Practice Writing Through Short Stories – Beta Exercises

Extra post with the promised writing exercises I had promised the class attendees. Each is designed to help focus on a different aspect of writing.

Color writing – Choose a color, and write down the first physical thing and the first abstract thing which comes to mind; such as ‘yellow,’ ‘flower,’ and “sadness.” Begin writing using these elements. Throwing words down onto the page and freeing your mind from planning to tap into your momentary inspiration is the key here, building the discipline to take a moment of inspiration and turning it into an actual bit of writing. This is practice making the words flow when you turn the spigot. It might be messy and that’s ok. The discipline of writing when you sit down to write, putting words on the page, is vital to saying the phrase, “Yes I can write.”

Circular writing – Take a common phrase or a sentence, something familiar to you, something a friend just said, something you overheard; this will be the first and last sentence in your story. Fill in the middle in a meaningful way. This is an exercise in exploring the nuance and meaning in even small details, and the condensation of ideas.

Symbol walk – Go for a walk and deliberately experience everything you can while on the walk, then come back and write your experience, then turn the walk into a story by personifying different elements. This is an exercise to improve your writing’s pacing and arcs, seeing and making patterns out of experiences. If you’re having trouble on with this one, focus on one thing: The clouds, the trees, the grass, the sounds of people or cars, etc. Focus your personification or interaction or internal process on that one symbol. Add more to practice complexity, which is difficult even for the seasoned.

Inside out – Choose one element of the place where you are writing, then build the story outward from that. Take, for instance, a red pencil, and then go from there. This is an exercise to fuel links in your imagination and improve detail-work in your writing.

Remnant – Choose a favorite world or story of yours, and write a short scene or story for that work. This is different from fan fiction, because you are aiming to match the tone and not changing anything about the world or story: You are mimicking and seeking to learn by following. This is practice making your writing more varied and marketable, as well as polishing your consistency of setting.

Devil’s Advocate – Choose a social issue you feel strongly about, then write a short story that justifies the opposite stance, or portrays characters with the opposing view as right or correct. This will help you improve your handling and writing of characters.

Precision – Write a story with only thirty words. Write the arc from setting the scene to the finish, and practice combing through your work to communicate as deeply as possible with each word. The better you can get your point across with fewer words, the easier it will be to capture your readers’ attention.

I will periodically post more, and I will also let you guys know when I have reworked the workshops. Thanks for showing up, I hope you all are excited about continuing to develop your writing talents. Feel free to let me know when you write something that you are proud of, I’m always excited to see someone happy about their work and play.


My wife and I traveled to Tucson recently for the Festival of Books put on by the Arizona Daily Star. Good show, large and busy convention grounds on the University of Arizona campus. Plenty of booths for books and all manner of non-book attractions as well.

While I was debuting my book Spring, I had the pleasure of attending a few of the free workshops and book-signings. Some were very good, some were a writer using a platform strictly to shill for their book, and some were very basic. On the whole, it was only the middling writers that were ignorable: Several of the significant names gave very good talks at a high level, and several of the new authors were possessed of the shine of excitement that makes me pay attention. The midline writers were the ones for whom convention appearances were just another checkmark, and the ones I saw just did not come with much enthusiasm and moxie. I look forward to going again next year.

After the two-day festival, I held two writing workshops that I am in the process of building into courses. The target was for younger students, and I had to cut down the time by almost half—I had intended to do full-day workshops but did both in the same afternoon and evening. They went fairly well, though I am of course improving them and going over the recordings with a fine-toothed comb.

One of the main failures was not having a handout for the various exercises that we did, or to assist with the takeaways—I am now convinced that every workshop should absolutely have a physical takeaway in addition to any notes or activities you participate in. People come to workshops with the takeaway in mind, and want something to carry back. In the modern format, you need to be better than an online video or a blog post for people to be willing to come to meet you on your schedule. I really look forward to doing another Beta-level run of these two courses in the Wichita area alongside a new one, “Sex Ed Through Shakespeare” that is aimed to help people navigate the sociosexual marketplace of modern times that is often confusing and deeply hurtful when not merely intimidating. It will not be the birds and the bees, kids, go talk to your parents for that.

Shakespeare is timeless because his works deal with the inherent issues of our inner man. Jealousy, doubt, schemes of ambitious and selfish individuals, the rise and fall of families and the fleeting mists of power that men constantly grasp at. While I was reading the jaw-droppingly beautiful Venus and Adonis I was blown away by how useful the clear marching out of unrequited love and passion danced through the stanzas, and how much it could help anyone who is confused by the increasingly deadly dance of love. So look forward to that coming up soon!

Book Review: The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead

Another excellent review from Matthew that is timely, if you have a graduate who is looking to make his way into the wide world. This work is decidedly aimed at a younger audience. Enjoy!

“You are in or near your twenties. You are intelligent. It’s not essential that you have a college degree, but you probably do … To put it another way, you are me long ago. For better or worse, I am giving you the same advice I would give to that vanished person.”
– Charles Murray (The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, p 12-13)

As many up-and-coming adults will attest the working world differs from expectations set in the college and university. They set out with the hope of finding and obtaining the perfect job after receiving their diploma only to being shocked by the existence of dress codes and “employee handbooks.” In short, many of my peers find themselves floundering in an environment for which they felt well prepared.

There are of course exceptions. A friend of mine works for his dad. Historically speaking this is a very natural progression and has not yet been entirely removed from the norm. Even so, in these times the higher expectation of responsibility is often an unexpected hurdle. In contrast, another of my friends have known they wanted to be a dentist since they were 8 and have pursued that path relentlessly.

For the rest of us who are barely initiated in the ways of “adulting” (read, “personal responsibility and discipline”) we find the challenge of managing bills, debt, income, insurance, taxes etcetera daunting and sometimes overwhelming. Add to the mix a serious relationship or thinking about one’s own faith critically for the first time and you find someone doing an impression of a confused and gasping toad flopping on the bank of the river wildly exclaiming: “You don’t understand, that fish was twice as big as I am and it tried to eat me!”

Enter Charles Murray, who is old enough to be your parent or grandparent but since he’s not them you might actually listen to him. Aside from proudly identifying as a curmudgeon, Murray is a political scientist and has authored and co-authored numerous articles and books. Some of his works have received national attention for sparking controversy. Whatever your view of his research, The Curmudgeon’s Guide offers to assist you in your pursuit of building your personal and professional life.

Allow me to recommend the book by taking a quick look at the table of contents: Under the chapter heading “On the Presentation of Self in the Workplace” Murray has broken the book into several short sections. Here are three: “On the proper use of strong language”, “Office emails are not texts to friends” and my favorite, “What to do if you have a bad boss”. I found these sections enlightening, engaging, and surprisingly wise.
As one who chooses to not engage in wholesale cussing I took some convincing that there could be anything good to say about the subject. However, when you consider the context of business conversations, the issue is not so much whether you use expletives but whether you are communicating clearly—The overuse of profanity can cloud your intended meaning and undermine your legitimacy just as much as blustering and sputtering like a spotless teakettle endeavoring to communicate frustration without a vocabulary. My take away was this: Getting the point across requires well thought out and crafted speech. Orator, consider your audience.

Earlier I stated that “What to do if you have a bad boss” was my favorite section. Summarizing it simply will not do it justice and consequently I will simply introduce it and encourage you to read it for yourself. “You’ve been working at your new job for six months, let’s say, and you’re so unhappy with your supervisor that you’re considering quitting. Here’s what you need to think through: Exactly what is bothering you?”(p 37) Murray springs from this introduction into many different situations and has very savvy advice for the young professional in each instance.

The remaining chapters contain advice and guidance on “Thinking and Writing Well”, “The Formation of Who You Are”, and “The Pursuit of Happiness.” In the writing section you will find the ever-poignant advice (even if you’re not a writer) “Don’t wait for the muse.” An excerpt:

The last of my tips about writing is simple and absolute: Don’t wait until you feel like it. Find out what time of day you write best and develop a routine that puts you in front of your keyboard and screen at whatever time that might be.

I will close this review by noting that the section on developing your unique identity contains, arguably, the most helpful advice for a young person—among these the section titled “Being judgmental is good, and you don’t have a choice anyway.”

“Try hard. Be true. Enjoy. Godspeed.”
– Charles Murray (The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, p 142)

Book Review: Death Comes for the Deconstructionist

Periodically I will be posting reviews of books that are interesting or useful in educating and expanding the mind, and this first one is a contribution by the honorable and generous Matthew. Feel free to send one in if you find a title that is particularly worthwhile or uplifting; include your first name, the book title, and a link to where it can be purchased or legally downloaded. Please enjoy:

“Something is wrong.”

With this opening line Daniel Taylor begins an intriguing tale woven through the streets of Minneapolis, the halls of the University, and the deep roots of Memphis. The main character Jon Mote has been hired by a Mrs. Pratt to investigate the murder of her husband. Dr. Richard Pratt, professor of literature at the U., champion of post-modernism out to slay the dragons of “repressive structures and meta-narratives”, spokesperson of “justice for the voiceless”, underminer of “the tyranny of the center…” Who could have possibly wanted to kill such a tower of free thought?

Mote is by no means a detective and is hardly in a position to offer help, but Dr. Pratt’s widow wishes to have it. Unable to hold down a job or sustain his marriage, Mote needs the income to support him while he lives with—and cares for—his sister. The late doctor was once Mote’s Ph.D. advisor, but Mote dropped out of the program after failing to produce a thesis in keeping with the philosophy of the department–a misguided fondness of literature came through in the argument.

As a reader, Taylor’s book was an introduction and clarification of the post-modern academy and philosophy. Dr. Pratt was a deconstructionist; the philosophy has served him well and he lived by it wholeheartedly. It assisted him in his rise to prominence as a lecturer, professor, and literary critic. You could go so far as to say he owed who he was or wasn’t (non-being is an option) to his strict and reverent adherence to the freedom of the vacuous faith.

Author and speaker Daniel Taylor has written numerous books and essays. He was born in Southern California, his pursuits in higher education were kicked off with a Bachelors (1970), and Masters and Doctorate in English (both 1974). Through the years he has traveled widely–the Czech Republic and Guatemala and Australia to name just a few. “Death Comes for the Deconstructionist” won the Fiction category for 2016 in the annual Christianity Today Book Awards. The novel also won the Illumination Award for best fiction (Independent Publisher).” The book was published in 2014 by Slant (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers) and is a moderate 199 pages in length.

Deconstruction was the first of many words with which I was pleased to make renewed acquaintance as I read. I started keeping a dictionary handy after the first four words I tried to ignore. It started with monism and solipsism (both helpfully summarized). I finally gave in after nimbus and Duchamp on page 2. Though there are numerous words to acquaint ones self with Taylor does not alienate or intimidate his reader with new vocabulary. The extra time and effort taken really is worth the enrichment of the text. Here’s one to get you started.

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist is a well-thought-out, well-written story that allows the reader to consider a life lived in homage to thought that is wholly other than Christian. It is also well worth the read for the example of first-person style. I would recommend the book for 16+ as long as an avenue for mature discussion is available with a mentor.

“You have to be careful when you link up with a man who says he doesn’t believe in truth – capitalized or otherwise. Pretty soon he won’t believe in you either.” (p. 163)

Parental guide:
Through the story the protagonist is plagued by the memory of his sister’s rape (by his uncle); he also experiences flashbacks near the scene of the murder. In the story there is a non-graphic description of a lynching. There are references to adultery, stabbing, suicide, alcohol use, and demonic oppression. Other aspects to consider are a reference to the shocking behavior of Elvis Presley and a distinct absence of profanity.

Game Design with Goals in Mind

While I’m putting the finishing touches on a little game I’ll be offering for free (stay tuned for next month, or sign up for the newsletter so you get an email when it is available!) I thought it would be important to share what has been my biggest stumbling block in the game design process. No, it isn’t tight budgets, distractions, or lack of time.

I did not clarify the purposes of my refinement process

I often have made slick, fun little games and then have taken forever getting them around to useful, polished, salable form. It is a type of analysis paralysis, or perfectionism; a fear of failure and a fear of success all wrapped together. If you are unfocused or if you do not know the target audience, why your game is useful, or who you want to have it then you will run into doldrums after the idea has taken form and you have to choose between one form of good and another.

There are all manner of ways a perfectly good game can be shaped and sculpted depending on the goals: If you are marketing a game to a competitive crowd you will need to crunch the numbers and make sure there is a lot of ambiguity to the optimum play strategies and control randomness in the design. If you are trying to make a fun game for friends and family to gather around, you need to have impactful but quick and limited decision points and emphasize fun interaction during any downtime a player might face—like trading cards or resources with the active player. If you do not keep the goal in mind and have it finely-tuned, the proofing and adapting process will be discordant, touch-and-go.

With Scarcity, I found I have been reaching too far and trying to include too many different concepts. Less that is fun and meaningful is better than more that is flashy but useless; after all, is it not more fun to be engaged over which random and unknown caterpillar is going fastest down its track than to have to spend four hours building a caterpillar to race for a few seconds? The initial prototype played so well around a very basic economy, it was silly to think that I was improving it by making the economy complex by slowing it all down.

So stick to your focus, ask what you are targeting and moving towards, and don’t get lost in the bushes looking for the possible golden nugget when you have a whole field of grain ripe for the picking before you unless you need a golden bee-bee to launch at a particular Goliath. Scarcity will be free, and while it is competitive there is only a little asymmetry so the balance will even out wherever it is laid—and it will be just as fun regardless so long as I maintain the initial vision that underwrote the first prototype on its sheet of lined notebook paper.