Salt picture“WHAT’S THE POINT of writing prompts?” a writer friend asked me a few months ago. “Why should I write about, I don’t know, a salt shaker or some other random object?”

I saw her point. She was in the middle of the third draft of her novel, and she knew what problems she still had to tackle, more or less, and what she wanted to change. Of course she would be the first to admit that changing anything in your manuscript can invoke more changes, and more questions, and possibly new problems . . . the cycle of revision can at times seem endless. Why complicate matters by starting off your writing time with an off-the-cuff prompt or exercise that may not add anything to your draft?

Here’s why. Writing is a creative process, and not an administrative one. But sometimes, especially in later drafts, we can veer into the check-list variety of writing. Have I described my character in an interesting way? No? Then let me add, oh, let’s see, a widow’s peak or a slight lisp. That might make a more visual character, but it can feel a little tacked-on and not intrinsic to the story or the character.

Writing prompt

When you start the day with an exercise or a prompt (and I admit, I don’t always do this), you let your cerebral mind relax a little and let your limbic brain have a go. This is where most of our fertile, creative ideas come from, and also where our stories percolate. Sometimes, it’s true, you can write for ten minutes and have little more than an interesting description of a salt shaker. But sometimes a new idea pops up, or a description of some importance, a clarification, an illumination, a deepening of an idea already planted in the manuscript. I often have those ah-ha moments after ten minutes of free writing based on a prompt or exercise: so this is what I was trying to say in that scene.

And if you don’t have an ah-ha moment? Well, it’s only ten minutes. And guess what, in the meantime you’ve gotten your writer brain going. At the very least you can turn back now to your manuscript feeling a little less rusty. As my drama teacher in high school used to say, it’s important to tune your instrument.

All this has led me to start putting my own personal writing exercises here on my web site and on twitter (@marthamconway); on twitter search for #writingexercise. I also put up a writing prompt on twitter every day; search for #10minprompt or #writingprompt. I’m hoping this will help others, but frankly, it’s also for myself. Here’s to practicing what we preach.

Happy writing!

Ten-minute prompt: I reached for the salt shaker and noticed …

I reached for the salt shaker and noticed that my hand was shaking. My thumbnail was bitten down to the quick. Next to me, Jemmy was saying, “Why is it that squirrel tastes so good in Kentucky?” Pinky said, “They don’t have the flying squirrels that come in Ohio. More fat on ‘em.”

I salted my stew quickly and picked up my spoon, folding my thumb underneath the cool metal so no one would see it. Lula was in my room and the door was locked and the key was in my pocket. She was safe for the moment, I told myself. But I couldn’t carry away stew without anyone noticing. It would have to be biscuits again for her supper. I thought of her thin shoulder blades and her bruised hands and knees. Welt marks coming up to the back of her neck. She’d been whipped before she ran away. Who would whip a pregnant girl? The thought made me shake more, not less, and I had to put my spoon down for fear of spilling. I wasn’t sure if I was afraid or angry.

“In Kentucky they pulverize their meat into submission, ha ha!” Jemmy said.

“Tenderizing,” Pinky said. He reached for the last biscuit and I looked around for something to bring back for Lula.