The Case Against Keeping A Fiction Writer’s Idea Notebook

There are two sides to the spontaneous idea-collection strategy — here’s one

The Case Against Keeping A Fiction Writer’s Idea Notebook

I’m want to set the table on this story before I move forward. I love myself a notebook. I’ve got information capture devices with me at all times — even a waterproof notepad for my shower. I carry a digital recorder when I drive and at the beginning of the day I take my notes from the previous day and file them where they need to go.

That being said I keep very few idea notes for my fiction.

If an idea pops into my mind I’ll title the story in my phone, using Scrivenir. I’ll add a two-sentence synopsis and that’s it. I capture the idea before it leaves then I forget about it.

My current idea notebook method wasn’t always the case.

I see this a lot too, so I know I’m not alone. Some authors become obsessed with the idea-building for their stories. They make huge notebooks with character sheets, scene descriptions, clips of photos, colored tabs, dog-ears, and maps like there’s no tomorrow.

…then, a few years ago, I watched a lecture from Stephen King.

King uses the strainer (or sieve/colander, depending on where you live) method. He believes the best story ideas stick with us. We can’t shake them. When a story is good enough it makes an imprint on our brains, like a big stone in a strainer. The crappy ideas fall through the holes, but the good ones stay — rolling around. Refusing to fall through our mental holes.

King is militant against writer’s notebooks.

I am not, but I’m closer to his side than those with the binders and colored tabs. King believes it’s important to let the story tell itself. To let the characters live as the story unfolds. And if we spend so much energy planning a book yet-to-be written we can suck all the life from it before a word hits the page.

I’m not so militant. But I get it.

I’ve had some great story epiphanies I didn’t want to lose. So I jot them down in my phone. But I stop there until I’m ready to write. I believe the best stories stick with us and those less-so fade away. I’m much more of a pantser than a plotter. I’ve tried both. I don’t like knowing what happens before it happens.

I feel all that energy spent on creating a story binder could be spent writing the next book.


Notes begat more notes

When get wrapped in the idea of keeping story notebooks the idea of keeping notebooks can become a thing in itself. If that’s your jam, cool. But I believe the more-important, end result is the story.

It’s easier to live in your head than deliver something vulnerable.

When we build these massive writer’s notebooks we get to be self-indulgent. We’re busy. We’re doing important work. We’ve got evidence to prove it. “Look! I’ve got this huge binder with colored tabs and photos and research.”

But the notebook can become a scapegoat for the work.

There will always be room for more ideas. More angles the story can take. A little off the sides. A tangent here. A new outfit for the main character over here. At some point all the wheel-spinning becomes a distraction for the work.

You don’t want to see the movie director’s notes. We want the movie. We don’t want the brain surgeon’s notes. We want our brain fixed. If my toilet doesn’t work. I damn-well-sure don’t want my plumber’s esoteric notes on alternate plumbing ideas. I want my toilet fixed.

This is why I created The Book Mechanic.

Writing isn’t fancy. This is a blue-collar profession, where we get down-and-dirty with our stories and wrestle with them until we believe their done. Then we get vulnerable and release them to our readers — the true judgement of their worth.

Until we have a story to deliver the story doesn’t exist.

None of that hands-dirty business happens while we’re living in our heads, prancing around with new story ideas. We don’t allow ourselves to run the gauntlet of praise or criticism if we’re busy picking out drapes and hats for our b-story characters.

We’ve got to start.


What if we lose a great story idea?

Ideas aren’t just ours. If we drop an idea, it’ll float around until some other writer picks it up. Maybe that writer will use it. Maybe not. You’ll have more. I’ll have more ideas. When I go through my captured ideas I delete them a lot. If I captured a quick synopsis a month ago, I may not remember the story idea. If the lightning is gone I delete it.

Ideas are not the story.

The story is the story. Ideas are cheap and easy. Everyone’s got great story ideas. The good part lies in the execution — the writing — not in the idea. The story won’t exist until written.

We shouldn’t fall in love with our ideas.

I’m speaking to myself too. I still collect story ideas — a lot of them. More than I’ll write. But I’m Marie Kondo-ing the hell out of my notes. I only keep the ones that really light a fire under my pen.

There isn’t that much time.

We’re not here very long. I’d rather spend the time producing the story than thinking about the story. Maybe that’s me. For some, I recognize, it’s the only way to build a story. And that is the beauty of writing. There’s no one way to do any of this stuff.

We need your best ideas to become stories.

Drop all that other stuff. Think of how much more writing time you’ll have if you aren’t daydreaming your face off in a notebook somewhere. Or maybe I’m a jerk. What do you think? I’d like to know you opinion on all this writer’s notebook business. I don’t have a definitive answer.

We’re waiting for you.


August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.

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