Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Toxic ideas

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 surrendered myself into the arms of Morpheus: 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 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 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. 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 "The Lincoln Lawyer.")

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 go with it). 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 still breathing in my hard-drive. And at least four others finally died when my former Sony 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.

I read a good blog entry recently 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). But the idea that you sometimes have to finish a book just so you can get it out of your system and move on makes total sense to me.

Some of these Shelf Books are meant to be only training exercises. They teach you valuable lessons that you must learn in order to be a professional writer. (definition: someone who writes for an audience rather than just themselves) Tess Gerritsen recently blogged about how she wrote three books before she got her first break with Harlequin, and how dumbfounded she is that some writers expect to get published on their first attempt.

But I think I understand that peculiar mindset. I have seen some unpublished writers 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:
They self-publish.
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.

Booky Noise Workshop VI

Here is the latest candidate in the barrel. Let's push her over Niagra and see if the opening to her book floats:

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.

12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Ginsu knife reference speaks volumes as to where this woman is in life, even more so than the dry details of the small town. There’s probably enough info here to estimate her annual income. It moves amazingly fast and yet you never feel the writer’s foot on the accelerator. I like the protag, I feel comfortable with her, and I want to keep reading.

Joe

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

I have no idea where this book is going but it has caught my attention.

I would read more , and at this time have no pearls of (non) wisdom to offer.

You have hooked me, I would like a little hint as to where you are taking me but other than that might be willing to go with the flow.

Well done on one of the best hooks I have read for a long time.

Thank you for sharing this.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Ginsu knife reference speaks volumes as to where this woman is in life, even more so than the dry details of the small town. There’s probably enough info here to estimate her annual income. It moves amazingly fast and yet you never feel the writer’s foot on the accelerator. I like the protag, I feel comfortable with her, and I want to keep reading.

Joe

6:35 PM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

Normally I prefer openings that go right into the action instead of providing a ‘recap’... but in this case, the writing was so strong, I overlooked it. I’d want to read more.

Some nice details (Ginsu knife), some interesting adjectives (rattlebrained), but the author didn’t go overboard and bog down the narrative.

The third paragraph was particularly effective. The logical string of A to B, B to C, with a satisfying pay-off (“the jury didn’t believe any of them. So I walked.”)

My only recommendation would be to slightly tighten the opening sentence to: “It’s not easy starting over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it.”

Excellent opening!

7:29 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I like this.

Here's an edit you might want to consider:



It’s not easy to start over when people think you murdered your husband.

Nearly impossible 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 after a couple of marital “tiffs.” But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife, I didn’t have a lot of options.

The police believed I killed him on purpose. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. Fortunately, 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 Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances, where dwelling on the past is about the only thing considered a sin.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I liked this quite a bit, too. My only Huh? moment was Iowa being 3000 miles from Vegas, but otherwise I thought it was quite good.

And Kris, as for the "every idea doesn't deserve a book," there must be something in the air. I've been picking at this particular scab on my blog as well recently. In fact, I think I need to fly down to Lauderdale right this moment (where it's GOT to be warmer than Michigan, right?) and buy you a drink and have you lecture me on focusing on the book you're contracted for, not the dozen OTHER ideas you have. I need a dope slap.

Best,
Mark Terry
www.markterrybooks.com

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

Hi PJ,

I replied to your email but thought I would also paste the opening here just in case.

Many thanks
Andrew




“They’re out there.”
She sat in the darkened room, eyes straining, as if seeking to catch them unawares. “They’re out there and waiting.” She turned as she spoke, framed for a moment in the moonlight, a picture of absolute composure except for the eyes. God the eyes…iridescent black pearls, it was like looking into the depths of hell.
She stood up and moved to the window as if about to close it. Before we could do anything, she was gone. A fleeting touch on the windowsill, a scraping noise like rats scuttling behind a wall, then silence. We rushed to the window expecting to see a body, but nothing there. We sealed the building and checked the area thoroughly. No body, no bloodstains, nothing. She had vanished.
He switched the tape recorder off; there was nothing else to be gleaned from the officers’ report. Sitting back in the chair he studied the room and tried to visualise the sequence of events. How could a seventy-year-old woman jump out of a window five storeys up and just disappear?

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark,

It’s a breezy South Florida morning with highs expected in the upper 70s. Here’s the deal. We’ve been able to keep our mild winter weather a secret up until now. Please don’t mention it to anyone or we’ll be overrun with tourists and snowbirds. OK?

So why can’t we keep our future story ideas behind a yellow police tape in our heads and not be allowed to cross until we’ve solved the current investigation? Back when I was involved in the music industry many lives ago, a record producer once summed it up with a simple statement. Creative people can never turn off the faucet because we’re “eat up” with it.

Joe

8:14 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Oooo, I want to read more! Great opening line. The only thing is I hope is more show then tell after this opening. I can only take just so much "tell" in a book as I like action.
Loved the small town description of police believed, neighbors believed, relatives believed.
Paints a very vivid pic of where this woman is now in life and to see her transition from Iowa to Vegas will be very interesting.
Good job.
Jeannie

11:34 AM  
Blogger Bryon Quertermous said...

I like this opening, but I'm a voice fan much more than a plot fan or anything like that. With an opening like this though, you've only got a couple of paragraphs to catch your reader and I think a little rearranging here might do that.


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

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.


This has got to be my favorite part of the opening and think it should be closer to the top. This gives us a good sense of who the character is, what world she's from, and what our story will be like.

The rest of the opening I think flows well from there.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like it but I agree with Gregory. Your opening starts off with what I would have expected to be back story but your writing is strong and it hooked me any way. Not many writers can do that. I have only read about three authors who have the talent of really hooking an audience without using action.

Keep us posted! This sounds like a great idea.

ML

11:15 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Okay, confession time.

This opening is from a book Kelly and I tried to write. Actually, we wrote it, finished the damn thing. We loved it! And then our agent sent it to our publisher. AND THEY REJECTED IT! Mind you, this was after we had already done four books for them so we had a track record. But they hated it.

Our agent then sent the manuscript around to a bunch of other New York publishers, because of course we believed our publisher just didn't get it. EVERYONE passed on it!

Why am I even bringing this up? Believe me, it's not because I am not over it. I am. Truly. I bring this up as an object lesson of sorts:

1. No matter where you are on the food chain, you are never immune to rejection. So you might as well grow a thick skin. Now.

2. We had myopia. It was hard for us to accept the fact that this story and this character that we were so in love with was...flawed. We couldn't see it at the time because we were so close to this book. This story had some serious plot holes, some not-so-great characters and other weaknesses.

Unpublished writers often talk about rejection letters, which tend to be maddeningly unspecific about the "why" of rejections. But you have to learn to read between the lines. All the editors who rejected our book said essentially the same thing: We had a big problem with an inconsistency in the book's TONE. It wasn't dark, it wasn't light; it wasn't hardboiled, it wasn't chick lit. The phrase that turned up in letters more than once was -- I am not kidding -- "it's neither fish nor fowl." I think that is an actual publishing term, but I could be wrong.

I think I will blog later about tone problems in manuscripts. It's a common problem. But, getting back on point:

I offered our opening up for you all in Booky Noise to illustrate one of my favorite axioms about writing fiction:

Anyone can craft a killer opening.

I truly believe that. Given enough time and hard work, almost anyone can write a good hook.

But can you maintain a consistent, compelling story over 250 pages?

Now, there's the nub of it all.

So, sorry for misleading anyone. Hope you aren't pissed. New Booky Noise stuff coming soon!

6:45 PM  

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