Thursday, May 6, 2010

Brainstorming Techniques

Writing a novel is a solitary undertaking, with many hours spent in front of computer by oneself cranking out the pages. When your characters balk and refuse to talk or your plot drags and feels stale, it can become downright discouraging. You lose your creative spark and sit there staring at a blinking cursor wondering what to type next. That's the time to try a brainstorming exercise to get the creative juices flowing again. Brainstorming is often called "prewriting," and stopping to play with your mind a bit can get you writing again. Here's a few techniques that have worked for me.

1. Ask the journalist questions about a plot event, scene, or situation and write down the answers: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? So what?

2. Do a sensory inventory when setting a scene. Go through all the senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, etc. Try synesthesia, using one sense to describe another, like colors for sounds. Examples include "brassy blonde" to convey color, sound, and feel or "buttery sun" to convey touch (warmth), taste, and color, or "violet hour" to convey color, a nostalgic mood, and touch (flower petal softness).

3. Try clustering. Pick a word you'd like to explore and write it down in the center of a piece of paper. As fast as you can, write down anywhere on the page as many words as you can think of that are associated with your chosen word. Speed and quantity are your goals. Write down any word or phrase that comes to you, no matter how ridiculous it seems. After a few minutes stop and see what you've got, what associations you can use. You can also do something similar in the "Opposite Game." Pick a common word, like "slow," then think of as many words as you can that express an opposite concept, such as "fast, speed up, smart, lightening quick, accelerate, witty, ..."

4. Try free-writing using one of these Creative Writing Exercises by Aggie Burke, Katherine Hage, and Brian Tanaka to get the creative juices flowing again, then go back to your current project. In the winter of 1991 the writers' group these three belonged to collected 35 of the group’s best writing exercises and compiled them in a small pamphlet called Brain Oil. As they say, think of using the exercises as diving boards. Walk out to the end of one and jump! They suggest deciding on a number of minutes you'll devote to the exercise, picking one, then writing without stopping or looking back at what you've already written until the time is up. You can follow the link to see all 35 exercises, but I've listed a few of my favorites below:

1. It's the middle of the night. The phone rings.

4. Describe the first time you got in trouble with someone other than your parents.

10. Write about something that is commonly cliched (eg. spring, motherhood, death) in exactly the opposite tone ordinarily taken (eg. the vileness of motherhood, the silly side of death).

15. It's your wedding night and your spouse isn't with you.

22. You're late for something.

29. You are making a special meal. What's it for? Describe how someone is feeling by the way they are cooking.

32. You hear a dripping in the middle of the night. You get up to turn off the faucet and find that it's something else.

35. You wake up and everything's different.

So, Inkspot readers and contributors, what are your favorite brainstorming techniques?


Lisa Bork said...

Great post, Beth!

I must confess my techniques are to walk the dog, fold the laundry, or find out if the pantry holds anything worth eating. And now I'm going to feel guilty doing any of those because you made this wonderful, professional writer's list :)

G.M. Malliet said...

LOL: "find out if the pantry holds anything worth eating" - that's my technique, too. Don't have a dog or I'm sure s/he'd be on my list.

Organizing the medicine cabinet is a current favorite activity.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great techniques, Beth!

Not sure what my technique would be labeled. Pure deadline desperation? :)

I'm tweeting your tips...

Mystery Writing is Murder

Jessica Lourey said...

Love the phrase "violet hour," Beth. Did you come up with that? She's a beauty. Thank you also for the brain oil link. Will use that in the creative writing classes I teach.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks so much for leaving your comment to let us know you're reading the blog! Sometimes I think it's just us Midnight Ink authors talking to each other, but your comment confirmed that there are others out there reading our posts. Anyone else lurking around that would like to let us know you're reading? We'd sure love to hear from you!

Keith Raffel said...

Beth, you are so self-reliant. Me? I'm just hoping the muse doesn't stop visiting.

M Pax said...

Great ideas.

I send a long, rambling e-mail to a friend. Usually by the end, I figure it out. If not, she usually sends me a suggestion so simple, I should have thought of it.

Sometimes it comes while chopping veggies or working out.

G.M. Malliet said...

This doesn't exactly get me moving if I'm stuck, but I like trying to describe clouds and leaves and things. I suppose that is a writing exercise...because it's not that easy to do.

Beth Groundwater said...

Hey, M Pax, are you willing to share your friend with the rest of us? ;-) She sounds like a great sounding board for you.

Alice Loweecey said...

I write massive, detailed outlines, so when I'm stuck I read ahead and find a research hole that needs filling. Then I head to the Net to do some research to fill it. I also use detailed character charts with lots of tidbits that I refer back to all the time.

Of course, there's always the wasabi peas in the pantry to jump-start the senses!

Cricket McRae said...

What a terrific post, Beth. Really useful. I use the clustering technique a lot.

Naps are also helpful. Sounds ridiculous, but I set a twenty minute alarm and think about the problem that's tripping up the story as I drift off. Often I'll wake up with a solution or at least the start of one.

And I've learned to keep my pantry as boring as possible.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I write on a computer, but I find it helpful to sometimes sit down with nothing but a notebook when brainstorming or making notes. Something about switching to pen and paper helps my brain try some new directions.

CA Heaven said...

Interesting post. Very good >:)

Cold As Heaven

Anonymous said...

Some excellent advice to get started again. I always liked concept mapping but that's mostly because I like to scribble over things.