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Quick Ways to Jump-Start Your Writing

by Lori L. Lake

If you are looking for ideas for a new novel or for story ideas, or if you are searching for something to get an already established writing project jump-started, then short, timed writing exercises may help you.

The idea behind this is that at some level you do know what you want or need to write—you’re just not identifying it or accessing it successfully. Doing short, focused writing exercises may get you on track. Here are a few guidelines:

  • These exercises tend to work best when written with pen and paper. For some reason, handwriting tends to draw out more than typing does. But if you only work on computer or typewriter, by all means, do what feels best for you.
  • Set a timer before you begin. Give yourself at least 10 minutes, though more time is always acceptable.
  • Don't think about or plan what you're going to write. Just write wherever your pen takes you. Keep writing until the timer goes off. If you find you need more time to complete a thought, sketch out a description, or puzzle through something, then keep working until you feel finished.
  • Topics are purposefully vague and open-ended. They are designed so every writer can come at them from his or her own unique angle. Don’t think too hard about which topic to work on. As time goes by, you can select and use ALL of the topics. Just start with the one that seems most interesting, or the one you fear the most, or the one that gets your blood boiling, or whatever feels right!
  • Try to stay loose, but focused. In other words, you may head off on tangents you didn’t expect, but focus on the writing and don’t let whatever happens throw you. Often breakthroughs occur during the oddest and most unexpected moments.

Once you’re done with a topic, you may wish to write on another—or you may just want to put the writing away and look at it later. The goal, though, is to spend sufficient time allowing your mind to do a "dump" of ideas, impressions, descriptions, beliefs, and memories. This kind of writing practice almost certainly will produce seeds for new work or ways to help your stalled work bloom again.

After a few rounds of practice, most writers start discovering surprising new ideas. Once you have gotten comfortable with this kind of exercise and have written on a number of topics, you will likely find that emerging themes and patterns begin to reveal themselves. Those themes and patterns can usually be counted upon to fuel your stories and novels.Finding Topics

Topics can be found anywhere and everywhere: in the daily newspaper, on TV, in conversations you hear, in books, on the radio. Start making a quick list throughout the day about anything that strikes you: the flash of sun on the bay; coworkers who irritate the most; doughnuts that call your name… The idea is to have a list of oddball topics that you could write about at any time, and any topic that strikes your fancy for any reason is good, whether you are thrilled or repulsed, angered or amused, fascinated or afraid. You may think you know what’s in your mind, but you have no idea what will come out when you collect topics and use them to try these exercises. Believe me, you will be surprised.

A Few Topic Suggestions

Write about:

  • Someone who lied to you
  • A favorite room from childhood
  • A place you long for
  • Something right outside your window
  • What you like in a woman
  • What you hate in a woman
  • A job you would never want to do
  • Going to the doctor
  • Things that make you go Hmmmmm…
  • Selfishness
  • Strength
  • The most erotic moment you ever had with a person
  • Seeing a new place for the first time
  • The noise at parties
  • The color blue
  • Your father’s first car
  • Scoring the winning goal
  • Your mother’s last letter
  • Hiking in the woods
  • A boat or ship you have ridden in
  • Driving on a deserted road
  • Pain
  • Travel to another country
  • Shooting a gun
  • A fistfight you had or saw

Write a letter to:

  • Someone you have lost
  • Someone who has died
  • A famous person who pisses you off
  • Someone who hurt you
  • A famous author
  • A great-great grandchild you will never see
  • Your favorite grade-school teacher

Try starting a description of a person with any of these phrases:

  • I remember she…
  • I don’t remember how…
  • I don’t know why…
  • The things I love about her are…
  • The things I hate most about her are…
  • I wonder where…
  • Her eyes were the color of…
  • His hair had the texture of…

Advanced Exercises
If you already have a character or a plot line or a general theme in mind, another option you can try is working on short, timed writing exercises targeted specifically around that project. Some of the most fruitful work can occur when you consider the lives of the characters you foresee in your story, particularly the main characters. You can try writing descriptive passages about the following:

Write about the character’s:

  • Childhood hopes and dreams
  • Current place of residence
  • What he or she is running from
  • Physical looks
  • Sexual orientation and any issues with that
  • Family members
  • Past and present jobs
  • Current problems
  • Dream job
  • Emotional hang-ups, etc.
  • Beliefs and what s/he would fight to the death for
  • Biggest disappointments

Just focusing on one small aspect—one specific issue at a time—can get you started into the character’s world and open a crack into the entirety of the story.

Here are some particularly useful books to learn more about this concept and to find many topics for short exercises:

A Writer's Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judy Reeves
The Creativity Book: A Year's Worth of Inspiration & Guidance by Eric Maisel
Pocket Muse: Ideas and Inspirations for Writing by
Monica Wood
Pencil Dancing: New Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit by Mari Messer
© 2004, Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. If you have questions, comments, or divergent points of view, please drop Lori an email at   Lori welcomes questions and comments. 

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