Friday, June 29, 2018

Staying Green: Recycling Plot Ideas

What do you do with those extraneous plot ideas that are too good to throw away but don't fit into your work(s) in progress?

by Paul D. Marks

I save everything. I’m a Plot PackRat. I have a file that’s 82 pages long for novel plots and another one 31 pages long for short story plots, though sometimes they intersect. I also have a file called “Bits,” where I save snatches of dialogue, characters, and other things that aren’t story ideas but that I’ve just picked up here or there. And I have a Use Later file, which is for things I cut out of a story I’m working on that can either be used somewhere else in that story or in that series. And I have a titles file. The problem is I don’t often go back to the plot files as I’m always coming up with new plots and because they’re new I’m always hotter to trot on them. I’m not saying I never go back, I do. But newer does often seem shinier. And, believe me, being able to have these files on a computer instead of in paper folders is like magic
When I was working on screenplays one of my then-writing partners would say to me in the highest-pitched, most sing-songy voice she could muster, “Now Paul, that’s a really good bit, and I really like it and we’ll use it…………(her voice drops) just not in this script.” So we’d save it and maybe trot it out again and maybe not and that was in the days before computers so it wasn’t nearly as easy to do.

You never know when or where something will work. In a story I’m working on I took out several hundred words of backstory. I liked it. I thought it worked. But I also wanted to streamline so out it went. It may appear in another story with this character or bits and pieces of it may appear in the story I’m working on. Very little is totally thrown away. Most things are saved for possible later use. Everything can be used again at some point it’s just like recycling your plastic bags or whatever.

And, just as plastic bottles can be recycled into a multitude of things, everything from sweaters to sleeping bags and carpet, plot ideas can be recycled into things that don’t necessarily resemble their original incarnation. One of my published stories, Continental Tilt (from Murder in La La Land), started out as rock n roll mystery that dealt with the Church of Dee Dee Ramone (of the Ramones) and was going to be a story revolving around the Ramones or at least their legacy, though with a touch of mystery and dollop of humor – a church I believe I invented but who knows. It morphed into a satirical mystery with very little Ramones references left.

They, the ubiquitous They – whoever They are – say there are no new plot ideas and that’s probably true, They, depending on which They you’re talking about, also say that there’s really only 5 or 7 basic plots and that Shakespeare did them all once upon a time. So it’s really what we bring to a plot, our sensibilities, our life stories that infuse those five or seven plots. And if we have to recycle some of them, so be it. You know what They say, or at least what Igor Stravinsky is supposed to have said, though I have heard it attributed to others (so someone stole it from someone),  “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” So why not borrow from yourself or if you’re a great writer even steal from yourself. Everyone does it.

How ’bout you? What do you do with those extraneous plot ideas of yours?

And now for the usual BSP:

Broken Windows is coming (September 10, 2018) from Down & Out Books! And you might be able to get an Advanced Reader’s Copy at Net Galley. It’s FREE, you just have to agree to their terms and agree to give a fair and honest review. Their terms are not onerous. But there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get a copy. --Also available for Pre-Order in ebook and trade paperback on Amazon.

While the storm rages over California’s notorious 1994 anti-illegal alien Proposition 187, a young woman climbs to the top of the famous Hollywood sign—and jumps to her death. An undocumented day laborer is murdered. And a disbarred and desperate lawyer in Venice Beach places an ad in a local paper that says: “Will Do Anything For Money.” Private Detective Duke Rogers, and his very unPC partner, Jack Riggs, must figure out what ties together these seemingly unrelated incidents. Their mission catapults them through a labyrinth of murder, intrigue and corruption of church and state that hovers around the immigration debate. Along the way we explore the fiery immigration controversy from all sides and no one escapes unscathed. 


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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Swerving dead things.

CRAFT:  What do you do with those extraneous plot ideas that are too good to throw away but don't fit into your work(s) in progress? 

By Catriona

One of the biggest challenges of my writing life- Wait. One of the medium challenges, coming in below the royalty structure, doing page proofs and shrugging off bad reviews- No, hang on. A tiny niggle just the right size to make a blog - there it is - is the problem of trying not to have ideas. 

Ideas suck. 

When I was writing my first book, I'd wake up in the middle of the night, seized with dread that I'd never have another idea. "Well," Neil would mumble into his pillow, "Try and have one now. Then you'll know you can. And you can stop worrying." So I made tea and sat in the dark and had an idea. Phew. 

The next morning, I started writing the WIP and the idea seeped into the draft like ground fog.  So a couple of nights later, I sit bolt upright in the small hours and say "But what if that's it? Just those two ideas - and I've used them both?"

"Have another one," Neil mumbled. "And if you're going downstairs to get tea can you bring me up a glass of water?" I got the tea and the water and sat up in the dark and had a third idea.

Day or so later, there it was in the WIP. Another idea gone; another sub-plot born. Maybe that's why my first book is a wee tiny bit overwritten. Maybe that's why all first books are a wee tiny bit overwritten.

After that, I worked at not having any more ideas and I've stuck with the same method ever since. I can tell where an idea is. It's like a drunk on the bus or - for pet owners - that certain unmistakable something in the air that tells you there's been a digestive adventure nearby.  I'm aware but I avoid the area.

Actually, the pet analogy is wrong. Of course I don't just swerve the spot on the floor where my cat started eating a mouse but couldn't finish it. Maybe it's more like a dead seal on a beach. It's there. You walk past. It doesn't spoil your day. But you don't have your picnic nearby. 

Then, when it's a sensible time to have an idea - at the start of a new book, or when you need a subplot to avoid the WIP being underwritten - you retrace your steps and scoop up the idea that's sitting there . . . decomposing. I wish I'd picked a different analogy. And not a drunk on a bus either. 

Retracing my steps is usually no more than repeating the words I picked as an aide memoire when I quick-marched away from the idea in the first place. Sometimes I write them down on a scrap of paper. 

I've just been through to my study to get my "scraps of paper" file. Here are some of my idea memory-joggers:

Cerumol ear drops
Dread stoner guy
Place mats
Shoe collection (wide fit?)
Horse logger
Urgent unique
Lifeboat alibi
Paper trousers

But wait, I hear you say, aren't those ideas going to spark back into life now  and ruin the end of your WIP (nearly done, should finish this weekend)? Well no, because I can't remember what any of them are supposed to mean.

I'm not recommending this system; I'm just reporting.

Anyway, as well as the lost horse logger ear drop paper trouser lifeboat masterpiece, I did uncover three decent ideas (on the flap of a Christmas card envelope, on the inside cover of a Malice-at-a-Glance booklet and on the level 3 map of a Tate Britain guide pamphlet) that are pretty good. And now they're humming and I need to stop thinking about them fast, because Dandy Gilver No 14 is just about there (see pic of desk below; I'm that close) and any of these ideas would be a major deus ex machina at this stage.

So I'm off to make tea and clear my mind.  Please don't use me as a shining example of how to write. I'm a much better dire warning. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Of fear, and Cathy Ace

CRAFT:  What do you do with those extraneous plot ideas that are too good to throw away but don't fit into your work(s) in progress? 

Oh this is a good one…because we all have them, those brilliant ideas we end up tossing out for some reason or another, or those kernels of an idea for a plot for a book. Some of those "kernels" have, for me, made their way into short (or long) stories, because there - frankly - just wasn't enough MORE to make a novel, and they better suited a quick hit. (You can see how some of these worked out in my recently released anthology.)

However, as for what I do with the plots that don't make it into stories, or novels, and the "bits" I edit out, well, I file them…and know I have lost quite a few, because my filing skills are somewhat lacking. (I believe I make a logical decision, but it seems I forget my own logic when trying to track something down.) The best way I have found to winkle out documents I cannot easily locate is to search all the programs on my computer using what I hope will be useful keywords. Sometimes it even works! However, I have to admit I haven’t been able to use any of said “filed” passages that have been removed from previous books, largely because I’m very much a tight plotter, so the scenes from one book just don’t transpose to another. 

There's no scene in here with a pregnant PI tracking a suspect!
What has made the leap once or twice is an idea, rather than a fully formed scene/story line/subplot. For example, in my first WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery, THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER, I had a pregnant PI Carol Hill donning various disguises to allow her to follow a suspect in a case that ran adjacent to the main story line. The whole sub-plot had to go due to length constraints imposed by my publisher (who wanted a manuscript not one word over 80,000 words). I kept the sub-plot, which I carefully weeded out of that novel, and, while I wasn’t able to use it as it had originally existed, I was able to use the idea of disguises and shadowing for another character, in another book. 

No overt romantic actions for the happy couple in this book!

I have been told to drop various “bits” from my Cait Morgan Mysteries over the years, as my editor and publisher didn’t want to stray from the plot-driven style of the books. An example of that was the removal of two paragraphs from a Cait Morgan Mystery (THE CORPSE WITH THE GOLDEN NOSE) where I had Bud Anderson placing his jacket over Cait Morgan's chilly shoulders late one night when they were enjoying a discussion about a victim (along the lines of "did she kill herself, or was she murdered?"). It was a tiny scene which I hoped would give the reader an insight into their growing, but still young, well as illuminating Cait's raw emotional state, insecurities, and - even so - hope for love. I argued about it with my editor, but eventually dropped it; this was only my second novel ever, and I wish I had fought harder to keep it in. But...we live and learn, eh?

What that - and a few other examples - taught me was that, if I wanted to have a more character-driven story line, I’d have to write a different series of books; this led me to begin the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries. These, while they certainly have multi-layered plots, provide readers with enjoyment (I have been told) as they get to know the characters and their lives beyond their roles in solving puzzling mysteries. 

One other thing – because the Cait Morgan Mysteries are traditional, closed-circle mysteries which are, necessarily, plot driven, and the WISE books are cosy and character driven, I have found that any writing with a slightly darker edge is something I have steered clear of – until now. I am up to my neck in the manuscript for a new novel, which I’m planning as a standalone, though I know there’s a series begging to leap out of it. 

In this anthology there's a character who has strong-armed their way into my new novel...

It’s still not gory, hasn't even got as much “foul language” in it as a Louise Penny book, and is a story which is allowing me to mix and meld a domestic thriller with a different take on a procedural. I’m enjoying the journey a great deal, and wait to see what my editor thinks about it when I submit it mid-July. The good thing about this one? It’s going to be a tad longer that I usually write, which means I get to develop characters AND have a plot with twists and turns aplenty. I’m really hoping this one will hit the sweet spot for me, and readers.

Overall, maybe I haven't used dropped passages, scenes, or treatments, but their loss has propelled me toward varying my writing output to allow for the introduction of those different styles of writing which I am (obviously) yearning to produce. So...maybe that's a good thing? Readers will decide, I am sure. 

Now for the promotional blurb and begging....
Cathy Ace writes the Cait Morgan Mysteries and the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries. Find out more about Cathy and all her characters here:
and please consider adding her work to your TO BE READ pile? 

MURDER KEEPS NO CALENDAR has been available since November 2017 via amazon and on it's also available via KOBO, and can be ordered by bookstores and libraries. 


Monday, June 25, 2018

So Many Plots

Q: What do you do with those extraneous plot ideas that are too good to throw away but don't fit into your work(s) in progress? 

- from Susan

Good question and I really want to hear what the rest of the Minds answer.  I keep little files with titles that grow increasingly difficult to interpret over time:

Dani in LA – defaced murals?
Peter / Indian art, SF?
Teeni’s new job goes crazy
David – music teacher, obsessed girl
Who killed the dealer? Not a stranger
Dickie Swiss Alps ski mystery?
K&M on tour – bassist killed – does P show up w P?
P opens agency, client is killer
K in Provence w kids – cave death

It’s difficult to decipher what I meant at the time, but, truthfully, coming up with a plot based on any one of these nebulous ideas is easy enough, even if the plot idea doesn’t work any better the second time I try to wedge it into a larger novel than it did the first time.  But what usually happens is that the idea gets cobwebby in my mind, feels tired because I rejected it once. I realize I’ve never gone back to any of these snippet files for inspiration, so perhaps I should select and delete them. Maybe. But you never know, Katherine might get wildly ambitious and unrealistic and take Jeannette and her two un-socialized brothers on an art education trip to St. Remy. But then, Katherine would have to be crazy and rich to do that, and I’m not ready to let her descend into mental chaos even though I’d love it if Michael’s music comeback goes well. (Oh, that’s right. I invented these people. I can make his comeback a roaring success, can’t I?)

BSP: Speaking of successes, even if they’re not roaring, I’d love to see the new book hit some success markers, so if you’re looking for summer reads or birthday presents and want a traditional mystery with some heart, two options:

The book

The audiobook

 "Not since my first visit to Louise Penny's Three Pines, have I encountered a more beguiling fictional world than Susan Shea's Reigny-Sur-Canne." - Catriona McPherson

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Sometimes I Despair

Society seems to be more divided than ever, with strong feelings on every side of every issue, and very little middle ground. How do you deal with putting your views out there? Have you ever had to deal with a flame war?

From Jim

I avoid airing my political views on social media.

But just this week I reached my limit with the cruel, un-American (and unchristian), inhumane separation of children from their parents at the border. I put up a couple of posts on Facebook to express my shame, outrage, and hope (via donations to organizations to help those poor, suffering people). A flaming war quickly ensued, and I spent the day in a shaking rage.

And so I’m back to keeping my political thoughts to myself on social media. The fact is I’m not going to change the opinion of anyone who believes that caging innocent, weeping children is somehow okay. And for the people who agree with me, I’m preaching to the choir. I will continue to voice my opinions in my private life, and I’LL VOTE.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Escape artist

Society seems to be more divided than ever, with strong feelings on every side of every issue, and very little middle ground. How do you deal with putting your views out there? Have you ever had to deal with a flame war?

by Dietrich Kalteis

I don’t regularly pick up a newspaper or turn on a newscast, at best I skim the news, a headline here and there. There’s little about it I need to know, most of it’s fear-based and often depressing. So at best, I’ve got a passing knowledge of current events, so I usually haven’t got much to offer about the issues of the day. Nothing wrong with a healthy discussion among friends, but sometimes talking about what’s making headlines can seem like striking a match and lighting a fuse — especially in a public forum. 

I write fiction, I make stuff up. When I stumble on a news gem that interests me — especially if there’s some dark humor attached — it might spark a story idea in my head. The kind of news that might get me thinking, “Well, what if this happened.” A number of my short stories and novels were influenced by actual events that I stumbled on. Ride the Lightning came about after I read on an article a few years back about the number of grow-ops in this province, how pot was the biggest cash crop, worth billions annually, rivaling softwood lumber. And not a tax dollar was being collected while talks of legalization continued. The spark for Triggerfish came after I read an article about a captured narco sub used by a cartel to transport cocaine from South America. Authorities established that the sub, which was constructed in the Amazon, could travel two thousand miles virtually undetected, and that got me thinking …

As a story takes shape in my head, so do the characters, and I like to let them loose and allow them to express their own views, which don’t have to line up with my own. I don’t step in and inject my own viewpoints.

There’s a natural seclusion that comes with writing a novel, which can take a year or longer, so I spend a lot of time working on my own. When I’m not writing, I like to spend time with family and friends, and there’s so much more to talk about than what’s making headlines. And of course, I sometimes add comments on social media sites, the perfect place not to get into heated discussions on hot-button issues of the day.

Some of my favorite authors were reclusive, greats like Lee Harper and J.D. Salinger. Some like Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy still are. While others are outspoken. At times Hunter S. Thompson came off half-mad in those dark glasses and golf hat, behaving like he’d been imbibing in something stronger than the office coffee, and often while wielding a firearm. But he wrote with passion and fury and had a great sense of humor. And if he was around today, he’d likely have a hell of a viewpoint to share on some of those hot-button issues.

I’m not reclusive and I don’t consider myself outspoken, so maybe it’s just the polite Canadian thing, but I tend to keep my two cents to myself, especially on public forums. One thing’s for sure, life’s far too short for flame wars. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Public Views

Today we are dealing with the question of “the great divide”—how we handle putting our views “out there” in public.

Since I’m right about everything, it’s no big problem for me to spout my views. Okay, seriously, I handle it by saying exactly what I think and try to back it up with facts (remember back in the old days, when facts meant something?) I write letters to the editor of both the NY Times and the Chronicle and I freely post my opinions on social media.

I have never had to deal with a flame war, but I have had to moderate some very divergent opinions on my Facebook posts. I refuse to unfriend people whose opinions differ from mine because then not only will I not know what they are thinking (yes, I use the word "thinking" loosely), but the opposite is true as well. If I unfriend them, they won’t ever see my posts. I want them to see what I have to say. I want to argue with them. Maybe I won’t ever change any minds, but at least people know where I stand. They know I have strong opinions and that I am not afraid to air them.

That last statement says something very important to me. I think fear drives a great deal of what goes on in the country today. I constantly read opinion pieces discussing why we are in such a perilous internal war, about why he-who-shall-not-be-named got elected, why people are so angry. I have my own ideas about it. I think fear drives a lot of the division, and I think that fear can be traced back to 9/11. Many of our supposedly brave citizens reacted with abject terror to that event and the fear has been growing unrestricted ever since. To understand the stupidity of that fear, consider how many more people die every year from poorly monitored guns than died on 9/11. How many more people die of opiates; how many more die from smoking; from automobile accidents.

So, if I’m right, it means the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 won. They won by dividing the country into those who let fear guide them and those who are not afraid of “the other.” The other consists of: people without the same religious beliefs; people with a different skin color. But it also means scientists; journalists; questioners; people who refuse to follow blindly. Fearful people are afraid to step out of line. That's a dangerous problem, and I intend to fight it. It may not be judicious for my professional life, but I think this time in our country is more important than my career.

Just like gun owners who proudly proclaim, “They will take my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead hands,” I proclaim, “I’ll shut up when they tape my mouth closed, tie my hands behind me, and drag me offstage.