The Power of a Passive Idea File

You've gotta be an idea factory. Grab your inspiration *before* you need it. |

A novel isn't just one idea: It's dozens of ideas. Hundreds. Thousands, even. Because behind every little dialogue interchange, every scene's climax, every character choice: there's an idea.

You've gotta be an idea factory. Always coming up with those tiny ideas that work together to form the scene, the chapter.

And when you're long-hauling your way through a rough draft, you can go clean through all your intriguing ideas in just a couple of sessions. 

When you hit a wall, you can brainstorm your way out, or, you can grab a little idea snack. You can have a few files of inspiration ready to go. 

Inspiration before you need it. How gorgeous is that??

Think of it like stocking your pantry: If you've got the good staples on hand, you can always whip up a good meal, right? Well, this is food for your writing.

I have three main files for storing inspiration. Simple documents that are bursting with ideas--enough to keep me writing novels for the rest of my life. ... Bookshelves better buckle up.

The Title File.

What is it: Well, it's a list of titles for works that don't exist. Titles for novels, story collections, poems, essays, chapters. I've started to look at titles as their own genre, their own little art form. They're like a miniature story themselves, a story starter, a teaser. 

Have you felt this way before? The right title can make a story world, or story situation, spring up all on its own. Practically effortless.

Here's what I do: Whenever I feel like it, I'll create a little list full of titles. Try it. It's pretty dang fun to sit down and generate a bunch of really quirky book titles.

There's nothing on the line, no pressure. You get to just be your creative, freewheeling self.

If you're stuck, there are a few things you can try. Look at a bookcase, and start mixing up the titles in your mind. Scramble the words to create new titles, and write those down.

Or, switch up your environment, and pull titles from your new surroundings. Like for me, right now? A Stack of Untended Dishes. An Afternoon of Unwashed Coffee Mugs. The Unlucky Lamp: A Mystery. See what I mean? Of course they can be a bit goofy, a bit too mysterious or silly. That's just fine.

And then, when I need it: If I'm stuck on a scene, or if I'm about to dive into a writing exercise but have ZERO ideas for where to begin, I'll dip into this file. And whatever title I pick, I let it suggest conflict ideas, imagery, a mini story-world. And those ideas fuel the writing that I do next.

The Character Name File

What is it: Okay, not just any old names. These are names that have a kind of deeper feeling for me. Hard to explain it. There are names that I hear and they're just names; and then other names grab my imagination and start it spinning.

A really good name suggests a kind of physicality, a certain kind of inner narrative voice, a sense of motive.

And if I sit and think about that name and everything it implies for me: well, my fingers start itching, and words start trickling.

Here's what I do: Well, there are great name books out there, definitely. This one has been a life saver many times. 

But browsing a name book can boil my brain after a while.

Will you be shocked if I say my favorite source for names is the dictionary? (Nah, you're not shocked. You know I read the dictionary.) I'll read a definition of a less-familiar word, and the combination of the word and its meaning suddenly sparks a character in my head.

Like the word heddle. An old word, a weaving term. It comes from an Old English word for "to lift," or "heave." And somehow in reading that, I could see an old woman, working to change things politically in her storyworld, working to make a broken system better... 

And yep, Heddle is a major character in my current work-in-progress.  

So the dictionary is awesome. But you can find a good name anywhere--road signs, street names, overheard conversations, historical figures, cemeteries (yes, I've done this--try it, it makes you feel good and spooky and writerly), or your good old family tree.

And then when I need it: I'll drop a new character into a scene that's having trouble. Apparently when Raymond Chandler got bored with a scene, he'd send in a man with a gun. Well, I send in a quirky character with some weird skill or attitude or information or a bone to pick with the world... and then I'm off and running again.

The Image and Phrase File.

What is it: This is the file for the strange little phrases that whisk through your mind sometimes. You know what I mean? Chance descriptions, unusual images, just little flecks and flickers of an idea. 

They dash through your mind before you go to bed, or when you're staring out the window. They pop into your mind when your in the middle of a conversation, forcing you to actually act like a writer and go scribble it down. Bits and pieces that don't attach themselves to your work-in-progress, but which are too good to pass up.

Always, always write them down. And then pile them here.

Here's what I do: I don't really work to generate these. But whenever my mind is all warmed up and tossing out freebies, I catch them and keep them.

And then when I need it: When my writing is sounding dull, when my descriptive abilities start sagging, or when my imagination is just tired and worn out: I browse this file for a while.

I'll emerge with a way to juice up the description, or a new take on characterization.  

See? Easy. You can add to these three files whenever you feel like it. Once a week, or at the start of each writing day, or whenever you need to write but are taking a break from your main project.

It gives you that pleasing feeling of writing in miniature, of being mildly productive. And then when you need it on a heavy drafting day: well, look at that. Your bacon is already saved.

And when you REALLY need a inspirational push? Grab a title, a character name, and two or three images. And that, my friends, can save a writing day.

So, what do you think? Do you already keep inspiration files like these? What other ways have you been squirreling away ideas for future use? Let's share tips in the comments!

Wanna keep reading? Check out these posts: Write Through Your Problems and Be a Generous Writer: Empty all your pockets.