February 14, 2011

An Ode to Brainstorming

I love how brainstorming works. I love sitting in a room with other writers and tossing ideas into the hat. I love the way ideas build on each other in that situation and how invested we all become in each other’s stories. I have three long-time critique partners whose input and opinions I value almost more than words can express. 

Years ago, we used to meet once a month to critique and brainstorm. As life changed and morphed and the demands on our time changed, we started meeting a few times a year, usually for a long weekend at someone’s house or a hotel.

Now that I’ve moved across country, we haven’t been able to get together in person for almost two years, but I know that when we do manage a face-to-face meeting it will feel as if no time has passed at all. I look forward to the next time the four of us can indulge ourselves that way. 

But I also love brainstorming in other, less formal situations. My deadline for Cake on a Hot Tin Roof is coming up way too fast, and I’ve been stuck at a point in the book, unable to move forward. I knew that something was wrong, but I also felt pretty sure that it was something relatively minor. I was convinced that once I could figure out what it was, I’d be just fine.

Unfortunately, the flu made its rounds through my house and my daughter’s for several weeks, I was teaching an online writing class and also had an article due for a writers’ trade magazine so I couldn’t find the focus necessary to figure out what my problem was. The workshop ended at the end of January and I got the article off on Thursday, so I promised myself that Friday I’d lock myself in my office and concentrate until I figured out what was stopping me.

Friday morning, my daughter asked me to spend the day with her and the grandkids. That’s not something I get to do as often as I would like, and I wrestled with the desire to say yes and the very real need to buckle down and get to work on the manuscript. When I told my daughter what was stopping me, she tossed an incentive into the mix. “What if,” she said in her best negotiating voice, “we talk about the book while we’re shopping?” 

My ears perked up and my nose twitched at the possibility. Brainstorming? On the go with two kids under the age of five? At the mall? Could it possibly work? 

I decided to take a chance. My daughter and the kids picked me up bright and early, and off we went. The great thing about both of my daughters is that we all have the ability to pick up a conversation without missing a beat, even if it’s been several days since we last discussed a topic. So carrying our conversation from Ross to the Mall, to the jewelry kiosk, to the food court, and then finally to Walmart as difficult as you might think. 

One of the great things about being a writer is that you get to have conversations that sound this:
“I don’t know. I just don’t see it. I mean, why would anyone be stupid enough to pick up a murder weapon? Put that down, baby. Give the toy back to your sister, okay?”
“Maybe he’s shocked. Here, sweetheart, let Ooma wipe your nose. He walks into the room and sees the body lying there and—Oh, honey, be careful. Let’s put that down.”
“Nope. I just don’t believe it. Everybody knows better than to pick up a gun they find lying next to a body. What baby? Potty? You need Ooma to take you potty?”
It was a crazy day and the brainstorming took place in short snippets and half-sentences punctuated by sibling rivalry and phone calls from friends and other family, but it actually worked. Something my daughter said at some point in our crazy-quilt conversation unlocked a possibility I’d overlooked on my own. That possibility helped me realize what was wrong with what I’d written so far. I came home physically exhausted but mentally energized and ready to move forward. 

I just love how brainstorming works!

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