Writing Prompts for December 2016

Writing Prompts for December 2016

I always enjoy the approach to the holidays. Decorating the house, planning meals, and even all the long-overdue cleaning and organizing are done with a lighter heart. It’s a musical time for us, too. My choir has a concert, my son’s university ensemble has a concert, and we all attend the local symphony’s holiday concert, joining my brother-in-law’s family for dinner afterwards. I hope that you and yours enjoy times filled with peace, love, and happiness in the coming weeks and that these feelings follow you through 2017.

Though your writing time may be limited in December, I encourage you to take even 10 minutes out of your day to put a few words on the page. Typing at 25 words per minute would fill a double-spaced page. Think of how those pages could add up over the month, and how much further ahead you will be starting 2017.

If you need some writing inspiration or fresh ideas, here are your writing prompts for December. Remember that you can change names and gender to suit the story you want to write.

Opening Sentences – Start a story with one of the following sentences. You could use the sentence to end the story, too.

Wait! Don’t open that!
The fire was too small to warm the room.
Henry and I had an agreement—until yesterday.
The branches of the bare trees clattered overhead.
Making a wish as you blow out your birthday candles isn’t just for kids.
Helen should have known better.
Secrets should be kept secret.
I don’t have a cat anymore, so what was coughing and hacking in my kitchen?

Random Words – Choose a group of words from the following list, and using one, some, or all of the words in the group, write a story or poem.

Gate, pillar, robe, wonder, blue, cry, gold
green, hills, wander, home, far, cold, rain
run, danger, lost, captain, white, strange
window, tense, sneer, answer, leave, yellow

Possible Story Titles

Yesterday’s Man, The Gold Tower, Tree People, The Leaving, Ghosts at Summer Camp, Strangers at First, Ethan’s Mountain, The Blue Sword, The Kameron Curse, The Second Gift.

Dialogue – Use one of these dialogue excerpts and imagine the story around it.

Why do we have to travel at night?
It’s safer.
It’s also cold.

I haven’t seen you with Henry lately.
Oh, we’re old news.
But I thought you were getting married.
Tell that to Henry’s father.

Are you sure we can trust Helen?
I don’t see that we have a lot of options.
But, I told you—she’s lied before.
So have you.

I don’t like the sound of that.
Me neither, but it’s too soon to worry the others.

You found something.
Show it to me.

Hope you have a wonderful, writerly December!

A Little Encouragement Goes a Long Way

I’ve found the perfect way to bring my writing to a complete halt. Lose confidence.

It was the right time to hear the right words.
It was the right time to hear the right words.

I was working on the sequel to The Dragon’s Pearl, and I was about half way through the first draft when the gloom began. I started worrying about the first book. Was it really any good? Am I wasting my time writing another?  And of course, those questions led to … Is anything that I’ve ever written any good? Can I even call myself a writer? Where is the chocolate? Is it time for a nap?

Yeah, well, you get the idea.

So, last week I passed the manuscript along to a friend who has children the same ages for which the book was written. Her son “liked it a lot.” She said a couple of other nice things, too, but I was so thrilled to read just those four words, I didn’t really need any more.  A child liked my book. Wow. Could it get any better? Not for me. Not right now.

I’ve been working on some paid gigs this week, but this afternoon is set aside to get back to the manuscript. I hope that you find some creative time today, too, and that the right person at exactly the right time says that they like what you wrote.


Writing Links: From Outlines to Submissions to Cursive Writing

A Shoreline View
A Shoreline View

I’ve found some interesting links in the past few days that I want to pass along.

The first is a blog by one of my favourite writers/bloggers Elizabeth S. Craig. In her post, “Chalk One Up for Outlining,” Craig explains that she is not an outliner by nature. “I despise outlining and I hate following outlines.” If you feel the same way, you might like to read how she found a way to make it work for her.

I loved Darcy Pattison’s blog post, “6 Ways Out of Writing Slump.” I could really identify with her reasons for letting writing fiction slide, and I could also see how her suggestions could make a difference.

If you’re getting a project ready to submit to a publisher, read about what seven agents say can stop editors and agents reading: “Seven Agents Talk About the Most Common Submission Mistakes.” Their comments cover the synopsis, the query and your first pages.

Finally if you love writing in journals or with pen/pencil and paper, you might be interested in this opinion piece by Andrew Coyne that was written in response to a report about the lack of teaching of cursive writing in school. “Words on paper – how we write affects what we write.” 

I’d love to hear your feedback on any of these links. Who do you follow for great writing advice?

Delaying Tactics

What do you do instead of writing? I don’t mean the things that stop you from finding the time to write, but the things that you do to avoid hitting the keyboard when you actually do have the time.

I’m one of those people that really dreads the blank page. I’m fine once I get started, but beginning something new is a struggle for me. In my head, I know that I’m only writing, in Anne Lamott’s words, a ‘shitty first draft’ (Bird by Bird). I know that every word that hits the page the first time through does not have the right to sprout roots and stay put and that changes will be made later. In fact, I really enjoy editing. However, all that ‘knowing’ does not help the fact that I would rather clean my bathroom than start typing those first words–or put in a load of laundry–or organize my files, or my bookcase, or the top of my desk–all things that normally are regularly on the bottom of my to-do list. On the plus side, starting a new project usually coincides with a much tidier office.

Now, obviously I do get started, or I wouldn’t be much of a writer, but if anyone has some tips for short-circuiting my initial plunge into a story, I’d love to hear them. And now, I’m going to pick up my story where I left off yesterday and get some work done.

To Every Thing There is a Season

The official declaration of summer a couple of days ago made me think of the quote that is in the title. Winter was a challenging and sad season for our family, followed by a dreary spring and a wet, cold May that seemed to last far longer than its allotted 31 days. Finally, the sun is shining; more than my weeds seem to be thriving, and it’s summer!

And the sun seems to be shining on my creative life, too. A short email led to my pitching a textbook idea. I finished editing one of my historical romances; the cover is designed, and I’m that much closer to my first ebook. I got two emails last week with offers of writing work. And story ideas are no longer strangers. What took so long?

Healing took so long. Work didn’t come because I couldn’t have handled it well if it did. I needed time to get over a wretched winter, to hunker down with tea and romance novels, to pick up the knitting needles and crochet hook, so I could be whole again and able to do my best work.

Kristi Holl in More Writer’s First Aid – Getting the Writing Done, says it this way: “After prolonged stress, we often are no longer able to unwind. To create, we need a relaxed, ‘loosened’ state of mind … The final task is to coax your creativity out of hiding. It’s not really gone–just merely in hibernation. Often it’s only a matter of changing course, being creative in another area of your life for a time … Each person’s choice will be different.” For Kristi the choice was gardening and quilting–small, “no pressure” projects. For me it was knitting and returning to read some favourite novels.

What do you do to get your creativity out of hibernation?

More Writer’s First Aid–A Must-Own Book for Busy Writers

Kristi Holl’s More Writer’s First Aid: Getting the Writing Done is the perfect resource for writers who want to carve a writing career out of a life that seems already full of family, work, and just the “stuff” of living. I printed my PDF review copy, because I read better that way. I used sticky notes to highlight the parts that stood out and that I could mention in this review. I ran out of sticky notes. There were gems in almost every chapter.

This is a book that gives you permission to be human—to be confused, frightened, crazy-busy, in pain, and a first class procrastinator. Kristi offers accessible solutions to the challenges of a writer’s life without being trite or condescending. She writes with a voice that has “been there, done that” and has sought solutions in the work of other writers as well as from her own instincts. She shares her solutions and the struggles to find them and make them work, without a smidge of “holier than thou.” She speaks as a fellow traveller and survivor who has worn all of life’s hats, along with that of writer. Reading the book is like having a special writer friend give you a hug and a nod of complete understanding—just when you need it.

This is not a how-to-write guide. There are no tricks for writing great dialogue or creating a compelling story arc. Chapters are grouped under these headings:  ENJOYING THE WRITING LIFE—EVERY DAY!, WRITING HABITS THAT HELP YOU, A WRITER’S EMOTIONS, FAMILY MATTERS. She deals with the hard stuff. How to work after a loss, while working the day job and juggling family, when serious illness hits you or a family member. And the practical: how to stop procrastinating, the realities of finding writing time—and equally essential—thinking time, in a life full of demands on your time and attention.

I’ve read a lot of books about writing over the years. (I even wrote one!) Only three have made my annual reread list. Now there are four!

Blogger KRISTI HOLL is the author of 39 books, including MORE WRITER’S FIRST AID.


On Reading William Zinsser – Part 2

“Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good. Adjust your style accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach. Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.”  On Writing Well, p. 52

 Zinsser writes these words in Chapter 8 encouraging journalists and non-fiction writers to let their material lead them in an “unexpected direction” and not to “fight such a current if it feels right.” But, I think the words apply equally as well to novelists and short story writers.

 Even in my not-particularly-vast experience, I know that what I have planned for my characters isn’t always what happens to them. I learn something new about them as they and the story grow, and that “something new” takes them and the story in a new direction. In one WIP, I changed the voice part way through. I had started in third person limited, but my character was so strong that he got tired of being a “he” and decided to become an “I.” Free to talk in his own voice directly to the reader, he blossomed into an even more lively, funny and spunky character.  I would have missed all the fun if I hadn’t let him take over.

 The intimidating part was going back to the beginning of the book to see if it would work with the material I’d already written. I had polished those first pages so many times I practically had them memorized. Now, I was going to throw all those finely tuned words and take a risk with a new voice. A scary experiment, but it worked. The opening is faster, cleaner, funnier and tells a better story.

 Have you ever amended, erased, thrown out your blueprint? What happened? How did you feel about the result?


On Reading William Zinsser

Photo by Jamie Anderson published under Creative Commons License

I’m not doing any joywriting at all at the moment– and I’ll spare you the whine about that situation—so instead I’ll share with you what I’m reading.

On the weekend I began the 30th anniversary edition of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. I generally fly through reading material, but this book requires a different speed. Like good chocolate, its contents are rich and meant to be savoured.

Twenty years ago I read an earlier edition of this book, when Zinsser still referred to typewriters and the personal pronoun of choice was always “he.”  I’m a considerably older and more experienced writer and teacher now, and I’m sorry I stayed away so long. I’m only 36 pages in and already I’m underlining sentences and marking pages with sticky notes. I’m also doing a lot of head nodding and muttering things like “soooo right!” and “sooooo true!” and “exactly!” and enjoying every reading moment.

On page 9, Zinsser writes, “Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

I nodded my head at that one, too. He just nailed one reason (and yeah, there are others) why I haven’t done any joywriting lately. I’m quitting before I start. After writing three novels and another few halves, I know how hard the work really is, and there’s a part of me that I can actually hear groan at the thought of going down that road again. Yup. I’m a wuss. But at least I know I’m a wuss.

My sister-in-law’s favourite expression at these moments is: “Suck it up, buttercup!” Well, I’m no buttercup, but I like to call myself a writer, so I’m giving myself two weeks to get my act in gear, carve out some writing time and earn the name “writer.” In the meantime, I’ll keep you posted on my reading of On Writing Well–and hope that, in the meantime, you too are “writing well.”

Photo “Buttercups along the old CN tracks in Kitsilano” from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamieanderson/2568278918/ published under a Creative Commons license

Writer’s Block First Aid

I had to take a dose of my own medicine yesterday. My editor e-mailed a deadline to me and I was unprepared. So I did what I advise all writers to do—I started brainstorming. I made a list of all the things I like to write about and another of what I like to read about and I still felt like my own creative well was empty.

Is this writers’ block? laziness? stubbornness? Whatever it was, it felt lousy and I knew I had to get over it. Get over myself wishing I didn’t have to do it. Get over wanting to run away from my responsibilities. You get the picture. So, I did what I’ve told other writers to do, just started the thing.

And groaned about how difficult it is to face the blank screen—and to resist walking away and boiling the kettle for another cup of tea.

I made the tea.

Then I did the next best thing to writing; I hit the books and the Internet to research what other writers do when they’re in the same, gloomy, non-writing place. Clearly I am not alone. Google presented me with 2,710,000 sites for my search: “overcoming writer’s block.” Nearly three million people writing about writer’s block? Now I’m getting researcher’s block!

I did find a couple of gems, though.

Franz Kafka (“Metamorphosis”) said: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Well, it was clear to me after giving this a try, that the only “world” I was freely offered was one with a list of chores and “must remember to buy cereal on the way home from work.”  The only things rolling at my feet were dust bunnies. And, they’re more the static rather than the ecstatic variety as they attached themselves to my slippers and followed me to the kitchen. More tea.

Richard Condon wrote: “When I feel dried up I deal myself a few games of solitaire at my desk. I’ve been doing it all my life. Sometimes I play 10 or 20 games, sometimes 40. Once, I played for three straight days. The important thing is not to leave the workplace.” Sadly, I have no problem doing this; in fact, I always delete my Free Cell statistics after 100 games so I won’t be ashamed of the total number of games that I have played. Along with checking my e-mail, tidying my files, and deleting old messages, I have found many ways not to leave my “workplace”—and not write.

Other advice on writer’s block? Here’s one from Quentin Crisp: “Ignore it: you never stop speaking; why stop writing?” My answer to him is: “because I don’t feel like it.”

“And why don’t you feel like it?” I hear him ask me and it ticks me off and then—I realize what the answer is in an embarrassing flash of insight.

I’m afraid.

Yup. I don’t want to write because I don’t want to fail. What if this is the article that my editor said was just too awful to print. And if I can’t write this article, can I ever write anything else? Needless to say, all the advice I’ve written to others about not listening to their critical voices and, about following the advice of Anne Lamott and giving themselves permission to write the “shitty first draft”* went right out the window. The blank screen wasn’t just blank; it was the enemy.

So, I switched the thing off.

And picked up a pencil and some paper–because quitting really wasn’t an option.

That simple action made all the difference. Writing with paper and pencil was the first method I had used to create as a child and as a student, and by some magic, the connections were still there. I doodled and scribbled, added bits in margins or between lines, changed pen colours and made little flowers around the holes at the side of the paper. I don’t always write in order, so it was freeing to draw sweeping arrows from a bit I’d written at the top of the page to the bottom where I’d suddenly thought of more to add. Turning the pages, numbering them, scribbling diagonally across the empty backs of pages with new ideas, filling those pages was hugely satisfying. Writing became a visceral act; I felt totally involved and energized. And amazingly disconnected from the critic.

Because I was writing on paper, I had permission to be messy, cluttered, tangential, and free. The screen demands order and clean copy. I mean, just look at the thing! Everything ‘looks’ perfect—even lousy writing—and how depressing is that!

Have I found the universal cure for getting past the barrier to creativity? No. But I found one that works for me. Thank heavens for deadlines

—and pencils and paper.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anne Lamott, First Anchor Books Edition, 1995

Originally printed in What If? Canada’s Magazine for Creative Teens

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