Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brainstorming--Shannon Style

Last week I showed you guys my "loose outlining" method, (if you missed the post you can find it here) which is actually part of the way I brainstorm a project. So I thought I'd use this week's "Shannon Style" post to show you the rest of the ways I brainstorm--even though I have a feeling you're going to laugh at how ridiculously organized it is (I know, it's supposed to be a "storm" for a reason--but I'm a tad OCD, okay?)

Okay, here is a VERY edited down version of what my "brainstorming file" looks like (usually they end up about 10-15 pages long, but I whittled this down to two to keep it simpler for this post, so keep in mind that this is really just the starting point)

(And I know these are kind of hard to see--though if you click on them you should be able to read them better--but don't worry, I will explain them below)
So basically it's a single document with a lot of color coded categories. And I know that's a total nerd-alert way of brainstorming, but I'm a very organized person, and it makes my life SO much easier when I'm actually writing the draft, so I don't care. :P

Here's the categories I break it down into:
  • Main Characters
  • Setting Ideas
  • Basic Plot in One Paragraph
  • Inspirational Music
  • Inspirational Pictures
  • Books to read/reread
  • Random Thoughts/Partial Ideas
  • Loose Outline
  • Rejected ideas

And just like last time, let's look at those one by one:

Main Characters: A quick list of all the characters essential to the story, along with a couple of sentences defining their role. I do MUCH more in-depth character development for each character in a separate file (something I will cover in a later post) but I like to list them here because it helps me to see if I have too many characters, too few, and how they're going to interact with each other. I also use this as sort of the testing ground to decide if a character is worth developing further, or if I have a dud on my hands and need to go back to the drawing board.

Setting Ideas: Personally, I like my setting to be an integral part of the story, whether it's a world I've created or a real, existing place. So I do a lot of brainstorming to figure out where the right setting is, and all the key "locations" in that setting. A lot of times this section gets filled with links to things I've found via google, sometimes even a few pictures if I find something perfect. But this is the space for my brain to visualize all the places that will be in the book, and make sure it's as rich and detailed as possible.

Basic Plot in One Paragraph: Not really something people think of as "brainstorming," but I include it because it's a really good writing exercise for me to force myself to break the plot down to it's barest elements and see it in a single paragraph. Helps me to see if I have too much planned for the book, or not enough, and it also forces me to start analyzing the plot and searching for holes, gaps, or inconsistencies. 

Inspirational Music: I can't write without music playing, so I always make a playlist for the project and one for each of the main characters. But I have like 4000 songs in my iTunes library, so building those playlists could be a Herculean task if I didn't have somewhere to brainstorm them. Anytime I hear something that fits--especially if it's a song I don't yet own--I make a note of it here, maybe even find a link on youtube (if one exists) and I'll use this later when I'm ready to make my playlists. (And if you want an idea of the kind of songs I use, THIS is one of my favorites right now.)

Inspirational Pictures: I do a lot of random googling when I'm searching for story ideas and I stumble across a lot of awesome images that spark bits and pieces of inspiration. But it got annoying to open them in separate windows, so I started inserting them into my brainstorming file so they'd all be in one place and I could look at them all at the same time. It REALLY helped my brainstorming process. (and yes, I usually group and sort the pictures based on what they are. We've already established that I'm a nerd.)

Books to read/re-read: Writing is reading--IMHO--so a big part of my research process is reading or re-reading books that might be similar to what I'm working on. Partially to learn what works and what doesn't, but mostly to see what's already been done and adjust my ideas accordingly, so that my project is as original as possible. I keep a running list as I brainstorm and try to tackle the majority of them before I start the draft, that way I can make adjustments before I'm too far in. But if it's a long list of books, I read the main ones first and crank through the rest as I write.

Random Thoughts/Partial Ideas: This is the longest and most chaotic section of my brainstorming, and is often filled with completely fragmented ideas, usually in the form of a question, like: "what if this character is afraid of ducks?" (okay, not that bad, but kind of). It's all those little ideas that hit me at random points in the brainstorming process and I can't decide if I want to use them or not, until I've really thought them through. So I make a note of them here and revisit later. This is also the first place I turn when I hit a wall. It's amazing how often that weird, "what if" question I wondered about while brainstorming turns out to be the PERFECT solution to the plot problem I stumbled across in the draft.

Loose Outline: All of the brainstorming I do is working to build this, which I covered last week. It's very vague, and only about a page-and-a-half long, but it's the framework for the main plot of the story. I won't let myself dive into the draft until I have this in place.

Rejected ideas: I'll admit it--I'm a saver. I can't bring myself to throw anything away, which is kind of part of the brainstorming process (you're tossing out so many ideas at that stage, it's natural that a ton of them won't work.) But I just never know when the idea that I thought was absolutely atrocious turns out to be the one thing that makes everything come together, so I can't delete them. I also don't want my brainstorming getting too dauntingly cluttered with craptastic ideas though, so I created this section to save my sanity. Ideas I'm pretty darn sure I'm not going to use get cut and pasted here, way at the bottom of the brainstorming file. That way they're still there, on the off chance I do want them after all.

And there you have it: Brainstorming--Shannon Style. I usually spend anywhere from a few weeks to a few months (depending on how complicated the story is) working in this file, ironing out kinks, refining ideas, getting everything organized enough in my brain to finally dive into the draft. 

The best part is, it's all so clear and organized that if, for some reason, I can't get started on the draft right away, (if, for example, I'm in the middle of revision on another project) I can easily reread my brainstorming notes whenever I'm ready to dive in, and they let me pick up right where I left off.  It's how I've been able to juggle my MS and my sekrit MS at the same time without any problems. I'm even thinking about juggling a third. We'll see if I'm that crazy. ;)

Anyway, enough about me and my process. What about you guys? How do you brainstorm a writing project? Anyone else as OCD-organized as I am?


  1. These are all great ideas. My first project was not organized. I just had a basic idea of where I was going. But for my next new series, I want to be more organized and I am going to try some of your suggestions. Thanks. Can't wait to hear about character development, something I struggle with.

  2. I am reeling in AWE at your amazing outline sample. I am also quite blinded by the dazzle of your brainstorming methods. Wow. Take care

  3. I think this demonstrates your real commitment to your projects...you don't take anything for granted. From one who is pretty much "pantsing" her way through a first major writing project, this is impressive, to say the least.

  4. You are my new hero! I am seriously contemplating forwarding this to people at work so they can stop making fun of my allged OCD!

    I love how you organize your brainstorming in a single document. I'm just starting on a new project and now I know how I'm going to organize it.

    Thanks Shannon!

  5. It's really nice to know I'm not the only one out there. I do something very similar to you and it also can take me from a few weeks to a few months. Esp. if I don't settle for the first idea. :) Thanks for sharing!

  6. Wow. You are so much more organized than I am. Most of my brainstorming is scribbled in spiral notebooks, post-its, index cards... and a lot of it stays in my head. But it works for me. :)

  7. Oh my! That's serious organization and obviously useful. I've always been a pantser but may try your method in the future, if I get beyond feeling intimidated!

  8. I used to brainstorm like this all the time! I'm so ocd about everything. I made lists of characters, personality traits, and photo folders. Lately I've been trying to write intuitively and brainstorm as I go. But I need organization! So back to my files, playlists, and excel sheets lol.

  9. Okay, you are now officially my inspiration. I need to become more OCD instead of my current CAB (Crash and Burn).

    I had to chuckle though. When I clicked on the tiny writing, it was in Greek. You're a classical scholar too?! ;))


  10. Oh, I like this and don't think it's too OCD at all ;) When I brainstorm, i usually hand write everything in a little journal I have. There are notes everywhere and it's a total mess. I draw timelines and do a character map as well and sometime do a "family tree" so I can visually see how my characters are related.
    However, I've realized that there are too many times that I can't find what I'm looking for because of the mess. So, on my last project, I tried to do what you showed, but didn't have as many titles and it wasn't as in depth. But again Shannon, I'm loving what you do. Oh, and I have to listen to music too.

  11. That is brilliant- I LOVE the inspirational songs idea too.

    That's amazing. I know I go through phases of music and when I go back and hear them I think about the characters.
    My last book I was listening to Motion City Soundtrack a lot and now when I hear them I think about the characters in the book.

  12. Oh Shannon, this is why I love you! You're too cute. Although, I have a feeling my brainstorming would make you crazy. They are more like schizophrenic ramblings and notes jotted on random scraps of papers. Your brainstorming is more organized than my outlining. Clearly, I need to take some lessons from you.

    *prints Shannon's blog post*

    (That song by OneRepublic is awesome!)

  13. Wow! That is some serious organization! I'm going to try this out but not promising much. My way is a bit messier...This looks better ;)

  14. I do that kind of organization, although it's not lined up quite so neatly; I've got folders and subfolders full of Favorites and images instead. You've certainly got a great process down!

  15. Excellent ideas, Shannon. Thanks for sharing. It helps me do what I need to do to make a better story.

  16. Fantastic post! Thank you so much for sharing. I love hearing how other writers negotiate the writing process.

    I'm proud to admit that like you I'm also pretty obsessive about organizing my writing process, though for me it doesn't look quite as pristine and it's more like an controlled chaos.

    Also, I do a lot of work by hand before I hit the computer so I draw mind-maps over and over, then eventually come up with a subway map-style outline, which I later translate into a spreadsheet.

    Also, in the past year I've started using Scrivener, which is the obsessively-organized writer's dream come true. Seriously. It outlines for you and has an index-card feature (Yeeey!). It even has a little built-in research folder that I use to save scrapped ideas, store documents with random thoughts and make lists of topics I need to research further. If you have a Mac, I definitely recommend checking it out. (Though be forewarned, this program makes it even more tempting to spend tons of time color-coding, sorting and organizing!)

  17. Girl, you should offer an online class or something - you'd have people lining up! I printed this for my special writing folder. So, um, maybe you could do a post like this on dialogue?? *grins adorably to weaken your resolve*

  18. Okay, so you are officially way too organized. Except ... wait a minute. So far you are far more successful than me. Maybe I should consider getting more organized, huh?

  19. Ok, so I enlarged those documents and they seem to be written on old world Norse or something.lol

    I do this brainstorming as well but not nearly as organized as you. This is where my collection of post it notes comes in handy. I keep a hard file of the post it's, along with napkins, electric bill envelopes or whatever else was handy when I had an AWESOME IDEA.

    These are all taped near or around my rough outline. So I have sort of an artistic collage thing happening.lol I may have to work on being more organized.

  20. I'm fairly organized, jotting down my Shiny New Idea thoughts in a document I call "[title]First Notes." I run thru characters, general turning/plot points, and motivations.

    You're an inspiration for me to get a tad MORE organized, though, because my first doc is a bit too jumbled. If I write in the headings, all I have to do is ramble along UNDER those headings, and it'd make stuff so much easier to find later on! Haha, and I can so relate--I never want to throw things/ideas out either!

  21. I have my moments, but most of the time I just write what comes to mind and then sort it all out later.

    It just takes on a life of its own. Love your ideas though.

  22. I completely LOVE the idea that you use inspirational pictures and music. That totally rocks! :)
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  23. What an awesome post and SO useful right now. You'd better write some average posts next week Shannon, I can't keep putting you in my Top 3 ;)

  24. I don't know if I'd call your process "OCD". Not at all, really. It's actually wonderfully smart! I'm the complete opposite - sooo disorganized, it's kind of pathetic. I love the idea of having this file that gives you all the nitty gritty you need if, for some reason, you abandon the MS for awhile. I hate to be a copycat, but I hope you don't mind if I try this out? I think it would be IMMENSELY useful to me! Thanks! :)

  25. Wow, that's awesome. I wish I could be that organized! I'm afraid I'm too much of a pantser at heart. I just write a couple of sentences for the overall plot and start typing. I do have a folder in my pictures that's full of inspirational pictures. I've been sharing them one at a time on my blog each Monday. I call it Inspiring Mondays because hopefully the pictures will inspiring a new story idea! :)

  26. For this latest WIP I did all my brainstorming longhand, and loved it. I think that might be the key for me.

  27. I love this... I think I'll give it a try for the next project. I really like the copy/paste images because I just bookmarked them before. Thanks.


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