Collaborative Brainstorming

This was a new panel for Miscon 32, and I loved the honesty of it.

Rhiannon Held, urban fantasy author, and Krista Wallace, author/actress/musician, spoke and acted. They listed ideas and then modeled behaviors – ones that opened up creativity and others that closed it down.

My notes are practically illegible, but here’s what I can decipher and remember:

There needs to be a foundational understanding of the concept before real collaborative creativity can occur. If I’m asking about how to make a character choose a certain emotional path to plot, it’s vital you know key information about the story. Otherwise, you’ll be throwing out space ideas for a mermaid story.

Stay creative. This sounds obvious, but really, you are there to think beyond what the other person has already navigated. They’ve probably already done the dishes, taken a walk, doodled, and eaten all the chocolate in the house. They need your weird and wild.


Be tactful. Framing makes a difference. Try to avoid the use of the word “is”. When you say, “This story is wonderful,” you are declaring fact, not opinion. Even a positive opinion framed as fact can be problematic. Use the phrases, “I feel” or “I think” instead of “This is” or “You should.”

I’m a Leo. This next one is tough, but vital. Avoid self-centering. You’re not there to hype up your latest grand idea. Your partner may want to hear about the problems you had with your babysitter later, but right now, there’s a task. Don’t make all your creative ideas ones that you are using for your own work. For instance, “Ooh, you know that story I wrote about zookeepers who discover the lemurs are building a robot? You could totally do the same thing in your librarian story!”     No.

Be fair-minded. If you have a sincere criticism of a part of someone’s work, treat the concern carefully and respectfully.

If you are the one asking for creative help, go in with specific goals. Specific questions. Like, “I need to get characters A & B to plot point R. The tech in my world is pretty limited. What ideas do you have for transportation?”

Have details. In the above example, you should probably have already fleshed out what type of setting you do have. Are you potentially riding genetically-modified dinosaurs or steam-powered trains?

If you say no to everything your partner suggests, pretty soon they’ll stop suggesting things. That doesn’t mean you have to drink every cup of idea they offer, but you should give it time to steep before ruling it out entirely and thank them for the effort!

Where you hold your collaborative brainstorming session can make or break it. Find a where that allows for focus and hard work. If I have to wait while you chase after a toddler every ten minutes, it’s going to interrupt the flow. Doesn’t mean I don’t love your kids, but just like writing, setting aside a dedicated space is important.

rubber duck angel

A few more thoughts:

Use open-ended questions.

Be a rubber duck. This means does your partner want you to sit and listen like a rubber duck or is it more like a game of Pictionary? Ask.

Use the words “or/and” rather than the word “no.”

Know your own weaknesses.

At the end of the session or if you are getting off track, recap and summarize to pull it all back together.

Do you have an example of when a creative partner saved your story or made it stronger?

2 thoughts on “Collaborative Brainstorming

  1. I think I need to apply these fundamentals whenever I ask people for help with brainstorming. Most of the time, I’m seeking help from the Internet, but I think the same principles apply. I shouldn’t be the one asking for help all the time. I want to repay the kindness and services given to me. Thank you for sharing your notes.

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