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.

John 3


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 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.

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14 thoughts on “STORIES WITHOUT IDEAS John B. Rosenman

  1. Kenneth Weene

    As an author I always let the story come to me. Then, once begun, I wait for the characters to drive it forward. Still that plot line is important, at least some notion of where I think it will go. Then, when one of the characters tells me there’s a twist, I feel like a pretzel but move along.

  2. Bonnie Hearn Hill

    Intriguing post.

    Some of my stories arrive as what-ifs. Sometimes, although not as often, I hear the voice of the character. Once while having coffee, an African-American friend and I realized our ancestors were both in Galveston, Texas on Juneteenth (June 19, 1865), the day the slaves discovered they had been freed. Later that day, while I was in the bathtub, a voice in my head said, “They are not all good and not all evil, Little Mary, and neither are we.” I jumped out of the tub. Water and bubbles flew. Once I had written down those words, the rest came. “My father told me that just before they hanged him. For looking at a white woman, they said. For looking.” Out of the tub again, and this time I knew I could finish the story because I had enough of the character on the page. “Part Light, Part Memory,” about Little Mary that day in Galveston, was published in DEATH DO US PART (Little Brown) a collection from Mystery Writers of America.

    I don’t know what it is about bathing and driving my car, but many ideas come to me in the tub, shower, and on the freeway.

  3. Yves

    Your post worked. I started reading the post but had to step back for a moment. I received inspiration for my next post. IThanks for the very interesting post.

  4. Yves

    Your post worked. I started reading the post but had to step back for a moment. I received inspiration for my next post. Thanks for the very interesting post.

  5. Kathleen Ball

    I hate when I’m on the radio and someone asks where I get my inspiration from. I never have a good answer. I’m one of those who has a general idea of what my book will be about and I sit and write- the only notes I take are to copy and paste what I already wrote into Word’s One Note- so I can go back later and check out what a certain person looks like. My first series The Lasso Spring’s Series I had all on one piece of paper- all three books. I’ve often admired plotters. They seem to be more together and maybe their desk isn’t a complete wreck. Sometimes I think my fingers do the writing without my input. And for some reason when I feel uninspired and just keep writing through it- it’s my best writing. I have my pat answer since I write westen romance and I now live in Texas- I say there is inspiration all around me. The interviewer usually laughs thinking I mean there are cowboys everywhere. – I really enjoyed your post!!

  6. John B. Rosenman

    Judging from the responses so far, some of you are somewhat like me. Yves, I’m glad this post gave you inspiration. Bonnie, I wouldn’t sell my tub and shower. For several years, that particular Barnes & Noble inspired me. Now, strangely, it doesn’t, but in writing this series (I’m on book 4), I find it doesn’t have to. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Kathleen.

    One thing I probably should have stressed more in my post. While I’m a wild man of sorts, I rigorously revise and analyze my stuff afterward. Often I analyze it as I go through. I just do it on the spot. For twenty years I belonged to a writers’ group. It usually consisted of about six other people, and we wrote on each other’s short stories and chapters and orally critiqued each other’s works in biweekly meetings. While we weren’t cruel, we really got into it. We ferreted out weaknesses, plot holes, weak writing, implausibilities, you-name-it. Sometimes it hurt, but I came to love it, because it made my fiction better. It was a challenge because you, as a writer, had to evaluate and judge the comments of those who critiqued your work. I have a looonnng post on my blog about the ideal writers’ group and how it should function.

    Anyway, while I like to be spontaneous and I like the freedom of making it up as I go along, analyzing and revising my writing is the other side of the coin because every change I make hopefully improves it. As William Butler Yeats said of revision . . . “Ah, bliss!”

    Thanks for your comments. I appreciate it.

  7. Salvatore Buttaci

    I begin sometimes with one word that serves to launch me into a short story, flash, or poem. From that word I look for an opening hook or a first line. If it’s a novel, I’ll fill a notebook with spare parts that once assembled, will hopefully result in something with a strong enough motor to drive the reader’s attention from start to finish.
    This article by John Rosenman is an enlightening one, worthy of every writer’s and reader’s attention.

  8. Monica Brinkman

    Ah yes, where do ideas come from? I seem to get them from a ‘flash’, an idea that pops into my mind and as John stated the ultimate ‘What if’s?’. Then the words flow from my fingertips. I often wonder if others simply ‘write’, then read what they have written and are amazed. So perhaps, it is something simply within each of us that pours out when the moment is right.
    My greatest pleasure is to look at something in a new vein and then the story begins.

    Enjoyed John’s piece very much and hope to hear more from him in the future.

  9. James Secor

    I really liked math. But I was a sloppy mathematician. Same, too, for doctoral work. All the bit by bit step by step no “logical jumps” writing was cramping and infuriating. Thank the gods and muses and, and, and. . . .
    I get an idea and figure I want to go “there.” Often enough, that’s it. Then, again, I arrange a hopping “outline”: first here, then there, then there, etc., the end. What happens in each “here” and the process of getting from this here to the next here is somewhat like a grasshopper jumping in the wind. All I know is that I must (?) get to this particular end. . .yet even that changes along the way. So, I begin by hand, type it up (I date my self here), print it off and begin the gruellingly wonderful edit that leads to more ad infinitum. I think the only time there is an outline per se is when I come upon an old, old, old story that I see telling a different. . .uhmmm. . .story. Yet, again, not a detailed, never to be wandered from outline, more of a moving from point to point; the end is just clearer. I remained a C student in math; I got around my doctorate by writing about the writing of women’s characters in Japanese theatre (90% textual analysis). And then there’s quantum mechanics/theory (sans the math). I’ve noticed that the various MFA’s in Creative Writing are nothing of the kind; they are like carpentry techniques. The worst is U of NM where you had to have a GRE score of over 1200, preferably 1300+; I already had my doctorate but, sadly, that was not enough, not good enough: give me the GRE. My GRE’s in 1977-78 produced a very high score in math (not having looked at a book in 14 yrs) and a very low score in English (I was producing plays and writing for an arts newspaper at the time). After completing my doctorate, it took me years before I could rid myself of the academic, intellectual pre-forming and write. When I taught lit, I taught via the idea that anything you write is a story; all else is form, form being how you tell the story. No story, nothing. And I used Natalie Goldberg. Utterly amazing results! Even more so in my writing classes. Whomp!! My grasshopper just jumped: writing is alternative methods.

  10. Trish Jackson

    A great post. I always find it interesting to hear how other writers get their ideas and how they utilize them. I find that new ideas for novels pop into my head at any time when I’m least expecting them. I used to file them in my mind for future use, but now I write them down and go back to them when I have a gap in my writing schedule, which doesn’t happen all that often since I mainly write full length novels.
    I always find that when I sit down and start typing, the characters come to life, and the story is all there just waiting to be brought to life. The only time I plot is when I reach a point where I’m not sure which way the story will go. Usually if I go for a walk I am able to unravel it, and when I get back to my computer the story flows again.

  11. Clayton Bye Post author

    I enjoyed your post John.

    The way I create my stories is best described in the book “Stephen King on Writing.” He compares the writing of a story to an archaeological dig, where the fossil (the story) is slowly revealed by the chipping away at surrounding rock. Sometimes you can knock away large chunks, and other times you must be ever so delicate in your approach, brushing away debris and tap, tap, tapping at the last bits that hide from view the entirety of the find.

    So many times I have thrilled at the sudden understanding of what it is I have unearthed. This, of course, is followed by the hard work of uncovering the rest of the story. Most of the time there are no surprises; the story is revealed as expected. But sometimes one is surprised. Sometimes the fossil is revealed to be something extraordinary. Perhaps the head of the beast is shaped so differently as to be labeled as a new species, or maybe the tail has gigantic spikes where a smooth finish was expected.

    Writing a story in this manner leaves one with a feeling of constant expectation. What will this hammer blow reveal? Will the structure so far revealed support the expectation as time goes by, or will the plot take a sudden twist, leaving you with a creature never before seen? One just doesn’t know. The ground hides all and only hard work and gentle coaxing will ease the hidden beast from beneath that cloak.

    What fun!

  12. Micki Peluso

    John, I’ll bet you were a great professor teaching writing. I’ve been made to feel embarrassed in writing chat rooms because I’m a panzer writer, instead of making long outlines. I do have trouble ‘thinking’ of what to write unless it’s slice of life stories where I embellish the truth. When I taught myself how to write in every genre except scripts (to technical) I had to use ‘prompts’–and I still do. Give me any word and I can make any size story with it–well not a novel yet. And when I wrote by first and only book,it was quite an eyeopener. I didn’t outline and I thought I’d keep control over so many words by neatly making 20 chapters with 20 pages making a nice compact 400 page book.
    Then I realized I hate long chapters so I shortened them all, lost total control of my book and chaos reigned. Next time I write a book I will use some type of simple outline. I love to edit as I go which adds improvement to what lays ahead–most times. I let a chapter or short story ‘rest’ a day or two and then go back and make it better. My problem is that real people fascinate me and i can get their essence down pat–imaginary people just don’t seem important to me, unless based on someone I know/knew. I really would like to write a novel before I die but my attempts so far are . . . well, pathetic. Thanks again John for a wonderful post, making us panzers feel normal.

  13. Charline Ratcliff

    Great piece John! I can certainly relate to both the outlining and/or the sitting at the computer (aka typewriter) and just ‘winging’ it. Personally though, I find that the most rewarding (and unique) compilations I put together are the ones that seem to come out of nowhere. (Thanks Muse)!

    I also got quite the chuckle out of your whole Barry Manilow commentary… I couldn’t decide which I found more humorous – the “I’m sitting in hell listening to Barry Manilow records when the call comes” or your “feeling that Barry Manilow’s music was a fit ingredient of the nether regions.” *chuckle*


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