A long time ago, in a lifetime far away, before I was a SAHHM (Stay at Home Hot Mess), I had the privilege of managing a very talented writing staff. Part of my responsibility to that staff was providing “fill the well” activities and opportunities. We wrote greeting cards and, as you can imagine, we had to find exercises and activities to keep our brains fresh when charged with finding new ways to say “Happy Birthday.” Today I thought I’d share a few of the exercises we worked through.
I’ve adapted the first exercise a bit since you’re probably not working in a group environment.
Character Snapshots helps stretch your brain muscles for character development. It’s intended to be like freewriting. You’ll write quickly and without editing yourself.
With the writing staff, I gave them each a brown paper bag and a photo of a person from a photography website. There were five random objects in the bag. They had to write a character sketch explaining who the character was and why those items were important to the character. Below is a modification.Find a few photos of individual people on the internet. If you write middle grade or young adult, try finding photos of kids who might be characters in your book. Print those out. The bonus of printing out a photo is you won’t need to write about physical characteristics – which lets you get to the good stuff faster.
- Print ten photos of random objects from online. Do this quickly and don’t think too much about what you choose. You’re trying to re-create the randomness of the paper bags here, so the less you think about what you’re choosing, the better. You can paste the images into a Word document, so you can shrink them and not use up all of your printer’s ink. Just cut them into little squares once you’ve printed.
- Turn the print-outs of the items upside down so you can’t see the images. Pick five along with a people photo.
- Now, clear your brain and do a character sketch. Set a timer for 10 minutes. The point of this is to do some quick thinking and not get too hung up on details. Think of it as a nice warm-up for your gray matter.
- Things you may include: character’s name, where they live, their job, if the items belong to them or if they were given to them, what they mean to the person. Here’s a quick example:
(Photo credits are at the bottom of this post.)
Name: Penelope Tinker, age 30, lives in Nevada
Antique watch: was her grandmother’s, she gave it to Penelope in her will.
Ring: Penelope is married. Married very young. They seem to be drifting apart as they enter their 30’s.
Dice: Her gambling problem
Coffee mug: affair
Running shoes: She’s training for a marathon
After jotting down some quick ideas, I started fleshing the sketch out below.
Penelope Tinker has a gambling problem she’s trying to hide from her husband. She’s in dangerous debt, as in owes some scary people a lot of money. She’s trying to figure a way out of debt without hocking her grandmother’s antique watch. She’s training for a marathon with her best friend. Her husband has seemed more distant since she started traveling for work so much. Last time she left town for her job, she came back to a mug with lipstick marks on it. Unfortunately red isn’t her color.
You can go as long or as short as you want. You might start some freewriting and not want to stop. You don’t have to write about the current situation the character is in…maybe you write about something that’s happened to them in the past, incorporating those items.
You may never get a main character for your next book out of this exercise, but if you save the snapshots, you can go back through them to mine ideas on days your brain isn’t cooperating. Remember – your fictional characters are more than likes and dislikes or the color of their hair!
Ekphrasis: “Description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.
I took a class on ekphrastic poetry years ago and loved it. I also took a class on chapbooks at the same literacy center. Poetry is a favorite mode of written expression for me. I probably own too many poetry books (as if that’s possible). The bulk of which were written by one of my favorite poets, Louise Glück.
A friend and former colleague, Carolyn Koesters, is a certified poetry therapist, which is an incredible form of therapy. You can read the guest post she did on journaling here and learn more about poetry therapy here. I was exposed to even more poetry through her – and not the stuffy kind you tried to decode in tenth grade English class.
Back to the exercise…ekphrastic poetry is a written response to another form of artwork. It’s a poem in response to a painting, statue, ceramic, textile…you get the idea. You can check out a search I did here for examples. One of the most famous examples is Nude Descending Staircase by XJ Kennedy based on artwork Nude Descending Staircase No.2 by Marcel DuChamp.
Nude Descending a Staircase
By X J Kennedy
Toe after toe, a snowing flesh,
a gold of lemon, root and rind,
she sifts in sunlight down the stairs
with nothing on. Nor on her mind.
We spy beneath the banister
a constant thresh of thigh on thigh;
her lips imprint the swinging air
that parts to let her parts go by.
One-woman waterfall, she wears
her slow descent like a long cape
and pausing on the final stair,
collects her motions into shape.
For our staff writing exercise, each person was asked to bring a piece of artwork (well, a print out of the artwork) that spoke to them. Then we wrote poems in response to the chosen artwork. You can read a few examples of ekphrastic poetry online, but there’s no wrong way to do it.
So, find a piece of art that intrigues you. My poetry class actually went to the Cleveland Museum of Art to write. If you can get to an art museum, this exercise is even better! Once you’ve found your piece, sit down and “enter” the artwork.
Imagine the artist creating this artwork – write a poem about the way they move and act as they paint.
If the artwork has a person in it, write about their experience in that moment. Think about all five senses.
If it is a landscape, you may want to write a poem that plays with metaphors for the landscape.
Write a poem from the perspective a character walking around the museum.
The reason I like poetry as a “fill the well” exercise is it requires discipline and the economizing of words. Poetry makes you yearn for the one right word…a precise word…the word that evokes the most emotion and imagery. You should return to your fiction with a new eye – seeing more clearly any redundant sentences, repeated words, or just imprecise words. Bringing that eye to your fiction will only improve it.
If this exercise is helpful to you, it might be worth stretching your brain to work in the confines of a more structured poem, like a haiku.
Let us know in the comments if you try either of these exercises or if you have a go-to exercise you love. Or share on our Facebook page. We’d love to hear about it!
I love a new game to get my gray matter chugging up some ideas. I admit that despite loving the word ‘ekphrastic’ and digging on poetry, the first challenge is calling my name. This would be a great way to open a writers group meeting or even involve your family in your writing practice. You want 5 random objects and a photo? Task your kids to collect them for you and then read them your results. I bet that’s the sort of experience that will get them all behind your passion to write and create, and maybe even buy you a couple of minutes of quiet time while they scavenge!