Thursday, November 06, 2008


Getting Ideas by Focusing on Form

Perusing a copy of Jack Heffron's The Writer's Idea Book, I came across a few exercises to share.

In one section, he discusses using form to generate ideas. As an example, Heffron tells about a M.F.A. poetry workshop assignment where he had to find a poem he liked, and then write his own poem using exactly the same meter. He said that by concentrating on getting the meter right, which was not an easy task, he lost his self-consciousness and came up with better poems than he thought he could come up with.

Here are a few of his prompts that are designed to help you get writing ideas by focusing on form rather than on subject:

Prompt: Find an essay or story or poem that you like. Outline it, noting turns in plot or shift in topic or approach. Write a piece of your own using the outline, simply changing the topic.

Prompt: Write a story based on a myth or a fairy tale, setting it in contemporary times. For example, you might retell the Hansel and Gretel story using two children you know. If this works for you, pick another myth and try again.

Prompt: Retell a myth or fairy tale, changing what happens or exploring character more deeply then the original. For a model, read John Gardner's Grendel.

Check out the book for more form-related prompts, and lots of other great writing activities.


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Friday, September 19, 2008


The TMI Dilemma

by LuAnn Schindler

"I can't think of anything to write!" When I taught English and would have classes free write, at least one student would utter those words to me.

"Well, write what you just said a few times, and eventually, an idea will sprout in your mind," I would tell them. "How can you have difficulty finding something to write about?"

I've never had that problem. When I wake up, hundreds of ideas jog through my mind, each elbowing the other out of the way, competing for the top spot in my writing priorities.

Yes, I suffer from the TMI Dilemma - too many ideas. I've talked about this before. My desk is plastered with Post-It notes filled with ideas. My idea file needs to go on a diet, a purge that will result in a delicious payback for me.

If you, like me, are afflicted by the too many ideas dilemma, here are some strategies to help you focus on the cream of the crop:
  • Ideas, like fine wine, get better with age. Some need to age and develop a pleasing bouquet before you pop the cork and share it with the world. I've had a short story idea drifting around in my mind for two years. Each day, the details become a little more clear to me, and when the time is right, the cork will pop! And, I'll write the short story I am meant to tell.
  • Deadlines are key. Even if you don't have a deadline, give yourself one. Even a timed free write can bring the best ideas to the front.
  • Mind the brain. When ideas are swirling, stir them and see what floats to the top. That is the best idea to focus on.
  • Organization is open to visualization. On my office door, I have a list of articles that are due, along with the due date. By keeping these projects in front of my eyes, I am able to stay organized and on task.
  • A network of writer friends, or even friends who are creative thinkers, allows you to bounce ideas off them. Whether you join a critique group or just share an idea with a friend, they'll be honest with you. In the long run, your writing will be better, too.
  • Exercise the right to exorcise. I'm responsible for mowing our acreage. During that time, not only do I walk and get a great walking workout, but I also focus on an idea and flesh out details. If something isn't working with a story line or article idea, I exorcise the idea and start over. It works!

If you suffer from the TMI dilemma, try one of these ideas for fast relief and a clear writing path.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Call a Friend

I'm collecting stories about how successful writers get their ideas. Here's another good one for non-fiction writers, particularly columnists, from Fran Lebowitz:

"When I was writing two columns a month, sometimes it was difficult to come up with ideas. I had certain friends that I have a humorous rapport with, and I'd talk to them on the phone until something came up. I made no bones about it. 'Hello, I have to write a column,' I'd say, and start talking. It was a way to hear my own voice back. I often found it useful in a pinch. Certain people inspired me or provoked something in me."


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Tuesday, July 29, 2008


An Active Process

I'm collecting stories about how successful writers get their ideas. Here's a good one for non-fiction writers:

"You can't sit there and wait for ideas to smash into you. It's not a passive process. So much of being a nonfiction writer is forcing yourself to find things to write about. It's an active process of looking at something in the newspaper, or some thing that's going around, and thinking, 'How do I feel about this?...Can I get anything out of this?...Can I push myself a little further on this topic?"
- Nora Ephron

Great advice--and stay tuned for more suggestions from the experts!


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