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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.

2.8.23

Depths of Wikipedia is a popular series of social media accounts dedicated to posting obscure facts published on the free online open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia. Posts include Jimmy the Raven, a raven actor who appeared in hundreds of films including The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life; Mr. Ouch, a hazard symbol developed by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association with children’s safety in mind; and the dinkus, a typographic symbol consisting of a line of asterisks often used as section breaks in a text. This week write a story that incorporates one of these curious Wikipedia facts into your plot.

2.1.23

“On stage, bodies in motion paired with words deliver both language and emotion. I have that same hope for the novel I’m struggling to write,” writes Kathryn Ma in a recent installment of our Writers Recommend series about the impact watching live theater has on her writing. “Dialogue travels, reaching me in the dark. I’m not taking down notes, but my ear is. If I’m open and lucky, the magic might follow me home.” This week write a story in which your character is moved by watching a live theatrical performance. What is the play about? How does the performance taking place on stage mirror the struggles your character is enduring?

1.25.23

Noah Baumbach’s film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Sam Esmail’s forthcoming film adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, HBO’s miniseries adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—novels with apocalyptic themes are appearing on screen more and more. Whether through satire or stark realism, this suspenseful setting allows writers to explore profound themes of survival, friendship, trust, hope, and resiliency. Inspired by apocalypse novels, write a short story that imagines the end of a modern civilization. Will you lean more toward satire, realism, or another form of expression entirely?

1.18.23

It’s awards show season for the film and television industry, but behind the camera are all the hardworking folks that make these shows happen. From florists arranging dramatic centerpieces, to chauffeurs driving celebrities from venue to venue, to the graphic designers of the envelopes holding the winners’ names—each individual helps make these one-night-only events possible. Consider what happens behind the scenes at one of these massive events and write a story from the perspective of someone working for an awards show. Imagine the mounting pressure throughout the night, the unexpected responsibilities that may arise, and the difficult celebrities one might encounter for the details in your story.

1.11.23

The multitude of popular astrology apps—such as Co–Star, the Pattern, and Time Passages—exemplifies how the ancient study of celestial bodies predicting what happens on Earth is still very relevant. Many rely on astrological readings for career and dating advice, financial decisions, spiritual guidance, and even for what books to read. Write a short story in which a character relies on astrology to make a major life decision. How does their relationship to this divinatory practice change once things are set in motion?

1.4.23

In the intricately imagined novel Sula, Toni Morrison tells the story of Sula Peace and Nel Wright, who meet as children in the Bottom, a Black neighborhood in the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. The two characters embody the rich and complicated textures of a lifelong friendship as they move through their lives with dark secrets to keep, resentments, betrayal, and ultimately, forgiveness. This week, write a short story that captures the beginning and end of a friendship. Try to incorporate a strong setting that symbolizes and evolves with this relationship.

12.28.22

In the Catholic tradition, December 28 is known as Holy Innocents’ Day or Childermas, and it is celebrated differently from country to country. In Trinidad and Tobago, children’s toys are blessed while in Spain, it is a day to play pranks on friends and family. No matter how it is celebrated, the day commemorates the jovial and happy-go-lucky nature of children. This week, write a story in which the cast of characters consists solely of children. How will you adapt the dialogue to meet the energetic and irreverent personalities of kids?

12.21.22

In 2018, Chilean author Isabel Allende became the first Spanish-language author to receive the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. In her acceptance speech, Allende spoke of how her writing comes from “nostalgia, loss, and separation, from an incurable desire to belong in a place.” Lightheartedly and hilariously, she continued by noting that she not only writes in Spanish but cooks, dreams, and makes love in Spanish. “It would be ridiculous panting in English. My lover doesn’t speak a word of Spanish,” said Allende. This week, write a story in which two people from vastly different backgrounds connect through an unexpected similarity. How do they bond through their own language?

12.14.22

In the preface to Whorephobia: Strippers on Art, Work, and Life, an anthology of essays and interviews published by Seven Stories Press, editor Lizzie Borden writes about her experiences as a young filmmaker in the late 1970s and early 1980s in downtown New York when she worked at a brothel to support her art. Borden writes: “My way of justifying working at the brothel was to tell myself it was part of what I considered my ‘real work’ of writing and directing, so I always went to work armed with a tape recorder.” Years later Borden would run into old friends on the street who worked with her at the brothel and exchange coded looks that, as she writes, were a result of their “internalized societal whorephobia.” Write a story in which tensions rise when two characters decide to keep a secret. Try to paint a picture of the before and after of these characters’ lives and how the secret forever connects them.

12.7.22

What is the relationship between good art and bad behavior? In the essay “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” published in the Paris Review in 2017, Claire Dederer breaks down the mixed feelings she has when enjoying the art of abusive men, including her experience watching the films of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Using anecdotes from conversations with friends, Dederer also reflects on her own sense of “monstrosity” as a writer. “A book is made of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people,” she writes. Inspired by this moral quandary, write a story from the perspective of a writer considering their own monstrousness.

11.30.22

As November ends and December begins, decorations make their appearance on storefronts, front lawns, stoops, and avenues while classic tunes play over loudspeakers marking the start of the holiday season. While some get into the holiday spirit early, others start lamenting the packed department stores, crowded city streets, and nonstop cheer. Inspired by the “most wonderful time of the year,” write a story in which a character is tormented by the start of the holiday season. Do all the twinkling lights and festivities bring about bitter memories?

11.23.22

November is National Novel Writing Month, and as many continue to draft their novels, some may be looking for inspiration to make it through these final days. Throughout the month, the nonprofit NaNoWriMo has been sharing videos from AuthorTubers with helpful tips including a video from Rachel of Rachel Writes offering ways to help overcome perfectionism during writing sessions. This week, as a writing exercise, take a cue from these tips and try a series of short writing sprints. Over the course of a week, set a timer for five-minute sessions. Try to see if each session builds upon the last one in hopes of completing a short story or a chapter of your novel.

11.16.22

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry, Finding Me by Viola Davis, and Surrender by Bono are just a few recent high-profile celebrity memoirs on many must-read lists. For some celebrities, writing a memoir is one way to reclaim their story and separate themselves from their public persona. This week, write a short story in the voice of a famous person who feels the need to write a memoir. What secrets are they willing to share, and which do they keep for themselves?

11.9.22

Over the weekend, many of us, perhaps reluctantly, turned our clocks back an hour, ending Daylight Saving Time for the year. Dating back to World War I when countries needed a way to preserve power and fuel, the yearly change begins in the spring with clocks being pushed forward an hour to conserve daylight leading to longer days and shorter nights, then in the fall pushed back for longer nights and shorter days. Write a story that takes place during the end of Daylight Saving Time. How does the lengthening of darkness affect the mindset of your character?

11.2.22

In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, autumn means catching the colorful, vibrant, and fleeting fall foliage, prompting many to take in the majestic display. Resources like the Smoky Mountain National Park’s Fall Foliage Prediction Map can help travelers locate areas in the United States where leaves are starting to change color, are at their peak, or past peak. Using this map as research, write a story in which your protagonist ventures out to a region where the leaves have changed their color. How does this bright, dramatic scenery affect your character’s mood and choices?

10.26.22

Over the past few weeks, some climate activists have taken up controversial methods of protest by pelting iconic paintings, such as Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Claude Monet’s “Haystacks,” with mashed potatoes and tomato soup. The protests were recorded and posted on social media by activists in Germany and the United Kingdom to help draw attention to concerns of the ongoing climate catastrophe and its effects on future generations. This week, write a story from the perspective of someone who plans and performs a public protest inside a museum. What work of art helps represent their message?

10.19.22

The traditional tarot deck can be divided into two sections: the minor and major arcana. The former focuses on quotidian details, while the latter reveals the bigger picture of one’s life. Composed of twenty-two cards, the major arcana tells the story of life’s endless cycles, beginning with the first card of the Fool, symbolizing naivety and new beginnings, and ending with the last card of the World, representing all of life’s major achievements and stages. As we move closer to ushering in a new year, write a short story that begins with the end of one cycle in your character’s life and concludes with the beginning of a new one. What does the journey between these two life stages look like? Explore the inner life of your protagonist as they find their way toward a new path.

10.12.22

Have you ever tried to tell a story in reverse order? In the latest installment of our Ten Questions series, E. M. Tran discusses the challenges she faced while writing her debut novel, Daughters of the New Year (Hanover Square Press, 2022), which moves backward in time. “I had to shift my mindset,” says Tran. “Tension and narrative movement can still accumulate when you go backward. It just looked different, and I had to really get comfortable with that when I was writing.” This week, write a story that moves backward in time. Start with the ending and guide the reader back to the origins of your character’s journey.

10.5.22

What can we learn from a single conversation? In Richard Bausch’s short story “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” the protagonist Ballinger speaks to his daughter Melanie over the phone. The conversation, which increases in stakes and tension as it progresses, centers around both parties needing to share life-altering news: Melanie is pregnant and planning to marry an older man while Ballinger and his wife are planning to separate. The story is told with very little narration and is almost entirely written in dialogue. This week try writing a story that takes place over the course of a phone call. Consider what is said and unsaid in the dialogue and how this creates tension between your characters.

9.28.22

In a recent episode of the science podcast Ologies, host Alie Ward speaks with Cole Imperi, founder of the School of American Thanatology and a leading expert on death, dying, and grief. Ward talks about her experience with her father’s death and asks Imperi about the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Imperi discusses the common misconception that these stages are experienced by all in a linear order, and that in fact, many may not experience all the stages and some may switch from one stage to another and return to one again. This week, write a story in which a character grieves over the loss of something or someone. Use the Kübler-Ross model as inspiration to plot out your character’s development.

9.21.22

In an essay featured in the September/October 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Evison writes about the banning of his 2018 novel, Lawn Boy, and the morning he found out that parents were protesting the inclusion of his novel in a Texas high school library. Evison awoke to several threatening messages on his social media accounts which included one that read: “There’s a special place in hell for people like you. I hope you burn.” This week, write a story from the perspective of a writer whose book is banned and targeted by a group of parents and local politicians. In what unexpected way is your protagonist’s life changed by this sudden fame?

9.14.22

The Venice International Film Festival in Italy is the world’s oldest film festival and is a marker for the year’s most celebrated accomplishments in cinema. There is always glitz and glamour on the red carpet, but this year the media focused on rumors of tension between the costars of the film Don’t Worry Darling, harkening back to old Hollywood and the gossip and alleged rivalry between stars such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe. This week write a short story in which gossip creates tension between your characters. How will your characters react once they become the talk of the town?

9.7.22

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention, in which natural and cultural sites around the world are considered and added to a list to protect and preserve their heritage. There are currently over one thousand legally protected sites, which include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Mount Fuji in Japan, Canaima National Park in Venezuela, and Victoria Falls in Zambia. Explore the UNESCO World Heritage list and write a story that takes place at one of these protected sites. Read through the site’s history for ideas on how to weave this setting into your story.

8.31.22

In a recent thread on Twitter, author Rebecca Makkai begins a discussion on words that make prose awkward in fiction, starting with the use of “as” in a sentence such as: “‘Hey there,’ I said as I got up as I turned on the lights.’” Other awkward words Makkai lists include “temporal hinge words” like “after” and “while,” the overuse of “that” in a sentence, and the use of gerunds, especially as dialogue modifiers. The last tip Makkai offers is a useful one: “I promise you, if you control + F through your work just on the words ‘as’ and ‘that’ and take out 90% of them, you’ll be so happy.” Try using this advice to revise a draft of a short story you’re working on. Remove some of the narrative devices listed in Makkai’s tweets and see how the rhythm of your story’s language changes.

8.24.22

In an essay published in our September/October 2022 issue, Valeria Luiselli writes about her selection process as guest editor of The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners, the latest installment of the anthology series. Luiselli speaks about the significance of the prize changing the “American author” rule to accepting all English-language writers appearing in North American publications regardless of citizenship, as well as work in translation, and how this opens up “the unknowable, the unpredictable, and the strange” within these short stories. She writes: “That is precisely what good stories feel like: Within the setting of complete familiarity, the flowering of the extraneous.” Inspired by this description, write a short story that follows an unpredictable path. Try, as Luiselli describes, to draw out extraneous outcomes from familiar circumstances.

Pages