All-Time Favorite Writing Prompts

To round out this year of blogging about writing prompts, I polled writers and writing teachers for their favorite writing prompts–generally, simple prompts that have been useful to them as writers, students, and teachers. One such prompt that I found extremely useful in my early days of writing was, “Write about an obsession.” From this straightforward suggestion, I learned a lot about what can drive a compelling story.

Some of these prompts are accessible and instructive; others offer wonderfully evocative images and ideas. For ease of reference, I’ve grouped the prompts into several categories, but certainly some would fit into multiple boxes. It is my hope that these twenty-nine prompts–some specific, some quite open-ended–will help you jump-start any stalled works-in-progress and generate lots and lots of new material.Continue Reading

Proxy Narratives: Jennifer Clement’s “Widow Basquiat”

raamellzee-bep-bop I’m always looking for a stellar book come November. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for the uninitiated) is about as appealing of an idea as having a month-long dental procedure and about as equally fun to be around. So, I mostly hide away. I do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in November—I take a writing break and read all month instead. Last year I read all of Larry Heinemann’s books. The year before that I dug into Rolando Hinojosa. This year, I’m reading and re-reading Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat which is easily my favorite book of 2014, though it’s been around in the UK for years. It comes out in the United States this month. Continue Reading

New Ploughshares Solo: “Café Deux Mondes” by Catherine Browder

Browder-FinalWe are excited to announce the publication of the latest addition to our Ploughshares Solos series, “Café Deux Mondes”, by Catherine BrowderThe Ploughshares Solos series allows us to publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Series. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the recently released Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2. Check in every month from August to May for new reading material!

About “Café Deux Mondes”

When the Khourys and McKissicks meet to share a neighborly meal, an adventure begins. Living in the changing ethnic landscape of Kansas City, one is a family of Syrian immigrants; the other, African Americans with roots in Louisiana. What brings them together is a love of food. Along with friendship, a dream takes root between the two mothers, Miriam and Tamara—starting a new restaurant that will feature the specialties from both of their traditions: the Café Deux Mondes, or Two Worlds Cafe. Little do they know just what they are up against when they begin their venture. From the skepticism of their churches to neighborhood crime, disaster always seems to be just around the corner. Award-winning writer Catherine Browder takes a warm look at the troubles and joys of the American melting pot, and how we can grow even from our failures.

“Café Deux Mondes” is available on Kindle for $1.99.Continue Reading

Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2 is Now Available!

3D Cover Omnibus 2 WhiteWe are thrilled to announce the release of the Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2, the second print compilation of our Ploughshsares Solos series!

After individually publishing each of our Ploughshares Solos in an affordable digital format, we are pleased to offer a beautifully-designed print anthology featuring nine Solos. This Omnibus, edited by Ladette Randolph, is a collection of works by Paul Byall, Christopher Castellani, Brendan Jones, Aurelie Sheehan, L.C. Fiore, Lisa Heiserman Perkins, Kathleen Hill, Patricia Grace King, and Alexandra Johnson.

The Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2 can be purchased at www.pshares.org for $19.95. This omnibus edition is also included in subscriptions to Ploughshares, the literary journal. Upgrade your subscription today to be sure you don’t miss this Omnibus!Continue Reading

Escalating Conflict

Adriaen Brouwer (circa 1605/1606–1638) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Adriaen Brouwer (circa 1605/1606–1638) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In fiction, only trouble is interesting. For the conflict averse, instilling a story with juicy conflict may take some practice. Someone who has read many drafts of many of my short stories once dubbed me “Anca Did She Forget the Conflict Szilagyi”–a moniker that has become helpful as I work on second and third drafts of stories. As is often the case in learning something, I was aware, theoretically, that I had this problem. But how to proceed?Continue Reading

Experiments in Perspective

Albrecht Durer.

Albrecht Durer

A crucial lesson I learned early on in my attempts at writing fiction is that every character is you–and not you. Characters have parts of you inside of them because you wrote them. But they are still not you. Chris Abani once said in a workshop that readers will always wonder if your characters are you–even if your main character is a Chihuahua. There’s not much to do about this wondering except write the characters you want to write with complexity and empathy.Continue Reading

I Have To Tell You

Cover of I Have To Tell YouI Have To Tell You
Victoria Hetherington
0s&1s, 2014
69,000 words
$6.00

Buy: ebook

While reading Victoria Hetherington’s novel, I Have To Tell You, I occasionally found myself wanting to shake one or two of the characters for a host of self-destructive behaviors and dysfunctional relationships. And just as my frustration rose, inevitably one of Hetherington’s precisely crafted sentences would render her characters so vulnerable and relateable that I found myself willing if not to forgive, then to understand their infidelities, obsessions and shortcomings. This pattern in my reading experience is a powerful testament to Hetherington’s ability to create immensely engaging characters and shine kindness on the less admirable sides of our natures.Continue Reading

Writers Do It Best: Robin McCarthy

In the ‘Writers Do It Best’ series, contributors reflect on how their education and experiences as writers have uniquely prepared them for their lives outside the writing world. Today, we hear from Robin McCarthy, an MFA student studying fiction at Northern Michigan University.  You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinMcCarthy28.

headshotI have held a lot of jobs for which I have not been qualified, and the position I was perhaps least prepared for was as a cook aboard a small cruise ship taking middle-aged tourists on vacations in the arctic. When I explained to the ship’s captain in an interview that I had no professional experience as either a chef or a mariner, he shrugged. No problem. The job, he explained, was just a collection of skills, and skills could be learned.

I took the job and was immediately confronted by the depths of all I did not know. There was a catalog of knots and safety protocol, the persnickety temperature-setting of the oven, the art of cramming months of provisions into storage and the timing of a five-part meal for twenty delivered hot in a rolling sea. I was overwhelmed by the volume of tedious minutiae to be learned.

And I messed up. A lot. Continue Reading

The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Birthright” by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

I believed in ghosts as a kid. Since then, I’ve wondered why I wasn’t ever fascinated by the lore of other supernatural creatures. I think it’s in large part because ghosts—unlike angels, demons, vampires, or werewolves—didn’t seem to have such a strict set of rules governing their existence. In my understanding, ghosts could pretty much show up wherever they wanted, for any reason, and all manner of mysteries could be attributed to “ghost activity.”

Revolver_Full_mobileLiving a childhood where ghosts were real meant that any suspicious noise, weird animal behavior, or missing object could not only be explained but also imbued with significance. A door closing on its own didn’t happen because open windows in the house caused a difference in air pressure that made the door move. No, an angry ghost slammed that door because it was once a girl like me and she had died. But how? And what did she want now? And why was she angry?

In other words, I liked ghost stories because they at once solved and created a mystery.

I loved Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s story “Birthright” when I read it on Revolver earlier this month for the same reason. Clocking in under 700 words, “Birthright” is about a girl, never named, who resembles her dead grandmother. The story reads like a myth in its straightforward, naked aim to account for the girl’s likeness to her father’s mother, mixing modern pragmatism with fancy. The girl, referred to as an “Old Soul,” is visited by the ghost of her dead grandmother at night, both in dreams and reality, a distinction that doesn’t seem to matter because, as the narrator points out: “It is always late and dark and dreamlike.”

Continue Reading

The Fall 2014 Issue is Now Available

403-Cover-frontWe are very excited to announce that our Fall 2014 issue has officially released today! Acclaimed novelist and short-story writer Percival Everett (Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier) guest-edits this all-fiction issue.

As Everett writes in his introduction, the stories “range from so-called mimetic to so-called meta. I do not like such labels and I hope to undermine their use by putting these fine works together.” Authors experiment with everything from extensive footnotes to shifting points of view, and narratives run from a husband who can’t stop crying (Nick Arvin’s “The Crying Man”) to a super-sophisticated domestic robot learning the ways of a Japanese family (“I, Kitty,” by Karen Tei Yamashita). Featuring stories by Aimee Bender, Richard Bausch, and Edith Pearlman, this issue is an illustration of the adventurousness and variety of the short story in English today. The issue also features Jay Baron Nicorvo’s Plan B essay about surfing, and an appreciation of the early work of the poet Robert Duncan.

If you would like to read our Fall issue, and you aren’t already a subscriber, subscribe to Ploughshares today! You’ll get great reads, ideas for your own work, and the ability to submit your work for free!

You can purchase single copies of our issues or subscribe by visiting our website: www.pshares.org.