Let’s face it. We’re a busy bunch of humans. Doing what? I have no idea. But we’re busy. Too busy, sometimes, to fit in a session behind the writer’s curtain. Right?
Busyness is a lousy excuse. I know, I used it. A lot. Now I tell myself: hey, all you need is fifteen minutes a day to write. Fifteen minutes, that’s it!
Yeah, but what can you write in fifteen minutes?
Here are fifteen ideas.
Natalie Goldberg lays out the rules for freewriting in Writing Down the Bones. Write quickly, without editing, without regard to grammar or punctuation or meaning. Just set the alarm and write without stopping for fifteen minutes. Fast.
2. Practice writing from the senses only
Recall something that happened yesterday. That moment you walked into the staff room and a co-worker gave you the stink-eye. Write that moment from the senses only. No narrative. No: The moment I walked in, I knew something was up. Senses only. One fluorescent bulb was burned out and the room smelled like corn dogs. Ed sat in an orange plastic chair wearing a fuzzy brown wool vest.
3. Write a blog post
Or a poem. Or a lyric. Or a piece of sudden fiction. In fifteen minutes? You gotta be kidding! Nope, I’m not. You’ve got an idea? You’ve got fifteen minutes to write it. That’s five hundred words, easy.
4. Practice writing openings
Start with a character and write an opening. Or start with a place. Or dialogue. Whatever. Just start.
5. Practice writing dialogue
Speaking of dialogue…choose two people you know, or two strangers you saw on the bus, or the cashier at the grocery store and your dentist. Give one of them a need, something they want from the other. Make the other resistant. Got it? Good. Go.
6. Practice writing description
That sunset you watched from the top of your roof. That trail you walked last Saturday. That house you passed by when jogging. Describe it as if you’re filming it through the lens of a camera. Where’s your focus? Start wide-angle, then slowly zoom into closeup. Use the senses.
7. Practice writing endings
What the heck, why not? You don’t need to know the story. Just write an ending. Maybe it will prompt a story for you.
8. Practice writing middles
Okay, now you’ve gone too far. Middles? How do you write a middle if you don’t know the beginning or the end? Try this: pull an idea out of your head, a doorway of no return. A character steps through and it changes the trajectory of his life. What might that doorway be? An agreement to rob a bank as a publicity stunt. A decision to tell his brother’s wife that he can’t live without her. Take it from that doorway, whatever it is.
9. Write a structure for your novel
Do you have an idea for a story? Plot it. Take a legal pad (foolscap) and divide it into three sections by drawing two lines across the page. The top section is Act 1. The middle, Act 2. The bottom, Act 3. Now fill in the blanks. Write a short description of what happens in each act. Start with the climax. How do you want the story to end? Jot it down under Act 3. What event sets everything in motion? That’s the inciting incident; jot it down under Act 1. Jot down who the protagonist is, and what she’s up against (the obstacle). Jot down who the antagonist is, and what he represents thematically (the opposite view). Which leaves the middle: what happens in the middle? A major plot point that propels the protagonist into fighting for what he or she wants. There’s your Act 2.
The Foolscap Method is a technique that Steven Pressfield refers to in his short book, Do the Work: Overcome Resistance and Get Out of Your Way. If you haven’t read it, do. It will pull you out of your stickiness, fling you onto the road of doing.
10. Practice writing a character description
Senses only. None of this: she’s shy. Try: she averts her gaze whenever someone looks her in the eye. Cliche? That’s okay. We’re writing fast, remember?
11. Create a character profile
You can write it as a list, or stream of consciousness, or you can interview the character. Ask questions like: what is your greatest secret? Your biggest fear? What’s the one thing you’ve done that you’re ashamed of? Dig deep, find out what he carries in his pocket, what longings rise at two a.m.
12. Freewrite from a freewrite
Remember that freewriting exercise in step one? Reread what you wrote. Find one line that really zings. Use that line as a beginning for another freewrite. Fifteen minutes. Go.
You mean “dear diary” kind of stuff? Well sure, if that’s what you want to write. Or use your journal to capture wisps of dialogue you overheard the day before, or to jot down a character description, or draft an idea for a story.
14. Rewrite a cliche
Choose one of those cliches that popped up in your freewriting exercise and try rewriting it, fast. She averts her gaze whenever someone looks her in the eye. Cliche. What does she do to avoid looking at someone? She ducks her head and pretends to examine the ingredients on a can of corn.
15. Combine two exercises
Here are some ideas:
- Use the character you profiled in step 11 and place that character in a scene, writing from the senses only.
- Choose a journal entry from step 13 and turn it into the beginning of a story.
- Select a piece of dialogue from step 5 to spark a character description.
- Look at your foolscap from step 9 and draft a beginning.
- That opening you wrote in step 4? Shoot to the ending and write it.
And there you have it. Fifteen ideas for fifteen-minute sessions. Let me know how it goes!
Takeaways this week:
Do the Work: Overcome Resistance and Get Out of Your Way by Steven Pressfield
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg