Ideas: Cheaper by the Dozen

An author builds his business on his skill with the written word and the thoughts in his head, right? Absolutely and kind of. Though the first step in being a professional is to believe that you have something of value to offer, the second step is to realize that each idea only has value in what it brings to the story. You've had thousands of ideas over the course of your life and will have thousands more. Sometimes it is necessary to kill your darlings, and until you master the professional detachment needed, your “creative voice” will fight. “But, but, but...,” it will say, “It was my idea. It's a good idea. Maybe even a great one! We've worked really hard on it.” All this may be true, but it's time for the idea to be gone none the less. Remember, ideas are cheap, and you will have more. A bad idea in one work could be a great idea in another and therefore could be reused. I rest easier after killing my darlings by using this philosophy in the form of two documents.

The first is my darlings list. Any darling that needs to be killed is instead excised and moved to this document. I tell myself it's so that they can be used later. Honestly, that probably won’t ever happen, but one day, something in the list may spark an idea. This leads to my second document, the dump bucket. It is my shelter for my homeless, new ideas. If I think of something fun while working on a project, it goes there. When I start a new project, I read through the dump bucket for inspiration.

My philosophy that ideas are cheap also forms the basis of my opinion on the anxiety of originality. Has someone had my idea before? Yes, probably. I can remember a time in high school when I was pitching a book to my younger brother for about 15 minutes. After each sentence, he would stop me and say “Well, so and so has already written something like that.” At the end of the pitch, I was so frustrated that cried out, “Well, has someone already done all of that in one book and done it well? I’ve never even read most of those books!”

His response? “Ummm, well, no.” To me it’s pretty simple. I avoid the anxiety of originality by not making my work depend on any one idea. As writers, we learn to be idea generation machines. Why limit ourselves by having one idea when you can fit so much more?

Over the past year, I’ve come to realize that my ideas are there to serve my story, not vice versa. If one idea doesn't work right now, that’s just fine. There are many other ideas involved in the project and I have many more in the queue waiting for their chance on the page. Someday, every idea will find a home. Today just isn't that day.

Beginning the Discussion: What is the hardest darling that you’ve ever had to kill?


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