Peter John McLean
Free Writing and Writing Exercises (Writing)
Every time I start writing, whether it is a blog post or a short story or a novel, I start by writing random incomplete sentences about a subject, usually with heavy handed narration and editorializing. I remember when I first started working on my book and I knew it would incorporate a character known only as the Rat and would take place in some wrecked inner city dystopia that would be called something and would be placed somewhere. Offhandedly I called the place Rat Town because, well, the only character I had semi-developed was called the Rat. Seemed pragmatic.
A year later I have a 72,000 word revised draft. It still needs a lot of work but it has a cast of characters who are at least moderately realized, who have backstories, interests, flaws, physical qualities, and ways of speaking. In my further work on the book I will likely develop a lot of these characters more, include more hyperrealistic detail of both the city, Rat Town, and the violent lives people are generally forced to live. I like writing because it isn’t a performance-based activity and it plays to my strengths (pacing and thinking by myself in my apartment, sometimes talking to myself).
Since creative writing can rely upon repeated revisions and hacking away at all the shitty prose, replacing it with stronger passages, better characters, and more vivid world, there isn’t any reason to stress how the process began. Therefore the best thing anyone who wants to write can do is just sit down and put words on paper. Here are a few free writing practices I personally employ just to get started, if you have any of your own, please share in the comments.
Imagine something terrible happening to someone.
This is a personal favorite of mine, as I enjoy writing black comedic stories that usually revolve around incredible suffering, debilitating drug use, hyperrealistic violence, and sometimes I even throw in talking cats. Actually, that specific story, Blood-Vomit and the Sinking Bathroom stemmed from a real and funny situation I imagined while dealing with shit-contractors who can’t lay subfloor. I won’t get into all the awesomely retarded specifics, but I live in a really old house and the alcoholic failure who laid the subfloor in my bathroom completely fucked up, forcing me to wonder if the bathroom might collapse into the lower level. This, to a normal or uncreative (or just unpracticed creative mind), would be cause for stress. For me it was inspiration and led to fiction being written. I just imagined how crazy it would be to get up every day, wondering when exactly the bathroom was going to finally collapse into oblivion. Following the standard McLean protocol of short stories, I just added a methadone addiction, the communist agenda of unions, a talking cat, and some diarrhea tragedy (also based on hilariously true events) and I wrote what I consider a decent magical realism story. Check it out and tell me what you think.
Write about an idea you have that does not make sense.
This is a method that certainly helped me flesh out the ideas for my inflatable cow story (which will eventually be a novel). It’s also a method I used to write my current novel, because the process is so adaptable. Basically you just sit down with an open Word document (or a pen and paper if that’s your thing) and start writing about the character you have or the world you’re thinking about or how the story you want to write goes and then, almost miraculously, ideas start to form. The story I’ve semi-written about a kid getting eaten by a low budget horror film monster after trying to sell his wargaming miniatures was a manifestation of a verbal version of this where I basically just talked out loud until I had fully formed a story. I then wrote it down and it was, of course, totally awesome.
The point of the exercise is that its exploratory in nature, kind of like an anal cavity search. By simply sitting down and writing all of your thoughts or ideas, it frees your mind to move on to other potentially useful ideas that might fit the story. If I can’t think of how I want a story to work out, I start by just writing the ideas I do have and every time I end up with a lot more substance by the time I’m finished.
Write something autobiographical, locate the most embarrassing, painful, or other negative emotions and work from there
Autobiographical starting points are not terrible, but the problem is that most people end up writing ridiculous revisionist tales about their alpha male travels through Thailand, conducting mad bank heists, wearing custom suits, and taking cigarette breaks between orgies. There is no conflict in success and without conflict there is no story.
The obvious corollary is that if you dig into your own past and find the most cringe inducing examples of your own behavior, its likely you’ve found something riddled with intriguing conflict. It’s likely readers can relate to how stupid you were when you wet yourself at three in the morning, locked out of your apartment after that Thai hooker stole your wallet. I’d laugh.
I rarely write autobiographical stories because I’d usually rather write about drug addicts crucifying bodies to STOP signs, but when I do I try to recall the shittiest and scariest moments, or at least target the most stress-inducing elements so that I can tell a story that is actually interesting. This has been the case when I reported on my friend almost dying from donating plasma, or when I almost got shot simply trying to dump my trash illegally. Even if it turned out that overly vigilant dumpster guy wasn’t packing heat, he could have been, and it was the possibility that I could die in a pool of my own blood and empty ramen packets that had me scared.
Those are the essential free writing exercises I use on the rare occasion I have no creative ideas. I generally have a thousand or so ideas I desperately want to write about, so I rarely have to coax ideas to come out, but I think that is mostly a facet of having been doing this for a while. If you have trouble thinking of things to write about, try these exercises out and see how they work for you. If one doesn’t lend any benefit, discard it and try the others. Also, anyone who has tried other methods to get creative when they’re struggling, leave long detailed comments, preferably with inappropriate references to porn or the Holocaust.