Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

The Inertia of Bad Ideas

Like anyone with impeccable good taste, my favorite comic strips are Farside and Calvin and Hobbes. And my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips usually involve a wagon or a sled barreling down a hill. Calvin is usually waxing philosophically, while Hobbes is asking if they should, perhaps, if Calvin doesn’t mind, consider slowing down or avoiding the cliff/tree/crash at the end.

These strips embody the inertia of bad ideas. The problem with a bad idea is that it persists almost as readily as a good idea. It builds momentum. Like a wagon or a sled headed for disaster, they are difficult to bail from. Fixing a bad idea in our writing requires a little work now to stave off a lot of work in the future. But the idea of taking a small crash immediately when we can put it off is a honeypot for writers. So we forge ahead.

I figured out a long time ago that it’s often better to delete entire chapters and start with a blank page than it is to fix a story that’s gone awry. It’s some of the best craft-level writing advice one can receive: Figure out where you were last excited about your story, go back to that point, and try something radically new going forward. Repeat until you remain excited all the way through to the end.

This lesson was re-learned over the past two weeks in Los Angeles. It was my third time in a writing room, the second time working to adapt one of my novels into a TV show. But this was by far the most dynamic, fluid, creative, and interesting rooms I’ve been a part of. Several times, we came up with very, very bad ideas. Once spoken, these ideas became reality. They were now a part of our plot. Suddenly, we had to find ways to fix the problems they caused, and then fix the problems those fixes caused! The air went out of the room. We would sit in silence. Or we would try to move on, only to return to the mess we’d made.

In each case, it eventually took someone in the room saying, “Let’s just not do that,” and suddenly the dozens of problems disappeared at once. Hobbes prevailed. Cliff averted. The good ideas had time and space to breathe and grow. But I can’t tell you how difficult it was in each instance to pull another writer away from their downhill trajectory. Bad ideas have inertia. Especially when they’re our bad ideas.

One of the best things I’ve ever done as a writer is join a critique group. Not just to have dozens of writers read a sample of my work and give me feedback, but also to do the same for them and to hear how my ideas differed from others’. I also discovered the magic of beta readers, getting feedback before a work is published. My mother became a crucial first reader. The key was to listen to their objections and not be wed to an idea just because it was mine. And to not avoid the work it took to absorb all the small crashes. Revisions and edits can be hard work. Publishing anything less than our best possible story is a disaster.

Overall, inertia is the ultimate killer in the creative world. Inertia is not simply the tendency for objects in motion to remain in motion; it’s also the fact that objects at rest remain at rest. Inertia is the force behind writers’ block and procrastination. It is the force that puts us in the trap of revising the same paragraphs over and over rather than forging ahead into blank pages unknown. It is a wagon without a push.

Look for the inertia of your inaction and your bad writing ideas. Recognizing them and acting on that knowledge is the key not just to productive writing, but to discovering your best writing. Most of all — and the easiest bit — is to recognize when you’re having a blast, when the story is going great, the characters are alive and facing challenges, and the words are flowing. That’s when we get to be our best Calvins: holding on and enjoying the ride.

16 replies to “The Inertia of Bad Ideas”

I was just wondering what you were up to. Good to hear from you again. Any new books in the works?

If only I’d read this five years ago, it would have saved me… no time at all, because I’m dumb enough to have to make mistakes myself!

One of the best writer tips/ideas/experiences I’ve read in a long time.

Thanks Hugh.

It’s hard to “waste” writing you’ve done, but I absolutely agree that it’s better to throw it out quickly than to slog forward with a story going in the wrong direction. The trick is to recognize it at that early stage!

Love these reflections, and also Calvin and Hobbes. They reflect life as well as the writing experience. Good to remember when I tell myself I really don’t have to do something “right now” because I’m retired. I can do it anytime. But do I? Hmmm. Thanks for the reminder to change directions once in awhile to keep things moving and fresh.

this is so true with any creative project. so many times i will stall mid-design and put it away until i can see it again. thanks for that reminder. good to know things still progress.

Very well said. I am guilty of this as well. Accepting that something doesn’t work and needs to be changed/fixed/dumped and started anew, despite the work involved in making that change, is tough. Jumping off that cliff is always my most difficult challenge. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. Good luck with the script.

This applies to so many things in life! Thank you for sharing. This is something I really needed to hear today.

Well said, thank you. There is, however, one more comic strip for people with impeccable taste; Bloom County.

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