The Lifewriting™ approach to your writing career demands a relatively high creative output. It isn’t designed to coddle people who nurse a single story for years before sending it out.
But students often protest that they simply don’t come up with many good ideas, and that the ideas they do generate are appropriate for novels.
In my opinion, basic ideas have no intrinsic length. The TREATMENT of an idea has an intrinsic length. The Civil War can be treated in a one-page story, on in a library of books. It all depends on the skill and intent of the writer.
Let me tell you a story:
When I was in college, I knew a woman who wanted to be a writer. She told me that she was working on a short story, and I said “great.” A few weeks later, I asked her how the story was going. She said “It’s getting a little long—I think it’s a novella.”
“Great!” I said.
A couple of months later, I asked her how the novella was going. “Well, it’s getting a little long, I think it’s a novel!”
“Wow!” I said, although a warning bell was tinkling at the back of my mind. A couple of years later, I asked her how the novel was going.
“Well, it seems to be turning into a trilogy,” she said.
Hmm. I made optimistic sounds, and left it at that.
A decade later, I was traveling on the East Coast, and knew I’d be passing the town where this lady lived. My wife and I stopped in to visit. Just because I have a masochistic streak, I asked how the trilogy was going.
There was a pause. Then, sheepishly she said, “I got tired of it, and put it away. But just a couple of months ago I started working on a new story. It’s good! But” she said, as I knew she would, “it seems to be getting a little long…”
That is so sad. My friend had encountered one of the stealthiest forms of writer’s block: to be able to write, but not be able to finish and submit. It serves the same purpose to an insecure subconscious: it prevents you from suffering rejection.
After all, the idea is so bright and appealing when it enters your mind! The process of actually slogging your way through multiple drafts can be a joy-killer.
Short stories are a perfect means to combat this. A short piece employs all the same basic tools that will be used in a novel, with a crucial difference. In the time it takes you to write a hundred thousand word novel, you can write twenty to forty short stories, and you’ll learn vastly more about your craft in the process.
Also, because you are going through the complete arc of generating story, planning, researching, writing rough draft, polishing, and submitting, you find out where your technical and psychological weaknesses lie.
And yet another advantage: if you write a story a week, or every other week, you don’t need to cling desperately to an idea, thinking it is the only good idea you’ll ever have.
But how to generate ideas? Here are some suggestions:
1) Keep a dream diary. A little digital or tape recorder at the bedside works great for this. Just tell yourself before sleep that you will briefly awaken after a dream and dictate the essence. In the morning, transcribe.
2) Search the newspaper. Make an exercise of looking through the various sections of the paper, looking for odd or interesting stories. Imagine how it would be to be the people caught up in these situations. What story would capture the essence of their lives?
3) Read books and watch movies. Imagine grafting the end of one film to the beginning of another. When a book falls apart, come up with a better ending—and write it.
4) Create modern versions of favorite old fairy tales. Have fun with this—remember, it’s just practice!
5) At the next family reunion or gathering, get the old folks to talk about their youthful days.
6) Go to a playground and watch children playing. Really notice the power games, the sharing, the crying, the laughter, the struggles and triumphs. Every single child, every day, has a story to tell.
7) Mine your own life. Learning to walk, to talk, to drive, to win, to lose. Your first fight, your first kiss, your first job, the first time you got fired.
There is really no end to the possibility. All you need is a belief in your goals, and the recognition that any individual story is just a step along the way—not some soul-searing win-or-lose proposition.