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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?”

The Sunday Squirrel: The scrapbook

Mandy carefully opened the small scrapbook. The stiff pages, wavy from too much glue, crackled with every turn. Her best friend, Joy, had given her the book as a birthday present ten years before. That birthday, and each one since, Mandy had used it to make a wish page, a visual representation of the thing she wanted most. And every year–except for two–her wish had come true.

Her inaugural wish at age eleven had been for her mom to find a man who treated her right. Not like that loser Rod, who drank too much and yelled a lot. Before Mandy's twelfth birthday, her mom had become engaged to George, who turned out to be a great husband and a decent step-father. The number of smiles in the house increased exponentially after George entered their lives.

Mandy wrote off her wishing success as coincidence. But like a baseball player who wears the same pair of lucky underwear–lest he break his hitting streak–she filled in her wish page the next year, just in case.

And the good luck followed.

12th birthday wish: Cure Joy's leukemia. Done.

13th birthday wish: Give her 15-year old brother the muscles and girlfriend he so desperately wanted. Done.

14th birthday wish: A caring family for the ugly dog at the shelter that no one would take. Done.

15th birthday wish: A date with Troy Austin. Never happened. With Troy or anyone else that year.

16th birthday wish: A good first date for shy, awkward Joy. Done, and then some. (Taylor Marsden!)

17th birthday wish: Scholarship to Stanford. Nope. Though in the end, UCSD had been a great choice.

Finally understanding the rules, she dove back into the wishing spirit. Now on her 21st birthday, she leafed through the pages, smiling at all of the successful outcomes. If she could make one more wish it would be for a book with enough pages for a lifetime of granting happiness.

Watching her dreams for others come true had given her more happiness than than wasting ten wishes on herself ever could have. Not that she would mind a date with Cade Waller.

You know, if the universe were asking.

#

Joy sat in her apartment, surrounded by pictures, magazines, and scissors, biting her lip as she carefully placed two photos on the last page of her scrapbook. She had taken the snapshots with her cell phone last time she'd spotted Mandy and Cade at the library, working hard on their marine biology project.

She added magazine clippings of an engagement ring and a wedding dress, and grinned.

“Happy birthday, Mandy,” she whispered.

The Sunday Squirrel: the beginning

The man had been five feet from her heels since she broke away from the pack in the second mile. Forty-five minutes ago. His heavy breaths and the light slap of his shoes on the asphalt were her constant companion. Why didn't he just pass her?

She'd entered the half-marathon to get a time check–make sure she wasn't losing ground. It wasn't like she needed a race to motivate her to run. When she ran, she was powerful and in control. The hours she spent eating up the trails around her condo made up for the rest of her existence. She'd run all day if she could.

Maybe one day she wouldn't stop.

As they rounded the curve into the last mile, cheering crowds and race volunteers packed the tree-lined road. She wiped errant beads of sweat from her forehead, picked up her pace, and focused on the tiny red FINISH banner in the distance.

“Race you.”

Lindsey jumped at the deep voice of her unwanted running partner. He gave her a slow, sexy smile and took off. No way. No way was he going to follow her for ten miles and then beat her in the end.

For a few seconds she had a view of his broad shoulders and powerful thighs. He was lean and muscular, more like a fighter than a runner. She might have enjoyed his company if he'd been in front of her the whole time.

Too bad. She poured on the speed and flew past him, surprised to feel a grin on her face.

She crossed the finish line and gradually slowed to a walk, dipping her head as a volunteer draped a finisher's medal around her neck. Hands on hips, she made a beeline for the bananas and water bottles, thankful for the cool breeze that hinted at fall.

“Hey,” the hottie who'd stuck to her like glue said. “Nice run.”

“Thanks, you too.” She turned away with a polite smile. Trolling for men at a race–or anywhere else, for that matter–was not her style.

He touched her shoulder and she yanked away, hoping he hadn't noticed the uncontrollable expression of terror she knew had crossed her face.

“Sorry,” he said, his hands up in apology. “I just–”

“Look. I'm not interested, okay?” She retreated and changed course toward the parking lot.

“Lindsey, wait.”

She froze–her blood turned to ice–and spun to face him. “How the hell do you know my name?”

With a rueful look, he pulled a rumpled business card from his shorts pocket. “Colonel Stark sent me.”

The Sunday Squirrel: outburst

“This is bulls**t, Colonel!” Mick said, clenching his fists. “I'm nothing but a glorified babysitter. I should be out in the action with my team, not stuck here playing Bosley to your little band of Angels.” He gestured toward the office door, his hand trembling.

Colonel Stark leaned over her desk, resting on her fingertips, and raised one eyebrow at him. She was a diminutive woman, but her piercing gaze had brought lesser men to tears.

Mick could feel the pulse in his neck, the heat in his face. F**k.

He retreated and slumped into a chair, resting his forehead on the heels of his hands. His breath came in heavy gasps as if he'd just finished a race.

God, what kind of idiot was he?  He rubbed his face vigorously and sat up straight. The Colonel remained impassive, tapping a pen against her desk calendar. He cringed, comparing his outburst to her lack of emotion, and cleared his throat. “I'm sorry, ma'am. I was out of line. I–”

“I know this is difficult for you, Mick.” She sat back into her chair and clasped her hands together. “I wouldn't have chosen you if I didn't think you could handle it.” Her eyes bore into him as she leaned forward. “This is your only chance to stay in the game. You know that. If I send you back now, they'll stick you behind a desk in Kansas.”

He had nothing against Kansas, but everything against the desk.

She was right. He should be kissing her feet for the opportunity to train this new team. He just…dammit.

They were women for Christ's sake.

The Sunday Squirrel: drunk

The man stumbled and bumped the bar, but steadied himself enough to scoot onto the stool next to her. He smelled of stale beer and cigarette smoke, and Brianna's nose twitched in protest. She checked her watch. Vince would be there any minute.

“Hey there,” the drunk man said, swaying in her direction as he ogled her chest. “I'm Scotty.” The red flush of drink marred his handsome face, and she turned away.

“I'm not interested,” she replied, unable to hide the hint of disgust in her voice. The bartender chuckled at the exchange, and Brianna tapped her foot on the brass railing. Why did these men always want to meet in bars? Just once, couldn't they start at a coffee shop, or maybe a nice book store? She took another swig of her club soda and grimaced, wishing she'd stuck with plain water.

A cold breeze blew across the bar as the front door opened and Vince walked in. Goosebumps sprouted on Brianna's arms as he approached, looking every bit the successful businessman in his Armani suit. He looked her up and down, smiling as his gaze rested on the low cut neckline of her red dress.

She smiled back. The dress worked every time.

Vince slid his arm around her waist and whispered against the side of her neck. “Let's get a private table.”

“I have a better idea.” Brianna glanced back at the drunk and winked. “How about a private room?”

Vince gave her a surprised look and nodded.

The drunk slid off the barstool and shuffled past the couple. “Yeah, like a private room with bars and an orange jumpsuit,” he said as he snatched Vince's wrist and twisted his arm behind his back. He locked handcuffs on Vince and pressed him up against the bar.

“What the hell is going on?” Vince cried. “You bitch,” he said turning his gaze on Brianna. “You set me up.”

She smiled innocently at him and looked at the fully upright, sober Scott. “Great job tonight,” she said as uniformed police officers poured into the bar. “I think you missed your calling.”

“You weren't too shabby yourself,” he said, keeping a tight grip on the struggling fugitive. “Have I told you how much I like that dress?”

She laughed and nodded. “More than once.”

Scott handed Vince over to one of the cops and grabbed Brianna's hand. “Let's go home. I need a shower.”

She snuggled against him, glad their part in the sting was done. “I'll join you.”