Fun with Writing by Miko Johnston

MikoJ Photo1Miko Johnston is the author of A Petal in the Wind and the newly released A Petal in the Wind II: Lala Hafstein.

She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.

Fun with Writing

Have you ever read a book that got you scratching your head and wondering, how did this mess ever get published? Perhaps the story started out great, then took a turn for the worse. Maybe at some point it read like a different author took over. Or the book was laughably awful from Once upon a time, but since you’ve always liked the author you stuck with it through the equally bad they lived happily ever after. This has happened to me too often, so I want my revenge!

Thanks to the inspiration of these bad novels, here’s a few writing exercises you can do on your own or with your writer’s group that will not only help sharpen your writing skills, but may provide a few giggles and even a groan or two.

I. BOOK DOCTOR

First, find a truly awful book. Unfortunately, it’s not that hard, but if you’re stumped, pick a genre and Google: worst (publisher) ever, or just: worst (genre) book ever and see what comes up. (Hint: I tried this using a well-known publishing company; their name is synonymous with Romance, though ironically, a synonym for ‘clown’.)

Then find a few paragraphs, a page or a short scene in the book that stands out as excruciating. Look beyond mistakes like spelling or grammar, you want prose you need a steak knife to cut through, or a decoder to comprehend. Now here’s the hard part. Read it a few times to determine exactly why it’s so awful – awkward phrasing, clunky dialog, too much or too little description – and try not to laugh. That might be the hardest part.

Then rewrite the passage in a way you think improves the work. You’re not looking to change the story, but to make it comprehensible and entertaining, introduce what’s missing – tension, clarity, recognizably human behavior.

You can do this exercise on your own, but it’s especially fun to do with other writers. Then once everyone finishes laughing over the original version, they can compare notes and see how each one reinterpreted the dreadful pages.

II. WORST LINE EVER

Take a page (pun intended) from the many ‘bad fiction’ contests: redirect your masterful literary skill and write the worst line of fiction ever. Mind you, this is not about bad grammar or a weak concept. This is about truly pathetic prose. Skip piecemeal and terse; instead, head directly for convoluted and illogical, but in a funny way. Challenge your writer friends to join you and then compare. If you need inspiration, review the first paragraph of BOOK DOCTOR above.

ak_570_rashomon

III. “RASHOMAN”

The classic Japanese movie tells a story from the point of view of several characters. If you are part of a writers group and would like a fun exercise, try this:

Select a well-known historical incident, or find a story reported in the news, one that involves multiple individuals, such as a crime. Establish the story in the omniscient point of view – just the facts, so to speak. Then assign a character to each writer, who then tells the story from that person’s perspective. If any of the characters intersect, then the writers documenting their stories can work together to create those scenes. If you’re feeling extra-creative, make up your own story. Afterward, read all the individual accounts and see how well they link together, and how much they may differ.

IV. CREATE AN INDIVIDUAL CHAPTER BOOK

Remember the old game of telephone, when you whispered a story to someone and then they whispered it to the next person, and so on? By the end of the line, the story usually bore little resemblance to how it began.

I once belonged to a writers group that decided to produce a novel this way. They came up with a basic premise, really an idea to launch the story. Then one member wrote the opening chapter and passed it along to another writer, who created chapter two. By the end of the book, the story had emerged in an unusual way. The writers found the challenge of following and continuing the threads already written to be intriguing, but very challenging. They chose a science fiction genre, which allowed a degree of latitude in creating each successive chapter.

Although their book followed a linear storyline, it might be easier to create an episodic novel, similar to TV shows like “Route 66” or “Highway to Heaven”. If you try this, I would recommend selecting one genre and sticking to it. If dragons or flying saucers appear in the middle of your contemporary political thriller, it may get chosen for the next BOOK DOCTOR.

* * *

Tell us of your experiences with these or similar writing projects.

19 thoughts on “Fun with Writing by Miko Johnston”

  1. What fun! These are wonderful ideas that would enliven and sharpen any writing group. I’ve read a few of those “chapter books” written by multiple or revolving authors, and some have turned out quite well. The different voices and styles were recognizable, but the story remained cohesive.
    I also like the idea of taking a story “ripped from the news”and assigning each of the characters to your group members to explain what happened from their perspective. Members could even use the protagonist (or antagonist) from their own books to commit, solve, or complicate the story.
    Thanks for this interesting post. A writing challenge is the perfect way to kick off our new “residence” at WordPress!

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  2. What a fun post! I like your ideas and know just the book I’ll tackle with BOOK DOCTOR (hint: it has a number and a color in the title and the heroine’s favorite expression is “Oh, crap!” Thanks for launching the new blogsite with a terrific post!

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  3. I’m still amazed so many poorly written and ill conceived books make it into print by top line publishers. And they say self-published books are not worth reading. Ha. Your diabolical games are intriguing. But trying to re-float the Titanic is an awesome job. I do like going through opening parts of a book or story and seeing what makes it work or fail. A great think piece.

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    1. As much fun as these games can be, they’re also a learning exercise, a way to deconstruct writing and determine what makes it so good, or really bad.

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    1. What I enjoy the most about “Rashoman” is that each character in the story has a truly unique voice. It’s a great way for writers to work together without giving up their individuality.

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  4. Your post got me thinking about several books I’ve read the beginning, then skipped to the end to see how it turns out. Excellent post, great ideas and thoughts–and a great inaugural post.

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    1. Thanks, MM. I must admit I’ve never read a book’s ending out of sequence. I am the world’s slowest reader, so if a book doesn’t intrigue me early on, I’ll put it down with little interest in how it ends. OOH, I think I’ve invented a new term – literary euthanasia!

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  5. The blog looks wonderful! Congratulations! I just learned that in my latest book–been out about 2 months or so, I described the murder victim as having one color hair one place, and another color later. That’s after my critique group heard the chapters, I paid an editor, my publisher went over it and, of course me, many times. Argggh!

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    1. So glad I’m not the only one who does that, Marilyn. I finally set up an Excel spreadsheet with hair and eye color, and even then I’ve had lapses. . .

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      1. Well, that’s what I get for boasting! I meant “me” and not “meet.” Also “ask” and not “as.” Sheesh!
        I may have an excuse for the typos though. I’m texting it one fingered while riding in the car. Still I should have read back over it. Haha! You’d better not use me after all!

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    2. OMG, that happened to me, too. A friend’s husband read my latest book, where my character gets engaged. Her fiancé slips the ring on her left hand, but later in the story, it’s on the right. Argggh! back at ya!

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  6. My goal has been to create a villain so round that half the readers will sympathize with the villain while the other half just hate him or her (as my viewpoint character will). And I want half my readers to hate my round viewpoint character. And I want the third half of my readers to wake up one day hating one, and one day hating the other one. I want some of my readers to be wishy-washy — in other words, to really think about the story; not read it and forget it. Do you all change your mind about characters as you get older and reread stories? I do that.

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    1. That’s an ambitious goal! You’re wise to want your characters to be more than black-and-white hero and villain. As for changing my mind, do you mean liking characters I previously disliked and vice-versa? Definitely. That’s because we know so much more as we get older, don’t you think? Thank you for stopping by our blog!

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      1. You’ve touched upon a recent trend in fiction – the unreliable narrator. Probably the most familiar example of this to readers is Paula Hawkins’ Rachel in “Girl On The Train”.

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