When Good Ideas go Bad


Fun time-wasting newsclipping generator from http://www.fodey.com.

I keep a writing journal in which I write scenes by hand, work out plots, explore characters, make note of submissions, and – most important of all – jot down ideas for new books.

I’ve kept writing journals for years and they contain some wonderful work that I’ve used in my books or plan to use in future books.

But they also contain a lot of junk, which I have excerpted in quotes below (but only in tiny excerpts,  just a tip of the iceberg of idiocy you could find in my writing journals if I let you read them, which will never happen). The junk seems to be of two kinds:

1. Dumb Ideas

"Rhyming anatomy ABC book" OMG why aren't the stores crammed with these? K is for Kidney; L is for Lungs.

Rhyming anatomy ABC book” OMG why aren’t the stores crammed with these? K is for Kidney; L is for Lungs.

The dumbest of my dumb ideas are for dumb picture books, e.g.:

Food ABC w/ recipes – non-Eng alphabet – inc recipes?” This gem of a note suggests that I write an A-B-C book about food following an alphabet that isn’t A-B-C (making it a language I do not speak). I clearly thought this picture book would be greatly enhanced with recipes, since I wrote that note twice. Who doesn’t like recipes in their picture books?

On thankfully rare occasions my dumb ideas express themselves as crappy poetry:

I am smitten with this kitten.

She is sweeter than the rest.

She is tiny, she is spiny

and at midnight she gets whiny

but I’m smitten with this kitten nonetheless.

(That little ditty is followed by the note, “up about pup? funny over bunny?” As if it might be the start of something really good.)

Okay, we all have dumb ideas. If  you have a lot of ideas, the chances of having a lot of dumb ones increase proportionately. So never be bothered by your dumb ideas. They are good for a laugh once you give up all hope of ever actually using them.

In certain moods this can look like an awesome shirt.

In certain moods this can look like an awesome shirt – from http://www.bentbanini.com.

(NB that is not as easy as you’d think. Dumb ideas can seem fabulous. In fact, the stupider the idea, the easier it is to mistake it for incredibly brilliant. Dumb ideas are like bold fabrics that look stunning in the store but then you get them home and realize they’re hideous. Not just unattractive but absolutely hideous, like who in their right mind would ever buy such a hideous thing? Well, you would apparently. Ideas are just like that. The really stupid ones can seem boldly awesome. But they’re not, they’re just really stupid. Move on.)

It’s the second category of junk notes that bothers me most:

2. Things that must have once meant something.

The int mother says, ‘Of course I didn’t kill those mice!’ Close-up on daughter, leaving house.”

This note is scribbled on a page from the spring, not even dated, let alone expanded upon. It might relate to something I’m already working on or something new. I have no idea. (I’m guessing “int” means “interesting” but it could mean “international” or “interviewed” or “intelligent.” Ad hoc abbreviations abound in my journal. Alas.)

Here’s one I wrote just last month:

A new PB about something whispered that brings joy.

I remember feeling really excited about that idea when I wrote it down. Hmm. Right. So when an editor asks me, “What are you working on, Catherine?” I’ll say, “A picture book.” “What’s it about?” “It’s about something whispered that brings joy.” “Really? We’ve been looking everywhere for a picture book about something whispered that brings joy.” “Awesome. I’ll send it right over.”

Something whispered that brought me joy in the 80s - surely not what I meant.

Something whispered that brought me joy in the 80s – surely not what I meant.

My journal also includes baffling notes for revising my teen novel in progress, such as:

Keep 2 lines of suspense: chapter 2 should not follow chapter 1.”

I have no idea what I meant by that. You really shouldn’t take a vacation between reviewing your draft and revising it.

There was a moment when all the notes in all my writing journals felt like good ideas clearly explained. But a lot of them are just dumb ideas that wafted through my brain on a breeze. And a good chunk of notes are simply mystifying. I’m guessing they’re dumb ideas, too, but maybe they were brilliant. You never know for sure till you get home and try them on. Oh well, too late now. Their essence is lost between the lines of my journal.

Since I already have more ideas than days left in my lifetime, I’ll  just say goodbye to all those ideas that were so brilliant I couldn’t describe them on the page or keep them in my head for more than half an hour.

I’m not the only one who can’t understand her own handwriting, am I? Please reassure me.


8 comments on “When Good Ideas go Bad

  1. I’m a very sporadic writer of notes, by hand – I tend to have dozens of files with only a sentence in them – a story idea, a phrase, something somebody said that sounded profound at the time. For me, it’s the brilliant ideas that I scribble down in the middle of the night – if I’m able to read them the next day, they never seem quite so shiny in the light of day. Oh well… I just read and enjoyed “26 Tips…” My dream is to someday write a funny book – you’re a natural!

    • Thanks, Jan! Middle of the night is notorious for seemingly brilliant ideas. I rarely write those ones down, not because I can’t make sense of them (“Nic has red shoes, roller rink, the sound of the boards”) but because I am too lazy to turn on a light. “I’ll remember that just fine,” I think. It’s probably just as well that I forget…. Thanks for stopping by the blog. I’m so glad you enjoyed 26 Tips.

  2. Loved this post. Funny 🙂 PS. Great poem 😉

  3. You’re funny, candid, and worth reading/following. Thank you, Catherine!

  4. Nothing like passed time and the sober light of day to reveal how less-than-amazing some of our scribbled ideas can be. …assuming we can even decipher the cryptic code that is our penmanship and mystery shorthand, which is assuming a lot.

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