There are many things in writing that I struggle with: characterization, writing stories shorter than 10,000 words, pacing (dear god, pacing)…. But one thing that has always come easily to me: ideas.
In a magical, perfect world, ideas would rain from the sky, or grow on trees. That hasn't quite happened to me, but back when I started writing seriously, I'd have crazy, full story-length dreams. For a new writer, it was extremely convenient. But there were two problems:
1) Even the most perfect dream story was not entirely flush with logic, and some of the more bizarre (and cool) occurrences took too much time to explain within the story.
2) A few years later, I stopped having those sorts of dreams.
I'm actually not all that upset. The dream stories were in general to be more trouble than they're worth. So I've had to adjust. Lots of authors like to say that they find inspiration everywhere, throughout their everyday lives. That has certainly happened for me... but it just seems to take way too long. So instead of waiting for ideas to come to me, I've learned to go out hunting for them.
My current favorite source is writing prompts. Prompts tend to range from a simple concept (such as that anthology Dark Faith I was writing for, to detailed descriptions of plots or even worlds. The ones that work best for me are the ones that provide multiple seemingly unrelated objects or concepts that I can combine as I wish.
Pictures can be another of my favorite sources of inspiration. The journal With Painted Words has a monthly contest where each story must be inspired by the month's picture. But that's the only journal I know of. One of my other favorite sources for pictures is Wikimedia Commons and their annual featured photo contest (here are the 2010 winners).
For example, the following picture pretty much demands its own story. (click for larger size)
photo by Mayquel, from wikimedia commons
It looks abandoned, so whose laundry is that? And why do the top floors look like a separate house, like it once sat at ground level, until the lower floors rose from the dirt, pushing the old house up closer to the sky?
Once I find a prompt, I sit down at the computer and pour every thought I have onto paper, until I find an interesting one (like a house rising slowly from the ground, still brown with dirt - why would that happen? Fairies? Aliens? House is alive? It's a reflection of someone's subconscious?)
As another example, the Liberty Hall Flash Challenge (link below) once had this as their prompt.
Cazadora de Astros, by Remedios Varo
I got a poorly written flash story out of the challenge, but the idea from that challenge keeps growing and changing, and now it's slated to be my next novel. (Melanie, I think you read it when it was a novella - this is "Swallowed the Moon" I'm talking about, in case you remember).
As a bonus, Remedios Varo is now my favorite artist (she's a surrealist, a contemporary of Salvador Dali). Basically every single one of her paintings is a story. Here's a page with a bunch of her works, or you can do a Google image search to see her many, many gorgeous paintings.
Not every prompt leads to a novel. But one of the things I've found about writing is that pretty much every aspect of it takes lots and lots of practice. The same is true with hunting down ideas - I have pages and pages of half-finished prompts and really terrible ideas. But the more I practice, the faster I come up with ideas, and the easier it is to identify the great ones.
Here are some links to good sources of prompts. There are far more out there than I have space to include.
- Hatrack River's Writers Workshop has a contest section (run by its members; anyone can start a contest).
- Liberty Hall Writer's Forum runs weekly flash challenges and short story challenges. You email them for the prompt each week - and if you're just gathering ideas, like me, you're not required to enter.
- Polluto has some of the most detailed prompts I've ever seen.
- Penumbra has monthly themed issues.
- I like the idea of the Ancient New Anthology, where they ask you to present a society that has one invention way ahead of its time (I wanted to do a medieval society with genetic testing, but then I started to wonder how they would get the energy to run the equipment, and if that counted as two technologies, or if I could make that stuff up, and could you really do it without computers, and then I had a headache and had to go lie down).
- With Painted Words has a new picture each month as a prompt.
- This anthology has a cool picture as a prompt.
Happy idea hunting.