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April, 2008 : Feature:

Tapping the Idea Vein

We've written before about where ideas come from and how to work with them, in "Anatomy of an Idea." This month we thought we'd take on the generation of ideas.

Stories flow through all of us, all the time. We think in narrative structures, we sometimes dream in terms of plot. Myth and religion are based on story, psychoanalysis as well. Stories are the fabric of life. Children come home from school laughing about how a classmate spit milk out their nose. College students wax eloquent about the drunken excesses of last Friday's beer bust. Business memos, legal briefs, product summaries—‌they are all narratives designed to communicate, convince, influence. Stories, in short.

The tales of everyday life are generally biographical or expository, slices of life with some special detail that makes them worth telling. They build to a point, and offer a sense of dramatic relief—‌"then she fell off the roof!"

Where bar stories and classroom gossip reflect everyday life on a mundane level of little interest to anyone other than the teller and the tellee, fiction uses the same mechanisms of character, setting and problem to establish a story with a wider appeal. In general fiction, these stories occur in the same setting as private stories—‌the everyday life of the primary world. The history is public, the rules commonly understood. Speculative fiction pursues histories both secret and alternate.

The special detail is common to all forms of story, something that sets them off from the commonplace text. In order for an idea to go from the mundane to the speculative, an additional step is required.

A germ of difference exists in speculative fiction.

So—‌how do we as writers get to that germ of difference?

All stories start with an idea. What comprises an idea is open to negotiation. For some writers a compelling image or odd turn of phrase is sufficient. For others the idea must carry the implication of plot and/or character before it can drive the development of story. Nonetheless, there must be some element of that germ of difference that sets the idea apart from the mundane upon which to build.

One of the most basic structures of a genre story idea is the intersection or juxtaposition of disparate elements. While not necessarily a universal characteristic of genre fiction, this pairing (or multiplicity) is common to most works in our field of any length.

How do you get to the juxtaposition?

Start by identifying it. Look around the room you're in right now. Play Sesame Street in your head. "One of these things is not like the other..." Perhaps something in a photograph or picture on the wall, set alongside the messiest object near you. A picture of a cow and a toner cartridge, for example.

What's the story there?

Cows symbolize agrarian civilization, food, domestication, leather goods, milk, the American family farm, fertility. A toner cartridge is color (or the soot-black lack thereof, and by extension, Manichean dualism), disposability, the Gillette model of razor marketing, the democratization of print publishing. Now we have two sets of concepts to pair together:

Agrarianism Color
Food Blackness
Domestication Dualism
Leather Man-made materials
Milk Marketing innovation
American family farm Print publishing
Fertility Disposability

Story titles leap out from this list. "Black Milk." "Fertile Leather." "Disposable Fertility." Likewise ideas, or at least their building blocks. For example, a story set on a book farm. Characters who follow a dualistic religion founded on food groups.

For practice, try spotting objects and then making lists in this way. Don't limit yourself to two—‌try three or four columns. Work with the skein of free associations which extends all around us all the time.

In a sense, this is much like punning—‌seeing beyond the expected meaning to the other, less conventional significance of what surrounds us in our world.

Here's a related exercise: try keeping track of things which catch your eye and ear. Lyrics of songs. Unusual signs. Images clipped from magazines or saved off of the Internet. Whatever incites your imagination and makes that story spot in your mind tingle. Do this until you've accumulated at least forty or fifty ticklers.

Now make a single-column list of these elements. If you've used images, provide a title or reference number. Number the list. Go to a gaming store and pick up a set of percentile dice, then roll them three times and make a note of the elements the dice give you. Or write these germs of ideas on index cards or scraps of paper and draw three at random.

This is the writerly equivalent of casting lots for the I Ching; much like divination, the process serves to open a way for you to tap into ideas.

Once you have these little seeds or germs, that may well be enough to get a story rolling. If you need more structure to feel like you're onto a legitimate idea, take another step. Specifically, do a bit of free writing. Convince yourself that you're working on flash fiction. Give yourself permission to write a fragment. Tell yourself it's a game, something you are only writing for you. However you are able to free yourself, play and explore the concept.

For example, what is black milk? Where does it come from? Zombie cows? A world without color? Something more metaphorical? Write a few paragraphs of one character explaining to another what this means. Or craft a Wikipedia entry for the world where this is real.

In short, put words on the page without self-critique or even direction. Simply let it happen. This is another layer of the sort of free association mentioned above. You'll take the unordered thought to a higher degree of complexity, and the more realized idea you need to pursue will begin to unfold.

Tapping the idea vein can be approached in other ways, of course. Many writers have a second creative pursuit. Music, drawing, photography, gardening, cooking, sculpture. If you have another outlet, pursue it regularly and let the creative fulfillment from that effort recharge your writing batteries.

Likewise read. A lot. Both within and outside of your chosen (sub)genre. Not just fiction, either—‌news feeds and science/technology reporting are particularly useful for science fiction writers, for example. The classics of science fiction or fantasy or magic realism. The history of speculative fiction is filled with stories which are themselves answers to other stories. You may well see a statement, a concept, an assertion which sets off your own fictional response, either in a positive or a negative sense.

One of the most important things you can do for your ideas is to flesh them out from time to time. Reward your idea generation process with a completed story. Once you've brainstormed the background for "Black Milk," fill the blank screen until you can type "END" or "###," and send it out. Flash fiction and short stories are excellent for achieving the accomplishment of something finished, a work that has gone from idea to story.

Because when it comes down to it, ideas are everywhere, bombarding us all the time. When we don't train ourselves to fully realize the ideas we come up with, we risk winding up with a folder full of lists and story stubs, and nowhere to go from there.

Fiction is self-discovery, for both the writer and the reader. The journey of character mirrors the journey of life. Escalate this journey from the mundane by supercharging it with a sense of wonder and a vision of the unusual, and you'll have a genre story.

Go spill some black milk.

Copyright © 2008, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at


Apr 18, 04:37 by IROSF
Perhaps this essay sparks a thought or two of your own...

The article can be found here.
Apr 19, 00:14 by Jim Van Pelt
Those were fun ideas for coming up with ideas. Something I like about the exercise is that it would push writers away from their first thoughts for stories, which I find are almost invariably imitative or derivative. A lot of the easily rejectable in the slush piles I have read failed because they just weren't different.

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