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.

6.11.14

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

6.4.14

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

5.28.14

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

5.21.14

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

5.12.14

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

5.7.14

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

4.30.14

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

4.23.14

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

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 into an 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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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