Start with what you know: An Exercise for Writers...

You've heard it. I've heard it, we've all heard it.

Write what you know.

What do you think? Here's my take...

There are many ways to get creative and inspired and begin writing the next Great Canadian Novel, but what about if you're struggling or you haven't found that "style" yet?

Let me tell you a story and then I'll give you a relevant exercise...

I was in Grade 12 and had one of the most fantastic English teachers in the world. It was simple...

  • Write a short story with a tragic ending.

Sounds simple, right?

Well, I thought it was... But, for three writing exercises before hand I was pumped, I was going to be a fantasy  writer and create the best dragon myths of all time. My teacher would be so proud he had taught me everything I knew...

Then I got those papers back. All of them were B's.

Yeah, B is good. But I was used to A's and A+'s...remember those? You can only get A+'s in high school folks. So when all of them bombed, I did too.

I stared at the paper and worried, I thought that it was the most horrible thing that I would finally be able to write a tragedy but I couldn't even think of a story idea for it.

I finally started with what I knew: did I experience a tragedy?


Did I think it was worth writing?

I wasn't sure...

So I started writing.

I wrote a story about a girl I knew who had committed suicide. She had called me only minuted before and talked to me. I knew something wasn't right, so I went to her home which was three blocks away at the time.

When I arrived, she had already overdosed on a drug she bought in a copious quantity and then I called the cops. I cried for her then, and I cried as I wrote the story.

I handed the paper in.

Three days later they were returned to us. I got an A.

I asked my teacher later why I got an A. I haven't changed that much, is it because you don't like fantasy?

He just answered my question with one of his own, he said "This story, is it true?"

I nodded.

He just nodded back and said, "I can tell. Stick with what you know for now and then build on it. Eventually you can use the things you know in the Fantasy stuff and it will work just as well."

Those words have stuck with me ever since.


The following is an exercise to help you develop your style.

A. Find an objective reader who doesn't prefer any specific genre but who doesn't mind reading or editing your work.

B. Write two stories following the following guidelines:

    1. Story one: A story that is in the genre and style that you want to eventually write in. Make it a short story about a discovery of any sort. It must be entirely original.
    2. Story two: A short story based on an event of emotional relevance to you. Whether sad, joyous, or terrifying the importance is that there is a plot with some form of resolution at the end. 
    3. Write them on different days. Put at least three days between them.
C. Once both are complete and edited to your satisfaction, have a friend read them both. Ask her/him the following questions:

  1. Which is better (read: not your favourite, but better) stylistically, grammatically and which has the better voice?
  2. What about the better one makes it better?
  3. Seeing how I write, what do you think I need to work on most?
Taking this into account. Tackle the first story with that person's recommendations and then submit two weeks later. The dates are important... stick to two weeks.

Find out if your reviewer thinks it is better.

She or he will most likely say yes...

Post the results here or email me...

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