Fresh Start to 2019: Three Writing Prompts to Brainstorm Story Ideas

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This is the first of a series of posts about starting fresh for 2019. With the New Year upon us, many of us look to start new habits or activities. I’ll address some of those fresh starts as it relates to work, life and writing. In this first post, I will share writing prompts to brainstorm story ideas and boost your writing practice.

Starting a writing practice is difficult, but it’s nearly impossible without a story idea to work with. There are numerous sources of writing prompts to get you started, of course, but they can be so narrowly focused that they may not fit what you want to ultimately achieve.

Most writing prompts deal with one of three themes: the past, the present or the future. With this in mind, you really only need three writing prompts to help you brainstorm story ideas, one for each of these themes. Let me show you how.

1) I Remember… (or alternately, “Remember when”)

Using either of these prompts helps you reflect on the past. It’s ideal for memoirs, stories about growing up, attending school, family dynamics and vacations. Incidents that seemed insignificant when they first occurred may have more meaning now as you reflect on them. That reflection is the basis of your story.

On a sheet of paper, write the phrase “I remember” at the top. Then give yourself five or ten minutes to complete the phrase.

Examples include:
“I remember when I nearly drowned in our family’s swimming pool.”
“I remember attending my first Blackhawks hockey game with my father when I was 11 years old.”
“I remember the day my younger brother was born.”

You get the idea. Keep going with your list until time expires. You should have plenty of ideas to work with to begin writing. It may even lead to a collection of essays that you can publish in the future.

2) I Believe

From the past, we move to the present with the prompt “I Believe.” This prompt explores how you are feeling in the present moment. Those beliefs can be about anything: politics, relationships, raising children, your career. But the common element is your beliefs, your values, what you see as important in your life at this moment. Because the focus is on the present, this prompt is most useful for defining subjects for op-ed pieces and personal essays.

Examples include:
“I believe many pet owners treat their pets better than they treat other humans.”
“I believe all colleges and universities should provide free tuition.”
“I believe I was fired from my job because my boss didn’t like me.”

Once you have made your list of completed “I believe” statements, you can begin to explore your feelings further, beginning with why you believe the way you do. It might be helpful to back up your belief statements with statistics, survey results and other research that will give your statement more credence.

3. What if?
If you’re more forward-thinking, the prompt “What if?” can help you imagine all sorts of possibilities about the future. It helps you create worlds that don’t currently exist. What is different about this prompt compared to the previous two is that it does not hinge on any emotional content. “What if?” is non-personal, non-judgmental and more objective. This type of prompt is ideal for creating fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, horror, mysteries and thrillers. Of the three prompts, this is the one you can have the most fun with because there is no limit to what your imagination can conjure up.

Examples include:
“What if the city of Chicago was invaded by zombies who climbed out of Lake Michigan?
“What if scientists finally found a cure for AIDS, cancer or some other disease?
“What if a woman was elected President of the United States?”

If you’re feeling stuck with your writing and are looking for new story ideas, these three basic writing prompts are all you really need to kickstart your efforts. Start with one, make your bullet list, and then let your imagination do the rest.

In Memoriam: Authors We Lost in 2018

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Many talented writers, authors and journalists left our world too soon in 2018 – individuals who shared their perspective, insights and imagination, so we could all gain a better understanding of the world we live in.

Below are some of the more prominent writers who have passed away. Whether you’ve read them or not, they all hold a place in the literary world that will not be forgotten.

In alphabetical order

Anthony Bourdain – Bourdain began his career as a chef, but broadened his work into writing and TV. His memoir “Kitchen Confidential” showed the underside of the restaurant business, while CNN’s “Parts Unknown” series engaged and challenged to not be afraid of trying new things.

Sue Grafton – The mystery writer famed for her alphabetical series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.) actually died at the tail end of 2017, but I felt compelled to include her name for 2018 fearing she might have gotten lost in the last season’s holiday shuffle.

Stan Lee – the genius behind the Marvel universe and the architect of the modern comic book, his legacy will be experienced in print and on the movie screen for decades.

Ursula K LeGuin – Science fiction/fantasy author who often explored feminist themes in her novels also wrote a number of children’s books.

Philip Roth – Prize-winning novelist of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “American Pastoral.”

Anita Shreve – Author of “The Pilot’s Wife” and 18 other novels died in March 2018.

Neil Simon – The playwright and screenwriter behind notable works such as “The Odd Couple,” “Lost in Yonkers,” and “The Good-bye Girl.”

Thomas Wolfe – Known in some circles as the white-suited wizard of ‘new journalism’, Wolfe chronicled American culture in novels such as “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

One other noteworthy death belongs to a non-writer, Todd Bol, the founder of the Little Free Library, which you might have seen around in your neighborhood. Bol built the first little free library in 2009 in the shape of a schoolhouse in honor of his mother, who was a teacher and loved books. Like his deceased peers, his legacy will hopefully live on in neighborhoods for many years to come.

Who Needs Resolutions When You Can Create a Three-Word Theme for 2019?

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Photo courtesy of Hubspot Marketing 

Forget New Year’s Resolutions. Most people don’t know how to make them so they’re able to keep them. And most of those resolutions are unrealistic anyway.

Think instead about a general theme for the New Year, something that will guide your actions, not just for one day, but for the entire year.

Here’s what I mean. In 2013, I made several ill-advised career decisions that put me into financial and emotional debt. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of what was really important to me. So at the start of 2014, I came up with a simple three-word phrase as a guide for the rest of the year. I chose “Reclaiming Your Life” as my mantra, and that phrase guided me to make better choices about my future.

When I first started this blog, I wrote about three-word mantras in terms of career missions. You can read that post here. My comments then still hold true. A three-word theme can relate to one specific aspect of your life, like your career or your relationships, or your entire life. The important thing is to come up with a phrase that resonates with who you are today and what you want to achieve.

As we enter the first week of 2019, I’ve come up with new phrases – two of them, in fact, to guide me throughout the year. “Rewrite my story” not only refers to one of the novels and the numerous essays and short stories I’ve begun writing and haven’t finished, but also my own life story. I’m not changing anything about my past – that has already happened. But I do think about how I can change the direction of my life moving forward.

The second phrase, “Say Yes More” is intended to be more accepting and welcoming of everything that comes into my life – new people, opportunities, invitations.
How would I – or any one of us — rewrite the course of our lives if we said yes more?

Here’s another example. Perhaps you are going through a major transition in your life, perhaps a career change or a divorce. You might use the phrase “Build a Bridge” to connect from your past to your future. There are numerous other possibilities. Try one of these for yourself, or create your own.

* Believe in Yourself
* Believe in Others
* Find Your Passion
* Speak Your Truth
* Treat Others Kindly
* Act with Compassion

No matter what you choose for yourself, your three-word phrase should consist of three elements.

1. Be action-oriented. Begin your statement with a verb — Build, Find, Act, Believe, etc. The verb drives the action, like the engine of a locomotive. You’re not waiting for something to happen to you because you are the one driving the action. It’s proactive rather than reactive.

2. Make it positive. A positive tone and message is more inspiring and motivational. With a positive three-word theme, you’ll want to follow it all year long.

3. Focus on your power as an instrument of change. What influence do you want to make in the world? Do you want to help others, heal others, write, build homes or make people laugh? Or do you just want to be a better human being?

Once you’ve come up with your theme, write it down and put it somewhere where you can see it every day, like the refrigerator door or the bathroom mirror. Every time you see it, think of it as an active meditation.

Instead of a general theme, you can make it project-specific. For example, if you need motivation to maintain a writing practice, try the phrase “Write 500 words” or “Publish a story.”  When you see those messages on your mirror every day, it serves as a reminder of what you want to achieve and it can help you stay on track of your goal.

The three-word phrase works because it’s short, it’s action-oriented and it’s positive. There’s also a rhythm to the sound the phrase makes when you say it, especially if you choose words with a single syllable. For example, listen to the pattern of sound when you say “Speak Your Truth.” It’s like a heartbeat – boom, boom, boom – and that heartbeat is coming from you.

Make New Year’s Resolutions if you want. Or you can take a different approach with a three-word theme to guide your actions throughout the year.

Good luck, and Happy New Year!