Archive for the ‘Writing Exercises’ Category

Getting Ideas: Characterization

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Regarding the source of fictional ideas for writers, science fiction author, Michael Moorcock, once wrote: “Terry Pratchett claimed that his came from a warehouse in Croydon, England, while Harlan Ellison would tell people that his arrived every month from a mysterious mail-order place in Peoria, Illinois.[1]” Kidding aside, sometimes it can feel like there’s no inspiration to be found. Right?

If you’re coming up short of ideas, why not start by creating a character? Don’t worry about what she/he is going to do, what’s going to happen, or even where s/he lives. Just make up a character. Just have fun.

First, let’s give him a name. How about Sam? Okay, Sam it is. Now, is there anything unusual about Sam? Maybe he has a Roman nose, or a big wart or hawkish eyes. Perhaps he has a dry sense of humor. Imagine Sam in your mind and just write some things down. Do you like Sam? Would others? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Maybe he’s ambiguous, confused, or terribly ordinary. Put whatever qualities you want. Again, just have fun.

Now that you know a little about Sam, how about filling in some back story? Where did he grow up? Does he have any siblings? What was/is his father like? His mother? Was he a country boy or a city slicker? Did he live uptown or in the slums? What time period does he live in? What universe? Did he have a happy childhood, feeling loved and accepted, or did he have an abusive parent in whose eyes he couldn’t do anything right? Maybe he grew out of test tube and had no parents at all. All these things affect your character’s values, behavior and motivations. Now, let’s write about Sam, shall we?

Sam looked out the grimy window of his cramped office, his brown eyes peering over that unmistakable Jewish nose of his that always got him in trouble. His mother used to say he couldn’t keep his nose out of anything. And she was right. Perhaps it was this innate curiosity that led Sam into his field. And also made him the best. Sam had more solved cases on the books, in just five years, than any other New York City detective.

See how easy? I just made it up off the top of my head. If a story or setting doesn’t pop into your mind right away, never fear. Just keep writing about your character. For instance:

Sam, a 32 year old Jewish man, was the middle child between two sisters, one three years his elder, the other two years younger. As a middle child, he might have felt ignored, had it not been for the fact that he was the only son and the apple of his mother’s eye. His parents, Russian-Jewish emigrants and skilled craftsmen, ran a small jewelry store downstairs from the 2-bedroom flat in which he grew up in the Bronx. Much of the jewelry they sold was mere baubles — trinkets for the lower class to appease an angry girlfriend or a cheap gift for Mother’s Day. But his father, Boris, also made fine custom jewelry for which he was known all around Manhattan. Sometimes, a famous person would even drop by, ordering a special piece for a wedding or other special event. Those days were exciting for Sam, who would hide behind the counter, watching the rich and famous converse easily with his dad. In spite of a thick Russian accent, Boris was good natured and affable with clients; Sam liked to think he got his people skills from those days that he watched his father at work.

This isn’t for others to read, so don’t worry about the quality of your prose. This is just back-story to prime your pump. If you get to know character well enough, you just might find a story popping up around her. And, when you do get around to writing it, you’ll be enabled to bring much more consistency and depth to your characters because they’ll be like old friends who you know all too well.

Til next time, happy writing!

© Ashandra-Aah, 2009. No part of this article may be copied, reposted, or reprinted without the author’s express permission.


[1] Moorcock, Michael. The Eternal Champion. Forward. Revised edition. 1987.

Everyday Objects as Lenses of Creativity

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Did you ever think that the objects all around you could spark your imagination?

Too often, we take for granted the ordinary world and the mundane objects that compose it. So accustomed to them do we become, in fact, that we just about cease to see them! Our eye passes over millions of objects a day but, unless we have a real need, our conscious mind doesn’t notice. Selective perception – or filtering — they call it in psychology. To be a writer, however, we need to broaden our perception, to learn to notice the details. It’s time to wake up; to begin to notice, once again, the objects all around us and what they all mean.  So let’s start simple in this exercise and work up from there.

This writing exercise can be done in five minutes or fifty, depending on how involved you get. You’ll need a computer, or pen and paper for writing, and any object from your home.

Now, sit down with the object in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and hold the object in your hand. If it’s too large to hold, place it before you on a table. Run your fingers over the surface, feeling the texture, temperature… Does it reflect light, absorb heat; have a smell? Close your eyes and let your mind wander. What does the smell, the sound — the feel of it — remind you of? Does it trigger a memory; ignite a thought? Write it down NOW.

EXAMPLE: I’m holding the fine ceramic tea cup, with red roses on the side. The edge is gilded in gold. I imagine it used to have a saucer too, but it got broken somewhere along the line… My mind wanders into a story about an old grandmother who used the cup every afternoon. Grandma would sit in her rocker in the sunny place by the window, looking out at her roses which surrounded the house with glorious fragrance all summer long. It was from this cozy spot that grand-mama dispensed wisdom to all would listen. I used to go every Wednesday and visit, bringing her groceries and mail on my way. As we sat and had tea and cookies (I had milk), she shared with me the stories of her childhood, the depression…how her father would work for a dollar a day, and how excited she and her siblings would get when he came home with a quart of milk and potatoes to eat. Grandma had lived through a lot, and she knew a lot too. A consummate reader, grandma always…

See? That only took me a minute and I’m off and running with a potential story. And so it goes…

Any old object can be an inspiration. Do you have a spatula? How about how you got spanked by grandpa when you were just wee lad? Got a painting? How about the starving artist struggling to make it in the poor village in Mexico? Got a mp3 player? How about a story of a runaway teenager, her only possession the mp3 player her mom got her for Christmas last year? See what I mean. Now, you go and try it.  :-)

Copyright 2008 Ashandra-Aah

Inspiration in the Mundane

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Writing is a craft, as well as an art. That’s good news; it means it can be improved with practice. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. And write and write and write… Stuck for ideas? Try this little end-of-the-day exercise.

Sit down and write a description of something mundane you did today. Say, for example, you bought gas. What were you thinking as you filled your tank? Were you having any feelings? What was the weather like? Scorching sun, rain, wind? Were your clothes stuck to your body with sweat; hair blowing in the gusty wind? Note the smell of the gas, people around, etc. Keep it simple. Write only one or two paragraphs.

Now re-read your narrative. Is it interesting or bland? Can you taste your sweat, feel the cold nip of the breeze on your nose? Does it lack flavor? No matter. Just take note of it without judgment, for this will help your writing improve.

Now you have the choice of writing more or chilling out. Which shall it be? Want to move on? Okay, now let’s get outlandish. Take the true beginning and add something absurd. Say you’re in the store paying for the gas and a man comes in and robs the place. You hide behind a row of snacks, terrified; trying not to wet yourself. As you peak through the canned goods you realize, in horror, that you know the man. In fact, you’re dating him!

Or maybe a van careens into the station lot, screeching to a halt. Two men jump out wearing Easter bunny masks and grab you, pulling you into the van and slamming the door behind them. The car lunges into gear and they tear out, speeding down the road. After a few minutes, the man in the front seat turns to face you. To your surprise, it is…the president of the United States!

See how it works? It’s easier to write than most of us have been told. So what are you waiting for? Just write! :)

Copyright 2008 Ashandra-Aah

Writing Exercise: Poetry from a Hat

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

Before a show, some actors make odd sounds or strange faces to loosen up their tongue, throat and facial muscles. Likewise, an athlete may stretch, a singer may run scales. All these are simply ways of relaxing and preparing the body for a time of concentrated, high performance. Likewise, if you want to use your brain to write, it helps to “stretch” your mind it a bit, warming it up for its time of “performance.” Here’s a fun exercise that I enjoy. You can use this to “prime the pump” for a specific writing project, to jump-start your creativity if you feel your writing getting stale or, if you’re new to writing, as a way to get start putting pen to paper. I call this “Poetry in a Hat” because it reminds me of a magician pulling a rabbit from of a hat. I’ve also occasionally called it “poetry on the fly ” because I’m whizzin’ right through it.

What you’ll need

Preparing for this exercise involves a bit of work but, once it’s set up, it’ll be ready anytime you need it. What is required is a basket, bowl, bag, or hat with thousands of words in it. You can buy ready-made strips of paper containing words in some stores or you can cut them out of magazines while you sit around watching TV or other entertainment. It may take you a few days or weeks but, eventually, you’ll have it. If you have kids, try enlisting their help for a family project, teaching them how to use the words afterwards. They’ll love it. Or bribe them with a penny a word, a nice treat, or whatever their particular personalities respond to. At any rate, all you need for this exercise is a deep container and thousands of individual words.

How to use

Just mix up all your words and pull five from the hat. Now write a poem. Don’t think about it — just do it! We’re not going for a masterpiece. We just wanna loosen up. Here’s one I wrote:

Struggling humble
through the bramble
Strong words blow
the ruthless roots.
Prowl the dark side of the island,
cold steel and cypress beams;
Wreckage formed by friendly shatter.

Cavernous implosion
governed by Venus
Floats upon the flying wave
Touch the ruthless
rocky shadow
But ne’er walk
upon the grave!

See? Nothin’ to it. It doesn’t have to make total sense. In fact, you can come up with some interesting word choices when you just allow anything to come and not fight so hard. If I was trying to make sense, I would never have come up with “ruthless roots” or “friendly shatter,” two phrases I find appealing. The main thing is to get yourself playing with words and having fun. Then, before you know it, you’re back in touch with your creativity. :)

Copyright 2008 Ashandra-Aah

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