Every November I participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). And Every October for the last three years I have indulged in a preparation ritual during the month of October (Crunchtober), writing five hundred word daily prompts on my characters, setting and back-story for the November novel. The prompts are disseminated on a daily basis, and my commitment is that I will take a prompt an run with it, even if it does not ‘inspire’ me.
Keeping to this commitment has taught me some valuable lessons on the nature of inspiration and the true flexibility of my imagination. I now believe that I could pretty much write to any prompt and focus on any story with some degree of success. I know for a fact that the longer I practice this discipline, the more adept I will be at it.
Here is my approach to the two most common objections to writing to prompts:
- Suitability of the prompt: Often a prompt might indicate a particular pro-noun, indicate a gendered form of dress, or simply seem to not apply to your characters. The easiest way to over come this is to swap gendered references as necessary – change he to she, swap the top-hat for a bonnet. But if the issue is a deeper issue of suitability, you will need to employ your imagination. For example, you are writing a World War I book about the soldiers in the trenches, and the prompt says: ‘She slipped off her pumps, anxious to relax after a long day…’ At first glance, this prompt has nothing to do with your story. However, foot rot was a major issue for the soldiers in the muddy trenches of the Bonn, and it is easy to imagine a soldier wishing to remove his boots and relax. This is a prime opportunity to investigate how your character deals with the bodily stress he is under day after day. Does he do it by imagining a time when his feet were warm and dry? Does he do it by purposely focusing his mind elsewhere? How does he cope with the itch and the burn and the desire to take of his boots and relax.
- The prompt just doesn’t inspire me: I think this objection arises when we are too locked into seeing our story and our characters as ‘one thing’ – a monolithic entity that progresses in a ‘certain way’. This is where I have found the true power of the Crunchtober prompts lie. By forcing my characters into situations that are not necessarily ‘of their world’, I often learn new and unexpected things about them. This helps me have a better grasp on my characters, and it plants seeds in my subconscious, reminding me to allow for the surprising or the unexpected in my story. For example: one prompt this year was “At the edge of the meadow, near a big boulder…” I had a writer complain to me that this prompt was uninspiring and had noting to do with her characters. She is writing a chick-lit story set in Manhattan with a high-powered executive as the central character. All of her scenes are indoors, or at the most, on the sidewalks of the city. I reminded the writer that Central Park held Sheep Meadow, and on the side of the meadow leading towards Fifth Avenue, there were boulders. Perhaps she could imagine something that had happened to her character there either as a child or an adult. A picnic? A date ended badly? A mugging or assault? Perhaps, hidden in the prompt she will discover the reason her character spends no time outside. Is it only the plot, or are there underlying conditions that inform the character’s choices.
What I find most helpful about these prompts is that they help me find those underlying conditions that can inform my plot and character motivations. They encourage me to think in new directions, to ponder action and reaction in a setting wholly different from my own plotting. And most importantly, they encourage me to apply my imagination to any problem and come out of it with words, words, words! The tradition of doing the Crunchtober prompts has rapidly become my favorite method of NaNo preparation.
If you would like to do some Crunchtober writing, you can find the prompts on Twitter by searching #Crunchtober.