Tag Archives: Writing exercises

Mixing It Up

I’ve started regularly attending a weight training class at the gym. It’s good – I can feel myself getting stronger, and hopefully healthier. Plus I’ve put on weight and that’s muscle, not chocolate brownie, right? Anyway, this morning the class leader said something that flicked a switch in my mind. She reminded us that doing only one sort of exercise isn’t good for our bodies, and we should switch it up by joining another class as well.

Well, let me just be clear. I go to the gym when Sebastian’s schedule, the gym’s babysitting centre and my motivation all come together in beautiful harmony. So it’s no good telling me to add something else into the mix, lady, I’ll workout when I can and I’ll attend whatever class happens to be on then.

But what’s true for the physical muscles seems to me to be true for the writing muscles too. When I started Friday Fiction, I thought 100 words was a crazy limit for a story, but now I’m several years in, and it comes much more easily. It’s not longer an extreme writing workout.

Moreover, writing almost exclusively flash fiction for months at a time has weakened my other writing muscles. I recently showed a longer short story (1600 words!) to one of my writing groups and their response can be summarized as “well-written, but saggy in the middle”. It’s a fair comment; it does feel a little loose.

I go to the gym to avoid a saggy middle, so I think I need to mix up my writing’s workouts too. I’ll still be doing FF and InMon when I can, but I’m not going to let them be all I write, and sometimes that means I won’t be doing them for a while.

I hope you stick with me, but if I skip a day or a week, I wanted you to know it means I’m flexing a different writing muscle … and almost certainly feeling the burn!

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Plan B

Every once in a while last year, I looked back at my targets for the year to see how well I was doing. The answer, to be honest, is not that well. At the beginning of the year, I had a lot of writing ambitions, then in February I discovered I was pregnant, and a combination of physical impairment and too much to do put paid to a lot of my plans. I had to back out of NaNoWriMo entirely, and a lot fo other plans went by the board too.

Now that Sebastian is here, and more settled, I have clawed my way back to three blog-posts a week and I’m starting to find time to write (indeed, breathe!) again. Having said that, things are different, and will undoubtedly keep changing as his needs and habits change. So, I need to be flexible in what I want to achieve.

At the moment, I’m finding more time to read than before – because I sometimes read to him and he doesn’t care what I’m reading, so I’ve got through a couple of novels and I’m now deep into How Fiction Works by James Wood. However, I’m not going to assume this will continue – it won’t be long before Sebastian is ready to take a more active part in the reading process, and then we’ll be on to Where’s Spot, which is hardly going to extend my literary experience very far. I would, however, like to read more this year than I managed last.HFW

spot

Apart from this blog, I would also like to work on more writing. This is where the dilemma arose. Last year, I tried to do a bit of everything. I wanted to submit every month again, edit Booker’s Seven and/or Eric AND write new pieces – in particular my nano novel. The result of these broad ambitions, coupled with the distractions mentioned above, was a lot of nothing.

I stopped submitting in the late spring, and the only new pieces I really created were here online. As for Booker’s Seven, I gave them a good go, but the feedback I received boils down to this:

For experimental pieces, they are good, with some well-written parts. The exercise was a worthy one, and didn’t fail. However, the stories should be viewed as exercises rather than stories to be polished and submitted … and you should put them away and focus on the latter if you’re serious about getting published. In short, not your best work.

Given that none of the other six writers involved completed the exercise, it’s not going to go anywhere as a project, so I’m going to heed this advice. A couple of them, Robin Hood in particular, are probably salvageable as short stories for submission, but salvageable, not complete as they stand. Others, to be honest, need to be consigned to the “Proof I shouldn’t meddle in this genre” folder.

I decided last year that Eric needed a little longer to ferment before I could bring him out for editing. I’m sticking by that this year.

So, what am I going to do? Well, at the risk of taking on too much, I have two plans for 2013. The first is to take out and look at Phoenix Fire. It was my first ever novel-length draft and has some definite issues. It needs more than tweaking at the edges – I think some serious rewriting is required, and a vicious attack with the editing pencil. However, I’ve let it rest for a couple of years now, and I think it might be time to bring it out and give that a go. Before I start, I’m going to formulate a plan for HOW to edit it, which I’ll hopefully be sharing with you in a week or two.

I don’t want to ditch the idea of submitting altogether, but I think I need something new to submit. I’m also conscious that the stories I write here are very short, and I do want to exercise my ability to sustain a story for more than a few hundred words. So I’d like to try to submit something once a month again, but it might have to be once every two months or a little flexible. I’m hoping that writing to prompts and word counts will help me to write new stories and vary the length I write.

I’ll let you know how it goes, but please leave a comment if you have any suggestions for any of the above, especially how to return to a first draft after a few years away – I don’t want to squander the fresh perspective that time should have given me!

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Novel Planning #2 – Plot-Type

Yesterday, I introduced this week’s series of posts about planning for novel-writing.  Step back there for one method, or read on for another method of planning your forthcoming masterwork. I refer to these masterworks as novels, but these methods would work with a bit of tweaking for other writing formats too.

Today, let’s look at plotting the Christopher Booker way.

Those who have been following my Booker’s Seven project will know the basics here. Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots in the world, and all stories fall into one or other. You might not agree, but if you do, you can probably identify which of those seven yours falls into. They are:

Overcoming the Monster

Rags to Riches

The Quest

Voyage and Return

Rebirth

Tragedy

Comedy

How, you have to be a bit slick, because Comedy doesn’t necessarily mean funny; it ties in more with the Shakespearean definition, and has a lot to do with large casts of characters, and situations caused by miscommunications between them. Think Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night. Similarly, Overcoming the Monster might not involve a physical monster, but more something internal or an external (but non monster-y) challenge like an asteroid heading for earth.

Anyway, once you’ve picked out which Booker Plot you are intending to write, you can use it to plan your novel. Ideally (certainly in Mr Booker’s mind) you’d go out and buy his book, for a full breakdown of what that plot entails. Alternatively, you can go online and google search some summaries of his ideas. Like this one at tvtropes.org.

The plot is neatly broken down for you into stages, and your task is simply to take each stage and write a couple of paragraphs detailing how that stage will look in your story. Take time to think not only what will happen, but why, how the characters will react and – particularly if you have a target word count for the whole piece – who long that stage will be. Remember, as we saw yesterday, not all stages should be the same length.

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Following up or digging deeper

It’s been a while since I featured any writing exercises or games on a Monday and I know they used to be popular. One which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is BeKindRewrite’s “Voice Week” which takes place in the first week of October. The idea is to write the same story five times, each using a different voice or point of view. You can find out more, and join in, here: http://voiceweek.wordpress.com/

I’ve decided to participate, probably using the story I wrote for Friday Fictioneers last week, because I feel it lends itself to further investigation, and Voice Week feels like one way to do that.

There’s another way, however, and that’s today’s game. Short stories – and flash fiction in particular – often invite the reader to make their own interpretation and impressions about what’s going on, what’s just happened, and what happens next. Among readers, it’s pretty common to see comments along the lines of “please write the next scene,” or “you could turn this into a novel”. Of course, the key to good short fiction is to tell a whole story within the confines of the piece, but that doesn’t mean these commenters have missed the point. After all, where does a story begin and end? And what is the story without a background to shape the character’s situation and the future to shape their hopes and fears?

So here’s the latest writing game, and it’s one I plan to work on sometime when I have a week to dedicate to it: Take a short story or ideally a piece of flash fiction that fired your imagination, but left you with unanswered questions. It could be your own, or someone else’s (provided you get their permission and give proper credit to the original author). Write up to five different scenes from either before or after, which give the answers to some of the questions raised, or shed more light on the characters’ motivations, personalities or behaviour. These scenes could show what happens immediately before or after, or they could be separated by vast swathes of time and space. They could feature the same characters or other people. And they can definitely contradict each other.

For example, if I took A Mother’s Legacy as my starting point, I could write two scenes from immediately before – one showing a political catastrophe which causes the Mother to need to escape the country quickly; the other showing that the narrator is manipulating her mother to take control of the family inheritance. Then I could write one scene from years before, echoing this one but with Mother taking her daughter to the shore for some alternative purpose, perhaps a pleasure trip on her birthday. Finally, I could write 2 scenes set after the original story, one showing the narrator (this time a son) taking his mother to a literal boat which promises safety, and the other making it clear that the whole story is metaphorical and the mother is dying.

 

If you take a stab at this, whether now or in the future, I’d love to hear how it works for you, and to take a look at the results if you choose to blog about them. Feel free to post thoughts, suggestions or links below.

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Not just for kids

A friend of mine writes the Eager Little Bookworm blog and when I went to visit her – along with the little bookworms – this week, I very much enjoyed exploring their library, including old favourites like “Where’s Spot?” and new (to me) treasures such as “Winnie the Witch”. But it got me to thinking, so this week I’ve decided to set myself – and anyone who feels like joining in – a challenge: to write a children’s story. Not for publication or because I think we should all because children’s authors, but as an exercise to make us write outside our usual pattern and to focus on other aspects of writing, such as:

1. Plot: The plot has to be simple, but also interesting. You don’t need much by way of twists and turns, but you do need a clear and fun story. Spot is hiding, Sally (his Mum) wants him to come for tea, so she looks for him and finds lots of other animals along the way. That’s a plot.

2. Length: A children’s story can easily be longer, like the Narnia books, but a book for children to read themselves, or have read to them in the first few years, will often be one which can be completed in just a few minutes – for example as a bedtime story. As such, it might only be 100 words long, or even less.

3. Language: The language needs to be simple enough for children to understand the story without having to investigate the meaning of every (or even almost every) word. Many focus on a particular word sound, word or grammar principle, repeated throughout the book or on a particular page. And dealing with any of those aspects would be good discipline for any writer to focus on in an exercise like this.

4. Characters: Lots of children’s books end up being series and lots of children’s characters end up being hugely popular outside book form (just think of all the Mr Men toys, lunchboxes, dvds etc you can buy). So there are definitely bonus points for creating a loveable character or set of characters.

5. Theme: Many children’s books deal with a particular theme. They are educational and deal with colours, or numbers, or vehicles, or whatever. Or they are educational in other ways, for example dealing with important subjects like potty training or adoption or getting a little sibling.

6. Illustrations: Don’t panic, I’m not suggesting you illustrate your story (unless you want to). In fact, this is a bit of a false point, because although children’s books are invariably brightened and brought alive by the illustrations, these will usually have been added long after the story was written, by an illustrator selected by the publisher without the author’s input, and that’s only going to happen if the story is good enough in itself. Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking about vivid images (although probably not describing them in words), colourful characters and vibrant scenes … everything that makes a good book for any age really!

Are there other aspects you think make a children’s book special or challenging? Let me know in a comment below, or have a go at writing a children’s story bearing some of these points in mind and let us know how you get on!

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Inspiration Monday #3 – The Fall

Thanks to Inspiration Monday from BeKindRewrite, it’s time for another short piece. This time I used their phrase “Falling Up The Stairs” and I genuinely intended that to be what the piece was about, but somewhere along the way it morphed on me and I was left with it being about “Falling Upstairs” which is not really the same at all. Sorry!

Anyway, in addition, I’ve been reading about POV for narration, and one of the things that always crops up is the question of “Second Person” narrations (those which address the reader directly, as “you”). It’s something I could write an entire post about, and might sometime. For now, let’s just say I decided to use it for this piece. I’d love to hear how you feel about the story as a whole, and that aspect in particular.

The Fall

Whoops! You didn’t expect that, did you? Ha, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, isn’t that what they say? Well, this was hardly an inquisition. Just a bit of embarrassment, and a sudden jolt of pain, I suppose I should be fair and give you that.

Yesterday, some kid at work head-butted the wall. Really hard. She looked a bit shocked but she didn’t cry. You’d think she would have, she was only three or four years old, and the way you cried out… Well, she didn’t. At least, not until after I had turned away. Didn’t want an audience, you see.

But you like an audience, don’t you, my dear? You like that your yelp brought me running. So quiet now? I suppose you have got your way, what else is there to say?

I’d have come anyway. I heard you falling upstairs from where I was, in the kitchen. Making you a nutritious lunch. But you called anyway. Had to be sure. Well, here I am. Dutiful wifey, at your bedside night and day, tending to your every need for – how long now? Two years? Wow, it feels like a lifetime.

Of course, you’re at your own bedside now. Maybe I should step over you and climb into your place. When you’re able to stand, you can make me something to eat and mix up my medications. I could lie here and groan occasionally, just to prove I’m still insisting on staying alive. But I won’t, will I?

Here, take my arm and we’ll get you back into the bed. I need you to help, dear, don’t just lie there floppy. Come on. What’s that on the carpet? It’s wet. Did you knock your drink? It’s dark like blackcurrant. But you had milk this morning, didn’t you? And it’s still there on the side. So what is the red?

Your head, honey. It’s on your hair. Oh my darling man. Are you OK? Talk to me! Talk to me!

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Write who you know?

It’s an oft-quoted piece of writing advice to write what you know, but it’s as oft-flouted as it is quoted. After all, if writers stuck to it religiously, there could be no fiction at all, and certainly no fantasy, historical fiction or sci-fi.

The best writers draw on their own experiences, mixing them with research and good old-fashioned imagination. Emotions, for example, are extremely transferable and to some extent scalable. I’ve experienced the fear of hearing strange noises in the house or of seeing a suspicious-looking character walking towards me on a dark street, so it’s escalation rather than invention, to imagine how I, or my characters, would react if those fears turned out to be real, or to other frightening circumstances. If grief can be measured (as with love, I’m not persuaded it’s a ratio scale), I have been fortunate only to experience milder forms – for pets, grandparents and not-incredibly-close friends. But I know enough of it from both inside and outside to conjure some of the emotion that loss causes into my characters. It works like empathy – I can’t imagine how it feels to lose one’s partner, child or parent, but I can begin to, and that is why my heart goes out to friends, family and even strangers who have.

Emotions aren’t the only place where writers mix experience and imagination. We do it in every scene and virtually every sentence, as we craft a story which we want to ring true. Like watching a singer miming, readers pick up on inconsistencies in stories almost subconsciously. You can’t always point to the problem, but you know it doesn’t ring true.

to me, that’s one reason that writing realism can be harder than fantasy. If I write about a dwarf speaking to an elf, fantasy fans may say that my dwarf is not accurately portrayed, but what they are really saying is that my vision of dwarves doesn’t match that of Tolkien, or some other master of the fantasy cannon. Although I might be wise to follow the crowd (or to create  anew name for the race I’m creating from scratch), I cannot be “wrong” because I am creating something out of nothing. But if I write about two plumbers, discussing the nature of a problem in the pipework, I’d better be sure I’ve done my background reading, because plumbers and their wives / mothers / assistants / apprentices everywhere will pick me up right away if I muddle caulking with grout.

All of which is probably why a lot of writers pick a career and stick to it (Crime writers cling to detectives, John Grisham churns out lawyers…) or avoid involving careers as far as possible (who knows or cares what the majority of Stephen King’s characters do to earn their crust?). We also tend to choose a genre and a time period, whether that’s our own (Jane Austen, Jodi Picoult…) or a particular one we’ve researched endlessly (Catherine Cookson, Philippa Gregory).

And, most writers stick to the gender they know best, at least for the narrator or principal character. “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is about a teenage boy, but the narrator and in many ways the main character is a woman, as is Lionel Shriver, and all her books, however well they depict men, do it from the outside.

Age is tougher, but also more flexible. Most published writers are over 25, yet young adult fiction is immensely popular and children’s fiction fills a huge area in every bookshop and library. But at least we’ve been there, and many adults have a pretty close view of childhood through their own families. And maybe age makes less of a difference than we would like to think. 60 year olds, 30 year olds, even 18 year olds don’t think that differently. Our hopes and fears change, as do our priorities, but the emotions that embody them aren’t so different however old we are.

But still … I look at my draft novels and I wonder why I’ve got a third person close narrative from the point of view of a thirty year old man, and a first person diary written by a middle-aged father. Do I just like to make things difficult?!

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