Creative brainstorming and writing exercises
What’s this episode about?
Welcome to the fourth episode of the third season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full episode and/or scan the show notes below for the main takeaways.
Today I will be talking about how brainstorming can jump start your inspiration and how giving writing exercises a go can get you out of a slump and into a new dawn of creativity. This episode is right on time for when a lot of people doing NaNoWriMo start to run out of creative steam. And I’m not saying that in any way to judge, I’m right there with you. Yesterday I had to go back to my semi-complete outline and figure out what happens in the middle of the book. So I had a lot of fun researching and writing this episode and I hope that it will help you as it helped me.
What is brainstorming?
Brainstorming is a widely-used technique to generate new ideas and solutions to various problems. It’s mostly used in academia, business and creative enterprises, though some people also use it to solve life issues.
Scientist Hanisha Besant traced the origin of the practice and its meaning. This is what she wrote: “The word brainstorming was originally introduced by Alex F. Osborn in 1953 through his book Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. Since 1953, brainstorming as a word has spread around the globe with definitions that vary in the minds of many. The Meriam Webster’s dictionary defines brainstorming as “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group; the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem” (Webster 2015). […] In the broader culture, brainstorming has come to be synonymous with the creative idea generating process.” If you want to go and learn more about the history of brainstorming, check out the full article. It’s an interesting read.
Thinking inside vs outside of the box
I bet you’ve heard it before, to find a new solution you need to think outside of the box. But Prof Ralph Keeney argues that you should think inside of the box before that, meaning you should consider all common possible solutions before reaching for a far-fetched one.
And you can argue that doesn’t apply to writing because we writers want to make everything novel and exciting. Maybe you’re right but I personally like things to make sense. For the past week I’ve been stuck in my novel outlining because I couldn’t figure out why two characters hate each other. I knew one is a crime lord who has contributed to the other losing his career as a doctor. But I couldn’t figure out the event that had led to this outcome. So I binged hospital series in hopes to be inspired by something dramatic and novel to me. I considered euthanasia, ignoring Do not Resuscitate orders, accidental malpractice but nothing fit the character or the medical laws of the place where the story takes place. It was discouraging and I felt that I was getting nowhere.
Then I chatted with a friend and realized I didn’t need a fancy medical reason. In the end, I decided to make it a human, not a medicine issue – the crime lord was angry in his grief after losing a child so he lashed out at the doctor. Misplaced anger is a very interesting emotion to write about, and I believe exploring the psychology behind it would make my character way more dynamic and compelling. Not that euthanasia is not an interesting topic to discuss, but it didn’t have a place in this particular story line.
Prof Ralph Keeney recommends the following formula when you approach brainstorming: first lay out the problem you want to solve, then identify the objectives of a possible solution. So not what the solution actually is but what it should do to affect the issue. Then try to generate solutions. Make a note of everything and don’t discount simpler ideas. And finally, if you’re still stuck or need some feedback, work in a group. Maybe ask a writer friend to consider your possible solutions or go to a writing group which can help you brainstorm more ideas.
Talking about ideas, an idea I had two years ago has now grown and been honed into a coherent piece of writing. My romantic thriller, The Lavender Phantom, is going to be available for pre-order next week, on the 17th November.
I’ve planned some really exciting events for the lead up to my launch in February, so stay tuned. There will be advanced review copies offered, giveaways with cool bookish prizes, a cover reveal event and of course a launch party. Go to www.laineydelaroque.com/books for more information and to sign up to my newsletter so you don’t miss your chance to win some goodies.
5Ws and 1H
The previous two points were quite general so I want to bring it back to writing. Some of you may know, I’m a journalist by education and when we tackled covering a story, we were taught to always start it with the 5Ws and 1H – Who, What, Why, Where, When and How. There is a practical reason for this – people reading the news might be in a hurry, so we want to convey the most important information quickly. We can get into the details later and people can read them after they know the gist of the story. This was of course before clickbait web articles were popular which can go on forever, stuffed with ads. And I’m a little sad sometimes when I read the news and can’t tell what the story is about from the first three paragraphs, let alone the first two lines. But anyway, I digress.
The 5 Ws and 1 H are the questions which are the backbone of every story: Who did what, when, where and why they did it and finally how they did it. Or it could be: What happened, when, where and how it happened, who did it affect and why it is important. In whatever order, answering these six key questions give you the skeleton of a story. My journalistic training translated into my personal writing brainstorming process.
I often have cool ideas which have no plot attached or see awesome characters in my mind’s eye but have no idea how they could be weaved into a story to showcase their awesomeness. For those times, I go back to the 5Ws and 1H and try to generate as many ideas as possible. Then I sift through the ones I like best and go again, this time adding more detail. I continue adding detail until I have a viable plot idea with at least a couple of strong main characters.
I write fiction so this process is most suited to fiction, but there are definitely ways to tailor it to non-fiction, business or academic writing. Instead of characters, you will need to narrow down arguments, and instead of plots, you’ll need to choose a focused topic to work on. In any case, covering your basics by answering the 5Ws and 1H is useful and can only expand your existing pool of ideas.
Writing youtuber Katytastic has a similar process to mine and she has a very entertaining video on the topic. It’s called “HOW TO BRAINSTORM + DEVELOP STORY IDEAS” and I recommend it for some light viewing around writing advice.
A writing exercise
Now, this can’t be an episode about the benefits of brainstorming and writing exercises without a writing exercise. I love creating them by merging random things. Today is Neil Gaiman’s birthday, so I thought it would be nice to do an exercise inspired by his words. He’s an author who has done a lot for the writing community.
Now, the rules are simple – I will give you a one-sentence prompt and you need to develop a story idea by using the 5Ws and 1H method we explored before. The line is from one of his books but I won’t tell you which one so it doesn’t affect your idea generation process. If you know where it’s from, kudos to you. Your prompt is:
“The world seemed to shimmer a little at the edges.”
It can be the beginning of your story or inspiration for it, take this prompt as an opportunity to go wild on the page and just create. This is the beauty of writing exercises – there’s no expectation to create something coherent right away so see where your imagination will take you. I’m really interested to hear about what you create with this so get in touch with me after you’re done.
sO, TO SUMMARIZE…
Finding a way for yourself to brainstorm properly will get you out of writing block and will lead to an overall happier writing practice. It’s not always needed but it’s nice to know it’s there in your repertoire. Let ideas stew for a bit but don’t get discouraged if solutions don’t come naturally. You can always turn to focused brainstorming if that happens.
Try writing exercises online or with a friend. Free your mind to let that untapped subconscious power come to you as we talked in the previous episode. And after something starts forming on the page, use brainstorming to fill out the gaps and make it into a coherent piece.
Next Tuesday, I will look into the often neglected social aspect of writing and inspiration. There I will talk about the benefits of writing retreats, writing groups and writing friends and how their mere existence around you can be inspirational. So join me on 17th November for the last episode of this season.
If you want to be up to date on Pen Garden news, subscribe to the show and sign up to my newsletter. I promise no spam, only cups of writing joy.
If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.
- The Journey of Brainstorming (journal article)
- 4 Steps to Successful Brainstorming (website article)
- HOW TO BRAINSTORM + DEVELOP STORY IDEAS (video)
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