Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Brainstorming Your Next Bestseller

by Debby Giusti

Some writers can take a sliver of an idea and develop it single-handedly into the next bestseller. The rest of us need to jump start the creative process by brainstorming.

American advertising executive Alex Osborn developed the technique in the 1930s, and since then, brainstorming has been used in business boardrooms, in academia, in the arts and even in the world of romance novels to generate a wide range of new ideas.

Initially, I thought writers developed stories on their own with little or no input from others. You can imagine my surprise when, after a monthly Georgia Romance Writers’ meeting, I heard published authors mention their quarterly brainstorming retreats. Within that group were such notable writers as Deborah Smith, Sandra Chastain, Nancy Knight, Virginia Ellis, Donna Ball and Deb Dixon of GMC fame. They talked about building on one another’s ideas to end up with story lines far more satisfying than they could have created working alone. These were successful women who between them had published more than 200 books with millions of copies in print.

Didn’t take me long to realize I should follow their lead. Soon I joined with other unpubbed GRW members to brainstorm our stories. At each gathering, creativity was given free rein, and the results were amazing. Whether we were discussing our own books or someone else’s, we all benefited from the sessions, honed our storytelling craft and became more adept at developing compelling plots and engaging character.

These days I brainstorm the major story lines for my books with my critique partners, Darlene Buchholz and Anna Adams. Often I’ll fine-tune a specific plot point with my family as we gather around the kitchen table or with my husband when we take our daily walks.

So how’s it work? Here are some basic guidelines:

1. Gather a group of folks—three to six people—who are interested in fleshing out story ideas.

2. Allot at least thirty minutes to brainstorm a manuscript before moving on to the next one. Assign a timekeeper so every story gets equal time.

3. The first writer presents a general overview of how she plans to develop her story and asks for input in certain areas. For example: If the writer is having trouble with character development, she might ask for character traits and motivation that would make her heroine react in a specific way.

4. Criticism or negative comments hinder creativity and should be put on hold.

5. The group throws out ideas, sometimes in rapid succession. Often one comment/idea will dovetail with another or will spark a new direction for exploration.

6. Thinking outside the box should be encouraged.

7. If the focus becomes skewed, the writer can redirect the discussion to a path she believes would prove more fruitful, once again, using positive comments rather than anything negative or critical.

8. At the end of the time period, the writer reviews the suggestions she feels have merit and thanks the group for their help before the next writer takes her turn.

Brainstorming works so give it a try!

By the way, the six GRW authors I mentioned brainstormed their way into the publishing industry when someone threw out the idea of creating a small press where Southern writers could find a home. The way I heard it, Deb Dixon gave voice to the concept as they drove to the beach for a week long brainstorming retreat. By the end of the week, BelleBooks was born. To date, they’ve published over thirty novels and anthologies, which they claim represent “Southern Fried Fiction At Its Finest.”

Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti

Watch for Debby's next book, PROTECTING HER CHILD, in May 2009. YULE DIE will be out in December 2009, and KILLER HEADLINE will follow in February 2010.


  1. Great advice on brainstorming with a group, Deb! Thanks for posting.


  2. That is so strange that the time says two fifty eight. It's five AM here actually.


  3. Excellent post, Debby. I love the creativity and excitement of brainstorming! Not only for the ideas that others toss out, but for how those ideas can trigger the perfect scenario in the writer who knows her story best.


  4. What are you all doing up so early? Did anyone put on the pot?

    It's 5:30 in Denver.

    I admit this idea intrigues me but my fear is always that such sessions will become more social than productive. How do you stay focused?

  5. Debby,

    Thanks for providing so much detail about brainstorming, which had been a bit of a mystery to me.

    Now that you're getting so many contracts, do you continue to brainstorm as much as in the beginning of your career? At what stage are you in the mss when you do this, or does it vary?


  6. Hi Cheryl,
    Loved your blog yesterday! Thanks for stopping by!

    PS: Time variance? I think the blog clock is set on Tina's time. I noted the same thing last night when I inserted my post options.

  7. Hi Janet,
    You're right! The author usually sees which ideas will work for her story and can redirect the flow of comments along that vein. Usually there's an "ah-hah!" moment or at least an "I'd never thought of that" flash! I always come away energized and ready to tackle my next project.

  8. Tina,
    I've never had a problem with the group staying focused. Everyone quickly gets involved, excitement builds and creativity flows. Of course, the group needs to be interested in the technique. Even first timers will quickly realize the benefit of brainstorming as new ideas are thrown into the mix. Having a set time limit is also important to ensure the discussion never bogs down.

  9. Gosh, Deb, great blog!!! I am one of those authors who does NOT brainstorm on a regular basis, and I am quickly realizing that will have to change. There are only so many twists and turns in this pea brain of mine, so I am going to have to branch out. Thanks for the advice.


  10. Good question, Cathy! I get an initial idea of the story I'd like to write, but I won't have all the details worked out in my mind. Perhaps I haven't pinned down my characters' backstory. I always want to know the actual turning point in my hero or heroine's past that causes them to have problems, perhaps in relationships, today. The more I can understand what happened, the more easily I can write about their plight, struggle, redemption when I begin the manuscript. Although the backstory may appear only briefly in the actual text, having it fully developed in my mind allows me, at least in my opinion, to write a better book. So . . . I might ask my cps to brainstorm a situation in my heroine's past that will impact the way she reacts to the hero in my story.

    I spend a lot of time ironing out my story before I begin to write. At another cp meeting, I might ask the group to brainstorm ideas about the villain or the type of red herrings that would be effective.

  11. Hi Julie,
    However you put your stories together, it works!!! Thanks for writing such wonderful book!

  12. Good morning Debby, I love to brainstorm and you gave us some great tips on how to manage sessions so one person doesn't take up the whole time. Well done.

    Obviously your brainstorming works because I love your Love Inspired romantic suspense novels.

    And Tina, if you have the guidelines established, that really helps stay focused.

    Hmmmm, how about some cookiedoodle coffee? I love the cinnamon-vanilla scents almost as much as the shot of caffeine. I have plenty for you all. Maybe Ruth will show up with some snickerdoodles I've been hungry for them ever since she mentioned them earlier this week.

  13. Hey, Debby!

    I've done some brainstorming online in a chat room, and I've done a bit of brainstorming on a really small scale, like when I ask my husband or a couple of friends to help me with a plot problem. It's always good. But I've never really used it to do any major plotting or characterization. My brain is constantly going in a million directions, so brainstorming with a group seems almost like overkill!!!

    However, if I were to write more than one book every two years (!) or have to come up with a proposal of a next book while working on another, brainstorming might be necessary. :-) I've never been able to think about more than one story at a time.

    Now that doesn't really make sense, does it? Oh, well. It makes sense in my brain, I just don't know how to put it into words. Limitations, limitations. In heaven you'll all know what I mean every time I open my mouth! (Do you think we'll have email in heaven? Or just mental telepathy?)

    Sorry. I'm in a weird mood today.

  14. I can't remember where I heard this -- might have been in college or at the newspaper when we'd have to put a series or special section together.

    If someone sounded too critical we could remind them "We're brainstorming, not evaluating."

    Now my kids say that.

    My crit buddy and I do some in our back and forth. I havent' done face-to-face brainstorming with anyone in a long time.

    Thanks for teling us how it's done!

  15. I've got one daughter who likes to brainstorm with me and another daughter and he husband who came to me once with a really good idea for a story. It's very fun to talk writing with them.

    But mostly, I am a lone piece of driftwood, far out from land, the shore only a distant memory, isolated, ignored, forgotten, defiled.


  16. I remember having to brainstorm in school. Never done it for writing, though sometimes a writer who crits me might say, "I thought the story was going to go this way," And that kind of sparks some thoughts.
    Sounds like a great experience. :-)

  17. I like brainstorming.

    I just don't like people.

    Puts a damper on things, huh???


    But I do like food so that fools people into THINKING I like them. To that end I brought...


    You guessed it!!!

    A fresh batch of Snickerdoodles and a veggie plate, no dip, for those being good.

    Deb, this sounds like so much fun and very productive and I think the key is to work with focused authors who actually want to improve and dig deeper. Lots of wannabe authors talk a good story, but digging their heels in and working doesn't always work.

    Which is why I love the Seekers. When I'm stuck or need advice, I post for help. Amazing how many women come running, God love 'em.

    Depending on your writers' group and location, it can be hard to find a brainstorming group that works effectively.

    Now if I were to move to Georgia...

    Oh, mylanta, you guys are rich with talent and industry. Might have to think that over!

    Sandra, coffee is great. Delicious. Amazing. Mellow and smooth.

    Lovin' it, girlfriend.


  18. Thanks, Sandra, for the coffee and the comment about having guidelines in place!!! Sounds like you're an advocate of brainstorming!

  19. Hi Melanie,
    I understand about focusing on one project at a time. I work the same way.

    Brainstorming doesn't necessarily provide the final story line, but it does open me to other options. Sort of frees my creativity so I can pick and choose from the various ideas, build on them and eventually end up with a satisfying story. Remember I use a very detailed synopsis to ensure I have all the plot points in place before I begin to write.

  20. Hi Ann,
    Love your comment: "We're brainstorming, not evaluating."

  21. Hi Grandma Mary!
    You sure do look great with that baby in your arms. Congrats on the little one!!!

    Of course, you work alone. You're brilliant. You're the person I mentioned in the beginning of my blog: Some writers can take a sliver of an idea and develop it single-handedly into the next bestseller.

    The rest of us need help!!!

    I have to get your latest book!!! Your stories always make me chuckle and smile and feel better about life and the economy and everything that seems to be spiraling out of control these days. A Mary Connealy read is a shot in the arm!!! Or maybe I should say a tickle in the pits! Hmmm? Maybe I better brainstorm a better analogy.

  22. Try it, Jessica. I bet you'll enjoy the process. Brainstorming always jazzes me up! Like a sugar high only better.

  23. Hi Deb! I just wanted to pop in and say thanks to all of you for the great info you pass along. I mostly read it when I get home so I don't post often. Day job and all that you know!

    I've stalled a bit on my WIP and when I read your comments to Cathy about backstory I realized that's what I need to work on. It's hard to brainstorm their future when I don't know enough about their past.


  24. I've done little brainstorming, and was wondering if anyone ever felt they were losing their voice by following everyone elses ideas. I suppose they would probably choose not to brain storm, or do they have to grow into the reality of learning to choose. I'm just wondering.
    Because, I can see a young writer, getting together with established writers perhaps thinking they should follow the ideas of the other writers with the hopes they will get published and putting their voice aside. Has that ever been an issue?

  25. I’ve been to many brainstorming sessions over the years in marketing and advertising. I hope how we did it might prove helpful here.

    A topic was chosen a few days before the meeting. Like: “How can we increase sales 10% next month” or “How can we attract more senior citizens”.

    There was one rule: you could never criticize an idea. Ideas were not praised either. The goal was to produce as many ideas as possible. Often the crazier the idea, the better it was because the really ‘off-the-wall’ ideas often led to good ideas coming from someone else. A solution was not expected from these sessions.

    The session was recorded and transcripts were given to the participants the next day. Often the real progress was made in reading the transcripts. (BTW, only quotes were given. No quote was ever attributed to a given person.)

    Scanning all the ideas at one time, like a Gestalt, had a way of stimulating new ideas that would not have occurred in the live brainstorming sequence.

    In the end, the people responsible for implementing policy still made the decisions.

    Do you think it would be possible for romance writers to have more frequent sessions with only one author’s work being brainstormed? Would it be possible to have a theme to brainstorm, for example, “How many different ways can we reward the reader for reading?”

    Having all the minds in the group focused on one goal would seem to have a synergistic effect. I can just see wonderful ideas flowing very productively when the bell rings that time is up!

    I found that brainstorming really, really works.

    Thanks for a very good post.


  26. Ruth, come south, honey!!! Missy and I will have a party!!! Whoo-hoo!!! Ruthy with a Southern accent . . . now that sounds fun. How do you feel about sweet tea? You want some biscuits with those grits?

    Seriously, your comments brought up an important point. Developing a story line and ensuring all the plot points fit can be hard work. Sometimes I feel like my brain is going to crack . . . okay, no snickering with those Snickerdoodles. Brainstorming is freeing, but it's putting all those new ideas into place that requires tremendous effort.

    Remember, I'm talking about suspense stories where surprise twists need to be strategically placed to provide the best impact. Other genres may not require such detailed prior planning.

  27. Hi Sherry ... another darlin' Southern writer!!!

    You've got it!!! What you said needs to be repeated: "I've stalled a bit on my WIP and when I read your comments to Cathy about backstory I realized that's what I need to work on. It's hard to brainstorm their future when I don't know enough about their past."

    Get the backstory down and you'll know exactly how your character should and will react. Not that you'll include all the info in the manuscript, but by knowing what has happened in the past, you'll create engaging characters and stories that ring true.

  28. Tina,
    You brought up a good point. A writer should always go with her gut feelings about her own story and not be swayed by a cp or contest judge or published author. We need to listen to the suggestions others make, but the final decisions about our story must be our own.

    Of course, if an editor asks us to make changes, that's a different story! :)

  29. Hi Vince!
    Thanks for your comments and for sharing your experiences with brainstorming.

    Loved the following statement you made: "Often the crazier the idea, the better it was because the really ‘off-the-wall’ ideas often led to good ideas coming from someone else." So true!!!

    You asked about brainstorming one story each session. That would work well because everyone would be fresh.

    Loved the idea of having the suggestions printed off for review later.

    Many times online groups brainstorm titles by posting various suggestions and then adding to and/or tweeking what's been presented until they eventually find a title that works.

    You're right, Vince. That synergistic effect you mentioned is what makes a group of folks more creative than one person working alone.

  30. Brainstorming in a group is so fun! I love all the ideas that crop up that I would never have thougth of : )

    Brainstorming helps me develope the story line. Sometimes I get so in a rut, that every book has an emergency room scene in it, or too much talking around the kitchen table. I need prodding to help me see and use my entire story world.

    Be careful who you brainstorm with!! Two of my crit partners are very competitive -- with each other. When we get together to brainstorm, they take the story, no matter who's it is, and it's WAR!!

    Still battles rage and those that are smart enough to stay out of the fray can learn a lot from sitting on the sidelines : )

    Thanks for the post, Debby!! Say hi to Darlene!!

  31. Hi Audra,
    Thanks for adding your tips for successful brainstorming. You're right, sometimes folks want to "hog the stage." Everyone should have an opportunity to add his or her ideas without being overruled by someone else. Good facilitating is important when strong-willed personalities are involved.

  32. I'm not a great brainstormer because I have to mull over things first. But I've received lots of ideas from other people and used them--and wondered why I didn't think of the ideas myself!

  33. Hi Cara,
    Sounds like you're thinking too much! :) Actually spontaneity is good in the sessions so anything might surface -- even silly ideas that could never work. But folks just keep moving forward and, as Vince said earlier, at times those off-the-wall comments morph into something of substance.

  34. I just recently started brainstorming with someone for an upcoming WIP. I can't believe how quickly the pieces are coming together just by having someone else to help with the brainstorm!

  35. Avily, I'm so glad you're enjoying and benefiting from your brainstorming sessions. I truly believe the process helps us become more creative and open to new possibilities.

  36. Thanks so much for the post and all this discussion! It's been great to read through--and very convincing. I can see where it would really get you moving.

  37. Patty,
    Thanks for stopping by Seekerville. Glad you enjoyed the comments. It's fun to hear everyone's opinions. Hope you can give brainstorming a try one of these days!

    All the best,

  38. Great post! I need to bounce the current story I'm working on off some people. It needs more action.

  39. OMGosh,Debby, your post reminded me of a job I once had: I transcribed some of those brainstorming sessions of Sandra, Deb S., Deb D., Nancy, etc!! I had forgotten all about doing that. They taped their sessions, and when I worked for Sandra, she asked me to transcribe some for her. It was soooo cool! I remember being so jealous, wishing I could invite myself along to be part of their group! :)

    I recently took part in a brainstorming session at the Moonlight & Magnolias conference. Very helpful! I got a gazillion ideas. And I've been on a couple of overnight brainstorming retreats. I really enjoy it.

  40. Hi Missy:

    Your last post made me think:

    Wouldn’t it be great to be invited to a really high powered brainstorming session?

    Do you think you could hold a session at one of the Writer Conferences and post edited transcripts on the Seekers? You would not have to attribute any comments to any one author. You don’t even have to say which authors took part.

    Also, reading the transcripts of past brainstorming sessions might prove to be very productive as often writers face the same problems. Just think: a library of great brainstorming sessions.

    In fact, if you could put together 10 to 20 great brainstorming sessions, you’d have a very saleable book. At least, I would buy it.

    I think you can do it!

    Do you have time for a non-fiction book? You could call it 'research'.



  41. What a fun idea, Vince! It would be fun for us to look at some of our brainstorming emails and see if there's something we could do for a post.

    What's usually very entertaining is when one of us asks the others for title help. That really turns comical sometimes! LOL

  42. Hi Missy:

    If you are going to find an existing brainstorming session, it would be of great interest, from a fan’s POV, to know which published book it goes with.

    Imagine having a stormy brainstorming session for "Pride and Prejudice"?

    Can't you just hear Austen’s sister saying, “I still think D’Arcy should die in a dual? (LOL)