A Writer's Workbook: Daily Exercises for the Writing Life

A Writer's Workbook: Daily Exercises for the Writing Life

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Aspiring doctors have medical school. Karate students have belts of different colors. Pianists have scales and arpeggios. But what system do writers have for getting and staying "in shape," to help them focus, practice, and make progress?

A Writer's Workbook is Caroline Sharp's ingenious collection of exercises to inspire, encourage, warm up, and jump-start anyone who writes. A wise and funny friend who will cheerlead you through even your darkest can't-write days and "every idea I've ever had is awful" nights, she provides encouraging suggestions, hilarious observations, and an amazingly vivid catalogue of writers' neuroses (with advice on overcoming them, of course).

From "Roget's Resume" and "Emulating Ernest" to "End Well," "The Rewrite Rut," and "Dear John," the exercises in this generous, wry workbook will keep your ideas fresh, your mind open, and your pen moving.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312286217
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/14/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 512,425
Product dimensions: 5.62(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.51(d)

About the Author

Caroline Sharp has a degree in psychology from Princeton University, an MFA from Columbia University, and is a graduate of the Writer's Boot Camp. The mother of two, she lives and writes in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

A Writer's Workbook

Daily Exercises for the Writing Life

By Caroline Sharp

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 Caroline Sharp
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-12249-0



These are short, preparatory exercises. They'll get you in the mood to write on days when your motivation is less strong. They can also be a day's work by themselves when time is tight.

Warm-up, Stretch, and Extend

These are quick exercises, meant to take just a few minutes each. Below are listed objects/things of an abstract or intangible nature. Without spending time in preparation, write a short paragraph on each. This is simply to work on your power of description — a very helpful asset for any writer.


1. a circle
2. a spiral staircase
3. classical music
4. the color red
5. hot soup
6. rain
7. the smell of a barbecue
8. cold weather
9. a pillow
10. a hot cup of coffee
11. the welcoming bark of a dog
12. wood/plastic/velvet/cotton
13. a bench
14. television
15. seedless grapes
16. being nauseous
17. spilling a liquid
18. kissing
19. a pencil
20. a tornado
21. white wine
22. wet tears on your face
23. a brick
24. warm socks
25. perfume
26. fire
27. the grunt of a pig
28. rock 'n' roll music
29. silk
30. iron

JUST A THOUGHT: Some books are filled with description, others are more action oriented. These differences are labeled "low concept" and "high concept," respectively, when describing a movie. For example: Die Hard, Rambo, The Hunt for Red October, and "Stars Wars" are examples of high-concept storytelling. There is a common misconception that time-consuming detail is unnecessary in a high-concept format.

I disagree. No matter how swiftly your characters are chasing, or being chased, your story will always benefit by a breath of description. Motion is not a substitute for motivation. Give your story depth, and your readers will go deeper into it.

One-liners: A Quick Warm-up Exercise

I graduated from college without a clue as to what to do next.

Perhaps you're like me — staring at the future frozen with fear and indecision, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming tractor trailer. What? What is this huge unstoppable thing charging toward me? My future? You have got to be kidding.

Perhaps you're one of the lucky ones, sure of yourself, certain of your destiny and the best path to take toward it. Doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, nurse, yoga instructor, venture capitalist ... you saw the big picture of your life at the age of twenty-two and found it exciting, challenging, possible.

I knew a gal in Los Angeles who told me, without a hint of irony, that she knew exactly who she was at the age of eight. This was right after I confessed to her that I had spent my entire twenties searching for some meaning in life in general and some direction in mine in specific. She stared at me as if I was a prize nutcase. I asked her if, honestly, she could say that she never questioned her function on this planet or the direction in which she was heading. She frowned at me and, too chirpy for me, admitted that she had not changed in the past thirty years (she was thirty). Like that was a good thing?

Here's my thought: We are here for a reason. We each have abilities, and the trick is to search them out and figure out a way to use them. Someone famous once said that the only real tragedy in life is not to use the gifts and talents that God gave us. I will not presume to guess whether or not you believe in a God, but I do believe that this saying has merit. It is a tragedy, too often realized, to underutilize your abilities.

As for me, it took many years and many side trips and bizarre tangents before, at the age of thirty-four, I was able to say with certainty that I wanted to write full time. I scooped ice cream. I was a retail stock broker at Bear Stearns. I worked as an agent trainee at a literary agency. All those years, I felt incomplete and unsuccessful.

Now, with hindsight, I know why it took me so long: I had to be sure of what I DIDN'T WANT to do and WASN'T ABLE to do. Only then could I face forward with conviction and say, Yes, this is who I am. This is what I do want to do. I want to write. That would be an external representation of my internal self. If I spend my life writing, it would be a good life. A fulfilled life. Even if I am never financially successful, I will be happy with my life.

This is a very roundabout way to say that I am a writer now, finally, and that I am glad that you have decided to try to be a better writer as well. It is hard work, but it is the best and the most rewarding work.

For the Purposes of This Exercise

Take a sheet of paper, and number the left-hand side one to twenty-five. Using your fertile imagination, or Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide, or really any movie listing you can find, pick out twenty-five movies you have seen. Write the title down, and then describe each movie in ONE SENTENCE. It can be a long sentence, but please no Charles Dickens–type 250-word epics. If you are feeling inspired, take a second sheet and do the same for twenty-five books you have read or plays or operas you have seen.

The point of this exercise is plot. Even the most complex, convoluted story line can be synopsized. It's good practice for the day when you'll pitch your idea to a possible agent or editor (individuals with famously short attention spans). With practice, you will be able to extrapolate the main points from any story put in front of you.

Use this exercise as a drill: You are going to become expert at assessing the BIG PICTURE, and then hitting the REDUCE button. Proust's Remembrance of Things Past in one line? No problem. The Bible? Can do. Lawrence of Arabia? Piece of cake.

How would you describe your novel/short story/play, etc., in one line?

Stop 'n' Shop

Writing is a funny thing. Sometimes the thoughts and the plots teem out of you and you are barely able to keep up with yourself and write them down.

Sometimes you feel empty and uninspired.

This is a guarantee: If you chose to write as a career, or if you write often and prolifically but not as your primary "pay-the-bills" activity, you will experience both feast and famine. You will remember that amazing month when you were thirty-four and everything you put on paper was inspired and inspiring. You will also remember that horrible time last year when it was a stretch and a struggle to write your name.

Some of the exercises in this Workbook address the craft aspect of writing. They ask you to develop your senses, to observe the world around and inside of you, with the end hope of making you the best writer you can be.

This is not one of them. This exercise is one of the ones you can do when you feel as motivated as a bucket of mud, bogged down with life's irritating and debilitating details — but still, in some tiny, far distant part of your brain, you harbor the desire to write. It is the last thing you want to do but the first thing you feel you must do. It is your responsibility but not your pleasure.

There are easy days when there is no current against which to struggle. And then there are days like this, when it's pulling teeth to write, when you have nothing to say, not even a "don't want to write today" entry in your journal. You wonder what you ever saw in the act of writing. You would rather bowl.

For the Purposes of This Exercise

You don't need to think about the novel you're writing or the characters and plot lines you are developing. All you need to do today is show up. With a pencil.

You are in a supermarket. You are working the check-out. As hour passes hour, you ring up person after person with their baskets of food. Some people have two items, some twenty. Here comes a woman with a toddler in the shopping cart and one more in her arms. You ring up her items: diapers, apple juice, hot dogs, laundry detergent, fabric softener, Tylenol, a six-pack of Amstel Lite. What do these groups of purchases tell you about the person? A single man in his early twenties comes in every evening at six-thirty and buys a TV dinner and a liter bottle of Pepsi. What is his life like? Your imagination starts to spin stories about these customers. Is she a frozen vegetable type, or does she buy only fresh carrots and string beans and corn?

Make lists of shopping cart ingredients. Start with a relatively small group of items, say — a packet of ice cream cones, a pint of vanilla ice cream, a pint of coffee ice cream. See if you can come up with ten different combinations without repeating. Give yourself ten character profiles (e.g., woman, twenty-nine, single: e.g., man, sixty-four, widower) and write up their shopping list. Pick out a single item — say, chocolate chip cookies — and fill in around it for as many different customers as you can.

Don't be afraid to make huge assumptions about these people based on what you see them buying. You can judge these shoppers just by what is in front of you right now. It's a little bit detective, a little bit spy. What kind of person buys peanut butter and cool whip? You tell me. Why does the woman with the yellow sun hat always buy two jars of mustard, one box of saltines, and suntan lotion? Why does the old guy in the suit ask for regular milk on Monday, 2 percent milk on Wednesday, skim milk on Friday, and heavy cream on Sunday? Stranger than fiction.

This exercise is a reminder: It will remind you that you have an imagination, that you can still write on a day when your impulse is to throw out your computer, your paper and pens. Maybe today's work will never win the Nobel Prize, but it will help to put you back on track. You sit yourself down and start to have fun with this exercise, and before you know it thirty minutes have passed, then an hour. Your chair feels comfortable again. You don't feel like a fraud, an imposter in the House of Writing. You belong.

Pretend you are the check-out person for your favorite marketplace. Fill up at least one page with shopping lists; try for two pages. Don't forget — even this simple exercise reaches out further than it seems. As you visualize the items purchased by your customers, think about their lives, the homes they will be returning to with all this stuff, what their families are like, and who they really are. This is a trip into other people's lives by way of the most obvious (and basic) route: what they buy. Their daily essentials. What they eat and drink. We all have them.

Through the specific into the universal.

Roget's Résumé

I'm sure you're familiar with Roget's Thesaurus — a writer's best friend. Used the word "happy" one too many times? Look it up in the thesaurus and find twenty other ways to say how cheerful, glad, content, delighted, and pleased you are. This warm-up exercise takes a thesauruslike approach to the job market. The purpose? Think of this exercise as writing "yoga": Use it to keep your mind agile, active, alert. We all know how numb our daily lives can make us feel. Use this exercise as kindling, and your imagination as the spark. Burn up the page!

Pick a job, any job — for example, lawyer. Take a piece of paper and write the word "LAWYER" on the top. Then spend five or ten minutes writing down as many different types of lawyers you can come up with: criminal, divorce, real estate, tax, copyright, etc. Underneath each subdivision, see if you can explore further. Say, under "divorce lawyer," there could be lawyers who specialize in same-sex marriages, lawyers who focus only on custody battles, or those who live to untangle property and financial resources.

To get you started, here is a list of sixteen professions: chef, painter, doctor, singer, architect, circus performer, policeman/woman, pilot, engineer, nurse, psychiatrist/therapist, cleaner, teacher, writer, broker, child-care provider.



These thirty-one exercises comprise the body of the writing you will do in this Workbook. They are grouped together by theme — not by level of difficulty. Although you will find some of the exercises easier, and perhaps more enjoyable, than others, it is recommended that you try each one at least once. Your accomplishments will be cumulative: The work you do on one exercise will influence the next one and the one after that.


What If You Don't Like Being Alone? or Writing in the Company of Strangers

This is a tricky one. At face value, it is a deal breaker. Writing is a solitary activity, right? If you want to write, don't you need to be comfortable with solitude? While there does exist such a thing as "writing by committee" — the writing staff of a television sitcom, a team of advertising copywriters — I feel safe in saying that most writers create alone. If this makes you feel anxious or if you are convinced that the party is going on without you every time you sit down to get some pages written, then writing might not be the profession for you.

BUT this is not a done deal. Your fate is not sealed. Consider this:

1. Children and dogs most often prefer to be in the company of others. Being alone, for them, registers as neglect and even abandonment. It feels unsafe.

2. Even though you are not four years old, and you are not a dog, you are probably still sensitive to rejection. Getting left out feels lousy. Missing stuff can hurt our feelings. It is good to feel included.

3. If you are passionately committed to writing, BUT you absolutely cannot bear being alone, it might be time to accept this as part of yourself and go on to "PLAN B."


Perhaps you could find a coffee shop or library to call your writing headquarters. You may need to have different places for different days of the week. Natalie Goldberg, in her brilliant and helpful book Writing Down the Bones, goes into detail on "writing in restaurants" etiquette.

You also need to consider that what is making you uncomfortable may not be the "alone" aspect. This may be a smoke screen, a distraction. There might be a part of the act of writing itself that your head is rejecting. If that is indeed the case, then nothing you do to change the externals will matter worth a damn. It's the "words-on-a-page" part you don't like.

There is also the possibility that silence is not "golden" for you. Your brain could be jangling loud because of all the QUIET in your writing place. Maybe it's TOO QUIET. Some people find it easier to concentrate when there's some low-level sound in the background. Chatter. Radio noise, TV, a standing fan. It's said that Mozart asked his wife to read to him while he composed. I understand this: It quiets the "committee" in your head and, thus freed from the babble, you can concentrate. (More on "the committee" later.) This works for puppies and people: Turn the TV on in the next room and the suggestion of companionship soothes the tension, releases the anxiety. Your sense of unease now calmed, you can start to write.

ONE LAST THOUGHT: There's no question that one person's soothing white noise is another person's fingernails on the blackboard. This is all very individual. It may take you a long time to discover the circumstances under which you will be a prolific and focused writer. Don't give up!

Step One: Your Journal Pages

This is where it all begins.

Every day, rain or shine, good or bad — preferably raining and bad — you should sit down to your JOURNAL. This is your warm-up. This is how you stretch before the workout to follow. Your journal reveals the personality of your day. Not the "to do" list, not the "what I ate last night": Those are diary entries. Nothing wrong with diary entries, but they're not what we're going for here. We want conviction, not calories. How high is your level of tension and stress? (N.B. there is always tension, and there is always stress.) How we avoid life's difficulties is not what defines us. How we embrace them and use them does define us.

Journal pages are the single most important part of this Workbook.WHY? Because it is hard to write. It's hard to write every day, and it's hard to write when you don't feel like it and the kids are yelling and you have too much other stuff to do and being creative doesn't seem fun at all.

Writing will not always be fun. Sometimes it will seem very very much like WORK. The commitment you show to that work is directly reflected by your daily dedication: your decision to faithfully write in your journal every day. Every day. No matter what.


Excerpted from A Writer's Workbook by Caroline Sharp. Copyright © 2000 Caroline Sharp. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert


How to Use This Workbook: A Few Suggestions

Obstacle Page, or . . . Reasons Why You just Can't Write-Today


Warm-up, Stretch, and Extend

One-liners: A Quick Warm-up Exercise

Stop 'n' Shop

Roget's Résumé


Obstacle Page: What If You Don't Like Being Alone? Or Writing in the Company of Strangers

Step One: Your Journal Pages

Reviews: What Do You Think?

Character, Character, on the Wall

Picture This

Finish the Thought

Conversation Observation

Obstacle Page: Fear of Failure/Fear of Success, or "Fish of the Day"

Emulating Ernest

Your "Idea Book": A Lifetime Commitment

To Outline or Not to Outline?

Where Have You Gone?

Don't Know Much Geography . . . But I Should!

A Small Snack

If Breakfast Be the Meal of Love

Obstacle Page: Dyslexia and Other Physical Obstacles, or The Pen Is Mightier Than the Problem

Your Daily Grind

A Day in the Life

The Time of Their Lives

The Wrong Date and Time

Objects of Desire

Reuse, Rethink, Recycle

Obstacle Page: Writer's Block, or Surviving a Big Chill

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Triple Dare/Triple Scare, or How Low Will You Go?

The Wrong Brother

Plot, Plot, Fizz, Fizz

X Marks the Spot

Obstacle Page: The Rewrite Rut, or "My Name's Russell and I'm a Perfectionist"

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

End Well

Lost and Found

Bad Appetites

Obstacle Page: The Committee, or Bad Guys: 65/Good Guys: 1

"Dear John . . ."


One Last Thought


Basic Etiquette for Reading and Responding to Your Peers' Work, or Miss Manners Comes to Your Writing Group


About the Author

Customer Reviews