Composting Your Story Idea Before You Start Writing

How do you develop your idea for your novel in the earliest stages when it’s horribly unfocused and vague? Are there any steps you can take to speed up the “composting” phase?

Sarah posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am planning my first ever writing project – a fiction novel for teens/young adults. I stumbled across your snowflake article which has been an excellent starting point, and having read that article, I can see that my idea is still “composting “. I have ideas for characters and mental glimpses of scenes, and a theme that will underpin the whole story.

As keen as I am to get started on my snowflake, I am not ready yet, and I am wondering if you have any tips to help with composting? Any tips on character development or the story pre-snowflake stage? If so, I would love to hear them.

Randy sez: A little background first on what I’ve been up to lately: I was at the ACFW conference in Dallas last week where I had a chance to hang out with about 700 novelists, editors, and agents. It was great fun and some friends of mine even cajoled me into going swing dancing with them. I also had a chance to reconnect with one of my college roommates whom I hadn’t seen in 32 years. That was really cool.

One thing that I was reminded of at the conference is this: Every writer has a different process for developing story ideas. Sarah’s question is about what to do before starting my widely used Snowflake method of designing a novel.

I should make it clear here that many writers don’t Snowflake. If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, you just sit down and start writing, without doing any planning, any composting. That’s OK if that’s the way your brain is wired.

I’m a slow starter, so I take forever to get started on a project. Here’s the way I do it when I’m working on a novel without any coauthors. When I think of an idea for a novel, I write down the basic idea on a pad of paper and put it in my filing cabinet under “Ideas for Novels”. Then I let it sit for years. Whenever I get more ideas for the book, I’ll take out the pad and write them down. I may discuss the idea with friends and write down their suggestions. But I don’t have a very orderly process for this phase of the project, which I call “composting.” It’s what happens in the cracks while I’m working on other projects.

Composting this way is really just slow-motion brainstorming. Sarah, if you’re not as slow as I am, you might prefer to just make time to do real brainstorming. You can do this with a group or alone.

To brainstorm in a group, get a bunch of writer friends together and tell them your basic idea for your story. Then ask them for ideas. Let them talk. You just write it all down as fast as you can scribble. You’ll get all sorts of crazy ideas. You won’t be able to use most of them. That’s OK. The idea here is to jiggle your neurons. It may be that NONE of the things your friends suggest are usable — and yet hearing them all will get your own creative juices rolling. That’s the goal.

To brainstorm by yourself, open up a document in your favorite word processor tool and give yourself a fixed amount of time — say five minutes or fifteen minutes or whatever. Then just start “freewriting”. The rule is that you have to type as fast as you can, typing whatever comes into your head without censoring. Don’t fix spelling errors. Don’t delete anything. Write like a demon, whether it makes sense or not. Fast, fast, fast, no stopping. Again, a lot of it will be completely useless. But the goal is to pick out the golden nuggets. You can do this every day or every week until you’ve got enough nuggets in place that you think you’re ready to move on to the next stage.

I’ve coauthored two novels with John Olson, and the composting we did was in a series of very intense conversations we had, either on the phone or while walking around the lake near his house. John usually set the stage by framing a question about the story that we needed to answer. I’m pretty good at generating all sorts of random and crazy and useless thoughts, most of them incoherent. John is good at synthesizing all that random nonsense into an actual idea. This usually takes quite a while. It’s not uncommon for us to talk for an hour or two and come up with only a few good ideas.

Compost is wherever you find it, Sarah. Don’t be afraid to come up with bad ideas. They’re often stepping stones to good ideas. You can compost ideas slowly, as they come to you over months or years. Or you can compost them quickly, by setting aside time specifically to compost.

As a little side note, John and I recently came up with an idea for a software tool that will help novelists compost their ideas more effectively. We’re going to build it for ourselves and then if it works well we’ll make it available to the world on our web site at a reasonable cost. This tool is still in the planning stage so I don’t have any information yet on when it might be available. But it’s something I desperately need for myself, because I’m awfully slow at composting and this tool would speed things up massively.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


  1. Katie Hart September 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    I brainstorm by myself, but I don’t set a time limit or force myself to write as fast as I can. That causes me to feel an artificial sense of urgency, which actually paralyzes my creativity. But I do open up a notebook or a Word document and just write ideas, whether good or bad. Most of the time, I ask myself questions about the story/characters/setting, answer them, and let the answers lead me to more questions. If I come up with questions I can’t answer (or for which I have a bunch of possible answers), I leave them for a bit while I work on other aspects of the story.

  2. Camille Eide September 27, 2012 at 8:05 am #

    I’ve been “composting” my next novel idea for almost a year and still don’t feel ready to write it. I’m a manic plotter/outliner, a trait reinforced by two painful novel rewrites. The fear (laziness) of facing that again has caused a massive writer’s block.

    I hope to start with a solid but simple premise that needs no sketchy “complications” to shore up the holes. I am known to let things like that perfect opening hook and setting the tone and genre rules interfere with the creative process. I know, shoot the inner editor.

    So because of all this paralyzing neurosis, I’ve decided to give NaNoWriMo a try this year and hope I can learn to let go of rules and control (eeek!), give freedom & voice to my left brain and write like the wind. Ha. I need SOMETHING to get past the fear & mental blockade. So now, I’m composting and trying not to get too attached to any one aspect of the story, keeping a few basic elements as I list the beginnings of this story. Such as: Do *I* have any emotional investment in this character’s journey that will move me and make me bleed as the story unfolds? James Scott Bells 3 Rules (1. Don’t Bore the Reader, 2. Put The Hero In Crisis, and 3. Put Heart & Vision in Every Scene) and other such rules whisper at me when I’m planning a story because…well, I hear voices, there, it’s out. The problem is I listen to ALL other voices and I’m afraid I don’t actually know my own.

    Maybe the trick when composting is holding on to one or two key rules of good story and tuning out the rest.

    Those one or two key rules will probably vary for most, depending on why you write fiction, but should, I think, include the passion rule: is this a story that will draw life-giving passion out of me? Without love, as told 1 Corinthians 13, I am a clanging cymbal, just noise in the wind.

  3. Don September 27, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    “The 90 day novel” by Alan Watt has the first week or so engaged with composting exercises. Worth a try. I got bogged down around Day 14, when the exercises began to ask for more directed writing around the story, and I didn’t know how to start.

    In “Story Engineering”, Larry Brooks argues that until the writer knows the four key elements (don’t remember them offhand: character, and so on), there is no “story” to tell, which suggests that the direction for composting is to work at fleshing out those four elements.

  4. Emily September 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    I write Historical fiction, so story ideas come to me through research. I have more fascinating stories and plots from that avenue than I could write in five lifetimes.

    I get the rest of my story ideas from my favorite NGOs in the Third World. Again, more stories and characters and incidents and amazing happenings than I could write in ten lifetimes.

    The trick is to pull all this richness of detail and data together and pick out the best bits. Then I research some more, and figure out a framework that will keep my reader turning the page.

    After that comes the work– wordsmithing the tale so that the language becomes invisible. Now THAT is hard.

  5. Judith Robl September 27, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    First Snowflake, now “Composter”, what will you think of next?

  6. Giancarlo Gabbrielli September 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    It’s great that you guys are able to offer good advice to budding writers. Of course, as Emily said, research is really important as well. In my novel, much of it was based on my own personal history. So there are a lot of things I have to consider- the fictionalized characters, the real events, and of course characters.

  7. Lisa October 1, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Amazing how different we all work. I compost in my sleep, and when I have an idea I have a novel length idea within a day or two. No process. I wish I could tell you how I do it so quickly, but all I do is think of my story when I go to bed and I wake up with the answer.

    That said I read somewhere a great solution for you plotters. You start with your bit of inspiration, then ask whats the worst thing that could happen, then write all your ideas down, then do it again and again. in a giant web, then you pick the main plot and subplots from the web and toss the rest. I hope that helps someone!

  8. Rhys Kenney October 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    Great article. I am certainly a snowflake writer.

  9. Danek October 1, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

    Good ideas.

    One way to brainstorm is to get into what is called an “altered” state, which is a fancy name for relaxed. Doing some deep breathing and body relaxation such as imagining a gentle light traveling from your feet to your head and imagine each section of your body relaxing as the light progresses. DO THIS IN SAFE PLACE, such as a chair with arms on it or your bed.

    Then imagine yourself at your place of writing kicking out lots of great ideas for your story. They may not come immediately, but give your subconscious mind time to play. When you get ideas, WRITE THEM DOWN. These flashes of inspiration can be fleeting and easy to forget.

    This relaxation technique increases the Alpha waves that your brain produces. These slower cycle waves are associated with increased creativity.

    I’m a former hypnotherapist turned produced screenwriter turned novelist.

    Long story. Don’t ask. Unless you buy me ice cream.

    I hope this helps.


  10. Debbie Richardson October 4, 2012 at 7:51 am #

    Years ago I sat in a friends living room, drank coffee and helped brainstorm her WIP. We had so much fun coming up with crazy ideas and laughing a lot. When she told me that pieces of things I had thought of made it into her book I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to read her story and see how she had fleshed out our morning. Ever since I have been telling authors to have these casual brainstorming sessions. They truly work.

  11. Lindy Swanson October 5, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    Camille mentioned overcoming fear and negative voices. Cec Murphy addressed these in _Unleash the Writer Within_. I’ve found Neil Anderson’s _Victory Over the Darkness_, _Bondage Breaker_, _Freedom from Fear_ and _The Steps to Freedom_ to be emotionally and spiritually liberating and helpful in learning to discern which voices to embrace and which to reject. This helps me in every area of life, not just my writing. Based on what I learned in those books, I don’t recommend indiscriminately inviting just any “light” to enlighten the subconscious. Not all voices are “safe.” There is only one light that truly liberates and enlivens us. In the presence of this light and freedom I pursue creative ideas without entertaining the condemning voices that attempt to keep me from becoming the best I can be.

  12. M. Christine Weber October 6, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    Randy, I loved getting to know you at ACFW! Thanks for being your funny awesome self. :0)

    I have to admit I have a love-hate relationship with composting. I love the “what-ifs” and exploration of adventure, but I hate the sense of running in circles. I totally resonate with your suggestion to brainstorm with friends. In the same way a (quality) critique group can make good writing better, I’ve found my idea group can hash over plot or character issues and free them up enough to help them soar.

    Also…cookies. Cookies help the compost process. It’s a scientific fact that I’m working to prove.

    Perhaps once you’re done with the compost software you could develop a cookie one?

    Just sayin’.

    -M ;0)

  13. Ann October 12, 2012 at 2:36 am #

    Hi Randy – just wanted to tell you that I tried your group brainstorming idea with my writing group and I found it very helpful and interesting, and so did they, I think. One of the members suggested that we do it regularly.


  14. Michael D November 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    Can I suggest a really helpful way of brainstorming. It’s called mind-mapping. Rather than sitting down and just writing ideas on a word doc., you do it as follows:

    1. Take a sheet of blank paper.

    2. Write the main thing you want to come up with ideas about in a circle in the middle of the page. (The main thing could be the theme of your novel, it could a character, it could be the first thing that comes into your head because you’ve had too much coffee!)

    3. Think of something connected to that, draw a line and put that in a circle as if it’s “growing” off the main thing.

    4. Think of another thing connected to the main thing- as many as possible.

    5. Repeat the process for each of the circles coming off the first, and when you have other ideas about those circles create a new layer and repeat the process.

    You don’t have to finish the first circle at first, you can go off on tangents and come back to it.

    You will surprise yourself with how many bubbles you very quickly create, and you will have loads of material.

    Finally, if you like, you can draw lines between disparate/ unconnected bubbles on the sheet, ones on the outer edge, and suddenly you may connect two unexpected things which creates an interesting idea. This method was taught me by a professional scriptwriter and it really does work.

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