Writing Magazine: Capturing Ideas

Writing Magazine – September 2023

I once woke in the middle of the night with an idea for a new cosy crime novel. Realising how important this was, I grabbed the notebook and pen I keep on my bedside table for this exact purpose and scribbled away. I was so keen to get the idea down on paper I didn’t bother putting on the bedside light. When I’d finished writing, I settled back to sleep, smug in the knowledge that I had captured my brilliant idea.

When I awoke the following morning, I remembered I’d had an idea, but I couldn’t recall what it was. So I found my notebook and turned to the page in question to find. . . 

Well, it wasn’t a great idea. In fact, there were no recognisable words at all. All I could make out on the page was an indeterminable scribble. I panicked and flicked through the pages. Had I written it somewhere else? Eventually, realisation dawned. That scribble was what I’d written in the dark last night. The idea was gone. Forever.

As writers, we always need ideas because our writing business is nothing without them. But we don’t just need to have ideas. We also need a reliable system of capturing, storing, and then retrieving them when needed.

Capture First

Antony Johnston is a New York Times bestselling author, whose latest novel is the first in his new cosy crime series, The Dog Sitter Detective. He writes in a variety of genres, from graphic novels (The Charlize Theron movie Atomic Blonde is based on his graphic novel of the same title), to thrillers, survival horror, and video games. He’s also written a productivity guide for writers called The Organised Writer.

Antony has plenty of ideas, so how does he go about capturing them?

’Ninety-nine percent of my idea capture is done in a Moleskine notebook that I carry with me everywhere—even to bed at night. When something comes to mind, I simply write it on the next available page and date it. Very occasionally it’s more practical to make a note on my phone, which I do in the iOS Notes app so that it syncs back to my Mac.’

Ideas are elusive. They tend not to hang around for long, so capturing them as soon as they first appear is vital. Think about the different ways in which you can record your ideas. A small, pocket-sized notebook and pen can work well, but what about those ideas when you’re driving? Can you use voice activation to open an app on your smartphone and record your thoughts?

Most of us carry our smartphones with us at all times, so it makes sense to use those if we can. Look for a notes app that is quick and simple to use. Of course, the joy of a physical notebook is you can turn to a blank page and start writing. 

Central Collation

Capturing the idea is important, but we also need a central storage system. Keeping all our ideas in one place makes it easier to find them later. This is where technology can be useful, again.

Antony digitises his ideas as soon as practical.

‘I deal with all my notes and ideas when I’m next at my computer, and handle each according to its context,’ he explains. ‘If it relates to something I’m working on, I transcribe it into the “notes” section of the relevant Scrivener project—I use Scrivener for all my work, across all media—with the date, and mark it as something to review when I next work on that project.’

‘If it’s an idea for something new, or that doesn’t yet have a Scrivener project, I transcribe it into my Notes app and give it a title that will remind me of what I was thinking. Sometimes this can be as vague as New sci-fi idea! This all assumes the note was made while away from my desk, of course. If I’m at my desk when I have an idea, I skip the notebook stage and just note it directly in the relevant place as above.’

Processing these new ideas quickly is important. As you type them up, further thoughts and ideas may come to you because the idea is still fresh, so you can flesh them out further as you add them to your central idea storage.

Ideally, an idea database needs to be accessible from as many places as possible, so some sort of software that you can access from any of your devices is best. This could be a spreadsheet, Apple Notes, Google Keep, Microsoft OneNote, or a free app like SimpleNote, which works across all platforms. 

An idea database does not have to be digital. A notebook dedicated only for ideas can work just as well. Having a vague notion about an idea you had several months ago, and then needing to plough through over a dozen journals, trying to find it not only wastes time but may even smother the initial fire of enthusiasm behind it. Whereas, if you have only one notebook to peruse, the chances of finding it quickly are that much greater.

Storing all our ideas in a digital app makes searching quicker. With most apps, all we need to do is start typing and the software immediately filters out notes that don’t contain those words or phrases.

That’s not to say flicking through a paper notebook won’t offer moments of serendipity when two different ideas jump out at you and merge into one amazing idea.

Consider Categorising

Sometimes, we know immediately that an idea is suitable for a novel, short story, poem or article. But ideas can evolve and find life in various formats and genres. Those of us writing across different genres and formats may find it useful to categorise our ideas in our central database.

‘I don’t think of it as categorisation per se,’ explains Antony, ‘but I do conceive of ideas within a particular format or medium. Every medium has its own unique pros and cons, and they generally form part of the story concept. So it’s very rare for me to, say, have an idea for a book but which winds up being a screenplay.’

Occasionally, I tag my idea with a keyword denoting the format I think the idea best suits, such as an article, novel, non-fiction book, etc, but those tags are only there for guidance. Even though I may have captured an idea in my system, sometimes my brain won’t let it go.

One of my first published pieces was a filler idea that became a seventy-five-word filler in a magazine called Mad About Dogs. It stemmed from the idea that most pet dogs have their owners wrapped around their little paws. In other words, dogs train us. And although I’d used that idea in the filler, I kept coming back to it. I knew there was more to this idea than just that filler.

So I expanded it into an 800-word article for PetDogs magazine, which was published six months later. Even so, the idea wouldn’t go away. Ultimately, that article grew into my bestselling book, One Hundred Ways For A Dog To Train Its Human, published by Hodder & Stoughton. Not bad for an idea that I’d initially categorised as a magazine filler.

Excited Energy

The joy about having an idea database is that when you’re stuck for something to write about, there’s one place to which you can turn for inspiration. But if you have a notebook, spreadsheet, or notes app full of ideas, how do you go about choosing one?

‘Apart from things for which I’m already contracted,’ says Antony, ‘I don’t really have a formal system for deciding which ideas to work on beyond asking, “What am I most excited about?” That’s steered me right more often than not over the years.’

That excitement is key. That’s what drives us to start a writing project, and we need that energy to help us finish the first draft. If an idea doesn’t excite you, then don’t pursue it. Leave it in your database for another day. What doesn’t excite you today may fire your imagination in the future.

Letting Go

However, Antony suggests we should also give ourselves permission to dismiss ideas.

‘One thing that has changed is that I’m less hard on myself these days for “letting go” of an idea. I used to get very annoyed and frustrated if I had a concept, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work. With experience came the realisation that some ideas simply aren’t destined to become a fully-fledged story, and there’s always another one around the corner.’

Similarly, just because we have an idea in our collection, that doesn’t mean we have to use it. Sometimes, for an idea to work, it’s all about the timing. I first came across the last invasion of Britain, by French troops in 1797, when I stayed in Fishguard many years ago. It’s a fascinating moment in British history and one that I knew would make a great article idea. But it sat in my ideas database, unused, for years. Then, in mid-2021, I realised February 2022 marked the invasion’s 225th anniversary. The idea now had topicality, and it became three different articles.

What’s important is that we have a system for collecting and curating our ideas, because our writing business thrives on it. It can be a simple notebook, a digital database, or a combination of both. 

But whichever system you use, I recommend switching on the bedside light should an idea strike in the night.

Business Directory—Antony’s Idea Tip.

‘Take two unrelated ideas, facts, or news stories, and smash them together to see what happens. That’s something born of my background in sci-fi and thrillers, but I find it a good general brainstorming method.’

© Simon Whaley