Do You Keep an Idea Bank?

By Posted in - On Writing on May 12th, 2011 9 Comments

I received an interesting question from a writing friend on Facebook today which I wanted to share with you because I’m sure we’re not the only two writers to have struggled with this:

“Lia, my novel keeps changing, the story keeps evolving, and I’m losing all sense of control. I don’t know how to keep track of all the smallest ideas, the ones that I need to keep, the ones that go but then should come back…
At least I got everything in a single folder, and most of it in the Liquid Story Binder but still… I’m trying to plan the nth draft and got stuck at end of Act 1. I don’t know how to follow without loosing richness of details of first act.
So, question is, how do you keep track of everything? “

I think that part of this is due to the combination of an active imagination and the impatience one feels with the length of time it takes to write a novel.

While we are working on a novel, our minds don’t stop creatively, so we’re always wondering if we could or should change what we’re doing and call it evolution. That’s one reason why it has taken me five years to write my book.

The truth of the matter is that, if I’m totally honest, the first idea I had five years ago was good enough already. I could have written four more books since then, each of which could have explored one of the new ideas or characters that crept in during the writing process.

The trick is to know what to put in and what to save for later. I’ve discovered the hard way that nailing down the premise of the book early and sticking to it is the best way to go. Once you’ve sold the book, editors still want changes, or ask for one element to be made stronger and for another to fade into the background more. They ask for more characters, or deeper characterization of a particular character. If you’ve kept a folder for CHARACTERS and created a document (or several documents in a sub-folder) dedicated to each character, then you can go back and all those ideas are there, waiting to be used. Like savings in the bank.

You don’t have to spend them all at once.

Same goes for world-building, story ideas, scenes. Create an IDEA BANK and as many sub-folders within that to satisfy your need to record every gem.

But be judicious about how many you use in your first book. Throwing everything you’ve got at one book may just muddle the reader.

You may be doing this because you don’t think your story is cool enough, or big enough, or flashy enough. The premise is the key. If the character is interesting, has an interesting problem, forms a plan that you want to watch them implement, encounters opposition from a fascinating antagonist, comes to terms with the flaw in their first plan, forms a new plan, succeeds, and goes forward to a new life enhanced by that growth, then you have something.

In throwing the kitchen sink at the manuscript you may be avoiding the fact that the conflict isn’t interesting enough to you, or the antagonist isn’t. A good conflict/opposition/antagonist is the engine of the story. If you feel you don’t have enough to keep the reader turning pages, I would look at the conflict/opposition/antagonist for answers. Work on their motivation and the rest will fall into place.

With a strong premise you can judge whether each new idea/character that comes to you will help to move the story forward. If the story is already moving just fine, save the extras for book two. Or another book entirely.

As for how to organize the bank, there are as many ways as there are writers. Some use programs like Scrivener or Liquid Binder. Some just use Word folders and documents. JK Rowling used a combination of notebooks and cardboard boxes filled with loose bits of paper. How you store the information isn’t as important as how you choose what to use.

That comes back to creating some kind of outline where you keep track of what has to be included in each chapter. Some writers can’t do this in advance. They have to write the first draft, then outline what exists, then move it around and augment it during the second draft.

And don’t give up! You’ll get there.


Now it’s your turn—how do you organize your ideas?

(9) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Shelley Souza - Reply

    May 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Excellent advice/observation. With today's apparent pressure on writers to compete with the kind of visual, auditory and kinesthetic fireworks films can provide, especially with fantasy concepts, it's easy to forget the basics you've laid out.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      May 12, 2011 at 5:30 pm

      Yes, indeed, Shelley! Character always comes first. Conflict grows out of character. The rest follows from that. It doesn't matter how many fizz-bangs and wurzles you add by way of world-building and high concept what-have-yous… without an emotional journey the reader can invest in and worry about, it's all for naught.

  • claudine - Reply

    May 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    Thanks for the words of wisdom, Lia. Here's to a finished novel!


  • Robert Sloan - Reply

    May 12, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    That is interesting. I don't do anything like that because I have ideas too easily while it's in progress. I write more by full immersion. The one similar thing I do is keep a running synopsis chapter by chapter of what happened and who it happened to so that I can keep track of what happened and check back for details. But I get good continuity anyway just staying that focused.

    I also write linear-organic, start on page one and find out what happens. The only time I throw in anything I think of is right at the beginning when I first meet the characters, then it goes to a balance of interesting consequences of their past actions or the things I threw in, till by the end it's almost all consequences and I don't have to introduce anything to load the end. That all happened at the front end.

    I understand it after it's done, but it's as if the things I chuck in right at the beginning absolutely have to be there. Sometimes they seem loony to me but turn out essential when another piece of it comes up, like the whole book is already there in my unconscious. It's fun writing that way.

    Any outlining or tracking system I've used other than continuous running jots of details for continuity tends to leave me grinding to a halt. I can do it, but it turns out to be wasted time and I don't stick to what I jotted anyway. Something better comes up in the actual process of writing.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      May 12, 2011 at 7:29 pm

      Do you think it takes confidence to write like that? That the people who plot obsessively may be lacking in that department?

  • Robert Sloan - Reply

    May 12, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    I do keep Idea Files for short story ideas though, sometimes I go back and write them after the same one's come to mind more than once.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      May 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm

      Good for you, Robert! It can be useful when the creative well runs dry (happens to the best of us from time to time).

  • Leigh K. Hunt - Reply

    May 13, 2011 at 1:19 am

    I keep track of everything… I use a programme called OneNote, which is a Microsoft programme. It's an electronic notebook, with different tabs, and then different pages in each tab. Its great really… I keep a new notebook for each book, and then just drop the ideas in, research, character profiles, plot lines, etc.

    I technically plan first and then write organically afterwards… but I do try and kind of stick to the plan. Sometimes if I don't, then I seem to get stuck in the middle.

    I do really like Robert's idea of outlining each chapter. I used to do that years ago, but for some reason have dropped that useful habit. Wondering if perhaps I should try that again. The thing with a plan though, is that everyone should consider it a living document… one that can change to incorporate something new that may come up. That way it can always be adjusted.

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