Friday, April 27, 2018

Planning a Successful Brainstorming Retreat



by Pam Hillman

A couple of weeks ago, I got together with a group of other authors for my first ever brainstorming retreat.

Best.Time.Ever!

Janet W. Ferguson, Patricia Bradley, Stephenia H. McGee, and I all live in Mississippi, and we were scheduled to go to a book signing at a library, so I reached out to them to see if they’d be interested in scheduling a retreat at the same time. To my delight, all three were ready to brainstorm a new project, so it was perfect timing for all of us.

Now, before I get to the nuts and bolts of what worked for us, let me say I had the most fun at this retreat than anything I’ve ever done in the writing world. If you get the chance to go to a brainstorming retreat, do. If there’s not one in your area, or you can’t travel a long distance to one, then reach out to your circle of friends and organize one yourself.

So, how do you go about that…

Hostess - Someone needs to be “in charge” of your retreat. In this case, since it was my idea, I took the reins. We figured out when and how long all of us could meet, and I built our schedule around that. I booked the venue, prepared the schedule, and then … uh … tore it all up at the last minute. But for a really good reason. (Read on to find out…)

Central Location - While a retreat at some far-flung location that requires two days of air-travel might be on all of our bucket lists, scheduling, cost, time, and exhaustion factors in for some of us. Or at least it does for me.

Everyone in our group lives in Mississippi. While Pat had to travel the farthest, she was going to be in the area for the book signing, so didn’t travel “extra” for our retreat. So, search for a central location to minimize everyone’s travel time and expense. 

Keep it Simple - Originally, I looked at booking a cabin at a local park. But since the cabins at that location require you to bring your own bedding, we opted for a hotel instead. Since there were only four of us, it worked out beautifully. (And their continental breakfast was exceptional!)

Be Flexible - Remember how I said I planned the retreat, booked the venue, and created the schedule? Well, 24 hours before the retreat, I had to cancel. Why? My 2nd granddaughter decided to make an appearance on the exact day of the retreat. But all was not lost. Since there was no airfare involved, and our small group was flexible, we shifted from the day before the book signing to two days after. The hotel rebooked us, and that was that. Su-weet!

Piggybacking Another Event - If you’re thinking of planning a retreat before or after another event as we did, consider carefully which one is the most exhausting. For instance, as stated above, our retreat was originally scheduled for the day before and morning of our book signing. I used so much brain power during our brainstorming that if I’d gone from there to the book signing, then had a two hour drive home, I would have been comatose. 


Four and no more - Okay, maybe you can have a few more than four, but be careful of having so many people that the ideas are coming at you faster than you can think. Also, if there are 7-8 (or more), it’s going to be hard to get through that many sessions without everyone becoming exhausted, so either you’ll need to allow extra day(s) or break into two or more groups. Bottom line, four worked perfectly for us.

Schedule - The hostess should create a tentative schedule and run it by the group. Our group could only meet from 2 pm until 10 am the next day. I originally scheduled 1 1/2 hours for each session, but we quickly realized that our natural rhythm leaned toward 2-3 hours for each story idea.

We got through four ideas in 20 hours, only breaking 2 hours for dinner, 7 for sleep, and 1 hour for breakfast. I don’t advise that tight of a schedule! Ha! I don’t know about the others, but I was exhausted. Ideally, two full days with two sessions on each day, some time to relax over lunch and dinner, and time to get a good night’s sleep for the next day is critical.

Share Ideas Ahead of Time - The sessions will go smoother if you share everything you know about your story with the other brainstorming partners ahead of time. Don’t worry if what you have is vague or even if it’s open to change. Just give everyone something to hang their hats on. We shared genre, time period, location, and as much of the characters and plot as we’d figured out. Plus some. :)

Internet Access - One of the things you might not think is important to a brainstorming session is internet access. I certainly didn’t think we’d use it at all. But Janet was a whiz at researching historical and relative people/places/events that took our story ideas to a new level.

Friends and Partners - Read your partners’ existing work, or at the very least have a working knowledge of what they write. Historical romance? Romantic suspense? Women’s fiction? Light and fluffy, or dark and sinister? The more you know about their style, the better you’ll be at brainstorming their stories. And vice versa.

Mix of Genres - And in that vein, we brainstormed two historical and two contemporaries. While it’s not a hard and fast rule to mix genres when brainstorming, flipping from one to the other kept our creative juices flowing.

What Else? - Load up on snacks, drinks, coffee, and comfortable seating. And a few blankets or throws for those who are easily chilled. (Not mentioning any names, but her initials are SHM!) Pat brought an artist’s sketch pad and markers. When we got stuck on my hero’s GMC, she pulled out the paper, and we were off and running again.

And Last - Don’t stress. Pack light. Fly/drive “ugly” as my friend Robin is fond of saying. Wear sweatpants and flip-flops. Pull your hair up in a ponytail and forego the makeup if you like. But bring on the story and your thinking caps!

So, there you go. That’s how we did it. Now it’s your turn. Have you been part of a brainstorming retreat? Please share your tips, techniques, and any advice on things to avoid.


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52 comments:

  1. Fun (but exhausting) times, Pam!! I'm glad you and three other authors were able to carve out some brainstorming time together. I wished I was a fly on the wall, lol! It sounds like it was productive for all of you.

    Since I believe I will be getting an ARC from you, no need to toss my name in the hat. I think I love that cover just as much as the first book :-)

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    1. It was mega fun, Trixi! And, yes, I've got you down for an ARC. So glad to see you so early ... or so LATE, as it were! lol If you're up already, grab a cup of tea, cocoa, or coffee off the sideboard and let's welcome this gorgeous new day!

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    2. Pam, that's the beauty of living on the Oregon coast, I'm 3 hours behind Seekerville time :-) So while the time I commented may say 12:54 am, it's really only 9:54pm!

      Coffee for me first thing in the 'morn or I'm just not fit for human company, lol!

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    3. Me, too! I relate to those new commercials where everybody has to wait until the gal has had her coffee. :)

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  3. Had to delete my comment...blogger posted before I edited. Oh those early morning typos!

    Pam, I love to brainstorm. A brainstorming retreat sounds delightful...and productive. Plus, what a great group of women. Waving to Patricia. I got to critique one of her early pre-pubbed stories. What a talented writer!

    The gals who created Belle Books used to go on a yearly brainstorming retreat. The birth of their publishing house happened as they to drove to one such getaway.

    Brainstorming helps one person form ideas about their story, but the process is mind expanding for everyone involved. I'm feeling energized just reading about your brainstorming retreat!

    I know two other authors who meet yearly and each brainstorm the two stories they plan to write during the year.

    Raising my cup of coffee to all of you! Great job. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. The cool thing about brainstorming is that anything goes. I jotted lots of different directions and thoughts down, and they tossed "what if" at me. It was great because I could bring all that home and sift through it looking for the best angle.

      And... sometimes some ideas work for a 2nd or 3rd book in a series. So not much is wasted. :)

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    2. \o/ to Debby! I miss seeing you and thank you for reading my early work...I'm not sure if you're over the trauma yet. lol

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    3. Debby, when I worked for Sandra Chastain, I transcribed recordings of the BelleBooks ladies' brainstorming sessions. So fun and interesting! I loved hearing their process.

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  4. Pam, I love this idea. And I love all the tips you gave to help make it successful. Good things to consider. The best part about a retreat like this is getting those different perspectives. You have your idea, but everyone is going to come at it from a different angle and toss out ideas you might never have thought of. I love that. Except, now I want a brainstorming retreat. With chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

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    1. Exactly! It was amazing how one tiny nugget mushroomed to a full-fledged idea.

      And we had chocolate... one small pack of Oreos. EIGHT cookies. I wanted to buy the big bag, but Steph put her foot down. She said that 2 each as enough. Young and cute, she was the "adult" in the group.

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  5. This sounds like FUN, Pam! How exactly did you kick off /warm up each session and know when to end it? It sounds like each went on for hours.

    What did you do to stay on topic? How did you break sessions down for discussion--focused individually on brainstorming topics like settings, core ideas, personalities, secrets, flaws, "core wounds," family/friend relationships, secondary characters, moral premise, main & secondary, backstory, plot, black moments, internal & external GMC....? Or was it a natural "free for all" of brainstorming with little formal guidance or direction?

    Inquiring minds need to know! :)

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    1. Great questions, Glynna!

      We had a schedule and we got started on time (almost). It was a tight schedule with 1 1/2 hours for each session, but we ran over time. Since we had 2 hours for the next morning for possible followup, we quickly decided to shift one session to the next morning.

      We basically ran out of steam around the 2-2 1/2 hour mark. By that time the author had a lot to process. Ideally, having a final day (or half day) for shorter followup sessions might be productive.

      Answering your 2nd set of questions in another comment....

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    2. How did we stay on topic?

      Somehow we just did. And... several times Steph (she's a teacher!) reined us in and brought us back. :)

      Each story was different and seemed to need more help in different areas. I don't want to give away any plots, but some of the group had fairly solid plots and character development, so we firmed up plot holes, character GMC, came up with a cool supporting character or suggested changes in occupation that might work better for the time period/location. There wasn't time to really develop all the areas you mentioned, but we tried to solidify the basic story idea.

      Using my own idea, I went into it with an idea of location, genre, time period, and heroine's family occupation, and even that was very vague. I knew NOTHING of the hero. We stumbled around for a while trying to get a handle on what my heroine wanted, but kept coming up empty handed since I didn't have a CLUE myself!

      Finally, Pat suggested that we switch gears and figure out who the hero was. She pulled out the sketch pad and her markers and handed it over.

      I poised the marker over the page and looked at them and said, "Let's give this guy a name. Anything just so we won't keep calling him 'the hero'."

      Somebody said 'Nate' and he became Nate for that day. I don't know if he'll stay Nate, but we had a name, and we were off and running. That's how little I knew about him... which was a big fat ZILCH.

      Somehow it just worked. From Janet's excellent internet searching skills, to Steph's pulling us back to a particular snarl that had to be figured out before we could move forward, to Pat's out-of-the-box plotting skills, we made amazing progress on each story.

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    3. An addendum to staying on topic. We were "on topic" for each story the entire time we were brainstorming each session. There was no "how's the weather" or "how's the new grand baby" talk.

      The chatter was fast and furiously fun and we were all DEEP into whatever we were discussing. I could SEE everyone's story in my head, easily jumping from one suggestion to another, sifting, discarding, jumping to new ideas easily.

      The only really funny thing that kept happening is that the stories had a mentor or two as stories often do, and after one, grandmother (or grandfather or something like that) got stuck in my head. So, for the next two hour session, I tried to insert a grandmother in somebody's story. Sorry about that! lol

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    4. Pam, it was such a fun and productive time. I came with nothing and left with a good plot and a handle on my characters. Some things have changed since then as characters come to life, but the plot will basically stay the same. And today I plan to write the opening scene.

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    5. That's awesome! I'm still letting mine percolate, but plan to get on it soon. :)

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    6. Thanks for additional details, Pam! Sounds like a classic "a great time was had by all!"

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  6. I was so excited to be included. Yes, I was exhausted after, but in a good way! I can't wait to read the stories y'all write!! I highly recommend doing this!

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    1. Wasn't it crazy fun, Janet? I'm grinning just thinking about it! :)

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  7. What a fun idea. I've been on a couple of brainstorming retreats at people's homes. I think it adds stress to the hostess. I also think in larger groups it's harder to share your ideas, especially if you're on the shy side.

    Thanks again for sharing and congrats on The Road to Magnolia Glen.

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    1. I agree, Jackie. I agree about the stress of a hostess, and even how I would feel as a guest in someone's home, especially if they have a family. It was great to just have a neutral place that everyone could relax at.

      You're probably right about a shy person becoming overwhelmed by so many people, and an overabundance of ideas. I think we had just the right mix.

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  8. I always wanted a "behind the scenes" look at these writer gathering/brainstorming sessions! Thanks! I love it.

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    1. And there ya go! And.. I've never thought about it, but a savvy reader like you would be a welcome addition to a brainstorming retreat! ;)

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  9. Ooo!!! I want to go on a brainstorming retreat! It sounds so very fun. Seriously. Hard to imagine anything more to my liking. LOL! Sitting around talking about our stories, eating, sleeping, no strenuous activity. My dream vacation! :-)

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  10. Hi Pam - thanks for all of your ideas on planning a retreat. Three of us did this kind of impromptu during our off time at a local writing conference a few weeks ago. Dare I say our brainstorming sessions were more valuable to me than the actual conference material?

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    1. It's just a different animal altogether, isn't it? I love conferences and the ACFW conference is the highlight of my year, but now I see that there is a definite place in my life for brainstorming retreats as well.

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  11. Hi Pam - great post! I absolutely LOVE brainstorming retreats. I've been on a few, some uber-structured, some fairly loose. And I agree, 4 is an ideal number, 5 tops. Otherwise you run the risk of not being able to focus enough time on each project to do it justice.
    I'd love to be able to do more of these. A few close writer friends and I do some online brainstorming (email, skype) whenever we're ready to start something new. It works pretty well, but nothing beats the in-person time

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    1. Yep. I've done brainstorming on the phone and it is always great, but that in-person time is just better.

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    2. Winnie, that's a great idea to do Skype in a pinch. I love that you do it for each new book!

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  12. Pam, what a great post!! I think this would be so much fun. I've loved having writing retreats. And occasionally we would burst into brainstorming. But nothing organized. This would be really cool, especially if I was struggling with ideas. I used to get with my cp on occasion to brainstorm and it really helped.

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    1. To the uniformed (me!) a brainstorming retreat and a writing retreat might sound like the same thing, but brainstorming is everybody working to hash out stories ideas together. A writing retreat is more everybody writing quietly either in the same room or in the privacy of their room, then coming out for dinner and conversation, yes?

      While that sounds awesome, I can do that at home. lol I really like the idea of brainstorming because that seems like the area that others can help with. Now, if Mary Connealy, Missy Tippens, and Ruth Logan Herne could write for me at a writing retreat, I might change my mind! Ha!

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  13. Pam, I love hearing about the "crazy fun" you authors have...glad you can get together!
    I am excited about your new book; please count me in for the ARC.
    Thanks!

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  14. Pam this was so helpful. I'd love someday to be a part of something like this. Now I will know what is involved.

    I'm sorry I've been kind of quiet. My Internet is out now going on third day. My friend brought me to the library so I can get my Internet stuff done. Hope they get it fixed soon.

    My dad had surgery a week ago and he's been up and down physically for a few months. He has cancer and is 89 so that complicates everything. I find it has been a big tole on me emotionally.

    I am participating in Camp Nano and so far have 40,000 words in spite of all the turmoil going on around me. The Lord is good even in the valleys of life.

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    1. Wilani, I can so relate to the internet woes. And they seem to hit at the worst possible time. So sorry to hear about your dad... praying he feels better soon.

      Go you on Camp Nano! :)

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  15. How fun! I’d like to invite y’all to my house for the brainstorming retreat.....so I can listen in one the great authors gathered 😃

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    1. Now that's an idea. A reader hosting a brainstorming retreat. Fun times by all. 😃

      PS... I copy/pasted your smiley face, but how did you DO that??

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  16. That sounds like a ton of fun! At the present moment my brainstorming partner is my sister, but someday I'll have to do a brainstorming retreat.

    Please enter my name in the drawing :P

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    1. You're in, Nicki! And that's pretty cool to have your sister right there with you to brainstorm. My cowboy sorta tunes me out when I start talking story... Ha!

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  17. How fun! I'm so glad you all were able to get together for that retreat!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Beth. It was a blast. :)

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    1. It was great. Thanks for stopping by, Kim.

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  19. I love brainstorming/writing retreats! So much fun! Your sounds like a rousing success!

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    1. Erica, I bet brainstorming with you would be fun, too! :)

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  20. Thanks for the peek into your brainstorming session. That sounds like so much fun! So nice that you live close enough that you can meet like that.

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    1. Yes, Winnie. Some of us have to travel 1-2 hours for these sessions, so close is relative. But 2 hours travel isn't bad if you're going on a 2 day retreat. :)

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  21. This inspires me to set up a brainstorming retreat! I had a brainstorming party at my house once - about 10 gals and 3 hours as I recall. You know what, it was still great fun and I think we made some progress for 2 or 3 of the participants in their stories and a couple more were encouraged that their ideas sparked interest, but I see why you say "four, and no more" and a two day retreat makes more sense than 3 hours.

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    1. So excited to see that you're thinking of trying this again. 10 ideas in 3 hours? Oh my! Yes, please try another format and let us know what you think. I think you and the others will be pleasantly surprised at the results.

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