Here is an idea which may be useful to you, especially if you teach. For some of you it will seem a chore not worth bothering about but here it is anyway. It’s something I got into the habit of doing over a number of years and, though it may look like hard work, when you collect a bit here and a bit there, it grows fairly effortlessly. The photo shows my four Fiction index boxes, three of them labelled alphabetically and the fourth entitled ‘Recommended Reading’.
Inside the boxes are a batch of index cards and on each card is a writing exercise that I have considered potentially useful. I photocopied (or typed out and printed) each of these, cut them to fit the card, glued them on and arranged them under what I considered to be the appropriate letter of the alphabet. A card with an exercise for dialogue would be filed under ‘D’ for ‘Dialogue’. ‘Descriptions’ or ‘Dreams’, or anything else useful beginning with ‘D’, would also be filed in the same section. Longer exercises continue onto the back of the card, where I also made a note of the source of the exercise.
In the top right hand corner of each card I noted the subject area area under which I filed them. So, for example when I found an exercise that called for dialogue, ‘Dialogue’ would be written in the top right hand corner. It was written in pencil so that if I later decided it might fit better under another letter, say ‘S’ for ‘Scene’, it would be easy to alter it. In this case this remains a ‘Dialogue’ card filed under ‘D’. This practice allowed me to keep all the Dialogue cards and all Description cards and so on, together in the same section and made it easy to flick through them without having to read the exercise. Some have other guide words added in brackets. For example three Character cards, filed under C, read Character (Flaw). Character (Change at Crises) and Character (Motivation).
When I started out I subscribed to several writing magazines so I collected a number of exercises from those. Others have come from books, been found online, acquired at workshops or have been passed on by friends.
As time went by, I built up a range of exercises which would allow me to banish any period of writers block, practise particular techniques, kick start a writing day, use in writing classes or, as luck would have it, to suggest in a blog.
For a while I used a fourth box which I labelled ‘Recommended Reading’. Here I recorded what I wanted to read with some notes about it, such as why this was considered essential reading, or why I felt drawn to it. I keep the box, because there are still books listed in there that I haven’t read, though I rarely open it any more. It was useful when I was young and at college but not so much now that I read more of what I like and less of what I feel I ought to. And because it’s so easy to create wish lists on booksellers’ sites online these days.
Before I started my Recommended Reading box I used to record what I read in a small address book, listing each book alphabetically under it’s author’s name and then adding the date I finished reading it. In some cases I put just the year, in others the month and the year. It amused me, years later, to find books I had no recollection of reading, or to see that I had read several books by one author over a month or two and then not again for a decade. I can’t say this idea has served me in any useful way as a reader or writer (especially as I would often forget to record books in it) but it has provided an interesting overview of reading habits over time.
I also have two, much larger, poetry boxes for poetry exercises. These boxes are a mix of poetry exercises filed on cards in much the same way as my Fiction boxes, with exercises and a wish list of poetry collections, but also include a section for ideas.
The Oxford English Reference Dictionary gives this definition of serendipity: “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” A dip into any one of my Fiction or Poetry boxes makes this possible. Many of my stories and poems have sprung from an exercise. If you like writing exercises and find them useful, why not start a Serendipity Box of your own?
NB: I have altered my name to Lesley J Jackson in the header of this blog and on my Pinterest and Facebook sites, incorporating my middle name to help distinguish me from another writer named Lesley Jackson and to stop one being confused for the other.