What I noticed as a common thread while trying to catch up to the Greats is, that oftentimes, a well narrated story alone doesn't necessarily suffice to draw you in, or keep your mind occupied after having closed the cover.
It all begins with an idea. A story needs an idea, something fresh and new, a prospect to hold out to the reader, so even the pickiest of audiences won't lose interest halfway through. Ideally, you come up with something unheard of, a new spin on the art of telling stories, or a re-vamped take on a stale stereotype.
As far as I'm concerned, the business of getting ideas is the one I primarily need to understand, before I even start typing. As a writer, you may rethink your plot and polish it, puzzle over the edges and pitfalls, but if you don't have ideas to start with, you're in trouble. Splitting your head on the keyboard is one option. Stealing from the Greats or consulting random idea generators yet another. I'd strongly advise against those, however.
I tried out a good many things, and I found several methods to be quite helpful as to come up with ideas (all by myself):
Con-tem-pla-tion (Contemplation now begins)
Creating an atmosphere of serenity may lead to a mental state of meditation. Music, a candle, a cup of tea, whatever it needs to drown out the noise of self-judgment and open the door to your inner chakra. Ha, I do sound like a crazy guru, don't I? But it really helps!
When your mind finally goes blank, and the resonant circuits close, there will be something else there. Relaxation. Creating an atmosphere helps cleansing you from all those nasty ulterior motives (wanting to please an audience, making money) you may not even be aware of, standing in the way of you and your idea. First, you have to make room for ideas to get in. I am serious!
The Hunger Games
For me, a person who barely keeps motivation levels high enough to get dressed every morning, one way to actually come up with something is some kind of imaginary outside force. I don't have anyone nagging me to write, except myself, and it does get hard sometimes.
So what I do is, I use my imaginative powers to create an imaginary kick in the ass. An editor, telling me to write faster, to finish another page until sundown. I even forced my husband to play the role of the patron of the arts once. But he seriously cracked me up when he told me to "finish this or I will leave you" with a fictitious stern face. The best way to create pressure on a lazy behind is to set a deadline for yourself. You have to take it seriously though. No extensions allowed, otherwise there have to be consequences.
Finishing the story until Christmas was a good start for me, but of course, I didn't finish, and I didn't inflict a punishment for having violated the term either, except eating massive amounts of cookies. Harsh penalty. But I managed to finalize chapters One to Nine before Christmas, including the prologue. So I guess, it helped me a little, after all.
I try to experience as many stories as I can, in books, movies, video games, everywhere, whenever I have the time. A welcome side effect of gulping them down like candy is me, increasingly understanding stories. Certain patterns get more and more apparent to my reader's eye, which eventually translates to my writer's eye. Kudos to Teresa, for coming up with the vivid concept - a really good idea!
Oftentimes, I can predict how a story will end, by correctly identifying the intentions of the author. This can get really annoying, especially when, at an early stage, the punch line is predictable and uninspired. The nagging feeling of Oh no, I think I know where this is going, can be quite frustrating. The more I absorb, the more difficult it gets to satisfy my standards. More often than not, stories leave me hanging.
I've realized though, that extrapolating my expectations for a story can get my own creative juices flowing. I get ideas when I see other people having ideas or, more importantly, lacking ideas. It does sound snobbish and cruel, but like in any other area, humans are problem-solving maniacs.
Sometimes I try to solve other people's story problems, and it helps me get started for my own projects. It's how they do it over there, at the Google company! Review as much as you can and you'll broaden your area of expertise story-wise for sure.
Let's get physical! Being overwhelmed by a physical sensation, my mind wanders off quite naturally. A shower can do that, and thus far, I had some good ideas while scrubbing my feet with a firm brush. I think the seclusion in the cubicle further helps summoning the effect.
But also, doing the dishes somehow makes me quite receptive. I can't say why, except that it's a completely unconscious activity I do with my hands, and it doesn't seem to waste any brain-space. I never get any ideas when I am concentrating on something work-related. Maybe it's the multitasking myth, that makes us hope we have ideas around the clock, no matter what we do. In my experience, it needs a little effort and free brain storage units.
Whatever we do to generate ideas, it's important to realize, they are not perfect creations when we first give birth to them. The difficulty is noticing them. They may seem too obvious (which we shouldn't be afraid of), not clever or innovative enough, maybe they are just a mere hunch, which we sense could be something worthwhile. What really helps to process those hunches, is to allow them to enter and let them sit there a little in our minds, and if there is something to them, they will flourish and find us in turn, quite naturally.