by Matthew Cheney
Here are some further exercises to accompany the Drafting Strategies section of Wonderbook Chapter 7.
Have you started to write too soon?
The essential question here is: “What do you need to know before you start?” You may not be able to answer that question yet. That’s okay. Try this:
This is a classic strategy for which there are endless variations. The most basic idea of freewriting is simply to write without pause for a set period of time (e.g. 7 minutes) or a certain length (e.g. 2 pages). The only rule of freewriting is not to stop. If you don’t have any idea of what to write next, write, “I don’t have any idea of what to write next,” or “blah blah blah blah blah” until you get something. I find this type of freewriting works best when it’s a frequent activity rather than a one-off sort of thing. Try it for 10 days and see what happens. Mostly, you’ll write drivel, but the activity itself might forge new pathways in your brain, and even if it doesn’t, there could be a few nuggets of gold in the raw material you create.
One variation that I and my students have often found useful is to add an idea from Lynda Barry’s great book What It Is: when you get stuck in a freewrite, instead of writing “blah blah blah” or nonsense, draw spirals or other doodles that don’t require you to lift your hand from the page (this assumes you’re handwriting it; you can, of course, type your freewrites, but that forces you to stick to text). The key, Barry says, is never to let your hand stop moving. Making spirals or doodles keeps your hand moving but lets your brain find some more words.
Another useful variation is to focus your freewrite. Give yourself a prompt. I often start by listing the first 10 words I can think of, and then writing until I’ve incorporated all of those words into the freewrite. (A fun version of this is to ask a friend to give you a list of 10 random words.) Or grab the first 4 words you see on page 44 of the book nearest to you, and write from those words. Or take a sentence from a previous freewrite and write from those. Or choose a painting or photograph, stare at it for a set amount of time (10 minutes or more works best) and then write.
If you suspect you have started a draft too soon, then you could take one or two sentences from that draft and freewrite from them. See where they go. Does the new direction tell you anything?
(For more ideas about freewriting and other ways to generate ideas, see Peter Elbow’s website and his invaluable books Writing without Teachers and Writing with Power.)
Can you leave gaps and still get to the end?
Here is a more radical approach to leaving gaps:
Give each paragraph its own page
If you tend to get stuck because you feel the need to write linearly, write each paragraph on a separate page and give yourself permission to write them in whatever order you want. Stop after drafting six or seven paragraphs and rearrange them to reinforce that you are giving yourself this permission. Think of the writing as a collage. Later, when you revise, you can figure out the best order and create some transitions between paragraphs. For now, though, just focus on putting one paragraph on each page.
Do you have to write the story from the beginning?
No, you don’t. You could, for instance…
Start at the end
Write your last sentence, and then the one before it, and then the one before that. See how far you can get. If this doesn’t work for you, try it by the paragraph: write the last paragraph, then the penultimate paragraph, etc.
Do you know the kind of story you want to write?
It’s a good question. Here’s a way to get some answers:
At the top of a page, write, “Q: What kind of story is this?” and then, “A: [an answer]”. But don’t stop there. Be a good interviewer. Don’t be satisfied with the answer. Dig deeper. Ask questions starting with How? or Why? Try to fill at least a page with your interview, preferably more.
Are you doing all you can to provide your imagination with the appropriate surroundings?
Of course, you could just change where you’re writing. That in and of itself can be a great exercise. But here’s another approach:
Profile your writing space
For a few years, The Guardian newspaper ran a great series on writers’ rooms. Do this for yourself. Take a picture of your space, then write a description of that picture and the elements of the space that either help or hinder you. (It might be best to do this exercise in another spot so you are forced to rely on the picture alone.) By writing about your space, you might come to know it better, and thus come to better know yourself as a writer in that space.
Have you created the right outline?
Wonderbook gives some great guidelines for making outlines more flexible than the formal sorts, but here’s something else you can do…
Create an Outline and Forget It
Instead of creating an outline from which to write (which is a perfectly valid strategy if it works for you), create one to forget. First, make an outline for something you want to write. Really work at it. Then, once you’ve finished, throw the outline away. Don’t look at it again. A few days after you make the outline, start writing the actual draft. Try not to think about the outline. Actively try to forget it. This probably won’t work, because by trying to forget it, you’ll remember some of it. (Don’t worry, that’s part of the process.) Keep trying to forget the outline as you write. Let the writing become the tool for obliterating the outline from your consciousness. The more you write, the more you will obliterate the outline. Once the outline no longer exists in your mind, the draft will be done.
Additional strategies and exercises
Here are some other exercises that are not as tied to getting a lot done in a specific amount of time. These are useful for getting going when you’re feeling stuck, or when you want to break out of old habits, or when you just want to play around. All of these strategies are about creating a first draft rather than revising, since you can find plenty of revision ideas elsewhere in Wonderbook and on this website.
Turn off the screen
Write on a computer and turn the screen off. Then write. You won’t, of course, be able to see what you write, which means you won’t be able to fix any mistakes you see, nor will you be able to look back and see what you wrote previously. That’s the virtue of this strategy. It forces you to stay present and not to edit. It is deeply unsettling and difficult at first. But give it a chance. You might discover a different writer has taken over your fingers!
Write in a Persona
Imagine you are someone else and write as them. This is not quite the same as imitation. You aren’t trying to imitate a particular writer’s style, but rather you are trying to imitate another person’s being. For instance, you might sit down and say, “Today, I am my grandmother.” Spend a bit of time convincing yourself of this. Once you are your grandmother, or whatever other person you are inhabiting, then you can write. Be careful not to write about the experience of being the other person — for instance, don’t write about being your grandmother, unless that’s something your grandmother would do. Inhabit the persona, and write from it. For fun, try on some personas of people you hate, loathe, and detest. Strong emotions, and strong differences from yourself, help this exercise a lot.
Personal Universe Deck
This is my own variation on an exercise that has been used by Michael McClure and Anita Skeen and then redesigned by Linnea Johnson, as described in the book The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell (a book I find very useful even for those of us who aren’t poets).
First, get a deck of index cards. Here, I’ll assume you have 100 index cards. Write 1 word on each card according to the following guidelines:
- 12 words that you associate with each of the 5 senses. These do not have to be literal. If you associate the word pavement with smell, use it. If you associate hegemony with touch, no problem. What matters is that these are words you feel some personal connection to and some special association with.
- 10 words of motion. Again, no need to be literal (or not to be). If gingham suggests motion to you, use it.
- 5 abstractions. These should be words you can’t immediately taste, touch, smell, see, hear.
- 5 words you hate.
- 5 words you like the shape of.
- 7 words from your past.
- 3 words from your future.
- 3 words that you have completely made up.
- 2 names that have special meaning for you.
Make your words as specific as possible: Finch rather than “book”, for instance. Try to use bare words rather than words with prefixes and suffixes, and try to avoid hyphenated words.
Many people prefer to use fewer abstractions, especially if they want to combat their own tendency for abstract language. You could cut down to 3 or fewer abstractions by increasing any of the other categories that you feel especially connected to.
Once you have your personal universe deck, the possibilities for using it are limitless. Choose one word and write from it. Choose a set of words and write from them. If you reach an impasse in a draft, grab a card or two from the deck and try to add those words to what you’re working on. Write something and then revise it by replacing some words in the original with words from your deck. Play poker with it. Or just read through it randomly and see what it does in your brain.
Talk and Transcribe
Talk to yourself! Write down what you say!
There are lots of different ways to talk to yourself usefully. You could, for instance, dictate your draft, record it, and then transcribe it. Or you could talk while you write. Or you could talk to yourself before you write.
Translate and Retranslate
Using Google Translate or Bing Translator or any such online tool, translate a paragraph or more of your writing (or somebody else’s) into a language you don’t understand. Then take that translation and translate it into another language you don’t understand, preferably one quite different in grammatical structure from the first. Finally, translate it back into your original language. It should now be quite changed from the original. (If it’s not, try it again with some more languages.) Put it back into your writing without looking at the original. Edit it into something useful, and then keep writing.
Create a box of partial paragraphs
Write about half of a paragraph and stop in the middle of a sentence. File this partial paragraph away with other such partial paragraphs. (Index cards and a shoebox work well for this, but you can do it however you want.) Try to write at least one partial paragraph a day for a set period of time — a year or more is ideal, and certainly not less than a month. Once you have a good pile of partial paragraphs collected, take one out at random and finish it. See where it goes.