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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.

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.

Attic Inspiration

posted 9.19.13

Attics are often the most compelling rooms in our homes. Attics are where we store important parts of the past that are only tenuously connected to the immediate present. Visit your attic, rummage around the dusty boxes, and find something that belonged to one of your parents. Bring it to your writing desk. Start writing.

In Your Own Image

posted 9.12.13

In many ways you are everyone who came before you. Your uniqueness is your own spin on the DNA of your ancestors. Spend several minutes sitting quietly in front of a mirror. Reflect. Other than you, whom else do you see? Write 500 words about how you feel toward these people you’ve never met but who are part of you. Their story is yours, too.

Social Media and You

posted 9.5.13

Social media has changed human interaction. Twitter, Facebook, and other digital platforms force us to create versions of ourselves that often misrepresent our true feelings and situations. This disconnect can interfere with our relationships and even distort our own identities. Write about a time when social media added turmoil to your life. Explore the difference between who you are online, and who you are at the dinner table.

Now You Were There

posted 8.29.13

Creative nonfiction isn’t only about the past. History is always happening. Right now, at this very instant, your life is passing. What is happening in your life? What are your worries? Your problems? Your fears and loves? Imagine yourself eleven years from now, and imagine what your perspective might be on your current situation. Write about your life from the year 2024. Time may heal all wounds, but now is the best time to document your bleeding.

Explore Sentimental Value

posted 8.22.13

A threadbare T-shirt. A stained cookbook. A folded 1989 Yankees ticket. We all refuse to part with items that hold sentimental value. Write about something you own that would be trash to another person. Delve beyond mere memories and explore what—the time, the people, the circumstances—that item represents. Write five hundred words.  

Money as Literary Currency

posted 8.15.13

“There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor.” This observation by Oscar Wilde reminds us that no one is unaffected by money. Money heats our stoves, stitches our wounds, and clothes our children. Yet, people can perceive money—like art and religion—very differently. Think of a moment in your family history when money created tension. Focus on how individuals spoke, listened, and acted. Write objectively.

Fate vs. Free-Will

posted 8.8.13

Mankind has often wrestled with the relationship between fate and self-determination. Write about a time in your life when your inner strength and perseverance changed the outcome. Next write about a time in your life when you believe fate played a role. Then write an essay about how this complex dynamic is manifested in your characters and creative nonfiction.  

Living On

posted 8.1.13

Sit quietly at your writing desk and look at an old photograph of a relative who has passed on. Examine the person's face. Study the person's expression. Analyze the person's posture. What about this person still lives on through your family? What about this person still lives on through you? Write without editing your thoughts.

The Wind and You

posted 7.25.13

The wind can toss a greasy napkin down a city street, stir dead leaves in the corner of an abandoned tool shed, or propel an ancient sailboat across an ocean. Every wind has unique and varied sounds, smells, and textures. Think of a moment in your life when the wind was particularly prevalent. Describe the wind as if it were a character with a distinct personality—strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. How did that wind influence your thoughts and feelings, and why was it so memorable? Write 500 words.

Truth through Food

posted 7.18.13

In writing, food never lies. Aunt Mary passes the peas, revealing a missing wedding ring. A brother's pained gaze at a nearby glass of wine exposes his alcoholism. At the head of the table, a feeble grandfather's gravy-splattered scowl condemns his spoiled family's inability to comprehend war. Write an essay about a family meal. Begin with the seating arrangements. Without using any dialogue, use details about the meal to bring to life each family member and the family as a collective whole.

Dare to be Vulnerable

posted 7.11.13

When writing about our own lives it is tempting to tamper with the truth. We worry about what our fathers, daughters, and even strangers will think of our weak moments. Don’t be afraid. Vulnerability creates trust. Your words are only part of the literary experience. As David Sedaris said in an interview in the Louisville Courier-Journal, “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.” Have faith in your readers. Identify a poor decision or embarrassing moment in your life. Write an essay about it. Don’t censor your words or thoughts and don't write with anyone else—including your critical self—in mind. Get out of your own way. Be honest. Be funny if possible. But be real.

The End

posted 7.4.13

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” So Joan Didion begins her famous essay “Goodbye to All That,” about arriving in—and eventually leaving—New York City. Write about a time when you left something—a city, a country, a job, or a lover. Include details about how things began, but focus most of your attentions on how they ended. For inspiration, read or revisit Didion’s essay, originally published in her essential collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968).

The Universal Chord

posted 6.27.13

In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between (Da Capo Press, 2012), Lee Gutkind writes that there are two sides to creative nonfiction: the personal, as found in memoirs and personal essays, and the "big idea"—a public topic, the kind often tackled in literary journalism—each of which tends to attract a different audience. The ideal piece, Gutkind writes, is one that offers both, one that explores a big idea from an intimate perspective. "Writers who can choose a public subject and give it a personal treatment are establishing a 'universal chord': reaching out and embracing a large umbrella of readership." This, he writes, is the creative nonfiction writer’s mission. Choose a "big idea" that interests you—a certain kind of food, a style of music, a political issue, a specific sport—and write down everything you know about the subject. Do further research and record everything you find. Then write an essay, including anecdotes about why the subject interests you, and try to strike that universal chord.

Tilted Naked Weirdo

posted 6.20.13

In “Why We Write: Tilted Naked Weirdo” (Poets & Writers Magazine, July/August 2013), Nancy Méndez-Booth writes that by allowing herself to explore her “uglies”—the weirdest, most uncomfortable, or embarrassing parts of her life—she has been able to find her truest voice. “Writing honestly makes me feel stripped and exposed,” she writes. “I put everything I’d rather hide right on the page for the world to see. It horrifies me.” Write an essay about your own uglies—the strange, the silly, the discomfiting and weird—the parts of your life that few people know but you.

Be Not Proud

posted 6.13.13

"This is one of the few stories I’ve written for myself, about myself," wrote the late Sean Rowe in the introduction to his essay about his experiences in jail, "An Insider’s Guide to Jailhouse Cuisine: Dining In," which was originally published in Oxford American and reprinted in the third volume of The Best Creative Nonfiction. “That’s a dangerous practice. It’s dangerous because the more personal you get in a story, the harder it is to stay honest. Here I think I pulled it off, but at a price: I had to reveal things I’m not proud of to get at something bigger than me.” Write an essay about something—or a host of things—you’ve done that you’re not proud of. Be honest about what you did, what consequences you faced, and how you feel about it now. What lessons did you learn about yourself, and about life, that you can pass on to your readers?

Imaginative Nonfiction

posted 6.6.13

In A Chance Meeting: The Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, nonfiction author Rachel Cohen investigates the relationships and interactions between various writers—Henry James and William Dean Howells; Carl Van Vechten and Gertrude Stein; Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore—and while the book relays actual encounters, many of the unknown details (what clothes were worn, what the subjects were thinking) are imagined. Write a letter to one of your favorite writers, living or dead, telling him or her about your work, your life, and how their writing has influenced you. Then write an imagined response, from the writer to you.

Found Essay

posted 5.30.13

Spend a few moments looking around your kitchen, office, or bedroom, and gather any found objects (not including books, magazines, or journals) that contain text: post-it notes, receipts, a piece of mail, the packaging of food or household products. Freewrite for fifteen minutes, recording as many words and phrases from the objects as you can, and taking note of any connections, associations, or themes that may arise. Then write an essay about what you find.

Anaphora

posted 5.23.13

Often found in the work of Elizabethan and Romantic poets, anaphora—a Greek word meaning “the act of carrying back”—is the repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive lines, sentences, fragments, or verses. Write a short anaphoric essay beginning each sentence with the same word or phrase.

The Things You Carry

posted 5.16.13

Make a list of the physical objects you carry with you: a wallet and phone, a journal and pen, medications and mementos. Then make a list of the non-objects you carry: memories, ideas, dreams, scars (literal or figurative), the people or places of your past. Once you've created both lists, write an essay that incorporates and investigates the items on each. Why do you carry these things? What do they mean to you? Do the physical items relate to the mental ones? Use "These are the things I carry" as your opening line.

Dictionary Revision

posted 5.9.13

In his recent New Yorker article on writing and revision, “Draft No. 4” (April 29, 2013), nonfiction writer John McPhee recommends drawing boxes around any word that “does not seem quite right” as well as those “that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” Then, he writes, consult the dictionary—not the thesaurus—to find better words. While the thesaurus can be useful, McPhee writes, it can also be dangerous, often muddling a word’s meaning. The dictionary, on the other hand, not only offers a host of alternatives but can also spark new inspiration. Revisit an essay that’s ready for a new draft. After circling all words and phrases that could use work, dig deep into the dictionary to see what new words—and what new meaning—may arise.

Spring Has Arrived

posted 5.2.13

Think about your life in relation to the seasons. What is your favorite season and why? During which season were you born? How did you feel as a child about each season? Have significant events happened during one season over the others? How do you see the world around you change at the start of each season? Use these musings to fuel an essay about one or all of the seasons. 

Show and Tell

posted 4.25.13

We’ve all heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” But in his latest book, To Show and Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (Free Press, 2013), Phillip Lopate argues that the personal essay is perhaps the one form in which it’s not only permissible, but necessary, to do a little telling. “We must rely on the subjective voice of the first-person narrator to guide us, and if that voice never explains, summarizes, interprets, or provides a larger sociological or historical context for the material, we are in big trouble.” With Lopate’s advice in mind, choose a subject for an essay that you’d like to write. Then make a list of the particular kinds of “telling” you’ll need to do in terms of providing background, research, context, and personal experience. Use this list to guide the writing of a first draft.

Poetry Prompts

Creative guidance for writing poems and experimenting with forms.

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.

Train Changers

posted 9.17.13

People come in and out of our lives like passengers on a train. Some stay for much of our journey. Others get on and off, quickly disappearing into their own travels. Write a poem about someone who became part of your life, but left the train. Who were they? Why do you miss them? What happened? Focus on tone, voice, and imagery.

Reaching Out

posted 9.10.13

Writing poetry can be a lonely endeavor. Reading poetry, however, can introduce us to people and worlds we’ve never experienced. Use the power of poetry to help someone who is lonely. The woman resting her head on the steering wheel at a long red light. The old man with a soggy coaster at the end of the bar. The adolescent kid hiding in the school bathroom. Write a poem for them, from you.

Change of Words

posted 9.3.13

The end of summer means the beginning of autumn. This is a time of change. Write a poem about the changes occurring in your life. Choose powerful verbs. Focus on the feelings of expectation, fear, and relief that come with change. Use vivid imagery. It is during change that we are often the most alive.

Kitchen Table

posted 8.27.13

The center of our families, our homes, and our most treasured conversations occur at the kitchen table. We discuss the vibrant color of sautéed asparagus, the deep laugh of a deceased grandfather, or sit quietly, alone, worrying about our children at 3am. Write a poem about your kitchen table, and the food, voices, and thoughts it has experienced over the years.

Window Words

posted 8.20.13

Windows, like frames for photos and paintings, provide a context to the vast world around us. Sit by your favorite window and write a poem about life beyond the glass: diaphanous oak leaves spangled in sunlight, fatigued men hanging from a garbage truck, chirping songbirds flitting through summer rain, a hunched elderly woman who feels forgotten. Remember: This is your window as defined by your life. Give yourself thirty minutes. 

Food for Thought

posted 8.13.13

Think of your favorite meal. Write a poem about the recipe, describing how each ingredient and every action contributes to the final whole.  Evoke the five senses—from the sound of a whisk to the smell of paprika. Explore what this meal means to you and why. Write vibrantly, unless gruel is your thing.

Insecurity

posted 8.6.13

Writing poetry is an act of empowerment. Sit quietly at your desk. Think about what you’re most insecure about in life: being a good parent, making enough money, not being able to love fully. Write a poem about how you plan to overcome that insecurity.

Remembering the August Ahead

posted 7.30.13

Time is what we call the brutal miracle that makes us grow old. Certain months of time remind us of falling in love, burying a loved one, or moving into a new house. This week, as we say goodbye to July, reflect on what August has meant to your life. Begin your poem with your childhood. Then describe how August has changed you and your perception of the world.

Minutes to Explain

posted 7.23.13

Poetry harnesses the power of metaphors and similes to reach a part of humanity that is inaccessible to all other forms of communication. Think about someone you love. Spend 15 minutes making a list of their notable attributes—both flattering and incriminating. Describe those attributes using simple metaphors and similes to explain the complex feelings this person evokes within you.

Your Other Life

posted 7.16.13

Poetry, like life, is about making decisions. Write a poem to the person you may have become had you made an important life decision differently. Remember, this version of you is also vulnerable to the whims of an indifferent universe, so you’re merely making an educated guess as to your doppelgänger’s outcome. Craft your poem with respect. You’re writing to you.

Inch by Inch

posted 7.9.13

Choose an inch of space anywhere around you: the sole of your hiking boot, the rusted headlight of an abandoned car, that weathered and broken thumb your grandfather used to pry open the back fence. Write about that inch. As poets we often become overwhelmed by the big picture. We seek to conquer love, injustice, and the meaning of meaning. Take a step back. Focus the scope of your poetry. Writing about a single drop of rain can tell us the most about the sky above.

Life, friends, is boring

posted 7.2.13

"For the poetry reader...there are certain emotions you are allowed to feel—sadness, love—but this is such a miserable choice of all the emotions one feels," writes Craig Raine in the English Review. "One feels anger, boredom, chilliness—quite strong emotions, but they don't get much of a run in poetry, and I think they should." Write a poem about anger or boredom or any other "nonpoetic" emotion. If you have trouble getting started, try using the first line of John Berryman's devastating "Dream Song 14": "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so."

Flowers of Evil

posted 6.25.13

On June 25, 1857, French poet Charles Baudelaire published his book Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), which led to his conviction on charges of blasphemy and obscenity. Here's a sample: "Huddled, teeming, like gut-worms by the million, a clutch of Demons make whoopee in our brain and, when we breath, Death floods our lungs, an invisible torrent, muffled in groans." Get good and dark: Read a bit from Flowers of Evil then write a short poem. Unleash the gut-worms!

How's the Weather?

posted 6.18.13

"I know Midwesterners are accused of talking too much about the weather, but that criticism must surely come from people who don't have weather like ours," novelist David Rhodes once wrote to his editor at Milkweed Editions, Ben Barnhart. "These last few weeks have been filled with the bright, indolent humidity of summer, offset by sudden, tyrannical darkness and booming threats of supernatural violence. Not mentioning such revolutionary experiences would be inhuman." Go Midwestern and write a poem about today's weather. And if you're interested, read "After the Flood: A Profile of David Rhodes," from the September/October 2008 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Taming the Unruly

posted 6.11.13

In a profile of Natasha Trethewey in the September/October 2012 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, contributing editor Kevin Nance quotes the poet laureate (who was elected to a second term on Monday) about her use of poetic form. "I never set out to write in a particular form, but usually something in the early drafting process suggests to me the possibility of a form I might follow that might help take the poem in a better direction than I might have sent it without following that impulse,” Trethewey says. “I find that it helps me with poems that have seemed unruly for some reason—maybe the story is too big, or the emotion of it is overwhelming for me, and the form helps bring shape to it." Choose a poem that has been giving you trouble—an unruly poem of your own—and try to rewrite it as a sonnet, a villanelle, a pantoum, or another form. (Consult the Academy of American Poets website for help with poetic forms.)

Dark Rooms

posted 6.4.13

In their introduction to My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi write about Spicer's idea of the serial poem, "a book-length progression of short poems that function together as a single movement." Robin Blaser described the form as "a dark house, where you throw a light on in a room, then turn it off, and enter the next room, where you turn on a light, and so on." As Spicer's poetry "moves from dark room to dark room," Killian and Gizzi write, "each flash of illumination leaves an afterimage on the imagination, and the lines of the poem become artifacts of an ongoing engagement with larger forces." Read some of Jack Spicer's long poems, including The Holy Grail and Billy the Kid. Consider throwing a light on some rooms of your own.

May Swenson

posted 5.28.13

In honor of the centennial anniversary of the birth of May Swenson, on May 28, read some poems by this award-winning poet (consult the Academy of American Poets website for a bibliography), then write a poem with her work in mind. Remember, this is a poet who, four months before her death on December 28, 1989, wrote, "The best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree. Youth, naivety, reliance on instinct more than learning and method, a sense of freedom and play, even trust in randomness, is necessary to the making of a poem."

Overheard

posted 5.21.13

Poetry is all around you. Find a public place—a train station, a park bench, a street corner, a coffee shop, a bookstore, the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles—and listen to the people around you. Choose one quote from a stranger and use it as the first and last line of a new poem.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

posted 5.14.13

Print or write out a handful of unfinished poems you’ve had difficulty revising. Cut out each line and mix them up. Rearrange the lines to make a new poem. Consider using one of the lines as the title.

Achilles' Heel

posted 5.7.13

Pick an iconic figure with a famous weak spot (Superman and kryptonite, Achilles and his heel, Samson and his hair, the Wicked Witch of the West and water). Write a letter from the icon to the weakness or from the weakness to the icon. Is it hate mail? A love poem? A blackmail note? Advice?

Favorite Line

posted 4.30.13

Choose a favorite or compelling line from another writer's poem, and write your own line with same number of stressed syllables and same vowel sounds. Use this line as the start of a new poem.

Write a Terza Rima

posted 4.23.13

Write a Terza Rima, a poem of three-line stanzas in which the end-word of the second line in the first tercet establishes the rhyme for the first and third lines in the following tercet and so on. The poem can have as many stanzas as you’d like, and the rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc. continues through the final stanza.

Fiction Prompts

Suggestions for devising plots and creating compelling characters.

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.  

Simple Complexity

posted 9.18.13

People are complex. So are believable characters. Much of what comprises our characters stems from the writer’s knowledge of the universe and writing’s miraculous universality. Think of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Jane Eyre, and Oscar de León—or your own favorite characters. What about these notable literary figures gives them life and humanity? Write a paragraph that defines the complexities of each character you are developing. Tack these paragraphs to the wall beside your desk, and use them as guidelines for your characters whenever their voices are muted by the harsh winds of creativity.

Character Speak

posted 9.11.13

Dialogue is about economy of words. Less means more. Dialogue should reveal characters through tension. Write a scene in which your protagonist must convince a stranger to divulge his or her social security number. The context is irrelevant. Use the conversation to show readers who, exactly, this protagonist is. At the end of the scene, have the stranger whisper the number into the protagonist’s ear.

The Good in Evil

posted 9.4.13

Resist the temptation to build characters according to stereotypes. Character development must reflect the complexities of real people. Even Pure Evil buys his favorite niece a pony for her birthday. Learn to love your villains as people, and they will reward you as characters. Write a scene where the most despicable character in your fiction does something deeply touching and loving. Then send them on their evil way.

Writing Desire

posted 8.28.13

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This writing axiom extolled by Kurt Vonnegut underscores the importance of human desire. However, desire often stems from human frailty: the need to fill or compensate for something we lack—a mothers’ love, approval from society, the ability to forgive ourselves. Write about what your protagonist's desires; this is where the story begins.

Out of Character

posted 8.21.13

Human beings are unpredictable. We can snap, betraying decades of impeccable behavior and moral living. A devoted wife cheats with her son’s tennis coach. A respected policeman steals M&Ms from a convenience store. A shy boy kicks a cup from the hands of a homeless woman. Human frailty is an important part of humanity, and our characters. Our attempts to hide indiscretions often lead to unfathomable tragedy. Write a scene where your protagonist snaps. Show, don’t tell.

Side by Side

posted 8.14.13

Juxtaposition creates tension, contrast, and intrigue. Think of two objects that don’t belong together next to each other: a cat skeleton and a shrimp cocktail, an antique coffee grinder and a wet scuba mask, a spare car tire on a floating iceberg. Once you choose your items, write the story that brought them together.

Where Leaving Takes Us

posted 8.7.13

Sometimes we are emotionally imprisoned by the ones we love. Overbearing parents, paranoid spouses, and needy children can make us—and our characters—feel trapped in an intolerable life. Write a scene where an antagonist in your writing leaves a loved one behind and begins life anew. Use details to express relief, guilt, and anger.

Bird in Hand

posted 7.31.13

People change in life, so must your characters. Write a paragraph about your protagonist at age eight discovering a wounded sparrow on the sidewalk. Next write a paragraph about the same protagonist at age forty-two encountering the same sparrow. How are the reactions different? Write a third paragraph about why your character changed. That is the story of your protagonist.

Sound Selection: Diner Edition

posted 7.24.13

The ping of a spatula. The rattle of dirty plates. A dropped spoon. Place the main character of your story or novel in a diner. Write a paragraph detailing the many sounds this character hears. Then have this same character receive devastating news via an anonymous letter delivered by the waitress. Write another paragraph about the sounds the character now hears. The two paragraphs should be very different. Tragedy changes us instantly in so many ways. 

Coffee Mug Character Development

posted 7.17.13

Sit down at your writing desk and look around you. Many of the objects nearby have a utilitarian purpose: Your coffee mug holds coffee, for instance. Other objects, however, possess emotional significance: your grandmother’s portrait over the couch, the painted conch shell you use as a paperweight. Perhaps that same coffee mug says, in faded and defeated letters, “World’s Greatest Parent.” In writing, objects in a character’s personal sphere should reflect something about the character’s emotional DNA. Start the exercise by making a list of meaningful objects within your character’s reach—wherever they may be. Then build their world into the scene. A coffee mug should never just be a coffee mug.

The Beauty of Flaws

posted 7.10.13

It’s easy for writers to fall in love with their own characters. We created them, after all; they are part of us. But remember that characters are human beings and all human beings have flaws—sometimes terrible ones. Insecurity, loneliness, addiction, violence, and even pure evil are not easy to write about. However, flaws can also be the most compelling characteristics of our characters. Flaws create conflict, tension, and drama as our characters slug their way through challenges and heartache. In many ways, weakness can be a character’s greatest literary strength.

Declaration of Independence

posted 7.3.13

In honor of Independence Day, take another look at the great document that was signed by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the others on July 4, 1776. Reread that most famous sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Use it—or rewrite it—in a short story that takes place at dusk on July 4, 2076. Happy Tricentennial?

The Long Goodbye

posted 6.26.13

Depending on one's point of view, long sentences are either a writing hazard or a literary virtue. From Joyce to Faulkner to Lowry, authors have long been showing off their prowess at stringing together clauses in seemingly endless narration. Try writing a scene, in which one character says goodbye to another, using sentences as long as you can muster.

Tobias Wolff

posted 6.19.13

The author of four story collections; two novels; and two memoirs, including the one for which he is perhaps best known, This Boy's Life, was born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama. Check out Wolff's Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (Knopf, 2008), read some of his work—don't miss "Hunters in the Snow" and "Bullet in the Brain"—and see where it takes you. Celebrate Tobias Wolff's birthday by starting a new story.

Ah Bartleby!

posted 6.12.13

In Herman Melville's classic story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853), the character of the eponymous scrivener repeatedly says, "I would prefer not to," in response to requests at the law firm where he works. Take it a step further: Come up with a signature response of your own and try writing a short story in which it is the only sentence one of your characters ever utters. See where it takes you.

Lives They Might Still Live

posted 6.5.13

In her book An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery, Janna Malamud Smith writes about a photography exhibit she saw in the late 1970s that consisted of Abe Frajndlich's pictures of photographer Minor White, who died in 1976. "In the photographs, Frajndlich shows White dressed up in different costumes representing other lives he might have lived," she writes. "What, the exhibition asked on White's behalf, would it have been like to have had more than one turn? Who else might I have become? What other work could I have done?" Choose a minor character from one of your stories (one that is giving you trouble, perhaps) and give him or her the Abe Frajndlich treatment: Write a series of paragraphs in which you imagine different lives for that character.

Rant and Rave

posted 5.29.13

"As a reader, I have a favorite canon of ranters that runs from Dostoevsky to Thomas Bernard to the Philip Roth of Sabbath's Theater," says novelist Claire Messud in a profile by Michael Washburn in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. "I love a ranter." Read some of the work of the authors Messud mentions and write a rant of your own.

What Do You Want?

posted 5.22.13

Imagine you are your main character (or just write from your own perspective). What do you really, really want? Now, start talking about that object of desire. Don’t keep saying, “I want X, I want X, I want X.” Rather, just talk about the thing you want, in all its desirable specificity. Let yourself get caught up in all that wanting.
This week's writing prompt comes from Eileen Pollack, whose most recent novel, Breaking and Entering, was published in January 2012 by Four Way Books. She wrote about desire and writing for Fiction Writers Review.

Vices and Virtues

posted 5.15.13

In Writers Recommend, Amy Shearn extols the virtues of coffee and its importance in her daily writing routine. Write a dialogue in which two characters are deprived of something: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, sweets—or perhaps something as seemingly banal as cellular service, television, or the Internet. Now give one character his or her fix, leaving the other without, and rewrite the dialogue.

Nice Try

posted 5.8.13

Choose a minor character from a story or book you’ve read recently and have that character write the author a letter, beginning: “Dear Author, nice try, but here’s what you missed about my life....” Now turn your attention to one of your own stories. Think of a character in a work-in-progress whom you'd like to get to know more deeply. Have the character write you a similar letter: “Dear [your name here], nice try, but here’s what you missed about my life....”
This week’s fiction prompt comes from Aaron Hamburger, author of the story collection The View From Stalin’s Head (Random House, 2004) and the novel Faith for Beginners (Random House, 2005). He currently teaches at the Stonecoast low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

Minor Incident

posted 5.2.13

Write a story in which a minor incident occurs—the main character is bitten by a cat, loses her keys, gets a flat tire, accidently breaks something—that symbolizes something larger. Use the incident and how the character deals with it to both move the plot forward and explore a larger significance.  

A Day in the Life

posted 4.24.13

Believable, fully developed characters serve to engage readers and strengthen your stories. Choose a character from one of your stories-in-progress or imagine a character about whom you’d like to write. Compose a character sketch based on a day in the life of this character. Explore every detail of what this person does and why throughout one day. What are his or her morning rituals and routines? How does he or she go about choosing clothes? What does this person eat? What does the inside and outside of his or her car look like? How does he or she walk and what does it say about this person? Where does he or she go and why? Use this sketch to inform the revision or writing of a story.

Bill Cotter

posted 4.09.14

"I’m not so much interested in things like plot and character and pacing and all that other literary nonsense, but rather the discrete quanta with which those things are built: Words. I like that the little music in a single word can, by its placement, or its very presence, beautify or corrupt the sentence that bears it; that the resulting sentence can test the truth of its paragraph, the paragraph of its page, the page of its chapter, and so on, until the success of an entire work seems to hinge on the single word by which the writer was originally seduced...."

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

posted 4.01.14

"I’ve actually found Twitter to be a strange and exciting writing device. I love the way it makes me think about text without context, content in spite of intent, form without formality. As a writer who likes to experiment with words (because otherwise what would be the point?), the sentences Twitter helps me to generate feel weirdly impactful...."

Carrie Murphy

posted 3.11.14

"Most of the poetry I’ve written since 2008 has been written to the music of the band The Be Good Tanyas, specifically the album Hello Love and more specifically the song “Human Thing.” This song gets me into the clear-eyed and serious yet also kind of woozy/dreamy headspace I need to be in to write my poems...."

Aaron Gilbreath

posted 2.18.14

“In addition to reading, I generate narrative nonfiction by wandering around. I stroll downtown and through populated neighborhoods in search of an interesting person, a dramatic event, an unexpected interaction, a surprise sighting. I’m not searching for a scoop. I want something that fascinates me so much that it demands further exploration and documentation...."

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