Aug 282016
 

It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that your grade school, middle school or high school teacher wrote a sentence or phrase on the classroom blackboard or whiteboard, asking you to finish the story. You may have done so individually or as a group, but you developed a story with a beginning, middle and ending. Although I can’t recall the starter phrase or sentence that inspired such a story during fifth grade, I do remember writing a story about pulling weeds whose roots dug so deeply into the earth that they yanked me down into a different time and place. Likewise, during a college semester final exam following a short story writing class, each of us pulled starter sentences from a bag, and were charged with writing stories.

Photo by Jesse Wagstaff: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jesse/14149031350) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Photo by Jesse Wagstaff: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jesse/14149031350) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

What are writing prompts?

Story starters such as opening sentences or phrases are just one type of writing prompt. Obviously, they unlock your creative gears, helping you to fill a blank page. They can be used to help you continue the story, might represent the middle of the story, or can be where your story ends up. In essence, the purpose of story starters is to help get your writing started. From that point forward, it’s all your own effort to flesh out the rest of the story.

Writing prompts can, of course, appear in other forms besides starter sentences. Photos or illustrations can work exactly the same way. Other times, you may be presented with a what-if scenario, but then have to develop the characters, plot, setting and motivations. When I wrote Destination Imagination Instant Challenges for cre8iowa’s Instant Challenge Library, or on-the-spot creative problem-solving exercises, I sometimes used a matrix approach as a jumping-off point. The basic idea behind this prompt method is to combine one or more elements from charted rows and columns.

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You can also use a flip book divided into categories in much the same way.

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Teachers often use a flip book method, as evidenced by such titles as Silly Starters Write-Abouts or Creative Thinking Write-Abouts.

Silly Starters

Creative Thinking

10 reasons writing prompts work

Writing prompts are helpful for the following reasons, whether you blog or write poetry, plays, fiction, non-fiction or something else. Not convinced? Writing prompts can do the following:

  1. They provide inspiration.
  1. They challenge you to examine an unfamiliar point of view, experience, or feeling.
  1. They help you to practice writing basics, focusing on one or more storytelling aspects such as point of view, setting, plot, characterization, dialog, or description.
  1. They make the process of writing more fun.
  1. They help you to discover new approaches to your writing by allowing you to experiment with words in a playful environment.
  1. They help you to build and maintain a regular habit of writing, making it easier for you to tackle larger writing projects.
  1. They can help you to discover your writing voice.
  1. They can provide the content for a writing forum, a place where writers can meet in person or online to share and discuss each other’s writing.
  1. They can provide the platform for a published piece of writing.
  1. They can help you rediscover your passion for writing, or get past writer’s block.

Where to find writing prompts

Writing prompts can be found everywhere, both for free or for a fee. Newspaper headlines and photos are great story starters, for example. Books such as Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Workshop and The Writer’s Idea Book provide hundreds of writing prompts. There is, in fact, an entire market devoted to books with writing prompts.

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You can also find writing prompts in kit form, which use the principle of games to make writing fun. Jamie Cat Callan’s The Writer’s Toolbox inspires poetry, prose, screenplays, and novels—but can also be helpful to anyone who wants to think outside the proverbial box. The toolbox includes a guidebook; First Sentence Sticks, Non Sequitur Sticks, and Last Straw Sticks; Sixth-Sense Cards, and the Protagonist Game.

Writer's Toolbox

Another writing kit that features writing prompts is Judy Reeves’ The Writer’s Retreat Kit. The kit includes a guidebook telling you how to set up a retreat—with just yourself, or with others—as well as 20 different retreat cards to prompt you to write mindfully about such themes as Writing with the Moon, Maps to Anywhere, Hot Summer Nights, and 17 other enticing themes—each card with 20 different writing prompts, or a total of 400 writing ideas.

Writer's Retreat Kit

Another place to find writing prompts is the Web. Many of these writing prompts invite you to participate in a community, although that certainly is not a requirement. Four magazines with an online presence provide writing prompts on a regular basis.

  • At The Writer, you’ll find an entire section devoted to Writing Prompts. Some recent topics include “Mannequins,” “Elementary,” “Nuggets,” and “Fly on the wall.”
  • Poets & Writers offers a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays. Visit The Time is Now for more information.
  • The Sun devotes a column to each issue called Readers Write. Readers are asked to address subjects on which they are the authority. Even if you don’t subscribe or submit your writing piece to this literary magazine, you can use the list of topics as writing prompts. Visit Readers Write for the complete list of topics.

As many of you know, I craft books, journals and notebooks by hand and sell them at Mister PenQuin on Etsy. Sometimes people are not sure what they should do with the journals in particular. Writing prompts are the perfect way to fill those blank journal pages, with lots of side benefits. As Emily Wenstrom in How to Use Writing Prompts to Become a Better Writer says, “It turns out, the prompt itself doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you do with it.”

Do you use writing prompts? If so, what’s your favorite source?

© 2016 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved

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Aug 132016
 

Whether you’ve been blogging for years or are a relative newcomer to the blogging scene, the challenge is the same: coming up with a foolproof way to begin writing a post. I took a few months off from blogging earlier this year, while I was undergoing cancer treatments, but when I returned to blogging, that white desktop screen was a bit daunting. Here are three ways I jump start my own posts that you may find helpful.

 Photo by Dinalya Dawes (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dinalyadawes/16679987154) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Photo by Dinalya Dawes (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dinalyadawes/16679987154) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Respond to what you read

Writers generally have more to say when they do something outside of writing, whether that’s visiting the state fair, learning how to surf, attending a play, reading a book, or doing anything else. Lori Lake, in Quick Ways to Jump-Start Your Writing, says you can find topics anywhere—the newspaper, television, overheard conversations, the radio, and so on. “Start making a quick list throughout the day,” she says, “about anything that strikes you . . .”

One of the best ways I come up with a blog post idea is by responding to a book, magazine article or blog post I have read, or to a comment on one of my own posts. This post, in fact, is a response to a recent comment from a reader who said she simply needs to “. . . begin something—anything at all to get the ball rolling.”

Are there certain types of articles or posts to which you’re drawn? Likely these are the same topics that will inspire you to write. Cover a different angle about the same topic, or expand on one of the points you’ve read. Argue a different point of view, or cite reasons why you agree, and provide evidence. Invite others’ opinions, cite others’ opinions, and respond to one or more of these points of view. For myself, I’m drawn to such topics as writing, creativity, crafts and mindfulness. What reading topics draw your attention? That’s your starting point.

Photo by Lori Greig (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lori_greig/2195971982) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Photo by Lori Greig (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lori_greig/2195971982) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Begin with the title

When I used to write Instant Challenges (on-the-spot creative problem-solving exercises) for Iowa’s Destination Imagination program, my writing team identified a theme, and then brainstormed titles to correspond with it. One year we had an abundance of toilet paper rolls to use as working materials, so “roll” became our theme, and the Instant Challenges were generated from roll-themed titles.

A Roll-of-Plenty

Blog posts can begin exactly the same way. Identify a theme you want to address, and then begin brainstorming titles. If you’re stumped, use a list of title starters, such as April Bowles-Olin’s 75 Done-For-You Blog Post Title Templates, posted on her blog, Blacksburg Belle. Here’s an example of how this might work for a fellow Blogging Business Artisans teammate, Sharla, whose Beaded Tail blog posts are written in the person of her cats, Angel and Isabella. The cats refer to Sharla as “Mommy.” Some of Sharla’s beaded jewelry designs feature an animal theme, and one of the causes she supports is animal awareness, especially for animals with special needs. Using April Bowles-Olin’s templates, here are some potential titles Sharla might use to begin several posts:

  • Template: Why You Should __________ Today; Blog Post Title: Why You Should Support Your Local Animal Shelter Today
  • Template: Behind the Scenes of __________; Blog Post Title: Behind the Scenes of Mommy’s Bead Studio
  • Template: The Right Way to __________; Blog Post Title: The Right Way to Feed Your Cat’s Curiosity
  • Template: The ABCs of __________; Blog Post Title: The ABCs to Building a Purr-fect Playground
  • Template: __________ Tricks to __________; Blog Post Title: Clever Tricks to Wrap Mommy Around Our Tails

Beginning a post with a title not only helps you to write the content of the post, but is also an attention-getter. “Titles matter more than most people realize,” writes April. “It’s really the ONLY thing that matters when you’re trying to get people to click to read the blog post.”

Draw a mind map

When you aren’t getting anywhere with topic and title lists, you may discover that a visual approach to brainstorming is helpful. Vicki Meade, in How to Use Clustering to Jump Start Your Writing, points out that one of the best ways to come up with ideas and find a direction for a writing piece is clustering, also referred to as mind mapping. “Clustering is a powerful tool,” Vicki writes, “because it taps into the right brain, which drives creativity. Our right brain is where fresh ideas and original insights are generated. The left brain, in contrast, is more logical and orderly.” Being left-brained or right-brained, of course, has no basis in scientific fact, as both sides of our cerebral cortex are involved in creativity, but left and right brain terminology does describe people’s inclinations and resulting behaviors. Sometimes we get caught up in criticizing our initial ideas so much that we stem the flow of our own creativity. This results in what is commonly referred to as writer’s block.

The way that clustering, or mind mapping, works is through the process of free association, using word-and-image connections. You begin by identifying a word, phrase or image that represents a central idea. You circle that word or phrase, and then add any words, phrases or images that come to mind after that, circling and connecting them with lines to the original circle. These words or phrases may also suggest other ideas to you, so you continue the process of jotting them down or drawing them, circling them, and attaching lines between circles to suggest connected ideas. There is really no right or wrong way to do this. If you wish, use colored pencils or markers, and use squares, triangles and other shapes, in addition to circles. Stop when you’ve either filled the working space, or when you can no longer think of connections. Keep in mind that your working space could also be a dry erase board or even a wall on which you adhere sticky notes. When you’re finished, look at related ideas and group them together to establish the focus of your post. Finally, begin writing. Make sure you don’t stop along the way to edit your post. When the post is finished, return to your post to correct grammar, punctuation and syntax, and to add images and needed links.

Photo by Jessica Mullent (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jessicamullen/3230262686) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

This mind map is centered around the concept of information, with related ideas radiating around it. It is important, when you free associate, that you don’t edit out your ideas, as that limits your final outcome.  Photo by Jessica Mullen (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jessicamullen/3230262686) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

A great resource for discovering how to use mind mapping is Tony Busan’s book, The Ultimate Book of Mind Maps, which focuses on paper-and-pen methods. Truthfully, I prefer to use paper-and-pen, but if you’d like to preview an electronic method of mind mapping, the six-and-a-half minute video below of iMindMap, admittedly an older video, provides a great sneak peek into electronic mind mapping principles in general.

Some of the advantages to using mind mapping software are that you can save, print, edit and share your mind map. There are many applications that you can use on the Web or on your mobile devices. Ideally, mind mapping software should sync between Web and mobile devices. You can refer to the list below to compare apps. Consider that a free app will have fewer features than a purchased one, but that there may be an option to upgrade to a full-featured version for a reasonable fee.

Obviously, there are more than three ways to jump start your blogging than the ones I’ve outlined in this post, but I have found these methods to be personally useful. What are your favorite methods of kickstarting a blog post?

© 2016 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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Aug 062016
 

In last week’s post, How to tell a story only you can tell, I discussed the importance of writing daily to develop your writing voice. How much you write and what you write are really up to you. Simply stated, you’re the boss. Some writers set themselves a word count, others a page count, and a number of people do a lot of writing inside their heads before they set pen to paper or fingertips upon keys. I “write” in the shower, of all places, formulating sentences that turn into paragraphs and pages once I towel off. Sometimes my daily writing exercise consists of nothing more than a list of ideas I want to explore, or a list of titles I have brainstormed. Honestly, I don’t think it matters how much you write or what you write; just make sure you write something every day, however you define writing for yourself. Writing is like any other skill you might have—archery, speaking a foreign language, or crocheting—if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. At the very least you’ll be on shaky ground, for a while, when you begin writing after taking some time off.

You never know what ideas you'll generate during a shower. Photo by Emily Orpin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ejorpin/8061410382) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

You never know what ideas you’ll generate during a shower. Photo by Emily Orpin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ejorpin/8061410382) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

It’s sort of interesting to learn, however, how many words well-established writers write each day. According to Amanda Patterson in The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors, Ernest Hemingway, who wrote such novels as The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, wrote 500 words a day. Michael Crichton, author of suspense thrillers such as Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and Sphere—all of which became films—writes a prodigious 10,000 words a day. Mark Twain wrote about 1,400 words a day, and many modern writers—Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, and Anne Rice—write 2,000 to 3,000 words daily, or roughly 7 to 10 double-spaced, typed pages.

Michael Crichton originally began writing to pay his way through Harvard Medical School.

Michael Crichton originally began writing to pay his way through Harvard Medical School.

Ali Luke, in How Much Should You Write Every Day?, points out that some writers write quickly, producing many words, while others write slowly and meticulously, writing fewer words. She says it doesn’t matter how much work you accomplish, or even if you physically write every day, as long as you determine for yourself how much and how often you should write to feel good about the progress you are making. She does recommend, however, that you develop a routine for yourself, as this routine will develop your writing muscles. Like a marathon runner who gradually runs longer distances, you may need to write less before you can write more.

Photo by Peter Mooney (https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterm7/14911124135) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Photo by Peter Mooney (https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterm7/14911124135) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

On the surface, what Ali says seems to contradict what I stated in the first sentence of this post, i.e., that it’s important to write daily. But writing is not just the act of putting words on paper. It is also the act of feeding your word bank by reading widely, playing word games, and consciously listening to how people speak and what they say. Observation is a critical part of a writer’s tool box. Writing is also journaling your dreams, writing letters and keeping a diary, scrapbook or journal. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, might argue that taking time off from the physical act of writing by visiting a museum, strolling through a butterfly park or sitting through a concert is still directly related to writing because you can’t write effectively if you don’t also have experiences to capture.

Photo by YoungDoo M. Carey (https://www.flickr.com/photos/youngdoo/173891157) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Photo by YoungDoo M. Carey (https://www.flickr.com/photos/youngdoo/173891157) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Most writers have childhood experiences that encouraged them to develop a passion for writing. I was probably in third grade when I received my first diary, which I kept faithfully until I was in high school. The summer after I learned cursive writing, my mother asked my younger brother, Mark, and me to sit down after lunch every day, and copy by hand a long poem we enjoyed from a thick volume of verse. My parents were our attentive audience when we wrote, practiced and presented a puppet show, using my bedroom closet as a stage. We played word games during car journeys and Scrabble for Juniors at the family kitchen table, solved crossword puzzles, and circled page after page of word search exercises. Once every couple of weeks during grade school, when my family lived in southern California, my brother and I traded the previous load of library books for another heavy stack, trekking 45 minutes each way, to and from the library. During junior high, we walked across the street to the library every day after school, where I read for pleasure until my father finished working and picked us up. That’s when I first began reading a magazine called The Writer, to which I have subscribed for many years of my adult life. My junior high, high school and college years were filled with long letters I wrote to friends in the U.S. and Germany, articles I wrote for the school newspaper, and poems and short stories I wrote for the literary magazine.

Reading is important to writers. When my mother suggested I go outside to get some fresh air, I usually took a book with me. This is a high school snapshot.

Reading is important to writers. When my mother suggested I take a break from reading by getting some fresh air outdoors, a book usually accompanied me. This is a high school snapshot.

The childhood experiences that encouraged you to become a writer in the first place are similar to the adult experiences that nurture you today. One experience flows into another, building layers of memories until they overflow, morphing into words that form a writing routine. James Thayer, in How Many Words a Day, suggests that a schedule is a good place for many writers to start. A schedule often produces an outline, long and detailed for some people and quite loose for others. I know that for me, I don’t like being tied to a detailed outline. However, a general one that is linked to a deadline is helpful. I write organically—but also slowly—with a general idea of where I will end up, and take little detours along the way. But I have to admit that setting aside one or two days a week, when I know that I will sit down and physically finish a writing piece, gets the job done.

One of my all-time favorite writers is Ray Bradbury, who claimed he did not have to worry about schedules. "Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this." His routine, however, was to head for a typewriter anywhere he could find it. Photo by Fred Guillory (https://www.flickr.com/photos/klytemestra) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

One of my all-time favorite writers is Ray Bradbury, who claimed he did not have to worry about schedules. “Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.” Bradbury’s routine, however, was to head for a typewriter anywhere he could find it as soon as he woke up. Quotation source:  http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6012/the-art-of-fiction-no-203-ray-bradbury. Photo by Fred Guillory (https://www.flickr.com/photos/klytemestra) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.

Paula Munier, in Writing with Quiet Hands, says that it took her a long time to learn the lesson that “Showing up every day to write is one of the rules that you break at your own peril.” She points out that Annie Dillard writes every morning and takes off at lunch, John Updike wrote every weekday but skipped weekends, and Maya Angelou rented a hotel room and wrote from early in the morning to mid-afternoon every day. The point is that setting yourself a writing goal within the context of a routine—whether it’s a word count, a specific number of pages, a set length of time, getting from Point A to Point B in an outline, or adhering to a deadline—truly works. What’s your writing routine all about?

© 2016 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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