writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Part Two

Last week I shared a productive exercise I learned in a workshop at the South Coast Writers Conference. The workshop, instructed by Bruce Holland Rogers, was devoted to producing ideas and chock full of methods to do that. Some of them (like the one I told you about last week) I really liked and will probably use in the future. Others, not so much.

Today I’d like to share another method that I like, but not as much as last week’s. Mr. Holland Rogers called it “Arbitrary Beginning.”

In this method, we took the first sentence of an existing story, without the title or context, and attempted to finish the story. In the workshop example, we were given this first line: “Clara, neither the first nor the most loved, was the one that showed me I could withstand the pain.” (I apologize for not writing down the title of the story, or its author). Again, we were timed. Again, we were freewriting, taking the information and conflict we found in that first sentence and building upon that to create a story.

Like last week’s exercise, it is meant as a way to step around the critical self-editor that so often paralyzes us. As such, it is particularly useful when we find ourselves (as we all do at one time or another) fighting writer’s block.

Sometimes, what we need is an exercise to work around that critic.

Another, similar exercise is to read a book or short story by an author you admire, but have not read before. At some point a sizeable way into the work, pause at the end of a scene or chapter. Now, knowing the author and his/her style, ask yourself what will the next scene entail? If you were writing this work, this story, what would you have happen next? Write that scene. When you have finished, compare your scene with the one the author actually wrote. Were they similar? Did you take the story in an entirely different direction?

In a similar way, find a story that interests you. Read it half way through. Now put the story away and finish writing it, using your own imagination. How does your story compare to the original? Do note that yours will be a rough draft while the author’s is a polished, finished work, with several drafts behind it. The object is not to compare your writing with that of a professional author, but to use another author’s inspiration to jumpstart your own.

It is pretty much the basis for all the many forms of fan fiction, right?

Another exercise is what Bruce Holland Rogers calls “Collaborative Writing.” This is like the old game of “telephone” except that each person has more invested in the final product. For this exercise, you need a small group of willing participants. Your writer’s critique group is good for this.

Choose one writer at random. He or she writes the first paragraph (or few paragraphs) of a story, then hands it to the second writer, who writes the next paragraph, then hands it to the third writer. The story should make at least three rounds of the writing group (to keep anyone from getting too absurd during their part) and the object is to end up with a coherent, unified story. You may not be able to do it, but the object is to let your imagination feed off and be reinforced by each other.

But that’s the purpose of all of these exercises, isn’t it? They are designed to get our imaginations up and running when they don’t really want to. They are to help when our creative juices need a jump start.

So start.

writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Exercise One

I didn’t post last week, but not because I was lazy, or had nothing to say. (I almost never have nothing to say). I was busy attending and hosting the 22nd South Coast Writers Conference, in Gold Beach, Oregon. A good time was had by all.

And I have lots I will share with you over the next few weeks.

The most memorable workshop I attended was called “Writing from Zero” and presented by Bruce Holland Rogers, creator and host of www.shortshortshort.com and a specialist in flash fiction. As indicated by the title, the workshop concentrated on techniques and tools to generate ideas. (Something every writer at some point struggles with; the battle with the blank page is a universal one).

Today, I’d like to share one of the techniques we tried during the workshop that worked much better than I’d expected. It’s called “Arbitrary Subject.”

What you’ll need:

Ten random, unrelated nouns and noun phrases

Ten slips of paper

A timer

Your writing materials: notebook or paper

How it works:

In the workshop we generated the ten nouns by having the class suggest them, but you can generate them in any number of ways: the third noun on the hundredth page of ten books, the seventh noun on random pages of a dictionary, or you could use a computer application to generate the ten subjects. They can be as interesting or mundane as you wish. Some of the subjects we started with were: a neighbor, a ghost, and picture on exhibition.

Now you write the subjects on the slips of paper in order to randomly draw the subject you will write about.

Do not look at the subjects until it’s time to write. Part of the effectiveness of this exercise is the inability to over analyze what you are about to write about. You need to be surprised.

Now set the timer for two-and-a-half minutes. It helps if you have a timer that can quickly and easily be reset because you will need to reset it twice, for two-and-a-half minutes each time.

The object of this exercise is to write a complete story, with beginning, middle, and end, in seven-and-a-half minutes, based on the subject you randomly draw from the ten subjects you began with.

Draw a subject from the ten you began with. (In our case, it was “Picture on Exhibition.”) Start the timer and begin to write your story’s beginning. When the timer goes off, two-and-a-half minutes later, reset the timer and move to the middle of the story. When it goes off the second time, reset the timer and move to the end of the story. When the timer goes off the third time, stop writing.

We did this three times, with three different random subjects, over the course of thirty minutes. Somewhat to my surprise, it was fairly effective. Of the three stories I produced during the exercise, none were finished, polished stories, but that wasn’t the point. The point of the exercise was to get the creative process started. In that respect, the exercise was very successful.

Of the three stories I generated, one was a throwaway, but another had a solid kernel I think I can polish and revise into a good story. The third, was not as good, but still holds the promise of being something I can work into an acceptable story.

So in this thirty minute exercise, I generated one pretty good story and another moderate one. That’s a pretty good success rate, in my humble opinion.

For those who might be keeping track, the good idea was for “Picture on Exhibition,” and the moderate one for “Ghost.” I didn’t have much for “Neighbor.”

The object of this exercise is to combine the benefits of “free writing” with the motivational benefit of a deadline. By drawing a subject at random, the hope is to bypass our critical self-editor and tap directly into the creativity of our subconscious. Of course, for this to work well, you have to write continually (as much as possible) and continuously (as much as possible). Do not worry about grammar, spelling, or logic; just get the ideas on paper as quickly as they come to you. This is a first draft; grammar and spelling can be fixed in re-write.

The timer gives you the incentive to do it now. Something, personally, I truly need more.

Like I said earlier, I was mildly surprised at just how productive this exercise was. I will use it again in the future. You should give it a try.

short story

Flash Fiction: “Germ”

Submitted for your consideration.


By the end of winter, feeding everyone was a challenge. All the berries, roots and nuts they’d saved from the summer were long gone and the snow covered anything fresh that might have survived the cold. True, the men and boys hunted nearly every day. Occasionally, they’d bring back a deer to feast upon, but mostly it was rabbits and squirrels.

Just enough to keep them alive.

“Magpie?” her mother said, looking up from the stew she was building over the cook fire. Her brother had snared a rabbit today. “Could you look in the bins and see if there’s any more rice?”

“Yes, Mama.”

Magpie set aside the beadwork she’d been working on and went to the stack of rawhide food containers, though she didn’t think there would be much to find. They’d done everything but scrape the bottoms for a week now.

“Sometimes they like to hide down in the seams.”

Magpie glanced up at her mother. How did she do that?

“Yes, Mama,” she said.

She quickly set aside the container that held what was left of their dried meat and looked through the others for the remains of the rice.

“It is growing warmer every day,” her father said behind her. He was sitting with her older brother beside the fire, warming themselves after a long day trudging through the snow in a fruitless hunt. It was her younger brother who’d snared the rabbit. “The snow is beginning to melt.”

Her brother agreed. “The creeks are running fresh with snowmelt, the willow budding. Soon, the grass will show green again.”

Magpie found the rice container and untied the bindings. The people of her village had spent many days in late summer and early fall gathering the tiny grains from the edges of the lakes around their summer camp. Everyone helped, from the oldest grandfather to the youngest toddler, either with the gathering of the seeds, husking them, or spreading the seeds in the sun to dry. Yet, as hard as everyone worked, there never seemed to be enough.

They always ended up hungry.

She pulled the flaps open and peered inside the container. As she’d expected, it was empty. But she remembered what her mother had said and tipped the container until the fire light fell on the seams at each of the four sides. Sure enough, little grains of rice hid there in the seams.

She tried using her finger to scoop them out and loosened a few, but most seemed to dig further into the seam.

“Something fresh would make this soup so much better.” Her mother said.

“Soon enough. Soon enough,” her father told her. “With the next moon. Earlier if the snow keeps melting.”

Magpie turned the container over and tapped it on the packed earth of the lodge floor. A few of the grains came loose. She hit it again, harder, but only dislodged a few more.

“Are you having trouble, Magpie?” he mother asked.

“No, Mama,” she said. “I’ve got it.”

She slipped the small knife from its sheath at her waist and used the tip of the blade to pry the seeds from the seams of the container. Within a few moments she’d dislodged all the remaining grains of rice.

Magpie returned her knife to its sheath and began to pick the tiny grains of rice from the packed earth floor.

One of the seeds caught her attention. It was different. She separated it from the others and held it up into the light to examine it closer. It looked like the seed had split down the middle and a little white finger grown out of it. The end of the finger had just a touch of green.

It looked like the sprouts that appeared everywhere when the snow went away.

The wispy shadow of an idea began to form in her mind.

“Magpie?” her mother said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m coming,” she said. But before returning to her mother, she set the strange kernel aside, safe from the soup.

The End

short story

Once There Was a Village

Another in my continuing efforts at creating short form fiction, though I think this is more prose poem than flash fiction. What do you think?


Once There Was A Village

Once there was a village here, where weeds now grow among the willow. It was on this bench of bottom land above the river bar and beside an unnamed creek laughing down from the hills. Right here, where the shadows of ancient hemlock and cedar shelter from the southern storm.

Once there was a village here, just a handful of homes, really. Here, children laughed and sang and played games of life and death underfoot. Over there, a nervous boy first felt the thrill of a pretty girl’s smile. Here, a mother held her newborn son, guided his mouth to her breast, and marveled at his perfect eyelashes. And there, a man and woman helped each other grow old and honored and now smile as death draws near.

Once there was a village here where people lived and loved.

Now there’s only weed and rocks, broken beer bottles and tangles of cast-off fishing line, the leavings of sportsmen who drive their pickups on to the bar, seeking the elusive salmon. Once there was a village here, but they neither know, nor care.

short story, writing

Flash Fiction: “Wild Cows on Road.”

A piece of flash fiction I’ve been working on. This is inspired by an actual Highway Department sign north of my hometown. Submitted for your approval.

“Caution: Wild Cows on Road”

Do pay attention gentle citizen, for they will not watch for you, especially in the lonely hours of the morning after the waterholes have closed. Then they gather to dance along the shoulders of the highway and stumble across asphalt in twos and fours. Giggling off decorum, they disregard your mundane mores in favor of song.

Just drive on citizen. Be pleased your children sleep. Pretend you don’t see the antics.

Some will even flash udders at passing motorists in hopes of a beaded necklace or handful of alfalfa.

Look away, good citizen. Look away. We don’t want to encourage them.

And no, their mothers would not approve, but the cowboys certainly do.

Soon enough, the morning sun will find them with heads hung low over the nearest stream, swearing never again.

short story


This is another writing sample from your humble fictionalist. Not really sure whether it’s just a sketch I may use later on, or flash fiction, or what have you. You be the judge.

Every cop was haunted.

There were exception, of course, because some cops, Derek knew a handful himself, were every bit the sociopath as the folks they pursued; they had simply chosen to enforce the law rather than break it. Maybe as kids they’d flipped a coin.

So most cops were haunted, especially once they’d spent a significant number of years on the job. It went with the territory. They learned to hide it well, from their friends and family and especially from their colleagues, but the ghosts were there, waiting, patient, ready to appear the moment they dropped their guard. No one ever completely escaped.

The ghosts appeared in your dreams, or against the screens of your closed eyelids as you laid in bed, unable to find sleep yet again. For some it was the broken body of the toddler lying in the street after being hit by a car. There’d been nothing anyone could do to save him. For others, it was the expression on the face of the child’s mother. Or on the car’s driver. The guilt. The horror.

Sometimes it was the vacant expression on a six-year-old’s face after watching his mother get beaten by her boyfriend. Sometimes it was the emotionless, matter-of-fact manner a killer described his crimes.

For Derek, the image was always the same. His ghost was named Melvin O’Connell. Five years ago, Melvin, in the midst of a week-long methamphetamine binge, had come after Derek with a six inch folding knife. Derek had warned him. He’d drawn his sidearm. He’d ordered him to stop. Told him that he would shoot him. Told him to stop again. Melvin had ignored him, kept coming with that knife, insanity in his eyes.

Derek had put two rounds in Melvin’s chest.

It had surprised Melvin, getting shot. His face showed utter shocked surprise, as though he had never before conceived of this possibility. He had dropped the knife. Then he, himself, had dropped. He had died on the way to the hospital. To this day, Melvin was the only person Derek had ever shot and it was Melvin’s face that haunted him during those long, lonely nights.

Melvin and that look of complete, dumbfounded surprise.