Brainstorming: How and With Whom?

Brainstorming is one of the fun parts in the development of your book. There are two keys to making it a productive experience.

Willing to Listen

The key is a willingness to hear other ideas. If someone says “your idea won’t work” the first impulse is to be defensive and take offense. That isn’t brainstorming. Instead look at it as an exercise in creativity. No one is saying you have to accept any of the ideas that come up in the discussion. But there might be something there that can improve your work.

Finding the Right People

The second, and a more critical key, is discovering those with whom you should brainstorm. Those people need to be willing to have their ideas rejected in the discussion and be willing to let an idea they create to be used by someone else. It takes a special person…often a professional…to achieve that.

I’ve heard complaints from some authors who try this in a critique group only to be frustrated. Egos get in the way or the ideas generated are singularly unhelpful. Or the discussion doesn’t move the project forward, instead it gets sidetracked by numerous differing opinions on the direction of the piece. More than once I’ve had an author claim, after I’ve pointed out a structural error in their manuscript, that “this was what my critique group thought should happen.”

That is not to say that critique groups are bad. Hardly. Only that some authors have experienced frustration if the mix in their group is not helpful.

If you have a good relationship with your editor they can be a great sounding board for ideas (but be considerate of that editor’s time). Your agent can also be a safe place to play with concepts. While sometimes the two heads can bump into each other…painfully…the ensuing friction usually creates a spark…the spark of creativity and not contention.

All Genres

This is an exercise for both fiction and non-fiction. Many times a non-fiction writer needs a nudge to redirect the focus of their work to give it strength and a stronger punch.  Or the realization that the book idea is actually a better magazine article. Brainstorming isn’t just an exercise for novelists.

Examples

Years ago, at a writers conference, a well known author gathered a number of published writers together in the late evening and declared, “I have a new book contract and need a better plot than what I have, can you guys help?” Over the next couple hours that group created a dynamite storyline (which is now in print!). That is brainstorming with a group at its best.

I once sat in a publisher’s conference room while a novelist and two editors plotted out the storyline for the author’s next book. Words and phrases were thrown on a white board, often striking out ones that no longer fit. When complete, the sequence of events were transferred to notecards and the board was erased to start the next section. At the end of the day the stack of cards was rather thick. The author quickly numbered each card, slapped a rubber band around it, and declared, “Now all I have to do is write it!” (In case you are wondering, this author liked to write from physical note cards. That doesn’t work for everyone.)

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting a client in her home. After a wonderful dinner with her husband we sat in the living room and brainstormed a critical part of her next novel. We created dozens of ideas and discussed what worked and what didn’t. We also thought through the implication of those ideas for the third book in her series. In the end we didn’t necessarily settle on a specific direction, but what it did was unleash her to create freely. I look forward to reading what she comes up with. There may be echoes of our discussion in the final version, but the exercise alone was kindling for the fire of creativity.

Your Turn:

Where do you go for your brainstorming sessions?

Do you have a successful brainstorm session you can describe to us?

 

19 Responses to Brainstorming: How and With Whom?

  1. Cherilyn Rivera August 13, 2018 at 5:13 am #

    Steve Laube, you are a genius! Just made a connection in my story lines! Thanks!

  2. Elisabeth Warner August 13, 2018 at 5:38 am #

    I actually just did this with my friend yesterday. My friend is reading through my novel and helping me sort through any plot holes she sees. She noticed something that didn’t match up, and we tossed some ideas around to see what can work. It was very helpful to have another perspective!

  3. Loretta Eidson August 13, 2018 at 6:03 am #

    This year I’ve had the opportunity to participate in two brainstorming sessions with some successful authors. They were amazing and extremely helpful in pushing my imagination forward. I received some great feedback with a lot of thought-provoking ideas.

    • Joyce Dunaway August 13, 2018 at 6:40 am #

      I thought the brainstorming session at Lynette Eason’s Weekend with the Writers’ Retreat was fabulous! I came home with numerous ideas on how to improve my manuscript.

  4. Sharon Hinck August 13, 2018 at 6:36 am #

    🙂 It helps when you brainstorm with someone who can instantly see the implications of certain plot and character choices and say, “Wait, wouldn’t that imply…?” and you can jettison the wrong directions quickly. Such a tremendous gift!

  5. Joyce Dunaway August 13, 2018 at 6:38 am #

    The brainstorming session at Lynette Eason’s Weekend with the Writers’ Retreat was fabulous! Ideas flowed from published authors and those writers seeking publication. I came home with numerous suggestions on how to improve my manuscript and some things not to include.

  6. Carol Ashby August 13, 2018 at 6:46 am #

    My two best beta readers have read my earlier published novels and know the minor characters. Even though the four in print and three in progress can all be read alone, it’s my betas who’ve told me which secondary characters should become the main character in a later volume. I also send them a short summary of a scene I’m about to write, and they share their ideas on what might make it stronger. Based on their comments, I’m letting a minor character who would have died remain alive and play a vital role in the male lead’s personal arc.

    I write action scenes in a dangerous culture (Roman era), and there is no one better for brainstorming those than Andrew, who comments here. In my novel that will release next May, one main character almost dies protecting someone who never noticed him before. Andrew played a vital role in helping me get the ring of truth into both the scene where he performs the rescue and the medical aftermath. He’s helping me figure out the details of a carriage accident and ensuing medical problems right now for the novel I plan to release a year from November.

  7. Katie Powner August 13, 2018 at 8:44 am #

    Sometimes just talking through my plot out loud with my husband helps me discover the holes. And often one right question from him results in an epiphany. I’m lucky to have him as a brainstorming partner!

    • Tisha Martin August 13, 2018 at 9:38 am #

      I love that, Katie! A built-in brainstorming partner is awesome! Isn’t it neat how one question uncovers a litany of possibilities?

      • Katie Powner August 13, 2018 at 12:12 pm #

        Yes, it’s amazing how one right question can lead me to places I never imagined!

  8. Kay DiBianca August 13, 2018 at 9:14 am #

    I used to manage software development groups and I found that a small team willing to engage in ego-free sharing of ideas was the best way to create a software product. Respectful disagreement among team members (“Iron sharpens iron”) expanded all of our thought processes and resulted in good solutions that none of us had originally proposed.

    Since I started writing, I have found my editor and my friends to be the best ways to get constructive feedback and new ideas. But after reading this post, I think I may need a regular group to meet with. I had forgotten how powerful a brainstorming session can be.

    Thank you!

  9. Tisha Martin August 13, 2018 at 9:37 am #

    Steve,

    This brings back such fond memories. When I was at ACFW 2016, I joined the evening brainstorming group on a complete whim. I thought, What could it hurt? A group of ten writers sat around the long conference table and everyone just stared at each other, as if we were scared to be the one to start the conversation. I piped up and mentioned that I needed help re-routing my series because the editor I’d pitched to earlier in the day said the multiple protagonists within each book would not work.

    One writer, David Rawlings, got the conversation going after that, and was really instrumental in guiding my thoughts for the series (which is now actually one book from three different series I have plotted). Since then, David and our friend Sarah have joined in a critique group, which has proved to be super helpful, not to mentioned the friendships are simply fabulous.

    Finding a good brainstorming group is challenging because it takes that special connection between people with the right personalities to “click” with each other. For me, I like to talk with someone who is analytical about the story I’m working on, especially if I’m caught in potential hangups and need conversation and questions to work my way through the difficult scenes.

  10. Linda Riggs Mayfield August 13, 2018 at 9:51 am #

    Steve,
    This post provided extremely valuable insights. I have had helpful individual beta readers before, but also some who were not helpful in the way I needed because they just “loved” everything the way I wrote it. Affirmation was nice and appreciated, but didn’t have the same result that “iron sharpening iron” would have had. I hadn’t considered forming a brainstorming group, but I will now. Thanks!

  11. Shirlee Abbott August 13, 2018 at 10:31 am #

    My hubby and I live in a renovated barn. We have a routine we go through when we’re stuck in some remodeling dead-end: I suggest something, and Hubby says, “won’t work.” I suggest something even more far-out. Hubby says, “Ridiculous.” I suggest something logical. Hubby says, “I don’t have the tools.” I throw out some totally unworkable notion, and Hubby lights up, “I’ve got it!” The quality of my suggestions have no relationship to his solution. They are the hurdles he has to jump over to get to the finish line. The process used to annoy me, but I’ve concluded it’s actually a fun game.

  12. Janine Rosche August 13, 2018 at 11:08 am #

    It’s also good to note that some people will hate every idea you put in front of them. Some will love every idea you put in front of them. Both can be dangerous. Through trial and error, you can find people who see the strengths and weaknesses in each story you present. That’s key.

  13. Sheri Dean Parmelee August 13, 2018 at 11:31 am #

    Steve, I am a little leery of brainstorming sessions since I had one with someone who expected to be named co-author as a result. Any tips on preventing that?

  14. Debra DuPree Williams August 13, 2018 at 12:30 pm #

    My first experience with a brainstorming group was at Autumn in the Mountains Novelist Retreat a couple of years ago. I was dumbfounded by Eddie Jones’ abilities to take everyone’s ideas and make a story out of each one. The novel born of that little group of six has won several awards, has sparked a series and a few additional ideas, and is now awaiting representation. Who knew? LOVE brainstorming.

  15. clalire o'sullivan August 13, 2018 at 12:39 pm #

    Hi All,

    Great post, great comments. I have struggled with some groups. Some say nothing but ‘wow, that’s great stuff!’ Why be in a group that won’t say what even I know is true (i.e. my work needs work!)?

    I also have been in a pretty decent critique group where readers have to read other’s work and earn points to post a chapter. This provides some wonderful feedback. They find plot holes, tell me if my characters are relatable, etc. Others will disagree with each other and one will love the scene, another will say it doesn’t belong. I have to make a choice. Others are insufferably rude and/or stalkers. Some will read one chapter here or there to just gain points.

    Other groups/readers will not finish though they want you to finish there’s.

    But all in all, a good group that has diverse opinions is great. Then onto a beta group and they often find plot holes that I hadn’t thought of. I enlist a few post-beta readers who do the same and read with fresh eyes, looking for everything to criticize from punctuation to bobble head. These steps (with my fixing/cogitating in between) leads to a long process, but quality over quantity, right? I do these things (except punctuation–commas!!– that trip me over and again) for others and some others do not want it.

    THEN it gets to an editor/agent/PH– they may nix more. Oh, ouch. Ok. Get rid of that knee-jerk reaction and fish or cut bait! Lose the ego. Amen.

  16. Nancy Golden August 16, 2018 at 1:30 pm #

    Steve, I really appreciate the brainstorming examples you provided and your article is very timely. I will be keeping your wisdom in mind as I proceed with a writing group that I just launched for our community. I envision our group to be a place where those special connections for brainstorming are made: https://novelwrites.com/2018/08/16/starting-a-writing-group/

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