I teach my first class for the Sackett Street Writing Workshop tomorrow. In preparation, I've gone back to John Gardner's writing exercises. They seem a little old-fashioned to me now, and I'm not sure whether I'll use one or not, but I thought I'd store them here for safekeeping.
Individual Exercises for The Development of Technique
- Write the paragraph that would appear in a piece of fiction just before the discovery of a body. You might perhaps describe the character’s approach to the body he will find, or the location, or both. The purpose of the exercise is to develop the technique of at once attracting the reader toward the paragraph to follow, making him want to skip ahead, and holding him on this paragraph by virtue of its interest. Without the ability to write such foreplay paragraphs, one can never achieve real suspense.
- Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. (Compare Raymond Queneau, Exercises du Style.) Describe the 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.
- Write 3 effective, long sentences: each at least one full typed page (or 250 words), each involving a different emotion (for example, anger, pensiveness, sorrow, joy). Purpose: control of tone in a complex sentence.
- (a) Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death.
(b) Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.
(c) Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.
(d) Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.
- Write the opening of a novel using authorial omniscient voice, making the authorial omniscience clear by going into the thoughts of one or more characters after establishing the voice. As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order—the usual novel beginning).
- Write a novel opening, on any subject, in which the point of view is third person objective. Write a short story opening in this same point of view.
- Write a monologue of at least three pages, in which the interruptions—pauses, gestures, description, etc.—all clearly and persuasively characterize, and the shifts form monologue to gesture and touches of setting (as when the character touches some object or glances out the window) all fall rhythmically right. Purpose: to learn ways of letting a character make a long speech that doesn’t seem boring or artificial.
- Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it. For example, the dialogue might be between a husband, who has just lost his job and hasn't worked up the courage to tell his wife, and his wife, who has a lover in the bedroom. Purpose: to give two characters individual ways of speaking, and to make dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed. Remember that in dialogue, as a general rule, every pause must somehow be shown, either by narration (for example, "she paused") or by some gesture or other break that shows the pause. And remember that gesture is a part of all real dialogue. Sometimes, for instance, we look away instead of answering.
- Write a two-page (or longer) character sketch using objects, landscape, weather, etc., to intensify the reader's sense of what the character is like. Use no similes ("She was like...). Purpose: to create convincing character by using more than intellect, engaging both the conscious and unconscious mind.
- Write a two-page (or longer) dramatic fragment (part of a story) using objects, landscape, weather, etc., to intensify characters, as well as the relationship between them. Purpose: the same as exercise 9 but now making the same scenic background, etc., serve more than one purpose. In a diner, for instance, one character may tend to look at certain objects inside the diner, the other may look at a different set of objects or may look out the window.
- From exercise 10, develop the plot of a short story.
- Describe and evoke a simple action (for example, sharpening a pencil, carving a tombstone, shooting a rat).
- Write a brief sketch in the essayist omniscient voice.
- Write three acceptable examples of purple prose—that is, highly self-conscious and arty prose made acceptable by subject, parodic intent, voice, etc.
- Write a brief passage on some stock subject (a journey, a landscape, a sexual encounter) in the rhythm of a long novel, then in the rhythm of a tight short story.
- Write an honest and sensitive description (or sketch) of (a) one of your parents, (b) a mythological beast, and (c) a ghost.
- Describe a character in a brief passage (one or two pages) using mostly long vowels and soft consonants (o as in “moan,” e as in “see”; l, m, n, sh, etc.); then describe the same character, using mostly short vowels and hard consonants (i as in “sit”; k, t, p, gg, etc.).
- Write a prose passage that makes effective and noticeable use of rhyme.
- Write the first three pages of a tale.
- Plot each of the following: a short-short story, a yarn, a fable, a sketch, a tale, a short story, an energetic novel, an architectonic novel, a novel in which episodes are not casually related (allegorical or lyrical structure, for example), a radio play, an opera, a film that could only be a film.
- In a fully developed monologue (see exercise 7), present a philosophical position you tend to favor, but present it through a character and in a context that modifies or undermines it.
- Write a passage using abrupt and radical—but thoroughly acceptable—shifts from the authorial-omniscient point of view to the third person subjective.
- (a) In a high parodic form (in the way Shakespeare seriously parodies the revenge tragedy in Hamlet, for example), plot one of the following: a gothic, a mystery, a sci-fi, a western, a drug-store romance.
(b) Write the first three pages of the novel plotted in 23a, using the trash form as the basis of a serious piece of fiction.
- Without an instant’s lapse of taste, describe a person (a) going to the bathroom, (b) vomiting, (c) murdering a child.
- Write a short piece of fiction in mixed prose and verse.
- Write, without irony, a character’s moving defense of himself (herself).
- Using all you know, write a short story about an animal—for instance, a cow.
- Write a short story about some well-known legendary figure.
- Write a true story using anything you need.
- Write a fabulous story using anything you need.