Using Prompts

Usually prompts are used to generate a new piece of writing — often through a timed, free-writing exercise. For example, you set a timer for ten minutes and write whatever pops into your head using the prompt. Fiction, real-life memory, poem, country music lyrics, recipe… whatever rings your bell.

In the writing group, we have a lot of laughs — and our share of serious moments — when we go around the circle and read what we wrote (anyone can opt out of reading if they wish, and the two rules of the group are that we’re always positive and whatever is said or read in the group stays in the group).

On your own, you can just keep a writing journal of what you’ve generated, going back through it for odd character descriptions, to remember things for a memoir, whatever you want.

Business People 96

Using Prompts When Your Current Work Needs Help

You can also use a writing prompt when you’re stuck in something you’re working on. Let’s say you’re writing a novel and you need a new secondary character and a bit of side-bar action to keep your readers a bit distracted while you drop them a clue in your murder mystery… but you’re stumped about what to do.

Pick a prompt that includes the elements you need — character profile, setting, conflict, etc. — then set your timer, write freely (forgetting about your current longer work for the moment), and see what happens. You might not find a magical answer, but give it a bit of time, try again with another prompt later, and see what possibilities you might open up.

Here’s One to Get You Started!

  1. Write the name of each of your characters on a separate index card (to save paper, you can use 1/2 or 1/4 of an index card… you won’t need much writing space on them).
  2. On another batch of index cards, write nouns at random, one noun per card (orange, submarine, kitten, elm, Paris, sofa, hamburger… you get the picture). Write as many as you can think of. Don’t edit your ideas. If you’re having trouble, get someone to start naming things for you.
  3. On yet more index cards, write every color you can think of, one on each card.
  4. Finally, write “memory,” “dream,” “wish,” “fear,” “discovery,” “denial” on each of six more cards (once you see where this is going, you’ll probably want to add your own).
  5. Shuffle each batch of cards.
  6. Select one card from each batch. Select another card from the noun stack.
  7. Write the scene: this character is experiencing this memory or discovery or fear or wish (whatever that card was) — and it includes the color you selected and the two nouns.

Keep writing. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t tell yourself what you’re doing will have no place in your book (how could you know that now?).

Maybe you won’t use what you just wrote, but maybe it will get your mind working anyway, even if it’s on another track completely. But, then, that’s what a prompt is all about isn’t it?

A Fortune in Writing Prompts

Fortune cookies, that is! Let me back up and start at the beginning. I recently started leading a weekly writing group after its founder passed away. She’d established a great group that meets weekly for two hours, doing ten minute free-writing activities. I was honored when asked to continue the group. I’d been taking different ideas for writing prompts to the group for awhile, and had been looking forward to sharing with Alice the ideas I’d come up with while away. Though I won’t get a chance to do that, I can bring those activities to the group anyway, knowing her spirit is cheering us all on.

One idea was to use those fortunes we get from cookies at Chinese restaurants:

I started collecting the fortunes and eventually had a dozen or so that I took to the group. I handed them out randomly, just as you’d get a random fortune in a restaurant. “Write something about this fortune,” I said, and set the timer for the usual 10 minutes.

Wow! What fun! Some wrote about a character getting that fortune and how it fit (or didn’t) into that character’s life. Others wrote about the fortune itself. Another wrote about the fractured English translation that rendered the fortune nearly unreadable. Still another chose to write about the lucky numbers on the back.

The only thing I’ll do differently next time I do this activity is take the cookies 🙂

Try this — and let us know how it goes.

Finding Time to Write

“I can’t wait until I’m done with high school so I can spend more time writing,” confessed several of the young writers I worked with some years ago in Ohio. They had been selected to participate in a week-long writing intensive at a state university. They were creative, avid writing nerds thrilled to have time with peers and adults alike who actually appreciated and encouraged their desire to write.

Every time I heard this, I immediately wondered whether I should break their bubble with the truth: they will never have time to write. That they probably have more control over their time to write in high school than just about any other time in their lives. That they will go on to college, where they’ll probably fill any non-academic time with work to pay tuition and much-needed social time. After that, more school or a job… or two jobs… juggling doing what it takes to pay the bills with staying connected with family and friends.

If they marry, they’ll have even more demands on their time… and having kids?!? Well… climbing Mount Everest might seem easier than finding time to write. (See Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s book “The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing,” being released soon, for help on this front.)

Me? Thanks to my beloved husband, I was able to quit my job well before retirement age. We’re on the road as full-time RVers — living and traveling in our RV. As we planned what we’d pack and our first trip on the open highway, we looked forward to a future of fishing for him and writing for me.

What could keep us from that?!?

Well, life gets in the way. We might be on the road, but we still have to get the oil changed, make meals, do laundry, buy groceries. And since we’re in different cities and states all the time, that means it can take longer to run simple errands because we’re constantly figuring out which stores carry the brands we like.

Not that I’m complaining! Here’s my point: you’ll never be handed time to write. You will always have to carve out that sliver of the morning, afternoon or night to get that short story finished, that poem poured over, that novel nudged into the next chapter.

Even professional, bestselling authors have to block out time to focus on their work. They have all the business of writing they have to juggle.

So don’t keep waiting for the time to suddenly be right. It won’t be.

Sharpen your knife and carve out that slice of your day for you and your work. Hang a note on the doorknob or around your neck that says, “Please don’t disturb. Writer At Work.”

Otherwise you’ll never get to that short story. The novel will never get started. The poem will never find its internal song. You will never be the writer your dream of being if you don’t write.

It’s up to you.


What better way to start a brand new blog that suggest a unique way to get that creative writing motor primed? To start it up with a blustery howl?

“Pecha Kucha,” a phenomenon that swept the professional world a few years ago, shook up otherwise boring PowerPoint presentations by demanding the presenter use just 20 slides and spend just 20 seconds on each slide.

Now we have “PechaFlickr” — a wild and fun combination of the “Pecha Kucha” requirements of 20 slides/20 seconds each with a randomly-selected set of 20 images from Flickr.

Oh… how cool is that?!?

Of course I couldn’t resist trying, and typed in the word “fluffy” to start with. I’m not keen on “fluffy” as a word, to be honest, but it was a recent word from a group writing activity I participated in a few weeks ago and thought it would be a great comparative exercise. I didn’t get 20 slides, and of course you can imagine the types of images that generally came up, but still… for a quick-start writing activity, it was one of the best I’ve experienced.

Here’s the piece of “fluffy” writing I came up with (with just a few edits to translate my shorthand into something readable):

Mountains of white snow, maybe a foot and a half, on a picnic table… the blue puffy clouds overhead threatening to smile away that snow…. Inside, a brown-faced cat peers out the window, maybe imagining cold. A leopard hugs itself in the zoo downtown, its blue eyes unyielding. On the farm a black rooster stares you down while the snow starts to fall, gently, again. The white cat inside, perched on its paisly tablecloth ignores plea for it to get down from the table, trying to keep it away from those brownies, their green speckled candy or something green you don’t want to think about. Feeling ignored, the white cat jumps into your arms, while a third cat, fat, proud of it with its “I’m not fat I’m husky name” tag watches while a brown all-over cat watches from the couch. Outdoors, the pale pink strands of a seed-filled flower pod soak up the light from the pale blue sky and its spackle of white clouds. The neighbor’s black dog, a spot of white beard on its chin, looks longingly at you. And you? You’re dreaming of a flight over the clouds, the sun setting or maybe rising in pale orange along the horizon. The song sparrow sings for you on the stoop of its birdhouse, and when that pale pink, seedy pod has grabbed your attention again you see it has transformed into a strong, thin bloom with loud, bright colors.

Type fast! Twenty seconds isn’t long for capturing all that will swarm through your head like the buzzing of a million bee-like ideas.

Ready? Type any word into the pink bar and see what happens. FYI… I opened my computer’s “Notepad” option so I could type along while the images came onto the screen.

Here’s the link.

Let us all know how it works for you!