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