For many writers, conceiving an idea for a story comes easily. We find inspiration in a variety of people, places, and things. A news item might encourage us to expand upon one facet of life and embark on a different tangent, while some of us may wake up from a vivid dream awed by imagery and action that must be recorded. However you find an idea for a great book, it’s important to see the project through to “The End.”

Of course, actually sitting down and writing the book can prove challenging, particularly if you consider yourself a slow starter. If you find that you tend to hit a block before you have written the first sentence, why not try a few writing exercises to help loosen your creativity and encourage a better flow of words to paper (or computer)? It is not uncommon for writers to engage in a bit of mental word play before getting to the meat of a story. Here are five such exercises I have tried myself that may help you.

1) Create a family tree for your character. It is not uncommon for writers to construct outlines or profiles of their main characters before getting into a story. They do prove helpful down the road when you edit the work and need to check for consistencies in eye and hair color, and other characteristics. Taking the time to create a deeper family history, however, may prove useful in allowing you to write better for your character. Even if the “relatives” you name in your protagonist’s family tree never appear in the book, you may just inspire influences and traits your character takes into the story, which in turns makes the people third-dimensional.

2) Create a back story for an object that will appear in your story. At times we may fixate on specific things due to sentimentality – a favorite toy, an heirloom, even a bottle of wine. Think of one thing included in your story and expand a bit on its “history” – where did your character find it? Was it given to him by somebody he greatly admired, or did he find it lying on the side of the road? Is there a specific reason he always carries it in his pocket, or keeps it locked away so nobody else can find it? One can shape a person by the objects they own and enjoy – use this exercise to give your characters some depth.

3) Write a page consisting only of dialogue. If you especially find creating natural dialogue a challenge, this exercise can help you hone that skill. Just think of a topic and begin the conversation. Save what you have written and you might use some of the talk in your story.

4) Take a trip to a favorite restaurant or coffee shop and write about what you observe while you are there. As you write your story you are charged to present readers with detailed settings, so this exercise will help you pay attention to your surroundings and craft a vivid sense of place.

5) One way to encourage stream of conscious skills is to take to your pen and paper, or your keyboard, and simply write about something that frustrates. What frosts your cookies so much that you have to vent? Use the opportunity to let yourself go and write what comes to mind. You may be able to steer the rant into a workable direction and use some of the prose in your story. If not, think of the exercise as a way of purging the demons causing writer’s block.

The most important thing to know about writing exercises is that they are designed to help you write. When you find you can’t finish a sentence, try something to get the ink flowing again, and watch your word count explode.

Kathryn Lively