26 April 2018

Using writing tasks and prompts to get through writer’s block

Online novel writing course
by Katie Smart From Our Students, Writing Tips

Students of our 6-week online courses: Starting to Write Your Novel and Write to the End of Your Novel with Curtis Brown Creative MD Anna Davis get lots of helpful tips and tricks geared towards writers stuck in at various points of their novel faced with the dreaded (yet infamously inevitable) writer’s block. Throughout the courses Anna sets a number of writing tasks to help them get their writing moving again focusing on issues such as active planning, pace, suspense and character motivation. 

One of the easiest ways to conquer the writing block beast might sound paradoxical … it is just to write – write anything – take your characters and play with ideas that might not ever end up in your manuscript. You can find lots of writing prompts online both text prompts and visual ones (any interesting photo can give you a way into a compelling scene) and we suggest that you put together a collection of prompts that you like the look of and have them on hand as a resource: every time you sit down and struggle to get into your writing, you can take one of these prompts and make yourself write to it just letting the words flow without stopping to think or getting snarled up. Write for 10 minutes and see where it gets you. If you like what you’ve written, you can work it up some more. And you might just find it helps you get back into your novel. 

On our six-week online creative writing courses we have lots of tasks which are set to help you push through the block but you can also find plenty of writing prompts if you just take a look online. We’re sharing with you here two interesting scenes written by our students as part of a writing task from a recent course. Students were tasked with having one of their characters pack a suitcase. The task shows only the packing of the case and the writer isn’t allowed to say why the character is packing or where they’re going. The writing challenge here is to convey as much of this information as possible without specifically stating it. We really liked these scenes, and we hope you will too: 

Sarah Topley

Josh memorised the return address and folded the mysterious letter up, carefully putting it back in the flimsy envelope. He had to pack. Now. A quick glance at his watch – twenty minutes until his uncle would be home. Just enough time. He seized his school rucksack, emptied out the books and set to work. First, he tucked the letter with his wallet, phone and keys in the front pocket. Next, a change of clothes was hurriedly grabbed from the dresser, underwear – how many pairs? Three will do – toothbrush, toothpaste and phone charger were all thrown in. Umbrella? No, a poncho’s easier. There was one under the bed from his last camping trip. In it went, scrunched hastily into a tight wad.

He eyed the hand-made ukulele in the corner. He could survive without it but it wasn’t very heavy. And it could be useful. Or reassuring. Gently placed in its case, he strapped it with a bungee cord (also useful!) to the back of the pack. The Swiss army knife and a tiny lock-picking kit were the last things he grabbed from the room. Saul had always told him never to go anywhere without them. A quick dip into his savings tin and that was that.

Saul’s room had to be raided though. Ignoring the wave of guilt, Josh plucked the A-Z from the bookshelves that filled the largest wall. He hesitated, knowing his uncle had a near-photographic memory. He quickly swapped and moved as many books as possible, attempting to disguise which was missing. Sloppy. But it might buy some time. He filched a faded oyster card from the bedside drawer, fairly sure that it wouldn’t be missed amongst the random clutter of business cards, buttons, shoelaces and other oddities inside. Unsure why, he grabbed some spare shoelaces too. The loot was added to the rucksack.

Racing to the kitchen, he swiped the train timetable from the fridge door. A packet of mixed nuts and some dark chocolate from the back of a cupboard were nabbed, along with some fruit from the plentiful bowl on the table. Finding an old metal flask, which smelled a bit musty, he rinsed it and filled it with water.

Lastly, he scribbled a quick note on the back on an envelope – lying about spending a few days at a mate’s house. He deliberately didn’t say who. Saul would worry, but not too much. Hopefully. There’d still be hell to pay when he got back, of course. But Josh didn’t care. He was too full of nervous excitement. He looked up at the clock. Less than five minutes to spare – he’d need to run to the tree line to make sure he couldn’t be seen from the driveway or road.

Without pausing to look back, he shut the door behind him and set off.

Alexandra Stopford

The case – an ancient leather one – crackled when she eventually opened it; the tarnished clasp was stiff and the lining material was beginning to disintegrate. She caught a whiff of her father who had used it as a sort of briefcase. It had a faded tartan interior and a torn pocket with an elastic opening, although it had long since lost its purpose in life and hung open like a gaping mouth. It was not really suitable for her needs, but it was the only case she could find in a hurry.

Her hands shook as she opened the drawer and saw the clutter of clothes, grabbing almost randomly, holding them up to see if they were suitable, then discarding those that weren’t onto the floor. On this pile went a pair of shorts, rejected as far too revealing, a bright yellow t-shirt (hideous), a thong type contraption; she had no idea how or where she’d got it from, and a pair of dungarees which made her look like a sack of potatoes.

She went instead for a light coloured pair of linen type trousers, nice baggy ones, which would be comfortable in the heat, a couple of t-shirts that were long enough to use as dresses or a nightie, a long skirt and her black swimming costume which had those pleats, supposedly to disguise the lumps and bumps. Just in case they weren’t going somewhere hot, she bunged in a couple of jumpers, removing one as it took up too much space. She couldn’t resist the ancient sweatshirt her mum had bought her, despite the logo, ‘Girls just want to have Fun’ emblazoned across the chest. Pink wasn’t her colour, it drained her face, but at least it would be a reminder, when she felt homesick. Should she bother with a bra? She decided not to, they just ended up sweaty and uncomfortable. Her Bridget Jones knickers were a given and a couple of pairs of mismatched socks (no one would care) completed the ensemble.

Heading to the bathroom she opened the medicine cabinet and picked out a first aid kit that seemed to be missing most of its contents. She found a very old insect bite cream which, when she pressed the tube, at first refused to come out and then spurted all over the mirror. Tampons, of course, but how many to take? She only had one box, which was too bulky, so removed them, cramming the individual tampons in amongst her clothes. They looked rather like mini hand grenades. A towel was essential, she always used one to wrap around her when swimming, flinging it off just as she entered the water. There was little room left, but enough for some pain-killers, a comb and her toothbrush. Looking at her watch, her panic mounted. What about practical things, they might need to cut down bamboo. She ran to the kitchen, got two knives of different sizes and a large pair of scissors, grabbing some suntan cream from the ‘cupboard of doom’ at the same time. A notebook caught her eye and she retrieved that and a packet of pens. They wouldn’t take up too much space.

She wondered how she’d ever close the case, didn’t dare sit on it and ended up using an old belt to secure it. She pushed the clasp into the locking bit, glanced at the pile of clothes on the floor, wondering who would find them, picked up the case and headed out the door.

If you’re struggling with writer’s block you might benefit from our 6-week online courses: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel or Edit & Pitch Your Novel.

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