Three Ways to Practice Writing Without Writing

Writers need two things to produce a work: motivation and time. There are sweet blessed moments when we have both, and then those times we’ve only got one. What to do then? Write without writing. 

Case #1: Time and no motivation

Writers need to take breaks. Writers hate to take breaks. It’s like we think taking time off means moving backwards, rather than practicing necessary self-care. If you’re having trouble resting, you might try this writing-adjacent activity: murder. Well, the fictional kind.

A murder mystery party is where you have all your friends over for dinner (or video chat), and along with the pizza, you serve up a whodunit. Writing a game is a great way to practice your creative skills and entertain an audience, without staring at a blank page, muttering incantations to make a short story appear. There are lots of free resources online to help you craft a case, from characters to clues, and anyway, who hasn’t wanted to blame a friend for murder? Right?

Case #2: Motivation and no time

Whether it’s deadlines at work, final exams, kids’ soccer games, or spring cleaning, real life can eat up your time off. In that case, you can play a mental game called What If?

Stephen King was inspired to write his novella The Mist after visiting a grocery store during a storm and imagining an attack by monsters. Because of course he did. But next time you’re in the checkout line, ask yourself this: What is the weirdest thing that could happen right now? Bananas bursting into flames? 100 strangers throwing you a surprise birthday party? Everyone suddenly speaking different languages? Now, what could cause such a strange thing to happen?

Or say you’re on your commute to work or school. Ask yourself, How would this be different if we were on another planet? Would public transit be seats on the back of a giant highway-going serpent? Might there be sentient stop lights who attack if you turn left on red? What if you could hire a quintet of tiny aliens to sit in the backseat and provide live music for your drive?

Playing What If  is a great way to practice creative skills when you can’t be decomposing at your computer. Just remember not to jot down ideas while you’re driving.

Bonus Case: You want to practice

Writing exercises are a fun way to sharpen your skills when you’re not writing anything in particular. You can find lists of these online, and here are a few of mine that use a photograph of scenery.

For practicing tone: Look at the photograph and think of 10 descriptive words, like cloudy, swampy, wintery, etc. Now imagine the photo is the first shot of a horror movie. Think of 10 creepy descriptive words. Now imagine it’s part of a rom-com and think of 10 sweet and upbeat descriptive words. And so on.

For practicing character development: Imagine a character of whatever description you like. This scenery is their workplace. What do they do? How do they feel about it? How did they end up with this job? Now imagine a character who has a recurring dream about this scenery. What does the dream mean? How will they find out? Then imagine a character who makes this place their home. Where do they live? Is it a hidden home or easily found? What do they eat? And so on.

For practicing action writing: Imagine two characters at one edge of your photograph. They’re in a race to get to the other edge, across whatever landscape you’ve got. Describe who wins and how. Now imagine they’re fighting from one edge to another. Then have them dancing, sneaking, or whatever you like.

Thanks for reading! Remember, you’re a writer if you write, even if it’s just in your head, even if it’s just sometimes. You are not your production. You are your creative spark.

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