On Writing Prompts

I’ve been wanting to write a post about writing prompts for awhile now.  Tonight while farting around on the internet, I found a contest based on a prompt (this is for women only, sorry guys).  You can find it here.

Truth is, its kind of dorky.  But then, prompts are kinda dorky, don’t you think?

Prompts are dorky because they too often reek of navel gazing, of the worst kind of journal writing.  Now, I write in my journal every morning, so I can be called an avid journaler.  But I am a practical journal writer–figuring out what I need to do for the day, resolving emotional issues.  And so I tend to get uncomfortable when I read books on journaling that get a little too precious about various journaling techniques.

So I guess its easy to see why I think prompts are dorky, because prompts and precious journaling go hand in hand.  And yet, I sometimes find prompts useful. 

I once belonged to a group of women writers who met every other week on Friday morning.  We took turns bringing prompts.  We’d sit around the table with a timer set for 20 minutes and write like mad.  I never did use any of those freewrites for stories, but there’s something glorious about spending a morning writing like a mad woman.

And prompts are really good for igniting mad writing.

Prompts are useful for your writing because they can lead you into the heart of your psyche, which is the heart of all story.  Let prompts teach you to put yourself on the page over and over again until a story emerges.  The more you use prompts to write and shape your life and your ideas into stories the more it will come automatically to you and you’ll no longer need the prompts.

Other ways prompts are useful:

  • When you are blocked.  Take a prompt, any prompt, and write for 20 minutes.  It helps.  Really it does.  (I know–when I’m blocked I tend to want to wallow in it–stare at the computer and be really, really depressed.  I usually am not in the mood to take a stupid, dorky prompt and write.  But it always helps when I finally make myself do it.)
  • When you need to find a way into your story.  Take a line from your story or novel.  Or write the character’s name and combine it with a verb.  For instance, When Emma Jean danced…., or Riley opened the door….or Trish started the car. 
  • As a regular warm-up writing practice, similar to a musician playing scales.

I’m going to attempt to save my prompt files in a manner which will not make Typepad angry at me and post them.

Writing Every Day

Last night Jonathan Lethem (see previous post for more on his lecture) talked about the one and only rule he follows for a writing schedule.  He does not write to a specific word or page count.  What he does do is write something every day, even if its only for 15 minutes. 

Lethem says that writing daily keeps his subconscious engaged and expresses his commitment. He says he’s a "tortoise" when it comes to writing, averaging about a page a day, and so its especially important for him to follow his rule.

I believe in doing this too.  Fervently.

There have been periods in my life when I have written 2000 words a day on my novel.  Notice I said, "there have been periods."  Because I’m certainly not in one now.

In truth, I’m probably writing at least 2000 words a day, sometimes much more.  But its not on my novel.  Its for SEO copy writing.

In my weekly writing group we talk about momentum, which is the same thing that Jonathan Lethem is talking about.  Its much harder to maintain momentum on a project when you’re only working on it once a week or so.

The funny thing is, I have a reputation for prodigious writing habits.  One night in my group everyone asked me to explain in detail how I get so much writing done on my novel.  I told them how I got up every morning at 6 and tried to get a couple hours in on the novel before breakfast. 

But now I’m not doing that.  I’ve had to change my schedule to accomodate the copy writing which is taking over my life. 

Part of being creative is being disciplined.  Doesn’t seem like it should be so, but it is.  And I am nothing if not disciplined. I actually work best when I’m chained to my desk, as I have been for the last couple of weeks.

Now if only I could figure out how to arrange it so all these writing hours were devoted to the novel.  Sell it and make money, I guess.

Writing While You Sleep

Nearly every writer I know (myself included) prefers the aftermath of writing—having written—to the actual act of writing itself.  And every writer I know would pay dearly to find a way to make the tyranny of facing the blank screen more bearable.  Well, there is a way, and it’s as simple as falling asleep.

Yes, falling asleep.  When someone is trying to make a decision, we tell them to “sleep on it” for a reason—because the subconscious works on ideas and orders them for you while you are asleep.  But not only can you help your brain to do this while slumbering, you can harness your subconscious during waking hours, too.

“Each of us possesses a brilliantly creative subconscious mind,” says screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb.  “Most of the time we don’t give it credit for its creativity.”

The trick is to feed your subconscious mind the direction it craves.  I learned this when I was faced with writing two big projects at once.  My natural inclination was to wring my hands and moan and groan about my inability to write two things at the same time.  While deeply absorbed in one project, nagging voices about the other one would pop up.  You should be working on the memoir, the voice would say.  How are you going to get it done on time when you are focusing on the novel? 

Out of desperation, I learned a way to subvert the negative voice.  My subconscious is working on it, I would reply.   While I initially started saying this only to shut up the cacophony of voices, to my surprise, my subconscious really did follow my direction, and when I switched to working on my novel, all sorts of ideas were at the ready. 

So I decided it would be to my benefit to learn how to coddle my “second brain.”  The most important thing is to get in the habit of telling your subconscious what you need.  Be specific.  For example, how can I show Carrie’s unhappiness with Bart in chapter eight? Every time you think about your project, repeat the problem:  I’m working on Carrie’s unhappiness.  Now you’ve imprinted your subconscious with your writing need.  How to encourage it to provide an answer?  There are several ways:

1.Sleep on it.  Write down your problem and review it before you climb into bed.  Or, read a few pages of your manuscript and tell your subconscious, Tomorrow I want to finish this scene.

2.Take power naps.  Follow the above procedure during the day, and give yourself ten or fifteen minutes to close your eyes and doze.  Often I lean my head back against my chair for a snooze and have to keep sitting up to write as the ideas flow.

3.Exercise.  Review your problem before taking a walk or starting your daily yoga session.  Sometimes just getting up from your computer and changing location is enough to jog the brain.

4.Engage in repetitive activity.  Sew, knit, weed, plant flowers, dust, vacuum.  Something about the repetition allows ideas to come up in the spaces between.

5.Drive.  Nothing like a mini-road trip (or even a long one) to free the brain.

6.Concentrate on something else.  How many times have you sat down to pay bills only to have the best idea for your screenplay yet?  (Which means, of course, you get to delay paying the bills for a while while you run to your computer.)

With all of these activities it is vital for you to carry pen and paper with you.  No, you won’t remember the idea you had while rounding the curve on the tenth lap of the track.  You’ll forget the brilliant snippet of dialogue you invented while gardening if you don’t write it down.  Carrying pen and paper is a signal you’re ready.  When you start stoking the subconscious it will respond, and if you are not ready and receptive, believe me, it will shut back down.  Like a muscle, the more you use your subconscious, the stronger it gets.

Finally, returning to the topic of sleep, let us not forget about dreams, which are a powerful source of story ideas, symbolism and imagery.   The best way to remember dreams echoes the technique for stoking your subconscious—get in the habit of writing them down as soon as you awake.  Since you are carrying paper and pen with you everywhere, this won’t be a problem, right?

Respect and revere your “second brain” with these simple steps and you’ll be amazed at how hard it will work for you.  Before you know it, you’ll even be writing in your sleep.

Handling Rejection

Every writer gets used to dealing with rejection.  It gradually gets easier.  Sort of. Okay, I’m lying.  Here’s a handy dandy guide on handling that I’ve put together:

1.  First, you cry.  As the first tear leaks from your eye to roll down your cheek, you feel like a wimp.  And writers are not wimps.  So you wipe away the tears and tell yourself to buck up.

2.  Next you curse the stupidity of all editors, agents and anyone in the publishing world in general and the specific person who just rejected you, specifically.  Anger is much better than wimphood, you realize.

3.  Then you decide because everyone in the publishing world is blind to your brilliance and stupid not to publish your story (or essay, or poem, or novel) that you will show them.  You return to your computer to write more lucid, muscular prose.

4.  You sit at the computer and stare off into space.  Every time your fingers hit the keyboard, you hear that nagging voice that insists you’re the one with the problem, not them.  Your work isn’t brilliant, it’s awful.  You’re an idiot for thinking you could write. 

5.  A cup of coffee sounds good.  Maybe caffeine will silence the voices.  But then you realize if you go to the local coffee shop, you’ll have to face people.  And one of those people might ask you how your writing is going.  And even though you technically aren’t required to blurt out the details of your latest rejection, you’ll feel like a liar if you simply smile and nod and say that everything is going well.  Everyone knows you’re not supposed to lie.  That goes double for writers.

6.  You settle for a cup of coffee from your home pot, ducking your head so as not to have to meet the eyes of your spouse.  You don’t want to have to tell her/him the details of your failure, either.

7.  Skulk back to the computer.  Skulk is such a good writerly word that thinking of it cheers you.  It proves you are a writer.  Yes, you are.  You’re a writer, you’re a writer, you’re a writer.  Saying it makes it so.

8.  But writing is what really makes you a writer.  And the words still won’t come.

9. You sit at the computer, hands idle, eyes locked on some far distant point outside your window, until you feel the tears come.  And then you let it all out.  You cry, you scream, you holler, you pace, you yell, you wallow in your misery.  After a good long bout of this behavior, which you are so wrapped up in you don’t even care if its wimpy, you dry your tears and take a deep breath.

10.  And you begin again to write.  You realize that the only way out is through.