Writing Is Not Iron Chef. Or, Why I Dislike Prompts.

Critique groups, workshops, and writing classes offer a wealth of help to an aspiring author. I’ve never been part of a critique group, but I did take two creative writing classes in college. One was screenwriting, and the other was a fiction class taught by Oprah Book Club author Bret Lott.

Both classes had assigned reading that I enjoyed and both professors offered wise feedback. What I didn’t like about either class was the excessive use of prompts. That seems to be how most writing workshops go, probably to make things easier on the teacher’s grading. They throw out an arbitrary scenario/emotion/buzzword and make the whole class write about the same thing.

Each student comes up with a different story. There is an element of fascination for that, because one can see how widely a prompt is interpreted by 30 different minds. But then you realize at least half the class has crappy stories – not necessarily because they’re crappy writers, but because their arms were twisted into writing a scenario they care nothing about.

We all have different reasons for writing. Let’s look at just three – 1) people who write as a stress relief/way to cope with life/way to process emotions (Empaths), 2) people who write because they want an audience (Performers), and 3) people who write because it’s fun to play with fiction (Tinkerers). You might be none, or all, or two of the three. This isn’t all-inclusive. Anyway, prompts seem to be aimed at the Tinkerers – as soon as they’re given a kernel of an idea, they can build anything. They’re easily inspired, they can get excited enough to make most prompts work, and they’re altogether a foreign creature to me. I think Tinkerers are probably Pantsers too, in that they work off-the-cuff.

I’m a Performer. I write because I have stories to tell. Or more to the point, I write because there’s stuff that I want to read and it hasn’t been made yet, so I take it upon myself to make it for the rest of the world. Yes, it is fun to me, and yes, it does help me process some emotion. But ultimately, I write because there are stories within me that are clawing their way out. They take up the majority of my headspace every day. It has been this way all my life. I am hard-wired to build world after world in my head and it’s almost like I’ll run out of room if I don’t sweep some of it out.

A notebook sits by my bed with 98 of my unwritten prompts in it. It’s overwhelming to know that I probably won’t get to them all by the time I die.

Additionally, I’m a Plotter, so I don’t feel comfortable with short deadlines to come up with an entire world (a prompt deadline can be anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of weeks, and neither are long enough for me to develop anything of meaning). So, I don’t respond to prompts like people are supposed to. I usually find myself shoehorning one of those 98 scenarios into the prompt I’ve been given. I feel like that’s cheating, as prompts are meant to inspire new thought, but otherwise my writing is inorganic and insincere. Which in turn makes it unimpressive. Which in turn frustrates me, because I know I can do better – if only I was writing something I actually cared about.

There are some exercises – like writing a paragraph without using any adverbs, or writing a half page two people after a murder without mentioning the murder – that I find short and clever. These flex a writer’s muscles without straining them. (When prompted with the murder assignment, I did use Connor and Clara from Paradisa as my characters. So…I still cheated.) I seem to like stylistic exercises that force me to use the English language in a unique way, or to play with storytelling mechanics.

But I am not going to be excited with a prompt like “include the words bucket, grenade, and apple in your story!” (an actual prompt from my creative writing class. No lie.)

How do you feel about prompts? Did you enjoy working with prompts in workshops, or were you bothered by them like I was?

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14 thoughts on “Writing Is Not Iron Chef. Or, Why I Dislike Prompts.

    • I’m very much of the mindset that ‘anything worth doing is worth doing well.’ I only tackle projects that I feel I can do justice. I actually had one idea for NaNoWriMo this year that I toyed with, but after jotting some notes, I was just like “I can’t do this story yet. I don’t have it in me. I’ll come back to it when I’m wiser.”

      So yeah, I don’t feel like I can do most prompts well. I could do them, but not WELL, and that makes me not want to try.

      • It was a metafiction novel. Sort of like Black Swan meets Memento. POV character is a grip working on a film, filming it out of order (like all movies) and trying to piece together what this film is about. Grips don’t get scripts. But as it progresses, he starts to think one of the cast members is actually going to murder another on screen. On top of that, the movie was gonna follow the plot of a Shakespeare play, so the literary savvy would start to catch on as they started piecing the scenes together.

        Very, very challenging story to even outline, so I left it in favor of something much simpler. I’m still excited about it, I’ll still write it, I just need way more time.

      • wow… that sounds like a great idea. My last failed project was an apocalyptic book that I wrote 110 pages of then couldn’t write any more. It’s a good idea but the plot was very slow and kind of boring and sad. Not sure what to do about that book.

  1. Strangely enough (since I tend to use prompts in my blog), I agree with you about prompts. Sometimes, they can be very intrusive. However, that’s where the difference between a good prompt and a bad prompt lies. A good prompt is supposed to get you started; it’s your ignition, not the drive. Yet, so many people mess this up. That example, the idea of “write this in your prompt” is way to prescriptive and vague. It doesn’t get you started. It pretty much says, “start and then throw this in as a challenge,” which makes it even harder to begin.

    That’s why I have an office doc with over 300 prompts now. I get them from everywhere, friends, family, or others online. However, I pick and choose on the day. Sometimes, I do have a story to write where I can throw in the bucket, the grenade, and apple. Still, I prefer the more open ones, like “Your character is experiencing a feeling they can’t describe…”

    But anyway, I think I fall under the three things you mentioned. I am primarily one of ’em tinkerers. That’s why I have so much random short fiction, but I do write for people. And as I usually say, writing keeps me sane.

    Love you posts! Keep going. And good luck with NaNoWriMo 2014!

    • “It pretty much says, “start and then throw this in as a challenge,” which makes it even harder to begin.”

      That’s exactly why it frustrates me. I don’t like when teachers or workshop leaders try to “challenge” you with a prompt. That doesn’t teach anything, or prove anything, IMO. A prompt should be used as a matchstick, and it should be free to be abandoned if it doesn’t light (and like, I get why they give out challenge prompts like “write from the POV of a child” because it’s teaching you to drastically alter your narrator voice. But the whole POV-from-child thing has been done many times before, it’s hard to do without being derivative, and ALL writing should be an exercise in POV anyway.)

      I expected that you would be a tinkerer ;) You seem like you love stretching your range with a variety of different ideas. But they are still chosen BY you, and they’re still things that you were personally drawn to. It’s not some authoritarian figure demanding that you write about an old widow in the year 2056, or ‘a story with a twist at the end’ or ‘a story that includes the word ochre.’ If I was going to do flash fiction every day, I would start pulling from my Plot Bunny book first. There are a few of them that could be used for short stories.

      And you can choose them depending on your mood too! Most of my prompts are for novels, so my deliberation over them is infrequent. But there’s something to be said about my mood when I choose a project, or sheer knowledge/maturity. There are some novels that I know I’m not mature or skilled enough to write yet. It’s like I know what my tour de forces are going to be, but I don’t have the force yet :P

  2. I’m not a fan of prompts either, and I think it’s for the reason you point out for yourself. I’m a plotter, too, and I don’t like having to create something pre-defined on the spur of the moment. I like to think it through.

    • That’s probably the biggest reason I’m against them, honestly. I’m just not very quick on my feet. Haste makes waste, at least for me :P

      Maybe it’s an introvert thing or a perfectionist thing, but my projects are like a good stew. They have to stay with me for a long time. My upcoming NaNo is a weird one in that aspect, because the idea is very recent, but it’s also somewhat self-inserty/based on family/based on a friend of mine. Most stories take years before I even write a paragraph.

  3. Prompts are a hit and miss with me. Sometimes, if it seems like I connect with the words or the scenario, I can come up with something. But then again, there are times when I just come up blank. I’m a pantser but word prompts are not something I rely on to make my writing fun.

    • Seems like there’s a surprising amount of agreement from my readers on this! I can sometimes connect with prompts if they relate to ideas I’ve already toyed with but if they’re totally removed from my normal cares/genres….ugh.

      It’s especially hard for a fantasy writer because academic writing workshops are so literary. The only fantasy workshops out there are at conventions, and even then they can be limiting. (Like giving the topic “steampunk” or “time travel” is still limiting if I don’t have a great grasp on steampunk.)

  4. Haha, I’m an odd person out because I like prompts and feel like they can be helpful for short things, flash fiction and maybe a short story. Most of the time, I might already have something in mind and the prompt takes it further or gives it some meat, so to speak.

    But I like plotting as well. I think sometimes the muse doesn’t like to be told what to do and goes her own way.
    It’s a toss up for me. :)

  5. Pingback: Eight Ways I’m A Not A “Real” Writer (And One Way I Am) | Aether House

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