Last month I sent out a survey to my newsletter subscribers (you can sign up in the sidebar or at the end of this post) asking what types of posts they’d like to see more of. A lot of people asked for more process posts and for more about my own writing process. So with that in mind, I’m kicking off a series that’s going to be all about my writing process! First up, brainstorming!
There are some writers out there who, when asked about their favorite part of the writing process, say something to the extent of “whatever part I’m not doing.” I am not one of those writers. While I genuinely enjoy each stage of the process for different reasons, the earlier in the process my book is, the happier I am. So, brainstorming is unquestionably my favorite.
I think this is partly because I’m more of a big picture person, so the less I have to sift through the details and explain the science or reason behind some small-but-essential plot point, the better. And partly because I love writing because I love the characters and their MOMENTS. At this stage, all I have are the characters and their moments and no problems. I don’t have to worry about why a part of the plot can’t happen or doesn’t make sense. The story isn’t developed enough to be difficult yet, which makes it so much fun!!
When I start brainstorming, I do a lot of freewriting in both a notebook or on my whiteboard wall (more about my wall here). Here’s how I break down my brainstorming:
The idea for book starts with a spark (perhaps you know the feeling?) that usually comes after watching a tv show or movie with a concept that intrigues me. I got the idea for Crossing the Line when I was watching The Avengers. Once I realized that main character Black Widow wasn’t always one of the good guys, I became fascinated with what the transition from bad to good must have looked like and I needed to explore that more. The idea for a book I’m finishing up came after watching a Netflix series (but I’ll share more about that down the line). Nearly all of my ideas have come to me after watching something.
Typically I let the idea cook in my brain for a month or two. From time to time, I may jot down some notes, but letting the story develop a little on its own has always been good for me. I can’t tell you why, but if I try to write things down too soon, I find I run out of steam quickly. I tend to have a very loose idea of my main character, the immediate supporting characters, the world, and the story before I put anything on paper.
Then, when I feel like I need to write it down, I take my brainstorming to paper and start freewriting. This is the most scattered and undeveloped my story will ever be. Usually, by this point, all of my thinking has given me a handful of key moments for my characters to experience. I write those moments down. They’re messy, out of order, and I go off on tangents, but it’s awesome because it’s too soon for any of those things to be a problem.
Once I have all of these rough ideas out of the way, it’s time to dig into the characters. I write commercial fiction, which means my books are more plot-driven. However, I’ve always liked to think that it’s my job to write an engaging plot so my characters have the opportunity to grow and overcome. So the plot may drive my story, but I write my plot for my characters first and foremost. I’ll do a dedicated freewrite for each of my main characters that focuses on these three big character questions. I’ll typically spend 2-3 notebook pages per character on the first question, 1-2 pages on the second, and 3-5 (or more, if I need it) on the last.
All three questions are important to the character, but to me, the last one is the most important for the book. I’ll do a complete freewrite on the entire arc for each major character as I see it at this stage. This freewrite typically focuses on key moments in the character’s story. There will be massive holes, but again, those things don’t matter right now. By the end, I have a big picture understanding of who my character is as a person and what their journey will be in the book. Sometimes these arcs change later. Sometimes they don’t.
World building is probably one of my biggest weakness, especially at this stage. This is most likely because out of everything, it needs the most details ASAP to function. But at this point, I try not to go too crazy. I figure out the bare minimum I need to understand about my world for my characters to live in it. Typically, these essential locations and systems have shown themselves to me in that early idea freewrite. I’ll also develop any relevant history to the world.
For example, with my spy series, I knew I needed two spy agencies (the good guys and the bad guys). My character was staying with the good guys, so she needed a place to sleep, train, learn, and work. So I developed those place and some minor characters to go with them, which was enough to get my story off the ground. I also came up with the history of the agency on its own, and with my enemy agency. I approach the world building in all of my books very similar to this, though each story has slightly different needs.
The Main Plot
Once I have the characters and the world down, I start to freewrite the main plot. This stage of brainstorming often starts on my whiteboard wall to get some rough connections and ideas down, then when I’m out of room, I’ll transition back to my notebook. Typically in the idea freewrite, I’ve figured out what the main plot is and how the book ends. The character freewrites help me understand what I need out of the plot to serve my characters and the world gives me the vehicle to make it happen. This is where I bring it all together.
I do a freewrite of what the complete book would be at this stage. It’s essentially one big long summary that can run anywhere from 10-15 pages. It often leads me to uncover aspects of the story I hadn’t thought of and I go off on tangents to explore those ideas as I need to. Again, there’s still a lot of the story missing here, but it’s the first time it has any kind of book-like shape.
The Subplots and Weaknesses
I like to have a handful of subplots running through my books. Some of them I know from the start, but others surface in the main plot freewrite. At this point, I have a good idea of what those plots are, so I do a free write of each one independently. This helps me see how big the subplot it, how it connects to the main plot, and how it serves my characters. I tend to have anywhere from three to five subplots at this stage and each freewrite is around 3-5 pages long.
I do my best to only figure out what I need to know. That way I don’t get too locked into minor details while the book is so young. The main plot and subplot freewrites often expose some big holes and problems I overlooked earlier. If they’re problems I need to solve so I can write my story, I solve them now before I move on to the next step.
I hope this helps you build your own brainstorming process!
Now it’s your turn: What approach do you take to brainstorming? Are you a freewriter like me or do you have another favorite approach? Tell me about it in the comments!
Pin it up!