Sunday, February 22, 2009

Capturing Ideas

Story ideas can come from anything, anywhere, any time, and they don't always schedule themselves conveniently into one's daily routine. What do you do to grab them?

Someone over on a forum (The Phade, a site for writers and readers of m/m) asked about that, and it got me thinking that this is another one of those things there there's no one best method that everyone "should" use.

I've read in various places that writers "should" carry a notebook around at all times, and keep it on the nightstand when we're sleeping, so whenever an idea pops up we can write it down. I'm really awful at that sort of note-taking, though. And I rarely carry a purse, and my pants/shorts usually don't have pockets large enough or even at all, so experiments in the notebook direction have never worked for me, although I'm sure it's a perfect tool for a lot of other writers.

I remember when I first started "seriously" writing as a teenager, I was terrified of letting any story idea slip away. I was sure in the back of my mind, as many baby writers seem to be, that story ideas were rare creatures and that every one of them needed to be captured and preserved, or I'd Never Write Again, oh noes! :) As time went on, though, I realized that there are ideas and story seeds everywhere. Just about anything can trigger a story idea. They're not rare at all, and having "enough" ideas is the least of my worries.

Because another thing I eventually noticed is that taking observations of whatever and turning them into story ideas is a skill, and like most skill it responds well to practice. I was able to do it a little when I was young, and I got a bit better in a haphazard way in the next decade or two, but during the years when my medications prevented me from writing at all, I lost a lot of that skill. When I got back into writing later on, I had to work on seeing and developing story ideas all over again, although this time I was doing it more consciously. I'm much better at it now, and come up with a lot more ideas (and more toward the "cool" end of the spectrum than the "meh" end) than I did before my writing went on a multi-year hiatus.

To capture the ideas that are worth saving, what I ended up doing was creating a file on my HD, "IDEAS.DOC" for story ideas, and I have a duplicate on my laptop for when I'm travelling. That's the only place I record story ideas, though. I don't keep a notebook or scribble them down anywhere else. I don't keep a voice-activated tape recorder with me (which was an alternative to the notebook which was enthused about in a few books on writing), or anything else. When I get an idea for a plot or a character or a twist or puzzle or worldbuilding detail or funny bit or anything else, if I'm at the computer then I jot it down in my Ideas file. If I'm not, then I think about it for a bit, looking at it from all angles, trying to do a little development -- what kind of story would this idea fit into, what kind of character would get into that situation, or whatever -- and basically try to memorize it.

Keep in mind that I have a pretty horrible memory in some ways, so this isn't always successful. That's all right, though. Somehow I always seem to remember the ideas I'm really enthusiastic about, at least until I'm next at the keyboard. If the idea is still in my head at that point, it goes into my Ideas file. If it's not, then it escaped. Oh, well.

Because seriously, there really are story ideas everywhere. I don't need every single one that comes to me. I don't even particularly want every single one that comes to me. I already have more ideas in my file than I could possibly write about in the rest of my likely life; even if I never added another idea to the file, I'd still probably die with ideas unwritten, so I'm not going to stress out about missing a few new ones.

The problem isn't coming up with enough ideas; it's sorting out the best ideas. The really cool ones seem to stick with me long enough to get them down, and the rest of them I don't care about anyway.

Works for me.

What do you do?



Travis Erwin said...

The problem isn't coming up with enough ideas; it's sorting out the best ideas.

A-frickin-men to that.

writtenwyrdd said...

Agreement: It's getting the good ones used!

I keep a notebook and a really fat tipped marker pen by the bed for the occasions when I have such a compelling dream I want to record it lest I forget.

For the rest, I have a folder on the desktop of my laptop labelled IDEAS. I open a Word file and jot the brief idea down and forget about it until later. It keeps me from losing them and they are there when I want them.

There are a zillion ideas for every one I act upon. I'm more focused on the ideas that I can't bear to lose, e.g. on the projects that are already begun.

Another thing I have done to keep from losing ideas is my ideas posts on the blog. I just have to click on the ideas in the cloud in the left column and there they all are--unless I stop paying on the blog acct with typepad, lol!

Angie said...

Travis -- :) I think one of the definitions that someone is making progress as a writer (maybe from "infant writer" to "baby writer"?) is when they finally get that it's not all about Having An Idea. [wry smile]

WW -- sounds like we work pretty similarly, except for the notebook. [nod] I've posted story seeds here once or twice, but usually when I run into something inspiring online, I put it into my Ideas file, with a link, and then forget to share it here. Have to make a note to do that more often.


laughingwolf said...

the prob with voice-activated recorders: any noise can activate em

a lot of ideas i get, and not note on something immediately, get lost... sometimes while the thought is just formulating... crummy memory

Charles Gramlich said...

I do have a tape recorder I carry in the car for such a purpose, but I don't use it very often. I've got more ideas than I can use. And the best of those ideas I thought up in the long ago are still with me.

Angie said...

LW -- good thought about the sound-activation. I guess someone with a barky dog would go through lots of tape. :)

I lose a lot of ideas too, 'cause I'm another one with an awful memory. Actually, there's a trick to it -- I'm great with concepts and narratives and horrible with individual data items. So if I come up with a great plot idea, I have a slightly greater chance of remembering it until I'm next at the computer, but if I think of a perfect name for a character or a place, or a cool dingus for an SF story, or anything that's a short piece of data, it'll probably be lost within moments. :/

But in general, I've still learned not to sweat the ones that vanish. I can always think of something else, and chances are the new whatever will be just as good as the old one was. Usually. :)

Charles -- I still have the best ideas from years ago in my head too. [nod] I read somewhere that how interested in something you are affects how much you focus on remembering it, and therefore you're more likely to remember something you really want to. (As opposed to things you think you should remember. I still have to look up my own phone number occasionally, or ask my husband, after having lived here for almost ten years. :P )

(I take it that either your tape recorder isn't voice activated, or you don't have a barky dog...? ;D )


Anonymous said...

Hey Angie - I'm coming 'round with reminders:

Hi, I'm stopping by to remind you about the 2009 Writing Challenge I'm hosting. Make sure to check in!

But I also know I need to update your tab from January - sorry I'm behind on that. :)

Angie said...

Aerin -- no prob, thanks for letting me know. :)


Anonymous said...

You know, I did the notebook thing for years, mostly to jot down scenes or bits of dialogue I'd come up with. Actual main story ideas or big plot points, I don't usually have a problem remembering. But sometimes I come up with a cool bit of a scene and if I don't write it--it's gone.

The problem was that I had a full notebook and lots of sheets of loose paper and different story bits all in a pile--so when it came time to actually put it into the story, a lot of times I couldn't *find* the bit I had jotted down. There's nothing worse than writing the scene and then two months later finding that line of much better dialogue you'd written for it and now it's too late. Gah!

What I've done now that has helped immensely is I have a stack of legal pads--one per story. Any idea for *that* story gets put on *that* legal pad. And if for any reason I'm at the library or whatever and don't have the appropriate story pad with me, I make sure when I get home I put those pages where they belong.

Now when I sit down to work on a story, I take out the legal pad and there it is, all the ideas I've ever come up with for that story, and that story alone.

Angie said...

DVLS -- sounds like you have the not-taking thing down to an art. :) I think that's what's really important: each writer figuring out what works for them so they can operate most effectively.