Letting Go of Bad Ideas

By PJ Parrish

As you know, I have trouble sleeping. Usually, it is because I can’t slow down the hamster wheel in my head. It is whirring around, filled with junk, to-do lists, misconjugated French verbs, woes real and imagined and regrets (I’ve had a few, too few to mention).

And then there are those story ideas floating around in my brain just as I’m trying to drift off. Those tantalizing fragments of fiction, those half-seen shadows of characters-to-be, those little loose pieces of plots just waiting to be sculpted into…


Here is the question I was pondering last night just before I finally drifted off: Is every idea worthy of a book? Does every story really need to be told? And then, in the cold light of morning, the answer came to me: NO, YOU FOOL!

You all know what I am talking about. Whether you are published yet or not, you undoubtedly have some of the following around your writing area:

1. A manila folder swollen with newspaper clippings, scribblings on cocktail napkins, pages torn from dentist office magazines, notebooks of dialogue overheard on the subway, stuff you’ve printed off obscure websites. At some point, you were convinced all these snippets had the makings of great books. (I call my own such folder BRAIN LINT.)

2. A folder icon in your laptop called PLOT IDEAS or some variation thereof. These are the will-o-wisps that came to you in the wee small hours of the morning, whispering “tell my story and I will make you a star!” So you, poor sot, jumped out of bed, fired up the Dell and tried to capture these tiny teases.

IMG_0487Here’s a picture of my PLOT file. Here are some of the WIP titles: Stud, Panther Book, Silver Foxes, Winter Season, The Immortals, Card Shark. Feel free to steal any of these.
Or maybe you’re one of those bedeviled souls who keeps a notepad by the bed — just in case. (Mine is right under my New York Times Crossword Puzzle Book and paperback of John D. MacDonald’s Ballroom of the Skies.

3. Manuscripts moldering in your hard-drive. Ah yes…the stunted stories, the pinched-out plots, the atrophied attempts, the truncated tries. (Sorry, when alliterative urge strikes, you have to let it out or it shows up in your books). These are the books you had so much hope for and they let you down. These are the books you went thirty chapters with but couldn’t wrestle to the mat for the final pin. These are the books you grimly finished even as they finished you. Maybe you even sent these out to either agent or editor and they were rejected. At last count, I have six of these still breathing in my hard-drive. And at least four others finally died when my Sony laptop did, lost to mankind forever.

So what do you do with all these ideas? You expose them to sunlight and watch them burn to little cinders and then you move on. Because — hold onto your fedora, Freddy — not every idea is a good one. Not every idea makes for a publishable book. And sometimes, you just gotta let go.

Let me give you a metaphor. I think you women out there will get this more readily than the guys. You have a closet full of clothes. Most of the clothes you never wear. But they were really good ideas at one time. Like that hot pink Pucci shift you found at the consignment store but makes your boobs disappear. Like those Calvins you haven’t been able to shoehorn into since 1985. Like that yellow blouse you got at Off Fifth that makes you look like a jaundice patient but you keep it because it is Dolce & Gabanna and you paid $59.99 for it.

I read a good blog entry a while back about “Shelf Books.” I am kicking myself for not writing down who coined this great term; I’m thinking John Connolly? Someone please help me if you know. The idea is that you sometimes have to finish a book just so you can get it out of your system and move on. Doesn’t that make sense? Sort of like cleaning out your closet of clothes that make you frustrated and sad, so you can create space for good new stuff?

We all have Shelf Books. Some are meant to be only training exercises. They teach you valuable lessons that you must learn in order to be a professional writer. I will never forget listening to Michael Connelly talk at a Mystery Writers of America meeting when I was just starting out. He said that he completed three novels before he wrote his Edgar-winning debut The Black Echo, because he knew none of the first three were ready to go out into the world. Fast forward fifteen years to last month when I moderated a panel at SleuthFest with our guest of honor C.J. Box, who told the audience that he wrote four books before he finally hit it right with Open Season (which, like Connelly’s debut, also won the Edgar for Best First Novel.) And I clearly remember reading Tess Gerritsen on her blog where she confessed she wrote three books before she got her first break with Harlequin. She also said how dumbfounded she was that some writers expect to get published on their first attempt.

I think I understand that last thing. I had the hubris to think the same thing myself when I was starting out. But it took me a couple tangos with bad ideas before I found a story that worked. I have also seen some of my published friends lose valuable time not wanting to give up on an idea because they got so emotionally invested in it. And I have seen many unpublished writers lock their jaws onto one idea like a rabid Jack Russell and chew it to death. We all can become paralyzed, unable to give up on our unworkable stories, unable to open our imaginations to anything else. I think it is because we fear this one bone of an idea is the only one we will ever have.  Don’t let anyone kid you — even veteran writers get into this mindset, frozen with fear that they have dried up, that they will never again have another good idea.

For unpublished writers, two things happen when they reach this point:

They self-publish — badly. Meaning without getting editing help or good feedback.
Or they get smart, take to heart whatever lessons that first manuscript taught them, put that book on the shelf, and move on to a new idea.

Here is my favorite quote about writing. I have it over my computer:

The way to have a good idea is to have many ideas.

— Jonas Salk

You have to know when to let go. And you have to trust that yes, you will have another idea. Maybe a good one. Maybe even a great one.

I think I will now go clean out my closet. There is a gold lame thrift store jacket in there I need to get rid of. Here it is. It’s yours if you want it. Check out my ad on LetGo. I will even throw in my un-used book title STUDS.


23 thoughts on “Letting Go of Bad Ideas

  1. Oh, I think guys get the clothes parallel ~ at least where ties are concerned~ and Hawaiian print shirts.


    My dad had an idea like this ~ a real Moby Dick, if you will. He left us with boxes of notes and research books for an historical novel, and I think he couldn’t get anywhere with it partly because he was afraid of not being able to live up to the “greatness” of the idea. And like the father-son Shaara’s with “their” War Between States triology started by Dad Michael, and completed by the son Jeff, I’d like to pick up where Pop left piles… but have to wonder if maybe it’s like his Hawaiian print shirts…

    • I stand corrected, George…men do have a thing about Hawaiian shirts. Or in my husband’s case, Dragonfly rock & rock shirts. He has 50+ of the things, some of them doubles.

      As for your dad, that’s a tough call…my father in law had a similar consuming project. It as not something we could pick up the mantle for after he died, but it was really interesting going through his notes and files. And man, he loved doing it.

  2. Love the simile to clothes. I can so relate. I’ve got four trunk novels that I’ve discussed at length with my husband. It went something like this: “When I die, under no circumstances should these novels EVER see the light of day. Or I will haunt you from the grave.”

  3. And I have seen many unpublished writers lock their jaws onto one idea like a rabid Jack Russell and chew it to death.

    I’ve seen this at certain writers conferences where I’ve taught–a person brings back the same manuscript every year. Gadzooks! No! Just as the answer to getting ideas is to get more ideas, the answer to becoming a pro writer is to write more books, at a steady pace, and put them through a grinder of feedback. At the same time, be educated about the business and commercial viability. And then if you want to self-publish your 400,000 word experimental novel about Disraeli’s barber, you can do it with eyes open and realistic expectations. The two people who buy your book will be glad you did.

    • Okay, I will send the gold lame jacket to the person who comes up with the best title for Jim’s novel on Disraeli’s barber.

  4. Brain Lint!! I love this. Sometimes I think there’s not a lint remover big enough. And unfortunately I spring clean my mind about as often as I spring clean my house. I have that pile of clippings, etc, some of them a couple of decades old. Useful now, I’m sure. And yet somehow I can’t let them go, because one of them might be the key piece for the next book–even though it hasn’t been for the last 60!

    Thanks for the laugh this morning!

    • I never throw away those clips, Justine, because it is such a hoot to go through the folder and read them every couple years. It gives you a slide-show backwards in your writer-brain. And you know, once I found a really good idea for a short story. And my file for the “panther book” I hung onto for five years and finally reworked and self-published into a Louis Kincaid novella called “Claw Back.” It wasn’t a juicy enough story for a novel but it worked okay in shorter form.

      That’s something I should have addressed in this post, that some ideas that you think are novels are really better suited for other forms.

      • It is a hoot to go through them! My reactions range from “Oh, yes, I remember that!” through “Why did I save this?” to “WTH was I thinking?”

        And that’s a good point; as mostly a novelist I don’t think often enough about shorter forms for some of those snippets.

  5. Now I don’t know which to do first — finally bag up all those unworn clothes for Goodwill — or clean out that box of unused story ideas, titles, first sentences….

    I think getting rid of the clothes would be less painful!

    • Patricia, I love packing up clothes and household stuff for the Good Will et al. And I just got back from delivering a box of books to a local library that makes money selling them at their reading fair.

  6. PJ,

    As always I find your posts well written and provocative. But I hope your are wrong with the notion that one’s first novel isn’t publishable and should be abandoned (an idea I’ve seen elsewhere here at Kill Zone.)

    Three years ago my first novel was submitted by my previous agent to 17 publishers, and roundly rejected. In the meantime I wrote two other books with the same characters. working on a series. Book two attracted a new agent. He was ready to take book two around when I explained about the other two. He informed me that the well was tainted: none of the 17 editors would want to see other books with the same characters as the rejected MS.

    What to do? I was convinced that the premise of book one was good. But I started it ten years ago, and knew I could improve the writing. More important, I could see its fatal structural flaw, which stemmed from too many ideas (a common first-novel problem.)

    In January I tore the thing down to the studs and removed everything that didn’t fit. And re-wrote every sentence. My agent loved it and has just sent it to a smaller list of editors who weren’t hit the first time.

    So, again respectfully, I hope you are wrong about first novels!

    • John,
      I agree with you…not all first efforts are doomed to the dust-bin. My own first attempt at a mystery was published by a New York house. It was good, and I was proud of it. But even though I have gotten the rights bad, I have not yet published it as an eBook. Why? For the exact reason you said — that when I looked at it with the eyes of a more seasoned writer, its flaws jumped out at me and I knew I could do better. (Not just in terms of over-writing but as you said, some structural flaws). My sister and I are slowly reworking it now with the goal of published a “revised” version with an editor’s note about why we felt compelled to revisit it. We aren’t tearing it down to the studs, as you so aptly put it. But we are doing some major renovating.

      So I need to make myself clearer — I didn’t mean to imply that every first-blush IDEA is bad. Au contraire. Because as your own experience tells us, a good idea is a good idea…it just might not be ready to be born yet.

      Best of luck with your book! I wish it a speedy and happy journey to find an editor who will love it. Let us know how you fare.

      • Man, I need an editor today. Sorry about the typos, guys. Will write more slowly…

      • Good luck with your re-write.

        I abandoned one book in my series four months in. I thought the idea worked until it came time to make sentences. Each one was torture. I quit and doubt that one’s coming back.

  7. I applaud you for this post, it’s a tough subject. I’ve done dozens of writing workshops, and have never once heard (from someone else) that just maybe the problem is with the concept/premise in the first place, literally an attempt to make a silk purse out of cow dropping (to combine two famous bon mots). So well done here.

    Not pimping here, just adding to the chorus: I wrote about this extensively in my third writing book (“Story Fix”… not to be confused with my website by the same name). While the reviews are solid, a few have commented with outrage that I dare suggest we can’t write anything at all, anything we want, because it is OUR book, after all. Here’s what they’re not getting: if you intended to go pro, as Jim Bell puts it, then you are signing up for some degree of obligation to seek out what readers want to read, not just what you want to write. Too often, in the kumbaya of writing conferences (“you can do it, kid!”) this tough truth is ignored.

    There are criteria for a good idea. That’s what writers are sometimes afraid to acknowledge. The potential for dramatic tension and an empathetic, emotionally resonant hero’s quest are among them… obvious to professionals, frightening to new writers who want to still write about what they did on their summer vacation.

    • I’m so with you on this one, Larry. I don’t know why any writers conference would preach the notion that all ideas are created equal. Which is not to say you can’t do something with a story idea you feel passionate about. The “trick” as you and Jim say, is in the “something.” Not all ideas will bloom into something commercially viable. Or forget about making money — not bloom into something someone else will want to read.

      I think some readers get hung up on the difference between what is “personal” and what is “universally personal.” Just because you have something in your experience that moves you to want to record it in writing does not mean it will translate into something that has a universal appeal to readers. And by “universal” I don’t mean “mass market.” I mean, it has truths in it that resonant with others at some emotional level. That is the “trick” of good fiction, I think, to take something that is personal to you and make it universal so it touches others.

      I try to explain this to folks in workshops this way: No one cares about your experiences in World War II. What they might care about is your story about soldiers sent to rescue the last brother of the Ryan family. No one cares about your experiences running a bar in the Bronx. What they might care about is a man who loses his bar in a poker game, how his life falls apart, and what lengths he goes to get it back.

      Keep fighting the good fight!

      • Darn it. Gotta edit before I hit send. It’s so cold in this Starbucks where I am working today that my fingers are frozen.

        “I think some readers get hung up on the difference between what is “personal” and what is “universally personal.” ”

        Should read some WRITERS.

        Back to my rewrite of chapter 1. I opened the file on my new book and gagged at how bad it was. Pretentious crap. So, as John said above, today tore it down to the studs (DELETE BUTTON!) and started over.

  8. Good post, PJ. I was cleaning off my desk yesterday — this happens maybe once a year — and found a proposal for a serial killer novel I’d written years ago. It was AWFUL. Did I throw it out? No, I labeled it “serial killer novel” and put it in a closet. I need a twelve-step program — and one of those steps should get me to the trash bin.

  9. Great post! Inspirational and reassuring at the same time. Plus, it brought us closer to learning about Disraeli’s barber.

  10. Darn it! Since reading your post yesterday I have heard Frank Sinatra singing “My Way” stuck in my head all day yesterday and throughout the night last night. Could be worse.

  11. Lol. I’ve moved every two to three years since I married and cleaning out got easier with each move! I hope I use this same sensibility with writing. Maybe someday my books will equal my moves – 23 and still counting.

    Thanks for the post enjoyed it very much

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