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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StoryStorm 2018: How did I do?

My StoryStorm month of idea generation.

I’ve just finished StoryStorm, an annual challenge where participants pledge to write down a story idea a day for the month of January. There’s a daily blog post to inspire and lots of giveaways from mentors.

I’ve always kept a notebook of ideas (on my iphone) and I’ve never worried about where the next idea might come from, they just pop up every now and then. I had about 30 or so ideas in my notebook from over a two-year period.

But 31 in a month? Could I do that?

I’m surprised and pleased to report I have generated 60 ideas! 

There are only 5 ideas I’ve borrowed from my previous list and I’ve evolved them all in some way.

Inspiration wasn’t constant. Some days, I had five ideas. Some days, none.

Some ideas are no more than a catchy title, some are emotions, some are common childhood scenarios I’ve never seen in a picture book. Others are a whole paragraph of questions and what ifs; another is about fun formats or styles I should try. I even took a photo of a newspaper article. Two ideas were repeated unknowingly but the second time with a new twist, so I’ve kept them. Sometimes, I just wrote ideas about where to get ideas.

Looking down the list, I have ideas that suit adult short stories, a contemporary women’s novel, middle grade and non-fiction. But mostly Picture Books because that’s what I love to write. I didn’t filter anything, I didn’t judge, I just wrote them down.

So now, as I look down my list and begin to evaluate, I notice something interesting.

The first decent idea I had for a picture book was No.10. It’s one of those, ‘I can’t believe no one has covered this before,’ stories – no one has, I’ve checked.

My second good idea is No.19. It has scope to be more than a PB, a big concept that is current and original and I get a fizz of excitement just thinking about it.

Then I don’t hit on a concept that immediately feels like an original story until No.34 (this is why you shouldn’t stop at 31!)

And then they come thicker (but not faster). In every 10 ideas noted, there are three I immediately feel have strong picture book potential.

At the time of writing this, I have finished drafting No.54 and started No.56 because the titles are fun and sum up the story in a nut shell, and I know this is what picture book publishers are looking for.

These are the six things I’ve learnt from StoryStorming:

  1. No idea is wasted if you write it down.
  2. The first ten ideas I have are not necessarily my best (or even the ten after that!)
  3. With a long list of ideas, it’s much easier to see the ones that shine from the ones that don’t.
  4. I can train my brain to recognise and form more rounded story ideas with practise.
  5. I’m going to be a lot less precious about rejected stories when I have five more ideas I can’t wait to write.
  6. Thematically, my ideas centre around scenarios, adventure, action, humorous moments, play on words, original layouts and plot twists. Not so much character and place. It’s a weak spot and I need to find stimulus that helps me idea generate here.

I’ll be back next January, and in the meantime, my idea list remains open for business.

Thank your Tara Lazar and everyone at StoryStorm 2018.