“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
― Ernest Hemingway
Some days, sitting down at the keyboard, or even thinking about it, feels like trying to give blood when the nurse can’t find the vein.
Here are eight exercises I use to get things flowing:
- People-watch: head out to a public place and watch for interesting characters. Ideally, you want somewhere with quite a bit of traffic, where people are coming and going, greeting people, and moving around, rather than just sitting still. Take in the differences in dress, facial expressions, and the way they look at others.
- Scry: stare at a random item, ideally one with some kind of pattern on it, up close and long enough that your brain starts to generate images. Use them as a jumping off point for a character, setting description, or plot point.
- Secrets: go for a walk and look closely at the first person you see. Take note of their appearance and demeanour. If they had a major secret that they’re keeping from their close friends and family, what would it be? What cues lead you to imagine that specific thing?
- The flipside: find an advice column and rewrite one of the questions from the opposite point of view, e.g. if a wife is complaining that her husband doesn’t do anything around the house, write a letter from him asking how someone can make her see all the work he is doing and understand how exhausting his job is, etc.. Reddit’s “Am I the Asshole” subreddit is an excellent source for this kind of thing, as are websites like AskMetafilter.
- Randomness: look around the place where you’re sitting, and note down the first three objects you see. Now make a list of how you could incorporate them into your current work-in-progress, or use them as the basis for a new story.
- Check their privilege: think of a prominent person you know, either someone in your own life or someone who has been in the news lately. Imagine what that person would be like if at least one major element of their identity were different, e.g. if the successful football coach were a woman. How would their personality express itself under those changed circumstances? Would their career or life be the same? Would they have succeeded or failed in the same way?
- Words and pictures: pick up the book closest to you. Open to a page in the middle and select three words at random. Type those words into a Google search and click on the first image that comes up. Write 100 words about what you see.
- Write a eulogy: imagine that someone you can’t stand has died and you’ve been tasked with writing their eulogy. You don’t want to resort to lies or platitudes, so you make a list of their most striking characteristics, and try to turn them into positives. The narcissistic cry-bully becomes someone with “confidence and assertiveness tempered with sensitivity.” The bore who never met a detail they didn’t want to foist on someone else “strove to understand, and make others understand,” etc.. Sometimes, if you do this well enough, you come to understand that the person actually had good intentions, or at least is not deliberately trying to annoy you. And, if nothing else, you do get to imagine them dead.
Over time, you’ll probably develop a couple of go-to prompts that usually work to get you unstuck. For me, they are “as she walked down the crowded street/empty path, she heard a loud/soft noise to her left and…” and “they hadn’t always hated/loved each other…”
If nothing on my list works for you, check out websites like writingexercises.co.uk for prompts, random character and plot generators, and a lot more. You’re sure to find something to inspire you.