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.
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.
Most of us have ancestors born in countries we may have never visited. This week, trace your family’s origins to a foreign city or town. Try to imagine the landscape of this place: the terrain, nature, and customs that characterize it. Find a way to connect it to your current landscape, creating a poem that joins these two places.
Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon. Write about a time you had to follow a recipe, whether it was familiar or foreign to you. What was the context? Did you patiently follow the steps or rush through the instructions? Did you improvise? How did the meal turn out?
"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.
Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote dramatic verse, poems that doubled as monologues. This week, write a monologue in the voice of a fictional character. For inspiration, read Browning's "My Last Duchess" and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." If you’re stuck, try assuming the voice of a character from one of your favorite novels.
We’ve all had to pack our belongings into boxes at some point. People move for their jobs, partners, or just to experience a change. This week, reflect on your past moves. Which was your best moving day and which was your worst? What obstacles and challenges (both logistical and psychological) have you faced while moving? What did you learn from the experience?
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?
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is famous for his wonderful odes to unexpected subjects. "Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” and “Ode to an Artichoke” celebrate items we might not typically expect to hear lauded. This week, write an ode to a household object. Try to come up with as many epithets and images for the item as you can.
This week, write about your neighborhood. Try to emphasize its particularities—if you live in a city, this may be the restaurants you frequent, your local newsstand, or the place that begins your commute. If you live in a rural area, it could be the natural world surrounding your home, the roads leading up to your driveway, and the neighbors you’ve known for years. You may wish to begin by making a list of all the features that make your neighborhood memorable.
“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.
W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts" draws inspiration from Pieter Bruegel's painting Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. Many poets have found inspiration in other media: Painting, sculpture, even memorials appear in poems. This week, respond to a piece of visual art in verse. You can describe the work in detail, or the source of your inspiration can be subtly channeled into your poem. Similarly, you can choose to title your poem after the artwork or find a new title.
Most people will sit through dozens of interviews throughout the course of their lives. This week, write a piece reflecting on your own history as an interviewee. When did you sit through your first interview? What was your worst experience in an interview? Do you have any pre-interview routines? This exercise may provide a miniature arc of your career, or it may inspire you to reflect on some previously unexplored memories.
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?
“The most wasted of all days is one without laughter,” wrote E. E. Cummings. Timing is important both in comedy and in poetry. Though poets often engage with serious subjects, a well-placed moment of levity can make a poem even more poignant. This week, try to incorporate humor in your own writing. It can be a funny image, a pun, or a parody. See how this moment affects the tone of your poem, or how it leads you in a new, unexpected direction.
Start with a quotation that stirs you. It can be a passage from a book, a line from a letter, or a statistic from a newspaper. Use this as a springboard for the rest of your writing this week. Do you agree with the quotation? What role does it play in your life? Do you feel indignation at the statistic? Explore your own opinions and values through the words of another writer, or by confronting the implications of a primary source.
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.
“The poet is the priest of the invisible,” wrote Wallace Stevens. This week, try to write about an invisible force that affects you deeply. For example, it could be your DNA, music, or the smell of your childhood home. Try to imagine the complexity of the invisible (at least to the naked eye) structure that you are describing. Integrate all of your senses to navigate its visual formlessness.
Look up the etymology of one of your favorite words and consider its complex and surprising history. The word clue, for instance, developed from the word clew, a ball of thread used to guide a person out of a labyrinth (literally or figuratively). In a page or so, try to weave your personal past with a word while incorporating elements of its etymological development. When did you pick up on a clue that would help you out of a figurative labyrinth?
“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.
"The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest," Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech on December 5, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Poetry can be a powerful vehicle for protest and social change. Write a poem in which you confront a subject that inspires personal objection. The topic does not have to be strictly political. For instance, Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night” protests the death of the poet’s father: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” See how you can wield and transfer oppositional energy into language and form.
Though people typically make every effort to appear confident, accomplished, and cheerful to others, we all have flaws and shortcomings. Many people, in fact, are defined on some level by their imperfections. From a fear of flying and substance abuse problems to shopping addiction and weight issues, the inner lives of the people you write about are just as compelling as how they dress or what they say. Write five hundred words about one of your shortcomings, and describe in detail how it affects your life and changed you as a person. Being honest about your life will make you a more empathic writer when characterizing the flaws of others.
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.
“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” This quote from Robert Frost reveals the raw origins of poetry, and emphasizes the complex cerebral and emotional forces that inspire poems. Think of how poetry accommodates both the expansiveness and simplicity of our emotions. Use this unique and paradoxical phenomenon to write about a profound and complicated experience in your life: perhaps the death of a long-suffering loved one, or the graduation of a child, or the private self-confession of having fallen out of love. Start with a single emotion, and begin your journey there.
As children we unknowingly participate in family traditions. To kids, annual camping trips, making Christmas cookies, and special birthday dinners are simply slices of regular life orchestrated by a benevolent universe. As we become adults, however, our understanding of the universe changes. Family members begin families of their own, and we grow apart from the past while investing more of ourselves into the future of others. Reflect on a family tradition from your childhood. Describe the people, the scene, and circumstances. Bring those who have passed on to life with the power of your words.
“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.