Noveljutsu Episode 01: Brainstorming Part I
For some people, coming up with ideas is easy. For others it's really hard. After all, you can't just force your brain to get inspired, can you? That's debatable, but there are some things you can do to help you get the gears turning.
Today's post is going to be part one of a two-part discussion on brainstorming ideas for your novel. This time I'm going to discuss a few practical things you can do to help you during the brainstorming process, and next time I'll discuss some of the places you can turn to give you that initial spark of an idea. So let's get started!
This is probably one of the most important practices you can adopt and is one of the most common ways I come up with the ideas for my stories. "What if...?" questions can spring from just about anything, and the great thing about them is they often lead to more questions. In this case, that's a good thing---it's a great way to not only help you come up with that first idea, but to grow that idea into something complex enough to write an engaging story about.
Question the world around you. I don't just mean you should question complex ideas like politics, power structures, or the societal norms where you live—although that can be and has been the start to many successful novels—question silly or seemingly insignificant things too.
"What if oceans were red instead of blue?" might seem like a dumb, pointless question to ask, but if you're a horror writer, it might get you thinking of blood and how much of it you'd need to turn an entire coastline scarlet. Where did that blood come from?
If you're a science fiction writer, you might start to wonder about the chemical makeup of that ocean. What scientific explanation, real or inventive, would explain red seas?
If you write fantasy, you might start to wonder if there are magical properties to this ocean. Do the people who live there consider the oceans sacred, or do they harness its magical energy to gain power or prestige?
If you write romance, maybe the sea is simply red because it's reflecting the sunset in a beautiful backdrop as your lovers share their first kiss. Do you imagine your lovers alone on the beach? Are they alone because they aren't allowed to be seen together? Why?
You see how asking "what if..." leads to more questions?
I got the idea for one of my novels, though not the one I'm going to cover the making of on this blog, when I overheard the tail end of a story my ex-navy sensei was telling one of the other students at my dojo. He'd spoken of how war dogs had once been used in a particular conflict.
Let me just say it was an absolutely horrific story, but even as I was repelled by what I heard, the writer in me immediately started asking "What if they were people instead of dogs?" That one question was enough to plant the seed that eventually become a full novel.
If you're not in the habit of asking "what if" questions, you might not always know what questions to ask. So the best thing you can do is practice. Get curious about the world around you. And, speaking of the world around you...
It may seem counterproductive, but sometimes taking a little break from brainstorming can do wonders for your inspiration. If you've stressed yourself over coming up with an idea, or maybe you have one but are stuck on where to take it, stop for a moment. Back away from your computer or notebook and go for a walk if you're able. If not, just getting a few breaths of fresh air from a porch, balcony, or doorstep can give your brain some much-needed time to relax. Sometimes this is all you need for your subconscious mind to start fitting ideas together on its own.
It's no wonder that as writers we often focus our attention on mental exercises—free writing, writing sprints, and so on—to improve our creativity and skill. I in no way want to suggest that those mental exercises won't be beneficial to you, but sometimes we forget to talk about how our physical health can impact our writing. The health of the mind and the health of the body, though they have their own unique issues and needs, are not completely separate from one another. Some people may have illnesses, disabilities, or financial situations that make maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen difficult, but doing whatever you can might do more to help your creativity than you'd think.
Let me give you an unusual example from my own life. The first novel I ever completed was basically Twilight, if the romance plot had taken second stage to the "evil vampires are after us" plot. What can I say. I was a teenager once, and Twilight hadn't actually been published yet. Only, when I first started trying to write this novel, I had a very frustrating problem. I could never get past the first two chapters.
It wasn't because I didn't know what was supposed to happen. I'd outlined my novel in detail.
It wasn't because I wasn't putting the work in. I'd sit down at my computer for at least an hour almost every day, but still I couldn't get past two chapters.
As a beginner writer, I was making a lot of mistakes with my first draft and writing habits, but none of those mistakes completely explained why I just. Couldn't. Write. It was frustrating. I'd always wanted to write novels. I was trying really hard, but I couldn't make any progress. So... I gave up.
Then something that seemed completely unrelated happened. I found out that I can't eat gluten. It was making me sick. I'd also suffered from regular migraines all my life (I averaged about 3 migraines a week since at least as early as third grade) to the point I'd gotten so used to them that I simply learned to function through them, but after two or three weeks of being gluten-free, my migraines all but disappeared. I'd had a kind of brain fog for so long I couldn't remember what it was like not to have it.
Later that same year, as the brain fog continued to clear, I thought I'd try writing again. Two months after that—just two months—I had the first draft of my vampire novel completed. It was a long novel too, well over 100,000 words and the two chapters I'd never surpassed before. It was a horrible, horrible story that will never see the light of day, but it was an important step for me to take.
Another, smaller thing I've noticed by tracking my productivity over time is the effect exercise has on my word count. Unfortunately I don't have one anymore, but for a while I owned a treadmill I converted into a tread desk. When I wrote while at my tread desk, I found that even when I wasn't in a writing mood, I reached higher hourly word counts than I did when I was at rest—sometimes significantly higher word counts.
Now, most of you probably aren't going to have reactions as drastic as mine just because you make sure to eat some broccoli and take the stairs now and then. Some of you may find that trying to type and walk at a tread desk at the same time is too distracting, but even just a ten minute walk and some fresh air can do wonders to help you de-stress, reset, and get the creativity flowing.
Writing your ideas down is advice you've probably heard before if you've been interested in writing very long, but it's valuable advice worth repeating. Even if you haven't fully fleshed out your ideas, or even if you're not sure you'll ever use them, write them down somewhere easy to find. Ideas can be easy to forget, so make sure you have a place to add your thoughts whenever inspiration comes.
If you're having trouble coming up with a solid idea, you can revisit your list now and again. And just maybe that fragment of an idea you thought would never amount to anything will become the foundation for a story very dear to you.
Here's a point I forgot to include in the video for this week: test your ideas.
If you're an avid reader keeping up to date in your favoured genre, you probably have a decent idea of the latest story trends, but it's still a good idea to see how other authors have used your idea.
I say "how" and not "if" because almost certainly, no matter how original your idea seems to you, someone else has already done it. That doesn't mean your idea won't become original in your telling of it—the nuances that make you you are likely to make your telling of the story unique—but doing a little research on how other writers have handled the same idea can help you decide how you want to approach your novel.
Maybe other authors haven't considered the idea from the same angle. Great! You could bring something new to the table. Or maybe you'll find you want to spend a little more time with your idea, fleshing it out in a slightly different direction so it can stand apart from what's come before.
In my introduction to Noveljutsu last time, I said I'd offer writing challenges or prompts now and then, so here's the first one:
Think of your least favourite vegetable. What if it gave you magic powers? That may seem like a cheesy question, but really think about the consequences of it.
What superpowers does it give you? Who gets superpowers from eating it? Everyone? Or just certain people?
How would that change power dynamics? How would it impact industry and the economy? Religion? Relationships?
Are there people who still refuse to eat it? Are there people who eat it to the exclusion of other foods?
Are there other questions you can think to ask? Go ahead and post them in the comments below or hop over to my YouTube video and leave a comment there. That's it for this post. Now that you've got a few techniques to help you get inspired once an idea comes your way, next time we'll take a look at where to turn to get those ideas in the first place. I'll also talk about the idea for "Project: Noveljutsu," my novel that I'll be using as a sort of "how to" example on this blog. So be sure to come back for more Noveljutsu updates!