June 25, 2013

Stuck in Your Book? Try a Brainstorming Warm-up

Car stuck in the mud with text: Stuck in Your Story?

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’ve started drafting a new story. The first week, my word counts were rather lame, but this past week has been going much better. Each day finds me getting into my writing groove more easily.

I joked to my family that I’d apparently needed to get my drafting muscle back into shape. To some extent, brainstorming, drafting, and editing skills are like muscles that benefit from regular exercise.

Our Various Writing Muscles

If we’re in brainstorming mode, we know that no idea is too crazy, so we don’t hold our ideas back. Less holding back means more ideas.

If we’re in drafting mode, we might be taking those wild ideas and making them work. We might be deep into the characters, their voices, and the mood of the story, so we know what should happen next and the right words to get there.

If we’re in editing mode, we’re aware of all our writing tics to watch out for and hypervigilant for any issues. We’re analyzing and looking for problems.

In other words, the skills—and attitude—we need for each of those phases in our writing process are all very different. Some are “anything goes” and some are judgmental to the extreme.

The Struggle to Switch Gears

I don’t know about any of you, but when I’m “in the zone” for one aspect of writing, it can be difficult to switch gears. If I’ve used that muscle recently, it might take anywhere from a minute to a couple of hours to get those thought processes tuned and running.

In the case of this story, I’ve spent the last several months on editing/revising, creating a WordPress class, querying, contesting, etc. So it had been a while since I’d used my fiction drafting muscle, and it took me a couple of days to find my groove.

I think that’s normal and not anything to beat ourselves up about. *smile* However, I’m always on the lookout for how we can use our writing time more effectively and efficiently. So I had my eyes open for techniques that could help me switch gears more quickly.

Lucky for me, a fantastic email landed in my inbox from Holly Lisle, with a mini-workshop to help promote her How to Think Sideways class. (If you’re not familiar with Holly, she provides great information and tips for writers, often for free, like this free flash fiction class.)

We Need Our Brainstorming Muscle All of the Time

We often think about needing to brainstorm at the beginning of a project. What are we going to write about? What’s the genre and premise? Who are the characters and what are their goals and obstacles? Without answers to at least some of those questions, we don’t have a story at all.

We continue to rely on that brainstorming muscle throughout the drafting process as well. For each plot and turning point, each scene beginning and ending, each conflict and obstacle, we might need to come up with how the details will play out.

If we’re plotters, we might not know the exact way characters will react to events until we get there. If we write by the seat of our pants, our drafting process is often one big transcription of our brainstormed thoughts.

Even during revisions, our most analytical phase, we have to brainstorm different word choices, sentence structures, character motivations, etc. In other words, the brainstorming never ends.

Give Your Brainstorming Muscle a Workout

Here’s where Holly’s technique can help us. An easy two step process can get that muscle primed and ready. (Don’t move on to Step Two until you’ve completed Step One.)

  • Step One: List five unrelated nouns off the top of your head.
  • Step Two: Ask yourself these questions about the nouns:
    1. What secret relationship do #1 and #3 share?
    2. How are #2 and #4 dangerous?
    3. What extraordinary characteristic makes #5 worth a fortune?

I came up with:

  1. pen
  2. kitten
  3. toad
  4. macaroni and cheese
  5. Kleenex
  • Answer to Q1: The narrator is trying write an update to The Frog Prince by instead making it The Toad Prince. (Hey, I’m a romance author. I had to get a romance in here somewhere. *grin*)
  • Answer to Q2: The kitten is playing and knocks the garbage over, which had some extraordinarily stinky macaroni and cheese wrapped inside. The noise interrupts said narrator, who finds the foul stuff now spread all over the kitchen.
  • Answer to Q3: The narrator grabs some tissues to clean the mess without needing to touch the so-multicolored-it-must-be-contaminated-with-something garbage. Kleenex to the rescue!

Now, in Holly’s email, she came up with a fantastic story that could make a novel. Mine would work better as flash fiction. And that’s okay!

How Brainstorming Warm-ups Help

Sure, we could use this technique for coming up with story ideas, and in that case, we’d hope we’d come up with meatier premises. But Holly’s mini-workshop is also perfect for jump-starting a brainstorming mode we can use any time, in any situation. Even when we’re stuck in our story.

When we think about ideas outside of our story—that, in fact, have nothing to do with our story—we can more easily shut up that nay-saying “that won’t work” part of our brain. Because really, does it matter if something does or doesn’t work in a paragraph-long flash fiction exercise that will remain only in our head? *grin*

The point is that we’re working out our brainstorming muscle. We’re forcing it to see connections that, by all rights, shouldn’t exist. We’re forcing it to create goals and obstacles from nothing. We’re forcing it to tell us a story that didn’t live in the world before.

Those are all great strengths we need when drafting a story too, especially when we’re stuck. Maybe our characters need clearer goals. Maybe we need to strengthen the conflict. Maybe the story feels flat or the cause-and-effect is broken.

If our brain is primed to create something from nothing, we might better be able to think our way out of the problem. And that’s how pens, kittens, toads, mac-n-cheese, and Kleenex could help me draft a story about (secret) and (redacted). *smile*

Have you ever felt that writing skills are a muscle to exercise? Do you struggle to switch gears? Do you agree that we need to keep our brainstorming mode on standby all the time? Do you have brainstorming warm-ups to share? Feel free to try this exercise and share your results in the comments!

P.S. Yesterday, I received word that Treasured Claim is a finalist in two more contests, the On the Far Side contest (sponsored by RWA’s Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal chapter) and the TARA contest (sponsored by RWA’s Tampa Area Romance Authors chapter). Yay! Er, that’s eight finals/wins out of eleven contests in the past year. *boggles*

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Buffy Armstrong

Yay, Jami! Congrats on the contests. That’s awesome. 🙂

I’m generally always in brainstorming mode. You should see the list of random ideas for stories/characters/settings etc over the years that I’ve compiled. Well, the stuff I’ve remembered to write down. 🙂

I also spend a good deal of quiet time talking to myself. Speaking my ideas out loud is a huge help. I’ve never tried a writing exercise like that before. I must try it out when I have a moment!

Melinda S. Collins

Woo hoo, Jami!!! Congratulations on another two finals!! 😀

Thank you for sharing a brainstorming exercise! I currently don’t really have one in place, so this will be incredibly helpful when I get ready to go back into drafting mode. I do find it hard to really switch gears from editing/revising to drafting. The only thing that has helped me deal with it a little bit easier is by adding about 500 words to a fresh draft daily either before or after sitting down with revisions. That way the drafting muscle is at least being worked a little.


Congratulations on Treasured Claim.

Oh, and for all you who are interested in setting up a WordPress blog, Jami’s class was great. If you pester her enough, I’m sure she’d offer it again.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

YAY!!!! HUGE congrats, Jami…soooo happy for you 🙂
I definitely feel like my writing skills are a muscle that needs to be trained, flexed, and used on a regular basis. Like my figure, if I don’t flex my writing muscles daily, my writing begins to get flabby. I exercise my grey matter by trying to write at least 1000 wrds a day (though lately that’s been tough) But I don’t really struggle when I switch gears. I’ve never had much problem shifting from editing to revising or drafting. I enjoy every aspect of the process which helps in that regard.

I love the exercise you provided! I’m gonna try it.
This is another post for PINNING!
Thanks for your wisdom 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Yay congratulations that Treasured Claim is continually earning victories for itself! ^^ About needing to brainstorm all those ideas and knowing what you’re doing before you write…uh…theoretically, that should be how you do it. However, in reality, at least for me, that doesn’t seem to work, haha. Needing to think deliberately about what I’m going to do just—paralyzes me, if you know what I mean! Everything needs to appear by accident. I can’t do anything on purpose, or else I’ll be tacking something on that’s not true! I’ll be “making things up”! Maybe this sounds strange, but I do feel a difference between “the real story” and “the fake story that I made up”. Do you ever have that feeling? That distinction between the real and your fabricated story? I know that probably for most writers, all our writing is fabrication, but for me, it’s different. Fabrications are just fabrications, but our stories are not fabrications! They’re real life events/ histories happening inside our heads/ subconscious/ somewhere! Lol, I don’t know if anyone will understand what I’m saying XD However, when I do get stuck somewhere in the middle of the story, then brainstorming is okay. Things either pour out of my mind, or I draw cards from a bag that have names of random objects on them. Except that I don’t treat them as random. I see this as a kind of mystical process in that what you draw out is not arbitrary, but is rather your characters, your…  — Read More »

Addy Rae
Addy Rae

Wow! Congratulations! I’m glad you’re doing so well. 😀


Congratulations, Jami!

And yes, it’s incredibly hard for me to switch gears. During the last Camp NaNoWriMo in April, I edited my 2011 NaNoWriMo novel and wrote new content for it at the same time. The process nearly made my head explode; it was so hard for me not to go back and nitpick things I’d just written instead of forging ahead with the new material. And right now I’m stalled out on my revisions of my 2012 NaNo novel, so I just might have to try brainstorming.

Melissa Sugar
Melissa Sugar

What a fun brainstorming exercise. I didn’t go into as much connective detail as you, but I gave it. Shot .
1. Gun
2. Beach
3. Fertility clinic
4. Lawyer
5. Child abductor – don’t know why any of these popped into my head.
1. The fertility clinic doctors all have guns hidden in their lab coats.
2. Beach/ ocean is dangerous because if rip tides, sharks, drowning , and a spouse could easily throw the other overboard and pretend the death was an accident. A lawyer is dangerous because they hold your freedom in their hands. I didn’t think to connect the two dangers together until I read yours so I will add (cheating – I know ) that the lawyer will use the ocean to kill his wife .
3. Child abductor’ s extraordinary characterists ( ability to impose massive fear and intimidation ) leads to giant ransom

I love Holly Lisle’s classes


[…] for getting it done; Ariel Djanikian shares 7 writing routines that work; Jami Gold suggests a brainstorming warm-up to rev up your writing; and Chuck Wendig has 50 “snidbits” of compelling storytelling […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Wonderful idea!

If I win, I’d like to have either:

—“Three books from my general blog contest collection”


—“One of my remaining CreateSpace copies of Treasured Claim and/or copies of my other completed stories (The perfect gift for any agent. *snicker*)”

Whichever is most convenient for you to give. 🙂 Ya, I’m curious about your writing (as you know already), so. ^^

Will this be a lucky draw?

Click to grab Stone-Cold Heart now!