How To Write Stories & Articles That Sell
One of my Big Points in yesterday's More On How to Make A Living Writing was, "If you’re not pretty much an idea factory, you’re never going to make it anyway."
One of my more consistently perspicacious readers, "SamWrites2," left a comment to that post.
"Hi, John!" he wrote. "You know, I've been thinking. I need you. I want to have your baby."
No, wait, wait. Sorry. That wasn't Sam. That was Anita. What Sam said was: "Can you expand on your "idea factory" idea? .... How does one become an idea factory without getting one’s ideas from someone else? Is there such a thing as an original idea? ... The reason I chose to work in journalism is because it was easier to look around, ask “Why?”, and then write about that ... rather than try to pull something brand new out of my brain."
Good question, Sam! Disgusting imagery -- but good question! Being an Idea Factory, is, after all, the key to being a successful writer, and no two ways about it. If you wait to get assigned a story, you die waiting; if you come up with a good story of your own, though, you're gold. From fiction to poetry to nonfiction, idea is king.
Let's first consider whether or not there's such a thing as an original idea. Of course there is; if there weren't, today we'd all still be trying to open cans with our teeth. Luckily, in 1972 Barnabas "Big Collar" Canopener invented the gadget that still bears his name, and cosmetic dentists everywhere were forced to become tile layers and make-up artists.
No, but yes: There are definitely new and original ideas. The whole point of good ideas is that they're new. They of course exist in symbiotic relationship with their contexts: the cuff link, for instance, was just stupid until someone finally invented the loose oversized hole-bearing man-cuff. I feel safe in saying that each and every one of our brains is veritably abuzz with new ideas just waiting to coalesce, spark to life, and then burst out in such a way as to embarrass us in public.
I don't in reality know if it's possible to teach people how to come up with good writing ideas. I think it is, but I don't know. I do know that in my years of trying to teach/impart that particular facility to freelance magazine writers, I invariably failed. I simply had a pretty much impossible time getting people to "think outside the box," as they say.
The reasons I personally have always had pretty good luck flopping around outside that stupid box are two: I'd rather burn alive for an hour than be bored for twelve seconds, and I in every last way loathe work. That's it.
Seriously: I think the two most important qualities a writer can have are an actual fear of boredom, and a deep and abiding drive to be lazy.
Here's what I mean: One time when I was working as the managing editor of a monthly magazine, we got in a press release about how the performance season for this local circus troupe was about to begin.
"Why don't you write a story about this local circus group?" my boss asked me.
"Why don't you quit so I can have your job, you moron," I replied. I'm kidding, of course. What I really did is storm into my office and slam shut my door.
Then my brain went like this: "Man, I love having my own office. I can't believe I have to write a story about those circus performers. I do respect them, though; I can barely sit in a chair without toppling off it. Hmm. Lemme look at their press release." Therein I learned that one of the circus's featured performers was "Ivan, The World's Strongest Man."
"Hmmm," I thought. "Must be weird being the world's strongest man. Guy definitely needs to update his wardrobe. No one wears sleeveless leopard-print unitards anymore. How does he not know that? Then again, if you're the world's strongest man, making astute fashion statements probably isn't your main concern in life. Your concern is that you keep breaking things. You try to open a door -- and you're holding a door. You go to apply your car brakes, and your foot goes through the floorboard. You scratch your head, and you almost bleed to death. It must be horrible being the world's strongest man."
So then I contacted the guy who plays Ivan, and asked if he'd be down for doing an interview with me based on the idea that he actually is the strongest human male currently alive on the planet. He thought it was a great idea -- and bingo, I had my piece. And that story was fun to write: I got to talk about how as a baby Ivan used a lawn mower for a rattler, and how as a schoolboy he had to use special steel pencils and was not fun to play with at recess, and how his dad had to commit suicide from the shame of having a three-year-old son who could totally beat him up. (Kidding!)
Point being: Writing that story didn't bore me to death -- and I didn't have to work, as I would have if I'd done the normal kind of story, where you have to take notes and get all the facts right and learn stuff. I hate learning stuff.
I'll give one more example, if you don't mind my writing yet another blog post longer than the Constitution. Once, when I was the editor of a weekly tabloid newspaper in downtown San Diego, I noticed the city had put up all around downtown these round signs on poles with nothing but the letter "P" on them. They were about the size of STOP signs. I thought, "What the heck are those signs for?" But right away I sensed that finding out what they were really for might involve actual work. So instead I stood underneath one of them, and when people walked by told them I was a reporter doing a story on what people thought the "P" on these new signs stood for.
And that's when people, yet again, started being the funniest thing since Charlie Chaplin.
"I think it stands for Padres," said one guy. (Padres! Like the city would just put up signs everywhere showing the first letter of San Diego's baseball team!)
A porty chap guessed, "Pizza? That'd be cool. It is hard to find good pizza downtown." A hippie girl said with what I suspected was organically generated mellowness, "You know what? I think it stands for peace." A wino-type guy said, "There's a bathroom nearby?" I made a questioning face, and he goes, "You know. Pee?!"
That was about the best half hour of my life. I took a couple of Pictures of People Pondering the P -- and just like that, I had half a page of usable material. (The signs stand for "Parking.")
One time one of my favorite writers -- a guy named J. R. Griffin, for whom I used to freelance back when he was running a music rag in Los Angeles called "Mean Streets" -- was once interviewing a musician when he noticed the batteries on his tape recorder were running low. So part of his story became about how he didn't stop the interview and say his batteries were low, because he was embarrassed about making such an amateur mistake and didn't have extra batteries anyway. But then, in the profile itself, J.R. wrote things like, "When I asked him about how he writes his music, Bob said that when composing he liked to hurt his hubble, or hug his stubble, or something like that. I'm not sure." Or he wrote, "And that's when I'm pretty sure Bob said something about being inspired by his cat," or, "'I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a musician,' I'm pretty sure Bob said."
I died. I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever read.
My point is: If you really want to be a creative idea machine, think lazy.
What I'm really saying, of course, is think about things not so much as what they're supposed to be, but what they actually are, if that makes sense. It's all about pointed, ingenuous honesty. I really do think the secret to consistently producing quality creative ideas -- whether it be for local, regional, or national magazine or newspaper work, or for fiction, or poetry, or play writing -- is to never fail to be brutally, crazily, viciously, obsessively (and always politely) honest about whatever it is you're writing about. That's it. Say what you see. Never force things to be what you or anyone else most typically wants or expects them to be. Let things and people tell you who and what they are: Let the real truth of whatever you're considering unfold itself before you -- and then just hang on, and see what happens.
Watch and ride: that's my motto.
The other Truly Excellent Way to find as many great stories as you can possibly write is to go out into the world secure in the knowledge that people are absolutely fascinating: that they do fascinating things, have fascinating histories, are involved in fascinating dynamics. Move around in life assuming that everyone you meet is astoundingly original and infinitely interesting -- and sure enough, they will never disappoint you.
Anyway, there's ... the tip of that iceberg.
Thanks for asking the question, Sam.