Writing exercises to break the block
10 Writing exercises to help you start writing again

Chapter 7 Ten Writing Exercises to Help

Writing exercises help you get your mojo back when you feel stuck in your writing. They are also a way to pick a different style of writing from your norm and find out if it could be something else you like doing. They can be just for fun. Some writers do a short ten minutes of a writing exercise to start their creative juices going then they dive back into the book they are actually writing. So whether it is trying something new, or just having some fun, have a go at one of these writing exercises. There are many more than these ten exercises on the Net if you go searching for them.

1. Try Free Association as a Form of Brainstormiong

Take a topic, a new Word document, and put down as many words as you can think about the topic then start writing about it. It is a form of stream of consciousness so no self-editing as you write. Some people like to set a time limit of ten to twenty minutes for the writing to occur in. If this is done in a group situation almost everyone there will write about something different. If you don’t believe me have your writing group try it out. If you are writing all by yourself you may not want to put a time frame on it.

The aim can be to write as deeply as possible and continue writing till you have nothing left to say. You might find that it grabs you, pulls you in and all of a sudden you have a very good start to a book you had never thought about writing before. It may be in a completely different genre than you are used to. If you think your reader may not like it then use another pseudonym and maybe later you can let your readers know that this is something you have written as well. It could be a romance instead of a crime mystery or the other way round. If your skills as a writer are good, or improving, they are transferable to a different genre.

If you are blocked in the book you were writing before trying this exercise you often find the Muse has returned. You look at the current work, see what needs doing and you are off again. Your brain has had time away and has been working quietly in the background while you were doing the free association exercise. It has made a few new associations while you were otherwise occupied and these could be the needed way forward.

2. Use a New POV

The idea here is to use a totally different POV (Point of View) than you usually use in your writing. There are a number of POVs but the most commonly used ones are the third person omnipresent and the first person POV. Whatever is your norm, swap it.

The First Person POV is the main character telling you the story. You only find out what is happening in the story from what they know, do or feel. Very occasionally it is done from the view of a close supporting character. It is immediate but can be limiting. It can involve readers a bit more as the reader often puts themselves in the position of the ‘I and me’ action happening. I am using it in a MG book as I feel it gives the child’s POV better. This is something you assess before, or even during, your writing but you have to make a decision and stick to it throughout your book. It becomes very obvious and somewhat annoying if the POV keeps changing.

The Third Person POV is more usually employed in writing a novel as you appear outside the character as a narrator. It can be split into limited where it is similar to 1st person POV or it may be set a bit further out so you know more, or multiple 3rd person POV where you follow a number of characters and make it obvious when you are changing to the next person. The last one is 3rd Person Omniscient when the Narrator is like God, knowing and seeing everything. This is very popular among writers.

There is also 2nd person POV that used to be popular a few centuries ago but now it is mostly used for writing instructions. It tells people what to do and how to do it.

So why try something new? It can jog you out of a funk. It can make your mind work harder for a while. You might find that something you have written would read better in a different POV than what it is currently written in. It might become more commercial or it may just read, oh so much, better.

3. Make a Research Rendezvous

Try a new research topic and do only research. You might want to write a nonfiction book instead of a novel or vice versa. Maybe if you talk to a parent about their life you will start a biography or relate it to how you remember your life and make it a memoir. You never know when and where this research will be used, or even if it will get used, ever. It is a learning process. It is a way to jog you out of the rut you didn’t even know you were in.

Try to research in different ways too. If your research is normally done on the Internet, try doing it through using books, magazine and newspaper articles. Older, non digital knowledge might be exactly what is needed to round out your book. Try interviewing a person if you haven’t before. Asking a real person questions might show you how to get to know your characters better. If it is on a new subject it might be an inspiration for your next book. Use the Internet to find out everything available online about your subject and probably get hopelessly side tracked at the same time.

Put the research you have done into a file, physical or digital, and label it properly. Put it into a Research Folder so it is easy to find and doesn’t get lost. It may be part of something you write at a future date or it may be the start of a totally new book. You never know what will happen with it but I bet your brain is spinning with the joy of learning so many new ideas and things.

4. Person, Place, Event

This is fun to do in that so many ideas of characters and their actions can be tossed around turning out differently each time you move your finger. Get a piece of paper and a pen so you can get started.

Rule the paper into thirds down the page. At the top of page put Person in the first row, Place in the second row and Event in the third row. The event can be past, present or future so note that date beside the event. You then get to chose one from the first column, one from the second column and one from the third column. Make a different choice every time you do it and get a story idea from it. Mad scientists, dinosaurs and world destruction millions of years ago could be one option. Put some insane ideas in the all the columns and some more normal ones. They are just a starting point for a short tale at the start.

The list of people can be professionals, paranormals, space creatures, lovers, family, enemies or friends. You want a lot of different sorts of people so the interactions between them have interesting variations. They can have places in a story of the protagonist, antagonist, love interest, supporting character or mentor and be the unexpected character to occupy the role you give them.

The second list is Places and you need to list any that come into your mind. A library, school, home, Atlantis, a moon base or any other outer space thing, underwater caves, volcanoes, American cities and anything else your mind thinks of. Now you have your characters and your setting to play around with. Variety in your settings means variety in the possible conflicts that can happen.

The third list is the Event. This is the Inciting Event in this tale so you need to know what type of event it is and when the timeframe is. An execution done today is going to be different from one in Ancient Rome so knowing when the event occurs is important. There would be actions and reactions that would be right for one time and not another.

Putting the three choices together may mean you end up writing a really mad story or it could be the kernel of an idea you might want to follow further and create a book out of it. The fuse has been lit to get you at the keyboard and doing some writing. I found a fascinating trope chart on the Internet that had a large number of choices to play with and had fun writing a number out as short stories that helped me get back into writing again instead of just talking about doing so.

5. Writing Prompts.

Use writing prompts from the Internet. Often you are encouraged to write a snippet in the comments area below the prompt. Read some of them and you will realize that there are freaky writers out there, ones with not much imagination, and others with vivid descriptions within their tale. Once again it makes you think outside the box, tip you out of your normal thought patterns and into renewed creativity.

The topic may be given for a competition and you can take it in any direction you want as long as the topic is an important part of the story. If so, you may need to do some planning and take down a few notes of how you want the story to roll out on the page. Sometimes in a group setting doing creative writing you just have to put your hand and pen on the paper and write till the time is up. Try to do it as though you are writing at home and keep some ideas of a progressive plot happening.

Anything can be a prompt. A single word like ‘Love’ can mean so many things to so many people; parental love, sibling love, love of your nation or the world, spirituality, overwhelming joy or even the flipside; ‘Hatred’ may come up in your mind. ‘Horrifying’ as the word may lead to some very good horror stories or it could be something that happened to people you knew, or just saw on TV, going through war or a natural disaster. All these many actions, or reactions, from just one word at the start of your thought process about your story. What word would you use as a prompt for a story?

A short phase can be a good prompt. ‘Huge, white and freezing’ could lead onto a tale starting with “Whatever he saw looming up beside the ship was going to cause a lot of damage. It was white in the moonlight, twice as tall as the highest mast and had him shivering in his boots.” It would be a good start to the tale of a disaster at sea and how people coped, who managed to survive and who they lost in the disaster. The phrase does not have to be long but it does have to give some context that a tale can be built on.

Maybe your prompt is a paragraph. Could it be the first paragraph in a classic story, myth or tale? Maybe the prompt is to retell an old well-known tale in an interesting way if it was set in today’s world or maybe even in the future. The person setting up the prompts may have written their own paragraph to see how others would deal with what they had put in it.

Photos or other pictures can be great triggers for stories. If you are writing a memoir, or an autobiography/biography, it could be the starting point of a chapter. A photo can bring up memories and they come back to the forefront of your mind, or your client’s mind, again with all senses involved. Capturing those memories often leads on to other memories and ones you have not thought about for years also surface.

Pictures in a book, on walls, on the Internet or wherever you find them can be the start of a story. The picture of an atomic bomb explosion could expand out to a dystopian future, a talk on the need for world peace before our mutually assured destruction has a chance to happen, or it could focus on a person who has survived a nuclear attack and how their life was afterwards. One of a beautiful light filled waterfall against a dark background could be a metaphor for our spiritual lives or a guide to a tramp in that specific area. All the pictures do is give you an unexpected creative point to start from.

6. Eavesdropper

You can learn so much when you eavesdrop on people while you are on public transport, sitting at a café or in a library, or even while you are walking around town. It has to be a public space where a lot of people are moving and talking or sitting and talking. You can set yourself up with a notebook and pen or your favourite digital work-piece and then just listen to people around you while sipping your coffee. It needs to be a solitary experience or you will miss too much of the conversations you are listening to. If this does not sound right to you just think of it as a training exercise.

Having trouble with the dialog in your story; listen to the sound of the voices, how their sentences are structured, whether others interrupt them while talking, emotions displayed or not, the weird coincidences happening in their life and so much more. You won’t use their conversations word for word. That is just weird. You will use how people talk and the things they will discuss if they think no-one else is listening in on their conversations while they are out in public. Some things you would swear only got talked about behind closed doors but no, they are talking with hundreds of people around them, feeling unseen in a crowd.

The people you are listening to may be walking past you talking to friends or family. They may be sitting near you on seats or in a café. They could be friends you are sitting with; that would be a quick note which you can say is a reminder of a job you have to do later. Listen very carefully but do not make it too obvious what you are doing which may mean you have to school yourself into not reacting to something you heard.

Take as many notes as you can as they may end up being a valuable resource for your writing. Filter out all the ums and ahs as readers can’t be bothered with that unless it really is needed for your character’s attitude. Timing, words used, things discussed, reactions within the conversation is all grist for the mill of writing. You can share these notes within your writing groups and how you may use them or keep them private. You may find yourself laughing with some of the notes and this may help you write humorous remarks that will surprise a laugh out of your readers too.

7. Mad Lib

For this exercise you take three words given to you; a noun, a verb, and an adjective which are the basis of most sentences. You start your exercise by creating a tale around using whatever springs into your mind from those three words. Nouns are a person, place, idea or thing. Verbs are action, or state of being, words. Adjectives are descriptive words. Eiffel Tower, tall metal structure, rising can lead to how you felt when you visited it or the New Year’s Eve celebrations experienced there when you took your wife of twenty five years to visit it. So many types of stories could come from it.

It is best if the words are random though as then you really get to play. Remember the magnetic words you could put on your fridge and how often you would look to find a totally different phrase had been arranged since the last time you looked. You could do this with a large group of people, ask them to write one of each on separate pieces of paper, put them into three containers and get everyone to pick one out of each container, put them in a sentence and say it aloud. Laughter will probably ensue.

The next step in this progression is to write them, in context, in a story. Maybe you use those three words at the start for your inspiration, maybe they are slipped in elsewhere in the story or maybe it can be at the conclusion to wind everything up. It doesn’t matter where they are as long as they have inspired you to write a story and they appear in it in a logical or constructive manner.

This is a good activity to do with at least one other writer but the number of people doing the exercise at the same time can be any amount. You might try it out in your writing critique group, your creative writing course or as a writing prompt on the Internet where millions of people may see it and try it out.

Creativity bounds freely from just three words used well.

8. Use the Musical Muse.

Feeling a little stale with the genre of writing that you have been doing? Pick another style and listen to the sort of music you think might be appropriate for that genre. What better music for a country romance than country music with all the love songs and breakup songs that abound in that sort of music. Listen to the music from an historical period to give you some idea of the type of life they may have lead; Gregorian chants and monasteries go together in my mind. Johann Strauss and Viennese waltzes could be a lovely setting to play with for a story of love and intrigue. Hip-hop and rap may get you urban tale sounding more authentic. Each style of music could be another style of writing; have a play with it.

The rhythm, beat, words used and subject matter contained in them get you into the feelings and headspace you need to write your story. Yes, there are writers who like to write with no external distraction but they could listen to the music before they actually start their writing. Other writers like the music as a background, almost white sound, that keeps them going in the right direction. At the end of a book you can occasionally find that the author has given you their playlist listened to while writing. Investigate that playlist and see if you understand where it may have had an effect on their writing.

Whose music do you use for this exercise? Look at what you have with you on your phone or at home in the CDs or on iTune, Spotify or other music programs.. If you want a change look at music on YouTube, or streamed music, or even what’s being played on the various radio stations in your area. If you are in town what is the Musak being played around you; can that become part of a scene in your story too.

Music pulls emotions from deep within people and makes you experience them again. Who does not have a special song with their lover or partner? Many years later I still remember an English Air Force navigator I met when ‘It Never Rains in California’ was a popular song. There are many ways to use the power of music. Explore this adjunct to your writing; it may surprise you how powerful it can be for change to occur in your writing.

9. Sharpen the Saw

The best way to know how the genre you want to write in works is to read a number of books from different authors in that genre. You do have to be careful you don’t write the same story when you have a go at your own novel. It does help you figure out the expected characters, settings and adventures the readers are looking for. There are variations and as you are writing your book you can create your own world. The rules you set up at the start have to be the same at the end of the book though.

If you are already writing that book then you can relax and see how authors write in the genre you have chosen. You might have to provide a sex scene or two and you can study how much oomph you have to put into that sex scene. You can understand whether the story is a fuller story with, or without, being done in that particular genre. Your werewolf might be like a human who can occasionally turn into a wolf or a wolf who masquerades as a human most of the time by the amount of wolfiness you show in the character. The second one will make for a well rounded and interesting story but will require a lot of research into wolf behaviour. The style of writing will sink into you as you read other author’s books.

Having read a pile of different books you come back to your own and tighten the story up to the stage where you feel it is better than what you have been reading. Write notes down in your notebook about what you found in other authors’ writing that spoke to you as a writer. As a writer yourself you find that you start to critique the books you read; put it to good use in your own writing. You will cope with the post first draft editing as you see your book  turning into a publishable state. The joy of writing your book floods back and it gets you to the finish line even if it takes a number of edits and rewrites to get there.

10. Think Outside the Box.

Take a topic that might be different from what you are currently working on and explore it fully. It might be to find out what the natural behavior of different animals is like and take notes on it. Are they group animals or solitary creatures? Where are they on the food chain; prey or predator, as this affects behaviour? What settings are they normally found in? You can have a full file that may be of use some day. It could be for a paid article about them or you could use it when writing a changeling novel.

Be passionate in learning this new topic and it will show when you write something using what you have learned. The depth of research will be reflected in the veracity of your story. Readers will understand you have spent time taking a good look at the subject if they check it out themselves because you sparked an interest in doing so and they will find similar sources; especially if there is a bibliography or acknowledgement at the end mentioning them.

The passion you put into learning a new topic can spill over to the work you are already involved in. You may be able to finish the current work faster as research has been done you may have needed. You may start planning and outlining your next project when you have finished your daily writing on the current project. The topic you chose to look at is probably something you may not have even thought about before but it may have totally captured your interest and lead you down a path less travelled to a destination you can hardly believe. That totally improbable story could have turned out superbly and be your breakout book, your ‘overnight success’ after all these years.

It rejuvenates you. In fact that might have been the topic and you may start to apply it to your personal life with the best results possible. Exercise might enter your life and you find that your brain is working better and your body gets over the weird position your body is in during your writing time. Mini breaks could keep you rested and in a Zen zone. Your dreams may be more vivid and they are used in your book with good effect. Body, soul and mind are rejuvenated as is your writing.

Out of the 10 exercises I have offered here give some a try and see if you find there is any difference in your writing. Are you happier after doing it and then reading what you have produced in the end? You might find the daily grind becomes the daily joy again. Remember that feeling you had when at the start of your writing journey. Return to that feeling. Take the drudgery out of your daily writing by exploring and having fun. It may remain as just a bit of fun. It may become your first bestseller. You won’t know until you have had a go.

Let me know whether the exercise created any change or were a way to renew the spark in your writing. Did they help? Could you be bothered? Was there no change at all but they were fun to do?


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