Monday, November 4, 2013

Give Your Writing a Workout: How Writing Exercises Can Improve Your Book

Confession time: When it comes to writing exercises, I used to be a cynic. A nonbeliever. Write a diary entry in my character’s voice? Write a letter from one character to another? Interview my character? Seriously? All I thought was “big ole waste of time.”

To write words that would never make it in the actual book seemed absurd. Pointless. Dare I admit, pretentious. Why waste the precious minutes and hours I have to write on words that no one but me will ever read?

Hold on a sec, while I swallow this last bite of crow. Gulp.

Okay, so the answer that won me over is this: because sometimes words, things, events you never expected have a way of weaseling their way into your book. Even form the backbone of your book. At least that’s what happened to me.

Let me backtrack. The first fiction book I ever wrote took me three years. I was a pantser, not out of any firm belief or philosophy, but out of ignorance. I didn’t know any better. I sat down to write and soon discovered I had no idea where my story was going, what my characters would do, should do, what they wanted, that they even had to want something. The end result was a manuscript in need of serious revision.

I began to read craft books, but in every one, I flipped right past all the pages about writing exercises and writing prompts. After years of rewriting, my first book found its plot, my characters found their voice, and my book found its way into my heart. I loved it, but when it came to writing my next book, I wasn’t about to have a repeat performance.

When the idea for BECOMING JINN came to me, I wrote down the concept, the main characters, and what I thought then would be my three disasters (which though not exactly what they are now, are pretty close). Before going further, I enrolled in a novel planning course with author James Scott at Grub Street in Boston.

He made me a plotter. Though I’d read advice on story planning and structure, it wasn’t until James put his particular spin on them that the light bulbs started glowing above my head.

His techniques helped me write BECOMING JINN, my second fiction book, in two months instead of three years. Revisions were fast and targeted. And now, more than a year and a half later, I still reach for the big black binder of “Research on Writing” that I put together, starting with handouts from that class.

While I still have much to learn about writing, and while I’m sure I won’t be quite as good a teacher as James, over the course of my next few blog posts I hope to share some of the key concepts that converted me from a floundering panster to a happy plotter.

Today, I’ll start with the general concept of writing exercises. The writing exercises I’m talking about are different from writing prompts. Think of a prompt as a way to rev your engine. Press down on that accelerator by doing some “freewriting” to get you in the mood to write, to overcome writer’s block, or to explore a potential concept or idea. A writing prompt could be anything from “write your earliest memory in the first person” to “set a timer for thirty minutes and write a story using the words ‘muffin,’ ‘spaceship,’ and ‘clown.’” Incidentally, Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles has its origin in a writing prompt: set a story in the future and include a fairy-tale character. That particular prompt clearly served Ms. Meyer well. 

Many writers swear by writing prompts. While useful, I’m more into writing exercises. The ones presented in the course I took have become the core of the work I do while planning my books and even reappear during my drafting and revising stages. If I suddenly plop my characters in a new location, I refer to my setting exercises. If a new character appears or a minor character needs to be amped up, I go back to the questions that help me create a character profile.

Over the course of my next few posts, I plan to share the concepts I find most useful when thinking about character, setting, structure, beginnings, and endings. I’ll also list some of my favorite writing exercises for each. And I’ll get back to that question that formed the backbone of my book (look for it next month in my December 4th post on character).

But since I started this introductory post by saying I was a cynic when it came to writing exercises, let me end by sharing what made me a believer.

I was sitting in the novel planning course, inwardly scoffing at the questions James had written on the whiteboard and asked us to answer about setting. We were to take a scene, either one we were working on or one we had yet to begin, and answer eight questions about the scene’s location. The questions included:

1. What’s above your characters’ head?
2. At their feet?
3. To their left
4. To their right?
5. What time of day is it and how do you know?
6. What season is it? How do you know?
7. What can they smell?
8. What can they hear?

Picking the scene I thought would start BECOMING JINN, I forced myself to put pen to paper and answer the questions. I went through them one by one, creating the living room in my character Azra’s house. From an interior designer’s standpoint, the finished digs were beautiful. Sleek, modern, with a white sofa and silver arched floor lamp. It was a nice room, one I wouldn’t mind living in. But it was not Azra’s living room. It was not the living room of her mother, Kalyssa, a Jinn with Moroccan roots who spent her life traveling the world to grant wishes. Gone was the black and white geometric rug and in was a crimson Turkish prayer rug. The coffee table switched out its glass for hand-carved wood. They couldn’t smell anything from the outside because Jinn hate the cold and even in the summer keep their windows shut to seal in the warmth.

The simple eight questions on setting put me in my characters’ shoes. And unexpectedly, I not only learned things about where they lived but also about who they were.

Pretty powerful stuff. Enough to turn me into a plotter. I now love and rely on writing exercises to help me plan my novels.

What about you? Do you use writing exercises? Have I convinced you to try? Check back next month when I share the ones I use to create my character profiles. 


  1. I'm gradually converting. With my first manuscript I dove right in because my idea was so new and shiny I thought it would evaporate. Now I'm learning to recognize that time spent in "pre-production" is timed saved in production. I love the Scrivener character worksheets and usually complete them for at least my main characters. I also love creating Pinterest boards for setting and character- it's fun to "shop" online as my character and definitely gets me asking questions about setting, tastes, hobbies, etc before I start drafting. Thanks for a great post!

  2. I love that you've touched on this subject, as a lot of writers shrug the exercises off. I must admit, I shrugged them off for years. When I began to work on them, I saw dramatic improvement in my work. Looking forward to your next post, Lori!

  3. It usually helps me to be working on at least two writing projects, at least during the first draft stages. That way I can leave one and concentrate on the other, coming back to it with fresher eyes.

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  5. Thank you for sharing this Writing exercise. I, too, have not been the biggest fan of them, but after your convincing post, I'll give it a try.