last updated: 13 March 2018 (approximate reading time: 8 minutes; 1689 words)
There is no magic to ideas.
Authors (and other creative people) are not uniquely gifted—we get as many ideas, and in particular as many bad ideas, as the next person. However, what authors do with ideas is different.
Let me tell you a bit about what I do with ideas and the tool I use to help me manage these ideas. Strap in, this is a long one…
Record and Recall
Having an idea is a pretty irrelevant event if you can’t use that idea.
Sometimes an idea arrives at the very moment it is needed. I get inspiration for a plot twist and I can immediately go and write a scene. But usually an idea arrives which has no home. And when an idea has no home, it needs to be stored. If an idea is good, but later I can’t find it, then storing it was wasted effort, and looking for it but failing to find it was even more wasted effort.
So, for me, the first step when I get an idea is to record it. I write down the idea—but I need to write it somewhere where I can later find it.
I don’t always know how or where I’m going to use an idea. Sometimes the idea might find its way into a book. Other times an idea might become something you read in Simon Says. And some ideas are really interesting, but I just don’t know what to do with them—however, I want them around because they might become something useful or they may trigger a better idea in the future.
I really don’t know what’s going to happen to any one idea, but I know I need to write them down if I’m ever going to find them.
I also need to write them down in order to clear out my brain. There’s something inside my head that makes me focus on one specific idea until I write it down—this means I can’t concentrate on what I’m meant to be doing and I won’t have any other ideas until the first idea is out of my head.
But there’s a secondary aspect here beyond simply writing down ideas.
Ideas rarely arrive fully formed—they need to be nurtured and developed. Often “an idea” is really a synthesis of several elements that are brought together to create something new and different.
In order to take those fragments, find the links and bring some sort of structure from these connections, I first need to have written down the fragments. I then need a way to go back and review those fragments—nurturing each and developing them into more fully-formed ideas. And as I review these ideas, I can also take the opportunity to weed out and delete any weak ideas.
How I Keep My Notes
Over the years I’ve used pieces of paper, envelope folders, ring binders, notebooks, Word documents, Google documents, specialist noting and wiki apps, not to mention a number of online solutions to pin down my ideas.
Several years ago I settled on a solution, and when it comes to keeping notes, for me, Microsoft OneNote is the closest I’ve found to being the “one tool to rule them all” for notes.
Of all the tools I use in connection with writing, apart from Word, OneNote is perhaps the most important tool for me. It’s the most important tool because I use it to perform three main functions which reflect the kind of notes I keep and the way I work.
OneNote Function #1: bucket of ideas
The first function for OneNote is as the bucket where I can drop my ideas.
OneNote Function #2: a reference for all my books
As I write my books, I keep a note of details. Details of everything from character traits, through locations, to objects, and more. Anything that can be recorded, I record.
I record everything and, in the same way I develop my ideas, I develop my notes around books. Often I write notes about characters before they have a place in one of my stories.
OneNote is my place where I keep these comprehensive details about my books, and of course, I can get at these notes when I need to.
OneNote Function #3: to be the one place
The third function is to ensure there is no difference between the first and second functions.
This third point might seem silly, but it is actually hugely important: I don’t want to have to try to remember whether something is in the “ideas” bucket or the “currently working on” bucket. Equally, I don’t want to have to think whether something is a new fragment or an addition to an existing idea—I just want the thought to be captured and to be accessible when I need.
Bringing Some Structure
OneNote is only useful because it fits with the way I work.
All software suggests a way of working and, to a greater or lesser extent, imposes upon the user an assumption about the “right approach”. In the case of OneNote its approach fits well with my approach and offers a level of structure without making me feel that I have to change how I work.
In essence, there are three levels in OneNote:
- Folders (which exist within notebooks and which hold pages)
- Pages (which exist within folders and are the place where notes are stored)
This metaphor is quite logical and accords with how many people think about information in the real world. And just like the real world, pages can be moved between folders and folders can be moved between notebooks, so as my thinking progresses and my ideas develop, I can move and collate ideas, thereby building stronger and more fully-fleshed scenarios.
When it comes to pages, they can contain text, images and drawings, and can have attachments (such as Word documents, PDFs, audio and video clips). The text can be formatted (for size, font, bold, italics, tables, and so on) and the usual Microsoft spell checkers are available.
Building links helps solidify the connections between each discrete piece of information. Each link takes me from one place to another—it provides a road map that search does not offer.
These links can take several forms:
- First, I link by proximity, placing related pages in the same folder.
- Second, I create links between pages so I have something like a personal Wikipedia where I can click between topics.
- Third, I can then link out to external web pages.
A significant benefit of OneNote is that it is fully searchable (and you can narrow the scope search to a single notebook, a single folder, or a single page).
While the search function is undoubtedly a powerful feature of OneNote, it is only beneficial to me because I have everything stored in this single place, hence when I search, I am searching everything.
Multiple Devices and Sync
It’s 2018 and we no longer have one single computing device. Instead we have laptops, desktops, phones, and tablets (such as the iPad) and these devices run Windows, Mac OS, iOS, and Android.
OneNote is available on all of these devices/systems and, provided there is an internet connection, will keep each device in sync. For me, this means that I can access, search, edit, and add to my notes at any time just by taking my phone out of my pocket.
A feature I use less, but it’s still useful to have, is sharing.
Anything and everything in OneNote can be shared. That sharing can be broad—for instance, I can share an entire notebook—or I can be far more focused and share at the folder level. And if I want to share at a granular level, I can share individual pages, but that’s just a bit tedious.
Any sharing privileges can be revoked at any time and the sharing can allow only viewing rights, or if I want, editing rights to allow collaboration.
From the perspective of the person with whom notes are shared, anything that is shared is then:
- Available anywhere (and on any device) in the same way as if they had written the notes themselves.
Why OneNote and Why Microsoft?
Other authors have different approaches. Some use specialized writing tools which allow the author to effectively keep their notes with their manuscript.
For me, that approach doesn’t work—I want all of my notes available to me, all of the time, on all of my devices. More significantly, I want all of my notes available in one place—I don’t want to have to try to remember whether I made a note in connection with Leathan book one or Boniface book two and hence have to search in different files.
Equally, I don’t want to keep my notes in a tool that wasn’t designed to allow me to access my notes in the future. I want my notes to be available today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and indefinitely into the future.
Looking to the future is a major factor in why I use a product developed by Microsoft.
I’ve used software developed by one or two person teams, and it can be a delight. But it can stop being a delight very quickly and for too many reasons—the underlying operating system changes, there are insufficient resources to fix a problem, someone gets sick/dies, the company refocuses away from the product, the company gets bought, and so on. I don’t want to take the risk that a factor beyond my controls keeps me from my notes, hence by choice I stick with Microsoft.
Go Make Some Notes
Any tool is only as good as the use you can put it to. I have a number of very specific requirements for keeping notes and OneNote fulfills those requirements for me.
If you need to keep and organize notes, then OneNote is probably the answer and I would encourage you to check it out.