Sunday, June 2, 2013

Brainstorming, Part 4: "I Have Nothing to Work With"


For the last three weeks, we've looked at ways a writer might get stuck and how to use brainstorming to get un-stuck.  Two weeks ago, we discussed how to find your problem and last week we looked at ways to come up with a solution.  Where can we go from here?  Well...

The Problem

You don't really have a problem.  A problem implies elements of your story aren't cooperating.  You don't have those elements to begin with.  You have nothing: a pristine notebook and a white flickering word document.


At this stage, you need to gather as many ideas as you can and find ways to integrate them into your story.  Ideas can come from anywhere.  Whenever you learn or play or think or feel--that's when an idea is ready to hatch--and I encourage you to search for your own sources of inspiration.  Below are some of the methods that have worked for me.

Define Your Aspirations

What kind of story do you want to write?

A good story, you reply.

Well, what's in a good story?  There are, of course, the broad strokes: fascinating characters, a compelling plot, tight prose.  But this is about the specifics?  What elements do you like?  Romance?  Family drama?  Dragons?  What gets you excited?  What makes you want to keep reading?

On the reverse end, what do you absolutely hate in a story?  Predictable prophecies?  Magic that's overly powerful?  Damsels in distress?  Do the exact opposite.  For example, I really hate stupid heroes who impulsively charge into danger and triumph because the story gods say they must.  My heroes are usually smart and thoughtful, they tend to be cautious, and they make lots of mistakes.

When you define your aspirations, you define what you want your story to be.  This creates a rough map to guide the direction where your writing will or will not go.


It goes without saying that if your story's main idea for includes a very tangible point, i.e., a scientific idea, a specific setting, etc., you really ought to research it.  But while you're out hitting the libraries for books on genetic engineering or Prohabition era New York, keep your eye out for any other books catch your eye.  These books might appear to have nothing to do with your story, but for some reason, they call to you.

Listen to their siren voices.

Pick them up.  Scan them.  Read them.

When your mind is in brainstorming mode, your subconscious will act as a compost heap.  It's not picky; it will accept almost anything organic.  If you think what you're reading has nothing to do with your story and cannot be integrated in any way, you've seriously underestimated the power of your brain to make connections.

I used research on 19th century pre-Meiji Japan to develop a character for my novel.  I used a psychology books on family secrets for an Inception-like short story.  Information on Byzantine Greece found its way into a children's fairy tale novel.

Everything is up for grab.  And the more counterintuitive the source, the more original the idea will seem.


Traveling to Japan midway through my junior semester in college inspired me like nothing else and transformed the way I wrote.  Living in a foreign country shattered my assumptions on what was normal.  I had to communicate on a primal level and observe the world with new sensitivity.  In the first two months, I wrote pages and pages of description.  In the second two months, I learned to hone in on only the most necessary details.

Now, obviously, if you have enough money to travel to a foreign country or find yourself with an opportunity to go abroad, lucky you.  If not, perhaps you can go on a local trip or find some way to make the same old place a new experience.  The point is to step out of your comfort zone.  Trigger that fear and excitement.  Observe with all your senses.  Learn not from a book but from an experience.

A few caveats.  First of all, be sure to immerse yourself in the process as much as possible.  Don't go to Yosemite and spend the whole time on a tour bus.  Get out and hike.

Second, be mindful and sensitive to everything you experience.  Especially, the negatives.  I distinctly recall the feeling of getting lost in a foreign country, over and over again.  It became a plot point in my novel.

But don't just rely on your memory.  Write it down.  Keep messy journals and take lots of photos.  While you're in the moment, experience it fully.  When you get home (or to your hotel), be prepared to commit to you've just lived onto paper.

The third caveat is that the trip might not yield immediate results.  Your brain needs time to stew.  It may take a month.  It may take a year.  That's what journals are for.  Once your brain figures out how to use your experience in your story, you can refer back to your previous notes to fill in some of those fuzzy details.

Make a Commitment

In brainstorming, as with everything in life, the greater the committed, the more you get out of it.  If you consistently pledge a certain amount of time and space to brainstorming, ideas will come steadily, because your mind will be always thinking of where to go and what to do.

This is not to say you should do nothing but brainstorm until you have every detail plotted out.  At some point, you'll have to start writing, ready or not.  I usually insert a deadline.  Otherwise, human nature takes over and I find myself going in circles.

The month before I committed to National Novel Writing Month last November, I spent all of October brainstorming.  I wrote 500 words a day (about 1-2 pages) for five days a week, four weeks.  Most of the time, I noted interesting things I'd read or seen and tried to find a way to link it to my story or else I'd muse over a problem I had.  After a month, I had enough ideas to get me through all of NaNoWriMo without losing steam.

Another, less intensive way to commit is to set aside a week every couple of months to brainstorm the next major chunk of the story.  If a week is too long, at least spend two days: Day 1 to clear all the useless stuff out of your head and Day 2 to uncover the good stuff.

Whether the commitment is short or long, I find that attaching goals to your brainstorming session is very helpful.  They can be vague.  Before NaNoWriMo, my goal was come up with 10 exciting events to write about in more detail later on.  Other times, my goal might be to discover the antagonists' motivation or figure out how magic works or come up with a backstory.  Break elements apart and tackle them piece by piece.

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With that, I end this very long, 4-parted entry on the many types and uses of brainstorming.  Writing is a personalized experience, so feel free to take the strategies that work and adapt them to your own style.  Discard all the rest.


  1. Good article! I particularly love the "Browse" idea 'cause I've used what I thought of as information unrelated to my book to weave in particular details and to world-build. d:)