March Madness for Writers: Circuit #4

This is it! We’re kicking off the final week of March, and with it the last week of the March Madness for Writers Challenge. How are you doing? Have you managed to write every day (or mostly)? Did you tackle any of the Circuit Training exercises?

Whatever you’ve done this month, I’m hoping you surprised yourself. My wish for you is that you came up with an idea that was fresh and exciting, that you broke through a block, that you’ve produced more pages than you expected. I hope you’re coming to the end of March with confidence in your abilities as a writer — not just in your talents and your current skill set, but in your willingness to push past those boundaries and stretch toward your next goal.

This week is your last chance to participate in Circuit Training for Writers, whether or not you’ve tried out any of the exercises in previous weeks. Give the exercises a look and see what appeals. They’re still optional, of course, but I’m hoping you will feel like giving them one final stab before the month is over.

For anyone who missed out on March Madness, I’m sorry that I will not be running another challenge in April. These are not the focus of this blog, just something I like to throw out there occasionally. However, anyone interested in continuing to challenge themselves should consider repeating the rules for March Madness throughout the month of April on their own. These ideas and writing exercises certainly don’t expire on March 31st; I hope you keep up the good work, or push yourself to try something new in coming months. Those of you looking for a more structured challenge should check out Camp NaNoWriMo, which starts April 1st.

March Madness for Writers: Circuit #3

Welcome to the third full week of March! This means we’re slightly more than halfway through the month, and also ready to kick off another week of circuit training. How have you been doing so far, writers? Is the challenge making you sweat a bit? Are you managing to get some writing time in each day? Maybe mastering a new skill or two along the way?

For those of you participating in the circuit training portion of the challenge, today is the first day of a brand new week, which means it’s time to trade in last week’s exercise for something new. Of course, if you’re on a roll with whatever you’re doing and want to continue, please feel free. You can also take a week off from circuit training if you’re feeling a bit burnt out or just have a busy schedule ahead. The goal is simply to write each and every day; everything else is a bonus.

Whatever you decide to work on this week, I want to encourage you to take a look at your list of prompts from earlier this month and see if you need to replenish them. If you’ve been working on new story starts or short pieces at all this month, the chances are good that you’ve used at least a handful of your prompts already. Don’t forget to jot down new ideas as they come to you, or to spend an hour or two day dreaming to purposefully generate some new prompts. That way you’ll always have a good assortment to choose from when you have the itch to write something different.

Wishing you a wonderfully productive writing week. Now get to it!

March Madness for Writers: Circuit #2

Welcome to the second full week of March, and with it the second week of Circuit Training for Writers. Did you try out one of the week-long exercises last week? How did you do? I hope you’re coming out of the week feeling inspired and excited to give something new a go.

Remember that these circuits are an optional part of the March Madness Challenge for Writers. If your schedule is too hectic, just keep to the first part of the challenge and try to get some writing time in every day. That habit is the most vital one for you to develop and maintain. Train your muse to show up as scheduled so that when you sit at your desk you’re ready to work. But if you like the idea of stepping things up a notch, feel free to give the Circuit Training a try as well.

Refer back to the list of Circuit Training exercises to choose something for this week if you have not done so already. Any of the exercises are fair game, and each will help you work on a different aspect of your craft. Or maybe you want to pursue something you started last week, and so feel like taking this week off from Circuit Training. That works, too. Adapt the challenge to suit your needs and interests, and keep on writing.

Wishing you a productive, inspired week!

March Madness for Writers: Circuit #1

Happy Monday, writers! I hope you all had a wonderful, productive weekend. If you’re participating in the March Madness Writing Challenge, today is day 4, which means you should have a few days of writing under your belt. Have you managed to put in time each day, even if just a little bit? Make it a priority to plant yourself in your favorite writing location and get those words out. And if daily writing alone isn’t enough of a challenge, be sure to check out yesterday’s list of circuit training exercises to help you stretch your skills even more.

For those of you interested in Circuit Training, today is the first Monday of the month, and you should be kicking off your first exercise. Choose any of the listed activities for the week, and keep at it through next Sunday. Feel free to drop by the blog and let us all know how you’re doing!

If you are happy writing daily, or aren’t quite ready to add to the challenge, that’s fine, too. Remember, the circuit training is optional. You can ignore that facet of the challenge entirely, or give it a go later in the month if your schedule allows. But however you choose to personalize the challenge, make sure to keep it a challenge. The point is to push yourself a bit past your current comfort zone, to take your writing skills and habits to the next level. So don’t forget to aim high!

Wishing you all a great week. Happy writing!

Circuit Training for Writers!

Welcome to the third component of the March Madness Writing Challenge! As of tomorrow, we have precisely four weeks left to the month, enabling anyone who wishes to tackle up to four additional writing exercises — one per week — in addition to their commitment to write every day. There are more than four weeks’ worth of exercises, so you can spill over into April if you’re interested in doing them all.

As I have stated, this part of the challenge is purely optional. The most important thing is to get your butt in the chair and do that daily writing, even for just fifteen minutes. If you make your writing a priority and get some words done each day, you will have already accomplished a great deal by the end of the month. However, many writers already have a daily writing habit, so these added segments of the challenge will allow them to play along, providing new ways to improve upon existing skills or try out a few new ones.

Each exercise below can be done for one week — Monday through Sunday. If you find something particularly helpful or inspiring, feel free to repeat it for another week or more — though I encourage you to give more than one exercise a try. You can also participate in the circuit training for just one or two weeks instead of all four, depending on your interests and your schedule. Pick and choose with your personal goals in mind, so that you can get the most out of the challenge. Some weeks will get you writing new things, others revising existing work, and some can be adapted for either purpose.

Good luck with all of your writing goals, and enjoy the challenge!


Strengthening: Upper Body

Vocabulary is a vital part of any writer’s toolbox. Strengthen your skills by collecting great nouns that make your writing vivid and precise. This week, step away from the dictionary and start making word lists that apply to various people, places, items, etc. Head to the library and check out the periodicals. What sorts of words can  you collect in a magazine on woodworking? Sewing? Architecture? Furniture? Learn the names of different fabrics used in upholstery, for drapes, for clothing. What are the different sorts of windows, and their parts? How do the materials differ in a modern apartment building versus a period house? An estate versus a condo? What words are important in different careers?

Make word lists pertinent to your current work-in-progress. Find flower and tree names. Look up types of weapons. Need to reference bygone era items? Find old newspapers on microfilm and read the advertisements. Even if you don’t think you’ll use a particular type of sword or lady’s undergarment for your present project, add them to the list for future use. Then go through a few scenes in your manuscript and start switching out imprecise words for your new discoveries. You may discover you need less description once what you have starts pulling more weight.

Strengthening: Lower Body

If nouns are the arms that give description heft, verbs are the legs that make your prose dance. Many writing books advise against the overuse of adverbs, but too many adverbs are often trying to make up for lazy, static verbs. Take some of the mostly frequently used verbs and find more dynamic ways of saying the same thing. Instead of standing on a street corner, your character might loiter or slouch. Someone walking up the street could stroll or stride, meander, rush, creep, or wander. Precise verbs set the mood and intention, and contribute to pacing.

Make a list of strong, dynamic alternate verbs, then go through your work-in-progress and see where you can enliven the prose. Pay attention not only to the mood you’re setting, but how the new words sound in the rhythm of the sentence. Note: the exception to this is dialogue attributions. In most cases, he said or she said is sufficient.

Gymnastics: Floor Exercises

Time to go tumbling and leaping across that floor. Let your characters get a move on. But where are they going? What are they leaving behind? Setting can be the backdrop that provides mood and motive in just a few lines for a short work or beautiful sentences woven throughout something longer. Setting can be a single location or a series. But regardless, it should be more than simply where your characters happen to be. In addition to descriptors, consider mood. A room in shadow can be depressing or gloomy or foreboding. Splashes of sunshine revealing dusty surfaces can signal neglect.

Make a list of seven potential settings, from stuffy drawing rooms to modern airplane cabins, from the street you grew up on to a primeval forest. Try to vary them as much as possible, indoor and outdoor, large and small. Then each day of the week, write a vivid description of one setting. Don’t worry about where it will fit in with a writing project — though you are welcome to write about a setting for your work-in-progress or something you’re planning. Simply be as descriptive as possible, remembering all your senses as you include details. Feel free to include people and/or animals in your setting if they are appropriate to the location. But also try to hint at something beyond the description. Assign some type of deeper meaning to your location — the home of a recluse? Site of a murder? — and hint at that as well.

After you’ve finished your description, go back through and circle the few details that really stand out to you the most — the ones you would limit yourself to in a short work of fiction where word count mattered. See how much of the complete picture can you present in just those few words, both physical description and your suggestion of more.

Sprints: 100 Meter Dash

Using the story prompts you’ve collected, write the start of a new story (or novel) every day for seven days. This can count toward your fifteen minutes of writing each day, though again, try to write longer if you are able. Mix up your story prompts so you get to tackle some different types of ideas, and aim for at least a page or two.

These are fast writing exercises. Don’t over think them, and don’t go back to edit. Just get your thoughts down, then set aside the project and move on to the next one on the next day. At the end of the week, you’ll have the start of seven brand new projects. Maybe they’ll all interest you, maybe only one or two will seem to have some promise, but they will give you some fun new things to work on.

Prompt writing of this sort can be a great way to get past the fear of the blank page, to warm up for your work-in-progress, or to stock pile some things to tackle when you’re dealing with a bit of writer’s block on your current project.

Sprints: 400 Meter Dash

This exercise requires a small amount of work before the start of the week. Go through your list of prompts and find seven that interest you and that seem to trigger short-story length ideas. If at all possible, mix up the prompts so you have a variety of story types. For each prompt, jot down just a sentence or two regarding what you think you’d like to write. Give it some thought over a day or two before you commit. Then assign each prompt to a day of the week.

Starting Monday, write a complete short story per day, based on the day’s prompt, for seven days. These are drafts only. No agonizing, no editing. Just push through to the end, wherever your idea takes you. There’s no word length requirement. You can write a 1,000-word flash fiction piece or something longer. And at the end of the week, you will have seven short story drafts to play with. Again, you might not want to edit and polish all of them, but the chances are that at least a couple will continue to excite you enough to revise.

A Few Thoughts on Writing Prompts

What makes a good writing prompt? Anything that gets your thoughts flowing and starts you writing. 

Some writing prompts might sound ridiculous to you, but will spark a fabulous idea for someone else. Likewise, a writer friend might discard a prompt as boring or silly that you consider story-writing gold. Prompts are not meant to be full-fledged stories all unto themselves. They serve as a catalyst for the creative juices. Therefore, any prompt can turn into a wonderful short story or novel if it happens to click for your writer’s brain.

Yesterday I provided a list of websites that offer writing prompts, but today I’d like to talk a little bit about how to come up with some of your own. Most writers have no trouble generating ideas, but it never hurts to have a few more tricks in your tool box.

  • Mad-libs style: Pick three or four great words — a few nouns, maybe a fabulous verb — and write a story around them. The more offbeat and disparate your vocabulary picks, the more fun you can have linking them together.
  • Travel and monuments: Go through old vacation photos and postcards, or search for location shots online. Use the images as the basis for your story. Why is this a vacation destination? What’s the story behind the bridge or tower or castle that’s now a tourist attraction? Who might visit the spot a thousand years from now? Will it even be there? Who are the locals and what are their lives like?
  • Works of art: Set your story inside a famous (or not-so-famous) painting. Can you do this with an abstract?
  • Song titles: Write a story based on the title of a favorite song. Ignore the lyrics of the song entirely.
  • The best laid plans: Some of the best stories come from situations where things fail to go according to plan. Think up a bunch of scenarios where deviation from the norm can lead to catastrophe, adventure, realization… What if?
  • Start with extreme settings and go from there: An out-of-the ordinary setting or surroundings can force your characters to do all sorts of interesting things. Trap someone on a narrow ledge or over the side of a cliff. Create a serious drought or a three-day blizzard. Maroon a ship on an uninhabited (or not) island.

Keep in mind that different prompts lead to different lengths of story. The more complicated the set-up, the more likely you will write a novella or novel (or series!) instead of a short story. That said, prompts might lead to your writing just once scene that can eventually grow into a longer work. There are no rules here. Prompts should inspire you to write. You can work out the rest of the details once you’ve filled your blank pages.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Writing Challenge! March Madness for Writers

pen_and_pencilWelcome to March, and a month-long writing challenge designed to help you all take your writing to the next level, whatever that may be. For the past two years, I’ve run a December Writing Challenge to offer writers a small kick in the butt during what is, arguably, the busiest month of the year. But this past December, a reader commented that March might be an excellent month for a challenge as well, and so here we are.

The December challenge focuses on writing every day, even if just for fifteen minutes. The idea is that you can find that small amount of time for something you consider a priority, no matter how  crazy your schedule. So that part of the challenge will remain. But in order to change things up a bit, and also offer a higher level of challenge for writers who already have a regular daily writing habit, I’m going to offer some additional components to the challenge. It’s up to you to choose how much or how little you’re prepared to tackle this month.


Part One: The Foundation

  • I challenge you to write every day during the month of March, for a minimum of fifteen minutes, but I hope for more. Whether you’re just starting out or have been writing for years, I want you to commit to your craft. If writing is important to you, make it a priority.
  • You can write anything you want, as long as it is for you. Don’t count assigned writing for your day job or that note to your child’s teacher. Focus on getting time in for your own writing projects. It can be something brand new, a work in progress, something out of the bottom drawer, writing exercises, or bits and pieces of many different works. Just get those words down.
  • As with December, I’m giving you an optional two days off during the month. Use them wherever you’d like, or not at all. It’s up to you.

Part Two: The Homework

In addition to writing daily, you have a bit of homework for the next few days. Take a couple of hours over the weekend, either all at once or in drips and drabs, and come up with a bunch of writing prompts that interest you — 20 or 30, but at least a dozen. Try to get a good variety, prompts appropriate for both short and long works, and across diverse subjects, including things you might not normally write but are curious to try.

Maybe you already have a list somewhere, or a collection of them in a notebook, and that’s fine. Add to them. Otherwise, start a list, anywhere you’d like, though I recommend having a smallish notebook that you can throw in your purse or laptop bag and have on hand when inspiration strikes.

Please do this even if you’re in the middle of working on a book and already plan to continue with it through the month of March. You can always use the prompts later, and you might get lured in by one or two of the other challenge exercises and find the prompt list useful.

You can find prompts anywhere. Jot down ideas you’ve been mulling over. Go through your writing books, or check out a few at the library. The internet offers a wealth of sites that have writing prompts. Don’t forget to check out photos or works of art online, as well, for a bit of inspiration. I’ve listed a few websites at the end of the post.

weightliftingPart Three: Circuit Training

Given I’m stealing the title of this challenge from the sports world, it’s appropriate that I use another athletic term for part of the challenge. Starting Monday, March 4, anyone interested in a more complex or challenging month can choose to participate in a round or more of writer’s circuit training. I will provide a list of week-long exercises, each of which will focus on some different aspect of craft or writing in general. For the next four weeks, you can pick an exercise to add to your challenge from Monday to the following Sunday. Any writing you do for the circuit training will count toward your daily writing quota.

Circuit training will give you the chance to develop different skills, or simply to make your challenge a bit more interesting. You can choose a different exercise each week, repeat an exercise you find particularly useful, participate in the circuit all four weeks or just a few. Personalize the challenge according to your own schedule, interests, and needs. While everyone taking the challenge will be writing every day, different participants will be in different phases of the circuit, depending upon what exercise they choose, or if they decide to take on one of the specific exercises at all. Remember, circuit training is optional.

I’ll post the entire list of week-long circuits on Sunday, so you can get an idea of what’s in store for you. Some of the exercises may require a little more thought and planning than others. Meanwhile, get writing, and don’t forget to start collecting prompts.

Prompt sources:

Sunday Scribblings – A new prompt each Friday or Saturday, with a good backlog.

The Time Is Now – Fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry prompts from Poets & Writers magazine.

Creative Writing Prompts – Huge list.

Writer’s Digest Creative Writing Prompt – A pretty diverse selection.

Prompt Generator – Supplies random prompts.

Writing Excuses – Each week’s podcast includes a writing prompt.