Here’s an exercise Canadian children’s writer Sydell Waxman shared. Write a story about something that happened to you. Then write a story you invent. Then tell both stories and see if your audience can decipher what story is fact and what story is fiction. The story could be an anecdote and could be around 250 words. Or more-depending upon your time and/ or inclination.
Since I will be teaching some writing craft and journalism skills at a summer camp called Centauri in July, this will be one of the exercises I will unleash in my workshop for young writers. It not only gives you the opportunity to invent something new, but also helps you to figure out the hallmarks of a good story, whether fact or fiction. And because you’ve given your audience a challenge, their listening should (hopefully) be more attentive. If your audience is dozing, your story is not good enough! Don’t blame your audience. Just be humble and revise, revise and revise. This is also a great way to test drive new material for immediate feedback.
If you have an exercise to share, whether big or small please share!
Here’s an exercise suggestion courtesy of my agent Mary Kole’s spunky and comprehensive blog. On the surface it sounds easy. Write 100 declarative sentences about your character. (Mark only likes to run if he has his digital watch recording his mileage and speed. Mark eats cheese on toast for breakfast. Mark has radar for cars–whether in films –he’ll know the model and maker– or on the road….etc.
But once you get going, it’s like running uphill in the snow. You’re glad you managed to keep breathing, and relieved on the downward return. (Yes that might have been me you saw on the hills, bundled up like a Canadian snowman this morning and gleeful on my sweaty return home from five miles in snow packed like sand.)
You write 100 declarative sentences about a character. It’s a great way to get to know the character and helpful if you’re stuck. I would also suggest it’s a great exercise when you’re at the beginning of your work and still trying to get to know that character. I think I will share this gem with my students who will be taking my course at Ryerson University’s Chang School of Education in 2011. (Just a note about the course description here: although it says the course is for health professionals, it’s open to anyone who wants to learn)
Sure you can buy writing books, but sometimes it’s fun to make your own. Here’s one way. Write down a random list of nouns as well as crazy first lines. If you’re stuck, open a dictionary. Then get some of those Benjamin Moore paint chip samples for free! and mix the colour swatches into the mix. Choose from a range of colours. You gotta love these chips just for the names, like wind chimes, Moroccan spice and dragonfly. Check out the virtual colour fan where you can click on a colour range, and choose names. (See you can write and re-imagine your living room at the same time.) If you wanted to create this prompt box virtually, include some copyright-free music files (I find instrumental tracks are best). Check out Garage Band for loops you can mix and mash. Mix, match, arrange and ta da! you have a portable gift and your cash box intact.
is the name of a “kit” that includes “prompts and practices”. A prompt is something to get you started and you can use prompts as a kind of warm up drill. Here’s a selection to give you an idea of what author Judy Reeves has compiled: Write about packing a suitcase, write about a scent, write about a time you got something you wanted. Or write about a stranger, a river, a wild-eyed dream. Some of the prompts can be used as opening lines such as “This is how my heart was broken,” “Open the box.” or “”These are the delicacies of a ruined evening.”
If you’re looking for a gift that’s exercise-oriented this one is an option if you like the format of a small book and a deck of cards. (Warning: it’s a bit too big to tuck into a purse or pocket but could find a happy home in a backpack if space is an issue) If you want to give a gift but are short on cash, you could, of course, create your own writer’s kit, make up your own prompts, give it a test drive and then share it with a friend, right? If chefs give knives or truffle oil, why not give words as story starters? Stay tuned for future post on a homemade prompt box!
If you have a writing partner and you can’t meet in person consider writing tennis. This is a game you can play online via email or Google chat where you write one line and then your partner writes the next, lobbing the story back and forth over your cyber net. It’s a fun warm-up and a way of maintaining connections while drinking hot chocolate and never having to wipe the snow off your wind shield, top up the wiper fluid and shovel the driveway. It’s a game I will introduce in my course this winter at Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, just for fun. No snowboots required!
What do you do when someone in your life says “I don’t want presents! Please! I have what I need!” Sometimes people say this to be polite but secretly they ache for glittery gifts. Sometimes they are straight shooters who really don’t want more stuff. They are decluttering, they are tossing and the they already have a healthy supply of dark Belgian chocolate and the fridge is well stocked with fine wine . They may not have a favourite charity. And you start wondering what to do… to say thank you or honour the person for some occasion..Well if the person is a reader, here’s an option from the Toronto public library where I live http://tplfoundation.ca/givejoy/ How can you go wrong?
Since I am teaching a course in creative writing at Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, I thought I would share some of my favourite resources here. I would love to hear about books you have used and found helpful.
If you want a book with exercises, training tips as well as essays from the veterans check out Eliza Clark’s Writer’s Gym published by Penguin Canada. Andrew Pyper, the Canadian novelist, has a great essay called “Learning to be a notebook nerd” where he shares why it’s a good idea to invest in some pocket-sized notebooks and the pen “least likely to bleed” through your clothes. (Don’t worry–I think I may have cornered the market on bleeding pens if you peer into the bottom of my purse .) What Pyper does is tell you why you need the notebook, and then he suggests many ways of using it. For the record here’s one:
Go to a public place and record what you hear. Unleash your inner spy and become a human tape recorder. It might be a food court, a public park or a bistro. It could be a subway car, a bus station or the waiting room at doctor’s office. Like American writer Nora Ephron’s mother said, “everything is copy.” That’s what you call thinking like a writer.
If you’re stuck consider The Essential Writer’s Notebook by Natalie Goldberg. The book includes writing exercises as well as Goldberg’s paintings so it’s almost a two-for-one merger. The coil-bound book includes lined blank pages for exercises, the exercises themselves, posted on the top of the page as well as Goldberg’s funky colour-filled paintings. Many of her writing exercises are characterized by tips to help your creative mind dip below the level of monkey mind (which is thinking about the babysitter or how you’re going to repair the broken back gate or why the Fedex package has not yet arrived with the dark chocolates you ordered). Here’s an example. ” “Have waking daydreams.” Begin with “I am” and write in the present tense. Just let yourself roll with whatever emerges without stopping, without thinking. She suggests dream writing is a good practice in “losing control.”
I am ocean. I am moon. I am snow falling, flying down. On your marks, get set, go!
That’s the name of a Jewish picture book I wrote in 2000. One of the best things about writing and then releasing a book is that the book then takes on a life of its own. Today I woke up a little sleep deprived and turned on my e-mail to discover a lovely note from an American teacher who told me her class has been making Shabbat boxes for their families this week to give as a Chanukah gift. They have even made homemade little challah rolls for the boxes down there in sunny Sarasota. She promised the kids would send pictures of their creations and you can bet they’ll posted right here for all to see. I think this falls into the category of life imitating art, so I say bring it on and what a wonderful gift for Chanukah!
Remember George Orwell’s advice to use simple language. No writing peacocks please. So here is an intriguing exercise to write a short story using only one syllable words. Good for a warmup anytime.