Aug 23

Ideas, Pt. 1

Not as in “where do you get them,” though I may blog about that some time (and I’m leaving this open-ended so I can add to it in later ‘parts’). But something a bit simpler for today, and it’s a bit of an addendum to my entry on technology – “where do you store them?” It’s important that you keep track of all the half-formed ideas and orphaned darlings to include them in future masterpieces, so how do you keep track of every one?

I started out writing long before the birth (or at least the popular use of) the internet, and before most people could afford PCs in their homes (I didn’t even get a word processor until my second year of university, though I wrote in computer labs quite a bit by that time), so my earliest process still involved scribbling ideas down in notebooks. And until the past, oh, five years or so, that’s still where I stored my ideas. Sure, I’ve had a computer of my own to write on since 1992, but that was for actual drafts and final copies – I wouldn’t clutter up my files with the sort of thing I jotted down on my trusty college-ruled! (College ruled notebooks, kids – don’t settle for anything less.)

Of course, this meant that not only were my notes often illegible (if you’ve ever seen my writing, you know), but that they sort of got lost over time – at that point I was still writing first drafts in notebooks as well, and that means I went through them like a forest fire – it got to the point where I was carrying around fifteen or twenty tattered spiral-bounds (later I got wise and moved on to perfect) packed in various boxes, some of which I hadn’t flipped through in years. And the funniest part? When I’d be casting about for something new to write, I rarely went back to those notes. I’d look at what I’d been reading lately, or bounce ideas back and forth with my friends, anything but go through the Hoarders-like stacks of ephemera that I’d accumulated over the years.

… and this is where I’m supposed to talk about how I’ve moved forward and changed my life, “and you can change yours too, boys and girls!” Right? And in some ways, I have. A few years back, I finally sat myself down with that stack of notebooks and went through them all – copied the notes worth keeping into searchable Word files, scanned a few interesting images, and recycled my way to a bit more storage space. My overall writing folder contains subfolders by project, and when I’m working on a project, or getting ready to, I almost always create a notes file that goes along with it. I use Evernote to clip information from websites, and Google Docs or Dropbox for sharing notes and ideas between collaborators. Technology has without a doubt made my life easier when it comes to associating ideas with works in progress.

But if I’m gonna be honest … all those carefully-scribbled (or carefully-keyboarded) random ideas, the ones I’m sure at the time that I’ll use some day? They can be on paper or a hard drive (or, with some of the newer options, out in cloud storage), and I still rarely go back to them. I still wind up going to things I’ve read, or ideas I’ve been discussing with my friends … or more often than not, the next ideas I’ll be writing about have stuck in my head and grown more important to me over time. And when it does come time to start putting them on a page, I may stop briefly in at my list of past ideas to see if there are any connections – but mostly it’s going to be starting a new notes file particular to that project and emptying my head of what’s been sticking there – and doing research on the fly as I write. It’s quite possible that a lot of the concepts I noted down because I had to remember them won’t ever actually turn up in my work.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t write things down as they occur to you – I still do that now, and it’s probably part of why an idea sticks in my head and starts to grow. And it’s quite possible that for you, those notes will be of prime importance in the future. But as my process has evolved, I’ve found that I’m less frantic about capturing every passing thought in case it turns out to be golden for that future-writer-me.

Ideas are a renewable resource. You’re not a writer because you have ideas; everyone’s got an idea that could make a fascinating book, or song, or play. It’s the way you connect the dots and flesh things out; it’s what you do with them that matters.

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