Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

A marathon runner doesn’t merely put on her shoes and run 26 miles… a marathon runner takes time to warm up — she does “stretches” and probably scoffs a banana and sips water before she sets out on her endurance event. She checks her laces are tight and that she has all her gear with her… she tells her family where she is going (if she’s on a training run) and tells them when she’s due back… and when she’s sure she’s ready to go, she starts at a gentle pace to be sure all her joints & tendons are relaxed and painless. It takes a mile or two before she gets “into her stride.”

And it’s the same for you, as a writer. If you are venturing into novel writing, aiming for at least 50,000 words, maybe writing 2,000 words a day, it’s best to do your stretches before you head into the long endurance event… it’s best to start at a gentle pace, so you’re sure all your “joints and tendons” are relaxed before you get into a stride. And while all this sounds metaphorical — because it is 😊 — don’t forget that writing (and it’s brainier sister ideation) are both profoundly grueling & exhausting and they’re also truly physical activities — and so you’ll feel totally depleted after a long writing “session.” 

So here are a few warm up exercises to energize your uphill slog:

1: strengthen your flexors

Easy one this: there are 170,000 words in the English language: a high school student will recognize (and explain the meaning of) between 10,000 and 12,000 words. This increases to around 17,000 as a college student and around 20,000 as a senior. It means we use just a tiny portion of all available words.  As a writer, you owe it to yourself and your audience to be a logophile. And to always be on the lookout for new and clever ways to explain yourself. Plus, the new words you use don’t even have to be sesquipedalian! Some very simple (and useful) words may be small but mysterious. To help me learn new words, some mornings I use:

Or perhaps (for a change, because change is good) I use:

Hint: To maximize retention of the new word you’ve discovered, be sure to say it out loud several times and try to find a sentence in which it can be used

2: prepare your propulsive cadences

Long-distance writing (like long-distance running) is about finding a rhythm. Some call it “getting into the groove.”  So, here’s an easy way to prepare your syncopation.  Have you already prepared a mix-tape of your favorite dynamical sounds?  (If not, then I eagerly suggest you do that right away) but let’s say you have a playlist on Spotify or elsewhere … select one of your “get up and go” songs (from the various sounds on your mix) and type in the song title and perhaps artist search for the lyrics. So, for example, if you enjoy “Get Up and Go” by the Go-Gos in the morning (and why not?) go find the lyrics and you’ll perhaps choose two lines that “mean” something to you right away. So, after I just searched for the Go-Gos song I  saw this:

 “the words you say don’t mean a thing/ They fly right by my eyes

It’s a line of eight beats, followed by six beats

Now I will try to “think up” two comparable lines of my own, one with 8 beats and the other with 6, perhaps taking the idea of “flying words” a little bit further than the Go Go’s did… so here goes my attempt:

the voice within my head buzzes / bites me like a sawfly…” 

Of course, I try to generate strong emotions in my little rhyme (I didn’t just write gobbledygook) and maybe I hinted at conflict (the bite and the buzz) — but let’s remember that this is just a “stretching exercise.” It took me about 10 minutes to do, by the way and I ought to say that if it goes on any longer, it won’t be an exercise… it will be a full-blown session. I must also tell you that it may take a little longer to set up the exercise the first time you do it, but once you start using it regularly, it will be easy (and fun) and may will produce some fancy lines to share on your socials

(with thanks to songwriters: Charlotte Caffey / Jane Wiedlin for the little snippet above)

3: stretch your improvisational hamstrings

Improvisation is a key skill for a writer. How does your spontaneity feel today? Some days my spontaneity feels flat. Other days my spontaneity feels bright. How do you fire-up your originative processes on flat days? Well, the best thing you can do is take your brain away from words & writing for at least ten minutes (no more than twenty).

Sometimes I do real physical stretches on my yoga mat, or I do ten minutes on my rowing machine (cardio is good for flexing a tired brain.) Try a treadmill or an exercise bike if you have one. I often take time to fix a hot drink (I make coffee the “old way” by grinding beans and putting a pot on the stove…) I only do it the lengthy way because it requires mental effort and tests my senses and coordination. Or I make a pot of tea (using leaves and a proper teapot).

I might tidy up a bit of art I had been working on the previous evening, but whatever I do, I do it for ten minutes, and they are ten minutes that are away from keyboards, screens, words and writing.

Interestingly, and I suppose this is a bit counter-intuitive, I have found that the more “routine” I make this ten-minute “wordless creative blip” — the more it helps my synapses to be yielding & amenable, flexible and compliant. I think it’s because making coffee or spending time on the yoga mat helps me focus on smelling, touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, and coordinating with parts of my body I won’t use while I’m writing (that is, I’ll be in contact with all my senses) — which, of course, will help me write more meaningfully and more imaginatively once the working day starts.

Just one last thought: “It always seems impossible until it’s done…” Nelson Mandela

Got your own stretches? Tweet @neilmach

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

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