Creating Atmosphere

May 10, 2014  Prompt #9

IMG_0983Here’s one of my favorite kids/science nerd jokes:

Q. Why did the restaurant on the moon go out of business?
A. Because it had no atmosphere!

Like a good restaurant, good writing needs atmosphere, which I loosely define as the mood, tone, or feel of the piece. What contributes to a work’s atmosphere? At least four elements (I’m sure there are more) including word choice, writing style, details and, what we’ll focus on here, setting.

Imagine, for instance, the same conversation in a noisy Chicago diner, a near-empty, small-town Laundromat, or inside a rattling blue truck on a foggy rural road. How would these different settings reinforce the conversation or play counterpoint to it?


For this two-part writing exercise (more tomorrow), choose a location from the first list and a quality of light from the second list. If none of these choices inspire you, make up your own.

Location: kitchen • basement • attic • bedroom • den • sun room • living room • baby’s room • patio • driveway • hallway • laundry room

Quality of Light: dim • dusk • dark • filtered • blazing sun • gloomy • warm • cold • dawn • partly cloudy • glaring

With your location and quality of light chosen (for instance, dawn on the driveway), write your phrase on a fresh piece of paper. Write for 10 minutes, setting the physical scene.

Tips for Creating a Memorable Setting

  1. Include specifics. Is a car parked on the driveway? Does a child’s bike lie on its side? Has a recent rain washed away half a chalk drawing? Is there a long crack in the drive, always meant to be repaired?
  2. Include sensory details. What color is the sky? Is the driveway  cool or hot? Do blooming lilacs scent the air? Or is it the smell of garage, not picked up for weeks.
  3. How does your location and quality of light work together to set the tone?
  4. Don’t include characters, actions or dialogue yet. Focus on the setting the mood.

How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing

  • Encourages you to observe and imagine as you combine elements.
  • Creating a strong setting adds complexity and layers to your writing.

Further Writing and Considerations

  1. Choose a different location and quality of light.
  2. Choose the same location, but a different quality of light.
  3. Choose the same quality of light, but a different location.
  4. Does the style of your writing change depending upon the setting your choose?

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. On index cards, each member writes down a location and kind of light. Or choose another variable, such as time of day, season, or weather. (Just don’t start with “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
  2. Put the index cards in two piles.
  3. Each member chooses one card from each pile and writes for 15 minutes.
  4. If possible, have members share their work. Listen for a sentence or phrase that impressed or puzzled you. Write it on the top of a fresh sheet of paper.
  5. Write in response to it for 15 more minutes.

Paint Chip Poetry

May 9, 2014  Prompt #8


paint chips Preparation  For today’s prompt, we’ll use the paint chips mentioned in the May 4th blog entry. If you haven’t already procured paint chips, try this prompt once you’ve gotten them or cut up three of more squares of different colors from magazines or catalogs.While paint chip hunting, try to find paint chips with interesting names (such as Lost Lake Blue or Summer Time Yellow). Choose 3 or 4 samples and take them home.

Instructions I’ve used this exercise many times in my writing classes. It’s usually a big hit with elementary school kids who often write startling profound stories about their colors. If you have children or other young people in your life, try it with them.

  1. From your paint chips, choose a color that particularly attracts or repels you.
  2. Looking at your color,  answer these questions.
  • If this color was a verb, what would it be?
  • If this color was an emotion, what would it be?
  • If this color was a person or an animal, who or what would it be?

For instance, if your color is Sea Green, you might write “wander,” “bored” and “mermaid” (which technically is neither a person or animal, but you have creative license.).

3. Write a sentence using your three words, such as “Sea Green is a bored mermaid, wandering the ocean in search of something new.”
4. Use that sentence as an opening line for a poem or story.  The style of writing is up to you.  Write for ten minutes.

How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing

  • Encourages you to link the visual with written language.
  • Helps you make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts (color, verbs, emotions, animals.)

Further Writing

  1. Focus on just one of the questions above. For instance, if  Sea Green conjures wandering, write for ten minutes about wandering.
  2. Choose a second color and repeat the steps above.
  3. Choose the same color, then choose a new verb, emotion, and person or animal.

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. Ask everyone in the group to bring in two or more paint chips. Put them in the middle of your table. Everyone chooses one for the exercise.
  2. Ask everyone write about the same color. Afterwards, read your writing aloud. Listen for differences and overlaps. What surprised you?

Looking ahead:  Hold on to your paint chips. We’ll use them again in the weeks to come.




Two Truths and a Lie

May 8, 2014  Prompt #7

cat shadowCreative Falsehoods and Other Ways to Stretch Your Imagination

Perhaps you’ve played “Two Truths and A Lie” as an ice breaker in school, at work, or with friends. This prompt expands on this “get-to-know-you” game.


On a blank piece of paper, write three sentences about yourself, your family or a character you are writing about. Two must be true. One must be a lie. Here is an example:

  • When I was four, my favorite toy was a ring of keys that my grandfather gave me.
  • When I was thirteen, my grandmother moved back to New Jersey where I lived.
  • When my brother Sam was eleven, he had a Halloween party that altered his life.

Next, write one of these sentences each on the top of three blank sheets of paper. Continue to write out the story (real or imagined).  Write for 3 to 5 minutes per sheet of paper. Here’s an example of how I followed up:

  • When I was four, my favorite toy was a ring of keys  my grandfather gave me. I carried them everywhere. I played with them when I was bored. I shook them when I wanted attention. I put them under my pillow at night. It wasn’t until I was six that I even understood that keys unlocked doors.
  • When I was thirteen, my grandmother moved back to New Jersey where I lived. Turns out, she was nothing like grandmothers in books. She didn’t bake cookies or wear an apron. She played Bridge and drank Scotch at 5 o’clock every day. Her refrigerator was sparse: a half-carton of eggs, a jar of creamed herring. Half-size cans of Michelob beer lined the refrigerator door. She told me she could never finish a whole one.
  • When my brother Sam was eleven, he had a Halloween party. We decorated the basement with orange balloons and black crepe paper. We taped huge sheets of Kraft Paper on the wall so his friends could write graffiti on it. At first they wrote things like Boo! and Watch out for black cats. Soon they got mean and wrote Jojo smells and Meryl is a witch. Then: Sam is queer. After that party, nothing was the same. Sam wondered how they  knew.

How “Two Truths and A Lie” Strengthens Your Writing

  • It encourages your imagination and asks you to dig deeper with your writing
  • It highlights the gray area between truth and lies, fiction and non-fiction.

Next Steps for More Writing

  • Re-read your “truth” stories and circle a word or phrase that still holds a charge—disturbing, melancholy, or particularly sweet. Write that phrase at the top of a new sheet of paper and write in response to it for 10 minutes.
  • Re-read your “lie” and circle a phrase that contains a slice of truth. Or circle a phrase that, again, holds a charge—wistful, exciting, or speaking to an unnamed desire. Write that phrase on a new sheet of paper and write in response to it for 10 minutes.

Tips and Variations for Writing Groups

  1. After you write your three short paragraphs, read them aloud to each other. Guess which is the lie and talk about why you thought so.  Discuss if the “lies” have a different writing style than the “truths.”
  2. Write a piece based on one of the other members lies.


For a prompt later this week, find an old postcard. If you don’t have one, check antique shops or  tourist shops. Or, type the phrase “old travel postcards” into Google’s image search or another search engine and choose one from there.

Imagined History of a Lost Object

Imagined History of a Lost Object

May 6, 2014  Prompt #5

Before Getting Started: Pen or Keyboard?

Before I launch today’s prompt, I want to talk about writing vs. typing. Through out this blog, you’ll see instructions such as “Write the phrase on a fresh piece of paper” Which raises a question my students frequently ask: “Is it better to write on a computer or on paper?”

I answer their question with another question: “What works better for you?” 

For me, writing prompts and first drafts of creative work begin best with paper and pen. If I’m diving into something new or feel stuck on a particular part of a story, writing on paper lets me to follow tangents, explore voice, mess up, try again, and imagine furiously. And why not? I’ll be revising it anyway when I type it into Word or Pages on my laptop or iPad. I’ll often set a timer for 15 minutes then take off writing. Setting a time limit says: Even if the writing is frustrating and painful, it is only frustrating and painful for fifteen minutes. I can survive that.

When I’m writing non-fiction such as this blog, however, I type it in directly. Must be a different part of my brain.

Pen and paper for first drafts and prompts don’t’t work for everyone. Some writers say they write more quickly and effectively on their computer. One student said she couldn’t read her own handwriting when it was time to revise her work! Other writers like the organization that a computer offers.

If you do use a computer, watch out for these traps:

  • Don’t edit or proofread as you write. Keep typing!
  • Don’t get distracted. There are a thousand ways to procrastinate on a computer; for this reason, I use a software program called Freedom that prevents me from getting on-line while writing.  I set it for 30 minutes or an hour to help me stay focused. When I use it, I don’t get tempted by Facebook or YouTube and I can’t get lost researching, for instance, what songs were on the Top Ten in January 1972 or from what material the parchment of a Torah scroll is made. (Both legitimate questions for the book I’m writing, but it’s better for me to separate writing and research, especially in early drafts.) Even with Freedom, I can still distract myself by organizing my photos or clearing out my email in-box. Self-discipline is a skill for sure.

steel pennysteel pennysteel penny

Today’s Prompt

Today’s prompt is inspired by the poem “1943 Steel Penny” by Tom Chandler (below). In it, he writes a compelling history of a steel penny, using specific details of time, place, and even brand names.

1943 Steel Penny

Spent more than a month
in a torn khaki pocket
slumped in a ditch in Anzio,
four years in a jar
in a workingman’s bar
near a highway

somewhere in Michigan,
more than two decades
in a Phillies Cigar Box
lost in your great uncle’s
underwear drawer
after he’d found it
in a local garage
on the floor near the wall
where a calendar hung
with some dates crossed off
and other dates circled
where he’d gone for repair

on a meaningless Thursday
wearing a tie in the fresh morning light,
smelling of brylcream & smoker’s breath
and worried about his Desoto.

“1943 Steel Penny” by Tom Chandler, from Wingbones. © Signal Books Signature Poets series.


For this prompt, you’ll need to choose your own old object to write about it. It could be a coin, as in the poem, or it could be, for instance, a chess piece, hat, book, hammer, button, ring, spool of thread, or box of fishing tackle. Choose what inspires you, but try to find something at least 20 years old. Older is better! However, if you can’t find an old object or are writing somewhere away from your things, use what is in your pocket, in your bag, in the gutter of the street.


Create a written history—real or imagined—for your object. Before you write, spend a minute getting to know your object.

  • If you can, pick it up. Feel the weight of it in your hand. Look at it from all sides.
  • If you shake it gently, does it make a noise?
  • Sniff it. Does it have an odor?
  • Press it again your cheek. How does it feel?

You can write in the style of Tom Chandler’s poem, write prose or something in-between. Here are two approaches to try:

  • Write a long, long single sentence about the object.
  • Write longer sentences interspersed with very short ones or single words.

Like Chandler’s poem, include concrete details for a more robust piece. Try including a geographic name (such as Michigan), a brand-name (such as Desoto) or a reference to time (such as Thursday.) I think “1943 Steel Penny” is especially moving because of the contrast between Anzio (a battlefield) and the local garage. What contrasts can you include your writing?

How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing

  1. It gives your imagination a chance to run wild.
  2. It offers a subject (your chosen object) you might not have considered before.
  3. It demonstrates how a simple object can be the anchor for a larger story, vision, or theme.

Next Steps for More Writing

  • Re-write the last line or word of your writing on the top of a fresh sheet of paper.  Write for 10 or 20 minutes more.
  • Choose a new object and write in response to it.
  • Choose the same object and write an entirely different history of it.

Tips and Variations for Writing Groups

  • Have everyone in the group bring 2 old objects to the meeting. Put them in the center of the table and have each member choose one to write about. Don’t share the true histories of the objects before writing about them.
  • Have each writer in the group write about the same object. Share your writing to discover the different histories each writer imagined. What were the differences in subject and style? What details or sensory observations overlapped?


Body Parts, Inc.

May 5, 2014  Prompt #4

Today’s Prompt: Embodied


Here’s a simple but surprisingly powerful writing prompt. I first used it when I was leading writing workshops for GLBT high school students.


  1. Choose a body part from the word list below and match it with an adjective from the list below that.  Feel free to add your own body part or adjective too.
  2. Write both words on the top of a fresh page of paper.
  3. After looking at your phrase (such as “big ears,” “sturdy ankles,” thin hair,” or “powerful arms”), close your eyes and repeat the phrase out loud three times.
  4. Open your eyes and write for 10 minutes.

Body Parts   abs  ankle  arms  breast  butt   chest  cheeks crotch  calves ears  elbow  eyebrow  eyes  face  foot  fingers  gums   hair   hands   head  hips  junk  knee  lashes  leg  lip  mind  muscle  nose  nails neck  package  palm   shoulder  six-pack   skin  sole  stomach  teeth  thigh  tongue toes  waist

Body Adjectives   bad  big  blotchy  bony  built  butch  cow  crooked  curved  curly  cute  cut dark  dark  dull  fairy  fat  fierce femme  flabby  flat   fleshy   freakish   frizzy   generous   girly   good gross gums hair hairy hands hips hot knee knobby light   limp   loaded   mannish   patchy  powerful  pretty   puffy round  sexy shiny   short skinny  small  straight   strong  sturdy   tall   thick   thin   ugly   waifish   weak  wide wrinkled

How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing

  1. It can give you insight into your own perceptions of your body, which is generally a useful thing.
  2. It can give you insight into a character’s perception of his, her, or hiz body—also a useful thing for character development.
  3. You might write on a topic you have not considered before—even though you live in your body all day.
  4. It offer the opportunity to go from the specific (such as an elbow or ear) to a large theme, such as fear and desire, overcoming shame, family lineage, and human connection.

Next Steps for More Writing

  • Read your piece out loud. Circle a sentence that was difficult to write and rewrite on the top of a new sheet of paper. Write in response to it for 10 or 20 minutes more.
  • Keep the same body part but choose a new adjective. Write in response to the new phrase.
  • Keep the same adjective part but choose a new body part. Write in response to the new phrase.

Tips and Variations for Writing Groups

  • At the end of the 10 minutes,  everyone rotates their body part word clockwise to create a new phrase. Write for ten more minutes.
  • If you feel comfortable, share your pieces. Listen for a phrase in the work of others that particularly troubles or puzzles you. Write it on the top of a new sheet of paper. Write for 10 more minutes.

Looking Ahead

For tomorrow’s prompt, you’ll need to find a domestic object to write about it. It could be range of things, for instance, a chair, a rug, a chess piece, a hat, book, hammer, button, ring, spool of thread, or box of fishing tackle. Choose what inspires you, but try to find something at least 20 years old. Even older is better!


Opening Lines

May 4, 2014  Prompt #3

Getting Started

For many writers, staring at a blank page or empty screen is daunting. Some wonder, “What should I write about? What will people think of my story?”  Others ask, “How do I begin? How do I shape that all-important first line?”

My advice? 1. Turn off your inner critic and full-time editor. 2. Breathe.

If you are not writing because you are stuck on what to write about or how to craft your story,  simply start writing words. You don’t need full sentences. You can stop in the middle of one thought and start another. As many have said before me, the point is to keep your pen moving on the page.  In my experience, the act of writing, of connecting brain, hand and pen (or brain, fingers and keyboard) releases both ideas on what to write about and reveals the style in which to craft your prose.  Editing, reshaping, and revising can all come later.

framing fun3

The Prompt

Below are nine opening lines. Choose one, write it on the top of a fresh sheet of paper, then write in response to it. Write for 10 minutes.

How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing

  1. It may help you break through writing resistance and start writing. (I suppose all the prompts do that!)
  2. It offers a subject or story line you might not have considered before.
  3. It offers a point-of-view you might not have considered before.


  • Feel free to substitute words for better inspiration. For instance, if  “Your sister is the pretty one” speaks to you more than “Your sister is the smart one,” use that opening line instead.
  • If you can’t decide which opening line to use, choose the one that’s the first number of your area code.
  • Don’t be concerned if your writing strays from the original line or ends up being about something entirely different than what you intended. That happens frequently and is a sign of creativity at play.

Opening Lines

  1. Your sister’s the smart one.
  2. That summer I . . .
  3. “What did you expect?” she said.
  4. If I had another chance, I …
  5. I was only 9 years old, but…
  6. “Before I met your mother, I . . .”
  7. “Better to laugh than cry.”
  8. “Big boys don’t cry”
  9. “No son of mine is going to . . .”

Next Steps for More Writing

  • Still raring to go after ten minutes? Write for 10 or 20 minutes more.
  • As your re-read what you have written, circle a word, phrase, or sentence that jumps out for you. Write it at the top of a new sheet of paper. Now write for ten more minutes in response to that.
  • Choose a different opening line and write in response to it.

Tips and Variations for Writing Groups

  • Write out these prompts on index cards or slips of paper. Each  group member then chooses one (either deliberately or randomly) and writes from there.
  • Give each group member a blank index card and ask them to write an opening line. The mix up the cards and have everyone choose a card for their prompt.

Looking Ahead

For an upcoming prompt, track down sample paint chips in a hardware or home design store. These are usually by the paints, have 3 to 6 colors per sample, and are free. If possible, find paint chips with interesting names for their colors (such as Lost Lake Blue or Summer Time Yellow). Choose 3 or 4 samples and take them home.  If you can’t find paint chips, cut up from a magazine six squares of different colors. Paperclip them together and hold on to them until next week.


Interview With A Plant

curly cup gumweed

May 3, 2014  •  Exercise #2
15 to 20 minutes

Getting Started

I just got off the phone with a long-time writing friend who reminded me about this playful writing exercise: “Interview with a Plant.”

I first wrote from this prompt on a hike sponsored by Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks. The instructions were to sit near a plant and “interview it,” posing questions in order to increase our awareness and appreciation. For instance, “Why do you grow in this particular place?” “Does any animal nibble on you?” etc.

After listening to the instructions, I asked, “And what if the plant answers?” The group laughed, but I decided to give voice to the plant — in this case, a Curly Cup Gumweed.

At the end of this post is my interview, which you can read before or after you write your own  interview. Choose whatever plant appeals to you — from a towering tree to creeping moss to an indoor spider plant.

Writing Tips:

  • Spending two minutes staring intently at the plant. Move around it. Look at it from above and below, if possible.
  • Make use of your senses. Touch its leaves, stem or branches. Listen with your eyes closed. Sniff.
  • Aim for six to ten questions.
  • Find an interview style that suits you. Need ideas? Imagine you are a reporter from the Washington Post or from a small town local news station or an elementary school newspaper. How would your questions differ if you were writing for the Sierra Club, Midwest Living, or Agriculture Week? What would Oprah ask this plant, what would Steven Colbert ask, what would you ask?

Again, if you are currently working on a book, you might pose your questions from the point of view of one of your characters or connect it to a theme you are already exploring.

How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing

  1. It may help you break through writing resistance and start writing.
  2. It offers a point-of-view you might not have considered before.
  3. It’s a brain-stretcher!
  4. It encourages you to be outside and connect with nature, which, in my book, is always a good thing.


Take one of your interview questions and rewrite it at the top of a new page. Expanding upon it, write for 15 more minutes. Be fanciful, seek metaphors, incorporate it into a larger story or go off into a whole other direction.

Have fun and have at it. Ready, set, write!


Interview with a Curly Cup Gumweed
© Ellen Orleans 2009

Q. For the record, what is your official name?
A. Grindelia squarrosa. This is your language, not ours.

Q. Why are you gummy?
A. To trap aphids and weevils. To screen the ultra violet. To stick in your thoughts.

Q. Why are your petals yellow?
A. To entice the bees. To thank the sun.

Q. Why are your leaves serrated?
A. I once was in love with a plant named Holly.

Q. The scent of your resin reminds me of the Ponderosa Pine. Are you related?
A. She grows not far from here.

Q. Why do you have curly tendrils on your globe?
A. To spread the resin. To entrap our enemies. To honor our ancestors, the furled fern.

Q. But why are they so beautiful?
A. To whet your wonder. You marvel, don’t you?

Q. Yes.
A. Yes.

Q. How do you feel when children push your sticky cups together?
A. Their fingers will remember us all day.

Q. What’s inside your globe?
A. Milky stems. Pearl bulbs. My flesh. Fields to be.


Getting Started with Writing Prompts

Ready. Set. Write.
I’ve been leading writing workshops and taking part in writing groups for over 25 years. In that time, I’ve amassed a large, messy pile of writing prompts. My writing pals have urged me to turn the prompts into a book, but, this being the 21st century, I’ve decided to create a blog for them instead. (The book can come later.)

What is a Writing Prompt and Who Can Benefit From One?
A strong writing prompt offers a hand-up when you are feeling unfocused, unmotivated, or unsure. These prompts can be used individually or in a group. Try them as a warm-up unrelated to writing you’re working on or integrate them into a story, essay, or novel that’s underway.  These prompts focus mostly on prose, but poets and experimental writers should feel free to jump in. Above all, remember to

travel big

Most prompts will fall under one of these categories:

  1. Structure, Lists, and Fill In the Blanks
  2. Time, Place, and Memory: Prompts that Engage with the Passage of Time
  3. Sensory Prompts: Prompts that Work with Photos, Objects, Sound, Taste, and Even Smell
  4. On Their Shoulders: Work by Great Writers Serves As A Jumping Off Point
  5. Our Own Words: Tearing Up, Turning Over and Reworking Our Writing
  6. Reference Desk: Using Dictionaries, Manuals, Encyclopedias As Inspiration
  7. Wild, Random, and Utterly Free: Using Chance and Play to Loosen Up and Go Deeper

That’s the scoop.  Tune in tomorrow for your first prompt.

Write back at you…