There are days when you find that you're just sick of words.
Maybe you're exhausted. Maybe you've been thinking too darn much, and your story is in danger of going all crooked and stale on you.
You know you need to jazz up your creativity a bit, but . . . ugh.
Can't -- muster -- the -- energy.
Hey, it happens. And when that mix of moods hits me, I fall back on three ways to keep exploring my stories.
What's so great about these? Well, they're totally bottom shelf. Super easy, no strain, no muss, no fuss.
You can do them when you're pretty darn tired, you can do them when you can't put two words together, you can do them when you don't want the hard mental work of actual writing.
These are for the too-busy-to-write days, the bored days, the cranky days, the I'd-rather-nap days. The rainy days.
Bonus: They're totally fun. It's like fingerpainting for your soul. Okay? Let's dive in.
1. Hit Pinterest hard for some visual inspiration.
If you haven't tried this yet, now is totally the time for you to explore Pinterest as a writer.
Yes, Pinterest is the place to get enough ideas to stress yourself out over every birthday party for the rest of your life. And Pinterest can help you get to a state of serious discontent over your interior design skills (or fashion, or crafting, or whatever).
But you will also stumble across a zillion amazing illustrations. Concept art. Photographs. Links to articles about crazy settings that just have to make it into your novel.
I've never heard another writer confess this, so I might be the only one, but: I am total crap at imagining faces.
Can't do it. I get very vague impressions about hair, and maybe height, and physical gestures. As far as actual details, as far as all the things those character exercises in books want you to list? I can't imagine them. And it feels forced to just randomly say, uhhhh, she's blonde, and um, blue eyes? Maybe brown? Oh I don't know.
It hasn't worked for me. Those details don't seem to stick.
But here's what has worked: browsing illustrations and photography on Pinterest.
I love seeing the amazing character illustrations, wading through them by the dozen, and pinning bunches of possibilities to a secret board devoted to my work-in-progress. It helps me figure out the mood I'm going for, the range of possibilities for each character.
I'll browse concept art for some weird location ideas, portrait photography for more true-to-life character ideas.
Or I'll do a more specific search: like today, scanning photos of creepy forests. (And not getting spooked one bit. Or wait. Maybe I did.)
This is the easiest exercise on the list. You can do it if you only have the energy to keep your eyelids half-open and drool, so if it's a rough day, go for it!
It's amazing what happens when I see a face that rings just right for a character. Suddenly the character in my mind takes on more shape. She feels more certain, more definite. Now I know her physical specifics, all the details that I need to describe her well.
And when I'm ready to sit down and write, her voice is that much clearer.
2. Match music to your characters.
I started doing this exercise over ten years ago, as a game.
A couple of friends and I were studying Shakespeare for a semester. As it came close to finals time, we were pretty well steeped in the nine plays we'd read. We knew our stuff.
And I had this CD. It wasn't the kind of CD that made you think: Aha, Shakespeare, forsooth!
(All right, all right, it was Linkin Park. But it was a long time ago, and I was maybe a little angry sometimes, and also my tastes have changed. No judging. Thank you.)
Here's what we did: For each song, my friends and I listened carefully to the words, and then we assigned it to a character from one of the plays.
Yes, really. This one was Hamlet, and that one was totally Ophelia. And this other one had to be Antonio from Twelfth Night. We even had one for Banquo's Ghost in Macbeth.
Obviously, some of the songs were a bit of a stretch. (A lot of a stretch.) We made our case for each one, arguing on the basis of a few strong lines, or the general idea behind the chorus.
But it got you thinking: how might the rest of the lines fit the character?
Was there a plot line in the play that might be stretched a bit, to make those lines fit? Or maybe the character's motivation in the play was totally different from what we'd been thinking...
Maybe Iago had a softer side? And maybe Leontes in The Winter's Tale had been poisoned? The more we listened to "his" song, the more we were sure of it.
You see where this is going, right?
I love this exercise, because it's still pretty low-impact. You can do it while you're doing dishes, or going for a run, or driving. You're just listening to music, and thinking vaguely about your story. No big deal.
But you'll find yourself wondering about emotional aspects of your story. You'll start thinking differently about character motivation, about their backstories.
Lines from the song will jump out, and at first you'll think, "Nah, that doesn't fit them..." And then it will hit you. Of course it fits them! And actually, that answers your questions about what should happen right after the plot midpoint...
Don't be surprised if you find yourself scribbling notes. Don't be surprised if you actually start getting excited. I won't tell anyone.
Best of all? After doing this exercise, the next time you hear that song, you start thinking of your story.
Which means: your story is more alive for you.
And if you're accomplishing that on a dreary day--well! Good for you.
3. Binge on movie trailers: have a story element feast.
Okay, again this one might be just a me thing, but it's one of my absolute favorite ways to build my story.
I have a movie trailer festival. (Right? Sooooo hard, but someone must, I suppose! And because I love trailers to a ridiculous degree, this exercise really kills me. But anyway.)
I watch a whole bunch of movie trailers. (IMDb is super for this.) They don't have to be anything like the story I'm working on. A wide variety is great.
Why do I love trailers so? They're presenting the hook of the story, the premise in miniature.
The whole point of a trailer is to get you ready to pay to see that story. To experience whatever they've described.
Which means: they're putting in some of the high points, they're peeling back the cover on the conflict, they're showing off their special effects. If possible, they even make you love the main characters. They make you curious.
What does this mean for you, writer?
It means that you're feasting your eyes and ears on key story moments. The emotional highs, huge effects, witty dialogue, cliffhangers, possible revelations, anxious character moments, conflict so sharp it skewers, and about seventy explosion sequences...
Okay, so you've done all that? Eyes feeling a little buggy? Getting the story lines confused a bit? Perfect.
Now close your eyes, and dream up the trailer for your story.
It doesn't matter if your novel isn't done. It doesn't matter if there are huge gaps.
It doesn't matter if your novel doesn't feel at all exciting. It doesn't matter if your characters feel lifeless.
Think about a darkened theater. Think about how you feel, when you're craving an amazing story.
And then let the trailer write itself, on the screen of your closed eyelids. Bring in the scary music. Let things happen in slow-motion... or super fast.
Let your characters talk. Let their dialogue feel heavy, important. Let them talk like they're both going to be nominated for an Oscar.
Crank up the volume on conflict: let the characters start running through rubble. Blow some stuff up. Even if you didn't think you were writing a blowing-up kind of book. (Hey, you're just messing around, right? Splash a bit! Have some fun.)
Maybe this one will take some practice, but it can be the most rewarding of them all.
Why? I think because you'll find that you start believing in your story a bit more. You'll want to add more big moments. Because it will start catching at your heart, like the best movies, the best trailers. Because it will make you lean forward a bit.
You just might give yourself chills.
And even if there's a ton of work still to do on your novel (and when isn't there?), you'll have a renewed belief in the power behind the story. And you'll be writing toward that power--and not just to check list items off a sheet.
And that is the sweetest feeling of all.
I hope you'll try these exercises, friend. They've saved my bacon again and again, pulling my heart back toward my stories, back toward my characters.
I hope you start seeing your characters walking around, and that your settings come alive. I hope you start compiling a playlist of songs that are perfect your novel. And I hope you start dreaming up movie trailers.
And when you're back at your desk, you can channel all that new imagery, all that new dreaming into a living, breathing, heart-grabbing novel.