Organization Realization

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.


  1. says

    Are you as messy as I am?

    No, I’m worse!

    Do you have a surefire way of filing your research?

    I do find my way from chaos to organization by using manila folders for each of the major story chunks. This one for info on the keris, this one for twin behavior, this one for Castine, this for Rome, etc… But things usually only find their way into folders after I’ve used them in the story. Until then, mass chaos.

    How do you deal with your blips of inspiration — post-its?

    Like you, I use anything and everything. Post-its, random scraps of paper, napkins. But you know what I like best? Hubby purchased a SONY IC Recorder for me, for my last birthday, and I use it constantly. It’s the perfect thing to put in a purse or pocket, so you can keep track of inspirations while driving, unloading dishes (!), etc… I lurve it and highly recommend it for writers.

  2. says

    I’m in an organization funk now.

    I have notes all over pieces of paper. I have lists with names and ages and ideas about secondary characters.

    I’m glad to see that it can end. I’m going to text-message my characters and see if they text back! ;)

  3. says

    If you write handwritten notes, which from the pic it looks like you do, get them computerized before leave anything for a while. I computerize all my handwritten notes within at least a week of writing them.

    I also rarely file raw research anymore. I try to cull down what it was about the things I researched I liked the most, and create a list of notes consisting of those elements. Rather than just piles of article clippings or random things — I probably won’t remember exactly what I loved about them.

    We’re funny creatures that way.

  4. says

    How do you computerize your notes, Eric? Do you keep a log? I might have to get one of those IC recorders that Therese has. It kills me to forget my brilliant observances because I didn’t have time to write it or I eventually lost what I wrote because I’m so frickin’ messy.

  5. says

    Gah. I’m messy, too. I’ve tried a few things that appear to have helped me out a bit. I have a tri-folder for all my stories where I put my research, notes, first drafts, etc., into it. That way I know everything is in one place. And then I also started a journal for each story and this is where I usually end up jotting down ideas that pop up out of nowhere, and I’ll also put random notes that I have made into the journal, taping them in there if necessary.

    I used to carry that journal with me everywhere and I probably will again when I get immersed in my story. It’s getting into the habit of taking it with you that is hard to do – but boy, does it save a lot of time when I’m trying to figure out where I put a particular note!

  6. says


    I usually enter the notes into Mind Manager or whatever I’m using to “track” the scenes I’m writing. If they’re just raw idea notes, I put them in Google Notebook.

    Handwritten notes go in the Moleskine -> Google Notebook or Mind Manager, depending on whether they’re specific to a story in the works or not.

    I have enough problems with bills, old pay stubs, and junk mail piling up around my house. I can’t imagine having piles of papers related to my stories. That’d just be too much!

  7. says

    Fascinating post, Kath! I have one of those cat assistants too.

    I don’t always write ‘brainwave’ story ideas down. I keep a lot in the recesses of my memory, and I bet a huge percentage of it leaks out to be gone forever. But then, the bits I retain are probably the worthwhile ones.

    When I do jot things down I’m the queen of the messy post-it note, back of shopping list, and blank half-page of ancient notebook. And they get filed on the kitchen bench along with bills, financial statements etc. Unfortunately, I have a little dog whose reaction to being ‘abandoned’ whenever I leave the house is to shred paper. And she’s recently discovered that if I forget to push the chairs in, she can get up on the bench / table.

    So I should transfer everything to the computer. I probably won’t do it, though. Old habits die hard.

  8. says

    I’d be lost without my wiki. I use an implementation of tiddlywiki which is a little javascript program that runs in a browser window (offline–it lives on my hard drive.)

    What I like about it is that it’s like a set of little index cards that you can tag and search. I did a workshop on using a wiki to organize a novel for last year’s PBWriters LB&LI. You can find the wiki on my website–free to any good homes. :) I call it ‘tiddlywikiwrite’.

  9. says

    It’s comforting to know I’m not alone when it comes to post-it mayhem.

    “I don’t always write ‘brainwave’ story ideas down. I keep a lot in the recesses of my memory, and I bet a huge percentage of it leaks out to be gone forever. But then, the bits I retain are probably the worthwhile ones.”

    I pray this is the case with me, Juliet.  I like to let things stew a bit before taking the bite.  I worry that something wonderful will disappear, but I guess there’s nothing that can be done about it.

    Eric and LJ, I’ll be contacting you two soon. I think amplification is necessary on how you manage your idea/research files.