Kelly Link has carved out a unique place at the intersection of magic realism and literary fantasy. Her short stories leave many questions unanswered, but stick in your mind for weeks afterwards. Now she explains where her ideas come from.
Kate Wilhelm is a writer of mystery novels, classic science fiction novels like Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang, a short-story writer, and an anthologist. Along with her husband Damon Knight, she co-founded the Clarion Workshop. Although she was no longer an instructor when I went to Clarion in 1995, one of the most useful pieces of writing advice I've ever come across was something Wilhelm said. To roughly paraphrase, she suggests that every writer indirectly collaborates with her subconscious — she calls this collaborator your Silent Partner — who supplies you with ideas that you then turn into stories.
Your Silent Partner doesn't discriminate between the good, the bad, the ugly, and the odd. That's your job. When you reject certain kinds of ideas, Wilhelm says, the S.P stops supplying them. If you are too picky, and turn up your nose at all of the ideas that are coming from your subconscious, eventually the S.P stops offering any at all. When you begin to recognize certain kinds of ideas as useful and welcome, Wilhelm suggests that you stop and offer positive reinforcement. That is, think to yourself, "Yes, that's a terrific idea. More like that, please, S.P." — and the S.P will begin to produce more and more ideas of these fruitful and generative kinds of ideas. As you begin to recognize the kind of ideas that are going to turn into the kind of stories that you want most to write, your subconscious gets even better at fine-tuning the kind of things it provides, as well as faster at giving you useful material. A couple of years ago, when we published Kate Wilhelm's book on writing and workshops, Storyteller, I decided to try out her suggestion about recognizing, welcoming, and fine-tuning the S.P.'s collaborative input, and found that I was having much more fun with the ideas that ended up in the front of my brain, as well as having more ideas of the kind that went somewhere I wanted to go.
Perhaps you're a writer who already has a very good well of story ideas. But if, like me, you sometimes run dry, here's an exercise for generating story ideas that I hope fits well with Kate Wilhelm's advice. What I decided to do was to sit down and, very quickly, make a list of things that I most liked in other people's fiction — these could be thematic, character driven, very general or very specific. I found that when I started this list, it began to incorporate ideas and items which I was inventing as I went along. Here's the list:
book within a book, also made up tv shows — any kind of invented narrative
old mysteries — bad things that have happened in the past
people who know they are doing stupid things, but keep on doing them
people who are blamed for doing things they didn't do
people who make things
people who stage amateur plays / make amateur movies
governesses & parole officers — people with power who can make you miserable, or make you do pointless tasks in order to demonstrate their power
Cat in the Hat-types characters/antagonists/allies
owls or infestations of wild animals
the color green
pet named "the unsub" b/c mother loves forensic mysteries
fraught family dynamics
weird sexual dynamics
attics or basements full of things
girls who kick ass, not necessarily for a good reason
Every once in a while, I revisit this list, to see if there's something on it that generates an idea. I add things as they occur. It's a bit like window shopping.
One more way of generating more story ideas. This is something that the writer Greg Frost suggested — he got it from a talk that the poet/novelist/short story writer Stephen Dobyns gave, and said that Stephen Dobyns himself came up with it after he once asked Raymond Carver about how Carver approached writing short stories. Carver said, "I write the first sentence, and then I write the next sentence and then the next." Apparently this answer at first annoyed Dobyns, whose usual method involved much more planning etc; later, when Dobyns was marooned for two days in a hotel room, feverish, and unable to catch a flight home, he sat down and tried Carver's method. So here's the exercise: without too much preparation, and without spending too much time — say, more than an hour — write down 50 first sentences. Later on, sit down with those 50 sentences, pick half of them, and write 25 first paragraphs. Out of those first paragraphs, Dobyns eventually got half a dozen short stories. I've done this exercise with a couple of workshops, and although I can't vouch for the final stories, many of those 50 first sentences were terrific. Speaking as an editor, I was immediately interested in what came next.
A couple more random things about story ideas: I often think about stories or characters for a long time before I begin to write them — during that period when I'm playing around with the things that will go into one story, I will often find that another story begins to take form as well, and that both stories will begin to get bigger, lumpier, and more interesting — a bit like rolling two Katamari balls at once, if you've ever played Katamari Damacy. Sometimes these story ideas stay separate, and then I'll have a project ready to pick up as soon as I've finished the first story. Sometimes the various story strands will combine into one bigger story ball, and I've learned that this almost always turns out to be interesting and useful as well.
Even when you do have a terrific idea for a short story, sometimes it's difficult to know how best to approach it. So far the method that's worked best for me has been to start with dialogue and nothing else — not even speech tags. If I can get two characters talking to each other, in such a way that their voices and situation are distinct enough to identify w/o descriptions or speech tags or any other kind of distraction, a story begins to take shape. Eventually I go back and revise, but the characters have already begun to come to life in a way that drives the action.
As well as useful ideas, there's a particular category of ideas that you, the writer, will never ever use, but which are pleasing, for whatever reason, to contemplate. I welcome these ideas even as I recognize them as ridiculous. They seem like but-wait-there's-more bonus! ideas that you get, for some reason, along with the useful ones — and sometimes I like these bonus! ideas even better than the ones that become stories or projects. In this category are two titles for anthologies that I will never ever edit, but which I love to contemplate: Manthology is one; the other is Unicats!.
One last category of ideas, to end on: those ideas which are fabulous, but which you may not be the best writer to tackle, or which are too complicated to pursue for other reasons. For example, I've never written a script. I have lots of other things I need and want to be working on. And yet, wouldn't it be a blast to remake the movie "Bringing Up Baby" as a paranormal romance? I keep having this vision of the scene in which Cary Grant's character is wearing Katherine Hepburn's negligee. Doesn't the reason why seem obvious? He's just turned back from were-leopard into Cary Grant.
Kelly Link's latest book is the young-adult story collection Pretty Monsters. This post originally appeared at Fantasy & Scifi Lovin' News & Reviews.