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…

Books?

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.

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Are Most Writers Polygamous?

InfidelityYou know how it goes. You’re working on a project, you’ve got a deadline. In some cases, like my own, you have two or three projects going and you are getting close to the various finish lines.

But then you’re walking along from the store or the coffee house, and it tiptoes up––that new idea, that inspiration, that concept, that what if?

You try to ignore it at first. Or maybe you give it a little dalliance, while at the same time part of your brain is saying, Stick with the program, bud. You haven’t got time for this!

But this new idea, shoved up from the basement where the boys are hard at work (and they have closed the door so the idea can’t go back down) beckons to you. It winks. It nods. Whatever the scent it’s wearing, it’s intoxicating.

So you figure you’re merely walking along, nothing’s really happening, why not give this idea a little time?

And that’s when you’re cooked. That’s when the hooks go in.

So you take the new idea out for a drink. It’s totally innocent. You’re not wedded to this idea. You have a couple of other ideas you’re married to waiting for you at home. But you’re not home. So just one drink to talk things over, see what’s happening, and maybe you can just part as friends.

But part of you knows it is oh so dangerous to drink with a new idea. You don’t want to admit you’re really attracted to it. You certainly don’t want your other projects to get jealous. But there you are, ordering from the bartender, and all of a sudden you’re looking at your idea and imagining her all dressed up.

She’s wearing a great opening chapter.

Underneath that is a perfect structure.

This idea has legs.

Stop!

But it’s no use. Your idea is flirting with you. And you like it.

You all know what I’m talking about. It happened to me the other day. I have three front-burner projects I have to finish. But I made the mistake of taking a long walk without any keyboard in front of me.

There flashed the idea! Oh, it was a honey. I started to dally. Two main characters. What was their story? Why would they be thrust together after this suspense-filled first scene?

Oh, I know! I can give them this great Doorway of No Return into Act II!

And who is waiting for them there? A villain, of course! And he’s baaaad….

But is that all? No, my characters each need a “mirror moment” to tell me what their stories are really all about.

Hers: I’ve got it!

His: Yes, that’s it!

The idea whispered, “Buy me another drink.”

And now, guess what? I asked the idea to marry me!

And she said, “Yes!”cupid-308480_1280

Ah, Cupid! I am undone!

This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings…
      (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 1)

Tell me true, is this you? Are you a polygamous writer? Or do you stay loyal to one idea until the book is done? Don’t be shy. Confession is good for the soul!

***

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Missing

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Designed by Why Not Associates. All rights reserved.

One of the questions frequently asked of a writer is where ideas are obtained. If you are writing, and find yourself lacking for ideas, I have a suggestion: google “missing persons” and then your local city, county, or even neighborhood.  You will find enough tragedy, heartbreak, and yes, mystery to write volume after volume.

I am haunted by a particular incident that took place less than two blocks from my home. I am blessed to live in Westerville, just outside of Columbus, near a lovely area known as Hoover Reservoir. It’s a body of water that stretches for a few miles and has hiking and jogging trails, fishing opportunities, and a decent sized waterfall. It is also the situs of a disappearance that has baffled our local law enforcement for almost twenty years. A gentleman named Robert Mohney left his home — and a half-eaten steak dinner — on the evening of July 28, 1996 and was never seen again. His automobile — a cherry red Pontiac Firebird — was found in a parking lot at Hoover Reservoir. One reflexively thinks suicide, but no note was found. No, there is the impression of a meal interrupted and a sudden…disruption, perhaps?  Mohney had been going through a divorce but it reportedly was not an unfriendly proceeding; this wasn’t someone, according to those who knew him, who was intent on leaving for the other side. Inquiries were made and the reservoir searched but the man, a good looking guy in his late 20s, was and is gone. Police acting on a tip in 2010 dug up a field in an area north of the city hoping to locate a body and perhaps bring some closure —whatever that is — to Mohney’s family. They came up empty, unfortunately. Mohney is now the subject of high school legend, one in which his spirit can be seen late at night, wandering the banks of the reservoir, seeking peace. What happened to him? How does someone disappear from a popular picnic and recreational area without anyone noticing something? There’s your novel; have at it.

If that doesn’t interest you, here’s another.  Over nine years ago  a second year medical student at The Ohio State University named Brian Shaffer disappeared one night from a very popular campus-area bar and restaurant after becoming separated from friends. Security cameras show him going into the establishment with those friends but never coming out. Law enforcement has spent hours reviewing video and accounting for everyone who entered and left the place. Everyone but one.  Cadaver dogs were subsequently led through the premises but came up empty. There have been rumors a-plenty as to what occurred — everything from sighting in Atlanta to a tie-in with what have become known as the “Smiley Face Murders” — and if you want to feel as if you’re about to slip loose of your moorings, google that term — but nothing concrete has been determined. Shaffer is…gone.

There are more. A number of young women living on the fringes of polite society in a rural area south of central Ohio have disappeared during the past year. I stopped believing in coincidence some time ago; something bad and evil is acting, with impunity, in that area. Further afield, a number of ladies employed in some of the more popular adult entertainment establishments on Bourbon Street in New Orleans go missing under strange circumstances each year. Check out the statistics for the number of people who go missing in your city, your state, your country. There are all sorts or stories, real or imagined, waiting to be told. Be warned: after reading a few of those accounts you will want to take every person you love and keep them close and safe in a locked room. But if you need a story idea, you’re just a few keystrokes away from one, or two, or several.

That’s all I have. Tell me…what’s been happening near you? Are they heavily publicized, or were you surprised by what you found?

 

 

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Nancy J. Cohen

At book events, someone in the audience always asks the author, “Where do you get your ideas?” As a writer, I don’t understand why it isn’t obvious. Ideas are everywhere. It’s having the time to write them all into stories that is the problem. But if you really want to know our secret, here’s where you might pluck an idea out of thin air.

idea

Newspaper and Magazines

Even in this digital era, I like to clip articles from print newspapers and magazines. Sometimes the subject is relevant to a current plot. Other times, I’ll file the clipping for later when I might need a motive for a suspect in a mystery or a scientific explanation for one of my paranormal romances. Don’t forget to look in the freebie community newspapers, too. Also check out your local library. Some of them have book sales where gently read magazines are available for a good price. Printouts from the Internet can serve a similar purpose, but they’re not the same as discovering random articles in a magazine. Instead, you’ll have to search for a specific subject, unless you have one of those applications that compile daily news for you on selected topics. Or you’ll have to scan the headlines. If so, you’ll be missing the thrill of turning pages in a print publication and discovering an article of interest. I always read the Sunday newspaper with scissors in hand.

Television and Movies

A TV show can stimulate your train of thought. For example, you may like the premise of a particular episode, but if you wrote the story, it would turn out differently. Or maybe the social issue or theme of a show inspires you. A news report might elicit an emotional response that makes you want to include the topic in a story. You never know when inspiration will strike.

Dreams

Do you dream in detail with color and dialogue? If you can remember your dream, write down the sequence of events as soon as you wake up, before reality pushes away the cobwebs of sleep. I used to have story dreams that were detailed enough for me to write several pages. A dream inspired my first published novel, Circle of Light. Lately, my dreams have been a continuation of thoughts or concerns I’ve had during the day, so I seem to have lost this source of creativity. If you have a good dream, write it down. Or consciously direct your thoughts at bedtime to a plotting problem you are having, and let your brain work on it while you sleep.

Books

Do you ever get an idea for a story while reading someone else’s work? Or maybe their book stimulates a new plot thread for your storyline. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. How you develop your characters and plot will differ from anyone else and will be unique to your voice. If you find that a story fires your imagination, scribble down notes and then return to the book you’re reading.

People You Meet

Friends, relatives, and even strangers can provide inspiration. They might generate an idea for a plot twist or give you thoughts on character development. A woman whose bearing and clothes I’d admired on a cruise became the Countess in my cruise mystery, Killer Knots. People who helped me with my research for Peril by Ponytail, my next Bad Hair Day mystery, serve as the model for some of the folks in this story. And I’d better not mention how real life experiences inspired Hanging By A Hair. The lesson learned here is that if you befriend a writer, you might become fodder for her stories.

Personal Experiences

Our life experiences cannot help but influence our stories. With the exception of murder, many of the incidents in my mysteries stem from real life. Naturally, you have to alter the people and the settings, but the actual events might remain similar. Certainly the antics of my late dog are reflected in Marla’s poodle, Spooks. And many of the other things that happen in her life have happened to me. Infusing these experiences into your stories will enrich them. You cannot better describe events than having known them first-hand.

Suited up for copper mine like in Peril by Ponytail

Writing Techniques

If you’re totally stuck for ideas, various writing tools can help. You’ll find each writer has a favorite how-to book or software program for generating plot ideas. Check out the reference section in your local bookstore or library, or go online and ask on your writer loops for what other authors use. You’ll get as many varied responses as there are subgenres.

So where do we writers find inspiration? It’s everywhere—in the air we breathe, in the people we meet, in our dreams, and in the stories we read or see on the big screen. The problem isn’t finding ideas. The problem is having enough years of good health and peace of mind in which to write them.

So where do YOU get your story ideas?

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And Introducing my New Release!
Hanging By A Hair, Bad Hair Day Mystery #11 

HangingbyaHair (414x640)

Marla and Dalton Vail move into a new neighborhood and discover a murder next door.

Amazon Hardcover: http://www.amazon.com/Hanging-Hair-Nancy-J-Cohen/dp/1432828142
Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Hanging-Hair-Bad-Day-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B00JJ2XVUQ/
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hanging-by-a-hair-nancy-j-cohen/1116603785

How well do you know your neighbors?

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Use Your Noggin To Get Lots of Ideas

@jamesscottbell


Herein is another entry from the unpublished journal of legendary pulp writer William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. For the previous entry, see hereabout his initial meeting with the young writer, Benny Wannabe.
The kid came in all freshly scrubbed and smelling of Brylcreem. He had a big stupid smile on his face, like he’d just kissed a cheerleader.
“Well, I’m here, Mr. Armbrewster,” he said.
“Don’t state the obvious,” I said. “You want to be a writer, don’t state the obvious. Let the reader figure out things for himself.”
I was typing at my usual table at Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard. This was the first “official” meeting between Benny Wannabe, kid writer, and yours truly, William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster, professional scribe.
“Go get me a usual, and a Coke for yourself,” I said, handing Benny a fin. I took that time to type out a line for my tough guy, Cliff Hanlon, to say to an embezzling bank president.  “Money may not grow on trees, but it certainly sprouts on your girlfriend’s ring finger.”
When Benny got back with the liquid, I said, “Where’s your notebook?”
“Notebook?”
“You know, that thing? With pages? To take notes?”
“I don’t have one.”
I slapped my forehead. “You want to be a writer, don’t you?”
“More than anything.”
“Then you have to write things down. You’ve got to observe, and record what you see. Look around the room. Tell me what you observe.”
He turned his head like Charlie McCarthy and gave Musso’s a quick gander. “People eating,” he said.
“Wrong,” I said.
He frowned.
“You’ve got to see more than you see, see?”
He shook his head.
I sighed. “Look over there. See that couple?”
He looked.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“Why, I don’t know. I never met them.”
“I’ll tell you who they are. She’s a cigarette girl from the Trocadero. He’s a bigshot lawyer from downtown. He’s also married. And not to the cigarette girl.”
“You know them?” Benny said.
“Never saw ’em before in my life, but that’s what I see. And in an hour I can type a story that’ll sell to Dime Detective.”
“But how?”
I tapped my noggin. “Up here, boy. You’ve got a muscle between those big pink ears of yours. A brain, with an imagination already included. But you’ve got to work your imagination, like it was training for a distance race. You’ve got to run it around the track, every day. Do that, and it’ll get stronger.”
“Gee.”
“Now look at the corner over there. What do you see?”
He looked at the big man with a napkin stuffed in his shirt, giving the business to a steak.
“A big man eating a steak,” Benny said.
“Try again.”
“But—”
“Try, Benny, try. Look at him. What do you see?”
Little furrows appeared on Benny’s forehead. He kept looking. That gave me time to give the business to my Martini.
Finally, he said, “Maybe he’s a policeman.”
“Good, Benny, good! Keep going.”
“Going?”
“What kind of cop?”
“A…big one?”
“Think! Why is here?”
“Because he’s hungry?”
“I’m going to need another drink.”
“Wait…let me see…he’s off duty.”
“That would explain the suit. But why here, at Musso’s?”
“He likes the food?”
“Come on, kid, don’t make me despair of life! What’s strange about a cop, on a cop’s salary, eating a steak at Musso & Frank?”
“It’s expensive!”
“Ah ha! And what kind of cop can afford an expensive steak?”
“A cop who…”
“Come on, you can do it.”
“A cop who is…”
“Yes?”
“Getting money on the side?”
I slapped the table. “That’s it! Benny, my lad, you’ve done it! Now keep that imagination whirling. Where would side money come from?”
“Why, from…bribes.”
“Yes! What else?”
“Um…gambling?”
“Benny, I think I’m gonna cry. You see what you’re doing? You’re starting from absolute scratch, and you’re thinking up a character and several possible story situations. You know what that’s called?”
“What?”
“Making stuff up! And that’s all this writing game is, boy. We make stuff up, and we jot down the ideas, and then we pick the best ideas and make a story out of ’em. And we do that over and over and over again, until we die.”
“Really?”
“In fact, I take half an hour every week just to let my imagination run free. I make up opening lines without knowing anything else. I write down as many ways as I can think of for people to get murdered. I can look at the front page of a newspaper and come up with five or ten great plot ideas on the spot.”
“Wow.”
“I write ’em all down, without judging any or them. Only later do I look at the ideas and pick out the most promising ones. I put these in a file for further development. In short, my lad, I am never without something to write.”
“Man!”
“Benny, you’ve become positively monosyllabic. So here’s what you do. Run over to Newberry’s and get a notebook and some pencils. I want you to spend half an hour every day writing down ideas. I want you to go down to Pershing Square and watch people. Make up situations on a dozen people you see there. Go to Echo Park and the Santa Monica Pier. Look at the people in your rooming house. Each one of ’em is a story waiting to be told. You fill up that notebook and come back here in a week.”
“Okay, Mr. Arbrewster!” He stood up. “What are you going to do?”
“Me?” I took the page I was working on out of the typer and set it aside. Then I rolled in a fresh sheet. “I’m going to write about a crooked cop tailing a shyster lawyer who’s making time with a cigarette girl.”
Benny just stood there, smiling.
“Who deep sixes a kid without a notebook. Now get going!”

Are you intentional about getting ideas? Do you have a regular creativity time? Do you have a file for all your ideas, and another file where you develop the best ones?
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She Spied

By Joe Moore

One of the questions writers hear often is where do we get our ideas. Depending on the situation, my standard answer is that I subscribe to the Great Idea Of The Month Club. And when someone asks how they can join, I have to tell them that members are sworn to secrecy and forbidden to divulge that information.

If I’m pressed for an answer, I say that I can give some sources away, but only if they don’t tell where they got them. If they want to write murder mysteries, for instance, I aim them toward THE MURDER BOOK 2008, a blog by Paul LaRosa that records all the murders in New York City during 2008. There’s enough material there to keep a writer going for years.

Or if they want to get a little X-File-ish, I send them over to Above Top Secret for some out-of-the-ordinary research. If their writing a period piece, say a western or Civil War drama, there’s always Research Unlimited.

child-julia But in reality, our ideas can come from almost any source at any time. Writers’ minds are in-tune with their surroundings ready to see the telltale signs of that little spark that could be used in a story or even become the basis of a whole book.

Then there are the times when ideas fall out of the sky and hit us on the head. That happened recently when I opened the paper and saw the headline, “Julia Child revealed as member of spy ring”. Folks, it oss don’t get much better than this. Just in case you didn’t catch it on the news, it seems that back in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt created an organization called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which would become the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. The job of the OSS was to collect and analyze strategic information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies.

So who made up the OSS? It turns out from recently revealed government documents that the 24,000 members of the OSS were one of the most eclectic group of people ever organized for intelligence gathering. Future famous members included Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche, movie director John Ford, actor Sterling Hayden, U.N. ambassador Author Goldberg, actress Marlene Dietrich, and the one that made me smile—TV cooking personality, Julia Child. Of course, these “spies” were OSS members long before their more famous occupations developed in later years.

child-julia1 (Small) And what did Ms. Child do as a spook? She was hired in the summer of 1942 for clerical work with the intelligence agency and later worked directly for OSS Director William Donovan. She also helped in the development of a shark repellent to ensure that sharks would not explode ordnance targeting German U-boats. Not quite a female James Bond, but impressive, none the less. I wonder if she ever cooked dinner for director Donovan. There’s definitely a story there somewhere.

So where can you find ideas for a story? Sometimes you just have to open the newspaper. My hat’s off to Julia Child. She did more than most of us will ever do. She spied.

Note: Join us on Sunday, August 31, when our guest blogger will be international bestselling author and International Thriller Writers VP, David Hewson.

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