Writer, tutor, editor and Festival Curator, Meg Pokrass, is well known for her highly inventive prompts which she generously shares on Facebook and also offers in her popular online workshops. Some of the unusual prompt images she’s posted on her site are reproduced here. As well as co-running a workshop on the novella-in-flash at the Festival with Jude Higgins and participating in a panel chaired by Michael Loveday on the novella-in-flash with Bath Flash Fiction novella winners, Charmaine Wilkerson, Ellie Walsh and Johanna Robinson, Meg is running a prompt workshop on the Sunday. And if you haven’t read Meg’s work, Alligators at Night, her latest book of flash fictions, is available in a paperback from the Ad Hoc Fiction bookshop and in ebook format on Kindle or Nook. And do read Meg’s ten writing tips at the end of the post, to think more about your flash. There’s some great prompts included within this list.
- Jude: You are well known for your highly inventive prompts. Just the other day on your Twitter feed you suggested this as writing prompt of the day “write about a seemingly boring, predictable life-moment, but use the phrase “cold hands” at least once and use the word “backwards” three times in your first draft.” Clearly, you have a reason for the repetition idea. Can you tell us more?
Meg: By repeating a phrase when writing a first draft, a writer will often find a rhythm, or heartbeat. And I find that using a repeated phrase helps the writer dig for interesting material right out of the gate. All of this allows for an exciting sense of creative freedom. I like to think of repetition like this as an engine for the way to find the story that wants to be told.However, with this particular prompt, the one you mention here, I threw in the idea of repetition with an off-kilter word, “backwards”, as a way to add some immediate sense of conflict. If you’re using the word “backwards” 3 times, something about the situation is probably not as simple as it seems.
- Jude: Do you always use prompts to spark your own writing?
Most of us, consciously or not, use prompts or “sparks” to get ourselves going. A prompt can be something as simple as an overheard snippet of conversation, a shopping list, a worry…
- Jude: Which, in your opinion, is the most successful story you have written from a prompt?
Meg: ‘I Married This’, soon to be reprinted by Craft Magazine, is an example of a story written to a prompt. I wrote my entire first collection, Damn Sure Right, to various prompts I made up and assigned myself.
- Jude: I love the lists of usually about ten random words you sometimes give on FaceBook to incorporate into a story. I have been writing to such lists for the last few weeks now with some success. Any thoughts on why this prompt can result in a good story?
Meg: That’s great Jude! So glad you’re experimenting with that. Using random words truly does something mysterious to the creative brain. It stretches the writer’s openness to what might happen while writing the first draft. By forcing oneself to make sense of cut-ups or completely random words (it hardly matters which ones) we find ourselves in places we didn’t previously have access to. All of a sudden, wild new possibilities open up.
- Jude: You run frequent and popular online courses which include all sorts of prompts. Can you tell us a bit more about them and what happens? We know that writers have been very successful in placing stories that have started in the groups.
Meg: Recent success stories first! Thank you Jude. 3 student stories from my online workshop from 2018 were selected for Best Small Fictions! And 85 (or more) publications which resulted from stories which started in my classes in magazines like Smokelong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, Wigleaf, Cincinatti Review, Atticus Review. These are the best flash magazines in the world. I’m so proud of my students, and of what has been happening. With my online courses there is no pressure with signing up. I have an open-door policy, which is what I do think sets mine apart. If a student wants to take one of my courses, I will make room for them even if I have to create a few different groups in order to accommodate everyone. I give myself enough time to do this. My classes are supportive, affordable and I always encourage risk taking. Most of my students are return participants. I couldn’t be happier about how things have been going.
- Jude: Can you give us a preview of your hour long prompt workshop at the festival?
Meg: It will be work generative and fun. I’m going to bring in my strangest and most popular prompts. I’ll be giving out a new prompt every 10 minutes.
Jude: And we’d love a prompt to get people in the mood for when they come to the Flash Fiction Festival
Meg: I’ll ask the participants to launch into a quickly written story beginning with an obscure character observation such as how a character greets their cat.
To give potential workshop students a bit more to think about, here are some of my favourite flash writing tips:
1.Unusual Details: Make characters out of obscure traits, for example, how do they greet their cat? What is their favourite film… and why?
2.Create Conflict: Bother your characters, provide a good deal of trouble. Don’t let them get there too easily. Make sure something in their POV shifts by the end of the story.
3.Childhood Nickname: Make up a nickname that your main character had as a child. Don’t tell the reader what it is, but keep it in mind while writing your story. This may sound strange, but our childhood embarrassments often shadow adulthood.
4.Sexy Elf Logic: If there’s an elf in your story, go ahead and make them sexy, but give him some issues. I mean, if you are a sexy elf, you’re going to come with some psychological baggage. No matter how fantastical a character is, make them real.
5.Woe Is Me: Readers don’t like characters who sit around feeling hurt by the world and wallowing in it. Instead, they care about characters who, despite all of the difficulty life has thrown them, are finding ways to thrive.
6.Crisis/Advantage: When something very hard has happened in your life, use it. Let something similar happen to your character. Disguise it. Dismantle it. Here we can finally make use of the stuff that hurts. This will help your fiction.
7.Sex in Flash: A character’s unique relationship to sex is far more interesting than writing about lusty characters having sex all over the place. If there is sex in a story, don’t hit us over the head with it.
8.Trust the Reader: The quickest way to lose a reader’s trust is to tell them what you mean. After you’re done writing your story, go through and get rid of any places where you are trying to explain what is happening in the story. Instead, let the reader see what’s happening by your very specific use of unusual detail and a banquet full of sensory information. Anton Chekhov said it this way: “Don’t tell me that the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
9.Follow the Love: Follow the trail of messy love wherever it takes your characters, even if the love is invisible to the eye, and especially if it makes no sense.
10.Cultivate a Sense of the Ridiculous: Everything that really matters to your character is also somewhat ridiculous when looked at from a different perspective. Don’t take yourself (or your characters) too seriously when writing fiction. Make the stakes high, but let a ray of ironic humour shine through.