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

C.M. Mayo < For Writers <


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June 1 "Out In Front"
On a typical morning in June, if you were to stand out in front of your residence, your back to its entrance, what would you see? What would be there that is always there? What would be moving? What might suprise you? Be as specific as possible, using colors, shapes, smells, sounds, etc.

June 2 "Smells Today"
What smells have you smelled today? Make a list.

June 3 "Saturday To Dos"
More lists. List three things you typically do on a Saturday. Then list three things you used to do on a Saturday but don't anymore; three things you would like to do but never have; three things you did but hated having to do; three things you could do but won't; three things that you especially enjoy doing; and finally, three things you could do that it has never, until this moment, occured to you to do.

June 4 "Bumperstickers"
The mesages people plaster on their cars! KNITTING IS SEXY. MY CHILD IS AN HONORS STUDENT. TRUST IN GOD SHE WILL PROVIDE. MY OTHER CAR IS A CADILLAC. And of course, political messages span the spectrum. What's on your bumper? Your neighbor's? Colleagues's? Relatives? Friends? Have you seen any you thought amusing? Finally, for your fictional characters, make a list of the bumperstickers they might have on their cars.

June 5 "How Did They End Up Bankrupt?"
They tried to keep up with the Jones's. Sketch out the bones of this sad little story. (Hint: you might just make a list of some of the things they did, and the consequences.)

June 6 "The Squid, the Lampshade, and the Smell of Burning Tortillas"
Write something that incorporates a squid, a lampshade and the smell of burning tortillas.

June 7 "Top 10 Gift List"
If you won the lottery
say, the $40 million lottery who and what would you give money to? List your top 10. Then, if you have time, do the list for a fictional character.

June 8 "Salesmen Arguing About Yellow Donuts"
Two salesmen are arguing about some yellow donuts. Write the scene using dialogue and incorporating the following:
~"this will set your hair on fire"
~yellow donuts
~he said, slowly stroking his chin
~he picked up the pen and pointed
~"oh, no, no, no, no, no."

June 9 "Suitcase From the Attic"
It turns out there was a trap-door in the ceiling that had been disguised by the plaster. Once opened, the door revealed an attic. And in the attic, far in the back, behind a curtain of cobwebs, there was a suitcase. They brought the suitcase down into the house. How did they open the suitcase? And wat was in it? Write the scene.

June 10 "Sunburned"
He got horribly sunburned. How did this happen? Write the scene from the point of view of someone who expecetd this would happen, and had warned him.

June 11 "Haunted House"
Using all the senses
sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and specific detail describe a haunted house.

June 12 "Tina Tries to Help"
In two sentences or less describe Fran. In two sentences or less describe her living room. In two sentences or less, very specifically put Fran in the livingroom (for example, she might be sitting in the wicker chair by the window reading the newspaper, or, she might be sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the fireplace doing her meditation, etc). Then, Tina comes in and tries to help. In what way? What exactly does Tina do? And/ or say? How does Fran react?

June 13 "Opening by Ovid"
Ovid wrote: "Jupiter from on high smiles at the perjuries of lovers." Use this as the first line for what could be the opening paragraph of a novel about love.

June 14 "Bob's Front Page"
What if Bob appeared on the front page of his local newspaper
but he didn't know about it until the following day?

June 15 "Your House, Room by Room"
This is an exercise in vivid description and gestalt. For each room in your house, list three (and only three) objects that best describe it, and list one (and only one) adjective that gives its overall "feel." If you have time, do the closets.

June 16 "Don't Look Behind You"
Today's exercise is courtesy of Leslie Pietrzyk, a novelist who lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Without turning around to look, write a list of everything that is behind you right now. Be specific and thorough; be literal and metaphorical.

June 17 "Butterfly"
Another prompt. Use this as your opening line:
They were eating dinner when a butterly floated in and landed on the meatloaf.

June 18 "Human Body Action Verbs"
Energize your writing with action verbs! This is an easy exercise to help train your brain to think in terms of action verbs. Focusing on actions the human body can perform, provide one (or two or three) verbs per letter of the alphabet. For example:
A: arch
B: bounce; burp; belch
C: cartwheel; call out
D: dither; dunk
E: exit; enter; expand
F: fling; fart; fall
G: gallop; gallump; grit (teeth)
Keep going... get to Z if you can...

June 19 "Belgium"
What do you know about Belgium? Write down what you can in five minutes. Be as specific as possible (and don't forget the chocolate).

June 20 "Telephone"
How does your character answer the telephone? What does her voice sound like? How does she hold the telephone? (Or does she use an ear-clip, or does she prefer the speaker phone?) What does she typically say? When she goes out of town, what is the message she leaves on her answering machine? How does she feel about the telephone? What does her ring tone sound like? Where is her telephone? How many telephones does she have? Who does she call? How much does she spend every month (and can she afford it?)
Make up as and answer as many questions as you can about her telephone use. In your last 30 seconds, go back and circle the three most telling things.

June 21 "Ending"
A short story begins with these two lines:
Sometimes, out on the boat, she wanted to tell Louise. This was before Louise got the tattoo on her shoulder.
Write the last paragraph of the story.

June 22 "Your Neighbor in Your House"
Describe your living room from the point of view of your neighbor. What does he/she notice? Feel? Think?

June 23 "Your Other Neighbor in Your House"
Describe your living room from the point of view of another one of your neighbors. What does he/she notice? Feel? Think?

June 24 "In the Dentist's Office: Stretching, Folding, Tilting"
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 stretching, folding and tilting. The exercise is this: In a dentist's office, what might stretch, fold, or tilt? Simply make a list of as many items as you can, and very briefly describe the way in which these stretch, fold or tilt.

June 25 "Sprinkle in ze French"
An American who was resident in Paris for many years gives a tour of the local art museum to some friends who are mighty impressed. Write the scene with dialogue.

June 26 "A Drink of Cool Water"
This is an exercise in making up similes, that is, figures of speech comparing unlike things. For example, you might say, a cup of coffee is like a slap in the face. Or, a cup of coffee is like a cup of sludge. Or, a cup of coffee is like a hello from the donut. And so on. Come up with as many similes as you can for "a drink of cool water is like..."

June 27 "Only the Top Ten Nouns"
According to Oxford University Press researchers (
read the BBC story here) the top 10 nouns in the English language are:
1 Time
2 Person
3 Year
4 Way
5 Day
6 Thing
7 Man
8 World
9 Life
10 Hand
The exercise is this: write something
anything that incorporates these and only these 10 nouns.

June 28 "Grocery Store Customer Comment Bulletin Board"
I was recently over at the Georgetown (Washington DC) Whole Foods grocery store, which has a bulletin board for customer comments. I loved seeing the emotion and the quirkiness in so many of them. Here are a few I jotted down in my ever-handy notebook:
~I adore the chicken pesto sausage. Please keep them until I die.
~Please put a Whole Foods Market in Tampla FL
~Why are your bathrooms always disgusting???
~The decision to discontinue the sale of live lobster and crabs is RIDICULOUS
and so on... So the 5 minute writing exercise is this: in one to two sentences, what might the following characters write on a customer comment card in your supermarket?
~a harried young mother with twin toddlers who suffer from an allergy
~a retired diabetic on a strict budget
~an avid amateur chef
~an avid and extremely adventurous and accomplished chef
~someone who just found out that the favorite TV show has been canceled
~someone who just found this morning that they have won a law suit, and the settlement will add to their already substantial fortune
~a strict vegan and animal rights activist
~someone who knows she needs to get divorced but she just can't seem to get around to dealing with the paperwork
~he cooks for his pet poodle puppy

June 29 "After the Flood"
This is exercise in generating specific detail. Re: the old "show don't tell." Without using the word flood, show that there has been a flood. (Tip: try to come up with detail that appeals to all the senses, including smell, taste, touch, and sound.)

June 30 "Brenda & Arnold"
This is a little Pschology 101 / Plot exercise. Without thinking about it
just put your pen on the paper and jot down what comes to mind answer the following:
~What did Brenda do to Arnold?
~Why did he let her?
~Why did Brenda do it?
~Will this happen again?

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