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

Cracking The Big Mystery
Behind The Bestseller Lists

 

The bestseller list is the tip of the iceberg. — Michael Korda

By PJ Parrish

William Peter Blatty was hot off the blockbuster success of his book The Exorcist when he met the devil he couldn’t defeat — the New York Times best seller list.

Angered that his novel Legion, the sequel to The Exorcist, didn’t make the list, he sued the Times for $6 million, claiming the Times ignored actual sales figures from his publisher and that Legion was kept off the list because of “either negligence or intentional falsehood.”

It gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.

The Times, which had always claimed that the list was compiled from computer sales,  countered in court that its list “was not mathematically objective but was editorial content and thus protected under the Constitution as free speech.”  Blatty appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Thus the ruling stood that the New York Times bestseller list was “editorial content, not objective factual content” and that they had the right to exclude whatever book they wanted.

And that, crime dogs, is pretty much where we still stand today.  How any book cracks the New York Times bestseller list remains, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous quote about Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in fish wrap.”

I used to dream about being a bestseller.  Because this is what happens: Your publisher takes you to dinner at Le Bernardin. You get a new seven-figure contract with cover approval and world tour. Spielberg buys the rights. Your agent starts to return your calls. And you make so much dough your long-lost brother from Bullhead hits you up for a car loan.

Like I said…it’s just dream. We actually did make the Times list, with our third book Paint It Black. It was only what they call the “extended list” which means we didn’t crack the top 15 but hey, we hung on our toenails for a while.  We made the extended list two other times but have not repeated the feat recently. But that’s okay, because it’s sort of like making Eagle Scout. Once you get your badge, no one can take it away and you can wear that badge until your teeth fall out.

So I am not here to tell you that making a bestseller list is a fool’s goal. It doesn’t open doors so much as widen the crack, and it gives you credibility with readers, booksellers, critics and such. But I am here today to ask you not to think about it much. Because the bestseller list game is sort of rigged.

This is not news to many of you. But whenever I am asked about this subject by readers or some newbie writers, I am always shocked at their naïveté. What, you’re telling me it’s not based on real book sales? they gasp.

I don’t think much about bestseller lists anymore. I don’t even look at them when I read my New York Times book review section. But yesterday I did stop and read the paper’s “Inside the Times” article.  It was titled “We Don’t Have to Like ‘Best Sellers’.”  In it, once again, the Times felt compelled to explain to the world how it compiles its lists.

This controversy is not new. A book industry report in the 1940s found that best-seller lists were a poor indicator of sales, since they were based on “misleading data.” Fast-forward to a 2004 report that quoted a senior book marketing executive who said the rankings were “smoke and mirrors,” and a report in Book History found that many professionals in the book industry “scoffed at the notion that the lists are accurate.”

And writers have been trying to game the Times system since before the quill pen.  Jacquelyn Susann and Wayne Dwyer, among others, bulk-bought their own books to get on the list. And until recently, you could hire a company called ResultSource that would contract with you to manipulate lists through “bestseller campaigns.” (I tried to find their website but apparently ResultSource has since gone dark).

Last summer, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But the YA Twitter community discovered it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem. The author and her publisher bought the book’s way onto the list by strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. The Times quickly removed the book from its list.

So it’s no surprise the Times is still playing defense. Here’s a sample from their Q&A yesterday:

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists.

Translation: The Times has a network of “reporting stores” which include selected independent bookstores and some but not all big-store outlets. The last figure I found was 4,000 stores and “undisclosed wholesalers.” The exact methodology is considered a trade secret. I have been told by store owners that the reporting figures are not even based on actual sales to customers but on the number of books ordered to stock.

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists. A number of variables go into whether a book will rank on a given week. Weeks where there are blockbuster debuts in multiple categories will be different from quieter weeks. Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering.

Do the books have to have been reviewed in The New York Times?

Books that get ranked may or may not get reviewed by the Book Review and vice versa. Our best-seller lists and the editorial decisions of The Times’s book editors and critics are entirely independent. This means our lists are not a judgment of literary merit made by the editors of the best-seller lists, who remain impartial to the results. These are best-seller lists, not best-reviewed lists.

Translation: But if you happen to work at the Times, some critics have charged, your book will not only get reviewed but it has a pretty good chance of being “considered” by the panel of folks who watch over the list. Which leads us to…

How do The Times’s ranking methods ensure objectivity?

The best-sellers desk is staffed by three full-time editors who work independently from our news, opinion and culture desks; from the Book Review and the books desk; and from our advertising department. Our nonfiction lists feature books from authors across ideological and political spectrums. In the last year, politicians and commentators who identify as conservative have performed as well as, if not better than, liberal ones on our lists. Trends depend on publishing schedules and what is happening in the cultural zeitgeist.

One question they don’t address, but one I am asked often is: How many books does it take to crack a list?  It depends…

On who else you’re competing against that week. On what time of year it is. On whether someone has a similar book already out there. And on what list you’re aiming for. The general figure these days (way down from the olden days when I started out) is you need to sell at least 5,000 in one week.  But that means from Monday to Sunday if you want to be a Publishers Weekly best-seller, and from Sunday to Saturday if you want to be a New York Times best-seller.

It’s a jungle out there, Martha. Even if you want to aim a little lower, say for USAToday, The Wall Street Journal, a regional list like the Chicago Tribune or maybe Indiebound, you have a whole different set of hoops to jump through for each. Every bestseller list out there is compiled differently. Here’s a breakdown I found at Vox.com:

Publishers Weekly: Compiles data from the Nielsen service BookScan, which is what most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales. BookScan claims it tracks 80-85  percent of the sales of printed books in the U.S. (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores.) But it does not track books sold at independent bookstores that use older systems incompatible with BookScan’s tracking, or books sold outside of the general bookstore ecosystem, ie, at conferences or gift shops or toy stores, or even sales to libraries. It also doesn’t track the sales of e-books.

USA Today: Gets its data from both a handful of independent bookstores and many of the usual-suspect big sellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, etc. It doesn’t make any claims about what share of books sales it tracks, so it’s a broad sampling of books sold every week from different types of stores. Again, like BookScan, it does not track books being sold outside the bookstore ecosystem.  It doesn’t divide its list into any specific categories, but instead reports the top 150 titles sold across all genres and in all formats except for audio. So your crime novel will compete against Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I know, I know…insane.

Indiebound: This is compiled by the American Booksellers Association. The ABA uses sales data drawn from about 550 independent bookstores to create its list, but it doesn’t rank titles by overall sales volume. Instead, it weights the books on its list according to the sales rank each one reaches at each individual store. I don’t understand that either but there it is…

Amazon: It has two different best-seller lists: Amazon Charts and Amazon Best Sellers. Charts comes out once a week, tracking the books that have sold the most copies in any format (on Amazon, and in its Kindle store, Audible store, and brick-and-mortar storefronts), and the most read or listened-to books on Kindle and Audible. It’s not broken down by category or format, and it only reflects what’s happening on Amazon and its subsidiaries. (Since Amazon has a 65 percent market share, that’s actually a pretty decent sampling.) Amazon Best Sellers, in contrast, is updated once an hour, and it is broken down by categories. This latter one is what we crime dogs fixate on.

Okay, you’re saying, what about us self-published guys? Do we have a chance at getting on any kind of list? Yes, you can crack the Amazon list.  We got to no. 1 briefly in the thriller category when we self-published our back-list title Dead of Winter. And it used to be alot easier before Amazon started messing with their algorhithms. There was a story every week about some self-pubbed phenom. But for reason behind my ken, that has tapered off. (Maybe some of you can explain in comment?) I did see a figure this week that was astonding — that you need to sell between 3,500 to 5,000 copies in a 24-hour period to hit no. 1 on Amazon. But then I also read recently that Lee Child sells a book every eight seconds…

By the way…those three books at the top of this blog today? You might recognize them. You might not know that they were all self-published before they were massive bestsellers.

But what about the Gray Lady? Well, according to their Q&A yesterday, here are the books they don’t track:  “perennial sellers, shopping guides, comics, reference and test preparation guides, required classroom reading, textbooks, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, puzzle books and self-published books.” If if makes you feel any better, this means the Bible doesn’t qualify. Neither does The New York Times Monday Through Friday Crossword Book, even though it is currently #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

So, does this matter? Is this something you should you worry about this?

Well, it’s a gold star on your homework, but it isn’t a true gauge of success. And here’s something weird I found:  Hitting the Times list works better for unknown  authors than the Lee Childs of the world.

According to an economics professor Alan Sorensen, who has studied the effect of bestseller lists on sales of hardcover fiction, relatively unknown writers get the biggest benefit, as much as a 57% increase in sales. But for perennial best-selling authors such as John Grisham, being on the list makes virtually no difference in sales. Most sales occur soon after a book hits the shelves and gradually peter out. “If anything, what appearing on the [bestseller] list does is not so much cause your sales to increase from one week to the next, but rather to decrease at a slower rate,” Sorensen said.

Why can’t the bestseller system be fixed?

With the sophistication of software now, you’d think there would be a better way to keep track of real book sales. The model, some say, is the music industry, with its bestseller list in Billboard. The magazine tracks every single album sold at every single music store in the United States. SoundScan, the company that began tracking CD and tape sales with a bar code system, was the force behind the creation of Bookscan.  But BookScan is too expensive for many bookstore owners.

And here’s the bigger rub: The publishing industry really doesn’t want a single list of what’s really selling. They want lots of different lists that they can manipulate to benefit their own bailiwicks.

So…write your book and kept your heads down, crime dogs. The rest will come.

Which brings us back to William Blatty.  Despite great reviews, The Exorcist laid such a giant sales egg at first that Harper and Row reported getting returns by “the carload.” But then sales took off and the book made the New York Times bestseller list for 57 straight weeks and at the No 1 spot for 17 of them.

And years later, not long after Blatty filed his lawsuit against the New York Times, Legion made it all the way to no. 15 the Times list for one week.

 

9+

Does Your Cover Need
a New Year’s Makeover?

“A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” — Chip Kidd, Random House cover designer

By PJ Parrish

Welcome back, crime dogs. It’s the new year! Out with the old, in with the new!

So today, as you think about how you might want to improve yourself this year — botox? go blond? organize the sock drawer? — maybe you should take a moment to re-look your book branding.

Oh dear…Just hours into 2019 and I’ve lost some of you already. Branding…ugh. I can barely think about what’s going on in chapter 12 let alone worry about how I am going to make splash (or even a ripple) in the ocean of books that will be published this year.  Let’s get the bad news out of the way first:

That chart shows the number of self-published books from 2008 through just 2017. I know, I know. Discouraging. So how do you increase your chances of getting noticed and maybe even making a few shekels? Let’s restate the obvious:

  1. Be a bestselling writer already
  2. Get a James Patterson co-author gig
  3. Get lucky.
  4. Write a really good book
  5. Do everything in your power to give it a good launch.

The only two you have any control over are 4 and 5. So let’s start there. Let’s also not go into promotion and marketing right now because that hydra-headed monster is too much for me to handle here. And besides, it depresses the hell out of me, and my only new year’s resolution this year is to try to focus on positive stuff because the negative stuff will find me at every turn.

Let’s talk, instead, about one of my favorite subjects — great covers. This is foremost in my writer brain in this new year because my sister Kelly and I are hard at work getting our back list titles ready to post. Our oldest came out 18 years ago (geez…) so, it’s time for a make-over. Besides, when you get your rights back and want to reissue your books, you legally can’t use the same covers your old publisher did. Which, as many of you poor souls know, can turn out to be a good thing.  More on that later…

How important are  covers? Industry folks believe a cover is the single most important thing in determining a book’s initial chance for success. A great cover makes a book stand out and thus easier to sell. For you the author, it is your only chance at a first impression. It’s like your own face, capable of conveying emotion, inner feelings, mood — what’s inside!

So, how do you make a great first impression?

If you are traditionally published, you have little or no control over this. Publishers have teams of marketing folks and artistic types that agonize over this (or in some sad cases, don’t). I’ve worked with Big Six publishers, small presses, Amazon’s mystery imprint Thomas & Mercer, plus many international imprints. In 30-plus years publishing romance, mysteries and thrillers, I’ve had some terrific covers and some howling dogs.

(See image at left…arf! arf!) My involvement in the cover process has ranged from no input, cover consultation written in my contract, and being asked to fill out an extensive questionaire about what I thought my cover should convey (by Thomas & Mercer, who also asked us to send photos we liked and allowed us to chose between two final covers).

But what about those of you who are self-publishing? That’s why I am writing this today, because, as I said, I am now a publisher myself and Kelly and I have been agonizing over this.

Here are some qualities of good covers, suggested by the site Trending/Packaging, with a few comments from me in red italics.

  • It needs a good title/ subtitle. Which is why I rail so often in my First Page critiques about innocuous or trite titles.
  • It must draw the potential reader’s attention towards the book. Like a great billboard does as you sped by in your car.
  • It should communicate with the reader on an emotional level. So important! Generic doesn’t cut it.
  • It must be unique. All books are different from each other, similarly, every book cover should also be unique to make it different from other covers. Easier said than done.
  • It should look professional. Well, duh. But just go look at some of the free offerings on Amazon to see how many fail at this. Or this site, subtitled Just Because You CAN Design Your Own Cover Doesn’t Mean You Should. 
  • It should clearly give an idea of the category of the book whether it is a horror story or a love story etc. What is your tone? Dark, lighthearted, noir, romantic?
  • It should communicate the message about the quality of the book. There is a huge difference between the covers of different qualities of books. Again, click here for what not to do. 
  • It should tell the reader what your genre or sub-genre is — fiction, non-fiction, biography, romance, thriller, etc. Readers want to know what kind of story they are getting and don’t like to be confused.

To be sure, publishers tend to be lemming-like when it comes to cover design. Hey, if basic black worked for Gone Girl, why not all its sisters? Liane Moriarity’s Little Big Lies unleashed an explosion of lollipop covers. And this trend seems evergreen — the imperiled girl/woman in the red coat:

As this is a favorite theme among man books — the shadowy guy with the gun.

Please note I show these not as any reflection of the quality of the books. I know many of these folks and they are talented all. I have read many of these books. I’d guess few of these writers get heavily involved in their cover design. Just showing that publishers themselves tend to run in packs. (Oh…I will send a free book to the first person who can tell me why the Lee Child book is somewhat out of place here).

Speaking of trends, a while back, I wrote a post about what was hot in cover design in 2018. Click here to see examples but to sum up:

  • Bold typography
  • Minimalist covers
  • Hand-drawn covers
  • Seventies and eighties designs
  • Millennial Pink
  • Collages
  • Authentic photography
  • Upscale finishes

I think we can all breath a sigh of relief that “millennial pink” is probably passe by now. The others, I believe, still stand. I see them holding true every time I pass through a bookstore or browse Amazon. But I don’t think we crime dogs should get too hung up on this.  What I think we should pay attention to is:

  • Professionalism
  • Consistency of brand
  • Messaging

Professsionalism means you can’t get away with a lousy, cheap-looking cover. Because it yells in neon to a potential reader “I am an amateur!” This applies especially if you are just starting out. Like they used to tell us in “women’s magazines” — dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Don’t design your own cover unless you have solid graphic background and even then — GET INPUT! Would you edit your own story? No…you get beta-readers, you hire copy editors. (If you do edit your own books, you’re a fool). You might have to hire a pro to do this. There are lots of good ones out there. Please don’t skimp on this. Please.

Consistency of Brand means your books have to look alike. I don’t mean literally, but they have to all be of a kind so potential readers can immediately sense a unified brand.  All good authors do this. And periodically, they go back in and re-design their older books en masse to give them face lifts. Time for an object lesson….

My friend Neil Plakcy (a member of my old critique group) has been publishing his Golden Retriever mystery series for about ten years now. His books are a lot of fun (the dog helps solve the crime), light in tone, but also deal with some serious issues. (his hero did prison time for computer crimes.) Recently, Neil decided he needed a make-over.  The first line is before, the second line is after. Click to see enlarged.

What was wrong with the first ones? Inconsistency in type-faces. Type too small. The main important image (the dog!) was usually too small and static (the dog is just sitting or standing around mainly). No one compelling image for the eye to focus on. The pictures didn’t capture the books’ playful tone. Dull colors. And hard to find Neil’s name!

What is right with the second ones? The type is consistent and DOG is set bigger and in contrasting color to drive home the content in a glance. The subtitle “A Golden Retriever Mystery” is always the same size and in the same place. Neil’s name is consistent and authoritative. There is negative space for blurbs. And the dogs are so cute they make you want to adopt them. These covers look designed, not slapped together.

Disclaimer time: My sister Kelly designed the new covers. She does this as a side business and this is not an infomercial to get her work because I don’t want her attention on anything else but our stuff for now. But she and I also are redesigning our own back list covers.  And, I gotta tell you, it’s not been easy. 

Our departure point was our newest book, THE DAMAGE DONE. It has a very distinctive cover. And we decided we wanted all our previous books — which had been published by three different companies —  to be “branded” with the same look.

I was always impressed with the covers of Stephanie Meyers Twilight series. Stark black backgrounds each with one strong image and interesting type. They were beautiful, simple, revolutionary at the time and still copied to this day.  I suspect they were in my back-brain when we started redesigning our old books. These books were about vampires yet the covers had a dark elegance. The tone was spot-on.

Our first decision was tone. Our Louis Kincaid books are PI/police procedurals, rather dark in tone. We didn’t want to look too “thriller” with screaming type. We wanted each book to have a person on it because we think readers relate to books with human beings rather than say, a static photo of the Capital building or a rundown farmhouse. This is just our taste. Yours is different, so you must figure out what TYPE OF GRAPHIC IMAGE best conveys your story. We decided to go with black backgrounds and red title type. I studied advertising design in college and red and yellow on dark background is the most eye-grabbing combo. Red conveys power and immediacy. (Blue conveys trust; orange is hip and fun; purple signals prestige and elegance). Black is a powerful neutral but adds drama when paired with the right contrasting color. I think this is why Katherine Hepburn liked to wear red scarves and Nancy Reagan wore red. (She was barely 5-foot-4 and claimed it made her feel more powerful. I get that…)

Second, we had to find the right images. I can’t count the hours Kelly and I paged through the stock photo sites looking — praying — to find that one great photograph. And we paid for them — ranging from a splurge of $375 for a Getty Image photo to $35-$70 from such sites as iStock, Stutterstock, Deposit Photo, Dreamstime. All these latter are very reasonable with clear licensing guidelines. You get what you pay for. Invest wisely.

Big caveat: You have to look beyond the original photo sometimes. Sometimes, a creative cropping can make it more powerful. Or you play around with it, lightening, darkening etc. This is why you need design help because a successful cover is often made in tweaking the details.  Here’s an example: We are also putting out a collection of our short stories. Here is the photo we bought for the cover. Pretty cool looking dame, huh? Just as is, it could have worked. But…

But we wanted an off-kilter, more mysterious feel and needed some negative space for type. And sometimes, a glimpse of stocking (or a woman’s face) can be much more shocking. So here is what we did with it:

 

We continued our lady’s face around the spine and onto the back for effect. Here’s the final full cover, spine and back art.

If you work with a good designer, you and she can tweak things until you get what you want.

Third, we were very particular about the type we wanted. Like colors, typefaces have their own psychological effect. Look at the different moods you can create just from basic Word software:

I love typefaces. But I fell really hard for Luca Pacioli Rough.  It was used in the credits for House of Cards. It’s elegant but edgy. (which is what we were going for overall). Kelly found it and downloaded it free. (Some fonts are restricted, however).

Okay, time for another object lesson.  On the top row are some of our books as they were put out by the original publishers years ago. The bottom row are our new designs, all made to meet our three criteria of professionalism, consistency of brand and messaging. Click to enlarge.

All the new covers are consistent in tone. They all use one strong graphic element and same fonts. Notice, in particular, THE KILLING SONG. This is one of our stand alones and we always thought the original cover was weak. Yes, the letters are bold and there’s some dripping blood on what looks like a weathered farm house or something. But the story takes place mainly in Paris and is about a sophisticated cellist who just happened to have a habit of killing woman and leaving bizarre musical clues. The original cover missed the mark on tone and on conveying anything about setting or story. Music was the main point. Somebody at our publishing house had a tin ear.

If you’ll bear with me, let me give you one more example from our own collection. Call it the Evolution of a Cover.  Our tenth Louis Kincaid book was called The Little Death.

At left is the original cover: I defy you to tell me what it is about or where it takes place. It appears that some kind of plant is burning, but what does that mean? What the heck is this book about? Well, the story takes place in Palm Beach society. It is about a clique of rich women who take young male lovers then things go wrong and they must “dispose” of them. The title is a French idiom, “La Petite Mort,” for orgasm.  Our French publisher came a lot closer to getting the point. All his covers for our books were well-branded, featuring the same typefaces, and one strong graphic image against black backgrounds. In this case, it was an orchid — which is a major clue in the book and the means by which Louis finally cracks the case. It also looks sort of sexy. 

At left, is what we have come up with so far. We are still working on this cover — it was really hard to find the right image — but here is what we started with. We are tweaking this image, however, because we think it is a little too, forgive the pun, in your face. We might take out the dripping blood. We might go with something else entirely. But at least it won’t be a burning bush…

Whew…boy, did I run at the mouth today. Must have been holding all this in during the holiday hiatus. Anywho, that’s it for Cover Art 101 today. I could rail on this subject for hours. But I’d rather hear what you all think — as readers and writers.  What turns you on, what turns you off? Can you truly judge a book by its cover?

 

5+

How To Increase Your Daily
Word Count — Stop Eating!

By PJ Parrish

Every year about this time I start thinking about Lee Child. Dontcha just hate the guy? Here’s why:

  1. He’s an international mega-bestseller.
  2. He’s put out a book a year for 21 years and they are good.
  3. He’s got that good Brit thing going. David Beckham not Boris Johnson.
  4. He’s the first guy to pick up the bar tab, even if it’s for a hundred people.
  5. He’s tall. (ask him where he came up with the name Jack Reacher)
  6. He’s charming. (see reason 3)
  7. He writes 2,000 words a day. Every day.

That last one is the reason I really hate the guy. Okay, I don’t hate him. But I do envy him for his work ethic, consistency, and  productivity. He is always on my mind as we edge up toward January 1 and begin to make resolution lists. He’s a role model for any of us, wherever we are on the publishing food chain. Write often, write well. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Lee was among the contributors to Fastcompany.com’s “Secrets of the Most Productive People” series. His routine is simple: He starts each new book on September 1. It’s sentimental, he says, but also forces structure. He gets up between 7 and 8 a.m., has the first of his thirty cups of daily coffee.  He writes before he eats. “If I’m hungry, then I’m on the ball,” he says. He has two computers at different ends of his room. One is connected to the internet and one is not. Guess which one he writes on? “When I want to go online, I have to walk across the room, which usually disincentivizes me,” he says. He goes to bed between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. The last thing he does at night is smoke a joint.

So, take what lessons you will from that. The lesson I get is that he has a forced structure. He is focused. He approaches his writing like a job. Which is pretty basic, but something that eludes many of us who are blown away by the first distracting breeze. The laundry needs folding. The kids sound like they’re killing each other. That thing in the Tupperware has now grown a coat of fur. Speaking of fur, I need to send my sister that video of dancing pugs I saw on Facebook…

Are there truly any “secrets” to productivity? I don’t think so. If you ask successful people how they do what they do, their answers tend to repeat and are duh-fully common-sense.

1. Turn off the internet.  It’s a time-sucking Circe. If you, like me, turn to it to get a fix when the writing is going badly, well, Bunky, it’s time to cut the cord. Don’t check your email. Don’t answer that text alert. And don’t call up Google in the name of research when you’re really afraid to face chapter 6. The trick that works for me is to take my laptop to a place with no internet. Amazing how interesting your novel gets when all you have to look at is the wall. Maybe you don’t have the luxury of two computers like Lee, but you can disable your browser during work time.  There are even programs that do it for you: StayFocused, Anti-Social, SelfControl and my favorite — Write or Die.

2. Figure out your peak writing hours. In my salad days, I was a night owl. I wrote my first novel between 9 p.m. and midnight while I was working full-time. Somewhere around age 55, I started getting up at dawn, so now I am an annoying morning person. I read the paper, have my coffee, walk the dogs, then get to work around 11 a.m. My batteries conk out about  3 p.m. so I usually quit. Now if you have a job, you have to carve out time — one to two hours a day with maybe Sunday off is enough to finish a book if you’re consistent.  You have to make your family understand this.

3. Show up.  Yeah, sounds pretty basic, but this one is the hardest for me. I am not a daily writer. There, I said it.  I am trying very very hard to change this. Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up. He’s right. If you hit 80 percent, you’re doing good. And you have to show up on the bad days, even if you don’t feel like writing, especially when you don’t feel like writing. Another one of Fastcompany.com’s contributors is P.K. Subban, who plays for the Nashville Predator’s hockey team. “Sometimes you get out there and your body is feeling great, and you don’t have to push it,” he says. “Sometimes you get out there and your legs feel like they’re 80 pounds apiece, and you gotta do a little extra.”

4. Quit trying to be so damn perfect. This is my other downfall, the quest for the pretty page. Maybe Hemingway really did sit down every day and sweat out one true sentence. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Just turn on the faucet and let it flow. You can weed out the roughage later. Jodi Piccoult sticks a pin in the need for perfection: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

5. Be accountable to someone. This is easy if you are under contract. You’ll know how much trouble you’re in by the intensity of your editor’s emails. But if you’re flying on Spec Air, the sky is, unfortunately, limitless. If you’re on your first book with no contract, set a deadline and appoint someone as your “editor.” You need a nag, someone to hold your nose to the grindstone.  Laura Vanderkam, an author and time management expert (oxymoron?) says, “You’re not going to want to share with a friend, co-worker or career coach that you did not reach your goal this week, month, etc. So recruit a friend or family member or hire someone to help improve your productivity.” Critique groups work wonders if the group is well-structured. So can a nagging spouse. Mine is yelling at me right now telling me to finish this blog and get back to the book.

 6. Let the house or yard (or whatever you obsess over) go to hell. The average American spends about 30 minutes per day on household chores (not counting food prep and cleanup). I have trouble with this because I am a neat freak. But I grit my teeth and try to ignore it or I set one afternoon aside and do my dervish-dirt routine. Set a 15-minute timer for tidying up. If it doesn’t happen during this time, it wasn’t important. Except that moldy thing in fridge.

7. Turn off the TV: Americans with full-time jobs still manage to watch more than two hours of TV per day. Even if you trim that to 90 minutes that leaves 30 minutes to write. I was never more productive than the week up in Michigan this summer when our cable went out. You can only watch so many Gunsmoke reruns before the WIP starts to look really interesting.

8. Find time for down time.  We talk about this one a lot here, but it’s important. Get out and take a walk. It’s scientifically proven to increase productivity. Maybe it’s just around the block, but it’s better than logging onto Facebook.  Run or do yoga. Just move. Your book will thank you for it.

9. Reward yourself.  This one is nothing more than a blatant excuse to show you a picture of my new dog Archie. He’s a rescue and he’s got some issues, like peeing in the laundry room and barking at everyone he meets. The peeing thing is because he’s got a tiny bladder and eventually he’ll get that under control. The barking, well, that’s a bad habit. And like all bad habits, it can be changed. I researched how to  retrain him and found out dogs can be incentivized by — wait for it — food!  When someone approaches, I say a key word (ours is “focus!”) and hold out a kibble. It gets his attention away from the person and onto the reward.  It is working. Strange, isn’t it, that I chose “focus!” as the trigger word. So, whatever turns you on — Gummi Bears, a deep-muscle massage, an hour of uninterrupted Gunsmoke reruns — set that as your reward but only after you have banged out 2,000 words.  Be like Archie — focus then eat a kibble.

10. Stay positive.  Being negative is counterproductive. Whether the negativity comes from the outside (relatives who tell you your wasting your time on that book) or inside (I will never get published).  It’s bad for your health, it’s bad for your book. Yeah, your book sucks at times (we all feel like that), but you have power over it. And remember that even Lee Child has doubts:

When I start a book, I have no idea what the plot is going to be. I try to come up with a good opening sentence, and then I think, “Great,” and go from there. I write about 2,000 words a day. I don’t revise, because I have this mental oddity where I think once the story is written, changing it would feel dishonest. You can’t do that in real life. I get clarity from doing hypnotic tasks. Many writers get ideas in the shower. You don’t have to concentrate, so you can let your mind wander. I feel the same way when I drive. It clears my mind.

We are nearing January 1 resolution time. Go forth, my children, and be productive…

 

 

https://www.fastcompany.com/90264209/how-bestselling-author-lee-child-writes-2000-words-a-day

 

 

 

12+

When Should A Story End?

Vincent the Lost dog with dead friend

I suppose sequels are inevitable for a writer of a certain age. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

We’re binge-watching Breaking Bad in my house lately. I know, I know…I am the last one to the party, but now I am hooked. Great characters (and a lesson in how writers can make even the most reprehensible people sympathetic). Great plotting (and a lesson on how writers should strive to make each plot point arise organically from character).  And each episode ends with a cliff-hanger.

We’re almost to the end. So the husband and I looked at each other last night and said, “how in the heck are they going to tie this up?” And the first thing I thought was:

Please, don’t let it be another Lost.

Do you remember Lost? The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were 1,000 miles off course when they crashed on a lush mysterious island. Each person had a shocking secret, but so did the island — an underground group of violent survivalists that made The Time Machine’s Morlocks look like teletubbies.  I loved that show, grooving on its nerdy sci-fi cum mythology thing. But somewhere around season three, things started to get…dumb. I was mentally exhausted trying to make sense of it all (what’s with the polar bear? Who cares how Jack got his tattoos?) and finally, I gave up. Plus I was too worried that Vincent the Labrador Retriever would get killed. One by one, all his owners did.

I think what happened with Lost was that it was so hot that ABC got cynical and said, “Find any way to keep it going!” It felt like the writers were just winging it, with no real thoughtful end ever in sight. (This happened with season two of the original Twin Peaks, you remember). Apparently, I should have toughed it out with Lost. Rabid fans tell me the writers found their focus again and that I missed a great payoff. Today, the series is being reassessed as break-through serial television, giving TV bean-counters the guts to take chances on great stuff like Game of Thrones and yes, Breaking Bad.

All this was on my mind the other day because I read an intriguing article in the New York Times by Amanda Hess called “The Curse of the Never-Ending Story.” Click here to read it. Hess bemoans the trend of turning stories into franchises that trudge across Hulu and populate Amazon like zombies, always alive when they should be dead.

Today, the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book: Stories that extend indefinitely, their plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams. Or maybe every story is a soap opera now: Nobody is dead forever, not Dan Conner of Roseanne and definitely not the superhero genocide victims of Infinity War. To Hollywood’s bean-counters, sequels are mere brand extensions of intellectual property. The logic of the  internet is colonizing everything.

So far this decade, 17 of the top 20 top grossing movies were sequels. Television is eating itself alive with reboots (Lost in Space, Will & Grace, and egad, Murphy Brown wearing a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt). And apparently, there are second acts in American life: Harry Potter made it to Broadway.

I am not sure what this means for us novelists. For those of us who write series crime fiction, it can be a struggle to keep our plots fresh without straining credibility. How many times can our hero get shot or beat up? How many bodies can turn up in Cabot Cove, the apparent murder capital of the world? How deep do we dig into the brains of our hero without looking like that creepy family in Get Out?

But maybe this is really in my thoughts right now for a different reason. One that I don’t want to deal with.

Back in 2015, our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE was published by Thomas & Mercer.  I loved writing this story about Amelia Brody, an amnesiac who is convinced her husband tried to kill her so she goes on the run. It is, at its thematic heart, about what happens to your soul when you try to live an inauthentic life. It is about a woman whose past is erased, so she must painfully reconstruct it before she can have a chance at a future. When I typed THE END, I was convinced I had nothing more to say.

The problem I don’t want to deal with? I think I might be wrong.

In SHE’S NOT THERE, there was a skip tracer named Clay Buchanan who was hired by Amelia’s husband to track her down and kill her. Buchanan was one of those characters who emerge from the ether of the imagination unbidden; he was supposed to be a cameo, but he became a second protagonist. Amelia is desperate to remember her past. Buchanan is desperate to forget his. His wife and infant son disappeared ten years ago and he was accused of murdering them. He was cleared but his life was broken, especially because he lost custody of his daughter. Like Amelia, he can’t move forward until he fully confronts his past. Throughout the book, I use a devise where his dead wife speaks to him — or, in his grief, he believe she does. In one scene, he is looking at a photograph of his wife:

Buchanan stared at the photo then he looked up, into the shadows of his bedroom.

“Are you here, Rayna?”

He heard nothing.

“I need to know something,” he said. “I need to know if it’s too late.”

Still, silence.

For the first time, she is gone. But in this “man in the mirror” moment, Buchanan makes the decision that he will find out the truth about what happened to her. Until he knows for certain, he can’t move forward. This happens on page 362, the second to last chapter. When we wrote this scene, we had no intention of revisiting Clay Buchanan. I believed just having him decide to take action was enough. But then readers weighed in — often and loudly.  They wanted to know what was going to happen. They want to hear Buchanan again. They weren’t content with silence.

I have mixed feelings about this because I’ve always believed that all stories have a logical end, that you shouldn’t over-explain. I’ve always believed in the power of ambiguity, even in unhappily ever after. (I blogged HERE about it a couple years back). I believe in leaving some space at the end of a story for readers to fill in the missing pieces themselves, to imagine what a character’s life is like after they close the book. I like the idea that readers can “write” their own epilogues.

But I think I might be wrong this time. I think I might have to write a sequel.

I’m having trouble getting moving on this book. Partly is it because I don’t want this to feel forced or derivative. I don’t want this to be a soap opera. Maybe I have seen too many bad movie sequels that felt cannibalized or read too many series thrillers that felt phoned in. Maybe I am just worried because, so far, Clay Buchanan isn’t talking to me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not listening hard enough.

My sister Kelly keeps telling me, as she always does when I am blocked, to just have faith, that we will figure it out before we’ve been there before. But with this one, we haven’t. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. As they say in the serials, stay tuned…

7+

First Page Critique:
Floating in Space

By PJ Parrish

I love stories about outer space. Maybe it goes back to when I got to be the papier-mâché planet Venus in an third-grade play.  And in the Fifties, I remember being enthralled with a book called You Will Go to the Moon. (I still want to). My childhood went by in a Raisonette-fueled fog of matinee cheese like Earth Versus the Flying Saucers and The Day of the Triffids.  I own a complete set of original Star Trek videos, and if Contact, Interstellar or either Alien movie comes on at night, I will watch it again. So, yeah, let’s say I am predisposed to like any story that’s spacey.  That said, strap in for today’s First Page Critique.

TITAN

Fynn pressed close to the shuttlecraft’s window, ignoring the cold against his fingertips. “I always dreamed of a trip into orbit. I’m lucky Dad arranged this tour before the fall semester starts.”

They were about to dock at the Herschel. It didn’t look like a classic spaceship. From their approach vector, it looked like a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport by a straw. Beyond the spaceport, the moon loomed huge against a galaxy of stars.

“I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.” His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn. Pushing thirty. But she often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”

Fynn felt like a kid himself, and excitement further agitated his queasy, zero-g stomach.

Once inside the dock, while the other passengers obediently gripped a railing to listen to their flight attendant, Maliah pushed Fynn towards the passageway to the Herschel. “I’ll explain anything you need to know. I’ve been here before.”

“You never told me that.” He scrambled to find handholds, pushed off, and followed her. He’d studied the diagrams. They’d be entering the Herschel’s central core, an open recreational space, so he slapped both hands on each railing ring, gaining speed.

Maliah snagged his arm as he emerged and spun them close to the hull. “Surprise.”

Fynn’s chest tightened. This wasn’t a recreation bay. Streamlined coffins ringed the module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag alongside. Another level of the shiny steel pods hung above them, and another, as far as he could see up the Herschel’s dimly lit core.

Fynn stared through the layers of pods, trying to understand what he saw, and gawked open-mouthed for a moment. “Where are we?”

“The Herschel’s a colony ship.” Maliah’s face glowed. “We’re going to Titan.”

She hugged him tight, losing her handhold, and they floated towards the core’s center.

Fynn gripped her with one arm, twisting for a better view of the endless pods. “But, the Herschel’s a research station, to study the Saturn system.”

“So the mongrels think.”

Despite the ship’s distractions, he winced at the word. “Don’t call them that.”

“You’ve spent too much time at university.”

“University…” Fynn gasped for a lungful of air. “My PhD classes start in two weeks.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

__________________

Okay, we’re back to Earth now. On first quick read (the way I always do a critique, purely as a reader not editor), I thought I was reading young adult or even more likely, a book for a younger-yet crowd. Maybe it was the simplicity of the phrasing and vocabulary. But Fynn feels, on first glance to me, very young, a wide-eyed naif. Which isn’t a bad thing. I rather liked the idea I was going to follow a boy into space, because I went there often as a kid myself.  Fynn’s voice registers as young, enforced by the first graph mention of “Dad” arranging the trip, and the fact his sister challenges him to a race down the gangway — a very childlike thing to do.

But very late in the page, we learn he’s a PhD candidate. Whoa. To my ear, even a twenty-something going into space for the first time would sound more adult, especially if his PhD study was science. (He could be a philosophy major; we don’t know yet if he’s a fish-out-of-water civilian here or an educated traveler.) First impressions of your characters count. A lot.  I am having trouble buying into Fynn as a capable, highly educated adult character.  The actions and dialogue the writer has chosen to use for him do not support the narrative reality — man vs child.

Getting beyond that, the writing here is good but a tad workmanlike for me. There is some good description — I liked the image of  the ship they are docking with as “a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport by a straw.”  But I wish there had been a little more of it.  When you take a reader to foreign locales — and can outer space be any more foreign? — then you must spent good time and effort world-building, so we can enter your conjured realm and easily suspend disbelief or move beyond our limited knowledge. To paraphrase the famous poem about flight, you have to slip the surly bonds of earth, dance the skies on silver wings, join the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –and, most important as a writer, do a hundred things the reader has not dreamed of.

Here’s the opening graphs of Andy Weir’s (The Martian), latest novel Artemis:

I bounded over the gray dusty terrain toward the huge dome of Conrad Bubble. Its airlock, rigged with red lights,stood distressingly far away.

It’s hard to run with a hundred kilograms of gear on — even in lunar gravity. But you’d be amazed how fast you can hustle when your life is on the line.

Notice how Weir sketches in two short graphs his landscape PLUS tells us something bad it happening.  Another terrific opening to learn from is Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity. The first line:

He was gliding on the edge of the abyss.

We are in a tightly confined ship moving through “the vastness of space.” But — surprise! — we are in the deepest parts of the ocean. Which makes her second chapter all the most powerful when she switches to actual deep space, where the plot really takes off. I love how Gerritsen compared and contrasted both hostile frontiers, where there is no air and only darkness.

I also like the second chapter of The Martian Chronicles, which gives us the vivid image of everyday life of a couple, Mr. and Mrs. K.,  whose ancestors have lived by the dead sea on Mars for generations but now, something bad is about to upset their domestic bliss. When I first read this in high school, I totally bought into the idea of was reading about a married Martian couple and not my next door neighbors the Vanderloops.

The best example I could find of a compelling world-building purely descriptive opening is The Dispossessed by the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin. I can’t run the whole opening here because it’s too long, but I beg the writer of our critique today to go read it.  It’s all description, but man, it sets you down into an alien world with the precise beauty of an Elon Musk SpaceX rocket return.

Those are my major points about this submission. Let’s do a little line editing now.

Fynn pressed close to the shuttlecraft’s window, ignoring the cold against his fingertips. “I always dreamed of a trip into orbit. But he’s not merely in orbit of Earth; he is somewhere out in deep space. I’m lucky Dad arranged this tour before the fall semester starts.” Who is he talking to? Himself? You need a quick answer from his sister here I think. BUT…before the dialogue, I suggest you show us what he is seeing outside the window here, filtered through his consciousness. Then go with the dialogue and response.

Also, note that the line about Dad arranging this trip before school starts juvenilizes your hero. This is where I began to picture a boy instead of a man. Yes, any sane human would be entranced by his first sight of this space station out there in the void, but Fynn sounds way too young. 

They were about to dock at the Herschel. It didn’t look like a classic spaceship. Little confused here. From your description that follows, the Herschel sounds to me more like a space station which accommodates many space craft? Plus you later call it a “spaceport.”  From their approach vector, it looked like a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport more confusion. I thought the space station ship was call the Herschel by a straw. Beyond the spaceport, the moon loomed huge against a galaxy of stars. You can do better than this. What does it look like to Fynn? BE ORIGINAL

“I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.Again, I pictured a 12-year-old girl here and she’s 29. Any sane adult on a space mission would not even think this. His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn. Pushing thirty. But she often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”  She seems to have prior knowledge of this place or what is happening yet she sounds like a kid. What does she do for a living? Why not make the dialogue appropriate to her age, station, profession and the action at hand. 

Fynn felt like a kid himself, I understand what you are trying to do here — capture the childlike wonder any adult might feel in this situation but this is TELLING US what he is feeling. Find a way to get in his thoughts, maybe a childhood memory or compare and contrast: It was nothing like he had seen in his textbooks, nothing like he seen through his telescope back on the farm in Iowa. Start layering in some background and context for your characters. and excitement further agitated his queasy, zero-g stomach. I’m a little confused here. Zero-g is weightlessness. Are they strapped in some kind of unit for landing or just floating around like Jody Foster did in the space ball in “Contact”? You can’t get away with such non-specific descriptions in sci-fi.  Readers are too smart.

Once inside the dock, See comment above. You are stinting on needed description. while the other passengers obediently gripped a railing to listen to their flight attendant, Maliah pushed Fynn towards the passageway to the Herschel. “I’ll explain anything you need to know. I’ve been here before.” I don’t know why, but you have an odd habit of not using any attribution. Who said this? 

“You never told me that.” He scrambled to find handholds, pushed off, and followed her. He’d studied the diagrams. Missed opportunity here to insert a little context and backstory. Why did he study the diagrams? Why is he here? For fun? Why did Dad arrange this? I don’t mean this to sound flip, but right now, this sounds like the nice little trip to Europe between college semesters compliments of the parents. They’d be entering the Herschel’s central core, an open recreational space, so he slapped both hands on each railing ring, again, your description is really meager. Are they walking down a tunnel, a hallway? Where’s everyone else? Is it dark, lighted? This sounds as generic as a Newark Airport TSA approach gaining speed.

Maliah snagged his arm as he emerged and spun them close to the hull. “Surprise.” So they are still in a no gravity zone? Why?

Fynn’s chest tightened. This wasn’t a recreation bay. Streamlined coffins How does he know they are truly coffins? They are steel pods, the kind you see in every space movie these days, are they not? He might think they LOOK like coffins, but unless he can KNOW they are, neither can the reader at this point. ringed the module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag alongside. Another level of the shiny steel pods hung above them, and another, as far as he could see up the Herschel’s dimly lit core.

Where did the other shuttle passengers go, by the way? How come they are suddenly all alone? 

Fynn stared through the layers of pods, trying to understand what he saw, and gawked open-mouthed for a moment. “Where are we?”

“The Herschel’s a colony ship.Again, I am confused. They apparently took a shuttle to a ship named the Herschel. But did they first dock at a station called the Collins Spaceport and then somehow get into this ship? You must be clear. Maliah’s face glowed. “We’re going to Titan.”

She hugged him tight, losing her handhold, and they floated towards the core’s center. Still in zero gravity? And Fynn has trouble getting his breath. Are they wearing spacesuits?  

Fynn gripped her with one arm, twisting for a better view of the endless pods. “But, the Herschel’s a research station, Two paragraphs ago, she called it a ship to study the Saturn system.”

“So the mongrels think.” This is a good line of dialogue because it creates the first sense of suspense. Using such an epithet is intriguing, even though we don’t know what it refers to yet. 

Despite the ship’s distractions, he winced at the word. “Don’t call them that.”

“You’ve spent too much time at university.”

“University…” Fynn gasped for a lungful of air. A space station would have its own oxygen supply. “My PhD classes start in two weeks.”

“That doesn’t matter.” No, it really doesn’t at this early point in your story. 

Some final points.  I don’t mind that this story starts a little slow. I can buy into the idea of Fynn, as a first-time space traveler, getting his first view of his destination (or what he thinks it is) and that can be interesting in itself. But Fynn’s point of view is so sparse and underwritten that I don’t see this strange world or feel any of his excitement. If you chose a slow-burn beginning like this, the writing has to really sing. It has to pull us into a new world. The location has to become a character in itself.  But soon after that you have to get your hero into some deep space do-do. Because this opening is perfunctory and the only suspense comes from Fynn worrying he’s not going to get home in time for classes, I don’t think this opening, in the whole, works as well as it could.

So, don’t give up, dear writer. There is the germ of a good idea here — a young man, who apparently isn’t a hard scientist about to embark on a great adventure. It has the makings of a good fish-out-of-water story, which is always appealing. And thanks for submitting to TKZ.

And one last word — taken on my walk downtown — from my northern hometown as I get ready to head back down to Tallahassee on this cold rainy Michigan morning:

 

 

3+

Is Anything Really Taboo
In Today’s Crime Fiction?

I am on book tour in Michigan today, so excuse me if I don’t answer quickly to comments. In meantime, I wrote this recently for the great online mag Criminal Element. (Which coincided with a terrific review for our new Louis Kincaid thriller The Damage Done.) Thanks to my editor at CE, Adam!) 

By PJ Parrish

Taboo. Off limits. That’s a no-no. Don’t go there. Oh man, you can’t do that.

That’s what mystery and thriller writers often hear. Be it from editors, reviewers or readers — especially readers — there are things we aren’t supposed to write about. Things that no one who’s looking for escapist fiction, wants to read about, things that are too sensitive, too controversial, too just plain ick-factor to deal with. After twenty-odd years in publishing and with thirteen thrillers under my belt and a new one just published, this one question never fails to intrigue me.

What is too much? How far can you push the envelope? Where is the line when readers will turn on you? And, maybe most important, as a writer, should you care?

We often hear there are some things you should never do in mysteries and thrillers. Maybe it’s because some folks believe the old boundaries of genre fiction still bind us. Maybe it’s because we’re all hyper-aware of the problems of finding audiences in a world of shrinking shelf space and the blat-blare-honk! of indie-publishing.  Maybe it’s just vestigial adherence to the sad old rule that genre fiction should know its limits. Here’s just a few of the no-no’s I know:

  • Don’t deal with abused children because readers can’t take it.
  • Don’t write about religion because it’s too personal.
  • Don’t write about politics because it’s too divisive and partisan.
  • Steer clear of graphic violence and sex.
  • And never, ever, kill an animal.

I’ve been thinking about this topic since the release of our new book THE DAMAGE DONE. This book heavily stresses the series-long character arc of our protagonist, a biracial PI ex-cop who is desperate to get back to wearing a badge again. Louis Kincaid is mysteriously recruited for a cold-case squad of the Michigan State Police run by an old nemesis who ten years before caused Louis to lose his badge. The “why” behind Louis’s new job is seminal to the plot and tests Louis’s faith in law enforcement.

Faith…

That is the underground railroad that propels the plot of THE DAMAGE DONE. And that means dealing with religion. It is in the foreground when Louis is called upon to solve the murder of a mega-church minister. But in the background, the slow percolation of a second cold case — the remains of two boys are found in an abandoned copper mine —  boils up memories of Louis’s childhood slide through the foster system and tests his complex notion of faith.  Faith in what? Or in whom?

Religion isn’t easy to write about because like anything of import, you can get, well, preachy. But, while many of our characters are people of deep faith, it was important with this story that we didn’t dictate what the reader concludes. And that, I think is how mystery and thrillers can illuminate the social questions of our weird times — deal with hard issues but never be didactic. I’ve been working my way through the John D. MacDonald books for the last year.  In Condominium, MacDonald took on shady real estate developments and crooked politicians. In One More Sunday, he tackles televangelists and moral ambiguity — but never loses sight of telling a ripping good yarn.  Luckily for me, I finished my own novel about faith before I started this one.

I read a crime novel recently by an Edgar-winning writer. The writing was elegant, the plot set-up tantalyzing. I really liked the protag. But about halfway through, I found myself getting irritated. Why? Because the writer started shouting about the devastation of the environment and it was drowning out the story. I don’t like folks banging on my door trying to teach me about Jesus. I don’t like crime writers hitting me over head with a thematic two-by-four about baby seals.

Likewise, I get annoyed by bad women-in-peril books. Now sexual predators are a fixture of crime fiction, and some authors handle the subject graphically. (Karin Slaughter’s Kisscut comes to mind.). But if you can’t bring anything new to the subject, if your female characters are cliched victims, then don’t go there, especially in the red-hot passions of the #metoo movement.  Reality is far more potent than most anything you can put on the page today.

Yes, we should write about politics, sexual violence,  and yes, we even need to kill animals if the story needs it. (Although I had to put down a book by Minette Walters, one of my favorite writers, because she wrote about torturing cats and I had ten cats at the time.). But you have to deal with a touchy subject always with the idea that it must organically support the story.

With our book A Thousand Bones,  we dealt with the devastating rape of the protagonist. Our editor asked us if we really wanted to “go there.” After much agonizing we decided the heroine’s character arc wouldn’t be believable without including the violent act. In the same book, the heroine, a rookie cop, commits an act of vengeance against her rapist. We thought long and hard about the ethics of a law enforcement officer pushing the limits but decided to leave the incident in. We got some emails on this from readers claiming a “a good cop” would never do this. I was at a signing and a man came up holding the book. He said, “I’m a retired Detroit police captain and I need to talk to you about how you ended this story.”  I braced myself. Then he said, “I would have done the same thing she did.”

Not every decision about “taboos” is as difficult. We got a thoughtful email from a regular reader about our book An Unquiet Grave telling us she found the profanity off-putting. We write a hard-boiled police procedurals and thrillers, so we have to reflect the reality of the street and the station house. But we came realize we had become too reliant on profanity to convey intensity of character. It can be a crutch, a poor stand-in for powerful dialogue. Yes, our books still have profanity, but we think about each word we use. Which is sort of what you should do with non-profanity, no?

In the end, after thirteen books and twenty years of crime writing, I’ve decided there is only one real taboo — that the message never overwhelm the plot and characters. The story must always win out.

 

7+

First Page Critique:
Details, Details, Details…

 

By PJ Parrish

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1940’s Switzerland for today’s submission. I won’t do my usual line edit here because I think the issues I have with this opening can be articulated better by analyzing each paragraph. I’m borrowing this technique from agent Jane Friedman, who sometimes analyzes openings. Check out her blog here. I don’t normally like to rewrite submissions, but maybe it’s helpful here. Thanks to our anonymous writer for letting us read, discuss, and learn.

 

The Stranger on Bahnhofstrasse

Jonas Shaw first feared someone tailed him in wartime Zurich on an overcast Sunday morning in late June, 1940. A church bell had sounded the hour of eleven, and he was admiring shoes in a store’s window on the fashionable Bahnhofstrasse when he noticed in the reflection a distinguished man the other side of the street gaze at him. With pedestrians strolling by and trams rumbling past, he couldn’t see the stranger clearly, but he was visible enough in a knee-length coat, gloves, and homburg hat, and gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy.

The stranger was a profiteer, wanting to lure into something illegal. A Nazi spy, hoping to enlist against the Swiss. Or an anti-Nazi, looking to coax into some conspiracy.

Or worst of all, an Englishman, and he had had enough of them. Jonas sensed with an ex-detective’s appreciation for trouble the man probably was up to no good. Ignore him.

He walked on, pausing shortly before the foreign exchange rates shown outside a bank and wished he hadn’t. The British pound had sunk further against the Swiss franc, and he worried how long he could hold out in that pricey city with his small inheritance. Again he caught in the window’s reflection the gentleman eye him the other side of Bahnhofstrasse. This wasn’t any accident, he determined. The stranger definitely observed him.

A tram, rattling down the thoroughfare towards the train station, blocked his view. When it had passed, he looked in the bank’s window. His pursuer had vanished. Alarm gripped Jonas. Where had that man gone? Yet his professional training prevailed. He’d draw out his nemesis, better judge the threat.

At the end of Bahnhofstrasse he wondered left onto Quai Brucke and onto a promontory overlooking the lake. He paused, as if to admire the view, but attuned to danger, considering his next move.

Footsteps on the gravel. Someone approached from his right. His pursuer, he saw when he turned, a man who doffed his hat in greeting, revealing a full head of white hair, and Jonas thought he had vaguely seen him somewhere before.

“Ah Switzerland, Mr. Shaw,” the gentleman noted. “Three things you can always say about it. You’ll always know the time. Always find a bank. Always enjoy its marvelous views.”

Jonas recognized him now and tensed…

______________________

Back to me in the present day. This is a fairly common opening we see in period spy/thriller novels or movies — a main character (we can’t tell yet if Jonas Shaw is our protagonist) being tailed by a mysterious stranger.  My first impression was that it reads okay, meaning I can tell what’s happening and there is a hint of intrigue. But the writing itself creates some unnecessary confusion here and there. Let me break it down graph by graph to show you what I mean.

Jonas Shaw first feared someone tailed him in wartime Zurich on an overcast Sunday morning in late June, 1940. A church bell had sounded the hour of eleven, and he was admiring shoes in a store’s window on the fashionable Bahnhofstrasse when he noticed in the reflection a distinguished man the other side of the street gaze at him. With pedestrians strolling by and trams rumbling past, he couldn’t see the stranger clearly, but he was visible enough in a knee-length coat, gloves, and homburg hat, and gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy.

Does the opening line grab you? Me neither. Why? I suspect it’s because of the line’s construction:  “Jonas Shaw first feared” implies there was a previous encounter, and that Shaw is remembering this. (flashback!) Adding the place and time makes it feel even further in the past. Also saying the church bell “had” tolled puts us in the past. We need to be firmly in the present with Jonas. I THINK the writer means to say Jonas first began to realize someone was following him at the moment when he caught sight of the man in the window.  I could be wrong. But if this scene is, indeed, set in present-time action, then it needs to be clear. Something like:

Jonas Shaw was sure now that someone was following him.

The feeling first hit him when he left his hotel on Fustliststrasse. It stayed with him when he dipped into the Tabak to get his morning copy of Der Volks-Zeitung. And it was with him now as he turned onto Banhofstrasse, using the bustling crowd as a shield to glance over his shoulder.

No one….

Still, the feeling was there, that same feeling he used to get when he worked as a detective back in London.

He stopped, newspaper under his arm, and pretended to look at the shoes in the window of Bally’s. 

But his eyes were fixed on the reflection in the window of the man across the street. Even through the bustle of trams and pedestrians, Jonas could see the man’s details — elegant black overcoat, gloves and a black cane. What he couldn’t see was the man’s face, hidden by the brim of the homburg hat.

The bells of nearby Fraumünster Church began to toll. Jonas counted each one, to eleven, trying to quell his unease.

What I tried to do here is put it firmly in the present. I used details of place (Bally, the famous old Swiss shoemaker, the Fraumunster Church) to hint at where we are rather than hit readers over the head with the clunky expository “wartime Zurich.”  You can easily find a way to insert the exact year soon after.

but he was visible enough in a knee-length coat, gloves, and homburg hat, and gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy.

More confusion here because of displaced modifier. “gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy” could refer to the stranger when it apparently refers to Shaw. Moving on…

The stranger was a profiteer, wanting to lure into something illegal. A Nazi spy, hoping to enlist against the Swiss. Or an anti-Nazi, looking to coax into some conspiracy.

Or worst of all, an Englishman, and he had had enough of them. 

I think we are in Shaw’s thoughts here ie intimate point of view. But again, the sentence construction creates confusion. Is Shaw speculating what the stranger COULD BE — is he a profiteer, or a Nazi-spy, or an “anti-Nazi”? (not sure what that is). “Or worst of all, an Englishman.” Also, not sure what this means, other than Shaw (whose name implies English or American) dislikes Brits. Also the verbs “lure” “hoping to enlist” and “coax” all need an object.  You lure someone, you enlist someone, you coax someone to do something. Not sure how this can be reworked, other than something like:

Was the man a profiteer, looking to move melted gold coins through Zurich’s black market? Was he a Nazi spy, running reconnaissance for Operation Tannenbaum? Was he a member of the Spiritual Defense?   

Or worse, was he a fellow Brit? Jonas had had enough them.

What I am asking the writer to do here is to be specific. And by doing so, he can make his setting and story feel more authentic. When you use generalized phrases like “anti-Nazi” or “profiteer” you miss opportunities to plant telling details, and you can’t write historical thrillers without such detail. Such as “Operation Tannenbaum” (a planned German invasion of Switzerland) or the name of the Swiss anti-war movement, Spiritual  Defense. Shoot, you can’t write contemporary thrillers without it. Ditto on the description, which is why I used the Fraumunster Church and Bally (a Swiss company since the 1800s.) Moving on…

Jonas sensed with an ex-detective’s appreciation for trouble the man probably was up to no good. Ignore him.

Earlier, Jonas felt a sense of unease. His detective instincts (nice way to drop in what he used to do but we need to know soon what he does now) are telling him the guy’s up to no good, so why the next thought?  Ignore him.  It makes no sense.

He walked on, pausing shortly before the foreign exchange rates shown outside a bank and wished he hadn’t. The British pound had sunk further against the Swiss franc, and he worried how long he could hold out in that pricey city with his small inheritance. Again he caught in the window’s reflection the gentleman eye him the other side of Bahnhofstrasse. This wasn’t any accident, he determined. The stranger definitely observed him.

A tram, rattling down the thoroughfare towards the train station, blocked his view. When it had passed, he looked in the bank’s window. His pursuer had vanished. Alarm gripped Jonas. Where had that man gone? Yet his professional training prevailed. He’d draw out his nemesis, better judge the threat.

I like the aside about the money exchange because it provides a detail about Jonas (so he’s British?) but it could be cleaner:  He paused again at a bank, but didn’t see the man’s reflection in the window. What he did see was an exchange rate chart that told him the pound had sunk further against the Swiss Franc, and he wondered how long he could hold on here. The rest of this graph should be condensed, since it’s already been said. Just say a tram momentarily blocked his view of the man’s reflection. When the tram passed, the man was gone. Then we have a problem: Jonas, who a moment ago told himself to ignore the guy, gets alarmed again. So he decides to “draw out his nemesis.”  First, he told us he doesn’t know who or what this man is, so he can’t be a nemesis yet.  And second, if the guy disappeared, how does Jonas think he’s going to draw him out?  And this vague reference to “professional training” is where you should tell us what the heck this “former detective” does for a living now.  Why be coy? Give us a reason to want to follow him.

At the end of Bahnhofstrasse he wondered left onto Quai Brucke and onto a promontory overlooking the lake. He paused, as if to admire the view, but attuned to danger, considering his next move.

If you’re writing about foreign places, you have to be accurate. “Quai” usually means a riverside walk or street. Quai Brucke is a bridge, and it’s spelled Quaibrücke. If you leave out the umlaut, you’re misspelling it. And this is a low-slung bridge over Lake Zurich.  So there is no “promontory.”  (a high point jutting over something) Unless you have him cross the bridge and climb a hill. Please, please, don’t play loose with foreign locales. Moving on to the end…

Footsteps on the gravel. Someone approached from his right. His pursuer, he saw when he turned, a man who doffed his hat in greeting, revealing a full head of white hair, and Jonas thought he had vaguely seen him somewhere before.

“Ah Switzerland, Mr. Shaw,” the gentleman noted. “Three things you can always say about it. You’ll always know the time. Always find a bank. Always enjoy its marvelous views.”

Jonas recognized him now and tensed…

Again, confusion here. From the minor — they are in bustling downtown Zurich, so where is this gravel? Did he maybe walk into a park. BE SPECIFIC.  “His pursuer” implies someone was following him. Is this the man in the homburg? Someone else? Be clear. If the former, I’d suggest handling this like so:

Footsteps on the gravel to his right. Jonas spun around.

The man in the black overcoat stopped and doffed his homburg. The sight of his thick white hair caused a ping of memory in Jonas. 

“Ah, Mr. Shaw,” the man said. His accent was German, maybe alsatian.

Jonas tensed. The man knew him. And he knew this man. But from where?

“Switzerland,” the man said. “There are three things you can always count on here — the clocks, the banks, and the beauty.”

I like this comment from the stranger but I almost wish you had added one more thing to up the ante and intrigue.  “There are four things you can always count on here — the clock, the banks, the beauty. And the fact that you can never turn your back.”

That’s corny — I was thinking about Three Days of the Condor when I wrote it — but you get the point.  If the stranger is a foe, give him a cool threatening line. If he’s a friend, give him a telling line that will make your reader want to turn the page. Details!  Even in the dialogue. Especially in the dialogue.

Okay, writer, it’s up to you. You’ve got a nice set-up and setting (Switzerland is much fresher than most wartime cities, rather like post-war Vienna in The Third Man.) Go take a deeper stab at it. Make Zurich come alive with telling details. And be aware that you are working in oft-tilled soil here (wartime Europe), so you must avoid cliches and find your own original descriptions. Make Jonas Shaw come alive by revealing a little more about who he is  and why he is here. Give us a reason, even if it’s just a good strong hint, to want to follow him.

Thanks for submitting and we’re open for comments now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3+

How to Write a Great
Story…in 18 Holes

By PJ Parrish

Read a heck of a story this weekend. It featured a flawed hero on a classic journey. He started out young with the world at his feet, but then he lost it all. The story had villains, a dysfunctional family, a bad love affair, a sordid scandal, and physical hardship.  The hero, I feared, was doomed. But then, against all odds, defying the naysayers, he climbed out of the abyss and triumphed.

Okay, I didn’t really read it. I watched it.  But it had all the human drama and suspense of a great book.

I watched Tiger Woods win the Fed-Ex Cup tournament. It was his first win in five years.  As one of the golf commentators said, “What a great story.”

Maybe you don’t follow golf. I don’t, normally. But the story of Tiger Woods, who had it all, lost it all, and climbed back up again, is the same stuff that makes for compelling fiction.

Great stories…

Let’s stay with the sports metaphor for a second. Let’s talk about pro football — it’s my go-to sport. Pro football’s ratings are way down. There are lots of theories why — the players’ protests and the President’s tweet-poking; bad play from big market teams like the Cowboys and Bears; too many dog games on Monday Night Football; fewer folks (mainly young) watching TV and choosing to cut the cable cord all together and play with their phones.

I’ll add my own theory: Pro football doesn’t have any great stories anymore. Like…

Joe Namath leading the hapless Jets to the Super Bowl win.

The Patriots’ season going to hell when Drew Bledsoe went down. Until some sixth-rounder nobody named Tom Brady stepped in to save the day.

The 1972 Dolphins losing their starting QB but going on to the only perfect season.

The 1985 rock-star Bears march to another perfect season, only to be blocked in game 13 by the 8-4 Miami Dolphins, hell-bent on preserving the old record.

Some guy named Marino breaking every record but never winning the Big One. Kurt Warner, the grocery store clerk who became a three-time MVP. And guys like Michael Oher, the homeless kid whose rise to Titan tackle was told in the Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side.

We’re all suckers for great stories. Cinderella tales. Redemption roads. Inspiring comebacks. Underdogs who triumph. It’s the essence of good fiction. I got to thinking about this today after reading James’s Sunday blog about “pretty writing” as Tiger played in the background on TV.

You want to be a success in this business? Just learn to tell a good story.

Ha! Easier said than done. Let’s break it down into digestible bites. A while back, I wrote a blog about Pixar’s 20 Rules of Great Storytelling.  Pixar knows how to tell great stories. They’ve won 13 Academy Awards, 9 Golden Globes, and 11 Grammys. Pixar movies always involve a deep understanding of human emotion. They know how to move an audience. Here are just a couple of their “rules.”

Great stories are always universal. Take the basic ingredients of human life — birth, love, death, conflict, growth, spirituality — and make it appeal to everyone. Or as Pixar director Pete Docter puts it:

“You write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”

Great stories always have someone to root for. It can be a classic underdog tale. Or a rags-to-riches saga. The hero may not succeed, but often we love their attempt alone. It’s more about their journey than the destination.

Great stories always have structure. One of Pixar’s tips is to use “The Story Spine,” a formula created by professional playwright Kenn Adams. It goes:

Once upon a time there was [blank]. Every day, [blank]. One day [blank]. Because of that, [blank]. Until finally [blank].

Can you see the beautiful simplicity of it? You have a hero, who does this every day. But then something happens until finally he triumphs. Or as we at TKZ preach often: Something is disturbed in your hero’s world and he fixes it. (Or sometimes doesn’t).

Great stories are never dull. Again, go back and read James’s Sunday post for more on this. Great stories are surprising, unexpected. If you can dream up a story that challenges the reader’s usual perceptions of reality, you are on to something good. This is especially true in genre fiction, where stale old formulas are too often the norm. A tip from Pixar: If you’re stuck on coming up with something truly unique, get rid of the 1st thing that comes to mind — and then the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

Well, it’s just after six p.m. on this Sunday as I write this. Tiger Woods just won.  But not without some last-minute drama.  Going into the last round today, he was up five on his nearest competitor, Justin Rose. Tiger’s drives were straight and true, one going the length of three-and-a-half football fields. His putting game was surreal.  But then…

On the back nine, he shanked a couple into the rough. He missed easy putts. He bogied the fifteen and sixteen holes. Justin Rose crept closer, the lead shrinking to two. But Tiger parred the last two holes to win.  So here’s what we have: Tiger Woods, a deeply flawed protagonist, had it all and lost it all. He spent five years wandering in the wilderness. One year ago, Woods had endured three back surgeries and could barely walk, let alone swing a club. One year ago, he was ranked 1,199 in the world. Today he clawed back to win his first tournament in five years and maybe move up into the top ten.

He’s being interviewed right now. The crowd is going nuts. Tiger is tearing up. So am I.

What a great story.

________________________________________________________

THE DAMAGE DONE, the 13th installment in the Louis Kincaid series, now available.

“Louis Kincaid is wearing a badge again—as part of an elite homicide squad. But his return to his Michigan home comes at the bidding of a man who once set out to destroy him. When the cold case deaths of two little boys collides with the white-hot murder of a mega-church minister, Louis finds himself fighting to unearth the secret past of his police captain—and the demons of his own childhood. The past and present come into stunning focus in this brilliantly crafted thriller. Relentlessly plotted yet filled with poignant family emotion, it will grip you from start to finish.”
—Jeffery Deaver.

 

6+

First Page Critique: Can Your
Language Be Too Blue?

By PJ Parrish

We have a new contribution from a writer today. For me, it hit home, because it made me think about something I had been dealing with in my own books. I’ll explain after you take a moment to read today’s submission. Thanks writer!

Darkness

His cell phone buzzed and rattled on the bedside table, forcing Jake Barnes to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep. He slapped blindly in the dark, searching for the offending device. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he looked at the screen. Shit, three thirty in the morning, and of course its work calling. When he had taken the supervisor’s position at the Energy Control Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, he hadn’t expected the phone to ring quite so often. And its always something they could handle on their own if they tried.

He answered the call with a quiet “Wait.” Sliding out of bed, he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. “This is Jake, go ahead.”

“Holy shit, man, I’m glad you answered. We are having some serious problems right now.”

Jake winced and moved the phone an inch away from his ear. “Not so damn loud, Glen,” he said, leaning back against the sink. “Take a few deep breaths and start from the top, OK?” Glen Reynolds was another of the supervisors at the ECC, running the night shift this week.

“Sorry. It’s been a rough night. We were running the Sunday night system scans when the backup went down. As soon as IT hit go, the damn thing went black. We called in Ron to help, but he couldn’t get it running either. So we are down to one SCADA, and we have no idea why we lost the backup.”

The line was silent as Jake thought about the situation. The SCADA were computers used to control complex systems, made by Siemens in Germany.

“Jake, you still there?”

“Sorry, I was thinking. Look, I know things fail, but when is the last time you saw one of the SCADA go down?” He paused, waiting for an answer. When Glen didn’t respond, he continued. “Exactly. Is the primary server still working?”

________________

Okay, let’s start with general observations. First, it’s cleanly written (except for some typos and such). It’s easy to figure out what is going on — guy (protag maybe?) getting roused from sleep with a “situation.”  But here’s the rub: Do we care?

I can’t count the number of times I have read this opening. The person’s job may change (usually, it’s a cop getting called out to a murder scene) but the action-catalyst is always the same — the call that comes to wake someone up and spur them to action. It’s been done to death. The fact that Jake isn’t a cop doesn’t really make it feel any fresher. It’s a tired trope of crime fiction and maybe it’s time to retire it forever.

We talk often here about how an effective, grabber opening conveys a sense of disturbance, how we need to show that something has gone awry in the normal world. The disturbance can seem small (but as the plot plays out, we learn it was important). Or it can be earth-shattering, like a killer comet is heading our way and someone has to save the world.

It can be personal. In fact, I’d say the best disturbance/openings are usually human in scale. I pulled Miami Blues off the shelve to show you this opening from one of my favorite writers Charles Willeford:

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.

Or maybe the disturbance is something that the protag observes. Here’s a dandy from John D. MacDonald:

We were about to give up and call it a night when someone dropped the girl off the bridge.

Maybe the disturbance starts out personal but morphs into something big, like Stephen King gives us in It.

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

This opening gives us a boy who tries to retrieve a paper boat from a drain and gets lured in by a killer clown who cuts the kid’s arm off.

But what an opening disturbance shouldn’t be is trite or tired. It has to be a catalyst for the conflict to come. And it has to feel like you alone among all writers could have put it on paper.  So, if you’re going to start your book out with a phone call, you better make it good, like this:

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage killing a woman.

That’s Richard Stark aka Don Westlake. He knows his way around a juicy opening.

Back to our submission: There’s nothing wrong about it on the surface, as I said. Jake Barnes quite literally takes the proverbial “three a.m. call” challenge. The caller literally says, “We have some serious problems.” I wonder, dear writer, if there isn’t a more original way to begin your story? Just because it’s about computer geeks instead of cops doesn’t make it less hoary. If this big computer failure is your dramatic catalyst, why not start with Jake right on the scene? You can say he had been roused from sleep by a cohort, but why not START with him in action instead of in bed?

Now, let’s talk about the language — specifically the profanity. I’m going to throw this one out for discussion because there are arguments on both sides on this subject. Side 1: People swear. It helps make the dialogue feel more realistic. Side 2: Profanity is a big turn-off for a lot of readers, so why do it?

I come down on this somewhere in between. I write about cops and PIs, so my books have their share of blue language. I even drop the f-bomb when I really feel it’s needed. But over fourteen books now, and yes, after getting feedback from readers, I have really toned it down. In the first draft, I cuss like a sailor. But these days, on rewrites, I almost always take most of it out. Profanity can get old really quick. And not because it is offensive. Because it is can feel forced, almost desperate. If my characters swear, well, hell, they have to be well-rendered, right?

Now, I question every curse word I use. Here’s the original opening of our new book The Damage Done: 

Something was wrong. This wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

Louis Kincaid leaned forward and peered out the windshield. The gray stone building in front of him went in and out of focus with each sweep of the wipers, appearing and disappearing in the rain like a medieval castle on some lost Scottish moor.

But it was just an abandoned church, sitting in a weedy lot in a rundown neighborhood in Lansing, Michigan. Louis picked up the piece of paper on which he had scribbled the directions. It was the right address, but this couldn’t be the place where he had come to start his life over again.

He rested his hands on the steering wheel and stared at the church. A car went by slowly and pulled up to the curb, parking in front of him, maybe fifteen feet away. Louis sat up, alert. It was a black Crown Vic with tinted windows and a small antenna mounted on the trunk. But it was plate that gave it away -– three letters and three numbers, just like all Michigan plates, but this one had an X in the middle.

An unmarked cop car. The driver didn’t get out. But he didn’t have to. Louis knew who it was.

The devil. It was the f–king devil himself.

Now, Louis is looking at the man who once took away his badge. He hates the guy. But on rewrites, I took the f-bomb out. I didn’t need it. Because Louis isn’t an f-bomber by nature. And it works better simply as “It was the devil himself.” I have other f-bombs in the book, mainly uttered by another character because it feels true to his rough nature. But on the first page? I thought it was too in-your-face.

In this submission, we get two “shits” and two “damns.” Is that too much? I dunno. I’m just throwing this issue out for discussion here. Please weigh in with how you handle profanity as a writer — and as a reader.

Now let’s do some line editing:

His cell phone buzzed and rattled on the bedside table, forcing Jake Barnes are you sure you want to use the name of Hemingway’s most famous heroes? to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep. He slapped blindly in the dark, searching for the offending device. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he looked at the screen. and finally grabbed the phone. Shit, three thirty in the morning, and of course its work calling. Is this a thought? Then you should set it off in italics on its own line. When he had taken the supervisor’s position at the Energy Control Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, This is a mini-info dump. You can convey this info more gracefully through dialogue. he hadn’t expected the phone to ring quite so often. And its always something they could handle on their own if they tried. Tense lapse here. Should be: It was always something they could handle on their own if they tried.

He answered the call with a quiet “Wait.” Sliding out of bed, he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. Little confused here. He’s in his own home? He’s alone? Why the need to hide out in the bath? If he had a bed-mate, mention her. “This is Jake, go ahead.”

Holy shit, man, I’m glad you answered. We are having some serious problems right now.” Is there some way to up the stakes here? “Serious problems” isn’t very interesting.

Jake winced and moved the phone an inch away from his ear. “Not so damn loud, Glen,” he said, leaning back against the sink. “Take a few deep breaths and start from the top, OK?” Glen Reynolds was another of the supervisors at the ECC, running the night shift this week.  This might be where you could drop in the backstory: Glen Reynolds was another supervisor at Energy Control Center. (This way you get it OUT of your crucial first graph)

“Sorry. It’s been a rough night. We were running the Sunday night system scans when the backup went down. As soon as IT hit go, the damn thing went black. We called in Ron to help, but he couldn’t get it running either. So we are down to one SCADA, and we have no idea why we lost the backup.”

The line was silent as Jake thought about the situation. The SCADA were computers used to control complex systems, made by Siemens in Germany. Good way to slip in what this is. 

“Jake, you still there?”

“Sorry, I was thinking. Look, I know things fail, but when is the last time you saw one of the SCADA go down?” He paused, waiting for an answer. When Glen didn’t respond, he continued. “Exactly. Is the primary server still working?”

Me again.  So, as I said, it’s not a bad opening. But is a computer going down big enough stakes to make us want to read on? When I get a computer glitch, all I feel is frustration and annoyance. I don’t know if I want to read about one, even on a big scale (as this seems to be) UNLESS you find a way early on to make me care. Like can we get a hint about WHY this thing going down is important? Does it supply the artificial atmosphere for the desecrated planet? (sci-fi).  Does it contain the world data base of moles for the CIA (political thriller). Is it a matchmaking super-computer? (Don’t laugh. Lincoln Child wrote a terrific thriller on this subject called Death Match.) 

Any old computer dying isn’t interesting. If you can find a way to at least hint at what the stakes are here, we might be lured into caring…and reading on.

One last thing. About that title. “Darkness” is much too generic. If you are writing a thriller or mystery set in the computer sphere, why not go with something that tells readers what they’re getting? My computer geek Gary told me about a great slang term called “In the black mirror.”  It is what you see when your screen goes suddenly dark — your own mug reflected back to you in creepy blackness. I always wanted to use it as a title but I have no interest in writing a novel about computers, so hey, it’s up for grabs. You need to stand out from the pack while you shed some light on what your story is about. Simple Darkness won’t do it for you.

Thank, writer, for participating. The line is open for discussion!

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Killing Sacred Cows
— Or Maybe Not…

By PJ Parrish

I’m not a big ice cream eater. Take it or usually leave it. But the thing about living up here in Traverse Ctiy, Michigan, is that you must love ice cream. Not just any old Edys or everyday Haagen-Daz. It must be Moomers.

Moomers is a family dairy farm up here that has been around since the glaciers carved out the Great Lakes. Okay, I exaggerate. But Moomers is like dairy manna up here. Maybe it’s because the Moomer cows look so happy. You can watch them grazing as you snarf down your Cherries Moobalee ice cream from the parlor up on the hill.  (see left) Recently I took my 9-year-old grand-niece to the farm and she asked me “Are those cows?” (She lives in Macau so doesn’t see a lot of livestock).  I couldn’t help it. I said, “Those are sacred cows.”

Cheap joke. And this is a long way to get to my point. Moo-mer, me, okay? I’m having a bad week with the galley corrections, among other book stuff, and my brain is like mush.

So, let’s talk about sacred cows in writing. I’d bet you can rattle off a long list of them that you’ve heard in workshops, at conferences, stuff you’ve read in how-to-write books, absorbed from Stephen King, or even seen here at TKZ.  Never use adverbs! Stay away from prologues! Write what you know! Write every day or die!

I dunno. Maybe it’s time to kill off some sacred cows. I’ll start. You guys can add your own.

Never Open With the Weather

I think this one started with Elmore Leonard. I respectfully disagree. Now, if you’re just painting pretty mood pictures on your first page with sunsets or trying to tell readers “bad stuff is coming” with rainclouds, yeah, I’d say you’re edging up to the cliche cliff. But if weather figures into your plot, go for it! In the aftermath of a hurricane, a man walking through the debris on a beach finds a baby skull.  That’s the opening premise of our book Island of Bones, the catalyst of the case for Louis Kincaid. But we first had to show a woman so desperate to escape her killer that she ventured out into the fury of the hurricane in a dingy. Which brings me to the next cow…

 

Prologues Are Bad, Bad, Bad!

I don’t like prologues. I’m on record here with that. You know why? Most prologues are tacked on, like some flabby artificial limb, because 1. The writer couldn’t figure out how to establish world-building (common problem in fantasy) 2. It’s a giant info-dump about the protag’s background. 3. Writer panicked and thought he needed a wham-bam action opener as a hook because someone told him all novels have to open fast. 4. The writer is showing off and can’t stand to cut her beautiful prose. (Been there, done that.) Okay, here’s a rule you can take to the bank: Bad prologues are bad. I’ve read some great thrillers that open with prologues from the villain’s point of view and it works because it sets up the stakes for what the hero is up against. Also, some complex stories jump around in time or space and that can give the reader brain-cramps. And a good prologue can help that. Remember the movie Terminator? It opens with a great prologue.

Los Angeles, 2029: The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight… 

So you might need a prologue set in WWI and then you jump to chapter 1 present day. Maybe. But proceed with caution. Take off “Prologue” and sub in “Chapter 1.” Does it still work? Then ditch the prologue tag; the reader won’t miss it. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land opens by telling us about a martian named Valentine. Then it jumps ahead 25 years. He labels the sections I and II, but to my mind, the Valentine “chapter” reads like a good prologue. Here’s a good post by agent Kristen Nelson on why most prologues don’t work.

Adverbs Are For Amateurs

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” Stephen King said sternly. What we’re talking about is mainly adverbs that end in “ly.” Many writers, especially when first starting out, struggle to find the right words to convey that beautiful chaos in their heads. So often we get stuff like: “You’re my world, baby-child,” she said lovingly. Or “I’m going to rip your head off,” he said menacingly. The problem, of course, is the dialogue should be doing the heavy lifting, and if you need a crutch-word after said, well, take a harder look at your dialogue. But every once in a while, you might need one for simple clarity.  Don’t write: “He shut the door firmly” when you can say “He slammed the door.”  BUT…I can make a case for “He closed the door softly behind him” or “Louis nodded thoughtfully.” So yeah, I think you can toss the occasional adverb into the stew. But as you gain more confidence in your writer’s voice, I’ll bet you use fewer “ly” words.  She said encouragingly.

Show Don’t Tell!

I’m not going to try to kill this sacred cow (I believe in it too strongly). But I might try to tip it over. Telling is one of the hardest things to rid from your story. It’s also one of the hardest things to explain to new writers. I’ve devoted whole Powerpoint workshops to it. Basically, your story (and the reader’s experience of it) will be richer if it is filtered through the actions, words and thoughts of your characters. Simply put, you need to show your character doing things rather than you, the writer, telling the reader what is going on. Fiction is drama; not statement. BUT…to tip the cow, sometimes a little judicious telling is necessary. A novel is not a movie. Sometimes we can be “told” what is going on in a character’s psyche. And sometimes, we just need the clarity and shorthand that pure exposition can supply to move the story forward faster.  “By the time he got to Phoenix, he was tired.” Maybe the journey wasn’t important, so this is all you need to tell. I think our own James pointed out here once that if you “show” everything, there is no modulation, and you end up giving equal weight to all scenes and actions. (Correct me if I’m misquoting you, Jim).

Write What You Know

This cow always kills me. Because if were true, all thirteen of my novels would be about an aging white woman whose biggest dream once was to be a hairdresser and who came THISCLOSE to being a housewife in the Detroit suburbs with at least three red-haired kids. (Don’t worry, I won’t explain that any further).  I get where this hoary piece of advice came from: Don’t write about cultures, people, places or the kinds of stories that you have no affinity for. This is why I don’t attempt YA or sci-fi. But it does not mean you can’t write stories about opposite genders, different races, places you can’t get to physically. You are a writer! Your job is to make things up! See, there’s this wonderful thing in the writer’s chest called the imagination tool. I picture it as an awl drilling a hole into a different dimension. Writers live in this dimension of dreams (and nightmares), where things are easier, harsher, more beautiful, more terrifying, where we can be freer, more daring, than we can ever be in real life.  If you ever feel disconnected from this power, go to a playground or beach and watch some kids play. They are unbound, they are passionate, they are making it up as they go along. Yes, you should use what is unique in your life experience for your fiction. But If you cannot tap into your imagination, if you cannot step outside your own skin and unleash your empathy, you can’t be a writer. I’ve lived inside the skins of six serial killers, a coma victim, a French-Algerian cop, a classical cellist, a fallen Catholic priest, a gay Palm Beach walker and a girl who believed she was a reincarnated slave. To say nothing of living for 20 years now in the skin of a biracial man. Louis Kincaid, c’est moi.

Okay, that was the liver and broccoli. Now let’s have some ice cream.  Here are some “sacred cows” I found that I think are worth keeping around to graze in your brain:

Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go. — Billy Wilder

Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading. — Annie Proulx

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. — George Orwell

Never get drunk outside your own house — Jack Kerouac

Leave out the parts readers tend to skip — Elmore Leonard

Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.– Henry Miller

When in doubt, bury someone alive. — Edgar Allan Poe

Okay, that last one is made-up. So what? So are all my books.

 

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