On Writing Prompts

I was asked for my thoughts on the writing prompts we use in the White Water Writers project today, and rather than write a long email I thought I’d write a medium blog post.

For our writing projects, we start from three different places, depending on the situation. I want to talk about the advantages and also the constraints of each.

Blank slate

When I train new leaders at camps, and indeed, most of the time when I lead camps, we literally start from nothing.   We might lead the writers into a conversation, perhaps by asking them what sort of stories they think are done badly, and from there, let them draw out their own ideas, but the point is that we start from nothing.

This approach has produced, for example – a version of Robin Hood set in a post-apolectic future with Robin being a Dragon and Little John being the main antagonist. It’s also produced tales of police corruption, period pieces, and spy novels.

It’s advantage is obvious – it makes it absolutely clear to the writers that the ball is in their court – and perhaps it’s restriction is equally obvious – it can take some skill   (but mostly nerve) to get the writers to articulate their wilder ideas.  More to the point, it offers NO protection if, for example, some of the writers wants to write about a topic that another finds very stressful

I train the new leaders this way because it’s the thing that is most worth transmitting, and because I want them to make a something from nothing if they find themselves in suddenly without a prompt on at the start of the story.

The line

Sometimes a school or sponsoring organisation might want a little more control over the overall topic.  More rarely, I might want to do an experiment (for example to find out what young people’s views on truancy were) or indeed for my own amusement.   A recent prompt we used was:

“All private social media information becomes public, what happens next?”

because we were interested in the views of students about social media.

The advantage of the line is that it’s easy to related quickly,  easy to understand, and gives the writers something immediate to latch onto.  It’s restricted by the fact that it can lead to some (educational) debates that take the focus a little away from the story.

The brief

For the first dozen books we produced we exclusively used the brief.  This was a single side of A4 that set out a ‘house style’ in the way that a genre publisher might.  It specified the genre,  how much violence was allowed, exactly how much swearing was allowed, and, often, a set number of characters.

Here’s one we prepared earlier:

You will be writing a crime/thriller book aimed at the teenage fiction market.  It will be set in Bath in the present day.

We’re aiming this at the alternative market, our target reader is 15 years old and enjoys non-mainstream music that doesn’t appear in the singles chart. We’d like to name check the bands, television shows, and movies that are important to this demographic and really bring it towards them.

Our plot concerns a group of university staff that create a powerful new computer system, we’d like to show them struggling over possessing It before they find out that the system has become self aware and has, by email and social media, been pretending to be one of them.

We expect liberal references to current affairs, news stories, famous people and sports events. 

No sex, nor sexual activity but perhaps some love interest on the sidelines – this is not a love story as such. No blasphemy or sexual swearing.

Every line in this has a purpose,  mostly to reassure teachers, but for other reasons as well.

When the writers get a brief, they take ten minutes to work out the story they would tell, and then they pitch it to the other writers.

We now use the full brief in two situations.

Firstly, we use a full brief if we are working with writers who have potentially been through some trauma.  For example we might use one to (implicitly) avoid issues of paternal death.  We might also use the brief if teachers are a bit nervous about how the group will work together, or if it’s our first time with a new type of group.

Secondly we use the brief if we are going to do something fancy – the example above is actually one of a pair – we had two groups spend the morning planning novels from their briefs, and then in the afternoon they were asked to combine the two structures into one (we ensured there were several characters in common).  The result of this was Rouge, which I’m very proud of.  We’ve used a similar approach to have several books appear in the same universe, to create sequels, and to have one group produce three different novels at once.

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