5Writers Group Story Writing Experience: What We Learned Working from a Writing Prompt
Brad: I have often waited for inspiration to strike, relying on this phenomena to generate story ideas. Once in a while, however, I have to remind myself that you can goose the system if you prod it properly. For me, this means using writing prompts in order to find out what I can generate from someone else’s starting line. What I loved about the 5Writers group story experience was how an idea took shape; we all offered some parameters, character and plot ideas, and then cut each other loose. The final product demonstrates how there is no one “right” way to respond to a prompt nor is there one “right” way to write a story. As the writer who began the story I worked on trying to put as many balls in the air for the other writers to work with—this isn’t a bad mindset for any writer to use when working on a story. Last, I liked how our finished story demonstrates how writers can piece a coherent narrative together through different forms, to great effect. This certainly shows the benefit of experimenting.
Darlene: I love this! Of course, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard! Just like doing an improv exercise, you have to be willing to drop any idea you may have swimming around in your head because your co-writer will certainly take the story and characters in directions you may not have anticipated. In fact, anticipation is death to an exercise like this. You must be in the moment and pay attention to all the details your co-writers contribute and use them, justify them, acknowledge them somehow in your section, then expand on them. In improv, we say “Yes, and…raise the stakes.” Accept your colleague’s “offers” and then get that character in deep water!
That said, I may have broken every one of those improv rules! While I’m a huge proponent of using improv in my writing, foolishly, all that training just went right out of my head during this exercise!
When the story came around to me, I was sure my job was to bring the two characters together, and perhaps that would have been the better choice. I started babbling dialogue in my head (and quite possibly aloud, if I’m to judge by the looks I got while grocery shopping).
Then I over-thought the structure. I got all in my head, instead of going with the flow. I figured I was passing the ball to Jennie, who would be writing in a screenplay format, so I changed direction, thinking I would set her up to get the characters talking. After I read Jennie’s portion of the story, I panicked! She took the characters and their relationship in a terrific direction I would never have imagined, and now it was up to Ron to wrap up all these twists and turns! My thinking was way too straightforward and traditional. I felt I’d let my co-writers down. But Ron came through with a killer ending, imaginative, and again, unexpected. What did I learn?
1. Even though we are on our separate computers in different cities, writers create an energy through the work. We feed off each other, push each other.
2. I bring everything back to improv.
3. I’m a total stick in the mud and I need to get out more. 🙂
Jennie: For me, this was by far the hardest challenge I’ve ever faced as a writer. I’ve never been good at “writing on command,” and I’ve always hated those writing prompts. At writing conferences, if a speaker asks us to write based on a prompt, I’m usually the one jerk who doesn’t even bother to try. That’s not how my process works.
So when it came time to contribute my section to the story, I had to get over myself. The story didn’t come from my imagination, so I had to find a way to make it work for me – and fast! Of course, I had to go dark, and I had to go to the supernatural. But I also had to find a way to take a story that was mostly based in internal monologues and make it as visual as possible. A screenplay doesn’t have the luxury of diving into a character’s head and showing us what the characters are thinking in any moment. Therefore, I had to find a discover strong visuals that could develop not only the story between the brother and sister but that could pay off the loose ends mentioned in earlier chapters as well (such as the brother’s picture from “before the accident”).
While this isn’t the kind of exercise I would joyfully sign up for every month, I was really glad I got over myself and participated in it. If for no other reason, it reinforced the idea that we, as five writers, are a literary force to be reckoned with!
Ron: As one of the last to contribute to the story, I was alternately thrilled and fascinated with the twists and turns it took–particularly as I had certain ideas in mind, certain predilections and preferences that only added to the overall sense of surprise when one of my fellow collaborators took the narrative in a different direction. What I truly found welcome was the way these twists and turns forced me to think on my feet as a writer, to avoid succumbing to my own traps, to be flexible. A dear professor of mine told me early on in my Poetry Education that I had a tendency to fall in love with my own conventions (and it’s still true today–I’m just better able to recognize it and work through it). Working on this collaboration was great because it didn’t allow me the luxury of falling back on old comfortable tropes, of sliding into tried and true phrasings/words/enjambments, etc. What I think I appreciated most about this exercise is how five different people with five different life experiences in five different places with five different aesthetics and tastes were able to work together to synthesize a complete, coherent narrative comprised–and yes, I’ll say it–comprised masterfully of four different genres of storytelling. I am honored and delighted to contribute the poetry component of the story.
One quick note in closing: When Jennie’s screenplay took the story to a whole ‘nother level with the introduction of Alastor, and when I realized I was next up, I about had an accident. I got scared. And so, when in doubt (as so many fine professors in my past taught me), I turned to research. I often find inspiration or explication in word/name origins. A quick Googling of the name “Alastor” turned up not only some interesting links to its demonological underpinnings (which, no doubt, Jennie was aware of and working to exploit), but also a 700+ line poem by Percy Bysse Shelley titled, “Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude” (1816). Both the demonological aspect of Alastor and certain aspects of Shelley’s poem meshed well with our narrative. And while I’d hoped to be able to mine the poem for more allusions to include in our story, time constraints prevented me from fully exploiting some of the ideas I came up with. In the end, I had to be content to compose the “Cantos” of my Epilogue in the same blank verse Shelley used to compose all 720 lines of “Alastor.” And I had a blast doing it!
As you can see, we dove right in and exploited this writing prompt for all it’s worth. And even if the story hadn’t turned out well, there are benefits to just having gone through the exercise. Like athletes who train, writers benefit from exercising their creative muscles even if a story you intend to publish on your own never materializes. We hope to approach this type of exercise as a group in the future.