Wednesday, November 4, 2009

But You Have To Send A SASE

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.


C Kelsey said...

If you don't mind I'll try my hand at two different ones.

First: King; Spaceship; Confusion
The ship is the personal battleship for the King who is trying to get back from the wars in time for his daughters wedding but the AI has developed a bug and insists on not only slowing the return journey, but narrating outloud everything as well.

"He hated it when he woke up dead"
The character has reoccurring nightmares during space jumps that always end with him dying just as he wakes up. This time however, when he wakes up everyone else on the ship is gone and jump computer is locked with a random set of coordinates.

Anonymous said...

Random character/setting/problem: King; Spaceship; Confusion

The whole tribe watched the spaceship climb into the heavens on a pillar of fire.
Princess Sarni sighed. "Will they come back wih even more colored cloth?"
The War minister thumped his club on the ground. "We should have killed them and taken everything."
The King finally lowered his gaze, and looked, not at his spoile daughter, nor the War Leader. No, he looked around at his Chief of Paperwork. "I want one. Build me a space ship."

The CoP will build one out of wood, and being no fool, will not be aboard when the, ah, engines are lit. But the incoming space ship (Pirates) see the shape, the sensors finally pick up the heat emissions of the cloaked patrol ship and they decide to skip ravaging this planet.

The burning "Spaceship" leans gently over and crashes into the lagoon. As the tide takes it, the CoP can hear the King talking about how this must be the zero G the spacemen spoke of. They are right, it does make one quite sick.

Beginning sentence: He hated it when he woke up dead.

It always meant there was an emergency. He shed sheets of dead skin all the way from cryo to the nearest command terminal for an update. The fast revival had left him more confused than ever. Which ship was this? Oh, right. The Xerxes, outbound for Utopia with a cargo of frozen embryos, mostly animal.

The command terminal was deader than he felt. He stared at the blank screen while he dressed, then heads for the bridge. Slows as he hears sounds. Pirates. His ship is being boarded.

He dodges pirates, sets up some traps, keeps them busy while he retreats to engineering and rebuilds the EMP scrambled controls. Pirates don't leave evidence behind, but if he can fire the engines, he will have a chance against the strictly local pirates. He surmises that the pirates could only have hit the ship after it had decelerated at its goal, and therefore he just needs to dodge enough for them to run short on fuel. He has plenty left, per safety regs. The combination of distance and keeping his engines pointed at the pirate will protect him, and the ship and cargo from laser fire.

Dictionary draw: Mythopeic; cere (and in case you have to do a discard or two) turquoise; mutation

"Why can't my family be more ordinary? Dad isn't even dead and they're making myths about him. Stupid ones. If he ever managed to bed a hundred virgin concubines in a single night there would be a lot of dissatisfied non-virgins and we'd be wrapping Dad in cere cloth and burying him the next day."

(Hey! Don't look at me, Sarah, they were your words!)

I looked up from my book, and eyed my brother. "So, when you die, you want people to say 'King Justin? He was the one who usually balanced the kingdom's budget and only had one wife, right?' and have them be right?"

"Exactly." He looked around in dissatisfaction. "Although where I'll find someone who can stand me for that long, I haven't a clue."

Since I hadn't yet figured out how to dodge the diplomatic marriage that had been arranged for myself, I was a bit less than sympathetic. "You could try Earth. Lots of women there. I'm going shopping for a traditional wedding gown next week. Why don't you come along. You can tell Dad that you're making sure I don't do anything horribly indiscrete."

[Not sure where to go from here. It threatens to get much too long. But I'm sure I can get both turquoise and mutation in there.]

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

This just begs for flash fiction. The kindle being used as a serving tray in a post-apocalypse society. Serve lunch to the librarian, moaning over how few books of the ancients have been found.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Good ones, Chris.

Pam, write your first one out and send it to me for a quick look over. Done properly I think it can and should sell to Analog or maybe Asimov's.

C Kelsey said...

I really like that last one of yours, Pam. Hmm... I'm going to have to flesh out my ideas if I'm going to compete with you. ;)

I might have to discard that first one of mine. I like writing comedy, but having a King argue with a ships AI is just a repeat of my Noble Knight arguing with a black box. Yes, that last sentence just made me giggle. I have the weirdest sense of humor...

Dave Freer said...

"When the King told the entire assembled crew of the spaceship he was pregnant, confusion reigned. Well, not really. The King, as the only male still reigned naturally, but there was considerable confusion, and no small amount of consternation among those who rather suspected they might be the mother."

Male sea-horses carry the young, and in this case the egg-mother is disposable -rather like kings crushing goblets so no-one else uses them - in this species the female feeds the royal offspring, who don't mind if they start on the breast, and finish the lot - so they catch him a human spacer...

C Kelsey said...

"Kindel grinned in anticipation. After thirty years of training she was finally ready to begin study of The Book. The Book held all the knowledge, wisdom, and power of the Amazons. Study of it was allowed only to the smartest, and most politically adept of the ruling class. But knowledge and power are double-edged implements. As Kindel absorbs more of the highly restricted information, intrigue and danger are at every turn of a page."

Anonymous said...

Dave, do you enjoy twisting your readers' brains like that? ;)

This reminds me of something on the Bar, Eric Flint, IIRC, made us all go off and write "There's a telephone number on the wall. Do you call it?" Amazing spread of stories, even story types.

Never did send that story anywhere. [G,D & R]

Kate said...

"He hated it when he woke up dead"

Um. Does having a started and stalled short story that starts on a rather similar line count?

Opening scene:
No matter how many times you've done it, you never get used to dying. Even when it's something nice and pleasant, like dying in your sleep. When you're lying spreadeagled on a cold stone altar with your wrists and ankles tied so tight it damn near overrides the garishly dressed priest about to start carving pieces off of you, dying really, really sucks.

I had no idea what kind of sacrifice I was going to be, just like I had no idea what the feathered headdress meant, or the chant, or anything. I was just a dumb soldier who'd spent too many months puking his guts up in a filthy, dark ship then marching through hot, wet, stinking bloody forest behind some idiot conquistador bent on making his fortune in the New World.

Only he hadn't. He'd got himself - and us dumb soldiers - caught by the natives. And now one of them was getting ready to do ugly things to me with a knife carved out of black glassy stone.

It'd be nice if he'd do the decent thing and get it over quickly. It still sucks, but it's not so bad if it's quick. The way I'd heard the poor bastards before me screaming, I didn't think I'd be so lucky.

I wasn't.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Da Monkey is an evil man. I think naval biology corrupts the brain... :-P

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris, that could do a story too. My kids go to school with a Kindel

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


SEND STORIES OUT. What? Is your tongue broken that you can't lick stamps????

Here, take the car keys and drive me straight to my grave.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Finish the story. What, aliens disguised as humans going through human lives? What? Finish it already.

Oh, and send it out too. You can get Matapam to lick your stamps for you!

Anonymous said...

Wow. It's really late, and I've put out quite a few personal fires today, so this might not make sense.

There's a fleet of organic and intelligent ships which ferries a species of some sort around space for some as-of-yet-unknown reason. They are a hive intelligence, but are an oligarchy, so there is a "king." Their communication becomes cut somehow, and, to make matters worse, in the middle of an attack on their passenger species. One of the ships or one of the passengers figures out how to reinstate the communication so that the whole fleet and therefore species doesn't die.

Erggh. While I like the idea, I have no idea about anything deeper at the moment.

Linda Davis

Amanda Green said...

Great post, Sarah. I know I'm coming in this late...of course, I also want to know if you've been going through my hard drive. Like Kate, I have a short story -- not finished. But it will be, so quit looking like you're going to yell at me -- that starts along the same line as one of your examples. Except instead of He hated it when he woke up dead, mine starts I always heard there are two things you can never escape -- death and taxes. Well, let me tell you, it really sucks to die -- again. Doesn't feel real good either.

Now, before you yell, I'll go finish the thing. Sheesh, you're a hard taskmaster. ;-p

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - it is my metier. Brains get stiff and set if not taken out and twisted.

Anonymous said...

And you're very good at it, too, Dave. You do it even when you don't mean to.

That is, you didn't, with Finn/Fionn intend the reader to wonder if you had a dragon with multiple personality disorder who was both the protagonist and the antagonist, right? Speaking of "where do you get your ideas" Dave gives them away free, I'm 20K words into a universe where all dragons are both good and bad. It's very fun. Especially when the humans realize that using human definitions of good and evil don't work on dragons.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - but always intend to ;-) and I always get the direction right if I succeed. Because the direction I'm suggesting is merely 'different way' not prescribed course.

Seriously, that is what I wish to do with my writing. Not preach, but make readers question and approach the same things with a different viewpoint. They often look quite different in this light. It's something I believe very earnestly in doing.

Hmm. Beginning to sound like a sententious ass. Stop now!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

One of the things I didn't mention is that what Dave did is one of the reasons -- in his case a little extreme -- why we could all start from the same prod and end up with stories so different no one would know they started in the same place. His training as a fishiologist, :-P for instance, gives him a different -- twisted -- place to pull from. I'm likely as not to go wandering off through history and languages and sometimes both. Kate knows more ways to kill people slowly (at least in stories) and painfully than anyone else I know. Kate has a background in law enforcement. Rowena has more children than anyone should have and still be able to write. (How DOES she doe it?) etc. our unique perspectives and povs make the stories OURS and in the end, unless we file the serial numbers, they end up being about what interest us. :)

Kate said...


It's Amanda who's got the law enforcement background.

I've got a smattering of geology, teacher training, computer geekery (working in software quality assurance explains the intense interest in unpleasant ways to kill people) and weird shit. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I meant Amanda. I have issues with dumb fingers today.

Oh, btw, for those who are barflies, my short story Counterfeit Gipsy is up in the diner. ;)

In response to Kate, in her post. No, not written just now.

Anonymous said...

Dave: "Brains get stiff and set if not taken out and twisted."