Friday, November 2, 2018

Scales for Writers

by Linda Rodriguez

Pianists know they must practice every day, playing scales and various exercises that stretch the fingers and give them the flexibility and dexterity that they will need to play complicated compositions. Long ago, I read in one of Madeleine L'Engle's wonderful journals of life and writing about this need for writers.

Nobody can teach creative writing–run like mad from anybody who thinks he can. But one can teach practices, like finger exercises on the piano; one can share the tools of the trade, and what one has gleaned from the great writers: it is the great writers themselves who do the teaching.” –A Circle of Quiet

For years now, I've created my own finger exercises, as well as borrowing from other writers who've written books about writing, and used them in my journals. I turn to these when I have only tiny stolen moments to write, such as while waiting for a doctor/mechanic/meeting, or when I find myself facing resistance on my current project, or when I've finished one thing and don't know what to work on next (this rarely happens to me anymore since I always have a long list of projects to tend to). Here are a few of the ones I've found most helpful.

Invent a character. I do this when in a public place, such as that doctor's office. Choose a stranger and invent an entire backstory, personality, name, and occupation for that person. If you have plenty of time, go on to put them in dialogue with someone.

Describe a person or a scene in detail using only metaphors.

Describe a scene through a character's consciousness, using all five senses but not one sense verb (“saw,” “smelled,” “heard,” “felt,” or “tasted”). Extend this by also omitting any pronoun referring to your viewpoint character (such as “he,” “him,” or “his”).

Write an action scene entirely in short, quick sentences to give a sense of a fast pace. Then, write it again in a few long, involved sentences so that the action builds in a reckless, headlong pace.

Write a paragraph or a scene entirely in simple, plain words that come from Anglo-Saxon (such as “walk,” “yearly,” “leaf”). Then, rewrite it entirely in Latinate words (such as “amble,” “annual,” or“foliage”), and notice the change in pace and tone.

Describe a landscape or the decoration of a room without using any color names.

Write a scene in dialogue between two people who want opposing things and who are hearing only what they want to hear and speaking to that, as if it had actually been said, instead of what the other person is saying.

Write a scene where one person in a marriage is afraid the other is having an affair while the other is actually afraid they have cancer and keeping their medical appointments secret. Each of them is trying to appear as if nothing is wrong and cannot tell the other what they're afraid of.

Describe yourself, using only specific objects or sayings and songs from your past. Do this now with a fictional character.

As you can see, I could go on and on with these writers' finger exercises, and I have through the years. They're a part of the way I keep my writing brain nimble and dexterous and develop my skills. I have used them in teaching creative writing classes, as well, and the students have found them helpful. Give them a try, and then invent your own.

Do you ever practice your writing, other than work on your current project?

Linda Rodriguez's Dark Sister: Poems is her 10th book. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published in 2017. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee detective, Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in 2019. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, Every Last Secret—and earlier books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Native Writers Circle of the Americas, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at


  1. Awesome! Makes my fingers itchy for the keyboard!

  2. A wonderful and inspiring blog. Thank you!

  3. I want to READ some of those experiments. The pronoun avoidance reminded me of the officers and me of Judith Merrill's "Survival Ship." ;-)

    1. Ah, Mary! No one sees those but me. It's more freeing that way.

  4. Thank you for the info. Very helpful for me.

    1. Juliana, other folks are saying that it's been helpful for them, as well. I made post some writing exercises like every couple of months, if it would be useful.

  5. I have a doctor's appointment tomorrow. Looking forward to some exercise while I'm in the waiting room. Great ideas--thanks for the insight and inspiration!

    1. Let me know how it goes, Lynn. I hope you'll find it useful.