Decisions, Decisions

I used to write blindly – no idea where a piece was going, what length I was shooting for, what type of story or book it was going to be, what the storyline actually was…nothing planned.  While the spontaneity had its perks, I rarely finished anything.  These days, I do free writes from time to time, writing whatever comes to mind, as a way to purge, as a brainstorming tool, to make connections and associations – in short, to get the advantages of spontaneity without the commitment to making it be a story.

And when I sit down to a project, I know what I want from it.  I don’t plan for every turn of events, don’t outline beyond a rough arc and a few spots of tricky or intricate turns, but I do have some idea of how I want things to end up, and a few of the places I want the story to go through along the way.  I also tend to decide, ahead of time, on what kind of story I want to be writing.  Not necessarily genre (my stuff tends to be weird amalgamations of bent genres fused together into its own thing), but I’ll have in mind, say, High Concept Zany Adventure, With Funny Bits In.  (That would be The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, by the way.)  Or Uplifting Post-Apocolyptic Story, With Rabbit.  (Short story in progress, as well.)

For me, setting a few ground rules actually opens up possibilities rather than limiting my ideas.  Having a direction, something to aim for, makes me look at the broad horizon of the storyline as a whole, rather than plugging along paragraph by paragraph, missing the forest for the trees, working only with what I have written rather than looking at what I can write next.

There are many times I find myself borrowing metaphors from the process of making visual art as a way to look at writing.  The worst part of starting any art project, for me, is the blank page.  Endless possibility is weirdly inhibiting.  Blocking off a few shapes helps you start looking at what you do know needs to go into the piece.

Having a little definition, really knowing what you want a piece to be, goes a long way – at least for me.  If I have a clear sense of what I’m aiming for, everything starts to flow.  I know what kind of things I want to have happen, what fits, what won’t, what I need to happen and how to make it work with the tone instead of against it, where some relief is needed if the story is getting to heavy or where some darkness is necessary if it’s getting too silly and off-the-wall.

So I will keep doing free writes when I’m stuck, need ideas, or am between projects, but I will also set some clear markers for myself when I sit down to really work on something…because that’s how I get things done.

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10 Ideas About Ideas

10 ways to come up with ideas for stories (when you aren’t feeling inspired):

1.  Writing exercises.  There are many excellent books and websites full of them.  Keep some on hand!

2.  Listen to the conversations of strangers.  People say some crazy stuff!  Even when they say “normal” stuff, it’s interesting sometimes to “pretend” more about them than you actually know – basing it off of the way one talks to the other and vice versa.  Are they relatives, friends, co-workers, romantically involved…?  Make up a context for their dialogue, imagine a conflict or dilemma they could be facing.

3.  Research something.  Have you always been interested in learning more about the RAF’s role in WWII?  Or the history of the police force in your city?  Or the new developments in neuroscience?  Or how a bourbon distillery works?  What a day in the life of a timber wolf entails?  Read up on it.  Go on a tour appropriate to your subject.  Check out websites and forums.  Learn how to do something new.  You never know what new information will spark an idea for a story or a character.  Museums of all kinds can be stellar places to find unexpected inspiration.

4.  Brainstorm with another writer (or two, or three).  Just throw ideas out, have fun, and write down notes when anything exciting comes up.

5.  Think of things that bug you in movies and books – specific types of plot holes, stereotypes, or character inconsistencies…pet peeves you have about how OTHER people write.  Write something better!  Did the movie in question have a great idea for a bad guy, but the storyline left him falling so short of his potential as a character that you wanted to throw the DVD case across the room?  (*cough*  Nothing specific in mind there, noooo….)  Write your own bad-ass, and give him a story he can really shine in.

6.  Read some mythology or fairy tales (not the Disney versions, folks, I’m talking about the old, dark, disturbing stuff here – Hans Christian Andersen and prior).  Public domain plots, themes, and characters you can use to get ideas for your own, original stories.  I’m not saying “write fairy tales”; it’s just interesting to play around with the ideas, and some of the themes are powerful and deep-rooted in the human psyche.

7.  If you have ANY ideas for a story or character you want to start working on, but don’t know where to start, make a list.  10 things you know about your character.  10 things you know about your setting.  10 things you know will happen in your story.

8.  Free write.  Sit down and just start writing whatever you’re thinking, and keep writing without stopping for 10 to 15 minutes.  Stream of consciousness, without worrying about punctuation, spelling, or any kind of correction.  After your time’s up, if there are any phrases or ideas or even word combinations you like, highlight ’em or underline ’em.  Keep free writes together in a folder, and flip through when you’re looking for ideas.

9.  Brainstorm using Tarot cards or I Ching wands.  Facade.com has various types of divination readings available online.  You can use the readings to come up with characters and character interactions, conflicts and obstacles for your protagonist, strengths and weaknesses of characters, and story events.  Like reading mythology and fairy tales, this has the benefit of bringing strong symbolism into your work.  Just be sure not to be too heavy-handed with it.

10.  Do something else creative.  Doodle, color, listen to music, finger-paint, play with Lego, cook, do a craft project, improv on the piano for a while, whatever.  Whatever other creative outlets you have, pick one and do that for a while.  Don’t STRESS about coming up with an idea for a story.  Relax and let it come to you.  Sometimes, like a cat or a kid, all it takes is you ignoring it to do something else, and your story suddenly wants your attention.