Where Do Your Ideas Come From? And What If They Don’t?

I have never been very good at writing short fiction.  What most people say is difficult, writing novels, actually comes naturally to me.  It’s the very brevity of the short story that I find so confounding.  And while it’s all fine and good to say, “I’m not good at short fiction,” and then focus on writing novels, it still worries at the back of my mind that I’m not doing the work necessary to master my craft.

Because I originally believed that writing happened by magic and was fueled entirely by talent, I put myself at a real disadvantage at the start of my career.  It wasn’t until I reach middle age that I realized writing was, like anything you do, something that gets better with study, repetition and experimentation. In other words, by doing the work necessary to master your craft.

I set about studying story first by diving into screenwriting, a subset of writing that is almost entirely focused on story and structure.  This very quickly led me to writing long form fiction, a practice I would only abandon briefly now and then when I just happened to be struck by an idea for a short story.

But again, I have this feeling that not getting at least “good” at short fiction is somehow doing a disservice to the process of learning to write better.  People are always wondering out loud how to get published and how to get an agent and so on but the advice on those subjects always starts the same: Write. Better. Fiction.  And the only way to do that is to master the craft.

I’ve written poetry and screenplays that I’m proud of and that have done well out there in the world.  And of course I’m perfectly comfortable with writing long form fiction, but I have only published one short story since I began this journey ten years ago.  That seems wrong.

So I decided to dedicate a year to writing and publishing short stories.  Except for the polish draft of the novel I have to go out to agents, all new work for the next 12 months will be on short fiction.  That was the decision and to get started I went through my folder of short stories I’ve put together over the years.  Some I started but never finished.  Some I finished but didn’t like.  Some I even submitted to magazines but when Analog and F&SF rejected them I just went on about my usual long form work.

What I found after some digging were eight stories that could either be rewritten or were ready to go or contained a germ of an idea that I still feel should be examined.  That’s not very much.  That’s less than one story per year.  So I figured my first task would be overhaul the stories that needed work and submit the ones I felt were ready to go but the very next task would be to start writing like crazy.  Like Harlan Ellison crazy.  

I opened up Google Docs and created a blank document to house my list of story ideas.  I figured I would just jot them down over the next couple of days until I had half a dozen and then pick the best one and get started writing.  But a funny thing happened: That document stayed blank for days.  While I put together a list of 39 magazines to submit to and finished out the rewrites of the stories that needed it and submitted the ones that didn’t, I never came up with a single idea.  Yes, this went on for a week.  Nothing came.  And it was truly terrifying.

Have I reached that point in my life where my brain simply doesn’t have the creative juices left to do something new?  That’s a question you never want to have to ask yourself, because inevitably if you have to ask the question you already know what the answer is.

But then I remembered one of my principal laws of the natural universe: Creativity arises from boredom.  

No more eBooks on the Kindle except for the biography of Robert Heinlein.  For some reason, reading about the lives of creative people has always caused me to become very active.  After reading Josh Logan’s autobiography, I sat down and wrote a musical comedy complete with lyrics (But no music.  I am not musical).  

No more audio books in the car.  No more magazines.  No more word games on my phone.

Where do you get your ideas?  That’s what people always want to know.  The answer is: In line at Walgreens.  Stuck in traffic on 183.  At a red light.  In a construction zone.

Since forcing myself back into the boredom regime, I am happy to say I’ve come up with seven ideas in as many days.  Now I have the other problem: picking one.


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