Ideas squeak and wriggle.

A picture of houses in sunset light.

It’s easy to get ideas for writing.  Just notice things in the world, unfocus your eyes a little, think of a conventional explanation, and then screw with it until it squeaks and wriggles.

Repeat as needed.

I practice writing every day.  This year, since the first day of January, I have been posting about five “writing prompts” a day on Twitter.  What they are is either tiny stories or first lines of longer stories.  “Hooks,” if you will.  Today, one of the Tweets came from a story about sentient plants I read, one from a PBS fundraiser concert on television, one from a story about bringing horses inside during Hurricane Irma, and a couple of them from common fantasy story tropes.  It takes me maybe ten minutes to think of five Tweets, though sometimes one will come to me while I’m driving somewhere and I have to remember it.  I expect to be pulled over for distracted driving some time and have to explain that I was trying to remember some important phrase like “billboards–sweatshirts–cereal–Larry.”  Sometimes, to avoid that, I schedule them ahead of time, using Hootsuite on my phone.

Here’s how one of my ideas came about:  The story I read about plants was SF/horror, with some nasty consequences.  What if it was fantasy/humor instead?  “The plants could smell fear.  They could also smell meat cooking, and overripe bananas.  What was happening in the house?”

There.  Now I have an idea.  What is happening in that house?  And what will the plants decide to do about it?  The plants have personality already.  They equate fear, meat, and bananas, and yet they are curious, not angry or avoidant.  They begin to take shape.  And so does the house.  Who lives in that house?  Why are they afraid?  Why bananas?  And the garden–are there weevils in that garden?  Harlequin Stink Bugs?  What kind of plants live there?  Horseradish?  Carrots?  Raspberry canes?  Is the story about the plants, or about what’s happening in the house?

I also started Tweeting “second lines.”  That’s also good practice, exercise for the story-writing “what’s next” part of my brain. I do it by going back, taking one of the old writing prompts, and writing the second line.  Here’s one I just produced.

Original prompt:  “On the third day of complete darkness, she saw cartoon figures and faces with large teeth and eyes floating in midair.” 

Second line:  The floating figures were disturbed that she could see them, and began to stammer explanations. She dismissed them with a wave.”  

The first prompt suggests hallucinations, a common effect of sensory deprivation.  Sometimes when I have had too much coffee, the floating blobs behind my closed eyes at night take on a nightmarish, plastic, distorted quality.  The second line imbues the visions with a slightly “Monsters, Inc.” personality, but it is the person who sees them, not the visions, who is interesting here.  Why does she dismiss them so cavalierly?  What is she really after?  What are her motives?  Hm.  And why would the floating figures wish to remain invisible?

I don’t mean to say I make a story out of every one of them.  But when I was studying art (that was my college major), I kept a sketchbook, though most of the pages in that book were not worth keeping.  As a result, I got better as an artist.

Sketchbooks (or journals, or writing prompts) are not the whole of the work.  They are skill practice, and necessary, but not sufficient. So after I journal and Tweet my prompts, I work on the bigger projects.

I just finished revising novel #1, and was about to start revising #2 before going back and doing the read-aloud edit of #1, but suddenly #3 (well, the other #3, not the unpublishable one but the third in the series) started to take shape.  I had thought that, since #1 was about death and #2 was about the gods sending their children to private school, that #3 would be about aliens invading, but I realized suddenly #3 was obviously about AI digital assistants and drowning.  Or at least water.


Though there might be aliens in there somewhere, too.  You never know.  Probably at the bottom of the swimming pool.  Or maybe they’re behind the curious behavior of the AI digital assistant.*

*Wait.  Maybe the plants are aliens.  They landed, took root, and now they’re stuck in someone’s back yard.

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