Writing Exercises

Charles Vess is one of my favorite contemporary illustrators. If you’re not familiar with his work, do click on the link and take a look at his website. He did the gorgeous illustrations for Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, which are so much better than the movie. Charles also did the cover illustration for my chapbook The Rose in Twelve Petals and Other Stories, which came out many years ago from Small Beer Press (and sold out very quickly, mostly I think because of Charles’ illustration). You can imagine how excited I was when I learned he was doing the cover!

Well, recently Charles has been posting a series of illustrations by his favorite illustrators, mostly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They’re on Facebook, so you’ll have to become Charles’ Facebook friend to see them. But one of them in particular gave me an idea for a writing exercise. Here it is:

This illustration is by Elizabeth Shippen Greene, who was a prolific magazine and children’s book illustrator at the turn of the century. What caught my attention about the illustration is that it’s clearly telling a story.  Aunt Olivia went in search of the child, but what child?  Where did the child go?  And how did Aunt Olivia manage to lose him?

Looking at Aunt Olivia in the illustration, I get a clear sense of who she is, of her life probably with her brother’s family, where she has a small room in the back of the house and helps out in various ways, including by looking after her brother’s children.  But one particular child, a young boy I think, in a sailor suit and with curling hair that’s often rumpled by the wind, is a handful.  He wanders off the moment you turn your back, and when you find him again, he’s eaten all the jam or is covered with bees, or crying up a tree because he can’t get down.  But this time – I think he’s gone somewhere different, because haven’t goblins been seen in the neighborhood? And maybe the goblins took him. Aunt Olivia was supposed to be looking after him, and now she doesn’t know where he is, and she’s just going to have to go after the goblins to get him back.

Aunt Olivia looks as though she’s a gentlewoman, as though she’s behaved properly all her life. But honestly, I’m putting my money on her. I think the encounter with the goblins will teach her exactly what she’s made of, which is stronger metal than she thought. And at the end of it, she may decide to leave her brother’s house and set out on her own, because she realizes that she’s reached the age when it’s time for adventures.

I also wonder what the snail thinks about it all. If I were to write this story, I think I would need to have a sentence or two in which I go into the point of view of the snail, just as J.R.R. Tolkien goes into the point of view of a fox, just for a moment, as the hobbits are leaving the Shire in Lord of the Rings.

So here is my suggestion for a writing exercise. Find an old illustration. Don’t read the story it’s illustrating. Instead, write a story of your own that goes with the illustration. See what you can come up with. (Then you can read the story.)

I did call this post writing exercises, so I should include more than one, and I do have another one for you. This one is inspired by Holly Black’s list of Ten Reasons Why Unicorns are Better Than Zombies. Here’s reason number four:

“As a kid in Baltimore once wisely pointed out, there’s a lot of speculation about what a zombie apocalypse might be like, but imagine how much more awesome a unicorn apocalypse would be.”

The exercise is to imagine a unicorn apocalypse, and then write about it. What would a unicorn apocalypse look like? The point of this exercise is to imagine something completely incongruous, to the point that it sounds silly, and treat it with complete seriousness. Yes, you must take the unicorn apocalypse seriously.

My unicorn apocalypse? In a suburb, the sort where people drive the girls to soccer in minivans, people begin seeing unicorns. A unicorn standing in the front yard, beneath an ornamental pear. Two unicorns splashing in the swimming pool. A small herd galloping down Poplar Street in the early morning. More and more unicorns, until the residents don’t know what to do with themselves, don’t know how to handle this sudden invasion. And the unicorns are beautiful. They lie on the laps of virgins. (Imagine the comments that causes, in a suburban neighborhood!) But once the residents try to get rid of them, they become violent. The unicorn is a savage beast, not a horse but a creature that can fight a lion. My point of view character would be a teenage girl, the kind who has unicorn posters on her walls. What will she do in the unicorn apocalypse? Which side will she choose?  You’ll have to wait for the story.

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7 Responses to Writing Exercises

  1. John Stevens says:

    I love writing exercises. The illustration exercise is one we did in the first creative writing class I took in college (using random news photos), and was very useful and stimulating. I find the unicorn apocalypse very appealing. If I get ahead on the column and finish off the current story, or get stuck, I will take that challenge up.

  2. Nathan says:

    ” … because she’s realizes that she’s reached the age when it’s time for adventures.”

    I love this. I love this especially because she’s a middle-aged woman and we are accustomed to viewing that time in our lives as being when the adventures are over. It’s wonderful to think that that’s when they’re supposed to begin.

  3. Oh, all the adventures begin then! The real adventures, I mean. Earlier in your life, you’re basically doing what society wants you to do. It’s later in life that you’ve finished your education, had your children, settled down, and realize that it’s time to start having adventures. 🙂

    John, I’d like to see your take on a unicorn apocalypse . . .

  4. John Stevens says:


    I have some compelling ideas! I want to flip through Shepard’s LORE OF THE UNICORN first, but I also want to play with contemporary ideas. The first title to come to mind was ENDLESS RAINBOWS ON A CLOUDLESS, EVER-LASTING DAY. The first line I thought of was “On the fifth day, Ellis died, most likely from an overload of rainbows. We decided to go to the lake and give him to the narwhals, hoping to placate them and, perhaps, their earth-walking cousins. No other sacrifice had yet helped to stave them off, or bring any measure of blessed darkness back to the world.” I like the idea of the world itself being transformed by this apocalypse.

  5. Jeff P says:

    Ah, but what I suspect is, the whole tale hinges on the snail by the woman’s feet!

  6. John Stevens says:

    So, I decided to loosen up by working on the unicorn apocalypse a bit (and discarding some of my first thoughts). I can post it here or link from my blog, whichever you prefer, Theodora.

  7. I love your unicorn apocalypse, John! Thanks for linking, and as you saw, I linked back.

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