Posts Tagged how to get ideas

Ink or keyboard? When a computer-loving writer prefers a pen

I adore, adore, adore my computer. I have acres of folders for each book I write, stuffed with research links, musings about characters, thoughts about the story’s overall direction. I have thematic notes, background, significant geography, historical events that might make a difference. I write my text on the computer, I have scribble files for experimenting, outtakes files and the text proper.

But there are some parts of my work that I have to do in ink.

I hadn’t thought about this until an email arrived from Robert Scanlon, who’s using Nail Your Novel with Scrivener and was wondering whether to put the beat sheet analysis into the note cards for each scene. The short answer is, yes if it works for you. Personally I wouldn’t write a beat sheet on the computer, but we all work in different ways.

So this will be a very idiosyncratic post, but I thought it might make a creative discussion. I’ll tell you mine, then you tell me yours, okay?

The beat sheet step by step – starring Harry PotterBeat sheet

Going back to Robert’s question, I find the beat sheet’s distinctive methodology ( a sheet of A4, coloured pens and smiley faces) helps me to see it as a fresh phase and therefore to analyse the material for new ideas and narrative directions. So it’s paper beat sheets for me.

In a nutshell, the beat sheet is a way to analyse your entire novel for pacing, character arcs, structure, subplots and theme. It shrinks your novel to a few easily readable pages of A4. It’s singlehandedly saved me from literary chaos over and again.

I tried writing beat sheets on computer and they were a disaster. Something happens to my brain when I get keys under my fingers. It’s like letting a fresh horse step onto springy turf. I just go. Words gallop away and I end up with a long, musing essay about the book. Although this might do me good in some ways, it is useless for analysis.

So I have to write beat sheets on paper. The pen makes me aware of every mark. Some writers like spreadsheets because the format forces similar practical distance.

Index cards for synopses

When I’m outlining, I write the main events on index cards and shuffle them to get the best order. Although I’ve tried this on the computer, my brain thrives on complication and it always gets out of control. Index cards and a fat marker pen keep me focussed. (The cards game is also a tool from Nail Your Novel.)

mar13 003Non-fiction

I plan my Nail Your Novel books differently from my fiction. I write scribbled outlines on scraps of paper. The characters book is nearly finished and I’ve thrown its notes away, so this is the outline for NYN 3, which is in rough manuscript. Yes, those are bits of paper torn from the bin. I love the organic look of them, which reflects the feeling of a book evolving and becoming better. Don’t be fooled by the ramshackle appearance. They are highly organisational and will be much-consulted documents until the manuscript is ready for polishing.

To-do notebook

Each book generates vast amounts of admin. Research needs to be done, books must be added to reading lists. I find it easier to keep track of this in a notebook. Then I also have the pleasure of crossing items off and they stay there, a testimony to another job done. Way more satisfying than erasing them with ‘delete’.


My notebook also contains charts for each book’s production. This is a legacy of my years in books and magazines, where I had to invent systems to keep track of 30 books at different editorial stages. It covers everything from checking cross-references, finalising spine wording, buying artwork, the websites I’ll need to update when new books come out etc. Again, I prefer this on paper because I can see the books developing at a glance.

Ideas notebooks

Journals of scribbled ideas were the very first kind of notebook I kept. I still use them, but the ideas in them aren’t very findable. This irks me and I wish I could x-ray them to categorise all the useful stuff, but alas that would be a mammoth job. So I now dip into them as an inspiration slushpile. Most things I find are rubbish or irrelevant to my immediate needs, but I also uncover useful gems.

Why not Scrivener?

I clearly have the organisational mindset, and people often ask me why I don’t use Scrivener. Especially as Nail Your Novel fits it like a glove, I’m told. I’ve thought Scrivener might be fun, but I like to have some aspects of my books in touchable form, on scattered (but precisely organised) papers and notebooks. Also, I love inventing, period, and that includes systems for my books. Or put another way, I’m a nerd.mar13 004

If there is a general pattern, I use handwritten notes to get clarity, distance, control and simplicity. The big picture stuff. I use the keyboard to indulge my creative riffing, musing, speculating and – of course – for the writing.

Now it’s your turn. When do you use the computer and when do you use ink and paper? Do you have set habits and how did you develop them?

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Where do writers get ideas for novels?

I’m hatching a new novel.

It doesn’t yet have a title, but I know its setting. So until something better comes along I’m calling it The Venice Novel.

I have a main character. He doesn’t yet have a name. I don’t know what he looks like or how old he is, who his friends and family are – except that these people will cause as much conflict as comfort, of course. They can’t be in the story if they don’t. Some of them will change, some will not.

For some reason he’s male because it feels right. This is not the time to interrogate my instincts, so male he shall be. If later he feels insistently feminine, I’ll switch him.

In any case, his gender is insignificant compared to his problem.

This problem is the touch-paper waiting to be lit and I understand it very clearly. At the moment, this simple-but-complicating problem is germinating the whole novel.

It’s too early to write formal scenes yet. I don’t know much of the plot. But certain essential beats have come to me in flashes. I’ve written them in a file called ‘Rushes’. One of them may even be the opening scene. Whether they make it to the final cut or not, they’ve told me a lot about him.

Ideas are everywhere. Each day, some part of The Venice Novel changes drastically. The next day it might change back. But even that increases my understanding of what the novel will be.

I’m reading other fiction with an altered brain, my invention function in overdrive. I’m second-guessing like mad. I read four short stories the other day and – without even meaning to – invented alternate endings for each one.

While driving, I surf radio channels for random ideas. I do that anyway because I hate being bored, but now I am on a purposeful hunt through the chattering spectrum of songs, interviews, reviews, current affairs and the whacky community radio station that sometimes plays recordings of trains. An undercover soundtrack is taking shape. The latest addition is Howard Jones. (Don’t ask. Yet.)

Today I left the house an hour late, and happened on a programme that gave me a sub-plot. It was a missing link, an extra lens for examining my theme. Less loftily, it’s a welcome source of humour and characters. A chance gift from the ether, because I left the house an hour late.

Where do novels come from? How often are writers asked that?

They come from moments as random and unrepeatable as snowflakes.

Thanks for the girl pic grisha_21

What do you do when you’re gathering ideas for a novel? Share in the comments!

If you’re hatching a novel too and are wondering what to do with all those ideas, you might find my book helpful – Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Book 2 is in the works!

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How to get ideas for stories – be gullible

Be open to oddness: BBC TV Panorama’s infamous April fool hoax, the spaghetti trees of 1957

This post wasn’t originally written for April 1st, because I am gullible all year round. But on balance, I think I’d better stay in today. 

I am hopeless at spotting a fib. The other day I was at the hairdresser having the red refreshed. Instead of my usual contact lenses I was in glasses, which have to come off while my locks are being daubed. I was listening in a thick myopic fog while my hairdresser, who is Spanish, was telling me about Christmas traditions in Madrid. They were quite charming and I repeated them in wonder: you put out gifts on January 6th for the Three Kings, including water for their camels? Wow – I love that.

She might have been kidding, but I would never have seen any ironic winks or smiles because I couldn’t see beyond my own eyelashes. The rest of the stylists in the salon and their clients might have been sniggering through their capes, agog for what I would believe next. If they were, I don’t mind. I was having a great time because I liked the story.

I have always been hopeless at spotting a fib. If you tell me something whacky that sounds interesting, I will find a reason why it is plausible. So a glass of water left out for the Wise Men’s camels makes perfect sense to me, because it has story logic, and in my head I’ve joined the narrative dots.

As storysmiths, the extraordinary, the ironic and the surprising are our currency. Part of our job is to invent the logic that gets from A to bizarre – or the other way around. Good stories are about big changes, interesting journeys, the unexpected.

If a straitlaced friend tells me she has taken up burlesque dancing, the last thing on earth I’d say is ‘you’re joking’. I’d swallow it because I’d think what a surprising and refreshing turn her life has taken, how wonderful it is that she has conquered her stage fright, shyness, objections to female exploitation and previously voiced disapproval of skimpy feathered costumes. I will think: ‘she must have needed it – I wonder why?’

So I am A1- gullible. But I’ve far outgrown being embarrassed by it. It’s served me well as source of stories.

Do you value the strange? Have any personality traits that may seem laughable or embarrassing, but that you feel help you as a writer? Share in the comments!

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