The Writer's Pro Shop:
Tips and Exercises for the Professional Writer
Top actors and athletes have a common routine – they stay in training throughout their careers to find that extra edge to keep them ahead of the competition. Pro means you never stop learning. Yet writers tend to work in isolation with only an editor to offer advice and suggestions. The exercises presented here will get you to the top, or keep you at the top.
Exercise No. 2:
Last week, you were asked to write 500 words of a story drawn from where your imagination took you after you selected a photo of a painting from the internet. The only criteria were that the painting had to have at least one person in it, and that your story did not have to have a beginning or end.
|Dorothy Parker: Can you be as good as she was?|
From the experience of giving this exercise to students of my Six Months to Better Writing course, I can tell you that there is a 70% chance that the story you wrote was told in the first person. A narrator, likely some version of You, shared a description of the person observed in the painting. Do not think that the 70% of people who did that were better than the 30% who didn't, or vice versa. It is what it is.
If you think about it, there are generally only four ways of developing a story from that painting. (There are deeper, meta levels too, but let's keep life simple as writing is hard enough even when simplified.) They are:
- You write as a first person who is one of the people in the painting
- You are either a person in the painting or an 'out of frame' person writing about a person in the painting
- In either first or third person, you are invisible within the painting, yet write about its reality
- Lastly, you may have described the act of observing that painting, as opposed to placing yourself within its boundaries
As with all the arts, writing is about making choices and choices can only be made by adding possibilities and discarding rejects. You're a sculptor and here's a slab of granite. Is it a column, a human, a dragon or a duck? Or, you're an architect and here's a plot of land, a budget and two truckloads of bricks, wood, glass and cement. What shape and structure will suit the landscape and the personality of the buyer?
Writers need to think like actors, the closest of artistic comparisons. There is a famous exercise where two actors play a scene where one actor enters, hands over a piece of paper and lights a cigarette (this is a very old, now very incorrect exercise). Those are the only actions required. The actors may do other actions as they desire. The only line is, “I didn't sign the cheque, you did.” Now how many variations of that scene do you think there are? I can tell you that I have seen a room of twenty actors, taking turns in pairs, keep entirely unique re-tellings of that 15 second scene running for well over an hour. Variety in art is as infinite as pi.
Now, sooner or later you actually do have to make a definite choice or you'll never get a damn word written. How you choose to tell your story should be based on your own trust in your inner self. It is however valuable to exercise that inner self into trying variations, so that it does not get locked in to only choosing what it already knows. Not trying something new means choices are being made from fear of being 'bad.' Trust me, not a lot of great writing happens that way. So! On to Exercise Two!
Choose one of the other general perspectives of telling the 500 word piece other than what you used initially and re-tell it using that fresh perspective. If you wrote about a person in the painting, with the narrator as observer, write about it from the perspective of the observed person. If you wrote in the third person, change to first person. In other words, shift whatever you did 180º and write 500 words from that point of view.
The finest single piece of writing advice I have ever come across was said by Graham Greene: “Take a scene from your own life and change one detail.” This second exercise accomplishes much the same. Compare your two 500 word exercises. Does one feel better than the other? Do you want to try a third or fourth?
Next week, let's introduce ourselves to our characters and listen to what they want to tell us about themselves. Now get to work, and have a beautiful week!
(Hubert O'Hearn is the author of two books, an independent editor, and a professional book and music reviewer. He also is the designer of the Six Months to Better Writing Course, working one-on-one with writers drawn from the entire range of experience. For comments or queries he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)