Games to Play While Waiting for an Idea
Collected by Tim Wynne-Jones
Playing at writing is an important thing to do. You probably came to write because you liked to do it. Okay, yes – you want to be rich and famous and have interesting friends. But you like writing a lot. A hockey player who works his way up through the ranks of junior hockey hopes to play in the NHL one day, but apart from skill and strength and grim determination, he has to love the game. It’s fun! Same goes for writing. The work of writing grows out of the enjoyment of stick-handling words, passing words, zinging words into the net. You will never be able to write twelve drafts of a novel if you didn’t enjoy the first, rough, casting-about part of the process. It is my great hope that the work involved in writing doesn’t even occur to a person until s/he is already so far along in the pleasurable task of putting words and sentences together in original and amusing and striking ways; that the work is well worth the effort to get it right. But I digress. When the ideas aren’t flowing you can prime the pump. Here are some games I have discovered along the way.
1. A Poem of Your Name
Poet and teacher Birk Sproxton told me this idea almost thirty years ago. Using only the letters in your own name, write a poem. Don’t cheat; if you only have one E in your name you can’t make the word “feet.” If you want to spell creatively…well, that’s another matter; afterall, making up words is a writer’s prerogative. If you’ve got middle names, now is the time to be thankful for them. I knew a seventh-grade student who found Smashing Pumpkins in her name! I say poem, but I use the term loosely. You make a list of words and then use them as well as you can. The thing is, the result will always sound poetic by dint of its highly alliterative content. (See Stephen’s poem in the chapter “Me, Myself and Why” in my book, Stephen Fair.)
2. The Creature in You
For some reason, everyone has at least one animal in his or her name. Though it may be nothing more than a lowly ant or a cat, we nominally carry about these spirit animals. I personally can find a: tom, tit, moth, sow and joey in my name. Then there is the fantastic yeti and the even more fantastic wymth. The yeti already exists in legend, if nowhere else; the wymth has only just this minute been discovered. I wonder what he is like, where he lives, what he eats?
3. Your Name as an Acronymic Sentence
Sometimes in a classroom one sees this: a kid’s name written down the left hand side of the page and a list of adjectives beside it. Try to write a sentence, instead. Here am I acronymically: Today Is More Of Tomorrow’s Hopeful Yesterdays. String together acronymic sentences of ten of your family or friends’ names. Try to make it into a unified piece.
4. The List Poem
I learned this mesmerizing exercise from the Toronto poet, Stuart Mills. Write a poem in which every line begins with the same phrase; for instance, try one of these:
When the starship landed
There is no
5. A Poem in Your Phone Number
This comes courtesy of my writer friend Kathi Appelt. Write your phone number down the left hand side of a page and write a poem, in which each line contains as many words as the number opposite it. “0” can be no words, a poignantly empty line. When Kathi does it, a zero counts as a wild card.
6. Metaphors and Similes.
Metaphors are how we think. Metaphors are how language came about in the first place. A metaphor is the words we find when we have no word for something. The power of an original metaphor cannot be underestimated in good writing, but too often the lazy writer opts for the handy, trite phrase.
Generate a list of ten well-worn metaphors: Life is no bed of roses, He isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, He was the kingpin of the operation, she was a fox, et cetera. Now replace each well-worn metaphor with one of your own that conveys more or less the same meaning.
Do the same thing with a series of trite similes. He laughed like a hyena, she played like an angel, they ran like the wind, the stars twinkled like diamonds, et cetera. How about the stars twinkled like hyenas? Have fun with this!
7. Twenty-six to one
Write a story in which the first sentence contains twenty-six words and each subsequent sentence has one words less. You can stand this game on its head and write a story that begins with one word. This is a wonderful way to get to know what a sentence is or might be. The story will, inevitably, be totally nonsensical. My twenty-six-to-one book On Tumbledown Hill makes some sense and rhymes, too, but it took over six years to write!
8. The Lipogram
A lipogram is a composition that contains no instances of a particular letter of the alphabet. It’s easy enough if you decide to write a lipogram not using the letter Z, for instance, but try writing a composition where you never use the letter E. There are entire lipographic novels out there without a single E in them. Here’s an excerpt from Ernest Wright’s Gadsby.
Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of
bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys
and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy
individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a
9. The Univocalic
Christian Bok’s award winning book of poetry, Eunoia takes the lipogram to new levels of insane deliciousness. The book is a series of univocalics, which means compositions that use only one vowel. The word Eunoia means beautiful thinking and just happens to be the shortest English word to contain all five vowels. Here’s an example from the book:
Scows from London go to Moscow, not to Boston, to drop
off bolts of mothproof cloth: wool for long johns, wool for work
A sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet. The best known pangram in English is, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The fun is in trying to have as little duplication of letters as possible. The ultimate pangram would be 26 letters long. Here’s one: “Veldt jynx grimps waqf zho buck.” I’ve been able to track down all of these words in a large dictionary but have no idea what the sentence means. Here is one that’s not so short but paints a lively picture: “Curious and wily journalists braved the fury of the six brazen knaves picketing the mad queen.”
11. Verbal Remedies
This is an exercise that will help you to energize a sentence by using more imaginative verbs. It is borrowed from Natalie Goldberg’s fine book, Writing Down the Bone: Freeing the Writer Within, Shambhala Publications, 1986. You’ll find it in the chapter entitled, “the Action of a Sentence.”
Fold a sheet of paper in half. On the left side list ten nouns. Any ten (other than proper nouns). Anything that pops into your head. Turn the paper over. Think of an occupation, for example: carpenter, doctor, cook. List fifteen verbs that apply to that occupation. Open the page and try joining the nouns with any of the verbs to make interesting sentences. You can cast the verbs in the past tense if you need to.
12. The Pantoum
This is a poetic form consisting of four line stanzas. The second and fourth lines of the first stanza become the first and third line of the next stanza, and so on. The poem can be of any length but in the final stanza the pattern changes. The third and first line of the original verse become the second and fourth line of the last, so that the pantoum ends exactly as it began.
You can get a kick-start by borrowing four lines of poetry from a poem or song lyric. Try it with the first quatrain of She Loves You, by the Beatles. Or try it with something a little more challenging. Here are a few verses of a pantoum I wrote using the first four lines of Billy Collin’s wonderful poem, “On Turning Ten,” which can be found in his collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room, Random House 2001.
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light –
Like I’m coming down with something
the world chained to my ankle, a mafia death-warrant,
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light –
cracking, splitting. Condemned; a corpse in training
The world chained to my ankle, a mafia death warrant,
a concrete promise there is no hope of
cracking, splitting. Condemned; a corpse in training
and just when I was learning to fly.
I am no poet. The subtlety of Collins’s poem is lost in my pantoum, but by the third stanza above, all the words are mine, for better or worse. It’s as if the opening stanza (the found words) is a launching pad. The second verse is half his, half mine, and then…I’m on my own.
It is important, of course, to realize that such a poem cannot be published if it includes copyrighted material. That isn’t the point. The point is to venture into unknown worlds from a particularly springy launch site.
13. Tops & Tails
Many intrepid writers make a regular point of attacking the empty page in timed exercises where they do not lift their pens for some predetermined number of minutes. The idea is not to think too much, not to pause or scratch out or worry about grammar or spelling, but just to let the words pour from one’s unconscious, more or less out of control. That’s good. Your unconscious is your writing buddy and the more chance s/he gets to spew without your conscious mind editing, the better.
Here’s a modified version of this kind of spewing, which includes an element of play. Go to the bookshelf and take down two books at random. Open the first and, with your eyes closed, place your finger on the page. Whatever sentence Peter Pointer lands on is your first sentence, to be written at the top of an 8 X 11 sheet of paper. Play the same blind game in choosing a final sentence from the other book and write this one at the bottom of the sheet. Now endeavor to join these disparate thoughts.
I can’t resist trying it. Not the exercise but the choosing of the sentences. Here goes:
Ever had an argument with your nose? …
… She reached out to touch the wall beside her, but there was no wall.
Thank you Richard Scrimger. Thank you Sarah Ellis. Hmmm. How do I write a page of text connecting these two thoughts?
14. Point of View
One of the great decisions one has to make in telling a story is from whose point of view are you seeing the story unfold. Sometimes the story comes to you complete with narrator; other times it’s up for grabs. Here is a writing exercise that shows how different an event becomes depending on your vantage point. Choose any point of view you like and retell this story (Or as much of it as you care to.)
Hey, Diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed,
To see such sport
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
If you want to up the ante, try telling the story found in Genesis 22: 1-13. Not from the Biblical omniscient (all seeing) POV but from the POV of Isaac, let’s say. Or maybe the goat?
Into a handy hat (or large envelope or what have you) place a goodly number of venues written out on little slips of paper. For instance: laundromat, jungle gym, space capsule, kitchen, convenience store, etcetera. Into a second hat place an equal number of groupings: three nine-year-olds; a boy and his father; a teenager, a golfer and a pigeon; a teacher and an alien; etcetera. Finally, into a third hat, place a list of topics: hamburgers, Pride and Prejudice, teeth, towels, sex. Choose one slip of paper from each hat and write a scene. Do not forget to include the venue in your dialogue. Make sure you include action. And do not forget to show the conversation, especially the body language. Aim for a good balance of actual talk and narrative connective tissue. The balance will shift depending on how easy-going the conversation is or how urgent it becomes. (I imagine, for instance, that a chat between a golfer and a pigeon about towels in a convenience store might become very heated.)
16. Words of One Syllable
This is borrowed from my writer friend Alison McGhee. Empty the three hats you were using in exercise 15, above, and into one, place a number of slips of paper with scenes on them as in: a child and an adult in a room; an old man and a dog on a porch; a teacher and a student on a desert island, etcetera. Into the second hat place a bunch of points of view: first, second, third, omniscient. In the final hat throw in some tenses: past, present, future. Pick a slip from each hat and create a scene written entirely in words of one syllable.
This is another of Alison McGhee’s wonderful writing exercises. Most stories are told in linear, chronological progression, from point A to Point B to Point C, never backtracking, never jumping ahead. But what if you begin the story in the present, flash back, and then push on until you arrive again in the present (CABC)? Or begin in the present, flash forward, flash backward, and then return to the present (BCAB)? Go backwards (CBA)? Or how about a story told in the present with a series of flashbacks (BABABAC)?
From that good old hat pick one of the non-linear chronological orders mentioned above and rewrite Jack and the Beanstalk.
18. Breaking the Glass
Take a passage of your own writing that you’re not all that pleased with. Bad writing or – worse – pedestrian writing. (Alternately, you can cut out a paragraph from a magazine.) Cut the offending passage up into sentences. Throw the sentences into a hat and then draw them out again randomly and put them back together in the new order. Any better?
Try this, next: take the same sentences and cut them up into three parts, which, in a simple sentence, will mean subject verb, object, but in a complex sentence could be anything – cut it as you please. Place these bits into three hats and then randomly take a bit from each hat and put your “story” back together.
And you thought it was bad to begin with?
Actually, this exercise can often unlock a piece of prose. (And often the culprit is boring verbs!)
I remember a friend working on a difficult violin passage turning the music upside down and trying to play the same bar. It helped. Last time I heard he was playing first violin for the San Francisco Opera.
19. Landscape is Never Simply Landscape
One of the great books on writer’s craft is John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. This is an exercise cribbed from there but slanted towards someone writing for children.
Describe a lake as seen by a boy or a girl who is in love. Do not mention love or the beloved.
Here’s a variant. Describe a garden as seen by a child whose pet dog just died. Do not mention the dog or death. And, for that matter, don’t mention a grave.
This is really a lesson in tone. It’s also a lesson in what T.S. Eliot called the objective correlative. Eliot considered the objective correlative “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art.” That sounds pretty important. What does he mean? Well, in the examples above, you could write: “Patty was really in love with Gord.” Or “Nathaniel was really going to miss ol’ Patch.” Such sentences evoke nothing, express no emotion. But how can a lake or a garden tell us of love or loss? Well, think of how bleak the world looks when you’re sad, even if the sun is shining. Now do you get it? In fact, a really good exercise would be to describe a lake as seen by a boy or girl who is in love. And then describe a lake as seen by a boy or a girl who just killed someone. The lake will not be the same.
This is a game I used to occupy myself with, endlessly, when I was in my twenties and the idea of writing a novel seemed utterly impossible but awfully desirable. String together a series of very brief vivid descriptions of settings that seem charged with significance. Link each setting with one detail or another. I call the game Conditions because the vignettes seem to be circumstances worthy of exploring – disparate fragments of a puzzle that might inspire further enquiry. Really, you are just stringing the reader along since you have no idea how these parts fit together. It’s something Edward Gorey did a lot of. Also, one thinks of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Or the way Stephen King starts his novels by introducing you to a character in a bizarre situation then jumping to several other characters, also in compromising or difficult situations. You know they are a “special” group; you know they are going to come together. But whether the conditions in this exercise lead anywhere or not, leaps are a good thing to know about – to practice. Sometimes I will worry away at a piece of writing for pages and pages trying to get my protagonist from point A to point B in a “meaningful way,” and then end up just putting him there. Think of the way scenes in movies are spliced together. Here’s an example of a string of conditions I wrote when I was much younger.
A bottle with a message in it washes up on a desert island only to be trapped in the bleached ribcage of a dead man. A tattered flag is attached to the skeleton’s wrist.
In a Paris flat overlooking the Seine, a quill pen lies on a sheet of paper. The window above the desk is open, the curtain flaps in the breeze. The paper stirs but a ship in a bottle acts as a paperweight. The flag on the tiny ship is the same as the one on the skeleton’s wrist.
In a garden on the Dorset coast, a small girl pricks her finger on a bramble bush. Ink drips from the cut – ink the same colour as the flag. It begins to spell a name on her snow-white skirt.
Part of what this exercise helps to do is get you into the habit of exploring a scene like a camera, from a distance, or mid range, and then zoooooming in for that extreme close-up. It has been said that detail is the life-blood of good fiction. This is an exercise to get you thinking into an image, like a detective closing in on a clue.