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What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

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What If? is the first handbook for writers based on the idea that specific exercises are one of the most useful and provocative methods for mastering the art of writing fiction. With more than twenty-five years of experience teaching creative writing between them, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter offer more than seventy-five exercises for both beginners and more experienced What If? is the first handbook for writers based on the idea that specific exercises are one of the most useful and provocative methods for mastering the art of writing fiction. With more than twenty-five years of experience teaching creative writing between them, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter offer more than seventy-five exercises for both beginners and more experienced writers. These exercises are designed to develop and refine two basic skills: writing like a writer and, just as important, thinking like a writer. They deal with such topics as discovering where to start and end a story; learning when to use dialogue and when to use indirect discourse; transforming real events into fiction; and finding language that both sings and communicates precisely. What If? will be an essential addition to every writer's library, a welcome and much-used companion, a book that gracefully borrows a whisper from the muse.


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What If? is the first handbook for writers based on the idea that specific exercises are one of the most useful and provocative methods for mastering the art of writing fiction. With more than twenty-five years of experience teaching creative writing between them, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter offer more than seventy-five exercises for both beginners and more experienced What If? is the first handbook for writers based on the idea that specific exercises are one of the most useful and provocative methods for mastering the art of writing fiction. With more than twenty-five years of experience teaching creative writing between them, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter offer more than seventy-five exercises for both beginners and more experienced writers. These exercises are designed to develop and refine two basic skills: writing like a writer and, just as important, thinking like a writer. They deal with such topics as discovering where to start and end a story; learning when to use dialogue and when to use indirect discourse; transforming real events into fiction; and finding language that both sings and communicates precisely. What If? will be an essential addition to every writer's library, a welcome and much-used companion, a book that gracefully borrows a whisper from the muse.

30 review for What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie

    This second edition of What if?, a tome of a book, is labeled “College Edition” and would appeal to anyone teaching fiction writing, or to anyone who writes fiction. This book would also appeal to readers: the final two sections – 200 pages of this over-500-page book – contain a dozen short-short stories; and a collection of contemporary short stories by stellar authors such as Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro. The book is organized around fourteen topics: Beginnings; Notebooks, This second edition of What if?, a tome of a book, is labeled “College Edition” and would appeal to anyone teaching fiction writing, or to anyone who writes fiction. This book would also appeal to readers: the final two sections – 200 pages of this over-500-page book – contain a dozen short-short stories; and a collection of contemporary short stories by stellar authors such as Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro. The book is organized around fourteen topics: Beginnings; Notebooks, Journals and Memory; Characterization; Perspective, Distance and Point of View; Dialogue; The Interior Landscape of Your Characters; Plot; The Elements of Style; A Writer’s Tools; Invention and Transformation; Revision: Rewriting is Writing; Games; Learning from the Greats; and Sudden, Flash, and Microfiction: Writing the Short Short Story. Although I am presently working on the second draft of a novel, I still do some of the exercises now and then, and have ended up with some surprising results. What If? is actually more like a textbook: Each exercise consists of an introductory paragraph, instructions for completing the exercise, a paragraph explaining its objectives, and finally, in some, but not all cases, an example executed by a student. By breaking down the exercises into their constitutional parts, we ensure that student and teacher understand both the rational behind the task and the method by which to complete it. … Included, are many exercises by fiction writers who are also teachers. In the introduction, the authors quote what Angus Wilson had to say in a Paris Review interview: “Plays and short stories are similar in that both start when all but the action is finished.” This goes along with Horace’s injunction to begin the story in medias res – in the middle of things. In The Exercise: “Consider how many of the opening lines below pull you into the center of the story. What do you know about the story – situation, characters, geography, setting, class, education, potential conflict, etc. – from reading the titles in the opening lines? What decisions has the author already made about point of view, distance, setting, tone, etc.? Notice how many of the titles are directly related to the first line of the story: “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog. “Medley” by Toni Cade Bambara I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying. “Bigfoot Stole My Wife” by Ron Carlson The problem is credibility. “Jump-up-Day” by Barbara Kingsolver Jericha believed herself already an orphan – her mother was in the ground by the time she could walk on it – so the loss of her father when it came was not an exceptional thing. These are only a few of the examples given, and they are followed up by student examples. The Objective: “To cultivate the habit of beginning your stories in the middle of things. Because you are not obligated to finish these stories, this exercise lowers the emotional stakes and helps to shake up and surprise the imagination.” And, if you write reviews, you might find the following “exercise” especially helpful: In Learning from the Greats – What Keeps You Reading?: “In The Eye of the Story, Eudora Welty writes, ‘Learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.’ Part of the apprenticeship of being a successful writer is learning to read like a writer, discovering how a particular story catches your attention and keeps you involved straight through to the end. The Exercise: Half-way through a story, ask yourself several questions. What do I care about? What has set in motion that I want to see completed? Where is the writer taking me? Then finish reading the story and see how well the writer met the expectations that she raised for you. The Objective: To illustrate how the best stories and novels set up situations that are resolved by the time you finish the story or close the book. To learn how to arouse the reader’s curiosity or create expectations in the first half of your story or novel, and then to decide to what degree you should feel obliged to meet those expectations.” This is a book for a writer at any level. If you use this book, your writing will definitely improve. And if you are “just” a reader, you may well find a new level of appreciation for the writing that you choose to read. There is something in it for everyone.

  2. 5 out of 5

    zane deann

    DNF on account of content. What's wrong here, folks? How hard is it to write a clean writing exercise book?? Good grief. Sad, too, because some of the exercises were interesting. #nope DNF on account of content. What's wrong here, folks? How hard is it to write a clean writing exercise book?? Good grief. Sad, too, because some of the exercises were interesting. #nope

  3. 4 out of 5

    Letitia

    It was ok, really useful at times. Feels a little dated. Makes a lot of suppositions about sexuality and gender without honoring the creative outlet that exploring those topics and turning them on their head can be. A good tool for someone truly stuck or who thinks they have stories to tell but nowhere to start.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kaecey McCormick

    This is the kind of book that you like more or less depending on where you are in the writing process, what your goal is in consulting the book, and your state of mind at the time. This book is useful and provides many exercises which help the reader write, get it down, get it out, and get through a block or obstacle that is preventing words from flowing. The exercises are relatively short and manageable. Some feel uncomfortable, silly, or strange - when I react like that to a writing exercise, This is the kind of book that you like more or less depending on where you are in the writing process, what your goal is in consulting the book, and your state of mind at the time. This book is useful and provides many exercises which help the reader write, get it down, get it out, and get through a block or obstacle that is preventing words from flowing. The exercises are relatively short and manageable. Some feel uncomfortable, silly, or strange - when I react like that to a writing exercise, I've come to realize that those are the exercises that might push me and get me outside my comfort zone. Growth is often accompanied by discomfort. The book is also a good reference for teaching writing. I can see using this book in a group setting with my middle and high school writers. Lots of good references and reading suggestions that tie into the exercises.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie

    I have the newest version which I had to order from the states, but I refer to it often. There aren't quite the same exercises as this original, but there are more of them, and the new text includes a good number of short, short stories and short stories, as well. I have the newest version which I had to order from the states, but I refer to it often. There aren't quite the same exercises as this original, but there are more of them, and the new text includes a good number of short, short stories and short stories, as well.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lucy S

    Quite a few brilliant ideas that just get you writing, which is all I could hope for!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    Different from most writing books, this is - basically - nothing but writing exercises, intended to help with particular parts of writing. I like the layout, organised roughly into categories, and it’s intended to be something to dip into, for inspiration and ideas. I thought I’d work through this one and began, six months ago, by doing some of the exercises. However I didn't feel able to make the time and abandoned it for a while, then recently read the rest of the book, looking at the exercise Different from most writing books, this is - basically - nothing but writing exercises, intended to help with particular parts of writing. I like the layout, organised roughly into categories, and it’s intended to be something to dip into, for inspiration and ideas. I thought I’d work through this one and began, six months ago, by doing some of the exercises. However I didn't feel able to make the time and abandoned it for a while, then recently read the rest of the book, looking at the exercises and thinking that I might get back to them one day. There are lots of good points made in the book to illustrate what the exercises are about. The writing prompts encourage the reader to be creative and without necessarily leading to anything longer. There are exercises for honing stories that exist already, for picking out features of other people’s writing, and for trying new techniques. In many of the sections there examples given of student responses to the exercises, done in writing workshops. The authors are themselves writing coaches as well as writers, and I thought this was an excellent resource, even though I didn't make full use of it. I hope to return to it, however, and dip into it in the future. Recommended.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Deborah

    This book is the most condescending, poorly written book on writing that used to grace my shelves. The authors spoke to their audience like we couldn't write, and their sentences were so wordy that I started removing the excess words. When I did this, I was able to cross out 50% of the words in the sentences and still maintain the original meaning of the sentence. If you are going to write poorly to inexperienced writers, then you certainly shouldn't condescend to them. I threw this book away. It This book is the most condescending, poorly written book on writing that used to grace my shelves. The authors spoke to their audience like we couldn't write, and their sentences were so wordy that I started removing the excess words. When I did this, I was able to cross out 50% of the words in the sentences and still maintain the original meaning of the sentence. If you are going to write poorly to inexperienced writers, then you certainly shouldn't condescend to them. I threw this book away. It is the only book I have ever thrown away.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Robin

    This was an okay book. My idea in reading it was that I would do each of the writing exercises as I read them, but most of them I felt would not help me achieve my current goals. I did get some great ideas though and I wouldn't discourage any writer from trying this book out. But I would recommend skimming through the book to find exercises that will help you work through your current kinks, and not to work through the book cover to cover. This was an okay book. My idea in reading it was that I would do each of the writing exercises as I read them, but most of them I felt would not help me achieve my current goals. I did get some great ideas though and I wouldn't discourage any writer from trying this book out. But I would recommend skimming through the book to find exercises that will help you work through your current kinks, and not to work through the book cover to cover.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Erin George

    Many great writing exercises for writers of fiction. Unique section that gives student examples of writing prompts. Great for teachers of writing.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Patterson

    Great motivator for writers. Ask the difficult questions and then write the story.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tree Langdon

    a good book to work through when perfecting your technique

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sean Hall

    Thorough exploration of fiction exercises with a variety of short stories to illustrate the lesson.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Grant Faulkner

    A classic, especially for creative writing teachers.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Candace Green

    Not bad, but it takes fortitude to work through it as it gets tiresome. Reads like textbook.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Patrick

    There are some good ideas and exercises in here, but a lot of it seems aimed at more 'literary' writing. Still, I adapt and it works. There are some good ideas and exercises in here, but a lot of it seems aimed at more 'literary' writing. Still, I adapt and it works.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sean E.D. Kerr

    This is an incredible resource for learning and practising techniques related to fiction writing, and the short stories in the end are phenomenal. I used this back in college in 2007-09, and loved it then. I've used in many times since when working with fiction writing groups, and still love it. This is an incredible resource for learning and practising techniques related to fiction writing, and the short stories in the end are phenomenal. I used this back in college in 2007-09, and loved it then. I've used in many times since when working with fiction writing groups, and still love it.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Dennis

    Although I liked this book, my two main quibbles are: (1) the selection and arrangement of the collection of short stories, the lengthier ones, that is; and (2) not enough exercises. If you want an exercise on irony, it's not in here. How about one on subtext in dialogue? Zip. Although the short stories aren't bad, I prefer them to be grouped together. A good example is the anthology Points of View by James Moffett. It is solely about POV and Moffett arranged the stories from straight internal mo Although I liked this book, my two main quibbles are: (1) the selection and arrangement of the collection of short stories, the lengthier ones, that is; and (2) not enough exercises. If you want an exercise on irony, it's not in here. How about one on subtext in dialogue? Zip. Although the short stories aren't bad, I prefer them to be grouped together. A good example is the anthology Points of View by James Moffett. It is solely about POV and Moffett arranged the stories from straight internal monologue to dramatic monologue to letter narration to diary narration to subjective narration to detached autobiography to memoir (or observer narration) to anonymous narration (single POV) to anonymous narration (dual POV) to anonymous narration (multiple POV). The distance from the reader to the narrator's head steadily increases from the beginning of this anthology to the end.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Richard Jespers

    Another great creative writing text. Practical yet creative in approach. The “what if” list actually helped me to “unstick” and finish a story I'd been working on for a long time. Since my first reading, I’ve also used a number of these exercises to revise, and a number of them to polish a MS. For example, highlighting that which represent the five senses using five different colors. It graphically represents how much or how little your writing is concrete, appealing at least some of the time to Another great creative writing text. Practical yet creative in approach. The “what if” list actually helped me to “unstick” and finish a story I'd been working on for a long time. Since my first reading, I’ve also used a number of these exercises to revise, and a number of them to polish a MS. For example, highlighting that which represent the five senses using five different colors. It graphically represents how much or how little your writing is concrete, appealing at least some of the time to the five ways we interpret the world. I used it with regard to an entire novel, and the process helped me to revise some rather poverty-stricken areas of the book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nena

    This is a wonderful writing exercise book! There are several exercises that I already do in my writing, and I either skip them or tweak them a bit, but it is still helpful because now I know why those tips work or are necessary in writing. I try to do one exercise a day, but I find myself excited by the writing prompts and I end up doing two or three, or even stopping so I can work on a story the exercise has just inspired. I'm getting so much writing done these days! I will keep using this unti This is a wonderful writing exercise book! There are several exercises that I already do in my writing, and I either skip them or tweak them a bit, but it is still helpful because now I know why those tips work or are necessary in writing. I try to do one exercise a day, but I find myself excited by the writing prompts and I end up doing two or three, or even stopping so I can work on a story the exercise has just inspired. I'm getting so much writing done these days! I will keep using this until all the tips are drilled into my head.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Erin Nudi

    Great, wonderful, book! Tons of easy, relevant exercises, categorized in an easy-to-read manner, complete with student examples. And don't skip out on the short stories at the end of the book! For anyone interested in workshopping, I am posting (almost) all of these exercises on my blog here: http://www.erinlanders.com/category/w... I'd love to get someone participating with me. Self-promotion aside, do pick up this fantastic book that is applicable to both novel writers and those who do short stor Great, wonderful, book! Tons of easy, relevant exercises, categorized in an easy-to-read manner, complete with student examples. And don't skip out on the short stories at the end of the book! For anyone interested in workshopping, I am posting (almost) all of these exercises on my blog here: http://www.erinlanders.com/category/w... I'd love to get someone participating with me. Self-promotion aside, do pick up this fantastic book that is applicable to both novel writers and those who do short stories.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    This book has some fantastic characterization and plot exercises. My friend Colin recommended it to me after his summer class on writing, and it happened to be in my curriculum the next semester. While I haven't sat down and done all these yet, I certainly think it presents an amazing way to build full...not just characters, but people...and see stories from all ends. If you want to write, pick it up. This book has some fantastic characterization and plot exercises. My friend Colin recommended it to me after his summer class on writing, and it happened to be in my curriculum the next semester. While I haven't sat down and done all these yet, I certainly think it presents an amazing way to build full...not just characters, but people...and see stories from all ends. If you want to write, pick it up.

  23. 4 out of 5

    David

    I haven't tried any of the exercises in this book yet, but they look intriguing. Very practical oriented, not nuts and bolts technical, philosophical, or advice on how to live as a writer. Just a series of exercises (tons) to work on different fiction writing skills. Thorough. They've got some nice stories tossed in at the end, though they just kind of say "these are good stories" without providing any commentary as to why they were selected or what aspects are particularly well handled. I haven't tried any of the exercises in this book yet, but they look intriguing. Very practical oriented, not nuts and bolts technical, philosophical, or advice on how to live as a writer. Just a series of exercises (tons) to work on different fiction writing skills. Thorough. They've got some nice stories tossed in at the end, though they just kind of say "these are good stories" without providing any commentary as to why they were selected or what aspects are particularly well handled.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Clintweathers

    When I had delusions of literary adequacy, this was always the first thing I read every day. The book is collection of etudes, in the same way that Bartok's Mikrokosmos is -- just lessons to be worked through. Each of them is chewy enough to keep the writer interested, and each of them is short enough to be completed in one morning/evening/lunchtime writing session. This is one of those books I've purchased and given away multiple copies of -- that's how much I love it. When I had delusions of literary adequacy, this was always the first thing I read every day. The book is collection of etudes, in the same way that Bartok's Mikrokosmos is -- just lessons to be worked through. Each of them is chewy enough to keep the writer interested, and each of them is short enough to be completed in one morning/evening/lunchtime writing session. This is one of those books I've purchased and given away multiple copies of -- that's how much I love it.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    This is my favorite of the writing exercises genre, not a genre I love. I like this book best read from cover to cover rather than as a tool per se. That way, you get a sense of the authors' philosophy of writing, why to write, what makes authentic writing, what the point is of the whole venture. In the end I found myself agreeing with them often. This is my favorite of the writing exercises genre, not a genre I love. I like this book best read from cover to cover rather than as a tool per se. That way, you get a sense of the authors' philosophy of writing, why to write, what makes authentic writing, what the point is of the whole venture. In the end I found myself agreeing with them often.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Shelley

    Good resource for those that teach writing. The exercises are straightforward and organized by familiar elements of fiction. As a practiced writer, I'm not sure how much I would use myself, but it's worth having on the bookshelf as a quick go-to if you need to pull together a class/workshop quickly. Good resource for those that teach writing. The exercises are straightforward and organized by familiar elements of fiction. As a practiced writer, I'm not sure how much I would use myself, but it's worth having on the bookshelf as a quick go-to if you need to pull together a class/workshop quickly.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

    All prose writers -- and perhaps poets too -- will find good food for thought here. I've used the exercises in this book for creative writing workshop with writers aged 15 to 75, young men in jail, university students, Mexican journalists, and many others. All prose writers -- and perhaps poets too -- will find good food for thought here. I've used the exercises in this book for creative writing workshop with writers aged 15 to 75, young men in jail, university students, Mexican journalists, and many others.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Angela

    There is one short story included in here that I absolutely LOVE: 'No One's a Mystery' by Elizabeth Tallent. It's only two pages but there is something really perfect about them. I still come back to this story every now and then just to re-read it. There is one short story included in here that I absolutely LOVE: 'No One's a Mystery' by Elizabeth Tallent. It's only two pages but there is something really perfect about them. I still come back to this story every now and then just to re-read it.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Nic

    This is one of the best collections of advice and exercises for fiction writers in existence today. While the other editions, which contain sample stories in the index, are better, this is a must-have for anyone looking to improve their fiction.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Haylee Jalyn

    A great textbook for the Intro to Creative Writing class I was in. Gives some great tips for getting the creative juices flowing and some good points and examples. Keeping a journal with the reading of this book turned out to be really helpful.

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