And the crazy thing is, in those days I never seemed to lack for story ideas. They were banging at the door of my brain begging to be written!
Then the first contracts came. Oh, happy day!
But one of the editors said, “We need two more books for the series.” Fortunately, I had a couple of partially written books on the computer that could easily be tailored to fit. Problem solved!
Then my dream agent signed me, and I got busy on a new proposal. I sent it to her, and she said, “Let’s turn this into a series.” Nothing languishing on my computer fit the bill, so time to brainstorm. Not too hard. In a matter of days, I whipped up a couple of paragraphs each for two more books.
Got those books sold, written, and into the publishing pipeline, and then on to my next project.
Guess what. I was asked to turn my idea for a single-title historical romance into a series. (Maybe I should have titled this post “Brainstorming a series.”)
But whether you're writing single titles or series, once the contracts start coming, the pressure is on to keep producing. Which means continually coming up with new story ideas. If you’re one of those writers whose well of inspiration never runs dry, yay for you!
But even if you have no shortage of ideas, eventually you have to turn those ideas into
CHARACTERSWhich means you need to brainstorm.
Some writers get together regularly for brainstorming sessions, each one taking a turn at throwing out the basic premise and then rapidly taking notes while everyone contributes ideas about how the characters and story might unfold. Each writer goes home with a good start on the next book.
Writers who brainstorm on their own use various methods, but my favorite has come to be The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit, a book and set of fifty cards put together by Pam McCutcheon and Michael Waite.
The first section of the book explains the process--instruction and examples of how use the brainstorming cards to create characters and develop your plot. The rest of the book covers the unique words that appear on each of the fifty cards, such as Desire, Inheritance, Pride, and Unknown.
For each of the words, the book includes a two-page spread with specific idea starters that connect with that word in some way, and they’re divided into subcategories that relate to either characterization or plotting.
For creating a character, you shuffle the cards and then select seven cards at random. Then, laying them out in the order they were drawn, you’ll begin to build your character.
Card #1: Role/Pursuit
Card #2: Trait
Card #3: Goal
Card #4: Motivation
Card #5: Internal Conflict
Card #6: External Conflict
Card #7: Growth/Realization
Here’s my early brainstorming worksheet for Annemarie Kendall, the heroine of When the Clouds Roll By, book one of my historical romance series for Abingdon Press. One word or phrase can spin your thoughts in many different directions, so two writers using the same set of cards will come up with completely different characters.
Role/Pursuit: Judgment—oversees pottery production in her family business
Trait: Burden—sees herself as the one who must be dependable
Goal: Heartbreak—to refrain from hurting the man she expected to marry, who has recently returned from the Great War (WWI) and is damaged physically and emotionally
Motivation: Change—because she always does what is expected of her and believes she must carry on no matter what her heart may want
Internal Conflict: Dreams—believes her dream of marrying for love is impractical and unattainable
External Conflict: Ego—her fiancé has become depressed, angry, and verbally abusive, and she begins to see that marriage to him would be intolerable
Growth/Realization: Communication—“confession is good for the soul,” admitting and standing up for her own needs is not wrong
Of course, as the story evolved, so did Annemarie’s characterization, and some of these aspects turned out differently in the book. Even so, using the cards gave me a foundation for developing Annemarie into a three-dimensional character. Try this system for each of your major characters, and your story planning will be well on its way.
Next, you can use the cards to brainstorm plot. This time you select five cards at random and lay them out in the order drawn.
Card #1: Ordinary World
Card #2: Trigger Event
Card #3: Change of Plans
Card #4: Black Moment
Card #5: ResolutionAs with characterization, the book takes each word and gives you several jumping-off points related to each plot section. Your own imagination takes it from there.
Sharing my detailed plotting notes for When the Clouds Roll By would be too revealing for anyone who hasn’t read the book, so instead I’ll use my latest work-in-progress as an example since it’s still in the early stages of development. As you can see, each word chosen allows plenty of freedom to take your story in whatever direction works best.
The Ordinary World: Time. For the hero, time is crucial. He thinks he's wasting time by making this trip. For the heroine, time is her friend. The farther she gets from her past, the better she believes her life will be.
Trigger Event: Giving. Hero is giving up something precious to him--his time. Heroine is afraid someone will give her away and the past will catch up.
Change of Plans: Animals. Hunting accident?
Black Moment: Change. The right decision will change their lives forever. Stay or go? Help or forget?
Resolution: Innocence. Protecting the innocent brings satisfaction. Working together to make a difference and turning their backs on their old lives.
I’ve used The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit several times now. It’s always fun and exciting to see which cards turn up and discover where each word takes my thought processes. What’s also interesting is that many times the words directly relate to vague ideas I was already mulling over. So the system just helps me flesh them out and think in new directions.
Important to remember, though, is that any brainstorming system is merely a tool. If the ideas aren’t jelling, try a different process or go at the story from another angle. Bottom line: trust your instincts and write the story that comes from your heart.
Let’s talk! What are your favorite or most successful brainstorming techniques? If you’d like to be entered in a drawing for your own copy of The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit, please mention your interest in a comment.