Category Archives: The Morning Stretch

My writing prompts and exercises

The Morning Stretch #14 – Kaleidoscope writing

Different pictures formed from the same jumble of crystals in a kaleidoscope. Some writers manage the same with words. (Pic courtesy of Wikipedia)

There are some writers—Neal Stephenson comes to mind—who treat words as if they were various colored crystals in the lens of a kaleidoscope; they throw them together, jumble them up, and bizarre, often beautiful, patterns emerge. You have to wonder—applying that word’s double meaning of  awe and confusion—whether the message you have divined from the mystical pattern is one the author intended. Sometimes you doubt any true meaning is contained in the ornamental arrangement on the page, even as you stand in awe of the artistry.

While I believe a writer, in most cases, should use the simplest combination of words to achieve his desired outcome, I can’t deny the pleasure I sometimes derive from complexity. But if a sentence is constructed to maximize its lyricism, as opposed to its meaning, the writer risks confusing and losing the reader. If that’s the goal, you should write poetry. (No offense to poets intended :-).)

So, why take the risk? For one, I’d consider being called an artist whose canvas rests between the covers of a book as high praise indeed.

Today’s exercise … craft a lyrical sentence whose meaning is secondary to its beauty.


Plowed free by the tip of a pen, rough stones write the history of my run on the moldy carpet; hard testaments of a conquered trail soon swept out the cabin door and returned to the mountain from whence they came.


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The Morning Stretch #13 – Ticket to Paradise

Since my wife and I are going to win the $540 million dollar Mega-Millions lottery tonight, it is possible that this will be my last post for a while. After all, I’ll be spending  a lot of time talking to lawyers, accountants and long-lost relatives.

Therefore let the last stretch be an easy one … fantasize about what you would have done with the money if you’d won. (My stretch, on the other hand, will be realistic planning.)

This evening, my wife and I—after our winning numbers have been drawn—will probably scream our selves hoarse … and then cry ourselves dry. After that’s out of the way, we’ll talk about whether to take the $540 mil as a lump sum ( about $359 million before taxes ) or settle for almost $21 million a year for the next 26 years. It’s likely we’ll take the lump sum so we can find out what it’s like to burn through that much money in record time, like many past winners have done.

Once that’s done, we’ll work on the obligatory list of all the causes and charities we’ll want to fund. I’m fifty-five and forgetful already, so the Alzheimer’s Association will probably get a big chunk. 🙂

Then, until dawn the next morning—since there is no way I’m sleeping tonight—I’ll be planning the Ultimate Writers and Runners Retreat.

Where I'll be heading after I hit the lottery tonight.

First, I’ll search the internet for a small piece of land in the Rocky Mountain region, something in the 50,000 – 500,000 acre range. This one’s a bit small and it’s in Canada, but it gives you the general idea.

After I’ve found the right property, I’ll start planning the loops of running and biking trails that will run through the property. They’ll be from a few miles up to ultramarathon length … and all within the borders of my runner’s retreat. We’ll have a guest house big enough to fit thirty or forty of our closest running friends; we don’t actually have that many close friends, but I’m sure that will change. And I’m figuring on putting a few small cabins around the most picturesque locations where inspired writing will take place.

I’ll need a private air strip so I can fly in my grandkids (yes, mom and dad, you can come, too), as well as the runners and writers I’ll invite. On occasion, my wife and I might use the jet to visit all the most beautiful, remote places in the world and see how they compare to the paradise that sprang from our lottery winnings.

That’s all the planning I can do right now. Figuring how to spend my winnings is going to take so much time I better use the rest of the day to clear my schedule.


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The Morning Stretch #12

It looks like I might be falling into a hard-easy-hard routine with these writing exercises. Today’s stretch is hard … or at least harder.

A character with “issues” grabs a reader’s attention, whether they are physical or emotional doesn’t usually matter. They can be an important part of the story, such as Monk’s various phobias, or a minor tic that adds comic relief when needed. The right “flaw” can be used to manipulate a reader’s feelings toward a character.

Write a scene introducing  a character with an unusual problem. This can be a fictional condition or malady, as long as it is believable.


Harry clenched his teeth and tapped his left foot rapidly on the floor of his Buick Wildcat, taking care not to hit the brake peddle—he couldn’t afford to lose a second. The spot where his shoe beat against the carpet was worn bare. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead and soaked into bushy brown eyebrows, or swept down the hook of his nose. He took a deep breath and blew it out through thin, pursed lips; sweat splashed onto the leather steering wheel cover.

None of his efforts reduced the pressure in his bladder which had increased dramatically the moment his destination came into sight. “Arrival anxiety” the urologist had called it. What crap! It happened even when I’m coming home from the grocery store; why would I be anxious about that? Naming his “problem” hadn’t yet produced a solution.

When he started flapping his knees together, Harry was sure that Sandra’s eyes were boring holes in the side of his head. Why the hell did I think I’d get away with this? She probably thinks I’m having a mental breakdown. Although it was their third date, it was the first time he’d picked her up instead of meeting somewhere. Harry felt as dry as a bone—no drinking since lunchtime, not even water—and had spent the last moments before leaving the house in a desperate effort to squeeze out every last drop … and still he was dancing desperately in the seat with a burning tingle in his lap, feeding the flames of his panic.

After wiping the back of his hand across his forehead, he jammed it into his crotch and squeezed, hoping that his jacket would cover the movement. The sharp intake of breath coming from the passenger seat proved that hope fruitless. Bright red spread up his neck, but he’d rather be embarrassed now than when he arrived at the posh restaurant with a dark, wet stain on his pants.

The physical sensations were all too real, but Harry knew that, if there were no destination waiting, he could probably drive all day without a pit stop. Instead, he raced the last block, sped under the awning of The Flapping Goose, and slammed on the brakes. He jumped out of the car and tossed the keys to the valet.

“I’ll be right back,” he yelled over his shoulder to Sandra as he sprinted to the entrance. The startled maitre d’ pointed when Harry burst through the doors and gasped.”Where’s the men’s room?”

Relief, when it finally came, was so strong his knees buckled; he had to grab the chrome fitting of the urinal to keep from falling. What came next was just part of the routine. Washing his hands, he looked in the mirror. “Ol’ Buddy,” he said to his reflection, “we really need to do something about that plumbing of yours.”

He wasn’t surprised when he returned to the curb, but still raised a questioning eyebrow toward the valet. “She hopped in a cab as soon as you went through the doors.” The kid looked like he was about to apologize until Harry glared at him. Instead, the valet asked the logical question. “Should I bring your car around?”

He had a brief, dark thought of going through it all again so soon. He shook his head and went in for dinner.

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The Morning Stretch #11

Here’s an easy stretch for today, in case you are sore from yesterday’s tough one.

Describe the sky, as it looks right now.

Every jet in the world has crossed the Laramie Valley and left behind a jumble of pick-up sticks on a powder blue table. The newer lines are crisp  beams of white shooting across the sky. Older ones drift and dissolve, twisted by high-altitude winds that leave me untouched as I enjoy the gentle, sunny morning.

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The Morning Stretch #10

There are two purposes for The Morning Stretch: 1) Loosen my creative muscle for a successful day of writing. 2) Strengthen my writing skills by stretching beyond the comfort zone. This won’t always produce great prose, but the goal is to become a better writer and trust that great prose will be the ultimate result.

If characters are to be believable, a writer of fiction must be able to empathize with each one he or she creates, at least to some degree … even the nasty ones. Otherwise, characters won’t act or speak authentically. For a basically decent human being, this can be difficult and I believe that anything difficult requires some practice if we are to do it well; a lot of practice if we want to excel.

Today we have another challenging stretch. It may loosen and strengthen. Do the first step before reading the second step. 

Step One – Make a list of three things you would NEVER do. Two of these can be things that frighten you or are physically challenging, but they should be possible. Don’t put “Grow wings and fly” or “Meet the creature from Aliens in a dark alley.” One of these must be something that you would never do because even the thought of doing it is repellent, illegal, or immoral. Give this some thought and be willing to get uncomfortable. Don’t list things you’d like to do, but can’t, such as “Keelhaul any agent who sent me a form-letter rejection.”

Here are mine –

1. Work in a needle factory. The one thing that turns my head from the movie screen is seeing someone get a shot/injection. I hate needles.

2. Smoke. I was raised in a haze of smoke; both parents dead from smoking related illnesses. ‘Nuff said.

3. Harm my grandchildren, or any child for that matter … just the thought is upsetting.

Step Two – Choose one item from the list and write a fiction scene where the character is doing the thing you would NEVER do. Write in first person, present tense. Don’t let yourself off the hook by being a reluctant character—if your choice was “murder my mother,” don’t write about how you were forced to do it, or that you felt terrible.


My foot smashes through Oscar’s mouth but it doesn’t end the grating sing-song words. The shattered and sparking flat-screen is on its back—one end on the TV stand and the other balanced precariously on the sill of the freshly-cracked living room window—but an incessant  “Doin’ the Trash … Doin’ the Trash .. Doin’ the Trash!” is still goose-stepping through my aching head.

I kick the bedroom door so hard the knob punches through the drywall and keeps it from bouncing back in my face.

“Christ, Tommy!” I yell at him. “I told you not to leave the damn TV on! Now shut the hell up!”

Spiderman’s leap into Aslan’s mouth is arrested mid-air as my grandson looks up from amid his toys. He drops Spiderman and clutches the stuffed lion to his chest. I see the bottom lip pucker and clinch my fists. The three-year-old’s blue eyes are huge and his breath begins to hitch, “wuh-hic … wuh-hic … wuh … ”

I won’t be able to stand it if the tears start, and they do. Damn Sharlene for sticking me with this … this … who knows what he is? My whore of a daughter probably doesn’t know who the father is. From the doorway, the smell of sour piss almost makes me gag. Almost four and nothin’ seems to get through his head what the commode is for. Damned if I’m gonna change his dirty diapers.

As I step into the room, Tommy raises his hands over his head and wails. Shit! If he knows what’s coming, why doesn’t he just shut his goddam pie-hole? Still in the boy’s grip, Aslan stares at me as I aim the first slap at Tommy’s head, knocking away his only protection. The wails are louder now.

My arm is drawn back once more and for certain the damn racket will soon end. I clench my fist and swing again.


Ugh! That’s an exercise that makes me feel like I need a shower.

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The Morning Stretch #9

A writer wants the people who inhabit his stories to resonate with readers. Physical description must deliver a picture that will help make characters, especially the main characters, real in the reader’s mind. You can more readily get readers to invest their emotions in a character if they “see” that character within a scene.

The face will often be the feature that distinguishes one character from another and it doesn’t take a lot of description to give the reader a template on which they can use their imagination to imprint a recognizable face. You don’t need to provide a laundry list for every, or any, character. Don’t talk to the reader like you would a police artist; one distinctive phrase is usually enough. Other features can be delivered in an almost unconscious fashion in the course of the story: “He wiped the sweat from his wrinkled brow” or “A finger brushed the pale scar on her dimpled chin.”

Today’s stretch: In one sentence, write an initial description of a new character’s face.

His flat, round face glowed from the effort, mottled like the bottom of a copper pot fresh off the burner.


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The Morning Stretch #8

Today’s Morning Stretch … is a cheat, at least for me. Describe your last physical exercise. (Picking up your coffee cup doesn’t count!)

I went for a long run (thirteen miles) early this morning; the first predawn long distance run in a quite a while. I began at 5 am and the start was sluggish, but once my body woke up, I started feeling pretty good. A weak, but faithful moon was in the sky; a thin river of clouds lay above the eastern horizon. Just above the clouds, the moon looked like it was being slowly washed away.

As I ran down Spring Lakes Road, a brightly lit tractor-trailer would occasionally make its way down 287 in the distance. Through the darkness, they looked like cigar-shaped flying saucers skimming the ground. Rocks and ruts in the dirt road were bare shadows as a result of the weak light cast by the moon. That made my arrival at the shoulder of 287 all the more enjoyable; on the smooth, flat asphalt I could maintain a steady pace and it was easier on my ankles. My achilles  had warmed up by then and the minor pain disappeared. When a south-bound truck rumbled by, I watched my shadow grow in front of me until it flashed behind; and then I drafted in the truck’s wake. Gradually my pace increased.

I spent a while thinking about a short story I’ve just completed for a contest. As matter of fact, it needs to be post-marked today! The story is titled Moonlight Shepherd and is bound to be controversial, at least in some quarters. It is about a little girl who thinks she sees Jesus on the prairie under the bright moonlight. An opportunistic evangelist sees her as a chance to increase his market share. The result is both dramatic and thought-provoking.

I also dwelt momentarily on the slow sales of Harvest of the Heart. After a promising start, they are anemic at best. Of course, I’ve done no marketing of late, as I concentrate on writing, so I guess that is to be expected.

It was only in the last mile that the sky became light enough for me to see my watch. I was pleased that, in the last mile, it appeared I had dropped below my goal pace for the Boston Marathon, which is only four and a half weeks away.

My nanny duties were supposed to start at 7 am, but I couldn’t see my watch for most of the run, so I didn’t keep track of time or note the distance. As a result, I had to guess. I’d planned on doing twelve and getting close to 6:40 … in time for a shower. A slow early pace and the extra mile brought me home at 6:49. Luckily, Chaitan had just gone back to sleep and I had time for a shower and this post!

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