Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How I Used Prompts To Write 31 (little) Stories In 31 Days

If you don't already know about Story A Day, lemme tell you about it: IT'S GREAT! Julie Duffy oversees it, and it's just a wonderful place to get inspiration and encouragement. She posts daily prompts, but I haven't used them, since I've used prompts of my own.

So far, I've done the challenge for four years, and I've been lucky enough to complete it every year and post a story a day to this blog. I say "lucky" because I'm aware that luck has a lot to do with it. I haven't had a major health issue with myself or family or close friends during May, I haven't had electrical or internet problems that kept me from posting (which wouldn't have stopped me from writing!), and I haven't had the well suddenly go dry. Any or all of those things could easily have happened, and I'm very glad they didn't.

First, the prompts I've used:

2013 -- I keep a binder of pocket dividers, into which I stick story starts, story ideas, bits of dialog, and writing exercises that turned out fairly interesting but not interesting enough to follow up on right away. In 2013, I dipped into that binder and pulled things out and used them. I was going to a writing group at the time, too, that did writing exercises with prompts, and I used those.

2014 -- In April, I went around the house taking pictures of random things: a small globe of the world faced with thin bits of semi-precious stones, a pair of cow sugar-and-cream holders, a fireplace, a bit of knitting. I numbered the pictures randomly from 1 to 31 and used one a day.

2015 -- I began by using the number of the day as my prompt ("One is Enough", "Two of a Kind") but, after Day 21, I gave that up. After that, I just used whatever I happened to be reading or looking at or listening to AND I used some of the wonderful spomments -- spam comments -- that grace my spam folder. Many of those stories were ... surreal.

2016 -- This year, I decided to go for a three-fer, so I made a beginning at cleaning up my office. I had two boxes of bits of paper I had collected over the years and forgotten about: story ideas, business cards, convention programs, photographs, and pens. Many, many pens. I'm also wanting to write some stories connected with various books and short story characters I've already written, so I used stuff from the mess I sorted out to write those stories this May. Some of them will have to be fleshed out, and some of them are tight but complete.

How I use prompts:

I've discovered that the way I don't like to use prompts is to have to stick too closely to them. If I have a set of words, I get itchy if I have to use them exactly as they are. If I have a sentence or phrase as a prompt, I don't want that to have to be the heart of the story. If my prompt is "Write about a dog," I don't want the story to have to be about the dog.

The way I like to use prompts is as a jumping-off point. This is the way the Green River Writers did writing prompts, and that's what I like best. It lets me free-associate and follow thoughts wherever they lead. Now, mind you, I can't be all that free during Story A Day May, because I have to turn out a story BeginningMiddleEnd, but I've learned that I can do that best if I have that structure in mind, but let my thoughts play around it for a while. If the prompt word is blue, I want to be able to use sad or cerulean instead. If the prompt word is dog, I want to be able to write about a wolf or a pig or a pangolin. The prompt is like, "We need to go to the store for milk," and writing the story is like, "Oooo! Ben and Jerry's has a new flavor!"

This is excellent practice for writing for themed anthologies. The editor's guidelines give you a range for word count -- for instance, 2,000 - 10,000 words, with shorter being better -- and a theme, either specific or general. Maybe the anthology is stories about sweet romantic love between supernatural beings in Medieval Russia. Maybe it's stories about survival after a non-zombie apocalypse in Atlantis. Maybe it's private detective stories set in space or other planets. You know what the story has to have in order to qualify for submission to the anthology, but the only way you can write something uniquely your own and have fun doing it is to be able to let your mind play on those monkey bars.

Does that make sense?

Marian Allen, Author Lady
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

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