But You MUST Send A SASE

But You Have To Send A SASE

Most writers don’t have problems coming up with ideas.

Correction.  Most working writers, who have trained themselves to come up with ideas and write them don’t have problems coming up with ideas.

Some of us are unusually blessed – if you can call it that – living with (three – groan) other writers and/or being friends with a bunch of them.  There is just something that happens when writers are shooting the breeze over dinner or coffee – or in this house sometimes breakfast –  and someone says something and the other one says “Oh, yeah, that would be a great story.”

But even writers not thoroughly steeped in a writing community usually have no problem whatsoever coming up with ideas that fit their simple needs.

In my entire writing life I’ve met exactly one working author who said that she only had so many ideas.  I can’t remember her name – we were on a panel at Fencon two years ago – and she clearly disregarded my instructions that she call me for an idea a day. … People are so odd.

However, in the bad old days which – SOPA and PIPA permitting – are passing from this world, there were reasons you sometimes had to come up with an idea suddenly.  One of these reasons were the DAW anthologies edited by the late Marty Greenberg.  If – like me – you’d cultivated a reputation for delivering a story fast and well, you would periodically get a phone call that went something like this “Sarah, I have a hole in my newest antho about X, when can you get a story to me?”  The time allotted ranged from two weeks to two hours – and for the two hours one, yes, I was aware I was the third-string, another rapid-writer having failed.  OTOH they paid well and the check cleared, so my pride could at least be well fed while being wounded.

The problem with these phone calls, of course, is that you don’t always have the right idea on command.  Even calling all your buddies might fail to give you a story about … oh, intelligent mice.  (No, to my knowledge they never did that.  But they could have.)

Yes, there are techniques to call up ideas.  However half of you are shaking your heads and going “Why are you bothering us with that, you foolish woman?  Don’t you know we now don’t need to write on command?”

Well, children, listen up – from what I can tell from mine and other experiences in indie publishing, there definitely is a premium on writing fast and well.  Volume of production, volume of things on line, increases the chances that EVERYTHING you have up will sell more.  So, say you are a novel a year, no deviation, gal.  Each of those novels will make more, if you write two a year.  More than that though, you’ll make more if you write a novel and ten short stories, say.  (Come on, a short story a month, with two months off?  Why can’t you do that?)

And while, like everyone else, I prefer the “organic” means of dreaming the story, which in my case usually involve some long, very boring bit of house work, like washing dishes or ironing piles of clothing (you knew there was a reason my guys wear button-downs, right?) or taking long walks (weirdly this works best with long walks under the rain.  Given I live in Colorado, in the new age of indie pubs, it might pay to move.) there is the fact that ideas don’t always come on command.  In fact, sometimes you go through a dry spell and they don’t want to come at all.

This is when you have to do something to spark them.  Now, mind you, these methods are all for the “spark” not the idea itself.  And if you’re a beginner writer chances are about half of these won’t be anything you can use.  Not your type of thing, in other words.  BUT they’ve all worked for me at a time or another.

First there are the traditional ones: go over, in your mind, some classical movies or stories.  You know, there have been several writers who’ve done versions of the Odyssey in Space.  More than that, consider taking, say, Gone With The Wind, boil the plot down and make it a science fiction story.  Or a ghost story.  Or…  I know one of the best SF shorts I ever read, the author credited the idea on A Man With No Name.  Having watched the movies, I don’t see it, but hey!  Same can be done for one of your favorite songs, particularly a song you liked when you were young.  Consider how those lyrics could hint at a story if they were written by someone living in a space habitat or in the asteroids or in fairyland or…  Try it.  What do you have to lose?

Then there are more artificial means.  My favorite one of these was the “come up with a sentence to start the story.”  It works best if you get a friend to do this, as the sentence is likely to be outrageous.  One of the ones in our writers’ group was “Step away from the feather boa.”  Another was “The best part is the dragon spit.”  (Though that one was from someone mishearing the REAL challenge.)

A variant of this are the words that aren’t necessarily the first sentence, like “Venusian Hooker Shoes.”

This one usually works pretty well for me, I think, because it leaves me a free rein otherwise.

The next one to work for me is the dictionary and three words.  You open the dictionary, pick three words randomly, and integrate those three words in a story as themes or characters or problems.  You’re allowed to discard two, because sometimes your subconscious has a sense of humor.  Like the day I got rubber stroke and whip.  No, don’t go there.  It just wasn’t fit for the type of things I DO write.

The last one doesn’t really work well for me – this is where you have lists either randomly generated or – as Rebecca Lickiss and I (who are probably less than sane) spent a week doing in little slips of paper.  We went over the dictionary and divided every word that would fit as Protagonist Setting or Problem.  Then we printed them.  Cut in slips of paper about the size of a fortune cookie fortune.  Put a set into each gallon-size ziploc: Character, Setting and Problem.  A person needing a story would draw a slip from each (well shaken) bag.  I wonder where those bags have gone to?  Probably in the boxes in the attic.  Anyway, I’m sure given some time any of you computer people could also create a program to do this automatically.

This one doesn’t work really well for me, even given the chance to fudge like, if your problem is “hunger” it can be “hunger for travel” or if your character is “flea” it might just be his nickname.  I think it doesn’t work as well because it’s harder to force the character to talk in my own head.  Though it’s been known to happen, so don’t count it out.

I regret to inform you that the method I joke about at cons “I get my ideas from Hays, Kansas, but I have to send a SASE” is not true.

Next up – take the germ and grow it.

24 responses to “But You MUST Send A SASE

  1. Hays, Kansas?

    I thought writers got their ideas from someplace in the state of New York. [Wink]

  2. If I wrote faster (and I’m trying to get that habit, really I am), this might be a problem for me some day.

    But right now, today, I seem to come up with about 8 ideas in the time it takes me to finish one short. My idea backlog (an Excel spreadsheet) currently stands at 47 ideas. I don’t take an idea off the backlog until I finish first draft, so 11 of those have some words generated.

    • Martin — 47? PIKER. I have that just in novels. The short story idea file is… never mind. What’s amazing though is when you write every day, you run across “a million ideas and none I can write just now” for reasons of — mood, research needed, whatever. And then you generate another (or three.)

  3. Yep, I’m a piker. I’m two years into writing seriously, two pro sales to my name, three self-pubs, and a WotF Finalist and Semi-Finalist. I’ve got a long way to go. But at least I’ve finally stepped out of the door and onto the road, after 25 years of looking wistfully out the window. You and Dean and Kris and Brad Torgersen and Jerry Pournelle all keep me motivated to keep walking down that road.

    No, I should say “up that road”. It’s all uphill the whole way.

    • Uphill, both ways with snow up to my knees. I take back the piker thing. It took me NINE years to first sale. (Yes, a lot of the time I wasn’t sending stuff out, due to lack of money for postage (don’t ask.) BUT it was at least five solid years of sending stuff out. And then my first sold story killed FOUR mags so it was another four years before I saw anything else of mine in print. (I sold that story… seven? eight times? before I sold anything else. go figure.)
      Okay, working now. After a nap. (Yeah, it’s sad, but I’m still recovering from flu. No nap, no writing.)

      • I think “piker” is accurate. I’m reading all the right advice (I think), but I’m still far from mastering it. I still go far too long — measured in weeks, sometimes — between serious writing sessions. I still spend far too much time distracted by blogs (this one included). I still let stories sit too long between a rejection and the next submission. And I still don’t take criticism well. (I take rejection better than I take criticism, I think.)

        I like to avoid regrets in life. I think they eat away at you. The past is, now what? But one regret I have is that I gave up on writing so easily in my teens and twenties. If I had pursued it then as seriously as I am now, who knows where I could go?

  4. I’m glad to hear that I’m torturing my students by making them come up with spur of the moment ideas. We’ve done our third round robin this school year, where the kids come to class, are given their prompts and have to write a couple paragraphs.in the story. They actually now beg to have a round robin day. what’s also gratifying is seeing — in this week’s round robin — the shy guy who always says “I don’t know what to write,” put pencil to paper as soon as I said “okay, start.” He’s gained confidence in the last few weeks that he is imaginative and he does write well and people are interested in what he says.

    • LOL. But it’s torture with a PURPOSE.

    • Oh, I remember doing round-robins! The guy with the punk facade would always try to twist and mutate what I did, so one time I wound up writing the villain perspective to start. He was going, roughly, “OMG, this is great!” Then the teacher read it and was going, “Beth! You wrote this??” in tones of wondering disbelief.

      I have ever since harbored a delight for being the one who “writes the stuff that freaks the living hell out of us,” to quote a friend. (Not that all my stuff is twisted, mind; one has to set up the “playing it straight/fluffy” stuff before throwing the curveball. But when that curveball works, it feels soooooo good.)

  5. Ideas? No problems. Ideas that work… not so much. Ideas that work and are fit for the rest of the world to read? Not easy.

    How do I know this? It’s the way my nearest and dearest, friends and family, will look at me and go “You are one scary woman.” when I’m just being my normal self.

    I have the Hwel problem (I don’t have access to the epic paragraph in Wyrd Sisters describing the poor dwarf playwright trying to squeeze half of Shakespeare and most of Andrew Lloyd Webber into a single play, or I’d quote): okay, I’ve got the star-crossed lovers and the singing cats in with the melodramatic dude in black talking to his skull and the witches pronouncing doom everywhere, but what in the world do I do with the nancing elf wizard who’s not letting anyone pass?

  6. Is Hayes the dropping off point for all good Western writing?

  7. “And now, our Action News Reporter from Deepest Mongolia, Wanda B. Astar, with an update!”

    “Yes, a great tragedy in progress here, Mr. Shrill Doberman! The last Idea stored in the Great Wall has been removed – and the whole structure has collapsed! When they built this, many years ago, entire genres were incorporated into the foundation. As the poems, songs and stories used them up, the Wall became less and less stable. With the invention of auto-translation programs, sections began collapsing overnight! Hundreds of muses died, leaving behind fragements of tales, to be lost in the sands of time! More with film, at Eleven!”

    “Thanks, Wanda! And now, a giant sinkhole in Hollywood! Stay Tuned!”

  8. I was going to point out that many websites provide random search nowadays. Go to Wikipedia and ask for a random page, then write from it.

    But I thought I would check http://dictionary.reference.com/to see if they had a random word choice. There is the word of the day, which might work — today is shiv, a knife, especially a switchblade. There doesn’t seem to be a random choice, but they do have a list of five words under “What’s new: how do you say this in Spanish” that should work just fine. Here’s your five words: french fries, UFO, boat, computer, stroller. Or there are lists of words that people are searching for that could also be useful.

    I have to admit, I have the other problem — shaving goats. In other words, I start looking at one idea, come up with another 10 or 20, start chasing something especially with Google and friends, and pretty soon I have to put my foot down and say, “What was I doing?” Like just now, I went to double check that term shaving goats, which turns out to be shaving Yaks, and you would not believe how many interesting things there are related to one or the other of those. Incidentally, I need to go to lunch!

    Er… What was the question?

  9. When I feel stale, I can hit a few sites like this to rev up the brain.


    Can’t find the weirdest one, now, but this one isn’t bad.

  10. You always have another source for ideas, mention in the diner that you need an idea for a story about intelligent mice, 50 or so instantly generated. One might even be usable. 3:)

  11. Who says there’s no need to write on command? I got a message from a writer friend of mine saying “there’s this anthology on ‘Lawyers in Hell’, revival of the old ‘Heroes in Hell” series. Interested?” (And, of course, each additional volume, if I hope to sell to them, will be “on command” as well since each has a particular theme.) Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get a line from Harry Turtledove saying “I’m doing an anthology on Alternate Warhorses. Interested?” in which case I will try very hard to be.

    Strange thing is I do better with ideas/themes that come from outside. I have “ideas” but finding the “story” in them is sometimes (usually?) a challenge. But with the Lawyers in Hell thing it just fell together so nicely. (Oh! One of my favorite legal quotes is from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Hey, he fought for the Union in the Civil War. Suppose we found a fairly big name lawyer who fought for the confederacy and put them together in, say, the Norse Hell–Nifelhel–where they have to work together to escape back to the “regular” hell. And away it went.)

    Why can’t it work that way with my own ideas?