Something New and Interactive

Halloween is a holiday that is matched in my mind only by secularized-Christmas. To celebrate, in a nerdy kind of way, I’ve stolen some writing exercises from Josip Novakovich’s The Fiction Writer’s Workshop and added some Halloween spirit to them. I’ll post my results on October 31, and I invite everyone else to participate. You can either post your exercise in the comments section, or link it to your own blog. The exercises are below, and the italics are my own notes.

The following excerpts are from Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich.

Exercise One  (Page 40)

Two Pages: Describe with care the most ordinary items you can think of.  Look at them as though they were strange and unusual.  Conversely, describe extraordinary things—meteors, rockets, and so on—in familiar language as just another stone or a piece of rolled sheet metal.

Objective: To learn how to control your distance from the objects you describe.  If you are too close, you may not see the shape; if you are too far away, you may not see the details.  Get into the habit of shifting the focus away from what would be your automatic focus, and you will see items in a fresh way.  Practice the art of creating surprising details.  Skip something obviously important and use something apparently unimportant.

Check: Do the ordinary objects sound fascinating?  Do the extraordinary objects sound ordinary but interesting?  If not, go back, and in the first half of the exercise give us the details that amaze, and in the second, details that make us take a good look.  Everything you observe with interest should sound interesting.

Halloween Bonus: Try to make your ordinary object sound sinister, menacing, terrifying or uncanny in some way.  For your extraordinary object, pick a typical Halloween item (ghost, zombie, gravestone, haunted house, severed limb(s), and make it sound familiar yet interesting. 

Exercise Two  (Page 42)

From Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights:

“One may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessing slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. […] The narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.”

The narrator completes the image of the house’s exterior with this description:

“A quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door, above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins, and shameless little boys, I detected the date “1500.””

Then she gives us the interior:

“Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols, and, by way of ornament, three gaudily painted canisters disposed along its ledge.  The floor was smooth, with stone: the chairs, high backed, primitive structures, painted green: one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade.  In an arch, under the dresser, reposed a huge, liver-colored bitch pointer surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses.”

One Page: Describe a setting for a horror story.  You might pattern it after Emily Bronte’s example from above.  Use the same lack of narrative distance as she does—let your narrator show us an ominous atmosphere through choice details, and let her tell us about it also, through slanted verbs and adjectives, just as Bronte does.  The balance should be in favor of the details.

Objective: To practice using setting for a strong mood, using all your means, showing and telling.

Check: Did you evoke the mood?  Although it’s all right if some of your imagery turns out to be stock horror stuff (howling winds), make sure that at least some of your images are original, new things that you haven’t seen before.  (For example, Bronte uses this fresh, memorable image: “range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.”)

See you on October 31st!

The Theft

For days, it had been sitting there like a forlorn lover; wrapped in black, with silken blue covering its pale flesh.  It spoke to us like a whisper, a temptress in the suppressing heat of the dining room.  Tempting us with the coolness of its existence; comparing itself to crystallized ice.

Joseph went first.  Hesitantly, he pulled open the black jacket and removed the blue underclothes.  He exposed the pale flesh, and was overcome.  It enveloped his senses.

I went next, not with the same confidence, but the same desire.  The same calling.  After succumbing to the temptation, I felt it spreading through me like an icy breeze.  I felt it clean the impurities . . . in my teeth and on my tongue.  It was so good.  It was so good.

Anyway, Mel, sorry for stealing some of your gum.  It was there, and it looked good.  Our apologies.

Hey, folks!  Sorry for the months long hiatus.  I’ll be back more consistently from here on out.

Peace!

Slapstick Social Customs–Part 3

Here’s another piece from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Novakovich.  The idea behind this one is to practice humor through the use of over-exaggeration, caricature, and slapstick.  Novakovich suggested trying this with familiar social customs.  Here’s the final part in this three part exercise.

The young couple was determined to show their devotion, and they were never so determined as when they were out in public.  In the fall, when they first began to date, they would romp through the leaves together, and dare anyone to tell them they were going too far.  When they received no reprimand for romping, they would collapse into them and begin to kiss, even though the leaves would tickle uncomfortably on their ears and necks.

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Slapstick Social Customs–Part 2

Here’s another piece from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Novakovich.  The idea behind this one is to practice humor through the use of over-exaggeration, caricature, and slapstick.  Novakovich suggested trying this with familiar social customs.  Here’s the second part in this three part exercise.

The man was walking about five paces ahead of the woman in the parking lot.  It was a very hot day, and he could feel the heat rise up from the black-top and permeate his dress pants and button-down shirt.  In the reflection of the dark window of the grocery store he was walking towards, he was able to see the woman behind him, and instantly fell in love with her.  She wore cowboy boots, short shorts, a loose tank-top and sunglasses; and while his parents or anyone else might have disagreed, he knew this was the kind of woman he needed in his life.

Continue reading

Slapstick Social Customs–Part 1

Here’s another piece from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Novakovich.  The idea behind this one is to practice humor through the use of over-exaggeration, caricature, and slapstick.  Novakovich suggested trying this with familiar social customs.  Here’s the first part in this three part exercise.

Mr. Porter grasped the hand of his new employee so firmly when they were introduced, that the thin bones of her hand were forced to contract together like the ribs of a fold-up fan.

“It is so good to have you in the company, Ms. Sparrow.”  Mr. Porter’s shake was forceful enough for Ms. Sparrow to feel her arm wriggle in its socket.  Not wanting to appear feeble, Ms. Sparrow attempted to return the pressure of the handshake as best she could with her compressed hand.  She was barely able to bend her fingers around Mr. Porter’s hand, which was akin to a stress-ball in that it looked soft and rubbery but was actually quite firm if not inflexible.  Still, Ms. Sparrow forced all her upper-body strength into returning the warm pressure of her new boss.

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Foreshadow with Setting–Part 2

Here’s another exercise from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich.  The point is to utilize two different view points, and the setting, to create expectation and suspense.  This is part 2.

She had to be some hipster trust-fund kid with a rich mommy and daddy, she had to be someone who’d never worked a day in her life.  That’s what I keep telling myself, but my gut feels just as tense.  I hurry to catch up to her, the gun digging into my lower back.  I know the safety is on, I know there’s no other place to hide it—especially in the summer—but I always feel like I’m about to shoot my own ass off.

I know I shouldn’t be doing this.  It’s one thing to talk about holding up some rich spoiled punk to get the money you need, but it’s another thing to actually try.  If I get caught, if her parents are rich, they have a good lawyer and then I’m fucked.  I mean, they might even add some shit to armed robbery, accuse me of attempted murder or something.  I might rob someone of money, but I ain’t about to rob them of their life—not unless they’re trying to rob mine, or my little girl’s.

The hipster hugs herself.  She’s probably lost.  I run across the street and jog so I can go back in front of her.  I see her trip from the other side of the street.  She must be lost, walking on this side of town with the money she has.  She probably is looking for one of those underground clubs or something, probably to meet some other rich asshole who treats her like crap.

I cross back so I can cut her off.  She’s struggling with some branches.  I pull out my gun, and then realize I’m an idiot.  I’ve got no mask.  She turns and she sees me.  Her face pales, and I know I have to do this.  It’s dark.  She might be too scared to remember my face.  I sound confident when I talk: “Give me your purse, bitch.”

Then she looks relieved, like all the danger’s gone.  Like it’s a relief I just want money—well, she’s probably got plenty to spare.

“Sure thing,” she says.  She slides off her purse and hands it to me.  “’Fraid I don’t have much.”

Yeah, right.  I grab her purse and run.  I did it.  I finally did it.  We’re going to be okay now, at least for a little while.  Finally, we’re going to be okay.

Foreshadow with Setting–Part 1

Here’s another exercise from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich.  The point is to utilize two different view points, and the setting, to create expectation and suspense.  This is part 1. 

I never feel in danger walking home at night, no matter how late it is.  It’s not like I have much choice—I have no car.  At least it’s just a twenty-minute walk back to my apartment.  My parents don’t like the idea of their daughter walking home from work at 11 o’clock with no chaperone in a big city.  It’s “the big city” part that scares them—as if rape can’t happen in a small town.  At least a big city can offer presence; there’s always other people around so (unless every random person biking, driving, or also walking happens to be a co-conspirator in my impending sexual violation) I feel safe.  Even when I can’t see anyone, that presence is there in the background noise and the red wash of the night-sky, from all the lights.

That red wash is mesmerizing tonight—like the city was on fire, and the flames were reflecting off their own smoke.  It’s really just a lot of overcast—hence why the red is so vivid now.  A few cars passed while I was looking at the sky and the silhouettes of clawing tree branches.  When the street was silent again, I notice something I hadn’t noticed since moving here: absence.

There are no crickets, no grasshoppers, no nothing to be heard.  The lack of chirping makes the background noise just sound like an empty moan, instead of the presence of other people.  I hug myself, even though I’m far from cold.  It’s summer and I walk fast, so I’m feverish more than anything.  Then I realize that, were someone to be watching me, I’d look vulnerable with my arms crossed like this.  I uncross them, walk a little faster, and damn near fall on my face tripping on a crack in the sidewalk.  These sidewalks are awful—cracks like lightning streaks cut through the cement, and even with those strikes it’s all bumpy and uneven.  If the city doesn’t want to fix the sidewalk, they should at least get people to trim up their gardens so that I’m not being groped by vines and grabbed by branches for walking.

One particularly nasty tree branch always pricks at me no matter how low I duck.  I struggle to get myself out from under it, and focus on that instead of what’s right in front of me.  When I turn it’s already too late to do anything about what’s there: a man with a gun.

I waited for the order to climb into the trunk of a car, or to walk with him to some secluded area where he’ll . . .

“Give me your purse, bitch.”

Oh, that’s all.  I hand it over, too relieved to think about the hassle of cancelling my cards or replacing my phone.  Wrong person to rob, and the wrong time—I haven’t even gotten my pay-check yet.