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

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 I admired this fragment in Henry James's The Ambassadors (Methuen, 1903):

***the sky was silver and turquoise and varnish

so I broke it down as follows:

***the sky was [some kind of metal] and [some of stone] and [some kind of liquid].


***the sky was gold and sapphire and milk.

***the sky was tin and coal and whiskey.

***the sky was brass and amber and bootblack.

A good writing exercise then would be to continue: do as many of these as you can, whether one, two, or seventeen. Then, circle the one that strikes you as the most vivid and/ or apt for the manuscript you are currently working on.

In reading Julia Glass's novel, Three Junes, I admired this passage:

Paging through the news from afar, he finds himself tired of it all. Tired of Maggie Thatcher, her hedgehog eyes, her vacuous hair, her cotton-mouthed edicts on jobs, on taxes, on terrorist acts.

So, breaking this into chunks:
[name of uncommon animal] eyes,
[quirky adjective] hair,
[adjective describing mouth / voice] [some form of speech] on
[noun], on [noun], on [noun].

Thus: describing my own character (an aging and overpowering spinster who has taken over the care of her nephew), I used this basic structure (with a little wiggle room) to come up with the following:

Her lizard eyes, her coiled-up hair, her sharp-tongued pronouncements on his toys, his nap-times, his hot milk with sugared bread.

I decided I quite liked just the first part – her [name of uncommon animal] eyes, her [quirky adjective] hair – so I came up with these:

Her angel-fish eyes, her dumpy hair

Her ferret eyes, her over-blown hair

Her Shetland pony eyes, her indecisive hair

His raccoon eyes, his ludicrous toupee

His weasel eyes, his cockamamie comb-over

and so on...

Once you've done a few, or several, circle the one that most appeals to you.

From the Daily 5 Minute Writing Exercises:

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 as 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.

And 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.