5 Authors from 5 Genres on How To Kick-Start and Develop Your Best Work

This post is brought to you by my horoscope.

The powers that be obviously meant for me to blog today.  And, since enlightening people is a terrible lot of responsibility, I thought I’d share the burden.  For those of you unfamiliar with all things Sylsome, I do my best to post monthly to answer questions sent in by readers.  Today, five fabulous authors from five different genres (Woman’s Fiction, Memoir/Essay, Romance, Young Adult, Poetry) share with us their favorite writing exercises in response to the following question.

(To send in your own questions, please check the original Play Pretend Professor post here.)

“Can you recommend any fun writing exercises? I am so tired of complaining about or recounting a dull day in my diary, that I often don’t bother writing in it anymore. Also, I tend to write about the same thing, over and over again, because I’m a little OCD like that. Lately, I’ve been doing listography, and that is a lot of fun and helps me “think outside of the box,” because it provides prompts. What kind of writing exercises do you use, if any?”


Writing Exercises to Kick-Start and Develop Your Best Work


Fit to Pitch
As of last July, I’ve had four novels published. This is only a small fraction of the ideas I’ve come up with since I got serious about becoming a fiction writer in 2003. Of the few that are worth pursuing, I’ll commit to even less because there’s only so much typing I can humanly do. Knowing this, for each and every idea that pops into my brain, I write a pitch sheet.

I come up with a title and write one sentence each for the concept and premise of the story and then come up with a pithy logline. When someone asks what my book is about, I can rattle off any of these three and sound like I know what I’m talking about. (For instance Good-bye To All That’s premise is Working Girl meets Mad Men with a dash of Entourage.) I then write three short paragraphs that read like back cover copy that hit on what happens at the beginning, middle and end of the story. This is a great exercise because it helps me figure out almost exactly what the manuscript will be about. Plus, it doesn’t take that long and on a one page document. Once I have it down, I can focus on the next steps in my writing process. Try it! It’s what keeps me from going crazy.

Margo Candela is the author of Good-bye To All That (Touchstone, July 2010)–Los Angeles Magazine 2010 Best of L.A. selection for Best Beach Read, More Than This (Touchstone, August 2008), Life Over Easy (Touchstone, October 2007), Underneath It All (Kensington, January 2007).


3 Self-Promoting Writing Exercises
#1: choose a record and/or photograph from the Guinness Book of World Records, preferably from an older edition (i.e. hiccoughing, tree eating, World’s Greatest Miser, World’s Fastest Psychiatrist, longest fingernails, longest mustache, shower, etc.) and fill in the gaps. Use the text itself but ask the inevitable questions. Why? What sacrifices did it take to attempt such a record? What does it mean to the record-holder? Answer these questions through scene, setting, and character development. Invent, fabricate, and fictionalize as a way of essaying (exploring) your interest in this particular record.

#2: choose a particularly memorable movie (ideally a particularly memorable BAD movie) from your childhood and do two things: 1. Re-write, re-tell a scene that has already been done. 2. Write a scene, exposition, or character sketch of a minor character or of a scene between two major characters that might have occurred off-screen.

#3 (Less Self-Promoting): First, on your own or with a class/group make a list of the Seven Wonders of the World.  Note any disagreements or expansions/revisions of the list. Next read John D’Agata’s essay, “Round Trip” from his collection, Halls of Fame, and then think about your own subjective understanding of the meaning of “wonder” and/or of “a wonder,” and make a list of your personal 7 Wonders of the World (i.e. those things that are “a wonder” or that inspire “wonder” in your life). Then write a 7 paragraph essay wherein each paragraph is dedicated to one of your own personal 7 Wonders. For an extra challenge force yourself to dedicate one paragraph to the Hoover Dam.

Steven Church is the author of The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst (April, 2010 Soft Skull Press), Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents (Nov. 2009, UNO Press), and The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record (2005 Simon & Schuster). He is a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School.


I can’t take credit for the #1k1hr phenomenon, but #1k1hr can definitely take credit for getting me through my most recent manuscript (Let it Breathe, the third in my contract).

#1k1hr is the official hashtag for those on Twitter, but tweeting isn’t a requirement for participation. I was introduced to the concept by author Patrick Alan, who explains it like this: “The object is simple. Sit down and write until you have one thousand words and one hour has passed. You have to accomplish both. The challenge isn’t to write 1,000 words in an hour. It’s to write for at least an hour and at least 1,000 words.”

I’m a big edit-as-I-go writer, and what I love about #1k1hr is that it forces me to switch off my internal editor for a bit. It’s fast and furious and very rewarding for such a small investment of time. The challenge of it is fabulously motivating, particularly if I’m playing with other authors under the #1k1hr hashtag on Twitter. Most importantly, it’s a good way to get words on the page. They won’t always be good words — in fact, some of what I’ve written playing #1k1hr is truly awful. But you can’t edit a blank page, so #1k1hr eliminates the white space in a hurry.

You can read more about #1k1hr here.

Tawna Fenske is the author of Making Waves (Sourcebooks, August 2011).  Other upcoming romantic comedies from Sourcebooks, Inc. are Believe It Or Not (January 2012) and Let It Breathe (August 2012).  You can find her at The Debutante Ball, or visit her blog, Don’t Pet Me, I’m Writing.


Sympathy for the Devil
Here’s a tip to make your villains more interesting (or your bullies, jerks, caddy girlfriends, manipulative parents, and other wicked characters). Create a list of their positive attributes —the things they care about, or the things that make them more sympathetic. (Kathryn Stockett did this well in The Help when she made Hilly, the vicious antagonist in the book, a good mother who loves her children dearly).

Now, here’s the key thing: find the positive attribute in your villain/antagonist that you relate to the most, and emphasize that aspect of your character. So if you’re a neat freak, have your villain be admirably neat. If you care about animals, make your villain a vegetarian and a dog lover (like Hitler was). By picking an attribute that you share with your villain, you can create a point of contact with them —a way to relate to them and get into their skin. Hopefully, this will make them more complex, interesting, and insidious. In almost every book I write, the characters that I like the least (such as Hassert in The Secret to Lying) end up expressing the things I want to say to my characters. I don’t know what that says about me, but I think it adds dimension to character creation.

Writing Exercise: Think about the person you liked the least in middle school or high school (I’m thinking of you, Ralph). Remember all the vicious, annoying, snarky things they said or did —how they flicked your ear, tore your folders, and called the girl you liked a “carpenter’s dream.” Can you see that person? Hear them? Smell them? Spend a few minutes recreating them in your head. (Wow, I still can’t stand you, Ralph).

Now, once you’ve resurrected your middle school nightmare, write a scene from their point of view in which you show them harassing someone. But here’s the catch —also have them do something (feed a squirrel, pick up some litter, protect their kid sister) that suggests a positive attribute that you share with them. If you’re really daring, try to make them a mouthpiece for your beliefs. The combination of having them be both repulsive, and someone you utterly agree with, can give them dimension, and give the scene tension. Who knows, the character you create might even become the hero of your story. For a great example of a short story that unfolds this way, read Stanley Elkin’s masterpiece, “A Poetics for Bullies.”

For more writing tips, suggestions, and exercises, check out my website, under “Writing Stuff“.

Todd Mitchell is the author of The Secret To Lying (Candlewick, June 8, 2010)–Official selection of the 2011 Texas Library Association Teen Reading List, and The Traitor King (Scholastic Press (April 1, 2007).


History of My Conception
For writers, who we are and where we’re from are enduring questions that often provide vivid portraits of the town that we grew up in and our families in that town. However, the most obvious source of where we are from is our conception… our very private and often un-discussed beginning. Yet the very subject induces a bit of nausea… we do not want to think of our parents having sex. Perhaps a more palatable route is to imagine our parents with lives wholly their own—no thought of us in their heads. Indeed their different lives were separate from their existence as a couple once. Who were your parents before? The point of this exercise is not to imagine the gory details (though I dare you), but to attempt to write your way into lives you may barely know.

What do you actually know about your parent’s courtship? Was it a courtship or a one night stand? Is your birth the product of planning/praying/genetic selection or an accident? A happy accident or a tragedy? Using Michael Ryan’s poem, When I was Conceived, try to imagine the time and place of your parents lives. Notice the physical details of the poem… the historical context of war… the small intimacies that speak of love… desire’s phases… the economy of context.

Prompt: Write three poems or stories: One a portrait of your mother in her 18th year, one of your father in his 18th year, and one of the first year of their lives together. If you are very brave, write one poem or story on your creation.

Aby Kaupang is the author of Absence is such a Transparent House (Tebot Bach, 2011) and Scenic Fences | Houses Innumerable (Scantily Clad Press, 2009).  You can read her poetry here.


A big THANK YOU to Margo, Steven, Tawna, Todd, and Aby for helping me out with this one.

And thank you to all who’ve sent in questions and stopped by to read.

What’s your favorite writing exercise?

9 responses

  • Great ideas!

    Thanks for inviting me to participate, and thanks especially for sharing these wonderful ideas! I’m definitely going to try some of them ASAP!


  • Awesome exercises. Thank you, Syl for gathering all these and posting them. I’m off to write a thousand words!
    –T. Mitchell

    • Thanks! And I’m off to hunt down my middle school foe–the pen my weapon. Haha. I’ve been working on developing a great villain in the latest novel and had a hard time making it a person. It’s easier for me to make “society” and “systems” villainous. But this time, it shall be a female. With horns. Turned inwards. And I guess maybe some redeemable qualities, too 🙂

  • Re: Great ideas!

    Thanks for taking part! As I keep learning how to use Twitter (I’m still a newbie!) I’m realizing more and more what a powerful community it can be. I’ll have to check out what others are doing at #1k1hr. The hash-tag alone sounds like the name of a race! (Getting out the sweatband and sneakers.)

  • 1k/1hr

    I’m definitely going to add 1k/1hr to my writing buffet. I know I can do both, but this trick will help me focus.

    • Re: 1k/1hr

      Hey Margo, I loved your idea for getting organized, too. After writing my first novel and then writing a query, I swore I’d never do things in that order again. If I can’t make it sound good in one sentence, I’m not going there. Haha.

  • This is such a helpful post. I think we as writers tend to get stuck in the rut of our routines so it’s great to have little tips like this to help kick start our creative juices.

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