Jealousing Is the New Writing Exercise

by Liz Argall

lizWhen I get professionally jealous it’s often an exciting thing. “Wow! I never thought of doing that. That’s amazing!” But excitement can turn into sad feelings… “I don’t know if I’ll ever be awesome, eloquent and organized enough to use a moment in front of doorknockers to do the sort of tight exposition, character development and micro-tension that’s now sucking me through this book.”

Fortunately these moments of wonder/jealousy/despair are perfect places to find a writing exercise. I’m going to try to do this exercise more often. I think it will make me think about language more, find unexpected angles and, most importantly, keep me playing. I think I’ve encountered this exercise in a few places, but Bruce Holland Rogers teaching an online Odyssey class really made it stick in my head.

The Exercise

Step 1: Stumble across or remember a bit of writing/opening pages where you thought “Damn, I wish I’d written that.”

Step 2: Set timer for 5 minutes. Starting at page 1/beginning of chapter/scene, type up a copy of those words.

Step 3: Set timer for 15 minutes. Looking at the words you just typed, focusing in at the sentence level structure write fresh sentences, but alter the meaning (or better yet, reverse it).

My example:

Step 1: Read Ironskin by Tina Connolly. Feel a twinge of jealousy, but move on to pride, happiness, admiration and longing.

Step 2: Set timer to 5 minutes and type like the wind!… There may be typos.

Ironskin, Chapter 1/ A House Cracked and Torn, by Tina Connolly

The moor was grey, battlefield grey. It had been five years since the last fey was seen, but out here Jane could almost imagine the Great War still raged on. Grey mist drifted through the blackened trees, recalling the smoke from the crematory kilns. That was a constant smell in the last months of the war.

Jane smoothed her old pea coat, shook the nerves and fatigue from her gloved hands. She’d been up since dawn, rattling through the frostbitten February morning on smoky iron train and lurching motorcar, until now she stood alone on the moor, looking up at an ink black manor house that disappeared into the grey sky.

The manor had been darkly beautiful once, full of odd minarets, fanciful gargoyles, and carved birds and beast.
A chill ran down her spine as she studied the design of the house. You didn’t have to be an architecture student to recognized who had drawn up the plans for it. It was clear in the imprint of every tower and flying buttress, clear in the intricate blue glass windows, clear in the way the gargoyles seemed to ready their wings to swoop down on you.

The fey had designed this.

The frothy structures were still perfect on the south end of the building, on the carriage house. On the north the house had war damage. It had been bombed, and now only the skeleton remained, the scraggly back structure sharp and jagged, mocking its former grace and charm.

Just like me, Jane thought, Just like me.

The iron mask on her face was cold in the chill air. She wrapped her veil more tightly around her face, tucked the ends into the ends into the worn wool coat. Helen’s best, but her sister would have better soon enough.

*beep* *beep* *beep*  finish the sentence I’m typing and reset the timer.

Step 3: I thought about writing something with a fresh concept, but I’ve also been wanting to rework my novel, make it juicier, more emotionally vivid. Doing this kind of exercise to look at something I’ve “finished” is a first for me.  I took Tina’s alternative history Bronte post World War with the Fey and reversed many things to make a near future first contact science fiction.

New Scent of Memory fragment
 by Liz Argall

The mountains reached for the sky, chasing the stars. It had been six months, she prided herself on no longer knowing the number of days, since Ambassador Hodge had been abducted by angry teens with AK47s, but when she looked at East Island she could not help but wonder what secrets its jagged hills hid. The chopper tilted and lurched, her body froze as it remembered her evacuation, stumbling down the mountain, whisked up and away to a debriefing that exchanged numbness for terror and blame. The pilot smoked apple scented cigarettes, she tried not to hate him for the sharp reminder.

Kristen pressed the headset against her ear, reassured by its muffling presence.

*beep* *beep* 15 mins already? But I want to keep writing. I love how the landscape and senses are doing more work. I like the way Kristen’s PTSD is influencing description and the opening line evokes astronomy and promises the stars. Reset the timer, I’ll keep going!

I’ve been trying to find other ways into my text and make it resonant. I’m pleased with the different angle and the words I never would have found if I hadn’t be joyfully jealous… although perhaps jealousy isn’t really the right word.

Pangfully admiring? Yes I like that, a hunger pang to be a better writer, a bit painful, quite delicious, and a call to action. I took what made me hungry and ate it! Nom nom nom.

•••

Liz’s short stories and comics can be found in places like Strange Horizons, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, The Girls Guide to Guy Stuff, and This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death (forthcoming). She creates the webcomic Things Without Arms and Without Legs and writes love songs to cabbages.

Her previous incarnations include circus manager, refuge worker, artists’ model, research officer for the Order of Australia Awards, and extensive work in the not-for-profit sector. As Betsy Nails she is a Non Skating Official with the Rat City Roller Girls.
This post first appeared on her website.

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