Improvising and Rough Edges

Typewriters on a wall in a pub

I recently started attending an improvised comedy course – because apparently I don’t have enough wacky hobbies and creative outlets already. A lot of the fun of improv comes from jamming together things that don’t quite match, for example picking sentences out of a hat and then fitting them into whatever scenario you’re acting out, which for me led to a cave diving expedition turning into a misguided attempt to spark romance.

This reminded me of something I used to do with my writing years ago. When looking for story inspiration, I’d scour my notebooks for fragments of ideas and description, jam a bunch of them together, and then work out what sort of story they could make. It didn’t always go smoothly, but it led to some of my more successful stories, like the mutant whale hunting adventure Distant Rain, which made its way into an issue of Murky Depths.

Dion Winton-Patrick is currently running a similar exercise as a series of challenges for writers on his blog The Fine-Toothed Comb. Each challenge involves incorporating specific words and an image to create a story – words and an image that might not go together in obvious ways. The results are some intriguing and imaginative flash stories.

Why do I mention all this? Mostly because I’d gotten out of the habit of using this approach. These days, I’ll come up with one idea and work out from there. It tends to make my ideas more coherent, but you can go too far with that. A little randomness and eclecticism in the inspiration can give a story rough edges, pieces that are at odds or create interesting contrasts, just like in real life. This can make stories richer and more convincing.

I’m not saying it’s the cure to all writing ills, but I’m planning on picking up some of that approach again, taking a deep dive into a decade of notebooks and finding whatever fragments grab my attention. If I have time, I’ll also be rising to Dion’s challenge. Because right now, I think my writing could do with a few more rough edges. And hey, maybe it’ll be good for my improv skills too.

Brain Exercises

The brain’s like any other organ – it needs regular exercise to stay healthy. And sometimes it needs a warmup before a workout. On that basis, I’ve started building up a list of ways to get my brain started before writing, including:

  • cryptic crosswords
  • free writing – just scribbling down whatever’s in my mind, as fast as I can, without pause
  • idea jigsaws – grabbing six concepts out of my notebooks and working out how they could fit together
  • word pictures – writing a description of a photo, postcard, etc.

What exercises do you use to warm up your brain? Got any good ones I can borrow?

Writing Excuses 10.8 – character and extending a scene

Once again, I’m sharpening my writing skills with the exercises from Writing Excuses’s year-long writing course. This week was their last episode on character. The episode was a Q&A, and covered such interesting topics as how to work with character flaws and how to write characters with offensive views without alienating your readers – it’s well worth a listen.

This episode’s writing exercise builds on the previous two, which used a scene of a dead-drop to illustrate character. It also provides a bridge from discussing character to developing story structure:

Sketch out the events before and after your dead-drop scene from last week and three weeks ago.

In doing this exercise, I’m also going to think about how those events expand on the central characters in this fantasy western – Sarah, an escaped slave; Marcus, her Underground Railroad contact; and the local sheriff, our antagonist.

Before the Dead-Drop

Sarah’s pre-dead-drop narrative is the one that comes closest to writing itself. She escaped from the plantation where she was held, with the help of a man named Seneca, who also gave her instructions for contacting the Underground Railroad. This sets up the dead-drop.

To show more about her character, and how she copes on her own, I also want to add in a scene where she’s almost caught the night before the dead-drop. Sarah’s smart, but because of what she’s suffered in slavery she’s also timid and lacks self-confidence. Her response to being pursued isn’t to run or fight back, but to curl up and hide in a ditch. She uses her smarts to hide pretty well, covering herself in stinking mud to try to hide her smell from the sheriff’s dogs, but they almost find her. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t know that she has some magical power (I’ll work out how later) using the system of magic through games I’m using in this setting. The simple prayer she frantically mutters in the ditch is also a rhyme from a childhood game and taps into that magic, and that’s enough to send the dogs and sheriff in another direction.

So in one scene I’ve shown her character, foreshadowed a character arc of learning magic, and had a chance to characterise the sheriff through his dogged and foul mouthed pursuit of escaped slaves, as well as how he interacts with the other pursuers as they close in on Sarah – he’s jovial with those he likes, but vicious towards others.

Meanwhile, Marcus is meeting to plan for Underground Railroad activities. I’d have to do research to write the planning, but what I’m mostly concerned with right now is characterisation and plot driven by the characters. The meeting is a way to show the magic of the setting. Marcus himself can’t use the magic, but is a leader who has magic users working for him. Like so many Railroad activities, their use of magic has to be subtle and low key, and though he works within these limitations it frustrates Marcus. He’d like nothing more than to be part of a full-on uprising against the slave owners of the southern states.

Though he’s not present in Marcus’s scene, the spectre of the sheriff hangs over all their decisions. They know that he’s looking for proof of their activities with growing ruthlessness. They recently lost a friend to him. Like so much else, not being able to punish the sheriff frustrates Marcus.

After the Dead-Drop

Now I get to bring Sarah and Marcus together. As they seem to be my central characters, I want to make things more interesting by developing a conflict between them, one that stems from their personalities.

Having received the note at the dead-drop, Marcus finds Sarah and takes her to a safe house. Waiting there, Sarah players chequers with Meredith Brown, one of the magic users from the dead-drop scene. In doing this, she inadvertently displays magical power, and Meredith realises that Sarah could be a huge asset for the local Underground Railroad. She tells Marcus, who obviously wants Sarah to stay – his whole motive is to grow resistance against slavery.

But Sarah’s scared, and she just wants to run away north to freedom. This leads to an argument with Marcus, who’s frustrated at her not wanting to help, and doesn’t understand why she wouldn’t. Because of her subservient, non-confrontational personality, Sarah backs down. But now she sees this potential ally as another bullying enemy, and is thinking about how to escape him.

Then news arrives that Old Sam, the other local Underground Railroad magic user, has been lynched. This ups the tension and creates an opportunity to show how the characters present react to this – Marcus with anger, Meredith with sorrow, Sarah with fear. We also get to hear about the sheriff’s reaction, which reveals more about his character. He’s furious, and now hunting the perpetrators of the lynching. Because while he might be a racist villain and antagonist of the story, there’s more to him than that. He really hates law-breakers.

On this issue at least, all the characters will be on the same side.

Reflecting on the Exercise

A lot of what I put into the characters wasn’t planned in advance, it emerged through outlining these few scenes, and I’m really pleased with the results. I think it’s a good illustration of what Robert McKee says in his excellent book Story – that plot and character aren’t really separate things, at least when they’re done right. Characters drive the plot, and the plot helps to show the characters.

Take the argument between Marcus and Sarah. That didn’t occur to me when I was developing their characters in the scenes before the dead-drop, but it made perfect sense based on those personalities. It adds a whole new plot strand, a conflict between them over Sarah’s fate, and it’s one that’s all about these characters and what motivates them.

Often, putting your character in a situation is a good way to develop them. I’m pleased with where these characters are heading.

If you’ve got any thoughts on the exercise, or had a go at it yourself and feel like sharing the results, then please leave a comment below. Next week, on to plot structure.

Writing Excuses exercise 10.7 – changing perspective character

I’m really enjoying doing the recent Writing Excuses exercises. I used a couple to develop Friday’s story, and with it a whole world for future stories of magic in the Wild West. So, skipping over a wildcard week to let me catch up, it’s time for the exercise from episode 10.7:

Pick one of the dead-drop characters from the exercise two weeks ago, and turn them into a secondary character. Now take one of the characters with whom they interacted, and write the same scene again, but from this new character’s POV.

Of the characters from the previous exercise, I’ve since used the most popular one in a story, so I’m going to use the other character who drew some favourable comments – Sarah the escaped slave. Here’s the original version of her journey through the market:

Rough cloth chafed at the raw skin of Sarah’s wrists and ankles, cheap clothing concealing the places where her manacles had been. Fighting the urge to glance around, to give herself away in her anxiety over not getting caught, she stopped at the third stall along, just like Seneca had told her to, and dropped the note he had written her into a tin cup. The man behind the stall whistled a few bars of a spiritual, and as Sarah joined in she felt her spirits lift.

That leaves me with only two other characters mentioned, one of whom isn’t in the scene, so I’ll move the viewpoint to the stall-holder. Same scene, different point of view, and more words this time…

A contact

Marcus could see the sheriff and his deputies eyeing him across the marketplace. Most white folks didn’t like to see a black man with a business of his own, even if that man’s business was a ramshackle market stall selling cheap pots and pans to folks who couldn’t afford no better. If they’d only known Marcus’s real business, they’d have hated him a whole lot more. That hate made Marcus proud.

A woman walked across the marketplace, huddled in a ragged dress and a heavily patched shawl. Her wrists and ankles were carefully covered, and Marcus reckoned he knew what sort of scars lay underneath. Chains weighed heavy and manacles scraped skin.

Stopping at the stall, she looked at his wares without really seeing them, eyes darting nervously. Then she dropped a slip of paper into a cup at the corner of the stall, and Marcus recognised Seneca’s writing on the outside. Just like he’d thought, another fugitive making for the railroad – not the one of cold steel, but the one of warm hearts and desperate hopes.

The sheriff was approaching, casting a suspicious glance toward the oblivious young woman. As she walked away Marcus whistled a hymn. At this signal, Old Sam and Meredith Brown started again on the game of chequers they had going in the shelter of the stall. As they moved the chipped pieces, folks around the market took sudden sidesteps they’d never expected to. A butcher and a labourer knocked into each other, exchanged angry words, and a fight broke out. The sheriff turned to break it up, as the young woman disappeared from view.

Marcus took the piece of paper from the cup and slipped it into his pocket for later.

Reflecting on the exercise

I originally meant to make this as short as the original scene, but once I started I felt I needed more words to do a different character justice, to show both what was distinctive about him and what’s distinctive about the setting. I can see these two characters taking a story of escaped slaves in very different directions – one putting her effort into escape, the other into keeping things moving while evading the law. And both clearly have a place in that story.

What was also interesting was how this exercise in shifting perspective generated other characters. I needed someone to represent the threat of the law, and someone to work the magic at the end. Showing character required a story, which generated more characters, filling more of the niches discussed in this episode of Writing Excuses.

Did anybody else try this exercise? How did you get on? These are really interesting exercises to do, and if you aren’t already I really recommend giving them a try. You can find all the exercises and related episodes over at Writing Excuses.

Writing Excuses exercise 10.2 – developing ideas

As mentioned in a previous post, the excellent Writing Excuses podcast is running as a free fiction writing course this year. I’m following along, completing the exercises and sharing my results here, and I hope you will too. If you’d like to join in, please feel free to leave your answers to the exercises, or a link to where you’ve written them up, in the comments below.

This week’s episode, titled ‘I Have An Idea, What Do I Do Now?’ discussed developing story ideas once you have them. The exercise is:

Using last week’s five story ideas (or five new ones):

  1. Take two of them and combine them into one story.
  2. Take one and change the genre underneath it.
  3. Take one and change the ages and genders of everybody you had in mind for it
  4. Take the last one and have a character make the opposite choice.

You can see my five ideas in a previous post, and here’s what I did with them for the exercise:

1. Combining:

I decided to combine my second idea, a historical novel about a young bowman’s experience on the Agincourt campaign, with my fourth idea, a science fiction story about trying to police planetary borders. It felt like a suitably challenging pair to combine.

I think that the most interesting way to do this, while keeping plenty of elements from both stories, is to make it about people trying to enforce customs duties along the English Channel during that period, with the sci-fi element becoming a bit of secret history. So these local officials – probably a couple of minor nobles or merchants with official tax-raising positions, along with a local militia – have to struggle with two issues making their life difficult – the huge disruption caused by Henry V’s campaign in France, and strange items they start running across while stopping smugglers. It is gradually revealed that these are extra-terrestrial gadgets, being used by secret societies fighting a private war behind the historical scenes. Someone is running a very different sort of smuggling operation, and things are about to get ugly.

Different characters interpret the devices in different ways, and all struggle to be believed. Someone turns out to be a traitor who’s in on the secret war. Everything comes to a head around the same time that the military campaign does.

2. Change the genre:

I’m changing the genre behind my third idea, a cabal secretly running the world using playing-card-powered magic. Instead of fantasy it becomes science fiction. The people running a future society do so through extremely advanced technology, but they have a limited number of one-shot devices and have lost the ability to make more. The shortage causes bitter competition for this limited resource, in which more and more of the devices are used up. It’s a situation that could bring the whole institution to its knees.

3. Change the ages and genders:

My first idea, about an ageing bureaucracy running a baroque galactic empire, gets a big age switch-around. Now it’s the young who are using ancient traditions and strange practices to exclude older people from any influence or power. After witnessing her wife’s death from neglect at the hands of this failing system, a grandmother sets out to begin a revolution.

4. Change a choice:

As in my original fifth idea, a pair of angry lovers decide to destroy the town that harmed them. But as they begin their rampage, one of them feels a great sense of remorse and tries to stop the other. Soon the lovers are battling each other, one defending the town, the other trying to destroy it.

 

Reflecting on the exercise:

Even after years of practice, I often still just write the first version of an idea that pops into my head, rather than trying to vary it or take a different angle. This exercise was good for making me move away from obvious choices, and I think that the stories are richer for it. I like that I now have an octogenarian revolutionary protagonist, but I felt like the most interesting shift came in the fourth exercise. Changing a character’s decision also alters their motives and character, as well as the course of the story. It took things in an unexpected direction.

What do you think of my ideas? Do you have any good approaches for refining story ideas? And if you did the exercise how did you get on? Please feel free to leave any comments or your own answers to the exercise below.

Happy writing!

Writing Excuses Masterclass exercise 1 – generating ideas

I mentioned on Saturday that Writing Excuses are running this year’s podcasts as a free writing course, with exercises for each lesson. To try to add to what I learn from this, and generate discussion with any of you who are interested, I’m going to post the exercises and what I produce here. No set timetable yet – we’ll see how I get on. If you feel like trying these exercises and sharing the results then I’d love to read them – please put your ideas or a link to them in the comments.

So, a week behind, here are the exercises from the first episode of this course (10.1), and what I came up with:

Write down five different story ideas in 150 words or less. Generate these ideas from these five sources:

From an interview or conversation you’ve had
From research you’ve done (reading science news, military history, etc)
From observation (go for a walk!)
From a piece of media (watch a movie)
From a piece of music (with or without lyrics)

This exercise might not generate the very best ideas you’ve ever had, but it will definitely flex your idea muscles in new ways.

1. From an interview or conversation:

A galactic empire is run by an ageing bureaucracy full of strange customs and traditions in a Gormenghast style. Our protagonist must survive the strange and deadly customs involved in joining this august body before he can bring reform.

This one was inspired by a conversation about reforming Britain’s House of Lords.

2. From research:

The story of a young bowman in Henry V’s army on the Agincourt campaign. He becomes disillusioned with the warrior king he idealised, and with the romance of soldiering, as he sees the unpleasant reality of medieval warfare. The final act sees him plunged into a horrifying sea of mud and bloodshed as the outnumbered English fight for their lives in the famous battle.

This one is kind of cheating. It’s based on research I did for a couple of freelance jobs, and I considered writing it as a novel this year, as it’s the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Then I realised I didn’t have time, so I’ll just put the idea here instead.

3. From observation:

A secret cabal of mages govern the world using magic they tap into through playing cards. But each mage can only use each card once, and when they run out their power is gone. Different cards have different powers. The protagonist is a good mage fighting the bad mages, because I am too tired for a more nuanced plot right now.

Based on seeing an ace of clubs lying abandoned in a puddle.

4. From a piece of media:

A border police story, inspired by Canadian police procedural series The Border, except in space. A group of security professionals struggle to stop smugglers, terrorists and annoying tourists crossing the planetary border, in particular a shuttle docking platform on top of a geosynchronous space elevator. Combine it with The Wire-style plots where you get to see and sympathise with both sides of the criminal divide, and every act is politicised.

5. From a piece of music:

A pair of angry lovers prepare to burn down the town that persecuted them before disappearing into the night. It all goes horribly wrong.

Inspired by one of my all time favourite albums, Black Love by the Afghan Whigs, especially the tracks ‘Crime Scene Part 1’ and ‘Going to Town’.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BM6cY-CB0c?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

Great song. Shame about the video.

There we go, my ideas. Please feel free to share yours in the comments, or comment on mine – who knows, maybe one day I’ll write one of them.

And go listen to Writing Excuses. It’s great.