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the barber: an excerpt

Marshall walked walked through the door of the barber shop, leaving the chill of the January street behind him. He was greeted by four shin-high Pomeranians yapping and pouncing at his jeans.

“Get over here!” came a voice from farther back in the shop. “They’re harmless; they’ve just got to get their noses into everything.” “Get over here I said.” She threw a fist full of sausage-shaped dog chews onto the green carpet. The dogs scurried towards the center of the room, snapping at the snacks and licking the carpet.

“Have a seat. The name’s Bev. Should be about ten minutes.”

Marshall walked into the room and sat in one of eight faux-leather office chairs that lined the dark paneled walls of the barber shop. Each chair had a buttons in the arm to control a series of vibrating massage features. Marshall passed, choosing instead to sit quietly, taking in the shop. He had never been there before, and, in fact, just moved to town two weeks ago.

The shop was long and narrow. In the storefront window were a jungle of tropical house plants, along with a make-shift miniature fountain–a saucer of water with a bubbler, a green LED, and device that puffed steam from the bowl, which condensed on the front window. The shop itself was a contradiction in decor–a mix of tropical accents, Nordic lodge, thrift store, and pet shop. An octagonal gold fish tank rested on the counter next to the black barber chair, a pair of snow shoes and three mounted, rubber novelty fish (that sang if one were to push the red button) adorned the side wall. Directly across from Marshall, hung a sign that read, “If it’s got testicles, don’t trust it.” Bev’s was one of two barbershops in town. Feeling a bit shaggy, Marshall rolled the dice on which shop to choose. He was having doubts about his choice.

Images of a cop sodomizing Ving Rhames’ character in Pulp Fiction flashed on the TV in the corner, flanked by potted palm trees on one side and a terrarium housing a green Iguana on the other.

“Ahh, shit! Look at that picture.” Bev stepped out from behind the gray-haired man sitting in the barber chair and limped closer to the TV at the front of the shop. Her right foot pointed out at a near-right angle as she walked. She thumbed a large remote control. The skin of her hand resembled that of the lizard in the terrarium–scaly and flaking dry. The top of her right wrist was spidery and bruised. “I pay a hundred and thirty bucks a month for satellite and I don’t even get a goddamn decent picture.”

The flat-panel screen flickered as she bounced through the channels. Landing on “Maury Povich,” she returned to the chair at the back of the shop.

Grabbing the man’s head with cupped hands by his ears, she physically cocked it left and then right. “Ahh, you’re done… Wait, let me get that zit on your nose. I’ve got nails.” Bev leaned in close to the man who sat still in the chair, as she dug her thumbnails, chipping with red paint, deep into the flesh of his nose. “There. Ok, seventeen’ll do it.”

“All right, you ready?” She was looking at Marshall. “Come on, honey, I don’t bite.” Marshall wasn’t so sure…

developing a character with 20 questions

“It begins with a character…” Falkner reminds us, and so this is where we’ve begun our fiction writing practice this semester. Borrowing an activity from Ostrom, Bishop, and Haake, entitled “20 Questions: Character Witness,” I asked my students to breath life into their imagined characters through some quick responses to–yes, that’s right–2o questions. So, here’s the questions along with my responses…

  1. What is the exact age of your character—years, months, days?
    Bev is 47, but she looks 57. She was born in Joliet, IL on September 17, 1961 at 6:33 in the evening. It was 92 degrees, hot and humid.
  2. A place where your character is living or visiting begins to burn. The character has a few moments to escape. What does he/she grab—save?—before getting out of the fire and why?
    She rounds up her dogs–five Pomeranians–because she loves them more than her illegitimate teenage son who sleeps in the room next to hers above the shop.
  3. The character enters the room in which you are sitting. He/she sits down near you and places his or her left hand on the table or desk near you. Look at that hand. Describe it in as much detail as you can. Quickly. Go.
    Veiny. Spidery and bruised near the top of her wrist where they blew out her vein with the IV in the hospital the week before. Red nail polish, chipping. Nails chewed. Her palms are callused. Skin dry and flaking from the bleach she uses to clean the shop floor.
  4. This may against your nature, but let’s at least pretend you’re a real snoop. You have access to a wallet, a pocketbook, or a purse belonging to your character. You have an opportunity to go through it, and—being a snoop—you seize the opportunity. What’s in the wallet, pocketbook, or purse? Take the stuff out. Describe it. If there’s lipstick, say what kind, color, what kind of container. Money? How much exactly and how is it organized? Keep going into the details of the contents. Is there something about which the character would be especially embarrassed? If so, what? If not, what do you make of that?
    Her purse is large–about 16 inches across. The faux leather has long since lost its shape and the black veneer is flaking to expose the gray fabric beneath it. It sags like the jowls of the English bulldog her uncle Ned had when she was a child. The purse has a strap, but she never carries it over her shoulder on account of her back, preferring instead to grasp the strap wrapped twice around her hand, dangling as she stammers through the Walmart parking lot. Inside are piles of what she might need or what she has forgotten. A round bristle brush with hair knotted tightly around the plastic core. Smokehouse, rolled doggy treats with soft sausage centers, lying loose amidst gum wrappers, a snackpack of roasted peanuts, tampons, and her checkbook. Pantyhose, previously worn, bunched and bound into a tight ball. Four bottles of beige foundation cream. A lipstick–Maybeline, crushed mauve. A business card from Sally Beauty supply. There is a number penned on the back. A picture of her kid. One picture of each of her babies, the five Pomeranians–Chi Chi, Boo, Baby, Groucho, and Samson. The keys to her 2008 Grand Prix, leased. Two large bottles of prescriptios pills–Oxycontin and Vicodin for her back.
  5. You walk into a room in which your character is napping. Without waking the character up, you lean down, put your nose close to one side of your character’s neck—just below the ear—and sniff. Describe what you smell.
    Cigarettes, Poison (the perfume), and barbercide.

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