‘I’m not sure where to start’ said a friend of mine who, after a long hiatus, is getting back into writing. Like me, she wrote as a teenager but stopped when she went to university. There was so much writing to do, so much serious stuff to read and think about. Telling stories for your own pleasure suddenly seemed frivolous. And anyway, with writers like Shakespeare, Austen and Hemingway – never mind the alive ones – who does she think she is that she can tell a story anyone would care a fig for? What could she add?
But she misses the pleasure of writing and wants to tell stories again. But where to start? How do you know what length of story, or what shape of story to write?
How indeed. There’s no point in sitting at your keyboard, or with a pad and pen, waiting for inspiration. It might never come.
Fiction is play and as hard-working, serious adults, we need to learn to play again (well, I did). Stories come from imagination and imagination has to be nurtured. It seems to me that much of the training that goes into becoming an adult involves closing down the channels of our imaginations that are least likely to help us pay the rent. It’s hard work getting creative juices to flow is blocked-off channels but it can be done. The way to do it? Start writing, start playing with ideas, and other ideas will come. No, really, they will.
…if you reward your imagination by writing down your ideas and exploring them, even the slightest little fragment, your imagination will reward you with a more or less continuous stream of ideas. If you turn off or blunt the enthusiasm of your subconscious for engaging in creative play, the stream can dry up.
Jeff Vandermeer, Wonderbook
Find sites that offer prompts, like 101Fiction, or the Scottish Book Trust’s 50 word writing competition, and write on the prompts. Prompts, particularly ones with word counts attached, give you parameters to work within. You don’t have to come up with everything from length to topic to genre, ‘just’ the words. Very short stories are a great place to start because you can write several and see where they take you. Working with someone else’s ideas help you start having your own.
There are books that fill a similar function, like Bonnie Neubauer’s The Write Brain Workbook, which has 366 exercises to get you thinking and writing. Below are a few sites: a web search will find more.
Find Prompts and Themes
Sometimes you have to dig around to find old prompts, but it won’t take you that long to find them. Some magazines publish their themes several months in advance, giving you several options to look at.
- Liars’ League – accepts stories between 800 and 2,000 words. Use that limitation to keep the word-count down. (Remember: you don’t have to send the story you write, you’re just trying to get the idea machine running.)
- Penumbra – takes stories up to 3,500 words but you can set yourself a lower word count to get going and have fun with the themes.
- Creative Writing Prompts – short, to the point, prompts.
- Writer’s Digest Writing Prompts – prompt and a bit of background.
- Writing Prompts – a site of writing prompts that Luke Neff, a teacher, uses in his classes.