Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Mining old journals for ideas lost and found


Reading my old journals recently also prompted me to look deeper into a lot of the writing note files I mentioned too. If I’m working on a novel, I’m keeping a note file on it, and sometimes the note file is longer than the book itself.

I realized in going through this old stuff that I’ve only written a handful of the novels I conceived. Some of the failed ones have note files that are only four or five pages long. That’s a good sign that the idea fell apart almost as soon as I started digging into it. But a lot of the ideas are pretty good, and I’m not always sure why I abandoned them. For a few I got deep into the writing and might have even finished a first draft before grasping that the whole conceit was wrong somehow and needed a complete revamping. Not always in the mood to do that. Feels better to start something new.

Also, if you wait too long you’ll find that some other writer has done something too similar. I had one I was calling “Airman,” in which a guy rigs up a lawn chair with hot air balloons (based on a few true stories) and goes on a crazy flight full of adventures, but I waited too long and it became the Disney film, Up.

I had one going about a young illegal immigrant coming up from Mexico, but then T. Coraghessan Boyle wrote The Tortilla Curtain. I was working on a slave narrative with an interesting angle when first, Twelve Years A Slave came out, then Django. Now we have The Birth of A Nation and The Underground Railroad. I’m outnumbered, outclassed, and white.

I never delete my note files, though, because you just never know. My next novel, maybe coming this spring, was born way back in 1994 and has gone through so many iterations and revisions that it’s almost like my now-adult child. I’m glad I never disowned it.

Unlike reading my youthful journals, flipping through these project development notes is a lot more satisfying. I like how I hammered out details, found ways to give characters more depth, and worked my way through plots like a tunnel digger. And how often the novel came to me almost completely worked out so that all I had to do was keep track of things as I wrote. More often than I would have expected. Occasional Soulmates and Yesterday Road both arrived that way.

Take my advice. Hang onto your old notes. When you’re stuck or suffering from writer’s block, they come in handy as inspiration. But they can also make for satisfying rainy day reading, when you have a hankering to see what you were thinking about a few years back.

You might wind up feeling pretty good about yourself.

13 comments on “Mining old journals for ideas lost and found

  1. S.K. Nicholls
    January 4, 2017

    I’m in the process of plotting out my next book. I have tons of outlines, notes, mind maps…things scribbled on the backs of bills and front of napkins. It’s a real process to pull it all together and put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle into place…but it’s so much fun. I’ll have a fresh outline in Scrivener in no time.

    Sometimes, I run into a note and say, “I have no earthly idea where I was going with this.” But I keep it just in case it comes to me. Ha!

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 4, 2017

      “I have no earthly idea where I was going with this.”

      Oh yeah. I have that note too! Sometimes it tells you you’re on the right track …

  2. Phillip McCollum
    January 4, 2017

    Yeah, my current WIP is a novel I conceived about four years ago. It’s funny how the original idea has mutated and will likely continue to do so as I rewrite the thing for the third time…

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 4, 2017

      True, some projects are like that. The longer they stick around, the more they change. Is this your Gold Country book?

      • Phillip McCollum
        January 4, 2017

        No, though that one is still burning through the back of my mind… This particular story was conceived earlier and I’m nose-deep in the worldbuilding after completing the previous draft. So much work, as you well know… but it’s been fun and it’s cheaper than a bar tab.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 4, 2017

        That it is. Still, Happy Hour. 😉

  3. Audrey Driscoll
    January 4, 2017

    Very true. I wish I’d written this post myself!

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 5, 2017

      Thanks, Audrey! It can be reassuring to look back and see what you’ve accomplished.

  4. pinklightsabre
    January 4, 2017

    Timely! Last night, I picked up a 100 page draft I wrote two years ago now and was surprised how much I liked it, encouraging! I get you on having to rework the conceit though man. Easier to like, go strip wallpaper.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 5, 2017

      Sometimes the older stuff holds up well and you feel like you can do something with it. Then again, sometimes it feels like it would be better used AS wallpaper …

  5. 1WriteWay
    January 5, 2017

    Interesting. I struggle with “world building.” I know so many writers say it’s fun, but I have a very difficult time staying focused on one idea. I compare writing a novel to writing a dissertation. You have to be so dedicated, so obsessed (perhaps) to spend so much time on one conceit. Even for my master’s, I eventually opted for the comprehensive exam over the thesis (although there’s more to it than not wanting to be focused on one topic for a semester or two). Sometimes I think i’m just a first draft novelist, never to really revise and refine to a final draft because, well, for me, the first draft, pantser-style, is the most fun. After that, it’s work 😉

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 5, 2017

      First drafts are definitely the most fun, when you get to throw yourself into it and let it go where it wants. Maybe there should be a publisher called First Draft Editions …

      • 1WriteWay
        January 5, 2017

        But they would be painful to read … 😉

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This entry was posted on January 4, 2017 by in Writing and tagged , .
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