Writing Exercise: Be Myth-Taken

Mist in the valley beyond the stub lightSince the dawn of time, people have been telling stories to explain the parts of life that don’t quite make sense. The most powerful of these stories became repeated and repeated and repeated until they became sacred to the people who told them. A myth is more than a story that engages your readers – it is one that connects to them on a primal or even spiritual level.

Myths can be divided into several categories. One of the most popular, the creation myth, deals with the mysteries of how humankind became humankind. Sometimes, our species is created by a divine being. Other times, we wander onto the stage from the same shadowy realm as the divine beings themselves.

When humanity is not being created in a myth, it is frequently being destroyed in one. The end of the world, just like its beginning, can happen in a variety of different ways. Angry gods, cosmic catastrophes, and even plagues of zombies might be foretold in a powerful end-of-the-world narrative.

Between its creation and destruction, humanity needs to do something – and that something frequently includes being rather afraid of some natural disaster or another. As someone who’s been known to chalk up everything from bad traffic to garden pests to an angry god, I have a special appreciation for myths that explain life’s little frustrations as part of a nice, neat cosmic scheme.

Another fun category of myth is the trickster tale. From Puck to Coyote, tricksters have been delighting audiences for millenia with their ability to weasel their way out of any predicament. I like to write this kind of myth when I’m in the mood for creating something humorous and clever.

Regardless of what kind of myth inspires you the most, writing one can really help you grow as a storyteller. From pacing a narrative to using archetypal characters, you can practice a variety of storycrafting techniques when you write your own myth.

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.

Writing Exercise: Vocabulary Lists

Praying mantis on a sauce lidWe sometimes think of vocabulary exercises as the worst sort of busywork, something mainly imposed upon schoolchildren to teach them how to sit down and do something uninteresting for hours on end. However, writers can gain a lot from the simple task of defining and briefly using a list of words.

An increased understanding of vocabulary is never a bad thing, and going through a vocabulary list forces you to double-check your understanding of the English language. You’ll be surprised how much you learn about words you think you know – one word may have had more nuance than you realized, while another word might have another use that you didn’t know about. Still other words get learned once and then put in storage in the back of our minds. Going through a vocabulary list is a good way to find these (frequently excellent) words and put them to work in your writing.

In addition to a new perspective on the vocabulary of the English language, writers can gain a new perspective on their craft from this exercise. When you’re used to plotting, composing, and editing a long work, “use _____ in a sentence” can be a bit of a jarring task. Doing this kind of thing over and over again, without the distractions of plot and character development, lets you focus on how you construct sentences. If you’re trying to make your style more elegant, going through a vocabulary list will help you think about the mechanical elements of style.

Even if you’re the one your friends come to when they need to know how to use a word, you can benefit from the simple practice of defining and using all the words on a vocabulary list. This process can help you understand the English language better, it can help you develop your style, and it can even help you come up with an idea when you’re looking for inspiration.

Writing Exercise: A Character’s Diary

Olive picker female olderThe first-person mode isn’t for all of us. It can be hard to carry a whole narrative on the shoulders of a character’s personal perspective; you need to pay attention to the character’s voice while still having that character tell us all the information we need to follow a story.

That being said, I still think it can be helpful to write in a first-person perspective now and then. In particular, I think it can be helpful to craft a diary entry for a character – or two, or twenty, if you feel the need. They don’t have to be long, and they don’t have to follow any particular format. Indeed, you might find that one character jots down lists and bullet points, while another prefers more conventional paragraphs. Some characters might keep careful track of the weather, while others might be particularly concerned with another character’s behavior toward them.

You may even find that a diary entry turns into another, and another, and another until you have enough material to fill a book. This is great, but you must be careful to edit your diary entries so that they follow some sort of plot. Make sure that you leave out entries that take us too far away from what is happening in the narrative you’ve created. Cutting out excess wording can be an unpleasant experience, but it’s sometimes necessary to transform this writing exercise into a marketable narrative.

Although I have written longer stories in a diary format, I prefer the third person for the vast majority of my work. Diary entries, for me, are more of a tool I use to get a good feel for a character. It helps me develop their speech patterns, the kind of metaphors they use, and the things they notice about the world I’ve built for them. It seems fitting that for the vast majority of my readers, these diary entries will remain a bit of a secret.

Writing From Prompts

DCP_0369A lot of writers feel like they’re somehow ‘cheating’ when they write a story based on a prompt they found somewhere. Although this feeling comes from a good place – we do, after all, want to strive for originality in everything we write – there’s no need to be afraid to write from a prompt you stumbled across somewhere beside your own head.

Writing from a prompt is a freeing experience – particularly if you tend to get so enmeshed in where your story’s going that you wind up never writing it. If you have difficulty building your plots, writing a few stories using a detailed prompt can help you get a sense for pacing events and constructing a narrative.

However, plot isn’t the only element of storytelling that you can perfect by writing stories from prompts. There are prompts for character development, where you’re given some of a character’s personality traits and backstory as well as a change that the character will go through by the end of the story. You can combine this kind of prompt with a plot prompt, or come up with a plot of your own to develop the prompted characters.

Settings, too, can be prompted – although in many ways, randomly selecting a setting from a list can be a prompt of its own. Although I personally prefer to start with a setting and develop the characters and plot from there, many other writers start off with characters and stories in mind, but no setting.

Whatever your troublesome areas are when you write, a prompt can give you the structure you need to overcome them. The internet is full of prompts for plots, characters, settings, or even pieces of dialogue. In addition, coming up with prompts can be a fantastic way to spend an afternoon with your writing group. This is one writing tool that no writer should be afraid to use.

Setting a Scene: A Creative Writing Excercise

DCP_0039In an earlier post, I talked about using an image diary as a writing exercise. Writing down a scene is a similar process: you pick a scene from your daily life, take a moment, and describe what you see. For instance, you might take a break from cleaning your garage to describe the way that tools and spare bits of lumber are arranged on the far wall next to the workbench.

This exercise is the writer’s equivalent of an an artist drawing a still life for practice. In both instances, you’re fine-tuning the way you communicate a group of images to an audience. Many writers find scene-setting to be a difficult task when composing a creative work. It’s easy to use too little or too much detail, and language can seem like an inadequate tool for conveying a sense of space or form. However, with practice, you’ll find that it gets easier and easier to give your reader a good sense of where the story is happening.

When you practice setting a scene by describing scenes from life, pay attention to efficiency of language as well as elegance of language. You want the reader’s attention to be gripped by the images themselves, not the florid language you’ve chosen to describe them. It may take some time to get settled into a cadence that flows beautifully but still gets the job done. As with all writing exercises, practice really makes perfect when describing scenes from life.

You can complete this exercise in any setting, from a beautiful riverbank to your office’s break room. The important thing is to keep at it until you’ve developed a good sense of what you need to convey when you describe your setting to your reader. Learning to set a scene with efficient and beautiful language is a key step to becoming a great writer.

Getting Started on Sonnets

Red rose clusterAlthough prose and poetry are two very different kinds of writing, becoming more proficient in one can help you become more proficient in the other. There are many ways for prose writers to improve their language skills by studying poetry. A good place to start this literary cross-training is the familiar form of the sonnet.

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Modern poets have loosened this definition, but most beginners will find it easiest to stick with a more traditional version of the form. Traditional sonnets have a rhyme scheme which divides the poem into segments. An Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet follows an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme that divides the poem into three quatrains and a couplet; a Petrarchan sonnet, on the other hand, follows an ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme which divides the poem into an octave and a sestet.

Even if you don’t have lofty ambitions for the sonnets you compose, writing them is an entertaining exercise that can truly test your abilities as a writer. The combined restraints of the rhyme scheme and the meter force you to choose your ideas and vocabulary very carefully. Many writers find that composing sonnets helps them learn to rearrange sentences in order to make their rhythm work better. This can not only make your ideas conform to the requirements of an Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnet, but also help you get a sense of how your sentences’ cadence helps your reader understand your ideas.

Many prose writers like having the freedom to use whatever words and cadences they please. However, everybody can benefit from learning to work within the strict limits imposed by a traditional sonnet. Using sonnets as a writing exercise can help you improve your vocabulary, be more flexible with your sentence structure, and better understand the natural cadence of your writing.


Holy Genre, Batman! What Prose Writers Can Learn from Comics

Devil and angel eggsFor those who group literature into ‘serious genres’ and ‘non-serious genres,’ comics (or graphic novels, or manga, or visual novels, etc. etc.) tend to fall into the second category. However, even these literary mavens might find that they have a thing or two to learn from stories that are presented in a more visual format than the typical novel.

The most noticeable lesson we learn from graphic novels is one of dialogue. Writers of comics, like writers of prose, are tasked with developing characters, developing a plot, and building the realism of their story’s world. Unlike prose writers, their ‘finished product’ appears almost entirely as dialogue. The result is that comic books contain some of the strongest, hardest-working exchanges between characters in literature today.

In addition to being a gold mine of excellent dialogue technique, comics provide us with the most literal example of that famous maxim, “Show, don’t tell.” The style and composition of comic book art is typically the work of a visual artist. However, it is the writer’s responsibility to decide which images will illustrate which scene and to communicate these desires with the artist.

This process can be a great exercise for prose writers. You need only find a page from a comic you enjoy and copy down the lines on a page (this works best on a word processor). Annotate the dialogue with your best description of the accompanying image. This might feel awkward and stilted at first, but keep at it; soon enough, you’ll find that you have an easier time crafting elegant, efficient descriptions of narrative scenes.

From the whimsically-illustrated historical scenes of Hark! a Vagrant to the intellectual fantasy adventures of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, comics make a wonderful addition to a number of literary genres. Whether or not you want to develop a comic of your own, practicing writing as a comic writer does can help you tighten your dialogue and use stronger imagery in your prose.

Do You Keep a Commonplace Book? (You Should.)

Image2It’s almost a cliche that great ideas tend to come to us when we’re least ready for them. Whether it’s in the middle of the night or the middle of a meeting at work, writers frequently find themselves dashing for pen and paper at the most inconvenient of times.

This tendency goes back in human history for hundreds of years, and it has given us one of the most valuable tools still used to educate writers today. The commonplace book, which has been in frequent use since the Early Modern era, started out as a memory aid for students, scholars, merchants, writers, and other lettered people. These volumes were used to record recipes, proverbs, passages from great authors, and other ideas that might come in handy. They became more organized as their use became more widely adopted; John Locke’s essay Concerning Human Understanding advocates a particularly rigid system of organizing one’s commonplace book.

Although some avid fans of Locke might find it interesting to adhere to his method, the best way to organize your commonplace book is the one that makes the most sense to you. This is not a diary, but rather a tool that you’ll use over the course of years to record the thoughts and impressions that matter most to you and your work. A romance author may have a section devoted to things they notice about cute couples walking in the park, while an aspiring sports journalist might keep different sections for personal play-by-plays of basketball and hockey games. You might even find (like I have) that your commonplace book is better organized by project than by subject.

However you choose to organize your commonplace book, you should make an effort to use it frequently. Soon enough, this will become a habit, and you’ll find yourself reaching for this tool whenever you’ve got an idea that you want to set down on paper. The process of writing your thoughts down doesn’t just help you remember them – it helps you give them a logical structure that you can communicate clearly to others. Getting into the habit of writing what you think will help you get your ideas across clearly, both on paper and in person.

Numerous accomplished writers throughout history, from John Milton to H.P. Lovecraft, were well-known for keeping commonplace books. Modern writers should keep them as well; they offer an unparalleled opportunity to unpack your thoughts, develop your ideas, and record the ideas that occur to you throughout the day.

Learning by Doing: How Copying Good Writers Can Make You Better

Snail close upWe always want our creative works to be original, but we must all acknowledge that we draw influence from other writers. Studying the style of writers you love can help you understand and improve your own style. There are many ways of learning from other writers. The simple exercise of copying a passage is among the most effective.

The process of copying a passage is self explanatory: find a part of another writer’s work that inspires you – or perhaps one that makes your skin crawl for reasons you can’t quite figure it out. Copy the piece by hand or by keyboard. Do it again. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you start to get a feel for the other writer’s cadence.

It is much easier to incorporate elements of your favorite writer’s style into your writing once you’ve copied passages that they’ve written. Even if you can’t exactly put words on what charms you about a certain sentence structure, you’ll be better able to aim for that effect once you know how it feels to write it.

Copying can also be a marvelous way to get out of a creative slump. It feels like very little mental effort: all we have to do is flip open a favorite book and pick a passage at random. We don’t need to think about ideas or how we’re arranging them, but there is something about the process of going through the motions of writing that gets us arranging ideas on our own.

Many writers repeat T.S. Eliot’s claim that good writers imitate and great writers steal, but too few writers take it to heart and practice the gentle art of copying. Just like visual artists study the techniques of the great masters by copying their pieces, writers can hone their skills by setting their own hands to the words and phrases of their favorite artists.