Three Writing Exercises That Always Work

When you’re delivering a creative writing workshop, you often have to help people cut through layers of inhibition to help people access the story they want to tell. People are worried that their writing won’t be good enough, for various reasons. Writing is a new experience for many of them. It requires you to look at the world in a new way and to leave your comfort zone behind.

On those nights when you feel that your group just aren’t getting it, it’s good to have a few exercises up your sleeve to remove the barriers to creativity and get the words flowing. Here are three exercises which have worked with pretty much every group I’ve given creative writing classes to.

1. 20 Questions

I do this at the start of my classes about character, to demonstrate how you can leave clues about a character and the reader will pick up on those clues. Strictly speaking, it isn’t 20 Questions. I ask the participants to write a six or seven line description of a famous person, either real or fictional, and the others must guess who it is from their descriptions. People love to get it right, and some people are particularly gifted at coming up with descriptions that tell you who a person is without spelling it out.

2. Chinese Whispers

This is a writing version of the children’s game Chinese Whispers, where people whisper a sentence to each other and the sentence turns out completely different from how it began. People work in groups of three. Each person in the group starts a story. After five or 10 minutes, the group swaps and each person continues with a story started by someone else in the group. They then swap again, and they finish the third story. This exercise can have quite a startling effect on people, as they realise how far a story can travel, and what thoughts can be unearthed by a simple prompt.

3. Small Injustices

I use this exercise in my class about point of view. Everyone has a memory of a small but significant injustice that they experienced, usually as a child. It could be a promised reward that never materialised, or being accused of wrongdoing. I ask the participants to tell the story of that injustice, in the first person as themselves and in the third person as the person who committed the injustice. Aside from its therapeutic benefits, the participants start to see that the point of view a story is told from affects its tone and how the reader perceives the events.

What exercises have you found particularly effective, either as a creative writing tutor or as a participant in a creative writing workshop.

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An Intense Writing Experience

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for ages. It’s about a creative writing workshop I gave in October. But I allowed the time fairies to steal my spare hours and it’s only now that I’m able to seize the opportunity to tell you about it. I’m telling you about it because it demonstrates what good feedback can achieve for a writer as their work develops.

As I give more and more creative writing classes, I’m starting to be more ambitious in the scope of those classes. I want to work more with students who are aiming seriously towards publication, or who at the very least want to produce full length pieces of writing. I’ve been fortunate to have students return for more classes, and I want to offer more to those students.

So I’ve started to offer intensive one-day workshops aimed specifically at students who are completing a novel, a non-fiction book or a book of short stories. The workshop I gave last October was one of those. The aim of the workshop was to help bring these writers closer to the finishing line, through in-depth exercises and feedback, three willing souls came to lay their work bare and have it critiqued.

Get Into Character

We jumped straight in at the deep end, with exercises designed to help the writers get to know their central characters better. They created a sketch of their character, filling in details about their lives, and the deep, dark secrets that made them who they are. The writers then walked around the room as their characters and imagined what the characters would eat for their last meal.

Interaction between characters forms the basis for many stories, so I got the writers to think about the impact of their character’s status on their interactions. I’ve discussed character status in a previous blog post, and it’s a useful way of determining how characters behave in potential conflict situations. The conflict situation I imagined for them involved their central characters giving another character a lift.

Point of View

Then we explored the impact of the point of view from which a story is told. Point of view has a strong impact on the atmosphere of a story, and on how much you learn about the characters. I related an incident involving an obstreperous old woman on a train, and got the writers to retell it, using a first person and third person viewpoint.

The Art of Giving Feedback

After lunch, it was time for the good stuff. Bearing in mind that people’s brains turn to mush after food, the afternoon activities were based more on discussion. But that discussion was certainly meaty. I’d asked the participants to send in five-page samples of their work and now it was time to dissect it.

Before the participants read their samples, I asked them to tell us what they wanted us to look out for in their work. Getting feedback is never easy, no matter how kindly it’s delivered. If you ask for the feedback you want, you’ll be more ready for it when it comes, and more receptive to the advice given. So the participants asked out to look out for things like character development and the flow of the story. Or else they just wanted to know if it was good enough, plain and simple.

After they had finished reading and they sat squirming, we softened the blow by first telling them what we liked about the pieces. Then we highlighted areas to work on, giving suggestions and asking questions. Feedback is easier to take if it comes in the form of a question, like What is the character supposed to be doing in that scene, or a suggestion, like I suggest you add in a few details to make it clear that the story is set in the present. This is more palatable than outright criticism like, Your characterisation is crap, or being prescriptive: You should set your story in the present.

Afterward

The students gained lots of new insights into their work, which they could then use to improve and develop the work. When a new pair of eyes come to a piece of writing, they see things that yours do not, because you’re too close to it. Their observations can set off a lightbulb flash in your head. At the very least, you won’t feel as if you’re quite mad for wanting to write a book, or that you’re alone while you’re doing so.

Have you ever been to a workshop like this? How did you feel your work benefited from it? Were there any ways it could have been improved upon?

The students gained lots of new insights into their work, that they could then use to improve and develop the work. When a new pair of eyes come to a piece of writing, they see things that yours do not, because you’re too close to it. Their observations can set off a lightbulb flash in your head. At the very least, you won’t feel as if you’er quite mad for wanting to write a book, or that you’re alone while you’re doing so.

Have you ever been to a workshop like this? How did you feel your work benefitted from it? Were there any ways it could have been improved upon?

Writing with the Visually Impaired

This Saturday I did a creative workshop at the National Council for the Blind, an agency for visually impaired and blind people in Ireland. You’ll find details of it here. And I thought you might be interested in the practicalities of giving a workshop for visually impaired people. I got the idea for the workshop because I’m visually impaired myself and wanted other visually impaired people to experience the sense of liberation and self-expression that writing gives you.

While I may be visually impaired myself, I still don’t necessarily know what life is like for other visually impaired people. The participants had much more severe sight loss than I do, and there were certain practicalities I had to deal with.  I thought I’d share them with you in this blog post, in case you ever find yourself facilitating a group with someone visually impaired in it, and so you can get an insight into the daily challenges of visually impaired people

Arranging the Exercises

I did all the same exercises I would usually do. I just didn’t use pictures or anything that required looking at a screen. I did mention the use of the sense of sight, and in fact, a lot of people drew on the sight they had before they lost it, or emphasised sounds to give their writing texture. Another concern was about people reading back their work, but people can do it using magnifying glasses, Braille or the sight they have.

Technology

If you’re teaching visually impaired people, you’ll see them using a range of devices, including Brailling machines, laptops, tablets and humble pen and paper if they’re partially sighted. The Braillers convert what you type into Braille so you can read it back to the group. The laptops may have screenreaders, which help the person navigate the screen using voice command and keyboard strokes, or magnifiers which make everything bigger.

Noise

The technology that visually impaired people use can be noisy. Braillers make an almighty racket, a bit like an old typewriter, and it dings when the user reaches the end of a line. You’ll also hear disembodied alien voices. That’s the voice of the screenreader, telling the person what they’ve typed and where they are on the screen.

Dogs

There were a grand total of seven guide dogs at the workshop on Saturday. Some people prefer to use canes, or may choose to leave their guide dog at home so they won’t be confined for long periods. But many guide dog owners place such trust in their canine companions that leaving the house without them would be unimaginable. Most of the time, they will lie happily beside their owner, but you’ll need to give the class more breaks than usual so they can give the guide dogs water and a little fresh air.

Timing

It takes visually impaired people longer to do written assignments. This is why they are allocated extra time during examinations at school or college. They navigate computer screens more slowly, and in some cases, people are trying to get used to new technology. Budget to do half the activities you would normally do in a creative writing class. They’ll still get just as much out of the class as anyone else, once they get the chance to practise the skills you’re imparting.

We’re All the Same

But the most important thing of all to remember is that beyond these practical considerations, teaching a group of visually impaired people is the same as teaching any other group. I’m going to be slightly controversial and say that this means not putting up with behaviour you would not put up with in any other group. I dealt with minor issues like inattentiveness and interruptions in the same way as I do with all my other classes.

And to finish on a positive note, visually impaired people have the same skills and talents as writers, the same blend of interesting life stories to draw on, and the same worries that their writing may be crap. Once you’ve made sure your learning environment is accessible, any differences will fade away, and eveyrone will enjoy a rich writing experience.