Bringing the Writing Workshop to You: Creativity Exercises for the Stuck-At-Home Writer

Last summer, two other authors and I held a Lil’ Haints Creative Writing Workshop at the bookstore tailored to young authors from nine to fourteen. It was absolutely amazing to see the kids’ eyes light up as they told us about the stories they were working on. The students inspired us just as much as we inspired them, I think.

As I was casting around for ideas on how I could use my talents in this uncertain, coronavirus time to help others, I wondered, could putting my Lil’ Haints workshopping lessons online help encourage and entertain young authors at home?

What follows is the workshop I gave on “Brainstorms & Origin Stories” redesigned for this format:

Today’s workshop is about how to be a creative person—whether you write, draw, or underwater basket weave as my middle school teacher used to say. Being creative is about keeping yourself open to possibilities. It’s about observing the world around you and putting things together in weird, varied, unusual ways and making it work. Allowing other people to see the world the way you do. Or seeing the world the way you wish it would be. Sharing your experiences in ways that makes someone else sit up and say “hey! I feel the same way”. Or “I think the same way too”.

Being creative is all about connecting.

So first off, we’ll talk about origin stories, then how we can brainstorm our own—whether we want to create a poem, flash fan fiction, or a sketch.

Who all is into superheroes? We know their origin stories, right? How they came to be—climbing walls like a spider or flying faster than a speeding bullet. Books have origin stories too—how they start with a tiny spark of imagination, then grow into something amazing like a book that has its own life. I have three to talk about today: Marcie Colleen’s PENGUINAUT! that started with a Facebook post; Heather Montgomery’s SOMETHING ROTTEN that began as a question; and my picture book that’s coming out later this year, SASSAFRAS AND HER TEENY TINY TAIL, which grew from an observation.

An interview with author Marcie Colleen on how she came up with the idea for her picture book, PENGUINAUT! (I used picture books as some of the examples even though these workshops are geared for middle grade because I’m able to read the entire text in one workshop, and because I believe no one is too old for a picture book )

Nonfiction Alabama author Heather Montgomery was a keynote speaker at Metro-Mobile Literacy Council’s Young Authors Conference and told us her story about finding a dead rattlesnake on the side of the road. She was curious as to how the fangs retracted and that fascination took her all over the US and even the other side of the world to study roadkill. For interviews, visit her site.

And here’s the link to my book’s origin story.

1.To get the creativity flowing we passed around story cubes, which you can also do at home—make it a fun family activity! As a group, we chose a genre (horror!) and made connections to get the imagination jump-started. Other genres to choose from can be fantasy, science fiction, mystery/thriller, or romance.

You can make your own with a cereal box and magazines. Divide the cereal box into six squares, cut out and tape to make a cube. Select various pictures from the magazine, cut and tape to the outside of your cube. Voila!

2. We talked about how creativity allows you to share the way you see the world. In the next exercise, you’ll pick an item at home and give it a voice.

In the workshop, I picked Mardi Gras beads because they’re everywhere in my house. I imagined them hanging from a live oak along a parade route. Around a kid’s neck. Then, a fate I’m sure beads would rather avoid if they could think or had feelings—abandoned in a dirty puddle of mud and trash. And those three images helped me brainstorm an excerpt from a middle grade story I wrote. [I read it during the workshop but as the manuscript is now on submission, I can’t copy it here. Sorry!]

Choose an item around your house. Brainstorm diverse and unusual ways to associate with your item and write those down. How can you make connections and weave a story around it? What story does the item want or need to tell?

In whatever you do, even stuck at home, be a person open to creativity and inspiration. Observe the natural world around you—maybe a squirrel with a sad short tail becomes a book on how our differences make us heroes. Take note of the weird and awesome things your family does. Write down how the coronavirus pandemic has changed your world—you’re a part of history now.

The Writer’s Room at the mezzanine level of the Haunted Bookshop has a whole shelf dedicated to young authors. Angela is offering No Contact curbside pickup, select neighborhood porch drop-offs, and free, local shipping if your writer needs more ideas on creativity or to add to their how-to library while they’re out of school and at home.

Stay home. Read a book. Be creative. And wash those hands.

Reading on the Cheap

From the comfy reading spot!

Book nerd Alex here. Looking for something to read? Or maybe you want something different? Here’s some some resources to get you through these hard times, legally available for free!

The Mobile County Public Library allows you to check out e-books and audiobooks, among others. Find out more here at their page:

Project Gutenberg is an online library dedicated to putting classics and out-of-copyright works for free online. Maybe get around to reading some improving literature you’ve wanted to, or maybe you’ll go for classic pulp magazine stories. Whatever floats your boat, we don’t judge. Their catalog is here: but they also have a list of their Top 100 if that’ll help you get started

Similarly, Wikisource puts up public-domain writings, but maybe you like how it looks better. Their main page is here and check out their Literature portal here if you’re itching for some fiction:

Now that some broad resources are out of the way, here’s some more specific favorites of mine.

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has a PDF of his novel Warbreaker on his website.…/… Politics and intrigue abound in a court of the gods:…/Warbreaker_hardcover_1st…

Fantasy author Ursula Vernon serialized a novel called Summer in Orcus, it’s available on her website. A very poignant story about a girl helping to fix a poisoned world.

Ursula Vernon also wrote and illustrated a webcomic called Digger, which won her her first Hugo award. Highly recommended as a good read.

Another excellent, and still ongoing webcomic, is Girl Genius Online. In an alternate history where mad scientists–and their egos–can break the laws of physics, a young woman finds out her heritage.…

If you prefer to listen to your entertainment, I haven’t forgotten you. Try out the Magnus Archives, a horror anthology podcast about an organization in London that studies the paranormal. The first three seasons (forty episodes each) are available on YouTube, and there’s more on the various podcast apps, look it up.…

Do you have any recommendations? Post yours in the comments below, let’s try to put each other on the good stuff!