Coaxing my brain into Writing creatively away from home was a challenge to me at first, but The keys to my success were my drive to write and sticking with it until good habits formed. I used countless tools, techniques, and games to help with that. Freedom to experiment should be the largest tool you carry, but try them all until you find the right combination for you. Spoiler Alert: my favorites are the Snowflake Method and writing sprints.
Disclaimer: Writing away from home forces you out of your comfort zone. New or uncomfortable environments may cause anxiety and frustration that can lead to writer’s block or cast a negative pall over your finished piece. If this happens, stop what you’re doing, take a breath, and reassess your situation. There are plenty of ways to increase productivity. If one method isn’t working, try another. I recommend turning off your inner editor while you try out these simple exercises for strengthening your various writing skills.
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MY FAVORITE REMOTE CREATIVE WRITING EXERCISES
Observing Your Environment is an excellent way to spark an idea. During The Time of Covid, you may have become blind to your surroundings, thinking nothing much new happens when you’re home; head out to your favorite people-watching spot because anything can happen out in the real world. Even if nothing particularly exciting happens, it adds fuel to your imagination, so it has an easier time processing new ideas. I use this one in particular when I’m developing a new character.
Reading is guaranteed to get the brain sparks flying. Understanding how other writers build out a character or paint a scene might help stretch out your working style in ways that you wouldn’t believe. We’ll talk about more concrete examples later, but accumulating experience through life or reading is paramount to being a writer.
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Opening sentences Brainstorm opening sentences for a certain amount of time (I like to do 25 minute chunks). It’s a straightforward task with no risk. Eventually, you’ll stumble across something that grabs your attention, and then you can just continue composing. (See Snowflake Method below)
Writers Block Buddies are very helpful in a remote situation. If you find yourself stuck at a certain place in your story, send your writing friends a short scene surrounding your problem. They use it as a writing prompt and send it back to you when they’ve finished brainstorming. You are left with a bunch of fresh ideas to inspire you. It’s a natural way to knock some of your ideas loose.
The Five Senses is perfect at adding depth to your setting. You can try this one alone or with your writing group. Each member of your team chooses a sense other than sight to describe the same location. This is great practice when you’re working on settings. Here’s a tip: combine it with the next exercise on the list.
World Building is another good tool for a writing group. It helps bring your reader into the drama. Find a picture of a scene in a magazine. As a team, add bits and pieces of detail to the description, one person at a time. The resulting setting may be something from Crazyland, but it is sure to start a fire under your pot of inspiration.
Writing Sprint Prompts are my second favorite tool, and I run with it almost every day. Set a timer (I do best with 25 minutes) and then write until the buzzer rings; don’t take a break or the time to think. No matter what is coming out of your fingertips, keep writing regardless of how you feel about it or if you’re making mistakes. The purpose is to train your brain to get into a flow. After the sprint is over, read what you wrote to see if there is anything of value. You can harvest these raw ideas and repurpose them later. A prompt can come from anywhere but usually is a suggested topic, question, or a list of words that must be used.
Snowflake Method is my number one tool, and I use it for everything. (It’s even creeping into the rest of my life, but that’s a blog post for another day). This method helps build the different pieces of your plot in a process that is circular and incremental. Start with the most basic description of the plot, creating a synopsis in one sentence, and slowly build out from there. For example, Evil magic painting keeps a guy unnaturally young works for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Or, A WW2 bomber can’t figure out how to get home is Catch-22. They’re wildly broad, but you recognize the stories from that little piece. Add another sentence, then another, building your snowflake as you go.
Practicing with stories that you know, break them down into pieces like we did with Dorian Gray or Catch-22. Understanding every part of the story in its most basic form will help you fit the pieces together when they’re larger and more detailed. Once you know the fundamental motivation for your character’s actions, elaborate with as much flowery aplomb as you like. You just need to stay true the character arc as you expand the narrative and the characters within. Add a beginning, middle, and ending to the synopsis. Again, keep it as simple as possible. Then the process starts again. Add more detail with each step. If you get stuck, move on to the next. Continue to follow the circle until you feel it is time to start patching it all together into a coherent narrative.
Add whichever exercises work for you into your own tool belt. You’ll always have them with you, ready to go. You can grab any of them whenever you get stuck or frustrated, and you’ll be able to switch your focus to something productive and familiar. It’s good to have comfortable standbys, but always be on the lookout for new tools along the way. You never know what will strike a chord with you. Even if you don’t enjoy a particular exercise, it’s valuable to have that experience. Understanding what you don’t want is just as important as knowing what you do. As I learned recently in our recent podcast episode (This is a link to that video) with Becca Syme, focus on what you’re good at. It’s wonderful for your confidence, and will produce the bulk of your output.