Columns > Published on March 8th, 2021

10 Terrible Writing Ideas that Shouldn't Work, But Sometimes Do

Let’s just admit it up front. There are way more than ten terrible writing ideas, and we’ve all tried a few of them. I could work on this article every day for the rest of my life and never list them all. Trying to catalog every terrible writing idea would be yet another terrible writing idea. Still, for every terrible idea, there is someone out there who made it work, the exception that proves the rule.

Every path cut through the literary world was difficult on some level. It was hard for the first person who took it. It still wasn’t easy for those who followed. Years down the line, when everyone has tried it, the path is flooded with hungry writers, and more are failing on that path than succeeding, then it’s time to take a step back and ask whether this particular idea is good anymore. After a while, every idea about writing looks terrible.

Other ideas were bad moves from the beginning, but there is always that handful of writers that get away with it. We value things that are exceptional, but by definition, they are created by the exceptions. So, sometimes we have to consider the ideas that look terrible. We shouldn’t try every bad idea that comes along, but there are times we should consider trying to be the exception.

There are lots of terrible writing ideas for you to choose from. Here are ten.

1. Self-Publishing

There are lots of reasons this could be considered a terrible idea. All the traditionally published authors who look down on self-publishing tell you it’s a bad idea with a sincere sneer painted across their faces. What reason would they have to discourage your publishing efforts other than the most genuine concern for your career? Right?!

When the gatekeepers are removed from your path, it is up to you whether you use an editor, follow conventions of formatting, pay anything for cover art, use page numbers, print the words upside right, or fill the book with dream sequences and mirror scenes. Some of that stuff costs money. When writers decide to pass the savings of no editing on like a gift no one asked for, people notice. People notice and the readers join the veterans with sincere sneers.

We value things that are exceptional, but by definition, they are created by the exceptions.

Then, there’s the fact that so many of these books don’t sell a copy beyond friends and family. The ones that do sell beyond blood relations on average make a fraction of one month’s rent over a lifetime.

Terrible idea! But then there are a number of exceptions. I was at a convention and heard a traditionally published author, whose fame stretched back to before ebooks, confide in a hero of mine that he didn’t know who some of the other authors in the celebrity room were. He hadn’t seen their books in bookstores or read about them in any of his magazines. My hero told him they sell a lot on Amazon. Most of them self-publish, and some of them are making more than you and me right now.

It’s true. There are a number of self-published authors, paying their own editors and cover artists, making six figures a year every year, who have a pocket of rabidly loyal fans. Now the publishers are chasing them with advance offers that would make your head spin. They accomplished a lot with a terrible idea.

2. Starting A Press

The joke goes like this: How do you make a small fortune running a small press? You start with a large fortune.

I recently cataloged every story and novel I ever wrote with a detailed submission and publishing history for each one. There were a lot of rejections. It got to where it was faster to just cut and paste the word rejection instead of typing it over and over. Most of those publishers among all those rejections and acceptances over the last decade plus are gone now. Some of them paid pro rates and were fixtures in the publishing industry of various genres. They disappeared overnight, and successful authors were left with homeless novels that had been making them money before.

Most new presses fail and cost more money than they make over a lifetime. As they start to go bad, desperate publishers are put in a position of having to close down or break promises to their authors.

Then, there are the exceptions. Some of the greatest work I’ve read in any given year came from an indie press that made good on a dream to publish stories they wanted to see. The biggest payouts I’ve seen and other authors have gotten came from these presses that took a chance. As most fall away, some of them thrive and evolve the genre.

3. Spamming, I Mean, Self-Promoting

“Buy my book” is the worst advertising slogan ever imagined in human history. The line between self-promoting and outright spamming is thin, and many writers blunder over that line with abandon. A number of Facebook groups have “Spam Saturdays” where they try to cram all the spam into one day so that they can argue politics in peace the rest of the week. They don’t call it spam, but you get the idea. We dress up newsletters when all we really care about are the links at the bottom and the potential buyers’ inboxes, but if you call the list a community, there’s more nobility in it. We develop personal and professional brands online. Are you the funny one? Are you the wise one? Inspiring? Controversial? Crazy? Self-deprecating? Offering value to other writers? Whichever one you are, you try to figure out the perfect ratio of brand value posts to disguised spam posts in order to not be “that guy.” Promotion is necessary for people to know your work is out there, but we desperately don’t want to be the guy who posts his book link on everyone’s wall and invites them to his author page ten seconds after they make the mistake of accepting his friend request. When people ask for book recommendations, that guy recommends his own. When there is a national tragedy, that guy posts a book link and says it’s exactly like the plot of his novel.

And yet, every successful author who sits on a panel to talk about how they made it has at least one story of something they did that would be seen as wildly unprofessional “that guy” behavior, and it worked for them anyway. They walked into a publisher without an appointment. They bothered an editor when they caught him eating in a restaurant. They mailed themselves to an agent and somehow didn’t get arrested. They spammed the old message boards to ask their unwitting network to buy their book. And it worked! It shouldn’t have. It was wrong. It was unprofessional and amateurish, but it worked.

This is still a terrible idea and you are a terrible person if you cross this line, but everyone needs a story for when they get up on that panel.

4. Using “Unpopular” POVs

Second person point of view narratives are rarely discussed in literary circles because they are generally seen as off-putting. They are the story-telling device of Choose Your Own Adventure books and role-playing games. “You open the door to the dungeon and you’re hit by the sulfurous odor of accumulated dragon farts. Roll to see if the sudden introduction of oxygen creates a backdraft, igniting the entire labyrinth.”

At various points in time, first person narratives were seen as lesser than third person. Then, first person present tense with shifting point of view characters were seen as the stuff of young adult novels. When young adult novels started selling really well, more people adopted it for a book or three.

And there are people I know who made good money with a second person narrative in a novel. So, what do any of us know really?

5. Writing What You Don’t Know

Every successful author who sits on a panel to talk about how they made it has at least one story of something they did that would be seen as wildly unprofessional.

I’ve edited and read more than one novel from a white American writing stories set in or about characters from Mexico. I’m not saying they are all bad stories, but all the ones I’ve encountered have been. They think they know because they visited the country more than once. Not really in the neighborhoods they are writing about, but they walked a block or two down a sketchy street between their hotel and the two-story bar that plays Jimmy Buffett all day. These books are not well received. They don’t exactly capture the authentic experience or the thoughts of a real human character.

Unless you’re going to write about someone with your job working in your town, you’re going to venture out of your life in big and small ways. Many authors turn to research and expert beta readers to fact check them. They do the best they can to fill in the rest. Still, with all that research, male authors are notoriously bad about writing female characters as if they are life-support systems for bouncing boobs.

But against all odds, occasionally, through great effort, a few authors manage to write about other cultures, other genders, other ways of life, and other worlds in realistic and sensitive ways. Some of you should avoid the risk until you understand the work that goes into pulling this off, but maybe you’re not the kind of person who’s interested in my sincere sneer.

6. Clichés

Mirror scenes, flashbacks, dream sequences, returning to a spooky hometown with a troubled history, the dramatic speech to win the girl back, a long farewell from a man bleeding out, the family who won’t leave the haunted house in time, the cabin nestled in the woods with the guy/girl who has given up on love until someone new shows up, and the gay best friend in your cozy mystery with your perky heroine are some of the best clichés. But the list goes on. These fallbacks often indicate a lack of creative effort. They are easy and found at the top of your brain. They allow you to fill out your story outline faster. Then, there are readers who read these books as fast as they can buy them. Formulaic is bad and yet formulas work for a number of people. Sometimes life is a mystery that requires you and your gay best friend to close up the coffee shop you opened after your divorce because you just heard about a murder that only you can solve for some reason.

7. Changing or Chasing Genres

The conventional wisdom is to write what you love because if you try to chase a trend in publishing, it will be over before you get there. But someone is cashing in, aren’t they? And is it always the wrong choice? Sometimes you learn to love something new and it happens to be selling better than what you used to write. There is a lot of risk in changing genre based on financial considerations. Then, there is risk in ignoring financial realities in the market, too.

There are times we have trouble differentiating between integrity and a refusal to grow or evolve. My favorite joke about integrity is this: You know those kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bag that didn’t pop? You should appreciate those more because those were the ones with integrity.

Some horror authors have crossed over to crime fiction with great success. Authors who only wrote zombie stories expanded and became better writers for it. I know a number of authors who published romance under a pen name with success. I also know a few who tried to chase the market only to lose their sense of self. Who knows what you’re meant to do until you try a few terrible ideas?

8. Starting a Podcast

The two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy the boat and the day they sell it. The same may be true for starting and ending podcasts. There are enough out there already, if you’re worried something might be missing. Authors often start podcasts as a mode of promoting their books, then they sell no more books, and the podcast takes up all their writing time. As with most things writers start experimenting with, the place gets saturated with writers, and they drown each other out.

It might work, though. Every guest is another point of contact in your network, you learn tricks from other people, and listeners get to know you. I have favorite podcasts that I follow regularly. When I’m deciding on books, I lean toward people whose voices speak to me, and I’ve been listening to some of their voices speaking to me weekly.

9. Starting a Patreon

I’ve written at length on the pros and cons of the viability of Patreon as an income source for authors in another LitReactor article. I have a Patreon page that supplements my income. I’ve also worked on developing Twitch as an author platform and have just begun monetizing my efforts over on my channel. When it comes to bad ideas on new platforms, I’m the first to run into a brick wall as soon as I get my shoes tied. Most people make no money and others stick with it until they beat the odds.

10. Being Yourself

If you take nothing else away from this article, know that this is the worst idea of all. This one carries the most risk. The smart money is on having a brand that doesn’t alienate any potential readers. Don’t share polarizing opinions on social media. Don’t open up too much to the public. Be consistent with the image you want readers to believe and buy into.

You have to live with your choices, though. You have to decide what risks to take. Those who advise you not to try something new aren’t putting you on payroll. It’s your path to walk and your success to pursue. Some terrible ideas are terrible at their core, and following them is not true to who you are. Others are the kind of risks you are uniquely fit to take. That which makes you unique will be your best chance to stand out from the crowd of other writers trying to gain success as well. You might still fail and have to pick another terrible idea, but you have to be the exception in order to be exceptional.

About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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