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 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:
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.