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Thread: What's the best writing exercise you've ever done?

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW
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    What's the best writing exercise you've ever done?

    I know a lot of people here have taken creative writing courses or found writing exercises elsewhere. Have you ever done a really good one? Maybe even one that changed your relationship with the written word? I'm looking for a few good ones to try out. Thanks.

  2. #2
    Independent fluffy puppy. Osulagh's Avatar
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    Of all the writing exercises I've done, I haven't found many that work well for me.

    What has changed my relationship with the written word is poetry. I've been a novelist going on ten years, and up until a few years ago I've always thought poetry was boring and stupid. Then I was brought to read it, and write it, and experiment within it, and it opened a ton of doors and ideas on writing. In a way, this can be used as an exercise.
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  3. #3
    Pixie with dust, beware Rebekkamaria's Avatar
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    The two things that have helped me the most have been Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and Holly Lisle's writing course.

    I especially gained from the exercise where you tape six A4 pages together and write onto each page one of these: I love, I hate, I'm drawn to, I need, I fear, I get shivers from. Then you write whatever comes to your mind. It revealed awesome things about what I really want to do with my words. Now I write what I want to write instead of trying to write great art.
    "Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader's."
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  4. #4
    Dorothy A. Winsor dawinsor's Avatar
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    The writing exercises I like are those I can use on a WIP. For that, I like Maass's The Fire in Fiction. I don't find out of context exercises very useful.
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  5. #5
    empty-nester! shadowwalker's Avatar
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    The only exercise I even remember was a challenge to rewrite a scene from another character's perspective. Not only was it fun, but opened up a few possibilities for the original.
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  6. #6
    is watching you via her avatar jjdebenedictis's Avatar
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    As a simple writing exercise, one that I found quite useful was making a game of replacing adjectives and adverbs with stronger nouns and verbs.

    "That's a long line-up." --> "That's a country mile of line-up."
    "Storm clouds completely covered the sunset" --> "Storm clouds walled off the sunset."

    It was eye-opening to see how much style you can inject into a sentence just by finding the weak elements and replacing them, not even in a particularly clever way.
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  7. #7
    tiny hedgehog JetFueledCar's Avatar
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    I try to write something short every day, like 5-250 words. If I can't think of anything I challenge myself to write a particular kind of story. A story in three sentences is my favorite and one I do frequently. I don't know how good they are, but I like doing them.
    "Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days, nothing else matters." - Neil Gaiman

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  8. #8
    practical experience, FTW Dmbeucler's Avatar
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    Maurice Broaddus did a writing workshop at a convention a few years back and taught this exercise for dialogue:

    Step one was to write (skipping every 1-2 lines if you hand write it) a dialogue between two characters where each has a secret they are keeping from the other, and the dialogue does not refer to the secret. For this step you only write the words they say, not the speech tags or body language or anything else.

    Step two is putting in the body language.

    Step three was putting in the descriptions.

    At least that is how I remember the exercise. It helped me with subtext of scenes and making my language really work hard and do more then one thing on a page.
    Last edited by Dmbeucler; 10-12-2015 at 06:50 AM. Reason: my keyboard hates certain letters...

  9. #9
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    In a workshop I took with Don Maass, he suggested an exercise that I always thought was particularly interesting and potentially powerful. Take any scene you've written where the POV character performs some story action. (Story action is consequential to the story, and not to be confused with incidental action, like fixing a cup of coffee.) Write down the character's motive for taking that action. Then write down a secondary motive. And then another motive, no matter how petty or miniscule it seems, and keep going until you totally run out of possible motives.

    Then rewrite the scene making the last motive you listed paramount rather than the first.

    The idea behind this is that the first motive we list is going to be the obvious one. The last one will be the least obvious or seemingly the least important, yet sometimes the most subtle, deeply hidden motives are the actual drivers.

    Even if you don't end up using the rewritten scene, doing this exercise can help immeasurably when it comes to understanding your character and unpacking his or her personal baggage.

  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW
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    Though I'm not sure if this qualifies as an exercise, here's something I've done lately that's been helpful.

    I'll get a few ideas at once where the story could go. I'll narrow it down and come to a fork. e.g. Should the main character get hurt in a fight here? Or should she make a run for it?

    Either one of those possible storylines appeals, but maybe I'm not sure which road to take.

    Sometimes the best way to get clear is simply to write a rough version of one road. A few times I've actually written a pretty polished version of that road, only to realize that direction is not the best.

    It's like purposely trying on for size a plot twist. Feeling that road and seeing where it might lead in the story. That's helped me out of some tight spots.
    Last edited by Mikaelra; 10-12-2015 at 10:23 AM.

  11. #11
    practical experience, FTW neandermagnon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BethS View Post
    In a workshop I took with Don Maass, he suggested an exercise that I always thought was particularly interesting and potentially powerful. Take any scene you've written where the POV character performs some story action. (Story action is consequential to the story, and not to be confused with incidental action, like fixing a cup of coffee.) Write down the character's motive for taking that action. Then write down a secondary motive. And then another motive, no matter how petty or miniscule it seems, and keep going until you totally run out of possible motives.

    Then rewrite the scene making the last motive you listed paramount rather than the first.

    The idea behind this is that the first motive we list is going to be the obvious one. The last one will be the least obvious or seemingly the least important, yet sometimes the most subtle, deeply hidden motives are the actual drivers.

    Even if you don't end up using the rewritten scene, doing this exercise can help immeasurably when it comes to understanding your character and unpacking his or her personal baggage.
    I tried this just now. I don't have time to rewrite the scene now because I have to go to work in a bit, but I did the list. It is certainly illuminating in terms of character motivation and other internal stuff. I'll rewrite the scene this evening. It'll be interesting to see if it turns out differently.
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  12. #12
    Writing my way off the B Ark Becky Black's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shadowwalker View Post
    The only exercise I even remember was a challenge to rewrite a scene from another character's perspective. Not only was it fun, but opened up a few possibilities for the original.
    I think I know the one you mean, from back in the day on a certain writing group? I found that very useful too.

    I'm not that keen on exercises and prompts. They just seem to shut me down rather than open me up. They're too abstract, too outside of me. And dear god, worst of all, the "write a paragraph of description about this tree" type of exercise. "It's tall, it's brown and green, that's all I got, leave me alone!"

    Does NaNoWriMo count as a writing exercise? That one I can do.
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  13. #13
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    One of the writers' blogs I follow suggested that we go to a random word generator and get three words and incorporate those words into a story. I did and entered them into the computer in a file. When I get stumped for a story I go to that file, pick out a set of those words and work on a story from those words. Sometimes I only incorporate a couple of the words, but I usually can come up with something and often go back to it and embellish what I wrote. I write a lot of flash fiction that way, or short stories. Some of those stories have been included in a book of stories I published this year.
    The most common cause of failure is giving up what you want most for what you want now.

  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW Summerwriter's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Becky Black View Post
    Worst of all, the "write a paragraph of description about this tree" type of exercise. "It's tall, it's brown and green, that's all I got, leave me alone!"
    Yup! I'd write the same and say 'that's all I can get out of it'.
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  15. #15
    Sailing in a sea of mushroom... Nerdilydone's Avatar
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    One of the things I'd do is look at abstract art, avoiding looking at the title. Then I'd try to figure out what was happening in the picture, like say, two alternate dimensions blending into each other. Generally I can get at least a scene description out of that.

    This is also an over-fanciful idea, but one thing that's fun is describing something without using necessary words. Like saying, "Grace jumped in the lake" without using the words "Grace", "jumped", or "lake." "The thin youth cast herself into the shallow waters." It's silly, but fun.

  16. #16
    practical experience, FTW chrysalnix's Avatar
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    Open a book to page 50 and count down 5 lines. Using that sentence, write a short story. Online, I guess you could just close your eyes and scroll a bit.

  17. #17
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin HunterJonson's Avatar
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    I don't know if this exercise will be helpful, but I find it very interesting and relaxing. Try writing a passage of words starting with the same letter. It will get your brain work and also help you discover some new adjectives and nouns you've never used before

  18. #18
    Oerba Yun Fang DragonHeart's Avatar
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    I like to borrow things and take them apart. It can be from a published novel, a piece I critted here, etc. I'll go through and edit as if it was mine; if it's short enough I'll start a new doc and write my own version. I don't do anything with them when I'm done, I'm just tinkering with different levels and types of writing. I'm not gonna lie, I seriously considered buying a cheap (Big Five published) novel I found the other day that is not well written for the sole purpose of editing it. I still might, actually. The trick is not to use anything even remotely similar to your current projects so you don't accidentally mix them together.
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  19. #19
    practical experience, FTW roswell1828's Avatar
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    Exercises have never really worked well for me . . . unfortunately. But I found this post interesting nonetheless

  20. #20
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin hianeeqah's Avatar
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    One of the best writing exercises I've ever done was at the free workshop with a local YA author when I was really getting into writing. She gave showed us a beautiful locket, and asked the group to describe it from the perspective of a character.

    As it should, everyone's description of the locket turned out to be radically different based on the character's perspective they were using. For some reason, that simple exercise forced me to realize that our point of view is going to affect how we see anything in the world, and that has to be kept in mind when you're describing something, especially in a novel with a first person POV.

    It was great at really helping me internalize that idea.

  21. #21
    TRL_Boyd
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    One of the best editing methods I used recently, was activating the narrator on my laptop, and having the computer read my manuscript to me. I couldn't believe how many errors I overlooked that were picked up this way. I know how my story is supposed to go, so sometimes you read what it's meant to say, not what it actually says.

  22. #22
    Certified Non-Genius randi.lee's Avatar
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    Several years ago, I had the ever living s*** kicked out of me in a post for talking about a writing exercise I did that worked wonders. I was hesitant to repost about it, but if it helps you...here goes.

    Take a chunk of time and block out everyone and everything. Friends, family, loved ones, television, wifi, everything. Hunker down in a quiet, secluded place where there are no people to distract you. If you have to, rent a hotel room or a campground or a cabin in the woods. Put your writing first just this once. Then sit down and start typing. Whatever comes out, comes out. But you may find that without the distractions of everyone and everything in your every day life, you may come up with something wonderful.

    Example:Arthur Miller locked himself away for weeks (either 3 or 6, I forget) until Death of a Salesman was complete--and look at what came of it!

    Naturally, there are exceptions, like if you have kids or pets no one can take care of for you. But if you can go Rambo and scamper off into the woods for a week, DO IT.
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  23. #23
    figuring it all out
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    Quote Originally Posted by Becky Black View Post

    Does NaNoWriMo count as a writing exercise? That one I can do.
    Uh, yeah, one of the biggest and scariest writing exercises I've ever undertaken.
    "The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words."

    Philip K. Dick

  24. #24
    figuring it all out ACAuthors's Avatar
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    Favorite writing exercise:

    Picture a public place (hotel, restaurant, coffee shop, department store, park, etc), and pick out five-eight strangers that are in that public place. Write down what at least four things that are in their pockets are purses. Several of these things might be normal (wallet, chaptstick, cellphone), but try to come up with at least one or two items that are personal to them (lucky penny, condoms, paper with a phone number, business card, etc). Once you have that written down, take each character and write a short description of them. What was the history behind what they put in their pocket (young male has a job interview so he has his lucky penny)? What are they doing right now? (he's waiting in a plastic chair and nervously running his fingers over the warn copper. He doesn't even realize he's doing it). Next- see if there are any close degrees of separation between the characters in the setting or how they would react to each other. (Young man waiting for a job interview is a bit superstitious with his lucky penny. Woman with umbrella gets ready to go out in the pouring rain and opens it in the store. How does the young man react?). And finally- if you want to go further, devise a scene at the present that would make these characters interact (storm hits and electricity goes out. The characters start to talk to each other.)
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  25. #25
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    Anyone remember the old Ray Bradbury Theatre? It ran from '85 - '92. What I remember most about that is the very beginning where he'd hold an object in his hand. And from there the story would emerge. I find that stream-of-consciousness to be very inspiring. Granted, that's all post-production and whatnot to tie into what's already done, but it can still be a powerful tool in writing. Here's a purple sphere. Now give me 1000 words.
    "The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words."

    Philip K. Dick

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