Curiosity - Many people become writers because they want to know everything. By actively developing curiosity — both broad (lots of areas) and deep (digging into the details) -- a writer creates more opportunities for insights and connections.
A prepared mind - Writers need to continue to learn. This means studying the craft and reading, of course, but it also means taking courses and researching a variety of areas, including those that are not for the current work in progress. A future work in progress is likely to come from an interest in mastering a new skill, traveling, or immersion in new experiences. In my opinion, actively seeking out topics that are outside your comfort zone can be especially valuable.
Openness - None of us is immune to filtering information. We choose, judge, and categorize what comes to us. As Harry Nilsson said, “You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear.” Paying attention. Listening. Suspending attempts to interpret and create a narrative. These open you (and your stories) up to new possibilities. Give yourself the chance to be surprised.
Okay, now unexpected perceptions and facts, insights, answers, and connections begin to make themselves available. How do you respond?
Cast a wide net - Be willing to collect what’s useless. Grab anything that your intuition says is worth another look. Utility and relevance are valuable criteria, but they aren’t the only criteria for collection. Create new criteria. Include questions.
Actively search - Take time to brainstorm, to create lists of possibilities that go beyond the obvious, and to chat with people (including people outside your circle) about what you’ve discovered, the questions you have, and what you wonder about.
If all of this has become part of your routine, you’ll have a steady flow of ideas. Through much of my life, I jotted these down in journals or on stray bits of paper. For instance, lots of random notions are jotted in the margins of my college notebooks.
Much of what I noted down is now inaccessible to me, either because it is stored away or written in an incomplete way.
It takes a lot of discipline even to collect notes for writing. Keeping them ordered is another level of seriousness (or maybe OCD). But capturing ideas in an organized way has a big payoff in terms of richness of opportunities and time saved. I've used computer notes and digital audio memos. The best solution for me is carrying around a tiny notebook of Postits.
From the time an idea is collected, it goes into a specific category. Here are some I've used:
- Titles (This is the only category that does not require full sentences.)
- Incomplete story concepts
- Complete story concepts
- Good references (always includes notes on value to me)
- Setting descriptions (Great when I'm stuck in a place that might be used in a story)
- Notes for stories in progress or in development (always labeled with story titles)
- Character physical descriptions
- Character insights
- Character motivations
- Character tortures
- Story obstacles
- Story stakes
- Fun facts to know and tell your friends
- Physical reactions (especially to emotional experiences)
- Descriptions of action/movement
- Experiences that provoke
Either weekly or when I know I have a good number, I copy or just put these Postits into notebooks in under the appropriate categories. It's mindless, so I can do it while listening to an audiobook or watching television.
By the way, discovery and management can be different in cases of collaboration. A well-run brainstorming session with the right people can be productive and a lot of fun. And when I was on an innovation team, my ideas went directly onto a white board. More often than not, people on my team added their own questions, comments, and connections over time. It was like having elves at work as I slept.
The focus in this post is on managing the ideas as they’re discovered, but I’m happy to blur the task when idea development opportunities come up as I work. There are the “maybe withs” that come when my intuition says ideas might belong together. Sometimes, the reason why the idea caught my attention or its potential utility will occur to me, and I’ll write that down alongside the idea. Or there may be a suggestion that a fact or notion belongs with a specific story. I’ll include that, too.
I work to keep all of these development bits tentative. As a reminder of this, they are always followed by question marks. This keeps my options open, and it is not unusual for development bits to be put aside or radically changed (for the better) later on.
Someday, I promise myself, I'll mine the many notebooks and tiny slips of paper that have ideas written down. Someday. But, for now, I'm not adding to the chaos.