Writing Etude #1: Having Pieces Left Over In Your Hand

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series For Writers

Since coming back to the saxophone, I’ve discovered what an amazing resource the internet is for a musician who is looking into techniques, looking for ways to improve his or her playing. Within ten minutes of looking around, one finds all kinds of homegrown etudes, studies, all kinds of things one can download, print out, and try in one’s next practice session.

The same isn’t really true for writers. There are a lot of blogs that discuss writing, and even writing techniques. But one hardly finds the net overflowing with etudes of the sort young musicians can grab onto and run through to develop their chops.

One reason is because writers don’t tend to work at their craft that way. Most of them, anyway: the only writer I know who actually does regular etudes is a former sax player, who very clearly and consciously transposed his approach to music to his approach to writing. I listened with interest as he described the writing “etudes” he does, and while those particular “etudes” didn’t look like they’d be useful for me, I thought the idea of doing “etudes” as part of one’s writerly “practice” wasn’t a bad idea at all. Certainly some composers have been known to set themselves compositional problems not intended to lead to actual works of music, but just as problem-solving “etudes” that could help them develop their imaginations, their writerly skills, and so on.

So why not fiction writers? We normally accept and do writing exercises when we are studying with an instructor or mentor, but do we do “etude”-like exercises as part of our constant struggle to become better? My experience and discussions with writers I know suggests that we don’t… which may be why so many of us develop into mature artists so much more slowly than our musician peers: where it’s easy to isolate a difficult technique on a musical instrument and work it till we’ve mastered it, in writing we seem to think it’s not possible, it’s too hard, how would one do that?

Correct me if I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve just talked to the wrong people.

So, I’ve been designing scenarios for RPGs lately, just as a kind of cool-down from drafting a feature script, before I launch into another big project, and I’ve been thinking about the relationship between designing a “playset” for Fiasco and the problems I’m having with a film script I’ve been trying to sketch out in treatment form.

Basically, the new script I’ve been wanting to work on is an unfocused tangle of plot threads, or… well, it might be. I think it can all be made to cohere, but I’m not positive it can, and if it can’t, well… that’s going to be a big pain in the ass. This is why working with a synopsis and a scene-by-scene treatment is so helpful: if you build thhe superstructure first, you can see the problems more clearly and decide what to do without having to go back and do major rewrites.

But this also points to a writing problem I have in the more general sense: that I’ve been trained to believe films can work like novels, when in reality they work much better as novelettes or novellas. And regardless of what I’m writing, I often want to throw in everything including the kitchen sink… that can work in novels, but in fact most good, effective, solid writing tends to depend on a kind of disciplined, options-narrowed approach.

(There’s some overlap with my old way of approaching jazz improvisation, too, so I’d say perhaps some of this is just in my nature.)

When I write, “disciplined, options-narrowed” I’m not necessarily talking in terms of sparseness, mind–I am a big fan of lushness both in worldbuilding and language, and in terms of tone and ornamentation on the sax. I’m talking about focus.

Focus is the thing. That’s what Justin Howe is talking about when he discusses the overarching importance of “control” in writing–as in this bit of explanation:


As long as each word and sentence connects to the next word and sentence and the whole thing makes a pattern where there’s nothing more you can subtract from it. That’s control. Having pieces left in your hand at the end is control.

What’s not control is starting your story with a well-groomed hook and then piling on introspection, backstory, and/or setting details. What’s not control is leaving nothing out, but throwing it all in there and hoping for the best. Lush doesn’t mean overgrown or overwriting a story so thick it collapses under its own weight.

What I long avoided learning on the saxophone, and what I am currently working on in my writing, is learning to have pieces left in my hand at the end.

And that’s what my last attempt to design a playset for Fiasco drove home for me: focus is what makes everything possible, and the bare  bones of the story need to fit with the concept, and the concept needs to be narrow enough to make an interesting set of bare bones able to rattle around just enough for a story to be surprising and yet somehow also to some degree, often unconscious to the reader or viewer, quite logical in its conclusion.

I relearned to choose which pieces to put in, and which to set aside for another day. I relearned that not playing every lick in your mental encyclopedia of scales & chord patterns is important if you want to make something people hear as music.

First, a little bit about the playset I worked on, and then the writing exercise. If some of this goes over your head, you might find it helpful to read this series of posts I made about my first experience with the game. Don’t worry, I’ll wait here for you.

Done? Back? Good.

Okay, so the idea I started out with was to sort of mash up the courtly politics of A Game of Thrones (the TV series, as I haven’t read the books yet) with a setting that felt a little more like Fritz Leiber’s urban setting Lankhmar (or my impression of it from the Deities and Demigods gamebook, since I haven’t yet actually read the Fafhard and Gray Mouser books). I wanted characters that could come from any corner of the city, and could pull of any heist they could dream up. I even wanted a high-fantasy vibe,with magical items, spells, effects, and so on.

Except that I found including stunt dice (which I felt was necessary for the magic) and in fact more than a tiny smidgen of magic in the playset was unbalancing everything terribly, so I removed almost all of the magic, along with the magic table and stunt dice.

It didn’t hurt that I felt I was on the right track reading about others’ experiences with playset design and how adding more magic, telepathy, SF trappings, and otherwise mounting lasers on sharks tended not to work well in the Fiasco system.

Fiasco is, after all, at bottom a story about conflicting motivations and needs between characters who are supposed to be working together, but often end up working for their own benefit, often against one another, often involved in horrible plans that go horribly awry. That is to say, as a Coen Brothersy-type game, its narratives tend not to be centered on crime, but on human motivations and human failings. That’s the joy and the fun of Fiasco: watching (imaginary) people dumber than yourself ask, “What could possibly go wrong?” and then serving them up with as dreadful and amusing an answer to the question as your group collectively can muster.  Magic wasn’t necessary, and at most, maybe one snippet of magic entering into a tale ought to be enough, especially for a group of newbie players: more than that would distract from the focus of the game, the characters.

Still, I clung to the idea that those characters ought to be able to be anyone from courtiers and nobility, to members of a thieves’ guild somewhere in the city, to a group of assassins plotting against the Empire. I had a rather unusual setting–a sort of very-early Renaissance city inexplicably decked out with hot air balloons and some kind of rudimentary subway train, possibly magical, crossing paths with musty secret catacombs under the city streets, and barely-functional naval submarines floating out in the harbor, and yet this city was also still operating a sizeable slave trade and had come under the sway of a distressingly dark cult gaining more and more power within the Empire and the court, and bits and tufts of maybe-magic left tucked away into nooks and crannies in the city walls, as well as and on the outskirts of the city. I wanted it to be possible for players to plan and flub heists all over this magical setting, from The Temple of The Lord of Shadows to the witches’ tower on the edge of town, from the Metallomancers’ Foundry to the Royal Bedchamber.

I tried and I tried to make the playset work with that broad focus, but to no avail: it just refused  to cohere, refused to come together at all… until I finally narrowed my focus very tightly, to just one specific context: the royal court within that setting I’d created, the great Imperial seat known as Greyhaven. After all, the playset already had a great title (“Courting Disaster”) and courtly intrigue in a high-fantasy world seemed like a fun roleplay scenario for a bunch of genre-fiction lovers who mostly are watchers of A Game of Thrones. (And yes, there’s some shameless borrowing from that TV series, just as the series and the books (I’m told) borrow shamelessly from a bunch of other sources.)

Once I narrowed focus to courtly intrigue, things rapidly came together. All the barriers to progress and to coherence just sort of fell away, and I was able to slip in everything I wanted: grim nastiness, heart-achingly human touches, darkly funny globules of story-fuel… and it all just fit perfectly together, each addition setting up another tantalizing narrative path that could be taken without tearing apart everything else. It was like a spiderweb formed before me, in a way…

Spiderwebs don’t include the kitchen sink. They are very, very narrowly focused constructions. Not that we should aspire to quite that amount of simplicity, but… still, there’s a lesson to be learned in the process I went through, I think, about focus and range and how mega-restrictions make microfreedoms possible.

And I figured, if this process was useful to me, it ought to be useful to other people too. Maybe not you: some people seem to grasp this instinctively. I know a lot of musicians who probably err in the opposite direction–keeping things too simple and too structured. I think there must be a little of the kind of audacity that drives people to try to throw their kitchen sinks into their stories: pop songs can work on three chords, but great art requires a little more.

But for those who have the tendency towards that kind of audacious over-the-top throw-it-all-in-ism, the trick is learning to limit yourself in constructive ways, I guess. I need to constantly remind myself of this: to learn, as Justin Howe puts it, to have pieces left in my hand by the end.

So, my fellow writers: I propose an exercise for all interested parties who, like me, are learning to do that. And I’ve even gone to the trouble of doing you up a worksheet and everything!

Download this PDF, read the instructions carefully, follow the links (especially for the free example playsets you can read online) and fill the worksheet out:

Don’t worry if you don’t know anything more about Fiasco than what I wrote in the link above: you will get the idea in part from the process of doing the exercise. (Though I highly recommend the game, it’s not necessary to be an RPG player or fan, or to have played Fiasco, to complete the exercise.)

Please link back to this page if you redistribute the exercise, which I’m releasing under a creative commons license. (But see the caveats in the file itself: Fiasco and the Playset structure are Jason Morningstar’s and I make no claim to ownership of either!) Here’s the license for the exercise document:

Creative Commons License

Gord Sellar’s Fiasco-Based Writing Exercise Etude by Gord Sellar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

And let me know how the exercise goes for you!

By the way, you may notice I titled this post Writing Exercise #1. I can’t make promises about when I’ll do another, but I figure when I run across useful ideas for “etudes” for writers, I will try design an exercise for myself to try… and when I’ve done that, I’ll post it to this series. (And for those who have ideas of their own, feel free to submit: I’ll be happy to post any good, useful submissions I get, with full credit of course.)

Series NavigationEtudes for Writers, #2: A Fine Balance >>

5 thoughts on “Writing Etude #1: Having Pieces Left Over In Your Hand

  1. Thank you! I’m so self-conscious of my writing that I’ve been wanting some way to improve it before I move on to writing anything requiring more investment of time and energy that is, unfortunately, divided. I used to play the flute and violin, and I remember how simple those exercises were… simple not in that they were easy (because they definitely weren’t) but they made it completely evident even to a beginner’s ear how much work you had to do, and how much you needed to improve.

    So I’ve been wishing for some way of applying the same principle to writing. I mean, it’s always good to have people who will, more or less nicely, tear down your writing for you, but I’m afraid not everyone always has the luxury of a beta reader.

    Like you, I have problems with trying not to throw stuff in just because it’s so cool, or because I have the perfect line I want to show off, or because I want to leave nothing unsaid… a good friend and one of my former co-bloggers once said (and I paraphrase) that writers should never be rock stars, because writing should never be about the writer, it should be about the reader. And once I realized that the kitchen-sink approach I was taking was more about showing off than communicating a clear message to the reader, I think I improved a lot.

    1. Yeah, I’ve really been thinking a lot about the usefulness of simple exercises for developing a skill or ability… as I hack my way through saxophone exercises. (Stuff you flautists do more naturally, like using your throat to play higher notes, we saxophonists have to learn consciously.)

      In the end, you get better an writing generally by doing it, just like you get better at music by playing. But exercises seem like a good idea. And I hope you know I’d be happy to look at your writing, just email it to me, and be patient. (My dance card is kinda full too, these days, somehow.)

      And yeah, writers and rock stars… hm. Yes, except that of course in genre fiction, you get to the point where the ideas need to rock so hard, to be so mind-blowing and big that you need a kind of rock-star audacity to pull them off. But the rockstarness should be on the page,and focused… control.

      And of course, the most prominent writers in SF are all in some sense rockstars online: they consciously cultivate personae and use them to brand themselves and their product. It’s a weird game I’m watching carefully, but not really playing myself here on the blog.

      EDIT: Oh, and let me know how the exercise goes for you, when you try it… I’m curious whether it’s as useful for others as it is for me…

      1. I certainly will! I just took a detailed look at this scenario after downloading it a while ago and it seems exactly what I needed for my story-in-progress. Thank you!

      2. I am currently working on the exercise, and I will send it to you later (would post it here directly if I could and you are certainly welcome to share it), but to give a rundown on what the exercise is doing for me, it is actually helping me in a very different way than it did you, namely that it is helping me to flesh out a too-meagre storyline.
        It is helping me:
        1. fill in weak spots and blanks I didn’t think of
        2. explore all possibilities inherent even in a circumscribed setting
        3. flesh out the setting by decentralizing the viewpoint and thus possibly preventing the skewing of the narration towards the narrative of the single victim (in a war, possibly everyone is a victim)
        4. find the crucial plot point that eluded me before and, once I thought of it, allowed me to advance my writer’s block.

        1. Anne,

          Yeah, those are some of the benefits I’ve found in the exercise. It’s funny how much of a story these kinds of things generate: an object becomes a motivation, or gives a character a place to be, or a need manifests as a relationship, or whatever. (Watching this all sort of materialize during a game of Fiasco itself is pretty friggin’ amazing, really: the game is a kind of perfectly-built engine for its particular kind of story.)

          Also, just thinking about a range of conflicting motivations and things for characters to clash over. I tend towards idealistic protagonists myself–especially those engaged in some kind of Quixotic crusade against a system… one they even occasionally succeed in. When it’s not that, it’s usually still some kind of naive, idealistic type who goes too far, like some of Lovecraft’s protagonists, or someone who gets sucked along by some kind of obsession that goes out of control. I figure a bigger range of protagonists, or antagonists for that matter, can’t hurt.

          Would be happy to see your completed exercise when you’re done…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *