Most writers say that the problem isn't coming up with story ideas, it's having too many, but I don't think that's the whole truth. In the beginning of your writing career, it can be hard to come up with ideas, or at least to come up with original ones.
So what can you do to jumpstart your brain?
For me, it's important to make time for stuff that inspires me. I try to schedule "inspiration dates" at least once a month, when I visit a museum, see a play, or do something I wouldn't normally do. I also think that reading a variety of good nonfiction books helps, in addition to fiction, of course. Travel's great if you can afford it, but even traveling locally helps to give you a change of scenery. Or you can play tourist in your own hometown: you never know what you'll find.
That's all fine and dandy, you say, if you can go at your own pace, but what if you're on a deadline? Or you want to write something for an anthology and you don't have a story idea ready?
I did Chuck Wendig's Terribleminds challenges quite regularly for a couple of years, and they helped me realise I can pretty much write about anything if I put my mind to it. Some of the tricks I picked up from him are exploring random images on Flickr, using the random title generator, and the x meets y challenge, which is great for blending genres. I also do google image searches for weird stuff, and follow the websites of artists whose work inspires me.
One exercise that's a lot of fun is doing a bare-bones story outline and at every point asking yourself what would be the worst/most bizarre/most unexpected thing that could happen. Brainstorming stories isn't quite as much fun as writing them, but you can explore completely bonkers stuff at this stage and it won't cost you pages and pages of story if you decide that no, maybe the pink ferret with the Cherry Tree of Doom growing from his left ear isn't the way to go here. And you know what, sometimes you can come up with something no one else has ever thought of.
Often the first thing you come up with is kind of tired or too simple. Sometimes it's good to smoosh together two or more ideas, see how they work together, or maybe give that first idea a twist. It can also help to plot the story from the antagonist's point of view. Remember how in scene structure the scene always ends with a disaster for your protag? Well, that means things always go the antagonist's way, right up until the end. He can be lucky, his plans can go like clockwork, and he can be smart and figure out what the protag is doing. Why not? It all adds conflict to the protag's story.
Writing books always tell you to study people, and that's good advice. I like to play Sherlock Holmes and find those telling details to use in creating characters. See how that girl fiddles with the top button of her jacket? It's all shiny, so she must do it a lot. Is she nervous? What's that lip colour she's wearing? Bright pink. Must be a brave person. A wallflower wouldn't be caught dead in that shade. And her dye job's grown out a bit. Those highlights look professional. Wonder why she hasn't been to the hairdresser? That's an expensive purse, so probably not a money issue. Oh, a pink unicorn reflector hangs from the bag. Must have a sense of humour. . . You can go as far as you want, even make up an imaginary past for the person. Maybe that'll spark a story in you. The great thing is that you can do this anywhere. If there isn't anyone in the room, do the same thing with setting. Use different mood and character filters, like if you were a nervous elderly lady or a pissed-off ninja-pirate, what would you notice? As a writer, you'll never be bored again.
And the most important thing? Never, ever leave the house without your pocket-sized writer's notebook. You need to write this stuff down or you'll never remember it when you need to.
That's all I got. What about you guys? Any tips?