[Reading Room] To Do by Jennifer Egan

I love this kind of thing. It’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to short stories: this ability to tell a story in the most unexpected of ways.

This week I read a story by Jennifer Egan that looks like a ‘to do’ list. It’s not. Well, not entirely.

13. Renew meds

14. Investigate poisons

a. Flammable

b. Powders

c. Gasses

d. Pills

e. Herbal

f. Chemical

g. Musical

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With almost every new item on the list, the reader gets closer to figuring out what is going on.

It’s not just a puzzle though. There’s humor too: that “Renew meds….investigate poisons”! I can almost hear the “Oh, that reminds me…”, which is the way I make “to do” lists (usually without such murderous intent).

This was fun, and reminded me that Jennifer Egan’s most famous novel A Visit From The Goon Squad is, not only a collection of related stories, it contains a section that is a Powerpoint presentation!

Don’t let anyone tell you what you can write, when you’re writing a short story!

Read the story online here

The List – a writing prompt for May 23, 2017

The Prompt

Write a story in the form of a list

Tips

  • You could write
    • a ‘to do’ list,
    • a list of grievances addressed to your character’s boss/children/spouse;
    • a shopping list;
    • a McSweeney’s style list;
    • a list of steps you are advising someone to take,
    • any other type of list you like.
  • The title is hugely important. You might need to write it last. It should perhaps have a double meaning: it might mean one thing to the reader before they read the story and yet peel away a layer once the story is in their brains.
  • Don’t be afraid to let the reader work. Leave things out. Imply much, explain little.
  • Don’t feel the need to wrap this up neatly. Jennifer Egan doesn’t.
  • The twist in this kind of tale, comes because the form betrays the meaning: a list is a utilitarian, ephemeral thing. The more important/dramatic the issue your character takes on in the list, the more impact the story will have (this can be dramatic, funny, ridiculous, dark, or anything else!)

Go!

Sumptuous Settings – a writing prompt

Today I encourage you to make your prose as purple as you like, in a quest to find out how much description you really need.

The Prompt

Write a story (set in your novel’s world) that makes sensation a priority. Use all five senses.

Tips

  • Don’t be afraid to write ridiculously floral prose today. You can always dial it back, but it’s fun to find new ways of describing things.
  • Don’t worry too much about pacing or characterization. This is an exploration of your world and the sensations a character might experience, walking through it.
  • Get outside, if you have to. Listen to things. Smell the world. See what you can feel. Then come back inside and write.

Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!

Societal World Building – a writing prompt

Today we look at a less tangible aspect of world-building: What makes your society the way it is?

21The Prompt

Write a story focusing on an aspect of society that matters to you/your story. How did society get to a place where this is important?

Tips

  • You’ll probably have to go back into history for this (or ‘history’, if your world is completely made up).
  • Think about issues like gender/race/economic/religious norms. How did they get where they are? What made the norms, normal?
  • Pick something that matters to you. Don’t try to explain everything, just the thing that makes your blood boil, or that gets you excited.

Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!

Concrete World Building – a writing prompt

Today I invite you to do some world-building, either for a novel in progress or for a story world you’d like to spend more time in, focusing on concrete aspects of the world.

The Prompt

Write a story that focuses on the discovery/invention/ramifications of something that shapes your characters’ physical world.

Tips

  • Some questions you might ask: Why do we have roads? What invention led us to spend our evenings the way we do? What does your futuristic society have that might need explained? How did those things come about?
  • Write a story based on the transition point between a world with those things and the world that came before (think: Marty McFly in Back to the Future arriving at his younger-mom’s house the very day her father hooked up their first TV. Rolling the TV into their dining room that first time, probably affected their family dinners forever!)

Don’t forget to leave a comment or do your Victory Dance!

Secondary Meeting – a writing prompt

Today’s writing prompt invites you to look back into your characters’ past again.

 

The Prompt

Imagine the first (significant) meeting between your protagonist and a secondary character

Tips

  • Again, if you’re not a novelist, imagine this scenario for a short story you’ve written in the past, or for one you’re planning.
  • If your novel-in-progress’s protagonist has a best friend, that might be the perfect person to choose here. If they have a ‘frenemy’, this story could shed some light on that relationship. You can even do this with a villain, if they have a history that begins before the novel starts.
  • Show us this meeting. Set up some of the dynamics we’ll recognize between the two characters later.
  • If your work-in-progress doesn’t have a great candidate for this story, invent one. A friend in the protagonist’s past, that we never meet in the later work, could set her expectations for all future friends (good or bad). Examine that.
  • If you need help getting to the emotional heart of the matter, take a look at Donald Maass’s newest book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Don’t forget to leave a comment letting us know how you got on, or come on in to the community and do your Victory Dance!

 

A Refusal – a writing prompt

Continuing our week of prompts aimed at creating rich backstory for novelists and short story writers alike, today we create an alternate story for your protagonist.

The Prompt

There is a moment in every story where a protagonist has to make a choice: to take up the challenge of the story or to turn away. Everything else flows from that.

Today, write a story in which your protagonist makes the other choice. 

Tips

  • This will, of course, result in a shorter story than otherwise.
  • It will still have fallout. (Think: It’s A Wonderful Life, Sliding Doors etc.)
  • Examine that fallout in a story.

Don’t forget to leave a comment, or do your Victory Dance in the community.

The Protagonist’s Journal – A writing prompt

Continuing our series of prompts to help novelists as well as short story writers, today I encourage you to move forward a little in your protagonist’s timeline, but still stay before the main story.

The Prompt

Write a story about the days leading up to the beginning of your novel, or your story’s big incident. Alternatively, write a journal of those days from your protagonist’s point of view.

Tips

  • Use this story to ‘brain dump’ all the stuff that your reader doesn’t want to wade through before they get to the jumping-off-point for your story.
  • You can use this knowledge to season the story later, with a light hand.
  • Remember, you can recycle these stories are freebies and giveaways to help you promote your novel and build your audience.

Don’t forget to leave a comment to let us know how you got on, or post in The Victory Dance

Turning Point – A writing prompt for novelists

This week I’m focusing on prompts that novelists can use. If you’re  novelist, I don’t want you to feel like you’re wasting your time here at StoryADay May. While short story writers can easily use these prompts, too, you novelists will find much in them that enriches your work-in-progress.

Let’s dive in:

The Prompt

Write a story that investigates a turning point in your protagonist’s past.

Tips

  • Every interesting character has an internal struggle fighting with (or complementing) the external struggle of the plot. It usually stems from a character flaw/defect/protection mechanism they’ve been building for years. Use this prompt to write a story that captures the beginning of that character development.
  • If you don’t have a novel or work in progress, investigate a character from an earlier story you’ve written (or one you hope to write).

Lisa Cron’s Story Genius (referenced in the video) can be found here or requested through your local indie bookstore.

Second Look – A writing prompt from Julie Duffy

Today I encourage you to take a second look at a story you’ve written before.

The Prompt

Take a story you’ve written before and write it again from a different point of view.

Tips

You can rewrite the events of the story, as viewed by someone else.

You could choose to use the original story as a jumping-off point, that simply informs your knowledge of this formerly-secondary character.

Feel free to write the story in a completely different form (if the first one was a series of letters, you could write this one in a more narrative form.

Nightmare – A writing prompt from Maria Hazen Lewis

Today’s prompt comes from another wonderful writer from my local network.

The Prompt

I had a nightmare last night. I woke up and started writing….

About Maria Hazen Lewis

Maria Hazen Lewis writes women’s fiction in Pennsylvania.

Misapprehension – A writing prompt from

Today’s prompt is about the (sometimes comedic) art of misapprehension.

The Prompt

Today’s prompt focuses on misapprehension – that is, interpreting something incorrectly. Too often, in fiction, every character communicates perfectly. That’s not the way it happens in real life.

Example: award-winning author Harlan Ellison once misheard a conversation at a party. He overheard a woman say, “”Jeffy is fine. He’s always fine.”” What Ellison actually heard was “”He’s always FIVE.”” That inspired the story “”Jefty Is Five,”” about a boy who never grows up.

Alternately, the misapprehension could be visual. True story: when I graduated college, I moved to a southern town – one of those places where anti-intellectualism seemed to be the prevailing attitude. I met lots of girls there, but I was looking for an intellectual girlfriend. One day, while sitting in dingy waiting room, I saw a pretty girl outside. To my amazement, she wore a tee-shirt with the letters “”SPQR”” on it. SPQR stood for – in Latin – “”The Senate and the People of Rome.”” What kind of woman wore a tee-shirt that referenced Ancient Rome? I had to meet her! I rushed outside, saw the girl…and discovered that her shirt didn’t say “”SPQR.”” It said “”SPORT.”” Stretched around her well-endowed chest, the final letter was hadn’t been visible from where I sat. (I was so disappointed, I didn’t even speak to her.)

So that’s your prompt: misapprehension, either verbal or visual.

About Tony Conaway

Born in Philadelphia, PA, Tony Conaway has written and ghostwritten everything from blogs to books. He has cowritten non-fiction books published by McGraw-Hill, Macmillan and Prentice Hall. His fiction has been published in eight anthologies and numerous publications, including Blue Lake Review, Danse Macabre, Rind Literary Magazine, qarrtsiluni, The Rusty Nail and Typehouse Literary Magazine.

His odder work includes co-writing the script for a planetarium production, and jokes performed by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. He blogs at http://wayneaconaway.blogspot.com/ He was recently a guest on the Indy Writer Podcast, talking about writing short fiction.

Poetic Inspiration – A writing prompt from Elise Holland

 

Poetic Inspiration: Let a Favorite Poem Breathe Life into Your Short Story

Reading poetry is a great way to inject beauty and inspiration into our daily lives. Select a poem that resonates with you, and let it inspire you as you write your next short story!

In order to provide a specific prompt, I suggest Shakespeare’s Sonnet 25, which showcases a theme of the power of love. Beneath the poem, you will find suggestions for other poets (both classic and contemporary), as well as specific ideas for incorporating poetic tools such as theme, imagery and rhythm into your prose.

The Prompt

“Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlookt for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye;
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glorie die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foil’d,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.”
– William Shakespeare
Sonnet 25

Tips

There is a vast array in styles of poetry, and not every single poem will resonate with you. With a little persistence, you will find the unique voices and poignant words to inspire your prose and warm your soul.

 

  • Interested in classic poetry? Consider delving into this book, which serves as a lovely anthology, showcasing the work of thirteen classic poets.
  • Consider that various aspects of a poem can inspire your short fiction. Here, we will examine theme, imagery and rhythm.
  • When studying a poem, look closely at its theme.
    Did the poet wax melodic about love?
  • Did he or she speak ardently about a particular social issue or current event that resonates?
  • What aspect of this theme are you drawn to, and how might you incorporate it into your own work?
  • Evaluate the imagery in the poem you study.
    • In the above poem, Shakespeare says “Great princes’ favorites their fair leaves spread, But as the marigold at the sun’s eye; And in themselves their pride lies buried, For at a frown they in their glory die.” What he is referring to, is that happiness found in shallow pursuits (in this case, in the fickle favor of those in high places) is fragile, and is often found wanting.
    • Later in the above poem, Shakespeare says “Then happy I, that love and am beloved Where I may not remove nor be removed.” In this way, the poem states that it is in unwavering love (where I may not remove or be removed) that true happiness is sought and found.
    • What images speak to you? How might you incorporate versions of them into your next story?
  • When considering rhythm:
    • Consider sentence length variety. For instance, one very short, moving sentence can have significant impact after a longer, complex or compound sentence.
    • Are you drawn to rhyme? You might include a subtle use of rhyme in a paragraph you are trying to drive home, or make memorable.
  • Once you’ve written your story, think about submitting it to literary magazines and/or journals. We would love to review your work at 2 Elizabeths! (2Elizabeths.com)

About Elise Holland

Elise Holland is co-founder and editor of 2 Elizabeths, a short fiction and poetry publication. Her work has appeared in various publications, most recently in Darling. Through 2 Elizabeths, Elise strives to create value and visibility for writers, through writing contests, events, and more!

A Mysterious Situation – Writing Prompt from Bea from The Busy Muse

Today, Bea from The Busy Muse gives us a scenario and encourages us to stretch our genre expectations…

Don’t forget, you can listen to the audio-only by subscribing to the podcast

The Prompt

Your company sends you to meet a costumer at their house. It’s a standard, nice neighborhood.

You ring and ring but nobody answers. The door is ajar, and you enter, calling aloud.

All is in order in the living room apart from an overturned potted plant on the expensive-looking rug…

Tips

  • You choose the atmosphere. Did the costumer run out to get milk or got kidnapped?
  • The setting is quite anonymous: can you create a fantasy story out of this? What about a science fiction piece?
  • Have fun thinking outside the box!

About Bea from The Busy Muse

Bea is a bilingual writer and freelancer currently living near Venice, in Italy. She blogs and helps writers with their writing and creativity at  . The Busy Muse. She brainstorms new ideas with her cat, who is very good at listening but not at providing solutions.

Chance Encounter – Writing Prompt from Sarah Cain

Today’s prompt, from author Sarah Cain, features a chance encounter. This is going to be fun!

Podcast version:

The Prompt

The chance encounter. Have you ever run into someone you know when you look grubby? Or maybe you see an old boyfriend at Starbucks. Or perhaps, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Stranger’s On a Train, you run into a stranger who offers to do you a service, like murder, in return for you returning the favor. Think of a chance encounter that could leave you shaken, stirred, or in deep trouble.

About Sarah Cain

Sarah Cain is the author of the Danny Ryan political thrillers, The 8th Circle and One By One. She lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with her husband Howard, a former political consultant, and her two insane cats, and spends a great deal of time contemplating murder. In her spare time, she reads, plays Cards for Humanity, and dreams about moving to Ireland.