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

Dear Diary: I’m Dead.
Will Anyone Care?

By PJ Parrish

I’ve been having a tough time these days trying to raise the dead.

My work in progress is progressing in fits and starts and the other day I realized part of the problem:  I am not seeing dead people.

Here’s the case in a nutshell: My hero Louis Kincaid now works for an elite cold case squad attached to the Michigan State Police. He has discovered his mercurial boss, Captain Mark Steele, has been obsessed by an unidentified young woman who was brutally murdered ten years ago.  Louis decided to  look into the case at first just to find out what makes his boss tick.  But of course, the cold case — someone hit the woman on the head with a rock and left her to freeze to death in winter in the Michigan sand dunes — comes to obsess Louis as well.

I’ve been struggling to find the best entry point into the story. So for inspiration, I went back and re-read one of the passages from Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing. She talks about how insistent the voices of the dead can be in the solving of a fictional crime and how writers must listen very carefully when the dead begin to talk:

“All writers learn from the dead…because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth. So if you are going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back to the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.”

Get that? The dead control the stories.

We talk here at TKZ often about how to make characters jump off the page, how to make the protagonist compelling, how to make the villain original. But how to you make the victims memorable? How do you make a dead person come alive?

I can hear your question – why bother? They’re dead and gone and they are only a catalyst for telling a story about the protagonist. But I disagree. The hero has to care about the victim or his job is meaningless. Might as well make him a burger flipper in a hairnet. The case has to work on him as he works the case. So if you, the writer, don’t care about the victim, how can you expect the hero to? Or worse, how can you expect the reader to care? You have to create sympathy for the bedeviled.

In our third book, Thicker Than Water, our hero Louis Kincaid is trying to solve the rape and murder of Kitty Jagger. She has been dead for 20 years but Louis talks to her boss, her best friend, the detective who worked her case, anyone who remembers her. He goes to her home and carefully examines everything in her room. What slowly emerges is a Rashamon portrait of Kitty that sends the case in a new direction even as it builds sympathy for the dead girl.

But I can’t do that with this new book because the victim remains unidentified almost to the end. She has no name and thus no past to reconstruct through friends, family or official record. So she has to speak for herself.

And the only way to do it is by using — ack! ack! — the hoary literary device of The Journal.

I fought the idea for a long time. Diaries, journals and letters in fiction can be big clichés. Because they jerk the reader out of the linear narrative, they can jarring. And because they are a brake on the forward motion of the plot, they can be annoying. The reader sees the type change to italics, or sees the tagline: Judith’s diary, April 1, 1943, and they think, “Oh for corn’s sake, just go back to the present!”

I mentioned in my last post here that I was reading an Edgar finalist book, Ragged Lake by Ron Corbett. It’s a juicy first novel about a laconic cop named Frank Yakabusti working the gruesome murder of a man, wife and daughter in a remote cabin in the Canadian wilderness. The cop, in search of suspects, has to find out something about the dead couple’s past but no one seems to know much about them in this Godforsaken place where the collapse of the saw mill industry has left ghost towns and ghost people who’ve been lost and forgotten.

Yak goes to talk to an old Cree woman who is the closest thing this place has to a town elder. The woman tells Yak a young woman came to her three days ago, alone and scared and said someone “had come back for her.” She asked the Cree woman to keep a book for her. It turns out to be a journal. So, of course, the chapter ends with, “Yakabuski turned the journal to the window for better light and began to read.

We then get several chapters of Lucy Whiteduck’s journal that tell us how this lovely lonely girl fell into a black abyss, and how she struggled to get out by sitting in the back of AA meetings and working at McDonald’s – all the while fearing the major creep that she ran away from would find her again.

The first line of the first diary entry is: “I have begun to think I should hide this journal.”

Corbett toggles between these journal entries and Yak working the case. Yak is learning about the victim and who was chasing her, and we are learning to mourn her.

I’ve decided to use this same device in my work in progress but with a slight twist. My opening chapter is written from my victim’s point of view on the last night of her life. She is alive, but she knows what is coming. Here is my opening:

These are my last words. Words are important. That’s why I have left so many for you. Words that I have written to you in the last ten years, so many words. I didn’t even know if you were alive or dead. But still, I had to get them out, all these words, all these things I never was able to say to you in real life.

I’m not writing these words. They are alive only in my head. Alive for as long as I am alive. And I know now that I will soon be dead.

She dies soon after this. But somewhere in the plot, Louis will find the journal and it will lead him to new suspects and a couple of red herrings. This journal will help buck up the murky middle, creating new obstacles, false starts, solid clues and costly detours. The journal will also, I hope, make the reader care about the victim.

But I have to be really careful in trying to pull this off. Because when it’s done badly, it’s deadly.

There are plenty of novels that use journals or diaries. Dracula begins with Jonathan Harker’s journal, goes to Dr. Seward’s diary and to Mina Harker’s journal and Lucy Westenra’s diary. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie writes letters to God. Daniel Keyes became famous on the basis of one diary novella Flowers For Algernon. And then of course, there’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. The Diary of Adrian Mole et al.  But I couldn’t think of any novels wherein the diary writer is dead.

Unless you count the head-fake Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn uses diary entries from Amy to make her “come alive” after we assume she has been abducted and murdered. Chapter 1 is written from her husband Nick’s point of view and he lays out the break domestic landscape we are about to enter. Chapter 2 is titled AMY ELLIOT January 8, 2005. Diary Entry.  In it, Amy recounts in her florid style how she met and fell in love with Nick. The book toggles between Nick in present time and Amy’s diary until the time gap catches up and we then find out Amy is alive and we then get her POV in present time.

Does it work? Well, Gone Girl was a massive hit book. But I have to admit I didn’t like reading Amy’s diary. But I think this was because I found her voice so annoying, like nails-on the blackboard annoying. In contrast, I am fascinated by Lucy Whiteduck in Corbett’s book. Her diary entries are poignant, and make me feel her loss. She’s dead but comes alive on the page.

For my opening of my WIP, I was partially inspired by Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. It isn’t written in diary form — the dead girl speaks directly to the reader. It opens thusly:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like this didn’t happen.

The entire book is narrated by Susie in first person, as she recalls her horrible rape and murder, comments about how life on earth is going without her, and watches her murder case progress. I remember thinking, when I read it years ago, that its opening was dazzling and daring. But as compelling as Susie’s voice was, the book felt claustrophobic to me. That might just go to taste, however. I tend to like multiple points of view.

So, how about you guys? Do diaries and journals in novels work for you? Any advice as I go down this road? I’ve never tried this kind of structure before, but it feels like the right way to tell this young woman’s story. Maybe I do hear dead people after all.  I’ll let you know.

 

5+

Let’s Make a Deal! The Prize?
A Big Stone in Your Shoe

By PJ Parrish

I’d give anything for a nice sharp stone in my shoe right now.

I’m trying to start over with my work in (non)progress. A while back, I threw out the first five chapters. I knew in my gut it was bad, but it took me three months and many sleepless nights to finally admit it.  You know that door metaphor I use here a lot? I like to say that finding the right door through which to enter your story is maybe the most important decision a writer has to make.  Well, I had entered my door — it was a very pretty writerly door — but it turned out to be a dead-end.

Which brings us to our First Page Critique today. I will let you read and then we’ll talk.

Title: Joe Blatz

Joe Blatz put his Bic pen up to his mouth and began to chew on the cap, lightly this time, because he didn’t want to ruin another one. He was thinking about what he should write on his report about his last case. He was trying to stick to the facts and not color his words too much with his attitude toward the slimy perp he had just cornered, cuffed, and stuffed into a patrol car not three hours before. These country crooks really pissed him off, and on some days he had a shorter fuse than others.

He was sitting in his basement office in his log home in the country, about 5 miles from Cannonsville, Tennessee. His basement was paneled with dark wood and had carpet on the floor. The basement was divided into two sections, one toward the back of the house where his office was, and one in the front that was more of an entertainment area that contained a leather couch, big-screen TV, a wet bar, and a full-size refrigerator. He didn’t use the entertainment area that much, preferring to relax either upstairs or on the front porch in one of his rocking chairs.

Joe pushed himself away from his desk and leaned back in his wooden desk chair, an antique he had picked up at a country estate yard sale several years before. It was made of solid oak and was scarred up enough to give it ‘character,’ as Joe put it. He liked scuffed up, half worn out things that other people seemed to shy away from. When someone said something was worn out and needed to be thrown away, he thought it was just getting broken in. He was a man of simple tastes, beer and bourbon, and simple viewpoints.

Joe turned his chair back to the desk and pulled it in and went back to writing. He was almost finished. Then he would fax his report to his client and the local police in Cannonsville, who were interested in it, too. Cannonsville’s police department was shortstaffed and had come to rely on Joe’s reports whenever he wrote them and it involved their jurisdiction. It helped them put together evidence and sometimes help them convince the local district Attorney to prosecute a case. Joe didn’t mind helping out the local police, especially since that’s where he got his dog from.

_________________

I’m back. (By the way, before I forget, that quote about the stone in the shoe is not from Monte Hall. It’s from Chuck Wendig. I just put Monte in there to get your attention.)

About Joe Blatz…

He might be an interesting guy. He might have an interesting job (though we aren’t told what he does, except push perps into cars when the local cops are too busy). He likes bourbon, has a cool old desk and a dog. But what Joe is doing here is not very interesting at all. Nothing is happening. All we’re getting is memory and thoughts. Note the sentence constructions:

“He was thinking about what he should write…”

“He was trying to stick to the facts…”

“He was sitting in his basement office…”

“He was almost finished…”

Now, there is nothing wrong with the writing here, on the surface. Gets the job done. But it is passive, and the situation itself is static. As we always say here, it is hard in a mere 400 words to see where a story is going, but when it starts in a neutral gear like this, it is hard to get excited about the journey ahead. Often, I suggest to writers that they might have entered their scene too early. Here’s an example of this that I made up:

The phone jarred Joe from his sleep and he grabbed the receiver. “Yeah?” he stammered, his voice raspy from last night’s Camels and Christian Brothers.

“We got another one. Young, pretty. Just floated up on Juno Beach.”

“Did she have the pink ribbon around her neck?”

“Yup. Just like all the others.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Joe hung up and swung his feet to the cold floor. He didn’t like the bad feeling that was gathering in his gut.

This is where the same scene begins, in my humble opinion:

The body, nude except for the ribbon around the neck, moved back and forth with the incoming tide. It was like the water was trying to gently rock the girl to sleep. Or back to life. 

Joe stood three feet away, as close as the yellow tape would allow, staring hard at the ribbon. Pink…just like the others, all six of the other girls he had seen dead in the water during the past four months had been the same. 

He turned away. Except for this one. This one he recognized.  

Do we need the phone call? A case could be made for it. (See below). But I think you have a better chance of your story feeling fresh if you enter your scene at a prime moment of disturbance. Show us something happening live. Give us some emotion. Don’t waste the precious opening moments of your book clearing your throat with unimportant action. Get into a scene as late as possible.

However…

The problem with Joe Blatz is that I think the writer perhaps got into the scene too late. Three hours too late, to be exact. What is the most interesting thing mentioned? That Joe busted two creeps in his free-lance cop role. I’d much rather read about that then Joe writing his report and thinking about his old desk.

I started reading an 2018 Edgar nominee this week called Ragged Lake by Ron Corbett. He opens with a two-page omniscient description of a remote cabin in the forest built by an odd family of squatters. A forestry worker discovers the family murdered:

The boy never went inside the cabin. Peered through a window and then took off for Ragged Lake, making good time on his snowshoes, then telling the bartender at the Mattamy something bad had happened by the headwaters of Springfield. Something that shouldn’t have happened, because no cabin should have been out there on O’Hearn timber rights on O’Hearn land. Something evil-bad had happened.

They needed to phone someone.

That’s the end of chapter 1. Chapter 2 opens with a continuation of the close omniscient point of view:

The call was logged in at the  and Cork’s Town detachment of the regional police at 6:17 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. An elderly dispatcher took the call, asked a few questions, then reached for an incident report form and repeated most the questions. After that, the dispatcher hit a key on his computer and a list of names and phone numbers appeared on his screen. He dialed the third on the list.

Note the natural bridge between chapters with “the call.” The next graph is the protag, Frank Yakabuski answering the call and the plot is off and running. The writing is atmospheric and spare, so I don’t mind the lack of a personal point of view and we get to the real case — a true disturbance — quickly, by page 4. The writer could have segued straight into Frank at the cabin, like I outlined in my scene above, but I think this slower move into the case works okay. Especially since it segues smoothly into Frank’s POV and all info is related almost exclusively through crisp dialogue. And we are introduced to Frank’s father, who is wheelchair bound after a freak shotgun accident, who I suspect is going to serve as Frank’s confidant, in the vein of James Garner’s dad Rocky in “The Rockford Files.”

I bring this book up just to point out that there are no hard rules — so, yes, you can ease into a scene and no, you don’t always have to use intimate point of view. But you still have to find a good door into your story. Whether the door swings open fast or creaks slowly ajar just wide enough for the reader to slip in, that’s what we call style.

Compare the measured opening of Corbett’s Ragged Lake with the opening of James Scott Bell’s latest Your Son is Alive:

Your son is alive.

A scrawl in red crayon. Messy block lettering across a piece of 8×10 white bond that had been tri-folded and placed in a blank business envelope.

It had been slipped under Dylan Reeve’s door in the middle of the night.

Dylan, holding the note, stumbled to a chair, sat heavily, his bathrobe bunched up under him. He didn’t know how long he sat there. All he knew was he hadn’t moved, except to wipe his eyes.

Finally, he got up, went to the kitchen where he phone was plugged in next to the coffee maker. He called Erin.

Boom…we’re dropped right into the central conflict of the story. James could have opened at the point when the boy disappeared ten years prior. He could have even opened with — ack ack — a prologue showing the boy getting abducted then jumped ahead to show the Reeves falling apart and getting divorced. But James picked door number 3, no backstory, no preludes. Just a nice big stone in the reader’s shoe.

The door chosen here to enter Joe’s world I don’t think is the best one. I’d bet there is a better one, maybe even later in the book that relates to the real case. I suspect the two perps mentioned have nothing to do with the actual plot. I suspect they are what I call a “false case” injected into the beginning to introduce the protag.

You have to be wary of “false case” openings. I recently beta-read a manuscript for a good friend who has published many thrillers. His chapter 1 features a fascinating protag quickly solving a case, then waiting for his superior to call him about the next one.  It’s well-written and introduces his protag really well.  But I questioned the wisdom of opening with a “false case” instead of going right to the real one, which begins in chapter 3.  I told him that his false start could be justified because 1. It is short and juicy and 2. Its exotic locale would be a nice contrast to the rural American setting for the real case. But I still am not sure he wouldn’t be better off just letting his hero take off on the true path. Law and Order does this “false case” opening sometimes. But they always manage to link it to the real case eventually.  That’s a big difference.

As I read Joe Blatz, I kept thinking of Alice in Wonderland, the part where Alice falls down the rabbit hole into the hall of doors. She’s overwhelmed trying to figure out which one to enter and in the end discovers a door behind a curtain that looks promising. But the door is too small. I think that is this writer’s problem here. The door to Joe Blatz’s world is so small, we’re getting no vision as to what’s on the other side.

Also, the passive construct has the additional problem of being all TELL and no SHOW. Rather than playing out the action “on camera” (Joe cuffing and stuffing the perps), we get his memory of it. Rather than showing us how Joe feels about these low-lifes via his actions on the scene and his live thoughts or better yet, dialogue, we have to rely on the writer telling us,  “these country crooks really pissed him off, and on some days he had a shorter fuse than others.”  Wouldn’t you rather see Joe’s fuse go off? I would. I want to follow a pro-active hero, not a Bic-munching muser.

One more thing. I hope the title is only a working one. This isn’t a title, it’s a label. It’s okay to use a character’s name in the title, but you have to make it mean something. It wasn’t Gatsby. It was, ironically, The Great Gatsby. He is a criminal whose real name is James Gatz, and the life he has created for himself is an illusion. T. Jefferson Parker didn’t call his Edgar-winning thriller about cop-cum-bodyguard Joe. He called it Silent Joe because Joe’s adoptive father taught him: “Mouth shut, eyes open. You might actually learn something.” The “silent” also has a poignant second meaning for Joe personally.

Yeah, I know…Emma, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Carrie, and Lolita. But remember that Nabokov didn’t call her Lola, and for good reason. Here’s his great opening paragraph:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Now that’s a heck of a “door” — to Dolores and the havoc she wreaks on Humbert.

Try to pick the right door. You want your reward to be an engaged reader, not a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax.

4+

Want to Make Your Scenes Come Alive?
Here’s a Cop’s-Eye View

By PJ Parrish

It’s a weird — but illuminating — exercise to go back and read your early works. My sister Kelly and I have been doing this lately as we prep our backlist for re-issue with new covers and better editing (Click here to read James’s salient and funny post on typos from Sunday.)

Sometimes, when you read your early stuff, you get this hard little nub in your gut and you think, “Good grief, what was I thinking?”  Kelly and I sort of feel this way about our first published Louis Kincaid thriller Dark of the Moon. It’s a solid freshman effort, but could have been better. But our second book Dead of Winter was where we began to digest the lessons of craft and find our stylistic stride.

In Dead of Winter, we began to recognize the power of description and mood. We knew the setting — the deep dark of the northern Michigan winter — was critical as a backdrop for the plot of a sniper picking off the cops in a small town. When I was editing the other day, I got to the scene where Louis and his partner Ollie are called out on New Year’s Eve to check out a trash can fire some kids set in the woods. But of course, it’s a trap set by the killer.  Kelly wrote this chapter, and to this day, I think it contains some of the best descriptive writing she has ever done.  She managed to capture not just the dark, cold loneliness of the setting but the visceral terror Louis feels in it.

In an stroke of synchronicity, that same day she also happened to send me a link to a blog post by our friend Lee Lofland.  Lee is a cop who wrote the Writers Digest bestselling book Police Procedure and Investigation. He’s a Macavity Award nominee for best non-fiction mystery, an Edgar Award judge, and is a nationally acclaimed expert on police procedure and crime-scene investigation, working as a writer’s consultant on TV and film. He runs a terrific conference for writers who want a total immersion in the grit of cop work. (Kelly’s going this year for the first time. Click here for more info about The Writer’s Police Academy.) Lee’s motto for writers is “Just Say No to Cordite.” (If you don’t get that, you really need to go read Lee’s posts and a few of John Gilstraps’)

But Lee’s is also a damn good writer in his own right. I’m a regular at his blog The Graveyard Shift. Recently, he had a post that was so compelling I asked him if I could print it for you here. It is about cops, but it is a master class in the power of using your senses, and finding the telling details, to make any scene or character come to life.

Take it away, Lee:

A Cop’s Nighttime Melody: The Sounds of the Graveyard Shift

Many writers have never, not once, set foot inside a police car, nor have they climbed out of bed at 11 p.m. to swap pajamas for a police uniform, Kevlar vest, gun belt, sidearm, and spit-shined shoes. And they’ve not headed out into the night to spend the next eight to twelve hours dealing with the city’s “worst of the worst,” and worse.

Most people have not left home with their family saying, “Be careful, see you when you get home,” and know they’re saying it because they worry the next time they see their loved one will be at their funeral service. “Killed in the line of duty” is what the bloggers and reporters will say.

Sure, you all know what goes on during a police officer’s shift—fights, domestic calls, shootings, stabbings, drug dealers, rapists, and killers of all shapes and sizes.

But what those of you who’ve never “been there, done that” cannot honestly and accurately know are the sounds heard when someone take a shot at you. No, not the actual gunshot. It’s the other noises that help bring super-cool details to your stories.

To learn about those sounds, let’s pretend we’re the officer who’s just been the target of a bad guy’s gunfire. We’re chasing the suspect through alleys and paths that wind through dark wooded areas, all while knowing the guy has a gun and he’s definitely not afraid to use it.

You can’t see your hand in front of your face, so you stop and listen. And then it happens…

That eerie calm.

It causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand tall and straight. Goose bumps come to attention on your arms. A lone pea-sized bead of sweat worms its way down your spine, easing through the space between your pants and the bare skin of your waistline. It feels oddly cool against your fear-warmed flesh.

10-4, I’LL TAKE THIS ONE …

The call came in as “Shots Fired. Suspect is armed with a handgun and caller advises he is still at the residence and is threatening to kill responding officers.”

I was working the county alone, so I asked the dispatcher to request backup from a nearby city and from the state police. The trooper in our county was also working alone. Our roles differed, though. He was out on the interstate writing traffic tickets while I responded to the usual plethora of calls. Either way, we were alone when we approached whatever situation was before us, be it stopping a stolen car with dark tinted windows or heading toward a house where I knew a man was waiting to kill me.

The sound of a police radio is far different when it’s heard late at night as opposed to the same radio traffic during daylight hours. Its an unexplained phenomenon. It could be that dark skies and night air create different acoustics. Or that working the graveyard shift forces dispatchers to work really hard to battle “the thing” that comes out at night to squeeze their emotions into submission. They typically lose the fight which results in a manner of speech that’s without feeling, inflection, and dynamics.

Nighttime radio traffic echoes and travels far. It’s weird and out of place among the stars and creamy moonlight. Dispatchers drone on like robots … “Robbery at …” “Wife says husband hit her …” “Lost child …” “Possible drug overdose at …” “Loud music at …” “Peeping Tom at …” “Customer refuses to pay at …” Shoplifter at …” “Dead body in river …” Dead body in park …” “Shots fired …” “Shots fired …” “Man stabbed at …” Shots fired …”

Back to the man who wanted to kill me.

I acknowledged the call with a “10-4, I’m en route.” Then I hooked the radio mic back into the metal “U-shaped” clip on the dashboard. Next, I pushed one of the many red toggle switches mounted into the center console.

With the push of the button, a faint click occurred simultaneously with the eruption of pulsating blue light. I stepped on the gas and heard the engine come to life. Since I was miles out in the country there was no need for the siren. Not yet.

I pushed the pedal toward the floor until I was cruising along at 70 mph. Believe me, that was pretty fast considering the curvy, hilly road that was before me.

There are no streetlights in the country. It’s super dark. Blue light reflects from trees, shrubbery, houses, mailboxes, passing cars, and telephone poles. It also reflects from the white lines painted on the pavement.

Meanwhile, the radio traffic continues with updates for me and with traffic from city officers and the trooper out on the interstate … “Use caution. Driver of the vehicle is wanted for a homicide in …”

My car radio played in the background. The Oak Ridge Boys went on and on about Bobbie Sue and Elvira while I attempted to straighten the curves by hitting my marks—drive low in the curves, on both sides of the road. Never at the apex. Unless a car is coming in the opposite direction or you cannot see far enough ahead to safely do so.

The blue strobes mounted on top of the car make a clicking sound with the start of each flash. The wig-wag headlamps did the same. The roadway is very uneven with a few cracks and potholes scattered about. They cause the patrol car to dip and roll. The extra pair of handcuffs I and many other cops keep handy by hanging them from the spotlight handle that protrudes from the post between the windshield and driver’s door, sway back and forth and bang together causing a constant click, click, click noise. The sounds are out of sync.

I switched off my lights a ways before reaching the scene—didn’t want to shooter to know I was there—and stopped my car on the shoulder, a bit down the road from the driveway. I called the dispatcher on the phone to let her know I’d arrived. The use of the phone was in case the bad guy was listening to a scanner. I turned down the volume on my police radio. Way down. Remember, the sound travels far. I wished backup didn’t have to do the same (travel far).

I opened my car door slowly to avoid making any noise. The interior light was not operational—disconnected in police cars to prevent illuminating the officer and/or blinding them to goings-on outside the vehicle.

As I slid from the seat my leather gun belt creaked and squeaked and groaned, as leather does when rubbed against other leather or similar material. To me, the sound was as loud as Fourth of July fireworks. My car keys (in my pants pocket) jingled slightly with each step. So I used a hand to hold them against my leg. The other hand was on my pistol.

I walked up to the house to peek into a window before knocking on the door. I wanted to see if I could, well, see anything. But, as I closed in on the side the house a large mixed breed dog stepped into view, showing its teeth and upper gums. The animal with matted-hair and a crooked tail growled one of those slow, easy rumbles that comes from somewhere deep inside. I held out a hand for it to sniff. It backed into the shadows.

A quick peek inside revealed a family of five. A woman with two black eyes and three crying children. Two girls, not quite teenagers, but close, probably, and a wiggling and squirming baby. A man stood near a tattered recliner and tall floor lamp. He held a pump shotgun in his right hand. At the moment, the barrel was aimed toward the floor. He yelled a few obscenities and started to pace. Then he looked straight at me, or at least it seemed like he looked at me.

My heart pounded against the inside of my chest. It bumped so hard I could hear the sound it made with each beat.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

From somewhere deep in the shadows.

Grrrr ……..Growl …..

From inside the home.

A baby crying.

A woman pleads and sobs.

A young girl. “Please, Daddy. No more!”

Sirens wail in the distance, beyond the black tree line that connects sky with earth. Sounds travel further at night, right?

The air-conditioning unit beneath the window snaps on. Its compressor humming and fan whirring. The metal casing rattles slightly. Probably missing a screw or two.

I knew what I had to do and started toward the door with my leather shoes and gun belt squeaking and keys jingling and heart thumping. As I reached for the knob I took a deep breath.

The expansion of my chest pulled at the Velcro that held my vest tightly against my torso.

Crackle. Crackle. Crackle.

Right behind me now.

Grrr …. Growl …

Crying.

Screaming.

Whir.

Thump. Thump. Thump!

Jingle

Squeak.

The door.

Turn and push.

“Drop the gun!”

BANG!

BANG!

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Crying.

And crying.

“10-4. Send the coroner.”

So, my friends, those are the sounds of working the graveyard shift …A Cop’s Nighttime Melody.

Me again. Note Lee’s use of the telling details here: the out of sync jangle of the extra cuffs. The sweep of blue lights on a mailbox in the night. How acoustics seem different in the dark swirl of lethal fear. And notice how he switches his narrative style — slow and legato when the cop is merely driving through the night then moving to a sharp staccato style during the action of t he shooting and take-down. All these are markers of a good novelist. Lee isn’t telling you how much terror a cop feels. He’s showing it to you and making you experience it through your senses.

I’ve never worn a badge, carried a gun or had to go through a door not knowing if I’d make back out alive. But I write about cops every day, so I can only hope to try to live vicariously in the skin of those who do. And then try to make the reader see what I am trying to see. It’s what writers do. It’s what we have to do to make readers feel.

Thanks, Lee. We’re all still learning here.

Postscript: I am traveling to NYC today for Edgar duties, so might be delayed in responding here. Talk amongst yourselves!

11+

First Page Critique: Clear Out Briars
So Style and Story Can Shine

By PJ Parrish

A broken pipe caused a flood in our house, ruining a third of our old pine floors and all of the kitchen.  Bad news — six weeks in a hotel. Good news — I get a new kitchen. So I’m feeling the vibe of the title of our First Page Critique this week.

Thank you, dear writer, for submitting.  Without you, we are nothing. Catch you on the back swing with comments and, as always, please weigh in TKZers, because my opinion is just one voice. It takes choir to do this right.

The Battle At Home

The weary van shuddered to a stop, yet Allie Newland’s body refused to move.

“Allie? Honey? We’re here.” Derek nudged her shoulder.

Allie raised one heavy eye. Derek’s chiseled face and dark, curly hair swirled. Nope,can’t do it. The lid snapped shut. She covered her swollen face with her sweaty palm. Her cheeks flushed. A sigh lifted off her mouth and hung stale like the pool of greasy French fries littering the floor of the ten-year-old minivan. A tear trickled down her cheek and dropped onto her clasped hands. It splattered against a ragged cuticle.

Time.

As much as she didn’t want it to be. As much as she’d never be ready. As much as her arms desired nothing more than to hug her Derek and trap him at her side forever.

It.

Was.

Time.

Allie lifted her eyes and plastered a smile onto her face. A delicious smattering of freckles crinkled across the bridge of her nose. She turned away. Clutched the sticky handle and rested her forehead against the cool pane.

“I guess we should get going.”

“Allie.” Derek cradled her chin and forced her gaze from the window to his eyes. She squirmed away from the chocolate brown pools. He grabbed her hands and kissed the top of her light-brown, shoulder length hair. “You’re strong, Al. The strongest woman I know.”

Allie choked on a grenade-sized lump. Swallowed. It exploded into the walls of her carefully patched together dam of emotion bursting it wide open and sending two salty streams cascading down her cheeks. The tears drenched her stretched-to-the-limit, faded black t-shirt and puddled on top of her post-baby bulge. She sniffed. Wiped. Added a new stain to the dozen or so toddler snot smears decorating her comfy cotton ensemble. She should tell him. Really, she should. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. So instead, she kept silent. She bottled her fears, feigned a tight-lipped smile, and nodded her head.

“I know. We’ll be fine. We’ll miss you like crazy, but we’ll be fine.” Allie squeezed his hand. Her finger wavered on top of the orange button. She pressed. Unbuckled. Opened the squeaky door. She wiped stowaway tears off her face and squinted her brown with little flecks of green eyes as she stepped onto the paved parking lot. She slid open the rear door.

“Hi, Jadey,” she said fake enthusiasm pumping up her sullen words, “time to say bye-bye to Daddy.”

____________________

We’re back. I have to say straight-off, I’m intrigued, and I like this submission. Here’s why: We’re entering at an emotional moment. (no throat-clearing). We have two interesting likeable characters (and only two, which serves to concentrate our attention.)  We get the putative protagonist (at least I hope it’s Allie) right away. We have drama. We have unanswered questions.

I like the subtlety here. Something obviously not-good is going on, but the writer is sly though to not tip his/her hand and hit us over the head with HOW bad it is. It could be something as simple as dad has to go away temporarily. It could be something really dire. Hard to say since we don’t know what kind of genre we’re dealing with here. Could be domestic suspense, could be dystopia. But no matter what the genre, a good opening is a promise. I want to read on here to find out what’s coming.

Second, notice how the writer slips in details that show us things about the characters rather than telling us about them. Yes, s/he could have written something like:

Her daughter Jadey wasn’t yet two, and they had no money and no where to live except a broken down van. How was she going to cope alone with a baby now that Derek was leaving?

Instead, the info is conveyed by describing a swollen belly,  “toddler snot” on her clothes. Emotions are conveyed through actions — tears, caresses, kisses on hair — rather than something like: Allie loved him with all her heart and was going to miss him. She knew Derek felt the same way.  We always talk here about showing instead of telling. Also, we aren’t told they are poor. We learn, again through selective descriptive details, of this couple’s financial situation — a broken down van, greasy take-out bags on the floor, stretched out clothes.

I also love the fact that Allie has something to tell Derek, the implication being she has kept something from this man who seems so good to her. I like that you didn’t tell us what it is, just dropped in that hint, that unanswered question: What is Allie hiding?

So, good job, writer. But there are times when you could do some self-editing to make your writing tighter, more efficient and, in the end, more evocative. The more emotional the scene, the less emotional the writing itself should be. If I can, let me offer a few tweaks for you to consider in line edits:

The weary van careful using anthropomorphic descriptions. Not sure you even need “weary” since you use the great verb-phrase “shuddered to a stop.”. Maybe something specific like the rusty VW van shuddered to a stop. Then break into a new sentence so our focus goes squarely on the charcacter. But Allie Newland’s body refused to move.

“Allie? Honey? We’re here.” Derek nudged her shoulder.

Allie raised one heavy eye. Derek’s chiseled face suggestion: This is a hackneyed description of bad romance novels. You can do better.and dark, curly hair swirled. this implies movement. Is a window open? Or do you mean that his image seemed to swirl in her eyes because she’s so tired? Clear this up.

Nope,can’t do it. Suggest setting this off by itself. Love that you’re using intimate POV!

The lid snapped shut. You have a tic (we all do!): a tendency to over-describe. She cries, she’s sweaty, she’s swollen, she sighs. It’s a couple tokes over the line. Simplify your emotional descriptions — less is often more — and trust your reader to get it. She closed her eyes and covered her swollen face with a sweaty palm. She covered her swollen face with her sweaty palm. Her cheeks flushed. A sigh lifted off her mouth and hung stale like the pool of greasy French fries littering the floor of the ten-year-old minivan. I like that you are using all the senses here but again, simplify this good description: She sighed, and her breath, smelling like the greasy McDonald’s bag on the floor, hung in the stale air of the old van. A tear trickled down her cheek and dropped onto her clasped hands. It splattered against a ragged cuticle. Suggest you save the tears for later. They are more effective below. And again, by layering in too many emotional descriptions (sigh, tears) you dilute the effect. Space them out a tad.

Time.

As much as she didn’t want it to be. As much as she’d never be ready. As much as her arms desired nothing more than to hug her Derek and trap him at her side forever.

It.

Was.

Time. I liked this disjointed structure. It mimics exhaustion. It makes me get the feeling this couple has come a long way and Allie is spent, physically and mentally.

Allie lifted her eyes and plastered a smile onto her face. Again, I think this might be too much here, since she feigns a smile later as well. I like it better below. A delicious smattering of freckles crinkled across the bridge of her nose. Cut this. It jerks us out of that intimate POV you’ve worked hard to establish — she cannot SEE her own face and “delicious” is jarringly out of mood here. Just go right to: She reached for the door handle but couldn’t bring herself to move it. She rested her forehead against the cool window. She turned away. Clutched the sticky handle and rested her forehead against the cool pane.   Here is where I would put in a few quick, well-drawn strokes of what she sees outside. See comment below about this.

“I guess we should get going,” she said or even whispered, given her mood.

“Allie.” Derek reached over and (I think you need to tell us where he is; I assume he’s in driver seat?) cradled her chin and turned her to face him. forced her gaze from the window to his eyes. She squirmed away from the chocolate brown pools. I think this feels romance-cy and it distracts from the mood. He grabbed her hands and kissed the top of her light-brown, shoulder length hair. Again, simplify the movements of your characters:  She tried to squirm away but he pulled her toward him and gently. kissed the top of her head. Delete the description of her hair because you are IN HER INTIMATE POV. Stay there! She would not be thinking about what her hair looks like.

“You’re strong, Al. The strongest woman I know.” Good dialogue so it deserves its own line. Don’t bury it in graph above.

Allie choked on a grenade-sized lump. Swallowed. It exploded into the walls of her carefully patched together dam of emotion bursting it wide open and sending two salty streams cascading down her cheeks. I like the grenade metaphor but it’s so writerly that you have to know when to stop. Again, simplify so the metaphor shines more: It exploded the walls of her carefully constructed emotional dam, bursting it open. She began to cry. The tears drenched her stretched-to-the-limit, faded black t-shirt and puddled on top of her post-baby bulge. Simplify: The tears fell on her faded black T-shirt, puddling on top of her post-baby bulge. She sniffed. Wiped. Added a new stain to the dozen or so toddler snot smears decorating her comfy cotton ensemble. She ran a hand under runny nose, thought about using one of the McDonald’s napkins wadded on the floor, but instead just wiped her hand on her T-shirt. One more stain wouldn’t matter among all the toddler snot smears. 

She needed to tell him. But she couldn’t. So instead, she kept silent. She bottled her fears, feigned a tight-lipped smile, and nodded her head.

“I know. Non sequitur response, I think. Derek said, “You’re strong.” Would she respond “I know (I am?)” She doesn’t feel strong now. What might be a better comeback from her? Or maybe you can even have her thinking something in response to Derek’s compliment, something that laces in a bit of backstory? She didn’t feel strong right now. Whatever strength she had felt when they had started out five weeks ago in WHEREVER we are, had been long lost. We’ll be fine. We’ll miss you like crazy, but we’ll be fine.”

Allie squeezed his hand. Derek should do something in return, I think. His woman is crying now. Her finger wavered on top of the orange button. She pressed. Unbuckled. Opened the squeaky door. She wiped stowaway tears off her face and squinted her brown with little flecks of green eyes as she stepped onto the paved parking lot. She slid open the rear door. This is what I call mundane physical movement. Enough with wiping tears. Just have her get out of the van. And again, she can’t see her own eyes, so don’t stop here to tell us about them. Also, where’s the baby? Have her reach in the back or wherever before you go with following dialogue:

“Hi, Jadey,” she said fake enthusiasm pumping up her sullen words, her words aren’t sullen. Her mood is. “time to say bye-bye to Daddy.

Again, nice start, writer. You’ve got our attention. A few more things to think about: We could use a little grounding in where we are. You can afford to slow down enough to have Allie take note of her surroundings. Readers want to know where the story is taking place. That doesn’t mean you give us a long descriptive narrative here — it would disrupt your mood and your style is, once you clear out the brush, nice and spare.  But find a way to use the surroundings to enhance the mood you’re establishing.  When Allie first opens her eyes and looks out the van window, what does she see? Show us! Is it winter and the heater broke miles ago? Is it hot and stifling in that old van? You’re in No Man’s Land here, one moment telling us she has sweaty hands (implying warm), the next leaning her forehead against cool glass (cold weather?) All we get is “a parking lot.” This opening feels like they have reached a destination, a metaphoric fork in their road since Derek is about to depart for some reason. Don’t neglect your setting — it can be a powerful tool in supporting your mood and increasing suspense.

Thanks for giving us the chance to read your work and learn.

6+

Writing About What You Know
–Even When It Hurts

Write hard and clear about what hurts. – Ernest Hemingway

By PJ Parrish

Years back, I had the pleasure to hear David Morrell speak as luncheon guest of honor at a writer’s conference. Now, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to hear David or better yet, talk to him, you know he’s a fount of fabulous advice for a writer, no matter where you are on the food chain.

That day I heard him speak, I was well into my own career, so I was munching away on my carrot cake, listening but also mind-wandering. Then he said something that made the hairs stand up on my neck.

“Write about what you fear most.”

I sat there stunned. Tears threatened. Because David had poked a wound in me as a writer. I had been struggling with a short story. It felt artificial and too cool. And I realized, sitting in that ballroom fork in mid-air why. I had been unwilling – or unable – to confront my demons.

I knew the demons were there. That was why I had chosen the story I did. (Or did it chose me?) But I was holding the demons at arm’s length. Or maybe hiding from them. The next day, I went back and started over. It was a hard story to write. But I finished it. I didn’t publish it, but I finished it. And it taught me a great hard lesson.

You have to be willing to open a vein.

David Morrell talks often about a book called The Gift of Fear. The author Gavin de Becker says we should all learn to trust our gut instincts to protect us from life’s traumas and, ultimately violence. But David suggests the book has lessons for writers:

As de Becker says, we have all these signals coming at us all the time, and some people choose to ignore them, and get mugged, or have their car stolen, or terrible stuff, because they say, “I kind of knew there was something wrong there, but I thought, oh heck, it doesn’t matter.” Well, when you feel that, it, it does matter, and basically that’s what my books are about: the gift of fear.

David speaks from experience, and is not shy about sharing this. After his father died in WWII, his mother was forced to put him in an orphanage for a time. When she remarried, his step-father was a brute who hated kids and there was constant fighting in the house. From an interview:

I was in fear for much of my early years. And in my fear, I told myself stories. I was at the time, four years, five years, six years old, and I told myself stories in which I was the hero, and rescuing people or whatever—in effect, rescuing myself.

He carried this into his career as a bestselling thriller writer. If you’ve lived under a rock, you might not know that he is the father of Rambo. He has produced a long, stellar, bestselling list of other novels that range from spy novels to Victorian mysteries. But his theme is always human fear, and his characters’ struggle to suppress it or else give in to it.

He’s not afraid of fear.

In 1987, his teenage son died from complications from a rare bone cancer. David took his panic attacks, despair, grief and deepest fears and turned them into a memoir, Fire Flies. Stephen King wrote of it: “I found myself almost speechless…It left me feeling shaken, uplifted, and terribly moved.”

Many other writers have found their voices in what they fear. John Green, author of The Fault Is In Our Stars, was stricken with severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, unable to escape “the spiral of my own thoughts,” as he put it. With therapy and medication, he recovered and wrote Turtles All the Way Down, a wrenching novel about what it is like to live in constant fear of your own mind.

“Coming out of that, it was difficult to write about anything else,” he told an interviewer. “The topic demanded itself.”

One of my favorite early reads, The Bell Jar, is irrevocably associated with Sylvia Plath’s experience with depression, with the character Esther Greenwood’s mental breakdown mirroring Plath’s own. On the Road is based on Jack Kerouac’s real life drugged out road trip with his friend Neal Cassady. Amy Tan’s brilliant novel Joy Luck Club is based on her immigrant childhood in San Francisco. In an interview, Tan talked about how writing the novel moved her to connect with her difficult mother:

When I was writing, it was so much for my mother and myself…I wanted her to know what I thought about China and what I thought about growing up in this country. And I wanted those words to almost fall off the page, so that she could just see the story, that the language would be simple enough, almost like a little curtain would fall away.”

The story I like most on this subject involves Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Of course.

Fitzgerald, flush from his success with The Great Gatsby, started working on his next novel. It was about a glamorous couple living in the South of France. By this point, his wife Zelda was hospitalized with schizophrenia and Fitzgerald was broke, borrowing money from his editor, and drowning in alcohol. The novel, Tender is the Night, told the sad tale of the self-destructive Dick and Nicole Diver.

A month after it came out, Fitzgerald wrote to Hemingway to ask his friend’s honest opinion of the book. Hemingway wrote back: “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”

There’s a lesson in that for us mortal writers. Yes, write what you fear most. Plumb your life experiences. Use your pain. Write what you know.  But there’s a trick.

I have a writer friend named Jessica Lourey. Jess writes two terrific mystery series, kids books, women’s fiction and fantasy. But her non-fiction book Rewrite Your Life, is what I’d like you to take a look at for our purposes today. Jess writes about how writing fiction can help you heal the wounds in your life. She gives TED talks to non-writers about the power of memoir writing. But her book is full of good advice for novelists:

When writers base fiction too closely on their own experiences, they can sometimes lose the ability to truly play with the story. I think this is because they are not consciously making as many decisions as a writer of “pure” fiction. They can be tempted to simply record what happened in real life (and to skip inventing material to fill in the gaps of their own knowledge about other people’s motivations or bits of the experience that they didn’t notice), instead of pondering how to best tell a good story. I’ve known writers whose story details should have been changed or expanded to better support their theme or create atmosphere, but who resisted the suggestion that they do so because “this is how it really happened.”

Most of us have encountered folks who say, “Boy, do I have a story to tell.” Or “my life would make a great novel.”  Instinctively, all fiction writers know the problem with this. Yes, every human walking the earth has a unique story to tell. But few have the ability to tell it in a way that emotionally touches others.

That’s the trick.

The trick is to face your fear and turn it inside out and upside down. Your own true experiences – be it the horror of war, the loneliness of childhood or the terror of domestic violence – is only fodder. If you spill it out too raw on the page, it can feel strangely trite and, in the case of my short story, artificial. The trick is to take your specific and deeply personal emotions and experiences and make them feel universal. Your pain has to become something bigger.

Your story begins inside you. But in the end, it belongs to your reader.

8+

First Page Critique:
Naked Came the Stranger

John William Waterhouse’s “Naiad.” (1893)

By PJ Parrish

I am way behind on my First Page duties, so I hope you all don’t mind taking a look at another, coming right behind yesterday’s submission by Clare. This is an odd one, in that I am not quite sure what to make of it.  I know it’s a mere 400 words or so, but it’s hard to tell what kind of book we are dealing with here.  Your comments, TKZers, are always welcome.

The Artist and the Model

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs. Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. At that point, gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked.

“Hi there,” she waved.

“High yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?”

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.”

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?”

She cupped her breast in both hands, “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?”

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

“I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said.

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing.

“No harm done—the truth is: I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled.

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”

____________________________

Okay, we’re back and all goose-pimply from our nude dip in the sea. As I said, I haven’t the foggiest idea what genre we’re in here, so I will assume the story will reveal, eventually, a crime element given our bent here at TKZ.  Or maybe it’s romance. So let’s consider our usual basic question about good openings: Has something been “disturbed?” Well, I guess seeing a naked woman emerge from the surf is disturbing, so yes, we might read on.

But there’s a strange lack of emotion on Blake’s part about all this. I write a series about a male protagonist, so I have to, well, try to think like a man. I’ve been living in Louis’s head for 15 years, so usually it’s not an issue. If you want to write fiction, you must be able to write credibly outside your own experience and gender. But once, I got stumped. I was writing a scene where Louis comes upon a woman sunbathing topless. I knew he had to react, but I couldn’t figure out exactly how. So I asked my husband, “what would you do?”  He said, “I would look but pretend not to.”

I guess what I am looking for in this submission is some kind of reaction from Blake — and not just about a naked woman. We are TOLD that he loves to paint. We are TOLD that he enjoys this particular cove. He seems charmed by otters. Yet when a naked naiad appears before him, he has no thoughts, no emotions, no nothing. Even when the woman makes the oddly sexual motion of cupping her breasts.

Also, there’s a little bit of throat-clearing. Why begin at the morning with all the busy-business of him setting up, stopping for lunch, etc? Pick up the scene later, maybe when he pauses to take a drink of beer and then sees the woman? There are also some logic issues. What exactly is this woman wearing? I’m thinking it’s some kind of red bathing suit, bottoms only? But from a distance, he mistakes the “figure” as a brown otter?

We also have myriad typos and mistakes in here. Yes, we all make them, but we have to strive for a certain level of professionalism, even in a rough draft submission. Let’s take a closer look:

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. You’re telling me; show me this through his thoughts and actions. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters why capped?playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming swam off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.  Maybe I can add the otters in later to today’s painting, Blake thought. Don’t use “academic” punctuation like colons to convey thought.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. I’d suggest starting here. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Don’t need to tell us that. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: His first thought was that the otters were back and he reached for his sketchpad. But then he realized it was a person. The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, how far? he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs then Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. A little confusing here. When he first noticed the figure, it was so far away he couldn’t tell it was a naked woman. She swam 100 yds out and came back, but somehow ended up 10 yds from Blake? I thought she began way down the beach? 

 At that point, Go right into a reaction here. gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked. A tense lapse.

“Hi there,” she waved. “waved” is not an attribution verb. She waved and then said. 

“High ???yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?” Seems a strange thing for a man to say to a naked lady. Unless you made it a visual point that maybe her skin is all goose-pimply? You don’t give us much visual to go on here at all. You missed a chance to SHOW us what the woman looks like via his thoughts. This whole scene is oddly bloodless. It might work to tell us before this how cold the day is. 

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.” Again, this seems an odd thing to say. I am dying to know what this man is THINKING! Go into his thoughts a little. What is he feeling? Shy? Embarrassed? Turned on? He’s not even curious! At the very least, you are missing a chance to slip in a little backstory ie: He had been painting at Smuggler’s Cove every morning since he had moved here two years ago. He knew everyone in the village, from the old woman at the post office who remembered he liked bird stamps to the skinny kid who never seemed to remember he liked his newspaper tossed on the porch.  But this woman…he had never seen her before. WHERE ARE WE? Blue Hill, Maine? North Vancouver? There are always ways to gracefully slip this info in early on.

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. This is the first indication of intrigue. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?” Again, this begs for a quick thought. Maybe this is where you can tell us where we are? He can think that up the coast in Mendocino (or whatever), there had been trouble with kids on the beach…or something. Don’t miss small opportunities to insert details about setting.

She cupped her breast in both hands, I think you mean she cupped her breasts? Or do you mean she is trying to cover herself? Cupping is provocative. Folding her arms across her chest implies modesty. “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?” A bunch of punctuation mistakes here and/or missing attribution.

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

I’m only thirty-four, he thought. (slips in backstory!)  But he guessed that the woman was maybe twenty, so perhaps she considered him old.  We also get NO description of the woman other than she’s wearing a red bathing suit bottom. Perfect place to SHOW us what she looks like via Blake’s point of view. “I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said. What does that mean, I’m fair and reasonable? 

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing. This woman, given her provocative actions thus far, does not strike me as someone who blushes easily.

“No harm done—the truth is: Lose the colons! I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled. What context?

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, period. “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”

________________

As I said, we’re handicapped by our 400-word limit, so it’s hard to tell where we’re going or what kind of world we’re entering here. But my main suggestion, dear writer, is that you slow down and little and add some emotional meat to these bones. The situation is intriguing, but because you haven’t given much of a context in setting or in your main character’s thoughts and emotions, I feel…well, at sea.

7+

Yes! Yes! (Oh no…)
The Bad Sex Awards Are Back


By PJ Parrish

The competition this year was…well, hot.

Yes. You’re way ahead of me. You know what’s coming. I thought about not giving in to my basest instincts and ignoring it this year. But then I read the winning entries and knew this was too special not to share it it with you all. And hey, we all really could use a good laugh right about now, right?

So, without further ado, I give you The Literary Review’s Bad Sex In Fiction Awards. I will try to keep things clean. Which is more than the writers did.

The magazine said this year’s crop of contenders was particularly strong. The finalists included Prix Goncourt-winner Laurent Binet (who, to paraphrase, compared the male organ to something just emerging from a steel forge); Venetia Welby (who compares female “landscaping” to vines and throws in something about “orange spillage”); and Wilbur Smith, who I will quote in full because you won’t believe how bad it is: (“He kissed her and she responded and the boundaries between them blurred, like two watercolours on a piece of paper, joining as one to create something entirely new”).

We Americans, can hold our heads up high, because one of our own took top prize this year. And fellow crime dogs, hold your heads up even higher!  The winner is Christopher Bollen whose novel The Destroyers, is a literary thriller, described by Jay McInerney as invoking “the shades of Lawrence Durrell and Graham Greene.”

Judges said they were persuaded to give Bollen the award by a scene in which the protagonist and his former girlfriend are rekindling their relationship on the island of Patmos. Cover your eyes if you blush easily because here comes a winning passage:

She covers her breasts with her swimsuit. The rest of her remains so delectably exposed. The skin along her arms and shoulders are different shades of tan like water stains in a bathtub. Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.

I am going to just let that last line lay there. But I will tell you that the judges noted they “were left unsure as to how many testicles the character in question has.”

The award aims to “draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.”  But apparently, bad sex is getting…better.

“There’s plenty of sex around,” the Literary Review’s Frank Brinkley told The Guardian. “Maybe we are having an effect – definitely literary fiction’s changing and the ‘Oh sod it, I’ll put in a sex scene’ attitude that prompted the creation of the award has pretty much fallen by the wayside. Maybe publishers aren’t pushing for it in the way that ‘sex sells’ was used as a prompt 15 years ago, either. All to the good.”

Still, that didn’t keep many writers from giving it the old college try. And it won’t prevent me from sharing the best of the finalists entries.

Breathe in pink, breathe out…blue, blue, oh God, blue!

Light filters in from the ravaging streaks of the dawn. It splits into fragments of every hue the world has hidden as it strikes the prism of their shelter. Tera’s eyes expand and reflect, crystal orbs of time and space. She moans in colours as he pushes the white dress away and beyond the angelic flesh, luminescent against the damp, mossy bed.

                             — Mother of Darkness by Venetia Welby

 

Plato’s retreat…and Socrates didn’t want to go there, either

Looking down, she unbuckled his belt. ‘We’re grown-ups.’

Perhaps he wasn’t quite in the moment, because he thought of Kierkegaard and Socrates. If there wasn’t great wisdom gained by lust, by love, its consummation – the aesthetics of all this – then you were doing it wrong.

‘Kiss me again.’

– As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths

 

Making Wookie

A clothed body is always human or human-like, a naked body always animal or animal-like. Only at close quarters is the full extent of a body’s wildness revealed, like when a bird gets trapped inside a house. One is moved to not entirely human thinking then. One goes towards its animalness.

– Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe

 

What’s your major? Landscape panting…

He puts his hands on Bianca’s shoulders and slips off her low-cut top. Suddenly inspired, he whispers into her ear, as if to himself: ‘I desire the landscape that is enveloped in this woman, a landscape I do not know but that I can feel, and until I have unfolded that landscape, I will not be happy …’

Bianca shivers with pleasure. Simon whispers to her with an authority that he has never felt before: ‘Let’s construct an assemblage.’

        — The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet

Okay, enough. I’m exhausted.  So we don’t end on a negative note, I found a counter-balance.  A couple years ago, Salon magazine decided to go Literary Review one better and came up with the Good Sex in Writing Award.  Their winner was the critically acclaimed James Hynds’s novel Next.  Here’s a winning passage:

Then Lynda murmurs “Wait” right in his ear, and as he clutches her waist under her dress she unbends first one leg and then the other over the railing, settling tightly against him, taking him in even deeper. She tightens her calves against the railing and squeezes with her thighs, and he groans, because he’s deeper inside this girl than he’s ever been inside any girl before, and he presses his open mouth against the long, salty curve of her neck. He’s inhaling her humidity, she’s panting like an animal just above the top of his head. They can’t move much — if she thrusts too hard against him she’ll topple them into the bushes — but the song has finished with words and now it’s just a driving sax, and they rock together to the beat, her sweat dripping into the dress bunched at her waist, her hands kneading his back, his face pressed between her salty breasts, her heart thumping against his lips.

Not bad, not bad. At least I can figure out which part is going where, and the only metaphor is a musical instrument. And as they always say, we should all need to practice sax sex.

 

 

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The Latest Trends In
Cover Design: Think Pink?

By PJ Parrish

Cover design is taking up space in my brain lately.  Partly because our upcoming Louis Kincaid thriller THE DAMAGE DONE (July this year) is in production right now.  But also because I am gearing up for my annual duty as Edgar banquet chair.

The Edgar gig involves me putting together a Powerpoint presentation that we run throughout the banquet, with the biggest part given over to displaying all the covers of the nominees as they are announced from the stage. I decided to introduce this to the Edgars in my first year because I remember, as a nominee, how thrilling it was to just BE there.  But there’s a real thrill to seeing your actual book  — oh, about three-feet high — flashed up on a Jumbotron screen in the grand ballroom of New York City’s Grand Hyatt, filled with agents, editors and fellow writers. Here’s two samples from my Powerpoint from last year’s banquet. (Click to enlarge):

Sitting in the back of the room at my laptop controls, I never fail to be amazed by the beauty of some of the nominee covers.  It’s fun to compare and contrast the styles. And I never fail to think about how a great cover — or a bad one — can affect a book’s chance to make a good first impression.

A while back, I did a long post about covers in which I cited a survey about what factors made a potential reader pick up a book.  Guess what was no. 1? You betcha — cover design.

So when my sister Kelly sent me an article the other day about newest trends in book cover designs, I knew I had to pass it along to you. The article talks about all kinds of books, but maybe there’s some take-aways for us crime dogs as we self-publish or dicker with our editors. But first, let’s take a trip in the Way Back Machine…

Remember when having huge raised foil letters was a must, a la any book by Patterson? Well, apparently that is yesterday’s news.

Remember when neon was the way to go, a la Harlan Coben’s breakout book Tell No One?  It’s not enough these days….

And remember when all the girls wore basic black? It’s been done so much that it’s no longer the way to separate yourself from the pack. But apparently, I didn’t get the message…more on that in a moment.

Here, according to Lindsey Vontz of 99Designs, is what’s hot.  (Click HERE for whole article.) And for fun, I took a look at this year’s Edgar nominees to see if I could find any parallels in our little genre.

Bold Typography

A hyper-trendoid thing is to have your cover dominated by the type, usually incorporating what Vontz calls “organic elements” like brush strokes rather than traditional clean fonts. This has been going on for years — Jonathan Safran Foer has made it a trademark — but it’s showing up everywhere now.

And voila! Here’s an Edgar nominee in this year’s Best First Novel category, Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love:

Keeping It Simple

Many cover designers now are going for a minimalist approach, using one graphic element with a lot of white space. In the example below, the absence of two letters draws in the reader’s curiosity, the designer says.

My sister Kelly, who still works parttime at Horizon Books in Traverse City, Michigan, says she remembers seeing this book come in and how it stuck in her mind and made her think how the missing letters telegraphed the book’s content.

Here’s The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a nominee for Best Young  Adult Edgar. I love this cover, but then I was always a sucker for negative space in art class.

Hand-Drawn Covers

These have been popular for a couple years but the trend will continue, the article’s author says. Mostly, this has been the realm of more “feminine” books, the covers featuring a lot of florals and such. But there’s a trend toward more “masculine” design in hand-drawn covers, like the one below:

I’ve seen this style pop up in the Edgars in recent years but this year, alas, no examples. But here are a couple from past nominees that I remember, the first in Best True Crime, the second in Best Young Adult:

Throwback Styles

Just when you thought it was safe to stop being nostalgic for the Sixties or, God forbid, the Seventies, new trends in book covers are reminding us that our past is never far enough behind us. Funky ’70s typography and colors straight out of plastic flower decals are the hot new things. Check these new novels out. Sex and Rage is a reissue of a 1979 novel, but Goodbye Vitamin is a slacker family drama that got rave reviews. Somewhere, Jacqueline Susann is laughing her butt off.  And Philip Roth is thinking he retired just in time…

I couldn’t find any of this in the Edgar nominees.  But I have noticed that in the Young Adult and Best Juvenile categories in past years, bright citrus colors and a touch of whimsy seem to be popular.

All Things Pink

Remember the musical number in Funny Face  “Think Pink?” Apparently, it’s showing up on book cover design. Ah, but not any old bubblegum pink. It has to be — wait for this! — Millennial Pink. This means it has to be muted and dusty, which, come to think of it, is sort of how I see my millennial nephew. Here’s some examples:

Lo and behold, look what I found in the Edgar’s Best First Novel category this year:

Collage It Up

This dredged up another memory for me from my college art classes.  I was terrible at anything three-dimensional but I do remember getting kudos for a collage I did. Maybe I’m just good at throwing stuff together and seeing what sticks. As for covers, I’ve always kind of like collages, but like juggling with chain-saws, this is not for amateurs designing their own covers.

The closest I came to this among the Edgar nominees was this striking cover which superimposes what appears to be elevator down buttons over a man’s face. This is Jason Reynold’s Young Adult nominee Long Way Down.

Photo-Heavy Covers

Photo images have been a mainstay of mystery and thriller covers for as long as I can remember. Self-published authors know all the ins and outs of finding stock images. And you can find just about anything you need to express your story in Getty Images. (Just type “Lonely woman on beach” in their search bar and for $395 you’ve got your cover.) But the trend now is to go beyond the literal stock image (silhouetted man running in dark alley = international thriller) and to find one really compelling, more artistic, image that might convey the tone or theme of the book instead. Here’s an example for a book of poetry:

And here’s a striking cover from one of this year’s Edgar nominees in Best Paperback Original, Penance by Kanae Minato:

Now, for an object lesson. I’d like to show you what my sister Kelly and I have been up to.  In recent years, we’ve been getting the rights back to our backlist titles in our Louis Kincaid series and have self-published several of them.  And since you can’t legally use the original covers, we’ve had to come up with our own.  We knew we had to have a consistent look for all the books — same type fonts, same general look. But we struggled to find a singular style that we thought captured the series’s tone (hard-boiled police procedural/private eye).  Plus, we aren’t rich. We didn’t have a lot of money to blow on designers or artwork. This is what we came up with (except for PAINT IT BLACK, which was done by Kensington Books and was always one of our favorites). You can click on the line-up to enlarge.

But we were never really happy with what we came to call our “dead tree” books. A moody landscape just didn’t convey our books’s tone. And they look a little dated now. I lobbied for something darker, and I really wanted to go with strong photos with humans in them to convey a sense of the books’s dark tones. And I wanted more negative space in the design to give the type and images room to breath. We also wanted it to match the upcoming cover design for our July 2018 release THE DAMAGE DONE. After weeks of searching for the right photos and playing with fonts, this is what we came up with. (Click to enlarge):

Yeah, yeah…I know. They’re black. So’s my wardrobe and my writer’s heart. As Jessica Rabbit says, I can’t help it, I’m just drawn that way.

So what say you? Do any of these trends float your boat? Can you see your new serial killer book wearing pink? Hey, it worked for John D. MacDonald and Erle Stanley Gardner.  Share your trials and triumphs about cover.

Postscript: James’s comment below about Harlan Coben’s Tell No One got me curious so I Googled the cover to see if other designs came up.  Publishers usually repackage for paperback and foreign publishers put their own spin on things. Here’s a couple more versions of Tell No One, including a “dead tree” version!

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First Page Critique: The Unanswered Questions

By PJ Parrish

Good morning all.  We’re on a roll with First Pagers this week and now I’ve got another teed up and ready to go. Catch you on the back swing. (Sorry…husband is watching golf sudden death playoff in background as I write).

Days of Mean

Revenge was like scotch. The longer it matured, the more satisfying the taste. Bradley Thomson’s stepfather taught him that.

Bradley walked through the opened French doors of his Key Biscayne home, coffee cup in hand, and stepped onto the lanai that overlooked the Bay. No matter how many times he viewed the Bay, he loved seeing the estuary in the morning. Its beauty pleased the poet in him. His younger self would have laughed at such sentiment. That was the benefit of middle-age. One appreciated the little things in life.

Bradley set his coffee on a bistro table, next to a throwaway cell phone. He picked up the burner and half-smiled. Out of respect for his late wife, he’d waited twelve years to make this call.

While most people craved instant gratification, Bradley savored anticipation more. He’d been known to admire the beauty of a 30-year-old Highland Park single malt for weeks, even months, before breaking the seal and relishing the first sip. The longer the delay, the better the satisfaction. That’s how he regarded the situation with Juliette. He doubted she’d recognize his voice after all this time, but to ensure she didn’t, for several weeks he’d practiced a Midwestern accent to camouflage his natural Bostonian.

Bradley took a moment to mentally recite his script. The words had changed over the years but their gist remained the same—one extortion to avenge another.

Two months ago, immediately after his wife died, Bradley thought about approaching Juliette in person. Although seeing her wither before his eyes would gratify the vindictive part of his nature, he decided a blind threat would be more menacing. If he remained anonymous, she’d never know which of her victims held her by the throat. He liked that.

Bradley tapped eleven numbers onto the prepaid phone. A few seconds later she said, “Hello.”

When he heard her voice, fond memories of their nights together didn’t suddenly flood his mind. Her deceitfulness had murdered any chance of that.

Juliette…. ”

“Yes. Who’s calling?”

Bradley smiled. “You can call me Mr. Boogey.”

____________________________

I was thinking that maybe I’ve been doing too many critiques lately (recently judged a contest for MWA and read about forty entries of the first 50 pages and am also prepping for a workshop where I’ve asked attendees to send in their first 400 words.) So maybe I am going manuscript-blind-and-deaf.  But this entry, well, I think it’s pretty darn good. That sounds like a back-handed compliment to our submitter, so let me try to be nicer and more articulate.

First off, the writing is tight and fluid with only one hiccup (more on that later). Dialogue (what there is) is handled cleanly. No dumb typos, grammar lapses etc. But that’s the basics, the first bar to clear. What about the bigger issues?

We always talk here about picking the prime dramatic moment to enter a story. It need not be violent or action-packed. But it must do essential things — introduce a prime character (usually the hero but sometimes the black hat) and it must seduce us on some level.  A good opening is a promise to the reader — here’s a hint of what is to come so stick around and see if I, the storyteller, will deliver. I think the writer here accomplishes that.

I really like that first graph. We get a prime character’s name, a dollop of backstory —  he loves nice scotch, has a significant step-father in his past and is out for revenge of some kind. It has tone and voice…it has a certain “bite,” sort of like a good scotch. (I don’t drink scotch but during research, I once read an article about 50-year-old Glenlivet described as tasting like “tingle and burn.”)

The next graph is descriptive but also tells us where we are, about how old Bradley is, and a bit more about his personality. This submission is a good example of how to dribble in backstory. Then we find he’s using a burner cell phone, which SHOWS us rather than the writer TELLING us that he has secrets to hide and is up to no good.

Then he makes the call to Juliette, who we are told, with the sparest of details (good!) has a past with Bradley, apparently did him wrong, and now he’s out for vengeance.

But what I like about this submission the most, I think, are the Unanswered Questions. Sometimes, it is not so much what the writer tell us, but rather what s/he withholds that helps create a tension in the early going of a story. Look what questions this writer laid out:

What did Juliette do that was so awful that Bradley is now out to get her?

Why does Bradley refer to himself as one of her “victims?”

Why is he using an untraceable phone and disguising his voice? (and, backstory, we find out he’s Bostonian by birth.)

What happened to his wife?

And why has he waited 12 years to get his revenge?

One of the most effective ways to create tension early in a story is to lay down a bread-crumb trail of questions like this to lure us in and then you can spend the rest of the book slowly answering them. All these questions are a tease. They make me want to read on.

So good stuff! But I think we have a hiccup with the dead wife. Everything was going down so smoothly here until I got to: “out of respect for his late wife, he had waited 12 years to make this call.”  And: “Two months ago, immediately after his wife died, Bradley thought about approaching Juliette in person.”  I think by inserting the wife into the scenario with the named Juliette, the writer creates unnecessary confusion.  Might the opening not flow better if we left the wife out of things for now? She can always be brought up a little later, maybe after the phone call? It might create even MORE tension to withhold this bit of Bradley’s backstory until he has finished his call and then perhaps thinks about the “why” he had waited…something to do with a dead wife.

When you are laying down the questions, don’t double-dip them. The fact he has a dead wife and it probably has something to do with the nefarious Juliette is too juicy a fact to be buried amid the other backstory, I think. The dead wife deserves her own introduction. Just as an exercise, writer, take out all references to the wife and see how it reads. One woman at a time…

One last thing: Maybe it’s just me, but after all this good stuff about middle-aged Brahmin poets, great scotch, and Key Biscayne views, would Bradley pick a prosaic kiddie name like “Mr. Boogey?”  I almost laughed when I read it. Maybe there’s a good reason. Just asking…

Ready to hear some counter-views, TKZers.  Please weigh in. In the meantime, I have a habit of picking music for the movie versions of my books and those of others. Here’s some mood music for today’s submission. Hit it, Charles…

6+

The Agony and Ecstasy of Starting Over

If the wine is sour, throw it out. — Michelangelo

By PJ Parrish

Have you ever wanted to just say the hell with it and give up?

I have. I’ve been publishing fiction in one form or another since 1980 and I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pack it in and go drive the cart at the airport for a living. Sometimes it was a bad editor who brought this on. Or being dropped from a publisher (twice). Or doing too many book signings where the only people who showed up were the staff and a homeless guy trying to get out of the rain. Or being caught in the dreaded Barnes & Noble Death Spiral. (this is an official term for the dynamic of mediocre-sales-so-we-won’t-stock-you-but-no-way-to-increase-sales-because-we-won’t-carry-your-books.

Or sometimes it was simply because I thought I had run out of energy or worse, ideas. But maybe the worst kind of giving up is the one where you have invested a lot of time and energy into a book and there’s this little voice inside your head whispering, “This is pure crap.”  And you know the voice is telling you the truth.

When is it time to give up on a story and start over?

Michelangelo is the one who got me thinking about this. Or actually, Charleton Heston. Last weekend, my bad cold had me mainlining old movies and I happened upon The Agony and the Ecstasy.  Charleton Heston as the artist and Rex Harrison as the pope who commissions him to paint the Sistine Chapel. Good movie, based on the bestselling novel by Irving Stone. Michelangelo is maybe a couple hundred feet into his backbreaking project but he’s haunted by self-doubt — especially over the fresco he has painted depicting the face of God. He retreats to a tavern, where he sketches the peasants as models for apostles. But it’s God’s face who taunts him. Michelangelo takes a drink of wine, spits it out and yells, “This wine is sour!”  The tavern owner tastes it, agrees, and uncorks the cask onto the floor, saying, “If the wine is sour, throw it out!”

Michelangelo has his epiphany. He goes back to the chapel and takes a scythe to God’s face, scraping it off.  A year of work demolished. He starts over.

If the wine is sour, throw it out.

Flashback to 1998. I am writing my first attempt at a mystery. My first chapter opens with a Miami homicide detective sitting in a fishing boat in the Everglades. She is thinking…mourning…remembering…her husband who got blown up in a drug deal gone bad. Do you see the problem? She is thinking. She is…doing nothing. If you don’t get it, go back into TKZ archives and search for any of James Scott Bell’s posts on characters thinking and not doing.

I finished that first book and sent it out to agents. I got oh, maybe twelve rejections. Not one agent was kind enough or smart enough to tell me what was wrong. I tossed the whole book and started over. About two years later, the first book in the Louis Kincaid series got published. (For the record, it opens with Louis unearthing a shallow grave in rural Mississippi and finding a skeleton with a rotted noose around its neck).

Okay, flash forward to now. After our book She’s Not There was published last year by Thomas & Mercer, they asked to see a sequel that centered on a subplot featuring a secondary character named Clay Buchanan. Six chapters poured out of my laptop. I was on a roll.

Then this little voice started whispering. I ignored it, plowing on through a hundred pages. Finally, I went back and re-read Chapter 1.

I had opened with my protagonist Clay Buchanan sitting in a boat in an Arkansas bayou. He is a skip tracer by trade but also an avid bird-watcher.  He has come looking for a woodpecker that’s supposedly extinct. But he is thinking about his wife and infant son who disappeared ten years ago. This quest is supposed to a metaphor for his hopeless search for something lovely that he knows is really dead. Beautiful chapter, full of poignancy, dripping with Spanish moss and symbolism.

You’d think I would have learned something in twenty years.

Yesterday, I threw it out, all hundred pages.  It took me five months to get to this point. That’s a lot of wine on the floor.  But it had to be done. The idea for the book is solid but the first five chapters are not working. I knew it in my heart.

Why do we resist starting over? Well, after twenty years, I’ve got my thoughts.

Deadlines: It may be an actual contract deadline, or one you set yourself (I will finish this book by July! I will write 1500 words per day!) It is also the pressure of our genre, the idea that you won’t get noticed or survive unless you can produce good books at a steady clip.

Deadlines can be bad — the tyranny of the ticking clock can make you burp out some bad stuff.  But deadlines can be good — a finite amount of time forces you to write instead of playing Spider Solitaire or folding laundry).  Deadlines can make you angry. Deadlines can make you feel frustrated and exhausted. As a classic procrastinator, I’ve learned it’s best to try to embrace a deadline. Think of it as having a pet porcupine.

Self-doubt: This can be bad because it can eat away at your soul. (I’ll never get published. I can never write as well as fill-in-the-blank. I’m out of good ideas.). But self-doubt can be good because it forces you to slow down, reassess and reflect. When things look dark, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to pump the brakes so you don’t drive off the cliff. If your novel is going badly, you might need to set it aside, let the frustration cool, and go back later. Divorce or reconciliation? It’s easier to decide with a clear head instead of a heavy heart.  Some books can, with hard work, be saved. Others have to be abandoned.

Negative people: This can be bad because sometimes you have to literally live with these folks. Your spouse might not be supportive enough. Your friends might tell you your wasting your time. Your “real” job screams at you like a harpy. But it can be good if you’ve got someone in your life who can, with a clear critical eye and kind heart, tell you when your book has lost its way. All of us want praise. But what we really need are folks –a trusted beta reader or a good critique group — who will tell us “This ain’t working.”

Now I can hear some of you saying, “Okay, that’s the agony. When does the ecstasy kick in?”

I can’t say. It’s a personal thing. Each of us handles disappointment and defeat in his or her own way.  I can only say that once I made the decision to throw away the first hundred pages of Clay’s story, I felt…good.  Like Michaelango, I had a clean white canvas again. I’ve been here before. I can do it again. I’ve only got, oh, about 100,000 words to go…

 

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