Writing Exercises on the Web

I don’t want to be one who posts mainly about other people’s posts or websites, but it’s fun once in a while (well, twice in a row now).

And I am interested in playing with different writing exercises.  I still have a science-fiction writing project on the stove, and I’m always looking for different ways to stir it up.

Stendhal said that a writer should at least manage to write “20 lines a day, genius or not” and so in aid of that, I offer a few places (of many) on the Web with ideas to stimulate that process.  (I have never read a word of Stendhal beyond these, to my discredit, but I drop his name hoping to impress somebody.)

Here’s one that’s a lot of fun just to read and think about, and to do as well: Two Sentences.  (Note – Feb-09: The original Two Sentences site has sadly disappeared.  Here is another site with a similar idea….)   The idea is to write two sentences, create tension between them and, this is the cool part, define ‘tension’ however you want.

Here’s one on the site by j.d.:

“I never even liked you,” I say.  And maybe it’s the way the rain makes my voice sound wet or maybe it’s the gun but I think he finally gets it.

I got to try this.  Here’s a modest attempt:

The leaves litter the ground beneath the old maple, brilliant reds and yellows among siennas and ochres. They almost cover the basket with the baby waving her hand.

I figure if I could write a book with constant tension, in the myriad of its subtle variety, sentence to sentence, people might be able to read it without getting too bored.

There’s an almost haiku-like quality to this exercise.

I can’t leave this without one more from the site by grumblebee:

She felt the hand move up her back. Surely it was a hand.

A site with a variation on this is named One Sentence, strangely enough.  It’s about telling your story, briefly.  (Little do they know to what lengths I can construct an extensively rambling sentence…)

Here’s an interesting one by Miss No Name:

Sometimes I wish that my best friend would die so me and her mom could be closer.

For a selection of some rather more complex writing exercises, here’s one from Brian Kitely’s book, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, which is actually one of the many writing books I happen to own.

They range from a 600 word exercise using synesthesia (descriptions where the senses overlap, as in, say, the smell of a color), to writing a 600-word first person story where you only use the personal pronoun (I, me or mine) twice, to something called Phone Tag: write a long, complicated conversation overheard by someone in the room.  All three people are involved with each other, not necessarily romantically.  And you only write one side of the conversation…

The one I like a lot is called Absent.  Here you construct a character who isn’t present.  This is really an exercise about who your character is socially.  This construction is necessarily quite indirect.

A writer whom I admire greatly,  John Gardner, wrote several books about writing (I include the controversial On Moral Fiction) before his untimely death in a motorcycle accident in 1982 at the age of 49.  He was widely known for his novels, including Grendel which retells the legend of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster.

At Slushpile they cite one of Gardner’s exercises from his The Art of Fiction.  In brief:

Take a simple event, such as a man getting off a bus. He trips and falls, then looks around in embarrassment and sees a woman smiling. Describe this event, using the same characters and elements of setting in five completely different ways (changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance, etc). Make sure the styles are radically different; otherwise, the exercise is wasted.

Now here’s an interesting exercise I came up with myself.  Go to Hatch’s Plot Bank.  Note the total number of one sentence plots (I found 2382 as of today).  Now go to this random number generator.  Generate a random integer between one and 2382.  In my case I got 1575.  Back at the Plot Bank, 1575 is:

1575   suspected of having another family in Ohio

and there we go, write of it what we will.

Finally, McSweeney’s has some anti-exercises.   Here’s one to get you going:

A husband and wife are meeting in a restaurant to finalize the terms of their impending divorce. Write the scene from the point of view of a busboy snorting cocaine in the restroom.

Write on.


Explore posts in the same categories: Writing

4 Comments on “Writing Exercises on the Web”

  1. bloglily Says:

    wonderful! I loved these. The idea of writing two sentences in tension with each other is just brilliant. I’ve been told before (and agree) that dialogue’s all about that, but it never occurred to me this sort of tension would also work in the narrative. And the McSweeny’s anti-exercise sounds like so much fun.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Bloglily,
    Yes, I like the two sentences one alot. People have submitted some great ones on the site… and some awful ones.
    I was just looking at the McSweeny’s site more… there’s much funny stuff there, not just the ersatz writing exercises.

  3. sputnki Says:

    Wow, although I always like to do creative excercises it was the reference to Gardner and particularly ‘Grendel’ that caught my eye. An old girlfriend from long ago co-wrote an article with a mutual friend on it. I read it at the time and loved the story!

    Hmmm, a quick Google reveals:

    “The Twelve Traps in John Gardner’s Grendel”
    Barry Fawcett, Elizabeth Jones
    American Literature, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Dec., 1990), pp. 634-647

    Thanks for the link to the plot bank. What an awesome resource! Just reading a page send my mind spinning in a million directions.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hey, interesting… for a while Gardner was a Big Thing in American literature and deservedly so I thought. He was so passionate, principled, and ambitious about writing.

    Yes that plot bank is quite a resource… Pick two or three lines at random and make a story out of them. I’m going to try that for fun.


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