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Monday, October 1, 2018

Dealing with Dumb Ideas--Placeholders, Building Blocks, and Portrayals

If you are a creative, you are going to come up with some dumb ideas. I mean REALLY dumb. This doesn't mean you are stupid or not talented, it's simply part of the creative process. Some are placeholders until you get something better. Some are building blocks that will lead you to something great.

But it's a completely normal part of the process.

Unless you have tried to write a professional quality book, you may not appreciate just how many freaking choices a writer has to make. I mean TONS.

A novel is in some ways simply an accumulation of all those little choices.

I once voiced to someone how difficult it was to keep everything about my book in my head.

This person didn't believe me. "Of course you can. It's your book! You wrote it!"

Writing a book and reading a book is vastly different. The reader only sees the published product. The writer has all these scraps of past, present, and future ideas, dots that aren't yet connected, motives that aren't yet known, conflicts they haven't figured out how to solve--with multiple options and "alternative universes" for how the story can go. For every decision on paper, there could have been a dozen other options brainstormed.

You see, there are so many components to a good story that it's almost always impossible to have every single aspect figured out and brainstormed all at once. There are too many things! And one component affects how another functions, so if you change this, you have to consider how it affects that. And on and on.

A completed, polished, published work may fit entirely in your head, but a work-in-progress that is constantly in some kind of motion can often feel like an intellectual, unconnected mess.

Dumb ideas will come--simply because there is so much to brainstorm and make decisions about and components that affect one another, that you can't magically fit everything together the first time (or sometimes in your head for that matter).

I used to think there was no such thing as dumb ideas. I didn't believe in using the term.

Until I was editing my own story.

Guys, I had some really dumb ideas. REALLY dumb.

But here's where I think we get confused.

That doesn't mean I am dumb.

Remember, dumb ideas are a completely natural part of the process.

Weeks ago in a blog post about being gifted, I referred to this article on Mozart, which touched on something that had been living in the back of my head: dumb ideas.

In it, it has this quote from Seth Godin:

"The problem is that you can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones … Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, 'none.' And there, you see, is the problem." – Seth Godin

As writers, when we sit down to brainstorm, the first things that come to mind will almost always be the most cliche. Why? Because we've seen them so many times! Of course they will be the first things that comes to mind! "Hmmm . . . what kind of tree should this be? Oh, an oak."--like all the other hundreds of trees in fiction are.

Some other lesser ideas happen because they connect dots and problems easily. They fix or add conflict in simplistic ways.  "Hmmm . . . I have this character that died before the story started. What did she die from? I know! A car crash!"--like all the other hundreds of other characters that are dead by the time the story starts.

The simplistic and cliche aren't always wrong. There are definitely times where you should use them. And sometimes they are even the best idea to use.

Some dumb ideas aren't either of these kinds, but simply concepts you didn't think through. BECAUSE REMEMBER HOW MANY THINGS YOU HAVE TO BRAINSTORM?

You may be focused on brainstorming a main component and come up with a dumb idea for a side effect issue that popped up unexpectedly.

I once met a Shakespeare scholar who stood and told us how amazing Shakespeare was because he wrote so fast that he didn't have time to think up character names in his early drafts. He told us this like it was something stunning.

Having worked in this industry for several years, let me tell you, Shakespeare was completely normal.

I mean, he was a genius.

But that part of his creative process was completely normal.

Because you don't brainstorm everything perfectly at once. Lots of writers stick in "placeholders" so they can get on with the story and figure out that stuff later. Just a few weeks ago, someone in the industry posted some dialogue where they had marked the speaker as like "dwarf guy #1" because they hadn't yet come up with a name.

In early drafts, I use some kind of placeholders all the time. Sometimes things that are even less than placeholders, like, "[insert a line a of setting description]"--because I haven't yet brainstormed the details of that setting or the contents of that line, and right now I'm focused on the plot.

Sometimes I use dumb ideas because I can't think of something better at the time that satisfies my needs. But because a WIP book is like a constant moving target, I have been shocked more than once how an idea that appears later in the story crops up and I can go back and replace my other crap with something brilliant.

Some of the dumb ideas that I worry so much about end up solving themselves through the process of writing a book, and I realize they were really placeholders until I found something better.

Other times, it's not so easy.

For one, you have to come up with some good ideas before putting pen to paper. If you write a whole book with largely dumb ideas, then it's going to be a beast to rewrite and edit. It's almost like you are starting over from scratch anyway and have all the same problems. You have to come up with some good stuff to get a solid draft started.

Sometimes in situations where dumb ideas aren't placeholders until something better comes along, they may be more like building blocks.

You might brainstorm them all out first, so you have to work your brain into coming up with something better and they don't keep swimming around in your head. But sometimes the dumb idea can be the seed that grows into something better. Maybe for some reason your protagonist is not turning to the police no matter how ridiculous, dangerous, or serious her conflicts have become. You might look at it and realize that this is stupid. Any coherent person would go to the police at this point. You either need to rewrite the story so that she does go to the police. Or brainstorm a believable reason she does not. Perhaps in the process of brainstorming the latter, you uncover a treasure chest of powerful motive, characterization, and worldbuilding that will take care of this problem and actually make the story better.

Thus, having that dumb idea actually ended up being a building block to something better.

One of the things that I think most of us writers pray for is that all our dumb ideas are taken care of by the time the book is published.

In some technical or complicated scenes, you may have a dumb idea that has emerged out of the darkness from the sidelines that you had not foreseen. Like anyone, I want to believe that we can always get rid of them, but in some situations, especially in later drafts, that might be rather difficult to do, as it might change a bunch of other things that connect in, in the process. It might not always be realistic to get rid of all of them.

Thankfully, motives and portrayal can go a long way to fix some problems. Some writers say you can get a character to do almost anything if you show the right motive. Other times the right portrayal--how that concept is rendered on the page--can go a long way. If you look at some of the concepts in Lord of the Rings, they might sound rather silly. Little people with hairy feet and huge appetites? Magical rings? But the portrayals take care of a lot of that. Another fantastic example is Guardians of the Galaxy. When the first movie was going to come out, a lot of people thought the concepts were ridiculous, or even dumb. A talking raccoon? A green lady? A giant tree that can only say the same three words? Man, that sounds dumb. But it was amazing! Why? Because of how the creators rendered those ideas. And I'll throw in Hamilton too, because most people who heard Miranda's concept thought it sounded dumb and ridiculous. But he had the vision for what many others called a dumb idea. He saw how to marry hip-hop and rap with the founding fathers.

Here's what's crazy about some of these things. Lord of the Rings, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Hamilton ended up all being pioneering. They changed their industries. The world was not the same after them. So sometimes what the vast majority may think sounds stupid (because they don't understand it or have never seen it before) turns out to be revolutionary. In each of those cases, the creator had the vision for what the story could become--and he knew how to portray it to make it work for audiences. Perhaps in that way, there aren't dumb ideas (concepts), only dumb portrayals and motives. Those are the dumb ideas.

Probably almost no one is saying Lord of the Rings, Guardians, and Hamilton are dumb now. (And yet the world just wants to keep remaking the same things instead of something new--which is what made these things great to begin with.)

So sometimes you can even run with something ridiculous and see how you can make it work for the masses, like Guardians.

And sometimes with stupid ideas, if you actually poke fun of them on the page, instead of taking yourself so seriously, you can make them entertaining. And/or you can validate the situation to the reader, which I've talked about before on here.

Just remember, there is no shortage of dumb ideas. And if you aren't coming up with some stupid ones, you are probably blind to your own creative process or too timid to face the rubbish head on to get to the good stuff.


  1. Ha! I'm about ten days from beginning to upload my fanfic story to Wattpad, and I still haven't decided on the names for all my characters yet. Talk about relying on placeholders. Sheesh...

    1. Yeah, I'm on a far later edit on my manuscript, and just changed a character's name--one that had been a placeholder really for all my other drafts.

      See, Shakespeare was totally normal.


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