Dear Novelists,
Stop! Stop what you’re doing! Today you don’t need to worry about word count. Today the assignment is something other than the linear push forward. Today you will work on texture and back story—so often lost in the push to get words on the page.
I hear some of you muttering: “What does she mean by texture?” You tell me and get extra credit!
Today you will do some offstage exercise. (Stop groaning, former students of mine— I hear you!) These exercises are meant to be fun! You are making stuff up! I
insist you enjoy yourself! Try a few, try them all. You’ve probably done some already or done none at all. It’s very likely that some might work better for you than others.
Here you go: 
  1. Make some lists for your character (C). For example, list 20 items on the walls of C’s room or in a locker at school. In the back of his/her car. Outside his/her window. And so on. You must follow this rule for list making: when you get halfway (#11, in this case) you can’t add something entirely new—each additional item must be a detail about one of the items mentioned previously.
  2. Make a list of his/herpeers, such as “Josie, C’s regular co-pilot on the Trinonium-Spooderama run.” Follow the rule for list making: halfway, no new peers, but another detail about someone already listed, such as “Josie, who likes to get a mani-pedi before every trip.”
  3. Take two or three of those peers/friends and write a conversation about C that occurs when she/he is not present. 
  4. Make a list of adults in C’s life. Remember the list-making rule.
  5. Take two of those adults and write a conversation about C that occurs when she/he is not present
  6. Make a timeline of C’s life so far. Load it with anything that might plausibly/implausibly have happened to him/her. This is not a list. Also, try using paper and pencil.
  7. Pick a happy event from the timeline and write a page or so in C’s first-person voice about the event from at least a year
    after the event. Do the same for a frightening and/or sad event.
  8. From ten years down the road, write a brief summation of the events of the novel in C’s first-person voice.
  9. Construct C’s family tree. This is not a list. Also, try using paper and pencil.
  10. Make up a family secret about someone on the tree. At what age and under what circumstances does C learn the secret?
  11. Identify a relic fromsome ancestor that now belongs to C. Have C describe the relic while on a first date (or some other first encounter).
  12. Write a detached clinical summation of C, pretending you are his/her teacher/therapist/spiritual counselor.
  13. As C, write an hour-by-hour log of his/her typical day. 

Have fun. I insist.


Marsha Qualey is the author of several young adult novels, including Just Like That, Too Big of a Storm, One Night, and Close to a Killer. Her books have appeared on numerous best-of-the-year lists, including ALA Quick Picks, ALA Best Books for Young Adults, IRA Readers' Choice, New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age, and School Library Journal's Best Books of the Year.

Marsha retired from the Hamline MFAC faculty in 2017. 

Visit Marsha's website.