On the toilet.
In an airplane.
At the zoo.
In a waiting room.
All mundane, ordinary places for a grown American adult to be, right?
They are also all places where I have suddenly and unexpectedly found writing inspiration.
Look, it’s one of the writer’s most frustrating struggles, coming up with writing ideas. Before we even wrestle with putting words to paper, we have to first bully our brains into coming up with an idea: story, premise, characters. This is hard for any fiction writer to do, but it’s especially hard for sci-fi writers. A while back I wrote about Spider Robinson’s excellent short story “Melancholy Elephants,” in which he claims that there hasn’t been an original idea in science fiction for 50 years. (And “Melancholy Elephants” was written in the eighties.)
I sympathize with anyone masochistic enough to call themselves a “sci-fi writer” in this day and age. (I’m mostly talking about escapist sci-fi writers, here; writers of futurist sci-fi, the preachy and political kind of sci-fi, have plenty to write about these days.) Coming up with ideas is hard. Coming up with original ideas is impossible. Coming up with fresh spins on previously used ideas—which is mainly what we sci-fi writers are stuck with doing—is next to impossible.
Most of the sci-fi stories I’ve written are awful because the idea wasn’t fully fleshed out before I committed the story to paper. I went off half-cocked. I’d think of an interesting character or an interesting setting or an interesting premise or an interesting problem and think I had the whole story. When I sat down, the story came out weak, paltry, superficial, incomplete. In a word: sucky.
When you’re sitting down and brainstorming ideas, remember that there are five essential ingredients to a story: setting (where and when the story will take place), characters (who will be in your story, even if it’s only one person), conflict (the problem that the main character has—and make no mistake, they must have a problem—a want or desire that they are being blocked from achieving, even if that desire is simply a glass of water), plot (the main sequence of events in the story), and resolution (the end of the story, where the main character’s problem is solved). During the planning stages, you may want to go one step further and include a premise (the single statement that sums up your story—the moral that it conveys, the result or the outcome of the character’s actions).
Too often, inexperienced writers like me start trying to write a story when we’ve got only the first two ingredients. I’ll see a famous tableau in a painting in an art museum or a particularly lovely patch of woods or desert and I’ll think “Hey, I think I’ve got an idea for a story!” And then I’ll go off and write a sci-fi story that’s poorly planned and inevitably turns out horrible. So I want to encourage you, right off the bat here, to plan your stories before you write them, no matter how galvanizing the source of your inspiration was.
That being said…
…what are some unlikely to places to find writing inspiration?
1. A crowded restaurant. Other writers, editors, and agents have written this on their own blogs, but if you get out into the world and you really listen to other people, some fascinating ideas are going to pop into your head. You overhear the most interesting things (said in the most unique ways) when you sit down in a crowded place like a restaurant or a train station and eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. Most of it’s bound to be inane, but you never know…you may just hear the opening line of your next story.
2. A park. So you’re walking along. It’s a beautiful summer day. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, the sky is the deepest blue, a breeze is ruffling the treetops. You’re in a funk, away in your own head. Maybe you had a bad writing session and you’re frustrated and considering quitting the writing game, or maybe you haven’t been able to write a single word all day and are trying to find inspiration. The breeze flips a leaf over near your foot, and you bend down to look at what was under it. You see, to your astonishment, and army of ants attacking and devouring a caterpillar. This change in perspective—the realization that there are a million tiny dramas being played out in the miniature, invisible world at your feet, every minute of every day, fills you with new purpose. You immediately rush home and write a Hugo Award-winning short story about an interstellar war humanity has with an ant-sized race.
3. A press release. Ever get on the websites of engineering firms or scientific research laboratories and check out some of the cool stuff they’re doing? You’d be amazed what scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are up to. You never know when they’ll make a breakthrough and the technological advancements they’ve discovered will become the throbbing, pulsating, and scientifically plausible heart of your next sci-fi yarn.
4. A piece of music. Sit back, relax, put on some classical music or something ambient, and listen. You’d be surprised where your imagination goes when it’s high on music. Not to mention, it’s a real stress reliever:
5. A bathroom. I wasn’t kidding about sitting on the toilet. I read whenever I’m in the can, and some of the things I read while I’m in there give me ideas. Whenever I’m at my parents’ house, I read all my dad’s old gun magazines, and often I get the idea for crazy futuristic sci-fi weapons or alien-hunting stories. I dunno if you’ve ever read Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, either, but it’s jam-packed with incredible trivia and humorous anecdotes that are bound to get the old creative wheels in your head turning.
6. A waiting room. Wasn’t kidding about that either. My old ’95 Jeep Cherokee is a piece of crap and I have to take it in to Midas all the time. It’s amazing the ideas you’ll come up with when you’re just sitting and people-watching at a repair shop. My imagination starts to wander, and instead of tired young couples with boisterous children, I start to see a family of aliens and their offspring, desperate to have their spaceships repaired so they can get home to Venus or Mars or the Kuiper belt. Instead of grubby, oil-stained mechanics in coveralls, I see…grubby, oil-stained mechanics in coveralls, some with cybernetic limbs or eyes, e-cigarettes clamped between their teeth, grunting about proton-jets and warp-drive engines and micro-thrusters, and insisting that the 2152 Dodge Echelon was the best low-orbit hypersonic sports car, but you can’t find parts for it anymore.
7. A rooftop. I didn’t even have to budge outside of my apartment in Bucheon, South Korea whenever I needed a jolt of inspiration. I just climbed up to the roof of my thirty-story apartment building and gazed out over the city skyline. Looking down on all the people hurrying along the streets below, seeing the strange Korean lettering on all the apartment buildings, watching the jets descending into Incheon Airport, it was all too easy to imagine I was on another planet, or far in the future, and inspiration filled me like a helium balloon and set me soaring.
8. A highway. Road trips are good for the soul, but even on your morning commute, you’ll see things that get your curiosity piqued and your imagination going. I was driving on the 215 in Las Vegas one morning in 2015, heading to work and hating my life as usual, when I was passed by a truck towing a trailer, on top of which sat a tiny house. A sign on the house said “This is America’s Smallest House, and it’s on a nationwide tour!” Weird, right? I’m sure there’s a story in there somewhere. The other crazy thing about Vegas was all the Alaska license plates I saw—and, funnily enough, Hawaii license plates, too. Both those places are a heckuva long way away. Interesting stories there too, I bet.
9. A boat. I don’t know about you, but there’s something mysterious and otherworldly about the sea. How deep it is, how little we know about it, how many gigantic and mysterious and majestic creatures live in it…and, ironically, how close it is to us. (It’s on our same planet, and it’s everywhere the land isn’t.) I went on a whale-watching expedition in Monterey recently and, for the very first time in my life, got to see something as gigantic as a whale up close and personal. We were mere feet away from a pod of feeding humpbacks, who would dive down together, vanish for a minute or two, and then suddenly burst to the surface again, all gaping mouths and bulging gullets, swallowing hundreds of pounds of mackerel at a time, and then diving down to repeat the process all over again. We were so close that I could smell whale breath (gross) and hear the giants making playful trumpeting sounds out of one side of their blowholes. It was…utterly alien, to be so near creatures that are so intelligent and yet lead lives that are so totally different from ours. Spectacular inspiration.
10. A mirror. I know this sounds strange, but have you taken a close look at yourself lately? Examined your eyes, the inside of your mouth, the peculiar folds of your ears, your skin pigmentation, your scars, your wrinkles, your grey hairs, your stubble, your veins? Have you stopped to consider the miracle of evolution that made all of it possible? The inevitability of aging? Societal definitions of beauty (and how closely you conform to them, or don’t conform to them)? Ever paused to consider what the biology of an alien race might be, and if they have mirrors and beauty standards, and what aging looks like for them? If you really take a hard look at yourself and get philosophical, it’s hard not to come up with a story idea.
Anyway, that’s my take on ten unusual (but simple) places to find writing inspiration. As a bonus, I’ll tell you where you won’t find writing inspiration: reading this blog. So get off the Internet and get writing!
(And thanks for stopping by.)