Some people just don’t know how to brainstorm.

Jeff is one of those people–brilliant in many other ways, but with no natural gift for brainstorming. Recently, I spoke with another writerly friend who struggles the same way.

At first, I was rather shocked. What do you do when you can’t brainstorm? Do you just wait for a brilliant idea to spring fully-formed into your mind like Athena from the forehead of Zeus?

Well, yes, apparently.

Just like being hit by lighting, this DOES happen occasionally. There are plenty of anecdotes running through the writing community about someone eating three day old pizza, having a trippy dream, then writing it all down and voila–instant bestseller!

Unfortunately, this is sort of like winning the lottery. Yes, it could happen, but it wouldn’t be smart to bet your livelihood on it. If you ever want to be not just a writer but an author–you know, someone with text in print, preferably PAID for said text–you have to figure out a better way. That better way is brainstorming. And, luckily for my better half, it’s a learnable skill.

Brainstorming is a method for coming up with ideas, and resolving them into something coherent. The process is a lot like taking a batch of spaghetti, throwing against the wall, and seeing what sticks. My favorite way to go about it involves the use of lists. Don’t get scared! Even pantsers can do this, and it doesn’t require an A-type personality. Trust me. If there’s a Z-type personality, that’s me.

Here are some of the issues my friend seemed to have with brainstorming:

Problem: Too much spaghetti!
Answer: LISTS. More on this later.

Problem: Indecision. How do I know which strand of spaghetti is the RIGHT one?
Answer: You don’t, but that’s okay because it doesn’t matter (yet).

Problem: Where do I start?
Answer: Anywhere.

The good thing about brainstorming is that you can do it as much as you want. You don’t have a finite amount of “idea slots” so if you come up with something that’s crap, you haven’t lost anything except maybe a few misspent hours you were supposed to use for something inevitably more boring. And the more you do it, the better you get at it. You’ll be able to put ideas together more quickly, and you’ll be better at recognizing the good strands of spaghetti.

So, let’s start at the very beginning. What kind of story do you want to write?

A good way to figure out what kind of story you want to write is to think about the stories you like to read. What’s your favorite genre? For some of us this doesn’t narrow it down much. I like historical fiction, fantasy, chick lit, science fiction, and the occasional thriller. I can sometimes even be talked into a bit of literary fiction or poetry. Among those, though, the one I come back to the most is fantasy. I <3 me some good fantasy. So, I’m gonna go with that spaghetti strand.

Here’s where the lists come in. I’m going to think about all the fantasy I’ve read and write down everything that comes immediately to mind–the good, the bad, and the ugly:


Good vs Evil
The Chosen One
Big Battles
Feudal Society

Some things on this list annoy me as they’ve turned into over-used genre cliches (Prophecies and The Chosen One in particular). How about those huge battles where no one important dies? Or how feudal societies (a particularly brutal form of government) are romanticized?

Let’s take that last one and run with it. The feudal government system was not nearly so pretty as it seems in a lot of fantasy novels. It was a bloody, messy, barbaric way of doing things. Lots of people died, especially when royal succession was thrown into question. Important people, nice people, people you liked.

That one strand of spaghetti–Feudal Society Sucked–can be spun into a whole series of gritty fantasy novels (A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin). There are a few more plot elements rolled into it, but I can totally see that one strand as the genesis of GRRM’s massive success.

Let’s take another aspect of Feudal Society. Traditionally these societies were very male dominated. Well, screw that. We want a woman on the throne. So how could we create a traditional feudal society (think brutal, might makes right) where females were in power? I feel another list coming on:

WOMEN IN POWER – Why would a feudal society be controlled by women?
1. Women are physically dominant instead of men.
2. Religion or tradition dictates a matriarchal society.
3. Women are superior in magic, giving them an edge.
4. Men really screw up the world, so some supernatural force curses the male royal line.

The first one doesn’t really ring a bell for me. It may not be a bad spaghetti strand in and of itself–a good writer could turn this into something pretty cool, and probably already has–but it’s just not piquing my interest right now.

The second one: Religion or tradition dictates a matriarchal society. Also not convincing me. A feudal society by its very nature favors the powerful. Religion and tradition don’t stand up well to ambition and physical superiority. Still, it’s not a bad spaghetti strand, and might work well when combined with one of the others. Anne Bishop in her Dark Jewels trilogy created a very compelling matriarchal pseudo-feudal society by combining #2 and #3. Which brings us to:

Only women can use magic, which gives them an edge. This is an interesting one. Let’s pull it out for a second and give it a look–remember, there are no right or wrong answers, and if we follow this thought and don’t like where it leads, we can always come back to original list. For now, let’s start a new list to explain why only women can use magic:

FEMALE MAGIC – Why can only women use magic?
1. Magic is inherently tied to female sexuality and the ability to give birth.
2. It’s against the law for men to use magic because they’re more powerful and they end up misusing it.
3. Men who use magic go crazy.

#1 is very interesting and deserves further exploration, but I want to look at the other two because they seem to have conflict built right into them, and each brings up a whole slew of questions right off the bat:

#2, the idea that men are more magically powerful and end up misusing it actually pops up in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. This raises a lot of questions: Do ALL men misuse their magic? Why? How do you prevent a more powerful gender from using their inborn gifts? Some pretty brutal options pop up there, and lots of possibilities for conflict. Conflict is like gold when you’re telling stories.

And then #3, men who use magic go crazy. This one is a pivotal piece of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. It brings up more questions: Why? How? Can it be reversed? What do you do with magical fellas who are going to go crazy? Ooh, I sense conflict. Now, the Wheel of Time series answers these questions in very interesting ways, but I could see this going down a whole lot of different paths. Don’t be discouraged by an idea because it pops up somewhere else.

Next, we’ll take look at a few more spaghetti strands in Brainstorming, Pt 2.

~ RM

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