Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brainstorming on the phone or in person

Camy here!

I was just brainstorming with fellow Seeker Janet Dean on the phone the other night. I’m not sure why, but I like brainstorming in person or on the phone much better than on email. I figured I’d try to analyze to better understand why.

Why I Like Brainstorming On the Phone Or In Person
Camy Tang
(Doesn’t it remind you of those “What I Did For Summer Vacation” essays in grade school?)

1) I can ask questions.

Janet had given a skeleton plot of her story online, but there were some things that weren’t completely clear, so I got to ask her about the specific things that confused me.

And then I realized I had misunderstood one part of the plot entirely, so it was really good I had asked questions, because then I was able to give plot ideas that pertained to the correct plot point, rather than a misunderstood one.

Takeaway for Brainstormers: Ask lots of questions because you can’t brainstorm effectively if you don’t have the story right in the first place.

2) I could gauge right away how Janet liked a particular idea, just by the tone of her voice.

I tossed out an idea, she gave that “Eh” tone and so I knew I was following the wrong rabbit trail.

I tossed out a completely different idea, and Janet’s tone told me she was intrigued, so I kept going with it.

I have been in some online brainstorming groups where I would try to tell people I wasn’t thrilled about a particular idea someone put out, but tone isn’t very clear via email, and so people would continue to build on an idea I didn’t even like. It was very frustrating, so I try to be really sensitive to the writer’s feelings about an idea when I brainstorm with others. If the writer isn’t really excited about an idea, I immediately toss it and try for something else.

Figuring out if a writer likes an idea can be hard via email, whereas on the phone it’s really easy.

Takeaway for Brainstormers: If the writer doesn’t like your idea, move on to something else. Don’t keep building on an idea the writer isn’t 100% excited about. If you ignore the writer’s intuitions about their book just because you like the idea you gave her, that’s just rude.

3) Brainstorming is easier when the writer can keep talking about her book.

I don’t know about you, but having the writer tell me more about her book makes it easier for me to latch onto a seemingly inconsequential detail and suggest a way to enhance it to make it solve a plot problem.

On the phone, Janet would just keep talking about her story as plot elements came to her (because really, who remembers all at once every aspect of a plot for a book you’re writing? I usually forget things that come to me later.) and as she touched on different characters and events, I could suggest, “Hey, what if instead of this person doing this, if you had them doing that and tying in to that other plot point?”

For my brainstorming with Janet, she was trying specifically to deepen the romantic conflict because there wasn’t quite enough to keep hero and heroine from falling in love and marrying, so we had a very specific plot problem to address. After listening to her talk about other aspects of the story, I could suggest a few things that might add romantic complications if she tweaked it slightly.

Takeaway for Brainstormers: Be sure to listen carefully to the writer talking about the story, because something they say could spark ideas that you can share with them.

So how can you find a brainstorming partner?

Some writers are lucky in that they already have a really good brainstorming partner to chat with. Others are still in need of someone or a group of people to help them brainstorm.

Brainstorming groups can be a bit like finding the right spouse. You just have to date around and try them out, and if they don’t work—don’t feel guilty, just move on.

So try out different brainstorming partners wherever you can find them: your local writers group, online groups and websites, discussion boards, online classes. You never know, you might find a true friend.

Or you might find 14 other completely loco writers who consistently take all your slots on the writing contest circuit, and you decide to join them because it sure beats competing with them in contests. ;)

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Her novels Single Sashimi and Deadly Intent are out now. She runs the Story Sensei critique service, is a staff worker for her church youth group, and leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels and ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for giveaways!


  1. I have easy access to my best brainstorming partner because we share the same address. Yup! My hubby is one of those rare guys who totally gets my writing. Not that he's a wimpy guy or anything like that. He yawns and sometimes falls asleep during the chick flicks I subject him to. (Bless him, but he can't tell Mr. Darcy from Mr. Knightley or Elizabeth from Emma.)

    The reasons Gwynly is so good at brainstorming with me are 1) he knows my characters well since they sorta become family members because I talk about them a little (too often), 2) he's a guy, meaning he can ditch the details and see the BIG picture, 3) he catches things that are unbelievable or just plain wrong, and 4) he pushes me to increase the action and conflict.

    Being able to brainstorm in person works well for Gwynly and me for all the reasons you said, Camy. The ability to clarify and question as we go along helps. I've done a little telephone brainstorming with some writer friends, and it works too, but my guy is still my top pick as a plotting partner.

    I'm curious. Do any of you brainstorm with your fellows? If so, why do you think it works for you?

  2. Mary, are you saying you're not loco? And here I thought you never told a lie...

    That's great about your husband, Keli! I actually do not brainstorm with Captain Caffeine. He doesn't get writing at all, except for the part where I walk around mumbling to myself for weeks at at time, usually right before a deadline.

  3. So, you mumble to yourself, too, Camy? Glad to know I'm not alone in that. :)

  4. I don't know why he looks at me so strangely. I'm sure he sees coworkers who mumble at their computers. I just mumble on the go rather than seated.

  5. I'd rather brainstorm in person or on the phone too. I think for me it is because email is too slow. It's hard to follow a line of thinking when there can be up to a day between responses- especially when my critique partner and I both work. Setting up times for "conference calls" works well for my brainstorming buddy and me.

    Brainstorm with my husband? Yeah, sometimes. Mainly when I need a male point of view. You know the conversations that usually go like this:

    Me: "My heroine does this ____ and my hero says ___. Is that realistic?"

    Hubby: "No man that I know would say that. He should say ___."

    Anything more than this with my hubby leads to me want to pull my hair out, but he's gotten really great at proofreading stuff and giving me an outsiders view on chapters that are giving me problems.

  6. My hubby is good for male POV too! Except he always ends up suggesting some sports analogy for my male character to say, and I'm like, "Um...this book will be read by women who probably won't know what that means ..."

  7. The next best thing might be the old Instant Message type brainstorm. Quicker than email, messier than phone.

    Oh, and don't bother to fix your spelling errors while IM'g during a brainstorm. A waste of keystrokes!

  8. Morning Camy,

    I'm with Mary. Loco?

    Well okay. A little. Makes life more fun.

    What a great idea to brainstorm on the phone. I have a friend I call and we meet for lunch and she can ask the best questions.

    DH is great for titles. He loves my stories. But he really loves when I write because then I'm not writing a "honey do" list.

    Ruthy isn't up yet????

    I have coffee-chocolate velvet of course, but I also have some caramel truffle coffee that smells wonderful.

    Hot chocolate- several flavors, vanilla bean, raspberry, graham cracker hot chocolate and cinnamon hot chocolate.

    And I can whip up some waffles loaded with walnuts and whipped cream and dribbled with pure maple syrup my brother-in-law sends from New Hampshire and/or mesquite honey.

    The oranges off my tree are soooo sweet. Help yourself. And if you like a little tang try the tangelos. They're easy to peel.

  9. I love brainstorming on live chat, too. Like, on facebook or MSN messenger. IT's great fun. I'm so not a phone person. LOL.

    Another great thing is over coffee. I have a great friend I do this with too. It's so fun just hanging out and chatting, but not all my writing friends are close, so I make due with chat times. :-)

    Great post!

  10. Debra, I've done brainstorms over IM before, but somehow not being able to hear a person's tone makes a difference for me. Also, most people can speak faster than they can type, and I end up waiting for them to respond while they type. I'd much rather listen to them since it's a little faster.

    Sandra those waffles sounds scrumptious!!!!

    Lynn, I really enjoy brainstorming in person over coffee! The atmosphere is casual and relaxed and it seems to help get the creative juices flowing better!

  11. I just have to tell you about my favorite brainstorming activity. There's a gorgeous lake near my home. My husband and I take our two Chinese Cresteds for walks along this lake on warmer days. Bear in mind, my husband is not a reader unless the material pertains to the Bible or golf. During these walks, he asks me about my writing and brainstorms with me. It's such a neat feeling to have him involved in the creative process. The romantic suspense that I have coming out in April was such fun because he was part of the process from beginning to end and even gave it the title Queen of Hearts. Imagine my surprise when he asked to read it upon completion. I guess he was interested because of his input into the story. I was shocked that he read the entire book as I've never known him to read a book in the fourteen years that we've been married. I can't wait for the weather to turn warm again here. I'm looking forward to those brainstorming sessions along the lake.

  12. Dawn that sounds so cool! My husband also rarely reads and has only read one of all my manuscripts, but he helped contribute to that one because I deliberately asked him for lots of sports analogies for the heroine (the book was Sushi for One).

  13. Do you people sleep? Did anyone make coffee?

    I brainstorm with myself. I have never ever been able to brainstorm with another person.

    However I have a lovely sister who is a writer who reads for me when I need help and can give me the fresh eye I require.

  14. Camy, great post! Not because it's about me. LOL But because your points are excellent. Brainstorming over the phone or in person works best for all the reasons you list.

    When we talked about my plot I noticed how carefully you listened. Now I realize you were also picking up my reaction to your suggestions.

    Thanks again for taking the time to give your input on my story!

    Sandra, I'm lining up for waffles. Yum!


  15. Great ideas, Camy. I love the interation of phone brainstorming or in person. I think too much when I type : )

    Quite honestly, your Takeaway for Brainstormers #2 hit the nail on the head for me.

    When I brainstorm with my crit partners, I discover exactly what I don't want in my book.

    I didn't mean that how it sounded : )

    I'll talk about where I think I want the story to go and receive suggestions on what will happen when the characters get there, and realize that's not what I wanted for the story.

    Most of the time our brainstorming sessions become a free-for-all and I'm just happy to walk away from the time together smiling : )

    Oooo, posts and comments like this can get folks in trouble, Camy!!

  16. Writers loco? Well, we're not normal! How boring!

    I'm partial to the phone when it comes to brainstorming, mainly because my partner in crime is half way across the country. We try to get together every couple of months just to catch up and tweet whatever problems have come in our WIP.

    And I love when my hubby helps with male POV--he gives me some of the best lines!

  17. Great post, Camy!

    I'm almost jealous of those people who have great crit partners/brainstorming partners because I'm like Tina in that I usually don't brainstorm with anyone. Once or twice when I had a plot crisis I did, however, have a brainstorming luncheon for some of my friends. That turned out to be a lot of fun and very productive because it was summer and we sat outside on the covered deck and chewed on both food and the story in a focused, relaxed setting.

    And, Dianna, I have to grin at your comment because my hubby does the same thing -- gives me the male POV on my plot twists, especially telling me if something I plan for my hero to do is something a guy would do. Keith actually likes brainstorming with me, which is good because when he gets vested in these characters, then he doesn't mind so much when I spend ALL my time with them ... especially at the end of the book! :)


  18. I'm with Julie and Tina. I haven't been able to find a mentor or anyone to brainstorm with. I do belong to an awesome critique group, but as you pointed out, Camy, that is not the best way to brainstorm!

    And Sandra, the waffles and coffee were delish!!

  19. I love brainstorming, except for my stubborn insistance on not taking advice. That's a stumbling block.


  20. Hi :)

    First, I think Mary was objecting to ‘loco’ because it means “crazy man”. I would be ‘loco’ but she would be ‘loca’.

    Second, Tina: I think you gave me a cartoon idea I can sell.

    Picture: Woman on Psychiatrist’s couch. Doctor talking to her.

    Caption: “Look at the bright side, with MPD, multiple personality disorder, you’ll be able to brainstorm with yourself.”

    Third: Brainstorming with my wife. If I made one criticism, she’d just say: “OK, you can just write the book yourself.”

    Four: Camy: How right you are. I have just stopped reading a romance by a favorite author, half way through the book, because from the first pages the hero and heroine have been having extremely strong sensual attractions for each other and there’s no strong reason to keep them apart. I just feel like shouting: “Get a room.” This book is an HR so I can say that.

    I like a live brainstorm because I found it’s very productive to fire ideas as fast as possible. Such speed produces sparks and surprises. We always did this in advertising. However, these sessions were taped and our secretary transcribed them. The best ideas then came from the review of the transcripts the next day. It helps to have a staff. :)


  21. Oh Camy,
    What a great post! I've been blessed to recently find two people to bounce ideas off. Time will tell how it works, but it's been SO. Much. Fun!
    ANd it helps us not feel alone in this fairly isolated profession. :-)
    I think sometimes, I just need someone to ask me a thoughtful question about my story idea, so it gets me to look at the novel from a different perspective.

    I think a guy's perspective would be AWESOME. My brother recently volunteered to read my novels to critique my guys. I can't wait to get his opinion, which I'm sure will be laced with plenty of humor too :-)

    I like to refer to loco as creatively diverse. How's that? Still means 'crazy', but looks prettier when you write it

  22. After my late night, those waffles sound mighty yummy, Sandra. And an orange right off the tree. Yum!

    K. Dawn, I loved hearing about your brainstorming sessions with your hubby. Those walks by the lake sound lovely. Gwynly and I have done a good deal of brainstorming on a local "Rails to Trails" trek that takes us over a renovated century-old railroad trestle. He gets the exercise he craves, and I get story ideas aplenty.

    I think it's great that many of you get male POV assistance from husbands, brothers, and other great guys.

  23. Mary and I are soul-sisters...I'm a little loco, and I tend not to take the brainstorming advice of others too often, but I do find that someone asking me questions about my plot forces me to examine holes and pitfalls more closely and to come up with a solution. And if the questioner can guess where I'm headed with the story, then I need to change it up a little bit.

    In the past, I've had trouble holding on to my original vision for a story if I share it with a brainstorming partner too soon. They start throwing out ideas so quickly that the story gets muddled. I'm better off fleshing out a chapter by chapter synopsis and sharing it when I have a firm picture of the story's framework already in place.

    Fun post today, Camy!

  24. Hi Camy!

    Think brainstorming in person or on the phone would be more beneficial than online for the little nuiances that you pointed out.

    That being said, I'm with the minority on brainstorming alone because I've never quite found the right person. My experience has been they want me to use what they suggest whether it fits the plot or characters and act very insulted if I didn't use "their idea" verses helping me find plot threads to make MY story stronger.


  25. Erica and I are doing a book signing together in March.

    I'm looking so foreward to seeing her I could cry. but it's been a bad day.

    So Erica, don't let the crying get you down. (as she rushes to drop out of the signing)

  26. I have a constant perfect storm going on in my brain on any given day, and like Tina and Julie, I am pretty much the only person caught in it.

    There are times I think I would love to have someone to brainstorm with, but it never works out that way.

    I shoot certain scenes across the bow of my husband and son's brains when I think I need to clarify a male POV.

    It's rare because I know almost everything there is to know about the male POV. KIDDING... Just Kidding.

  27. LOL, Vince you crack me up.

    Mary, you are cracked up.

    Erica, run, run, run.

  28. Hi Camy,

    Interesting post today! I'm fascinated by all the different views of brainstorming. I'm with Erica, I need to have a fairly complete road map before I start writing, and will only ask for help if I run into a roadblock on the way from A to B. I find that knowing the destination also helps my CPs aim their advice a bit truer. My current WIP is the first time I have not done that, just let the characters tell me where the story is going, and as such I have asked all my CPs to hold their questions and comments until I get through the whole thing. I don't want to get lost in their ideas and lose my own sense of direction. It's happened to me too often before.

    You ladies who can brainstorm with your hubbies are so lucky! Mine is into action/adventure, horror and hard SF, so most of the time he will read the first chapter or two of my stories and dismiss them as "chick stuff". He has also been known to demolish entire plotlines with a single blow of practicality (which can be a good thing if I'm ready to deconstruct and reconstruct the whole thing.) However he is really good at technical and practical details and has been really helpful in solving specific problems. I think he's a little hurt that I won't let him read my WIP yet, but it's not quite ready for him to take a wrench to it yet...

  29. Yeah, that was my problem, Vince. It was a translation issue.

    I am NOT loco. I'd write more but I am currently filing my teeth down to points.

    Just for fun.

  30. Tina, I usually brainstorm with myself and my knitting (the motion is very conducive to creative thinking) but sometimes I just get stuck and need someone to give me a few ideas to boost me. (Sounds like Jamba juice, doesn't it?)

    Janet, it was totally fun brainstorming with you!

    Audra, if you get in trouble, it's not my fault! ;)

    Patty, most of my brainstorming is over the phone, too. My best buds have Verizon cell phone service, same as me, so all our calls to each others' cell phones are free! We talk quite often.

    Julie, that sounds like it was a heavenly brainstorming session!

    Edwina, sometimes you just need to shop around for good brainstorming partners. Unfortunately, it often takes a lot of time and trial and error to find the right people. At least, it did for me. Maybe I'm just picky. :)

    Mary, I don't see why you have to take every piece of advice your brainstormers throw out there! And a good brainstormer will pick up that you don't like an idea and immediately try something else that might appeal to you.

    Vince, taping a brainstorm session is a great idea! I can tape my Skype phone calls, so I might do that next time!

    Pepper--how great you've found a couple people! I hope that turns out well for you!

    Erica--you make a good point, it's usually best for me when I have a decent handle on the story before I turn to my brainstorming partners, too! Otherwise the story gets muddled.

    Rose, it sounds like you've brainstormed with people who are not a good fit for you! That actually makes me a bit upset for you because a good brainstormer should defer to how YOU feel about the idea, not about how SHE feels about her idea, and try to accommodate you. After all, it's YOUR story! If you try other brainstormers and they do the same thing, run far away from them! They're not looking out for your best interests at all.

    Tina P., I like how you describe that! Perfect storm!

    EC, you make a good point, that often it helps your brainstorming partners to give you focused ideas if you have a fairly strong handle on the story as opposed to a more nebulous grasp of the plot and characters.

    LOL Mary!

  31. The idea of brainstorming in person makes a lot of sense, Camy. I know we Seekers often attempt brainstorming via e-mail, and it does get hard to keep all the plot elements straight, or even to tell enough of our story ideas so that the others can make sense of them. I must confess, I have a hard time "seeing" a story this way, so I'm never much help. Wouldn't it be great if we could have a face-to-face Seeker brainstorming retreat someday?

  32. Ooooh Myra that would be so fun!!!!

  33. Hi Myra and Camy:

    Have you considered using a webcam to brainstorm? You could see and hear the other person in real time. I bought a webcam but never used it. I’m curious if this would work.

    Also, maybe Camy knows, can webcam sessions be recorded for future viewing? The effort might be worth it because for Seekers it would be a serious business usage.


  34. I don't know if web cam chats can be recorded. I do know there's a service for web cam chatting that a woman whose podcast I listen to uses for a once a month live chat. But I think she has to pay for the service. I'm not sure. I'd have to check up on it. Then again, I'm personally not that excited about a web cam chat. I think I'd rather have a conference call phone conversation.

  35. I'm a day late but loved your post, Camy!!

    I've been the on the receiving end of a phone brainstorming session with Camy, and it was great!! (See the acknowledments on my Christmas book.) :)

  36. Aw Missy, you're so sweet! Thanks! You're always fun to chat with!