How many idea notebooks do you have on the go?
I’m a one binder to ring them all gal. At the other end of the scale, other writers have notebooks beside their bed, in their car, in their purse or backpack, in the kitchen, beside their TV watching chair, and some, even in the bathroom. I hope that last one is the waterproof version that engineers and biologists use in the field.
It’s not how many ideas books we have that’s important. It’s how we use them. The first great reason for keeping an ideas book is that the act of writing down an idea gives us pleasure. Nothing more. We have no intention of doing anything with the idea, but at least it’s out of our head and on paper.
In the 2014 movie, Authors Anonymous, Alan Mooney has no intention of writing anything. He’s happy dictating character names and ideas into a recorder. Taking a side trip from ideas, this is a movie every writer who has been or plans to be in a critique group should see. It is so familiar, and so painful to watch.
It doesn’t matter where ideas come from
Truth time. How many of the ideas we’ve written in our idea books have we actually used?
Writers can come up with more ideas in a minute than we’d be able to use in a year. Try this: get a pencil, paper, and timer. Ignore computers for this because there’s something about putting pen to paper that generates more creative ideas than typing into a keyboard. I don’t know why, and neither do neuroscientists, but they are working on it.
Don’t write down entire ideas during the timed minute — that uses too much time. Instead, jot down key words, like “3 girls Cherry St.” After the minute is up, flush out each idea into a complete sentence.
Here’s my one minute’s worth of ideas
- A high school student gets her first job, in a bakery.
- Three six-year-old girls, all of whom live on streets with Cherry in the name, disappear on the same afternoon.
- A man’s pet monkey foils a bank robbery.
- On the C-train, a man has a strange encounter with a woman who insists they are friends, but he has no memory of knowing her.
- What if 3-parent babies were the norm, and a couple had to get special permission to have a 2-parent baby?
Practice capture and release
We schedule haircuts, dental appointments, spa treatments for ourselves; vet visits for our pets; and maybe even repeating mundane chores like defrosting the freezer or checking the smoke alarms. Ideas need periodic check-ups as well. We start by setting aside a couple of hours, on a regular basis, to examine and arrange ideas — what we might call adding a Value Added Tax to them.
Yes, I mean really scheduling, as in writing “Idea review: 2 – 4 pm” in our calendar so that has the same authority as “Dentist: 2:30 – cleaning” or “Mortimer to vet for vaccination, March 12.” And saying, “No, I can’t come to a meeting that day. I have a dental appointment.” We don’t have to say, “No, I can’t come to a meeting that day. I’m spending the afternoon capturing and releasing ideas.” Simply saying, “Sorry, that time is already booked” is all that’s needed.
I try to do this about four times a year. Your mileage may differ, but several times a year is a good idea.
Cold case ideas fall into three categories
What was I thinking?
This includes cryptic single words, like “fertilizer,” which, sadly, we no longer have a clue what the idea was. The 3-parent/2-parent idea would take a ton of research that I don’t actually want to do. The girl in the bakery, after further thought, is another coming of age/epiphany/how I learned about the real world idea that’s been done to death.
In general, over 99% of ideas, once they’ve had a chance to cool, fall into this category. Release them back into the wild. Be free, little idea. You have my best wishes for finding a nesting place somewhere else.
Has something, but lacks something, too
The pet monkey/bank robbery story and the C-train encounter feel like that. There is a germ of an idea there, but I’m not sure what.
I rewrite these partial ideas in a section that, depending on the mood I’m in, I call Mix-and-Match or Ideas á La Carte. Part of the idea examination process is periodically to go back to this section to see if I combine two or three disparate ideas, does an entire idea gel?
I also check these lists when something I’m already writing needs punching up. What’s there often provides a sub-plots or a twist for a plot that’s rapidly heading for staleness.
Less than 0.01% of ideas are real corkers. They’re rare and important enough that they deserve their own pages. Turn to a blank page in the notebook. Write the idea at the top of the page. Three six-year-old girls, all of whom live on streets with Cherry in the name, disappear on the same afternoon.
Spend time looking at one question: Why has this idea got its hooks in me? What does it touch in my life or my belief system?
Don’t plot. Think of this fledging idea as a small, terrified animal. If we go prodding it with a plotting stick, it will either run away or curl up in a ball.
What intrigues me about writing about three missing girls?
- I hate the media circus that happens when a child disappears. People should leave those poor parents alone.
- It’s a sick and dangerous world. Lives can change in a split second.
- The incredible mystery of three disappearances at the same time.
- I don’t believe in alien abductions, but some people do, I mean really believe. Ditto conspiracy theories. Ditto mediums helping the police; they’d be coming out of the woodwork.
- Police are going to focus on looking for connections. What if there aren’t any? What about an absolutely random act? Humans build patterns, even if none exist. What happens if the pattern is so totally wrong that it leads in the opposite direction from where the police should go?
At some point, a promising keeper idea becomes the next thing we know we’re going to write. When that happens, it’s time for that idea to graduate to it’s own notebook or Scrivener file. And this is so much more likely to happen if we weed out the gems from among the hundreds of ideas that so gleefully embed themselves in our heads, and our notebooks.