Coming up with good, fleshed-out story ideas can be hard. Looking back at the manuscripts I’ve produced over the last year, there is a wide range of varying quality among them — and a range that can be attributed to several things.
First of all, careful craft is probably the biggest make-or-break variable in my work. I have a dangerous, downright suicidal tendency to rush through from the middle toward the end in a marathon of keys-a-blazin’ writing. I usually end up with a shit ending — and, moreover — a shit story.
But my craft is a long way off from getting me to the point where I feel comfortable sharing my drafting process. And in truth, it’s pretty linear and straightforward. I sit down, crank some rock n’ roll music, and write like crazy. Pretty crude method.
This past weekend, it occured to me that the deadline (December 31) is fast approaching for the next Writers of the Future contest quarter. I’ve had a couple of zany ideas percolating upstairs, but not any that I think are necessarily right for the contest (ones that, however, I’m pretty excited about anyway — stuff Apex, Strange Horizons, or Ideomancer might love).
What reminded me of the deadline? Well, a couple things, but put simply: inspiration.
It’s pretty obvious how one can go about getting inspired to write, or even for a specific story, but what happens when you mix some of those ideas? For me, a certain magic happened this weekend (and even the past couple of days, in a more critical sense), because I allowed for the proper conditions. Friday (or was it Thursday?) night I finished reading Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box. The book was incredible. But…it put me in kind of a funk. The thing about really good books is, they can scare you away from writing. They remind beginners that we’ve got a long road to travel. But it did, fortunately, leave me feeling inspired. It made me want to write, but not horror. I haven’t written SF in a while, so that’s what I felt I should write.
Then Saturday, I went and watched my cousins’ black metal band, A Hill to Die Upon. They blew my mind.
That experience put me in foreign territory in a lot of ways. For one, I don’t typically listen to that sort of music. I like heavy, but they take the brutality of it all to new heights. And they’re phenomenal at it. Also, the scene that I ventured into was different. A cold, dank industrial basement at the old local armory, where the army used to store their Humvees, tanks, and cannons. Badass environment. The place was littered with cozy furniture and vending machines that were so utterly out-of-place as to look surreal. Young adults, teenagers, people of varying ages swarmed the place — all just wanting to hear the music. And participate in a peculiar activity called “raging.” Stand the fuck out of the way when that crap begins. Or you might get trampled to death.
Then I spent a different night leafing through a certain book for inspiration: Spectrum 17, a book of the year’s best in contemporary SF and fantasy art. Holy cow, it’s incredible how much it gets the mind bubbling.
Add to that a whimsical hour-long trip to Barnes & Noble (in a massive Christmas-season shopping mall filled with zombie-esque Americans) and TGI Friday’s (nom!), a couple days of reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Pump Six and Other Stories, along with Tobias S. Buckell’s short story “Waiting for the Zephyr” in John Joseph Adams’ Wastelands, and you’ve got yourself enough inspiration to cause your skull to expand like a balloon.
This much random stimulation, this combination of different experiences (all sensory, and all different in terms of what senses they stimulate), creates a kind of growing cloud in the mind. Carries you to a new fucking place. Fuels the imagination, invigorates, gives you something new to talk — or write — about. The savage nature of the death metal music (bought the CD, so I could continue exploring it), the apocalyptic tales of Bacigalupi and the J. J. Adams book, the shuffling, half-miserable forms of the Christmas shoppers, and the stunningly magnificent artwork to be found in Spectrum 17 – it all coalesces.
It all sets a kind of stage, forms an atmosphere from which to craft a story, a glimmer of fantastic life (in a less-than-fantastic world, in many ways), and a universe of dreams from which to build.
Try something different. Make new friends. Watch that movie you’ve always wanted to see, but haven’t. Read your favorite authors’ early stories. Listen to music you don’t think you’ll like. Go someplace far away, just because your girlfriend (or boyfriend, friend, random stranger) says it might be fun. Observe the world. Combine it all, a world and its inhabitants will suggest itself.
And then, of course, the work begins.