Brainstorming at the Spa
in Matera, Italy
BY ELIZABETH JENNINGS
Definition of BRAINSTORMING
: a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas
from all members of the group; also : the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in
an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem.
When your plot dangles there like a dead thing, when your characters become unbearable, when the
narrative arc is flatlining, who you gonna call?
Brainstormers, that’s who.
There is nothing better than another writer, a colleague who understands the unique pressures of fiction,
to help you out of the sandpit. Most of us have a critique partner, a writer friend, we can call up for a good
whine. My book is dead. I might as well learn how to be a short order cook. And after the whine is over, sleeves
are pulled up and knuckles cracked as you tackle that plot hole together.
So imagine how useful 10 or 20 critique partners can be. And imagine those critique partners meeting in
a gorgeous hotel in a spectacularly beautiful city in the south of Italy. With a spa. And there you have our International
Women’s Fiction Festival’s Brainstorming at the Spa program in a nutshell.
Four full days dedicated to brainstorming your book and the books of other writers.
On the hedonistic principle that you learn things more easily when reinforced by pleasure than by pain,
we make it as sensually delightful as possible. The venue is gorgeous, set in a city carved out of tufa stone,
the Sassi of Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The food and wine are divine, and many a tricky plot
point has been pinned down, eviscerated and conquered over a glass (actually, several glasses) of Aglianico
wine, scarfing down orecchiette con rape.
The program consists of a structured part and an unstructured part, the one in the spa. The structured
part is in the morning, four or five intense hours brainstorming each project. Each writer is given a specific
amount of time to describe his or her project in detail and describe where help is needed, whether with
plot, characterization, theme, or all three. The wonderful thing about the group dynamics is that everyone is
respectful of the genre and of the terms of reference of the work in question. Thriller writers help in plotting
romances, literary writers get down and dirty in plotting science fiction.
We take each book on its own terms. There is a palpable feeling of helpfulness in the air. After the description
of the project, the real work begins. Someone once said that creativity is the speed with which you
reject bad ideas. Bad ideas are aired and rejected fast, and then the good ones begin. Though the brainstorming
program is held in English, the group is international and there is a broad and original reach to the ideas
The discussion is led by literary agent and writing coach Christine Witthohn, who also gives one-on-one
sessions in the afternoon for those who don’t go for a soak and a pampering in the hotel spa, which boasts a
glorious underground pool in a cave.
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