• I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.
    Edgar Rice Burroughs
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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 (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)

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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
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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 (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. 

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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)

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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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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. 

 

 

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