Books to Get You Writing

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Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

Is 2017 finally going to be the year when you start that novel, finish your memoir, or journal with more regularity? When I started writing seriously, I found books of prompts invaluable in getting both my pen and my ideas flowing. Maybe you will too.

a-writers-book-of-daysA Writer’s Book of Days

This was the first book I used consistently and it was so helpful. I highly recommend it if you’re just starting out and wanting to make writing a daily practice. Each chapter talks you through a different aspect of learning to be a writer, like writing from the senses or what to do when your writing bores even you. The tone is nurturing and encouraging, which is so important for many of us when we’re just starting on a new journey. The chapters are arranged by month  and contain prompts for each day of that month.  “It rained for three days.” “Write about the black-winged moth.” “It’s what was whispered about.” The idea is you take those prompts and just write for fifteen minutes or so, without censoring yourself. I did some good writing that way and some of it even fed into the novel I was working on.

the-five-minute-writer the-five-minute-writerThe Five-Minute Writer

This was also one of the books I used at the beginning. Its writer designed it to “practise the kind of thinking that has been known to foster creativity”. It certainly worked on me! Most days, there’s a page or two to read on a particular subject – writing with colour, how to plump up “thin” characters – and then a thoughtful exercise that is directly related to that topic. Unlike A Writer’s Book of Days, this is one where you’re encouraged to think as you write rather than just let the words flow. (Both are valuable in different ways.)

the-writers-idea-bookThe Writer’s Idea Book

I recommend this one for beginners, too. It includes more than 400 prompts, organised into themed chapters — like secrets, or your fifteen minutes of fame. Some are designed for you to mine your own life for material; others for developing fictional characters or plots. The first few chapters aim to make you think about your own writing practice and goals, which can be a great way to begin a journalling habit. This book also has a sequel of sorts, The Writer’s Idea Workshop, which takes the prompts one step further and helps you develop your ideas rather than just come up with new ones.

the-3-am-epiphanyThe 3 am Epiphany and the 4 am Breakthrough

I’d been writing a little longer when I bought these, and I fell in love with them. I’d often spend an hour or so on each exercise, because they require more thought, as they’re often very prescriptive and detailed, down to the number of words you should write. I find that works well for me — boundaries can, paradoxically, be so helpful to creativity as our brain tries to work around them. Here’s an example from the 3 am Epiphany: Write a fragment of a story that is made up entirely of imperative commands: Do this; do that; contemplate the rear end of the woman who is walking out of your life. This exercise will be a sort of second-person narration. 50o words.

the-daily-writerThe Daily Writer and The Daily Reader

I admit it: I’m not sure I’ve ever done prompts from these books. But I also look at them periodically and remind myself that they’d be great ones to go through, not just for my own development as a writer but because they could result in good stories to pitch to magazines and websites. The exercises are highly specific and sometimes require a lot of research – Find out all you can about your earliest ancestors, for example, though not always: compose a romantic scene in which food or drink is integrated with the expression of love between two persons.

There are countless examples of such books. There’s the general prompt books which cover various genres and aspects of the life and craft of a writer, like Susan M. Tiberghien’s One Year to a Writing Lifeand Naming the World, which is edited by Bret Anthony Johnston and includes exercises by Elizabeth Strout, Ann Packer, Katherine Min (Secondhand World), Thisbe Nissen (Osprey Island) and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of the wonderful collection of inter-related short stories, The Ms Hempel Chronicles. (Anthologies like this are your best bet if you want to find prompts by authors of colour — the offerings are otherwise overwhelmingly white.)

now-write-non-fictionThere are also genre-specific prompt books, like the various Now Write! books, which are collections of exercises by different authors in the general fiction, speculative fiction, mystery, screenwriting, and non-fiction genres. For non-fiction, another couple of books which are instructional as well as providing prompts are Writing Life Stories, by Bill Roorbach, and Crafting the Personal Essay, by Dinty Moore, who is the editor of Brevity and something of a celebrity in the creative non-fiction world. Kicking in the Wall by Barbara Abercrombie is good for five-minute warm-ups to jog your memory for memoir vignette pieces. For poetry, there’s The Practice of Poetry and Wingbeatsboth a collection of exercises by different poets.

Books of writing prompts seem to multiply every time I make it to the bookshop to browse for them. (I actually probably have enough prompts at this point to do ten a day for the rest of my life, so I’m trying my best not to buy any more.) If you’re lucky enough to live near a bookshop, that’s probably the best way to get a feel for what works best for you. Otherwise, I highly recommend the top four on this list in particular.