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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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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Waste Not, Want Not

by Brad Parks, award-winning mystery writer

– Note from Jodie: I sold my house (Yay!) and am busy planning my cross-country move, editing a great new thriller for our own Joe Moore and his co-author, Lynn Sholes, and preparing a webinar to present at a cyber conference, so it was perfect timing when Brad Parks contacted me about guest posting on TKZ. – Take it away, Brad!

It was the great and revered mystery author P.D. James who once said, “Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.”

I mention this because, one, it makes me sound well-read and erudite. And, two, because it is exactly the kind of soft-headed, touchy-feely, writer-as-artiste horse-apple I used to completely dismiss.

Of course things that happen to a writer are wasted. I mean, when I was a newspaper journalist I had to write whole stories about peoples’ reaction to the weather (“Boy, is it hot,” said Robert Smith of Manalapan. . . “I’m soooo cold!” said Sarah Jones of Weehawken). Believe me, those are dead brain cells I will not get back.

I think up until recently, I would have been ready to tell P.D. James to take her nothing-is-ever-wasted aphorism and stick it on a poster with kittens, because real writers don’t think of themselves as artists but, rather, as craftspeople. We use a well-honed set of tools – our sense of story, our intuition about human nature, a facility with language and prose, etc. – to craft thrilling tales of suspense. We don’t go in for all that navel-gazing, namby-pamby hogwa…

… And then along came this book. It’s called THE PLAYER, the fifth in my series featuring sometimes-dashing investigative reporter Carter Ross.

I was throwing a few notes together for various talks I’ll be giving at bookstores and libraries in the coming months and I remembered that, back when I started writing it, I thought of it as a book that dealt with the subject of brownfield redevelopment – that is, the cleaning of contaminated sites to make them suitable for new construction.

(Mind you, I no longer call it a book about brownfield redevelopment, because I’d actually like to sell a few of them. When you say “brownfield redevelopment,” peoples’ eyes get glassy. I now call it a book about toxic waste and the mob).

Anyhow, just for kicks, I went back and looked at some of the clips I had written about this subject back when I was a reporter. I tripped across this one story from 2007. It was about an abandoned landfill in Edison, New Jersey that was being eroded away by the Raritan River. The result was that every time the river rose – every rainstorm, every high tide – fifty-year-old trash was being swept into the current.

It was unhealthy, unsanitary, and a major eyesore. And yet because the original owner of the landfill was no longer around, there was no money to clean it up. Basically, the only hope for this dreadful little patch of earth was if a developer came along and decided to build a golf course there – or an office park, or whatever.

When done well, this is actually a great win-win. The contamination gets cleaned up. The developer gets some free land. It’s all good. But of course in the name of journalistic balance you always have to find someone to sound a note of alarm and remind readers that something that sounds too good to be true sometimes is. So I interviewed this environmentalist named Bill Wolfe. Here, I quote from what I wrote:

Wolfe said old landfills have been known to leach benzene, TPC, TPE, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium – a laundry list of killer chemicals. He calls redevelopment schemes “madness.”

“What should have been a public enterprise – cleaning up old landfills – has become a private, for-profit, economically driven enterprise,” Wolfe said. “It really is asking for a disaster.”

When I re-read that not long ago, I was agog. It was the thesis of THE PLAYER, stated in two succinct paragraphs. And I had completely forgotten that I ever wrote it. It was just fifty-six words buried near the bottom of a 1,800-word story. Since it published, I have written hundreds of other articles, to say nothing of a pile of full-length novels. We’re talking about something that was roughly a million words in my rearview mirror. I had no shot of remembering it.

But it was obviously rattling around in my head somewhere. And it managed to leak out onto the page and form a novel. Apparently P.D. James was onto something.

(Oh, incidentally, I did look up Bill Wolfe and sent him a copy of THE PLAYER. I figured it was the least I could do).

Now, maybe for some of you who are more enlightened on this subject, this connection between what you do and what you write isn’t news. For me, it’s been something of a revelation. It’s not that I’ve given up on my view that writers are craftspeople. It’s that I’m opening myself up to the idea that we’re artists, too.

I find myself living more consciously, being more aware of what I’m reading, who I’m talking to or what I’m seeing – because you never know when that article, that conversation or that experience will inform your future scribbling.

After all, nothing that happens to a writer is ever wasted.

Brad Parks is the only author in history to have won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty Awards. His latest book, THE PLAYER, received starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal. RT Book Reviews made it a Top Pick for March, saying, “Parks has quietly entered the top echelon of the mystery field.” Visit him at www.BradParksBooks.com.

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