The Idea Box

by JT Ellison

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It has to be the most frequently asked question in fiction. I can’t remember a single event that I’ve done that it hasn’t come up. And the answer, of course, if everywhere. We’re writers. There is little that escapes our notice. Our job is to observe, synthesize and report back our findings in new and different ways. The magic of that process can’t be quantified – give fourteen mystery writers the same newspaper article and instruct them to write a story about the topic, and you’ll get fourteen different stories.

The question that readers should be asking us is: “How in the world do you keep all the billions of ideas you have on any given day in any semblance of order?”

I’m no different from any other writer. I never know what will trigger my imagination. It could be something as simple and natural as an exceptionally fluffy white cloud passing overhead in a crisp blue fall sky, or as complex as the murder of a young pregnant mother. There are times that I seek out new inspirations, and other times that something odd catches my eye and I think, hmmm, that might be an interesting story.

I also subscribe to the belief that if a story idea is solid, it will stay with you, growing and fermenting over time, without too many influences or excess research. Which can be difficult to deal with when you’re first starting out, because you’re juggling about 1,000 different ideas about how to make your story better, and the thought of one of them slipping away is tantamount to inspiration genocide.

But it’s not. I’m here to assure you – those scattered idea that you don’t write down can sometimes be the genesis of something exceptional.

Anyway, I’ve gotten myself off track. What I wanted to talk about today was my idea box.

It started as a few cuttings from the local newspaper, or printouts from websites, that I stashed in a file folder and shoved in my drawer. When something would leap out at me, I’d throw it in the file and leave it alone. As time went on and my repertoire for idea building grew, I started throwing jotted down scraps of ideas into the folder too: lines of dialogue that amused me, amorphous scenes, pictures of kitchens. Imprints, really. Imprints of ideas, of possibility. These aren’t the IDEAS themselves, they are the germs, the bacteria of my mind’s eye. The microscopic beings that find their way under my skin and eventually force me to scratch.

When I get stuck—and yes, that does happen, even though I’m resistant to call it writer’s block because block, I think, is your story’s way of telling you you’re going in the wrong direction and being stuck is something wholly different, more a necessarily evil to the thought process—I clean. I organize. I shuffle, realign, file and trash. I rearrange the furniture, delete long overdue dead files, read, catch up on scheduling issues, sort out my archives, anything that’s not inherently creative in nature. I’ve come to welcome these spurts of agony, because something wonderful always comes out of it in the end.

The last time I was really and truly stuck, I organized my ideas file.

It had grown to an idea drawer while I wasn’t looking. Folded up newspapers lazily shoved into the space where the folder should go, post-it notes stuck to printouts – it was a mess. No rhyme or reason. Just a collection of whimsies, stowed out of sight until I might need them.

But isn’t that what a creative box should be? Isn’t there something magical about knowing it’s there, that you’ve dropped your little bits of inspiration into one secure place to ferment? I liken it to Dumbledore’s penseive – an aggregator of memories swirling around in some sort of transparent fluid. The idea box is just that – the repository for lost ideas.

So I took an afternoon and organized my drawer. I went to Staples and bought a smart looking expandable file folder that has a hard top and sides, and offloaded everything from the file that became a drawer into the box. I cut out the newspaper articles, sectioned the stories out into subject and geographical region, and slipped the cleaned sheets into the box. Then I stashed it right behind my chair, so I can look at it anytime I want. Just knowing it’s there is fine with me. I don’t need to open it and lovingly finger the papers inside. That, I’ll save for the next round of proposals, or when I need a random subplot.

If these thoughts and ideas mature and make it out of the idea box, they will be transferred to their attendant book box. I read Twyla Tharp’s THE CREATIVE HABIT last year and was surprised to find I already used the same organizational method for projects as Tharp: the individual book box.

Every book I write has it’s own plastic, sealable box. Everything related to that book goes in the box as it’s written. That way, I always know where everything is. By the time I’m done with the book, the box is full to the brim: each draft of the manuscript, the copyedits, the author alterations all go in, on top of the research material, notes, music, etc. When I finish a book and it’s gone to ARC, I take all my notes from their yellow legal pads and stash them in there, too. And then I put them away.

I have to say, this is a really good system. I got to test it out with the fourth book in the series, THE COLD ROOM. Because the box had been put away. Stored. Done. Complete. Smiley face on top (okay, no smiley face, but you know what I mean.) And when my editor wanted me to make a change, it was easy to see exactly where I’d been. I pulled out the box, pulled out the notes to refresh my memory on its impetus, scanned through the original CEs, and went from there.

And since I use a Brother touch labeling system, it was simple to print out a new label for the box with the new title. And soon, the box will go away again, nestled deep in the closet with its friends, and I’ll reopen the next box. And the next. And the next.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my process lately, looking for ways to make things even more streamlined. I have tried a number of different methods for idea storage. There are a number of online avenues to do this. Most everything I do is online now – calendar, to do list, email, goals, even ideas, which I clip to Evernote.

But I’m resistant to the idea of doing away with my boxes, simply because I just love those moments when you spill everything out onto the floor in front of you and comb through the mess looking for that one little spark that will help you move along. There must be some chaos to the creative process. I think we can stifle ourselves if we try to do everything to perfection.

So, where do you keep your ideas?

Wine of the Week: Gnarlier Head Old Vine Zinfandel

15 thoughts on “The Idea Box

  1. karen from mentor

    JT,
    I LOVE the visual of you sitting on the floor surrounded by ideas. I can just see some of them hopping up and down and shouting pick me! pick me! (they look like little green imps in my visual)

    I often jot ideas onto scraps of paper when I’m working. Sometimes I just keep the scraps in a pile, sometimes I staple the scraps to a bigger piece of paper and check them off as I use them in my WIP.

    I keep pen and paper in the drawer of my nighstand. That saves me from having to actually get up to write down the idea that woke me up in the middle of the night.

    Great post.
    Karen :0)

    Reply
  2. Chuck

    JT, you nailed it today. And I thought I was organized. I have several brimming hanging files loaded with my clippings, post-its, and articles, but nothing as sleek and efficient as your idea box. And the way you contain each novel’s items is very, very smart. If you don’t mind, I’d like to copy you. And can I add the smiley? Maybe a frownie on my last one… πŸ™‚

    Thanks for everything. EVERYTHING!! (You know.)

    My very best,

    Reply
  3. Chuck

    Also, I’ve had a Gnarlier Head wine before, a cab I think. Can’t remember exactly, but I do know it was tasty. I’ll see if I can run down the zin. THANKS!

    Reply
  4. Karen in Ohio

    Zinfandel, America’s own wine, deserves more attention than it gets. Most people think of white zin, which is a poor cousin, and they don’t know what they’re missing.

    I’ve only written non-fiction, so far, but did the same thing you did. Amassed loads of info, organized it into the chapters it would eventually appear in, then filed it all in a big box. It’s encouraging to know one can do the same thing with fiction, so thank you for this blog.

    Reply
  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Good God, JT, but you are organized!
    Next time you get "blocked" do me a favor and come to my house with your vacuum cleaner and feather duster (and French maid outfit), and scrubbers and brushes.
    My creative "box" looks more like the swirling tornado that sucks up the little girl in the movie Poltergeist. I’d rather throw myself off a rocky cliff than search for an early draft of my novel to identify a change for my editor.
    Then again, I’m rather new to the process. Maybe by Book Four I’ll have it down. Maybe I’ll be Mr. Organized by then.

    Reply
  6. tess gerritsen

    You would be an archivist’s delight. Someday, when it comes time to bequeath your papers to some institution, that institution is going to be very, very happy about getting such an organized collection.

    Reply
  7. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, JT,
    This is soooo helpful.
    I remember seeing your house and craving the cleanliness and organization of it. Ours looks like Stephen’s — ENTER TORNADO!

    You’ve given great ideas (heh heh heh) about handling the two books I’m writing right now. Really wonderful.

    Thank you, Sweetie.

    Reply
  8. Murderati

    Hi guys! Sorry I’m so tardy, I’m having internet issues today. So glad this little insight is helping. I highly recommend reading the Tharp book – it’s chock full of brilliant ideas on how to live the creative life.

    Karen, I have to admit, it’s a ball trying to recreate WHY I’ve put the things in the box. Sometimes I make notes on them, but so often it’s just a snippet, and recreating it is the fun part.

    Chuck, no frowns today. You’re welcome to any and all ideas of mine. I hope it helps!

    Karen in Ohio – you couldn’t be more right about the Zins. Erica Spindler turned me on to Seghesio while we were in Omaha last year, and I’ve been on a hunt for more ever since. A big, bold spicy Zin goes well with everything.

    Louise, I do have a separate title folder, just for those special combination that may one day grace the cover of a book. I love titles. Titles are fun. I think I have the gene, or something.

    Stephen, the french maid’s outfit got boxed up a long time ago. Hmmm… may have to look at bringing it out of retirement. Seriously though, you’ll find your path. No one method is "right" it’s all in what works for you. I didn’t start at this level of organization, it’s grown organically.

    Tess, what a lovely idea – someone might actually want my papers some day??? That makes me even more committed to having them safely stored up. I just do it for me, because I love to see where I’ve been. My very first book has about 8 boxes – each subsequent one has less. I guess I’m better at synthesizing what I need and what I don’t.

    Pari, this is the only way I could do more than one project at a time, which is still hard for me. And you know me – OCD all the way. I like order. It’s a control thing, I’m sure.

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  9. Jake Nantz

    JT,
    I just keep a Word file on my flash drive (replicated in like three other computers, just in case lots of my shit gets corrupted all around the same time). It’s not so cunducive to newspaper articles and such, but I type in an idea and then leave it, and when I get stuck for a new one, I open and see if anything grabs me. Some of the stuff is just flat ludicrous, but every now and then I see something and go, "Hey, that ain’t half bad."

    Reply
  10. Alan Orloff

    Good post.

    For a long time, I tried to keep my ideas in my head. But then I worried about my head exploding under the sheer volume of junk I was trying to remember. Of course, with how messy my office is, I’m not sure anybody would have noticed.

    I am totally going to try your plastic box idea. Sounds like an excellent way to organize my disaster of an office, and a great excuse to visit The Container Store (who doesn’t like organizing supplies?).

    Reply
  11. Tom

    I do the organization in software; I use Scrivener for the work, but the underlying organization is linked through a mind-map built in NovaMind.

    Jake, you’re absolutely right – three different back-ups are the minimum. I’ve seen two fail, but never three.

    Reply
  12. Jill James

    Right now all my ideas are just floating around in my head, but your boxes sound so much better. I like the idea of a folder with random gems of thoughts in case I need them.

    Reply
  13. toni mcgee causey

    The book box. How much do I love you right now? A HELLA LOT. And the idea box is brilliant. I have a folder in a file cabinet which sort of accomplishes this, but it’s too far away from my desk and things just don’t make it in there. I’d just started using a new "project" on Scrivener for all of the random online idea files. Sorted by photos that grab my attention, articles, bits and flotsam, but nothing super organized.

    Reply
  14. JT Ellison

    Jake, I use Evernote for that kind of online stuff, though when I’m deep in the throes of a book I really like hardcopies. And the redundancy is very smart!

    Alan, exactly. This is all just a convenient excuse to satisfy my carnal desires for office supplies.

    Tom, I’m just starting to try Scrivener, and I’ve thus far found it frustrating, because of all the segmentation. I may try a screenplay on it just to see how that works instead of trying to import my novels and break them apart. Too much work.

    Jill, I’ve always found that getting the thoughts down helps them become more concrete and actionable.

    Toni, as always, glad to be of service ; )

    Reply

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