We all have moments where we don’t know what to do with our writing. What comes next? Why does that come next in particular? Why not something else? What do I do? Is life even real? Are tacos the answer?
When authors have these sorts of questions and no answers, they turn to this strange thing that sounds rather like atmospheric activity in the cerebral hemispheres, but it turns out that it’s just a spastic explosion of creativity without judgment.
I do this quite often, which can be intimidating to think about and exhilarating at the same time. Usually, my doing a brainstorm is more the way I create story, rather than the way I get out of a bind. The process, however, is the same and so I’d like to ramble a bit about brainstorming, and the things I’ve learned over the years through my own brainstorming, the help I’ve given others in their own brainstorming, and in observing the brainstorming notes of others.
Let’s look back for a moment at the casual way I defined a brainstorm and see if we can draw things from it, or if we have to redefine it. I said (and I quote): “a spastic explosion of creativity without judgement”.
I like to think this is a fairly realistic way to define brainstorming, so let’s pick it apart and see what it really means.
First: “a spastic explosion”. Basically, brainstorming should be a flurry of activity. Sometimes you may feel like your brainstorming is lacking or dull or poor. The thing is…. Brainstorming isn’t neat and it isn’t pretty. It’s raw and often full of useless bits of information and ideas that you can never use. We’ll get to that in a moment, but just consider: when you brainstorm, consider all of it, and consider it in abundance. Never say no to an idea that pops in your head, just write it down. If it happens during brainstorming, it gets written down. I say written because that’s one of the best ways to brainstorm: with paper and a pencil. There’s something to the feeling of scritching notes down that helps fuel the creativity. If you usually do it on a computer or just in your head, I highly suggest the paper route to you at some point.
Second: “of creativity”. What is creativity? It’s the making of something new and meaningful, basically. I won’t argue that point now, because it’s good enough despite its lack of refined taste in words. When you brainstorm, you’re coming up with new ideas. When you brainstorm, don’t just make notes like “well this part reminds me of [this story] and I kind of want to follow an arc like [this character] from [this story]”. That’s not creativity, and it’s not real brainstorming. It can help your story if you draw links like that, but it can also seriously harm your story by drawing in templates and potential clichés from other stories as well. That’s not good, don’t do that. Instead, make your mind get out of bed and get to work in creating “new” ideas… or at least twists on old ones. Brainstorming should be free association, plugging in random ideas and thoughts without concentrating on any particular outside source.
Third: “without judgement”. When you brainstorm, don’t stop to sift the good ideas from the bad. Don’t say “nah that’s not right” whenever you come up with an idea. Write. It. Down. Even that silly idea that came from 2 AM this morning when you thought “what if unicorns and bacon”. Write. It. Down. Who knows, maybe bacon and/or unicorns will turn into something new and potentially powerful for your story? If we’re not allowed to judge others by first impressions and exterior attributes, we’re not allowed to judge ideas by their first impressions and initial attributes. Write. It. Down.
The Wheat and the Chaff
Now. You’ve brainstormed a hundred ideas, each one different from the last. Some of them are brilliant and you probably wrote them in all caps and underlined them because they make you excited. Great. But just because you found two good ideas right away doesn’t mean the other ninety-eight are rubbish. You’ve got to sort through them, now.
This is where you take that third part of the initial brainstorm and toss it out the window. Now you need to consider the ideas, consider what you wrote down, and really decide if any part of them is worth keeping. Cross out the ones you can’t ever use, separate those that might be useful some other time, and save the ones you can use.
Consider each idea. Don’t just toss it aside because it’s not super exciting and useful, toss it aside because it truly has no meaning other than you desired bacon at 2 AM and you were drawing a unicorn by the light of your desk lamp.
Brainstorming is a powerful tool, it lets you create a hundred ideas in twenty minutes. It gets your mind going, even if you’ve had a dry spell in your writing. Allow yourself to thinking freely about ideas, because you never know when you’ll find a treasure trove.