Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It’s a favorite refrain of the professional author that you can’t wait for inspiration. Accepting this truth is a coming-of-age (or coming-of-maturity) moment for many writers; the scribe’s version of Santa Claus. It can be difficult to accept since society at large, and indeed many works of art, trumpets the notion of the inspired genius, feverishly writing out a masterpiece in one sitting.
In fact when inspiration strikes, this can be exactly how it feels. Creativity bursts out, as idea and form collide to make something magical. The problem is that inspiration is fleeting, it can’t be depended on and, most importantly, it can be harnessed far more effectively when you’re ready for it.
Can writing prompts help with inspiration?
So how can writers prepare for inspiration?
Well, they can do everything possible to prepare their work for a burst of great writing. They can nail down the plot, think through the characters, write a basic structure, outline individual chapters, prepare a first draft, check for obvious errors, run through a second draft, implement some changes, draft five or six more times, publish the book, market the book, accept their Man Booker Prize…
The truth is that authors who want to be successful can’t depend on inspiration at all. Yes it’s a boon when trying to create something great, but it pales in comparison to hard work and perseverance.
In fact, it can be helpful to think of inspiration as rain on arid land. Yes it’s a great thing, but if you want anything significant to grow you’re going to have to set up an irrigation system. Lugging a bunch of pipes into place is a lot more work than staring hopefully at the clouds, but it’s also a much surer way to grow carrots.
Creating an infrastructure for your writing is vital, and while it means you’ll be able to write consistently and well without inspiration, it does also set you up to use inspiration as the amazing bonus it is.
Using daily writing prompts
Of course the advice above only covers existing projects – while it’s easy to prepare a project you already know about, it seems an impossible task to be ready to harness inspiration about an idea you haven’t even had yet. Happily, it’s not.
Stephen King famously suggests that authors should find some time to write every day. While I tend to take this advice with a pinch of salt (it’s an easy statement to make once you own a yacht), it’s definitely true that writing as often as possible will improve your skills in a myriad of ways.
This is how you can prepare for the inspiration that strikes from nowhere – by getting yourself ready to write on a regular basis you won’t be blind-sighted by the urge. Both in terms of setting aside time to write, and how you go about the writing process itself, you’ll have a pre-existing plan and mind-set that allow you use the full measure of your inspiration.
Of course the drawback is that writing every day is easier said than done – in fact it’s the exact kind of exercise that makes you feel the lack of inspiration most keenly. For someone who doesn’t know what to write about, or how to start, the challenge to write more often just seems frustrating. Despite this initial reaction there is hope; in fact there’s a tool designed for exactly this circumstance: Writing prompts.
What is a writing prompt?
Writing prompts are one to two sentence phrases designed to either inspire authors or give them a subject to write about. Here are some writing prompt examples:By law, the oil company owned every piece of land south of the river, but there was one farmer who wasn’t moving for anyone.Click To Tweet A little girl spots a magical animal at the pet shop.Click To Tweet A man tries to return a crate full of cheese he definitely didn’t order.Click To Tweet At the foot of a volcano, a small town scrambles to evacuate.Click To Tweet
Writing prompts take many forms – they may be situations, statements, or even just sensory information – and they can be used in a range of ways.
The first way to use writing prompts is to read them as the summary of a story and to try and write that story. There’s no need to feel constrained though; you could select a single element of a story and try to expand on it, seek to describe a single moment in the prompt, or even try to write a running story which moves from one prompt to the next. Many authors simply take prompts as a place to start thinking, using free association to find a word, term or idea that they can work with.
As an example, take the little girl spotting a magical animal at the pet shop. An author might take this prompt and write a story about a little girl trying to get her daddy to buy a wish-granting rabbit. Someone else might write a surreal story where the cages go puppy, kitten, hamster, dragon, or imagine a world where humans are the pets. The idea of animals in cages is enough for someone to write about a trip to the zoo, or perhaps they don’t stop there and it ends up as a story about a prison.
When using writing prompts it can be helpful to take some time before you start writing and explore ideas in this way, seeing if they take you somewhere that particularly interests you. Alternatively, if you’re really not feeling creative then you can write a longer account of the situation the prompt describes, or even use it as the first sentence of your story.
The goal is to use writing prompts to train your mind to sit down and write. It may start out difficult – in fact it might never be easy – but it’s a real skill that writers can learn. The act of taking something and mining it for a story gets easier with practice, and on the odd occasion that inspiration does come along, you’ll be ready to take advantage of it in a way you couldn’t have before.
Making writing prompts last
Writing prompts are great tools because they can be used in so many ways. A single writing prompt can support weeks of writing, since there are so many ways to interpret the information you’ve been given. Starting with the straightforward interpretation and then working your way up to connected ideas is a great way to slowly increase your comfort zone, and the more organized you are the better.A single writing prompt can support weeks of writing, since there are so many ways to interpret the information.Click To Tweet
One way to make the most of writing prompts is to set up a constant approach that you can slot individual prompts into. This might be something along the lines of the following:
- Session 1: Straightforward version of the story described.
- Session 2: Focus on one element of the story.
- Session 3: Focus on a different element of the story.
- Session 4: Take a character from any one of the previous stories and write something that happens to them.
- Session 5: Take one of the previous stories and write something that happens one week before or one week after the events described.
- Session 6: Imagine the exact opposite of the prompt and write a straightforward version of that story.
A system like this is incredibly useful since it gives your unconscious mind a lot more time to think about a story. Take the volcano prompt from earlier as an example – if you already know that in session six you’ll be reversing it, then as soon as you see it your brain will start looking for story angles. Before you’ve even written the straightforward version you’ll be thinking up a story where a village full of people race to climb a mountain. Most of the best writing happens in our unconscious minds, and by using prompts in this way you tell your brain that it’s going to have to write soon and give it information to be mulling over in the meantime.
Not only can writing prompts help you learn how to write when you don’t have the immediate drive, they also get your brain working in ways that invite inspiration. Yes, it’s mildly irritating that the best way to invite inspiration is to learn to do without it, which is why it’s important to always consider inspiration a bonus – you were going to build the irrigation system anyway, so just enjoy the extra water.
Finding creative writing prompt ideas
Many websites offer writing prompts, so it’s a matter of finding one that doesn’t ask too much in return, offers a range of different types and provides new prompts periodically.
These second two criteria are more important than you might suppose. Getting varied types of writing prompts is important because it ensures that your teaching is about teaching yourself writerly behavior and not just teaching yourself how to expand a certain type of prompt.
The wider goal is to learn how to mine for stories, but if every prompt takes the same form then you’re only going to learn how to approach that kind of prompt. Good prompts will be in first, second and third person, mix descriptions with statements and dialogue, and suggest a variety of genres. While you may want to do a similar thing each time – try turning each situation into a murder mystery, for example – it’s important that this is an effort on your part and not the provider’s. Someone who gets a variety of stimuli and practices turning them into mystery fiction will get good at creating mystery fiction, while someone who gets a lot of mystery fiction stimuli will learn to only look in obvious places for their inspiration.
The best writing prompts on the web
Standoutbooks are always looking to help authors in every way we can, and while generally that means researching writing software and investigating things like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, with writing prompts we’re in a position to offer our own resources.
Since I was always taught that it’s bad luck to give a wallet with no money it, I’ll include some starter writing prompts below. We’ve got some exciting things planned for the next few months, and we’re always happy to receive suggestions for more to add, so please feel free to get in contact with your ideas or leave them in the comments.
Now, however, some more prompts:
For more on great ideas to help the writing process, check out Eleven places you can find inspiration for your writing and Writing avoidance behaviour: Here’s how to overcome it.Creative Writing Prompts: The Complete GuideClick To Tweet