My writing (and otherwise) friend Michelle Hubbard taught me the most useful writing exercise I’ve ever run into. It always works (for me). And it’s growing more and more useful each time I use it.
A couple of years ago, our writing group met at the local Zuppas and Michelle told us about this exercise: write a list of fifty things that could happen in your book. We got paper placemats from the workers and started making our lists on the backs–don’t ask me where we came up with four pencils or pens–Michelle probably.
Heather, Michelle, and Michelle were in the midst of writing books, so the items on their lists were wordier than mine. I had finished my first book (unpublished) a few months earlier and was still working on polishing it up, so I made a list of 50 things that could happen in the new book I was just beginning; my items were brief.
The list started with things like, “She could ride a skateboard. She could babysit”–boringish stuff. But the more I wrote the faster I got and the more interesting and even outlandish my ideas were. My gaze skated around the room, out the windows, into my imagination, searching for inspiration.
One of the things I wrote on that list became the germ for the book I’m writing right now. This book started out as a Middle Grade contemporary novel. I had it roughly planned out, had written a number of scenes, and had begun composing the first chapters. I’d shared the first pages with my writing group (which has grown to include Susan and Jenny) and they all approved and offered a few suggestions.
Then I decided to change the book into a fantasy. I needed to drop a couple of characters. Suddenly my plan wasn’t going to work anymore, but there was still a lot I liked about it. And now I had to create a fantasy world! So I made a list of 50 things that could or should happen.
Worked like a charm. My story grew along with my list. This time the items on my list were much wordier and were this-story-and-its-events-specific. Now when I sit down to work on it, I have something to write about, a plan to guide me.
Recently, Heather and I decided to try an experiment. We want to collaborate on a story. We’ve chatted a teensy bit about what we want to write. On Tuesday I suggested we make a list of 50 things we’d like to have in the book. Dear Heather wrote her list up that very day, during our weekly writing session at the Orem Public Library. My attention was divided between my MG fantasy and ideas for the new book, so I only put seven things on my list.
Today I started working in earnest on it. (Heather emailed me her list two days ago and I’ve had to slap my hand–figuratively–several times to keep from looking at it before mine is done.) I wish to point out that we have no idea what will happen in the story. Here’s what we’re going on: MG fantasy, a boy and a girl, probably related to each other. Not a lot to frame a house on. I’ve thought a bit about what might be in the story, but once I started making the list, the book took off. I provisionally named and assigned ages to the two characters, came up with primary and secondary goals, a time limit, an “or else,” and some character traits. And my list is only 33 items long so far!
That’s all I have to say about this exercise right now. Just wanted to record how it’s grown from a scanty list of “might-be”s into a substantial story outline.