Tips and advice on craft and writing prompts to exercise those writing muscles
Here’s a random list of words (pulled from the well-worn pages of my bright red American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, purchased when I was an editor at its publisher, Houghton Mifflin). Write for twenty minutes, using all the words.
Delving in the Trash
When I lived in Germany, our region instituted some stringent recycling rules in order to cut down on the amount of trash that was being collected and deposited in landfills. Food wrappers fell into the category of items to be washed and recycled, and suddenly, people began bringing their Tupperware to the deli counter in the supermarket to hold their weekly order of sliced ham instead of having the butcher wrap it in waxed paper. One day, as I rolled my garbage bin to the curb, I met my neighbor doing the same and we struck up a conversation about the time-consuming task of sorting through our debris. It turned out that she was washing the paper that her butter had been packaged in, in order to recycle it. It was one of those telling details that says so much about a personality, and I tucked it away.
You can learn a lot about a character by what she throws away. Describe the contents of someone’s trash as a way of revealing something significant about him or her.
First Line Prompts
Here are a few “first lines” to use as prompts for some timed writing:
Cristina was scribbling notes in the back of a linguistics class when, in an instant, everything went black.
He said he had never been happy until he met the Egyptian chess player.
The Thousand-Word Sentence
Many years ago, when I was first beginning to think of myself as a serious writer, I had the privilege of attending a workshop with the novelist Jill McCorkle. Our first assignment was one which Jill described as “cleaning out the cobwebs in the attic.” She sent us away from class with the task of writing a thousand-word sentence.
I was in Boston for a week after living abroad for many years and had foolishly scheduled dinners almost every night with old friends whom I hadn’t seen since moving away from the city, thinking that I’d work all day at writing and spend my evenings enjoying the pleasures of friendship. The night of the thousand-word assignment I returned to my hotel room after a long and wonderful dinner and stared at the blank yellow legal pad I’d left on the desk. I wanted nothing more than to crawl between the covers.
But I sat down, picked up my pen and did what writers do. I wrote.
When I finished, I was exhausted and empty. But I had produced something of emotional honesty, freed of the restrictions of punctuation and editing.
Try it. Write a thousand-word sentence.
Choose a scene you’ve already drafted and go back to it with the intention of adding a layer of sensory images. Focus on only one sense; for example:
the ripple of the wind through a stand of cottonwood trees or
the bellowing of a frightened animal in the middle of the night;
the blue of a lapis necklace against a milk-white throat;
a coarsely woven blanket crumpled stiffly in a corner.
Extreme States of Mind
This is a challenging exercise from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, a text I turned to time and again when teaching creative writing.
Write three short paragraphs, the first “fear,” the second “anger,” and the last “pleasure” without using these words.
The objective is to create emotional states with precision and freshness.
A couple of months ago I enjoyed a spirited discussion over lunch with a group of writing colleagues. One of them spoke about struggling with a story until she had an epiphany about emotional honesty. She realized she’d muffled how she truly felt about an experience from her past that she was trying to translate for her character. It was only after she peeled back the layers of her own history that she was able to create an effective and authentic moment for her heroine.
Think about a moment in your own life that was particularly harrowing, enraging or thrilling. What about it made your emotions so raw? Mine those feelings. Describe what precipitated them in specific detail and how you responded.
Photos as Triggers
I keep a folder in which I store images that intrigue me, that lead me to ask “What’s the story here?”
I tear them out of newspapers and magazines, scan them from family photo albums. Sometimes they sit in the folder for awhile, but if the image is compelling enough I find myself continuing to go back to it until I’ve figured out what it’s trying to tell me.
It was just such an image that was the seed for my novella, “A Daughter’s Journey.” The photo, a portrait of a young woman reporter during the Vietnam War, became the inspiration for Mel Ames.
Start your own collection.