In my writing group, The Writin' Wombats, one of our members posed a question about brainstorming. I started to write about it and quickly realized that I had a lot of related experience, some of which is relevant to writers and much which can be applied to just about any kind of project.
In my novels, I've started both of them by doing a bit of free form brainstorming on paper. I like to draw maps which show topics I'd like to write about and then start filling in the connections. If a topic is dense enough in its possibilities and connections, it just might be a good candidate to build a novel around. After brainstorming about topics, I've found it's a natural development to start building characters once you've got a nucleus of good ideas. From there, it's not a big step to actually start writing prose or develop a chapter outline.
I really learned about brainstorming firsthand from one of my early bosses. I'd brainstormed before this, but he was systematic about it and got me enthused as well. It helps to have the right tools. In his case, these were two large white boards, which virtually begged one to get out the colored markers and start putting ideas down. One key aspect of brainstorming is to focus first and foremost on generating ideas and writing them down, then worrying about the quality of the ideas later on. There's nothing that will shut down a good brainstorming session faster than trying to evaluate the ideas as they are being generated. Hold off the tendency to criticize and let the ideas get out there. Among other things, this opens up the possibilities for cross fertilization between ideas, where one idea builds on another, which leads to another and so on.
When I had my own business, I knew I needed to do planning, but struggled to find the time. I also needed to get out and get a bit of exercise. My solution: the planning walk. I had an inexpensive tape recorder -- these days you could use an ipod -- and I'd use the walk to brainstorm about ideas for building my business. I generated lots of useful ideas and managed to get out of the office.
I've blogged previously about OneNote here and here, but this is another example of a tool that is very well suited to brainstorming, since you can take notes in a number of free from styles and even draw maps if that's what you'd like to do.
So that's a few words on my experiences with brainstorming.
Do you like to brainstorm, whether for writing or another kind of project? If so, what kinds of approaches do you take? Do you have any favorite brainstorming tools?