Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 5, 2023

Free Your Darlings - Try the Bad Idea Exercise

by Joseph Lallo

I have been writing for more than a decade now. As a self-published author, one of the great benefits is the capacity to put out a far greater volume of writing. Indeed, many self-pub business models require rapid release. Now, there are many ways to achieve this level of output. The easiest, and least desirable, is to simply not care much about your output. Write fast, skip revisions, and cross your fingers. I DO NOT RECOMMEND YOU DO THIS! It takes a very skilled, and very lucky, author to produce quality work in this way.

Another way is to simply keep your butt in the seat and just churn out the words, polish them, rinse, repeat. This is, broadly speaking, the ideal method. But it takes more time, dedication, and discipline to manage this than many people have to offer. I certainly struggle with it.

However, I have good news! There is a middle way. If you care about quality, but don’t have the capacity to write the amount of raw, polished output you’d like, then you just need to learn to find a use for every scrap of writing you do. If no idea is wasted, you’ll be amazed how much your creative output increases.

There are a number of ways this can be done, but I’ve come to call my method “The Bad Idea Exercise.” And the flowers that have grown out of that particular pot of fertilizer have taken a number of forms. But to get them growing, you must prepare the soil.

Transplanting the Seedlings

This is the simplest part of the process. What you need to do is create a folder wherever you keep your clippings. This can be one folder for everything, one per series, or even one per title. The important thing is that it is quickly accessible. I like to have a file already waiting for me in the folder for a new series, even if it is blank. The fewer obstacles or delays, the better. This file will be most important during two phases of writing:

Brainstorming and Revision

During brainstorming, in theory, every idea you don’t pick during the ideation process could go in the bad idea file. I personally like to keep it to the ideas that had some merit, had some meat on the bones, but were disqualified for some reason. Maybe they were too simple. Perhaps too complex. Maybe too out of character for the intended cast, or too inappropriate for the tone of the setting. Whatever the reason, if I liked the idea but couldn’t make it work? Into the bad idea file.

On the other side of the drafting process, you’ll want to have the file open and ready during a revision. If you run into a conversation that goes on too long, or a dynamite line that's just not right for the moment or the character? Clip it out and drop it in the file. I find this actually helps streamline the revision process.

It is a lot easier to kill your darlings when you know what you’re actually doing is transplanting them into a place where they will potentially be the star of another tale.

It won’t take long to start to collect a healthy pile of dislodged lines and scenes. Now you just need to wait until the right moment to make something of them.

Raising the Crop

So you’ve just finished a book. You’re looking for some inspiration. Now’s the time to dive into that bad idea file. If you’re like me, you’ll find that the fragments inside fall into one of a small collection of categories.

First are the kinds of ideas that are either too thin to carry a full novel or too problematic to finish out a lengthy plot without hitting a hitch. These are ideal candidates for short stories.

The first two years of my Patreon releases were entirely composed of ideas that I’d deemed unworkable for longer stories.

While a cool idea might run out of steam if you try to push it past 50,000 words, it is not unreasonable to make a short story that is all premise.

Saving the Seedlings

A few thousand words exploring the concept, ending with the implication of adventures to come, is a great little nugget of a story. And if a plot concept is doomed to run face-first into a brick wall, you can simply wrap up a short story before the unfortunate connotations come along. Many love stories wouldn’t work as a “happily ever after,” but they can certainly work as a “happily for now.”

Chandra Free @spookychan spookychan.com 

If I’m going to champion this technique, I should show my receipts. I’ve written quite a few fantasy stories, and dragons are a particular favorite topic. For better or worse, my primary fantasy series, The Book of Deacon, is one of my more serious settings. If I have a goofy, gaggy idea, I might not be able to use it in the Book of Deacon without it clashing. And let me tell you, I’ve had some wacky ideas for dragons.

Creating Alternative Stories

On one particular occasion, I became fixated on the concept of dragons with non-standard hoards. As adorable as it would have been to include a scene where Myn (my main dragon) starts raiding bedrooms, it just isn’t a good fit. So into the bad idea file it went, half a scene about a big dragon who hoards pillows.

Flash forward a few months and I needed an idea for a Patreon Short for the month. There’s the pillow hoarder scene. Divorced from the Book of Deacon setting, it needed context. How does a dragon even get pillows? It’s not like pillows big enough for a dragon are just lying around. He must have them custom made.

So now, rather than kidnapping princesses, he’s kidnapping tailors and seamstresses. And instead of plundering gold and jewels, he’s plundering fancy cloth and feathers. A few more minutes of gap-filling and I end up with a tale of a knight who sets out to slay a dragon but ends up starting a business selling garments the army of tailors make out of his worn-out pillows. All from a few sentences that I ditched from another story.

Here’s another one. I wrote an urban fantasy about a guy whose shadow is replaced by an other-worldly creature (Shards of Shadow). In early drafts of the book, I had the POV bouncing back and forth between the human and the shadow from the very beginning. It quickly became clear it would make for a better story if our hero and the audience witnessed the reveal of the specific nature of his problem at the same time. But now I had all of these scenes from the shadow’s point of view that no longer fit in the story. I clipped them out and put them in the bad idea file.

Marketing Material

Once I was in a lull in releases for that series, I popped open the file. A little more connective tissue and I had a side story that explained one or two minor curiosities in the first book and built heaps of character for the shadow. Because it was a companion to the already-released series, I didn’t have to do a bunch of redundant setup or description. Now I had a fun little tale that could serve as something like a newsletter sign-up perk. Something like this that requires knowledge of the story, is always useful to reward fans of the series who want just a little bit more.

And this reveals one of the hidden superpowers of this technique. Scenes built from the bad ideas clipped out of a story still have the DNA of that story. This makes them prime fodder for marketing material. Mid-story stuff is great for newsletter sign-up perks, as I said. They could also be sent out as newsletters, or used as blog content. Things cut from the prologue, abandoned flashbacks, or cut backstory can be free reader funnels to post or release and attract people to the series. But it is always wise, before sending these things out to paying customers, to see if they’re actually ready.

Ripening The Fruits

None of this is worth doing if it fails to produce a story people want to read. As traced out in the earlier examples, the secret to filling out a story fragment to a full story is asking the questions a reader would ask and making sure either the answer is available or the mystery is enticing. Who is this character? Why are they doing what they’re doing? If these answers aren’t contained in the story, and they aren’t the sort of thing the reader can figure out from the in-story clues, then you’ll have to build that out. Likewise, you need to learn about their goal, their stakes, and the challenges/obstacles/villains along the way.

Satisfying Conclusion

The other thing to consider is if the story reaches a satisfying conclusion. This can actually be the most complex part, because “a satisfying conclusion” is not the same as “the end of the journey.” One of my stories that has been a hit with the fans was built up from the abandoned idea “what if post apocalyptic robots, but nice?” This was the actual phrasing in the bad idea file. It was a concept I nixed from Big Sigma, and it ended up as a story called Wasteland. The story ends with things looking up, and the possibility of our heroes finding other survivors. It feels like the beginning of something, not the end of something. But it is the beginning of something the reader can imagine. It isn’t a cliffhanger, it is an open door. And that’s the kind of point that can end a story without the reader feeling cheated. … Provided something happened along the way.

Planting Possibilities

This is actually another example of something that’s trickier to pinpoint about a short story than it is about longer pieces. Part of what makes the previously mentioned conclusions satisfying is if they are the result of satisfying actions or investigations within the story. While I stand by the statement that a short story can essentially be all premise, that premise has to unfold the first few layers of an enticing mystery.

Planting a pile of possibilities in the mind of your reader, with just enough information to give their imagination something to tug at and play with, is meaty enough to satisfy. Describing a bunch of interesting things but not giving the reader something to do with them? Probably not. So you can follow the standard three act structure: get the character stuck in the tree, throw rocks at them, and get them down again. Or you can spend your word count giving your audience a palette and filling it with beautiful colors of paint, then hand them a paintbrush and send them on their way. Either will work, but the real trick is knowing when you’ve hit the mark.

With any luck, you’ll get used to the process of sprouting dubious clippings into indubitable blossoms. And then there’s the endgame.

The Best Worst Case

Hopefully I’ve illustrated the value in hanging onto your “bad” ideas and gussying them up. It’s a profoundly efficient way to increase your output without greatly increasing your workload. Once you get the knack of it, you’ll start steadily generating juicy little short stories for all sorts of purposes, from marketing to reader rewards. And if you’re like me, some of those ideas will swell and mutate into novellas or full-fledged novels. But there is a scenario you should be aware of. As you mature as a writer, the number of bad ideas produced by any given session may start to dwindle. And as you get better at utilizing those scraps you’ve been filing away, the file will start to empty out. So there is the chance you’ll end up with an empty Bad Idea File. But I’m prepared to say without fear of reprisal that any given tactic that leads to the worst case of “I’ve run out of bad ideas” is probably a pretty safe bet.

Do you have a Bad Idea File? What do you do with scenes you don't use? How do you free your darlings?

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About Joseph

Joseph Lallo

Joseph R. Lallo took a crooked path to authordom. He was educated at NJIT, where he earned a master’s degree in Computer Engineering, and paid his bills in the world of Information Technology until Sept of 2014, when he finally became a full-time storyteller. The international bestseller The Book of Deacon defined his early career, and he has since written dozens of novels, short stories, and novellas. These include the critically acclaimed Steampunk series Free-Wrench and the thrilling sci-fi adventure saga, Big Sigma

Outside of writing, he has co-hosted multiple self-publishing podcasts over the years, including the Six Figure Authors podcast with Lindsay Buroker and Andrea Pearson and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing podcast.

Top Image by David from Pixabay

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14 comments on “Free Your Darlings - Try the Bad Idea Exercise”

  1. Thank you for sharing this useful piece. I am on the same page as you, Joseph. And I've always been hesitant to let go of anything that comes out of a beautiful mind, if I may so. There! I said it.

  2. Great suggestions, Joseph!
    I love your marketing ideas.
    Thanks for the great post.

  3. Excellent post. Good ideas abound! I have a file, but it's not got much in it. I have a novel that I can't get the middle sorted. I've written the beginning and the end, but can't get from one to the other. Bad idea file, maybe.

  4. I will start and "odds & Ends" folder.
    I already know where some of that content will come from.

  5. I love this! I've had a bad idea folder for years, but I never really go back to it. Now I'm inspired to go dig it up and see if any stories could grow from it. Thanks for the post!

  6. Aha! Now I know the secret to how you can be so prolific! I haven't experimented with a bad idea file before, but I'm going to now!

  7. Great idea. Great, well-written article.

    My first novel had, as an inciting moment, my characters learn of a failed nuclear attack on Washington. I provided only the sketchy details, as this was only intended to spur their decision not to turn over dangerous alien weaponry to Earth’s politically divided nations. Nevertheless, I plotted out the execution and failure of that scheme, worthy of a short novella.

    Moreover, in book two of my series (almost done), I’ve added a delicious, nuanced character (complicit, but never caught) from that plot to fulfill a complex new role. Aside from writing him into that novella, I may give him further role in book three and four of my series.

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