The Minimalist Guide To Brainstorming Your Novel


Before I do anything, I brainstorm.


So needless to say when it comes time to write another novel, brainstorming is the very first thing on my list.

My process for this has evolved over the years, but the general concept is the same. Just write whatever comes into your head. Don’t judge it. Don’t quantify it. And don’t delete or erase it (because you never know when that tidbit, no matter how silly or crazy or incoherent, will come in handy). Record each and every thought, even if it doesn’t even seem relevant to your project.

Brainstorming is just you telling yourself the story first. If you’re a pantser, this is better known as writing your first draft. But whether you dive right in or pre-write, the outcome is the same. In the beginning, you’re getting to know your story. This is an essential and necessary step you must take before being able to consciously shape it.

Now I talk about my love of free-writing (or pre-writing) here. This is basically the first step in my pre-writing process: I brainstorm to come up with the story idea.

What’s your story about?

This, in a nutshell, is what you’re trying to figure out. A good exercise is to try as much as possible to reduce the answer to that question to just one sentence.

So for example:

For White Rabbit, the idea was a story about a criminal who tries to go straight but then is forced to do “one last job.”

For Black Swan, the idea is a woman finds out her husband is not who she initially thought he was.


You can’t really write an entire novel based on just this idea, which is why it’s only the first step in the process. It could be that much of what you write down while you’re brainstorming doesn’t even make it into the final product. That’s OK. This is meant only to give you a jumping off point.

But you can start to flesh things out from here.

What I like to do is open a Google Doc (use whatever program you like best) and just start typing. Alternately I get a brand new composition notebook (link) and scribble my random ideas down into it. I’m not thinking yet. I’m just going with the flow. No idea is too crazy. Nothing is off the table. At this stage, I just want to get whatever is in my head, onto the page. Later, I can sift through and separate the wheat from the chaff.

The is the most low-pressure part of the process of writing a book so have fun with it. Let your mind go wild. Give yourself at least a few days for this. A few weeks if you’re feeling indulgent and don’t have time pressure. A few good session of just spilling your brain onto the paper will do you some good.

If you get stuck, the two magic words, what if are you, friends.

Here are some examples of my “what if” questions for White Rabbit:

What if a man who swears to leave him criminal past behind to save his family, must return to it in order to do just that? What if he can’t cut ties completely because he meets a girl and falls in love with her? What if the very family he’s trying to save can’t see his efforts and are mad at him anyway? What if his attempts to not hurt anyone still end up in people close to him getting killed? What if he actually directly did kill his parents? And what if no one ever found out? What if he’s kept this awful secret the entire time? What if his past history is keeping him from falling fully in love with the girl? What if his past finally catches up with him?

Don’t censor yourself, encourage a free flow of ideas so that when you’re ready to buckle down and shape your story, you have an abundance of material to work from. It’s all about chiseling the excess and strengthening the good parts from there.

Spend a good amount of time on the pre-writing process, and the draft will go much faster. For example, I pantsed White Rabbit (I only switch to plotting late in the game which is what saved the book in the end), and it took me years, literal years, to finish. I spent only six weeks pre-writing the sequel, Black Swan, and finished the draft in only three weeks.

So try it. It can’t hurt.

When you’re done, you will likely have a document that only you can read and make sense of. That’s Ok. This is for you and no one else. Read the excerpt from my White Rabbit brainstorm below. You’ll note that the entire document reads like I’m talking to myself. And in a way, I am.

Ok so now for a summary of the Logan saga (at least the first draft of the summary, AKA what I have now)

OK so we begin with Logan returning to Langhorne (Lansdale, Lansford). We don’t know why he’s there at first. He had sworn to never go back there again (flashback). We come to find out through a somewhat tense phone call that leads to a somewhat violent encounter that Logan is in town to do a job. A hacking job and it sounds like a big one. Not only is his life in danger, but the lives of his two younger brothers have been threatened as well. When first arriving in town, he comes across Tess. They have a short and contentious exchange. She needs help of some kind and Logan, being the surly bastard he is, refuses her.

We learn that Logan is missing a key item needed to complete his task (further hint of his attempt to leave the life of crime behind). He can only get it through Dex. He and Dex have beef over some money that Logan owes him from as business deal gone bad. Logan does not know that Dex is something of an adopted uncle to Tess, but he finds this out soon enough.*

When he meets with Dex to beg him for a key, he encounters Tess for the second time. This time, Logan feels the first twinges of attraction but still, the girl is a nuisance to him. Dex charges Tess with keeping an eye on Logan but disguises this by saying he needs Logan’s help watching Tess while he’s o0ut of town on business for a week.

Logan has no choice but to relent because Dex has what he wants. (I think we can go ahead and call him Asa and just change his last name or something). Logan and Tess spend a week together annoying one another bit begin to bond when they get into a situation together. When Asa gets back, Logan cuts Tess loose and attempts to finish his job without kicking up any more dust.

He completes the task and leaves but not without a somewhat emotional goodbye from Tess. Logan disappears and travels somewhere exotic.

The next summer, Tess and Logan hook up after Logan finds himself back in Langhorne. Turns out he can’t stay away. Or he is falsely led to believe that the danger is passed, and he can maybe begin a new life. During this time, he meets Brittany, who is also into some shady shit and it being watched by the FBI. She and Logan enter a relationship.

After many close encounters and sexual tension, Logan also begins to sleep with Tess, who is the one he really loves. She knows it’s wrong and tries to break to off several times, but they can’t seem to stay away from one another.

Brittany is into drugs and she hooks Logan on heroine. Brittany becomes pregnant, and so Logan decides to marry her. This leads to a very heated encounter between him and Tess. This is the last time they see each other before Logan goes to prison.

Brittany has been talking to the FBI. They want to get Logan and the guy he did the job for, but they are also after her for drugs. The man Logan did the job for, unbeknownst to him, has been keeping close tabs on him this whole time and learns that Logan’s girl is speaking to the FBI.  She then becomes a target.

After Logan and Brittany get married, she gives birth to a baby girl. She continues to cooperate with the FBI, but she doesn’t’ give them much. She’s trying to keep Logan out of trouble but will throw him under the bus if push comes to shove.

Both the FBI and the man Logan did the job for move in at the same time.

The FBI show up to arrest Logan. They also move in on The Pin. While trying to get her to safety, Logan ushers Brittany and the baby out the back door and into the car. They blow up. Logan goes to federal prison for three years.

While in jail, Logan reflects on his life and his mistakes and the ways in which he hurt himself and his family. He comes to the realization that he has always loved Tess and had fucked things up between them. He talks to his cellmate about her. He rejects all mail expect the letter Ryan send him with Tess’ photo in it. He vows to find her and make things right when he gets out of prison.

When he comes home, Logan reconnects with his brothers. Tess hasn’t been to Langhorne in a long time, and they have no idea where she is. Once again, Logan enlists Asa’s help to find Tess. She’s in Hawaii (or maybe she’s just in New York when she lives). Logan travels, even though he’s not supposed to leave the state without permission, to find Tess. He apologizes to her, and they begin to talk. They (might) even have sex once. But in the end, Tess can’t bring herself to be with him after all he put her through. They part on amicable terms and Logan returns to Langhorne to be with his brothers.

What are your favorite methods for brainstorming and fleshing out your story ideas? Let me know in the comments.

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