Writing Exercise: Lessons From the Past

This week I’m sharing the writing exercise I am currently engaged in, and finding it very fun and helpful…though word of warning: self-discipline is involved or you’ll end up simply reading a lot of good stories.

A particular interest of mine is the American homefront during World War II, which among other things, coincided with the end of the golden age of magazine fiction, a time when virtually every magazine had at least one story in it. Also, many women’s magazines and general interest magazines had five or six, often with a complete short novel included.  (Those were the days!)

Over the years, I’ve collect many magazines from the late ’30’s and ’40’s, and while I’ve read them with pleasure, I’d never really looked critically at the fiction they contain. So, as I’ve been reading these seventy year old stories and taking them apart, what am I learning?

First, that many of the stories revolve around one single moment in time and are relatively plotless; for example, the breaking off of an engagement and the reactions of the three characters involved.

Second, most of the stories’ characters are expertly drawn with a few simple details.  I’ve been amazed at the authors’ ability to create someone we all know while avoiding a stereotyped character.  Whether it’s the man or woman who stands in the corner during parties, or the man who always has an answer (that everyone knows may or may not be correct, including himself) or the woman whose reaction to anything is always perfect–not sincere or genuine, but perfect. These authors know how to create a character quickly and simply.

Third, most of these stories offer knowledge about something as well as a story.  A wonderful story dealt with a traveling bee wrangler, a young man who traveled around the country with a hundred bee hives following the flowers. The author not only uses the symbolic opportunities the bees provide, she also educates her readers on how the bees are handled and moved from place to place.  (Who knew bees don’t like the smell of leather?)

These stories are not written by people whose names you would recognize. These are not the folks whose work has been collected on library bookshelves.  But these writers know how to write and reach the reader immediately, and they are well worth studying.  If you don’t share my interest and happen to have seventy year old magazines lying around, back bound issues are often available through public library inter-library loan systems or online.  These literary craftsmen and women are skilled, fun to read, and capable of teaching us quite a lot about the craft of writing. Enjoy!

Writing Exercise: Would You Like To Be More Prolific?

Sure, I hear you saying, who wouldn’t?  But how do I end up with more writing than I’ve had in the past?

The answer is easy and obvious: Write more.

Ha! you say.  I’m writing as much as I possibly can now.  How can I ever find time to do more?

Time isn’t the issue.  What you’re working on is.

Consider this project for 2013.  It can comprise your “writing time,” or it can make up your “I want to be a better writer” time.  Or it can be both!

Here’s what you do:  Write one story every week of the year.  Yes, seriously, a story a week.  But wait, I say to myself, what about this last week—the last week of break? When your daughter was sick? And you started exercising seriously again?  And you tried to finish up all those around the house projects you swore you’d do before the new semester?  How could I ever have written a complete story last week?

Clearly, discipline will have to be involved.  But the rules are very flexible—in a busy week, perhaps you write a piece of flash fiction in an hour.  During a more relaxed week, perhaps a fifteen page story with an actual outline.  These stories aren’t about perfection; don’t worry too much about making every sentence polished and beautiful.  These stories are about learning your craft and giving yourself material with which to work in the future.

There are three big benefits to taking on this project:  first, making yourself write a story a week exercises your writing muscles; after a month, you’ll be seeing story possibilities every time you turn around.  Second, exercising the discipline to get something complete down on the page every week will help that old saying about success being 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration become crystal clear.  Finally, at the end of the year, you’ll have fifty two stories to work with—and how wonderful is that!

Creating Characters Not Like You

Every Monday, writers can now look forward to starting their writing week right with an inspirational writing exercise! We’re starting with something everyone is familiar with–character building. 🙂

1)     One problem many writers encounter is how to create characters that are significantly different from themselves.  Sure, the character may be a nineteenth century male archeologist excavating in Egypt, and the author a hometown girl who has never left the state she was born in, but does that character react like its creator when angry?  Frustrated?  Joyous?  Successful?  An exercise I’ve found helpful is to consider a specific situation or problem in my own life, write briefly about how I handled it, and then put my character in the same situation and consider how he or she would handle it, concentrating on the differences between us…and making sure there are some!   I often discover qualities and emotions I didn’t realize my character possessed doing this exercise. 

 

For example, I have a character who is an adolescent girl confronted with a very strange young man who, while not violent or overtly threatening, is either from another dimension or mentally disturbed.  As a fifteen year old in a similar situation, I was very polite, very shy, and very scared: how do I get out of here as quickly as possible without hurting anybody’s feelings?  My character is also scared, but feeling even slightly threatened leaves her confrontational and unconcerned with being polite, or with getting the heck out of there.  She is, for the moment, ready to stay and make her points clearly. 

When and how do you and your character react differently? How would your own character react?