Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Proper Use and Care of Writing Prompts

I'm asked often about a writing prompt -- what one is, how it works, is heeding one a worthwhile endeavor? In my estimation, so long as its definition is sufficiently stretchy, I'm a writing prompt's ardent fan.

Back at creation's dawn when I was in school, a slew of teachers and professors insisted a writing prompt was a thing that lived in fairly tight borders. This was particularly so in my assorted English and writing classes, where we were instructed that such a prompt occurs solely in the form of a short question designed to spur authorial effort about a specific topic for a given writing task. Nowadays, I believe that's called "teaching to the test." Regardless whether theirs was a sound definition for a writing prompt, it surely served my teachers and professors well when reading and grading writing assignments so narrowly prompted. If nothing else, it was a time-saver for my eternally overburdened educators. Say, just for a random hypothetical example because certainly this could never have actually happened, I was asked to write a thoughtful exploration in response to the prompt, "Why can a woman's patience endure?" Say, also, my plainly brilliant responsive submission focused instead on something infinitesimally (if at all) off-topic. For example, perhaps on whether a drunken myopic chimpanzee could maneuver a clown car skillfully enough on Manchester's streets to pass the same road test that resulted in my idiot friend Rudolfo's obtaining a driver's license before I got mine from the geniuses at the New Hampshire DMV. It didn't take Professor Sally Shakespeare too long to slap a big red F on my answer, not much reading required.

As I would have hypothetically explained at some length to my disgruntled parents, this big red F was in no way my fault. It was the fault of Professor Shakespeare's writing prompt being obliged to toil under harshly restrictive definitional parameters.

(You see, Rudolfo and I had the same road test administrator. She was a surly woman named Helga. From her indecipherable command of English, Helga was very likely imported into New Hampshire late one stormy Cold War night from some profoundly slipshod village called Nastygrad, deep behind the Iron Curtain. In any event, Helga's patience was clearly as unreasonably skimpy in my case as it was unflaggingly generous in that grinning fool Rudolfo's.)

(Hypothetically, mind you.)

Am I digressing? I can never tell.

So what is a writing prompt? With due deference to Professor Shakespeare, a writing prompt is anything that incites a writer to write. It can be anything at all, from a whispered welcome on Wednesday to a shrieked midnight curse to the impossibly small "My Little Pony" tee shirt on that improbably fat guy with the wheelbarrow and shovel over there in the bulk candy aisle at Whole Foods. A writing prompt can be a song, or a cloud, or the ragged murder of crows winging slowly west over your roof at dusk. It can be the first sentence from your favorite book, or the last one from a book you hate. It can be a lyric from some terrible song you heard at the drug store, or an epitaph. It can be the strange smell you recall seeping from beneath the door of that apartment next door that wasn't supposed to have anybody living in it. It can be a simple photograph, like this one:

Yeah, I know. How much fun can you have with that? It practically writes itself.

Once you've got your writing prompt, what do you do with it? Well, that's not unlike staring at a weight at your favorite gym -- the answer depends on what kind of a workout you've got in mind. Maybe you're in the mood for something light and brisk, or quick and dirty. Then you'd use your writing prompt to spur a short burst of authorial glory, such as a pithy tweet. Perhaps you're in the mood for a more robust challenge, where your writing prompt is the spark you seek to fire up a short story, or a one-act play, of a few thousand words. Or you might be hankering for some real heavy lifting, where the very same writing prompt launches you on the long and winding road that's end is a novel 100,000 words long. A writing prompt is what you make it. The choice of what to do with it is yours alone.

Sure, the deceptively plain "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." were the dozen simple words that vivified one of the greatest and most enduring works of English fiction, Charles Dickens' 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. But that phrase could serve also to inspire a one-act tragicomedy about a Kardashian wedding at the foot of a feisty volcano, or a philosophical rumination on the Boston Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series to kill a curse 86 years old that was only trying to mind its own business.

And what about this similarly-inspired tweet? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. My life will be sucky unless and until verily I learn to distinguish between those two."

So much delicious angst in only 140 characters, birthed by a classic turn of phrase. Thanks be to Dickens.

Do you see? Viewed correctly, anything can be a writing prompt. Now it's your turn. Not to cramp your style in the hunt for writing prompts particularly inspiring to you, I've assembled below a modest array of prompts to get you started. See where they take you, or where they don't. Have fun.

Gazalapalooza's Writing Prompts Volume 1, Number 1:

It started after I went down to see Madam X, and let her read my mind.

He told me there's one thing you've got to learn, and that's not to be afraid of it.

"It's not so simple as she'd have you believe," she said, "separating fact from friction."

I thought about marrying for love, but marrying for help paying my student loans seemed wiser.

There, painted on the stone in ancient red so faded it was hardly visible in the dusk, was the face again.

He was very wrong, thinking there would be a next time.

When's the last time you made a bank teller blush like that, with just a wink?

She bit her lower lip a little harder than she had intended, and tasted raw anticipation.

Getting my kids to school on time is like organizing a lunar landing for feral cats.

Eye contact is more dangerous on some nights than others.

I keep a diamond ring in my glove box for exactly these situations.

She shook her head and looked at her watch again, but the second hand was still ticking backwards.

Sometimes, the person you'd take a bullet for ends up being the one behind the gun.

If there's not a play or an essay or a novel or two in this collection of prompts, then you're not writing freely enough. Take your time, breathe deeply, and whatever you do, don't wait for your muse to show up. Let the prompt be your muse. That will make her jealous, and there's not a lot more inspirational to an author than a jealous muse in a huff.

Uh-oh. I think I just came up with another writing prompt...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Author Spotlight: David Morrell

Let's say you're assembling your authorial curriculum vitae — not for any particular reason, just something to tickle your fancy in a moment of periodic self-reflection and personal professional assessment. Keeping up with your inner Joneses, if you will. On your clean sheet of paper, you jot down your professorship in the English department of the University of Iowa for a decade and a half. You list your extensive training in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and anti-terrorist driving skills, plus your FAA pilot's license. You note the 1972 publication of your debut novel, First Blood, the book introduced the world to iconic Vietnam War veteran John Rambo, a character later featured in a quartet of international blockbuster movies starring Sylvester Stallone. After writing down the titles of 28 novels, six nonfiction books, 40 published short stories, and numerous analytical essays for film magazines, you'll find yourself with hardly any room left on your formerly pristine sheet of paper to squeeze in that you're a co-founder of the International Thriller Writers organization, which honored you with its prestigious career-achievement Thriller Master Award. With a satisfied sigh, you realize your piece of paper would have to be a scroll to contain all your other career highlights, only some of which are being an Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, and a three-time recipient of the distinguished Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association. Oh, yeah, plus you have 18 million copies of your books in print, in 26 languages.

None of that even includes the release today of your brand new thriller, Murder as a Fine Art, a work as eagerly anticipated as it it is highly acclaimed. Early reviews of Murder as a Fine Art include the Associated Press deeming it, “A literary thriller that pushes the envelope of fear.” The Providence Sunday Journal declares the book "a masterpiece." Publishers Weekly calls it "brilliant." Suspense Magazine says, "This is one thriller that is beyond thrilling.”

David Morrell is the only author whose curriculum vitae the foregoing could be. And we're pleased that Morrell has joined us today at the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight. Without further ado, let's get Morrell seated under the Spotlight's blazing klieg glare, and get this interview underway. 

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Morrell:    The non-fiction book is easy. Thoreau’s Walden contains a wealth of wisdom that deepens with each reading. I never fail to marvel at how he compares the veins in a leaf to those in a human hand to those in a cliff side to the Milky Way. The interconnection of the universe. As for fiction, my interest in Victorian history prompts me to choose Charles Dickens’s Bleak House from 1853, one of the many Victorian novels that I read during my research of Murder as a Fine Art when I was trying to trick my mind into believing that I was actually in London in the 1850s. Dickens’ complex plot and period details become more fascinating with each reading. 

Gazala:    Your latest book is an excellent and gripping thriller titled Murder as a Fine Art, where gaslit London becomes a battleground between controversial Victorian literary star Thomas De Quincey and a demented murderer whose lives are linked by secrets long buried, but never forgotten. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Murder as a Fine Art, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader. 

Morrell:    Murder as a Fine Art is based on the first publicized mass murders in England, the infamous Ratcliffe Highway killings in London in the early 1800s. Because of improved roads and the newly invented English mail-coach system, London’s 52 newspapers spread news of the murders throughout England within two days, terrorizing not only London but the entire nation, rivaling the fear caused by Jack the Ripper much later in the century.  My novel’s main character, Thomas De Quincey, was a brilliant author who wrote obsessively about the killings in the third part of an essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” He invented the word “subconscious,” and anticipated Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis by a half-century.  He was the first person to write about drug addiction in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. He influenced Edgar Allan Poe who in turn influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. Put all this together, and the reader will experience a detective of a rare type. Going to 1854 London is like going to Mars. The era is so weird that the details alone are worth reading the novel.  For example, how much did a middle-or-upper-class woman’s clothes weigh?  Thirty-seven pounds—because the hoop beneath the dress needed to be covered with ten yards of ruffled satin.  No wonder women kept fainting. 

Gazala:    What are books for? 

Morrell:    Horace said that the purpose of literature was to teach and delight.  Let’s focus on fiction.  Its vividness can take us out of our every-day lives and spark our imaginations. If our lives are dull, we are transported to a more interesting place. If our lives are burdened with pain, a novel can provide distraction. Beyond that, the characters in novels can help us to understand human nature, which is a form of teaching as well as delighting. Important novels change the way we perceive the world. 

Gazala:    W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why? 

Morrell:    The rules keep changing.  During the 19th century, there was an accepted way of writing novels. Then Flaubert, Henry James, Hemingway, and other writers came along and changed the rules. Dickens was fond of the 3rd person omniscient narrator, a technique that is hardly used anymore, because fiction writers are taught that showing is better than telling, which is what the omniscient voice does. But sometimes telling is in fact better than showing, and I work with that concept in Murder as a Fine Art. Providing my version of a Victorian novel, I began each chapter with an omniscient narrator (a sin in some creative writing classes), mixing it with a first person narrator (a combination that is also a sin in some creative writing classes). But Dickens used both in Bleak House, and the combination worked wonderfully.  London in the 1850s was so strange that I decided the only way to express its strangeness was by providing a guided tour throughout the novel. 

Gazala:    A long, loud, and canorous peal of laughter coming from the heavy fog pushing against my front door seems an ominous thing worth my immediate attention. Ask yourself a question, and answer it. 

Morrell:    Q: What’s your favorite Thomas De Quincey story? A: Because of his compulsive book collecting and his opium use, De Quincey was constantly in debt. One of his landlords held him prisoner for a year (that’s right — a year), forcing him to keep writing until he paid his lodging bill. De Quincey described his room as becoming snowed over with manuscript pages. He asked his publisher to smuggle in some laxative salts with his weekly supply of ink and blank pages to write on. Overdosing on the salts, he spent two days in the lodging house’s privy, prompting the other lodgers to complain to the owner, who reluctantly set De Quincey free so that his lodgers could use the privy. 

Wow. We're not sure how to comment appropriately on that anecdote, other than to say that clearly, Morrell's research for his excellent new book left absolutely no stone unturned. You've no need to take our word for that. Find out for yourself by getting your very own copy of Murder as a Fine Art. To order yours from Amazon, all you have to do is click here, and then settle back to enjoy the read.