What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

I got this book for my birthday and it is amazing. This is the best writing book I’ve seen since The 90 Day Novel. And, unlike the latter, What If? is applicable to short stories as well.

I’ve been reading this book before trying the exercises, because there are really great introductions to, and examples from students of, the exercises.

And I was thinking. . .how great would it be to track these writing exercises in my blog? It’d be even greater if I got readers participating so we could all workshop each other. The flash fiction (short short stories) section at the end looks in particular like a lot of fun!

Before I begin what will ultimately become a pretty big commitment and project  (there are over 100 exercises), I must list a few disclaimers:

  1. If you are a writer too and want to workshop these exercises with me, that’s great. However, I highly recommend buying the book in addition to participation – my listing the exercises here will not hold a candle to the entirety of this wonderful book, trust me.
  2. There are certain exercises that will not be applicable for blogging purposes here, and so I shall skip over them. Which brings me to:
  3. When I skip over exercises in the book I will still number them chronologically here. To avoid confusion for anyone who may be following along with the book, I will also provide the page number the exercise is on.

Let’s do this!

Exercise Number 1 – First sentences: beginning in the middle

Page 7 in the book

“Consider how many  of the opening lines below pull you into the center of the story. What do you know about the story – situation, characters, geography, setting, class, education, potential conflict, etc. – from reading the titles and the following opening lines? What decisions has the author already made about point of view, distance, setting, tones, etc.? Note how many of the titles are directly related to the first line of the story.”

Three of my favorites from their examples:

  • “Exchange Value;” Me and my brother Lofits came in by the old lady’s window. – Charles Johnson
  • “Bigfoot Stole my Wife;” The problem is credibility. – Ron Carlson
  • “Medley;” I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.” – Toni Cade Bambaria

And from my own novel:

  • “Sober in Connecticut;” “Are we bonging it up?” I asked my best friend as I took some ice out of the freezer.

(Which I had changed from my original first line.)

“Now, write ten of your own opening lines for ten different stories. When you read, look for opening lines that immediately pull you into the story. And if you keep a journal or a notebook, consider starting a new section and adding one first sentence each day – for the rest of your life.

“The objective: To cultivate the habit of beginning your stories in the middle of things. Because you are not obligated to finish these stories, this exercise lowers the emotional stakes and helps to shake up and surprise the imagination.”

Note, they didn’t say to provide a title, but just an opening line.

Here are mine, written completely stream-of-consciousness:

  1. It was when I was tumbling head first, barreling towards a Douglas fir as fast as a cheetah advancing towards a gazelle – although far less gracefully – that I remembered why I had originally refused to take to the slopes.
  2. She was a seamstress, he was a tailor; they said it would never work out.
  3. I only wanted baby’s breath flowers in my wedding bouquet, simple, but eloquent, which was exactly what this wedding was turning out not to be.
  4. He was the sort of child who made the hair on your arms stand up when you were near him, the sort of child who parents warned their kids to stay away from.
  5. No one expected a catastrophe to come while the sun was shining, when kids were running through sprinklers, and hot, bored, housewives nursed gin and tonics on the back porch.
  6. Growing up in a household of nine was like being raised as a cat or a dog in an unwanted litter, except with additional religious assumptions stemming from views on birth control.
  7. Of course it was small, and meaningless, but that is exactly why it also meant everything – for if you cannot get the small things in order you’ll have no hope for the larger.
  8. Some late night guards get to carry firearms on the job, while others get their own company car – hell, I would have settled for a walkie talkie at this point.
  9. Not everyone gets to grow up on a quaint, cobblestone street lined street in a charming, water-side town, where dads are fishermen and moms still have an air of beauty and charm about them.
  10. Sure, the eight-year-old version of me always believed I would see a ghost.