I thought I’d join Sam Cooney, and mention creative writing exercises again.

I get stuck when I’m writing fiction. I get stuck with non-fiction too, but it’s not quite the same — I can usually just write my way out of it. Fiction is a different story. This is a made up person, a made up world. Half the time I start writing and I don’t even know what’s going to happen, or who these characters are so if I get stuck I’ve got nothing in the real world to go to as a reference. With non-fiction there’s always another bit of research I can do.

And this is one of the most important things my short story writing subject taught me last year: even if you don’t know at the start who your characters are, by the end you should have a pretty good idea. ‘You’ being the writer, not necessarily the reader. I think the piece has probably failed if the reader still has no idea at the end of the story. I’m someone who writes first and foremost about characters, and I’m a firm believer in the writer knowing far more about the characters and the situation than whatever it is that even makes it into the story. A writer who doesn’t write about characters, specifically, might have something else to say about this process, I guess.

But I think about my characters a lot. At the moment I have a set of about seven or eight characters that I write about continually. There are about four story lines happening there, none of them related. Ron and Audrey, for example, are an elderly couple I write about constantly. I leave them alone for a little while occasionally, but I usually end up coming back to them.

At the moment my notebook is full of entries that have me directly addressing Ron, asking him questions, telling him the answers (“Ron. You like to wear brown pants. What shirt do you wear with the pants? I think you’d wear a blue shirt”). It’s riveting stuff. Not.

But I think it’s important because when I sit down to write the actual story, everything I’ve already written about or to Ron will inform what comes out on the page.

A few tricks I’ve picked up here and there, from class and elsewhere are what get me through those times when I just feel stuck with fiction (writing to Ron seems to be a combination of all of these things).

The first is to take my character to a supermarket, which I’ve mentioned before. The choices a person makes in a supermarket are fascinating. Of course, this can be difficult if your character is someone from the 1800s. But I’m sure there’s a way to modify the exercise to take that into account. I can’t say I’ve had that problem yet, but I’ll be sure to write about it here if I do!

The second is to write letters to the character, and then write their responses back. Or to have one character write a letter to another character. Even if the letter-writing doesn’t form an important part of whatever you end up writing as the main narrative, I think it’s a useful exercise to see how characters interact with one another, and react to each other.

The third is to describe the space the character lives in, or to describe them in a place that they’re unfamiliar with. Both end up telling me a lot about the character.

Of course, if you don’t have a character to work with, all of the examples above are pretty much useless. But Sam’s got some good ideas about how to find characters. The only thing I’d add to what he’s already said is to write down any idea you ever have for a character. A friend of mine watched me do this the other day and suggested that I write my ideas in red pen, rather than black, so I can actually find them among the pages of black scrawl when I go looking again. Good suggestion, I think.


This afternoon I wandered up to my favourite writing cafe and sat myself down at their long wooden table with my notebook. I was fairly happily scribbling when a bunch of people sat down next to me (the table runs almost the full length of the cafe, so it’s a shared space). At first I was vaguely irritated, fearing distraction and interruption. But I needn’t have spent the energy being annoyed, because the group was some kind of creative writing course group, meeting up to talk and write.

So of course I eavesdropped. The teacher asked them to write a description of a character falling through the air without making reference to what they were falling from or where they were falling to. Five minutes, she gave them. Not pausing in my own writing I drew a line underneath my last sentence and wrote this:


The air is strangely like water: thick, moving around her body fluidly, letting her past. It is cold, the air, like the creek she swam in as a child, and she feels the pimples appear on her skin, running down her arms and legs as if spreading out from her navel. Her hair is all around her, her scalp has never been more alive. The rushing air cools it, the hair itself pulls at its roots, warming little pin pricks all over. She can feel the air under her fingernails and thinks, if she makes it out of this alive, she should cut them, they are too long.

Strangely she feels no fear, even though her heart pumps so hard she thinks it might break inside her body. Her limbs tremble with its beat and adrenaline turns her lips a bright, bright red.

The rushing air finds its way into her clothes, pushing them around and up behind her.

Funny how a chance encounter will get your pen moving. I wonder if they’ll be there tomorrow…