Craft · Roundtable

Roundtable #10: How We Brainstorm

Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.

Moderator: Katy Rose Pool

Editor: Mara Fitzgerald

QUESTION ONE: What do we mean by “brainstorming?”

AMANDA: As a plotter, for me, brainstorming means coming up with the components of nearly every facet of my story. Basically, who the characters are–what they want, what they like, how they develop. What the core conflict is and the various beats of the plot. Any absolutely key world-building elements. I save a lot of the details and atmosphere for the writing itself.

MARA: When I write a novel, I’m constantly doing different types of brainstorming. The first type that comes to mind for a lot of us, I think, is when you’ve just got that FANTASTIC NEW IDEA for a new book, and you’re throwing out possibilities for premise, characters, setting, etcetera. But I also brainstorm a lot during drafting and revision, once the basics of the novel are set. I often need to brainstorm the details of world building aspects, character backstories, how a plot problem is going to be solved, and so on and so forth. The common theme is that idea of throwing out possibilities–getting them all down on paper and hoping to sort through them and come up with something great.

AXIE: My understanding of brainstorming is exactly as Mara described it! Before I brainstorm, I *insert answer to Question 5*, that is, I already know I want to write the book, I know specific scenes I want to get to, and I know how it ends. With these in mind, I fill out as much details as possible before drafting (fill out character sheets, jot down dialogue, plot out scenarios that could happen), and then continue to brainstorm while drafting and revising. The bulk of my brainstorming happens in the 1st and 2nd drafts, while the third and final drafts are more about making sure the ideas that I came up with make sense!

MELODY: For me, brainstorming is asking myself who the characters are, what their backgrounds are and how that relates to the world they’re living in, world building, figuring out the story and plot, and figuring out the character goals and motivations. I usually see the world first but it’s so clear to me that I work on the characters first, go to world building when I’m too excited that I’ll burst if I don’t get it down, then go back to characters, and then figure everything else out loosely. The more nitty gritty deep dive of all of the above and more comes after I’ve written the first draft, done a read through, and then have my brainstorming sessions in regards to how to tackle revisions.


QUESTION TWO: Now that we know what brainstorming MEANS, let’s talk about how you actually do it. What are your favorite brainstorming tools? Do you use notebooks? Word documents? Pinterest boards? Random notes scattered around on your desk/phone/arm?

AMANDA: I’m very visual, so I really love making aesthetics and Pinterest boards. I also find a lot of help from the blank page itself. I make my outlines on Excel, and I struggle to do a lot of intensive plotting work if I don’t have that outline in front of me. I usually also draft the earliest chapters of the story before I plot the whole novel, so a lot of times, the initial plans for characters and world actually come to me then. I don’t normally keep personal glossaries or notes. I keep everything in my head, and despite all my outlines, I really do discover a lot as I go.

MARA: My brainstorming technique mostly involves removing distractions and letting my mind roam. I’m going to be a total curmudgeon and say that I really support disconnecting when possible, even if only for a few minutes. Because kids these days are always on their smartphones, they never have to just sit somewhere and be bored, and I honestly think being “bored” is a great way to get the subconscious mind to chew on things. Some of my favorite distraction-free zones are the shower, the car (especially with inspirational music blasting), and a solo walk. If there’s something specific I need to make a point to brainstorm, I’ll often turn to a notebook–again, without the internet nearby.

AXIE: Mara and I have already discussed how we brainstorm while driving in the car (beware all ye who drive on roads where we live). But yes – I brainstorm by making a Pinterest board, from which I make an aesthetic and put it as my desktop wallpaper. That’s the inspiration part! Then I write down random details about characters, settings, plot, scenes, themes as I go about my day – in notebooks, in Notes on my phone, in Word, on small scraps of paper that I stash in my pockets.

MELODY: When it comes to brainstorming, I start out by hand and then once it becomes out of control, I bring everything into a document on my laptop and organize it there which also helps because as I’m transferring from page to doc, more ideas come about. I do use a Pinterest board and before Pinterest, I’d head to the store and get a million magazines and do it the old school way. But I don’t use Pinterest as much as I used to. It’s really been moreso me finding the right songs (with lyrics) that match the tone of the characters and world and then finding the right instrumental songs to get in that frame of mind for writing.


QUESTION THREE: Does research play a part in brainstorming for you? If so, how does it fit in?

MARA: I tend to think of research as separate from brainstorming. When I brainstorm, I’m deciding what I want to write, and when I research, I’m figuring out how to put my ideas into practice or add texture to them. A lot of my “research” tends to be a meandering, organic process–I tend to write about things I’m already familiar with, and but I want to supplement that by talking to people, watching relevant TV shows, reading relevant books, and gradually absorbing information from whatever source I can find. When there’s some specific fact I need to know, I attempt to look it up on the internet without going down an unnecessary rabbit hole, but for that, results often vary.

FOODY: I actually don’t particularly enjoy research, but 9 times out of 10, I’m not usually researching anything interesting. I’m making sure technology suits the era. Half the time, I ignore my research in favor of imagination. Also, researching usually comes later in my process. Write first, fact check later.

KATY: Gosh you guys are so different from me! I love it.

AXIE: They go hand-in-hand for me. Sometimes what might happen is I’ll be brainstorming “character skills” like if they’re good at gathering intelligence or infiltration tactics (er…), which will lead me to research those skills, and while I’m researching those skills, something ELSE presents itself as a fun detail to add onto my character and so forth and so on. This can happen with settings, historical details, ideological details of the region, etc. I love it when I can get a chain reaction of brainstorm-research-brainstorm-research going.

KATY: That’s exactly what it’s like for me!

MELODY: Research does play a part in my brainstorming.I’ll take an entire brainstorming session just to google things that I learned in middle school science and forgot but suddenly need now so my phrasing makes sense for one MS. I’ll also research names because name meanings have always been important to me. Then, general and more nitty gritty research as well but this goes beyond brainstorming and is kind of its own step. I try to iron out as much as I can so that I can avoid as many yellow lights as possible while writing and I can keep up the momentum as best I can. And I’ll even include in this research answer, re-reading portions of other people’s books or watching a certain episode of a TV show to study how they nailed XYZ as fuel to get me going if I know I’ll need to step it up for a certain element in particular with the WIP at hand.


QUESTION FOUR: Are there any specific techniques (prompts, templates, specific craft books) you like to use while brainstorming?

FOODY:  It actually really helps me to write down my list of major questions. I usually find they’re like dominos–I need one answer before finding another, especially for plot. I do sometimes sift through possibilities, but I actually pay a lot of attention to whether an idea might be too similar to another one of my projects, or to another published book. I try to find the ideas I haven’t seen or done before. I need an original foundation to grow more original from there.

MARA: There’s one technique I often use to try and get my mind churning, which is the “ten possible solutions” list. For example, if my characters need to get out of a bind, I force myself to make a list of ten possible ways they could get out. This helps me get past the most obvious choices and get into more unique (and sometimes weird) territory. Even if I don’t use any of the solutions, it’s really helpful to actively work and think.

AXIE: Nothing specific each time, but I do like to use prompts from craft books when I want to force myself to think about specific writing elements. The Art of Character by David Corbett is great for asking tough questions of your characters. The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas has a lot of great exercises that can help you connect with your novel. But just finding a worksheet online and filling it out is great too – I recommend Susan Dennard’s worksheets on her website!


QUESTION FIVE: When do you know a manuscript is ready to be written? What do you need to know about your book before you can write it? What do you leave unknown?

KATY: I’m excited for this one because I think we’ll get a LOT of variations in your answers!

AMANDA: Any part of my manuscript is ready to be written if I’ve plotted it out. I don’t need to have the whole book brainstormed and plotted before I write, and I’m comfortable pushing forward until I need to stop. I find that the writing itself helps me fill in gaps in the future, anyway. I don’t like to pants a scene entirely, though. I want to know that I’m writing them in the right order, that I’ve thought the plotline at least mostly through.

KATY: I always feel so much trepidation about beginning a draft, and I don’t know why. I love this idea of just letting yourself start and then return to brainstorming, and then draft some more, and then brainstorming.

AXIE: I feel this, Katy! But to start a book, all I need is enthusiasm and specific scenes I want to write. Sometimes the ending – but not always. I need to know the protagonists. I need to know what they want. I need to know the general concept and plot. I try not leave anything unknown (but most everything IS unknown due to the nature of an unwritten story). Then I write and see where the journey takes me!

MELODY:  I’m a big believer in letting the novel marinate which is funny because if anyone knows how I am about cooking, they know that I’m very impatient. Luckily, I can’t see the timer on the oven in this instance, it’s simply a surprise when one day, months after getting the idea, I just wake up and FEEL like I’m in the world and I can’t see anything else, I can’t function until I get down what’s happening in my head. I say that the only thing that I need to know to start is what world I’m in and the basics of my main character(s) but honestly, my hope is that I can add plot to that answer this year as I really dive in on studying that. As for what I leave unknown, I outline the story that I want to write and write the story that I need to write.

MARA: To be honest, my process is pretty messy. Like, frustratingly messy. I’m a pantser in the extreme, and the best way I figure things out is by getting a story onto the page, and then seeing what works and what doesn’t. This involves a lot of drafts and revisions, so what I really need to start is an idea that completely, 100% grabs me. I need to be absolutely gripped by the beating heart of a book in order to sustain myself through the long process ahead. I sometimes wait a long time for these sorts of ideas to fall into my brain–and when they do, it seems like they’re coming out of nowhere, but they’re not. They’re coming out of all of the mess that’s been simmering in my subconscious for months.

KATY: Preach! You need those ideas that set you ON FIRE! At what point do you write the first scene? Like if you got an idea yesterday, would you be totally comfortable sitting down and writing what came to you?

MARA: As soon as I get That Gripping Idea I can start, even if it’s gonna be a mess–but again, that idea has been sort of in the back of my mind for months and/or years.

AMANDA: I write the first scene once I at least have a concept for my book, like a pitch.

KATY: I was hoping that this roundtable would totally transform my approach to “beginning a new project” and i think it’s safe to say that it has! Thanks everyone for sharing!

We would love to hear about your brainstorming process! Let us know how you dream up new ideas in the comments! 

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