Using Old Notes to infuse New Ideas

If you’ve been at your writing craft for any amount of time, you have likely produced an inordinate amount of notes–notes on this idea or that location, on some intriguing character or a great maguffin or plot. You’ve probably had more false starts than a pee-wee-football offensive line and a hundred great moves in your playbook that have never been seen by another set of human eyes.

Do you know what that means?

You likely have a library of original ideas at your disposal, just waiting to be remembered and used. Like arrows in a quiver, these ideas can be strategically fired into a story to create that new supporting buddy for your hero, perfect plan for your villain, or the great location wherein their last conflict is decided. The “waste” of unused ideas and notes are only wasted if you abandon them. If instead, you refine and utilize them, they become very useful, indeed.

Now I am not referring to “recycling”, mind you. This is not a recommendation to take the ideas you have already put into a story and re-tooling them because you know they work. No, this is an encouragement–or, rather, an exhortation–to take ideas that you knew worked at some time, on some level, and to harness them for the purpose of making your current story better. 

I felt the need to share this as I spent a fair amount of time this weekend going through half-starts and random ideas I put to page in 2013. Floating in the ether of my notes, reminders, e-mails, and outlines, these concepts and characters were long forgotten, despite their being interesting to me. So I took the time to build a very simple matrix in excel, using 4 worksheets–persons, places, things, ideas–to organize my inspiration into an easily accessible table. Now when I am hitting story walls, I have a multitude of possible, original solutions, characters, places, or devices.

But that’s just the half of it. Additionally placing my notes into a matrix has allowed me to see patterns and recurring themes, which are great for understanding what is important to me in my storytelling. If my mind seems to be generating multiple ideas in various genres that all seem to share concepts of regret or redemption, chances are that such subjects will prove strong key themes for my next story. Further, having the ideas in one place also enables me to more easily synthesize them into a dynamic and full construct. By seeing characters X and Y together, near location C, both searching for a type of Maguffin-Q, I can better see how these seemingly unconnected ideas can be brought together like elements of a Lego Set.

The process involves a great deal of time, sure, but nothing of value is simple or easy. I am tackling a few portions of notes at a time in order to ensure that the process remains manageable. Thus far, the act has proven rewarding; and as I continue to make time for it, I am confident the practice will pay perpetual dividends.

And like I said, if you’ve been at this for any amount of time, you can do it too. Who knows, maybe that first chapter of that unfinished novel from 2004 will give you just the insight you need to close the last chapter of that near-finished novel in 2014. And that is an exciting thought.

Keep writing, and thanks for stopping at my little corner of the internets!