In an article for the Guardian featuring six poets and their reflections on the past year, Kae Tempest writes about the process for their short, four-line poem “2020.” Tempest mentions that the poem was longer, and then they realized the poem only needed four lines: “Sometimes it takes writing the thing to know what it is you are trying to write.” Inspired by Tempest’s process, choose an abandoned draft of a story and rewrite it as a concentrated version of itself. Does this exercise help you get closer to what’s essential about the narrative?
The Time Is Now
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.
“If something is forgivable, and we forgive, is that really worth that much?” says Viet Thanh Nguyen about his latest novel, The Committed (Grove Press, 2021), and how the narrator wrestles with his unforgivable deeds in an interview with Mitzi Rapkin for an episode of the podcast First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing, excerpted on Literary Hub. “While whatever constitutes the unforgivable is very subjective for each of us,” he continues, “if we cannot forgive the unforgivable, then maybe we’re not really truly capable of forgiveness.” Write a story in which a character is contending with something “unforgivable.” How will the protagonist deal with this unconscionable deed?
“How can I repackage the initial premise of a joke in more colorful wrapping and offer it up to the reader as something brand-new?” writes Kristen Arnett in her first Craft Capsule essay on humor in fiction. In the essay she remembers a scene in Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel Hex (Viking, 2020), in which the unexpected delivery of a mattress alters the activities of a dinner party. Arnett reflects on the use of the mattress in the scene and concludes that “when considering how humor can sit inside fiction, perhaps imagine it as the same strange and unexpected body wearing different disguises to a costume event.” Write a story in which an unexpected object inserts mischief and humor into the otherwise mundane lives of the protagonists.
“First, grant me my sense of history,” writes Agha Shahid Ali in his poem “The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’” in which he reimagines the classic fairy tale from the perspective of the story’s villain. “And then grant me my generous sense of plot: / Couldn't I have gobbled her up / right there in the jungle?” The poem offers a complicated portrait of the “Big Bad Wolf,” including disturbing confessions and provocative questions that reexamine this allegory and consider the power of perspective in storytelling. Write a story that explores the perspective of a villain in a children’s story you know well. What new information will you include about this character? What, perhaps, was left out of the story?
Amy Gerstler’s book of poems Index of Women, published last week by Penguin Books, depicts experiences of womanhood through a number of forms and perspectives, including a dramatic monologue from an aging opera singer, an ode to a head of lettuce, and prose poems recounting personal memories. The second poem in the collection, “Virginity,” builds an atmosphere around the experience of having sex for the first time, without ever naming the act itself. Through subtle details that hark back to adolescence—“passing notes rather than speaking” and “reading secret magazines a cousin stuffed / into the bottom of his sleeping bag”—Gerstler avoids cliché and develops the speaker’s voice using the oft-mythologized moment of losing one’s virginity, offering instead a sense of the speaker’s life that isn’t defined by sex. Write a series of scenes that study a character experiencing a key life moment without ever explicitly naming the experience itself. What is revealed or emphasized by gesturing to details that surround the experience?
Amy Hempel’s short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” begins with a conversation between two best friends in which the narrator keeps her ill friend company in the hospital by telling her random facts. “Make it useless stuff or skip it,” requests the friend. The story then hooks the reader with a series of tall tales and jokes that entertain both the sick friend and the reader alike, serving as context for their close relationship and a unique introduction for the heart-wrenching story. Write a short story that begins with, or uses throughout, trivia or jokes as a way of developing the relationship between two key characters.
At the Millions, Emily Layden writes about how campus novels offer “a portrait of a community, not just in cast but in geography, and tell us the story of the relationship between a place and its people—how they shape one another, imprint on each other, leave the other forever changed.” Layden compiles a list of the “best campus novels,” which includes The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, and My Education by Susan Choi, and discusses how each novel captures the intimacy of youth through the evocative and tense setting of the academic campus. Write a story set on an educational campus. Use the hierarchies inherent to the school setting—principals, teachers, counselors, seniors, freshmen—to set up the story’s conflict.
Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 2019), begins as a letter: “Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” The letter unearths the family history of the narrator, from Vietnam to their lives in Connecticut as immigrants, capturing the deep love between a single mother and her son while asking questions that explore race, class, and masculinity. The novel is gripping from the first sentence with the inherent intimacy of the epistolary form bridging the distance between the speaker and the reader. Write a story in the form of a letter that speaks to a cherished guardian figure. Why is the letter the perfect form for what your protagonist wants to say?
“My name is Arturo and the first time I saw an airport was in 1968. It was November or December, maybe the end of October,” writes Roberto Bolaño in Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas (Penguin Press, 2021), translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, an excerpt of which was published on Literary Hub. This pivotal scene finds the young narrator in an airport before he and his family are called forth by a voice over a loudspeaker and later escorted by two Interpol agents to somewhere unknown. The story then divagates as Arturo launches into memories of his mother, airports, poetry, and his horse Ruckus. Write a story set at a pivotal moment in your character’s life that begins in an airport. Will your protagonist make the flight, or decide otherwise?
In an interview in the Rumpus, Melissa Broder speaks with Greg Mania about how the writing process for her latest novel, Milk Fed (Scribner, 2021), hasn’t changed since her first book. Broder describes how she dictates the first draft into her phone and doesn’t “stop or proofread or think about it or change anything until the whole mass of clay has been thrown down.” This week, inspired by Broder’s writing process to “encourage your own messiness,” dictate the first draft of a story without stopping to make any changes, even misspellings. How will this freedom of a first draft encourage new ways of writing and break apart your process?
John LeCarré’s novel A Perfect Spy begins by introducing the protagonist Magnus Pym and tracking his movements across “a south Devon coastal town” on his way to a Victorian boardinghouse, where he is addressed by an old woman who says, “Why Mr. Canterbury, it’s you.” In this deft use of dialogue, LeCarré illustrates the essence of the classic writing technique “show, don’t tell,” revealing that Pym has visited the boardinghouse before and is traveling under a pseudonym. Write a story in which a protagonist’s identity is hidden, and only revealed through subtle clues in dialogue and physical gestures.
“Short short stories hold the obvious charge of compressing narrative in a rather extreme way, but what I initially loved about writing the form was the possibility to attend to reverberation,” writes Peter Kispert in a recent installment of Craft Capsules. “I noticed how a detail could echo out more apparent, and controlled, than in the longer works of fiction I had been drafting.” Kispert dives into his experience reading Amy Hempel’s “Going,” a three-page story from her collection Reasons to Live (Knopf, 1985), and how the unconventional narrative blew “the world wide open in the best way.” Write a short short story of up to three pages that compresses a narrative through controlled, powerful details.
Edward Carey’s illustrated novel The Swallowed Man, published in January by Riverhead Books, takes on the celebrated fable of Pinocchio, retelling it from the perspective of the living puppet’s father Giuseppe—better known as Geppetto—beginning inside the belly of a whale. “I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten,” he writes. Though the novel does not occur entirely within this unconventional setting, it both foreshadows and establishes the stakes for the story that is about to unfold, gripping the reader from the very first sentence. Write a story that begins in an unusual setting but slowly unfurls and tells the reader how and why the protagonist is found there. Try using a first-person perspective so the narrative impulse is filled with determination and urgency, as in Carey’s novel: “Before the last candle dies, I’ll tell my tale.”
“Is this a voice that I can sustain throughout this novel? Will it continue to be, and also most importantly, can it sustain my curiosity?” asks Chang-rae Lee when discussing how he developed the characters of his latest novel, My Year Abroad (Riverhead Books, 2021), in a virtual event for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. “You don’t want a voice that’s absolutely the same throughout.” Write a story from the perspective of one speaker that shows the character changing through their voice. Focus on how your character sees the world in order to show their evolution.
The Memory Police (Pantheon, 2019) by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, opens poignantly with the main conceit of this dystopian novel—that commonplace objects begin to disappear. “I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first—among all the things that have vanished from the island.” From the use of the passive voice in “was disappeared” to the intimacy behind the doubt in the first person narrator’s memories, Ogawa provides tension, a setting, and tone from this first sentence. Write the first five hundred words for your own Orwellian story or novel that establishes the new rules for an alternate reality, in which things are not as they appear.
From 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke short story, to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, artificial intelligence is as much an evolving science as it is a powerful pop culture presence, inspiring countless works of literature pondering what the future might look like. In the introduction to Michael Woodridge’s A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence: What It Is, Where We Are, and Where We Are Going, out this month from Flatiron Books, the author reveals that he is “writing a popular science introduction to artificial intelligence,” in order to “tell you what AI is—and, perhaps more important, what it is not.” Write a story with an AI character in a significant role. How will its presence inspire the trajectory of your story’s characters?
Douglas A. Martin’s Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother, reissued last year by Soft Skull Press, explores the life of the only son in the Brontë family and the brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, who wrote the literary classics Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. Eclipsed by his early death from alcohol and opium abuse, the genre-bending novel uncovers Branwell’s failed relationships, talent, and possible homosexuality, as well as conjures the moody landscape and milieu of the era through arresting language. Write a story that steps into the life of an overlooked character from fiction or literary history. What do you imagine as their true personality? Does it differ from what has been previously known?
“The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire” is a monthly interview in which five authors with new books are asked the same seven questions, one of which is, “If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?” Answer this question yourself and then write a story where you imagine a character having this profession. Does your character live out a childhood dream of yours? How does a profession influence the way a character interacts with their surroundings?
New Year’s Day is often a time in novels in which tensions erupt or a new life is envisioned for a character facing a transformation, such as in Middlemarch by George Eliot, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Write a short story, or a scene in a longer work, in which the protagonist reflects on the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. What new life do they embark on? What changes, or doesn’t change, for them and their desires?
In Olivia Rutigliano’s essay “Thirty Years Later, Home Alone Has a Lot to Say About Adulthood” published in CrimeReads, she describes the appeal of the classic Christmas movie, likening its comedy to a cartoon: “Home Alone possesses the same slapsticky buoyancy and physical elasticity of Looney Toons; no matter how many anvils are dropped on the aggressors, they’ll still spring back up a few moments later and resume the pursuit at hand.” Write a flash fiction piece in which the actions are described in a hyperbolized, almost cartoonish way. How does this challenge your sense of description?
“They listened to the news in the front room, their bodies as still as the mounted deer on the wall behind them.” In Idra Novey’s short story “Husband and Wife During the Nightly News,” a married couple go through their routine of watching the news, the husband commentating while expecting the wife to murmur in agreement, a sequence they stick to “as if the very beams of their house depended on it.” The setting of the living room adds meaning onto the ritual of their marriage, and still objects begin to take life, ending with the wife feeling as if she had “ripped off the doe’s furred skin with her teeth.” Write a story that features a character whose living area directly reflects the conflicts being faced. How can inanimate objects be used to express emotions?
Jana Larson’s Reel Bay: A Cinematic Essay, forthcoming from Coffee House Press in January, straddles the line between memoir and fiction. Larson blends essay and screenplay to investigate and understand the mysterious death of a woman found in Minnesota who local police alleged was in search of the fictional ransom money seen buried in the snow in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film, Fargo. The ambitious premise and second-person narration places readers in the shoes of the investigator, not unlike the subjective perspective of certain movies. Considering how true stories are often stranger than fiction, write a short story based on a mysterious occurrence that you experienced yourself or that stuck with you after you learned about it. How will you draw in the reader? Try narrating the story in first or second person to give the illusion of truth.
Crowd-sourced video hosting website YouTube has compiled over fifteen years of a variety of content, making it an accessible resource for historical footage. From early documentaries made in the 1990s, to remastered and colorized footage from the beginning of the twentieth century, including views of Tokyo streets in 1913, Market Street in San Francisco in 1906, and Tverskaya Street in Moscow in 1896, and footage of cities around the world in the 1890s. Using one of these videos, or one of your choosing, pick out a face and write a scene in the life of that person. What concerns are specific to this era, and which are still relevant today?
“No room in Toronto is ever used in the way it was originally intended. That’s what happens in a city always trying to reinvent itself. Like it has an itch it can’t scratch. Like it has a commitment problem.” At the beginning of Catherine Hernandez’s second novel, Crosshairs, forthcoming in December from Atria Books, the protagonist narrates a missive to his lover from his hiding place in a friend’s dark basement. In Hernandez’s description of the setting—a dystopian version of Toronto where a fascist government regime has rounded up marginalized communities into labor camps—one can see the ways in which identity can be layered or transformed through time, whether applied to rooms or cities or gender roles. Write a short story in which a change that’s occurring for the main character is reflected in some way through the setting. How might an environment evolve or change shape as a person does? Conversely, how does a person’s behavior sometimes resemble the shifting characteristics of a physical space?
Visual art can be a source of inspiration for all writers by providing what philosopher Walter Benjamin describes as an aura that one can only experience in the presence of that art piece. Although many are not presently able to visit a museum or physically stand in front of a work of art, inspired by Sharon Dolin’s installment of Writers Recommend, try a virtual visit by using Google’s Art and Culture museum page to choose a work of art from a museum that is new to you. Write a scene or story from the perspective of a subject or object in the painting, using its aura in order to build the story’s conflict or tone.