Sunday Exercise: So Many Writing Exercises! Which Is The Best?

There are writing exercises galore for storytelling, such as story or “first-line” plotting prompts. However, there are only a rare few that focus on the quality of your writing.

It’s the quality of your writing that sells your stories.

So which is the best writing exercise for improving the quality of your writing?

The one used by Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm X, Somerset Maugham, and Winston Churchill—men known for their great writing.

So which of the many writing exercises did they use?

Imitation.

No, not plagiarism, which is a totally different animal.

As humans, we learn through imitation. Children imitate the letter “a,” rounding it carefully, and then slowly and with careful attention, they practice their new skill by writing a whole row of “a’s.”  Children imitate the adults around them as a way to learn what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior.

But we have to choose what we imitate carefully. I mean, how often do you really want to hear a two-year-old tell its playmate “Well, you really fucked up.”

Imitation is how we learn.

 

How Imitation Works

Let’s look at the simplest imitation possible.

Sentence:  He ran.

Imitation: She jumped.

The original sentence was subject + verb, yes? So the imitation should be subject (in this case, a pronoun) + verb, but it can be ANY subject + verb.  I could have imitated it by saying “They spoke,” or “it dropped.”  As long as I kept the subject as a pronoun and added one verb, it would work.

We’re imitating the STRUCTURE of the sentence, but not the sentence itself. If the structure of a sentence could be copyrighted, there’d be no way to write, because even the most complex structure would be owned by some writer or other. Imitation of structure is not plagiarism.

Let’s look at a harder imitation:

Sentence: Anne Snow’s slim hands gently rocked her brandy glass. (~ A Murder of Quality, by Le Carre)

Imitation: Jim Dandy’s huge feet clumsily kicked his shoddy football.

How to…

When you come across a passage that impresses you, write it down in a notebook. (More on this in a moment.)  When you’re ready to imitate it, take out a legal pad or paper — yes, you need to handwrite this exercise — and do the following:

  1. Write the sentence on the paper. (I triple and quadruple-space the passage, so there’s room in between lines for me to write my imitation.)
  2. Underline subjects; circle verbs; highlight adjectives.
  3. Draw arrows when something refers to something else in the passage.
  4. Then follow the syntax to create your own sentence.

I don’t want to get into a huge parsing of syntax here, other than to point out that you give yourself the best training when your imitation retains the original sentence structure: subject, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, punctuation, etc.

The first few times you do this, it’s awkward. Yes, sometimes very awkward. Just keep at it. It becomes easier, and you’ll notice your writing expanding in unexpected leaps and bounds.  Honest!

These exercises are valuable for embedding a strong command of sentence structure in our writing, whether we are handwriting or typing. The more closely we pay attention to beautiful passages as written by others, the greater strides we make in our own writing. 

Earlier in this post I mentioned writing beautiful passages into a notebook.  Not only do I mark “beautiful passages” as I read (you can tell when I’ve read a book, because it has post-it note flags, sometimes two to a page), but I also copy those passages into my Beautiful Passages Notebook, pictured here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is the inside, one of many, many pages:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love browsing these pages, especially if some time has passed since I’ve read certain pages. I’m in awe of the beauty of our language. Some writers have such a feel for the music of language, the rhythm and cadence that draws the reader into the world of their stories.  I love putting my hands to the page to feel how they did it, and then to see how it fits within what *I* love to write.

What’s not to love about the phrase, “…he sheathed his sword with the sound of a tree cracking under winter ice.”  (Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind, pg, 115).

If you wish to see a few more examples of imitations before you begin today’s exercise, you can find a sample of two different imitations HERE (it will open in a new window or tab, so you can more easily return here when you’re ready).

YOUR EXERCISE:

From John Le Carre, A Murder of Quality:

New sounds disturbed the moaning of the storm: the parched creak of a door, the mutter of a crumbling roof, the incessant sigh of wind upon a dying house.

Study the syntax carefully.  You have a sentence followed by a colon. After the colon you have three phrases that expand upon the subject “new sounds.”   If you look really closely, you’ll also see that each of the three phrases consists of a similar construction: the + adjective + noun + prepositional phrase (the exception being that the second phrase does not have an adjective before “mutter”).

Do this exercise slowly, and I’d suggest you find a place in your work-in-progress that might have a list of three things that you might be able to rewrite using this structure. Post your exercise in the comments—don’t be shy!  I’ll be glad to look at, and probably admire, each of your imitations!

Write with JOY,

McKenna Donovan

 

 

Friday: Imagery Exercise—Character, as Seen in the Face

Imagery Friday is about keeping our writing hands limber, so we leave our readers with vivid, unique, and very telling images.  For me, strong images are a beacon of great writing. We’ve all read them: a phrase, a brief passage, even a paragraph that catches our imagination and moves us there, wherever the writer’s “there” happens to be. It can be in the past; it can be present day; it can be futuristic; it can be a world of figment and fantasy.

And it doesn’t need to be a scavenger hunt through the thesaurus. Notice in the passages below how the vocabulary is very simple.

If you’ve been here before for our Imagery Friday, welcome back!  If this is your first time, you might want to read the first post of this series (this link opens in a new window or tab, so you can easily return here), to gain a perspective on imagery and detail.

Let me share a few favorite passages with you, before we work on today’s exercise. (I’ll be asking you soon for your favorite passages.)

“But the trouble was there already in the room. It settled over me in a formless way, like fog; no colour, neither dark nor light, no smell, no sound; just a clenching tension of pain and the fear of death…the sheet scraped under my nails.” Mary Stewart, Touch Not the Cat.

“…furred and shifting shadows…” Mary Stewart, Touch Not the Cat

“…when it moved, it cut the air with a brittle sound. It reminded me of the quiet that settles on the coldest days in winter when it hurts to breathe and everything is still.” Patrick Rothfuss, Name of the Wind.

“His voice was old and tired around the edges, but at its center it was patient.” Patrick Rothfuss, Name of the Wind.

and one more:

“…the question that is at the back of your throat, choking the blood to your brain, ringing in your ears over and over as you put it to yourself…”  The voice of Death, in Meet Joe Black.

Obviously, great passages are not limited to books.  I shall never forget the final lines of An Unfinished Life, where Morgan Freeman’s character says:

“I got so high, Einar, I could see where the blue turns to black. From up there, you could see all there is. And it looked like there was a reason for everything.”

Beautiful lines, yes? I’ve always wanted to write a short story with the title, “Where The Blue Turns to Black.” One of these days, maybe…

Today’s exercise centers on the face of an old person. I’ve chosen two photos—one man, one woman—and you may choose your image to describe.

When describing faces, the trick isn’t to show the lines, but what the lines MEAN.

Sit with your choice of photo for a while, and let the feeling of it settle into your heart. It’s not just about what you SEE, but how does it make you feel? What memories, pleasant or otherwise, does it bring to your mind that you feel are important to share with your readers?

 

 

 

And the second face:

 

Note: Click on the face you wish to view, and the full-sized image will appear in a new tab or window.

Copy your description to the comments section of this post. Be sure that it’s obvious that you’re describing the man or the woman! I’m looking forward to seeing what you have done with these very different faces!

(To get a list of all the imagery exercises, click HERE.)

Write in JOY!

McKenna

 

 

How do I find my Authentic Writer’s Voice?

Have you ever paused as you were writing or revising to look at what’s on your page and found yourself thinking “Oh, man, that is just the right word!”? Somehow it just feels right, but how did you come up with it? and how do you find the right word, when you begin groping through a thesaurus?

Well, “just the right word” (or phrase) simply means you’ve found the right—

Writing with Music and Emphasis
Music and Emphasis in Writing
  • meaning,
  • sound,
  • subtext,
  • emotion, and
  • historical usage

Meaning:

The right meaning is fairly obvious.  The dictionary definition of the word fits what you’re trying to say. Good!

Sound:

The “sound” of the right word is a longer discussion.  (Check out my free e-Course, 8 Simple Ways to Add Depth to Your Writing, for an in-depth lesson on the “sound on the page.”)

Basically, it’s how the sound of the word aids the meaning of the word. There’s a reason we “moan” when we’re hurt, and why we “screech” when we’re furiously angry or frightened. It has to do with the frequency of the sound. Lower-pitched sounds (like “moan”) have an ominous vibration, while higher-pitched sounds (like screech) sound angry and frightened. Higher-pitched sounds are more likely to gain someone’s attention, yes? And from farther away!

Subtext:

Subtext is the “what else” that comes along with the word—its shades of meaning. For example, look at the words, “kill,” “murder,” and “assassinate.”  When do you use one versus the other?

Typically, “kill” is an unemotional word. Its one syllable starts with a hard sound (the “k”), and it’s over quickly.  It sounds cold-blooded and quick.

“Murder,” on the other hand, has two syllables. The first syllable starts with the softer “m,” and both syllable repeat the “errr” sound. As opposed to the short, concise sound of the one syllable for “kill,” the word “murder” has a longer sound, and it sounds as if time were taken to PLAN it.  “Murder” conveys the subtext that it was not a spur-of-the-moment act.

Extending that argument, look at “assassinate.” It conveys the idea of conspiracy: twice as many syllables as “murder,” and with the repeated hiss of the “s” sound. No wonder we kill an idea, “murder our little darlin’s,” and assassinate political figures.

In a nutshell, that’s the subtext of the word.

Emotion:

Emotion is part of the subtext of a word, but it runs on the tracks of our culture. A modern example, from RationalWiki“: “‘Liberal’, for instance, may be (and often is) used among Conservatives in the United States as an insult, implying that the person so-labeled disregards normal moral standards. The true meaning of such a term often becomes obscured due to the prevalence of the coded meaning.”

Your readers invest their emotions in your words, so you need to be aware of the probable and various reactions to your words and phrases.  I mean, what would be your readers’ reaction to the phrase, “gay marriage?” Is it a human right? or a perversion of a religious ceremony? What might be the reaction to those words in other cultures of the world, either present or past?

There are many emotionally laden words—suicide bomber, abortion, Wall Street, military funeral, to name but a sparse few. Although these words are laden with emotion, their primary emotion comes from how you use them in the story. However, to be sure you’re using “just the right word,” you must take into consideration the emotional baggage that comes with it.

Historical Usage:

Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, the history of any word you use is significant.  Let’s look at an example (though this particular example is becoming less valid as time passes).

Until these last what? ten years or so? a tattoo was a symbol of gangs and violence. During the 1960s and ’70s, in particular, it conveyed a sense of violence and fear and dread, and yet during those same years, a tattoo in the Hawaiian culture conveyed a warm sense of family. So if you were writing about a tattoo in the ’60s and ’70s, you had to be aware of the connotation of that word, that is, the nuances it conveyed along with its precise dictionary definition. If the warm, familial sense were your intended sense of the word, you had to ensure that the reader was on track with the warm, familial connotation, so they didn’t drag along the gang-violence related connotation as they read your work.

Let me leave you with this:

One of the things that makes English such a fun language to write is that it’s a “cobbled together” language. We begged, borrowed, and wholesale snatched words from German, Dutch, Old Norman, Scandinavian, ancient Greek and Latin, with roots going back to India as well. The result is an enormously disparate—and rich—vocabulary with many nuances. When you add the history of any word’s usage to its meanings, you get an enormous vocabulary.  A rich playground for you, yes?

This gives you a trove of words from which to write your stories (“thesaurus” means treasury), but from time to time, it probably gives you some nasty headaches. Is the best word this one or that one? Poets, you know whereof I speak.

At this point you know this and that word don’t necessarily mean the same thing, even if they show up together in a thesaurus.

There’s an urban legend that English is the only language that has a thesaurus. It’s not, but it is one of the largest: Roget’s Revised & Updated Sixth Edition has over 330,000 words and phrases in 1,075 categories.  (By the way, did you know there’s a difference between a thesaurus, which groups words into categories, and a synonym dictionary, which is a simple alphabetical list of words with their attendant synonyms? I much prefer a thesaurus—but I’ll leave that rant for a future post.)

One of my treasured books — one I keep close at hand — is my 1935 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition. It was the last time Webster included nearly every English word there was at the time: more than 600,000. Generously scattered throughout are glossy pages of illustrations, some of which are mesmerizing and generate stories just from their name. “The Order of the Golden Fleece, Austria.” (Third one from the left, top row.)  Hmmm, I can just feel a story in that one. This very large, very old dictionary is eminently useful for more than knowing the use of a word from the mid-1930s. It’s eminently useful for finding the original meanings as well as the historical and emotional history of words.

Remember, for your non-writer readers,  “just the right word” may be invisible, but its effects are inescapable.

Words carry more than their definition; they carry sound, emotion, and cultural and historical usage. Even when reading silently, readers “hear” the words—so much so that Ben Yagoda published a craft-of-writing text called “The Sound on the Page.”

And of course, there’s Milan Kundera, who averred:

I reject the very notion of synonym; each word has its own meaning and is semantically irreplaceable.

…or as Mark Twain said, in his October 15, 1888 letter to George Bainton

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

—Mark Twain, in a letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

The difference between the lightning and the lightning bug
Lightning, not lightning bug
Lightning Bug by Rocco Saya (celestialblue) on 500px.com
Lightning Bug by Rocco Saya

 

I wish you JOY in writing!

McKenna