Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Brainstorming With The Westside Writers Schmooze!!

We begin this Schmooze blog post with a moment of silence for the poor, little possum Karol ran over on her way home from the January 11th Westside Writers Schmooze…

Ahem. OK. Where were we? Oh, right –

Unfortunate vehicular possum-slaughter aside, it was a great night!

The community room at the Fairview Branch of the Santa Monica Public Library was jam-packed again this month with just shy of 40 Schmoozers. Our goal for the evening was to come up with techniques and strategies to get our brains cranking on all cylinders writing-wise for the coming year.

After intros and announcements –

  • Everyone should enter the SCBWI L.A. Annual Conference Scholarship Contest! (deadline is February 4th, for details, click here)
  • Registration for the Creative Toolbox Graphic Novel event is live! (click here)
  • Registration for the LA Writer’s Day will soon be live! (actually, it now is live, click here)

...We got our brains warmed up by listing our writing resolutions for the new year. These could include projects we wanted to start, work on or finish, bad habits we wanted to break/good habits we wanted to develop, creative mountains we wanted to climb, degrees of fame we wanted to achieve, etc. We furtively scribbled down our deepest, most cherished dreams, carefully folded the paper and labeled it “To Be Opened January 11, 2013,” one year from the date of the Schmooze…

Then Charlie and Karol told everyone to TEAR UP THEIR LISTS! As the broken and befuddled (yet dutiful) Schmoozers ripped up their dreams, Charlie explained that the subject of the evening was brainstorming and brainstorming is about letting go of plans.

“It’s not about working real hard with a goal in mind,” Charlie went on (which he tends to do—go on and on and on). “It’s about opening yourself up to possibilities. It’s about creating the situation where your brain is tickled, prodded, teased and played with so that IT, not you, can solve your problems. It’s about process rather than results, exploring rather than finding.” (See? Told you he goes on and on.)

Incredibly, despite the pleading, Charlie didn’t stop there. He went on to encourage everyone to embrace ruin, explore ideas that will absolutely lead nowhere, break rules, write “wrong” just to see what happens, collect stories from everyone you meet, ask stupid, weird, existential questions – like you’re stoned, 20 and up at 4 AM in your dorm. The point, he said, is to push your brain into new, odd places, to investigate other ways of seeing, thinking, feeling.

To relax and have some brain-fun!

Karol finally managed to wrest the floor from Charlie before he could regurgitate every last tedious shred of his extensive research (by which we mean that he typed the word “brainstorming” into Google…but hey – he did spend HOURS combing through the 6,490,000 pages!).

We then opened up the floor to the Schmoozer-group, asking:

What are your favorite brainstorming techniques?

The response sounded a little like this…

We jest! But, really Schmoozites, it DID take you awhile to respond.

A few techniques mentioned were:

  • Free writing
  • Thinking of a childhood moment when you were different and exploring why
  • Daydreaming (Karol swears this is a legitimate creative tool!)
  • Starting a story in the middle or end rather than at the beginning
  • Lying down and gazing at the sky or ceiling
  • Bouncing ideas off others (critique groups, kids, etc.)
  • Writing in a different language (for the one or two of us who are capable of this and whose abilities have earned Charlie’s undying enmity)
  • Putting yourself in the “right frame of mind” – with familiar TV shows, inspirational books and even Facebook! (BEWARE FACEBOOK, Charlie interrupts. It will suck your life away and leave you a shallow husk. He’s sure that’s why he’s so husky.)
  • Make a “Mind Map,” a visualization of your story ideas and key points

The idea of going on an “Artist’s Date” (from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) was discussed. When you write, you’re “emptying the well” to a certain extent. Taking yourself out somewhere fun and unusual (museums, parks, strangers’ offices) is a way to replenish your creativity.

Karol shared her popcorn metaphor – just as it takes time for oil to heat up to the optimum temperature for popping corn, so, too, does your brain need time to “heat up” when it’s working on a story. Eventually, those first few kernels will start to pop, then a few more, then a BUNCH more…and before you know it, you’re brain’s well on its way to popping up a huge vat of delicious, salty story ideas and solutions!

There were differing opinions on whether research helps or hinders brainstorming, with Schmoozers weighing in on either side. But that friendly disagreement brings to light perhaps the most import thing we can say about brainstorming techniques: Figure out what works best for YOU and go HOG-WILD!

After all this brainstorming on, er, um, brainstorming, it was time for us to roll up our sleeves and do a couple fun brainstorming-type writing exercises.

The first involved exploring a situation via the five senses. As a group, we came up with this scenario – an 8 year old is stuck on an airplane for 5 hours – and then, together, we filled in a chart like the one below.

The results were spectacular!

The taste of the stale recycled air…the smell of food some smart passenger had thought to bring onboard…the feel of kicking the seat in front of you…the cacophony of cell phone conversations held by people desperate to pass the time…and these are just the tip if the iceberg-of-awesome the Schmoozers came up with!

We realized we probably never would have come up with all these wonderful details if we hadn’t approached fleshing out the scene in this way.

Next, Schmoozers tried the exercise on their own, using their own projects and/or scenarios. Schmoozers were generally surprised and pleased with the results, with some amazed at how easily minute details of scenes-not-yet-written flowed out and others realizing they needed to figure out how some specific things might smell.

The group was generally in agreement that this exercise could really help writers who find themselves “stuck in action” and needing to add more depth and shading to their scenes.

The next exercise involved making “Lists With Attitudes.” We asked Schmoozers to imagine how their protagonist might catalogue the things in her bedroom or his reasons for asking his crush to the prom. Next, we said to imagine how different those lists might be if, for example, they were made by the protagonist’s archenemy or jealous younger sibling.

This exercise was a bit hit as well, with one Schmoozer going as far as saying he was “stunned” by the results!

Well, shucks. All in a day’s work, folks!

That about wrapped up our Schmoozerific brainstorming Schmooze, but here are a few links to free software and websites that might help further:

The Heart of Innovation: Listen to your Subconscious Mind:


First Diverge, Then Converge


10 Brainstorming Tips For Writers


FreeMind - free mind mapping software


Free downloadable mind mapping templates


Inspiration - Idea Generator software (free trials)


The next Westside Writer’s Schmooze is Wednesday February 8th and...drumroll, please...it's Picture Book Critique night!

Even if you’re not a picture book writer or don’t have a manuscript to bring – come anyway. The writers who do bring material will really appreciate your feedback. Besides, what writer worth his or her salt turns down any opportunity to load up on yummy snacks, huh??

Until then –

Keep passing the open windows,

Charlie & Karol


  1. I often get an idea while taking a shower.
    I wonder if I'd get better ideas using someone else's shower?
    Brain Mist

  2. Sounds like an amazing event - great stuff!
    thanks Charlie and Karol,