Writing Exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction

  • Describe a barn from the perspective of a man whose son has just died in a war. Do not mention the son, the war, death, or the man.

The barn creaked in the vicious winter morning. Its timber beams groaned, grief stricken from the pain of carrying the load of the roof but its howls masked under the cloak of a wind gust. The animals had risen, roaming the fields just before sunrise and the hay they’d left had scattered like shrapnel across the earthy floor. The smallest foal, born with jet black fear in his eyes, had begun the morning slowly, rubbing up against the bones of the barn, sensing a change in the mood. It had been a damp night and the wound in the roof – which would likely never be fixed now – had leaked rain water transforming the barn’s musk  into a tang of rust, like the metallic smell  of blood.

Truth be told I’ve not read The Art of Fiction and this exercise was taken from the brilliant WriteWorld site. I loved this activity. As a writer I probably don’t spend enough time thinking about and writing about a setting and this exercise was a really worthwhile activity to practise a concurrency between setting and mood.

Snow Days

We frost windows with our breath, watching the sky

Showering with flakes, like icing sugar flouring a table

Coating the nape of dad’s coat as he shovels blocks away

From the car wheels packaged in by polystyrene white.

The radio crackles in the kitchen, each school read making our hearts race

Like the rhythm of snow layering the ice

Mum checks the time and our fingers cross behind our backs

We wait, already anticipating the hot belly of cocoa

And skidding down hills on wet backsides, snowmen resting

We hush, holding our breath, crushing eyes shut: please please

The verdict’s released and we pump our fists

 One cold day of freedom awaits.



Five Minute Writer Exercise

Having recently purchased the book The Five Minute Writer, I thought I would post the results of Exercise 3 where writers are asked to make a list of abstract nouns (e.g. life, love, wealth, sadness etc) followed by a list of concrete nouns and attempt to make connections, starting the first sentence with “_____ is like a ______”. 

Misery is like a notepad, a history of sadness. The leaves combined collect tales of regret and misfortune. They can be torn free and destroyed, but the paper trails linger with memories; a shredded palimpsest. Mistakes can be rewritten, new tales can be spun, but all equates to a thicker wad of failings. Misery can be lifted, with a new perspective like a fresh notepad of recycled pages.


Happiness is like a mug full of tea. It’s sweet and comforting. Its perfection lasts a specific amount of time and then fades. It’s made from a careful routine that is easily spoilt. When drained, there’s an empty hollowness to the day until the mug is filled again.


Love is like a pill packet. The answer to all problems, a dangerous indulgence, a fixer, an addiction, a wrecker. A combination of chemicals evoking and triggering moods and impulses. A cure to life’s problems and the start of more side effects. Bitter aftertaste, a history of negative reactions. 


This is a really stimulating exercise and beginning with “life” is a good way to start. I liked it as it made me make comparisons as you would in looking for similes in the world. It avoids us making the same cliched similes and metaphors too.


A BRITISH CAT DANCING ENTERTAINS FEMALES. Gary’s headline isn’t jumping. Knowing Lyndon’s meticulous nature – over perfected queen – reporters stop trying. Underachievers vex without xx-chromosomes, youth, zing.

A writing exercise piece, inspired by a word game from Guardian Shorts’ How To Write Fiction, extracted from Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book. Each new word starts with the a letter of the alphabet in ascending order. This was such a fun challenge – really thought provoking! From it, I was even able to extract some sort of plot: a disillusioned journalist named Gary, working for a very particular boss that he dislikes, Lyndon who appears to only approve of the young and female writers.