Writing on Command

One thing I’ve been working on this summer is leveling up in my writing. I’ve identified some of my weaknesses, and I’m doing targeted work to strengthen those areas. One thing I’m doing is going through the books on writing I have, re-reading them, and actually doing the exercises.

That hasn’t gone all that well. The exercises tend to be something like “write a scene in which the viewpoint character feels this, using interior monologue to show it.” I generally hate writing exercises, those on-the-spot “write a paragraph about …” things. When I go to workshops and they do that sort of thing, I may pretend I’m writing, but I don’t actually do it. That makes me twitchy because I’m usually the sort of person who follows directions, and in classes I’ve generally been the person who’s eager to read my work for the class. I can’t do it for writing workshops, though. I may do some of the exercises at home, but the moment someone says, “take five minutes and write a paragraph about …” my mind goes blank and refuses to do it.

It’s not that I can’t write on the spot. I used to compete in journalism contests in high school, where they give you a topic and a list of facts, and you write a news article or feature story in half an hour (I went to regionals once for feature writing). When I was working in TV news, I was known for being able to write a story on the back of a news release in the car on the way back to the station, so that all I had to do was type up a script and give the video to the editor, and the story could go on the air within half an hour of me getting back to the station. So I don’t know why I can’t just spin something out when I have to do that sort of thing for fiction.

But then I realized the other night while I was doing one of those writing exercises and getting frustrated because my results were like something from a middle schooler’s creative writing essay that these sudden “write a scene about …” things don’t work in fiction. I can do it with journalism because I have the facts and the context I need for the story to be meaningful. Story comes from character, and you need to know who your characters are to be able to write about them, especially if you’re writing their emotions or their interior monologue. If you just write a scene about a random person feeling something, it’s meaningless unless you know who that person is. Fiction needs some kind of context. Who are these people? What kind of society are they in? I don’t have time to develop that well enough to be able to write about it in the time given for your typical writing exercise in a workshop, and it’s not a great use of my time at home. I could be writing something real.

I think those exercises get harder the more you know about writing and the deeper you want to go because you’re aware that you can’t do that without having a character. You get “exercise” writing instead of something that actually makes your writing better.

What I may do is work through the exercises as though I’m writing about one of the characters in a book I’m working on. That might give me some insight into them even while getting me to dig deeper into a particular area than I might normally do in the books these characters are in.

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