Woman sitting cozy on her bed in a sweater and socks, with her tablet, a mug of milk, and cookies.

Writing from Prompts

A half dozen Christmases ago, my daughter Melissa gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. At the time, I had never used writing prompts, except once during a dark November when I was seriously stuck and in danger of falling far short of my NaNoWriMo word count. The prompt I used then was one from @NaNoWordSprints. 26,000+ Twitter followers and I were prompted to write a scene in which we got our main characters out of a sticky situation. I went with it, but I expected the scene I wrote from the prompt to help me reach a word count and nothing more. I didn’t expect the words to actually make it into my finished novel. That didn’t feel good, but I was desperate.

I was never a fan of using writing prompts. I’m not sure why. I guess using them seemed fake to me. Canned. Like a science term paper—writing a bunch of words I wasn’t really feeling, about a topic which had been pre-selected for me, because I had to. And it seemed wasteful of my writing time. Like I was carelessly tossing away words I would never use—words that had no personal meaning behind them and that would never amount to anything.

To my surprise, though, the @NaNoWordSprints writing prompt did help. I wrote for the allotted 10-15 minutes, and I ended up with a fun and pivotal scene that set my novel in a new direction. Voila! By writing about getting my main character out of a sticky situation, my main character and I and my plot—we were all unstuck. Because the pressure was off, I just wrote, and I had fun with it. Because I was having fun with it, my creativity was unleashed. It’s crazy to think that as many as 26,000 other people had also written scenes from that prompt, each of them unique.

With that one positive experience in mind, I read through the prompts in the book my daughter gave me. I began to see the value in using writing prompts, not only to spark my imagination, but to unearth stories which were already buried inside me, waiting to be told.

The first time I opened the book, this prompt jumped out at me, on the very first page: “A house plant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.” I was surprised to realize I had a story for this prompt. The prompt sparked two memories: a memory about the dozens of houseplants my father entrusted to me (a serial plant murderess) after my green-thumbed mother died, and a memory about the one plant my father kept—a stubborn zebra plant with which he had a love/hate relationship.

I’d never thought of either of these two experiences as anything to write about. But thanks to my daughter’s thoughtful gift, I wrote about them from that prompt. As I wrote, I realized there were stories in these experiences, stories which I might never have written, stories about motherhood and grief and the difficulty of letting go. Over several years and many revisions, that prompt eventually became an essay which will be published in Persimmon Tree magazine in 2022.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to take inspiration wherever you find it, or wherever you can get it, or sometimes, wherever you might least imagine it to be.

WRITER TIP: Writing prompts don’t have to be textual, they can be visual as well, or both, like the 10 years worth of writing prompts Luke Neff, an Oregon high school teacher, posted on his Tumblr blog: WritingPrompts.tumblr.com. You can get your own copy of 642 Things to Write About (as well as many other great craft and prompt books) at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

Me and My Big Ideas

Before I started writing regularly, I used to be afraid I would run out of words. It’s weird, I know, but that fear is one of the things that kept me from writing for many years. I wasn’t confident I had enough ideas, enough interesting things to say, let alone many interesting things to say.

To be honest, my fears were not unwarranted. It was hard to get started. I couldn’t think of anything to write about. Most of the “stories” I wrote ended up being descriptions of places or character sketches, filled with exposition, flashbacks, and cliché dream sequences. My stories did not have actual plots. I started carrying a tiny notebook with me everywhere I went so I could write down things I observed out in the world or ideas that came to me. The notebook did come in handy—it was gradually filled with grocery shopping lists and reminders about dental appointments.

Once I sat down to write, getting the words to come out was difficult. I became more and more convinced that, during the years I hadn’t been writing, my writing muscles and my coming-up-with-ideas-for-things-to-write-about muscles had not only atrophied, but had withered away to nothing. But reader, I kept carrying that little notebook around, and I kept sitting down at my computer and typing words and writing truly awful stories, and gradually, my writing began to improve.

As for coming up with ideas for stories, there are several things that have helped me become confident that I will never run out of ideas. Here are the three things that have helped me the most, and I hope they help you too:

1. Life Is a Bowl of Cherries … and a Cornucopia of Story Ideas

First, I had the realization that I have lived over 20,000 days on this planet, and on every single one of those days, I’ve done something or something has happened to me or I’ve witnessed something happen to someone else. I’ve experienced some things. Although the best fiction isn’t based on a rote recitation of our own life experiences, even the tiniest little experience can become the germ of an idea for a story.

Here are some of the mundane things that have sparked story ideas for me as I’ve gone about living my life: getting an invitation to a family reunion in the mail; a weird fortune I got in a fortune cookie; reading an interesting article online about dogs; an encounter with a valet at a hotel; a dream about my grandmother; meeting someone interesting at a local concert in the park on my lunch hour; trying a new recipe that didn’t turn out very well; an ex-boyfriend commenting on my weight. When I’m stuck, I think of a little thing from the past or something that sparked my interest during the day, then imagine and extrapolate from there.

2. There’s Magic in The Mash-Up

My second idea came from Stephen King’s On Writing. I like to call it The Mash-Up. In his craft book On Writing, King describes the way he came up with the idea for his novel Carrie by combining two completely unrelated ideas: adolescent cruelty and telekinesis. He got those ideas from two places: a teenaged memory about a school locker room and an article he read in LIFE magazine on telekinesis. (The Guardian published an excerpt of King’s account of coming up with the idea for Carrie, so you can read about it in “Stephen King: How I Wrote Carrie,” but I recommend reading the entire book too.) What isn’t mentioned in the excerpt is that King goes on to say he often comes up with ideas for his stories by mashing up two unrelated ideas. I now do the same. One of my favorite stories I’ve written grew out of a mash-up of two ideas: one was a piece of trivia I heard about the human voice and the other was a weird music phenomenon I read about in a science magazine.

3. The Idea Factory

The thing that has helped me the most with building the confidence that I am a creative person who can come up with ideas for stories is … coming up with ideas for stories. This is something I learned from author Jill Alexander Essbaum. I took her advice and started incorporating writing exercises into my morning routine. Creativity begets creativity, my friends. And practice makes perfect.

But there is one particular exercise Essbaum turned me onto that has helped me the most: I write the beginning of a new short story each and every morning. That means I have to come up for an idea for a new short story every morning, on the fly. And it’s nuts, but I always do! Some of them turn out to be total crap, of course. Okay, many of them turn out to be total crap that I never finish. But there is the occasional gem that I eventually turn into something. There are enough gems that I am never at a loss for a gem to polish. And most importantly, I now know that I can come up with an idea for a new short story any damned time I want for the rest of my life.

Speaking of big ideas, author Will Durant created his own mash-up from two of Aristotle’s quotes.

Aristotle wrote this:

“As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

And this:

“[T]hese virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.”

What Durant wrote in his book The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers was this:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Writing, thinking, being creative, coming up with story ideas—these things are like muscles. If we don’t use them, we do not lose them. They may get flabby, but they don’t go away. They are always there for us to begin using again. If you keep thinking and keep writing and keep trying, you will work those creativity muscles, and they, in turn, will begin to work for you.

WRITER TIP: Writers are observers of the world around them. What other people see, writers not only see, but continue to ponder. They try to make sense of the world around them, and they try to do so through the written word. That is the art of creative writing. Carry a notebook with you wherever you go, and write down not only ideas that come to you, but the things you see and hear that you find interesting or curious. In fact, keep a notebook on your bedside table for those late-night ideas that are bound to come just as you’re dozing off to sleep. You’ll be amazed at how fast ideas begin to come.

Plan A

About ten years ago, I asked myself, “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to give up, to create the life you’ve always dreamed for yourself?” The answer, in the past, appeared to have been, “Not much.”

I was a writer who never made time to write. I was a book lover who rarely found time to read. I was a vegetarian who didn’t eat many vegetables–I’d given up meat, but had devolved into much more of a carbohydrate-arian than anything else. I wasn’t happy.

Inside of me, there lurked an artist, but I didn’t create. I was too busy trying to set my life up perfectly so that I’d have the time and money to create. I worked full-time, and in my spare time, I went to school–always for things that didn’t float my boat, but that seemed practical. I started side businesses I didn’t much enjoy, but that I thought would eventually buy me the freedom to live the life of my dreams. Then I could write. I abandoned new projects as quickly as I started them, jumping from one thing to another, never taking anything all the way through to its completion.

Above all, I always had a Plan B. A plan for when I failed as a writer. I started law school three times, but not because I wanted to be an attorney. I didn’t. But I’d worked as a paralegal for many years, and the law was something I was good at. Although I suspected I would be miserable as an attorney, it seemed a good back-up career should I fail to make it as a writer. Once I was making a comfortable living as an attorney, then I could write.

I’d failed as an entrepreneur, failed as a music promoter, failed as a beerista–you name it, I’d tried it and given up on it. But in the back of my mind, there was this notion that, once I’d found and settled into a great Plan B, I’d have the freedom to proceed with Plan A and do what I really wanted to do.

The trouble is, as they say, life very easily becomes all the things that happen while you are making other plans. Everything I’d done in my life, all of my time, money, and effort, had been in support of having a back-up plan should my imagined writing career not work out. In the process, I not only lost myself, but my enthusiasm for living. Living a Plan B life is definitely not where it’s at.

And so I arrived at that place ten years ago when I asked myself, “Where would I be if I had instead put all that time and effort into writing?” And then I asked myself that next big question: “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to let go of, to have the life you were meant to live?”

The answer I came up with is this:  Anything and everything.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.” –J.K. Rowling

And so, ten years ago, I dropped out of law school for the third time. I deleted my Facebook account and temporarily left social media behind. I let go of a side business that wasn’t giving me joy. I canceled my daily DVR recordings of my favorite television shows.

I searched my mind and my day planner for all the things I did to waste time or to avoid living my dream life, and I ruthlessly and fearlessly ripped those things from my schedule. I was merciless and unrelenting. For this woman who felt like she never had time to write or to enjoy her life, a woman who routinely faced each weekend armed with a to-do list of 25-plus items, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out in front of me. It felt freeing and frightening all at once. The truth was, I realized, I’d busied myself with everything else in order to avoid taking the chance that I would fail as a writer. Now, ten years later, that looms in front of me as a very real possibility. Because I’m writing, and I’m submitting my stories and my essays to journals, and I’m getting rejections. And the occasional acceptance. I’m polishing the manuscript on my first novel and working on a second. I’m putting myself out there.

When I fear I will fail as a writer and long for the old, cold comfort of my Plan B life, I remember these words spoken by J.K. Rowling:  “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.”1 I don’t know about you, but I’m not going out like that. If I’m going to fail as a writer, it won’t be by default. It will be in a blaze of glory, in the wake of the best and most heroic effort I can make.

WRITER TIP: I spent many years living my life in the cracks–squeezing the things I loved into the tiny cracks of time and space left over after all the have-to’s and should’s. When I began living as if writing and the other things I love were just as important as anything else, my life began to change. The best advice I can give you is to give yourself the best part of your day: If you’re a morning person, give yourself the first hour of your day–get up early and write before the day gets away from you. If you’re a night person, give the best part of your night to yourself–the time when you feel most energetic and alive–and write. Whether you’re a night person or a morning person, don’t fill the best part of your day with chores or billpaying or working toward a Plan B you don’t even want. Your Plan A life is happening right now.

What Is a Book Coach?

If you’ve come to this post, you probably have some questions about what a “book coach” is. I know I was curious the first time I heard someone call herself a book coach. So I looked into it, and I found out that, although the term is a relatively new one, book coaches have been around for a long time. When I heard the term, I knew right away that a book coach is exactly what I’d been training to be all of my life, only I hadn’t known it before, because I didn’t know such a job existed, and I didn’t know it was something I could do.

So what is a book coach? A book coach is sort of like a life coach, only instead of helping a person with his/her/their entire life, a book coach’s job is to help a writer achieve the very specific goal of writing a book, from start to finish. A book coach has specific expertise that can be invaluable for establishing goals and defining the processes necessary to successfully plan a book, write a book, and query agents.

How Are Book Coaches Helpful to Writers?

Polls conducted over the past twenty years reveal that more than 80% of people living in the United States want to write a book someday. But of those people who want to write a book, only 3% ever finish writing a book. Why? If I had to guess, I’d say there are a couple of things at play.

First, we are a nation of hard workers, and artistic pursuits like writing are often considered fanciful and frivolous. We may be dreaming of writing a book in a vacuum, with no support or encouragement, embarrassed to share our dream even with our families or our closest friends.

Also, writing a book is hard, and it’s made much harder by the fact that writers usually have to work at day jobs and take care of families and wash their cars on the weekend. It’s hard enough to find the time to write, but it’s even more difficult to find the time to write consistently enough to hone the craft of writing and to write well. And because of the first thing, there’s probably no one in our corner encouraging us to keep at it.

A book coach can help writers beat those staggering odds by coaching them and encouraging them through planning and writing a complete manuscript, zeroing in on their particular craft issues, and pursuing their publishing goals.

What Does a Book Coach Do?

When you work with a book coach, you start wherever you’re at and go from there.

You may come to a book coach knowing you want to write a novel, but with only a vague idea for a story. A book coach can help you fine tune your idea, determine the structure for your book, flesh out the characters and plot, and make a plan for writing forward.

Or you may have a solid idea and a detailed outline and be ready to write your book. In that case, a book coach can help you find the strengths and weaknesses in your story plan before you start writing and coach you through the writing process one chapter at a time.

If you have a completed manuscript, a book coach can evaluate your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses so you go into revisions armed with the information you need to take your manuscript to the next level. A book coach can also coach you through those revisions so you make the best use of your time.

Once you have a polished manuscript, a book coach can help you research agents and develop a query or pitch plan, including drafting a query letter and a synopsis of your book, so you can start looking for an agent to represent your book.

WRITER TIP: If you don’t know how to get started, or you’re stuck, or you want or need professional guidance, accountability, and/or encouragement to reach your writing goals, you are not alone. Many people take advantage of professional book coaching and editing services to help them achieve their writing dreams. I am a book coach and editor with many years of experience writing, evaluating, and editing fiction and non-fiction. If you’re interested in working with me to write your first or your next novel, please get more information about me; get more information about the book coaching services I offer; and contact me to get started.