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Power of the prompt

pic of timer and notebookFor more than a year, I wrote a weekly blog post called The Sunday Squirrel. I picked a word or concept as a prompt and wrote a short scene about it. The scenes were written and published immediately, with minimal editing.

Looking back, I’m shocked that I was brave enough to put the results of those impromptu writing sessions out there for all the world to see, and even more surprised that some of them aren’t too bad.

It seems like limiting yourself to a word or specific idea would stifle creativity, but I’ve found that it actually feeds mine. The more out there the concept you have to incorporate, the more creative you have to be.

We recently did this at my local RWA chapter meeting, and I was reminded at how much fun it can be, and surprised how easily my writer brain takes off with the assignment. In 30 minutes, I wrote 504 words. That would be a struggle on most days when I’m working on my book.

Was it perfect? Hardly. But then what first draft is? Still, it got my brain working in a way it hasn’t in quite a while. My new goal is to incorporate writing prompts into my process, both to get my creative juices flowing and to take my scenes in unexpected directions.

Do you use writing prompts? What’s your experience with them?

For those who are curious—or have been around here long enough to miss The Sunday Squirrel—here’s what I came up with during that 30 minute session. The prompt was to incorporate three words/concepts and a quote given to us by a chapter member (prompts from Writing Prompts That Don't Suck).

Words/Concepts: cocktail bar, sunday school teacher, riding crop

Quote: “I’m just doing what the fortune cookie said. Who am I to stand in the way of fate?”

Victoria searched the dimly lit cocktail bar for a man with a red scarf in his pocket among the glittering bodies lounged on white leather couches. Light jazz mingled with the buzz of alcohol-fueled conversation as she navigated the twisting maze of low tables.

She finally spotted her guy at the far corner of the copper-clad bar under a blue pendant light. Steve looked too handsome for words in a gray button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up his forearms. Not at all what she had expected.

Vicki stopped mid-step.

Next to all of these women in their low cut cocktail dresses and six-inch heels, she looked like a Sunday school teacher who’d taken a wrong turn. That had originally been her plan, but now… Suddenly she wanted to impress.

Before he could spot her, Vicki ducked into the hallway that led to the restroom and pushed inside, past the group huddled around the mirrors, and entered a stall. There had to be someway to salvage her appearance.

She started by removing her short jacket to reveal the camisole-like shell underneath. The pale blue silk was somewhat transparent, and she’d run out of the house that morning wearing a black bra, figuring she’d never remove her jacket. Well, she was going for sexy, right?

Hell, all she needed now was a riding crop and she’d pass for a well dressed dominatrix.

Next, she had to deal with her lower half. She couldn’t do much about her sensible black flats, but the matching pencil skirt that fell to a sober position at mid-calf was another matter. She removed it and turned it inside out. Then, using a small kit she kept in her tote bag, Vicki folded the hem inside, pinning it to the skirt’s liner with sewing needles.

Her cell phone dinged, a reminder that she was now going to be late for her meeting. Irritation raked her skin, but she was not going back out there until her transformation was complete.

She took off the uncomfortable panty hose that her firm required she wear and stuffed them into her bag. For the final touch, she twisted her long hair into a loose bun and pinned it with a clip she kept in her purse for when she worked late. Then she used her phone’s front-facing camera as a mirror while she applied a coat of tinted lip gloss and freshened her eyeliner.

Rolling the jacket, she shoved it into her oversized bag and returned to the floor of the bar where she forced herself to stroll toward her target.

“Steve?” she asked as she stopped in front of him.

He stood and gave her a quick once over that made her stomach tingle. “Victoria. Hi.” His voice was smooth and pleasant. “I was afraid you were going to stand me up.”

“I’m just doing what the fortune cookie said. Who am I to stand in the way of fate?”

Tell your friends!


    • Reply

      Thanks, Mark! I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to write when I had no choice, though working that riding crop in was a bit of a stretch. 😉

  1. Reply

    I wonder if the many random parts that have to be incorporated forced the reader more outside her own usual suspects, her own “tics” of writing.

    • Reply

      Luanne: That’s an interesting thought. It definitely forces you to go in directions you wouldn’t normally consider. I’m sure that’s probably a good thing, especially if you’re feeling “blocked.” 😀

  2. Reply

    I remember some of the first Sunday Squirrels. The Power of the Prompt indeed. I need a shower. A cold one. 🙂 You really don’t play fair anymore do you? Your theme could be a line from a Trace Atkins song. “… turn it on, turn it up. Let’s turn this place into a sauna.”

    • Reply

      LOL, Curtis. I think you might have the honor of being my longest-running reader who still pops in every now and then. Thanks for being so loyal! And, no, never play fair. 😉

  3. Reply

    When I was in high school English class one day– as soon as all the students had settled at their desks, the teacher wrote on the chalkboard– ” a drop of water”– and told us to immediately write a one-page paper on that subject. Today, I often simply look at the potpourri of items at my home office workstation and imagine environments of fantasy, which sometimes get incorporated into my writing. Nice post.

    • Reply

      loujenhaxmyor: What a great assignment. Amazing how you can get ideas from anywhere, isn’t it? I sometimes flip to a random page in the dictionary and pick a word that jumps out at me. Thanks!

  4. Reply

    I loved this post, Gwen. I’d love to see the final result if you decide to use it in a larger work. I think you may have done this in a group setting, which I find always helps me break through into new territory. The presence of other writers scratching away is so energizing.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Nancy. Not sure I’ll use it directly, but you never know. Some of my Sunday Squirrels turned into ideas for a larger story even if they were later changed quite a bit.

      This was in a group setting, and that makes a difference. For one thing, I had nothing else to do but write. No distractions or excuses. And, like you, I’m always energized by being with other writers. That’s part of why I love conferences so much. 🙂

  5. Reply

    I did prompts with my 5th grade students to warm up for our writing block period. We called them 7-minute quick writes and it went like this: Teacher reads short writing prompt, gives students 90 seconds to think without writing. Students write for 7 minutes, then pencils down, and volunteers share. They loved it and always protested when we needed to cut the quick write in the interest of time.

    • Reply

      I love that exercise, Gwen. What a great way to show them what they can do. And seven minutes is really low pressure (and good for when you don’t have a lot of time). Thanks for sharing!

  6. Reply

    I love writing prompts. Just about all of my manuscripts were born from writing prompts. Sometimes I think I write best when I really don’t know what’s going to happen.

    I love what you did with yours. I’m so curious about her and what her motives are for being there. Definitely an interesting opening to a bigger story if you are so inclined. (hint hint!)

    • Reply

      That’s so cool, Maura. Kind of a paradox, isn’t it, that we pantsers work best when we know what we have to write towards? I’ll let you know if I take the hint. 😉

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