Waste Not Want Not: Hold Onto All Those “Bad Ideas”
So you’re in the shower, scrubbing away when a fantastic idea hits you. It consumes you like wildfire, leaving you with a fervour for writing that you may have forgotten you had in the past few weeks. You think of the intricate plot and allow individual scenes to flood your mind. Vivid images of your new characters walk in and out of your head. You’re hooked on this idea, and you rush out of the bathroom, towel trailing awkwardly after you, in pursuit of somewhere you can scribble down your notes before everything leaks out of your head. You do just that and survey your work with a look of utter triumph on your face. It’s been a long time since you felt so satisfied, and you’re ready to dive right into your new world… once you’ve dried your dripping hair and put some clothes on, of course.
The problem is that when you get back to your desk, armed with a pen and a sense of determination, you start to notice the holes in your story. It seems to have reduced in quality significantly in the time it took you to dress yourself. Now you realise that the characters’ motivations seem to be off… there doesn’t seem to be any point to anything, and everything just seems… well… bad. You spend a few minutes, hours, or even days trying to correct it, but you can feel a deep sense of revulsion growing in the pit of your stomach, working its way up to create a lump in your throat. This idea is just no good. You don’t even know why you thought it was in the first place. You wasted all that time you could have spent doing something else… like having a longer shower. You pick up your notes and, shoulders sagging with defeat, rip them into as many pieces as you’re strong enough to muster, then throw the whole thing in the bin.
Does this scenario sound familiar to you? I’m sure we’ve all been there. Such is the woe of being an amateur writer, after all.
Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re all wrong. What you did was stupid. All those good ideas – yes, they were probably a lot better than you’d led yourself to believe – thrown into the bin! Shame on you! So I’m here to tell you what you should do in the future to make yourself a much better writer.
Have you ever come across a short-lived romantic fling in your lives? You may have been on the giving or receiving end, but it usually looks the same either way. Let’s call our two flirty friends A and B. They start off with a period of talking. They both know they’re interested in one another and slowly start to figure out that they have loads in common. At this stage, they’re not really dating. Heck, they’re not even really seeing each other, but everyone around them is aware of the mutual attraction. Both A and B seem to be over the moon, talking about going out for a date ASAP because they are thinking of making things a little more official. They speak a little bit longer, start planning what they would love to do: what film they want to see, what kind of food they’d like to try, or what cool destination in the local area they’d really like to visit. The only thing now that seems to be missing is setting a time.
Then, A begins to withdraw. They start to become distant from B, and the date seems to come up less and less. The loosely proposed time passes with no discussion about when the date is actually going to happen, and A continues to become more and more distant until eventually, A and B don’t talk anymore… and B is left wondering what the hell happened. On A’s side, they don’t really know themselves. Some people who have been in that position tell me that it’s because a date with B was too good to be true. Some say that they were just not ready for how much they started to like B. Other times, people will report that they realised they didn’t want anything serious anyway. There are hundreds of different, only half-believed reasons why people will withdraw like this, but there are two things which I can guarantee will happen nine times out of ten: the reason for them deciding to slowly fizzle things out will be stupid, and A will regret leaving in the first place. Then it’s up to A to see if they can make things work again. They don’t want to lose the good thing they had, even if they lost the enthusiasm for it a little bit.
I don’t presume to know why this happens – it’s beyond stupid to me – but I can say one thing about it: it’s very close to the way we can feel for a new idea. The trick is being able to separate this loss of enthusiasm for genuinely good ideas from the actual realisation that an idea is bad. It’s a tricky pursuit and takes a lot of finesse. In fact, most of the time your stories will have one or two (or more) great premises which it would be a shame to see disappear. That’s why it would be a tragedy to allow these ideas to fizzle out into the darkness without so much as a second glance.
Before I started even conceptualising the, currently on hiatus, Lightbringers Saga, I had written a prologue on Microsoft Word simply-titled “Faerie Idea” (I know. I’m super creative with my work-in-progress titles). It was the story of a girl who discovered a dark entity attacking a teenage boy in a car park. She tried hard to revive him, but her powers only enabled her to make his death a nice one: she sifted through his memories to find the most wonderful, allowing him to relive his happiest times as he slowly bled out – from no identifiable wounds. When the police came, she was cradling his lifeless body in her arms, his torso on her knees and blood soaking the front of her shirt. The only thing she could say was “it’s all my fault”.
The initial idea ended where most of my ideas do: not long after the extremely dramatic prologue. I actually spent about six weeks loving this piece of writing. I tweaked and refined the first two thousand words with a lot of tenderness until I got the usual “eh” feeling that we often feel. Suddenly, the idea of having a dark, unknown force of evil seemed incredibly cliche and mundane, and I didn’t want to be associated with an idea which had been done millions of times before (often a lot better than I could even dream of doing it). I was about to press “delete” on the document when a thought occurred to me: what if I want to have a look back on all of my old writing when I actually became good at finishing a novel? All I’d ever done to this point was to delete those “embarrassing” stories whenever I grew tired of the idea. However, I enjoy nostalgia with a passion, so I decided it would be best to leave it as it was.
And that’s where my “Faerie Idea” stayed for the next two years: half-forgotten, somewhere at the back of my mind. In the meantime, I started reading a few Episode stories here and there: Sundosia, Lovestruck and My Brother’s Best Friend (not the Featured story) all come to mind when I think of that period. They gave me the drive to write something other than a novel, which I had never considered doing before. So, with this new sense of motivation, I decided on creating an entirely different story based on a whole made-up world with a persecuted race of magical creatures who all possessed powers. There would be a re-established British Empire with a tyrannical king, and the race of Supernatural beings would act as a de-facto serf or slave class, partly inspired by the “hounds” in the anime Psycho-Pass. They weren’t initially Faeries. No, they resembled something much more like the X-Men, and I guess they still kinda do.
It wasn’t until I was walking home from University on a particularly cold day with my Superdry jacket zipped up to my eyeballs that the thought occurred to me. It hit me so hard that I had to stop walking, much to the annoyance of everyone walking behind me, and let my mind buzz with activity. What if my story was linked to my old prologue? The one I abandoned two years ago? What if that initial story wasn’t the actual plot, but was rather the back-story for my tale of a Princess rejected by her bigoted father? What if my idea wasn’t so terrible after all, but rather just lacked a little direction?
So the intricate story The Queen of Freaks was created, packed full of history and intrigue. My initial ‘Faerie Story’ protagonist became the catalyst for the war between the Humans and the Faeries, along with her brother, who sought to avenge her death. That sounds a lot better, don’t you think? And I would have never gotten there if I had pressed that delete button all those years ago. It’s almost four years since I almost lost Emilie and Aethan Blount, and I still don’t know what made me save that prologue, but I am damn glad that I did.
So what is my point? Well, I have to admit that this is probably one of the more obvious of my anecdotes. I want you to understand that abandoning your ideas as soon as you lose enthusiasm for them is probably the worst thing you can do. We’re human! We get sudden cold feet about things from time to time. We also, more often than not, regret not archiving our stories for a later date and building on them or stealing the best parts. If your ideas haven’t even had the opportunity to pass the passage of time, how do you know if they’re truly bad? And if they are, do you really know what makes them bad? Or even how to improve on them? If you get rid of the evidence, how can you learn from your own mistakes?
So what can you do with all of those ideas that you really want to get rid of, I hear you ask? Well, there are many, many things I would suggest doing:
Realise that it’s okay to be stuck
Take a deep breath! There’s a saying about Rome not being made in a day, and it’s completely true. Sometimes, writing can be an uphill struggle, and freaking out over the fact that you no longer like your story does worse than not help: it actually throws you back a few steps. Imagine that hill I was talking about. We’re riding up it on a bike. Freaking out and hating yourself for a bad idea is like taking your feet off the pedals and allowing yourself to roll backwards at an alarming pace. Ignoring that feeling is the equivalent of pedalling as fast as you would on flat land and hoping for the best. Acknowledging that you’re losing your enthusiasm will always be the way to go. It’s the same as looking up that hill and telling yourself “I’m going to need to push harder, but I will get there”. That’s the first step to improving your own work. You need to realise that you’re feeling the way you are for a reason and understand that it means more work, not less.
Give yourself a break
As with our flirty friends A and B, sometimes all you need to do is give yourself some space to see things from a different perspective. Just like with a romance, sometimes we can spend way too much time with an idea and the magic can get lost. That initial infatuation disappears, but in its place, we can often find a deeper, healthier and longer-lasting kind of love. It just doesn’t burn as fiercely as the initial passion, but that doesn’t make it any less significant! In fact, the very idea that it lasts long and stays hot through adversity proves that it is more valuable than the love at first sight feeling you get from a new idea. Giving yourself some space from your plot can make you fall in love with it all over again. Better yet, it can make you fall in love with different parts of your own work, which would definitely prove that you’re growing as a writer and are able to see your own work with a new light. Brilliant! Sometimes it isn’t the problem. Sometimes it’s you. So take a break! See other stories! Come back with fresh eyes and a more open heart. You’ll thank me in the long run.
Often, loss of enthusiasm for an idea can be linked to something going on elsewhere in your life. If you’re feeling particularly depressed or stressed, of course you’re going to lose the drive to continue! Alternatively, if you were once an edgy, depressed writer and you’ve managed to get the help you need to feel a little better, you might find yourself not having the emotion you need to tap into that emo stuff you were creating before. Take My Chemical Romance, for example. Gerard Way was no longer able to tap into the same level of negative emotion after The Black Parade because he was able to use that album to work through his own emotions. By the end of the tour, he wasn’t the same person as he was at the beginning. He tried to tap into that for another album, The Paper Kingdon, but it just wasn’t as genuine as before. However, he didn’t abandon this idea completely. He archived it away somewhere and has said that he may turn it into a book at some point. Often, there’s nothing wrong with the premise, but rather there has been a change with you which means that continuing with that story is possibly not the best path at the moment.
Talk to people
We humans are social creatures by nature, and that means we love to discuss things with one another. Some of us might be extroverts and gab away to anyone we can get our hands on. Some of us might be introverts who seek out the company of a few trusted advisors before sharing our stories. Either way, finding a person or two (or three, or four…) to talk to can really help you get to grips with your own ideas. This can help in more ways than you’d think. For one, you might have a fellow literature enthusiast of a companion who will say “Hey! This is what’s wrong with your story. Fix it, and you’ll have a bestseller on your hands”, but that’s the most obvious kind of help. The other is a lot more interesting and, arguably, a lot more valuable to you as a writer in the long term. The process of you explaining your plot to your friends and them asking you questions can actually clear up a lot of things in your own head. They do say that people learn from teaching, and even though I don’t know who they are, I have to say they’re right. You’ve probably been staring at your story for so long that you don’t even see what’s wrong anymore! Someone’s confusion or questions may just open your eyes to what you were missing this whole time.
Apply literary criticism techniques to your own work
That’s right. It seems really cocky at first, analysing your work as you would with Shakespeare or Mary Shelley, but it really works. Most of us can talk in depth about what we like and dislike when it comes to a published piece of work, but when it comes to our own writing or any friend’s work, we can freeze up and act like it’s some six-year-old’s art project. You know, good for a six-year-old. I’ve seen it in the Episode community time and time again. People act like a piece of work needs to be approved by some unknown, faceless lizard group with publishing powers in order to be worthy of literary criticism. Trust me, I used to be the same as you. I used to assume that published writers had some special green light that made them better than us, and that’s why we criticise their work. That was until I realised that anything I write surely has to be better than Twilight, and realised that publishing a story isn’t the thing that gives us the permission to criticise. It’s the way we treat the work and engage with it which decides whether it’s worthy of criticism. Frankly, I think it’s offensive for people to not criticise my work.
But I digress. My point is that we’re able to point out what a piece of published work did well and what it could have improved on. We are able to say what engaged us as an audience, what we wanted to see more of and why and how it succeeded or failed. Applying that same analytical brain to our own stories can make a massive difference to the way we approach it. It’s very easy to see our writing as our baby, but sometimes we need to sit there and think of it as an objective piece of writing. That way, we can find the issues that made us lose enthusiasm in the first place. Stop being the writer for a second and start being a critic. They’re sometimes as lizardy as the faceless publishers, but they exist for a reason.
Force yourself to see the good
This can be extremely painful, but it is super, super important to be able to do this – and I don’t just mean for your mental state or because The Secret of Chicken Soup for Successful People told you that the law of attraction brings positive experiences to positive people. It’s another one of those annoying times (like the point just above this one) where I tell you that being able to point out the good is a good exercise to help you grow as a writer. As writers, we’re mostly a bunch of self-critical babies and the idea of – shock horror – finding the good in our writing can set our teeth on edge. However, being able to see the good points in our story can really quell that sense of horror that often replaces the initial enthusiasm. Focus on the positives, and the negatives won’t seem as bad. Even more importantly, being able to pick out the good points separates them from the neutral, the bad and the downright awful. Then you can use those literary criticism techniques I was talking about to ask yourself why those things work and the rest doesn’t. I feel like I need to say this, though: make sure you don’t do this until after you’ve given your writing a break. You need to be looking from fresh eyes to actually gain any benefits whatsoever.
Use it as an exercise
So, after you’ve allowed yourself some breathing room and discussed your ideas with some other people to see what they have to think… and your idea still seems to be bad. So what? Using your old work as a framework to create something amazing can be an incredible idea! Not only do you utilise all that “wasted time” by turning your trash into treasure, but you also give yourself a lot of good insight into what made the work bad in the first place. This one works best after a few years have passed, and can be done in between stories or whenever you’re struggling with writer’s block. Instead of just letting old ideas die once you’ve sorted through all the bad ones, pick them up again at some point when you have lots of new experience and knowledge on what makes a good piece of literature. It will show you how far you’ve come, which is always a morale boost. Plus, turning bad stuff into good ideas always improves your writing, as it helps you gain more knowledge on what makes them bad in the first place so that you can avoid those issues like the plague in the future!
As you can see from this gorgeous demon picture courtesy of my resident artist, Chaotic Deluge, this isn’t just good advice for writers, but for anyone producing art of any sort. Plus, it’s always fun to show how far you’ve come. Give it a try!
Make a folder
Whether it’s so that you have plenty of trash-to-treasure material, to see how far you’ve come or so that you have something good to laugh at down the line, dedicating a folder to all your abandoned ideas is essential. I would go so far as to say that the most important reason to keep a folder is so that you know where you can steal ideas from in the future. Like Emilie Blount’s ‘Faerie Story’, something which may not work as a stand-alone story can become an intriguing back-story in another novel… or even a good simile or metaphor can be cut out when you need them. Things which might not have worked in your original story can always come in useful somewhere else. It is very rare that a piece of literature does nothing right. Unless, of course, it’s Twilight. It’s a great compromise: you don’t even have to look at the folder if you don’t want to, but you don’t have to delete it forever, either! If you’re against the idea of having your failures taking space on your computer, loads of companies give out free USB sticks as advertisement!
Read outside of your own genre
This one is more essential than you could possibly even imagine. I have read so, so many pieces of writing which are nothing more than tired-out products of their genre. Then the writers will tell me that they know their work is bad, but just don’t know how to change it. Well, you see, the genre-making classics of any type of literature will always seem innovative and amazing. They will then be built upon by their successors and made into something new. You also have the people who create literature which serves as a commentary upon the genre. These are the ideas which will usually work well and continue to be good. Why? They’re using their own new, fresh ideas and applying these to the genre. Then you have the people who only read one type of book and wonder why it is that they can’t break from their book seeming like a rehash of what came before, only worse.
Reading outside of your genre can do wonders for preventing this from happening to your work. After a little while, literature in a particular genre can all seem the same and have the same cliches, plot points and problems. When this happens, it can seem impossible to change your story and make it better when all you do is surround yourself with the same old stuff. Reading outside of your genre opens your eyes to whole new sets of problems and their solutions, allowing you to arm yourself with a new arsenal of ways to revitalise your stale plot. Using what I learnt from The Handmaid’s Tale when I read it all those years ago, for example, helped me to create a more dystopian feel to my fantasy story, while The Lord of the Flies taught me that the most unsuspecting of people can have a dark side to them, just waiting to come out through pack mentality. These are all things which helped me create a unique perspective for The Queen of Freaks.
Once you know this, revitalising your story can be so much easier using the things you’ve learnt from all those other genres you’ve read. That will help you to get that little spark back that you originally felt for your work!
Don’t mistake positivity with cockiness
I spoke about the importance of picking out the positive details in your ideas so that you can understand what you need to improve on and what you should continue developing. It is, however, essential to make sure that you don’t mix this up with cockiness. How are you going to learn from your mistakes if you become cocky? Thinking your work is amazing does nothing but bar you from your own ability to improve, which is not what you want to do. Realise that every piece of work has good and bad points, and develop your ability to tell the difference between the two. Forcing yourself to admit your story has good points is not the same as forcing your story into a position of infallibility.
The most difficult thing you’re going to have to face is developing the ability to tell the difference between a change in your attitude and the realisation that your story is bad. Once you’ve got that down, hold onto that story anyway. It can have so many purposes later on! Whether or not you continue with it after your cool-off period is irrelevant. Just make sure that you’re able to learn from it and allow yourself to make mistakes. Those who never want to learn will never improve.
(On an interesting side note, I actually accidentally lost over half of the work for this post because WordPress keeps malfunctioning for me lately. Gosh, I regret not having a back-up of all of the stuff I had written. More proof that you will regret losing ideas if you don’t save them! Trust me: you’ll thank me one day!)
This is so goooood!