In the spring of 2015, I was beginning to emerge from the midst of a post-publication funk. Since the release of my debut novel the year before, I’d been swept up in the thrills and disappointments of book marketing, and after several abandoned projects I spent a long quiet winter simply reading.
Giving myself permission not to write had the desired effect; come spring I felt ready to dust the cobwebs from my creative brain and begin again. But the ideas wouldn’t come. Staring at the blank page day after day, I began to fear they never would.
My breakthrough came in the form of a prompt provided by my son, then seven years old. We were taking our evening walk around the neighborhood, hand in hand, and I confided to him that I’d been struggling with ideas for my writing and did he have any good ones? “Just give me a title,” I said, “and I’ll write you a story.”
It was a bold promise in the face of my persistent writer’s block, but that’s what I needed—accountability and conviction. I also hoped to tap into the unselfconscious well of creativity that all children possess and that makes writing fiction so much fun. I knew that my seven-year-old wouldn’t say “I don’t know,” or “I just can’t think of anything,” because kids can always think of something. And mine did: when I asked him for the title to my next story, he said, without hesitation, “The Shell of Light.”
“Okay,” I said. “’The Shell of Light’ it is.”
The title sounded ominous and ghostly, and its weirdness intrigued me. I imagined something dark—a tale meant for Halloween. I pictured a boy my son’s age, and a night out trick-or-treating that goes horribly wrong. I pictured a conch shell that emitted not the sound of the ocean but the sound of screams. I pictured a haunted house, girls who disappeared in the night, another girl with a black heart who gets what’s coming to her in the end.
Not exactly a kid’s story, but at least, finally, I had something. Soon I was writing again, not only “The Shell of Light,” but other stories; in fact, in six weeks’ time I wrote more than 30,000 words of new fiction. I wrote about a woman who finds her childhood diary and decides to rewrite her past, about a boy with a terrible secret who steals away at night to meet a girl beneath a willow tree—only to discover she has a secret of her own, about a father going through a divorce who witnesses a seemingly impossible motorcycle accident and is forced to question everything he thought was real.
One idea led to another that led to another. Of course, not all of them turned out the way I’d originally envisioned. Ideas often come in black and white, but the writing always finds shades of gray. In “The Shell of Light,” for example, my black-hearted antagonist wasn’t quite so simple, and neither was her fate. Characterization superseded plot, forcing me to change the title that had kickstarted my inspiration. Now that story is called “The Lost Girls.” It won runner-up in a contest last year and was published this Halloween in YA Review Net (YARN). My son, now eleven, is still not allowed to read it, but maybe in a few more years. He doesn’t mind waiting, or the fact that his title changed.
The important thing is that his odd little string of random words unlocked my imagination. Prompts do that, and it’s because they’re restrictive—they give a writer something to visualize and work with. In his book of essays Zen in the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury discusses how, when he was a fledgling writer in his early twenties, he began making lists of titles: The Lake, The Crown, The Fog Horn, The Carnival. He would then choose one of these titles, free-write for a page or two until he discovered the story, and then he would write the story. Sometimes, as in the case of The Carnival, he wrote a book.
Another beloved author, R.L. Stine (creator of the children’s horror series Goosebumps), has written over 300 books in his 30-year career. When asked where he gets his seemingly never-ending wealth of ideas, he reveals that he always starts with a title—just a title—and from there he builds the story.
Essentially, he gives himself a prompt.
It’s been four years since my post-publication dry spell and I’m happy to say that I’ve never suffered from writer’s block like that again. Never sat before a computer screen day after day and agonized over the blinking cursor on a blank page. Never sat at the coffee shop for an hour with a pencil poised over an unmarked notebook, convinced I had nothing to say. I’ve gone through periods where I didn’t feel like writing and allowed myself time off—weeks, months even. But it was intentional, something that felt healthy and needed at the time. If I’m ever at a loss for ideas, I simply pick a word, a phrase, or even an image, and begin to free-write. Knowing the prompt will lead me to the story and trusting the story enough to follow.