The Seed and Twist Revisited

I’ve mentioned a couple of times before (here and here) my method of coming up with story ideas.  I call it the seed and twist.  The seed is some humdrum, everyday thing.  The twist is where you look at the seed in a new way, give it some novel alteration.

By way of illustration, I’ll discuss the seed and twist for each of the stories I’ve had published to date.  Don’t think of it as a glimpse into how my mind works; you don’t want to know.  Think of it as a jumping off point for coming up with your own story ideas.  Sometimes my seed ideas aren’t very everyday things.

  • Target Practice
    • Seed:  a prison
    • Twist:  It’s a prison of the future, underwater, and prisoners are made to drive weaponless mini-subs to serve as targets for the country’s submariners.
  • Alexander’s Odyssey
    • Seed:  the legend that Alexander the Great descended in a diving bell
    • Twist:  How would the sea-god Poseidon react?
  • The Sea-Wagon of Yantai
    • Seed:  some obscure references I found that someone had made a submarine in China around 200 BC
    • Twist:  make it a tale pitting war against peace
  • Blood in the River
    • Seed: your standard vampire
    • Twist:  This is an Amazonian vampire-fish known as a candiru, that shape-shifts between human and fish forms.
  • The Finality
    • Seed:  the disaster to come in the year 2012 foretold by the Mayan calendar
    • Twist:  The disaster is the universal end of time itself.
  • The Vessel
    • Seed:  a ship and its crew returning home
    • Twist:  It’s a ship from Atlantis, and their home has sunk beneath the seas.
  • The Steam Elephant
    • Seed: the huge, mechanical elephant from a Jules Verne story set in India.
    • Twist:  Take the same characters, with a newly built steam elephant, and set them in African in 1879, in time for the Anglo-Zulu War.
  • The Wind-Sphere Ship
    • Seed:  the little steam toy invented by Heron (also spelled Hero) in 1st century Alexandria
    • Twist:  What would happen if he’d used steam to power a ship?
  • Within Victorian Mists
    • Seed:  a steampunk romance
    • Twist:  Lasers and holograms get invented early, in the late 1800s.
  • Seasteadia
    • Seed:  a story of young love between opposites
    • Twist:  The story is set against the backdrop of the world’s first permanent sea colony, or seastead.
  • A Sea-Fairy Tale
    • Seed:  a man learning that the world must have some fantasy in it
    • Twist:  He learns this from an oceanid, a mythological sea fairy.
  • Leonardo’s Lion
    • Seed:  the life-size clockwork lion built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1515
    • Twist:  It’s about fifty years later and the lion is found by a small boy who finds a secret hidden inside the lion.
  • Against All Gods
    • Seed:  a journey to visit all seven wonders of the ancient world
    • Twist:  The gods of Greek mythology are angry with a pair of mortal lovers and will stop at nothing to ruin their love for each other.
  • A Steampunk Carol
    • Seed:  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
    • Twist:  The story is played out using the characters of “Within Victorian Mists.”
  • The Six Hundred Dollar Man
    • Seed:  the 1970s TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man”
    • Twist:  It’s set in steampunk times.
  • A Tale More True
    • Seed:  the notion of man travelling to the moon
    • Twist:  The story is set in a time even before steam power, when the most powerful man-made source of energy was the metal clockwork spring.

It’s one way of coming up with story ideas.  So far, it’s worked for—

                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 27, 2013Permalink

Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle

Years ago, while reading Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, I was struck by a memorable passage.  He’d titled the fourth chapter “Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle.”

After stating that he’d read how other authors found writing a difficult chore, Mr. Bradbury wrote:

Zen - BradburyBut, you see, my stories have led me through my life.  They shout, I follow.  They run up and bite me on the leg—I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite.  When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off. 

That is the kind of life I’ve had.  Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it.  Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next.  But you’re on your way before dawn.  And the trip?  Exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration. 

Always fun to read Bradbury; even his nonfiction hums with an electric rhythm.  But today I thought I’d examine his metaphor a bit, since it has stayed in my mind for at least a decade.

Drunk on bicycleI understand why it appealed to Bradbury.  First, the phrasing is a bit odd to American ears, and he often sought interesting new ways to express ideas.  Second, I’m sure he had a distinct mental image of what it would be like to be drunk and in charge of a bicycle.  That idea of going somewhere but not knowing where; the wobbly, weaving way you’d be ever on the edge of falling.  Bradbury saw that as being akin to his writing experiences.

Third, I’m sure he enjoyed the concealed contradiction, the playful paradox, inherent in the words “drunk, and in charge.”  There’s no doubt the bicycle rider is going where the bike goes.  If arrested, there’s no doubt whom the police would hold responsible.  But who, after all, is really in charge?  If you’re drunk, as Bradbury says, with life, then you’re in the grip of events beyond your “charge” and it’s your stories that are leading you.

That muse of yours, then, is the one in charge.  You follow where she beckons even when that way seems outlandish or bizarre, because she’s never steered you wrong before.  You’ve no idea where you’ll end up, and the notion of ceding control leaves you with that mix of half terror, half exhilaration.

But when you submit your story before the squinty eyes of the editor, when it’s picked over by readers and critics, where is the responsibility then?  It’s only your name on the story; the muse has vanished, gone on to her other affairs.  Like the drunk bicyclist trying to explain himself to the constable, you can’t point the finger elsewhere.

When I set out to write about this topic today, my aim was to poke holes in the Bradbury’s metaphor, to state that my writing experiences weren’t like that at all.  Especially the half terror part.  I was going to create my own metaphor for my writing life.  I wanted to capture the godlike act of creating a world, of designing the initial conditions, then winding up the characters and letting them go, interacting and confronting their problems.  All the while, that godlike me would be taking notes, watching these wind-up characters’ every move.  If I did my creative job well, readers would enjoy the result.  If not, well, back to the drawing board to create another world peopled with other wind-up dolls.

But instead of condemning Bradbury’s metaphor, I’ve praised it.  From his grave, he laughs at the irony of it.  I thought I was in charge of this blog, thought I had it all planned out.  Now I see I’ve been drunk and in charge of a bicycle, in the grip of other forces.  Yet the one person responsible, the name at the end is—

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

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Character, Plot, or Setting—Which Comes First?

Today’s question is about whether story-writers think about characters, plot, or setting when they first conceive the idea for a story.  If you’ve written fiction, or thought about doing so, which did you start with?

Of these three story elements, perhaps character is most important to the reader.  For readers, vivid and interesting characters linger in the memory long after plot or setting details fade.  Some writers form a complete mental image of one or more characters, and then wonder what to have them do, and where to have them do it.

For other authors, the first image is of a setting.  The scenery is sharp and distinct in their minds.  Perhaps they have a photograph or painting to inspire them, and they decide to craft a tale around that image.  Some story contests use pictures to prompt stories.

Still others think of the action or story-line or basic situation first.  Only after that do they wonder what sort of people should take those actions and where the events should take place.

The image is my attempt to illustrate some of the possibilities graphically.

I’m talking here only about the initial impetus for the story.  That’s not what the readers reads.  In the end, the story must form a complete, coherent, integral whole.  Characters, plot, and setting should fit together and complement each other.  This is especially true of characters and plot.  In a sense, plot and character determine each other.  In a well-written tale, those are the only characters for which the plot makes sense, and vice versa.  You can’t take any characters at random and fit them in any situation.

I doubt there is any right answer to my question about which element writers should think of first.  I’d be shocked to learn if the greatest writers all started with the same element, but I suspect we’ll never know.

I considered the question with respect to my own short stories, and thought at first I had some stories in each category.  Then I reflected on each tale one by one and discovered I had thought of plot first in almost every case.  There were three stories in which the plot immediately determined the characters.  In “Alexander’s Odyssey” and “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the characters were historical or mythological figures.  In the case of “The Steam Elephant,” my sequel to a pair of Jules Verne novels, the characters had been established by Verne.

The single exception to my usual practice of dreaming up a plot first is my story, “Against All Gods,” and I must admit I thought of the setting first there.  I’d wanted to set a story aboard a trireme for some time, and also the Wonders of the Ancient World, so I started with those and conjured up a plot and characters to fit those settings.

Not that it matters to readers, who only see your finished product, but which do you think of first—characters, plot, or setting?  Let me know by leaving a comment.  It’s a question of interest to—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe



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October 14, 2012Permalink

Fleshing Out Your Story

Perhaps you’re a beginning writer with a great idea for a story.  Or maybe you’re an experienced author and someone has come to you with a  story idea and suggested you just whip up the story inspired by that idea.  Either way, there’s something writers know that non-writers don’t — the idea is the easy part.

Would you approach a sculptor with a sketch, then gesture to a nearby block of marble and suggest the sculptor merely chip away at the block until it looks like your sketch?  Would you hum a tune to a composer, and suggest she spend a few minutes penning some lyrics and orchestrating all the instruments to play the harmonic parts to fit with your hummed tune?

It’s not clear to me why people think writing is so different.  Somehow the belief got started that writers search and search for something to write about, that we spend 90% of our time enduring the agony of waiting for the idea to hit.  Once it does, we simply dash off the story and hit send, apparently.  A particularly long novel might, they think, take the better part of an afternoon to jot down.

I hate to be the one to burst the bubble on that myth, but it just ain’t so.  On occasion, it’s true, some writers struggle to figure out what to write about.  For a time, they seek some prompt.  There are books and websites to supply these, but there’s also real life–it’s all around, filled with plenty of things that could form the basis of a story.  Even that’s not enough.  Next the writer must turn this ‘prompt’ into an idea.  This idea forms the skeleton of the story.  An idea includes main characters, a rough primary plot, and some notion of settings.

I don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of getting that far.  But a writer reaching that point is a long way from finished.  Moreover, we have no sense yet of whether the resulting story will be good.  Promising ideas still can suffer from poor execution when converted to finished form.  Alternately, a truly wonderful tale can be spun from a trivial, humdrum idea.

A writer with an idea now faces the task of fleshing out that skeleton.  He must breathe life into the characters, making them identifiable and engaging.  She must select such descriptive words for her settings so as to transport the reader there.  He embellishes the plot with understandable motives for actions, and adds subplots.  She imbues the story with her own style and flair, ensuring she touches on universal human themes.  When his first draft is crap, as it always is, he edits and rewrites, often several times. During these subsequent drafts, she might spice the manuscript with symbolism, alliteration, foreshadowing, character quirks, tension-building techniques, allusion, metaphor, and the other little things separating good from average fiction.  Then, because the story is now too long, he goes through it again, compressing, trimming, cutting, and making each word defend itself.

I’ve made this fleshing-out process sound like drudgery, and sometimes it is.  True writers find enjoyment in it, or at least tolerate it.  But it is not the easy part.  For me, writing consists of the same proportions as Thomas Edison’s formula for genius–1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  Perhaps someday when I’ve written many hundreds of stories it will get more difficult to come up with new ideas, but I’m a long way from that.  Even then the percentages will likely be 2% and 98%.

Were you laboring under a misconception about the difficulty of ideas and the ease of writing?  Have I changed your mind?  Let me know what you think by leaving a comment.  While I wait for you to do that, it’s back to the hard work of fleshing out another skeleton for–

                                                                Poseidon’s Scribe



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The Stories behind the Stories, Part II

Today I’ll continue my attempt to convey where my ideas come from by listing the remainder of my published short stories, and the source of the ideas for each one. If you missed Part I, here it is.   And now for the most recent seven stories:

“Blood in the River.”  At Ralan, I came across a request for submissions for a horror anthology about fish or fishing, to be called Dead Bait.  I had no desire to write horror fiction, and tried to move on to other writing projects.  My muse, however, wanted me to write it and whispered the story idea quite loudly.


“A Sea-Fairy Tale.”  As I recall, the discussion during one critique group session had turned to the then-current popularity of fairies in fantasy fiction.  Again, I had no desire to write anything of the sort, but my muse insisted.  I gave my fairy story a sea-going flair.  The story was published in The New Fairy Tales Anthology.

“The Finality.”  Another visit to Ralans showed me Severed Press was looking for submissions for an anthology about the Mayan 2012 prophesy, to be called 2012 AD.  I’m not one of those who thinks the world will end this December, but that Mayan calendar myth does make for good story material!


“Bringing the Future to You.”  My critique group decided to task ourselves with a writing exercise.  (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was inspired by just such a group challenge.)  We chose a phrase at random from a book of writing prompts.  The phrase was, “The fortune teller said…”  This story was published in the anthology Cheer Up, Universe!


“The Vessel.”  I got this idea at a science fiction conference.  I don’t remember the exact inspiration, but while at the conference I suddenly got a vision of Atlantean sailors returning in their ship to find their homeland, their island, gone.  The idea stuck with me for several months.  Then I had occasion to read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.  His non-fiction book deals with the interaction between high-technology and low-technology cultures in history.  There are elements of that book in my story.  “The Vessel” was published in Quest for Atlantis:  Legends of a Lost Continent.

“Within Victorian Mists.”  I enjoy steampunk, and one night I was websurfing about the topic and saw some buzz about people bemoaning the lack of steampunk romance.  I didn’t want to write romance, but the muse prodded me to give it a try.  In thinking about what I could write, I remembered a mention, years earlier, of someone being surprised radio was invented before the laser.  That got me wondering what might have happened if someone had invented the laser in Victorian times.  This story was published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing.

“Leonardo’s Lion.”  Like many people, I’m fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci.  One aspect of his life is rarely mentioned; late in life he constructed a mechanical lion as entertainment for a royal party.  I got to thinking–what happened to that lion afterward?  Gypsy Shadow Publishing also published this one.  (Notice the clockwork gears on the cover.)

Some writers struggle to search for good story-writing ideas; some bump into ideas all the time.  Whichever you are, may you come across the inspirations you need, the ones that prompt you to write great stories.  That’s the wish of–

                                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 26, 2012Permalink

The Stories behind the Stories, Part I

In these blog entries I’ve usually refrained from shameless promotion of my own stories, but today will be different.  However, since my purpose in these blogs is to offer help to beginning writers, I’ll couch my blatant self-advertising as instructive, educational matter.

Hundreds of cards and letters and e-mails have been pouring in asking me one question.  Well, maybe dozens.  Okay, maybe it’s just a question I’ve been hoping others would ask me:  “Where do your ideas come from?”  I explored the topic last year, but today I’ll trace the origin of the ideas for each of my published short stories.  Perhaps in reading through these, you’ll see how ideas can occur any time and for any reason; good story ideas will come to you, too!

Target Practice.” I wrote this story in 1999, and I honestly don’t remember what the inspiration was.  Back then I was in the midst of writing a novel, and I took time out to write this story and submit it for publication to a wonderful anthology, Lower than the Angels.  I think I just wanted to see if I could create a truly hopeless situation and figure a way for my protagonist to resolve the problem.

“The Steam Elephant.”  Seven years later, as I mentioned here, I was inspired by the book The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley and Eric Brown.  It contained short stories written by modern authors as tributes to Verne.  As a Verne enthusiast, I was thrilled by the book, but disappointed to find no stories echoing Verne’s two-part novel The Steam House.  I decided to write my own, and it was published in Steampunk Tales #5.

“The Wind-Sphere Ship.”  I’m not sure why, but at some point I must have been pondering why steamships weren’t invented much earlier.  After all, the power of steam was known to the ancients.  The Greek inventor Heron (or Hero) developed a steam toy in the first century A.D.  This suggested an alternate history story.  Gypsy Shadow Publishing put this story out in e-book form.

“Alexander’s Odyssey.”  I’ve long been fascinated by the history of submarine development.  One tale held that Alexander the Great descended under water in a glass-windowed barrel.  I  wondered how the sea god, Poseidon, would have reacted, and the story wrote itself.   It was first published in the anthology Magic & Mechanica and then later (in a longer version) by itself in e-book form.

“The Sea-Wagon of Yantai.”  I continued my quest to fictionalize, in short-story form, the development of the submarine.  I found tantalizing references to the Chinese having developed a submarine around the year 200 B.C.  However, I couldn’t find any details.  I figured that left me free to write the story as I wished.  My story was also loosely inspired by Ray Bradbury’s marvelous story, “The Flying Machine,” which I’d read in high school.  Eternal Press published my story.

“Seasteadia.”  Knowing of my interest in the sea, a fellow writer in my critique group sent me an article about the concept of seasteading.  I decided to write a series of stories about seasteading’s possible future.  “Seasteadia” is the first, and so far the only published one, and it appeared in the anthology Aurora of the Sun.

There are more, but I’ll save those for next week’s blog entry.  The point is, a writer’s story ideas come from many sources.  Who knows where your next story idea will originate?  After all, your creative mind works differently from that of–

                                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 19, 2012Permalink

Write What You Know? Really?

One of the oldest sayings about writing is “write what you know.”  Its originator is unknown.  Is this good advice, or bad?

This much is certain; it’s a lucky thing some great writers didn’t actually follow that advice.  For one thing, we never would have had any science fiction or fantasy, since no writer has gone through the experiences of characters in those sorts of stories.

Or have they?

In one sense, all characters encounter problems and experience emotional reactions to those problems, then seek to find a resolution to those problems.  All writers, all prospective writers, and even all people have done these things.  Maybe you haven’t battled menacing wyverns with a magic sword, but you’ve felt fear, had adrenalin rushes, struggled to overcome a difficulty, experienced a feeling like all is lost, grabbed for one last chance, and felt the triumphant glow of victory.  You’ve had the sensations your character will have.  Even though you’re writing about a heroic knight in some never-time of mystical wonder, you’re still—in one sense—writing what you know.

I suspect some long-ago teacher coined the maxim after first giving students a writing assignment and listening to a student complain about not knowing what to write.  The answer “write what you know” isn’t a bad one in that circumstance, since the students aren’t seeking wider publication, and writing about something familiar can free the student from worrying about research or getting facts wrong.

For a writer who is seeking publication, we’ll have to amend the adage.  Write what you know, so long as:

  • It’s not just a list of boring events from your real life;
  • You give us (your readers) an interesting plot and engaging characters;
  • Your descriptions grab us and insert us right into your setting, your story’s world; and
  • Your writing touches something inside us and helps us feel what your main characters feel.

So what you know may be that ugly incident at the school playground from third grade, but don’t give us the play-by-play of that.  Please.  Instead, use the feelings of that long-ago afternoon, but make the events happen in a different time and setting, with different characters.  If your setting is a far-flung planet and your characters are wearing space suits and packing blaster pistols, you might want to do some research to ensure plausibility.  But if you’re true to the emotions you felt on that playground, they’ll come through as genuine in your story and your readers will connect.

So, Beginning Writer, if you’re stuck and don’t know how to get started, try writing what you know, then edit it into what readers want to read.   Just some more free advice from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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In the Mood…

…for writing, I mean.  If you’re an author, how do you get in the best possible mood to write?

Face it, not every moment of the actual process of writing involves the seamless flow of ideas from brain down to fingers typing with frenzied speed on a keyboard.  There are moments (minutes, hours?) spent staring out the window, looking at a world that’s become far more interesting than the problem of figuring out what the next word should be.  At those times, you need a way to get unstuck.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the classic “writer’s block” where you can be stuck for long periods of time—months or years—and unable to get any creative ideas.  I’m talking about the lesser nephew of writer’s block—let’s call it writer’s clog—a temporary condition where your muse has already whispered the story’s basic idea and sketched out a rough plot.  She has since flitted off to Tonga, or wherever she flits to, and left you in charge of the actual writing part.  You’ve worked on the story for a few days, but all of a sudden words aren’t flowing.

Yogi Berra said of baseball, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental,” and I calculate that statement is eighty percent more true of writing.  So your writer’s clog problem is most likely a mental one.  Now, how are you going to stimulate your mind so it wants to write again?

The simplest way for me is to recall the thought process that led me to the story.  That usually conjures up pleasant memories of the initial enthusiasms, the high expectations of how good the story could be.  Back at that earlier time, my muse had just whispered the story idea and it sounded great.  At that moment, I knew the world needed to hear that story and I was excited about the notion of bringing it forth.

But let’s say that’s not working for you.  Consider using this interesting property of your mind—it can associate two things together (like putting two documents in the same file) just because they happened at the same time, no matter how unlike they are.  Let’s say the muse conveyed the story idea to you while you were in the shower, or mowing the lawn, or out for a walk.  Strangely, your mind now connects your story with that experience.  You might be able to regain your passion for the story, and relieve the writer’s clog, by recreating the experience.

Another method is to artificially create a mental association that’s easier to replicate later.  During the first day of writing the story, while the fervor is still there, the muse’s ideas fresh in your mind—you can make your own mental linkage by finding a picture that depicts something about your story (a scene or character) and staring at it.  You could burn some incense or put out some potpourri and stimulate a fragrant linkage.  Or you could play a CD where the music suggests something about the story, thus establishing an aural connection.

Now whenever you see that picture, smell that scent, or play that CD, you will think of your story and likely be in the mood to continue writing it.  Think of it as Writer’s Clog-Be-Gone (patent not exactly pending).

Do you think this technique might work for you?  Has it worked?   Let me know by clicking “Leave a comment.”  It’s down there right below where I sign this entry as…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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A Little Prompting

Would you like to write a story but don’t have any idea what to write about?  Perhaps you often find yourself having this problem.  Once you’re given some external spark, you can write like crazy; it’s just difficult in the beginning to figure out the idea for the story.

In February I mentioned I don’t usually suffer from this problem.  But there must be many who do, given the number of books and websites devoted to helping people solve it.  If you search for “writing prompts” you’ll see what I mean.

No, I won’t be giving you a list of prompts in this blog post, sorry.  My aims are to (1) give you some sources of prompts and (2) suggest some ways you can become self-prompting.  It’s akin to the “give a man a fish” adage.

When it comes to books, I recommend Story Starters by Dr. Lou Willett Stanek, which I had briefly mentioned in a May 15 blog.  Her book is full of brief suggestions, short little prompts you can use to build a story around.  Many of them can be used as the hook–the opening–for your story, after a little alteration.

One website with plenty of prompts is that of Kelly A. Harmon.  Not all of her posts contain prompts, but they are a frequent feature of her site.  And she’s giving them away for free!  The only price is this—if one of her prompts is just the spark you needed to write a story, then out of courtesy you ought to leave a comment thanking her!

Let’s see, I did promise to help you become self-prompting, didn’t I?  It may not be much help to tell you how I do it, but my method just might work for you.  I assign the entire problem to my muse.  (Yes, I know my “muse” is really just the creative side of me, and therefore I’m assigning the problem to myself.  Just go with me here…)  Prompting is my muse’s strength; writing is mine.  It’s just a matter of workload assignment according to aptitude.  What’s more, as long as that’s all I ask of my muse, so far she’s come through for me every time.

Right, that’s no help to you, I know.  Here’s something that might serve you better.  If you examine the common traits of the writing prompts provided by Dr. Stanek and Kelly Harmon, you’ll see the following:

  • They contain a touch of the ordinary. Something links the prompt to everyday life, or at least something within most people’s experience.  In my February 20 blog, I called this the “seed.”
  • They may contain a twist, something that alters the ordinary and makes it unusual, or even extraordinary.
  • They may be related to something visual, a picture or image.  Vision is our primary sense, and seeing something intriguing can be just the thing to spark a story idea.
  • They suggest a problem for someone, or a conflict that someone must resolve.  The conflict may be against someone else, against something in the environment, or against something inside that person.
  • They may involve, or at least suggest, a strong emotion of some kind.
  • They come from the world around us.   You can be prompted by something you actually experience, or by something you read online or in a magazine or newspaper or see on TV.

Those are the elements of a writing prompt. Now you know how Kelly comes up with hers, and how Dr. Stanek wrote a book full of them.  (Don’t tell them I gave away their secret!)  Now you might be able to come up with prompts all on your own.  You may even find, as I suspect, that the initial spark wasn’t your problem all along.  Your real problem is fleshing it out, actually writing an interesting story.

Ah, that would be a subject for another blog post, perhaps one yet to be written by…

Poseidon’s Scribe


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A Trip to the Idea Store

At the risk of upsetting beginning writers who agonize over figuring out what to write about, I’ll admit this is one problem I do not have.  Whatever other deficiencies I have as a writer, a lack of ideas is not among them.  I’m awash in ideas, flooded with them.  Not bragging, since it’s a curse in some ways.

Unfortunately, like some star baseball pitcher who’s a “natural” at the game but can’t pass on his technique to others because he can’t describe what he does, I’m not sure I can put into words just where my ideas come from.  For me, it’s just plucking from the Idea Tree—they’re free for the taking, and all around me.  You, on the other hand, might have to visit the Idea Store, and it will cost you.  I think I can at least give you the store’s address.

First, let’s clarify.  An idea is not a story.  An idea is not even a plot.  The idea for Moby Dick might have been something like, “I’ll write about a sea captain obsessed with hunting a particular whale.”  The idea for the Harry Potter series might have been, “I’ll follow the adventures and maturation of a young boy who’s attending a school for wizards.”  Both reasonably good ideas, but my point is that it’s not the ideas that make those books great.  The skill put into the writing of the books, the fleshing out of the ideas, matters much more.  So don’t think your idea has to be unprecedented, astounding, or unique.  Your story idea can be simple, mundane, overdone, even stupid, but if the story you write based on that idea is well crafted, it will sell.

I’ve found that most story ideas consist of two elements that I’ll call the ‘seed’ and the ‘twist.’  The seed is something really basic, perhaps something from everyday life, or something in the news, or something you read in a book or magazine.  For Herman Melville, his seed might have been the sea captain.  For J. K. Rowling, the seed might have been a boy going through school.

The twist is some adjustment you make to the seed, some new way of looking at it.  It’s where you examine the seed and ask, “but what if—?”  Turn the seed over in your mind and alter it in different ways.  “What if my sea captain was obsessed with a particular whale?” “What if the school was for educating wizards?”

Here are a couple of examples from my own writing.  For “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the seed was a steam-powered ship.  The twist came when I realized that the power of steam was known in ancient times but never put to any use other than with amusing toys.  What if—?  For my story, “Within Victorian Mists,” I set out to write a steampunk romance, and I knew I wanted it set in the Victorian era.  I’d recalled reading somewhere that lasers were invented late; that is, the basic materials had been available earlier but nobody had hit on the concept, even accidentally.  Moreover, holograms are an extension of laser technology.  What if—?

Story ideas need not involve technology, of course.  Often the seed for a story is some previous proven story line by a historical author, or a successful genre.  The twist is simply to bring the story up to date, put it in a different setting, turn a tragedy into a comedy (or vice versa), or tell the same story from the point of view of a different character.  You can even take an event from a classic story that seems unlikely or too coincidental and make that event happen differently, then explore how that would turn out.

This idea of seeds and twists for story ideas is akin to the concept of TRIZ in engineering problem-solving.  Genrich Altshuller reviewed Soviet patent applications and realized that after a technological breakthrough occurred, he could predict the follow-on patent applications that would arrive.  They were all twists on the basic seed technology.  How many times have we seen this in the electronics industry?  Think of VCRs, PDAs, PCs, etc.  The first gadget to hit the market is large, boxy, and black, with rectangular buttons.  The follow-ons become smaller and smaller, then come in different colors and more stylish packaging.

Back to story ideas.  In a later post, I’ll talk about a technique for improving your creativity.  In the meantime, try taking some simple seed ideas and giving them a twist.  Write down your ideas, even the stupid ones, because they can often spark a good idea.  That list is what you just bought at the Idea Store for the price of a little thought.  Earlier, I said you can write a good story from a stupid idea.  That’s true, but it’s a low-percentage shot.  I suggest writing from your best ideas first.

Good luck, and feel free to write to the Scribe if this blog post worked or didn’t work for you.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 20, 2011Permalink