By PJ Parrish
I might have to kill the bird.
Emily Dickinson’s poem is heavily with me this week. You know the line: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”
I might have to tell a writer to give up on her story and start over. And believe me, I know how that stings.
Over the decades, I’ve critiqued hundreds of manuscripts. I’ve read countless manuscripts and short stories for contests, including for Mystery Writers of America anthologies and the inaugural year of the ITW Thriller Awards. Shoot, back in my newspaper days, I was a preliminary screening judge for the Pulitizers.
I’ve also done maybe a hundred charity critiques for writing conferences. Since joining The Kill Zone, I’ve done quite a few First Pagers. And I’ve had, oh, maybe 30 or so friends or acquaintances ask me to read their stuff. Some of them are still talking to me.
Let me interject here. I am not saying this to set-up a woe-is-me whine-fest. I’ve done this willingly, happily, and in most cases, with true affection for the brave souls who put themselves out there. But here’s the thing:
You can tell quickly if a submission is good. I’ve heard countless editors and agents say this, and it’s true. Screenwriter Josh Olsen wrote about this in The Village Voice in his essay “I Will Not Read Your F*%!ing Script.” (Click here for link. Warning: his language is salty.) Money graph:
It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.
(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)
I work hard on the critiques I do, whether it’s a full manuscript or 450 words for First Pagers here. I try hard to be truthful but constructive. I start with the notion that even in the rawest submission, there is something good to say.
Until there is not.
Every once in a blue moon, I get a manuscript that is truly hopeless. Such is my dilemma this week. I am critiquing a partial for a regional writer’s conference. And for the first time, I don’t know what the heck to tell this writer without coming off like a….fill in the negative noun of your choice. I’ll go with arse because it’s the cleanest one I can think of.
So I will tell you guys. Because maybe it will help someone out there who might recognize, from this example, a misstep off their plot path or a failure of character construction. (Note: I have heavily disguised the details of this submission).
It runs five chapters and about 50K words. Quick synopsis.
Chapter 1: Opens fast with an already-has-happened abduction of two teenage girls. Opening line to the effect of: Greta could see nothing. They are blindfolded and bound, in the trunk of a car. Scene is all from one girl’s POV. Greta is thinking about where they are going and why. She hears one man say one line, “We know what your mother did.” Nothing else. Car stops, trunk opens. Greta senses bright sunlight creeping around the edges of her mask. End of chapter.
Chapter 2: Greta is sitting on a bench on a Miami Beach boardwalk, watching the sun go down. Lots of description of this. Her friend Ellen joins her. They talk about school and Ellen’s crush on a boy. They decide to go get something to eat then go to Club Salsa, sneak in with their fake IDs and meet some guys. They get in Greta’s VW and drive away from the beach. End of chapter.
Chapter 3: Opens at Mexican restaurant with long description of atmosphere. More dialogue about what they will do after school. Greta is upset that her mother expects her to become a lawyer like her. Ellen says she wants to go out of state to get away from family. They pay and leave. End of chapter.
Chapter 4. Opens with long description of Miami and Little Havana as Greta drives to the club. They sit in parking lot and a car with two guys pulls up. Description of loud music coming from the car. One of the boys tries to pick up Ellen as Greta hangs back. The two couples go into the club. End of Chapter.
Chapter 5: Opens with abductors ordering Greta and Ellen to climb out of the trunk and take off their blindfolds. Greta looks around at what appears to be desolate scrubland (The Everglades? She isn’t sure) and sees a small nondescript building. END OF SAMPLE
Okay, let me have it. Because I know you guys know exactly what is wrong here. Let’s hit the major points first, then I will get into more detailed issues.
First, the time line is screwed up. Like whiplash, screwed up. Chapter 1 is present-time action. But chapters 2-4 are all flashback, setting up “the normal world” of Greta and Ellen before the disruption (kidnapping). Second, in chapters 2-4, NOTHING IS GOING ON, PLOT-WISE.
I know what happened here. The writer fell into the trap that we (especially James) talk about often here. Writers want to create sympathy for their protagonists, so they feel compelled to world-build the characters’ nice lives before they get wrecked on the rocks. But this writer, in her heart of hearts, sensed the boredom of chapters 2-3, so decided to tack on a frontispiece frenetic action scene. Then she realized the plot corner she had painted herself into and three chapters later, jumped back to the present-time abduction scene.
I don’t know if she intends to keep moving back and forth between present and past. Gawd, I hope not. It’s exhausting for writer and readers.
The other issues:
Point of view: Except for a lapse into Ellen’s POV at the club for a few lines (yes, head-hopping in mid-scene), we are in Greta’s POV. Problem is, Greta not a very interesting narrator. The writer misses using what I call sensory logic when Greta is blindfolded. (For example, she says the car has moved onto I-95 but cannot see this). Illogically, we get almost no feelings or thoughts from Greta about what danger they are in.
Dialogue: It is all trivial, banal girl chit-chat about college, boys, parents. Dialogue must do one of two things: Say something unique or say something uniquely. It should advance the plot and/or enhance character.
Description: The writer is in love with the sound of her own voice. Every chance she gets, she tells us what things looks like (hello, there are five senses!). Overwrought writerly imagery that does not sound true to a teenager’s sensibility.
Choreography: Moving characters through time and space is easy. Keep it simple and clear. This writer spends way to much time driving around (the abductors and the girls). The chapter should begin in situ: “The club was hot and crowded by the time they got in past the bouncer.” Not, they drove across the MacArhtur Causeway, passing through Overtown and finally reached Eighth Street, where they parked in a lot next to Club Salsa).
So I am sure you guys see the problems. My question is, what do I do with this? I usually try to suggest to struggling writers some possible solutions, some ways to get back on the true path. I don’t know, from a “mere” 50 pages what the nut story is. I’m guessing it involves something dark about Greta’s mom’s past that has caused the abductors to target Greta and Ellen. Geez, I sure hope so because we need some meat.
I truly don’t what to tell this person.
Actually, I do know. She has to throw this out and start over.
I’ve written often here that WHERE you choose to open your story is one of the most important decisions you make. You are parachuting your reader into a strange world and if you don’t pick the right moment, they will crash into the trees, the chute won’t open, or they will drift off into the ether. Most of the time, writers get into a scene too early. We get cops who are awakened by phone calls and told to come to the crime scene instead of opening with the cop at the scene. We get characters who think, ponder, muse and wonder before they finally act — Denise had long thought about killing Mark, but he had been a pretty decent husband for 20 years now. She remembered the day he proposed…
This writer, I think, got into her chapter 1 too late. By opening with the girls already blindfolded and “senseless” we have been deprived of an even juicer action scene of the actual abduction. So maybe open with them at Club Salsa and Greta notices a shady older guy following them. The creepy man disappears but Greta is shaken and tells Ellen they have to leave. Then, maybe in the lot, maybe in a dicey neighborhood, they are abducted.
What then? Well, we know, right? You stay in the present and keep your plot momentum moving forward. So how do you then rebuild the “normal” lost world? By switching perhaps to Greta’s mom’s POV after she realizes Greta is gone. By brief slashes of backstory via Greta’s memory. By bringing in other characters who can fill in the gaps. Action, then explanation.
Sigh, again. Back to my dilemma. I read and re-read this submission, trying hard to find something positive to say. I ended up in the same place Josh Olsen did. From his essay:
So. I read the thing. And it hurt, man. It really hurt. I was dying to find something positive to say, and there was nothing. And the truth is, saying something positive about this thing would be the nastiest, meanest and most dishonest thing I could do. Because here’s the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer.
Hope is, truly, the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. And, as Dickinson goes on to say, “Sore must be the storm that could abash the little bird.” I am at a loss for kind words.
Bird killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?
p.s. I apologize for any typos today. Had cataract surgery Friday. Am fine but one-eyed until they get around to the other one. Argh.