“The Big Idea” (by David Dean)

David Dean blogged for this site just last month. We are delighted to have him back with a post that displays a side of him readers of his fiction dont often see. His dark, sometimes chilling fiction has earned an EQMM Readers Award, an Edgar nomination, and other honors. But those of us whove had the pleasure of meeting David know that his mood can be as light as it comes across here, frequently leavened with wit.—Janet Hutchings

When Janet asked me to write a blog I offered two suggestions for possible subjects. The first she pointed out had been done before . . . by her. So, that was out. The second, though I started it in good faith, just didn’t want to gel into a coherent piece. It needed a coherent writer.

I lay in bed that night tossing and turning, racking my grey matter for ideas . . . something . . . anything to write about. That’s when it hit me—ideas! That’s what I’ll write about, the search for story ideas—how the process comes about, the results, the triumphs, the failures. After all, this is where it all begins in writing fiction . . . any fiction . . . an idea.

The following day, Robin, (my wife of lo these many years) and I, were taking our usual morning walk when I told her of my idea to write about ideas. She Who Walks In Beauty barely slowed her graceful step at this exciting news.

“Ideas . . . where they come from,” she mused in her muse-like way. “You mean like when I give you ideas sometimes?”

“You give me ideas all the time, baby,” I responded.

She Who Walks did slow her steps at that. “I meant story ideas. Remember how I gave you that idea about the dog and the little boy?”

“Of course, I do. That turned out to be one of the best stories I’ve ever written!”

“And remember my ideas about a series for the Hallmark Mystery Channel?”

I nodded in a cautious manner.

“You never wrote that.”

I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable with the direction our conversation was taking.

“I’m still letting that one simmer . . . mature, as it were,” I stalled. “But the blog will definitely mention the dog/boy idea.”

“Where else do you get your ideas?” she asked.

“From everywhere, I guess—our walks, memories, dreams, past experiences, the news, random things I see.”

“What kind of past experiences?”

“My years as a police officer, for one . . .”

“And what else . . . ?”

“Well, people I’ve known . . . relationships . . . you know, that sort of thing.”

“What kind of relationships . . . exactly . . . ?”

“Look—a scarlet tanager!”

Well, it sure looked like one to me.

When I got back to the house after a nice quiet drive home, I went to my story idea binder. This contains proof of my having a history of ideas. Within the binder lay four yellowing sheets of lined paper, every line freighted with a possible, or now written, story.

Here are a few examples of some that grew up and got published (the as-yet-to-be-published ones are too potentially valuable, or embarrassing, for me to share): Old girlfriend at airport (“Jenny’s Ghost” EQMM, June 2012), water tower suicides (“Don’t Fear the Reaper” EQMM, January 1994), man prods another to murder him (“Mr. Kill-Me” EQMM, August 2015). You get the picture—concise, evocative nuggets that only need a little polishing to reveal their inner worth.

I started this list way back in 1990, shortly after my first story was published in EQMM. After that wonderful event, I felt that every random idea that walked or crawled out of my subconscious was a possible literary gem and must be preserved. I was much younger then.

In any event, here were one hundred and fifty-six ideas for short stories and novels. Running a finger down each page, I found that sixty-seven had actually been developed and written. That does not mean that all those were published. But many were . . . very, very many . . . a whole lot, but let us not dwell on petty details.

Yet, as I walk down memory lane with the yet-to-be-written tales, I sometimes find myself in the company of strangers. Oh, I mostly remember the notion that I had jotted down, but I find that there are a number that still don’t resonate with me. These uncut stones are growing moss. Another discovery I make is that several of the ideas have actually yielded more than one story.

Yet, even with the odds being less than half that an idea will become a story, I continue this arcane practice in the hopes that each of them will someday grow into something I really want to write. Wanting to write the tale is pretty important. This may explain why I haven’t taken up a few ideas offered me pro gratis over the years.

Many, many people, I have discovered, have some great (and not-so-great) ideas for books, stories, and screenplays, only they don’t have the time to write them. But since I’m a writer, they figure I’ve got all the time in the world to do just that. That seemed to be true once; not so much anymore, I’m afraid. The clock is ticking, and I can hear it.

Many of these good people are even willing to dictate what I should write down. My job would be to write it real good. Oh, and the deal is usually a fifty-fifty split of the huge profit we’ll make on this joint venture. Fifty-fifty because my potential partner has already done the hard part coming up with the award-winning idea.

So, back to ideas—what’s really confounding is when I raise one of my own fantastic ideas like gleaming Excalibur only to find it’s become a rotting branch already crumbling in my hands. It’s just not going to happen. Whether it’s a result of my limitations as a writer, or the idea itself is not fully developed enough in my imagination (which I guess is kind of the same thing), I don’t know, I just know, it’s a no-go . . . at least for now.

For me, at least, the litmus test for gold quality is ye olde outline. If I can’t put together some structure containing a beginning, middle, and end, I’m out of it; Mister Idea takes a bus back to Cleveland. I know . . . I know . . . I should just let myself go and write . . . take a chance . . . be truly creative. I have tried it, of course, and more than once. But, I found I was only successful one time. It’s just not me.

After having spent most of my life as a soldier, police officer, and a Catholic (probably the most structured, hierarchical faith in the world), I must have my outline! If there were a writer’s uniform I would probably wear it each day as I reported to my desk.

Now that being said, I don’t have to stick to the outline, I just need it to launch. Once airborne, I can ignore the flight plan and just fly that bad boy . . . or not. It all depends on how the writing is going. Some ideas are just easier than others to write, some so easy I feel guilty when I’ve finished. Where was the required suffering?

That’s usually waiting around the corner with the next story, the one based on a surefire idea that can’t go wrong; that should practically write itself, the one that morphs into the giant octopus that snags the hero-diver just as he’s running out of breath. You pay now, or you pay later . . . but you pay.

And there’s no equity with ideas either. The simple ones can result in great stories, the complex ones into tales better left unread, and the opposite may happen, as well. These humble beginnings demand a lot to bear fruit—experience, imagination, craft, and not a little patience.

So, ideas . . . yeah, I got ’em. Will they all become stories? Time will tell. In putting together this post, I was struck by how many ideas that had lain fallow for ages did eventually grow into stories. So maybe they all will someday. But I doubt it, and here’s why—Cloned sheep, yep, that’s one of the entries on the list. What did I mean by that? Does anyone know? I sure don’t. So, if you want to use it, knock yourself out. We’ll split the profits fifty-fifty. I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller.

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6 Responses to “The Big Idea” (by David Dean)

  1. Lou manfredo says:

    David,
    Great piece, I am already at work on the cloned sheep mystery.
    Best,
    Lou

  2. pauldmarks says:

    Lots of great ideas here, David. But have I got one for you. We’ll share 50-50 and both never have to work again 😉 .

  3. Art Taylor says:

    Great post, David, as always!

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