Stage 1: write write write

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to write creatively, and every writer ultimately develops an approach that works best for them. What works for one writer may not work for another – and what worked yesterday may not work today.  Writing is personal. It can be lonely and it can alleviate loneliness. It can render, change and challenge meaning. It can distract you, and drive you to distraction. It can manage you, and it can be manageable.

Creative writing is an emotional process of undisciplined thought that taps into unconscious or subconscious story. It is also a disciplined, self conscious process that manages and optimizes the potential of that story.  For most writers it is best to separate the emotional, undisciplined process (generating material) from the thoughtful, disciplined, self conscious process (editing material).  So, stage 1: the writer generates material, and stage 2: the writer manages material. Both are creative and can be deeply satisfying and rewarding.

Generating Material:

Find a quiet time and place where you won’t be interrupted – and if you can’t do that, write anyway – write between station stops on the subway, at the departure gate in the airport, in the mechanic’s shop while you wait for your car to be repaired. Our thoughts and emotions – the tools of our trade – are always with us, waiting to be expressed.

When generating material lock the ‘editor’ in you out. The purpose of writing freely is to get everything on paper (or on your computer screen). These are thoughts and feelings uncensored by social politeness – how you see and feel, not how you think you should.  Everything. If you allow yourself to think critically you will likely screen out your best material. How do you do this?

© Arvind Balaraman |

Keep your hand moving.  Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written, don’t pause at all.  If you can’t think of anything to say, write “I can’t think of anything to say’. If stray thoughts come forward that seem to have nothing to do with what you are writing, write those down too. “Sam walked into the empty store front for one last look at the place where his hope of a future –  Oh crap, I forgot to take the laundry out of the dryer – his hope of a  – his hope for a future lingered, tangible as the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg – what the hell does that mean? Maybe laundry smells – as tangible as the smell of old sneakers and ivory soap.”

Don’t cross out, don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure or logic. Don’t get logical, lose yourself in the material, in the emotions, in the flow of ideas.

© Diane Rodriguez |

When something scary comes up, write it, feel it, go with it – go for the jugular, that’s where the power is. “Old sneakers and ivory soap. He felt the loss all over again. Mistakes made that couldn’t be undone – revoked – reversed – his son’s draft card burned through his wallet, past tens, twenties, fives, through the fake leather, through his jeans to his skin. I have no idea where this is going. What the hell happens next? Does he cry? No. Yes.”

Write for ten minutes, twenty minutes, or more, at a time, write every day, and write for a week before reviewing your material.  Be ready. Keep a notebook with you at all times – jot down impressions of people, places, things, events  – observe and react to colors, sounds, smells – notice how people do a simple thing differently – how they fold newspapers, read labels in a supermarket, select shoes, stake out their space in an elevator, introduce themselves. Observe shop signs in a city block and write about what they reveal about the neighborhood.

Write lists: regrets, compromises, people you’ve lost, people or events that changed you, list objects in your favorite place, in your pocket – list all the objects you can remember having lost in your lifetime.

Create a story file – save articles, headlines, photos. Create a character file, descriptions, names, observations, bits of dialogue, unusual occupations

Read, read, read.  Write, write, write

Using any of the prompts in this entry, see what happens when you lock out your inner editor and start generating material.

Coming soon –  Stage Two: Creative Editing.

If you’d like to post what you write just click and post.


less than 100 words

Flash fiction is defined as a complete story told within a limited number of words.  It is characterized by its extreme brevity and economy. Though there is no universally accepted word limit, generally it is restricted to less than 2,000 words – some say between 250 and 1,000 words and some say no more than 75 to 100 words.

By contrast, “traditional” short stories range from 2,000 words to upwards of 20,000, and are mainly between 3,000 and 10,000 words long

Keeping to a length of 100 words or less, write about how your character felt when they discovered they were lied to.

Here is mine: 88 words

He’s a liar. She walks out into the frigid night, her shallow exhales making ice clouds in his driveway. She read somewhere that extreme cold causes shortness of breath.

If she goes back in she knows what happens next. “Only you,” he will say into her hair, breathing whiskey. 80 proof. “Don’t leave me.”

She gets into her car and turns the key. The world should be a different color, or reconfigure, or disintegrate.

“I’m never leaving you again,” she says, her words tangible and true. Winter’s gift.


Now it’s your turn.

Keep in mind that Flash fiction contains the classic story elements: protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications, and resolution. Unlike a traditional short story, the limited word length often forces some of these elements to remain unwritten, that is, hinted at or implied in the written storyline. Flash fiction is usually a story of a single act, sometimes the culmination of several unwritten events.

Start by giving yourself at least10 minutes to write freely – think about your character, and how they felt when they discovered they were lied to.  Don’t limit your thoughts or words, just keep writing – don’t let the editor in you prevent you from generating material.

Once you have completed your free-writing, you can begin to edit creatively – first, identify the story you want to tell and tell it in as many words as you feel you need. You may reorganize what you wrote, you may add or subtract words and phrases. Keep going until you feel you’ve told the story.

Next, do a word count and begin the process of eliminating unnecessary words – this is a wonderful way to discover what is absolutely necessary to say – and what can be left unsaid, but implied.  As you work to reduce the number of words you will find that you can become very creative about making every word count – you’ll discover how to make words and phrases carry more than one meaning. Before you know it you’ll be under 100 words.

Another option with flash fiction is to take something you have previously written and challenge yourself to reduce it to under 100 words.  You will be surprised at how much more powerful your writing can become as you teach yourself to make every word count. You may find that you like the short version better than the original.

When you have completed your Flash Fiction exercise feel free to post it in the space provided below.

dialogue: electrical connection

Using words or phrases from the Electrical Connection Instructions text below, create a scene between two characters.

Electrical Connection – The electrical installation should be made and maintained by a qualified electrician conforming to national and local codes. A means for disconnection must be incorporated in the fixed wiring in accordance with the wiring rules. A suitable fuse or circuit breaker with properly sized wire must protect the 3-wire power to the fountain. For wiring connections, see wiring diagram. Wire nuts may be used for the 120-volt and neutral splices.


As you write your scene, think of dialogue as a transaction – one character wants something that the other is withholding. People meet and clash or bargain or make or break alliances –tension between characters is reflected in what they say –or don’t say – to each other. Characters, like people, often convey one thing by saying something else. The subtext of dialogue will often derive from the character’s underlying need and true intentions.

Here’s mine:

Electrical Connection

“Otis, honey, I worry that Selma doesn’t have your best interests at heart.” Fiona Reese hovered over her son, holding an exacto knife, electrical tape and a National Electrical Code Manual at the ready. “Daddy and I just want you to have the best, and we don’t think she’s…” Fiona kept her voice light, “in our league.”

Otis had his back to her, squeezed into the space between the entertainment center and the wall. She couldn’t deny that he had put on a few pounds since his wrestling days and this disappointed her a little.  She strained to see over his shoulder, catching a glimpse of the exposed electrical wires spilling out of a hole in the faux mahogany paneling she had insisted on for the den. Her hands itched she wanted so badly to get in there and show him how to do this.

Keeping one beefy hand on the wiring, Otis handed the needle nose pliers over his shoulder. “You’ll like her once you get to know her.” He said.

Fiona gave him the exacto knife and tape before he had to ask – she felt a flush of pride, it was unlikely that Selma could anticipate his needs as well as she.

“How can we get to know her if she never comes to visit?” Fiona could count on one finger the number of times Selma had been to this house. “We just don’t think she likes us.”

“She loves you and Daddy. She told me.”

Well that was a bald-faced lie. Otis had gotten himself involved with yet another unfriendly, self-centered woman.

Even with the little weight problem Otis had because of his first wife, Fiona could still say that he was a catch. Fiona taught biology in elementary school and when she instructed her students about Mendel and his peas, she liked to think about how Otis, of all her children, had inherited the lion’s share of her genes.  She did wonder sometimes – if she had married someone more her equal – perhaps the other children might have turned out as smart and good looking as she and Otis were.

Her husband was a miserable failure when it came to home improvements, so she had assigned Otis the task of installing the fountain in their den as soon as he arrived for the holidays. Otis was so like her, he could do anything he set his mind to.  Just give him the tools and the time.

But still, it wouldn’t hurt to read him the instructions one more time. She looked at the instruction manual.  Skipping the part where it said The electrical installation should be made and maintained by a qualified electrician conforming to national and local codes. She read aloud: “A means for disconnection must be incorporated in the fixed wiring in accordance with the wiring rules. A suitable fuse or circuit breaker with properly sized wire must protect the 3-wire power to the fountain.” She stopped reading and lowered the manual, “Hun, I don’t think you’re doing it right.”


Now it’s your turn.

As you work on the dialogue ask yourself: What does each of the characters want? What is the source of the tension between them? What is the progression of the dialogue?  What transaction has taken place?

Dialogue should always move the story forward, and reveal something about the character’s attitudes, perceptions and values.  Every dialogue scene should involve some conflict, even if it is just passive resistance, back and forth, like a contest or competition.

Give yourself 10 minutes to write, once you start writing don’t stop until ten minutes is up. This prevents the editor in you from interrupting your creative flow.

When you have completed your Electrical Connection Dialogue feel free to post it in the space provided below.

Creative Writing Is Good for You – Try it!



Some of our most admired, successful authors have ‘written it wrong’, using bad grammar, run on sentences, subverted punctuation, no punctuation, and much more.  Taking risks and making mistakes is integral to creativity – so forget about the rules and write from the heart, as much and as often as you can. Creative writing is good for you. Try it.

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Please let me know your thoughts or questions by posting a comment or sending me an email  I look forward to hearing from you,  Ellen

Click here to learn more about the upcoming Creative Writing Seminar for Helping Professionals at the University of Iowa School of Social Work. Or click here to read about the Seminar in the Spring 2012 Issue of In Service.

Click here to view the recent New York Times article by Steve Almond on the rising popularity of writing workshops as “a mode of personal investigation”.