Jan 152017

I read a post recently by Sarah Selecky of Story is a State of Mind in which she makes a case for writing by hand instead of using a keyboard. Selecky does not propose, of course, that you complete all of your creative writing this way, but instead your daily practice writing. She invites you to join her Daily Prompts group in Why should I write by hand?, spending 10 minutes each day with ordinary pen and paper. She acknowledges that you probably write faster by typing, but says this is not the point, that instead the purpose of writing by hand is to deliberately slow things down, to become receptive to details, to notice what’s going on around you, and to become the details. Interesting thought, isn’t it?

Photo by Erin Kohlenberg: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/erinkohlenbergphoto/5406459295) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Ours is a world in which people race to write the first draft of a novel in 30 days by participating in National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, who feel pressured to plan the next book in a series before the first one is even finished, to respond to trends and fads and events that are happening now before they disappear and are replaced by the next Big Thing. Some folks feel compelled to enroll in an MFA writing program, hoping it will give them time to focus on writing above all else, only to discover they feel rushed because that’s not all such an MFA program is about. I suspect the pressure to write a lot quickly is immense in such situations and that there is great potential for writing to become quite a chore.

Photo by mpclemens: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mpclemens/15343533039) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I’m not a fast writer, in case you haven’t guessed this already. My process involves dreaming, reading, researching, mind mapping, list making and reflecting before ideas begin to take shape and finally emerge on paper. I enjoy every step of the journey. Writing is not a burden for me; I don’t fit at all the stereotype of the angst-driven writer who feels she has to write but hates every minute of it. Life is too short to do something you don’t enjoy.

The idea of writing slowly, whether by hand or with a keyboard, until your story takes shape—however you define “story,” and I am defining it loosely—is shared by Patty Dann, author of The Butterfly Hours: Transforming Memories into Memoir. I love this book, which strings together the memories not only of Dann’s life but also those of her students who write their stories 10 minutes at a time until a truth is told that helps them make sense of their lives. For more than 25 years, Patty Dann has taught a workshop at the West Side YMCA in New York City in which she assigns concrete one-word prompts that are intended to evoke memories. These words are as simple as dining room table, apron, stairs, nightgown and snow. Some of her students have taken her workshop more than once, and when they do, they never tell the same story twice. This is slow writing, thoughtful writing, writing that—as Sarah Selecky would say—makes you sit up and take notice of the details.

Photo by Thomas8047: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/93482748@N02/10745434953) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

In The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, Louise DeSalvo says that “the best writing grows by accretion, over time.” She shares slow writing anecdotes not only from classic writers such as Henry Miller and John Steinbeck, but also modern ones such as Margaret Atwood, Junot Díaz and Salmon Rushdie. DeSalvo points out that to know where you’re going with your writing, you should understand your own rhythm and how you work best. You must give yourself permission to write not just one draft, but many drafts, some of them poorly. And before your finest writing work emerges, DeSalvo suggests you will have taken more time than you ever imagined to complete these stages:

  • Imagine it. Think about your topic and take notes about it long before you begin to write your story.
  • Draft it. Recognize that you don’t have just one opportunity to get your story right; you have as many chances as you need.
  • Stage it. Break your work down into chunks you can handle: writing, revising, learning.
  • Manipulate it. Figure out the order of your story, its structure, and its image patterns after you have something to manipulate. Later is better.
  • Fine-tune it. Tighten your work where it meanders, expand it where it’s thin, and work through the details of using the appropriate words, sentences, and paragraphs.

One of the responsibilities a writer owes her readers is to make them feel. Writing that shows more than it tells, or that tells more than it shows, is out of balance. It takes time to find that balance. In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maass explains the challenge clearly through an exercise in which you’re asked to complete a questionnaire with the following information about yourself:

  • Date of birth
  • Hometown
  • Elementary school
  • High school
  • College/major
  • Occupation
  • Date of marriage
  • Other marriages
  • Current residence
  • Religious affiliation, if applicable
  • Awards/honors
  • Hobbies/interests

Then Maass asks if you and he are now best friends. Of course, the answer is no. To understand you, someone would have to ask you how you felt when you lost your grandfather, what disgusts you, what resonates with you, what frightens you, what makes you feel proud, and much more. Writing a story before you take the time to understand the inner workings of your characters is shadow writing; you must take time to acquaint yourself with your characters’ experiences and how these happenings made them feel. This is all about noticing the details, and giving your story deeper meaning. “What shapes us and gives our lives meaning are not the things that happen to us,” says Maass, “but their significance. Life lessons, revelations, changes, and growing convictions are what we think of when we ponder who we are.”

Good writing is always the result of consistent practice over time, reflection, planning, learning, and revising. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you write by hand or use a keyboard, if you pay attention to the details and don’t rush to the end. And when you stroll through your writing garden, instead of speed walking past it, take time to gaze at the butterfly floating above the day lily, to feel the sharp sting of freezing droplets on your skin, and to inhale the earthy aroma of wood smoke drifting from your neighbor’s chimney. Breathe slowly until you’ve internalized the details, become the details, and tell a story about them.

Photo by Ed Yourdon: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/7168737549) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

© 2017 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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.


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


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.


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

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.