Brainstorming & Outlining
NaNoWriMo2020 is upon us, and I’m going to use that time to begin working on my next novel tentatively titled Violets in the Snowstorm. And while I do plan to have a weekly post on generic writing topics such as outlining, tropes and trope subversion, genre, etc., I will be doing weekly updates on my progress toward my NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words.
Today; however, I’m going to talk about how to begin a writing project through a discussion of brainstorming and outlining. This will work for any writing project: fiction, nonfiction, essays, blog posts, TTRPG games/campaigns, etc. So, in this blog post, I’m going to discuss the process of branistorming, two thoughts on outlining, and then my processes of outlining that I used for Liam’s Doom and then for Violets in the Snowstorm.
First, let’ talk about brainstorming. Braintorming, as the name implies, is just whipping up a storm of brain activity in order to generate ideas. This can be nothing more complicated than sitting down with paper and pencil and just jotting down any idea that comes along for a story, for a scene, for a character, etc. The goal isn’t to decide if ideas are “good” or “bad”. At this stage, the goal is to simply gather ideas so you have something to work with. How many ideas we generate depends on the nature of our project, so there is no one/right answer.
Once we have a decent amount of ideas, we can then move on to grouping and editing our ideas. When I group my brainstorm ideas, I try to put ideas into relationships with each other. This usually starts with placing my ideas into general categories, such as “Character Ideas,” “Location Ideas,” “Scene Ideas,” “Monster Ideas.” Then I go through each group and connect ideas to each other to show their relationships. As an example, when I scanned over my “Location Ideas” grouping, I started with the city of Butcher’s Bend, South Carolina (Sam’s current home town). I then grouped locations that could exist within the city limits: Sam’s Office, Sal’s Pizza, Sam’s Apartment, Clean & Jerk Gym and Laundromat, Misty Heights, Butcher’s Bend High School, Hamilton Preparatory Academy, the Whiskey Away Tiki Bar and Grill, The Stuffed Taco “Authentic” Mexican Restaurant, and the Bitter Brew Coffee Cauldron. By grouping these ideas together under the banner of “Butcher’s Bend,” I started to develop a sense of what the city might be like. I kept most of these ideas, but I did scratch out Whiskey Away, admitting that the name is terrible – even by my standards of cheesy names.
And that removal is an example of editing during the brainstorming process: removal or renaming. Honestly, I believe that most ideas are never truly destroyed, but they may be placed in a file as “not appropriate for this project” and saved for later. That said, once I have grouped my ideas into relationships with other ideas, I set about editing things. I use “circles and lines” during this phase to help me. Items I circle need to be renamed but kept. Items through which I draw a line are removed. Some ideas can be kept and worked on through further brainstorming. Some ideas are, objectively, not good and should be discarded. That said, I want to note a theme that will emerge as I talk about writing: edit last. A writer’s first step should always be to “get it on paper” and then go back and make it look intentional.
After the brainstorming, I start outlining. Now, there are two general philosophies on outlining for novels: the “plotter” and the “pantser,” or, as George R.R. Martin calls them, the “architect” and the “gardener.” Broadly speaking, the “plotter” plans the story in detail while the “pantser” allows it to emerge during the writing. In truth, most writers are a mix of the two, and these categories exist on a continuum. I tend to be more of a plotter for fiction and nonfiction writing, but when I plan a D&D campaign, I am much more of a pantser (that approach works better for the improvisational, collective-storytelling nature of ttrpgs). But outlining is a process that can take some time to find what works for you.
When I drafted Liam’s Doom, I used an outlining method similar to what I used for planning a TTRPG campaign where I treated each chapter like it was a story arc. I basically wrote 1-2 sentences for the objectives for that chapter. For example, “In Chapter 1, Sam Hain is alerted to the main conflict where a young girl named Mabd Donovan films a banshee singing and uploads it to TikTok, where it goes viral. As ghost hunters descend on the town of Bannagh, Ireland, the Duilearga make plans to investigate and end the situation by any mean necessary.” That method works for D&D, but I found myself plagued by writer’s block while working on Liam’s Doom.
And that is why for Violets in the Snowstorm I chose a more detailed outline. I organized my chapters into a collection of scenes, and for each scene I listed the main characters involved, the location(s), a summary of the scene’s action, and the objectives for the scene. I also used the Plottr app to organize my notes, and I’m hoping that what worked during graduate school will work for this: writing became easier the more detailed my prep work was. Here’s a screenshot of the Plottr timeline where you can see a scene summary highlighted:
So, this is how I begin any writing project. I brainstorm ideas to get my “creative juices flowing” and then organize and group my brainstormed ideas by similarity. Then, I put ideas together in an outline format. As you can see from the image, I list specific objectives for the scene but I keep the description vague enough to allow for creative impulses to emerge. Planning isn’t about stifling creativity, but I have found in other genres that I work more efficiently and with less stress when I have a plan in place. And some people are the opposite. They do their best work with only a general idea of the end goal. But oftentimes different approaches work better for different types of projects. It’s really about finding what works for you in a given situation. So, I tend to be more of a plotter or an architect. What about you? What tips do you have for brainstorming and outlining?