The Value of Brainstorming

In an earlier post, I talked about the value of critique groups. I failed to mention one important benefit: brainstorming. In a critique group, you can tell your fellow writers if you’re stuck on something or if you’re trying to decide between two storylines, scenes, or options. The whole group pitches in with suggestions, reactions, new ideas. Many of the ideas will be useless, but some will be helpful, others may not work but may lead to better ideas, and a few may be brilliant. As the writer, you listen to the ideas, use the ones that work, and build on the ideas that lead you in a different direction.

According to Wikipedia, “Brainstorming is a creativity technique of generating ideas to solve a problem.”

Typically in most business or creative environments, brainstorming is done in a group of six to twelve people who have some knowledge of the problem being brainstormed. In a critique group, the size of the group may be smaller, but group members are all writers who are familiar with each other’s work.

Brainstorming consists of three elements:

* Understanding the problem: what are you trying to accomplish? Businesses use brainstorming to develop new products, manage large projects, plan for the future, solve problems, and more. Writers use brainstorming to plot, to build characters, to get unstuck … Before you hold a brainstorming session, be clear on your goal: solve a problem in the storyline, flesh out characters, outline a plot, whatever.

* Generating ideas: the idea is to generate as many ideas as possible without regard to their value. Your first ideas may not be good ones, but you need to get those out of your head so you can move on to better ideas. And your bad idea may stimulate someone else to come up with a better ideas.

* Evaluating ideas and selecting the best: after the ideas are collected, evaluate the ideas and decide which to use and which to discard.

The process isn’t necessary a 1-2-3 sequence. If you’re plotting a novel, for example, you will evaluate some ideas and make a choice before you move forward. You may decide on the beginning, then generate and evaluate ideas for the middle, then for the ending. You won’t have a detailed scene-by-scene plot, but you will have a beginning, a middle, and a ending – a nice framework to build a story on.

You can brainstorm in a critque group or writers organization or just a few writers who get together for the purpose.

But what if you don’t have access to a group of other writers? A writer friend called me this week. She and her husband travel much of the year, and she isn’t in one place long enough to get involved in a writers group. She’s finding it difficult to sustain momentum in writing and misses the contact with other writers. So she asked if she could hire me to brainstorm with her.

I hope she found the session as helpful and enjoyable as I did! I loved hearing about her story and her plan to write a novel in November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

NaNoWriMo is a program to encourage participants to write a complete 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It’s a jump-start for many writers who procrastinate about getting started or get stuck in the middle of a project and never finish it. By having such a short deadline, you have to get the pure green dreck down in a first draft (as I recommended in a previous post). The editing comes later.

So my friend Sue plans to write her novel during November … and for the first time actually complete a manuscript (after starting and abandoning three other novels). After our brainstorming session, she had a good grasp of her main characters; the conflict; the beginning, the middle, and the end; and ideas for several important scenes. She’s excited that she has a concept that will result in a novel in 30 days. I predict this will be her first complete manuscript and possibly her first published book!

My main contribution was to ask questions: What do the main characters look like? How did they get where they are today? Why do they do the things and make the choices they do? How is the heroine going to make an important decision? Why? How does this story fit into your chosen genre?

In truth, Sue could have accomplished everything on her own. It’s possible to brainstorm with yourself – but it’s more difficult. Having another person to bounce ideas off of and to get ideas from is usually more productive because “two heads are better than one.” It’s faster and easier to come up with ideas and to build on each other’s ideas.

And it’s a lot more fun! If you haven’t tried brainstorming, find yourself a brainstorming partner or group and see what great ideas come up.

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