With a Little Help

From time to time, I go on retreat. I’ve found a special place and I invite a few special friends, and we hide in an old farmhouse owned by a convent. I’ve posted several times about my retreats, but today I am posting about that well-loved tradition of using your writing friends as guinea pigs.

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Inspiration comes in many forms.

Writing prompts come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and themes. This weekend, Delaware poet Jane Miller and I are offering a “Fall into Writing” workshop at an historic home–the Judge Morris Estate in Newark, Delaware. We’ve been gathering or creating prompts that focus on the five senses, on how objects can be used as metaphors, on inspiration from images, on our legacies as writers. It will be a full day and I hope a beneficial one for our attendees.

One trick for a successful workshop is to try out the prompts or exercises in advance. When you’re together for a week in an old farmhouse with no TV, iffy Internet, and spotty cell phone service, what’s a better time to try out prompts on your captive audience?

Here are a few ideas for creating and using writing prompts:

  1. Keep instructions simple
  2. Time the writing portions
  3. Know the general make-up of your audience
  4. Use a general theme or idea for cohesiveness
  5. Offer prompts that are specific but broad enough to explore
  6. Provide minimal guidance or leading
  7. Remember there are no wrong answers
  8. Encourage sharing but make it optional

If the audience is a mix of poets, prose writers, screenwriters, etc.

  1. Use prompts that will work with all writing forms
  2. Team up un-like artists for exchange exercises
  3. Use external inspirations like objects or photos or music

For any type of prompt or exercise:

  1. Try it out on a living audience
  2. Pay attention to what works and doesn’t
  3. Be willing to revise, change, or pitch a prompt that might be a dud

At retreat, we tried out three of Saturday’s prompts-to-be: on senses, on the unknown, on places from our memories. Each try-out revealed a necessary tweak that will make the prompt more effective. On the flip side, the prompts were a good break from the long days devoted to WIPs. The brain works best when you poke at it a bit.

We even left with a testimonial!

I want to thank you for sharing a few of the writing exercises with us this week at retreat that you and Jane Miller plan to use at the Fall into Writing workshop next Saturday at the Judge Morris Estate. I’ve been able to clarify writing goals, and now I see how I can incorporate observations from the five senses to make my writing come alive. These exercises have made such a difference to me, and I know they’ll be valuable to workshop participants. – Jean Davis

If you are a Delaware author, I hope to see you Saturday at the Judge Morris Estate for a day to honor the change of seasons—and write about it among friends. If you are interested, there is still time to register.

To Maria, Jean, Kim, and Jane–thanks for playing!

Read up! A writing prompt

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI never get writer’s block, but from time to time, I do suffer from writer’s mire. That means I get stuck in one of my own stories and grind over the same troublesome scene for days. Writer’s mire is a momentum killer and can easily destroy your enthusiasm for the story.

The sensible cure for getting stuck is moving on, but easier said than done, right?  When my willpower muscles out my inner editor, I can write FIX THIS LATER and power on ahead to the next scene. That being said, even when I can move on, that troublesome scene is like a gnat in the back of my brain. Very distracting.

A case of writer’s mire happened to me last week, only I could not get to the FIX THIS LATER step. Finally, in desperation, I tried a writing prompt to think about another idea for a while.

Do you use writing prompts? They’re easy to find via Google. They are great as morning warm-up work, or to distract yourself when frustrated. Some prompts are very specific and others less so. The one I tried last week was to “write a crazy conversation.” Since part of my writer’s mire scene included characters exchanging flat dialogue, I decided to regard “conversation” in a different way: an online one.

Here’s how it went:


Read Up! (Aka every medical conversation on social media.)

JANE: Hi, friends! I’ve been quiet because I had my spleen surgically removed today.

MARY: OMG, really? Why?

JANE:  I have spleenositosis and the only treatment is surgical removal of the spleen.

MARK: Your spleen filters your blood. It’s vital to a healthy immune system.

JANE: I am aware of that.  I researched spleens upside down and sideways because of my disease.

MEGHAN: Wow, surgery! I would never have surgery. I hope you considered carefully.

JANE: Yes, of course I considered all options. You think I had my spleen carved out on a whim?

MARLENE: Watch out for MRSA. People get MRSA after surgery. My brother nearly died of  MRSA.

MISSY: Did you try a homeopathic cure?

JANE: There is no homeopathic cure.

MARTHA: OMG, Jane, what happened?! Why would you get rid of your spleen?

JANE: Read up, Martha.

MORWANA: I had MRSA. You just take antibiotics. Don’t be such a drama queen, Jane.

JANE: Wha? I didn’t say anything about MRSA. That was Marlene.

MORGAN: You should have considered a homeopathic cure.

MELANIE: Have you considered a homeopathic cure?

MAURICE: Dandelion tea is good for the spleen. I run an homeopathic goods mail-order service. Here’s a link.

MAMIE: My cousin had acne. Dandelion tea cured it right up. You should try that, Jane.

MARTHA: Jane, were you in an accident? A car crash?

JANE: Martha, please read up.

MITCHELL: Did you get a second opinion? I’d get a second opinion before removing an organ. You should get a second opinion right away.

JANE: Mitchell, I did get a second option, and it’s too late now anyway, since my spleen is gone. See OP.

MINNIE: My cousin is a surgeon and he accidentally dropped his cell phone into a patient during surgery and it embedded in the person’s liver.

MOLLY: I’m not sure this is a good idea. You need your spleen for your immune system.

MARTHA: Jane, did you fall down the stairs and bruise your spleen or something?

JANE: Martha, Please. Read. Up.

MIGNON: Herbs help keep a spleen healthy. You should eat a lot of herbs.

MIGNON: And you should eat less red meat, since it clogs up your spleen.

MIGNON: Also drink less alcohol because alcohol is not good for the spleen.

JANE: Great info, Mignon, but I don’t actually have a spleen anymore. Read OP.

MICHELE: My book’s on sale at Books for Sale! Buy my book! Here’s a link.

MILLY:  Spleenositosis is a disease of the spleen, which filters your blood.


MILLY: You said your spleen was removed. You can’t have spleenositosis without a spleen. ??????

MARTHA: I just don’t understand why you would do something this crazy, Jane.

JANE: For god’s sake, Martha, READ UP! UP! UP!

MARTHA: Jane, why are you yelling at me? I CARE. Why are you being so secretive about this spleen thing?

MITCHELL: Patients get tricked into into unnecessary surgeries all the time. I will PM you 72 links right away so you can see how you got taken in by unscrupulous big pharma and the money-sucking medical establishment.

JANE: OMG!!! All I wanted to do was explain why I had been quiet! How about an “I hope you’re okay, Jane,” or “I’ll make you a casserole.”

MIKE: You seem stressed, Jane. You need to buy some St. John’s Wort. Here’s a link.

The End

I had fun writing this, and it broke me out of the mire! Sometimes something completely different is worth a try.

What would you write as “a crazy conversation” writing prompt? And, if you have another cure for writer’s mire, I’d love to hear it!

101 Years Ago Today

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War 1. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. President Wilson, who campaigned with the slogan “He kept us out of war,” asked Congress to approve the war declaration with a new slogan. The United States should make the “world safe for democracy.” On July 4, 1917, American soldiers marched to the Marquis de Lafayette’s gravesite to pay homage with the phrase “Lafayette, nous voilà” – Lafayette, we are here.

The Great War. The War to End All Wars. Make the world safe for democracy. Lafayette, we are here.

The above phrases are an important part of world history. The impact of the first global war is still being examined and discussed. A century later, we still have war and democracy may be in peril, but as long as we remember Lafayette and the soldiers inspired by him, as long as we read the stories of soldiers, there is hope that global wars may be history.

World War 1 and America Writing Workshops




You Can Tell a Lot about a Person

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgLife is a never ending quest. That quest means different things to different people, and some of us have more than one quest. I’m one of those people.

I am constantly on the search for three things: blog post topics, writing prompts, and character studies.

(What, you thought this was going to be about the meaning of life or something? I’m a writer, not a philosopher.) Continue reading “You Can Tell a Lot about a Person”

National Day on Writing

Monday, October 20, the National Council of Teachers of English celebrated all forms of written expression with its sixth National Day on Writing. 

Continue reading “National Day on Writing”

A Good Cop/Bad Cop Writing Prompt

RamonaGravitarLast week, I wrote about how an error or mishandling of a law in a manuscript can undermine the author’s credibility or give a wrong impression of a character. One of my sample scenes earned a bit of discussion, so I’m bringing it back this week as a writing prompt.

Continue reading “A Good Cop/Bad Cop Writing Prompt”