How The Hell To Do This, Part The Second: Pay Attention
Learning to write regularly is one of the most important things when it comes to this business – maybe actually the most important, and if I can call myself prolific by any stretch it’s because I’ve managed to hammer my brain into that pattern. But it’s a little hard to ignore the fact that writing regularly doesn’t do you a tremendous amount of good unless (at some point) you write about something.
Getting ideas is sometimes tricky and sometimes not. I’ve written about it before, but I think it’s worth saying something about again here. In that last post, I said that I think it’s not that I have more ideas than I used to but that I’ve learned how to pay attention to them. I still think that’s true, at least to some degree, but that still doesn’t do much to address the question of where they come from, and how one might get an idea when one is having trouble doing so.
First, as I say, I think a key move is to pay attention – not just to yourself but to everything outside yourself. Writers have to be keen observers; it’s vital to constructing a world that feels real and alive, and characters who feel equally real and alive to live in it. But even more than that, paying attention involves awakening your capacity for being astonished by the world. You won’t notice things if you aren’t looking for them, if you don’t regard everything as worth paying attention to. See the world around you as something truly extraordinary, and I think you won’t long want for something to write about. And you’ll enjoy the process more.
More practical? Well, prompts are always great. A lot of my early publications came out of specific prompts drawn from calls for submission. I think themed anthologies are a great way for a beginner to break into publishing, because it’s slightly less on-spec than shooting stuff into general slushpiles. With a themed anthology, you start with a basic idea of what your story needs to contain or what it has to do, and you can construct something around that framework. It can be less stressful than trying to conjure up something from what feels like nothing, and it can be confidence-building. I found it so. Check out the listings on Duotrope, or other sites that aggregate calls for submission. Keep your eyes open for a project that seems like fun.
More specific? Retelling old stories is usually useful, provided you can do so in a way that really brings something new to the table. Get to know your myths and fairy tales and folktales; there’s a reason certain stories are so enduring. Look long and hard at what’s been done and try to think of a way that you can put your own unique twist on it. What would it look like if you changed this around? What would happen if you tweaked this specific aspect? Sometimes the result can be great. If nothing else, it’s a fun exercise.
Most of all: Chill out. There’s nothing like a OMG I HAVE NO IDEAS panic to drive everything out of your head. Relax. Hang out. Watch the world go by. They’ll probably come, if you make yourself open to them.