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.

7.28.11

Go for a walk, paying careful attention to your surroundings, until you find something that doesn't belong. It could be a piece of garbage on the street, a coin, an animal, a car battery in the woods, anything out of place. Tell the story of how it got there.

7.27.11

In a radio interview this week on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock, whose most recent novel, The Devil All the Time, was published this month, talked about how he learned to write by typing out a story by an established author once a week. Use Pollock’s strategy this week, typing a story by an author whose writing you admire. After typing it out, print out a copy and carry it with you, reading and rereading it, making notes along the way. Let the process reveal the story’s gifts to you. Then begin a story of your own.

7.21.11

Create a main character assigning basic characteristics, such as gender, age, and physical attributes. Imagine this character having dinner with three other people. At the end of this dinner, the character will have lost something significant—a job, a partner, a home. Write this scene at dinner, and then use it as a turning point for a larger story

7.13.11

Choose a unique historical moment, the first that comes to mind: the Crimean War, the first lunar landing, the invention of the wheel, or something seemingly less dramatic, such as the building of the first traffic light. Then spend some time researching the moment you chose—dig into a few sources, make a page of notes. Create a character who lives on the periphery of the event—a witness or minor player, yet someone living at the intersection of history. The character can be swept up by the event or remotely affected, battle against it or be its biggest cheerleader. Write his or her story.

7.7.11

Think about an incident from your life—something especially monumental, unexpected, or traumatic that altered the way you see the world. Write a story or essay about it, but from someone else’s perspective. You can appear as a character in the story, but explore it from outside of yourself, as an event that happened, but not one that happened to you.

6.29.11

Open your medicine cabinet and choose something from it that one character will use to kill another in a story.

6.22.11

Track down what's referred to as "the Flitcraft parable" or "the Falling Beams story" in Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon. Read it first as a period piece, but then try to bring it closer to your world. Focus on that devastating final line of the story, "He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling." Read that sentence over and over again, and allow yourself to feel the promise and the terror contained within the sentence—the promise of change, the terror of sameness. Now begin a story using that sentence and see where it leads you.
This week's fiction prompt comes from Siddhartha Deb, author of the novels The Point of Return (HarperCollins, 2002) andAn Outline of the Republic (Ecco, 2005). His book of nonfiction, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, will be published in August by Faber and Faber.

6.15.11

Write a story using the following as the first sentence: There are three things she told me never to do.

6.8.11

Make a list of your daily routine during any given week: wake up, shower, drink coffee, walk the dog, drive to work, go to lunch, have dinner with friends, etc. Choose an event from that list and use it as the starting point for a scene, but transform the mundane into the complicated by introducing something unexpected. If, for example, you choose driving to work as your starting point, disrupt the ride with a phone call, an accident, a radio broadcast—something that changes what would normally happen. Write a story from there.

6.2.11

Take a character from a story you've written or choose a character that you'd like to write about. Create an object that you imagine the character owns--a purse, for example, filling it with a wallet, lipstick, a notepad, a flashlight, keys, etc.; or a desk drawer or a check register. Write about each of the items contained within the object. What color is the lipstick? Is it the character's favorite color? Why? What's in the wallet? If there are receipts, where are they from? Explore your character through the object you've created.

5.26.11

Think about the times in your life when you've been the most frightened. Choose one of these times, and write a scene or story about what happened using third-person narration.

5.18.11

Write a scene in which two characters who are close (friends, relatives, a couple) are secretly angry at each other about something that has happened in the past. Decide what they are angry about before writing the scene but don't write about it directly. Instead, reveal the tension between them in the dialogue and in the actions involved in accomplishing a mundane task they are doing together, such as moving a couch, setting up a tent, making dinner, or painting a house.

5.12.11

Choose a bureaucracy: the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Post Office, the Army,etc. Imagine two people who work there, one a supervisor, the other an underling, and write their letters of resignation. Then write a scene where the two former co-workers meet for coffee three years later.

5.5.11

Take a story you know extremely well, such as how my parents met, my first kiss, or the night I was born and fictionalize it by writing it from a distinct or unlikely point of view. For example, using the story how my parents met, write it from your father's perspective or from the perspective of the bartender at the bar where they met.
This week's fiction prompt comes from Joanna Hershon, author of three novels, including The German Bride (Ballantine, 2008).

4.28.11

In a Paris Review interview, fiction writer Amy Hempel talks about a workshop she took with legendary editor Gordon Lish in which he assigned  the class to "write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, 'dismantles your own sense of yourself.'" From this came her story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." Follow Lish's assignment. Write a story about your worst secret.

4.19.11

Eavesdrop on two people having a conversation in a public place. (Avoid small-talk, conversations about the weather.) Write down exactly what they say, including their "ums," "uhs," "likes," and stutters for two pages. Then rewrite that page, using only dialogue, but making it more suited for the literary page; clean it up, keeping the sentiments, but getting rid of all the inconsequential words and lines, and even changing the language to make it more engrossing. (Try to find the subtext behind what they’re saying and what you observed about them while listening.) Compare the original and the revised dialogue. The revision will still be boring, as most people’s conversations are, but the point is to see how fictional dialogue is not the same as spoken dialogue.
This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Teddy Wayne, author of the novel Kapitoil (Harper Perennial, 2010).

4.14.11

Choose a social-media Web site, and click on the profile of a person you don't know. Look at his photos, interests, and friends. Give this person a new name, and write a story about something you imagine happened to him ten years in the past, an event that altered the course of his life.

4.7.11

Take a standard medical form from a doctor's office and fill it out in the persona of a character you're working on. Generating even basic information—the name of her street, her family's medical history, her emergency contact—may lead to new insights about her life and her background that you can explore later.
This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Eleanor Henderson, whose first novel, Ten Thousand Saints, will be published by Ecco in June.

3.31.11

Take a book off the shelf and write down the opening line. Then substitute as many words as possible with your own words, keeping the syntax and parts of speech intact. Then keep writing. Performing this kind of literary "Mad Lib" often creates a useful starting place for a story, especially when the sentence contains an intersection of character, setting, and situation. Or try using these opening lines, from Faulkner, García Márquez, and Plath, respectively:

Through the [concrete noun], between the [adjective] [concrete noun], I could see them [verb ending in "ing"].

It was inevitable: the scent of [adjective] [plural noun] always reminded him of the [noun] of [adjective] [noun].

It was a [adjective], [adjective] [season], the [same season] they [transitive verb, past tense] the [family name, plural], and I didn't know what I was doing in [city].

This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Eleanor Henderson, whose first novel, Ten Thousand Saints, will be published by Ecco in June.

3.24.11

In the third person, write a scene using three different modes of narrative distance. First, using an objective point of view, describe a woman boarding a bus. Use only actions, expressions, and dialogue; make no judgments about the scene or about her interior life. Then, using the omniscient point of view, describe the woman striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to her. You can still describe what you see on the "outside," but now, reveal something "inside" that only a privileged narrator would know. (Is she late for work? Is she worried about something? Is she bored by the conversation?) Finally, shift into stream of consciousness as the woman gets off the bus. Continue to access the woman's thoughts, feelings, and memories, but use the language of the character herself, revealing "the process as well as the content of the mind," as Janet Burroway says. This wide range of voices may be extreme, but it allows for a full portrait of a character's inner and outer life—and reminds us that no point of view is static.
This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Eleanor Henderson, whose first novel, Ten Thousand Saints, will be published by Ecco in June.

3.17.11

Find a story you admire, one with a tight, linear structure. Stories by Flannery O'Connor or Tobias Wolff would be good choices. Read the story slowly and thoroughly five times, so that you are emotionally detached from the narrative, so that you are able to recognize every sentence as a moving part that contributes to the overall design. Then read it again, for a sixth time, with a notebook next to you. Chart the architecture of the story. Indicate a new paragraph with a dotted line running across the page. Separate every instance of white space with a bold line. Track each paragraph, noting every relevant element. Example: Opens with a description of setting that clues us in to the mood of despair. Character A introduced with a line of dialogue that reveals his selfishness. And so on. When you finish, write your own story that bears no resemblance to the original except in its design. Paste new flesh on an old skeleton. For canonical examples of this, compare "Mexico" by Rick Bass to "The Prophet From Jupiter" by Tony Early or "The Lady With the Pet Dog" by Anton Chekhov to "The Man With the Lapdog" by Beth Lordan.
This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Benjamin Percy, whose most recent novel, The Wilding, was published in September 2010.

3.10.11

Think of a piece of gossip you've heard and identify the least sympathetic person involved. Maybe it's the adulterous mother of two? Or the Salvation Army bell ringer who, during the holidays, pocketed some of the donations he'd collected? Write a story from the perspective of the least sympathetic person with the piece of gossip as the narrative climax. You might also try writing the story with the piece of gossip as the inciting action of the story, as the event that sets everything in motion.
This week's fiction prompt comes from Bret Anthony Johnston, fiction writer and editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer.

3.3.11

Make a list of five physical artifacts that seem to lack emotional weight, the more mundane the better. A donut, a vacuum cleaner, a pair of socks, etc. From your list, choose one of the artifacts, and use it as the emotional linchpin of a story. Write a story in which, say, a vacuum cleaner takes on enormous and surprising emotional significance to a character. For an example of how this can work, read Ann Beattie's story "Janus" from her collection Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories (Scribner, 2002).
This week's fiction prompt comes from Bret Anthony Johnston, fiction writer and editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer.

2.24.11

Write a scene for a story, set in a kitchen, with two characters. One of the characters is keeping a secret from the other. (The secret can be as big as, "You're adopted" or as small as, "I forgot to pay the cable bill.") The character with the secret doesn't reveal it, but still the secret bears down on everything the characters say to each other, the way they touch or don't touch each other, the things and places they turn their eyes to. Let the secrets either emerge or disappear, depending on the way the story evolves.
This week's fiction prompt comes from novelist Lauren Grodstein, author most recently of A Friend of the Family (Algonquin Books, 2009).

2.17.11

Make a list of traditionally happy occasions: Weddings, children's birthday parties, trips to the beach, promotions at the office, etc. Choose one of the occasions and write a story that subverts the reader's expectations by engaging the opposite emotions. How might a children's birthday party turn frightening? (Hint: clowns!) How might a trip to the beach turn sad? Why would someone be angry about a promotion? The answer is always in the story.
This week's fiction prompt comes from Bret Anthony Johnston, fiction writer and editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer.

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