Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < For Writers <


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April 1 "More-Organic-Than-Thou & etc"
Triple, quadruple and quintuple-decker adjectives can be fun! For example:
~ easy-to-hose-down tile
~ ladies-who-lunch hairdos
~ A run-to-catch-the-school-bus outfit
~ A disguise-the dog-hair-oatmeal-brown sofa
~ more-organic-than-thou shampoo
Make up some to go with the following nouns:
Car; Bike; university; petunias; pizza; book; scarf; shoes; yoghurt; watch;
backpack; bathrobe; purse; kitchen gizmo; dog; sofa; cell phone; notebook;
guinea pig; summer vacation; hotdog

April 2 "Heaven and Sky"
John McGahern, the Irish writer, recently died. In yesterday's Washington Post there was an interesting obituary written by Matt Shudel, which ends thus:
"Mr. McGahern composed his final book, the memoir evoking the spirit of his long-dead mother, after receiving his own cancer diagnosis. 'Heaven was in the sky,' he wrote in the book. 'My mother spoke to me of heaven as concretely and with as much love as she named the wild flowers. Above us the sun of heaven shone. Beyond the sun was the gate of heaven.'"
This is so marvelous, I scarely dare to comment -- but here goes. What gives this passage such power is the drum-beat of repetition. Heaven is repeated four times; sun twice. Also, the structure and length of the last two sentences are almost identical.
Try writing a brief passage of 4-5 sentences using repetition.

April 3 "George's Movie Plot"
Plot a movie in 5 minutes! I am not kidding. Just answer the questions about George in one sentence or less.
~How old is George?
~How does George make a living?
~What does George want that he is unlikely to get?
~What does George secretly want that he is unlikely to get?
~What is George most afraid of?
~What is George secretly most afraid of?
~Now, it so happens that one day, much to George's surprise, the very real possibility arises that he could get what he has always wanted. How does this happen? (Again, in one sentence or less.)
~What might be an obstacle to his getting this?
~What might be yet another obstacle?
~And a third obstacle?
~Then, what happens? Does he finally get what he wants, or something else?
~In the end, how has George's life changed (or not changed)?
~How does George feel about this?
~What is the last image you would leave on the movie screen before the credits roll?

April 4 "Future Neighborhood"
Describe your neighborhood as you would expect it to appear 10 years from now.

April 5 "Little Dog (or Cat) Name Poem"
This is an exercise in using alliteration and rhythm. (Alliteration is the repetition of the initial sound of words, e.g., bouncing balls, chewy chunks, slithering snakes).
The other day on my
blog I posted this poem:
Little Dog Name Poem (To the Tin Whistle & Gamelan)
Tater, Tot, Louie, Boomer, Bridget, Bijou, Elpis, Roxy, Leader, Lucy, Lola, Coco, Chloe, and of course--- drum-rolllll--- Picadou.
I'm not trying to say my poem is the greatest thing simply, look at the alliteration:
Tater, Tot
Boomer, Bridget, Bijou
Leader, Lucy, Lola
Coco, Chloe (well, close...)
and the rhythms... (an easy way to get the feel for the rhythm of writing is to read it aloud, but with your hand covering your mouth).
The exercise is this: Make a list of some 10-15 dog names (or cat names or horse names, whatever you prefer)
just slap down whatever names occur to you then, rearrange the names into a little poem using alliteration and some kind of rhythm.

April 6 "Trouble Sleeping".
Here are the nanes of the characters:
Glenda; Howard; Fecky Hastings; and Asa, the old sheepdog. For each one, in three sentences or less: when and why did each of them begin to have trouble sleeping? How did each one cope (or not cope)?

April 7 "Odd Dogs"
Use 2 1/2 minutes to make a list of really odd names for dogs. Then use the remaining 2 1/2 minutes to match each name with a type of dog; a color; and the one adjective that would best describe its personality.
For example:
Mister Trotsky. Chihuahua. Black. Shy.

April 8 "S. Gossips"
"S." said he said they said something really horrible and it got back to... Oh boy... Who is "S."? Describe her. Why did S. say that to him? What exactly did S. say? But show don't tell; write the scene.

April 9 "What's in the Kitchen Drawer?"
This is a vocabulary expanding exercise
not about using new words, but rather words you already know but seldom use. List the objects in your kitchen drawer(s) from the spatula to the grapefruit knife to the soup ladle.

April 10 "Foamy Things"
What things are foamy? Be as specific as you can.

April 11 "Manic Morning"
Your character is experiencing the beginning of (but not a full-blown) manic episode. Describe his or her morning. Do not use the words "manic" or bipolar." (Show don't tell.)

April 12 "Your Desk Speaks Volumes, Possibly"
What exactly is on your desk? (Show don't tell.)

April 13 "Beginnings with Food"
To repeat what I wrote in December 7th's exercise: "In my experience, good beginnings
whether of a short story, novel, essay or memoir intrigue or charm the reader within the first 3 sentences, no later. The best beginnings suggest that something is off-balance peculiar, not quite right ergo, something interesting is going to happen." Today the focus is on foodanything to do with food, perhaps shopping for it, or cooking it, eating it, sharing it (not sharing it), saving it, hoarding it, eating it, etc."

Today's exercise is this: in five minutes, write as many beginnings as you can that have to do with food. Write one, two, eleven, whatever you can do. Again, by a "beginning" I mean anything from a sentence fragment to three full sentences, but no more than that per beginning.

April 14 "Take the Day Off"
If you were to take today off, what would you do?

April 15 "Soft Things"
Make a list of soft things.

April 16 "Language Overlay: Music"
Sprinkling in language that reflects a character's concerns and passions can add richness and texture to a narrative. For example, if I have a character who loves sports, when he goes outside to rake the leaves, I might have him "grip the rake handle like a bat". Tthe idea of this exercise is to generate vocabulary
nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, phrases, gestures, metaphors, etc. that would have to do with sports; then sprinkle some into the narrative as it suits. In this exercise, try it for music assume your character loves a certain type of music, or teaches it or plays it, or composes itwhat vocabulary would be in his or her mind? Certainly things like notes, scales, perhaps a metronome.... Make as long a list as you can in the five minutes.

April 17 "Rx"
Take a character from a piece you are working on
or make up a new one. Over the course of his (or her) life, what medicines have been prescribed for him (or her) and why? Be as specific as possible. Be sure to describe the color and shape and size and taste etc of the medicines.

April 18 "Tunnel"
What if there were a secret tunnel underneath your house? Where would it take you? What would it be like inside? Where would you find the hatch?

April 19 "At Least"
In his Fictional International essay "To Begin, To Begin," Clark Blaise writes: "The most interesting thing about a story is not its climax or denouement
both dated terms nor even its style or characterization. It is its beginning, its first paragraph, often its first sentence.... the story seeks its beginning, the story many times is its beginning, amplified."
Opening a piece with "At least" is to open in medias res, that is, in the middle of the action. For example:
At least the cake was white. Or:
At least they approved of the groom's gerbil.
The exercise is this: Pick one of these lines (or one of your own, beginning with "at least") and continue writing.

April 20 "Ears"
In specific detail, describe some of your characters' ears.
Here are a few cues:
Hair, moles, freckles, etc?
Scars, wounds?
Placement (high, low)?

April 21 "The Bible"
Think of one of your characters. Does he or she read the Bible (or other holy book)? If not, why not? If so, what passages would be of particular importance for him or her? When did you character first come across this passage? What does it mean to him or her?

April 22 "Who Went to McDonald's?"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Leslie Pietrzyk, a novelist who lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Who is the most unlikely person living or dead, famous or non you can think of to be in a fast food restaurant? Okay that person just walked into McDonald's (or choose your own fave). Why are they there and what happens?

April 23 "She's 'Always' Late"
Why is she "always" late? What are three things she's actually on time for? And, if you have time, describe her purse.

April 24 "Both Delicious and Luxurious"
In his delightfully wacky
Pronoia Is the Antitode for Paranoia, Rob Brezsny writes:
"The poet Muriel Rukeyser said the universe is composed of stories, not of atoms. The physicist Werner Heisenberg declared that the universe is made of music, not of matter. And we believe that if you habitually expose yourself to toxic stories and music, you could wind up living in the wrong universe..."

So, to make the universe a better place, today's exercise is to write a brief sketch
perhaps the beginning of a longer story that is delicious and luxurious. Begin with the word "Even" and include: an orange; a hungry baboon; a piano; an elderly man in a perfectly crisp suit.

April 25 "Here Now & Then Outside"
Where you are right now:
What do you see? List three things.
What do you hear? List three sounds.
What do you smell? List three smells.
What do you taste? List at least two tastes.
What do you feel on your skin? List at three things.
Then, imagine you have moved outside nearby. Ask and answer the same questions.

April 26 "Questions for A Character"
These questions aim to help you flesh out a character
this may be a character who appears in a piece you are working on, or perhaps a new character. Feel free to change the gender and, if it suits, change or add to the questions.
What does he think of
~ Elton John?
~The Pope?
~Richard Nixon?
~Country music?
~Cell phones?
~Pickup trucks?
~Ice-skating competitions of TV?
~His local bookstore?
~His priest / minister / rabbi (or other)?
~Camembert cheese?
~His local (or nearest) zoo?
~Small and nicely brushed pedigreed dogs?
~Mushroom soup?
~The New York Times?

April 27 "Dry Skin"
Take this as your opening line:
He had the driest skin they had ever seen.

April 28 "Of Time"
This is an exercise in generating imagery and, in a way, using synesthesia. Synthesthesia is "a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated. (For more on synthesthesia, see Harry Smith and Stanley Nelson's
Synthesthetics/ Edges of Sound; Robert E. Cytowic's The Man Who Tasted Shapes; and Patricia Lynne Duffy's Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens. Note: for writers and poets, the most useful and stimulating of the three is Smith and Nelson's.)
~The sands of time
~Green-blue oceans of time
~the unspooling thread of time
~the gong of time
keep going... how many more can you come up with?
(Really get crazy. Think of smells, sounds, tastes, textures, colors, shapes...)
Once you've done five minutes' worth, go back and circle your best two. Then, try to use them sometime soon in your writing.

April 29 "Pam's Scene Objective (Edward's Porch)"
The Power of the Actor, Ivana Chubbuck shows actors how to use their emotions to empower a goal. Actors identify their characters' overall objective, as well as their scene objective. Applying this to writing, assume your character is "Pam"; her overall objective is to prove that she is a really nice person; her scene objective is to make friends with "Edward," her new neighbor, who is blind and has a very difficult personality. The scene takes place on Edward's porch.

April 30 "Fred's Phone Call"
Fred turns on the hot water to fill his bathtub. Joan calls; she tells him something so shocking, he forgets that he left the tap running. What did Joan tell Fred? What happens?

March < > May

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however, for permission to reprint on-line, in a magazine, book, or other format,
please contact the author.