9 Brainstorming Tips and Tricks
Brainstorming and Idea Generation is a vital part of any creative endeavor, and building a magic system is no different. You’ve got to invent creative effects, decide on rules, build in quirks, identify complications, and keep it running smoothly without ruining your plot. Brainstorming, when done well, can help you with all of that. There’s just one problem:
To make things worse, I yet to discover a reliable way to teach people how to brainstorm. Making a one-size-fits-all solution for brainstorming is incredibly difficult since everyone works and thinks a little different and the results need to be so unique.
If you check out the Alive and Writing Podcast, we have several episodes on brainstorming, including a special brainstorming session we recorded just for you. In order to expedite your growth even further, here are nine tips and tricks to help you before, during and after your brainstorming session. I hope they help.
Before you get started, take a little time and prepare. Done right, a little preparation can go a long way
Tip #1: Set Goals and Brainstorming Pillars
Obviously, I’ve got to talk about identifying your brainstorming pillars. We’ve discussed them before, back when we first talked about Idea Generation. I even showed you them in action for my Viral Magic System. As much thoroughly as I cover them in those posts, remember that they are just a tactic you can use.
Whether you use the pillar method or not, it’s really about understanding what you want from your brainstorming. Are you trying to get a basic understanding of your magic so you can move ahead with plotting and world building? Maybe you’ve already got the basics and need to figure out exactly some details. Regardless of the situation, take the time to pick which direction you want things to go.
If you identify a specific target before you start, your brainstorming will be more productive and more efficient. Picking a guiding statement or objective is sometimes known as “Finding Your North Star” and has many applications in life. Whatever you choose, your star should be something you can always see and understand to reorient yourself along your journey.
Tip #2: Set Limits for Yourself
This tip is actually a new find for me.
My standard mode of operation is to prepare, over-prepare, and prepare some more before I do anything. As you can imagine, that takes lots of time, so I always start projects far, FAR before the deadline. This worked, but it wasn’t very efficient. I would sit down and power through. Regardless of how much time it took ar frustration it caused, I stuck with my task until it was done. Then I would get everything evaluated and start all over again.
This method served me well enough in college, but it requires large amounts of energy and put me under tremendous levels of stress. Everything was completed through by pushing myself beyond healthy limits and overexerting myself in vain attempts to get everything right on the first try.
In the past couple of years, I’ve been learning about Agile Project Management, the Scrum Methodology, and the Pomodoro Technique each of these. I discovered that, by changing my methods, I could get more done, faster, and with less stress.
It all came down to setting limits for myself.
Rather than starting months in advance and powering through a day at a time until reaching personal satisfaction, I forced myself to become more tactical in my approach. By setting limits on how much time I had to work on specific projects, I became more focused in my efforts. Setting blocks of work and rest time helped stop me from overtaxing myself again. Even now, I continue to learn so much through additional teaching, structure, and iteration of my efforts. Altogether, this has lead to a drastic improvement in my output, performance, AND my mental health.
So, look for ways to limit yourself and see what happens. There are so many ways you can do this.
Try limiting your time.
Set a timer for 20-25 minutes and just go nuts. When that’s done, take a break and start again.
If that doesn’t work for you, try limiting your materials.
Take your favorite fountain pen and see how much you get done before running out of ink. Don’t use a fountain pen and don’t want to switch to crayons? Limit your other media. Give yourself one sheet of paper to fill up or a clean whiteboard to write on. Anything works as long as you run out of material before you run out of steam.
Lastly, you can limit your ideas.
I saved this one for last because it’s more technique specific than the other two. As I’m sure you are aware, I do all of my brainstorming using MindMaps. The combination of list building and artistic design makes my entire brain happy as I brainstorm. Something I’ve tried once or twice is to keep track of the number of items or nodes that I have added to the map, and when I reach a certain number of nodes, I force myself to stop. This works best when using software, but see what you think.
Tip #3: Embrace the Iterative Mindset
Getting things right takes time, effort, and repetition.
This simple truth tends to get people riled up. There are lots of people out there, that fully expect everything they do to be perfect and complete every time, and I personally struggle with this every single day. Yes, coming back and repeat the same step over and over again is frustrating; repetition and practice will lead you to mastery. So, unless you are already a master, getting it right takes work and iteration.
If you embrace that you will have to try again no matter what you do, it can actually be very liberating. Once you free yourself to make mistakes, they don’t hurt nearly so much.
Relax your expectations a bit. Stop thinking that every single idea must be a brilliant one, and just let yourself have fun. If you can do that, you are ready to start brainstorming and have a blast doing it.
Once you start, the hardest thing can be to keep moving. The next hardest thing is making sure you’re moving in the right direction, which is what these next three tips are all about.
Tip #4: Be Agile in Your Approach
I deal with it time and time again when I brainstorm with someone. We’ll start talking and they will find one idea they like, and for the rest of our time, I have to fight tooth and nail to get them to drop it.
This is a good thing. The fact that it digs into your brain like a persistent worm means it’s worth hanging onto.
The problem is you didn’t start brainstorming just for that one idea. You want to generate LOTS of ideas. Instead of spending all your time on one great idea, rip it out, write it down, and come back to it later. Schedule a time for it, if you have to. Being agile is about letting the ideas flow and keeping yourself from focusing on a single idea for too long.
Just as you can’t get stuck on a new idea, your original vision can hinder your creativity. Sometimes the grain of sand you start with is exactly the seed you need to grow an amazing and wonderful crop of ideas, but sometimes it isn’t. Other times what you grow is wildly different than the seed you started out with.
Brainstorming is all about exploring a region to see what you can find. Spend all your time focusing on where your origin or a shiny new rock you found and you just might miss the mountain of treasure a few paces away. If you do need to explore a topic more fully, start broad. Make sure you have thoroughly examined it at a high level before moving into the details.
It’s tough, but being agile will lead to better ideas. You’ve unlocked the doors to your mental candy store and it’s time to go on a shopping spree. The best way to get the most out of your trip is to keep moving.
Tip #5: Steal Like You Mean It
Lots of people worry about stealing ideas from other sources. I get it; I’ve been there. You want your system to be something incredible and completely different from anything anyone has ever done. You might manage that, and you might not. Honestly, you don’t need to worry about stealing from what’s already out there, especially early in the process. Depending on who you talk to, the practice is actually encouraged.
If you love something, there’s got to be a reason for it. If you really love certain author’s style, *cough* Brandon Sanderson *cough*, there’s nothing wrong with taking ideas and inspiration from them. Take the time to examine these systems you already love and you will be miles closer to creating a new system you enjoy just as much.
Additionally, if you are aware the ideas you are making off with, you will be more aware of how yours is different. Over time, it will become clear where your style and the stolen style deviate, both making you more unique and showing where your works might fit in the wild universe of fiction.
Uniqueness will come if you strive for it.
I cannot stress this enough. You can steal as many ideas as you want, but if you put in the effort, something unique will develop. Granted, your first couple tries might not be unique enough. Iteration and continual refinement will get you there eventually, but in the meantime, steal anything and everything that isn’t nailed down. And I have yet to find an idea that wasn’t so well nailed I couldn’t pry it loose.
Tip #6: Track Your “North Star”
Just a second ago I told you to run wild and keep moving to find all the very best ideas, and that’s still true; you will be more successful in your brainstorming if you let that happen. There are no bad ideas, no matter how crazy, stupid, or just plain terrible they may seem. There is, however, such a thing as an unrelated idea.
You may recall back in tip one when we talked about finding your North Star. Well, now is the time to put it to use. It’s up to you to make sure that, while running around like a cat after a laser pointer, you keep your bearings. Going off track on a wandering path is terrific, just make sure you continue progressing toward your star.
The brainstorming is finally over. Now you’re likely facing down a messy pile of spaghetti left in the sink to get all sticky. It might be useful; it might not. Before you sit down for another session of idea generation, take some time to consider these last three tips
Tip #7: Mark It Up
It’s over. You done brainstormed. Now you need to take your nice, shiny MindMap or whatever and mark things up again.
Before you do anything else, flag all of your favorite ideas. If there’s anything you can’t live without, make a note of it. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you can find those gems when you need them later.
After you’ve got all your favorites labeled and categorized by underwear size, move on to your less favorable notes. You know the ones I’m talking about. Maybe they need more development, or perhaps they just don’t work at all. Find them and mark them. You will want good mugshots of those buggers when you do circle back.
Since you went through all the trouble of brainstorming, you might as well make it useful somehow. Look through your notes, both favored and unfavored, and start assigning action items. Got something that needs more research, mark it so. Have another area to explore, dig up more torches and get ready to do it again.
Tip #8: Explore Different Environments and Company
If your last brainstorming session didn’t work out quite the way you wanted, have no fear, there are options.
One thing you can try is switching up where you brainstorm and with who. Back in chapter one of the Alive and Writing Podcast, we talked about brainstorming and the value of brainstorming with others. If you’ve only ever done it alone, round up some friends and give it a try.
I’d highly recommend finding an “outsider,” and I don’t mean someone from beyond the veil of reality. Bouncing ideas of a someone with no experience in writing or your genre can produce some interesting ideas. If your group ends up being too large, consider drafting a moderator. This will often be you, but you can also ask someone else in the group to take that role. Just make sure they know about your North Star before you begin.
If you normally do all your brainstorming with a group, try going solo for a bit. Should it hurt too much, you can always dive back into the foxhole with your buddies.
If you’re still stuck, try changing up your location. This is an incredibly common piece of writing advice, but it’s a good one.
Tip #9: Explore Different Brainstorming Techniques
Personally, I prefer MindMapping, but that might not be right for you. If you’ve tried everything else and you still can’t get the hang of brainstorming, then try something else.
There are lots of methods you can try, so experiment with what works best for you. If you need something different or just want to fiddle around a bit, here are 18 Brainstorming Techniques you can try at your leisure.
Summary of 9 Brainstorming Tips and Tricks
Three phases you can seek to improve: Pre-, mid-, and post-brainstorming
1. Set Goals or Pillars
2. Set Limits for Yourself
3. Embrace the Iterative Mindset
4. Be Agile in Your Approach
5. Steal Like You Mean It
6. Track Your “North Star”
7. Mark It Up
8. Explore Different Environments and Company
9. Explore Different Brainstorming Techniques
There’s a lot to absorb here, and I hope you found it useful. If you’ve got any tips or tricks of your own, share them in the comments below. As always, I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. I’ll see you again in two weeks.