Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Writing Prompts and Getting Unstuck

By Tamara Ireland Stone, @tamaraistone 

Part of the How They Do It Series 

Pulling an oldie out from the guest archives today, with some great writing prompts to get the muse going after the holiday break. Reminder: Do you have writing or publishing questions? Come on over and ask them on Friday during the end of year question round up. Look for fresh posts starting January 5. Enjoy!

I'd like to welcome YA author Tamara Ireland Stone to the blog today. She's here to chat with us about something all writers face at some point--getting stuck. Even better, she'll also share a few of her favorite writing prompts to help keep the muse happy. These look like a lot of fun and a great way to get started on those sluggish writing days. (Some of them even look like fun ways to develop a character)

Tamara is the author of the young adult time travel romance, Time Between Us, which will be published in fifteen languages and has been optioned for film. In addition to writing, Tamara co-owns a Silicon Valley marketing communications firm and enjoys skiing, hiking, and spending time with her husband and two children. Tamara lives just outside San Francisco, where she is at work on her second novel.

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Take it away Tamara...

For a long time, I considered writing to be a form of therapy. When I was young, I’d write long entries in my diary about everything I had on my mind—friends, parents, boys. Okay, it was mostly about boys.

I abandoned my diary in the later part of high school, but picked up the daily writing habit again in college after one of my professors required us to keep a journal. At a time when I had a lot of challenges in my life, it reminded me that writing was therapeutic. Like regular exercise, it was something that kept me happy and centered.

That same professor introduced me to writing prompts, which opened a whole new world for me. I learned that writing wasn’t only about sorting out my thoughts—it was about storytelling. Writing became what reading had always been: Fun. An adventure.

I fell in love with Natalie Goldberg’s, Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life and her Try This prompts. They taught me how to turn off the inner editor, but even better, they showed me how to be a great people-watcher. I’d spend hours in my local coffee shop making up stories about other people’s lives and writing them down (it’s fun. Try it. Just don’t stare. That creeps people out.)

When I began drafting my first novel, it didn’t occur to me to use prompts. The story flowed and I had more ideas for scenes than I had time to write them. But then, one day, I got stuck. I’d written down everything I’d crafted in my brain, but there was a lot more of the story to tell and I had no idea where to go next.

I sat in front of my computer screen feeling totally dejected. Where did the inspiration go? I didn’t know how to write a whole book! And a young adult book at that… did I even remember what it was like to be a teen? What was I thinking?

It had been years since I last picked up Wild Mind, but that day, I grabbed it off the shelf and opened it to a page. These were the first words I saw:
Try this:
Do a timed writing for ten minutes. Begin with “I remember” and keep going. Every time you get stuck and feel you have nothing to say, write, “I remember” again. Keep going.
That exercise instantly picked me up and dropped me off in my middle school. I saw the posters on the wall in my English classroom, and remembered how horrible my science teacher smelled. It came back to me how much I hated first period gym, especially in the winter. But my most vivid pictures were of the hallway.

The hall was circular and the classrooms were on the perimeter. To keep order, students could only walk in one direction—clockwise. If you forgot a book in your locker, it meant another trip around the circle. Which often meant a tardy slip.

The writing exercise I did that day became the inspiration for “The Donut” in Time Between Us. I pictured Anna, curious about this guy she saw earlier that morning, walking the hallway between classes and trying to find him again when she could only walk in one direction. I wrote that down. And then I wrote more and more.

The “I Remember” prompt did its job—it put me right back in school, deep into Anna’s frame of mind, and gave me the setting I needed to build my scene.

One thing I have learned about writing and about myself is that when I get stuck, it's often because I've stopped having fun.

But isn’t that why we write? Because it's fun to create whole people out of thin air, or to travel to places we’ve built from our own imaginations? I love remembering what it was like to drink coffee in an Italian village, or how it felt to look into the eyes of an elephant in Thailand. I write to bring myself back to places and feelings and people and moments that moved me, and translate them into stories people might want to read.

The last time I was in a bookstore I found another great book: 642 Things To Write About, by the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. I brought it home and found a prompt that was right up my alley:
Put your iPod on random shuffle, write down the lyrics of the first song that comes on, and use it as an opening line.
My iPod chose this song.

I took off, starting with the line: “She hates my mama. She hates my daddy too.” The result was this wacky little story I’ll never share. But I will say this: I had a blast writing about a character who was the absolute opposite of the ones I’ve been living and breathing. It was fun.

If you’re feeling stuck or just looking for inspiration, go on a prompt date. Wander through your memories, or into the life of a total stranger, or into an imaginary world. See where the journey takes you.

To get your started, here are a few more ideas from 642 Things to Write About:
  • A lie you told and got away with.
  • A family that lived on the street where you grew up.
  • Start with, “I never told anyone…”
And one of my favorites from Wild Mind:
  • The topic is “teeth”. Twenty minutes. Go.
Do you have a favorite writing prompt? What lines get you going when you need a little jolt?

About Time Between Us

Anna and Bennett were never supposed to meet: she lives in 1995 Chicago and he lives in 2012 San Francisco. But Bennett’s unique ability to travel through time and space brings him into Anna’s life, and with him, a new world of adventure and possibility. As their relationship deepens, they face the reality that time might knock Bennett back where he belongs, even as a devastating crisis throws everything they believe into question. Against a ticking clock, Anna and Bennett are forced to ask themselves how far they can push the bounds of fate—and what consequences they can bear in order to stay together.

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  1. I don't have a writing prompt, but I love the random song one. I'll have to try it out. :D

  2. I like using songs to inspire me. In fact, the idea for the WIP I'm writing now came from a music video.
    I also try leaving my mind blank and then start writing whatever comes first, and just go with it. Sometimes some kick ass scenes come this way ;)

  3. My favorite writing prompt (and way to get unstuck) is to open a new document and ask myself, "What's the absolute worst that could happen?" Much mayhem generally ensues, with many dead bodies and explosions, but somewhere in that mess, I'll find the bit that will fit perfectly with my WIP.

  4. Prompts are always useful for me when I don't have a specific writing goal, but want to get some practice in. That often helps take the pressure off of having to produce something perfect, and I can experiment with different things, make connections that I wouldn't have if I didn't have that particular prompt.

  5. My writing group uses prompts followed by 10 minutes of furious scribbling/typing. Occasionally we are given a list of random words that must be included within the story. Just trying to fit them in a subtle or clever way leaves you with no time to procrastinate.

    One of my favourite prompts is:
    "There are several possible answers to that question."

    This prompt makes you consider what the question is, what the answers are, and what answer(s) you are prepared to disclose. It also works for every genre.

  6. I cannot wait for Time Between Us. I'd accidentally put it on my to-read shelf on goodreads (as opposed to the shelf I use for not-yet-released books) and got so sad when I went to buy it on Kindle and it wasn't there!

    My favorite writing prompt came from an MFA class where we had only two pages in which to retell a fairy tale. The creepy red riding hood I came up with still niggles in my mind as the potential start of a YA

  7. The only short story I've ever gotten published started with a writing prompt. The goal was to write a story entirely in dialogue, and at the time I felt like dialogue was my weakness. I proved to myself that it wasn't, but I also came up with a great story once I'd filled in the blanks. If I'd started out with my usual writing method for Hornworms, it probably would have been much more description-heavy like the other stuff I was writing at the time.

  8. Time Between Us sounds amazing!! I can't wait to read it.

    My favorite prompt came from a creative writing class I took in college, where the TA handed out random pictures she'd cut out from magazines. Some were really artsy, some were photographs of landscapes, some were funky fashion ads. My picture was of a boardwalk covered in early morning fog with a couple standing in the middle, and I immediately wanted to write about this couple. I wanted to know why they were on the boardwalk, especially when it was so foggy they could barely see each other.

    So now, whenever I feel stuck, I like to go to websites like pinterest and tumbler and pick a picture that inspires me to write.

  9. I haven't used writing prompts. Maybe because I only have one almost finished manuscript. But your ideas are good and I'll remember them if I ever get stuck.

  10. That song idea is a great one, might have to try that! I'm feeling sort of stuck right now, so this post is super-timely.

    What I have done in the past when I'm stuck is just to open a blank document and start writing stream of consciousness, no editing--just whatever comes out of my fingers and onto the page. It doesn't always work, though, as evidenced by my current stuckness!

  11. Great tips, thank you! I have not experimented much with writing prompts, so I'm excited to try out all these new ideas!

  12. I'll often think of little blurbs, like "A time traveler and an immortal are friends throughout history", or "A man wakes up to find that his dog is a cat; wonders what else has changed without him knowing it" and use them as vaulting points to begin a story. Sometimes they turn out nicely. Other times they don't go anywhere. Either way, I learn a lot of neat little things from the journey, regardless of how well or ill-defined my start is.

  13. I haven't used any specific writing prompts but often times music helps inspire. I find a song that is closely related to what my character is going through. And think about how to make the lyrics into a story.

  14. My advisor in my writing program gave me great advice whenever I complained of being stuck: do the exercises in The Aspiring Poet’s Journal by Bernard Friot. At first I balked at the notion, but the daily exercises (five minutes a day, people) helped me train myself to be more playful with words.

  15. I always have the best intentions to use writing books (Elizabeth Berg has some good ones in her book on writing) and then I never do it; I always try to force myself through the tough parts in writing. But you are so right, writing should be FUN and instead of forcing my unhappy way through difficult parts of writing, I should liven it up with fun prompts like these examples.

    Here's a prompt from Berg's book: pretend you are the opposite sex for a while.

  16. I often watch documentaries from NetFlix or other service to generate ideas. Following a real documentary in a situation that is near what you're working on can also give insights into how your characters might react.

  17. Here's a prompt or at least an exercise I like to do. What will your character be like as an adult? (Or what was he like as a child if he is already an adult).

  18. Like a previous poster, I also like to go to "the worst that could happen" kind of prompt, since conflict is so important. I start with "I'd really hate it if..." finishing the phrase from my characters point of view. That gets me going in the direction of what could happen in a scene that might be surprising instead of what would be expected. Enjoyed the post- looking forward to the book!

  19. Love the premise of your novel...now added to my kindle wish list :) I've not used writing prompts before, but I am currently stuck in my novel writing so will definitely try out some of your suggestions. Something I do sometimes is write a poem and then use the poem as inspiration for a scene, be it literal or in atmosphere, and also sometimes break up the poem to use bits of it in the prose.

  20. I like using all my senses to describe being in a certain room.

  21. I do song prompts a lot, although using the first line of one is probably more concrete.

    I have a question: How long will this contest last? I want it to be available when my weekly round-up goes up on Friday.

  22. Usually I just close the document that's troubling and go write whatever I want, though, once upon a time my English teacher gave our class a piece of paper each and made us write down whatever was going on in our minds. It was easy in one sense because the mind is never silent so there was always something to write yet hard in another because you can think a lot faster than you can write!
    But I find that if I just type away for a straight two minutes - effectively complaining about what's wrong and why I FEEL I'm stuck, not only do I get into the flow of writing but often I find the answer to my problem.

  23. I've used writing prompts at various workshops and am always surprised by what they inspire. I also find listening to music while writing helps generate certain moods.

  24. Great prompt ideas to try.
    I like travelling- any mode, train, bus, plane, all get ideas going. Also looking at sculpture and visiting galleries and museums.

  25. Like Natalie, I don't use writing prompts. Glad to see I'm not alone in the crowd on that! I reread what I was working on when I left my ms, and jump in! SOmetimes I record a dream first. Does that count?

  26. Teeth! That's awesome! Thanks for the great tips. I'll give them a try.

  27. This is awesome advice! I've been stuck for a while, trying to work out the plot for my wip. I'll have to try this. Thanks for sharing! :)

  28. I don't have a favorite prompt, but I had an immediate idea when I read the one you suggested about a family on the same street. I tell you, that one's GOLD for me=)

  29. This is a great topic!

    What works for me when I'm stuck is creating playlists for each character. Music says so much about a person. Some of my characters may have questionable taste in music, but it helps me understand them as people. Also, when a song comes on the radio I can think OMG X would totally listen to this! And then my friends ask why I'm grinning like a fool.

    I have to say I'm loving the song lyric prompt. I'm absolutely going to give that a try next time I'm in need.

  30. Great post. I love using prompts to spark my imagination even if I don't get to writing they get me thinking.

    I wrote down the following not long ago:

    Unlike other firedrakes, the dragon in this story liked to recite poetry and was a connoisseur of fine wines.

    I think it was a sentence showing the word 'connoiisseur' in context, or maybe it was 'firedrake'... Anyway I loved the image it conjured up!

  31. These are perfect. Great timing. I keep coming up with other things I 'need' to get done before I can write. Maybe this afternoon I'll write about that unusual family that lived across the street in middle and high school. Thanks!

  32. C0, contest ends Sunday. Thanks for reminding me I forgot to mention that!

  33. Great post! One of my favorite prompts comes from a writing workshop I attended. The instructor called it "line stealing" where you blindly pick a line at random from a book, newspaper or magazine and begin writing based off that line. Works great with poetry.

  34. I'm so excited to read your book, Tamara - congrats! Thanks Caryn for the very generous giveaway!

    And thanks for reminding me about writing prompts: it's been too long. In the past, I've mostly used prompts to get the creative juices flowing. Genius to use them to get unstuck on your WIP!

    I like many of the writing exercises in Josip Novakovich's "Writing Fiction Step by Step." I believe it was there I got an exercise that's really stuck with me because the resulting story surprised me so much. Something like: Write about an every-day occurrence from four people's point of view. Who knew a simple family Sunday breakfast contained so much suppressed emotion! :)

  35. I've never tried writing prompts (though now that I think about it, it seems obvious). I usually turn to music to get me out of a funk.

  36. I don't do prompts very often but I love the "I Remember" one. I can see how that'd be especially helpful when writing YA since it helps you remember when you were that age.

    When I was in my MFA program, our teacher gave us a writing prompt where we had to take a little tsotchke from a pile and writer a story that included the object.

  37. I love the concept of "I remember", because once you get started it really does pull you back in to the story of your own life complete with details - I can't wait to try.

    I've just been introduced to the alternate reality approach which is quite fun - when you're stuck just list as many different outcomes as you can and pick the one that works best.

  38. I write mostly observational humor, so if I'm stuck, I just pull out one of the many little notebooks I keep around the house or in my bag and read through notes I've scribbled until I find something that strikes me.

    Even if the result doesn't work in my current WIP, I save the snippet for a future ms or a blog post. Much of what I write stems from the "I remember" concept!

  39. This blog never fails to deliver, one great idea after another.
    My personal favorite prompt is to eavesdrop on conversations on the train or in a cafe. Ok, its creepy, butI don't eavesdrop for long, maybe enough to hear a tantalizing morsel, out of context. If I continue to listen, it runs the risk of becoming mundane ( ie, sounding like a murder plot when they're actually talking about killing bugs). I don't do it often, and haven't been thumped yet.