatic. None of the other characters could provide this distance.

So the exercise:

Write a short scene, just a page, or so, of a young family around the dinner table for their evening meal. The parents are in the middle of a disagreement, not a terrible fight, but feelings have been hurt. Despite the disagreement, they are trying (only partially successfully) to present a picture of normalcy for their eight-year-old son. Write the scene first from the viewpoint of one of the parents. Now write the same scene with the same dialogue from the other parent. Finally, write the scene, again using the same dialogue as the first two scenes, but now from the viewpoint of the eight-year-old son.

Do the three scenes become three different stories? Does the wants and needs of each of the characters inform how they perceive the action? If you did it right, it should.

I think we have a tendency to stay within our comfort level when we write. I know I do. I am an adult American male. Most of my main characters are adult American males. A couple are juvenile males. Virtually none are female of any kind. (Though I do have several scenes in Deception Island written from the point-of-view of female characters).

Perhaps by occasionally switching to a different main character we can find a better story than the one we originally envisioned.