Tuesday, January 24, 2012

9 Writing Exercises to Recharge Your Creativity and Power Through Writer's Block

One of my favorite writing quotes of all time is from Rudyard Kipling, something about the back kitchen of your consciousness. To my chagrin, I don't remember exactly where it's from and Google, for once, fails me completely. But you get the point. There's a lot of cooking taking place in your subconscious all the time, and complex ideas--the best ideas--can require a lot of simmering.

A friend of mine sent me an email about how she can't get motivated to write--that she has too much to do on her WIP and no inclination to start. Knowing her manuscripts and her recent critique experiences, I wrote her back that I suspected her subconscious was mulling things over, preparing to make some large-scale changes. The moment my fingers typed that, I knew I had hit on something true.

We can force ourselves to write when we aren't feeling inspired. We should force ourselves to write every day or at least most days. But we don't have to write our WIP.  We can write something completely different: a short story, a synopsis for another manuscript, a picture book, a writing exercise. Or we can do something that will help us see our manuscript from another point of view. Literally.

I haven't really done writing exercises in a while. I've felt the urge to let loose several times recently, which resulted in two picture book texts and a short story. But time is so precious, I feel like I can't take time to do something "unproductive." It surprised me how much I LOVED the exercises that I did in the Miami breakout sessions. They completely took pressure away and let me experience the joy of creation--but at the same time, taught me a lot about writing in general and my own writing in particular. In creating those small snippets of scene, I had to include hints of plot, character, setting, theme.... My brain did all that subconsciously, on the fly, which was an instant reminder of why I love being a writer.  As a bonus, I now have additional book ideas to throw in my drawer, which is actually quite productive. :D

My favorite exercise came from literary agent Jill Corcoran, who was teaching a break-out session on voice. She gave us a prompt, let us write our brief scene, and then told us to turn the exercise around and write the same scene from the point of view of a different character. WOW.  Try this and you will  find new conflicts, new personality quirks, new deep character insights, new possibilities in your scene. Of course, part of what worked so well with this was that Jill gave us a writing prompt as a starting point. Here's the thing though: you don't need a writing prompt. All you need is your WIP.

It occurred to me that I can combine writing exercises with my WIP to bring things out of my mind's back kitchen. Trying Jill's exercise on a scene in my novel was even more revealing than switching my main character from close third person to first person point of view. Suddenly, I discovered new depths in the social position she holds in relation to those around her, how much power she wields, and how her actions and opinions effect others. How much of this she knows consciously in turn informs how she should act at any given point. I highly recommend this as an eye-opener.

Whether you are stuck in your current WIP, just starting one, or facing a revision, combining writing exercises with your own scenes can give you a major jolt of creative adrenaline. Including the two I've already mentioned, here are some exercises you could try:

  • Take a scene from your manuscript and change the POV. Switch it from first person to third person, from third person to first, from third close to third distant, etc.
  • Rewrite a scene from your manuscript from the POV of an observer or one of the supporting characters in the scene.
  • Change the age of your main character by twenty years, up or down, and then rewrite a scene from your manuscript from her POV.
  • Write a one paragraph description of each of your main characters in the point of view of every other character.
  • Write an obituary of each of your main characters.
  • Write down the earliest childhood memory of each of your main characters.
  • Write paragraphs or scenes in which each of your character's biggest secrets are discovered by another character.
  • Write paragraphs or scenes in which each of your characters reveal their biggest secrets to another character.
  • Rewrite one of your pivotal scenes between two characters to include no dialogue. (Think of the destroyed kitchen post-sex scene in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.)
  • Rewrite one of your action scenes to include mostly dialogue.
  • Write an argument between each of the characters in your scene and someone else in the scene revealing baggage from a previous scene or interaction.
  • Describe the setting of your scene from the POV of each of the different characters in the scene.
And if you are interested in improving or identifying your authorial voice, try these two exercises as well:
  • Type out a chapter from a book by one of your favorite authors and then rewrite a scene in your book in that author's voice/style. Read the ending chapter of a book by one of your favorite authors and then rewrite it.
  • Analyze how that chapter is different from the original.
Want more? Here are some additional sources for writing exercises:

We all need a kick in the creative pants once in a while. But more importantly, we all deserve to bask in our own brilliance. We do that by creating shiny new words and ideas, finding deeper connections between things we've already put in place, falling deeper in love with our characters. So exercise your creativity on your own manuscript. It's guilt-free, productive, and wonderfully rewarding.

Happy writing!


About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. Excellent exercises. The description of your friend at the beginning of the post is me! My WIP awaits, but I'm not interested at the moment. These exercises, even just reading about them, has made me interested again! Thank you for sharing them. I'm going to spread the wealth share them with my online writing retreat #SilentWriters tonight on Twitter.

  2. Me, too, Olivia! Thanks so much for posting this!

  3. Wow. This is just what I needed at this time. As soon as I read through the exercises I regained excitement and motivation enough to get back to my WiP. Thanks!

  4. Oh, I love this list--I'm going to save it and go back to it from time to time. I'm a big one for writing exercises, they seem to open up possibilities every time I make use of them. Thanks!

  5. Love this post! These would be great writing retreat exercises for a critique group to do on a little writing get-a-way, too.

    : )

  6. Hmm...long intro, but I'm adding this to my weekly round-up.

    I might try the switching POV exercise, and I might try writing another author's chapter.

  7. Super list. I've found more about my characters simply by rewriting the scene in first person. Amazing! :) Thanks for the great ideas.

  8. Olivia, I'm so glad you're feeling a bit energized! It's so easy to get out of writing mode, isn't it? Thanks for sharing the post.

    Victoria, hope the exercises will help. Let me know, okay? :)

    Bee, YAY! I'm delighted to hear that. Now if only it will help my friend, too. Good luck and please let me know how it goes.

    Kenda, isn't that so true? And yet it's something we (okay, me) completely forgets about. I had so much fun just focusing on writing in Miami but I'm all about guilt. The idea of applying them to my manuscript lets me give myself a free pass!

    Beth, OMG, I LOVE that idea. And I'm going to suggest this for our next writing retreat. We actually plotted out a novel together between the end of the Miami conference and when we each left for home, so hopefully we will be ready to get cracking on it the next time we get together. The exercises would really help that! Thank you for suggesting it.

    CO--those are both great things to play with. And thanks for including the post.

    Carol, isn't that a great way to open up your characters? I don't even consider it an exercise since it's something I almost always do at the beginning of a piece before I settle in.


  9. LOVE Jill's exercise. I just went to a fantastic poetry presentation and she talked about how poetry is always percolating in our subconscious. I'm sure it stays up nights musing with our WIPs while we sleep.


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