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.
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.
Make a list of the names of your family members and friends. Use all of them to create a poem. Try writing a tiny letter to each name, using free association to link each name with another word, or describing each briefly as if it were a character or object.
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.
Experiment with form, creating an upcycled poetic object, by writing a poem using found materials.
Open your medicine cabinet and choose something from it that one character will use to kill another in a story.
Over the weekend, the American Museum of Natural History opened a yearlong exhibition of scientific photographs made using state-of-the-art technologies. If you're not in New York City to take in the show in person, check out some of the images online (Wired has a collection of favorites) and write a poem examining the life of the elegant forms and miniature worlds captured in exquisite detail.
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.
Choose a poem—one of your favorites or one chosen randomly from a book. Scan its meter, marking the stressed and unstressed syllables of each word. (Read a definition of scansion from the Poetry Foundation). Write a poem, using the same meter and number of lines.
Write a story using the following as the first sentence: There are three things she told me never to do.
Set a timer for five minutes and freewrite, putting pen to paper and transcribing everything that comes to mind without stopping until the timer goes off. Review what you’ve written and circle any phrases, images, words that appeal to you. Using those fragments, freewrite again for five minutes. Again, circle anything that appeals to you, and use those fragments as the starting point of a poem.
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.
Write a letter to a landscape or scene you pass through today. For example, “Dear Williamsburg Bridge,…”
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.
Write a villanelle, a poem of five stanzas made up of three lines each, with a concluding quatrain (a four-line stanza). Lines one and three of the first stanza are refrains throughout the poem. The first line of the first stanza is the third line of the second and fourth stanzas; similarly, the third line of the first stanza is the third line of the third and fifth stanzas. Also, the first and third lines of the first stanza are the last two lines of the concluding quatrain. Every line should be the same metrical length. For examples, read Dylan Thomas’s "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and Elizabeth Bishop’s "One Art."
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.
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.
Compose a poem collaboratively with a friend. Write one line and send it to your friend via e-mail, or by passing a notebook back and forth, and invite your friend to write the next line, building on what you wrote. Continue composing the poem together, line by line, until you have at least twenty lines. Then each of you consider the draft and revise it independently. Compare your final versions.
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.
Choose a sentence from a newspaper whose meaning gets larger and stranger when taken out of context. Use it as the first line of a poem. If you get stuck partway into the poem, try repeating just part of the line and vary how you complete the rest of the sentence, changing the meaning and music of the line each time. When you have a draft you like, try moving the full sentence to the end of the poem, or somewhere to the middle, or maybe take it out entirely. Stir, and see what happens.
This week's poetry prompt comes from Idra Novey whose debut collection The Next Country received the Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books and was included in Virginia Quarterly Review's list of Best Poetry Books of 2008. She teaches in the School of the Arts at Columbia University.
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).
Think back to yourself ten years ago—where you lived, what your preoccupations were, who your relationships were with, who you were. Write a letter in the form of a poem to yourself then from yourself now.
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.
Write a prose poem, a poem that doesn't use line breaks to convey its meaning. Read [the siren's story] by Barbara Jane Reyes for an example.
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).