Friday Exercise – To Do List

What’s on your character’s To Do List?  It already says something about them that they make a To Do List, whether it’s a sign of how busy they are, how obsessive compulsive they are, how meticulous and organized they are, or maybe that it’s a habit formed against their nature because of, say, a work environment.  And then there are the items themselves.  What does this list say about your character’s life, their interests, and their necessities?  It’s one thing if your list consists of “grocery, post office, dentist,” and quite another if it’s “my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wife to murder, and Gilder to frame for it.”  (Anybody who doesn’t know that reference, I’m sorry for you because you have missed out on the best movie of all time.)

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Friday Exercise – Special Occasion

There’s an occasion or event of some kind – a holiday, a city-wide celebration, a party, etc.  Write an interaction between at least one character who’s excited about it and at least one character who’s dreading it.  No matter what they say aloud to one another about it, what are the real reasons they feel the way they do?  What’s under the surface for these people?  What associations do they each have with this occasion?

Good News, Bad News

I’m going to cheat again this Wednesday, and put up a writing prompt instead of a “proper” post:

Hit a character (or set of characters) with good news and bad news on the same day, but not about the same thing (i.e., not “The good news is, you don’t have tuberculosis.  The bad news is, you have emphysema.”)  How do the emotional reactions mix within the characters?  How do the characters interact with one another?  Who looks on the bright side, and who only sees the negative?  Who does your character go to first with either item of news?  Does he/she tell only the good news, and keep the bad to himself/herself, or vice versa?

Friday Exercise – The Tool of Music

I’ve probably mentioned on this blog before that what music I listen to can really color the tone of what I’m working on – and so while I’m actively writing, I pick my music very carefully, or don’t listen to any at all.  It gets to be sort of Pavlovian, too – a certain song or type of music will become associated with what I’m working on, and anytime I hear it, I’m in Writer Mode all of a sudden, ready to dig straight in.

I like picking out “soundtracks” – Hey, this song would be perfect for that scene where so-and-so happens, if they ever make a movie of my book!  And sometimes I’ll get an idea for a scene from listening to a song and daydreaming – I’ll start to picture action or dialogue that fits somehow with the music, or some emotion will well up in the piece that makes me realize some new level of what one of my characters might feel at a given point in the story.

For me, music is a great brainstorming tool at any point in my writing process, from the initial spark of, “Ooh, I have an idea for a story!” to “OMG!!!  I KNOW HOW IT ENDS!!!!!!”

So this week’s exercise is this:  Listen to a song/piece that takes you someplace, through emotion or connotation or whatever, and explore it.  Daydream or free write, whatever works best for you.  What could it mean to one of your characters?  If there are lyrics, would they become ironic in association with your imagined scene, or no?  Does the emotion of the music reflect a particular character’s attitude, or the story as a whole?  Are there multiple layers of feeling expressed – upbeat tempo but lots of minor to the melody?  Where there’s dissonance and resolution, what does that speak to in the story – again, is that how one character feels in the scene, or is that a clash between characters?  Maybe this works best for musicians – I play guitar, myself – but I would think it would work for any writer who likes music!

5 Details

One thing I’ve started doing when I know I have an important scene on my hands and I’m nervous about how it’s going to come across is, I write down five sensory details I want to include within the scene before I actually start it.  I try to pick at least three things that aren’t the “obvious thing” to point out – the obvious stuff will generally fall into place by itself, anyway.  Sometimes I don’t even end up putting one of my details in the text, but it’s implied by other details or dialogue or character reactions.

Why does this help me write difficult scenes?  I think there are a number of reasons it bolsters my confidence in what I’m about to set down in type.   (1) It helps me visualize/feel the setting and how it will affect the action and the characters involved.  (2) It helps me stay consistent on my details…like not saying it’s a sweltering day and then dressing a character in winter clothes.  (3) I know I won’t have to stop to think up details if the scene is coming out flat.  (4) It gives me a focus for thinking through the scene a little ahead of time, solidifying the action and interactions in my head before I start slinging words around.  (5) It puts me there.  I’m not at my desk or my laptop anymore; I’m in the story world.

This whole thing originally started with some of Donald Maass’ exercises in The Fire in Fiction, but I’m using it in a different context than he originally suggests in the book, and it’s helping me keep plugging away at my wordsmithing.

I cheated.  This is more a writing exercise post than a regular “writing and rewriting Monday” post.

Friday Exercise – First Lines

Since I’ve started reworking the opening of my novel this week, it’s only natural that opening lines and opening scenes are on my mind.  Of all the scenes in a novel, however, the one that invariably has to do the most work is the first one.  Not that you can drop the ball once you’re past the first chapter, by any means, but that first chapter had better be spectacular.

And that doesn’t mean it has to start with a fist fight, a murder, or a gunslinging showdown, although it certainly can, if that fits the book.  I think what really makes or breaks a beginning isn’t as much about action as it is about intrigue and movement.  If there is a sense that, “Hey, this is going somewhere!  I want to slip into this story world and see what’s up!” you’re going to win readers over, whether you start with high action or dialogue or, if you do it really well, even description.

How do you give that sense of intrigue and movement from the very start?  A big part of it is hints.  Foreshadowing.  Giving just a little background away here and there and then going back to the events at hand.  Raising questions in the reader’s mind and making them wait a little (or a lot!) for the answers.  And most of all, characters who clearly have goals and/or conflicts (or conflicting goals, which can be incredibly fun to write).  Aimless characters are boring characters, most of the time – just because Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrible, that doesn’t mean every writer should try for a similar character.  Yes, there are aimless, lazy people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to write about them or read about them, unless you write as well as Dostoevsky…and I know I don’t.  /Rant.

Anyway, on to the exercise:

Come up with 5 optional first lines for a story, each of which hints at something to come, something that’s already happened, or something that is actively happening.  If possible, hint at more than one event!  If your opening line is descriptive, make something about the description be a hint.  Some examples:

  • The year Bill Kabitzki killed himself, two things happened to me.  (The opening line to the horrible book I wrote when I was in my teens.)
  • Being dead has its advantages.  (The new first line to The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.)
  • There was something about the barn, this morning, that disturbed him, although he couldn’t have said what it was.
  • “That’s funny,” I said, glancing at his ID.  “I thought you were lying.”
  • She pulled the trigger…and nothing happened.

Pick one of your opening lines – the one that intrigues you the most – and write the story that comes after it.

Friday Exercise – Ordinary and Extraordinary

I pay a good deal of attention to the things I admire about the books I read and the movies I watch.  Last night I finally had the opportunity to watch No Country for Old Men.  I’ve always liked the Coen Brothers’ movies, back to Raising Arizona and, later, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?  Not only is the style of their humor absurdist and subtle, but there’s a kind of straightforwardly oddball quality to the very stories themselves, and yet the viewer is hopelessly drawn in to a cast of weird, illogical characters doing weird, illogical things, and about halfway through any of their movies, I’m so sucked in that I’d believe anything they put in front of me, regardless of how insane the circumstances had become.

One of the things that allows them to pull this off, and one of my favorite things about their films, is the combination of very ordinary folks with extraordinary circumstances and/or other characters who are somehow extraordinary.  And the way they present these “ordinary” people is beautiful – they aren’t boring, they’re not stereotypes, they’re not perfect…they’re quirky, they make jokes, they have hopes and fears and passions.  There is a beauty and a miraculousness to the ordinary people and their interactions with one another in the Coen Brothers’ movies, a sort of revelry in the simple and the everyday of decent, mostly-honest folks.  Which, of course, makes it all the more tense when these decent folks are up against psychotic killers.

So I actually have two writing exercises in mind in relation to these observations.  Do either, or do both.  It’s Friday, so you’ve got all weekend to do your homework assignments, children.  Haha!

1.  Write about two “normal” people in “normal” circumstances, but break away from stereotypes, and don’t let “normal” be boring.  Make some wisecracks in the dialogue, put some banter in, make one character uncomfortable and the other perfectly at ease.  Do they know each other, are they family, did they grow up in the same small town so they know all about each other even if they never talked much…?  It’s amazing how well people can know each other, and not know each other, at the same time when they’ve both lived in the same town for most (or all) of their lives.

2.  Throw some ordinary people in with some extraordinary people.  Your extraordinaries don’t necessarily have to be murderous lunatics (*cough* Fargo *cough* No Country for Old Men *cough*).  Make your ordinaries realistically full of enough personality to stand up as good characters even in the presence of flashier, more intense characters.

Friday Exercise – Fun Times

It’s all too easy to get caught up in trying to write to impress, to focus on ambition and the hopes of success, or just to feel a sense of accomplishment.  The trouble with that is, it makes the whole process a chore, and the vitality of the work itself suffers from that.  Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and remember that you write because you like to, and just take pleasure in the telling of a story.  Just like when you were a little kid and you made up crazy stories with dinosaurs and spaceships and panda bears running pirate ships, it’s nice to write something purely because you think it’s fun every now and then.

Write something – anything – just for you, just for fun.  Doesn’t have to be good.  Doesn’t have to make sense.  Can be totally silly or smash-bang cool or whatever.  But you do have to enjoy writing it.

Friday Exercise – We’re All Mad Here

I’ve had a series of interesting discussions (based around quantum mechanics) this week which have touched on the orderly/chaotic nature of the universe, the nature of consciousness and/or linear time, probability and the multiverse, and, well, to be Douglas Adams about it, Life, the Universe, and Everything.

This in itself is good fuel for the fiction fire, especially if you lean toward speculative fiction (as I do).  Gets the gears of imagination turning (yes, I know I just mixed metaphors, but it was in two separate sentences and this is an informal blog post, not high literature, okay?) and sparks all kinds of ideas (maybe the gears of imagination have little metal shavings rattling around which are fire hazards, which would make all three of the metaphors I’ve now mixed in these two sentences tie together into one cohesive and acceptable metaphor).

Anyway, there is plenty of inspiration to be had from reading/discussing quantum theory, but even without getting into the complex and confusing scientific end of things, I love a good long look at different perceptions of reality.  Are events random and coincidences meaningless, or are they shaped somehow?  If they’re shaped, what shapes them?  A divine being, a sub-cellular connection of some sort, the influence of a conscious universe trying to work through an identity crisis?  Is there predestiny?  Is it easy to alter the course of events, with one tiny decision changing the whole world through a ripple effect?  Or does reality re-align itself, pulling in other little coincidences to re-stablize what was thrown off?

For that matter, concepts as simple as pessimism and optimism are realities that we live in or fight against.  In the same world, we have people who function from a reality in which all good things are possible with a little kindness and effort, and others who function from a reality in which all things have an ulterior motive and the best you can hope for is to avoid falling into traps by being naive about how devious the world in general really is.  Sounds like two different worlds entirely – and yet, it’s just two different perceptions of the same thing.  And neither is entirely right nor entirely wrong.

So with all this kind of thing in mind, pick two viewpoints on reality which, at least on the surface, completely contradict each other.  Now, assume that both these viewpoints are entirely correct, and that they’re both entirely incorrect.  Free write about it, just mulling it over to yourself.  Or if characters come to you – one conflicted character who is faltering between these two viewpoints, or has a simultaneous belief in both; two characters at odds with each other because they have opposing viewpoints, or two characters who have opposing perspectives but still get along, balancing each other – then give your characters a scene to play out.  Or if it gives you an idea for an entire plot, start writing it and let this clash of ideas be the theme behind the story.