Friday, October 12, 2012

Do writing prompts work?


Why do I ask? Well, during the past few years, I've published some stories (and written a few more), but mostly I've worked on novels. And once I was well into a novel, a "prompt" for whatever I was going to do next didn't seem necessary. If I didn't feel inspired simply to go forward, I'd go back into earlier chapters and try to pull out something interesting or unresolved. That often worked, especially as I've learned to see the novel form as less rigid, more open. In novels, the writer can wander--and, I am reminded, she can do the same in short stories, too. As long as the story itself is "about" wandering in some way. More about that at another time.

But another reason I had for not using writing prompts is that it had started to feel like cheating to me. Or, to put it another way, I felt like a student ... and shouldn't I have "graduated" by now? I mean, does Jonathan Franzen use writing prompts? Does Alice Munro? Don't "real" writers have enough material in their own heads, all queued up, because they're fully aware of their own concerns and purposes as artists?

Well, I suspect these guys don't use "prompts" as such--meaning those you'd find in a "How to Write Fiction" book, or receive in a class. But I've just rediscovered them. And in the past month or so, two of those prompts have already helped me

  • prepare the ground for a new novel
  • complete one short story
  • start a new story
Prompts can seem artificial, even silly (Write a story from the point of view of a knick-knack on the shelf beside you! Turn yourself into a villain and write from the point of view of someone trying to defeat you!) But it's this very silliness, sometimes, that can get you thinking. Is there something to this scenario? How could that work? In other words, the reason the prompt seems silly is because it's not the way you usually think about the world. And if your writing is starting to seem stale or routine--or is simply not coming at all--this kind of shakeup can do wonders.

Here are the prompts I've been using, from the Poets and Writers site.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Selected Shorts as writing teacher

So you're a writer. That means you listen to NPR's Selected Shorts, right? And even if your station doesn't carry it, you know you can listen to the last five broadcasts here, right?

As I was reminded last Saturday evening, listening to Jane Levy read Aimee Bender's "Americca," there's perhaps no better way to improve your own writing than to listen to great actors reading great stories. That's because so much of literary fiction is getting the voice right. In many ways, the story is the voice that tells it. The voice creates and embodies the world of your story. And hearing the words, read with a trained actor's emotion, pacing, and enunciation, lets you take that voice into your own head.

Once it's in your head, you can then compare the voice to the one you "hear" when you're writing your own story. Maybe you can take on some of its pacing, borrow some of its interjections, emulate its balance of high and low diction. This is not to say that you copy the voice, but that you develop a more acute ear for the voice of your writing. You become more able to hear places in it where you can slow down or spice up--or notice when the voice doesn't yet sound authentic to the story. In other words, this kind of listening expands your range.

That was my experience with hearing Bender's story, anyway. Among other improvements, it inspired me to add a very satisfying "Duh!" to my story of a teenager facing the end of the world.

So listen to Selected Shorts, by all means. And don't forget to attend (and apply for) LA's New Short Fiction Series if you're on the West Coast.