Strong Foundations

Lesson 4: Beating Writer’s Block and Improving Creativity with Better Brainstorming

Did you know you can get rid of writer’s block? This brainstorming strategy has been academically proven to help people invent, create, and blow away the competition every time. 

The majority of you are probably pretty disinterested in brainstorming. The general view is that the whole process equates to quickly thinking about want you want, making those ideas coherent, then setting straight off into writing. 

Brainstorming is actually much more involved when done correctly. It’s not simply “mulling over of ideas” and it’s definitely not a quick organization them.

Brainstorming can be the greatest weapon in your writing arsenal. It makes writer’s block a non-issue and can be a 100 lb weight for your creativity muscle. 

My writing process involves a lot of brainstorming almost at every step so you will need to learn how to do it effectively, but don’t worry. I’m gonna teach you how!

You may not believe this, but there are people who have dedicated their entire careers to developing brainstorming methods that work. And although you may find the topic utterly dry, luckily for you, I don’t. I have read the work of these brainstorming scholars and adopted their methods, and now I can tell you all about them so you can benefit too!

The technique I use for brainstorming is based partially on the method outlined by Tim Hurson in his book Think Better. Come to think of it, my brainstorming methods are probably the single most important part of my creative process. All the research and structure “best-practices” in the world won’t help you without a great brainstorming strategy.

You may think I am being overly dramatic on topic but I am dead serious. Idea generation can be akin to a religious experience if done effectively.

Ok. So enough lip-service. If you’re not convinced, read on, try the methods for yourself and see what happens. If your still not convinced after that, then . . . well . . . I can’t help you. Enjoy continual struggling and writer’s blocks for the rest of your career. I stand by my beliefs.

To begin, I will outline what I mean by productive brainstorming and what it is meant to accomplish.

After, I will tell you how to put it into practice.

What is ‘Real’ Brainstorming?

Alex Osborn, the inventor of brainstorming . . . (did I just blow your mind? Yes, brainstorming was invented.) . . . anyway, he developed the 4 key traits of an effective brainstorming session.

  1. Suspend judgement
  2. Aim for the wild ideas
  3. Quantity over quality
  4. Combine & improve

aaaand begin!

Suspend judgment

According to Osborn, judgment sabotages creativity.

Most of us criticize our own ideas immediately. And, what’s more, we probably think is a good thing.

We judge the validity and logic of every idea, and if it passes our tests we write it down and if it doesn’t then we discard it, moving on to the next one.

That explanation probably seemed reasonable to you, and why wouldn’t it? After all, it’s how we have been taught to think from a very early age. Parents tell us “to think before we talk”—teachers may say “there are no stupid questions,” but we all find out quickly that there are definitely stupid answers!

So what I am really asking you to do is forget everything anyone ever taught you about thinking. The first step being to suspend all self-criticism of ideas.

You are not to even consider the validity of any idea until the entire process is done.

That’s an order.

You’re probably wondering why, huh?

First, suspending judgment clears your head of a certain self-awareness that holds your true creativity back. It makes you conscious of how an idea may be perceived, how it makes you look, how successful it may be in the future, and so on and so forth.

Without this judgmental gate keeper, ideas are able to flow out of you with freedom and new found confidence like a Battlestar Galactica fan at ComiCon. Which, leads to perhaps the most important effect of this rule of thinking, and that is to allow your ideas momentum.

Your brain is like a dam. When a little trickle of water finds its way through a crack in the concrete, it is not long before the entire river comes rushing through.

Ideas breed ideas, but if you’re in a constant state of criticizing those ideas, they will never gain the desired momentum.

This brings us to the second rule of brainstorming.

Aim for the wild ideas

When judgment no longer enters into the equation, you’re bound to come up with some pretty silly ideas. But that’s ok.

Have you ever noticed that when you’re trying to come up with an idea you can think of some pretty stupid ones?

Der . . . of course you have . . . and you deny them straight away. Discard them as mental garbage. But, have you ever also noticed that these ideas tend to pop up again and again in your mind even after they have been outright rejected?

The tendency for these ideas to stick around is so natural we don’t even really think about it.

However, it is a reality of bad ideas, proven by the good men and women who have bothered to go to universities and research just this very topic. It has also been shown that by giving these ideas the spotlight (writing them down next to the good ones and considering them as legit possibilities) you act to declutter your brain and allow room for new/better ideas.

Although, many that you might consider ‘dumb’ could actually be ‘wild’ ideas, which are not the same things.

Wild ideas are great because they are often good ideas in disguise.

You should aim for wild ideas as you can easily tame them down if need be, but also because they sometimes point to the heart of the solution or reveal patterns that you might not realize were there.

And remember. Reining in a crazy idea is much easier than turning a boring idea into something exciting.

In summary, write every idea down not matter how stupid, absurd, simple, or fantastical it may seem.

Quantity over quality

We have discussed why quality is a non-issue but why quantity you ask?

Once you have a great idea aren’t you done brainstorming? I mean, that’s the point right?

I say thee nay!

Many people believe that once they have a great idea, they are finished, that they can move on. The reason this is not true is that your first (or second, or third “good” . . .) idea is, in actuality, probably not as good as you think it is.

Sorry.

How come?

Two words for you: Productive thinking.

And unfortunately for you, your probably not doing it.

Humans are pattern driven creatures. Our ability to recognize and act on patterns is crucial for survival but it also ensures that most everything we do and think is habitual in nature. In reality, we use very little of our productive thinking brains, opting instead for patterned thinking and instinctual reactionary thinking. Same goes for most brainstorming.

Confused yet?

I’ll paraphrase Hurson; he explains it best. He describes the early stages of brainstorming and those ideas generated, as not ideas at all, but rather conditioned responses based on ingrained patterns. Uniquely and sometimes very creatively recalled but not actually produced.

Hurson calls what happens during these stages “reproductive thinking.” Real productive thinking (new ideas, severed from patterns) does not take place, until the third third.

Ok . . . what’s the third third?

Do you know that point in brainstorming where you can’t possibly think of anything else and frustration sets in—you start anxiously tapping your pen and forcing air out of your lungs in sharp “humphs” that make trills with you lips like a frisky horse?

Yes?

Then you have entered the third third, my friend. The hard part. The point where your brain finally starts to work, expending great amounts of energy to keep you thinking.

Persist and things are about to get good here!

I think you need an example.

Let’s say that you have a problem with your story line . . . Why does X go to Y? . . . Or some such.

You start brainstorming and you come up with a whopping 50 ideas. Because you followed my previous rules, some of them exist in the realm of possible solutions but others are far from it, either way, your tapped.

Good, you made it. Here you are!

Only 25 more ideas to go. You’re in productive thinking territory now. 

It might take a long time, you may need to leave and take a breather, you might even end up throwing your computer across the local hipster coffee shop in frustration, but do not give up. It’s worth it in the end, I promise.

When you have your break through you can send me all the thank you emails you like, ok?

Combine & Improve

Soooo, I may have lied.

You’re not quite done.

When you are absolutely finished generating ideas in the third third then it is time to go over your list (without judging, of course) and see which ones can be improved on and which can be combined to make . . .

You guessed it: Even more ideas!

You might get only a few to add to the list, or you may get a second wind and enter the fourth third (now a quarter. I know. I understand fractions too. No one likes a know-it-all).

The point here is to make sure you have utterly exhausted your brain, that there is nothing left. The well has been tapped and cleaned including all the skeletons of bodies the mob has thrown down there over the years. EVERYTHING.

That is what real brainstorming is. This is how you have to force yourself to think. I will be using this in one way or another during the entire writing process so you will become very familiar with it. You will need these skills from coming up with a concept, to developing your world, organizing and outlining you story, and much more.

Upward and Onward!

Step-by-Step Brainstorming

When I sit down to brainstorm, the first thing I do is try to understand what the problem is.

What does it mean? What am I really trying to do?

You may think this step is superfluous, but the one thing that is more important than coming up with the right answer is asking the right question.

In terms of writing a book, this can mean anything. But let’s say that we are looking for a character’s motivation for a particular action.

Actually, let’s use the example we used above and say we want to find out the motivation for character X to travel to the city Y.

It may seem that we already have a question. Why does X go to Y? Unfortunately, it is not always that simple. Sure, it can be. I mean, no one’s stopping you from landing there and moving on.

But as fantasy/SF writer, Ursula K. Le Guin said, “there are no right answers to wrong questions.”

So, please. Humour me.

Let’s pretend that an editor has pointed this out to you and asked for a revision.

So the problem is X has insufficient motivation for going to Y, but instead of turning the problem into the question as it’s shown above, we are going to push deeper by asking ourselves what we know about the problem. List everything that you know has an effect or is affected by the problem or a potential solution.

For instance . . .

  1. Editor needs revisions in 6 weeks
  2. The climax happens in Y so X really needs to be there
  3. Z’s relationship depends on X being in Y
  4. Word count is limited
  5. Based on Joe. He’ll be pissed if I change the character to look like too much of a fool
  6. Etc. 

Next, do the same thing with real life stakeholders like your editor, publisher, readers, even your mom if that’s how it is.

What restrictions do you need to work with: Time frames, definite no-no’s, limitations?

Most importantly what is your goal after the solution has been found and implemented? Do you just want to make your editor happy? What does your book read like? The mood and style? How does your reader receive it? Outline what successfully solving this problem looks like and add that to the list.

With all these things in mind, start brainstorming possible questions that when answered, will solve your problem.

For our purposes, I’ll write only 5 but you’re going to want to push for many more than that. I have also added some make believe restrictions and stakeholders to show how you how to use the items on your list.

  • How can I make X follow character Z to get him to Y so he can fight character W?
  • What motivation can I write for X without having to rewrite other chapters?
  • What motivation can I write for X that won’t create too much extra work so I can submit my revisions by the deadline in 6 weeks?
  • What motivation can I write for X that will add to the tension at the climax?
  • How can I add layers to X through his motivation that will make him more interesting?

As you can see, there are plenty of possible questions that will produce varying answers depending on which one I choose.

I always aim for 100 ideas, it seems to be my magic number to get the most out of each brainstorming session, but even if I’m struggling I never settle for under 50. When your generating questions remember to follow the rules for brainstorming outlined above. Otherwise you’re not getting the most out of the process.

After you have your list of questions it’s time to think critically about them.

I do this Tim Hurson’s way by following the 4 steps that he coins cull, cluster, clarify, and choose.

Here’s how it’s done:

1) Cull. Remove all the really bad ideas from the running. Remember that when you brainstorm correctly you are bound to be left with a few. Make sure you do this thoughtfully, be positive that there is no hope at all for them.

2) Cluster. You may notice that some questions will be very similar to others or revolve around a certain theme. For instance, my five questions can be placed into 3 separate categories: 1) moving the plot; 2) minor adjustments/expediency; 3) added depth.

3) Clarify. Once your questions are grouped together, you will be able to combine some of them to make just one. For example, my questions B and C can be combined and clarified to ask . . .

  • What motivation can I give X for going to Y that won’t involve rewriting other chapters so that I can be completed the revision by the editor’s deadline in 6 weeks?

…Better right? And much more useful to us than the original: What makes X go to Y?

Similarly, D and E can be combined and clarified to ask . . .

  • What motivation can I give X for going to Y that will add to the character’s depth so to make the climax is more emotional and exciting?

4) Choose. This one is self-explanatory. Choose the one that best addresses the issues you listed in the beginning (restrictions, needs, etc.) and will best move you toward your goal.

Once you have your chosen question, it is time to complete the same process for the answer.

For answer generating brainstorming sessions I try to keep 100 ideas as my minimum. It is always easier for me to come up with answers than questions and therefore takes longer to get into the third third. This may not be the case for you.

Again, remember your brainstorming rules and push yourself into that third third or fourth fourth.

When you finally finish, leave your list alone, preferably for a few days (though sometimes this may not be possible) and let it stew, don’t get critical yet. Leave the questions unanswered for a while and gain some much needed clarity. Allow your brain to shift gears. Changed perspective will be beneficial and you may even decide after to add to your list (fifth fifth, anyone?)

While your shifting focus, return to the question and pinpoint your successful answer guidelines.

You may want to refer to your goals for success but for the most part you should be able to get these from the question itself. These may include some words directly taken from the question. For example, our guidelines might look like this.

1) Adds character depth

2) Matches or improves overall emotion

3) Exciting

4) Adds tension

5) Adds catharsis

6) Motivation is believable/realistic

With a little dissection it will be easy to create a number of guidelines that you can use to judge your best answer candidates.

I create these guidelines after the initial brainstorming because it’s best to not weigh down the creative part of the process with restrictions, this will lead you to start criticizing ideas, and we don’t want that, do we?

However, heading into the critical thinking stage, we definitely want to start working with clear specifications.

So you made your list, you let it steep, and you pinpointed your grading specs. Now you need to repeat the cull, cluster, and clarify process (notice choose is not in there). Get rid of bad options, classify and find common themes, delete repeats, combine similar ideas, and clarify vague wording.

Instead of choosing now, continue to reduce your options until you’re left with around 5 or 6.

Compare each one to your best-answer guidelines. Review each as honestly as possible. Then you can choose the best solution to the best answer.

Conclusion

I realize this was a long post for a topic that most people aren’t very interested in, but I truly believe that mastering these techniques will give you such an advantage over the competition you would have to be insane to pass them up.

Try it out for yourself and just see what happens. You will fall in love with the process because the results will be so great every time. And, they will start coming faster and faster as your brain becomes more practiced.

Just remember the 4 rules of brainstorming: No judging, go for wild, quantity over quality, and combining/improving.

Next post, we’ll be taking this a step further and learning how to generate endless ideas for high concept stories that you need to be continuously producing to have a steady career in writing. That’s all in Lesson 4: Conceptualizing. Methods of Idea Generation

Try out the strategies discussed today and let me know how they worked for you in the comment section below.

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