Category: Writing Advice

The Countdown Begins

sunset

WRITING PROMPT:

What was your favorite day of this year? What made it special? In general, what makes one day different from others? With that in mind, create the beginning of a scene, marking that particular day as unique. For example, “Finally, the rain ceased. For the first time in days, she’d be able to swim.” Or, “Usually, the buses were incredibly punctual, hardly ever even a minute off. Today, however, nothing was running on time.” Spark the reader’s curiosity.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas

Caroling, baking cookies, decorating the tree, putting up candles in the windows–I have so many good memories of Christmas. People are friendly; the house is cozy; stockings are up by the fireplace. I love the snowmen and the wreaths, the stories and the hot spiced cider. I love the gift-giving and the eggnog, the family reunions and the anticipation. Even the cold can’t keep Christmas from being wonderful and joyous. No matter how you celebrate it, or if you celebrate it at all, I hope you have a magical day.

WRITING PROMPT:

Either look through an old diary, or search your memories. Think about how Christmas–or any other holiday/special event–has changed for you over the years. What caused those changes? How can our different attitudes towards a particular day reflect what it means to grow up? Or does this have nothing to do with growing up?

Either do a creative non-fiction piece, or else create a story in which your character has flashbacks to the same day, but in the past. Was it better or worse, then? Is it possible for days to exist forever? What if it were possible? Would you want to live in one day for the rest of your life? Would your character want to?

Getting Ready for an Indian Wedding

  Indian sweets

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to India. I was there once, years ago, when I went on a study-abroad trip in college. I honestly never would have imagined that the next time I’d go would be for my own wedding, and that the wedding would be in the Northeast, in Assam.

I’m excited. I’m nervous. It’s hard to sit still. There’s a lot of logistical stuff to do. Flight itineraries to print out, contact numbers to write down, suitcases to pack. I have to think about how many clothes to bring, and which books to put on my kindle. I have to think of what gifts to give, and how much luggage can be carried on international and domestic flights. Do I bring adapters, converters, warm clothes, fancy shoes? Do I have any fancy shoes? Do I remember any Hindi for when I’m in Delhi, briefly? Is my Assamese decent, at least?

People ask me so many questions about my upcoming wedding, and in response I have mostly only guesses. I’m not sure what awaits, when I arrive on December 12th. I’ve never been to Assam. I’ve never slept under a mosquito net. I’ve never worn a mekhela chador. I don’t know all of the traditions involved in an Assamese wedding. Sometimes it feels like I don’t know anything. I’ll be back to being a kid, having to learn everything for the first time. But I think it’ll be fun. Overwhelming, but fun. Like a kid, I’ll be experiencing so many things that are new to me. I’ll have a lot to learn. It’ll be an adventure.

WRITING PROMPT: Think about a time when you found yourself completely unprepared for a situation, overwhelmed. What was the scenario? What did you do?

Mary’s Chocolates

Mary chocolates

I don’t generally like to advertise for companies, but for this one, I can’t resist. Have you heard of Mary Chocolatier in Brussels? Wow. I mean, I love chocolate, and I love my name, so really you couldn’t go wrong. The history of how Mary Delluc started the company is worth reading about, and personally, I also enjoy just looking online at the fabulous chocolate concoctions. “Dark chocolate mousse flavoured with wild berry dusted with milk chocolate flakes.” “White chocolate mousse flavoured with cinnamon.” I could read descriptions like this all day. Chocolate is divine. Seriously. If you ever get the chance, go to this place. Try a truffle. Try a praline. Think of me. (Note: feel free to send me chocolate if you like this blog post! Any kind! From wherever you’re from! :D)

WRITING PROMPT:

For me, eating a box of chocolates and reading a fantasy novel with a romantic twist is just about as good as it gets. Or maybe hiking to a remote campsite, and falling asleep to the sound of crickets. Or watching turtles as they mosey along a beach. Okay, so there are lots of things that I love. What about you? What makes you smile just thinking about it? What do you want to fall asleep dreaming about?

Ordinary Chicago, Extraordinary Chicago

abstract

Walking through Chicago the other day, I took photos of all sorts of ordinary things, or things that seem ordinary at first glance. But anything can become extraordinary, depending on how you look at it. For example, the photo above–of mannequins in a fake dinner scene–was a simple photo I took of a window display along Michigan Avenue. Most people hurried by without even glancing at the window. If you take a moment to look, though, the scene is strangely abstract. Because of the reflection, the dinner seems to be taking place in the middle of skyscrapers, on a crowded street. The dinner guests are not just deciding where to sit, but rather checking out their suddenly much more expansive environment. They’re wondering why on earth their host decided to put the tables in the middle of a busy road. They’re deciding they don’t mind the attention onlookers are giving them; in fact, they enjoy it.

WRITING PROMPT:
Take photos of ordinary things–water making a puddle in a brick road, a person sitting under the shade of a tree, a neon shop sign. You might see something interesting in the photos, if you look hard enough. And even if not, photos can provide the starting place for stories and poems, later on. Snap some photos if you want to remember the ambience of a day. Maybe you want to capture the gloominess, the grey skies, and the mist settling over everything. Maybe you want to capture all of the lights illuminating the darkness–lamps in people’s living rooms, Christmas trees in town squares, flashes from shiny earrings.

Find a photo you already have, and construct a scene from it. Use specific details from the photo, but feel free to construct a new reality, instead of being tied to whatever the photo is actually of. If you took the photo in your own backyard, for example, there’s not necessarily any need for other people to know that. Use the photo as a trampoline to jump off into fantasy land.

Making Whatever You Wish For, Come True

wishes come true

Do you ever hope for an exciting, life-changing email to turn up in your inbox? Or an interesting package to appear on your front stoop? Or an old friend to call you out of the blue? I have to admit, I wish for things like this all the time. More than that, I wish for secret powers–the ability to travel anywhere I want in an instant, the skill to speak any language in the world, the talent to play instruments and sing so well that I could captivate anyone. My list of desires is pretty much never-ending.

Basically, I see the lives that other people lead, and often want bits and pieces for myself. I want to live in a house by the ocean. I want to live in a house by the forest. I want to be a famous writer. I want to be a respected teacher. I want to be able to bargain, and earn everyone’s respect. I want to be able to knit scarves, and fix things. I want to be strong. I want to enchant people with my stories. I want to dance so well that no one can keep their eyes off me. I want to be an adventurer, and see all of the wonders of the world. I want to change peoples’ lives, and have them remember me for it.

I think it’s partly because of all these desires that I decided, long ago, to be a writer. What other profession allows you to create fantasy worlds, where all of your wishes come true? Writing is its own kind of magic. Sometimes, the fictional worlds writers create even come partially true in real life. Words have power; they can describe what lies hidden within the imagination; they can bring imaginations to life.

WRITING PROMPT:

What do you wish for? It could be magical skills, like being able to create fire with a snap of your fingers. It could be the ability to fly. It could be world peace. It could be all of those things. Write a piece in which your wishes come true. Write a piece where you describe things that exist only in your imagination. Maybe your world is full of raspberry bushes that grow so thickly, year round, that peoples’ diets consist almost entirely of raspberry-based things. Raspberry mash. Raspberry juice. Raspberry butter. Raspberry bread.

Maybe your world is full of transformations. Whatever your character imagines when seeing his/her everyday surroundings, comes true. A hot pepper plant turns into a bouquet of yellow roses. A red window curtain, pulled back, reveals a floating outdoor stage. Ordinary house knives, when taken out of their drawer, become long spears.

Be outrageous. The more outrageous the more memorable, and the more fun!

Symbolism

flower
It’s something we always talked about in high school English classes, but at the time, I wasn’t that excited about it. Symbolism always went hand in hand with writing literary analysis essays, and I’ve never enjoyed that. These days, however, I’ve started thinking about symbolism from a writer’s point of view, and have found it to be much more fun.

WRITING PROMPT:

Take something simple–like the flower in this photo, for example–and attach it to an important idea. Maybe your main character sees this flower as they’re walking into a prison cell, and it represents to them all of what they’re going to miss for the next several months. Or maybe the flower survives past summer, and represents endurance in the face of harshness. Maybe the flower is trampled, and is a symbol of fragility, and the transience of things.

The symbol you choose could have the same meaning throughout your piece of writing, or it could change as you go along. As characters change, they might have different reactions to the very same symbol.

An Octopus, Aloe Vera, and Alien Eyes

WRITING PROMPT:
Draw interesting comparisons. For example, I could write that the aloe vera plant in front of me looks like an octopus with tentacles. I could write that the single round light hanging down from the ceiling is like an alien eye. I could write that the way the wall is painted makes it look like a racetrack. Whatever comparison you make can connect to the next topic you write about. Draw the comparison to a racetrack, for example, if your character is a runner, and they’re nervous about the track meet the next day. Less direct could be jumping from the aloe vera plant to the octopus, and from there writing about ink, and artists. Whatever it is you do, keep in mind that each image you use, each comparison you draw, should be purposeful. This is how you can foreshadow, or give clues in a mystery, or do all sorts of things. Have fun, and see beyond what is right in front of you.

Making Friends With Strangers

Today, when I got to Union Station, Chicago, instead of immediately heading out into the city, I bought a burrito in the train station, and sat down at a table right there to eat it. I was just so dang hungry, I couldn’t wait. Most tables were taken, so I ended up sitting across from a man who was so absorbed in a ridiculous game on his phone that he didn’t even look up at me.

I ate my entire burrito in silence. Looking around me, most other people were eating in silence, too. They either had their earbuds in, were playing games on their phones, texting, or reading books and newspapers. Most people sat by themselves.

Honestly, it was kind of sad to me. I thought to myself, this is why a lot of people dislike the “American culture.” Everyone’s absorbed in his or her own world.

I was just finishing my glass of water, and getting up from the table, when two middle-aged/elderly black women sat down at my table. They were really warm, and after I complimented one of them on her scarf, we got into a conversation.

I ended up sitting back down, and chatting with them for the next twenty minutes or so. One of the women has a daughter who speaks Hindi and Spanish fluently, so she was really interested in my own story of how I learned Hindi, and how I’m now getting married in India next month. We talked about inter-cultural relationships, and religion, and the world. At the end of our conversation, she said, “You just made my day.” And the truth is, she made my day, too.

It can be so nice to talk to strangers. Interactions like this re-inspire my faith that the world is a beautiful place, and that people have such potential for kindness.

WRITING PROMPT:

Create a scene in which two strangers interact with each other. What prompts this interaction? Is an elderly gentleman looking for a place to sit on a bus, and a young man gives up his seat? Maybe a teenage girl is walking to her English class in high school, when she sees a boy in the grade ahead of hers, under the stairwell, crying. There are so, so many possibilities. You can use your own personal experiences as a start, of course. Think about it; most of us start out as strangers to one another. What are the first things we notice about other people? What makes us like or dislike them? How do we start to figure out what kind of a person they are?

Cardinal Winter

WRITING PROMPT:
Describe a scene based on the environment around you.
For me, right now, I’m surrounded by lots and lots of snow. Maybe you are, too. Or maybe you’re sitting outside, eating lunch by the ocean. Wherever you are, describe the scene vividly enough that anyone else would be able to imagine it. Give as many specific details as possible. Things that might seem totally normal and mundane to you, might prove interesting to people who’ve never experienced that particular setting. Also, mundane details give more reality to whatever scene you’re creating.

You can start with just the real-life scene, and then develop a fictional story from there, if you want. Remember, try not to self-edit. The things I post aren’t perfect, mostly because if I waited to make them perfect, I’d never share anything at all.

A short example: All the tree branches outside have at least three inches of snow on them. Sometimes, a chunk falls off, and hits a branch below, turning into a shimmering snowfall. Winter is beautiful, but the girl is glad she is inside. Her hands are still cold from the morning, when she darted outside for a minute to fetch a letter from the mailbox. It’s still unfolded on the table, in front of her. For the moment, though, the girl’s eyes are focused on the scene beyond the windows. Rooftops and streetlamps, trees and bushes, barely emerge from the thick layer of snow covering the earth. The sun turns everything silvery white, and blinding. Everything, that is, but the cardinals. They perch in the evergreen trees, chests the bright red of blood.

How can they be unaware, the girl thinks, of the danger they are in? Don’t they know of The Hunter? She glances down at the letter, taking the words in, again.