Capturing the Muse

Authors are frequently asked ‘how do you keep track of your ideas?’ and the answers vary from the tech-savvy app-specific solution, to the good old tried and true post-it note and scrap paper method.

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Have you ever woken in a cold sweat at three o’clock in the morning, clutching desperately at the wisps of a brilliant story idea as it slips from your consciousness? Or perhaps you’ve been in a very serious and important meeting, and the way the client’s moustache quivers and twitches when he talks puts you in mind of one of your characters. You think that you ought to give your character just such an expressive moustache, and then you realised that by doing so you could tie in A and B which have been irritating you for three chapters now, and suddenly you don’t care about whatever client Twitchy is saying because all you can think about is getting back to the notebook stashed secretly in the top drawer of your desk to get your Great Idea down.

Authors are frequently asked ‘how do you keep track of your ideas?’ and the answers vary from the tech-savvy app-specific on-the-go solution, to the good old tried and true post-it note and scrap paper method. Myself, I used to opt for getting a neurotic mental strangle-hold on an idea, a sort of obsess-constantly-over-it-until-I-can-write-it-down type approach. Of course, once having written it out in all its finicky, glorified potential, I would file it away carefully in my folder of similar (and often contradictory) notes and forget all about it. Occasionally, when the plot of my story was waning somewhat, I’d take a look in this folder and re-acquaint myself with all my brilliant ideas that had been left behind by the growth of my story. Sometimes I’d try to fit them in, because, after all, they were brilliant ideas. I can assure you now, that this method of recording and collating ideas is not an overly productive one, but I have found one that is. It’s simple and brilliant, and I’ve had incredible results using it (and not just from a mental health point of view).

I stumbled across this excellent device listening to the Midday Interview on ABC Classic FM. Margaret Throsby was interviewing Anthony Horowitz, a bestselling author and screenwriter (he wrote the Alex Rider novels and created the hugely popular television program Foyle’s War among many other things). Horowitz’s response to the ‘how do you keep track of your ideas?’ question was: I don’t. If an idea is any good, he went on to say, it will stick around of its own accord, if it doesn’t, then it wasn’t good enough to begin with.

I was staggered. This was ground breaking, revolutionary stuff. Could it be possible that my meticulously, obsessively compiled folder was nothing but a record of sub-standard ideas? I decided to trial this dangerous new method, and so I set about waiting for an idea. When I eventually got an idea I did- nothing. I thought about it, a little, but mostly I just let it waft around the edges of my consciousness as I went about my week. I found that by not writing my idea down, it stayed alive longer in my mind, shifting and stretching itself until it fit beautifully into my story, ironing crinkles and untangling threads as it went. This was wonderful! And so completely effortless.

I’ve been using this approach for a year now, and it has saved me much time and mental agony. I’ve found that by doing nothing my story, and that loveliest of ladies Ms Muse, enjoy a freedom and an elasticity that has hugely benefitted the structure and pace of my writing. So you can either obsess, note-take, hoard and struggle to capture your ideas, or you can do nothing. Give your ideas the chance to either die a natural death or mature elegantly until they form an integral part of your story. So far I’ve found the second option the much better and healthier method.

What’s your preferred muse-capturing technique? Does the idea of doing nothing and letting your story write itself appeal to you? Are you willing to try it?  Let me know in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you in a fortnight!

8 thoughts on “Capturing the Muse

  1. Hi Sarah! Congratulations on your first blog post!
    This is so interesting because at the moment I’m listening to Anne Lamott’s ‘Word By Word’ speech on Audible and she actually suggests the exact opposite to Horowitz. She says she carries around index cards everywhere and disagrees with the saying “if it was important you’d remember it”. As much as I like Anne Lamott and think that she has lots of great advice, I think I’m more inclined to go with Horowitz’s advice as I tend to remember ideas if they are worth remembering, too. And as you say, it’s worked very well for you. Very interesting blog post and I’m keen to hear what other people think about remembering ideas, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Alyssa,
      The first blog was actually more fun and not as terrifying as I thought it was going to be! I love Anne too, but I’ve tried the overly organised approach, all it does is sign a death warrent to my ideas. Once i know they’re safely written down they flitter away never to be remembered again. Stil, I like to have a notebook on me at all times, mostly to practice writing and setting scenes and capturing certain people and places that I’m immersed in.

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  2. I think I heard the same interview. I have to say I am some where between Lamott and Horowitz. I think if the idea is for a brand new story then it will hang around and take root. If it is a sudden bit of inspiration for a sticky scene in my WIP or the perfect bit of dialogue I write it down somewhere, anywhere so as not to forget. The later is like remembering what someone said to you in the morning or or what you ate for breakfast yesterday it may or may not be there when you want it.

    Also it is safe to assume Horowitz isn’t a mother which also complicates the mental space.

    For blog posts I have taken Horowitz’s approach but it isn’t working out too well at the moment. I think for blog ideas I’ll switch to Lamott’s. Actually what I recently did was make several draft posts with titles containing ideas I want to develop.

    Congrats on getting your site up and running.

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    1. Yes I see where you are coming from with dialogue! And definitely having an ideas list for the blog is helpful, but for now I’m taking the same approach of not fleshing out my ideas to within an inch of their life until they’be stuck around for a while. And thank you for your support!

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  3. I think it depends, for me, on what sort of idea it is and at what stage I am at in the writing. My memory is pretty sketchy for details so they get written in, usually directly into this draft, as it is the final one. Big picture ideas tend to stay put so I let them be. Great first post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Elizabeth 🙂 It’s amazing how ideas evaporate from my head the moment I write them down. I seem to take copious notes every time I get writers block (although mine feels more like a swamp) and so far that method has only served to compound the problem

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