What’s the first thing you do when you start working on a new project? Do you dive right into writing, do you let the idea simmer, or do you start somewhere else?
For me, the starting point is brainstorming, then outlining, with research sort of wrapped into both of those steps. For the writers following along, that means I am most definitely not a pantser. I could never just start writing a book by the seat of my pants, with no idea where it was going.
But to my surprise, I sat on a panel at the St. Louis Teen Book Festival earlier this month at which I was the only plotter. I couldn’t believe that out of five writers, I was the only one who plans out my books.
I am not, however, a “psychopathic” plotter, as asked by the moderator. I make an outline because I need to know where the story’s going, but I do leave room if the story leads me in a different direction. My outlines are also more like general scene guidelines.
But first comes the brainstorming, and that’s what I want to talk about today. Before I can decide a beginning, middle and end for a story, there are several areas I need to brainstorm. Here are a few I usually tackle.
The Love Story
What’s the setup? Did they just meet? Or do they have a past? Is it enemies to lovers? Have they been friends forever? Is there family history? What internal and external obstacles will prevent them from getting together? Are there other boyfriends/girlfriends involved? Are there parental obstacles? Friend or family complications? Something from their individual or joint past that would stop them from being together?
On the other side of things, what attracts them to each other? Do they share a similar interest or goal? Or are they total opposites? Is it an aspect of their personality that just appeals or fills some gap for them?
For one potential book, because I had a story premise but not a romantic plot line, I spent hours skimming through rom-com movie plot lines, trying to decide what might fit with the premise idea.
For each character, I start asking: Who are they? What is their role in the story? What do they look like, including ethnicity? What’s their sense of style? What’s their general personality? Like, do they have a generally positive or negative outlook on life? Does everyone gravitate to them or steer clear or somewhere in between? What are they into (hobbies/interests/extracurricular activities)? Do they have a job? Do they have any habits? What’s their backstory? What do they want most in life? What internal and external conflicts will prevent them from achieving that goal? How will they change during the story? (Change may not be relevant for minor characters.) How will they react to the scenario I’m creating?
I don’t go answer all of these questions for every character in a book before I start writing, but I try to answer a lot of them for the main characters so I have a base. I also like to search for pictures to use as inspiration.
Where and when does the story take place? If it’s a real place, what research do I need to do? For various stories, I’ve talked with experts (a pilot for the opening chapter of Your Life Has Been Delayed), watched documentaries and videos (for various other projects), and actually visited all of those doctors’ offices you see in My Second Impression of You.
If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi and creating a world, I’m not the best person for advice. But here’s an article I found with questions to ask: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/worldbuilding-questions-to-help-authors-create-believable-worlds
I think brainstorming details related to the story premise is one of the most fun elements of the process. It’s often where I start. For Your Life Has Been Delayed, this took on two different aspects. First, I brainstormed all of the ways I could think of that the world had changed in 25 years–then I went out and backed that up with research. This brainstorming/research formed the backbone of Jenny’s worldview within the story, but it also ended up providing her goal of becoming a newspaper journalist, as that’s one of the jobs that had changed the most. After I addressed the changes in the world, I started brainstorming what would have changed within Jenny’s world, which was much more personal. She’s dealing with this big shock–that she’s traveled through time–and now she needs to face what she’s lost more directly. The decline in newspaper journalism gave me one opportunity, but then I started looking at the relationships in her life–her parents, brother, grandparents, best friend, and boyfriend. I took it another step further and examined how her privacy would be affected in the twenty-first century. So many opportunities for conflict in this premise!
For My Second Impression of You, I started with the question of what if you could relive your best day but it wasn’t how you remembered it? So then I brainstormed all the ways everything Maggie believed was great about the day were actually not so great once she learned a new perspective. Basically, it was an exercise in turning Maggie’s best day into her worst day. Was it fun brainstorming ways to torture my character? Well, yes. But only because I knew the ending!
Research Rabbit Holes
This is sort of connected to the story premise, but I’m still throwing it out here as a category because it’s something I do as part of the brainstorming process. If I have an idea for a scene that might be in the book, and I’m in the brainstorming stage, I will spend hours going down a rabbit hole just to see if it will be viable for the future book. Like, for example, reading through the entire box of Apples to Apples (some of you might have seen my TikTok post about that). Will I end up using it? I don’t know. But what I did discover was that sorting Apples to Apples cards was kind of an interesting character exercise too…
What are some of your brainstorming tips?
My December newsletter is out today, and it includes a recap of the St. Louis Teen Book Festival, instructions for how to make a book tree, an exclusive giveaway for newsletter subscribers, info on World Read Aloud Day, and some other news. Be sure to subscribe if you don’t want to miss anything!
On another note, if you’d like to get a signed copy of either of my books for someone on your list, they’re available at:
Make sure you request a signed copy in the comments, as a couple of these stores may have unsigned copies as well. And if you want the book before Christmas, check the store’s guidelines for shipping deadlines. Happy shopping! I know I have a lot of books on my list 😊📚.