Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Writing Exercises for the Haphazard Writer

By Liesl Shurtliff

I call myself a haphazard writer. That's a fancy way of saying I don't know what the heck is going on when I write. When people mention the word "process" I tend to get a tick in my neck. Maybe because it all changes with every project, or because I've experienced that one trick that worked great in one situation was totally useless in another.

That said, there are a few exercises and questions that can really help jump start me on a project, or help me get unstuck when I walk into a swampy plot. See if a few of these might work for you. There’s a lot of great writing advice out there, but if I’ve learned anything about writing, it’s that we have to go through lots of trial and error.

1.     What do you want? Ask of your characters “What do you want?” If the answer starts with “It would be nice if…” or “I sort of would like…” then you need to smack them upside the head and scream “What do you want!” It’s not that they have to want anything big or crazy, but they should want it desperately, even if it's candy. Obsession is even better, especially for villains. Think of any character you love (or hate), and you will notice that these characters know what they want, even if they don’t say it out loud, and fight for it tooth and nail. Write an essay from your characters’ POV stating what it is they want and how they intend to get it.

2.     Unfettered insanity. Have you ever listened to someone come up with a story on the fly, when they’re just goofing around and don’t care what anyone thinks? I hear some of the best ideas in the world from people like that, because they’re so spontaneous and completely unrestrained. Get childlike, and write ideas and characters without worrying about logic or believability. I think M.T. Anderson writes like this a lot, which is why he’s one of my favorite authors. Whales on Stilts? Wacky insane…and I love it!

3.     Write longhand. This may seem a strange writing exercise, or not an exercise at all, but it really works for me. I find that when I’m typing on my computer, I’m either uptight or unfocused. There’s a lot to distract me on the computer, namely the internet. Also, I somehow feel like every word I type should be as perfect as the font. There’s no doodling feature in Word, and that delete button is just so bleachy clean and all too easy to push. So I buy those Moleskine notebooks like candy and when I’m feeling stuck or unfocused, I write longhand. There's something about the art of forming your own letters that is a unique creative expression in and of itself, and somehow it frees me up to be more creative in my stories. I don’t worry about where I’m going or how pretty it all sounds. I just write, release my characters on the blank page, let they do lame/stupid/insane stuff, and eventually they start doing or saying something interesting, and I get a better feel for where things need to go.


  1. Liesl,

    I always love finding other writers who also reap benefits from writing longhand. When I get stuck, this is always my go-to exercise. :)