Getting Ideas (and other stuff)

This content was previously posted on June 26, 2016 in the Daily Journal. I posted it here because of the valuable topic included below. Soon I might begin posting the Daily Journal here every day.

Hey Folks,

Probably today will be another non-writing day for me. Despite the fact that when I take a day away from writing fiction I feel itchy and annoyed.

I gave my word to a couple of folks who quickly took advantage of my offer to copyedit for them, so I’ll do that. But otherwise I think I’m going to shove my copyediting service into the ditch alongside the cover design and eformatting services.

Life Events take up too much of my writing time already. Reckon I’m gonna have to cut the cord on providing services.

Getting Ideas

Turns out this is a long topic. I hope it helps.

Yesterday I talked about story starters. To start a story, come up with a character, give him a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story and often isn’t) and drop him into a setting. Period.

But a character with a problem in a setting sounds suspiciously like an idea. So how do we come up with the idea in the first place?

Often the idea for the story will spring directly from the character/problem/setting combo. In fact, yesterday one writer sent me an email. In part, it read

Last fall or late summer you gave 3 or 4 character names, 3 or 4 settings, and maybe 3 or 4 problems for us to put together for an opening. … [T]hat exercise gave me the opening for the second book in my contemporary series. (Thanks MAC)

But even more often, ideas simply come at random. Then we assign a character/problem/setting and write the opening.

Example — Right now on my desk, my cherry wood humidor is on my left. An orange Bic lighter is lying diagonally on top. (That’s a story idea.)

Okay, let’s assign a character. Who are you (the character)? Why are you there? And what are you doing? And how does the setting look, sound, smell? Are you

the owner?
a detective?
a male friend of the family?
a female friend of the family?
a masked burglar?
a business associate?

Remember too, the setting can be anywhere that will hold a cherry wood humidor and a Bic lighter: a small home office, the library in a mansion, an office in a place of business, the front seat of a ’58 Nash, etc. Let your imagination run. We don’t know what’s inside the humidor either, do we?

This idea immediately lends itself to mystery, thriller, psychological suspense, romance, and other genres.

If this notion appeals to you, why not just write an opening? See what happens.

There are several ideas on my desktop, in view as I write this:

an open roll of breath mints with one end opened and folded over
a man pecking away at a laptop computer in the wee hours of the morning
three medicine bottles, set snugly beneath a 22″ monitor
a cell phone lying on the corner of the desk. An indicator light is flashing.
a pedometer lying in front of a medicine bottle
a deck of Rider Back playing cards
and so on

Where you’re sitting as you read this, look about you. What do you see that evokes a particular feeling or memory or notion? It can be anything at all. Make a list. Exercise your idea muscle. Then write an opening about one of them.

So how do we come up with ideas? The more apt question would be how do we NOT come up with ideas.

But many writers believe an “idea” is actually the whole story. How boring would that be? If I knew the story in advance, why bother to write it? That wouldn’t entertain me at all. (grin)

Remember, the story idea is not the whole story.
The story idea is just the catalyst that gets you to the keyboard.

Dean Wesley Smith taught me that. Also, he has covered his own process several times in his blog. He has an extensive collection of pulp magazines from the old days.

One of his favorite ways of coming up with story ideas is to “crash” the first half of one old story title into the second half of another old story title. When it appeals to him, he writes an opening.

In addition to just looking around, I tend to get ideas from photographs or from some minor event or from overhearing a snippet of conversation.

Ideas from Photographs

I collect cover photographs from stock photo agencies. I have around a thousand. I intend to use them all.

Every now and then when I want to write a story, I skim through those photos (my favorite agencies are Bigstock and Canstock). If a photo appeals to me, it gives me a title (usually) and a story idea (character, problem, setting) and I’m off and writing.

Plus I already have the photo that I probably will use for the cover when I’m finished. I say “probably” because the story often takes an unexpected turn or two. If the turn is big enough, I have to find a different photo for the cover.

You can also find story ideas in photos that you can’t use for covers. The photos can be from any source at all. If it spurs a memory or a thought or a character, you’re off an running. But again, don’t use any photo for a cover unless you have the license to do so.

Ideas from Events

While I was walking along a dirt road one day, a woman passed me in a minivan.

As she passed me at about forty miles per hour, her left hand was on top of the steering wheel at about the 11 o’clock position. She had twisted her head around to look over her right shoulder and was reaching back and pointing with her right hand. Her mouth was wide open as if she was yelling.

There were three children in the back seat. None were in restraints of any kind. Then a cloud of dust enveloped me and all I could still see was her brake lights as she braked just in time to make the upcoming sharp curve and avoid plunging herself and her children some three hundred feet down a steep, rocky hillside to the wide arroyo below.

How many ideas can you get from that one event?

Ideas from Conversation

Sometimes a snippet of conversation comes while I’m walking the aisles or standing in line at the checkout counter of a store.

But more often a character will pop into my head, usually with an attitude and a line of dialogue. This is most often the result of something I see or hear on TV or from someone I’m talking with.

The dialogue in my head almost always introduces the problem and the setting I need for the opening of the story. And of course, the character is the one presenting the dialogue in the first place. This happens a lot with my Brooklyn characters. (This happened today, actually, and started a new short story.)

So when you ask some presenter at a writers’ conference, “Where do you get ideas?” and they say “Everywhere,” that’s exactly what they mean.

Now, possibly I didn’t cover everything you would have liked for me to cover on this topic. If you have any questions, please ask.

Of Interest

An interview between George R. R. Martin and Stephen King. Very good, but about an hour long. You can find it here. I discovered it on Dean’s site in the comments from yesterday’s blog.

Great interview. I took voluminous notes on a Notepad document. Great stuff. I strongly recommend you set aside an hour to listen. In line with today’s topic (above), this interview is Chock Full of story ideas. It is an unintentional writing seminar. I strongly recommend you take notes as you listen.

The Day

Rolled out right at 4. Email and coffee to wake up.

5 a.m., moved outside and wrote the topic above. Then I went to check Dean’s site and found the link for the interview (see “Of Interest”. I listened to the interview, taking notes.

7:45, to the edit.

11:45, finished the edit and got it sent off. Turns out my mobile hotspot on my phone works too out in my Adobe Hovel (thanks to my wife for calling Verizon and having them reset my phone). That’s a great relief. Of course I won’t have it on most of the time. But it’s nice to have when my phone flashes to tell me something important needs my attention online.

Going to take a break now. And I’ve decided when I come back I’m going to write for awhile. (grin)

1 p.m. after a much longer break than I expected, to the writing.

Well, I got some writing done, but not a lot. The edit left me more tired than I thought. Still, I got a good start on another short story. Something completely different. (grin)

Back tomorrow.

Today’s Writing

Fiction Words: 1077
Nonfiction Words: 1400 (Journal)

So total words for the day: 2477

Writing of “Being Eddie Potrano” (short story)

Day 1…… 1077 words. Total words to date…… 1077 words
Day 2…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX words

Writing of “The Day the World Shuddered and Went Dark” (probably a novel)

Day 1…… 1272 words. Total words to date…… 1272 words
Day 2…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX words

Total fiction words for the month……… 58205
Total fiction words for the year………… 316606

Total nonfiction words for the month… 14930
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 131380

Total words for the year (fiction and nonfiction)…… 447986

 

Story Starters, Openings and How to Write Fiction

This is a topic of the day from my Daily Journal yesterday. I’m considering moving the Daily Journal over here and posting it to my Pro Writers list every day. If you’re reading this, you’re on that list.

Anyway, here’s a topic of the day for you.

Story Starters, Openings and How to Write Fiction

One person asked me in an email yesterday where I get ideas and how I can move from story to story. Apparently because of my flurry of activity recently.

I’m going to answer that in two topics.

First of all, I’ve started only seven new works since May 4 (finished 6). That isn’t a lot. At all. In May, I wrote only two works: a novel and a short story. The short story also became the first chapter of my next novel (so eight works if I counted that twice).

In June, thus far I’ve written one novel and four short stories. Yesterday I started a fifth short story that might be a novel instead. That’s it.

But to story starters —

When I sit down to write a short story, it’s most often on the spur of the moment. So I have to come up with a story starter.

What is a story starter? It’s a character with a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story) in a setting. Period. That’s it. Seriously.

(But where do I get the characters? The problem? The setting? That will be in “Getting Ideas” in tomorrow’s post.)

From that story starter, I write an opening.

To do that, I sit down at the keyboard and write whatever springs to mind. Then I write the next sentence, write the next sentence and so on.

The length of the opening varies from writer to writer. For DWS the opening is around 300 – 500 words. For me, the opening is usually 500 – 700 words. By then, I know whether the story will work.

If the opening works, I just keep writing the next sentence. I don’t worry about (or think about) sentence structure, spelling, etc. I just write and keep writing.

I never wonder where the story is going or how the character will solve the problem or any of that. I just write the next sentence.

It really is that simple. It works. It’s how Bradbury wrote. It’s how Stephen King writes. It’s how almost every pulp writer who ever lived wrote. And those of you who have been with me for awhile have seen it first hand.

Do I develop the character?

No, other than knowing his or her “type.” Beyond that, like all humans everywhere, the character develops himself (or herself).

I am constantly surprised by the things my characters say and do. And that’s good. If the characters surprise me, they will also surprise the reader.

If I think them out, plan, plot etc. in advance, I’m playing the Almighty Writer on High. I don’t do that because whatever I can “think up” (conscious mind) the reader can think up. Plotting, planning etc. leads to predictable stories, and predictable stories lead to yawning readers.

Do I agonize over the problem?

Again, no. In my stories, the problem in the opening usually is the “big” problem of the story, but not always. In my openings, the character most often makes decisions and moves toward solving the problem.

What about the setting?

In every opening, I try to invoke all five physical senses. That’s what makes the scene come alive in the reader’s mind. I love writing dialogue and I love writing action (especially Sam Peckinpah style slow motion stuff, sparingly) but none of that happens in a vacuum.

If you don’t provide (through the POV character’s senses) a good description of the setting, any action or dialogue is being delivered against a white background. Not good.

Okay, so come up with a character who has a problem. Drop him (or her) into a setting. Sit down at the keyboard and write whatever springs to mind.

And don’t worry about it. You’re just allowing your characters to tell a story. Nothing more earth-shaking than that.

Back soon with “Getting Ideas.” Or you can subscribe to my other blog at HEStanbrough.com  and read it when it comes out tonight. (grin)

Harvey

Workshop Report

Hi Folks,

Because many of you still haven’t made the switch to my Daily Journal, I decided to post this over here as well. This is for you, not me.

Workshop Report

I finally watched and listened to the Week 1 videos from Dean Wesley Smith’s Teams in Fiction workshop at about 6:30 last night. I expected them to be bland and boring in the first week. Nature of the beast.

In the first week, because a lot of beginning writers take these workshops too, DWS often talks down or very carefully explains things I already know. That’s fine. I understand, and for that reason, my expectations generally are low for the first week of videos.

The fun thing is, I took a TON of notes on Video 2 of Week 1. Much of it was realization rather than learning, and that’s fine. By “realization” I mean I realized (with a sense of relief) some things that I was already doing and learned why I was doing them. So that was good. I also learned a few things I had never thought about. So total win on Week 1.

These workshops really are invaluable if you want to improve your craft. As a disclaimer, I get nothing from referring writers to the workshops. I pass along this stuff only because Dean’s workshops really are islands of real value in an ocean of misinformation and scams.

I taken many of his workshops, classic workshops and lectures. If you have questions about any of them, please feel free to ask me (link at the bottom). I’ll answer honestly.

Of Interest

Dean’s topic today is Follow the Yellow Brick Road, a metaphor for indie publishing. Check it out.

Also of interest, he noted today that his Ideas to Story workshop has NOBODY in it (at the link above, scroll down just a bit to Online Workshops Starting). If you want one-on-one attention, this is the workshop to take. It’s also a GREAT workshop. I’m a seasoned writer, yet I took it a short while back. And it contained SO much more than I expected. Highly recommended.

If you want to take this workshop, email dean@deanwesleysmith.com and ask. Today is supposed to be the last day. Feel free to tell him I sent you. Not that I have any influence, but it might help convince him to let you sign up a little late.

That’s it for this time. As I wrote in a previous post, I’ll toss in something over here from time to time, but the really informative stuff is over at my Daily Journal. Just click the Subscribe link at the top of the page over there. Or email me at harveystanbrough@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to sign you up myself.

Adios,

Harvey