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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guest Post: Ideas - How to Catch Them, Feed Them, and Finally Set Them Free

Today I'm delighted to be hosting another guest post from writer, film-maker and creativity guru Phil South.

In today's article, Phil looks at the tricky subject of how to catch and keep your ideas, rather than forget and lose them. Take it away, Phil...

Being a creative writer is all about ideas. Readers and potential writers are always asking successful and creative authors the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" - to which the writers often stumble in reply, or have no real answer. It's an unsatisfying transaction every time - so why is it that writers can't say where they get their ideas from? I think it's partly because they don't really know, and partly because the way they collect ideas is individual to them, and so any answer they gave would be no use to the asker of the question.

Maybe they also get tired of saying it, and you can see why. I interviewed Terry Pratchett for magazine articles a few times, and while I was at his house one time at least twice in the hour we were interrupted by fans calling asking stupid questions. He patiently answered the same questions for a few minutes, then courteously got them out of his hair. Later on in one of his books I noticed he postulated the theory in an aside that ideas were like rain. Great thinkers and writers stood out in it and caught as many ideas as they could, while non-writers and non-thinkers sheltered from it. A lovely thought - simple, beautiful and very Terry.

I've always loved this idea. Wonder where he got it from?

Anyway, the point is this: ideas happen. And Terry Pratchett, as always, has it right. The crucial question is not where ideas come from. The important question is: where do they go?

What happens when you get an idea? I'll tell you what happens - mostly you forget it. The reason is that ideas don't happen when you are at the typewriter, computer or a desk with a pen in your hand. That would be like expecting laundry to come to you while you are standing next to the washing machine.

No, ideas happen when you are driving to work, shopping in Tesco, eating, cooking dinner for a group of noisy kids, sleeping or making sweet love. Ideas are inspired by things you read, but also things you smell, things you hear and taste. Coincidentally, we covered those in my last guest post on this esteemed blog. But some ideas are seemingly inspired by nothing around you. They come from nowhere, out of your subconscious, like someone is shooting at you from the shadows. Those are the gems, the pearls, the diamonds. Those are the thoughts you made for yourself.

So what do you do - how do you make sure that no idea escapes you? How do you ensure that a shower of idea rain goes into your pocket and not down the idea drain? The answer is like the song "Pennies From Heaven", where they say "Be sure that your umbrella is upside-down".

Catch them.

Catching ideas is like catching anything that doesn't want to be caught - like a toddler that runs away from you, a tiger that stalks in the underbrush or a lit cigarette in the driver's footwell. You need to catch them now before the situation gets out of hand, and you need a well-practised plan of action to avoid disaster.

Do you carry a notebook? Everywhere you go? Well, start. Now. It doesn't have to be nice or big. It just needs to have a surface you can write on and be small enough to fit in a jacket pocket without weighing you down or making you look like you have one breast bigger than the other. And a working pen. Keep a bigger, nicer notebook - you know, the leather one with the lovely paper in it - in your briefcase or bag, and the lovely fountain pen to go with it.

That's a good start, and for most of us that is enough. You have an idea, write it down. Ideas? Write them down. What do you do with any ideas you have? Yes, WRITE THEM DOWN.

Don't ever, ever, ever think, "That's brilliant, and it's SUCH a good idea I'll remember it and write it down in a minute" because you won't, and you won't. And even if you do, why take the risk? Self evidently you have ideas to burn.

Okay that's level one. Level two, hands-free.

If I'm in a car I use a voice recorder, what we used to call in the olden days a dictaphone. Ironically, now I have one on my phone. I can record messages to myself, ideas, song lyrics, anything that takes my fancy. When I can afford the cost of one of the new Olympus digital recorders I shall upgrade because they are superb - small, high quality and LONG recording time. Plus they have a USB inside to transfer to your PC.

Sleeping or making sweet love? No problem. Have a voice recorder or notebook by the bed, plus again a working pen and in this case also maybe a little LED reading light or torch so you don't wake your partner while you're scribbling or hunting for the recorder. Obviously, writing notes or dictating to yourself while making sweet love, much like changing channels on the TV, could possibly be misconstrued as disinterest, so bear that in mind. Just a tip there.

Myself, I use a combination of notebooks, voice recorders and file cards. I'm a big fan of file cards - you know, those little 5x3 cards we used to put business contacts on in a small box on our desks before the age of computers and databases, and more importantly cell phone address books? Well, there is a new use for those little cards of joy: interactive, battery free, compact note-taking and organisation.

I buy loads of these. I put a stack of them in an elastic band in my pocket, and if I get an idea I pull them out, take off the band, write the idea on the next blank card, put them together again, band em up, and put them back in my pocket. Also, being a bit OCD, I use a nice new Papermate Tempo fibre tip pen and I use coloured cards and match the colour of the pen to add a little frisson of design and colour co-ordination to the process.

I use the fibre tip pens because experience has shown that they make a nicer mark on the paper, they provide a lovely tactile sensation, and you can draw OR write. Plus biros have a tendency to skip on the surface of the card if they've been in your pocket for a while, which delays getting the ideas down.

File cards have the added benefit that if you write down only ONE idea per card you can lay them all out on the table after a while and reorganise the ideas into any order you like. This is also good, because it suggests gaps in the ideas where you can add another card.

Later you can dump all your cards and notebooks into a file box and store them for later use. I call this after William Burroughs (one of the patron saints of my blog, Going Down Writing) an "Idea Hoard". It's a good place to come when inspiration has left you and you need to get new ideas, or at least access ideas you had before but forgot till now. Plus, I find it's an awesome reminder of what a great writer and ideasmith you are.

So that's my strategy for catching Pratchett's Idea Rain. Simple and effective. If you have your own strategies, please do post them as comments below. I'd love to hear your own tips for ensuring you catch and keep all your best ideas for use later on!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Phil South has been a writer and film-maker for 26 years. He started in consumer technology journalism, also known as playing computer games and writing jokes for magazines like Your Sinclair, Computer Shopper and Mac User. After a spell making animated web sites for Disney Channel UK, he now teaches film-making and photography at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. While waiting to have time to make the ultimate British cult movie, he writes the creativity blog Going Down Writing and the Creative Genius Newsletter, which you can subscribe to via his blog. Phil is also on Twitter at

Thanks again to Phil for another thought-provoking guest post. I strongly agree about the importance of keeping a notebook to record ideas as and when they occur. And, as Phil says, I'd love to hear any thoughts YOU may have on the best methods for catching and saving ideas.

Photo credit: 'Magic Apples' by H. Koppdelaney on Flickr.

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Blogger Koala Bear Writer said...

I often email stuff to myself - links, ideas, eve the starts of stories or articles that I was able to find or write while at someone else's place or on holidays, or even just at work. That way when I get home its waiting in my inbox for me to run with.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Thanks for that Koala. That's a good strategy which I also use going from work to home. ANYTHING you cna do to catch and hold onto ideas in a useable form is a good thing.


11:55 PM  

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