Brainstorming Made Easy (Part One)

Brilliant Idea

A couple weeks ago I boarded a plane headed north to Idaho for a trip I’ve taken 9 times. At the end of that flight waited a group of women–Brandilyn Collins, Robin Lee Hatcher, Sunni Jeffers, Tricia Goyer, Tamera Alexander, Janet Ulbright, Sharon Dunn, Gayle DeSalles, Francine Rivers, and Mama Ruth (Brandilyn’s mom)–who have become so much a part of me that I can’t imagine life without them. Writers and lovers of words all, we gather every July to brainstorm each other’s books. And oh! What a time we have. This trip, this time of fellowship and creativity, is such a gift.

One I almost never received.

When the group first invited me to join them, I was skeptical. Why would I want to go on yet another trip just to sit with a bunch of writers I didn’t know that well and help them write their books? After a couple of years, though I finally gave in and accepted the invitation, albeit grudgingly. It only took a few minutes in the company of these amazing women to know my preconceived notions were not only wrong, they were so far off the mark as to be ludicrous. Now, the trip that I didn’t want to add to my oh-so-busy life is my favorite trip of the year! Because what I’ve found isn’t just a place to brainstorm together, though we do a lot of that. It’s a gathering of hearts and minds and spirits, a place where we pray for each other, a gathering to laugh and create and let our imaginations run wild. Most of all, it’s a place to serve each other.

As I thought about the trip this year, I realized that’s what true brainstorming is. It’s serving others, letting God use your imagination and creativity to spark ideas in others that they can then run with. It’s giving, opening yourself up, sharing with abandon, and delighting in the ways God uses us to bless and inspire others.

Over the years, as I’ve talked or posted or blogged about our brainstorming sessions, many others have asked how we do it. How do we, in an industry rife with egos and paranoia about stolen ideas, with envy and jockeying for position on the bookshelves (be they brick and mortar or digital), brainstorm together effectively? More than that, how do we do it in such a way that’s it’s a blessing and a delight, year after year?

Well, I’m going to tell you how. But first, I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever considered putting together a brainstorming session or retreat with other writers? If not, why not? If so, and what’s holding you back. And if you’ve done it, how did it go?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

34 Responses to Brainstorming Made Easy (Part One)

  1. Laura McClellan August 14, 2013 at 3:56 am #

    I have never been a part of a brainstorming session or retreat like you describe, but I’ve read about them many times and would love to be a part of one someday. Why I haven’t done one yet? I don’t know any other writers well enough to be invited to one or to feel comfortable suggesting it! But someday. Definitely.

    I’m looking forward to hearing how your group structures theirs.

  2. Ron Estrada August 14, 2013 at 5:04 am #

    It would be a dream for me to be able to do that. My primary reason for attending a conference is to meet my writing friends and just gab about what we love most. I was insanely jealous to read Brandilyn’s facebook posts about your gathering. I would have paid just to sit there and listen. I can’t wait ’til next month and the ACFW conference. Best three days of the year.

  3. Sharon Kirk Clifton August 14, 2013 at 5:17 am #


    A handful of writerly sisters and I gather monthly, and one of our favorite activities is to brainstorm about our work. At each meeting, one of our group is featured, and if she has slammed into a writer’s roadblock, we help her by storming through the barricade. It works well for us on several levels. Since we all write in different genres, we come at the problem from different angles. I’ve noticed three things happening.
    1. The person who requested the help goes away with several possibilities. She may not use any of them as they were presented, but she may piggyback off one or more and come up with her own solution.
    2. We get to sample different genres. It’s fun to watch our multi-pubbed historical romance author bs high fantasy.
    3. The process builds camaraderie, as we become one cohesive unit by trusting the group with our ideas and working to solve on person’s conundrum.

    I look forward to reading your upcoming entries on the subject.

  4. Pamela S. Meyers August 14, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    Like Ron, every July when I see pix of the ladies attending Brandilyn’s annual brainstorming retreat I feel pangs of envy. LOL They report how much they love hanging together, enjoying the beautiful setting and each other and brainstorming their books, and I think “I want that too!”

    I haven’t ever attended a retreat that focuses on brainstorming but I have brainstormed a lot over the phone with several others. I have one go-to person that is a great brainstormer, and she works with me when I’m first plotting a story and then as things come up in the course of writing. In fact, just yesterday I called her when I needed to clarify something.

    Steve, I have one question. Why haven’t I ever seen pix of you in the group shots during those July retreat? I was quite surprise to see your post. Are you lurking somewhere off camera? LOL

    • Pamela S. Meyers August 14, 2013 at 7:50 am #

      I have come to realize I should have clarified my statement that when I see pix of the brainstorming retreat each year I feel pangs of envy. I meant that tongue-in-cheek. I am well aware that envy or jealousy is not pleasing to God and I (PTL) am free of such feelings with regard to rejoicing with those who are blessed in their call to write, be it a contract, a new agent, awards, or even a brainstorming session. I guess I should have said I always wish I could be there too to enjoy the company of some of those folks I’ve come to know through ACFW and to soak in their years of wisdom regarding plotting. I have a good friend who is a great brainstormer and I am very blessed to have her.

    • karen Ball August 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

      Pamela, just to clarify, I wrote this post, not Steve. He doesn’t attend the brainstorming sessions. Quite frankly, he’s not invited. Not that we don’t love him, but ours is a group of women brainstorming together. The only men who darken the doors at this event are Brandilyn’s hubby, Mark (who usually mans the grill one night and makes us the most scrumptious dinners–what a guy!), and, from time to time, Brandilyn’s son, who just drops in to say hey. And before you guys start in, it’s not discrimination. It’s simple logistics. Sleeping accommodations are such that we share rooms. I don’t think Don would be happy with me doing that with any guy other than him! Just sayin’.

      • Pamela S. Meyers August 20, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

        LOL, Karen I’m so glad you clarified that. I totally missed that you had posted the piece. I was surprised Steve (a guy) was invited to the annual event. Now it all makes a whole lot of sense.

  5. Connie Almony August 14, 2013 at 5:26 am #

    I LOVE brainstorming with other people. I don’t do it a lot, but whenever I do I feel incredibly energized! I love to let my mind go wild with ideas and what better way to do it than to hand them all to someone else. I can just unload the possibilities and let the other author have the hard job of choosing what to use ;o). It’s fun! In fact, now that I think about it, it was brainstorming ideas for my daughter’s writing project that got me hooked on writing in the first place.

    • J.D. Maloy August 14, 2013 at 9:10 am #

      Connie, I LOVE talking story too! And getting energized, I get it! Losing oneself inside a story, immersing the soul into settings, characters, and conflicts where the imagination has no limits is the BEST remedy for escaping from reality. What a gift from the Father indeed!

      I have two sets of writing friends. The first is a sweet older critique group who doesn’t write my genre. So when I get all arm wailing crazy talking about made up worlds and plot layers and antagonists I get the polite nod and a blink, blink, blink. Sometimes I’m prayed over. Oh, dear.

      My writing friends who *get it* live all over the country so most of our brainstorming is over email or phone. We’re all in the stage of life where meeting in person isn’t possible. It’s kinds of a blessing cause I know what someday we all will arrive at the time where we can and the anticipation of having in person time keeps us motivated. Ah, friends :)

  6. Patti Jo Moore August 14, 2013 at 5:38 am #

    I’ve never been in a brainstorming group, but an author friend brainstormed with me over lunch a while back–and I loved it! :) I’ve told Tammy Alexander that I always look forward to the pics she posts after your retreat each July–you all seem to have such a wonderful time not only brainstorming, but enjoying fellowship and fun. ~ I’m looking forward to your next post, Karen! :)

  7. Chris Malkemes August 14, 2013 at 5:44 am #

    I value your insights. I have not brainstormed but that sounds like fun and the mutual sharing with the big trust

  8. Jennifer Sienes August 14, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    Years ago at Mount Hermon Writer’s Conference, I heard Deborah Raney speak about brainstorming and how she did something similar. It sounds great in theory, but getting a group of women to commit is another matter entirely. I’m an empty nester who writes full time. Many of the writers I know have other jobs, kids at home or financial limitations that would make it difficult. We did something similar last August (which you were a huge part of, Karen) and I was hopeful it would continue. What a powerful weekend that was!

  9. Carol McClain August 14, 2013 at 6:00 am #

    Right now, this is what I need the most–a group of people to help me brainstorm. I’ve been given an opportunity to write a novella–out of my comfort zone. It has to be a romance and have an angel.

    Currently I’m unagented, but an agent will represent me in this work. I’m also unpublished in fiction, although I have modest non-fiction credits.

    Not only do I want ideas to make this opportunity one I’m proud of, I want ideas to know if maybe I shouldn’t undertake it.

    Your blog has come at a perfect time for me. Thanks, Karen.

    Carol McClain

  10. Meghan Carver August 14, 2013 at 6:22 am #

    I also followed the FB updates, reminding myself, “Thou shalt not covet.” :) I would love a brainstorming retreat, and I’m praying for an opportunity like that in the future.

  11. Ane Mulligan August 14, 2013 at 6:24 am #

    My local ACFW chapter has a brainstorm session a couple times a year, but my best brainstorming sessions are with a writing buddy over the phone. We spend 2-3 hours until we have the story down. I love it. I couldn’t imagine life without these relationships. :)

    We might be able to raise out children without a village, but a novel takes a tribe!

  12. Cheryl Barker August 14, 2013 at 6:47 am #

    I’ve never been a part of a group that brainstorms ideas for our writing projects, but it sure sounds wonderful. Can’t wait to hear the specifics about how you all do it!

  13. Anne Love August 14, 2013 at 6:48 am #

    I well remember the temptation to envy. I urge you, if you’re feeling the pull in that direction, to go to your knees and pray. Then wait. God is faithful. Don’t underestimate “divine appointments” at conferences. In 2009 at ACFW, I sat at the “newbie table” beside my current crit partner–and now she’s a very dear friend. But it took another year for that to bloom and take root for us. I took a chance one night, in need of brainstorming help, I instant messaged her on FB, and the brainstorming is what drew us together! Now, four years later, we’ve done at least 3-4 big brainstorming sessions. The most productive and fun ones are the planned weekends at Jaime’s house. I was nervous the first time I went, but trusting in God’s provision, it has been so delightful. It does take courage to step out and take a chance.

  14. Michelle Lim August 14, 2013 at 6:55 am #

    Every so often I have the treat of meeting with other others for a brainstorming session. My Book Therapy pals and of course a weekend with my Mom who is also a writer.

    They are priceless times I wouldn’t trade for the world!

    Great article, Karen

  15. Susan Gregory August 14, 2013 at 7:09 am #

    Respect. The authors I respect enough to value their input are in another group or do not know I am alive.
    I am a sponge and have learned to keep powerful filters on who can influence me.
    Karen, you have a dream team!!

    • Susan Gregory August 14, 2013 at 7:14 am #

      Missed a significant word! MANY of the authors I respect….

  16. Angela Breidenbach August 14, 2013 at 7:31 am #

    I’m planning one right now for Missoula. I’d love tips on how to make it successful.

  17. Joy Avery Melville August 14, 2013 at 7:34 am #

    Amen, Ane.
    I’ve done the over-the-phone brainstorming with a couple writers I trust to have my heart in their very palms. I’d LOVE to put together a retreat as Karen speaks about.
    A gal in our chapter has a SUNSHINE COTTAGE and is perfect for such an endeavor – why is it that MONEY is always an issue when travel – time – food is in the mix? SIGH

  18. Joy Avery Melville August 14, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Amen, Ane.
    I’ve done the over-the-phone brainstorming with a couple writers I trust to have my heart in their very palms. I’d LOVE to put together a retreat as Karen speaks about.
    A gal in our chapter has a SUNSHINE COTTAGE and is perfect for such an endeavor – why is it that MONEY is always an issue when travel – time – food is in the mix? SIGH
    I got to spend nine days at that cottage with a writer friend popping in two of the days – it would be the RIGHT PLACE – now to find the RIGHT TIME and the money to do it.
    Brainstorming is oh so fun and oh so necessary!

  19. Carrie Stuart Parks August 14, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    I had a writing retreat here on our ranch (about 30 miles away from your retreat in Coeur d’Alene) with former members of our church’s writing group. It was wonderful. Currently I have mini-meetings/retreats with my mentor, Frank Peretti, and his wife, Barbara (another Coeur d’Alene neighbor.) The biggest thing for me is to be prepared with where I need the most help (usually in the form of “who should I kill off next…”)

  20. Jeanne Takenaka August 14, 2013 at 8:16 am #

    Karen, what fun! And what amazing women to spend those days with connecting on many levels. :) I think it would be great to have a group like that. I’m still getting to know other writers. I’ve got a couple friends I’ve brainstormed with. One in particular has helped me figure out a lot of my story elements early in the process. I don’t feel particularly strong in the brainstorming aspect of stories, but I’d love to become better at it to help others as I’ve been helped. :)

  21. Rachel Hauck August 14, 2013 at 8:31 am #

    What a great group of writers and women, Karen! I’ve watched this July habit from afar for many years and am blessed to see it’s still going strong!

    I started brainstorming with Susan May Warren in ’05 and never looked back. Now we incorporate what we’ve learned into My Book Therapy — helping writers become the best they can be. With the Lord’s help!

    I love brainstorming. And I’m confident there are more than enough ideas in the mind of God for all of us!!


  22. Bethany Kaczmarek August 14, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    Karen, your brainstorming session sounds like a blast! I look forward to having something like that one day. Right now, my crit partner and I meet for a week and spend the time brainstorming and writing together. It’s been wonderful and super fruitful. But I’m carefully cultivating friendships with other writers and praying about doing something more like what you’ve described. I look forward to it immensely. Can’t wait for a follow-up post )to help me make it a not-too-distant-reality. Thanks! (And have a marveloso time at the OWC!)

  23. Becca Whitham August 14, 2013 at 11:49 am #

    When you understand that there is no shortage of stories to tell, respect each other enough to share your best ideas, and are plied with copious amounts of caffeine, it’s a perfect (brain)storm!

  24. Marcia Lee August 14, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    I was in a group like this for about 30 years. It was very productive for all of us. We initially began with a round-robin letter telling each other what we were doing. Then the internet came in and we eventually sent e-mails and attachments. We would meet once a year either for a few days or a week. I truly miss it.

    I have recently moved to East Tennessee and would love to start such a group. If any of you are in this area or would like to begin e-mailing, contact me. I think we would benefit greatly from interacting with each other.,

  25. chris malkemes August 14, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    I live in Central Florida I too would love to find writers here in the Orlando area that would like to BrainStorm….

    • Johnnie Alexander Donley August 15, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

      Chris, the Central Florida chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers meets monthly in Longwood. We’re having a free Countdown to Conference workshop (and serving lunch) on Saturday, August 24th from 9 to 1. We’d love to have you join us. More information can be found at

  26. Harold Lee August 14, 2013 at 2:01 pm #

    My wife and I are both writers, although in different genres. We brainstorm our projects several times a week, and find it developes depth in plot and character personalities. It sure helps me when I am suffering from writer’s block.

    We are very interested in starting a brainstorming group here in East Tennessee. Anyone out there that are in this area, or would be interested in email or skype interaction, contact me. I believe we would find this a benifical activity for all involved.

  27. Zoe M. McCarthy August 15, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    A few weeks ago, I hosted a mini retreat with my critique partner and sister. Each brought a writing problem for us to brainstorm. The results were great. What I found most helpful was the prayer I put into it, especially that I would be open to hear what they suggested about my baby. In a few minutes, I had the idea for the scene I was looking for.

  28. Marcia Lee August 15, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    The group I was in had members from all across the United States. E-mail was the best way for us to communicate. That was the main reason we only got together physically once a year.

    I have already had one response to my offer to start a brainstorming group. I’d love to have other people respond so we can start an e-mail brainstorming group.

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