writing exercises

All posts tagged writing exercises

Denver Writing Project Advanced Institute 2014

Published June 20, 2014 by Elsa Pla

Flower Bed at CU Denver

The Denver Writing Project Summer Institute at CU Denver provides writing teachers with tools and time to develop as writers and teachers of writing:

http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/CLAS/Centers/denverwritingproject/Pages/DenverWritingProjectHome.aspx

I recently participated in the DWP’s Advanced Institute, a week-long mini-institute for DWP alumni. I’d been in a writing slump for the past five months or so and needed to jumpstart my writing motor, so to speak. I also needed fresh teaching ideas. By the end of the week I had gained insights and gathered seeds for my own writing and had learned several new teaching strategies to use with my students. The presentations, the readings, the small-group workshops, and the camaraderie were helpful and inspiring. What I liked best, however, was the large amount of time we were given to work on our own writing. Being able to step away from the cares and constraints of daily life and devote such a substantial amount of time to my personal writing was such a blessing.  I feel that now I’ll be starting the new school year with self-assurance and clarity of purpose.

Here are seven simple writing exercises (shared by various presenters at the Institute) to help writers unearth memories to use in memoirs, stories, or poems. (I won’t share my attempts because they’re too personal.)

1- Draw a detailed map (all you can remember) of a place you lived in as a child.

2- Make a detailed diagram (all you can remember) of a house you lived in as a child.

3- Make a list of remembrances. Start each statement with “I remember.”

4- Write about the colors of things you’ve lost.

5- Write a list of five things you know, five things you don’t know, and five things you are. Then, using the list, describe yourself in 3rd person.

6- Write about a time when you failed at something.

The following empowering exercise was shared by Slam Poet Jovan Mays and is inspired by the movie Saving Mr. Banks:

7- Write about something sad that happened to you or to someone close to you, but change the story so it has a happy ending. Try adding magical realism.

I love that last exercise. It makes me realize how powerful writing can be. As fiction writers we can change our stories and the stories of others. We can bring closure and significance to senseless or tragic events. We can turn something ugly into something beautiful. We can even create new memories. Stories can indeed save us.

“Now, we all have our sad tales, but don’t you want to finish the story? Let it all go and have a life that isn’t dictated by the past? Maybe not in real life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.” –from Saving Mr. Banks

“To Write is to Take Some Words for a Walk”

Published July 20, 2013 by Elsa Pla

Neighborhood Walk

I just finished reading My Name Is Mina, the prequel to Skellig, by David Almond, one of my favorite children’s writers. The book is an intimate portrait of Mina, a creative and philosophical girl who loves to observe nature, reflect, and write. The story reads like a journal and is sprinkled with interesting exercises made up by Mina, which she calls “Extraordinary Activities.” Here are the ones that have to do with writing:

1- Write a story about yourself as if you’re writing about somebody else.

2- Write a story about somebody else as if you’re writing about yourself.

3- Write a poem that repeats a word and repeats a word and repeats a word and repeats a word until it almost loses its meaning. (It can be useful to choose a word you don’t like, or that scares or disturbs you.)

4- Joyous version: Write a page of words for joy. Sad version: Write a page of words for sadness.

5- Write a page of utter nonsense. This will produce some very fine new words. It could also lead to some very sensible results.

6- Write a sentence that fills a whole page. Write a single word at the center of a page.

7- Take some words for a walk. Find out what you’re writing when you’ve written it.

And here are two excerpts — extraordinary as well — from the book:

First excerpt:

I’ll let my journal grow just like the mind does, just like a tree or a beast does, just like life does. Why should a book tell a tale in a dull straight line?

Words should wander and meander. They should fly like owls and flicker like bats and slip like cats. They should murmur and scream and dance and sing.

Sometimes there should be no words at all.

Just silence.

Just clean white space.

Some pages will be like a sky with a single bird in it. Some will be like a sky with a swirling swarm of starlings in it. My sentences will be a clutch, a collection, a pattern, a swarm, a shoal, a mosaic. They will be a circus, a menagerie, a tree, a nest. Because my mind is not in order. My mind is not straight lines. My mind is a clutter and a mess. It is my mind, but it is also very like other minds. And like all minds, like every mind that there has ever been and every mind that there will be, it is a place of wonder.

Second excerpt:

“So let’s walk,” she [Mina’s mother] says, “and think about a theory about walks by Paul Klee.”

“Who’s he?”

“One of the great artists of the twentieth century. He said that drawing was taking a line for a walk.”

I thought about that, about the way a pencil point moves as you draw.

“So if drawing is like walking,” I say, “then walking is like drawing.”

“Yes, and if you think of it like that, it allows you to wander and to roam and to explore.”

[…]

“Maybe writing’s like walking as well,” I say. “You set off writing like you set off walking and you don’t really need to know where you’re going till you get there, and you don’t know what you’ll pass along the way.”

She smiles.

“So writing’s like taking some words for a walk,” she says.

“It is.”

Wonderful reflections, right? My Name Is Mina is a great little novel for creative minds of all ages, and especially for writers. Reading it will bring you joy and spark your creativity. I found it delightfully inspiring.

 

James and Jamie

Published January 28, 2013 by Elsa Pla

Woman Writing

A few years back, I did an “Author’s Study” with my 6th grade Language Arts class. I worked alongside my students, modeling the process. We chose Roald Dahl as the author whose body of work we would analyze and emulate. We studied  several of Roald Dahl’s children’s novels (James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Witches), and developed a list of recurring elements of style, plot, and characterization. Here’s a list similar to the one we created:

Roald Dahl’s Elements of Style

1- humorous names, figures of speech, sound words, adjectives, and poems.

2- wacky characters and preposterous circumstances

3- black humor and grotesque scenarios

4- foolish and/or evil stereotypical characters (often abusive adults) that can be ridiculed and who always get their comeuppance

5- criticism of abusive authority figures and of social issues such as spoiled children and violence

6- good children who rise above negative circumstances and punish the evil characters (usually adults)

7- good characters (including adults) who help and support the good children

8- unexpected but happy endings where the villain gets his/her comeuppance and the child gets his/her heart’s desire

The goal of the unit was to write a short story that incorporated as many of these elements as possible. The students had fun with this assignment and created and shared excellent little stories.

As part of the modeling process, I wrote the beginning of “The Famous Story of Jamie Jones,” a story about a 6th grade girl who is bullied into locking herself in her locker for a class period. The students loved it and encouraged me to finish it. A few months ago, I finally decided to do so.

I’ve shared this because the exercise I’ve been working on is a characterization study of the main character in a well-known story or novel and of the main character in one of my stories, and I chose James from the novel James and the Giant Peach and Jamie from my story “The Famous Story of Jamie Jones.”  You will notice the parallels between the two (there are also parallels between Jamie and Matilda from Matilda).

Here’s the characterization chart:

Know Your Character 2

MC = Main Character

The interesting and great thing about doing this exercise was that as I was describing my MC I realized that there are revisions I need to make to develop or “round”  my MC more. That’s the point of the exercise, of course; I just didn’t expect it to be as helpful as it was. In other words, I highly recommend it.

(A round character has a complex, realistic personality. A flat character is stock-like and simple. A dynamic character changes in some way during the story. A static character remains the same throughout the story. Usually the goal is for the MC to be a round, dynamic character.)

I plan to continue revising the Jamie story, and I’m also revising a collection of poems I intend to self-publish. I’ll be working on “showing, not telling” through the use of imagery and figurative language. I’ll share more on my next post.

Happy writing!

Dead Stars

Published October 29, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The exercise for the past week was to identify, analyze, and imitate some of the elements of horror in Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.

I chose to analyze the poem “Spirits of the Dead”:

Thy soul shall find itself alone 

‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone;

Not one, of all the crowd, to pry

Into thine hour of secrecy.

Be silent in that solitude,

Which is not loneliness for then

The spirits of the dead, who stood

In life before thee, are again

In death around thee, and their will

Shall overshadow thee; be still.

The night, though clear, shall frown,

And the stars shall not look down

From their high thrones in the Heaven

With light like hope to mortals given,

But their red orbs, without beam,

To thy weariness shall seem

As a burning and a fever

Which would cling to thee for ever.

Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,

Now are visions ne’er to vanish;

From thy spirit shall they pass

No more, like dew-drop from the grass.

The breeze, the breath of God, is still,

And the mist upon the hill

Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,

Is a symbol and a token.

How it hangs upon the trees,

A mystery of mysteries!

Analysis:

Topic: Each of the five stanzas of the poem offers a different reflection on death.

The rhetorical devices:

1- rhyme (including internal rhyme) and rhythm (mostly iambic meter)

Examples: Notice the rhyming words at the end of lines and within lines (in bold).

2- consonance and assonance in most lines

Examples: Notice the words “soul” and “alone”and the “l” sounds in “Thy soul shall find itself alone,” and notice the “s,” “t,” and “d” sounds in “The spirits of the dead, who stood.”

3- alliteration

Examples: “silent in that solitude” “visions ne’er to vanish” “the breeze, the breath of God”

4- repetition

Examples: “In life before thee, are again//In death around thee, and their will//Shall overshadow thee; be still.” “Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken” A mystery of mysteries!”

5- personification

Examples: “The night, though clear, shall frown,//And the stars shall not look down”

6- simile and metaphor

Examples: “From thy spirit shall they pass//No more, like dew-drop from the grass.” “And the mist upon the hill//Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken//Is a symbol and a token.”

7- imagery – Each stanza presents an image that’s part of a whole scene described in the poem : 1- tomb-stones, 2- spirits of the dead, 3- a frowning, dark sky full of beam-less stars, 4- visions that torment the observer, 5- no breeze and a mist hanging from the trees.

Examples: “the grey tomb-stone” “be silent in that solitude” “the spirits of the dead again in death around thee” The night, though clear, shall frown” “their red orbs, without beam” “now are visions ne’er to vanish” “the breeze, the breath of God, is still” “the mist upon the hill shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken” “how it hangs upon the trees”

The mood: The scene described — which could be real, imagined, or metaphorical — is ghostly and oppressive, and it evokes feelings of melancholy, hopelessness, and tormented acceptance, but the final image fills the observer (and the reader) with wonder (the symbol/token of the mist hanging like a shroud upon the trees) and hope (death, after all, is a mystery).

The theme/message: Death is painful, terrible, and inevitable, but it’s also a wondrous mystery.

Elements of horror: The significant element of horror in this poem is imagery. The scene described evokes a mood of tormented hopelessness. The monster is death, and there’s no escaping it. The true moment of horror comes with the image of the beam-less (dead) stars. The stars offer light (hope) to the living, but for the dead (the observer) there is no light. The feeling of hopelessness brought about by the beam-less stars is likened to an eternal burning or fever — the poet’s version of hell.

What an amazing poem. My opinion is that you appreciate poetry so much more when you analyze it (especially the figurative language and the imagery), try to understand and imagine what the poet was thinking and feeling, and allow the poem to speak to you on a deep personal level.

Here’s my own dark October poem (using imagery as the element of horror) about aging and death:

OCTOBER LEAVES

I didn’t expect to open the door

just as that mischievous cold wind

began chasing the chittering

October leaves,

shoving them like a bully until

they no longer scuttled and scattered,

but whirled and stormed and

somersaulted,

crashing into each other

in a crescendo of panic,

out of control like spooked

cattle or spilled marbles.

So I stood there shaking in the dark,

my hand to my chest

as they rumbled past me,

rattling and crumpling in protest,

scraping the rigid curb

of the road that lead them on

like a ghostly black river

from autumn into winter.

This week’s exercise will be to do a character analysis of a main character(s) in a favorite book and then of a main character(s) in a story or novel you’re working on.

Happy Halloween!

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” Edgar Allan Poe

The Writing Zone

Published October 23, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Last week’s exercise was to write a reflection on our writing habits (the when, where, and how) and perhaps on how to improve them.

First, let’s look at what a few great authors have to say about the act of writing:

Stephen King compares writing fiction to a form of self-hypnosis and says that having a daily routine helps him fall into a trance:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ELlianFnL0

John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls that trance “the fictional dream”:

“In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.”

Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing describes it as a summoning of our subconscious creative muse:

What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse.”

“It is a wise writer who knows his own subconscious.”

“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

“What we are trying to do is find a way to release the truth that lies in all of us.”

I believe that the first step to developing a personal writing routine that allows us to access our creative muse is to identify and describe what’s happening in our minds when we write. For me, inspired creative writing occurs when I’m able to enter “the writing zone,” a term I’ve adopted from a fellow writing teacher. The experience is very similar to daydreaming, except that I’m not just imagining stuff, but also writing it down. When I enter the writing zone, I shut out everything around me, and I hyper-focus on the dream-world my subconscious is creating.

I tend to take an imagined scene and go over it and over it in my mind until it’s logical and pleasing to me. Because of that, I write slowly, constantly going back and changing things before I’m ready to move forward. (That’s why I’m not very good with quick-writes — my mind just doesn’t work that way.)

I talk to myself when I’m in this daydream state,  and I like to periodically read aloud what I’ve written — I find it helps me advance the story. I have the tendency to stay stuck — mesmerized — in a scene, but eventually I snap out of it. Because of these and other slightly embarrassing peculiarities (I’m sure all writers have their own), I work best when I’m totally alone.

I prefer to work in silence and by a window (I like to be able to look out at the trees and the sky). I may need a bit of background instrumental music to get me started, but once I’m in the zone, silence is best.

I get my best writing ideas when I’m showering or washing dishes, which is kind of weird. I also get ideas from dreams, but I forget them if I don’t write them down right away.

I’m a morning person; I work best in the morning (after sunrise) or in the early afternoon. My brain and my eyes are tired at night, and darkness makes me lazy.

As for process, my planning consists of lists of events (rising action, climax, resolution), character traits, and sensory details (I love lists). I also like to gather visuals to help me picture the setting and to get a feel for the mood. Then I work on the first draft (that’s when I enter the writing zone). I revise as I write, but I try not to get bogged down. When I’m done with the first draft, I start the revision/editing process. I read my paragraphs aloud, improve the sentence structure, choose better words, and add details and rhetorical devices. Then I go back, analyze what I’ve done, and take out the fluff. Once I’m satisfied with the product, I put the manuscript away for a few weeks. Then I bring it out and examine it critically (as a reader, not a writer). I get feedback from my #1 reader (my youngest daughter, who is also a writer) and revise/edit the manuscript one last time.

My one big problem is that I have the tendency to start stories and not finish them. In the past, the reason for this was not having enough time nor solitude nor mental fuel to finish the first draft. Now I have one day a week of alone time, which means that for several hours a week I’m able to enter the writing zone.

Here’s my weekly plan:

1- Guest-teach four days a week.

2- Revise manuscripts and work on website/blogs in the afternoons.

3- Read in the evenings.

4- Saturday: Focus on art and music.

5- Sunday: Spend time with family.

6- Non-guest-teaching day: Enter and stay in the writing zone for as long as I want to!

It would, of course, be wonderful if I could enter the writing zone 4-5 days a week, but that is not yet possible.

Halloween is coming up, so this week’s exercise will be dark. I’d like to identify, analyze, and imitate some of the elements of horror in Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.

Talk to you next week. 🙂

Beauty and Wonder

Published October 16, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Last week’s exercise was to continue analyzing the rhetorical devices and the sentence fluency in notable picture books.

Having a clear purpose is important when writing a picture book. Is your purpose to entertain? Do you want to inspire? Do you want to educate? Do you have more than one purpose? “The best picture books are warm, humorous, and can be read again and again. There must be something new to take away each time you read it.  It has to hold up to multiple readings. There must be substance, depth, and layering.” (from www.marisamontes.com/writing_picture_books.htm)

Great picture books should also contain beauty and wonder, both in the pictures and in the text. Consider Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. There is beauty and wonder on every page –in the lovely forest illustrations and also in the language.

Here’s the first paragraph:

It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling. There was no wind. The trees stood still as giant statues. And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine. Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

Notice the way the sentences flow, the rhythm, the rhyme, the imagery, the alliteration, and the repetition. Notice also the mood created by the brief description. What could be more mysterious and wondrous than going “owling” with your father in the middle of a winter night?

And here’s a list of some of the imagery/figurative language in the story.

1- The trees stood still as giant statues.

2- A train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

3- They sang out, trains and dogs.

4- It was as quiet as a dream.

5- Our feet crunched over the crisp snow.

6- Little gray footprints followed us.

7- My short, round shadow bumped after me.

8- The moon made his face into a silver mask.

9- The snow below it was whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl.

10- An echo came threading its way through the trees.

11- We watched silently with heat in our mouths, the heat of all those words we had not spoken.

12- The kind of hope that flies on silent wings under a shining Owl Moon.

Beautiful and wondrous.

Finally, notice the three concluding statements that summarize the narrator’s unique experience.

1- If you go owling you have to be quiet and make your own heat.

2- When you go owling you have to be brave.

3- When you go owling you don’t need words or warm or anything but hope.

Think of the layers of meaning: We could read this picture book for the experience of going “owling,” for the relationship between the child and the father, or for what the story symbolizes (hope and perseverance). Or we could find a different, deeper, personal meaning.

Now that I’ve been inspired by Jane Yolen, I’m going to go work on my picture books. 🙂

The exercise for this week is to write a reflection on your writing habits (the when, where, and how) and perhaps on how to improve them. Examining the writing habits of other writers will help.

Talk to you next week!

P.S. Here’s another link with useful information on Picture Books:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/10/14/1144476/-Young-People-s-Pavilion-Some-of-the-best-new-picture-books

Let’s Get Wild!

Published October 8, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Last week’s exercise was to analyze the rhetorical devices and the sentence fluency in a notable picture book.

First of all I want to say that if you think writing a picture book is easy — ha! — think again. It’s far more difficult than writing a complicated poem such as a sestina or a villanelle. You need to incorporate elements of poetry, an attention-grabbing story line, action with lots of visual possibilities, layers of meaning, and whimsical creativity within a limited word and page count. Plus you must appeal to young readers and their parents, and your message must not be didactic or condescending. A picture book writer has many balls to juggle!

The following two sites offer good information on the genre:

www.ianbone.com.au/pdfs/PictureBook_IanBone.pdf

http://www.marisamontes.com/writing_picture_books.htm

I chose Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak as the notable picture book I wanted to analyze because it contains all the elements I listed earlier. (And because it’s a awesome read.)

Here’s a fun reading of the book by Christopher Walken:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKNaYlzssbc

And here’s an interesting psychological analysis of the book:

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/05/08/maurice-sendak-the-pointed-psychology-behind-wild-things/

Here are some of the rhetorical devices I noticed in the text:

1-examples of alliteration:

-wore his wolf suit and made mischief

-the walls became the world

2- examples of repetition

-a forest grew and grew – and grew

-they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

3- examples of internal rhyme

till Max said “BE STILL!”

-and made him king of all the wild things.

4- examples of assonance and consonance

night – kind

sent – bed

came – place

start – are

wolf – mischief

year – are

tumbled by

private boat

yellow eyes

5- examples of rhythm (all the sentences have rhythm)

-But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go —

we’ll eat you up — we love you so!”

And Max said, “No!”

6- examples of word play

-and he sailed off through night and day

and in and out of weeks

and almost over a year

to where the wild things are.

7- examples of figurative language

-an ocean tumbled by

-and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room

8- examples of onomatopoeia

they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

And here’s a fabulous example of sentence fluency:

But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!” And Max said, “No!”

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws, but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.

Maurice Sendak makes it seem so easy, doesn’t he?

The point of this exercise was to notice how rhetorical devices enhance the rhythm and flow of sentences, and then apply these strategies to our own work.

I’m revising a couple of picture books right now, so I’m going to stick to this exercise for one more week.

Talk to you next Monday! 🙂