How to properly use a writing prompt

If you are a writer and follow writing blogs you have come across someone who challenges your creativity with a writing prompt . I gave a prompt in a previous blog, quoting writer John Gardner who said, “describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has  died in a war. Do not mention death, war, or the son.” I do not need you to respond to it. I offer it as an example.

I suggest you avoid any prompts you encounter in your Internet perambulations.

Here is why. It is okay if you are bored and have nothing better to do on a rainy day, your dog won’t play with you, your cat is sleeping (when aren’t they) and all your friends are busy-or avoiding you. If you are a writer then why waste your time being creative on something you won’t use. If you need a prompt to stir your creativity then turn to the story you are working on, or the story you intended to write, but have put off because you were eating cookies while reading the new Stephen King book.

Instead of responding to another’s prompt, I respond to my own prompts. As an example, in my short story “The Castle” found in “Cemetery Tales and other Phantasms” I prompted myself with this-describe a scene where a young excited boy just out of high school has left America for the first time, arrives in a remote area of England for a new job. Do not mention America, England, the new job. I came up with this:

Taking a deep breath of fresh air Quinn felt intoxicated. He wanted to giggle, to jump up and down, but proudly he maintained his cool.  Outwardly he was sure he looked composed, confident, and worldly; inwardly he was concerned the blood racing through his pounding heart would be noticeable through his pale skin, worried people would mistake the pounding of his heart with thunder in the darkening skies. 

My goal was to capture his feeling of being in a new adventure in a new country. I think it worked.

Or from the same story, describe a scene where a character is lost somewhere, scared, where death may be imminent.  I came up with this:

He turned and saw nothing, no outline of any trees, nothing to separate sky from ground, just total blackness in a black vacuum. He had to get back to the castle. He was safe there. He tried to run towards the castle. He couldn’t. He tried to walk, gingerly putting one foot forward. He couldn’t. He had to get back to the castle. He couldn’t. The silence was deafening, the darkness blinding. The cold, dank, swampy air was crushing him.”

The point is time spent on your writing is best served prompting your scenes. Nothing wrong with prompts, they’re a good exercise, but exercising on your own story will get it done quicker.

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