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January 2011

The Writer’s Toolbox: Brainstorming

Editor’s note: There is no PDF to download with this lesson, instead Rachel Hauck has provided you with lists of “how to” do brainstorming, whether you’re the brainstormer or the brainstormee. Enjoy!

Whether you have a brainstorm partner or not—or a critique group—you can find successful ways to brainstorm a story. I’ve brainstormed with Susan May Warren for years—it began after the Dallas ‘06 ACFW conference. Christine Lynxwiler and I started talking in the hotel lobby as her husband waited in the van with their daughter to drive home.

Then Susie met up with us, and next thing we knew, we were in my Presidential suite, brainstorming our books. Chris’s husband graciously took the girls shopping, then sat in the suite living room watching TV as Susie, Chris, and I duked out our stories.

It was fun. Adrenaline. And a pattern was formed.

The next year, we purposefully stayed over Sunday to brainstorm. That year, Annalisa Daughety stayed with us. We brainstormed four books in seven hours. Annalisa was awarded a Barbour contract a year later in Minneapolis for her story!

I’ve brainstormed with Mark Mynheir, Cindy Woodsmall, Tracey Bateman, Amy Wallace, Leanna Ellis, dozens of My Book Therapy clients, as well as Debbie Macomber and Karen Young. Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.

If you are the brainstormee
In other words, if you’re the one whose story is being brainstormed, consider these things to assist the process:

  1. Come with a beginning, middle and end.
    • Have a one line pitch ready.
    • Nail down as many details as you can, including what you think might be the protagonists’ goals and journey.
    • Have a story question and a possible black moment.
    • Prepare a likely ending. Even if some of it is cliché, come with some clay to be molded.
  2. Be open! I’ve brainstormed with people who just didn’t want to change their story and it doesn’t work. They can get defensive and can think the brainstorm team is telling the author “they stink.” Not true.
    • The brainstorm team is seeing what you don’t see.
    • They are bringing their creativity, wisdom, and experience to the table. Listen to them.
    • While brainstorming with author Mark Mynheir, I suggested he change a male sniper to female. He wrinkled his face at me, thinking, then said, “I don’t know…” So we started to talk about it. As we molded this dark, mysterious character into a woman, the more exciting the story became. It meant another character had to change genders too, but we realized the female protagonist best fit what he was trying to accomplish. In the end, Mark said, “Wow, that works.”
  3. Ask questions. Don’t just take an idea and lay into your story. Ask what the brainstormer means. Ask if it could work this way instead of that. In other words, brainstorm back. For example, if the author says, “My heroine loves and collects miniature dolls.” Don’t just let that go.
    • Ask why. What’s the point of this?
    • How does it reflect the heroine? Women don’t collect things in a vacuum. Not serious collectors. There is motivation, emotional impact, perhaps a reflection of a childhood wound or secret desire.
    • Everything in a story must count. Nothing is thrown away.
  4. Speak up. When we were brainstorming with Annalisa—Chris, Susie, and me—poor girl, really never had a chance. Between the three of us we could’ve brainstormed and written the first chapter of her book with out a word from her.
    • She had to speak up and tell us what her story was about,
    • What she wanted to do with the characters, and
    • The message she wanted to convey.
    We worked within her parameters. Like, if I suggested her heroine dive out of an airplane, Annalisa had to say, “No, she wouldn’t do that.” Then of course I asked, “Why not?” And she had to give me a reasonable answer. Once we nailed down her heroine indeed would never jump out of a plane, we moved on with the story and more insight to who the heroine was and why.
  5. Take lots of notes. Have a scribe writing down as much detail as possible. I’ve used a tape recorder before, but found the written notes to be most helpful.
  6. Go home and let the brainstorming session digest.
    • Begin to write a long synopsis based on the notes.
    • Let the story breathe and evolve.
    You’ll find you’ve missed elements in the brainstorming even though you tried to cover all bases.

If you’re the brainstormer:

  1. Listen! Let the brainstormee tell his/her story without interrupting them. Hear them out. Be kind and courteous.
  2. Ask questions. What’s the protags secret desire, greatest fear? What’s the lie he/she believes? What do you see as the theme or take away from this story?
  3. Offer suggestions. Don’t demand. Don’t insult. Don’t over talk, over ride, over bear. Depending on how well you know each other, these sessions can get heated. With Susie, Chris, and me, we’d say, “What? That’s stupid. Why would he do that?” We thrived on the energy, but some people might be wounded to hear “that’s stupid” in response to a story point.
  4. Challenge. Why does he do that? Why do you want to have that thread/angle in the story?
    • While brainstorming with Karen Young, I’d say, “Karen, let me ask you a question.”  After a few of those she said, “Rachel, I just hate when you say that because you’re going to make me work.” But she loved how we were able to deepen her story by digging a bit deeper.
  5. Everything offered is a suggestion. Let the writer do with it what they will.
  6. Offer fresh perspective. As the “hearer” of the story, try to find pieces you relate to, and turn them upside down for a fresh approach.
    • What life experience do you have or know about that can bring life to the story?
    • How can you take an ordinary plot point and make it extraordinary?

Running a brainstorming session:
Take the number of participants and divide it by the number of hours you have together. The Sunday in Dallas when the four of us brainstormed, we had about an hour and half each. But Annalisa got a bit more time because she was just starting out. The one who had most of her story done went last.

When I brainstormed with Debbie and Karen not long ago, we had three days, one for each. Between breakfast, lunch and dinner, we each got about 6 hours. It was fun, and we’d often share lingering thoughts during the evening.

When it’s “that person’s time,” no one else butts in with her story. Focus on the writer. Clip short casual conversation. Don’t go down rabbit trails. Stay on task.
Assign a scribe.

Be open. Be honest. Be real. No idea is perfect from the start. I’ve had Susie tell me a few times, “That’s already been done.” When I wrote my first synopsis for Lost In Nashvegas, I used a roller coaster analogy. I’d never used that before so I thought I was being fun and fresh. Nope! My agent turned it back to me. So I went to Susie for help. She informed me the roller coaster analogy indeed was cliché and overdone. Then she put me in the mind of the chick lits of the day and we started out my protagonist with a “list” of things she’d rather do than sing on stage. Ta-da. The story sold.

Don’t accept, “Good enough.” Keep digging. When you return to work after brainstorming, keep working and digging. There’s more. But the pump has been primed.

Image of man and arrows: renjith krishnan /

Writer’s Toolbox image: e.m.e. design & photography

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