In 1994, Microsoft asked composer Brian Eno to create the start-up music for their Windows 95 operating system, a six-second piece that became iconic. In an interview for the San Francisco Chronicle, Eno reflected on the process: “It’s like making a tiny little jewel…. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work.” This week, try writing tiny stories: perhaps a single paragraph, or even a single sentence. Experiment by using as few words as possible to tell a memorable tale.
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.
“Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden.” Steve Almond’s essay “The Darkness Within: In Praise of the Unlikable” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine examines off-putting characters throughout literature and the issues that surround readers’ responses to them: gender, reader sensibility, morality, the role of literature, the publishing industry. Write a short story that showcases a main character’s repellent or abrasive behavior. In what way does complicating the character to make the reader uncomfortable and unsympathetic express an understanding of how struggles with failure and darkness are an integral part of the human experience?
Something Something Soup Something is a video game, or “interactive thought experiment,” created by Dr. Stefano Gualeni, a philosopher and video game designer at the University of Malta. In the game, you are presented with an image and a list of ingredients, and are simply asked to decide “Soup” or “Not Soup.” For example: “Rocks with flies and a candy cane served in a hat with a fork.” Taking this question as inspiration, try writing a scene that begins with a bowl of soup. Perhaps the scene focuses on the senses involved in creating and tasting the soup, or an absurd bit of dialogue debating the definition of soup. Let the strangeness of this thought experiment guide your story out of the ordinary.
Many traditional symbols of the winter holiday season bring with them associations of playfulness, innocence, togetherness, and celebration. Jo Nesbø’s crime novel The Snowman, however, turns one such symbol on its head, following a detective as he tracks a serial killer whose victims are always found after winter’s first snowfall, with a snowman nearby. Many other authors have experimented with the ominous side of holiday symbolism, such as Terry Pratchett in his fantasy novel Hogfather (a twist on Father Christmas); Christopher Moore in the satirical The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror; and Nick Hornby in his darkly humorous A Long Way Down, in which four strangers coincidentally decide to jump off the roof of the same high-rise building on New Year’s Eve. Write a short story in which you subvert an expectation that arises with a holiday of your choice, imbuing one of the symbols surrounding the occasion with a new layer of meaning. Why might holiday cheer and sentimentality inspire stories of the opposite?
Of the nearly seventy thousand passenger elevators in New York City, there are likely less than a hundred left that are holdovers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, manually run by full-time elevator operators. This week, write a scene for a short story that takes place in a manually operated elevator. Do the passengers feel a sense of wonder, anxiety, or accustomed indifference in the old-fashioned space with its noisy and rickety movements? What kind of conversation or other interaction might take place between passengers and the operator?
In her new photography series titled “Home,” Gohar Dashti explores the interiors of houses in her native Iran that have been abandoned and reclaimed by nature. The images create an ambiguous effect; an old bedroom overrun with wildflowers is lovely in one sense, but also hints at a darker history. What happened in these houses and why did the people who once lived in them leave? This week, imagine what it would look, sound, and smell like, and how it would feel to have your childhood home overtaken by nature. Try using this eerie space as the setting for a short story.
The Entomological Society Krefeld, a volunteer-run group of amateur insect enthusiasts, recently published their findings showing that the insect population they tested in nature preserves in western Germany had decreased by over 75 percent over the course of thirty years. This decline is thought to accurately reflect the insect species on a much larger and international scale. Write a short story that takes place in a world where there are no insects left. Aside from no longer needing to clean bugs off of car windshields, what are the repercussions given the integral role that insects play in the ecosystem? Does your story include a movement to bring insects back?
“I don’t believe in not believing in guilty pleasures.” This line, written by Elisa Gabbert in her essay “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” in the Paris Review, is one of Slate’s “19 Best Sentences of 2017.” Write a short story inspired by one of your favorite sentences from the year, perhaps read or heard in an essay, speech, social media post, poem, song, or work of fiction. You might decide to use it as the first or last line of the story, or allow your plotline or characterization to be more conceptually informed by your inferences of the sentence’s implications or mood.
In her story “My Wife, in Converse,” Shelly Oria delivers a narrative about a relationship in eighteen short sections, including one section that’s only nine words long. This fragmented approach allows the story to unfold and reveal so much about the characters while using a relatively small number of words. For a writer, an approach like this can be liberating: not every scene needs to be neatly explained or expanded. This week, try writing your own short story in eighteen sections, and listen for the conversation that develops between them.
Though indoor shopping malls hit a peak in the mid- to late-1980s, financial services company Credit Suisse reported earlier this year that about a quarter of the enclosed malls still existing in the United States will be shut down within the next five years. Write a short story that takes place in what was once a popular shopping mall. Is it completely in shambles or just eerily empty? Has the mall been repurposed, as some have been, into entirely new spaces such as micro apartments, hospitals, offices, churches, greenhouses, and sports arenas? How does this affect the characters, their livelihoods and community?
John Berger begins his classic book Ways of Seeing with the sentence: “Seeing comes before words.” He argues that, “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” In a sense, the stories we write depend upon what we choose to focus on; by looking at something, we bring it to life. Yet it’s possible to fall into patterns of attention in which our vision becomes predictable, and potentially meaningful curiosities go unseen. Try freewriting about an object that might typically be overlooked. Maybe it’s a toothbrush, or the zipper on a jacket, or a stain on a sidewalk. What does it look like? Where did it come from? How was it made? How long has it been there? What has it seen? At a certain point, description may give way to imagination, which could lead to the beginning of a new story.
Max Brooks’s fantasy novel Minecraft: The Island (Del Rey, 2017), about a main character who must learn to survive on an island, is designed to reflect the experience of playing the Minecraft video game; in fact the narrative can be re-created in the actual video game. Write a short story that incorporates a video game, real or imagined, perhaps taking inspiration from other game-related novels such as Dennis Cooper’s God Jr. (Black Cat, 2005), in which a father is preoccupied with a scene in his deceased son’s favorite game; Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Crown, 2011), in which the teenage protagonist seeks to discover the secret hidden inside a game by its creator; or Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, 2016), in which the main character is addicted to video games. Can you draw any parallels between the journey of being a player in a game and the character arc that develops over the course of your story?
Miranda July’s short story “The Metal Bowl” is about a marriage and a secret that one partner brings to it, but the narrative ends up depending on the eponymous metal bowl. July’s story joins a tradition of short stories that hinge on a single (often surprisingly mundane) object, such as Lydia Davis’s “The Sock” and Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Accordion.” Try writing your own short story or scene in which a nondescript object plays a crucial role.
In the New York Times Magazine’s piece “The Dinners That Shaped History,” Jessica B. Harris, Bee Wilson, and Brenda Wineapple each write about an eventful meal that changed the course of history, including Harris’s account of a rowdy dinner party in Paris hosted by Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire in 1908 which reportedly transformed Henri Rousseau from unappreciated joke into legitimate painter. Write a short story that revolves around a meal that has drastically unexpected and far-reaching results. At what point during the meal does it become evident that something extraordinary is brewing, and can any of the guests foresee the momentousness of the occasion? How does the food serve as a reflection of, or foil to, the history-making consequences of the meal?
“Jane Googles ‘Edward Rochester.’” In a humorous post on the New Statesman, Amelia Tait lists “how 25 of the world’s greatest tales would be destroyed by dastardly tech,” including Jane Eyre. This week, choose a scene from a classic story and write a new version in which you introduce an anachronistic piece of technology into the plotline. How does the modern invention highlight the ways in which interpersonal communication and conventions are tied to the speed and ease with which knowledge is accessed? Does something like Instagram, autocorrect, or a smartphone help, hinder, or transform your characters’ ultimate goals?
Earlier this year, scientists published a finding that all of the spiders in the world together consume a total of four to eight hundred million tons of prey every year, which is more than the estimated weight of all humans in the world. In its report of this study, the Washington Post offered the nightmare-inducing headline, “Spiders Could Theoretically Eat Every Human on Earth in One Year.” Write a short story that could adapt this headline as its title and considers a confrontation between human being and spider, whether one-on-one, or perhaps a freakishly larger-scale battle. Can you find both humor and horror in the scene?
In “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, author Laura Hulthen Thomas describes a phone call in which her elderly great-aunt recounted Thomas’s great-grandmother engaging in recklessly brazen behavior. Hearing this tale gave Thomas the courage and inspiration to recommit to writing during a period when she had almost given up on it. Write a short story in which your main character has a phone conversation with a relative who offers up a long-ago and unexpected memory about a family member. How does the story change the character’s perspective on life and trajectory? What kind of an effect might the revelation of a bold sense of adventure in one’s familial past have on someone feeling hopeless and apprehensive of taking risks?
Earlier this year, Ernest Hemingway’s first short story was discovered in Key West, Florida, spanning fourteen handwritten pages of a notebook. The untitled story, written when Hemingway was ten years old, is a fictional travelogue through Ireland and Scotland that includes both researched facts and imagined scenes and characters. Write a fictional travel story that mirrors Hemingway’s epistolary form and incorporates letters and diary entries, or other invented documents.
It was recently discovered that a Viking warrior who was buried in present-day Sweden more than a millennium ago and long presumed to be a wealthy man, was actually a woman. Since the grave contained a sword, an axe, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, signifying the individual was a professional warrior, most researchers assumed the body was male. This week, think of a male character from a favorite short story, and write a new version of the story in which the character is a woman. Which elements of the story will you keep the same and which do you change?
“Trust your dialogue. If you don’t, make it stronger. Then, once your dialogue is strong, bring in action beats that amplify the speaker’s message, not messy gerunds that clutter it,” writes Wiley Cash in “The Art of Active Dialogue,” a micro essay in our Craft Capsules series. Cash examines the ways in which using purposefully planned action beats can give written dialogue a more powerful impact. Write a short fictional conversation between two characters, perhaps inspired by a recently overheard dialogue. Play around with Cash’s tips, ensuring each line is character-specific, using strong active words, minimizing gerunds, and experimenting with placing action beats and dialogue lines in separate sentences.
Plant blindness is a term used by botanists and horticulturists to describe contemporary humanity’s general inability to see the plants and trees in our daily environments as more than just decorative background. Many gardening and plant experts and enthusiasts encourage educational courses or casual tree identification walks as activities that can begin influencing the way the majority of people view and value plants. Write a short story in which a character who once had plant blindness develops a new awareness of greenery. What moment or situation provokes the change? Does the change manifest itself in dramatic and monumental ways, or in more subtle shifts of behavior and beliefs?
In the past fifteen years or so, dozens of lighthouses no longer needed by the United States Coast Guard have been auctioned off to the public. Buyers have found a variety of new uses for their lighthouses, such as converting them into hotels or vacation homes, or even a concert venue. Write a short story in which your main character comes into possession of a decommissioned lighthouse. Where is it located and how does she decide to make use of it? Does it end up being a blessing or a burden? How can you play with the metaphorical potential of the lighthouse in an unexpected way?
The campus novel is a work of fiction that revolves primarily around an academic campus, most often a college or university. Some fall into the category of coming-of-age stories, such as Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, while others are more focused on faculty, such as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Campus novels offer the opportunity to explore characters within the hierarchical structures and pressurized environment of a closed educational system and the contrasting perspectives of teachers and students because of differences in age, power, class, and social and cultural values. Write a short story that focuses on students and/or teachers in a high school or college setting, perhaps integrating elements of comedy and satire like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Jane Smiley’s Moo, science fiction like Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, murder mystery like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, sports like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, or supernatural Gothic horror like Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed.
In “How Deep This Grief: Wrestling With Writing as Therapy” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Ian Stansel recounts not being able to write about his sister after her death, but realizing that he could write for her and try to write a book that she would love. Part of Stansel’s writing practice involves choosing someone he knows, often a family member, to stand in as the “ideal reader” that he keeps in mind while working on specific projects. Write a short story and use someone you know as an imagined ideal reader. Does having one specific person as your imagined reader inspire you to draw certain ideas, motifs, traits, or themes to the surface?
Total eclipses throughout history have been the cause and inspiration for countless tales of strange or mysterious occurrences, including odd behavior exhibited by confused animals: birds flying erratically, spiders destroying their webs, frogs and crickets chirping, whales breaching, and bats appearing. Write a short story that takes place over the duration of a total solar eclipse, in which an animal’s reaction to the sudden darkness is the catalyst for an unexpected turn of events.