Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Brainstorming a Book

Need ideas for your book?
Unsure where your plotline is going next?
Feeling stuck?

I've had several writer-friends recently have troubles with getting stuck with the books. Each time, I was able to help them get going again with a straightforward brainstorming exercise I learned in Kat Fall's class on screenwriting. I'm posting it in the hopes that it will help others as well.

This exercise needs a name... how about...

WHAT: Brainstorm Your Book 
(works whether the book is partially written or we're starting from scratch)
WHO: You (and a friend - optional)
HOW LONG: 1/2 hour to one hour
RESULT: A rough outline of major turning points and scenes in your book

Okay, are you ready? I'm going to brainstorm a book right here and now, as I'm writing this post - to give you examples and to give you courage. You will do so much better than me, because you won't be pulling stuff out of thin air. Then again, pulling stuff out of thin air (or more precisely, your subconscious) is exactly what this exercise is supposed to do.

Let's begin.

STEP 1: Grab a friend - I really do recommend you have a friend walk you through this. Although I've done it on my own for two separate books, I think the guided, interactive brainstorming that comes with two people is very helpful. You could each be the guidance for the other! (Why does everything I do turn into a party?)

STEP 2: Open a Word doc... or use a pencil and paper. Either is good.

STEP 3: Write a Logline
Now... DON'T PANIC. I'm going to walk you through how to do this, and the result doesn't have to be pretty. In fact, make it SLOPPY. This isn't an actual logline, it's just a way to get down in a few rambling sentences the basic premise of your book. If you're not sure about your premise, this exercise will help you figure it out.

Your logline needs to contain:

  • Lead character and distinguishing attribute 
  • Setting
  • What does your MC want?
  • Who or what stops them from getting what they want?
  • What is their challenge in this story?
(note: if you have more than one POV character, you should repeat this exercise for each one)

I'm going to use a concept for a SF Romance that I dreamed up a while ago, wrote down, and promptly forgot, because DUDE I don't have time to write ANOTHER book. But it will work for this exercise.
Jacob Enderman is a nineteen-year-old human genetically engineered from stolen DNA to be part of the advanced negotiating party for an alien race making contact with Earth for the first time. Only he's never met his Makers - he's been grown and trained for his duties on the dark side of the moon, waiting for the day of First Contact. Then he will meet his human liaison, and his mission is clear: to fall in love; to mate; and to pave the way. If he and his fellow negotiators fail to make that lasting connection, the human race will lose their chance to be elevated to a space-faring race. But what if gaining the trust of the humans is only the first step in a more insidious plan, as the humans will no doubt suspect? With a foot in both worlds, Jacob is a Stranger in a Strange Land... and has ideas of his own.
Okay, it doesn't neatly answer the exact questions, but it has all the elements of the premise.

STEP 4: Now I want you to brainstorm cool situations that could arise from the tangled web you've weaved in your logline. Just write a single sentence or phrase to describe each possible "cool situation." Write them quickly, don't linger about getting the words right. I want you to generate 15-20 ideas. They do NOT have to make sense for your story. They can be wild and crazy. The wilder the better. This is just brainstorming.

If you get stuck...
  • Think of ways the setting can interfere with your character, keep her from reaching her goals
  • Think of new characters that can interfere
  • Keep going
  • Think of something that would break your story
  • Think of the worst possible thing that could happen to your character
  • Keep going
When you get to about 20 ideas, stop.

Off the top of my head...
  • Jacob fails in his training to master a basic human social skill
  • Jacob falls for one of his fellow negotiators
  • Jacob has to counsel the negotiator he loves to mate with her human liaison
  • Jacob and his negotiators are taken hostage by one of the human nations
  • The aliens make an unexpected live-communication with the negotiators across space
  • Jacob discovers where the aliens true homeworld is
  • Jacob's liaison is beautiful but uninterested in him - and very suspicious
  • Jacob's liaison kidnaps him away from the hostage-taking-human-nation; she thinks his life is in danger
  • Jacob wants to see the ocean (he's only seen pictures); when he gets there, he has a spiritual moment, connecting him to humanity
  • Jacob sees the ugly underside of humanity through a terrorist character who kills one of the negotiators
  • Jacob discovers who his DNA was stolen from
  • Jacob has to kill someone to keep from being killed
  • Jacob discovers he's not fully human
  • The aliens show up... and they're not what we expect.
I'll stop here, but I could go on all day with this premise. Seriously, there's a lot there. If you're finding you don't have much to mine in your premise, dig harder to bring out the potential. It's there. You just have to find it.

STEP 5: Put an asterisk (or highlight in some way) the scenes that are most INTENSE

  • Jacob fails in his training to master a basic human social skill
  • Jacob falls for one of his fellow negotiators
  • Jacob has to counsel the negotiator he loves to mate with her human liaison
  • Jacob and his negotiators are taken hostage by one of the human nations
  • The aliens make an unexpected live-communication with the negotiators across space
  • Jacob discovers where the aliens true homeworld is
  • Jacob's liaison is beautiful but uninterested in him - and very suspicious
  • Jacob's liaison kidnaps him away from the hostage-taking-human-nation; she thinks his life is in danger
  • Jacob wants to see the ocean (he's only seen pictures); when he gets there, he has a spiritual moment, connecting him to humanity
  • Jacob sees the ugly underside of humanity through a terrorist character who kills one of the negotiators
  • Jacob discovers who his DNA was stolen from
  • Jacob has to kill someone to keep from being killed
  • Jacob discovers he's not fully human
  • The aliens show up... and they're not what we expect.


STEP 6: Take those highlighted scenes and order the top five from most intense (1) to least intense (5).

  • 5 - Jacob has to counsel the negotiator he loves to mate with her human liaison
  • 5 - Jacob and his negotiators are taken hostage by one of the human nations
  • 4 - Jacob's liaison kidnaps him away from the hostage-taking-human-nation; she thinks his life is in danger
  • 3 - Jacob wants to see the ocean (he's only seen pictures); when he gets there, he has a spiritual moment, connecting him to humanity
  • 3 - Jacob sees the ugly underside of humanity through a terrorist character who kills one of the negotiators
  • 2 - Jacob has to kill someone to keep from being killed
  • 1 - The aliens show up... and they're not what we expect.

I cheated because I wanted to keep both #5's and #3's in the process.

STEP 7: There are lots of ways to structure a story, but one way is to look at "Master Scenes" or turning points that have particularly strong intensity in driving the story. The five most intense scenes in your book should be (according to this structure):
  • Hook (introduction scene)
  • Point of No Return (break into Act II)
  • Midpoint (sneakily at the midpoint of your story)
  • Crisis (break into Act III)
  • Climax (the big finale)
The Climax should be your MOST INTENSE (1) scene in the book; the Hook should be your SECOND MOST INTENSE (2); the Midpoint is THIRD (3), and then the Point of No Return and Crisis can duke it out for fourth and fifth place.

Just for fun, line up the scenes you've picked out in order. See if it makes sense for the story.

  • HOOK - Jacob has to kill someone to keep from being killed
  • POINT OF NO RETURN - Jacob has to counsel the negotiator he loves to mate with her human liaison
  • POINT OF NO RETURN - Jacob and his negotiators are taken hostage by one of the human nations
  • MIDPOINT - Jacob sees the ugly underside of humanity through a terrorist character who kills one of the negotiators
  • MIDPOINT - Jacob wants to see the ocean (he's only seen pictures); when he gets there, he has a spiritual moment, connecting him to humanity
  • CRISIS - Jacob's liaison kidnaps him away from the hostage-taking-human-nation; she thinks his life is in danger
  • CLIMAX - The aliens show up... and they're not what we expect.
Now you're starting to have a story.

I like the "taken hostage" one better for the POINT OF NO RETURN, and both of the MIDPOINT scenes are perfect "mirror moments", so I would probably combine those two into one terrific, high-energy scene. The HOOK is interesting - I imagined having Jacob possibly be forced into a kill-or-be-killed situation later in the story, but maybe I could work something for great HOOK scene, something symbolic early on of his "am I human or am I alien" struggle. Maybe something dramatic where he kills something non-sentient to keep his cover, so the humans don't discover them quite yet... the point being that now I have all kinds of material to work with and the exercise is forcing me to think in new ways about the story.

Dang it, now I want to write this. (This is the danger of brainstorming, at least for me.)

If your scenes don't quite fit, don't worry - this is a starting point. You now have a bounty of ideas, a sense of how intense they are, whether you could make them more intense or not, and where in the basic framework of the story they should fit. When I first did this exercise, it was a revelation to me that the hook has to have a high intensity, to draw the reader in. Now I see it as an essential part of structuring the story.

Hopefully this exercise will spur you in the right direction for generating new ideas for your story and giving it a stronger framework.
Write on, my friends!
~*~
Susan Kaye Quinn is a rocket scientist turned speculative fiction author who now uses her PhD to invent cool stuff in books. Her bestselling novels and short stories have been optioned for Virtual Reality, translated into German, and featured in several anthologies. Susan has been indie publishing since 2011, but she’s not an indie rockstar or a breakout success—she’s one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. Her self-publishing books are based on her personal experience in self-publishing genre fiction—she hopes they will help her writer-friends take their own leaps into the wild (and wonderful) world of indie publishing… and not only survive, but thrive.
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18 comments:

  1. Wonderful idea to get the ball rolling!

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  2. When we did this in November, I came up with several scenes to add to my book, when I get it under way. I'm still outlining at this point, but the process was very helpful. Thanks, Sue.

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  3. Hmmmm..... Interesting idea. And I was just (at lunch) mulling over conflicts and different POV characters. Just what I need. Thanks!

    Diana About Myself By Myself

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  4. This is great! I love brainstorming and usually snag my family members to help me - it really does help to have another person to bounce ideas off of. :)

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  6. I'd like you to write this book, too -- it sounds freaking awesome!!!

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  7. Thank you--I'm going to use this right now!

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  8. Stinking amazing! Thanks so much, I'm going to go back and make sure I have the most intense scenes at those major plot points.

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  9. Great post and worth a Tweet. I've saved it to my Favorites too.

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  10. I ~love~ this post. I'm a diehard plotter, and I always get stuck at some point in the planning of a story. Bookmarking this so I'll have it when that happens :).

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  11. Fantastic! I just used this to plot out my next book today. Took all of 30 minutes. Woot! SO simple. Now to fill in around my major plot points...

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  12. Thank you, Cheri Lasota, for directing me to this page. This is going to help me tremendously!

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  13. Susan, this is awesome! As I went through the progression, I realized I do this, but it's implicit. The fact that you've made it explicit is awesome so we can use this as a tool to enhance our writing is fantastic! Thanks for sharing!

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  14. This is a great tool for jump starting my brain and plot! Thanks for sharing! :)

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  15. This is great! I love these guidelines. You are awesome!

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