misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind May 26, 2012 - 12:33am

Maybe we've talked about this before. Maybe it's come up in a thread, or there is a thread floating around with this information, or I've started a thread in the past that, due to the traumas of this past year, I've forgotten about. I don't know. What I do know is, I need a bit of help.

So, brainstorming.

I'm working on this novel idea at the moment (who isn't?) and I'm stuck. See, the world in this story is the way it is because I need to be... but I don't know how the world got to be what it is. My solutions, sadly, are cliché at best. And not the good sort of cliché either.

I've never been a great brainstormer. I tend to let things stew as opposed to storm. But this has been stewing since last November and I'm beginning to think I need to be more active on the solution-seeking front if I'm to get anywhere. 

How do you guys do it? Brainstorm, I mean. Doesn't have to be anything special, but I'd like to know your techniques -- your process, your ritual, everything. 

(Also: completely unrelated, but has anyone noticed the annoying habit of our cursors hopping to the end of any words we've italicized in our posts while writing?) 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. May 26, 2012 - 9:12am

I don't know how the world got to be what it is

Go all Cormac McCarthy on it.  Don't explain it.  "The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long sheer of light and then a series of low concussions.” - The Road.

Just write it out.  If you need an explanation, it'll come to you while you're daydreaming about not having to write the story or while driving or in the shower.  Just tell the story you have now.  Your brain will work on the problem on its own.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. May 26, 2012 - 9:13am

Oh, I forgot the point: That's how I brainstorm.  Just write until my brain storms on its own.  

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 May 26, 2012 - 9:44am

What's your writing environment like? If there are distractions, do you lose yourself in them or focus all your energy on the task at hand? If it's the latter, you may never get over this roadblock you're at. So many writers advise other writers to lock themselves away from the world, but I think this is counter-productive and a bit pretentious. As rach said above, art comes from other art, but it also comes from life.

Journaling everyday also helps me keep the ideas flowing, particularly if I write down every dream I can remember. The right answer to your narrative's path or backstory ultimately sits in the subconscious, so the more in tune you are with that strange and wonderful part of your brain, the more creatively you'll thInk while you're awake.

Perhaps too setting aside the problematic piece and working on something else might be a good idea at this point. I'm not saying abandon the novel, but rather work on a short story or two and then come back to it. Answers often spring forward when you're not thinking about the question.

Hope this helps.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks May 26, 2012 - 10:03am

I do mindless things until my brain is stuck in the repititve motion and ready to wander. Work is great for this, since I do laundry until I'm interrupted by a guest. Driving to somewhere familiar is great too. I think about whatever it is that inspired me, a theme or a phrase or a first-line or whatever, and it starts collecting synonyms and other things related to it until I have a fully-formed idea.

I'm with Howie, though. Don't force yourself to come up with a back story. It should come to you naturally or it's going to be cliche, like you said.

The easiest way for me to come up with a back story is to just write whatever point I'm at. I start thinking about it as I go and it comes naturally, so I jump back in the story, write down what I came up with, and move on until I have more.

Alex Kane's picture
Alex Kane from west-central Illinois is reading Dark Orbit May 26, 2012 - 10:11am

Here's an excerpt from my blog post on the subject, from a year and a half ago:

. . .

It’s pretty obvious how one can go about getting inspired to write, or even for a specific story, but what happens when you mix some of those ideas? For me, a certain magic happened this weekend (and even the past couple of days, in a more critical sense), because I allowed for the proper conditions. Friday (or was it Thursday?) night I finished reading Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box. The book was incredible. But…it put me in kind of a funk. The thing about really good books is, they can scare you away from writing. They remind beginners that we’ve got a long road to travel. But it did, fortunately, leave me feeling inspired. It made me want to write, but not horror. I haven’t written SF in a while, so that’s what I felt I should write.

Then Saturday, I went and watched my cousins’ black metal band, A Hill to Die Upon. They blew my mind.

That experience put me in foreign territory in a lot of ways. For one, I don’t typically listen to that sort of music. I like heavy, but they take the brutality of it all to new heights. And they’re phenomenal at it. Also, the scene that I ventured into was different. A cold, dank industrial basement at the old local armory, where the army used to store their Humvees, tanks, and cannons. Badass environment. The place was littered with cozy furniture and vending machines that were so utterly out-of-place as to look surreal. Young adults, teenagers, people of varying ages swarmed the place — all just wanting to hear the music. And participate in a peculiar activity called “raging.” Stand the fuck out of the way when that crap begins. Or you might get trampled to death.

Then I spent a different night leafing through a certain book for inspiration: Spectrum 17, a book of the year’s best in contemporary SF and fantasy art. Holy cow, it’s incredible how much it gets the mind bubbling.

Add to that a whimsical hour-long trip to Barnes & Noble (in a massive Christmas-season shopping mall filled with zombie-esque Americans) and TGI Friday’s (nom!), a couple days of reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Pump Six and Other Stories, along with Tobias S. Buckell’s short story “Waiting for the Zephyr” in John Joseph Adams’ Wastelands, and you’ve got yourself enough inspiration to cause your skull to expand like a balloon.

This much random stimulation, this combination of different experiences (all sensory, and all different in terms of what senses they stimulate), creates a kind of growing cloud in the mind. Carries you to a new fucking place. Fuels the imagination, invigorates, gives you something new to talk — or write — about. The savage nature of the death metal music (bought the CD, so I could continue exploring it), the apocalyptic tales of Bacigalupi and the J. J. Adams book, the shuffling, half-miserable forms of the Christmas shoppers, and the stunningly magnificent artwork to be found in Spectrum 17 – it all coalesces.

It all sets a kind of stage, forms an atmosphere from which to craft a story, a glimmer of fantastic life (in a less-than-fantastic world, in many ways), and a universe of dreams from which to build.

Try something different. Make new friends. Watch that movie you’ve always wanted to see, but haven’t. Read your favorite authors’ early stories. Listen to music you don’t think you’ll like. Go someplace far away, just because your girlfriend (or boyfriend, friend, random stranger) says it might be fun. Observe the world. Combine it all, a world and its inhabitants will suggest itself.

And then, of course, the work begins.

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ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig May 27, 2012 - 11:00am

I've started trying to brainstorm out all the problems before I sit down and write. So I talk to text or scribble in a notebook for days or weeks before starting something. For instance, in a story I am playing with now, I needed a character that would be there for the length of the story, but wasn't from the area, and would be leaving at the end. So I kind of babbled and scribbled until I sorted out that she is there because she has to deal with a distant relative's estate. Now, she makes sense, but can still do what I need her to do--and I get some interesting bits of setting and conflict to throw in to what, in outline form, would have been a pretty formulaic story.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 27, 2012 - 11:23am

I have two methods (speaking strictly of brainstorming):

  1. SparrowStark just explained it. Just free write some stuff around the "problem." 
  2. Mind mapping. I write the item I want to brainstorm about in the middle of a piece of paper and circle it. Then I start brainstorming ideas around that. I write each idea down (just a word or two so you know what it is), and circle it. I draw lines between the connected ideas. If I get ideas about one of the outlying ideas, I write it farther out on the paper, circle it and draw any lines between connected ideas. So I end up with lots of circles and lines on the page. It sort of looks like a spider web with bubbles in it. 
misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind May 30, 2012 - 5:12pm

Thanks guys. I love all your suggestions. A lot of them are more what I'd classify as brainstewing techniques as opposed to brainstorming, but they're awesome nonetheless.

Since a lot of you stew your ideas, I wanted to throw my own advice into the pot. One way I generate ideas is by watching an episode of a show I've never really watched before, usually in the middle or near the end of a story arc/season. Those episodes rely on their audience's knowledge of past events, so they don't do much in terms of explaining whatever is going on -- especially if you catch the second half of said episode. 

When I do this, my brain tries to find the connections and fill in the missing information, and my creative glands are tickled into action. 

This works best with anime, in my experience. Just cruise through Netflix, find an interesting anime, and start in the middle of season 2. BAM. Alternatively, you can channel surf on Mondays or Thursdays (when the prime shows air) and stop in the middle of an episode of something. 


misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind May 30, 2012 - 5:12pm

@Rach: If there is one thing NaNoWriMo has taught me, it's execution. What I do is, once I have an idea of where I want the story to go (mapping it out and all that,) I'll write up something that's a cross between a synopsis and an outline -- a general summary of what happens in every chapter, sometimes scene by scene, with as much or as little detail as I feel is necessary. I write it in the present tense and in 3rd person, so it doesn't feel like I'm writing a story, but telling a friend what the story is about. (that way I don't feel that sense of accomplishment that usually comes when you finish writing something. It might not work for others, but it works for me.) Then when I've got a chunk of chapters down, I use that section of the outline to reference as I'm writing the real thing.
I don't think this process is right for everyone, because it's like writing a book and a half as opposed to a book. :( But it works for me, because I can discover where I might have plot holes and I don't get attached to my work in outline/summary form, so I can move scenes around or delete them completely without regret -- losing only ten minutes of time as opposed to an hour. It keeps the writer's block at bay and offers a detailed map for me to follow when I'm finished, while still being loose enough for me to change things while I'm deep into the writing mode.

Unfortunately, because I like doing things this way, I find it difficult to progress if I don't have a solid understanding of the world or my characters' motivations. Which is why I'm stuck in the first place! Bah.

@CSchultz I'm a firm believer in never ever marrying yourself to one spot for writing. I believe writing bubbles are detrimental to the writing process -- if you're on the bus and you get an idea, it could be stale by the time you finally get to your designated spot of writing tranquility. So I agree -- locking oneself away from the world isn't a good idea! Life offers all sorts of inspiration.
Unfortunately, this is the project idea I've taken up because of a different problem piece I've decided to let stew for awhile. But maybe some short stories will get the juices flowing!

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz May 30, 2012 - 5:26pm

Hey you, 

Pretty much all of the above. I frequently borrow the words of Ethan Canin: 

Write when you should be doing something else.


This goes for brainstorming as well. I will frequently keep a notebook while I am doing carpentry or other jobs that I have to do. This, for some reason, frees up the mind to come up with ideas. In other words, sitting down to brainstorm is not very stormy. Storms need motion.

Joelle Anthony built a walking desk. A treadmill retrofitted with a desk--to walk and write at the same time. Cycling does a similar thing. Any motion. But it is tougher to write so I always have to stop and start. Also, driving. You think of shit while driving because it is really challenging to write it down. But that is when the best storms come--when you least expect them. At least that is what frequently happens to me.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that June 3, 2012 - 10:54am

I like that: "Write when you should be doing something else."

Anywhats. I usually do my brainstormin' with a 1920s biplane ... sorry, wrong storm. I usually 'storm on paper with pen. I've tried to find good software for this and have found a couple that are "okay" but not great. I haven't used Scrivener much, but I didn't see a way to do a free-form kind of mindmap, though the corkboard looks cool. Anyone use something that rocks (and/or rolls)?

I've tried freemind (freeware) and just downloaded xmind (which has a free component and a Pro component).  The free part of xmind works very much like freemind, though both have little user interface stuff that bugs me.

Anyone find some free (or inexpensive) brainstorm/mindmap software that they love?


misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind June 3, 2012 - 12:40pm

I was using my iPad to do the bubbly mind map thing for awhile, because it's easier to erase and stuff. Then I remembered that I have a cintiq. A cintiq is a fancy artist contraption that looks like a monitor, but acts like a drawing tablet. You can write on the screen with pressure sensitivity and everything. Normal people use it for artsing, so it never struck me as a writer's tool. I'm going to try brainstorming all over that thing tonight, once I'm done with some freelance artsy stuff I was hired for. 

But as far as software goes, I can't think of anything. I don't know if I'd trust it, anyway.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that June 3, 2012 - 1:09pm

I covet your cintiq. If I had the money, I'd be all over that. I have an archaic drawing tablet (off-brand). 

underpurplemoon's picture
underpurplemoon from PDX June 3, 2012 - 1:25pm

This is one of my favorite threads. Just thought I'd share.

misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind June 3, 2012 - 1:26pm

@GaryP I'm lucky to have this thing. It's another treasure I received through the unfortunate end to the company for which I worked. For which I worked? I don't like that sentence. I'm going to unsnoot it.

Let's try that again: It's another treasure I received through the unfortunate end to the company I worked for. I got it for $600! Granted, I abused the thing while working there... left it on weeks at a time, rarely cleaned it, etc. But It's still a steal at $600.