Just listing these here for my own reference, but I’d be glad if they turned out to be helpful or interesting to anyone else. This list has been knocking around in my Notes app for too long, without any permanent home.
Sometimes I need to stop and ask myself what I’m attempting to do with a story. This is not that. This is prescriptive without being too analytical about why. Try this. Try that. See what happens.
1.) Choose one of the most traumatic experiences in your life, couch it in SF idiom, and write a story about that. A parent dying, a child dying, the end of a relationship, a horrible accident. Old age catching up with somebody you love. Failing at something that you wanted badly. A horrible illness. A loss of ability.
2.) Take any two ideas you’ve been dying to write stories about, crash them together, and write that story. Collisions make new things.
3.) Flip the gender of the main character or PoV character, after you’ve finished draft one. I’ve done this before and it seemed like a cheat, almost, it worked so well as to be almost scary. It’s a quick way to make characters fresh. Suddenly the character(s) are defying the stereotypes that you’ve been carrying around unknowingly. It’s a good exercise, at least, to expose your own biases.
4.) Or, similarly, write a complete draft, then try to flip whatever the biggest relationship is in the story—boy/girl, black/white, alien/human, science/magic, etc.
5.) Write a sentence that is clearly impossible, under the current ‘rules’–for instance, “The king is pregnant!”–and build a story around a set of circumstances that make that scenario plausible and interesting.
6.) Don’t start with an ending in mind. Start with a technology that does one thing that’s currently not possible, and extrapolate out from that. (Maybe this is all SF?)
7.) I’m always kicking around the idea that in Kelly Link stories, there’s not one thing, but several, a salad or a bouquet of things happening all together. Movie-star vampires and mysterious disappearances, or lesbian space colonies telling ghost stories at a birthday party, or pocket universes with weird twins and mysterious ‘sleepers’ and big lizards. Some of this is to generate themes and characters that can interact with each other in interesting ways. Some of it is to allow the writer to change channels when one line of writing runs out of steam, give you somewhere else to go.
I think of serialism, and Schoenberg. The idea is to pose a challenge that you would never have come to without it. You may be simply incapable of ever arriving at it, or (more likely) committing to doing it, without some external mechanism to allow, or invite, randomness into your process.
The danger here, I see, is falling into the trap of letting the mechanism absolve you from any responsibility for bad choices. There still has to be some analytic and/or editorial process down the road.
I’ve worked a bit at making a twitterbot along these lines, but gotten too caught up in making all the results be grammatical and interesting on a sentence level. I think now that a quicker way to a useful tool might be to make a card deck with the cards each representing writing subjects, motifs, genre tropes. Shuffle it up and deal yourself a hand! And commit, before the cards hit the table, to writing the results! (**I’m going to try to get a deck like this together for VP, if I get time, just to see what comes out of it.)
8.) The thing where you can attempt to imitate any other piece of art, but by the time you’re done, your own muscle memory will be evident in it, your own tendencies, instincts, unconscious biases. (This is a thing that is super-true for ceramics, especially at the potter’s wheel.) The closer to your subconscious your process can get, the more true this will be. Go ahead and try to replicate, in your own chosen medium, Starry Night, or Appalachian Spring, or Moby-Dick. Or write an SFF version of that great story that was in the New Yorker last month. What you end up with is going to be uniquely yours (for better or worse) with your fingerprints all over it. You’ll arrive at a place sufficiently different to make something new, and in the process to illuminate your own vision, shortcomings, subconscious obsessions.
As always, I’m curious (see what I did there?) to read any comments that readers might want to share—