Writing Workouts

Writers Vic tutors and guest writers share some of their tips, tricks and writing exercises for exploring and developing your fiction, non-fiction and more...

Painting of a blonde woman

Meg Mundell shares this exercise in eavesdropping in the lead-up to her Novel in a Year workshop on Dialogue.

Meg wrote ‘Things I Did for Money’ and ‘Black Glass’. She has written for The Age, The Monthly, Best Australian Stories, Meanjin, Sleepers Almanac, Financial Review and The Australian, and worked as a lecturer, copywriter and ventriloquist’s assistant.

Photo of Foong Ling Kong

The hardest-working words in a book appear not between its covers but on the back (and often the front) cover.

This is an exercise about thinking through how writers and publishers reach out to readers. Go to the biography/memoir section of a bookshop and look at the range of titles, keeping in the back of your mind where your memoir-to-be may sit. Do this online if you can’t get to a bricks-and-mortar bookshop.

Picture of Demet Divaroren

“Writing is the painting of the voice.” – Voltaire

Come, my friend. I give this exercise to you.

Hey, mate, want to try a writing exercise?

Want to give a writing exercise a go?

A portrait of Lucy Treloar

Several years ago I came across the work of the great American screenwriter, David Milch. He’s probably better known for his work on NYPD Blue, but it was his extraordinary series Deadwood (2004–2006) that caught my attention. Set in the gold rush town of Deadwood, South Dakota – a cesspool of crime and corruption – and peopled by a rich cast of characters, its grand themes are the forces that people are subject to and the ways that people build societies despite these. It’s the town’s inhabitants that I watch it for, and for the dialogue that so perfectly reveals each of them.

A portrait of Kate Holden

When I was at university a hundred years ago, I had two brilliant teachers, Robin Grove and Mary Dove, who ran a class about the idea of desire. During the semester we read various Western texts about desire: the Song of Solomon, Clarissa, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen… I forget the others. It was a wonderful class though, and particularly because Mary and Robin were versatile, imaginative scholars and they had us do some interesting exercises.

A portrait of Maxine Beneba Clarke

Think briefly about an emotional event in your life: how it felt at the time, where you were geographically, who else was in the vicinity, what sounds you recall. If you’re able, write three short paragraphs about the incident in first person.

Photo of Angela Savage

Here’s an exercise I developed after I’d written a scene in which there was simply too much interior monologue and not enough action. You’ll need a notebook and pen (or recording device) and a camera. This exercise assumes your character is facing a conflict of some kind as, let’s face it, without conflict, you haven’t got much of a story.

A portrait of Andrew Nette

Whether your novel is utilising a traditional three act structure (set up, conflict, resolution), a variant of this or something much more experimental, it has to have a structure, an internal architecture, which determines its overall shape.

A portrait of Kate Richards

In memoir we don’t have to create our “characters” from scratch, they are living or have lived in all their complexity and vulnerability and with all their mannerisms and habits and ways of being in relationship with others. So in one sense we have an easier job than fiction writers. However, our challenge in another sense is exactly the same as that for writers of fiction: to bring these people, these “characters”, to life on the page so that readers come to care about them. James Wood, staff writer at The New Yorker calls it, “getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilised...

A portrait of Max Barry

This is a ten minute exercise. By then, you won’t want to stop, so really it’s longer. But I’m saying ten minutes because that’s all you need to discover it’s working. Because if you give this ten minutes, you get one of the best characters you’ve ever written.