a flaw in my idea bank

As a writer, I have my own personal way of cataloguing my story ideas and notes. Some writers may jot down their ideas on index cards and keep them in a index card box…or other writers may have an entire wall of post-it notes (btw, I bought a big package of post-its, in multiple colors, to track my novel and short story plots–hey, it was suggested to me years ago, and I tried it, but I think I’ll try again).

So–how do I catalogue my story ideas and notes? I email my story ideas to myself, with the story idea in ALL CAPS in the subject header. This way, as I riffle through my email inbox, I know that anything with ALL CAPS in the subject header is a story idea or something pertaining to my fiction.

It’s worked well for years–I can sort by time (click date sent on my inbox) and I can sort alphabetically too (click subject on my inbox).

However, after years of relying on this brilliant system, I finally ran into a flaw (every system has a flaw).

Our mailserver went down a couple days ago, for an entire weekend. It is up and running now and I find an empty mailbox refreshing…but it also means that my entire archive of ideas and notes are…GONE….along with old emails from friends, and the kind of information that gets exchanged via email (addresses, for instance).

I think that if you’re running on gmail or yahoo or any of the other free email systems, you’ll be fine. But if you’re running your own mailserver–this system has its major pratfall.

And now I throw out the question to you–how do you catalogue your story ideas?

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “a flaw in my idea bank

  1. JDo

    ooh, that’s rough to have lost your archive of ideas. but i can see how this could be refreshing, with no lingering “i need to work on x” topics gnawing at you…

    i used to do the same as you (only with ideas for academic papers…which are similar to but also different from stories), only without the CAPS. of course, that meant that i could never find anything and life was a big mess. but it was certainly less of a mess than jotting things down on post-it’s.

    my system’s flaws made me switch over to Google Notebooks, and i like being able to access my ideas from any machine. i also use Google Docs & Spreadsheets to keep track of thoughts that are more substantial than fleeting thoughts but less than a fully developed paper idea. here, you can use multiple tags, which i quite like.

    i know i sound like i’m preaching from the church of Google, but it has enhanced my productivity in ways i never imagined.

  2. OMG–I just checked out your suggestions of Google Notebooks and Google Docs & Spreadsheets. I have only begun to look at them, but I think there is a new answer at hand, JDo. THANK YOU! (And my mailspool probably thanks you too–it got a bit wieldy after a few years).

  3. I keep all my ideas in my head. I keep saying, I should have a folder; I should have a notebook. But I have none of that. The stuff that I remember, I use; the rest of it just drifts away.

  4. I’m more like Susan I guess. I keep most ideas in my head. Sometimes I jot things in a notebook, sometimes I write ideas in Word docs, but I forget to ever look at them again, so that’s not a successful strategy.
    The notebook is probably the best…I like having a tangible record of my notes and ideas.

  5. data on electronic or internet media is always dangerous more than paper. Plain old paper would be a good option or use some of the google apps, they have truck loads of applications, you can use something like a google docs or just gmail. even yahoo has a notepad feature.

  6. Oh no. You lost your ideas archive!

    You seem pretty stoic about it, though, which makes me think that the ideas that are meant to stick will come back to you. I’ve been superstitious about writing down novel revision ideas lately, like I think if I remember them days, weeks later they’re meant to be. Really I should just get a notebook.

    But that Google Notes thing is something I may try myself…

    Aside from being oddly superstitious lately, mostly I keep my ideas in folders on my hard drive. I title the folder the name of the story/whatever and put in the folder any random thing that goes with the idea. It could be a one-line document. It could be a PDF of an article I found on the web that inspired me for some reason… you know, anything. Then I back up the ideas folders a lot. I ran into a problem months ago when my ibook died (*sob*) and I’d forgotten to back up for a while. Thankfully I was able to get the data off, or I’d be freaking. And what if I’m away and want access to my ideas? I admit I could use a better system. I don’t know if I trust Google though… (Though I do email my backups of writing to Gmail, so what am I saying?)

  7. Pingback: Zipper « distraction no. 99

  8. I know! I lost all my idea notes. I’m not sure what I’m missing because I don’t really remember what I wrote down, which is why I’m not actually freaking–but the time will come when I’m hunting down for ideas or brainstorming and I won’t have my old mail spool to go to for inspiration. And then I’ll probably be way more dismayed.

    But I’m staying calm because well, I can’t get upset (physically, I am supposed to stay calm)…thank you for totally getting this, nova! And do try out the Google apps–they seem totally full of potential!

  9. My notes go into 2 places – longhand into composition books (occasionally loose sheets) and then MS Word files. These get stored in folders on my PC; backups on CD, flash drive, and used to have a backup at college before I graduated and they kicked me off the server.

    Longhand stuff needs to get typed up because it tends to get forgotten if it stays inside a comp book. Not always though.

    My email inbox stays cluttered with just messages – I use yahoo mail, not the beta, and it’s clumsy to delete large chunks of email. I sort through it all every six months or so.

  10. Huh. I am a mix of all the above.

    I often take notes as they hit me in a paper notebook. (Less now, but I have years’ worth of ideas in notebooks.)

    Then I type up the idea in a file I keep in one of the subfolders in my Writing folder. It could be a “draft sometime”, or “now drafting” if it’s a very good idea and high priority.

    But I also find that my “ideas” are a dime a dozen, and that the really good ones get stuck in my head — like a bit of sand in an oyster shell. They irritate me and irritate me.

    I maintain a current “fork” of my writing folder on my hard drive, plus three previous forks minimum backed up on an external hard drive, keychain USB, and elsewhere. I’m paranoid about data loss, for the reason Rajesh mentioned: electronic data is perilously unstable if not sensibly backed-up. Neil Stephensen discussed this wonderfully/distressingly in his (now-dated) essay “In the Beginning was the Command Line…”

    Also: you should set up a Googlemail account just for backups of all your incoming mail (which you can have copied and forwarded to Gmail if you set your server to do so). You could also even periodically export your outgoing mail archive to Gmail, I think. I set my account up first as a backup archive, and then I abandoned by site host’s webmail service when the spam filter turned out to be junk, so I now also use Gmail as the main interface. It’s free, and huge, so why not at least use it for backups?

  11. I write things down 1st, either in my current notebook, or on scraps of paper, envelopes, post-its, subscription cards, etc. Pre-computer, that was as far as it went; but now at some point I put things into computer files.
    I’ve never lost all my idea notes, but I did once lose a pre-computer notebook–I still think about it, as if it were a lost lover.
    Google notebook–I just checked it out, and what a good idea–thanks, JDo.
    Jade–so glad you’re feeling good.

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