Benchpressing Your Prose

Today, I have a guest-post for you all by Charlie Holmberg. I’m blessed to have this lady as a CP–she constantly inspires me with her beautiful prose, which is exactly what she’s guest-posting on. I hope someday that all of you get to read her writing! But since you can’t do that now, I suggest reading below for some ideas from her on how to benchpress your prose. Enjoy!

Regardless of whether it was or not, I always saw my prose as one of my weakest writing skills. Which is funny, since in a way, writing IS prose. I knew I could only strengthen my prose by reading a lot more and by performing a lot more writing exercises. I especially wanted to “break” the YA-sound that naturally came to my words, so I didn’t read a single young adult book for a year. I avoided them like the plague (which is ironic, since  three of the last four books I’ve written are all YA. Funny how that happens).

While I’m hardly done learning, I’ve noticed in the last six months that I’ve gotten better feedback on my prose, which is still shocking to me (but makes me incredibly happy). And since Juliana, for some reason,  thinks I know what I’m doing and she’s officially “legit,” I’m hoping some of what I have to say will be helpful.

I’d like to share four exercises that really helped strengthen both my prose and my attention to detail:

Exercise 1: The Copycat

Find a book with prose and descriptions that you really admire and select an especially strong paragraph from its pages. Copy it down. You pay a lot more attention to how an author writes when you freehand it. (My personal book of choice for this exercise isBlackdog by K. V. Johansen.)

Once that is done, write your own paragraph, but do it in the same pattern as the paragraph you copied. So if you copied down The looming house, complete with mustard-colored shutters and black cat in the front window, you would write something like, “The heavy sky, filled with cake-like clouds and a faded sun on the east horizon.”

It’ll make you think. :)

Exercise 2: Stare Until Your Eyes Bleed

Grab a pen, a notebook, and a timer and get yourself lost somewhere. A park, a bookstore, the auto-aisle at Walmart, whatever suits your fancy. (Though I do recommend starting somewhere nature-y.)

Sit down. Find something to stare at.

Now set your timer for 15 minutes and describe that thing.

After the first minute or two, once you run out of adjectives like “green,” “big,” and “dark,” your brain will start straining for new ways to detail its stare-spot. No pausing. Write down anything that could describe that tree, that bench, that woman with the pink overalls, even if it’s ridiculous. By minute six, you should be starting to break the confines of the box.

Exercise 3: Default to Worldbuilding

All writers worldbuild in one way or another, even if they don’t write fantasy or science fiction. Build upon the setting, build upon characters’ pasts. Even if it’s not relevant to the story. Because when you build a world outside the confines of the story, it feels more real. Not just to you, but to the reader. Readers can tell how much thought you’ve put into a story, believe me. And who knows . . . one of those extraneous details might come in handy later in the story; it might add a sense of realness to a scene, or might even solve a plot hole.

As an exercise, create a place–a city, a planet, a park–and describe it until its real. What kinds of trees it has, when the last lightning storm came, what it looked like 3,000 years ago. Weather, square mileage, population, flora and fauna. That weird lake smell that always hits between 10 and 11:30 at night. The homeless man named Bruce who sits on the corner of Main and Luther Street, except on Sundays when he relocates to the Evangelical church because he gets more handouts. 

And when you’re writing your own book, go above and beyond, even if half your worldbuilding knowledge never makes it into the story. Tolkien spent 20 years on his world, we certainly can spend a couple weeks on ours.

Exercise 4: Buy The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long

There are a lot of great writing books out there (some of my favorites are How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder). One of the problems with the bulk of writing books, however, is that they don’t focus on prose. They focus on story: plot, setting, character. And those elements are crucial. But what if you want to strengthen your actual words?

The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long is an AMAZING book that focuses almost entirely on prose. I truly believed it made me a better writer. It’s full of exercises that will strengthen your ability to describe. I’ve read through it twice, and when I read it a third time I’m positive I’ll find golden nuggets of knowledge I missed. Check it out from the library, at the very least.

I would love to hear about what authors you admire for their prose, and other exercises you recommend to strengthen prose!

    8 thoughts about "Benchpressing Your Prose"

    • Carrie-Anne says:

      I was really guilty of #1 in the past! I would often have passages or lines that were little more than shameless rip-offs of things I’d read in other books. I know I used a lot of the stylings of Isabella Leitner’s haunting memoirs, and phrases and thoughts from other Shoah writers. Now I know that you can’t do that. It’s one thing to have a similar scene or something inspired by them, but another to express that in a voice that’s not really yours.

      My Creative Writing Club at my first high school did a lot of freewrites. Sometimes we just sat and wrote for 10-15 minutes; other times we used prompts and exercises from books like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.

    • ChemistKen says:

      Prose is probably my weakest point (among others), so I found your suggestions interesting. I’m heading over to the bookstore now to check out The Writer’s Portable Mentor right now. Thanks for the help, Charlie.

    • Jeff Hargett says:

      I really like Exercise 2: Stare Until Your Eyes Bleed. Anything to get out of the box! I default to Worldbuilding to a fault already. ;-)

    • tanya reimer says:

      I love this post!!!!! What great ideas and what wonderful points. Storytelling is more than a plot and a story, there is a dance to the prose. My secret? I read it out loud. I let my Kindle read it to me. Both work different. One I get to stumble over the Please pay people properly sentences, and the other I hear the lull when all my sentences sound the same… my mind wanders reminding me I messed up.
      Thanks for the tips!

    • Your article Juliana L. Brandt – Young Adult Author – Benchpressing Your Prose write very well, thank you share!

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