Writing Prompts…and Why I Love Them

I love, love, love writing prompts. Any size, any shape, any source. To me, anything that sparks creativity is something to be cherished — even if it comes about in an accidental sort of way.

That was what happened to me as a child one day when I took part in a “Nosebag Dramatics” game. If you’re not familiar with “Nosebag Dramatics”, this is how it works. Someone gathers an assortment of items from around the house, throws them all into a bag, then passes the bag to the performer. In this case, it was “performers” (plural) and the skits were part of our Girl Scouts “Dramatics” badge.

Our group eagerly rummaged through the bag we’d been given. I don’t recall every item, but overall, the contents had to do with personal appearance. We had a hairbrush, lipstick, a mirror, mascara. Lots of little things. We also had a store receipt at the bottom of the paper bag we’d been given. That single item — when viewed in conjunction with the others — set my imagination spinning.

“Suppose we used all of these items for a make-over,” I suggested. “And then at the end, when our customer gets the bill, she decides being beautiful isn’t worth the cost.” My troopmates loved it. With little need to practice, we performed a truly memorable skit. At the end, the bill was presented, the customer threw a fit and did an Oscar-worthy performance of messing up her hair and scrubbing the make-up from her face. We were all in stitches.

Well, all except the troop leader. “That receipt,” she informed us, “wasn’t part of the items. It was just left-over.” So? We weren’t supposed to use it, we were told — in no uncertain terms.  We were only supposed to use what we’d been given. We had somehow broken some rule we hadn’t even known existed!

But, we’d come up with a mighty fine show, the one voted as “Best Skit” of the day.

Creativity is like that. It often means breaking — or at least bending — rules and expectations. It means staying open, being willing to make last-minute changes, and above all, leaving room for lots of fun surprises.  People who insist on rigid rules and structures can easily destroy the creative spirit.

Many of my novels have had “receipts” thrown in — in other words, something that maybe wasn’t supposed to be there, but which sparked my imagination and became an integral part of the story.

When I first began making notes for Summertimethe story of a young woman coming home to the small town where she’d been born and raised, I visited one of my favorite “prompt” sites and grabbed the first random idea that appeared.

Write about an opera singer.

I changed it a bit. Instead of grand opera, Linn Sparks became a celebrity singer and star of the stage at the fictitious “Crown Theater” in San Francisco.

CatskillsWhen I began putting ideas together for Irresistible, the story of a young woman with a gloomy outlook on life, my attention was caught by a beautiful picture as I browsed “Webshots” looking for inspiration and ideas. At once the story took on a new dimension. The central character would be an aspiring artist, a woman who had lost the ability to see beauty in the world. Her dreams had been taken from her. Could the beauty of the Hudson River Valley inspire her to paint again?

I especially love “people” prompts.

Write about a Native American healer, said one prompt. That came on a day when I was a little stuck for ideas on my own. The result: Eagle Feather, who appears as a minor character in The Wrong Woman. 

I love “first sentence” prompts.

She stood behind the counter giving him this root-beer float kind of smile. That was the prompt I drew one day from “The Writer’s Toolbox“. Just playing around. Just having fun. The result? Toots, a fun little story you’ll find at “Postcard Shorts”.

I love brainstorming prompts.

“Think of a character who would be the last person you’d expect to find in your story.” That was a suggestion from one brainstorming program I found. At the time, I was writing a children’s story called Herbert and the Bully. Who suddenly popped into my head? An adorable little ballerina in a pink tutu. Gracie added many new insights to the story. Without her, it wouldn’t have been the same.

And dialogue prompts? I adore them.

“I’m not a quitter.” That was a line of dialogue that inspired Love in Any LanguageI didn’t use it as the opening line of the story. There are no rules, remember, for when, where or how we use a prompt.

I could go on and on. Breaking Up is Hard to Do, another short story, was inspired by a prompt suggesting “write about the role of technology in our lives today”. Granny’s Promise came from another dialogue prompt: “You’re next.”  I have an entire collection of short stories that were inspired by single-word prompts. 

That’s all it takes, really. A single word. A picture. A simple sentence. All can spark the imagination.

Any time I begin to feel too sure of where I’m going in my writing, I run the risk of predictability. A quick writing prompt can turn a story in an unexpected direction, open my eyes to possibilities I’d never considered before, and give a scene a fresh, new quality.

You can find writing prompts everywhere.  You can get “story-starters”, character prompts, plot generators, and other assorted goodies with only a quick search online.  A Google search for “writing prompts” produced over 17 million results — in less than one second.  You can buy prompts, you can find them for free, or you can make your own.

Grab a dictionary. Open it at random. Or grab any book. Open it and let the first three words you see spark your imagination.

Want a prompt of your own to play with? I have my “Writer’s Toolkit” close at hand.

“My brother did this weird thing with turtles.”

Turtle

OK, that’s your starting point. 

Where will you go? Who knows? But have fun getting there. That’s what writing prompts are really all about, I think. It’s about letting go of rules, forgetting logic for the moment, and heading off to a place we’ve never been before.

I’ve love to read any stories you come up with from the prompt!

Getting Comfortable

I’ve shared thoughts before about the importance of being true to ourselves in our writing, so perhaps I won’t be saying anything new in this post. The idea, however, is an important one, and I believe it bears repeating. We can’t be someone we’re not, and we can’t write something we don’t enjoy.

Comfort ZoneI think each of us has a “comfort zone” in writing, and personally, I consider that a good thing. If I browse around on the internet a bit, though, I find constant references to the need to get out of our comfort zones.

The magic, it’s said, can’t happen until we step away from the comfortable, until we’re willing to take risks.

Nope. I don’t agree. That may well be true in many fields of endeavor, but writing is an exception, at least, in my ever-so-humble opinion.

On more than one occasion, I’ve started a new story only to find myself uncomfortable with the writing. When that happens, I don’t enjoy the time I spend writing. I don’t look forward to sitting down and getting busy with the story. I soon realize I don’t care all that much for my characters. Quite simply, writing becomes a chore. A job. A task.

That’s not how I want to approach my stories. For me, writing needs to be enjoyable. If it’s not, I don’t want to do it.  There are enough obligations and “things I must do” in my life. Writing shouldn’t be one of them. Writing is what I love.

Whenever I find myself dreading the writing process, it’s because I’ve strayed away from who I truly am as I writer. I’ve left my “comfort zone” — which, for me, is another way of saying “who I am.”  I quickly change course and head back to where I belong, back to my comfort zone.

I’ll be honest. I sometimes look at authors who’ve published dozens of books in a variety of genres, and I question the authenticity of their stories.  As a reader, I’m skeptical. I’m not sure I trust authors who attempt too many different things.  I want to read stories written by authors who love what they write. I want to read mysteries by story-tellers who thrive on who-dun-its, and fantasies by imaginative authors who would never be “at home” in the mundane world. I want to read love stories by writers who would never want to write anything but love stories.

A couple old adages come to mind.

  • Stay with what works.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

You might disagree. Probably a lot of you will tell me I’m wrong, I’m crazy, or I’m stuck in a rut. That’s fine. My rut feels good, and I’m happily writing stories I love.

There’s a lot to be said for comfort. We crave “comfort foods”, and we’re always looking for those “creature comforts” that make life more enjoyable.

Sure, there are times when it’s probably good to shake things up and venture away from our comfort zones in life, but when it comes to writing, I’m going to make myself comfortable and tell stories that make me feel good.  If I do that, and do it well, my readers will probably feel good, too.

This I Believe — About Love and Other Things

nprlogo_138x46My car radio is tuned to one of our nearby National Public Radio stations — either KANU 95.1 broadcast from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, or KCUR 89.3 from the University of Missouri. I enjoy the programming, especially the on-going features such as “Story Corps”.

From time to time over the last four years, NPR stations have presented short essays in a series called “This I Believe.”  These short essays lay out the core beliefs, the basic philosophies that guide the lives of their authors.

For more information on the NPR series, visit their site:

Celebrating Four Years of ‘This I Believe’

Until very recently, I was not aware that “This I Believe’ originated in the 1950s as a radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow.  Thousands of essays have been written over the years. Although NPR ended its series last year, you can still hear essays through weekly podcasts at the international organization, This I Believe. Many of these inspiring essays have also been collected and organized in book form.

One of these books, What I Believe: On Love, caught my attention recently. What a beautiful Valentine’s gift this would be.

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and you want to find something meaningful for your sweetie, right? This I Believe: On Love is a collection of 60 heartwarming essays that illustrate the many facets of this most fundamental human emotion—from finding comfort in love that never dies, to learning from the love that others model for us, to discovering how to love ourselves. Buy This I Believe: On Love for those you love!

– From This I Believe

I’ve always been a believer — ah! there’s that word — in hands-on experiences. I want to do more than read what others believe. It’s important for me, both as a writer and as a human being, to have an understanding of what my values are. What are the guiding principles by which I live? Where do I find meaning in life? What do I truly believe?

Whenever we sit down and begin a new story, perhaps we should re-visit our core values and beliefs. Like it or not, much of what we believe is going to show through in our work. The essential theme in all our stories will come not so much from who our characters are as from who we are.

Several years ago, I was challenged to answer the question: Why do I write romance? I no longer have the essay I wrote, but my answer was based upon my beliefs about love.  I write romance novels because I do believe in love. I believe it is a powerful force for good, a power that can heal, inspire, strengthen, and guide us toward becoming better individuals and toward living richer, fuller, more meaningful lives.

With each story I write, I hope to inspire others to believe in love — love for others, love for the world around us, love for ourselves. They all go hand in hand. I don’t believe we can truly have one without the others.

A Heart

As the Valentine’s Day holiday approaches, and thoughts of love fill the air, I hope you’ll take a moment to think of what love really means to you. What do you believe about love?

Taking Notes

Yesterday morning I ordered a new notebook for myself. I’ve always liked notebooks with their neatly-lined pages, their clever spiral bindings and solid backs. I’m going to be especially fond of the one I bought today.

NotebookIt’s designed with the cover art from my latest historical romance novel, Not the Marrying Kind.  The cover was designed by Dawne Dominique, and as always, she did an awesome job of translating my garbled “author cover notes” and the pictures locked away inside my brain to the actual book cover. For those who might be interested in a steamy historical romance, Not the Marrying Kind, Book 1 of “The Sunset Series” is now available as an ebook, and will be released later this year in paperback from Secret Cravings Publishing. 

Now that I’ve put in a shameless plug for my latest book, let’s move on and get back to today’s topic.

Notebooks

Specifically, writer’s notebooks. Not necessarily ones with your cover art, but ones you use as a writer. You do use a notebook, don’t you?

Writers tend to come up with odd thoughts at inconvenient times. Some authors keep notepads at their bedside in order to scribble down those random ideas — or dreams — that pop into their heads as they drift off to sleep. Other authors I’ve known have given up on the old-fashioned pen and paper methods and now record thoughts and impressions — as well as images — with cell phones.

Technology definitely offers us new possibilities as writers! At least, as long as we can figure out how to use it.

I remember how excited I was when I first got Microsoft Word 2010 and discovered the “Notes” feature. What an idea!  I loved the ability to quickly and easily makes notes while I was working on-line…or, that is, I probably would have loved it if I’d ever truly understood how to utilize the feature. I tried. It was confusing, complicated, and for me, far more trouble than it was worth. I made notes but could never find them again. I’ll go back to the old-fashioned, tried-and-true method of putting pen or pencil to paper in my old-fashioned spiral-bound notebook.

What about YOU?

This post — despite my brazen attempt to show off my new story — isn’t about me and my writing notebooks. I know what I keep in mine, and before you ask, yes, I know what a confused, disorganized mess my writing notebooks usually become. I’m not sure there’s an easy, orderly way of compiling random bursts of inspiration or the sudden shoutings of the voices in my head. Might be nice, but it hasn’t happened in all the years I’ve been writing. I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

I scribble down lots of sentences. Random thoughts that slip into my head.  Things my characters might think or say.

I put down descriptions now and then, thoughts and impressions about places I go, such as that delightful candle shop with all its fragrant, waxy scents rushing at me when I open the door and step inside. Sometimes I paint “word pictures” of the morning skies in hopes of remembering the streaks of gold that herald the arrival of the new day.

What about YOU? What do you capture in your writing notebooks? Do you keep separate tabs? Have you found a way to organize it all?

  • Dialogue
  • Character profiles
  • Names
  • Descriptions
  • Scene sketches
  • Ideas
  • Titles
  • Themes

What’s in your notebook? What methods do you use to record your ideas? Do you include photos? Drawings? Doodles?

An Experiment

I recently read a writer’s challenge: Capture an entire day in a notebook.

What? Are you out of your mind? A whole day? From waking to sleeping? I suppose it would be a good experience, and it would surely result in much fodder for fiction. Still, it seems a bit daunting to think of recording an entire day of personal experiences — every conversation, every activity, every morsel of food eaten, every place visited. Nice idea, but I think I’ll pass, thank you.

Of course, much of that information could be included in a personal journal. Maybe not every moment of every day, but the highlights. Those unforgettable moments, those well-spoken words, those special people who’ve touched our lives on that particular day.

So, I’m asking you again. What’s in your writing notebook? Is it “fiction only”? Or do you use it as a personal journal? Do you save  your journals? Forever? What stories or poems have you created from the ideas in your journal?

I hope you’ll leave a comment on this post and share a few thoughts about your writing notebooks or your journals.  I intend to make good use of my new notebook, not just as an advertising tool, but as a reminder of my own creative dreams. Yes, those wild and crazy ideas that come into our heads can turn into stories that can become books for others to read and enjoy.

Writing always begins with a thought…so capturing our thoughts and saving them might just be a good thing to do.

Now…your thoughts, please?

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