Posts Tagged With: writing exercise

The Joys of Writing – Setting the scene

Show, don’t tell.  Writers and students are told this over and over again starting in third grade.  It’s one of the hardest things we do – creating a scene and putting the reader into it, rather than just relating the scene to them.

I spent the afternoon working on some descriptive scene exercises.  The street was lined with oak trees became: “Spanish moss draped across the canopy of branches, creating a pergola of oak over the street.”  The cornfield was dead became: “Dry, sun-burnt husks wilted on the cornstalks in the late summer heat.”  Linda broke the plate became: “Linda stared down at the white porcelain shards that now created a mosaic within the kitchen sink.”

Then I turned to my current WIP, to take an example of Telling and reworking it to Show.

And I couldn’t find an example.

And that bothers me more than it should.  Because I know there are instances where I’ve done it.  I’m just completely blind to it within my own work.

The WIP is going…well.  But not.  Well, in that I’m Getting There.  Not in that I’m not going to make the deadline I promised myself (and my husband) several months ago.  And that makes me feel a bit like a failure.  Which, of course, affects my writing.  Which further affects the deadline.  Vicious cycle, and all that.

Just keep on keeping on, right?  I’m trying not to get distracted with other writing tasks.  Right now I need to fully finish the story.  Not go back and change my character’s eye color in all the scenes (which will happen).  Not go back and add in descriptive details of the setting (which will happen).  Not go back and check for adverbs (which will happen).  It all needs to be done, but I’ll get halfway through and just have to do it all over again.  Assuming, of course, I actually ever finish the damn story.

I’m really bad about that.  I have polished beginnings for half a dozen books…and none of them are finished.  It’s the endings I need to work on.  The endings I need to actually write.

I’ve always heard that when it comes to editing, books tend to decrease in word count. I don’t have that problem.  I add.  Well, I subtract, too, but I add in a lot of description.  Eyes, hair, make and model of car.  In my first draft, I don’t consider that stuff to be super important (unless specifically tying into the plot).

Hmm…does that mean my first draft isn’t my first draft, but instead is more of a detailed outline?

Wait…does that make me a (gasp!) plotter?!

*sigh*  Back to writing…

So, how about some great advice on Showing, not Telling?  Here are 5 articles that might help you out:

Is there a source you’ve found online to help with writing scene description?  Please share!

Categories: On Writing, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

The Ghost of Hashers Past – a short story challenge

Last week, I asked readers to challenge me with a writing prompt, and I picked a winner at random.  I started writing the story this morning, with a promised post date of midnight (my time) tonight.  Here is the story:


Hashing: participating in an event, usually a run, held by the Hash House Harriers, an international social and non-competitive running group.

Hasher: a member of the Hash House Harriers.



A coyote yelp would have shattered the silence of the East Texas woods, except the forest hadn’t had much silence since the hashers arrived yesterday. Now, twenty four hours into their camping weekend, the hashers were in full swing, talking, laughing, catching up with old friends, meeting new ones. Music blasted from the sound system set up under the pavilion, drowning out the metallic banging coming from the kitchen as volunteers cleaned up after the evening meal.

There were more than twenty tents pitched in the open field in front of the pavilion, and a few more were scattered at the base of pine trees along the edge of the woods. A bonfire roared in the middle of the field, flames reaching ten feet into the air. As night settled around the campsite, the temperature dropped, and hashers congregated around the fire to ward off the damp evening chill.

Two men carried one of the many kegs closer to the fire, so no one had to walk too far to get more beer. Because that was a big part of what this weekend was about – beer. Beer was the holy water of this group, the sacramental liquid they were devoted to, the reason they were here. It served as their nourishment, their societal reward and retribution, their ceremonial Eucharist. If hashing was a religion, beer would be the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

After several rounds of folk songs and drinking games, one hasher spoke up. “How about a ghost story?” The group freshened their beers and sat back to listen.

Once, years ago, a hasher named No Diddley got lost in these very woods during a midnight trail run. The next day, someone noticed he was gone, and they went out into the woods, looking for him. They followed the same trail they had taken the night before, calling his name, listening for his return of “on-on.” But they didn’t find him.

That evening, another hasher disappeared, and this time, when they went looking for him, they found a trail of beer cans leading to his broken and bruised body.

The next year, the hashers lost another of their brethren in these woods, and another the next year, and another the following year. All told, eight hashers have died in these woods, each with a trail of beer cans leading to their body.

Now, some say it was coyotes, or a bear, but I think it was the Ghost of old No Diddley, looking for more beer. He roams the forest still, searching for his brew, killing anyone who gets in his way.

“That’s it?” Tongue War asked. “Dude, that was the lamest ghost story ever. Down-down!” he shouted, demanding punishment. A chorus of “down-down” started around the fire, and the storyteller was made to chug a beer. It was something he did with pleasure, so as a punishment, it didn’t hold much weight.

It was nearly midnight, but no one was ready for bed. Someone suggested a moonlight hash, and Backseat Driver volunteered to live hare. He filled a backpack with beer, grabbed a bag of flour to mark the trail, and took off, a trail of white leading into the woods. The rest of the hashers gathered in a circle and sang a couple of warm up songs, giving Backseat Driver a fifteen minute head start. Then they headed out, following the trail of flour. They followed the marks for a mile, then ran into trouble finding the next mark. They broke up into smaller groups, fanning out, whistles in hand, listening for the tell-tale “on-on” when someone found the trail again.

There was a metallic rattle as That’s All Folks F*ck You stumbled and fell to one knee. She held up a beer can and shook it. “Looks like Backseat got thirsty.”

Puss’n Boots held out a hand to help Taffy up. “It’s not like Backseat to litter, though. I’m sure some redneck tossed it in the woods last week.”

“But it’s Backseat’s favorite beer,” Taffy pointed out. She looked closer. “He didn’t even open it, he ripped a hole in it.”

Tongue War took the can from her and looked at the ragged gash. “Looks like a wild animal did it.” He glanced behind him and ducked his head. “Maybe,” he whispered, “it’s the ghost of No Diddley.”

Taffy backhanded him in the chest and rolled her eyes at Puss. “You are such a jackass, Tongue.”

Tongue cackled. “Come on, let’s head back to camp. I don’t think anyone’s going to find the trail. Backseat’s gonna have a down-down for this, for sure.”

They made their way through the dark forest, searching for the last white pile they had found, then followed the trail backwards to camp.

Tongue War unzipped Taffy’s tent and poked his head in. “Come on, get up. Backseat never came back to camp last night. We’re organizing a search party.”

Taffy pulled on a pair of pants and a sweatshirt and stumbled out of her tent. Most of the other hashers were just as out of it as she was, from the looks of it. Puss’n Boots was bent over a trashcan, throwing up, and several people had their head in their hands, rubbing their temples. Taffy grabbed a plastic cup and poured herself a Bloody Mary.

“So what’s the plan?” she asked Tongue.

Tongue turned the sound system on and spoke into the microphone. The feedback made everyone grab their heads and swear, but Tongue ignored them. “We’re going to follow the trail Backseat laid last night and then fan out from where it ends. Keep the person next to you in sight at all times. If the circle gets too wide to keep each other in sight and we haven’t found him, we’ll head back to camp and call the cops.”

They set out on the trail, and at the end of it fanned out as instructed. They called his name, both his hash name and his given name, Chris. Taffy spent as much time making sure she could still see the other hashers as she did looking for Backseat. She could barely see Tongue through the foliage. “Tongue, I think it’s time to turn back,” she called.

Tongue stumbled and bent down. “I found another beer can,” he called back to her. “Same as the one last night, gash in the side.” He stood and looked around. “It looks like there’s a cave or something down here, I’m just going to go check it out.”

“Tongue, wait!” Taffy called, but he disappeared. She blew her whistle to summon the other hashers and walked toward the spot she had last seen Tongue. She waived to Puss’n Boots and gestured down the hill. “Tongue found another beer can and went to check out the cave,” she yelled. She started down the steep slope, planting her foot sideways and leaning into the hill, trying not to slip.

When she reached the bottom she looked up. Puss stood at the top, ready to come down after her. “Stay up there, no use both of us being down there,” Taffy said. “I’ll be right back.” She ignored the vines that brushed her legs and walked to the cave, peering in. “Tongue?”

A shadow moved along the wall to the right. She looked, but saw nothing. She stepped inside the cave and called again. “Tongue? Did you find anything?” A scuffle of movement to her left drew her attention, and she took another step. She could just make out the form of a man, huddled on the ground. “Backseat?” She took another step. Her foot connected with a lightweight object, sending it tumbling toward the man. She looked down.

A beer can.

She squinted into the darkness. “Tongue, is that you?”

The growl from behind startled her. She turned. Her eyes widened. She opened her mouth to scream.

Puss’n Boots pointed down the hill to the cave. “She went in there. She said that’s where Tongue went.”

Five hashers made their way down the steep incline and started toward the cave. An empty beer can rolled out, causing them to pause. They studied the gash in the can. The sharp edges of aluminum glinted like teeth.

From the top of the hill, Puss’n Boots screamed and pointed. Taffy lay in the mouth of the cave, staring back at them. He limbs hung loosely, as if pulled from their joints. A gash marred her face, the edges resembling those on the empty beer can.

They found Tongue War inside the cave, crouched next to a pile of empty beer cans.  A gash across his throat pointed to cause of death.

No one saw Backstreet Driver again, but legend has it, he roams the woods of East Texas, still looking for his favorite beer.


Thanks, Mary, for the suggestion!  Genre – Horror; Subject – camping; character assignment – a hasher.   The minute I saw your challenge, I knew it would have to involve beer!  😀  Hope you enjoy it!

To everyone not familiar with the world of hashing, I’d like to explain a few things.  Everyone gets a nickname, or hash name, and it often has a sexual connotation of some sort.  All names used in this story are completely made up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they existed.  Names are often shortened to one word or an acronym.  I hope the naming conventions in the story weren’t too confusing (and I tried to keep them somewhat SFW).  Also, I do not write horror, so this was a first for me.  It’s no Stephen King, certainly, but I did my best.  

Categories: My writings, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Challenge Me – Short Story Challenge

I just found out about this cool writing contest where participants are given a writing prompt and have 24 hours to write a short story.  Alas, I missed the deadline.  So I decided to do it anyway!  And you can help.

Leave a comment with a writing prompt.  You need to include a genre, a subject, and a character assignment (example:  horror, travel, a dentist; see more examples here.).  I will pick a comment at random and write a short story using that writing prompt.

Don’t torture me, please!  😀

I’m going on a weekend trip, so you have until midnight your time on Monday (February 25th) to leave a writing prompt.  I will choose the winner on Tuesday, and write the story on Wednesday.  It will be posted by midnight my time on Wednesday.

Can’t wait to see what you guys come up with!

Categories: My writings, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Toning up your writing

“Is your writing flabby or fit?”  That’s the question The Writer’s Diet asks, and it gives you immediate feedback on your writing, showing you where you have excessive verbs, prepositions, and adverbs (among other things).

I found The Writer’s Diet via MetaFilter, one of my all time favorite websites.  I’ve been introduced to hundreds of news stories, photographers, artists, singers, ideas, and interesting individuals I would never have discovered otherwise.  This is just the latest.  From the metafilter post:  “The WritersDiet Test, created by Dr. Helen Sword, allows you to enter a writing sample of 100 to 1000 words and have it graded from “lean” to “heart attack” on its level of excess verbiage.”  Well, of course I wanted to find out where my writing fell.

Since I wasn’t on the computer with my current WIP, I entered in the text of one of my more storytelling posts on my other blog, Blessed by Holy Water in Tallinn.  The results?  My overall score was “Fit and Trim,” with everything except the verbs coming in at lean.  My verbs, though, evidently need toning.  The site also highlights each of the instances within your text, so you can see where you might look into editing your content.  I can see each and every instance I used be, is, are, were, am, and was.  Very interesting, indeed.  You can also download a full diagnosis, which includes suggestions for improvement.

I definitely wanted to see what came up with my current WIP, so I switched computers and copied in the first chapter.  My results:

My current WIP is lean, baby!!

So what about this post?  “Fit and Trim,” although my verbs still need toning (but, it counted the 6 instances I used it in the paragraph above as examples, so I think I should get a break on that!).

Try out The Writer’s Diet and let me know what you think of the site.  Do you think it’s useful?  Where did your writing sample fall on the health chart?

Categories: On Writing, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Writing Exercise, or Copyright Infringement?

Writing Prompt: Think of a critical scene in a book you love. Write a different ending to the scene, then continue the story with the new ending in mind.

Congratulations, you’ve just written FanFiction.

Time Magazine had a piece in a recent issue about FanFiction – what it is, who does it, who likes it, and who doesn’t. It was a well written piece, and it really got me thinking.

I’ve never thought much of FanFic – and by that I mean I don’t think about it often. I’ve known about it for years, of course, and have read some, but sometimes finding something of quality is difficult. I don’t even have time to find new good blogs, let alone good FanFiction, so it’s simply not something I’m into. I don’t think I’ve actually written any FanFic, although I have thought out scenes in my head: What if Angel meets another vampire with a soul and falls in love with her – would she be his salvation? What if she’s an original vampire, and is immune to sunlight? The scenes I have written in my head are a mishmash of Angel/Blade/In the Forests of the Night mythology. So, yeah, FanFic.

Because isn’t that what we, as writers, do? We imagine What If. That is our mantra. We ask What If when it comes to the stories and characters we write, so it seems only natural we would ask it of the stories we read and watch.

What if Gale had been chosen for the games instead of Peeta?

What if Tom Buchanan died – would Daisy and Gatsby have gotten together?

What happened after Johnny drove away from Baby? Did they ever meet again?

What happened when Inigo Montoya took over as the Dred Pirate Roberts?

We think What If, we write that story down, and we want to share it with others who also wonder What If. It’s natural.

But is it legal?

FanFic writers do not make money on their stories when they post to websites like, but is it still copyright infringement? Authors Ann Rice and Orson Scott Card think so, and are quite upset when fans pen What If. But others, Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling, are all for it, figuring it’s a great promotional tool. Is one group right and one group wrong?

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I think that if I were published and someone did fanfic on my work, I would be excited – I mean, after all, something I wrote inspired someone else enough to write! That’s amazing! But, wait, you’re having two of my most loved characters do what?! No, no, no, that’s not good at all. So yes, I understand perfectly where Rice and Card are coming from, in that respect, because you can’t say fanfic is fine, unless you do this with it. It doesn’t work that way.

Good FanFic truly is amazing – the ability some people have to truly know the characters the same way the original author does – or, at least, the layers the original author wants you to see. Maybe Stephanie Meyer did her own fanfic, wondering What If Bella had chosen Jacob instead of Edward, or What If Charlie dies in a werewolf attack? A thorough writer would certainly entertain the possibility, to see where the story goes.

Honestly, good (note the use of the word good here) fanfic seems like a lot of work to me. You have to really know these characters that were created in someone else’s head. That takes research, study, and more imagination than I think I have. (Not sure what that says about my skills as a writer…)

So, what do you think of fanfic? Good? Bad? Would you want someone creating fanfic based on your work?

Be sure to check out the Time article – some good quotes:

“…fan fiction was not just an homage to the glory of the original but also a reaction to it. It was about finding the boundaries that the original couldn’t or wouldn’t break, and breaking them.”

“…I love the show, but what if it went further? What happens if I press this big, shiny, red button that says “Do not press”?”

“It was a way to bring to light hidden subtexts that the show couldn’t address.”

“Fictional worlds, while they appear solid, are riddled with blank spots and unexposed surfaces.”

“It’s human nature to press at the boundaries of stories, to scrabble at the edges, to want to know what’s going on just out of range of the camera.”

“A writer’s characters are his or her children, but even children have to grow up eventually and do things their parents wouldn’t approve of.”

Categories: On Writing, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“existence” – a one word writing practice

“I’m ready for my existence to come to an end.  I’ve lived enough lives, enough lifetimes, to fill a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  My tales are more gruesome.

“When this all began, when I first realized what was happening, I thought it might last another century, two at the most.  It’s been twenty.  Over 2000 years of falling victim to the same fate, over and over again.”  She laughed, shook her head.  “I’m exhausted.”  She looked up at him.  “And you are, too.  You just don’t know it.”

“I’m tired of this life.  That’s enough for me.  My tales aren’t pretty, either.”

“Yes, but yours are beyond your control.”  She looked away, gazed across the treetops.  “In fact, your tales are my fault.  Everything bad that has ever happened to you, happened because of me.”

“You aren’t responsible for everything.  Becca, LJ, they weren’t your fault.”

She looked back at him, her eyebrow raised.  “Weren’t they?  How do you know?  What if they died because of me?  Would you be able to forgive that?  Would you be able to forgive me?”

He was unable to hold her gaze, and she had her answer.

**oneword gives you a word, and sixty seconds to write whatever pops into your head.  Obviously, I didn’t write all this in sixty seconds, but I like to expand what I start with, and this happened to work with my current WIP.  

Categories: My writings, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

55 word microfiction – Wednesday Writing

I found out about 55 Fiction from Metafilter.  “55 Fiction is a form or microfiction with a few rules, including a limitation to 55 words.”  There are a couple of websites with the name, although apparently unrelated to the original 55 word contest. 

I thought, what the heck, could be fun:

The frigid office is a shocking contrast to the jungle outside.  The hairs on my legs stand up and grow faster.

“Please, can we turn it up, just three degrees?”  68 sounded temperate.

“No can do, pretty lady.  We turn the temp up, the jungle comes inside.”

I look down at my legs.  “Too late.”

Categories: My writings, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Vicariously, I Live (Fiction)

The pages crackle with each turn, the paper brittle from years in the dry air.  Although I knew the words by heart, I loved reading each story again.  The words, written in shaky print here, flowing cursive there, childlike block letters in yet another place, conveyed life in a way my mind can’t really know.

My mother’s words, written in beautiful cursive, flow over the page in a wash of grief.  “You will never know the music I’ve heard coming from the courtyard below,” she writes.  “The guitar sounds fluttered up like butterflies, its wings tickling your ears only briefly before flitting away again.  Your father and I used to dance to that music, here in the kitchen, imagining we were in a square in Argentina….”

Yes, mother was heartbroken at the end.  Of course she was.  She had already lost her husband, her youngest son, and her daughter, not to mention nearly all her friends.  The only reason she and my grandfather lasted so long was because of me.

This story here, the one with the shaky print, was written by my grandfather.  His acceptance of the fate of the world isn’t tinged with the despair evident in my mother’s stories.  “Good luck, kid,” my grandfather writes, his words pressed so thick and deep into the page I can feel the impression on the back side.  “You just got to survive.  Reminds me of the time my buddy Mac and me were in the jungle, hiding from Charlie.  Neither one of us knew what to do, we just knew we had to do it.  Boy, but you shoulda seen the colors in that jungle!  So much green I started to hate the color, but there were pinks and reds and sometimes a white streak to remind you something else existed.”

I laid the book back on its pillow and reached for the picture book on the ground.  Flipping through the pages, I wondered if any of these flowers were ones my grandfather had seen.  A flash of purple caught my eye, and I thumbed back a page.  I had seen this flower before, the pinkish violet, the petals open like a butterfly, flowing down like a waterfall.  My eyes dropped to the bottom of the page.  Phalaenopsis (Moth Orchid.)  I ran my finger over the petals, wondering if they felt as smooth and cool to the touch as the glossy page.

I placed the book back on the floor, the page turned to the Phalaenopsis.  In my mind, I surrounded the Phalaenopsis with green, like my grandfather said.  Is this what he saw?

I picked the book up off the pillow and turned the page.  This story was my favorite.

“I kicked the ball today and didn’t miss!  My toe hurts a little, but don’t tell mom, she might make me stop, and I don’t want to stop.  Coach gave me a high five and told me I was going to be a good forward some day.  Then Stinky Stevie threw water on me.  He said it was a way of saying good job, but if so, why didn’t he just say it?”

My baby brother, so grown up at 8, would never see 9.  He died a year ago.  Mother died last month.  Grandpa died last week.

I looked around the room, the plastic-sealed windows letting in opaque light, the layered sheets of heavy plastic hanging at the door, blocking any air particles that might come in.  Mother had talked about the music from the courtyard, how I would never hear it, because the musicians were all dead.  But I had never seen the courtyard, either.  The picture in my head was as imaginary as the picture I had of grandpa’s jungle, based on picture books and the words of my family, just like what I thought of when I thought of butterflies, and waterfalls, and soccer.  But I had seen that flower, the Phalaenopsis, through a part in the plastic sheeting one day.  It was real.  I knew it.

“Stay in here as long as you can,” grandpa said as he piled cans along the wall.  “The plastic is the reason you’re still alive.  Hell, it’s the reason any of us lasted as long as we did, because we had to be so clean to get in here to see you.  You ain’t never been exposed to anything in here, and as long as you stay in here, you never will be.”

This bubble has kept me alive, but it prevented me from ever living except through the stories of my family.  I had never been exposed to anything.

I closed the brittle pages and stood.  I was ready to live, if only for a moment.

I parted the plastic curtain and saw it.  The Phalaenopsis.  Still in bloom. 

Four steps.  Four steps, and I would be able to feel it.

I charged the Beau with giving me a writing prompt today.  I told him to pick a song lyric, preferably to a song I didn’t know.  He gave me this:  “Vicariously, I live while the whole world dies / You all need it too, don’t lie.”  It’s from a Tool song – I’m not a huge Tool fan, so I can’t tell you which song. 

Categories: My writings, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Weekend Writing Workshop

I took a writing workshop this weekend through the local community college.  I didn’t know what to expect, having never been in a writing group.  I knew it would be writing prompts, which I hoped would jump start my writing, which has recently stalled.  It was prompts, but it was…different than I expected.  There was both good and bad.

I arrived Saturday to a class of ten, unsure what to expect, what to think.  It was clear that several people were in another writing class together with the instructor and, as it normally is, it’s a bit intimidating going into a group of people who have a pre-existing relationship.  We did a quick writing prompt, a 4 minute exercise based on the word “listen.”  I was happy enough with my work, it was the very briefest beginning of an idea that has been in my head, and then I learned we would be sharing our work out loud.

The first person read, a man with a deep voice which would make even the menu at Wendy’s sound amazing.  The second person read, and I was absolutely floored by her talent.  The third person read, and while the narrative wasn’t particularly interesting, the descriptive style was impressive.

Then it was my turn.

I realized what I wrote was crap, but what could I do?  I read.  And then there were five more after me.

Was I the worst in the group?  No.

Was I the best?  Far from it.

We did nine writing prompts yesterday, and I can’t say that my writing got any better.  I often wondered why writing circles are necessary – I can do writing prompts by myself, I can read to…someone.  But no, I can’t.  I am fiercly protective of my work, and it’s hard for me to share.  So yes, the group made me share.

I was blown away by some of the others in the group.  I was humbled. I realized that while I knew my writing was not the best, in reality my writing was crap compared to some of these people.  Out of 10, I was not in the top three.  And it was disheartening.  When lunch rolled around, I wondered f I would be able to force myself to go back afterwards.

I did.

Saturday evening, I wondered if I would be able to force myself to go back Sunday.

I did.

And I’m glad I did.  Because Sunday was better.  I felt more comfortable, I felt like I wrote better.

And the whole experience made me realize that while, yes, I can do writing prompts on my own, and I can read to others, that alone will not expose me to the reality that that I am not nearly as good as I wish was, that I need something more to push me to do better.

So, yes, I need to be part of a writing group.  I need to hear others who are much better than me in order to strive to be better.  I need the creativity that flows through these groups to feed me.  I need to let go of that inner shyness, that tentativeness that doesn’t allow anyone to hear or see what I’ve written, because of the fear that it sucks.

Because, yes, while some of it sucks, some of it is good.  I know it.  And the group is supportive enough to tell me so.

Categories: On Writing, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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