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Writing Prompt #14: From Mundane to Insane

August 9, 2010

The title for this prompt certainly explains my own life-trajectory, but . . .

Just wanted to share with you, and a million thanks to Justin for his amazing, in-depth writing prompts!

This prompt is inspired by a well-known torture technique from the Writers of the Future workshops.  It probably wasn’t original to Algis Budrys – my favorite Clarion instructor – who introduced the prompt at the Writers of the Future workshops where he was the head judge for many years. It’s important to ask someone else for help to get the full benefit of this prompt, which is meant to get you thinking in unconventional ways.  If you “cheat” and pick an object for yourself, it won’t truly provide the full, random, imagination-activating effect.

Prompt:  Ask a friend or relative to pick a small object at random and give it to you to use for a while.  Once you receive the item, your job is to write about what you imagine its use or purpose would be in an “otherworldly” context.  The traditional interpretation is to use the item in a science fictional context, but there is no reason to not describe the item as an object that could be of use in a fantasy world.  However, if they give you something like a wallet, coffee mug or a paper clip, try to imagine a completely different context or use – “the man took money out of the wallet” or “the woman drank coffee from the cup” defeats this prompt purpose.

Context: To get an idea of how this simple activity can generate ideas that can turn into stories or provide background for longer works, at a Writers of the Future Workshop, I received my own Altoids mint tin as the object.  Being the literal individual that I am, I took inspiration from the folded paper and the “Callard & Bowser” history printed on it inside the empty tin.  The story I wrote was called “Mad for the Mints,” which was later published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  It involved a couple of aliens addicted to curiously-strong mints, Mad King George, and a talking horse named Phutatorius. This story could be an early “steampunk” mashup, or in my case – more likely evidence of mental illness.

You can read the results of this type of thinking at Book View Cafe for free, and my regular blog (since 2008) is Incipit Vita Nova, which means “Enter a New Life” in Latin.  Here’s my take on antediluvian Clarion – see you next week!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2010 7:50 am

    Algis Budrys gave me useful feedback long ago when I was an honorary mention in the Writers for the Future Contest. His name invokes fond memories. The exercise you describe reminds me of a story from the making of Star Trek. Apparently, prop guys were failing to provide suitably alien looking plant life for a set. So the producer (?) tore up a potted plant by the roots, turned it upside down, stuck it back in the pot leaves first, and said something along the lines of “There, getting the idea now?”

    • August 9, 2010 10:37 am

      What a great story, Lynda – I hadn’t heard that about Star Trek, but it’s a perfect example of looking at a commonplace object in a different way.

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