Writing Prompts: How Do They Work?

oneeyedshitmonkeythumbLike before an athlete runs or throws something (or whatever they do), a writer also has to warm up before he (or she…) gets into the literary heavy lifting. Be it a novel, a short story, or a heartfelt, inflammatory blog post; it’s never wise just to jump right into your project cold. This can lead to burnouts, constant rewrites, or even just cold, dead failures that are more plastic than the keys you’re hammering against. So a lot of writers, so i’m told, use writing prompts to get their creative juices flowing much to the same affect that a weight trainer or sprinter will stretch or go for a light jog to loosen up their muscles and get their heart rate up in preparation for the task at hand.

If you don’t know what a writing prompt is, allow me to explain:
A writing prompt is usually a sentence or two depicting an idea for a writer to develop and explore as a one time warm up; most of these just end up as throwaways and have nothing to do with the project that the writer is warming up for, and they can be as mundane or extravagantly ridiculous as imaginatively possible. When the writer is good and warmed up, the prompt is thrown away, or stored somewhere for later exploration, and the writer then gets into the project they originally intended on working on.

A Writing Prompt example
(Taken/stolen/paraphrasing/borrowed… Whatever, from Writing Excuses)
Take a monster from popular culture and write it with all it’s weakness, but negate all it’s strengths.”

You can easily see how a prompt like the one above can instantly get your mind working. First, you get to pick any monster, from the Cyclops to Krampus, then you have to completely strip them of all their strengths and find a way to focus only on its weaknesses. It’s challenging, it can be fun, and by the time you’re finished your brain is all limbered up and your creative juices are flowing. Even if you end up writing something absolutely terrible, by the time you’ve finished you’re focused on writing, and that’s the point of a writing prompt. And hey, if you want to write but don’t have any set idea of what you want to write, it’s easy to turn these prompts into short stories, novellas, or even full blown novels.

Writing Excuses: what happens when a woman, a Mormon, a writer, and a shitty webcomic artist get together and act really white.

What happens when a woman, a Mormon, a writer, and a shitty webcomic artist get together and talk about writing.

I first used a writing prompt when i discovered the Writing Excuses podcast (mainly out of my ill-guided adoration for Brandon Sanderson and his novel Elantris, more on that another time). I can’t remember which writing prompt i used, but i found it to be quite helpful at the time. Looking back, at the time i probably didn’t need the writing prompt, seeing as i was already stuck in full-blown “writer mode” and was steadily cranking out 3,000+ words a day. But, just like stretching, there really isn’t harm in doing it even if you don’t think you need it. Writing Prompts are wholly beneficial for new writers, old writers, stuck writers, or writers who just want to explore outside their genre; and i would recommend them to any and everyone who has a desire to write; but (i sure do like using BUT) i have found that there are some downfalls to them.

For starters, writing prompts can be tedious. If you look at it with video game logic, they’re kind of like a tutorial stage. If you haven’t played the game before you won’t be too annoyed to press A to jump over some blocks or toggle the right trigger to throw a plasma grenade. If you play the game a second or a third time and you’re all geared up and ready to just dig right into the meat of it, especially if you only have an hour or two to do so, it can feel like you’re wasting time. Another downfall comes from genre bending. Let’s say you’re trying to write a modern day fiction involving the secret ins-and-outs of a drug addicted barista hipster. The premise is realistic, the conflicts are entirely tangible and relate-able; so it isn’t going to help much if your writing prompt asks for you to come up with the daily habits of goblins who inhabit the surface of some living Sun god. By the time your creative juices are flowing, your mind is stuck in a completely alien realm far from the premise of your gritty novel.

While these are pitfalls of writing prompts i have heard from some of my peers, there is only one that seems to effect me on a drastic level, and which is why i don’t use writing prompts. Unfortunately, i have a chronic case of the Ridlies, and it is nearly impossible for me to leave even the simplest idea alone once i get started on it. For instance, taking the Writing Prompt i had given above, I wouldn’t want to stop writing on that subject of a mythological creatures weakness. I would delve into the monster’s psyche, unearth their inner turmoil and develop a plot where their weakness is exploited and explained in a cohesive narrative. I would forget about the project i was warming up for and focus strictly on this new idea until i was slumped over my writing desk, staring at an unfinished 10,000 word manuscript wondering where it all went wrong. So you can see, writing prompts can be a double edge sword here and there (which, can be said the same for anything, really).

As a writer, i don’t really subscribe to the use of writing prompts. Again, i am not saying they are a bad idea, and i do see their definite benefits; but they are not something i need. When i am truly focused on a project i generally have enough bits and pieces of history or backstory, additional characters or places that are almost inconsequential to the actual story that i can explore while i warm up. Then, seeing as i have such a hard time killing my babies, i can work on them later and use them as more meat to pack the bones of my overall narrative.

What then do i use when i can’t jump right into writing my story? Amazon.
Confused? Don’t worry, i’ll answer that tomorrow!

Also, if you are wondering what i meant by saying “I have a chronic case of the Ridlies,” I’ll answer that later as well (probably not tomorrow, because i’ll most likely forget… I dunno, ask me on twitter)

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