Monday, June 30, 2014

How do you organize your story ideas?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

And, we're back!

Hope everyone had a great last two weeks. I know some of you got to meet Jill in Kansas City (so jealous!) while I was off trekking around the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park with these cuties:

On the boat across Jenny Lake 
McKenna and Connor, loving life...

Though somehow I managed to put in an appearance at the One Year Adventure Novel Summer camp as well...

"Me" signing a book for a teen writer. With Jill standing quite close.

Wherever I actually was, it's nice to be back home.

Several writers in the last month have emailed to ask me about how to keep track of story ideas.



Until recently, I never had a good system for organizing my story ideas. I think better with paper and pen, so typically I would scratch a few notes on a scrap of paper. I might type up a few things or I might just stick it on my corkboard, but I didn't have a system for hanging onto or fleshing out story ideas.

In the last few weeks, I've worked hard to change that. I went through the writing folders on my computer and found that I had stuck my ideas everywhere. Sometimes I had created an entire folder for a story idea that was nothing more than a sentence. A few ideas were inside a document labeled "Blips of ideas." Some were in documents within the folder of their genre. It was a big mess, and here's how I went about organizing myself:

Step One: Create ONE place to capture your "blips" of ideas.

I'm talking about those random writer ideas that pop into your head. Where you're like, "What would happen if I tried to combine Pride and Prejudice with Zombies?" 

They're not full-on book ideas. Maybe it's just at title or a social issue. Or one of those, "What if this happened?" thoughts. 

Even though I think better on paper, I want to keep track of my ideas on my computer since that's where I do my writing. So I created a Word doc entitled "Story Ideas" and keep it in my writing folder.

The first page is titled "Blips of ideas."



Step Two: Create a place where you can flesh out an idea.

Once a story idea is more than just a few sentences floating around in my head, I'll give it its own page within my story ideas document:


Where it says "Story idea #1" I'll put whatever I need to jog my memory about the idea. I use the "heading" feature in Word so that I can get that nifty navigation bar on the left side of the screen. Jill taught me how to do that because she's kinda the greatest.

As you can see from the image, I give myself a place to note any possible titles, to work on a hook sentence (i.e. When such-and-such happens to my main character, they must do this in order to achieve that.), and to write out back cover copy. Sometimes my ideas even come to me as back cover copy, so that might be where I start.

Or sometimes all I have are general thoughts about the story, like the theme or a character name or something the character could discover near the climax of the story. Any thought I have, I write them down.

Step Three: Create a system for organizing works in progress (commonly known as WIPs).

When does a story move out of the idea document and into its own document? When I've started writing the book. I usually don't start writing a story until I have an idea of the first line and how I want the opening scene to play out.

Once I start writing the story, the book gets its own folder. I have a "Writing" folder on my hard drive and then stories get filed either under "Young adult" or "Adult." Breaking them out by genre just makes my brain happy for some reason, but you should do whatever makes your brain happy. There are probably as many different organizational systems of manuscripts as there are writers. I asked a few of my friends just to see how they do it:
Jill WilliamsonI keep all mine on a flash drive and back it up on my computer. The flash drive has a folder for writing, and inside that is a folder for each series idea, inside that, each book. I also have a shelf of manila folders labeled with each series title in which I keep all my ideas/maps/character pics, etc. I don't have a folder and a computer file for every idea. The computer files are only for the ideas that I've started to write. But I have paper folders for all the ideas I've started plus dozens of ideas I haven't started writing. I just like to have a place to put things when ideas do pop into my head.
Shannon DittemoreI have a folder on my computer desktop called WIPs. Inside that folder are word docs. Some are stories I've set aside for the time being and others are just scribbled out ideas. Whenever I have a story I want to work on later, I try to open a word doc and get the ideas down. If I don't, I will absolutely forget them. I get story ideas most often during worship services and I'll scratch them out on a bulletin as soon as I can, but if I don't retype them on my computer when I get home, they're gone.
Melanie DickersonI open a new folder for each new book. In that folder I put all the files pertaining to that book, like character names, deleted scenes, early drafts, synopsis, proposal, etc.

Of course not all stories that I start become books. And that might be for any number of reasons. Like:
  • I love the idea, but it doesn't fit my genre so I can't prioritize writing it at the moment.
  • I'm contracted for something else. (That's my favorite reason to not be able to work on a book!)
  • I like the idea, but I know there are a few plot holes in it. I'm giving myself time to figure those out.
  • I lost my passion for it around chapter two, and it may not come back.
  • The idea is way harder than I thought it would be, so I'm giving myself some time.
So that's how I keep track of my story ideas and keep them (somewhat) organized. What do you do?


35 comments:

  1. Woo!!!!! You're back!!! (I may or may not have started squealing when I saw this post....) I usually jot my ideas down on a post-it note and stick it in my notebook. By the way, is the GTW reward program going to start up again, or is it completely over?

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    1. We'll do it again, I think, but the timing just hasn't been right. Thanks for asking!

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  2. You're back!!!!!! Yay!! Great post!!!! Notes had been hard for me till I got my laptop. I could never just write out a list. I like to keep things like that in my head, but a person can only hold so much. I put my ideas in separate docs in a folder. Some of my better ideas have come from there.

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    1. Glad you've found something that works for you!

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  3. Glad you're back. I've missed GTW. Lol. I guess my "system" is pretty much just one folder in my computer with each story idea in a document of it's own. I don't usually have just on little line of an idea, so there aren't TOO many tiny documents floating around in there. Once instart a story, I keep things organized through my writing software, Scrivener. I can honestly say that breaking down and getting that program has been great for my writing. It may seem a little intimidating at first, but once you get used to it, it's AMAZING for keeping all your resources together and organizing all your little snippets. :)

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    1. Ashley, thanks for sharing your thoughts on Scrivener. I downloaded the trial of it once, but you're right - it's intimidating. And I was on deadline so it really just wasn't the best time of life to be learning something new. I hear such good things though.

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    2. I just bought Scrivener... mostly because I found out it can produce ebooks. But thinking about learning how to use it makes me tired...

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  4. You. Are. Back. Hooray!!!!!!!!!!!!! At the moment, most of my story ideas (you know, the ones that hold you for a wee little bit and then let go because you have no plot whatsoever), they're in a folder that I believe is called "my stories". I have a few ideas right now that I'm thinking of trying when I'm finished with my WIP. I should probably type them up or something. So glad you guys came back!!! God bless!!!

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    1. We're glad to be back too! And YES I know exactly what kind of story ideas you're talking about. I have plenty of those...

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  5. Yayyyy! Go Teen Writers is back in action! I was gone all last week, so that helped, but that first week was killer. LOL

    I'm actually kinda good at organizing my story stuff. I have tiers of folders on my computer (in Google Drive, which is even nicer) that go something like this:

    - "Writing" folder
    - Underneath are my various categories of writing, like articles, thought stuff, short stories, and documents named for each book project
    - Inside the book project folders I have (for the ones I've started editing) first draft, second draft, critiques, etc.--for the ones that are still first-draft-in-progress I have a document for the first draft and one for ideas.

    I definitely have those moments where I scribble ideas down someplace and forget them...so I should work on getting those to my "random ideas" document, whoopsies! ;) A lot of times, Like Mrs. Dittemore, I'll get ideas during church (or during Bible for school). For instance, just the other day I was in Revelation 18 and my eye landed on this part of verse 7: " ‘I sit enthroned as queen. I am not a widow; I will never mourn.’ " It's referring to Babylon, but I thought it sounded really cool for a story sometime! So when I get one of those moments I try to jot it down somewhere for later.

    Anyway...er, that got long...thanks for the post! I'll have to try the header thing in Word sometime. We have Word on the "big computer" but usually my mom uses that, so I use Google Docs as previously mentioned. :)

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    1. Amanda, no wonder I like you! We're kindred, organized spirits :)

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    2. Oh... I use Google Drive too, and the folder idea... Must try this. *runs off to organize better*

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  6. I write my ideas down because I read about a study that showed hand writing this helps you remember them better. After that, I throw the note away. I remember story ideas from years ago, so I know if I don't remember it later, it was not worth remembering.

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    1. That's interesting! Brainstorming tends to work best for me on paper.

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  7. "How do you organize your story ideas?"

    I, uh, have a metaphorical filing cabinet in my brain called Story Ideas, with different folders for each idea, and different sheets for various tidbits and scenes. (In other words, I don't organize 'em.) Once I start writing the idea, I have a project for it in Scrivener, which makes my brain happy. You can have different folders or documents for each chapter - I LOVE to be able to look and click to my chapters - , a place for research a place for character notes, a virtual cork board.... Okay, moving on, since I'm not being paid to advertise for Scrivener...

    I am worried that I'll forget my ideas, though. Maybe I'll take this time to organize them, since I just finished my first draft!

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    1. I hear lots of writers talk about how much they love Scrivener. I tried it and didn't "get it" but I think I need a tutorial before I know for sure.

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  8. There's also Evernote. You can have it on your phone for quick notes & it'll sync to your computer.
    Love the vacation pics!

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    1. Good tip! I haven't used Evernote, but I have used Google Keep. It'll sync too, I just haven't explored that feature :)

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  9. Hope you and Jill both had a fantastic vacation! I have a folder on my laptop with a folder labeled "Writing." Within that I have a folder for each series that has at least an outline and first chapter written out. I also have a folder for novels of other authors that I'm critiquing, and a last folder for ideas. This folder has separate docs. for more fully fleshed ideas, and then one long doc for idea that are just titles, one or two lines of dialog, a lie a character might believe, any short things that could turn into ideas. I also have a notebook in my bedroom for when inspiration strikes when I'm away from the computer.
    Wonderful post and so nice to have you back, Stephanie!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

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    1. Sounds like you're very well organizied, Sarah!

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  10. YAY!! You're back!! I usually either make a board with ideas for that story on Pinterest (not sure why...), or write it down in my notebook. I'm a pen0and-paper kinda girl :)

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    1. I make Pinterest boards to cultivate my ideas too! :D That is awesome. :)

      -Koko :)

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  11. Yay! I'm glad that you guys are back. <3 It looks like it was fun! :)
    That is an awesome way to organise and I think I'm going to try it that way. :) At the moment, ideas (that I'm pumped for) aren't exactly in abundance for me, and I'm not particularly working on many writing projects at the moment, so whenever I get an idea, I start it. Then I pursue it for a little and see if it's going to cooperate with me. You know? :)
    But when I've got a bunch of writing stuff on my plate, and then get an idea, it is then that I might create a new document for it or write it at the top of the writing project I am currently working on. When it gets bigger than a paragraph, then it gets its own document and it is to be looked at later. If you understand that. XD
    Anyway, I'm glad you guys are back. :) Thank you for such a great post!

    -Koko. :)

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    1. That's the way I used to do it too, Koko! It worked well until I started trying to focus on one book at a time. Or especially now with contracts and such.

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  12. Steph, this post makes me want to start a Word file of ideas.

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    1. I wouldn't have known how to do it well if it weren't for you!

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    2. That's not the best sentence I've ever written :)

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  13. I'm not very organized. :P I have some word documents... and probably some notebooks as well. I probably need to hunt them all down and put them together.

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    1. Yes, do that. Don't want to risk losing them!

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  14. Glad you guys are back! Hope you had a wonderful vacation :)
    I loved this post! I always find that I have a lot of files scattered around of many ideas I've had, but I never check up on them because they are all in different files (and I'm a bit too lazy to open all of them :P). This idea of having them all in one file is perfect! I can't fathom why I never thought about it before. And I love the idea of having them be colour-coded by genre! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this :) I'm getting started on sorting out my ideas right away.

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    1. Glad it was helpful, Lucia! I was very similar - lots of random documents stuck everywhere. It's nice having them consolidated!

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  15. Welcome back! I just got back too, actually, from the Summer Workshop. (I'm in the picture you posted! Well, you can't actually see me. There's a piano right behind Jill, and I'm playing it. :D)

    Thanks for the post! I keep my story ideas organized on a Google Drive document entitled "The Evil Bunnies of Plot." I have categories for all the different types of ideas--character inspiration, hook lines, titles, etc. Then whenever I need something, I go there and find it. (Actually, I used it today when I needed a character name. The perfect one was just waiting for me. Grey. Although combined with her last name, Cassel, it doesn't sound so great when you say it out loud. Castles are normally gray... :P)

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  16. Hi Stephanie,
    Do you know about Evernote? It is simple to use/learn to use, and if you get the free version, it's free. But, if you get the premium version it's not. The free version is what I have, and Recently I've been organizing my writing ideas/poems/books in it. Just wanted to ask, as it is really helpful, though new. It is kind of like a online thumb drive...

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  17. Thanks Stephanie for writing this useful post! I love this blog so much!

    I am 12 and I am trying to write a novel, I have ideas but I just cant put them together, can you please help me?

    I have this idea about a girl called Kenna, she has a horrible dad and her mum left her when she was young, when her mom left she told Kenna to be "her perfect little angel", Kenna really wants her mum back so she follows and tries to be perfect. She does things that everyone else wants her to do, she is always the best student, has a lot of friends and she is a very strong girl, but she is not being herself so she forgot her true self. Then at school she meets the guy called Cedric, who becomes her true friend, who truly understands her (and cedric is actually the son of her mom and her mom's second husband) but the problem is I dont know how i can make kenna think and wants to find her true self

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