Using color, texture, shapes, sound, smell, etc. describe: a
dawn; a partially sunny mid-day; a winter twilight.
Today's exercise is courtesy of Douglas Glover, a Canadian essayist,
novelist, and short story writer who lives in New York State.
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
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.
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?
Today's exercise is courtesy of Mary Quattlebaum, a childrens' author
who lives in Washington DC.
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
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.
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.
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.
from an Imaginary Land"
Today's exercise is courtesy of Deborah Batterman, a short story writer
who lives in Katonah, New York.
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.
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.
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.
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'
~What is the one word that "bagels" makes you think
~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
~Your next door neighbor?
Without necessarily answering them, quickly jot down three more
questions about breakfast.
& 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.
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.
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
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
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
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
~a very luxurious bubblebath
~highly complex and beautiful music
Briefly describe a lawn. Then, briefly describe a tree on that
lawn. Then, describe a kite and how it flies into this scene.
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
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?
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."
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.
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
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
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
"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.
"The Day the Smiths' TV Broke"
One day the Smith's TV broke. How did it break? (Was it spectacular?)
Then what happened?
"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...
"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 "Trees"
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.
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.
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
Now list three complications for Jasonall having to do with
his trying to hide the fact that Jillian has dumped him
that could later be fleshed out into scenes.
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
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