Category Writing Exercises

Ungrounded

I find sometimes that going back to the days when our autonomy was not our own, but directed by our parents and guardians, can sometimes help out with a mental state. Now, I’m not advocating anything kinky here, I’m talking about being grounded. You see, for the last 27 days, I have been grounded from writing. Yes, you read that correctly. I, a grown woman, allowed myself to be grounded from something I love doing.

However, the reason behind the ‘punishment’ is the important part. You see, I was grounded from writing because I had a very special sort of writer’s block. The kind where you hate everything you write. The kind where you believe it all to be pointless tripe and terrible dribble. The kind where you start to wonder if you’re meant to be a writer in the first place, or if you should just give up and run away to join the circus.

My best friend came up with a solution. “You’re grounded from writing for a month.” She said to me one day after I almost burst into tears for the billionth time over my works-in-progress. Of course, I tried to negotiate. Can I collect prompts? No. Can I blog? No. Can I write down my dreams? No. Damn, that one was hard because most of my story ideas come from dreams I’ve had. I was cut off entirely. No writing, except in a journal.

The first week was a relief. It was like something heavy had been lifted from my throat. I was free, and it was all thanks to my best friend, who had seen that writing had become something awful for me. I had hated everything that came out of my fingers, and she had seen it.

The second week, I started to get antsy. So I asked if I could read books on writing. She said that would be fine. So I downloaded a book called “Writing Magic” by Gail Carson Levine, one of my favorite authors. Listening to it give me prompts for writing ideas, I started to feel an itch in my fingers.

This third week was hell. I wanted to write so badly I was formulating ideas for the stories I have in the works without any thought whatsoever that this was technically cheating. I even wrote down one of my dreams (I broke my word, how awful!) because it makes a good story prompt. I immediately felt guilty, after all, but when I confessed to my bestie, she said she’d honestly forgotten that she’d grounded me.

Today, I asked, begged, pleaded even with her over whether I could be allowed to get back on the writing train. Because I was going insane. Nothing filled my time the way writing did. Nothing made me feel productive and happy the way writing did. I’d found out that without writing, I felt like I was nothing. Before, I’d been writing as a way of ‘beating my mother’. Now, however, I’m writing because if I don’t, I feel useless and listless and just plain droll.

Not to mention, I was starting to run out of things to read.

So if you ever find yourself loathing everything you write with every fibre of your being? Find someone to ground you from writing. It might just show you how much you love it again.

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Write Now! 3 – Grimm Art of Fairy Tales

Kate Bernheimer’s article on The Grimm Art of Fairy Tales  intrigues me in ways I can’t describe. Since I was a little girl, fairy tales have always been a big part of my life. I found comfort in the idea that, like Vassilissa the Fair, my mother would never leave me wanting, and like Snow White, my kindness and general likability would gain me safety. These small morals were the cornerstone to my personality. So of course, I’m obsessed with them now! However, after getting in touch with my love of horror and suspense, I find that the sweet, normal fairy tales of my childhood don’t quite… do it for me anymore.

And after reading Miss Bernheimer’s article, I figured out why. All of them lack something. They lack the original source. They lack the social commentary, the deep, terrifying moral of all fairy tales. Baba Yaga was a warning against disobeying your elders’ wisdom and, at the same time, a celebration of how that wisdom can, at times, be dangerous. Sleeping Beauty was a warning about how sometimes, not inviting the right people can ruin your entire life. The little mermaid did what Romeo and Juliet could not, and warned me away from stupid, single-minded love.

Intuitive logic, Flatness, and Happy endings, the article describes, are the three fundamentals of a fairy tale. to quote:

Intuitive Logic. The fairy tale world does not conform to the rules of this world, outside of a book, but it does have rules. They will not be explained with insistence. A teapot will sing. A path will appear just when children need to escape terrible danger. A girl will outsmart a witch. Your chopped off hands will turn into silver and save your life later. In my early fiction, my characters often argued with those around them that they were misunderstood; when I removed all efforts to justify logic (try removing transitions like “Therefore” and “Because”), my readers stopped arguing the stories were illogical.

Flatness. In many old fairy tales, characters are not very deep, psychologically speaking. Snow White, the target of murderous impulses by relatives (sisters or mother) does not suffer depression as a result. She does have responses however: fear, sadness, etc. They are logical and not lingered on deeply. There is nothing wrong with stories that explore ideas about psychological depth; I like many of these stories. Yet flat characters leave room for the reader. In the space left behind, one can think in new ways – Imagine new planes of existence. By flattening characters out, fairy tales exceed limitations of individuality, uniqueness, and self.

Happy Endings. Happy endings are underrated and misunderstood. In lots of old fairy tales, terrible things precede the beautiful images that begin and end most fairy tales; besides what’s wrong with a little consolation in a world teeming with senseless violence, poverty, grief? J.R.R Tolkien once defended happy endings as a vital technique in literature – reflecting, “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” If I want to end a story about death with an image of a white horse running down a beach, as men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns wander drunkenly into the sea, leaving a pretty girl on the beach, counting pennies in the moonlight – if I can create poetic joy in the words – this is okay. […]

Fairy tales are storybook worlds. You can cast the spell.

The Grimm Art of Fairy Tales,  Kate Bernheimer

Her exercise then is to find a very short, very old fairytale, and break it down into these three instances. I chose Vassilissa the Fair, as it’s my favorite tale. It’s the story of a girl who’s mother, on her deathbed, gives her a doll and tells her if she runs into any trouble, to feed the doll and ask it’s advice. Since this is a fairy tale, Vassilissa of course runs into trouble.

Now, the intuitive logic here, is that the doll will in fact come alive. No one asks how. Or why. Just that the doll, when fed, comes alive and helps the one that fed it. And this help, invariably, always, helps her. When Baba Yaga tells her to clean her house, the doll has it done by the time Vassilissa wakes from a short nap. When Vassilissa runs from the witch, the doll tells her not to speak to the three riders on the white, red and black horses (morning, noon and night respectively.). And when Vassilissa at the first is sent out of her home to get a flower in the middle of winter, the doll is the one that tells her about the clearing in which she finds the 12 men (the months in order.).

Flatness is easy to find, since all we know about Vassilissa is that she is ‘fair’, meaning most likely blonde and pale.  We know she loved her mother very much. But we don’t hear Vassilissa’s thoughts. We don’t find out if she feels responsible for her mother’s death, or if she hates her stepmother and sister for sending her out into the forest each day. We never find out her feelings on Baba Yaga at all. And she’s wholly unaffected by the world around her. Vassilissa is little but a vessel for us to pour our own thoughts and feelings into.

The Happy Ending changes, based on who’s telling the story, of course, but my favorite is the one where the wicked sister goes out to get a blessing from Baba Yaga the way Vassilissa did, and never comes back, and the mother goes out to demand the men in the clearing give her flowers too, and never comes back. Vassilissa is left alone in her family home, to live her life. It’s not as surreal, perhaps as Miss Bernheimer would ask for, but it suited the story.

You can use this technique on any story really, and every story can benefit from these three instances of fairy tale progression. Remove attempts to describe the logic of your world. Let the readers just accept the premise of your story, and if they have questions? Well, that’s what Tumblr is for. Simplify or eliminate Character depth. It can always be added back in later. But for now, see how you can make room for the reader too. Don’t erase the tragedy, but afterwards, give the reader some odd bit of hope, like a pearl found lodged between an old man’s gums, which can then be used to buy passage onto a boat headed for a better life.

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Now Write! Exercise Two – Genre Breakdown

In Jule Selbo’s article “Choosing your Speculative Genre”, We learn how to pick apart and use genre and subgenre in order to build up and expand our plot-points and characters. She gives a few examples of how an overarching genre is good to have as a standing foundation, but that keeping in mind subgenres as well is  important for the overall structure of the story and the narratives contained within. One such example that she gives is Pixar’s Toy Story.

TOY STORY lives in a fantastical world where toys have full lives outside of humans’ interaction with them as objects of play. TOY STORY employs:

  • comedy (based in incongruity);
  • buddy (the ar of Woody and Buzz Lightyear as they go from adversaries to friends);
  • adventure (Woody’s goal of geting Buzz back into the fold before moving day is over); and
  • action.

Jule Selbo, “Choosing Your Speculative Genre”, Now Write

Her chosen exercise, after that, has four parts.

1)Decide your overarching narrative genre. Is it based in science or solely the author’s imagination? Is there a truly EVIL component to it, or is it a “scary” story that builds anxiety? These questions will help decide your main genre.

2) Construct a scene or situation set in the overarching genre so that the audience realizes they’re ‘getting what they paid for’. At the same time, weave in one or two of the main characters. People like to get to know characters.

3) List possible supporting genres. Consider how each genre would affect the story and characters. Which ones would ramp the plot up and which would make it fall flat on it’s face?

4)Frame the story in the overarchng genre. Build that scene at the beginning, and then Book End  it with a scene at the end, closing out that overarching theme. Do the same for each scene in the story. Make sure the audience feels connected with the genre they chose to experience.

For example, the build of my first novel, A Knight of Kuryle would go something like this:

  • Overarching genre: Fantasy (Magic is possible, creatures exist that don’t in our world, and the Moon God grants all wishes his followers pray for.)
  • Side Genres:
    • Coming of Age (Dirk’s journey from farmer’s son/child of immigrants to respected knight)
    • Adventure (Dirk has to find the murderer who burnt his village, and avenge the people of his village)
    • Buddy (Dirk has to win the trust of Jorgan, an orphan from his village, while the boy works through the emotions the destruction caused.)
    • Action (Dirk must confront and fight the enemy when they come for his new home as well.)

The first chapter of the novel introduces magic in an evil sorcerer who slays all the adults of his village, and then burns the village to the ground. Likewise, it is bookended by that sorcerer attacking Dirk’s new home, the capital of his country, and Dirk’s desperate fight against the powerful magic this sorcerer wields. Fantasy is woven throughout the rest of the story as well. From the always-prosperous city of Theon’s “Starlight Road”, to the matriarchal royalty of Kuryle’s religion-saturated nobility, fantasy lays in every part of the novel, and it’s subsequent sequels.

It’s easily applied to stories as-yet unwritten, too. My most recent labor of love, which has been tentatively named A Deeper Love, is a historical era regency  novel that I’m basing (loosely) after my own life. If I were to break it down, it would go like this:

  • Overarching Genre: Historical Fantasy (Regency Era specifically)
  • Side Genres:
    • Coming of Age (The main character, Dinah, leaves her small family, and the influence of her off-putting mother, for the bustling high life of london, and in so-doing, learns more about herself, and settles into a woman.)
    • Romance (I haven’t quite figured this particular subplot out, but it’s important, as I want to write the first asexual regency romance novel)
    • Slice of Life (Showing the lifestyles in Regency London)

Sadly, there aren’t many more genres in there. I might add in a comedy subgenre, but I’m not sure how yet. So there’s that. However, playing with the subgenres definitely helps define how the story is meant to go, and with what sort of inclination. I really do enjoy this particular assignment, so it’s definitely something I’m going to be doing more and more often.

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Now Write! Excersise One

I’ll be starting a new series, for however long I can keep this bookNow write! Science fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, edited by Laurie Lamson is a collection of short essays by quite a number of fellow writers, including Piers Anthony, Ramsey Campbell and writers for The Twilight Zone and Star Trek: the Next Generation. These essays are then followed by exercises, in which one stretches their writing muscles and learns from the best!

Today’s excersise was derived from Steven Saus, and we’ll be following it to the letter here. Feel free to read along.

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