About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

Slinging The Slang

“The problem with people, as they start to mature, they say, ‘Rap is a young man’s game,’ and they keep trying to make young songs. But you don’t know the slang – it changes every day, and you’re just visiting. You’re trying to be something you’re not, and the audience doesn’t buy into that.” — Jay-Z.

By PJ Parrish

So I’m up at 2 a.m. and it’s 57 channels and nothing on. It’s a choice between Million Dollar Mansions and The Tin Cup, starring Kevin Costner as a washed up golf pro who makes his way to the US Open to play against an insufferable git-in-cleats played by Don Johnson.

The movie is peppered with golf slang. Lines like: “Gimme the lumber.” And: “I want you to caddy for me. I’ll give you $100 for the loop.”

Thanks to my husband, I sort of watch golf. So I figured out that “lumber” was a wood, a club that you can hit far with.  “The loop” is slang for 18 holes. The scriptwriter was savvy with his use of slang, just enough to make me feel I was inside but not too much to trip me up. But, the rewriter in me wanted to ahem…improve things a little. I would have written: “I want you to be on the bag for me. I’ll give you $100 for the loop.”

Be on the bag means to caddy. Okay, okay, maybe that’s one stroke over the line, sweet Jesus, but I couldn’t resist. Slang is pretty seductive for writers, right?

Who among us hasn’t been tempted to slather in the slang to make our dialogue sound more authentic, more human, more…with it? I think mystery and thriller writers are especially vulnerable, because we deal with street thug, cops, lawyers and n’er-do-wells who all use their own argot. So this is my caution for all we crime dogs today: When the urge to use a lot of slang in your story hits you, go lie down in a dark room.

Okay, time out. Let’s test your lit-slang IQ. What books are these excerpts from (answers at end):

1. What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishy-gods! Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax! Ualu Ualu Ualu! Quaouauh! Where the Baddelaries partisans are still out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons catapelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head.

2. Flora began to curse Red and Nancy again. But she had pretty much played out that line already. She turned to me.

“What the hell did you bring them here for?” she demanded. “Leaving a mile-wide trail behind you! Why didn’t you let the lousy bum die where he got his dose?

“I brought him here for my hundred and fifty grand. Slip it to me and I’ll be on my way. You don’t owe me anything else. I don’t owe you anything. Give me my rhino instead of lip and I’ll pull my freight.”

3. Third time lucky.  It wis like Sick Boy telt us: you’ve got tae know what it’s like tae try tae come off it before ye can actually dae it.  You can only learn through failure, and what ye learn is the importance ay preparation.  He could be right.  Anywey, this time ah’ve prepared.

Slang in fiction is a two-headed beast. When it’s good, it lends your dialogue verisimilitude and gives your characters unique voice. But when it’s bad, it dates your narrative, frustrates the reader and, as Jay-Z says, makes you look like you’re just visiting.

Slang is not the same as jargon. Both are means of communication between special groups. Slang is the informal language of speech, writing or texting. Think of friends bonding. Jargon is the specialized, often technical, language that is used by people in a particular field. Think of lawyers.

It can underscore your setting. A novel set in the mean streets of 1930s Newport is going to have different slang than one set in the thickets of the rural South of current times.

From The Great Gatsby: “He saw me looking with admiration at his car. ‘It’s pretty, isn’t it, old sport?” Old sport is a term of endearment used among swells of Gatsby’s era.

From Shakespeare’s Henry IV, here’s Falstaff throwing down some major shade:

 ’Sblood, you starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish! O, for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck—

Raymond Chandler famously credited Dashiell Hammett with giving murder “back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse … He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”

In Hammett Red Harvest, the police “take this baby down the cellar and let the wrecking crew work on him.” (Interrogate a suspect). A female character is described as “a soiled dove” (13th-century English slang for a prostitute). And the Continental Op says he is “going blood-simple” from all the killing (which you’ll recognize as the title of the Coen Brothers’ 1984 movie.)

Some writers, especially those toiling in fantasy, often create entire languages filled with made-up slang. JK Rowling peppered the Harry Potter books with so much nonsensical words that she needed to publish a dictionary — Muggle, flobberworm, and my favorite Boggart (a shape-shifter that becomes the likeness of your worst fear)  I often wondered if Rowling weren’t channeling Lewis Carroll, who gave us such words as gallymoggers (crazy), mimsy (a feeling of misery and whimsy) and this gem: scut (an insult based on the actual Brit slang for buttucks.

Robert Heinlein uses made-up slang in Stranger in a Strange Land to great effect, weaving it in so gracefully that the reader never stumbles. He uses the Martian word grok, which means “to drink” but because there is no water on Mars, grok comes to mean something akin to holy communion, with characters grokking to communicate powerful emotions.

So, you ask, what’s a lesser writer to do? What if you’re still working on your first novel, or rewriting your sixth and you’re a little unsure of when to use slang and how much is too much? Well, as we always say here, there are no hard and fast rules. But let me lay down some guidelines that I’ve found helpful.

  • Use it sparingly
  • Get it right

To the first point, slang is like any exotic spice. A little goes a long way toward whatever stew you are creating. Know that slang tends to go stale very quickly, and does not travel well. As Toby tells Will in West Wing: “When you use pop-culture references, your speech has a shelf life of twelve minutes.” So it is with novels. You might have one of your young characters say something like: “Since the pandemic, I never have to go into the office. It’s so sick.” Sick, of course, means great. Always look for ways to gracefully explain slang that’s esoteric. Like:

“I want you to carry the bag for me.”

What, me caddy for you? In your dreams, man.”

To the second point, make sure your slang is accurate and appropriate. Don’t try to fake Aussie slang, for example. Run it by a friend who is fluent. Make sure the slang you put in a character’s mouth is accurate for his age, background, region, and education. A kid living in Michigan would never ask for a “soda.” It’s always “a pop.” A kid, in parts of the South, would ask for “a Coke” even if he wants Sprite.

Some sites to help you with slang:

Online Slang Dictionary. Updated almost daily. Very comprehensive and sometimes quite racy. http://onlineslangdictionary.com/

A Dictionary of Slang. If you want to say something in New Zealand-ese, this is for you. http://www.peevish.co.uk/slang/language-links.htm

Some novels are so thick with slang and invented words that they are near impenetrable. I remember trudging through Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange for a college lit course. It is written entirely in an invented future slang constructed by Burgess called Nadsat. Here’s the opening paragraph. I’ll wait while you wade:

‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.

Reading this now and remembering how much I worked to finish this book, I am thinking of a scene from Cheers. Sam, desperate to impress Diane, slogs through War and Peace in three days. At the end, Diane is, indeed impressed.

Diane: There’s only one thing more romantic than you reading War And Peace for me.
Sam: What?
Diane: You reading War And Peace to me.
Sam: Oh, yeah? Well, it just so happens that I have a copy right here. You sit down right here, and I’ll read to you. Here we go.
Diane: [takes the book] Let’s go see the movie.
Sam: [shouts] There’s a movie?

Re Clockwork Orange. Take my advice. Skip the book. See the movie.

_________________________

Quiz:

  1. Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.
  2. The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett
  3. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

 

First Page Critique: What Fresh
(And Fetid) Hell Is This?

By PJ Parrish

Our brave writer tells us we are in “mystery genre” with this submission. And yes, indeed, we are. For there are many mini-mysteries to unwind in this spare but evocative opening. Let’s read and then discuss.

A Wolf Near Woman Howling Creek

Andi Wolf escaped hell at eighteen and swore never to step foot in it again.

Yet twenty-five years later, here she stood, back in Texas, wishing she had on her Georgia Giant ranch boots, surrounded as she was by bison excreta. But no. The boots were packed in a box, sitting in a closet at her mom’s house. Which, she supposed, was her house now too.

She stood in the middle of a pastoral scene gone wrong. Bison dotted the land around her, bellies up and bloated, stiff legs poking the air. Bison were enormous creatures, weighing anywhere from 700 to 2000 pounds. But these looked smaller, likely calves and yearlings. When she and Isa, the investigator who hired her, first arrived on the scene, the first few dead bison she saw pinched her heart. When the count rose past a dozen, she inured herself against it to focus on her job.

Andi stationed herself by the heavy-duty inner perimeter fence near the corner at the western edge of an expansive property comprised of a few thousand acres, according to Investigator Bastos. The mid-afternoon sun shone without mercy, glaring off of everything it touched. At least she’d remembered her sunglasses. There were no clouds in hell. The heat baked the fresh manure around her, filling the air with an aromatic stench that made Andi’s eyes water. Behind her stretched the perimeter fence. The three strands of barbed wire on top of traditional cattle fencing made the five-foot-three fence the same height as Andi, entrapping her and the bison. The still-living ones, in any case. It joined with the high-tensile wire fence to her right, splitting the front pasture from the back, where she stood now. It stretched parallel to the road, as far as she could see.

A scratching sound caught her attention. She turned to see a turkey vulture sitting nearby on a post, distinguishable from its black cousin by its wrinkly redhead and two-tone underwing, now visible as it stretched out to peck at something.

“They creep me out.”

She spun around at the sound. Detective Bastos walked toward her, picking her way through the excrement minefield.

___________________________

When I first received this submission, I read it very quickly and you know, I wasn’t that impressed. But days later, I read it again. And then a couple more times, trying to read it both as editor and pure reader. (It is sometimes hard to keep those two entities separate, I confess). I concluded finally that I have some mixed feelings about this one. Not because I don’t like it. I do. Not because I think it has major issues. It doesn’t. It’s because I kept coming back to one big question.

I often talk here about finding the prime dramatic moment to enter your story. Too early and you get throat-clearing. (Example: Cop, usually hung over, gets phone call in middle of night to come to a crime scene and we get him slinging his bare feet onto the cold floor and padding off to look at his sad unshaven mug in the bathroom mirror. No…open at the crime scene).

But if you enter a scene too late, sometimes you miss a golden moment to engage the protagonist (and thus the reader) emotionally.

So my big question: Did this writer come into the opening scene too late?

It’s a heck of a dramatic scene — the protagonist is surveying a prairie-like landscape littered with dead bison. Very young bison. Which is even more appalling and mysterious, of course. And as I said, there are several other small mysteries unfolding here: Why, 25 years later, has Andi Wolf returned to her Texas home, which she tells us is “hell.”  Why, given this history, is she here? What happened to her mother? And of course, what killed the animals? So, kudos, writer, on hooking us with all this in such a small sample. I would definitely read on.

But I have to go back to my big question: Would this submission be even better if the writer had opened with Andi Wolf arriving at the scene. The writer tells us that the first sight of the dead bison “pinched at her heart.”  Why not show us and let it pinch at our hearts? I think by opening with the “escaping hell” idea, the writer drifts into backstory when, in fact, the present story — coming upon a pasture of dead animals — is so very visceral, immediate and yes, heart-pinching.

As much as I like this opening, I really wanted to see, hear, smell, and experience that first sight of the corpse-ridden landscape at the same moment Andi did. That hell, to me, would have been far more powerful than the metaphoric backstory hell.

And consider, dear writer, that “hell” can perhaps mean two things: The hellish deathscape Andi sees before her resonates with her own inner hell. The dead bison become a metaphor, perhaps even of her emotional journey over the course of your story.  There’s a reason you opened with the dead animals. Use it thematically if you can.

And that, folks, is my only issue with this submission. Very quickly, before I do a quick line-edit, let me point out some things the writer did well:

  1. Identified the protagonist gracefully. We get her name, gender and age quickly. .
  2. We know where we are. Somewhere in rural Texas.
  3. There is a pretty major disruption in the norm. Dead bodies everywhere.
  4. We know Andi has some issues in her past. Nicely hinted at but not defined yet and thus dragging us down in info-dump backstory.
  5. Some pretty darn good description.

Let’s do a quick edit, my comments in red:

Andi Wolf escaped hell at eighteen and swore never to step foot in it again. Again, not a bad opening line at all. Until you get down to the dead bodies, which is more compelling, in my opinion.

Yet twenty-five years later, here she stood, back in Texas, nice and clean way to slip in age and place wishing she had on her Georgia Giant ranch boots, I know this brand cuz my brother-in-law swore by them. They are heavy-duty lace-ups, favored by construction workers. To me, this implied she once had a different kind of job? surrounded as she was by bison excreta. Nit picking here but this strikes me a $50 word when excrement would have been fine. But no. The boots were packed in a box, sitting in a closet at her mom’s house. Which, she supposed, was her house now too. As I said, I like that this iota of backstory was slipped in. 

She stood in the middle of a pastoral scene gone wrong. This, to my ear and eye, is telling rather than showing. You don’t need to TELL us it has “gone wrong.” Let your powerful details SHOW us, and trust the reader to get it. Bison dotted the land around her, bellies up and bloated, stiff legs poking the air. Bison were enormous creatures, weighing anywhere from 700 to 2000 pounds. But these looked smaller, likely calves and yearlings. That got me, intriguing me and pinching at my heart. When she and Isa, the investigator who hired her, first arrived on the scene, the first few dead bison she saw pinched her heart. When the count rose past a dozen, she inured herself against it to focus on her job. This is where I think things could have been better. We are now in PAST TENSE.  By not showing us this powerful first impression ON CAMERA, as it happened, the writer might have missed a chance to really involve us. Try this as an exercise, dear writer: Start with Andi cresting a small rise or something and then, like some awful battlefield revealing itself, she sees the killing field. And don’t forget to bring ALL Andi’s senses into play. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? What sounds are the surviving bison making? (I Googled it and normal bison sound like something out of The Exorcist). And I have to wonder: You say some animals are still alive — are they reacting? Are cows hovering over their dead calves? Don’t just pinch at our hearts, wrench them.  

Andi stationed herself by the heavy-duty inner perimeter fence near the corner at the western edge of an expansive property comprised of a few thousand acres, according to Investigator BastosThis is a little clunky. Try: Andi stopped at the perimeter fence, three strands of barbed wire atop five feet of heavy wood posts. (“traditional cattle fencing” means nothing to those of us outside Texas)  The mid-afternoon sun shone without mercy, glaring off of everything it touched. We are in a pasture. What is there to glare off of? At least she’d remembered her sunglasses. Make this mean something. Maybe she takes them off, the better to absorb the terrible scene? Or she puts them on, almost to shield herself from it? There were no clouds in hell. The heat baked the fresh manure around her, filling the air with an aromatic stench that made Andi’s eyes water. Behind her stretched the perimeter fence. The three strands of barbed wire on top of traditional cattle fencing made the five-foot-three fence the same height as Andi, entrapping her and the bison. The still-living ones, in any case. It joined with the high-tensile wire fence to her right, splitting the front pasture from the back, where she stood now. It stretched parallel to the road, as far as she could see. I think we get too much time on the fencing. Describe it once above and move on. 

A scratching sound caught her attention. She turned to see made her turn. A turkey vulture sat atop sitting nearby on a post, distinguishable from its black cousin by its wrinkly red head and two-tone underwing, now visible as it stretched out to peck at something.

“They creep me out.” I like this bit of dialogue here to break things up and to intro Bastos. 

She spun around at the sound. Why spun in surprise? She was summoned here by Bastos and Andi knows she’s there. Detective Bastos walked toward her, picking her way through the excrement minefield.

So, in conclusion, I want to emphasize that I really liked this. It is well written and pretty darn polished. I was drawn by the first line because it works, in its own way, by making us wonder what was it that made Texas such a hell that Andi had to escape it. But — and for me, this is a major but — when I got to the dead bison, I was really engaged because I was experiencing something that was real and visceral. I just wish I had seen and felt it as Andi did, not as a memory. Present tense is always more powerful than past.

Keep going with Andi’s story, brave writer. And thanks so much for sharing with us.

 

First Page Critiques: A Look
Inside The Edgar Winners

By PJ Parrish

Just back from my duties as banquet chair for the Edgar awards. It’s the first time in three years that the event, sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, has been held live. Three years…

Seems like longer. The Edgars have been a virtual event and it was great seeing men in tuxes and women in heels again. Great seeing old friends. Even greater meeting new ones. I’ve been chairing this event (spearheaded by MWA executive director Margery Flax) for more than a decade now. And it feels like the torch is being passed to a new generation of crime writers.  Our theme this year was “Top of the World” (hat tip to Tom Petty for that inspiration). Because top of the world is how you feel when you’re an Edgar nominee. One of my favorite duties of the night is manning the nominee registration table. Man, I wish I could bottle the fizzy-feeling emanating from the writers as they collected their red-ribbon badges and drifted off in a daze to the cocktail reception. Great books this year, but alas, only one book in each category wins at evening’s end.

Just for fun, I’ve read the first pages or so of all the novel nominees. You can easily do the same — click here for complete list.  But I thought it would be maybe instructive to take a look at how the winners opened their stories. Ahem…I will not be red-penciling their First Pagers. But feel free to weight in with your comments.

Best Juvenile: Concealed

“Your name?” The barista asked, holding the paper cup in the air.

I hesitated. For a moment I couldn’t remember if my name was spelled with one n or two. Not that it mattered much, since by tomorrow I’d have to pick a new one.

“Joanna with two n’s,” I replied.

He nodded, scribbled something on the cup, and passed it down the line to a girl who began preparing the order.

My drink wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. A tall vanilla bean frappé with two pumps of cinnamon syrup, hold the whipped cream. Nothing too easy or too complicated. Something quickly forgotten.

Sort of like me.

Didn’t matter if my hair was dyed blond, red, or even its current shade of brown, I always played the part of some random homeschooled girl from nowhere in particular who usually kept to herself. I was a mix of people you might know, but could never really remember.

That had been the story for when I was called Ana, Beatriz, Carla, Diana, Emma, Faith, Gina, Holly, and Ivette. Joanna was no different. And tomorrow it would continue, except
this time with a name that began with the letter K.

Over the past few years it had all become a game for me. Picking a name while going through the alphabet gave me a sense of order and predictability in my highly unpredictable life. Dad had come up with the idea back when he was still the one choosing my names, but I’d decided to continue the pattern. The question was which K name to choose. It could last me either a couple of weeks, like Joanna, or almost a
year, like when I was Carla.

I never knew.

It all depended on when my parents said it was time to move on and start over.

______________

Me here: I love this concept: A kid whose parents are on the lam so she has to cope with not just the usual angst of pre-teen identity, but the reality of not knowing who she is at any given time. The voice is assured yet vulnerable and very believable. I bonded with this girl at the get-go. I also liked the mix of short and long paragraphs. I don’t read juvie, but I’d definitely read on here.

Best First Novel: Deer Season

Alma held the four-week-old pig against her left hip and pinned him to her side with an elbow. With her right hand she held his ear across his eye as Clyle positioned the syringe perpendicular to the flesh and injected the antibiotics into the piglet’s neck. The pig squealed and Alma’s grip wobbled as Clyle caught the pig by his two back legs, swooped him into the air, and streaked his back with a green Paintstik. On the ground the pig scuttered his hooves against the cement before gaining traction and taking off across the small pen to the rest of the litter.

This wasn’t how Alma wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon. This wasn’t how anyone wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon, but Hal had left Friday with some yahoos to go hunting the first weekend of deer season. She secured another pig across her knee as Clyle gave the shot, marked the piglet with the Paintstik, then moved her to the floor. There were two left unmarked, congregated by the far slatted wall. Clyle grabbed the plywood panel he used to divert the pigs, moving it right to left until one of the piglets was trapped, then reached down and picked him up by the back legs.

_____________

Me again. This is a very leisurely opening. The first chapter is devoted to Alma and her husband marking the piglets and it ends on a note of tension within the marriage. The novel has won raves, including a starred PW review, for its portrait of a small town both severed and knitted together by the tragedy of a missing girl. A little slow for my taste, but I would keep going.

Best Paperback Original: Bobby March Will Live Forever.

It’s Billy the desk sergeant that takes the call. A woman on the phone, breathless, scared, half-crying. She says, “I’d like to report a missing child.”

And suddenly, everything changes.

When news of a call like that comes in, everyone sits up at their desks, stops filling in their pools coupon, puts down their half-eaten rolls. The ones with kids open their wallets under their desks, look at the pictures of Colin or Anne or wee Jane and thank God that it’s not theirs that have gone. The young ones look very serious, try not to imagine pulling some weeping toddler from a cellar or frome under a bed, being congratulated by the boss, thanked by a tearful mother.

Those that are religious cross themselves or say a silent prayer to keep the kid safe. And those that have lived through a case like this before say hello to the familiar dread and fear in their stomach, the knowledge that there is no end to the bad things that men can do to children, that the missing child might be better off dead already.

And like a pebble dropped in water, the ripples start to spread throughout the city. No matter the lockdown, news of a missing child always gets out. Cops come home, tell their wives and girlfriends not to tell anyone but they do. A shilling drops in a phone box across the road from the station, a reporter at the Daily Record answers, and a beat cop earns a tenner for his trouble. Isn’t long before the boys selling the papers outside Central Station are shouting, “Final edition! Missing girl!”

And as night falls and the chatter dies down there’s still one person who doesn’t know what Glasgow is talking about. Alice Kelly. All she knows is she’s got a cloth bag over her head, that her hands are tied and she’s wet her pants. It doesn’t matter how hard she cries for her mum, her mum can’t hear her. Nobody can.

____________

Me again. I really like this opening. It’s omniscient but feels intimate. Nice trick, that. I was drawn in by the rhythm of the writing itself. Note how the writer repeats the triad construction with simple commas. This, this, and then that. This, this, and then that. From the first sentence, we know we have a missing child yet the rhythm induces an almost lulling affect, mimicking the routine of cops coping and doing their jobs. It’s tragic…and normal. How awful. After a double break, the story then moves into the protagonist’s point of view. Well done, I say.

Best Novel: Five Decembers

Joe McGrady was looking at a whiskey. It was so new the ice hadn’t begun to melt, even in this heat. A cacophony surrounded him. Sailors were ordering beers ten at a go, reaching past each other to light the girls’ cigarettes. Someone dropped a nickel in the Wurlitzer, and then there was Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra. The men compensated for the new noise. They raised their voices. They were shouting at the girls now, and they outnumbered them. The night was just getting started, and so far they weren’t drinking anything harder than beer. They wouldn’t get to fistfights for another few hours. By the time they did, it would be some other cop’s problem. So he picked up his drink, and sniffed it. Forty-five cents per liquid ounce. Worth every penny, even if a three-finger pour took more than an hour to earn.

Before he had a taste of it, the barman was back. Shaved head, swollen eyes. Straight razor scars on both his cheeks. A face that made you want to hurry up and drink. But McGrady set his glass down.

“Joe,” Tip said.

“Yeah.”

“Telephone—Captain Beamer, I guess. You can take it upstairs.”

He knew the way. So he grabbed the drink again, and knocked it back. The whole thing, one gulp. Smooth and smoky. He might as well have it. If Beamer was calling him now, then he was going to be pulling overtime. Which meant tomorrow—Thursday—was going to be a bust. Molly was going to be disappointed. On the other hand, he’d be drawing extra pay. So he could afford to make it up to her later. He put three half-dollars on the bar, wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve, and went upstairs.

______________

I’m back. The era is the Pacific theater of WWII and the golden-age-of-noir style reflects this. The book got raves pre-Edgar, starred PW review, New York Times Best Mystery and glowing blurbs from Lehane, King, Child. The chapter ends with McGrady’s boss saying he’s been working for five years, this is his first murder, don’t blow it. Given the writing, I’d give it more time to get to a full boil. From all I’ve read, there’s a big payoff. Side note: The book was rejected by 25 publishers before being picked up by Hard Case Crime.

Young Adult: The Firekeeper’s Daughter

I start my day before sunrise, throwing on running clothes and laying a pinch of semaa at the eastern base of a tree, where sunlight will touch the tobacco first. Prayers begin with offering semaa and sharing my Spirit name, clan, and where I am from. I always add an extra name to make sure Creator knows who I am. A name that connects me to my father—because I began as a secret, and then a scandal.

I give thanks to Creator and ask for zoongidewin, because I’ll need courage for what I have to do after my five-mile run. I’ve put it off for a week.

The sky lightens as I stretch in the driveway. My brother complains about my lengthy warm-up routine whenever he runs with me. I keep telling Levi that my longer, bigger, and therefore vastly superior muscles require more intensive preparation for peak performance. The real reason, which he would think is dorky, is that I recite the correct anatomical name for each muscle as I stretch. Not just the superficial muscles, but the deep ones too. I want an edge over the other college freshmen in my Human Anatomy class this fall.

By the time I finish my warm-up and anatomy review, the sun peeks through the trees. One ray of light shines on my semaa offering. Niishin! It is good.

My first mile is always hardest. Part of me still wants to be in bed with my cat, Herri, whose purrs are the opposite of an alarm clock. But if I power through, my breathing will find its rhythm, accompanied by the swish of my heavy ponytail. My legs and arms will operate on autopilot. That’s when my mind will wander into the zone, where I’m part of this world but also somewhere else, and the miles pass in a semi-alert haze.

My route takes me through campus. The prettiest view in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, is on the other side. I blow a kiss as I run past Lake State’s newest dorm, Fontaine Hall, named after my grandfather on my mother’s side. My grandmother Mary—I call her GrandMary—insisted I wear a dress to the dedication ceremony last summer. I was tempted to scowl in the photos but knew my defiance would hurt Mom more than it would tick off GrandMary.

I cut through the parking lot behind the student union toward the north end of campus. The bluff showcases a gorgeous panoramic view of the St. Marys River, the International Bridge into Canada, and the city of Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Nestled in the bend of the river east of town is my favorite place in the universe: Sugar Island.

The rising sun hides behind a low, dark cloud at the horizon beyond the island. I halt in place, awestruck. Shafts of light fan out from the cloud, as if Sugar Island is the source of the sun’s rays. A cool breeze ruffles my T-shirt, giving me goose bumps in mid-August.

“Ziisabaaka Minising.” I whisper in Anishinaabemowin the name for the island, which my father taught me when I was little. It sounds like a prayer. My father’s family, the Firekeeper side, is as much a part of Sugar Island as its spring-fed streams and sugar maple trees.

When the cloud moves on and the sun reclaims her rays, a gust of wind propels me forward. Back to my run and to the task ahead.

______________

Me once more. I let this one run long because it is yet another slow-build opening, yet I felt connected to the character and interested in the what’s-to-come. The writer is dropping in character backstory early, but notice that she is savvy enough to also tease us. The first graph, for example, feels slow but then we get that last line: “A name that connects me to my father—because I began as a secret, and then a scandal.” And the narrator hints several times that there is a “task” ahead of her. I don’t read much YA, but this feels fresh and engaging to me.

Okay, I’m done. If you are struggling with your openings, I’d encourage you to go to that list of nominees and read the samples online. So much variety there! I think our genre is in good hands.

 

Dot…Dot…Dash. The Messages
You Send With Your Punctuation

 “If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” — Cormac McCarthy.

By PJ Parrish

I guess when you win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, you can do whatever you want.  I read McCarthy’s The Road years ago. There are no quote marks to set off the dialogue. There are no commas or question marks. There are periods, but even they are sparse. McCarthy’s pages look as bleak and barren as the story’s apocalyptic landscape.

When I first started the book, the lack of punctuation annoyed me. It wasn’t that the narrative was unclear or that I was confused. It just felt pretentious, as if the author were saying he was above all things mundane. And if you believe his quote at the beginning of this post, you’d say he was just being a….well, you fill in the blank.

McCarthy calls quotes “Weird little marks” and once said:  “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” After a while, I didn’t care about the punctuation. The story sped along, the characters captured me by the throat and by the heart.

Then there’s the other side of the coin — guys like William Faulkner, who could have used some judicious punctuating. Check out this passage from The Sound and the Fury:

My God the cigar what would your mother say if she found a blister on her mantel just in time too look here Quentin we’re about to do something we’ll both regret I like you liked you as soon as I saw you I says he must be …

Faulkner’s advice to tackling it? “Read it four times.” Gee, thanks, Bill.

I read an interesting post about this subject recently. The author Adam J. Calhoun suggests that simple punctuation goes a long ways toward sign-posting a novelist’s style. He compared passages from two of his favorite novels — McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! taking out all punctuation marks. Guess which book is which?

 

Says Calhoun: “Yes, the contrast is stark. But the wild mix of symbols can be beautiful, too. Look at the array of dots and dashes above! This Morse code is both meaningless and yet so meaningful. We can look and say: brief sentence; description; shorter description; action; action; action.”

And we can easily tell, just by the choice of punctuation, who wrote what.

So what does this mean for us mere mortals? I think most of us, myself included, don’t think too much about the punctuation we use. We know the basics of periods, question marks and quotation marks. We get a little confused about commas, and when to use dashes or ellipses. And we have banished the poor semi-colon to the grammar dungeon. We put in the symbols quickly and race on, saving our tsuris for the big issues of plot, characterization and theme. But I’d like to suggest today that we give more thought to these fellows:

The symbols we chose to insert among our words can go a long way to establishing not just our unique styles but the kinds of emotions we want our readers to feel. Some of us, especially those working in neo-noir, favor a style a la Hemingway — short sentences with workmanlike punctuation. If you read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” you see a story rendered with only quote marks, question marks and periods. Oddly, the only comma is in the title. Maybe Hemingway was taking the advice of his friend Gertrude Stein who called the comma “a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.”

Some of us, especially those working in historicals, favor a lusher style and will sow commas to force the reader to pause and take in the scenery. Look at this passage:

He moved to his left, circling around the trampled area, stopping every couple of steps to examine what lay before him. He was almost diagonally opposite the point where he’d left the path when he saw it. Just in front of him and to the right, where was a dark patch on the startling white bark of a birch tree. Irresistibly drawn, he moved closer.

The blood had dried long since. But adhering to it, unmistakably, were a dozen strands of bright blonde hair. And on the ground next to the tree, a horn toggle with a scrap of material still attached. 

That’s from Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution. Notice the liberal use of commas. McDermid wants the reader to slow down and absorb, along with her detective, every awful detail of the death scene. When you want your reader to slow down, commas are your friends.

What about the dash and its cousin the ellipses? I use both often in my work. In my mind, a dash signals an abruption interruption in thought or speech. An ellipses, in contrast, is a trailing off of the same. Here’s Reed Farrel Coleman in Redemption Street:

It took many years for my mom not to imagine her only daughter burning up alive. Can you imagine the tortuous second-guessing my parents put themselves through? If they hadn’t let he go. If they had forced her to go to a better hotel. If…If…If…

I’m a big fan of the em dash. It is a useful little bugger. It can indicate an interruption:

“The commissioner phoned the home office. The home office phone the Circus — “

“And you phoned me,” Smiley said. 

Notice that John Le Carre did not feel the need to write “Smiley interrupted.” The dash did the work.

Le Carre also uses dashes in mid-narrative to inject parenthetical info. An example of this is the last part of the sentence: “I had steak last night for dinner (and it was really good!).” But no character thinks or speaks in ( ) so the dash is an effective substitute. Here’s Le Carre again:

The only link to Hamburg he might have pleaded — if he had afterward attempted the connection, which he did not — was in the Parnassian field of German baroque poetry.

Again, depending on your style, a parenthetical dash might be good. Or it can look fussy. And be aware it tends to slow down your narrative. There’s an Emily Dickinson poem called The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky that is stuffed with em dashes.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and you—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As sponges—Buckets—do—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

I confess I don’t understand the usage here. Poetry is a different animal altogether. I just threw it in here because it’s interesting.

Okay, we need a word about exclamation marks. I know, I know…seems a simple matter. But I’m surprised at how often I see it misused. Many writers throw them in thoughtlessly, as if trying to wring emotion from readers. In my mind, exclamation marks are like adverbs. If you need one, your dialogue is probably flaccid. Think of it as a potent spice — in the right place, it does wonders for your word stew. Trust me!

And what about the colon? Does it have a place in our genre? I’ve seen it used correctly, but it never feels authentic to me, given our love affair with intimate point of view these days. It feels outdated. And try as I might, I couldn’t find one example of its use in a novel after 1890. What about if you need to list things, as in this example, which I made up:

Jack Reacher was afraid of only three things: women wearing red stilettos, men in turbans, and snakes.  

Or this:

Jack Reacher was afraid of only three things — women wearing red stilettos, men in turbans, and snakes.

The second one feels right to me. I say if your colon is acting up, try a dash.

Which brings us, alas, to the dreaded semi-colon. We’ve thrashed this topic to death, and most of us now agree it has no place in modern fiction. (Please use the comment section to argue your case otherwise). I never use one. I don’t like seeing them in print. There, I’ve said it. So sue me. But I will end my post with one of my favorite openings of a novel:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

That’s the opening of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I just love every word of this paragraph. I don’t care that there are three semi-colons and enough commas to choke a ghost. As Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer explains:  “Jackson uses them, beautifully, to hold her sentences tightly together…Commas, semicolons, periods: This is how the prose breathes.”

So I guess the bottom line is to know thyself and thine style. Be aware of what punctuation marks can do to slow or speed up your story. Be attentive to the emotions these symbols can impart in readers. And that, friends, is how we end. Not with whimpering ellipses, not with a startling dash, and certainly not with a barking exclamation pointer. With a simple full-stop period.

 

A Gardener’s Guide To Writing. Or: Prune Without Mercy

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” — Margaret Atwood

By PJ Parrish

It’s spring here in Tallahassee. My novel is stalled. But my tomatoes are budding, the ferns are unfurling, and in a week or two, the agapanthus will burst into flaming blue.

It’s hard to concentrate on indoor plots when the outdoor plots call.

I took up gardening only in the last couple years, and now it sustains me in my writing life. I’m not alone in this obsession. Many famous writers were keen gardeners or were heavily inspired by plants and flowers. We writers are, by nature, observers of life. We eavesdrop on conversation, we scrutinize human actions. You can’t write unless you watch, very carefully. As writers you need tools, tenacity, patience, and a touch of faith. So it is with gardening.

Plants and flowers, like human beings, are understood only by moving among them and quietly, slowly, observing them. Every day, religiously, I go out and see how things are going in the garden. Are the herbs flourishing? Do the roses need pruning? Should I move the azaleas to the north side of the house so they bloom better? Every day, I open the laptop and review the landscape of the work in progress. Does this character need more sun? Should I prune this description more? Should I move this scene to a different location? And damn, how did all those weedy adverbs get in there?

If you turn your back for just one day, both your garden and novel go to hell.

It makes me feel good to know so many writers find solace in nature. Here’s Chekov writing to his friend in 1899: “The garden is going to be spectacular. I am planting it myself, with my own hands.”  Thomas Hardy found inspiration for his bucolic Far From the Madden Crowd while walking in his garden. Sir Walter Scott had five gardens, where he would walk every morning before beginning to write: “After breakfast I went out…the rich luxuriant green refreshing to the eye, soft to the tread, and perfume to the smell. Wandered about and looked at my plantations.”

Many famous writers were themselves avid gardeners. William Wordsworth was an early environmentalist. Gardens are prominent in the works of the Bronte sisters and Charlotte is said to have disapproved of “highly cultivated” gardens, preferring things a little on the wild side. Or as A.A. Milne said, “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”

Shaw’s Writers Hut

George Bernard Shaw built a “writer’s hut” in his garden. The hut rotates on a central pole axis and castors so that Shaw could always have sunshine and a change of view. His ashes are buried in the garden.

Virginia Wolfe’s first writing room was a converted shed in her garden and when she finally began to make money, she built a writing lodge in her orchard, where she wrote Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts’ Her garden lifted her from periods of deep depression and when she was too ill to work, she would have a chair positioned in her bedroom so she could see the garden. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “I sleep and dress in full view of the garden.”

Edith Wharton cultivated a lush garden at her Massachusetts home and retreated there to avoid the swells at Newport. She was a serious student of landscaping and wrote a book Italian Villas and Their Gardens. She said of her gardening: “I am amazed at the success of my efforts. Decidedly I am a better landscape gardener than novelist and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth…”

In her lifetime, Emily Dickinson, born into a family of horticulturalists, was better known as a gardener than a poet. She became a recluse and her world narrowed to her home and gardens. When her sister discovered Dickinson’s secret trove of 1,800 poems after her death, her love of gardening was obvious:  Over a third of her poems rely on images drawn from her garden and the woods where she walked with her dog Carlo, hunting for wildflowers.

I so get that one. I consider growing my own lettuce (three varieties!) every bit as an achievement as my books.

So what have I learned from being out among my plants every day?

You need good tools. When I first started gardening, I bought cheapo shears and a junky plastic rake. It didn’t take long to figure out that without the basics of garden craft, nothing was going to grow, and what attempts I did make were going to be twice as hard. Oh, and you have to keep your tools sharp. (ie. never stop learning, writers).

Prune without mercy. Yes, go ahead and plant with great heart and hope. Move through your first and second drafts with verve and confidence. But when the time comes, walk through what you’ve sowed and see what needs work. Every spring I whack my rose bushes down to ugly nubs. Weeks later, they come back straight and lush, every bloom perfect. You must be as ruthless with your scenes. Learn to recognize what parts of your book have turned leggy and unnecessary. Cut them out.

If you can’t bear to throw them away, store them in a separate place. I have a “hospital” section of my yard where I put the plants that didn’t quite fit. They live there until I can find a good place to put them. See that sad fellow at left? I spent a lot of money on him, planted him in the wrong spot and he almost died. He’s recovering in a pot until I can find out where he truly belongs. So it should be with scenes and chapters. Don’t keep material because you “spent” a lot of effort on it.

Weed every day. Let’s talk about your weed problem. You know, those flabby adjectives, the needless adverbs, the redundant dialogue tags, junky “filler” words. Filler words are the crabgrass of fiction. Look at this passage:

Ted felt felt the hot press of air against his neck and he knew there was nothing he could do about what had happened. He wondered why he had waited so long to pull the trigger. He knew it was his fault that the woman was dead. And he was worried now that her husband was going to come after him.

And this one, filler words weeded out:

The sun burned on the back of Ted’s neck. Or was it the hot press of guilt he felt? It was too late to change what had happened. The woman was dead. And now he was sure her husband was coming after him.   

I find it’s a good idea to go over your last day or two’s work and do some weeding before you move on to new stuff. It helps you get back in the groove and it keeps things under control. I love to weed. It makes me feel like I’m accomplishing a lot when all I’m really doing is cleaning up. Some days I devote only to weeding and that’s okay. As Margaret Atwood says, “At the end of the day’s [writing], you should smell like dirt.”

Leave room for serendipity and whimsy. I’m with Charlotte Bronte on this one. I don’t like my gardens too pat and tidy. I like surprises instead of ho-hum plants. I like paths that wind instead of linear ones. I like a touch of humor whenever possible. I have a section of my yard where I put garden tchotchkes. A solar watering can that lights up at night. Some small statues. A gaudy ceramic gecko. A globe that spews out water when you turn on the hose. No gnomes. But probably too many flamingos. Call me tacky. These things make me smile. If it works, don’t be afraid to let something a little odd, a little off-kilter, into your story. Light is an effective contrast amid darkness.

A few quick final thoughts:

Don’t try to grow things that aren’t really you. I am really good with orchids. But I can’t seem to keep a Christmas cactus or basil plants alive. My writer’s heart is dark. I can’t write humor and have stopped trying. Know who you are as a writer. Don’t follow trends.

Know when to give up. Not with writing or gardening itself. Because both are life-long loves. But if something isn’t working, admit defeat and move on. Sometimes, a plant just exercises its God-given right to up and die. So it is with bad ideas, misbegotten plots and moribund books. Plant new bulbs and start over.

Cultivate friends. I have twelve bird feeders in my garden. The wrens, cardinals, bluebirds and others that visit keep me company and give my garden efforts extra meaning. I just put out a hummingbird feeder, complete with a bright red begonia. (Hummers love red). No one’s showed up yet, but I love waiting. So it is for you as a writer. Seek out and maintain writer friendships, especially those who can help keep you on course, emotionally and craft-wise.  As a writer, you are so often alone and in the dark. These garden visitors bring you light and hope.

The last word goes to Victor Hugo, from Les Misérables:Sometimes he used a spade in his garden, and sometimes he read and wrote. He had but one name for these two kinds of labor; he called them gardening. ‘The Spirit is a garden,’ said he.”

First Page Critique: A Shooting
But Where Do We Go From Here?

By PJ Parrish

Our First-Pager starts off with a bang. Literally. I will leave it at that for now. Let’s take a read and then discuss.

Sweet Sixteen Redux

New Town Mall

I was trying on a polka-dotted push-up bra when the gunfire began. The rat-a-tats came in quick bursts. A chorus of screams followed. The sounds were distant but unmistakable. This was no kid with a cap gun. Someone had come to the mall to kill. And my father was out there.

“Dad…”

The word limped out of my mouth, a prayer. Dad had brought me shopping as a present for my sixteenth birthday. He sat outside the dressing room at The Gap and American Apparel, glancing at his cell and offering some variation of “Looks nice, Grace” when I came out, even when I modeled an orange jumper that made me look like a baby convict. We mutually agreed, however, that it would be best for all parties if I spent my Victoria’s Secret gift card (a present from Mom) without his assistance. The last thing he’d said to me was, “I’ll be in the food court.”

I threw on my shirt and crept out of the dressing room, panic rising in me like a tide.

The saleswoman who’d been helping me was huddled behind the counter, a cell phone pressed to her ear. “I don’t know how many shooters there are. Just hurry.” She ended the call and waved me over. “The police are on the way. We need to—”

More shots rang out. She let out an ear-piercing cry and crawled through an Angels Only door, beckoning me to follow. Every cell in my body screamed for me to go with her, to get as far away from the shooter as humanly possible. But Dad was in danger. Because of my stupid birthday. I couldn’t just leave him to fend for himself.

Outside the store, panicked shoppers stampeded away from the food court, toward the T.J. Maxx end of the mall. I watched them pass, looking for Dad’s blue Cub’s jersey. When it was clear he wasn’t coming, I shuffled over to a cell phone kiosk and crouched behind a cardboard winky face. From there, I could see what everyone was running from: a man, dressed in black, with a short-barreled machine gun in his hands and a SpongeBob mask covering his face. Lifeless bodies were splayed across the floor like mannequins. One of them wore a blue Cub’s jersey.

No…it can’t be.

_________________________

I often say here that the better the submission, the tougher my comments are. This is because if the writer is doing the craft things right, if the story is compelling, you want to root for them even harder and help them if you can. Such is the case here. But here’s the catch for me — I can’t find too much negative to say about this! I’m not being lazy here. You all know how much I like to drill down into our submissions. But this writer is doing a lot of things right.

So that is our lesson today, folks. We can learn from submissions that need work. But we can also learn from submissions that don’t. So…

What works here, for me, at least?

Immediate conflict and drama. The writer chose a good entry point moment to begin their story. Something is happening right from the get-go — a mall shooting. The writer could have started earlier, say with daughter and dad talking just outside the store about why they were there — it’s a birthday gift shopping spree. The writer could have been more in the narrator’s head, having her think about how much she is enjoying her day with dad. But no. The writer wisely got the action moving first and kept the backstory out of the way (for the most part; more on that in edits).

Good choreography. Moving your characters around in time and space seems like a mundane craft thing but many writers don’t do this well. Your story is unspooling in your head like a movie — you see it so clearly, right? But your job is getting the reader to see it as clearly. So you have to be careful about telling us where people are, what precisely is happening. It isn’t fancy writing but it’s vital. This writer aces this. (with a few small hiccups).

Point of View. First person is, to my mind, harder than third because everything in this story must be filtered through one person’s senses and experience level. Our narrator is very young, so it’s doubly hard, but I think the writer has a good grip on this so far. I liked the young girl Grace immediately. She feels real to me. Notice the writer told us Grace is trying on a polka-dot push-up bra? The writer could have chosen jeans or a blouse. But the fact it’s a slightly naughty bra is what we call a telling detail — it tells us something specific about Grace.  And did you notice how gracefully the writer inserts the girl’s name and age? This isn’t easy in first-person.

Now, there are a couple things that need tweaking, here and there. So let’s go to a line edit. My comments are in red.

Sweet Sixteen Redux Not crazy about this title. It feels too soft and ambiguous for this story especially given the action opening. “Redux” is one of those weird words that everyone thinks they know but actually get wrong. It means brought-back or revived. Not sure what the writer is going for here. Maybe that her “sweet 16” was far from sweet, in fact, deadly, so she’ll get another chance to relive it? What do you all think?

New Town Mall You don’t need this tag, writer. You cover it, as you should, in the narration.

I was trying on a polka-dotted push-up bra when the gunfire began. This is a grabber first line but a nit to pick here. The way this is phrased feels almost like she’s thinking about the episode in retrospect. Most laymen, when they hear gunfire, do not immediately identify it as such. Victims of mass shootings describe it as car back-fire, fire-crackers, etc. In the first few seconds, their reactions are purely visceral. Not sure she would say “gunfire.” The rat-a-tats came in quick bursts. A chorus of screams followed. The sounds were distant but unmistakable. This was no kid with a cap gun.  See comment above. She evidently thought she was hearing a cap gun. Someone had come to the mall to kill. And my father was out there. Good ending to the graph!

“Dad…”

The word limped out of my mouth, a prayer. I like this line…Dad had brought me shopping as a present for my sixteenth birthday. He sat outside the dressing room at The Gap and American Apparel, glancing at his cell and offering some variation of “Looks nice, Grace” when I came out, even when I modeled an orange jumper that made me look like a baby convict. We mutually agreed, however, that it would be best for all parties if I spent my Victoria’s Secret gift card (a present from Mom) without his assistance. The last thing he’d said to me was, “I’ll be in the food court.” Okay, this needs some work. It’s too long (backstory) and thus puts a brake on the great action of the scene. I get that the writer wants to establish WHY Grace and dad are there because it creates sympathy and empathy. But just shorten it, maybe to:

I yanked open the dressing room curtain. Dad had been sitting there, thumbing his cell phone, while I tried on clothes. “Looks nice, Grace,” he had said when I emerged to model an orange jumpsuit. But now he was gone. Then  I remembered he had muttered something about meeting me at the food court.

I threw on my shirt and crept out of the dressing room, panic rising in me like a tide. Cliche…you can do better, writer. What does it FEEL like specifically to this girl? Bring up next line. The saleswoman who’d been helping me was huddled behind the counter, a cell phone pressed to her ear.

Need new graph when new person speaks. “I don’t know how many shooters there are. Just hurry.” She ended the call and waved me over. “The police are on the way. We need to—”

More shots rang out. She let out an ear-piercing cry and crawled through an Angels Only door, I have no idea what this is beckoning me to follow. Every cell in my body screamed for me to go with her, to get as far away from the shooter as humanly possible. But Dad was in danger. Possibly. Maybe it would be smarter to have her think that she has to FIND him. Because of my stupid birthday. I couldn’t just leave him to fend for himself. Why do I suggest cutting this last line? Because the line before it is much more powerful. Also, Dad being in danger isn’t really caused by her birthday. Unless you add something here that she was the one who insisted he bring her? Can you make it more personal to their relationship. She feels guilty — so give her a good reason!

Outside the store, choreography hiccup here. You have to move her outside first. Did she decide to go out the front entrance of the Gap? panicked shoppers stampeded away from the food court, toward the T.J. Maxx Another choregraphy hiccup. Is the Gap right next to the food court? The stampede she sees implies it is. Be specific. end of the mall. I watched them pass, looking I scanned the crowd but didn’t see Dad’s blue Cub’s jersey. When it was clear he wasn’t coming, I shuffled Not the right word, I don’t think, as shuffle is a slow casual verb. Scuttled? But that’s not a 16-year-old’s word. Scrambled? over to a cell phone kiosk and crouched behind a cardboard winky face. I’m probably dense as a log but I didn’t know what this was. A smiley face, or one of those yellow winking icon? It didn’t compute with cell phone kiosk for me. I stumbled for a moment so maybe it needs fixing? Not sure…

Then I saw himFrom there, I could see what everyone was running from: a man, dressed in black, black what? trench coat? with a short-barreled machine gun in his hands machine gun is an old fashioned term. Need help here from my gun experts — what would you call this, keeping in mind this is a 16 year old? and a SpongeBob mask covering his face. if she can’t see his face she can’t tell us for sure it’s a man. Could be a boy. Could be a woman. Lifeless Ditto, she can’t KNOW they are dead bodies were splayed across the floor like mannequins. I like that you’re trying for a metaphor here in keeping with your setting but not sure it works. mannequins don’t normal “splay” — they stand upright. I’d lose the metaphor. Also, be careful that you don’t get too “writerly” here and slip into metaphoric thinking in such a visceral moment.

Also, like your verb choice of “shuffle” the word “splay” might not be accurate. It’s a nice word but splay is very specific in meaning — all limbs thrust out from the torso at oblique angles. Some of those shot would crumble inward; some would be merely prone. Also question whether Grace, at 16, would think in such a wording. Keep every emotion, reaction, word choice in her realm of experience — not yours.

One of them wore a blue Cub’s jersey. Nice. I might put it on a line of its own. But can you sharpen the image and make her reaction more visceral. Suggestion:

I spotted a body in dark blue shirt. There was a red target-shaped logo on the back. It was a Cub’s jersey. 

You told us Dad was wearing such a jersey so it’s more impactful to just stay with the visual of the jersey and let US connect the dots. And note the use of “target” in logo.

No…it can’t be. Good that you’re in her head. But unattributed thoughts need to be in itals.

So, as I said, I really like this opening. The solid writing bodes well. I want to know if Dad is alive, of course. And I want to know, of course, how this life-shaking event affects our protagonist. That is, I would guess, the dramatic trajectory for Grace. I am very curious what genre we are in — young adult or regular no-age-specific? I am curious, too, where the plot will go from here and what its main thrust will be. What kind of journey are you taking us on, dear writer? Mystery? Police procedural? Thriller? Where does Grace go from here? When you have such a dramatic opening, that is a big big question.

But I am curious. And that is a very good thing. So good job, writer.  

 

 

Do You Really Need Talent?

It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous. –Peter Benchley

By PJ Parrish

I wanted to be a ballet dancer. This was way back in grade school, when I was as round as a beachball and rather lost. Watching a ballet pierced me with the deepest ache of envy. So I bugged my dad until he let me enroll in Miss Trudy’s School of Dance and Baton Twirling.

Did I mention I was chubby? Did I mention I had no talent? Neither stopped me. I had a ball trying and to this day, I can remember every step of my first recital dance. I eventually lost the weight but never the desire to dance. So around age 30, I took up lessons again. I did pretty good. Until I got to pointe. You know, the part where you shoe-horn your feet into those pretty pink satin shoes with a hard box at end and then you’re supposed to just rise up on your toes?

It hurts like hell.

So I gave up. Did I mention I had no talent?

Flash forward. I became a dance critic. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, well…

I got to cover the birth of the Miami City Ballet, and became friends with the artistic director Edward Villella. One day, he asked me if I wanted to be in The Nutcracker. In the first act party scene where the parents do a little minuet-type of dance. I accepted. So I danced, in front of 5,400 people. I didn’t screw up. It was one of the most memorable nights of my life. To quote one of my favorite writers, Emily Dickinson:

I cannot dance upon my Toes—
No Man instructed me—
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,

This is my round-about way of getting to my topic — talent vs technique. See, I had the desire, but I didn’t have the body type, the turn-out of the hip joints. I knew the steps, sure, but I didn’t have that vital muscle memory that comes to all dancers after years and years of learning their craft. I didn’t have the music inside me that separates the mere dancer from the artist.

So it is, I believe, with writers.

Years ago, my friend Reed Farrel Coleman wrote an article in Crime Spree Magazine titled “The Unspoken Word.” It was about his experience as an author-panelist at a writers conference. Reed was upset because he thought the conference emphasized technique to the exclusion of talent.

Reed wrote: “To listen how successful writing was presented [at the SleuthFest conference], one might be led to believe that it was like building a model of a car or a jet plane. It was as if hopeful writers were being told that if everyone had the parts, the decals, the glue, the proper lighting, etc. to build this beautiful model and then all they needed was the instruction manual. Nonsense! Craft can get you pretty damned far, but you have to have talent, too. Writing is no more like building a model than throwing a slider or composing a song.”

At the time, I was the president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and our board decided, after much debate, to purposely steer SleuthFest toward the writers “workshop” conference. We did it because attendees told us they didn’t want any more authors getting up there just flapping their lips telling tired war stories. They wanted authors to pull back the green curtain and show how it is done. They wanted to hear authors talk about how they created memorable characters, how they maintained suspense, how they built a structure, why they chose a particular sub-genre. That’s what we gave them.

But Reed did raise an interesting question in his article — can novel writing really be taught? I think it can and should be. I think unpublished folks can go to workshops, read books, and learn the basics about plotting, character development, the arc of suspense, the constructs of good dialog.

Does that mean they have the stuff they need to be a successful writer? No, it only means they might — if they work hard — have a chance of mastering their craft. And I don’t care how talented you are, you aren’t going anywhere without craft.

Let’s go to the easy metaphor here — sports. A person may be born with a natural ability for basketball. They may be tall, able to shoot hoops with accuracy and be a fast runner. But that’s not enough. There was this guy who played for the Chicago Bulls…I forget his name. He didn’t make his high school’s varsity basketball team until his junior year, and when he got to University of North Carolina, he told the coach he wanted to be the best ever. Yeah, he had talent. But he worked like a dog. He became the best.

When I teach writing workshops, I preface everything with this one statement: I can teach you the elements of craft but I can’t teach you talent. Anyone can learn to hit a baseball. But only a few are going to have Ted Williams’ eye. The rest are going to be the John Oleruds of the world — competent major league role players. And what’s wrong with that if you can at least get to The Bigs, have a healthy backlist and maybe take the kids to Disney World on your royalties?

So where to I come down on the talent question? I agree with Reed. All good writers have some talent. But I also believe you can’t have talent without craft and desire. Peter Benchley’s self-effacing quote to the contrary, his book was a little cheesy, but it was one of the greatest serial killer thrillers ever imagined.

As the great acting coach Stella Adler said, “Technique makes talent possible.”

 

No Guts, No Glory

By PJ Parrish

The other day, a friend asked if he could buy me a drink. Now, our relationship is confined pretty much to the pickleball court but I knew he was struggling with his first novel. I knew he wanted some advice.

I didn’t mind. If I didn’t like helping folks, I wouldn’t be here, right? Besides, this guy had been working really hard, and he had the right attitude. So, I met him at my favorite watering hole here in Tallahassee — a tiki bar called Waterworks — and let him buy me a vodka gimlet.

“I don’t think I have what it takes,” Tom said with a heavy sigh.

“Did you read the books I recommended?”

He nodded.

“What about The Kill Zone?”

“I’m a regular lurker now.”

“What about your critique group?”

“They say they like it, but…”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I had warned him how hard it was to get published via the traditional route these days. He had done enough research into self-published to know how potholed that road was as well.

“I just don’t think I can do it,” he said.

We ordered another round.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to tell Tom at that point. What was he missing? Was it craft? He was working so hard on that part, and as I read his various rewrites, I knew he was making real progress. He was a quick study, and he was far ahead of many newbie writers I had seen at conferences and workshops.

Was it perseverance? I didn’t think so. He took criticism eagerly and his energy never seemed to flag. I was a little jealous, in fact, of the fact he wrote every day without fail.

Was it talent? Well, yes, I believe you need at least a dollop. Which is why some people, know matter how long or hard they try, will never get published. Sorry, but some of this is just in the genes. And as raw as Tom’s work was, it showed flashes of genuine talent. Tom had a great idea for his book, and was adept at plotting and was really getting a grip on his characters.

I was well into the second vodka gimlet when it finally hit me. The one thing that Tom was missing was courage.

Which is not the same as perseverance. Some folks, like Tom, have great ideas but lack the courage to face the blank computer screen. Some folks start books but lack the guts to finish. And many — oh, so many! — lack the courage to then send their manuscript out into the world.

I try not to talk about rejection here too much. It can get depressing because no matter where you are on the publishing food chain, you face rejection. Looking for an agent brings you rejection. Then you get an agent and your book is rejected by editors. Then someone buys your book and the marketing department rejects it by deciding not to give it co-op support or a decent first printing. Then, Kirkus kicks you in the teeth. Then you sit at a card table at a bookstore surrounded by stacks of your book and no one stops. Or you work your ass off self-publishing your book, dropping it into the Amazon ocean where it barely makes a ripple. And then, you have to pick yourself up and try again. And again. And again.

See what I mean? It never stops. Which is why you have to have courage. The courage, like so many of our wonderful contributors, to submit your precious 450 words to TKZ’s First Page Critique and take your punches. The courage to submit your book to agents and pile up rejection letters. The courage, if you are lucky to land a contract, to hand your book over to an editor and take criticism. The courage to soldier on in the face of astronomical odds, the courage to get back up when you’ve been knocked down by a bad review. The courage to be true to your style when you see the same old names on the bestseller lists. The courage to keep writing because it is what you do.

My ridiculously talented sister Kelly loves to write song parodies. Here is one she wrote on Courage. Sing it to the tune of “If I Only Had a Heart.” (From the Wizard of Oz). Maybe it can inspire you to keep going.

I could be a mystery writer,
If I only was a fighter
To get what I deserve.
I could write in any fashion
If I only had the passion
If I only had the nerve.

I could write a mystery story
It’ll be so good and gory
And better than Lehane.
It would be dark and scary
And very literary
If I only had a brain.

I’d write romance kind and gentle
And awful sentimental
With lots of sexy parts.
I could capture the devotion
And all the right emotion
If I only had a heart.

To write my book…to send it out and get a look
That is my dream…to see my work…on the big screen.

See, I have this great idea
About a mob-run pizzeria
It has lots of blood and gore.
But I’d sit at home all winter
And send it through my printer
And stick it in the drawer.

Yeah, it’s good, but hear me, missy,
I was born to be a sissy,
Without the vim and verve.
But I could show my talent easy
If I wasn’t quite so queasy
And I only had the nerve.

Back at the Waterworks tiki bar, I tried to find a way to tell my friend Tom this. You have heart, I told him. You have brains. You just have to find your courage. I hope he heard me.

 

First Page Critique:
What’s In That Bag, Curtis?

By PJ Parrish

I have to admit I was ready and eager to enjoy this First Page submission. Must be the ink still running in my veins (I retired from the newspaper biz a couple decades ago after serving as reporter, editor, dance critic and making a sad detour in management). I’m also a sucker for the era.  That said, let’s give a read and see what develops.

Death of A Charity Donor

It was one helluva way to start the year 1941. Wounded during the London Blitz, I’d sailed to New York, railed to Seattle, and ferried to the Island where my gracious Aunt Maude took me in. Barely a week had passed when my presence was requested at the editorial offices of the Island Register. Figured they wanted to fill column space. German Blitz Victim Reveals All. A story I didn’t relish to share. Given my self-induced seclusion to avoid pity, my now grumbling Aunt strongly suggested I take a hike.

The Register’s office sat on a slight hill with full view of Hawk’s Harbor and one of the Island’s three ferry terminals. Great location for spying on the comings and goings of Islanders, visitors, and other items of local interest. Readily available news fodder. Provided the fog or rain isn’t masking the view.

Three desks in V-formation crammed the small room. I called out. No answer. I limped over to a lone and empty office.

From behind me, a woman said, “What are you doing in A.P.’s office?”

I hobbled around to face a petite brunette, ink covering her apron, a stack of papers in her hand. “Curtis Hunter. Have an 8:30 appointment.”

“He’s on the phone.”

“I’ll come back.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” She placed the papers on a desk.

“Our man has arrived.” Fontaine was not Hollywood’s version of a grizzled newspaper editor. A good couple of inches taller than me and broad-chested, his prominent chin possessed a brown goatee capped by a matching thin mustache above his lips. He carried a small bag. “Maude said you’ve done camera work.”

“Archaeological digs, but …”

“Therefore, a keen eye for detail.” He shoved the bag into my hands. “Someone’s died and the Sheriff needs this. Need you to take pictures for him.”

A chill tremored my heart hearing Sheriff. I glanced up to a wall clock.

“Another appointment?” he asked. “Girl? Job interview? Draft registration?”

I pointed to the black patch covering my left eye. “Though my aim’s improved, doubt they’ll take me.”

A grin appeared. “Humor. Nice touch. I’d enjoy it more if you’d help this morning. Gladys must get the paper out. And Congressman Magnuson’s holding for me on the phone. Winters is waiting for you in the car.”

Fontaine wasn’t to be dismissed.

“I’m not a reporter.”

“Make sure each picture tells a story.”

__________________________________

There’s much I like in this submission. The writer is in command of basic craft such as dialogue construction, scene setting, with a nice eye for slipping in telling details. Note this line: I pointed to the black patch covering my left eye. “Though my aim’s improved, doubt they’ll take me.” A lesser writer would have TOLD us the protag is wounded with a limp and missing an eye. Instead, the writer has the man limping/hobbling and conveys the missing eye via dialogue. This is how you SHOW not TELL. Also nicely begins to flesh out the character himself.

We also are quickly given needed points of time and place.

It was a helluva way to start 1941…

This gets my interest because it tells us something (good or bad, we don’t know) is bothering the narrator. But then what happens?

Wounded during the London Blitz, I’d sailed to New York, railed to Seattle, and ferried to the Island where my gracious Aunt Maude took me in. Barely a week had passed when my presence was requested at the editorial offices of the Island Register. Figured they wanted to fill column space. German Blitz Victim Reveals All. A story I didn’t relish to share. Given my self-induced seclusion to avoid pity, my now grumbling Aunt strongly suggested I take a hike.

Backstory.

I really like the idea behind this scene — a wounded blitz survivor has made his way to Seattle (I think it’s Seattle…) and a stranger wants to talk to him. Great! But before the scene can find its feet and get moving forward, we get a long graph TELLING us what has brought this man to this place. It’s well-written, yes. But wouldn’t it be more effective to let this info emerge organically from the action? And Aunt Maude is clutter here, taking up valuable space in the crucial first paragraph.

Consider this question, dear writer: Where is your source of intrigue in this scene? I think it’s in the fact that this guy has been summoned to a newspaper office. I would begin with him in the office (nicely deserted!) wondering what the hell am I doing here?

You can then handle basic info via more thoughts: My Aunt Maude had taken the call from a man named Fontaine, but the guy didn’t say what he wanted with me. I figured they wanted to do a human interest piece on me — what it was like to survive the London Blitz. It wasn’t something I wanted to talk about…etc etc.

Something you have to deal with: If he assumes he’s to be a story subject and doesn’t want to talk about his experience, why did he show up?

I’d then have the woman come in and keep that exchange. I like Gladys — not many women in the new biz in 1941. But when Fontaine shows up, you have to be more explicit in what exactly is going on. Why does Fontaine think Curtis is a news photographer? Why is he giving him this bag and assignment? This is confusing. You need to slow down a tad here and fill in some gaps.

By the way, we all know titles aren’t writ in stone, but I this one doesn’t grab me at all. Your writing and your assured voice tells me you have a better one inside you somewhere. As you progress through your book, be on the lookout for a title that resonates something deeper about your protag and his situation.

Let’s do a quick line edit.

It was one helluva way to start the year 1941. Wounded during the London Blitz, I’d sailed to New York, railed to Seattle, and ferried to the Island where my gracious Aunt Maude took me in. Opening paragraphs are precious real estate and Aunt Maude is taking up space. It’s not important, this early in your story, to tell us where he lives. Barely a week had passed when my presence was requested at the editorial offices of the Island Register. Figured they wanted to fill column space. German Blitz Victim I assume you’re talking about the London Blitz? On first read, I thought Curtis was a German who had been a victim. Reveals All. A story I didn’t relish to share. Given my self-induced seclusion to avoid pity, my now grumbling Aunt strongly suggested I take a hike. Prime example of you the writer intruding to TELL us something. Find a way to SHOW this ie convey it through character action, thoughts, dialogue.

The Register’s office sat on a slight hill with full view of Hawk’s Harbor and one of the Island’s three ferry terminals. Great location for spying on the comings and goings of Islanders, visitors, and other items of local interest. Readily available news fodder. Provided the fog or rain isn’t masking the view. Throat-clearing. Suggest you open inside the office.

Three desks in V-formation crammed the small room. I called out. No answer. I limped good over to a lone and the lone empty office. Did he enter the office? Be specific in your character’s movements. Also, you could slow down just a tad here for a quick bit of description. A news office is notoriously dirty and messy. Or is this one oddly neat? And here is where you might give us a view of Hawk’s Harbor from the window and tells us geographically where we are. But make the description mean something. BTW, is it foggy or clear today? 

From behind me, a woman said, “What are you doing in A.P.’s confusing. Who is this? For a sec, I thought he was in the Associated Press wire room office?”

I hobbled around to face a petite brunette, ink covering her apron, a stack of papers newspapers? composing room proofs? You’re very good with details, so don’t stint in her hand. “Curtis Hunter. Very smooth way of inserting the name of a narrator! Take note those of you who do first person. I Have an 8:30 appointment.”

“He’s Non sequitor since Curtis didn’t mention a name on the phone.”

“I’ll come back.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” She placed the papers on a desk. Make the gesture mean something or lose it.

“Our man has arrived.” confusing structure here. Had to read this three times before I realized this is Fontaine speaking. Put it one separate line and give Curtis a reaction:

“Our man has arrived!”

I turned at the sound of the basso voice. The man standing in the door was DESCRIPTION. However, how does Curtis know this is Fontaine, a man he has never met? Again, be careful of your logic and choreography. 

Fontaine was not Hollywood’s version of a grizzled newspaper editor. A good couple of inches taller than me and broad-chested, his prominent chin possessed he had a brown goatee capped by a matching thin mustache above his lips. He was carrying a small bag. Paper? Burlap? Dripping blood? If it is important enough for Curtis to notice it, there must be a reason why. 

Need a new graph here. “Maude said you’ve done camera work,” Fontaine said. Here is where you could insert Maude. Something like: My aunt had been kind enough to take me in when I got to Seattle, but she had never mentioned how she knew Joe Fontaine. He didn’t seem like someone my WHATEVER aunt would know. (That’s bad but you get the point) Also, the fact that his aunt told this guy something personal about him would make Curtis wonder — again — what the heck is going on here? Build more intrigue if you can.

“Archaeological digs, but …” Excellent way to insert backstory! Perfect example of what I am talking about when I say convey it by SHOWING not telling!

“Therefore, a keen eye for detail.” He shoved the bag into my hands. “Someone’s died and the Sheriff needs this. Need you to take pictures for him.”  Confusing construction here. Is Curtis being hired to take photos for the sheriff? Now, on small-town newspapers it’s not uncommon for a news photog to moonlight as a photograph for the authorities, so I can buy this. But if this is what’s happening, you have to be clearer.  

Also, the bag is really a cool intriguing detail but it’s lost in the mix. Suggest you pull it out thusly.

“Someone’s dead and the sheriff needs you to take pictures for him.”

Sheriff? A chill went through my heart. I glanced at the wall clock.

“Another appointment?” Fontaine asked. “Girl? Job interview? Draft registration?”

I pointed to the black patch covering my left eye. “Doubt they’ll take me.”

He grinned. “Humor. Nice touch. I’d enjoy it more if you’d help this morning. Gladys must get the paper out. And Congressman Magnuson’s holding for me on the phone. Winters is waiting for you in the car.”

“Mr. Fontaine, I’m not a newspaper man.” 

“Make sure each picture tells a story.” But I thought he was being hired to take pix for the sheriff? If so, this line, while clever, doesn’t make sense.

Fontaine brushed past me and started to his desk. He turned and thrust the bag out to me. “Oh, and the sheriff is waiting for this.”

I took the bag. What does it feel like? What is he thinking here? 

By moving the mysterious bag to the end, you give your scene another element of intrigue and give your scene a needed kicker. And don’t forget to do something with Gladys…she’s still there, you know!

So, dear writer, to sum up. I really like this set up and I like this guy Curtis because he’s a man with past (who doesn’t like the word “sheriff” which tells me his past may not be all roses and lollipops — nicely done!). You’ve got a good eye for detail and you’ve found some nifty ways of inserting backstory. Find a way to hone that opening paragraph and move those bits of backstory elsewhere and I think you’re on your way. It’s a fine start. Thanks for submitting and thanks for taking me back to my old musty haunts.

 

Would I Lie To You? A Case Against The Unreliable Narrator

By PJ Parrish

I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott’s movies. Yeah, even that smaltzy one A Good Year, with Russell Crowe as a heartless London banker who chucks it all to live in a moldy French villa with Marion Cotillard. So I was a happy clam when I unwrapped a Christmas gift from the husband — the director’s cut of Blade Runner. 

The husband had never seen the seminal 1982 cyber-noir masterpiece so I was thrilled to introduce him to it. But then…

Toward the end of the movie, there are two scenes that Scott had reinserted. In one Harrison Ford’s character Deckard has a dream about a unicorn. Later, when he’s escaping with his lady-love replicant Rachael, he finds an origami of a unicorn, left by his ex police partner Gaff.  This signals that Gaff knows about Deckard’s dream because it’s not really Deckard’s. The dream is fake, implanted to give a “back story” needed to stabilize the replicant’s artificial personality.

So Deckard is really an android? I had always seen him as human. But with this latest viewing, now I have to question everything he says and does.

This debate, I’ve discovered, has been raging for more than three decades. I haven’t read the Philip Dick story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” but it’s said Dick wrote Deckard as a human in order to explore the increasing similarity of humans and replicants. Harrison Ford has long maintained that Deckard is human. (One reason is that replicants are super-strong and Deckard gets the snot kicked out of him throughout the movie). But Ridley Scott is on that record saying Deckard’s a droid.

Does it matter? In terms of my enjoyment of the movie, no. But in terms of Deckard’s reliability as a narrator, it certainly does. The story takes on completely different tones depending on whether you see him as man or machine — and whether or not Deckard himself does.

Which is a long way to go to introduce what I wanted to talk about — unreliable narrators.

We’ve had many great posts here on the subject. But I’m sort of obsessed with this today, given that now I am dreaming of electric sheep. Plus I just cracked open Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I loved the movie so thought I should finally read the book with it’s uber-liar Briony Tallis.

Reading a well-conceived unreliable narrator is a treat. Writing one can be a nightmare. It’s a hard technique to pull off, and frankly, it’s become a bit stale in crime fiction and thrillers since Gone Girl.  So if you’re thinking of trying this at home, give me a chance to try and talk you out of it.

What exactly is an unreliable narrator? It’s not a matter of just fibbing. Simply put, this is a character whose account of the story is supposed to be authoritative for whatever reason, is suspect.

There are as many reasons for this as there are demons in the human heart and head. Unreliable narrators can be just pathological liars like Verbel Kent in The Usual Suspects and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Or they might be biased in some way that affects their thinking and ability to give the reader a clear picture. Some unreliable archetypes:

Mentally ill: Chuck Palahnick’s narrator in Fight Club has debilitating insomnia that makes him sound irrational. Amnesia is a trope on verge of cliche. I used it myself in my thriller She’s Not There and you find in the cult movie Memento. Vonnegut warns us about Bill Pilgrim’s unreliability in Slaughterhouse Five’s great opening line: “All of this happened, more or less.” And in A Beautiful Mind, we don’t find out until the movie is well along that John Nash is schizophrenic and that his version of reality cannot be trusted.

Children: By virtue of their limited experience and gullibility, kids can’t be trusted narrators. I loved the 9-year-old boy in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close who is searching for his dad post 9/11. But I didn’t buy the narration of the boy trapped with his mother in Emma Donoghue’s celebrated Room. In the latter, the boy tells us, “When I was a kid I thought like a kid, but now I’m five and I know everything.” Right…

The Naif. The narrator here has a limited world view, naive in nature, as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or in Winston’s Groom’s innocent in Forrest Gump. I’d even put Huck Finn in this category.

Dead People or Ghosts: Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones is the best example here, although I wasn’t crazy about the book. A little sentimental for my taste. Amy Tan has a great ghost character in Saving Fish From Drowning. This trope is popular in movies — Kevin Spacey’s first person narrative in American Beauty, for example. And of course, poor Bruce Willis is in deep denial over his protoplasmic presence in The Sixth Sense. This is not a device for beginners, I’d say. Unless you’re solidly in paranormal land.

Okay, so you still are determined to try to do this in your book? I haven’t scared you off or convinced you to go with an easier method? Sigh. All righty then. Let’s ask some tough questions:

Can you write well in the first person? In a way, all first-person POVs are unreliable in the sense that all the info the reader gets is filtered only through one consciousness. Most unreliable narrator novels are in the first person. So unless you can sustain a normal first person POV, taking the next leap to a true unreliable narrator will be above your pay grade.

Are you going for a gimmick? Be honest. If you’re writing from a kid’s POV or using amnesia or a mental illness, you have to ask yourself if you’re merely looking for a crutch to prop up a weak plot. Or are you looking for easy way to get noticed?

How much stamina do you have? I’ve written one first-person POV book and it was exhausting because I had to find so many other methods of providing depth. It will be even harder with an unreliable narrative because you, the writer, have to constantly assess how much — or how  little — information you are dribbling out to the reader. Also and this is very important: You must be in total control of a character who is not in control of himself. If you’re a pantser who believes that characters just lead the writer around by the nose, you’ll be lost with an unreliable guide. Consider, too, that it is not easy for a rational person (you, the writer) to “become” an irrational person. This is why so many serial killers feel wooden.

Can you act someone else’s age? If your narrator is too young or immature, it’s hard to entrust them with the full weight of an entire story. Teens are easier to pull off, but children can be wearying. Why? Because everything you write — words, syntax, description — must be filtered through a child’s mind and eye. This is why I couldn’t finish Room. I just got tired of listening to a 6 year old.

And the last and most important thing to ask yourself:

Confess or conceal? You must decide whether to reveal that the character is unreliable up front or make it a twist deep in your story. In one of my fave books, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, we are told that everything Odd Thomas says should taken with a grain of salt:

Understand, I am not a murderer. I have done nothing evil that I am concealing from you. My unreliability as a narrator has to do largely with the tense of certain verbs.

Don’t worry about it. You’ll know the truth soon enough.

The unreliable narrator is one of the trickiest literary devices to get right. Get it wrong, and your plot falls apart and the reader gets bored or frustrated. It can feel manipulative, confusing, and often pretentious. When it’s done right, though, it can be powerful.

Believe me, I know. Would I lie to you?

p.s. No matter what Ridley Scott says, I still think Deckard was human.