I’m married to a man who once despised brainstorming. He calls himself a non-writer. I disagree, but that’s a story for another time. Somehow, he’d become convinced that brainstorm was a word on a par with earthquake or tsunami or devastating natural disaster. “Brain storm. That sounds like a neurological nightmare!”
When we tried to brainstorm ideas for solving a financial dilemma, for instance, it quickly became, “Toss that man a life vest. He’s drowning!” The nature of a good brainstorm is to throw out ideas as they come, whether they’re feasible, reasonable, doable or not. My man, who at the time thought a word spoken was an answer–period, would soon start to sink under the weight of too many possibilities and not-yet-matured options.
As a writer and agent, and someone wired like I am, brainstorming has always been fun for me–waterskiing behind a speed boat rather than swallowing seawater as the 40-foot waves crash hard. My husband came to embrace brainstorming, though, when he learned how much fun it was to discover what washed up on shore after the storm. (And no, it’s never a contract-in-a-bottle or a proposal-in-a-bottle, either.)
That’s a secret to successful brainstorming sessions for writers. Do you feel comfortable brainstorming with a fellow writer or writers group? What makes for productive brainstorming?
Allow for rabbit trails.
But only if they eventually connect back with the main path. Rabbit trails in brainstorming are like venturing into the woods while you’re looking for seashells on the shore. You may find a flowering plant of interest, but if you linger too long in the woods, the seashells you sought may have washed back out to sea.
Agree (even if just with yourself) that no idea is too lame to consider.
The lame idea may not be “it,” but it will often lead to the thought that is it.
Don’t edit during brainstorming.
Reserve that task for later. While in idea collecting mode, leave the misspelled words, the repetition, the bad grammar. Be brave. You can ignore the incomplete sentence for now. Let your mind be free to explore all possibilities.
Find a system that works for you.
Record the brainstorm finds in a notebook, a computer file, on poster-sized sticky notes, on cocktail napkins like all the famous architects, or any other way that is comfortable and clear for you. Make sure your method is rooted in the idea of “capturing before it disappears,” which might mean taking a photo of your pages that could be susceptible to coffee spills.
Move to Phase Two.
Once you’ve brainstormed your concept, tone, how it fits your brand, your target audience, their felt needs met in the book, the reader takeaways, setting and characters (for a novel), let the collection of thoughts breathe. Stand back and observe what you’ve written. Resist permanently erasing or deleting anything at this stage. Look for the common ground, for patterns, for natural dovetailing.
Soon you’ll notice ideas that seem unrelated to the rest. Set those pieces of “driftwood” aside. They’re not for this project.
Now, you can begin to create your proposal or write a few chapters. You have somewhere to begin…and what was once a collection of what washed ashore during the storm has become a lighthouse beacon to guide your project home.
I love to brainstorm! I love brainstorming so much, I’ll brainstorm with anyone, although some of my favorite and most prolific sessions came over dinner in a restaurant with my husband and son. They’ve come up with some super ideas. My other brainstorm buddies are my critique partners. They even brainstorm in my voice.
Love this, Ane!
Kristen Joy Wilks
This is such great advice, Cynthia! My husband is great at brainstorming, I’m the one who reaches for that scratchy blanket of reality to scoop up all his amazing ideas and see if they are feasible. He brainstorms board game ideas and camp ministry ideas, but I do brainstorm writing ideas with my critique partner. My problem is including too many of them into my story. I need to get better about pruning out the things that really should be saved for a different tale. I read a Donald Maas book once that said to use all the ideas, that a book couldn’t become too complex and cluttered. Well, apparently I managed it because that was exactly the advice I got from a professional critique. I had enough themes for three books in one, ha! But yes, brainstorming with a friend is incredibly helpful. If I can pull together the strength and the wisdom to set aside the ideas that don’t fit that story and to move forward with the ones that are perfect!
Great insights, Kristen. Too complex? Absolutely possible. 🙂 But never throw any brainstorming driftwood away. It may make something wonderful later.
This is really good, Cynthia. I’ve tended to get overwhelmed by too many ideas and ended up not being sure which direction to head. But the way you’ve explained it makes it doable. Thank you.
Off topic, but Andrew is asking for prayers. He’s been running a high fever for 48 hours and is in terrible shape.
Thank you for posting this, Carol. I will be praying for Andrew.
Ahhh, Cynthia. I love this. I’ve found brainstorming to be very helpful, especially when I’m trying to nail down a new project or when I’m stuck. Calling up a friend or just writing down free-flowing ideas has helped me many a time.
My engineer husband would probably get along great with yours. The idea of brainstorming has taken him some time to adjust to. 🙂
I love your suggestions here.
We each have our own gifts, Jeanne! 🙂
Thank you for taking the time to create this post. It was just what I needed today.
My husband is a great brainstormer if I get him away from his nor!mal routine. When we’re at the beach he pays lots of attention so that is the ideal time. I keep all my scraps of brainstorming notes because they always come in handy later.