by Fred White
1. TAKING A RISK
To be a writer means to take risks, putting yourself and your ideas out on a limb, making yourself vulnerable to criticism, maybe even ridicule. Does that give you pause? If you have strong views on any subject, rest assured that there will be multitudes who want to throw rotten tomatoes at you, no matter how carefully you present your evidence.
While it’s true that no writer can please everyone, writers can nonetheless benefit from making an effort to persuade, either overtly, through reasoned argument, or artistically, by way of dramatically rendered scenes.
Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write a paragraph describing a fresh approach to a writing task you stopped working on because you felt it was too controversial or unpalatable. Focus on the importance of the topic and how you might present it in a way that would persuade those whose views oppose your own.
2. WRITING FOR YOUR READERS
How do you see yourself in relation to your readers? Answering that question will shed light on your reasons for wanting to be a writer. Perhaps you see yourself as a teacher, motivated to share your knowledge with others. Perhaps you see yourself as an entertainer, motivated to delight your audience with a captivating story. When you sit down to write, think of yourself not so much as “a writer,” but as a man or woman reaching out to an audience, entering the conversation of humanity, enriching that conversation with a new voice and a new way of thinking about important matters.
Draft a poem or letter addressed to your fellow citizens in which you share one idea for making the world a better place. Is it the importance of citizens exercising civic responsibility? Is it having faith in a higher power? Perhaps you have a vision for education reform. Be as detailed as you can about the solution
3. EXPLORING HIDDEN HISTORY
Much of history is hidden. Even major historical events like World War II, for all the books devoted to them, include “blind spots” that historians or novelists haven’t yet tapped into. Explore any period of history in depth, and you’ll discover stories yet untold—or begging to be retold.
Choose a moment of “hidden history,” ancient or modern, and use it as the setting for a brief story. Create imaginary characters and situations, but be faithful to the historical record, or what there is of it.
4. CREATING ATMOSPHERE
Open one of your favorite novels and pay attention to the techniques the author used to create atmosphere. Reflect on how these descriptions work on your imagination. How does each one contribute to producing a particular mood?
Write an opening paragraph for a short story, concentrating on creating a certain kind of atmosphere—say, a festive and reckless carnival for a Mardi Gras–themed piece, or an atmosphere of foreboding for a paranormal one. Where would your story go from there?
5. ENRICHING YOUR DESCRIPTIONS
Writing is a wonderful way of celebrating the beauties of the natural world and the accomplishments of our techno-industrial civilization. It’s also a way of discovering (or rediscovering) the inconspicuous things that would otherwise slip by our radar. Think of how much less distorted people’s views of reality would be if they’d only open their eyes and observe the world like writers do.
Go through old drafts of stories, essays, poems and journal entries and look closely at the way you describe things. Pluck out one (or more) of those descriptions and improve upon it.
6. WRITING LIKE A JOURNALIST
A thin line exists between so-called ordinary thinking and creative thinking, but both types are necessary. For example, we want to think practically when we work out household budgets or try to improve our health, but we can be creative about how we save money, or about the kinds of nutritious meals we prepare. When we write, we combine practicality with imagination. We invent dramatic situations involving imaginary persons, yet these situations need to be conveyed in well-written, grammatically correct prose.
Begin writing a fantasy story as if you were writing a factual news story. Approach the fantasy elements as if you were reporting on the results of the latest city council meeting; emphasize facts and keep descriptions as objective as possible.
7. TRANSFORMING A FAIRY TALE
Fairy tales, like ancient myths and folklore, dramatize archetypal struggles between good and evil, the consequences of foolish actions (think of Pinocchio and his lies) and the exploitation of the innocent (as with Hansel and Gretel and the witch). Fairy tales remind us writers of the essence of storytelling: a deeply desired goal, a struggle against daunting opposition, a satisfying final outcome.
Read Anne Sexton’s poetic retelling of fairy tales in her Transformations, then write one of your own. If poetry isn’t your cup of tea, then do a prose adaptation of your favorite fairy tale.
8. DRIVING A SCENE WITH DIALOGUE
Writers need to be ventriloquists, able to project different voices into different personalities, particularly through dialogue, but also through their patterns of thought. As a character speaks and thinks, so is her character projected to the world. When putting words into your characters’ mouths, think of ways to make their respective habits of speech distinctive.
Write a dialogue scene between two very different individuals. Try capturing their personalities through their manners of speech. Also contrast them through their behavioral eccentricities and physical characteristics.
9. WRITING ABOUT WRITING
When it comes to writer’s work, think labor of love: What better way to work hard than at that which nurtures the soul, fills our needs to express ourselves creatively and offers the dual gift of entertainment and edification to the world?
Jot down your reflections on the act of writing—how you feel about the labor of inventing, the false starts, the revising and polishing, the proofreading. Which tasks do you least enjoy, and why?
10. LETTING YOUR IMAGINATION RUN WILD
You don’t have to be a sorcerer or mystic to write a good ghost story—you just need to be imaginative. Assuming that ghosts are real, that they do indeed haunt houses or hotels or loiter around graveyards, what kinds of sounds would they make to call attention to themselves?
Write a brief story about someone who has found a way to communicate with ghosts, or with a particular ghost who, let’s say, is trapped inside a house that it really does not wish to haunt.