Boost Your Creativity: Ideation Techniques for Writers

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

Welcome back to our two-part Q&A on creativity with Bryan Mattimore author of Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs.

After hearing Bryan share his general insights on his approach to creativity I got really interested in finding out how writers might apply the techniques. So, mentioned a few different scenarios that writers often face, and asked Bryan which technique or creative exercise he would recommend for each situation.

Generating Story Ideas

Gabriela: Let’s start with idea generation. What technique would you recommend for a writer trying to generate story ideas?

Bryan: The technique I would use to generate new story ideas is a new product development technique called semantic intuition. It’s a word combination technique, where you combine components of a new product: unique packages, ingredients, product forms, consumer benefits, dispensers, etc. in intentionally-random ways to inspire new ideas. For a writer, you could combine three different components of a story to inspire new story ideas. Here’s how it might work.

Characters

  • An overweight 24-year old female poet
  • An injured firefighter being forced to retire
  • A recently-divorced military historian

Actions

  • Touring Europe in search of adventure
  • Volunteering at a retirement home
  • Taking a stand-up comedy class

Character Development/Arc

The character wants to learn how to:

  • Be more open to others ideas
  • Give of one’s self
  • Love one’s self

Randomly combining these story elements could give you the following story lines:

  1. An overweight 24-year old female poet taking a stand-up comedy class to learn how to love herself.
  2. An injured firefighter touring Europe in search of adventure to learn how to be more open to other’s ideas.
  3. A recently-divorced military historian volunteering at a retirement home to learn how to give of more of himself to others.

Gabriela: I love this technique. Actually, it’s kind of like a more tangible version of the Writer Igniter here at DIY MFA. Can you tell us more about how to implement this?

Bryan:  To make this technique fun, get three empty jars. Label the first jar: “Characters”, the second jar “Actions” and the third jar “Character Arcs.” Then over one to two months, fill up the jars with different story elements. Giving yourself the time to fill up the jars will do two things. First, it’ll make the task less daunting. And it will give your creative mind the “soak time” it needs to come up with really interesting story elements.

Does this process seem too, well… mechanical? It shouldn’t. It’s important that you only put story elements into the empty jars that you have in interest in/are passionate about. If a firefighter doesn’t interest you, but a pioneer woman does, only put her in your character jar. If learning to be an award winning pastry chef French pastry is on your bucket list, put that in the “action” jar.

After the allotted time, randomly draw and combine the story elements to create new story lines. And get ready to write, because you should have more ideas than you know what to do with!

Gabriela: What I like about this jar method is that writers can tailor the contents of their jars specifically to the type of writing they’re doing. After all, a romance writer’s jars will probably look very different from those assembled by a mystery writer. And there’s something fun and exciting about drawing slips of paper, kind of like a lottery.

Writer’s Block

Gabriela: Every writer eventually falls prey to that infamous beast “writer’s block.” What technique can they use to slay that monster?

Bryan: I think there are different kinds of writer’s block. The writer’s block that Hemingway was experiencing was caused in part by the electroshock therapy he had undergone. And one can only imagine how difficult it must have been for William Styron to write as he battled clinical depression.  So there can be severe emotional and psychological traumas that cause writer’s block.

But if we look at “everyday” writer’s block, I think the underlying cause is most often because, paradoxically, we’ve gotten better and better at our skill as writers. We know what’s good and we know what isn’t and this expertise can short-circuit the creative process. We cut off nascent ideas before they have a chance to grow into something we’re excited and passionate to write. The analogy I would make comes from our ideation sessions. When we do table break-out exercises and there is an “expert” at one of the tables, this table invariably has the fewest number and least creative ideas. Why? Because the expert spends a great deal of time: a) providing a left-brain analysis of the topic, and more importantly b) detailing all the reasons why proposed ideas won’t work because “we tried something like this before.”

The three techniques I’d recommend (and use myself) to combat writer’s block are Mindmapping, Freewriting, and Mindstorming. Most writers will know Mindmapping (or a similar technique: idea clustering). Mindmapping by Joyce Wycoff and Mind Mapping for Dummies by Florian Rustler are both good books on the topic. I’ve used Mindmapping to help unblock marketing executives who are having trouble writing their annual marketing plan or creating a presentation.

Most writers will also know freewriting or “doing their pages,” as Julia Cameron recommends in her creativity classic, The Artist’s Way.”

Mindstorming is a simple technique, we sometimes as warm up in our ideation sessions, where we set an idea goal (usually twenty ideas) for individuals or teams. Ironically, by having this goal of twenty ideas, it takes the pressure off the quality of each idea. Notice I said the goal is twenty ideas, not twenty GOOD ideas. Typically when we do this exercise, ideas one to five are close in ideas, ideas six through fifteen further out, and the last five or six ideas, the most purely creative and interesting.

Gabriela:  These are great techniques. I’m especially a fan of mindmapping! In college, I took all my notes that way. The only problem was if someone wanted to borrowed my notes, they had no idea what all those lines and squiggles meant. Mindmapping might not work for everyone, but it’s great for visual thinkers (like me) who need to “see” the story on the page. We actually did an article earlier this year on visual outline techniques, one of which was mindmapping.

Marketing a Book

Gabriela: We’ve all been told that it’s not enough any more for writers just to write the book and hope for the best, they have to help market and sell it too. What would you suggest to a writer working through the challenge of marketing a book?

Bryan: Writers should feel that they can be as creative in how they market their books, as they were in the writing of their book. Great writers take creative risks. So do great marketers.

A creative thinking strategy that I’ve used – and will continue to use – to generate innovative marketing and promotion ideas for Idea Stormers is what I call the “AND” strategy. The example of the “AND” strategy I give in the book was a challenge I worked on to create new marketing ideas for flower growers in Columbia. Flowers AND ______ ! Flowers and food. Flowers and Sports. Flowers and religion. Flowers and contracts. Flowers and history. So thinking of “Flowers and Sports” it’s not much of a creative leap to propose making flower arrangements or boutonnières in the colors of a favorite sports team.

For Idea Stormers, an “AND” strategy was to it to link it other creative art forms, since the book is about the creative process. Idea Stormers AND _______! Idea Stormers and Music. Idea Stormers and Painting. Idea Stormers and Poetry. Idea Stormers and Fashion. What did we do? Idea Stormers and Music! If you go to Amazon and Barnes and Noble, you’ll see that my team and I wrote and performed an original song entitled “Idea Stormers.” As far as I know, this is the first time an original song has been written specifically for the purpose of promoting a book.

Gabriela: This “AND” strategy is key for writers to use with social media. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how you shouldn’t blog/tweet/facebook about writing because that appeals to other writers. Instead, the theory is writers should talk about things that resonate with their readers. I think using the “AND” strategy could be a great way for writers to tap into what other things their readers like and find ways to combine those interests with their book.

The Creative Process

Gabriela: I’d also love to hear a little about your own creative process.  What did your creative process look like when writing this book? Did you use any of your own techniques as you developed and wrote the book?

Bryan: I write by intuition and feel. I also think from the bottom up: identifying specific stories, insights, or ideas, and then generalizing the principles inherent in these specifics to bigger concepts, strategies, and themes. It can be inefficient but it’s the way my mind works.

I knew that there were original stories I wanted to tell in the book: stories that had a beginning (the creative challenge), middle (the application of a specific creative technique) and end (a successfully-launched new product or business strategy.) I wanted the stories I ultimately chose for the book to also have an inherent, original, and unique “teaching moment,” providing me the opportunity tell the “how-to’s” of a specific creative technique or elucidate a broader creative principle.

So I certainly had the raw – and original — material for a book, which was why my literary agent was able to sell it.

The writing challenge for me was how to stich all the stories and pieces together into a thoughtful and compelling narrative, something incidentally I hadn’t done particularly well in my first book, 99% Inspiration. That book was more a collection of interesting articles on creativity and the creative process, rather than a true book with an integrated structure.

I knew in speaking with several editors who were interested in the book, that the editor at the house I ultimately went with, Wiley Jossey-Bass, would force me to be crystal clear about what the larger themes for the book were, and organize these themes accordingly. So, it was obvious to me that I would be forced into writing a much better book than if had I been left to my own devices, without the guidance of a great editor. I also knew that by taking the harder road of working with a great editor I would learn a great deal about myself, my writing and my own creative process; and ultimately be happier with the result.

Gabriela: When all else fails, which is your go-to creative technique? Why?

Bryan: When all else fails my “technique” is to talk to people. As someone who has facilitated over 1500 ideation sessions and creative focus groups, it surprises many people to learn that I am an introvert.  I get energy from being alone and thinking my own thoughts. The downside of being an introvert is that like other introverts (and I assume this includes most writers) I can get trapped by my own self-limiting thoughts and constructs. There’s a rhythm to life and creating new ideas that requires an inflow of new material, an internal processing of this input, creating the new, and then sharing what’s been created. By talking with people, and using them to preliminarily test some of my ideas, I get two things: new and different perspectives on what I was originally thinking about, as well as entirely new, unexpected ideas.

Put another way, by talking with people – and this is often people I trust like those with whom I work at my innovation consulting company – I can change the flow: from too much internal to a balance with the external. An analogy might be a two-way radio that’s got to both send and receive messages.

Gabriela: Thank you Bryan, for all your great insights and for letting us have an inside look at your creative process.

And to all our readers, thank YOU for sticking with us through these two meaty articles! I don’t know about you, but I definitely learned a lot. I hope you enjoyed hearing Bryan share his creative strategies as much as I did.

Now I want to hear from you: what techniques do YOU use to boost your creativity?

Bryan Mattimore is one of America’s top experts in applied creativity, ideation facilitation and innovation management. His bestselling book, 99% Inspiration: A Real World Guide to Business Creativity was selected as the American Management Association’s membership book of the year. His articles on applied creativity have appeared in dozens of magazines including Advertising Age, Reader’s Digest, The Futurist, Omni and Success. He has successfully facilitated more than 1,500 business and marketing ideation sessions for clients, including Sony, DKNY, Wyeth, Unilever, IBM, Honeywell, Pepsi, Centrum, Dove, Crayola, Bauer, Ford, the City of New York, and Craftsman.

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