The Idea Machine, or, how to actually write a good story

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A while back, a friend asked me how I get my story ideas. I told her I have a machine in my bedroom, and anytime I need a story, I crank the lever and it shoots out an idea. It’s kind of like a pitching machine, so I have to get all geared up in my helmet and gloves and I have to dive for it to catch it before it vanishes into thin air and never gets told.

That’s a total falsehood, by the way. I did not tell her that; I just thought it might make the story better if I took some liberties with it. Which, now that you mention it, is how I get most of my ideas anyway: I hear a story, a snippet of conversation, a characteristic, and I expand on it and fluff it out until it becomes something bigger, sometimes even bigger than myself, and I write a story.

I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago that my most recent novel idea came from a news article I read about a woman who tried to kill her children. As little as I know about her story, it gave me the seed of Keira’s story, and I’ve spent the past couple of months–and will continue to spend the next few months–delving into her life and seeing where it takes me.

Because the other part of that story I told that’s a falsehood is the concept of the Idea Machine. There is no such thing. There is no magical machine, no fairy godmother, no fount of inspiration writers use to pull novel and short story ideas out. There is only life.

Which, frankly, is so much better than any magical water or glitter-blowing old lady. Life itself provides the inspiration for stories. And what more intriguing, mystifying experience is there than life? Created and woven together by a Master Storyteller, billions of insignificant creatures, moments, exchanges coming together to form a beautiful tapestry of a story. And us puny human storytellers, sitting in front of it, picking at threads and seeing if we can weave our own small replica of the Master Tapestry.

I think I just mixed about three metaphors there, which you’re totally not supposed to do. But I like it, so I’m just gonna leave it there. Life is the only thing we’ve got to inspire us, but it’s the best thing we could ask for.

Just think about how many times you’ve looked at someone else’s life and wished it was yours, or contemplated how fantastic and unreal it seemed. You look back at your own life and all you see is a blob of tangled threads. But take a few steps back and you can see that your life tapestry is just as intricate and beautifully woven as your friend’s. Multiply that intricacy and beauty by seven billion, and that’s how many different tapestries you have to choose from when picking your story.

It’s totally okay to mix and match when writing. Take your good friend’s perfect hair, your best friend’s skills, your sense of humor, your favorite TV star’s problems, and voila, you’ve got a brand new story that’s never been told before.

To write a great story you don’t need a magic machine. You only need some creativity, a hefty amount of attention to detail, and a good bit of conflict. Mix it all together and start sharing. There you go: you’re a storyteller. I can’t wait to hear what you’ve got to say 🙂

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