Every writer who is serious about their craft needs to have a well-stocked writing toolkit at their disposal. Of course, the exact tools may vary among the different artists who choose to use them: a poet may use only small notebooks for jotting down his thoughts, while a short story writer may also choose to keep index cards for organizing her ideas, while a novelist may have a whole bulletin board (or even a room full of them) for keeping track of elaborate plots. Some tools can be seen as universal necessities to all creative writers (such as journals and the aforementioned notebooks), and others seem to be more of a personal preference (such as index cards and exercise books).

In the interest of exploring this array of choices, I’ll be telling about my experience with the instruments in my own writer’s toolkit, starting with a fantastic book of fiction exercises that has proven to be a valuable asset to me: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter

About the Book

I bought this book for the online creative writing class I took through UC Berkeley back in 2011. The copy I own is the third edition, also called the college edition, which was released in 2009. It holds 109 exercises covering 13 different topics, plus 11 short short stories and 14 short stories provided at the end of the book. Also included with every exercise description is an explanation of the objective behind it, as well as the occasional example courtesy of the authors’ students.

The topics (or parts) covered in the book are:

  1. Beginnings;
  2. Characterization;
  3. Point of View, Perspective, Distance;
  4. Dialogue;
  5. The Interior Landscape of Your Characters;
  6. Plot;
  7. The Elements of Style;
  8. A Writer’s Toolbox;
  9. Invention and a Bit of Inspiration;
  10. Revision: Rewriting is Writing;
  11. Sudden, Flash, Micro, Nano: Writing the Short Short Story;
  12. Learning from the Greats; and
  13. Notebooks, Journals, and Memory.

So what can I tell you about the book? Here are a few key points I’ve learned from my experience.

Pros

The diversity of topics in the book allows you to “custom improve” your writing in the areas you feel need the most work. The explanations are easy to understand, and the student examples are excellent models of the techniques taught through the exercises. For a truly well-rounded experience, a friendly introduction by Bernays and Painter encourages all readers to explore the potential of their writer’s voice and explains the separate definitions of writing like a writer and thinking like one, while the last two sections provide 25 excellent stories to better illustrate the points made throughout the book. Needless to say (oops, Exercise 51: “Word Packages are Not Gifts”),What If? covers a wide enough spread to make it an excellent resource for any fiction writer, as much for the beginner in need of good practice as for the seasoned writer looking to rekindle the fire of inspiration.

But nothing is perfect, right? Now for the downsides…

Cons

The main obvious drawback about using What If? is that it practically requires sharing of completed exercises and subsequent receiving of critique in order for its readers to get the full intended benefits of the book, making it a more popular choice for creative writing workshops and courses as opposed to individual study. Aside from this, readers might find a couple of topics to be lacking in sufficient exercises (Part Seven, for instance, only contains four), which might put off those hoping for a more diverse selection within a certain module. Also, not every written exercise comes with an example, leaving it solely up to the practicing writer to determine the intended approach to the exercise. This is fine for the more independent readers, but for those often looking for extra guidance (like me), it might prove to be a bit of a disappointment.

Still, I honestly don’t think these minor cons do much to outweigh the stronger pros. Yes, What If? is not without its flaws, but overall, I feel it’s a worthwhile read that warrants a place on any writer’s bookshelf.

Summary

Pros

  • Wide diversity of topics (13 total)
  • Exercise descriptions that are easy to understand
  • Excellent student examples
  • Friendly and comprehensive introduction
  • 25 short stories

Cons

  • Requires feedback for full experience
  • Limited selection of exercises in some topics
  • Lack of examples in some exercises

Conclusion

Why have I chosen to open my Writer’s Toolkit posts with this book? It wasn’t a matter of random choice, but rather one of relevance to my own writing. Many of the pieces I’ve written (and others which I’m currently writing) blossomed from the exercises contained in this book, and because of the enlightenment and fun I’ve had with them so far, as well as my need for critique from other writers, I decided to make a habit of sharing some of my own examples of attempts to complete them.

So whenever a certain piece I share in the future has been inspired by a What If? exercise, I’ll be sure to provide a brief explanation of that exercise for easier reference. However, if you’re a writer and you don’t have this book, I highly recommend that if you have the time (and the funds), you grab yourself a copy of What If? as soon as you can! You won’t be disappointed.

There you have it: the top creative writing book on my shelf, and one of the most useful resources in my writer’s toolkit. I hope you’ll enjoy the pieces I produce from these exercises, and I also invite you as aspiring writers to try them out for yourselves. In fact, if you have writing blogs of your own, by all means, please share links to your own pieces in the comment sections. I would love to read them! In the meantime, please feel free to offer your feedback on my work; I look forward to receiving constructive opinions that would help me to further improve my writing.

Thanks for reading! Happy writing!

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