Writing Exercise: Boredom Into Tension

Write down the most boring, enervating activity you know–or can imagine. It could be folding laundry. Or listening to your father-in-law tell his story of the fish that got away for the eleven hundredth time. Or waiting in an office where you can’t use your cell phone. Whatever.

Now write a paragraph–or scene–or entire story in which that activity is crucial to the plot. Convey to your reader not just the boredom but the foreboding of something bad to come. Think shower scene in “Psycho.” Practice using the everyday to build tension.

Story Starter: Lost

Think of the last time you saw a stray, incongruous item on the street or roadway–such as a mattress beside the interstate, a single brown shoe at a busy intersection, or a winding two-lane road with a brown jacket on the double yellow line. Now write the story of how it came to be there.

Story Starter: Epsom Salt

A woman buys a six pound bag of epsom salt intending to soak her aching feet. On the back of the bag she notices directions for use as a laxative and as a fertilizer. What problem does she decide to solve by using epsom salt? And how does that create more problems?

Writing Tip: When, While, Then

Search your work for these words and closely examine each usage. They often contribute to run-on sentences that would be stronger and clearer if they were revised into two or more shorter sentences.  Be especially wary if one sentence contains two or all three of these words.

Writing Exercise: Practicing Similes

Similes add color and tone to your writing. Don’t overdo. And avoid the worn and weary ones–such as hard as a rock, soft as a cotton ball, etc.

Make a list of fifty adjectives. They can be as simple as big, ugly, or shy. List the adjectives in a column, one adjective per line.

Turn each word into a simile by adding “as” and finishing the comparison. For example, ugly as a rotting stump. Try for comparisons that are fresh but meaningful.

Writing Tip: Learn from Insomniacs

People who have trouble sleeping are often advised to establish a routine, go to bed at about the same time every night, get up at the usual time even if you didn’t get to sleep till late, avoid distractions near bedtime, keep TVs and books out of the bedroom, and so forth.

People who have trouble writing should take parallel advice: write about the same time every day, sit down to write at the usual time even if you didn’t finish your to-do list first, avoid starting a chore or project right before your writing time, don’t take phone calls during your writing time, and keep TV off or in another room. And for goodness sake, don’t clean up your desk before you start! It’s as lethal as trying to sleep immediately after working out at the gym.

Writing Tip: Don’t Find a Good Stopping Place

Everyone advises new writers to write every day. That was a tip you read here–if not first, at least early on. If you have difficulty getting down to writing, find a time when you can write every day–get up a bit earlier, use half of your lunch hour, use your commute (assuming you aren’t driving!), take the time right after the kids are in bed–whatever works for you. It can be as little as half an hour a day. During that time, write. Never take you fingers off the keyboard–or the pen off the yellow pad. And at the end of that time, stop. Do not worry about where you are, just stop.

If you stop in the middle of a scene, a paragraph, even in the middle of a sentence, that’s a good thing. When you take it up again, you have a built-in prompt: just finish what you started and keep going. There is no need to prime the pump. This works best if you do write every day.

The problem with finding a good stopping place is the inertia working against getting started again. By definition, a good stopping place means that something is about to change. Finding the new direction can overwhelm the impetus to write.

Bottom line: stop in the middle of something.


Story Starter: My Mother Never

Write “My mother never…” and then complete the sentence. List several things she never did. Build a story around the things she didn’t do. Focus on what they tell you about her personality, needs, situation, conflicts, fears, etc.

If need be, substitute a grandmother, aunt, or other female important in your life.

Writing Tip: Choose Your Readers Carefully

Writers often want someone to read a draft and give an opinion. Think twice. Or three times.

Family members generally fall into two categories: those who offer unconditional adulation, and those who are masters of the put-down. They are convenient but not always the best choice. Ask for comments primarily from other writers, or at least from experienced readers.

If you choose to belong to a critique group, choose peers who are of good heart–i.e.,no one is out to be top dog. The focus is on everyone making everyone else’s writing better, no competition.

Ask whoever comments on your work to be concrete, to identify specific instances to support any general statement. If the person says that you use strong verbs, ask for examples.

Get both positive and negative comments, and don’t defend your work. Getting feedback is not a debate. Your readers are responding to what is on the page, not what you were thinking or intending. Bring that up only if you are asking how to do it better.

And remember that suggestions are there for the taking–or not! But if there is a consensus on something–e.g., that the dialect is too heavy–ignore it at your own peril.