This website is dedicated to the process of coming up with ideas. Ironically my personal belief is that ideas are mostly cheap and many “creatives” are far too proud of their “ideas”. Execution matters far more. I believe this is applicable to book ideas, movie ideas, business ideas, advertising, visual arts, theater, etc. With the exception of maybe the Snuggie (now that’s a great idea), execution is where brilliance shines. I’m reading a fiction book right now that’s a coming of age story taking place in a small town in the 60s where several murders have just taken place. That’s an insanely common type of story. But the book is brilliant. There’s nothing particularly novel about the story and it’s still brilliant and very entertaining. It’s one of my favorite reads of the year.
A great idea combined with great execution is still unbelievably awesome. Take the insanely readable Wool (Book 1 of The Silo Trilogy). The first 100 pages of that book are some of the most creative I think I’ve ever read in terms of the idea. And then the execution of that idea, especially in that first book, is great. So despite my firm belief that execution is more important, I’m still in pursuit of an amazing idea that inspires me the way that I’m sure Howey was inspired when he first wrote the short story that started Wool.
I do have some formal training and spent my early career hanging out in ad agencies getting paid pennies to literally do nothing but brainstorm ideas. I mostly did this by sitting in a corner or a dark office with a pencil and paper and just brain dumping. Here are some things I’ve learned about brainstorming a long the way. For the sake of this advice I’m going to assume you’re brainstorming to write a story. But these thoughts are applicable to all kinds of creative endeavors.
#0. Sit in isolation
Sit in a corner, at a clean desk, in a room with the door closed. NOT in a loud noisy place like a Starbucks. You need nothing but a pen and a legal pad.
#1. Start with a brain dump of 100 ideas
Even if your mind is blank and you can’t think of a single thing, sit with a notepad or a blank Word document and start listing whatever comes to mind. Even if the ideas are stupid and boring, put them down. After about 20 ideas, stop and look back over your list. Take a break (like 10 or 15 minutes) and then come back. Keep repeating this until you get to a hundred and if you still haven’t thought of something, stop. If the act of doing this gives you a million great ideas by itself, well that’s awesome. You’re apparently very creative. But if not, keep reading.
#2. Elaborate on 10 of the 100 ideas
After a short break, even if you still hate them, pick the best ten ideas of your current list of 100 and elaborate on them. Write a paragraph about each. Attempt to make them better. You might surprise yourself.
#3. Clear your mind
If after elaborating on 10 of your best 100 ideas you still don’t have something that has you thinking in a certain direction, there’s one of two things going one. #1, You’re not creative. If that’s the case, skip below to advice #6. But if you’re generally creative (and I’ll leave your self awareness to yourself) then you probably just have too much clouding your brain. It’s time to clear your brain. Turn off all stimuli. Don’t listen to Spotify. Stay away from Youtube. If there’s something else work or life related that you’re procrastinating and you can’t think until that task is done, do that task and get it out of the way. After this second break of clearing your mind, try #1 again. Yes it’s more work. No one said this was easy.
#4. Brain dump more ideas.
I started with saying that you should brain dump 100 under the assumption that you are trying to kickstart your brain into a creative mode. But once you’ve exercised your brain a little, you can continue to brainstorm much smaller lists. Spend ten minutes here, five minutes there, jotting down ideas. Make it a habit. Break your brainstorming into small chunks. That first 100 ideas was a great exercise. But I’m a believer that your brain will keep working subconsciously on your ideas. So keep feeding it fuel in order to do so.
#5. Read & digest content
It’s important that you consume things that make you think. I try to read for a minimum of fifteen minutes per day. Many days I read far more than that. But the habit is important.
#6. Step back and do something relaxing
It’s ok to step away. This does not mean procrastinate. If you’ve put down a 100 bad ideas, then you’ve done some work. It’s realistic to take a break. Take a nap. Go for a run. Watch a sitcom.
Yes. I say pray. I do it. I believe it helps.
#8. Revisit old ideas
Often to jumpstart my creativity I revisit old lists of ideas. I’m often surprised at how many I’ve completely forgotten about and how great they really were at the time. I find that more than anything this gives me confidence. Confidence goes a long way.
Bear Discovers Fire
With all of that, I leave you with a brilliant idea…. (not my own, just a great example where the idea definitely mattered).