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Brain Storming – who, what, where, when and why, also why this is not plotting.
What is “Brainstorming”? According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary it is; “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group. Also: the mulling over of ideas by one or more individual in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem.” For the purposes of this blog post series, we are using the second definition. The problem we are solving is writing a book.
In the first post of this series I gave a brief outline of what would be covered. Now we are going to flesh out the details and nitty-gritty of the what I do for creating my novels. I use a combination of techniques to make my ideas come to life as a written story. To help demonstrate the process I will be creating an entirely new book from scratch to share how my creation process works. Examples will be included with all of the posts of the blog and you will be able to see it coming to life as the series progresses.
This post may seem like it is for the complete newbie who doesn’t even have an idea for a book. You just decided up out of the blue one day that you want to write one and now you need to take it in baby-steps to figure out how. Maybe you already have a book you are working on or have an idea for and don’t think you need to brainstorm. For person one, the brand-new writer, you will definitely learn something here even if all you learn is that you already knew what I’m telling you, or maybe you even know more than me. For person two, the experienced writer, I’ma gonna say that you are flat out wrong…and here’s why;
IF you already had everything figured out you wouldn’t be on this page. Something brought you here even if it was simply to see how much of an asshat I make myself out to be in writing this blog. More likely you were curious about how I propose going about writing a novel in thirty days. To be honest (if you are following this blog series after the entire thing has been posted), you aren’t going to write a novel in thirty days, you are going to do it in much less, the rest of that time will involve editing your novel, researching information you need for your novel, and taking a couple of well-deserved breaks. Thinking is hard and creating a fully believable intellectually immersive world is even harder no-matter how long it takes. (Disclaimer: Again, I’m not claiming to be an expert, just sharing my experience.)
So how do we brainstorm?
It’s super easy….(you totally added the words “barely an inconvenience” in your head didn’t you? And if you didn’t, then you need to watch this to know what I’m talking about.
There are four “parts” to my brainstorming process.
Part one – get your recording device of choice. Paper and pen, computer and word processing document, whatever. If you have an idea of what you want to write about, summarize it. Not the whole thing, just the most basic essence of it. A person/place/thing experiences some kind of push (read event) that forces them on (or maybe they volunteer for) some kind of journey/adventure/change which may be entirely action based, or not, and usually results in personal growth or downfall. Not complicated at all, right?
Okay. It’s a little bit more complicated than that. Start from scratch. If you have a character, write down what it is. Did you read that? Not who it is, what they are. What is their occupation, species, likes, dislikes? What is going to make this character compelling? Figure out why you care about them, so you can make your readers care about them. This process is important for the character’s development because you must have a starting place, so you can show the evolution of your character. There isn’t going to be an epic journey if your reader doesn’t know where the characters are coming from no one will care where they got to.
As a reader you already instinctively understood that. You might have already started a character profile. If you have great. If you haven’t because you need help, you can download a free copy of the one I use for my books here. These are important reference sheets. When writing my last book, I accidentally made my main character, a brunette, into a blonde for one scene. Yikes! That would have been an awful “oops” if it went to press like that. Character profiles are a necessary part of story writing and a valuable resource for making sure you are keeping descriptions consistent.
Every time there is a significant change of your character update your character sheet. Or better yet, make a new one. Make sure they are labeled in chronological order for the character’s development so that you can keep information consistent. Players of role-playing games will be familiar with updating their characters with each game. But if you haven’t been writing long you may not realize that you need to keep records of what your character was like before any changes brought about by your story. Why? What if you need to make major edits to the start of your story or back story? What if you decide to write a prequel?
What if I don’t have a character? That is fine. You can work with nothing. If you have a character that’s fine. This step might still be helpful to you. If you don’t have a character or any kind of ideas, please continue with the first step of Brain Storming.
Sometimes it’s easier to write a story completely from scratch without any preconceived notions of what is going on. So instead of letting your character build your story, you are going to let your story build your character. What? I’m not telling you to arbitrarily select something and then force yourself to build a story around it? That’s right. The book is inside you. (Yes! I know I sound tacky.)
So…think about what you like in your books/movies/short stories/audiobooks, or however else you get your fiction fix. I want you to pullup whatever words come to mind first from your absolute favorite stories. These are the things that stuck in your head and made you want to keep reading (and not that despicable writer’s trick of ending each chapter with a greater threat or problem to keep you hooked and entertained.) What I’m talking about are simple nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
What was the tone of the story? Was it dark and foreboding or light humorous? Was it serious? Was the hero shy, angry, or bitter? Were there any tropes you liked? Now how could you have made that better? What would have made the best book in the world to you? (ie. Badassery? Chic styles? Spaceships? Fairies? With sails?) And those words eventually transformed to; Holy cow! Fairies on spaceships with sails? Spanish galleons in space. Manned by chic badass fairies.)
To be clear; under no circumstances am I telling you to plagiarize from books and movies you like. Never steal from someone else. It’s not cool. Make up your own shit. Trust someone who knows, it sucks when someone steals from you and claims it as their own ideas. It isn’t flattery; it’s douchebagery.
What I’m saying is take all the “elements” you enjoy most in your preferred style of fiction and write them down. The things you like best are going to be what you are most familiar with and will be easiest for you to create your own fiction with. So, what do you like? Elves, dragons, aliens, mystery, romance? A classic HEA (happily ever after) or are you more about the space opera? Spaceships or sailing ships? Mysteries or anything else which comes to mind.
Have you got a bunch of stuff on your paper/screen? Good. If not, you should probably keep writing or typing. Just describe all the things which suck you into a book or movie. All the types and aspects of fiction which you like and get you all hot and bothered for more. If you have a timer set it for at least thirty minutes. If you fill up your page, get another. If you’re typing, just keep typing. If you run out of things to type or write in that thirty minutes, think of things you like which are not book related and all the things you know well and enjoy. If it’s hiking, cooking, gardening, fishing, sailing, or shopping then just brainstorm on that.
Whether or not you think those things are going to fit into whatever genre of story you want to write or think you want to write doesn’t matter. Because you can make it fit and it will be fabulous for your passion and expertise. Put down the things that make your heart race with joy and leave you breathless with emotion, whichever emotion you want your readers to feel. Individual words or short phrases. Heck, whole damned sentences or even short paragraphs if you want. Whatever works best for you to describe what you are thinking of. However, the shorter the better for organization’s sake.
By the end of thirty minutes you should have a passable start to ideas for your book. If you don’t have at least an entire page full of ideas, give yourself another thirty minutes. Mind you I said ideas, a jumbled mishmash of interrupted thoughts that you are going to form into a cohesive whole. Take a break. If you want, come back to it the next day.
Part Two – Make four columns on a new page. Characters. Tone. Plot. Settings. If you’d like, go ahead and download a copy of sorting sheet template here. Now divide your brainstorming list up among those columns. Step two seems kind of easy at first but keep this in mind, don’t be afraid to mix and match. What I mean is, you don’t have to keep something you intended to use to describe a character as a character description. It is allowable to switch it over to a tone, plot, or setting description, or vice versa. You are allowed to have multiple settings. And unless you are writing a single scene story, it’s pretty much required you have multiple settings in your story, so that column will likely be the longest. Even stories which take place in a world which seems fairly monotonous (like an ice planet or in the desert or on the ocean) will have a plethora of variables to describe the locations. Emotive words should be in all four columns. Random specificity is also allowed. Persimmon colored sunsets anyone? Bedrooms which positively reek of the color pink?
Once your ideas are nicely sorted, go ahead and take a break if you feel like it. Always take a break. You might lose ideas which you haven’t written down. It happens to me all the time. It’s okay. If they come back, they come back. If they don’t, they don’t.
Lots of writers will tell you that they keep paper and pen, or a recorder, or an app of some type on hand for notes in case inspiration strikes them outside of their writing time. That’s something you can use for another book. This book you are going to make deliberately, not from an unreliable source of inspiration. Think of it like a research paper. Make your notes, your outline, document your references and then bring it all together with cold hard intention. If you don’t have time to work on it today, you can come back to it another day because you are the source material.
Part Three – From your character list pick out a few to use for a main character. It can be things they like, stuff they hate, age, race, species. It doesn’t matter. Make it a mashup of possibilities from your character column on the sorting sheet. Now do the same for your places to pick a primary location for the story, or at least a jumping off point. No need to make these detailed right now. That will come up later.
Part Four – In the next post I’m going to talk about plotting. Using my technique, there is a very crucial step you need to complete before you can even consider plotting. Your book needs a tone. Humor through sadness, like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Or grimly determined through tragedy like Price of the Stars? Hopeful, like Starwars? What do you want the overall tone of your book to be?
Why is deciding on a tone before writing your book important? Because it is going to influence how you write every scene in your book. Tone dictates whether something is merely unpleasant or downright tragic. Is it a nice day or is it gloriously euphoric? Tone isn’t just an emotional essence you are trying to convey; it is a degree of emotion. What emotion are you trying to convey with your book? It’s okay if you don’t know. Your descriptive words, you know the ones you wrote down in your tone column because it was what you like in books you read and movies you watch, that’s your tone.
Now you just need to take those words and phrases and set it them into a concrete description. Write one sentence which gives you the underlying essence of what you want the tone to be. Then expand upon it with a few more sentences to make a paragraph. You don’t have to use all of your words you decided to put in your tone column. Those can be saved for individual scenes or discarded altogether if it turns out they don’t suit your needs.
Now that you’ve got some ideas of places for scenes, a couple of thoughts on main character, and a tone for your novel; we’re ready to talk about plot. But that is for next week. Hopefully you’ve got some great ideas for going forward. If you are doubting what you have now can pull itself into a complete novel, look at your brainstorming sheet again. Your characters will have things that they love and treasure, things which they abhor. There are wants and desires and motivations a plenty. What about your place column? Some interesting tidbits there also. Don’t forget the leftovers from your sorting sheet(s). You have a who, a what, a where, and a why in there. Now all you need is a plot.
Work through the exercises as I post them if you want or wait to see how the series turns out to do it all. Let me know if you have any thoughts? Maybe this won’t work for most people. But different people think in different ways and this is the process which works best for me when starting completely from scratch.
Check in next week for Plotting. Or if you haven’t read the overview yet then check out the first post in this blog series; 30 Steps to Writing a Fiction Novel in 30 Days
To read a book written with the technique illustrated in this blog, check out my novel Chieftess with this Affiliate Link.