Writing Exercises That Inspire

 

A Hint of Hank…

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In the intermediate creative writing class I took at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre two years ago, our teacher gave us weekly writing assignments. I found these very helpful at flexing my writing muscle and letting the creativity flow. In an interview with Vulture, Gillian Flynn reported that the “Cool Girl” article in Gone Girl came about when she was doing a writing exercise to help alleviate writer’s block. She indicated that, as a rule, she tends not to use writing exercises in her actual manuscripts, as writers tend to “shoehorn” them in. This resonated with me as I had a few that I tried to do just that with, and ended up deleting. However, there are a couple of scenes that started as writing exercises that really inspired the trajectory of my story (in a good way). I thought I would share one with you today.

 

The assignment was to write something from the starter line, “There is a particular place he is going to tonight but…”, and to just let it flow. I thought about my main male protagonist, ‘Hank’ when writing it. This is NOT the version in my manuscript for Unspeakable, but rather the exercise that inspired a ‘TSN Turning Point’ scene (I also removed names and spoilers). This exercise helped me understand ‘Hank’ a little bit better and set the tone of his voice.

I hope you enjoy it!

On the shores of Wabigoon Lake

 

There is a particular place he is going to tonight but he is not prepared to admit to himself where that is. If he ends up there again, it is not on purpose. This is a small town, there are not many streets, it’s only natural – after all this was his hiding place – not hers.

He pulls up to the dead-end street at the edge of town. He kills the engine and tilts the powerful machine onto its stand. He yanks the helmet off of his head, rests it on the black leather seat and runs his calloused hand through his smooth black hair, allowing the cool evening breeze to evaporate the sweat that has gathered in his short locks. He told himself that he was just going for a walk along the familiar pathway, to gather his thoughts, clear his head, to be alone. That’s not what he wanted. He wanted to see her again, to be allowed to touch her. He pushes the thought of her out his mind, pushes his body away from her, quickly marching forward. They are like magnets, you spin them in one direction and the attraction is undeniable, turn one to face the other way and they repel. He is searching solitude yet simultaneously seeking her.

His black boots compress the gravel below him as walks at an anxious pace along the familiar path ahead of him. When he veers off onto the smaller lightly trodden trail, the moonlight shines on the waxy leaves of the birch trees that feather their branches along the route, giving them an ethereal glimmer. Several minutes pass until he can see the clearing that marks their meeting place, the dark water of Wabigoon Lake shimmering in the dim light.

He pauses, the sparkle of the water momentarily mesmerizing him. An owl lets out a solemn cry. As he feared, longed for, and denied – he is alone. He leans against a tree near the waters edge, letting his breath slide out of him in synchronicity with his body as he lets his legs collapse beneath him, dragging his back along the bark, tearing at him.

He rests his head in his hands, trying to get ahold of his conflicting emotions. She had pushed him away and eventually he had responded in kind. He could not expect their friendship to continue. It wasn’t feasible in this suffocating town; where everyone thinks they know you and if they don’t, they make believe they do. There is no place for your own self. His voice will never be heard here – especially now that she is …(sorry, spoiler removed!)

 

If you have writing exercises that helped inspire you, I would love to hear about it!

Why J. R.? Using a pen name.

J.R. Ewing
Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing in Dallas

A few people have asked me why I’m using what appears to be a pseudonym. I’d like to make clear that I’m not ashamed of my writing in any way. I’m proud that I’ve finally pursued my lifelong dream; that I finally ignored the shroud of doubt and ducked out from underneath it…well maybe it started with a peak.

Here are the reasons that I’m using J.R. Yates and not my ‘real’ name.

  1. My writing has some adult and sexual content. In my career as a speech-language pathologist (SLP), I work with young children and their families in the public health system. At this point, I feel that it’s best to keep my professional career and writing separate.
  1. Unspeakable has a speech-language pathologist as its main protagonist. In the book, Hanna sees a varied group of patients. For now, it’s best if Hanna and my SLP alter-ego have some separation – that patients don’t feel that I’m writing about them. I assure you, although I pull from experience, every single character in Unspeakable is fictional.
  1. I’ll just come right out and say it – I have a generic name. More than that – I have a generic French Canadian name. J. R. stands for my first name and maiden name. If you Googled the name that I’ve used my entire life, you wouldn’t find me. You would come up with about a zillion obits for ninety-year-old women in Quebec. I’m in no way ashamed of my heritage – quite the opposite. I never took my husband’s name; I’ve been using my maiden without fail for all 12 years of marriage (yes, I’m one of those women). My name makes me readily identifiable as French (I see French and English clients), and I want my kids to know and recognize the French part of their heritage. Which brings me to my final reason…
  1. My kids. I want my kids to be proud of their mom for following her dream. So, if Unspeakable ever gets published (fingers crossed), I would love for it to have their last names on it. It’s my way of sharing my accomplishment with them.

 

How I Wrote My First Published Work: Unfaithful

Writing

“Write something from the point of view of an inanimate object.” That was the assignment in my intermediate creative writing class at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre. I’m not sure what writing muscle it was meant to flex, but Unfaithful was the result.

 

My teacher, Robin Van Eck, had given the assignment the day before. I don’t have much time to carve out for myself (I have to sneak away just to pee, and the people – the little Yates people – they always manage to find me mid-stream). But on this particular evening, after clearing the dinner table, I was struck with the idea of what to write. “Dolls and mannequins were cliché and had been done to death,” Robin had said. “Be original.”

 

So, what? Another toy? No, too similar to a doll. What would speak to me as a mother? A wife? And it hit me – along with the constant stream of beeps, chimes, and notifications. That damned cell phone….

An Affair with Smartphone

It was one of those divine moments that writer’s hope will strike them when they sit down, fingers to keyboard. At the kitchen island, I tapped furiously on my laptop while my husband did the dishes (yes, he does dishes…and laundry too). Miraculously, no one interrupted me, and it was done in one sitting – about 20 minutes. That doesn’t mean I didn’t edit it after – but for the most part it was done. I wish it was always like that…but it often isn’t. (click here for my post on writer’s block).

 

I brought my completed assignment to class the following week and sputtered, red-faced, as I read it aloud. Robin gave me a, “Wow”, and I gave her a, “Yeah? But what do I do with it?”

 

She directed me to A Place for Writers website. There I found In My Bed Magazine’s call for submissions for their “Sex and Magic” issue. I thought, “Not quite magic, but close…”, but figured it didn’t hurt to try, so I submitted it.

 

I was shocked when a few weeks later I received the acceptance! My first submission and I got an acceptance. Unheard of – and probably dumb luck – but I’ll take it.

 

All in all, I’m proud of this little piece. It really speaks to my disillusionment with how we ‘connect’ with each other these days, but yet are so disconnected. You can read Unfaithful by clicking here.

The Process of Writing: Part Two

 

WRITING YOUR UNIQUE STORY AND DEFEATING WRITER’S BLOCK

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Last time, I discussed the importance of writing because you love it and understanding your characters. This time, I will be adding two more important strategies that worked for me in getting the first draft of my manuscript completed.

 

  1. Write What You Know.

I know, I know, we’ve all heard this one before, but it’s true, but not always in the way we might think. When I was at When Words Collide, a writer’s convention in Calgary, D. J. McIntosh (author of The Witch of Babylon), posed the question: Why is this story one that only you could tell?

 

When I wrote Unspeakable, I was motivated to tell a story about something I live every day; speech pathology. I challenged myself to make it sexy and interesting. In order for my plot to work, it needed to take place in a small town. Starting out in my profession, I was very much like Hanna (my main character); young, naïve, and in over my head. So I decided to place my story in the same town where I had found my first job as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) – Dryden, Ontario. It was the perfect setting for my story and writing about a place (and experience) I already knew helped add authenticity to my writing.

 

In addition to the things that I understand about Hanna, there are a lot of things that I understand about Hank, because of some of my unique life experiences. One is Hank is French Canadian; a language minority in his part of Canada. This plays an important role in his journey in Unspeakable.

 

Unspeakable is a story only I, the French-Canadian SLP who worked in a small mill town and grew up in Western Canada, could tell, because my life lens colors my story. HOWEVER, there are a lot of things in the story that I don’t know about – so you have to pull from similar experiences, as well you need to do your research (which I will address in a future post).

Write

  1. Sit Down and Write.

After you’ve got your plot, sub-plot, and characters figured out you need to write your story – your novel. Wow, that can be daunting. 80,000-plus words with a plot, subplot, characters, denouement….and, and, and…. Take a breath. Writing a book can be an overwhelming (and often discouraging) undertaking.

 

Where do you start? That’s just it. Start.

 

I found that writing an outline of my story and chapters really helped. And then, well, you have to sit down and write it.

 

Some writer’s have word count goals, time goals, etc. You could also write out a writing schedule. For me, it was much simpler than that. I tied my writing time into my life routine. When my youngest son was in an activity, instead of going home and running errands, I slotted that as my writing time. Inspired or not.

 

I was taught to use Free Fall Writing at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre. This technique basically means sit down and just write. Without editing or self-criticism – give’r (that’s a Canadianism, eh?). I didn’t set arbitrary word counts as a goal. I felt that this would just add unnecessary pressure and would lead me to feel dejected and defeated if I didn’t attain the word count goal. My goal was simple: Any writing, for me, was an achievement (a lot harder to fail that way). When I wasn’t sure where to go next or what to write, I used the Free Fall method and it really helped alleviate any instances of writer’s block and kept the story moving forward. And hey, I always left the coffee shop I nestled myself into with more content than when I had arrived.

 

 

So, in the end, with the help of things I learned about characters, world building, and Free Fall Writing, I got my story down on paper. But most importantly, I wrote Unspeakable because I had a story that I felt compelled to tell. Once I had the idea, plot points and characters bounced around my skull constantly; cracking at my consciousness and pulling me into a world of my own making. I had to let my characters breathe. This, in the end, is what really drove me.

 

Especially Hank. With his long lean body, black hair, and those cobalt blue eyes. Well, I couldn’t wait to spend time with him. And the only way to do that…was to write him. So I did. And now, I miss spending time with him.

Hank
Hank

 

Sigh.

 

 

The Writing Process: Part One

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BE AUTHENTIC

 

In a previous post, I told you how I got my idea for Unspeakable and went about pursuing my dream to (near) completion.

But how do you write a book?

Funny, I wish I knew.

You may think I’m being a bit of smart-ass, but honestly, I’m not sure that I really know how I got here. I look at the 340-plus pages of my manuscript, harrumph (yes, I harrumph), and shake my head in disbelief. How did I write a freaking book? It seems as mysterious to me today as it did before I took my first course.

But here’s what I do know:

 

  1. Write because you’re passionate about it.

Don’t write a book because you think it will make you famous or the next great Canadian/American novelist. It likely won’t. The stats on this matter are quite frightening. It should be your passion. If it isn’t, it will likely fall flat – no passion from the writer, no passion in the characters. On that note…

 

  1. Care about your characters.

When writing a novel, you should know your characters. Not just their name, hair color, who their friends are, etc. That stuff’s plastic. Go beyond the surface. If someone cuts in front of them in line, how would they react? What’s in their fridge? What was their family life like? What are their pet peeves? What motivates them? What pisses them off? Why? [For a great post from Writer’s Digest on The Top 10 Questions You Should Ask Your Characters, click here]

 

In depth character sketches go a long way in helping a writer learn about their characters. Knowing what makes your characters truly tick, will make your story hum with the vibration.

 

For more on creating characters, I recommend the book, Breathing Life Into Your Characters by Rachel Ballon.

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Rachel Ballon’s Breathing Life Into Your Characters

 

If you know of any other great books on creating characters, I’d love to hear about it! Leave your suggestions below.

In my next blog post, I will share two more strategies on how to get that book written…including, how to avoid the dreaded writer’s block…dun dun dun duuun!

How I Came to Write My Novel

Writing my novel

Since I was very young, I’ve always loved reading and wanted to grow up to be a writer. You would often find me with my nose in a book, reading into the wee hours of the night, using the pinpoint of red light from my waterbed heater control to illuminate each finely typed line, so as to not wake my sister.

My first experiences sharing my writing with others left me feeling embarrassed and self-conscious (the fault of the inner critique). Whenever my mother proudly stated to her friends that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I saw placating smiles and schooled expressions. Isn’t that sweet? I felt ashamed that I had such fanciful pursuits – it felt as realistic as believing in the tooth fairy; and at eleven, I knew there was no tooth fairy.

Creative interests took a back seat to finding a secure career. I became a speech-language pathologist (SLP) over 15 years ago, and I currently practice with the pediatric population. I love what I do. To help families facilitate and improve their child’s communication, to connect with others, is often very gratifying.

Speech-Language Pathologists
Fellow SLPs at the Hanen More Than Words training workshop on November 18, 2014

But what of my childhood dream? Do I simply leave it in the background of my wants and desires, as something silly and unattainable?

If I don’t try, I am sure to fail.

I was inspired to pursue my dream to write once more when I realized I had no reason not to pursue writing any longer. I don’t need it as a career. I can do it just because I love it. What did I have to lose?

The idea

I was discussing books with a colleague in November 2012 and she mentioned that no one has ever written a book where the main protagonist is a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and sexy (her words, not mine). This got my wheels turning. What would a book like that look like? How could you develop a story where it was important that the main protagonist was an SLP?

The seed of the idea for Unspeakable was planted. And so, I started making notes. I came up with a premise, and characters and a plot and a subplot. Now what?

Work to do your best.

I took a course on novel writing at the University of British Columbia in early 2013, and then a creative writing course at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre that spring. I was then accepted into their yearlong novel course last year, where I completed my first draft. I had a few reviews from writers-in-residence programs, and did some rewrites. I then had a few beta readers read it over the summer, and did more rewrites. I sent it for a manuscript review with a local writer’s association – they told me it was good, but gave me few constructive things to work on (I waited 10 weeks for that one!)

 

Currently, it is in the hands of a professional editor that I hired. I now have to wait 14 weeks. So, if you’re following all of this, it took me 2 years to get to this point. From the seed, to the tree in it’s adolescence. Sure, there were long periods where I didn’t touch my manuscript. Namely the summer months, when I parent full-time with few moments to myself and those long periods of waiting…waiting for people to read it and give feedback. And so now I wait again, and I write about other things. This blog mainly, and there is another seed. It’s germinating. I just need to plant it.