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

National Novel Writing Month

  NaNoWriMo is a big deal. If you are a writer you’ve heard of it and likely participated – or at least swore that you would this year. Essentially NaNoWriMo is one great big on-line writing prompt. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and 11:59 pm on November 30. According to the organizers: “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” Taken at face value this is a great thing! Daily emails and an online forum to keep the writer motivated. Published authors use it to kick start their next project, dreamers use the schedule to dive in. The sheer speed of the daily word count makes you forget to worry and just get words on the page. (For anyone who is writing their first novel the blank page is not your friend. Every word past the first one gets easier. Finally you are lost in the story and the end is near.) Take the concept a step further and the value to elevating discourse about creativity is immeasurable. NaNoWriMo is much more than one month a year. The Young Writers Program takes the notion of creativity into K-12 classrooms around the world. Camp NaNoWriMo is a virtual writing retreat for fiction and non-fiction alike. The Come Write In program is a free resource to libraries and others who are promoting reading and writing in their communities. Writing leads to reading and vice versa. And both writing and reading lead to greater success in all aspects of life – listening and speaking skills improve, analytical skills strengthen, focus and concentration increase, and stress is reduced as the mind focuses. So whether you are a writer or a reader or both let’s give a shout out to everyone who participated in NaNoWriMo this year!  For more on NaNoWriMo visit their website at NaNoWriMo.org and get ready for 2018.  

Read more

NaNoWriMo & Me

 My first introduction to NaNoWriMo was not auspicious. I was teaching a novel writing class at night and one of my students kept handing in manuscripts that didn’t have contractions. Plus there would be lots of extraneous little words in her pages. It. It. It. Finally I said to her, “For Pete’s sake, why don’t you use contractions?” And she explained that she was doing NaNoWriMo (in which you try to write 50,000 words in the month of November). She needed to bulk her word count. “I see,” I said, thinking that that sounded like a colossal waste of time in order to get a really bloated manuscript. Years passed.  Then, I had a deadline ahead of me. It happened to be November and I thought, why not give this a try? Maybe it will inspire me to write quickly. That was three years ago and after that I was hooked. This year I’m working on a draft of Maggie Dove 3. What I love about NaNoWriMo is that it forces my mind to go in unexpected places. The fact is, I probably write 1,700 words a day anyway, but usually I’m revising things. Trying to make things perfect. Or good, anyway. Shuffling things around. With NaNoWriMo it all comes out fresh, and often I surprise myself. At the start of November, which was only two weeks ago, I had one sentence in my mind about what I thought this new Maggie Dove would be about. Now I have 21,000 words and it’s all so different than I anticipated. I still have a lot of work ahead of me. When November’s done, I’ll go through my NaNoWriMo draft and break it into scenes. I’ll throw out pages. Or store them away for something different. I’ll expand on other things. But, the great thing is that now I know who the characters are, who the murderer is, why it’s done, how it’s done. I have something solid to grapple with.  Thank you, NaNoWriMo and see you next year.

Read more


I first heard about nanowrimo some years ago when one of my students kept submitting manuscripts without contractions. Take it from me, that if you read twenty pages and there is not one contraction, you notice pretty quickly. The writing seems formal and stiff. Anyway, one night I asked why she was doing this and she said it was because she was participating in nanowrimo and needed to write 50,000 words in a month, and if she didn’t use contractions, her word count would go up. So from that I deduced that nanowrimo was for people writing awful manuscripts.    However, time went on and more and more of my students began talking about it and I noticed everyone spoke about it with enthusiasm. No one had a bad thing to say about nanowrimo, and in fact, everyone seemed energized by the whole process. So I began to think about it more seriously, but I wasn’t tempted to do it because the fact is, I write a lot anyway, so I didn’t think I needed an inducement. Last year, I had an outline due on December 15 (for Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency.) I hate writing outlines. I once spent two years writing an outline and it was the only time in my life I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block. So I approached the whole thing with some trepidation and then I thought, ha! Why not write the novel, and then, when I have the novel, I can outline it. So, I signed up for nanowrimo and it worked. I wrote 50,000 words of MDDA, and I’m not going to say they were fabulous, (I probably wound up using only 15% of them) but I knew enough of the story by the end that I could write an outline. Then, once that was done, I could go back and write the book more thoughtfully.  This year I wasn’t sure if I would sign up again, but as luck would have it, once again I’m working on an manuscript. I don’t need an outline, but I would like to bulk it up, quickly, and I believe this will be a great way to boost my mind into thinking of all sorts of fun plot points. So yesterday I signed up to take part in Nanowrimo 2016. I’m a veteran!

Read more