How to spring-clean your ideas (or why data storage is your Horcrux)

So, it’s nearly March. I assume everyone in the country has MarieKondoed their entire house and now only owns two pairs of pants and a poncho? Yes, good. There is something rather intoxicating about throwing things away. I’m impatient, so I did the process in three weeks instead of the six months she advises (I have a small flat and did I mention I am REALLY REALLY impatient). The thing that took longest was going through the ginormous stack of writing notebooks I’d amassed over the years.

I used, until this year, to write at least the first 2/3rds of every book longhand. I also use books to note down all the random ideas that occur to me in the course of an average week. ‘A man falls in love with a giant Toblerone’ and so on*. But they were taking up space that I don’t have, and I also sort of felt they were weighing me down. The not-bad ideas and bits of writing that became books were like single blooming flowers in the gigantic dungheap that was me moaning about my life, making lists of things I really needed to do that weren’t writing (learn Japanese, build wells in Africa, etc etc), and generally being a self-pitying bitter winger (dear my friends: you’re welcome). So I went through all the notebooks, tore out the ideas, and threw away everything else. I may regret this. I may regret this soon. But for now, it feels good.

In fact, I think it’s really useful to rummage through all your ideas every so often. I assume everyone has more than one idea, and that you have a place to write them down. I scribble them in notebooks, or put them on my iPad notes, or if I’m feeling organised type them into a word doc. I’ve heard Evernote is good, or even recording yourself talking. I sometimes type up bits of books and store them in a folder called ‘ongoing work’. I also move deleted bits to a folder I have cunningly called ‘extra bits’ instead, in an effort to trick myself (which totally works by the way).

Now is a good time of year to get out all those notebooks, bottom-drawer novels/scripts/memoirs, poems and songs scribbled on napkins, those books without titles and titles without books and characters who have no story and stories depopulated of any soul. Look through your notebooks, or folders, or bottom drawers, or boxes under the bed and in the attic. Touch all your writing. See which ideas still make your heart beat, still move and breathe like the pictures in Harry Potter. Maybe you weren’t ready to write this one two years ago, but you are now. I have a back-burner book idea that I actually wrote 70,000 words of a few years back (that is NEARLY A WHOLE BOOK) and then parked because I knew I wasn’t ready for it. I also have two full unpublished novels and approximately 265890 ideas for other things. Sometimes it upsets me that I won’t get time to write these, or I can’t decide which to do next. So it’s good to look over them, once in a while, and let a little oxygen into the box.

Now is also a good time to think about the incredibly dull but important issue of data storage. Have you got copies of all that old work, those books on floppy discs or Usbs or laptops that died, leaving the souls of the work trapped inside (Data Storage: A horror story; or, The Haunted Hard Drive)? No? BACK THE DAMN THINGS UP. Get Dropbox or something like it. Email things to yourself. Get an external hard drive. Basically your work is Voldemort and you need to Horcrux the hell out of the thing. This is boring I know but it bears repeating, and you will thank me when you bolt awake at 3am in screaming horror, or your laptop gets stolen or your USB goes through the wash or Dropbox crashes (IT COULD HAPPEN) and then you remember you sent a copy to Aunty Mary, so it’s all fine. (Booker prize winner Marlon James had apparently deleted every copy of his book, so discouraged was he by getting nowhere with it, except for one that was lurking in a friend’s inbox).

Do not be this guy. It makes a nice story but he’s got that one all sewn up. Save things. Keep track of your ideas if you can bear to – folders, or documents, or something better than this (I am disorganised). Sort through it, look in on them every so often, like germinating seeds in the airing cupboard of your subconscious (it is warm in there, and full of pants). Treat every little crazy idea with the same respect. Because you do not what takes something from this:



To this:


And that is a kind of magic Voldemort himself would be proud of. Except, you know, less evil.

*Actual idea I still want to write sometime. 


2 Comments Add yours

  1. M. L. Kappa says:

    You’re so right! Must get on to this – aaaarrrghhhh

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    You. Are. So. Right. And I speak as one whose laptop got stolen, then had two hard disk failures (one with my Ph. D. thesis, way back when we used disks rather than USM sticks to save it and then the disks failed). It can and does happen.

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