It’s one of those crazy weeks when everyone at MCW is racing off somewhere, too busy for our Sunday group blog, so here, instead, is a new offering: The Once A Month Writing Tips Sunday. We inaugurate this feature with some tips for getting some writing done when you’re just too darned busy to write, because we know one of the biggest challenges many writers face is finding time to write. We all know that exercises are very helpful in getting the creative juices flowing and for practicing our craft. Yes, we all know it, but we’re busy.
Since one of the most important skills a writer can hone is that of being a careful observer, I developed the following exercises. They combine close observation with craft and are designed to be done during your lunch hour. I’ve been teaching for many years, so I’ve done variations of these exercises with classes and workshops many times. I still find the results surprising, fascinating, and delightful. I hope you will, too.
If you’re one of those people who feel self-conscious observing others in public, or don’t understand that your writer’s pen and notebook are your license to be nosy (perhaps curious is a nicer word), try taking a writer friend with you the first few times you try these out. And remember—writers save everything. Even if you’re not satisfied with your results, stick the exercise in a file. You never know—someday that character you watched, that detail you observed, or that conversation you imagined may be just what you need for a story you’re writing. So keep an idea file. A character file. A dialogue file. And toss these in. The cast of characters is always changing, so you can do these exercises more than once.
Okay. It’s lunch time. Grab your notebook and your favorite pen. Stick them in your purse or your pocket, and head out. It’s time to go people-watching.
Exercise 1: Pick a couple in the room you interest you and write the conversation you imagine they’re having.
ex: I know the first thing she said was, “Why didn’t you call?” because I overheard that as I passed their table. What I didn’t expect was his reply. “They don’t let you make calls from jail, Kat.” She didn’t look like a Kat, and he didn’t look like a jailbird, so I hunched nosily over my coffee, waiting to hear what they’d say next.
A variation on the exercise above is to pick two people in the room who aren’t together and imagine their conversation. You can do this with two people you think would go well together, then try it a different time with two people who look like they’d ordinarily never meet. Characters who surprise us often produce some of our best writing.
ex: You wouldn’t have put them together in a million years. She was a saggy-baggy old hippie in Birkenstocks and a snarled Peruvian shawl. He was pimply, pierced and Mohawked.
Exercise 2: Pick a particular food smell out of the air and write what it makes you think of. You can go so many places with this exercise, you can do it several times. Do it with soup. With fried foods. With breakfast smells or simply with coffee. Do it with ethnic foods. Do it with the smell of something you hate.
ex: Frying bacon on a winter morning flashes me back to Uncle Henry’s camp. A few, deep greasy breaths and this neighborhood diner melts away.
Exercise 3: Using only a single one of your senses, describe what is going on in the room around you. Repeat the exercise, using a different sense. Notice how challenging it can be to find good words for scents.
A variation on this exercise: Describe the same sandwich in 150 words. In 50. In only 20 words.
Exercise 5: Choose someone in the room who looks unhappy. Using their demeanor, expression, posture, outfit and even what they are eating, write a few paragraphs describing what they were doing just before they came in here to eat.
Exercise 6: Find someone who is wearing an interesting piece of clothing, wearing a unusual hat, or carrying an interesting object—pack, purse, walking stick, etc.—and write the story of how they got it.
Exercise 7: Another dialogue exercise. Listen for an unusually loud or striking piece of conversation or a comment that strikes you. Then write a dialogue between or among the people at that table, using the comment. A variation on this which occurs very frequently is the overheard piece of a cell phone conversation. Imagine who is on the other end, and what they say next.
Note: The idea behind these exercises is to get you thinking and observing like a writer and practicing the skills of writing description, dialogue and interior monologue. Have fun with them!