Prodding the Writing Brain

Every week (or, well, most weeks, at least) I take part in two writing challenges, one on Wednesdays and the other on Fridays. Anyone who’s been lurking around ‘Clockwatching…’ for a while will, no doubt, be aware of this; it’s my sincere hope that you’ve been enjoying the fruits of my labours, too. I look forward each week to these writing opportunities. If nothing else, it (usually) proves to me that I am capable of pulling a story together at short notice, and that I can rely on myself and my imagination to get me through a writing challenge. Whether or not the resulting story is worth reading, of course, is another question.

(Doubtless, there are weeks when my brain is an arid wasteland and no amount of encouragement can get the river of inspiration to flow. Those occasions are important, too. You can’t win ’em all, and it helps to know that it’s all right to not be able to call up a story on demand, every once in a while. The words will return when they’re ready. Fingers crossed.)

Call me again next week, right? It's just not happening today. Image: rxworks.com

Call me again next week, right? It’s just not happening today.
Image: rxworks.com

In any case, one thing these writing challenges have in common is that they both make use of prompts, or things designed to stimulate a writer’s imagination and give them some parameters for the work they’re going to produce. Prompts can take many shapes – if you think about it, actually, pretty much anything can be used as a writing prompt – but the ones I’m most familiar with are these: word prompts, and image prompts. Writing a story based on word prompts is, I feel, an entirely different challenge from writing one based around a picture prompt.

The Wednesday Write-In challenge, run by the CAKE.shortandsweet website, uses word prompts. Every Wednesday, first thing in the morning (before I’ve even had breakfast, usually), I check to see what words have been chosen for that week; because my entry for this competition doubles as my blog post for the day, I’m usually under time pressure to get the challenge completed. This, of course, is a good thing. It’s the equivalent of lifting weights with my frontal lobe, except a lot more fun. So, I look at the words, and I let them settle as I sit and take breakfast with my husband. I let them percolate as I boil the kettle for our morning tea. I ruminate upon them as I mooch about the internet, checking my various hang-outs, seeing what’s going on in the world, until – finally – my brain puts itself into gear and I can start planning out what I’m going to write.

Working with word prompts is, I think, slightly easier than working with picture prompts. Word prompts, to me, give a framework to a story. Writing this way reminds me, sometimes, of putting together a jigsaw; as kids, we’re always taught to find the corner pieces first, and get those in place before making the rest of the puzzle. Prompt words, then, are a bit like the corners of the jigsaw. They not only give me ideas for the story, but they are also like pegs upon which I can hang the fabric of what I’m trying to say; they form the corners, the turning points, the motifs. Sometimes, one word will jump out at me more strongly than the others and that word will be the leading image or idea in the story – the rest of the piece will slot into place around that. Sometimes, all the words will seem equally important, and demand the same share of the story. Either way, it’s a wonderful feeling to watch the story unfold in your head, to bring forth from nothing an entirely new piece of writing.

On Fridays, the wonderful people over at Flash! Friday run another writing competition. Each week, there is a prompt image provided, and the rules regarding how long the story should be change every week. Sometimes, they are as short as 100 words; sometimes, it can be closer to 500. Usually, the word count hovers somewhere around 250 or so. Besides the word count, and the prompt image, no further parameters are provided. This challenge is, to me, harder than the Wednesday Write-In. I’m not entirely sure why, but I find it harder to create a story from a picture than I do from prompt words. Sometimes it worries me a bit – normally, I like to think of myself as a fairly visual person. When something is being described to me, I can see it clearly in my mind, and when I’m reading, sometimes, it’s like I’m watching a movie. I’m good at visualisation, mental manipulation of shapes, and that sort of thing. Yet, my writing brain responds better to word prompts.

I’ve concluded it may be because the word prompts, as I’ve said, create a better framework for a story than a single image does. Perhaps it’s even because a picture prompt doesn’t limit my brain enough – I know that sounds a little unhinged, but it’s true! A picture prompt gives a starting point, whereas word prompts, at least the way my brain uses them, can create an entire story arc. I can look at the words and see a beginning, middle and end; a picture prompt can bring me anywhere.

Hello? Who's there? Image: technophobia.com

Hello? Who’s there?
Image: technophobia.com

I’m very grateful to the people who run the writing challenges in which I take part. They’re immensely helpful to me as a writer, and they’re also so enjoyable to participate in. They truly are challenges, in the sense that they ask for two different sets of writing skills, and the sort of brain agility that’s vitally necessary not only for writing, but for a whole host of other things too.

Have you taken part in writing challenges? Do you use writing prompts in your own work? Which ones do you find most useful?

And – why not take up one of the challenges I’ve mentioned here? Flash! Friday is currently running. Give it a go!

2 thoughts on “Prodding the Writing Brain

  1. emmaleene

    Totally on the same page as you with the prompts- the Wednesday ones provide a type of framework ( like 5 different targets or destinations to reach) while a picture is so open. Having a bit of a disastrous writing week this week but that’s the joys of parenting- next week will be better- peeks & troughs & all that! Hope to write something today if nap time lasts long enough ! Met some friends of yours @ the Big smoke writing factory last sat- I did a flash fiction course which was brilliant but frustratingly I haven’t had opportunity to capitalize on the inspiration- not to worry I am sure it’s all bubbling around waiting to come out. Sometimes I feel I write better quality stuff after a break!
    Happy writing!

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Delighted to hear you did a course at Big Smoke – they’re a great bunch of people, all right. I’m heading to the Children’s Books Ireland conference tomorrow, so I’m hoping to meet a few writerly types at that! It’ll be good to get out of my own head for a while, but it’s a bit scary too – actually meeting actual people. Wibble! Am glad to know you’re feeling inspired; it’s better to be short of time than inspiration, I reckon! Am sure the words are happily biding their time until they’re ready to come pouring out onto the page. Hope your little lady is thriving, and that you’re all well. Happy writing to you, too! 🙂

      Reply

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