Once upon a time, I went to writers’ cons, and I noticed that writers on panels tended to be of two kinds. There were those who outlined their novels and stories in advance, and those who were pantsers who made it up as they went along. Oh, there was a continuum all right, and some writers fell in between, but the polar types squared off like Yin and Yang with guns drawn, and in general, the opposites did not attract.
Some extreme planners prepared outlines hundreds of pages long in minute detail with elaborate sketches for virtually every character, however minor. Little was left to chance, and I didn’t see how their novels and stories could possibly breathe.
Others, an equally rare breed, sat down before their typewriters and yellow legal pads and let fly with little or nothing in their noggins but a desire to create. And to this community I have tended to belong more and more as my hair has thinned and my skin has wrinkled. Sometimes over the years, seeking inspiration and wild, unpredictable new directions, I have visited a nearby Barnes & Noble. I wander through it, letting my eyes and mind wander too about the titles and walls, and occasionally part or the whole of a story will leap out of nowhere into my head. One day I saw a book titled The Pain Technique, and a title for a short story sprang into my mind. “The Death Technique.” All I had was a title, but darned if I didn’t like it.
A second passed, and a concept rose. What if a man discovers he has the ability to will the signs of decay and dissolution that signify death? His body dissolves, liquefies, and drips on the floor. From this beginning I wrote a horror story that I later sold. Though I polished and edited the story as I do all my writing, the story itself came out of virtually nothing and was written with no clear end in sight until I was halfway through it. It was originally a story without an idea, only a book title I saw at Barnes & Noble.
I’ve gone through this process many times, often with even less than a book title to inspire me. Perhaps it’s been just a touch of wind, or a glance of sunshine. I’ve done it with both short stories and novels. Fellow scribblers, I’m not a wild, raving mystic. Creative writing and composition instructors, of which I was one, often use a similar method in freewriting exercises, encouraging spontaneity while trying to make students forget their inner censor. Freewriting helps to overcome writers’ block and to tap into resources individuals don’t know they have. The point of my words is that sometimes, if you relax a little and open the door to inspiration, maybe, just maybe, you will be surprised and delighted by what you can do.
In that spirit, here is an essay with the same title (slightly revised) I wrote on this subject nearly thirty years ago.
STORIES WITHOUT IDEAS
A writer I know said that “Ideas for stories just seem to come to me.” Fascinating. But I thought readers might be interested in a phenomenon that’s happened to me more and more in the past few years: “Stories come to me without ideas.”
Let me explain. A year ago I was lying innocently in bed, not bothering anyone, least of all the Muse, when a sentence materialized out of nowhere and whopped me over the head: “I’m sitting in hell listening to Barry Manilow records when the call comes.” I sat up thinking “Wow!” and promptly grabbed a legal pad and began an 8,000 word novelette, “Survival of the Fittest,” which will appear in Supernova. The sentence itself served as a catalyst or springboard into a narrative, got me started even though I had no idea where the hell I was going. But I was intrigued by my feeling that Barry Manilow’s music was a fit ingredient of the nether regions, and in some nebulous way, it inspired a story of man’s first contact with an alien race.
What’s the point of this? Simply that for some writers, beginning stories without (or almost without) ideas may be a viable and productive approach, and it may be folly to wait until something more solid develops. True, you must have something, but it may only need to be an interesting phrase or word, a potential title or a vague question or sentiment. Here are some other examples from my own experience.
- I remember reading once, somewhere, that the most frightening and horrifying thing of all is when a rose sings because something so beautiful doesn’t need enhancement. This quote rattled around in my mental teapot for years till I finally wrote “When A Rose Sings,” which appeared recently in 2 AM Magazine. When I started writing, all I had was the dimly remembered quote, but it metamorphosed into a story about a divinely lovely rose perverted by hard rock music into a flower that mesmerizes its victims by singing. Happens all the time, right?
- A month ago I saw a word that knocked my socks off: “Dreamfarer.” I started writing, and the result is a 12,000 word story, “Dreamfarer,” about a future where people are maintained by dream machines. All their deepest desires are fulfilled in computer fantasies, and everything’s hunky-dory unless you wake up and discover the truth . . . [Shades of The Matrix!]
- Even more recently, another potential title whomped me: “Two Moons East of Tomorrow.” No way I was gonna let that stunner pass. After a false start, the title’s seed burgeoned into a tale about an alien being who can recapture the past by using people who lived it.
- One last example: A year ago, I took my seven-year-old son David out on Halloween, and as he ran up a curved path to a house, he disappeared briefly behind a trellis. A question briefly nudged me in a way that scribblers as opposed to normal people train themselves not to ignore: What if that did happen, and the father could never find his son? The result is my multiple-published “Daniel, My Son,” one of my best short stories ever.
“Where do you get your ideas?” I believe the answer to this question is endless because the creative process may be a mystery to the writer himself, submerged in a subconscious realm he can’t fathom. But to me, that’s part of the fun, the fascination, and the glory, for to bring something out of nothing is as godlike as any of us mortals are likely to get. So, fellow writers, pay heed to those unorthodox, sometimes barely perceptible nudges and flashes—it just may be a story knocking!
- For further information on John Rosenman’s strange, make-it-up-as-he-goes-along views, read “I’m a Pantser, Not a Plotter.” It’s a post on his website at http://johnrosenman.com/?p=1312/ John, a retired English professor from Norfolk State University, has published over 300 stories and 20 His work includes science fiction, speculative fiction, paranormal romance, and dark erotic fiction. “The Blue of Her Hair, the Gold of Her Eyes” won the 2011 annual readers’ poll on Preditors and Editors. In 2013, Musa Publishing awarded his time travel story “Killers” one of their Top Picks. He is the former Chairman of the Board of the Horror Writers Association and the previous editor of Horror Magazine.