Creative Writing Exercises

What is writing practice?

Writing practice is what you do when you sit down in front of blank paper and just start writing, without intending to do anything with the result. It's an enjoyable pastime for me, especially when I do it with friends and compare notes.

There are a few rules for writing practice:

  • Keep the pen moving. Try not to think and plan too much once you start writing.
  • Don't edit. Don't stop and cross things out. Don't worry about spelling or grammar and especially don't edit ideas.
  • Keep your writing. Write in a book consistently until you fill it up.

    There are reasons for these rules. Keeping the pen moving helps you avoid the editor. It gets something out on paper, which is encouraging. It doesn't matter if you start writing "I don't know what to write about next, maybe I'll write about my mother, no I would rather write about ice cream..." as long as you keep the pen moving.

    Editing stifles creativity. Save editing for later. The editor in each of us causes us to reject the truly creative ideas because they are seen as "different, wrong". You can always go over something later and fix the spelling or grammar -- don't do it during practice.

    The book is excellent because it makes you keep your old writing around. Regardless of how you feel about the quality of your old writing, keep it. A horrible rambling self-pitying rant may have a couple gems in it: seeds of good ideas, a balanced sentence, or a certain tone which you'd like to bring back later. You can also use your old writing when you do more exercises later: for example, you can start a character in one exercise, then weeks later go back and start figuring out a plot around that interesting character. Finally, the book gives you a sense of accomplishment. I felt so proud when I filled my first book of writing. I'm betting I'll feel even prouder when I line up a shelf full of completed writing books.

    Writing in Groups

    I recommend writing in groups now and then. I should be self-motivated and write on my own, but honestly, many weeks I wouldn't write if it wasn't for that 1 1/2 hour block scheduled with my friends. They count on me to show up, so I show up. Another benefit is being able to inspire each other. I've used my friend's ideas and vice versa. Finally, after writing for 10 or 20 minutes, you can stop and go around the table and read some or all of the compositions aloud.

    After a composition has been read aloud we sometimes comment on them. Usually the comment is something positive like "I really liked that detail about the tin bucket." The writer may not have noticed something good that they did, so it's good to point those out sometimes. Less often, the comment will be some kind of constructive advice, such as "That might sound really good if you did it in the third-person voice." The important thing is never to criticize grammar or structure or planning because the writer wasn't supposed to be worrying about those in the first place.

    Okay, now to the exercises: how to fill those pages.

    Random Stimulation

    Random stimulation is a great aid to creativity. Why? It probably has something to do with the way our brains work. The human brain is very good at tasks like making connections and seeing patterns. When you take two or three random words and force them together into the same writing session, you force your brain to make connections and see patterns. Imagine, all your neurons firing in a completely new way just because you took three random words and thought about them!

    The important thing to remember with random stimulation is not to reject the random offerings. If you wait for a word or an idea which already fits, you will not come up with something new. The most creative ideas sometimes come from the words which fit worst.

    But where can you get that random stimulation?

    Random word combinations

    Start with two or three random words. For example, the words could be "fireman" and "blockbuster". Now, use these words to inspire you to start writing. Plan to include these two words in the writing somewhere. Try going for 10 minutes.

    Sometimes when we do these random word stimulations, the result doesn't actually include one of the words. Sometimes the writer still plans to include the word and is working up to that in the mini-plot that is developing on the paper, but we stop when about 10 minutes is up anyway. Sometimes the writer intended to use the word but the plot twisted in a new direction and the word became inappropriate. Sometimes the word is not used but still can be seen to inspire the piece. It doesn't matter, because the stimulation still works to get you writing creatively.

    Where can you get random words from?

    Starting phrases

    Try starting with any of these phrases:
    I remember I don't remember I have always I see
    I don't see I have never I know I don't know
    I want to I wonder I don't wonder I don't want to
    I hate I love I try to I try not to...

    Some of these are from an excellent book on writing by Natalie Goldberg: Wild Mind. I'm sure you can think of many more. These are good because they often stimulate very personal writing which can be powerful. Try writing for 10 minutes on one then switching to another.

    Character Development

    Clustering

    Do you want to develop a character? It's a fun exercise to do even as a throw-away exercise.

    In the middle of a blank piece of paper, write down your starting concept and circle it. Now, do a bunch of radiating lines from that center, and put concepts relating to your starting concepts. Circle each of those. From those circles, radiate even farther out and put more relating concepts. The "cluster" of connected ideas starting from a central concept is your finished product.

    For example, I started once with "computer programmer" as my starting concept: I wanted to think about a character who was a computer programmer, because I know that world and could write about it.

    The first layer had concepts like "wizard" and "relationship with computer" and "nerd" and "works long hours": each of these in a circle, connected to my central idea.

    From "wizard" I got ideas like "algorithms as spells" and "mystic incantations" and "result appears like magic".

    From "relationship with computer" I got "loves their computer" and "superuser" and "fast typer".

    From "nerd" I got "sits too close to screen" and "wears sloppy jeans".

    From "loves their computer" I radiated out even further and got "speaks to computer"

    Now, the cluster doesn't really define an interesting character, its more of a stereotype. It's also a list of things to explore.

    What can result in a really interesting character is negating one of the stereotypical ideas. For example, I negated the idea "loves their computer". That was a particularly rich choice, leading to questions about why the programmer would hate their computer, for how long they had hated it, and why they had become a computer programmer if they hated their computer. Perhaps the character hated their job but was afraid to leave it (the salary, the safety, the routine). Another cluster, done by a friend of mine, was about a dance teacher. The idea "supportive" was negated to lead to a vision of a dance teacher yelling at a row of dance students trying to do their best. That vision led to questions as well: why is the teacher so critical? Is the teacher bitter about something that happened?

    Answering questions

    If you have a character concept, such as the programmer who hates his computer or the critical dance instructor, and want to develop it further, it really helps to do this exercise.

    Answer all of the questions, even if you answer incompletely or in the negative. For example, if you were trying to answer "what kind of car does he/she drive" for a knight errant, you might answer "he rides a horse and it's a chestnut stallion, 4 years old". For a little boy you might answer "he doesn't drive a car but he loves playing with his Matchboxes". Or you might answer "some kind of beat-up old compact car" instead of listing the model and year.

    Be as specific as possible.

    There are many other possible questions and it's easy to make up specific questions. For the computer programmer I was developing, I asked myself what slogan he would have on a bumper sticker and what doodads would be on his office desk.

    This exercise was inspired by ideas in A Passion for Narrative, by Jack Hodgins.


    Lisa Lippert (to home-page)