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Writing Exercise 25: First lines

There are sometimes quiz questions about first lines of novels. You may be able to quote some, such as "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...", "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day" or "Call me Ishmael." The play Hamlet begins with a guard asking "Who's there?" Poems also have striking first lines; T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land' starts with the words "April is the cruellest month". This exercise is about reading some first lines and then writing some.

Stage 1.
Pick up four books - ideally recent novels or volumes of short stories. These may be books you haven't read yet - in fact, not having read them could help. Copy out the first sentence of each novel or of any four the short stories.

Stage 2.
Think about who might be saying those words. Even if it's just the narrator telling someone else's story, what kind of person might the narrator be? What does their voice sound like?
Choos…

Writing Exercise 24: An Imaginary Friend

Many children have imaginary friends. Even if you didn't have an imaginary friend in childhood, it's possible you would like one now. It can help to create an imaginary friend as a possible reader of your creative writing.

Stage 1.
A friend is often someone with whom we share interests or points of view. Write down between three and five interests or points of view you would like your imaginary friend to share. Decide on three other points about your imaginary friend. One should be their age. One should be their gender. One you can decide for yourself but it should be something fundamental to that person. Write this all down.

Stage 2.
It's important that a friend shouldn't be identical to you. The friend has to bring something new to this imagined friendship. Write down between three and five interests or points of view the friend has that you do not share.

Stage 3.
Write down up to five things that your friend likes a lot and up to three things that your friend dislikes.

St…

Writing Exercise 23: Making a Meal

Just at the moment, many people are thinking more about how to make meals. This writing exercise takes cooking as its starting point - but you don't have to be able to cook to try this writing exercise.

Stage 1.
Think of a simple meal you have made recently. It should be something you enjoy making or eating. It could be as simple as a sandwich or a little more complicated like a samosa or a bowl of hummus. Write down all the ingredients.

Stage 2.
Take each of the ingredients in turn and write a description of each using the following senses in this order: touch, hearing (if you can), sight, smell, taste.

Stage 3.
Think about the points in making the meal where a significant change occurs. This could be when ingredients are combined or when they are heated. This could be as simple as spreading butter or margarine on bread or more complicated when ingredients change consistency in cooking. Write a sentence about the way in which each change occurs.  

Stage 4.
Now imagine someone who is not …

Writing Exercise 22: Building a World

This exercise is an approach to imagining a world which starts from one individual and works outward. It can be used in a setting that is historical or present day but is more  usually associated with sci-fi, fantasy or speculative fiction. There’s no reason why poets or script-writers shouldn’t use it too.

Stage 1.
Think of a character in another time and place. This will work well if it’s a time and place you are inventing. If it’s a distant place or a historical time (or the present day) this may require quite a lot of research.
Quickly, without stopping to think too much, write down answers to the following questions:
- what is the character wearing? 
- what is the character holding?
- where does the character live?
- does the character live alone or with others?
- what is the character’s favourite food?
- how does the character travel?

Stage 2.
Look back at your answers. Every answer leads to further questions. For example, when you consider what the character is wearing, ask what is it mad…

Writing Exercise 21: Imagining Change

In a speech in 2014, the writer Ursula K Le Guin praised writers who could imagine a way in which the world could be different. Last week, at the end of an article in the Financial Times, Arundhati Roy wrote of the need to “imagine another world.” So let’s begin.

Stage 1.
Think of something in the world today that troubles you and that you wish could be changed. You don’t have to know how the change could be achieved. It could be something little like getting rid of self-service tills or something bigger like abolishing homelessness. Write down the change you want to see.

Stage 2.
Now start to imagine a society or world in which that change has been achieved and a return to the current state of affairs is appalling or unimaginable. Start with someone in the new society and describe their reaction to whatever you have abolished (self-service tills, homelessness) as though its existence or introduction had been suggested as a new idea. Write it down.

Stage 3.
Begin to consider how differently…

Writing Exercise 20: Someone Else’s View

One of the things that is most demanding when writing is creating a sympathetic character whose view is different from your own. This exercise isn’t about someone who differs from you on a major subject but it is about exploring difference sympathetically.

Stage 1.
Think of a firm view you hold on an unimportant subject related to an everyday action. For example, do you add milk to tea or put the milk in first? Do you have firm views on how cutlery should be arranged in a drawer? How do you think a bed should be made (if at all)? Write down three reasons why you think your view is right.
Then consider how you came to hold this view. Did you develop it for yourself? Was it something you learned or were taught? Does it recall anything in your past? Write this down.

Stage 2.
Now think of a character who has an opposing view on this subject. Write down three reasons why they think they are right.
How did this character come to hold this view? Attach it to a significant memory or series of memor…

Writing Exercise 19: Talking to Yourself

I suspect that I’m not the only writer who sometimes talks to myself. This kind of conversation may have become even more common when everyone is socially distancing, socially isolating or in lockdown. It seems a good idea to draw on that experience to try writing in someone else’s voice, while that person is talking to themself.

Stage 1.
You are going to write a monologue. This means you will need a character and situation. I suggest taking a very simple starting point. Think of someone who you might encounter through their work in an everyday situation. For example, you might choose someone who works at a supermarket checkout or someone delivering the post. Think about a problem or difficulty that person might encounter in their work - and how that person might feel when they return home. Make some notes.

Stage 2.
Now think of where that person lives. Does anyone else live there? Is it a happy household? Write down a little about it.
Think of somewhere that person might be alone (or the …