Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Practicing Writer

You all know the old gag - a doctor (or dentist, or some similar profession) is asked "Are you a practicing doctor?" and replies, "Of course I am! How would I get to Carnegie Hall if I wasn't?" (Yes, I am shamelessly stealing inspiration from Sarah. She's got plenty: she won't miss this little bit).

There is, as always, truth in jest. In this case, if you don't practice what you're doing, you don't get better at it. And life being the stone-hearted bitch she is, if you aren't improving, you're getting worse. Standing still ain't an option.

So, here are a few things that I've used successfully for practice purposes, in practice pieces.
  • No adverbs or adjectives. For as long as you can keep it going, write something with no adjectives, no adverbs, or no adjectives or adverbs. As an exercise in focusing on strong nouns and verbs this is very effective.
  • Thesauropod switching. Take a common word, then consult a thesaurus (or . Try to use every listed synonym correctly in a short piece. This exercise really drives home that synonyms aren't things you can swap out at whim.
  • The Bathos Swamp. Take a scene that should be highly emotional - it doesn't matter what the emotion is, so long as it's intense. Write it using the blandest language you can manage without adverbial/adjectival slush. Now rewrite in the most overblown language you can think of. Try not to laugh hysterically at the result.
  • The Plot Derailment. This one is good for when you've written yourself into a corner and you can't figure out what to do next. The main character drops dead with heart failure. What do the other characters do next? Alternatively, the villain has a change of heart, gives away all his/her possessions, and joins an ascetic religious order. Now what?
  • Slashing Fun. You're bored with your work in progress - here's a bizarre cure. Take the two least likely candidates for a relationship, and write a sizzling hot slash scene with them. For bonus points, add kink (A very obscure file name and possibly a password if you share your computer with kids are a good idea here. For that matter, I don't recommend doing this on the lunch break of your paid job. Just saying.)
  • Scenery Salad. Take an image, and write a description of it in the fewest possible words. The idea should be not to literally describe, but to evoke the image so that someone who saw the picture after reading what you wrote would recognize it. For bonus points, do not use any "sight" words - keep the description entirely to the other senses.
What writing exercises do you use in your practice pieces?


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I'm here as witness that "slashing fun" works if someone else does it for you. Years ago, in the middle of my being incredibly stuck on a novel, I woke up one morning to find out that my incredibly tense royal audience had turned into a free-for-all all-genders orgy. My husband had hit upon this as a way to unblock me. It worked.

Chris L said...


I'm beginning to wonder about you guys. You don't have seperate erotica lines do you?

My whole writing career so far has been practice. In the past year (since I began writing shorts) of the 15 peices I've written, only two are written in a similar style.

I guess this is the mark of a new writer. When I practice it tends to be playing with character types.

And unlike Sarah, I've sent the odd pratice piece in, and had one accepted. I still haven't worked out if that was a mistake.

Kate Paulk said...


So your husband transformed your stiff royal audience into something with a bit more lubrication?

That would have been quite startling - especially if he got your writing style well enough to have you asking yourself "What was I ON last night? I don't remember writing this!"

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

I don't. Given the way things I write twist, I suspect that it's not a good idea - although I do have some rather warm practice pieces.

I don't think wildly different styles are necessarily a sign of a new writer - I suspect it's more that established writers tend to get filed into a specific niche, so that's the style that's associated with them. Someone like Sarah, who's been known to say no genre is safe from her, can switch style dramatically between books.

An acceptance is NEVER a mistake. It's a celebration - congrats :)

Also, I think perhaps that your writing career so far has been rehearsal rather than practice.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Weirdly, I don't think you know this, but yeah Dan can mimic my writing so well I don't know it's not mine -- which meant I was UTTERLY confused, until he couldn't stand it and started laughing his head off.

Kate Paulk said...


That would have been incredibly disorienting. You have a warped and twisted husband - I like it!

Ellyll said...

Kate, thanks for the post, those are great ideas. I feel like I have homework now. ;)

I love Sarah's story, it made me snicker.

And now I must run off and work on my homework...

Kate Paulk said...


I'm sure Sarah's story was meant to make you snicker.

I've found all of them useful at different times - and a few have led elsewhere, too.