What creative writing exercises were the most effective for you?
November 1, 2010 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Help me kickstart my creativity! What creative writing exercises were the most effective for you?

I haven't been doing enough creative writing this year and I'm feeling too rusty. I'm also lacking inspiration. I know that the best way to improve one's writing is to write more, right? Wright :)

I'm looking for creative writing exercises and techniques to jumpstart my creativity, and I'm especially curious about techniques or exercises that worked for YOU.

What inspired you?
Were there any exercises or techniques that really surprised you when you looked back on what you'd written?
posted by 2oh1 to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Long ago someone asked me what I wrote with. I said a typewriter. No, what do you write with. Pen? No. Pencil? No. I don't get it, I said. You write with your ass. Because if it isn't in the chair, you're not going to write.

Another lesson. I asked a professional author what she was working on. Sh said I needed to decide if I intended to write or to talk about writing, because I'd never do both.

Turns out you are dying. Slowly, if you're lucky, but perhaps tomorrow. If that isn't a motivator to write today then find a new hobby.
posted by eccnineten at 11:30 AM on November 1, 2010 [8 favorites]

National Novel Writing Month starts today! Use the plot generator and go go go!
posted by ilikecookies at 11:33 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

For NaNo, the thing that gets me moving is Write or Die. I pick guilt-inducing music and a plot/word count goal, and go. I was very skeptical, but some of my favorite passages have come from this mechanism.
posted by SMPA at 11:44 AM on November 1, 2010

Well, I think eccnineten's advice is a little harsh. I tend not to enjoy the company of "professional authors" whose approach to writing is like the one described above. That makes writing sound not at all satisfying or inviting. Rather, that sounds like some kind of macho dare: "
Are you gonna TALK about it, or DO it, PUNK...? You know you're GONNA DIE, RIGHT? If you can't handle the existential horror of the blank page, well there are a ton of scarves in this universe that ain't gonna knit themselves."

You can write, or not write, all you want. Writing is not a virtue and not writing is not a vice. But if you want to produce something or still that voice in your head that's saying "I should be writing," it's best you do it every day. If you're feeling paralyzed, just do a little tiny bit, but do it every day.

You asked for an exercise: Allow me to paraphrase Anne LaMott, from her book "Bird by Bird:" Consider a blank picture frame. The frame is only one inch by one inch. All you have to do is fill it in with some small things. Do this every day. I'm going from years-old memory of reading this, I really suggest you pick it up.

Now -- on the other hand -- here's where eccnineten's friend was exactly correct: You could spend the rest of your life reading some really good books about writing, and talking about those books (also -- check out Stephen King's "On Writing," -- loved it) and this becomes just another tactic to avoid doing it.

You could post on message boards about writing -- much like what I'm doing right this second, in order to procrastinate a little tiny bit more on my MFA thesis as I stare at a calendar where I can see a deadline rapidly approaching. (I must have "little tiny bits" of things on my mind...)

You're going to have to actually do it, so consider it like physical exercise: it can be a dull grind but also exhilirating. Get up and start while your coffee is brewing. One-inch picture frame. Or freewrite and don't stop typing till you've filled one page -- Times New Roman, 12 pt., double spaced...Commit to 30 minutes a day for a week. You'll be so glad you stuck to it that next week you'll want to do it more.

OK -- now I have to back and "write with my ass" a little more.

posted by Buffaload at 11:46 AM on November 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

If you want to write, you've got to read too. Meaning other the work of other people. Find an author whose style you'd like to imitate and dive in. This will help you get the creative juices flowing.

Also, exercise.
posted by elder18 at 11:51 AM on November 1, 2010

Think like an improvisational comedian. Start with a premise, and just keep saying "Yes, and..." and keep adding detail. Don't stop yourself. Just keep going. Stephen King doesn't sit at his computer thinking, "No, dude, that idea is too weird..." He just writes.

Here, start with this. Take something you like (movie, television show, book), change one major detail, and write something similar.

* Write Star Wars as if Luke Skywalker were a female character.
* Write a drama/comedy short story about the characters from Friends attending Rachel's funeral after her accidental Xanax overdose.
* Write "Pride and Prejudice" from the first-person perspective of Mr. Darcy.

Don't think. Write.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:57 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I always got surprising results from freewriting with a timer. The key part is that you must write continuously during the allotted time. No stopping to think, no editing. You can go completely freeform, or you can write about an idea or character. Most of it will be pretty bad, but the more you practice following the chaos of your mind this way, the more you'll find yourself writing things that surprise you -- things you didn't even realize were lurking inside, or things you would stop yourself from writing if you stopped to think.
posted by spinto at 12:01 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "You're going to have to actually do it, so consider it like physical exercise: it can be a dull grind but also exhilirating."

This is precisely why I was hoping for creative writing exercises that have worked for you. I have no problem making time specifically to write. I absolutely realize the importance of that. I'm looking for things to kickstart my creativity when I sit down to write each day.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:11 PM on November 1, 2010

In my writing group we each write a 100-word piece on a given word. It's fun, easy, and gets the writing juices flowing. And since it's not a huge commitment, you might be more willing to experiment with pov, style, voice, etc.

Need a word? Wikipedia has a Random button. Or try googling "random word" for other options. Or use an image.
posted by booth at 12:33 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Right -- what I should have said now that I've thought about it is that just the act of doing it regularly is what gets my creative electrons flowing.
posted by Buffaload at 12:41 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I particularly like an exercise where you imagine a character (either one you already have an are working on, or just out of thin air for the purposes of the exercise) and you figure out five things they have in their pocket or purse. (Or all the things, if you like!) From there you start to write a little vignette about the character as to WHY they carry all those things. Not only is this a fun exercise, but it makes me really nosy about my friends' pockets and purses. :) You really can learn a lot of small things about who a person is from their pockets or purse -- digging into my purse, you'd find a pacifier (I have a baby!), a tape measure (surprisingly useful, though does it tell you I'm practical or anal or engage in a particular hobby where it's frequently useful when shopping?), an enormous collection of business cards both my own and those of some very interesting other people, hand lotion (dry skin), and green pens (my preferred color, just for fun), for example. People have membership cards, loyalty cards, pens from their bank, coupons, tools, spare glasses, mini toothbrushes, string, lint, crumbs, all kinds of things!

Similar to booth's, I was once given a writing exercise where we had to write two pages on an item about the size of a child's wooden block or smaller. (A piece of candy, a die, a paperclip, a block, a USB drive, whatever.) We had to describe all its sensory qualities as thoroughly as possible. I'm not sure this so much got my creative juices flowing but it was a good exercise in being observant and thorough and writing that way.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:51 PM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know you're big into photography, so you might like this one. I used to do a project called 1000 Words. I'd take a picture that I liked (one that I took) and I told a story - usually about that picture or what was going on in my headspace at the time I snapped it. Or refound it. The trick was, the writing piece had to be 1000 Words. No more, no less.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:52 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


NaNoWriMo starts today, actually.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words by the end of the month. Many young writers don't finish their novels because they refuse to proceed if they hit a road block, or they feel that there are too many things wrong with their story, or if they spend too much time going back and editing their story, which burns them out. NaNoWriMo is supposed to teach you to crank out the novel first, no matter how awful it is, and edit it only AFTER you've finished writing the entire story from beginning to end. What's great about NaNoWriMo is that no one cares how disjointed the story is, if there are plot holes, or if a chunk of the story is missing, you're only goal is to meet the 50,000 word deadline. Period.

50,000 words for the entire month translates to about 1,666 words a day, which is very doable, but you must keep up with it every day, otherwise you won't make the deadline.
posted by nikkorizz at 1:06 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Brian Kiteley's 3 AM Epiphany is a great book, full of writing exercises.
posted by drobot at 1:41 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

This suggestion probably works better for poetry than fiction. I enjoy taking poem (either one of my own--and then either a poem I really like, or one I think is garbage--or one by a different poet) and rewriting it, but with certain constraits, like the first line has to be the last, and vice versa; or as a sonnet; or with a limited vocabulary. And so on. Sometimes I put in two or three constraints like that.

When I'm really at a loss, I also like to copy, in my handwriting, a poem by another poet. Handwriting it really makes me pay attention to every single word used, the puncuation, the line breaks, etc.

Even though I write poetry and not fiction, I also find it helpful to set-up/write the structure for a larger project (a novel, a play), and then write short pieces based on parts of it.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 1:42 PM on November 1, 2010

I agree with spinto's suggestion, what an old playwriting professor called swimming. Give yourself 15 minutes and put words to page. You may end up with complete gibberish, you may end up with a masterpiece. But what I've found is that it taps into that part of my brain where the creative juices are, so even if I come up with nothing, I can start writing on an actual topic much more easily afterward.

You may also enjoy a couple of writing websites previously mentioned on MeFi:
Six Minute Story and One Two Fiver.
posted by cottoncandybeard at 1:50 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the things which has been most effective for kick starting my creativity recently has been using 750words.com. Every morning, before I do any 'serious' writing, I sit down and do a braindump there. It's completely private, and I think of it like cleaning house. I'm sweeping the floors of my brain, getting out all the stuff that's distracting me - lists of bills to pay, stuff to do, things that have been bugging me. And after I've done that, I pick one "what if" and write on it for a few minutes. What would my childhood have been like if I'd had blue hair? What if my cat could talk? What if paper cuts were really lethal? What if the water in my shower were completely invisible? What if an alien started talking to me out of my sock drawer? What if this character lost his temper completely in that scene? What if this other character died? Something. Anything. Just what if - sometimes the first part of my writing, the housecleaning, will be spent entirely by sorting through possible what ifs and brain storming lists of what ifs to try in the future.
posted by lriG rorriM at 1:59 PM on November 1, 2010

I've been using 750words to keep focused with ongoing freewriting, and weirdly enough, I often get to a point of "inspiration" by actually writing out all the "OMG this sucks, I'm bored/boring" etc etc and eventually THAT gets boring enough that I find something to actually write.

There's lots of different options online for prompts; I've gotten good blog posts out of Plinky. If you're into Twitter, check out writingprompt.
posted by epersonae at 2:10 PM on November 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have a huge stack of flash cards - some of them are "learn a language" flash cards, some are just words. I also have a daily calendar booklet thingy (this one, but whatever floats your boat). I write a random word from the stack of flash cards (English, Italian, Spanish, noun, verb, whatever) onto each page when I pull out a new booklet (there's a page a day). I try to pull this out and think about the word and think about my day and write a little bit. I don't get to it every day, but when I do it makes me happy.
posted by ersatzkat at 2:45 PM on November 1, 2010

What works for me: not writing. Just Quit, and then wait for the pain to become unbearable.
posted by ovvl at 4:58 PM on November 1, 2010

I like the two books pretty well, esp. the workshop because it's more directed:

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
Fiction Writer's Workshop by Josip Novakovich

The workshop exercises really got me limbered up.
posted by rw at 5:24 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really like the book 3am Epiphany, and plan to get 4am Breakthrough when I make it through all the exercises. Most are prompts playing with POV, setting, or other aspects of fiction writing with a wordcount goal of 500-800 words. I usually write longer.

And because I have it handy, a list of 10 sites of prompts and generators:

posted by itesser at 11:50 PM on November 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sometimes something I see on PostSecret sparks an idea.
posted by pimli at 12:49 AM on November 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a fun and totally random excercise I share with a friend occasionally. Whenever I go to a super market and find an intriguing shopping list in my basket, I send a picture of it to my friend and vice versa. The task is to write an extensive portrait of the one who left it. Silly but fun. And a great topic to discuss over a beer or two.
posted by ouke at 2:53 AM on November 2, 2010

I found this Generate a Random Identity site when I was stumped trying to come up with a male name I liked. The site returns a bunch of information for your fake identity -- Mother's Maiden name, a website, occupation, email address. Given all of that, I find it really easy to create a story for this person.

I actually find it particularly interesting when a character has a plot purpose to serve but I haven't come up with a lot of backstory for them. Obviously, I don't use it all -- because who needs to know what their UPS Tracking Number is -- but I thought it might work for others too.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:04 PM on November 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm personally a huge fan of free writing. And using photographs of people as a cue to telling their story. In fact, people are a great source of inspiration for my writing - random people I see on the street, sitting at a train station, playing a guitar in the city square, browsing beside me in a bookstore...Then by free writing I uncover their story. Good luck! Great question - I know where to come for ideas next time I'm stuck!
posted by Susan Bonaci at 3:57 AM on November 3, 2010

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