Writing Exercise: Your Own Cooking Show

Apricot jamA writer’s job is to show the reader how something happened – how the princess was saved from the dragon, how the handsome highlander married the wild lady of the moors, or how the hard-boiled detective solved the case and got his reward. These dramatic stories can be fun to write, but they can also be daunting. If you think you could use some practice crafting a narrative, you might try telling a fairly simple story that happens every day of your life: how you cooked your dinner.

This topic may seem simple and dull, but therein lies its effectiveness. You have nothing inherent in your plot that will make your story interesting – no mysterious billionaires, no intergalactic warfare – and so this story will be carried entirely on the weight of your storycratfting. Using nothing but your writing skill and the things you have in your kitchen, you need to develop character, create suspense, and craft and ending that satisfies the reader.

You’ll find that this challenging task will show you which tools you rely on most when you’re crafting your story. Maybe you use a lot of backstory, taking a few sentences to wonder about where your beef came from. Maybe you prefer to draw your reader in with vivid imagery and delicious descriptions of your ingredients. Maybe the restrictions of this exercise will even inspire you to use some new narrative device to spice up your supper story.

Cooking a meal is seldom as exciting as falling in love or solving a mystery, but it is nonetheless one of those things that sometimes happens, and which writers can therefore turn into a story. This writing exercise will help you understand the tools you use to build a narrative, and it will challenge you to built a story that is carried entirely by the strength of yuor story crafting.

Time: The Key Ingredient

Apricot budsWriting can be very much like painting a shed. It’s easy to get really into the job, do it as thoroughly as you’ve done anything in your life, and then step back to see that you’ve missed a spot or five. When you’re painting a shed, however, it’s a simple matter to step back ten or twenty feet and squint at it. You can’t quite do the same thing with a written story.

Many writers find that they miss some big mistakes when they edit their own work. This isn’t actually due to sloppiness or laziness, but rather due to the fact that writers get to know their work very well when they’re writing it. In fact, they know it so well that they can understand what’s going on even if their writing doesn’t actually convey it clearly. It’s easy to skip over a logical leap or a small plot hole when you have a creator’s familiarity with the story.

For some writers, the solution to this problem is to share the story with someone else. I myself have a few colleagues with whom I’ll trade work when it needs to be edited in a hurry. However, we can’t always do that, and sometimes we just need our own perspective for whatever reason. In these circumstances, the best thing you can do is take a break from your story and work on something else. It could be another story, or it could be the backyard – the important thing is that you distract yourself until your mind has loosened its grip on the story’s details.

When you return from this break, prepare to be mildly confused by your own writing. There will be a sentence here or there that mystifies you. There will be a piece of vital information missing when you’d sworn you’d written it down. There will be glaring grammatical errors that you don’t know how you missed. But, take heart – now that you can see the spots you missed in your first edit, you can fix them.

How Does Your Inspiration Grow?

Irish fleabaneAny conversation about the art of writing will eventually turn to the topic of inspiration. Finding something compelling to write about can be almost as hard as writing about it compellingly. Many writers dread the day when they’ll wake up and find that they have nothing, nothing whatsoever to write about. Although this is a frightening fantasy, the reality is that inspiration doesn’t always have to occur spontaneously.

I like to think of inspiration as coming in two basic varieties. The kind we think about most frequently (and covet the most when we have it) is the kind that pops up on you when you’re thinking of something else. Many writers pick hobbies or activities that give them plenty of opportunities to be struck by this information; part of the reason I like to garden, for example, is because it gives me a chance to sit and think in a pretty place.

However, just because you can give yourself more chances at this kind of inspiration doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to come up with a good idea. If you want to count on getting an idea you can work with, you’ll need to put some work into your inspiration process. Compile a set of resources you can depend on to give you ideas (I use tumblr tags, searches on pinterest, and certain books in my library), and then use it. Write down ideas that appeal to you, and write down little bits of development until you have something you can start a story from. Develop a system that works for you, and stick as closely to it as you can. It’s not the most glamorous way of coming up with an idea, but it’s been a steadfast friend to me when life doesn’t sprout inspiration from its ears.

The quest for inspiration is one of the most romanticized and poorly understood parts of the writing profession. It is true that writers are occasionally randomly struck by inspiration that seems to grow wild. However, you’ll find yourself inspired more easily if you learn to use your resources to systematically find and develop your ideas.

Following Your Bliss at the Expense of Your Beginning

Baby nectarineMany of us expect the storycrafting process to follow the flow of the story. You write the beginning first, the middle after that, and then conclude once you’ve gotten to the climax of the action. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, you get to a point in the story when you realize that your narrative has completely turned around in your hands. You might see exactly where you need to take the story, and you might love where it’s headed – but good God, are you unsure about the beginning.

In times like these, the important thing to do is to keep going. Writers can produce mediocre or even terrible work whenever they feel like it, and we so rarely get those moments of really knowing exactly what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a novel when one of those moments hits you. Follow the good stuff, and worry about fixing your beginning once you’ve completed the draft.

Of course, fixing the beginning is much easier said than done. When my second half of a story deviates wildly from the first, I sometimes find myself completely rewriting the beginning. This is just as much hard work as it sounds; the silver lining is that I know which events I need to foreshadow, which characters are going to take priority in their development, and which themes I need to introduce as the story gets rolling.

If you’re struggling through a narrative when you’re struck by sudden inspiration, it can be tempting to ignore the bright light and keep trying to elevate your mediocre story. Make the radical change instead. It’s going to take work and time, but plodding on with your current course is probably going to take more work and more time. Go with the inspirational moment, even if it means you have to completely rewrite your story’s beginning.

Why I Still Print My Drafts

Miner's lampEvery few years, I find myself compelled to set out a few hours of my day and a few empty trash bags for the task of cleaning out my stacks of papers. These aren’t old letters or financial records, but rather old manuscripts, research articles, pages from my commonplace books, and handwritten versions of poems and stories.

Although I do the vast majority of my work with a computer keyboard, I find myself accumulating a giant pile of printed pages. This isn’t due to any misplaced nostalgia for the age of the typewriter or the inkwell, but rather due to my particular style of writing and editing. I know I’m not the only writer who finds it hard to avoid working on paper – many people find this method handy for a number of reasons.

Mainly, having printed pages lets me get a visual handle on my writing that I just can’t get on a computer screen. This is extremely helpful when I’m editing a long piece of fiction or a poem that won’t fit on one page. I’m constantly surprised at how much easier it can be to skip from section to section without losing my place when I use a printed draft rather than editing the digital document. I can scribble notes, put brackets around passages, and mark potential new homes for misplaced sections in a single step, and a slip of my fingers never deletes text or puts me on a screen I’ve never seen before.

Just as I can’t shake my preference for working with a hard copy of my drafts, many other writers have a strong preference for going entirely digital with their works. This is all well and good – different learning and working styles require different methods of reviewing and editing. However, if you find yourself frustrated with the limitations of digital editing, then you might try doing it the old-fashioned way for a productive change of pace.