Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 11 January 2016

Writing Prompts

It’s been a while since I wrote a post about writing, and since my mission statement when I started this blog was to talk about writing and other stuff, it’s probably time I got off my soap box and gave you something a bit less political and a bit more useful than the stuff I’ve been churning out of late.

I am often faced with writing prompts. This is sort of real life for me, or at least it has been for quite a long time. A job comes along, someone asks me to do something, and I do it. I work quite a bit in other people’s IPs, so the so-called writing prompts can be entire creative universes full of stuff.

If I’m writing for the Black Library it’s going to be all about the Warhammer or Warhammer 40K universes, for example. I recently finished a Tomb Raider novel, so there are some prompts that are pretty well set in stone, right there.

Come up with something for Lara Croft to do that doesn’t break continuity sounds like a writing prompt to me.

Of course, this isn’t really what’s meant by writing prompts when it comes to most writer’s habits.

It is my custom on Wednesdays to post my blogs on Twitter with the hashtag wwwblogs, and I think, if you are a woman who writes and you have a blog, that you should do it to. The hashtag is for Women Writers on Wednesdays, and it’s a nice community. We share our blogs, and read and repost what we like from each others’ stuff. There are several blogs that I now keep up with semi-regularly from those to be found on my Wednesday trawl through the hashtag. It’s nice to have routines and punctuation marks in the week, so this is how I spend an hour on Wednesday mornings. If I didn’t have stuff like this, one day would be very much like another.

A few of the writers that use the wwwblogs hashtag write for a living, but many more of them are keen amateurs. I refuse to use the expression ‘aspiring writers’. Writing isn’t’ something we aspire to, it’s something we do; we aspire to be published or recognised, but we write, never-the-less. I regularly see blogs advertised with the hashtag that refer to posts about writing prompts. Honestly, I almost never read them. I have work to do, and with the work comes all the prompting I need.

The other stuff, the writing that doesn't come with prompts, is becoming increasingly important to me. The husband and I talk often about me writing more of my own stuff. He loves a small target when it comes to the work. He likes to know what he’s working with and what he’s aiming at, and he’s very, very good at hitting those targets. That’s why you all know his name.

I struggle with the process much more than he does, and there are a lot of reasons for that. I can do it, of course I can, I’ve had practice, but I tend to question it, and I tend to fight it. I’m never quite satisfied with the way I approach it. I never feel quite as free as I’d like, and sometimes it makes me a bit cross. There is, of course, great fun to be had, and a lot of satisfaction when it all falls into place and goes well, but that takes time and effort for me. The husband falls into it so naturally that I rather envy him.

In life, the husband has a much bigger ego than I do, but not in the work. When it comes to the work, he’s a total professional; he deploys his talents very effectively, precisely where they’re required, and he does it without getting tangled up. I think we complement one another. I think I’m the opposite. In life, I tend not to have an ego; we’d never maintain a relationship if I did, because the husband casts a pretty long shadow. The writing’s different, though; when it comes to the writing, I want to have all the control, and that’s where I have an ego.

A writing prompt, wherever it comes from, can lead to all sorts of wonderful things. It might be useful for some writers, particularly the less experienced, to get their prompts from wherever they can find them. I generally get mine from my own thoughts.

I might simply decide that I want to write something about the seven deadly sins, for example.

If you’re the sort of person who likes instruction, here’s one for you. Write 2,500 words on the seven deadly sins. Off you go. You can always come back here later.

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about writing a novel on this subject for a while, now. That’s where it begins for me. Other writing prompts that dropped into my head (or out of it, if you prefer) were, I fancy writing a book about parenthood, I might tackle maternal sexual abuse, and What if 50  Shades had been any fun?

I’ve written before about the difference between premises and ideas. That is to say, it’s all very well having a premise for something, but until you have a fully formed idea, you’re not going to produce a good story. It’s true, but this is a rule I break almost every time I sit down to start writing.

My process is odd. I begin with nothing. I sit down with a black screen, with only a white page on it, and I begin to write with only that premise in my head. Every day, I read everything that I have written so far and then make changes and/or add more text. This continues for about the first third of the novel. At that point, I generally know what my themes are, who everyone is and where the plot’s going.

What comes before informs what comes afterwards.

The premise, I fancy writing a book about parenthood became a novel about the rights of the individual in opposition to the demands of the state. The premise led to a book about a relationship based on unconditional love, during a state of emergency, where Global security is reliant on one of the people in that relationship. 

For me, that premise would never have led to that idea or to that novel being fully realised had it not been through the writing.

The novel is called Savant and it will be available from Solaris later in the year.

The thought, I might tackle maternal sexual abuse turned out to be a rather more direct process, in that I did write about the subject I began with, except that I wrote a first person narrative in which the protagonist remembers episodes from her childhood in the most mundane, matter-of-fact way, her life utterly normal to her.
Still unpublished... Maybe one day

The novel is called Naming Names and it was runner-up for the inaugural Mslexia novel writing competition. I’ve written about it often on this blog. It is yet to be published, because, although it was met with considerable praise from a number of houses, the subject matter has always been considered too difficult or too controversial for a mainstream audience.

If you want to know what became of What if 50 Shades had been fun? You could always read Addled Kat, which is available free on the blog.

I’m currently writing two new books, prompted by these thoughts, What’s it like when an old dog learns a new trick and Deconstructing a dysfunctional, co-dependent couple’s relationship… And there are plenty more where they came from.

My prompt for this blog was, Writing prompts - is this good discipline, or just for people who lack ideas? But, on reflection, I think that’s rather unfair. 

No writer lacks ideas… No person lacks ideas. I think the ‘lack’ is often about confidence. What feels like an idea to me might easily be discarded by someone who is less used to jotting down every thought that pleases them. My problem isn’t that I lack the confidence to write ideas (or in my case premises) down, my problem is that after maybe a dozen novels I still don’t know that I can write a book. I still don't know that I can sit in the chair and have the stamina to get to the end of something. It’s true of short stories, too… It’s true of everything I decide to do. I still don’t believe that I’ve done the things that I’ve done or that I could duplicate my process and come up with something the next time I make an attempt.

I do write down those thoughts, though, and I’m not embarrassed by them, however simple they are, however trite, however derivative, however vague. 

The husband is still surprised, even after all these years, that I’ll say to him, ‘I’ve had an idea for a story; I want to write about the Bayeau Tapestry.’ He’ll ask why? and what’s it about? and do I have an idea for the plot? and what’s the genre? And I’ll begin writing without the answers to any of those questions. It baffles him, but it suits me… And when the book’s done, he’s surprised again. He’s surprised by what I’ve done, and I’m surprised that I’ve managed to do it at all.

Look out for that one, by the way, it’s working title is White Work and it’s going to be a doozy.

So, I’ve rambled on for long enough, but if I was going to to write a conclusion to this post, it would read something like this:

Make notes of the thoughts that please you, because something might come of them, even if you only use them as writing prompts, as exercises. We all need to exercise our writing muscles, especially those of us who don’t get to write as often or as much as we’d like.


If you struggle with the confidence to write down thoughts, because you think they’re a bit daft, don’t worry about it, there are lots of places where you can find writing prompts. The point is to flex your writing muscles any time you feel like doing it. We all start somewhere, and we all carry on in any way we can, using the tools that suit us.

There is no right way to write. I’ve found a process that seems to suit me, but it evolved over a period of time, and I imagine that it’s still evolving. If you want to write, evolve a process that suits you, and if that includes writing prompts: great… have at it!

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