First Page Critique: When Is It
Time To Let A Story Idea Die?

Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing. — Sylvia Plath

By PJ Parrish

We have a special First Page Critique to talk about today. Because I think it is a splendid example of a question all writers have to ask themselves at one time or another: When it is time to let go of a bad story? I’ll be back in a second with my comments. First, here’s our submission:

Lucky Lady

Chapter 1

It’s not easy starting your life over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it.

Especially in a place like Morning Sun, Iowa. The folks in Morning Sun — there’s only about four hundred of them — don’t have much tolerance for weird people, especially a rattlebrained housewife who tries to bail out of her marriage after a couple of little marital “tiffs.” But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when my husband Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife we had just bought off a late-night infomercial, I didn’t figure I had a lot of options.

The police believed I killed him on purpose. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. But fortunately for me, the jury didn’t believe any of them. So I walked.

Actually, I ran. Three thousand miles to be exact, all the way to Las Vegas. I had to get out of Morning Sun and I figured Las Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances. It’s the kind of town where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.

_______________________

I’m back. I have real mixed feelings about this submission. On one hand, I like the sassy voice. And the opening line isn’t bad. But I found myself longing for less thinking and musing and more live action. And the title? Well, it’s really meh.

Okay, I’m messing with you here. This is an opening for one of my own books, unpublished. Kelly and I wrote this (in fact, we wrote the entire 367-page manuscript) years ago, when we were well along into our Louis Kincaid series. We wanted to try our hand at a female protag and a style that was lighter and humorous. Also, Kelly had decades of experience in the Nevada casino business and we figured we couldn’t go wrong.

Wrongo, keno-breath.

We couldn’t sell this book to save our souls. Our own publisher passed on it (nicely) and then, when our agent shopped it around, we got at least ten rejections. And there was a common thread to all of them — that the book’s tone was off, that it was “neither fish nor fowl” as two editors actually said. What they were telling us was that we couldn’t sustain a consistent tone over the course of the story, that it seesawed between humor and seriousness (a theme was sexual abuse), light and dark.  (And to be honest, it was larded with backstory in the first chapter).

We put the manuscript away and took this lesson out of the disappointment: That our writers’s hearts are dark, and we can’t fake otherwise. I’ve come to think of it as our “Shelf Book.” This is a term coined by John Connelly for a story that you have to write and complete just to get it out of your system so you can move on.

I guess that’s the lesson I am trying to convey here today. That some ideas are toxic. And even if you slave away and finish the manuscript, sometimes you just have to admit defeat and let a story idea die.

I know how hard this is to do. Like me, many of you probably have variations of this:

1. A manila folder swollen with newspaper clippings, scribblings on cocktail napkins, pages torn from airline 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 computer called FUTURE PLOTS. These are sylphs 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 jumped out of bed, fired up the Dell and tried to capture these tiny teases. Or maybe you’re one of those bedeviled souls who keeps a notepad by the bed — just in case.

3. Manuscripts moldering in your hard-drive. Ah yes…the stunted stories, the pinched-out plots, the atrophied attempts, the truncated tries. (Hey, better I get rid of my bad alliteration here then in my book) These are the books you had so much hope for and they let you down. These are the books you went 30 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 half-birthed monsters still breathing in my hard-drive. And at least four others finally died when my former Acer did, lost to mankind forever. Thank god. Geez…one was called Tarantella and it was erotica. Can it get any worse?

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 not every idea is a good one. Not every idea makes for a publishable book. And sometimes, you just gotta let go.

Or you just bite the bullet and let them exist as your Shelf Books. Mike Connelly had three completed manuscripts before he sent out The Black Echo. L. Frank Baum wrote four adult novels before The Wizard of Oz, and his son records in his memoir that his mother burned them all. Hunter Thompson’s first writing attempt was a rejected novel called Prince Jellyfish about a boy from Louisville trying to make it in the big city. Thomas Hardy’s first novel The Poor Man and the Lady, was rejected by five publishers and the manuscript later destroyed. And before Stephen King hit it big with Carrie (rejected by 30 editors) he wrote a novella The Aftermath, and The House on Value Street, based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

Sometimes, bad ideas can birth new life. Michael Chabon abandoned his novel titled Fountain City after 1,500 pages, but then used it as inspiration for his fabulous Wonder Boys. John Cheever wrote 150 pages of a novel called The Swimmer, then decided it was better as a 12-page short story.

I have known some unpublished writers who’ve lock their jaws onto one idea like a rabid Jack Russell and chew it to death. These writers become paralyzed, unable to give up on their unworkable stories, unable to open their imaginations to anything else. I think it is because they fear this one bone of an idea is the only one they will ever have. Two things happen when writers reach this point:

  1. They self-publish. (Not a bad thing if your idea is good)
  2. 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.

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.

So, what do Kelly and I do with our Lucky Lady? Yeah, we’ve thought about self-publishing it. We even designed a cover for it. We have a base readership and we might get some sales. But whenever I go back and re-read that book — which I’ve done a couple times now with something close to hope — I find it still has warts. And worse, it isn’t true to our writers’s hearts and our readers will sense that.

But…

We could sent it to Canada. To the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, which is devoted to unpublished manuscripts. The library’s inspiration came from the 1971 novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance by Richard Brautigan, in which the protagonist works at a library of unpublished manuscripts. In the novel, no one is allowed to visit the library and read the unpublished works. But in the library it inspired, that’s the whole point. You can go there and read the 300 manuscripts. They are also open to submissions. But I think your toxic story would look better on your own shelf.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

33 thoughts on “First Page Critique: When Is It
Time To Let A Story Idea Die?

  1. In every case, I let the readers decide.

    Writers are the worst judge of their own work, remember? That isn’t valid only when we think a story is good. It’s also valid when we think a story is terrible.

    I finally got smart and stopped prejudging for readers. Amazing how many things sell well that I thought were not my best work.

    • But letting the readers decide means you must put the story in the marketplace. I am suggesting here that the writer, must be the first determiner of quality, of whether a book should be put out there for scrutiny in the first place. In my case, at least, I had to admit it wasn’t my best work and that I didn’t want something “less-than” affecting whatever good will I had earned with readers.

      I think it’s our duty to “prejudge” for our readers to some extent. It’s really hard, I agree, to see your own work clearly to be able to do this. But I also have faith in our own built-in junk-detectors. 🙂

      • Harvey’s right though. Our heads can really mess with us. I had a story I wrote. Got to the end of and my head kept saying there was something wrong with it. My head couldn’t explain what was wrong, just that there was something wrong. I sent the story anyway. Three hours later I had an acceptance for and the most complimentary response I’d ever received. It’s also been republished since. If I’d pre-judged it for the readers, it would still be sitting in a folder somewhere, and never published.

  2. I was always the kid who corrected others’ grammar, spelling, facts, and, like that. Like Frank Burns, they didn’t like me very much. So here I go again.

    If you went from Davenport, Iowa (not Morning Sun, Iowa, I admit), on the eastern border of Iowa, to Las Vegas, the distance would be 1,700 or so miles, not 3,000. Not the most important matter in a world now crazy with information. But, unless there’s an irony or a scifi patch I don’t catch or don’t understand, a whole bunch of people like me–The Correctors–would be writing the publisher of Lucky Lady, crabbing that about the furthest one could go from ANYWHERE in Iowa to Las Vegas, would about 1,700 miles.

    The Correctors are waiting–and dying–to, well, correct you. Hoooaaaahhhhhh-ha.

    By the way, I have a trunk filled with bad ideas. One was, what if Custer had won? That one almost got me a fist in the mouth from the biggest Lakota guy in either Dakota.

      • Of COURSE you’re correct. By the way. You are a Corrector. We have meetings at midnight on the first and third Tuesdays of the month at the cave behind the falls off Route 21. You’re more than welcome.

        Just be careful of the bigfoots and dogmen. They don’t take correction so well.

    • I don’t mind being corrected at all, Jim. Thank god for great copy editors. On my stand alone “She’s Not There,” I had a guy driving I-80 from Iowa to San Francisco. Try as I might — and I traveled every mile of that route on Google Street View! — I still made mistakes. But I had an eagle-eyed copy editor at Thomas & Mercer who caught my mistakes.

      As for the Custer idea, I kinda like it. But the fistfight part is good fiction as well. 🙂

      • The fistfight idea soon changed into I-wonder-if-I-can-outrun-an-irate-Lakota-man?

  3. I’m going to buck the tide and ignore the point of your post today, focusing instead on the, ahem, anonymous writer’s first page. I thought it was pretty good, and though I would change a few words, I would definitely keep on reading.
    I find the first page illustrative of the fact that not every novel needs to come out, guns blazing. I understand that advice, but hate that advice and believe it has been overplayed. As you note, a strong voice goes a long way. Thanks for listening…

    • Thanks Ed. I, too, often make the case for a novel to NOT come out guns blazing. But if you were to read the entire first chapter, you’d choke on the backstory. I had like five pages of it before I got back to my character’s present — she’s in her office at a casino, hears a scream and next thing she sees is the body of a chorus girl lying in the alley outside her window — she had fallen, jumped or was pushed off the highest building in Vegas. You can see what my problem was. 🙂

  4. “We put the manuscript away and took this lesson out of the disappointment: That our writers’s hearts are dark, and we can’t fake otherwise.”

    Most likely, each of the “shelf books” you mention had a different fatal flaw–a flaw that can’t be fixed with more “craft.” The flaw you identify for your own book is such (pace Ed Giambalvo’s appreciation for your opening). You were trying to fake something. I will roger that message and try to be true to my “writer’s heart.”

    If I took such craft as I have and wrote a cutsie/cozy, it would end up in a dark, dank corner of my hard drive.

    I’ve got one short story that I consciously tried to write “noir.” It’s easier to give that side of myself some freedom, but readers might well find the story inauthentic, whether they explicitly recognize it as such or not.

    My “writer’s heart,” I’m coming to believe, is in “earnest, soft-boiled mystery with a touch of romance–maybe an HEA, maybe not.”

    You or I could try to do a Carl Hiaasen. I suspect the results would be fully worthy of that dark, dank corner of the hard drive.

    • Carl Hiaasen is a good person to mention here. He’s as funny as hell but within that humor is always a message. But he has the craft chops to STAY within his tone at all times, even when he’s preaching about unscrupulous land developers. And yeah, each of my shelf books do have a fatal flaw. They are instructive to go back and read, however. They remind me that you can grow and learn.

  5. I have seven trunked novels, two of which are only half finished. And I quite recently put one to sleep for the moment because I realized I wasn’t ready, or talented enough, to pull it off yet. I have it all outlined, the whole trilogy, but when I started writing it, I found it needed the subtlety I haven’t mastered yet.

    Thanks for this post, it was simulanteously funny and hopeful.

    • You bring up an interesting point. That some stories may not be toxic but you might not be ready to tell them yet. Either you haven’t got the craft yet. Or maybe you’re too emotionally close to the subject. Ditto, for reading books. I firmly believe you have to come to a great book in your own time. What you find turgid at 20, you find wretching at 40.

  6. I feel you. I’ve begun work on a Western that may fall through similar cracks, but I want to write this book. Whether it goes anywhere? Who knows?

    • I’m right there with you, Dana. I love a good Western and have done five chapters…but I have to consider the market and where my bread gets buttered. Still…

      • I love dystopian novels. So wish I could write one. I know I can’t. So I read them and weep with envy. 🙂

  7. I like the title and the voice and even the cover. I would have suggested beginning with an actual scene, but would have encouraged the writer to keep going.

    The question is HOW does a writer know when to shelve a project? When you run into “the wall” (about 30k in)? That may simply be fear or doubt. But you’ve got me thinking about this, Kris. I always like to nail my elevator pitch and have an ending in mind before I go further. Then signpost scenes. Maybe converting this into a traditional proposal would be apt: first 3000 words and a short synopsis and then get a second and third opinion.

    If you have an agent, start there. There are also beta readers and critique groups.

    Or race through the dang first draft, even summarizing transitions, to see what you’ve got.

    Anyway, great thought provoking post today, Kris.

    • We did indeed try to re-read this starting with the action. (see my comment above about the chorus girl). But the whole novel was off, tone-wise. That was its main issue. I might revisit it someday. But I have too many other ideas pulling at me.

      • I meant RE-WRITE of course. Which would entail a re-reading first. Not sure I am up to that. 🙂

  8. What James said.
    Betas and critiques can give wonderful off-the-wall advice not readily apparent to the writer. We are, after all, writing to our audience,,,I love the Lucky Lady opening. Ii’s dark and funny, and as far as I’m concerned ,you can’t get better than dark and funny at once. The other thing I love is the movement. OK. No action but she’s going somewhere and I want to know where I’d cut the back story and get that body drop going. And, please, dont worry about TONE. You’re a fabulous writer. Just be yourself, and write. 10 rejections, you say? That ain’t nuttin….

    • Well, my first book was rejected by every major house in NYC before I got a “yes” at Kensington. They were really great for us, a good fit for our series, and we had fine editing there. Rejection doesn’t stop once you’re published. It just changes its shape. 🙂

  9. Always love your contributions Kris!

    I loved the voice in this–too bad it was a non-starter.

    I learned two other things today. When you mention Michael Chabon’s 1500 word unfinished novel, this scene in Wonder Boys, which I loved, now has even more meaning. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8PLjzTzy08

    And two, how did I not know there was a library of unpublished manuscripts in my hometown!?

    • That’s maybe my favorite scene in one of my favorite movies! And what GREAT advice for any writer: “You didn’t make any choices.” I could get a whole blog outta that one.

      And to note: The character in Wonder Boys threw out his phonebook manuscript and started over. Wouldn’t you have loved to read it though?

  10. I apologize for my sloppy punctuation and spelling in the above remarks…We had a terrible storm here, and I was, literally, writing in the dark…It was a dark and stormy morning. But, really, must say, I love this column and all the tips and ideas. Thank you.

    • Thanks Nancy. Hey, if I had to apologize for every typos here, I’d never get anything done. I wish we had a TKZ editor who could proof our posts beforehand…

  11. Was Tarentella inspired by Barbarella? 😉

    If I were critiquing the page, my comment would be the one you already know: you tell us about scenes, but don’t show us. I’d suggest starting with the scene where the husband comes at her with the ginsu knife, and have the infomercial playing in the bg. Show her packing boxes into her old beater station wagon (because clearly that’s what this woman drives), with all the neighbors giving her the stink eye, and then maybe applauding as she drives off her street for the final time. But then there’s the problems with the rest of the book.

    • Yup…another good idea for a better start. We wrote this before we really grasped the concept of not starting with a backstory dump. Forgive the sins of the beginner!

  12. I agree with Ed Giambalvo above. I like your first page and would keep reading. I know you mentioned your reasons why you thought it ran off the rails after that first page, but I just thought I’d throw in my support anyway. 🙂

    • Thanks Catherine. As I said, we might revisit this someday. But we have too many other irons in the fire to give it the attention it would need. You have to make choices, not only in your writing, but in how you expend your energy.

  13. I did not like the title, but it could be changed later.
    I did like the opening sentence and the sassy demeanor. I wouldn’t toss this one in the shredder yet with some changes and further critique input, it might have potential. I’d like to see the action of her husband coming at her with the knife. I just feel it’s to early to be shelved permanently. PS. I didn’t think Sylvia Plath’s quote was applicable here.

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