Using Magic and Percolation to Generate Story Ideas

Recently one of my dear Twitter friends sent out a call for help to a few of her fellow Tweeps. She’s a dab hand at flash fiction and has no qualms about noveling, but when she’s staring a short story deadline in the face, her mind goes blank. Not an uncommon dilemma, as I’m sure most of us can agree.

My co-askees offered some excellent practical advice on using beatsheets, grids, outlines and post-first-draft outlines. I, on the other hand, focused on magic. Okay, not entirely, but magic really is one of the critical ingredients in my toolbox of story-generating tricks. Magic and Percolation–an unbeatable combination.

I decided to share my (somewhat edited) suggestions here, in case any of you are struggling with a looming deadline and finding your brain bereft of the barest whiff of story potential.

Using Magic and Percolation to Find Story

Rule #1 for kicking your story-writing brain into gear is: Don’t Panic! (also a pivotal rule in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so you can’t really go wrong by embracing it.)

Rule #2 for kicking your story-writing brain into gear is: Continue Not Panicking Whilst Embracing the Fact That YOU CAN DO THIS.

Keeping those two rules top of mind, let’s dive into the nitty gritty.

Beatsheets, outlines and the griddy McGriddlecakes approach to story-writing are all useful and might be common-sensical enough to ground you and stave off the panic, and I strongly suggest giving them a go. My approach, however, is a bit more woofty, and it’s a multi-pronged strategy. In no particular order, I’ve use the following techniques to generate short story ideas (most also work for stirring up flash and novel ideas, too):

  • When you go to bed at night, take a glass of water with you. (I SAID my ways are woofty!) Just before you turn off the light, you tell yourself (aloud or not, doesn’t matter): “Self, I need to wake up with a story idea. If it could involve a pixie living in the trunk of Ford Escort, that would be helpful. This magic elixir (cue sipping of water) will ferment the story while I sleep, and when I wake up, a story will be born.” If you like fairytales, there’s no reason at all that this can’t work. It’s worked for me on more occasions than I can count.
  • Think back to a flash fiction prompt where it was difficult for you to pack your story into 100 words (or 500). Can you take that fragment and examine it for story potential that you suppressed in the first go around due to space constraints?
  • Do you have ideas for novels that you’re probably never going to write? Yank a character or two out of one of them and play with them on the page for a while. You can’t take the whole concept with you, because you’re going to get stuck again in the “hideously complex” trap, but you might be able to play on the conflict you’d originally envisioned, to create the briefer, more intense snapshot you need for a short story.
  • Go for a long walk with an idea. Make sure it’s a small, basic idea. Just a kernel of an idea, really. It’s your single ingredient. Just let it float around in your head while you pretend it isn’t there, and be open to all the other ideas that are constantly clamouring to be turned into story. You’ll reject most of those ideas, but in my experience this particular exercise has worked well, even when the original idea is hopelessly vague. It’s like cooking. You have an ingredient that is kind of bland and unappetizing on it’s own, like a handful of spaghetti noodles, and then a bottle of pesto sauce comes floating out of the ether, and bam! Dinner is served!
  • Talk it out with a writing buddy, either in person or via email. If you have a kernel of an idea, flapping your gums about it in a safe environment can help you stumble over the obstacles and bump into the essence of your story. If your idea is bulging at the seams with a bazillion and four characters, conflicts and plot divergences, chatting about it with a writing buddy can help you strip it down to size.  As a rule, I’m horribly secretive about my WIPs, but when I do, I find that articulating my woes can be enough to get me past the roadblocks. It can be especially useful to ask your writing buddy to just listen and answer your specific questions before piling on with the suggestions and questions of their own.
  • Finally, and probably most importantly, read short stories. Lots of them. Glut yourself on them until you start collapsing every situation and every conflict you encounter into short story structure.

Just remember: Don’t Panic!

So, how about you? Any sure-fire tips for tickling the short story muse?

I is for Isosceles

During the month of April, I’m participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge. My challenge posts will focus on 26 of the things that have inspired me as a writer or that I’ve learned as I stumble my way toward becoming a writer. Clicky-click on the link to read some of the other bloggers who are participating in the April madness.


Don’t panic. This isn’t going to be a geometry lesson, I promise. And it’s not just an excuse to use the word “isosceles” either, although who among us wouldn’t seize every opportunity they could to use it? Especially the opportunity to say it aloud–so very trippy off the tongue.

No, this post is about balance, about finding time for our creative passions whilst (another fun word) trying to juggle the challenges and responsibilities of work, family, and walking the pooch/scooping the cat poo/keeping the cupboards stocked with sustenance.

It’s no easy task, finding that balance, and if you do manage to find it, maintaining it doesn’t come easily either. I conceptualize this ongoing pursuit of balance as an isosceles (go on, say it out loud, you know you want to!) triangle.

On the one side–the right side, let’s say–you have the day to day demands on your time. Family, work, home. All the usual suspects. The stuff that keeps the living-your-life boat afloat. Sometimes it’s stuff that’s delightful and rewarding. Sometimes it’s stuff that makes you want to curl up under the blankies and sleep for two months.

On the other side, the left side, you have your creative passion(s). In my case, that’s writing. For you it might be writing too, or perhaps it’s, I don’t know, painting murals, or taking photographs of the underbellies of old automobiles, or knitting sweaters for badgers out of odd bits of string.

It could be that your creative passions have a more scientific or technological bent. Maybe you find creative joy trying to solve the P vs. NP problem or building the fastest, spinniest skateboard known to humankind. Or perhaps your creative passion lies in slapping a hockey puck down the ice through an oncoming horde of brawn and sticks straight past the grasping mitts of the opposing team’s goalie. Creativity is nothing if not versatile.

That leaves the base. That nice solid line spread out along the bottom of the triangle providing stability and safety to the other two sides. It represents our foundation. Our hopes. Our dreams. Our goals and purpose. Our emotional well-being and readiness to fight for our dreams.

You see how in the purple triangle–the isosceles triangle–these two elements of your life are in perfect balance. This doesn’t necessarily equate to spending equal amounts of time on both sides of the triangle. Rather, it means that finding enough time and emotional energy to meet fulfill the goals you’ve set in each, meet the obligations of each, and find fulfillment in each. a. Remember the last time that happened? Yeah. That’s right. Approximately never.

And that’s okay. It’s nigh on impossible to live a perfectly isosceles life, unless you’re fortunate enough to get paid for indulging in your creative passion. Most of the time our triangle is going to be weighted a little more in one direction than another.  We know what direction that’s going to be, don’t we? For most of us, family and work and cat poo are almost always going to have an edge over painting pink tutus on photographs of firefighters.

That’s normal. Natural. Nothing to get our knickers in a twist over. As long as we’re achieving most of our creative goals, enough to keep that inner glow glowing, enough to make us believe in our dreams, we can work with a scalene triangle. We just need to be mindful to keep nudging our sides back towards that isosceles ideal. Because if we don’t, if we lose track of our base (our hopes, goals, ideals; our emotional well-being), the result is going to be this, where top line represents your shrunken foundation turned on its head, the long slangy side is your dreams going down the toilet and the perpendicular side is the boring, rigid regimen of blah your life has become: