It's a new year, and you are looking to start things off right. Set some goals, sure, but most of all, go write. Here's a tried-and-true idea you can use.
Take a break from structure and write blind (literally, if you can touch type). Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping, not worrying about punctuation or even making sense. Repeat words if you get stuck; there’s no wrong way to do this.
Your goal is to get to a state where your internal editor can’t block anything (some people call this “automatic writing”). Just write—riding emotions, not worrying if anything is “okay” or not. When the timer goes off, look at what you’ve written. Most of it will be gibberish, but you may well have tricked yourself into writing a gem of an image or revealing a raw emotion that you can graft onto a character. If nothing jumps out as immediately useful, file it away and come back to it later. You might see something different then. If nothing else, you'll be surprised at just how weird your brain can be when unmonitored.
This may work best first thing in the morning when your brain is closest to that crazy underworld of dreams. For optimal results, try the exercise every day for a week.
What can you do in those infamous fifteen minutes of writing each day (the daily chunk of time I had for writing most of What Can't Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly)? And what if you're not in the middle of a project? I plan to start dishing up some of my favorite writing prompts to entice you to bring writing into your daily life.
At a recent writing group meeting, one of my writing buddies challenged us with the following fabulous prompt cribbed from a session at the Indiana University Writers' Conference. Under the prompt, you'll find an unedited version of my in-session work (WARNING: dubious merit).
PROMPT: Write a postcard from an emotion (as in, the emotion is your current location, where you're writing from).
CONSTRAINTS*: (1) Refer to something that you've brought with you. (2) Include one action with a muscular, surprising verb. (3) Ask a question. (4) Use a phrase like "I always believed," "they say," "all along," "we should have," or "I think you would," (5) evoke a palpable landscape. BONUS POINTS: use a surprising adjective/noun combination (my favorite from writing group: "deadfly words").
* A quick note about constraints: for me, writing prompts like these with fairly detailed requirements are the best. Weirdly, the more constraints, the more creative I feel. The flattest exercise prose seems to come from prompts that are too open.
STOP! NOW GO WRITE!
My humble attempt at a postcard from an emotion:
Postcard from Expectation
You were right, it's all queues and waiting rooms here. I haven't made it through a single attraction entrance or into any of the offices that ring the many reception rooms. Traffic doesn't move at all; the drivers lose themselves in anticipatory loops. They wait for red, they wait for green, they wait for yellow. It's not like you'd think, though, no snarky comments or shoving in line, no fingers tapping out their impatience on waiting room armrests, no young mothers huffing angrily into their bangs.
I'm writing to you from a pale green room, crowded but not overfull. From what I can tell, nobody here worries if their name will be called or when. A man with a bottlebrush mustache pats his belly lovingly. A little girl mimes the unwrapping of a candy bar, a granny with spotted hands winds yarn around her finger. Can they all be so sure that what they await is behind one of these doors?
I haven't caught it yet, whatever they have, but it's in the air like humidity, throat-tightening and tugging at the corners of the mouth. The place is lousy with Mona Lisa smiles, but I try not to mind.
I think you would know how to handle yourself here. Why don't you give those narrow, dusty streets of Despair a rest and join me for a while? Bring your open hands; that's all you need.