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What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
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What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  1,764 ratings  ·  71 reviews
What If? is the first handbook for writers based on the idea that specific exercises are one of the most useful and provocative methods for mastering the art of writing fiction. With more than twenty-five years of experience teaching creative writing between them, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter offer more than seventy-five exercises for both beginners and more experienced ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published November 20th 1991 by William Morrow Paperbacks (first published 1990)
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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This second edition of What if?, a tome of a book, is labeled “College Edition” and would appeal to anyone teaching fiction writing, or to anyone who writes fiction. This book would also appeal to readers: the final two sections – 200 pages of this over-500-page book – contain a dozen short-short stories; and a collection of contemporary short stories by stellar authors such as Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro.

The book is organized around fourteen topics: Beginnings; Notebooks,
zane deann
Jan 24, 2018 rated it did not like it
DNF on account of content. What's wrong here, folks? How hard is it to write a clean writing exercise book?? Good grief. Sad, too, because some of the exercises were interesting. #nope
Aug 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed-books
I have the newest version which I had to order from the states, but I refer to it often. There aren't quite the same exercises as this original, but there are more of them, and the new text includes a good number of short, short stories and short stories, as well.
Lucy S
Mar 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: books-on-writing
Quite a few brilliant ideas that just get you writing, which is all I could hope for!
Dec 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing, read-2015
Different from most writing books, this is - basically - nothing but writing exercises, intended to help with particular parts of writing. I like the layout, organised roughly into categories, and it’s intended to be something to dip into, for inspiration and ideas. I thought I’d work through this one and began, six months ago, by doing some of the exercises. However I didn't feel able to make the time and abandoned it for a while, then recently read the rest of the book, looking at the exercise ...more
Kaecey McCormick
Jun 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is the kind of book that you like more or less depending on where you are in the writing process, what your goal is in consulting the book, and your state of mind at the time.

This book is useful and provides many exercises which help the reader write, get it down, get it out, and get through a block or obstacle that is preventing words from flowing. The exercises are relatively short and manageable. Some feel uncomfortable, silly, or strange - when I react like that to a writing exercise,
Mar 20, 2013 rated it did not like it
Shelves: stopped-reading
This book is the most condescending, poorly written book on writing that used to grace my shelves.

The authors spoke to their audience like we couldn't write, and their sentences were so wordy that I started removing the excess words. When I did this, I was able to cross out 50% of the words in the sentences and still maintain the original meaning of the sentence. If you are going to write poorly to inexperienced writers, then you certainly shouldn't condescend to them.

I threw this book away. It
Aug 16, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: school, at-home
This was an okay book. My idea in reading it was that I would do each of the writing exercises as I read them, but most of them I felt would not help me achieve my current goals. I did get some great ideas though and I wouldn't discourage any writer from trying this book out. But I would recommend skimming through the book to find exercises that will help you work through your current kinks, and not to work through the book cover to cover.
Erin George
Oct 05, 2010 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Many great writing exercises for writers of fiction. Unique section that gives student examples of writing prompts. Great for teachers of writing.
Amanda Patterson
May 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Great motivator for writers.

Ask the difficult questions and then write the story.
Tree Langdon
Aug 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
a good book to work through when perfecting your technique
Sean Hall
Thorough exploration of fiction exercises with a variety of short stories to illustrate the lesson.
Grant Faulkner
Sep 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
A classic, especially for creative writing teachers.
Candace Green
Dec 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Not bad, but it takes fortitude to work through it as it gets tiresome. Reads like textbook.
Sean E.D. Kerr
Mar 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an incredible resource for learning and practising techniques related to fiction writing, and the short stories in the end are phenomenal. I used this back in college in 2007-09, and loved it then. I've used in many times since when working with fiction writing groups, and still love it.
Aug 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although I liked this book, my two main quibbles are: (1) the selection and arrangement of the collection of short stories, the lengthier ones, that is; and (2) not enough exercises. If you want an exercise on irony, it's not in here. How about one on subtext in dialogue? Zip.

Although the short stories aren't bad, I prefer them to be grouped together. A good example is the anthology Points of View by James Moffett. It is solely about POV and Moffett arranged the stories from straight internal mo
Richard Jespers
Dec 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Another great creative writing text. Practical yet creative in approach. The “what if” list actually helped me to “unstick” and finish a story I'd been working on for a long time.

Since my first reading, I’ve also used a number of these exercises to revise, and a number of them to polish a MS. For example, highlighting that which represent the five senses using five different colors. It graphically represents how much or how little your writing is concrete, appealing at least some of the time to
Jun 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is a wonderful writing exercise book! There are several exercises that I already do in my writing, and I either skip them or tweak them a bit, but it is still helpful because now I know why those tips work or are necessary in writing. I try to do one exercise a day, but I find myself excited by the writing prompts and I end up doing two or three, or even stopping so I can work on a story the exercise has just inspired. I'm getting so much writing done these days! I will keep using this unti ...more
Erin Nudi
Sep 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great, wonderful, book! Tons of easy, relevant exercises, categorized in an easy-to-read manner, complete with student examples. And don't skip out on the short stories at the end of the book!

For anyone interested in workshopping, I am posting (almost) all of these exercises on my blog here:

I'd love to get someone participating with me.

Self-promotion aside, do pick up this fantastic book that is applicable to both novel writers and those who do short stor
Sep 03, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: aspiring writers of any sort
This book has some fantastic characterization and plot exercises. My friend Colin recommended it to me after his summer class on writing, and it happened to be in my curriculum the next semester. While I haven't sat down and done all these yet, I certainly think it presents an amazing way to build full...not just characters, but people...and see stories from all ends. If you want to write, pick it up.
Aug 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
I haven't tried any of the exercises in this book yet, but they look intriguing. Very practical oriented, not nuts and bolts technical, philosophical, or advice on how to live as a writer. Just a series of exercises (tons) to work on different fiction writing skills. Thorough. They've got some nice stories tossed in at the end, though they just kind of say "these are good stories" without providing any commentary as to why they were selected or what aspects are particularly well handled.
Sep 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
When I had delusions of literary adequacy, this was always the first thing I read every day.
The book is collection of etudes, in the same way that Bartok's Mikrokosmos is -- just lessons to be worked through.

Each of them is chewy enough to keep the writer interested, and each of them is short enough to be completed in one morning/evening/lunchtime writing session.

This is one of those books I've purchased and given away multiple copies of -- that's how much I love it.
Aug 13, 2008 rated it liked it
This is my favorite of the writing exercises genre, not a genre I love. I like this book best read from cover to cover rather than as a tool per se. That way, you get a sense of the authors' philosophy of writing, why to write, what makes authentic writing, what the point is of the whole venture. In the end I found myself agreeing with them often.
Sep 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
Good resource for those that teach writing. The exercises are straightforward and organized by familiar elements of fiction. As a practiced writer, I'm not sure how much I would use myself, but it's worth having on the bookshelf as a quick go-to if you need to pull together a class/workshop quickly.
Oct 16, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all teachers of creative writing
All prose writers -- and perhaps poets too -- will find good food for thought here. I've used the exercises in this book for creative writing workshop with writers aged 15 to 75, young men in jail, university students, Mexican journalists, and many others.
Nov 17, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is one short story included in here that I absolutely LOVE: 'No One's a Mystery' by Elizabeth Tallent. It's only two pages but there is something really perfect about them. I still come back to this story every now and then just to re-read it.
May 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best collections of advice and exercises for fiction writers in existence today. While the other editions, which contain sample stories in the index, are better, this is a must-have for anyone looking to improve their fiction.
Haylee Jalyn
Dec 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2009
A great textbook for the Intro to Creative Writing class I was in. Gives some great tips for getting the creative juices flowing and some good points and examples. Keeping a journal with the reading of this book turned out to be really helpful.
Dec 16, 2009 rated it really liked it
quite a good exercise book and perfect chrimbo present for budding writers

not jut outlines exercises but enlightens as to theories too so you can work through deficit,, good practical book that works
Charlene Smith
Jul 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
Very useful book, so much junk is written as How To Write books, and as a writer I cast most of them aside. But this was very useful, I would read only a few pages and then stop and with my mind aglow dash to the computer and begin writing... very useful for new or experienced writers.
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Anne Bernays is a novelist and writing teacher. 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. ...more

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