Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Guest Author Myra McEntire: On Brainstorming

By Myra McEntire

JH: Toady I’d like to welcome Myra McEntire to the blog and get down and dirty with a little brainstorming. She has a few tricks that I use myself (the shower thing? Totally works) and a bunch of others that I might try. I like #10, especially on a Friday. And a Monday. Heck, most days. Myra’s young adult novel, Hourglass, debuts next week on June 14th, so mark your calendars, folks.

About Myra
Myra McEntire knows the words to every R&B hit of the last decade, but since she lives in Nashville, the country music capital of America, her lyrical talents go sadly unappreciated. She’s chosen, instead, to channel her “mad word skills” into creating stories infused with her love of music.

Take it away Myra…

Brainstorming fuels my storytelling, and happens at every level of a story’s creation for me. Sometimes even when I’m done! (Who tweaked names and places the day before her book went to press? That’d be me.)

I’m more of a panster than a plotter. The correct plot order comes to me after the first draft is written (or after the seventh). In some ways this is frustrating, because I tend to produce a lot of words that don’t make it into the final story. In other ways it’s freeing. Once I realized and accepted that my first drafts would never be clean, I learned to open myself up to the possibilities of the mess.

The mess is most often caused by one simple question. “What if?” and “what if?” always equals a brainstorm. I’ve come to discover over the years that my brainstorming techniques are very closely related to my learning styles – which are reading/writing and auditory.

Here are a few of them:

1. Free writing, or journaling. I have to use a spiral notebook, and I have to write across the page diagonally as I’m working through the idea. No lines. However, once the idea is solid, I recap very neatly. On the lines. With a nice pen. Usually purple.

2. Plot chats.
I have an amazing crit partner who will let me tell her the same plot points over and over again. Saying them out loud helps me work through any issues, and she’s the perfect sounding board. Sometimes she makes noises of acknowledgement, other times she calls out plot holes, and occasionally she’ll go off on a tangent of her own. Telling the story to someone aloud helps me learn what it’s about.

3. Watching television. Specifically, because my stories have a sci-fi bent, documentaries. I save up a stash on my DVR, and whenever I get stuck I listen to the experts (or sometimes the crackpots) dish on my chosen topic. (Last summer, it was Morgan Freeman and Through the Wormhole. I’d pretty much buy anything Morgan Freeman was selling. And I’d sacrifice numerous appendages if he’d narrate an HOURGLASS audio book.)

4. Shower. This isn’t just me, it’s been confirmed by The Twitter. I used to think it was because as a stay-at-home mom, the shower is generally the only place I’m alone. There’s something therapeutic about the water or the white noise or … I’m making stuff up. I have no good explanation; I just know it works. So much so that I bought a package of the shower crayons they sell in the kid’s bath section at Target so I could make notes without having to drip all over the bathroom floor to get to my notebook.

5. Repetitive tasks. Folding laundry. Washing dishes. Weeding the garden. Playing Diner Dash or Angry Birds on your iPhone. (See! You were looking for an excuse and now you have one! It’s WORK.) Anything that allows your brain to check out. This is why my flowerbeds are only half weeded. No really. Sometimes disengaging allows your subconscious to do the work for you.

6. Playlists.
Many authors make playlists to go along with their stories, and I am no exception. I can’t always explain why I choose certain songs. If I am stuck in a scene, I’ll listen to a song that evokes the mood I’m looking for, and then I try to write to that mood. The first half of HOURGLASS is all about Billie Holiday’s In My Solitude. The second half involves a lot of modern alternative. (And you can totally tell.)

7. Wikipedia.
I admit it. I love to cruise Wikipedia. I’ll look up one topic that interests me, and then bounce from article to article as my curiosity leads. Most of us know not to use Wikipedia as an official research resource, because the information can be faulty, but if you’re writing fiction? Go for it. A key plot point in HOURGLASS came from this exercise.

8. Engage in another art form. I take dance breaks. It’s true. I’m old, and it’s awkward, but for some reason dancing around my kitchen frees my thought process up. Dancing isn’t exactly brainstorming, but Jennifer Cruisie’s collages are. She posts about her process here. I also know writers who gather pictures of what their characters look like, or of settings particular to their stories. (I think this would work exceptionally well for a kinesthetic or visual learner.)

9. Story Mapping. I love to do this. It’s basic, but it’s tried and true. Here’s a link to several blank ones.

10. Nap. I’m giving you excuses to do all kinds of things, aren’t I? Those moments just before you fall asleep are RIPE for solving story problems. I suggest napping, because if you do it before bedtime, your results are harder to remember. The ideas that come might give you more energy than a nap ever would!

So there are a few of my brainstorming techniques. I’d love to see yours in the comments section!

About Hourglass

One hour to rewrite the past . . .

For seventeen-year-old Emerson Cole, life is about seeing what isn't there; swooning Southern Belles; soldiers long forgotten; a haunting jazz trio that vanishes in an instant. Plagued by phantoms since her parents’ death, she just wants the apparitions to stop so she can be normal. She's tried everything, but the visions keep coming back.

So when her well-meaning brother brings in a consultant from a secretive organization called the Hourglass, Emerson's willing to try one last cure. But meeting Michael Weaver may not only change her future, it may change her past.

Who is this dark, mysterious, sympathetic guy, barely older than Emerson herself, who seems to believe every crazy word she says? Why does an electric charge seem to run through the room whenever he's around? And why is he so insistent that he needs her help to prevent a death that never should have happened?


  1. Myra, thanks for all the wonderful advice. It's funny about the shower, isn't it? I've had more plot and/or scene breakthroughs while taking a shower than any place else. :)

  2. All ten are such solid pieces of advice. I'm totally partial to number 2 (okay, that just sounds funny...) But seriously, having a good CP (or a few) is priceless in the brainstorming stage. I probably would have lost my mind--or gotten lost IN my mind--without the help of my CPs to sort through everything with.

  3. Great brainstorming ideas.
    Also, Hourglass looks awesome!

  4. I love this list! 2 and 6 are probably my favourites, though I'm usually hesitant about 2 because I'm always worried about spoiling the book for people.

  5. I'm so impressed with your longhand journal! My hand cramps quickly so I rarely write things out anymore. Also, I can barely read my own writing. That's sad!

    I've found dancing opens everything up too. And definitely the repetitive tasks. Half my plots come together on walks!

  6. Great ideas. I have to start with characters, and then I just think about scenes I'd like to see them in. Eventually, things seem to come together.


  7. Thanks for the great ideas, Myra. Most of my best brainstorming happens either with free-writing or walking (sans iPod -- my mind doesn't wander as well with music, because I tend to get so lost in the actual music that I don't think about anything else!).

  8. Kristin Nador6/07/2011 12:01 PM

    Thank you for this good advice. Funny how 'the perfect idea' will come to you when you are not hunting it down. Showers seem to be one of my most prolific activities for ideas. Need a waterproof notebook!

  9. Fabulous ideas. I'm a strongly auditory learner, and so find that that talking to people about my plot and my characters really cements them in my mind. (My long-suffering and supportive husband is a dream come true for this.)

    I also find that jogging helps to break a few thoughts free, although then I find myself stopping in random places and having conversations with myself about whether said thoughts are workable ore relevant. It helps, but also makes me look like a crazy person!

  10. Janice - Thanks again for having me! And look at y'all, suggesting healthy things like walking!

    *feels shame*

    *plays Angry Birds*

  11. Shower crayons! That's amazing. I often use that bit of quiet to think over plot points, but I'd never even thought of that.

  12. I love this post, especially since brainstorming is my favorite part of the writing process. I'm bookmarking this. Thanks for sharing. =)

  13. I have so many awesome ideas right before I fall asleep. Half the time I'm too lazy to write them down and then hate myself for it in the morning when they're mostly forgotten. I've found that observing nature gets my brain going more than anything else. I live in a particularly beautiful mountainous area, and I'm constantly staring out the window or loading my kids into the car for a long drive. So many of the scenes I dream up take place on snowy mountainsides or craggy, half broken canyon roads.

  14. Thanks for the great advice!

    I like to "program" my subconscious before I do mindless tasks like laundry and dishes.

    I look over my notes for the story or think about the plot problem I have, and ask myself a question. It's usually something like "How on earth does main character hide the body?"

    After that, I leave it alone and do something that doesn't require a lot of thought. It works like a charm. ;)

  15. I loved everything you said. I believe I do the same thing you call Story Mapping. Only I call it Outline. Can't write without it. The music, dancing, repeating the plot, I do all of it as well. Oh and by the way you don't look a day over 18.

    Great post!

  16. Myra - I just LOVE that you're a pantser too! I usually start with What if's also. Unfortunately I have nothing as NORMAL as showers and story mapping though. Nap is the closest thing. I seem to wake up at four in the morning with my brain buzzing about possibilities. Sleep is overrated anyway, right? RIGHT? :D

  17. Awesome post! Also, I love those blank Story Maps you linked to! I'm going to have to try one now. I've been making an outline that has the core events listed by chapter. I then go back and write out a full page of things to happen for each chapter revolving around that core event. I think teaming that up with the Story Map will help out a LOT.

  18. Excellent suggestions Myra! Love the shower crayon idea, beats going turning a great thought into a mantra chant (which is what I've been doing and gets strange looks from my wife). Bookmarking the Story Maps, thanks for a great resource.

  19. Love the brainstorming tips. I find hiking works for me, even if it's just a quick walk down the block. I always take my iphone with me now, so I can stop and take notes when ever inspiration strikes.

    Hourglass sounds incredible--I look forward to reading it!

  20. Naps are good; dreams can be useful. Look where it got Stephenie Meyer!

  21. All of the ideas are great,and I've used most of them. The most productive for me are the music and mindless repetitive work. Last winter I had an hour commute to work. I would listen to my 'playlist' and imagine the scenes in my mind while I drove the same tedious route. Then on my break I would write like mad.

  22. Those are some great ideas. I dance in my kitchen but only my son is allowed to watch me make a fool of myself. Everyone else tries to take pictures/snicker. Though I dance for the heck of it and as a way to make housecleaning more fun.

    My repetitive sin is Bejeweled Blitz.

  23. Fantastic ideas! I definitely brainstorm while cleaning. Driving too.

  24. It probably comes under repetitive tasks:

    I walk to work. Since I work a t a couple different schools, it takes anywhere from 10 mins to 1/2 hour and I daydream the whole way. I'm going to get run over some day, but I get the best ideas!

  25. Great post & useful advice in opposition to many texts I've read that pretty much oly told you "let your ideas fly" :)

  26. This was a wonderful post! I know it's older, but it still stands the test of time. I love the idea of listening to music that invokes the mood you want. Super good idea!

    Also, about the shower, I personally am one who just likes to get in and out asap. However, I know a lot of people I've seen online who love the showers for ideas. There is a new product out called Aqua Notes. They are waterproof notepads. I'm sure many know about them, but I just learned about them the other day and thought I'd share. Thanks again!