In the Beginning: From your collection of favorite books, build a playlist of great beginnings. Identify them by type, then use them as models to try out different openings for your work in progress.
Spooky Subtext: Which words and phrases haunt your work? It’s likely that there you’ll find subtext. Mark those parts, and expand.
Landscapes Revisited: From David Vann, this exercise on the objective correlative: For two pages, describe a place that you haven’t seen in at least ten years, a place that remains vivid in your memory. Use this place to indirectly describe one of the primary sorrows, regrets, or fears of your life. Don’t name any of these emotions or tell of the events, just describe the place.
What's Left Unsaid: Select a short scene from a draft. Eliminate one sentence out of every three. Read through what’s left, and then you may fill in as you choose – as long as you don’t slip the old sentences back in.
Scene and Summary: From Barrington's Writing the Memoir: Pick a summer from your early life and write about it, all in summary. Then from that summer, write two scenes.
Twittersphere: Find one author you like on Twitter and one on Facebook. Follow and friend. See how connected you feel, and how inspired.
Retreat: In your retreat state of mind, try this exercise from Pam Houston: write about three “glimmers,” one from the past 48 hours, one from at least ten years ago, and one from anytime.
Precision: For help with precision, Smart Edit is a free program for Windows that points out clichés as well as overused words and phrases. I haven’t tried it yet; if you do, leave a comment to let me know what you think.
Pacing: Noah Lukeman suggests taking one page from your manuscript and expanding it into a full-fledged story. Or try the reverse – condensing a full story into one page without reducing it to mere summary. Either approach will force you to consider matters of pacing.
Description - That Glint of Light: Freewrite a scene showing yourself in your childhood home, revealing specific emotions tied to specific times and/or corners within the place. Though some telling is fine, concern yourself mostly with showing. The scene may be fiction or fact.
Emotions - What Words Can Express: From Poets and Writers newsletter “The Time is Now” comes this exercise: The term "bewildered" can mean many things--to be perplexed, confused, or mystified; to have lost one's bearings; to be turned around or disoriented; to be baffled or bamboozled, befogged or befuddled. Write about an experience that left you bewildered--focusing not so much on what brought you to that moment but what it felt like once you arrived there. Try to put the feeling into words without using any of the dictionary's many definitions of the word.
Transcendence: Lukeman suggests asking yourself and five other readers these questions: Does my work inspire curiosity, interest, need, or action? Why or why not? On a scale of 1 to 10, how inspirational is it in each of these areas? Where it’s lacking, how can it change?
Character Reins: What does your character regret? What does she expect? What insights, intentions, and instabilities have you discovered in her? What does she need? In what ways does she speculate?
Voice Matters: Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also one of the best ways to develop an awareness of voice. Rewrite a page from your work in progress in conscious imitation of the voice of an author you admire.
Humility: There’s a big difference between humility and beating yourself up. Face this head-on by writing a list-story titled “Bullies I Have Known.” Bullies prey on our insecurities to cover for their own. Maybe you’ve even bullied yourself. Bullying leads to bravado, and the point of this exercise, inspired by C. Michael Curtisin Naming the World, is to expose it.
Keep It Simple: Writing’s an art, but it’s also a business. Do you have a business plan? Think in one, three, and five year increments. Jot down where you hope to be as a writer: what you hope to create and sell. Which smaller markets, even non-paying, are accessible to you? Which communities will help you grow as a writer? Which conferences, symposiums, and other writing events will help you build a network of professional connections? Who among you existing friends, colleagues, and family could be your Aunt Dottie, sharing your well-crafted work with the right people?
Likable Characters: In Naming the World, Eric Goodman suggests this two-part exercise for creating nuanced characters. First, give your character something you love – your mother’s smile, the loyal devotion of your family dog, a treasured memory. Then let your character do something hateful, like cheating or spreading a rumor. Once you’ve created your lovable, flawed character, write a scene where she processes sensory input from multiple sources, essentially occupying two spaces at one time. Let her be in one conversation while overhearing another, or on a noisy train car while watching her family from the window, waving goodbye.
Life into Story: Robin Henley suggests taking a family incident from your childhood and writing it exactly as you remember it – no embellishment. Then query someone else who was there to discover how they remember it. Transform this memory into a fictional scene, strengthening the story with decisions on structure and point of view. Finally, write the story again from another character’s point of view.
Ready, Set, Market: Run a ready-for-market survey on a published piece you admire, in the same genre as your own. Then run it on yours. Compare. Don’t let this be a cop out. Your work (and mine) may always fall short, but if you’re serious about becoming a good writer, you need to have the courage to learn where it does.
Wise Words: To enrich your dialogue scenes, Fitch recommends keeping a notebook of gestures, facial expressions, and vocal qualities. Watch TV with the sound off to discover how gestures convey meaning and reveal conflict. Pay attention to people in meetings. How do they move? How do they laugh? Describe their vocal quality, using musical terms. Note how gestures underscore and how they contradict what is said.
Child's Play - The Lyric Moment: “There are road signs to beauty,” David Vann says. “Hearing the sentences of great writers in your head enlarges your register.” Identify lyric moments in the work of your favorite authors, moments that step away from the forward momentum of the narrative, moments of full, deep awareness. How do language and time work together with truth in these moments? Then look for such moments – or opportunities for such moments – in your own work. Have you allowed time to slow? Have the sensual and psychological details compressed? Is the language reaching the lyric register? Wherever you sense such a moment approaching, follow Shapiro’s advice: access the specific, then dig deep.
Pot of Gold: Endings: Start with the ending. Like Katherine Anne Porter, write a scene that will serve as an ending and then write the story toward it. If you don’t have a scene, you may use (free of charge) this little incident that happened to me last week: My dog and I are walking the bike path along
On the Road with Your Characters: “She didn’t want to go to __________, but…” Consider your “she” – what form of happiness she desires, what reality demands of her, how she might try to save herself, how she might grown in consciousness and self-knowledge. Once you know the character, write the story. Or if you prefer, draft the story, see who emerges, consider what’s on the page, and refine it. Debra Spark, who mentions this prompt in “Writing as a Parlor Game” (Naming the World), suggests you’ll find inspiration in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Metaphor, With All Due Respect: Approach metaphor with playful reverence. Start when the stakes are low – on a walk, waiting in line. See how far you can push metaphors for the seemingly ordinary: sunlight, clouds, snow. Reject anything that hints of the typical or the cliché; nothing cold, for instance, in your metaphorical thinking about snow. The idea is to push into unexplored territory.
The Bounce: Shore up your attitude, get your pen ready, and share a work in progress with your first readers. This might be easy or hard, depending on how well you’ve perfected your bounce. If you don’t have a set of first readers, you can find them online, at places like You Write On.
Marks of Distinction: From a page or two heavy with dialogue, remove the quotation marks. Consider how it looks on the page and whether you have to rewrite to make clear who’s speaking. If you like the effect (for reasons other than coolness), the shape of the piece may point you in new ways to think about the piece. Explore ways in which you might allow it to become more interior, or more surreal – but only if it feels like those effects are integral to the story.
Where Characters Come From: Read Paris Review interviews with a few of your favorite authors, then create your own “
The Writer's Dilemma: For two weeks, keep a diary of your writing activities: creation, revision, reflection, immersion, community, money stuff. Then tally up the time spent in each area, and compare it against how you’d like to be spending your writing time. Factor in energy and momentum to come up with a schedule to help you become a happier and more productive writer.
So Many Books: Develop your own customized book report habit, mining whatever you read for treasures of craft. Either at the end of your daily reading sessions or when you finish a book (or a story or essay or poem), write about what you loved most. As when revising, consider both the larger structure elements and the nuanced details. Speculate on how the writer worked the manuscript; if possible, affirm your speculations through research.
Je Ne Sais Quoi: Carry a notepad, either old-fashioned or electronic. Note random thoughts, flashes of inspiration, without concern for whether anything will come from them. You may jot down hundreds of images, snatches of conversation, and ideas before one begins to haunt you, coming to you as you fall asleep and again in the mornings when you wake. That’s your essay, your story, your book.
Push-ups and Poses: Start by describing a fingernail – its shape, color, size, texture. Include a metaphor in your description. Now give this fingernail to a character and write a scene in which you mention the fingernail. The character must start out either angry or happy and by the end of the scene begin to move the other direction without the words angry or happy or their synonyms being used. Also include in the scene an object that has meaning for the character and some dialogue.
The Big Picture: To explore the big picture in a piece you’ve been writing, take two pages and arbitrarily cut one sentence from every three-sentence block. Then go back and fill in around what’s left, without replacing any of the material you’ve removed. From the new two pages, list content words that repeat, either exactly or synonymously. Then list the themes, images, and atmosphere suggested by the content words. Use your lists and your slash-and-build revision to extract new thoughts about the big picture. (Adapted from exercises by Anne Harleman and Brian Kitely in Now Write!)
Start and Stuck: Stuck or not, return to your beginning. Rewrite it completely, with a place or a scene or a character you hadn’t envisioned. The idea isn’t to make use of this reworked start (though you might), but rather to see how it illuminates your project.
The Self-Made Writer: List at least three of your aspirational writers, writers whose work feels so perfect and true that you can’t imagine ever writing as well as they do. Then choose from reviews of their work three or four phrases that you would love to have someone use to describe your writing someday – “achingly wise,” “sensitive and deeply insightful,” that sort of thing. Keep this as your watch list for the year. As you read new books from each of these writers, search actively for how they earn their praise – the exquisite sentence, the character pushed past her limits, the detail lovingly rendered.
Rhythm and Solitude: Settle into your favorite setting, communal or solitary. Starting with either a scene in rough form or a promising piece from your journal, play with the same material by writing first in staccato rhythm (sentence fragments work well) and then in a long, complex sentence that undulates with its own rhythm. Don’t be rigid; if the rhythm leads you in another direction, go with it. Let it be a door to discovery.
Start and Stuck: What is the most unlikely move one of your characters might make at a particular point in your narrative, the most unlikely act of a persona in one of your poems? Write that scene. Let it meander, then glean for truth.