Violinist Jascha Heifetz said, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”
Writing also needs constant practice and dedication to continuous improvement. Writing exercises are similar to musicians playing scales: practice in characterization, varying sentence structure, plotting, idea generation, etc, are all worth the effort because they keep us learning.
My Scales This Year
This year, I’ve been doing the Friday Ideas to help me generate picturebook ideas. Wow! This has been stretching my mental muscles in at least four ways.
- Generating ideas. The goal was simple. Generate at least 10 ideas a week, which would mean 40 ideas a month and a whopping 480 per year! I know some people say that generating ideas is easy for them and they don’t need this discipline. But I only wrote one picturebook last year, so I needed this. And I’ve done pretty good. Not 10 every week–I took off two weeks for my daughter’s wedding–but at least several. Certainly more than I would have any other way.
- Improved sense of story. I tried to make my ideas fit into this paradigm.This is a story about ___________(name/description) who more than anything else wants _____________(story goal) but can’t because_____________________________(obstacles) until __________________________________(resolution).This discipline meant that I was getting better at evaluating the actual story potential of an idea.
- Generating names. I got so tired of the same names that I’ve been casting far and wide to find unusual names for characters.
- Evaluating the uniqueness of a story. The most often comment I got last year from editors was, “Nice story, but not unique enough to stand out in today’s crowded market.” ARGH! I hate that comment! But after generating so many story ideas, I’m understanding the comment much better.
What Scales are You Playing This Year?
If you’re not playing scales, or doing something else to improve your writing, here are two suggestions.
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin has great writing exercises that you can do alone or with a group. Reading her book is the first time I had the courage and audacity to write a really long sentence. She gives an example from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn of a 250+ word sentence! The sentence is about dawn rising over the Mississippi River and it’s a masterpiece of rhythm and intonation and punctuation. It’s now my goal to include one long sentence in every novel I write.
Developing A Written Voice by Dona Hickey is a college writing text that is, at times, difficult to work with. But much of my understanding of voice has come by working through her book.
If you’re just starting writing, you may need a different place to start. When I decided to write, I carried around an ink pen in my jean pockets to remind myself that I was supposed to write. At first, fifteen minutes was hard to find each day. (Of course, the kids were small then, too!) The most helpful book at that stage was Writing the Natural Way. It has lots of writing techniques to get the flow going. And at first, that’s what you want, flow. Quality isn’t as important at that stage as churning out lots of stuff and getting in the habit of writing.
What other exercises or “scales” do you play? Do you play scales daily? Any other books useful for working alone or in a group?