How to store and Sort your Story Ideas

If you are a writer of picture books, young fiction, children’s chapter books or short stories and poems, you are probably someone who has lots of story ideas. If you’ve been writing for many years or taken part in StoryStorm and the PB 12×12 challenge, you may have hundreds!

Where do you write them down? In a note book, on sticky notes, on your phone or perhaps in an App or Word type document?

Over the years, I’ve jotted my ideas down all over the place, but more recently in Notes on my phone – it’s always with me and I back it up. But a list becomes unwieldy and cumbersome when it numbers in the hundreds, especially as I have a fair few plot musings too.

So, when a writing competition asked for an original funny Christmas picture book text, I had to scan through 150 or so ideas to find the ones that might work. Not ideal. Wouldn’t it be great, if all my ideas were in a simple database, where I could store, sort and filter them at the touch of a button?

Before I had children, I was a marketer for food companies. One of my responsibilities was coding food databases, inputting all the new competitor products, analysing the data and monitoring how they sold. A similar concept to Nielsen BookScan, which analyses the book market by genre and type.

Using Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel you can create a very simple database.  In fact, lots of authors use Excel or Sheets to plot their novel, scene by scene, it helps to keep track of the detail when it comes to editing. I think our stream of ideas deserves the same orderliness.

For those who are not Sheets or Excel savvy, I promise the database functions are easy to use and when your ideas are neatly organised, you’ll be amazed at what they’ll teach you about the way you think creatively.

So how do we categorise ideas?

These are some of the headings I use:

Title: Sometimes fully formed, sometimes just a vague idea – it doesn’t matter, write what comes to mind.

Category: Picture Book (PB), Non-Fiction PB (NF-PB), Young Fiction 5-7yr (YF), Chapter 7-9yrs {Chpt), Middle Grade 6-12 (MG), Young Adults [YA), Adult (A), Poetry (P)

Main Character (MC): Bear, Witch, Alien, Girl, Boy, Dragon, Vegetable…

Secondary Character (SC): (foe or friend) Giant. Santa. Fairy. Dad. Monster.

Place: Space. Home. Town. Garden. School. Great outdoors. Fairyland. North Pole. etc.…

Theme: Night fears. Friendship. Female Empowerment. Responsibility. Imagination. First Experiences. Whodunit. Loss. Environment. etc.…

Style: Humour. Heart. Mystery. World view. Interactive

Series? Yes, No, ?

Notes: A general brain dump of problem, plot and character.

How to set up your database of ideas:  

  • Open a new worksheet and save it: Story Ideas
  • Type in your categories/column headings across the top.
  • And your title ideas in the first column.

headings

Excel Spreadsheet

NOTE: I have used published stories from my bookshelf to illustrate how a spreadsheet database might work. These story ideas have all been done!

  • Use the arrow keys on your keyboard to move from cell to cell.
  • Fill out the columns as best you can.
  • You can widen the columns by clicking on the line at the top e.g. click between A & B and drag them to the width you need. The same for the rows.
  • To wrap text (that means contain all text in one cell) highlight the cells. Click on Format>Cells >Alignment, and tick Wrap Text. 

Once you have inputted all your ideas and you want to use the database functions, there are two options:

sort function

  • You can SORT the information by alphabetical order. First, click and drag to highlight your list of ideas.
  • Click on Data, Sort, Columns.
  • Decide which column you want to put in alphabetical order.

AND/OR you can FILTER the information. E.g. view only the Christmas PB ideas in the list.

filters

  • Click on Data > Filter.
  • Arrow buttons appear next to your column headings.
  • Click on one of these at a time and remove the ticks from the categories you do not want to see. Only data for the ticked category will remain.

You can also colour code your best ideas and the ones you have already written – see the fill (bucket button) at the top of the page – and use Sort to put them at the top of your list.

Once you are all set up, play with the filters and take a look at your ideas by category.

What are your strengths?  

Where do most of your ideas fall?

If a few ideas have the same theme, could they be combined? This theme is on your mind for a reason. What do you want to say and why do you want to say it?

If you imagine lots of YF adventure stories, perhaps this is the genre you should specialise in – after all, you’re a natural.

What are your weaknesses?

Do you initially struggle to come up with a strong title or plot? Or is character a problem? Do you write humour and avoid heart? Or have only male protagonists?

A database can clearly illustrate your brainstorming weak points but once you know what they are, you can seek out inspirational material that helps you address them.

How many ideas do you have before you hit on a good one?

My rate is around 1 in 10 for picture books, so for every StoryStorm (30 ideas in a month), I generate around three really good ideas that are likely to become fully fledged manuscripts. These ideas are more fully formed than others, with a title/character/ problem/world that is both original and commercial.

It doesn’t mean they’ll sell though, alas. But it’s always heartening to look at my long list of ideas and see how many great ideas I have waiting to be written.

Kate Peridot. 

 

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