I recently joined a writing group for practice and (digital) community. We do a prompt a day (or however often you want) and use it as a jumping off point for flash fiction/ a short story.Are there any prompts you recommend? And, in general, is there anything you recommend for trying to get the most out of writing exercises?
My favorite teaching prompt came from Ron Carlson. He gave my MFA class this assignment: “Write a 26-sentence short story. The first sentence begins with A, the second sentence begins with B, the third sentence begins with C, all the way to the last sentence that begins with Z.” I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard, but I did it, and it turned out to be the start of probably the best short story I ever wrote, but also the back story of Crazy for You. The genius of it is that it takes structure away from you, and makes you think about non-story things (like what the hell you’re going to do with those Q, X, and Z sentences) and you find yourself writing a completely natural story because your fussy control-freak mind is distracted by the other stuff. Every single person in my MFA class did amazing short stories with that exercise. None of them were ready for publication, obviously you had to go back in and make them fully developed stories, but for getting the central idea of a story down, that exercise is golden.
If you’re in a writing group where you can trade work, one of my writing profs, Michelle Herman, gave us an exercise that was great. We’d all read the stories we’d been working on in class, so she had us bring them in and trade with each other and then write a short story using one of our characters and a character from the other writer’s story. That’s another one I thought was dumb until I tried it with a supporting character from one of my stories, and the way that opened up that character for me was amazing. Just the juxtaposition of a new character that wasn’t part of my story world was so jarring, I had to look at my character in a new light.
I think any time you do an exercise that pulls one of your characters into a different world or gives him or her a different problem, you’re opening up your story. Even asking something as simple as “What would this character order at an ice cream shop” can make you look at him or her in a new light.
And I would always try to use a character from the book or story I was working on then, even if it was a minor character. Maybe especially if it’s a minor character, since you usually don’t have time to explore them in the book.
Here’s my ABC exercise, before I revised it into a short story, and then wrote about Quinn, all grown up in Crazy For You:
The Day My Sister Shot the Mailman and Got Away With It, Of Course
After my sister, Zoë, shot the mailman, Mama grounded her for twenty-four hours and made her miss the big dance over at the Grange Hall in Xenia, but Zoë said it was worth it just to hear old Buster scream, and she didn’t care anyway because her boyfriend, Nick, is away at boot camp so there’s not much fun in Zoë’s life except for taking out the occasional public servant with a BB gun.
Buster Turnbull was a truly terrible mail carrier, Mama told Zoë when she grounded her, but shooting him was just un-neighborly and not the kind of activity she wanted her daughters to be associated with. Certainly Buster needed to be taken in hand and reminded that neither snow nor rain was supposed to keep him from handing over the stuff people sent us, and his unfortunate habit of reading postcards out loud as he went on his rounds had annoyed all of us, and not one of us was amused when he got tired of postcards and started flat-out opening our mail and shouting it to the world, but Zoë was amused the least because he liked reading her stuff the best.
“Dear Zoë,” he’d read at the top of his lungs when my sister would get a letter from Nick. “Every night I sit here and think about all the things we did to each other naked on your back porch and I get hot all over again.”
“Finegoings on,” Buster would call out before he’d read on, sounding like some hell-fire Baptist preacher looking to stir up trouble and stop pleasure. “Goodgirls wouldn’t get letters like this, and Miss Zoë McKenzie shouldn’t be either and I am just shocked that she is even though she goes around looking so sweet and pretty and all.” He didn’t get around women much since he looked like a peeled egg and had a personality to match, so he had no clue what kind of letters good girls got or didn’t get, but that didn’t stop Buster from making Zoë’s life particular hell.
Icould remember when Buster had been sort of fun, announcing what we were getting as he came up our steps, like previews of coming attractions at the movies. “Just in time for your birthday, Quinn,” he’d holler to me. “Kindly old Aunt Betsy has sent you a letter and I bet there’s a check in it.” Later on, he started holding the envelopes up to the sun so he could see how much the check was for, but of course that didn’t work because people always send checks in cards so it doesn’t look so cold and heartless sending money instead of a present, and I’m sure that must have been frustrating for him, trying to see into people’s lives and getting shut out by Hallmark. Maybe that’s why he started opening the mail; it just got too frustrating trying to see through the envelopes. Never getting any mail of his own, Buster probably just figured that he had the right to see ours since he was delivering it.
Opening other people’s mail is a federal crime, of course, but it probably didn’t seem like one to Buster. People never think what they’re doing is a crime because crime is always what other people are doing, but Zoë knew right off that Buster was breaking the law. “Quinn, we have to turn him in,” she told me after Buster had read the hot-sex-on-the-porch letter out loud while Mrs. Armbruster down the street stood on her steps with her mouth open, soaking up every word, ready to repeat it to Mrs. Mueller and Mrs. Papacjik and Mrs. Jerome, and we both knew that from there the news would percolate to Mama and there would go Zoë’s chances of ever finding heaven on the back porch with Nick again, assuming Mama would ever let her out of the house at all as long as she lived. Really, I’d have been seriously pissed off at Buster, too, so I was behind her all the way when she reported him. Somebody down at the post office promised to look into it, but my big sister knew a run-around when she heard one. The only thing left for her to do was to take matters into her own hands.
Unfortunately for Buster, he chose the next day to open a package from Nick which was full of old movies that Nick wanted Zoë to watch instead of going out with other guys and doing god knows what. “Videos for adult viewing,” Buster bellowed without reading the titles so he could make the worst possible call; “porn through the postal service.” Whereupon Zoë picked up the BB gun she’d loaded with salt pellets, went out on the front porch, and aimed just below the mail bag, said, “Buster, you have just violated your last piece of U.S. mail,” and opened fire, yelling, “Dance, gringo,” just like she’d seen in the Western Nick had sent her. Xenia heard Buster’s screams, they were that loud, but then you can imagine what that salt felt like going through Buster’s pants. You can’t imagine the sound he made, though; it was like a pig being pulled through a meat grinder backwards.
Zoësays she’s not sorry, and Mama grounded her because of it, but Buster’s not reading our mail anymore, so things are a lot better here.