These writing exercises can be used, and modified, in any fiction writing workshop, but might have particular value in workshop settings which have an emphasis on nonrealistic storytelling forms. They should hopefully help students loosen up in working in cross-genre forms, as the genre content is less important than the writing process itself of the students. With any luck, they can use these as starting points for longer, more fully developed stories that have both texture and grace.
Writing Exercise 1: Mimicking a Landscape
Purpose: to think about how setting can be an important "character" in the story, being more than just a backdrop.
Examples: "The Barrow" by Ursula LeGuin; any number of science fiction stories taking place on a strange planet (Dune by Frank Herbert, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem); epic fantasies in which "the land" is in peril by The Forces of Evil and must be resuscitated (Tolkien); in Latin American magic realism, the plantation/village/pampas imbued with the fantastic.
Think of a landscape. It doesn't have to be one of a fantastic nature; it could be a place from your childhood, or one that you visited on a vacation. Look for three significant details in the landscape in your mind's eye (e.g., in a desert: a cactus, a gully, and a Gila monster). Jot these three details down at the top of your page.
Then choose an event that occurs — without any human interaction. In our desert example, this might be a sudden flash flood. Jot this down at the top of your page too.
With these signifiers in your mind, freewrite a passage that describes this event in a prose style that mimics the landscape. This doesn't have to be any particular method; rather, it's the way that you internally approach this landscape.
After about three minutes, stop your freewrite. Think about the ways you approached your narrative, and how this description — your description — was affected in the telling by the word choices and style used (even on a subconscious level).
Now, think of a character — first one that comes to your head! — that you can insert in and superimpose on this landscape. Make him or her radically different from you in some way. How does she or she approach this event? What does it reveal about her or his internal psyche? Write a first person narrative for three minutes with these two questions in mind. Keep in mind that these aren't detailed character studies! You are supposed to create on the fly here, as you intersect the landscape with the character.
Improvisations such as this are staples of writers in our fields.
Writing Exercise Two: The Alien Among Us
Description: This writing exercise involves writing about an "Other," of whatever sort. Even though you, as a writer, might know the history and characteristics of this "alien," your protagonists certainly don't have to.
Approximate time: ten minutes.
1. First, think of some sort of creature, an "Other" (call it an alien) that is radically different from our own experience. Note that this doesn't have to be a science fiction alien. Other suggestions include old favorites such as: golem (Jewish folklore), robot/android, ghost, wood spirits (everything from Celtic to African folklore), giant, etc. etc. Try to avoid the clichèd; e.g., frolicking elves, bug-eyed monsters hoping to destroy Earth just for the heck of it, vampire with a black cape, etc.
2. Freewrite describing the physical properties of this alien. Use at least 3 senses; four or five would be better. Get inside the alien's "skin"; give it/him/her properties that are off the cuff and surprising. Give it/him/her some kind of brief history. Where is it from? How old is it/he/she?
3. Now, plunk the alien down into some kind of "common" setting. It can be a place normally associated with the alien (e.g., a ghost in a haunted house), or something completely different (e.g., a ghost in a factory showroom). Write, from a first person p.o.v., about how someone from an "ordinary" (whatever that means to you) perspective approaches this alien. What is this narrator's emotional reaction?
Keep in mind that the narrator doesn't have to figure everything out. Often, refraining from 'spilling the beans' about an alien (while providing vivid contextual clues) can add to the story's tension or tone. And not everything has to be explained. The alien is, by definition, inexplicable. The physical details, however, should provide the banister for your character.
Alternate exercise: Reverse the process. Write from the perspective of the supposed "other" describing someone from our own, familiar vantage point (i.e., a human).
Of course, it is expected that you'll always incorporate these into your fiction in surprising ways, perhaps even undercutting the entire idea of an "other."
Alan DeNiro's fiction has appeared in Trampoline, Polyphony, One Story, Fence, 3rd Bed, and has been short listed for the O. Henry award. He is the author of 2 poetry chapbooks: Atari Ecologues and The Black Hare, and is a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi. Online you can read Alan's stories "Ptarmigan," "If I Leap I Shall Fall into My Hands," and "Home of the." Additionally online is a poetry collection. "Asphaedel" and the essay "Dream of the Unified Field".