A Writing Exercise

Folks, I’m sorry I haven’t done a new post in a while. I’ve been busy with a few events for the release of my new novel, Break the Skin, which, much to my great fortune, got a very good review in The New York Times. Here’s a link in case you’d like to check it out:


The launch event for Break the Skin took place last Tuesday at the McConnell Arts Center in Worthington, Ohio, a northern suburb of Columbus. The room (and what a nice room it was with lovely quilts on the walls and beautiful hardwood floors) was nicely filled for my reading and signing. In the photo above, I’m signing books for my cousin, but trust me there were plenty of folks there who weren’t related to me!

After the reading, I taught a workshop that focused on how a writer’s curiosity in the pre-draft stage can help create that first draft. Whether we’re talking about a novel, a story, and essay, or a poem, we can get a good deal of mileage from writing about what we don’t know. Arousing our curiosity and then writing toward other curiosities and/or answers can deepen our work.

I started by asking the folks in the workshop to recall a memorable character from their hometowns, current towns, neighborhoods, etc. Then I led everyone through a sequence of writing prompts. Since many of us are without school and/or workshops this summer, I thought I’d offer those prompts to you in hopes that you might find them useful in creating a new work or in deepening the work that you’re in the midst of now.

1.   Once you have your unforgettable character in mind, establish a baseline for him or her by completing the following: He/she was the person who. . . . Your goal is to articulate the character’s basic nature.

2.   Now arouse your curiosity: I thought I knew exactly who he/she was, but now I wonder whether. . . .

3.   Make a list of props that you associate with this character. The things they carried, we might say. Or even the things they wore. Choose one prop and investigate it with your curiosity. You might begin a freewrite with,  He/she loved the _________________. I wonder whether it was because _________________. Or you might consider the prop and the character’s relationship to it by completing this line: There must have been times when. . . .

4.   You might also consider the character’s relationship to the place/landscape/culture of his/her home area: I wonder whether sometimes he/she. . . .

5.   Invite your curiosity to go further the next time you’re in your writing room: I still don’t know. . . .

6.   At some point, take everything you think you know and everything you’re still curious about and use it to craft the opening of a piece of writing. Here’s mine: Late at night, he wandered the streets and peeked into more than one window, scaring to death the folks who caught him at it. What could make an elderly man do that in a small town, a man who was jovial and kind and a goodwill ambassador who passed out candy to shoppers uptown on Saturdays? I don’t know. It’s my job to write my way to some possible understanding or at least some other interesting questions.

Till next time, good luck and good writing.



  1. Elizabeth on June 27, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    This is wonderful! I am definitely using this in my class in the fall!

    • Lee Martin on June 27, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      Good deal, Elizabeth. I hope it works out well for you and your students.

  2. Bren McClain on June 27, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    This is gold, Lee. Pure gold. To let us into your mind and creative process is a gift, indeed. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on June 27, 2011 at 8:21 pm

      Thanks, Bren. I just wanted to share so those who weren’t at the workshop could maybe get some use out of the exercise. Thanks for writing!

      • Bren McClain on June 27, 2011 at 8:27 pm

        You are the consummate teacher, Lee!

  3. Julia Munroe Martin on June 28, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Some great writing exercises! I will definitely be doing them–thanks! And huge congratulations on the great review: WOW!

    • Lee Martin on June 28, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks so much, Judith!

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