The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Writing Techniques 101.1

Posted by BigWords on March 5, 2011

If you haven’t managed to write in the last few weeks, you might begin to think that your writing muscles are atrophying. That’s a strange way to begin a blog post, yet I can’t help but think that some of my online peeps are a tad over-stressed at the thought of writing. I’ve seen a bunch of posts recently where the writing process has crawled to a stop, and it worries me that there isn’t enough help out there for those writers who might require a hefty nudge back into the routine of actually writing. Real life tends to get in the way of the creative process, bringing up the kinds of problems which give cause for people to think that maybe they aren’t cut out to do the business of writing on a regular basis. Hell, even the best of us have off days – I’m sure most of the names on the list of all-time greats have sat at their parchment, or typewriter, or computer, and thought “Why am I bothering – this isn’t working…” Do not let the voices in the back of your mind paralyze you through fear. There are a bunch of ways you can start writing again.

I mentioned the series of posts I was planning to do on writing exercises on Twitter, and had to immediately state that these were not about finesse. If the editing, rewrites and crits which get a project up to speed are the fourth innings, then these posts are pre-game warm-ups. Don’t drop everything you are doing to play with them if you are already in the middle of a project, but save them away for the time you need that extra bit of encouragement.

Without further ado, I’ll leap into the first exercise…

Grab yourself a list of words (I suggest Moby Word Lists by Grady Ward as a good place to start) and pick a few words at random (or, if you are feeling brave, let randomiser do the work for you) so you can begin thinking about what you will write – this is all prep which you should have to hand if you are intending to write a lot of material in as quick a time as possible. Taking the first word you get, expand the word into a sentence. For example, if you take “car” as an abstract term, it doesn’t mean so much, but if you describe the vehicle in detail (the make, the model, the condition it is in) you are on your way already. This, as you may have gathered, is merely telling – telling is bad, but there are times when information has to be imparted to the reader, and thus this is an important step in building a piece of writing. Describe where the vehicle is, then pick out another word. Once you have pulled maybe a half dozen words from this particular bag of tricks and spun them into sentences you should have a couple of paragraphs of text. Don’t wory too much right now about crafting story, because this is the baby steps to get you into the habit of writing something each and every day, and it isn’t at all important how you get those words out.

Run through this exercise five times. Don’t second-judge yourself, nor do edits to what you write.

You will be looking at what you have written with a quizzical eye by now, unsure of where these fragments are going. You’re going to need a story to hang the material on, as paragraphs of descriptions might not be igniting the sparks of imagination for you yet. Don’t worry – even if you are coming up blank on story there are ways of generating stories which don’t require a lot of time, and which can sometimes have the effect of bringing out further ideas for you to explore.

The simplest way to get inspiration is using a two line description of an existing story. When I first encountered this technique, even I was dubious – isn’t that cheating? What if someone calls plagiarism? How do I come up with a story different from the one I am retelling? Why isn’t this easier? If it makes you feel any better, use the word ‘prompt’ to describe the sentences you will be using (which, after all, is exactly the purpose we are using these things for here), and try not to dwell too much on the other questions ringing through your head. Those questions are stopping you from writing, and the objective here is wordcount. Everything else can be fixed, but if there are no words to work with later, the writing process will continue to stagnate.

Using something like TV Guide, or a big annual film guide (save for the more verbose tomes) you should pick out a simple description of a story to begin this part of the process. As much as I would like to pimp The Virgin Film Guide (and would, in other circumstances) it contains far too long descriptions of the films it covers – Halliwell’s Film Guide should be on your bookshelf, not only for these writing techniques, but for the wealth of old films and serials it covers. I was going to pull a few choice pieces from it, but I am reverting to type and dragging out The Complete Directory to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Television Series. For those of you who question using television series as prompts, I have a shock for you soon enough, but first lets look at a few of the episode entries to get a feel for the kind of synopsis we are looking for when trying to pull a choice tidbit to get the writing process into full swing:

A deadly prank is pulled on two fraternity boys who pass out after drinking too much.

(Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955); ep235 – Beta Delta Gamma)

A demolition worker unearths a sealed chest, and after opening it discovers a toy horse filled with malevolence.

(Ghost Story; ep16 – Dark Vengeance)

A psychiatrist believes that an autistic girl has uncanny understanding and power.

(Playhouse: The Mind Beyond; ep2 – Double Echo)

The scope each brief description offers is wider than you might think – allowing for both supernatural and psychological interpretations of the story. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the episodes in question (arguably, it is better if you haven’t seen them), the main point of using these little snippets of possible story ideas is to get you thinking about how those couple of paragraphs you created with the first exercise can be expanded into a larger work, with characters, events and locations coming together to give a satisfying story. I mentioned another way of generating story as I was leading up to the second part there, and it is one I often try when there is some free time in my schedule, but it is one which is slightly more complex, and has the worrying side-effect of leading writers to believe that watching television can, in some instances, be passed off as “research”. Seeing as I have tormented you thus far, I might as well give in, and lay it out for you.

Pick a series with no continuity between episodes. The more isolated the story is, the better. Now work out how long the episode is – you might want to record the episode, or buy a DVD of the series, because this is slightly more complex a method of getting the words to flow. Having selected the episode, watch one scene (roughly one third of the episode) and try to write an explanation of the events which places that scene into context. It doesn’t have to be the start of the episode, nor the end of it, but any scene throughout – using chapter select on a DVD is a great way to ensure you do not go over the alloted scene into another scene. Do not watch the rest of the episode just yet – keep working on the story until you are happy with it, and then compare what you have written to the finished episode.

For everyone thinking “Aw man, this is such bullshit” – and there will be naysayers – I’m going to reiterate the purpose of these techniques: This is merely to generate words. We’re filling that daunting white space with text, not setting out to oust the latest bestseller from the top of the book charts. If you are paralyzed by the mere thought of creating something interesting, the use of word lists can be one of the most effective spurs you can try. It removes so much of the inherent stress of trying to be original. Really, even the most lauded works of the last decade have come packed with plenty of cliché, as there is nothing truly new for you to write about.

Don’t fret about your writing so much, and enjoy the process.


5 Responses to “Writing Techniques 101.1”

  1. Squeaky said

    *joyous hug* 😀

  2. […] my muse into some sort of action.  the cosmos appears to have handed me a stick, in the form of a post at The Graveyard, by the inspirational Gary James, and a challenge at Rebirth In Buffalo, by the gorgeous and […]

  3. Great post and tips.

    I especially like your idea of watching one scene.

    I do find that writing is like exercising any other muscle. The more I do it, the more joy I feel. Anything that helps someone get started is great.

  4. bigwords88 said

    The more I write, the more ideas come to me, so I tend to believe that keeping a daily writing routine is more is more important than agonizing over word choice and endless revision (if anything, the current obsession with “literary” – and I’m not going to back off from my position on that particular subject) is harming people’s ability to produce a constant stream of ideas – limiting writing to a paragraph a day isn’t good for a writer. There are exceptions in such a statement, and if Douglas Adams had been a faster writer, I’m sure he would also have been much more prolific during his career.

    Getting people into the habit of writing anything, as long as they do so on a regular basis, is more than worth my time.

  5. You provide some solid tips for getting unblocked. My go-to method is poetry. It never fails to get my creative juices flowing again. One time I wrote a whole novel – just from one obscure line of poetry.

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