True Confession: I have a degree in creative writing and I teach writing at a university.
That confession is not offered as a way of gaining credibility, but as a way of explaining the tips I’m about to give you. In my experience, writing is taught differently in the classroom setting than in the shared experience of writers groups and working critique groups. There are many reasons for that, which we won’t get into today except to say that the reasons make sense and it’s all good. Instead, what I want to do today is offer two exercises that we use sometimes in the university setting to teach new writers.
This is a good one. Go to a public location with a notebook or laptop, sit near two people having an ordinary discussion, and transcribe their conversation. (It’s okay. They’re talking about their stuff in public. They know anyone can listen.)
Once you have a solid page or two of notes, stop listening and start looking. Do you see any speech patterns particular to one speaker? Can you learn to distinguish between the two speakers just from seeing the cadence and word choice on the page? Does one speak more? Does one tend to interrupt? What can you tell about the characters (age, education level, etc.) from word choice, topic, and other dialogue details?
The goal is to learn to identify speaking voice in dialogue and connect it to character. Two retired men sipping McDonald’s coffee at 6:00 a.m. will sound very different from two teenagers sharing fries after volleyball practice. And if you listen carefully, you will also hear the ways the teenagers are different from each other, not just from the retirees.
Rewrites from Memory
This exercise is great for helping you sift the wheat from the chaff in a scene that might not feel completely solid. It presumes you have a draft of the scene material, and that you’re not quite sure you’re hitting the target with what you want to have happen in the scene. Pantsers (people who write without outlines) often find a lot of benefit in this exercise.
Start by re-reading the scene. Then put it away. Don’t look at it again. Just read it once through, hide it so you can’t see it, and do something else for an hour or so — preferably something that takes your mind off the scene for a while. During this short break, you want to just let the scene simmer in the deep part of your mind. Don’t think about it.
After an hour or so of taking your mind off it, return to the page. But don’t look at the scene again. Just try to write it out again, top to bottom, without ever looking back at the original version. Don’t stress about word choices or worry about that one turn of phrase you really, really like in the first draft — all of that material still exists and can be accessed later. For now, you’re just re-creating the scene from top to bottom as best you remember it.
Once that is complete, take a look at the two drafts side by side. In the second version, it’s likely that you will have added some things and dropped some others. The cause-effect chain in the two versions are likely to be different. Pay attention to similarities, too, because these are also important.
Comparing the two versions will help you identify the core scene mechanics. The similarities show you the skeleton of the scene, and the differences show you the way that skeleton can be fleshed out. Once you see that skeleton, you can start identifying options for how to fill it in. You’ll see where you have flexibility and where you should preserve some consistency.
I hope those exercises help!
What kinds of writing exercises do you enjoy? Are there any that helped you learn something new about your craft or process?