Monday, February 2, 2015

How To Have An Effective Brainstorming Session

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

As I'm writing, I often send my writer friends random questions over chat or email about my story. ("Do you think it's believable that...?")

But sometimes you have a story snarl or gaping hole that you need help on. Maybe your beginning and middle are solid, but you can't figure out how to end this book. Or there's something totally off about your villain, and you just don't know what.



It wasn't so long ago that I tried to do all this stuff on my own, but having a writer or two (or more!) to brainstorm with has tons of benefits. My brain is so latched to the original story concept, I'm often blind to how it can be improved. Bringing other writers into the conversation provides a fresh perspective; they can spot plot holes, problematic character arcs, and help push you into creating a bigger, deeper story.

I would suggest brainstorming with people who:
  • Have your best interest at heart: Trust me, you don't want help from someone who doesn't encourage your dream of writing. It doesn't go well for anybody.
  • Have read and liked your writing: People in these categories might still be able to contribute useful suggestions, but it's a lot easier to work with people who you feel safe with. 
  • Understand who you are as a writer: If you're writing a contemporary romance, you need your brainstormers to be on board with that, not trying to turn it into a steampunk Amish horror novel.
My writer friends are moms and busy published authors, so they're pressed for time. Because I want to respect their time, I try to be as prepared for the conversation as possible. Before we talk, I try to know at least these two things about my story:


  1. The point of my book. Call it theme or message or whatever you want, but basically I try to understand the heart of my story. This will help guide decisions about what fits in the plot and what doesn't.
  2. The beginning and middle-ish of my story. I tend to be very fuzzy about my endings. That's often where I need my brainstorming help. You, of course, might be different. Maybe you only know the end. 
When I've spent some time brainstorming on my own, I send my friend an email with what I know about the story and where I'm stuck. We schedule our calls ahead of time, and we always send this email a few days before so the other has time to let the story simmer.

When we get on the phone, I (try to) let her talk first. This can be tough for me. Especially if I've had a new idea.

Usually, we're trying to brainstorm our way through a sticky plot issue, not trying to come up with a whole book. I've found it helps to work backwards, which looks something like this:
Me: I really want my main character to think that she is responsible for her best friend being taken. I want her to feel guilty on top of feeling like it's urgent to find her.
Friend: Okay. Well, is she actually responsible, or do we need her to just think that?
Me: I don't think I care. Either is fine.
Friend: Do they look alike?
Me: No. But they're together right before her friend is taken.
Friend: Could the friend be wearing her jacket? Have her hair up?
See how we're working our way backward? We know what needs to happen, and now it's just about drilling into the problem and figuring out the motivations that can get us where we know we want to end up.

Usually we talk for about an hour and around 75% of it is active brainstorming. (I would say the rest of the breakdown is 5% silent musing,15% chit-chat, and 5% dealing with the child who inevitably got out of bed when they heard us on the phone. I swear, they have radar.)

I take notes as we talk, and when we get off the phone, I write down everything we decided. Usually when I do this, a few new ideas crop up too. (If you're working in a bigger group of brainstormers, it could be a nice idea to have a person besides the writer of the story writing everything down.) When that happens, we chat about it more over email, and then I buckle down and get to work.

We're at the place in our friendship where we don't feel the need to make sure everything is perfectly even, but it's nice if to make it clear you intend to reciprocate by scheduling a dedicated time to brainstorm for them too.

Have you spent much time brainstorming with other writers? What has worked for you?

p.s. I won't be around today to chat, but I'll be able to read your comments. We'll be in the hospital this week with my four-year-old son, Connor, while he starts a medical diet. Thank you for your patience with me in my absence!

35 comments:

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  2. I have brainstormed with other writers on occasion, but honestly, some have very short attention spans. I got a couple of good ideas, though, for the times we were concentrating. Not to help me at the part where I was stuck, but for different aspects of the story.

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    1. Finding the right people is critical, Hannah. And that can take a while.

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  3. I've done some brainstorming with others before. To be honest, sometimes the best ideas come from my family. They know me, my writing, and what's supposed to happen in the story. They're a huge help. :)

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  4. Ah, this is great. I'm just finishing a brainstorming session now. My current story is sort of a secret to my writing friends, but I'm sure I'll need this technique fairly soon.

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  5. This was wonderful timing for me! I'm just at the start of brainstorming for my new WIP. I haven't done too much brainstorming with other writers, just a very good friend who is always enthusiastic about my new ideas. I hope to in the future though!
    I hope Connor becomes better soon. I'm praying for you and your family.

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    1. Thank you! We're slowly easing into our new normal around here. We need all the prayers we can get, so thank you :)

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  6. I seriously need brainstorming to make my new story idea big and worthwhile. And praying for you and your family, Mrs. Morrill. Hope little Connor gets better soon.

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  7. Thanks for the great tips! Now that I'm part of a critique group, I actually have other writers to help me brainstorm. :)
    I hope the new diet goes well for Connor! You'll be in our prayers.

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    1. I'm so glad your critique group is working out for you!

      Thank you for the prayers :)

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  8. Usually when I brainstorm my only friends are a notebook, a pen and a cup of hot chocolate. However, two (or more) minds really are better than one. Now that I've made a couple of writing friends that also understand what it's like to write a novel, I know I can have brainstorming sessions with them when I need it, and I'm sure it will be useful.

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    1. I think we're wired similarly, Ana. Even now, I need to brainstorm on my own before I'm ready to talk to others about the idea. But I'm seeing a lot of value in gathering thoughts from trusted writer friends.

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  9. None of my friends really have a passion for writing - it's just me. I have chatted with them casually about writing and my novel, though, and I got a couple good ideas I'm planning to use from them. :)
    I hope everything goes well with Connor!
    ~Lydia~ <3

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    1. Thank you, Lydia! I was in a similar place when I was younger and wrote "alone" for years before finding good writing friends. It can be lonely, but I also think the isolation helped to grow my writing voice, and I bet you'll find the same is true for you when you find a critique group.

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  10. Some wonderful ideas. Thank you. I love brainstorming with other writers that I've met in the GTW facebook group. :) Still praying for Connor! <3

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  11. Great post, Steph! I love brainstorming with other writers. I've have several in-person brainstorming sessions and several via Skype and Google Hangouts. All three are great ways to get feedback on an idea.

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    1. You were the one who really encouraged me to start doing this more, Jill. So thank you for that!

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  12. I've done lots of brainstorming lately...being the crazy extrovert I am, I work things out best when I talk it out, so I'll usually figure things out just ranting to someone, haha. It's always great to have someone to rant to and brainstorm with and bounce ideas off of.
    And I've been keeping Connor in my prayers, along with the rest of your family! :)

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    1. That's so sweet, Aimee. Thank you!

      I'm very introverted, so brainstorming with others isn't something that came naturally to me. I'm glad you've already seen benefits!

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  13. Hope everything goes well for Connor!
    I'm insanely introverted. I talk out story problems to myself and create lists of positives and negatives for ideas. Online brainstorming with others helps because I can understand written words so much better.

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    1. I totally understand that, Kelsey. I have to brainstorm on my own first before I can talk about it with others. Even my husband! And with him I'm like, "I'm not open to criticism yet, but here's the idea I have."

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  14. I haven't brainstormed often with other writers, though my sister helped me through a sticky spot a week or two ago.
    Hope your son isn't picky about his diet ;)

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    1. I love that your sister helps! Connor is doing very well with his new food, even with the less fun parts of no sugar and not as much fruit as he likes. We're really proud of him.

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  15. I'll keep Connor in my prayers!
    I love brainstorming sessions. My (online) friends and I have a link-access brainstorming google doc where we go to muse and help each other out of plot holes. Many times suggestions don't get used, but all serve as thought springboards. Other times - this happened today when I was chatting with my normal life friend - ideas strike me as "definitely-nots" and I sort of go with process-of-elimination brainstorming.

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    1. I love that you have a system set up with a friend. How great!

      And thank you for praying for Connor :)

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  16. I'll be praying for Connor!
    "Steampunk Amish Horror novel."
    The crazy thing is, I think I've seen a few of those before!

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  17. This helps so much! I have so much trouble with the simple thing I don't really do well with brainstorming. Once I have the plot worked out, I have no problem writing it, but brainstorming is a huge bugger. Thanks so much for these tips. They really help:)

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  19. A timely post! I read it just before I sent someone an email to help them brainstorm. :) Thanks, Stephanie.

    ~Schuyler
    www.ladybibliophile.blogspot.com

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    1. How funny! So glad it worked out that way, Schuyler!

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