Friday, May 8, 2015


What's the worst corner you've ever written yourself into and how did you get out again?

by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to my response to the question, I want to congratulate Art and Catriona on their Anthony nominations in the Short Story and Best Paperback Original categories, respectively. And, uh, there’s another Criminal Mind nominated in the Short Story category as well: Me! So I guess Art and I will have to duke it out :)

I never really think that I’m writing myself into a corner. I just write and if something doesn’t work I make a right turn, a left turn or a u turn and keep moving on. And, as a pantster, there’s always dead ends that you come up against.

I try to let my characters lead me and follow where they go. And mostly they go in directions that I like, but every once in a while you want to grab them by the neck and say “What the hell are you doing?”
On occasion I’ve run into a wall that was too hard to go through, so you have to do an about face and try something different.

My story Continental Tilt started out as one thing and ended up pretty much something else altogether. So when I hit the wall in the early drafts, how did I get out: I revamped the story completely. Continental Tilt partially takes place at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, just over the wall from Paramount Studios. The title was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s quote “If you took the country and stood it on edge, all the loose nuts would roll to California.” So add to that the fact that you have this cemetery in Hollywood where lots of movie and rock stars are buried, everyone from Tyrone Power to Iron Eyes Cody, Harry Cohn, Bugsy Siegel (fyi: I grew up across the street from his brother and his family), Rudolph Valentino, Ann Savage of classic B noir Detour fame, Darla and Alfalfa, from Our Gang/Little Rascals, Marion Davies, and Mel Blanc, and that in the summer they show movies on the mausoleum wall, while the audience sit on graves, sipping wine and eating brie or whatever the chic food du jour is, and you have a great genesis for a story idea. (How’s that for one long, run-on sentence?) A humorous/satirical mystery that, when I’d read from it at various events, would have people rolling on the floor. But it started out as something else:

Here’s how it started out – okay, get ready.

The original title was The Mystery of the Bi-Lateral Chinese Church of Dee Dee Ramone. A mouthful, I know. It started as a story sort of inspired by the Ramones’ song Chinese Rock ( But I can’t really do the bizarre idea justice here. If I had to give the elevator log line I doubt I could. But it was a mystery story and part of it was the Hollywood Forever cemetery, where Dee Dee is buried and where there’s a bronze memorial statue or cenotaph to his bandmate Johnny.
And, while I Iiked the idea I began getting worried that the whole concept was too esoteric, unless one was a hardcore Ramones fan. So I guess you could consider that I’d written myself into a corner. And now it was time to get out. Time for a new idea. So, keeping the Hollywood Forever concept, since that is one bizarro cemetery and too good to pass up, and after some tweaking, it morphed into Continental Tilt. But I did give a hat tip to Dee Dee and Johnny in that story as a way of giving a nod to the original concept that started it all.

And, of course, things like this happen all the time. A story starts off as one thing and heads in a different direction. Or you think X is the main character and then decide Y is and the story goes off on a whole new path. Another thing that happens, and this one quite often, is that I might start off a story in first person and end up in third or vice versa. Sometimes it just doesn’t work one way or another but you change the POV and it’s magic.

Another time I hit a wall was when working on a script. I don’t know if you’d call it writers block, since I don’t much get writer’s block, but I had a good concept going and a draft that just didn’t work. I tried all of my usual tricks to get past it: taking some time off, driving up the coast listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival and other bands at full blast. Having a drink or two. Nothing helped. Finally, I packed up the car, drove down to Palm Desert (near Palm Springs) by myself. I spent my days hanging out by the pool, reading, or going out to eat. At night I worked on the script. And then I did the old standby trick with index cards, something I’m normally too lazy to do and this was pre-computer days, so I had to do the cards manually. But I put every scene on color-coded index cards and shuffled them around and around. And eventually it all came together. And that script ended up getting optioned several times, though never produced (my perpetual plight).

I think there’s lots of ways to get out of a corner you’ve backed yourself into. But next time I think I’ll just blow it up with some C4 or Bangalore torpedoes and plow over the rubble to the next corner.


And congratulations to Art on his Agatha win! This guy’s on a streak. Very happy for you, Art.



Hope to you see at the California Crime Writers Conference
( ). June 6th and 7th. I’ll be on the Thrills and Chills (Crafting the Thriller and Suspense Novel) panel, Saturday at 10:30am, along with Laurie Stevens (M), Doug Lyle, Diana Gould and Craig Buck.

And please join me on and check out my soon-to-be-updated website
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Susan C Shea said...

I can't believe you let that original title go. If they gave teapots for titles, you'd be a shoo-in.

The idea of abandoning a story you've begun to flesh out is hard. My problem is I stay with it, stubbornly, until the corner has become a haunted house and I'm forced to set it on fire to save myself.

Good ost and I echo your congratulations to the Minds awardees and to you!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan, on behalf of all the Minds.

And I will hopefully use that title one of these days. I’d love to get a teapot for it too :)

It is hard to abandon a story. It’s like abandoning a child. But hell, sometimes you just gotta kick ‘em out of the house.

GBPool said...

Great post for frustrated writers. There is always a story in all those words and ideas. We just have to look at it from another POV and there it is.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Gayle. I think that's the key, just looking at it from another persepctive.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the great post here, and for the shout-out--and more importantly, congrats on the Anthony nomination. So very much deserved!

I'm slow catching up on the blog myself (sadly!), but enjoying all these posts!