Rules Are Made to Be Useful

Philip K. Dick is quoted as saying (paraphrase) “In a short story, the characters exist to serve the idea. In a novel, the plot/story exists to serve the characters.”  Ok, so yes it’s a gross oversimplification and we can all think of exceptions (with all due respect to the Good Doctor, just about anything Isaac Asimov ever wrote, at any length). And it also seems to imply that short story characters, for lack of time, interest, and emphasis, are always going to pale against characters from a novel, which is nonsense on the face of it (see Fritz Leiber or Kelly Link or Andy Duncan. ’nuff said.).

And yet there is a grain of truth there. Continue reading

So Where DO You Get Your story Ideas? – Part 2

Back in So Where DO You Get Your Story Ideas? I was making the point that “ideas” as such really weren’t the issue most of the time. The trick was to recognize a story when you saw one. I don’t take back any of that, but it occurred to me that it wouldn’t hurt to clarify a bit. Some people, especially in the beginning of their development, tend to confuse “story idea” with the story itself, as in, boom, you get the idea, and the story immediately springs to mind, fully grown, like Athena sprouting from the brow of Zeus, and that’s not happening, therefore you’re just not getting story ideas, and What’s Wrong With Me!!?? If you find yourself in that particular panicky death spiral, take a breath, relax, and try to understand that, odds are, there’s nothing at all wrong with you. What you lack isn’t brains, or imagination, but experience. Brains and imagination, so far as I know, you either have or you don’t. Experience is something you have to earn.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that stories don’t sometimes appear fully grown and ready to be written down. It does happen, and it’s a grade A rush. But it’s not a story idea, it’s the story. Not the same thing at all. If it was, then recognizing a story idea would never be a problem. In truth, you’d have to be pretty dense, tired, or distracted to miss one. Usually, they’re a bit more subtle. I tend to think of story ideas like a light switch in a dark room. You fumble around a bit, find the switch and recognize it for what it is, flip it on and bang! Illumination. Now you can see what you need to see to do what you have to do. If what you’ve found really is a story idea, then that flash of illumination will always follow. That’s how you know you were right, but the initial recognition is the crucial step, and we’re back to that. How do you recognize a story? I said some things last time that I think were true enough, but when you boil them all down to essence, there’s only one way to learn how to recognize a story.

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So Where DO You Get Your Story Ideas?

The short but incomplete answer seems to be “everywhere.”  Or as Ursula Le Guin once remarked, turning the question back on her interviewer, “Where do you not get them?”  They’re all around, all the time. Despite this, show me the beginning writer who has not, at one time or another, bemoaned the fact that they want to write so very badly but don’t have the slightest clue as to what to write about. This makes them feel stupid and resentful. I know. I remember. One could pile on like a rat bastard by simply saying “If you can’t think of anything, then you’re probably not a writer. Give it up.”  That not only shows a meanness of spirit but, more to the point, it’s simply not true.  Beginners, like almost every other sentient human being, have lots of ideas. The actual problem is they don’t know which of them are stories. Continue reading