In Misery, Stephen King wrote

[Paul] understood what he was doing now as TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA. TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA wasn’t the same thing as GETTING AN IDEA. GETTING AN IDEA was a more humble way of saying I am inspired, or Eureka! My muse has spoken!

This other process – TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA – was nowhere near as exalted or exalting, but it was every bit as mysterious… and every bit as necessary. Because when you were writing a novel you almost always got roadblocked somewhere, and there was no sense in trying to go on until you’d HAD AN IDEA.

When you’re TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA, especially if you’re not in the middle of a novel with established characters and an existing roadblock, prompts can be a fantastic way to get unstuck. But using a prompt to HAVE AN IDEA for a story and participating in a prompted writing challenge are two different things.

So buckle up, kids, because Aunt Rowan’s about to take you on a wild ride down Things I Have Learned While Judging Prompted Writing Challenges Road. All these lessons came, not solely from my brain, but from discussions in various judging forums. Which should be “fora” but that’s another rant entirely.

The other side of the table

Why should you even care what judges think of your prompted writing?

Well, if you’ve entered a prompted writing competition, that’s who decides whether you advance to the next round and how you place. So having some insight into the way prompts are designed and how judges look at your prompted work will help you.

If you’ve ever taken an exam prep course, you’ve heard something like “doing well on this exam is 60% knowing the right answer and 40% knowing how the tests are designed.” It’s the same thing with prompted writing competitions. You might be the best writer in the world, but if you’re not giving the judges what they’re looking for, they can’t give you a good score on that writing. And being able to metagame the competition a little bit is always useful. Is the prompt a character? The competition is probably not trying to test you on how well you describe settings, but on how well you get into the character’s head. Focus on that in your writing and editing, even if you’re the best scene-describer that ever lived.

So what are judges looking for?

  • The goal of a prompted writing challenge is to write a story, poem, or whatever the challenge is for (I’m going to say story for the rest of this post), using the prompt. It is not to see how far you can get from the prompt while not getting disqualified. You can write stories not using the prompt all day on your own time; the goal of the challenge is to use it.
  • It is significantly harder to write a story with the prompt front and center than it is to write a story with the prompt shoved to one side. Sure, you got the prompt in there, good for you, but the real art of a prompted challenge is to get the prompt into the spotlight without it appearing forced or anomalous in your story. Judges know this, and they’re more impressed when you do the hard thing than the easy thing.
  • It is significantly harder to write a story with a common plot or theme well and in an engaging way than it is to write a collection of random ideas. That is, if you’re really looking to challenge yourself as a writer, write that first story that occurs to you, even if you think it’s the one everyone else will think of too, and write it well. If you’re not looking for a challenge, go ahead and get cute with the prompt, make that story with the prompt “dog” about a goldfish named “dog” or about someone who wants to visit the dog in the moon. But the judges know what you did there, and they know you were trying to make it easy on yourself.
  • The quality of your writing still matters. That is, you can have the best ideas in the world, but you still have to execute them skillfully to do well in the challenge. Don’t spend so much time TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA that you forget to write and edit. The saddest comment I’ve ever seen in a forum is “I wish another writer had had this idea so that I could read the story this wants to be instead of the story it is.”
  • Listen when the challenge authors make suggestions. They’re not trying to trick you. If they say “we’re looking for…” they’re going to be looking for it. Including when they read and score your work. Most challenges give the judges a set of guidelines for reading and scoring, and those guidelines include what the writers have been encouraged to consider and incorporate. Move away from those suggestions at your own peril.
  • Your summary, if there is one, matters. That’s how you set the judge’s expectations for the story. A good summary includes just enough information that the reader can identify the character they’re supposed to follow and the problem the character needs to solve, while ideally creating some engagement with the character and setting. If your summary includes information that isn’t in the story, the judge is going to be disappointed. If the summary is for some other story than the one you wrote, the judge is going to be disappointed. I’ve seen summaries that used characters’ names that never appeared in the story. I’ve seen summaries that reiterated the entire plot of the story, including the twist, and still did it better than the following 1500 words of story. Don’t be any of those writers.
  • Every prompted writing challenge has some sort of scoring rubric, and “did the prompt just get jammed onto an existing story” is on it in one form or another. That means when you put the prompt in your story, try to write the story in such a way that the prompt is an obvious and necessary part of it. If the prompt is a car, that might mean the whole story takes place in one, or is about buying one, or is a car chase or the aftermath of an accident. If you jam one paragraph about crossing a street into a story, when there’s no reason for the character to even be crossing the street, the judges may start to suspect that you have a library of prewritten stories and you stuff a sentence or two about the prompt in them and hope for the best instead of HAVING AN IDEA. Since the whole point of prompted challenges is to test your ability to HAVE AN IDEA and then execute it, you don’t want judges to think that about you.
  • The more prompts you try to jam into the space, the less complete your use of any of them will be. When people design prompts, they generally prepare a prompt set that they expect to fill the space allowed. That is, if someone has designed a challenge with three object prompts, and you go out online looking for a fourth prompt, you’ve now got prompt sets that would be enough to tell two complete stories and you’re trying to jam all that information into the space you need to tell one story well. Especially if you’re using similar prompts. Something’s gonna give, and that something will probably be the quality of the story you tell. Just sit with one prompt set for a while. Go for a walk. Take a shower. Want more Stephen King advice? “[Paul’s] usual procedure when it was necessary to HAVE AN IDEA was to put on his coat and go for a walk. If he didn’t need to HAVE AN IDEA, he took a book when he went for a walk. He recognized walking as good exercise, but it was boring. If you didn’t have someone to talk to while you walked, a book was a necessity. But if you needed to HAVE AN IDEA, boredom could be to a roadblocked novel what chemotherapy was to a cancer patient.” Get that? Boredom. Not more prompts. (Or think of when you were a child and you mixed all the different flavors of soda from the soda machine to make a “suicide” where the only flavor was “sweet” – just me?)
  • If the prompt is a word or sentence, it should sound like you wrote it. That seems backward, right? But the only piece of writing of yours the judges have is the story in front of them. So the way to really incorporate that prompt is to write the rest of the story as though you were a writer who would also use that word or phrase or structure. I used to write for a challenge that gave you a sentence to use as your opening sentence; so many people would just put that sentence at the front of their piece and then write something that had nothing to do with the sentence. Sometimes the rest of the story was in a completely different tense than the sentence. Sometimes the sentence was something like “but soft: what light through yonder window breaks?” and then the rest of the story was written in colloquial modern English. When I started judging that challenge instead of participating in it, I discovered my suspicion was right all along: those stories were losing points on prompt use.
  • Don’t think you know better than the people who designed the prompts. This isn’t the time to push the limit of what a prompt might mean, or the edges of a genre, or to explore the difference between a mistake and a deliberate act that a character plans to claim is a mistake. You can write all those stories! And you should! But you should write them in other times and other places than a prompted challenge. Trust me. It’s hard enough to write squarely in the center of what the prompt might mean. If that’s not hard for you, and you think you’re bored with the prompt and want to do something else, you might be in the wrong place; you might want a more open challenge with fewer rules, or to submit to sites or magazines that favor the genre you like to write in. But, and put your ego aside for a minute, if you honestly think you’re going to appear to the judges as a better writer than someone who wrote in the center of the prompt, you’re probably wrong. It really is harder to use the prompt than to do your own thing.
  • Prompts aren’t there to stifle your creativity. Just like there are a million cooking shows where the chef can do their own thing, there are a million competitions out there where you can write whatever you want. On the other hand, prompted competitions are like Iron Chef. The trick is to incorporate that secret ingredient – the prompt – into an awesome final product, not to make an awesome final product where the judges can’t locate the ingredient. (The octopus episode still freaks me out; I’m sorry, but watching a live octopus go into an ice cream maker is the stuff of my childhood nightmares.)

TL;dr

Need a summary? Use the prompt. Use it thoroughly, center it in your work. Don’t try to get cute or appear original; if an original idea doesn’t come to you smoothly, you’re going to end up with a worse story by looking for one than you will if you just use the unoriginal idea but write it and edit it well. Don’t stretch the prompt: stretch yourself instead.

This isn’t fun yet. I came here to have fun.

Still trying to HAVE AN IDEA? Here are some prompts. Roll a die to choose one from each column. Go take a walk. Get bored enough to write a story. And then feel free to slap on a footnote saying “working with three prompts from Yeah Write’s monthly slam: [prompts]” but remember that goes into your 750 word count.

Characters

  1. A talking animal
  2. A scientist with too much money
  3. A person who has recently moved far away from their previous home
  4. A child who has two very different parents
  5. The third character that appears in your favorite childhood story (fairy tale, legend, fable, religious stories count)
  6. A person who is never identified by gender

Settings

  1. A railway – train or platform
  2. A building more than 40 stories tall
  3. A stage
  4. The street where you grew up
  5. A town you have never been to (can be in a different country)
  6. A very small mountain

Finishing touches

  1. A ceremony involving liquid
  2. A song that is also a prophecy
  3. A UFO appears, but it’s full of ordinary people
  4. Three thousand birds
  5. Hearing voices that don’t speak the listener’s language
  6. A painting that can’t be seen

Just kidding; I wasn’t done

As you look at those prompts, try to look at them the way a judge would. Let’s take one from each column and do that for a second.

Character: I rolled that D6 (that’s an ordinary die, for those of you who aren’t gamer nerds) and came up with “a child who has two very different parents.” If I were judging that competition, I’d be looking for a writer who did more with “different” than “one parent is white and one is black” or “one is rich and one is poor.” Using race or class as a shortcut to describe a range of characteristics is both lazy and racist or classist. As a judge I’d be more interested in reading about two parents who disagreed on important things, had different experiences, different preferences, etc. Because fun fact, it’s quite possible to have a black person and a white person who come from similar backgrounds and have similar experiences and preferences and ideas. They may encounter the world in different ways based on externalities, but they’re not all that different as characters in a story, and you’d have to prove their differences to me as a judge in a better way than using their skin color as a shortcut.

Setting: I didn’t bother to roll for this one because I want to tell you a secret. If you’re writing about somewhere you’ve never been, do at least some superficial research into it because you cannot guarantee that none of your judges has been there. A few competitions ago a writer submitted a story that was literally set in one of the judges’ small hometown. And described the town and its layout so poorly that the judge could tell the writer hadn’t even bothered to look the place up on Google Maps. Don’t be that writer. That writer lost a lot of points. Judges try to be impartial, but they’re also human, and once you’ve proven to a judge that you haven’t done research in one area, they get a lot more skeptical of the rest of your story too.

Finishing touches: Oh wow, there’s so much I could say about all of these, but I rolled a 3, the UFO full of ordinary people. When you’re writing “ordinary people” think about what ordinary means to you and what it might mean to the judge. Are all your “ordinary” people straight white men? Statistically, that’s not actually “ordinary.” Are they all women of color? Statistically that’s not ordinary either. So you’re going to have to give some thought to what makes these people ordinary. Some inventive places you might take it: they’re physically extraterrestrials but they think and act like people you already know; they’re exactly like the people who encounter the UFO; they’re exact statistical averages of humanity (look up what that means; it might not be what you think it looks or sounds like).

I have no idea what story I’d write with these ingredients, but it would be fun to roll the dice one Sunday and find out if I could make a story by the time the grid closed on Wednesday. Try it… you might like it too!