Saturday, March 19, 2011

Prompt Anatomy

Being a storyteller is like having telepathy; we're tuned into stuff that non-writers generally don't pick up. Things like words, images, music, dreams and life's random ephemera catch our attention and for some reason start the gears turning.

Having an extra/sixth sense is also the one major blip in our wiring that can create the most problems for us. Like telepaths we have to learn early on how to discard or block most of the unexpected inspiration that prompts story ideas, or we end up going crazy.

Sometimes you can't get rid of the prompt, and I've talked about how to manage that. I think the prompts themselves are interesting, too, because they're often very simple ordinary things that don't even register on other people's radar. Like my most recent additions to my story idea file:

You have done well made frozen.

This rather silly phrase came to me in a dream I had a few nights ago. I was back working as a bookkeeper (yes, it was a nightmare) and going through a massive printout on old green-bar dot matrix paper. These words were printed on a sheet toward the end, and for some reason jumped out at me. They had been deliberately inserted, I realized, a threat veiled as praise, and no, I can't explain how I knew that.

Reading words in a dream fascinates me, so if I can remember them when I wake up, I always write them down.

Everything from there was like a Tom Clancy novel with me racing around trying to prevent some nameless catastrophe, but when I woke up the words are what stuck with me. They were like something someone with not a great command of English would say, i.e. the old Zero Wing joke "All your base are belong to us." It felt like a puzzle I had to figure out, though, so I kept thinking What was done well? What was frozen? until I jotted down a vague idea for a story about extraterrestrial miners drilling to tap the core of a comet and unleashing a star eater.


This was the I'm-a-person-not-a-SPAMbot verification I had to type to post a comment over on Bill Peschel's blog. At first it replayed some pop songs from my teens in my head (the Brothers Johnson's Strawberry Letter #23 and R.B. Greaves's Take a Letter, Maria, both of which I loved.) I actually bought some strawberry-scented stationery once because of the Brothers Johnson. I'm pretty sure I used it to write a love letter to my boyfriend Rob, too.

It was the seventies. We did stuff like that. What? It was romantic.

Anyway, the phrase made me jump from teen memories to a story idea that would not leave me alone. Letters have been story prompts for centuries, but e-mail has slowly turned handwritten correspondence extinct, and it's not a big stretch to imagine a day someday soon when no one writes real letters anymore . . . unless they had to keep what was in the letter protected, or confidential. Some future grim government or joyless regime might go all Fahrenheit 451 to keep that from happening, until a martyred revolutionary's letters are discovered, and smuggled out to be copied over and over and distributed. What is contained in the 24th that would (naturally) be what takes down the letter-burners.

Letter #24 would definitely have to be strawberry-scented, though. As homage, the Brothers Johnson deserve no less.

Free Memory 387704

My guy jotted this down on a notepad he left on the workbench in the garage, and no doubt they relate to the available space on one of the energy management controllers he programs for his job. I have little sticky notes like this all over the house, and I'm afraid to throw them away in case they're something he needs for work.

The words Free Memory kept poking at me. What if some day our memories are taxed, or locked away, or held hostage? Would 387704 be the code that frees them? Or would citizen #387704 refuse to hand over their memories? I ended up writing down more questions than answers, but it seemed like something I'd really like to explore with story.

Light Output (Lumens) ~ Energy Used (Watts) ~ Life (Hours)

Words off the front of a Philips DuraMax flood light box value pack. We use the bulbs in motion sensor lights outside so that while I'm walking the pups in the dark I can see if any critters are hanging around in the yard. It's nice to know that I should get about a thousand illuminated dog walks out of these, but we really need to invest in some of the new extended-life LEDs (I'm already on a mission to replace all the old incandescent bulbs in the house with greener alternatives.)

If human beings were born with similar labeling, we'd have a world where babies came out coded with what they'd be able to do, how much it would cost and what their life expectancy is. As we continue to figure out the human genome, maybe someday we'll be able to predict some of those things while people are still in utero. But would it a good thing to know all that upfront? And what happens if someone outlives their expiration date?

You writers out there, what was one of your oddest prompts? Did you ever turn it into a story? Let us know in comments.


  1. OMGosh, I'm so glad I read this, I'm not a crazy person.
    There are times the same phrase just runs and runs in my brain till I get it down on paper. Sometimes I write it and it goes away and others it turns into thousands of words before I can stop writing.
    A picture or a person even a slightly heard conversation can get me going.
    My first book started this way. :)

  2. Well, I've had some odd prompts, but the one that came to mind was the phrase Out of the Mouth of Babes. I turned that into a short story that I need to rewrite at some point which was nothing like the phrase intended. I guess I was in a literal phase :).

    Interesting things in your idea folder. I've stopped writing ideas down for the most part because my ideas folder always grew and I never took anything from it. However, my nano this year was from my ideas folder, an old idea from 1995 I think.

  3. Years ago I was in my doctor's office and a sign on the wall gave me the title for my Nano book that year: "Please Bring All of Your Medications with You."

  4. We were having the house painted last fall and I had to go through a gazillion color strips. My brain almost fried from the brilliant names. I lost track for a bit and just started writing them down, totally forgetting I was supposed to be looking for house and trim colors, not writing a dozen books in my head.
    Here are just a few:
    Winter's Breath - Midnight Moondance
    Misted Glade - Silk Sails
    Sleep Baby Sleep - Phantom Mist

  5. The last one reminds me of CJ Cherryh's Cyteen. While not exactly the same, it deals with genetic engineering and predetermination. An excellent sci-fi novel.

  6. Everything I've written has come from some weird fixation, from song lyrics to tabloid headlines to facts stumbled over in history or physics books. Many more are in the idea files. Much better to channel it all into fiction than to risk turning into a person with a tin foil helmet.

  7. Animal Planet. Story about a girl being rescued by lions. Happened in Africa. I remember hearing just the shortest blip of it-she was about 13-ish? Was kidnapped (presumably) to be married off but for some reason, lions come upon where the kidnappers were holding her and either chased them off/killed them/held them at bay? Can't remember. Just remember the lions saved her and then guarded her until police arrived to rescue her.

    It turned into a story-it's one of my Hunter novellas-granted, I made the lions shapeshifters, and it's not in Africa. But still.

  8. Anonymous9:57 AM

    Oh, dreams...the idea for my first short story, Operation: T-Rex, came to in a dream. A really freaky dream, if I do say so myself. In the end, the actual story changed a LOT from the dream, but it gave me the basic concept, and even the name came from the dream.


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