In his essay “Don’t Look Back” (Poets & Writers Magazine, November/December 2012), fiction writer Benjamin Percy argues against including backstory when writing short stories. “It’s almost always unnecessary," Percy writes. "A reader intuits the history of a character by observing that character act in the present.” Choose a story you’ve written and delete all of the backstory that you’ve included. Then revise it by describing the main character and having that description convey the backstory instead.
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.
Select one of your poems that needs revision and transform it into a physical object, such as an imaginary map, a collage, a drawing, or a shadow box (for inspiration, check out Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes).
One of the most dangerous pitfalls of creative nonfiction can be chronology, and some of the best essays are written in a nonlinear fashion. Think of a story that you know by heart--maybe a memory from your childhood, of finding first love, or of the birth of a child--and try to retell it without using typical chronologically. Start from the end and work your way back, or alternate between scenes of present and past. The result should be an essay that keeps the reader always moving but never quite sure of what comes next.
Using magazine clippings; photographs; found or created notes, letters, and postcards; and other items, construct a story from ephemera. Put the items in box and add to it as the week goes on. When you feel that you've compiled enough, write the story relying on the ephemera as a guide.
Find a text that is completely unrelated to what you normally read—a how-to manual, a 1950s interior design book, an old encyclopedia, a white paper on social media— and use it as the source of an erasure poem. Read through several pages and underline words and phrases that appeal to you and that relate to each other. Using a marker or Wite-Out, begin to delete the words around those you underlined, leaving words and phrases that you might want to use. Keep deleting the extra language, working to construct poetic lines with the words you’ve chosen to keep.
Write about a time when you traveled to a place where you didn't speak the language—either literally or figuratively. It could have been a foreign country or simply a different city, state, or group of people among which you felt like an outsider. As an ethnographer might write about a different culture, focus on how the people around you spoke and behaved, how you felt as you listened and observed, and the ways in which you were able—or ultimately unable—to assimilate and communicate.
Choose one of your stories that needs revision. Create a timeline that includes each year of the main character's life, fleshing out details that support who he or she is. After you've finished, return to the story and revise it in terms of this more fully developed understanding you have of your main character.
Take one of your poems that you're not satisfied with and use scissors to cut it up into its lines. Rearrange the lines, omitting ones that no longer fit. With this fresh arrangement as a working draft, compose an entirely new poem.
Revision is often the hardest part of writing—and, some writers say, a craft all its own. As an exercise in this craft, revisit an essay you've written and try to both significantly cut down the length and restructure the piece, while maintaining the story. We tend to tell stories as they occurred in life, but a narrative can often become mired in chronology. As you restructure, move things around, play with the order, and don't be afraid to get experimental. As for trimming the length, take Faulkner's timeless editorial advice: "In writing, you must kill all your darlings."
Buy yourself five postcards. Write one question on each postcard and send them to yourself every other day. When you receive the postcard, write for twenty minutes, responding to the question. Use these responses as the ingredients for a story.
Choose one of your poem in which you've used the first person. Rewrite it without using "I" at all. (If you don't have a poem to revise, try writing one without using the first person.)
In the profile “Emma Straub’s Life in Letters” (Poets & Writers Magazine, September/October 2012), author Emma Straub reveals that the genesis for her novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures was an obituary she read about a woman named Jennifer Jones. After reading the obituary, she wrote a fictionalized account of her life. Follow Straub’s example: Read the obituary section of a newspaper, and write a story with a main character loosely based on what you find.
Choose a poem that needs revising and transform it into a Shakespearean sonnet—a poem of fourteen lines, arranged in three quatrains (a rhyming stanza of four lines) and one couplet (two rhyming lines). The end of every other line in each quatrain should rhyme (or sound similar), and the end of each line in the final couplet should also rhyme (or sound similar). Visit the Academy of American Poets website and search "sonnet" for examples.
Sometimes our dreams tell a story about our lives. Think about a dream you’ve had—it could be a recent one, one that you recall from your past, or one that recurs. Write down the details of the dream as descriptively as your memory allows, focusing on imagery, narrative, characters, and any odd or distinct details you can recall. Once you’ve written a description, freewrite about what the images, characters, and details remind you of from your waking life. Then, using the material you've generated, write a short essay about the dream. What do you think it meant? What experiences or emotions did it represent? Did it seem real or otherworldly? How did it made you feel upon waking? For future dream analysis exercises, keep a dream diary by your bed and record your dreams first thing each morning.
Write a story composed entirely of letters from one character to another who never replies. The characters could know each other or could be complete strangers. For an example, read Claire Vaye Watkins's story "The Last Thing We Need" in her collection Battleborn (Riverhead Books, 2012).
Revisit one of your poems that needs revising, especially in terms of its length. Rewrite it on a postcard, including only what is most important, using the limited space of the postcard as your guide. When you've finished, consider mailing it to someone!
Some of the best stories and essays revolve around the author's hometown. Spend fifteen minutes freewriting about the town or city in which you grew up. Focus on the people, the places, the landscape, and the memories surrounding them. Where was your favorite place to eat? Who were the most interesting characters? What did you do with your family and friends? What did the school look like? Where did you go when you wanted to run away?
In R. V. Cassill’s classic book Writing Fiction (Prentice Hall Trade, 1975), he describes “conversion,” a method for revision that he says is “vaguely comparable to transposing a piece of music from one key to another.” Try the following conversion exercise: Cut up a story into its paragraphs (using scissors). Rearrange the paragraphs, and add any connective writing needed to support the new structure.
Choose a poem—one of your favorites or one you select randomly—and closely analyze its structure. How many stanzas does it have? How many lines comprise each stanza? How many stressed syllables are in each line? Is there a pattern to the number of syllables per line? Once you've fully analyzed the structure, write a poem of your own using that structure.
Extreme experiences can significantly alter our perspective on life. Write an essay about a time when you faced a near-death experience, or believed you were in serious danger. Consider the following questions: How did you react immediately? How did you respond later? In retrospect, do you wish you'd reacted differently when it happened? What from the experience do you still carry with you?
One of a writer’s most powerful tools is sensory perception. As an exercise, deprive yourself of stimulation. Sit quietly in a dark room, turn off and hide your electronics, and avoid becoming distracted. Try this for an entire day, or whatever time span you can manage. After leaving yourself alone with your thoughts for some time, write a story inspired by your musings. Try starting with a single sentence that may have risen to the surface during your day.
Read up on a famous figure (living or dead) whose personality is completely different from your own. Write a poem from that person's perspective about an important event or series of events that shaped who he or she was.
Now that fall has almost arrived, ruminate about all that happened over the summer. Choose a moment or a scene that you distinctly remember and freewrite about it. What took place? Who was involved? Is it important? If not, why did you remember it? How did it make you feel? Review your freewriting and transform what you discover into an essay that transcends the subject at hand, so that it has universal appeal to readers.
Write a story with two major threads, each with two characters. For example, the first could be a man and a woman driving in a car–where are they going? what happens along the way? what are they discussing? The second thread could be about two boys in a canoe–do they get along? what is the relationship between them? what happens to cause tension between them? Switch back and forth between each thread, spinning each of the stories. Find a way to slowly weave the stories together: Do the two sets of characters cross paths? Are they somehow related? Is one story something that happened in the past of a character from the other story?
Write a poem that incorporates the following words: transfer, single, impend, knot, rhapsody, revue, air lock.