I may only be Mistress of Fine Arts, but I am boss (my favorite trendy adjective, by the way) at using writing exercises to maximizing their use on my current work in progress. In almost every workshop or writing group I’ve attended in the past four or five years, my novel Dollhouse Daughter has always been at the forefront of my mind to finish and get it into the hands of my future readers. It’s been a long road and like all masterpieces is still incomplete.
As accomplished as I felt after completing my degree, my novel was in urgent need of structural renovations, character makeovers, and an addition of approximately 100 pages…at least! Add to that a start date of January and a deadline of July, and you have a recipe for confusion, disaster, stress, complete meltdown.
My sweet, beloved minions must be asking, “Mistress, how can you pull that off when you’ve expressed many times how slow your muse works, how you are notoriously slow to get new content written, and how much you procrastinate?”
My answer…drum roll please…WRITING EXERCISES. Now you’re thinking, “Okay, but those are just to help with the fundamentals and they aren’t even fun.”
Except my minions, they are! Character charts filled out like dating profiles, timelines for plots handwritten on notecards and taped to the wall, writing prompts specifically geared toward the book’s subject. When a book requires this much attention to detail or revising, the key is organization and focus.
Take for example my new outline for the revised plot. I have three separate pages of lined paper, draw so that on the left column you have the major points in the plot: obstacles, midpoint, denouement. And on the right side some keep points or summaries of the chapter’s contents.
The reason I have three? Well, my book has a main character (Cassie), with a subplot and important point of view from her mother (Marge), and a secondary mother-like character (Azalee). In the current version, let’s call it my MFA version, it had a lot of Cassie (as expected) and she was present in all 15 chapters. Marge was present in about 13 chapters. Azalee was only present in only 6 chapters. Thus I had to equalize the distribution of mother and mother-like character in order for the book to be balanced.
So, now that I was organized, I needed to focus. And here’s where my writing exercises came in handy. I needed new content, and a lot of it was for Azalee because she is a catalyst for the change Cassie had been waiting for.
I’m starting by using my monthly prompts (which you can read about here) in reference to write new content about Azalee, and thus add more content to my book. I feel like it’s an kind of art to take seemingly unrelated exercises, like prompts which pose a different story and genre in each one, and write a chapter or scene somehow related to one piece. This month, I chose a prompt about love spells and how someone would ever come to the decision to use magic to make someone love them. And who better to write this scene with than my vodou priestess!
So, I’m going to share my three tips for using writing exercises to benefit your current work in progress.
- Most stories beyond their theme or genre are about people, so choosing a character based prompt that focuses on why a character is making decisions or how they’re feeling are best. They are easiest to apply to many story ideas. You could use the love spell one, most obviously, for fantasy, but if you interpret spell differently you can use it as a scientific breakthrough or natural phenomenon in science fiction, or an emotional state for realistic fiction like romances or westerns or mysteries (to clarify: someone’s emotions are so strong, to call it a love spell would be a figurative description of the emotions). The most important part about that prompt is the intention or emotion you’re focusing on about the person willing to use a love “spell” on someone else is quite a character to write.
- There are hundreds of prompts out there that you can tailor to what you’re looking for. If you have a character who will soon have a flashback to childhood, but you’re having trouble envisioning that character. A prompt like this would help you find out what details to include with the flashback by creating the child’s setting: Imagine your character’s childhood room. What color are the walls, what kind of toys do they have, what posters hanging on the wall.
- Lastly, don’t be afraid to write something completely off topic. Say your work in progress is located in a warm climate. Don’t be afraid to choose a prompt relating to snow or ice because it puts your characters in a completely different environment or situation and can reveal something truly remarkable or unknown for you to use in your actual piece.
Whatever the reason, don’t be afraid to use simple, seemingly unrelated writing exercises to help you and your characters get to know each other. Because getting to know your characters in any situation, no matter how ridiculous, is the most efficient way you can tell your story. Look out for the prompt submission I’ll be posting on 2/22 using my vodou priestess Azalee and how she handles a love spell. If you want to read more about the prompt I used or want to try one of your own. Check out my monthly prompts chosen here.
Happy reading and writing!