What do you get when you add a diet of pastry and iced coffee to an aging body? Fat. You get fat.
That’s where I feel I’m headed at the moment. I’m not actually fat but I’m certainly not as skinny or as fit as I could be. So, I jumped onto the App Store and downloaded a workout app. I don’t want to be an iron man (or at least not the sort that doesn’t come with a weaponised suit of armour and a drinking problem) so I was looking for something low key when I noticed a pattern.
7. Seven. VII.
There are heaps of fitness apps that offer 7 minute workouts, obviously targeting people who think of themselves as too busy to go to a gym or to slack to do anything longer than that – perfect for me.
Now, imagine a motorised contraption that you stand up on as you ride into the next topic.
I’m a writer but I procrastinate more than I write so I’m not really a writer after all. But… if I wrote for 7 mins each day then I could still call myself a writer, right? So, I’m developing a list of activities that should only take around 7 minutes each. I’m doing this so I can work out the kinks in my current slump, so I can get back into some form of mental/creative fitness. I’m sharing it so you can try it to.
1. Draw up a table that has four columns and eleven rows (including one for headings). Your headings are In This Book, These Characters, Do Stuff, And It Ends Like This. You might end up shortening these in later attempts. Likewise, these headings should only act as guides – play around with how you address them.
Now pick 10 of your favourite books or 10 random books from your shelf and fill out the rest of the boxes. You’ll end up with stuff like:
The Fault in our Stars, 2 teens with cancer, fall in love, but one of them dies.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 3 young wizards, go to school, and come face to face with true evil.
The Princess Bride, a farm boy, teams up with a gifted swordsman and a giant, to save a princess from a tyrannical prince.
The New Testament, the son of God, tries to help out a lot of people, but is betrayed by one of his friends.
Where The Wild Things Are, a naughty boy, rules over monsters in a fantasy land, until he gets homesick.
The Shining, a telepathic child, is trapped in a haunted hotel, and survives an encounter with his insane father.
Lord of the Flies, a group of children, turn psychotic on a deserted island, but are rescued at the last minute.
Ricky Rouse has a Gun, an unemployed father, gets a job as a mascot at a theme park, and saves everyone from terrorists.
Brave New World, an outsider, enters a world built on sex and drugs, and it drives him to suicide.
The Last Continent, an incompetent wizard, has a series of misadventures in a parody of the Australian outback, before saving the day by making it rain.
Here comes the fun part. Grab a pair of scissors and cut off the left column. You can throw that in the trash, you won’t be needing it anymore. Now cut out each individual box but keep them grouped in with the other boxes from their column. Once you’ve done that, grab a random slip of paper from each pile. Congratulations, you have a story! Sort of. What you really have is a story idea. Write it down for later use.
FYI – I’ll know you got the idea from me if you write a story about the son of God teaming up with a swordsman and a giant to save people from terrorists. Or an incompetent wizard who survives an encounter with his insane father after entering a world built on sex and drugs.
2. Question time. Most stories are built on ‘what ifs’. What if people were turned into zombies by a signal sent through their mobile phone? (Cell, Stephen King) What if teenagers had to compete in a televised battle to the death? (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins) What if the prostitutes Jack the Ripper killed were actually vampires? (Anno Dracula, Kim Newman)
But, ‘what if’ is not the only question you need to ask. Rather, it is only the first.
Now, how you approach this task is up to you. You can set it up as a table or a flow chart or a mind map – however you like.
To come up with your ‘what if’ you might take a story premise from the activity above, open a newspaper to any random page and question or modify its contents, swap the gender of an existing character or person from history, or come up with your own sliding doors moment by imagining what would have happened if you made a different choice at some point in your life.
Your 7 minutes should now be spent ASKING the questions that stem from your ‘what if’. These new questions will come not just from the initial premise but from the things you ask yourself beyond that point.
What if the son of God teamed up with a swordsman and a giant to defeat some terrorists?
Why does the son of God need help? What happened to his ‘powers’?
Who are the terrorists? What is their motivation?
Don’t terrorists have guns and bombs? What use is a swordsman going to be?
And so on…
To paraphrase Chuck Wendig, you now have your story map. The plot is the journey you plan through this terrain.
3. Picture this. No, seriously, picture this. Go online and Google image search for a man/woman template – your choice should be guided by the sex of your potential protagonist. I like to use Lego bodies because then I’m not distracted by the body shape nor am I wasting a lot of time Googling trying to find the perfect body for my character.
Print it off and grab some colours pencils or textas. Don’t worry, no one’s judging. You’re a writer not a drawer. Add clothes and props to your person. Do this at your leisure, it doesn’t count towards your 7 minutes of writing.
What does count towards your writing is what you do after this. That is, you now need to annotate it. Why is your character dressed that way? What is the significance of the props you’ve given them? These questions will help you get your head around your character. If you find that there’s no particular reason for them having a certain prop or wearing a specific colour or style of shirt then perhaps you don’t know your character after all.
Anyway, that’ll do. Grab a towel and wipe of your literary sweat. Sit back and have a cool drink. Or, if those exercises have got your creative blood pumping, use that energy and write away.