How to get story ideas and learn new writing tricks faster

Hi, my name is Amy McLane, and I write epic fantasy. Here is a sampling of the books I’ve read in the past month or so, in reverse chronological order (and yes, this is related to that flashing neon sign of a blog title, don’t worry, we’re getting there):

American Vampire by Scott Snyder (Horror, graphic novel)

The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman (Fantasy, graphic novel)

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (Horror, four novellas)

Driven by James Sallis (Noir Thriller, short novel)

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell (Science Fiction, novel)

The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan (Fantasy, novel)

Now, fantasy is my first and moste potente love, but as you can see, I try to read all over the map, and I go through phases, too. For example, in the early spring I went through a big Classic Lit/YA thing, whereas right now I’m more drawn to Horror, Crime, and SF. I read all over the map for three reasons:

  1. As a reader, it’s fun
  2. As a writer, I learn more tricks faster
  3. And, the more (and varied) books I read, the more ideas I get

What? Yeah. More tricks. Faster.  More ideas. Faster. YUP. Don’t believe me? TRY IT. If you’ve been in a writing rut, go to the library and check out a handful of books in genre you don’t normally read. Put your smartphone on silent and snoopily check reviews, so that you can pick books that have good word-of-mouth. After all, you don’t want to try sailing into a new land on the back of a dead whale. (I hear it’s really hard to get ambergris out of blue jeans.) And then read them!

Bonus round: Target your weak spots. If you only ever read novels, try short stories, novellas, graphic novels, and learn how the different forms function. If you have trouble creating tension in your stories, go for thrillers or horror novels. If your relationships suck, try romance. If your settings are flat, pick SF or fantasy. Now that’s not to say you can’t find, say, a thriller with a rich setting, or a fantasy novel with a breakneck pace (that’s pretty much mandatory these days, amiright), but if you really want to see how the game works, how all those bits and pieces come together to make a functioning whole, you need to get outside your comfort zone and examine how things are done in different genres. It’ll open your eyes.

I have lots of story ideas. Frequently. It annoys many of my writer-chums. Right now I just finished a novel and am trying to clean up my query packet. Next up? Well I have five different novel ideas, some of which I have 10k+ words laid down on already, and I guess I’m just going to go with my gut in regards to what to work on next. In the meantime, I bumped out three short stories last week, as a form of procrastination against cleaning up the aforementioned query packet.

How do I get so many ideas for stories? By exposing myself to other stories, lots of stories, wildly different stories. Try it, I’m begging you. Those wildly different stories will throw a party in your hindbrain, they’ll mix, they’ll mingle, they’ll ferment, and then, the stork named inspiration will leave you a present in your cabbage patch.

So go forth, my writerly friends, read everything you can get your grubby little mitts on, and reap the rewards.

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