First Page Critique: The Challenge Of Telepathy

imageToday we’re reviewing a first page submission titled CHECKS AND BALANCES. I’ll add my comments at the end. Then, I invite you to add your constructive feedback in the Comments.


The Peak District, Year Eight of the First Lord and Eternal Blessed First Lady’s Glorious Regime. June.

I pushed through the ranks of stern-faced men and women dressed in combat trousers and canvas jackets until I reached David.

“Good of you to finally join us, Melanie.” Without another word, he set out hacked CCTV feed to show Somerset House from the Strand.

The elegant arches and columns of the Regime’s headquarters formed a stark contrast to this utilitarian network of abandoned mines. I dutifully studied the armed soldiers guarding the archway and the helicopters hovering above the courtyard, but the larger-than-life portraits that dominated the façade demanded my attention.

Honour the First Lord demanded the painting on the left, above an image of a striking man in replica nineteenth-century military uniform. Remember the Eternal Blessed First Lady mourned its companion on the right-hand side. Its subject appeared as fragile and innocent as a rococo shepherdess, but my co-conspirators considered her a she-devil in life and their most high-profile victim in death.

“There’ve been too many deaths, too many prisoners. We need to stop the Regime once and for all,” David intoned. Years of outdoor living had given him the muscles and hearty glow he could only have dreamt of in his old life as an academic. When he spoke, people listened.

I ignored him.

My eyes lingered on the second portrait until its features blurred. Until I was content that the so-called Eternal Bless First Lady’s curves, red lips and Dior gown bore no resemblance to my soldier’s body and weather-beaten face. The Treaty camp didn’t possess a mirror, but I could well imagine the changes wrought by five years of camping in the peaks and hiding in mines, wracked by cold, hunger, and the constant fear of discovery. Besides, Marianne Helmsley’s defining feature had always been her Rapunzel curls, and I’d cropped my hair to the skull the night I fled to the Treaty.

No one had recognized me before. No one would recognize me now. If there was one thing both sides agreed on, it was that the dictator’s wife was dead.

My Comments

No doubt the writer has a strong mental image of everything that’s happening in this first page, but that image wasn’t conveyed cLeary enough for me as a reader to get oriented within the scene. I needed more of a sense of the physical context in which the scene is taking place. For example, the early reference to “hacked CCTV feed” made me assume that the characters are viewing everything else that is being described that described on a monitor or screen of some sort, but I wasn’t certain.

Grounding and Context

The second paragraph refers to “Somerset House On The Strand,” followed immediately by a reference to “the Regime’s headquarters.” By those places are contrasted with “this utilitarian network of abandoned mines,” I was floundering at sea.

Eccentric Language Creates Confusion

I kept stumbling over some unusual language and word choices.

For example, in the following line

Honour the First Lord demanded the painting on the left

I wasn’t sure if the writer intended to use the verb “demanded” as written here, or simply made a mistake. The next line only exacerbated my confusion by injecting a convoluted character name (“Remember the Eternal Blessed First Lady”), along with another eccentric verb choice.

Remember the Eternal Blessed First Lady mourned its companion on the right-hand side.

As a general rule, it’s best to avoid the over-use of confusing, idiosyncratic language. For example, the following introductory framing line struck me as unintentionally humorous:

Eternal Blessed First Lady’s Glorious Regime. June.image

It reminded me of the mockumentary film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”. (Which is probably not the tone that the writer had in mind!)

A Part Well Done: A Snappy KIck-off

I did like the deft way the author kicked out of the scene at the end of the page.

If there was one thing both sides agreed on, it was that the dictator’s wife was dead.

That line gave me the first strong clue about the situation being presented in this story: a military dictator’s wife forced to go incognito within a hostile environment. That’s an intriguing setup for a story. (Update: See Sheryl’s suggestion in the Comments to use this line as the first line of the story–it’s a great idea!)

Writing as Telepathy 

Writing is telepathy, Stephen King once said. The writer of CHECKS AND BALANCES needs to make sure that the reader can “see” the images  that are playing inside the story creator’s mind. It’s not an easy task, to be sure–but that’s the challenge of writing effectively.

A big thank you to today’s brave writer for submitting this first page! Please add your feedback in the Comments.

The Higher the Bar, the Sweeter the Leap

by Larry Brooks

We’ve all read a novel that changes our lives.  That makes us either want to become a writer, or glad we are already chasing the dream.

And a little sad, because in our heart we know we will never be quite that good.

Most of us have several of those, stories that are personal to us because it feels like we discovered them.  We remember them like love affairs that have left us different, enriched, even a little broken-hearted, if nothing else than because there can never be another first time.

And yet, every time we come back, it just gets better and better.

When such a novel resurfaces as a movie  — in this case 20 years later — we approach with caution.  And yet, with itchy excitement, because we get to immerse in that world again, live it through the eyes of a director with the same response to the novel that we had… this is a story that deserves to live on.

Just maybe it will live up to the book.

Last week I caught a trailer for a new film release that got my attention.  

Not because I recognized it as an adaptation of a novel that blew me away, but because the story being teased touched those old nerves in the same way.

And then it hit me.

The film is called Manhattan NightManhattan Night Poster

The novel that blew my mind in 1996, written by Colin Harrison, was/is entitled Manhattan Nocturne.

Perfect.  Hollywood dumbs down the title, taking the je ne sais quoi right out of it, but keeps the tonality and plot intrigue of its core… this could not be a coincidence.

Some dreams do come true.

That novel, the one that set the bar high, is about to be released as a movie that promises to do the same thing.

What you need to know about that novel, and the movie they’ve finally made from it, is delivered in two short blurbs… one about the story, the other about the author:

When a seductive stranger asks tabloid writer Porter Wren to dig into the unsolved murder of her filmmaker husband, he is drawn into a very nasty case of sexual obsession and blackmail – one that threatens his job, his marriage, and his life.

Sexy old school noir thriller with brains, anyone?

Colin Harrison was the emerging pulp literati superstar of new millennium.  He Image result for manhattan nocturnewas referred to by a reviewer as the poet laureate of American thriller authors, and has a resume that reads as if it were the wet dream of a newly minted MFA graduate with commercial sensibilities (which he was, in 1986, from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop).

Manhattan Nocturne was his second novel.  His third novel, Afterburn, became a highly touted New York Times Bestseller, and the second best book of 2000, right after Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

Even his wife was/is a bestselling novelist (Kathryn Harrison, with an intimidating Wiki of her own).

What could go wrong?  Well, a 20-year wait to get the film made, that’s what.

The guy’s prose is… stunning.

Not in a lit prof you’ll-never-see-me-holding-a-paperback-on-the-train sort of way, but in a Dashiel Hammett meets Mickey Spillane channeling Raymond Chandler sort of way, but with the swagger of a White House speechwriter.  Often in workshops, when I get to the part where we talk about — and try to understand how to craft — stellar writing voice, I simply read the first page of Harrison’s Manhattan Nocturne aloud, which contains all of three adjectives yet reads like the breathless musing of a mad genius reporter teetering on the abyss of The Best Scoop Ever, searching for killer lead.

Universally, the writing audience silently mouths a chorus of “oh my…”

He writes our kind of prose.  The poetry of thrillers and mysteries set on fire with passion and tension and the promise of shocking betrayals.  Narrative that kills.

So there you go.  A great read and a movie ticket for you, to light your writer’s brain on fire.

Read the Wikipedia on the novel HERE.

Then click on the movie poster above (not the book cover) to see the trailer.

That bar… it just keeps getting higher and higher.


Lest We Forget

by James Scott Bell


Maj. Sullivan Ballou

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. For years now that day has become more associated with hot dogs, beer, and picnics than for what it was intended to commemorate. It is one day in our year when, as a country, we remember the men and women who paid the ultimate price so that we could have … hot dogs, beer, and picnics, wherever we please. And the freedom to move around, say whatever is on our minds, write whatever we choose to write –– without the fear that we’ll get thrown in a gulag or “disappeared” in some North Korean valley.

We dare not treat these freedoms lightly.

In 2000, Congress passed The National Moment of Remembrance Act. It “encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3:00 local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.”

Set your alarm. We owe our honored dead at least one moment of reflection.

Perhaps we might gather some family around and read the following, an excerpt from a letter written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou to his wife at the start of the Civil War. The entire letter may be found here.

Ballou was a Rhode Island attorney who volunteered for the Union Army after the attack on Fort Sumter. I offer it here because, as writers, we can appreciate the beautiful turn of phrase in a personal letter of that era. Thank goodness email and Twitter did not exist in the nineteenth century.

It also gives us the heart and mind of a soldier about to go into battle on behalf of a higher cause –– to “pay that debt” owed “to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution.”

Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861

My Very Dear Wife:

Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for any country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know, that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with care and sorrows, when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country…

I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

Sullivan Ballou died one week later at The Battle of Bull Run.

For all who surrendered their lives so we might enjoy the blessings of liberty, requiescat in pace. Rest in peace.


By Elaine Viets


THE CASE OF THE MISSING PAINTING is TKZ’s monthly First Page critique, submitted by an Anonymous Author. Congratulations, AA. You need courage to submit your work for evaluation, but it’s a major step toward publication. Here’s AA’s first page. My comments follow.

The Case of the Missing Painting

My cellphone startled me from a pleasant although dreamless sleep. The phone fell to the floor when I groped for it in the dark. Awake now, I grabbed the offending object. “Hello,” I said, sure someone had died.

“Jenna, it’s Toni,” my cousin’s voice rang out. “Someone stole Granddad’s painting,”

Granddad’s painting? Could she mean the Impressionistic landscape he’d painted long before I was born? I switched on the lamp and sat up in bed to the utmost annoyance of Stalin, who loved to sleep nestled against my back. The cat growled in protest.

“Did you hear me? Granddad’s painting’s been stolen.” More hysteria.

“I heard you,” I choked out. “But…” clearing my throat. “I’m not sure if I’m awake or dreaming. Why the devil are you calling me at…” I glanced at my phone. “At two-thirteen in the morning? Besides, I thought Aunt Lucy had that painting, safely tucked in her Florida condo.”

“Mom gave it to my brother, Joey. He says it’s disappeared, and let me tell you he’s frantic. Mom’s going to kill him.”

“Why would anyone want it? It’s a copy, an artist’s impression of a master. Priceless to us but worthless to anyone else.” My mind cleared and my voice sounded almost awake. That painting symbolized everything I loved about my dad and his Italian roots.

“That’s what I thought. But, apparently there’s more to it than that. I really don’t want to go into it on the phone and anyway…Neal, quit that.”

“What’s going on?”

“Neal keeps trying to cut off the AC.  I’m calling from the car. We’re on our way to see you after we stop in Columbus to pick up Joey—”

“At this hour?”

“Joey can tell you all about it. We should roll in sometime this afternoon. Get the extra bed ready. I told Joey we could count on you. Cousins sticking together and all.” She clicked off.

Roll in to see me? This afternoon? Extra bed? What extra bed? This had to be a dream. Or a nightmare.

I switched off the light and closed my eyes. Visions of my granddad’s painting floated across my consciousness—the muted colors reflecting on the surface of the water. The building sitting on the bank as if submerged. A cherished painting I hadn’t thought about in years. But why had Toni called me in the middle of the night? What couldn’t she tell me over the phone? I tossed, repositioned my pillow, tossed again and finally drifted off to sleep.


Elaine’s Critique: Your novel has an intriguing start, AA, but too much information is crammed into your first page. You can deliver that information throughout the chapter, even later in the book. Your work is clean and free of typos, which is important. Here are a few other points to consider.

There’s an overlooked opportunity for a more dramatic opening. We all fear late-night calls. They usually mean someone’s dead, as you mentioned in an aside. Make that your beginning and ratchet up the tension. You can still have the cell phone wrestling scene, but I’d pare it down.

Where is your novel set? Cousin Toni tells Jenna, “I’m calling from the car. We’re on our way to see you after we stop in Columbus to pick up Joey . . . We should roll in sometime this afternoon.”

That’s an easy fix. Toni can say, “We left MY CITY AN HOUR AGO. We should roll into YOUR CITY sometime this afternoon.”

Hysteria? You do a good job of moving the action forward with dialogue, AA, but the first time you mention Toni you write, “my cousin’s voice rang out.” Then Jenna thinks in italics, “more hysteria.” “Rang out” does not indicate “more hysteria.” If she’s hysterical, show us. Have Toni talking extra fast, sounding frantic, tripping over her words, using a high-pitched voice, or other indicators of hysteria.

Give a clearer description of Granddad’s painting. It’s the key to the novel. AA writes, “Could she mean the Impressionistic landscape he’d painted long before I was born?” And “Visions of my granddad’s painting floated across my consciousness—the muted colors reflecting on the surface of the water. The building sitting on the bank as if submerged.”

Do you mean “Impressionist,” a school of painting? Or “impressionistic,” with a lower case I? What is the “building sitting on the bank”? A church? A mansion? Granddad’s home? Something else? And the bank of what? A river? A stream? Where is the painting set? The US, Italy, Britain? More specifics will give your novel a vivid start. Also, the painting is “an artist’s impression of a master.” Which master? Tell us.

Too many people in the first page. This is a common reviewers’ complaint. Jenna, Toni, Joey and Neal are crammed into one page. It’s over-crowded. Neal is never identified. Is he Toni’s husband? Son? Another cousin?

What’s the season? Is it in the chilly winter? A sticky summer night? A phrase can settle that question.

Tell us a little more about Toni and Jenna.  How old are they? What kind of person is Toni? Right now, she sounds more impulsive than hysterical. Is she Jenna’s “crazy” cousin? Is she normally level-headed, so Jenna has more reason to pay attention to her alarm? A phrase or two can help us out. Somewhere in the first chapter, let us know what both these women do. Are they employed? Students? What are their last names? Are they married or single?

That darn cat. AA writes, “I switched on the lamp and sat up in bed to the utmost annoyance of Stalin, who loved to sleep nestled against my back. The cat growled in protest.” Don’t let your readers guess who Jenna’s sleeping with. Try this: “I switched on the lamp and sat up in bed to the utmost annoyance of my cat, Stalin, who loved to sleep nestled against my back.”

And do you really want to name your cat after a mass-murdering dictator? That’s like calling the cat Hitler. Not funny, and painful for some readers.

Do you need that last line? AA writes, “What couldn’t she tell me over the phone? I tossed, repositioned my pillow, tossed again and finally drifted off to sleep.

Would Jenna really be able to go back to sleep if she got a worrisome phone call at two a.m.? I wouldn’t. Your first page will have stronger impact if you cut that final sentence.

Consider changing:

  • “a pleasant although dreamless sleep” to “a pleasant, dreamless sleep.”
  • “to the utmost annoyance of Stalin.” Take out “utmost.”
  • I choked out.” Consider “I said.” “I choked out” doesn’t add drama. It’s a distraction.
  • “My mind cleared and my voice sounded almost awake.” How does Jenna know what she sounds like? This can be cut.
  • “This had to be a dream. Or a nightmare.” Make it, “This had to be a nightmare.” Or consider cutting it.

Don’t be put off by these comments, Anonymous Author. This is a good story. Go forth and write.

Any comments, TKZ readers?

The Art of Murder
, Elaine Viets’s new Dead-End Job mystery, opens at Bonnet elaine headshotHouse, a whimsical Fort Lauderdale museum with rollicking art, exotic orchids, carousel figures, and three squirrel monkeys who escaped from a bar. Elaine worked as a museum volunteer while she researched her fifteenth Dead-End Job mystery. The Art of Murder has been on the Pub Alley Mystery Bestseller list for nearly three weeks.


Zoning in the Zone

By Joe Moore

Someone once asked: “I’ve heard writers talk of being ‘in the zone’ regarding their writing, which I take to mean being in an altered state of extreme creativity. But how, without drugs or other stimulus, do they get into that state?”

In fact, we hear the term in the zone used often, not only with writers, but athletes, artists, and just about any activity that requires skill, creativity and especially concentration.

So what is “the zone” and how do we enter it? Why is it so hard to remain there for extended periods of time?

zone_cleanedBeing in the zone can last for a few minutes, a couple of hours or a whole day. For those that never seem to enter the zone, it might be because they try too hard to do so. Sort of like when we stop trying to solve a problem, the solution suddenly comes to us through our subconscious—what Jim Bell calls the boys in the basement.

Let’s try to define what being in the zone means, especially when it relates to writing. For me, it’s a mental state where time seems to disappear and my productivity greatly exceeds normal output. It might start after I’ve finished lunch and sat down at my PC to work on a new chapter. Without any feeling of the passage of time, I suddenly realize a couple of hours have gone by and I’ve produced 1000 words or more. I don’t remember the passage of time or anything that deals with my surroundings. I only remember “living” or becoming immersed in the story’s moment, having the words flow from a deeper source, and “awakening” from the writing zone as if only a few moments have passed.

I’ve never been hypnotized, but I can assume that being in the zone is somewhat like self-hypnosis. My body remains in the here-and-now, but my creative senses somehow find a hidden room inside my mind, a place normally under lock and key. And I’m able to enter it for a short time to let what’s there emerge into the light of day.

It can also feel like driving down the Interstate on a long trip deep in thought and suddenly realize I can’t remember the past few miles.

I’ve also never been athletic, but I bet it’s a similar scenario: a pro golfer is able to tune out the surrounding crowd of tournament spectators, the dozens of network cameras, the worldwide audience, the cheers from the distant gallery as his opponents make a great putt, and he’s able to enter a place where only his game stretches out before him. The rest slips by in a blur. Personal mind control.

So what is a good method for getting into the zone? Some writers use the “running start” technique by reading the previous day’s work or chapter. It gets them back into the story and hopefully the new words start to flow.

Others listen to music. This is something I often do. Nothing with lyrics, though. I listen to movie scores or piano and guitar solos. I find that it can help set a mood or become background “white noise” that blocks out other audible distractions. That’s because, for me, the biggest obstacle is distractions. It’s important to reduce interruptions and distractions by creating an environment where they are minimized. This means shutting my home office door, closing the drapes on the windows, unplugging the phone, disconnecting Internet access, and most of all, choosing a time to write when those things can be fully managed. Doing away with distractions is no guarantee that I will enter the zone at will, but it does give me a fighting chance to at least knock on the door to one of those dark, hidden rooms upstairs and let my story flow out.

So, my fellow zoners, have you ever entered the zone? Do you have a secret method that you’ll share with us?

John D and Me…And All The
Other Writers I Owe Big Time

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. ― Kurt Vonnegut

By PJ Parrish

I had been storing this blog to run around Thanksgiving, but John D. MacDonald forced my hand this week, so I’m posting early. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the books and thank the authors who have helped me along the way.


Recently, I was asked by a writer friend Don Bruns to contribute to an ongoing series that has been running in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune called “John D and Me.” Cool beans, I thought, since other contributors included Stephen King, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Heather Graham, JA Jance, David Morrell…the list went on and on. Click here to read my article. Don’t worry…it’s short. I chose to write about MacDonald’s short stories because, truth be told, I hadn’t read many of the guy’s novels back then. But I had found a yellowed dog-earred copy of his short story collection The Good Old Stuff in a used book store, and at that time, I was struggling mightily to write my first short story.

Actually, it wasn’t my first.  My first short story was way back in eighth grade. I was an inattentive student, but I had a lovely teacher Miss Gentry, who made us write a short story. The only touchstones in my little life at that point were The Beatles and my only dream was to run away to London. So I wrote about a lonely cockney boy who painted magic pictures. It was called “The Transformation of Robbie.” I got an A on it.

Miss Gentry

After class, Miss Gentry pulled me aside and said, “you should be a writer.” Twenty-five years later, I dedicated a book to her.

It should be noted that my sister and future co-author Kelly was also churning out short stories in those days. Her most notable effort was called “The Kill.” It was about a serial killer who knocks off The Beatles, one by one. We joke now that nothing much has changed: She still likes to write the gory scenes, I like doing the psychological stuff. I don’t have my early efforts, but she kept hers – see photo below right for the stunning cover she designed at age 11.


Fast forward to 2005. I am trying to write a story for the Mystery Writers of America’s anthology, edited by Harlan Coben. In addition to the big-name writers the editor invites, the anthology holds out 10 spots for blind submissions from any MWA member. I had a good idea for my story and four published mysteries under my belt. But I couldn’t get a bead on the short story’s special formula. What came so easy at age 14 wasn’t coming so easy at age 54.

So I cracked open The Good Old Stuff. Maybe it was because I had been reading Cheever and Chandler and was getting intimidated. But MacDonald made it look effortless. His stories, culled from his pulp magazine career, had an ease and breeze as fresh as the ocean winds. I realized I had been fighting an undertow of expectations, so I flipped over on my back and floated. The words flowed, the story formed. My first adult short story, “One Shot” got picked for MWA’s anthology Death Do Us Part. It was the second proudest moment of my writing life, right after Miss Gentry’s A.

Writing about MacDonald this month got me thinking about the debts I owed to other writers. Here are a couple I should thank:

E.B. White. Charlotte’s Web remains my favorite book of all time. I love it as pure story, but it taught me a very valuable lesson that all novelists should take to heart: Sometimes, you just have to kill off a sympathetic character.

Joyce Carol Oates. Lots of lessons from this woman about productivity and having the courage to write outside the boundaries of whatever box they try to put you in. But one book of hers had a huge impact on me — Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart. From this murky violent story of murder and race, I learned about the power of ambiguity, about the need to leave room in a story for the reader’s imagination to breath, to resist the urge to tie everything up in a neat bow. Also, she just makes me want to write with more metaphoric power. Check out her opening paragraph:

“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift form the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It’s the buglelike cries of the gulls that alert the fisherman – gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy heads and tails feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.


Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I still think about this story years after I read it. From it, I learned about spare writing and especially the power of one indelible image. Michael Connelly talks about this, too, about how one gesture, word or image can have so much more impact than an avalanche of description. Connelly talks about how he wrote about a cop who seemed the paragon of cool, how nothing about the horrors of his job seemed to bother him. Except for one telling detail – the stems of his glasses were chewed down to the nubs. In The Road, the image I can’t get out of my head, the one thing that stands in my mind as the symbol of post-apocalyptic survival, is canned peaches.

In the story, a man and the boy discover a cache of supplies in an abandoned farmhouse. Among them is canned peaches. Yes, it’s a delicacy in a time of starvation, but McCarthy also uses it as a symbol marking the split in the world between the fruit-eating “good guys” and the cannibalistic “bad guys.” Here’s an exchange between man and boy:

He pulled one of the boxes down and clawed it open and held up a can of peaches.
“It’s here because someone thought it might be needed.”
“But they didn’t get to use it.”
“No. They didn’t.”
“They died.”
“Is it okay for us to take it?”
“Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like we would want them to.”
“They were the good guys?”
“Yes. They were.”
“Like us.”
“Like us. Yes.”
“So it’s okay.”
“Yes. It’s okay.”
They ate a can of peaches. They licked the spoons and tipped the bowls and drank the rich sweet syrup.

I can’t eat canned peaches anymore because of this. I want to cry just thinking about.

Neil Gaiman. When I was working on our latest book She’s Not There, I needed to find just the right children’s book that resonated with my adult heroine. It was happenstance that I found Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It follows the adventures of a boy named Bod after his family is murdered and he is left to be brought up by a graveyard. Which metaphorically is what happened to my heroine. I just started  Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which, like my own book, is about the fragility of memory. I think what I am learning from Gaiman is the need to be original, to not follow the pack, to be true to yourself as a writer. He sums it up in this quote:

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.

David Morrell. Several years ago, David was the guest of honor at our writers conference  SleuthFest here in Florida. This talented teacher, prolific writer, and editor of the anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, and creator of Rambo no less, had tons of great advice. But here is the single line that impacted me as a writer.

Find out what you’re most afraid of, and that will be your subject for your life or until your fear changes.

David credits this lesson to another writer Phillip Klass (pen name William Tenn) who told David that all the great writers have a distinct subject matter, a particular approach, that sets them apart from everyone else. The mere mention of their names, Faulkner, for example, or Edith Wharton, conjures themes, settings, methods, tones, and attitudes that are unique to them. How did they get to be so distinctive? By responding to who they were and the forces that made them that way. And all writers are haunted by secrets they need to tell. David talks about this in his book The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing. Click Here to read the first chapter.

And last but not least…

Unamed Romance Novel. I read this eons ago as part of my education back in the days when I thought I was going to make a million bucks writing for Harlequin. This novel (I won’t use the title here) taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, one that every writer – published or un – should take to heart. Here is the line from the book that did it:

She sat on the sand on Miami Beach and watched the sun sink slowly into the ocean in a blaze of orange and pink.

When I read that line, I threw the book across the room. But then I picked the book up and put it on my shelf, where it still sits today. (Well, on my bathroom shelf). Because this book taught me that no matter how brilliant your metaphors, how original your story, how beguiling your prose, how deep your unexplored fears, if you have the sun setting in the east, nothing else is gonna work.

So who were your teachers, what were their books, and what did you learn?

The 5th Grade You

This week is my sons’ 5th grade continuation ceremony – an event that didn’t (at least when I was in 5th grade) have an equivalent in Australia – we simply said goodbye to primary school without much in the way of fanfare! Although, I didn’t grow up with this ceremony, I do appreciate the American way of recognizing milestones such as this, as it provides a  welcome opportunity for reflection as well as a celebration of all that has been accomplished (so far, at least…).

Marking the end of elementary school education is obviously a rite of passage and one that got me thinking about my own ‘5th grade’ self. What would I tell that girl if I had a chance to go back in time? I seem to remember that during my elementary years (primary school, as we call in in Australia) I was obsessed with becoming a scientist of some kind. I had chemistry kits, a microscope, telescope and various collections of minerals, stamps and coins. I adored animals, dinosaurs and couldn’t wait to learn about the stars…then came middle school and real science classes…which I loathed. So I guess the end of 5th grade was the end of that career dream! Although all through primary school I wrote stories and plays and poems, being a writer didn’t seem much like a career goal – more like a fun activity to while away the hours. Now elementary school is much more serious, with standardized tests, homework and far greater expectations than I ever had to deal with (we certainly had no formal state-mandated tests or homework!).

In some ways I mourn the loss of the elementary education I received – more because it seemed so unimportant at the time (I  never worried about report cards or grades).  If I could go back and talk to my 5th grade old self I would tell her to continue to enjoy the fact that school was something fun and (relatively) stress free – I would remind her how lucky she was to have the freedom to fail. I was fortunate I didn’t really need to concern myself with grades until much later in high school. I’m hoping to try to instill the same sense of perspective in my own boys but, sadly,  it’s a much more demanding world out there now.

As part of their 5th grade continuation ceremony, I was supposed to chose an appropriate dedication but, rather than embarrass my boys with typical ‘mum’ mush, I asked them to chose a quotation they thought was appropriate. Funnily enough they both chose a quote from Douglas Adams (author of a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). Jasper chose “The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” While Sam opted for: “I may not have gone where I intended to go but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

I think my 5th grade self would have been pretty happy with either of these quotations!

What about you? What would you say to your 5th grade old self if you had the chance to go back in time? What quotation would you chose for your 5th grade continuation ceremony?



Story and the Power of Connection

by James Scott Bell

In an article over at Aeon, Elizabeth Svoboda writes,

The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it. New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act. As the late US poet laureate Stanley Kunitz put it in ‘The Layers’, ‘I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was.’

As storytellers, don’t we all have that hope? That what we write will have this kind of impact on a reader?

Even if our genre is a commercial one, we ought to consider the power of the wiring in our brains, which seems to be uniquely designed for the reception of a story. It has always been so!

One reason the epics had such staying power was that they instilled values like grit, sacrifice, and selflessness, especially when young people were exposed to them as a matter of course. ‘The later Greeks used Homer as an early reading text, not just because it was old and reverenced, but because it outlined with astonishing clarity a way of life; a way of thinking under stress,’ wrote William Harris, the late classics professor emeritus at Middlebury College, Vermont. ‘They knew that it would generate a sense of independence and character, but only if it were read carefully, over and over again.’

When our writing hooks into these universal themes (e.g., grit, sacrifice) there is a connection with readers that is an essential component of long-term writing success. Again, genre does not matter. To Kill a Mockingbird makes that connection, but so do the Perry Mason novels. Erle Stanley Gardner, Mason’s creator, recognized this early on. He called it finding a “common denominator” for the reading public, and boy did he ever get rewarded for that! Perry Mason was a “knight” fighting “injustice,” Gardner once wrote. The same can be said of Atticus Finch.  Perry Mason

There is scientific proof that our brain circuitry works exactly this way:

When the University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Immordino-Yang told subjects a series of moving true stories, their brains revealed that they identified with the stories and characters on a visceral level. People reported strong waves of emotion as they listened – one story, for instance, was about a woman who invented a system of Tibetan Braille and taught it to blind children in Tibet. The fMRI data showed that emotion-driven responses to stories like these started in the brain stem, which governs basic physical functions, such as digestion and heartbeat. So when we read about a character facing a heart-wrenching situation, it’s perfectly natural for our own hearts to pound.

The late Dallas Willard, whom I was privileged to know, spoke of the power of Jesus’ parables thus: “He ravished people with the kingdom of God.”

Ravish is the perfect word. It means to overtake with indescribable delight. Jesus wooed the crowds with stories, like The Prodigal Son. He taught what love looks like in The Good Samaritan. These stories tap into circuits that pre-exist in our brains and zap us with emotion.

Maybe the other way to put it is that readers, being actual people who live in this world, seek connections –– with friends, family, and at the table of a worthy cause. A cynic may manage to convince himself he needs none of these things, but he will be the unwitting foe of his own wiring. Get him into a ripping good story, though, and at the very least he’ll be out of the abyss for awhile. And maybe that story will be the lifeline that pulls him back into the light to stay.

When Abraham Lincoln, a first-rate storyteller himself, met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1862, he reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Stowe and Lincoln both knew how to unleash “the better angels of our nature.” They used story power.

Do you ever think in those terms when you write? Do you have a potential reader in mind, knowing he or she desires connection? What “common denominators” do you think about when you write?

Playing to Your Strengths


My wife Lisa’s greatest joy — after her husband, of course, and our ungrateful, unappreciative daughter — is her enjoyment of wild birds. We (well, she) has a couple of large, impervious-to-squirrels feeders set up outside of our kitchen window, and Lisa will spend hours photographing the birds that come to take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of seed that is there for the taking. One characteristic of birds, however, is that they are slobs. They drop seed, they leave husks, and…well, you know the rest. We as a result get a nightly show in the form of nocturnal creatures gathering at night beneath the feeders in a heartwarming tableau. The opossums are first to arrive. They get there early to begin eating the seed that has been left on the ground. They eventually, however, are rudely shoved aside by the raccoons, the neighborhood bully boys who push aside the opossums as if they aren’t even there. The collective attitude of the masked bandits changes quickly, however, when the skunks arrive. Their “outta my way, kid” demeanor quickly changes to, “Oh, my, hello, Mr. Skunk! How nice to see you! We’ve been saving this pile of seed just for you.” Skunks are just so gentle and shy and cute as they walk up and begin eating. They don’t take any mess, however. I did see a young raccoon, one who apparently didn’t get the memo, try to nudge a skunk out of its way. The skunk engaged in some non-violent resistance, turning around and putting his tail up, resulting in three raccoons setting new distance and reaction records for standing side jumps. I didn’t know raccoons could jump sideways. They apparently can, if properly motivated.

What do those cute vignettes have to do with writing? Quite a bit, actually. After you’ve been writing for a while, you’re going to get the sense of what works and what doesn’t for you. Write what works for you. If you are good at writing action scenes but poor at writing dialogue, go with the explosions and karate and make you characters strong and silent. If you’re not able to write a convincing love scene without embarrassing yourself, don’t entangle your character in anything other than barb wire. If you can write great sex scenes but drop the thread on complex mysteries, keep the mystery simple and secondary to the amorous scenes in the bedroom or elsewhere. Our friend the opossum’s main strengths are to convincingly play dead (we’ve all run into folks like that, haven’t we, heh heh) and get places early. If you are good at writing action scenes, start with a strong one and jump from one to another. Your story may be best served by letting the plot drive it. As far as the skunk goes, we’re talking cute but dangerous. “Dangerous” isn’t too strong a word; making that midnight run out to a Sam’s Club for several five-gallon cans of tomato juice to erase the scent of skunk spray will make a believer out of you. So…the character is going to drive your story. Cute but dangerous? Think of Jack Reacher as played by, uh, Tom Cruise. If you are blessed with the ability to let plot and characters drive your novel, you’re like a raccoon. You can sense your story’s weaknesses and strengths, and sense when something can play out a bit or, alternatively, when it’s time to wrap it up.
Which animal are you when you write? One of the above? Or another? And why?…oh, and the animal at the top of my humble offering today? To paraphrase Raymond Chandler…”What. The owl? Oh. I forgot about him.” Not really. Owls are skunks’ natural predators. The reason? Owls don’t have olfactory glands.