Fiction writers know that conflict drives plot. Tension and drama imbue life into our characters and propel their stories forward. Human nature, however, craves tranquility and clarity. Write five hundred words describing your protagonist at peace—truly one with the universe, even if only for several seconds. Perhaps your character is sitting on a park bench and staring at a bruised cloud, or on a crowded subway car listening to the rails below, or walking out of a cemetery with a beer in hand. Peace is unique to everyone.
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.
The holiday season is here, which means you will soon be a guest at a work party, gathering of friends, or family-oriented celebration. This is the season for poets. Begin your “Thank You” poems now. Celebrate what companionship means to you and express your gratitude for the honor of being invited. Make your poems personal and sincere. (Consider attaching each poem to a nice bottle of wine and personally hand it to your host.)
Halloween costumes reveal much about who we are underneath our contrived, ordinary selves. Think back to your childhood and relive your favorite Halloween costume—why you chose it, what it divulged about you, and how it felt putting on the costume. Something mysterious and compelling happens when we try to be something or someone else. Explore that experience. Write five hundred words.
Halloween evokes the power of tradition, superstition, and society. Our children dress up as heroes, goblins, and villains and scamper along our neighbors’ sidewalks, lawns, and driveways beseeching candy. Write six hundred words about a confrontation between an adult homeowner and a group of children. Allow the colors, tones, noises, smells, and feel of Halloween to inform—if not define—your writing. Be funny. Be scary. Be creative.
Halloween week is here. Write a poem about something you feared as a child. As adults we fear loneliness, intellectual and financial ruin, and—of course—death. However, children experience the world and their own humanity differently; yet, their fears are just as scary, valid, and profound. Begin the poem as an innocent child. End the poem as a mature adult.
Everyone has a favorite article of clothing—an inherited wedding dress, a flannel shirt borrowed from an old friend, a warm pair of socks received on Father’s Day. Find an article of clothing that you can’t throw away because of an emotional connection. Write six hundred words describing why this piece of clothing means so much to you, and use it as a source to explore people, time, and how simple objects can possess so much meaning.
“Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction,” storyteller John Cheever once stated in an interview. Place your protagonist in an unexpected situation—trapped in a chimney, confronted by a ghost, or suddenly penniless. Unforeseen conflict reveals hidden character flaws and virtues. Don’t self-edit. Though it may not make the final draft, experimental writing deeply informs both style and character. Writing is the act of failing forward every time you sit down.
Poetry is an act of appreciation. With our increasingly busy schedules, we lose our ability to appreciate. Poets must resist the modern temptation to overlook what holds meaning in our lives. Identify something in your surroundings—a rusted hoe draped in spider webs, an unfashionable dress abandoned by time, a wine cork buried in a drawer of unpaid bills—and write a poem that appreciates these lonely items.
People often collect strange things for unknown reasons: ceramic elves from Europe, antique trout fishing lures, bamboo backscratchers from around the world. What we collect often reveals our idiosyncrasies, and therefore our true natures. Recall someone in your life who collected something intriguing or odd. Try to define the attraction, and in the process, bring that person to life.
Our characters reveal themselves through their actions—not only in dramatic scenes that involve death, injury, or heartache, but in small, subtle ways too. Show how a character in your fiction eats. Is the character’s demeanor ravenous and paranoid or slow and sophisticated? How your character eats, appreciates, and relates to food reveals much about his or her upbringing, emotional state, and intellectual disposition.
Life is about relationships. As with everything in life, all relationships end for various reasons. Think about a relationship that you valued that has ended—a friend, a lover, a family member. Write a poem that encapsulates your sense of loss and appreciation and how this particular person impacted your life. The power of poetry transcends everything that ends.
Our homes are extensions of our souls: the vibrant oil painting of a French villa hanging in the dining room, the tattered couch stained by a child’s bowl of ice cream in the den, the dead, blackened peace lily on an empty bookshelf. Write about the home you were raised in. Focus on the decorations, the furniture, and the items that reveal the most about the people who lived among them. In our homes, everything means something.
Pets are playing an increasingly important role in the lives of many people and families in our society. Pets offer companionship, unconditional love, or simply represent a welcome living force in our imperfect homes. Write a scene where an animal or pet stops a character from feeling lonely, stressed, or on the brink of madness. Explore the complex, but very deep and real, relationship between animals and people.
Collisions spark creativity. Colors collide to form new colors. Opposing ideas create an inspired argument. Friction makes fire. Write a poem that combines two unrelated entities in your life: Imagine your birth certificate under a decaying woodpile, your mother-in-law clenching spark plugs, a bluebird singing in your freezer. Push your imagination. The words will follow.
We all have scars. Though most do not conjure welcome memories, scars are an important part of our lives—both physically and metaphorically. Scars reveal our vulnerability and human frailty, but also represent our resilience and toughness. Write about a scar you have, how you got it, and what it means to you.
Life is stressful. How our characters handle—or don’t handle—stress reveals much about them. Write a scene in which your protagonist is stressed due to a death in the family, a financial crisis, or an unraveling relationship. Place your protagonist in a grocery store at the express lane for customers with fewer than 10 items. Have a lady, pushing a cart full of groceries, jump in line just before your protagonist. “Sorry, but I’m in a hurry,” she explains. Write six hundred words.
The human race, by nature, is flawed. Deep within our DNA is the capacity for violence, hatred, and deceit. Choose an aspect of human nature that disturbs you. Write a poem describing this ugly and flawed characteristic of human nature. Write a second poem about how we, the human race, can fix it.
There is truth in medicine cabinets. Despite the lies we tell ourselves and others, our medicine cabinets know us better than anyone. Medicine cabinets are full of worry, memories, encroaching death, and continued life. The prescription bottles, skin moisturizer, and frayed toothbrush reflect our humanity and vulnerability. Study your medicine cabinet. Write an essay about what is in it, and what it says about you.
As children our imaginations ruled the land. However, years of life, love, and loss erode our creative shores and the rustling trees and vibrant animals that inhabited them. The unstoppable dinosaurs and steaming teacups in our small hands suddenly become pieces of plastic from a toy store. Write a short story through the eyes of a four-year-old child. Go on an adventure.
Revisit one of your favorite poems by another poet. What appeals to you about this particular poem—the structure, the sound, the imagery, the subject matter? Write a poem dedicated to this poet and poem. Show your appreciation by instilling those same respected qualities in your own writing.
Attics are often the most compelling rooms in our homes. Attics are where we store important parts of the past that are only tenuously connected to the immediate present. Visit your attic, rummage around the dusty boxes, and find something that belonged to one of your parents. Bring it to your writing desk. Start writing.
People are complex. So are believable characters. Much of what comprises our characters stems from the writer’s knowledge of the universe and writing’s miraculous universality. Think of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Jane Eyre, and Oscar de León—or your own favorite characters. What about these notable literary figures gives them life and humanity? Write a paragraph that defines the complexities of each character you are developing. Tack these paragraphs to the wall beside your desk, and use them as guidelines for your characters whenever their voices are muted by the harsh winds of creativity.
People come in and out of our lives like passengers on a train. Some stay for much of our journey. Others get on and off, quickly disappearing into their own travels. Write a poem about someone who became part of your life, but left the train. Who were they? Why do you miss them? What happened? Focus on tone, voice, and imagery.
In many ways you are everyone who came before you. Your uniqueness is your own spin on the DNA of your ancestors. Spend several minutes sitting quietly in front of a mirror. Reflect. Other than you, whom else do you see? Write 500 words about how you feel toward these people you’ve never met but who are part of you. Their story is yours, too.
Dialogue is about economy of words. Less means more. Dialogue should reveal characters through tension. Write a scene in which your protagonist must convince a stranger to divulge his or her social security number. The context is irrelevant. Use the conversation to show readers who, exactly, this protagonist is. At the end of the scene, have the stranger whisper the number into the protagonist’s ear.