Experiments in Craft


Here’s a creative writing exercise:


A lot.

Experiment with hyperbole.

Here’s a definition of hyperbole taken from dictionary.com:

1.obvious and intentional exaggeration.
2.an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “to wait an eternity.”


He is older than the hills
“I have told you a million times ….”
You could have knocked me over with a feather

Here’s an example of hyperbole used effectively in a description.

The skin on her face was as thin and drawn as tight as the skin of onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two picks
. —Flannery O’Connor, “Parker’s Back”

Creative Writing Exercise: Take a paragraph from the newspaper, a textbook, or your own writing.

For key words, go through the thesaurus and select the most extreme of the possible choices. For example, “upset” might be replaced with “enraged.” The exercise shakes up habitual word choices and demonstrates how different shades of meaning in a word can create a different emotional tone.

(Examples of hyperbole taken from: http://www.dowlingcentral.com/MrsD/area/literature/Terms/hyperbole.html)

Try This: Create an Unreliable Narrator

Here is an exercise taken from The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron.

“Write a monologue in which a character describes herself, her nature rather than her appearance. As her description develops, begin to make clear that her self-portrait is not accurate. She might, for example, speak in a self-congratulatory tone about her humility, or she might mention events in her life to prove she is a terrible person, when in fact they show she was justified in her actions. Remember, Huck Finn’s self accusatory description of himself as a bad person for hiding his friend Jim, the slave” (p. 50).

This is what’s called an unreliable narrator – one whose point of view or opinion about the world and or/herself stands in contrast to the evidence presented. The untrustworthy quality of the narrator reveals the narrator’s interpretation and way of perceiving the world, and also suggests there may be other facts of the story that the narrator is intentionally or unintentionally leaving out.

Other examples of an unreliable narrator include Vladmir Nabokov’s narrator, Humbert Humbert in Lolita, and in film, Roger “Verbal” Kint in The Usual Suspects.

Try ThisRead A Poem a Day For A Week

Try reading the before your write, and preferably out loud.
This suggestion comes from Ray Bradbury’s wonderful book, Zen in the Art of Writing in his chapter entitled “How to Keep and Feed a Muse.” He writes:

“Read poetry everyday of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition… It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your had. And above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes. Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books…What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms” ( 36-37).

Consider creating a collection of your favorite poems in a file, or better yet, printing them and making a book for reference when you need ideas and inspiration.

A great online source for poetry: The Poetry Foundation.

Try ThisWrite from a Photograph

Photographs are a great way to get ideas for characters, places and scenes. I took this photograph in Buenos Aires, Argentina. What do you suppose happened right before or after this moment? What else do nuns shop for? Who might they have have met? What’s the relationship between them? Ask yourself lots of questions and write the answers in the form of a story, scene, poem, dialogue etc.

White Space Isn’t Just for Designers

Here is the entire second chapter of Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum:

Madeleine Dreams

A GROTESQUELY FAT WOMAN lives in the farthest corner of the village. Her name is Matilde. When she walks to market, she must gather up her fat just as another woman gathers up her skirts, daintily pinching it between her fingers and hooking it over her wrists. Matilde’s fat moves about her gracefully, sighing and rustling with her every gesture. She walks as if enveloped by a dense storm cloud, from which the real, sylph-like Matilde is waiting to emerge, blinding as a sunbeam.

There are many things to learn and appreciate about Shun-Lien Bynum’s style and wonderful writing. But one thing writers can learn from is how she makes use of white space. She doesn’t fill up the entire page with words. Many of her chapters consist of a few paragraphs. Some are as short as two or three lines. The longest chapters are two or three few pages in length.

What does white space do?

White space, like a frame, focuses the readers’ attention.

If you only have one paragraph to tell an entire story, every word and image in that paragraph becomes even more significant. Use of white space distills and concentrates the power of the words used. Shun-Lien Bynum’s description for example, of gathering up fat “just as another woman gathers up her skirts” is so vivid, I remember the image years after reading the book. Consider too, some of her chapter titles: beatific, blush, burn, performance, evasion. Substitute, inept, petted, unveiled, imposter. She chooses titles, which are evocative and work with white space because they call attention to the word and its many meanings.

White Space, like silence allows the reader to absorb what’s being said.

Without silence, you cannot hear music. Given the pace of life, I often find it hard to slow my mind down enough to enter a fictional world. To enter a dream, there’s a process. You don’t fall asleep instantly (at least I don’t). I need time to relax, for my mind to settle, for my thoughts to drift in order to enter the dream state. White space in writing can provide a sort of meditative silence an incident or a description that allows us to enter the world of the story more fully.

White Space helps create a rhythm

Poets know this. They arrange lines very carefully knowing that where a line breaks or falls on the page affects how the reader interprets the meaning held in the lines. Madeleine is Sleeping has a poetic, almost hypnotic quality partly because Shun-Lien Bynum varies the amount of text between one chapter to the next, effectively structuring the book like a poet would, to suggest gaps as well as connects between one chapter and the next.

Effective use of white space in writing can, when words are well chosen, make images more potent and words more evocative. White space can also help lull the reader into the world of the story of the story and variety of white space, like changes in tempo, defy expectations, and keep the reader moving forward to find out what’s next.

If you haven’t read Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum it’s a wonderful book, filled with strange, unexpected, dream-like images. Really good prose, to my mind is also poetic, inventing or adapting new forms in order to tell a story that may or many not have been told before, in an entirely fresh way.

What’s in a Name?

Here’s the opening of Night People by Barry Gifford: “Big Betty Stalcup kissed Miss Cutie Early on the right earlobe as Cutie drove, tickling her, causing her to swerve the black Dodge Monaco toward the right as she scratched her head.”

What’s in a name? Page after page of Night People, I marvelled at  the names Barry Gifford came up for characters and places.  Like the story he told, the names were over the top and at the same time a perfect distillation of each character. Night People is a wonderful book in many ways, but here are three things I learned from Barry Gifford about the art of naming.

A colorful name, like a good hook, makes us want to know more.


Who is Big Betty Stalcup? Cutie Early?  Where are they going in the black Dodge Monaco? Big Betty Stalcup connotes a larger than life character and together with the name Cutie Early I am drawn into a larger than life story, possibly a satire, and I am pretty sure the story isn’t going to be about the breakup of a married couple living in Connecticut.

A evocative name is itself a shorthand character description.


Like concrete, sensory description,  a colorful name, tells us a lot  using  very little. A good name suggests what the person looks like,  his or her nationality, profession,  and/or a key personality trait.

Here are some other character names in Night People. Can you guess from the list below, who is a recent divorcee? A lawyer? A police deputy?  What else might you surmise from the names?

  • Rollo Lamar
  • Big Betty Stalcup
  • Bobby Dean Baker
  • Ernesto and Dagoberto Reyes
  • Bosco Bruillard
  • Vernon Duke Douglas
  • Pearline Nail
  • Blackie Lala
  • DeLeon, Felda, Birdie, Dawn, Tequesta, Waldo
  • Feo Lengua
  • Mayo and Hilda Sapp
  • Desoto Sturgis

A well-chosen name can conjure a world into being.


Here are some names of places in Night People:

  • Fort Sumatra Detention Center for Wayward Women
  • The Saturn Bar
  • Swindle Ironworks
  • Alligator Point
  • Egypt City
  • Hernando Cortés Motor Court
  • Checkerboard Chuckie’s Change of Heart Bar
  • Arabi
  • Little Saigon
  • Chalmette
  • Club Spasm
  • Jasper Pasco’s Fishin’ Pier and Grocery

Names locate us geographically and culturally. Think of the different street names in the places you’ve lived.  Names go along way towards describing the setting in a story. You can also use the connotations associated with certain names to create an alternate fictional reality.  For example, Egypt City to my knowledge,  doesn’t exist,  but  to me it connotes names like Memphis and Athens — and helps me to imagine a city in the southern part of the U.S., probably somewhere between Louisiana and Florida.  (especially when included with names like Alligator Point and Chalmette).

A well chosen name can hook the reader, evoke a character, conjure a world.  As Barry Gifford writes “The world is really wild at heart and weird on top.” (Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula). The names you choose go a long way towards capturing that wild, weird, wondrous world.

What to Do When You Hit ‘The Wall.’

Cubicles by By Giant Ginkgo h

“In any story worth telling, there’s an unresolvable problem,” says screenwriter Billy Marshall Stoneking. It’s the place a writer reaches in a screenplay or a story where she doesn’t know what to do. There’s no going forward until the story problem is solved or resolved. Marshall Stoneking calls not being able to resolve the story problem, hitting “the wall”. Often writers hit this wall as they near the climax of the story and the main character must confront the problems that have been building up to this point. The problem may not be neatly resolved, but it must be addressed and dealt with in order for the story to have a sense of completion, if not closure.


Recognizing when you’ve hit “the wall”

In screenplays, I recognize the “wall” as the problem of getting lost in the second act. In the novel I’m working on I’m also hitting a wall near what should be the climax of the story. I know this is the place where the conflicts I’ve been building reach a dramatic crisis that changes my main character once and for all. I’ve done extensive outlines, taken copious notes, I can see where I want to go, and have some ideas of how I want to story to end, but I can’t get between here and there. It is like a chasm or as Marshall Stoneking describes it: a wall. It’s the place I think were a lot of writers give up, abandon their work, or in my case, start a new project.

Solution #1: “Borrow” someone else’s solution to your problem

On way of getting around the problem of the wall, Marshall Stoneking says, is to look around and find a story with a similar problem and borrow its resolution, adapting it to resolve your story problem. This solution is not optimal, for as Marshall Stoneking argues, the audience or readers will recognize this borrowed solution and feel cheated. I would add a borrowed resolution feels unsatisfactory because the solution is inorganic — it doesn’t arise from the world and the characters within the story but is a resolution that comes from outside and is imposed on the story, and as such it feels like an ending that is tacked on by the writer.

Solution #2: Write your way through “the wall”

The second way of solving the “unsolvable problem, suggested and recommended by Marshall Stoneking is to try out every possible solution you can think of. However, it is not enough to think through every possible solution. He says you must write — try out each solution and see how where it takes the characters in the story.

He compares this process of writing out every possible solution to a writer spending 40 days and nights in the desert. Through this process of trying and failing and trying another possible solution, the writer’s mind is worn down and his or her determination is tested. This is the only way Marshall Stoneking says to get through the wall, because the solution to an unresolvable problem doesn’t come from the writer’s mind. The resolution can’t be arrived at by thinking it through. Marshall Stoneking says that through this process of writing, the resolution to the story problem will appear and it will be a resolution which is simple, obvious, and seemingly inevitable.

Thinking isn’t the same as imagining

The key insight for me is that you can’t resolve story problems by thinking, planning or speculating but only by writing into and through possible solutions. Writers create characters and hold stories in our heads, so it’s easy to confuse thinking with imagining.

Thinking  is like looking at a map. A map provides a wonderful overview, identifies important landmarks along the way, gives you a sense of the terrain and gives you a clue for the direction you need to take to get from point A to point B. But looking at a map, staring at it, traversing the pathways in your mind, is not actually traveling the territory between A and B. To “travel” as a writer requires going beyond thinking about the world of the story and the characters into writing about them. In writing we extend ourselves beyond our ideas about the story and into the minds of the characters, into the world of the story itself. We go beyond what we think and know to discover what we don’t know and haven’t yet thought of. Writing engages our imaginations, not just our minds, to find solutions. As Marshall Stoneking says, “the wall” was never in the story. “The wall is in you. You’re the wall.” If we tenacious in writing to find solutions, we overcome the limitations of our thinking to discover the story that wants to be told through us.

Billy Marshall Stoneking’s insights about the writing are ones I haven’t heard in any book on creative writing. If you’re a writer, it’s well worth your time to check out what he has to say about the creative process in the interviews posted below.

For a fuller explanation of  the wall, read “Encountering the Wall” by Billy Marshall Stoneking at his website: http://billystoneking.blogspot.com/2009/09/free-drama-encountering-wall.html





The Art in Failure

Like many people I associate success with control or ‘mastery’ — the ability to make a plan and carry it out, a notion my art teacher Gladis challenged:  “ A technician is not an artist.”  To be an artist, she explained you must not only faithfully observe what you see but transform your experience, feelings and observations into something new, something that has not yet been seen. Success in this sense is not the ability to impose your will on raw material but the opposite, the ability to be receptive and allow your subconscious, spirit, mystery whatever you want to call it — take a role in the creative process, even if what results is different from what you originally intended.

In painting the self-portrait I started with a clear idea of what I thought was a good product and when I didn’t meet that standard I felt I had fallen short of the mark.  And I think this is often what we do with our perceived failures; we judge them under the harsh lights of an external standard that we’ve set for ourselves.  My ideas about what a good painting was came from my third grade teacher who valued the ability of tracing accurately over self-expression.  According to this standard, my self-portrait was a ‘bad’ copy of real life.

Instead of viewing our efforts as ‘failures,” as in obstacles to overcome, we might instead treat what we ARE able to do with a kind of tender curiosity. The question is not, is it good, or bad, do I like it, do I not, but rather what DO I see in it and what can I Learn?  In this way we can turn what appears to be an obstacle into a helpful signpost, a clue about what direction to take, and redefine the ‘mark’ we are aiming towards.

The feelings of joy, passion, and enthusiasm are all indications that you are flowing in the direction of your heart’s desires.  Paradoxically, so are the feelings of fear, frustration and dread. Wouldn’t it be nice if success meant we always felt deliriously happy, content, and self-confident?  Yet I found that the feelings that accompanied me in the process of doing the self-portrait were those of confusion, nausea, frustration, even terror.

The process of painting has taught me what we think of as an error or a mistake is in fact the greatest source of our creativity.  Every artist experiences the tension between what she wants and what she is able to do. What makes someone an artist is not about overcoming that tension or the limitations it imposes, but making use of them.  Dorthea Brande, in her wonderful and highly useful book observed, “ I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustration were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.”

“The Five Senses: Inviting Readers into the World of the Story

Since I am writing a novel about the senses, I thought I’d share some of the the fascinating posts I’ve found around the web on this topic.

1) Sight: Learning How to See Again: The True Story of a Blind Photographer from The Urban Times http://bit.ly/fE9jOg

2) Sound: Synesthesia and the visualization of music, from Brainpicker http://j.mp/gjhqEK

3) Taste: Taste Disorders, http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/smelltaste/taste.html
4) Touch : A Ted Talk with neurologist VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization
5) Smell: The Nose, an Emotional Time Machine by Natalie Angier

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