Exploring the Craft

Exploring the Craft: 10 Ways to Generate Ideas

Part three of the Exploring the Craft: Writing SFF Fiction

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I’m an affiliate for Bookshop.org. The links to recommended books are affiliate links. I own each of the books recommended in this series.

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Published authors seem to hate being asked where they get their ideas. I also hear beginning writers, or those thinking about writing, ask where they can find original ideas because everything has been done.

Well, everything hasn’t been done. The idea there are only 6 stories or 12 stories or whatever the clickbait headline of the moment says is just misleading. What those statements are talking about are archetypes, not ideas. And even that isn’t entirely right, because they’re only talking about Western archetypes.

I digress. Story ideas, particularly SFF ideas, are endless. How to turn an idea into a story is a topic for later. Today I just want to share ways to find ideas we can work with to generate stories.

The secret is Consuming

I don’t know the science behind this, but know how my mind works, and I suspect yours works similarly. We form ideas from inputs. Our brains make connections between stimuli: memories, visual, auditory, and olfactory cues. I can hear someone say, ‘my brain isn’t imaginative like that.’ But it can be. We can train our minds to make more connections, and with practice, better ones in terms of story. But first, we need the stimuli.

Ten ways to prime our brains to spawn ideas

Photo by Dmitry Schemelev on Unsplash
  1. Read books. Fiction, non-fiction, memoir, poetry, comics, anything. 
  2. Watch a TV series, particularly one lauded for story-telling, but more importantly one you think you’ll enjoy. Just watch for entertainment.
  3. Watch a documentary. Whatever subjects interest you.
  4. Watch a movie you know well. This time, don’t watch for the entertainment (What happens next? Will they, won’t they?) but look for things like characterization, the what-ifs beyond the story, the settings, and the costumes. If you’ve watched the movie several times, watching it again allows you to focus on details that add to the story.
  5. Play a video game. It doesn’t have to be an RPG. First-person shooters can let your mind do things in the background.
  6. Take a walk. Fresh air boosts creativity, providing visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli. I listen to podcasts when I walk. They don’t have to be about writing. Facts about the world, history, or science all feed my mind. 
  7. Take a shower. Sometimes doing nothing is most productive. It’s often when we’re distracted when we make connections.
  8. Call an old friend and have a conversation about anything.
  9. Have memorable experiences. I don’t call it a bucket list, just an, I want to do this list. Kayak, climb mountains, and when we can again, stroll an unfamiliar downtown and try new foods.
  10. Play What-if. Brainstorm what-if ideas without thinking about if you can turn them into stories. Just play. Play is an important element in creativity. I’ll recommend another book here, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Make some of these a habit. When we keep our minds full of diverse topics, the synapses fire. Two or three unrelated things come together in our subconscious mind and produce an idea that might work in a story.


Here’s an example from a recent experience I had with a piece of collaborative software. Artificial Intelligence powered the software. It regularly provided prompts based on reading emails I wrote. These were so annoying I ignored them. When the same AI noticed I wasn’t opening the prompts, it asked if they were spam. I responded, yes. The AI was now marking its own communications as spam. Glorious.

I had an idea for a story, but I didn’t know it yet. It took one more nudge to get my mind to produce the idea. One of my walking podcasts mentioned AI in the context of helping writers. The full story idea immediately surfaced in my mind. The same day, I wrote a story about a collaborative AI and gamification gone to the extreme.

Another recent example. I went to South Korea for work six years ago. Nothing about this experience ever showed up as a story idea. Until this week, with the news of scientists creating hybrid monkey and human embryos. That triggered an idea I’m still mulling.

There’s no telling what our minds will connect or when to generate the spark of an idea. But for that process to work, we need to keep our minds full of a wide variety of things. We need to experience things. And often, when we try the hardest, we struggle to find ideas. It’s when we stop looking and focus on something else, our minds can get to work in the idea factory.


In the next few posts, I’ll look at ways to turn raw ideas into stories.

<a href="https://kevinjfellows.com">Kevin Fellows</a>
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.

Get a monthly digest of Exploring the Craft: Writing SFF delivered to your inbox.

Exploring the Craft

Exploring the Craft: Reading for better writing

Click here for the previous article in this series, or here for all articles.

Affiliate Disclaimer

I am an affiliate for Bookshop.org and Bookshop links are affiliate links. That said, these are books I’ve read and will attest to being genuinely helpful to me.

Can you read your way to better writing through craft books?

I’m a bit of a writing craft junkie. I started collecting books about writing a few decades ago when I was first interested in becoming an author. Natalie Goldberg and John Gardner were my go-tos. But life got in the way, and for several years I wrote little and read less about writing.

Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer

That changed when I picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer. Published in 2009, it was quite prescient and covers all the avenues of publishing available today. But it wasn’t the advice on publishing that grabbed me as much as the advice on writing a novel. Much of it was both a kick in the pants and a pep-talk into adopting the mindset of a professional author.

 I was concerned much of it might be outdated for 2021. However, reading through it again for this article, most of it still applies. Booklife is not so much a craft book as it is a how-to-manual for being a professional writer. It inspired me like no other book on writing and still does.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Another book, more craft focused but also covers all aspects of writing fiction, is Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Not only is it comprehensive, but it’s deep. There are real examples taken from all forms of fiction to illustrate the authors’ points. I refer to this book with every book I write, and I always seem to find something new that sticks with me.

The Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

A terrific book, especially for beginners, is also by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s called The Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Aimed at Speculative and Fantasy writers, this is a rich book with explanations, illustrations, essays by prominent writers in the field, and exercises. I recommend the print edition as the illustrations don’t work as well in ebook form. If you are relatively new to the SFF field, this book is a wellspring. Even if you’ve been writing SFF for a while, it’s an outstanding reference book. I know SFF writing workshops that make this book required reading.

Writing the Other: A Practical Approach

My last suggestion this week is a book for any writer, but especially those who are white and cis-gendered. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach [ebook only Amazon link] by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. It’s the best resource for understanding how to write characters who differ from you without causing harm to those communities, and how to handle yourself if you do.

I understand from Nisi a revised edition will be released soon, but you can’t go wrong with the current edition. The book shares the experiences of both authors, one black and queer, the other white and cis. It answers if you can write identities other than your own, and spoiler: yes you can. There are ways to do it well, and ways to do it poorly. Cynthia and Nisi delve into all of it.

I recommend this for SFF writers because too often we think we’re just making up worlds and don’t need to worry about diverse identities. But nothing could be more mistaken. The worlds we create project our own real-world views intentionally or not. We should be intentional and aware of the roots of the identities we create even in secondary worlds.

Photo by Darwin Vegher on Unsplash
My list

I can’t say these are the best books for you, I just know they helped and are still helping me. Find books you can refer to again and again, and those that inspire you. Find one that covers the craft and process of writing from beginning to end. Then find books that cover something you’re weak at. If Dialogue or Description are your weak points, find books specifically on those topics.

I’ve curated a recommended list of books. I own them all so feel free to ask me questions about any of them. I’ll discuss more books and add them to the list as the series continues. Comment below to share your favorite craft books.

In the next installment, I’ll tackle ideas, where to find them and how to develop them into stories. I’ll ask, how weird is too weird?

Kevin Fellows
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.

Get a monthly digest of Exploring the Craft: Writing SFF delivered to your inbox.

Exploring the Craft

Exploring the Craft: Writing Speculative and Fantasy Fiction

A series on the craft of writing SFF, plus one action we can take right now to make ourselves better writers.

I write a lot of notes. I keep them with me at all times so I can jot things down as they occur and I don’t have to remember them. I also keep a journal for each of my writing projects. For example, in my current novel there is a document, entitled Journal, and I write a summary of what I did today in that project. I also record my thoughts on how it’s going, or not going. Thoughts on structure, characters, or plot. I do a lot of writing about my writing.

So I conceived of this series to share the questions and dilemmas of craft I face as I’m writing. If I’m going to write about it, I might as well share it with other writers.

I mean this series as an exploration of fiction writing craft in general, with specifics to Speculative and Fantasy. It will not be prescriptive but an investigation into the things stories need, that readers need. I’ll explore the ways writers can fulfill those needs.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


The one need every reader has is immersion. A story truly only works when the reader is, at least for a few moments, immersed. All aspects of craft really come down to how you build immersion. I’ll be looking at tools and techniques we can use to create that experience.

I’ll share what I know and what I’m still learning. I’m no MFA-wielding literary guru. I’m simply a writer trying to tell the best SFF stories I can.


I don’t know all the places this adventure will take us, but I do know we’ll investigate:

  • Idea generation
  • Characterization
  • Plot
  • World building
  • Point of View
  • Dialogue
  • Structure
  • Prose
  • Showing and Telling

Some of them more than once because there are multiple ways to approach the topic. If there’s a specific area you’d like to see me explore, let me know in the comments below.

One action we can take to make ourselves better writers

I use the word craft intentionally. Like practitioners of any craft, writers study and practice their craft. Mastering craft is a never-ending process. But today I want to leave you with a single simple action you can take, which I found made me a better writer in just three months. I’m a slow reader, so for some, you might see results in a month or even a week.

The 3x3x3 plan.

For the next three months:

  • Read 3 books in the genre you write in. They don’t have to be in the precise sub-genre you write in, like Urban Fantasy, but they must be in the broader genre, like Fantasy, AND published within the last TWO years.
  • Also read 3 fiction books outside your genre. Literary, historical, thriller, etc. These don’t have to be recently published. The classics are good here. Though I would suggest at least one title published within the last decade.
  • Finally, read 3 non-fiction books on any subject that interests you.

If you don’t like a book, put it away and start another of the same type.

Do this in whatever order works for you. I like to have one of each going simultaneously, but that won’t work for everyone.

Photo by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Through reading widely and deeply, I think you’ll be surprised at how much you absorb, and how much your writing will improve. I find more and better ideas. I learn how stories in the various genres are structured, and I learn techniques from all genres and forms that I can use in my work.

What do you have to lose? Even if you don’t feel like a better writer, I’m betting those first readers and beta readers will notice a difference. The worst that can happen is that you’ve read nine books.


In the next installment, I’ll share some of my favorite craft resources, many of which I’ll refer to throughout the series.

<a href="https://kevinjfellows.com">Kevin Fellows</a>
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.

Get a monthly digest of Exploring the Craft: Writing SFF delivered to your inbox.

Three Reasons Your Story Feels Flat

When we generate story ideas, we see them in our minds as perfect gems of literature. When we translate that image into words in a manuscript, even the best fall short of our imagination. Here are three reasons stories can fall flat to readers.

Characters act and speak in a vacuum

Sometimes we’re so energized by a story we just start writing. This happens most often with short stories but a novel can start this way too. This often leads to characters speaking to each other in sections of dialogue where the reader has no sense of where the characters are, what their body-language is communicating, or even when the scene takes place. Be sure to infuse all the senses in a scene, even if that scene consists mostly of dialogue. Make sure the dialogue advances plot, character, or the world, or better, at least two if not all three. Remember: who, what, where, when, and why.

Simple actions can say a lot, and help reduce the number of he/she/they said tags. Something like: “Did you hone the edge of that blade for Rugar?” she asked, could be turned into: Salia tossed Edric her whetstone. “Did you hone the edge of that blade for Rugar?” That implies things about both characters. Does Salia not trust Edric to get things done? Does he fail to keep his promises? Is he always unprepared, and she the opposite? In the story’s context, these details reinforce character.

There’s an info-dump

To get the story on the page we feel the need to include all the information we, the authors, know. How else will the reader understand? Often less is more. Readers need to fill in blanks using their own imagination. It’s why they read. Use details to hint and reveal just enough to keep them reading. Provide the reader with just what they need to know right-at-that-moment in the story. Details are like spice. Sprinkle them in but don’t overdo it.

Characters Lack Unique Voices

When a character walks into a story, the reader wants to identify with them or at least see them as unique from all other characters. Any speaking character, even non-POV characters, need a unique voice or presence. This can be challenging, especially when there are many POV characters already and lots of extras as is common in epic fantasy and space opera. There’s often a temptation to provide introductory back-story, but that risks creating many small info-dumps and slows the story’s pacing.

Like details, small character tags can quickly establish a character. Something like: Avrex wore his long black hair in a flowing braid clasped at the end with his family’s signet. This can signal status, and a certain vanity just by tagging the braid and how he wears it. Other characters may have braids, but do they advertise their family with them?

There are many reasons stories feel flat. It could be the central idea just isn’t as compelling as we thought. But reviewing these three elements can help bring a story to life.

What techniques have you used to liven a story?