Idea Files

Writers and their ideas. Whether they’re teeming in our heads, overflowing our imaginations, or being chiseled from what seems like bedrock, the question isn’t so much where do they come from as it is how do we preserve them until we’re ready for them?

In my amateur days I used to suffer sudden sweats of panic about losing the idea that would make me famous. Then, as I established my career, I figured that good ideas were like stray dogs you don’t want to adopt:  no matter how hard you ignore them, they stick around.

Even so, good ideas shouldn’t be wasted. They shouldn’t be lost. So how do we manage them? In other words, are you tidy, meticulous, and organized with all your ideas filed in the Cloud or some other nebulous, high-tech place? Or do you jot your ideas on your phone or tablet? Or do you dump them all into a Word document file? Or do you scribble them on fast-food napkins, the backs of envelopes, sticky notes, and any other scrap of paper that’s handy?

Several years ago, I worked in the rare books department of a university library. At the time, this library was not yet computerized, so a card catalog was still in use — you know, that tall wooden cabinet with every book in the collection filed alphabetically on a separate card in the catalog’s narrow drawers. One of the advantages of my lowly job was the availability of blank cards. If I needed to jot down a line of dialogue for a character, I had a stack of cards at hand. I would go home with all sorts of cryptic notes, bits of description, etc. scribbled on several cards. This haphazard approach worked fine for manuscripts in progress then, and still does.

But the focus of this post is on the ideas that come when you can’t drop everything and work on them immediately. The ideas that are going to be filed away for use later. How do you record them? What, exactly, do you record? What goes into those files? And how useful are they later when you get around to them?

I admit that I’m more of a piler than a filer. When I’m working on a manuscript, I don’t want to throw anything away, and I don’t want the piles of paper, notes, references, etc. on my desk disturbed until the manuscript is finished, edited, submitted, copy-edited, and safely in production. Only then do I clear the desk in preparation for the next project. Needless to say, this leads to some pretty horrendous stacks of all sorts of things. I’ll never forget the day that I was cleaning out my office, and came across one of those bits of paper that was so obviously a notation of an idea.

I knew it was important because a) I’d written it down and b) I’d kept it on my desk close at hand. At least, I could only presume that it had once been important. Because it only contained a single cryptic word that made no sense whatsoever. I think it might have been a character name, but who was he? I was writing three science fiction books a year at the time, and all sorts of names and terms were being invented daily.

So there I stood, holding a potentially vital clue in my hand … and I couldn’t use it.

I never did recall what it meant, what it was for, why I’d written it, or what I intended to do with it. Nothing sparked to life. Whatever the idea was, it was clearly without sufficient vitality to stick around. However, it taught me that when I took the trouble to record an idea, then I needed to write down more than a single mysterious word or phrase.

Here, then, are my suggestions for idea notations:

1) Determine whether you have a character, setting, or plot idea.

2) If a character, then write at least a paragraph of description or background. If a name comes to you or a handful of possible names, record those. Do you have any inkling of this character’s personality, or any quirks? Can you envision as yet how this character might dress or express herself? What does she want from life? What is troubling her? What about her intrigues you or appeals to you? How might you make her more vivid?

3) If you’ve got a setting in mind, whether it’s a world or a room, describe it as vividly and as specifically as you can. List all the details that occur to you. Don’t worry about gaps and missing information. Don’t even bother with putting the details into sentences. Just list what comes to mind. Afterwards, try to form a dominant impression of this setting. Can you sum up what you have so far into a short phrase? For example, you might use “blinding light” as a dominant impression for a desert setting featuring white, purely reflective sand beneath an intense sun.

4) If it’s a plot that’s unfurling in your mind, then go ahead and try to really capture it. At least try to sketch out the bare bones of the situation, a catalytic event of change, a potential protagonist, a possible antagonist, their individual goals, and the disaster they’re possibly headed toward.

In other words, instead of filing the notation “sinking ship” in your plot file, write up a plot sketch in which you determine who’s aboard her, what’s causing her to go down, are there sufficient lifeboats, are the officers able to control the panic, who among the crew and passengers has the most to lose, which individual with a lot at stake stands out or interests you most, and what does this individual want to accomplish. The more you can record, the more likely your plot will continue to bubble in the back of your mind, alive and possibly growing.

You will have gaps, of course. These are, after all, ideas rather than fully developed premises. You needn’t push yourself for answers or expect to have them all at once. Just make sure you ask the questions. And then, secure those ideas so they don’t become lost!

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