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

Making Up Words

By PJ Parrish

It’s raining here today. And I just finished my French Babbel lesson, which happened to focus on weather. Both things made me realize how much I love words.

I love learning new ones. This morning, reading a newspaper opinion piece on the grid crisis going on in Texas, I found out what a kakistocracy is.

I love finding out where words come from. Geezer is cool example. It comes from the obsolete word guiser, meaning someone who walks around in disguise, a performer in a masquerade. So a word that was used in the Middle Ages to refer to an actor now means a crabby old dude. Unless you’re British, then it’s just slang for bloke.

I love idioms. They give special spice to the places where we live. Like I said, it’s raining here in Tallahassee today. It’s raining cats and dogs. If I were in Tupelo, where my friend Philip was born, it would be raining harder than a cow pissing on a flat rock. If I were in Toulouse, Il fait un temps de chien. (The weather would have gone to the dogs).

I love the sounds some words make. Splat! Kaboom! Murmur…hiss…sizzle. There is a ten-dollar word for this I learned in high school — onomatopoeia. The French, I have learned via Babbel, have their own versions of sound-effect words. Badaboum! means crash! Patati patata is their version of yada yada yada. Miam Miam is French for yum-yum although to my ear it sounds like a cat who’s digging his Fancy Feast.

I love how we take a word that means one thing and make it stand for something else. Metaphors and similes tickle me to death. A boxer has cauliflower ears. Same in French, by the way: oreilles en feuille de chou. A CEO might be a big wheel, but in France he’s une grosse legume (a fat vegetable, which seems very fitting in many cases).  And there are all the great variations on a theme for not-so-bright folks: He’s not the brightest bulb on the tree, sharpest knife in the drawer, a few fries short of a Happy Meal, dumber than a bag of hammers. And from my Tupelo-born friend Philip: If she were any dumber we’d have to water her. Or as the French say, elle a une araignée au plafond. Which means she has a spider on the ceiling. Which makes me think of our own idiom bats in the belfry. I had to go look up where that came from, of course. You fellow crime dogs are gonna like this. It dates back to 1897, from an article in the Paducah Daily Sun:

                 CHARGED WITH LUNACY.
Jane Jones Seems to Have Bats in Her Belfry.
Constables Patton and Futrell Have a Time Taking Her.

 

Jane Jones, who stood guard over the putrid remains of her daughter, Ella Jones, at her home on South Fourth street yesterday, and would not suffer them interred until Coroner Nance went to the house with a police officer, to enforce a burial, was arrested this morning by Constables Patton and Futrell on a writ of lunatico inquirendo and taken to the county jail. The aged woman evidently “has bats in her belfry,” and will be tried before Judge Bishop at 3 o’clock this afternoon.

Might be a book in there somewhere.

Which brings us full circle. Mostly, I love the process of trying to put a bunch of words together in just the right way so as to make someone else try to understand the world as I do. That is true of any of you who are reading this post now. You love to play with words. You love to stitch them together to make stories.

The rain is still coming down hard here in Tally, a steady tattoo backed up with a low rumble of base drum thunder. I’ve taken the laptop out to sit on the screened in porch so I can listen to it. I am filled with a deep, delicious feeling of chrysalism.

Don’t know that word? It means the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm. It was coined by a John Koenig, a student at Macalester College in Minnesota. He was trying to write poetry and instead created The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The idea was that it would contain all the words he needed for his poetry, including emotions that had never been linguistically described. He’s since created a website that one writer called “delightful for etymologists and wordsmiths…a beautiful experiment on the fine line between babble and Babel.”

You won’t know these words from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, but I bet you’ll recognize the feelings:

  • Sonder: The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.
  • Opia: The ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.
  • Monachopsis: The subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.
  • Énouement: The bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.
  • Rubatosis: The unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat.
  • Kenopsia: The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.
  • Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
  • Jouska: A hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head.
  • Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening
  • Ellipsism: A sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out.
  • Kuebiko: A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence.
  • Exulansis: The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.
  • Rückkehrunruhe: The feeling of returning home after a trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness.
  • Liberosis: The desire to care less about things.
  • Altschmerz: Weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same boring flaws and anxieties that you’ve been gnawing on for years.
  • Occhiolism: The awareness of the smallness of your perspective

And there’s this one: Nodus Tollens: The realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.

I’ll finish with my favorite: Vellichor: The strange wistfulness of used bookshops.

The rain has stopped finally. And so have I. Go make up some words.

 

+9

First Page Critique: Whose Face
Is Behind That Pebbled Glass?

By PJ Parrish

I think we’re stepping back in time with today’s First Pager. Back to an era when men were right gees, women were dames, a gun was a gat, but cigar was always just a cigar. And the view of the world comes through the slats of Venetian blinds and a swirl of smoke. But whose view is it?

Fatal Infraction

Chapter 1 — Offensive Planning

THE BOSS’S OPEN HAND slammed against his desktop with an ear-splitting smack. Every ornament, pen, and even the desk phone jump and then rattled back into place. “Damn it all! I didn’t want it to come to this!”

The huge man standing on the other side of the desk remained unfazed. His pectoral muscles stretched at the fabric of his black t-shirt, thick forearms crossed across his chest, biceps bulging above the short sleeves. Maintaining a placid expression required more self-control than most of his duties, which tended toward knocking heads together. A protruding vein, just visible above his left ear throbbed with increasing frequency. He hoped the boss would not notice. Being cool under pressure was his identity.

The early evening sunlight filtering in through a gap in the Venetian blinds. A recently smoked cigar lingered in the air.

“We knew he was a wild card, boss.” Not a quiver from the big man’s arms as he spoke. His voice was even; detached.

“Yeah, I know. But I still feel like we could have handled it better.” He sighed as he spun in his leather chair and reached for a cut-glass tumbler sitting on a polished credenza next to a crystal decanter. He poured himself two fingers of The McCallan 12. His companion stood stoically as he savored a sip, then turned back around. “You don’t think there are any other options?”

The big man shrugged, “That’s not my call, sir.”

“It’s really a shame. He had potential. He could have made us a lot of money.”

“That’s why you picked him. But, like you said, we can’t tolerate his actions.”

The boss took a long draught, then set the glass down with a clink. “I know. The time is right. You take care of it.”

“I will.”

The man behind the desk leaned forward and reached for his telephone handset as the big man left. He mumbled to himself, “It’s a damned shame.”

___________________________

I’m just guessing here because the scene-setting is bare bones, but I think we’re in the era of the pebbled glass door. The tone of this opening suggests the bygone era of pulp novels — Venetian blinds, smoke, whiskey, a desk phone rather than iPhone.  The tone also comes from the clipped macho dialogue, the physical descriptions (bulging biceps, throbbing veins). If I’m wrong, then I think the writer has a problem going in.  We can’t really tell where we are in time or place. More on than in a moment.

But the main problem here is one of point of view. There isn’t one. Sure, you can make a case for omniscient but it’s not consistent. And as we’ve said here often, omniscient POV just doesn’t cut it in today’s crime fiction where readers are looking for intimacy and connection with characters.

First off, the set-up itself is interesting. Two mugs are talking about a deal that has apparently gone off the rails because somebody screwed up. Someone off-camera is in trouble. Trouble is good. But because of the point of view problem, we don’t really care. Not caring is bad.

We have a classic case of head-hopping here. It feels like we are in The Big Man’s POV because we get some thoughts and details filtered through his consciousness. But the POV is not solidly grounded because we have omniscient intrusion with details like a throbbing vein in his head, stretching pec muscles (which the Big Man cannot see). Then, in the last graph, we are yanked out of Big Man’s POV with this:

The man behind the desk leaned forward and reached for his telephone handset as the big man left. He mumbled to himself, “It’s a damned shame.”

Whose head are we in now? Marginally, The Boss’s. This just doesn’t work.

Establishing empathy, sympathy, or at least INTEREST IN THE ACTION is essential to any opening. Because we are not grounded in any character’s POV, we can’t bond. Because the set-up is so bare bones, we can’t care what happens next. This feeling is intensified by the writer not giving us any names. It’s coy, in my opinion, and serves no real purpose.

Whose story is this? That’s the big question here.

Now, here’s a caveat:  I could be wrong, but I don’t think the protagonist of this story is on stage yet. I have a feeling the writer is using the device of showing us the danger or villain before we meet the hero. The fixer Big Man (bad guy) is sent on a mission to track down and deal with the protagonist. Let’s call the protag Jack Evans. This structure could work. Given more details in this set-up, we might begin to wonder about Jack. All we are told is he did something wrong and he’s a “wild card.” Maybe we need to start worrying about Jack. We need a reason to turn the page.

I think this could be a good opening if the writer dropped in some more details. Big Man needs a name because I suspect he’s going to have more scenes and POVs and it’s going to get really tedious to keep him nameless. The man he will be hunting down needs a name here. What kind of business is this? Why withhold that info? At least give us a hint of that and what got screwed up. Also, WHO screwed up? The Boss at one point says, “I still feel like we could have handled it better.”  Yet Big Man is sent to go after Jack the wild card.

The dialogue is not working hard enough. The writer needs to pack more information into it.  Let me give you an example of how that could work.

“We knew he was a wild card, boss.” 

“Yeah, ex-cops always are.” He sighed and spun around in his chair to pick up the decanter on his credenza. He poured out two fingers of The McCallan 12 but didn’t take a drink. “Why do you think Jack turned on us?” he asked.

The Big Man didn’t answer. He knew Jack’s kid was really sick with leukemia and that Jack was desperate to get him to that big hospital up in Rochester. He needed money bad. Bad enough, maybe, to even cross The Boss. Note drops of backstory that tell us something about Jack and make us care. Note too that by not telling The Boss about this we are learning something about Big Man as well.

“I don’t know why he did it,” Big Man said. 

The Boss swung back toward him. “Jack Evans had potential. Could’ve made us a lot of money. Damn shame.” He finally took a drink of the whiskey then set the tumbler down. “You think there are any options?” he asked. 

The question sounded almost like a plea. The Big Man remembered that The Boss had taken to calling Jack Evans “son.” More backstory nugget that deepens the relationship and makes us wonder what’s the dynamic here.

“That’s not my call, sir.” Big Man said.

The Boss shook his head slowly. “I’ve put up with enough. It’s time,” he said quietly. “Take care of it.” 

Okay, I’m running long. Here’s a quick line edit to cover some other things.

FATAL INFRACTION I like the title!

Chapter 1 — Offensive Planning

The Boss’s open hand slammed against his desktop with an ear-splitting smack. Cleaner: The Boss slammed his hand down on the desktop. You get rid of the ugly ss possessive and it’s active and not passive. Don’t need ear-splitting smack because it’s not in anyone’s POV. Every ornament, pen, and even the desk phone jump and then rattled back into place. “Damn it all! I didn’t want it to come to this!”

The huge man standing on the other side of the desk remained unfazed. His pectoral muscles stretched at the fabric of his black t-shirt, thick forearms crossed across his chest, biceps bulging above the short sleeves. Omniscient POV…Big Man can’t describe himself. Maintaining a placid expression required more self-control than most of his duties, which tended toward knocking heads together. A protruding vein, just visible above his left ear throbbed with increasing frequency. Ditto POV but easily fixed with “He could feel a vein throbbing in his temple. He hoped the boss didn’t notice it. He hoped the boss would not notice. Being cool under pressure was his identity.

The early evening sunlight filtering in through a gap in the Venetian blinds. A recently smoked cigar lingered in the air. A nice description here but can you filter it thru Big Man’s consciousness? He squinted against the sunlight slanting through the Venetian blinds and resisted an urge to swat away the cigar smoke lingering in the air. SMOKE lingers in the air, not the cigar itself btw.

“We knew he was a wild card, boss.” Not a quiver from the big man’s arms as he spoke. His voice was even; detached. It was a struggle to keep his voice even and detached because he knew what was coming and he didn’t know if he could do it. Again, drop in some hints here of intrigue. These men are flesh and blood. Show us some emotion.

“Yeah, I know. But I still feel like we could have handled it better.” He sighed as he spun in his leather chair and reached for a cut-glass tumbler sitting on a polished credenza next to a crystal decanter. He poured himself two fingers of The McCallan 12. His companion stood stoically as he savored a sip, then turned back around. Again, he can’t tell “his companion” (odd phrase) is stoic because his back is turned. And Big Man would not think to himself “I’m standing here stoically. You don’t think there are any other options?”

The big man shrugged, “That’s not my call, sir.”

“It’s really a shame. He had potential. He could have made us a lot of money.”

“That’s why you picked him. But, like you said, we can’t tolerate his actions.”

The boss took a long draught, then set the glass down with a clink. “I know. The time is right. You take care of it.”

“I will.”

The man behind the desk leaned forward and reached for his telephone handset as the big man left. He mumbled to himself, “It’s a damned shame.” Final POV issue here. You’ve switched to the Boss’s POV in mid-scene. I would end this scene with Big Man. He’s the bridge to what comes next — the hunt and chase to find Jack Evans. So you should end with him leaving and doing something outside. Which might give you the chance to tell us where we are. Also, the sentence construction itself is bulky — He leans forward, reaches for his phone AS the other guy leaves. Big Man leaves. Then you can move on.  But again, I would stay with Big Man — he’s potentially more interesting at this point because he’s OFF TO DO SOMETHING.

Remember: The last line of a chapter is as important as the first line because it is the bridge to the next chapter. Don’t give your exit line to someone who doesn’t matter to what comes next.

So, brave writer. My main two suggestions is that you chose a point of view and run with it. Make your men come alive. And although I recognize you’re going for a spare neo-noir style here, we still need a little more meat. Don’t be afraid to slow down and give us a dollop of backstory and more description. We need a sense of your setting here beyond the old tropes of a smoke-filled office (that’s been over-done). Maybe take the scene outside via Big Man and let him — and your scene — breathe a little more.

That’s it for today. Thanks to our writer for submitting their work. And I hope you find this and other comments helpful.

+10

What’s The Best And Worst
Advice You Got About Writing?

Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now. — The Byrds

By PJ Parrish

Just for yucks, I did a search on Amazon books today for “writing advice.” I got this response — “over 50,000.” No surprise to this veteran observer. Advice is plentiful and cheap. Well, not so cheap in one author’s case: He’s charging $39.95 for his self-published eBook on self-publishing.  First piece of advice for writers: Don’t over-charge for your stuff.

I’ve gotten lots of advice in my novel writing career. Some of it good. Much of it stupid. It just took me a while to figure out which was which.

My first romance was published by Ballantine Books in 1984. Since then, I’ve worked with two traditional New York houses and Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. I’ve had at least twelve editors and two agents. I switched from romance to crime. I’ve won two Shamus Awards, two Anthonys, one Thriller Award and was nominated for an Edgar. I’ve been dropped by three publishers, including a French one, which really stung. I’ve self-published original books and backlist titles on Amazon. I’ve chaired writers conferences and felt lonely at others. I’ve given a couple keynote speeches and endured sharing a signing table at Bouchercon with Charlaine Harris, whose line wound out the door and into the hotel lobby while I had oh, maybe five people. (Charlaine is a real lady BTW…kept talking up my books). I’ve cracked bestseller lists and had royalty checks that wouldn’t buy a can of dog food. I currently do not have a publisher. I sometimes think I don’t even have a good idea.

So what did I learn?

That advice about writing is to be taken with a shaker of salt. Here’s some of the best and worst I’ve collected over the last 37 years:

Best: Just Write A Good Book. When I was just starting out and hanging around the periphery at writer’s cons, this was the one thing that was always said on panels. Don’t worry about anything else. Just write the book and make it come from your heart. I still consider this great advice because you can’t fake quality, craft and passion. Editors don’t want less-than, and readers don’t like junk. (Okay you might fool them once but they won’t buy your second book and nobody loves a one-trick pony). Hone your craft. Write the kind of book you want to read. Don’t expect shortcuts to success.

Worst: Just Write A Good Book. Because of industry contraction, it’s no longer enough to just write. Today’s crime novelists must be active participants in the marketing, promotion and even publishing process. When I started out, writers were the proverbial mushrooms — kept in the dark, fed a lot a manure and everyone hoped they’d somehow magically sprout into bestselling fungi. My early editors balked at any questions I had and never sought my input. Today, publishers routinely send writers lengthy questionaires asking for input on everything from cover design, book tone, and market strategy. And if you’re self-publishing, I don’t have to tell you what a hydra-headed beast you must be to survive.

Best: Get Out! I’m convinced that most writers are naturally introverts. We want to hide in our writer caves with our coffee and imaginary friends. Early on, I was too scared to do signings. I didn’t network or go to conferences. When I finally did go, I was too intimidated to talk up other writers, agents or editors. Big mistake. Our community is generous of spirit and the advice of those who’ve gone ahead is invaluable. Get over yourself and get out there. (And yes, some day we will all meet again face to face, I promise. First round is on me).

Worst: Write What You Know.  This sounds good. In theory. If I had heeded it, I would have never had the success I did because what do two middle-aged white female Yankees know about a biracial 20-something man in the South? Yeah, if you’re just starting out, you might want to sow more familiar ground. It gives you confidence. But it doesn’t mean that if you’re a car mechanic in Des Moines, you can’t write about a tribe of Amazon zombies in Belle Époque Paris. It means you must invest your characters with genuine emotions and experiences. It means you must build a world that is believable even if it is fantastical. Madame zombie, c’est moi. 

Best: Writing Will Bring Out The Worst In You. I heard this from a famous writer in the Hyatt bar post-Edgars eons ago. He was two sheets to the wind but what he said still resonates with me. What he meant was is that unlike regular jobs. writers don’t have easy ways to gauge our success — no weekly paychecks, no performance reviews, no boss breathing down our necks. This tends to magnify whatever is strong — or weak — within us. Are you a procrastinator? Wait until you paint yourself into that plot corner. Are you a conflict-avoider? Well, being at the mercy of a publishing house is going to drive you nuts. Are you a tangled yarn-ball of self-doubt? That first bad Amazon review is going to have you in tears. Are you full of yourself? No one will sit next to you at the bar. Know your faults and don’t let them cripple your writing.

Worst: Outline Your Book Before You Write One Word. For my second and third books, our editors required a full outline. Ours ran 20-30 pages. This is common if you’re just starting out because editors are investing in an unseen product from an untested manufacturer. (you). They give you an advance, however paltry, and hope you can produce a great book ON A DEADLINE. So traditional pubs usually want to see where the story’s going before they commit. Now, I abhor outlining. It feels like torture in a straitjacket. (Best advice I got from my agent: Just make something up that sounds good to make them happy then go ahead and change it).  I get that many of you must outline. But those of you, like me, who can’t but must — well, fake it.  You’d be surprised (as I was) that sometimes looking at a map makes you want to take that detour.

Best: Read Well and Widely. I’m ashamed to say I never read crime novels before I tried to write one. Guess what? My first attempt was awful. So I started reading P.D. James, Michael Connelly, SJ Rozan, Steve Hamilton, Ross Macdonald. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley was a revelation. When I read Jeff Deaver, I underlined the parts that solved my craft questions. I also read some bad stuff. (no names!) which gave me confidence. Yesterday, the 2021 Edgar Award nominees were announced. Click here and maybe go buy a book or two.

Worst: Do What You Love And The Money Will Follow. This one actually comes from my friend Shane Gericke who points out that more than a million books are published every year and 95 percent of their authors still require a day job. That you love to write does not mean you will make any money at it. When I published my little romance in 1984, I was sure I was going to get rich. Didn’t take me long to wise up.

Okay, enough from me. I want to hear what you all have to say. What was the lousiest advice you ever got about this wacky business? And what was the best advice, the stuff that makes you put your butt in the chair and keep trying?

And yes, I was much much older in 1984. I’m so much younger than that now.

+13

Editing: The Three Levels Of Hell

(Note: This post will be a little harried, so forgive me if it’s badly edited. I lost a crown Sunday night and my dentist was good enough to get me in Monday morning. Be good to your teeth or they’ll turn on you…)

By PJ Parrish

I like to think I’m a pretty decent writer. But man, I am a lousy editor. And this from a person who spent a good portion of her journalism career working a copy desk.

Try as I might, I am just not very good at ferreting out typos, keeping names of characters straight, and understanding all the variations of lie and lay. This was not a huge problem when my books were published by reputable houses with great line editors and wonderful in-house copy editors. But with the contraction in the industry over the past two decades, most publishers began to farm out editing duties to free-lancers. Not to bash them — many were refugees from staff cuts — but the father workers wander from the main source, the harder it to keep things from going awry. This is partly why print newspapers now have so many errors and typos in them; local copy desks are a thing of the past and stories are edited not in the towns where they are produced but in centralized mother-ship offices. This is why, when I was working in Fort Lauderdale, an editor in our Chicago office changed the color of key lime pie in my story from yellow to green. In all fairness, maybe she didn’t get out much.

But I digress. This week, I am trying to edit one of my old books, Thicker Than Water, as we ready to self-pub it on Amazon. We have done this to most of our backlist titles as we get the rights back to them.

Now here’s the thing: This book, like all the others, went through the rigorous thresher of our previous publishers — first Kensington, then Fawcett, Simon & Schuster, Thomas & Mercer, and some excellent foreign houses. Boy, I had some great editors along the line, including my very first, John Scoglamiglio, who is now editor in chief at Kensington Books.

Still, I am aghast at the errors, typos and flab I am finding. My blood runs cold at this because I know that while readers can be understanding about such things, their trust only can stretch so far.

My point (yes, I have one!) is that whether you hope to be traditionally published or go it on your own, you must do whatever you can do get good editing. How? Well, that’s the problem, right? How to find a good editor is a blog for another day. The good ones don’t come cheap. But I gotta say this: Only a fool thinks they can edit their own book. If you disagree, go read Terry’s January 8 post here on how she tackles editing.

So let me try to set the table by reviewing the three different types of editing you will need and maybe have to fork over good money to pay for. Basically, there are three levels to editing — LINE EDITING, COPY EDITING AND PROOF-READING.

One of the best explanations of the differences I’ve run across comes from publishing expert and teacher Jane Friedman. (Her blog is a must-read for any writer at any level.)

If you’re thinking of hiring an editor, you have to be clear on exactly what the editor will do. I recommend you read Jane’s entire blog on the subject. Click HERE. It is a guest post from Sandra Wendel, book doctor, editor, and author of the book, Cover To Cover: What First-Time Authors Need to Know about Editing. Here are some highlights:

LINE EDIT: an editor examines every word and every sentence and every paragraph and every section and every chapter and the entirety of your written manuscript. Typos, wrong words, misspellings, double words, punctuation, run-on sentences, long paragraphs, subheadings, chapter titles, table of contents, author bios—everything is scrutinized, corrected, tracked, and commented on. Facts are checked, name spellings of people and places are confirmed.

Me here: This is the heavy-lifting of editing. My professional editors would send me lengthy letters that made me want to cry. But the editors were doing their jobs — suggesting plot changes, character enhancements, digressions to fix, time-time errors to correct, places where the pace flagged. If you ever had a good line editor, you know they can make or break a book. Back to Sandra (with bold face from me!)

COPY EDIT:  There is confusion about what a copy edit includes. Most of the time, authors want that thorough line edit. If a manuscript is so clean, so squeaky clean, so perfectly written with lovely paragraphing and fine-tuned punctuation, then maybe the manuscript just needs a copy edit. Like never. I can’t even recall a manuscript that has come to me this clean that it would need just one pass for a polish for mechanical issues. Never. Not even books written by professional writers. And not even my own book. I hired out my line editing, and it’s a humbling process. So let’s just agree that when someone says copy edit, they really mean a much deeper and more thorough edit than putting commas in the right place. A copy edit is the lowest level of edit. Rarely does a manuscript need “just” a copy edit. Sometimes a copy edit is a final step performed separately by your editor or someone else with fresh eyes. Some editors (like me) do copy editing all along looking for these types of errors, and a copy edit is part of the line edit.

Here is a checklist of what Sandra says goes into a copy edit:

  • Correct any typos, which would include misspelled words.
  • Fill in missing words.
  • Format the manuscript before production, and that includes just one space between sentences (I don’t care what you learned in typing class in high school, the double space messes up the document when it is converted into real book pages).
  • Streamline punctuation and properly use commas, periods, and em dashes—like this.
  • Avoid overuse of ellipses to denote a break in thought … when they are really used to show missing text. And those exclamation marks! I allow authors about five in each manuscript. Overuse them, and they lose their punch.
  • Make sure the names of characters and places are spelled consistently throughout (Peterson in chapter 1 may or may not be the same Petersen in chapter 6).
  • Find and replace similarly sounding words that have different meanings (for example, effect and affect).
  • Conduct a modest fact check (perform a Google search to find the exact spelling of Katharine Hepburn or the capital of Mongolia). This isn’t Jeopardy!, so you do get to consult resources. I keep a window open to Google just for such searches.
  • Make new paragraphs to break up long passages.
  • Question the use of song lyrics and remind the author to get written permission.
  • Point out, in academic work, that footnote 6 does not have a reference source in the citations.
  • Remove overuse of quotation marks. For emphasis, use italics, but sparingly. Books generally do not use boldface.
  • Impose a consistent style for the text (this means using a style guide for capitalization and hyphenation, treatment of numbers, heading levels). The Chicago Manual of Style is preferred unless the work needs to conform to an academic convention such as APA, AMA, or MLA.

Me again. Whew. See the difference? A good copy edit is vital to any book. But don’t confuse it with a line edit. A line edit is a deep tissue massage, and sometimes surgery. A copy edit is a mani-pedi. Which leaves us with the last editing step. From Sandra again, talking about proof-reading, a k a getting your galleys:

PROOF-READ: Let’s say your manuscript is fully edited (no matter which level you chose, sometimes even a developmental followed by a line edit with the same or different editors). Your work will need a proofread either in manuscript format or after it is designed in pages as PDFs. Should you proofread your own work? The short answer is later, if you’re in writing mode. The shorter answer is never. Why? Because it’s your work. And your brain plays funny tricks on you. It will fill in your words, and you’ll be completely shocked when a professional editor returns your edited manuscript. What? How could I miss that?

Me here. (Back from the dentist with a temp crown and a jaw full of novocaine) Okay, that’s the breakdown of what to expect from editing, in a nutshell. Again, I urge you to go read the entire blog. It’s filled with good advice. Hope I’ve left you something good to chew on.

 

 

+11

The “Last” First Page Critique:
It’s A Jungle Out There

By PJ Parrish

This is my last post of the year before we take our annual holiday break. That means I have an excuse to post a picture of my dogs. Merry Christmas from Phoebe and Archie! Woof.

It also means I have the pleasure of reading my final First Page Critique of 2020, and offering it up to the TKZ hive for comments. It’s a medical thriller, and we’re off to the jungles of Jakarta. The plane is on the runway. Catch you on the return trip, crime dogs.

The Lazarus Outbreak

Republic of Nanga Selak, 650km Northwest of Jakarta

The scientists were late for their pickup.

Danni Lachlan swore and checked her watch again. She paced back and forth while staying in the shadow cast by her Cessna. The nose of the twin-engine plane pointed resolutely down the ribbon of dirt that barely qualified as a takeoff and landing strip.

Palm-leafed trees and vines dotted with colorful orchids still clung to the edges of the recently cleared space. Smells of rotting vegetation and jungle flowers hung in the air. The odd mix of scents reminded Lachlan of a perfumed burial shroud.

A shiver ran down her spine at the thought.

“Never should’ve taken this damn job,” she muttered under her breath.

She dug into a pocket before coming up with a cigarette and a lighter. She took a moment to light up before drawing breath and exhaling a cloud of smoke. The nicotine habit and the bush pilot company were all her ex-husband had left her. She’d made the best of both to keep sane and put food on the table.

Lachlan’s head jerked up as she heard a cry.

It could’ve been a human cry, but the jungle had a hundred ways of distorting sound. Her pulse started to pound as something made a loud rustle.

Suddenly, three people in silvery protective clothing tore free of the underbrush. The name CLARK had been stenciled in black across the chest of one, WIJAYA on another. The silver-suited one in the middle hung limply in the arms of the other two. The name HAYES was barely visible as the other two dragged their companion along.

A demented howl erupted from the tree line. Then a flicker of movement came from the bushes nearby. Clark and Wijaya traded a glance.

They dropped Hayes in the dirt and ran towards the plane.

“What is it?” Lachlan shouted. “What’s going on?”

The two scientists tore off their respirator masks and tossed them away as they ran. Wijaya’s coppery face stared blankly in fear. Clark’s was a mirror image in pale white.

“Start the plane!” Clark cried. “Get us out of here!”

Lachlan stared a moment longer.

Hayes’ body lay face down. It began to quiver. Arms and legs drummed mindlessly against the moist earth.

More flickers of moment in the underbrush. The sounds of something tearing its way through the underbrush. That finally broke Lachlan’s horrified stare and got her moving.

_________________

Let’s start with what works. We’re at a good dramatic moment, which is often a great entry point for a story. (Caveat: You needn’t always start with something this “action” oriented. A dramatic movement can be more subtle). The writer chose a good moment, just before the proverbial $%&^ hits the propellers.

I like how we get just the barest snippet of backstory — that she’s got a bad marriage behind her that makes her a bit bitter. I don’t mind that at all…it intrigues me, character-wise. Notice that the writer did not feel compelled to belabor Danni’s past or state of mind. Get the plot moving first! You can always layer in her past in “quiet” moments later.

A note: The writer could have opened right with the sound of the men breaking through the brush dragging their comrade toward the plane. That’s certainly more action-y. But I like the fact we get to “meet” the heroine first, as she waits for the rendezvous.

I like the location. Never been to Jakarta (closest I got to a jungle was my backyard in South Florida). The atmosphere and sense of isolation is nicely rendered. Good uses of senses beyond sight. Smell is oft-neglected in description. Wondering how the air feels, though. Like standing in a sauna, I would guess. Maybe she’s feel the press of her sweat-damp shirt? Brush away a wet strand of hair? The writer makes a point of saying Danni is pacing in the “shadow of her Cessna.” Good detail but it can be sharper by making the point that it’s the only shade from the searing sun?

Description is important, especially if you’re using a foreign locale. Don’t let any chance slip by to make us feel we are there. Description, used well, can enhance the sense of peril, fear, anticipation (whatever mood you’re going for).  But keep it razor-sharp, never over-wrought or too long in the early pages.

The writer is in firm grasp of basic craft, like dialogue, action choreography. We can tell pretty much what is happening here, so kudos there.

Something that confuses me. Danni is waiting for a team of scientists, as stated in the first sentence. Is she part of the team? Is she merely a pilot and thus doesn’t know them? Might want to drop in a clarifying hint. (See comments below about increasing tension)

About that first sentence. The writer sets it off all by itself in its own graph. When you do that, you’re telling the reader it is extra important. Yet the sentence itself is sort of flat and matter-of-fact. Like: “Well, damn, they’re late, so here I am again just cooling my heels.”  It lacks enough drama to set up what happens next. Especially since you make a big point of Danni’s impatience. Why is she pacing? Does she know there is danger in getting this team out? The word “pick up” is just sort of blah as well. Because we don’t know Danni’s exact role here, we can’t get the full effect of the urgency you’re trying to create with this scene.

I don’t know what might work better (ideas welcome!), but I think, given the excitement of this opening scene, you can come up with a better first line.

Let’s do a quick line edit so I can bring up some other points. My comments in red.

The Lazarus Outbreak The title works fine for a medical thriller. Even if you don’t know your Bible, that Lazarus rose from the dead, it’s interesting. I just hope the use of the biblical reference ties into the plot. Like, if you’re infected, you die then are reborn ie zombies? 

Republic of Nanga Selak, 650km Northwest of Jakarta I’m not a big fan of location tags but this one is okay because the action comes on so quickly, the writer doesn’t have an easy way to tell us where we are. 

The scientists were late for their pickup. As I said in comments, this is too blah for this good of a scene. You’d be better off just cutting it and opening with the second graph and finding a way to slip in the “scientists” info. Maybe something like:

Danni Lachlan swore and checked her watch again. She paced back and forth, careful to stay in the shadow of her Cessna, the only relief from the blazing sun. She looked down the ribbon of dirt in front of the plane, wondering again if there was enough room to take off. The landing had been hard enough. 

She came out of the shade and brought up a hand to shield her eyes as she peered into the dense jungle just ten yards away.

Where the hell were they? They knew they had only a half-hour window to get out of here.

A sharp crack made her spin to the other side of the brush.

Two men in silver hazmat suits stumbled into the open, dragging a man between them. 

 

Danni Lachlan swore and checked her watch again. She paced, back and forth while staying in the shadow cast by of her Cessna. The nose of the twin-engine plane pointed resolutely means admirably purposeful; too human for a machine and clutters things up. down the ribbon of dirt that barely qualified as a takeoff and landing strip. Do more with this image; ie she had barely made the landing…

Palm-leafed trees and vines dotted with colorful orchids still clung to the edges of the recently cleared space. This implies knowledge on her part, so she has been here before? Or is she a team member? Clarify if you use it. ALSO: how far away is the brush from the plane? We need to know to understand the action when the scientists come running out. Smells of rotting vegetation and jungle flowers hung in the air. The odd mix of scents reminded Lachlan of a burial shroud. Again, I love that you use smells here, but can you make this sing more, be specific? The still heavy air smelled of rotting vegetation and jasmine. (I checked; it’s common in Jakarta). The mixture reminded Lachlan of a burial shroud.  I don’t think this works. It sounds like YOU the WRITER describing something, not your character. Would this woman think in those images? Not unless it is in her specific sensory bank of memories. ALWAYS KEEP COMPARISONS, METAPHORS, SIMILES specific to your character’s experience. It feels more real and it helps you establish character traits. I can’t say what smell in her memory comes to her; that is for you to decide, but it has to connect to HER. 

A shiver ran down her spine a cliche at the thought. BUT…if that awful smell you describe above made her shiver then that means it RESONATES with something in her past. What in her memory made her shiver at that smell? It wasn’t a burial shroud, as they aren’t common anymore. 

“Never should’ve taken this damn job,” she muttered under her breath. I like this line here. 

She dug into a pocket for before coming up with a cigarette and a lighter. She lit up and pulled in a quick deep breath. took a moment to light up before drawing breath and exhaling a cloud of smoke.  Don’t waste words on routine actions. The nicotine habit and the bush pilot company were all her ex-husband had left her. Good! She’d made the best of both to keep sane and put food on the table.

Lachlan’s head jerked up as she heard a cry. The cry comes first, then her reaction. 

It could’ve been a human cry, but the jungle had a hundred ways of distorting sound. Her pulse started to pound as something made a loud rustle. Again, action causes her reaction. Also gives you a way to get rid of the clumsy “as.” You overuse the “as” construction. 

Suddenly, three people in silvery protective clothing I think she’d recognize hazmat suits and you have to put the fact they are wearing masks HERE not later because that is what she would notice first. And a note about breathing masks: They are in a jungle, it’s as hot as hell and these guys are in MASKS? What might she think? Use this moment to increase tension. SOMETHING ISN’T RIGHT HERE. EXPLOIT THAT. tore free of the underbrush. The name CLARK had been stenciled in black across the chest of one, WIJAYA on another. The silver-suited one in the middle hung limply in the arms of the other two. The name HAYES was barely visible as the other two dragged their companion along. This is important: When choreographing action, you must keep the order of the character’s recognition logical. What would Danni notice first? Names? Nope. She’d notice the men struggling to drag the third guy. If they are dragging a man, who’s apparently dying, they’d be crouched over; impossible to see their names. Plus, is it important to name them right now? Does she know them? If not, why bother? 

A demented howl Not sure demented works here. It means angry or crazyerupted from the tree line. Then a flicker of movement came from the bushes nearby. Refract this through her POV somehow. Danni saw the fronds on the low palms behind the three men moving.

Clark and Wijaya traded a glance. Too casual sounding. Stay in action phrasing.

The two men heard it, too. They looked back at the jungle then at each other. They dropped the third man and ran toward the plane. 

They dropped Hayes in the dirt and ran towards the plane.

“What is it?” Lachlan shouted. “What’s going on?”

This stretch of action implies they have a lot space to cover, yet you said the “runway” was a narrow ribbon carved from the jungle. Clarify this. The two scientists men tore off their respirator masks and tossed them away as they ran. Wijaya’s coppery face stared blankly in fear. Clark’s was a mirror image in pale white. This could use some work. Coppery face? Is he foreign? And he’s running for his life so I don’t think he’d have a blank stare. At this point the name CLARK on his suit might register in her consciousness but ONLY at this late point. Which might be where you to drop in the plot point that she’s ferrying out scientists. Waiting to tell the reader until now that they are scientists is a way to increase intrigue…dole out your plot one bread crumb at a time. Sometimes you want to hold facts back to make more impact later. It all about layering…

His dark face was contorted with fear. She saw the name CLARK stenciled across the front of his suit. Clark…Duane Clark, one of the three scientists she had been hired to fly out here.

“Start the plane!” Clark cried. “Get us out of here!”

Lachlan stared a moment longer. At what? Where is the second man? Again, keep her impressions of the action in a logical order. They dropped the third guy so she can’t possibly see his name. Something simple like:

The second man stumbled to the Cessna, but Lachlan’s eyes were locked on the man they had abandoned. He lay twenty feet away, face down in the dirt. His body was quivering, arms and legs drumming in the red dirt. 

Hayes’ body lay face down. It began to quiver. Arms and legs drummed mindlessly against the moist earth.

More flickers of moment in the underbrush. The sounds of something tearing its way through the underbrush. That finally broke Lachlan’s horrified stare and got her moving. I think we’ve got too many “flickers” in the brush. Maybe save the howl for here so you get a fresh punch. And make it really awful. Then don’t TELL me she gets moving. SHOW me her moving. 

Danni jerked open the door of the Cessna. Clark half-carried the second men the final yard to the plane and together they pushed him inside. Jumping into the pilot seat, she pushed the throttle in and hit the master switch. The Cessna roared to life, drowning out the sound of…WHATEVER THAT AWFUL HOWL WAS.  

So, this is what I would call a good first draft. Nice action, an exotic location, an interesting protag. (assuming Danni is such) and lots of juicy unanswered questions. Don’t be discouraged by my bleeding red all over your pages, dear writer. As I said, this is good stuff and we all find ways to improve as we go through various rewrites. Mine is just one opinion.

Thank you, anon writer, for letting us share your work. I know how hard this is, to put your baby out there for scrutiny. I’ve had some tough editors over the years, and it took me a while to realize they were tough because they wanted me to succeed. We’re here for you.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, all, and may the next year be…well, let’s just say brighter, healthier and a helluva lot more huggable.

 

+11

Knives Out! Every Writer
Needs Sharper Tools

It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.” — Ernest Hemingway

By PJ Parrish

If you want to do it right, you need a good sharp knife.

I never believed this until recently. For decades, I struggled along with cheap knives picked up at yard sales or the sale rack at Target. Useless, these dull tools all eventually found their way to a sad dark drawer of my kitchen, leaving me dependent on one little plastic job and an old serrated steak knife to do everything I needed, from slicing a tomato to carving a turkey. (See actual evidence below).

Which leads me to my friend Peter. He was a terrific cook and believed in good knives. He had a set of Wüsthof knives, which I came to learn was the ne plus ultra of knives. He kept them whetted and ready. When he would come to my place for dinner, he would scoff at my pitiful duo. “You can’t be a serious cook without good knives,” he said.

Peter left me his knives when he died last spring. They came to me in a box, gleaming and razor sharp. They frightened me. I was sure I’d slice an artery if I tried to use them.

Well, I didn’t. I came to appreciate the way the paring knife could effortlessly slice a cuke paper-thin. I loved the way the 8-inch utility knife churned through an onion. Carving a roast with the 10-inch chef’s knife was an epiphany. The right tools have made me a better cook.

Life is like this. Sometimes, you’re tempted to make do with the inferior, to take the easy route, to tackle a task with less-than. You folks out there who do carpentry or gardening know what I mean. You buy shoddy tools, you get shoddy results. Or you have to work twice as hard. Or you slice off a finger.

You can probably tell by now that this is a metaphor. As in life, a writer can’t get the job done without acquiring the right tools. You have to learn the craft. And here’s something you’re not going to like to hear: What tool you seem to lack, that’s the one you need the most.

Where do you find the right tools? Well, there are a million how-to books out there in the ether. Not all are good. Most are dull, and many are useless and should be stuck in a kitchen drawer. So let me suggest you start with The Kill Zone archives. Our contributors are laser-focused on practical craft advice, and a couple of us have written some pretty good how-to books. See that search box at the right top of this page? Type in what you need and you’ll find the tools.

Don’t be afraid to face your weakness. Find the right knife for the job you need done.

Are you bad at plotting? Does your story have a thicket of sub-plots obscuring the true story? Does your plot lack dramatic arcs (“What’s an arc?”) Does your middle act sag? Well, type “plot structure” in the search box.  Great tips galore. Start with this one from James Bell, which is a basic lesson in why plot and character go hand in hand. Trouble coming up with a great ending? Debbie has it down. Type in sub-plots, or three-act structure, layering scenes or chapter transitions and you’ll find more knives.

Are your characters lacking? Are they stereotyped, unbelievable, wooden or one-dimensional? Every great story begins and ends with great characters. If this is your weakness, find the tools to help.  Start with this post from Jordan. Need to learn about motivation? Type in “man in the mirror” or “What does your character want?”

Does description leave you cold? We can’t all be Elmore Leonard. Most of us need at least a little descriptions to make our readers care. I love description so whenever my sister and I got to this, she’d shovel the football to me. Or she’d send me back a chapter she had worked on with big read capitals saying: INSERT DESCRIPTION OF MANSION HERE. I finally forced her to do it herself so she could learn. And she did. Start with this post for some great tips.

Stymied about your setting? You can’t tell a story without creating a world. Setting is, to my mind, one of the most neglected aspects of craft that I see in our First Page Critique submissions. If you struggle with this, check out Terry’s guide here. Or read Jordan’s inspiring take.

Is your dialogue tone-deaf? Dialogue is action. Dialogue is sleight of ear. Dialogue is hard to get right. It might be the hardest writing craft to master. Here’s a terrific primer to get you started. What point of view works best for your story? Let John Gilstrap clarify things here. Should you use a dialect? Read this first.  Does your dialogue sound fake? Try this knife. 

One last piece of advice. Knives get dull. Even the really good German ones. You have to get them professionally sharpened, at least every couple months. I go to Precision Sharpening & Key Shop where Jeff (that’s him and Bird at left) keeps me sharp.  Not sure where the metaphor is here, other than to say that even old dogs like me — even the most experienced writers, and especially the well-published — need to keep their craft honed.  Or they lose their edge. And as anyone can tell you, when you lose your edge, you lose your readers.  And now, I am off to pick up my knives from Jeff. Stay sharp, my friends.

This post is dedicated to my friend Peter, who loved food, knives and the Redskins. He is wearing a Dolphins shirt because he lost a bet.

+12

Tangled Up With Verbs

“The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering. It cheapens and degrades the human experience, when it should inspire and elevate.” — Tom Waits

By PJ Parrish

To be, or not to be? Nah, that’s too mundane for a novel. Even though it did work for Dr. Seuss. How about “exist?” That’s a nice variation. On second thought, it sounds too Descartes-desperate for a thriller. Sigh. Well, that leaves me with…”I live.” Good grief, as I live and breathe, why is it so hard to find the right verb?

You’d think this would be easy. Pick a noun, pick a verb. Repeat until you’ve written oh, about 300 pages that might resemble a novel.

But it’s not easy. Verbs are the lifeblood of what we do. The good ones juice up our writing and help readers connect with our plots and characters.

Here’s something I’ve found: Inexperienced writers tend to be content with the first verb that pops into their head. Heck, experienced writers, in the blind heat of the first draft, do this. (my go-to crutch verb is “turned.”) Often, when you’ve latched onto a dull verb, your subconscious writer mind knows it and desperately tacks on an adverb. “He said” becomes “he said sagaciously.” Lipstick on a verb-pig.

I’ve been thinking a lot about verbs this week. Partly, because I have been trying to brush up on my French via Babbel online courses. My brain aches because of this. Verbs are  important to the French and they take their conjugations very seriously. One slip of the reflexive and you’re in deep merde. (More on that later).

But verbs are on my mind also because a friend, novelist Jim Fusilli, posted on Facebook a terrific article by music producer Tony Conniff called “In Praise of Bob Dylan’s Narrative Strategies…and His Verbs.”

Now, I am not a huge Dylan fan, but I do appreciate that he is a poet. (officially). And as I read Conniff’s analysis of the song “Tangled Up In Blue,” I understood how powerful the right verb in the right place can be. Take a look at just one verse of the song:

She was married when they first met
Soon to be divorced
He helped her out of a jam,
I  guess, but he used a little too much force

They drove that car as far as they could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best

She turned around to look at him
As he was walkin’ away
She said this can’t be the end
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”

Tangled up in blue.

Conniff says that most of the story is conveyed in vivid verbs — the action, drama, conflict and emotion. “The verbs tell the story,” he writes, “the story of how being with this other woman, probably for a one-night stand, led his thoughts back to the one he couldn’t forget or let go. Every verse, every chapter of the story, leads back to the same woman and the same impossible emotional place—Tangled Up In Blue.”

For my part, I love the title itself because in just four words and one great verb, Dylan captures the entire mood of his story. The man isn’t just upset about losing a woman. He’s not merely sad about an affair gone bad. He’s tangled up in blue, caught in a web of regret over the love he let slip away.

The right verb gives your story wings. The wrong verb keeps it grounded in the mundane.

Now here’s the caveat. (You know I always throw one out there.) Not every sentence you write needs a soaring verb. “Said,” as we’ve said over and over, is a supremely useful verb that, rightfully so, should just disappear into the backdrop of your dialogue. And in narrative, when you’re just moving characters through time and space, ordinary verbs like “walked,” “entered,” “looked” do the job. If you try to make every verb special, you can look pretentious and, well, like you’re trying to hard. Sometimes, smoking a cigar is just smoking a cigar.

Let me give you some examples off my bookshelf of verb-age that works:

Here’s the ending of Chester Himes’s short story “With Malice Toward None.” Himes’s verb choices convey the mood of a defeated man whose soul-killing WPA job is driving him to drink and to distance himself from his materialistic wife:

He wheeled out of the room and downstairs away from her voice but at the door he waited for her. “I’m sorry, baby, I — ” then he choked with remorse and turned blindly away.

All that day, copying old records down at city hall, half blind with a hangover and trembling visibly, he kept cursing something. He didn’t know what exactly it was and he thought it was a hell of a thing when a man had to curse something without knowing what it was. 

This is from John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye, showing how strong verbs can spice up your descriptions. McD didn’t give us much description but when he did it came with sweet economy.

Manhattan in August is a replay of the Great Plague of London. The dwindled throng of the afflicted shuffle the furnace streets, mouths sagging, waiting to keel over. Those still healthy duck from one air-conditioned oasis to the next, spending minimum time exposed to the rain of black death outside. 

Verbs are important in action scenes. Here we are, in a good one from James W. Hall’s Off The Chart: 

On the top rung of the rope ladder, Anne Bonny paused and found her breath. Head down, crouched below the gunwale, she gripped her Mac-10, formed a quick image of her next move, then sprang and tumbled over the rail, ducking a shoulder, slamming into the rough pebbled deck, and rolling once, twice, a third time until she came to rest against an iron wall.

I like the mix of mundane verbs like “paused” and “formed a quick image” next to the hyperactive verbs like “sprang” and “tumbled.”

And here’s a paragraph from SJ Rozan’s novel Absent Friends, where a character remembers the September 11 attack:

Phil had been caught in the cloud on September 11, running like hell with everyone else.

His eyes burned, his lungs were crazy for air. A woman next to him staggered so he reached out for her, caught her, forced her to keep going, warm blood seeping onto his arm from a slash down her back as he pulled her along, later carried her. Somewhere, someone in a uniform took her from him, bore her off someplace while someone else pressed an oxygen mask to his face. He breathed and breathed, and when he could speak, he asked about the woman, but no one knew.

The lesson here is, the more intense your scene, the more measured you should be in your verb choices. Trust the reader to intuit, to imagine between the lines. “Running like hell” is cliche but it works because it is true to Phil’s voice. It sounds like his thoughts. Notice, too, SJ’s repeated use of the ambiguous words — someplace, someone, somewhere — to capture the chaos, rather than hitting the reader over the head with something like: “He felt confused and disoriented.”

And let me add one more quick example that James Bell quoted here on Sunday, in his post about deep back story, from a Stephen King short story. One line jumped off the page for me:

Sometimes they discussed children puddling along the wet sand with the seats of their shorts and their bathing suits sagging.

God, that’s great. It’s not even a real verb, but can’t you just see those kids on the beach?

Okay, an exercise! Let’s use the poor old verb “walk” as a lesson here. Your character is a sophisticated spy entering the Casino de Monte-Carlo to meet the evil villain Emilio Largo. He’s not just walking in; it’s a grand entrance that sets up the next plot point. How do you describe this?

  1. He walked into the casino and paused when he spotted Largo at the baccarat table with his mistress Domino.
  2. He walked haughtily into the casino but then came to an abrupt stop when he saw Largo at the baccarat table. He had to take it slow, assess the man and the situation.
  3. He sauntered into the casino, like a king surveying his realm. But when he saw Largo at the baccarat able, he paused, and then ducked behind a palm and watched Largo, like panther eyeing his prey.
  4. He strode into the casino, but when he spotted Largo at the baccarat table, he slid behind a pillar so he could observe him without being seen.

I like No. 1 for its spare feel. It imparts only the bare choreography. You’d have to find other ways to convey the tension and the hero’s intent. No. 2 relies on a tacked-on adverb to convey Bond’s attitude. It works okay, imho. No. 3 is tone-deaf and over-wrought. “Sauntered” is an okay verb but way too twee for Bond. And then we get hit over the head with the king metaphor, made even worse by the panther nonsense. If your verbs are strong, you don’t need to surround them in a thicket of thorny metaphors. No. 4 works, imho, but I’d try to make it better on second draft.

I will leave you with one last thought about getting your verbs right. When I first started learning French, my teacher warned us that French is filled with faux amis — false friends. Some verbs look correct but become something entirely else if you mess up the pronunciation or use the wrong tense.

One day in class a guy, speaking in halting French, said that last night his girlfriend kissed him goodbye. Our teacher laughed and we all just looked at each other, confused. In French, a kiss is “un baiser.” So the guy assumed the right verb was “baisser.” Which correctly means that last night he was…screwed.

A sigh is just a sigh, But a kiss isn’t always just a kiss.

+9

The Dos and Don’ts
Of A Great First Chapter

By PJ Parrish

Okay, this is going to be old stuff for some of you. But after reading a couple of our First Page Critique submissions lately, I’m thinking we could all use a handy-dandy review of what needs to go into an opening chapter.

Consider this food for thought, no matter where you are in your writing process. If you’re staring at your computer screen and there are only two words on it — CHAPTER ONE — this is for you.  If you’re about 155 pages in and you’re stuck, maybe going back and reviewing your beginning will help you find your way out of the swamp. And if you’ve just typed those wonderful two words — THE END — then this review is really for you. Because THE END is never really the end. It is the beginning. (rewrite time!)

Do: Create a Good Hook

  • The first chapter is where reader makes a decision to enter your world.
  • Needn’t be fast or fancy. But it must make you care about a character and what is happening to him.
  • Large hooks can disappoint readers if the rest doesn’t measure up. If you begin writing at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill.
  • If hook is strange or misleading, you might have trouble living up to its odd expectations.

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.” — agent Daniel Lazar

Do: Come Up With a Juicy Opening Line

  • Your opening line gives you an intellectual line of credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.”
  • A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. No junk language or words.
  • A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.
  • BUT: if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up. It is a teaser, not an end to itself.

The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”       – John LeCarre

Do: Get Into Your Story As Late As Possible

Begin your story just before the interesting stuff is about to happen. You want to create tension as early as possible and escalate from there. Don’t give the reader too much time to think about whether they want to go along on your ride.

Where do you CHOOSE to enter your story time-wise? Think of yourself as a paratroop commander. You’re pushing your jumpers (readers) out of the plane. Where do you want them to land for maximum suspense? Too early you bore your reader (throat clearing) Too late you confuse the reader (coma syndrome).

Do: Introduce Your Protagonist

Never wait too late in the story to give us the hero. And readers have to care about him or her right from the start. And be careful not to give the early spotlight to a minor character because whoever is at the helm in chapter one is who the reader will automatically want to follow. If it is someone minor, reader will feel betrayed and annoyed when you shift the spotlight.

Now, I hear you:  But my first chapter shows the serial killer at work! Or: But I need this world-building prologue first! Okay, okay. So maybe you can wait until chapter 2 to have your heroine walk on stage, but don’t play around too long. The reader won’t wait forever to bond with your main man or woman.

“Sometimes a writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player.”
— Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency

Do: Open With A Disturbance!

Our own James Bell preaches this all the time. Something has to be amiss. Depending on what kind of book you are writing, or your genre, the disturbance can be earthshattering (a thriller about a killer comet heading our way!) or cozy-mild (the owner of  a florist shop finds a corpse in her orchid house!). But you have to tilt the protag’s world off its axis.

  • Conflict drives good fiction. It disrupts the status quo. Your first chapter is
    not a straight line. It’s a jagged driveway up a dark mountain and the
    shadows are full of danger.
  • Don’t fall into the “happy people in Happy Land” trap. Don’t think that if you
    first show the lead character in her normal life, being happy with her family
    or dog, we’ll be all riled up when something bad happens to this nice person.
  • Don’t fall into the “I’m the Greatest Literary Stylist of Our Time” trap. This is
    where a writer tries to display brilliance via pure prose before, somewhere
    down the line, something like a plot kicks in.

“Too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me. The first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who and how.” — Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency

Do: Establish Your Time And Place

This is small but important. You have to tell the reader where we are in the world (or universe) and at least a hint of the time (year, era). If you don’t, the reader flails around, gets coma syndrome and then usually gets aggravated. Also, if you aren’t writing in current day, you need to tell reader. Because details about the culture, police procedure and forensics will be in question.

A word about time and place taglines on your chapter headings: Try to avoid them. They smell of amateurism and say that the writer does not know how to gracefully slip this info into the story – or that they are too lazy to do it. But sometimes, a complex plot needs tags, like if you are jumping around in time and geography.

CHAPTER ONE
Goa India, 1889.

CHAPTER TWO
Paris, France, 1945

Do: Get Your Characters Talking As Soon As Possible

Dialogue is the lifeblood of your story and you need it early. Too much exposition or description is like driving a car with the emergency brake on.  Remember: Dialogue is a from of ACTION.  I’ll let the experts tell you:

“My biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish. — Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter One in which nothing happens.”
— Jessica Regel, Foundry Literary + Media

“What I hate are characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”- — Daniel Lazar, Writers House

Now the next two Dos are up for discussion. Because while both are very important, you might not be able to get this done in your Chapter One. But you must lay the groundwork for both of these elements in the first couple chapters.

Do: Define The Stakes And Your Hero’s Journey 

What is at play in the story? What are the costs? What can be gained,
what can be lost? Love? Money? One’s soul? Will someone die?
Can someone be saved?

What is the journey you’ve set up for your hero or heroine? What is their PERSONAL ARC. How will they change and/or grow?

The first chapter doesn’t demand that you spell out the stakes of the entire book in neon but we do need a hint.

 

Do: Establish Your Tone And Voice

From the get-go, your reader should be able to tell what kind of book he is reading – hardboiled, romantic, humorous, neo-noir. Everything in your book should support your tone, but the first chapter is vital to inducing an emotional effect in your reader. Edgar Allan Poe’s wrote of something he called the UNITY OF EFFECT. Which means that every element of a story should help create a single emotional impact.

Make your own voice loud and clear. This is where you are introducing your story but also yourself as a writer. Your language must be crisp, you must be in complete control of your craft, you must be original! No self indulgent description, no bloated passages, no slack in the rope. Don’t try to be “writerly.” Good writing does not call attention to itself. The reader must feel he is being led by a calm, confident storyteller.

“I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.”  — Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

“Someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief — been done a million times.”  — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Okay…let’s talk about a few DONTS for your first chapter

Don’t: Open With A Prologue (Unless You Really Know What You’re Doing)

Yeah, yeah…I know. This opens a big can of gummie worms. But I am going on record here that 99 prologues out of a 100 are not needed. Prologues, especially if they are nothing but exposition, put a deathly brake on your story.  They force you to start your story twice and most of us can barely get it right once. When bad or even merely okay, a prologue makes the the reader think, “Get on with the story already!”

EXERCISE: Cut your prologue and see if your story opens faster. If you haven’t lost any clarity, you probably don’t need the prologue. Or just label it Chapter 1.

I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.” — Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader that can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”— Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

Don’t: Lard In Too Much Backstory Or Exposition

The first chapter is not the place to tell us everything. Exposition kills drama. Backstory is boring. Incorporating backstory is HARD WORK, but you must weave it artfully into the story not give us an INFO-DUMP in chapter 1.

ACT FIRST, EXPLAIN LATER. In other words, something has to happen! Then you can reflect on it. (This is another homily from Brother Bell)

I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story. A story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.”  — Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘info dump’ in the first few pages, where the author ties to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”- Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary Agency

Don’t: Confuse Readers or Use False Starts 

One of the biggest pitfalls in starting a story is to begin with an opening line that is confusing but might make perfect sense once the reader learns more later. But once confused, few readers will venture further.

This is not to say you can’t include info in your opening that acquires additional meaning once the reader learns more. That technique is often a highly rewarding tool. But the opening should make sense.

You describe something awful but then someone wakes up and reader finds out it was just a dream. DON’T DO IT! Or you kill off someone in first chapter and it is someone we never really hear or care about again. If you begin with an on-camera murder, you must then use the rest of the story to make this person come back to life in our memories and maybe even make us mourn this person.

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.” — Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.” — Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary.

Miscellaneous Don’ts

  • Introduce too many characters too early (See illustration above)
  • Use excessive description The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] land.
  • Use bad weather symbolism (gathering storm clouds)
  • Rely on clichés (detective wakes with hangover)
  • Write: “Years later, Monica would look back and laugh…”
  • Give the spotlight to whiny or disgusting characters
  • Have character directly addressing the reader
  • Open with “Twenty minutes before she died…”
  • Write this: “Little did she know the killer was watching her…”
  • Open with a dream (Bobby in the Shower syndrome)

And that, crime dogs, is my sermon du jour. Don’t get discouraged. Do keep writing. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Do take good care of yourself and your loved ones.

 

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First Page Critique: Eddie’s
History But Magic’s Ahead

By PJ Parrish

As I’ve often said here, I am not well read in YA fiction. In my day, A Separate Peace was the big young adult hit, and I recall really liking S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. And a couple years back, stranded in a vacation house, I plowed through three Harry Potters and liked them all. But anything newer or edgier than that, well, I’m at a loss.

That caveat thrown out there, I offer today’s First Pager, and suggest that I have to judge it purely on its own merits as successful storytelling for any age group. And pose the question: Is Lord of the Flies seminal YA? Back in a flash…

Prey For Love

Sean

Eddie passes out before I can dive into the official breakup convo. Now he lies, naked, sprawled on his unmade twin bed that never felt big enough for two. Loud snores fill the apartment while I hunt through his ramshackle studio trying not to forget any small scraps of my life. Once I leave I’ll never be back.

It would be easy to lose something important amidst the piles of record albums, turntables, and DJ equipment—including three giant disco balls—that clutter his tiny apartment. Luckily I didn’t arrive with much.

“Goodbye, Eddie,” I whisper as I brush a lock of hair from his handsome brow.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. My first summer love. My first serious love. My first shattered heart. Four months ago I thought I’d I’d never had a boyfriend. Ever. I mean, I’m no catch.

Antisocial? Hell, yeah. I’d rather snuggle with a book than a boy. Pretty? With my various disabilities, eyebrows as dark as thunderclouds, and a jaw too brickish to look feminine I vote—definitely not. Yet Eddie thought I was gorgeous. But he is, well he is Eddie. Say no more.

Backpack slung over one shoulder, guitar the other I leave. Gently shutting the door, I lock it and slide the tarnished key he gave me beneath. I rummage through my handbag to make sure I have my wallet and phone.

Don’t stall. Get moving. Go before you change your mind.

When I moved to NYC from upstate New York for the summer I moved for him. Well, for him and to take the apprentice exam at the Institute for Magical Conservation. It is there that I will study Lore. My lifelong dream. However, my apprenticeship doesn’t start until the fall. I didn’t need to be in this big, stinking city for any reason except for love.

Now that love is gone. Mostly. Eddie killed it. I turn and hobble down the five flights of stairs I’ve come to know well over the past two months.

“Kat? Kat!” Eddie’s voice rings down from the top of the stairs just as I reach the landing. I dart out the door and into the East Village side street. I limp down the block fast as I can manage. Grabbing my phone I call my aunt.

__________________

We’re back. Well…well, well, well. What can I say? Except that I would definitely read on. And from this old set-in-her-reading-ways wombat, that’s probably the best compliment I can give.

There is so much going on here that’s right in this submission. So, let’s use it as an object lesson to talk about how a good writer tosses the craft balls in the air and keeps them juggling.

Start with voice. (character’s, not author’s…subtle but important difference. More to come on that in a sec.) The narrator’s voice is clear as a bell. We know this girl right from get-go. She’s smart and self-aware, but also very human in her self-deprecation. I’d guess she’s late teens, early twenties, but we needn’t know exactly yet. I like this girl, too, like the fact she’s faced a broken heart and has the gumption to get up and leave. Even though she’s a bit of a coward sneaking off in mid-snore, but that’s human, too, no?

Re character voice vs author voice. Character voice is the speech, thoughts, and actions of your people, conveyed in a consistent and believable narrative pattern so readers buy into the idea they are encountering a “real” person.  When it’s done well, like here, it’s a powerful sleight of hand, maybe the writer’s most powerful tool because it creates the crucial empathetic bond for the reader. Now, author voice refers to a writer’s style, the quality that makes their writing unique, a sort of summation of your view of life and the world. Your writer’s voice should be singularly yours, so much so that your book can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. Not every novel achieves this. But the best ones always do.  In this short sample, we can’t get a true sense of the writer’s voice, but I suspect over 300 pages or so, it might be there.

Let’s talk now about structure. Notice how the writer varies their use of short and long sentences and graphs. It scans well to the eye on the page; that increases interest. The snippets of dialogue are given their own lines to breathe. (with one small exception).

The first graph is juicy. We’re dropped in mid-drama here, Kat sneaking away from a flamed out love. The opening line is good, and I like the last line of the opening: “Once I leave, I’ll never be back.”  (I wonder if that’s true!)

Note how adroitly the writer slips in Kat’s backstory — just enough to intrigue us, ground us in her current status, yet not enough to clog up the narrative. Backstory should tease, never bore.

Okay, let me bring out the red pencil and do a line edit.

Prey For Love I like the title. Double entendres often work well.

Sean the submission came with this tacked on; I assume it’s a subtitle? Not sure it’s needed but would need to see more chapters to say.

Eddie passes out before I can dive into the official breakup convo. I tripped over this but I’m older than dirt and finally figured out it’s slang for conversation. Duh. Now he lies, naked, sprawled on his unmade twin bed that never felt big enough for two. Very nice for two reasons: Goes to character voice and backstory Loud snores fill the apartment while I hunt through his ramshackle studio small and fixable redundancy trying not to forget any small scraps of my life. Once I leave I’ll never be back.

It would be easy to lose something important amidst the piles of record albums, turntables, and DJ equipment—including three giant disco balls—that clutter his tiny apartment. Luckily I didn’t arrive with much. More backstory but also tells us something about the girl herself. She travels light in life. 

“Goodbye, Eddie,” I whisper as I brush a lock of hair from his handsome brow. Dialogue should always be set off by itself. 

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. My first summer love. My first serious love. My first shattered heart. Four months ago I thought I’d I’d never had a boyfriend. Ever. I mean, I’m no catch. More backstory, but the writer stops before it gets turgid. Big thing for beginners to learn: Less is more with backstory in early going. Also, notice how the line “I’m no catch” works as a bridge to the next graph.

Antisocial? Hell, yeah. I’d rather snuggle with a book than a boy. Now, this is important so pay attention: With first person POV it is really hard to give readers a portrait of your narrator because you can only describe her through her own consciousness. Notice how much this character tells you about herself via quick thoughts. She’s no empty-brain Barbie. Pretty? With my various disabilities, should writer be specific here as to what kind of disability? I didn’t get it was physical on first read. See later comment eyebrows as dark as thunderclouds, and a jaw too brickish to look feminine SO HARD to give a physical idea of a protag. But I betcha you can see this girl in your mind. I vote—definitely not. Yet Eddie thought I was gorgeous. But he is, well, need an extra comma here he is Eddie. Say no more.

Backpack slung over one shoulder, guitar the other another character crumb slyly dropped in. This is how you SHOW us she’s a musician rather than having her TELL us with something clumsy like: “I had always wanted to play the guitar…” I leave. Gently shutting the door, I lock it and slide the tarnished key he gave me beneath. I rummage through my handbag to make sure I have my wallet and phone.

Don’t stall. Get moving. Go before you change your mind. Generally, put a stand alone thought like this in itals. 

When I moved to NYC chance to be more specific — you tell me later it’s the East Village. I’d put it here. BUT: take note that the writer has easily told us WHERE WE ARE in the first 400 words. Nice. from upstate New York for the summer I moved for him. Well, for him and to take the apprentice exam at the Institute for Magical Conservation. As far as I can tell, this is made-up but I love it because it poses questions. What kind of world are we in where magic needs to be conserved? When I Googled this, I did find there is an actual course at Lund University in Switzerland called “Fantastic beasts and why to conserve them: animals, magic and biodiversity conservation.”  Is our Kat character is off to study some such esoterica? Again, I would read on…It is there that I will study Lore. My lifelong dream. However, my apprenticeship doesn’t start until the fall. I didn’t need to be in this big, stinking city for any reason except for love.

Now that love is gone. Mostly. Eddie killed it. Not unsure this doesn’t need one more thought. Did she have any role in this bad turn? I turn and hobble Stumbled on this at first then realized you told me earlier she has a disability. Does it need to be more clear? Just asking for the hive here down the five flights of stairs I’ve come to know well over the past two months. Writer has grounded us in time.

“Kat? Kat!” This is a different character talking, so set it off by itself.

Eddie’s voice rings down from the top of the stairs just as I reach the landing. I dart out the door and into the East Village side street. Be specific. Out on to Third Ave or head toward Tomkins Square? I limp down the block fast as I can manage. Grabbing my phone I call my aunt.

So, to sum up, take a read through the submission again and see how the writer juggles these balls in less than 500 words:

  • Told us the first person narrator’s name.
  • Gave us a hint of her appearance and age-range
  • Identified where we are
  • Dropped us into a decisive moment that is impelling the character toward change.
  • Provided enough backstory to define the narrator
  • Gave us a good snapshot of Eddie
  • Told us what the character is striving for — something to do with magic conservation.

Thanks, writer, for a good time. So..would you guys read on?

 

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Looking For Your Story’s Heart?
Try To Write Its Headline

By PJ Parrish

When I was in the newspaper biz, part of my job was writing headlines. Great headline writing is a real art because you have to boil a story into maybe ten words that capture the story’s essence but also lure the reader in.

Great headline writers were the royalty of the copy desk. Or maybe the court jesters. The headline writers I knew were always trying to sneak in puns or a double entendre. My husband, an ex sports editor, still loves to talk about his glory days. When the Houston Oilers practiced without their best wide receiver Warren Wells before their game against the Dolphins, he wrote: OILERS DRILL WITHOUT WELLS. But his classic came when Dolphins cut their tight end Jim Cox:  DOLPHINS WAIVE INJURED COX.

I know, I know…men.

The undisputed all-time best headline award, though, goes to the New York Post, which is infamous for its ability to pull readers into their stories:

A psycho had invaded a Queens after-hours joint, shot the owner to death and then — on learning a female customer was a mortician — ordered her to cut off the victim’s head, which cops later found in the madman’s car. The headline was written by Vincent A. Musetto. In memorializing Musetto after his death, a writer noted that the headline was “as witty as it was horrific, it expressed with unflinching precision the city’s ­accelerating tailspin into an abyss of atrocious crime and chaos.”

Which gets me to my point today.  All great stories can be summed up in just a couple words. And if you can’t boil your own story down to a juicy headline, then maybe you don’t really know what your story is about at its heart.

If you’ve ever had to write a concept or produce your own back copy, you know how hard this is. Or if you’ve ever tried to convince an editor at a writers conference to read your manuscript. This is known as “the elevator pitch” — you have to sell an agent your story in time it takes to go up four floors in the hotel elevator.

And when you do get published, it’s useful if you ever find yourself at a book signing and someone asks you, “So, what’s your book about?”

You don’t regurgitate plot. You give them the elevator pitch. And if you can’t answer in three sentences or less, chances are you’ve lost a sale.

Think about advertising. A pithy pitch sells the product. Take the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever,”  which has appeared in every De Beers ad since 1948. Diamonds are inherently worthless. Your ring drops in value 50 percent the moment you leave Zales. But with one slogan De Beers made a diamond into a symbol of wealth and romance. It perfect captures a deep sentiment — a diamond, like your relationship, is eternal.

Coming up with a headline or slogan for your story is a great clarifying exercise. It makes you think beyond mere plot and deep into that sweet spot where story, character and theme mesh.

Okay, enough lecture. Let’s have some fun.

Here is a cool little exercise to get your brain moving to think about story slogans. It was created by screenwriter Nat Ruegger. Take any common advertising slogan, like for Kentucky Fried Chicken or Volvo. Put it into the past tense and make it the first line of your book and see where it takes you.

I struggle coming up with opening paragraphs so I was leery. But I tried this with the Lays Potato Chips slogan — “You Can’t Stop At Just One.” (later changed to “Betcha can’t stop at just one.”)

I couldn’t stop at just one. Believe me, I tried. Maybe it was because I was so hung up on blonde hair, especially when it was braided, falling down a girl’s back like a piece of rope. My first had braided blonde hair. I strangled her with my bare hands, but for all the others after that, I used a yellow rope. I guess because I wanted to get the taste of that first one back again. The first is the most delicious, you see.

I almost went with Nike’s “Just Do It.”  It was inspired by the death row words of murderer Gary Gilmore — “Let’s do it.” Seems to me there’s a good serial killer first-person thriller that opened with “I just did it.”

Then I thought of Taco Bell’s slogan “Head for the Border!” That made me think of consummate storyteller Bruce Springsteen and his song “Highway Patrolman.” It opens with these lyrics:

My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville barracks number 8
I always done an honest job as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain’t no good
Now ever since we was young kids it’s been the same comedown
I get a call on the shortwave, Franky’s in trouble downtown
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way

The song ends with Joe in squad-car pursuit after his brother, who has stabbed a man and is on the run. I could see a story beginning late in the scene with this line: “He headed for the border.” Here’s how Springsteen ended his song:

Well I chased him through them county roads
Till a sign said Canadian border five miles from here
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear

One more. I next tried Clairol’s famous slogan “Does She Or Doesn’t She?” (Only her hairdresser knows for sure). It seemed ideal for a cozy set in a hair salon:

Did she or didn’t she? No one would ever really know. Because when Marcel Marseau, the owner of the chi-chi Palm Beach salon To Dye For, was found floating in the water hazard of the  17th hole of the Everglades Golf Course, we all suspected Lily Van Pulletzer.  But then her body was found stuffed in the butler’s pantry at Mar-a-Lago, and I knew this was going to be the toughest case of my career. 

Okay, now you see why I don’t write humor. But you get the point. A great slogan can get your motor running when you’re stuck in neutral. And maybe if you can write a great slogan or headline for your story, you can figure out what you are really trying to say.

Now it’s your turn. Think of a good slogan and put it in the past tense. Pick first person or third and give us a great opening paragraph to a fabulous crime story. Here’s a list of slogans you can use or come up with your own. I’ve switched the slogans to past tense.

It kept going…and going…and going. Energizer batteries always make me think of The Tell-Tale heart.

Every kiss Began With Kay. Nice start for a romance?

American By Birth, A Rebel By Choice. I love this one by Harley Davidson. I’d change it to “She was American by birth, a rebel by choice” to introduce a vigilante heroine maybe.

There Was No Tomorrow. Past tense and Fedex becomes dystopian YA.

It was the happiest place on earth. (Disneyland) And of course, it was really hell on earth.

What happened there, stayed there. (Las Vegas)

Sometimes he felt like a nut. Sometimes she didn’t. (Almond Joy)

 

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