Friday, May 21, 2010

Brainstorming Your Way to a Completed First Draft

Whether you’re writing your first book or your tenth, whether you’re writing memoir or fiction or non-fiction, you will occasionally encounter roadblocks (which sometimes look a lot like brick walls).

You might have trouble getting your character from one place to another, or from one year to another – a troublesome transition.

Your character could be stuck in a situation with no practical and believable way to escape.

Perhaps you discover a fatal flaw in your timeline, destroying the logical progression of events across six chapters.

The end result? You’re stuck and you can’t find a way out.

Before you delete big sections of prose or feed the whole manuscript to your shredder, one tortured, tear-soaked page at a time, try a brainstorming session with a couple of writer friends or members of your critique group. Even a session with non-writers who read a lot can be helpful. Invite the idea team to sit around your kitchen table, share tea and cookies, and focus on your writing problem.

If your book is partially completed, provide your idea team with a short synopsis. Explain where you’re stuck and why.

I took part in a work session with three other writers a couple of weeks ago. The novelist who needed input is writing a World War II story based on real events. In a project like this, the true story can act like a straitjacket, restricting the free flow of ideas. Since the rest of us don’t know all of the details and have no connection to the characters, we were open to new possibilities, asked questions that led to more options, and built on each others’ suggestions. There were flashes of brilliance among our ideas. There was also evidence of madness. It won’t all be good, but even a silly proposition can lead to a solution.

During our session, the author answered our questions, fielded ideas, and took a couple of pages of notes. It’s a process that works well for a lot of us. It’s worth a try.

Even if you don’t have a critique group, or you don’t live close to a group of writers, you can do a brainstorming session online via e-mail, chats, instant messages, a closed Yahoo! Group, or on Facebook.

If you’ve tried the brainstorming approach to problem solving, how did it work for you?

For more information on developing ideas or working through a plot snag, see these Blood-Red Pencil posts:

Ideas for Writing by Shon Bacon
Hitting the Writing Wall by Heidi Thomas
Stumbling Blocks by Helen Ginger
Need Help With Plotting? by Slim Randles
Blood-Red Pencil Contributor Heidi Thomas also has this excellent post on her own blog: Overcoming Writer’s Block.


Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).

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  1. I could have guessed this was your post even before I saw your name!!

    Interesting that posts I'm checking into right now are focused on writing-related topics, especially character development. And this is just as I'm beginning to construct a new novel. What you say here is so helpful. Thanks!!

  2. Good post. I have brainstormed with my husband quite often when I'm stuck and it works!!

  3. Very helpful post. Brainstorming is great. I tend to type anything and everything that comes to mind about my "pain". It's sometimes scary and even funny but always helpful.
    Around me are voracious readers of very varied appeals (they really cover the spectrum!) and solutions come from the strangest sources so I don't discount anything.
    Giggles and Guns

  4. My youngest daughter (now 27) and I have brainstormed stories for years. I also belong to a most excellent group, the Southern Indiana Writers Group. As you say, sometimes the spitwad sessions get a little surreal, but nothing cuts the straps off the straightjacket like one of those.

  5. I sometimes brainstorm with my daughters when part of my story doesn't work - it's very helpful.

  6. Yes, good point. I have a regular brainstorming group. Very helpful

  7. I brain storm all the time when doing character development. I usually ask specific people I know questions dependent upon the information I need for that character. After I build sample profiles I ask for feedback from my closest critique partners.

  8. I have done this with my mom before. I talk through the idea, and she asks questions.

    And I've done something like it informally in a forum where I interact with some fellow writers. It's semi-private so it works pretty well.

    However, I really like the idea of doing this formally. I may have to start rounding up a local crit group again.

  9. Great post, Patricia. My husband and I frequently do this as we are both writers and very good at getting ourselves into interesting holes! Those situations you describe are so familiar. And it's so much easier to see a clear solution if you're on the outside of the novel, rather than mired in its details.

  10. It's not often you read a writing post that suggests a more collaborative approach, and found myself surprised and excited by the suggestion. I have in fact unintentionally found myself doing this on a number of occasions for both my own writing and that of others - and all the times I've done it it's been successful for all concerned. I have a regular writing group and have critiqued and been critiqued, but it's not quite the same thing as you're encouraging. I think novelists live in fear of losing creative responsibility - something playwrights probably are more used to - but I think the truth is a story will be stronger if it goes through the process you have described. Exciting idea - thank you.

  11. Sorry, everyone, for not dropping by sooner today, but I'm on vacation and using my mom's phone for dial-up so I'm on at very odd hours. Thanks to all of you for stopping by.

    The brainstorming process can have such exciting results that we need to set aside that fear of losing creative responsibility, as James mentioned, and open ourselves up to new ideas.

  12. Brainstorming is so helpful when we are stuck on a plotting issue. I used to belong to a critique group that was particularly good at that. Now I use my children a lot when I am stuck. They are all avid readers and I suspect closet writers.

  13. Thanks. I do something similar wth my writer and avid reader friends on facebook. I post a chapter that needs help on createspace community and send them a link. Within a few hours I get great feedback and suggestions. I'll try the face to face approach as well.


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