The Power of Prompts

(Image adapted from the beautiful photography of Greg Rakozy over at Unsplash)

Not very long ago a writer on The Twitters asked how folks came unstuck when they found themselves bestookened when they sat down at the keyboard. Plenty of people ventured plenty of good answers, but I thought it would be worthwhile to acknowledge just how powerful prompts can be.

I’m something of a pragmatist these days, which means I do less writing for my own diversion and more purposeful writing to spec. When I speak of responding to prompts, then, I’m not often talking about the ones you find on many writing websites (and please note that I’m not disparaging them, either–they can be incredibly helpful when the brainpan has run dry). I’m talking about the prompts that materialize when anthologies of fiction are being put together and special issues of magazines are being assembled.

It’s worth noting, however, that I’m not especially crass or mercenary about it. I don’t target the ones that are offering the best rate of pay or even the best exposure. Most of the time I need to find a sweet spot, matching an existing impulse to write a new thing (and my idiosyncratic habits of mind) with a destination that seems especially and explicitly receptive to such stuff. When I find something that strikes me as really juicy–take for example this call for submissions-slash-prompt from Clash Books–I really can’t keep those wheels from turning. Even if I can’t commit a story to paper in the time frame proposed by the editors, I almost always come away with a seed worth planting, watering, and watching.

Right now I’m doing a little bit of writing for the good folk over at Superhero Necromancer, over the weekend I’ll put some finished pieces back into circulation, and after that I plan to write some pieces in responses to calls for stories and poems that have inspired me. It’s the sort of engine that requires regular maintenance and, truth be told, a little bit of warming up in colder weather. But once it becomes a pattern and a habit–ideally as a supplement to the ideas we already have rattling around our skulls–then the search for prompts can become an enormously generative part of your creative life.

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