• One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
    Jack Kerouac
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
  • 26
  • 27
  • 28
  • 29
  • 30
  • 31
  • 32
  • 33
  • 34
  • 35
  • 36
  • 37

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: Free Writing

Ernst Hemingway writing some notes on a folder at his desk

The only way to finish is to start. But this is the scariest step, isn’t it? Too often we are hampered by the myth of creative genius. The idea that writing comes easily to the gifted, that miracles drip from their pens, and their drafts require little more than a polish before they’re ready for public adoration. But even Hemingway wrote shitty first drafts. 

Today’s exercise is about what comes before that shitty first draft. It’s about leaving behind the drunk genius and setting out on your own. Letting go of this weighty myth leaves room for play and experimentation in your writing. It lets you follow your ideas down the rabbit hole and see where they take you. 

Free writing, allowing yourself to release words without overthinking or inviting your inner critic to the table, is a habit we all should develop. It is a way of catching your ideas and thinking through your writing projects. It is the initial, chaotic information dump (or visioning phase, if you prefer) of your writing process. 

You are not starting a draft. You are just putting ideas and thoughts on paper. They can be irrelevant, bizarre, or silly. All are welcome. No one will ever read it but you. Most of it will never be seen again. But you might find a jewel in the mess, a kernel worth inviting into your first draft.  

Or, as Anne Lamott puts it, “Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those side crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and half pages.”

Even if you’ve started your first draft, it is not likely to flow, unimpeded and glorious, to the end. We are always constantly starting. Free writing can be a way of thinking through these blocks or around challenges in your writing projects. This writing around your current project might lead to something you keep, or it might not. But it will help you think and start (or restart). 

Find a way to distinguish free writing from your usual writing practice. Something that signals this is the thinking phase of your writing. If it’s not your usual first approach, writing longhand is a great way to free write. As writer Judith Freeman says, “when writing longhand the brain and the hand are connected…ink flows; ideas flow with it.”

There are many ways to approach free writing around your project, so play around until you find what works for you. It can be as simple as selecting a setting, object, or character from your project and visualizing it. Hold the image in your mind and then write down everything that comes up as you think of this person/place/thing.  Do not reread as you write. Do not edit.

If you need a little more guidance, try this exercise:

Put one of your subjects in an unfamiliar place or time. Move them around the globe or into a different decade and imagine how they would respond. What would they notice? Or place them in a scene from a film or book you love and rewrite it from their perspective. Think of this as play—you have no expectation other than words on paper. 

Go back the next day and reread what you wrote. Does it tell you anything interesting about your subject? What surprised you? Does it show you anything about how they interact with the world? Are they funnier or more timid than you’d imagined?


Photo by Robert Capa from the Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive, Gift of Cornell and Edith Capa, 2010 

Continue reading
  52 Hits

Just Write: On Tension

Film director Alfred Hitchcock frames a camera shot with his hands.

“Our instinct as humans is to provide answers, to ease tension. As writers, our job is the opposite, to create tension and not dispel it immediately.”—Sol Stein

 Your current project may not be a Hitchcockian thriller, but creating tension can ensure your reader stays with you to the final scene. I recognize that “craft a narrative that readers want to stick with” feels like impossible and vague guidance, so let’s bring in Sol Stein.

Stein offers some concrete ways of achieving tension in your writing: “short sentences step up pace . . . frequent paragraphing accelerates the pace. Short sentences plus frequent paragraphing step us pace even more.” Of course, shorter sentences means leaving some of your darlings on the floor. Or, as Stein puts it, “[f]lab-cutting is one of the best means for improving the pace of both fiction and nonfiction.”

Treat this week’s exercise as an experiment in pacing (you can regather your darlings after it's all over). Select a scene from your current project and first trim the fat.  Start by removing “all adjectives and adverbs and then readmit the necessary few after careful testing.” The list of banned adverbs includes very, quite, really, always, almost…. Take one more pass, seeking out any extra bits that no longer have a home in this leaner, faster version. 

Once your chapter is as svelte as Grace Kelly, it’s time to turn to the structural pacing. Begin again at the sentence level. Look for semicolons, em-dashes, and comma clusters. Break everything into shorter, brisker sentences. Then turn to the paragraph. Now that you have taut sentences it should be easier to break the paragraph apart. Start by splitting each paragraph into two, then see if three works. Read the new version of your scene aloud to better hear how your edits have altered the pacing and language.

You may not keep all of these changes. In fact, you may really hate them. Butthis exercise will force you to examine the pacing of your scene, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. Playing with your structure, removed from the action or narrative, will help you isolate the mechanics of pacing. At a minimum, it should help you see the flab in your story. And I suspect you will keep some of your shorter sentences and more frequent paragraphing.

Continue reading
  59 Hits

Just Write

 "Hunt down your habit, and train your mind to flinch at it."--Susan Bell

Every writer, like every human, is a creature of habit. In our writing, we all lean on favorite words, turns of phrase, and sentence structures (My name is Heather, and I love an em dash). In every project I edit, I make a list of words on which the client leans too heavily. The easiest way to seek and destroy these overt linguistic habits is to read your work aloud. It is also, in my humble opinion, the best self-editing tool in your arsenal. We all sound brilliant in our minds. I fill in gaps and my fancy word choices seem like perfection when I type them. But when we read our work out loud, those missing words become glaring holes and my overly clever word choice sounds weird and unnatural. Suddenly, you will notice that you use “suddenly” far too often. Alarmingly, you’ll hear that you start sentences with an adverb far too often. Sadly, you will notice you’ve repeated the same sentence structure far too often.

 Take your current project (or section of a longer manuscript) and read it aloud to yourself. I find this is enough for me to catch unclear language or awkward structure. However, you may find you hear the work better if you record yourself and then listen back to it a few days later (without the words in front of you, you’ll be less likely to fill in the gaps or be enamored with your purple prose). For the truly brave, ask a friend to read the work to you.


Continue reading
  45 Hits

Just Write

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”—Anne Lamott

Today’s exercise is to explore this gift—go someplace and observe life with your project in mind. This could be as simple as a trip to the post office or to a friendly neighborhood dive bar. If feasible, go to a setting that appears in your work. Instead of asking yourself how much longer it could possibly take the woman in front of you to buy a book of stamps, ask how your character would approach this chore. What would they observe? Would they have more patience as she looks at every possible option in the stamp portfolio?

Pay attention to the small details—the smells, how the man perched on the corner stool holds his beer, the light filtering through the tress at this time of day, or the ways people wait in line. These details can make your work—be it novel or historical treatise—vivid and real. Observe how each person navigates the space. Notice if they wander “the aisles of [their] supermarkets with glints of madness in their eyes” or if they revel in the task. 

This habit of recording observations can be a mainstay of your writing practice. Stockpile these nuggets of overheard conversation, quotidian scenes and spectacles. Who knows when you might need one?

Quotes and inspiration from Bird by Bird: Some Intructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Continue reading
  132 Hits

Just Write

The Elevator Exercise:

All too often I've read the first page of a book proposal or query letter, only to realize I have no idea what the subject of the book will be. This makes me stop reading. I know your project is special and beautiful, but you are not the exception to this unhappy truth. Editors, agents, & their assistants simply do not have time to read your beautifully crafted but long-winded description of what your book will not be about, or what inspired you to write it, or the setting...

What you need is the written equivalent of the elevator pitch. You must clearly & concisely articulate the book’s subject before we reach the lobby. Or, as another editor I consulted put it: "Even if [authors] plan to take a more literary approach in the manuscript itself, a proposal should tell me -- in as straightforward and honest a fashion as possible -- what the thing is about, ideally in an introductory couple of sentences.”

Of course, you still want those sentences to be well written, to show your writing style, and to offer a hint of what a reader will find in the full manuscript. It's a tall order, but you can do it. I have faith in you.

So, with all of this in mindhere's your weekly writing exercise:

Without using any existing language from your manuscript (don't even open it for a quick inspirational peek), describe your book's subject in no more than three sentences. If you feel overly ambitious, try to do it in one. If you feel even more ambitious, craft a paragraph around these sentences. No quotes, references to other works, or jargon allowed.

Continue reading
  176 Hits

Just Write

Notebook pages with Woody Guthrie’s handwritten resolutions and doodles.


‘Tis this season to resolve.

Since we know most of you are resolving to write more, our first writing exercise of the year lets you dream up a list of resolutions for a character or subject from your current project. What kind of resolutions would they make? Would they be filled with hope or despair? Would they write them down or say them aloud as they ate a grape? Would they keep them to themselves or tell everyone from their barista to their dog what they were manifesting in the new year? However they might approach the task, first craft a list of their resolutions. Then let this list be a jumping off point--for a scene, a short story, a conversation, or a chapter—capturing their idiosyncratic rite.

If you are working on a nonfiction or scholarly piece, this exercise can help you know your subject better, even if it involves some creative thinking. Did your subject make any resolutions? Could you imagine what their list may have included? Was there a traditional practice for making annual resolutions in the time/country/culture in which your project takes place? 

Alternatively, make a list of resolutions for your project (I will use fewer adverbs. I will research 17th century weaponry. I will write every morning. I will avoid jargon. I will keep a diary of observations).

If you need a bit of inspiration, check out this great list of resolutions including my favorites from Woody Guthrie: "Don't get lonesome. Stay glad. Keep hoping machine running. Dream Good"

Continue reading
  132 Hits

Keep at it!

1AF70F92 A5C9 4C00 A057 9C8A585EED3B

Writing prompts can be great (and we’ve certainly shared many of them with you here). They can help when your stuck and you simply need a reason to sting words together or get your butt back in the writing chair. But they don’t typically help you start or finish a writing project. The only way to do this is, as Achebe reminds us, is to keep at it.

Over the past few years, we have thought a lot about how to help writers finish their projects and then how to revise those early drafts on their own. We are working on more significant guidance on this path, but in the meantime we’ll be posting exercises (here and on our instagram page) to help you keep at it. These will not be writing prompts, but rather invitations to play with your current project. Our hope is that they will help you hone, rethink, or even salvage bits of your work in progress (be it an essay, book, or article).

Ideally, some of these exercises will become part of your toolkit, useful things to pull out when you find yourself in need of ways to keep at it. If all goes well, it will be like a stern little editor is sitting on your shoulder urging you to make that section better, or to rethink this paragraph, and I won't actually have to come to your house. 

Continue reading
  117 Hits

Just Write (69)

Let’s talk.

Dialogue can be tricky. Whether you’re writing 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).

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?

My academic darlings, your writing prompt is the reverse of this. The point of your exercise is to create a piece that relies 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. 

Continue reading
  2779 Hits

Just Write (69)

I've spent the last week on the road, touring the Gulf South. These were lazy days filled with food, drink, oceans, and rain. With a dog that is frankly too large for sane people to travel with, we meandered back roads and enjoyed every second of it. 

But then there's the reentry. It's a bit like riding one of those amusement park gondolas--your personal escape pod slowly ferrying you high above all of the crazy below--only to have the bottom drop out... One morning you're in New Orleans drinking the best coffee you've ever had, and the next you're praying there's any coffee in the house so you can face all of those things you know are lurking beyond your bed. The post-vacation piles of laundry, the empty refrigerator, and all of that damn email.

No matter how well prepared I think I am, those first few days back in reality are always madness. So here's a little chaos-inspired writing prompt for you:

Chaos Follows. Write a set of short scenes in which confusion or chaos follows a character, as if in his wake. The character does not cause this, knowingly or unknowingly, but disorder nearly always happens after he has left a room, an intersection, or an elevator. This should not be magic. Imagine an exotic wake, but try to make these effects and aftereffects grow naturally out of the character you're describing. 400 words

--Brian Kiteley, The 3 A.M. Epiphany (2005, Writers Digest)

Continue reading
  2764 Hits

Just Write (66)

It’s a ripped from the headlines sort of morning…

There are two teenagers in my house with what appears to be strep throat…and last night I started sneezing and haven’t stopped. Pure joy. So, forgive me if this week’s writing prompt is a bit of a cheat.

We’ve urged you to look to the news for inspiration before, but reading yesterday’s paper I was reminded how fantastically inspiring the real world is. Here are five stories from the New York Times that are far better than any writing prompt I could offer today:

  1. A love affair ignited by low-carbon energy leads to political scandal: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/us/politics/oregon-governor-john-kitzhaber-and-fiancee-cylvia-hayes-walked-tangled-path-to-exit.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0
  2. A remote South Korean province’s $375 million experiment with Formula One racing failed, but it left behind the seeds of a car-racing culture. Oh, and a giant racetrack: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/world/asia/a-korean-auto-racing-debacle-but-hope-around-the-bend.html?ref=world
  3. The oldest person in Europe attributes her longevity to “Raw Eggs and No Husband Since ’38.”: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/world/raw-eggs-and-no-husband-since-38-keep-her-young-at-115.html
  4. Spider Martin took the famous photos of Bloody Sunday in Selma, 1965. And was also George Wallace’s campaign photographer. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/arts/design/spider-martins-photographs-of-the-selma-march-get-a-broader-view.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=photo-spot-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news
  5. The inventor of Nutella, which made him justifiably the richest man in Italy, has died. On Valentine’s Day. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/business/michele-ferrero-pioneer-who-gave-the-world-nutella-dies-at-89.html?hpw&rref=obituaries&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region®ion=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well
Continue reading
  2920 Hits

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

Continue reading
  2590 Hits

Just Write (64)

It’s all in the details....part 2

You probably saw this coming…take a look at the list of details and moments you created for last week’s writing prompt. Pick one thing (or for that matter, several things) to use as your jumping off point. Build a story around that overheard bit of conversation, giving it flesh and bones. Give the woman at the bus stop a life, a home, an adventure. Remember those subtle details are what we are after here--the bits that tranform a collection of facts into a story.

And since you’ve got this shiny new notebook, use it. Keep noticing and recording. Anytime an idea, character, or chunk of story comes to you, write it down. When that line you’ve been fussing over finally comes clear while you’re in traffic, write it down (or record it on your phone so you don’t crash). Don’t worry if it’s silly, trite, or irrelevant to your current project. Don't judge it, just collect it. Something in there will be worthwhile, trust me. 

Continue reading
  2780 Hits

Just Write (59)

I live in Nebraska--one of those square-ish states in the middle of the country. Outside of football, my adoptive home isn't often celebrated beyond its borders. It's cold, flat, and filled with corn, conservatives, and rabid football fans--just ask anyone who has never been here.

There's an element of truth to this, of course (it is often horribly cold, there is a shocking amount of corn, and Husker Nation is a sight to behold), but it's not the whole truth. 

Nebraska has a true plains beauty, with glowing fields and (slightly) rolling hills. Its people are kind, as our dreadful new state slogan attests. It’s home to Willa Cather, the Sand Hills, Saddlecreek Records, poet laureate Ted Kooser, the Prairie Schooner (one of the oldest literary journals in the country), and Jun Kaneko. We are the birthplace of Kool-Aid, Johnny Carson, and Alexander Payne.

All of this home state boosterism leads me to Mary Pipher, psychologist, author of Reviving Ophelia, activist, and Nebraskan. Her recent op-ed in the New York Times let "Nebraska" be printed without "corn," "football," or "Starkweather" in a national news outlet and that always makes me happy. She also lets me champion the virtues and diversity of my state under the disguise of a long-winded introduction to today's writing prompt as I'm headed to New York (and cocktail conversation that is certain to include "You still live in Nebraska?" and “I drove through there once. It’s really flat”)...

To repay you for your patience, this one is really several prompts rolled into one, all of them uniquely yours:


Finding Your Voice

By diving into the experience of writing, you will learn what you truly think and who you really are. Your self-exploration is a way to pay attention to the world, within yourself and outside yourself, and to experience what Allen Ginsberg called "surprise mind."

Try answering these questions on paper:

What makes you laugh, cry, and open your heart?

What points do you repeatedly make to those you love?

What topics keep you up at night, or help you fall asleep?

What do you know to be true?

What do you consider to be evil?

What is beautiful to you?

What do you most respect in others?

What excites your curiosity?

If you were the ruler of the world, what would do first?

What do you want to accomplish before you die?

--from Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World (Riverhead 2006)

Continue reading
  2695 Hits

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

Continue reading
  2746 Hits

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)

Continue reading
  2516 Hits

The Prodigal Blogger Returns

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
—Ernest Hemingway

So it turns out that advice I give writers about keeping a schedule--about making writing a habit, even when you don't feel like it--is totally spot on. I've spent the last year eyeball deep in yoga-land. I went through an intensive teacher-training program and started teaching. I still edit a lot, but between that work and all of the yoga, I let the blog/Facebook/communication side of things go...and man, when that habit falters, it falters.

But this morning I came across this quote. So many of my favorite writing quotes come from Papa, even though I don't suffer from HWS (Hemingway Worship Syndrome). This succinct little gem made me want to come back here. To talk to you about yoga AND words because it's such a perfect fusion of yoga wisdom and writerly wisdom.

In yoga, we learn (or try to learn) to approach things with a beginner's mind--to remember what it's like to first try, to be curious and unsure, to be always honing your practice--and this is so much like facing a blank page. Every time we return, every time we pick up our pencil again (or open a new file), we should approach things with a beginner's mind. 

Are you ever going to be a master? Maybe in some things. Hopefully, we master the habit of writing (ahem)...of not dreading the solitary blinking cursor. But there's always ways to grow, new ways to see the world, different questions to ask.

So take a nice, deep, yogi breath and remember there's some good stuff here in apprentice land. Not being a master means we can try new things, we can remain curious. If we are not masters, we are not stuck in a perfect, unchanging box. 



Continue reading
  2386 Hits