Filling the Creative Well: Writing Exercises for Your Week


A long time ago, in a lifetime far away, before I was a SAHHM (Stay at Home Hot Mess), I had the privilege of managing a very talented writing staff. Part of my responsibility to that staff was providing “fill the well” activities and opportunities. We wrote greeting cards and, as you can imagine, we had to find exercises and activities to keep our brains fresh when charged with finding new ways to say “Happy Birthday.” Today I thought I’d share a few of the exercises we worked through.

I’ve adapted the first exercise a bit since you’re probably not working in a group environment.

CHARACTER SNAPSHOTS

Character Snapshots helps stretch your brain muscles for character development. It’s intended to be like freewriting. You’ll write quickly and without editing yourself.

With the writing staff, I gave them each a brown paper bag and a photo of a person from a photography website. There were five random objects in the bag. They had to write a character sketch explaining who the character was and why those items were important to the character. Below is a modification.Find a few photos of individual people on the internet. If you write middle grade or young adult, try finding photos of kids who might be characters in your book. Print those out. The bonus of printing out a photo is you won’t need to write about physical characteristics – which lets you get to the good stuff faster.

  • Print ten photos of random objects from online. Do this quickly and don’t think too much about what you choose. You’re trying to re-create the randomness of the paper bags here, so the less you think about what you’re choosing, the better. You can paste the images into a Word document, so you can shrink them and not use up all of your printer’s ink. Just cut them into little squares once you’ve printed.
  • Turn the print-outs of the items upside down so you can’t see the images. Pick five along with a people photo.
  • Now, clear your brain and do a character sketch. Set a timer for 10 minutes. The point of this is to do some quick thinking and not get too hung up on details. Think of it as a nice warm-up for your gray matter.
  • Things you may include: character’s name, where they live, their job, if the items belong to them or if they were given to them, what they mean to the person. Here’s a quick example:

Photo by olivia hutcherson on Unsplash

Objects:

(Photo credits are at the bottom of this post.)

Name: Penelope Tinker, age 30, lives in Nevada

Antique watch: was her grandmother’s, she gave it to Penelope in her will.

Ring: Penelope is married. Married very young. They seem to be drifting apart as they enter their 30’s.

Dice: Her gambling problem

Coffee mug: affair

Running shoes: She’s training for a marathon

After jotting down some quick ideas, I started fleshing the sketch out below.

Penelope Tinker has a gambling problem she’s trying to hide from her husband. She’s in dangerous debt, as in owes some scary people a lot of money. She’s trying to figure a way out of debt without hocking her grandmother’s antique watch. She’s training for a marathon with her best friend. Her husband has seemed more distant since she started traveling for work so much. Last time she left town for her job, she came back to a mug with lipstick marks on it. Unfortunately red isn’t her color.

You can go as long or as short as you want. You might start some freewriting and not want to stop. You don’t have to write about the current situation the character is in…maybe you write about something that’s happened to them in the past, incorporating those items.

You may never get a main character for your next book out of this exercise, but if you save the snapshots, you can go back through them to mine ideas on days your brain isn’t cooperating. Remember – your fictional characters are more than likes and dislikes or the color of their hair!

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Give me Liberty!

Photo by Fabian Fauth on Unsplash

I recently attended a writing workshop sponsored in New York City – my annual effort at professional development.  It was a great day.  I met other writers, many of whom are also seeking to land an agent, desperate as I am to find someone else to validate their dreams of authorship.  It felt like group therapy, talking to all these other people who are walking the same path, encountering the same hurdles, worrying the same questions on the finer points of query letter etiquette.  

The seminars were really useful too; I jotted down pages of notes on everything from social media management to revision techniques, and, of course, on finding the elusive agent. Speaking of whom, the workshop had several agents on-hand, spending their Saturday leading the seminars and fielding pitch after pitch from hopeful authors (like yours truly) willing to pay $30 for 10 minutes of the agent’s one-on-one time (instead of just querying them for free – more on this in a future post.) 

Three weeks on, I’ve gotten a kind but entirely unhelpful rejection from one of the agents I spoke with, and I’m still waiting in the usual interminable purgatory for the other agent I met.  But while I’ve been waiting, I’ve struck up a number of new online friendships with some of the authors I chatted with at the workshop.  One of these new writer friends began venting about the fact she hadn’t heard back from the agents she queried after ONE WEEK.  

Now, I’m not a fan of the way this whole find-an-agent system works.  It seems overwhelming to the agents and unnecessarily anxiety- and depression-inducing on the author.  But I get that this is the system that we have, a direct result of supply outstripping demand, and that agents are humans too. Having just surrendered a Saturday away from their friends and family to field the same questions they’ve probably heard 100,000 times before, they may need another couple (dozen) of weekends to get around to actually reading what we were all only too happy to send them within minutes of getting their nods.  I mean, everyone deserves a weekend.  

I tried my best to convey this to my new writer friend, but I could feel her resentment dripping off my screen, impervious to my attempts at humanism.  That’s the problem with resentment, though.  It’s a cumulative condition, built a hair’s width at a time, until you’ve got a wretched, snarling beast on your hands. 

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