How to Build a Stockpile of Good Writing Ideas

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writing ideas

Returning to old scraps of your writing ideas is one of the best ways to cure writer’s block. That’s why it’s important to write everything down: the brilliant lines, the half-baked notions, and that nonsense you scribbled on a sticky-note after a dream.

Not every one of your writing ideas is going to immediately turn into the beginnings of a novel, story, or poem; sometimes an idea is just a lonely little thing that lives underground for 17 years before… oh wait, that’s the cicada.

But not unlike those weird little bugs, ideas can take a long while to come of age.

You never know when something you thought up months or years ago will fit itself perfectly — almost accidentally — into your latest work-in-progress, or rub against another idea and spark. That’s why it’s important to write everything down: the brilliant lines, the half-baked notions, and that nonsense you scribbled on a sticky-note after a dream.

Gather the seeds. Plant them later.

Scraps of ideas can come from anywhere. The best two lines from a discarded poem. A bit of interesting chatter you overheard in a cafe. A rich description of a lonely landscape that you’ve yet to populate with characters. A story on All Things Considered that stuck with you. A weird metaphor that doesn’t yet have a meaning.

Write ’em all down — as if you were a naturalist taking notes in the field (only YOU are the subject). On a day when you have no new ideas, or when you’re stumped on where to take your newest project, you’ll be happy to have a stockpile of scraps to play around with.

But how do you build your stockpile of ideas? Here are a few simple guidelines:

1. You never know when or where an idea will strike. So be prepared to capture them all. Have a notebook by your bed. Carry a small journal in your bag or purse. Get an app for your smartphone that lets you take down notes, or that lets you quickly record your voice. Create a Word doc on your computer to compile all the scraps.

2. Don’t edit yourself at this point. When it comes to building a stockpile of ideas, first thought/best thought. No one will ever read this stuff unless you decide to take a scrap out later to make it shine.

3. Let at least a year go by before discarding anything. Your Word doc might be 40 pages long after a few months have passed. But don’t throw anything out yet. There have been plenty of cases in my own life where I thought something I wrote sounded stupid, only to find a great use for that bit a year or two later. Conversely, I’ve also thought some of my scraps were pure brilliance, and then cringed a year later. So don’t make any final judgements on this stuff right away. If your idea stockpile is growing out of control, just create another Word doc and date it accordingly.

4. Try to build a new work using only the scraps. Sometimes all the materials you need are right in front of you. Try to arrange and rearrange the scraps you’ve already written into something that could serve as the basic architecture of a new piece. It’s fun.

As a writer, what has your experience been like collecting ideas, cannibalizing discarded pieces, and building new things from the scraps? Got any tricks or tips to share? Let me know in the comments section below.

 

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Chris Robley
Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

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