The Advantages of Writing Prompts

When I think of writing prompts, I always first think of writing school essays. The teacher’s prompts were usually too vague, or strict and inflexible. I often found them extremely boring, so when I heard that some writers use writing prompts, I thought it absurd. Nonetheless, when I found myself in need of some inspiration, I reached out for writing prompts and I was surprised to acknowledge them as actually conducive to creativity and inspiration. Ever since then, I occasionally use them to start a piece, finish it or add some spice to the story I am working on. They are not only effective for fiction writing but also for journalists, content writers and even in the academic field.

by Brad Stallcup

There are several reasons why writing prompts are so useful. We all know that sometimes it is hard to start writing when faced with a blank page. Focusing on an unrelated prompt for a while helps get the creativity flowing. For instance, if you write for just ten to fifteen minutes on a prompt, you might then find it easier to return to the piece you initially intended to write. This works because when you stop trying to think so hard about what you wanted to write and switch your attention to the prompt instead, the words and ideas for your original piece start to come to the surface of your conscious.

Moreover, writing to a prompt regularly helps to get you into the habit of writing by eliminating the habit of procrastination and by focusing your mind. This can act as a sort of exercise regime, easing you to write for longer periods.

Prompts can also be a great way to get involved in a writing community. Sometimes writing groups offer a prompt for everyone to write about, with the intention being for everyone to come up with something they can then share. This can be a source of great encouragement, although knowing that others will read what you have written can also inhibit your creativity.

Here are some writing prompts to try out:

  1. Someone walks by my table and drops a folded napkin in front of me, trying to be discrete. It is a note, saying: ‘Get out now. While you still can.’

 

  1. The window in the garden wall has been boarded up forever, but tonight a dull, violet light pulses in the cracks.

 

  1. All of my body’s functions (breathing, digestion etc.) require constant conscious effort.

 

A piece of advice is to write for as long as your mind will let you, and allow yourself to think freely. You are under no obligation to write until you reach a certain word count or even finish the entire idea. The point of prompts is to get you to write, find a direction and hopefully spark other ideas that you would not have thought of before.

I will end with a quote of one of my favorite authors, Walter Moers. It was the sentence that finally dissolved the writer’s block that had inhibited the author from starting work. I have since used it whenever I have been gripped by fear of the blank sheet in front of me. It is infallible, and its effect is always the same: the knot unravels and a stream of words gushes out on to the virgin paper. It acts like a magic spell and I sometimes fancy it really is one. But, even if it is not the work of a sorcerer, it is certainly the most brilliant sentence any writer has ever devised. It runs: ‘This is where my story begins.’”

***

Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University.  She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria.  Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands.  Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015.  When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.

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Reaching for the Characters

by Josh Marshall

In all the years I’ve been writing – learning, honing, experimenting – the biggest challenge I’ve faced is to stick to writing a novel. There have been many failed attempts for sure. From it’s birth, the ‘aha’ moment where I believe I’ve got a brilliant idea, to the outline. And even to the revision of the first few chapters! But then… empty space.

These experiences have stifled me to the point that I’m apprehensive of attempting a novel, and I just stick to flash fiction, short stories and occasionally, poetry. The all-consuming task of the novel, the culmination and the proof of consistent hard work, sweat and sleepless nights lost in thought or flow eludes me. I want it bad. Yet I can’t go beyond a few pages before I tell myself: Who am I kidding? I won’t finish this and even if I do, who the hell will want to read it?

So what’s my problem? At the beginning, themes motivate me, settings intrigue me, plot drives me on, tension excites me, and point of view challenges me. What doesn’t make the cut here is the most important aspect of good writing—characters.

In all those attempts, I was introduced to the terms ‘flat’, ‘two-dimensional’, ‘passive’, ‘unbelievable’, and ‘underdeveloped’ characters; thrown at me by course instructors or readers alike. Ouch. Or is it? Did I really know about the values of characters then? Like any avid reader, there were literary characters I loved, as well as not-so-literary ones, but did I ever realize the nuances of a character in a novel? What it was about them that made them memorable? There simply was no way for me to write a three-dimension, fleshed out, well-developed, active and believable character (now there’s a mouth full).

As I continued writing, my interests shifted more to the literary spectrum of literature and less to pulp, fan fiction, or commercial fiction. The taste and appreciation for characters – what and how they went through their ordeals ­– became the focal point of any good story I enjoyed. From this vantage, I began experimenting with characters, their limitations, choices, exploits, until I dug deeper and discovered the world of the psyche, which was all mine to fashion and make sense of. How exciting. Writing took on a whole new turn.

I have written flash fiction and short stories with what I hope are interesting enough characters. But the characters I sketch at the outset of a novel stop there. They stop because of me. They stop because I’m afraid. They stop because I want to control them. How utterly silly of me. Maybe if I were a parent already, I’d have realized my folly much earlier: as if anyone can control his or her child. And before you roll your eyes: oh no, not another writer who thinks characters are their children, take a moment and think about it. It’s a reasonable analogy.

This incessant need to control – to know – what my characters are thinking, what they should do, how they should react, interact and speak, and all of that, is ridiculous. When I can let go and relinquish control, they will come to life on their own. And like a good parent, I just have to guide them to make good choices. But that alone would make for a dreadful read, so I have to also feel like I’m the bad parent that lets them fall on their ass and doesn’t give a shit, because how can we ever discover what any character is made of without conflict, emotional turmoil or insurmountable obstacles? How else can we see their humanity? And how else can we empathize with them?

Lesson learned—just let go.

 

Samir Rawas Sarayji

Review: Pencil Letter by Irina Ratushinskaya

You must not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to hate. Not because your tormentors have not earned it. But if you allow hatred to take root, it would flourish and spread during your years in the camps, driving out everything else, and ultimately corrode and warp your soul. You will no longer be yourself, your identity will be destroyed, all that will remain will be a hysterical, maddened and bedevilled husk of the human being that once was.

Ratushinskaya, from Grey Is the Colour of Hope

In March 1983, on her 29th birthday, Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years in a hard-labour camp for crimes against the Soviet regime. What was so terrible a crime that the authoritarian government of Konstantin Chernenko thought to sentence a former schoolteacher and physics graduate to a seven-year maximum sentence in harrowing and torturous conditions? The crime was poetry.

Born in Odessa, she wrote poetry while working as a schoolteacher before graduating with a Masters of Physics in 1976 (deciding to pursue a technical profession due to the oppression of the humanities by the then-communist regime), and she continued to write poetry after receiving her degree. Even though her early work centred on the theological, romantic, and philosophical, it was still enough to warrant the inquisition of the Soviet power structure. Read More

My Most Anticipated Reads for 2018

by Drew Coffman

You don’t realize how difficult it is to frame a list of good books to read until you try to do so. Why this book instead of that other one? What makes these authors special and not the ones standing on the sidewalk in front? It’s been many days of thinking and re-thinking, but here you are. The list includes authors I admire, other ones I’m curious about, new prize winners, best reads suggested by the press, and recommendations from dear people.

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne.

This citation opens Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection of stories after her Pulitzer Prize winner Interpreter of Maladies. The book contains a marvellous collection of nine short stories that tell about the lives of Bengali-American characters and how they deal with their mixed cultural environment. Read More

Practical Tips to Keep Writing

Have you ever had a great idea about a novel or a short story collection and all of a sudden you find yourself in the black void of nothingness, unable to move on with your project? Writing is a common dream for people. Yet most people who dream about writing do not commit to it. Some of them hardly even read. Meanwhile, writers who do actually earn a living from their work still struggle to stay motivated and keep writing. Faced with all these oppositions, both external and internal, how can we motivate ourselves to write and to keep at it?

One of the biggest mistakes I often made when writing my first novel was spending too much time on polishing the language before I understood the story’s plot. I was obsessed with the sound and aesthetics of the sentences and tried to perfect them, yet, I had no idea where I was going because I did not work on developing the story. I finally decided to place an ending to the story so I could then focus on the sentence and chapter structures. You cannot know if the words and sentences you are massaging support the story if you have no idea how it ends. Read More

Review: A Jihad for Love by Mohamed El Bachiri

Part autobiography, part ideology, part diary, A Jihad For Love is emotionally charged. The collection is an eloquent plea to those who judge Islam or twist its nature to the purpose of committing devastating criminal acts, and also to those who practice it in its many forms—to not take its teachings literally, but to apply its tenets in the context of the modern world. It implores followers to follow a path where the teachings of Islam do not conflict with the world we all have to inhabit.

It was on a Tuesday morning, the 22nd of March 2016, when commuters at Maalbeek metro station in Brussels awaited the Arts-Loi/Kunst-Wet connection. The platform bustled with commuters undertaking their daily pilgrimages to work; parents carried children, men and women read the papers, and buskers played music as the crowds mingled. At 9:10 am, they began to board the three carriages whose doors had just opened. At 9:11 am, some of them would be dead. As the train readied to depart, an explosive device planted in the middle carriage of the three detonated, rending apart its fragile metal surroundings, and within a second, sixteen lives were extinguished. Read More

How Reading Plays Helps Creative Writing

When I think of plays I read when I was young, I only remember Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar – both by Shakespeare ­– and both assigned reading at school. It would be another twenty years before I would read plays again for my Literature degree, but also, for pleasure. Plays are meant to be performed, true enough, but they offer something remarkable that no other medium can do as concisely—a lot of dialogue.

The whole propagation of a play, its plot, theme, conflict – everything – is achieved mainly through dialogue (occasionally there can be a monologue or chorus) and some stage directions. How a playwright has the characters utter their lines, serves three modes of communication: the direct message (what we hear), the subtext (what is implied) and the meaning (what we perceive). Think about it! Every sentence of dialogue serves three functions – three layers that build on one another to impact the audience. Read More

Review: The Best Small Fictions 2017

What do you read if you don’t have the time to read a book like War & Peace? Luckily, much like the modern world, where immediacy and quick fixes are all the rage, literary greatness can be found in writings of a much more digestible length. Flash fiction stories still wield a philosophical heft and still leave the reader mulling on greater questions, but are restricted to far more compact length limits. Hard-hitting and captivating, they are usually no longer than a few pages and combine the storytelling of the great works with the ability to be read in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee (or even just the time to take a sip!). So, if the burden of reading Atlas Shrugged isn’t for you, then The Best Small Fictions 2017 may be the answer.

Back for its third year, this anthology of the best international flash fiction of 2017 is a heavyweight collection of emotion-laden injections of pure fiction heroin. The wholly volunteer team at TBSF have drawn together some of the most compelling flash fiction, and they have shown once again why this is not a genre to be scoffed at. With fifty-five stories, the volume is enthralling. Even as a lover of long detail-abundant stories, I found myself unable to put the collection down, forcing myself to stop reading only so that I could digest the content and ruminate on what the stories left unsaid, before once again entering the rabbit hole of content squeezed between the covers. Read More