by Anne-Marie Strohman
We made it! Seventeen posts with over thirty sidewriting exercises for you, including our crowdsourced post. Tomorrow, we’ll publish a round-up of all the fantastic sidewriting exercises recommended by our authors. You’re sure to find more than one that can kickstart your writing. (If you missed our earlier posts, START HERE.)
Unlike many of our contributors, I have always been a sidewriter. Many years ago, before I began writing fiction, I started doing morning pages–three pages of freewriting (about 750 words). I had already been introduced to freewriting as a generative technique when I trained to teach college writing. Up to that point, I had done my sidewriting as rough outlines on the backs of envelopes, or as verbal sidewriting, telling my classmates about the papers I was going to write. Freewriting combined my longstanding habit of journaling with something more intentional.
I’m not entirely consistent with my 750 words a day, and I rarely write them in the morning–certainly not first thing–but I do try to keep up the practice. (I use 750words.com.) I’ll often write my way through problems, through doubts, through my own hang-ups about my work. Just seeing the words on the page helps me get out of my head. It also helped me develop my writing voice.
I most often sidewrite when I get stuck–whether it’s my own self-doubt or a problem in a story. Here are two exercises that have helped get me unstuck countless times.
Sidewriting Challenge: Dream-Team of Defenders
My first semester of my MFA program, I had crippling self-doubt. I was afraid to start writing because I thought it wouldn’t be any good, that no one would want to read my work, that I didn’t know what I was doing. My son had gone through some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and the technique of externalizing self-criticism seemed like it could be helpful. I started writing down all the accusations and doubts from my Critics (those really loud voices in my head). But when I wrote them down, I didn’t have any answers for them.
I decided that Anne Lamott might have a better answer than I would. So I let her defend me. On paper. Then I decided Oprah might have some wise words. My high school English teacher. Even Sarah Silverman. Just thinking through how those people might answer the criticisms gave me a freedom to answer them, to reduce their power.
For a while, I did this exercise every day at the beginning of my writing time. It absolutely gives me the freedom to put words on the page.
Sidewriting Challenge: Seeing the story from a different POV–especially for picture books
I started writing for children about six years ago with picture books. They’re such a tricky form. I think partly because I’m trying to use so few words, I get stuck in the main character’s POV, and sometimes that makes me stuck on the story as a whole.
To combat this myopia, I freewrite the story from another character’s point of view. It helps to open the story, helps me see the problem in a new light, and helps me prioritize the relationships between characters. I’ve had more than one picture book recover from stuckness because of this technique.
It works for short stories and novels, too. I once heard a lecture by Rita Williams-Garcia where she recommended that if you get stuck, you should figure out what a secondary character is doing while they’re off-stage. Sometimes that exercise can kick-start the story by bringing new material or conflict into the main storyline when the character shows up again. So write about a secondary character off-the-page, and write their perspective on the storyline and the world. It can help you as a writer see the story in new ways too.
Thank you for coming along on this sidewriting journey with us. We hope you’ve found some compelling exercises AND some compelling reasons for sidewriting. Just as every writer is different, the way each writer uses sidewriting is different–as you’ve seen from our contributors.
We hope you’ll sign up for our monthly newsletter–we include a featured author each month and highlight a craft post based on their work, recommend a craft book, point to hidden gems from the KidLit world on the internet, and share inspiration from some of our favorite writers. It’s the easiest way to make sure you don’t miss what’s happening on the blog.
We wish you many happy days of sidewriting and many good words as you work on and play in your manuscripts.
See you next Thursday for a return to our regular programming!
For more of our Sidewriting Takeover series, check out these posts:
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.