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Writing Exercises and Prompts

By Lawrence Wilson

Whenever I experience a lack of motivation, ideas, or energy (which sometimes occurs daily), I look over my collection of exercises and prompts to help get started.

Going back to my high school typing class, I did manage to type 40 or so words a minute without looking at the keys. Using this tool as a writing exercise, I sit quietly for a few minutes and then begin to type. Eyes closed. Letting any and everything that fires through the neurons wind up on paper.

If I don’t lose my place on the keyboard, it usually ends with a jumble of words and phrases that may or may not resemble a theme. It really doesn’t matter. It’s spontaneous, gets the mind and fingers working in synch. Most of the time, it gets deleted afterward. 

Another exercise is the six-word memoir. One of the more famous of these, “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” (Ernest Hemingway). My own: “Hearing the call, afraid to answer.” Or “I married up, she did not.”

Word prompts are much the same kind of mental exercise for writing. These can either be timed or have a defined word count. I try to make it to 500 words.

 I have just perused through some old prompts and found some that are rather good and could be developed.

‘Pitching a Frog’, for example. I don’t even remember what the prompt was, but it has the makings of an excellent short story. Another I found, ‘The Secrete Planet’. I called it “Orangetang”, a collection of all the citrus fruit drinks the astronauts couldn’t stomach and thus, jettisoned them so NASA wouldn’t find out. All prompts do not a story make.

Others have made it into the collection of my book, ‘Catching Chickens’. ‘The Door’, ‘Friends’ (the prompt was something about seeing a man on a ledge).

There are many sources of prompts and exercises available on the Web. Here are just a couple of them.

  • ‘The Author’s Publish Compendium of Writer’s Prompts’, http://www.authorspublish.com/writing-prompts-compendium/
  • Writer’s Digest Magazine has many links to prompts. In one contest, they provide the photo, and you write the first storyline.  The winners are published in the next issue.
  • As with anything else writing, all you must do is enter the keywords, “writer prompts,” and AI will find more than you ever wanted to know.
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Cover Art

By Terry C. Misfeldt

In this day and age when naysayers believe print books are going the way of dinosaurs, it is ever more important that the cover art of your book grabs a potential reader’s attention.

Print on demand (POD) publishing today demands even more that your artwork is appealing since your book will most likely have a soft cover. That means paper instead of a stiffer, non-printable binding.

Now, if you are getting published in hard cover, there will be a wrap-around cover which will still require cover art. Even E-books have a need for cover art.

How do you create cover art that sells? I have long held the belief that copy sells while art enhances, but selling books with cover art requires both.

Romance writers know their cover art needs to show couples in a passionate embrace. Poets have more latitude in what graces their covers. Science fiction writers need “out of this world” artwork to entice potential readers.

Elements of strong cover art include: 1) Attractive color schemes; 2) Text (like your book title) that stands out from the background and uses an appropriate font; 3) Images that convey the essence of your book and entice people; 4) Catchy blurbs to garner attention; and, 5) a Professional image of you, the author.

Consider hiring a professional graphic artist to create your cover. Many publishing companies have cover artists on staff to assist you in that process…often at a steep cost. An option I employed with my first novel was contacting the local university’s graphic arts department to see if any students wanted to attack my cover. After several drafts and a few hundred dollars, I got an excellent (IMO) cover, thanks to Angela Collier. Can you guess what the novel is about?

The Writing Life: Half and Half

By Terry C. Misfeldt

Writers will confess that they love writing but are less than enthusiastic about marketing. The writing life is half and half. Half of the process is getting words together in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and novels or whatever they are writing. The other half of the process is publicizing what they’ve written to their adoring fans; also known as marketing.

Must equal time be given to both halves? Not necessarily. If all you want to do is write and self-publish so you can showcase your work with a spot on your bookcase shelf, congratulations! You are a published author. If, however, you want to make a wee bit of money selling some of those copies you ordered or to get people to purchase copies online, some marketing is essential.

Simple steps include creating an author’s profile with a link people can click on. This gives potential buyers an opportunity to check you out and, perchance, buy a copy through Amazon or another outlet. Use that author’s profile link in your E-mail signature, too. It is a simple marketing tool. Create a listing for your work on Good Reads and other book-related websites. It takes a few minutes to get it set up.

Encourage readers to write reviews (and be prepared for ones that may be less than flattering). Send media releases to your college alumni association, fraternity or sorority if you were a brother or sister, any other organizations you have or may belong to, your hometown newspaper, and any other place that may publish the information about you and your work. The same release can work for a variety of publications with slight modification.

Look for speaking engagements: Book clubs, service organizations, and other groups are often looking for programs. Book clubs mean people buy your book, read it, and then invite you in to discuss it.

None of these tools on your marketing belt cost a lot of money, other than a First Class stamp. Just carve out the time to do it and see what happens.

Keeping A Journal

By Terry C. Misfeldt

Some people think of a journal as a diary and that is one version. Keeping a journal is different.

Diaries are meant to be personal and contents shared with few, if any, people. Keeping a journal is documenting life and significant events that likely impart lessons to whomever reads the journal. Do journals contain diary-like comments? They can, and often do.

Keeping a journal is important if you travel considerably, especially if you want to share those travels with others who may wish to follow in your shoes. Journal about good places to eat and the quality of the food, but do not forget to accentuate how you were treated by the waitstaff and everyone else. Write about the modes of transportation you use, how efficient they are, and the friendliness of the flight attendants, conductor, Uber driver, or others providing that transportation.

How did you feel when you stood on the beaches of Hawaii for the first time? What was it like to drive a car through busy Los Angeles traffic? Where did you see the sun rise that was an unusual location?

Family life is also worth keeping a journal. Share when your child first rolls over or cuts their first tooth. Remember to share your frustration with weird hours feeding or changing dirty diapers. Temper tantrums and how you dealt with them could also prove valuable when your children have children.

There is so much you can journal about, including your work and co-workers. Describe their work habits and personality traits but be careful about sharing these pages of your journal if you get too personal.

The point is to write, and keeping a journal is an easy method of remembering things that motivate you…and that can be used as motivation. A good time to start is now.

Determining Your Audience

By Terry C. Misfeldt

Determining your audience is an often overlooked aspect of writing. If you fail to consider who you want to read what you write, and write for that audience, you are only writing for one person: You!

How do you determine your audience?

First, think about what you want to write. Have you come up with a story about young adults and their interaction? Are you creating a fantasy world set in ancient times or projected into the distant future? Or are you writing about business management techniques?

This first step is essential. It identifies your potential audience members. People who may want to read what you write. Operative word there is “may” be a reader.

Second, consider reading habits of your target audience. If the story about teenage interaction is designed for readers 18 or younger, what is their reading comprehension level? What language should you avoid? What scenarios are acceptable to this segment of the reading population? In the case of a fantasy work, is your audience narrowly defined or rather broad in scope? Will the reader understand the terminology you intend to use, or does it even matter?

With management techniques, consider if you want this read by production level workers or upper level supervisors. What are their personality styles, and can you write using strong control language?

Third, write for your target audience. Keep in mind that even if you have written a Pulitzer Prize winning piece, getting people to read it is another aspect of the writing craft called marketing. However, if you hit the nail on the head by identifying your target market (readers) your odds of getting your words to the right people are increased.

Tip: If you know someone who likes to read and falls in the category of your target audience, ask them to review or edit your work for you. This helps clarify that you are on the mark with that audience or need to shift tactics a bit. For instance, if you write for young adults you should find someone in that age group to read what you’ve written and see if it resonates with them.

Keeping a Journal

By Terry C. Misfeldt

When we were younger it was thought of as keeping a diary. As we have gotten older, that diary is now considered a journal. With age, keeping a journal is one of the best ways to keep track of the special occasions and life moments you experience.

Like my grandmother who started her journal when she was 10 years old and kept it up until 10 days before her passing, i have consciously kept a journal for most of my life. The exception was 2019 when I chose to intentionally skip keeping track of minutiae and just live my life!

The Corona virus pandemic of 2020 has proven to be an excellent reason for keeping a journal. The panic of being close to someone who might be infected. The anxiety of being quarantined. Waiting for test results. Listening to information and wondering whether it is accurate or manufactured. Doubt. Emotions provide insight to what you have gone through it you have shared them in a journal.

You are not obligated to share your journal with anyone. It is your personal property. It can also be a legacy to your loved ones when you leave this existence for the other side. I am fortunate to have some of my grandmother’s journals and the secrets they have divulged about growing up in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Being able to decode her symbols, I was able to determine when my father was conceived.

My fifth grandchild recently joined our family and, in my journal, I have shared my emotions and feelings about my third grandson. Being able to go back and review dates and events enables me to reminisce about his birth when I am older and grayer with a mind less likely to remember details that are fresh now.

If you travel, journal about it. A friend of mine who has been a professional photographer during his entire career has traveled extensively. When he shared images with me about his trips, i encouraged him to create journal entries and share them with his followers. It created a permanent memory of his exploits for himself, his family, and those of us who have always admired his work.

If you consider yourself a writer and wonder what to write, journal. Keeping a journal provides inspiration for that great American novel.

The End in Mind

By Terry C. Misfeldt

It is often said to writers they should begin their story with the end in mind. There is a reason this makes sense: If you have the end in mind, you know when you have gotten to where you want your story to be when it is finished.

That seems a simple explanation, but the concept has value. Does your heroine save the prince and live happily ever after? Does the detective solve the crime or discover another clue leading to doubt about the outcome of the investigation?

In my novel, Shevivor, the protagonist survives a grizzly bear attack and being pursued by a pack of wolves. Janet Murphy’s mere survival could have ended the story, but the end in my mind was to leave the reading wondering about the wolves.

Is there a sequel you plan to write? Then make sure the end of the first installment sets up the story occurring in the second. Everything you write should direct the reader toward the end without allowing them to predetermine the outcome.

If you have favorite television shows, you most likely can guess what will happen in the next scene. The unexpected car crash ends the episode and leaves you hanging to make sure you tune in for next week’s show. Did the protagonist survive? Or die?

That is acceptable in writing scripts but the end must still be kept in mind. It is especially true in writing a novel of almost any genre. Even with a memoir, you should know how you want it to end. Is there a lesson your life’s memories can impart to the reader?

What I will leave you with is this: If you do not write with the end in mind, your work is going to meander all over the place with no clear path to the climax or conclusion. You may lose and disorient your audience as a result. The end.

Editing Your Writing

By Terry C. Misfeldt

Part of writing is getting the words out. Another part is editing. Editing is an essential tool for every writer. It involves word choice, story flow, grammar, punctuation, and readability. Let’s look at those elements of editing, or should it be writing?

Word choice. When you write, the words you use are important. Some are useless and unnecessary and editing takes care of them. “That” is one of those words that can often be eliminated. Here’s an example with the previous sentence: “That” is a word you can eliminate. The other aspect of word choice is thinking about which word is most descriptive for the scene you create. The right words can be powerful in your story, creating an image in the reader’s mind describing emotions, building tension, or adding stress.

Story flow. Editing for flow involves reading the copy from a reader’s perspective. Is there a logical progression from one scene to the next? Does a gap exist causing your readers to give up on what’s going on? There are occasions when you are editing requiring you to move sentences, paragraphs, and perhaps even chapters to a better location in the story. Edit for your reader.

Grammar. There are software applications available to catch and correct grammatical errors when editing your work. As the writer, however, ultimate responsibility for grammar changes if yours. By the way, “the” is another often unnecessary word. Think about it.

Punctuation. Readers can be turned off my missing or incorrect punctuation—such as a dash instead of a comma, semi-colon; or misplaced colon: End a question with a question mark? End an exclamation with an exclamation mark! Use parentheses for (parenthetical expressions) in your work. Periods are the end of a sentence. Punctuation is a form of expressing yourself, so edit accordingly.

Readability. Scholars write at university level. Average reading levels for cognition suggest writers craft their writing at a third of fourth grade level. Editing for readability is about knowing your audience and writing for them. It can discourage a reader if they have to stop and look up a word they do not  understand, so keep that in mind when editing. It is okay to add a definition or describe intent to keep the flow going for your reader. Oops! In the second to last sentence, the words “have to” should have been edited out as unnecessary.

Editing is a constant challenge. There are occasions when a professional editor is beneficial.

COVID Motivation

By Terry C. Misfeldt

Writers I converse with regularly seem to lack motivation to write as a result of COVID-19. They are isolated from other writers, family members, and friends, so it is hard to write about anything without human interaction. So here are my thoughts for writers who lack COVID motivation.

  1. Dedicate time each day to writing. Just write! It matters not what you type into your document or scribble on a note pad. Write about your day’s experiences if nothing else. What is essential is that you are writing, whether it’s at 7:00 in the morning or 11:00 at night. Write!
  2. Find something to write about. Your favorite food and why you relish that delicacy. Your best friend and how you get along with that person, even if your best friend is yourself. Write about your favorite time of year or the season that inspires you, such as the colors of autumn.
  3. Correspond with someone you care about. Find a blank note card and send a friend who lives far away a message about why you miss them or what you treasure most about your relationship and your hopes of rekindling it when you can get back together again. Open your heart to them.
  4. Find a writing contest and enter it. There are many magazines and writing groups solicting entries in their writing contests. If you find one you feel qualified to enter, study the rules and write that winning entry. It may cost you a few bucks to enter, but the satisfaction of competing…and winning…can be motivating. And last…
  5. Set a daily goal and write your novel. If you want to write a 90,000 word novel, you can do it in 90 days if you set a goal of writing 1,000 words every day. Perhaps you write 500 words in the morning and another 500 after dinner or all of them at once. The key is to set a goal and keep working at it. It can be your motivation.

Character Descriptions

By Terry C. Misfeldt

How you craft descriptions of your characters is an important element in gaining and maintaining reader interest in your story. Character descriptions vary from quick sketches to detailed revelations that can include emotional states.

An example of a quick sketch would be describing a female character wearing a sleeveless top with colorful tattoo sleeves from shoulder to wrist on both arms. Main character? Perhaps, but more appropriate for a passing stranger in some scene.

The more detailed character description might be something like this: “The plump four-year-old towhead with sparkling blue eyes and out-turned feet plodded barefoot through the mud with his tossled hair clinging to the back of his sweaty neck. His bleeding hand was wrapped in his blood-soaked t-shirt that he held tight to his chest with his belly hanging over the waistband of his too-tight shorts.”

The point of the examples is writers need to create believable characters with precise descriptions. The scene in the second example is used more to describe what might be going on in the towhead’s brief existence, but you learn he is blond with blue eyes and is overweight for a 4-year-old.

Beware: You can divulge too much information about a character in a single description or scenario. This may force you to repeat traits or descriptions at other points in your story that could potentially conflict with your original picture of them.

Suggestion: Identify your characters and write character descriptions on each of them before you dig too deeply into writing the story. This enables you to sprinkle some of their traits throughout the story at appropriate times rather than all at once.

Observe people who may model the type of character you want to create. Take notes about how they move, what they wear, and, of course, what they look like. Writers call it research.