A couple weeks ago, fed up by how crappy I felt, I started exercising again, and though I’ve ended up taking a few days off already, sidelined with a wicked summer cold, I’m committed to getting back to daily moderate aerobic exercise so that I won’t, I don’t know . . . die in the next few years.

This exercising thing, combined with another period of “deadline hell” juggling multiple projects while trying desperately to carve out any time and creative energy for my own writing got me thinking about exercises of a different kind:

Writing exercises.

When it comes to advising other people to do them, I’m a huge believer in writing exercises. I’m poised at all times, on a hair trigger, ready to throw out writing exercises to anyone who’ll listen. I’ll get you writing lists, spying on people in public, and even weirder things, but do I practice what I preach?

Um . . . yes? –ish?

I have done writing exercises, and loved some and thought a few were silly, but I have to admit, just like I dropped off doing physical exercise in the past couple years in which my work life has gotten super busy (and that’s not a complaint—busy is good when you love what you do and you have a mortgage and a kid in college) and . . . other excuses.

So what if I try this:

Publically shame myself into doing these exercises—a whole bunch of them, some of which might even combine with each other—and make sure that I give myself deadlines which you then see, so the whole internets can (if you don’t have anything better to do, like writing exercises of your own) hold me to task if I blow them off.

Oh, look at that: self-imposed deadlines and forced management.

What exercises then?

As many as I can think of off hand:

Write to the Illustration

This one I already did, writing a short story for the ProSe Productions anthology Write to the Cover—a brilliant cover it is and I stand by my story. But then, here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, I challenged y’all to do the same and even found a fun public domain illustration to spark your creativity. Write a short story inspired by this picture, I assigned:

Deadline: August 25, 2015

Deadline: August 25, 2015


But did I write a story of my own based on that picture? Nope. Well, I will now. And please expect this from me no later than . . . make this real . . . one week. I must have a short story based on that illustration done at least in first draft form by this time next week.

Next . . .

Creative Eavesdropping

This is the “take home exercise” in my Living Dialog class. If you’ve ever been to a Starbucks or anything like a Starbucks, or an airplane or airport or bus or subway train, etc., you’ll have seen all the people, heads down, typing away into laptops or scribbling into notebooks (usually the former). What are they writing? Fifty Shades of Grey fan fiction? In my neighborhood, probably mostly. Some kind of dry and soul-deadening corporate memo or report for work? Okay. The Great American Novel? Why not?

The point is, you have no idea what they’re writing and neither does anyone else and you know what? No one cares. So here’s what you do to get a real, fast sense of how people actually speak to each other:

Bring your laptop or notebook to someplace like a Starbucks and nonchalantly sit close to a table at which two or more people are sitting and having a conversation—any conversation, about anything. Then write down every word they say to each other.

Don’t tell them you’re doing that. What they don’t know won’t result in restraining orders. Just write down what they say. Don’t look at them, don’t make eye contact, and don’t judge. Don’t edit. Just be the stenographer.

Here’s an example of . . . oh, wait.

I need to actually go do that.

Deadline: September 1.

Next: Write Longhand

I hate writing longhand. It hurts. I get focused on my penmanship, which gets worse and worse as I go. I hate to then have to laborious retype everything. I know this because I . . . never actually tried it?

I know writers who only write in longhand, at least at first, and have come to rely on the process of transposing it onto their computers as an essential first edit. This worked for people like Truman Capote, so what the hell am I doing dismissing it?

I’m going to write either some portion of a book—a chapter, let’s say—or a short story . . . hey, maybe the short story based on that weird little picture . . . longhand.

Can I get away with combining these two exercises? Why not? Let’s say this has the same deadline.

This week I will write that short story, longhand, and edit while transposing it.

And last but not least:

I’m still not done with that whole exercise of using note cards to plot out a novel. I’m using the note cards I made that inspired that first post to populate an outline and they were instructive, but this never really took off for me. Or more accurately, it hasn’t yet taken off for me.

In “Outlining with Note Cards, Part 2: Seeking Wisdom,” I mentioned Holy Lisle’s advice on “Plotting Under Pressure.” I’m going to do this: create a plot like this, then write it start-to-finish in November as part of . . .

. . . drum roll, please . . .


I kinda tried to start that once, five years ago, but let’s say that this year, we’ll actually make it happen. So let’s get that note card plot started the first week in September, do some worldbuilding in October, and write the dang thing in November.

That should keep me busy for the rest of 2015 . . . along with everything else!

I’m looking forward to it!


—Philip Athans





About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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8 Responses to TIME TO EXERCISE

  1. Pingback: EXERCISE ONE COMPLETE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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  3. Pingback: EXERCISE TWO . . . ATTEMPTED | Fantasy Author's Handbook


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