Thursday, February 23, 2023

What Happened to Jack and Jill on That Hill? Twenty Writing Prompts from James W. Ziskin

Does a background in any other kind of business give you a head start as a professional writer? If you were designing a course of study for a budding writer, what would the modules be?

A budding writer in 2012, Lago di Como

Any and all business backgrounds can give you a head start as a writer. Lawyers have proven that. And doctors, academics, cops, jockeys, soldiers, journalists, and homemakers. We’ve all read great books and stories written by people who’ve escaped/juggled first or even second careers. Humans are naturally curious. We love stories and we love learning, especially when the exercise entertains us. Writers draw on their experiences to transport readers to interesting places that are foreign or new. The power of fiction lies in its variety and versatility. Any subject has potential to enthrall readers. There is an infinite number of interests and opinions out there. So writers who have particular expertise can certainly have a head start. But a head start is useless if you can’t maintain your lead. You’ve got to run fast, which, if you’re following this metaphor, means you’ve got to learn to write a thumping good story or your readers will move on.


With that in mind, I’ve put together twenty writing prompts intended to exercise your writing muscles. Though not exactly a traditional syllabus, these prompts could easily fill a semester with fun and variety. Or torturous tedium, I suppose. In fact, I use some of these prompts as exercises in the middle school creative writing classes I teach, and the students aren’t always thrilled. Feel free to try some of them, borrow them, or ignore them.



1. Write me a nursery rhyme about what happened to Jack and Jill at the top of the hill.


2. Write me a thousand-word story without using the verb to be.


3. Write me a limerick. If it’s dirty, it had better be clever.


4. Write me a story with a first-person narrator. Gender cannot be your own.


5. Write me a first-person story that shows a villain as the hero of his/her/their own story.


6. Write me a story about the life of a single dollar bill.


7. Write me a story about the shortest love affair ever.


8. Write me a comedic version of Romeo and Juliet.


9. Write me an updated version of Dante’s Inferno. Who is in which circle of hell?


10. Write me a eulogy for Bertie Wooster. Or your favorite character from literature.


11. Write me a clever inscription for a tombstone.


12. Write me a list of counter indications and disclaimers for a new weight loss drug.


13. Write me a story in the second person.


14. Write me a story using only (mostly) clich├ęs.


15. Write me a few awkward descriptions of people using really weird metaphors, laborious similes, and hyperbolic hyperbole.


16. Write me a paragraph describing a fight without adjectives or adverbs.


17. Write me a story of your last dream, sparing no surreal or illogical details. Then edit it to make sense.


18. Write me a list of names for ninety-year-old characters in a humorous story.


19. Write me a joke.


20. Write me an outline of your (completed) novel.





Catriona McPherson said...

Did you make these up? You are quite something. And I now feel less guilty for thinking J&R had a farcical element the first time I saw it. (I was 14.)

James W. Ziskin said...

Yes, I did. But who knows if I might have heard one or two somewhere long ago and forgot. I suppose if the lovers live, it’s a comedy. But I was thinking more of a farce, as you wrote. Imagine them running off together then realizing they’ll have to find jobs or something…

James W. Ziskin said...

You know, one prompt I forgot to mention was “write me a story with no dialogue.” I actually did that. 4,900 words and not a bit of dialogue. It will appear later this year in Gary Phillips’s James Brown anthology.