I’m home, safe and sound. Disaster reigns in my house, from room to room in varying degrees. A few bills collected on my desk. Lots of dirty clothes. Luggage to put away, both what I took with me and the ones I considered taking with me and didn’t. Had a family crisis to deal with while I was away. What did we ever do without cell phones where we can be reached pretty much wherever we are? So it is good to be home for more than one reason.
Several of you asked about how to do a brainstorming retreat. Happy to oblige.
Aside: I tried a critique group about 15 years ago, but it was not a positive experience at all. I was in it about a year, and my agent kept telling me to get out. It was destructive to my creativity. Not because the other writers were super hard on me or anything like that. It is simply that I don’t do well writing by committee. So except for that year, the pattern has been that I write a book and the next person to see it is my editor.
Brainstorming with other authors is something entirely different, and I love it. I began attending brainstorming retreats in 1995. For a number of years, I was part of a group of four writers who would meet twice a year to brainstorm. We all lived in different states so it was a time and financial commitment, but it was well worth it. We would fly in on a Friday and out on a Sunday. We would usually spend about two to three hours on a book, depending upon what was needed. This annual retreat I attend now has more writers, lasts four to five days, and we work shorter periods of time on each writer’s book.
In general, the author gives her concept. Some come to the retreat with the story almost completely worked out in their heads. They may only need to develop a villain or a final scene. Others show up, like I did two years ago, and say, "I want to write a novel about four women friends who work on an airbase in WWII." Out of that came my novel, The Victory Club (Tyndale, June 2005).
Once the author has given her presentation, the discussion begins. Other writers toss out their what-ifs, and momentum begins to build. An author generally knows what absolutely will not work for her, but the field of possibilities of what might work can be huge. "Maybe Sam can come upon an old farm house in Spain while they’re escaping and the wife agrees to hide them in the barn." "Oh, what if when they’re in the barn they realize…" It goes on and on. The author is general scribbling notes like crazy.
Eventually there comes the moment when the energy has sort of run its course for discussion. Then we do what we call the List of 20. (I believe this originated from a workshop Debbie Macomber gave more than a decade ago.) As quickly as possible, everyone around the table writes ideas for what could happen in this story situation. It may be something that came out during the discussion. It may be something that was never mentioned at all. I rarely write 20 things in the time allotted, but I write as many as I can. They can be very short.
I remember a couple of suggestions from a decade ago for the idea that became Patterns of Love: (1) She goes into the attic and finds an old trunk. In the trunk she finds a baby’s christening gown. Who was the baby? Where is that baby now? (2) She is sitting on the swing and he comes along and pushes her in it. She feels her heart soaring.
As the author, I took those (and other) suggestions home. Some I could make work. Some I tossed as not workable for me. Others sparked new ideas.
This past weekend, I was brainstorming a novella. I pretty much came into my session with that same "I want to tell a story about four women friends…" That wasn’t what I said; that book is written. I simply mean it wasn’t much more detailed than that. An hour later, I had a fistful of ideas and am excited about writing this particular story. I have to finish another project first, but when the time arrives, I’ll be ready to go.
Another great thing about brainstorming like this is that the contributing writers can just let the ideas flow. They have no responsibility to make the story work. Therefore, they can fire off ideas like scatter guns. It’s up to the author to grab the ones that spark her imagination. And when we hand over the Lists of 20 to the author, it symbolizes that we have no ownership over those ideas; we are releasing them to the author to do with as she pleases.
So there you go. That’s a quicky look at how the brainstorming retreats that I’m part of work.