A Novel Approach: Using Writing Exercises to Improve Your Craft

by Brian Kiteley
published in Writing

The notion that one should not understand too much about how to write is very common in writing workshops across the country.  The refrain is that one should only write.  I don’t think that attitude is helpful.  We value experiment in science; we respect practice and rehearsal in theater and music; yet many fiction writers are afraid of exercises and experiment, whose French word is experience, which translates to both experiment and experience.  Experience is an experiment.

Find Your Story

In the fiction workshops I teach I try to promote useful accident-production.  I hope to convince students to generate a lot of fragments about a coherent set of problems and characters, so that they may find, in these scraps and shards, a couple of possible stories or even an idea for a novel.

I ask students to choose any four exercises (sometimes called prompts) from my books The 3 A.M. Epiphany or The 4 A.M. Breakthrough (or from any other resource they can find or which they make up themselves), and then a few weeks later they write another four exercises.

There are over 200 exercises in each of these books.  We look among these eight exercises and make suggestions to the students about stories that lurk in the bits and pieces.  This might mean that two of the exercises form the core of a story, or part of one exercise, part of another, and a whole third one.

Before my students write their exercises, I instruct them to think they are not writing a story—that they should try not to finish anything but only produce questions and possibilities—but I want them to look at the same set of characters and more or less the same setting so that they are creating the components of a story.

Find the Right Writing Exercises

Here’s one example of an exercise from The 4 AM Breakthrough: Take a bunch of tag lines from cartoons, say, from The New Yorker, such as: “It has great refracted light.”  “Beverly, brief me on my 11:15 duel.”  “And then he turned the tranquilizer gun on himself.”  “Look, making you happy is out of the question, but I can give you a compelling narrative for your misery.”  Put them together.  Type up 10 or 15 tag lines and study them for a long while until they no longer seem connected to the comic strips they originally came from.  Rearrange their order a few times until you can see a possible story between the tag lines.  In less than 500 words write some kind of narrative to link together these fragments of talk or description.

Here’s another sample fiction exercise, from The 3 A.M. Epiphany:  Create a character around this sentence: Nobody has ever loved me as much I have loved them.  Do not use this sentence in the fragment of fiction you write.  The sentence comes from Guy Davenport’s aunt, Mary Elizabeth Davenport Morrow, via his essay “On Reading” in The Hunter Gracchus.  Resist the temptation this exercise offers for a completely self-indulgent character.  Of course, some self-indulgence will be fun.  Think of this sentence as a kind of mathematical formula.  Is the person who utters this sentence speaking of all the friends and loved ones he has known in his life?  Or is she focusing on one person who did not return love satisfactorily?  Consider the strong possibility that whoever would say something like this is unreliable.  Do this in 500 words.

Challenge Yourself

I propose spurring writers to poke around in their conscious and unconscious minds and create very different voices and methods than they would have created if they’d simply been told to write a story.  I believe one can actually help writers find stories.  The activity of composing is at least as interesting as the activity of revising, but the vast majority of American creative writing workshops mainly concern themselves with revision.

Workshops can train writers to improvise and apply new methods to the discovery of story ideas.  Instead of simply evaluating writing once it’s been written, workshops should explore the way we discover and uncover stories.  A writer becomes a writer when she finds the proper subject of her work.  The right kind of exercises and combinations of exercises can unlock and expose to air the obsessions we need to examine to make great fiction.

Learning how to write is the same as writing.  Every act of writing should be a new experience, a departure from your previous patterns and formulas.  We crave systems and patterns we recognize, but great writing comes from writers who challenge themselves and change themselves


Brian KiteleyBrian Kiteley is the author of three novels, most recently The River Gods. His first novel Still Life with Insects will be rereleased by Pharos Editions in the spring of 2015 with a new introduction by Leah Hager Cohen. His second novel I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing, was published in Arabic and Persian translations in the last few years. He has also published two books of fiction exercises, The 3 A.M. Epiphany and The 4 A.M. Breakthrough. He is finishing a talky thriller set on the island of Crete in 1988, a CIA beach and sex novel, with cameos by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.


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