Welcome back, readers! And welcome to Tuesday! As you probably guessed, I had work shift yesterday, and as low as hours have been lately, there was no way I wasn’t taking it.
Just gotta make it to the end of August. The end of August.
Anyway, you guys aren’t here to hear about how close to the edge a writer’s life is. You’re here to hear about how it can be you at the edge!
I’m only sort of joking. Anyway, you’re here today for Being a Better Writer, and today we’ve got another request topic to tackle. Which, if you’ve glanced at the title above, you already know of: writing exercises.
Okay. I’ll give you all a minute to think on that one, and then I’m going to change the game. And again, if you saw the title, you’ve already guessed how that’s going to change.
I won’t be offering a comprehensive breakdown of dozens of writing exercises. Because, honestly, it’s easy to find writing exercises. Just type “good writing exercises” into Google and you’re bound to find hundreds. My offering, in that respect, of retreading the same ground? Not so useful.
However … that doesn’t mean I have nothing to offer. I’m not going to retread a bunch of exercises you’ll find elsewhere, but I will go over some of the exercises I did in college, as a young writer in creative writing classes, and discuss what made them stand out and why I still remember them today.
Sure, it’ll be a bit unconventional for a BaBW post, but I’m allowed to do that. It’s my site, and I answer to me. So, looking back, here are several challenges and exercises that helped me improve at my craft: what they were, what they each entailed, and how they helped me get better.
The Yellow Cup Challenge
I’ll be blunt: I despised this challenge even as I knew it was useful and knew why. But it was hard. Sure, it doesn’t sound like much (especially with the name I’ve given it in my memory) but I remember this one wrecking my evening on more than one occasion.
Why? Why could it do such with its innocent-sounding name? Because that name, whatever it ends up being for you, will haunt you. Are you ready?
The yellow cup challenge is pretty simple on the surface. Go to your home and pick a single object. Something simple, like vase or something. I picked a yellow cup with a smiley face on the side. Got that?
Okay. Now sit down, examine it, and write a paragraph describing it. Pretty simple, right?
Now put it away, and come back the next day, and write another paragraph describing it. Sound simple? Here’s the catch: You’re not allowed to use the stuff you already wrote the day before. Described its curve or shape? Now you have to do that with entirely different words.
Still not too bad? Now do this for two weeks.
Starting to see how this could be difficult yet? Sands, to this day I can still picture that blasted yellow cup smiling at me. The first few days aren’t too difficult, but after a week? It becomes a real struggle to come up with a new way to describe the cup accurately in a paragraph without repeating yourself. You really have to stretch the mind to start coming up with new metaphors, comparisons … everything you can grab at to make it work.
But in the end? As much as I despised the exercise, it did help me stretch and widen my horizon. Would I print half of what I wrote? Never. But was it a valuable learning tool? Yes. Absolutely.
I had to really stretch my mind to describe things anew, to look at the same object through new eyes or through new words. I had to work backwards, forwards, sideways … come at the same object in a dozen different ways.
But in the end I had a dozen different ways to describe it. A dozen different approaches that, while not often great alone, could be used to decent or better effect together, or once I mixed and matched them.
The whole point of the exercise is the challenge the descriptive skills of the writer. How many different ways can you describe a cup. Not by what’s in it, but just the cup? Now? I could do it a few dozen different ways in a heartbeat. But then? I was beating my head against a table.
But it forced me out of my shell, past one or two simple ways of looking at things. And into new directions that later became quite useful.
Okay, now the title mentions viewpoints. How did this help with that?
Well, if you’re writing from character’s viewpoints, they’re not going to see thing the same way. And I don’t mean opinions or the politics of your story. No, I’m talking about how they see something as simple as a cup. One character might notice the lack of the handle first (what isn’t there) while another might notice the color, and a third the material it’s made from. Being able to identify what our character sees about a certain object and how they see it can help make them distinct from another.
Now, this doesn’t mean that all of your characters need to immediately see and present any object differently from one another. But this exercise is rooted in finding ways to look at the same object differently so that you can do so as needed when your characters need to.
The Picture Frame
Okay, this next challenge? It’s similar to the yellow cup exercise, but a bit … broader. And a little less repetitive. So, here’s how it works.
For this challenge you’ll need a picture. Photograph. It can really be of anything, but a scenery shot (with or without people) will probably work the best. And by that, I mean a picture that isn’t just a blank background. You need something with … not visual clutter, but many elements in it.
Got that? Okay, so here’s what you do. Write a couple of paragraphs describing the setting in the picture. The elements of the picture. Describe the picture to us, so that a reader would form a mental “image” of the picture. Try to avoid simply tellling the reader what’s in the picture, though. Show them. Try to paint a vivid imagery, rather than writing “There is a desk with papers on it.” Capture all the details. Got that? Okay.
Now comes part two. Rather than just writing a straight “Here is what is in the picture and what it is in exquisite detail” instead write about the picture from the focal point of one part of the picture and how everything relates to it.
Confused? Okay, let me try an example. Say you choose a picture of a fisherman in a canoe landing a fish on a scenic lake. You could describe the picture from the focal point of, for example, the fisherman. He’s sitting in a canoe, rocking back and forth with his motions. His hands are wrapped tightly clenched around a fishing pole, his focus not on the lake around him, but on the object of his hunt: the fish arcing through the air in front of him. Etc, etc. Build out from that point.
Or, if one chose the fish as the focal point, you could talk about how its scales a shimmering a silver haze in the clear air as it breaks above the surface of the lake, its color contrasting with the fall leaves behind it. Water glistens as it arcs around it, etc etc.
This is, in a way, a more advanced, applicable version of the yellow cup challenge. You take a picture and then frame it around a single part of the picture. Once you’ve done this a few times, look at everything you’ve written, you’ll find that if you’ve done a good job, though each piece you’ve written is about the exact same scene, all of them will sound different. All of them will be centered around a different focus, and as a result different aspects of the setting will come into play.
Do this one a couple of times. I believe in my creative writing courses in college, we did this two or three times, sometimes more based on the student. Naturally, you’re going to have to judge your own how good a handle you have on this.
Okay, so that’s the exercise. Now why would you want to do this, and what would it do for you? Thankfully, this one’s easy. When you walk into a room, do you see everything at first? Or are your eyes drawn to one particular aspect, and only then do they move outward?
It’s the latter, if we’re honest. Our minds can’t take in everything as well as we’d hope, not without missing some details. Even panning over a room, we’ll usually pick out things that stand out to us, then work outward from there. And our characters? Same thing.
So where the yellow cup exercise is in learning ways to describe the same thing differently, this challenge is all about learning to describe a scene the way a character would. What will they notice first, and how will their view of the scene build out from there?
You can probably see the usefulness of this exercise in your writing, but I’ll state it anyway: Different characters notice different things first and work out from there, so the same “picture” of a scene will be very different depending on which character you’re writing from the viewpoint of. For example, the story I’m working on now has a character who always notices colors first when he goes someplace new. His eye is drawn to bright colors in particular, and then the rest of the room. Comparatively, a different character tends to take in the individuals first when he enters a room.
Two different focus points, two different characters.
The Rambling Old Exposition Man
All right, this last challenge is a weird one, but one I’ve talked about before, because it was memorable for me. Very.
Okay, this time? This challenge is less about viewpoints and more about, well, Show VS Tell. You long-time readers may be guessing what it is right about now. You ready?
Okay, get a picture, like before. Or visualize one. Now sit down and write about something from it. But here’s the catch. You’re going to try and say as much as about it as possible … while actually telling the reader as little as possible.
How does this work? Oh, you go verbose. You pull out the most obnoxiously purple prose you can find. Spend paragraphs on a single element. Don’t repeat yourself, mind. Just … expound. Forever. Your goal is to say as much as possible while telling the reader as little as possible.
See why I call this the rambling old man challenge? Now mind, you can’t just write junk or jibberish with this challenge. You want to write flowing, flowering language. LOTS of it. The kind of stuff you’d never want to publish because … well, it’s not telling the reader anything.
Okay, why do this? Because this is an exercise in doing something the wrong way to learn the signs of “Hey, this doesn’t actually accomplish anything.” You’re writing pure show to an obscene degree as a test to study it and see exactly what goes wrong. Sort of like being thrown into an aircraft crash simulator: you reproduce doing things the wrong way so that you know what the signs are, what results, and how to work your way out of it.
Plus, this exercise is sort of a hard fireball of “Hey, remember how your teachers used to show not tell? Well, here’s what happens when you do that.” It’s an exercise in learning Show versus Tell by throwing you into the deep end of the pool most have never experienced. Sure, any novice writer has likely seen too much tell, but too much show? That’s what this is for.
So, what does this have to do with viewpoints? Okay, this one’s a bit of a stretch. It’s just a good exercise. But as far as viewpoints go, I can say that it’s a caution against a more common newbie writer mistake with viewpoint perspectives. Which is an idea that none-viewpoint equals tell, viewpoint equals show.
No to both, in case you were wondering. But this challenge can illustrate why that’s so … As well as serve as a very dramatic warning of what happens when you take something too far. Viewpoints can be a bit purply at times, sure. As I’ve said before, some characters will be more tell than show and others will be more show than tell. But there’s a limit in every case. This exercise is about why that limit exists. To push you to it so that you never want to again without really good reason.
And, well … that’s all I’ve got for you. As I said when I started this, there are a lot of other writing exercises out there online that you can find. I’m not a source for these. What I’ve given you today are three exercises that helped me develop from a young writer to a writer, and from there to an author. Hopefully they help you as well.
Good luck. Now get writing!
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