Monday, November 5, 2007

Exercise: Life after Deadlines

Anybody can learn to write under deadline and become a better writer for the effort. If you're a working journalist, you already understand that. But if you're not, well, you might just have to be shown how writing under deadline can improve both the quality and the quantity of your literary output.

Try this short, three-part exercise, one part at a time:

1.) Animal Description. Write a very simple descriptive piece about the favorite pet of someone you know and admire. It might be your parents' house cat or your uncle's horse, your brother's dog or your neighbor's ferret.

Set an alarm to go off after 15 minutes, then start writing. Remember, whether you use pen and paper or fingers and keyboard, don't dawdle! Even if nothing comes to you at first, you can begin by writing down single descriptive words that apply to your subject, such as "intelligent," "cute," "playful," etc. You can always come back when your mind is ready and string the words into some sentences (and the sentences into some paragraphs).

When the 15 minutes are up, stop for a moment to re-set the alarm for another 5 minutes, then return to your writing. Remember, you have only 5 minutes to wrap up your description! Imagine that your editor is sitting at the next desk, watching the clock and anxiously tapping his foot. And he pays the bills!

When a total of 20 minutes has elapsed, stop writing. Take a look at what you've written. Whether it's 20 words or two thousand, they're your words, and the descriptive passage is your passage.

2.) Personal Description. Now put that writing aside and set the alarm for another 15 minutes. You're going to repeat the exercise, this time writing about the person who owns the pet or animal. Once again, you might need to start with single words ... or, since your creative juices are already flowing, you might find yourself slipping right into your new exercise without skipping a beat.

As before, when the 15 minutes have sounded, give yourself another 5 minutes to wrap up the piece. At the end of the 20 minutes, your deadline is up, so stop writing.

3.) Most Frightening Experience. Now, one last assignment: think about the most frightening thing that ever happened to you. It might have been a nightmare or some psychological trauma, or it may have been a brush with physical danger. Now describe the incident as though it happened to the subject of your second writing exercise (above) and not to you. Make sure you work the pet into the frightening sequence somehow. What you want to end up with, after this final 20-minute session, is a piece talking about your main character, his favorite pet or animal, and the frightening experience that somehow affected them both.

Now take a look at all three pieces and congratulate yourself. What you've written, in the very short period of one hour, is a short story, consisting of two characters (one human and one slightly less so) and the frightening conflict and resolution they went through together.

Yes, you'll need to take a little more time to flesh things out, blend them together so that it reads as smoothly as a breeze across a silky sow's ear. But how nice the feeling to have done something so creative in such a short period of time--realizing forever the value to your creative literary output, all from writing ... under deadline.

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