I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Friday, February 18, 2011

What to do when entering your novel feels like this…

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to work on my novel. So long, in fact, that I’m feeling, well…rusty. Uninspired. Thankfully, I’m part of a local chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers, MN NICE. This month, our very own Julie Klassen shared about using setting to evoke mood an emotion in our writing.

She had us do the following exercise that was developed by the late John Gardner, recognized in his lifetime as the leading creative writing teacher in the United States:

A middle-age man is waiting at a bus stop. He has just learned that his son has died violently. Describe the setting from the man's point of view WITHOUT telling your reader what has happened. How will the street look to this man? What are the sounds? Odors? Colors? That this man will notice? What will his clothes feel like? Write a 250 word description.

Okay, so now I’m feeling rusty, uninspired…and bad for the guy on top of everything else! But when I stopped trying so hard and simply started describing the bus stop from the man’s point of view something magical happened.

Words came.

The bell had the audacity to jingle above the door to the coffee shop behind the bus shelter. Two women leaving the coffee shop laughed together like nothing in the world had changed. On any other day, the aroma of the roasted beans might have chased away the bus exhaust that seeped into his woolen coat. But not today.

Yes, the words are rough. But they are words. And as I created a setting for the man at the bus stop, slowly, steadily, a story formed around him. Of course the man’s son, a solo around-the-world sailor had died off the coast of Madagascar in a sailing accident. Or so it seemed. Until the man at the bus stop sifted through the package on his lap…

How would you describe the bus stop? Where does this description take you? How can you use similar tricks to get past the brick wall in your novel?

-Amy Lindberg

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. Great job, Ames! I love this exercise. Here's my attempt:

    Wind whipped through his coat, gripping his bones. He hunched his shoulders to his ears, but shivers shook his body. He'd never be warm again. Across the street, a woman scolded a child. Didn't she realize...no, probably not. The school bus trundled past, the laughter and raucous slicing his heart with each decibel. He closed his eyes. Another child, another voice whispered to his heart. A tear slid down his face.

    Okay, very rough, but still a fun exercise to wake up the muse.

  2. Amy, you are gifted--great job, I am there. Very sorry to miss that mtg. couldn't manage it yet. Therefore, thanks for the great recap. You WILL have time to complete great novels that bring lasting change to people.

  3. Good job, Amy. I'm impressed whenever anyone comes up with beautiful words on the spur of the moment. Shows your giftedness.

    Guess I'm glad I had to miss Sunday's meeting. :) I'm rotten with extemporaneous writing.

  4. Glad to know the exercise awoke your muse, Amy. I had never done that exercise before either. And Brenda, you would have been fine--no one had to read hers aloud unless she wanted to. I missed ya! You, too, Delores!

  5. Black clouds swallowed the sun, stealing the azure blue from the sky like a thief. A nearby bakery reeked of burned bread. Standing beside him a woman talked of making supper while another complained about her teenaged son's long hair. Let him be, he wanted to shout. It's not important. But he kept quiet, and prayed she never learned the insignificance of such matters.
    Fun post, Amy. Now I'm ready to tackle my WIP!

  6. Harold didn't care if the bus ever arrived. Where did he have to go? He stood apart from the mismatched group assembled at the bus stop. A business executive clutching his leather satchel as if his salary, his position mattered. A weary mom, holding a sleeping toddler. Did he dare reach out and touch the child's tousled hair? Warn the mother that little boys grew up too fast, wandered too far?

    Wow, Amy, this was fun! I want to write more!

  7. Amy, I loved this post! I'm not very good at extemporaneous writing either, but I love the exercise. I'm holding onto it. :) If I hadn't just finished saying "No," and "Please stop. Now." about 100 times through the grocery store, I might be ambitious enough to try it. :) Happy writing, everyone!

  8. Hey Amy! Fun post!! I'm going to try that exercise...can't do it now 'cause I'm supposed to be getting a few things done, but I'm filing it away for later! Had fun reading yours and everyone else's...:)

  9. Great post! And I usually start the hard way ~ sheesh! This is so much easier...

    Thank you for the article/thoughts ~ truly a help indeed :)

  10. Awesome Aimster! And here I thought I wasn't going to exercise today! :-)

  11. Thank you for the "exercise." Here's what came to mind.

    Teaming, streaming water washed over him. Blinking against the deluge, he crumpled the letter in his fist. Booming thunder shook his body as another flash of light ripped through the menacing clouds. Diesel fumes wafted around him, engulfing him in their noxious arms. Puffing to a stop, the bus lurched and doors opened toward him. A man exiting the bus stepped into a puddle, shook his foot, and searched the crowd. A smiling woman towing a young boy rushed to enfold the traveler. He swung the squealing child into his arms. How could they smile, today of all days? The watcher looked away, unable to tolerate the scene. Happiness would never visit him again.

  12. Hey everyone! Sorry to post and then ignore y'all! I've been in Illinois celebrating my niece's first birthday!

    For all those who shared their words (LJ, Pat, Beth, and Christine), thanks!

    Dee, thanks for the encouragement.

    Brenda, you are too sweet...but my first go at it was fraught with "telling" and lots of crossed out words...so I don't know about "spur of the moment!"

    Julie K...thanks for stopping by! Jeanne T and M-Tagg, really try it, it was SO much fun!

    Amanda, I know what you mean, I have a hard time coming up with ideas, it was sort of scary how simple this was for me to get moving!

    Reebs, happy exercising!