A fellow writer asked me Tuesday morning how I organize story ideas. As writers, we love to talk about anything related to process, so for what it’s worth, this is how I do it:
Story seeds usually start in my journal or on scraps of paper, napkins, my phone, whatever is handy. If the idea is a good one or sparks a lot of detail, I’ll start taking notes and pre-write a bit on loose leaf paper. These go into a 3″ binder under separate tabs. If the idea is short or I don’t feel the need to explore it just yet, it goes in the same notebook under a single tab for “Ideas.” Yes, I “cheat” by typing them up and printing the condensed version when the binder gets too full.
From there, if an idea is taking up head space (or I already know I’m going to write it), I’ll keep pre-writing on loose leaf, do a mind map to dump all the elements onto paper, do a little research perhaps, and put it all under the tab for that idea.
When the calendar is clear and it is time to write the draft (or the tab is more than 50 pages), it graduates to a binder of its own. All notes and thoughts are gathered there, including what was in the journal and, if I have it, the original scrap of paper (it helps me to recall the first flush of the idea and what I was thinking). I use this space also as my “novel journal” while I’m writing and keep notes for continuity.
Because I write both by hand and on the keyboard, I collect all the handwritten bits into the binder after they’ve been typed up. The binder grows with photos, maps, and whatever research is relevant or interesting while I work on the draft. Eventually, the draft is printed and added to the binder so I can read it through and edit on paper as well as on the screen (I catch a lot more on paper, to be honest, but I always do a run through on the computer to catch the worst of it before printing).
The binder becomes my guide for revision and tracks the changes created by characters or better knowledge of the subject. By the time the novel is “finished,” I’ll have collected feedback from beta readers, my critique group, family comments, etc. If I created a private Pinterest board for the book or have specific sites, the links are there as well. It’s a master list of anything that touched the novel in a significant way.
Right now, the two small shelves on my desk hold
- nine story binders (5 completed novels, one in draft (my current project), a stand alone, a trilogy, and a series, all in various stages of pre-write),
- two binders for non-fiction projects,
- five folders of snippets, ideas, and essays from my journal (by topic – I find if I’m writing a lot on one topic, there’s either a story idea or a non-fic book in the making),
- the large idea binder, and a
- second binder that holds interesting research (pet projects, like the Picts).
I also have a year’s worth of journals, copies of books for which I was beta reader, and a few reference books along with Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents, and Writer’s Market.
I sometimes collect a sheaf of paper on my desk, and then sit down to file it all once every week or so. I’m always amazed to find something I’d already forgotten about that is still a living idea. Some ideas get turned into story starter prompts. Others percolate for a long time, and some are quickly executed. Hopefully, they are never lost. 🙂
That’s how I do it. Is it the best way? Probably not, though it works for this stage of my writing career.
The thing is, I’m far less interested in how I do it than how other writers do it. Spill! Give me the details of your organization method. I’m ready to learn new and better ways.
Edit: The photo doesn’t show the top of the shelf, stacked with empty notebooks and older journals. I also labeled the binders (finally).