A year ago, I wrote a couple of stories in response to a writing prompt. I don’t usually do that and, honestly, I really dislike writing prompts. They’re too much like that old favourite: write about what you did at the weekend.
I always hated that as a kid. Wherever I was, my weekend was full of aliens, magic, spaceships and adventure, but it was really clear that what my teachers wanted was a description of how green the trees were in the park, or how the sea sounded at the beach. Perversely, I now blog about what the animals did around the farm, which is barely a theme or two from writing about my weekend, without the aliens and magic.
I think, perhaps, that my perception of and reaction to writing prompts is the problem. It’s all about creativity and the prompt is just that, something to set the thoughts rolling. Why is it any different to write a story triggered by a deliberately chosen phrase, or by seeing one of the geese racing around the paddock whilst tangled in a bucket?
I’m blaming it on pressure, on the need to react, to meet someone else’s expectations, which probably says more about me than the prompts or the people who generate them. Perhaps it’s the lurking feeling that it’s like an exam question, subject to that all-important guidance– read the question carefully and answer exactly the question asked. That’s great advice for an exam, but stifling when in search of creativity.
Inspiration is a rare and precious thing, to be seized and nurtured whenever it pops up. Read the question and then ignore it; answer what you think they should have asked. Especially on those prompts which really are like an exam question and nail you down to a detailed scenario – “you’re a duck and you’ve been swimming on the same pond all your life, eating the same bread and then someone tosses a croissant in the water, so write about your new diet”. Given the prompt, are you now seeing a safari expedition to study pink elephants and go abseiling on sunbeams? Why not?
A year ago, I wrote two stories based on a pair of prompts. I’ve just done it again, for the same venue. The difference, I suppose, is I’m no longer worrying about meeting anybody’s expectations. I’ve taken the prompts, parked them for a week, looked again, parked again… been utterly uninspired… and then, out of nowhere, I have something, and now I’m having fun. Oh, and those prompts were just a handful of words, not a whole world.
Of course, as I stared at this year’s prompts (printed and pinned to the back of a door, two words to define each topic, albeit with an array of explanations, hints, and suggestions not to be constrained by anything in the explanations…) I grumbled about not being inspired. In fact, I got annoyed enough to mutter and makes puns about it, even thinking that it was taking so long to come up with a story so I could scarcely call it a prompt response…
I’m still not a fan of writing prompts, but they do serve a purpose, something to make me look at the world differently, find a different angle on something mundane.
Yup, take inspiration wherever it comes –making the tea, hanging the laundry, rescuing that goose from the bucket, or deliberate writing prompt. It’s all the same – alien invasions, magic lands, amusing chickens – if it finds a story in you, then write.
OMP Admin Note: Mark Huntley-James writes science fiction and fantasy on a small farm in Cornwall, where he lives with his partner and a menagerie of cats, poultry and sheep.
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