Writer Igniter: The Story Behind the Web App

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

The Writer Igniter is a writing prompt generator with literally millions of possible story prompts. It currently exists as a web app right here at DIY MFA, but it hasn’t always been this high-tech. Read on to learn about the process behind how the DIY MFA Team and I developed this new feature.

It all started with a bunch of writing prompt books. Over the years I’ve acquired many. In fact, the odds of my ever running out of writing prompts is probably slim-to-none. Still for some reason a bizarre fear has always plagued me:

What if someday I sit down to write and realize I’ve run out of ideas?

Seriously, this is what keeps me up at night. I always think my current idea will be my last. I think this is why I’ve accumulated so many writing books. Even with just these books I’m probably set for life with enough story ideas but believe me, if budget and shelf space allowed it, I’d buy every single one in existence. These books are “Idea Insurance,” a fall-back plan if I ever run into a creative rut.

One day, while browsing the children’s book section, I saw one of those flip books where you match the head of one animal with the body of another and the feet of yet another for hilarious effect. And it hit me: what if you did the same thing with writing prompts, combining different elements of a story? This could make one idea go a LONG way.

Using Combinations to Scale Ideas

When I was studying psychology in grad school also I minored in statistics. When the idea for the Writer Igniter popped into my head, the dormant math part of my brain instantly jumped into high gear. Bear with me while I indulge my inner-geek for a moment. See, when you look at combinations of variables, things scale very quickly. Suppose you have three categories and you brainstorm just ten things for each, automatically you get 10 x 10 x 10 possible combinations. That’s 1000 ideas right there! By combining categories, you turn an initial investment of 30 ideas into 1000! Newsflash: geeky stats minor finally pays off.

By now I had the basic concept for the Writer Igniter, so all I needed was to figure out which categories to include and come up with the different possibilities for each. Easy, right?

Like any good procrastinator, first I decided to do some arts and crafts.

Prototypes and Testing

In a past life–somewhere between being a psychology researcher and a children’s writer–I was a toy designer. This means that I’m incapable of thinking an idea in my head. I have to see it with my eyes, hold it in my hands. Just thinking of the Writer Igniter idea wasn’t enough, I needed a prototype.

First I made a  flip-book, just like the animal one I saw in the children’s book section, except here instead of combining a head, body and feet, you flipped to different characters, situations and props. The original version looked like this:

Then I thought it would work better as a deck of cards. This meant adding a fourth category (setting) and limiting the number of possibilities in each category to thirteen. This way, each suit would represent a different category and you could use the Writer Igniter as a functional deck of cards as well as a prompt generator. The logic behind this idea was that I could use the deck to play solitaire (i.e. procrastinate). That way, even when I was avoiding my writing, the story ideas would still seep into my brain as though by osmosis.

The deck of cards version looked like this:

I tested both the flip-book version and the deck of cards version with friends in my critique groups and students in the workshops I teach. They loved it, but I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted something portable, something that I could carry in my pocket and access anytime I wanted, but that also had millions of possible combinations. Oh, and I also wanted to share this idea through DIY MFA.

Around this same time I was working on the web redesign for DIY MFA and I mentioned the Writer Igniter concept to the web designer. Immediately she ran with it and discovered a simple bit of programming that would turn the Igniter into a web-based prompt generator. She even figured out a way to make it work like a slot machine. Fun!

Brainstorming as a Team

Now all I needed was variables… lots and lots of variables for each category. I quickly realized that my little brain would not be able to come up with enough ideas unless I enlisted some help, so I got the DIY MFA team involved in brainstorming characters, situations and props, as well as collecting images to use for settings. Together, we brainstormed hundreds of options for each category, then narrowed our choices to the top 100 (or so) each. We added and removed variables from the master list, building on each others’ ideas and suggestions to come up with the best list possible.

What amazed me was that by responding to ideas and suggestions from my team, I was able to think up even more ideas myself. Their suggestions led my thinking in directions I hadn’t previously considered and by working as a team, we were each able to be more creative as individuals. The team was more creative than the sum of the parts. Awesome!

Which Brings Us Back to Writing

Writing and polishing a novel is not unlike developing a web app like the Writer Igniter. You get that initial flash of inspiration, followed by testing out the idea in various formats. Eventually, you pass your precious work along to trusted colleagues who promptly pull it apart and challenge you to make it even better. Finally, you have a product you’re really proud of and can’t wait to share with the world.

I suppose it’s true what they say: all roads lead to writing.

Ignite Your Inner Writer

And so, this is how the Writer Igniter came to be. Now it’s ready for you to hit shuffle and start writing. And keep an eye on the website because very soon we’ll be unveiling an exciting new project that will involve the Writer Igniter, so stay tuned!

Know any writers in need of an inspiration boost? Tweet this and help spread the word.

What are you waiting for? Ignite and write!

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