River of Thoughts

Christine Royse Niles — Changing the world one word at a time

How to Capture the Perfect Idea

The other morning, I woke up from the most excellent dream.

It was about 3:30 am, and the dream showed me exactly what was supposed to happen in the novel I’m working on. The map for the whole book floated in the air just above my brain. I smiled (or maybe I just dreamt I did), and reached out to grab that idea.

And as soon as I did, it was gone.

Photo credit: Martin Cathrae via cc

Photo credit: Martin Cathrae via cc

Writers debate the topic of ideas a lot. Mostly to avoid writing, I think. But I’ve seen two pretty distinct camps:

Ideas as mystery gifts

Some ideas are like fog. They’re everywhere, but the moment we try to snatch them up and put form to them, they dissolve as if they were never there at all.

We assign a certain magic to ideas. We expect them to behave—to arrive fully formed.

Whether it’s a title and outline for the perfect blog post or the fully formed set of beautifully interwoven story lines for a novel, we often expect The Muse to deliver it in shiny wrapping paper and a big red bow.

And at the same time, we fear she’ll never bring us another one.

Ideas as precious gems

Some of us think of ideas as diamonds and emeralds and sapphires. We see every idea as the most amazing one ever, and we think everything is an idea worthy of a story.

We believe them to be precious and rare. We invest our energy in protecting them and creating the perfect showcase for them.

But sometimes an idea is cubic zirconia. Fool’s gold. Attractive without depth or truth.

Chasing those ideas is a great challenge and helps us grow, but it takes a lot of practice and no small amount of confidence to pull this off. A weak idea really takes a lot of work and imagination to pull up out of the landfill.

The new paradigm: Curating Ideas

The reality is somewhere in the middle: ideas are abundant, but it takes some work to find the good ones.

So I look around. A lot. And I write. A lot.

For blog and non-fiction content, I mine my Facebook comments and sent emails. I look at questions people have asked and I’ve answered. Questions like “How do you know what to write about?”

Fiction ideas are even more fun. I watch people at the grocery story and airports and restaurants and sporting events. I imagine why they’re there. What they did before they arrived. What they’ll be doing later.

I eavesdrop (such as the extraordinarily creepy conversation about 50 Shades of Gray between two strangers of opposite gender on a flight from Detroit to Philadelphia. Awkward much?)

I see situations and I think “what would one individual in that situation do? What would a totally different person do? What would happen if they ran into each other?”

Ideas are everywhere, and you can practice and hone your ability to set the special ones apart. If you’re constantly watching the world and keeping track of your ideas, you’ll never run out.

But then what? What do you do when your next short story shows up while you’re standing in front of the cheese display at Walmart?

Get practical: Capture those bad-boys.

Well-disciplined writers have a capture system where they can throw thoughts and observations whenever they appear.

I am not well-disciplined.

In fairness, I know the tools. I actually have several ways of doing this, but I absolutely suck at using any of them regularly.

But even through more ideas slip through my fingers than make it into the net, I still have a file with 49 different new blog post titles/ideas. I have over 70,000 words of random freewrites and quotes and observations and thoughts.

So don’t feel like you have to do it perfectly. Don’t give up because you lose a few. But find a place to put them. And start using it.

And don’t worry about how to keep them all organized. Despite my passion for order, my ideas are all in a big tangled pile like a skein of yarn after a kitten has had his way with it. But they’re there. I can skim through it all and sort things out into categories and buckets. Or I can just grab one and start working on it.

Trust in the future

Ideas are not limited. And when you treat them as if they are, you create a box for your imagination and slap a giant padlock on it. Stop doing that.

If you don’t know what to write about, just write. Write about what you see around you. Describe the unique grain in the wood on a cabinet door or the fraying threads on the upholstery of the ottoman your feet are on right now, and how you wish you had cut the fabric just a little bigger when you made the coverings. Then hold onto those things.

Because one day, you’ll be writing a character who needs to demonstrate a particular sense of dissatisfaction with herself, or one who loves woodworking more than his wife. And you’ll know what to write about.

How do you keep track of your ideas? Share your process in the comments…

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About Christine

I am a writer, a project manager, and a corporate refugee with a heart for orphans around the world. My two daughters were adopted from Ukraine at ages 12 and 14. I post about writing, chasing dreams, and making a difference in the world, and sometimes I share fun snippets of fiction in-progress.

14 Replies

  1. I have ideas everywhere. Jotted notes on a tablet in my purse. Files on my laptop. I keep my iPhone by my bed so if I wake with an epiphany I can type it immediately into my Notes without turning on a light and bothering my husband. I try to always have access to something to record ideas so they don’t get lost in my mind fog. The sooner you can get it down, the more concrete it will be. No plan is perfect, but that’s the best I have: record your thoughts immediately, paper or electronic.

    1. Christine

      Good advice, Staci. I’m especially bad about capturing those middle-of-the-night epiphanies.

  2. When I have an idea I write a new draft blog post. Right now I have about 40 of them. I probably need to go through and weed out some of them that I know I’ll never use. Others, I need to remind myself and write something.

    I’ve used Evernote for capturing ideas but it never really caught on for me. I use Evernote for other things though.

    I find that I usually have way too many ideas and my bigger problem is deciding which ones to focuse on.

    1. Christine

      I’m trying to get better at using Evernote. I know so many people who love it, but I struggle to get in the habit. Not sure why, since my phone is *always* with me…

  3. Good stuff, Christine! Yours are very kind words. We need to be a little more gracious to ourselves about how we go about grabbing those floating idea nuggets and making something of them, don’t we? Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Internetworld seems to be teeming with highly organized, super motivated, and naturally creative people who have no trouble capturing and then expressing their natural freshness effortlessly. I tend to side with the other people–the sloppier, less organized, more bewildered lot. Thank you for being there for us.

    1. Christine

      You nailed it, Scott. “Seems.” It’s super-easy to compare our real lives to what we see in Internetworld. That never works out well, does it? :)

  4. Robyn Rochelle E.

    Living in the language dead zone of Germany for almost 10 years had created a love hate relationship for words. The middle ground brain switch somehow throws every word into this haze of – did I say/write/read it in German or English? I’m still there. Being encouraged by those who have gone before to trust that my brain will not only align itself, but it will go though some metamorphosis of heightened verbal usage has comforted me greatly. I’m waiting for that to happen. These wisdom warriors of bicultural lives remind me that time is my friend in this, and I remind them that journaling and I blogging and mining the nuggets are of high value to me. I try to wait for it all to sort itself out. Thus, I’ve gone back to the basics of writing 24/7 every thought I have in a journal. Sometimes being willing to ditch all the electric crap and getting home to the roots serves a greater purpose than we realize. I’m enjoying feeling English as I jot down the foggy muse’s whisperings with beloved pen into heart-chosen journal.
    Thank you Christine.

    1. Christine

      Wow, Robyn. I haven’t spent more than 5 weeks abroad at a time but my kids both are native Russian speakers. You’ve given me a much stronger appreciation for the language dissonance they experience every day.

      And yay for pens. I go analog a lot too…one look at all the post-it notes stuck to my desk is proof of that!

  5. Great post! Tweeted & Pinned.

    1. Christine

      Thanks, David!!!

  6. I tend to think of ideas at the most inopportune times (like in the shower!) I’m trying to train myself to write a note in my phone if I’m not home or in a notebook if I am. I’d love to be a better Evernote user in general. In other words, I’ve got no solution or habit that’s stuck yet.

    1. Christine

      Exactly…same here.

  7. I should build a shed just to house my ideas. Seriously: I keep an “idea” notebook in Evernote. I can add to the list via my SmartPhone app and it syncs with my laptop. (Good thing! I would never sync-it-up myself.)

    1. Christine

      Everyone who uses Evernote seems to love it. I just need to get in the habit of *using* it!

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