Sorry I'm late again. I had another deadline yesterday.
I went to a new writing group last week. They function almost solely on writing exercises. You know, get the prompt: "Why is he leaving?" and then have three to fifteen minutes--somewhere in there--to write off the top off your head a situation where some guy is leaving somewhere for some reason.
I haven't written a writing prompt since I left school. And I can think of few times during any college experience where I wrote a writing prompt.
Free writes are more common. That's an exercise where you spend about five minutes either writing on anything or writing on a specified subject, which is a bit like a prompt. However in the case of a free write, you are supposed to write whatever comes off the top of you head as fast as you can. The idea is for your pen to never pause. It's free association. It isn't a story. Or usually coherent. Or sentences. It isn't to craft a very short scene, or a cohesive beginning to a scene.
This group obviously were well honed in the process. They were good writers in general, but they were also scary good at crafting a tiny something. Of course, I didn't find out till afterwards that people use characters and other parts of a writing piece that they are already using sometimes. In that case, they are further exploring character's relationships in novel situations, for instance. Which makes a little more sense to me.
We went out to dinner afterwards. They were a largely speculative fiction crowd. Among average dinner topics like travel, I asked them why they did it. Some answered that sometimes they got ideas for short stories or flash fiction that way. Or even novels or the like. They become inspired to write something else when they get home. Or that they have learned how to close up a scene that way.
I'm trying to come up with how I come up with my ideas. Three of my novels came from the kernels of dreams, although one in the end only very, very vaguely. I used to jive with my old writing partner RoseAnna. She's the same one the My Little Pony book came from. We would take these long walks and toss around ideas. Usually it would start with a character, or a couple of characters. Sometimes we would lend characters to each other, though they usually changed almost beyond recognition in another writer's voice. We created the same way. Characters first. Then worlds. Then plot. We would steal characteristics from people we knew.
When we were teenagers we would so intermingle our ideas to create a book concept that we would own it together. Originally we were co authors, but our styles varied too much. But we would actually assign a book to one or the other of us. At one point we both had five books ahead of the one we were writing. I wrote three of the books we used to walk around and talk about. Shining in Darkness, the ex My Little Pony book, of course. Sheep that Stray and Incarnate both came from dreams, but we certainly spent enough time walking around and talking about them. Especially Incarnate. If I had my preference, I would like to walk book ideas with someone.
Right now my massage therapist, Michael, is also my writing partner, so we talk out ideas while I get a massage. Which is always a little weird because I am not looking at him.
These days, I still get ideas from characters that get stuck in my head. Then they collect things to them like other magnets. Other characters. The world forms from how it has effected my characters. Eventually I start working on the world by itself. Somewhere in there the plot appears out of things I want my characters to do. The character scenes usually come first. The battle scenes come towards the end.
Developing characters I use my crazy sick comprehensive character worksheet I got from Leonard Chang at Mills College in his novel writing class. Inspired by it, my old writing partner Anne created a crazy sick comprehensive world worksheet, but I use that less. However, I use those once the process is well underway.
Sometimes I will have a scene stuck in my head. Usually it is the beginning or end scene of the book, though in Incarnate one of the foundation blocks comes in the middle, and does not exactly include any of the main characters.
Music matters a lot. Sometimes I will come up with a character from a person a song makes me think of. Sometimes a song becomes emblematic of a scene or theme for a character. Occasionally the song is a scene. Back in the RoseAnna days we used to listen to music for hours on end. When we were younger we were obsessed with the sixties. But as we got older we became somewhat more contemporary. We would listen to a song and ask each other, "Who does this song belong to?" The song wouldn't have to represent something that happened to the character, but how the character or characters in the song would react if they were put into that situation. I still do that, listening to the radio. Listening to new music. Especially when I have new characters.
I can spend hours jotting notes to myself, or playing with Inspiration software, or often just staring vaguely and imagining. I am ashamed to admit this, but I may be busy imagining a scene or character while talking to friends. Sometimes I'm even rude enough to get out one of the little notebooks I carry around and write down notes.
But writing exercises puzzle me. There is no time to delve. I may go back, though, to experiment. I have never been able to write speculative fiction short pieces. I write literary fiction short pieces. I write memoir short pieces, which you think would be harder, because you have to separate out and encapsulate something from the stream of life, but I create my life out of stories and themes. But I suck at speculative fiction short pieces. They always end up as novels. Or, lately, series.
So perhaps I can learn something from writing exercises. If nothing else, I will enjoy good company in an extremely cold coffee house basement.
But I'm in holding for someone who will raid the quarter jar with me so that we can go buy candy down at the party store. And then walk, often wearing holes in the sidewalks on the same paths, or letting it get too dark on some trail up north. And talk a book. Until then I listen to musician's ideas and the dogs put up with hearing mine.