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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
The beginning of the fall season is marked in late September by the autumnal equinox, which signals the shortening of days and lengthening of nights, and by the harvest moon. Although dependence on the moon has waned in modern society, farmers once looked to the bright, early moonlight to help harvest their summer crops. In many East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the harvest moon is still honored through annual celebrations that include moon gazing, eating moon-shaped desserts, and lighting lanterns. Inspired by this rich history, write a story in which a protagonist relies on the harvest moon. How will you build the stakes for a story that depends on a lunar phenomenon?
In an article for the New York Times for Kids special section for July, Josh Ocampo interviews sixty-eight kids over the course of three summer days on Coney Island in Brooklyn. The iconic neighborhood is best known for its festive boardwalk along the beach, annual hot dog eating contest, and amusement parks, home of the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone roller coaster. The article features quirky, silly, and sometimes serious responses to what they’ve experienced at the classic New York spot, such as taking their dog on the Ferris wheel, wearing a hat instead of sunscreen on their face, and how seagulls steal their hot dogs. Consider writing a story from the point of view of a kid spending the summer at a popular amusement park or beach boardwalk. What fleeting dramas take place during this hot and vigorous season?
In an essay excerpt published on Literary Hub, which appears in Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature (Graywolf Press, 2022), Charles Baxter writes about an exercise he would assign to his students in which they are asked to compile ten facts about one of their characters, encouraging them to consider “particularized details.” He writes: “For example, you can say, ‘She likes chocolate,’ but almost everybody likes chocolate. It’s better to say, ‘The only chocolate she will eat is imported from Mozambique.’” Try out this exercise and compile ten things you know about a new, invented character. Then, write a short story with this character at the core. How do these details inform the personality and actions of your protagonist?
“My novel, An American Marriage, involves a husband and wife with an unusual challenge: Eighteen months after exchanging their vows, he is arrested and incarcerated for a crime he does not commit,” writes Tayari Jones in “Finding the Center” from an installment of our Craft Capsule series published in 2018. In the essay, Jones writes about the process of choosing the protagonist of her award-winning novel: “I discovered a fundamental truth of fiction and perhaps of life: The character with the most pressing material crisis will always be the center of the story.” This week, write a story in which you explore two sides of the same conflict between two characters. Whether by dividing the story into two parts, or weaving both perspectives together, how can you differentiate their individual stakes and perspectives?
Literature is fueled by its villains as much as it is by its heroes, and oftentimes, the villains make more compelling characters due to their flaws, convincing arguments, and twisted aspirations. Shakespeare’s villains are infamous for their layers of complexity. For example, Lady Macbeth, as she sleepwalks in Act V of Macbeth, hallucinates and sees her own bloodstained hands revealing both her guilt as much as her cruelty: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” she says. Then as she reflects on plotting to kill King Duncan says: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” This week, write a story with a compelling, complicated villain at its core. How will you turn this villain into a three-dimensional character?
This past Sunday marked Marcel Proust’s birthday, the French novelist, essayist, and critic whose list of work includes his iconic seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. In the first volume, Swann’s Way, the protagonist dips a madeleine cake in his tea, takes a sip, and is overcome with a sensation of joy he traces back to a childhood memory of sharing a snack with his aunt Léonie. Proust has been named the originator of the term “involuntary memory,” which, according to Psychology Today, is “now understood to be a common mental recall experience that happens without any effort.” This week, write a story in which a character experiences a moment of “involuntary memory.” Either through food or an unexpected encounter, try immersing the reader in this memory which uncovers a secret in your character’s life.
In Flannery O’Connor’s classic story “The Geranium,” an old, Southern man moves to New York City to live with his daughter and sits at the window looking into the apartment across the street where a potted geranium is set out on the ledge for sunlight every day. Although the story’s conflict involves the man’s racism and culture shock as a rural Southerner living in a big city, the story’s climax comes to a head when the geranium falls off the ledge and crashes six floors down into the alley. Write a story in which a character becomes obsessed with a neighbor’s life. What is transfixing about the neighbor’s daily routine that spurs on self-reflection for your character?
According to Merriam-Webster, the “dog days” are “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere.” As the month of July begins this week, many may begin to experience extreme heat and the stress that arrives along with it. Write a story set during the dog days of summer. Perhaps your character is faced with a big decision on the hottest day of the year or is on an exciting summer trip. How can the harsh weather add pressure to your character’s behavior?
In a Q&A with Neil Gaiman by Michele Filgate from the July/August 2013 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the prolific author reflects on his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, 2013), which is written from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. In his responses, Gaiman considers children’s unique perspective on life and how “kids really do know things that would terrify adults. I think it’s only a certain amount of amnesia that allows adults to function.” This week write a story with a child protagonist who has seen something life-changing. How do they cope, what are their private thoughts, and what are they willing to disclose to the adults around them?
“We talk a lot about bodies: from their right to safety and respect to how they take up space, from their sizes and shapes and shades to what each is able to do, it’s a conversation that’s both constant and ever-evolving,” write editors Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile in the introduction to Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves, forthcoming in July from Catapult. In this wide-ranging collection of personal narratives, writers take on the subject of the body through various lenses; for instance, Natalie Lima documents the ways men fetishize her size and Melissa Hung reflects on how swimming eases her chronic headaches. Write a story in which your protagonist is made aware of their body. How does this new awareness affect the way they carry themselves in the world? Does their relationship to their own body change, and if so, does the language you use to describe your character change too?
Pride Month is celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The first Pride March in New York City was held in 1970 and has since become an annual civil rights demonstration as well as a celebration of the queer community. Cities all around the world, including Athens, Berlin, Taipei, Tel Aviv, and Zurich, now host extravagant parades and parties throughout the month. Write a story that occurs during a Pride celebration in which things take an unexpected turn for the protagonist. Will your characters be swept away in a parade or end the night somewhere they’ve never been before?
With all the turmoil in the world, it is sometimes easy to forget the kindness shared between strangers and loved ones. Reader’s Digest recently asked their readers to share stories of everyday kindness, which included donating gifts and buying groceries for someone in need. This week, inspired by these firsthand accounts of compassion, write a story of your own in which a moment of human kindness is shared between characters. How does this act of goodwill help, if even for a second, to relieve the pressure from your characters’ lives?
Allegra Hyde’s climate fiction novel, Eleutheria (Vintage, 2022), takes place in the near future, bringing readers into a familiar dystopian world. In a recent interview on Late Night With Seth Myers, Hyde explains why she chose this time period: “By having it in the near future, I could think through what’s going to happen, and more importantly, how we might problem solve, how we might mobilize.” This week, write a story set in a time not too distant from today with familiar details that slowly stray from reality.
In a profile of Emma Straub for the Cut by Kate Dwyer, the author and bookstore owner discusses her new novel, This Time Tomorrow (Riverhead Books, 2022), which follows a woman who, on her fortieth birthday, unexpectedly travels back to 1996 and relives her sixteenth birthday. This week write a short story that uses time travel to explore a character’s youth. Why does your protagonist end up in that specific time period, and how will this experience shed light on their present-day life?
In “Can Motherhood Be a Mode of Rebellion?” an essay published in the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes about Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change (Harper Wave, 2022) by Angela Garbes, a book analyzing the state of caregiving in America, and reflects on the experience of hiring a nanny for “a job so crucial and difficult that it seems objectively holy.” This week think of a job that is often unappreciated or unacknowledged and write a story from the perspective of a character who works this job. How can you render their perspective through detailed observations of the world around them?
With cool spring weather comes allergy season, the time of year many become suffused with itchy eyes, runny noses, and relentless sneezing. This common ailment is exasperated by the rainy season and blowing winds that spread pollen, and global warming is creating an even longer pollen season, according to many published studies. Write a story in which a protagonist struggles with allergies in springtime. How will this detail carry importance in the plot’s development? For inspiration, read Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Death of a Government Clerk,” which begins with the protagonist sneezing.
In an excerpt of Noor Naga’s new novel, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English (Graywolf Press, 2022), published on Literary Hub, one of the main characters, an Egyptian American woman who moves to Cairo to teach English, discusses her relationship with her mother through a question and answer structure of vignettes. Rather than straightforward queries with direct replies, the questions are specific and personal—for example, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, should your mother be punished?” and “Is it arrogant to return to a place you’ve never been?”—setting up a tension that elevates the stakes for the character’s emotional arc. Taking inspiration from Naga’s novel, think of three questions that relate to your protagonist’s conflict, then answer these questions through first-person vignettes. How does this exercise help you understand your character, as well as challenge the traditional structure of a story?
Crocuses, daffodils, irises, tulips, bloodroot: Spring is the time when blooming flowers arrive to symbolize, if only briefly, the rebirth of the natural world and the chance for new beginnings. The English bluebell, for example, blooms in April and May, flashing wild indigo before dying when the temperature rises. Crocuses are known for their sudden blooming, with no prior signal, sometimes peeking up through snow before lasting only about three weeks. Taking inspiration from the relatively brief life of flowers, write a story in which a protagonist finds a new direction for living, sparked by the presence of spring blooms. How will your protagonist grow out of the long winter? What can we learn about your character using the yearly persistence of blossoming flowers as a guiding metaphor?
“What is revealed by the early manuscripts of classic novels?” asks Hephzibah Anderson in an article published on BBC Culture, in which first drafts of famous novelists like Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are examined. Woolf’s manuscripts reveal a writer radically rethinking the end of her iconic novel, Mrs. Dalloway, while Proust’s drafts show liberally crossed-out and annotated sections as well as a key rethinking of a central image: the madeleine, which originally began as a slice of toast and a cup of tea. This week try a different strategy for a first draft and write a story out of order. Jot down three crucial scenes from a story you’ve been wanting to begin. Then, at random, pick one and write a draft of that scene. How does this help relieve the pressure of drafting a whole new story from beginning to end?
From New York socialite con artist Anna Delvey to Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the fraudulent health technology company Theranos, to Simon Leviev, who allegedly conned millions of dollars from women through the dating app Tinder, these actors of true crime have dominated the subject of several television shows, documentaries, and movies. Inspired by these dangerous tricksters, write a story with a con artist as the protagonist. What do they think and sound like? Do they have an unrecognizable accent or use popular social media platforms to connect with their victims?