The Write Stuff: Exercise is good for you

By David Flin

I’ve mentioned before that the best way to improve writing is to practise. There’s the old story about Gary Player, a famous golfer. On one occasion, he hit a shot that was going for the rough, when the wind caught the ball, and blew it so that it landed on the fairway.

His opponent called him lucky, and he replied: “You know, the more I practise, the luckier I get.”

It’s the same in anything. The more you practise, the better you get; the better you get, the easier it is to take advantage of good fortune.

I could talk about making sure you use the right word for the job. I could mutter about writers who use the phrase: “Less people play cricket in England than they did ten years ago.” The word you need in that sentence is ‘fewer’, not ‘less’. I could complain about the inability of writers to distinguish between effect and affect, or use government when they mean Government.

Words are the tools that a writer uses, and it’s really a good idea to know what your tools do and how to use them.

However, this article is not a whinge about sloppy use of words (well, not much of a whinge). It’s about useful little exercises to help practise. What’s the point of writing 200-500 words of something that’s never going to be used? Like Gary Player said, the more you practise, the better you get.

What is odd about this paragraph? It’s not wrong, as such, but it is distinctly odd. If you don’t know what to look for, it might not show up on your radar, and it just drifts past your mind without displaying any oddity, and you don’t grasp what it is about this that is curious.

That was an example of a response to an exercise I once set; how long a piece could be written without using the letter ‘e’. It may seem like a pretty pointless exercise, but it exercises two things: vocabulary, and the ability to plan such that you don’t get trapped into a situation where words without the forbidden letter would jar when used.

Other exercises I have set include little oddball things that can sometimes generate something interesting. For example, most stories are written in the first- or third-person. Try writing something in the second-person, and see how a short piece works. It’s odd, and gives you a strange perspective. It takes thought to do it, because you’re going against instinctive styles, and often comes across something like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

The thing is, part of the point of practising is to make you evaluate what you’re doing. Without that, practise is just repeating what you already know. If the practise isn’t stretching you, it’s not doing you much good.

That leads in to the next point. Work at what needs work. For example, I’ve years of experience at telling bedtime stories for children, and I’ve had many hours of practice of plotting on the fly.

"Daddy, will Pwff the Dragon be in this story?”

“Funny you should mention that.”

As a result, plotting and extemporisation tend not to be a problem for me. My weakness lies in world building. I can generally visualise the world setting I want, but getting it across without going into overlong description is a problem for me. As a result, I tend to use the forum’s monthly vignette challenge to practise this.

I recommend these vignette challenges as a means of trying things out. They’re about the right length for a practise piece, with a very loose target length of 2000 words. There’s often quick feedback on the piece, especially if you specifically request feedback. If I’m honest, I can’t understand anyone who is trying to improve their writing not using the vignette challenges.

If you feel your weakness lies in getting convincing dialogue, then write a few dialogue-heavy pieces. I would recommend drafting a short radio play. Something like an episode of The Archers, for example. You only have dialogue and sound effects with which to tell the story, and it’s actually quite challenging to do.

There are literally dozens of different little exercises one can do to practise certain elements. “Put your money where your mouth is,” I heard someone say. Very well, a dozen little exercises, and explanations of what the exercises are intended to help achieve.

Exercises to help you get a grip...

If you’ve a tendency to dither over choices, and take too long to progress a piece because you can’t decide whether to describe a person as dark-haired or auburn-haired, then this exercise is aimed at you. Take a phrase, possibly a first line from a story, such as: The longest running President in the nation's history, and the only one to stand for more than two terms, Franklin D. Roosevelt's premiership was one of both great successes and bitter failures. (Taken from Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, by Alex Richards). Then set a timer. I would recommend setting it for half an hour. Then just write a continuation. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, just write as much as you can in the time. You’ll be surprised how far you can get if you don’t stop to inspire yourself with a cup of coffee, and if you just go with the first idea you think of. It’ll need tidying up afterwards, but it’s good practise for getting words down.

If your difficulty is conveying things you’ve seen or experienced into writing, then this exercise is for you. Pick a colour. Then go for a 15-minute walk, and observe things with that colour. Make notes if you like. When you get back, write about these things. Write as much as you can remember about these things. “The pram had a front wheel that wasn’t quite square, and wobbled as the mother pushed it along.” It’s a great exercise for getting you to start noticing little details, and these little details can add to a descriptive feel.

You’ve a problem with analysis? Take a news story, any news story that you come across. Then use Kipling’s six serving men: “I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew. Their names are What and Why and When, and How and Where and Who.” Make six sections, each headed by one of these. Now look through the story, and put as many details as you can glean from the story into each category.

If you have a problem coming up with characters, go people watching. You might want to go to a coffee shop, for example, and think about the people you see. Come up with a backstory for one of them. That old man with a notebook writing furiously, occasionally pausing and glancing at you before returning to his writing. What’s his backstory? What’s he doing here?

If you still have a problem coming up with characters, talk to people and ask questions. For example, there’s a waitress at a coffee shop I frequent who has a tattoo of a feather on her neck. I asked her about this, and it turns out that she has a birthmark there that embarrassed her. The tattoo incorporates the birthmark into the design, and makes her feel less self-conscious about it. Little details like that can transform a description.

Perhaps you feel your work is becoming stale and predictable. There are so many ways of breaking this. For example, take three random nouns, one abstract and two concrete (love, star, sandwich). Then write something linking them. Taking that one: someone is sitting in a park at night, looking at the stars, eating a sandwich after a hard day’s work. They see someone on the other side of the pond, someone they knew from long ago …

Maybe you have difficulty with getting inside a character’s mind, and they’re all just variants of yourself. Simple. Try and write about what an inanimate object is thinking. For example, what does the teapot think when I start to make a pot of tea? Is it fearful of the boiling water that it knows is coming? Is it pleased to be back in action, doing the job for which it was created?

You still think your writing is predictable? Introduce a random element. I once wrote a story where all the decision points were determined by drawing one or more tarot cards. For example, if I needed a minor character, I’d draw a card. Doing that again, I get the Knight of Swords: driven, ambitious, willing to dive in head first, often impulsive.

Some people have a problem with stage movements. By this, I mean they can’t quite get the techniques of bringing people into the action and taking them away again. Write a farce. There’s a chapter in Six East End Boys that was written as a classic farce. Three people who are looking for something and are involved with each other in one way or another come to an office dealing in bureaucracy. They’re each given the run-around by the receptionist, and the exercise was to move the three people around for as long as I reasonably could without any of them realising the other was there.

Got a problem with coming up with the right word? Take a song, and adapt it to a situation. For example, I once wrote WW3, The Musical. One element, with apologies to the Boomtown Rats, had a verse that went: “Billy don’t like it driving here in this tank. He says the traps are waiting, all of them unsprung … It’s a tank trap Billy, and you’ll soon be dead.” I was able to do a story in about 20 songs. I can assure you, when you’re looking for a word or phrase with the right meaning and scansion and rhyme, you get practise in picking the right word.

Infodumps. The “As you know, Bob.” This is an area every writer has difficulty with. Alternate History is especially difficult. You want to make it clear to the reader what the difference is, how things changed, but how do you convey that without a clunky piece of exposition? No-one goes about saying in our world: “As you know, Bob, 79 years ago, Hitler considered launching Operation Sealion, but the Luftwaffe couldn’t win the Battle of Britain, so it was never launched. Do you think West Ham will win tonight?” There’s an article in how to handle infodumps all to itself, but for now, the exercise is simple. Take one aspect of that, and write a way you can incorporate that. For example: “Simon added the last touches to the model Bf 109 plane, the fuel drop tanks. Now, he just needed to paint it, and he could hang it from the ceiling with the others.” The fuel drop tanks are the clue. Not everyone will catch it, but it’s a smoother way of introducing the change.

This last exercise is simply one to exercise imagination. At the start of the story, there is a desk with three plausible but random objects on it, say: a superhero DVD, a cup of cold, congealed coffee, and a dog-eared paperback copy of Agent Lavender. At the end of the story, two of them are gone and one remains. What happened?It’s a few exercises. They all help. Some can even end up forming part or all of an actual story. Try them, and maybe someday, people will be saying that you’re so lucky that you can write well. It might annoy you that your hard work is put down to luck and natural talent. Gary Player will understand.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow