Thursday, February 23, 2012

Idea Hunting

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.


  1. Remidios Varo is amazing. I haven't seen her work before, but it's brilliant, and so inspiring.

    I don't have a problem coming up with ideas, but I do have a problem coming up with ideas when I am at a place I can explore them. Too often, I come up with an idea, and then when I sit to write it it has floated away.

    I think challenges are awesome, they inspire me while I'm sitting at the computer and can follow them around. I would love to write a story based on a picture.

    Great post, Sabrina.

  2. Ideas are not my strong suit, Sabrina, so I really love this post. That house picture is fantastic - and I never would have thought about it rising up from the ground, but that sounds like a REALLY cool story. I love stories about creepy houses that defy the laws of physics.

    Thank you! I'm bookmarking your links now :)

  3. I've got a pile up of fermenting at different stages. The hard part for me is going from idea to full fleshed out story. I wish I could be more of a panster, but I need to see the ending before I can write it.

    Great post, Sabrina. I second or third those writing challenges on Hatrack. Those are fun, and very helpful. :)

  4. I can't wait to read Swallowed the Moon as a novel! The novel I'm working on right now started out as a challenge on Hatrack. You might remember it too, Sabrina--it was the one where one of the prompts was an obsidian knife. The obsidian knife is such a tiny part of the story now that you would never dream it was the inspiration. In fact, the short story I wrote then is now only backstory to the novel.

    I'm usually awful at short stories, but it's amazing how many times I'll start one and it will turn into an idea for a novel. Great post Sabrina!

  5. @Melanie: Very happy you remember it. And I definitely remember the prompt with the obsidian knife. I almost used it as an example, but felt I hsd too much going on. You've read Beneath Shadow, I'm pretty sure, where my main character makes an obsidian knife from the bones of a snake with ruby eyes. :D Anyway, I'm excited to read the novel that the story came from. What's it about now?

    @MaryAnn - I'm pretty good at ideas => story, but no idea how to write a coherent post on it. "See, I sit on my couch and write a whole bunch of words and pick the best ones..."
    Not helpful.

    @Sarah - have you ever heard of 'The House of Leaves' by Mark Danielewski? It's half annoying narration by some random guy, and half a brilliant story of a house that defies the laws of physics. It starts out with a house that measures something like twelve feet on the outside - and twelve and a half feet on the inside. Later a door appears on an outer wall, that leads to a five foot hallway, and then beyond... It's worth reading just for the very fascinating concept. Just skip all the parts narrated by Johnny; you won't miss anything.

    I had one of those when I worked on my thesis. Used to record the occasional story idea while I wandered around the forest looking for birds.

    Also, glad you like Remedios Varo too! I really need to find somewhere in the US that has a gallery of her work. Or at least an artbook - but there's nothing on Amazon.

  6. YES! I loved House of Leaves - I actually even enjoyed the parallel story, and I really loved the way the house was described as a documentary film. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but one of my favorite reads, and really creepy. In fact I just purchased another copy because the one I leant out years ago was never returned. It was the first thing that came to mind when I read your idea :)

  7. Excellent post, Sabrina.

    Have you read "Living Rooms" by Laurie Tam? This story was the Gold award winner for WotF a few years back. I think volume 27...?
    Then there's the classic movies, House and House 2. I've always liked them, despite being somewhat campy.

    I'm awful at coming up with ideas. This wasn't always the case, but for over a year now I've worked from home. I have a 9-5 and I have to be by the phone and e-mail pretty much all day. I can go out into the yard, but not very far in any direction.

    Ideas don't visit the idle.

    I do like for ideas. I force myself to write something for them each quarter, and their (paid, but worth the price) crits are very helpful.

    I've taken to magazines like discover, but the cover price is killing me. I should subscribe and get twelve issues for the price of two. Even when I don't find ideas, I expand my mind. Who knows when something I've learned there will crop up unexpectedly while drafting.

  8. @Dustin, no I haven't read that story. I will check it out - thanks!

    @Sheena, I am the same way about coming up with ideas that float away. I also love to dream up characters or situations or random scenes - I have a tendency to imagine new dystopian world orders when I'm on my walks, and I have no idea why - but daydreaming that kind of idea is very different from thinking up a story.

  9. Those are fascinating pictures -the idea of a house growing up out of the ground - WOW!!!! If you don't use that one, I WILL! I also ran out of all my wild all-night dreams coming alive and taking over dreams (though I'm always hoping for more), so I've been idea hunting too. I have got a couple short story ideas from prompts, but my biggest idea-mine actually came from a 30 loglines in 30 days challenge. I forced myself to write a logline a day, no matter how lame. 26 were LAME but 4 of them have potential and one I am VERY Excited about.

  10. You have so much inspiration in this post - I love it! The paintings are amazing.
    My ideas come and I think I'll never be able to forget them - until I do about 30 seconds later. I've taken to keeping a journal of ideas, and, in fact, my current WIP came from a one sentence flight of fancy that I remembered to write down.

  11. @Sarah - I don't own it, sadly. Can I borrow your copy? ;) (really need my own)

    @Susan - I absolutely have to write down every single idea I have. I have paper in my car and on my beside table. Which of course leads to various small pieces of paper floating around my house, a problem of its own.

    @Margo - that sounds like a really interesting challenge. Do you have a link to the instructions?


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