The best writing exercise for creative flow

March 9, 2024

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Are you looking for the best writing exercise to get your creativity flowing and launch you into your next project? Well I think I just found it.

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I recently listened to David Morrell’s THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST (which I highly, highly recommend). And in case you don’t know who he is, Morrell wrote the books that would later be turned into the Rambo movies, starring Sylvester Stallone.

In THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, Morrell shared his own creative writing exercise when starting a new project. I tried it for the first time last week, and I think I’ll be using it for ever and ever. But first, a bit of backstory.

Writing advice fell in two camps: planner or pantser

If you’re interested in the subject of writing, you’ve probably already heard of these two polarizing approaches to writing. There is one camp of people who think writing takes meticulous planning. That you should plot out each scene, and its goal, and chart the trajectory of each character. And then there’s the other group that likes to just sit down in front of the computer with nothing but an idea and see what happens. Let the characters show up and tell the story.

Neither of those two extremes have ever felt good to me. The former seemed too formulaic and labour intensive. And the latter felt more like treading water in the middle of the ocean, looking for land.

But what if there was a third option, a little closer to the middle?

David Morrell says that he finds the concept of plotting too constrictive, but that simply sitting down and writing into the ether is a little too loosey goosey for him as well. (In case it isn’t obvious I’m paraphrasing here.)

Instead, he uses a brilliant strategy that is 1 part creative writing exercise and 1 part loose plan.

The best writing exercise explained

He writes out a conversation between himself and his ‘muse,’ discussing this new idea for a project. That’s it.

It’s simply a couple pages of dialogue, written between himself and whatever entity he believes would be interested in this new idea. And they go back and forth about it.

It’s genius because it allows the you (on the page) to take a stab at trying to explain the project for the first time, in a really non-pressurized way. And it also allows you to tap into your creativity to see if your idea might really have legs.

You might even find yourself shocked by the insightful questions your muse character asks, which helps you flesh out the concept.

Choosing your muse for your writing exercise

My muse for my current project just so happens to be the devil character, Sheera, from another story. And before you read too much into that, just be aware that I wrote her as a complex character who was more morally grey than evil.

Sometimes you need a bit of an edge to come up with a story idea.

Anyway, I’m doing something I’ve quite literally never done before here. I’m sharing my drafted conversion that outlines my idea, because I think we all need to get over ourselves and publish things at different stages.

I wish I had heard of this kind of creative approach to story-telling years ago. Maybe reading this and trying it out for yourself will show you what a difference it can make to engage with your creativity right from the jump. 

I wrote this at 6:30 in the morning in about 20 minutes, and then went back and updated it with a few more details afterwards. And that was all I needed to catapult myself into a new world of my own making.

I’ve been able to sit down and produce the first few chapters of this one with (relative) ease. Compared to the years of toil and confusion it took for my first full-length project.

David Morrell says you can use this conversation as a guidepost, coming back to it however often you need to recenter yourself within the story.

My example of the best writing exercise

Sheera: Well good morning, Emma. Long time not talk.

Emma: Hi Sheera. I had a new idea for a book yesterday. Do you mind talking it through with me?

Sheera: Sure, we can do that. What’s it about?

Emma: Well I had the idea when I got ghosted by this guy.

Sheera: Wait, you got ghosted by a guy? You?

Emma: I know, right? There’s a first time for everything, I guess. But anyway don’t side track me. It was a good thing in the end, because it gave me this idea for a story.

Sheera: Okay, go.

Emma: What if there was this witch, but her only power was to write love stories into existence.

Sheera: That’s pretty funny.

Emma: Right? And so lovelorn women would come to her. Maybe some men also, who knows. And they would ask her to write them a story, but she would only take one client a year.

Sheera: Because birthing a novel is an evil, drawn out process and takes time.

Emma: Exactly.

Sheera: I’m liking this so far, but where’s the drama?

Emma: Well essentially the MC is a hyper-independent woman who has always done everything on her own, and she sees what love does to people and doesn’t really want to take part.

So people ask her all the time if she ever thinks about writing a story for herself. And she always says no, it doesn’t work that way, or she makes up an excuse.

The truth is that she absolutely could write one for herself, but she only ever wants to find love the old-fashioned way. She’d obviously never tells her clients this, but she judges the ever-living fuck out of them for coming to her in the first place.

Sheera: That’s a fantastic detail. So her goal at the beginning of the book is what?

Emma: Well maybe she’s nearing the end of her rope, because she doesn’t really want to do this anymore, she wants to do something ‘more’ with her life, but she doesn’t know what she would even be good at outside of magic.

Sheera: Okay, so she wants out of the game.

Emma: Yes, so she agrees to write her last story, and something happens. And then one day, she makes a typo that changes everything.

Sheera: Hah. Little nod to the absurdity of the industry there.

Emma: Yeah, so she accidentally puts her own name into the story she’s writing, and she essentially writes herself into a love triangle.

Sheera: Okay, that’s brilliant.

Emma: You think so?

Sheera: I’m Lucipher’s sister, I know evil genius when I see it.

Emma: Thanks. So here’s the part that actually makes me feel more inspired: she isn’t going to end up with the guy in the end.

Sheera: Inrtruiging.

Emma: Maybe they’ll all be friends, maybe not. I’m not sure, but the moral of the story is that the two women are going to end up friends. Because maybe soul mates don’t have to be so much about romantic love, maybe our soul mates can be our family and our community and all the other people in our lives and we are approaching an era where we don’t have to put all our hopes and dreams into one singular human to fullfill so many of them.

Sheera: Well I do love a bit of chaos normally, but that melts my little black heart. I think you’re on to something there. Don’t tell the church.

Emma: So I have your blessing to continue?

Sheera: You do.

Emma: Will you do the thing?

Sheera: Of course. Take a deep breath. In and out. I bestow upon you the blessing of the writer, ideas flow to you and through you, and onto the page with ease. The characters and their arcs are clear, their goals are defined. Now sit down and write.

Summary of the best writing exercise

So what do you think? Would writing out a conversation between yourself and your muse give you enough structure to start a new project? Or are you sticking with one of the two camps?

Using this exercise for the first time made me feel so inspired and it’s like I managed to give myself a confidence boost at the same time. If you want to read more thoughts on David Morrell’s THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, feel free to check out my full review here.