Perhaps you’re feeling a bit stuck this week, and the blank page is threatening to overwhelm you with its possibilities and its difficulties. Or perhaps you’re simply in between writing projects right now, and looking for inspiration. Whatever your reasons, you may be in need of a prompt … or three! And you’re not alone: in all of our years working alongside self-publishing authors, one of the most common questions we hear is simply: “What else can I try?” We’re here today in the hope that we can help spark your creativity, improve your writing, and perhaps even help you finish writing your next manuscript this summer!
To that end, we have come up with three writing prompts we think are particularly useful.
ONE: Invent a character.
Each story is anchored by its characters. Start with mentally picturing just one, one person or entity (depending on your taste in genre) who leaps easily into the canvas of your imagination–and describe what you see. Maybe this character has a memorable face, or peculiar taste in clothes, or an old injury. Not every detail may be important later, but you never know, so get it all down. Think of this character like a pin on a map, and that map is your guide forward into a larger work (if you want it to be). Now invent a second character. Then, consider the following questions: Who matters to these characters? What do they mean to each other? What are their dreams? What motivates them? What do they regret, or fear? How do they see themselves? What foods might they like? What kind of a home might they live in? What locations on that map might be important to them? What do they spend money on … or not? Do they adhere to a faith, or an artistic practice, or an academic discipline? Who else might have claims upon their time, or their hearts?
Not every question is going to have an answer, or an answer that will prove fruitful for further writing. But consider them all, and write down whichever answers help you understand these characters you’ve created. Now you have the first necessary ingredient of a story!
TWO: Place a scene.
Shakespeare is famous for writing scenic shorthand. Remember the beginning of Romeo and Juliet? “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” We may not all aspire to Shakespearean style and affectations, but we can learn a lot from a master like him, and the first thing to learn is that every good story begins with a scene, and it doesn’t take much to set a powerful scene. Romeo and Juliet, for example, opens with only three full sentences made up of fourteen lines of prose, all of which takes less than a minute to read aloud.
You might think of scene-setting as some monolithic venture which requires you to picture and describe every detail before the plot can move forward, but this isn’t how scenes work at all! There’s always room for a touch of lyrical description if your setting is particularly scenic, but that’s just window-dressing. Scenes are functions of plot, and microcosms in which your characters interact. The only necessary details are the ones which matter to your characters, and you’ve already mapped out what those details might be in the previous prompt.
Give yourself three to five sentences, right now, to frame your characters’ first interaction. Where are they? What time of day is it? Is it cold, or hot? What other elements of the setting will affect how these characters interact? Don’t try to envision the whole thing, not yet, not unless you fall in love with the place and want to file away a full description for later. It doesn’t need to be fancy, as Shakespeare proves, it just needs to provide a canvas upon which your characters move.
THREE: Kill your darlings.
Okay, so maybe you don’t need to literally kill any of your darlings. The expression is an old one, and it has its source in an old piece of advice sometimes given to aspiring writers. Faulkner said it, and so did Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G.K. Chesterton, Chekov, and Stephen King … and surely at least one of these people is on to something. The idea is this: if some element of your book, a character or a passage or a place, is just unkillably perfect to you, a writer, it’s probably holding you back from writing an entire book of equal quality because you’re so hung up on its perfection. But in the interest of giving you a writing prompt which you can tackle in an afternoon, we advocate for killing your darlings for a purely mercenary, functional purpose: it will provide you with plot, and stakes. No story can work without stakes, and so often we forget to develop those stakes until we’re already halfway through a book. But in an ideal world, and in an afternoon’s writing session, those stakes have to be there from the beginning. So take your characters, or take your scene, and figure out who or what is at risk. Now, pick up your pen … or sit down at your keyboard … and kill your darling. Kill your darling with flair and rich description. Kill your darling with perfunctory simplicity. And then let whoever or whatever is left deal with the aftermath, on the page, in full sentences.
Now you have your first chapter, and it only took you three short writing prompts to get there! And if you don’t like it? Well, there’s plenty of time tomorrow to start over, and to start small, with a new character.
Will you try or have you already tried one of these prompts? We’d love to hear about your successes and to cheer you on. Look us up on social media and let us know how you do! You can find us on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook, or you can visit us online at www.outskirtspress.com to chat with a Publishing Consultant as well as call us at 1-888-672-6657 to find out how to finish that manuscript you’re working on and get it ready for publication!