Friday, December 6, 2019

Brainstorming on Paper and Thinking on Paper for a More Exciting Novel

by Linda Rodriguez

The great technique of freewriting  (setting a timer and keeping your pen or fingers on the keys moving until it goes off) is one I use often as I build my novels. It helps me dive deeper into the characters to develop the often-conflicting motivations that will drive the plot. Freewriting for character work is not the only way to develop ideas and plot elements for your book, however. This same technique can be adapted to several other forms of planning your novel.  Other ways to use the basic freewriting concept are as brainstorming on paper, as a rapid listing tool, and as what I call thinking on paper, a free-form exercise in analysis, questioning, and creating possible alternative solutions.

I have stressed so heavily that you do this in writing because it is too easy to believe we are thinking our way through something, only to find, when we have to write that scene or book, that we were really sort of daydreaming about it. Writing is thinking on paper. The very act of writing out our questions and thoughts leads us to answers and new possibilities. Successful speculative fiction writer, Scott Westerfeld, has explained it the best I’ve seen yet—“You see, paper is magic: Making marks on it changes your brain. So, don't sit around trying to think your way out of problems, write your way out of them. The best place to find answers is on a piece of paper or a glowing phosphorus screen.”

For brainstorming on paper, you begin with a blank sheet of paper and the timer and a problem or question that you are considering. You set the timer, and you fill the blank sheet of paper with as many possible solutions or situations that have the potential to develop solutions as you can. Everyone is probably familiar with the technique of brainstorming in a group at work or at school. This is brainstorming by yourself on paper, but you will use the same rules. No idea should be rejected. Every idea that comes to you should make it onto your list, no matter how wild or crazy. The time to look at the ideas and sort out the usable ones comes after the timer goes off and you have finished your brainstorming.

Try your hand at brainstorming on paper. Make a list of scenes with great emotional conflict and intensity that you would like to use in your book, even if you have no idea how you could fit them into the narrative as you currently envision it. As with all brainstorming, let the ideas flow without censoring any that seem ridiculous or impossible. Get at least 15 ideas for emotionally intense scenes down before you go back and make any judgments about them

For creative listing, you will use a similar technique. Set the timer and make a list, refusing to reject any item for the list until after the timer goes off and you are in edit mode. The difference is you will have a more specific goal in mind for this list. For example, you could make a list of potential scenes, full of action, drama, and emotion, for your work. Or you could make a list of potential actions that subsidiary characters could take to help or hinder your protagonist's goals. Creative listing is a technique that can be used in many ways. It's quite simple but extremely effective.

The final technique I suggest is thinking on paper, a free-form exercise in analysis, questioning, and creating possible alternative solutions. Thinking on paper is the most sophisticated of these many ways to use the technique of freewriting. In this form, you use freewriting to range between questioning, listing, some deep character work, looking for possible solutions to problems, and developing alternatives. You want to keep asking yourself questions about the problem areas of your book.

This is a wide-ranging technique with a lot of depth and potential for you to use in many ways as you write your novel—and later as you revise your novel. It is best if you build up to this technique by beginning with basic freewriting, moving into the deep character work, brainstorming, and creative listing. Then, all of those aspects of this technique are brought together in thinking on paper.

Do you find yourself already using some of these techniques in your writing?

Linda Rodriguez's 11th book, Fishy Business: The Fifth Guppy Anthology (edited), was recently published. Dark Sister: Poems is her 10th book and was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published in 2017.  Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee detective, Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in 2020. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, Every Last Secret—and earlier books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Native Writers Circle of the Americas, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Learn more about her at


  1. I learned your lesson well! I'm freewriting a character on a daily basis. It will come...

  2. I love this! One year I gave students pens that said, "Writing is thinking. Write On!" It keeps ideas from getting lost also. The Spanish teacher had a saying that translated to "The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory." Brava!

  3. Margaret, I'm so glad you're finding it useful. That kind of daily work will lead to great success.

  4. Mary, I love the Spanish proverb! I will have to remember it.