Prompting Me to Write

I’ve been asked on many occasions where I get my story ideas.  As those of you who read my author’s notes like know, I don’t have a single answer to this question.  I don’t have an idea-generating machine or magic wand.  Stories ideas are out there, everywhere—often it’s just a matter of keeping my eyes open for them.  While I certainly can get an idea from almost anywhere, I find that if I’m really stuck, a writing prompt is often surprisingly effective at stimulating an idea and ultimately a story.

I never used to think of myself as someone who could write stories from a prompt—I thought it limiting and contrived—so I was surprised at my success when I first tried it with my Hopefull Monsters writing group a few years ago.  We had such good success generating stories, in fact, that we started doing semi-regular “writing challenges” using anthology themes as prompts.  This approach had the added advantage of a ready market to which to submit finished stories.  Talk about an ideal situation.

I’ve since gone on to troll lists of themed anthologies looking for interesting prompts.  Sometimes I’m honestly interested in submitting to the anthology, but more often I’m not (anthologies generally don’t pay well and have notoriously small distributions).  Even when I am interested in submitting, I often don’t finish my story by the anthology’s deadline.  That doesn’t matter, however, because if I get a good story out of it, I can sell it somewhere else.  In fact I’ve had good luck selling writing-prompt-inspired stories to a number of good publications, including my stories “Hoodoo” and “Observations on a Clock” (both inspired by the prompt for the In Situ anthology), Strand in the Web (from a Hopefull Monster writing prompt), and my forthcoming story “The Schrödinger War” (from the Extreme Planets Anthology).

So if you’re stuck looking for something to write, try to stimulate some ideas with a writing prompt, either an interesting line from a poem or book, a picture (my story “Dreams in Dust” came from a visual writing prompt), or even a themed anthology.  The important thing is to find something that stirs the imagination and triggers an idea to work with.  Then sit down, write, finish and submit (if that’s the goal).

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About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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3 Responses to Prompting Me to Write

  1. Marc Schuster says:

    I’ve had the same experience with prompts — ambivalence giving way to appreciation. My short story “My Life as an Abomination” started with a prompt to write a story ending with the last line “To think, she could have been a sailor.” Though the story was published, I still have doubts about that last line and worry that it sounds contrived or that readers will think it sounds somehow out of place, but that may just be because I know where it came from. My first novel also grew out of a prompt in a roundabout way — the prompt was to write a short story about someone with an obsession, and that eventually evolved into a story about someone with an addiction, which in turn evolved into the novel. So even though I can be dismissive of prompts at times, they’ve served me pretty well!

    • I liked “My Life as an Abomination” and the line didn’t feel out of place to me; I thought it a quirky ending to a delightfully quirky story. Out of curiosity, do you seek out prompts? I also used to be dismissive of them, but I now know they work for me, so I purposely troll theme anthologies to see if I get a spark. I don’t force it, however. What comes, comes.

      • Marc Schuster says:

        Once in a while, I’ll seek out a prompt. Usually, I’ll ask a friend to send me some random prompts, and I’ll pick out one that I like and respond to it. I’ll usually do that if I’m stuck for ideas, but if I’m otherwise inspired, I’ll just go with my inspiration. Coincidentally, I read the following essay, “The Right Prompt,” in Philadelphia stories last night: http://www.philadelphiastories.org/right-prompts

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