A Cautionary Wake-Up Tale


constant fear

Hello, my friends. Today’s post is directed primarily at those of you who are prospective authors, and who have several different ideas for stories set forth in any number of different manuscripts in varied stage of completion. Those of you not so situated may still find what I have to say worthwhile, or, at the least, entertaining, so please, join us as well. I say to all: if you have a project of any sort uncompleted, for whatever reason: pick it up, resume work, and get it done. Nine words: so easy to hear, so quick to write, so hard to do. But please take the advice, so that you are not repeatedly kicking your own posterior down the road as I have been for the last few days.

I had an idea for a novel several years ago that was based in part on a troubled guy I know. I did not tell him the idea; I did not tell anyone else the idea, either, including my wife, children, or friends. I’ll be repeating that occasionally over the next couple of paragraphs, just so that it is entirely clear that I am blaming no one and nothing for my own lack of focus. I can tell you the idea now, however. The basic story involved a group of terrorists taking over a public elementary school and a school employee saving everyone. Die Hard in a classroom? No, but you could be forgiven for thinking so. There’s more to the story, of course, such as how the employee winds up working at the school to begin with, why he is doubly emotionally invested in saving the kids, and things like that. It’s got a great ending, too. But I had problems with certain elements of it, such as why the terrorists picked the particular school they did, and a number — well, quite a number — of other things. The project eventually went on the back burner where it simmered until all of the water went out of it and the bottom of the pot blackened. I would think about it for time to time, but never did anything more with it. And I never shared the idea. With anyone.

Fast forward to this past week. Many of you know that I review mystery and thriller novels for bookreporter.com. I received in that capacity a novel entitled CONSTANT FEAR by Daniel Palmer. If you don’t have Daniel on your must-read list, you should; he’s one of those guys who for years tried to get a publishing deal and when he did he was strong right out of the gate and has gotten better with every book. CONSTANT FEAR grabbed me right from the first page. I was reading right along and got about a tenth of the way into it when I realized that it was somewhat similar to my own neglected project, the one that I had not shared with anyone, including but not limited to Daniel. CONSTANT FEAR is set primarily in a school; a bunch of bad guys are holding a group of students hostage; and it’s up to a school employee to save them. There are more similarities, and some differences as well, but I’m not going to go into them as I don’t want to spoil the surprises you will encounter when you read CONSTANT FEAR. And  let me state unequivocally that Daniel did not get the idea for CONSTANT FEAR from me. He couldn’t have, because — let me state it again — I never told it to him or to anyone until now. I’ve met Daniel once or twice, briefly at this or that Thrillerfest, and we have several friends in common, but we’ve never discussed writing or anything serious. Nope. He thought CONSTANT FEAR up all by his lonesome, the same way I did with my unfinished manuscript. The difference is that he plugged away and finished his, and brought his concept to life. I didn’t. You can buy it next week, and if you like thrillers involving flawed underdogs who attempt to triumph against seemingly impossible odds for noble causes, or even if you don’t, it’s a worthwhile, propelling read and would, I think, make a great film as well.

The reason I’m kicking myself is that my idea was certainly marketable, as Daniel has demonstrated with the expression of his own idea. I just didn’t get over the high (but certainly not insurmountable hills) and get it out there. Daniel did. His good, my bad. Please don’t let it be yours. Open that file, the one with thirty-six or fifty-two pages and the great ending or the incredible beginning and the concept that no one has quite done yet, and get it finished. Don’t be satisfied with what might have been, as told in the voice of another.

This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , by Joe Hartlaub. Bookmark the permalink.

About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

25 thoughts on “A Cautionary Wake-Up Tale

  1. Good morning, Joe.

    Thanks for the post, and just the kick in the seat of the pants I need. It’s easy to list all of life’s fires-to-put-out that get in the way of what’s important. The urgent getting in the way of the important.

    Even the title of Palmer’s book should be a reminder to get er done – Constant Fear that someone else will write it before we do.

    In my daytime job I’m always mentioning to coworkers things that “need” to be invented. I end by saying, “Just watch, in ten years someone else will have invented it.” And it won’t be me, because “I just don’t have time.”

    I hope you find some twist or tangent to your original idea that will allow you to go back and write your story.

    Have a great Memorial Day weekend! And thanks for the post.

    • Good morning, Steve, and thank you again for taking the time from your day off to stop by. Your statement to your staff about things that need to be reinvented remind me of the tablets that were used on Star Trek in the 1960s. Among many other things. Thanks for sharing. And Happy Memorial Day to you as well!

  2. This has happened a few times for me. The first was when I was pitching high concept ideas around Hollywood, mostly one or two lines. My favorite was about a kid who gets sucked into a 1950s black-and-white sitcom. I called it “Time For Skippy” (the name of the sitcom). I should have written the script and registered it with the WGA. Might have made a pretty good movie.

    I actually did write a script about Cupid, and it got optioned, but then there were reports in the trades about a couple other Cupid projects and mine was dropped. I asked my agent at the time about this, and she said, “That happens. Sometimes ideas are just in the ether.”

    Once I was almost finished with an early (contracted) novel, when another novel with the same plot hit the shelves. That sucked.

    Finally, another high concept novel was in the development stage when, you guessed it, a novel with the same concept came out.

    My solution? Learn to write faster.

    And one nice thing about self-publishing is you can get your work out there sooner.

    • Jim, if there’s anybody who personifies the “Get ‘er done” approach to life it’s you. If this happened to you several times I don’t feel quite as bad as I did. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Great post, Joe. Honest, and good advice wherever you are in your career. Two comments:

    You didn’t “talk” your story away, but I know folks who have. They love talking about what they’re working on, what they want to work on, yada yada yadas. Pretty soon all their yadas are used up and they don’t get published at all or someone publishes their idea.

    Second comment: I’ve met Michael as well and he’s a really nice guy who worked hard for his success. I wish him well. And he’s got a lesson for us all — keep plugging away.

    • Thank you, Kris. Indeed, I’ve heard the talkers myself…one stood up in front of an audience at Bouchercon and went into great detail about her plot, characters, etc. I couldn’t believe it. And now is as good a time as any to remind everyone that 1) you cannot copyright an idea…only the expression of the idea and 2) in the words of Ben Franklin, three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead!

      Daniel was frustrated for years but never gave up his efforts to get published and it’s nice to see him succeed at long last.

      • Just realized I wrote MICHAEL Palmer, who was Daniel’s dad. Another good man who is missed. He was kind to me when I was just starting out.

        • We knew who you meant :-). Easy to get them them switched around. Both were/are very good guys. Michael recognized Daniel’s gift early on (no surprise) and I am sure continued to encourage him. It’s always gratifying to see the success of your children.

  4. Timely reminder. I wrote a mystery-thriller a few years ago – three drafts worked through, the last even edited professionally. Did a sequel while the original was being edited, but then I was unable to face another rewrite of the opening novel. So now I’m finishing a collection of linked short stories and devising a new series. Time to revisit that old novel I suspect, especially as writer friends are encouraging me.

    • That’s great, Roland! If you would, please remember to drop by down the way and let us all know here how things are progressing!

      • Might be a bit of a wait, Joe. as my health makes me a slow worker. But will save this to my Follow-up file and revisit. Many thanks.

  5. It’s almost inevitable, isn’t it? Ideas are just out there, as you say, in the ether and I’m not so clever that I can think of something unique. All I can do is take an idea and make it the best John Baur story I can, and “write for my life to get it done and out there. In fact, “Write for Your Life” is about to get hung over my computer monitor. But it does raise another question. Is it better to be first, or best?

  6. To answer your question, John, and speaking only for myself, I’d shoot for both first AND best, using a shotgun! Thanks!

  7. I have a Brit friend, who if you want to make grumpy (okay, grumpier,) mention Harry Potter. He had been workshopping a series for years (years) about a reluctant hero boy mage who has to leave magic school to save the magic world.

    I read some of it. Imagine a very very dark version of Hogwarts where students use a lot of dark magic and illegal stimulants to juice their own magic. More like Viktor Krum and Durmstrang. It was quite good.

    The difference between my cranky Brit friend and JKR? She finished hers and put it out there.


    • Terri, I’d encourage your friend to keep going. I haven’t read the Potter books, so I’m talking out of my hat here, but from summaries, excerpts, etc. that I’ve read I’ve always been struck by the similarity in substance to that series and The Books of Magic, a comic book series created by Neil Gaiman and published by Vertigo beginning in 1993, some four years before the Potter books began to appear. It featured a young mage named Timothy Hunter and was somewhat darker in tone than the Potter books. Maybe your friend should revisit his work, twist it around a bit, and try again for the finish line.

  8. A long time ago I was fiddling with a script centered on nurses in Vietnam. Then CHINA BEACH came on the air. So, yeah, that sucked. Never could watch the show.

    • Ouch, catfriend! Have you thought about hauling out that script and revising it to reflect the Vietnamese point of view? Hmmm…

      • No, but there was another project I was outlining a few years ago (based on a historical event that I used as a major project in grad school), and there were at least a couple of competing projects in Hollywood in development with some pretty big names attached. Like many projects in development, none of those announced went anywhere. It’s been enough time that I am seriously considering pulling that one back out and finishing it off.

  9. Joe. I thank you, its as if you wrote this just for me. The drafts pile up and I never finish. Same thoughts haunt me, what was I thinking? An uneducated lass like me writing a novel.

    Great ideas and stories, must be shared, I will keep going.

    • You’re welcome Kath, and thanks for the comments. Uneducated? That’s a plus…your thoughts aren’t necessarily channeled down well-worn — and previously trodden — paths that way. By all means, please keep going and setting your own path and let us know when things break your way.

  10. Excellent advice, and just what I needed to hear. I had a book finished, but came up with a way to make it better. Then dropped it and went back to a WIP. Maybe it’s time to revisit.


Comments are closed.