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

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November 1 "Favorite Flicks"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Ron Hogan, a writer and blogger based in New York City.
Choose one of your favorite films. Write a scene in which a character explains what he or she loves about it to another character. Now choose one of your least favorite films, and write a scene in which one character tries to pursuade another that they should watch it.

November 2 "Scene Without Visual Cues"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Kathleen Alcala, a short story writer, novelist, and essayist who lives near Seattle, Washington.
As writers, we are limited to little black marks on paper with which to construct a world. When our stories are read, we do not usually have the luxury to stand next to the reader and add any details we may have omitted. We need to evoke all of the senses in order to build a convincing scene. Anthony Doerr's story, "The Shell Seeker" (Best American Short Stories, 2003, Walter Mosely, Editor; also the title story of Doerr's collection) is written from very close to the point of view of a blind scientist. There are almost no visual cues in the story, yet the reader is awash in the details of sense, and the tropical setting is almost palpable. Describe a scene without using visual cues. The writer will find his or her palette of description greatly expanded. Keep this in mind when writing description all of the senses must be addressed.

November 3 "Sci Fi Titles"
Assume your main character is a dentist who has written several sci fi novels in his spare time. What are their titles? Then, pick one and write the first three sentences.

November 4 "Who is Granny Holmes?"
(Note: this just popped into my head, so if there happens to be a real person who goes by this name, it's pure coincidence.) Here's the exercise: Granny Holmes just opened a pie shop which she intends to have be the flagship pie shop in a monster multi-national chain bigger even than Starbucks. Her real name is not Granny Holmes. What is it? Describe her childhood.
Note: a few days after posting this one I did a "Google" on "Granny Holmes". Turns out this was the nickname of U.S. Civil War General and also the name of the midwife who delivered Henry Ford. Go figure.

November 5 "Welcome to Your Kitchen"
Assume that you are a refugee. After an entire year in a refugee camp, you return home. Now describe your actual kitchen
but do not mention anything about being a refugee or the refugee camp.

November 6 "Body Language in a Coffee Shop"
In a coffee shop, a man is sitting across the table from a woman. In the following situations, how might they sit or move? What objects might they handle and in what way?
-They have been happily married for 30 years.
-They have been unhappily married for 30 years.
-They have just met. He is trying to seduce her. She is much younger and shy.
-They have been living together for 2 years. She is about to tell him that she wants him to move out.
-She is interviewing him; he wants to be hired.
-He is her elderly uncle and he is hard of hearing.

November 7 "Create a Conflict"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Robert Giron, a poet, writer, and translator who lives in Arlington, Virginia.
Find a short article from a newspaper that deals with some kind of conflict but then change the facts of the information given and write a short paragraph placing the person (one you create from your imagination) in a
situation with one of the following:
1. a dialogue involving the person and another (one you create) in the conflict (however, do not use any information found in the article);
2. describe the scene of the conflict (however, do not use any information found in the article).
Remember that you are merely using the article to trigger your imagination, rather than simply reshaping the article.

November 8 "Ears"
This exercise is about focusing on and generating highly specific detail. In five minutes, vividly describe as many different ears as you can.

November 9 "Your Town"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Laurie Lico Albanese, a poet and novelist who lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
Write about the town where you grew up. Describe it in detail. Was there a place where everyone congregated? A store where everyone shopped? A girl everyone was in love with? An old lady everyone was afraid of? If a specific memory comes up, go with it.

November 10 "Random 2 + 10 Persuasion"
From any book or magazine, take 2 lines and 10 other words, all randomly chosen. I pulled Jane Austen's Persuasion off my book shelf. Here's what I got:
~"Do you mean that she refused him?"
~By this time the report of the accident had spread...
~unkind; degrading; fearful; days; September; livery; supply; poor; friend; unmodernized.
Using this as your raw material, rearranging in any way, what can you write in 5 minutes?

November 11 "The 'Gorgeous Orchid' Free 'Clip Line'"
Some websites offer free "clip art." Well, here's a "clip line." You can have it. Start writing.
"Oh," she said, touching his arm, "is that not the most gorgeous orchid?"

November 12 "Reflecting Light & Moving Shadows""
Anton Chekov wrote: "In descriptions of nature one should seize upon minutiae, grouping them so that when, having read the passage, you close your eyes, and a picture is formed. For example, you will evoke a moonlit night by writing that on the mill dam the glass fragments of a broken bottle flashed like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled along like a ball..."
Analyzing this one sees that, first, he's got something reflecting light; second, there is a shadow that is moving. So, to evoke, say, a sunny day, what things might there be on the scene that could reflect light, and in what way? (Do they glimmer, glint, glow, flash, etc?) What shadows might there be, and how might they be moving? Try making a lists of things that reflect light and moving shadows for a sunny day at a: beach; shopping mall parking lot; suburban backyard; football stadium filled with people.

November 13 "3-D Pop Up"
I think it was Flaubert who said that it takes three senses to make an given object truly vivid. We tend to over rely on the visual. So the exercise is this: for each visual cue, provide two descriptions that appeal to two other senses
the other senses being taste, touch, hearing, and smell. For example, "a blue ball" (visual) might be squishy (touch) and stink of plastic (smell). Or, it might taste sweet and when thrown against the wall, make a noise like velcro opening. Or, squoitch.
Do as many as you can in 5 minutes.
a yellow coat; a tall building; a white wall; a brick house; a dachshund;
a roast turkey; an orchid; a green chair; a table; a paper clip; a tray of cookies; a black cocktail dress; a red box; a piano; a tuba; a baby; an egg;
the flag; a zebra; the sky at twilight; a burst of firecrackers in the night sky ; a blank movie screen; a flamingo-pink feather duster.

November 14 "The Last Person Who Made You Curious"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Ruth Knafo Setton, a poet, novelist, and writer of creative nonfiction who lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Here's an idea for a 5 minute + writing exercise. By +, I mean that it can be expanded infinitely, or that it can be picked up again whenever you have five minutes with nothing to do. I especially recommend it during meetings, when you are required to look attentive and take notes.
Who's the last person who made you curious? Was it the words he said that didn't fit the expression on his face? The clothes she wore that didn't fit the occasion? The body's secret language that contradicted the mouth's politically correct utterances? For five minutes enter that person's world and become him or her. Write a first-person monologue that explores how you've made yourself fit into the world.
Stop after five minutes. You may choose to return to this character later, or you may choose to enter another identity, and for five minutes, write in the voice of that person.
This exercise is about point of view: challenging yourself to not only step into others' shoes but to become them, even if only for five minutes. Eventually you will find doors opening to characters you never thought you could understand or write about.

November 15 "Reactions in the Body"
Some common descriptions of the feeling of fear are "jelly in the knees" or "butterflies in the stomach." This exercise is about coming up with specific descriptions of bodily sensations. (Tip: take all of the body into account, from the crown of the head to the soles of the feet.) List one or more specific bodily sensations for a character who is
~delightfully surprised
~deeply offended
~worried about something he/ she knows will probably never never happen (but can't stop worrying about it anyway)
~watching a childish, silly scene that excites contempt
~watching a childish, silly scene with bemused affection
~shocked and scared
~in profound grief
~patient in the face of moderate frustation
~jealous of a favorite friend's attentions to another
~delighted and relieved to hear from a long lost friend
~just finished completely reorganizing all drawers and closets
~the winner of the lottery! (just found out!)
~knows he/ she should do tax return but just can't stop watching TV
~listening to a joke he/ she does not understand
~desperately wanting to say something but knows it's a big secret
~experiencing road rage
~feeling pity
~trying but can't rememember the word for something
~anxious to please a superior
~anxious to leave for a pressing appointment
~yearning to buy something he/she cannot afford
~hungry even though just ate
~just drank a quart of beer in one gulp

November 16 "Show Don't Tell: The Flu"
Using specific, vivid detail that appeals to the senses, how might you show the reader that your character has the flu? Do not mention the flu or use the words "sick" or "ill".

November 17 "Writing for the Last Five Minutes of Your Life"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Cristina Gutierrez Richaud, a Mexican writer who lives in Guadalajara.
If these were the last five minutes of your life and you knew there was nothing you could do about it and you had to write... describe your feelings.

November 18 "The Lamp"
This is an exercise in generating imagery, highly specific descriptive detail and, possibly, story material. Pick a lamp
the lamp in front of you, or some other lamp, or an imaginary lamp. Now describe it. Be sure to mention colors, textures, any smells, any noises it might make (how about if you dropped it?). Does it smell? (Can you sniff it?) Be sure to include its shape and size. What is it bigger than? Smaller than? Shorter than? Taller than? Name all of its parts. Describe the shape of the light it casts against the wall, the floor, any objects, etc. Does the lamp have a story? How old is the lamp? What do you think of this lamp? What would your best friend think of this lamp? What might happen to this lamp in the future? Who made this lamp? What did it cost? Where was it purchased? If you were to give the lamp a name, the way you might name a dog, what would it be? etc. Stay with the lamp for the full 5 minutes.

November 19 "Tap It"
This is an exercise in paying attention to highly specific sounds and coming up with precise descriptions for them. Using your fingertips, tap on everything you can in your immediately vicinity (e.g., your paper, desk, your leg, the lamp, mug of coffee, the carpet, etc) and, listening very carefully, describe each sound and how it is different from the others. Feel free to use metaphors, analogies, etc. If you have time, try also precisely describing how the surface feels on your fingertips.

November 20 "What Every Poem Needs"
Hey: it's all poetry.
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Cathleen Calbert, a poet and fiction writer who lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Marilyn Nelson begins “Fish Poem,” with the lines
Every poem
worth its salt
should have its own fish.
Write a poem in which you explore what you think every poem needs. You could begin “Every poem should have . . . .”
This assignment is meant to be an exploration of your aesthetic, of what’s important to you poetically. It’s also an invitation to wild freedom and to serious playfulness. You might list some weird things first. Then find an item that’s more than “simply” nonsensical. You might write, for example, “Every poem needs rat vomit in it.” Well, okay. But do you have something to say about that? Hmm. Maybe you do. Maybe you’re trying to make a point about including the ugliness of the world in poetry, maybe you really don’t like “genteel” poems that seem to you rarified or pretentious. So maybe this really is the beginning of your poem. You can try eyes, feet, a lie, a surprise, a small gray cat . . . . whatever you like. What does every poem need?

November 21 "Manic / Depressive: Eating a Bag of Potato Chips"
For 2 1/ 2 minutes, describe a depressed person eating a bag of potato chips. Then, for 2 1/2 minutes, describe a manic person eating a bag of potato chips.

November 22 "Purse & Person"
Describe the characters who own these purses:
~lumpy battered vinyl contains many wadded tissues, 3 lipsticks, fuzz-covered aspririns swimming on the bottom, a laminated card with a subway schedule;
~sleek red snakeskin, silver clasp, no cash, one credit card;
~the "bottomless wonder";
~compact as a brick and so heavy that when she put the strap over her shoulder, she leaned to the right;
~soft silky Batik in pastel colors, with a matching wallet stuffed with pictures of rescued cats

November 23 "Mpreg Story"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Liz Henry, a poet, writer, translator and blogger who lives in Redwood City, California.
Pick a pop culture male character, someone you think of as quintessentially masculine, like Han Solo, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Aragorn, or Kermit the Frog. Write what he writes in his diary when he first realizes he's pregnant. How does he feel? What does he worry about? What does he do about it? Who will he tell? How will it affect his career? Is the (other) father his lover, his friend, or his worst enemy? Or, write a diary entry from a few months later, after the pregnancy starts to show and the baby or babies start to kick. Now you have the core of a strange mpreg story; mpreg, "male pregnancy" is a sub-genre of fan fiction. Whatever your own gender, this exercise will challenge your ideas about narration and gender normativity, and perhaps about canonical "ownership" of fictional characters.

November 24 "Moo-moo Stuffing"
In your novel, a character named Susie has concocted something for Thanksgiving which she calls "Moo-moo stuffing." What are the ingredients? (What are the ingredients according to Susie?) What does it taste like? Does anyone want to eat it? Does anyone eat it? What happens?

November 25 "Turkey Soup"
Apropos of Thanksgiving left-overs, here is an exercise in generating specific sensory detail and also in using interesting verbs: write a scene in which your character, with either great enthusiam or despair, makes turkey soup.

November 26 "Interesting Red"
(Note: This is a variation on the exercise for October 10, "Interesting Pink".) There are are endless "browns", e.g., coffee, chocolate, rust-brown, tocacco-spit-brown, umber, amber, cumin, walnut, hazelnut, toast, fawn, cardboard-brown, ditchwater-brown, polluted-sky-brown, auburn, mahogany, liver, chestnut, roan, sepia, goat's-eye-brown, slime-brown, tawny, potato-brown, bronze, slug-brown, russet, caramel, rotting pumpkin, pot-roast, velvety-brown & etc.
So: make a list of reds. Whatever occurs to you. Really dig around in there. (Feel free to check the Thesaurus if you need a jump-start.)

November 27 "Dog"
Using detail that appeals to all your senses, describe one dog. Be sure to also describe the way it moves. And what can you say about its personality?

November 28 "Show Don't Tell: Crowded Shopping Mall"
Using specific, vivid detail that appeals to the senses, how might you show that the shopping mall is crowded? (Do not use the words "shopping mall" or "crowded.")

November 29 "Living Room"
Quickly, without a lot of thought, list at least 8 but no more than 12 pieces of furniture that might go into a fictional living room. Then choose five.
Now, assign each of the 5: a color; a texture: a size; one other attritubute (can be anything). Now, give each of these 5 pieces a position: for example, is the sofa facing the window? Is the coffee table on top of the bearskin rug? Or is the cabinet in the corner next to the potted palm? Bonus exercise (beyond the 5 minutes): in 3- 4 sentences, describe the owner coming into this living room.

November 30 "Funny Expressions"
Whenever it was time to go somewhere, my grandma used to say, "We're off, the captain shouted." I knew someone else who used to say, "it's all gone to hell in a handbasket." And lots of kids say, "Cool." The exercise is this: imagine an older character, and jot down 3 of his or her characteristic expressions. Do the same for a younger character, and then for a middle-aged character. Feel free to use expressions you've actually heard, or to make them up.

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