Generating Writing Ideas

200 word story books

Some of my favourite books that inspired my stories

One of the questions writers are asked most often is, where do you get your ideas?

At the Newcastle Writers’ Festival I went to a great session on Microfiction where author Susan McCreery talked about her New Year’s resolution to write a 200 word story a day for the year 2015. And that’s what she did. Just imagine – 365 stories in one year! Sloopholespineless Wonders published over 30 of them in a gem of a microfiction collection called Loopholes.

I don’t know how she kept generating new ideas every day, but the thought of gradually building up a collection in this way excited me. What’s 200 words? Bah, nothing! But instead of an anxiously-long 12 months I would do it for 30 days – after all it only takes 21 days to create a habit so who knows what could happen.

Then I got this idea! What if every day I took one of my favourite books from the shelf or a short story I love, opened a page at random and selected a phrase, a paragraph, or a concept, or even some interesting thought the reading triggered, and wrote 200 words inspired by it? It could be like a little conversation with the authors I love. I immediately knew what my first book was going to be: Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.

That night a friend posted on Facebook that she had been given a book containing 365 daily writing exercises. So she was going to start doing a short piece of writing every day and wondered if anyone would like to join her. How’s that for serendipity!

But I was so looking forward to re-connecting with Virginia Woolf and my other old friends that I stuck to my original idea.

I’m now up to Day 17.

There have been so many unexpected pleasures. The pleasure of running my finger along the shelf and rediscovering books I had forgotten. The anticipation of opening it up and finding a perfect treasure. Of getting lost in the reading and remembering why I loved it in the first place. It didn’t take me long to realise that if I chose my book first thing in the morning I could let the little morsel I discovered bubble away at the back of my mind and when I sat down to write my words flowed faster and easier.

One morning I didn’t choose a book. My husband sent a text message that gave me such a brilliant idea I used that instead. I’ve always gone with “write where the excitement is” so for Day 8 a text inspired my 200 word story. It only came out at 100 words. Writing rules are guidelines only, right? But Day 11’s story finished at 1000 words so you can see there’s lots of flexibility here. Whatever gets you writing…

So do I have 17 brilliant stories? Of course not. I wrote them in 20 minutes. But what I do have are a handful of delicate buds that with work and nurturing might blossom into something fine.

It occurred to me that I might be in my own short story writer’s version of NaNoWriMo. DaShoStoWri? (Daily Short Story Writing) Nah, doesn’t really have the same ring.

Why don’t you give it a go, too? Now! Daily! And no need to wait for November.

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19 Responses to Generating Writing Ideas

  1. Maree Gallop says:

    Fantastic idea! Great inspiration. Thanks for sharing. I’m now also keen to read Loopholes. Happy Writing!

  2. margaret jackson says:

    Great ideas Karen – thanks for sharing these inspirations. I have huge number of books on my shelves and bookcases so I should just choose at random or I would risk getting lost in rereading . If I haven’t read the particular book in ten years it would be like reading it for the first time I think. Choosing a book by an author whose work I admire and wish I could write like might be a good idea – who knows what might come out of it.Thanks again.

    • It’s a great way to get back in touch with those writers we love, Marg. I must admit that sometimes I started reading the page I selected at random and I forgot to stop at the end of the page. George Eliot’s Middlemarch was the worst for that!

  3. Michael says:

    Great ideas Karen, I try most days to write, though I’m not sure twittering tales, 140 characters, constitutes a story but it is a challenge to say something in so few characters. On the Starts@60 site they had a ‘natter’ site, sort of a message board set up where I started a story each week and people contributed. We finished 38 stories before they shut the site down…..unfortunately only a few people contributed each week but I thought we covered some interesting topics…..our intent was to write bedtime stories for kids but some weeks we did explore topics for more older readers.
    Hope your writing is going along in leaps and bounds…

    • I admire anyone who can stick to 140 characters, Michael. I agree it’s very difficult to write a story within the constraints of Twitter. I have trouble keeping to 200 words. Actually I don’t try too hard. When a story is done, it’s done and it could be any length.
      Happy writing! Hope it’s going well for you.

  4. Susan McCreery says:

    How lovely of you to write about Loopholes, Karen! And I’m glad you enjoyed the panel – I did too, once the nerves had settled! I’d just like to add that 2015 was dedicated to simply ‘a piece a day’ – I had no restrictions on length, though most of them came in at under 400 words. It was once the publisher had read the manuscript that it was decided to use only those (or cut others) that were 250 words or fewer. In fact, the shortest is only 25 words. Maybe this info will give your readers a bit more freedom to experiment and play. It’s great practice! And I love your idea of picking a random phrase out of a book – something I did a couple of times when running out of ideas!

    • Congratulations on a wonderful collection of short stories, Susan! Thank you for commenting here and for clarifying your process. I did wonder how you managed to generate story ideas every day – it’s such an impressive feat to keep up for a whole year. I’m nearing the end of the month I set myself but I can’t see it stopping there. It’s exciting how quickly they add up. I’ve already got a few I’m itching to work on. Thanks again for a great session at the Festival and all the best with Loopholes!

  5. anne says:

    Loved your article, Karen. What are you up to now? How’s your collection going?

    Today I read a piece in SMH, ‘Fighting Words,’ by Rachel Hills. It resonated with my recent reflections. Reading it, just this morning, tied in beautifully with something I realised yesterday when I read a column by Karen Hitchcock in this month’s issue of ‘The Monthly.’ As I devoured my decadent doughnut finger bun, oozing custard and cream, and as I smudged my magazine with sticky fingers, I realised how much I liked her writing; more and more. It’s so authentic. Her writing is raw humanity, anecdotal and compassionate. She certainly doesn’t ‘flatten her language’ to please.

    Just think, if it hadn’t been for dear Leonard, Virginia’s authentic, raw and compassionate work might never have been published by the mainstream. We need more Leonard’s today who are not bound by the bottom line.

    Happy writing and I can’t wait to hear all about the Writers’ Festival.

    • I can vividly see you luxuriating in that rich and satisfying food for the mind and the stomach! Karen’s writing is raw and clear and compassionate, I agree. And where would we be without Virginia and Leonard?

  6. anne says:

    PS What seemed to stand out in the article were the lines, quote:
    ‘Whereas a decade ago, finding success in the media hinged on a writer’s ability to contort their voice to the publication they were writing for, online the most successful writers are those who refuse to flatten their language – or tone down their opinions. Rather than needing to please every reader to be heard …’
    I meant to include that particular quote which lined up with my yesterday thoughts.

    • I think that quote is true to any writing whether it’s for media or print. The best writing is a reflection of the author’s honesty and humanity, and is often tinged with danger and vulnerablity. I must add, though, that I detest writing which is built on all raw emotion with little reason or logic to modify or inform it. In that writing the language is not flattened and the opinions are not toned down. I can think of a number of public figures who fall into that category!

  7. Excellent idea! If i’m not working on the novel or a short story (e.g. for Writers’ Circle) then I try to write something most days, even if it’s only 20 words of nonsense. I have a “Miscellaneous” document in the Cloud for snippets like that. 😉
    Sometimes, as you found (through writing where the excitement is!) they turn into longer pieces, maybe with the potential for something with even more depth.
    If I’m stuck I choose – or like you, search for – 3 random words, to spark something. I’m very visual, so I like to write to photo prompts (I have Friday Fictioneers to thank for that!) Ron and I have a joint document set up with a selection of copyright-free photos – then when it comes to writing, we just choose whichever image draws us at the time. The variety we’ve come up with is quite astonishing! 😀

    • Photo prompts are wonderful! I love working from them, too. Friday Fictioneers was great for that. Unfortunately I don’t do that now – I always felt I had to reply to everyone who commented on my story and that took time. But I did develop a few stories from those FF stories that went on to find publishers and win awards, so I’m grateful to them. Your document with photos is a great idea!

  8. This is inspirational Karen! I’d love to hear where some of the stories ended up. I’m doing a similar thing at the moment: I’m writing 100-200 words each day about something my 4 year old did that day. A bit of a diary for him (and me!) for when he’s older. It allows me to free-write about a topic I love each day. I’m 2 months in and hoping to do it for a year.

    • What a wonderful collection for your son, and for you, too, Jessie! Two months and still going- impressive! One of the stories I wrote from this became a finalist and was published in The Grieve Anthology 2017. Another I sent to a comp in England but the results aren’t out yet. So it was a productive exercise.

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