Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Every Dreamrush of Story Ideas Needs Limits

To celebrate the weeklong Amazon Kindle giveaway of his short story collection, Dreamrush, fantasy author Garrett Calcaterra discusses how limitations, as much as inspiration, help shape a story.

When people find out I’m an author, they always want to tell me about a brilliant story idea they have that I should write. I’m polite, of course, but after thanking them, I let them in on a little secret among authors: ideas aren’t the hard part when it comes to writing stories. In fact, most authors probably have more ideas than they know what to do with, and there’s a crucial step needed before an idea becomes an actual story.

No, I’m not talking about the craft of prose writing (although that is a big component of the hard-part when it comes to writing). Rather, I’m talking about imposing limitations on big ideas so that they can take shape. Let me illustrate what I mean by limitations with some examples from my collection of genre fiction, Dreamrush.

Back in 2011, I came across a call for short story submissions for a steampunk anthology. I was already a fan of the genre, but the editors had a caveat for the stories they wanted. They wanted something different than the typical Victorian England settings found in most steampunk stories. That limitation was what spurred me to write the stories “Deus ex Aurum” and “Gold Comes Out,” a pair of stories that mash up steampunk, fantasy, and alt-history during the backdrop of the California gold rush. I’d actually been wanting to write a story set during the goldrush for a while, seeing as how I grew up just a mile from where John Sutter discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, but I’d had that “big idea” for a while, and it had amounted to nothing. It was that call for submissions that imposed limitations on the idea: not only was my story set during the goldrush, it was a steampunk world with John Sutter at the heart of the conflict.

With my novelette “Page Fault,” the set of limitations were quite different. The story was intended to be an introductory tale for a shared-world project in a creative writing class I was teaching. As a shared world project, the class and I devised an entire codex for our fictional world, which created a framework for students to write in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. As such, I had to work within both those limitations, and the limitation that my story needed to set the stage for the students to go on and write their own stories. The end result was a story that not only stood on its own, but stands to this day as one of my favorite stories, incorporating elements of fantasy, noir, cyberpunk, and post-apocalyptic fiction.

The last story in my collection Dreamrush is “Wulfram,” a tie-in prequel to my fantasy series, The Dreamwielder Chronicles. In that instance, I had pages and pages of backstory and history for both the fictional world and the character Wulfram: an evil, shape-changing sorcerer who hunts my protagonist in the first book of the series. I easily could have written an entire novel chronicling Wulfram’s life, but that didn’t really fit into the production schedule nor the story arc of the series, which was meant to be a trilogy starring the dreamwielder Makarria. What made more sense was to write a tie-in short story that showed the hidden side if Wulfram, and also served double duty as a promotional story, one readers could try out without too much investment, and then if they liked it, try out Dreamwielder. With that limitation—literally a limitation to keep the story under 20 pages long—I was able to distill Wulfram’s entire life-story into a single, tragic tale that embodied who he was.

I could go on, as I’m sure any author could, but just like a big story idea, a blog post should have limits…

Get the Kindle edition of Garrett Calcaterra’s book Dreamrush for free for a limited time (August 8 – August 12, 2017) by clicking here. To learn more about the author and his series The Dreamwielder Chronicles, visit

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