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I have a lot of ideas for things I want to write, but I usually end up getting lost in a stream-of-consciousness and either lose interest in the idea, or suddenly feel overwhelmed by the breadth of the subject I wish to cover.

Is there some way of recording my ideas which is less restrictive than outlining, but perhaps more useful than simply writing random sentence fragments on a paper which will be meaningless to me later?

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If you feel overwhelmed, then you think too much instead of acting. I know this situation. I only know one cure: act! Write, write, write! –  John Smithers Nov 25 '10 at 19:55
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7 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The unfortunate part of any answer to this question is that you have to find what works for you.

That said, I have heard from several writers that having a small notebook in a pocket, purse, or other bag that goes with you all the time is an ideal way to keep track of ideas. This might be ideas for starting a story, snippets of conversation that you know would perfectly come from a character's mouth, a sudden motivation for the defining fear your protagonist has that will make or break who she is in your novel, etc.

How you categorize such a book would be up to you. You might have a section in the front or back for general ideas and then keep a segment for each work you have concurrently. Or you might get very small notebooks (Moleskine, for example, sells three tiny pocket books in one pack) and have one for ideas and one for each specific work.

Within that making it more than a random idea that you won't understand later is entirely up to you. You have to write down enough that you will remember. Maybe just write down a quick snatch in the moment, and then the next time you have long enough, write down enough so that you know what you meant before, and then finally when you get back to it start writing.

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+1. The best answer to such questions is that there are no shortcuts. Except when there are. –  Neil Fein Nov 19 '10 at 0:57
    
I think the better method here would be to have the notebook be just a quick-jot down medium, and transcript the notes to some organizing software on a computer (e.g. Onenote or one specific for writers) so that your notes will be actually useful by being reachable when you finally need them. –  Vic Goldfeld Nov 23 '11 at 14:31
    
+1 for the mention of writing down snippets. A short dialogue between characters is usually all that I need to get back to an idea later. –  Seanny123 Aug 26 '13 at 4:33
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As justkt said, everyone is gonna have their own method. This is mine:

Try to summarize the idea into short, detailed sentences. What works for me is to fit in as much of the premise as possible. Then, following that, put down any minute details that you want to include. The idea here is to include everything you'll need to rebuild the idea exactly as you had it, even if you've forgotten it in the meantime.

For example, I recently wrote a short story about a man who lives his life waiting for his big break, expecting it to come to him as his birthright, dying alone having done nothing in his eighty years. My original note to myself was along the lines of "man waiting for American Dream, expects it without working for it, dies unloved" <- that there is the premise part. Then -> "man takes unprofitable major in college like film studies, smokes lots of pot and drops out; man works at walmart; doesn't get good grades as a kid" which are the original details that came to me. I saved all that stuff and came back to it a few days later, and from that skeleton I was able to reconstruct my original idea and write it.

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I've had the same problem, I have overwhelmingly too many ideas and it can sometimes become paralyzing. I tried lots of tools for organizing and keeping my ideas and most of them weren't just 'good enough'. The best tool (method) that I found was what @lynn-beighley mentioned (mind mapping). Mind mapping is great and there are lots of applications available (I personally use freemind, it is free and easy to use. I've also used the official mind mapping software, iMindMap and it's cool). I use mind mapping quite a lot and I just love it.

But there's a problem, whether you are mind mapping on a paper or a digital device, the canvas size that is available for you to work on (practically) is very limited. This is not a problem if you are trying to explore a single idea. But, when you are overwhelmed with ideas, and you just want to save them all (for dealing with them later, or whatever), pure mind mapping is just not enough (this is because, mind mapping is a visual thinking tool and it is effective when used with sketches, colors and other visual aids, and doing this can take some time).

My solution:

Recently, for exactly this reason, I created a web app called inkleup which lets you generate, save and share ideas. It is based on the idea of mind mapping, but ideas presented in a more linear way. It is optimized for quickly throwing ideas and improving them (now or later) it is simple to use and understand. It is currently in beta and available to a limited number of users.

: )

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Try creating an outline, and then using that as a reference to write the story.

One of the first books I wrote as a teenager, I actually did this. I just wrote down an outline first; pencil on paper. Not chapter by chapter, but event by event. When a major event came to mind, I would use the top-level outline numbering and indent level, and then drill down into what would transpire. It was a great exercise to help train my mind how to write books.

As I wrote the story, perhaps a year later, I remember finding it easier to write about one event at a time. It was more like writing a series of short stories. Of course, I changed things at whim. Through several rounds of rewrites, the book did eventually come together.

I hate to say it, but if you're writing a story, don't be afraid to just outright use a formula. I don't do this any more, but have certainly used it as a mechanism to help get ideas out when I was younger. Just think about how you think the basic story should flow, and then fill in the blanks with passes of ever-increasing detail, sketchy outline, detailed outline, rough draft of events, piece together into short stories, and then craft a draft novel (or series, depending on the amount of stuff you're covering).

  • Opening scene
  • Plot development 1
  • Plot development 2
  • Ending climax

Looking back, this may not have been the easiest way to create a book, but it was a way that worked for me, given being wont to overfocus on details and then actually lose focus on the story as a whole.

I'd say that anything you do that helps you get out the stories you have inside is a good practice. Your talents will develop better as you write than if you're thinking about writing, but not actually doing it :)

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I'm a big fan of mind mapping. Get all your ideas out, draw lines to connect them. My outlines often fall naturally out of that.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map

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If you are open to other mediums, you can try a voice recorder. You can simply try the voice recorder in your phone.

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What I like to do when I get an idea is run it by all my other ideas and see how they feel about each other. After all, for a novel, you may have one seed idea that set you on the path to writing the story, but you will need dozens or even hundreds of supporting ideas to fill out the plot, the characters, and the setting.

So write down your ideas, and when you get a new one, try it with some of your other ones and see whether you get inspired. Maybe the idea you had for a detective with an artificially-intelligent prosthetic arm would go great with the idea of a world-spanning alien consciousness whose mate was recently murdered. The more ideas you can tie together, the richer your story will feel.

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