I try to stay away from badly written books and totally worthless movies. Yet, they might be goldmines! A writing professor of mine once said that he finds a lot of value in both because he used them as writing prompts. How? The challenge he saw in them was figuring out how to fix them.
In the world of major publishers and agents, this is one of the editor’s jobs, though they don’t intentionally begin with something worthless. They begin with something that has promise but needs a lot of work. They help the author turn the work into something much better.
You can practice your writing skills in a similar way by taking badly written books or movies and figuring out what makes them badly written and how you would fix them if you happened to work for a major publisher as the author’s editor. If you like writing prompts, fixing bad books–or scenes out of bad books–gives you an infinite number of exercises.
Think of the kinds of complaints you read in one-star Amazon reviews: thin or unbelievable plot, one-dimensional characters, skimpy information about the novel’s setting, storyline padded out with too much description or lengthy and inane conversations that don’t move the plot forward, etc.
Pick one scene and make it work. Make sure it’s a scene that requires better writing and not a scene you would cut altogether. For example, if there’s a section of lengthy description, try to re-write it at half the length. If the dialogue is inane, what can the characters say to each other at that point in the story that makes more sense? You can give yourself a bigger challenge by writing within the original author’s voice and style rather than your own.
My professor thought that one way of learning how to diagnose and fix weaknesses in our own work was by diagnosing and correcting problems in the works of other writers. It’s an interesting exercise and, goodness knows, there are hundreds of books out there we can use for raw material.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently release short story collection “Widely Scattered Ghosts.”
“Think of a memory in a beautiful landscape—maybe from a family vacation, or your favorite childhood destination. Now think of a scene from a story, novel, or movie that describes a landscape, and that has stuck with you. What makes these moments special? So many of the memories and stories we share are connected to place—to the landscapes of the Earth and the landscapes of our own imaginations.” – “Carving Stories from Trees” in Poets & Writers
Key West when postcards could be mailed for a penny.
Poets & Writers Magazine has a daily online writing prompt or “Craft Capsule.” I enjoy reading these even if I don’t follow up and write something based on the prompt.
For those who grew up in a wonderful place and enjoyed day trips, or went on yearly summer vacations, or traveled after graduating from high school or college, the landscapes we saw in the past are a gold mine of writing prompts and potential short story or novel location settings.
Our family traveled every summer. This meant many long days in a car, most before air conditioning. We saw sites from Fort Ticonderoga and Niagara Falls to Key West, Mammoth Cave and the Smoky Mountains. Even though I didn’t keep a diary, my memories–incomplete as they may be–make a wonderful starting point when I’m thinking up a new story.
Since I’ve been to these places, it’s less difficult to find a book, magazine or a website to help me fill in the details. I came away from those vacations with a strong sense of each place. And, that’s almost more valuable than a guidebook.
Perhaps you have memories of long-ago trips that might serve as writing prompts and short story locales.
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Disclaimer: The devil didn’t make me write this post.
- A man buys a round trip ticket to hell without reading the fine print on the on the ticket. He’s dressed for a warm climate because he’s heard stories. When he arrives in a hand basket, hell looks like the Mauricio García Vega painting shown here. He looks for a lover to share the experience with.
- A 737 crashes into a farmer’s empty chicken house in a ball of flame that’s so large it scorches the low-hanging clouds. Before he can call 911, the passengers and crew walk out of the chicken house as though nothing unusual has happened.
- Your protagonist learns on page one that he has one hour to live. Since he was on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth, he goes on Twitter to find a quality person with whom he can share his secrets so that once he’s gone, the journey will continue.
- A stick falls into a mud puddle during a rain storm.
- A young woman sincerely believes she’ll bump into her soul mate by running up the down escalator. Her friends have warned that she won’t accomplish her goal if she’s thrown out of the store/airport/theme park, if she’s arrested, if she gets sent to the asylum, or if she gets pulled down into the gears and ends up looking like chopped liver, all of which will discourage Mister Right.
- A man believes he’s died when, if truth be told, he’s merely roaring drunk and trapped in a house of ill repute. Luckily, he has plenty of money and decides death is really the way to go. “Bless his heart,” says the madam, “what’s going to happen to that poor fool when he wakes up.” They decide to keep him drunk so that he won’t discover the truth of the matter.
- A minister is discovered having sex with a woman who’s not his wife on the communion table by church goers who arrive for Sunday morning services several hours earlier than expected. After a brief discussion, everyone decides there’s a way to make this event a win-win moment for everybody.
- Two roads diverge in a wood. Several hikers decide to test Robert Frost’s poem and determine whether the problems (if any) of taking one road or another amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
- After a man hypnotizes himself into believing he is totally innocent of any discretions, errors in judgement, jilting of lovers, or ever saying an hurtful things, he keeps meeting people who think otherwise. He must decide whether or not they are lying and, if not, whether the easiest way to remain innocent is by murdering those who claim to have evidence that he’s guilty OR simply to run like hell. As the story unfolds, readers learn this choice wasn’t easy.
Disclaimer: If anything bad happens while you’re using these writing prompts, you’re on your own because I don’t warrant that they are safe or any damn good at all, and further that they’re displayed here merely as curiosities.
If you’re the kind of writer who lives and breathes flash fiction and/or who responds well to writing prompts, take a look at the frequent contest and prompt posts at Indies Unlimited.
Most recent prompt: Dew Drops – photographic prompt.
Latest Contest (January 15th Deadline): Aftermath -original, unpublished prose up to 500 words. No entry fee. “Prizes: 50 euro first prize; 25 euro second prize; 15 euro third prize; All winning entries (including shortlisted stories) will be published in the January 2017 issue of Brilliant Flash Fiction.”
Tempted? Looking for something to do this week? Plus, it might be fun.