The Writer’s Magic Cattle Prod

What a paradox: the freedom created by restrictions!

When I teach fiction, I will do a five-minute timed writing early in the class to get everyone sweating and full of joie de vivre. Shit’s getting real! Is it artificial pressure? Yes. Does it work? Yes. There’s a high in the room afterward and people are relaxed and ready to delve into how to write fiction.

Restrictions can be time, place, form, length, deadline, words…anything you want! But to be really useful, pick just a few restrictions, or even just one. Some of my favorite restrictions are time limits, word lists, and structure.

You can write a surprising amount in five minutes

Doing short timed stints, alone or with others, are good for clearing out cobwebs and getting yourself back in the game. It’s a bit like cleaning. Back when we had company I often panic-cleaned right before they were due, and it is truly amazing what a difference you can make to a room in five minutes of focused stashing and dashing.

The guinea pig writers for my online course for novice writers, “Fiction’s Big-Picture Fundamentals,” said one of the best parts was the heavily restrictive timed writing stints in each lesson. (I’m improving the course’s audio and making other giant improvements, but if you want to do a timed writing, a free preview module 2 is open now–click here to try it out. And apologies in advance for the need to futz with your audio setting.)

Speedy decisions can take you far

Writing is a series of decisions, and those can be hard to make. But in my experience, giving myself a month or a year to make a decision does not lead to a better decision in the end. In fact it’s usually worse because I’ve overthought it. Quick decisions are often better, because your subconscious has to get in there and do some of the heavy lifting. And that subconscious can see things you can’t.

Once you make a decision you can move on to the next problem. Isn’t writing a form of problem-solving? If you’re always stuck on Problem 1–should the protagonist’s name be Kathi or Cathy?–you’ll never get to the problems that matter.

Randomness can crash barriers

In live fiction classes I hand out slips of paper. Each person writes one word on their slip and gives it back to me. Any random word, the first one they think of.

Then I write five of those words on the board and everyone MUST use them in the 5-minute sweat-fest. It keeps their hands moving and takes some of the pressure off.

Pantoums can remove your writer’s block

The pantoum is a poetic form originating in Malaysia and they are fun to write, especially for non-poets. Here is a link to examples on the Poetry Foundation’s website. And here are instructions on how to write a pantoum, from The Poetry Place.

Or if the pantoum isn’t your thing, following are the instructions for a prose exercise called the A to Z. I learned it in a workshop from writer Pam Houston, author of Cowboys are My Weakness. It never fails to be great fun. You can even use it for writing your book’s synopsis.

Here is how to do the A to Z:

  • You will write a story in 26 sentences.
  • Each sentence will start with a different letter of the alphabet, in order from A to Z (or you can reverse it, and write from Z to A). For example:
    Albert had to decide immediately. Because of the storm coming in, he couldn’t keep fishing; but he couldn’t go home, either. Cottonwood trees thrashed around him, and fat raindrops pelted his scalp. Damn. [and so on]
  • One of the sentences must be only one word. One of the sentences must be over 100 words.
  • For the sentence starting with X, you can substitute a word whose sound is X, like “exhausted,” or “explain.” Or you can use Xylophone or Xerox or …

The beauty of this form is that it forces you to circumvent your sentence-writing habits and think about how to start with a specific word.

If you’re feeling a little stuck or just need to do something different, restrict yourself and see what happens. Good luck!


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