The Act of Writing: A basic course: notes and comments.

Collapsible Chapeau? It’s an Opera Hat! I know this because a few weeks back I was doing the NYT crossword and one of the clues was “collapsible chapeau?” and I didn’t know the answer (hadn’t a clue, you know?) Anyway I found out chapeau is the french word for “hat.” It still didn’t make much sense to me, but eventually I got the answer (via Rex Parker).

After a bit of research I found out that an opera hat is a hat that collapses into a round disk for easy storage, and finds it’s shape with a quick snap — a flick of the wrist. I recall seeing such hats in old movies.

Now coincidentally I had recently published a novel (The Illustrated Hen), and one thing I noticed when I was introducing the book to groups was how interested people are in how I wrote the novel. There seems to be a lot of interest in the writing process, so this blog post is an introduction to writing the way I do it.

I follow a process similar to what is described below. At the core of the process is an inspiration of some sort. In this case, the idea of an opera hat; specifically a woman taking an opera hat out of her purse.  There isn’t a particular reason for choosing that idea; I just happen to think it’s interesting.

The object of the exercise is to write a paragraph that describes a woman taking an opera hat out of her purse and opening it. What you notice is that this exercise is like 20 questions, or Mad Libs; it’s also like the “who what where when why” questions from journalism.

The basic writing course is below.  My advice is to go step by step, fill in the answers to the questions, then write the paragraph.


Write a paragraph describing a woman taking an opera hat out of her purse.

Step 1 — outline the process
Step 2 — add details
Step 3 — establish context
Step 4 — establish motivation
Step 5 — critical review

Step 1: the process

1. Open the purse
2. Take out the hat
3. Open the hat (ie snap it open with a flick of the wrist.)

Step 2: Details and descriptons

1) What does the woman look like? (her physical appearance: hair, eyes, body, and how she is dressed)
2) What is her name?
3) What are her mannerisms?
4) What does the purse look like?
5) What does the opera hat look like?
6) Is she sitting or standing or some other position?
7) What time of day is it?

Step 3: Context

1) What are the woman’s surroundings (ie where is she)
2) Is she alone?
3) Does she say anything?
4) what are her facial expressions when she is opening her purse and taking the hat out?

Step 4: Story development 1 — Motivation

1) Why does a woman carry an opera hat in her purse?
2) Why does she open the hat?
3) Can we infer any emotional response from her action or expression?

Step 5: Story development 2 — critical review

1) What establishes dramatic tension in the situation?
2) What establishes motivation?

End of Lesson One


I’m going to use a character mentioned in one of my short stories, a woman named “Mrs. Goldman.”  Below is my paragraph.

Mrs. Goldman sat upright on the park bench near the fountain. She casually looked around, starred off into the distance for a while, then casually looked around again. Without looking at her purse she opened it, and took out a round, black disk. With a flick of her wrist she snapped it into it’s natural form: an opera hat. She placed it gently on the empty space beside her, carefully stood up, paused, and walked away.

There is quite a bit of detail that could be added. For example I could have described Mrs. Goldman as late middle aged, with auburn colored hair that is neatly kept, I could have described her as being well dressed in a way that indicates careful preparation, and I could have mentioned she is sitting alone. But I kept the paragraph down to as few words as possible while still being able to get some dramatic tension.

The dramatic tension is established by: 1) she sits “upright” (2) she looks around “casually,”  a fact that is mentioned twice (3) she opens the purse without looking at it (4) she has a purse big enough for an opera hat (5) once she opens the hat she puts it down and leaves. All of those things indicate a purpose of some kind, and since we don’t know what that purpose is, we have a mystery.

And that sense of mystery brings us around to the question of “why?” which goes to motivation, and now we are at steps 4 and 5, which have to do with story development. I’m going to leave the answers to those questions up to you!

Walk through the steps, answer the questions, then write a paragraph, and see what kind of story you come up with. And there you have it!

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