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!


Romantic Ending

Sorry this is in late–bunch of crazy stuff came up this weekend.  Regardless, here’s the conclusion to last week’s “Romantic Beginning.”  This exercise is another from Novakovich, but it didn’t have to have anything to do with the previous exercise.  The point of this one was to work with foreshadowing through environment, and I decided to use the same characters given the prompt for this exercise.


Rachel went to work that morning with an uneasy feeling in her stomach.  Lisa had been feeling ill herself, and stayed home that day—in fact, she hadn’t even gotten out of bed to kiss Rachel goodbye.  Rachel decided she should maybe try to take off work early, so she could get home and take care of her girlfriend.

After lunch, when the ill feeling in her gut didn’t subside, Rachel left work even earlier than she had planned to.  On her way home, she stopped off at the store for some canned soup.  Neither of them would feel like cooking tonight, and the soup would soothe Rachel’s stomach and Lisa’s cold.  Rachel thought about calling home to see if there was anything else Lisa needed, but decided against it.  If Lisa was napping, waking her up wouldn’t help her get better.

Brian’s car was parked by the curb when Rachel pulled into the driveway.  She shook her head.  Lisa had once again conned Brian into doing some favor for her—probably bringing her lunch—and had managed to trick him into some chores before he got a chance to escape.  At least Rachel managed to arrive on time and save him from doing all their housework.

She was surprised to find the front door locked.  While she was fumbling for her keys, she heard Barry White slip through the door.  Odd choice of music to play when cleaning a house . . . and why did they have it so loud?  Could Lisa rest with all that noise?

Rachel unlocked and opened the door.  Something seemed off, but she couldn’t detect what at first.  A glance downwards showed rose petals on the beige carpet, scattered in a trail leading to the bedroom.  Rachel followed the trail partway, thinking the petals were for her, when she noticed a man’s shirt on the back of the couch.  She could hear a few of Lisa’s excited squeals over the Barry White, the kind she made when she was about to . . .

Rachel had a strong urge to walk into the bedroom and catch them together.  That would be one hell of a confrontation.  But—always the rational one—she knew seeing Brian and Lisa like that would cut her deep.  It would hurt her far more than it hurt them.

So Rachel set down her things, made some tea for her stomach, and quietly sipped it at the dining room table.  Given Lisa’s decibels, they’d be done soon enough.  That’s when Rachel would send Brian on his way, and have a serious talk with her partner.

Rachel wondered at her own calm, and then had to ask herself: did she really love Lisa as much as she thought she had?  Or was she just a stupid first crush?

Romantic Beginning

Here’s an exercise from our old buddy Josip Novakovich, who we haven’t seen in some time.  The idea of this exercise is to play on the romantic cliche to practice foreshadowing.  It’s the scene where the heroine first meets the person she’s supposed to fall in love with.  I thought it would be appropriate with Valentine’s day coming up this week.  Novakovich also said try to add a twist to the cliche, which I attempted, but I honestly think what I did just ended up being another cliche.  I’ll let you all be the judge.

When Rachel saw Lisa for the first time, she understood why she’d never met the right man before.

Rachel was considered frigid and vain—in reality she was too tender hearted to engage in flirtation.  She had no interest in leading some poor guy on when she knew there was no spark between them and there never would be.  She preferred to wait for the “right person,” when her few friends asked why she was so uninterested in romance.  When Rachel had said “right person,” she’d always thought of a man.

But Lisa had that attraction, and Rachel felt the two of them could make that spark.  The spark that no one—man or woman—had promised before.  Rachel knew it had to be real, because it seemed Lisa had felt it, too.  When Rachel saw Lisa, it was as if everything had frozen around them.  Lisa suddenly lost interest in the man flirting with her and looked to Rachel, her expression bewildered but almost curious.  Lisa’s eyes were aqua, and shined so brightly it was almost as if they didn’t belong to a human.  They were the kind of eyes Rachel pictured an angel having.  Lisa’s hair was a bit more terrestrial—it waved strawberry-blonde down the sides of her face and stopped just at her chin.  Her face, her arms, and neck revealed her skin to be pale and soft.  Rachel blushed, picturing Lisa’s skin beneath that dress.  Rachel’s fingers tingled with the anticipation of stroking such peach-like flesh—soft and with a little fuzz.

Rachel could only fantasize for half a moment.  The world started to happen around them again.  Lisa had begun to come towards her, hesitant at first, but then with more conviction.  She weaved in and out between the party guests, the wine in her glass barely rippling as she glided towards Rachel.  Rachel herself felt paralyzed, so that she couldn’t even offer a “hello” when Lisa stopped in front of her.

Lisa gave a veiled smile, and her red lips stayed parted just a moment before she spoke.  “Excuse me, but you seem awfully familiar . . . have we met somewhere before?”

Rachel’s voice spoke of its own accord.  “No.  No, I’m sure I would remember someone like you . . .”


Be sure to check out the startling conclusion next week!


Voice in Dialog– Part 4

Here’s the installment of a dialog exercise inspired by The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich.  The idea is to show character through dialog, as well as practice the subtle are of dialog.  The prompt for Part Four is a conversation between a mother who’s just miscarried, and her small child.

“Mommy, how come you’re crying?”

“Hm?  What was that, sweetie?”

“How come you’re crying, mommy?”

“Oh.  It . . .  it’s nothing, Helen.  Mommy just has something in her eye.”

“When’s Alyssa coming home?”

“Who’s Alyssa, baby?”

“She’s my new baby sister!  You said we were going to have a baby, and it’s gotta be a baby girl, so I named her Alyssa.”

“Well . . . sweetie . . . we actually found out—”

“How come your belly’s not big?  Morgan says babies grow inside tummies, and that’s why mommies look fat.”

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Voice in Dialog– Part Two

This is part two of an exercise from Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich.  The idea is to show character through their voice.  The characters in this exercise were formed by this prompt: an evangelist and a philosophical homeless person.

As always, enjoy!

“I can save you.”

“Excuse me?”

“I can save you.”

“From what, exactly?”

“From all the evil, sin, and despair that’s consumed the world and surrounds you.”

“Pretty big claim.  You can do all that?”

“I can show you the way.  I, too, have been saved.”

“How nice.  But I’ll be honest—I’d much rather be shown employment, a supper, and a nice warm bed with a roof over it before the way to be saved.”

“Naturally.  One much care for and nurture the body while it harbors the soul.  We’ve got food and a cot for you.  I can take you there.”

“That sounds an awful lot like temptation, if you ask me.”

“It’s not temptation, it’s an offer to help.”

“Oh, brother . . . are you really a Christian?”

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Voice in Dialog– Part One

After a hiatus from Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich, I’ve returned.  This is part one of an exercise to practice with voice and expression of character through dialog.  This exercise started with this prompt: a demented psychologist and a patient.  Enjoy!

“You’re late.”

“Yeah, sorry . . . I got caught in traffic.”

“I thought I told you that if you were going to be late, you needed to call ahead.”

“Yeah, well, I was driving.  It’s illegal to be on your cell in the car.”

“Hm.  So, we’ll have to add a note about your complacency to authority . . .”

“More like complacency to not get arrested.  Why do you think I’m still coming to these things?  If there wasn’t a court order for it, I would’ve ditched awhile ago.”

“. . . and masochistic tendencies as well, I see.”


“Amber, you’re a disturbed girl.  This court order was put in place for your benefit . . . your lying and violent behavior got you into this situation, and your reluctance towards coming to see me shows that you don’t care for you own well-being.”

“Or it could show that I don’t believe I have a problem.”

“Denial, I see . . . I’m going to have to recommend more sessions, it seems . . .”


“Excuse me?”

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Stealing with Care: An Exercise in Borrowing

Once again, I’ve borrowed an exercise from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich.  The book instructed me to take this first line from “Love is Not a Pie,” by Amy Bloom, and use it to start my own story: “In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I started to think about calling off the wedding.”  I used a variant on the first line, and kicked off this beginning to a possibly future story.  As always, enjoy!

In the middle of the speech at my mother’s lovely and boring fund-raiser, I started to think about her impending funeral.  My mother looks as if she’s just about to turn fifty, but she’s actually over sixty-five.  No health problems as of yet (same as my father), but when someone reaches their sixties, thoughts start dwelling on death.  You start planning for things, like where you’ll be buried and how you’ll cover the funeral expenses from beyond the grave.  You downsize, you start getting rid of things, giving your nostalgic possessions to loved ones and throwing away or donating the shit you don’t care about.  It seemed to me, after twenty-seven years of life, that dying had to be an utterly time consuming and mundane business.

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