One of the most frequently asked questions of all writers is: “Where do you get your ideas?” And the answer, for most of us, is usually both simple and complex at the same time. The simple answer is everywhere, because we’re alive in the world and paying attention. The complicated answer is that we get them from devouring books and movies and plays and television and music, and we listen to conversations on the subway, and read the newspaper, and browse the Internet, and walk in the woods, and have our hearts broken, or see some inspiring act of kindness, and we daydream, and reminisce.
Non-writers don’t understand that 1) ideas aren’t that hard to come by, and 2) we don’t really need that many. I write one or two full-length works a year. That means I only need a handful of major story ideas kicking around my brain at any given time.
The question that might be more useful for aspiring writers to ask is: how do you manage your ideas once you have them?
When you’re just starting out, it seems like you’re going to use up all your ideas as soon as you find them. But from my experience, ideas start to pile up over time. I’ve been writing for a long time (more than 25 years), and some ideas get turned into projects right away. But for every one that I snatch up, a handful of others linger, maybe waiting for the right time in my life or more research or some shift in the world or myself before they’re ready to develop.
Some writers have notebooks they carry with them everywhere. I used to always have a pen and 3x5 card handy, not just for a to-do list, but also jot down a random idea. And a notebook to haul around. I also had a big thick file in my file cabinet, where I would drop newspaper and magazine clippings, and another where I might drop those 3x5 cards, or write up pages or sketches of ideas. And then what if I saw something online? I tried setting up e-mail folders for ideas, too.
What happened was that I had lots of little clips, and scribbles in notebooks, but no way to easily search for them. If I had some vague notion to revisit an idea from 20 years ago, it might take quite a search to find it. Who knows what notebook it might be in. And I never did find a good way to capture and connect links to web sites and on-line research and stories to all the paper files. Even if I made Word files, it was hard to keep them all straight, and very hard to search or browse.
But I think I’ve found a better way: Scrivener.
I’ve been a fan of Scrivener for quite a few years (I use the PC version and am still jealous of Mac users for the supercharged version they get to use). It’s a great piece of software for drafting novels, plays, and screenplays, and especially for research-heavy projects. I write a lot of historical projects, and Scrivener makes it very easy to manage web-based research, images, and a thousand different notes. For adaptations, Scrivener makes it easy to keep track of the exact source material that underlies adapted scenes. I know some people find Scrivener complicated, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential, but I find it worth the learning curve. (Note: remember that it’s a drafting program, not an output program, so Scrivener is software you’re going to combine with Word or Final Draft for final output.)
Last year, I figured out that I could also set up a Scrivener "Project" solely to help me manage my various idea files. Its ability to separate material into hierarchical cascades of folders, files, and images, let me group types of ideas and then use folders to contain research materials of various types (text, images, web sites, links, etc.).
The great thing is that I can now easily browse or search ideas and not worry about losing track of them over time. I can safely back them up. Using DropBox for file storage gives me an additional layer of security.
In addition, now that there is an IOS version of Scrivener, I can easily add to my Scrivener Notebook through my iPad when I’m on the road, and not have to worry about losing a scrap of paper with an idea when I get home.
Right now, my basic Binder has these folders: Scenes and Sketches, Blog Post Ideas and Text, Characters, Research, and Notes. I keep general ideas in the Research folder—I have almost 40 ideas for full-length work in there plus a folder of short play ideas. Material in the Research Binder can’t be easily compiled for output, so when I start to actually play with scenes for an idea, I’ll write it in my Scenes and Sketches folder. (A lot drafts of my new short plays get written there.)
Scrivener offers multiple way to view the list of file ideas. So I can color code them (I do it by medium—so I can classify it as a play, screenplay, book, or multiple possibilities), or view them on a corkboard. I can easily jump into any of their folders to read the research that I’ve gathered.
|Color coded ideas, by media type|
Sometimes I still like to noodle and sketch out ideas using a pen and paper. And I still often have a notebook in my bag. But eventually, I make sure to capture those sketches and paper daydreams, either by scanning, taking a photo, or typing up a summary.
Keep in mind that Scrivener plays well with many other programs (including Scapple, but more about that in another post). As an example: I’d made a list of possible blog posts for 2017 in a Word file, but I quickly saw that using a Word file to serve as a reference file/list was going to get awkward. Instead, I started a new folder in my Scrivener Ideas Project just for blog post ideas. And I was able to Import the list directly into Scrivener and automatically generate a new text file for each listed item. If you choose to start using Scrivener for your own idea management, it’s not that hard to input material from your old systems.
Once I decided to use Scrivener for my own idea management, it did take some start up time to go through my email folders and old manila folders full of scraps of paper and printouts. But that time has already paid off by refreshing my memory about ideas that I liked but had faded from view over time. I’m new to this system, but I am convinced it will help me become both more efficient and creative.
I’d love to hear how you manage your writing ideas. If you end up trying to use Scrivener for this purpose, let me know how it goes.