Fresh Start to 2019: Three Writing Prompts to Brainstorm Story Ideas

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This is the first of a series of posts about starting fresh for 2019. With the New Year upon us, many of us look to start new habits or activities. I’ll address some of those fresh starts as it relates to work, life and writing. In this first post, I will share writing prompts to brainstorm story ideas and boost your writing practice.

Starting a writing practice is difficult, but it’s nearly impossible without a story idea to work with. There are numerous sources of writing prompts to get you started, of course, but they can be so narrowly focused that they may not fit what you want to ultimately achieve.

Most writing prompts deal with one of three themes: the past, the present or the future. With this in mind, you really only need three writing prompts to help you brainstorm story ideas, one for each of these themes. Let me show you how.

1) I Remember… (or alternately, “Remember when”)

Using either of these prompts helps you reflect on the past. It’s ideal for memoirs, stories about growing up, attending school, family dynamics and vacations. Incidents that seemed insignificant when they first occurred may have more meaning now as you reflect on them. That reflection is the basis of your story.

On a sheet of paper, write the phrase “I remember” at the top. Then give yourself five or ten minutes to complete the phrase.

Examples include:
“I remember when I nearly drowned in our family’s swimming pool.”
“I remember attending my first Blackhawks hockey game with my father when I was 11 years old.”
“I remember the day my younger brother was born.”

You get the idea. Keep going with your list until time expires. You should have plenty of ideas to work with to begin writing. It may even lead to a collection of essays that you can publish in the future.

2) I Believe

From the past, we move to the present with the prompt “I Believe.” This prompt explores how you are feeling in the present moment. Those beliefs can be about anything: politics, relationships, raising children, your career. But the common element is your beliefs, your values, what you see as important in your life at this moment. Because the focus is on the present, this prompt is most useful for defining subjects for op-ed pieces and personal essays.

Examples include:
“I believe many pet owners treat their pets better than they treat other humans.”
“I believe all colleges and universities should provide free tuition.”
“I believe I was fired from my job because my boss didn’t like me.”

Once you have made your list of completed “I believe” statements, you can begin to explore your feelings further, beginning with why you believe the way you do. It might be helpful to back up your belief statements with statistics, survey results and other research that will give your statement more credence.

3. What if?
If you’re more forward-thinking, the prompt “What if?” can help you imagine all sorts of possibilities about the future. It helps you create worlds that don’t currently exist. What is different about this prompt compared to the previous two is that it does not hinge on any emotional content. “What if?” is non-personal, non-judgmental and more objective. This type of prompt is ideal for creating fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, horror, mysteries and thrillers. Of the three prompts, this is the one you can have the most fun with because there is no limit to what your imagination can conjure up.

Examples include:
“What if the city of Chicago was invaded by zombies who climbed out of Lake Michigan?
“What if scientists finally found a cure for AIDS, cancer or some other disease?
“What if a woman was elected President of the United States?”

If you’re feeling stuck with your writing and are looking for new story ideas, these three basic writing prompts are all you really need to kickstart your efforts. Start with one, make your bullet list, and then let your imagination do the rest.

Facing the Scariest Truths about Writing

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Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

What scares you most about writing? Perhaps it’s the fear of staring at a blank page? Or perhaps, like most folks, it’s a fear of rejection or failure that prevents you from writing.

Yet again, it might be a fear of performing. When you think about it, writing is a form of performance, except it’s done on a computer screen or piece of paper. So staring at these devices can be intimidating for a writer. Maybe all you are really suffering from then is stage fright.

Being fearful is natural. If you weren’t afraid of anything, you wouldn’t be human. Your fears are only bothersome if they interfere with your ability to produce your best work, or worse, prevent you from getting started in the first place.

Below are some common fears writers have about the writing process as well as a few strategies for overcoming them. There might be others that aren’t listed here. Only you know what scares you most about writing, and how you can overcome it.

1. Fear of the blank page. Yes, I would categorize this as a legitimate fear. For many writers, getting started presents the biggest fear. You stare at the blank page or the blank computer screen with no idea what to write about. In those moments, it may be easier to close up shop and try again another day. But don’t give in to that temptation. Instead, try working with a writing prompt. Begin with either “I remember…” or “What if…” and let your imagination go. “I remember” connects you to your past, especially helpful if you want to write a memoir. “What if” helps you imagine events or situations in the future, also great if you want to write science fiction or fantasy.  For more writing prompts, do a Google search, and you’ll find hundreds more.

2. Fear of negative feedback/criticism/rejection. I bundled these three into one category because they seem interchangeable. To get past these fears, you will have to rethink your response to criticism. First of all, not all criticism is bad. When given constructively and honestly, it can help you improve your writing. Think of criticism as a necessary part of the writing process. That’s why there are editors – to point out problem areas that you may not see in your work. Without criticism or negative feedback, your writing will not improve, and in fact, will likely remain stale and stagnant. Who wants to read stale writing?

If showing your work to people is still too scary, then keep your showings to only one or two people who are close to you and who you trust. As you gain more confidence in your writing, you can expand your circle of readers. Remember, you don’t have to show your work at all if you don’t want to, especially if you’re just writing for yourself.

3. Fear of success. It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a fear of success may be holding you back, but it can. One way the fear of success can manifest is as a series of incomplete projects. You start one with enthusiasm, then another story idea presents itself and you chase after that one, leaving the first story unfinished. You get close to the finish line and you suddenly decide you have more important things to do. You find reasons for not finishing your writing project.

Why this happens, I do not know. Finishing the story is a success in and of itself. It doesn’t matter if it ever gets published. To overcome this fear, try following a simple rule: Don’t begin a new writing project until the first one is complete.

4. Fear of failure. Perhaps the most common fear is the fear of failure. But what does it mean to fail? Numerous rejection letters? If so, turn those rejections into a positive. You made the effort to put your work out there. True failure is not writing at all. True failure is giving up before you have even started.

5. Fear of revealing too much of yourself — or not enough. In today’s social media world, it’s easy to share more of ourselves than we may be used to. Stories are different. Writing and sharing stories requires digging deeply into our past or our present, and sometimes facing some of the darkest aspects of ourselves that we may prefer to hide away. You can’t be afraid to dig deep within yourself for painful life experiences for your stories. That’s where all the juicy stories lie.

6. Fear of aloneness and isolation. Let’s face it. Writing is a solitary and often lonely occupation. If you don’t like being alone, you may delay writing projects because you don’t want the solitude. So instead you look for the ‘right’ environment with people around before feeling comfortable about writing. Coffee shops and libraries, where you are surrounded by people, can help ease those feelings of isolation – as long as you’re not spending time chatting with them and not writing. Writing groups can also help if you’re the more sociable type. Otherwise, take advantage of these quiet periods of aloneness to reconnect with yourself. (I say aloneness because you can be alone and not feel lonely.) Your writing muse will thank you for it.

7. Fear of not being good enough. In the back of your mind, there may be a small voice that tells you that you aren’t good enough. It may come from a long-ago desire to please someone else, someone who dictated what was good about your writing and what wasn’t so good. Only you can decide who you are trying to please. What would happen with your writing if you wrote to please yourself and not for anyone else? When you create a safe environment to write and express yourself, the fear of not being good enough will fade into the background.

Once you become aware of what your fears are and take steps to conquer them, the sky is the limit. Your writing can take you wherever you want to go.

What Baseball Taught Me about Developing a Writing Practice

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As a writer, I am often inspired by the game of baseball – the strategizing by the coaches, the gravity-defying catches in the outfield, the clutch hitting in the late innings, the dramatic grand slam home run that makes fans go wild. While we may see the glamorous side of the game, it’s the hard work and training behind the scenes that can make the difference between a championship team and one that misses the playoffs. It all takes practice, and the more they practice at their sport, the better they become.

Baseball has a lot to teach us about developing a writing routine. When a team tries to score runs, for example, it follows a general principle: Get them on, get them over, then find a way to get them in. In other words, get a runner on base, move him over to scoring position, and then bring him home. Any individual who struggles to maintain a writing practice can apply these basic principles. Here’s how.

Step 1. Get them on.
In baseball, you can’t score runs unless a player reaches base. It doesn’t matter how he gets there – a walk, base hit or get hit by a pitch. You have to start somewhere, and without runners on base, the chances of scoring are slim.

The same holds true in writing. You’ll never complete a manuscript unless you start putting words down on the page. It doesn’t matter how you get the words down. They can be bullet points, writing prompts or freewriting. Use whatever technique works to get your imagination flowing. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect; you can always edit it later. The point is to “get on base” with whatever technique works for you.

Step 2. Get them over.
In baseball, once a player gets on base, his teammates must try to move him over into scoring position, or if they’re lucky, all the way home. That means putting the ball into play, either with a base hit, walk, a deep fly ball or a bunt. Any of these moves will push the runner over at least one more base and put him into scoring position.

In writing, once you have your initial story ideas jotted down, you need to fine tune your manuscript by moving it into the editing phase. Just as it may take several players and pitches to move the base runner over into scoring position, your manuscript may have to go through several editing passes to make it publishable.

Step 3. Get them in.
In this phase, a runner at second or third base needs to be driven home to score. Having a player at third base may increase the chance of scoring, but it’s up to the players behind him to get him in, which whatever means possible – a base hit, deep fly ball, or better yet, a home run.

Your final editing pass can help you bring your story to completion – and bring it home to victory. This is where you check for spelling, tighten the writing, and double check all the facts. Perhaps one or two trustworthy friends can review your manuscript and provide feedback to improve your story, much like the third-base coach who directs runners on base.

Success comes when the runner crosses home plate, or when you finish your writing project. The more runs you score – the more stories you finish writing – the better your chances of winning the game.

Just like in baseball, hard work, patience and perseverance pays dividends, and you can savor your triumph in the same way a team enjoys its victories. But those celebrations are usually short lived. As any athlete can tell you, there’s more work to do to maintain their competitive edge and keep a winning streak alive. There’s another game the following day, and players need to prepare for it.

As you write more and more, and complete more stories, savor and appreciate your success for the moment. Remember, there’s still room to grow, there’s still work to do. You need to continue working toward your goals, so keep your eye on the prize.

Find Inspiration to Start Writing — and Keep Writing

sunflower-1421011_1280Like many writers, I am often intimidated by a blank page. It’s like staring at an artist’s canvas or a vacant room in a home that’s ready to be redecorated. But a blank page doesn’t have to be feared. Embrace it for the opportunity it is to express yourself, and the writing will come more naturally. 

Some say the hardest part of being a writer is getting into a routine and writing regularly. Others say they draw a blank and don’t know what to write about. The empty space, they claim, is inside their own head. To get past both obstacles, here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned to develop a regular writing practice.

Do it first thing in the morning. Just like exercise or meditation, writing first thing in the morning can help you get it out of the way. Some people swear by completing morning pages – writing continuously without stopping for three pages. For some, morning pages helps remove the toxic thoughts and feelings that have built up over the previous 24 hours so your brain can operate more freely and creatively. Others choose a method like “500 words a day” to establish consistency in their practice. Whichever method you choose can help you become more productive. Once it’s done, you can move on to other tasks, and you can feel good about your accomplishment.

Schedule it in your calendar. If you don’t have time to write first thing in the morning, schedule time on your calendar for later in the day. Make an appointment with yourself to sit at a desk or computer. Set aside at least one hour, and just write. This time is for you, just like scheduling a massage or haircut. Putting it in your calendar shows you are serious and committed about giving your writing attention.

Skip the computer. I find it helpful to keep a notebook for writing. It’s where I jot down story ideas, webinar notes and bullet points for blog posts. It’s also where I write rough drafts for my stories. Then I will turn on the computer to do a more complete second draft. If you turn on the computer first, you’re more likely to edit as you write. Avoid doing this because it slows you down. Get your ideas down on paper first, then go back and rewrite and edit.

To keep inspiration flowing, check out these ideas to stay inspired and kickstart your creativity.

Play writing games. I keep a small plastic container filled with slips of paper. On each paper slip is a word. It can be anything – car, dog, photograph, telephone, mystery – you name it. There’s about 100 slips of paper in this container. Whenever I’m feeling stuck with writer’s block, I pull out three slips and reveal the words. Then I write a very short story, a few paragraphs, making sure to include those three words. If you want to challenge yourself further, choose five words. The more words you choose at random, the more challenging it becomes to include them all in your writing.

Once I’ve used a word, I set it aside. I’ll do several stories in one sitting, so I will set aside words I’ve already used during that session. At the end of that full session, all the words are put back to reuse in a future writing session.

Keep a writer’s journal. I started keeping a writer’s journal earlier this year. It’s where I keep story and blog ideas as I think of them. It’s where I keep notes from webinars and workshops I attend. If I come across a quote that I like, something that moves me deeply, I add that to my journal too. Any miscellaneous idea I have about writing and creativity I add to my journal. When my ideas run dry, I turn to my journal and look for inspiration.

Find quotes that inspire you. We’ve all seen the memes on Facebook. Some are funny; others are meant to inspire and make us feel better about ourselves. We find one we like and share it with our friends on Facebook. Is there a quote that resonates with you? Does it remind you of a situation or person in your life? Use it to write why it has meaning for you. Another potential source of writing inspiration: tea bag tags found on Yogi tea.
Similar to the memes you see on social media, the sayings on these tea tags are often profound and thought-provoking, ideal fodder for writing inspirational essays.

Seek out writing prompts. There are numerous resources available about writing – essay books, magazines and websites – that offer writing challenges and prompts. Writer’s Digest has an online prompt tool you can download to kickstart your writing. Many books about writing contain brief exercises to get you started thinking about writing. For example, “Crafting the Personal Essay” by Dinty W. Moore contains several essay writing exercises and writing prompts to keep you writing for a long time.

Find a writing buddy. I’m not talking about collaboration here. I’m talking about creating a support system for yourself. If you have a friend who also writes for a living, join together as a support system. You can talk about story ideas, exchange writing tips, critique each other’s work, etc. Having a writing buddy keeps you motivated and accountable for your progress, just like having a workout buddy. You don’t want to slack off knowing your friend is pushing you to succeed. This is especially helpful if you are shy about sharing your work with others and are reluctant to join a writers’ group. All it takes is one person to share your writing efforts with to keep you writing day in and day out.

Using one, two or any combination of these ideas can give you the confidence you need to start writing – and keep writing.