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

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December 1 "Three Skies"
Using color, texture, shapes, sound, smell, etc. describe: a dawn; a partially sunny mid-day; a winter twilight.

December 2 "Mapping"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Douglas Glover, a Canadian essayist, novelist, and short story writer who lives in New York State.
The idea of this exercise is to learn something about writing by slavishly and shamelessly copying the form of another writer's work. Painters learn to paint this way; it has always seemed strange to me that writers don't try it more often.
Pick a five-to-ten line passage from a writer you admire. Openings are especially good to look at in this regard. But try endings as well (we often pay much more attention to openings). Or the beginning of a scene. In any case, "map" the passage. By this I mean analyze the passage so that you can create a blank template from it, a template you can then fill with your own content.
First of all, note the grammatical structure of each sentence. That's the basic map. Also note the story components of the passage. If there are two characters, your version will have two characters mentioned in exactly the same textual position (different names, different persons). If there's an action, your version will have an action (not the same action). But then also pay careful attention to language. Similes are fairly obvious, but try to catch embedded metaphors, irony, humor, tone. Note word choice. Are there any particularly pointed turns of phrase? Are there puns, double entendres? Does the language get strange and twisty in some interesting way? Don't ignore time indicators, tenses and tense changes; include them in your map.
Once you have a fairly clear idea of the map of the passage, it's time to fill the blank map with your own content, that is, with different words, characters, actions, settings of your own choosing. Be sure to stick to the map. Your version should have the same grammatical structure and roughly the same number of words as the original. Sometimes using the same words as the original is unavoidable. For example, if the original contains a sentence using the copula verb, you won't be able to find a substitute verb. That's all right. But try repeat, as closely as you can, the pattern of the original with different words.
This exercise makes you a better reader. It also helps give you a sense of what form is, separate from any particular content. What you'll notice often is how astonishingly different your version is from the original--no matter how precisely you follow the pattern of form. And, finally, you might begin to sense the mysterious way form alters content. You'll see this with special clarity if you take one of these maps and "fill" it with setting and characters from a story of your own.

December 3 "Garbage"
What's in your garbage can? The big one. List and describe up to 12 items.
Variation: what's in your character's garbage can? And what does his / her garbage can look like?

December 4 "Five Random Words"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Mary Quattlebaum, a childrens' author who lives in Washington DC.
Choose 5 words at random from the dictionary. Use them at least once in a paragraph or page of writing. Don't worry about being lyrical, profound, erudite, or hilarious--just weave those words into a piece of writing. Who knows what may emerge? I use this exercise when I want to bust through block, goof around with language, or discover something new. Have also used it as a group exercise with students. Each person contributes a word and does a piece of writing that uses every one of the words. Fascinating to see how the same words can elicit very different pieces of writing! The exercise seems to be most freeing if done as a timed piece of writing (no more than 10 or 15 minutes). The subconcsious seems to kick in then. Too much time and it's easy to overthink the process.

December 5 "Aesop's Fable Permutation"
Take an Aesop's fable
for example, "The Tortoise and the Hare" ; "The Ant and Grasshopper"; "Frogs Desiring a King" and change the animals and/or the story and/or the moral at the end.

December 6 "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 typical café, what might stretch, fold, or tilt? The cash regsiter drawer? The door? The lever on the capuccino machine? Simply make a list of as many items as you can, and very briefly describe the way in which these stretch, fold or tilt.

December 7 "What's Off-Balance? Or, Beginnings"
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-balancepeculiar, not quite right ergo, something interesting is going to happen. As illustration, here are three of my favorite beginnings:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Take care to chop the onion fine. To keep from crying when you chop it (which is so annoying!), I suggest you place a little bit on your head."
Laura Esquivel, Like Water For Chocolate

"Parsival is dead. That is the end of the story."
Ann Patchett, The Magician's Assistant

The exercise is this: in five minutes, write as many beginnings as you can. Write one, two, eleven, whatever you can do. Again, by a "beginning" I mean anything from a sentence fragment to 3 full sentences, but no more than that per beginning.

December 8 "Postcard from an Imaginary Land"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Deborah Batterman, a short story writer who lives in Katonah, New York.
Winding cobblestone streets, lush green landscapes, the gentle sound of the sea, an early morning walk in a misty forest we squeeze sense impressions to their essence in a few hand-written lines on a postcard. Brief phrases recording the smell inside a Parisian bakery, the singing waiter at a restaurant in Florence, the double rainbow up at Machu Picchu turn the act of discovery into visceral memory. Create an imaginary land you would be curious to visit, and write a postcard to someone telling what it is that makes this land so memorable.

December 9 "Car Lust"
For many people, their car serves as a kind of mirror that shows them who they are. It also serves as a potent signal to others about their status and values. For example, someone who wants to buy a new bright yellow Hummer would probably not be interested in a used navy-blue Buick. Neither would someone interested in a pickup truck necessarily want to be seen in a white Cadillac sedan, and so on. Write this brief scene: your character watching the TV commercial for the car of his or her dreams.

December 10 "U-Turn"
Sometimes a sudden and unexpected U-turn can energize a narrative. Try writing a brief 3-5 sentence description of a love affair, and end it with the line (changing the gender if you prefer):
"But then one Monday she woke up and decided the truth was, she detested him."
Then, write one line beyond that.

December 11 "Breakfast"
This is an exercise in generating specific sensory detail and imagery. (In the course of doing this exercise, very possibly, some narrative thread may emerge...)
Answer the questions as quickly as you can (without stopping to think
be sure to keep your pen on the page):
~What did you eat for breakfast today?
~What is the most peculiar thing you've ever eaten for breakfast?
~What do many other people eat for breakfast that you would not want to eat?
~What, in your opinion, is a healthy breakfast?
~Give one adjective that would best describe that healthy breakfast.
~What, in your opinion is an unhealthy breakfast?
~Give one adjective that would best describe that unhealthy breakfast.
~Give one adjective that in your opinion best describes kids' breakfast cereals.
~What is the one word that "bagels" makes you think of?
~Imagine yourself eating a bowl of kids' cereal. What is the one adverb you use to describe your chewing?
~Take a flying guess: what would Arnold Schwarzenegger eat for breakst?
~Condoleeza Rice?
~Queen Elizabeth?
~Salma Hayek?
~Your next door neighbor?
Without necessarily answering them, quickly jot down three more questions about breakfast.

December 12 "Formal & Informal Twinkie Purchase"
This exercise has two purposes: first, to write a brief scene; second, to play with diction (that is, choice of words).
a) In four sentences or less, using highly formal language, describe a person coming into a store and buying a Twinkie.
b) Now, drop the diction. In four sentences or less, using very informal langauge, describe that same person coming into a store and buying a Twinkie.

December 13 "Capturing the Sound & Shape of a Conversation"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Dinty W. Moore, a fiction writer and essayist who lives in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
Spend time in a coffee shop, a crowded diner, a waiting room, a fish market, or anywhere that people congregate and have conversations (close enough that you can overhear). Listen closely, and either take notes or if you wish to be more discreet remember well and then jot down some notes immediately afterwards.
Later, write a one-page scene where you illustrate as accurately as possible what was said, how the people looked and acted as they were saying it, and how the conversation wandered from point to point.
Don't worry now if you scene or the conversation you recount has any great meaning or significance
just try to capture the intricacies and unusual logic of normal human conversations. (Remember, human beings seldom speak in complete sentences. Hardly ever.)

December 14 "Alliteration"
Allieration is head rhyme, that is, the repetition of the initial sound in two or more neighboring words or lines. For example, to show difficulty eating candy one might write, "chewy chunks of chocolate." Or, to show boys fighting, "boys bashing boys."
When the sounds of the words themselves re-enforce the meaning (in the first example, the slowness and difficulty in "ch"-"ch", and in the second, the "b"-"b"-"b"), the writer achieves a greater degree of vividness. The exercise is this: using alliteration, apply a phrase to each of the following:
~snakes moving through grass
~children laughing happily at a birthday party
~someone running very fast
~someone eating something very sour
~ragged movements
~a very luxurious bubblebath
~an explosion
~highly complex and beautiful music

December 15 "Lawn, Tree, Kite"
Briefly describe a lawn. Then, briefly describe a tree on that lawn. Then, describe a kite and how it flies into this scene.

December 16 "Worm in the Salad"
Today's exercise is courtesy of
Ira Wood, a novelist who lives on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. It is taken from Ira Wood and Marge Piercy's So You Want to Write.
Create an interaction between two characters, written entirely in dialogue. A diner in a high-priced restaurant finds a worm in his salad and wants his dinner free; management finds his request excessive.

December 17 "'L' Words"
This is a vocabulary expanding exercise. It is not is not about using new words, however, but digging out the ones you already know but have not been in the habit of using. In five minutes, list as many words as you can think of that begin with the letter "L." (If you get stuck at any point, cue yourself with:
Verbs? Scents? Textures? Adverbs? Tastes? Colors? Places? (Cities? Towns? Countries? Mountains? etc?) Names? (Celebrites? Kings? Sports Stars? Sports? Writers? etc) Animals? Articles of Clothing? Parts of the Body? Furnishings? Plants? Other?

December 18 "The Choked-Up Artichoke"
The story, or novel, or poem, or whatever-it-is is titled "The Choked-Up Artichoke" and the first line is:
"She gave him the CD of Corelli & Charpentier that he had not wanted."
Start writing.

December 19 "Romance Novel Titles"
Your character is a best-selling romance novelist. What is his or her pen name? And what is his or her real name? What are the titles of this novelist's three most beloved best-sellers? Then, pick one and write its first three sentences.

December 20
"Animal Communicator"
Your character is an "animal communicator," that is, someone who is able to communicate with animals by telepathically sending and receiving images and feelings. For the sake of this writing exercise, assume you believe this is possible and that this character is both sane and well-balanced. What is her name? (Feel free to change the gender, by the way.) Write a sketch of the scene when, as a child, she first realized that other people did not believe her when she said that an animal "told" her (that is, telepathically "showed" her) something.

December 21
"Octopus Merengue Etc."
Write a brief scene that includes the following: an octopus; merengue; an old sofa; a hoarse whisper; the smell of old shoes; the smell of burning pine; shreds of raw cabbage.

December 22
"Dinner or Supper?"
Describe each character's typical dinner or supper (what, where, when, how, etc.): a baseball team owner's; a struggling dairy farmer's; a California poet's; a New York City fashion magazine editor's.

December 23
"The Flamingo Lady"
The Flamingo Lady is nuts about flamingoes. Describe her house; describe her car; describe her daily activities; and finally, provide a few lines of dialogue about her by her neighbors.

December 24
"The Day the Smiths' TV Broke"
One day the Smith's TV broke. How did it break? (Was it spectacular?) Then what happened?

December 25
"Santa Has Alzheimers"
Santa Claus went out in the sleigh, but he forgot to delivere the presents! Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, Mrs Claus is getting very worried. Little does she know, Santa has wandered into to the Alamogordo, New Mexico Wal-Mart... Start writing...

December 26
"Show Don't Tell: Won the $10 Million Lottery"
Using specific, vivid detail that appeals to the senses, how might you show the reader that your character has won the lottery? Do not mention the lottery, or the money.

December 27
For two full minutes: make a list of all the trees you can think of (e.g., oak, pine, etc). Then circle the one you think is the most beautiful. Circle the one that strikes you as the least beautiful. Circle the one that most reminds you of your childhood. You have three minutes left: Start writing. No rules.

December 28 "Quick Sketch 2 Neck Up"
Sometimes a character can be vividly rendered with as few as two descriptions. For example:
~ He had a head shaped like an anvil and broad, low brows;
~ She had pale skin and a space between her front teeth;
~ He had a prominent adam's apple and a Fu Manchu mustache;
~ He had long leathery-looking ears and a long nose;
In 5 minutes, come up with as many as you can. Stick with two descriptions per character and focus on the neck up.

December 29 "Jason's Jillian: Complications"
This is a simple exercise in constructing a plot.
Here's the set-up: Jason, a [insert profession] in [insert place], wants to be respected. He believes that he will not be respected if anyone finds out that his girlfriend, the incredibly gorgeous [insert something specific and very special] Jillian has dumped him.
Now list three complications for Jason
all having to do with his trying to hide the fact that Jillian has dumped him that could later be fleshed out into scenes.

December 30 "Blogalicious"
This exercise is about playing with language. "Blogalicious" is a word I made up
or, perhaps someone else has beat me to it (I haven't "googled" it yet). It is simply a combination of the word "blog" and "delicious". A blog, by the way, is a web log. If you are not familiar with blogs, take a look at www.blogger.com
The exercise is this: make up some names for blogs by combining words
(e.g., Vegetarian and Tofu = Veg Fu) as many as you can come up with in 5 minutes.

December 31
"Total Transformation"
Bob was a lonely obese alcoholic whose apartment was crammed with clutter. But then, on December 31st, Bob underwent a total transformation. Within one year, he became a buff yoga instructor whose sparklingly clean and sun-filled apartment with a view of the ocean was the scene of many delightful parties. In five minutes, sketch the scene of what happened to Bob on that fateful December 31st.

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