Writing Prompts: Stirring or Stifling?

These days it’s not uncommon for writers to use a prompt of some kind to get the ol’ creative juices flowing. It’s often part of a writing exercise, but sometimes it’s an element of a writing contest or even a short story submission. But are writing prompts useful to authors, especially authors looking to produce publishable stories? Let’s talk about that.

Before we get started, I’m gonna go ahead and state my bias up front. Some forty of my published stories began life as part of a prompted exercise, so I definitely find them useful, and this post will largely focus on why they are useful to me. That said, there’s some nuance to my love of prompts, and I have reservations about some of them.

First, let’s define what a writing prompt is. In my experience, they fall under the following broad categories.

  1. General Theme. These prompts are an overarching theme or subject the story must encompass, sometimes within a specific story length, like flash fiction. You could argue that something like “zombie apocalypse” or “ghost story” isn’t really a prompt at all, but in my experience they do work like writing prompts and get your brain moving along a certain creative path.
  2. Inspirational. The second type of prompt is the one I’m most familiar with. It’s a photo, illustration, or even a word or phrase that is meant to inspire the author. That inspiration should be obvious in the story, but specific elements of the prompt, like the subject of a photo, for example, do not have to be present.
  3. Specific. These prompts call for a specific location, item, or a word or phrase that must appear in the story (usually combined with an assigned genre). I see these most in big writing contests, like the New York City Midnight challenges.

Category one is certainly the easiest to write, and, again, you could argue calling it a prompt is a stretch. Still, I find simply setting my brain to write on a certain theme is helpful. My experience with this kind of writing prompt is mostly in flash fiction contests from publishers like The Arcanist and The Molotov Cocktail. I’ve done well in those, and even if a story didn’t place, I’ve often been able to sell it elsewhere. You also see prompts like this in themed anthologies.

Category two prompts are my favorite. For many years, I’ve been part of a one-hour flash fiction writing contest/exercise that uses inspirational prompts. These exercises have produced the bulk of my published works. Some have remained at flash length, while others I developed into full-fledged short stories (and, currently, a novel). I’m not sure why this type of prompt works so well for me. It might be because I tend to cleave to fairly traditional tropes when left to my own devices. A prompt and a time limit forces me to write outside my comfort zone, which has led me to some fairly original ideas (or at least twists on old ideas) and a bunch of publishable stories. Like category one, it’s not uncommon to see inspirational prompts in a themed anthology with a slightly narrower focus.

Category three prompts are the hardest to write in my opinion. Sometimes that’s by design as a way to add difficulty. For example, in the NYCM flash fiction contest you’re assigned a location, an item, and a genre. The location and item MUST appear in the story. If you get a real oddball combination it can make writing incredibly challenging, which I guess is kind of the point, but the story can come out feeling a little contrived. For the most part, I find these prompts to be somewhat stifling.

For me, the first two categories of prompts, especially category two, inspire me to write outside my comfort zone. I believe they help me produce stories I might not have on my own. You might call that a crutch, but I’m fine with that because I end up with publishable work (or work with the potential for publication). Category three prompts are less useful to my goal of writing sellable stories. When the prompts is very specific, I find the story is a tough sell to readers who lack the context of the prompts and contest. Of course that’s only how my stories turn out. I know folks who regularly compete in NYCM and go on to sell those stories, sometimes to pro markets.

So, are writing prompts helpful to authors? I’m gonna hedge and say they’re useful to some authors. This author, for example. But there’s another side to this, and I know authors who find writing prompts to be a huge limiting factor on their creativity. Instead of taking them by the hand and leading them to a new and exciting story idea, the prompt acts like a big ‘ol wall of writer’s block. That sure as shit ain’t helpful, and if that were my experience with prompts, I’d avoid them completely.

To sum up, and to hedge yet again, writing prompts are both stirring and stifling, depending on the type of prompt, the author, and the context. If you haven’t used them before, I’d urge you to give them a try. They might just shake loose something new and exciting. 🙂


What are your thoughts on writing prompts? Do you use them? Tell me about it in the comments.

A Week of Writing: 5/11/20 to 5/17/20

Another week of writing in the books. Here’s how it all went down.

Words to Write By

Today’s quote comes from Douglas Adams.

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

– Douglas Adams

Last week, I stopped writing the first draft of Hell to Play and instead revised my outline. Douglas Adams’ quote kind of sums up why. I realized, as I was writing the first draft, and especially after I ended act one, that the novel I was writing was NOT the novel in my outline. I knew there was a subplot I needed to add, but I wasn’t sure how to get there. As a dedicated plotter, I sat down and figured out how the new story would go. I think (and hope) I have ended up where I needed to be.

The Novel

Well, I didn’t add a single word to the manuscript for Hell to Play last week. What I did do, however, was completely revise acts two and three of my outline. Revise might be understating. I rewrote the outline completely, adding in an entirely new subplot I think strengthens the conflict in the novel and provides key insight into the background and motivations of the principle characters. If we are keeping count of words, that two-thirds of an outline amounted to just over 6,000 words, so, you know, I was pretty busy. 🙂

Short Story Submissions

Pretty good week on the submission front.

  • Submissions Sent: 3
  • Rejections: 2
  • Acceptances: 1
  • Publications: 1
  • Shortlist: 0

Three submissions is solid, and that’s really the pace I’d like to set every week. I’m up to 38 for the year, and I’ll need another 6 or 7 before the end of May to stay on track for 100 subs. The rejections were from a writing contest, and I’d hoped one of the entries would place. I got close with one of them, but no dice. The acceptance is a good one (I mean, they’re all good), and I managed to place a story with the Flame Tree Fiction Newsletter. That’s my third sale to Flame Tree, and I’m very pleased to have a piece appear in their newsletter. The story will be posted on their website at some point, and I’ll be sure to point you in that direction when it’s free to read.

Microfiction

Normally I would post some of the microfiction I wrote as part of vss365. Thing is, I didn’t write any. 🙂 I’ll get back on the beam this week, though. In the meantime, here are three microfiction pieces I place with 50-Word Stories over the past year or so.

“Treed” –  3/7/19

“His True Name” – 4/24/19

“Dead Bugs” – 4/15/19

Goals

With a revised outline, I aim to start adding words to the manuscript for Hell to Play this week. I’m trying not to focus so much on how quickly I’m writing the first draft, which is tough for me, but I think it will result in a better book. As always, I need to get those story submission out. Shooting for three more submissions by the end of the week.


That was my week. How was yours?

A Week of Writing: 5/4/20 to 5/10/20

A day late on this past week of writing, but here’s how I did.

Words to Write By

Today’s quote comes from Kurt Vonnegut.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

— Kurt Vonnegut

I have stepped off the cliff and now I’m furiously flapping my arms hoping those wings will sprout. There are a few feathers here and there, but we have not yet achieved flight. I’ve stalled a bit on the first draft of Hell to Play, and a desperate sense of falling has set in. The stall is for a very good reason–making the book better–but that feeling of plummeting to my doom remains. Like always, I’ll write through it, but Kurt Vonnegut’s quote resonates right about now.

The (New) Novel

I worked on Hell to Play last week, but I hesitate to call it progress. I wrote 5,200 words for a total of 28,500 on the manuscript. What happened this week is I realized I have a strong first act (which I’ve already completed), a strong third act, but my second act, which I’ve just begun is, well, weak as shit. All is not lost, though. While I was floundering and grappling with what to do, THE SOLUTION became clear. That should be good news because my second act is more or less saved, the book improved, and so on. The problem is, I’m a dedicated plotter, so I can’t just write the new angle in. I have to go back and revise my outline and make sure everything fits before I start writing again. This kind of thing generally awakens the ol ‘ impostor syndrome, which equates stopping writing (for any reason) with failure. That’s nonsense, of course. I’m still working on the book, and the outline is a crucial part of writing for me. So, this week, I’m going to grit my teeth, rework my outline, so when I do start writing again (probably by the end of the week), I’ll be able to push forward with more confidence.

Short Story Submissions

Two subs for the week and not much else.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 0
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0
  • Shortlist: 0

Well, two subs is better than last week’s one sub, right? No other activity, though I expect to hear back on at least four of the eight stories I have pending this week. I’m sitting at thirty-five submissions total, which is an average of seven per month. I need to get that average up to nine to stay on track for 100 subs for the year. That means ten more submissions in the next few weeks. 🙂

Microfiction

Here are two of the better microfiction pieces from my #vss365 work last week. As always, if you want to read my microfiction in real time, follow me on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.

May 5th, 2020

The planet was thickly forested but dry save for #rainwater. Eventually we drank, ignoring the tiny wriggling things in each swallow. One by one we grew and took root. Now the few who remain wander still groves, mad with thirst, trying not to hear the voices on the wind. 

May 9th, 2020

“Damn, Sal,” Lucky said. “You shot him #nine fucking times.”

“Um, I thought he had a vest.” Sal said.

“But you shot him in the balls. Twice.”

“I thought he had a VEST, Lucky.”

“Uh huh. Guess he shouldn’ta called you a bad shot on Twitter.”

Sal smirked. “Guess not.”

Goals

This week, the big goal is to revise the outline for Hell to Play, which equates to roughly twenty short chapter outlines. The other goal is to send more submissions, as always. I smell rejections on the wind, so I should have plenty of stories to submit. 🙂


That was my week. How was yours?

A Week of Writing: 4/27/20 to 5/3/20

Another week of writing in the books. Let’s see how I did.

Words to Write By

Today’s quote comes from Andy Warhol.

Don’t think about making art, just get it done.

–Andy Warhol

It’s rare you find a quote that perfectly encapsulates your writing process, but this single sentence from Andy Warhol pretty much describes how I go about my first drafts. I just want to get the story on the page and not worry about making it perfect. Sure, I do occasionally go back and fill in plot holes or fix continuity errors while I’m writing the first draft, but I save most of the refining for the revision(s) after the first draft is done. The primary reason I do this is I find it overwhelming to try and make the story perfect (or at least better) while I’m writing it. It just spikes my anxiety and self-doubt to a degree that kills my productivity, so I don’t do it, and that helps me get from first word to last more-or-less painlessly.

The (New) Novel

More good progress on Hell to Play last week. I wrote just over 8,700 words for a total of 23,000 and change for the manuscript. I’m not hitting my 10,000 words a week like I usually do, but I’ve kind of made peace with that. There are just so many outside distractions right now–and one BIG one–that I’m happy to be making any decent progress at all. Maybe I’ll work back up to 10,000 a week, but at this point I’m looking at having a first draft in twelve weeks. I can absolutely live with that.

Short Story Submissions

Kind of a pathetic week for submissions.

  • Submissions Sent: 1
  • Rejections: 0
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0
  • Shortlist: 0

Exciting, huh? One submission. I haven’t even gotten a rejection in weeks. The one submission last week gives me 33 for the year, which means I need to pick up the pace in May if I want to hit 100 subs by the end of the year.

Microfiction

I missed a few days again last week, but I think what I did write came out pretty good. Here are the two best in my humble opinion. As always, if you want to read my microfiction in real time, follow me on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.

April 28th, 2020

Dying’s not so bad, but the #resurrection is a real shit sandwich. Each time I croak and return to life, there’s a new group of mortals convinced I’m the second coming. Sorry, folks, no messiah here. I’m just an accident-prone revenant, and this is my, uh, 94th(?) coming.

May 2nd, 2020

The ancient #ragpicker scavenged only the choicest bits. Castoff shreds that still held some magic, some life. He worked his finds into a shape dear to him but nearly forgotten. The final scrap was his tatterdemalion soul, and when he breathed his last, the child awoke.

Goals

Same as usual. Keep plugging away at the novel and get more submission out the door.


That was my week. How was yours?

Submission Statement: April 2020

Okay, let’s get accountable again. Here’s a breakdown of my submission endeavors for April.

April 2020 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 8
  • Rejections: 9
  • Acceptances: 2
  • Publications: 3

Pretty good month, really. I’m a tad off my pace of 100 subs for the year, but I hope to catch up in May. A fair amount of rejections, but there are some encouraging nos from new markets that tell me I should keep trying stories with them. Two acceptances in a month is always good, and the three publications is extra good.

Rejections

Nine rejections this month.

  • Standard Form Rejections: 4
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 1
  • Personal Rejections: 4

I’ve been shopping a new short story, and it’s gotten some pretty good feedback. That’s were some of the personal rejections come from. The others are from new markets (to me), and the response was encouraging. I’ll definitely submit to these markets again. The form rejections are your typical boilerplate nos from pro markets.

Spotlight Rejection

The spotlight rejection for last month is one that again illustrates why stories get rejected, even good ones.

Thank you very much for your submission, and we’re sorry for the delayed reply. 

That said, [story] is fascinating, and the end quite genius. However, and sadly, we’re already contracted several stories with a similar tone, so we’ll be passing on this at this time.

Thank you again, and we hope this finds a good home soon.

I’d call this a personal rejection, and they say some nice things about my story. The reason they give for the rejections is, I think, one that a lot of authors run into and never know about. My story was a sci-fi noir thriller type thing, which is not terribly uncommon, and it’s perfectly understandable that a market would want a diverse mix of tones and styles in an issue. Now, of course, I’m practicing a little rejectomancy here, but as usual, I think you should take editors at their word

Acceptances

Two acceptances this month. One from The Arcanist for my flash story “Liquid Courage” and one from 50-Word Stories for my micro “Dead Bugs.” My goal every month is to get at least one acceptance, and getting two is, well, uh, better than one. 🙂 I haven’t been skunked yet in 2020, and hopefully I can continue my streak into May.

Publications

The first publication is the flash story “Liquid Courage,” which you may have gleaned from the letter above took 4th place in The Arcanist’s Western Story Contest. You can read or listen to it below.

The next publication is a good old-fashioned print pub. I sold my story “The Back-Off” to On Spec Magazine back in October, and I received my contributor copies in the mail a few days ago. It’s a great looking magazine, full of excellent stories. If you’re into speculative fiction, give a thought to picking up an issue or a subscription to On Spec. Here’s the cover of the latest issue.

Finally, I finish up the month with a publication of my microfiction tale “Dead Bugs” over ay 50-Word Stories, which you can read right here.


And that was my April. Tell me about yours.

A Week of Writing: 4/20/20 to 4/26/20

Happy Monday, everybody. One more week of writing in the books, and here’s how I did.

Words to Write By

Today’s quote comes from New York Times Best Selling author Cheryl Strayed.

“Writing is always full of self-doubt, but the first book [Torch] is really full of self-doubt, and it was much more of a struggle to keep the faith. By the time I wrote Wild, I was familiar with that feeling of doubt and self-loathing, so I just thought, ‘Okay, this is how it feels to write a book.’”

—Cheryl Strayed

I’m hip-deep in the first draft of a new novel, and, oh man, the doubt and self-loathing are strong right now. Every word feels forced, every chapter worse than the last, every character poorly realized, all of that. I did not, however, let that keep me from writing because as Cheryl Strayed says “This is how it feels to write a book.” Well, this how it feels for me to write a book, and, well, if I want to write books I can’t let that self-doubt stop me. Thing is, that’s only how it feels in the moment. When I step away from the work and read it the next day, it’s not so bad. Hell, sometimes it’s even good. So, yeah, it can be a struggle sometimes, but once I learned to accept that some suffering is just part of the gig, it got easier to write my way through it.

The (New) Novel

Had a pretty good week with Hell to Play, even though I didn’t quite hit my goal of 10,000 words. I managed 8,600 on the draft, giving me a total close to 15,000 words. I’m satisfied with that. Last week I also started a new process where I review everything I wrote for the week over the weekend. That worked out well, and I caught some continuity errors and a few other things that might have given me trouble down the line and would have been more of a pain in the ass to fix in a completed draft. At my current pace I’ll have a 90,000-word draft in about ten weeks. I have a feeling it’ll be more like eight weeks as I find my footing and the writing comes easier. Still, three months for a first draft is plenty fast, and I’d be happy with that.

Short Story Submissions

A quiet week on the ol’ submissions front.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 0
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0
  • Shortlist: 0

I sent out two submissions last week, which gives me thirty-two for the year. I need to send another two subs this month to stay on pace for one-hundred subs for the year. That shouldn’t be a problem. I have one story that just needs to be proofed and submitted and another that’s close to it. No rejections last week, or really anything. Some of that has to do with my pending submission count getting a little low coupled with some publishers that take a while to respond. I expect I’ll be back on the rejection train this week or next.

Microfiction

I missed a lot of days last week with #vss365 microfiction, but here’s the best of the few I did write. As always, if you want to read my microfiction in real time, follow me on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.

April 25th, 2020

“Hey, Mister, put on your new #mittens.”

“Aw, Mom. My old ones are fine.”

“No, the new ones.”

“They’re too tight.”

“They’re better. Two layers of Kevlar and steel plate over the fingers.”

“Fine. Happy? ”

“Now what do I always say?”

“I know, zombies eat you fingers first.”

Goals

Keep knocking out the words on the first draft of Hell to Play and send out at least two more submissions. Those are both manageable goals, and I hope to report 10,000 words next week and increased submission activity.


That was my week. How was yours?

1 Publisher, 17 Submissions, 5 Letters

When you submit stories to publishers you can expect a wide variety of letters in response. You’ve got the various flavors of rejection letter (form, higher-tier, personal, etc.), informative notices like further-consideration and shortlist letters, and, of course, the king of all responses, the acceptance letter. I’ve showcased these letters on the blog before, but today I want to show you examples of all (well, most) of them from the same publisher. Yep, there’s a market I have submitted to 17 times, and I’m pretty sure I’ve received just about every possible response from them.

The secondary point to this post is to once again state, yes, some publishers do have various tiers of rejection letters, and you’ll see that below. Okay, let’s get started.

Letter #1: Common Form Rejection

Thank you so much for thinking of [publisher]. Unfortunately [story] is not quite what we’re looking for at the moment. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

This is a plain common form rejection. It contains all the usual verbiage and niceties, but doesn’t say anything other than “we’re not going to publish this story.” You’ll see virtually identical letters from a dozen other publishers. As usual, there’s nothing to be learned from a letter like this, so you just take it in stride and send the story somewhere else.

Letter #2: Higher-Tier Form Rejection

[Story] is a very good story, but unfortunately, it doesn’t quite match our needs for this spring and summer issues. I hope you find a good home for it elsewhere.

What sets this letter apart from the first rejection is specificity. “Very good story” and “spring and summer” issues tell me this story received more consideration than usual. When you get a letter like this, you should absolutely take the editor at their word. They did think it was a very good story, and it didn’t match the needs of their upcoming issues. That’s all they told me, so that’s all I inferred, and I promptly sent the story out again.

Letter #3: Further Consideration

[Story] has been accepted for further consideration. We will be letting you know before the end of October whether or not it has been accepted for publication. 

Pretty straightforward here. One of the things I really like about this publisher is how concise and specific they are. Their letters don’t muck about; they just tell you what’s up. This further consideration letter is a great example of that.

Letter #4: Final-Round Rejection

[Story] made it through to our final round of consideration, but unfortunately it was not a good fit for us at this time.  We wish you the best of luck in finding a home for it elsewhere.

Thank you for thinking of us at [publisher]. We hope you’ll consider sending us more of your stories in the future.

This rejection letter came after a further consideration letter, and though it’s a form letter, it’s a good one. You know you got close, and there’s likely nothing wrong with the story other than what they said: not a good fit at this time. The addition of “We hope you’ll consider sending us more of your stories in the future” just seals the deal that this is a better class of no.

Letter #5: Acceptance

I’m very pleased to let you know that [story] has been accepted for publication in the March issue of [publisher]. You should be receiving a contract shortly from [editor].

I’ll be reviewing each piece, so may have minor fixes for you to check. They should be ready for your review well before the issue is scheduled. You’ll also have an opportunity to review the story after upload, before it goes live. 

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Ah, the good stuff. It took me eleven submissions to crack this publisher, so this was a gratifying acceptance. One thing you might notice is this is still basically a form letter. That’s not unusual, honestly. Some publishers have a boilerplate letter for acceptances because they need to impart a lot of information that really doesn’t change from author to author. For example, here they tell me when the story will be published, that I should expect a contract shorty and whom I should expect it from, plus they notify about any minor proofing that might take place. That’s all I really need from an acceptance letter. The editors expressed more personal thoughts on the story in subsequent emails.

Oh, one other thing I appreciate about this publisher is they told me in the subject line of the email the story was accepted. I always like that, and it’s nice opening up a response from a market and knowing it’s good news.

You might be thinking that I’m missing a personal rejection, and that’s true. If you squint, the higher-tier rejection might be considered a personal note, but I feel more comfortable calling it a higher-tier form letter.


So, what does this collection of letters tell us. Well, for one that some publishers do indeed send various types of rejections that hinge on how seriously they considered it for publication. Keep that in mind when you get that next rejections; it might tell you more than you think. Another thing to take away from this post is that form letters aren’t all bad. In fact, some of them convey good news and even the very best news. 🙂