Last week, Therese blogged about the joy of having a great story idea pop into her head when she least expected it.

I had something similar happen to me earlier this winter. I was loading dishes into the dishwasher when a story idea so compelling came to me, I stopped in mid-load and started scribbling in a notebook. Literally, my heart was pounding with excitement. As I started fleshing it out, something deep in me knew this was it. Later, my daughter saw the dishwasher gaping open, chore aborted, and me on the couch writing, and she said: “another of your stories, Mom?”

She’d gotten used to me doing that.

I spent the next few months happily researching what I needed to, then plunging into a first draft. I’d blazed through a few different openings, toyed with characters, axed others. Felt my way through 125 pages. I knew exactly what had to happen to the midpoint of the story; after that, I was sure inspiration would strike on how it needed to end. I’d let the characters tell me when the time came.

Then in April, I landed the Working Partners commission. By necessity, work on my own story would have to wait . . . until now.

This is what I came back to.

Hm. I guess I’m not as organized as I thought.

Stacks of books and papers waited for me exactly where I’d left them. My family knows better than to mess with my writing stuff (my cat’s the exception. She has no boundaries, especially when there’s crackly paper involved). I spared you a glimpse of my desk. Horrifying. More books, more paper, more more more . . . .

When I set aside my project, I truly thought there would be no way I’d forget anything about my story. The whole thing felt so organic, so vivid, I didn’t think I needed to organize my notes in anything resembling coherence.

It’s amusing how the human mind deludes itself. Because when I opened my folder and saw this:

I realized I needed a better organizational method.

When I’m in the zone of writing, I tend to jot ideas down on post-its and scraps of paper. I’ll know exactly where I need to put these gems AT THE TIME. Now, they might as well be encrypted code, because I couldn’t remember what the hell I was thinking when I wrote half that stuff down.

So I spent a day in despair that I’d lost the thread of the best story idea that I’d had to date. But after I calmed down and took a long walk, I let the story swim in my head. I went back to the beginning, to the story’s heart. Who were these people? What did they want? How did they intend to get it? What was stopping them?

Something really wonderful happened: I asked the characters to speak to me again, and they did. Something else happened to: I could envision the ending now. The space away from the story allowed me to see other possibilities.

Before, I only had a beginning. Now, I have an ending. A completed story.

This time, though, instead of jotting it down on post-its, I employed a technique from my Working Partners experience and crafted a storyline instead of relying on memory to get me through the narrative. But I can’t let my lifetime crutch of post-its entirely go. I have them plastered all over the seven-page storyline.

Would I have figured out the ending to my story without having the enforced break from it? I’m sure I’d have come up with something. Would it be as good as I know the one I have envisioned now would be? Maybe. Maybe better. But no one should dwell on the “what ifs”. Better to focus on the “what you have now.”

One thing’s for sure. I need to be more organized. ‘Cause I wasted valuable time sifting through scraps and half-baked ideas to get back to the heart of the story.

What is your method for organizing your work? Are you as messy as I am? Do you have a surefire way of filing your research? How do you deal with your blips of inspiration — post-its? Or something better?

I’m interested in learning new ways to manage my chaos.

About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.