But, first, let's talk about what the poll confirmed: I suck at prompts, and last Yuletide was no exception. I wrote the kind of prompt that no one hopes to get, that more than half of writers fear, and that almost no one gives. In other words, I wrote really detailed prompts. Um. Oops? (Look. I knew I was doing wrong, but I couldn't stop myself. This is obviously a sickness, and I am more to be pitied than censured.)
On the other hand, I got an awesome story last year anyway. (Thank you, astolat!) No matter how much my prompts have sucked over the years (and I think they especially sucked the Yuletide I went with "Would prefer slash" as my only prompt for all four requests - yes, my shame is real), I've gotten good stories. Clearly, the Yuletide gods look after the pathetic. Or maybe Yuletide writers just try harder than any reasonable human could ever expect. (I mean, yes, I try hard to write to my recipient's prompts, but then I've been lucky - three years of entirely sane recipients. Well. Sane as far as prompt-writing goes. I can't speak for the rest of it. They may dress potatoes in lacy undergarments in their spare time, but their prompts were entirely sane and potato-free.)
My point is: bad prompts don't mean bad stories.
However, bad prompts may lead to crazed writers (and mods, if the bad prompt drives some poor writer over the edge). So I am determined to beat this thing. (It will be a Triumph of the Human Spirit! Perhaps, when I am formally declared to be Awesomest Prompt Writer Ever, I can sell my uplifting tale to Reader's Digest.) Thanks to the poll, I now have strategies. I have Lessons Learned! And, of course, I'm going to share them, because what would fandom be without a lot of random blither? Not the fandom I know and love, that's for sure. (Also, quiet.)
- Learn from the best. I had a resource available to me this whole time, and I didn't even know it. norah writes fabulous prompts, and I have vowed in the future to follow her example. I will also get her to beta my prompts, for the good of the community and as a service to all writerkind. Behold the wonder of the MMWD-style prompt!
- Everyone enjoys a deluxe assortment. Specifically, your assigned writer is most likely to be happy if you provide a few story ideas. ("A gen piece about A's time in the Solar Defense Militia. Or anything A/C, post-canon. Or maybe you could bring D back from the dead.") This allows your writer to go with whichever idea makes her happiest. It also staves off the impression that you're married to one specific story idea, and that your Yuletide will be ruined if you do not get that A/C crossover AU in which A is a rabbit and C is a zombie. This is important, because -
- Almost everyone takes prompts really seriously. Try to remember this when you're writing prompts. Whether you take four seconds to dash off a few suggestions - "Possibly some light, frothy, funny BDSM incest with a dash of serial killing!" - or four days to detail a complete list of everything you like and hope to see - "...And I want a pony, and also peace on earth, and, Santa, if you could get the story recorded as a podfic read by Alan Rickman, then that's what I hope for most, and also did I mention the pony?" - your writer will certainly spend the next six weeks or so pondering every single word of it. She will likely also IM her betas and friends. ("And I'm wondering, when she said pony, did she mean a Mustang? Did she mean pony play? Does she want a shot glass? OMG I hope she didn't mean a Mustang, because I do not have time to research cars.") My point is: your words are going to be considered very, very carefully, so weigh them with equal care.
- Your prompt may be the only thing your writer knows about you. You can do things to change this - write a good Santa letter (more about this later!), leave LJ entries unlocked, provide an exhaustive catalog of your loves and hates, zip the complete contents of your hard drive and upload it, etc. But what you can't do, at least in Yuletide, is assume your writer is coming into it knowing anything at all about you.
Last Yuletide, I wrote two stories. One was for someone I knew. The other was for someone I didn't know at all. I worked just as hard on both stories, and judging from the comments, the stories were equally good (or bad) and equally enjoyed by their recipients. But I worried more about the one for the person I didn't know. Or, let me put it this way:
When I got the prompt from the stranger, I read her Santa letter. I went to her LJ. I read her fan fiction. And I still didn't really know if she would like my idea or the story I wrote for her. I didn't know if we had similar senses of humor, if my take on the canon matched hers, if we used the same definitions of the words in her prompt - and these are things it's tough to learn about a stranger. So I, for example, deleted several jokes from my rough draft, on the grounds that she might find them offensive. I mean, she might have been a Scientologist. There was no way I could know! I played it safe where I could, because, well, I was already taking a somewhat risky approach to her fandom and pairing, and I didn't want to add to the risk.
When I got the prompt from the friend (as a pinch hit), I read her Santa letter. But the thing was, since I know her, I knew immediately that she'd probably like my first idea for the fandom. (Like, I only realized after I'd posted her story that I never for a moment considered that she might want gen.) And, since I know her, I was able to recruit betas who knew her, too. It's amazingly reassuring to have your betas send you feedback that starts, "OMG, she'll LOVE this!"
But there were 900 participants in Yuletide last year. (With luck, we'll break that this year. Wouldn't that be cool?) I didn't know most of them. Most of them didn't know me. The likelier scenario, in other words, for both you and your assigned writer, is that you'll be strangers until the reveal. Which means it's best to plan and act as though that's what's going to happen.
- You and your writer may not be from the same parts of fandom. Especially in Yuletide, people come from all over fandom, and are assigned to each other based on knowledge of and love for a rare fandom. You may both be very interested in a sitcom that aired on British television for two years in the early 1970s, but that doesn't mean you're both into slash, gen, or het. It doesn't mean you're both media fans or anime fans or whatever. It doesn't mean you share a gender, a political affiliation, a religion, or a cultural background. In other words, what looks like an easy prompt to you may be impossible for your writer to imagine. This is why a prompt assortment works well. It's also something you should keep in mind as you read your story.
- Make sure the words mean what you think they mean. The kind of prompt that showed up most frequently in the text answers to "hardest" and "strangest" was a slash pairing request accompanied by the words "no slash." If you ask for "gen McShep," your writer is going to be confused. Also distressed. So don't use fannish terms unless you know what they mean - and if you're new to this, it might be a good idea to have someone else read your prompts, just to be sure. Also, if you use terms that seem mutually contradictory ("Angsty death schmoop!"), it might be helpful to go into a bit more detail in your Santa letter.
- This is not a menu. Do not order a #2 with an extra enchilada and no sauce. Your assigned writer is not your slave for six weeks. She's not here to fulfill your every whim, although she is going to try damn hard to fulfill one of your wishes. So, in general, avoid prompts that look like you're giving orders for a tailored suit. Detailed story outlines ("After A leaves B at the end of the canon, he goes on a journey to Tibet to find himself, and meets C along the way. Red-hot A/C lovin' follows, and then they meet the Old Man of the Mountain. It all ends well, although B is dead!") will probably leave your writer wondering why, if you know exactly what you want, you don't just write it yourself.
- Say what you don't want. If you are squicked by all mention of snails, share that. If you really, really do not want deathfic, say so. If any mention of any bodily fluid leaves you needing to lie down with a cold cloth on your eyes, mention this. If your "no" list is fairly short ("No animal harm of any kind, please") or contains fairly common things ("No slash, please.") put it in your request itself. Otherwise, put it in your Santa letter. But say it somewhere.
In either case, try to remember - again! - that you don't necessarily have anything in common with your writer. She may love snails. She may have dedicated her life to the study and protection of snails. You can't know. So try to phrase your "no" list politely. "ABSOLUTELY NO SNAILFIC. I *mean* it. Snails = gross!" may, in fact, come off as an insult to your writer. The wise requester will avoid this whenever possible. Remember: the thoughtful, considerate writer, which 99.9% of writers are, will hear you the first time. And the rest of the writers won't hear you no matter how many times you repeat it. So why waste the space?
- Write some kind of prompt. Yes, a few writers would rather not have one, but in Yuletide, they can ignore your request. (And those who don't want a prompt probably won't sign up for exchanges where they can't.) And almost everyone dreaded getting no guidance. It's hard to figure out where to start. It's hard to figure out where not to start. And, if you end up being a pinch hit, it will be very hard for someone to take your request and hit the ground running (which is what pinch hitters have to do) if there are no details to use as a springboard. (Um. Mixed metaphor, but you take my point, yes?)
- Do not use your Santa letter to fix problems with your request. (In other words, don't be me.) If there's a problem with your request, fix it there. Resubmit the sucker. It's worth your time. Otherwise, you run the risk of, for example, getting a pinch hitter who picked up your request based on the prompt you overrode in your Santa letter. She'll probably write the story she had in mind anyway, because she may not have time to do anything else.
- Do tell your writer about yourself. If you have an "all about me" post, link to that. Or just tell a little about yourself - likes, dislikes, whatever. Trust me, your Santa will appreciate it.
- Do tell your writer about the canons and characters you requested. This is vastly helpful to your writer - someone who loves the canon because "it's funny, and totally like what real life would be if you were dead" is going to love a different story than someone who loves the same canon because "it's got a concealed edge in its humor - like, you're laughing, but you're gutted at the same time." Someone who loves character A because "he's such a dork OMG" is going to love a different story than someone who loves him because "he has these moments of incredible insight, and he does important things even though they're hard for him."
You can also use the space to link to resources your writer might find helpful. I mean, if you're obsessed with the canon, you probably know a few things about it, and, hey, why not be helpful? Perhaps your author is indeed searching for the full-text version of your canon, or for a place that really knows boats, or a complete dictionary of obsolete medical terms. The time she doesn't have to spend on research is just that much more time for writing.
And, no matter what kind of prompt you write, no matter what kind of story you get, remember to thank the writer who makes Yuletide happen for you.
liviapenn has also posted thinky thoughts on prompts. And her thoughts come with the details of the mythical but fascinating canon Ghost Soup! You don't want to miss this.