morpheusIf you’ve decided to plunge into the untamed wilderness of writing a novel, then you probably have already given some thought to the book you’d like to write. Maybe it’s in the random ideas that spring into your head while you’re trying to sleep and staring at the alarm clock at 3:12 in the morning. Maybe it’s that thought that strikes you mid-rinse in the shower – “What if you could time travel by turning the hot and cold knob at the same time?” Maybe you have scribbled ideas on shopping lists and napkins and the palms of your hands.

Ideas are wonderful. But ideas are flour and sugar and eggs. They have potential, but you can’t pour a nice bowl of flour and eggs and call it a cupcake. (Well, you can, because you can do whatever darn well pleases you. But you’d be delusional and more than a little unclear on the definition of a cupcake.)

Many published authors have a story about the friend who has told them, “I’ve got an idea for a novel! How about you write it and we’ll split the money?” First, no. This person is not your friend and you should never share your bacon with them. Second, ideas are cheap. I have a thousand ideas. I have yet to become a millionaire.

Look, I have ideas!

  • What if I could time travel by standing under my shower and turning the hot and cold at the same time?
  • What if my TV was actually a spy camera being used by the government to secretly train me to be an assassin?
  • What if I was a vampire that fed off of giggles and smiles?
  • What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone differently?
  • What if I found out I had exactly twenty-four hours to live?

Okay, you get the idea. None of these are stories. These are ideas that could become premises with some more thought. I’ll give you one last one. My book Phantom Touch started as – “What if a teenage girl could talk to unhappy ghosts?”

And? Who is this girl, what does she do with this ability that frankly isn’t very original, and why should anyone care one bit about her?

Some of those ideas might be compelling, but they are not stories on their own. We’ll get there. Today, we’re going to focus on brainstorming ideas. The idea stage is a sort of magical blank slate. It’s a time when anything goes and you have nothing to lose. Creativity generates creativity; ideas beget ideas. They multiply like fruit flies. Turn your back and the ideas are swarming around you like something off a cheap SyFy movie. BRAINSWARM!

I’m going to take one of the random ideas I just spewed out. “What if I found out I had twenty-four hours to live?” Let’s say instead of me, it’s “Bob.” Now I’m going with it. Bob has twenty-four hours to live. Poor Bob. The very first thing I wonder is…

  • Why does Bob only have twenty-four hours to live?
    • Someone’s going to murder him in twenty-four hours
    • He has a deadly virus
    • He’s going to have a heart attack
    • The world is going to end

You can probably tell I write high-concept, not literary fiction. And that’s okay. Now, I’m intrigued by this idea that someone’s going to murder Bob in twenty-four hours. Also notice that “why” and “what if” are extraordinarily powerful in the process of brainstorming.

  • Why is Bob going to be murdered in twenty-four hours?
    • He owes money to the mob and that’s the deadline
    • He is a war criminal and a young child he orphaned has grown up seeking revenge which will be carried out when they arrive in the US in twenty-four hours
    • A terrorist sniper is going to murder innocents until getting what they want
    • His wife just found out he was cheating on her

Okay, Bob’s a war criminal. Dozens more questions spring to mind once I go down that path.

  • How did Bob find out he was going to die?
  • What kind of person is Bob now?
  • Do other people know about Bob’s background?
  • Is Bob remorseful for what he did or does he think of himself as a hero?
  • Is Bob going to fight back or accept it?

When I brainstorm ideas, I allow myself to generate anything. My notes look like this often:

  • Maybe Bob is a doctor now, trying to right his past wrongs
  • Maybe Bob’s family has no idea and he has to protect them

Maybe is magic. Saying “maybe” makes it okay for me to write down anything I think of. After all, I said “maybe.” It’s like saying “maybe” I’ll start a diet tomorrow. The level of commitment is dubious. Maybe I use the ideas, and maybe I don’t. It’s also okay if my “maybes” contradict each other. I don’t pass judgment on ideas at this point. Nothing is stupid at this point. If someone had said samurai with laser swords in outer space were stupid, we’d never have Star Wars. Go big or go home.


You can weed through the ideas later. One of the keys to making it through the first draft of a novel, especially under the constraints of NaNoWriMo, is learning to put a leash on your inner critic. If your critic is a nagging harpy that tells you what a stupid idea that was, and why don’t you just give up writing and – SHUT IT UP.

Self-criticism has a place, and it’s not here. Be gone, demon! The power of creativity compels you!

So your homework today is to do some brainstorming. Maybe you have an idea you already like, or maybe you have a few that are fighting for your attention like toddlers. Sit down and brainstorm. Ask yourself “what if,” and then ask “why” until you sound like the most obnoxious toddler on the planet. Use “maybe” if it helps you shut down your inner critic.

You are going to be amazed at what you come up with. This is where your idea starts to grow from a tiny acorn into a mighty oak.


  1. Sign up for NaNoWriMo if you haven’t already.
  2. Brainstorm for as long as you have new ideas. Don’t delete anything, and don’t shy away from writing something down because you think it’s too out there. If it comes to you, write it down. No one has to see this. If you don’t have a strong idea yet, go poke around TV Tropes. Be warned – TV Tropes is a known black hole which will mysteriously consume hours of your life. Abandon all hope, and all that.

 starwars quote

 Don’t forget to check out Day 1 if you haven’t already! Thanks for tuning in, and I hope you’ll stop by tomorrow!

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