Tag Archives: writing exercises

Tales from my Weekend

Capture the moment.

Capture the moment.

Dear friends,

I’m sorry you didn’t get a post from me yesterday.   I was doing my elder-care weekend.  Once a month, or sometimes twice a month, depending on circumstances, we trek across the country to care for Husband’s mother and aunt (who live together). This time I made a few notes in my writers notebook, thinking they might be useful starters for writing exercises:

  • A weekend of fabulous sunsets and endlessly varied cloudscapes.
  • A red kite swooped down into the garden to scavenge the chicken bones left over from Sunday dinner, as I perched on the back step a few feet away, reading the newspaper.
  • Learning to manoevre a wheelchair –  its a lot more difficult than you think, especially inside supposedly  ‘disabled’ toilets.  And garden centres.  Note to self – the aisles are always narrower than you think.  Especially round the orchids.  Perhaps they just want to capture you there, so you’ll spend more money, I don’t know.
  • I lost my mother-in-law in Sainsburys.  She walked off.  She has dementia.  Now I can imagine  just how terrifying it is to lose a child in a supermarket. (We found her again in the end.)  Note to self: find a way to attach mother-in-law to aunt-in-law’s wheelchair at all times.
  • A wheelchair is a heavy thing:  discuss.
  • A kind lady came up to us and said hello.  Just because.  People can be friendly just for the sake of it.  The world is not such a scary place as we think.
  • Old ladies want to feel pretty too.  Aunt-in-law asked me to spray her with scent from an old bottle of Guy LaRoche that she had tucked away, so she would feel confident when she saw the doctor.
  • A friend’s dog escaped and she snapped her achilles tendon whilst chasing after it.  Just before her impending annual holiday and her daughter’s graduation.
  • My niece’s husband teaches Wittgenstein to his year 12 students.  I think he is brave.
  • Coming home, the sky was full of a just-past-full moon, an orange disc slashed with shards of inky night cloud.
  • Bacon.  No, you don’t need to know anymore.  Bacon is all you need to think about.
  • Hugs.  Hugs make everything better.  Even if you’ve heard the story about the man walking into the plate glass window 18 times in the last ten minutes, hugs always help.

My thanks to Phoebe and Sam Grassby, Mike and Debbie Bracken, Betsy, Maria, Dr Finnegan and the unknown lady who came up to us in Sainsburys, Kidlington, for making the world a better place.

Happy creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Mad Thoughts!

Do you ever have one of those moments when you wonder WTF is going on inside your head?

I try to keep mindful of the thoughts that go through my head, partly as a defense mechanism against depression and overdoing things, but also to a degree out of sheer amusement because some of the stuff I think can be deeply bizarre.  For instance, here is yesterday’s offering:

“I don’t want her to think we’re the kind of people who don’t clean our bathroom mirrors.”

?????????????????

This raises so many questions about my sanity that I daren’t even go there.

BUT

What about using this as a creative writing prompt?

Who is the ‘her’ the speaker is so paranoid about?  A demanding mother-in-law, for example, the boss who might have a promotion available, or a rich friend, perhaps.  What sort of people don’t clean their bathroom mirrors anyway?  What kind of people are the ‘we’ mentioned?  Detach this sentence from me and my interiors paranoia for a minute, and think of all the possible short stories you could write using this moment of madness as a starting point.

There are so many little moments in life that could be writing prompts.  That is why you keep your writing notebook with you, so that you can write down the moment your mother-in-law steps over your threshold and into your new home for the first time, and the first thing she does is look at the floor and say ‘I see you haven’t hoovered today’ (you moved in two days ago.)  Just imagine all the thoughts that would come into your head then!  Or when the hostess of a dinner party you attend dispells a painfully embarassing moment by announcing, without any preamble:  ‘I like cheese.’  (What was going in inside her head?)  Or when you catch yourself wondering what it would be like to eat daffodils (answer: don’t – they are poisonous.  I looked it up.)  Or even wondering what alpacas think about.  What do alpacas think about anyway?

Your mind is a garden of unbridled surreality and whimsy.  Don’t ever think you are short of prompts.  Its all inside your head.  All you have to do is watch what is going on.

Happy Creating,

EF

Back to Basics: The Writing Exercise

I’ve pretty much lost two months of creativity this year so far, and I’m keen to get back on the horse, so to speak.  Part of that involves getting back to basics.  And one of the best ways to do that if you are a writer is through the Writing Exercise.

You will need:

A timer

A notebook

A pen

A space where you will not be interrupted.

Fifteen minutes every day.

Yes, I know that the last one can be difficult, but you can manage it.

Look at the list again.  See how cheap those items are?  And yet it’s such a huge payoff for a very tiny investment.  If you don’t have a timer on your phone, you probably have one in the kitchen. The notebook and the pen can be as rudimentary as you like, just so long as you can write quickly and easily without thinking too much about how the tools feel in your hand.  You don’t want writer’s cramp, after all.  Your tools should be transparent.  You don’t want to be thinking about them.  You need to focus all your mind on the story that is finding its way out of your head and onto the page.

There is one more thing you need.

A prompt.

There are loads of them about.  You can make up your own.  You can get a friend to send you a prompt, like a writing dare, every day by email or text message.  You can use a book – I’m using Judy Reeves’ wonderful book, ‘The Writers Book of Days’ at the moment.  Or you can find lots of websites online that will give you prompts.

Don’t think too much about it, whatever your prompt is.  Just take it as a starting point, write it at the top of your page, then set your timer for fifteen minutes and let your brain make hay!

I’ve decided to give myself an extra rule, though.  I was considering the weaknesses in my work and I realised that I have a real problem writing three-dimensional female characters.  All my stories are full of fascinating, psychologically complex men and paper-doll women.  This is a bit worrying as a female writer.

So I have decided for the whole of March that I am going to do a writing exercise every day, and I am only going to write about female characters.

Merciless practise.

Let me tell you, it’s already working, three days in.  I have already created a female character that I absolutely love and want to come back to.  But I am determined to go on.  Like a ballet dancer working at the barre, or a concert pianist doing scales, I am going to practise and practise until I feel I am really making some progress.  And then I’m going to practise some more.

It’s the Habit of Art.  And it feels great.

I am doing writing exercises every day for the whole of March.  Fifteen minutes a day.  No neat handwriting, no fancy notebooks, just a cheap pen, an exercise book and my timer.

Why not join me?

(You can read more about writing exercises here.)

Happy creating,

EF

Choosing the Right Words – An Introduction

I want to talk a little bit this week about the idea of choosing the right words when you write.  About thinking carefully about the words you use to express a particular mood, character or action.

This probably seems a ridiculously obvious concept, but to neglect it means abandoning a whole myriad of ways in which you can make your stories deeper, enriching them for your reader.

Think about a man walking.  You could say:

  • He ambled
  • He limped
  • He sashayed
  • He scampered
  • He strode
  • He marched
  • He hobbled
  • He stomped
  • He inched
  • He shuffled
  • He scurried
  • He strolled
  • He paced
  • He sauntered

And these are only a few of the synonyms you could use for the verb ‘to walk’.  Yet, they each tell us something different about the man doing the walking, and raise questions in the reader’s mind about why he is moving in that particular way.

For instance, the man who is limping – Was he born with the limp, or has he acquired it, and if he has, was it recently or a long time ago?  Does he have some physical disability that limits his movement, or has he just this minute been in an accident?

He might, for example be limping because he is very old.

Perhaps he limps as a result of an old war wound – like our friend Dr John Watson.  This introduces a level of poignancy, of heroism wrapped in tragedy, and invokes our sympathy for him.

A man who strides has self confidence.  He holds his head high, intent on getting where he is going.  He may be a man on a mission – and we want to know what that mission is!

A man who sashays might be a bit camp, might be a dancer, might be charming a companion, moving in this way to make her laugh and draw her in.  Is this the start of a big romance?

A man who ambles is in no particular hurry.  He is relaxed.  He has time.  We might think him lazy, perhaps, or more likely, a man on holiday from the usual stresses of his life, sure in the knowledge that everything can happen at his own pace.

Usually we think of ‘Show, Not Tell’, the old writers’ maxim, as something overt.  Don’t tell us how John Watson got his war wound, for example.  Better to show us.  Show us his recurring nightmare of the moment it happened (which also demonstrates to us how he is barely coping with the trauma, as well as showing us the actual trauma itself –two for the price of one!).

By using the right words, evocative and interesting ones, we can communicate to the reader so much  more, and in such a subtle way that they barely even notice being told – which is true writing skill!

Writing Exercise:

Think more about the verbs I have used in the list above, and what they communicate about the man doing the movement.  Choose one and use it as a prompt for a writing exercise.  Take fifteen minutes to free-write in your writers notebook about the man who marches, the man who scampers, or any of the others.  (Come up with some of your own, if you like.)

Make a character sketch.  Who is this man?  What does he look like?  What age is he?  What does he do – and how does the way he dresses and moves communicate that?  Why does he move the way he does?  Where is he going in this particular fashion, and why?  Is anybody with him, and are they affecting his way of moving?

When you have finished, look over what you have written.  Can you see any clichés?  Remember, while clichés are usually clichés because they are true, they don’t have to come across as clichés!  Always be on the lookout for clichés in your writing, so that you can remould them into strange, eye-catching virtues.

You could use this character sketch as the core of a larger piece.  Or you could take the character you have created and write about him moving in another of the ways listed, repeating the exercise to learn more about him.  Why would he change his mode of movement?  Is he responding to the requirements of others, or affecting a certain walk to give a particular impression?  If so, why?

Spend time playing with these verbs, and let them take your imagination where it will.  Most of all, have fun!

(If you want to read the next post in this series, click here.)

Happy Writing,

EF

Exploring Character: Handbags and Pockets

EV005075Let me tell you a story.

A long time ago, I bought my first car, a battered old Nissan Cherry.  I loved it, unreliable though it was.  In order to celebrate liberation from the tyranny of bus timetables, my friend and I decided to go on a day trip to Rockingham Castle, about an hour’s drive away.  It was an extremely hot summer’s day and, in the way of ancient cars everywhere, my new chariot broke down.  We sat on the grassy verge, waiting for steam to stop bellowing from under the bonnet, and sweltering in the heat.

My friend, who was a redhead, and thus especially vulnerable to sunburn, turned to me and sighed:  ‘What we really need is some suntan lotion.’

I pulled three bottles out of my handbag.  ‘Do you want Factor 8, 15 or 30?’

By now you will have guessed that I am the sort of person who likes to prepare for every eventuality.  I always have paracetamol in my handbag.  I can always be relied upon to be possessed of optical wipes for cleaning mucky spectacles, spare tissues, chocolate of course, and even echinacea lozenges just in case someone has a sore throat.  This is not because I have children – any mother will tell you that it is necessary to have a handbag full of bandaids, crayons and baby wipes.  It is because I am the sort of person that worries.

I know a man who always carries a length of string in his pocket.  He is a very practical person, and he tells me how useful a spare bit of string can be in unexpected situations.  This always seems a surprise to me, since he travels around the world, fixing nuclear power stations for a living.  Quite apart from the fact that I don’t want to imagine the kind of nuclear power station scenario in which a length of gardeners twine might save the day, I always feel he is the sort of person whom you could reasonably expect to be in possession of a sonic screwdriver.  For real.  The string therefore says a lot about his practical, if eccentric, character.

The things we carry with us say so much about who we are.  Ask a group of female friends to open their handbags and you will find the ones who carry about four different shades of lipstick, a packet of cuppa soup, or a spare bag to pick up dog poop.  Just look at the handbags, too.  There are those who insist on the vast sacks that are so fashionable these days, the ones who like bags with lots of pockets to organise things (and the ones with pocket bags who can never find anything inside the vast number of pockets), and the austerely practical ones who favour a tiny, cross-body pouch barely big enough to hold a purse, phone and keys.

Mens’ pocket contents are just as informative.  My husband’s pockets are always full of folded pieces of copier paper, on the outside of which he has made cryptic notes in his other-worldly, hieroglyphic handwriting.  He sheds them at the end of the day, leaving piles of folds on the dining room table.  I bought him a notebook once, but he rarely used it.  His paper folds reflect his scattered mode of thinking, and the fact that he is always thinking about something, even in the midst of something else.

Character could also undoubtedly be read in manbags, laptop bags, briefcases, breast pockets and poachers pockets in coats and suit jackets.  Each is a map to an individual’s mind, habits, and priorities as unique as its owner.

Writing Exercise:

This exercise is probably as old as the hills, and I have no idea who originally came up with it, but it always strikes gold for me when I am writing a new character.

Take out your notebook, and start a fresh page (of course).  Give yourself a few minutes to imagine the character you want to work with.  Picture them in your mind in as much detail as you can.  Clothes, smell, tone of voice and stance.  Now get them to empty out their pockets – or their handbag (or equivalent).

What items are so essential to them that they always have to carry them around?

Do they keep sentimental items on them, perhaps a pendant that belonged to an old lover, an outdated student ID card, a rosary or St Christopher.

My father always carried a crisply ironed gentlemens handkerchief of pure white cotton, fresh every day.  Is your character the kind that carries tissues, a handkerchief, or wipes their nose on their cuff?

This is a little like a writer’s version of Kim’s Game, except that each article you choose, from the broken crumbs of a forgotten polo mint to the famous sonic screwdriver, says something important about your character.  Why do they carry these things?  Is it for practical, spiritual or even superstitious reasons?  Are they carrying the past to motivate them in the present, or do they keep an array of useful bits close, just in case?

You could even expand this exercise to include car glove compartments and boots (trunks).

This exercise should give you a great start when you are working with a new character.  You will find out so many things about them that you never would have imagined possible.  Let them dance before your eyes, peeling off elements of themselves as if performing the Dance of the Seven Veils.  It’s so exciting when a new person reveals themselves to you.

And remember, once you know who they are, you will know how they behave.  And it is their behaviour that will make your plot.

Happy Writing,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Observing Roles

Captain Cook's teacup

Captain Cook’s Teacup

A few days staying with my mother require me to be paraded around the village, being shown off to friends.

I am taken to her oldest friends first:  Husband was close to my father, Wife is my mother’s best friend, and something of a surrogate mother to me.  They are Scottish, loving, hospitable.

My mother sits primly on the sofa while the tea set is laid out, her little legs crossed at the ankles, not quite touching the floor.  We are having the best china, and a freshly baked Victoria Sandwich cake, set on a glass cake stand and dusted with icing sugar.  This is a proper English afternoon tea.

I notice how polite my mother is being.  The way she holds the fork as she eats her cake so delicately.  The way she plucks at her napkin.  The way she stirs her tea with her teaspoon, holding the end like a pen, making the prescribed figure of eight with the bowl, just so.  I notice the way she nods, agrees, doesn’t initiate conversation.  I realise she is being a Good Girl.  Just as her own mother taught her, back before the War, she is behaving politely in order to be accepted.

Our hosts are playing roles too.  She is the Hospitable Hostess, asking kind questions, offering more cake.  Her husband is sitting enthroned in his armchair, interjecting occasionally with amusing quips or information, partly the Wise Sage, and partly the Jester – he always played the Jester to my father’s Straight Man when I was a child.

Then their middle daughter arrives, a beautiful woman a little older than I am, with a grown-up family and a business of her own.  As soon as she walks into the house, though, she adopts the role of Mischievous Daughter, stealing a donut from the kitchen, helping herself to a cup of tea (without a saucer), lounging in an armchair and making us all laugh.

I glance at my mother.  She is laughing politely.  Still being the Good Girl.

And me?  Well, I am the Entertainment.  Which is another way of saying that I am being the Good Girl too.  Pleasing my mother by being polite and charming her friends.  Being a credit to her.  Displaying the manners she taught me.  Sitting up straight, holding my teacup correctly, watching my language, and wishing profoundly that I could play the Mischievous Daughter too, which would be a lot more fun, and more like who I really am.

We all play social roles, in company, with family, with friends, with strangers, colleagues or acquaintances.  Our roles change according to those we are with, and to circumstance.  Sometimes we even change roles within a single situation.  This is not necessarily being inauthentic, or even manipulative.  It is the way human beings function socially together, as all animals who live in groups do.  It began as a means of survival, but today has become a complicated social pas de deux.

And why am I talking about it?  Well, because if we play roles, what about the characters we write?  You may know who your protagonist is, you may have written his back story in detail, and know how he might respond in a given situation, but have you thought about the roles he might play?  Does he play roles to fit in, or does he reject them?  Or does he continually play different roles to get what he wants, to manipulate others?  And if he does the latter, how are you, the writer, going to keep track of who he is underneath those roles?

Writing Exercise

Begin to observe social encounters going on around you as dispassionately as you can.  Can you see what social roles are being played?  Who is being submissive, funny, polite, in order to win friends?  Who is refusing the engage with the social dance?  Who is asserting their dominance as Alpha Male or Female?  Who is the real person under the role?  What are their motivations for choosing the role they do?

Remember to observe without judgement.  This is not about values.  This is about behaviour.

Spend some time writing down the roles you observe, and reflecting on them, in your writers notebook.  Think especially about what lies underneath the role, what event might cause a person to adopt one role rather than another.

Write a scene about some characters you are currently working with.  What roles could be played here?  What non-verbal behaviour communicates that role – or betrays what is going on underneath?  See if you can write your characters functioning at two levels, the role they play, and the real person behind the role.  Explore this difficulty where you can to make your characters more three dimensional.

Meanwhile, I am going back to contemplating the idea that my mother, my dominant, matriarchal mother, could actually play the Good Girl, because its not an idea I have ever entertained before, and its going to take a while to get my head around it!

Happy Writing,

EF

Writing the Senses: Smell

nose by bex

Nose (self portrait) watercolour and pencil

I spoke before about what I call Embodied Writing.  I don’t think you have writing that is truly immediate and visceral without grounding it in the physical.  Using your senses is one way to do this.

I looked up the sense of smell, and was blinded by a great deal of science on the olifactory system.  A couple of little morsels I did manage to glean included:

  • Women have a stronger sense of smell than men, and their sense of smell is most powerful during ovulation.
  • The senses of smell and taste are related, and both depend on responding to volatile chemicals in the atmosphere.  Which is presumably why I sometimes feel like I can ‘taste’ a smell.
  • In the human brain, the temporal lobes, which deal with cognition and memory, and the olifactory bulbs, which handle the perception of smell, are very closely linked.  Scientists have speculated that this is what gave Homo Sapiens the evolutionary advantage over their rivals.  It also means that smell and memory are closely linked, which is why certain smells can take you back to breath-takingly vivid memories of the past.
  • You sense of smell starts deteriorating in your teens, but that said, some pensioners have a better sense of smell than the average twenty-something.  Like taste, though, smell is likely to be something you will lose as you get older.

Smell helps us identify the ripe and healthy food from the rotten.  It helps us select a mate, and stay safe from dangers such as fires and wild animals.  Smells connect us with our past, with positive and negative memories.

Nurses in front line dressing stations in the First World War reported vivid memories of the odors of rotting flesh amongst the casualties; and we all remember that quote from the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ about ‘the smell of napalm in the morning’.

For many of us, the scents of cinnamon and nutmeg instantly transport us to Christmas, and the smell of a favoured sun tan lotion can have us basking on a tropical beach even if we are actually sitting in a park in Barking.  Watching cookery programmes is often so frustrating for this reason too – why doesn’t someone invent ‘Smellivision’?  And if you have ever walked into a supermarket and found yourself drawn to the Bakery, even though you only came in for loo roll, don’t be fooled.  Marketing specialists know how seductive that delicious scent is, so they pump the scent of baking bread through the air conditioning system to coax your brain into feeling hungry – and thus buying more.

Smells are hugely evocative, from the smell of poster paint on our first day at school to the aroma of wet earth after a summer storm, and that is why they are so important in writing.

Writing Exercises:

  • Take out your writing notebook and note down some of your favourite smells.  What are the scents that are the most evocative for you?  Make a list, then choose one and write down the memory that is associated with it, or why you chose it.  Take the time to write in as much detail as you can.  Think up as many adjectives, as many ways of describing the smell as you can.
  • Over the next few days and weeks, make a point of thinking more about your sense of smell, and the smells around you.  If you are like me, and not a perfume wearer, or someone particularly aware of smells, you may have to work at this.  Try to keep it in mind.  Every day, try to pick a particular smell and write about it in your notebook, describing it as much detail as you can, and making connections with its context, or what memories it evokes for you.
  • Take yourself on a ‘Smell Safari’.  Visit a florist’s and smell the flowers.  Hang out at the bakers or in a shop that sells spices.  Health Food shops and New Age shops often have interesting scents.  Walk around the park, or in the country, smelling nice things and the nasty ones. (Don’t get too close to the nasty ones, though, for health reasons!)  Don’t forget to take your notebook and make copious notes.  Don’t limit yourself to nice perfume stores, though they can be interesting in themselves.  There are millions of smells out there to sample, and very few of them are manufactured.
  • Write a few character sketches of people you know, describing them solely by their smells.  What about the characters in the stories you are writing at the moment – what would they smell like?  What smells would they like, and why?
  • Find out more about your sense of smell and how it works.  Maybe you can work out the science better than I have.  Then, test it out.  What smells excite you, what smells depress you?  Do some smells make you fearful?  How do you react emotionally to individual scents?
  • Read Patrick Sűskind’s splendiferous masterpiece, ‘Perfume:  The Story of a Murderer’.  A whole book written about the sense of smell?  Yes, it’s incredible.  You won’t believe your eyes.  Or possibly your nose.
  • Imagine a familiar smell.  Now take out your notebook and write about a context or scene in which that familiar, comforting scent becomes sinister, even terrifying.  Now try it the other way around.

Once you have built up this memory bank of information about smell, think about how you can incorporate it into your writing.  How can you use it to describe your characters, what telling details of scent will be enough to show your reader a person’s nature?

Happy Sniffing,

EF