Your All-Purpose, Idea-Discovering, Secret Weapon! (My hands-down, favorite, most-used technique.)

The easiest, clearest, best, favoritest, all-purpose idea making strategy EVER. (I love it. Can you tell? I really love it.) | lucyflint.com

Last November, I had a ton of fun inventing a list of fifty off-the-wall plot twists to help out all my writing buddies doing Nanowrimo.

Fifty plot twists! I was surprised at how quickly I thought of them all (more to come on that!). And I loved the quirky list when it was done. (It's a little bizarre. Just what I love, haha!)

Well, it turned into my most popular post of all time. I'm thrilled that it's been such a helpful resource for thousands (and thousands!) of people. 

But the coolest thing about all that and what I love most about it: It was so easy to come up with all those ideas! Seriously!

To generate so many crazy plot twists in just one afternoon, I turned to a method that I've enjoyed using for a long time.

I learned it from Roger Von Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head—which is a MUST READ if you want to supersize your creativity! 

He calls it creating an oracle. (Check out more of his explanation on his blog.)

I've seen this method other places too, but Von Oech's book was the first place I saw it. And he was the only one who referred to it as an oracle. Which is, let's face it, a pretty cool name.

I've mentioned it before on this blog, but it's such a life-saver that I had to talk about it again, here in the midst of Idea Camp

The premise of the oracle method is really straightforward and simple. But it's incredibly powerful. Why? Because your brain brings all the magic. And our brains are pretty incredible.

So, buckle up!

At the heart of it, the oracle method is all about connecting two dots. You provide Dot #1 (your question or problem). The oracle provides Dot #2 (a random word or concept, which usually feels completely unrelated to your question).

And then: your brain steps in and connects the dots.

That connection—sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes wild, sometimes fantastic—that is your new idea.

Sound fun? Because it's totally fun!!

Give yourself some time to practice it, and then marvel as your brain provides one solution after another.

So here's the real step-by-step. 

1) Find your oracle.

Yes, that sounds a bit weird. But all Von Oech meant was some book or resource that provide you with nouns.

I use a dictionary, or an encyclopedia. Or even, in a pinch, any novel or book lying around.

(He says you can even use a magazine and refer to the pictures... but I'd get too distracted!)

2) Define your problem.

Yep, you're all over this step by now!

You don't have to go mega in-depth, but you do need a crystal clear sense of what your problem is. The clearer you are, the better. This is your Dot #1!

3) Open your oracle and get a noun at random.

Open the book at random. And then grab a word off that open page. 

Oh, and don't try to select a juicy word.

At least until you get the hang of this, force yourself to get a random one: the top left corner, or the bottom right are good places.

Pick the very first noun there, and then close the oracle.

4) Consider your "answer."

So this word you've just grabbed? That's your marvelous Dot #2. And you owe it to yourself to give it a little thought.

You don't have to do a ton of research about it (unless you really want to!). Just mull it over in your mind for a second.

What does it mean? What images does it bring to mind? What special meanings might this word have for you? 

And then what are its other uses? Is it also used as a verb, or a proper noun? How many things could it mean? Does it represent other, bigger concepts as well? Are there metaphorical uses you're familiar with?

What else does it make you think of?

Feel free to jot some of these down. Again, it doesn't have to be laborious... just see what comes to mind, and take down a few notes.

If you have several angles to work with, you're in pretty great shape.

5) Give your brain the chance to connect the dots.

This is where it gets crazy and fun: the creative process up close! 

Decide that this Dot #2 somehow gives you the answer to your problem or question

Yes, that can feel a little weird. You might stare at it in frustration for a while, thinking, how in the heck are these two things related?

Because that's what you're looking for: A connection. 

Any connection. 

Give your brain a little space. Doodle on the edges of your paper. Stare out the window for a while.

Just keep turning the two things over in your mind: the problem, and this weird, doesn't-make-sense "answer." 

And keep looking for how they might be related.

It could be really off the wall. It could make you laugh. It might be too strange to credit at first.

But the more you play with it, the more you see how it actually, really, truly could work.

6) Call in extra help.

Usually one word is all I need for this. But now and then, I honestly can't think of anything workable with my first chosen word. I'll do all the thinking, and give myself time, and nothing breaks loose.

What to do? Flip open the oracle and grab a second word! Sometimes even a third. 

Play around with a few more concepts. See how your new words interact with the first one, how they're similar, how they contrast. And see how they react with your proposed problem.

Give them some time, and see what shows up!

So far, I've never needed more than three words to hit on a brilliant idea. So, even if you're frustrated with the process, hang in there! Let your brain play longer. Take a break and come back. Doodle more.

7) Take notes on your fledgling idea.

As soon as you feel like you're on to something, take those notes that you need! 

Flesh out the idea, add anything else that you're thinking of, the supporting details, the other information you'll need, anything you see in your head.

If your solution has stirred up more problems, you know what to do: Grab that oracle and launch into the next idea-finding session.

And then apply it to your draft or project, and you're off and running!

8) Repeat as necessary (and feel like a genius).

This gets easier—a lot easier!—with practice.

The more you trust the process, the longer you can hang in there when it feels uncomfortable. You get into a rhythm. You instinctively feel your way to the wild possibilities a lot faster.

Best of all? You get kind of addicted to that miraculous feeling of a new idea sparking in your mind.

(Because it is SERIOUSLY cool. And really fun.)

And then... go crazy! Invent to your mind's content. You can solve a dozen story problems in an afternoon. Or dream up fifty plot twists! ;)

This is truly the problem-solving technique that I use the most. It's easy, it's quick, and it's deliciously fun. 

Please give it a try, and let me know how it goes for you. 

Here's to overflowing with ideas! 

Don't Skip This Essential Step Before Finding A Swoon-Worthy Idea

Next time you need an idea to sweep in and save you, start with this vital (and incredibly helpful!) process. | lucyflint.com

So we're about midway through Idea Camp. Can you believe it?!

(Hey, June! Slow down!! Haha! ... Okay, but I'm serious. Slow down.)

We've covered a lot of awesome idea-generating tools so far: three topic lists that work incredibly well together (one and two and three), as well as a few idea scouting techniques (this one and this other one) that will absolutely get you some good results.

Whew!

Are your imaginations fizzing yet? 

Today we're going to take a look at idea-finding from the opposite end.

This is one of the most important things you can do when you're in desperate need of the right idea, the perfect solution.

Define the problem.

Does it sound mundane? Boring? Obvious?

Ah, but don't be fooled. Don't underestimate this incredibly important step—like I used to.

Because sometimes, just doing this process of analyzing the problem will give you the exact perfect idea to solve it.

Whoa, right? 

I can't tell you how many times I've hit a snag in my story, and then beat my brains up trying to figure out what to do next.

Maybe I've run into a problem with a character, a setting, or the conflict. I'll have backed my protagonist into a corner—and have zero ideas about what to do next.

It's great for story suspense, but pretty bad for my writing day.

So I used to make a lot of noise, growl at my computer screen, and rack my brains trying to come up with the idea I needed.

I spent a lot of time mentally spinning my tires, until I figured this out: That I needed a crystal clear definition of what problem I was trying to solve. 

Sometimes we can come up with a good idea on impulse. But for the more complex, more elusive solutions, it pays to back off and take the time to study the problem itself.

It's tough to remember to do! Usually I just want to plug away until I have the solution I need.

But in order to design the right fix, you have to know exactly what you're looking for.

And you need to diligently uncover all the hidden requirements of the particular idea that you're after.

We can't solve anything until we're clear on exactly what we're solving!

My favorite way to "define the problem" is with a lot of informal freewriting.

Basically, I interview myself about exactly what's gone wrong. I'm looking for the most precise description of my problem, of the story snag, or the hole I'm trying to fill.

And then I take plenty of notes on my answers.

Writing it all down is key, because all your discussion with yourself about the problem is full of good clues: pointers to your needed idea!

Just remember: You're getting the exact dimensions of your missing puzzle piece. That's the only way to recognize the best solution.

Obviously, the questions that you ask yourself will look different depending on the idea that you're after. But the first place to start is by asking: 

What exactly isn't working here? What is the problem really

And then, go into detail.

Like, a lot of detail.

You really can't have too much detail! If you're an overthinker like me, just do your thing. Let it all out.

So, for me, I need to define the problem most often because I've hit a major snarl in my plot.

Like recently: I needed to figure out what my protagonist was going to do during a critical part of the climactic sequence. I knew what happened just before this moment, and I knew what happened just after. 

But there was a big gap between the two, and I had nothing.

And after being frustrated for a while (stomping, staring, roaring), I remembered to start asking these questions. 

I opened a new document on my computer, and I wrote it down: "I don't know how to get my protagonist into this important building at the end of the story."

And then I imagined my computer saying (in a calm, thoughtful voice): "Tell me more about that."

This is when you start discussing every single component of the problem. 

So, for my problem, I wrote about who my protagonist was at this exact moment in the story.

What she had been learning, and what she was up against. How tired she was, and all the conflicts between herself and her allies. And also how she felt about the villains at the moment.

I also wrote down anything pertinent about her skills, her strengths, her flaws. What was her biggest fear? What was her chief objective, and what was the motive behind it? 

I reviewed all of this good stuff. (Brilliant ideas are lurking in these kinds of questions!)

Then I thought through my other characters, and what they were doing during this exact moment in the plot.

And then, too, the antagonist and all his friends: What were they up to? What were they worried about? How were they gathering for the climactic scenes? What did they still have up their sleeves?

I took a zillion notes, and then sat back and kept thinking.

What else was part of the problem?

Well, the building she needed to get into: it was extremely important to the story, and it had some special plot-related requirements of its own. 

So I wrote down everything that I could think of about that

And then I thought through everything else going on in the story's setting: the surrounding area, and the weather, and anything else that could be a part of it.

Another great question if you're looking at a plot problem: What story resources are still untapped?

What about these characters have I not used in a while? What haven't I exploited about the setting?

See how it goes?

The main thing is to drill wide, and drill deep. 

And don't stop until you feel like you have the most accurate representation of the hole you need to fill. 

Also, you can take some time to explain why other solutions don't work. 

This can be really clarifying. It's also a little cathartic, since you've probably had to abandon a handful of ideas for certain reasons. Get all that down, so that you know where you are:

I can't do this, because of that and that and that. I can't do this other thing, because of x and y and z.

Then ask:

What else will the solution have to take into consideration?

What other constraints are you operating with?

And (since sometimes you're filling a gap, and you know what's on the other side of it) what will this solution have to lead into?

Whew! 

After I've written everything down—and then some!—I'll usually take a break from this "Defining the Problem Q&A." 

I'll come back a few hours later, or the next day, and reread all the scribbling I've done and see if I've left anything out.

Once you've gotten every single possible element of your problem onto paper, you're set. Good job!

You have just become the expert on the idea that you're looking for. 

So where does that leave you? 

Actually in a really good place. 

When I did this process for that climactic story snag I had? The exact perfect solution dropped into my head, while I was writing down all the things that wouldn't work.

It feels like magic when that happens! Like "Congrats, you're a genius!!"

The right solution fell into place, and I love it. It feels unexpected in the story (I think!), and it ties up all the concerns I had about the moment itself.

But there's no way I would have been clear on that, if I hadn't gone through this process.

If the perfect idea doesn't show up, at least you know exactly what you are looking for. And that's a powerful place to be, when you need the perfect idea!

So how do you go about finding it?

That's what we'll talk about in the next post.

Ooooh. Story problems: brace yourselves!!