Warning: The real purpose of this article is to get you to do some writing exercises. However, once started, those exercises can become seriously addictive. So think carefully before you read any further, because once you are hooked on this habit – honestly – only God knows where you might end up!
I often have people ask me where I come up with the ideas for my novels. There are many answers to that question, but one of those answers is that while doing a simple writing exercise one night, I found myself in the middle of a brand new novel about people, places, and events that I had never before considered for a story. My original intent, as I planned this article, was just to respond to this question about my own ideas. But as I pondered writing this for my readers, I decided that perhaps many of you would like to experiment with these exercises as well, so I’ve included some specific instructions in this article.
Now, back to my personal experience: At the time, I was in the middle of working on two separate books, but one evening, I just felt blah about working on either of them. I wasn’t experiencing anything like “writer’s block.” In fact, I’m not sure I really even believe that there is such a thing. But that’s a different subject. This particular evening, I was just not in the mood to “work” on either project – or to do anything else significant for that matter. That’s when I decided to do what I often had my creative writing students do in order to keep themselves honed: work on a writing exercise.
These writing exercises are similar to the “challenges” and “prompts” that WordPress offers in an effort to give their bloggers ideas to write about. The main difference between those prompts and the exercises is that, with the WP prompts, you can take your time and think, organize your ideas, and tweak things as you go. Not so with the exercises. One of the primary components of these writing calisthenics is to force yourself to give your innermost imagination totally free rein to dig deeply into that gold-mine of creativity that lies within.
You must write for the specified amount of time, and you must not stop to consciously “think” about what’s coming next. It’s a little like those psychological tests where the doctor says a word, and you must respond with the “very first” word that pops into your mind. You know: automatic reflex. So in order to get any good out of the exercises at all, you must be absolutely honest with yourself. If you cheat and “stop to think,” you’ve already lost a chance at the “gold” that’s lies deep within your own personal mine.
The basics are as follows: Decide on an allotted time span (3 minutes, 5 minutes, 15 minutes …). Grab the very first 2-word phrase that pops into your mind. (This can be done with only one word or with a 5-word phrase as well, but I’m just giving you an example. And it’s good to sit down once in a while and just jot down little phrases like that in a notebook so that they will be available for this kind of exercise whenever you’re in the mood.) Now, DON’T THINK about the 2-word phrase. Just write it onto the sheet of paper in front of you. Once you have written down those words, KEEP WRITING. Do not stop for any reason – especially not to think or plan what’s coming next. I keep repeating that part because that’s where everybody tends to bog down. (I know: I’m sounding like a teacher now, right?)
Now … back to my own experience once more: When I decided, on that fateful evening, to accept the challenge of doing an exercise, I sat down to the computer without any preconceived notions and just literally grabbed the very first two words that popped into my head. They were the words “peanut shells.” I was totally surprised. There was nothing going on in my life at the time that would have given me any expectation of those words being at the “top” of my thoughts. But I wrote down those two words and – without any further conscious thought – kept writing.
In this case, I didn’t bother with a time limit, because I was wanting something to do for a while anyway. I wrote until nothing was flowing freely any longer. By that time I had almost two chapters of a brand new novel, and I was so into the story that I felt it was going to be one of my best. It isn’t quite finished yet, although the ending is written. I know everything else that needs to go into it, but my “day job” has kept me from getting it completely finished.
I will throw in another thought here as well: One of the perks I’ve enjoyed as a creative writing teacher is that I’ve had many opportunities to work closely with some extremely gifted young people. It is such a pleasure to see what they are capable of, and this kind of exercise has gleaned some very good results for – and from – many of them. Generally, in the classroom, I have the students draw from a list of words or phrases that were made up by someone else, so that we are positive that no preconceived ideas got in the way. A few of their exercises have led to pieces that have been, not only fun, but quite funny as well. At the end of this article, I will share two of them that I think you will enjoy.
So … can we expect that every such exercise will bring us literary gold from which we can glean articles that will sell? No. Of course not. But if you want to write and enjoy all the pleasures and treasures that can come from that kind of career – or hobby – doing these exercises on a somewhat regular basis will eventually lead to a wealth of material that can be used in any number of projects that lie ahead. And periodically, there will be one that really will launch you into an entire book within a matter of minutes. Actually, even if you don’t particularly want to write professionally, but you just enjoy new challenges to your intellect and creativity, these exercises offer a storehouse of enjoyment.
Now, if you would like to try some of these exercises and would like to share what you come up with, you are very welcome to post a comment on here that includes your final product – or post it on your own blog and give us the link. But remember: DO NOT do any serious editing. I realize that you will automatically tend to stop typing and hit the “backspace” key if you see a typo pop onto the page, but try to hold the “backtracking” to a minimum. One thing that will help is to remember that this is not a “typing test.” You don’t have to type “fast.” Just don’t stop writing to mull over ideas before you put them down. And if you feel you are extremely slow with the keyboard, you might want to write your article by hand and then type it for posting. (But remember: no re-writing while you type.)
If, when you’re done, you have some typos, misspelled words, or punctuation that will make your article too difficult to read, then go ahead and correct those. But please do not sit and re-write sections before you share them with us. We will automatically assume that you would go back and make corrections and bring the article up to publication level before doing anything professional with it. Remember: these are “exercises.” You expect to look slightly grungy when the workout is just finished. The rest of us will not read your work as editors; we will just enjoy the fun of finding out – along with you – just how creative you really are.
If you are going to try an exercise, here’s what I suggest for the first time. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Choose a word or phrase from the lists I provide below. Write it down and don’t stop writing, no matter what, until the timer goes off. When the timer goes off, you may finish the sentence you are in the process of writing, but no more.
Now, if you find yourself on a roll, and you think you have something that may be growing into a piece you really want to publish, don’t stop writing completely. Do this: Mark the place where you were when the timer went off, but then keep writing. If you decide to share what you wrote in the 5-minute limit, give us just that amount.
And please do not feel obligated to share what you have written. You may want to do these exercises on a regular basis for your own sake and never share them with anyone. That’s perfectly fine as well. After all, the real purpose is for you to discover that creative gold inside. I’d just like to give you an opportunity to share if you feel inclined to do so. You can type the whole exercise into the Comment box attached to this article, or you may just put a link there to the exercise on your own site.
To All My POET Friends: I’ve never tried these exercises with poetry personally. I’m sure it’s more of a challenge for you because of not being allowed to stop and think of rhyming words. But if any of you are interested enough to try it, I’d really like to know what you come up with.
ONE FINAL IMPORTANT NOTE: Please bear in mind that my site is one that is devoted to wholesome and family-friendly material. If you find that you have written a piece that does not fall into that category, please do not share it on this site. Just think G / PG rating, and you will be fine.
Word List: (Must be the very first word in your piece)
Phrase List: (Must be the very first words of your piece)
the doorbell rang
I can’t see you
in the laundry room
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Here are two examples of results from writing exercises that you may enjoy.
Both of these pieces were the work of a high school junior named Joanna Allen, who holds the copyright. They have since been published in a book entitled Imagination X 6, which includes a variety of works by high school students.
Exercise # 1: The phrase “don’t eat that” had to be used as the first words of the piece.
Don’t eat that piece of gum your sister dropped on the floor! She was at school today, and she borrowed some gum from her friend. That friend has a father who is a professor of chemistry at the university. They are working with the CIA to devise a gum that they will give to foreign diplomats who are causing America problems.
The gum contains a chemical that they will ingest into their system. That chemical will kill them and their advisers within two weeks. The advisers will die by breathing their diplomat’s breath.
Then we will choose each of those countries a new diplomat with whom we can reason. So … don’t eat that!
Exercise # 2 Student was given one word: Period. It had to be used in the very first sentence of the piece.
“Where is your period, Natalie?” her teacher asked.
“I am truly sorry, Mrs. Conner, but you see, as I was trying to finish my rough draft, a bolt of lightning hit my computer, and then my dog went crazy, jumped up on my desk, and snatched my homework right out of my printer. I chased after him, but by the time I retrieved my homework, it was all wet and unreadable.
“My dad went to Best buy and bought a new laptop, but when he got home, he told me I had to be in bed by 11:00. We set it up really fast, and at 10:59, I finished my paper with the last sentence. But before I could add the last punctuation mark, the clock chimed 11:00, and I had to go to bed. And that’s what happened to my period.”
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