Thursday, April 13, 2023

Writing Prompts

Upping my writing "game" has been on my mind lately. One way to exercise the brain and spur some creativity is using writing prompts: story ideas generated by someone or something else. Using prompts are a supposedly a good way to exercise creativity, find some new inspiration, build some endurance at ye olde modern typewriter and just have some fun with; a sort of mental cardio. 

The challenge for me is to break away from my usual flavor of writing, which is rather functional. I tend to write to sort out my thoughts and assign some structure to my perspective and my life. More functional and purposeful. That's fine I suppose, but writing just in that genre can be limiting. I at least like the idea of being able to write more broadly. Being able to do so would probably even help out the writing in that genre, both bringing new ideas and new diversity to my prose. Hence, in writing this paragraph I just rationalized the importance and utility in writing prompt exercises. 

Where does one start? I see three parts to this: scoping the writing, finding prompts and keeping an open mind.

I was originally inclined to use "finding prompts" as the first step. However, aspects such as "how much time do I have?", "how am I feeling?" and "what do I want to work on today?" may almost play a bigger role in the exercise. Thus, scoping is key. I like the idea of targeting 500 to 1000 words in most exercises; 250 words if I'm working on succinctness or 2000 words if I want to try to be descriptive. There's also exploring of genres or even speed/typing tests. I could even envision an editing challenge. I really need to get better at reading and editing my stuff. :)

As for finding prompts, we (thankfully) live in the information age. Google is readily available with links to suggestions. Taking it a step further, we now even have artificial intelligence (AI) that can generate prompts. So far I've tried a couple of things. I've asked my Google Home to give me several prompts. The initial asks were just a generic, "okay Google, give me a writing prompt". I got three or four different prompts. All were more of a juvenile genre, e.g. a shark that goes back in time and learns a valuable lesson about acceptance. This resulted in my more direct request for a "motivational writing prompt" or a "mystery writing prompt". Unfortunately, this is where Google Home turned to it's primary charter of looking up solutions. Fortunately, my living room device has a display so I could read along. 

From there I moved to using Google on my laptop to find a "writing prompt generator". This brought me several links. One of these was to the site There I could click and refresh the prompts. These were more in the vein of what I was looking for. A couple of examples include:

"Write a 350 word story in the science fiction genre. It's about a loving grandfather and should include a revolver. Also use the sentence 'Never.' Bonus prompt: Your character is dying."

"Write a 50 word story in the fairy tale genre. It's about a ghost and should include a bowler hat. Also use the sentence 'I don't need any sleep.' Bonus prompt: The story takes place in a desert."

"Write a 850 word story in the drama genre. It's about a healer and should include paint. Also use the sentence 'Life was better on the other side.' Bonus prompt: Your character is dying."

I like that these provide some scope. And I could likely pound out a 50 word fairy tale, maybe even making it poetic, in not a lot of time. It's good to have options. 

My last search for prompts to date took me into the realm of AI. I have yet to play too much with the ChatGPT app. While I'm sure many English teachers are weary of the negative effects an AI program can have as far as plagiarism is concerned, I think there can be significant benefit to leveraging it for generating educational exercises or augmenting a body of knowledge. This post isn't about this debate, but feel free to comment (I think the power consumption involved in running the training algorithms that make the AI work is a bigger issue, but again out of scope for here). 

Here are a couple of prompts generated by ChatGPT:

"Write about a character who wakes up with no memories of their past, but discovers that they have a unique and extraordinary power. As they navigate through their new life with their ability, they must also unravel the mystery of their forgotten past and the true purpose of their power."

"Two friends stumble upon a mysterious book in a hidden library. As they read through it, they discover that every time they turn the page, they are transported to a different point in history. However, they soon realize that their actions in the past have severe consequences on their present-day lives. They must decide whether to continue exploring history or destroy the book to protect their future."

As you can see ChatGPT doesn't scope the work, at least not without asking it. It is also much more detailed in it's response. In essence it almost starts the story for you. This can take away some of the writer's creativity. However, it can also provide an easy starting point. 

The longer prose of ChatGPT's response is likely due to how the app is configured to work. It is meant (trained) to provide a more robust answer. A simpler AI configuration could probably provide something more along the lines of the response. Indeed, an AI could probably be trained to generate a whole lesson plan. Score one for the teachers! Still the power in application will come from human discernment and application of the response. 

The last tenet for doing the prompted writing is my keeping an open mind. I know there is a way I perceive the world and I know there is a preference for what I write, how I like a story told and even what I like that story to be about. There is a part of me that likes to keep it simple, Hemmingway-esque. I'm rather literal and I find as I get older maybe even my imagination gets rusty. Thus, keeping an open mind to what I'm writing may prove to be a fountain of youth, allowing me to stretch and flex ideas. It can allow me to explore new areas and augment my primary preferred style. It can still be a hump to get over. That's where even a 50 word, or even a two or three sentence, story can help. 

While I have my preferences, I am also a curious being. Pushing past my writing comfort level may encourage me to explore and enact some manner of feedback loop. With that said, I hope to take advantage and keep getting better.

A Walk

"I don't need any sleep", Amos exclaimed; leaving for a stroll in the dry desert night.

Amos saw a figure drop a bowler. He picked it up as the wearer vanished. Amos placed it on his head. Hearing someone walk behind him, the world slipped away, hat falling to ground.

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