Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Exercise 1: Kill your Darlings for Fun and Profit!

So here in my life in Santa Fe, I've been extremely fortunate to be involved in a writers' group that's been meeting for over ten years (I've only been involved with it for about 5 years, but still, that's a long time). Before that, I was involved in one via the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, which was also awesome, and which I dearly miss.

But as part of my current writing group, I have to come up with some type of writing exercise every few months or so. Initially, I was not at all excited about this. It seemed like a horrible chore that I would suck at (and I hate sucking at things publicly).

However, it turns out that writing writing exercises doesn't actually suck (I may suck at it, but that is for others to decide). Thinking of an interesting writing exercise turns out to be a really valuable way to think about the process of writing in general. Specifically, it makes me think about what I need to think about (if that makes sense).

And because my blog is generally lacking in content (ahem), I thought I would start posting some of mine in an attempt to fill things out.

Exercise One - Kill Your Darlings for Fun and Profit:

The revision process is hard. One could say it involves surgeon-like precision, ninja-like patience, and the complex-reasoning skills of a scientist who reasons with complexity. Or, more simply and less glamorously put, it involves taking out the stuff that isn't working and replacing it with stuff that is.

However, in this writing exercise, we're going to do the opposite. Look at your work in progress. Find something that you either love or feel is working well. Now change it.

The change can be simple. Take a character that is male and make him female (or vice versa). Take an old character and make him/her young. Change a character's job (instead of being a lawyer, the character is now a travel agent). You can also change a basic attribute (make a character beautiful instead of plain, tall instead of short, blonde instead of brunette, overweight instead of skinny, gay instead of straight). Take important scenes that occur outdoors and put them indoors instead. Now, see how these changes affect the entire story.

Or, for bonus points, think about making a more complex change in your story. Change a pivotal decision at a pivotal moment . Change the location of your story (say from NYC to San Francisco). Have two characters that are in love be just good friends instead. Or you can change the character's past to include something that defines him/her (Now your character is divorced or widowed. Now the character was raised in Germany instead of the U.S. Now the character has an identical twin). Make the character reluctant to do something that they were eager to do before. Change the ending of the story to be the opposite of how it ends now.

The point of these exercises is not to make the changes permanent (although if you find something that's really working for you, then by all means go ahead an leave it in). The changes are just a way of shaking us out of the idea that we aren't in control of the universe of our book. Sometimes, we start to see aspects of the world we create as permanent and immutable because they've been part of the story for so long. It gives us a chance to see what parts of the draft are actually vital to the story, and what parts can be changed. It also lets us explore how what we like best about our story might be the very thing that is bogging it down.


  1. I find this exercise to be incredibly cruel. ;-) Which probably means it is a great exercise. Did you ever take Stanley's sitcom writing class? That was his #1 rule: Murder your darlings. Stanley, while funny, was also a cruel man. He made me do a 15 minute stand up routine in front of the class. Yes, he made everyone else as well. But I was more intimidated by it.

  2. Never got to endure a Stanley class! One of my great regrets of college. A fifteen minute stand-up routine would have killed me! Cruel indeed.