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.