[Writing Prompt] Don’t Fight With Strangers On Social Media

Fighting creativityA few days ago, I commented on a Twitter post about a hot-button issue. I don’t normally do that, but I thought I was making a neutral, expanding-the-argument kind of comment.

You can tell where this is going can’t you?


Someone read my comment and assumed I was saying something I wasn’t; pigeon-holed me as someone from the completely different end of the ideological spectrum; and proceeded to make snarky, personal comments every time I tried to defuse the situation.

I had that hot-and-sweaty, blood-pounding-in-my-face, pit-in-my-stomach sensation we all remember so well from the injustices of being a misunderstood 12-year-old.  I wasted hours constructing careful answers and psyching myself up to open up my Twitter feed, wondering if I would find an olive branch or a minefield.

It wasn’t fun.

It sucked all the creativity out of my day.

It was such a waste of time.

And the irony of it was, I had, that very morning, reposted Austin Kleon’s advice not to pick fights with strangers on social media!

The Prompt

Find an issue that you COULD have a fight with someone about on social media and instead, write a story.


  • Make it something you really, really care about.
  • Have a protagonist and an antagonist who feel strongly about either side of the argument.
  • Give the antagonist a legitimate reason to feel that way — don’t make them a cardboard cut-out/cartoon villain.  (This might be hard, but will result in a better story, and a better you!)
  • You don’t have to be sympathetic to the opposing point of view, but you do have to grant some humanity to the person who holds that view. Grace them with some nuance. It’ll make for a better story, and it’ll intrigue the reader.
  • It will make your story and its outcome surprising and  memorable.
  • Consider leaving the story slightly unresolved. Life usually is. Maybe there is a moment when one (or both) characters have a glimmer of understanding (or of seeing the other person as a real human), or maybe they miss that moment entirely.
  • When working with two sides of an issue, you can show how the ‘good’ character could easily become the ‘bad’ character if only they…{insert the line your character will not cross here] and vice versa.
  • Because this is a short story, focus on one angle of an issue, one comment, one moment in the character’s lives.
  • Maybe let the exchange play out on a simulated social media exchange.
  • Maybe have the characters in another time and place, debating face to face, or through some completely different medium.


I promise you that, if you write a story instead of picking a fight with a stranger on social media, you’ll have a better day than I did last week 😉


[Write On Wednesday] Four-Part Story

I’m currently fascinated by a short story experiment being run by Penguin Random House.

They’re running a series called “The Season of Stories“. You subscribe, and they send you a story every week.

But that’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that they serialize the story.

Every day, Monday-Thursday, you receive part of a story.

It’s how short stories were read in publications back at the start of the golden age of short story writing, and it’s something we’ve moved away from. Instead of making them bite-sized treats, we sell short stories by weight, packaged into collections. Then we try to sell them to readers who have been trained on novels.

(No wonder short story collections don’t sell well!)

With a novel, you, the reader, carve out some time to plunge yourself into a story world, allow yourself to be pulled along by cliffhangers, spend time getting to know the characters.

Short stories aren’t like that.

Readers, in general, don’t know what to do with a short story collection, but anyone can open their email and read a quarter of a story. Especially one that has been well-crafted.

Today I want you to practice crafting a story that will keep bringing a reader back for more.

Stories naturally break into four parts: inciting incident, rising action, midpoint shift, then climax/conclusion/resolution.  Each part must end with a kicker that leaves the reader wanting more (yes, even the end).

The Prompt

Write a story that can be read in four parts. Focus on creating mini-cliffhangers at each quarter point.


  • The Seasons of Stories shorts have ranged from 600-1900 words per installment. You can choose a length that works for you.
  • This is a great way to promote your other writing. PRH’s emails come with a ‘if you enjoyed this, read more in this book’ ad at the end. But it never feels ‘salesy’ because they’ve given me a free sample and are simply letting me know where I can find more, if I liked it. Sometimes this link is to a novel by the same author. Sometimes it is to a collection of short stories containing stories by the author. (Now that they’ve trained me to read shorts, they can sell me their collection!)
  • Don’t forget to raise a big story question at the start (remember: you can do this in revisions), that won’t be addressed until the climax/end. Do this in addition to the mini-cliffhangers at the end of each section.
  • If you need some examples, check out The Season of Stories. It’s free.
  • I heard about this from Daniel Pink’s newsletter. If you like this, consider subscribing to that. It’s a short read and he shares interesting stuff like this, every other week.

Now, go and write your story.

Come back and tell me how it went!


Settings – A Writing Prompt from Josh Barkan

Writing exercise: (20 minutes)

Choose a place that you know well, which you have strong feelings about. Describe that place, first when you are in a happy mood. (10 minutes) Then describe the place when you are in a sad mood. (10 minutes)

What difference did you note?

Writing exercise: (30 minutes)

What is described in a particular setting often depends upon the point of view of the story. Describe a real park you have visited, first in the first person point of view through the eyes of a young man or young woman in love (15 minutes), and then through the eyes of an old widow or widower (15 minutes).

What differences in setting did you notice, even though it was the same park?



The purpose of these exercises is to realize that setting is never neutral. Setting descriptions are subjective. So your setting should always evoke a mood. Think of your setting as another character. The setting should help us feel the mood of the scene you are describing. If there is conflict in the scene, then the setting should be described harshly, in a way that evokes the harshness of the moment. If the scene is a warm scene, with love, then the setting should reveal that warmth.


About Josh Barkan

Josh Barkan is the author of MEXICO. Josh Barkan has won the Lightship International Short Story Prize and been a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Paterson Fiction Prize, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in Esquire. He earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston University, and New York University. With his wife, a painter from Mexico, he divides his time between Mexico City and Roanoke, Virginia. For writing advice from Barkan and other top-notch short story writers, download Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing.


[Writing Prompt] Turn A Trope Upside Down

Writing Prompt LogoIn James Blish’s Surface Tension (which I reviewed recently), the author took the idea of space travel and did something a bit different with it: instead of humans arriving on a new planet and terraforming it to suit themselves, they genetically-engineer versions of humanity that would thrive on the planet.

Now that’s what I call ‘subverting reader expectations’. But it’s still a satisfying story that sticks to the rules of an off-planet adventure story (lots of ‘wonder’ and new environments, inter-personal conflict, conflict with the environment, bad guys, a struggle to unite the ‘good’ forces and to survive. Even a little romance.)

The Prompt

Write a story that subverts reader expectations but still works in genre Continue reading “[Writing Prompt] Turn A Trope Upside Down”

[Writing Prompt] Interrogate A Character

InterviewToday’s writing prompt is ripped straight from my 6th Grader’s homework folder, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant. 

I’m steeped in (as well as 6th Grade homework) Lisa Cron’s fabulous latest book Story Geniusin which she makes the compelling point that you cannot begin to tell your character’s story until you know about their past.

It’s a delightfully obvious (and surprisingly overlooked) observation that ought to be front and center in every writing class. So here we go.

The Prompt

Interview a character from one of your stories. Find out as much as you can about their past and what formed the character they possess on Page One of their story. Continue reading “[Writing Prompt] Interrogate A Character”

[Writing Prompt] It’s Time For Holiday Stories

It’s Write On Wednesday Day! (That’s really clumsy. I’m going to have to never do that again!)

Thanksgiving dinner decor
Photo by Karin Dalziel

The Nov/Dec/Jan holiday season is fast approaching. I know you don’t want to think about it, but if you’re interested in putting out a short story for the holidays, this is actually kind of last minute.

Publications have long lead times for date-specific stories, so if your holiday stories aren’t already written, now’s the time. Magazines and online pubs LOVE themed stories (Christmas stories; New Year issues; Thanksgiving horror stories!).

Or perhaps you’d like to create a story for friends and family to say thanks for all their support (or: na-na-na-na-na-na-you-see-I-wasnt-lying-around-watching-daytime-TV-all-year).

The Prompt

Write a story tied to a Nov/Dec/Jan holiday


  • You can use this to flesh out characters from a longer work in progress.
  • You can include characters from your real life.
  • You can use this as a calling card/thank you note/Christmas letter if you send holiday greetings cards
  • Mine your own memories, but don’t feel you have to write memoir. Take an incident from one of your family holidays and recast it on a steampunk airship or a city made of living bone towers or at the Tudor court.
  • Don’t feel it has to be a narrative story. One of the delights of the short story form is that it can be much more than that. Consider writing a list of holiday gifts your character has to buy, complete with passive-aggressive commentary; or a series of increasingly frantic tweets from the Thanksgiving dinner table…
  • Create a compelling character and set them in a ridiculous situation, or a ridiculous character and put them in a banal situation.

Have fun with this. Amuse yourself. Remember, nobody ever has to see this story, so you can be as cruel or as kind as you like!

[Writing Prompt] Seek Beauty

Following this month’s theme of Refilling The Well, I’ve thrown some pretty unusual writing prompts at you, including Don’t Write Anything and Rip Off Another Writer.

In that vein, I’m bowing down to Julia Cameron today, and borrowing her concept of Artist’s Dates, popularized in her book The Artist’s Way.

The Prompt

Seek out something beautiful/inspiring today.


  • You don’t have to write a story inspired by the thing you find. Just seek it out. View the world with curiosity and try to find something that makes you go ‘wow’.
  • You might want to take a trip to an art gallery or a movie theater, or you might simply want to lie under a tree and look up at the sky through the leaves.
  • You might want to listen to live or recorded music. Or watch your baby for half an hour while she sleeps.
  • Breathe. Soak it in. Notice all the details of the Thing and of your reaction to it.
  • Wallow.
  • Then go back to life, refreshed.


[Write On Wednesday]

In honor of Groundhog Day, today’s prompt encourages you to tell a story over and over and over again…

In honor of Groundhog Day, and one of the best films ever made about an obscure holiday, today’s prompt encourages you to milk one simple plot for all it’s worth.

The Prompt

Write A Very Short Story About An Incident In Your Character’s Day, Then Make Them Relive That Incident


Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday]”

[Write On Wednesday] Two Different Timelines

Today’s prompt is inspired by a great book I’m reading on story structure. It’s called Book Architecture: How To Outline Without Using A Formula by Stuart Horwitz (who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference recently. If you get a chance to see him speak, I’d highly recommend it. Very engaging and he takes a VERY different approach to the idea of outlining a story from most pro-outline people.)

The Prompt

Write A Story That Contains More Than One Timeline


  • Here’s a Flash Fiction example of the kind of thing I’m talking about: Comatose by Megan Manzano
  • In Book Architecture, Horwitz offers a couple of great tips for keeping multiple timelines from becoming confusing: 1, anchor your reader in the ‘present’ timeline before jumping back to a flashback and b, keep your flashbacks moving in the same chronological order (i.e. start at one point in the character’s experiences and move in one direction from there. He uses the movie Slumdog Millionaire as an example of this structure).
  • Here’s a longer, and more complex story that has multiple timelines: The Weight Of A Blessing by Aliette de Bodard (the timelines here are The Present, After The Last Visit With Her Daughter; The Recent Past, During And In-Between Her Three Visits With Her Daughter; and The Far Past, During The War. All of them combine to illustrate the theme of the story while unpacking the details of what the heck’s going on (kind of).
  • For today’s exercise, try doing the minimum: weave two timelines together, and keep each one moving in a particular chronological direction.
  • This might take more time than the usual Write On Wednesday “write it fast and loose” kind of exercise. What the heck, take the whole week.
  • Try taking a story you’ve written before and reworking it this way. Choose one you’re not happy with, or that you never finished Good candidates are stories that sank under the weight of their own backstory. Split out the backstory and tell it in flashback.


[Write On Wednesday] (re)Committed

After scaring you all with my writing prompt headline last week, I’m going much more positive this week.

The Prompt


Write a story about a character who is determined to achieve something difficult.


  • Tell us why that something matters to your character
  • Think about what obstacles you can put in her way. Go beyond the obvious.
  • Show us one way in which she is better, more determined, more heroic than we ourselves would be.
  • Let her triumph — or flop gloriously.


[Write On Wednesday] Christmas Redux

It’s the perfect time to write a Christmas/New Year/Winter story!

Don’t believe me? Take a lesson from the wily Dutch.

Everybody knows that the time to plant spring bulbs is in the autumn and yet every spring I receive multiple catalogues from dutch tulip and daffodil distributors. Six months after (or before) I should (have) plant(ed) their products. What lunacy is this?

The bulb marketers know that in spring I’m experiencing floral beauty and regretting not having planted more bulbs last year. It’s all fresh. I can see where I could put this Red Matador and that Orange Empress to fill a scraggy gap in my flower beds. I am full of good intentions about next year.

And, in January, is that not how you feel? As you pack away the holiday decorations, are you not full of regret over the things not done? The gifts unsought? The cards unsent? Is the memory of your brother-in-law’s annual jokes about your dessert not fresh in your memory?

Indeed. So now is the perfect time to write a story set in the season we have just endured enjoyed.

The Prompt

Write A December/Jan Holiday Story[1. No, I’m not conducting a War on Christmas. I, myself, celebrate Christmas. I just feel it’s polite to acknowledge the other 68% of humanity. It has less punch than “write a Christmas story”, I grant you. But if that’s the price for doing unto others, then I’m willing to pay it here in my blog…]


  • Think back over this past season and watch for strong emotions that pop up. What are they related to? Regrets? Vows of ‘never again’? Longing for next year’s repeat? Write those things down.
  • Think of moments that stood out for you. Why? What was the emotional resonance?
  • Think of a character you can put in a seasonal story who wants something. It can be something that is in tune with the message of the season or at odds with it, but they must feel strongly about it.
  • Now go about messing with their day. Put obstacles in their path. Put obnoxious visitors underfoot. Burn the turkey. Send in the ghosts of Christmas to settle their hash. Whatever works for your story…


There. Now you have a story ready to post on your blog/submit to a seasonal publication in early autumn/send out with your Christmas cards next Black Friday (you are going to send Christmas cards next year, aren’t you? Unlike this year? I know, I know, it’ll be our little secret…)

Now, excuse me while I check my mailbox for the Breck’s Bulb Catalogue…



(Do you send out a holiday story in seasonal cards to your friends? Make a note now on your calendar to do this next year!)

[Write On Wednesday] Effin’ Elf

Elf on the Shelf
My Facebook feed and RSS reader are full of posts from angst-ridden parents who already—three days in—hate their stupid Elf On The Shelf[1. A craze that took off a couple of years ago and is like the Tooth Fairy crossed with an advent calendar, and a nightmare for parents].

People seem to be held hostage to this thing at the same time that they are plagued[2. thanks to Pinterest postings from uber-mommies] by a sense of inadequacy and overwhelm.

The Prompt

Imagine a character who is trapped in a situation beyond their control for a finite amount of time. Write their story.


  • What is the situation and why is it so torturous for THIS particular character?
  • How do they react on Day 1. How does that change by Day 15?
  • What is the crisis point? What brings things to a head?
  • What hilarious (or terrifying) events happen at the climax?
  • What fallout does this have for the character and the people around him/her?
  • What lessons are learned at the end? What vows are made?
  • Think about something that drives YOU crazy. Create a character who is also driven crazy by this thing, but make them more extreme. Amplify everything. Make the lows lower than they ever get for you. Make the highs higher.



[Write On Wednesday] Homesick

Write A Story In Which A Character Is Homesick

Character is king, in stories, but how can you make your character more realistic? Share an emotion that all of us have experienced. Examine it in the context of what your plot is doing to the character. This is an especially useful skill to work on if your stories tend to be set in fantastic, futuristic or historical settings. We can’t easily identify with Frodo fighting off goblins, but we can feel his pain as he longs for the Shire (and shed a tear when he and Sam face the reality that they probably won’t make it home again).

The Prompt

Write A Story In Which A Character Is Homesick


  • Make the homesickness fuel the plot somehow – have the character make a truly stupid decision in reaction to their homesick impulse. Or have them do whatever it takes to overcome it.
  • Put the homesickness in a surprising context — maybe a soldier finds himself ‘homesick’ for the place he had the worst experience of his life; maybe a 90 year old immigrant smells something that catapults her back to her childhood in a faraway land…
  • Maybe it’s not your main character who is homesick. Who else could be homesick and how would that affect your protagonist?
  • Are the people around the homesick character sympathetic? Impatient? Uncomprehending? Oblivious? Why?
  • Lead the reader through the emotions of homesickness as your character experiences it. Is it an ache in their forearms as they resist the temptation to call their old home phone number and see who answers? Is it a yawning hollow in their belly, as if they’ll never be able to eat enough to fill it? Is it a prickle behind their eyelids and a digging of nails into palms? Think about how you’ve felt when you’ve had that yearning to go home again.
  • If you’re not managing to conjure up the emotions to mine, try this: go to Google maps. Type in the address of somewhere you went once, for a shining hour or day or year — somewhere that holds special memories for you. Go into Street View. (Look up your first family home, your first school, that place you went on vacation once and had the torrid affair with  a local boy…). Look at the light, the sky, the architecture, the sidewalks, the window frames, the shop fronts. What do you feel? What do you notice? What had you forgotten? Use details like this to make your character’s longing for home seem real to a reader.


[Write On Wednesday] – Style Switch

The Write On Wednesday story prompts are designed to prompt quickly-written stories that you can share in the comments. It’s a warm-up exercise, to loosen up your creativity muscles. Come back every Wednesday to see a new prompt.

This week’s prompt was inspired by yesterday’s Tuesday Reading Room story, The  Sellout by Mike Cooper. In that story, the author uses traditional hard-boiled detective tropes, but his detective is investigating… accounting fraud.  

The Prompt – Style Switcheroo

Write a story where you use a familiar style of writing (Romance, space opera, Western, literary fiction, YA paranormal, political thriller, whatever you’re most familiar with) but use it to treat a subject that is outwith the normal subject matter  for that genre.

(Think: Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, or Tom Clancy trying to write a bodice-ripper, FF. Scott Fitzgerald on a space station…)

What will you write?


  • Don’t worry about your audience and who might read it. 
  • Do feel free to cross over into parody or be ridiculous. It’s just a fun exercise.
  • Make sure your story travels from start to end: don’t just write a scene, make someone or something change between the first word and the last.

The Rules:

  1. You should use the prompt in your story (however tenuous the connection).
  2. You must write the story in one 24 hr period – the faster the better.
  3. Post the story in the comments — if you’re brave enough.
  4. Find something nice to say about someone else’s story and leave a comment. Everybody needs a little support!

Optional Extras:

Share this challenge on Twitter or Facebook

Some tweets/updates you might use:

Don’t miss my short story: [style] meets [subject]  #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://wp.me/p1PnSG-qb

This week’s #WriteOnWed short story prompt is a style switch! #storyaday http://wp.me/p1PnSG-qb

Come and write with us! #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://wp.me/p1PnSG-qb 

See my story – and write your own, today: Style Switch at #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://wp.me/p1PnSG-qb

If you would like to be the Guest Prompter, click here.

[Write On Wednesday] Six Sentences

This week’s prompt comes with a built-in market to submit your work to after you’re finished: Six Sentences. I subscribe to their daily stories by email and I often find it inspiring to wake up to a micro-story written by someone else. Surely, my brain says to me, you could manage a story in six sentences today.

Six Sentences screenshot

The challenge of course is that even (especially?) a six-sentence story has to have a beginning, a middle, a end, a clever idea, some action and (incredible, instantly) engaging characters. Micro-stories often have a twist to give them a kick, but they don’t have to – as today’s submission shows.

The Prompt

Write a story in six sentences.

Six sentences.

You can do that, right?


  • It’s probably best to emphasize only one feature (character or setting or action, or the twist) but all the other elements must be there too.
  • Write fast, as fast as you can.
  • Make sure your story travels from start to end: don’t just write a scene, make someone or something change between the first word and the last.

The Rules:

  1. You must write the story in one 24 hr period – the faster the better.
  2. This week, DON’T post the story in the comments — but do leave a comment saying you wrote something.
  3. Find something nice to say about someone else’s story and leave a comment. Everybody needs a little support!

Optional Extras:

Submit your story to Six Sentences!
Share this challenge on Twitter or Facebook

Some tweets/updates you might use:

Could you write a six sentence short story?  #WriteOnWed #storyaday

This week’s #WriteOnWed short story prompt is Six Sentences: #storyaday

Come and keep your writing resolution with this week’s prompt:  #WriteOnWed #storyaday

I wrote my story today – will you write yours?  #WriteOnWed #storyaday

If you would like to be the Guest Prompter, click here.