I’ve been in a writing lull, now, going on something in the region of three years. The promise of my early days, when I was selling ten stories a year, seems a long way away as the combination of life-consuming day job, depression, and general Real Life ™ has slowly chipped away my creativity, my drive, and my time.
However, one thing I’ve maintained is my enjoyment of teaching writing, and when I have managed to write, it’s been via applying one of the exercises I use to teach aspiring writers, and pushing through to get some sort of result out of it. So here, for your own education, are five exercises I regularly use to get my heart started.
Five for Friday: Writing Exercises
Alien in the Backyard
Picture your backyard, or if you live in an apartment complex like my students at my recent Writing the Weird Masterclass in Singapore, picture your balcony, window box, or communal park. Now, place an alien in that space.
I was gifted this exercise by Australia writing royalty Lucy Sussex, when compiling a pamphlet of writing exercises to deliver to a writing class almost fifteen years ago, and it’s one I come back to on a regular basis, using a different setting each time.
This exercise tends to work because your backyard is so familiar a place, so intimate on a mundane level, that placing an unexpected component– particularly one with whom your protagonist can interact– brings it into fresh focus, and gives you the initial conflict that a story requires. My story Blake the God, which appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #22, utilised this beginning, which I then doubled down on by including my real Bonus Son Blake into the narrative.
You have received an image from the workshop leader. Go into a library. That image is your first research clue. Take it to the relevant area of the library (if you have a coin, the section on coins. If a table, books on tables). Read through the section until you find a fact that captures your attention. Use the central image of that new fact to take you to another section of the library, and repeat the process. do this until you have three separate facts written down, linked by the journey of your research. Use these three facts as the basis of your story.
I first attempted this exercise when it was delivered by Tim Powers at the Writers of the Future winners workshops way back in 2002. Tim gifted a small item each, which we carried with us for 24 hours before being taken out to an LA library, and given the following instructions. For my own workshops I’ve modified it slightly by giving people a picture, rather than an object, and sending participants into the space directly, or assigning it as homework, rather than giving people 24 hours to stare at the image and ponder. However, the underlying principles are solid, built around the rule of threes, and giving the participant the chance to order and prioritise their engagement.
The story I wrote at that Writers of the Future week, Ecdysis, began with a coin and took in 19th Century American bullion, snake hygiene, and homelessness. It appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #11. I’m not saying it’s been successful for me, but I did, subsequently, marry the editor……
Last Lines First
A variation on one of the simplest of writing exercises– taking the first line or title of an already-published story and using that line as the first line of your piece. Once you’ve finished, simply erase of rewrite that stolen line, and the work is complete. In this case, take the final line of an already-published story, and use it as the first line of your new work.
The final line of a story is a powerful object: it either closes all that has come before with a sense of true finality, or leaves the reader with an open ending that contains a powerful after-image that defines the reader’s take-away from the tale. (Much like Ronnie Barker’s famous quip, “The marvelous thing about a joke with a double meaning is that it can only ever have one meaning”, an open ending is never truly open.)
My story At The End There Was a Man, in the Couer de Lion anthology Anywhere but Earth, began as an exercise in this vein, inspired by a story in the stunning Simon Brown collection Cannibals of the Fine Light.
What if People?
Find a scientific concept that interests you, and ask the simple question “What if people…?”
Another simple one, and again, one that has proven successful for me over the years. My Writers of the Future-winning story Carrying the God came from reading about the discovery of a new plant in the Arctic circle, that could enter a state of cryogenesis and reconstitute in the presence of running water. Asking “What if people could do that?” gave me the spur for the story. Similarly, my recent story The Glow of his Eyes, the Depth of his Gaze, which appeared in Cosmos, transferred the reported ability of chickens to rearrange the light-receiving cones within their eyes to human soldiers.
Shakespeare for Real
Way back in the dawn of time, when dinosaurs walked the Earth and K-Pop was just a dream in the REM of Satan, I auditioned for the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. I performed a reading of the Porter’s speech from Act II of Macbeth. And, for those who came in late, didn’t get in.
I’ve returned to the speech, and many others, in the days since, because they make for fantastic writing prompts. Shakespeare revels in hyperbole and analogy, creating meaning through a succession of verbal similes. However, what if what his characters were saying was real: what if the Porter really was greeting a hanged farmer; an equivocator; a thieving tailor? What if he really was the doorman to Hell?
Take this scene, or pick another (What if Hamlet really was bound in a nutshell? What if Lear really was enslaved by the weather?). Write the scene. File off the serial numbers.
My story Canals of Anguilar (Review of Australian Fiction Vol 5, no 5) had, as one of its touchstones, a quote from Henry VII: People’s good deeds we write in water. The evil deeds are etched in brass.
So, there you go. Five heartstarters to get you going. What about you? what exercises do you turn to, when the fingers are stiff and the ink run dry?