How to write down story ideas so you can remember why they were brilliant

ideas1I have a friend who is a graphic designer, and he’s as adept with words as he is with images. Recently he said to me: ‘I don’t know how you get a book finished. I have all these ideas but my imagination’s like a rope that frays into too many ends.’

(You see what I mean? He should definitely write.)

‘Do you make notes?’ I asked.

‘Yes, but when I look at them they’re dry and dull.’

Aha, my friend. You’re making the wrong kind of notes.

The wrong kind of notes?

Years ago, I used to keep a dream diary. I found it a few months ago and expected the entries would be indulgent nonsense, without the meaning, resonance or early-morning mind that makes a dream a good experience. But no; in those fragments the experience came back, just as odd and wondrous. Now I’m not going to bore (or scare) you by quoting one here, but what I will tell you is why they still worked.

They were written with a dream-head. They captured experience as well as logic and explanations.

What’s this got to do with making notes?

In Nail Your Novel (original flavour), I wrote that you should keep your earliest draft. If a scene has lost its sparkle, look back at the first time you had a go at writing it. Yes it will be shambling and embarrassing, blurted onto the page. But it will also contain emotional language, straight from the things you were feeling as you discovered it. This is the freshness and immediacy that can disappear with editing, or when you try to refine, get formal or explain.

It’s also the quality that can disappear when we write notes after a brainwave.

ideas2So when I write down an idea, I make sure I include this raw response. I write them as a stream of consciousness, like a dream. Because that’s what comes to me first: the certainty of what I want the reader to feel. If possible, I’ll also keep a talisman that will allow me to replay it again, and indeed might have been the initial inspiration – a scene in a book or a film, or a piece of music. (We know all about that here, with our Undercover Soundtracks.) There will be practical elements too, so it’s not complete gobbledygook – eg ‘man sees woman in coat that’s just like his wife’s, assumes it’s her and follows her’, but those look dry when you read them in isolation.

Stories are emotional. You want to make sure your notes help you remember the impact that made you so excited, as well as the hows and whyfores.

Do you find your ideas have dried up and died when you read your notes? Do you have any tips for keeping it? Let’s discuss!

Psst… My second novel Lifeform Three is coming very soon. It’s a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury. If you’d like to hear as soon as it’s released, sign up for my newsletter. If not, as you were 🙂


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  1. #1 by Pippa Hornby on December 1, 2013 - 8:36 pm

    I write my ideas down in a notebook when I’m at home, and on my phone when I’m, well, when I’m everywhere else! I put in as much information as possible, sometimes crafting whole stand-alone scenes. Then when I return to them, I sometimes laugh out loud at the awfulness of them, and sometimes I think, wow, you are good!

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on December 2, 2013 - 4:37 pm

      Thanks, Pippa! I laughed over this comment. Yes, sometimes the idea – written so fervently – doesn’t hold up when you look at it again. But we’re allowed bosh shots!

  2. #3 by jennifermzeiger on December 2, 2013 - 12:32 am

    I’ve never thought about how I write down my notes but after reading this, I love the idea of putting the emotion, the raw material down, instead of just the bare bones. I’ll have to try this in the future.

    • #4 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on December 2, 2013 - 4:38 pm

      Thanks, Jennifer! I never realised this was how I did it until Frazer asked me that question. When he did, I had the answer in an instant. And the dream diary experience explained why it worked for me. Have fun!

  3. #5 by Jonathan Gunson on December 2, 2013 - 5:48 am



    Tweeted as such.


    On Mon, Dec 2, 2013 at 8:33 AM, Nail Your Novel wrote:

    > rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris posted: “My cover designer, > Frazer Payne, is as adept with words as he is with images. As we were > fine-tuning the cover of Lifeform Three, he said to me: I dont know how > you get a book finished. I have all these ideas but my imaginations like a > rope that frays “

  4. #7 by Mrdisvan on December 2, 2013 - 8:07 am

    Even when making notes, it seems it’s important to show rather than merely tell.

  5. #9 by shalinirobinson on December 2, 2013 - 5:18 pm

    When i make notes, i try to jot down as much as i saw in my head – if it’s a conversation, then the entire conversation with the associated adjectives – expressions of the speakers. It helps me connect to their emotions again at a later stage. if it’s someone simply staring at something, then i jot down the feelings due to which they relate to what they see.

    Jotting down emotions helps reconnecting with the idea.

    • #10 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on December 2, 2013 - 7:25 pm

      That’s it exactly, Shalini! The mistake people often make is to leave those details out, as if they’re worrying about it being understood by another reader. But first you have to understand the impact of it yourself. Thanks for dropping by.

  6. #11 by Arlene on December 2, 2013 - 9:14 pm

    This is great! My biggest issue is that I write so much in my journals – stories, dialogue, dreams, images, sights, sounds – and I go through them so quickly that I often forget to go back and read what I wrote. About 3 or 4 journals ago, I started using a Table of Contents in the back to help me quickly find ‘story ideas,’ ‘Scenes,’ ‘Dream of XXX’ etc. That’s been a big help. Thanks for these tips, I’ll have to remember this next time! Tweeted it out!

    • #12 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on December 3, 2013 - 10:44 am

      Hi Arlene – the table of contents idea is brilliant! I wish I’d started doing that. I did wonder at one stage if I should go back and index my ideas books, but it would be months of work. What I now do when I need inspiration is grab a notebook off the shelf and dip in, see if anything hits me.
      Doesn’t mean I can’t start indexing future ones now, though! And thanks for the tweet!

  7. #13 by tomburkhalter on December 3, 2013 - 9:01 pm

    There is nothing so frustrating as trying to capture the fluid essence of a dream. I kept a dream journal for years when I was younger, but there’s something about what happens to me in a dream that I’ve never understood. When I’m dreaming, it’s real; when I awaken, it starts fading faster than night replaces day at sunrise. At least twice I’ve written entire novels in my dreams, gone over them knowing full well I was dreaming, gone over them again and again, determined to keep enough to rewrite them when I woke up…and all that remained were the most tantalizing bits and pieces, even when I get up at 3 a.m. and go straight to the keyboard and start typing right then. All that’s left is a memory of what should be a memory, if that makes any sense.

    My theory is there’s a parallel universe where I’m also a writer — a rather more successful one, at that! — and dreams like those are bleed-throughs. Hey, it’s a theory!

    I envy Arlene her ability to organize! That IS a great idea.

    • #14 by Arlene on December 5, 2013 - 2:00 am

      Thanks! I got it from another writer and I’d love to give credit but I can’t remember who. As soon as I’m done with my entry, I flip to the last page and write the page # and theme. Sounds a bit anal but it works 🙂

    • #15 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on December 6, 2013 - 6:52 am

      Tom, I know that feeling well! I’ve written entire novels, film scripts and music albums while asleep. I’ve known that they were my own creation, and even managed to tell myself I’ll remember them after I wake. I get one or two details that pass across intact, but not enough for the whole thing! In your parallel world, did you invent an in-head recorder? I think you need to work on a genius way to bring it across to this universe.

  8. #16 by tomburkhalter on December 3, 2013 - 9:02 pm

    PS to the above — wish I still had my old journals. I lost them in a move somehow, years ago. Don’t know that I really want to relive some of that, but I’d really like to have the option.

  9. #17 by Carolyn Mahony on December 5, 2013 - 6:54 am

    I love the idea of indexing too. I’ve got so many different notebooks with so many different things written in them, that they could almost fill a room! A bit like you Roz, I sometimes just pick one up and flip through and Bingo … something grabs me! I’ve just published my first crime novel on Amazon and am editing the next one – thought it was very true what you said about the editing sometimes wiping away the ‘freshness’ of the original version. Will definitely hang onto my first drafts in future – if I can find them amongst the myriad of others that I end up doing!

    • #18 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on December 6, 2013 - 6:54 am

      Hi Carolyn – good luck with that! With computers it’s surely easy to label one draft the ‘ore’ version. Not like the old days of typescripts!

  10. #19 by alisasibrova on December 9, 2013 - 3:36 am

    Often, when I write my thoughts down I am emotionally overwhelmed. I find myself in this ocean of feelings, that splashes to every possible side, but for me that is the key. The better is the reflection of my emotional moments – the more alive thoughts seem. Sometimes it includes odd construction of sentences, sometimes words that are misused but make perfect sense. Everything counts! I truly enjoyed your article, thanks for amazing thoughts!

    • #20 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on December 9, 2013 - 9:38 am

      Thanks, Alisa – so glad it made sense! It’s amazing how ingrained the instinct to self-censor is, even when we’re writing something that is for our eyes only. It’s as if one of the things we have to unlearn is a sense of self-consciousness when we have the audacity to write something ‘serious’, or half-formed.

  11. #21 by mandyevebarnett on March 12, 2014 - 3:08 pm

    Linking back tpday on my re-blog feature at

  12. #22 by D. Wallace Peach on August 3, 2015 - 3:05 pm

    My brain is a black hole. I get an idea and if i don’t write it down, it’s sucked into the void forever. That said, I guess I’m lucky, because if I write down just enough to trigger a memory, I can get the whole thing roaring back. I like your suggestion of capturing the “raw response” and will play with that in my notes. Thanks! 🙂

    • #23 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 3, 2015 - 6:12 pm

      Love your description there of bringing the idea ‘roaring back’. That’s the kind of total recall we need! Thanks for stopping by.

  13. #24 by clareflyFlynn on August 4, 2015 - 9:41 am

    Great post!
    My trouble is that I have the ideas with the right brain and then take the notes with the left. At the time of writing it all seems clear and then when I look back the notes are cryptic and often incomprehensible! – here’s a recent example “Make the meeting later as she has already sampled the tea”.
    The exception to this is the stream of consciousness I write as “morning pages” – because then the pressure to fill 3 pages encourages me to say more not less – and lets the right brain rule.

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 5, 2015 - 7:28 am

      Hi Clare! What a good illustration. It’s interesting when you realise what’s going on, isn’t it? How your thoughts and judgements can get in the way of a lightbulb moment? Thanks for stopping by.

  14. #26 by hsampson on August 5, 2015 - 2:19 am

    Wonderful advice, thank you!

  15. #28 by lovessiamese on August 12, 2015 - 11:21 pm

    Reblogged this on TheKingsKidChronicles.

  16. #29 by Michael W. Perry, medical writer on December 11, 2018 - 12:29 pm

    Paper notes don’t work with me because I misplace them. For ideas that briefly flash through my mind on the go or in the middle of the night, I use an email-myself app on my smartphone. Then later that note will be sitting in my in-box, waiting to be placed elsewhere. My only problem is that I tend to be so terse that I have trouble figure out what I intended later. “What did I mean by that?” I have to make myself be more specific.
    Roz: “In Nail Your Novel (original flavour), I wrote that you should keep your earliest draft. If a scene has lost its sparkle, look back at the first time you had a go at writing it. ”

    Some writing apps allow you do that quite easily. For Scrivener, that’s the Snapshot feature, available under the Documents menu. Every so often, take a snapshot of your work up to that point. Date them, and you can always go back. You can even drag that older but better chapter from the snapshot version into your current version.
    Snapshots can also provide an extra layer of backup, as I just learned the hard way. Last week I faced a book loss in the scariest of terms. I’d spent the last month carefully refining the critical first two chapters of my book. When I went to work on the third, I found it was empty, as were all the subsequent chapters. Blank as in nothing, not a word. As best I can tell, my aging iPhone 5 was to blame. While I wasn’t writing in Scrivener’s iOS version on that iPhone, I was regularly updating its collection of documents despite the fact that it was almost out of storage. (Yeah, dumb.) Apparently, when there wasn’t enough storage on that iPhone, all the Dropbox storage for those later chapters were deleted. I was only saved by the fact that I had some backups of those chapters from several weeks before. Very, very carefully, I merged my two recently edited chapters with the much older versions of the other chapters. I’m not sure that I recaptured everything, but I probably recovered 99% of many months of work. Taking snapshots regularly, say at least once a week, would have spared me that horror of horrors. I’d never lose over a week of work.

    One more suggestion. The fires in California illustrate just how easily everything in our homes or apartments could be lost. Backups are of no use if they’re all in the same location. You might want to look into automated, off-site backup like that offered by Backblaze for $50 a year. It doesn’t back up everything. Usually you can restore your operating system and applications some other way, but it does back up all your documents several times a day and far away. Those are what matter most.

    I also use other schemes to cover every possibility. All day, Time Machine on my Mac is backing up recent changes to an external hard drive. That allows me to quickly get back a file I accidentally deleted. I also run another app, SuperDuper, each evening. That creates an almost exact copy of my primary storage. That saved me years ago when I sensed that my hard drive was about to die (saves were getting erratic). I quickly inserted a flash drive in a USB port and saved the only document I’d being working on since the SuperDuper backup the night before, a book I was formatting with InDesign. Only a minute later when the hard drive died for good, I was ready. In a matter minutes, I booted off that SuperDuper backup, transferred over that InDesign document to it, and I was back at work. What might have been an utter disaster taking days to correct at best, was a mere few minutes of hassle.

    Notice that each backup scheme has its downside. Backblaze only stores documents, and since that’s over an Internet connection, restoring everything can take hours and hours. Time Machine’s backup period can’t be predicted since it overwrites older files as it runs out of space on the disk. SuperDuper only stores what you had as of the last backup, perhaps the day before. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Using all three (and perhaps others) will give you the best, all-around protection.

    You can never be too safe with your writing.

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