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Arriving Promptly: Writing Exercises from Authors of New Books

Arriving Promptly: Writing Exercises from Authors of New Books

3693845666_51be238753_m_french-tarotOne way that we will celebrate new books at Real Pants is by asking authors of recent releases to provide a writing prompt to our readers. These will arrive on Friday, beginning next week with a prompt from Niina Pollari, author of DEAD HORSE (Birds LLC).

You’ll get some insight into how the guest author thinks and approaches writing and craft, probably in some way that relates to their new book, and you’ll have a gentle nudge for your own work. Something to play with.

Then you’ll have all weekend to respond to the prompt, either on your own or in the comments section. From time to time, the guest author will choose their favorite response from the comments and send the writer a signed copy of their new book. We may also publish work on the site that springs from the prompts.

Today, I would love to hear from everybody about prompts in general: Do you use them? Which ones have worked? Have you written whole books that began with a prompt, or stories or poems? Share a link if something you’ve published online has arisen from a prompt.

What is the difference between a prompt and a writing exercise (I use both in the title of this post to avoid weird repetition, but I don’t think they are exactly the same, maybe).

I think a whole lot of poets use prompts they give themselves, somehow. Or practices, or exercises. Like first of all, CA Conrad and his (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals. I got to take a workshop with CA at The Letters Festival and found the rituals he led us through to be incredibly generative.

Personally, I love prompts. For awhile, as I worked on a novel draft, I used a simple ritual suggested in Jill Dearman‘s Bang the Keys: before you write, draw a card from a deck, maybe playing cards, or tarot, meditate on it, and then start writing. I used a beautiful deck from France called Le Petit Oracle des Dames. It was a good way to center my time writing. Later, I used them in a much more intensive way and wrote a series of poems based on different cards. Then I started to invent my own cards and wrote poems that way—The Neighbor, The Mistake/Error (since some cards are doubled, like “L’amour/Le désir.”

Let’s talk about prompts!

Amy McDaniel

Amy McDaniel teaches high school and runs 421 Atlanta, a very small press that publishes poetry and short prose. She is the author of two chapbooks, both with the words "Adult Lessons" in the title, and her writing has been published widely online and in print. She is the editor of Real Pants.

About The Author

Amy McDaniel

Amy McDaniel teaches high school and runs 421 Atlanta, a very small press that publishes poetry and short prose. She is the author of two chapbooks, both with the words "Adult Lessons" in the title, and her writing has been published widely online and in print. She is the editor of Real Pants.

  • As a teacher, my favorite prompt to assign is to write in the form of a letter. I know the epistolary form can seem a little tired sometimes, but having an audience in mind–one that isn’t the professor or the other people in the workshop–seems to really help student writers to clarify their purpose and get at the heart of what they want to say.

  • Occasional draws from the virtual card deck, Oblique Strategies, has been useful. For the sake of this comment I just drew a card that reads, Cut a vital connection.

    But I need my vital connections.

    This may be a confession, but I mostly draw one of these when feeling stuck or frozen.

  • I use prompts in group speech therapy, actually! You have to modify them for the levels of language and communication your participants have, but I find they make people comfortable by evening out the room — we all have to do this so now it doesn’t feel so silly at all. Adults enjoy talking or writing about themselves and their experiences, and prompts give a good chance to share with structure. I enjoy Lynda Barry for these kind of short prompts, but I have drawn from all sorts of places. I like the animated blank on blank conversations PBS puts out as well, they get people thinking about life specifics, and they offer engagement in video which is nice. I look for something that touches at universal feelings and something that provides for all different modes of expression.

  • My favorite prompts have been those in which there is not a lot of pressure on the final product–no one is trying to write something “publishable” via the prompt, rather everyone is trying to have fun with the act of writing.

    To that end, there’s a prompt I’ve done a couple times (I can’t remember where I learned it, but it’s kind of a Queneau “exercise in style” thing). It worked like this:

    Names of “iconic” writers/writing-styles are placed in a hat, (Austen, Hemingway, Agatha Christie, classified ads, etc) and the hat is passed around and people draw a name/style. Then everyone is assigned to rewrite the same scene/sentence/paragraph from whatever reading we’d done that week in the style drawn from the hat. Then they read it to the class, and discuss what choices they made and why. (this can be done in a single class if it’s just a sentence, or given as a longer assignment)

    The end result is usually a hilarious and fun reading, but the “why you made that choice” tends to point out things about style that people did not notice, while at the same time paying really, really close attention to that week’s reading.

    Anyway. It’s a lot of fun. Rewriting Denis Johnson’s baby rabbits scene as a Shakespearean sonnet makes for a lively conversation.

    • Joe! This is great. I saw a production of The Big Lebowski that was translated into Shakespearean language. My favorite — the dude was called the knave.

  • Sheldon Lee Compton

    I used prompts from Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction with my comp class this past semester and they pretty much dug the hell out of it. For me, I’ve used photographs pretty well in the past. I did 33 straight days at my blog back in 2009 and used generated and random photos from Wikipedia to write those stories. A lot of them were shit, but it was damn fun.

    • Photographs are such great prompts — I got to participate in a reading where each writer was paired with a local photographer and given about 10 images to prompt a piece of writing. Then I ended up adding another layer by using lines from Velvet Underground songs for each poem in the little series I wrote from the photographs.

  • Tracy Dimond

    CA Conrad’s (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals have inspired me to create exercises for myself on a smaller scale. Exercises I’ve used (or used with students) are freewriting to close-up images, to pop music, to paintings, and to sound bites. It removes the pressure to create something completely new, even though my own obsessions usually come out in revision.

    • definitely — nice to have something to rub up against.

  • embfitz

    I wish I could remember where I got this — it’s not quick, but it’s one of my favorites.

    1. Get out one of the 50 cent notebooks I buy at back-to-school sales.
    2. Write a different first line on each page. 100 page notebook = 100 first lines.
    3. Go back to the beginning, write a second line for each.
    4. Go back to the beginning, write a third line for each.
    5. Go back to the beginning. Write a fourth line for the ones that seem the most promising, and the ones that seem the least promising.
    6. Keep working on the ones that are working, remember there’s more for later.

  • Leesa Cross Smith

    I used writing prompts in college but not so much anymore. I READ THEM THO. AND LOVE READING THEM. Like, a lot. So they obvi click something in my creative brain, even when I don’t follow thru w/the actual writing part. Just reading the questions/prompts/ideas help!

  • I’m with Leesa — I don’t think I’ve used them very much, but I find them fun to read. They’re like poems. I remember in elementary school I got a bunch of them that were like “Paul is walking in the woods. After a while he comes to a hill and climbs it, and on the other side of the hill he saw …” and I was really annoyed that there was no end of the story. WHAT DID PAUL SEE!

    And I bet using @embfitz:disqus’s would result in some cool, kinda oelipian writing. I like that it says to continue the ones that seem least promising.

  • Ann Hartter

    I love writing prompts. I have books and books of them; most used: Brian Kiteley’s 3AM Epiphany & the San Fransisco Writer’s Grotto 642 Things to Write About. Have I published anything with them? Not yet, but I’ve finished two first drafts using Kiteley’s book and have used the Writer’s Grotto when teaching, helping one student send one piece to publish.

    I want things to think about that I don’t already think about. I want to be reminded that my head is only one place, and to write well, I have to move around.

    I think a writing exercise is to get better at some skill I’m working on. The prompt shows me a path to take for a whole story. A prompt and an exercise can be used in conjunction; usually I need a prompt when I’m working on exercises.

  • Prompts are best for me when they come naturally, that is to say, when life prompts me to write. I also like constraints, when they’re interesting. I think that formal constraints, like haiku or the ten minute play, are interesting. Writing assignments, on the other hand, tend not to excite me very much. It doesn’t encourage me to write when, for example, the suggestion is to choose a word at random and then to free-write using that word. If it’s a given word, and an alluring one, then perhaps I’ll have an idea to use it, but probably a phrase is all that will come of it. Sometimes I think the point is to give up thinking about the assignment as such and to do the assignment anyway.

    • Constraints! Yes, constraints for me are more generative than prompts. Good point.

  • I have a question about the upcoming prompts. If we want to write in response to them, is there a good place to share what we’ve written, if we want to?

    • Amy says people can do it “on your own or in the comments section.” I hope lots of people share them in the comments, and we’ll occasionally choose some to publish as posts on the site proper, and some to award with signed copies of the “prompter’s” book. If there is interest in this (as it seems there is), I’d like to use prompts as our first foray into the “platisher” world, where people can submit their response directly onto the site and other readers can vote them up and down, affecting their visibility (like Medium or Jezebel’s Groupthink thing).

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