Today's exercise is courtesy of Ron Hogan, a writer and blogger
based in New York City.
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
Without Visual Cues"
Today's exercise is courtesy of Kathleen Alcala, a short story writer,
novelist, and essayist who lives near Seattle, Washington.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Today's exercise is courtesy of Robert Giron, a poet, writer, and translator who
lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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
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.
This exercise is about focusing on and generating highly specific
detail. In five minutes, vividly describe as many different ears
as you can.
Today's exercise is courtesy of Laurie
a poet and novelist who lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
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.
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?
'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?"
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
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,
Do as many as you can in 5 minutes.
a yellow coat; a tall building; a white wall; a brick house;
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
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.
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
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
~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
~listening to a joke he/ she does not understand
~desperately wanting to say something but knows it's a big secret
~experiencing road rage
~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
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"
for the Last Five Minutes of Your Life"
Today's exercise is courtesy of Cristina Gutierrez Richaud, a Mexican writer who
lives in Guadalajara.
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
This is an exercise in generating imagery, highly specific descriptive
detail and, possibly, story material. Pick a lampthe
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.
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.
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.
Nelson begins Fish Poem, with the lines
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 whats important to you poetically. Its also an
invitation to wild freedom and to serious playfulness. You might
list some weird things first. Then find an item thats 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
youre trying to make a point about including the ugliness
of the world in poetry, maybe you really dont 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?
/ 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.
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
Today's exercise is courtesy of Liz Henry, a poet, writer, translator
and blogger who lives in Redwood City, California.
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.
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?
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.
(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
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.)
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?
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.")
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.
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.