Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Jump Start Your Writing

Today I welcome Gail Lukasik to Terry's Place. Gail taught writing and literature classes at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where she earned her Ph.D. in creative writing with a specialization in poetry. Here, she talks about three exercises she’s used in her writing classes.

Whether you’re a novice or a seasonal writer, there are times when the writing stalls. In my over twenty years of teaching writing at universities, nature centers, and libraries, I’ve used various writing exercises to help writers jump-start their writing. I’d like to share three of my favorite writing exercises. Each one offers a way back to the page.

Here and Now

Find a natural area where you can observe what’s around you without distraction. Leave all the electronic devices at home. Sit there for twenty minutes and let your senses roam. In your journal, make a list of what you hear, what the temperature is, what you see and smell. If you feel adventurous, walk around; run your fingers over the rough bark of a tree, feel the soft velvet of a flower’s petal.

This exercise is all about being present. Many of us rush through our days anticipating our next task, hooked into our electronic selves, not noticing the world around us. Writers can’t afford that kind of inattentiveness. Good writing thrives on the sensual details that draw readers into our scenes. The Here and Now exercise opens up your all senses to your environment. Many times we rely solely on visual descriptions in our writing. And because you’re merely making a list, the pressure of writing is lifted. Anyone can make a list.

I used this exercise when I canoed the Mink River in the middle of a downpour looking for a murder site for my latest mystery Death’s Door. It allowed me to jot down sensory notations without capsizing the canoe. The sensory experience of that cold rainy day went into my novel and added dimension to the scene.

Keep Reading...

Writing From Photographs

Find a photograph that you’re drawn to. The photograph should talk to you in some way. It can be a photograph of a family member, a friend, or a complete stranger. The photograph can be a portrait of the person, or the person in a setting.

Write a literal visual description of the photograph. Don’t add commentary to your description, just describe it using your visual sense—carefully and in such detail that another person could read your description and choose your photograph from a slew of other photographs based on your description. Once you’re written your description go over it and choose the three details that most capture that person’s character.

This is an excellent exercise to flex your descriptive muscles. When we’re describing a character it’s crucial to choose the right details. As writers we pick and choose, but we have to pick and choose skillfully. I collect photographs and have used them as inspirations for many of my characters.

The “Best” Worst

Choose an object to write about. It could be an everyday object like a car key or an object of significance such as a wedding ring. Now write a description of that object using clichés, very general language, and vague details. See how “bad” you can make your description.

If you’re feeling energetic do another description of the object, only this time describe it using vivid language, specific details, and no clichés.

There’s something very freeing about this exercise because it gets the critic off your back. Whenever I have students do the exercise it never fails to deliver a lot of laughs as they try to write the “best” worst description. The exercise also supports my belief that sometimes you have to write the awful stuff first to get to the good stuff.

So the next time your writing stalls, try going for a walk, or looking at a photograph, or writing the “best” worst description. Let me know what happens.

Gail Lukasik is the author of the Leigh Girard mysteries, a four-part seasonal series, set in the resort community of Door County, Wisconsin. The second book in the series, Death’s Door, was recently released. Besides her two published mystery novels, she has a published book of poems, Landscape Toward a Proper Silence, and she was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award for her poem, “In County.” Learn more at her website.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Gail,

As another Five Star writer who taught creative writing at both the university and high school levels, I heartily agree with your suggestions to those who have stalled in the writing process. Using magazine photos and articles often leads to inspired fiction writing.

All the best,

Jacqueline Seewald

SlingWords aka Joan Reeves said...

Totally agree. I especially like photographs. Also like clustering and lists.

Gail said...

Hi Jacqueline,

I've used a variation of the photo exercise in mystery writing classes. I ask students to choose a sleuth, victim, and murderer from a photo. Then we discuss their choices.


Elena said...

Reminds me of a wonderful class at art school about observation. After a number of exercises, including yours or variants, the mystery reading professor had some student actors stage a hold up scene. First we were required to sketch the scene with as much detail as we could remember, then they came back and posed in the most intense point for us to do another sketch. Seeing the vast differences between our two sketches were worth the entire course.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

These are great ideas, Gail. Thanks for sharing them with us. I think describing photographs sounds like a great way for me to gear up for developing my characters.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Gail said...

Lists, are great. And I've also used photos to develop characters. I haven't tried sketching exercises. Though, from your description, Elena, that would be a great way to discover what we really "see."

Kathy said...

Gail thank you for the time and effort to talk to us today about writing. I'm working on Unleash Your Story for Cystic Fibrosis. I have a hard time turnign the evil editor off for now to just get words on the page. I keep telling myself it can be fixed delete works very well so does copy and past:-). I saw somethign driving home the other morning after wrokinga llnight that reminded of when we were stationed in Hawaii. There is a low spot on the road that looks out over a bunch of trees and maybe it's even a gulch. I don't know bu tlooking at it and the mistiness of it made me think of the views in Hawaii.I will have to remember next time to pull over and take a picture with my phone or to write a description of it. I carry a notebook but rarely seem to dig it out for use. I'm always hurrying to work or home or somewhere. I have to admit I have enjoyed the drive to San Antonio when it isn't rushed to see the scenery along the way. It's all new to me in that I had never travled down that way.

Gail said...

Thanks, Kathy for sharing your struggles with that "evil" editor that lurks around our work. The fact that you carry a notebook and are thinking about the landscape is good. Can you give yourself five to ten minutes to stop and make a list of what you see on your drive? For me, sometimes it's just a matter of doing.