Back to the Drawing Board: Brainstorming a Book After You’ve Written It

We usually see writing a book as a relatively straightforward, if difficult, process. First comes an idea. Maybe it’s a character, a scene, or a concept, but either way, the next thing you do is brainstorm and daydream about this idea. Then after you’ve got some good ideas churning, maybe you write an outline, if you’re an outliner, or maybe you just start drafting. And as we all know, first drafts are all garbage, so once that’s done comes the long and arduous process of revisions. You strengthen character arcs, tighten pacing, flesh out the world. You make sure your plot is airtight and sharpen the dialogue to a point. Maybe this takes you six months, or maybe five years, but at the end of it you finally have a finished manuscript. The progression from initial idea to finished manuscript is complete. 


It sounds so simple when you say it like that, but if you’ve ever actually done this from start to finish, you know it’s anything but. By far the most mystical and oft-bemoaned part of this process is revisions. Even if you love revisions (which I do), they can seem impossible and arcane. And one of the biggest mistakes I made while revising my first book was trying to fix the problems in my manuscript.


Does that sound wild? Of course you want to fix the problems in your manuscript! That’s what revisions are for. But I’ve realized that this mental framing of revisions as “fixing the problems in the first draft” has been deeply counterproductive for me. Instead, I’ve come to see revisions as a process of reinvention and rediscovery. And now, instead of writing down all the problems in my manuscript and working on solutions for them immediately, I start my revision by going back to the very beginning of the writing process–brainstorming.


But first — take a break

Taking a break is one of the most frequently cited pieces of advice for beginning revisions, and there’s a good reason for it: time away from your manuscript is crucial. Taking time away is not just about distancing yourself from your manuscript–it’s also about distancing yourself from the person you were when you wrote it and coming to understand the person you are now after everything you’ve learned from your first (or first six) draft(s). Have your goals for this story changed at all? Is the character arc you envisioned still the one you want to explore? Taking a step back from your manuscript will help you answer these questions and rediscover the root of your book without the noise of your editorial voice telling you there’s a plot hole in Act 1 and that character who magically appears halfway through needs to be introduced earlier on.


Question all your preconceived notions

When I set about re-brainstorming my project, I made a list of all the aspects of the book I was working through for that round of revisions (in my case, it was worldbuilding) and put them into three categories. The first was things that are set in stone — these are the things that make your story your story, and to change them would be to fundamentally change what the story is about. The second was Things I Might Need to Re-Think, which were things in the draft that maybe didn’t make the most sense anymore, or whose execution was off. The final category was Things That Need to Change — these were the things I had already decided I wanted to either scrap or come up with new versions of.


You may be tempted to put most of what’s in your draft in the “Set in Stone” category, leaving out only the things that you know need fixing. I suggest being as selective as possible with this list — being able to question every aspect of your manuscript can free up a lot of possibility in terms of fixing plot problems, fleshing out characters, or deepening your world. My own list of “Things Set in Stone” only had four things on it. This is not to say that I changed everything except those four — many things remained the same, or were only slightly tweaked —  but it did give me the freedom to question all the other aspects of my world and decide whether they really needed to be there or if I could come up with something even better. This is where taking time away from the draft becomes really crucial — when I’m in the thick of it, it’s extremely hard to step back and look objectively at the decisions I made while drafting and why I made them.


Go back to the start

You never know when an old, tossed-aside idea might suddenly fit again and breathe new life into the manuscript, or solve that one plot problem you just couldn’t unstick. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been brainstorming and simmering your book idea for months or even years before you ever wrote the first line. A lot of the ideas you generated early on may have been tossed out, changed beyond recognition, or forgotten entirely — but if you make the time to go back and look at those early ideas you had in the nascent stages of planning, you might just discover an overlooked gem, or an idea that didn’t quite work in your first draft, but after revisions might be a perfect fit. The subconscious works in amazing ways sometimes, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve realized that an idea I had early on in my brainstorming process actually solves a problem that cropped up way later on during drafting or revisions.


Do your research 

I don’t really distinguish between brainstorming and research in my own process, because for me they work in tandem. An idea will generate a question, and in my quest to answer that question, I’ll stumble on another idea, and another, on and on, virtually forever or unless I make myself stop (which is a whole post of its own). Research at the revision stage is just as important as the research you did when planning your book — perhaps even more so, because now you have the full depth of your plot, characters, and setting to explore. There are a lot of little details that get skimmed over when drafting, and even in the first few rounds of revisions. Now is your chance to go back and look up what blacksmithing techniques in the early 14th century were really like–and don’t be afraid to let the new information change the direction of a scene, or even your entire plot.


Fall in love again

If nothing else, giving yourself the time to brainstorm a project again before jumping into revisions gives you a chance to fall completely, madly in love with it again. Maybe for you that means adding songs to a writing playlist, or curating your pinterest board. Or maybe it just means a long morning walk reflecting on the things you love most about your book. By its nature, the revision process can make you see only the flaws in your manuscript–but give yourself time to remember those firecracker ideas that made you love it in the first place, and remind you what you’re doing all this hard work for.


Revisions are always going to be a difficult and unpredictable process for most writers (and if you have a neat and self-contained process for them, I don’t wanna hear about it!) Taking the time and space to re-brainstorm a project before jumping into “fixing it” has transformed my revisions process from an arduous slog to a process of rediscovery and reimagination. So before you sit down with your editor letter or critique partner notes, put on your playlist, pull up a pinterest board, and let yourself dream.

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