Idea Generation: Not Brainstorming

Brainstorming, as it’s sometimes called, isn’t always necessary, especially for the first book. Typically, becoming a new author starts with a story idea, and the writing follows.

That doesn’t mean that you should discount time spent searching the dark recesses of your mind for ideas. Even if you have an idea for a story, that idea is almost never complete. Heck, the story might even change through the process of writing it, and often does. That means you’ll need to come up with more than just research. Side plots and backdrops need to be filled in for the story to be complete, and that’s where this idea generation process is really needed.

You might notice that I’m avoiding the term brainstorming after that first word. There’s a reason for this. I hate that term, and I don’t care for some of the schematics attached to it. You already have the idea, now you need to make up some details to go along with it. If you search brainstorming on Google, you’ll find methodologies such as the fish-bone method, brain-writing, round robin, step ladder, and other such techniques.

Brainstorming originated from the 1948 book, Your Creative Power. In the book, it’s discussed as a format to let a group of people generate ideas to solve a problem. It’s an important note. As an author, you are not a group of people, and you aren’t out to solve a problem. You’re trying to dream up creative story ideas to add depth to the idea you already have.

So, Idea Creation is somewhat different than brainstorming, and while some of those techniques are helpful, many of them will fall short because they are designed for solving specific problems. Not a bad idea for a computer programmer, but in general, they fall a little short for creative thinkers such as yourself.

I’ve done just about every kind of idea creation that’s been noted, and I’ve tried my own ideas. I find the classic brainstorming methodologies similar to divination when applied to the creative process, and as such, why not just use divination. Grab a deck of Tarot cards, shuffle them, then flip them over one at a time and study the picture on the card, or the number, or whatever. Write down an idea that comes to mind for your story.

The one unifying measure in all of the techniques I’ll discuss here is to write down ideas as soon as they come to you. One method, one of my favorites, doesn’t involve a session at all. Buy a small notebook (or steal one from a friend) and always keep it close to you. In a purse, in a back pocket, in a jacket pocket, etc. You could use a notepad on your phone for the same purpose, or better, a voice recording app that can be linked to an easy command for quick access. The moment an idea pops into your head, write it down. This works because even when you aren’t thinking about your story, your brain is. I find that my best story ideas come to me in the bathroom or while I’m driving down the road, or chopping wood, or doing some other menial task. The best part about doing this? There is no session. The session is always on, and you can jot down ideas for other stories you might like to do in the future as well. You might even turn simple ideas into short stories or flash fiction pieces.

Another good idea is to google some aspect of your story. If you are writing a kids story about rabbits, read the wiki page, local conservation department reports, look at their anatomy, and watch videos of people who keep them as pets or raise them for food. There might be a bunch of bunny quirks that you never would have thought of that can be added to your story. Just because it’s a children’s book doesn’t mean you can lack some depth and get away with it. Actually, you can, but wouldn’t it be better to engage a child’s thinking with some new ideas?

When I wanted to write about a new spacecraft (a story that’s still in draft on my hard drive), I would play Kerbal Space Program and interact with online fan groups frequently about the difficulties of space flight. There are some very knowledgeable people that attach themselves to fun groups surrounding different activities, and they can be a wealth of knowledge. This isn’t limited to science stuff. If you are writing horror, join a couple horror groups. Writing romance? Do the same. Interact with the members. Ask them about the best and worst parts of stories they’ve read. You might be amazed what kind of ideas you draw from their comments.

The previous two strategies work because they don’t feel like work. You’re just having a good time doing some story research and gathering great story ideas at the same time. Not to mention, with the groups, you’re interacting directly with your target audience and hearing about the things they like. Making friends within these groups can lead to some of the best beta readers, as they are going to care more about the story than the grammar. Fishing your work out to people who aren’t experts for the English language is often a good idea, and I’ll discuss this more in another segment.

Probably the worst idea I ever had was when I was fishing ideas for Viral Spark. But it worked! The publisher had read a short story I wrote, and asked me to turn it into a series of novellas. The story itself lacked a lot of breadth. The virus wasn’t even part of the story. It was just a kid in a futuristic environment trying to get a date, and winning her over with tea. The virus, the military escapade, the effect on neural synapses, the kid’s job, the evil ex-boyfriend, the theme music…none of that was in the story. It all came together in one night, and I knew what I had to write. This is what I did (I don’t recommend it, but if you are the type then it’s worth a shot).

I ordered two large pepperoni pizzas to be delivered on my day off, and stopped by the local store for a case of beer. I sorted through the DVDs on my shelves for anything sci-fi related. I set an alarm for 4AM. I ate pizza and drank beer from the early afternoon into the night, while watching every movie I could. I even fast forwarded through boring parts to get to the good stuff. And I was scribbling down ideas the whole time.

When I woke up at four, I forced myself out of bed, downed a bunch of water, and began jotting down anything I could remember from the messed up dreams (I basically forced myself to interrupt a normal sleeping pattern. I also jotted down any other ideas gathered from going over my earlier notes. I went back to bed, and when I woke up in the late morning, took some aspirin, and darted off to the bookstore with my laptop. I organized all of the jumbled thoughts, failed to decipher a few scribbled notes, and created a full spread with headlines across the top and a complete story progression for each talking point below it. All four of those ideas were combined into the final product, and I drafted Viral Spark in two days (the original story was about 20,000 words). I don’t have the notebook in front of me at the moment, but I think some of the plot lines were: birth of a new virus, Robert and Amanda, Amanda’s crazy ex, and brain-wave interference from wifi.

I’m not saying you need to go on a bender to be creative, but I have met artists who insist on smoking pot before painting, jogging before a sculpting session, or consuming massive amounts of coffee at a late hour and sketching into the night. (That last one was me when I was younger)

Find your own creative inspiration. If chocolate cake works for you, then by all means give it a shot. The Idea Generation process should be just as creative and off-the-wall as the ideas you intend to generate. Maybe your ticket is an hour drive through the country. Maybe it’s a bus ride. Maybe you do your best thinking on the beach. Whatever that thing is, capture it, own it, and make it part of your creative routine. Could be as simple as sitting by yourself at a coffee shop, or as erratic as hanging upside down while gurgling banana pudding and listening to Pantera.

Another idea is to use another creative art form as an outlet for your story. The first novel I ever wrote was supposed to be a series of graphic novels, so I had a ton of research prepared and started sketching the story out. Pencil drawings, water colors, or playing with 3D modeling programs. Whatever you are into. You don’t need to be good at it, but you do need to focus it toward your story. My notebook for the space story I mentioned is filled with pictures of the launch vehicle, the spacecraft, the tiny aliens, etc. It also has a lot of tricky calculations in it for Delta-V, engine fuel ratios, and mechanical stress properties of asteroids, but that’s all part of the fun.

In the end, you’ll need to live your story, even while you’re drafting it. The first Incorporated novel incorporated smoke breaks into the writing process, where I would think not about what the main character would do next, but what a backdrop character was up to, and how he was responding to all the events in the story. I would act out the conversations between him and his subordinates (when nobody was looking, of course) and figure out the next part of his plan. Then it would come out in some part of the story. That one had a heavy mystery element, so I needed to stay in the head of the villains until the first draft was finished. The second draft focused on fleshing out the main character.

I’m sorry if I keep mentioning my own stories, but that’s where I have my experience, and I would be an idiot not to link to them on Amazon. I’m not expecting you to click the links, and none of your questions will be answered by reading my books, but they are the points in my life where everything just came together, almost on its own.

I want that for you. I want you to find your story not by going with your gut and tossing in some unnecessary side-plots later. All of these elements are pieces of your story. Some you may think of half-way through the first draft, others in later revisions, and that’s fine. Don’t stop writing. Just toss them in and keep going. A first draft is never a finished novel (at least not one worth reading), so there’s plenty of time to flesh everything out. In the beginning though, the idea is to have a part of your life dedicated wholly to your story in progress, even if you haven’t written the first sentence yet.

You need to breathe the same air as your characters. You need to picture the places that show up in the story. You need to feel their pain and excitement. And most of all, you need to breathe that life into your story. Every little twist or character flaw or odd bit of setting is important. The more nuances the better. By intertwining different elements and plots together, you are creating a much richer book for your readers to digest. Don’t give them Ramen noodles, give them a seven-course meal.

Good luck. If you have any idea generation techniques that you think would be helpful to visitors to this site also, by all means drop them below in a comment. Thanks so much for reading. I hope that reading this article has stimulated some ideas already.

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