Story Ideas and Where to Get Them

In today’s Journal

* Quote of the Day
* The Writing
* Writing the Character-Driven Story: Chapter 3, Part 2
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quote of the Day

“What I turn away for one of the 20 or so reasons I have written about in this series, [another] editor might snap up. Does not mean they are less an editor or have lower standards, it simply means they are looking for something different than I am. Nothing less and nothing more. That’s why you send stories to lots of markets, one right after another.” Dean Wesley Smith

Ah. The same reason some readers will not like your work and some will. Believe in yourself.

The Writing

Yesterday was my first day back on the novel. I only cycled through. No new writing. Today I’ll start writing on it again. Sure is good to be back!

Story Ideas and Where to Get Them

As I wrote above, a story idea is a Character with a Problem in a Setting. That’s it.

Many would-be writers say they can’t come up with ideas. Most often that’s because they don’t know what an idea is. And I’m not being facetious.

They believe, perhaps, that the story has to be born whole. That simply isn’t true.

Note: I’ve known many would-be novelists who want to trust the characters and Just Write the Story. But they can’t quite pull the trigger on it. Or more often, they start but don’t finish.

Why? Because they can’t hold the whole novel in their head. It isn’t born of whole cloth. So they second-guess themselves (critical mind second-guessing the creative subconscious) and as a result they never finish the novel. Critical mind has won. It stopped them from writing.

Those writers then often keep writing, but only essays or short stories. They can hold an entire essay or short story in their mind as they’re writing. It’s much easier than writing a novel. Or so it seems.

Actually, when it’s done right, the short story is as spontaneous as real-life, just like the novel is. But the short story feels safer because it doesn’t go on as long. The writer can see the light at the end of a 2,000- or 3,000-word tunnel.

But in truth, the only difference is that the short story is about One Event. The novel is about several interconnected or interrelated events. The short story is, well, short. And the novel is longer. That really is the only difference.

But back to story ideas.

A hobbit finds a magic ring that renders him invisible. That is a story idea. (Character with a problem in a setting.)

Most would-be writers believe a story idea is a hobbit finds a magic ring that renders him invisible. But then a wizard shows up and tells him the ring is evil. Turns out the poor hobbit must travel a great distance, during which he encounters all manner of strange, wonderful and terrible creatures. He also must endure various misfortunes, dangers and great hardships in order to destroy this thing he holds so precious.

That is not a story idea. That is a plot line.

Could you write that one-line story idea up there without infringing on The Lord of the Rings?

Of course. Story ideas are not protected by copyright. You might want to change “hobbit” to “grelber” or something, but that’s pretty much the only problem.

But I could never write it from the longer “idea” because there’s no room for the hobbit (or grelber) to exercise free will. He might as well be in chains. I know where he’s going, and I know why he’s going. End of story. Ugh. Writing it would just be boring.

So get over the notiont that you have to get an entire story all at one time in order to start writing. You don’t.

And if you do get a whole story at one time, I recommend you go get another idea. One that will allow you to drop into the story and actually enjoy it as it unfolds around you (the Recorder) and the characters.

Again, a story idea is a Character with a Problem in a Setting. And the problem doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story. It just has to be a problem that the character has to solve in the immediate future. It’s only a trigger, something to get you to the keyboard, to get you started.

Here you go:

John is running a half-marathon. Within a mile of the finish, something sharp pokes him hard on the instep of his right foot. With every step it pokes him again. He can barely stand the pain, but his main rival is only about a hundred yards behind him. What does he do?

Sit down and write it.

Want a little more?

At the first poke, John grimaces. Me. Always me. Why is it always me? Write it.

At the first poke, John grins and shakes his head and points to the sky. “You and me, Lord. You and me.” Write it.

At the first poke, John winces. What in the world was— And crumples to the ground, dead. Write it.

Notice that John’s various responses go to his state of mind and maybe to his general attitude toward life, don’t they?

Okay, NOW sit down and write it.

So Where Do You Get Ideas?

When a conference goer asked Harlan Ellison that, the famous writer replied, “I get all mine from a little shop in Schenectady.”

He probably said that because if he told the truth nobody would believe him. Well, and to be a smart-aleck.

The truth is, where do you NOT get ideas? They’re all over the place.

Again, a Character with a Problem in a Setting.

You’re out for a walk early in the morning on a dirt road. An SUV passes you. It doesn’t slow down, and when you glare at it you see a woman (the driver) apparently angry and gesturing toward the back seat.

If you’re a writer, probably you have two immediate thoughts.

The first one is, Frankly, I’m fortunate she didn’t run over me. Does she know me? And then you laugh. Maybe.

And your second thought is, Okay, her name is Jillian, her husband came home drunk and abusive one too many times and she’s headed for her mother’s house with the children. They’re in the back seat and wondering aloud why Daddy isn’t coming too.

Sit down. Write it.

Some Ways to Create Triggers (to Get You to the Keyboard)

Select three words at random from the dictionary. Sparrow, hay, tornado (or whatever three words you select). Sit down and write.

Select two seemingly opposing ideas and crash them together (in my “The Compartmentalized Mantis,” the opposing ideas were a female personality in a male’s environmental suit. In “Saving the Baby,” the main character sees an artillery shell but in his mind it’s an infant). More on this technique in the first exercise later in this book.

Yes, you can write a story from either of those ideas if they appeal to you. It won’t be the same story I wrote anyway. Plus, again, story ideas are not copyrighted.

Select a setting, put a character in it, give him a problem and write.

Select a character, give him a problem, put him in a setting and write.

Select a problem, slap it on a character in a setting and write.

Collect titles, lines of dialogue, settings, characters, problems/situations. Whatever turns you on. Put them in a list and browse it occasionally.

Collect photos. (When you need a story idea, glance over the photos. I have a few hundred from CanStock, BigStock, iStock, ShutterStock, Unsplash, et al but photos from any source will work for ideas. Just don’t use them for covers unless you have permission.)

Shrug. And whatever else you can think of.

Notes on Story Ideas

Inspiration is wonderful. Take it when it comes, but professional writers never wait for it. At the bottom of my emails is this signature: “I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at 3 a.m.”

Lose the notion that ideas are gold. They aren’t. If you lose one, get another one.

Remember, practice coming up with ideas. The ability to come up with an idea is a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more natural using it will become.

Observe everything and everyone. Make up stories about people you see in waiting rooms, in malls. Make up stories about storefronts you see as you’re driving past, or about people or cars that are driving past you.

The ability to convert an idea into a story also is a muscle. Remember, an idea is nothing more than a trigger to get you to the keyboard. So when you get an idea, get to the keyboard right now, sit down and write it.

Lose the notion that all ideas will work. Most will, but some won’t. You might even go through a period during which some will work and most won’t.

Next up, something different. But the next day I’ll post Chapter 4, Part 1.

I’ll talk with you again then.

Of Interest

Editing and Reading Observations… Part 10 Repeating this. Excellent post.

Editing and Reading Observations… Part 11 Another excellent post.

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1550

Writing of Blackwell Ops 20: Soleada Garcia: Into the Future (tentative title)

Day 1…… 3681 words. To date…… 3681
Day 2…… 3044 words. To date…… 6725

Fiction for February……………………. 10411
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 128015
Fiction since October 1……………… 431072
Nonfiction for February……………… 10780
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 42740
2024 consumable words…………… 170755

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 3
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 85
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 239
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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