Short Stories—Lesson 2: How to get ideas for stories

no-ideas-for-stories“I Don’t Have Any Ideas. . . ”

I hear this a lot from my students, and, to be frank with you, I have felt this way too. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to write about.

 

Here’s the funny thing: it is almost never true that your brain doesn’t have any ideas.

 

Quite the contrary. Usually, the problem is you have too many ideas that your brain can’t process them (causing analysis paralysis).

 

The other problem is that writing takes work. If we don’t exercise our brains, they get tired out on short simple walks. The more we work them, the easier it will be to get ideas.

 

Writing Warm-Up

So, with that being said, let’s get started on our Writing Warm-Up for today. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write about the following prompt:

Finish the story: There were only eighty-nine of them, but I only had one bullet left. I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that cow tongue.

 

The Key to Getting Ideas for Stories

You know it already.

 

I always thought I would find a secret key to writing someday. I thought they taught that in college or something. I thought I would graduate college full of story ideas.

 

I’m going to save you some time. I’m going to teach you something that took me 15 years to learn.

 

YOU are the key.

 

The key to getting ideas for stories is building your own library of ideas over time. Studies have shown repeatedly that by writing and reading for as little as 10 minutes a day, you can improve your writing and generate a ton of ideas.

 

Let’s do some math (Math? Yikes!).

 

Let’s say you could write one page in 15 minutes. Now, let’s say you are motivated enough to write for 15 minutes a day, seven days a week. You would be writing 7 pages per week.

 

That’s about 28 pages per month.

 

You will have written a sizable novel by the end of a year.

 

Now, if you stop complaining about ideas and spend the next 15 years writing for at least 15 minutes every day, how many books will you have written? How many ideas will you have?

 

Oh—and you’ll get faster with time. Many writers finish the first draft of their novel within a few months (everyone works at a different pace though).

 

You are the key.

 

The problem behind writer’s block

Writer’s block is not really an idea problem. It’s a lack of decision making. Or it’s a problem with you being overly critical of your writing. Only sometimes is it about you running out of ideas.

 

The solution? Get busy cranking out words. Write like a crazy person. Turn off your critical brain and write a LOT every day.

 

In On Writing, Stephen King recommends writing and reading for about 3 to 5 hours per day. If you are serious about writing, you should begin thinking about writing this way. You don’t get better at writing by just thinking about writing. Sure, think about writing. But then get out your sketchbook and WRITE!

 

A Motivational Story to get you writing

 

How to use your writing sketchbook

I’m going to quote at length from a writing teacher whose book was inspirational to me in college. In her book Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Janet Burroway calls the writer’s sketchbook a “journal” (which sounds too much like “diary” to me), but the idea is the same. Let’s learn what she has to say about sketchbooks (or journals):

A journal [should be], first of all, a physical object with which you feel comfortable. Some writers keep notes in a shoebox or under the bed, but your journal probably needs to be light enough to carry around easily, sturdy enough to stand up to serious play, large enough to operate as a capacious hold-all for your thoughts. Think of it as a handbag, a backpack, a trunk, a cupboard, an attic, a warehouse of your mind. Everything can go into it: stuff you like and what you paid too much for, what Aunt Lou gave you and the thing you found in the road, this out-of-date what-sit and that high-tech ware. You never know what you’re going to need; absolutely anything may prove useful later on.

(Burroway, xxv)

 

Burroway gives us great metaphors for understanding a writer’s sketchbook, and she gives us some ideas for what to put in it. Notice, she recommends keeping elements in your sketchbook, not just writing entries.

 

What else can you do in your sketchbook?

 

Burroway goes on to recommend adding the following to your journal:

  • an observation
  • an overheard conversation
  • lists
  • longings
  • your response to a piece of music
  • a rough draft of a letter
  • character names
  • quotations from what you are reading
  • the piece of mind you’d like to give so-and-so
  • story ideas
  • memories
  • dreams
  • a few lines of a poem
  • a fantasy conversation
  • titles of things you will never write
  • things you find
  • notes you get

(Burroway, xxv)

 

Here are even MORE ideas (things I commonly put in my sketchbooks):

  • Drawings of characters, settings, items, etc.
  • Random doodles
  • Summaries of your books
  • Analyses and thoughts from stories/shows/movies you read/watch
  • Descriptions of settings and characters
  • Story outlines and story arcs

 

Basically, anything and everything. Some of my sketchbooks have grocery and to-do lists in them.

 

An amazing benefit of the Sketchbook

Here’s the really cool thing about keeping a sketchbook: you will always have ideas!

 

But you have to keep it up. Don’t fizzle out and stop writing. Get into the habit of writing for about 10-20 minutes every day.

 

Beginners: 10–15 minutes daily

Intermediate: 30–45 minutes daily

Serious Writers: Stephen King’s 3–5 hour daily workout

 

Don’t stop there, however. Take your sketchbook with you to school, vacations, eating out—wherever you go—and record your observations and ideas. Or visit your sketchbook every night before bed and write down random stuff that happened to you throughout your day.

 

One night I snapped awake with an inspiring idea for one of my books. Stumbling through the darkness, I snatched my sketchbook from my desk and with blurry, sleep-encrusted vision, I recorded this idea. Then I went back to sleep, knowing the idea was safe.

 

Whatever you do, keep feeding your sketchbook. Then, whenever you find yourself struggling to find inspiration for a short story, pick up your sketchbook and flip through your homemade idea library. You’ll be surprised what you find.

 

Sketchbooking Assignment

I have pasted Burroway’s list and my list below. Choose one of the items in either list, set a timer for 10 minutes, and write until the time is up. Then reset the timer and do another. Then another. Do this until you have 3-5 different sketchbook entries.

 

  • an observation
  • an overheard conversation
  • lists
  • longings
  • your response to a piece of music
  • a rough draft of a letter
  • character names
  • quotations from what you are reading
  • the piece of mind you’d like to give so-and-so
  • story ideas
  • memories
  • dreams
  • a few lines of a poem
  • a fantasy conversation
  • titles of things you will never write
  • things you find
  • notes you get
  • Drawings of characters, settings, items, etc.
  • Random doodles
  • Summaries of your books
  • Analyses and thoughts from stories/shows/movies you read/watch
  • Descriptions of settings and characters
  • Story outlines and story arcs

 

Extra Credit

Illustrate one of your entries. You DO NOT have to be an artist for this. Just have fun creating a drawing for one of your sketchbook entries. This will help you visualize what you are writing about and keep your creative juices flowing.

 

Next Lesson

In the next lesson, we’ll start filling your sketchbook with ideas.

 

Class HOME

Unit One

NEXT—Lesson 3: Idea making Part One: Total Freewriting

BACK—Lesson 1: The Writer’s Sketchbook