One of my writing pals contacted me yesterday: he was trying to write a story for The Reclamation Project but wasn’t happy with the results he was coming up with. In an effort to get his creative juices flowing, I sent him a link to a Pinterest board I had created to help me get into the right frame of mind.
“Maybe I’ve been going around this wrong,” he replied. “I’ve been trying to pull story ideas out of thin air, but that’s proving hard. I used to go looking at pictures, but it felt like a crutch…”
I’m here to tell you, when it comes to creating story ideas, there’s no such thing as a crutch. There are only tools!
Inspiration is a Fickle Mistress
Sometimes a story will leap nearly fully-formed into your head, and the biggest obstacle is making sure to get it all written down before you forget it. And those times when the Muse Burns Within You are amazing!
If you want to get somewhere as a professional writer, you need to be able to create stories on demand. While “writer’s block” is a very personal experience, in my own case it’s often a matter of “perfect being the enemy of good.” Writing as a deliberate craft is less like dictating the voice of the muse, and more like slopping a giant blob of clay onto the wheel and spinning it into a useful shape — and since the final product is going to be vastly different from that original lump of clay anyhow, you can use whatever you need to get it started. Write about your cat. Take a story out of the news, flip the gender of all parties involved, and set it on a space station or in ancient Babylon. All you need is a starting point!
Here are some starting points I like to use…
A picture can be worth a lot more than a thousand words. Looking at an evocative image and asking yourself, “What’s happening here? Who are these people? How did this come to pass?” might be all you need to get the ball rolling.
I’ve already mentioned Pinterest. It’s not the best for all applications (it’s terrible about original sources, just for starters), but just in terms of finding neat pictures to look at it’s a good start. Tumblr is another source that’s easy to search by keyword. Want to write steampunk? Check out Steampunk Tendencies. Need a very specific “anime + elves” vibe? Do a keyword search for “anime elves.” If you can think of something, there’s probably at least one and possibly several blogs devoted to it.
The point of these boards is not to give you “the thing” you’re going to write; just lifting someone else’s creative work and repackaging it as your own would be a crutch, and worse. The point of these boards is to give you suggestions for moments, or ideas, or possibilities, that you will then weave into your own stories. An old pulp sci-fi painting I found on Pinterest gave me an arresting visual image; when I combined that with my own characters and plot it became a 15,000-word story.
I generally find prompts to be very hit-or-miss; if I don’t have a single notion in my head, the phrase “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” is not going to be enough by itself. However, a prompt combined with something else — a character idea, for instance, or a relationship dynamic I want to explore — can sometimes be just enough to prod me into the right direction.
Here’s my secret, Cap: almost all my fic is fanfic.
Everybody knows about 50 Shades by now, right? My novel Sky Pirates of Calypsitania began its life as a notion for an AU fic about “Rainbow Dash, Airship Pirate,” even if the final story doesn’t have a little pony in sight.
Fanfic is a massive creative energy generator (well deserving of a Hugo award). One of its most powerful features is that, by piggy-backing onto established properties, it allows writers to cut to the chase in their story creation. The characters are already established and the rules of the universe are already written, so all the writer has to do is figure out what happens and write that.
Remember, however, that we’re talking about tools to get you started here, not finished stories. If all you do is shave the names and serial numbers off of a fanfic and repackage it as a new story, people are gonna notice. Fanfic can give you the bones of an outline, but you still have to go back and do the work of establishing your characters, and building your world, before you can truly call the work your own.
This is a long-established practice, and a great one. Take two very different things you love, mash ’em together, and see what sparks fly. Put Casablanca in space and you get Babylon 5. Put a roaming samurai in the old west and you get A Fistful of Dollars. Put British snark and a touch of sentimental romance into The Book of Revelation and you get Good Omens.
There’s a lot of crossover between this category and fanfic — “alternate universe,” “fix-fic,” and “X but Y” are all well-traveled fanfic paths. You could make a cogent argument that Lord of the Rings is “Macbeth Meets Der Rings Des Nibelungen,” and Tolkien did all right for himself.
Writing to Market
And of course, there’s always just finding out what an editor wants, and writing that. For The Perfect Warrior, I was given the title and back cover blurb, and told to write an adventure that matched it.
In some ways, this is just a leveled-up version of a writing prompt. Cruising sites like Manuscript Wishlist, or checking out upcoming anthologies in your favorite genres, can not only spark cool story ideas, but has the added bonus of giving you a target market and a deadline!
Don’t Be Precious
Whatever method you use to get words flowing, the important thing to remember is that writing any story is a process and a journey. Give yourself permission to create something rough, and get writing! In the words of Tim Powers, “The first draft is supposed to be crap.” Where would the skill of the sculptor come in, if the blob of clay was perfect when it was first plopped down?