Writing Prompts – Inspiration or Cop-out?

By H. Adam Ruffalo
Assistant Editor, FewerThan500

All writing develops from an inspiration. Inspiration can take many forms – a dream, a scene witnessed in public, a memory, and even writing prompts. Some writers are opposed to using writing prompts and claim the author has not used his or her own imagination to arrive at a unique, individualistic work. In his article The Last Writing Prompt You Will Ever Need, Jeff Goins expresses his dislike for writing prompts: “I don’t do writing prompts. They’re a pointless waste of time and energy. Why? Because prompts are for people who don’t know what to write. They’re a distraction — a way to trick yourself into writing when you don’t know what to say. And frankly, you can do better than that.” Mr. Goins, don’t hold back. Please tell us how you really feel.

A purist like Alfonso Colasuonno claims that all motivation and creativity must come from within. “Creative writers delve into their head to produce their stories. To write based on a prompt, in my experience, does not produce good writing. Rather, the writing that usually results from these prompts tends to be stale.” You can read more from Mr. Colasuonno on this topic here. I find it interesting to note The Literary Game website is on indefinite hiatus. Hmm…

Well, balderdash I say! Let inspiration come in any form if it means I can break through my writer’s block and actually get something down on the blank page that stares back at me, mocking me. I have sat in a café for hours watching others in order to hone my skills at building a character’s backstory. I have watched episode after episode of “The Twilight Zone” to improve my ability to blend science fiction, eeriness, and surprise endings. I have also created my own character but placed her in the setting of a novel written by one of my favorite authors, Stephen King. Without a doubt, my best inspiration has always come from writing prompts.

May-HarrisBurdickSince I am only a small-time writer who has only self-published her work, I felt my point would be more valid if I could find proof of some well-known, widely read, influential authors who have written to prompts. This jogged a memory of a truly unique book that I was introduced to in graduate school, “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.” Chris Van Allsburg, the book’s author and illustrator, is probably best known for his Christmas tale “The Polar Express,” but “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” is far different. It has 14 different story titles followed by a one- to two-sentence caption for a full-page pencil and charcoal drawing depicting an unusual scene. This was my first introduction to writing prompts.

Many years later, I discovered a different version entitled “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick;” this version has a short story written for each title, caption and drawing. Thirteen of the tales are not penned by Van Allsburg but by such renowned authors as Tabitha and Stephen King, children’s writers Louis Sachar, Lois Lowry, and Kate DiCamillo, cartoonist Jules Feiffer and “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire, to name a few. Would these 14 authors have written to the prompts in “Harris Burdick” if they didn’t believe in the worthwhile exercise of writing to a prompt?

After recently purchasing my own copy of “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick,” I feel stronger than ever that writing prompts are not a cop-out for an uninspired writer, rather they can be used as an inspiration, a challenge and a way to vary one’s writing style and themes. I encourage all writers to glance through the pages of either version of “Harris Burdick” and try, just try, not to be inspired.

It’s a Great Time to Be a Flash Fiction Writer

By Kevin Moriarity
Managing Editor, FewerThan500

This is a wonderful time to be a flash fiction writer!

The period between the 1920s and the 1940s were a golden era for short fiction. Many “pulp” magazines existed for writers of short-form works, paying writers for both short stories and serialized novels.

Michael Ashley, author of “The History of the Science Fiction Magazine,” wrote:

“The Second World War paper shortages had a serious impact on pulp production, starting a steady rise in costs and the decline of the pulps. Beginning with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1941, pulp magazines began to switch to digest size; smaller, thicker magazines. In 1949, Street & Smith closed most of their pulp magazines in order to move upmarket and produce slicks.

The pulp format declined from rising expenses, but even more due to the heavy competition from comic books, television, and the paperback novel.”

The number of magazines that published fiction (and paid writers) dwindled and only a handful exist now.

kindleThe digital publishing revolution and evolving reading habits, however, have changed everything for flash fiction writers!

Traditional publishers still have a very limited interested  in story collections from new writers, but it’s never been easier for a writer to create and publish their own collection of flash fiction.

There are two major factors favoring a resurgence in short-form writing.

Short Attention Spans

Lifestyle and technology have caused attention spans to decrease drastically. People are busier than ever. Technology has gotten smaller – more and more people read almost exclusively on mobile devices. In an article published in the October 28, 2013 edition of The Wire, Alexander Abad-Santos wrote:

“Our ADHD-ish lives are helping this recognition along too. In addition to TLDR disclaimers, we’re also a people who have developed strategies to avoid watching commercials during hour-long shows, and rely on brief text messages instead of phone calls. Smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices have all equaled the playing field…”

TLDR – that means “Too Long, Didn’t Read.” In the age of Twitter, that acronym pretty much says it all.


A short attention span, combined with the digital publishing revolution provides an excellent opportunity for flash fiction writers to publish in the Technology Age.

Julian Gough wrote in an article published in The Guardian:

“Writers can seldom express ideas ‘at their natural length’, because in the world of traditional print only a few lengths are commercially viable. Write too long, and you’ll be told to cut it (as Stephen King was when “The Stand” came in too long to be bound in paperback). Worse, write too short, and you won’t get published at all. Your perfect story is 50 pages long – or 70, or 100? Good luck getting that printed anywhere.

Hence the revolution. Because the new length exploits this hole in traditional publishing.

The hole has existed for 500 years; it’s baked into the print model. The high fixed overheads of book production – printing, binding, warehousing and distributing a labour-intensive physical object – have tended to make books of fewer than 100 pages too expensive for the customer.”

E-books to the rescue!

Roberto A. Ferdman wrote in Quartz:

“For evidence, look no further than the rise of digital publishing. The most prominent example is Amazon’s Kindle Singles program, launched in 2011, which has proven popular and lucrative for Amazon and authors alike. The program, which publishes both fiction and nonfiction short enough to be consumed in under two hours, allows authors to pocket up to 70percent of royalties, compared to the 8 percent to 15 percent traditionally paid for novels.

In May (2013), the Times reported that Amazon had sold nearly 5 million Kindle Singles in just over two years since its launch. Roughly 28 percent of Amazon Kind Single had sold more than 10,000 copies as of May; nearly 8 percent had sold over 50,000 copies.”

And since 2013, more and more authors are writing even shorter stories and opting to self-publish their work electronically. According to an article published in the Huffington Post in June of last year, most short stories are typically 5,000–30,000 words (flash fiction is less than 1,500 words, but collections of flash fiction could easily be in this range) and are priced from $0.99 to $4.99. Traditional publishing simply cannot get stories to readers at that price point. Electronic publishing simply makes more sense for the short genre.

It helps that it has never been easier for writers to create an e-book. Amazon provides simple instructions for Microsoft Word users. Other products, like Scrivener and Sigil, make it easy to create e-books without using any coding languages. Writers can very simply create an e-book and upload it to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, where it is immediately available for sale. While  reaching a mass market is still an immense challenge becoming a published author has become fairly effortless.

I’m encouraging all writers, especially those who write flash fiction, to get their work out into the world.  It’s never been easier and the market is ripe for this short genre!

Collaborative Writing in the Digital Age

An interview with two writers living apart and writing together

Writers Noah Nichols and Brie Beach live in separate states, but are writing a novel together. Their collaborative work on the book led them to embark on a flash fiction project together as well. The project involved them writing a story on a single topic, using the same characters, with Noah writing from the female perspective and Brie writing from the male viewpoint. Noah sent us his story, “The Result,” and it was published last month. Brie also shared her story with us and we are including it here, along with an interview of the two writers concerning co-writing in the digital age. Continue reading

Breaking History, Creating New Realities

Cash prizes will be awarded in alternate history writing contest

The rising popularity of television series such as The Man in the High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dick novel, and the upcoming serialization of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 confirm the entertainment value of the thought-provoking alternate history genre.  Since medieval writers began recording stories, authors have enjoyed manipulating historical events to create intriguing outcomes and exciting new worlds that thrill, captivate and antagonize our present-centered sensibilities.

And now in our first contest ever, FewerThan500 editors are calling on writers around the world to create their own compelling alternate history story. We encourage you to dig into historical facts and upend them, rewriting history in 500 words or less.

The top three authors will receive cash prizes! Continue reading

Dust Bowl Chemistry, Invisible Nazis

Five stories, one prompt and an invitation for reader response

By the FewerThan500 Editorial Staff

The writing prompt is one of the most convenient tools available to writers trying to get past that lingering question, “What should I write about?” Now and then even seasoned writers need something to help drive them forward.

FewerThan500 editor and publisher Ritta M. Basu was recently trying to push through a writing block when she went looking through her prompts box. She came across a prompt that she received from flash fiction professor and Pushcart Prize winner David Schuman during the 2014 Summer Writer’s Institute at Washington University. Basu brought the prompt, a page from a 1933 yearbook, to the FewerThan500 Editorial Board, challenging the site’s entire editorial team to join her in using the prompt to create their own original flash fiction.


We share the results of our writing exercise here in an effort to highlight how a single prompt can lead writers’ minds in many different directions. We also want to invite our readers to join in the exercise. As evidenced by these stories, the yearbook page was a very loose prompt for some of our editors, while others took content directly from the page to create their stories. What story does the prompt evoke for you?

We look forward to seeing what the prompt inspired for FewerThan500 readers. We plan to add our favorite submissions we can add to this collection. Send us your stories with Yearbook Response in the subject line to stories@fewerthan500.com. Deadline for responses is March 15.

Readers may be wondering about the title of this post. You’ll have to read the stories to discover the clues.  Here they are:

Reunion by Kevin Moriarity
Across America by Ritta Basu
The Virgin Astronaut by B. Fink
Helen Schock by H. Adam Ruffalo
Plans is Plans by Frank Rutledge