Writing prompts vs writing promptly

It’s probably a vestige of starting in journalism where you knew what you had to write and you knew you had to get on with it. But it has taken me so long to warm to the idea of a writing prompt that actually, I still haven’t. Not quite. I see the appeal a bit more than I did yet the notion someone can say “Write about… happy daisies” still feels a bit wet.

I can’t shake the feeling that a prompt is necessarily random and trivial. That if I were ever to write about happy daisies it should be because something in them makes me shake and I must get it out, not because a stranger glanced at a Van Gogh painting.

What’s slightly embarrassing is that I’ve used prompts, I’ve set them for people.

What’s mortifying is that people have set them for me and I’ve written some of my best material because of them.

Maeve Clarke, an author I worked for and then with at Writing West Midlands’ Young Writers scheme, once set her group of 8 to 12-year-olds this prompt: write a fairytale. I was helping out at that session and I joined in. I wrote a fairy tale. In about a quarter of an hour, having never typed a single word that could ever be construed as fairytale-like, I’d written 900 words of The Prince and the Spinning Wheel’s Angular Momentum. And you see that’s a link? I was so pleased with that wildly out-of-my-wheelhouse story that I posted it here on Self Distract.

The disadvantage of posting it, though, is that I can now see the date: November 2012. It’s two years since I had proof both that a writing prompt could spin me off into new and satisfyingly unsafe areas – and that when prompted, I can’t half write promptly. Nine hundred words in a quarter of an hour. That tale fell out of me, didn’t it?

Maybe I can’t really account for why it’s taken me two years to properly accept that writing prompts can work, but there is a reason I’m telling you all this today. Last night, I invited my family to an event in which I will be reading a story. I’ve been a writer for my entire adult life and I’ve never invited them anywhere before. To be fair, I can’t bring guests to a Doctor Who recording. And even in the past year when I’ve been doing a huge number of talks, every one of them has been either closed or far away. But now my own family is spending money to come see me. I’m not scared.

I am, but I have help. The event is Seven Minute Tales and it features six authors reading extracts from stories we’ve written to order. I’ve seen two of my fellow authors’ tales so I know my family will have a good night. Plus I burn to read mine and the fact that we have to stand there in front of a room of people and read is dwarfed by the fact that we only get to read extracts to them where I burn to read the whole thing. I know, as all of us in the event know, that seven minutes works out to about half the story if we’re lucky.

You’ll get six half-stories, six tales where you will end up wanting more. Fortunately, if you buy a ticket for the event, you also get a copy of the book collecting them all. So I suppose you don’t have to wait long to find out what happens next. But I want to tell you.

I want to read it to you. I am that pleased with my tale and it is something I would never and I think could never have written without one hell of a prompt. And without having to write it quite promptly.

This is what I call a real prompt. I was commissioned by Roz Goddard of the West Midlands Readers’ Network to create a story for a particular group. Six authors were assigned to six reading groups: the groups had to apply to the scheme and the authors were asked to pair up with them. I don’t know yet where everybody went but the authors are Yasmin Ali, Liam Brown, Charlie Hill, Catherine O’Flynn, Kate Long and I. It’s pretty good company to be in.

I got a reading group in the village of Combrook, which to my navigationally-challenged mind is near Stratford. I bet the group would say Stratford’s miles away, what am I talking about, but that’s the rough direction I pointed the car at.

The job was to meet with this reading group and have a natter about fiction. Talk about what they like in reading, talk about them and talk about their village. Then I was supposed to go away and write about 2,200 words of a new short story for them.

I tell you now, you would want to live in Combrook. And you would want to join this book group. And if you did, you would be agog and delighted at the torrent of tales they could give you about the village. There is too much to ever get into a story but then that wasn’t the brief, I wasn’t meant to document the village or recount a real tale, I was really to create fiction that this group would like.

Talking with some of my colleagues, I know we all came away with huge long lists of points and elements and facts and preferences. One author, I think, managed to get the entire list into the tale and that’s rather amazing. Another cherry-picked two or three elements and crafted a story I think is the best of the ones I’ve read.

And then there was me.

I recorded the session plus I made several thousand words of notes and I didn’t use any of them.

All this glorious material, all these delightful people, and I ignored everything.


During the email exchanges before the meeting, just sorting out when I’d go and how near Stratford they are, the group mentioned the very smallest of facts. This village of Combrook, as small as it is, actually has two reading groups.

I drove away late that night with masses, simply masses of detail and information and history and yet all the way home that one fact of the two groups kept banging at my head. You’re not supposed to actually write about your group. This project has been running for years and every author, every year, has conjured up the most astonishing range of stories and settings and tones. None of them has ever written a syllable about the group they visited.

But bang, bang, shove, the village has two groups.

It go so I decided fine, write this story about two rival reading groups and get it done, get it out of my head, then throw it away and do my job properly. Write it, forget it, and start thinking what my real story should be.

I never did. All those notes, forgotten. That audio recording of the session, never listened to. Because I have never before had a story that was more in charge of me than I was of it. I get really passionate about my Doctor Who scripts and if I can’t do one because my idea is too close to something else, it physically hurts me. (Writers will tell you that nothing is wasted, that you will always find a home for an idea if it’s good enough. But this is Doctor Who. It’s not like you can take a rejected idea and pitch it to Hollyoaks.)

But this was more than that. The banging in my head, I feel ridiculous telling you that so I’m not going to admit that my hands shook at the keyboard. You didn’t hear that, I didn’t say it.

The story came out of me very quickly, though it then took a long time to get right. Fortunately, my sense of time is as bad as my sense of navigation: I misunderstood the deadline and I think part of the shaking was to do with how I thought I had much less time to write than I had. I did have this writing prompt about the two groups and I thought I had to write it promptly.

Whereas right now I know I have to write a disclaimer. This is an easy disclaimer because it’s entirely true but it’s also an important one because I liked the Combrook group a lot. Nothing in my story really happened and, most importantly of all, there is not one single character or even facet of a character that I based on anyone in the group.

But a few days ago, I went back to Combrook and I read them the story: “The Book Groups”.

If it hadn’t gone down so well with them, I might not be telling you this so happily and I definitely wouldn’t have told my family at all. But it did and right now I am very proud of it. I’m a writer, the pride will alternate with doubt, but today I’m seizing the pride and I’m being a bit brave about it.

Because I want to invite you to the event.

You’d have to pay, I’m not that generous, and you’d have to get to Birmingham, I’m not on tour. But if you can get to the Library of Birmingham for 6pm on Wednesday 26 November this year, you will hear six stories read promptly.

Details and online booking here or on 0121-245 4455. Tickets are a fiver and are genuinely selling out fast. I half hoped I could boast to my family about it but it’d be full before they booked. No such luck.

And when it’s done, when the book is out, I’ll post The Book Groups here. That’s not scary either.

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