Let's say you were given a word or two for starting an exercise, the beginning of a sentence, "First thing in the morning..."
Your task is to write anything for about 5 timed minutes. If you’re in a group maybe, you'll be asked to volunteer to read your exercise out loud. Beginning writers are encouraged to limber up with this type of exercise.
So you look at your paper, or the keyboard, and begin writing:
First thing in the morning, all I have to do is get up and write my page. ...
After a while, you have files or notebooks full of these types of exercises. But, you haven't got nearly as many finished short stories or complete novels under your belt. How much time to you think the average beginner spends doing writing exercises? How much time creating short stories or novels?
Where is the disconnect? Could it be that we neglect to look at exercises once we finish writing them? That limbering up doesn’t lead to finishing up? What does it take to move to the next step and begin looking at your own work?
It takes Questioning. Not much else. Ask yourself:
- Does the exercise paragraph mean anything?
- Can you use this for a character study?
- Can you mold it into a piece of dialog?
- Can it be expanded into a scene or a hunk of narrative?
The answer to that last one might be, "No, not if I let it stay the way it reads now. A lot more work's needed from how that reads now.”
Unhappily, if you work the way some novices do, constantly exercising, but anxious about moving on. Never going any farther than the group exercises, you’ll just be glad for the immediate gratification and attention in the feed back of the polite “That’s good work.”
Some of us start out afraid to try really writing something whole that begins, has a middle, and then ends. Afraid of something that requires a quantity of rewriting, edits, and reconsidering (where your function changes to looking, questioning and working with your stuff). If this is you, your exercises may grow in number but you finished work may not.
- Example Toggle
Here's a sample of a novice's writing with our prompt. Consider this the before version:
First thing in the morning, all I have to do is get up and write my page. I tell myself this every morning and yet I can't seem to ever follow through. I reassure myself I will tomorrow and I'm building up to it. Am I lacking the will or am I unable to do it at all? Instead of doing what I need to do or want to do I end up wandering into the kitchen, getting some coffee and then I’m off and running through my day.
Does the above look or feel like your writing? Want to bring things more to life?
Want to get away from exercises like this and get into telling a story?
Want to hear a prompt like “First thing in the morning...” and end up with something that isn’t about you, but is about a story you want to create?
For the exercises that you complete, one of two things can be done to turn them into a new start. It all has to do with looking at your work.
After the exercises are on paper, start by asking questions like the ones in your lesson, and take notes on how you answer. Call these notes of yours ‘Pre-work’, if you want. Not every exercise will blossom into a viable bit of work, but then, if you’re given an exercise you can always make sure it will blossom by focusing on what you want the exercise to give you. Don’t write accidentally. Make the exercise work for the writer, not the other way around.
- Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle
Lesson Exercise 1:
Let’s use the sample paragraph and work though what we have on our page. After working with the sample you can move on to your own writing exercises and get them to work for you.
Below is a sample of how one writer answered these questions to get things started:
- Does the paragraph mean anything?
- No, it doesn’t mean much now, at least not the way I left it, and at least nothing I can see.
- Can you use this for a character Study?
I can probably use this for a girl who is bored with her job, but can’t let herself take up writing for a living. Or for a guy who got a new journal from his girlfriend for his birthday -maybe she’s a real artsy type—and he’s trying to score.
It might work for internal dialog, how she talks to put herself down on the way to her mom’s or how about what she says to a shrink or a best friend? Yeah.
The wandering into the kitchen and getting coffee is a good part. I can show more with descriptions. How the kitchen looks, things like that. Maybe the guy can be talking to his girl over coffee on the weekend, when they’re together and she gets on his case ‘cause the journal she gave him is still empty.
Can you see where looking at your work can take you? Writing it down from a prompt is only the first step.
Posing these types of questions and answering them is step two. And acting on those answers in a re-write is step three – that’s the getting down to writing. The building of characters, and plot lines. That is what counts the most.
The thing to remember is that a writing prompt starts your pen moving, or your screen filling with some thoughts. Thoughts on a topic are not scenes, stories, or novel chapters. Unless you take those prompts and aim them toward something that you plan on turning into an element of a story, you have only taken the first step with your prompt exercises. Question your work. Take that next step.