Tag Archives: writing exercises

Writing Using Given Elements

writing

Saturday night I discovered I had a writing assignment to do in preparation for my Critique Group the next day. It’s been posted for a while but because I was still doing NaNo and working on Real Life stuff I had completely missed seeing the exerise. So, while I was out I began thinking of different scenarios I could use to write about but what I kept returning to was Christmas lights and Gremlins. I love Christmas lights. All those mutli-colored fireflies lighting up and pushing away the dark makes me happy. It’s like seeing bits of hope in the middle of the night. It’s nice when you have a community where most of the houses are decorated but my favorites are the single homes out in the middle of nowhere where there’s nothing but you and the dark. I have very fond memories of driving to my grandparent’s house at night and seeing those pop out of nowhere like lit breadcrumbs showing us the way. And as for the Gremlins, well, I kept going back to the Phoebe Cates’ scene where she’s talking about why Christmas sucks for her.

Here was the exercise details:

  • Instructions: Take the information provided below and write the first 500 – 1000 words of a new chapter or novel/short story opening. Genre is up to you. Point of view is up to you. But each of the elements listed below must be included.
  • Objective: To hook the reader and to set the atmosphere without losing reader interest.
  • Basic set-up: Your main character drives up to a small house that is off the beaten track. From the outside, the house looks like most others in the area. A single light burns in the front window. Your main character gets out of the car and crosses to the front door. It opens under the MC’s hand. The MC calls out. No one answers. MC steps inside and finds . . . .

As I was brainstorming Saturday night out loud with my husband, I knew I wasn’t really wanting to writea traditional Christmas story. Like Gremlins, I wanted my main character to have a reason to like or not like Christmas. I went to bed Saturday night and woke up the next morning with my idea in place. After getting some caffeine in my system I started writing, and the next thing I know I’ve spent an hour and a half writing without thinking about it and I had to rush to finish it because I still needed a shower and I didn’t want to be late for Group. And Group ended up being so much fun because of the exercise. Three of us apparently had the same idea in a way; we wrote a murder/mystery opening, though mine was the only one with a Christmas theme. So, below find my unedited contribution to yesterday’s writing assignment.

I have another one to write for the next meeting and I’m thrilled, I tell you. Thrilled!

xo Jesi

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

In the sleepy little town of Oak Hollow in the deepest part of the backwoods of Mississippi, you can count on three things happening throughout the year. The first is the annual Holy Roller Baptist Tent Revival and Come to Jesus Meeting, and yes, it is actually called that. All the little old ladies fry up chicken and potatoes and bake casseroles and desserts. There’s even the occasional squirrel prank pulled thanks to that old Ray Stevens song. It actually works half the time, though I’m sure the teenage boys pulling the prank aren’t trying to bring anybody to Jesus.

The second thing you can count on is Mayor Goodwin’s daughter being crowned Miss Oak Hollow for the New Year Parade, Fourth of July parade, Christmas Parade, and, hell, pretty much every town ceremony requiring a queen of events. She’s been Queen of Everything for the last five years, including head cheerleader, only because she’s the Mayor’s daughter. And she’s not even all that pretty.

The third thing, and in my opinion the most exciting, is the Christmas Eve murders. Every year for forever, one person in the town dies on Christmas Eve. Where most people supposedly go to bed dreaming of sugar plums and all that magical crapola, here in Oak Hollow we all go to bed wondering who’s going to be wrapped up in tinsel with a big, bloody bow stuffed down their mouth. It’s been going on for so long now you’d think the police would have caught someone by now, but nope, this here is Oak Hollow. We’ve got one of the laziest sheriffs in the country, and he’s fanatically superstitious.

By the way, I’m Mags, and in the Oak Hollow people context I’m the girl with the big mouth always asking for trouble, according to Sheriff Boggs at least. Most of the kids in this town try to get as far away as they can once they turn eighteen, but not me. I want to catch the murderer who killed my Uncle Johnny on Christmas Eve three years ago.

Now, imagine the scene. I’m eighteen and have a license and a beat-up old junker of a car. I bought it for $500 from Old Miss Johnson, the crazy chicken lady, after her license was taken away from her because she drove her car into the middle of the entrance of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Not that that matters right now but I’m damn proud of that car. Took me all summer working at the Piggly Wiggly as a cashier to earn the money to buy the thing and I get to crow about it all I want, thank you very much.

So here it is Christmas morning and we’re all ignoring the fact that we know someone’s been killed. We’ll know by lunchtime who the unlucky victim was, because that’s how small towns work, even on Christmas. Mom’s in the middle of making her usual big Christmas lunch and she tells me to go pick up Uncle Johnny, her bachelor brother, who lives on the outskirts of town. Why me? Because I’m eighteen with a license and a car, remember?

Ever notice how Southerners have a way of making it sound like you’d be doing them a favor when in reality they just got you to do something they don’t want to do? “Maggie, be a dear and run to the store for some milk please.” “Mags, honey, I can’t leave the house right now and I need you to go drop this casserole off at the church for me, thank you.” And my mom is the queen of guilt trips. So when she “asked” me to go get Uncle Johnny, I went. I tug on my galoshes because it’s been raining for the last three days and there’s mud everywhere, and I grab my jacket, keys jangling in the pocket where I left them knowing I’d be sent on some mission today. I’m like Mom’s messenger/errand runner since I got the car. Next, out the door, into the car and pray to the car gods that the engine will start in the cold air. Yes! The engine turns over though not without its usual groaning that it has to wake up so early in the winter. Now for the trek out to Uncle Johnny’s.

It’s still a little dark, thanks to the cloud cover, and most people have left their Christmas lights on. I love seeing the multi-colored lights shining on the houses. It reminds me that hope is hard to kill, despite the fact that we all know someone’s dead. My little car trudges along the street with Christmas music playing fitfully from the radio. I only get one station and since the tape cassette player is broken, Christmas music it is. Besides, I don’t own any tape cassettes. Actually, the Christmas music doesn’t bother me and I’m merrily singing away with Jose Feliciano when I reach Uncle Johnny’s driveway. My tires leave that satisfying crunch sound as I turn onto the gravel and pull up to the house.

The first thing I notice is that Uncle Johnny’s Christmas lights are off. All of them. He owns about four acres and every Christmas he puts on a big Christmas light display for the town. Everyone brings their kids out to see it because he’s always doing something different every year, and he leaves them on all day every day. Today would be the only exception I’ve ever known. Maybe he just forgot or overslept, my mind rationalizes. I don’t even think it could be anything else. Still, I hesitate just a moment before walking up to the door.

I see the traditional Christmas candelabra in the front window, its electric candlelight sending a warm yellow glow out into the gloom. Seeing that on must mean Uncle Johnny is still in bed sleeping. So, I run up the porch steps and knock on the front door calling out as I do, “Uncle Johnny! It’s Mags. Mom sent me to come pick you up for lunch!” But my words trail off as the door creaks open under the force of my hand. Shit! This would be where the unsuspecting heroine of the horror movie finds herself in trouble. I don’t want to go in. I don’t want to go in.

I have to go in.

I push the door open and warily stick my head through the entrance. It’s much too quiet. Not even Uncle Johnny’s infamous snoring. Damn, damn, damn. I don’t have a cell phone because I bought a car instead, so I’ll have to go inside the house to use the landline phone. I take a deep breath. Okay, Mags. You can do this, I tell myself. I walk through the door trying not to let my eyes fall on anything specific. The phone is in the kitchen which is only accessible through the living room. Crap. I turn to my left and begin walking that way. So far, so good. Nothing out of the ordinary. The Christmas tree is up and the lights are on. Everything seems normal. Except it isn’t. Christmas music blaring and the smell of pancakes cooking should be assaulting my senses but they’re not. This does not bode well. I have a feeling I know what Uncle Johnny received for Christmas.

“Get to the phone, Mags. Just get to the phone. You can call mom and then dad can drive over and check things out himself.” I repeat this over and over as I walk through the living room to the kitchen. I get through the kitchen doorway and there’s Uncle Johnny sitting in his normal spot at the kitchen table, a surprised look frozen on his face. He’s been draped in tinsel and there’s a big red bow-the kind you put on cars-tied around his chest. There’s no blood anywhere, though. He’s simply frozen solid holding a piece of paper with a message on it. I don’t want to look but curiosity compels me forward to read the missive. It’s only three words long.

“Ho Ho Ho.”

 

Drawing Your Reader Into Your Story

I apologize for my extreme tardiness. I had an overly busy weekend that seems to have extended itself into today. So, this is going to be short.

Yesterday, in my Critique Group, we reviewed a short work that was an assignment the author (AJ) was given. She was given a choice of a picture, song, or poem, and told to write what she saw. It was a “show, don’t tell” assignment. AJ chose a picture which happened to be Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, and the story she wrote from that had me captivated and intrigued.

The main thought that kept circling in my head was how excellent an exercise this was for writers. Especially for beginners. One of the biggest problems I’ve had in my writing is the tendency to write exactly what I see in my head. Most of the time this is fine. However, I forget that I’m seeing a scene in my head that I’m trying to describe to an audience and I want to bring that audience into the scene with me. That means showing them by using descriptors and metaphors that put them there, not giving them stage directions, that will bore them and make them not want to know more. It’s not enough to know it’s raining; they need to feel the rain as well.

The exercise AJ had to do was such a great way to practice this technique. It forced her to bring her reader into the picture, which she did very well. Another way of accomplishing this would be to write for 30 minutes about where you are right this very moment. Are you sitting down at a desk like I am? Are you in a park? Describe in detail what is going on around you, such as the noises, the scents, etc. Use your five senses and bring me to where you are. Show me, don’t tell me.

This works for poetry as well. Last week for the poetry challenge I am doing I was supposed to write a poem about risk taking. Instead, I wrote about a dream I had the night before which continued to haunt me throughout the day. So, I wrote a poem about that instead. You tell me, did I bring you into my dream or not?

You Were Not There

By Jesi Scott

 

Last night, I had a dream about you,

But you were not there.

I know it was you I dreamed about because

I felt you all around…

But you were not there.

I walked the rooms you had walked in,

Placing my steps in the same places you did.

I sat in the chairs you sat in

Imagining you reading into the depths of the night.

I laid my body on the couch in just the same spot,

In just the same way, that you did

Only…

The cushions had forgotten your shape

And so, I could not feel your body next to mine.

The chairs were hard and cold,

And did not retain the memory of you in them.

The floors had erased your footprints.

You were not there.

Yet…

When I looked I noticed the relics of your presence:

Old, worn shoes left by the front door

Waiting for you to put them on again,

The book you turned upside down on the last page you had read

Waiting for the caress of your hand on its pages,

The cup you left by the sink, unrinsed,

Waiting for the softness of your lips pressed against its rim-

All of us waiting for your return.

Yet I could not wait forever so I turned away

and opened my eyes eager to see your face…

But you weren’t there.

 

And I am left,

Bereft.

 

Personally, I think it could use some editing. I could have described the couch more or maybe I could have mentioned the table that the book was lying on. What about adding a clock ticking somewhere? Or did I manage to pull you into the poem by not showing you everything? Showing can mean a little or a lot, and part of our job as a writer is to know when just enough is good enough. Too much can take away from the overall scene by being too descriptive, and too little can leave a reader trying to figure out what’s going on.

Try it for yourself. Find a picture that captures your interest and write to show, not tell, and bring your audience into it.

Have a great week!

Jesi

An Exercise In Sensory Imagery

(Life took a wild turn this weekend past and left me exhausted so I’m reblogging this post from my home blog. – Jesi)

An Exercise in Sensory Imagery

The story I’m currently writing is taking an emotional toll. It’s a hard write because it’s fairly personal, and with the research I’m still continuing to do for it, even though it’s just a short story, I’m really having a rough go with the subject. I have to often take breaks so I don’t drown in the emotional current of the piece. I’ve also begun to prepare myself before I begin by doing some practice writing exercises. In fact, I’ve gone back to basics. So, how about a writing lesson today?

It’s a simple one: all you have to do is sit down and write a paragraph using sound imagery. Think of a noisy place and describe it. You might find yourself using alliteration (same letter or sounds at the beginning of adjacent or connected words) and onomatopoeia (words that sound like what they are-e.g., sizzle, crash).

Don’t worry; this is just for fun. No grades or criticisms. Just free write for twenty minutes.

Here is my practice piece:

It is three in the afternoon on a sweltering summer day. Somewhere, in an air-conditioned house, a dishwasher hums and sloshes its contents into cleanliness while an industrious little bird chirps and splashes in the birdbath outside the kitchen window. A delivery truck rumbles by on its way to some unknown destination. It seems like such a peaceful day, with the sun shining and all relatively quiet in the suburbs. Then a door slams. CRASH! Baby elephants galumph down the stairs, pictures rattling on the walls in the wake of the beasties, and immediate cries of “MOM, can I play Minecraft?”, “MOM, can I have some cookies?”, “MOM, he hit me!” resound through a house in what can only be described as the equivalent of a grenade exploding. Soon, too soon, pips and pops, bashes, slashes, and angry riotous conversation issues from the family room. From somewhere nearby a sigh of resignation escapes a throat but it is barely audible among the cacophony. A woman sits at a table, pens and paper and other writing implements scattered around, and marvels for the umpteenth time at the genius of Mother Nature’s survival instincts, which causes a mother to strongly attach to her young.

 

What can you write using sound imagery? Feel free to share in the comments.

x Jesi

It’s Elementary, and Only the Beginning

showing

Good morning. As we make it through Friday, a time when us weekend warrior writers look forward to letting loose and exercising our alleged talents – we know who we are – I want to follow up on Jesi’s posting from Monday about “showing” descriptions in our stories, as opposed to “telling.”

In writing fiction, in particular, the basic concept is rather elementary, yet I have found lately that a significant segment of emerging writers do not understand what it means or how it works. Of four writers I specifically have in mind, as I sit down to write this, three of are more mature – well into their 60s and 70s.

I was lucky, I suppose, having picked up the notion of “show, don’t tell” in high school English. Although, I do have to admit, it took a while before I understood even the basics. At first, I was frustrated because I could not get how writing, alone, could lead to creating some picture or visual setting.

But, when I finally caught on to what my teacher was talking about, it all seemed so magical. I felt like a new world had been opened and that I had been bestowed with a fantastic new power of insight. It truly became a new dimension of writing for me.

Jesi’s example of taking a few sentences of a description about a tree that reads more like “stage directions,” really hits the problem. You can see her example in her posting, as she shows the modified three sentences of dry description and, using the vehicle of a third-person perspective, brings it alive for the reader’s imagination. It makes all the difference between falling asleep out of boredom and having the curiosity and motivation to read on.

To me, using a rough description from one of my own stories, it is the difference between listing the attributes of a mountain valley with its green trees, small creek and tall mountains, as opposed to having the reader step into the picture to discover a creek with its overflowing winter’s runoff, meandering through the lush greenery of its aspens where a family of sparrows is playing. The birds get scared off by an approaching wolf and takeoff toward the heights of the sky-reaching snow-covered peaks.  Again, it is just a rough draft version, but hopefully it helps illustrate the point.

Sorry Jesi if I’m riding the coattails of your topic this week, but I think you have hit on a critical point of writing that I think is worth repeating, because some people are just a bit challenged, as I was, as they attempt to grasp the concept.

From there of course, the goal is to strive to perfect “show, don’t tell,” which is the lifetime challenge of the art. Personally, I’m always looking at fresh variations to try to experiment with, as I strive to draw the reader through the story. I know some writers have come close to perfecting the art, but so far, I have a long way from being one of them.

 

Show, Don’t Tell

My house has been overrun. I am under attack and have tried to batten down the hatches, build foxholes, and all that military terminology describing hiding in my closet. I have way too many people in my house demanding my undivided attention. My nerves are frazzled, no, wait…they are not frazzled. They are cut electric lines spitting out sparks and looking for something to ignite. I am currently devising a plan to get me the heck out of here for a few days next month (I hope-I really need a break.) because someone is going to get hurt, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be my brain.

I am not doing so well on my writing goal, although I have been writing every day, which is great. It’s mostly poetry, but I am writing several a day and I can feel the inspiration flowing. I have been coming up with ideas and taking extensive notes because I really am trying to stick with one project at the moment. But, it’s been hard to find any time or peace and quiet this last week. I haven’t been the only one up in the early hours, which means there is no quiet because (sorry for the stereotyping here-just understand I’m speaking in generalities) you men cannot be quiet at all. I don’t care if it’s closing a door or taking a shower, the men in my house have no idea what “shhh, people are sleeping” means. And when I say “early hours” I mean “early”, as in “did you even go to sleep?”

One of the things I’ve done to try and get some story writing done is I’ve turned back to this book I love called The Practice of Poetry (which I mention a lot because…LOVE) by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. It is filled with some very good exercises. And today I wanted to share one which stood out recently. I haven’t done it myself yet, though I am practicing it with my current work in progress.

The exercise is called Intriguing Objects/”Show and Tell”. You are supposed to grab an object, any object, and talk about it. Tell it’s story because it has one. Where did you find it? What drew you to it? How did it come to you? Then, after telling it’s story (this is a group exercise) you are to write about it in some way (poetry, prose, play, etc). Unfortunately, I’m not in a group setting so I thought about it differently. It brought to mind a common writing mantra-show, don’t tell.

One very common mistake most beginning writers make is in their descriptions, whether for a character or setting. “The tree was tall and had green leaves, which blew in the wind. Diane saw the tree. She put her hand on the trunk and looked up. She could see the sky through the leaves.” Do you see what I mean? The description is boring. It reads more like stage directions to me. And, yes, people do actually have manuscripts that read like this.

What if it read more like this:

“The tree towered over Diane, and she could see the leaves dancing in the breeze. She put her hand on the rough bark of the trunk to steady herself. Just looking up at the soaring height of the tree made her dizzy, so she focused on trying to spot the azure sky through the canopy of leaves.”

See the difference? In the first one, you are being told every little thing. There’s no imagination, no creativity. In the second, there’s more description, it’s active. You get a sense of who Diane is. Does she get vertigo? Where is she? How big is the tree? You want to know more about the story, don’t you?

Show, don’t tell. It’s such a common mistake but easily fixed. Go find yourself a dictionary and a thesaurus, and practice writing descriptions. That’s your exercise for today. 😉

Jesi

 

Ten-Minute Spill

Normally on Mondays on my home blog at The Lunatic, The Lover, & The Poet, I post something inspired by my Muse. Usually that means poetry. I won’t always post poems here but I thought it’d be fun to do one this time around.

If you follow me over at my home blog, you’ll become aware that I am going through some poetry exercises from this book (The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn & Chase Twichell) I bought at a local Half Price Bookstore. It has a lot of exercises by different poets/writers to help get the creative juices flowing, and I’m actually learning some new techniques that are very helpful. I’m not rushing my way through the book. I do one exercise and then put it away for a week or two. And I’m finding that I enjoy the exercises more than if I charge my way through.

So, I thought I’d share the most recent exercise here because I thought it would be really fun to use as a writing prompt as well. The exercise is called Ten-Minute Spill by Rita Dove. What I was supposed to do was write a ten-line poem. It was supposed to contain a proverb, adage, or familiar phrase (ex: one foot in the grave, a stitch in time saves nine, the whole nine yards, etc.) and change it in some way, as well as use five of the following words:

cliff          blackberry          needle          cloud

voice       mother                 whir               lick

You have ten minutes.

I did not come up with a ten-line poem. What I wrote was much longer. (They shouldn’t give me ten minutes.) But I liked the result and was somewhat surprised by what came out. I ended up using two phrases though one I changed and the other I did not. The five words I chose were: blackberry, mother, voice, needle, and lick. Here is my result:

Femme Fatale by Jesi Scott

She’s one mean mother of a brick house

     in her slinky crimson dress and black shoes,

     the ones with the needle-sharp heels,

lips done up in that wet blackberry shade-

makes your palms sweat just looking at her.

     She smiles that smile just for you

and your mouth goes dry, your heartbeat

trip-hammers a staccato tune

-Chopsticks on a piano.

That waterfall hair cascading down her back

     like brown waves into a blood-red ocean,

your fingers itch to tangle in it and drown.

Then, she sighs and says,

     “I can be yours if the price is right,”

and she presses her body against yours,

promises bright in her voice.

You lick your lips, your mouth dry,

and you know somewhere in the back of your mind,

somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea

…she’s going to make you pay.

So that’s what I came up with after ten minutes. I did only minor editing like spelling and punctuation. What do you think?

Try it yourself. You don’t have to write poetry. Give yourself maybe twenty minutes. Think of a proverb, adage, or familiar phrase and write a quick story and use five of the words from above. Make sure you change the phrase you use in some way. If you have a blog why not post your attempt and share the link with us in the comments? I’d love to read what you come up with!

Have a Twisted Monday!

Jesi

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