Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Creating writing prompts

As part of my 2018 writing and learning plan, I’ve started incorporating daily, 10-minute exercises in order to improve my writing. I have been good about completing the prompts so far, though I can’t say for sure if I’m making any progress. Still, the prompts have been good at getting me to write every day; I haven’t missed a day since the start of the year.

In the past, whenever I looked for prompts, the ones I found were often unsatisfying and uninspiring. They were either trying too hard to be “wild” and “out there” to spur on a new story, or else they were so simplistic that they didn’t really give me much to go on. While there might be something to be said about pushing through and trying to answer an uninspiring prompt anyway (because who knowsβ€”maybe it’ll spur a great idea), what I ended up doing was spending too much time searching for the perfect prompt and not enough time actually writing.

So instead of relying on lists and books full of prompts, I’ve been making my own, and I’ve found that the prompts I make are more effective at getting me to write. But this isn’t happening because I’m somehow a prompt goddess who knows the perfect combination of words that will spark a writing sprint. Rather, I’m happier with my prompted writing because it allows me to tailor my prompts to what I’m working on, which allows me to be more productive with my time.

Most often, I use prompts to help me dive deeper into a particular aspect of a work in progress.

One of my current WIPs is a literary fiction novel, which is an expansion of a novella I wrote during Camp NaNoWriMo in 2016. Since I’m lengthening the story, I have more time and space to dive deeper into the characters, so many of the prompts have been based on questions to help me get to know them better. What kinds of students were they in school? What are their attitudes on diet and exercise? When it comes to politics, are they optimistic or pessimistic?

From there, I think about the unique ways I could illustrate this aspect of the character, rather than just relying on a straight reportage of facts. For example, a prompt I was particularly proud of making was, “Describe the classroom of your character’s favorite high school class.” This prompt made me figure out how to express my character’s attitude toward the class by using descriptions of their surroundings, and I did my best to get into their mind and choose the words they would use to describe the room.

Although almost none of what I write in response to these prompts will end up in the final novel, I’m able to get to know my characters in the context of the story I am building around them. And by writing the prompts myself, I can save time (since I don’t have to hunt; they’re all in one place for me) and I can save effort (since I don’t have to engage in a futile exercise of trying to imagine my character in a situation that has no connection to the story I’m trying to tell).

When I try and prompt myself to write something completely new, the prompt takes on a different form.

I have a running list in my journal of potential story titles, and a one-sentence description of the story that I can see matching that title. I’m always adding to this list, and if I ever feel the need to start a new work, I pull from this well of ideas.

The beauty of this title-and-sentence prompt is that it gives me two things: A unifying theme or idea that should be the thread that connects the story (the title), and a kind of “thesis statement” for the story (the one-sentence description). Even though the title and the plot of the story almost always change as I revise and rewrite, the beauty of the prompt is that it’s just there to get the story started. A prompt doesn’t have to be the end state, the thing that you’re writing towards, but it can help a story crystallize into something beautiful and new, like water freezing around a speck of dust to form a snowflake.

Prompts can be a great way to jumpstart creativity, by either helping you understand your own story at a deeper level or getting you to make something new. Although there are many great prompts out there, making your own can be an effective way to get to know your own writing and improve.

What are the different ways you use writing prompts? And if you don’t already do this, do you think you’ll try your hand at writing your own?

This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

Published by Caroliena Cabada

Caroliena Cabada is a writer currently based in Lincoln, Nebraska. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, Fiction, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her writing has been published in online and print journals and anthologies, and has been selected for Best Small Fictions 2021.

27 thoughts on “Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Creating writing prompts

  1. Actually, you may very well be a prompt goddess. I did try to write my own prompts at one point. I actually have a note on my phone that has about 30 of them. Maybe I should take a look at what I wrote 6 months ago and see what it inspires! πŸ™‚ Great post!

    1. Ah ha, thank you! But my prompts, I think, just so happen to be very particular to me. Definitely revisit your prompts! You never know what might pop out to you now that didn’t pop out before. πŸ™‚

  2. Great post. I, too, maintain a list of potential stories with brief descriptions. It’s good to drag the list out every so often to get new ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  3. One of my favorite prompts for each scene – after I’ve written it – is to ask myself if the location is the best place for emotional impact. This makes me think about places where the scene could be more tense, more romantic etc.

  4. I agree with Raimey. I think you could be an expert on the topic of prompt writing πŸ™‚ I do use prompts from my favorite writing book. Somehow every prompt in the book gets my mind going and I feel more successful because of them. Great post!

  5. I knew about prompts, and I knew about character development, but it never would have occurred to me to combine the two. This is genius! What a good way to get to know your characters, and keep the writing flowing. So cool.

  6. Congratulations on writing every day this year! I agree with Erika and Raimey you might be a prompt goddess. I do thought experiments to delve into my characters and world. I may take notes if a good story idea falls out, but even though the ideas are woven into my novel, the stories I build often aren’t written down. (I should probably change that.)
    For NaNoWriMo as an ML, I tried image prompts for my writers. I provided three images per prompt so hopefully one would be thematically appropriate for their story. Have you ever considered image prompts?

    1. Thank you, thank you! I feel as though I should start including “Prompt Goddess” in my bio. Thought experiments are great, but I fall into the trap of forgetting them immediately if I don’t write them down πŸ™‚ I’ve struggled with image prompts in the past. During a creative writing class I took as an undergrad, my professor showed us a bunch of photos of abandoned buildings as a photo prompt, and I always fell into the trap of just describing what was in the photo. This was helpful in a way, since it helped with description, but it didn’t really go beyond that. I should probably revisit them, though. Who knows what will happen?

  7. Very imaginative use of writing prompts! I once, actually, considered writing an entire novel based on daily prompts I receive but that came to nothing since I was already in the middle of another WIP with a ready plot outline.

  8. I love prompts but tend to not do them because I look at it as more writing and instead I could be actually writing the story. haha That makes me sound lazy, and I guess I am. But I do see the many benefits of using prompts. Maybe I should try out prompts during those moments when I am struggling to write…like now. πŸ˜‰

    1. There are some days when I think, “You know, I haven’t actually added any new words to this novel, just answered prompts all week…” So it’s definitely possible to skew the other way πŸ™‚ But I hope prompts help you with your current and future writing! Thanks for commenting!

  9. Creating prompts is so much fun! I have a massive set of character development prompts I’ve built over… Well more years than I care to admit πŸ˜‰ And I do at least one of them before starting a new draft, every time, to get me back into the characters’ heads.

  10. I feel like you could make a recurring series of blog posts out of your writing prompts. So far they seem really interesting. Add in an example of how you develop and create an example, and I think it would make for a very solid read.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad that you find the prompts interesting. I was thinking about doing a more step-by-step guide of how I make prompts for this post, but I was a bit pressed for time. But possibly for future blog hop posts! πŸ™‚

  11. Are you sure you aren’t a professional prompt writer??

    I am a little old school and have a notebook that I write prompts and potential future story ideas into. I go back to it every once in a while when I need a new idea.

  12. Am with you on the utility of “generic” prompts…have never thought to make up my own…Responded to an interesting one the other day and discovered a whole new way to restructure a novel that was stuck.

  13. I’ve never quite seen the purpose of writing prompts – why spend 10-15 minutes writing something that’s totally off-topic? I like your approach, because it’s directly relevant to whatever I’m writing.

    Now … to get the discipline started …

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