A writing friend recently shared with a bunch of fellow scribes that she was seriously stuck on the brainstorming aspect of a new project. She gave me permission to blog about it. This author needs to solidify her idea and start writing because she has a thing called a deadline. But, she says, “the story and the characters are seriously playing hard to get.”
She asked, “Would love any brainstorming tips and tricks if you have them! How do you start building your story and characters? And how do you feel productive and intentional when brainstorming is such a creative (often stubborn…at least for me) process?”
It’s a great question. Here is what I wrote to her:
I wonder if part of the deal is what so many of us have expressed over the years with each new book, that it seems to get “harder.” And the reason for that, I believe, is that with each book you’re better and your standards go up. You know what goes into writing a whole book, all the constituent parts, and think, “Man, I’ve got to do all that again! And better!” So every idea in the brainstorming phase gets tested, when it should be a time for getting as many ideas as you can without judgment.
FWIW, I do the following at the beginning of any project.
– A free-form journal, interacting with myself, asking myself questions, going deeper into why I think I want to write this, and also putting down plot and character ideas as they come. I take several days (at least) for this, writing without stopping, but re-reading the journal each day, doing some editing on what I wrote the day before, highlighting the best ideas, and so on.
– At some point I take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to Starbucks and just write down scene ideas. Random. Whatever vivid scene comes to mind. I might prompt myself by playing the dictionary game (opening a dictionary to a random page, picking a noun, and riffing off that). When I have 30-40 scenes I shuffle the deck and pick two cards at random and see what the connection suggests.
– Finally, I want my concept in a three-sentence elevator pitch that I know is absolutely solid and marketable. Sentence 1 is character + vocation + current situation. Sentence 2 starts with “When” and is what I call the Doorway of No Return––the thing that pushes the Lead into the main plot. Sentence 3 begins with “Now” and the death (physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual) stakes. Here’s an example based on The Insider by Reece Hirsch:
Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high level merger negotiations between computer companies.
When Will celebrates by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.
Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology for mass destruction.
Here’s another example:
Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch.
When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her.
Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.
A good pitch guarantees a solid foundation. Now what?
Well, the next phase depends on how you like to approach things: plotter or pantser or something in between?
Now, I know there are some dedicated pantsers out there for whom any kind of pre-planning brings out a case of hives. They just want to start writing, and that’s okay … so long as you realize that you’re basically brainstorming the long way round. Some contend that this is the best way to find original story material. I would say it is only one way. There is still going to be a lot of editing and a ton of rewriting. The process I’ve described here is a faster and, to my mind, a more efficient way of getting to an original story line that you will be excited to write.
And so ended my advice, which I hope bursts the clouds for a fellow writer.
When things go dry in your writer’s mind, what are some of the things you do?