Apart from a collection of books on writing, I also have a handful of writing programs on the computer. Sometimes I found them because I had a specific need – note card programs, for example – and sometimes I just stumbled upon them and thought I might have need of them someday. One is WriteSparks!, which is a sort of combination of Write or Die and a book of prompts. The program has a built-in timer and window to write, but it also has a series (shorter or longer depending on how much, if anything, you pay for it) of prompt generators. It can give you random words, a first line, or even a sketch of theme and character.
When I go looking for a prompt in one of my books, I go in with an eye for “no.” No, I don’t want to write any prompt about my childhood. No, I don’t feel like writing about a teacher today. No, this sounds boring. No. This is not a bad thing necessarily. I’m looking for a prompt that clarifies what it is I do want to write. Something to which I can say, yes, that hits the spot.
But the more I allow myself to reject ideas because they don’t sound right, the harder it becomes to write outside of my comfort zone. I find prompts that let me write the same thing over and over. Sometimes, though, even if I don’t want a challenge, I need one. So this time, I’m going to dive into WriteSparks!, let it hurl randomness at my head, and just write what I can. Back in twenty.
There was once a chance I didn’t take, which sounds a lot more sensible than it really was. Looking out the windows of our sixth-grade classroom, James and I could see out over the town and watch the greasy smear of rain that had started to fall a few miles out.
“If it’s not raining here *yet*,” I said while morosely pushing a red toy race car across my desk, “why do we have to spend recess inside?”
From his perch in the window, James clouded the glass with his breath. “Dunno. Hey, Ms. Patrick, how come we’re stuck inside if it’s not raining?”
Ms. Patrick, our teacher, gestured out the window with a wedge of apple from her lunch. “It’s cold and windy. And probably will be raining in ten minutes.” She took a bite of apple. “Besides, there’s lightning out there,” she said around the slush of apple. Ms. Patrick was young and too fun to be a real teacher. We suspected she was secretly a FBI agent, undercover to infiltrate of ring of child slavers. James and I read a lot of comic books and pulps in those days.
“Lightning’s better than nothing,” James said.
“Well I haven’t seen any,” I complained.
James clouded the window again and drew a bolt of lightning, like the Flash’s logo, on the pane. “There you go,” he said.
“Gee, thanks,” I said and pushed my car so it raced off the edge of the desk and clattered to the thinly carpeted floor. I bent to pick it up, but James had already swept it up. He twirled his chair around and set it by my desk. When he sat, his legs stretched under my seat. Across from him, mine seemed to barely touch the floor. James had started growing early, the same time as all the girls, so that only Megan, in her knee socks and braces, looked down at him.
“Quit yer whining, or I won’t show you what I found,” he said in a low voice. He had both his hands jammed deep in the pockets of his blue school windbreaker.
I leaned forward, keeping one eye on Ms. Patrick, still seated at her desk behind James’s back. With any other kid, I might have expected an interesting bottle cap, a dirty magazine stolen from a big brother’s room, or maybe a particularly weird bug. But when James found things, there were different. “What is it this time?” I asked, boredom forgotten.
James took his right hand from his jacket with theatrical slowness. He opened his loosely curled fist and held out his palm. It was about the size of an eraser or a cigarette lighter. It was green, mostly, except where some dark slag of metallic rock crusted it like barnacles. The unblemished parts had been cut or chipped into uneven planes, like the way the Indians made arrowheads, to form a slightly serrated blade.
“Is it sharp?” I asked as I reached for it. “Where’d you find it?” I picked it up between two fingers kept carefully on the lumpy parts. The light shone through it, casting pale emerald shadows on my khaki shorts. I kept it low in my lap, out of sight for the twenty other boys and girls in the room, occupied with games of checkers and B.S. and truth or dare.
“Dan picked me up from school yesterday with his friends.” Dan was James’s oldest brother, seventeen and mean enough that the bullies in our class left James alone, for fear of infringing on Dan’s territory. “They dumped me at the old house at the top of Bradley.”
The Bradley place was the local haunted house and was home, according to rumor, to a bewildering array of witches, vampires, ghosts and demons. The brave tested their spirits and their luck by running up and knocking on the door, an act punishable by the loss of your soul. If anyone lived there, we never saw them.
“You went inside?” I asked. That was reckless, even for James.
“Naw, I went around back. I found this sticking up out of the dirt.”
I turned it over in my hands, but carefully. “What do you think it is?”
“Dunno. A spearhead? Maybe–”
I saw Ms. Patrick move before she really had. Years of being lookout for James made me good at reading body language. So by the time she said, “Boys,” in a stern voice, I had tossed the strange stone back to James. He hissed when he caught it, but shoved his hand in his pocket before I could see if it had cut him. Over James’s shoulder, I watched Ms. Patrick move away to scold Chris and Nick instead of us.
Coast clear, James took his hand out and looked at his fingers. I expected to see a cut, maybe even blood. Being a twelve-year-old boy, I actually expected to see bone. But there was nothing. Not in the sense of no injury. Where the tip of his middle finger should have been, James had empty air. We looked at each other and we looked at his hand. In unison, we said, “Amulet of invisibility,” with immense respect. A little more of him disappeared each second, spreading to his other fingers like a widening puddle.
But when I reached out to touch his invisible fingers, my own just kept going. They met no resistance. James flexed his hand. “I can feel something,” he said, sounding a little scared under all the excitement. “Like warm sand or something. And a breeze. I think there’s something there.”
“Quick, give me that,” I said, reaching for his jacket pocket before he could try to fish the stone out with just his palm still left. The chance I did not take was that James would go off on an adventure without me. I would not be left behind. James was disappearing faster now; most of his right arm was missing. I slid the edge of the stone across my hand. There was a flash of perfectly ordinary pain and I thought for a moment that it had been good for only one use.
But when I looked, there was a window in my finger through which I could see the carpet and my shorts and, when I raised it, a sliver of James’s face. And while the rest of me felt the cold and damp in our classroom, one inch of my hand felt heat and pebbly sand. James grinned and grabbed my remaining hand in his. Around us, the other kids played normal games in a dingy room. James and I closed our eyes and faded away.
Ah, refreshing! That was really fun, though definitely more than the twenty minutes I originally set aside. My prompts were: “there was once a chance I didn’t take” for first line; the mixed proverb “lightning is better than nothing”; and the random words little boy, glass, school playground, and race car. The stone started out being broken glass in my mind and the playground was in the story only in terms of its absence, but I think I got everything else in there.
When I read the prompts, the whole scene appeared for me, except for the ending, what happens after James gets cut. But it gave me the spot I needed to make it a fantasy, not just a slice of life scene, because where would I be without fantasy? I do find it funny, though, that after making my list of no’s above, I ended up with a story about childhood and teachers (I’ll leave the question of boring to you). I tried to stay as far out of my usual areas as possible: first person instead of third; males instead of females; and young kids instead of young adults. I have tried to write children before, with fairly disastrous results, but I’m rather happy with this. It felt more like something out of my own, real childhood than my earlier attempts have.
WriteSparks! Lite, the free version, “contains over a month’s worth of sparks,” according to their site, all conveniently accessible from the one window. Some, like random words and first lines, are fairly traditional. I found the mixed metaphor and mixed proverb categories intriguingly different from the standard prompt fare. The free version is, I think, a good value. The Premium version, which promises fifteen generators instead of seven, costs $77. This seems a bit steep to me, when you could use random generator sites like Seventh Sanctum and the timer and word processor combo of your choice to do this on your own. But if you like the all-in-one package, which lets you have timer, prompt, and typing area in one plain, distraction-free, full-screen window, WriteSparks! might be a good investment.