Build an Idea Bank

I’ve always been one of those people that jots down the random ideas that float in my head.  The other day I was driving down McLean, on a route I’ve taken to work for the past four years.  For some reason, the statue of the bull marking the Chisholm Trail caught my attention, and I thought: well, I bet they had a hard time finding water.  What they needed was a water witch.  Boom!  Random idea that could potentially turn into a story with some work.

Of course, you can’t depend on those ideas to fall into your head when you need them.  That’s why it’s nice to develop a few and bank them.  I think all writers struggle with the Bright Shiny Tempting Idea appearing when we’re drudging through the middle part of the book we thought was awesome when we first started and now seems dreadfully pointless.  Hopefully we’ve all learned that the Bright Shiny Tempting Ideas are mirages.  There’s no reason you can’t write the idea down to return to later.

I like the idea of specifically developing ideas.  There’s two distinct ways I’ve learned to work on idea generation.

One: write a list of everything you like to read about.  Not only can you have fun merging some of these things together, but they can also serve to get you out of a writing bind.  Is what you’re writing about what you like to read about?   As Chris Baty puts it in his book No Plot, No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days: “The things that you appreciate as a reader are also likely the things you’ll excel at as a writer (page 86).” Keep the list and build on it over time. Baty also recommends writing a list of things you don’t like, as those are often the things we think are “important” and we “should” like, and for that reason we try to include them in our works.  “If you won’t enjoy reading it, you won’t enjoy writing it (page 88).”

Two: write a list of 50 first sentences.  Don’t spend too much time at it – take about an hour.  Later on, pick about half of those sentences and write the first paragraph.  From there, you will probably generate about 10 stories.  I first encountered this process in a workshop lead by Kelly Link, an acclaimed short-story author (Magic for Beginners).  For me, inspiration can come from the exercise itself or from knowing that I’ve generated ideas before and can do so again.  I never have to stare at a blank screen because I always have some idea to put there. I might play around with it and find I don’t like it – but by that time, something will have come along.

Here are some of the first sentences I shared at the January meeting.  If they inspire you, please feel free to use them.

  • There was a man who wore out two pair of shoes looking for his woman.
  • Bridget Anwar never got around to telling me what the color of my aura meant.
  • It all started when Maisie Tompkins sat on a squirrel.
  • Sorceresses are notoriously bad at cooking.  Consider Circe, turning all of those men into pigs.  Luckily I didn’t do anything quite so spectacular.  I only turned some of the men green.  And a few grew tails.  I was taken off the duty roster the next day.

If you have other methods you use, please leave them in the comments!  We’d love to hear about them!

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