In “The Emotional Realist Talks to Ghosts” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, George Saunders discusses the different stages of writing his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). The long process included attempting a third-person version of the story, as well as a play. Though neither form was quite right, Saunders says, “It made me more convinced that there was definitely a story there.” Take a short story in progress and rewrite one particular scene in two new forms—from a different narrative point of view, and in a dramatic script format. What are the main ideas that remain consistent and integral to the story throughout all three versions?
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.
“She imagines him imagining her. This is her salvation,” writes Margaret Atwood in her 2000 novel The Blind Assassin. Write a short story in which one segment involves a main character imagining another character imagining him. You may decide to differentiate this segment by setting apart the text in italics, or explicitly stating that it is imagined, or perhaps you may decide to blur the line between real and imagined. In what ways does this line of thought help your character through a conflict or obstacle? What does this insight tell us about how he perceives himself in relation to others?
Last week, a new McDonald’s in Italy opened that features not only fast food, but also a preserved stretch of paved Roman road from the second century BCE—first discovered when construction for the restaurant began in 2014. Write a short story in which a new structure is being built and something surprising is excavated on the construction site. What does the discovery reveal about something previously hidden or mysterious in this geographical location? Is there a reason for the concealment? Will a conflict or debate arise over how to proceed with the unexpected unearthing?
Social justice movements require strong leadership, organization, and resources, often starting with a demonstration leading to more action. Write a short story in which the protagonist wants to organize a demonstration for a cause. What events lead her to this point? Who does she turn to for help? Use the backdrop of this activity to reflect on the growth and development of your character as a leader.
Researchers recently discovered a new addition to the genus of lizard species that can shed their skin and scales when grabbed by a predator, in order to slip away and escape. The Geckolepis megalepis has the largest known gecko scales, and is able to shed them with particular ease, looking like a “raw chicken tender” before its scales are regenerated over the course of a few weeks. Write a short story in which your main character is able to escape from danger by altering her physical appearance in a drastic way. Why is it imperative that she escape? How does her transformation both save her and make her vulnerable? What is her “regeneration” process?
Last month, hundreds of thousands of red Skittles were found on a highway road in Wisconsin, having spilled from a truck transporting the candy for integration into cattle feed. Write a short story that starts with a similarly striking image of something highly unusual found on a road. As the story progresses, continue escalating the mystery and oddity of the situation. Does the story end with a satisfactory resolution, or does it leave the reader with lingering questions?
Craft a piece of flash fiction based on the art of the rant: What exercises you? That is, what gets you in high dudgeon? Who pisses you off? Be specific: not just “I hate that guy,” but a riff on the last three times he cut you off in mid-sentence, the poisonous glow of his smile, and the unfortunate fact that he’s your brother-in-law. Now invert the previous exercise: How would he rant against you? Provide plenty of ripe details along with an incident or two.
This week’s fiction prompt comes from David Galef, author of Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook (Columbia University Press, 2016).
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explores bibliotherapy, “detox” book recommendations to help treat issues like stress, procrastination, and bereavement. The founder of the Book Pharmacy in Berlin suggests that “there are ‘detox classics,’ including epics like The Odyssey, and ‘detox-by-distraction’ bundles of crime, romance, or fantasy.” Write a short story in which a character visits a “book doctor.” What might prompt this sort of treatment? Which books are prescribed, and do they work as a cure? Are there any side effects?
Within some cultures in Africa, Australia, and India, there exist strict rules which regulate the type of language permissible to use with one’s in-laws—for example, married women in Ethiopia who speak the Kambaata language and follow the ballishsha rule are forbidden to use any word that starts with the same syllables as the names of their parents-in-law. Often the solution is to use synonyms, euphemisms, or more generic terms. Write a scene in which two characters must have a conversation while abiding by a law that restricts particular words. Why is this law in place, and how do your characters deal with it? What power dynamics are involved? Are there hidden messages within the dialogue that cause a misunderstanding?
Wraps, bubble tea, pork belly, kale, elaborate hamburgers, macarons. Different years are prone to different food trends, with the popular items appearing everywhere from fine-dining establishments, to fast food joints and snack trucks, to packaged goods and home cooking. Incorporate a trending food item from a certain time period into a short story. How does the insertion contribute a specific sense of time and place into your piece? What does it tell the reader about your characters’ lifestyles?
Last year the Atlantic reported that researchers using computer systems to analyze the emotional trajectories of protagonists in nearly two thousand works of English-language fiction found that there are just six basic storytelling arcs: “1. Rags to Riches (rise), 2. Riches to Rags (fall), 3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise), 4. Icarus (rise then fall), 5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise), 6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall).” Think of a story that you often tell in your own life, perhaps a childhood memory that involves schools friends or a family occasion, or an adventurous incident that happened on a trip or vacation. Does it seem to align with one of these basic plotlines? Write a short fiction piece that maps the major elements of your story onto a different, unexpected arc.
The holidays are a time full of festive cuisine with strange or unknown origins. The New York Times suggested in an 1890 article that the name “eggnog” may have originated with the way the drink is made, in that it is “necessary to ’knock’ the eggs with a spoon in beating up, and that on the thoroughness of this depends the quality of the ‘good cheer.’” Write a short story that includes a scene where the improper preparation of a holiday drink or dish escalates a conflict. How does this action become the catalyst for a confrontation?
“Creative people are drawn to each other, as notorious for falling in love as they are for driving each other insane,” writes Catherine Lacey in her new book, The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence (Bloomsbury USA, 2017). The book, which is featured in “The Written Image” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, presents creative, romantic, and platonic connections between writers and artists such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, and Billie Holiday and Orson Welles. Write a short story inspired by the sort of romantic entanglements and creative collaborations that Lacey presents in the book. How does involvement with the arts influence the scope and trajectory of the relationship between your characters?
Write a short story that takes place inside a bookstore, or incorporate a bookstore scene into a story already in progress. What kind of encounter between characters seems most tonally or atmospherically natural for a bookstore? Or conversely, what type of interaction seems deliciously inappropriate or unexpected? Does the search for a particular title play an integral part in the story? Consider whether the bookstore is modern and expansive or small and cozy, and how that might affect the scene. Browse through these videos and photos of a selection of impressive bookstores around the world for inspiration.
Browse through the winning photographs of this year’s National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest, and select the one that most readily captures your imagination. Write a one-thousand-word piece of flash fiction inspired by this photo, and by the ways in which it both presents the natural world and offers insight, comparison, and reflection of humanity’s place within it. To go a step further, try writing more than one flash fiction story focused on a different perspective of the same photo.
Earlier this month, actress Emma Watson hid books with handwritten messages in the London Underground and New York City subway stations as part of the community project Books on the Underground. Write a short story that begins with a character hiding a book in an unlikely place, like a bus stop or a graveyard or the hollow of a tree. What book would be hidden and why? Is anyone supposed to find it, and if so, what happens after? Is the discovery the beginning of a mystery?
“During the day, as I worked, I clarified daydreams, rehearsed thoughts. Phrases rose up, and as I shoveled compost, mulched garlic, or turned over the soil, the phrases turned too…. The world’s margins shrank but also grew luminous. After working outside in my body all day long, my mind felt brightly lit.” In “Turning the Soil” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Tess Taylor writes about her revelatory experience volunteering at a farm while at a writing residency in southwestern Massachusetts. Try to carve out a few hours this week to spend engaged in an activity that is very different from—and outside of—your usual working environment. Get your hands dirty in a garden or park, sit quietly in a library, or people-watch at an airport or train station. Allow your mind to roam over unexpectedly fresh images and phrases that surface, and then write a series of flash fiction pieces inspired by your time spent “outside.”
What do we mean when we call a story Dickensian? Often it is a lengthy work incorporating one or more of these elements: a dramatic and convenient twist of events, social-justice themes, a sentimental tone, a bustling city setting, a large cast of characters with vivid personality traits. Choose a memorable character from a Dickens story, such as Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Miss Havisham, or Abel Magwitch. Write a short story in which this character has been inserted into un-Dickensian circumstances—perhaps a solitary exploration of the wilderness, a contemporary technology-filled existence, or a supernatural landscape. How do you maintain a Dickensian feel while ensuring that this piece reflects your unique creative voice?
The Saharan silver ant is able to survive in the extreme temperatures of the Sahara Desert, which often reaches almost 120 degrees Fahrenheit, with the help of physiological adaptations including highly reflective hairs that deflect the sun’s rays and longer legs, keeping them further above the hot sand. Write a short story that explores how a human character adapts when placed in a geographical location with extreme atmospheric conditions. Is your character alone or part of a pack? You may choose to write a story based in reality, or one that incorporates elements of the fantastic.
As pollution levels worsen in many cities around the world, some enterprising companies have found a market for selling packages of bottled air from Wales (with a "morning dew feel"), as well as from Australian beaches and Canadian mountains. Write a short story that takes place in a world that has perfected the ability to conveniently bottle not just air, but other highly sought-after items, both tangible and intangible. What happens when emotional states and feelings, like happiness or love, can be bottled, sold, and bought?
In Julio Cortazar’s short story, “Graffiti,” two graffiti artists develop a relationship admiring each other’s work and create a dialogue through their art like love letters. This week, think of a recent encounter you had with someone you admire. Then, write a short story where you reimagine that experience from the perspective of the other person. What might be noticed about the interaction that is different from what you interpreted? Will the feelings expressed be mutual?
Fanny Longfellow, wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, tragically perished in 1861 when her dress caught on fire. The combination of long dresses, flammable materials, oil lamps and the open flames of fireplaces and candles—in addition to the chemicals and toxic materials used in the manufacturing of many types of clothing—increased the frequency of fashion-related ailments and accidents in the nineteenth century. Write a spooky short story in which a character’s downfall is brought about by her wardrobe choices. Read about lead makeup, toxic socks, hatters poisoned by mercury, and arsenic dyes in this National Geographic piece on “Killer Clothing” for further inspiration.
For the first time in the United States, bees—seven species that are native to Hawaii—have been placed under protection on the endangered-species list. Write a short story in which a seemingly commonplace animal species suddenly becomes endangered or extinct. Do your storytelling instincts take you to environmental activism, a futuristic sci-fi universe, or an adventure in the wilderness? Or perhaps, to an apartment scene in which this news seems, for the time being, to have no bearing on the characters?
Last week, after a swarm of almost one hundred small earthquakes in the Salton Sea region, California’s Office of Emergency Services issued an earthquake advisory to Southern California residents warning of the potential of a larger earthquake occurring on the San Andreas fault. Write a short story in which the main plotline’s background includes the looming threat of a major earthquake. How does this create tension in the atmosphere and bring out different personality traits in each character?
This week, write a scene in which the main character is watching the presidential debates on television with another character and a confrontation arises over a disagreement of opinions. Have these characters just met, or are they old friends? Do their differing politics come as a surprise to the reader, or to each other, or are they expected? Politics aside, what does the disagreement reveal about the characters’ respective personalities, emotional states, and motives in relation to the narrative? Consider incorporating this scene for a short story you’ve written in the past or are currently working on in order to deepen a relationship.