My wife made me my very own Advent-based writing challenge, and it’s been amazing, so I figured I’d share it with all of you!
My wife and I have a long-standing tradition of making Advent calendars for each other, which I detailed here when I first talked about WREINDEER. Usually we make one for the other person every other year, and this year was my year to receive one. It was technically an elaborate 4-part calendar, but the short version of the story is that I was given a writing challenge every day from December 1 to December 24 and if I completed them I got presents!
Anyway – back to the writing challenge. The reason I wanted to share this is because I thought my wife was very good at making up cool exercises, things that revolved around creating an entire story, but wasn’t always just related to actual writing. It was fun, it was simple, and it made me think a lot about how I approach my work. So, I’ve numbered and detailed the individual exercises I got each day, and elaborated a little bit about how I solved them.
Writing Exercise 1 – “Title”
- Make a title, then write a 200 word paragraph.
- Write a 200 word paragraph, then create a title
This was a fun one. I always make up titles after the fact – I don’t understand how people can even think of titles before they’ve written something, but when I had to do it that way around, I found that my whole story was shaped by the title I chose.
Writing Exercise 2 – “Main Character”
- Briefly outline a main character (10-50 words)
- Write a 300 word paragraph about your main character
Pretty straight forward exercise really, I made up my character “Gordon,” gave him a brief backstory and described his life a bit, before I elaborated on what his goals and motivations in my story was going to be.
Writing Exercise 3 – “Triple Scene”
- Write a 200 word scene
- Write the same scene from three different perspectives
This was really fun! I started out with writing the same scene from my main character’s (Gordon’s) point of view, then a secondary character, and then ended with a completely disconnected point of view – that of a bird sitting in the window sill outside the house. I really liked this one.
Writing Exercise 4 – “Meaning”
- Write a 300 word scene revolving around a object – the object in question needs to be used/be meaningful in an unexpected way
This one was a bit strange, and the first one that really made me think. The exercises really didn’t have more instructions than what I’ve written out here, so this was it. I’ve talked it over with my wife, and ended up writing about a tiny Goblin hiding from a cat between the pages of the book. So the book became the focal point of this scene, but it hardly served as a book in the conventional sense at all.
Writing Exercise 5 – “Context”
- Write a piece of dialogue
- Put the dialogue in a scene
- Put the same piece of dialogue in a completely different scene
This one was also a bit strange, and very similar to Exercise No. 3, but I chose to focus on emotion. By changing the way the dialogue was said and how the characters reacted to the words, I took it from feeling sad the first time, to sounding angry in the second scene. This was a really good exercise to show how powerful a few choice words can be.
Writing Exercise 6 – “Villain”
- Write a 200 word bio for your villain/antagonist
- Write a 100 word paragraph about your villains goal/purpose
- Write a 100 word paragraph about your villains motivations for said goals
This one was fun! The first part is straight forward, but the second and third are important to distinguish. The second is all about what the villain wants, and the third is about why he wants it. This is an excellent exercise to use when outlining a story, so that you know why characters are doing what they’re doing and what’s driving them.
Writing Exercise 7 – “Experience”
- Write a 300 word scene
- Write the same scene but change how it is experienced (note: different than just changing perspective)
- Write the same scene again, with yet another change in experience
Here’s another that sounds similar to Exercise No. 3 and Exercise No. 5, but when I talked this through with my wife I realized that this was more about experiencing the same thing but in completely different ways. Exercise No. 3 was about the exact same scene being told from different perspectives, and Exercise No. 5 was about the same piece of dialogue having different meaning depending on the surrounding context, whereas with this exercise, the characters involved had to experience the same thing differently. The way I solved this was to write a battle scene, where one party was winning, one was losing, and one was caught up in the middle of the chaos of all of it.
This was a really good way to exercise how you can expand on a scene in a story, by having more people take part in it and tell different sides of it.
Writing Exercise 8 – “For kids”
- Write a 300 word scene. If you write for adults, write it for kids, and vice versa
My story was planned to be for adults, so I had to write a scene for kids. It was hell. I can never, ever, write for kids.
Writing Exercise 9 – “Writing Sprints”
- Do 3 x 4 min writing sprints, 1 min break between
Good simple fun, write for 15 minutes total, with 3 minutes break. It surprised me how fast 4 minutes went by and how little I got down on paper in that time.
Writing Exercise 10 – “Music”
- Choose 2 different pieces of music and write 200 words for each
I picked one really chilled-out instrumental piece and ‘Raining Blood’ by Slayer. I wrote both scenes as easy as the other (I think), but there was definitely different vibes to them.
Writing Exercise 11 – “Emotion”
- Pick an emotion and write a 300-500 word scene where this emotion is key
This was fun – and I want to say easy – for me. Dialogue is where I write my best stuff, so I picked anger as my emotion and wrote an awesome scene where two of my characters yelled at each other for a bit.
Writing Exercise 12 – “Show & Tell”
- Describe a thing in 200-400 words, without ever using the actual name of the thing or a synonym
This was more of a challenge for me. I hate describing things. I’m not very visual, so if I’m writing about a character who goes into a room, I want to know what he’s doing there and why, not what the room looks like. For this exercise I described an ancient weapon that was used in that battle scene I mentioned previously, and the reaction my main character Gordon had when he first discovered it.
Writing Exercise 13 – “60 Second Think”
- Think about your story for 60 seconds straight – Don’t let your thoughts wander
This sounded super easy to me. Who can’t think of a thing for a minute, right? It’s just 60 seconds, after all. But holy shit, 60 seconds is sooooo long, especially if you’re trying to keep yourself from thinking about anything else. At the end of the minute I basically outlined my whole story from start to finish, in like 5 sentences, and it was incredible to see how much I could get down in that short amount of time.
Writing Exercise 14 – “Involve Others”
- Involve someone else in today’s 200 word scene
I feel like I maybe cheated a bit on this, but I outsourced the whole thing to my friend, David. I gave him a few hints about what the story should be – to keep it in line with what I was writing myself, while at the same time not giving him too much – and he just went for it! Thanks, David!
Writing Exercise 15 – “Different Process”
- Write 200-500 words, but something about the process must be different
This was simple: write a scene, but do it differently than you usually would. I just wrote it by hand instead of on my laptop. I learned two things: i) I write much slower by hand, but ii) it feels much more relaxing to write on paper with a pencil. I was so chilled out by the end of that scene.
Writing Exercise 16 – “Illustrate”
- Drawn an object or character from your story
- Describe the same thing
Okay – I used to think I was a semi-decent drawer, but it turns out I’m not. I drew one of my characters, and it looked like a blind man with Parkinson’s tried to draw the craters of the Moon. It was terrible. Then I described the same character. Lesson learned: even though I’m shit at describing things, I’m better at writing than drawing.
Also, it was interesting to see how I described differently to how I drew. When you use words, you can say that things are in a way that’s difficult to portray through visual mediums. For example, you can describe someone’s eyes as full of hate and then it’s up to the reader to visualize what that means. Interesting thing to think about when you describe things.
Writing Exercise 17 – “Plan”
- Make a plan/outline for your project – how long will it be/what will you do with it?
I kind of misunderstood this, I think, but I decided to sit down and plan what to do with all of this December Writing Exercise stuff once it was over. Knowing that I wouldn’t be making it into a novel, but that it felt a bit pointless to throw all of this content away, I decided to compile it all into a long-ish short story. (I haven’t done that yet, but that’s the plan anyway – then we’ll see where we go from there.)
Writing Exercise 18 – “Follow Plan”
- Write 200-500 words following your plan from Exercise No. 17
Now this is where it all went wrong from the exercise before, because my “plan” didn’t really offer me anything specific that I needed to work on to realize it. So I just wrote another 200-300 word scene.
Writing Exercise 19 – “Write”
You’ve got to remember that all of this was happening in the days coming up on Christmas, so some of these – like this one – were designed to be a little bit easier and not take all day. Simple exercise: sit down and write a scene.
Writing Exercise 20 – “Active Writing”
- Write while doing something active
I feel like maybe I cheated during this one too, because it wasn’t clearly stated anywhere what “active” meant – so I went for playing Diablo 3 while constantly alt+tabbing to my document to write a 200-300 word scene. It was fun though! Love me a bit of Diablo 3.
Writing Exercise 21 – “Pitch”
- Write three different pitches for your story and practice selling it
Uuugh, who doesn’t hate pitching? I did my best, wrote three pitches, and presented them all to my wife. What was interesting was that she liked the most the one I absolutely hated, which led to an interesting discussion. Goes to show that it’s important to get a different set of eyes on all things related to writing – not just the story.
Writing Exercise 22 – “Blurb”
- Write a 100 word blurb
- Write a 50 word blurb
- Write a 280 word blurb
- Write a 10 word blurb
- Write a 1 word blurb
This was fun! Especially those last two; a 10 word blurb is a perfect exercise for a hook line, and though a 1 word blurb is kind of pointless, it forces you to think about what your story is really about.
Writing Exercise 23 – “Write as Someone Else”
- Write as someone else
Felt like I failed this one, really. I tried to write as my wife, but it just ended up sounding like me after all – though in hindsight, I think that’s probably a good thing? Means that I’m true to my voice, or whatever? Anyway, a good exercise to force yourself to think about what words you use and how you use them – for example the fact that I don’t describe much in my writing.
Writing Exercise 24 – “Hypothetical Words”
- Write 0-1000 words
If you’ve been paying attention, this one landed on Christmas Eve (and being Norwegian, that’s when we celebrate Christmas) so as you can see, I was given a way out of doing anything that day. And yes, I took it.
And that’s it! That’s all the exercises my wife created for me during December in the lead up to Christmas. It was great fun, and there’s definitely some gems in here that I will re-use in the future when I need to wrap my head around a story in a different way.
I want to mention that my wife set this all up with her being my writing partner for this, as many of the exercises naturally led to a discussion or a reading of a part out loud to someone. If you have such a person available, I would highly recommend getting them involved, especially for the pitches, blurbs, and the different perspectives and contexts.
Also – if you’ve managed to stay with me for this long, you might have noticed that I’ve been deliberately vague about what I was writing about during all of this, so here it is:
It was very much formed by the very initial challenge, when I picked the word “SOCKS” as my title. I ended up writing about a man called Gordon who picks up a sock from his bathroom floor and discovers a small Goblin hanging from it. Gordon then inexplicably shrinks and is introduced to the Goblin, Cahlak, and his world that exists inside the walls of Gordon’s house. Gordon, on a quest to return to his former and larger self, is then pulled into a long standing Goblin war, between the frightened wall-Goblins and the evil Goblin overlord, Aggonoz.
And there you have it. A simple little Christmas story. Did you work on anything special during December and Christmas or did you maybe take some time off? Let me know – and please let me know what you think of the exercises!
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