Friday, October 26th, 2012

Writing Prompt – Great Beginnings

I’m currently finishing up a novel and getting ready to start a new one. I’m thinking a lot about beginnings.

The opener, or hook, of a novel — and especially a short story — is the most important part of the tale. It’s what attracts the reader to your story, and — one hopes — is enticing enough to keep them reading.

But this post isn’t about writing good hooks. It’s about using what’s already out there to help us in our own writing. (I’ll get to that.)

Some authors have been so successful in writing good hooks that the first lines of their books have made it into popular vernacular and used even by folks who have not read the book. (And maybe, don’t know what they’re quoting!)

Do you know these famous first lines?

  • It was a pleasure to burn. – [Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953]
  • Call me Ishmael. – [Moby Dick, Herman Melville, 1851] 
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – [Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, 1877] 

Here’s Your Prompt:

Choose one of the famous first lines below and start writing where it leaves off. For more creative freedom, you might want to choose a line from a book you’ve never read (or have no assumptions about). Type or write the famous line first, and keep going. When you’re done, delete the famous first line and see what you’ve got!

  1. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. – [Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813] 
  2. I am an invisible man. – [The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952] 
  3. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – [1984, George Orwell, 1949] 
  4. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. – [Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984] 
  5. “I’ve watched through his eyes. I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get. – [Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card, 1994.] 
  6. There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. – [The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin, 1974] 
  7. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind… – [Paul Clifford, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, 1830] 
  8. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. – [A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, 1859] 

Good luck!

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Writing Prompt – Make a List

I’ve been teaching a writing/critiquing class at the local college and one of the first things we discussed is where ideas come from. We came up with a brilliant list of ideas (many of which I’ll probably save for another post) but one of the things we didn’t mention was list-making.

As I prepared for class last week, I found an essay by Ray Bradbury entitled “Run Fast, Stand Still, or, The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds” which makes a convincing case for list making as an idea resource.

Bradbury wrote, “It was only when I began to discover the tricks and treats that came with word association that I began to find some true way through the minefields of imitation. I finally discovered that if you’re going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.”

And how did he find his own delights and despairs?

“I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trap door on the top of my skull.”

Here’s an example of one of Bradbury’s lists: the lake, the night, the crickets, the ravine, the attic, the basement, the trap door, the baby, the crowd, the night train, the fog horn, the scythe, the carnival, the carousel, the dwarf, the mirror maze, the skeleton.

(Those familiar with Bradbury will see at least three of his stories alluded to there…)

While making these lists, Bradbury saw patterns, which eventually turned into the stories he wrote. His method was to pick some item from the list and write a long, prosy poem about it…which usually turned into a story on the second page, he says.

“It began to be ovbious that I was learning from my list of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone, if I gave them their heads…”


Here’s Your Prompt: Make a list of nouns. It’s October. In honor of the season, my upcoming favorite holiday (Halloween!) and Ray Bradbury… make it a list of things that frighten you. Don’t fall into the trap of listing things which are generically frightening or “commonly known” to be frightening. Instead, list the things which genuinely scare you or cause you terror. It could be the monster in the closet, if you’re truly afraid of that, but it could also be the fact that you’re out of work, haven’t paid the mortgage, and are being evicted tomorrow with nowhere to go.

Once you’ve made a list, consider it for patterns. Choose an item, and begin a long prosy poem and see if that leads you to something more.