In response to Debbie’s question in the Comments section–yes, at the beginning of any writing project, there is a lot of brainstorming and notetaking.
I’ve tried plenty of brainstorming techniques–clustering, etc.–but the one that works best for me is one called “The List of 20”. Years ago, when Debbie Macomber and I attended a motivational seminar in Tacoma (I lived in Port Orchard then), we heard Zig Ziglar and Brian Tracy speak, along with several other people, who have now faded from memory. Tracy explained the list of 20, and both Debbie and I adopted it. I’ve been using it ever since.
Here’s how it works. You take a sheet of paper (I like lined notebook pages) and ask yourself a question–in the case of a new book, my question might be, “What are 20 things that could happen in this story?” or “What are 20 things I know about this character?” (This process works for ANY goal, of course.) Next, you write down, as rapidly as you can, no judgment or editing allowed, every idea that comes to you. Some people set a timer for 10 minutes or so–I’ve never found this necessary, but different strokes for different folks. Most likely, the first few things you come up with will be pretty lame–for example, I once wrote, ‘heroine jumps off a cliff’–the magic happens when you keep going. Toward the end, you’ll be coming up with thoughts and scenarios you might never have uncovered otherwise. As with any other technique, the more you practice, the better you’ll be at digging deep for more original stuff.
Once I’d been using the list of 20 for a couple of years, I wrote Brian Tracy to thank him for sharing it. He wrote back that he’d learned the trick from the great Earl Nightingale, author of the classic, “Lead the Field”, along with many other motivational gems.
So, when I’m starting a new project, I do lists of 20–lots of them. If I get stuck somewhere along the line, I’ll make lists of 20 for individual chapters or even scenes.
A funny aside: that long ago day in Tacoma, Debbie and I showed up for the event in sweats and sneakers, only to find ourselves surrounded by crisply-suited, shiny-shoed business types of both sexes. Undaunted, Debbie turned to me and quipped, “We represent the people who succeed in spite of themselves.”
We roared–still do, when we are remembering all the great times we’ve had together.
I could go on and on–there was the time, for example, in France’s Loire Valley, when we trekked back to our tour bus, a little ahead of our fellow touristas, in a downpour, no less, and, guess what–no bus. The driver had evidently decided to have his lunch elsewhere and, with no shelter, we took refuge under a tree, Deb on one side and me on the other, with our arms wrapped around the trunk, laughing like crazy women. I was wearing a cashmere blazer at the time, and it never quite recovered.
Then there was the weird but mostly delicious soup we were served one snowy day in a Seoul restaurant–we were afraid to ask what those little strands of meat actually were. (We were able to rule out both chicken and beef immediately.) We ate the vegetables and the broth and left the–whatever.
Or the time we got lost in New Orleans and wandered into a neighborhood that was definitely not tourist friendly. My daughter Wendy was with us, and she immediately said, in all seriousness, “Somebody’s gonna pump us full of lead!” Being my daughter, an avid drama student and a budding writer as well, a simple, “I’m scared” wouldn’t have done. Since Debbie was leading this dangerous expedition, I immediately dubbed her Marvin Boone–since she was clearly no Daniel–and the name stuck.
But I digress.
Be well, be safe and be kind.
And while you’re at it, find something to laugh about. The best memories are made that way.