• I can’t write five words but that I change seven.
    Dorothy Parker
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Randolph Lundine Writing Prompts

Writing prompts, news, information, and resources to help expand your writing community, hone your writing habits, and to waste time in a way that feels like you're working on your writing.

Just Write (69)

Let’s talk.

Dialogue can be tricky. Whether you’re working on a piece of fiction or serious nonfiction, it can enliven a story, expand the point of view, and capture a moment or concept in a vital way. But regardless of genre it’s hard to incorporate different voices and quotes well. How much should you use? How should you introduce it? Do you listen to Elmore Leonard and “never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue?”

Today’s writing exercise is all about playing with dialogue. Since this is something that comes up VERY frequently when I work with scholarly writers, we’re breaking this into two exercises (one for scholarly writers and one for everyone else).

  1. Fiction and nonfiction writers: construct a scene almost entirely using dialogue. Only allow yourself a few words for set up, pauses, or important shifts in scene (or really, enough breaks that you have to figure out how to begin the dialogue again). Can you capture the different characters without the luxury of description? Can you make the conversation real and alive when it’s the whole narrative?
  2. My academic darlings, your writing prompt is the reverse of this. The point of your exercise is to create a piece that relies heavily on quotes without being overrun by them. You are forbidden from using block quotes.

 Select a primary document, preferably one in the first person (a personal account, memoir, interview, diary, etc.). Tell the story of this document. Focus on your version of the account using a few carefully selected quotes to enrich your narrative. These quotes should not repeat what you say or abruptly shift the tone of the piece. Rather, they should clarify, expand, prove, or make alive a point you are trying to make as succinctly as possible. Remember to vary how you incorporate the quotes, how much of a given quote you use, and to make the quoted material secondary to your own words. 

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Just Write (65)

I've started to keep a list of rules. These are things I tell almost every author after I've edited their work. I'd like to wrap them in a bow and send them to anyone working on a book, whether they be novelists or botanists.

This week's writing prompt (which is really a revision prompt) is a bit like that list. Rather than telling you what to write, or focusing on words and paragraphs, it asks you to consider the whole narrative. The forest, rather than the trees.

Often I am asked for more prompts for academic or serious nonfiction writers. Each time I say, "but you should do them all because you too are a writer." All writers should think of their craft, language, and storytelling. And this revision prompt is no exception--all prose writers, regardless of genre, should consider questions like these.

Five More Questions to Ask During Revision:

1. Does this draft have a beginning, middle, and end?

2. Do scenes flow logically from on to another?

3. Is there a missing scene?

4. Is the ending too rushed, or to the contrary, too slow?

5. Does the ending leave you with too many questions to be able to say what the piece is about?

--from The Pocket Muse 2: Endless Inspiration for Writers by Monica Wood

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Just Write (62)

As a hippie yogi instructor, I’ve been reading about mindfulness lately. As an editor, a lot of this is just too terrible to read. But I love Thich Nhat Hanh.

As a terrible meditator, I love him even more.

Rather than telling you to secret yourself away in a quiet temple and chant for hours (which you should totally do if you’ve got the time and disposition for it), he encourages you to be mindful in everything you do. If you’re eating a tangerine, eat a tangerine. If you’re talking to someone, talk to them. And my favorite, wash the dishes to wash the dishes:

 …which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

So for today’s writing prompt, in the ailing monk’s honor, let’s focus. Pick one simple task. Making the bed, walking the dog, painting a fence. Let it be the only action that takes place in the entire 500 words you’re giving over to it.

If you’re working on a larger piece (be it novel, monograph, biography, etc.), pick some quotidian activity your character or subject would do. How would they do it? What would the experience be like in the place and time in which they live? What details would they notice as they strove to focus on this one thing? Would they be able to do so?

Bonus prompt: try this in different voices or perspectives. Write it from a third person omniscient perspective, for example, and then try it from a first person point of view.

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Just Write (61)

A short and sweet writing prompt this week (and not just because I have a fast-approaching deadline and homemade chicken potpies to make for a birthday dinner):

Beyond Words. Create a brief fragment of an epiphany, a moment beyond words, beyond explaining, in which a character sees the necessity of change. 300 words. 

--Brian Kiteley, The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction (Writers Digest)

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Just Write (57)

It’s not a very well kept secret. My name is heather, and I have some serious luddite tendencies. I’ve confessed (here) my undying affection for people, pencil, and paper.

Don’t get me wrong--I love my computer. It’s handy and pretty (thank you, Apple). But when we write on the screen, there’s an almost overwhelming urge to edit. To scroll up and down, rereading, tweaking, and moving entire blocks of prose before you’ve even finished a chapter.

It’s also easy to fool yourself into thinking these tidy typed words are it. That you’re crafting a finished product that must be perfect, rather than a first draft. This denial of the draft becomes a much more cumbersome feat to pull off with your pen.

So today, I’m forcing my ways on you (bwahahahaha).

Today’s writing exercise requires you to turn off your computer. To pull out a pen (or really do me proud and grab an actual wooden pencil) and a pad of paper.

Choose a discrete part of your current writing project—a single character, scene, or background history—that has been troubling you. And just write. Don’t reread, don’t tweak, don’t edit. Simply put words down on the page.

When you’re done, and only when you’re done, reread it.

When we allow ourselves to finish a section before we monkey with it, our edit is so much better. We can approach our writing with fresh eyes. The gaps, clunky sentences, and thick parts are that much easier to see when we’ve not been looking back all along. We give ourselves time and distance, which gives us perspective.

*Inspired by The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell

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Just Write (54)

Happy (almost) Thanksgiving! This will be a food-free post (though rest assured I will be baking pies shortly). This week's writing prompt is a bit naughty, which is how I like most things. Have fun with it:

You've had a really rotten day, you're mad at the world, and in an evil moment you decide to give a classroom full of impressionable, hopeful young writers [SCHOLARS: insert your chosen field (historians, botanists, ethnographers...) here] all the worst possible advice anyone could give...

--The San Francisco Writers' Grotto, 642 Things to Write About (Chronicle Books, 2011)

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