Brainstorming and the Throwaway Idea

Buckle up, kids, I’ve found a topic I’m going to get really intense about again. I’ve been writing a lot of more personal stuff lately, but today we’re gonna dive back into the writing chatter.

I was having a conversation with a friend today – yes, this is one of those posts that I am writing basically immediately after having the idea – about the creative process. The Oatmeal series about creativity, but particularly the one about brainstorming was thrown around, and thus was a blog post topic born. (Fair warning, nothing that would be considered graphic, but the post does involve people without clothes on, and people vomiting).

Let me be clear: I’m not here to disagree with that Oatmeal article. It’s more a jumping-off point for the idea tangent it sent me on. Credit your sources and all that.

The specific point off which I jumped was the phrase “garbage fondue fountain”, and the idea that it’s important, when brainstorming in a group, of having at least one person in the group that comes up with an endless stream of bad ideas that everyone else can build from, and use the pieces of those ideas to create something better. I like that analogy – I’m reminded a little of the old parable (one of those Internet stories that gets passed around in Facebook meme form) of the pottery teacher who assigned each student to one of two groups: one group marked on the quantity of pots they output and the others who were only allowed to submit one pot but they could spend as long on it as they liked. Despite the additional time allowed, the best pots were all created by the group who had been told to focus on quantity over quality.

The moral of both these stories, of course, is that when you’re in a creative pursuit, you’re better off generating a lot of ideas, variously because that’s the way that you generate the individual pieces of a good idea, which you can then assemble later, or because through sheer statistics, you end up more likely to create a good idea. Or, of course, you get more practice at generating ideas, though I would say that ideas and pots are a little different. Not totally different – there’s a skill to generating ideas the same way that there are skills you can learn to make better pots, but there’s also a reason there’s such a ‘mystery’ around the process of coming up with creative ideas, and that’s because it’s much harder to pin down that process than the process of actually turning those ideas into creative product.

Now, I’ll go ahead and admit my biases right here: I’m the sort of person who’s always had more ideas than I’ll ever actually be able to put down into words. I keep a record of ideas in a big notebook – when I say big, I mean I’ve got seventy pages of the accursed things, and they’re just the ones that make it past the cut of “I’ve been thinking about this idea long enough that I should spend the time to go get the book and write it down”. I’ve got a further list of disjointed images and lines and characters that don’t have a plot to call home yet. I’m basically set for life on ideas.

So, I’m always going to have a sort of un-mystical view of generating ideas. I don’t mind forgetting them, usually, and I’m not too worried about other people using my ideas as prompts.

I don’t think there’s really anyone out there anymore who expects a writer to be able to write a perfect first draft on the first try – there’s a reason that we have the editing process. But we do expect that for ideas, in a lot of ways. In some ways it’s not surprising, really – we choose to buy books or watch movies or play games based on the premise a lot of the time (except in cases where we are already familiar with the creator). Even when we receive a recommendation for media, the person recommending it will often give a description of the premise as essential information. One of the most frequently-asked questions for creators is “where do you get your ideas?”.

Now, group brainstorming is important, but a lot of writers don’t do their work in groups. The whole point of the garbage fondue fountain is that they spark ideas in other people, right? So how do you do that when you are working alone?

How can you be your own garbage fondue fountain while also being the person who sifts through the mountain of hay to find the needle? Surely the trick to mitigating the garbage is to look from the outside, to see the flaws that the fountain didn’t necessarily see themselves, and in patching those holes come up with new ideas?

There’s a certain balancing act to both uncritically coming up with terrible ideas and also critically picking through them.

I’ll let you in on a secret. That folder full of ideas? I don’t have plans to write all of them. Heck, I expect that I’ll go to my grave without writing even a quarter of those ideas that I’ve written down. I still want to keep them, just in case I can do something with them that I didn’t expect, or combine them in interesting ways with other, later, ideas. But I go back and read through that book occasionally, and I feel like there are probably less than ten out of those seventy ideas where I would be upset if I never got around to writing them. Sure, I still get a bit annoyed if I have a good idea and don’t write it down in the moment. But as for the ideas where they’re already safe? I’m generally OK with just never using them.

Time, then, is the first secret to being a garbage fondue fountain. Be a garbage fountain and then come back in a few weeks or months and see if the ideas still hold up beyond the moment. This, of course, is reliant on there being a few weeks or months in between your projects, so that you can let your ideas percolate. Great for a novelist like me, maybe not so great if your purview is shorter, and you churn through ideas a lot quicker, or if you’re on a deadline.

But I think pretty much everyone knows about that one so let’s move on. Are there any options for both churning out those ideas and critiquing them at the same time?

Well, yes and no. It sort of depends on what type of person you are. Are you a person who vomit-writes your entire first draft and then edits because you can’t both create and critique at the same time? This might be a bit harder, or at least require a shift in gears. But I’m also not the sort of person who believes that it’s impossible to be critical and creative at the same time. Let me know if that’s something you want me to talk about in a later post. I’ll add it to the post list anyway, for a rainy day.

The gist for now is that sometimes you really can’t do anything except wait and get a little perspective. Having just run several edit passes on a very short timeline, that’s an important thing to know. I can be critical and creative at the same time, but it’s hard to be critical of everything all in one swipe, and there’s definitely such a thing as being too close to a project. But there are ways you can be both the idea generator and the idea criticiser.

The first part is to get past the idea that some ideas are “good” and some are “bad”. Sure, there are bad ideas out there. But it’s often about execution as much as the concept itself. So commit some time to it. Even if you’re already sure it’s a bad idea, pretend it’s a good one. Think about how you’d do it. If you break it immediately, it’s probably a bad idea. If you sit with it for five minutes and decide it’s broken, there might be parts worth saving. Record them, discard the rest and try the next idea. If you haven’t broken it after that long, great! Now throw it away. Write it down somewhere, take some notes, but throw it away and get a new one. Just keep going. These aren’t your Great Ideas, they’re your garbage fondue. Take them, mess with them, and throw them away. Later, you’ll piece parts of them together and you’ll have something worth working with. This is quantity over quality. Make all the pots and don’t worry if some of them are wonky. Learn to get real OK with creating something only to throw it away.

But seriously though, if you can? Idea books are super helpful. Get yourself an idea book and read it periodically. Future You will thank you.

Interactivity and Managing Pacing

So now that I got that rant from last week out of my system, let’s spend some time on the topic I actually wanted to talk about. Interactivity and Pacing.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about pacing in the past couple of days, because I’ve been editing, and editing means fixing up the horrendous pacing errors I made in the first draft. Continue reading

New Technique: Thoughts

So, in that little poll I did, people did say they were interested in reading me talking about my process for writing, so here’s a quick one on that topic, just an update. I am also aware that most people wanted posts about general writercraft but it’s been a long week and this is what I have right now. I’ll try and get back on topic next week. Continue reading

New Worldbuilding Approach

Friends and Internet denizens, I have been trying something new.

After working on The King’s City until I needed to give it one last time to beta readers (if you’re reading this, you know who you are, and I’m so thankful that you’re choosing to help me out despite my demanding timeframe – you are all getting homemade gifts once I can give them to you in person again). Which means that I need to distract myself for the next two weeks so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes.

I’ve done the glass of wine with dinner. I’ve done the two days of doing absolutely nothing related to writing or the project – just rearranging some things on the blog (as much as I can with my limited knowledge) and playing video games online with some friends. But now I’ve had my break, it’s time for me to get back into writing, and that means working on the next project.

This next project is a bit of an odd one. Not in terms of the story itself – though that is certainly odd – but in terms of how I’m approaching it.

Usually when I start writing something, I’ve had it rattling around in my head for a while. I used to write a lot of my worldbuilding at my job (on lunch break … of course …) where I couldn’t bring my laptop, so I would write notes on scrap paper and take it home with me. This formed my worldbuilding notes, which I’d process into the computer, making changes and filling gaps as I went. Then I got Scrivener, and the process of creating easily-referenceable worldbuilding notes got hundreds of times easier.

I made those notes for this story. I have them somewhere. But I think I lost them, and I am not willing to go looking for them again.

But I’ve also had this one rattling around for far longer than any of the others, I think. ‘The Ferryman’s Apprentice’ was a damn long time in the writing, but from idea to execution, I think it was only about eight months. ‘The King’s City’ was a bit longer – I think it was about twelve months before I started to write it. Earlier novels that have been relegated to the desk drawer of fate averaged around twelve months of worldbuilding before I got around to writing them.

FB, the next serial project, has been in worldbuilding development on and off for six years now.

I’m also trying to do my worldbuilding differently here. It has always been true that barely 10% of my worldbuilding notes ever make it into the actual story, and I think that’s not uncommon among writers who use worldbuilding notes. That doesn’t make them useless – worldbuilding notes like that give me a good, solid sense of the world and the plot.

But a lot of the detail that actually ends up in the story is throwaway details – stuff that I didn’t think about before but added at the last minute because I needed to mention something for a scene. I reference my worldbuilding notes for names of secondary characters that I forgot more than I do for worldbuilding details that I need for the story but didn’t remember.

But this plot is different in that it’s been sitting in my mind for so long that I don’t need that sort of formal worldbuilding note to form it anymore. I wrote them, I lost them, and I’m not recreating them.

This time around, I’m going in … well, more unprepared than I’ve been for a story in a long time. I’ve been talking through characters and setting with some friends for a long time, and I’ve been working out some things I absolutely couldn’t start with out (the main character didn’t have a lot of character for a while there, for one). But as for setting up the file, my usual process of adding in all the worldbuilding notes to check that I’ve got a good sense of things?
Well, we’re gonna skip that this time and see what happens. I’m diving right in with only a brief checklist of character notes, important scenes, and important thematic notes.

Let’s see what happens.