Tag Archives: writing exercise

Practice, Practice, Practice

I grew up playing piano. I didn’t sit down to a piano as a child prodigy, though. I took lessons for years, accompanied by many, many hours of practising what I had learned, playing scales, learning theory, and training my ears. Over the years I became very good and went on to learn guitar and drums and developed in intense love of music. (I also have horrible memories of finding myself subjected to performing on stage while crippled with paralyzing stage fright—but that’s another story.)

I want to talk about the practising part of that piano experience. I have noticed a number of references recently on the benefits of practice. Some have referred to music practice itself, but others to applying the idea of music practice to visual disciplines. Most recently, I found myself listening to one of the designers in the Netflix series Abstract describe applying music practice to drawing.

What about applying a music-based practice regime to writing?

There is no question that one of the strongest pieces of advice given to writers to develop their craft is to write every day. This advice hints at what practising music every day aims to do: get better. But a good musician does not merely play every day. Good music practice touches on several aspects of playing that include technique and improvisation, as well as perfecting pieces of music for performance.

I decided to figure out what applying music practice to writing might look like. I broke a practice session down into three essential parts: technique, improvisation, repertoire. I added a cool-down bit later which I will get to. Usually improv will come after working on the current repertoire pieces, but I decided to switch the order.

For technique, there are abundant sources of writing exercises available. I thought about what I wanted to work on as a writer—expand my vocabulary, control a certain long-windedness, shift from passive verbs to active—and I pooled together a list of 5-minute writing exercises that concentrated on those aspects of the craft. That list may be different for other writers, and it may change for me over time and depending on what I’m working on. For now, I pick two items at random from the list and do them when I sit down to write. It turns out to be more enjoyable than I think it will be when I start. Words!

Improv is easy to apply to writing. Flash fiction comes to mind. Writing in a journal works, too. Working on this blog entry counts. I applied the same idea for an improvisation session that I did for working on technique—I compiled a list of  eight or ten writing prompts that speak to me, and when the time comes I pick one at random. There are many prompts that involve random words, sentences, or images, and many random-generating sites that help to start a session. I do really like Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge prompts (a couple of which have resulted in fiction posts here). Because I am striving to finish a first draft at the moment, I have limited my writing prompt list to 10-minute pieces. I want to put most of my time toward working on the manuscript.

Which brings me to my repertoire. My manuscript is my repertoire, the piece that I present to the public and which I strive to perfect before doing so. Working on a little technique and flexing the imagination with a writing prompt help eliminate that ominous blank page syndrome. I like to read the work I’ve done the day before to really get the juices flowing.

I mentioned a wind-down at the beginning of this post. I have a horrible habit of interrupting my work flow with research. I love researching things. I get lost in learning. Sometimes what I read about inspires the scene I’m working on, but most often I catalogue an idea for later. I put research at the end of a writing session as a cool down. That serves a dual purpose. I don’t interrupt myself while I’m writing (instead making a list as I go to research at the end of a session), and what I discover while researching at the end of the day fuels excitement for the next session.

I put the ideas above to work this week, intimidated by the imposition of discipline. The first thing I discovered was that enjoyment vanquishes intimidation.

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Breaking Through Some Writer’s Block

I didn’t realize I’ve been suffering from a bout of writer’s block until I broke through it last week. I’ll guess that’s because I’ve been writing around the block, instead of not writing at all.

Every writer suffers from writer’s block. I’m not mad at myself for hitting one. Running into a wall is an unfortunate part of the writing process. The important thing is to find a way through the blockage. I thought I’d share how I found mine in case it helps someone else.

I spent November writing the bulk of a new historical romance. I had committed to finishing within the month, and knowing the structure I also knew where I wanted to be in the plot on any given day (writing chronologically as I was). I anticipated a slow-down in the middle of the middle, so when the slump caught up with me I jumped ahead to the third and final section in order to reach the finale by the end of the month. At the end of November, always a dark month for me, I burned out and crawled into a hole until the holidays arrived. At the start of January, I began a new work contract away from home and looked forward to revisiting the manuscript and tackling that missing chunk. Except… I found more time to promote my finished novel and design my author page and blog a little and share an already-written excerpt. You catch my drift there… Writer’s Block!

Last weekend, with no more convenient writing distractions at hand, I procrastinated by eating breakfast while watching hours of YouTube and then went out cross-country skiing by myself. That sounds terribly non-productive, but here’s the thing: on YouTube I returned to a British TV show I’d discovered while researching my novel’s setting, a BBC show called “Renovation Home.” Part of the fun of the series is the show’s archive-digging into the home’s historical occupants and their lives. One of the episodes I watched reminded me that during the era of my novel’s setting, everyone corresponded by letter, and frequently. In my novel, my characters write, but I had not thought of using the physical trail of letters as a way to carry my plot forward.

After breakfast I headed out into the woods alone, my morning viewing simmering in my head. All those thoughts of correspondence and paper trails unravelled into a new path that my character could follow to get him where I wanted him to go. By the time I got back from skiing I knew how he escaped from the place I couldn’t get him out of, how he arrived at the place I couldn’t get him to, and how the people who met him there would know where to find him.

Thus, writer’s block dashed. I sat down when I got home and pummelled out 1000 words.

Returning to the source of research won’t work for everyone, but I found a revisit to source material very inspirational. Partaking in some methodical activity afterward where the ideas can fall into place works wonders. Going for a walk has always been a fall back for me when I’m stuck. My mind wanders and there’s probably something to the rhythm of walking that helps that happen. Skiing alone in the woods clearly does the same thing.

Feel free to comment below if you’d like to share your own way of breaking through writer’s block.

Next week I investigate promoting my novel via blog touring, and what the hell that means.

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Exercising Memory

I’ve been practising a regular fifteen-minute writing exercise that I thought might be interesting to share. The exercise has become part of my “write fifteen minutes a day no matter what” routine, dropped recently thanks to flu and family stuff but since returned to. The piece began as a kind of travel guide for my boyfriend to read before we went on an excursion to the neighbourhood I grew up in, written to help familiarize him with my stories, and to help me remember tidbits to talk about while we walked around the few blocks of my childhood. From the first paragraph I realized what a great writing exercise a memory trip made.

The enjoyment of sending myself on a nostalgia field trip helps keep me interested in writing, and fuels the exercise. More importantly, though, I’m really challenged to let my brain fill in the senses I miss, to explore hidden corners and places I thought I’d forgotten, and to remember details of place and character. And then write about them.

Here’s an excerpt:

We lived in a red brick post-war house, built one door in from the corner of a busy main street. The house had a modest porch with a roof, one big living room window, two bedroom windows above, and a hint at an attic with a wood-filled frame in the peak above. The front steps made a good place to sit and watch the traffic go by, but was avoided in early summer when the flying ants clustered there to build their nest. Poison generously sprayed from aerosol cans eventually decimated the invasion of the clouds of winged insects, leaving piles of black crusts and a lingering scent of heavy rust.

The well-kept lawn ran right up to the concrete sidewalk, broken only at one corner by a short black-capped pipe. The cap could be unscrewed, revealing a black chasm down which grass was often dropped before the cap replaced. At the top of the lawn, against the house, grew a handful of flowering bushes and pretty perennials. Along the left side of the house ran a warped asphalt drive, ending behind the house at a run-down garage with a beaten wood door. The car, a winged white Ford Falcon, usually sat in front of the garage rather than inside of it.

To the left, a pale grey corner house turned its back to ours. Its front door faced the busy street, inset from the stucco face, and arrived at up a series of steps. Adjacent to its brick house neighbour it offered only a curtained window, partly hidden by a failing lilac tree and boxed in by a black wrought iron balcony that was just wide enough for a child to climb over and squeeze inside of. No windows faced the brick house drive, and at the back a tall wooden fence cut off any sight of the busy street or the grey home’s rear yard. Two sisters lived in the grey stucco two-story home: Miss Duck—a stern spinster with tightly spun white hair and a constant unaccepting gaze, and Mrs. Hughes—a widow with a warm spirit, who filled her house with tiny unframed landscape paintings by her own hand and gave generous lessons to the child next door. Mrs. Hughes wore black glasses with a long chain that hung from the pointed corners and wrapped loosely around the back of her neck. Her short grey hair remained unfettered.

To the right, a pair of married mathematics professors lived, sometimes with a young American guest—I learned later that they took in draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. They welcomed my brother and I next door often, but always sat us down in the back den to work out mathematical puzzles. Piles of papers and hard-cover books stacked the walls of the den. The wooden puzzles challenged the kids to form cubes or squares from smaller pieces, and weren’t always obvious. The mathematicians had long hair and glasses, and the man wore a beard.

 

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