Posts Tagged writing prompts

Writing Prompts for a Pandemic

When I first sat down to write this post, I said to myself, “How about writing something NOT about the pandemic?”

And then I laughed and laughed.

Because of course, every inch of our existences is about the pandemic–whether our state is opening or not, whether we’re wearing masks or not, whether we’re working from home or not. It’s also whether we feel safe, or been sick–or not. Maybe we’re worried about getting sick or taking care of loved ones who are sick or we’ve lost someone who was sick from Covid-19 or something completely different. It’s also about the fact that the politicization of a national emergency has introduced an additional stress beyond anything we’d ever imagined.

Books Help Us Process

And so, instead of trying to be clever and find something to say that doesn’t have the tang of pandemic to it in some way (there isn’t anything) what I will do is this: add to the body of thinking that explores ways for creators and book lovers to process this time. We are all writers, teachers, parents, librarians, and readers. We think and feel through our fingers when we write, we feel connected and supported when we read or when we share books with other people.  You don’t have to be a writer to find catharsis in the act of writing, though, just jotting down your thoughts in a journal can be a truly helpful, healthy expression.

((Have you thought about keeping a journal? Read here for some ideas about journaling in the time of Coronavirus ))

Writing as Catharsis

But maybe you’d rather not write about yourself. Maybe you’d rather find your healthy expression in the act of creating story. And many of you probably already are pecking away at your work-in-progress, or starting new ones. Some of you have discovered a superpower–the ability to focus deeply as a way of protecting yourself against too much pandemic thinking.

Others of us walk into the kitchen from our home offices and stand there for long minutes wondering why we are there. (Okay, yes, that happened before the pandemic too, but now it’s truly epic.) So, the act of organizing an actual book is perhaps not feeling like a mood-booster.

Writing Prompts for a Pandemic

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, writing prompts can be a soothing craft-building or venting exercise. Think of them as a mandala coloring book, only for writing. You can use them to explore your craft or just free write to release tension.

mandala writing prompts

I’ve provided a few prompts below; choose one that suits your fancy and let your fingers take over. It doesn’t have to be a book (but it may turn into one,) it doesn’t have to be anything more or less than what you want it to be: a character sketch, a short story, a one-act play, a scene, poetry, a letter, or a journal entry.

  1. You (or your main character) are taking a long, solitary drive to get a change of scenery. Most states are still recommending quarantine, so you are surprised to find a huge party happening in a secluded beach town, where they tell you they’ve managed to beat the coronavirus. DO you believe them? Do you stay?
  2. It’s one year from now: May 2021. Your main character overhears a conversation between two middle-school teenagers; they’re talking about quarantine. What are they saying? Where are they? What’s their backstory? What is the effect of their conversation on your main character?
  3. Write a letter to a teacher who has been part of your/your child’s distance learning during quarantine.
  4. You’re writing middle-grade historical fiction about a previous pandemic. Read this: and then write the backstory for one of the protestors in the article.
  5. Write a poem naming and exploring an emotion you’ve felt during the quarantine.
  6. Use the voice of your antagonist in your work-in-progress to describe a Zoom conference call or distance learning classroom.

 

Writing Exercises—Ways to Warm Up Your Students’ Brains

A lot of times we talk about using writing exercises as a warm up for our “real” writing. But I was curious: Do most writers really do this? I don’t typically warm up by doing a writing prompt. Instead, I enjoy going for a run on a wooded trail before I sit down to write in the morning. It’s not just the exercise but being out in nature that inspires me. I often solve some writing snag while I’m in the thick of the forest. I stop and look around, soaking up the feel of the wind, the sun, the sky.

I thought I’d throw the question out to other children’s book writers: How do you wake up your brain before diving into your work? Here’s what they said:

  • Listen to music
  • Go for a walk
  • Stretch
  • Reread what was written the day before
  • Listen to a poetry podcast
  • Journal
  • Eat a good breakfast
  • Look at a photo and write about it
  • Create a word bank
  • Review research related to the topic of the book (for nonfiction)

You might want to help your students become mindful of what gets them warmed up to begin writing. Maybe they do like beginning with a writing prompt. Or doodling. Or passing out the writing folders to the other students to get up and moving. Here’s a way to help you (or your students) find out.

Have your students do an experiment: As a class, come up with four different ways to wake up the brain before beginning a writing assignment. A few you could try include:

  • Listen to soothing music
  • Stretch or do simple yoga positions
  • Write from a writing prompt
  • Free journal
  • Take a walk around the school (if possible, outside)

Each day, have the class try one method followed by their usual writing assignment. Afterward, have each student write down how they felt about it:

  • Did you feel your writing flowed more or less than usual after the activity?
  • Did you feel more or less energized?
  • Did you feel more or less focused in your writing?

After the experiment concludes, discuss as a class what students learned about what helps them warm up for writing. Which method was most useful? Why? They may be surprised!

Need some writing prompts? Here are some good ones:

https://www.journalbuddies.com/prompts-by-grade/fun-writing-prompts-for-middle-school/

https://www.dailyteachingtools.com/journal-writing-prompts.html

https://www.lindsay-price.com/playwriting/the-ten-best-writing-warm-ups/

https://www.writingmindset.org/teach/2018/3/24/how-to-rock-a-focused-writing-warm-up

 

Prompting Writing: Re-energizing a Draft

At some point in the middle of a piece of writing, whether it’s a short story or a full-length manuscript, I invariably hit a slump. Given the number of publications, workshops, tools, and challenges out there, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone!

Here are some tools that might be useful to you in moving a recalcitrant manuscript forward.

Books

Of course we all read books about writing. Every writer has their favorite dog-eared copy of certain books.

One that continues to inspire me to create writing that is filled with my own spirit is Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K LeGuin. How could LeGuin NOT write a really great book about writing? Working through the exercises in this book has taught me how powerful a change in point of view, length of sentence, or approach to paragraph structure can be in “waking up” a manuscript that has become predictable. More than one of my Mixed Up Files buddies recommended exercise just like these when I asked for help. I’m listening!

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, helps simply because I can open it and find something to inspire me, to reassure me, or even to push me to try something with more abandon.

A friend just pulled this lovely little book off her shelf, remembered how helpful it has been for her, and got me my own copy for my birthday. I can’t wait to dive in to Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, as I work and re-work this manuscript to make it even better.

Workshops and other in-person learning opportunities

Shortly after I inherited my father’s publishing company, I attended Write on the Sound, a local writing conference, after years of wishful thinking. It was just right for me – small and welcoming and not too scary as I dove headlong into the world of writing and publishing.

What I discovered was the gift of deep inspiration and commitment that can be found when you encounter a really good instructor. The lessons I learned about historical fiction from the lecturer were powerful tools I share with students today.

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Another favorite workshop introduced me to exercises based on author and creativity coach Deb Lund’s  fun deck of cards called “Fiction Magic.” These provocative questions, prompts, orders, magic tricks can be used in a variety of ways. It was really fun to play with them in person with their creator and a room full of enthusiastic writers.

Of course there is my local SCBWI chapter to turn to for inspiration and help – amazing meetings, drink nights (which are often sketching/noodling/doodling and writing nights, too), and also the meet ups with other authors that have come about because we discover like interests or common writing hangouts. I learn much from doing exercises on the page, but I learn even more for getting together with other people and talking about the process, the ideas, the struggles…

Challenges

I love deadlines, too. They motivate me. At least, they usually do!

I have participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) several years running, which for the uninitiated is a month-long sprint challenge in which writers all over the world attempt to finish a manuscript draft of at least 50,000 words. This challenge is not for the faint of heart, and requires a huge commitment. For getting the bones of a new book onto the page, it’s fantastic. And the fancy certificate you get at the end (along with discounts from a wide variety of writing-related vendors.

For the most part, I prefer my challenges in more manageable chunks; though NaNo is something I look forward to each year, I can’t always give up the month of November to hide in my writing cave.

Here are two shorter ones I’ve used with good success in the revision stages of my work, when it’s easy to put other things first (since I edit for others as well, I often put my writing at the bottom of the list. Small challenges help me to put it in the spotlight in reasonable ways).

WFMAD- Write Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Laurie Halse Anderson

http://madwomanintheforest.com/wfmad-day-1-lets-start-at-the-beginning-shall-we/

All you need to do is read these posts from 2013 and you will be able to create your own challenge. Invite your friends to join you. This series comes with great stuff to do beyond writing for 15 minutes- it really is an invitation to examine your writing and get over being afraid to just DO it.

Write Daily 30 – Linda Urban

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Middle Grade author Linda Urban has offered this challenge/support several times, where you sign up on a shared spreadsheet and post your progress. You create your own goal and the others in the challenge prod you and hold your hand. I’ve presented my own a couple of times since, without the spreadsheet, just daily tweets with the hashtag #WriteDaily30 for 30 days. I’ve made tremendous progress on projects by having the accountability to check in frequently and cheer for others.

I happen to be subbing in Middle School writing lab as I put finishing touches this post (I’ve been encouraged to use my own writing practice to set a good example for students). They are calling on their classmates for inspiration and using images to jump start ideas, and I’m watching.

What tools do you use to move your writing forward?

 

In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history, in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, THE BEST OF IT: A JOURNAL OF LIFE, LOVE AND DYING, was published in 2009. Her current work focuses on historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is proprietor of Homeostasis Press, and blogs at The Best of It. She manages Gather Herean online history site for middle grade readers and teachers.