For this trimester’s activity period I am leading a fiction writing workshop. Five girls, one boy, and one teacher are joining me in time to write every week. We’ve decided that I will bring writing prompts, but if people are inspired to write something else, that’s okay, too. “That’s okay, that’ll work, whatever you need,” is sort of the unofficial motto of the group. Unofficial in the sense that I just made it up right now, but I promise you, it’s accurate.

Today because it was gorgeous, we wrote outside (where I was attacked by a spider and its web, but that’s another story), and I prepared two possible sunny day writing prompts.

1. Start with this line I/He/She was sitting outside in her hammock, sipping on a lemonade when the strangest thing happened.

2. Almost everybody loves a sunny day, but there are some who prefer rainy, overcast days. Who are those people and what do they have against the sun. (Adapted from writingforward.com by Melissa Donovan)

The first brought on a fantastically imaginative piece by one girl, which she accurately labeled “satirically morbid” and included a drawing.

I chose to start with the second and here’s what I wrote, completely unedited:

Louisa Wheelright had her hair set every Thursday. The curlers were tight against her head, pulling the hair so tightly she couldn’t think of anything but the discomfort. It was relief, really. She could let go of the business worries — concerns that had fallen to her after her husband’s death and which she had never managed to pass on to the young man hired to take his place. Concerns about the investigation and the rumors that still lingered years later though not a single employee had be found to have any Communist leanings. And of course, concerns about Isaac — those concerns were the most numerous, and the hardest to let go. The pull on her hair was like plucking each of those concerns away.

She looked out the window — the sunny sky was becoming overshadowed with clouds. Another concern: the coming rain would ruin her fresh curls.

The astute will see that I totally messed up this prompt. Even though I chose the prompt and had time to think about it before our group met, I still inadvertently inverted it. But hey — that’s okay, that’ll work, whatever you need. When it comes to writing prompts, there is no right or wrong.

What’s important is what I learned. You see, I didn’t just jump in to a new story. I used this prompt in the context of a novel I’m working on right now. Louisa is one of the main character’s grandmothers. Before I wrote this, I didn’t know her name was Louisa. She was just Isaac’s grandmother. More interestingly, I didn’t know that she got her hair set every week. Or that she kind-of likes the pain. That’s a lot to learn about a character for fifteen minutes of work.

Some people swear by character profiles as a way of getting to know a character. Personally I find these too rigid. It’s too easy to get caught up in the details and not have the flexibility to change a character when needed. (She can’t be wearing a print skirt because I wrote right here that she prefers solids!) Doing writing exercises when I’m working on a revision, though, I find invaluable. Most of what I write stays in my notebook, but it allows me to know my characters and inform their choices as I go forward reworking the piece.

And if you prefer the character profiles, well, that’s okay, that’ll work, whatever you need.

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