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Three Writing Exercises for Three Different Points in the Writing Process


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There’s no shortage of writing exercises to choose from. Just google it.

Eight Exercises to Strengthen Your Writing.

Thirteen Creative Writing Exercises.

Twenty-four Exercises to Become a Better Writer. 

Fifty Fantastic Creative Writing Exercises.

There are lists of eleven, fifteen—even one hundred writing exercises!

No one can, or should, use all of them. On the contrary, heaping your plate with an abundance of a la carte exercises can be counterproductive, leaving you with conflicting “advice” and competing priorities. So how can you decide which are worth your time?

One strategy I’ve found helpful is to consider each exercise in the context of when to employ it. Some exercises may be more useful at one stage of novel-writing than another, depending on their purpose.

Here are three that I’ve found especially useful at three different points in the process. They address three crucial aspects of a story:  what, who, and how.

WHAT: “Aboutness” exercise—at the beginning stage, as the overall story is taking shape.

Before I decide how to tell my story—structure, pacing, turning points, and so on—I need to know what it’s about.  That’s the purpose of this exercise (with a nod of acknowledgement to Sandra Scofield for introducing me to the key role of “aboutness”).

Aboutness” has to do with the story’s theme, in its most universal and abstract form.  It can often be summed up in one word. For example: This is a story about revenge, or redemption, or forgiveness, or homecoming, or liberation.  It might need more than one word, but it’s still one idea. Second chances. Letting go of shame. Healing from betrayal.

Sometimes there are two themes that feel equally salient, but that’s usually because they represent the before and after of the protagonist’s journey. For example: This is a story about grief and renewal; this is a story about guilt and forgiveness.

Since there are only a limited number of themes, at this level of abstraction, a story becomes more interesting if it’s told in an unusual or highly specific way. For example: This is a story about forgiveness …

  • … set in the XX (an interesting era and/or location)
  • … told against the backdrop of XX (an intense political or social context, like a war, revolution, or cultural upheaval)
  • … seen through the perspective of XX (someone with an unusual background, occupation, or approach to life)
  • … framed by the XX (a story-within-a-story, or a famous person who is present in the narrative but is not the protagonist)

If you put the two parts of the sentence together, you get—aha! Your elevator pitch!

  • This the story of a woman’s journey from constriction to liberation, set against the backdrop of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community (Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman)
  • This is a story of love and redemption, set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II (The Last Rose of Shanghai by Weina Dai Randel)
  • This is the story of a family’s struggle to reconnect after a devastating loss, seen through the alternating perspectives of its oldest and youngest members.
  • This is the story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

This “Aboutness sentence” can help to keep you focused as you work on that first draft. I like to print out my Aboutness statement and tape it to my desk.

WHO: “Getting told off by your protagonist”—at the late-middle stage, as you’re trying to go deeper into your character and discover what you’ve missed.

A nod of gratitude to Don Maass for this exercise, which I learned in one of his workshops and have been doing, in various iterations, ever since.

At this stage, you’ve got the story down, and it works—that is, it holds together as a narrative that gets your protagonist from Point A to Point B.  Yet you’re wondering if there might be other, deeper layers that you’ve yet to uncover. You sense that something remains invisible to you, but you don’t know where to look for it.

Thus, the purpose of this exercise is to pull back the veil between you and your main character. Who is this character, and what don’t you know about her—because you’re too close, too intellectually distant, or too quick to settle on who you assume she is?

A good way to get to know someone better is to sit down and talk with her, meeting her eyes, listening to what she has to tell you—even if there are things you’d rather not hear.

Visualize yourself sitting across the table from your protagonist—literally. (In my mind, we’re at my kitchen table.) Ask your protagonist these questions, and write down everything she says, exactly as she says it—again, literally. It only works if you actually write down what you “hear” her saying. Don’t just think it.

  • How do you feel about the way I’ve portrayed you?
  • What am I getting wrong about you?
  • What do you want to do that I’m not letting you do?
  • What do you dread seeing yourself do on the page?
  • What about the other characters? You know them better than I do. Whom am I not getting? What am I missing?
  • What do you want to say to one of the characters in the story that I’m not letting you say?
  • What’s this story really about?
  • What do you think of me, as a writer?

I did this with the protagonist in my soon-to-be-launched novel, and it was one of the most incredible exercises I’ve ever done. My protagonist pulled no punches and told me exactly what she thought of me—how I was projecting my own hang-ups onto her, making her too defensive, and suppressing her kinder impulses. She told me that I needed to love her more.

She shook me up—but luckily, I listened to her.

HOW: Mapping interiority and exteriority—at one of the later stages, as you’re refining the way you’ve told the story.

The story is done—but you aren’t sure if you’ve told it in the cleanest, most powerful way. You can’t see it with fresh eyes anymore, and you’re pretty sure that micro-tweaking (as in: deleting adverbs and overused words) isn’t the answer.

Here’s something that can help you to assess how you’ve told your story.

Print out the manuscript. (Yep, on real paper; trust me on this.) If that feels like too much, start with a couple of scenes that you know are problematic.

Get out some colored pens or highlighters. Take it scene by scene. On every page, use a different color to underline or circle these elements, one at a time:

  • Green for sentences or passages of interiority: when the POV character is in her head reacting, reflecting, thinking, wondering, or remembering. It’s the internal material that no one has access to, except her.
  • Blue for observable action: when a character does something external, or there’s an action you could observe (like a car crash). It’s whatever you could see if you were watching a film.
  • Yellow for exposition—when something is narrated, rather than depicted. For example, there might be a description of the setting or a paragraph to indicate the passage of time. This differs from interiority because it isn’t inside someone’s head. It’s more like the voice of the narrator.
  • Pink for dialogue.

In my own experience, actually “seeing” the way I write was pretty dramatic. I sort-of-knew that I had a habit of making my protagonist reflect on every single thing that happened, but seeing it on the page, in blue and green, really brought it home. It made me stop to consider whether each bit of interiority was needed—or needed right then—since interiority interrupts the forward movement of the story. In some cases, I consolidated the protagonist’s inner reflections and put them together at the end of the scene, rather than interspersed throughout. In other cases, I pondered whether the passage of interiority was truly necessary—and decided that it wasn’t.

Certainly, there are other wonderful exercises—these are just three that I’ve found helpful.

Can we compile a notebook, as a community?  Is there an exercise you’ve found especially useful? If so, at what point in the process do you use it? Why and when is it useful?

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About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force" and selected as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021. It was also awarded the Sarton Gold Medal in Contemporary Fiction, as well as the Silver Medal in Fiction from the Nautilus Book Awards. Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.

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