19 September 2012

Lights bulbs, twelve for ten cents

by Robert Lopresti

So, let's say you're a writer.  One day you introduce yourself to someone and that person asks what you do.  Being an honest sort you say "I'm a writer." 

Nine times out of ten, that's fine.  But the tenth time you will see the face of your new acquiantance brighten wonderfully.  "I have a great idea for a novel/story/sccreenplay!"

Uh oh

Here's your best move: Point over his or her shoulder and say: "Look!  A silver-crested wookpecker!   They're supposed to be extinct.  I have to call the Audubon Society!"

 Then run like hell. Because this conversation is not going to go well.  Let's assume you stck around long enough for our  newcomer to explain his story.  One of three possibiities will likely occur.

1.  The idea is terrible.  Well, most are, mine included.

2.  The idea is good, but not one you could do anything with.  Most writers are inherently suited to write about the ideeas they come up with themselves.  Problem is if you tell your new friend that he/she will think this is an excuse you came up with because you realy think the idea belongs in category 1.

3.  The idea is good and one you could work with.  (Hey, it could happen.)  You tell acquiantance this and the person suggests you write it and spit the profits fifty-fifty with the person who did the hard work, i.e. thinking up the idea.

I have now managed to sneak up on myy point, catching it unaware, I suspect.  Here it is:  Ideas are a dime a dozen.

I know that isn't a popular point of view, but consider this example:

A boy discovers he is a wizard and goes off to wizard school.

Is that a billion dollar idea?  Nah..  What J.K. Rowling did with the idea is what made her richer than Queen Elizabeth.

In other words, the idea is not the precious pearl.  It is the grain of sand the pearl grows around.,  As the philosophers would say it is necessary but not sufficient..

I am pondering this because there is a grain of sand rolling around in my brain, irritating the heck out my cerebellum and medulla oblongata.

Basically, it is a new concept in blackmail.  (Suddenly I feel like I'm in the marketing department.  Exciting Breakthrough In Extortion Technology!  Ask your victim if it's right for you.)

So far the idea has not developed into a plot.  The pearl has refused to grow.

Now, let's consider another idea.

A young woman is brutally attacked by a son of power and privilege.  Her only parent seeks justice and, failing that, revenge.

That happens to be the plot of idea behind two of the best stories I have read this year.

The more litigious among you may now be thinking: Two stories with the same idea?  Author B stole from Author A!  Plagiarism! 

Well, yes and no.  I am fairly sure that Author B stole the idea from Author A but I don't think there will be a lawsuit.  Because in this case Author B is Author A.   Both stories were written by Brendan DuBois.

"His Daughter's Island," ( Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012) is the story of Zach Ford, a mild-mannered accountant in a small town in Maine.  His beloved daughter goes off to a party at the home of a millionaire and dies.  The millionaire's son is whisked out of the country, far from the possibility of justice.

"The Final Ballot," (Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance) tells us about Beth, whose daughter suffers life-threatening injuries at the hands of the son of a senator and presidential candidate.  The candidate's fix it man offers her a couple of choices, but can she get what she wants?

 They are both excellent stories but I prefer Ballot, for two reasons.  In Island the revenge begins on the first page and stays fairly static throughout, but in Ballot the revenge comes late in the story, in a non-violent twist that nonetheless takes one's breath away.

Second, in Ballot the odds against the protagonist are even higher.   

Beth knew in a flash that she was outgunned.  This man before her had traveled the world, knew how to order wine from a meny, wore the best clothes and had gone to the best schools, and was prominent in a campaign to elect a senator from Georgia as the next president of the United States.

She put the tissue back in her purse.   And her?  She was under no illusions.  A dumpy woman from a small town outside Manchester who had barely graduated from high school and was now leasing a small beauty shop in a strip mall.

But my main point here is to demonstrate how a talented writer can produce two very different, but equally fine stories from the same idea.

And speaking of ideas, I wanted to tell you some more about that blackmail concept--

What do you mean, you saw a silver-crested woodpecker?  We're indoors!  Get back here!


  1. I can only think offhand of two mysteries that revolve around blackmailing an author for supposedly stealing an idea.

  2. Stephen King had a great story or novella (I can't remember the length of it) about a man who shows up at a writer's home seeking revenge for the writer having written what he considers his idea. Anyone remember the name of that?

    Rob, you took this in another direction from what I expected at the beginning. It reminded me of right after my first novel was published and a lady who was a casual acquaintance showed up at my door one morning. With great excitement, she told me she'd heard I had a book published and that she'd written a book. Would I help her get it published? I began what would in future years at book signings become the lecture about the query letter and writing a synopsis.

    She didn't want to hear any of it. "You won't need to do any of that. Just get your publisher to publish it." I then tried to explain that it's not that easy, but (far dumber then than now) I'd take a look at it for her.

    Her reply: "Oh, I've written it in my head. You can put it down on paper."

  3. Rob - a nice piece, but disturbing for me. I've had fewer grains of sand recently.Some writers seem to have their own private beach.

    By the way, happy birthday! And to me as well, as it happens.

    Fran - Secret Window Secret Garden is the one you're after. Filmed with Depp and Turturro.

  4. Ooooohhhh, the dreaded Idea People! I run like a scalded cat from them. Especially the ones who, as Fran experienced, haven't written a word but want to get published. Now. And when I tell them, "Well, first you actually have to write something down," look at me like I'm from Mars. Next favorite? The people who figure that since you work from home, you don't really work, and are available for any dog and pony show going. Sigh.

  5. Even I, the least experienced among us, have been asked (and once wined and dined) to write and even ghost-write books. Just as Rob says (as if there's a packaged script), the proposal includes "I've done all the work" and suggests a 50-50 split. I'm flattered someone likes my writing, but I know such a project would prove disastrous on so many levels.

    Hey, happy birthday, Neil.

  6. Thanks Leigh

    But it actually is Rob's real birthday as well as mine. It's also official Talk Like a Pirate Day believe it or not - something that Rob let me in on last year.

  7. Rob and Neil--Happy birthday, maties!

    To Eve's comment about the dreaded people: I was in the library yesterday and was asked by the librarian what I'd been doing. When I told her I had a book coming out, she exclaimed, "I don't read horror!" When I softened the blow by adding that I had an EQMM story coming out, she enquired of me, "Do we carry that?" Arrggg! P.S. Yes, they do.

  8. Great column, Rob. I think all writers are regularly approached by folks who have "great ideas," want us to write their book/story, and suggest a 50/50 split. I always mention (politely, I hope) that I already have more ideas than I know what to do with (a true statement) and that they should write the story or book themselves and take all the credit.

    If that doesn't work, and it usually doesn't, I point out some version of the extinct woodpecker and try to make good my escape.

  9. Aye maties, Arr and other piratical noises. Happy day, Neil. Birthday of great men (there's an obscure mystery-related reference for you.)

    Doesn't The Idea People sound the title of a horror movie? Reminds me of PHC's The Minnesota Living Dead. (They were strangers who greeted you with endless monotone monologues about rainfall and car mileage.)

    Fran, sure writing it down is the EASY part. Time to quote St Bartleby: "I would prefer not to."

  10. Happy birthday, guys. I'd love to see the extinct woodpecker for real, but in fact, I have an answer that works for me:"I'm afraid it doesn't work that way." I then offer to send them info on how to write the proposal if it's nonfiction or encourage them to complete a first draft and get critique before going any further if it's fiction--that usually sends them off to join the Audubon Society themselves with no difficulty. David, I sympathize re the know-nothing librarian. My favorite such moment was when the young clerk in the self-help bookstore (which might have been a great outlet for my DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER) looked puzzled and said, "What do you mean by 'fiction'?"

  11. I was actually approached by a guy I know with an idea that was pretty good---or at least marketable. The issue is that I didn't want to spend six or eight months doing the heavy lifting for somebody else. We all have a gazillion ideas. Execution is the hard part. And you need to tell the story only you can tell. (I think it was Barbara Cartland who'd hand her secretary an outline, or not even, a vague hook, and he secretary would write the actual book.)

  12. Thank, Neil, for the title of the King story. Also, happy birthday to you and Rob. I miss reading your blogs. If you ever want to do a guest spot, let me know and I'll give you one of my Mondays.

  13. Rob, another enjoyable column. Also, I would gladly sing Happy Birthday to you and Neil, but there have been requests from several people (to include my wife) that I refrain from even thinking about singing in their presence.
    To continue in the same vein as your column, but going one step further: After speaking at a writers conference, I was approached by an elderly gentleman who asked if I would critique his unfinished manuscript. In the interest of helping out a beginner, I agreed. Seven chapters later, I gave him my notes with several suggestions. To encourage him I said if he ever got it published then I would buy a copy. Six months later, he contacted me. I am now the sadder but wiser owner of a PublishAmerica book.


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