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Tuesday, November 3

Tips for Harnessing Story Squirrels

By Orly Konig, @OrlyKonig

Part of The How They Do It Series


JH: Great story ideas can be lost for lack of a place to keep them. Orly Konig shares tips on how to keep track of your ideas and inspirations. 


Orly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around her cats. She is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. She’s a book coach and author of The Distance Home and Carousel Beach.

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Take it away Orly…

Coming up with story ideas has never been an issue for me. Corralling those story ideas, however, can be more of a challenge at times. And, in true 2020 fashion, this year has pushed my focus to the brink.

For your amusement, here’s a summary of my 2020 writing: finished a manuscript in the spring; started a new one over the summer; started another one (different genre) also over the summer; agonized if manuscript A was the “right” one to be working on; got distracted by ideas for a third (and then a fourth) novel; found notes and renewed inspiration for a proposal from a couple of years ago while cleaning out my office; went back to manuscript A; decided to set aside manuscript A and revise something else entirely.

After a particularly frustrating week of starts and stops, decisions and doubts, and an “I should just get a job at a llama farm” creative meltdown and did a major purge and organization on my office. The result was unsurprisingly surprising … sorting through my notes and papers helped calm the story squirrels (why didn’t I clean my office months before???!!!).

Need some tips on corralling your story ideas? And, no, I won’t tell you to clean your room. ;-)

“This could be interesting” ideas


Ideas are everywhere and present themselves on their terms, not when you’re necessarily ready for them. I always thought, “I’ll remember this when the time comes.” Umm, yeah … not so much. So, I’ve learned to capture my “this could be interesting” ideas.

I keep a notebook where I’ll jot down whatever sparked an idea. Sometimes it’s a title that appears out of nowhere and I get that “ouuu, that would be fun to write.” Sometimes it’s an article I’ve read, or an object (that’s how Carousel Beach came to be), or a snippet of a conversation I overhear, or a random person I’ve encountered (that was the case for the manuscript I’m currently working on).

I also have folders (physical and on my computer) labeled “ideas” where I stash articles or pamphlets or photos. And then there’s the document on my laptop with pitch paragraphs for various story concepts. Having these pitch paragraphs comes in handy if an agent wants to know what else you have up your sleeve, or after you’ve finished a manuscript and need inspiration for a new one.

A few days ago, I was listening to a MasterClass lecture by Judy Blume where she was talking about story ideas. She keeps a small notebook with her for those moments when a story squirrel darts out in front of her. But – and this got me excited for some reason – she also has an old recipe box where she keeps index cards with random ideas.

“I’m going to write this” ideas


Once a story takes root in my head, I create a notebook for it, regardless of whether it’s the next story I’m going to be writing or not. Why? Because stories are like kids … they can sit in the same room with you for hours and not say a word, but the moment you turn your attention to something else, they’ll be desperate to tell you every little detail and it has to be now.

I used to buy pretty new journals for each book, but I quickly discovered that my project management brain wanted more organization. The Circa notebook system from Levenger (ARC from Staples, TUL from Office Depot, and yes, I mix and match between the three depending on availability and, um, cost) suit my organizational nerdiness with its flexibility for inserting pages. With tabs for notes, characters, timeline, even marketing, I can keep all relevant information for a particular story in one handy location and sorted so there’s no more flipping through an entire notebook to find one reference I think I may have written down. 



The letter size is perfect for inserting documents I’ve printed out or articles I’ve pulled out of magazines and plastic sleeves can be easily inserted for items that are too small or that I don’t want to punch holes into. If you read my last post, the storyboard pages I use are from Levenger and have their own tab in each notebook. I also print the synopsis generated from Plottr, punch the holes, and insert behind the “story” tab.

Remember at the beginning of this post when I confessed about the story squirrel rave that was going on in my brain earlier this year? Whenever I get distracted by a detail for one story or another, I can grab the notebook for that particular book, write it down, and move on. Because we know that (a) the ideas won’t be satisfied until they’ve made you lose focus on your current task, and (b) will pout if you ignore them and then refuse to come out to play when you’re ready for them.

We all know how crowded our heads get when we’re in the midst of writing. Whatever tools you can use to help quiet the noise around you, are worth the time investment.

About Carousel Beach

A cryptic letter on her grandmother’s grave and a mysterious inscription on a carousel horse leads artist Maya Brice to Hank Hauser, the ninety-year-old carver of the beloved carousel she has been hired to restore in time for its Fourth of July reopening in her Delaware beach town. Hank suffers from Alzheimer’s, but on his “better” days, Maya is enthralled by the stories of his career. On his “off” days, he mistakes her for her grandmother—his secret first love.

While stripping chipped layers of paint from the old horse and peeling layers of fragmented memories from the old man, Maya untangles the intertwined secrets of love, heartbreak, and misunderstandings between three generations of strong willed women.

You can read the first chapter on the Forge/Tor blog.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Book-A-Million |

1 comment:

  1. Hey Orly, thanks for the suggestions and the peek into your processes. I kept notebooks for years and years, partly because that was what one 'did' then and partly because I have an odd affinity for paper. A notebook that gets wet simply takes on more character (once dried) because the paper is now wavy and the crinkles give a voice to it.

    However, over those years, I discovered that I was unable to just write down a passing squirrel idea, I felt compelled to scribble out the extrapolation of that idea. This wasn't always available time or situation wise, so led to lots of frustration.

    What I realized -- for squirrel idea trapping only -- was that I needed a quickie way to capture the essence of the idea. And since many of my ideas come in my sleep, I started using a small recorder. I found that I could quickly and easily record the idea, the main themes and necessary background of it, and when I listened to it later, to actually place it in a notebook, my voice seemed to allow me to fully re-capture the original inspiration. And that re-capturing of inspiration continued to be available even months later.

    Thanks again for sharing!

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