Sunday, May 18, 2014



Problems in writing pop up frequently and involve everything from general plot issues to misbehaving or lackluster characters to missing pieces of crucial information. When we’re stuck, it’s handy to have a process to un-stick us. Getting enough ideas to choose the best one, is the goal. We need to get to the 7th solution.

There are key concepts involved:

  1. problem solving steps
  2. brainstorming basics
  3. seeking help
  4. brainstorming focus and freewriting

1) Problem Solving Concepts

The basic problem solving method devised at Harvard circa 1972 is the foundation for most of the models since. It’s logical:
  • define the problem specifically
  • brainstorm a list of ideas for solutions
  • walk away and come back later to evaluate the list
  • design or choose a solution to implement from the list

2) Brainstorming with green light thinking

  • lock up your inner critic
  • record all ideas whether or not they are complete, silly, improbably or possible
  • write quickly without worrying about structure or grammar
  • try a mind map

NOTE: The free flow process may feel awkward initially. It might be because your inner critic is still yelling at you from lock up. More likely it’s a matter of practice. You don’t get to be a star tennis player the first time you hold a racket, but with practice you get better. Freewriting/brainstorming is a skill. Keep at it.

3) Seeking help

Two heads are better than one and research says three to five heads are even better. But apparently three, four or five are equally good. Invite two friends and initiate a roaring brainstorm session to maximize your ideas.

4) Freewriting - brainstorming on the page. 

Freewriting can be general, a completion of the starter: I want to write a story about.... Or it may be applied to more focused issues. If using it for a narrower issue, be sure to use stage one of the problem solving model. Write down a specific problem

Here are two sample exercises suggested by romance authors from the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association.

Lorraine Paton (Contemporary Romance Author) suggests you start your list:
“Next, Suzie could do....”
Perhaps the response will be “no she’d never do that.” Record it and move on to another idea. Work it out on the page. Keep going until you hit the idea that feels right.

Suzanne Stengl (Sweet Romance Author) interviews her character “on the page.”
Ask the character what they want to do, or will do, or what happened next. Again, keep writing until you get that “let’s go” feeling. Your gut will tell you if you are on the right track.

Remember, the chances are the first three to six ideas you come up with will be ordinary even boring. But that 7th idea – it’s gold. Hang on to it. Learn to exercise your brainstorming muscle. It is one of the most valuable tools in a writer’s toolkit.

What writing tools do you use when plotting or shaking-up your story?


  1. I like Suzanne's idea of asking my character's what they will do. Just make sure you're alone because if you talk out loud to each other, people look at you in funny manners. :-) Well developed characters sometimes help. A great article.

    1. Good point re the talking out loud! People think writers are strange at the best of times - no need to enhance the suspicion.

  2. I do a lot of brainstorming on my commute or when I'm in bed waiting to fall asleep. I can't write anything down, but I let myself explore a bunch of ideas by taking them beyond just that one event in the book through to the end. My mind meanders down one idea, then another, etc. Also, I like to ask questions. I have a dry erase board in my office where I have a book loosely plotted, but most of the plot points have questions leading from them. And, now that I've stared at it for a while, I have a good idea what the answers are that are right for that story.

    Thanks for the mention! :)

    1. You describe the brainstorming process clearly even though for those that don't think about it, it's not a clear process. The visual reminder on a board works wonders for triggering thoughts.
      You are welcome for the mention. I've learned a lot from your workshops over the years and I'm happy to steer others toward you and your enjoyable books.

  3. Hi Mahrie! In regards to this "asking" the character... It is more like having an "online chat" with them, where I record both sides of the conversation. (So, no fear of anyone overhearing!)
    I do something like:
    me: are you there Jeff?
    Jeff: I'm still here and I really don't like where you're going with this scene.
    me: well, where would YOU like to go?
    Jeff: we all want to go back to the river. I know you don't like that idea, but I've talked to everyone and they agree.
    me: since when did you start running this story?
    Jeff: get over it. We know what we're doing. You just get to write it down.