Every couple of months, the Donald Maass Literary Agency, which represents a roster of genre writers in science fiction, romance, mystery, and horror, posts to its website “what we’re looking for”—a handful of book ideas within a central theme. The agency hasn’t updated its suggestions since late last year, but they’re good ones: literary and science-fiction novels. The story starters aren’t meant to be prescriptive but to promote a creative spark:
In a cursed land where there are nothing but children (who do not age), an adult arrives, bringing with him a powerful magic that will change everyone’s luck but at a price: the children begin to grow up.
A hidden alien among us (he’s highly humanoid) has one chance to go home to repair the damage he caused there. The problem is, he’s in love.
One true wizard lives in our world. Her magic holds together a community of two opposite faiths. One day her magic stops working.
A martyr gives his life to save his country. Ten years later he comes back to life to find that the land he saved has lost the one thing about it that he held most dear.
A historical fantasy in which a young child with a miraculous talent has an effect on her family, and then her village, and then her entire country.
See where these prompts take you, and check back in to Donald Maass’s site next month for more ideas.
In addition to my other New Year’s resolutions, I resolved to reunite with my writing group. I arrived at the first klatch of the year armed with a prompt inspired by a quote from Wings of Desire:
You get your picture taken in a photo booth, but when the image develops, the face isn’t yours.
Weirdly, in response to an entirely different prompt (“I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record”), one of the other writers produced this exact story. Well, almost—her character was getting her picture taken at the DMV.
Still, I couldn’t very well use the prompt after hearing her story. It would have looked like I pilfered her idea, and, besides, what would she have written about next?
Anyway, I still think it’s a good story starter. Let me know what comes of it.
Writer’s Digest‘s prolific blogroll introduced a new feature a couple of months ago: Promptly, a blog updated three times a week with writing exercises to get the juices flowing. I started digging around in the relatively recent archives and discovered a prompt centered around words that have already been written—and published: “Pull a random, seemingly unimportant, out-of-context line from a book, and use it as prompt fodder.”
I did this with A Thousand Acres, the book that inspired me to be a writer. I wasn’t about to page throughout my four-hundred-word copy looking an inspirational line, so I used a random number generator to select pages for me. On the second page it sent me to, I found this:
I don’t know why I was surprised to discover everything changed, since it was obvious in retrospect that I had sought to change it.
As one of my mentors says, when you’re ready, go to the page and write what needs to be written.
NaNoWriMo—i.e., National Novel Writing Month—is right around the corner. Here’s an exercise from Creative Writing Corner to get you warmed up: write a story in a day.
There are two tacks you can take with this general idea:
- Choose a day, a significant day, in the life of a character, and write a story that takes place over the course of just those twenty-four hours.
- Take a page from twenty-four-hour play festivals or the 48-Hour Film Project and write a complete story, from beginning to end, in twenty-four hours.
Good luck, and let me know how it goes!
The hardest part about laying a loved one to rest for me has never been the funeral nor the burial. No, what brings me to tears is the viewing, usually held the day before the funeral, where friends and family gather to pay condolences and say goodbye. In our culture, there’s a moment during the prayer service when the pastor asks if anyone would like to share a few words about the deceased. During the remembrances, you realize how many people loved him or her as much as you did, and you often learn he or she lived a life you never knew existed.
This summer, my grandmother died. At her prayer service, more than one mourner remembered how clean she kept her farmhouse. So clean she wouldn’t allow my imaginary dog Digger inside. Her bachelor brothers-in-law would straighten up before the “White Tornado” arrived.
If your character died, what would be said at the prayer service? What stories would be told? What qualities would be remembered?
Or, as Blair Hurley over at Creative Writing Corner asks, what would be said in the eulogy?
What will you find to say about his failings, his greatest virtues, the most important moments of his life? What were his great loves? What did he spend his life fighting against? And if he was character who seemed exceedingly good or exceedingly bad, what can you tell your imagined audience about what they didn’t know, what was unexpected?
Looking for the plotline for your next novel, short story, or screenplay? Need a prompt for tonight’s writing group? Find literally thousands of story starters at Hatch’s Plot Bank, ranging from “sitcom clichés” to bizarre scenarios ripped from the headlines.
Scrolling through all of these snatches of language can quickly become overwhelming, though, so use a random number generator to narrow your choices down.
When I tried this, the number 1,986 came up: “old recluse has a nasty sharp surprise for burglars”—a scenario rife with possibilities.
Breathe new life into your WIP with this plotting exercise from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.
First, tear a sheet of paper into fifteen pieces. On the first five pieces, write down the names of characters from your project, both major and secondary. On the next five, list five actions or events that take place in the story. Finally, name five settings from the story.
Now, arrange the slips of paper into three piles and randomly draw one element from each group. Perhaps you will find a character present at plot turn you hadn’t considered, or an event occurring in a place you hadn’t thought of. However strange the makeup of the scene, try writing it and see what emerges.
When I tried this, many of my combinations lined up pretty logically—in fact, the mix of Rebekka + secrets revealed + hospital is exactly how I imagined this scene would take place. Others would take more work: Atticus (the piano teacher) + piano competition (so far, so good!) + barn (d’oh!). Once you’ve drawn your elements randomly, go ahead and rearrange them to see if any more inspirational combos materialize.
Here’s another prompt borrowed from Red Plume Press, who in turn got the idea from Soup Kitchen Writing:
Write down a name.
Name an action.
Pick an object.
Choose another name.
Now assemble these into a sentence.
The inspiration for this exercise is the game of Clue, in which players mix and match six characters, six objects, and nine locations to find out what really happened: “It was Miss Scarlet in the Library with the Revolver.” In your case, you might use elements from your WIP, childhood, or daily life.
When I tried this exercise, I used the characters and milieu of my novel. I rather liked this result:
Rebekka kissed Harald with the piano.
Another suggested a new scene for the book:
Hanna walked with Greta through the field.
Try it out for yourself and let me know what you come up with!
Write down four adjectives.
Then list four nouns.
Finally, think up four gerund phrases.
Now mix and match words and phrases from each of these lists to create analogies.
I stepped out onto my balcony and looked around for inspiration. What I came up with ranged from quite realistic to rather whimsical:
- like a breezy Smart Car speeding down a residential street
- like a distant sign flying overhead
- like an illegal grill arguing behind open windows
- like a young studio pushing a dolly
Pick one of your analogies and use it to start a sentence or write a scene around it.
Thanks, Red Plume Press for this idea.
Google “writing prompts,” and a wealth of story starters appears. It’s this glut of sometimes ridiculous material that Dan Wiencek satirizes for McSweeney’s with “Thirteen Writing Prompts.” Among my favorites is this John Gardner-inspired exercise:
Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man’s friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.
and this wild setup:
A man has a terrifying dream in which he is being sawn in half. He wakes to find himself in the Indian Ocean, naked and clinging to a door; a hotel keycard is clenched in his teeth. Write what happens next.
Think these are just goofs? Check out these contest-winning samples inspired by these prompts.