Writing Excuses Masterclass exercise 1 – generating ideas

Posted: January 13, 2015 in writing
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I mentioned on Saturday that Writing Excuses are running this year’s podcasts as a free writing course, with exercises for each lesson. To try to add to what I learn from this, and generate discussion with any of you who are interested, I’m going to post the exercises and what I produce here. No set timetable yet – we’ll see how I get on. If you feel like trying these exercises and sharing the results then I’d love to read them – please put your ideas or a link to them in the comments.

So, a week behind, here are the exercises from the first episode of this course (10.1), and what I came up with:

Write down five different story ideas in 150 words or less. Generate these ideas from these five sources:

From an interview or conversation you’ve had
From research you’ve done (reading science news, military history, etc)
From observation (go for a walk!)
From a piece of media (watch a movie)
From a piece of music (with or without lyrics)

This exercise might not generate the very best ideas you’ve ever had, but it will definitely flex your idea muscles in new ways.

1. From an interview or conversation:

A galactic empire is run by an ageing bureaucracy full of strange customs and traditions in a Gormenghast style. Our protagonist must survive the strange and deadly customs involved in joining this august body before he can bring reform.

This one was inspired by a conversation about reforming Britain’s House of Lords.

2. From research:

The story of a young bowman in Henry V’s army on the Agincourt campaign. He becomes disillusioned with the warrior king he idealised, and with the romance of soldiering, as he sees the unpleasant reality of medieval warfare. The final act sees him plunged into a horrifying sea of mud and bloodshed as the outnumbered English fight for their lives in the famous battle.

This one is kind of cheating. It’s based on research I did for a couple of freelance jobs, and I considered writing it as a novel this year, as it’s the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Then I realised I didn’t have time, so I’ll just put the idea here instead.

3. From observation:

A secret cabal of mages govern the world using magic they tap into through playing cards. But each mage can only use each card once, and when they run out their power is gone. Different cards have different powers. The protagonist is a good mage fighting the bad mages, because I am too tired for a more nuanced plot right now.

Based on seeing an ace of clubs lying abandoned in a puddle.

4. From a piece of media:

A border police story, inspired by Canadian police procedural series The Border, except in space. A group of security professionals struggle to stop smugglers, terrorists and annoying tourists crossing the planetary border, in particular a shuttle docking platform on top of a geosynchronous space elevator. Combine it with The Wire-style plots where you get to see and sympathise with both sides of the criminal divide, and every act is politicised.

5. From a piece of music:

A pair of angry lovers prepare to burn down the town that persecuted them before disappearing into the night. It all goes horribly wrong.

Inspired by one of my all time favourite albums, Black Love by the Afghan Whigs, especially the tracks ‘Crime Scene Part 1’ and ‘Going to Town’.

Great song. Shame about the video.

There we go, my ideas. Please feel free to share yours in the comments, or comment on mine – who knows, maybe one day I’ll write one of them.

And go listen to Writing Excuses. It’s great.

  1. Steve Hartline says:

    Nice ideas one and all Andrew. I for one though would be most interested in your take on Agincourt. Also the card mages would be an interesting ingredient on perhaps an original world setting?

    • Ooh yes, the card mages could work nicely in a fantasy western-style world, or maybe something civilised drawing on early modern courts with their intrigues and games. Cool!

      The Agincourt idea is still on my to-do board in a theoretical sort of way. It’s just a long way down it now.

      • glenatron says:

        There is a Tim Powers book called Last Call which is about magic and playing cards, combining poker with the major arcana and the Fisher King then setting it all in Las Vegas. It’s pretty good reading.

        • The Anubis Gate is the only Powers I’ve read, but I hear him referred to as a very smart guy. Maybe one to come back to once I’ve finished working this idea through for myself, so that I can come up with something that isn’t his take.

  2. everwalker says:

    This was a lot of fun. I’m going to add this to my regular brainstorming prompts.

    1. From an interview or conversation you’ve had

    Two brothers set up a restaurant called Muse. They cook the perfect meal for anyone who enters, perfect for that individual in every way. The trouble is that many of those who eat it lose interest in all other food and either starve to death or become fixated with the restaurant. A huge industry grows up around them, but one of the brothers consistently refuses to give interviews. His mystery only adds to the attraction.

    He knows that one day the restaurant will have a guest whose perfect meal must be prepared from the bodies of the chefs themselves. He fears that his brother doesn’t have the artistic integrity to go ahead with that meal and so keeps the knowledge from him. The secret – and that doubt – become a huge rift between them.

    Then, on a bright spring morning, a beautiful girl walks into Muse and asks for the perfect meal.

    (From a conversation with a colleague about artistic integrity and the downsides of perfectionism.)

    2. From research you’ve done

    Music and videos no longer need machines to deliver them. They are played directly into the neural cortex. People can watch and listen constantly whilst carrying about their daily lives, missing nothing in either cyberspace or the real world. But the boundaries between the two become harder and harder to identify.

    A teenage boy develops a personality disorder as his ability to tell what’s real and what isn’t dissolves under the onslaught of progressively convincing neural graphics. Either his Sim takes over his body, or he finally works out that he IS a Sim and tries to achieve independence.

    (From research on the development of the digital content industry.)

    3. From observation

    Buildings can have ghosts too, and there are a handful of archaeologists that can see them. During a standard survey to review a bunch of council houses about to be torn down and rebuilt, Sarah Potter uncovers the ghost of an ancient hall that once housed the Pendragon Grail. She starts out on a quest to discover what really became of that mythical item, where Arthur’s body waits for resurrection, and why that should never happen.

    (From a walk past a church that shows signs of being rebuilt and extended multiple times)

    4. From a piece of media

    Lex can see possible futures spinning out from every choice. His friends call him lucky but he knows it’s because he always picks the best outcome. No second-guessing, no regrets, no mistakes. It’s a charmed life, even if it does occasionally give him a headache. But if you never make a mistake, you never learn to cope with them. And one Tuesday, Lex is faced with a decision that has no good options…

    (Inspired by the phrase ‘six ways from Tuesday’ in a book, and the film ‘Sliding Doors’.)

    5. From a piece of music

    The year is 1790, and the blade falls on the necks of aristocracy in a bloody uprising throughout England. Across the channel, Louis XVI and his queen watch as their neighbours tear down the throne and descend into chaotic and vicious republicanism. Taking advantage of this, France and Austria form a coalition to wrest full control of the American colonies from Britain. Thus the Bourbon Empire is established, backed by the wealth of the ambitious Habsburgs.

    Princess Amelia, youngest daughter of George III, managed to escape the country shortly before her father’s execution. Scared and alone, she travels to Europe and becomes a pawn in the intricate politics of trade and influence.

    (Inspired by hearing someone play the accordion outside my local supermarket!)

    • Wow, I don’t think there’s a single idea there that didn’t get me excited. The first one is still the most beautiful to me, because it’s so deliciously dark. But my inner history nerd loves that last one.

      • everwalker says:

        It isn’t my period of history, but I’m tempted to do a ton more research and write it anyway. Another one to add to the list!

        • If you’re not already listening to it, the Revolutions Podcast is currently covering the French Revolution, and previously did the American Revolution, so that would give you a good grounding and lots of exciting details on the bits of history you’re changing there. Plus it’s a really enjoyable show.

  3. I finally had a chance to sit down and jot down some thoughts based on the first episode! You’ve all got some great ideas, by the way!


  4. glenatron says:

    Here we go then, while I’m on lunch break:

    1. From an interview or conversation you’ve had:

    A story about a character leading an ordinary life in a very routine setting, where any mistake can result in the incursion of sinister sectoid creatures from between the folds of reality. As the story progresses on it is gradually revealed that the entire narrative is happening inside code, designed as a way of teaching programming concepts through story.

    2, From research you’ve done (a piece about e-paper walls that can be used to decorate an environment in a totally flexible way)

    A ghost story where the ghost existed within computer systems and appeared as the shadows on e-ink walls. This could either be near future ( is it a person or an AI ) or post-scientific far future where nobody questions it’s ghostly nature.

    3. From observation (I spend a lot of time in fields)

    A story about doom approaching a great metropolis slowly and unavoidably, inspired by imagining what poo picking the field might look like from the point of the view of insects living in the horse poo.

    4. From a piece of media ( the last movie I watched was “What Dreams May Come” )

    An aesthetic predator attacks and devours anyone conflicting with it’s sense of beauty. To survive in the environment people must always dress appropriately for the background and environment they are confronted by.

    5. From a piece of music (current favourite is Matt Berry’s “Devil Inside Me”)

    A priest deliberately allows himself to be possessed by the devil, because he believes he has the strength and faith to contain that power. But is this because he has been tempted? What is the devil anyway? Has he been sacrificed by the church for intelligence on the diabolical plan? If so, can he reconcile himself to this?

    • Number four reminds me of American Psycho, I think because of the potential to explore callous predators in a modern urban environment. But the priest is my favourite, because I like stories that don’t just take their religious elements for granted but question what they really are and mean.

      Plus I’m now enjoying some Matt Berry.

      • glenatron says:

        I was really surprised by how good that album is – I’m used to seeing him in TV comedies so I wasn’t really expecting a) him to do music at all or b) the music he does to be some kind of 70s psychedelic folk Bowie thing.

        • I was surprised when I saw his picture on spotify and realised who he was. I started listening to the lyrics thinking ‘is this a spoof? because if it is it’s a pretty obscure one’, but he seems to be for real, and good for him. Not sure psychedelic folk is quite hitting my sweet spot musically, but it’s certainly good enough for a few listens to find out if it’s a grower.

  5. […] Writing Excuses Masterclass exercise 1 – generating ideas […]

  6. […] Writing Excuses Masterclass exercise 1 – generating ideas […]

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