“The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking,” wrote Joan Didion in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” “That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.”

I have two notebooks going at any given time. One has notes on ongoing projects, it’s where I keep track of work time, jot down things like “find: bio of Arthur Conan Doyle,” which I scribbled just this morning while listening to the Overdue podcast episode on The Hound of the Baskervilles. I added one to my Amazon wish list a couple hours later, but not all of these little notes end up anywhere—they don’t always get re-read. I’m not even sure I’ll ever get around to ordering, much less reading, that ACD bio. But when I get to the end of a notebook, or for a variety of other reasons including idle curiosity, I flip through and try to act on things I’ve jotted down.

Then I have a second notebook I’ve called RANDOM WRITING. In that, I write—by hand—whatever it is I’m currently working on. Yesterday I finished a short horror story. There’s still part of a jungle pulp story in there that needs to be finished.

But carrying that notebook around to work on that story, I noticed that on the first page—or, actually, the sixth page since there’s the remains of five more pages carefully torn out at the serration, but the rest still clinging to the wire spiral—there’s an idea for a novel that, should I suddenly decide to be honest with myself, I’ll never actually write.

Typing this, as best I can, to mimic my scrawling handwriting in the cheap spiral notebook, I give you…





Cthulhu Warming idea


horror from beyond the stars lands somewhere—giant Lovecraftian horror that gives birth to monsters, starts changing the environment



How a global disaster is experienced by people in different parts of the world



—Soldier on scene—uneducated “there”/kill

—Reporter on scene—educated “there”/understand

—Poor, 3rd world person—has no idea

—20something from LA—doesn’t care

scientist: can’t get access

—NY comedy writer—funny? too soon?

—small town preacher—desperate to seem to have answers

—cable news producer—managing the crazy, reporting everything


Start with: what the monster does

set a clock—everyone else reacts

there’s NOTHING you can do about it.

there is NO explanation of it, ever.

EACH experiencer has some combination of mutually exclusive theories, which are proven incorrect—but in many cases they stay with that idea.


* EACH experiencer has relationships/secondary characters and STORIES/CONFLICT of their own!


This is a book about THESE PEOPLE, not the monster or fighting the monster.




I have dozens of these.

How many of these do you have?

How many of them have actually ended up as a completed novel or short story?

I said I have dozens of them, but there might have been hundreds over the years. Reading it again from maybe a year later (the page isn’t dated but if it’s in that notebook it’s from on or after February 28, 2017) I can see so very much that needs to be rethought before it’s worth writing—especially that list of characters. But whatever else this is, whether or not it ever becomes more than a page of notes and a blog post about jotting down ideas for stories, this was not wasted time!

None of these have ever been wasted time.

This is a vital, early, and essential part of the writing processes—my writing process, anyway. When an idea for a story strikes you, have a place to record it in one form or another. Keep it. Sit with it, dismiss it if you have to, tear it apart and remake it into something else, but write it down in the moment.

You never know.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Adam says:

    I like to keep two lists of ideas, small ideas that could be added to a story, and big ideas that could only ever be the center of a story. Sometimes I like to just browse through them, see if any “catch my eye”. As you say, I doubt I’ll write all of them, but there’s a kind of safety net in knowing that, even if I suddenly stopped getting new ideas, I have this stockpile of ideas that I can turn to. And, by a similar token, if someone comes along with a request for a certain type of story, and nothing “comes to me”, I can open one of those files and see if any of my old ideas sound like a good fit.

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