National Novel Writing Month begins in just 3 days! And my birthday’s tomorrow! And Halloween’s in between! And the next full moon falls on the 28th! Christmas is coming!
Most of that is irrelevant to this post’s topic. …Or, actually, not quite. You see, today I’m talking about brainstorming – “a method of shared problem solving in which all members of a group spontaneously contribute ideas” or “a similar process undertaken by a person to solve a problem by rapidly generating a variety of possible solutions.” That opening paragraph above is a fine of example of rapid idea generation; I just burst in with any old bit of interesting upcoming date information that popped into my head. If it all didn’t so perfectly illustrate the point of this piece, I might have tossed everything but the first statement out. As it is, I’ve chosen to leave it.
That’s the beauty of a brainstorm: Sometimes the deluge produces more ideas worth the keeping than you dared to expect. Contrariwise, sometimes the ratio of workable ideas to throwaways is like a single raindrop amidst a muddy flood. That’s okay, too. Water recycles. The flood will eventually evaporate, condense into cloud form, and come showering down again, perhaps this time with more usable ideas to show for it.
Hmm… I like the analogy alright, though I suppose I might have found a prettier way to say it, had I given it more time… I’m not putting a huge amount of care into the crafting of this particular post, though. This post, I’m writing brainstorm-style. It’s all about output (with, I admit, a modest amount of compulsive editing; even were this for no eyes but my own, I wouldn’t abide anything that truly makes me cringe). The pretty stuff comes later, when I’m actually writing the novel/short story/whatever the brainstorm’s outlining.
Now, not everybody likes to outline their stories. Not everybody needs to. Some prefer to just figure out the tale as they go, and if they can get a good book out of that, more power to ‘em, I say. But for anything longer than a really quick short story, I can’t do that. I need to get my stats straight first – character info, a relative timeline, which startling plot twist goes where, and how in the world this is all supposed to resolve. To keep track of all of that, the novel needs an outline. And because I have an interest in the different ways writers prep their projects and shall assume that somebody out there feels similarly, here’s a peek at what all goes into a Deshipley brainstorm.
It all starts with a blank document, which quickly becomes less empty as I jot down the date and time. (No real reason for that, it just enables my illusion of organization.) Then I’ll start babbling to myself.
The following is an except from an actual brainstorm doc left to languish in the Possibly Salvageable Junk Pile, with a bunch of nouns changed to protect the innocent ideas which I may yet one day wish to use, in some form:
* * *
So there’s this… young lady of some sort or another. And there are wolf men after her, so she needs protection. She gets a troll. I’m assuming she can’t be an angel, then, because her attitude about this is less than stellar, and angels always have stellar attitudes. But speaking of stellar, maybe she’s a star sprite. Wonder why the wolf men want her… And wouldn’t a star sprite be able to defend herself? Hmm, but maybe a half-star sprite couldn’t. Still unanswered, though – why do the wolf men want her?
…Oo-o-o-ooh… Thought: What if this defender is none other than [insert name of some previously-written-about Character X]? With [Character Y] as his sidekick!!! This would happen before he becomes [some glorious future self], of course… And they could get in league with some genies, too – or at least one, and his gnome. That’ll be nifty, since genies can communicate with the undead.
What in the world would cause such an alliance? And why end the alliance there? Why not scale it back so it’s not Character X and Character Y, it’s just some other troll, some angel, some wolf man, some star sprite, some genie, some gnome… even some human. (“Seven companions… very well! You shall be the Fellowship of the Whatever’s Goin’ Down Here!” “Great! So… where are we going?”)
* * *
Pretty chaotic, right? That first downpour often is. But while the brainstorm doc itself probably won’t get any tidier as I go along, the novel it’s trying to piece together will. Maybe some thirty pages of yakking later (a rough average), and likely having gone over the same points over and over again, for the sake of keeping it clear in my head, I’ll have worked out who’s who, what’s what, and when’s when, where, and how – my favorite part of all that being the “who’s who”.
I brainstorm my characters, too, naturally. Sometimes the babbly way seen above – just throwing out anything I think they are or want them to be, for a start, and worrying about what’s actually true later – sometimes via my Anything and Everything Character Questionnaire. …Although for some reason, I usually hold back the in-depth Q&A until after I’ve already given the characters their book; kind of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, some might say, but I find it’s a great way to generate sequels; hanging out with them in an imaginary pillow fort is good for that, too. The bottom line is just to get some idea of who I’m dealing with so it will be that much easier to let them speak through me while we’re all in the story trenches together.
That’s the bottom line of the whole brainstorm, really: The more I know before I start the ride, the smoother it will be. Fewer wrong turns, fewer potholes, better gas mileage, and, uh, better songs on the radio. …That last bit was probably best left out of the analogy, I’ll concede. Unless you’re writing a book with minstrels, in which case, it can’t hurt to know your song numbers in advance.
So, that’s the first step in my magic-making process. What about any other writers in the house? How do you make it rain?