Ideas for stories come easily to me. However, not all writers and would-be writers can say the same. If you struggle to come up with ideas, or perhaps ideas you think are good enough to sustain an entire story that people will want to read from beginning to end, let me assure you it’s not an impossible feat. In fact, it just might be easier than it seems.
Here’s how a new story came to me a couple of weeks ago: I was staying with a long-time friend at a cabin near a lake. Naturally, as you might expect, we got to talking about mutual friends and acquaintances. A couple of those people had done things that I could very loosely use in a story. Next, since my friend and I are both kayakers, we went out on the lake. Since she knows the waterways quite well, she led me through a series of channels when the water was unusually high for August. Still, there were challenges like getting around a beaver dam and one narrow, brisk channel where we wanted to go upstream. We finally reached a calm, lovely pool. Some days earlier, we had visited the house where John Brown once lived and is buried, now a historic site. I had had no idea he even lived there! I did know that several forts in the region played key roles in the French and Indian War.
I put these disparate elements together into a new story, one I had no notion of writing before my visit. Notice how I’ve shifted from talking about story ideas to story elements—setting, backstory, characters, events. That’s how I cobble together a bunch of my stories. It’s nothing like starting off with a killer idea.
Now here’s my challenge if you are struggling: What events—be they historic or simply fascinating incidents—happened near where you live now or once lived? What about them intrigues you? What have you seen, done, and experienced in these places? Who else was with you? What else can you throw into the mix, especially an obstacle or two? I hope that before you know it, you’ll be in the middle of a fine story that only you can tell.
I woke up this morning to find a Bookbub ad in my inbox for The Reinvented Heart. This fabulous anthology featuring Seanan McGuire, Jane Yolen, Naomi Kritzer and others including me (still hard to believe!) will be on sale for $6.99 until it is released next February. But chances are a lot of you will forget all about it between now and February, so order it now. My never-before-published “Etruscan Afterlife,” plus other stories, will be a big batch of sweet surprises when the book shows up on your electronic To Be Read pile, I promise you.
On the day after Wally Funk successfully completed her flight on the Blue Origins rocket ship, what could be more appropriate than some thoughts about how the 1960s space program could have really included at least one woman astronaut? My Analog story, “The Next Frontier,” explores this possibility. For readers and writers, here’s how I took my initial idea all the way to the completed story, which I hope you will read, too!
Do you envision my day beginning with a beautiful fountain pen and crisp, blank pages awaiting my musings or dare I say, insights? Do you picture me putting fresh paper into a typewriter and pounding away until The Story sits in a neat pile of pages on a polished wood desk?
Hah! Here’s one day this week: It starts when, upon waking, I realize I forgot to include something in a chapter I said I’d send off today. So I do some quick reworking via computer before breakfast. Food and tea are accompanied by a side dish of email. That’s when I discover my spam filter claimed for its own the galleys my editor sent me a full week ago. Yikes. They need to go back today.
Once that’s done, including a detour to verify that I have properly employed an infrequently-used adjective, I can get the promised chapter shipped out and eat lunch.
Next up is outlining a few scenes, which bring the conundrum as to the best point of view in a novel told from several characters’ viewpoints. None of the three choices is clearly best. I take a stab at reorganizing some scenes.
Then I look at email again and see that an editor needs my bio. Given the publication’s length constraints, I dig out a recent one and update it.
By now, thoughts of putting a well-balanced fountain pen to creamy paper are a fading memory. However, a blog post to end the day…well, here you go.
It’s the beginning of the month, which means my Patreon statement shows up today listing the wonderful writers, editors, and other creators whom I support via Patreon each month. Yeah, no doubt about it, I feel good each time this arrives and I can see how I’m helping, in my modest way, these terrific people to do marvelous work. But…
Here’s the thing: My Patreon list is nowhere near as inclusive of diverse and/or marginalized individuals as I wish it were. Oh sure, I buy lots of books, magazines, and other works created by folks from all sorts of backgrounds. But still. It’s time, maybe past time, for me to take a hard look right now at who I support and how much.
I’m thrilled to say that my interactive fiction game, T-Rex Time Machine is but one of a double handful of science fiction and fantasy works written by Taos Toolbox alums in the past year or so. Hope you’ll check out the wealth of reading featured on Walter Jon Williams’ blog. They all make great last-minute gifts for yourself or someone else!
Here’s where to find me at Con Jose Aug. 16-20. Bay Area peeps: this means you!
16 Aug 2018, Thursday 16:00 – 17:00, 210F (San Jose Convention Center)
Sometimes, main characters in a story are ordinary people – not everyone is extraordinary. Can such a focus make a story more powerful? What makes them appealing? How does such a story differ from a story of heroes and villains?
Panel discussion with Cecilia Tan (M), Nick Mamatas, Christine Taylor-Butler, Rosemary Claire Smith, Sheila Finch
18 Aug 2018, Saturday 15:30 – 16:00 SFWA Table (San Jose Convention Center)
Stop by and I’ll sign promo materials for T-Rex Time Machine (my interactive fiction game) or any magazines or anthologies you brought with my stories and/or articles.
Clarion 50th Reunion Party
18 Aug 2018, Saturday 20:00 – 23:00
Many, many Clarion classes come together to celebrate fifty years of the boot-camp for writers that launched so many careers. Mine included!
EAT YOUR WORLD (Read Your Food)
19 Aug 2018, Sunday 16:00-17:00 location TBA
Dive into Worldbuilding is throwing a party. Juliette Wade and others will bring foods inspired by fiction. Author attendees will be invited to read food-related snippets from their work.
Like me, many science fiction writers and readers are getting word today about the passing of Harlan Ellison. Some who knew him will sit down to summon words to commemorate his brilliance as a writer and an anthologist coupled with his larger-than-life personality. I want to take a minute to pay tribute to his eloquent advocacy on behalf of writers everywhere. I can think of no better way to do so than to repeat the three words he put forward: Pay. The. Writer.
In this age of digital piracy, to say nothing of good old-fashioned scams at every turn, Harlan Ellison articulated as well as anyone that the money should flow to the writer, not away. If any of my readers are new to the business of writing (and yes, always treat it as a business as much as a creative endeavor), you would do well to keep this principle in mind when someone tries to talk you into giving them your property (which is exactly what your written words are) for free. They may say something to the effect of, “It’ll be good exposure.” One response is, “People die from exposure.” Here’s how Harlan Ellison put it.
Over the weekend, the science fiction and fantasy community lost Gardner Dozois, writer and editor extraordinaire. I’ve known Gardner for decades and wanted to share with you a single instance illustrating how remarkable he was.
Gardner did a stint as the editor-in-residence for the Clarion Writers Workshop the year I attended. Over the four-day period he not only lectured and extended his own unique brand of friendship to every one of us. It was apparent that he wanted us to become the best writers we could be. To that end, he read all the stories we submitted when applying to Clarion plus every single story every one of us had written in the four weeks we’d been there. This had to total around 80-100 stories and he read them during those four days! Then he held one-on-one conferences with each of us in which he critiqued our stories, gave suggestions for what needed work, how to tackle problematic aspects of those stories, and even told us which ones were not worth any more work. His help was above and beyond what any of us had expected, all the more so when I stop and think back on what he could and did accomplish in a mere four days.
When Gardner took his leave of us, my head was spinning! And yet, what he did not do was tell any of us that he wanted to buy our stories for Asimov’s Science Fiction. While disappointing, it wasn’t surprising that none of us had written an Asimov’s-worthy story—yet. Naturally, Gardner could see more clearly than we could that writing is a long game. He did buy from some of us later and/or gave us an honorable mention in one of his year’s best anthologies.
I came away from Clarion vowing to sell Gardner a story. Alas that never happened. But here’s what did occur: Gardner’s advice helped me sell some of my Clarion stories once they had been rewritten from start to finish. A couple of those eventually went on to find homes in Asimov’s sister magazine, Analog. So in closing, I want to thank Gardner for helping to make me the Analog writer I became.
Memorial Day Weekend, come hear me read from one of my dinosaur stories and talk about time travel, shopping at Target in Middle Earth, critiquing, writing methods, predatory business practices, anthropomorphism, and who knows what else! Here is my schedule for Balticon:
Friday, May 25
6pm Anthropomorphism in SFF
Learn how to tell stories from an animal’s unique perspective without resorting to writing humans in fursuits.
Saturday, May 26
11am Stopping the Clocks: Time Travel in Writing
In 1888, H.G. Wells wrote his first time travel story, “The Chronic Argonauts.” 130 years later, the concept is as popular as ever , with people still trying new takes on it. Why is time travel so perennial a theme? What are some of the different rules we’ve seen, and how do they make for good storytelling?
1pm You Can’t Shop at Target in Middle Earth
In your original fantasy setting, everything the characters own has to come from somewhere. Let’s talk about how to build a believable material culture for your world.
2pm Recognizing Predatory Business Practices
How to look for signs that you might not be dealing with a legitimate company – including common tactics such as pay-to-play, signing over derivative works, and others.
Sunday, May 27
12pm Readings: Sarah Avery, Rosemary Claire Smith, Carl Paolino
Authors Sarah Avery, Rosemary Claire Smith, and Carl Paolino read from their work.
5pm How to Incorporate Critique
What do you do when you have two readers giving you different or even contradictory feedback? How much are you willing to let the feedback change your work?
Monday, May 28
10am Outlining vs. Pantsing
Some storytellers require a detailed outline to start fleshing out their story, but others prefer to write by the seat of the pants. What are some techniques to help you get better at one when you prefer the other? Authors and gamemasters welcome!
Hope to see lots of you there!