Moments of intense inspiration – when the whole story arrives fully formed and sends you sprinting to your desk – are rare for most writers. Much of the time, we have to rely on tricks and cheats to get the words flowing. Dr Ed Hogan, Lecturer in Creative Writing, offers some advice, if you’re struggling for ideas…
1. Watch a documentary
Even the late-night fly-on-the-wall type will teach you something. I once transcribed hundreds of hours of raw footage for a documentary on demolitions. Suddenly, I was listening to a new vocabulary of tipper trucks, rubble and rebar.
2. Find a voice
The very short story lends itself to strong narrative voices. Think of George Saunders or Kevin Barry. Ingrid Persaud’s marvellous ‘The Sweet Sop’ is a great recent example.
3. Buy your local newspaper
Sometimes local news is lurid. A recent headline in the Brighton Argus read ‘Explosive Diarrhoea Caught on Film’. But your local paper contains much drama. Journalists are trained to reduce a news story to the absolute facts, but you might be able to find something more between the paragraphs.
4. Write about relationships
In these days of high-concept thrillers and elevator pitches, it feels necessary to have a ‘big idea’. But many great stories – long and short – are simply based around the arc of a relationship. Any kind will do: siblings, best friends, work colleagues, lovers, rivals. Meetings and partings become your beginnings and endings.
5. Go to the library
Not everyone has the means and freedom to travel, but research can be a way of expanding your range. Visit the stacks. Find the story of a building, check out the language of entomology. Annie Proulx fuels her fiction with research. She says: “What I find to be very bad advice is the snappy little sentence, ‘Write what you know.’ It is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given.”
6. Make it up
Some writers, however, prefer to trust to memory, observation, and the imaginative process. The Irish writer Keith Ridgway says: “Research is its own slow fiction, a process of reassurance for the author. I don’t want reassurance. I like writing out of confusion, panic, a sense of everything being perilously close to collapse. So I try to embrace the fiction of all things.”
7. Incorporate your block
Many things – both internal and external – can halt the flow of words. Award-winning flash fiction writer David Swann, advises fellow writers to find a way of turning these obstacles into solutions. If your neighbours are arguing so loudly you can’t think, put their quarrelling into your work – harness the energy of their conflict to boost your story.
8. Do poetry exercises
I love to read and write poetry. My own poetry stinks, but it often helps me to find a breakthrough. Writing in a tighter form naturally gives certain words a new emphasis or association, and you’re more likely to surprise yourself. And if reading poetry doesn’t give you ideas, at least you’ll have experienced something beautiful.
- Find out more about Creative Writing courses at The Open University.