Writing Excuses 10.1: Seriously, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Season 10 begins!

We wanted to do something different this year. Something special. As we brainstormed we kept returning to something a listener said years ago: “Writing Excuses is like a master class in writing genre fiction.”

That’s a generous remark, as anyone who’s taken an actual master class can attest, but it inspired us to ask ourselves what Writing Excuses would look sound like if it were formatted like an actual master class.

The answer? It would sound like Season 10 is going to sound. This year we’re going to go to school! Each month will focus on a specific bit of the writing process, and each podcast will drill down on one of those bits. We’ll still have some “wildcard” episodes with guests, but for at least three weeks out of each month we’re going to stay on topic. If you’re new to the podcast, this is where to start! If you’re an old hand, don’t worry — this isn’t a return to the 101-level stuff.

In January we’ll cover the very beginning — coming up with cool ideas, and wrapping them up into something that we can turn into a story. And for this first episode we’ll answer the dreaded “where do you get your ideas” question quite seriously. We’re not going to tell you about the Idea Factory in Schenectady (Harlan Ellison’s stock answer,) nor are we going to eye-roll. Nope. We’re going to tell you how we get our brains to think stuff up, and then we’re going to give you homework in the writing prompt.

We’ve talked about ideas before, of course, so here are some links:



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

  1. From an interview or conversation you’ve had
  2. From research you’ve done (reading science news, military history, etc)
  3. From observation (go for a walk!)
  4. From a piece of media (watch a movie)
  5. 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.

Lock In, by John Scalzi, narrated by Amber Benson OR Wil Wheaton (there are two versions of this audiobook.)

56 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.1: Seriously, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

  1. Speaking of cool ideas, this masterclass season seems like it ought to be fun. Looking forward to it!

  2. First-time lurker in here, and my question is: do you also transcript your podcast? Would help me tremendously. You could even offer transcriptions separately as a subscription or a collection on dvd/cd, I’d buy that. Thanks a lot!

  3. I’m so happy you guys are doing this. The masterclass structure is perfect for me and timed perfectly. I’ve been struggling with writing lately, stressing out over one project I’ve been working on for ages. Writing For Fun was already so topical for me, this ongoing masterclass is just perfect for me and timed perfectly. Thank you so much for doing this.

  4. “Each month will focus on a specific bit of the writing process.”
    Perfect! This is what I have been wanting for awhile now. The show has recently tended to drift a bit from what I have personally liked so much about it – the nitty gritty of crafting stories. Not that that is a bad thing for the show. You obviously have to cover more than just the nuts and bolts of writing or it would get repetitive (though I love when topics are revisited so we get more depth), but this is what I want for myself and it is nice to see we will get more focus on that this season. I always feel the episodes end just as you are hitting your stride with each topic, so I think this more focused format will help tremendously.

    PS. I always wanted to write a short story about an actual Idea Factory, but am afraid Ellison would sue me. ;)

  5. I can tell if an idea is good based on whether or not I can come up with story-ready content. If I can get a page of vague, white-roomed, he-said-she-said content off of an idea it’s a short story, five pages is a novella or novlette, ten pages I can make a novel’s worth when I start using real description and blocking. Another advantage of that for me is that it will also serve as a character and world sketch before I outline.

    Even though I’ve gotten ideas from all five of those before (Orson Scott Card’s “Idea Net” is something I took to heart) since I tend to either start on or discount an idea immediately I’ll come up with five new ones, just so I have something to work with for the next set of writing assignments.

  6. Is it just me, or is the audio a little hissy? It started a few episodes ago and has effected every one since.

  7. Question regarding Lock In: I’ve read a few of John Scalzi’s books in the past (Redshirts, and the first 3 books in the Old Man’s War series). While I’ve generally enjoyed the stories and characters, his use of language (specifically the f-bomb) tends to be a bit much for me. Yes, I’m a rather sensitive soul.

    Does Lock In follow that trend as far as the use of language goes? I’d love to give this book a try…but I’m wary to give the author another read at this point.

  8. the podcast just leveled up, taking a rank in the master class! you can now cast charm monster at will, so that’s cool. i am looking forward to seeing it unfold.

  9. Thanks guys. I am very excited about Season 10. I have been an off and on listener and recently started a daily writing regimen as I want to put my ideas to ink. This is perfect timing for me and much appreciated. Thanks!

  10. @Eddie, yes, they do have transcripts for each episode. A day or two after each episode is posted, ‘nother Mike will post a link to the transcript in the comments. They all have the link in the comments. Or, just click on the “Transcripts” link up in the sidebar!

  11. Looking forward to an exciting season. I have listened to every episode over the years and have wondered if/when you guys would run out of random topics… The new structure seems like a fantastic idea to keep things fresh and challenge yourselves as well as your listeners. It sounds like there was a (big or small, I don’t know) leap of faith on your part in assuming much of your audience had already listened to many of your casts, which is why I wanted to chime in with some encouragement in saying, ‘You’re Right!’, and, ‘We’re Ready!’ Bring it on!

  12. Awesome!! Love the new format. I agree the audio quality was a tad rough, although certainly manageable to listen to.

  13. Wow! I’m so, so, so, SO, excited about this new season. I think you all have made an awesome decision formatting it as a “master class” such a great idea. I don’t comment often… or, actually I don’t think I’ve ever commented on the site, but I wanted to thank all of you for the time you put into producing these great resources for everyone. I am sure that you all serve as an inspiration in one way or another to every listener.

    On a side note, Mary sometimes seems a bit quieter than the rest of you, which can make her insight hard to hear… that may be because I listen to the podcasts in a machine shop… not sure if anyone else has ever mentioned that, maybe I’m the only one. Either way, you are all great, and once again, thank you!

    Respectfully submitted,


    1. @Matthew Taylor — Sometimes I am quieter, but… you mentioned a machine shop. My voice apparently falls into the same frequency range as bandsaws and grinders, so you might want to get checked for hearing loss. I know the range because I had a theater director who couldn’t hear me, although everyone else could, and then we realized that he’d lost most of that range.

      1. A couple of notes regarding the audio:

        1) The machine-shop (or a moving car) isn’t a good listening environment for anything that hasn’t been heavily compressed. Pop radio, and talk radio are both processed this way. We’re not.
        2) We can do more to fix this. We’re looking into it. Ultimately the biggest limiting factor is that we do not record in a proper studio. We record where we’re able to all be together, and in a setting where we can get comfortable. Unfortunately, none of the solutions that work in our catch-as-catch-can settings are cheap. Still, there are some things we can try.

  14. I’ve listened to all of Writing Excuses and it’s done more for my writing than my entire four years as a creative writing major. Especially since Writing Excuses doesn’t threaten to fail me for writing fantasy rather than “literature.” And I’m very glad to see this change for the new year. I’m really looking forward to it. Ya’ll rock and can’t possibly comprehend how much I appreciate everyone for everything you’ve all done.

  15. A Master Writing Class with this team? Over the course of a year?? Whaaa?!
    This is a phenomenal ideal. Thank for making this happen. I was just thinking that it might be good to get in on a class or something, and then you guys hit me with this stuff from Season X. Excellent. What a great idea. I would urge all who are listening and serious about their writing, that someone (or some book, etc.) can give you prompts all day long, but it really comes down to you just sitting and making your fingers hit the keys.
    I wanted to throw something out with regard to the advice the WE team gave us for getting ideas. While I do think your ideas worthy (going to Twitter and following Wired and other geeky/techy sites that we love, I would say a key mindset to be in is one in which you are open to let your mind go in certain directions (that is, any direction it picks up). It’s about keeping your mind open to the ‘What If” questions that may drift when noticing/observing.
    For example, if I’m on a walk and I see a flock of eagles, I might think of asking things like:

    What would it be like to command an entire flock of giant eagles to restore a civilization?

    or I could ask –

    What if humanity were preyed upon by giant ferocious avians? But what if one Eagle didn’t want to do it, and one man wanted to kill the eagles? What if those two became friends?


    What if someone was able to talk to birds and learn flight from them?

    There are infinite cast ways for the mind to take us. Thanks so much for the great kick off to Season X.

  16. WhaaaaT!? Soo excited for this season!!! Thank you so much for doing this!

    Note: Please adjust the audio levels of each speaker to be as close to equal DB level as possible. Listening on headphones can be a painful experience when one speaker is louder than the others.

    If you need someone to edit the audio each week, I volunteer myself to do so.


    p.s. Do a retreat in Hawaii! We’d love you here!

  17. Super excited to see a WE501! I was a little leery about a change coming to the podcast, but clearly that feeling was misplaced. Way to get the year started off right! I’m one would have loved to pursued a more structured course had I the time, but since listening is so much easier to fit along side other activities this is just perfect.

  18. Oh wow, this sounds so cool. While the episode itself isn’t all that great for me (raw ideas are not my problem) the structured format is a really good idea. And I suspect the rest of this month will be among the most beneficial of all of Writing Excuses for me – trimming, propagating and refining an idea into a usable story core is probably what I have most difficulty with.

  19. Today I learned I’m capable of feeling hype for a podcast. This season will be great. I look forward to doing the exercise on my flight today.

  20. @Chris Baxter – Thanks, and apologies for not digging deeper into the archive.
    @’nother Mike – You rule, and have my eternal gratitude for the transcripts! Is your Amazon Wishlist public? :)

  21. Oh, excellent! My spouse and I took the plunge and signed up for the Writing Excuses Retreat/Cruise, and this is perfect timing to get me back on track with the short pieces I outlined for NaNo last year (none of which I actually finished…). I listened to part of the first episode on my way into work this morning, and I plan to download the referenced previous episodes at lunchtime for the ride home.

    Thank you all for doing this!

  22. @Howard, I listen in a moving car going highway speed using one ear bud (left) only, and I can hear everyone okay. It’s the hissing noise that I was referring to as “rough audio”, which wasn’t there in some of your earlier episodes (for example, I’m catching up on season 5 and it sounded great the entire way through).

    I can hear Mary just fine. I would be able to hear Dan except you guys keep interrupting him! :)

    Brandon is louder than the others, which was not the case in seasons past.

    But this is all really nitpicking. I can hear you, it’s awesome, and I’m thrilled with the new format!

  23. This is great. though I had a momentary bit of unexpected tension as I contemplated the change in our relationship – like when I realized 26 years ago that I loved the woman who would become my wife and had to get up the nerve to ask her to marry me.

    That worked out okay so I guess I can commit to this as well. :)

  24. As a bit of a sub-note, I may have to add a sixth to my homework. “Bolt from the blue” ideas sometimes happen. Somehow making coffee at the office gave me the idea for a near-future cyberpunk AI romance.

  25. Last comment, promise. I’m supposed to be writing about transcatheter aortic valve replacements and I’m going to get into big trouble soon if I don’t!

    I only did one example from the homework, and that’s all I will have time for. But I’ve posted it on my website in case anyone is interested. I realize I need a podcast on endings!

    http://www.lifesciencewriter.com/#!WritingExcuses Exercises/c8cn

  26. Agree with the audio problems, quite a bit of interference and different voice levels this week. :(

  27. I’ve listened to the last nine season in little over a year, and I’ve learned so much. I can’t wait for Season 10. I’m so grateful to you for doing this! A million and one thanks!

  28. I am so excited for season ten! Thank you so much for taking the time to turn the podcast into a class for the year!

  29. Noticed something curious about the website. If you look under Dan Wells, in the About Us section on the right side, you will see a link to “Buy Dan Bacon”. The link sends you to the Amazon search page for “Dan Bacon”.

  30. I will look forward to this 101 area of Writing Excuses. But please never take a step away from the care free feeling I get from listening to you guys! I love there podcasts so much because it sounds like you guys are sitting down for lunch or something. It’s awesome. It feels natural. You guys have helped me start writing books of my own. My beginnings are defined by advice from Writing Excuses. If I have an issue that I need to understand better, like how to get the villain into the story, I look it up on Writing Excuses. You guys are awesome! Keep going! I doubt I am the only one who feels this way.

  31. Let me add my voice to the chorus of yes! votes regarding the new format changes. An excellent idea, and I can’t wait to see it unfold.

  32. I’ve had to cut back on my creative writing in the past few years due to time and circumstance, but having listened to Writing Excuses for the past half a year, I’m hooked and need to get back into it. So it’s been my resolution to write a short story each week based on the prompts and exercises you guys give us. The trick I’ve laid for myself is to set each story in the world I’ve been meaning to write and explore for the better part of five years, with random characters and settings that won’t interfere with the big story I wish to tell. This will mean I have to stretch the prompt or exercise to some degree to fit in this context.

    Perhaps this year wasn’t the best place to start that, seeing as how the masters class won’t necessarily give me the writing prompts I was expecting to receive. Oh well. Here’s a link to my short story this week, where I sneakily outline 5 potential stories in 150 words or less within the context. http://talesfromatelinor.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/the-dry-season/

    Keep up the great work. Can’t wait to learn more. Hope you don’t mind me stretching your exercises a little bit.

  33. Going for the low-hanging fruit is evolutionarily advantageous!

    We’re little better than knuckle-walkers: that low-hanging fruit is safe fruit. You need to be a brachiator to get the fruit just beyond easy reach. Though I’m going out on a limb here — a thin, dangerous, shaky, unsafe limb that is totally not worth the fruit on the end, even if it is plump and juicy — I’d say that the fruit above that is even more dangerous: it’s strictly for the birds.

    As they say, comedians rush in where lemurs fear to tread.

  34. I really wish your podcast production was as good as your content. The levels are make it really hard to enjoy. A little pre amps, some good mics and some mic technique would make it perfect. As it is its unlistenable on anything but good headphones because I can’t hear half the comments of I list while driving. Unsubscribing for that reason

  35. Thank you. the Master Class is the best thing since (insert an appropriate metaphor)!

    I just want to share my brain with you:

    Interview/conversation: Coffee shop owner’s coffee causes patrons to spill secrets. (Thriller (any genre really))

    Research: PC repair shop. Exorcisms are an important part of computer repair. (Humor)

    Observation: Painter manipulates people or reality with paintings. (Horror)

    Media: God has no sense of humor. . Complains about everything. Satan runs a neighboring office. They argue all the time. MC is a poor office clerk. (humor)

    Music: Black Horse & the Cherry Tree. MC eats souls for lunch (not a metaphor).

  36. Love love love the master class idea! I’m so grateful for an abundance of advice and inspiration from the last nine seasons. Looking forward to studying with you all this year (even the homework)…

  37. First time listener, first time poster.
    Could not have discovered this site/pod cast at a better time. After uncountable false starts and half hearted attempts to develop the craft that is creative writing and/or RPG building I am so happy to be referred to your site. Tremendous applause from me in the peanut gallery.

    Listened to this a week ago, thought about it through the weekend and then put brain crunch into it. I’ve only come up with a ‘seed’ on three of the five, but of those three I am pretty excited. Almost at a seed on one and the fifth is just lingering. MAybe I can complete it after moving onto 10.2

  38. Love the podcast, but I have one minor issue. Can you do something to equalize the sound levels on each voice? I listen to you guys at work, and I have to continuously monitor and adjust the volume on my computer. Some voices are quiet while some are…well, quite loud. Thanks.

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