We’ve all been there: sitting at our laptops, glaring at that blinking cursor on the blank page. It taunts us, dares us to let the muse loose on the page – except the muse hasn’t shown up.
And, if we waited until it did, we’d never get any writing done.
All writers know that, to write well, you have to train well. Just like athletes, writers have to practice every day. But sometimes, we just…can’t, and that’s okay.
Writing can grueling, especially when we get caught in a web of self-doubt and start worrying about publishing, deadlines, submissions, queries, etc. (Hell, it can be grueling even without those things.)
That’s where writing exercises come in. Even if you can’t face working on your story, you can still write something that will help develop your characters and get your creative juices flowing again.
Here are just a few of my favorite writing exercises for overcoming writer’s block.
This exercise is great for writers who want to learn how to write better dialogue or create an authentic character voice. How does it work? Well, you just write a conversation between some characters – no dialogue tags, no action, just words and voices.
While you’re writing, envision what your character’s voice sounds like. Is it high-pitched and whiny, or deep and seductive? What accent do they have? What words do they like to use? Do they curse a lot?
Then, think about how you can cram all that into the character’s own words, body language, and actions, rather than conveying it through dialogue tags.
The two-page story
I’ve noticed that many of my recent stories aren’t longer than two pages. (Surely it’s not because of my lack of self-discipline, tendency to procrastinate, or goldfish-like attention span!)
All jokes aside, I find that my short stories tend to resolve naturally by the end of the second page. And I’m talking about two Microsoft Word pages, not book-sized pages. The average word count for this exercise is ~1,000 words.
Many writers aim to say a lot in few words, and the two-page story is an excellent way to do that. Does it have to be a complete story? Nope. It can just be a scene for your WIP that’s been in the back of your mind, or maybe even a fresh new idea.
The two-page “story” – or play, or scene, or whatever – can be anything you want it to be, as long as it’s two pages.
The therapy letter
Does your character resent someone? Are they holding a grudge? Do they need to get some things off their chest, but don’t want confrontation? If so, have them write a “therapy letter.”
One of the most popular coping mechanisms for relationship problems is to write the person a brutally honest letter, and then rip it to shreds. This is supposed to help the victim let go and move on. (And, like many coping mechanisms, it doesn’t always work.)
This is just one of the ways writers can pick their characters’ brains. You should, ideally, write the letter from the character’s POV. Not only will this help them explore their own trauma and perhaps find a way to resolve it, but you’ll get to know your character better – and they just might surprise you along the way.
For example, a character named Jack has been wandering around the catacombs of my brain’s creative department for awhile. He’s a middle-aged father who misses his former lover, a woman named Val who was married to an abusive partner, but is now divorced.
I didn’t know what to do with Jack, but the poor guy needed to get some things off his chest, so he wrote Val several “therapy letters,” in which he confesses that both he and his daughter miss Val so much they can’t sleep. I’d intended for him to rip up the letters, but to my surprise, he decided to send them to her! And she wrote back.
I’d meant to find out how Jack handled grief and pain internally, but I soon discovered that he wasn’t one to bottle up his feelings; he’d rather confront them head-on to get some answers. I also gained insight into his unique voice and thought process, as well as his feelings toward his daughter and his life in general.
It’s amazing what you can learn from your characters when you give them the pen and let them tell their story in their own words.
The key to any writing exercise is to shut up your inner editor and write. It doesn’t have to be good – in fact, it shouldn’t be. Like physical exercises, writing exercises are only meant to make you stronger. But don’t just take my word for it – try them yourself!