Please Prompt Me

I am tasked with coming up with some writing prompts. I’m promptly challenged.

This is a topic I’ve talked about before, but keep coming back to. A wonderful, artistic friend, Lisa, over at sent me writing prompts on a regular basis and I had fun with those. What I found, though, was that I picked the topics that interested me rather than ones that challenged me as a writer. I’d grab something fun, scribble a little, and feel like I met my obligation. I learned that those fun little interludes were great for warming up my brain so I could then dive into whatever my work in progress was. Rather like priming the pump.

I can also see lots of uses for them. To warm you up, as I mentioned above. To make you think about specific ways to write something you might normally struggle with, such as setting, description, dialog, etc. To force you to try a different style than what your normally do, such as present tense, first person, and so on. So I see them as beneficial even though, as I confessed above, I might not take advantage of these as I should.

One conference I attended gave us prompts with five minutes to write each one. For a half hour session she gave us four prompts, which meant she only had ten minutes that she had to actually speak to us. Supposedly the prompts were to encourage us to free-style write, to release the subconscious. Personally, my problem has always been more reining in that rampaging subconscious and imagination. For this upcoming event, I definitely do not want the audience looking at prompts as filler for speakers who have nothing to say.

A more relevant question for me at the moment though, is what should the prompt be? Reminds me of a creative writing course I took many, many years ago. The teacher told us to write about a peanut. I thought that was silly until I wrote and had fun. But really, trying to come up with an original prompt that will stimulate the imagination, not be something that’s been done thousands of times before, and that actually challenges a writer…well, I’m clueless.

Though I’m fascinated by asking writers to write a scene in a tense they normally don’t write in, because writing in present tense is so difficult for the majority of writers. I do believe, pondering prompts in this blog has given me at least one idea.

And I’d love your thoughts on prompts in general.

7 thoughts on “Please Prompt Me

  1. I do find that prompts are enjoyable and help me generate lots of little bits of writing, some of which I quite like, but I haven’t yet been able to use one for a bigger project. I don’t know if that’s prompts so much as my personal relationship to the idea of a prompt.

    As you know, I’m fond of the minimal prompts, the ones that are the writing equivalent of a teacher having you get up for a couple of minutes and stretch up, down, and all around before you hunch yourself back into your seat. Things like “eggs” or “list everyone you can remember from third grade.” They’re fun; they’re like airing out my brain.

    I don’t get as excited about the harder subjects, the ones I know will launch me into territory I normally tiptoe around, e.g., “mother” or “humiliation”. On the other hand, sometimes it’s good to start on one of those topics with something as innocuous as a prompt.

    When I started doing the emailed prompts (which, incidentally, I’ve considered restarting sometime this spring — I can feel myself needing the boost of fresh thinking) I had a good, prolific writer friend tell me she wasn’t going to sign up because she likes long prompts, the kind with instructions. I can benefit from those too, but they just don’t get me energized the same way. I wonder if that’s because I am not a particularly craft-focused writer.

    What are your prompts going to be for?


    • I like the image of airing out the brain with prompts. That’s a more interesting way of saying ‘priming the pump’. I think longer ones with instructions would kill the spontaneity and originality. As if everyone in the class would end up writing the same thing. I’ve been asked to sit on a panel by my friend Susan Schreyer, to fill in for a person who can’t be at an event. Sounds like it will be a group of writers, and we’ll be talking about the craft, having a question and answer deal, and writing exercises. I’ve been afraid to look at the curriculum too closely as I feel out of my league already. The panel though, is called ‘Women Who Kill’ (mystery writers of course).
      I think it would be great if you did another round of prompts this spring. Since I posted this blog I’ve been thinking I should try harder to pick the ones that intimidate me.


      • I think of it as taking the brain out of its head-box and kind of stretching it out, before remolding it into shape. I suppose as far as actual brains go that is a horribly grisly image!

        I am very big on spontaneity and originality, but a lot of writers seem to prioritize craft over these things, which always makes me feel terrible and inadequate and amateur when I talk to them. ;b (This is in line with the whole “throwing out the rules” thing we’re discussing at your other post!) Not that I think craft-focused writers have no spontaneity or originality, but I think if I tried to go that direction, I would lose a lot of mine. Or maybe I need to save craft for revision.


      • You took the words out of my mouth with your last line. When I am in edit mode, once the story is on the paper, that’s when I hunker down in craft mode. Creativity seems needed, for me at least, in the beginning, raw stages, and craft for the fine tuning.


      • I’ve sabotaged past fiction projects by editing too much as I go, so in the new one I just started, I’m trying to just get everything out first, and worry about fixing it up later. I find I’m enjoying it for just the reason you said — I’m being my first reader, and I like it!


  2. I’ve never written this way– directed by someone else’s prompt. I mean, I get ideas reading all the time, come across a trigger on the page that inspires, but I don’t think I’ve answered a prompt. I imagine there’s more room for surprising yourself, that it feels more like a conversation/an interview when you weren’t allowed to prepare your answers/a challenge. I want to try. What’s the prompt? Won’t you share here?


  3. The only time I’ve ever used writing prompts is during the MA when we would sometimes use them as warm ups.

    It’s interesting what voices and stories have come out of them, but I’ve never finished them off…….

    I think you can buy books of prompts and I think there are email prompt lists too.


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