52 Weeks of Writing: Week 41—Lessons from Writing a Series of Prompt Challenges

52 Weeks of Writing: Week 41—Lessons from Writing a Series of Prompt Challenges

Well, you may have noticed a bit of a change this week. It's Spooky Season, it's the last month before Nanowrimo, and it's my first week of teaching.

I feel like I've been running very fast and still not keeping up with a high-powered treadmill. Oh my god.

What I decided to do on top of all this nonsense was attempt World Anvil's Spooktober challenge. Then, because I do this every time, I thought I'd also use the Deck of Worlds horror expansion. This sounds like it made things harder, but so far, it's actually helped make it easier.

I have to do all of this after a long day of teaching with an autistic brain and a thousand things to do before I can actually focus.

Also, prompts are kind of tough by themselves. A single-word prompt is extremely tough. I initially thought that I'd made my life worse by adding in the Deck of Worlds aspect.

However, it's actually helped. The first two prompts, Crow and Spectre (sorry, British spelling here), I only used the Deck of Worlds horror expansion. For the third prompt, I was a bit stuck for ideas so I decided I'd use the Story Engine original deck to help me out.

This actually helped even more than I'd expected. While the Deck of Worlds is about world-building and locations, the Story Engine is about characters, conflict, and structure. Having something that provided me with some help to come up with the basics of a character with a need and a conflict very quickly made all the difference.

In this first week, I've had to sacrifice a lot of perfectionism and the desire to edit. I haven't put my own fiction out into the world properly in a very long time. I'm having to post scrappy works based on loosely cobbled-together ideas between doing a hundred other things.

So far, it's been a really useful exercise and I'm glad I'm doing it. Accidentally, it's also helped me build up more background for Amnar itself. Every one of the stories I'm writing is based in Amnar, or the surrounding territories of the seven big city states.

This means my primary learning from the first week of doing this is that narrowing down and focusing a prompt as much as you can will make it much, much easier to respond to it. Lisa Cron says as much in Story Genius, of course, but there's nothing like having the experience of working it out in practice.

This is also why I like the Story Engine decks so much. Starting with one word is actually very difficult. It helps to have a lot more constraints on what you need to do to create a story quickly. I don't know whether the scrappy first drafts I've written up count as fully-fledged stories. They're fragments that give insight into people and places. Or, at least, that's the hope.

Secondary learning from this week is to do with workflow. This is not something I've given conscious thought to in the past, but because I'm autistic, I need to have a set of steps to follow to assist me getting started. One of the things that blocks me doing things is the sense that I know I need to start, but I can't figure out where to start or what my first step is.

In the first three prompts, I began developing a workflow. I needed to look at the one-word prompt first thing in the morning to give me a sense of what I might be working with.

Then I had to go and teach, be bombarded with too much information all day, come home, rest, make dinner, and then think about what I wanted to write.

I did try, during the day, to think about what kind of mood the word suggested. What kind of atmosphere, theme, personality, did the word suggest or imply? For "Helpless", for example, that could be either somebody feeling or being helpless, or a force acting on another, making them helpless. Horror works both ways, and using the point of view of the bad guy can be as good as the hero.

Then I developed a prompt using the horror expansion. This gave me a landscape, more mood, backstory, etc. Finally, I turned to the Story Engine to come up with a character. I was a little bit lost yesterday. I only write once I've had time for the prompts to steep in my head.

Then, of course, I have to write. Owing to time constraints, I've been writing what comes up first. I don't have time to edit so these really are scrappy attempts to make fragments of story happen. If I figure out, over the next three and a half weeks, how to write high-quality short fiction in such a tiny amount of time using a tiny amount of energy, I'll let you know.

Now. Something else. It's Week 41, we have 11 weeks left. And here I am, standing in front of you, about to introduce a new direction for this little adventure. It's as if we set off to climb Everest, but then we saw how crowded it is up there so I said, "What about Anna Purna?"

I don't mention this as much as I should but I spend a lot of time reading and studying story structure. Plot, narrative, the function of characters. I've read so many books and bought so many more that I've never read or only read partially. I've been on so many courses and I'm either signed up for or planning to sign up for so many more.

I think it's time I made this more of a Thing that I do. Something between formally teaching myself about narratology (the study of story structure) and "I tried this so you don't have to" examination of writing courses. There are so many out there, and it's hard to tell which ones are worth attending and which ones you can ignore.

Since I've been a sucker for all of these courses and their promises at one time or another, I think it's worth sharing what I've discovered and learned.

Bear in mind, every author is different. What appeals to me and works for me may well not work for other people. But it feels to me like we need this, at a time when big agencies like Curtis Brown are pivoting to a model where they offer high-priced courses to unpublished authors as well as the traditional services of representing published ones.

Now, I'm aware that, especially on Medium, I've got into a habit of starting projects, being able to maintain them for a month, then abandoning them because I get overwhelmed. Therefore, I'm going to approach this with some caution.

If I start with a big plan and a specific opening point that's not related directly to what I'm doing in the present (say, I intend to start with a course or book I read years ago), I tend to get stuck and the whole project unravels before my eyes. Or I never get stared in the first place.

So I'm actually going to start with where I am and what I'm doing next. This is a bit of a weird place to begin, because this is not the kind of writing course I've done before. I'll introduce it a bit more in another post, but I've signed up for the Sense Writing course run by Madelyn Kent.

It's an experiment based on my understanding that I hit blocks with my writing that are entirely emotional, and this course comes at writing from that perspective, rather than any other.

That course begins on the 16th October, so I'll try to do a review of what we work on and how the course unfolds over time.

Obviously, this is a tricky time to be doing the course: it's autumn semester on campus, so there will be interruptions for marking and teaching; I also have books to edit; my own book to write; it's Nanowrimo. The list goes on.

I figure if I start small with personal experiences, and build up, that might be helpful to readers to understand what they're letting them in for when they do a course like this.

That's the plan, anyway. It's a start.

Of course, there's no real test for the effectiveness of any one course. The promises of these courses and books are all fairly nebulous. The ultimate test would be if I did one course and I could directly point to it leading to me getting published and selling a reasonable number of copies.

There's no way that I can make that kind of link, for so many reasons. Too many variables, if nothing else. But what I can do is test courses according to whether they provide effective advice beyond the basics, whether the individual experience of doing the course fits reasonably into everyday adult life. The point is not testing against that one outcome, but about whether the expenditure is worth it for enjoying and learning writing, fiction, and story-building.

Next week, I'll update on how this whole writing prompts experiment is going and share what I've learnt about the writing process along the way.