Each week I will set a kickstarter theme or idea, something to get you writing, a prompt to use as you like. Keep writing!
Week 102. Struggling with a story or poem? Try choosing a different time frame – how would it be different if you set it in the Middle Ages, or the swinging 60s? Clothes, landscape, language, behaviour all change, perhaps bring new life to the scene?
Week 101. Room 101 is a place introduced in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It is a torture chamber in the Ministry of Love in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia. Conjure up your own/ a character’s worst nightmare, exaggerate it and put them together in a room, and ramp up the tension to 11.
Week 100 – One hundred is a Century: in cricket it’s a score, in early Roman times, it was a group of soldiers, it’s a ripe old age or a long bucket list. What does a century or the number one hundred conjure up for you?
Week 99. New Year: new resolutions and promises. Create a character whose promises and commitments were broken, or kept? Dry January; write that letter; kill someone?
Week 98 The Box – When I was a girl we had an Ottoman box that held dressing up clothes that we could hide in. Write about a box – is it the wrong box, the unopened, the tiny, the huge, the box hedge? Are you in it or looking at it? Who did it belong to? Open the box and see where it leads!
Week 97. 21st December 2020 Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, celebrates the death and rebirth of the sun. The winter solstice is considered a turning point in the year in many cultures. Tonight, it also witnesses the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, visible in the sky just after sunset, so close they appear to be one bright star, having a ‘Christmas Kiss’. Create a ritual of light overcoming dark, write about renewal, or simply a Christmas Kiss. Festive greetings to everyone.
Week 96 Party – write a short story or poem entirely set in a party. Why is the party happening, Who’s there, what are they wearing, what music is playing. When is the party going to end? Or is it another sort of party – a political one? Or a party wall?
week 95. Masks – Societies wear mask for all sorts of reasons: a job of surgeon, or welding iron ships, or for shamanic rituals to become another being or animal, to hide their identity. We’re all wearing them now. Write a poem or story about a mask.
Week 94. 30th Nov. Gaslighting, Zooming, Trolling, Lockdown – new words enter our culture all the time. Can you make up a new one and describe its meaning and use it in a sentence, like an entry in a dictionary.
Week 93. Sentence length. Writing can easily fall into repetitive traps. Varying sentence length adds interest and indicates mood and movement. Cormac McCarthy is one of my favourite prose stylists. Here’s an extract from the opening of All The Pretty Horses:
As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distances and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fence line down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boiler smoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.
McCarthy uses short sentences to build tension as the train arrives, then one long sentence follows the passing of the train, taking a long time, echoing its journey, using ‘and’ to join the sentence up. Try varying sentence length in your writing and see how it affects the text. Notice how he uses verbs as well, to create drama and movement.
Week 92. Dialogue. Linguist Deborah Tannen wrote, in ‘You Just Don’t Understand’, that women and men talk in different ways. Women strive to make connections along a network, and negotiate for closeness, to make decisions by consensus. Whereas men engage the world as a ladder, men talk to negotiate who’s where on the ladder, they want to get higher, life is a contest to preserve independence and avoid failure. Can you apply these ideas to your characters and their dialogue? Imagine different scenarios, a couple having on a hiking trip, or going shopping, or arranging working from home. The woman uses language to reach out, the man language to win.
Week 91. Rhyme – curse or pleasure? I recently gave my grandson a Dr Seuss book Fox in Socks, which takes rhymes to an extreme and there’s a lot of fun and pleasure to be had with that. But in using rhyme we have to be inventive and surprising if we want to write a serious, thoughtful poem or even a funny one. Try half rhyme, for example bottle/battle halt/bait or ‘museum/to see ’em’ (from Joanie Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi) or internal rhyme, where the rhyming words sit in the middle of the line, not the end, or use enjambement, so the sense of the line moves forward to the next line, and thus doesn’t end on the rhyme itself, which gives a word emphasis. Read Quoof by Paul Muldoon for an excellent example.
Week 90. Weather – can provide setting and metaphor. Look at a piece of your writing, consider the theme or mood and add lines about the weather, time of day and year that might add or contrast dramatically.
Week 89. Characters who break rules: If Eve hadn’t ignored God’s injunction about the apple, there’d be no humanity, the Bible implies. If the Peasants hadn’t revolted, if Anne Boleyn hadn’t insisted on marrying Henry VIII etc. etc. History and stories are driven forward by rule breakers (which often leads to new rules, that may, in turn, be challenged and broken). Good behaviour and timidity about rules can lead to stagnation and makes for boring characters and undramatic stories. But without rules, there’d be nothing to break, to rebel against whether it’s: Time for Bed, No more cake or no, you can’t go to the all-night Rave.
Characters who are well intentioned can get into difficulties when faced with moral dilemmas: either follow an unfair rule or break it for good reasons.
Characters are tested, experience conflict, have to make difficult decisions, and the reader can sympathise, e.g.
a starving boy steals food
a young woman falls in love with a forbidden person.
a man’s faith and belief contradicts the church and/or state
Week 88. My favourite place
Week 87. David Almond says we are natural storytellers. We’ve been doing it since we lived in caves. We shape our memories into coherent narratives. We gossip and tell jokes and dream. We live in a world of stories brought to us in books, plays and film.
But when we try to write, so much gets in the way: doubts about our own creativity; abstract notions about what constitutes good writing…He says ‘..clear away such doubts and anxieties, ..plunge into the messy, playful, difficult, joyous, imperfect process of discovering stories that have their own energy and form. …explore the power of memory, the magic of ordinary objects, the relationships between words and visions…. nourish confidence in your ability to discover your own stories and to write them in your own voice.
Here are some opening lines: It’s all over, I’m not going/ When the Dead Man got Rachel, I was sitting in the back of a wrecked Mercedes wondering if the rain was going to stop./ There’s this totally false map of the human tongue/ You’re only young twice.. Write on from the first line or tell your own handed down family story, feel free to fictionalise.
Week 86. What haunts you? A memory, a deed, a place, a person, a snippet of music… write about any or all mixed together.
Week 85. Personifying objects – Think of an object. Imagine it having a voice. Now answer these questions as the object, in first person ‘I’
1. When were you born 2. How were you made 3. Who are your family 4. How do you move 5. What sounds do you make 6. What do you know 7. What makes you afraid 8. Who do you love 9. Where do you live 10. What can you see 11. What do you hear last thing at night/first thing in the morning 12. What do you do all day 13. Why are you important 14. What do you hope for 15. Where will you be in ten years time
Week 84. Learning to…
Week 83. Smell and taste are notoriously hard to describe – try creating exotic similes:
Describe a Taste as: a colour/ kitchen implement/ clothing/object in space/weather
A Smell as music/ a vehicle/ time of day/ physical activity/a sin
A Texture as an emotion/ a season/ a sound/ fruit/ a favourite word
A Sound as a wish/ jewellery/ a historical event/ a domestic chore/ a game
A Sight as a landscape/ animal’s home/ a journey/ a crime/ something cold
Week 82. Create a nonsense language or an imaginary one for an alternative world, like Elvish in Lord of the Rings. The following are all real words, old dictionaries are full of words you’ve never heard of, you can make them mean what you like: agamoid, baragouin, chevalet, ellops, dop, feckly, gavage, hospodar, iracund, lanterlu, metic, nashgab. Write spell poems. Have fun.
Week 81. These are three strange and mysterious titles of Grimm fairy/folk tales: The Seven Ravens; The Singing Bone; The Girl Without Hands. Use one, or find another title, to write your own story, not necessarily a fairy tale.
Week 80. Describe a room from your childhood in great detail. What other memories does it bring?
Week 79. Two people on a long drive/stuck in a lift/lost in a wood – explore their relationship the situation reveals, like bringing to light suppressed elements, or exacerbating argumentative habits.
Week 78. Sylvia Plath’s poem Mirror begins: I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. Whatever I see I swallow immediately…. Write as a mirror.
Week 77. Create Metaphors. Make two lists: one with 5 or more abstract nouns: e.g. Love, War, Anger. The other make a list of the same number of objects, any you like e.g. House, Mirror etc. Choose a word each from the two lists and find imaginative ways of yoking the two together ie one card might be ‘The North’ or ‘Love’ the other card might be ‘A sewing needle’ – write a sentence, The North or Love is a sewing needle because .. and use the concrete qualities of the object to explore the abstract concept in a new way.
You could think of objects that have particular meaning to your own interests and themes.
Week 76. What would you call this chapter if your entire life was a book? Thanks to Ardea Creatives for this prompt.
Week 75. Write about silence.
Week 74. Write about your favourite vegetable as if introducing it to someone who has never come across it before.
Week 73. 6/7/2020 What is your consuming passion, favourite hobby, loved place ? Create a god or goddess of it.
Week 72. Describe a place you know well without the use of sight.
Week 71. 22/6/20 Open your bag, empty your pockets, list the things on the desk or table you’re sitting at.. Imagine you’ve acquired them like detective, they’re clues to a character or scenario. Develop the character and the scenario into a narrative poem, short story or flash fiction.
Week 70. Interesting to consider Poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s comment in the light of Lockdown:
“It was not whether you were rich or poor, but if you had a big life, that was what mattered. A big life could be either a wide one or a deep one. It held countless possible corners and conversations. A big life did not stop at the alley or even the next street. It came from somewhere else and was going somewhere, but the word ‘better’ had no relation really. A big life was interested and wore questions easily. A big life never thought for one second it was the only life.”
A Big Life, A Small Life or Not the only life – try using any of these as a title for some writing
Week 69. What does a Star Sweeper do or The Lace Eater? Create a fictional category of employment: Toe Tester, Thought Examiner. Describe the post holder and a day at work.
Week 68. Pillow talk – two people talking intimately, or what your pillow might say if it could talk?
Week 67. Choose a physical activity: gardening, swimming, dancing, riding a bike. Make a list of words, the vocabulary associated with it, think about sounds, actions, sensations – write a poem or piece of prose built around the vocabulary. Be imaginative: her shoes were seedling potatoes, his hair pirouetted his head.
Week 66. Reincarnation – what would you come back as, or maybe you were once someone/something else?
Week 65. 11/5/20 We are all rediscovering ourselves and looking anew/more closely at our surroundings in this enforced lockdown. Consider what you’ve noticed since lockdown.
Describe part of your day, or something you’ve noticed/rediscovered outside/inside in close detail. Look at The Observer photographers in lockdown article ‘Through my Lockdown Lens’ for inspiring thoughts and images.
Week 64. The Secret Life of…. Trees, Cats, Boris – you decide
Week 63 April 27th. Weltschmerz – world sorrow, melancholy and world-weariness, Angst – deep anxiety or dread, Heimweh – literally home woe, a nostalgia for the past, or Wanderlust – all great words imported from German that might be describe your current mood. Can you use one to write about your inner state? Or create your own compound noun…
Week 62. Choose a postcard, painting or photograph, imagine you are in the picture, use the senses,
Answer questions in full sentences
1. what time of day is it,
2. where are you,
3. mention a smell
4. describe a colour
5. create a simile,
6. what can you hear,
7. tell us something you can’t see in the picture
8. write a line about someone else
9. what are you thinking and feeling –
10. Choose one line or a few words to repeat
Is this the beginning of a poem, or a story?
Week 61. Imagine animals could talk: What would your pet say? The birds outside your window? Or perhaps you have a dæmon? What would it be?
Week 60. 6/1/2020 Given that we’re all under some sort of constraint, I thought we might explore a form of word constraint Oulipo – OuLiPo is an acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature). For example The “N+7” method: Replace every noun in a text with the noun seven entries after it in a dictionary. … Or try Snowball: a poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer. Or a Lipogram: Writing that excludes one or more letters. You can make up your own constraints and create some weird and exciting text
Week 59. 30/3/2020 What I did yesterday: be thorough and detailed.
Week 58. Monday 23rd March 2020 The world in lockdown: Now’s the time to pull out an old abandoned poem or piece of writing, chop up the lines, re-create it, make it crazy or surreal. Either cut it up line by line and rearrange in a new order, or try cutting the paper vertically, then shifting the left side down and see what interesting lines two new halves make. You can try these exercises with other poems too, but if you want to use the result, do acknowledge the original source! Keep positive.
Week 57. Given that there’s all sorts of scare stories and fake news whizzing about due to the C virus, they’ll soon become Urban Legends – cautionary tales told by those who believe (or claim) the incidents happened to people they know personally or acquaintances of friends or family members. They reflect current societal concerns and fears: make one up about the pandemic, or rising sea water, white slavers, whatever current concerns you fancy, but set it locally, give it real details.
Week 56. A tiny white haired woman came up to me in the library and gave me a small card on which was written: ‘You are not a human being having a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being having a human experience.’ Are you an Angel she asked? Was she?
Week 55. An Ekphrastic poem is a response to another work of art – think Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. This is what I’ve been doing with Janet Lynch’s paintings, the result is a small exhibition at City Library Newcastle, opening on Saturday 7th March 2020. Try it yourself – Think of a work that moves you and write in response.
Week 54. Cast off – knitting, sailing, clothes or a spurned lover?
Week 53. We’ve been battered by Storm Ciara and now Storm Dennis. It could be Storm Ellen next, as it goes alphabetically. I used to have terrible tantrums as a girl. Add your or someone you know or a character’s name to Storm… what sort of storm would you be? Have you ever stormed? have a flight of fancy.
Ta-Da! Week 52. I’ve been writing these weekly kick-starters for a whole year now. So – choose a year, choose an event, begin That was the year I… or look forward This will be the year I…
Week 51. The Sound of… Home, of My Life, the street, Change … describe a place, an event, a mood, in all the different sounds: natural, man-made, music, speech and voice. Think radio, like writing in sound, listen to Witnessing Westgate Hill on my Soundscapes page.
Week 50. Create a celebratory ritual, for an event that doesn’t have one, or you’d like to make your own alternative: for divorce, a not-marriage, for the first period, for the last period! What words, actions, ritual foods and drink would you use, and who gets invited?
Week 49. What happens in the Cosmic Ballroom? Do you move to the music of the spheres? Do you dance with angels or with dust? When do they call Time?
Week 48. Secrets and Truths: what secrets are you/a character/a place keeping? What does it do to someone, to harbour secrets? What happens when we finally tell the truth? Is it met with disbelief or like a bombshell?
Week 47. Go out and visit a place you don’t usually, on your own: – it could be indoors or outdoors. How do you feel, awkward, more aware, out of place? Write about a character in that place, why did they go, what will they do?
Week 46. Gift – wanted, unwanted, surprising, shocking? Was it given or were you born with it? Lots of ways to think about a gift…
Week 45. As Christmas is nearly upon us, focus on the rich scents of the season: woody pine, cinnamon and star anise in mulled wine, baking mince pies. Write about food, the smells and tastes that bring moments to vivid life – the food of childhood, the food of ritual, the food of love, of medicine, the last supper, the awkward meal, eating in another country.
Week 44. When he/she/they said…
Week 43. The Wall – ” There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Week 42. Grace Paley, a wonderful short story writer, in Wants wrote: “(My ex husband) said I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner. That’s possible, I said. But really … first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began.” She telescopes a life into a few sentences. Try writing one random sentence for every decade of your life – turn it into a poem or short story.
Week 41. Open a local paper – read the small ads, imagine who wrote them and why, or turn them into a found poem. See the anthology published by Grey Hen Press of ‘found poems’ (in which I have a poem) to get the idea.
Week 40. Rewrite a fairy or folk tale, set it in modern times and see what happens. Read Angela Carter’s collection for inspiration.
Week 39. A Printer’s Devil was a printer’s apprentice who performed tasks such as mixing ink and fetching type. A Powder Monkey, usually a young boy, carried gunpowder to the gunners on a military sailing ship. Create an unusual job and give it a strange title: who did it and what did it entail?
Week 38. “Ustopia is a world I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.” Margaret Atwood. Create your own Ustopia.
Week 37. The evening hour… gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. From Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf. An appropriate theme for Hallowe’en?
Week 36. Write an instructional poem How to… e.g. See Helen Mort’s How to Dress from her collection No Map Could Show them, or some of Julia Darling’s wonderful poems e.g. How to Deal with Terrible News.
Week 35. Write a Haiku for every month – traditionally three lines of 5-7-5 syllables which focus on a brief moment in time; a use of a seasonal reference, a colourful image; present tense and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination. Here’s a wonderful example by poet and lyricist David Bradford.
Twelve Haiku Mourning a Death – David Bradford
January brings winter’s inch of ice
Horse in the yard waits
Look, here is Death
February floods the marsh
How expensive these flowers
March comes banging the door
Better get down to grief’s black art
April gets its pig’s snout over the wall
The slaughter shed
Come flowering May
So white, so lovely, May
Sweet airs remembering thorns
Up we go skylarking
Where June’s a blue bubble
At the grave’s lip
All July let the great flag of the sky
Beat clutch batter
And wound me
Through August’s sun-struck
Moonfall drags night’s catch of stars
A bright shroud
For stubbled September
A table under trees
A wine glass empty
Full shattering October
Leaves bleeding from the trees
Blood rusts to earth
Earth iron to the core
December draws its bow
Arrow! Sing into the almighty silence
Week 34. Write a manifesto for your household
Week 34. As this is the beginning of Stoptober, why not create a Ritual or Celebration for a Big Change in your life, such as giving up smoking, or Divorce, first period, last period, work…
Week 33. Open a book at random. Use the first full sentence as your beginning…
Week 32. Imagine your pet can write – a will, a letter, a diary, a holiday packing list…
Week 31. Lost things
Week 30. Read My Mother’s Handbag by Ruth Fainlight. Note effective use of the senses. Write your own handbag or other object e.g. My Dad’s Torch poem/flash fiction.
Week 29. I have never… make a list of things you’ve never done or think you never would. Now write about doing one of them. Be bold.
Week 28. Take the end words of each line in a poem you like, now use them as your line beginnings or endings. Use in any order you like. This is interesting to try with rhyming words at the end. You could try using them as internal rhyme words too.
Week 27. Mondegreen – a mishearing of a phrase that gives it new meaning. Writer Sylvia Wright said that as a girl she had misheard the lyric “…and laid him on the green” in a Scottish ballad as, “…and Lady Mondegreen. I misread The Alteration Service as the alliteration service – what would that offer? What have you misheard/read?
Week 26. Waiting – for the train, for the rain to stop, for Godot – what are you waiting for?
Week 25. Walking gets our creative brain working. Don’t sit at your desk looking at blank paper, go for a walk, notice what’s around you. Use place names to create the name of a character: Kirk Deighton, Red Hut, Pink Lane, or to suggest a story title or event: Pity Me, Wideopen.
Week 24. I tend the mobile now/like an injured bird, “Text” Carol Ann Duffy. What’s your relationship with your mobile?
Week 23. Write a poem entitled A poem in which… (I wrote A poem in which I bring back the dead) or you could write ‘A story in which…’ instead
Week 22. Pleasures – important in dark times to list simple things that make us glad to be alive. Radio 4 started this week with a look at Bertolt Brecht poem Vergnügungen, a simple list poem that begins First look from morning window… What gives you pleasure?
Week 21. Some people… see the poem by Rita Ann Higgins
Week 20. Translations from Nushu. The script, Nushu, represents the language spoken in Jiangyong Prefecture in the rolling hills of southern Hunan Province. Women, who were denied education for many centuries in China, used it to share feminine feelings, including fears about arranged marriages, husbands and, of course, mothers-in-law, under an oath of secrecy. Imagine you’ve translated a poem or letter.
Week 19. Describe an outfit you once wore to a significant event, describe it in detail, make it a metaphor for what happened i.e. you met your first love, you attended your grandfather’s funeral, you had an important interview etc.
Week 18. A Wind Phone Who would you phone and what would you say?
Week 17. Make a list of alliterative word pairs: so-and-so, pretty penny, pay and display, round robin: turn one or more into a poem or short story – have fun with it.
Week 16. Turn your fear or other emotion into an animal – what does it look like, how does it move, where does it live, what are it’s habits? Write a poem and create the mood of the emotion.
Week 15. Describe a door in detail – does it lead in or out, what’s behind it, what’s going to happen when it opens? Who goes through it?
Week 14. Using a photograph/postcard: write five sentences about what you can see in the picture. Then five sentences about what can’t be seen. Now place yourself or a character in the picture and write a scene drawing on your ten sentences. Here’s a picture to get you started
Week 13. Imagine having Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: People feel as though their bodies have been altered in size and they have visual hallucinations. Write a story or poem where a character experiences distorted time, space, and body image.
Week 12. Write an Urban Legend – a modern cautionary tale, you know the type: I heard it from a friend who heard it from an acquaintance etc. They reflect current social concerns – about the dangers of buying drugs online or big bad business or global warming. Make up an outrageous story with weird events and a sprinkling of true facts.
Week 11. Maps: A-Z, Route map, contours, climate, constellations, tourist sightseeing map, map keys. Draw a map of your life, however you like: geographical, chronological. It could be a map of the area you live in, or the route you take to work, or the main places you’ve lived in throughout your life. All the places you’ve visited in the world. The groundplan of your home. Or it could be a place, a moment in time, an experience: love, work, children etc. Use it to write a poem or a short story or begin a memoir.
Week 10. Choose a favourite object, give it a voice, its own unique view of the world, its history, family, thoughts and desires.
Week 9. Go outside, somewhere alone. Close eyes and listen – note all sounds, far and near and internal. Write in response. (Listen to my soundscapes for inspiration!)
Week 8. Describe your hand in detail – front, back, colour, texture, shape, skin scars, jewellery, compare in size to something, what it’s done, would never do, compare to a landscape
Week 7. What will cause the most pain?
Week 6. Something very small that had a profound effect
Week 5. Write a sentence: include a person, an object, an event – describe using all the senses. Who missed the event?
Week 4. Look out of the same window at three different times in a day – describe the changes
Week 3. A colour you hate – List everything in that colour. Write a poem or scene using that colour to create a mood. Can you redeem that colour?
Week 2. Write A Recipe for Disaster