February 02, 2016

Do you have a Spark File? I do.

Photo Credit: EpicFireworks via Compfight cc

Do you have a Spark File? I do.

What is a spark file?

A spark file is a list of ideas or thoughts that are gathered together in one place. My spark file currently has almost 10,000 words and has been going for about two years. It, basically, contains everything that comes into my head that might be useful for an idea in future. A quick look at my Spark file brings up things such as “The transience of human endeavour”, and “Death is for other people. Not us. Of course death comes to everyone. But this quite is interesting” Also in and amongst there are a number of reasonably fully formed ideas about specific bits of writing. An example of this is the idea for A30 - a One Act play I wrote, directed and produced last year: ”A middle-aged couple decide to drive down the A30 to see Lands End which is where they had their honeymoon. On the way down there they find that their relationship isn’t as strong as they think it is when he admits to not being completely faithful to her.”

How do you use it?

The idea of Spark File has been around for ages. It has been mentioned on numerous writing forums that one of the best ways to get ideas it to always carry around a notebook and pencil with you. That way whenever something occurs to you it can be noted down and dealt with later. This is the ubiquitous capture method. Pencil and paper has been the standard for many years. In a recent documentary from Woody Allen he noted that eh does exactly the same thing. Only he doesn’t use a notepad he just has bits of paper. He jots down notes and gathers them together in a shoebox under his bed. Once he has completely a movie he pulls the shoebox out, consults the notes and find and idea for his next movie. My Spark File is pretty similar. I maintain it electronically (See below), but the concept is the same. If I am out walking - which I do quite a lot - I can be thinking about numerous things at once. Or I might see something that grabs my attention. Then I make a note of it in my Spark File and forget about it.

They key to creating a good Spark File is to make sure you input everything that comes into your mind. The beauty of gathering everything is that nothing gets missed. The problem of gathering everything is that nothing gets missed. There could be some shocking bits of thought captured in there (See my note above about ’The transience of human endeavour’).

So the second key thing to remember about a spark file is that you need to review it regularly. I already mentioned how Woody Allen reviews his once a year when he starts a new film. The thing that he does - and the thing I would recommend - is to take the ideas that you have in there and see if you can merge them together to create something that might be more useful as an idea for a script or a novel (or a comic book. Whatever).

As an example of this I had an idea once which involved dealing with lots of people in a confined space and what would happen if they were trapped together. A few months later I read an article about Full Saturation diving. This is where divers who spend a lot of time working at depth can live in a compression chamber during the work. They compress to the level they are going to work at (say 1000 feet), work there for two or three weeks breathing air that is fully saturated with gases other than oxygen (nitrogen is the big example). Then they take anything up to a week or 10 days to decompress back to surface level. For the whole of that time they are cooped up in a series of compression chambers on board a chip. These chambers are not in the least bit roomy. All it needs is one person to be in a bad mood and you have an issue. These two idea were mashed together to give me the basis for “Pressure’ - a screenplay about full sat divers who encounter a problem which stresses them to a point where they start to turn on each other.

How do I maintain my Spark File?

I mentioned earlier that spark files can be written in notebooks or on scraps of paper and dropped into a shoebox. Personally I want mine to be a little more high tech. I always have my phone with me - especially when I’m out on walks - so it would make sense that this is the thing I use to capture my Spark file idea. I use Drafts on the iPhone as my data capture tool of choice. With Drafts I open the app and I’m presented with a blank screen. I jot down the idea, thought, comment or saying that is running though my head. I simply click the button to send the entry to me Spark file. This is simply a plain text file on a Dropbox folder. Drafts integrates perfectly with Dropbox (along with many other apps). The entry is added to the top of my Spark file and a dividing line is added below it. That way I can separate it form other entries. I can add as many or as few of these as I like and they will all be waiting for me when I get back to my desk. I simply call up the Spark File and scan through it to see what jumps out at me. As part of my implementation of Scrivener I have also linked the Spark File into a Scrivener project so I can go straight from there to my writing.

Where do ideas come from?

I like to quote John Cleese when he talks about where do his ideas come from. He said something along he lines of  
“I get my ideas from a woman called Mavis who lives in Chipping Norton. She gets them from a man called Eric who lives in Brighton. Eric gets his ideas from a man who sits in an alleyway behind the Wimpy in Swindon High Street. Where he gets them from I have no idea” 
The short answer is that ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. I read a lot of on-line articles (I use Pocket to gather them all together and read them when I get a minute). I also read newspapers (mostly on-line) and long form articles which are sent to my Instapaper account. Between them they are many sources of inspiration for ideas.

As I mentioned earlier I also tend to go for walks every day. There are two reasons for this :

  1. I get to leave the house, get some exercise, and see the countryside near where I live .
  2. The act of taking exercise sparks the brain cells into working better then sitting (or standing) for long periods at a desk .

As I walk I can work through things in my head. Sometimes it’s how to solve a plotting issue in a script I am writing. Sometimes it’s how to get a couple of ideas to merge together to create an idea that isn’t totally pants.

Oftentimes I just go for a walk and ask myself ‘what if’ (“What if all the cars in the country were electric? What would happen to the people who work in petrol stations or oil refineries? What about the petrol tanker drivers? What if one of them saw what was coming and tried to sabotage it?”) With thoughts like this it isn’t difficult to come out with a list of possible ideas to drop into my Spark File. The other beauty of this process is that notes can range from an in-depth idea along with character thoughts and plot to a simple statement.

Nothing is out of bounds.

Does quality matter?

As I mentioned earlier on, there are a lot of entries in my Spark File that don’t make a great deal of sense in isolation. But they are gathered and captured regardless. The beauty comes when you can sit down with them and merge them together to create something that does work. This is certainly a case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.

Do you have a Spark File (or similar?). How do you deal with it?

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