Trying Something New: Shoe-boxing

Story tellers are often gifted with a steady drip of new ideas that could become stories. The often discussed issue, of course, is when that drip of ideas starts to become a distraction from our current project.

I love when often my brain fires off a concept that makes me think, ‘oh that’s interesting,’ but I love it less when I’m in the middle of probably the most complex part of the first draft of my current novel. It’s not always easy to put aside the shiny new idea that looks so perfect and full of potential in its undeveloped infancy to push through and finish my current story.

But at the same time, these ideas are valuable to me as possible future projects so I’d also prefer not to banish them so far from thought that I forget all about them.

So how does one preserve these ideas and perhaps even let them incubate in storage while maintaining momentum on their current project?

I think the answer might be a story-building method I learned about at Narrativity (No, I’m not yet done talking about Narrativity, and at this point I’m not sure I’ll ever stop).

I met a writer named Stephen T. Vessels*, who had this sort of desert-sun-soaked version of Leonard-Cohen-coolness about him, and one afternoon I had an opportunity to have a quick craft chat with him. Somehow we got on the subject of how to put a story together.

The way Stephen works (and I think I remember him saying a mentor of his had given him this method, but I unfortunately can’t remember who that was) is to simply let ideas come to him about a given story, write them down on a small card or a slip of paper, and put them in a shoe box dedicated to that story. Then, when you’re ready to start that story properly after accumulating plenty of these idea cards, you pop open the lid, poor out your ideas, and lay them out in front of you. Next, you slide the cards around and try to group them to see what sort of ‘fits.’ These cards can contain concepts for theme, setting, characters, scenes, any of the parts of a story.

Eventually, something resembling a whole will emerge from the different parts. Some cards will get used, others will not. But through this spatial exercise of arranging these small items into a story, one will then be able to start their story or outline.

I really like how open and organic this approach to story development is. Often, when I’m trying to tease out an idea into an actual outline it involves several hours of sitting down in one go, trying to get a rough structure out of just a few concepts. When I outline in this fashion, I usually end up committing to a lot quite early in terms of what I expect the story to become.

This method of saving up ideas in a shoe-box allows a writer to continue to accumulate material while staying away from committing to a specific plot, arc, protagonist, antagonist, whatever. More importantly, it allows the author to not say ‘no’ to anything for quite some time. All ideas are valid and can be dropped in the box. All of those decisions can come later when you’re sitting down to construct something out of all these small parts when you have, ideally, a wealth of ideas to work with.

In her book “A Director Prepares,”** Anne Bogart talks about how every decision an artist makes in the process of creation is one of violence. Her idea is that a commitment to an idea means striking out of existence all the other options that could have been committed to. When outlining via spreadsheet (as I usually do), I’m often writing in only the ideas that seem like reasonable extensions of the preceding beat of the story. And I end up saying ‘no’ to a lot of ideas just because they don’t fit as a natural extension of whatever the last beat I’ve written down is.

My hope, is that if I sit down and start with a whole shoe-box of ideas that have been collected over time, I’ll have all of these interesting ingredients that can be considered fully and might be applied in an interesting way when combined with other concepts.

I write using the Pomodoro Technique*** and in the variation I use; I work on a project for 30 minutes, then take a 5 minute rest, then I repeat. Often times, after a more difficult 30-minute session, I’ll spend 5 minutes day-dreaming about one of those shiny, yet-to-be-troubled-by-the-actual-process-of-writing ideas and come up with a neat characteristic for a person in that story.

I suspect that jotting that idea down on a card and shoe-boxing it to revisit later will be both satisfying in the present and beneficial in the long run.

And it’s that short-term satisfaction that is important in addressing the question of how to effectively give time to new ideas while maintaining focus on the current project. After having shoe-boxed a new thought, I’ll ideally be convinced that I’m doing great work to set my future self up for a fun project and be able to return to the task at hand.

For my own purposes, I’ve decided that no actual shoe-boxes will be involved in this process. Shoe-boxes are pretty big and I like to (try to) keep my work-space uncluttered.

So I’ve decided to use envelopes with the title of the story written on the outside and I’ll be using these blank business cards to write my ideas down on. I’ve picked up this slick little business card holder that I’ll keep in easy reach on my desktop so that when an idea strikes, I can quickly scribble it out and then pack it in its “shoe-box” which will be kept in my drawers for easy access.

I’ve got two stories that I’ll be accumulating cards for in this way. One’s a very short story I’m calling “Husker” right now that I’d like to submit for an upcoming anthology. The other is for the novel I hope to write after I finish my current book.

“Husker” will be unpacked on 8/15 so that I’ve still got a while to write the actual story with. This will be sort of an accelerated test to see how this goes for me. Later this month, I’ll revisit shoe-boxing to talk about how the process felt after collecting more idea cards and attempting to actually build an outline from those cards. I am really, really looking forward to trying this out.


* Stephen T Vessels has some books available that you should absolutely check out. You can find them and his visual art on his website.

** Anne Bogart’s “A Director Prepares” is a collection of seven essays on art that apply to far more than just the theatre. Everyone who likes to make things should read it.

*** The Pomodoro Technique rocks. Find out more about it here.

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