MIND MELD: Writing Tools and Exercises

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November is National Writing Month, the month of Nanowrimo. In celebration, this week’s question involves Nanowrimo and other writing exercises:

Q:What is the value of writing exercises such as Nanowrimo? Can you recommend any other formalized techniques to work on the craft of writing for aspiring genre writers?

Here are the answers from this week’s panelists:

Karen Lord
Karen Lord is a writer and research consultant in Barbados. Her debut novel Redemption in Indigo won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2011 William L. Crawford Award and the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, and was nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

NaNoWriMo makes you stop thinking about writing and start writing. The act of writing regularly and under every kind of condition (inspired, bored, happy, cranky) is what produces good writing in the end. Practise, practise, practise. Trial and error. Imitate the classics, then deviate from the norm. Every kind of cliché comes down to the same thing: keep writing until it stops being awful.

Then, when you’re comfortable with how and what you write, push yourself in another area so it goes back to being awful and work your way out of it once more. And don’t forget to learn to edit.

Find your own challenge. The same one might not work every time. Try a new one. Less letting people tell you how to write and more getting people to tell you how you have written.

The end.

Charles A Tan
Charles Tan‘s fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and Philippine Speculative Fiction. He has contributed nonfiction to websites such as The Nebula Awards, The Shirley Jackson Awards, SF Crowsnest, SFScope, Fantasy Magazine, Fantasy Literature, BSC Review, The World SF News Blog, and SF Signal. In 2009, he won the Last Drink Bird Head Award for International Activism which is described as “In recognition of those who work to bring writers from other literary traditions and countries to the attention of readers in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia…” You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker, the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, or Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009.

The problem with fiction writing is that it encompasses a broad spectrum. Genre writing isn’t limited to just novels — although arguably that’s what pays the bills theses days.

The value of NaNoWriMo is that it trains aspiring writers (or even existing writers) to write novels (or more appropriately, novellas). They’ll figure out its different constraints: It might be the discipline of finishing the draft first and editing/polishing it later; or learning the value of an outline (or not relying on one, depending on your process); or realizing that you don’t need to write your novel in chronological sequence; or simply having the camaraderie of other writers support you in your endeavor.

A recommended writing exercise is tricky: I’m a short story writer and reader for example, so exercises that I might recommend aren’t necessarily applicable to the craft of novel writing. Having said that, a good resource to check out is Juliette Wade’s blog and the podcast Writing Excuses.

L.E. Modesitt Jr.
L. E. Modesitt, Jr., is the New York Times best-selling author of 59 novels – primarily science fiction and fantasy, a number of short stories, and numerous technical and economic articles. His novels have sold millions of copies in the U.S. and world-wide, and have been translated into German, Polish, Dutch, Czech, Russian, Bulgarian, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, and Swedish. His first story was published in Analog in 1973, and his latest book is Scholar, just released in November and named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the ten best F&SF books of 2011.

Any writing exercise – or excuse – that gets a writer to writing is bound to be of some value. How much value is another question. To be a successful writer over time, one must plant one’s self firmly in front of whatever method of production of words works for you as a writer – and write! If it takes too many gimmicks or too much outside “inspiration” for a would-be writer, it’s unlikely that writer will be successful in making writing more than a hobby or a part-time profession. The question is whether a writer can get down enough well-chosen words to tell an entertaining story that does more than merely entertain. Any mental tricks that work are useful, but from what I’ve seen, writers are so different in their approaches that what works for one may not work for another. For me, early morning exercise walks with the energetic Aussie-Saluki often result in new ideas or approaches that inspire me to sit down and write. Things like Nanowrimo don’t even interest me, but I’ve heard others claim that Nanowrimo was just the thing. In the end, it’s what works for each individual writer.

Martha Wells
Martha Wells is the author of nine fantasy novels, including The Wizard Hunters, The Ships of Air, and The Gate of Gods, and the Nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer. Her newest novel is The Cloud Roads, just released by Night Shade Books. Her next novel from Night Shade will be The Serpent Sea, coming out next year. Her publications also include two Stargate: Atlantis novels and several short stories.

Some writers love Nanowrimo and get a lot out of it, but people shouldn’t be discouraged if they don’t complete it or if they find it just doesn’t work for them. Everyone’s experience is different, and you have to find the writing exercise that works for you.

I’m sure someone’s already mentioned the Write or Die software, which punishes you if you pause for any length of time. I’m not big on being told what to do by a piece of software, so I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work for me. I’ve heard people mention a similar application called Written Kitten that rewards you with pictures of kittens for hitting a certain wordcount, which might be more my style. But both of those are exercises in pushing for wordcount, not fostering creativity.

I have participated in some great writing exercises at workshops during SF/F conventions.

When I was a guest at WriterCon, I got to run a writing exercise program already set up by a guest who was unable to come to the convention at the last minute. The exercises were brief paragraphs describing situations or moments, like a character has to break bad news to another character, and so on. The participants already had characters in mind that they wanted to write about, and I would choose an exercise, set a time (usually about five to seven minutes), and they would write furiously until time was called. There was no formal critique, since the idea was to just open your brain and let the scene pour out, and not worry too much about prose style. I would ask for volunteers to read their work and we would discuss it a bit, then move on to the next exercise. Everyone had headaches and carpal tunnel by the end of the program, but it was fun and they said they found it helpful.

I also got to be a participant in a program Julie Czerneda did at ArmadilloCon in Austin, TX, one year. The workshop participants broke into small groups, and had to create a setting and two different alien protagonists based on randomly assigned characteristics. Then we added conflict and plot elements to create an outline for an SF story. Working in a group and sparking ideas off each other was a lot of fun, and we came up with some great stories and alien characters.

Kay Kenyon
Kay Kenyon’s latest work from Pyr is a science fiction quartet with a fantasy feel: The Entire and The Rose. The lead title, Bright of the Sky, was in Publishers Weekly’s top 150 books of 2007. Right now Kindle readers can try out her series with a free download of Bright. At her website, she holds forth on writing, the industry and other curious pursuits.

One of the odd things about the ambition to be a writer is that sometimes we like the idea of being an author more than we like to actually write. Why we avoid something we claim to enjoy, I don’t know, unless it’s just so much harder than it has any decent right to be. NaNoWriMo makes us do it, and in the giddy company of hoards of other people who are casting caution to the wind and determined to pound out a story. And it makes us write quickly, under deadline, so we have no real chance to procrastinate. It’s like jumping into a frigid lake–with a lot of other drunk partiers. You don’t tiptoe around and decide maybe next summer. So yeah, I like Nanowrimo for that reason.

I’ve looked at bunches of how-to-write approaches, and find most of them mechanical and a bit arbitrary. In contrast, my favorite centers on the principals of screenwriting, where the emphasis is on narrative structure as it relates to a compelling story. I like to use this approach to build story architecture and to diagnose trouble areas. When you hear phrases like plot point one and midpoint, you’re in the arena of film structure. One of the best known teachers of this technique is Robert McKee. As applied to the novel, I recommend The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks and, as well, his teaching blog at storyfix.


Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley currently hacks out a living as a marketing and advertising writer inOhio. She’s lived inFairbanks, Alaska; Durban, South Africa; and Chicago, but grew up in and around Washington State. Her personal and professional exploits have taken her all around the world. She spent much of her roaring 20?s traveling, pretending to learn how to box, and trying not to die spectacularly. Along the way, she justified her nomadic lifestyle by picking up degrees in history from the University of Alaska and the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Today she lives a comparatively boring life sustained by Coke Zero, Chipotle, low-carb cooking, and lots of words. She continues to work hard at not dying. Her latest novel is Infidel, the sequel to God’s War.

I’d say that the biggest benefit to writing 50k in a month is figuring out if this writing thing is for you. I meet so many people who say they want to “be a writer” who actually mean they want to sit on a beach and drink pina coladas all day while spending their million dollar advance. There’s this romantic idea that “being a writer” is all about the part of the job that’s hyped in the media – the mega-dollar deals and theme parks and movie bling. What folks often fail to see if the soul-grinding work that got folks to that place, and the continuing toil in the trenches to keep churning out fun, engaging, quality fiction. Hype makes that process look glamorous, when in fact, it can be a pretty anxious, tedious time that eats up years of your life.

I wrote the first sentence of my novel God’s War in 2003. It wasn’t published until 2011. There was a whole lot of work and angst during those years that only a few people followed (mostly those who read my blog). But the “mainstream” media report was just “three book deal!” When the “three book deal!” mention is the first time you see a writer’s name, it sounds like they just banged out something on the beach one day, got a call from a publisher, and started collecting checks. In fact, it’s generally the culmination of many years of pounding on a keyboard in obscurity, chain-smoking in some cockroach infested garret. Well, it was for me…

Don’t get me wrong – I love what I do – but I also recognize, like many professional writers, that what we do is work. Nanowrimo means writing every day. It means writing rather a LOT every day, and that means sitting your butt down in a chair and not doing much else but writing and thinking about writing. I got a similar experience at the Clarion writers’ workshop when I was forced to churn out a short story a week… every week for six weeks. These kinds of experiences give you something you really need when you’re starting out – not just discipline, but something even simpler. They help you figure out if this writing thing is really for you.

One of my classmates at Clarion said, at the end of the six weeks, that it actually helped them realize they didn’t want to write for a living. And that was a really valuable thing to learn. It saves you from wasting a lot of time and passion that you could be using to fuel other things. Writing every day – sick, exhausted, pissed off, drained, uninspired, or overly caffeinated – is how most writers who write to eat live.

At Clarion, I learned that I could write a high volume of stuff without burning out, and that writing for a living was something I could do. That’s a good thing to know. Now I have a day job where I write marketing and advertising copy for 8-10 hours a day, and then I come home and write another couple hours of fiction most nights so I can push out a book a year and maybe a short story or two. I also pick up the occasional freelancing job, which can be another few hours a month. When I was writing novels in my teens for fun, I never dreamed I’d be writing as much as I do now.

Now, I will say that once I started writing for money, the “write every day” advice I always heard just didn’t work for me anymore – at least not for writing fiction. I write so much for the day job that forcing fiction every night just wasn’t productive. I was just spewing crap. I’ll go weeks or months without writing fiction sometimes now, and just let my mind process stuff. That changes, though, when I’m contracted on a novel. When that happens, I have a strict writing schedule with a daily word count that needs to be met six days a week – and more on holidays. And because I have a great deal of experience and discipline with daily writing quotas that I picked up through exercises like Clarion and self-imposed “write every day” periods early in my apprenticeship, doing this for 6 months or so at a stretch is no big thing.

I’d challenge anybody flirting with the idea of being a writer to spend just 4-6 weeks writing every day, or, at minimum, 5-6 days a week. You’ll find out very quickly if you really enjoy writing… or just the idea of being a writer.

Genevieve Valentine
Genevieve Valentine’s short fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming in, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Journal of Mythic Arts, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed, and Apex, and in the anthologies Teeth, Federations, The Living Dead 2, Running with the Pack, and more. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is available now from Prime. Her nonfiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, and Weird Tales, and she is the co-author of Geek Wisdom.

I think that Nanowrimo, like every other formal technique for producing, is only as good as it is suited to the writer who’s using it. For the binge writer, Nanowrimo is a good opportunity to bypass the internal editor and get workable draft onto the page. For the writer who needs to be held accountable to others in order to produce, then Nanowrimo offers an opportunity to do so in an environment of people who are more or less in the same boat.

However, for a writer who isn’t suited to producing that volume of words in a compressed period of time, Nanowrimo seems like a pretty self-defeating setup that will just breed frustration and put a spanner in the works. So, if you need that amount of external stimulus to start writing, then you need to make sure you don’t get caught up in other people’s productivity, and have something in place to keep you writing after the calendar flips. But at the end of the day, whatever gets your ass in the seat and writing something is an effective technique.

Laura Anne Gilman
Laura Anne Gilman is the author of the Cosa Nostradamus novels, including (most recently) Tricks of the Trade (November 2011) and the Nebula award-nominated Vineart War fantasy trilogy, which concluded with The Shattered Vine. Her story collection, Dragon Virus, was published as a limited edition hardcover from Fairwood Press. A member of the on-line writers’ consortium BookVew Café, she writes the “Practical Meerkat” advice column for writers on their blog every Friday. Learn more at www.lauraanegilman.net or follow her on Twitter: @LAGilman

NaNoWiMo starts with the idea: if you sit down, every day, and write, at the end of the month you’ll have something. Maybe not a GOOD something, maybe not even a FINISHED something… but there will be words on the page. Fifty thousand words, if you “win.” Fifty thousand words is a lot of writing. It takes focus, and determination, and more than a little bit of craziness. And it takes working at it, every single day. NanoWriMo doesn’t worry about what you’re working on, the genre or the voice or the style or how polished it is at the end: only that you hit the word count.

Like “Novel in 90,” which calls for participants to write a minimum of 750 words a day, every day, for 90 days (resulting in 65-70,000 words at the end), and the shorter-goal #1k1h bursts on Twitter, where people focus on getting a thousand word written in an hour, the goal is less about perfecting your style, and more about honing your work habits. Getting you from “what if I’m not in the mood today?” to “I will do this, every day.” On getting it _done_.

And that – the embodiment of “Ass in Chair” so many of us preach as part of how to succeed in writing – is why I think NaNoWriMo has real value for aspiring – and already practicing – writers.

Diana Pharaoh Francis
Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Her latest series is The Crosspointe Chronicles. They include The Cipher and The Black Ship. Her next book, The Turning Tide, will be available in May of 2009. Diana teaches at the University of Montana Western. For a lot more information including where to go to read her blog, maps of her worlds, updated news, and other odd and fun tidbits, go to dianapfrancis.com. Diana also keeps a regularly updated blog at difrancis.livejournal.com.

I think the greatest value in Nano lies in writing quickly and thereby letting go of the inner critic that can frequently shut down your creativity and your writing flow. It also asks writers to write every day, which is something that is a necessary skill to learn. Just don’t think that you’re done when you’ve got a draft. You’ll likely need to rewrite three or four times if not more. Just because you have words, doesn’t mean they are good.

As for other techniques, stretching exercises can help. Keeping a journal of ideas is always a plus. But more than anything, write. Finish. Revise. Write more. Do it all again and again and get better. Share your work and get feedback. Read, learn how to craft words and how to tell stories. Read. Read. Read. Write. It’s the only way.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s latest novel in her bestselling, award-winning Retrieval Artist series, Anniversary Day, will come out on December 1 in all book formats. Right now, die-hard readers and audio fans can download the novel from Audible.com, which happens to have an exclusive for a few months. In early 2012, the next novel in her Diving series, Boneyards, will appear. She’s also publishing a lot of short fiction these days, and WMG Publishing is struggling to put her entire backlist–including short stories–into e-books.

I think Nanowrimo is a great challenge. I love the fact that so many people participate each year. Nanowrimo is teaching people how to write: how to trust the process, believe in their storytelling skills, and jump over that critical voice that stops so many writers. By writing fast, they’re learning how to become professional writers–writers who finish work on a deadline, whether or not the muse feels like showing up in the morning.

Challenges are a great way to work on writing. Whether it’s Nanowrimo or a short story per week, the writer then learns discipline, which is the key to a long-term career.

One problem with Nanowrimo is that some participants spend the entire year revising the book they wrote, and probably killing what makes it good. They should do a continuity revision, continue to trust the process, and mail the work, then move onto the next one. And that’s the other problem with Nanowrimo. Too many writers finish the book and put it in a drawer. There should be a requirement that the writers who finish their book in November have it out in the mail or self-published by January 1. Maybe someone should start that second part of the contest. I’m sure it would help countless writers finish the last, important step of the writing process.

One thought on “MIND MELD: Writing Tools and Exercises”

  1. Karen Lord’s advice really resonates for me. You have to learn to do it, keep doing it, do it regardless of what awaits you tomorrow or is burdening you today. I thought this jibed well with KKR’s advice to trust your writing. You need to let the words flow. Personally, the internal editor is my greatest obstacle to getting stories written, and I am still working on the rhythm and support of habit to carry my writing to the next level.

    “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
    Octavia E. Butler

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