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The Time Is Now

The Best Books for Writers

From the newly published to the invaluable classic, our list of essential books for creative writers.

The most important and underrated factor in a writer’s success is discipline. Talent and luck always help, but having a consistent writing practice is often the difference between aspiring writers and published writers.

The advice we hear from agents, editors, and authors alike is always the same: Focus on the writing. However, finding the time and inspiration to write is not always easy. That’s where creative writing prompts and exercises can help. Writing prompts provide writers with a starting place, an entry point into their writing practice. Sometimes creative writing prompts and exercises result in a workable draft of a story or poem. Other times, they may lead to what can seem like a dead end. But having to generate ideas, being pushed in a direction where you wouldn't normally go in your writing, and just plain putting pen to paper is often enough to provide that crucial dose of inspiration.

The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.

Creative Nonfiction Prompts

Writing exercises to help you generate well-crafted narratives.

Portrait

posted 9.17.14

Have you ever been the subject of a work of art? What is it like to look at someone else’s artistic interpretation of who you are? This week, write a piece analyzing why the artist made the compositional choices he or she did. If you’ve never had a work of art created for you, write about how you’d want to be portrayed. What medium, lighting, color palette, and setting do you think would capture your spirit? Who would you want to create the piece? Where would you want it displayed?  

Idioms

posted 9.11.14

Some phrases, such as "toe the line," are so ingrained in our minds that we automatically link the phrase with its intended meaning (in this case, to conform to a set of rules) without thinking about the literal meaning (carefully placing your toes along a line on the ground). This week, pause for a moment and try to imagine the actions described in these idioms. When someone says you're "barking up the wrong tree," what do you picture? Is there an idiom that you use frequently, or that you've always been a bit confused by? Write a short personal essay about what this idiom means to you. Then do some research into its history, and if you decide to go further, look up how similar sentiments are expressed idiomatically in other languages.

Messages

posted 9.4.14

It may be a drag to be the bearer of bad news, but consider the recipient. Would you want to learn that your significant other is ending the relationship through words on a tiny screen? Sometimes we can't connect in person and we must rely on phone calls, texts, or e-mails to communicate difficult news. But what if you could recruit a messenger, a total stranger, to deliver your message for you? How would that alter the message? Write about a message you wish could be delivered by a stranger. For inspiration, watch filmmaker Miranda July's performance piece involving the new mobile app, Somebody.

Discovery

posted 8.28.14

Before online shopping became a convenient and popular method of purchasing things, one would have to go to a specialty store to find uncommon and rare items. Many of these specialty stores are closing their doors due to rising rent prices and dwindling customers. Is there a specialty store you used to frequent that has since closed up shop? Or do you wish there was a good video store stocked with foreign films, or a record shop with an incredibly knowledgeable staff in your town? Think about the process of going into a store and sifting through their stock until you discover something, versus having Amazon recommend something based on your previous purchases. Is there any difference? Which method do you prefer?

Climbing

posted 8.21.14

Climbing is an exercise that's both exhilarating and exhausting. This week think of the highest you've ever climbed. It could have been a ladder to your childhood tree house or Mount Kilimanjaro. Were you climbing for fun, or out of necessity? How did it feel once you reached the top? If you feel you've never climbed to any significant height, would you ever want to?

Letter to Yourself

posted 8.21.14

This week, think about what you need to hear and write a letter to yourself. In it, try and touch on all the things you feel have been tripping you up recently—all the things that have been bothering you or getting in your way, all the things that you need to remind yourself of more often, and all the things that you wish people told you on a regular basis. Go ahead: Give yourself some love and celebrate the goodness you bring into the world.

Crafts

posted 8.7.14

Are you a crafty person? Or would you like to be the type of person who gives handmade presents to loved ones for the holidays? This week, write about something someone has made for you. What makes this item so much more special than an item you could purchase in a store? Or, write about something you want to make for someone else. Maybe you are working on the item right now, or maybe you still need to acquire the skills necessary to make it. What would you have to learn? How long would it take, and what makes the effort worth it?

Photographs

posted 7.31.14

Friends and family members often aren't photographers. This sometimes results in great memories captured on film in a not-so-picturesque way. This week, think of a photograph depicting a fond memory that, in your opinion, doesn't cast you or your loved ones in the most visually pleasing light. Do you still display or look at the picture often? Or do you keep it hidden in the shoebox under the bed? Write about the story surrounding the photograph, and how it makes you feel when you look at it.

Confidence

posted 7.24.14

Deep within us, we have desires or goals we might be nervous about bringing out into the open for whatever reason. Maybe we feel embarrassed or that we can't compete with those who have already mastered the skill we seek to learn. You might have felt this way when showing your writing to someone for the first time—or maybe you still haven't shown your writing to anyone yet. This week, think about whether there are any factors that make it difficult for you to share your work. If you've taken the leap and put yourself out there, write about what that felt like. If you have yet to do so, write about what's holding you back.

Hitchhiking

posted 7.17.14

Hitchhiking can seem scary to those who have never done it before. But, as Jack Kerouac famously portrayed in On the Road, it is also a cheap and interesting way to get from one place to another if you don't have a car. Have you ever hitched a ride, or do you know someone who has? Write about the experience. If you have never hitchhiked, write about your feelings on the subject—whether you'd ever try it, or why you've decided it's something you would never do.

Fireworks

posted 7.10.14

This past weekend the sky was filled with sparkling bursts of light. A symbol of celebration, these explosive light shows often bring up unexpected emotions in people viewing them. What do fireworks make you think of while watching them? Do they make you feel nostalgic, excited, or uneasy? Think of a memory or a strong feeling, and write about it.

Influences

posted 7.3.14

German writer and statesman Johan Wolfgang von Goethe insisted that "The greatest genius will never be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources," and that "every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons, a thousand different things." This week, think about the people, ideas, and things that have influenced you throughout your life. What would you say your biggest influence has been? Write an essay reflecting on how your influences have shaped you into the person you are today.

World Cup

posted 6.26.14

Whether or not you're a die-hard soccer fan, you're probably noticing the intensity with which people are focusing on this year's World Cup. These types of international sporting events tend to bolster one's sense of national pride. Have you ever felt united with others through such a large-scale sporting event? Do you feel like cheering on a team with a large group of people gives you a sense of community and belonging? Write a short personal essay reflecting on the subject.

Family Reunions

posted 6.19.14

Some families are gung-ho about holding regular family reunions, while others would prefer not to go through the ordeal of rounding everyone up. This week, write about a family reunion you've attended, or one you've heard stories about. Was the event hosted by your family or someone else's? Did everyone go on a trip together, or did it take place at someone's house? There is bound to be some drama when families get together, so don't forget to include some juicy details!

Summer Sleepover

posted 6.12.14

In his poem "Lament," Thom Gunn writes, "I think back to the scented summer night / We talked between our sleeping bags, below / A molten field of stars five years ago: / I was so tickled by your mind's light touch / I couldn't sleep, you made me laugh too much, / Though I was tired and begged you to leave off." This week, try and remember one of those nights when you and a loved one stayed up all night, too busy telling stories and enjoying each other's company to sleep. Write a scene that encapsulates the feeling of the quote above, whether it's set during a summer camping trip with a best friend, catching up with a cousin during a family reunion, or just an average weeknight spent staying up past your bedtime with your siblings or parents.

Cynics

posted 6.5.14

It's easy to slip into a bad attitude, and even easier once you're there to stew in all that negativity. For most it's a passing phase, but for some it can color their whole outlook on life. Would you describe yourself as a cynic? If not, do you know someone who fits the bill? Today, write down what happens to you using a cynical perspective. If you keep a journal, compare today's entry with those of previous—perhaps more positive—days and note the similarities and differences in style, tone, and word usage.

Street Naming

posted 5.29.14

Legendary jazz musician Miles Davis lived on West Seventy-Seventh Street in New York City for almost twenty-five years. This past Memorial Day, on what would have been his eighty-eighth birthday, a street sign was unveiled on the corner of West Seventhy-Seventh Street and West End Avenue to rename the block "Miles Davis Way." This week, think about the roads that are important to you and your family—the ones on which you have lived, the ones that have taken you away, the ones that are etched permanently in your memory. Is there a street corner somewhere that should be named after your mother, your brother, or you? What makes it special? It could be the road on which you learned to drive, the one you swear you could drive with your eyes shut, or perhaps the one on which something happened that changed the course of your life.

Top Five Albums

posted 5.22.14

In Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, the main character, music enthusiast Rob Fleming, is fond of making top-five lists. This week, think about your five favorite albums. Whether it includes a record your mother used to put on when you were young, or the soundtrack to your daily commute, think of the music that shaped you, bolstered your spirit, and comforted you in trying times. Make a top-five list of your own and write about why each album is important to you. If you are having difficulty picking entire albums, try choosing individual songs instead.

Rivals

posted 5.15.14

Whether it's with a sibling, best friend, or colleague, there comes a time in most of our lives when we find ourselves engaged in a bitter rivalry with another person. This week, write about someone you've had to go head-to-head with in order to achieve a personal goal. What were you two competing over? What were the driving motives behind the conflict? Were you and your rival pitted against each other by a third party? If this occurred a while ago, try and access the emotions you felt when it was all happening to strengthen the scene.

Flowers

posted 5.8.14

You know what April showers bring. This week think about flowers. More particularly, think about your flower. Is there a certain flower that you personally identify with or fills your heart with joy? If not, is there a flower that reminds you of a special person in your life or brings up a fond memory? Write about this flower and why it's important to you, taking care to illustrate its beauty.

Weird Food

posted 5.1.14

No matter how adventurous an eater you are, there's bound to be some foods that immediately turn you off. It could be the smell, the texture, or just the way it looks that makes it unpalatable. This week, write about a time when you were faced with something that is supposedly edible but that you found absolutely unappealing. It could be a food from a different culture, an odd combination of flavors, or a culinary experiment a friend or relative cooked up that didn't turn out as planned. Did you eat it anyway? Or did you leave it for someone else to enjoy?

Costumes

posted 4.24.14

There are several holidays that incorporate dressing up in costume: Halloween, Purim, and Mardi Gras, to name a few. On these occasions, the goal is to look like somebody (or something) else. But on the days that aren't dress-up holidays or occasions, there are times when you put on a certain outfit or a particular style of clothing and it can feel like you are putting on a costume. Try writing about an experience you've had when you dressed yourself in a way that made you feel like a different person. Was it a pleasant or uncomfortable experience? Did people recognize you? Describe what it felt like.

Like a Tourist

posted 4.17.14

As the weather gets warmer, more and more people are getting outdoors to do some sightseeing. After all, with the trees budding and flowers perfuming the cool breeze, how could anyone resist a little adventure? This week, write about being a tourist. Think of a specific trip you took. Where were you? What did it feel like to be a visitor there? Do you enjoy being a tourist? If not, how come?

Going it Alone

posted 4.10.14

There are certain events and activities that can feel odd to do alone. Going to the movies, attending a concert, and eating in a restaurant are common things that people would rather do with a buddy. But what about the times when you simply can’t find anyone to go with you, for whatever reason, or when your buddy backs out at the last minute? Write about an experience you’ve had when going by yourself was the only option. How did it make you feel? Did it turn out all right in the end? If going to an event or engaging in a typically social activity by yourself is not a big deal, or you happen to prefer it, write about a specific instance that exemplifies why you feel this way.

When You're a Stranger

posted 4.3.14

Children are often reminded not to talk to strangers, and for good reason. As we get older, communication with strangers isn’t as dangerous, but it can still be uncomfortable. This week, think about a conversation you have had with a stranger in an awkward situation. Who started it? Did you feel safe? After talking, did you feel like you knew this person any better? Did you ever see this person again, and if not, would you want to?

Earliest Memories

posted 3.27.14

This week, dust off your earliest memories. Why have those particular images stuck in your mind over all these years? Are they related to a specific event or chain of events? Try to write about and connect these moments in a short essay.

Music Lessons

posted 3.20.14

Amy Tan’s story “Two Kinds” follows a young girl who is pushed to become a musical prodigy but ultimately fails to excel. This week, consider your own history with music lessons. Did your family or school persuade you to learn to play an instrument? Did you get to choose your instrument or was it chosen for you? Did you teach yourself to play an instrument later in life? If you have never played an instrument, write about another activity you picked up (or were forced to pick up) during childhood.

Photographs

posted 3.13.14

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes the punctum as “that rare detail” in a photograph that strikes the viewer. This week, look through old photographs for a detail that captivates your attention. Write about this detail. Why does it draw you in?

Commuting

posted 3.6.14

This week write about your experience commuting to work. Whether it's the hour-long drive, daily bus route, or your morning walk, try to think about routines you have developed over the years to make your commute productive or enjoyable. If you work from home, you can write about what it's like not having to commute, and how you turn your home environment into a work environment.

Recipe for Writing

posted 2.27.14

Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon. Write about a time you had to follow a recipe, whether it was familiar or foreign to you. What was the context? Did you patiently follow the steps or rush through the instructions? Did you improvise? How did the meal turn out?

Moving

posted 2.20.14

We’ve all had to pack our belongings into boxes at some point. People move for their jobs, partners, or just to experience a change. This week, reflect on your past moves. Which was your best moving day and which was your worst? What obstacles and challenges (both logistical and psychological) have you faced while moving? What did you learn from the experience?

Local Writing

posted 2.13.14

This week, write about your neighborhood. Try to emphasize its particularities—if you live in a city, this may be the restaurants you frequent, your local newsstand, or the place that begins your commute. If you live in a rural area, it could be the natural world surrounding your home, the roads leading up to your driveway, and the neighbors you’ve known for years. You may wish to begin by making a list of all the features that make your neighborhood memorable.

Interview

posted 2.6.14

Most people will sit through dozens of interviews throughout the course of their lives. This week, write a piece reflecting on your own history as an interviewee. When did you sit through your first interview? What was your worst experience in an interview? Do you have any pre-interview routines? This exercise may provide a miniature arc of your career, or it may inspire you to reflect on some previously unexplored memories.

The Words of Others

posted 1.30.14

Start with a quotation that stirs you. It can be a passage from a book, a line from a letter, or a statistic from a newspaper. Use this as a springboard for the rest of your writing this week. Do you agree with the quotation? What role does it play in your life? Do you feel indignation at the statistic? Explore your own opinions and values through the words of another writer, or by confronting the implications of a primary source.

Clues to History

posted 1.23.14

Look up the etymology of one of your favorite words and consider its complex and surprising history. The word clue, for instance, developed from the word clew, a ball of thread used to guide a person out of a labyrinth (literally or figuratively). In a page or so, try to weave your personal past with a word while incorporating elements of its etymological development. When did you pick up on a clue that would help you out of a figurative labyrinth?

Empathy for Shortcomings

posted 1.16.14

Though people typically make every effort to appear confident, accomplished, and cheerful to others, we all have flaws and shortcomings. Many people, in fact, are defined on some level by their imperfections. From a fear of flying and substance abuse problems to shopping addiction and weight issues, the inner lives of the people you write about are just as compelling as how they dress or what they say. Write five hundred words about one of your shortcomings, and describe in detail how it affects your life and changed you as a person. Being honest about your life will make you a more empathic writer when characterizing the flaws of others.

Family Traditions

posted 1.9.14

As children we unknowingly participate in family traditions. To kids, annual camping trips, making Christmas cookies, and special birthday dinners are simply slices of regular life orchestrated by a benevolent universe. As we become adults, however, our understanding of the universe changes. Family members begin families of their own, and we grow apart from the past while investing more of ourselves into the future of others. Reflect on a family tradition from your childhood. Describe the people, the scene, and circumstances. Bring those who have passed on to life with the power of your words.    

Perspective

posted 1.2.14

Writers often loathe the idea of a New Year's resolution because we constantly make deals and compromises with our creative souls regarding productivity and diligence. Bargaining with our writing vices is a daily battle—one that drives many writers to the precipice of insanity. Sometimes the best resolution isn’t a change in habit, but a change in perspective. Instead of viewing your daily writing regimen as a chore, write six hundred words about why you feel blessed to be a writer. Recall the reasons you became a writer, and detail the reasons to be thankful for the upcoming literary year.

Furniture Nonfiction

posted 12.26.13

Sometimes the inanimate objects in our lives adopt parts of our beings: a bed assumes the contours of a couple’s sleep, a knitted scarf stretches to accommodate the long neck of a businessman’s windy walks to the subway, a wooden bannister becomes polished by the hands of children running to and from the kitchen. Write five hundred words about a piece of furniture in your home that has somehow incorporated the soul of a person. Focus on textures, sounds, and smells that imbue life into this living object.

The Details of Loss

posted 12.19.13

“You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt socks lying in the road.” This quote from author Richard Price emphasizes the importance and power of details in conveying a larger emotional storyline or the nuances of a complex concept. Reflect on the relationships you’ve had in life—with your family, your friends, or your colleagues—and choose one poignant and definitive memory that involved a sense of loss. Write five hundred words about that loss using carefully selected details to express complicated emotions and interpersonal dynamics.

Digital Dialogue

posted 12.12.13

Conveying how people communicate is a formidable challenge for the creative nonfiction writer because technology has changed—and continues to change—the very fundamentals of human interaction. Describing a series of e-mails or texts relates far less emotional information than depicting a verbal conversation in which a writer can chronicle facial expressions, voice inflections, and other physical details that inform the exchange between characters. But this is our modern reality. Write about an occasion in your life that exemplifies the shortcomings of communicating in the digital age. Capture the sensations of frustration, humor, and confusion that often dramatize miscommunication.

The Inevitability of Change

posted 12.5.13

You are not the same person today that you were five years ago. We all change. Creative nonfiction seeks to explore not only the changes we experience as human beings, but also how those changes impact our relationships with family members, friends, and lovers. Our lives are shaped by joy, disappointment, triumph, and loss. Write about someone you love who has changed due to a particular life event. Examine this individual’s shift in attitude, behavior, and demeanor. Write with humanity.

A Child's Thanksgiving Day

posted 11.28.13

Writing about life from a child’s perspective is challenging. We remember the feelings, thoughts, and concerns we experienced as children, but as writers of creative nonfiction, we must recreate that world and make it accessible to adult readers. Use Thanksgiving Day as a source of inspiration. Watch how the children in your family interact with one another, the adults, the food, and other holiday activities. Write five hundred words that describe Thanksgiving Day from a child's unique point of view.

Keys to Memories

posted 11.21.13

Keys are a sad part of life. They remind us that the world is untrustworthy and unsafe, and that locks are needed to protect our loved ones and possessions from humanity’s less appealing inclinations. But keys are also filled with memories: a first apartment, a new car, access to a home no longer occupied by a friend. Choose a key from your keychain, or perhaps one abandoned in the back of a kitchen drawer, and write six hundreds about it. Begin with a detailed description of the key and segue into broader, more meaningful thoughts.

Kafkaesque Experiences

posted 11.14.13

We have all experienced Kafkaesque situations in our lives—those moments that are surreal, bizarre, or menacingly illogical, and yet very real. Write about a time when you encountered a Kafkaesque circumstance. Carefully select descriptive words that will effectively represent the complex emotions, weird thoughts, and bouts of confusion that filled your mind and the strange world around you.

Self-Portrait

posted 11.7.13

Writers share many creative qualities and artistic processes with painters. Both are engaged in the difficult endeavor of portraying oneself through art as an artist. Write six hundred words about you as a writer, manipulating your words and sentences like different brush strokes to create an image of how you perceive your artistic self. Be bold. Be thoughtful. Be candid. Self-portraits are rarely flattering. Art is about truth and true artists never spare themselves.

Unmask Your Soul

posted 10.31.13

Halloween costumes reveal much about who we are underneath our contrived, ordinary selves. Think back to your childhood and relive your favorite Halloween costume—why you chose it, what it divulged about you, and how it felt putting on the costume. Something mysterious and compelling happens when we try to be something or someone else. Explore that experience. Write five hundred words.

Clothes Lines

posted 10.24.13

Everyone has a favorite article of clothing—an inherited wedding dress, a flannel shirt borrowed from an old friend, a warm pair of socks received on Father’s Day. Find an article of clothing that you can’t throw away because of an emotional connection. Write six hundred words describing why this piece of clothing means so much to you, and use it as a source to explore people, time, and how simple objects can possess so much meaning.

Character Collectibles

posted 10.17.13

People often collect strange things for unknown reasons: ceramic elves from Europe, antique trout fishing lures, bamboo backscratchers from around the world. What we collect often reveals our idiosyncrasies, and therefore our true natures. Recall someone in your life who collected something intriguing or odd. Try to define the attraction, and in the process, bring that person to life.

Remembering Home

posted 10.10.13

Our homes are extensions of our souls: the vibrant oil painting of a French villa hanging in the dining room, the tattered couch stained by a child’s bowl of ice cream in the den, the dead, blackened peace lily on an empty bookshelf. Write about the home you were raised in. Focus on the decorations, the furniture, and the items that reveal the most about the people who lived among them. In our homes, everything means something.

Scar Tissue

posted 10.3.13

We all have scars. Though most do not conjure welcome memories, scars are an important part of our lives—both physically and metaphorically. Scars reveal our vulnerability and human frailty, but also represent our resilience and toughness. Write about a scar you have, how you got it, and what it means to you.

Medicine Cabinet

posted 9.26.13

There is truth in medicine cabinets. Despite the lies we tell ourselves and others, our medicine cabinets know us better than anyone. Medicine cabinets are full of worry, memories, encroaching death, and continued life. The prescription bottles, skin moisturizer, and frayed toothbrush reflect our humanity and vulnerability. Study your medicine cabinet. Write an essay about what is in it, and what it says about you.

Poetry Prompts

Creative guidance for writing poems and experimenting with forms.

Ask a Poet

posted 9.16.14

We all have questions buzzing around in our heads. They could be questions about the future, a love interest, or what to make for dinner. We usually turn to family and friends for advice on such concerns, but what if you could ask your favorite poet? How would he or she respond? This week, pick a question that’s been on your mind. Then channel the voice of a poet of your choice who answers your question and offers much-needed advice.

Dada

posted 9.9.14

In the early and mid-twentieth century, the Dadaists would compose poems by making random selections from found text. This week, let your subconscious do the work. Take a newspaper article, or other piece of text, and carefully cut out each word. Next, throw all the clippings in a bag. Then, take one word out at a time. Arrange the words on a table in the order you drew them from the bag, and copy them down. As the Dadaists say, "The resulting poem will resemble you."

Expectations

posted 9.2.14

This week write a poem that sets out to explain an item, idea, or process. Begin the title with "How..." or "Three Reasons Why..." or some other phrase that introduces what is about to be explained. Maybe you will pick apart a particular habit you have, or analyze a fear that seems illogical. Don't feel obliged to reach a concrete conclusion. Instead, see where the thought pattern takes you. Is this poem really about why you think bunk beds are unsafe, or does it begin to address something else?

Tone

posted 8.26.14

In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, award-winning poet Louise Glück discusses her craft: "For me it's tone—the way the mind moves as it performs its acts of meditation. That's what you're following. It guides you but it also mystifies you because you can't turn it into conscious principles or say precisely what its attributes are....You have to be surprised by what it is capable of unveiling." Focus on tone this week as you write, and see where it takes you. Don't think about facts, about what's real or true, but instead the fleeting impressions, strange daydreams, and disjointed thought patterns that bubble to the surface throughout your day. Let your mood be the filter through which your verses come to light.

Sounds

posted 8.19.14

This week focus on sound. Not just the background noise of your day-to-day routine, like the ticking of the clock or the drone of the air conditioner, but the sound of the words you hear people speak. Notice the word choice of the news anchors on television, the radio talk show hosts, and the people at your workplace. Deconstruct the common phrases you hear, like "Have a nice day." When you say this, consider the way your mouth moves to create the shape of the words. Notice the cadence, rhythm, and inflection of your voice. Write a poem to be read aloud—speak it first, then put it on paper.

Anaphora

posted 8.12.14

The Academy of American Poets defines anaphora as “a type of parallelism created when successive phrases or lines begin with the same words, often resembling a litany,” and is regarded as one of the world’s oldest poetic techniques. This week, try to write a poem with each line beginning with the same phrase. Refer to William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet No. 66” or Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” for inspiration.

Inside Looking Out

posted 8.5.14

Is there a window in your home or workplace you often catch yourself gazing out of? This week, write down what you see. Is it a pleasant, calming view? Or does the window look out on a busy street? Watch the passersby and imagine who they are, and where they are going. Think about how it feels to have that pane of glass between you and the outside world, and what a difference it makes to be able to shelter yourself from the elements and take refuge in a place of comfort and security.

Dream Logic

posted 7.29.14

Occasionally we have those dreams we wake up from and can't seem to shake from our sleepy heads. Some people insist that if you remember your dream vividly, it's a sign that there's a message contained within that you're supposed to remember, or something you're supposed to learn from. This week, write a poem using a recent dream as inspiration. Draw from the fantastical, nonsensical images your brain conjured up, and the logic that seems to make sense only inside your dreaming mind.

Memorize

posted 7.22.14

It's easy to get bogged down by the ideas behind the poem you are writing, losing sight of the harmonic structure of the words themselves and the rhythm of lines and pauses. This week, chose a poem that you love and memorize it. Say it to yourself over and over again, until it escapes the page and makes a home in your body. Try not to think about how the poet would want it to sound—concentrate instead on how it sounds in your voice, how it inhabits you. Once you get comfortable with the process, try this with your own poems.

Cliché

posted 7.15.14

Nineteenth-century poet Walter Savage Landor's "On Love, on Grief" packs a punch in its brief simplicity: "On love, on grief, on every human thing, / Time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing." Not only is the poem sonically beautiful, it also takes a cliché (time flies) and transforms it. As writers, we may occasionally stumble upon phrases or situations we want to write that are considered cliché. This week, take one of the clichés you often feel drawn to and try to refresh it.

Names

posted 7.8.14

In Contre Sainte Beuve,  Marcel Proust writes: "In reality, as soon as each hour of one's life has died, it embodies itself in some material object, as do the souls of the dead in certain folk-stories, and hides there. There it remains captive, captive forever unless we should happen on the object, recognize what lies within, call it by its name, and so set it free." This week, practice being a "namer." Recognize what lies deep within the objects you come in contact with, and try to conjure up a name that fits. Write a poem about a name you came up with that you find particularly inspiring.

New City

posted 7.1.14

"The city's old, / but new to me, and therefore / strange, and therefore fresh," Margaret Atwood muses in her poem "Europe on $5 a Day." Today write about being a visitor in a strange new city, walking the streets, and observing the locals going about their daily tasks. Describe in detail the smells in the air, the sounds clouding around you, and the unique images that meet your eyes. The goal is to make your reader feel like they are also seeing this place for the first time, even if they have been there before.

Mermaids

posted 6.24.14

In Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale, the Little Mermaid must make sacrifices in order to become a human, including drinking a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her tongue. This week think about what you would be willing to sacrifice to have the chance to live the life you always dreamed of. Write a poem about the process of making the sacrifice, whether magical or ordinary, and the emotions that surface after it is complete.

Physical Messages

posted 6.17.14

Often times we go through our days thinking about what we have to get done rather than how we are feeling. We push through feelings of discomfort or fatigue, thinking if we don't pay them any attention they'll go away. Today, try to pay more attention to the messages of your body. Pause and ask your body, "What do you want?" Listen for the response. Write a poem about the experience of tuning in to these physical messages.

Strawberry Moon

posted 6.10.14

Each month a full moon rises in the sky, and each of these moons has a special name. In June the full moon is known as the Full Strawberry Moon, a name given to it by the Algonquin tribes, to whom it signaled the time to gather the ripening fruit. In Europe, where the strawberry is not a native fruit, this moon is known as the Full Rose Moon. This week, try writing a short poem of rhyming couplets about this month's full moon. For inspiration, read Percy Bysshe Shelley's "The Waning Moon."

Phenomenal Women

posted 6.3.14

Dr. Maya Angelou's joyous poem "Phenomenal Woman" trumpets: "I'm a woman / phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / that's me." After her passing last Wednesday, many who have been touched by her words and wisdom have been reflecting on Angelou's rich life. Today, take a moment to reflect on a phenomenal woman in your life and write a poem in her honor. Think about what makes her unique, and attempt to translate the essence of her spirit into the written word.

Underwater

posted 5.27.14

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to live underwater? How would the days be different? Imagine a scenario in which humans have adapted to underwater life, and write a poem about what such a life would be like. Consider the kinds of evolutionary changes that would need to occur (gills, webbed hands and feet, etc.), the new predators to face, and the new scenery to enjoy.

Abecedarian

posted 5.20.14

Abecedarian poems begin with the first letter of the alphabet, and each successive line or stanza begins with the next letter until the final letter is reached. Before you lump this form in with those acrostic poems your middle-school English teacher made you compose using the letters of your name, give it a chance. If you're not sure what to write about, or feel like everything you're producing sounds the same, try this strict form to help break free from the creative constraints of your usual words and phrases. For more information consult poets.org. Who knows? You might become so taken with the form that you decide to write an entire collection of abecedarian poems, like Harriet Mullen's Sleeping With the Dictionary.

God's Work

posted 5.13.14

Anne Carson's poem "God's Work" opens with the line: "Moonlight in the kitchen is a sign of God." Have you ever experienced a moment like this? This week, write a poem about noticing tiny glimpses of the workings of some higher power. Are these signs comforting or reassuring? Are they motivating, as they are in Carson's poem? If you are not a spiritual person, write about the signs that remind you how much work needs to be done to make our world a better place.

Ode to Mama

posted 5.6.14

Maya Angelou once said, "To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power." This week, write a poem describing your mother. What immediately comes to mind when you think about her? What everyday things remind you of her? If you feel like you don't know her very well, describe what you imagine she's like. If you want to make your mom feel extra special, try to find a way to share your poem with her this Sunday.

Dialect

posted 4.29.14

Take a moment to think about where you are from. If that's not so easy to pin down, think instead about a place that's had an impact on you, a place in which you've spent a relatively long time, or the place you live now. Now think about how the people talk there. What are the phrases or cadences that color their speech? Take this local voice and use it in a poem about the place you are thinking of. For example, write a poem about going to summer camp in Maine using the Mainer accent, or about moving to New Orleans in the voice of a Louisiana native.

Soap Poems

posted 4.22.14

In an interview with Cynthia Dewi Oka back in 2013, poet Andrea Walls talked about the soap epitaphs she started seeing on the backs of car windows around Camden, New Jersey. They struck her as poems that illustrated "the way that we vanish and the way we say we were here vanishes too." This week, write something using an impermanent medium, paying particular consideration to the medium itself. Write a poem about the ocean on a sandy beach, or about your childhood in chalk on the sidewalk. Write a poem for your partner in the condensation on the bathroom mirror. But most importantly, don't write it on paper. It will vanish, but that doesn't mean you have to forget it.

Lost at Sea

posted 4.15.14

“O, thou ever restless sea / 'God’s half-uttered mystery,'" wrote Albert Laighton in his poem “The Missing Ships” (1878). While significantly fewer ships go missing nowadays, search teams have recently been pouring all of their efforts into finding the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The longer the search takes, the higher the likelihood the secrets inside the aircraft’s black box will be lost forever. This week write a poem about searching for a “lost ship.” Consider the ocean’s depth, the cleansing powers of its salt water, and the hopelessness of its vast magnitude. 

Lunch Poems

posted 4.8.14

Frank O’Hara wrote Lunch Poems while sitting in Times Square during his lunch hour. This week, take time during your lunch hour to pause and reflect on what’s going on around you. Write down a description of the space you’re in, the details of your lunch ritual, the conversation you’re overhearing or participating in, or any other such observation.

A Fool's Journey

posted 4.1.14

The first card in the Major Arcana of the tarot, a deck of cards used by mystics for divination, is called “The Fool." He is depicted on the card as gliding towards the edge of a cliff with the sun rising up behind to light his way, beginning a new journey full of unlimited potential. Have you recently set out on a new journey? Or are you itching to try something new, be spontaneous, and break out of your routine? Write a poem that captures the excitement of the first day of a new adventure. It could be a physical journey, like traveling to a distant land, or an emotional journey, like the start of a new relationship. Whatever path you choose, make sure it’s exhilarating!

New Forms

posted 3.25.14

Have you tried writing a tanka, ghazal, or triolet? This week, try working in a form that’s unfamiliar to you. You can even adapt an existing draft to fit a form, or come up with your own constraints and pattern. For a list of forms and their descriptions, consult the list of Poetic Forms and Techniques compiled by the Academy of American Poets.

The Saints

posted 3.18.14

This week, in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, research the life of a saint and write a poem that incorporates some element of his or her story. It can be an image, a symbol (like Saint Patrick’s shamrock, the three-leafed plant he supposedly used to teach the doctrine of the Holy Trinity), or you might try writing a narrative poem. There are patron saints of headaches, florists, and bankers. Find the story that most interests you.

Naming Names

posted 3.11.14

In “[The Lost Pines Inn would be a good name for a motel]” Lyn Hejinian generates a list of “good names” for motels, music groups, and streets. This week, create your own list of imaginative names for something and build a poem around your particular catalogue.

Family Roots

posted 3.4.14

Most of us have ancestors born in countries we may have never visited. This week, trace your family’s origins to a foreign city or town. Try to imagine the landscape of this place: the terrain, nature, and customs that characterize it. Find a way to connect it to your current landscape, creating a poem that joins these two places.

Dramatic Monologue

posted 2.25.14

Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote dramatic verse, poems that doubled as monologues. This week, write a monologue in the voice of a fictional character. For inspiration, read Browning's "My Last Duchess" and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." If you’re stuck, try assuming the voice of a character from one of your favorite novels.

Ode

posted 2.18.14

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is famous for his wonderful odes to unexpected subjects. "Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” and “Ode to an Artichoke” celebrate items we might not typically expect to hear lauded. This week, write an ode to a household object. Try to come up with as many epithets and images for the item as you can.

Ekphrasis

posted 2.11.14

W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts" draws inspiration from Pieter Bruegel's painting Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. Many poets have found inspiration in other media: Painting, sculpture, even memorials appear in poems. This week, respond to a piece of visual art in verse. You can describe the work in detail, or the source of your inspiration can be subtly channeled into your poem. Similarly, you can choose to title your poem after the artwork or find a new title.

Laughter

posted 2.4.14

“The most wasted of all days is one without laughter,” wrote E. E. Cummings. Timing is important both in comedy and in poetry. Though poets often engage with serious subjects, a well-placed moment of levity can make a poem even more poignant. This week, try to incorporate humor in your own writing. It can be a funny image, a pun, or a parody. See how this moment affects the tone of your poem, or how it leads you in a new, unexpected direction.

What the Eye Can’t See

posted 1.28.14

“The poet is the priest of the invisible,” wrote Wallace Stevens. This week, try to write about an invisible force that affects you deeply. For example, it could be your DNA, music, or the smell of your childhood home. Try to imagine the complexity of the invisible (at least to the naked eye) structure that you are describing. Integrate all of your senses to navigate its visual formlessness.

Protest Poem

posted 1.21.14

"The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest," Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech on December 5, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Poetry can be a powerful vehicle for protest and social change. Write a poem in which you confront a subject that inspires personal objection. The topic does not have to be strictly political. For instance, Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night” protests the death of the poet’s father: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” See how you can wield and transfer oppositional energy into language and form.

Emotional Rescue

posted 1.14.14

“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” This quote from Robert Frost reveals the raw origins of poetry, and emphasizes the complex cerebral and emotional forces that inspire poems. Think of how poetry accommodates both the expansiveness and simplicity of our emotions. Use this unique and paradoxical phenomenon to write about a profound and complicated experience in your life: perhaps the death of a long-suffering loved one, or the graduation of a child, or the private self-confession of having fallen out of love. Start with a single emotion, and begin your journey there.

Weather Watch

posted 1.7.14

This week, people are adjusting their lives to the arctic conditions that have invaded much of the country. The weather is beyond our control, which gives it an otherworldly and spiritual quality. From historic military battles to cancelled softball games, the weather has had a profound impact on the human race and individuals. Write a poem about a time the weather affected your life. Use imagery that symbolizes the ancient, omnipresent, and indifferent soul of nature: a sapling sheathed in ice, June moonlight on a broken window, a flashbulb thunderstorm over an evacuated swimming pool. The weather is different for every life. Put yours to poetry.

Good-bye 2013

posted 12.31.13

The end of 2013 has arrived. Considering we are all on earth for a limited amount of time, it is important to reflect and appreciate the end, and beginning, of another year. Take time away from the popping champagne bottles, boisterous countdowns, and feigned promises of resolutions. Sit alone somewhere and ruminate on the past year. Slow down. Think. Be grateful. Write a poem about your thoughts and emotions as you recall the people, moments, and events that brought you joy and sadness this past year. Time is indifferent to life and death. This is why poetry exists.   

Holiday Humanity

posted 12.24.13

Despite the commercialism, stress, and anxiety over gifts and travel, the holidays are a time to reflect on the more endearing aspects of humanity: our ability to love, connect with, and help those around us—including strangers. Write a poem that explores the complexities of the human heart and mind, and how the holiday season—if only for a few days or even moments—brings out the best in the poetically flawed human condition.

Sound Off

posted 12.17.13

Sounds are filled with meaning. Poets can use sounds not only to create wonderful and complex worlds through words, but also to create a rhythm and flow that gives life to the wind, the footsteps, and closing doors around us. Sit quietly somewhere with colorful and unique sounds: an art museum, a lonely riverbank, or a bustling subway station. Write a poem about the sounds you hear. Focus on the poetry and music of the sounds, and how the sounds put everything else—nature, life, and death—into context.

Disappointment

posted 12.10.13

Poetry has very powerful redemptive and healing capacities. The mere process of writing and reading poetry forces us to connect with life on a meaningful, meditative level. Poetry requires a deliberate and calm contemplation that creates spaces for forgiveness, understanding, and self-awareness. Write a poem about a recent disappointment in your life. Be honest about your feelings. The power of your poetry begins with your truths.

Focus on Family

posted 12.3.13

Like snowflakes, every family is unique. From quirky aunts and greedy uncles to gracious moms and despicable cousins, every family is peculiar in some meaningful way. Write a poem about your family. Focus on the people who create the love, the pain, and the dynamics that define your family. Be honest. Be courageous. Be open.

Travel Poetry

posted 11.26.13

It is estimated that 43.4 million Americans will travel fifty or more miles this Thanksgiving weekend. Travel is so often inspiring because it mixes a sensory experience with the opportunity for a prolonged period of contemplation. Write a poem about a recent trip you took. Carefully select your words to evoke the sights and sounds that accompanied the journey of your inner thoughts and feelings.

Changes

posted 11.19.13

Our lives are constantly changing as we navigate what we can and can’t control. Every day there is a new beginning and ending—in big and small ways. We fall in love. We lose an eyelash. Write a poem about how your life is changing. Be specific. Change is complex and emotional on any level because it reminds us of our humanity—and of our mortality. Get writing.

Lost and Found

posted 11.12.13

We all lose things in life that are uniquely special to us: a wool scarf knitted by a beloved friend, a letter opener that belonged to a grandfather, a stuffed animal won for a daughter at a state fair. Life moves forward and so do we. Time crowds old memories with new ones. We misplace the things we love. We lose them. Or, somehow, they just leave us. Write a poem about an object that has disappeared from your life. Use the power of memory and emotion to give it new life, rendering it no longer lost, but found.

Guest Poetry

posted 11.5.13

The holiday season is here, which means you will soon be a guest at a work party, gathering of friends, or family-oriented celebration. This is the season for poets. Begin your “Thank You” poems now. Celebrate what companionship means to you and express your gratitude for the honor of being invited. Make your poems personal and sincere. (Consider attaching each poem to a nice bottle of wine and personally hand it to your host.)

Our Years of Fear

posted 10.29.13

Halloween week is here. Write a poem about something you feared as a child. As adults we fear loneliness, intellectual and financial ruin, and—of course—death. However, children experience the world and their own humanity differently; yet, their fears are just as scary, valid, and profound. Begin the poem as an innocent child. End the poem as a mature adult.

Poetic Appreciation

posted 10.22.13

Poetry is an act of appreciation. With our increasingly busy schedules, we lose our ability to appreciate. Poets must resist the modern temptation to overlook what holds meaning in our lives. Identify something in your surroundings—a rusted hoe draped in spider webs, an unfashionable dress abandoned by time, a wine cork buried in a drawer of unpaid bills—and write a poem that appreciates these lonely items.

Relationships

posted 10.15.13

Life is about relationships. As with everything in life, all relationships end for various reasons. Think about a relationship that you valued that has ended—a friend, a lover, a family member. Write a poem that encapsulates your sense of loss and appreciation and how this particular person impacted your life. The power of poetry transcends everything that ends.

Crash Poetry

posted 10.8.13

Collisions spark creativity. Colors collide to form new colors. Opposing ideas create an inspired argument. Friction makes fire. Write a poem that combines two unrelated entities in your life: Imagine your birth certificate under a decaying woodpile, your mother-in-law clenching spark plugs, a bluebird singing in your freezer. Push your imagination. The words will follow.

Poetry for Humanity

posted 10.1.13

The human race, by nature, is flawed. Deep within our DNA is the capacity for violence, hatred, and deceit. Choose an aspect of human nature that disturbs you. Write a poem describing this ugly and flawed characteristic of human nature.  Write a second poem about how we, the human race, can fix it.

Poetry Appreciation

posted 9.24.13

Revisit one of your favorite poems by another poet. What appeals to you about this particular poem—the structure, the sound, the imagery, the subject matter? Write a poem dedicated to this poet and poem. Show your appreciation by instilling those same respected qualities in your own writing.

Fiction Prompts

Suggestions for devising plots and creating compelling characters.

Mirrors

posted 9.17.14

Does one of your characters have an obsession with their appearance? Is she the type that habitually glances at every reflective surface in order to catch a glimpse of herself? Does this behavior have a negative effect? This week, write a story in which this character can no longer examine her appearance. Perhaps she goes on a camping trip, or decides to take down all the mirrors in her house. Think about how this change in circumstance can impact the character’s mood, confidence, and outlook on life.

Story Time

posted 9.10.14

Think back to your childhood, to the stories you remember being told. Was there a particular story you wanted to hear over and over again? This week, try and remember that story, and choose one of the characters from it. Take that character and write an entirely different story centered around new obstacles. For example, if you choose Pippi Longstocking, write a story in which she is raising her own family, or has become the captain of her father's ship after his retirement.

Characters

posted 9.3.14

As everyone recovers from, and reacts to, the shocking announcement that the popular cartoon character Hello Kitty is not a cat but a human girl, take a moment to think about how leaving certain details ambiguous could enhance or detract from a character's impact in a story. Do you have any characters that have elements of their backstory, or ambiguous qualities, that are never explained? If you have a character whom you feel is hiding something for whatever reason, write a scene in which this secret is revealed.

Regulars

posted 8.27.14

Some people, once they find a place they like, really make themselves at home. This week, write a story about a regular at a local bar, restaurant, or coffee shop. Why has this person latched on to this particular place? Does he or she always order the same thing? How do the other patrons feel about this person? Try to have all the action in the story take place inside the establishment.

Love Story

posted 8.20.14

Usually if someone's in love, they know it. Love is an all-encompassing emotion, often casting a person's life in a pleasant, rosy glow. But as with most emotions, love can be confusing. This week, write a story in which your character doesn't realize she is falling in love. Do her friends notice the development and try and make her see what's happening? Does she remain completely oblivious, or does she adamantly deny any affection towards her love interest? Is she even aware of her love interests' feelings towards her? Consider the fine line between close friendship and romantic love, and how difficult it is to tell whether that line has been crossed.

Virus

posted 8.13.14

News and social media channels are buzzing about the recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. This week, write a story in which one of your characters is a doctor responsible for treating patients that have contracted a highly contagious virus. Think about how she handles the risks involved, and what emotions she’ll struggle with. Maybe there is a lack of proper medical equipment or limited space in hospitals and treatment facilities. Is there information on this virus, or is it something doctors have never seen before?

Off the Grid

posted 8.6.14

Farming as an occupation isn't nearly as common in the United States now as it was a century ago, but there are still some people who feel compelled to live a simpler, more self-sufficient lifestyle. This week, write about a character of yours who comes to the decision to give up her more modernized way of living and commits to living "off the grid"—growing all of her own food, raising livestock, collecting sunlight for electricity (or forgoing electricity altogether). How difficult will this be for her to pull off? Is it still feasible for people to live this way in the twenty-first century—especially city dwellers and suburbanites—or is this type of lifestyle too strenuous and time-consuming for the average person to manage?

Picnic

posted 7.30.14

There are few things more pleasant than finding a beautiful spot on a sunny afternoon to have a picnic lunch. That's if everything goes according to plan. This week, write a story about one of your characters planning an important picnic lunch. The occasion could be a family gathering, a first date, or a holiday celebration. How does this character handle the task? Do things end up going smoothly, or does everything fall apart? Maybe another character needs to step in and offer assistance, or maybe something beyond anyone's expectations occurs and the plans change completely.

Seniors

posted 7.23.14

Some people slow down in their golden years, taking it easy and enjoying the family and friends they've gathered around them in the comfort of their community, while others try to continue to live like their younger selves. This week, write a story about an older person who still has the mindset and physical stamina of a twenty-something. How does this affect her interactions with her peers? What are her secrets? Is she one of those people who wishes to live forever, or does she simply make a habit of staying healthy? Think about how a person's biological age and true age are related and what happens when they are in conflict.

Opposites

posted 7.16.14

We've all heard the advice "write what you know," which encourages us to write characters like ourselves or people who are close to us. This week, write from the perspective of a character that is your complete opposite. First, make a list of all the qualities you identify with yourself, and then make a list of qualities on the other end of the spectrum. For example, if you are a woman who lives in the country, write from the point of view of a man who lives in the city. Try to avoid using stereotypes to describe this character's actions or ideas, and instead try to embody this character—climb inside his or her head and live there a while.

Tourist Towns

posted 7.9.14

Do you live in a tourist town, or a town that sees a surge in population during a particular season? Maybe there is a town you visit when you're on vacation. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live there year-round? This week, write a story set in a tourist town, trying to write from the perspective of a local. How does this character, or the locals in general, feel about the tourists? Is this really a friendly town, or does it just seem friendly to vacationers?

Transformers

posted 7.2.14

Even if you're not a big fan of the Transformers movies, consider the basic idea of everyday machines transforming into some sort of robot or creature. This week, write a story in which one of your characters discovers a household appliance that has transformed itself into something else. For example, when making her morning toast, your character notices the toaster has morphed into a small flying machine, and is stuck in a tree in the backyard. Write about how your character feels upon discovering this machine has a mind of its own, and how her relationship with the machine in question, as well as the world around her, is altered after this experience.

Row Your Boat

posted 6.25.14

This past Friday a South African couple finished a sixty-five-hundred-mile journey by rowboat from Morocco to New York City. It took them six months to paddle their twenty-three foot vessel, named Spirit of Madiba in honor of Nelson Mandela, across the Atlantic Ocean. This week, write a story about what you imagine such a journey would be like. Consider the dangers of crossing such a massive body of water, and what it would feel like to spend that much time sharing such a small space with another person.

Listing Details

posted 6.18.14

Descriptions offer clarity, and the more detailed your descriptions of events, places, and people, the more fully the reader can experience the emotion and ambiance you are trying to establish. This week, make loads of detailed lists. Make them everywhere you go: the supermarket, your car, the park, your bedroom. Use all five senses to classify where you are, how you're feeling, and what those feelings make you think of. When you're writing a scene about a sticky summer morning on the bus, you'll be able to look back at your list and use the notes you made about the condensation on the windows, or the crying child in the seat behind you.

Oldest Man On Earth

posted 6.11.14

This week the oldest man on earth, Alexander Imich, passed away at the age of 111. Although he was certified as the world's oldest man, there are sixty-six women who are older than he was. This week, create a character who is one of the oldest people on earth. You could choose to write about the passing of the torch to the new oldest man in the world, or you could focus on one of the sixty-six oldest women. Consider how this person feels about being over a century old, how many historical events this character has lived through, and how this character has managed to live so long.

Wheel of Fortune

posted 6.4.14

Most of us associate the phrase "Wheel of Fortune" with the popular television game show. There is, however, another wheel of fortune—the tenth card in the tarot deck. This wheel isn't as glamorous as its television counterpart, but it can be equally exciting; the card represents a pivotal point in your life when new options become possible and which signals that luck is on your side. This week write a short story about a character spinning the wheel of fortune. She could be on the game show, in a casino spinning a roulette wheel, or at a summer carnival. Include some element of dramatic change once the wheel is spun, whether it's winning the grand prize, or taking the first step on a new and unfamiliar path.

Pet Matchmaker

posted 5.28.14

There's an old adage that people tend to resemble their pets. This could be due to the law of attraction, which many people believe is at play when we look for a partner, and which suggests that we tend to feel more comfortable with those with a similar appearance and who share similar interests. What if there was a service available for people looking for their perfect pet match? Write a scene in which a character visits a "pet matchmaker," a professional who consults with clients on what they value most in a pet, and then conducts a search to help them find "the One."

Sunday Drivers

posted 5.21.14

Driving can serve several different purposes. In the most basic sense driving facilitates transportation from point A to point B, but it can also be a job, a sport, and even a form of relaxation. When highways sprang up across the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, so-called "Sunday drivers" cruised down these new open roads to decompress and take it easy--an activity that can be hard to fathom in the age of road rage. This week, try writing a scene with two or more characters in the car together on a Sunday drive. Maybe the drive doesn't wind up as peaceful as the group expected. Or, maybe it gives them the perfect setting to work through a problem and come to a long-awaited solution.

Comfort

posted 5.14.14

Most of us have a place we go to when we need to rest, recharge, or recuperate. Does one of your characters need a break from her daily routine? Or did she just experience something traumatic? Send her somewhere to heal her mind and spirit. It could be a relative's home, a beautiful park, or a favorite restaurant — someplace calm and comfortable. Home may be where the heart is, but sometimes it helps to get away for a little while.

Through a Child's Eyes

posted 5.7.14

There's a beautiful scene in Markus Zusak's novel The Book Thief during which Max, who is hiding from the Nazis in the basement of a German family's house, asks Liesel, their daughter, to tell him what her eyes see when she goes outside. What he gets is an almost magical description: the view of the world through a child's eyes, beautifully unaffected by the dark cloud of World War II looming on the horizon. This week, try to describe something through the eyes of a child. It could be a day, a landscape, an object, a person — anything with a bit of hidden magic only a child can tap into.

Daydream Believer

posted 4.30.14

Spring can at times seem like one long daydream. Does one of your characters have the habit of drifting off into a fantasy world? This week, write out one of these daydreams. Use plenty of surreal elements that make it clear this is a fantasy sequence and not just the character re-imagining a scenario working out a different way. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber is a perfect example.

Green Babies

posted 4.23.14

In David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, mother Avril Incandenza is remarkably devoted to her houseplants, so much so that she calls them her "green babies." Does one of your characters have a green thumb? Or does she dislike being responsible for houseplants? Think about what this might reveal in terms of the character's personality. What drives someone to take something meant to live outside and bring it inside? Is it a desire to cultivate beauty in her life, or does she prefer a more controlled environment to the wilds of nature?

Phobias

posted 4.16.14

What if one day you woke up with a crippling phobia? What if the object of the phobia was something you once loved? This week, incorporate this scenario intoan existing piece of writing, or use it to create a new character. Think about the nature of fear and how it shapes us, how it restricts us yet also protects us. For inspiration, visit phobialist.com.

Doctor's Orders

posted 4.9.14

Dieting is the most common New Year’s resolution, and the most difficult to stick to. Sure, we essentially know what’s healthy and what to avoid overindulging in, but when a doctor or nurse tells you to change your eating habits it weighs much heavier on your conscience. Does one of your characters have a diet that is putting his health in jeopardy? Try writing a scene in which that character is told by a healthcare professional to overhaul his eating habits. How does this character react? If this character can no longer have some of his favorite foods, how does this affect his mood and his day-to-day routine?

High Drama

posted 4.2.14

Reality television might not be that in touch with “reality," but it is still a source of entertainment for many people. Whether or not you enjoy The Real Housewives of New York (or Beverly Hills, Atlanta, etc.) or any other shows of that nature, there might be something to learn about characterization through watching these people battle it out on screen. This week, create a character that you think would be perfect for one of those types of shows. Then put your character in a scenario in which he or she must go through a dramatic, emotional struggle publicly, in front of millions of viewers, with another person or group of individuals. The key is to really amp up the drama and imbue the scene with as much nail-biting tension as you can muster.

Lost & Found

posted 3.26.14

This week, have your character either lose or find an object, pet, or set of directions. Explore how this event opens up unexpected possibilities for your story. Will two characters meet for the first time because of this mishap? Will your protagonist be late arriving somewhere as a result?

Parades

posted 3.19.14

Parades are usually exciting occasions for children and a source of aggravation for commuters. This week, write a story or scene centered around a parade. Try to show contrasting reactions to the event. Draw from your own memories of parades at different times in your life.

Stopping Through

posted 3.12.14

Motels are frequently depicted in novels, TV, and film. This week, write a scene that takes place in a motel. Perhaps it's a seedy, roadside fleabag; a clean, well-maintained establishment with a dark history; or simply a familiar setting for a dramatic turning point in your narrative. You can weave it into a short story or use it as a starting point for a new piece. It can be inspired by your own experience or entirely imagined.

What Are the Chances?

posted 3.5.14

Seemingly random occurrences can often drive plot forward. Of course, the author curates these random acts—the accidental encounter, the winning lottery ticket. This week, try introducing an element of chance into a story whose plot you've struggled with. It can be as small as a coin toss, or an unexpected event that changes your protagonist’s plans. Be open to wherever it takes you.

Spring

posted 2.26.14

"Spring is the time of year when it is summer in the sun and winter in the shade,” wrote Charles Dickens. As we prepare for a long-awaited spring, it’s interesting to reflect on the role that spring plays in literature. This week, try to write a scene that incorporates a spring tradition. It can be something as ancient as a maypole festival, as commonplace as “spring cleaning,” or it can be a new tradition, made up for the purpose of your story. If you need some inspiration, research how different cultures welcome the spring months.

Shopping

posted 2.19.14

The prospect of shopping excites some, while others find the experience tedious or even stressful. This week, write a scene in which your character is faced with a big purchase, perhaps one that requires some prior research. Is your character impulsive or thorough? Does he or she approach the experience with excitement or unease? What does your character ultimately end up purchasing?

Creative Business

posted 2.12.14

“My business is to create,” wrote William Blake. This week, write a story whose protagonist is also in a creative enterprise. Your character can be an artist, or he or she can be involved in a field your typical reader may not initially think of as creative. Try to find and describe this creative impulse.

Super Bowl

posted 2.5.14

Some of the most revealing scenes in fiction occur when characters gather for an event. The Super Bowl offers an opportunity for friends, whether they are sports fans or not, to do just that. This week, write a scene in which your protagonist is watching the Super Bowl. Is he or she playing host? Begrudgingly attending an ex’s party? Which team does he or she root for? What happens during the commercials? Sporting events provide wonderful opportunities for tension and elation. How will your characters engage with this event?

Historical Flash Fiction

posted 1.29.14

Think of a deceased historical figure and make a list of his or her qualities and attributes. Then try to conjure a modern version of this person in a five-hundred-word story. For instance, a character based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau might be on a walking tour of a city; a character inspired by Marie Curie could be working in a lab. Make this figure your own by weaving in imagined details and context.

I Forgive You

posted 1.22.14

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude,” said Martin Luther King Jr. Imagine a character who needs to forgive someone. Who does he or she need to forgive? What was the nature of the injury? What were its implications? Does forgiveness come easily to your character, or is retaliation a more natural impulse? Does your character try and fail to forgive initially? See how your character’s desire to forgive creates obstacles and ultimately fuels your plot.

Listen Carefully

posted 1.15.14

Effective listening is imperative to effective writing. Listening carefully while sitting on a crowded subway, drinking coffee in a lonely diner, or asking a stranger for directions can lead to new characters, settings, and story lines. It is also important to listen to your own characters. Make a list of ten questions to ask a character you are developing. Listen to your character’s answers, diction, and inflection, and write down what you hear and see in your imagination. Most people, including fictional characters, will tell you who they are. You just have to ask.

Be Yourself

posted 1.8.14

“In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.” This quote from French author André Maurois underscores the importance of knowing who you are as a fiction writer. As in love, readers can’t genuinely fall for an author’s work unless the writing is sincere, open, and truthful. Clear your head. Forget about your significant other, your editor, and your audience. Place your protagonist and antagonist in a location familiar to you, and write six hundred words about their interaction. The characters are people unto themselves, but your mind creates the attitude, style, and tone of the world in which they live. In fiction, the writer is nowhere, and everywhere, at all times. This is the authorial being that readers come to love.

Great Expectations

posted 1.1.14

The promise of a new year is laden with expectations. Much of the conflict and drama that propels stories forward stems from a character’s passions and expectations. Some of those expectations are achieved, others bring heartbreak and despair. Write a scene in which your protagonist deals with unfulfilled expectations. Describe in detail his or her reaction, whether it is expressed by a simple downward gaze or a violent tirade. Contending with failed expectations reveals much about the inner worlds of our characters.

The Gift of Time

posted 12.25.13

This is a difficult week for fiction writers. Like athletes, writers must maintain a disciplined daily regimen to ensure their creative muscles are strong, productive, and functioning at peak levels. The holidays, however, can derail even the most committed writers as our lives submit to the drama of meddling family members, long lines at airport security, or a lovingly made apple pie dropped on the front steps. Give yourself the gift of time this holiday. Take twenty minutes to disappear and write. Hide if you must. Report from the eye of the holiday storm. Create characters from the people around you. Develop fictional stories from their real experiences. Stay creative.

Extra, Extra: Newspapers

posted 12.18.13

"I read newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction." This humorous quote from Aneurin Bevan, the architect of Britain's National Health Service following World War II, is also packed with advice for fiction writers. Newspapers—whether online or print—offer a wealth of story ideas, inspiration for character development, and engrossing portrayals of humanity and inhumanity. Read the local section that highlights everyday people confronting the ordinary trappings of life. Choose a person, event, or experience that captures your attention. Begin your next story there.

Creating Tension

posted 12.11.13

Tension is critical in fiction. Tension is the difference between a story about a boy flying a kite and a story about a boy flying a kite in an electrical storm. Tension often is created through conflict—which means your character must want something desperately: an apology from a lover, respect from a father, a cup of water on a crowded lifeboat. Revisit your writing and read it carefully for tension, which keeps readers engaged and propels the story forward. If you stop reading, check for lapses in tension.

Define the Times

posted 12.4.13

“I still maintain that the times get precisely the literature that they deserve, and that if the writing of this period is gloomy the gloom is not so much inherent in the literature as in the times.” This quote from author William Styron, who died in 2006 at age eighty-one, addresses the role of tone in fiction. People are the products of their times; they are influenced by the economic, political, and cultural climate that surrounds them. Write five hundred words that bring to life the mood of the society your characters inhabit. A bloody sunset, a tarnished silver fork, or a character’s stoic posture can make vital intangible forces accessible to your readers.

Face Time

posted 11.27.13

Details are critical to character development, especially when describing a character’s face. A glass eye, a crooked nose, or thin lips can convey more meaning than exposition or action. Describe the face of your protagonist, and then describe the face of your antagonist. What qualities do they share? How are they different? Write so that a comparison of the characters’ faces provides both symmetry and juxtaposition that symbolizes the nature of their relationship.

Sleep Deprivation

posted 11.20.13

Sleep deprivation can make any person act strangely. A barking dog, a leaky faucet, or a loud and unruly neighbor can own the night, turning pleasant people into frazzled malcontents. Write five hundred words about a protagonist who is prevented from sleeping by an outside force, and describe how this character handles the stress and resolves the challenging situation.

The Character Within

posted 11.13.13

Class is often characterized by how an individual treats others when no one is looking. Without interference from societal judgment, family expectations, or peer pressure, people often act very differently—revealing much about their true natures. Some become selfish and ruthless. Others shine with empathy and magnanimity. Place your protagonist in such a situation. Allow your character to take the lead. As a writer, it is your job to follow and relay what happens. Write five hundred words.

Peace of Mind

posted 11.6.13

Fiction writers know that conflict drives plot. Tension and drama imbue life into our characters and propel their stories forward. Human nature, however, craves tranquility and clarity. Write five hundred words describing your protagonist at peace—truly one with the universe, even if only for several seconds. Perhaps your character is sitting on a park bench and staring at a bruised cloud, or on a crowded subway car listening to the rails below, or walking out of a cemetery with a beer in hand. Peace is unique to everyone.

Halloween Story

posted 10.30.13

Halloween evokes the power of tradition, superstition, and society. Our children dress up as heroes, goblins, and villains and scamper along our neighbors’ sidewalks, lawns, and driveways beseeching candy. Write six hundred words about a confrontation between an adult homeowner and a group of children. Allow the colors, tones, noises, smells, and feel of Halloween to inform—if not define—your writing. Be funny. Be scary. Be creative.

Failing Forward

posted 10.23.13

“Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction,” storyteller John Cheever once stated in an interview. Place your protagonist in an unexpected situation—trapped in a chimney, confronted by a ghost, or suddenly penniless. Unforeseen conflict reveals hidden character flaws and virtues. Don’t self-edit. Though it may not make the final draft, experimental writing deeply informs both style and character. Writing is the act of failing forward every time you sit down.

Meal Time

posted 10.16.13

Our characters reveal themselves through their actions—not only in dramatic scenes that involve death, injury, or heartache, but in small, subtle ways too. Show how a character in your fiction eats. Is the character’s demeanor ravenous and paranoid or slow and sophisticated? How your character eats, appreciates, and relates to food reveals much about his or her upbringing, emotional state, and intellectual disposition.

Pet Fiction

posted 10.9.13

Pets are playing an increasingly important role in the lives of many people and families in our society. Pets offer companionship, unconditional love, or simply represent a welcome living force in our imperfect homes. Write a scene where an animal or pet stops a character from feeling lonely, stressed, or on the brink of madness. Explore the complex, but very deep and real, relationship between animals and people.

Express Lane Character Check

posted 10.2.13

Life is stressful. How our characters handle—or don’t handle—stress reveals much about them. Write a scene in which your protagonist is stressed due to a death in the family, a financial crisis, or an unraveling relationship. Place your protagonist in a grocery store at the express lane for customers with fewer than 10 items. Have a lady, pushing a cart full of groceries, jump in line just before your protagonist. “Sorry, but I’m in a hurry,” she explains. Write six hundred words.

Remember Adventure

posted 9.25.13

As children our imaginations ruled the land. However, years of life, love, and loss erode our creative shores and the rustling trees and vibrant animals that inhabited them. The unstoppable dinosaurs and steaming teacups in our small hands suddenly become pieces of plastic from a toy store. Write a short story through the eyes of a four-year-old child. Go on an adventure.  

Peyton Marshall

posted 9.18.14

"Writing is about getting to a place of deep mediation. The writer’s job is, at a fundamental level, all about finding the habits that will get you there—somehow. Human beings are, fortunately, trainable animals. We can train ourselves, through habit, to access the parts of the mind that lead to great creative work...."

Marie-Helene Bertino

posted 9.11.14

“I recommend taking advice with a grain of low-sodium salt (better for your heart), and being suspicious of anyone who makes writing seem too easy, too hard, or too sexy. The reality is usually in the boring, nougat middle. Done correctly, writing looks like a person staring at a table...."

Sarah Gorham

posted 9.04.14

“First of all, it's okay not to write. Most writers are highly disciplined, equipped with a demanding, inner CEO. We tie our identities, our sense of worth, and our happiness to writing well. Not writing feels terrible, unless you consider that it too is part of the process. The muse is sly. Sometimes she goes into hiding...."

Mira Jacob

posted 8.28.14

“I’m a doodler. This has never gone over well. In high school, it convinced teachers I wasn’t really listening, and in my various jobs over the years, it has convinced bosses that some part of me is still in high school. Which is true, obviously, but that’s hardly the point. The point is knowing what works for you...."

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