For as long as I can remember I have liked storytelling. I live in the clouds, dreaming of all sorts of fantastical, magical, and epic adventures. To add to this whimsical state of mind, I also have a compulsive urge to write it all down. Pen’s and notebooks are never far from me.
I will often get an idea for things that will happen later in my story while I am trying to write the beginning. Most of the time I know how my story will end before I know how it will begin. Sometimes I get a new story idea while in the middle of writing another. This brings me to today’s topic: How I organize my ideas so I don’t lose them, all while staying on topic. Not an easy thing to do, as I’m sure you know.
I do not profess to be an expert on the topic, as I myself am always learning new things. If you, like me, find your thoughts scattered and are struggling to get that movie in your head onto paper(or a screen), then you need to first map out-at least in part- the pieces of your story.
I read a book a few years ago by Kathy Macias called The Train of thought Writing Method. This book has a lot of good advice for organizing your thoughts. From it I learned to clip my long-winded ideas into concise, piece-by-piece thoughts that could be rearranged and lined up to plot out my story. The first result of this was comical, but very useful. I wrote each even that took place in my story on separate 3×5 note-cards. I was renting a room at the time, so I didn’t have enough floor space to spread these 40 or so note-cards out on the floor and leave them, so instead I taped them to my closet doors. This was extremely helpful. Each note-card had it’s own even, one step at a time. For example, My character starts out in a bar. The details as I had them so far were written on one card. Then my character leaves the bar, and decided to walk home. She gets lost. This event was on a separate card. She hears a noise, and decided to go in the opposite direction. This is on it’s own card. this goes on until each idea is plotted out and everything you have planned in your head is on paper. Now, since the ideas are on separate cards, you can move the order around as you see fit, or throw ideas out or add new ones in as they come to you. Trust me, when you are looking at the physical manifestation of your ideas, it is much easier to sort it out and start writing.
I did run into a couple of hitches with this method, however. First, I have a lot of ideas, and I was running out of space for all those cards (I’m a very thorough note-taker). My ideas were spilling from my closet doors onto my walls, and over the top of my family pictures. The mess was a little annoying, even though it was nice to have my thoughts in order. Second, I looked like an insane conspiracy theorist. When my mother saw them, she kept calling them my Serial Killer notes. Good thing my mom doesn’t really think I’m crazy- But she didn’t like going in my room. It freaked her out. I know I shouldn’t care if people think I’m nuts, but it did bug me. Maybe because I thought it was weird in the first place.
So I took all my notes down, and instead kept them in a drawer. This was not as useful. While my ideas were all written down, I had to look through them one at a time, and I spent more time sorting note cards than actually writing. I put this idea away and left it for a couple of years, going back to my notebook scribbling.
Then, while moving (into my own apartment) I came across a box of old writing. I found the beginning of the novel I am currently working on, which I started back in 2008. The ideas for this particular story all came rushing back, and I began working on it again. I put it aside again when I got married, choosing to focus on my new family life and career. I came across it again when my husband and I moved into a bigger apartment. At this point I had learned that my husband is extremely supportive and exited about my writing, and wanted me to focus on my dream of being a novelist. I took my idea, scrapped what I had, and started over. Twice. My ideas were there, but they were disorganized and I couldn’t quite get what was in my head out right.
Fast forward to about a year ago. A friend suggested I go to a writing group. I took his advice and went. I will forever be grateful to him for this advice, because talking with other writers and getting their take on idea organization helped me come up with the method that works for me now.
Bob White- I mentioned him before as an awesome storyteller- told me he uses Microsoft Excel the way I was using note-cards. Each idea is it’s own cell. Pure genius! I know how to use Excel, but I am more of an expert at Microsoft Word (I am often asked to tutor friends). I scrapped what I had written (again) and started over with my new organized thoughts. I created text boxes, and used these like the note-cards from before. An added bonus is I am not wasting paper, the ideas are easy to change or expand, and I can include inspirational images I find on Google. (Images can help you with good description if you find you are stuck). I have included a sample of this for you below. My real notes are a lot more detailed than this, but I wanted to give you an example. I hope this helps you, as so far I am at 5 pages of notes and 16,763 words of my completed, edited final draft just 8 months after starting over.