Building an idea index

"...most good ideas...come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints, and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful, often by colliding with another hunch."

The farting violin teacher

Today, my six-year-old daughter accused her 60-something-year-old Lithuanian violin teacher of farting. And she didn't do it once. She said many multiples of times, pointing and cackling all the while. Her poor teacher was forced into the position of having to defend herself from a fart accusation.

As a father, I reacted appropriately, I think, but let's not go into that.

As a writer fifteen years ago, I would've scribbled that into the margins of an old notebook.

As a writer ten years ago, I would've entered it into Evernote and forgotten immediately.

Now, I finally have a note-taking system that allows me to find these little moments and ideas whenever I need them without me having to remember what exactly they are.

Quick pitch

It's not bragging to call myself an idea machine because my ideas are usually just the crumpled abortions of a wandering mind. But I do constantly think that these brain driblets live up to the name of Idea, ergo ... I. Am. An. Idea. Machine.

The problem is that these febrile ideas come on strong and soon burn to ash. I gotta write that shit down.

But it's quickly forgotten when it's written down in a sweaty notebook that is one of five going notebooks because you always misplace a notebook just long enough to start a new one but then you don't know which one to commit to when the missing one returns so you just try to use each for "different contexts" but you never bother to define said "different contexts."

And even when you do have a single notebook going, you don't really look back through it.

And even if you do look back through it, you don't really know what's in there or what you're looking for.

And even if you do know what's in there in general, you don't remember the mental spittle otherwise known as these hobbled ideas, like "NAME: Maybelline!!!" scribbled in the bottom-left corner of a page filled with dumb shit just like that.

The “Idea Index” that I'm building inside of a note-taking app called Roam Research is a perfectly searchable/browsable database of all of my ideas of all shapes and sizes.

Because, by God, those ugly seedlings are the building blocks of GENIUS.

Character ideas, storylines, conflicts, scenes, titles, lines of dialogue, gags, stoned convos, and 1,000 punny business names — it's all there ready and waiting to spring into action.

If I need a character idea to liven up or lend specificity to a scene, I can go to the "Character" tag.

If I find myself in the middle of a strange conversation, I might get the hunch that I might want to use it someday as an entertaining place to bury meaningful subtext, so it'll go under "Dialogue."

If I need a cool name, I've got hundreds tagged as "Name"

Come with me. I'll show you more.

What is the idea index?

The Idea Index is a two-part database within Roam Research for storing and categorizing my own ideas on one side and, on the other, excerpts, clips, and artworks that will (or at least could) serve as inspiration at some point.

The intention is to build up a database of original ideas as well as my favorite references (e.g., this moment in a song, this scene in a film, this character in a book, this color scheme in a painting, etc.) so that I never need to embark on any creative project blindly, and I've always got something inspiring that I can pull up for a burst of wind beneath my wings.

What is the spark file?

Spark: A hunch of an idea

The spark file is a place to put every big and small idea you have. It's a dumping ground that has been refined thanks to Roam's tagging and block references. (More on that later.)

My pre-Roam spark file was inspired by this article by Steven Johnson (from whom I took the above quote), who put it this way:

  • "The problem with hunches is that it's incredibly easy to forget them, precisely because they're not fully-baked ideas.

  • "You're reading an article, and a little spark of an idea pops into your head, but by the time you've finished the article, you're checking your email, or responding to some urgent request from your colleague, and the next thing you know, you've forgotten the hunch for good.

  • "And even the ones that you do manage to retain often don't turn out to be useful to you for months or years, which gives you countless opportunities to lose track of them."

As I migrated my years-long single document of stray ideas in an endlessly customizable Roam database it made sense to me to zhuzh it up with a simple list of standardized tags. These tags include things like Character or Setting or Concept (which could be anything from a full-blown capital C Concept to a small little nothing about an old lady who checks her mail too often for reasons I can't yet comprehend).

I now have keyboard shortcuts for the tags programmed into my phone and laptop, and I use phone to roam to text ideas to my graph. If I forget to tag something, I will catch when I go to clean up the automatic phonetoroam tag.

As a screenwriter and storyteller, many of my ideas can be broken down as Character, Concept, Story, Name, Title, Scene, IP (intellectual property — like a book or article I could see myself adapting), Dialogue, Prose, et al. I often have ideas that cross categories— an idea for a full-blown story that could be scrapped for its Characters, Concept, Setting, etc.

"Random" is also a handy catch-all tag to keep close by for at least two reasons.

  1. The first is that it loosens the confines of a taxonomy, leaving room to pull new ideas — for instance, I have half a dozen app ideas that I'll never do anything with...but maybe one of my characters will?

  2. The other reason I can see for a broader, catch-all tag is that since sometimes a hunch is so prematurely birthed, it can be hard to categorize, but if you're in the habit of categorizing, you might not jot down the uncategorizable.

Within Roam Research, any idea is easily tagged to encompass any variable you want to capture, so having an idea that can fall into multiple categories is not a problem. It's a supercharged spark file.

What is the inspo file?

Inspo: A hunch that there's an idea you might need to borrow from someone else's work

The inspo file is the "unoriginal" corollary to the spark file. It's a place to store and organize inspiring or exemplary moments in art, music, literature, cinema, theater, dance, life, nature, work, et al.

Inspo represents moments whose fire you haven't yet wrapped your mind around yet.

  • I love stowing away songs that I feel will be great for a film project I don't yet even have an idea for.

  • I rabidly collect my favorite bits of stylistic prose from my favorite books and writers (Patrick White! Edward St. Aubyn!)

  • I make sure to mentally bookmark at least one great scene from everything that I watch.

But I need all of these things to be available and useable and findable — otherwise it's a futile exercise. It's still something that I'm building out and learning about, but I have a hunch that this could be quite fun if I put the effort into making it work.

How is the idea index used?

As a repository

Store your thoughts, ideas, and sources of inspiration while you're in no place to immediately work on something new. The idea of storing ideas is, of course, not new, but making them findable exactly when you need them is a new capability, and that is really the big point of the Idea Index.

Simply by having a trustworthy system for storing and retrieving ideas, you will start to have more ideas, or at least feel like you’re having more ideas. Allow me to explain...

As soon as I created a tag for "Song Title", all of these evocative little words and phrases and puns suddenly found a home — which I'm happy about, even if I never write a single song from here on out.

It might feel like I suddenly started having more title ideas, but I think the truth is closer to simply noticing thoughts as relevant to a purpose, which upgrades them to the status of idea.

For filling out plans for a new project.

It's fun to browse idea categories, mixing and matching sparks and inspos just to see what I can come up with. This is when I can revisit idealets (idea nuggets?) and remix them across huge swaths of time — this title came to me last week and it perfectly fits a character from 5 years ago, who perfectly suits a setting I've been stewing on for nearly 20 years!

Even if I never pursue the ideas, knowing that I'm sitting on an embarrassment of riches helps me to loosen my panicked grip on anything I might consider "my best idea." I have far too many ideas to ever be able to make that categorical statement.

For maintaining momentum on a new project

Just last week, I was writing a scene between two characters talking in a restaurant. The thematic thrust was bravery to do something true that would compromise the main character's social and career statuses. As I sketched out a few versions, I just wasn't satisfied — it was all quite flat.

So I checked "Character" and found this nugget:

  • Jerry: in a mesh tanktop, flip-flops, painted toenails, for Sunday brunch, puts on a tie to look dressed up.

Jerry was the co-owner of a restaurant I worked at in New Orleans, and he probably wouldn't have come to mind organically, but he fits perfectly because of the way he dresses contra traditional brunch, and the actions the characters are contemplating go against societal norms. Zhuzh + theme!

But there's a risk to what they're doing. It seems crazy. It could go horribly wrong. These two characters could be horribly misguided. Then this popped up:

  • First day on the job, a server cuts a credit card that was declined because they saw it in movies.

I don't know who cuts up a credit card, but maybe it was a thing at some point? It's not anymore, which makes it hilarious if someone actually does it.

Those two things didn't perfect the scene, but they added helpful layers to toy around with to turn this two-dimensional scene 3D.

For finishing a project at a higher level of execution

Before I put my stamp of approval (or surrender) on anything, I read through it dozens of times, each time isolating a single element: Character A's dialogue or cliché scene description or lackluster settings.

Anything that I mark as needing a facelift will get a spark + inspo treatment — what can I steal from myself to make this better?

Will my Scene Inspo wake up my complacent, tired efforts? Will I finally get to use this piece about an alcoholic's workout routine literally being hitting the ground in his backyard with sledgehammer? Maybe I can use this thing about somebody learning their great-great-great grandmother is still alive?

For housing unused ideas from a recently finished project

I don't know about you, but each project I work on inevitably generates about 10x the ideas I need or even want. Most of them are incompatible. Many of them suck. All of them are just interesting enough to make me think there might be something there.

Because I do everything inside of Roam, I don't need to copy and paste anything. I just make sure that the idea is clear and properly tagged, and it will be exactly where I want it to be.

The Next Step

There's more to be done with the Idea Index. I'd like to find a randomization engine that would allow me to mix and match elements randomly — imagine something like, "Hey Roam, give me two random characters, one random setting, and one random concept!" I'm still generating ideas on how to best generate ideas.

More to come on how this looks practically as a use case for Roam Research. I'd love to hear how you're using Roam or how you store and retrieve your ideas. Reach out by email or on Twitter.

NB: Everything on this site is a living document — just because I press publish doesn't mean I've said all I have to say on a topic.

Appears in

  • Almosting
  • Getting new ideas