Mysteries and Malice: A Guest Post by Tricia Brown

Years ago, I attended a conference in Dallas called Women Writing the West, where I got a kick out of watching a series of people pitch their book ideas to a panel of agents, editors, and one top-level screenplay writer.

Each person had three minutes to present his or her book idea. They’d been encouraged to practice ahead of time, even in front of a mirror if necessary, to get it right. First impressions are critical, and so the more theatrical types even wore costumes to get noticed. There was a loud buzzer at the end of three minutes, and wham, they were done. Panelists then got to ask a few questions, and the best of the presenters heard those sweet words, “Let’s talk afterwards.”

One woman had written a mystery, so she stepped up wearing a fedora and a raincoat.

“Ok, go,” said the moderator.

“Imagine . . . the . . . unimaginable,” said the woman, drawing out the syllables and moving jazz hands through the space around her. After three minutes of listening to her bewildering talk, none of us had a clue about what she was proposing to publish. Except that, yes, it was a mystery. Then came the buzzer, and the opportunity for questions.

“Uh, so what’s the book actually ‘about’?”

The woman’s responses were all so guarded that we never quite heard a synopsis in the tangled mess of words. And then she said it: she was afraid that if she talked too openly, someone would steal her book idea. It was that good. I think I actually heard a snort from more than one place in the room.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t make a judgment unless we know more detail,” said one diplomatic panelist. And the writer’s singular opportunity passed.

During the years that I was reviewing manuscripts for publication, I’d heard this concern a few times. What if the publisher lifts my idea and has somebody else write it? While I can’t say it’s never happened in the publishing realm, I have no firsthand knowledge of such a theft. There are plenty of ideas to go around.

And then, just this past week, I was accused of that very thing in an email that went to one of my publishers. It was a sarcastic, mean-spirited letter written by a person who has found success in book publishing, but had had several proposals declined, long ago, by then-editor Tricia Brown. (As it happened, I had to say no to lots of people back then and turned down some great ideas when we had a full slate of books scheduled, and no intent to expand the list. Occasionally something similar was already in the works, and sometimes another house had recently published something similar. There were many reasons.)

The writer of the email implied that I’d recognized a good idea, waited for years to pass, and written the book myself. I was deeply stung by the charge, and the email was loose with details such as dates and names, except for my own. The accuser even said that I’d asked for several rewrites before declining. Anguished, I wracked my brain. Why would I ask for rewrites when I couldn’t take in any new books? Could this have really happened? How could I not remember?

The reality was, each week I reviewed so many unsolicited manuscripts, and wrote so many “I’m sorry, but no, thanks” letters, that none of them stands out in my memory. Once a manuscript was rejected, it was rejected. We put our energy toward the stuff that was actually going to print.

My publisher was kind enough to ask for my “point of view” before responding to the email. I got in touch with a couple of former colleagues, and thankfully, one of them had the details—written proof that put my mind at ease. The in-house discussion surrounding the author’s story idea, this particular proposal, happened three years after I left the company. No wonder I couldn’t “imagine the unimaginable.”

Idea theft could and does happen, but not here, not with me. And yet someone was motivated to write a personally devastating email before checking the facts.

Why, do you suppose? It’s a mystery to me.

About November’s guest blogger:

Tricia Brown is the author of four children’s books and many nonfiction books for adults, all on Alaska subjects. In May, Sasquatch Books of Seattle will release her newest children’s book, Patsy Ann of Alaska, illustrated by Jim Fowler; and Fulcrum Publishing of Golden, Colorado, will release the fourth edition of Tricia’s travel book, The World-Famous Alaska Highway: A Guide to the ALCAN and Other Wilderness Roads of the North. Her website is

2 thoughts on “Mysteries and Malice: A Guest Post by Tricia Brown”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I've been enjoying all your posts, Tricia!

    The two most amateur concerns seem to be the one you mentioned, "Someone will steal my idea," followed by "If I read – or read too much — it will change or water down my style." Well yes, it may change one's style — don't we all hope that the best of literature will seep into our bones over time?

    I certainly understand not reading things very close to what you're writing WHILE you're writing a particular book or after, when you need a break. (I'm still avoiding music-focused historical fiction after living in that world for so many years.)

    People seem intent on guarding these little flames (of ideas, of talent potential) when in fact we all need to be fanning like crazy, hoping the flames burst into wildfire.

  2. Strange story Tricia, but I suppose it's not unheard of in the publishing world. As you said, some people are paranoid about ideas being stolen away from them.

    The odd thing is that she associated it with you when you weren't even there that year. Perhaps she remembered your name in connection with that house and her brain just filled in the blanks–memory is not always reliable.

    Maybe our memoir writers could elaborate on or disagree with my last line there. 🙂

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