Writing Promptly

 NaNoWriMo starts November 1. To encourage writers to start thinking about their upcoming writing odyssey they ran a month-long Instagram challenge featuring daily prompts. Writers were encouraged to post ideas for cover art, describe what their main character had in their pockets, and choose their main character’s theme song, among other ideas. The Career Authors blog posts a writing prompt every Sunday. Last week’s was about replacing unnecessary dialogue with a gesture or action that conveyed the same message.
I don’t use writing prompts to help me with my work in progress. But sometimes I’ll use a random writing prompt as a creative warmup, a way to get the ideas, and the words, flowing if I’m in a dry spell. Sometimes, like with the NaNoWriMo Instachallenge, I’ll join in for fun. I asked my fellow Missdemeanors their opinions about writing prompts.

I use a lot of writing exercises in my teaching. So often when my students are working on them, I work on them, and it’s very helpful. But mainly I love filling out character dossiers. I love those little details that crop up about characters and find I have to go hunting for them and the dossiers really help. The other day I was filling out one and remembered how my aunt could only sleep on white sheets. Colorful or, God forbid patterned, sheets made her nervous. It’s a small and insane detail, but I used it for a character and I really liked it.

I learned the value of writing prompts in high school and was reminded of them during the first Algonkian craft workshop I took a few years ago. These days, I don’t sit down and go through exercises unrelated to my WIPs but I do think about them when I see them, like the prompts on Career Authors. It flexes the writer part of my brain the same way lifting weights flexes muscles. In early drafts I give myself prompts to add depth and texture to setting, or address the “why” of a character. What time of year is it – describe it without using the words “spring,” “summer,” “fall, or “winter.” What does my protagonist hear when they walk out their front door? What did my MC want to be when they grew up and what derailed them? Who

I don’t use writing prompts. Stories tend to come to me more fully formed from some conversation between my subconscious and conscious mind. Right now, I feel like the news is a giant writing trigger.

Amen to that, Cate. I’m quite certain my first, second, and third books are informed by the political Zeitgeist (not a word that often seems appropriate, but it does now). When I struggle, I pick up a thread that works and keep going. Almost always, something points me in the right direction. That “ah ha” usually comes during dialogue when I let my characters just talk. They usually tell me something I was missing.
Having said, I’m currently working on a New York story, and I find myself having to trust the process of letting my characters guide me…and, I admit, it’s not easy for me. With the Abish Taylor mysteries, I have an overarching theme that guides each book. Here, I know the beginning and the end, but the theme isn’t so clear to me yet.

When I hear “writing prompt” I used to think it’s time to sit down and write based on this lesson. Maybe that’s old school! When I’m in a project, my new way of thinking of a writing prompt helps me over difficult humps. If I can’t get the scene right and am spinning wheels, then perhaps it’s time to Stop. But not stop working. Instead, I can pick an angle (aka choosing one of the writing prompts) and do it that way. Change the location, or the POV, or perhaps start at a different moment. This is a writing prompt to solve a very specific problem. Sometimes I then see both the good and bad in the original.
That said, I’m still not one to use a writing prompt out of the blue. I’m always working toward a larger goal (even if the goal is a “short” story). I may see a writing prompt and think great idea…. and then use it when I’m at a specific stumbling block. A writing prompt is also a writing tip. Or maybe I should say lesson. 

Read more

Queen of the Last Minute

 I’m a procrastinator. Always have been. I never do today what I can put off for at least a week. I’m the kid who wrote the book report the night before it was due, the college student who pulled an all-nighter studying for an exam at eight the next morning, the woman who leaves the house five minutes before she’s supposed to be at church and slides into the pew as the opening notes of the processional hymn ring out. My motto could be, “There’s no time like the nick of time.” I am the Queen of the Last Minute. Occasionally, my procrastination is born of passive aggression. If I have to go someplace I don’t want to go to or do something I don’t want to do, I’m in no hurry about it. Mostly, however, I procrastinate to stave off anxiety. The less time I have to think about a task, the less time I have to obsess over the infinite number of ways things could go wrong. If I finish the paper right before I turn it in, I don’t have time to fret over how terrible my writing is, how shallow my analysis is, how flat my characterizations are, how many semicolons I misplaced. If I study right before the exam, I don’t have time to ruminate on how much I don’t know, how much I forgot of what I knew, how much smarter everyone else is than me. If I slip into my seat at the last minute, I don’t have time to notice how awful my hair is, how frumpy my clothes are, how fat/short/ugly I am, how everyone is staring at me. The modern, rational part of my brain knows my writing isn’t that bad, I’m not that dumb, and no one’s laughing at me. But the ancient, animal part of my brain, the part that’s riddled with self-doubt and fueled on nightmares and angst, tries to shout down the rational part of my brain every chance it gets. So, I try not to give animal brain a chance to sabotage me. By procrastinating, I try to trick animal brain into thinking I’m not doing anything, then, when it drops its guard and goes to the fridge for a snack, I rush to the goal line. But, ironically, I’m not good at doing nothing. Doing nothing at all induces guilt. The Protestant Work Ethic is strong in this one. I take that whole idle mind, devil’s workshop thing way too seriously. So, to combat the guilt, I procrastinate creatively. I avoid working on the task I most need to accomplish by working on other tasks that could just as well wait. Manuscript deadline? Clean the bathroom! Speech to write? Grocery shopping! Blog post due? Vacuum! Death to dust bunnies! I’ve rearranged bookshelves, cleaned out basements, sorted stationery, reorganized sewing boxes until the last minute-bell chimed. No more procrastinating. Animal brain be quiet. It’s do-or-die time. A little caffeine, a lot of adrenaline, and I’m off. Are you a procrastinator? Or do you finish things well ahead of when they’re due? What are some of your cleverest ways to procrastinate? Tell us in the comments or join us on Facebook.

Read more

My Well Runneth Dry

 More than 300,000. That’s how many new titles were published in the U.S. in 2013, according to UNESCO figures reported in Wikipedia. Add in all titles published in a year and the number doubles or triples. That’s a lot of books competing for readers’ attention. Authors have to create ways to gain notice. In this modern, social media-connected world blogs, newsletters, and Facebook pages have become standard ways to build a platform to attract readers. Posts and newsletters, brief pieces offering readers writerly advice, funny or poignant stories about the writing life, and insights into how one’s work speaks to the human condition, come out more frequently than novels or short stories. They require frequent trips to the creative well. Once in a while, the well runs dry. An idea for a blog post hits you then you remember you used the idea six months ago. You stare at the blank newsletter template and realize you have no news. You’ve already described your writing process, your inspirations, your journey to publication, your tips for completing a first draft. You’ve got nothing but a deadline. What do you do? The blog has to be posted, the newsletter mailed. A goats in sweaters video or cute cat photos won’t cut it. You pick up your pen or pull your laptop closer and borrow a page from Seinfeld; you write about nothing. Or you find an idea you’ve used in the past and rewrite it until you’ve said something new. You keep going, writing about nothing or reworking old news, until you’ve got a few hundred (possibly rambling) words that you didn’t have before. If you’re lucky, you’ll figure out how to tie what you’ve written to a picture of a goat in a sweater. How do you overcome a shortage of new ideas when confronted with a looming deadline?

Read more


Author Ellen Byron joins the MissDemeanors today to share her thoughts on mindless creativity. Don’t miss her new mystery, A Cajun Christmas Killing, available now. Here’s Ellen: I spend a lot of time when I’m not writing, writing. It may look like I’m getting dinner together or doing the laundry, but I’ve found  that when I’m engaged in some mindless task – and if you ever ate at my house, you’d know my cooking is mindless – I have some of my most creative thoughts. It turns out I’m not alone in this. Google “mindless creativity” and you’ll get pages of articles proving this really is a thing. I found an article in Nature magazine about a study that showed “simply taking a break does not bring on inspiration — rather, creativity is fostered by tasks that allow the mind to wander.” A piece in Inc. Magazine was titled, “Want to be more creative? Do something mindless.” In a recent post on the Chicks on the Case blog, Lisa Q. Mathews shared this tidbit: Dame Agatha Christie herself claimed that she did some of her best plotting while doing the dishes.  Around the time I was thinking about this topic, the inimitable Dru of Dru’s Musings posted a picture from work showing a table filled with cans of Play Doh. I asked her about this, and she said, “Playing with Play Doh breaks up the monotony of the day, allowing you to relax and set your mind free by escaping with something fun.” Exactly.  Photo courtesy of Dru I’m now a fervent proponent of the Mindless Creativity Movement. Okay, there isn’t a movement, I just made that up, but there should be because we often feel guilty when we step away from our computers to do a task or errand or even something fun like play with Play Doh, and we shouldn’t. I’ve had so many brainstorms pushing a shopping cart through Target that I actually thanked them in the acknowledgments of my second book, Body on the Bayou. I’m not kidding. It reads, “And finally, a big thank-you to my local Target stores. I do some of my best thinking aimlessly wandering those jam-packed aisles.” I even wrote a blog post about the most mindless task of all. It’s titled “The Zen of Picking Up Dog Poo.” https://chicksonthecase.com/2017/07/17/the-zen-of-picking-up-dog-poo/ One drag about mindless creativity is that our nearest and dearest often don’t know it’s going on. They see us cleaning out the pantry or organizing the recycle bin and think, “Oh yay, she’s finally off the computer. I can talk to her.” I’ve lost some gems this way and snapped at the poor person who interrupted my creative process. When I shared an apartment with a particularly chatty roommate, I actually made a sign that read “Still Working” that I wore around my neck when I wasn’t literally writing. Another potential problem is the thin line between mindless creativity and procrastination. I have to be honest with myself and acknowledge when a midday trip to my favorite clothing store is the latter. But sometimes the two work hand-in-hand, and procrastination actually turns into mindless creativity. I ruined two pots when I chose to procrastinate by cooking, then had a brainstorm about my current book, A Cajun Christmas Killing, and ran back to the computer, totally forgetting about what I’d left on the stove. So next time you’re stuck on something, whatever it might be, trying getting your mind off the project and onto a mindless task. Even if you don’t have a breakthrough, at least your spice rack will be organized and your backyard poo-free. Your fearless MissDemeanor again. Forget the spice rack; go pick up a copy of Ellen’s new book, A Cajun Christmas Killing.  Here’s a peek (It’s okay, I won’t tell Santa):  Maggie Crozat is home in Cajun Country during the most magical time of the year. But the Grinch has come to stay at the Crozat Plantation B&B, and he’s flooding travel websites with vicious reviews. Maggie ID’s him as rival businessman Donald Baxter –until Baxter is found stabbed to death. With her detective boyfriend sidelined as a suspect, Maggie must catch the real killer or it will be the opposite of a Joyeux Noel for her. Books make much better presents than slipper socks and fruitcake. So grab copies now for everyone on your nice list. And on your naughty list, too. Beat the holiday rush. Ellen Byron writes the Cajun Country Mystery series. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called her new book, A Cajun Christmas Killing, “superb.” Body on the Bayou won the Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery, and was nominated for a Best Contemporary Novel Agatha Award. Plantation Shudders, was nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards, and made the USA Today Bestseller list. She’s written over 200 national magazine articles; published plays include the award-winning Graceland; TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, Fairly OddParents, and pilots. Ellen lives in Studio City with her husband, daughter, and two spoiled rescue dogs. http://www.ellenbyron.com/https://www.facebook.com/ellenbyronauthor/https://twitter.com/ellenbyronla    

Read more