In my January writing workshop held down at the Main Branch, we did a lot of brainstorming exercises, which not only help with starting a novel, but with writer’s block. For those of you who couldn’t attend, here’s a link to my PowerPoint presentation and some of the tips shared with the group:
1. Brainstorm a Set Number.
We have to start here, because while this is pretty basic, before you brainstorm anything, set a number of acceptable responses. The number you set should hurt a little because the best ideas you come up with are usually the later ones. You know as well as I do what’ll happen if you set a time limit instead of a response limit–you’ll write down three responses, then sit and doodle for the next four and a half minutes until your time is up.
2. Brainstorm What You Know.
Common advice, yes, but not as limiting as some people say. I don’t think this is saying you HAVE to write about what you know, but that it’s a good idea to use what you know when you can. See the difference?
Here’s are ways to brainstorm ideas using what you know:
List things you’re an expert on.
List “worlds” you know. (For example, I know the high school world–its inhabitants, its routines, etc. I also know the parenting world, and having spent my teen years working at McDonald’s, the fast food world.)
List experiences you’ve had others likely have not.
List feelings you know well.
3. Brainstorm Things You Love.
Weird, but true, the ideas for my (failed) first novel, LUCKY TOWN, and DON’T GET CAUGHT, came from listing what things I like reading about or watching in movies. I mean, you should enjoy what you’re writing, right? So for LT, my brainstorm list that led to the novel included items like: cults, an enclosed setting, disappearances, people you think are dead but are not, etc. All of those things are in that novel in one way or another. With DGC, I wrote different list of things I like in books/movies such as: capers, an ensemble cast, sophomoric jokes, and pranks. All of those are in the book.
List books, movies, and TV shows you love.
Now, from each of those, list what you specifically love.
Look for commonalities. This may give you an idea of the type of book you might want to write.
4. Brainstorm Interesting People.
Most writing advice says you should start with character. And honestly, I’m terrible at this. But I’m trying to get better at it.
Here are some ways to brainstorm characters:
List interesting jobs.
List interesting hobbies.
List interesting quirks.
List favorite songs, then figure out what type of person would have each song as a theme song.
List people you know who are real characters, those 1 in a 100 people you know who really stand out for whatever reason.
5. Brainstorm Interesting Settings.
Since setting determines a person’s behavior, actions, attitudes, etc, sometimes you can start with a setting and build outward.
List places that have inherent conflict.
List places you’ve visited that you can picture clearly.
List places that make you uncomfortable.
6. Play the What If? Game.
Every novel is a What If? What if a boy discovered he was a wizard? What if a town was terrorized by a great white shark? What if a girl was forced to represent her town in a fight to the death? What if an elephant found an unhatched egg? You get the idea.
Start with a character and put him in a conflict-ready situation.
Okay, so you have a general idea, now what?
Once I have an idea I like (or am stuck in plotting), I do what I call Riffing. This is where I open a new document and just start typing ideas and questions and possibilities until an idea emerges that I’m interested in. Sometimes these riffs go on for a week and ten thousand words until I discover what I’m looking for, but usually it doesn’t take that long. Asking questions is what helps me the most. Here’s an example I use in my creative writing class:
Character: High school football player
Riff: Why does this kid like football? Or, does he like football at all? Is it something he does out of love or is he forced to do play? Why would a parent force a kid to play a sport he doesn’t want to play? How would a kid respond to something like that? Would he sabotage the team? Does he play at all? What if he was put in to play in an emergency situation? Would he actually try or would he fail on purpose out of spite? What about his character makes him choose this?
Hopefully some of these exercises will help you in your writing!
The next workshop will be Saturday, March 4th from 2-4. It’s called–
Plotting versus Pantsing: How to (Maybe) Outline a Novel
So you’ve got a great concept for a novel and a whole bunch of characters you’re ready to manipulate and torture…what’s next? In this workshop we’ll talk about plot construction, scene crafting, and other things to consider as you start writing.
See you there!