Showing posts with label Writing exercises. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing exercises. Show all posts

Monday, June 19

Writing Exercise: Make Your Own Critter!

Writing Exercise: Make Your Own Critter!

The research vessel Investigator recently explored a 4 km deep abyss along the eastern edge of Australia and found some bizarre critters! A fish without a face, a blog fish, and (this is my favorite) a sponge with GLASS tips. Wow. Now make your own!

What does the head look like? Body? Does it walk? Fly? Swim? Does it have scales? Feathers?

What exceptional quality does it have? Can it withstand fire? Can it breathe fire? Is it poisonous? Can it camouflage itself? Does it lay eggs or give live birth? How long does it live? WHERE does it live?

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending a book I’ve read many times, a book that helped shape our understanding of what a good story is: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field. As an added bonus it’s well-written and a pleasure to read. Yes, it does focus on screenplays as opposed to novels but many of the same considerations apply: story is story. From the book:
“Because a screenplay is a story told with pictures, we can ask ourselves, what do all stories have in common? They have a beginning, middle, and an end, not necessarily in that order, as Jean-Luc Godard says. Screenplays have a basic linear structure that creates the form of the screenplay because it holds all the individual elements, or pieces, of the story line in place.”

Tuesday, December 10

How To Create Distinct Characters: An Exercise

Have you ever had trouble telling two characters apart? Either in your own work or others? I know I have, which is why I was thrilled to find this exercise: Guest Author Bryan Cohen: 60 Seconds of Hell: An Improv Character Exercise Adapted for Writers.

How to improvise your way into creating distinct character voices

This writing exercise started off as an acting drill, a brutal one guaranteed to turn your brain into mush in 30 seconds flat!

Why put yourself through this creative torture?

Because, just as this helps actors portray distinct characters on the stage, so it will make it easier for you to craft unique, fresh, lively, characters upon the page.

Here's the improv version:

"The coach of the improv team would hold a stopwatch and send one of the performers to the stage. The performer takes a one-word suggestion and starts a scene as a certain character. After 10 seconds, the coach says, "Switch!" and the performer must start a new scene as a completely different character. The goal is to create six distinct characters that speak different, move differently and are only connected by the fact that it's the same improviser performing all the roles.

"Most of the time, a performer will have no problem with the first two or three characters. By the third or fourth character, there will be a pause or a similar character to the first couple will rear his or her head. While the first few characters are triumphant, the last couple are often a stumble. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

5 Ways To Make A Character's Voice Distinct

1. Pace

Is your character's speech hummingbird fast, sloth slow, or somewhere in-between?

2. Dialect

Does this character use standard English? Are they educated? Where were they educated? Do they have an English accent? Cockney? Or perhaps their accent is American? Where are they from? Boston? Does this character use contractions?

3. Movement

Does your character move quickly? Are her movements jerky? Sudden? 

Often a person's movements are indicative of what he or she wants. For example, if your character is a femme fatale she'll move one way, if she's a single mother of five young children just home from her second minimum wage job, she'll move in quite another. Or think of the cautious, stealthy, precise, movements of a burglar.

4. Emotion

Is your character happy? Sad? Worried? Angry? Scared? Despairing? Think of how to communicate each of these emotions through dialogue (remember: show don't tell.)

Here is a list of emotions.

5. Pitch

Everyone's vocal range is different.

In her article, "The Human Voice--Pitch," Tonya Reiman writes that:

"Everyone has a distinct voice, different from all others; almost like a fingerprint, one's voice is unique and can act as an identifier. The human voice is composed of a multitude of different components, making each voice different; namely, pitch, tone, and rate."

Recall the character of Moaning Myrtle, played brilliantly by Shirley Henderson, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Shirley Henderson's voice is distinctive and was a significant part of what made Myrtle unforgettable.

60 Seconds of Hell: The Writing Exercise

What you'll need:

- A piece of paper (or electronic file) divided into six sections.

- A timer set to mark six increments of ten seconds each. If you don't have such a timer, a friend with a stop watch would come in handy!

I did this exercise without the aid of a timekeeping friend by using a stopwatch app on my iPad and then hitting the 'lap' button every ten seconds. It was awkward but doable. That said, if anyone out there knows of a timer/counter/doodad that can be set to emit a beep every X seconds, please let me know! :-)

What you'll do:

Write a dialogue for six characters, switching to a new character every ten seconds.

Your goal is to make each character distinct by making each character's voice distinct. Remember, this is dialogue only.

Bryan Cohen encourages writers to experiment with this exercise. Try varying the amount of time or characters. Stipulate that one of your characters has to use a British accent. Be creative!

Cohen writes:

"Don't worry, this exercise is meant to make your brain feel like jelly. With enough practice, it should help you to differentiate your characters to keep them from sounding alike. By going through six characters at a time, you may also find a new person you want to spend time with in your next story. So try going to hell and back. You might return with a lot more than you bargained for. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

An excellent exercise! Good writing.

Article links:
- The Human Voice - Pitch, by Tonya Reiman

Photo credit: "Los Habaneros #10" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution.

Monday, January 21

Fleshing Out Your Protagonist: Creating An Awesome Character

I know I've said this before, but Elizabeth S. Craig has a great Twitter feed for writers (@elizabethscraig). Whenever I want to read a helpful article on the art and craft of writing I just browse Elizabeth's tweets. (Her mystery novels are great too!)

I wanted to remember to say that because I found the article I'm discussing today through Elizabeth's tweets: She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About.

Chuck Wendig, Flash Fiction And A Horror Story

Yesterday I wrote my first horror story! I've been wanting to write one for ages but never had an idea that grabbed me, that made me think: that'd be a fun story to write.

The Power Of Writing Exercises

Honestly, I don't do a lot of writing exercises. I'd rather spend my time on my work-in-progress or developing a new story. But, as I say, I'd been wanting to write a horror story for some time but something was holding me back. It was difficult getting into the right head-space.

Recently I discovered Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenges. I haven't completed one, but it's fun plugging Chuck's categories into a random number generator and seeing what kind of story idea would pop out. Chuck gives 10 different subgenres, 10 different settings and 10 different things your story mush feature, then you either choose one thing from each category on your own or use a random number generator to do it for you.

Here are some of the writing prompts I came up with:

 Flash Fiction Challenge: The Wheel, Part Two (Part one is here.)
[Subgenre] in [conflict] [featuring ...]
- Bad girls in prison need to hide a body featuring a vengeful god.
- Lovecraftian revenge and a suitcase full of money.
- Alien abduction, a character being hunted and a mysterious stranger.

And, last but certainly not least, Chuck Wendig's latest flash fiction challenge features photos of places that look impossible but are actual landmarks. The challenge: Write 1,000 words inspired by one of the photos.

I decided to combine Chuck's last two challenges and write a horror story involving an alien abduction, a character being hunted and a mysterious stranger. Further, I decided it would take place here: The Crystal Cave in Skaftafell Iceland.

I also decided that the story would take me two hours to write and come in at just under 1,000 words.

Are you laughing? You should be! It took me around four hours and I blew way past the 1,000 word mark--I ended up writing about 3,000 words!

But that's okay. I now have the first draft of a story I'd like to read. And, for me, that's what it's all about. Sure, selling one's work is nice--we all need to eat--but a big reason why I started to write was that I wanted to create (or discover) the kind of stories I loved to read.

But now I'm at the stage where I need to develop my protagonist.

Fleshing Out Your Characters

At the moment my protagonist has a few bones, a more-or-less complete skeleton, but very little skin (metaphorically speaking, of course!).

Today, before I start work on the second draft, I need to put some meat on her bones and I do that by asking questions. A great resource I use regularly is Donald Maass' The Breakout Novelist Workbook as well as my notes from his workshops (see here, here and here).

Recently, though, I came across the blog post, She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About, by Susan J. Morris. Susan points out that all stories are about a character with a problem and how that character solves, or fails to solve, that problem.

Give your readers a glimpse, early on, of your hero's eventual greatness

Also, and I thought this was a brilliant way of looking at it, Susan points out that, at the end of your story, chances are your character (unless it's a tragedy) will become kinda awesome. And that's good because they'll need to be awesome to conquer the villain and achieve their goal.

But at the beginning of the story your character is a long way from being awesome. This is both good and bad. It's good because every character--especially your main character--needs an arc. It's bad because characters who aren't good at something tend to be boring; and that's VERY bad, especially at the beginning of a story when you're trying to convince people your story would be all kinds of interesting fun to read.

The solution: give your readers a glimpse, early on, of your protagonist's eventual greatness. Susan writes:
Your character is going to be awesome. Once they get to page 275. Heroes rarely start out heroes. But generally speaking, the unformed hero has about as much dynamicism as a lump of clay. Even if you are writing an origin story for your hero, you have to figure out what defines your character, what makes them awesome, and give us a glimpse of it early so that we’ll stick around to page 275.
That sounds great, doesn't it? There is a problem. At the beginning of your story you probably don't know exactly how the story is going to end and your grasp of those traits which make your character the heroine they were born to be is going to be limited at best.

The solution? Write a scene where your character is awesome, ignoring whether the scene would fit in your story. This is about discovering who your character is and what she can do. Susan writes:
One way to figure all that out is to write your character’s quintessential scene—the scene that defines them as a character. Don't worry about whether it even belongs in the book! Just writing the scene will help you work through their character. The first scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is quintessential Jones. You learn he’s an adventuresome archeologist who is afraid of snakes, that he has a mean arm with a whip and a near-constant smirk, neither of which help him against his constant antagonist, and that he always recovers his hat.

Character Questions

As I wrote earlier, I love using character questions to help me flesh out my protagonist. I don't have a cut-and-dried method, but I find if I know the answers to these sorts of questions before I begin editing my first draft that the writing, and re-writing, goes much quicker.
1. What does your character want more than anything and what is stopping them from getting it?

2. What is the one thing they wouldn’t do to get it?

3. What does your character fear more than anything, and what would make it even worse?

4. What unexpected thing are they really good at?

5. What assumptions do people make about them that always make them angry?

6. What event has changed the way they look at life and why?

7. What is hardest for them to forgive?

8. What are three positive and three negative adjectives you could use to describe them?

9. If your character had a facebook, what embarrassing secrets could we dig up on them?

10. When your character goes to a party, do they under-dress or over-dress? Do they come and leave on-time, early, or late? Are they a wallflower or the center of attention? Are they excited or filled with anxiety? (She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About)
How do you put flesh on your character's bones? Do  you ask questions? Freewrite? Do a character interview? Something else?

Other articles you might like:

- Dean Koontz And 5 Things Every Genre Story Needs
- How Plotting Can Build A Better Story
- Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection

Photo credit: "Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - I Can See You Now"by familymwr under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 19

Vanquishing Writer's Block

Vanquishing Writer's Block

Anyone who has gone through NaNoWriMo knows, at least a little bit, what its like to be a professional writer.

You can't get writer's block.

Well, you can, but that would mean not reaching your writing goal and that would be bad.

Very bad.

So, what's the solution?

Become a muse whisperer. That's right, muse whisperer. How does that work? I'm glad you asked.

1) Just Write

Here are some writing exercises that have helped me get back in touch with my muse in the past:

a) Timer method

Set a timer for 5 minutes (or however many you'd like). Write until the timer goes off, even if it's your name or "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy". It's up to you, but try and stay away from knives if it's the latter.

b) Page method

Write until you have filled 2 pages. Again, since the idea is to defeat writer's block, write anything. Don't edit yourself, don't filter. Just write.

c) Variations on (a) and (b)

Thank your computer, tell it that it's wonderful, then turn it off and pick up a notebook--one made out of paper--rummage around for a pen or pencil, then sit down and do (a) or (b).

I had a horrible case of writer's block after my father passed away and it was putting pen to pater that got me through it. After one 10 minute session of just writing, the dam inside me broke and I had the glorious experience of having WORDS tumble out of me.

2) Just Talk

Instead of trying to write a story, talk it.

I have a Sony digital recorder that I love, but sometimes I feel like I should be talking faster, or getting to the point quicker, so Dragon Naturally Speaking is easier for me to use, although one benefit of using a digital recorder is being able to get up from my desk and walk around.

You can feed the sound file from your recorder to Dragon and the program will transcribe your mutterings for you. I should add that this works best after you've trained Dragon up a bit, otherwise it might give you back word spaghetti.

3) Just Imagine

I do a variation of this sometimes when I want to generate ideas. If it seems silly to you, that's cool, just skip this point. :)

Go somewhere that doesn't have a recording devise of any kind. You don't want to be tempted to record these ideas while they're occurring to you because that can interfere with the process. At least, that's what I've found, but your mileage may vary.

Make sure you won't be disturbed for, say, 15 minutes. Oh, and if your imaginings take off go with that and don't worry about finishing the exercise.
Imagine a place. It could be outdoors, or indoors, underwater or even in the cold expanse of outer space.

What does your place look like?

Are you warm? Cold? Hungry? Frightened? Curious?

Is anyone with you?

You notice something about your place. There is one part of it that seems different from every other. Investigate. How is this part different?

As you investigate you realize what you are looking at is a portal. If you step through (you may have to open it first) you will be taken somewhere dangerous.

There is a sound behind you. Your heart jumps as you whirl around.

A living being stands before you. Their appearance is terrifying and they hold an object, it is something dear to you. It is the thing you value most in life.

What is the being holding? Take a moment to examine it.

The being moves quickly toward the portal and plunges through, taking with them the thing you hold most dear.

You follow them.

What is it like to go through the portal? What sort of feelings did you experience before entering?

Describe your first glimpse of the world at the other end of the portal. Is the being there? Do you see the thing you hold most dear?

I'm not saying any of these methods will work for you, but they are something to try. The more one tries the greater the chance of success. At least that's how I look at it. :)

4) Make Writing Habitual: Schedule It

I was going to title this point, "Your muse and you: developing a sustainable relationship" but I figured "make writing habitual" was more descriptive. But, really, what I'm talking about IS building a relationship with your muse.

We, our bodies, are used to patterns. When we get used to a pattern (for example, coffee in the morning, lunch with co-workers), when something becomes habitual, we miss it when it doesn't occur.

It becomes natural. In fact not doing it just doesn't feel right. It seems as though something is missing.

Here are a few ways to help develop the habit of writing:

a) Write in the same place each time

I'm not saying this will work for everyone, or that it's a bad thing to have several places to write in. Actually, several places could work, but I think it's important that they be, more or less, the same places.

You could have an office at home, or a corner, or a corner of the kitchen table, or you could write at a coffee shop, at the mall, on the bus, and so on. The where doesn't matter, as long as it the same place (or places).

b) Write at the same time of day

For instance, Stephen King writes in the mornings. Other folks, Amanda Hocking for instance, write at night (though few people are nocturnal). (See: Amanda Hocking's Unusual Writing Schedule)

Again, it doesn't matter what time you choose--you could even split your writing time between morning, evening and night--what matters is that it's the same time, or times, because that's how you develop a pattern. Your mind and body need to learn to anticipate that at certain times you'll be writing.

c) Write every day

I snuck this one in at the bottom because it's not strictly true. You don't have to write every day to develop a pattern that becomes a habit. But it helps.

If you only write once a month it'll take years for that to become habitual. On the other hand, if you write every day, it'll take maybe a month or two, depending on the person.


I hope you've found something helpful. If you are experiencing writer's block you have my sincere condolences. If nothing I've talked about in this post works for you try talking with someone who has had writers block in the past. Sometimes just talking about it helps. If you don't know anyone who has had writer's block, please feel free to contact me. :)

I would like to add that if you've found something, a way of writing, that works for you and flies in the face of everything I've said about developing a habit, great! If you've found something that works for you, then go with it. (See: Henry Miller's 11 Writing Commandments)

Do you have a writing routine/schedule? If so, please do let us know what it is in the comments. :-)

Other articles you might like:
- Writers: How To Use Permanently Free Books To Increase Sales
- The Nature of Creativity: Science And Writing: Don't Edit Yourself
- Pixar Luminary Andrew Stanton's TED Talk: Make Your Reader Care

Photo credit: "The brick wall (free wallpaper)" by under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.