Writing Question: Idea Bank?

During the six-week Odyssey Writing Workshop, students write six original short stories, making successful idea generation imperative. To get a better idea of the methods used by experienced writers, we asked Odyssey graduates:

Do you keep an “idea bank” for future stories? How does that work? Do you organize your ideas in any way? Do you actually use them?

Jason S. Ridler, Class of 2005

I keep a moleskine notepad with me at all times because I never know when a bit of daydreaming or a thought sparked from reading and researching will give me an idea, a title, a name, or an image I can use later. Reading the biography of Captain Sir Richard Burton has made a lot of cool things jump into my head for fiction, including a wicked name for an anti-hero’s pirate vessel. I guess my approach was inspired by the wisdom of that Duke Ellington quote, “Never let a good idea get away from you, because you never know if it will come back.”

Meg Pontecorvo, Class of 2010

Yes, I maintain an idea bank for short stories. It’s not elaborately organized: just a simple document file on my computer, although the file is important enough to me that I print out a hard copy version about once a month.

The ur-source for the idea bank (after my brain) is a moleskine notebook that I always keep nearby. My best ideas tend to percolate during the intervals between waking and sleep, a kind of lucid dreaming state before I fall asleep at night or just after I begin to stir in the morning. From this state-of-consciousness spring what I think of as “gift ideas” for stories: a vivid image of an alien scene, or sometimes an opening sentence. I’ll drag myself into full consciousness, snap on the light, and write down the idea in the moleskine, then make the transfer to the computer file later in the morning, over coffee. I usually don’t embellish these sorts of ideas with additional brainstorming in the idea bank. They’re meant to be mysterious, demanding a story to be written in order to explain them.

On the other hand, I do develop question-laden, paragraph-length brainstormings on “non-gift ideas”: those that come to me during the course of a day, from reading the news, especially about contemporary science, from talking with scientist friends about their fields, or sometimes from reading genre fiction. The “what if” scenarios that result from this process crave development: I use the idea bank to take them from “cool idea” stage closer to “story stage” by trying to imagine plot and character situations that would turn the idea into the basis of a viable narrative.

So, my idea bank alternates between provocative single sentences and bulky, ruminative paragraphs. I can’t say that either of these sources generates a “better” story for me; they are just the two routes I follow.

I’ll add I’m not sure I would have survived Odyssey without my idea bank. As a slow, meticulous writer, I was terrified at the prospect of drafting a new story per week. But having a well-stocked idea bank when I arrived meant that I only had to worry about execution, not conception. In fact, after my first conference with Jeanne Cavelos, I spent several hours looking over the idea bank and planning out which story I would write during each successive week–and deciding which ideas from the bank might best help me attack particular writing problems that Jeanne wanted me to work on. While my experience at Odyssey involved significant (and progressive) stress and sleep deprivation, both of these factors would have increased enormously had I not happily raided my idea bank!

Abby Goldsmith, Class of 2004

I keep an idea bank for novels, one for short stories, one for screenplays, one for short films, one for iPhone games, one for e-cards, etc. I go through periods where I add a lot to each file. Sometimes I pull one out and use it.

I only wish I had a few more centuries ahead of me, so I could use them all! Life is frustratingly short.

Justin Howe, Class of 2005

The short answer to this question is yes. Here’s the long answer:

1. I keep a small notebook with me at all times.

2. If I have free time at work, I use the white board in my classroom to brainstorm. (I teach elementary school English in Korea, which is why my small notebook is covered in a bajillion stickers of pandas saying things like “I ❤ cute”). I’ll then take pictures of the board with my cell phone and email the notes to myself to transcribe.

3. Google docs is my friend. Every month I start a new Google docs file for notes made at work. Since I will have chunks of downtime throughout my day it’s no problem to write in this document. I use headings and put story ideas under a heading called “STORY IDEA.” Other headings might be for a blog post I’m working on or a dream I had that night or simply my to-do list. These also receive unique and captivating titles like BLOG POST and DREAM and TO-DO LIST.

4. I go home and open a new Word doc and copy and paste the day’s notes from the Google doc into this new Word doc. I give this document a name like “12 21 2010.”

5. Once my desktop is cluttered up with ten or so Word docs I go through and copy and paste all the dates and subject headings including STORY IDEA into another document named something like 2010 INDEX. I then deposit all those Word documents into a folder called 2010.

6. When I want to find a story idea all I have to do is open up 2010 INDEX and use the ctrl-f function to search for STORY IDEA. This will lead me to a document named 12 21 2010 so I’ll open up the 2010 folder and find that document to see what the idea was all about.

This all sounds really elaborate but only 5 and 6 are a chore, and they’re things I can do in my underpants on Sunday morning while drinking a mimosa, so it’s really just another version of doing the laundry.

I should add that I’ve only been using this system for the past 18 months. Overall I’ve been pleased with the results and the ability to find things when I want to.

Barbara Barnett-Stewart, Class of 2007

I have an “Ideas & WIPs (Work in Progress)” folder on my computer where all of my ideas end up eventually, and within that sub-folders for novels, short stories, plays, etc. Each folder has a mix of general brainstorming notes and unfinished projects. And if I’m not sure what format an idea is going to ultimately end up in, I have a “misc. ideas” word processing file where those all get jotted down.

When I’m away from my home computer or laptop, I’ll jot down any ideas I get on whatever’s most expedient, which is usually either a notebook, a quick email to myself from my work computer, the note pad app on my iPod, or sending myself a text message.

My idea folder has been very handy for short stories since those are the one thing I’ve been writing and completing with any regularity. I’ve often combed through my idea inventory until a new short story idea started jumping up and down saying, “Me! Write me!” And I’m sure the idea folder will be very handy on that far-off day when I’m ready to start another novel or finally ready to tackle something different like a play.

Colleen H. Robbins, Class of 2007

For a while I kept a large box of newspaper articles, but realized I only wanted a single paragraph or just the headline from each. Now I have a 4-inch loose-leaf notebook marked “Articles and Ideas” where I periodically add a typed page that condenses a month worth of articles into single lines. I frequently flip through this and use the ideas. Even better, I date the articles so if I need more information on the original, I can look it up on-line. I also have a section in the notebook where I copy over the ideas I get while out and about (that initially get scribbled down on one of many notepads in my purse, car, and around the house). I have a second notebook (2 inch) where I keep partial story and novel ideas that still need something more before they become an actual story. One might be a setting with an interesting vignette of an incident, but it is missing character motivation and theme — that sort of thing. I flip through this notebook less often, but when I do I usually find something that suddenly gels with an idea from the articles notebook and becomes a complete story.

I keep a separate notebook for ideas that directly relate to the novel series I’m working on: character background sketches; photos of houses, settings, and animals; photocopies of artwork and crafts; and the like.

Additionally, my personal research library is … extensive. I’ve moved often enough that I have learned how poor some libraries are, and find it easier to buy and transport large quantities of books than wait six months for an interlibrary loan that turns out to be damaged and missing the page I needed to access.

Do I use all these resources in writing? Yes, though I find that writing and editing stories and novels is much easier than submitting them (something I’m working on changing).

Erica Hildebrand, Class of 2007

If by an “idea bank” do you mean like a notebook I carry around all the time or a laundry list of story ideas tacked somewhere either on paper or digitally? I do those things, but with mixed results. For longer, bigger stories, with a lot more information to keep track of, it’s very helpful. But for short stories, it’s not really the best method for me.

Usually my ideas come and go pretty quickly, and the turnaround on whether or not they’re *good* ideas is just as fast. I’ve gone through my notebooks before and asked myself what the hell I was thinking when I wrote a lot of those ideas down. Sometimes it’s better to let those flashes in the pan just pass on by.

What I will do is this: I carry them around in my head and let them mentally percolate. If they’re still there after a few days, I’ll sit down and either start fleshing out the first few paragraphs, or write out all the ideas into a rough list and save it as a story file on my computer. This is the proto-outline.

If I scribble them on scraps of paper (which is common) I keep those scraps in a neat little pile at home so I can transfer them into the computer as soon as I get a chance.

Larry Hodges, Class of 2006

I keep a file of stories outlined (71), a file of story ideas written out in paragraph form (208), and a file of novel ideas (41). I always keep a notebook with me to write ideas down since they sometimes pop into my head at inconvenient times. Often while driving or at a movie I’m feverishly writing down notes. This is where most of my stories start out–and I’ve written over one hundred in the last four years.

I could elaborate, but the number 71 is so similar to 76 that an idea popped into my mind. And so, without further ado, I offer the following, with the hope that it won’t come off like rotten prunes.

Seventy-One Stories Outlined
by Larry Hodges
Sung to the tune of “Seventy-Six Trombones” from “The Music Man.”

Seventy-one stories outlined in my idea bank,
With two hundred and eight story ideas close at hand,
They are followed by rows and rows of the roughest written prose,
All seeds of stories if I command.

Seventy-one story outlines all completely done,
With two hundred and eight story ideas right behind,
There’s more than thirty thousand words,
They’ve sprung up like words in herds,
There are ideas of every shape and kind.

They are the work of many festive afternoons,
Thundering, thundering the keyboard all the day,
Some are sweet and some are more like rotten prunes,
Each idea unique in its own big way!

There are dozens of novel ideas filed away,
Thundering, thundering written notes galore,
Outlines made in every size,
And all of them pure improvise,
Some are bad, but surely some will score!

For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.


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