It's a rare bonus episode! Today's topics are generating story ideas and overcoming writer’s block.
Matt from College Park wrote in saying that the podcast has helped his writing, and now his only problem is finding something to write about! He wants to know if I have any tips for overcoming writer's block or figuring out where to begin writing.
OK. Back to story ideas. First I'll talk about non-fiction writing, and then I'll talk about fiction writing because I think the process is different for each.
Generating Non-Fiction Story Ideas
I made my living as a freelance magazine writer for a few years, so my ability to pay my bills rested on my ability to generate marketable story ideas. For the first couple of months it was difficult, but much to my surprise, after I got into the groove and became familiar with my target publications, I saw story ideas everywhere. Some days I would come up with as many as five story ideas. Some of them weren’t so great, but with that many to choose from, I could easily pick the winners.
For me, generating story ideas was all about having the right mindset and surrounding myself with people and publications. Here's some specific advice.
Adopt a curious mindset. You want to know the details about everything. I once got a great story idea for a science trade magazine just from a friend’s casual mention of a repetitive-stress injury. That initial brief comment led me to learn—and write—about lab workers who have had to change careers due to repetitive pipetting. If I hadn't been inquisitive, I wouldn't have learned that there was a story behind that initial brief comment.
Stay current. When you know what's going on, you can spot trends and areas where different stories might intersect. When I was freelancing I subscribed to about 20 magazines and spent at least two hours a day reading news on the Internet. One kind of story that could come out of this type of undirected research is a piece about environmentally friendly weddings. A few years ago, green stories were popping up everywhere. Then I saw an unrelated article about weddings, and suddenly the idea of green weddings popped into my head.
Talk to people. This might seem obvious, but many stories are about people. The more people you talk to, the better chance you have of stumbling upon a really great story. Also, when I was a science writer, almost all my story ideas came from talking to scientists because they had better access to cutting-edge information than I did. I got stories from scientists I was already interviewing for other stories and from scientists I met at conferences.
Identify the publications you want to write for. Keep a list of targeted publications in mind as you're out in the world. I've heard magazine editors complain that writers pitch stories that wouldn't be appropriate for the magazine, so if you are very familiar with a publication and know what kind of stories it runs, not only can you identify ideas, but you'll also write a pitch that's more likely to be accepted.
I knew I wanted to write for a trade publication called The Scientist, so when I heard about a fire in a lab nearby, my mind was ready. I realized that The Scientist might be interested in a story about how to prepare a lab for an emergency if the story included a news hook about the fire. And, indeed, the publication snapped up the article.
In truth, stories are everywhere if your mind is prepared to look for them.
Generating Fiction Story Ideas
Now, on to fiction. For fiction stories, you need inspiration. And actually, getting inspiration for fiction writing isn't so different from searching for non-fiction story ideas.
It's still a good idea to read a lot and interact with others. Fictional stories need characters, and you can get great inspiration from people you know or people you briefly encounter. When I was in college, I used to sit at coffee shops and people watch. I'd pick people who seemed interesting and make up stories about their lives.
I think that watching the public Twitter feed can give you ideas for a story. You can just watch until you see an intriguing post that inspires you, or you can challenge yourself by picking five random tweets and forcing yourself to make a coherent story out of them. (And actually, if I were still a freelance magazine writer, I would also watch Twitter for non-fiction story ideas. It would be a great place to pick up on new trends.)
Another fun approach is to co-opt a minor character from another work to use as your starting point. The most famous example is probably the book Wicked, whose main character is the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, but there are many examples. For instance, Grendel is a book about the monster in Beowulf, and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a play, which was turned into a movie, about minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet. And, of course, fan fiction imagines new adventures for minor characters.
Keeping a journal can be helpful. Flashes of inspiration can come at any time. It can help to have a journal where you can write down ideas as they come and where you can keep track of your general reflections and your dreams just as you are waking up.
Overcoming Writer’s Block
OK, Matt also asked about writer's block, which can affect fiction and non-fiction writers. In my opinion, anything you do to overcome writer's block is just a mind game, but I don't mean that in a bad way because sometimes you have to play mind games to get your work done. Writing is such a solitary experience; it's really all about you and your mind. Here are some things that work for me:
If you're going to procrastinate, force yourself to do something productive. Your choices are folding laundry or writing, not playing solitaire or writing.
Don't get too hung up on writing the first sentence or paragraph. If you have a great quote or a great plot point, and it falls in the middle of your story, write that first and come back to the beginning later. That's how I wrote this transcript. I wrote the tips about generating freelance story ideas first, and then I jotted down a few things about overcoming writer's block. Then I went back to the beginning. I jump around a lot, and I find it helps me to keep writing when I feel stuck.
Free writing. When I was in college, I had a professor who forced us to do free-writing exercises. We had to sit at our desks and write without stopping for 30 minutes. It didn't matter what we wrote. She just watched to make sure that we were constantly putting pen to paper. I found it a very useful exercise, so you might give it a try if you are having a creative block. And a bonus is that it can also be a good way to come up with story ideas.
But nothing focuses my mind like a deadline. So set yourself a deadline and try to make it as real as possible. Line up friends to read your story and tell them you'll deliver it at a certain time. Plan a date, but let yourself go out only if you finish your story. Maybe you're not like this, but I don’t take a deadline seriously unless I know that something bad is going to happen if I don't finish on time. All you listeners are now my “something bad” because I know you'll be unhappy if I release my show late.
One great way to set real deadlines and to meet other writers and get feedback is to join or start a writing group. When I was freelance writing, I met up with about eight other writers every other week. We swapped stories for feedback, talked about our projects, and set goals for the next meeting. It was a wonderful experience, and many of those writers are still my good friends today. Two published books came out of that group: one about employee recognition, called Make Their Day, and another about couples and body-weight issues, called Honey, Does This Make My Butt Look Big?
Writing contests are another way to set a deadline and get inspiration at the same time. I know of three contests with deadlines:
First, there is a blog and podcast called 100 Word Stories that gives out a vague writing assignment every week and chooses a winner from the submissions. Second, the Writers Weekly web site holds a quarterly short-story contest. And third, Writer's Digest has writing contests throughout the year and distributes weekly writing prompts.
I'm sure there are other contests out there, as well as other ideas for generating story ideas and overcoming writer's block, so please add your comments to the Grammar Girl blog at quickanddirtytips.com.