The Exercise Book


If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.

– Leonard Cohen


Show, don’t tell. Write what you know. Do this, do that. Actually, despite its name, this book is not a manual. It doesn’t offer a step-by-step training programme that will turn you into a novelist or screenwriter or poet. Some of the ideas here are contradictory. Some of them look pretty silly. But if writing well is the thing that matters to you, then The Exercise Book should give your imagination a good work-out.

Can creative writing be taught? Well, there are any number of books that offer to teach you how to write – more or less by numbers. If short story writing is your thing, then there is probably some value in learning how to build character and setting, get the right balance between scene and summary, understand how point of view and psychic distance can be managed. Knowledge of the craft is useful, especially if it’s gained by reading great examples of it. But as Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest short story writers, once said, ‘Discussing story-writing in terms of plot, character, and theme is like trying to describe the expression on a face by saying where the eyes, nose, and mouth are.’ In other words, something more mysterious – odd, unusual, singular – is going on when good writing happens.

Sometimes the imagination yearns for exceptions to the rule.

As for a local example of pedantic advice that was probably never worth much and certainly doesn’t last the distance, here is the New Zealand short story writer George Joseph in 1958, in his book How to Write and Sell Short Stories:

Characters to Avoid:

a) Those with impediments of speech.

b) Those with ugly physical infirmities.

c) Idiots or those mentally afflicted.

There are exceptions to this of course, but for the beginner, the rule should be, avoid these types of people.

Bad luck John Steinbeck, Janet Frame, William Faulkner. You should have stuck to the rules.


To bring this book together, we wrote off to lots of people we knew – good friends and colleagues – and asked them to send us their exercise ideas. Lots of great things came back. We thought about them for rather a long time, then sorted them under a range of different headings.

Probably most of the exercises are trigger ideas, but those in Section 1, Starting the Engine, are especially concerned with the sometimes hard work of getting a piece of writing underway. Some but certainly not all of the suggestions have to do with writer’s block. If it’s lack of that grander thing, inspiration, that has driven you to pick up The Exercise Book, then the best we can do is repeat Tchaikovsky’s advice, as regularly shared by Ken Duncum with his scriptwriting students: ‘Every morning at nine o’clock I sit down and await my muse. If she hasn’t shown up by five past, I start without her.’

The Exercise Book is due in all good book stores from December 9th, just in time for Christmas.


One thought on “The Exercise Book

  1. Pingback: Starting back | modernlettuce

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