Today’s guest post is by Mandy Kilinskis, who writes content for Quality Logo Products and their promo blog. By night, she continues working on her YA fantasy novel and spends way too much time on Twitter

I’m lucky to have a job doing what I love: spending my 45 hour work week writing blogs, product descriptions, and other content for Quality Logo Products.

After majoring in Creative Writing in college, I’m elated that I actually get to use my degree. But as a creative writer, there was a part of me that still wanted to write a novel.

About ten years ago, as a high school sophomore, I set about writing a novel. I jumped in with only my enthusiasm and banged out about eighty pages before I fizzled out. And then college admissions came. And college. And graduation. And a job search. And the next thing I knew, it had been seven years since I touched my novel.

Call it a quarter life crisis, but I was determined to finish that book before my 25th birthday.

I decided to completely scrap what I had written previously and start over. The only problem left was that after writing for nine hours at work, the last thing in the world I wanted to do when I got home was write.

To make the process far more manageable, and hopefully not give up after eighty pages, I decided that I should sit down and plan some things beforehand.

So for the rest of us working full-time and part-time jobs, here’s how I ponied up and brainstormed for my novel.

1. Idea

Even though I scraped my old draft, I still liked the general plot and characters that I had half-formed in high school.

My idea came to me after seeing the first Lord of the Rings movie, reading tons more fantasy literature, and generally bemoaning the lack of strong female characters in popular fiction at the time.

I’m going to guess that many of you have already found your idea. It serendipitously came to you in the shower or after a “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” conversation with your friends.

If you don’t have an idea, think about what genres you like to read. Good writers are good readers, so picking a genre that you enjoy will already give you a leg up. Talk about it with your friends and family – what’s a book that they’d enjoy reading?

If you’re totally stuck, hop on over to Start Your Novel. My online buddy JM Bell offers multiple story prompts per week.

2. Characters

But now, the time-intensive brainstorming.

First, I decided to focus on my characters.

I was told by multiple writers that I should read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. After plowing through it, I also recommend it.

There’s a lot to pull from the text, but the strongest takeaway is this: analyze your characters separate from their environment. I know that environment can (and should) shape characters, but boil them down to their essence. Are they kind? Outgoing? Generally an asshole?

I made a list of all of the characters I knew would be at least semi-important and went through and wrote down three traits for each of them.

Then I singled out the five characters that were most important to the plot and fleshed them out. I wrote about a page of hand-written notes for each, which probably translated to about four hundred words per character.

I did this in one night at home, but it could easily split up in smaller sections over two or more time periods.

3. Location

Next, I wanted to have a basic idea of the world my characters live in.

My novel takes place in a fantasy world, and as the plotline is quest-based, there’s a good amount of traveling. So I pulled out a piece of paper and drew a crude map of the locations my heroes would visit, and their approximate distance from each other.

If you’re going to create your own world, definitely draw a map of it, but make sure you leave room on the paper for additions. You never know what random side trip will be necessary or how the addition of a ravine could solve a later conflict.

Is your story based in a real location? Then make sure that you do some heavy research about the area. If at all possible, try and take a trip to your location. If a trip is out of your price range, then buy yourself a good, old-fashioned map so you can highlight landmarks and quickly plan out routes. Use Google maps and their street view to get a hands-on feel for the places you’re describing. Not even the best maps can tell you about the intricate pattern of ivy on church walls.

4. Outline

And last, I wrote an outline.

I used to be a total pantser. Who needs planning when sheer enthusiasm will carry you? Well, for me, enthusiasm only carried me about eighty pages.

That’s why I decided to give myself an “outline” this time. I drew an actual line down a piece of paper, and started putting events in a timeline. I didn’t write down every single event for every single chapter, but I did plot about twenty-five events that I wanted to hit over the course of the novel.

By forcing myself to create a visual roadmap, I knew where I was going, but I could certainly stop off for unplanned adventures.

My secret to brainstorming success? You have more decision-making power in the morning, so I did most of my brainstorming on my commute to the office. That was thirty-five minutes each day of solid thinking. And to make sure that my thoughts stuck, I talked out-loud during the entire trip.

Then when I got to the office, I’d take a moment to jot down some ideas in a notebook (you could just as easily use Evernote or shoot yourself an email). And once I got home from work, a whole bunch of brainstorming work was already done. I just had to transcribe my notes and thoughts into a readable document.

Just for a quick recap:

  • Lasso the idea that’s been stewing in your head
  • Flesh out your main characters independent of their environment
  • Do research on your location and then draw or buy a map
  • Make yourself an outline or a visual, hand-drawn timeline

I won’t lie to you: all of these steps take time; and depending on how long you’ve had your idea bouncing around your head, they could take even longer. But the time that you invest into making decisions now means you won’t have to make decisions while writing. You can just write.

The brainstorming I did during the two weeks before I wrote the first draft of my novel was essential to completing it. And next time, I’ll share with you how I took this foundation, beat back distractions, and wrote that novel.

Have any of you tried these or similar techniques? Do you prefer brainstorming before starting a major writing project?