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?