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How to Organize Writing Ideas

My shelves

My shelves

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).

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11 thoughts on “How to Organize Writing Ideas

  1. I love hearing about how other people’s writing styles! 🙂 Mine’s pretty basic: 1. Get an idea (this is the “Ooh, shiny!” part for me). 2. Write it down on whatever I have near me (usually my hand). 3. Convert that idea to a notebook full of uncompleted story ideas and jumbled characters. 4. Start writing whatever I’m motivated to write.

    I’m usually in the middle of writing five different novels at once. 😛 But that works for me, because whenever I get writer’s block with one, I can keep writing the other.

  2. That’s me too! I like to bounce between projects. It always depends on which character wants to talk to me that day. Angus wants to talk to me all the time. Go ta bed, Angus! Keep up the writing Kate…and feel free to harass us if you need anything. 🙂

  3. When I was younger I was obsessed with having every last detail figured out on the one side, and having barebones actual stories that told everything and showed nothing on the other. As a result, I rarely have binders or even a “Notes” file for anything I’m writing. I keep track of the important stuff all in my head. I’ve got the plots of multiple stories and fully-fleshed arcs as well. Here’s hoping I can start putting them ALL on the page, that’d be nice.

  4. Robyn, I admire your organization! Right now I’ve got a few journals with disjointed fragments throughout. I just started going through them the other day, trying to collect the fragments so I could organize them as you have. Problem is, I keep getting distracted by new ideas and the mess is growing faster than I can make any progress. Hmm, I think my problem is one of focus, don’t you? Thanks for sharing how you do it — I’m re-energized now.

  5. Once I decide on a story, always based on flashing insight about a character in my head, I become systematic about it. In order, I do psychological profiles, then goal, motivation and conflict charts for all characters– bad guys included, then a plot step sheet (Via James Fray’s method– cause and effect sequence) then finally I draw a story arc with major plot points for each character then lay one arc over the other to see how and when they mash together. Research as necessary and make adjustments so the structure works. Having loaded the left brain, using my step sheet as a guide, I let the right brain rip and write the damn book. I don’t look back or stop until the first draft is done and it’s time to edit. With extensive planning, I never need to fix structure once the draft is done.
    I start with basic building blocks and stack them until a sound, whole, structure is created. I plug in all the other elements as I build arcs, secrets, tension, back story, character growth progress, internal changes, story questions and answers, resolutions of sub plots and the many other layers of consideration. I know all this stuff before I start writing, I.E, when, how and why everything happens.

  6. Pingback: How to Organize Writing Ideas | Robyn LaRue

  7. Pingback: Planning, Plotting, Pre-writing, Oh my! | The Sarcastic Muse

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