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

C.M. Mayo < For Writers <


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January 1 "Clutter"
Clutter can tell you a lot about a character. What exactly is it? And where is it? What is it blocking / obscuring? Describe the clutter of:
~ a bereaved widow who, 20 years after her husband's death, cannot bring herself to go on a date
~ a doctoral student unable to complete his thesis
~ a yoga instructor who is addicted to e-mail
~ a chef who suffers from adult onset diabetes

January 2
"The Last Piece of Pie"
Write the first paragraph(s) of a story that begins:
She would not give him the last piece of pie.

January 3
"Passive Agressive Grocery Shopping"
Fred has high blood pressure. But Linda brings home some items from the grocery store that are not so good for Fred. Write the scene with dialogue.

January 4
"The Presence of the Past"
Within a one-mile radius of where you are right now, what would have been present 100 years ago?

January 5
"Smells of Things That Don't Smell (Much)"
What is the smell of:
~ the moon
~ sadness
~a child's joy in watching a soap bubble
~ grief
~ cowardice
~ snow
~ velcro
~ a nasty letter
~ silver
~ mystery
~ sand
~ a sidewalk in summer
~ the middle of the earth
~ purple
~ a contented dog napping
~ a cloudless spring sky
~ gold
~ a dollar bill
Once you've finished, circle the three you like the best.

January 6 "Pjugsarkjan Breakfast"
Pjugsarkian is an imaginary language; feel free to make up whatever words and phrases serve your purposes. The exercise is this: a tourist, who speaks only a very few words of Pjugsarkian (and may also mispronounce them) orders breakfast in his (or her) hotel from a waiter (or waitress) who understands and speaks only a tiny bit of English. Write the scene with both description and dialogue.

January 7 "Nag Nag Nag"
Another dialogue exercise. In the airport, standing in line for check-in, she nags him
or he nags her; whichever you prefer. Write the scene using both description and dialogue. (What happens when they get to the head of the line?)

January 8 "Textures"
This exercise is to heighten your awareness of fine detail. Take each and every item of clothing you are wearing right now and describe its texture. What is it like? How is it different from the others? What does it remind you of?

January 9 "Letter of Complaint"
Your character, who is odd (either somewhat or extremely), writes a letter of protest to the manager of his or her local grocery store. Write the letter.

January 10 "Three Characters' Dreams"
Oftentimes a character's dream can be very telling. Sketch a dream for a character who is:
~ a man about to get a bitter divorce and facing financial ruin
~ a woman three weeks away from giving birth to triplets
~ an elderly janitorial worker about to win the $100 million lottery

January 11 "555"
This is an exercise to help flesh out a fictional character. This might be a character in a story or novel you are already working on, or it might be a new one who emerges here. Whatever suits. Feel free to change the gender.
~List 5 people he secretly resents (and why);
~List 5 things he would like to do before he dies, but won't;
~List 5 things that could happen so that he would in fact do one of the above.

January 12 "In the Closet: Questions & Commands"
Questions and commands add texture to the sound of your writing. The former ends in a rise; the latter can be thrusting or jabbing. Have your character go into his or her walk-in closet and fall into a dither about what to wear to a work interview. Write the scene as internal monologue using both questions and commands.

January 13 "Scene From Your Own Life, POV Switch"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Charlie Anders, a fiction writer who lives in San Francisco.
Think of a scene from your own life and write a brief description of it from the point of view of someone else who was there. Try to explore how you (or a fictionalized version of you) might have appeared to this person at the time, but also how this person might have seen the entire situation. Include at least three small details that this other person could have noticed.

January 14 "Clarice"
Use this as your opening line:
Clarice was the kind of kid who picked out the soft insides of the bun.

January 15 "Kid Stuff"
Make a list of the toys you had when you were a kid. Then, in the time remaining, give each one adjective; one color; and one sound.

January 16 "What's In Your Wallet?"
Make a list of the items in your wallet. Then, imagine that you were much wealthier than you are now. What might be in your wallet then? Make another list. Then, imagine that you were much poorer than you are you are now. Make that list.

January 17 "What Did You Not?"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Lisa Couturier, a writer who lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
One of my favorites is an exercise that, I think, Deena Metzger wrote long
ago. The exercise is to write about what you did not notice today. This is a good exercise for getting in touch with one's own or one's character's longing, with desire, with loss. For example, this morning I did not touch my daughter's pale, soft, and fat cheeks . . . I did not see the sky, I just simply passed on a road below it . . . etc.

January 18 "God no."
One character asks another a question, and he (or she) answers, "God no." What was the question? Describe the two characters. Where are they sitting/ standing? What are their tones of voice? Any body language (e.g., hand rakes hair; hand covers mouth; crosses leg; folds arms)? Continue writing this scene.

January 19 "Ten Places, Ten Smells"
For Proust, the scent of a madelein evoked an entire novel. In this exercise, list ten places. (Any places will do: your office, the Taj Majal, whatever pops into your head). After you have listed those ten places, for each one, list a smell that comes to mind. Once you have all ten places and all ten smells, circle the pair that you find most intriguing, then start writing.

January 20 "Childrens' Birthday Party: Surprise"
Make a list of all the things you would associate with a childrens birthday party. Try to get in smells, tastes, textures, sounds, colors, and of course, silly games and toys. Nearing the end of the five minutes, circle the items that surprised you in some way.

January 21 "Filmy Fluttery"
Dreaming by the Book, a path-breaking analysis of how novelists instruct us to form images in our minds as we read, Elaine Scarry devotes an entire chapter to "rarity". I call it "filmy fluttery." Writes Scarry, "rare objects ghosts, filmy curtains, shadows move more easily than solid ones do... Filmy objectshair, paper, light cloth, flower petals, butterflies (petals in motion) continually move about in the mind almost without effort." The exercise is this: In a typical café, what might be filmy or fluttery? Simply make a list of as many objects as you can, and very briefly describe the way in which these might move.

January 22 "Magical Furniture"
This is a little exercise in magical realism. With realistic detail, write a scene in which your character has a conversation with a piece of furniture. Assume that the person and the piece of furiture disagree about something.

January 23 "Your Publishing Firm"
Assume that you have both endless hours in every day and endless pots of money. Therefore, you could, with the snap of your fingers and no worries, start your own publishing firm. What would you call it? What sort of books would you publish? What sort of image would you project? What would your office look like? What kind of "culture" would your firm have? What sort of people would you have work for you? Who might be your customers? (By the way, you can also try this exercise for one of your characters.)

January 24 "Your Character Visits the Dentist"
Your character visits the dentist. Write the scene.

January 25 "Permutation"
This is what I call a "permutation exercise": Take a particularly vivid and rhythmic sentence or two from someone else's book or story, and then exchange the verbs and/or adjectives and/or adverbs and/or whatever to make it your own. For example, while reading Conversations with Gore Vidal (edited by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole), I came across this vignette in the piece by Larry Kramer, "The Sadness of Gore Vidal":

"He is very fat. His face is lined. His hair, all of which he still has, looks like its in the end stages of a coloring job. He says he has to worry about his health. He orders a steak."

Here's my permutation on that:

She is very thin. Her face is smooth as a child's. Her hair, which is sparse and frizzed, reminds me of what might be a fried mermaid's. She says she is ravenous. She orders the sardine sandwich, sans bread.

Hey, I'm having fun, so here's another:

He is huge. His face appears to have been inflated. His hair has been slicked back with a strong-smelling lotion. He says he hasn't time for more than a quick bite. He orders the rack of lamb.
Do as many permutations as you can on this, or on another selection. No rules.

>>For more about "permutations" or what I also call "emulation exercises," click here.

January 26 "Dream Solution"
Your character has a nightmare. But in the middle of it, he or she creatively solves the problem. For example, Ted dreams that he is being backed to the edge of a cliff by someone coming at him with a saber. All of a sudden, Ted realizes that the saber is made out of the same tin foil his wife used to wrap up the peanut butter cookie dough for the freezer, and so, he sits down and starts playing the kazoo. Hey, have fun! What is your character's nightmare, and what is his or her "dream solution"? List as many as you can think of in 5 minutes.

January 27 "Flying a Kite"
Describe a person flying a kite.

January 28 "Purple Things"
What things are purple? Make a list.

January 29 "The Five Dollar Bill"
A five dollar bill changes hands five times in one day. Make a list of where, when, who hands it over, and for what. For example:
~Where: Starbucks, New Jersey Turnpike
~When: 7:30 am;
~Who: Bob, a truck driver;
~What: a cup of coffee (black) and a bean burrito.
If you can complete this exercise in less than five minutes, go back and add more detail to describe the places and the people.

January 30 "Movies Between 10 and 15"
In a 1974 interview with Gerald Clarke for The Paris Review, Gore Vidal said, "Every writer of my generation has been influenced by films.... Find out the movies a man saw between ten and fifteen, which ones he liked, disliked, and you would have a pretty good idea of what sort of mind and temperment he has." Either for yourself, or for one of your characters, list the movies you (he / she) can recall having seen between ten and fifteen.
(Is this bananas? Or is there some nugget of something to this?)

January 31 "Kinesthesia"
The use of specific details that appeal to the senses
sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touchmakes writing vivid. Kinesthesia is often overlooked as it overlaps with the others, in particular, touch. The dictionary defines kinesthesia as "a sense mediated by end organs located in muscles, tendons, and joints and stimulated by bodily movements and tensions." Some examples of kinesthesia:
~climbing stairs
~reaching deep into a drawer and feeling around for a small coin
~doing jumping jacks
~sitting in the shade and slowly turning the pages of a newspaper
~pushing into a crowded subway car
~standing on one leg and with your hands on your hips while singing the Star Bangled Banner
Make your list... come up with as many as you can...

December <> February

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