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What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers Paperback – November 20, 1991

ISBN-13: 978-0062720061 ISBN-10: 0062720066 Edition: Reissue

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reissue edition (November 20, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062720066
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062720061
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #57,389 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Anne Bernays, a novelist and writing teacher, is the author of eight novels, including Professor Romeo and Growing Up Rich, as well as two works of nonfiction, including The Language of Names written with Justin Kaplan and What If? written with Pamela Painter. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous major publications, among them The Nation, the New York Times, Town & Country, and Sports Illustrated. She lives in Cambridge and Truro, Massachusetts with her husband, Justin Kaplan. They have three daughters and six grandchildren.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

First sentences are doors to worlds. -Ursula K. Le Guin

New writers oftne find beginnings difficult--whether they're starting a story or a novel--because they take the word "beginning" too literally. They cast around for the "beginning" of a story--forgetting that beginnings rarely have the necessary ingredients for trouble, for conflict, or for complication. Your story can begin with dialogue, narrative summary, description, whatever, but it must begin in medias res, in the middle of things. You must resist the temptation to give the reader too lengthy an explanation as to how things got to this point. Remember, you are trying to hook the reader's attention, to pull the reader into your story so that he won't wonder, What's on television tonight?

Another stumbling block to beginning a story is that new writers think they have to know where their story is going and how it will end--before they begin. Not true. Flannery O'Connor says, "If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don't have to know what before you begin. In fact, it may be better if you don't know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don't, probably nobody else will."

The following exercises are designed to encourage you to think about real characters who are involved in situations that are already under way--situations that are starting to unravel because of, or in spite of, the desires and actions of their beleaguered characters. Don't worry about middles or endings yet. Just give yourself over to setting stories in motion--you will soon know which stories capture your imagination and seem unstoppable, which stories demand to be finished. Till that time, begin and begin and begin.

Customer Reviews

This book is for anyone who writes, anyone who wants to write.
Louise Veen
You really get to improve your writing with these simple and fun exercises.
V. M. Vaglio
I have been teaching writing and using this book for over five years.
Susan Ito

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

55 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Ledger7633@aol.com Les Edgerton on December 23, 1998
Format: Paperback
I teach creative writing in the UCLA Writer's Program (online) and always recommend this book to my students as one of the two best books (along with Janet Burroway's "Writing Fiction") on the craft of writing ever penned. I have used the information in this book time and again in writing my own novels and stories ("The Death of Tarpons" (novel), "Monday's Meal" (story collection), "Over Easy" (thriller forthcoming from Random House, 1999). A more intelligent book than this has yet to be written. If you aspire to create memorable, quality prose, you must buy this book! It will aid you throughout your writing career in thousands of ways. Five stars is not enough to award this book, which I'm sure is destined to become a classic if it is not already considered so.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Susan Ito on January 19, 2000
Format: Paperback
I have been teaching writing and using this book for over five years. It has been beyond invaluable for me and my students, and I don't know how I am going to live without it.
The earlier, brown version is not the greatest, but the "Revised and Expanded" 1995 edition (blue cover) is fabulous. We were supposed to get a new 2000 edition in January, but now I heard that Prentice-Hall has decided not to do the new edition. So "What If?" is now out of print. NO!
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Jeff C. Vande Zande on December 16, 2003
Format: Paperback
I teach short fiction writing at a college in Michigan. I've used the first edition of this book for four semesters, and I just had a chance to peruse the second edition. Great stuff! The exercises in this book teach the elements of story writing, but they do it in an interesting and interactive way. Students will learn about Starting in the Middle, Strong Dialogue, Conflict, Endings, Titles, Naming Characters, the Internal Life of Characters, and much more. I use the text in an introductory course, so I don't get to all of the exercises. Some cover more advanced issues than others, but this book is helpful to almost any level of fiction writer. I am a writer too, and every time I use the book with my students, my own stories get a little stronger. If you're a fiction teacher, try this book. If you're a writer looking to advance your skills, this book could also be a big help. You'll find stuff that goes beyond the routine fiction-writing advice.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Charlotte A. Moore on July 23, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a good one - witty and readable, with substance on every page, very good exercises and many valuable comments on craft from outstanding fiction writers. After reading about half of it, I wanted to quit my job and start writing a novel right then, but that's not an option, so I settled for reading it straight through and am now going through it a chapter at a time, doing the exercises in the order they are presented. Bernays and Painter are both obviously wonderful teachers, and for those of us who don't have access to classrooms like theirs, this generous and encouraging text is the next best thing. One caution: This isn't a book for any writer who isn't planning to work at it!
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Kristen Tsetsi on May 14, 2005
Format: Paperback
I've been writing for years and earned my MFA a few years ago and have loved "What If" since it was introduced to me in my intro to creative writing class. It's great for beginners to exercise their creativity, fun for people with more writing experience because the assignments allow for creative expansion as well as improvement and various method training, and if I'm ever having a down time when I just don't know what to write but feel the need to get something on paper, the book is perfect inspiration, and sometimes has the tendency to get me started on a story I didn't know I had in me. Even if it seems elementary, it's hardly that...each exercise can be done once yearly, and every time it's done it will be tackled differently and with growing talent and skill.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 13, 1999
Format: Paperback
to appreciate the writing jumpstarts presented in "What If?" However, the exercises outlined in this book will have you writing, and more importantly, thinking like a writer. More than 75 exercises for the beginning to advanced writer. Welcome this helpful source to your library!
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By J. L. Eddy on August 30, 2005
Format: Paperback
"What If" differs from many other how-to writing books in that the writer will spend more time writing through the book than actually reading it - that is if the writing exercises at the end of chapter are completed. The chapters are bite-size, informative and to the point. Thus the information the book brings, coupled with the exercises, makes it functional and at the same time fun.

If you enjoy writing fiction, this book is a plus as it breaks down fiction writing point by point. And who knows, doing the exercises may just lead to that short story or book lurking around in the shadows of the imagination.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Louise Veen on December 2, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book is for anyone who writes, anyone who wants to write. It is for anyone who teaches creative writing, anyone who wants to teach creative writing.

"What If?" could be useful at virtually any grade level from 5th grade (about ten years old) up through graduate school.

Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter are completely in-tune with the writing process and are aware of difficulties one may encounter when trying to create fiction.

Also, you could compile an outstanding reading list from the writers who Bernays and Painter have cited. A list gathered from their references could be used for personal enrichment or to help create a syllabus-or both!
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