Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When Should You Give Up On A Manuscript Part 5 - The Writing Prompt vs Creativity by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

When Should You Give Up On A Manuscript
Part 5
The Writing Prompt vs Creativity
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

This series of posts is about Writer's Block and what to do about it.

Here are the previous posts in this series:





This series is about that "taking stock" long-view we do several times a year -- Holidays, New Year's, Birthdays, Anniversaries.  When can you just "quit" (a job, a marriage, a drive to get your kids to behave, a small business you've started and failed at)?  And when you do decide to quit, what's next?  Feeling depressed that time of year, every year, for the rest of your life? 

This "When Should You Give Up On" series is about making that decision in such a way as to open new possibilities, new avenues to pursue with the confidence that the same thing won't happen again (and again, again etc).

So this Part 5 in this series is about the mistakes and blind-alleys we all pursue on some projects, and how to back out of a blind alley manuscript and use the bits and pieces that are worth something to generate future works.

This is a multi-stage process, though it may surface in one snap-moment, all completed.  Mostly, it's your subconscious that makes the decision and redirects your life -- not so much the conscious mind.  If you do creating writing, as a hobby or as a living, you are mostly subject to your subconscious decisions.  (not everyone is like that)

So there is a reason that you do not know for your diving at warp-speed into a black hole, hitting a brick wall, and being defeated, quitting, and leaving your life littered with half-started projects (writing projects as well as other sorts).

This post is about ferreting out that reason, then reprogramming your subconscious to create and present you with projects that can go to completion, to publisher, to publication, to sales, to reprints. 

Projects that can go through the brick wall like that bear a certain signature that other projects do not.  For the ones that can go through, you need to gather persistence, stubbornness, and strategy.  For the duds in your life, you need to just junk them. 

So what if you have to junk a project?  In essence, what you do with a brick-wall creating disaster of a manuscript is toss out most of the blather you wrote, distill out the essence of what you wanted to say, and then write yourself a "Writing Prompt."  Yep, just like in school or on a job application.  A writing prompt, only with a twist. 

Writers often get asked, "Where do you get your crazy ideas?" 

With Science Fiction Romance, or Romance in general, the "crazy idea" is the HEA, the Happily Ever After ending.  Half the world doesn't believe in the HEA as a reality.  Where we get our "crazy ideas" about things like the HEA is very simple -- we get them from Writing Prompts. 

Only the writing prompts a writer creates as a springboard into a story come from the version of "real life" that the target reader holds dear.  You will find a comprehensive sketch of that version of real life in sources such as ABC News, CNN news, news stories of today, yesterday, and all time.  The annual New Year's roundup, the lists of Forbes Man Of The Year, the Best City for Raising Children, etc.  Each and every datapoint coming out of these sources can be a writing prompt given a good twist.

Sometimes you start out using a Writing Prompt as a Springboard into your story --


--and then hit that brick wall we've discussed. 

Somehow you fall off the "because line" that we have established in early posts in this Tuesday section on writing craft, creative writing, story, and story writing.




We have maybe two generations of graduates today who have been trained to respond to the Writing Prompt, but not to "color outside the lines" and give the prompter something that will just plain blow their minds.

Why have we raised a generation of school-essay-writing graduates to "give the promter what the prompter wants?" 

You don't think that's true?  Scroll down this wikihow page:

How to Answer a Writing Prompt

Three Methods:Expository Prompts, Narrative Prompts ,Persuasive Prompts

Students of all kinds, from elementary school to those applying for post-graduate educations, are tested on their writing ability through writing prompts. Successful students are able to understand what kind of essay the prompt is calling for and answer it with what the tester wants to see.

-------------END QUOTE------------

Isn't that the saddest, most frustrating thing you've ever read? 

To succeed in school, and then in job applications, one must conform, one must "understand what kind of essay the prompt is calling for" and then "answer it with what the tester wants to see."

That's the secret of success, and the main source of writer's block. 

As you are trained in childhood, so you will continue.  As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.  Well, humans being human, we do have the capacity to chuck our childhood training and strike out into the wild world, hacking our own paths.  But only a few do that, and only a few of those survive it.

We are training creativity out of our children.  We are training maturation out of our children.  We are training children never, ever, to dare to write creatively -- never to do creative writing, never to invent new ideas. 

You will fail in school and in life if you do not give people who have power over you what they want. 

But real success is giving people who have power over you something they never considered might exist. 

Real success is doing what a Hero does in a story.  A hero does not "do all he/she can."  A Hero (by definition) does what he/she can NOT do.  A Hero pays no attention to limits, especially not those set by others, by rules, by regulations.  A Hero gets the job done, no matter the personal cost. 

Yes, Villains share many of those traits, grit, guts, determination, obliviousness to cost. 

That's why Hero and Villain characters come in matched sets -- the villain is fabricated out of the substance of the Hero's character.  That's what it means "nemesis."  Matched sets of characters insure that your story will reflect your reader's reality, sucking them into the story.

That wikihow.com entry on How To Answer A Writing Prompt clues us in to why and how the plausibility of the HEA, the Happily Ever After ending, has eroded away. 

The last few decades of schooling has churned out a couple generations of adults who see daring to do something other than what is expected as a path to Failure. 

I started this series on "When Should You Give Up On A Manuscript" in response to a twitter discussion on #litchat and #amwriting threads. 

Dozens of people participated in discussing, with serious worry, whether it is ever proper to trash a manuscript before finishing the first draft -- or even after several drafts.  When do you quit?  How do you know it's right to quit?  They were seriously worried -- and I didn't know what they were worried about until I saw this wikihow entry on how to respond to a writing prompt.

Now, remembering a few of those tweets, and a couple of items on Google+, I can see clearly why they could not deal with the issue of a false-start on a writing project.  Had I seen this instruction at the same time as the tweets appeared, I'd have realized what thought process was behind the phrasing of those tweets.

The brick wall these tweeters were running into trying to answer each others' concerns was simply their training in never, ever, under any circumstances, answering a writing prompt with something unexpected or uncalled for.

In other words, you are not allowed to think and express original ideas.

Originality itself is disallowed by this kind of training in how to answer a writing prompt. 

If you read that page on wikihow, you will note that I never -- ever -- follow any of these "rules" -- not in my fiction writing, not in my novels, not in my short stories, certainly not in my non-fiction like Star Trek Lives! and not in anything I've sold to publishers -- and never, ever in my professional review column, nor in this blog series on writing craft.

My business model is original ideas expressed in original ways -- delivering "the unexpected" with high-impact. 

I don't respond to writing prompts that others create.  I take the writing prompt and rewrite it, then explore areas that rewrite opens to show connections between the narrowly defined topic-sentence material and much broader, Big Data sources such as statistics. 

In other words, I find the rules -- in order to break them.

I break the rules only after I've demonstrated that I can follow that rule.  Then I break the part of the rule that is preventing original thinking, not the part of the rule that facilitates originality. 

The part of the rule cited on this wikihow.com entry on how to answer a writing prompt that prevents original thinking is the part that says

what kind of essay the prompt is calling for and answer it with what the tester wants to see

The alternative rule, that prompts editors to buy your story for Mass Market distribution is:

find out what your reader wants to see, and give them what they'd never expect.

That's Hollywood's rule of "the same but different." 

Perhaps the reason we get nothing but remakes out of Hollywood these days is that kind of training in answering prompts with what the tester wants.

The Expository Prompt, for example has to be answered with an essay that explains or describes -- not an argument or an opinion. 

But any true explanation will be nothing but an argument supporting an opinion -- to omit your own opinion and your argument for it when explaining or describing is to use the opinion/argument of someone other than yourself -- regurgitating what someone tried to teach you.

How do you know if you have what it takes to be a commercial fiction writer? 

You know for a fact you can make it in fiction writing if you are the sort of person who can not be taught, who always questions, never believes your teachers, and refuses to give them what they want or expect. 

So when you are deep into a manuscript, and just hit that brick wall, how do you create a writing prompt to spur you through to completion of the project?

Look at this wikihow.com page and list the keywords for the 3 methods of writing prompt.

Remember, we have to find the rule and analyze it in order to break it with useful original thinking.  And remember that novels have a structure as precise as school essays or news stories such as you find on abcnews.com

1. Expository Prompts
Explain or Describe
2. Narrative Prompts
Tell, Time, Event
3. Persuasive Prompts
Persuade or Convince

All of these are very useful in breaking through writer's block in narrative fiction.  Story writing is done just like this -- with each of the 3 types of writing prompts delineated here representing a genre and/or a style.

The writer's block creating element in these instructions lies entirely in that first paragraph at the top of the page -- give what they are asking for. 

The creative writers rule is never give what they're asking for.  Do the unexpected.

You will find a version of that rule in the screenwriting books I keep pointing you to, SAVE THE CAT!, SAVE THE CAT! STRIKES BACK, and SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES.

All screenwriting books dwell on this element at great length,  many using different terms for the process.

It is the "twist" or the "great reveal" or any term that designates delivering the unexpected.

Part of the technique of the unexpected is laying down the "foreshadowing" -- the bits of detail, suggestive glances, the red-herring in the mystery, that leads the reader to expect one thing while you plan to deliver another with a twist.

Here's an example, ripped from the Headlines last year (and now a tradition of sorts), of a mundane news item built on a twist.


The news story has a picture of newborns swaddled in red Christmas Stocking baby blankets to present to new parents taking a baby home on Christmas.

Study that for how to design a twist into your failed manuscript.

You have the standard (ho-hum) image of the red plush Christmas Stocking (a blatantly commercial invention; nobody wears such things in their boots).  That leads the reader to imagine the image of them hanging from a mantel. 

Then the "reveal" or "twist" -- the stockings are laid in bassinets with newborn babies inside. 

Stumbling across this ABC News item online, the writer with a manuscript they want to abandon can create a writing prompt to impel their narrative over that brick wall.

It is very possible that the story has failed to crystallize because that "Christmas Stocking" item has been omitted. 

Try letting your protagonist who is not moving forward with the story come upon an image of this sort (not a baby in a stocking, but something from your worldbuilding ) -- cognitive dissonance.  Maybe they phone home about it, or write a poem, or shout out on twitter, or whatever -- and stir the plot-pot to a boil. 

The misleading image you are later (say at the 3/4 point) going to twist to surprise the reader should appear in some form, maybe symbolic or iconic, on page 1. 


It should reappear a number of times, especially at major turning points.

And then at the point in the plot where you need the "twist" the reader has been set up to expect one thing -- and you deliver another thing entirely.  This will fail if the reader does not see that it is "right" and "fitting" and poetical.  It will fail if, in retrospect, the reader does not say, "I knew that would happen." 

And it will fail if it is what the reader expected or wanted. 

That's one reason the whole Romance field is discredited by a lot of readers.  Since the Romance genre reader expects and demands an HEA, writers don't introduce other possibilities, then twist into the HEA. 

Real life is full of such twists.


You twist the Christmas Stocking into a swaddling blanket.

You twist the Tall Dark Handsome Hero into the Arch Villain -- or vice-versa, and the Villain comes to the Heroine's rescue.

You twist the friendly, crime-free small town into a Den Of Vampires. 

You twist the popular Cheerleader into a Vampire Slayer or time traveler.

Well, all of those have been done to death and are now expected.

Your job is to create new unexpected twists, but first you must understand where those classic twists came from by studying good novels that use them. 

Study writing prompts carefully because they do telegragh the answers that are expected.  Just as the "Leading Question" is forbidden in examining a witness in court, so too is the Leading Prompt forbidden.

The lawyer's rule is never ask a question you don't know the answer to.

But when it comes to fiction writing, the rule is never ask a question you do know the answer to.

In fact, that is the essence of Science, and thus Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Romance.  Ask questions nobody has ever asked before, and therefore questions that nobody knows the answer to.

It is the fiction writer's job to formulate new questions and postulate answers that will work only for the particular character who is the hero of the story.

Such unique, new questions are the writing prompt you need to formulate for yourself to break down the brick wall that is blocking you from finishing a manuscript.

But at the same time, your personal writing prompt has to be composed of the classic questions, just as the stages of creating an essay for school are laid out in this wikihow.com item on writing prompts.

Those questions are the ones many of my Tuesday blog posts have been about.

1. Whose story is it? (twist - not the person the reader expected)
2. What is the story about? (theme-character integration; twist with past-life experiences haunting and motivating)
3. Where and When does the story begin? (where the two elements that conflict to generate the plot first collide -- twist by using symbolism like the Christmas Stockings in the ABC News story )
4. What is the Conflict? (this vs. that -- twist with a resolution that creates another conflict)
5. What is the Resolution? (the last page solves the problem; twist with a bitter-sweet loss, self-sacrifice, poetic justice)
6. What is the Plot? (the series of Events on a Because-line - twist with hidden character motivations that are later revealed)

Fill out those 6 points for your failed manuscript, then construct a writing prompt with a question that you do not know the answer to.

For example, my breakout novel, Those Of My Blood was written without knowing the ending.  The writing prompt was something like, "Will Titus Kill His Father?"  or "What Would Make It Morally Acceptable For Titus To Kill His Father?"  We have a lot of vampire novels where the younger vampire kills the elder who "made" him -- Those of My Blood is built on several "twists" of that standard trope.  Is it ever right to kill your father? 

And you might want to read:



Ask yourself, do you want to read something that says what you want, or something that asks a question you could never have thought of?

Would you pay money to read something that is what you expect?  Or something that surprises you?

The measure of writing ability is not the ability to guess what the author of the writing prompt wanted, but rather the ability to express an insight beyond the capability of the author of the writing prompt.

To express such insights, you must develop such insights.  That process is what being a writer means.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. What you say about writing prompts really resonates with me. In almost all school work these days, children and young adults are being asked to guess what the person who thought up the question wanted and to give it to them. Creativity and independent thinking are being penalized.

  2. Your remarks on the subconscious always remind me of something Heinlein said about the problem-solving process -- "The conscious mind is a display window for answers arrived at elsewhere."

    James Morrow's image of writing SF as a "thought experiment" (in his lunch speech I mention in my post this week) fits nicely with what you've said here about the unexpected.

  3. Thank you, Margaret! I did learn a lot from Heinlein.