Create Your Own Writing Exercise

In those hazy moments between heavy sleep and clear wakefulness, on a morning when I woke without an alarm in a room at once unfamiliar and like every other hotel room I’ve ever slept in, the sentence uttered itself in my mind as sharply as early sunlight through a window:

Dan Foylton is flat.

Where did that come from? As soon as I heard itโ€“and I definitely heard it rather than thought itโ€“I knew the name was spelled Foylton, not Foilton or Foilten. I don’t think I’d ever heard or seen the name before.

New writers often wonder how to begin, how to train themselves, and the answer is simpler than one might think. Author Laura McHale Holland reminds us in Tips for a New Writer that, as with all worthwhile activities, writing grows from practice. Daily practice. The kind of practice that is throw-away, for-our-eyes-only practice, like piano scales repeated in variations or free throws made and missed, over and over, far removed from performance or applause:

“1. Write, write, write every day. It doesnโ€™t matter so much how many words you produce or how much time you devote at first. Consistency is what counts. And give yourself permission to write whatever you want in whatever form you want. You will learn by doing.” Read More

What should you write, especially if you don’t have a larger work in progress at the moment? While many books about writing offer excellent suggestions for daily writing practice, writing exercises can be as simple as taking a phrase that comes to you with the morning sun and using it as the beginning of a story:

“Dan Foylton is flat.”

Rehearsal was already running an hour late. Everyone’s eyes but Dan’s and the choir director’s remained fixed on his individual score. The director stared at Dan. Dan slowly looked up from his tenor notes and stared back.

“Dan Foylton quits,” he said calmly.


Dan Foylton is flattered to accept Miss Katie Nelson’s invitation.

She was pleased with her script. As soon as the ink was dry enough not to smudge, she folded the page so that the corners matched perfectly, and used her just manicured fingers to press the crease smooth.

Dan would be upset with her at first, but this was for his own good. In time, he’d understand and not only forgive her, but thank her.


Dan Foylton is flat broke. Busted. Poor. Pinched. Wiped out. Divested. Yes, he prefers divested. Much more dignified. I’m sorry I can’t join you for lunch today. I’m divested.

How did this happen? Last year at this time he was full of promise, with a new job and new car and a new suit that cost more than his entire college wardrobe, a new girlfriend and new hopes for his future. A new Dan. And then it all started again.

You might later expand what you’ve written into a complete piece, or you might throw it away. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the practice, the work, even if for only ten or fifteen minutes.

The only question that remains is who in the world is Dan Foylton??

12 thoughts on “Create Your Own Writing Exercise

  1. I love what you did in this post, showing a reader how you can develop an idea from a sentence that comes to mind. And I like the way you worked in my Tips for a New Writer post. It gives readers something to chew onโ€”if they want a bit more.

  2. Thank you for this post. I’m someone who knows she should be practicing writing more but keeps coming up with “I don’t know what to write about” excuses, so it’s very useful to be reminded it actually takes very little effort to begin a writing exercise. And that it doesn’t have to be any good.

    • I’m glad the post was helpful! The most important thing is the “not having to be any good” part. I think that perfectionism keeps a lot of good writing from ever being written. Later this week I’ll write about Anne Lamott’s concept of the sh*tty first draft. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. A similar thing happened to me Friday morning. The name “Rylan” was in my thoughts when I woke up, and a vague idea of what she looked like was also there. I wrote the name, and the other fragments, down in the journal that I keep on my nightstand. I don’t know anyone by that name, and I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it in print.

    Anyway, your post made me shiver a little at the coincidence. I’ve only been reading your blog for a week.

    • Ooooh, your words gave me a shiver, too! I love those kinds of coincidences. And where do those names/phrases/sentences come from, anyway? Thanks so much for sharing your similar experience. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Michi, thank you so much. Your blog is really FUN! Such a good combination of text and images (and I just re-read part of Speak, Memory, too!) ๐Ÿ˜€

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