ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
[personal profile] ecosophia
Snoopy let's begin. 

One of the questions most authors field all the time is "Where do you get your ideas?" Harlan Ellison, if I recall correctly, had a snappy comeback for this one; he used to insist with a straight face that there was a little old lady in Poughkeepsie, NY who would mail him a manila envelope full of story ideas on alternate Thursdays, or something like that. 

The fact of the matter is that getting ideas is the easy part of writing. it takes a little practice, that's all. If you have a facility for daydreaming -- something any would-be writer needs to cultivate -- and omnivorous tastes in reading -- something else any would-be writer needs to cultivate -- once you get the habit of thinking about potential stories, you'll have more of them than you know what to do with. 

May I insert a parenthetical comment here? If you ever want to give a writer something to chuckle about in private, or in conversations with other writers, come bustling up to him or her and insist that you've got a really great idea for a story and you're looking for someone to turn it into a book, and you want to split the profits 50/50. This happens to most authors all the time, too. One writer of my acquaintance likes to respond to it by saying, "Tell you what -- instead, we'll split the profits on an hourly basis; your share will be based on how long you took to come up with the idea, compared to how long it takes me to write the book." That ends the conversation neatly, which is of course the point. 

Story ideas are easy. Every writer I know has more ideas for stories than he or she will ever find time to write. If you have a good story idea, great; you've taken your first step toward writing a novel. If you don't have one -- why, that's easy to fix. 

Get some paper and a pen, or open a file in your word processing program of choice, or what have you.

***No, really. Stop reading and go do this, right now. The whole point of an exercise like this is to do it, and learn from the experience.***

Ready? Okay, now as quickly as you can -- without stopping to think or edit or critique what you've written -- write a brief (twelve words or less) description of a random character in the kind of fiction you like. (Examples: "An orphan boy living in a tree in the forest." "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron." "A blacksmith in a deindustrial dark age village.") Now, just as quickly, write nine more of them. 

Turn the page (or scroll down a ways, or what have you). Now in the same way -- without stopping to think or edit or critique what you've written -- write an active verb in the third person singular, with whatever follow-on words English usage requires. (Examples: "discovers." "goes in search of." "escapes from.") Okay? Now write nine more. 

Turn another page (etc.,) and now write down a brief description of something interesting that relates to the kind of fiction you like. Do it, again, without stopping to think or edit or critique. (Examples: "a map of pirate treasure." "a city at the edge of the world." "an army on the march." Now write nine more. 

***Have you done this? Don't read any further until you have.***

Okay, now combine one character with one verb and one interesting thing. Repeat until you've got ten characters with ten verbs and ten interesting things. (Examples" "An orphan boy living in a tree in the forest discovers a map of pirate treasure." "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron goes in search of a city at the edge of the world." "A blacksmith in a deindustrial dark age village escapes from an army on the march." Got it?) You now have ten story ideas -- or, more precisely, you've got the seeds from which ten story ideas can grow. 

Okay. Now go back through them again, and assign different verbs and interesting things to different characters. (Examples: "An orphan boy living in a tree in the forest goes in search of an army on the march." "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron escapes from a map of pirate treasure." "A blacksmith in a deindustrial dark age village discovers a city at the edge of the world.") You now have ten more story ideas. 

Note the second example in this latter set:  "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron escapes from a map of pirate treasure." Your first reaction was probably something like "That's silly -- why would someone want to escape from a map of pirate treasure?" Answer that question and you've got a really original story idea. Here's the baron's illegitimate daughter -- we'll call her Sylvie. Here's a map of pirate treasure. She sees it -- we can fill in the details later -- and immediately up and runs away from home to get away from it. Why? What could be written on a map of pirate treasure, or what could be implied by such a map, or what might other people intend with that map, that would make Sylvie stuff a few prized possessions in a satchel, slip out the window into the night, and hurry away into the darkness with no intention of ever coming back? As you think up answers to these questions, you turn the seed into a full-blown story idea. 

Every novel involves at least one character who does something (thus the active third person singular verb) about something interesting. Of course you can have more than one active character -- in a novel, normally much more than one! -- and they'll probably all be doing things about a variety of interesting objects. The basic situation that drives a novel, though, can usually be summed up in exactly the form I've sketched out. "A hobbit sets out to destroy the accursed Ring of Power." That's the basic situation that drives The Lord of the Rings. "The heir of an interplanetary dukedom flees from his father's killers." That's the basic situation that drives Dune. I could go on.

Of course there's more to it, but the rest evolves from the situation as you ask yourself questions, like the ones I asked about Sylvie. How did the hobbit get the Ring of Power? Why does it have to be destroyed? Who made it? etc., etc., etc. 

There are three ground rules I want to introduce here, before we get to the exercise. We're going to return to them over and over again, so get used to them. 

Rule #1: Give your writing permission to suck. Your initial attempts to come up with ideas, write initial scenes, assemble them into a story and then into a first draft, will suck. Mine always do, and so do everyone else's. (Your library can probably get you a copy of The Return of the Shadow, the volume of The History of Middle-Earth that includes Tolkien's very first drafts for The Fellowship of the Ring. They suck. In fact, they suck, bite, chew, and spit out what's left. Read that if you have any doubts about Rule #1.) Quality comes into writing as you revise. Don't worry about it now. 

Rule #2: Your first thought is probably a cliché. We've all got imaginations stocked with other people's stories, and that's what comes to mind the moment we start trying to imagine our own stories. There's a simple way around this: write down your first idea, and then do something else. Your first thought about why Sylvie is fleeing from that map of pirate treasure probably comes from somebody else's book; note it down, and then come up with some other reason. Better still, come up with half a dozen other reasons, and choose the one that makes you blink with surprise. 

Rule #3: Nothing's set in stone until the first copies come back from the printers. You can change anything and everything as you go. Aragorn son of Arathorn, the last heir of the Kings of Numenor, first appeared in the early drafts of The Fellowship of the Ring as a hobbit named Trotter. Sauron the Dark Lord started out in Tolkien's writings as an evil magical cat named Tevildo. Don't worry about getting it right the first time around. Start, and make changes as you get a clearer idea of where you're headed. 

Okay, now here's your assignment. Come up with a character who interests you, an action that looks like it'll kickstart a story into motion, and an interesting object for the action to be about. To keep it lively, make it an unexpected character doing an unexpected action about something you don't usually see in the kind of novel you like to read. Once you've got your character doing whatever it is about whatever it is, start asking those questions; why is the character doing it? Where did the thing come from, and where is it going? What else is going on in the world where the story is taking place? There are no right answers and no wrong ones. Give it a try, and write everything down; you may discard it all as you proceed with the story, or you may not. 

Give it a try, and see where you end up. In a couple of days, I'll post what I've done along these lines -- and no, it won't be about Sylvie and the pirate map. Stay tuned!

Rule#1 is stuch a tripping point for some

Date: 2018-03-17 04:17 pm (UTC)
chaosadventurer: Chaos Spy Guy (Default)
From: [personal profile] chaosadventurer
I have a college friend who has such a problem with Rule#1 even though she keeps claiming to be a writer. Yet I've somehow ended up with more widely read works(non-fiction) than she has. It is a real problem for far too many on many different endeavors. As the saying goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take, and writers Write!
On Rule#2, a story that appears on the surface to be a cliché, but turns it on its side can be a very enjoyable story. I think if one thinks they are stuck on a cliché or trope, seeing what is written up about it at may help work with it.
Rule#3 doesn't preclude some tweaks via an errata page and hopefully in subsequent printings.

I found a wonderful write up of narrative structure at

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-17 05:40 pm (UTC)
amritarosa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] amritarosa
I love this. 100% applies to visual and dramatic art too.

Why Not? .......

Date: 2018-03-17 09:16 pm (UTC)
chaosadventurer: Chaos Spy Guy (Default)
From: [personal profile] chaosadventurer
I am interested in how things work, especially those skills that I enjoy the results of. In my case I am not very interested in writing fiction, but do enjoy the results even more so knowing what goes into the creation of it.
I'll step back and be a good lurker now.

Link to Notes for novel composition

Date: 2018-03-17 08:51 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Here the link to my first set of notes on composition. I do not know how to upload pdf files to the Green Wiz site, but in July when it switches over to a Drupal-powered site with more features, maybe I can post the chapters then. Or get my own website issues untangled by then, I hope!

I plan to overwrite this set of notes with the next month's notes so as to take up no more bandwidth than this month occupies. So one month special only.

Will I play?

Date: 2018-03-17 09:15 pm (UTC)
scotlyn: a sunlit pathway to the valley (Default)
From: [personal profile] scotlyn
Hi, I am much more of a reader, than a writer. Still, this lesson seems doable, so I did... a bit.

The combination phrase I've decided to start playing around with is:

"An old woman who grumbles frowns at a fork in the road".

Chat soon.

Permission to suck

Date: 2018-03-17 10:39 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Thank you for this exercise.

I took a run at it straight away without much forethought.

Interesting results that seemed more like short story seeds. I am wondering if this is because I was a tad sloppy with the rules and put too much detail in the elements?

A few that stood out, with some of the detail removed:

-A young man obsessed with a computer game. All the electricity in the house goes out.

-A depressive on a canal boat, realises there are will-o'-the-wisps, spinning lights and a haunting.

-A man getting shopping for the wife who dominates him. He organises: All the electricity out in the house.

-Someone leading a ghost walk tour in Edinburgh; witnesses a fight on the steps.

Is it best to keep the elements as simple as possible?


(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-18 12:08 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] collapsingnow
I've got way more ideas than I know what to do with. It's the process of getting from that to a story I need work on. But, I did the exercise and now have one new story idea I really want to write:

"A little old lady dying of cancer becomes as secret agent."

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-18 01:10 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I did it and had a lot of fun. I ended up doing 12 of each, and three separate permutations for a total of 36 ideas. Some of them assigned in order I came up with them, others according to what made sense, but I tried to avoid the cliche combinations. Some don't really tickle me, but there are more than a few that I like. I'm going to use these (or maybe I'll do a few more) to write at least one story to submit to Into the Ruins, in lieu of a full novel. If this experiment goes well I may do several. All of my characters and interesting things are tailored for the deindustrial future.

Here are a few that get my brain racing:
-A young river rafter must get an urgent message to an encroaching settlement.
-A radiowoman has to repair the last tall building around.
-A gatekeeper invents a grand illusion.
-A cartographer discovers an irradiated area.

Can't wait for the next instructions.


(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-18 01:56 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] pretentious_username
*Already has scenarios and characters for multiple projects.*

*Runs the exercise anyways because why not?*

... Okay, show of hands, who else had "a writer thinking up ideas for a new story" pop up while thinking about characters?

First thought: Hey, no recursing!
Second thought: Huh, I can feel the outlines of a story there. Probably a short story, don't think it supports more than that, and I already have a main project and multiple projects on the back burner, but add it to the pile just in case. (Knowing me and how that idea feels, I'll have written it by the end of the month. Stupidly gorgeous and obvious concept...)

Too many ideas

Date: 2018-03-18 05:09 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Lol, I wrote 1300 words on the idea of Sylvie escaping from an enchanted parchment map when the clumsy magician spilled Dysspelling fluid on her village while she was just returning to it. Now she is 3-D and figuring out how to live in our world....

That was fun!

Date: 2018-03-18 02:24 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hi, JMG. I went through the exercises you suggested and had a great time. Now comes the hard part: choosing one of the character/action/description mixes (right now I am siding with "A beggar who was formerly a solder buries an absurd map" but I am torn between that one and a couple others)! Tomorrow I expect to bite the bullet and complete the assignment.

Ron M

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-18 03:03 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
(I am writing outloud, and treating this experiment as though these are tiny seeds, of a huge novel that may grow)

As reading for the first time, I wrote out my responces to prompt one, character, by writting a several subject verb object lines. Once I read prompt two and three I undershood the first prompt more clearly. That being said, there is a lovely nesting factor in stories. The main character having a story that gets shoved off by the events of the plot is good meaty stuff. Anyway, I decided to go through the prompts a second time, and then I matched the pieces together, which was particularly fun, trying to balance between following a match that fits really perfectly against something weird enough that I was curious about how to faness it together at all: these were the lines I ended up with:

The sherrif whose lost the fire to oppose the outlaws realizes a dream of wonderful possibulities
The commander of a great army in a feuding era steals from a crashed airship
The king driven to monasticism by greaf revears a lost raven
The wealthy gardener, custodian of a great botanical managery, seduces a hateful family
The medicine woman who listens to other's inner demons vanquishes a sick horse.
The flying scholar, covets a freak storm
The recently engaged mason works for a cultish legal system
The wandering musician who cannot shutup about himself destroys a magnificent light in the sky
The outlaw logger building an orphanage cowers from a tower untouched by its countless centuries.
The ambitious radio man who hates tradition memoralizes a crashed airship.

I will post what comes from this in reply to your next post in the series. At this moment I am rather keen on figuring out what's up with case 8, the musician; but a prompt outside of the 10 could arise, and each of the ten has some charm to me. I think I will hold onto this list for the writing project, if one of these othese wanted to make an appearance I don't think I would mind.

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-18 04:13 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] stevewritesstuff
I had to be at work by 11:30. Work is 10 minutes from the cafe where I was waiting for my breakfast sandwich when I decided to check this blog. Having read the first part of the exercise, though, it was clear I had to do at least that part then and there. I found a pen and an old envelope in my bag and gave myself until 11:20 to finish it. As it happens, I finished at 11:16; 10 characters in 5 minutes.

I did the rest of the exercises in the break room between clients. I was very surprised by the second round of combining characters, verbs, and interesting things. I found, though-- and I think that this was the point-- that the second round generated more interesting ideas.

I have decided to create my own Dreamwidth site to follow along with this series. Anyone who wants to can read it here:

Fair warnings-- 1. I don't follow JMG's no profanity rule in my own writing and 2. I had written a really fun first entry on this and when I went to post it I found that Dreamwidth had deleted half of it. So what's there now is the best I could do. I might hate Dreamwidth.

-Steve T
Edited Date: 2018-03-18 04:14 am (UTC)

My ideas

Date: 2018-03-18 07:54 am (UTC)
druidtides: (Default)
From: [personal profile] druidtides

I came up with about 6 potential ideas I liked out of the 10x10x10:

A tired warrior falls in love with a giant intelligent cat
A orphan boy living in ruins discovers an ancient airship
A young half android woman falls in love with a super intelligent computer
A wise mage discovers a time vault
A young girl at university learns about an ancient library

I think I am going to run with the first one. What battles has the warrior fought? Does the cat have special abilities?. Can it transform? Who are his enemies? What challenges will they face together? How do they overcome their accepted ideas about partners?

So many ideas

Date: 2018-03-18 08:04 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I get what you are saying about never running out of ideas. I stopped writing down most of them a while ago when it became clear it was the fleshing out and writing part that would be tricky :-) Like a few others here, I already have some ideas I was planning on writing about, but used your exercise to trim and refine them down into some sort of essence!

- The warriors son is ransomed to a fading empire
Inspired by Roman History, in this case Flavius Aetius. In my telling it would be set in the far, far post-industrial future, or perhaps a retro OSS style space opera.

- An amnesic traveller is imprisoned in a gibbet with two strangers
Amnesia is cliched I know, but I love the idea of opening a story with the protagonist trapped in a gibbet and with no idea what is going on.

- A mine worker who recently lost a brother struggles through each day. Meanwhile, gruesome 'accidents' begin to occur. Did they dig too deep?
A story in my head since working underground, I have not decided on an 'unreliable narrator' or actual deep, subterranean beast angle - I figure that would become clear, or not, as I write it!

Hmmm, I sort of want to write all three!

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-18 02:47 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] kayr
English was never my best subject, but I once harbored dreams in my youth of being a writer. So doing these exercises felt stiff and clumsy. No doubt practice will make it easier. I find I have strong feelings about fiction and a lot of it makes me feel manipulated by the author, so I don't read much of it anymore. I don't mind a good story, but I really dislike the feeling of being manipulated by an author.

I did the exercise and here are a few of my examples:

A solitary salt trader who knows all the back ways to get to a good salt gathering spot. She finds a stranger at her spot.

A group of women in the mountains gathering herbs for medicine. The oldest one has trouble getting up and down the mountainside because she is burdened by a heavy bag she won't abandon, but she is the one teaching the others.

Refugees have to be accommodated after a civil war in America somewhere. The village mayor decides that with their labor in exchange for accommodations, they can build a better village.

A caravansary has been established in the very arid west and there is an inn keeper there who trades space for supplies.


(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-19 01:28 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] kayr
Thanks, I will give it a try.

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-18 06:09 pm (UTC)
amritarosa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] amritarosa
Since this process so far looks remarkably like the skry/meditate & sketch regimen I use when designing a new piece, I'll ask a related question here if that's ok.

How do you feel about using tools like tarot to get the imagination rolling when stuck, or to help get out of the rut of ingrained narrative patterns?

Edited Date: 2018-03-18 07:03 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-18 09:56 pm (UTC)
amritarosa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] amritarosa
I have to admit that I've only used tarot cards in that way a few times, but have known people who do it regularly.

More often anymore, the piece really gets to talking to me when I listen to the materials as I work. It's a bit like skrying the materials, with a back and forth conversation about where it's going and what it needs to be as we go along.

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-19 12:20 am (UTC)
amritarosa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] amritarosa
Your process as described is fascinating, btw. Thank you for sharing that.

Sometimes what the piece wants -is- surprising, and sometimes it makes a lot more work for me. But I find that almost every time I say yes to it, I am not sorry in the end.

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-19 12:58 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] matthewdsweet
Apologies for being a post behind. In any event I did run through the exercise. I found some of the action words I chose to be a bit awkward in the end but still came through the process with at least a few interesting ideas:
A backwoods fur trapper seeking fortune and solitude uncovers a spy in the ranks.
A young girl determined to prove doubters wrong attacks a mountain temple.
A brooding bureaucrat with cynical ambition contemplates the ghost of a fallen comrade.


Date: 2018-03-19 02:11 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I know this is late, but I just wanted to say that this exercise really works! I've always considered myself a non-fiction only writer, but this seemed like something even I could do. So I did, and now I have a whole village full of characters, each with their own secret, and a central figure tying them together, a young girl whom everyone underestimates, who has found a strange message and is wondering who to reveal it to. I could hardly sleep last night for imagining the characters' interactions, like a giant puzzle, and I dreamt about some of them. Thanks for a great kick-start. I was sure there was no way I had time and energy to start a novel, and now I can't wait.
--Heather in CA

(no subject)

Date: 2018-03-19 04:00 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
A bit behind schedule after 16 days of March Break, but I’m on it. Here are a few of the ideas that came up:

A man stuck in prison plotting his escape finds a tablet of ancient runes.
A detective in 19th century Paris searches for a crystal sphere passed down through generations of artists.
A circus performer from a travelling band in pre-industrial Europe finds a garden of talismanic herbs.
A hunter from a village in Scotland 2000 years ago reaches for a map to an ancient sacred site.
A blacksmith in a small village in West Africa searches for a pool of divination.

And I’m glad you posted those rules, which acted as a well-placed kick in the behind for my inner critic. On to the rest…


a little bit milktoasty

Date: 2018-03-20 12:14 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hehe, I am apparently only half sitting on the sidelines. Between jobs I popped over and found I couldn't resist the call of a writing prompt. I've made my lists though haven't stirred them together to get story-soup - that'll have to wait.

I have to say that there are some entertaining starts here! Oddly, I couldn't come up with a single "job description" type character detail. Instead mine were all kind of vague: "someone not inherently good at something" or "someone whose needs are relatable" which, when I get down to it is kinda unappealing in its non-specificity.

Will work on more concrete character details later.


Frustrated by the boxes in my mind

Date: 2018-03-20 10:38 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] tiagoantao
I really fell frustrated and small. And with lack of imagination.

For example in the "brief description of something interesting" I started in geographical places and most of the examples afterwards were boxed in it.

Also I had lots of in-between periods where my mind could not conjure anything. I spent more time frozen than writing.

Re: Frustrated by the boxes in my mind

Date: 2018-03-21 01:26 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] tiagoantao
I am trying to learn how to draw using a book called "drawing with the right side of the brain". One of the exercises is to draw upside down. The theory goes that it shuts down the left side. Interestingly the worst sketcher in the world (me) can actually produce some passable stuff this way.

I suspect that this is somewhat similar to what you are describing here...

(no subject)

Date: 2018-06-14 06:56 am (UTC)
aldabra: (Default)
From: [personal profile] aldabra
Oh gosh, have I been stalled on this for three months already? Damn.

Anyway, Facebook just gave me this:

After the West Coast is destroyed by global warming, a solitary reality TV star must survive by creating a military bunker.


ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)John Michael Greer

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