[Image source: Brain Dump by Jessabel on Deviant Art]
My friends over at Writing Pad (the writing school where I teach) posted the link to an article about prepping to outline your novel in advance of National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, hahahaha), which is November – I assume because they both start with an N.
The article (link through photo) is really helpful and very funny. I recommend you read it after you are done here.
But reading it reminded me that I actually take this mission critical step before I start outlining (a process I also find mission critical). I do what I guess you could call a BRAIN DUMP. This is not to be confused with a MIND MAP which is very organized and impressive. My brain dump is me getting everything out of my head that I already know/want/think/imagine/hope for my characters and my story. I do this whether I’m working on a screenplay, TV pilot or novel, and I do it over the course of a week of marinating on an idea before going to outline. Yes, I give myself a week to just get one-line ideas out on a page (or in my case 35 pages and several cocktail napkins).
Here is a list of things that I wrote before diving into the structured outline for a feature I’m currently writing:
- They go to a housewarming party in Glendale
- Her best friend is not married and does not have kids
- Scene where they drive up the coast, romantic
- Need to find a way for her to consistently talk to herself? Or magical realism? Or break 4th wall like Annie Hall? TBD…
- She is 37
- Game-changing money comes into her life at start of film – but how to spend it? This is dark cloud.
- Maybe a cat. Maybe.
Believe it or not that is all makes sense to me and is currently somewhere inside the outline I’m using to write this damn thing.
What does my brain dump do? A few things:
- It clears my brain of all the thoughts I have on a project so that they won’t get lost. I have a lot of ideas just before I go to sleep. If I don’t write them down they go to that really dark basement area they go to in INSIDE OUT. I can’t have that.
- It gives me confidence to really dig into the project. Every time I’m thinking about writing something new I say to myself, “I can’t. I have nothing!” And then I throw myself on the bed. The idea of starting from zero is overwhelming and intimidating. But I’m never really starting from zero because I have tons of ideas that have been floating around up in my head. Once I get them out I’m better able to convince myself to take another step.
- I am a linear thinker so it’s very, very hard for me to NOT just start outlining the story beats. But when I skip the step of thinking through everything in a disorganized, non-linear way, I miss things.
After my brain dump is done I take all the little tid-bits and try to order them into sections of the story. Would this go in the beginning? Would this be a good moment to place as an act break? What if I opened with this thought then came back to it?
From there the story really starts to take shape, and I’m able to answer the questions that I couldn’t quite figure out in the brain dump. Like, for example, there will be no cat in this film. It just doesn’t work. Sorry.
On Saturday I’ll be running my Creative Writing Workshop students through a few exercises that employ this very clever BRAIN DUMP device, and tomorrow when I review where I am with my feature I’ll go back to the original dump to re-steep myself in all those in-going ideas. Try it sometime. It’s so much less stress than an actual outline, and yet you’re still doing really valuable work.