Questionable: Writing Prompts

Cate wrote:
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.

47 thoughts on “Questionable: Writing Prompts

  1. I loved that “Crazy People” story!

    There’s a great book by The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto called 642 Things To Write About, ©2011 Chronicle Books.

    Turns out Po Bronson’s editor wanted a book with that title. He approached the grotto writers and lo! In a day, 642 prompts.

    Highly recommend even tho’ I’m often too busy or distracted to use the book.

  2. I love that story. What makes is a true Crusie is the “, of course” at the end. There’s just so much family in that comma and those two words.

      1. Sure, if that’s okay? Feel free to drop the comments hammer if not, but here’s proof that anybody can use this A-Z thing to get unstuck.

        A week from the day I met Zach, he proposed. Before you decide we’re two idiots driven by hormones and poor impulse control, I should explain. Cardinal High has this program where you’re supposed to learn adult skills which includes things like discovering what marriage is really like so you get disillusioned right away in case TV or the internet hasn’t done that for you already. Discouraging teen pregnancy is probably the real plan, in lieu of funding actual sex ed.

        Enduring whatever match the teacher assigned you could be circumvented by partnering up on your own, and I guess Zach didn’t like his odds or maybe just didn’t want to leave it to chance and get stuck with a partner who wouldn’t do their side of the project. For whatever reason, including possibly (correctly) tagging me as a partner who would do the work, Zach proposed. Girlish dreams of an anime-like scene with rose petals and soft music were not in the picture. Hard practicality drove the decision. I didn’t know Zach, see above, met him a week ago, but he showed up to class on time and always had a pencil. Just those things raised the odds that he’d be a better partner than luck of the draw, plus I’d never seen him be rude to anybody in class. Knowing him better might come with unpleasant surprises but at least there weren’t any glaring warning signs.

        “Love to,” I said after a glance around at the other possibilities. Maybe it wasn’t a match made in heaven but even a stupid class and a stupid project can impact one’s all-important GPA so teaming up with somebody who might be good and at the very least wasn’t likely to be horrible won the day.

        Naturally this meant exchanging cell numbers so we could text and cooperate on the project but I promise you there were no meaningful looks or anything like that. Officially assigned, we each got on with our days and that was that.

        Pieces of the assignment got divided up; I agreed to work out the budget, he agreed to carry the doll baby around for the week. Questioning his masculinity wasn’t likely to come up because everybody had to take this stupid class and besides he was on the basketball team (Varsity) so he probably felt safe and might even get kudos for avoiding math if anybody did bring it up. Responsibilities dealt with, project under control, I felt pretty good about things.

        Saturday changed my mind. Text message from Zach: missing class M/T, you’ll have to carry the doll. Ur joking, I texted back. Volumes of texts later, he wasn’t joking and I had to meet him to get the doll. Werewolf, full moon, he really had to miss class. Xenophobic I’m not, so I wasn’t going to ditch him as a partner based on his species but I assigned him back part of the budget. You can’t say that wasn’t fair. Zen restored, I took the doll back home and continued my cauldron class project.

        1. Love it. The bit about always bringing a pencil to class made me actually laugh out loud.

        2. Oh, wonderful!

          I think I know what I’m doing tonight after the kids are in bed.

          And what my creative writing class is doing when we get back from spring break!

  3. I read this when you posted it before but I laughed just as hard this time as I did then!

    1. On constraints on creativity, absolutely yes. Sonnets are SO MUCH easier to write than free verse. I’m not sure about time constraints, I think he may be stretching the concept too much, but absolutely on creative work.

  4. I remember doing this in class–it was hilarious to see what everyone came up with. And you’re right–so much easier than writing without constraints. Constraints focus the mind.

    I was entertained by what I wrote, but yours is so wonderfully voice-y.

  5. I love this story – and I love constraints, but tend to forget about them until someone reminds me. A similar exercise is to write a short story with any ‘e’s. Which is ridiculously hard, but fun, and ends up (in my case) pushing me into language very different from what I would usually use.

  6. I have one of those 26 sentence stories around here someplace. Probably in the computer motherboard that died when twin A was shouting at Moose the dog, sounding panicked and I jumped up, worried that something horrible was happening, tripped on the power cord, and sent the computer crashing to the ground.

    Moose had stolen his sandwich.

    The great thing about prompts is that you don’t have to figure out what to write about.

  7. I had a lot of fun with the A-Z exercise in the McD class and was surprised that it turned out pretty well, all things considered. I’ve read it since and wondered if it had the germ of a real story in there. Think it might. 🙂

  8. I love Argh Ink, especially Our Host.

    I recently re-read Crazy People, so both versions of Zoe shooting Buster in front of Quinn were fresh. That inspired me to open Bujold’s “Sidelines, Talks and Essays,” which also contains how-to and why-I and such.

    About constraints – back when I fancied myself a potential author/writer/story teller, I found that Flash Fiction was my best way to storify. Of course, Flash has as many definitions as practitioners. The least limiting seems to be “under 1,000 words.” In the group with whom I traded material, 500 words or 300 words were most popular. I wrote a novel (ette) in which no scene exceeded 1,000 words. What I’ve read about the art of writing here tells me I should delete half those scenes and write another 20 or thirty to make the story work.

      1. Oh, probably so. Just asking myself what the story was about gave seven mutually exclusive answers. I think that betrays a certain lack of focus.

  9. Jenny and Charlene and Jeanne and Kate and KayK — How long did it take each of you to write your 26 sentence story? You didn’t write it during the class, did you?

    1. No, I think it was an overnight assignment. Carlson was there for a workshop, so the entire class was one week.

      As I remember, we got the assignment at the end of class, and the first thing I did was solve Q, X and Z with Quinn and Zoe as two names, and Xenia a town in Ohio I used to live down the road from. And then Quinn and Zoe suggested the kind of people they’d be (this would have been in the late nineties) with Zoe kind of zany and Quinn quieter but still strong. Don’t remember why I made them teenagers, but I think it was the way Quinn’s voice showed up. It’s been decades, but I think the title came next in Quinn’s voice (good rule of thumb, make the title something the main character would say), but it was really just Quinn talking in my head, and me trying to hit those letters in alphabetical order. Fortunately, I love run-on sentences.
      I just reread the actual short story that came from this, and it’s much better (well, it would be) but aside from a better conflict and much better character development, it’s still this story. The exercise is a great starting place.

    2. I don’t actually remember my story. I looked but couldn’t find it. My guess – knowing my own writing style – was to sit down and write it in one sitting. A couple of hours at most.

  10. The very end of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn is a series of 100 word pieces from different people’s point of view about the death of Aral Vorkosigan. They make me cry every time. They are in a much darker tone than the rest of the book, but truly inspired. You could try writing a piece about an event from 10 different people’s points of view, 100 words each… it probalby works better since by the end of the book we knew all the 10 people.

    1. I always thought of using that idea in terms of fleshing out a scene, but also of fleshing out characters. Maybe, definitely, it all doesn’t make it into the book. But running a scene as another character makes the story and characters more robust, which shows in the long run.

    2. That’s one of the most effective epilogue-type things ever and the story needs it. I can make it through all of them but Gregor. Gregor makes me bawl like a baby every damn time. I’m getting teary eyed just thinking about it.

  11. Read this story while supervising small children doing a detention. They were baffled when I stifled my laughter. Thank you – needed something cheerful and zappy at the moment.

  12. The writing exercise that had the biggest effect on me was to write a poem using nothing but cliches. I think the instructor’s goal was to make us more aware of cliches but it forced me to work with the cliches and use the poem to tell a story. Before that, I’d been focused on poetry as clever beautiful words, not poetry as story, if that makes sense.

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