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Writing Prompts

Flickr Creative Commons: Alan Cleaver

It’s a funny thing about my career that I never even attended a writing seminar before I published a novel. That doesn’t mean I didn’t study the craft in other ways—reading mostly, then a practice novel—but I didn’t do conferences, or critique groups, let alone an MFA.

I’ve often wondered if I missed something there. I mean, of course I know I did miss something. What I mean is something more in the vein of essential to my writing. Would I be the same writer today if I’d taken a different path? An unknowable question unless someone finally gets on inventing that time machine I’ve been asking for.

Since I’ve become a writer, I’ve attended many conferences and heard many people speak about writing and their process. But until last weekend, when I was at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference—a fantastic conference I highly recommend—I’d never done a group writing exercise. I ended up doing this in a class offered by Tiffanie Debartolo (God Shaped Hole, How to Kill a Rock Star), about using things from real life and turning it into fiction. Tiffanie didn’t mean write about yourself, the exercise she gave us was this: think of your father. Think of three characteristics he has. Now imagine a woman who works in a diner who has those three characteristics. She’s waiting for a customer to come in, one she has a crush on. Write the scene.

My curiosity was piqued. Something about this prompt sparked something in me. I wrote down three characteristics about my dad: drinking, mathematician, hates Celine Dion. And this is the scene I wrote in the ten minutes that was given:

Candice’s head hurt. You’d think that after all these years of drinking, she’d have the math down. Know her limits. But alcohol didn’t obey the rules of addition. Not with her anyway. So her stomach felt as if the inside had been ripped out and flipped over, and her mouth tasted like metal, and yet she was still excited.

 The bell above the diner door clinked. She hated that sound almost as much as the Celine Dion song playing through the speakers. Her eyes tracked to the door and there he was, the reason she came into work anyway today. Ben.

 She gave a little wave that he might have seen, but pretended not to. Or maybe he didn’t see it. God, she was a high school girl where this man was concerned, not the wizened forty she felt every morning as she promised herself that today, this day, would be the last day she drank.

 He sat at his usual table, and picked up the greasy menu, though he always ordered the same thing. Candice wanted to run to the bathroom for one last check of her face, but she knew she’d catch hell for that, so she walked over with her order pad and hoped her flipping stomach was now only the mark of anticipation, and not a sign that she should be heading to the bathroom after all.

 “Morning, Ben.”

 He glanced up in that slow way he had. She could hear his voice before he spoke. Precise. Smooth. She could imagine him whispering things to her in that voice if she ever managed to turn her fantasies into reality.

 “Candice, good to see you.” He smiled at her then and the butterflies calmed down. She was always this way. More nervous about the possibility of him than his actual presence.

 “The usual?”

 “Yep. And maybe you could get them to turn off this god-awful music?”

 This man was perfect.

 “What did you say?”

 Oh, god. That had been out loud, hadn’t it?

 “I’ll get right on that,” she said, but Ben caught up to what she’d been saying. She lifted a hand before he could speak. “Don’t,” she said. “It’s been a rough morning.”

 She peeled away from the table and put in his order. Then she turned in her apron and sneaked out the back.

This is not a scene I can use in my work in progress. It’s not something I’d write further. But it did teach me a valuable lesson: sometimes when you’re stuck you just need to transform a little slice of real life into fiction.

Will you play along with me? Try this exercise and post the result in the comments. Or do you have a writing prompt you like to you? Share it with us.

Write on.

About Catherine McKenzie [1]

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine is the author of 11 bestselling novels, including HIDDEN, THE GOOD LIAR, I’LL NEVER TELL and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME. Her most recent novel, SIX WEEKS TO LIVE, releases in Canada April 20 and the US May 4, 2021.