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Posts from the ‘Writing Exercises’ Category

Dialogue tips: the fastest way to improve any manuscript

In this 30-minute video below, author Joanna Penn interviews author and writing teacher James Scott Bell about his book on dialogue, “How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript.”

Bell gives some great tips to make your dialogue sing and catch the eye of an agent, publisher and reader:

  1. Characters shouldn’t be feeding each other information they already know. Example: Brother to sister: “Look sis, our mom, Linda who is a school teacher is home.”
  2. Don’t hide exposition or backstory in dialogue. Readers are savvy, will pick up on it, and won’t be happy. Bell says if you must convey the information, try turning the exchange into a confrontation. More information tends to be exchanged when people are confrontational.
  3. How do you differentiate dialogue between characters? Bell suggests keeping a voice journal for each main character. For more on this, see my earlier post, “Use a voice journal to capture your character’s original voice.”
  4. When using an action beat instead of the dialogue tag “she said or he said,” make sure the action is integral to the story — otherwise you’ll wear out the reader over the course of a novel.
  5. Read your dialogue out loud. Make it snappy and vital. Make it sing. Also read dialogue out loud from other novels and screenplays.
  6. Think subtext—what are the characters really saying underneath the words they speak?

For many more great tips on using dialogue to quickly improve your manuscript, watch the video here:

For you Nanowrimo peeps, try this exercise to increase your word count: Dive deep and write some dialogue runs between characters down the page without any tags or actions. Just straight dialogue. See if you can get into a rhythm and keep going. You can clean it up and add actions and attributions later.

Poetic inspiration for your writing

We’ve all faced the need to clean out our closets and finetune our possessions, whether we’re making a move, downsizing our living space, or just reorganizing.

We have to make hard decisions about what to keep and what to toss or give away. And sometimes the decisions aren’t hard. We wonder why we still have that stack of papers or miscellaneous junk that we never should have saved to begin with.

Exercise: Think about a time when you sorted through your stuff and had to decide what to get rid of and what to save. Think about how you felt. What were the emotions? What tugged at you and why? What was hard? What was easy? Now, write a poem, story, essay, or scene about it.

For inspiration and one poet’s take on getting rid of stuff, read the poem below from the American Life in Poetry project. Visit the American Life in Poetry website to sign up to receive a free weekly poem in your e-mail inbox.

American Life in Poetry: Column 497

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

I’d guess everybody reading this has felt the guilt of getting rid of belongings that meant more to somebody else than they did to you. Here’s a poem by Jennifer Maier, who lives in Seattle. Don’t call her up. All her stuff is gone.

Rummage Sale

Forgive me, Aunt Phyllis, for rejecting the cut
glass dishes—the odd set you gathered piece
by piece from thirteen boxes of Lux laundry soap.

Pardon me, eggbeater, for preferring the whisk;
and you, small ship in a bottle, for the diminutive
size of your ocean. Please don’t tell my mother,

hideous lamp, that the light you provided
was never enough. Domestic deities, do not be angry
that my counters are not white with flour;

no one is sorrier than I, iron skillet, for the heavy
longing for lightness directing my mortal hand.
And my apologies, to you, above all,

forsaken dresses, that sway from a rod between
ladders behind me, clicking your plastic tongues
at the girl you once made beautiful,

and the woman, with a hard heart and
softening body, who stands in the driveway
making change.

————————

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2013 by Jennifer Maier from her most recent book of poems, Now, Now, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. Poem reprinted by permission of Jennifer Maier and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2014 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Don’t miss a beat: Get into the heart of your character

In a previous post I wrote about a little technique I learned from author and writing instructor, Rhay Christou, who teaches for the online Lawson Writer’s Academy.

Develop your characters through dance” highlights a short video by actor Kevin Cox demonstrating how to unlock your body and mind in order to delve deeper into your characters.

Another tip I learned from Rhay is called, “Don’t Dance. ACT!” In this exercise, you pick a moment in your scene where your character is having (or is supposed to have) an emotional response to something. Choose one emotional beat. Now get up, stand in the middle of the room, and close your eyes. Picture yourself in your character’s setting. Become the character. What do you feel? Hear? Taste? Open your eyes. What do you see? Does your setting affect how you feel?

How are you holding your body? Tense? Relaxed? What is your body doing? Facial expressions? How do you feel? Angry? Sad? Frustrated? How does it show up in your body? Are you having a visceral reaction? A thought?

Now grab your journal and write as much as you can without stopping. If more feelings come up, write them down. Keep writing. Can you add anything to your scene to make it stronger?

In my chapter one, my protagonist, a veterinarian, struggles to save the life of a dog. Her boss forces her to use her mysterious powers that she has tried to run from ever since her mother died (she blames her powers for her mother’s death). When I close my eyes and become my character, I ask, “How does it make me feel that my boss has forced me to use my powers?”

Here’s what I wrote: “I’m angry. Pissed off. Want to hit something. My body feels tense, rigid, so tense my breathing is labored and tight. My chest feels like it’s in a vise, pressed together like a moth between glass. How dare she! She has no right to call on my powers. Total invasion. And what’s worse is she doesn’t realize the consequences. She doesn’t know that somebody could get injured or die. I never should have trusted her. Should have kept my mouth shut. Granddad was right—don’t trust anybody with my secret. Let this teach me…never again.”

Do I have any of these feeling in the chapter? Noooooo. After she saves the dog, my protagonist and her boss have a nice little chat about their dating life. Right. Revision time.

Ever notice how sometimes when you write, your brain kind of does a little hop-skip-and-a-jump ahead of itself? Mine does. Sometimes, I miss whole reaction beats. My character skips from one thing to the next without really processing what’s happening.

These exercises help me slow down and pay attention to how my character feels. They get me out of writer-brain and into the heart of my character.

I highly recommend any of the Lawson Writer’s Academy online courses. You’ll learn tons and meet some really cool writers. Check out their September classes here: www.margielawson.com or see the list below:

Master The Synopsis!
No. More. Whining.
MASTER THE SYNOPSIS! Starts Monday.
Instructor: RITA Finalist Jennifer Archer.
Sept 1-26;  Fee:  $50
http://bit.ly/MasterSynopsis

Submissions That Sell
Make your query SELL your MS.
Instructor:  RITA Winner Laura Drake.
Sept 1-26;  Fee:  $40
http://bit.ly/SeptSTSell

From Blah to Beats: Giving Your Chapters a Pulse
In 14 short lessons, learn how to make your chapter a lean and mean beating heart.
Instructor: Rhay Christou, MFA
Sept 1-30, Fee:  $50
http://bit.ly/GiveChaptersPulse …

From Homeroom to Last Bell:Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction
YA Writers: Fab class.
Instructors:  Jennifer McAndrews, Linda Gerber
Sept. 1 – 26;  Fee:  $50
http://bit.ly/HeroJourneyinYA 

Story Structure Safari
Instructor feedback, priceless. You’ll find your Story GPS.
Instructor: Lisa Miller
Sept. 1 – 30; Fee:  $50
http://bit.ly/SeptSSS

Getting Serious About Writing a Series
Lectures, plus tips from 18 fab authors.
Instructor: Lisa Wells
Sept. 1 – 26;  Fee: $40
http://bit.ly/WritingSeries 

Virtues, Vices, and Plots
Need a New Approach to Plotting?
Sept. 1 – 26:  Fee: $50
Instructor:  Sarah Hamer, MFA
http://bit.ly/SeptVVP

 

 

 

Does your protagonist have a life theme or motto?

At the beginning of each year, my writing partner Carly chooses a short phrase or sentence that she uses to remind herself of what she wants to focus on for the coming year.

She says she likes to keep the sentence short so it’s easy to remember and can easily be turned into a daily mantra. For the last several years, she’s developed a personal writing theme.

To read more about her idea, please read her posts, “My 2014 personal writing theme revealed,” and “Short story writing method reveals New Year’s theme.

I noticed while re-reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” that the main character Shadow has a motto that he lives by. In the first chapter, Shadow is in prison and we learn his survival motto is, “Keep your head down. Do your own time. Speak when you’re spoken to.” In other words, you do your own time in prison. You don’t do anyone else’s time for them. You don’t get mixed up in their dramas. You keep your mouth shut.

Later, after Shadow is let out of prison and he begins working for Mr. Wednesday and is kidnapped by men in black, he repeats his old prison motto to himself:

“He pretended he was back in prison. Do your own time, thought Shadow. Don’t tell them anything they don’t already know. Don’t ask questions.”

By the end of the story—well, I won’t put in any spoilers—but basically his motto gets turned on its head. And this is part of his growth as a character.

Does your character have a motto they live by or a life theme like Carly and Shadow that they can sum up in one or two sentences? Is there a belief that drives them from day to day? Having this theme firmly in mind while writing your scenes will help ground you in your character’s reality.

Exercise: Set a timer for six minutes and free write about what your protagonist’s life theme might be. Do the same for your antagonist and then every major character.

If you’d like, please share your character’s theme in the comments below.

 

 

Cultivate conversation with a mini essay

You never know where you will find wild words.

In a recent post, How to find writerly inspiration while eating a burrito, I wrote about Chipotle restaurant’s Cultivating Thought — Author Series in which it features essays from 11 authors on cups and to-go bags.

The campaign was meant to spark conversation and introspection through essays that take about two minutes to read.

In the spirit of cultivating inspiration and discussion, consider writing your own two-minute essay. Here’s a list of writing prompts that might spark an idea.

1. What is your personal philosophy?

2. What is a favorite memory and why?

3. What frustrates or annoys you?

4. What makes you happy?

5. What are you grateful for?

Write about 300 to 400 words. When you sit down to write, suspend all critical thought and just pour your heart out on the page. You’ll have time later to edit and revise. Consider even writing your first draft by hand in a notebook. When you’re done, publish your essay on your blog or website and start a discussion of your own.

Heat up your writing with these prompts

Sometimes I get into a writing funk. It’s as though I’m frozen in place.

Maybe this has happened to you. You’ve gone through a stressful event, you’re not sleeping well, or you’ve been consumed by work deadlines. Stress and fatigue are known to affect creativity and inhibit the brain from generating creative ideas.

I find that the harder I think when I’m in my slump, the more I blank out. I’ve learned that I need to think differently. I need to activate the part of my brain that comes up with new ideas, instead of the part that is sparked by stress.

One of the things I do to re-energize myself is read good works of literature. I also find that doing a few writing exercises helps me out of my rut.

One of my favorite books for this is The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. If you’re in a slump, try this prompt from The Daily Poet.

Choose a color. Now write a poem only using images of that color. For example, if you chose white, your poem might include clouds, snow, yogurt, angels, paper, ping-pong balls, or plastic bags. The poem may or may not evoke an emotion associated with your chosen color.

Here are two more prompts from another of my favorite writing books, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. This book is geared towards writing memoir but the prompts are equally good for writing essays and poems and even coming up with the seed of an idea for a short story or character. Here are two sample prompts from the book:

Knew. What did you know that you didn’t want to know? Go. Ten minutes.

Repair. What have you tried to repair? Write for 10 minutes.

Three highlights from my reading practice: See how they could make you a better writer

I love the inspiration and ideas I receive from reading different genres and authors. Whether I’m turning the pages of a physical book or one on my Kindle or iPad, I write about what I’m reading.

Sticky notes work great for actual books, and on my Kindle, I highlight and make notes on the screen about passages that grab my attention. I track how authors created a certain mood, tone, or emotional response. If I see a good example of dialogue or a stellar sensory description, I note it. The notes make it easy to go back and review what I learned and what I enjoyed about the book.

Here are several examples of my highlights:

In the thriller Third Strike by Zoe Sharp, the protagonist Charlie Fox suffers the blow of being shocked by a stun gun. I was struck myself by the description of Charlie’s reaction:

The pain had a jagged quality all its own, ripping out chunks of my nervous system and spinning them away like debris from an explosion, so that some parts of my mind seemed magnified a hundred times and others were just big blank holes of frenzied nothingness. Next thing I knew I was on the floor, my body rigid. I was peripherally aware that my head was banging on the concrete and that was probably not a good thing, but I couldn’t stop the twitching dance of my limbs. My hands had distorted into the twisted claws of an arthritis-ravaged geriatric. I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. It was the worst cramp I’d ever had in my life, the most violent fever, the meanest hangover, all rolled into one.

Sharp not only wrote a vivid description, I felt the authority of her words. Her description seemed so realistic and rang so true that I almost wondered if she’d been shocked herself at some point by a stun gun. Read more

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