I’ve been asked on many occasions where I get my story ideas. As those of you who read my author’s notes like know, I don’t have a single answer to this question. I don’t have an idea-generating machine or magic wand. Stories ideas are out there, everywhere—often it’s just a matter of keeping my eyes open for them. While I certainly can get an idea from almost anywhere, I find that if I’m really stuck, a writing prompt is often surprisingly effective at stimulating an idea and ultimately a story.
I never used to think of myself as someone who could write stories from a prompt—I thought it limiting and contrived—so I was surprised at my success when I first tried it with my Hopefull Monsters writing group a few years ago. We had such good success generating stories, in fact, that we started doing semi-regular “writing challenges” using anthology themes as prompts. This approach had the added advantage of a ready market to which to submit finished stories. Talk about an ideal situation.
I’ve since gone on to troll lists of themed anthologies looking for interesting prompts. Sometimes I’m honestly interested in submitting to the anthology, but more often I’m not (anthologies generally don’t pay well and have notoriously small distributions). Even when I am interested in submitting, I often don’t finish my story by the anthology’s deadline. That doesn’t matter, however, because if I get a good story out of it, I can sell it somewhere else. In fact I’ve had good luck selling writing-prompt-inspired stories to a number of good publications, including my stories “Hoodoo” and “Observations on a Clock” (both inspired by the prompt for the In Situ anthology), Strand in the Web (from a Hopefull Monster writing prompt), and my forthcoming story “The Schrödinger War” (from the Extreme Planets Anthology).
So if you’re stuck looking for something to write, try to stimulate some ideas with a writing prompt, either an interesting line from a poem or book, a picture (my story “Dreams in Dust” came from a visual writing prompt), or even a themed anthology. The important thing is to find something that stirs the imagination and triggers an idea to work with. Then sit down, write, finish and submit (if that’s the goal).