The most commonly asked question to any writer is "Where do you get your ideas?" My favorite answer is "Hayes, Kansas, you have to enclose a SASE."
So, what does this have to do with short stories? Or were you hoping I had forgotten? (Evil laugh? What evil laugh? I just choked on my tea.)
The reason we’re going to take a detour through ideas is that generating ideas is both more important and more difficult with short stories. (Pauses for appropriate question.) Right. You see, novel ideas tend to be things you have to live with for a year or so (okay, three days, but only one novel. Yes, I realize it sold better than all the others. Shut up now, or I give you homework.) They usually speak to something deep within you or at the very least are around themes that have always interested you.
Short story ideas, otoh, are lighter, smaller, self-contained, and depending on your speed of writing you won’t have to live with them for more than a week or so, and after you get a little more practice, probably no more than a day. Also – remember that short stories are both your practice in sending things out and your "loss leader" and promotion once you’re published – you’ll need a lot more short story ideas.
When our group required each member to send out a short story a week, we developed many means of coming up with short stories. For instance, we had a set of ziplocs. One labeled character, another setting and another problem. Inside each back were a ton of little strips of paper, each with, well... a character, a problem and a setting. You got one from each baggie, and off you went.
I can see you staring at me in horror. Yes, I can. Stop it. You’re thinking I’m a total hack and that no idea generated that way could be any good. Try it. For one, sometimes the sheer mismatch of elements required extra creativity. One of the group members got Flea, The Moon and Hunger. She wrote a story about an orphan nicknamed Flea, in a moon colony. The thing is exactly that – these words give you something to start thinking about, but the story that emerges is always ... yours. In a way that can’t be imitated by anyone else.
I confess that this particular form of coming up with story ideas never worked for me. Not sure why. The other method is to start from a sentence. One of the ones we used was "Step away from that feather boa" and even though the entire group started from the same sentence, the stories ran the gamut from sf to funny fantasy.
A method that worked very well for me was the dictionary potluck. Open the dictionary twice. Write a story centering on those two ideas. For instance, my story Sugarbush Soul came from that. You are allowed a discard, btw, and in that case I discarded twice – had to. First draws were Sugarbush Stroke. Followed by Sugarbush Whip. (Gah.)
Another method that worked well for me was to take a headline and "twist" it. Usually I discarded the two first, obvious twists from the headline, because they’re likely to have been done before. (No, really. Look, I’m fairly sure that’s how they come up with most sf movies in Hollywood. Water World. The Postman. Ridiculous stuff that would never fly in a real novel. Or even a short.)
Before we pass on to the exercises (Well, I didn’t tell you I WOULDN’T give you homework) let me touch the concept of stories-that-are-great-but-not-yours. You’ll get these every once in a while, when you start tinkering with ideas. An idea of absolute and undeniable brilliance will hit you, and you’ll pursue it, and it will take you months to realize it was never your idea to write. My son Robert, for ex, had a brilliant short story idea once, called The Minotaur Does Not Bleed – in which the minotaur was a war robot that accidentally gets sent back in time. Look, it’s a great idea. He can’t write it. And he won’t let me do it (the little so and so.) It’s not just that the research would take him years, it’s simply that a serious, mil sf short story is completely at odds with his authorial personality. But he is not experienced enough to realize this, and is sure that in another few years he can do it. (This is also possible. Take my short story, Thirst. I first had the idea for it five years before I wrote it. I also thought it was a novel idea. It took me years of toying around with it before I grew into the author that could write it.) This doesn’t mean it’s always "the story is too good for your ability." It’s often just not for you. Learn to let it go. Like the sappy saying goes – if it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was. Generate a new idea and move on. And submit, submit, submit. The stories ain't gonna sell themselves -- if you don't send them out.
Your challenges, if you should wish to accept them – without reading any of your fellows replies, until you have done yours – let’s try the following. I give you an example each of these story generators, and you give me a sentence description of the story you’d write from it (giving me something about the character. Say for first method, I get Angel, Desert, Nudity. My answer would go something like this: Explorer lost in planet where natives think he’s an angel has to find a suit that will protect him from radiation, while thwarted by interplanetary regulations on how you can dress in space. – fine, it sucks, but you get the idea) Okay, let’s start:
Random character/setting/problem: King; Spaceship; Confusion
Beginning sentence: He hated it when he woke up dead.
Dictionary draw: Mythopeic; cere (and in case you have to do a discard or two) turquoise; mutation
Ripped from the headlines (BEG) - (in this one you can take the route of the technology as a basis for a story or simply the title) – from the WSJ – The Book That Contains All Books
The globally available Kindle could mark as big a shift for reading as the printing press and the codex
Now, have fun. I’ll look over your ideas and point out if you aren’t doing it right ;) Oh, and it’s perfectly fine to comment on each other’s ideas – AFTER you write yours.