April 2020 archive

Writing Prompts at Home: For Writers in Quarantine

When you’re stuck at home, the right writing prompt can transport you.

I’m really lucky! Many of my closest friends are writers. This means that sometimes, when I’m stuck (thanks COVID) and looking for writing prompts at home, a pal will step in and show me another way. That’s the case this week. Usually, I’m quite fond of creating writing prompts. In fact, I consider myself pretty darned good at cooking up dynamic, engaging exercises that take writers (me included) into new territory.

This week, though? I’m freakin’ dry. And just when I want to offer you guys something fresh to while away the l-o-n-g, isolated hours—or, even better, give you a head’s start on a new writing project. Which brings us to my gratitude for writer friends in general—and Teri AnpoWi Saveliff in particular.

When I was sighing to Teri about my dearth of creative spark, she offered up her services. “I’ve been challenging myself with a bunch of different writing prompts,” she told me. “I’d be happy to share a few with your readers!” Now, that is team spirit, people! Team SPIRIT!

So, without further ado, I offer you …

Teri’s quarantine-easing writing prompts at home

I suspect I’m not the only writer who, now involuntarily hunkered down in place with hours of unforeseen free time, has not been able to pick up the pen and finally finish that long-neglected novel. In fact, I have become far less productive than usual. One time-honored solution is to take on a smaller, less daunting project with an eye to shaking out your hands and getting the juices flowing again.

Without the outside world to inspire me, I have tried to look at the objects in my home with new eyes. I shared my approach with Jamie, whose enthusiasm made me think these prompts might catch your fancy, as well. Try these writing prompts at home:

1) The Previously Undetected Voice in the Room

I have several beautiful statues of goddesses adorning my altar. Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity and good fortune, has, depending upon her manifestation, two, four, or eight arms. She usually holds lotus flowers and fruit in some of her hands; others are open, offering blessings.

What if she were to choose to come alive, right now? What would she say? What questions would she ask? What might she cause to happen in my house? Or would she ignore me altogether, cavorting with my figurine of the Vetruvian man?

Perhaps you have no three-dimensional art in your home to galvanize your imagination. But perhaps you do have a watercolor of an aging barn. What if the barn could speak? What if it had witnessed a crime, or two young lovers’ first kiss? What if it wanted to divulge its history before gravity triumphs over its rotting wood and rusting nails?

Pick any piece of art in your house and give it a voice. Let it tell you what it’s seen, what it imagines, what it longs for. If possible, give it a happy ending.

2) A Pen with a Story

Find the oldest pen among your writing implements, one you didn’t acquire new. More likely than not, it’s a nondescript ballpoint, perhaps pocketed by mistake when you signed a credit slip at that antique store you visited six years ago. This pen had a history before it came into your possession. Who owned it? What does the pen know of this person? Did they use the pen to write frivolous checks? Compose love sonnets? Craft a Dear John letter? Let the pen tell you as it slips across the page.

3) Living Upside Down

Many tarot readers say they feel we are living in Hanged Man times. No, not strangling in a noose—suspended upside down. It is a time for waiting, reflection, and looking at things from a different perspective.writing prompts for people stuck at home

When I was a child, oh, how we reveled in our days of idleness! I would lie on the carpet, looking up at the ceiling, and imagine that it was the floor. I pictured myself stepping over raised thresholds that separated room from room. I saw a space where light fixtures were planted into the floor, illuminating the rooms with a far different quality. I wondered how it would feel to walk across floors of popcorn (thank goodness popcorn ceilings are no longer in vogue!).

What does your space look like upside down. How would you move through it? What looks different? What is still familiar? Does gazing at it up-ended give you vertigo? Does your view suggest white rabbits with pocket watches ready to dive into Wonderland? What adventure beckons you into your inverted world?

Have fun with these writing prompts at home and stay safe.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thanks so much to Teri AnpoWi Saveliff for sharing her inspiring prompts with us. If you like these, you might enjoy her ideas about using tarot to help you plot your novel and develop your characters. She’s also the author of the charming novel SIGNATURES. 

Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of The Hanged Man from the EVERYDAY WITCH TAROT.

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10 Writing Coaching Tips for Teens

Do you want to encourage a young writer? Here are 10 writing coaching tips for teen and preteen writers.

A young person you know may have a clever way with words or be an off-again/on-again journal keeper. They may write song lyrics or poetry or put on shows with their friends. Kids that gravitate to these kinds of activities might bloom into full-fledged writers with some support. You might test the waters by sharing these writing coaching tips for teens.

Of course, young folks might just noodle with writing—among many other creative activities—for a year or two and then move on. No matter. Any time spent developing the art of putting words on the page is likely to benefit them throughout their academic and professional careers!

Here’s a backpack-full of great writing coaching tips for teens and preteen—and some resources to get them started:

1) Comic books count! Do you know there’s a huge comic-book culture out there? writing coaching tips for teensI bet your teen writer does! Whether a younger writer wants to team up with an artist pal or pen both drawings and text themselves, comic books could be a great way for them to tell stories. Check out Little Scribe’s article “Comic Books: A Powerful Study Tool for Teens.” 

If your teen is more ambitious, they might want to dive into writing a graphic novel. Like comic books, graphic novels rely on images to tell half the story. However, graphic novels typically tell longer, more fully developed narratives than comic books. Penguin Books has a helpful graphic-novel guide titled You Can Do a Graphic Novel.”

2) Writing fan fiction can help a young writer get their novel-writing feet wet! Fan fiction writers enter already-created fictional worlds—that of Harry Potter and crew, for example—and write their own stories based on the characters and settings in those worlds, then share their work online, building community with other fan-fic writers.

A surprising number of professional novelists got their start as fan-fic writers. Read more about this phenom in THE NEW YORKER article “The Promise and Potential of Fan Fiction.”  HuffPost article “Fanfiction: A Guide for Parents” offers a different perspective on this teen-centric writing form.

3) Virtual or actual diary- or journal-keeping gives a kid a place to dream on the page, to hear themselves think in that slightly different way that writing just for oneself produces. And the self-trust journaling builds will serve as a foundation for all their other writing opportunities, as well.

You might want to gift a teen with a physical diary or a beautifully bound journal. Or you could recommend they try an online journal platform. Penzu is just one example. On their site, they say, Whether you’re looking for a tool to record your daily emotions and activities in a reflective journal, keep track of milestones in a food diary, or even record your dreams in a dream journal, Penzu has you covered.

4) Many magazines invite young writers to submit their work. STONE SOUP is a literary magazine and website written and illustrated by kids through age thirteen. EMBER is a journal whose submission guidelines are open to authors and poets age ten and up. Print magazine TEEN INK says, Whether you’re interested in poetry, sports, movie reviews, or fiction, send us your work and let your voice be heard! And then there’s ONE TEEN STORY, an award-winning quarterly literary magazine that features the work of today’s best teen writers.

5) Did you know that NaNoWriMo has a young writers’ program? Yup! Through that program, National Novel Writing Month offers younger folks the chance to dig deep and produce a full draft of a new novel in a single month! As they say, Our Young Writers Program (YWP) supports under-eighteen writers and K-12 educators as they participate in our flagship event each November, and take part in smaller writing challenges year-round.

YWP invites participants to set their word-count goal and draft their novel right on the site. The program also offers support from published authors. Sound good? You might want to buddy up with a teen writer this November. You can root for one another as you complete your daily word counts and push toward THE END!

6) Websites for kid writers abound with inspiration and creative fuel! For instance,  UNDERLINED  presents writing prompts, authorial advice, and literary community—all geared toward the young writer. Wattpad goes a step further. Here, according to BRIGHTLY, teens can find and follow favorite authors and release their own works as serial novels. This platform also helps young writers find an audience among its 25 million+ members! 

BRIGHTLY also recommends Tumblr, pointing out that this blogging platform … doubles as a go-to for young literary enthusiasts, bookworms, and those in need of some writing motivation. Some to check out: The Writer’s Helpers (for advice on everything from grammar to plot); Writing Prompts; and John Green’s Tumblr (the Tumblr account of YA author John Green, which is just fun and inspiring).

7) It’s exciting to discover books that inspire young writers. I’ve listed three.

WRITE YOURSELF A LANTERN: Featuring lines from Elizabeth Acevedo’s THE POET X among its pages, this full-color, beautifully designed journal is perfect for readers, long-time writers, those trying their hand at poetry, or anyone with a voice all their own.

JUST WRITE: Here’s How!, by Walter Dean Myers, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, includes an afterword by Ross Workman, Walter’s teen coauthor of KICK, and covers Walter’s six-box and four-box outlines; excerpted pages from his own notebooks; and writing tips from both Walter and Ross.

THE FRUIT BOWL PROJECT, by Sarah Durkee, describes a fictional, yet still inspiring situation: The kids in 8th Grade Writer’s Workshop are awestruck when rock superstar Nick Thompson comes to talk about writing. Nick, known for his lyrics, tells the kids his secret: A song is just a bowl of fruit—one must figure out how to paint it. Nick gives the kids two weeks to tell an interesting story, reflecting his or her style. And so the Fruit Bowl Project begins. Rap, poetry, monologue, screenplay, haiku, fairy tale—and more.

8) Some YouTube videos offer advice-filled snippets specifically for young writers. 

11 Writers: Advice for Young Writers (features Patti Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and Umberto Eco!)

Shaelin Writes: Advice for Teen Writers: What I Wish I’d Known

Margaret Atwood’s Top 5 Writing Tips: In this National Centre for Writing video, Atwood is interviewed by two teen writers.

How to Become an Author and a Good Writer, by J.K. Rowling.

16 Tips for Young Writers, by Hannah Lee Kidder, Writer and Other Stuff

9) Programs for kid writers offer community and support. From summer writing camps to online workshops, there are many options to help a young writer take their craft to the next level. A few of these include Writopia Labs: based in NYC, a team of published authors, produced playwrights, and passionate administrators champion Writopia’s unique approach to creative youth development. Education Unlimited’s Writing Summer Camps for High School Students offers the Emerging Writers Institute, a two-week creative writing camp program to develop students’ imaginative writing across genres. Brave Writer emphasizes the support a home-schooling parent can give a young writer—but many tips and resources are applicable to any young person trying to move their writing skills ahead. 

10) I’ll end with a single entry from writing guru Jane Friedman, publisher of THE HOT SHEET, a newsletter on the publishing industry, columnist for PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, professor with The Great Courses (which released her 24-lecture series, HOW TO PUBLISH YOUR BOOK), and author of THE BUSINESS OF BEING A WRITER.

If you are looking for more writing coaching tips for teens, Jane knows her stuff. Here’s a little bit of it for kid writers: Writing Advice for Children and Teens, in which she offers pithy advice and invites writers John Green, Ira Glass, and Ta-Nehisi Coates to weight in, too. Together, these fine writers share some simple but deep truths—exactly the sort of truths we need to guide us as writers, whether we’re young … or not so young anymore.

Writing coach

Looking for additional writing coaching tips for teens or need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Photo by Brecht Bug, used via Creative Commons license.

Plotting a Novel: 3 Tips (with Tarot!)

Tips for Plotting a Novel

TERI ANPOWI SAVELIFF AND I WERE TAROT FRIENDS before we were writer friends. Many’s the evening we’ve spent on the phone throwing cards for one another or sharing images from our newest decks. Then I read her charming NaNoWriMo-inspired novel, SIGNATURES, and was delighted to learn we had a whole other dimension of commonality to explore—including plotting a novel!

In this post, Teri draws from our shared worlds, offering three ways to use tarot—a system of evocative visual images—to develop your novel. Here are her tips for plotting a novel.

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Before I published my first novel, SIGNATURES, the main characters and the bookshop where they worked had been inhabiting my head for decades. But characters, and even settings, have lives of their own, and they may insist on telling their story in ways you might not anticipate. As an avid student of tarot, I knew the cards would play a role in my novel. And I was right. Once tough-talking, tattooed Paloma—complete with her tarot deck—strolled into the bookshop and insisted on joining my cast of characters, she and her cards played a very large part in my novel, indeed.

In the past, I’ve often used the images, symbolism, and divinatory meanings of tarot cards to illustrate a point or move a plot along. In SIGNATURES, however, I didn’t merely toss the appropriate card into the story at the right time—I conducted actual readings for my characters. If you have some experience with tarot, I highly recommend this strategy when you need additional backstory for a character, want to test a character’s mettle, or want to explore secondary themes in your novel.

You don’t need to be a tarot expert to find the cards useful, however! Here are three different ways you can use a deck of tarot cards to explore your novel.

Tip #1 for Plotting a Novel

Know a smidge about tarot? Conduct a tarot reading as part of a scene.

One late addition to my cast of characters was Hanz Lippman, an author clinging to past achievements. He enjoyed holding court in the bookshop and flirting with coeds studying his book in their literature classes. I didn’t anticipate developing his character, further, though, until Paloma conducted a reading for him:

“Don’t draw more than one card,” commanded Hanz. “I don’t think I could stand any more than that.”

Paloma made a face and drew a solitary card. It depicted a young man, a small dog nipping at his heels. The man was perilously close to the edge of a cliff, but seemed unconcerned.plotting a novel with tarot

“The Fool,” said Paloma. “You seem to be at the beginning of a journey or undertaking.”

“Ha!” crowed Hanz. “I knew these cards were nonsensical bullshit. Tell me, dear, what sort of journey am I beginning? What project am I undertaking?”

“Well, this is usually why my client and I work together,” Paloma answered irritably. “I’ve told you, I’m not a fortuneteller. I would also draw a few more cards to answer the question. One card doesn’t always say enough.”

“My sweet little dove,” Hanz said with a smile, “I am far too old to be a fool, at the beginning of a journey or otherwise. You should have drawn an old man … a man without even a dog to accompany him on his travels.”

“The Fool can also represent someone at the beginning of a spiritual journey … or an emotional journey,” Paloma added.

“None of this resonates at all,” Hanz insisted stubbornly. He turned the card face down and slid it back toward Paloma.

“Of course, you could also be getting ready to walk right off the cliff,” Paloma retorted. “Not looking where you’re going, too confident in yourself. The good news is, the fall won’t be fatal.”

“Good news for whom?” teased Hanz. “I have a feeling you wouldn’t mind if I broke a bone or two.”

Paloma smiled noncommittally and gathered the cards into a single stack.

This reading added some depth to Hanz’s character and inspired me to create for him a much bigger role in my novel.

Tip #2 for Plotting a Novel

Not a tarot reader? Just one image can add intrigue or foreshadowing

Even a single card can add dimension or reinforce a theme in your story. The card may appear very straightforward, such as the card of Justice, usually depicting a blindfolded woman with a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other, or The Tower, often shown with lightning striking its peak and people falling from its windows.

plotting a novel with tarotIn the case of this little scene, Maggie, the main character in SIGNATURES, draws her own card out of curiosity, and that card adds a bit of foreshadowing.

[Maggie] spied Paloma’s tarot deck sitting on the low round table not far from the window. On an impulse, she shuffled the cards and then drew one from the deck. She had to laugh. “The Lovers,” she smirked.

It so happens that Maggie pulled this card just before she goes on a date!

Tip #3 for Plotting a Novel

Don’t know the first thing about tarot cards? Tarot is character-centric! Let the figure on a card suggest an attitude or trait for one of your less-developed characters. (P.S. The internet abounds with pictures of tarot archetypes. Just Google “tarot cards” for a free treasure trove of inspiring images!)

You don’t need any experience with the cards to put them to work as a literary aid! Since tarot’s visual language can be said to be universal, even the most random tarot draw can plotting a novel with tarotspark fresh ideas. For instance, If you are looking to add a character to your story, or describe a character you haven’t fleshed out, you could draw a card to give your character a face.

One of my favorite decks, the GAIAN TAROT, depicts people from numerous ethnic backgrounds and cultures. When I was looking for a bit more information about the character of Paloma after she barged unexpectedly into my book, the GAIAN Seven of Fire suggested her multiple tattoos and air of independence.

Whether you utilize a few captivating illustrations on the internet, purchase an intriguing deck of your own, or become a full-blown tarot enthusiast like me, tarot can enrich and add dimension to your writing endeavors. Above all, have fun exploring a new tool!

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If you want to try this tip for plotting a novel there are literally thousands of tarot decks to choose from. You might visit Amazon and search “tarot decks,” to get you started. However, the AECLECTIC TAROT site might be a better place to start. AECLECTIC offers decks categorized by art style, as well as sample images of all decks and even reviews of many decks.

Corinne Kenner’s TAROT FOR WRITERS offers many approaches to applying tarot imagery and meaning to enhance your creative writing project.

You’ll also find dozens of tarot-based writing prompts on this website. Just search “tarot,” using the magnifying-glass icon you’ll find in the top right hand corner of every page.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? Wondering “why hire a writing coach“? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of The Fool, from the RIDER-WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.

Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of The Lovers from the LLEWELLYN TAROT.

Thank you to Joanna Powell Colbert for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Fire, from her GAIAN TAROT). 

And special thanks to Teri AnpoWi Saveliff for her generous sharing of a few of her tarot-centric novel-writing tips and tricks!

Ethical Will: What Really Matters?

What is an ethical will?

The other day, my new writer friend Rabbi Rami asked me if I knew what an “ethical will” was. “Nope,” I said, “not a clue!”

Turns out, an ethical will, also called a “legacy letter,” is quite different from the legal document we imagine when we think of a last will and testament. While what’s called a “simple will” indicates our wishes for the distribution of our possessions after death, an ethical will gives us an opportunity to pass on to future generations what we’ve learned through our experiences—our most profound lessons, values, and perspectives.

writing an ethical willIn addition, according to Next Avenue’s Deborah Quilter, ethical wills quite often include blessings for those who outlive us (particularly our children), our “hopes for the future, apologies to those [we] fear [we] have hurt, or gratitude to those [we] think [we] have not thanked enough.”

In a way, you might see an ethical will as a mini-memoir—one that gets right to the point: I did this; I learned this; I want to share this. And like any other memoir, there’s no need to wait until we are at the end of our lives to write it. In fact, in his article “Why Write an Ethical Will?” Dr. Andrew Weil says, the “main importance [of an ethical will] is what it gives the writer in the midst of life.”


We’re living in troubling times. Taking a few hours to create such a deep life inventory could help us remember what’s most important to us. We might focus our ethical-will writing on recognizing the positive impact we’ve had on others, or on the gifts that have been given to us by others. We can name for ourselves our true values: what’s most important to us; the influence we would like to have; the legacy we would like to leave.

On the other hand, this might be a months- or years-long process, a document we begin now and add to as our lives and understanding unfold—continuing to write “… in times of reflection,” as mentioned on Everplans, “whether in moments of happiness or hardship.”

10 questions to help you write your ethical will

1) List ten turning points in your life. What decisions did you make at those crossroads that impacted your future?

2) List the three most difficult challenges you’ve faced. What did you learn from each?

3) What sacrifices have you made? Were these for others? Or have you also sacrificed pleasures of the moment for longer term goals?

4) What had you hoped to have accomplished by this point? What have you actually accomplished? Which accomplishment gives you most satisfaction?

5) Which five people have had the most significant influence on you?

6) If you had the opportunity to give three pieces of advice to the world at large, what would they be?

7) What roles have you played in your family? At work? In your community?

8) What do you love to do most? List up to 100 items.

9) Have you had what you’d consider spiritual experiences? If so, write about one or more of them. If not, how have you been guided so far in your life?

10) What would you want to see as your legacy?


No matter how young we are, we have learned something from the time we’ve lived. Rather than embarking on your ethical will alone, you might create a family event—just you and your children gathered at a table responding to questions like the ones above, or several generations sharing the experience via video call.

You might all agree to respond to a single question, then write together for perhaps ten minutes, before sharing what you’ve written. If time permits, repeat the process. This could become a family tradition—a weekly or monthly opportunity to dig into deep topics and learn what your loved ones think about the things that matter most.


Some folks have published their ethical wills. Here are a few examples:

THE MEASURE OF OUR SUCCESS: A Letter to My Children and Yours, by Marian Wright Edelman

EVERYTHING I KNOW: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother, by Sharon Strassfeld

Barack Obama’s legacy letter to his daughters, written on the eve of his 2009 inauguration.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Image: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

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