How to have 155 ideas in 31 days
A recap of my July Idea Streak and tips for generating your own story ideas.
Welcome to So Relatable, a bi-weekly newsletter that helps creative folks improve their craft, achieve their goals, and eat better snacks. I’m glad you’re here!
At the beginning of July, I shared that I was going to complete an Idea Streak. The rules, which I made up, were as follows:
Five short story ideas, every day, no matter what. By the end of the month, I’ll have 155 ideas for stories. Not all of them will be great, but if even five percent are worthy of further exploration, I’ll consider myself rich in potential.
Reader: I did it. 🎉
As predicted, many of the 155 ideas I had this month were not especially clever or interesting, but plenty others have potential. My brain took turns I didn’t expect, patterns slowly surfaced, and I even have a loose plan for a linked story collection I can’t wait to start writing.
Despite this rousing success, turning myself into a pure idea machine wasn’t easy. Many days I sat down at my desk, cracked my knuckles, and proceeded to stare at a blank screen while doubt and panic set in. What even was an idea? How did people just invent things with their brains? Had I ever had an original thought in my life? Eventually something would surface and I’d sigh with relief, my streak safe for one more day.
Although the challenge never changed—five ideas, every day, no matter what—my strategies for meeting that goal varied. Here’s how my journey unfolded:
Stage One: Rounding Up Strays
For the first week, I plumbed the recesses of my brain for stray ideas I’d had over the last few years, things I’d pushed to the side while I worked on novels. This wasn’t cheating, exactly, because I’d never written these ideas down. After about five days (25 ideas!) I found myself with a blank brain and, even worse, a blank screen. It was time to switch gears.
Stage Two: Thinking on Themes
Linked short story collections tend to sell better—they’re easier to pitch and position. (Agenthas a great post about this!) I’m also naturally drawn to certain themes, and I like exploring an idea from multiple angles. Early on, the theme of “work” kept bubbling up—as a setting, as a metaphor, as a way to explore the thing that takes up a lot of my time. I found myself returning again and again to corporate life, specifically in the tech industry, and seeing what surreal and strange situations I could conjure. (A lot, it turns out!)
When I got tired of corporate life, I returned to suburbia. For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been working on a series of stories that all take place in the same small town on Long Island, a stand-in for the area where I grew up, and tried to generate ideas that could help round out that collection. When I needed a break from that theme, I went on a little bit of a “weird animal” tangent, which I cannot explain at all. During an Idea Streak, anything goes.
Stage Three: Embracing the Robots
At some point during week two, I turned to generative AI. Bard is my favorite—I prefer the UX, and I like that it’s generally less accurate, slightly more unhinged, and prone to hallucinations. All the better for generating weird ideas! As for how I used it, I’d think of a theme or setting or conflict, then prompt it to generate ideas based on those parameters. Here’s an example of a prompt I fed it:
Generate 10 literary short story ideas in the style of the New Yorker that are set in a workplace and deal with themes of capitalism, weird corporate life, purpose, and the search for true connection and meaning.
Each time, Bard almost instantly summoned 10 ideas. I skimmed them, looking for something that felt fresh and interesting, and when something caught my eye, I followed it. Most of its ideas, however, were pretty bland, which is the problem with LLMs. Nothing is actually original. After a while, it got super repetitive—the AI was CONVINCED I should write about a team of scientists who discover something dangerous, a woman trying to escape a cult, or group of teenagers lost in the woods—and I bid my robot assistant goodbye.
Stage Four: Revisiting Writing Prompts
By mid-month, I was scouring the internet for more traditional writing prompts. Many of them are genre-focused, which isn’t really my thing. For literary ideas, Poets & Writers Magazine offers the most interesting prompts, and they were great at getting my brain moving. Often I’d think of a theme or setting—my corporate series, my Long Island collection, my weird obsession with animals—and apply the prompts to that situation. Further proof that parameters, self-imposed or otherwise, make it easier to come up with ideas. Nothing kills creativity more than pure freedom.
Stage Five: Playing with Form
Speaking of parameters, I spent about a week exploring different formats for short stories—a story told in list form, a Rashomon style story, a story told in short vignettes, a story told in first person plural (my favorite POV!), a story told in emails, calendar invites, and LinkedIn posts (for my corporate collection, obviously). This run of ideas was the most fun, with a lot of potential for flash pieces. (The complete opposite of a novel, and exactly what I need right now.)
Stage Six: Longing to Commit
The last week of my streak has been the most challenging. I’m sure I’ve had the same idea at least three times, I’ve explored every possible angle of corporate life as well as thirty different animals, and my imagination is exhausted. I’m glad I did this streak, but I’m very happy it’s over.
The twist, which I should have seen coming, is that I miss writing. I long for the way an idea, once you begin exploring it, can shift in your hands, do things you didn’t expect or plan, pivot to take on new shapes and meaning. For me, writing is a lot like falling love—the initial spark of an idea is thrilling, but committing to that idea and bringing it to life is so much more satisfying.
And so, armed with 155 ideas, I’m ready to end my streak and commit to the act of creation. To follow an idea to the end, and see where it takes me. 💛
As a native Long Islander living in North Carolina, a good bagel is hard to find. So I was THRILLED when a new pizza place (literally a hole in a wall) started slinging fresh bagels on the weekends. They were chewy, full of flavor, and still warm from the brick pizza oven. The perfect Saturday morning routine!
Reading: I just finished This is How You Lose the Time War for book club, which was a short and fast read, and maybe one of the most delightfully strange books I’ve ever read. I also read The Guest by Emma Cline, and it was just okay—I had high hopes, but it fell a bit flat for me!
Watching: Star Trek: Discovery. I’ve never been a Trekkie, but it’s the perfect show for a hot summer weeknight. And obviously I saw Barbie opening weekend and loved it. It was exactly what it wanted to be—such an achievement!
Co-signing: this open letter from the Author’s Guild, which has been signed by over 10,000 writers (including me!), asking AI companies to stop using their work without permission or compensation. AI is an incredibly powerful tool, and I'd like to keep experimenting with and learning about it, while knowing the writers whose imaginations have fed and taught and enriched these systems are being fairly compensated for their work. Sign the letter!
Eating: Bagels, of course. Pesto on everything. Frozen blackberries from this year’s mega-harvest, mixed in my daily Greek yogurt. Trader Joe’s new Chocolate and Vanilla Bean Swirl Gelato. More bagels.
Feeling: Excited about some upcoming travel, delighted to write a short story for the first time in years, and looking forward to my upcoming birthday, also known as my favorite holiday. The next time I land in your inbox I’ll be older and wiser, and I truly can’t wait.
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About Me: I’m Chrissy Hennessey, an enthusiastic snacker and native New Yorker living in coastal North Carolina, where I stayed after earning my MFA in 2014. My writing has appeared in a decent number of journals, I’ve received fellowships to some fancy residencies, and I’ve written three novels, none of which I’ve published! This newsletter is a passion project I started in 2019 as a way to connect with readers and writers, share my creative journey, and relieve the glory days of blogosphere. Thanks for being here and reading this far!
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