How do you get story ideas? When I talk to non-writer friends this is the second most frequent question they ask; it’s the question asked by the friends that take your declaration of interest in writing seriously. The question “friends” ask who don’t take your writing seriously is usually something like “You What?” That’s often followed by a condescending giggle or a sputter out of their mouths of whatever food or beverage they happen to be eating at the time. I don’t have many smoker friends anymore (tobacco seems to be on the decline, thank goodness), but they often cough.
OK, I’m assuming if you are here, you actually take my writing seriously. So here’s the straight answer. I don’t really know. That may not seem like a very satisfying response to a serious question, and to be truthful it isn’t entirely accurate. When stories come to me, they often arise almost whole cloth inside my head, from I don’t know where. However, by whole cloth, I don’t mean every last scene, line of dialogue, descriptive passage or choices of the written words. How I wish it were like that! But no. I just mean the gist of the story; its theme, the cool beginning and/or cool ending.
Story ideas come from somewhere in the whirlpool of the subconscious where experiences, attitudes, dreams and creativity supply the ever churning ocean of thought, from which occasionally some tidal force causes a story wave to splash onto the shore of the conscious mind. The more you attempt to make yourself a writer, the more you have to learn about generating story waves on demand. Disciplining the mind to do that, and disciplining the butt to sit in front of the word processor on a daily basis and not leave until a story appears are probably the two hardest things about writing.
Splish splash… splish splash… type type…story. That’s my process.
“The Last Teamster” has a lot of things in it that I can trace back to origins, but I can’t really say how it is that they all happened to join together in the whirlpool to make that one wave that became the story. But I’ll try.
I was eating pierogi one night (I’m a second generation Polish-American, of undiluted ancestral stock on either side of the family), and The President was on TV. Regardless of your politics, one thing that is fun about the Obama Presidency is the man’s sense of humor. I had been talking to my kids about my experiences working at National Can Corporation in Fontana, California one summer in college in the late 1960’s. Earlier that same afternoon I had been looking at some notes from my Clarion West 2003 writer workshop, where I’d gotten into a discussion with a couple classmates about the unintended consequences of technological advances. Most often science fiction paints these scenarios in somber colors that highlight their potential dire consequences for unsuspecting unprepared humanity.
I love dystopic scifi; it resonates strongly with my experiences in environmental sciences and with my observations of history and politics. It almost seems as though if humankind can find some new way to bite itself in the ass, it will do handstands on a lit barbeque to make it happen. But while watching The President’s speech he chuckled over some point. I don’t remember the speech and I don’t remember the point, but I remembered that instant of his humanity that was capable of sharing the humor, even given the sober subject matter. At that instant I had a flash of a story ending where a future President would be delivering an important speech to the nation, but where the circumstances were such that he could hardly suppress his laughter.
The pierogi eating and conversation with my family and kids evoked memories of teenage friends, and of early childhood years in the Chicago area among family that consisted, in good part, of dockworkers and truck drivers. I could hear my Uncle Joe’s voice in my head. I could see the factory floor from National Can Corporation. I could remember one of my irascible teenage buddies who had a capacity to drift in and out of semi-stable job and family situations, but who deep inside was a caring and sensitive lonely guy, always fighting his inner sensitivity and loneliness. Then the idea began to take shape of what would happen to the trucking industry if transporter technology was ever actually invented. No trucks, no truckers; no truckers, no unions; no unions, no benefits. Badabim Badaboom. “The Last Teamster” started to dribble out onto the page.
The final element came during a shopping trip to a big box department store here in Idaho. I overheard a conversation between a couple guys in front of a big flat screen TV display. One fella was telling the other that he had just bought one of the big screens, but was worried he’d have to bring it back, since he had just been laid off from his job. Just a second or two after that, at an adjacent display, a couple of youngsters set off one of those suction cup jumping toys. I had been working a day or so on the story at this point, and I felt like I just had to insert those observations into the story. The jumping toy became a McGuffin in the story that works as a plot enabler, and also gave The President in my story a reason to break out into laughter when addressing the nation on television.
The characters in the story draw bits and pieces from several people I have known over the years. I tried to paint all of them as sincere diverse souls, all trying to do what they saw was the right thing for the situations they were in. You could argue about who was really doing right and who was really doing wrong, but each of them was, in their own mind, attempting to do right. Even the off-screen puppet villains (members of the consortium behind OTTO) were attempting to do an economic large scale right that they rationalized on long term civilization advances, as well as on the basis of corporate spreadsheets. The protagonist’s wife is essential to this “message” as she tries to focus on the potential long term positive outcomes to all humanity, even when it means family disruption for her man, herself, and their soon to be born child.
It took about three days to write the first draft of “The Last Teamster,” which clocked in at about 8000 words fresh out of the barrel. That was shortly after the New Year in 2009. I workshopped the story, and then revised it a few times to shorten it and tighten the scene transitions and dialogue. I got a lot of good responses to the story from editors at several magazines (even though they rejected it), and in one grant submission. On its twelfth submission “The Last Teamster” sold to NewMyths.com.
Do I feel bad that it took twelve subs to sell? Heck no. I try to avoid the head games about, what if the final version had been the one I submitted the first time out. The important thing is I think I wrote a good story, and I stayed with it and got it sold. With each rejection and tweaking of the story I learned something. And the things I’ve learned are helping me write better first drafts on all my other stories. And as nearly any writer who has made it will tell you, the key to writing success, is not to obsess about the stories already written, but instead to keep writing new stories.
You’ve got to keep learning how to cause the whirlpool to splash out a new story idea. Keep learning how to listen to your inner muse and to cherry pick things from your subconscious and wake-a-day life and put them to work in each new story draft. Put your butt in front of the word processor and write. And learn to enjoy doing that for its own sake, while also learning how to write marketable stories and do the marketing to get them sold.
Where do story ideas come from? From everywhere. From my head. From my ears. From my eyes. From my friends. But most importantly, from my fingers and my butt.
Fingers on the keyboard, butt in front of the computer screen. That’s really the key. Without doing that all the fantasizing, postulating and thinking in the world just makes you a daydreamer.
Fingers and butts make you a writer.