Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Grinder's Guide: Writing Exercises

I have bemoaned writing exercises pretty much since I began writing. It always felt wrong and wasteful to write words that I knew would never be published or even submitted. Like many things that Younger Adam thought, this is wrong.

The other day, I completed my first writing exercise ever. It wasn't one I had found on the Internet or anything. All I did was think back to an earlier story I had written, specifically a scene where a man is getting his soul surgically removed, and attempted to rewrite it as a much better writer. All I wanted to accomplish was this single scene. After a half hour and 700 words, I had done just that. And you know what? It felt great.

After finishing the little exercise, I had a new idea building off of this one revolving around a surgeon in a fantasy world. The story seemed to spring full-fledged from my brain.

Not only that, but comparing the writing from the four year old original to this one, I was able to discover that I had, in fact, developed a distinct voice. This was a complete revelation for me. I've never thought my writing had a unique voice, but it most certainly does. Moreover, it's a voice I like.

I began to explore what I could do with writing exercises. I could use them to explore the mythology of a potential fantasy world. I could use them to figure out the psyche of a villain. I could use them to write about various professions within a world or time. In essence, I've turned writing exercises into an idea-generation machine.

I'm officially endorsing the usefulness of writing exercises, however I do have some thoughts on their effectiveness, and when they are most effective.

Writing exercises are most useful when done immediately before a writing session on your longer project. It's a good way to get your creative brain spinning, and a spinning brain is a working brain.

Writing exercises are a great -- maybe the best -- way to break out of a slump. (We don't use the term "writer's block" around here). Any Grinder worth her beans knows that the longer a slump goes on, the more difficult it becomes to break out. Writing is a perpetual motion machine powered by words. It's like that 30 Rock episode "When It Rains, It Pours": when you are writing, ideas seem to flog you from every angle; when you aren't writing, ideas recede into the distance like Scott Adsit's hairline.

Writing exercises will help you become okay with the idea of "writing for the sake of writing." Writing into a vacuum can do wonders for your health as a writer. If you know going in that no one but you will see this, then you can go wild with it: explore controversial ideas, embody the far end of surrealism, mix metaphors. It will help you silence that Inner Critic that keeps you from exploring your ideas into uncomfortable territory where all great fiction is quickened. Not only that, but every word you write is one word closer to publication, even if that particular word may never make it into a manuscript.

Writing exercises are a great way to explore your fantasy world in the privacy of your own Word document. A high sin of fantasy is the infodump. Writing exercises let you dump all over the page, learning the world intimately, and takes the need to infodump in your manuscript away. If you know the world, it will come across on the page even if you don't give the reader everything. Speaking as a reader, as long as it feels like the author knows where she's going, I'm okay with going into the story on a modicum of information.

If you don't want to come up with your own exercises, the Internet is filled with them. Every episode of Writing Excuses closes with one that seems to out-weird the one from the week before. Hell, just @ me on Twitter and I'll come up with one for you.

Writing exercises: try one, you'll like it.

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