Category Archives: Writing Exercises

Guest DJ: Plotting and Pantsing with Laurie Loewenstein

Guest DJ: Plotting and Pantsing with Laurie Loewenstein

As I detox from all of that pie and shopping, I’m need some quiet jazz after a terrific, hustle-bustle holiday. So let’s put on our yoga pants and listen to the smooth melodies from our latest Guest DJ.

Lauriepix1Laurie Loewenstein is a fifth generation Midwesterner.  She has been a reporter, and a feature and obituary writer for several small daily newspapers, as well as a college writing tutor. She was among the third class of women admitted to Colgate University.  She has master degrees in history from Syracuse University and in creative writing from Wilkes University. Her novel, UNMENTIONABLES, has been called “a memorable debut novel” by Ann Hood, author of THE RED THREAD.  It is the flagship publication of the new imprint, Kaylie Jones Books, published in conjunction with Akashic Books. Check out Laurie’s website at  UNMENTIONABLES will be on bookstore shelves in January 2014. It is available for immediate shipment from the publisher here.

How the Other Half Writes by Laurie Loewenstein

Sometime during your writing career, someone will probably suggest that you swap pages with other writers. The right writers’ group can be of tremendous help in maintaining momentum and providing a knowledgeable and compassionate sounding board. Every two weeks for five years, I drove two hours each way from my home in eastern Pennsylvania over the George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan for my group. I won’t wish away a single of those thousands of miles on my odometer.

I got to read, chapter by chapter, all sorts of developing manuscripts. We were a diverse lot with stories ranging from an aviatrix of the early 1920’s to three Long Island kids hunted down by teenagers. My own writing vastly improved and I loved the camaraderie of  talk over pizza and Diet Coke after days spent alone, in my pajamas, typing on the keyboard.

An expected bonus was finding out how the other half lives – or, more precisely, how other writers write.

The most lively discussions I had on this topic were with Theasa, a straight shooter from the old school of print journalism. For her, the primary joy of writing came down to “seeing what happened next.” Each day at the computer was, for her, like opening a brightly wrapped present. What would happen next to her protagonist, the feisty aviatrix? She was, as I learned at a writers conference, a classic “Pantser” as in “seat-of-your-pants.” No outline, no elaborate plotting – simply an idea about a character, a setting, and, sometimes, a general idea about the large conflict points to guide her along like a string of Christmas lights. The old-fashioned outdoor kind of lights with big fat bulbs. Stephen King, the conference instructor noted, is a Pantser, too.

“But Theasa,” I would counter, “how can you make sure the story doesn’t wander off into a dead-end?”

She would shrug. “If that happens, the characters just have to work their way out of it.”

I, on the other hand, am a Plotter.  I start with an outline of the main characters and their arcs. I also outlineUnmentionabes-Cover-FINAL.indd where what actions need to occur in which chapater – all with the goal, by the final chapter, of hitting the bullseye. I use a large pad of newsprint, the kind you prop on an easel for a team meeting at the office, and set up the timeline on one page, character profiles on another, then rough chapter ideas. I am aware of the danger in this. The danger of adhering too closely to my pad. The story may jerk along with a mechanical Frankenstein gait. The story may lack the flexibility that comes with spontaneity. I try to counter this by rewriting the outline as I move forward. For my novel, UNMENTIONABLES, I re-jiggered the outline at least four times.

A big part of me would like to be a Pantser – extemporaneous and open to whatever comes along. But that is not my nature – as a writer or person. But I’m glad there are the Theasa’s out there, writing like the wind to find out what happens next.

Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?  Or somewhere in the middle? Tell us in the comments.

If you have something to say about writing and would like to be a Guest DJ, you can contact me here.

Priming The Pump #2: The 100 Word Challenge

Priming The Pump #2: The 100 Word Challenge
0Our next installment of Priming The Pump comes from Joy Kirr. Joy and I connected via Twitter, which is a great way to find other people who enjoy writing. Joy currently teaches 7th grade language arts and literature in a suburb of Chicago. She was first a special education teacher who worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and next became a reading specialist and National Board Certified teacher. She’s completed 18 years of teaching, but says it’s always like her first.  

The 100 Word Challenge
The 100 Word Challenge  is a weekly creative writing challenge for students under 16 that is easily adapted for writers of any age. At the 100 Word Challenge,  there is a weekly prompt, which can be a picture or a series of individual words. The challenge is that writers can only use up to 100 words to write something related to the prompt. One of the special things about 100WC is that those entering a piece are 3915529903_618b327387encouraged to visit other blogs and leave a constructive comment. The 100 Word Challenge website says, “by setting a limited word count with a focused theme and a guaranteed audience, we have far greater motivation for writing. Those who are reluctant writers feel safe with only 100 words to write, whilst those more advanced writers can really extend themselves with the word restriction.”
As adults, this can be done through setting up a blogging community of perhaps 3-10 adults where you will commit to the challenge, read each others’ posts, and then comment on them. Use the website for your prompt, or take turns creating them.  Peer ‘talking’ to peer is very powerful.  Above all – it’s fun!
If you have a writing exercise you’d love and would like to post, please contact me here.

Priming The Pump #1: True Colors


Ta da! Here’s the first installment of Priming The Pump, a new feature on creative writing exercises:


Two of my writer’s notebooks for my English classes. We read the Seuss book, looked at the O’Neill poems, chose paint chips and labeled them with our “many colored days.”

This is all about using color to inspire you or enhance your current piece.  I learned this technique from a very gifted teacher, Carol Engleman, in a graduate class on writer’s notebooks.

1) Go to your favorite home improvement store and grab some free paint chip cards.

2) Read Dr. Seuss’ My Many Colored Days and/or Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neill.  The illustrations are as bright and  vivid as the language.

3) Choose a paint chip and let it guide you.  You can:

  • Pick one of your “many colored days” and label the paint chip with that day (happy day, sad day, morning, afternoon, a holiday, etc.).  Create a web around it with details and then get writing.
  • Peruse the color names.  What could you write inspired by Forward Fuschia or Blue Click?
  • Name a character after a color name.  What kind of character would be named Inkwell or Mauve Finery?
  • What colors would match your characters?  Why?  For example, Marina would totally go between Feverish Pink and Daisy; Arman would always be a steady Samovar Silver.


    My personal writer’s notebook with the paint chip activity that inspired this post. We had to identify, describe and rename colors of how we felt in the morning, afternoon and evening. I miss my Summer Evenings…

Let us know what you did with your paint chips in the comments below.  If you’d like, show us what you wrote. Write on!

Do you have a writing exercise you’d like to share?  Here’s information on how to get it to me. 

We Need You (Yes, YOU!): Writing Exercises Wanted


232323232fp53459>nu=3238>-82>4WSNRCG=3238;3-8-63--nu0mrjMy friends have a beautiful, rustic cabin in central PA.  There’s no electricity, except for brief generator sessions, and no running water, except for the well.  Essentially, it’s quiet, peaceful bliss.  When it’s my turn to fill the bucket to flush the toilet, I have to prime the pump before the water flows out of the spigot.  The woods fill with the squeaksqueaksqueak of the handle as the water makes its way through the pipes and flows into the bucket in cold spurts.

Writing exercises are like priming the pump for my mind.  I remember doing an exercise where I had to change a story into a poem, which helped me with word precision and theme.  My novel, HOPE YOU GUESS MY NAME, was inspired by a prompt that read, “Wanted: Dad.”  These small exercises flex my writing muscles, and, although they don’t usually turn into a processed piece, they help me get ideas and hone skills. They pump the ideas through my brain, onto the paper or laptop screen.

In the spirit of getting our own writing wells flowing, I’m going to start a weekly feature called “Priming The Pump.”  I will share exercises I have tried on my own or will have tried with my students.  What’s more is that I need your help!  If you’re a professional writer, aspiring writer and/or a teacher of writing, send me your best writing exercises  aimed at ANY writer (not just students) and I’ll post those that seem the most interesting or useful.  


  • SHORT description of no more than 200 words – and add hyperlinks when possible
  • Include a photo of yourself and a 50 word bio
  • Add an image of the writing exercise after it’s been written, if you can
  • If this writing exercise is taken from a book or website, please cite the source.

Please contact me to submit.  And take the poll below, please!

Let’s get writing together!