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

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!

4+

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.

 

8+

Being There: How It Really Feels
To Be Tased…and Amazed

Editor’s note: This is Kris. I am in the weeds today proofing galleys, so my sister and co-author Kelly is taking the wheel. Besides, I had nothing interesting to say today and as you will see, she certainly does.  Enjoy.

By PJ Parrish

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who is telling a long, convoluted anecdote and when they get to the end, the punchline hangs in the air like stale cigar smoke with the audience looking bewildered? And in that uneasy silence, the story-teller will invariably add: “Well, maybe you had to be there.”

As novelists, we want the reader to be there. We want to take him or her into that sweltering swamp, or high on a cliff over some rocky canyon. Most important, we want to reader to walk in the shoes of our protagonist. We want to make the reader feel as if he sometimes IS that character, seeing and feeling what our character does.

Easy, you say. I can write about a detective’s daily life because I am one. Or I have unlimited access to someone who will share with me the techniques and processes of crime investigation, and if I’m really lucky, that person will open up to me and share his inner feelings and insecurities.

If that’s true, you do not need to read the rest of this post.

But the vast majority of new crime writers – and even veteran ones — do not have that unlimited source of cop info in the form of someone sitting next to them in their living room watching the Packers beat the Lions. They can’t just turn and shout: “Hey, Aunt June, you worked in Miami PD. What kind of gun would my bad guy use in this situation?” Or “Hey Pop, you worked homicide. How come my detective just can’t shoot the bad guy in the leg?”

If you are a dogged researcher, you can find some of this info by scouring the web for police discussion boards. Or you can read books like Kathryn Ramsland’s The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds or Lee Lofland’s Police Procedure & Investigation. Another resource is binge watching reality TV shows like the First 48, which offers a unique, realistic look at the officers as their investigation unfolds. My co-author, Kris and I have done all these things. We’re also lucky to have some cop-friends, like Jim, a retired Michigan State Police captain who helped us with our upcoming release The Damage Done.

But last week, I discovered that no matter how much we think we know about someone else’s profession, there is nothing quite like “being there.”

I got to attend the Writer’s Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was founded ten years ago by Lee Lofland, a veteran police investigator who worked in Virginia’s prison system and later became a sheriff’s deputy, earning the highly-prized detective’s gold shield. He also writes a terrific cop-writer blog called The Graveyard Shift. 

Lee Lofland with Guest of Honor Jeffery Deaver.

Imagine how it feels to hold a real nightstick and jab at the belly of a 250-pound man who is approaching you in a menacing manner. Imagine how it feels to realize that your jabs are futile and you have to resort to using that baton in a more aggressive manner, all the while conscious of the laws and department procedures that guide your every thrust or wallop.

Imagine how it feels to drive a police cruiser and attempt what is called a Pit Maneuver by tapping the bad guy’s car on the rear and forcing him to spin out and stop. Imagine how it feels, as one of the students learned, to misread the tap angle at forty miles an hour and completely destroy the bad guy’s test car, all in front of your fellow writers and a team of seriously dedicated law enforcement officers.

Those are just two of the real life experiences we were privileged to enjoy while at the police academy. Others included a stint in the “Shoot, Don’t Shoot” simulator, where we walked through a house or business, looking for an active shooter or armed and violent spouse. We had to decide when — and if — to fire. Yes, we were working in a simulated scenario but the adrenalin rush was real.

Writers at the range

The Glock I shot was heavier than I remembered from my early days of target shooting and its kick was far more intense. The vests are also heavier than I thought they’d be and I learned while they are called ‘bullet proof,” in reality they are not. One officer called them “bullet resistant.”

We learned a little about the history of the taser and how it works. And let me tell you, it is nothing like you see on TV. One of my class members, a brave young lady who really wanted a true experience, volunteered to be tased. I admire her dedication to authenticity but I was very glad I was not on the receiving end of those two little barbs. They say the current only lasts five seconds but I bet the person getting tased would say it feels much longer.

Evan Gilbert and myself getting tazed. Would not like to do that again.

Posted by Devin Reif on Friday, August 10, 2018

We learned about undercover work and outlaw motorcycle gangs. We made a forced entry as a SWAT team. We watched firefighters don backbreaking equipment and enter a smoke filled building. We watched as the Green Bay dive team tried to recover a body from a murky river. We all knew the body was fake but still, we all stood there on the banks of the river with bated breath, for the diver to announce he had located the child.

Being there is what is was all about. To use one of Michael Connelly’s favorite words, it gives verisimilitude to your writing. Because once you have experienced it, once you have felt that fear, smelled the smoke, or trudged under the weight of Kevlar, you cannot help but carry those emotions over to your writing.

But best, the absolute best, were the rare and unscripted moments with the officers after the training.

In today’s climate, there was no doubt these men and women teaching us at the academy had strong feelings on the hot issues. But it was never in the fore front, never presented as a stated point of view. And to me, it was brought up one once.

The moment came after traffic stop training, where we learned how to safely approach a vehicle and more important, why to approach it that way. The officer and I were in the hot sun, sweaty and tired toward the end of the day and I was thanking him for taking the time to do this for us writers, to patiently explain procedures and offer insights into their job.

This officer, who was around thirty maybe, said to me: “We do it because we want you to understand. We want you to see things from our side and we want you to know more about us.”

Then he looked me in the eye and as he wiped sweat from his brow, he added, “I work with a hundred officers in my own department and dozens more in others. I don’t know anyone who sets out in the morning looking to hurt anyone.”

If you’d like to know more about Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy, CLICK HERE to check out his site. I encourage any writer who wants to experience what is really like for their protagonist, to attend WPA or participate in a local Citizen’s Police Academy in their town . And yes, continue to read the books by officers on procedure and investigations. They are pretty good, too. Which brings to mind, one I read many years ago. True Blue by Randy Sutton. When a book makes you cry, you tend to remember it.

Like I said, it’s all about being there.

6+

First Page Critique: Vaulting
Foreign Language Barriers

By PJ Parrish

We’re off to faraway places with strange sounding names today with our First Page Critique submission. So we have a great chance here to talk about how to handle weird words, foreign languages, things the average reader might not know and how you, the writer, have to work hard to make them get it.  I call this, when I talk about this inn workshops, writing for Ms. Peabody in Peoria. Here’s our submission. Thank you, writer!

To Catch a Thief

Air horn blasting, two young men on a Bullet bike tore through lunchtime Mumbai traffic.  The one riding pillion turned to his left and hollered, “Hoy, hoy. Katak maal[1].”

Seema squeaked, barely avoiding having her foot run over. She dropped to the tarred road next to the driver’s side door of the taxi halted in front of the high-rise. “Aey, rund—[2]” Gritting her teeth, she swallowed the gaali[3].  If she could, she would’ve chased after them and shoved her elbow into his puny chest. Unfortunately, she was forced to stay put.

Head kept low, she squinted through the tinted windows of the vehicle at the group by the entrance to the building. Her bulky, black purse was on the ground, an inch from her sandal, but she maintained her firm grip on the straps.

“Arrey[4], madam, get up,” exclaimed the cabbie. “Are you crazy or what? You can’t sit on the street. Some poor fool will hit you and have his license taken away.”

And the last memory she took with her to afterlife would be that of the biker Romeos. Not to mention the heat radiating up from the asphalt and the exhaust fumes headed straight for her nostrils. Her eyes teared.

“Gimme my fifty bucks,” the cabbie continued.

“In a minute,” Seema muttered. If she paid now, the taxi would take off, leaving her exposed.

“You said that five minutes bac— That’s it. You now owe me two hundred.”

“What?”

“Waiting charge.”

Baring her teeth, Seema hissed. “Son of a—”

“Madam,” said the cabbie, shaking a finger. “Watch your language.”

Heaving in an angry breath, Seema said, “Fine. But if you’re charging me extra to wait, I’m waiting inside.”

Without delay, she tugged open the back door and scrambled in. Keeping the purse aside, she peered at the entrance to the office building. Damn. The old fellow was still there, with his entourage.

And so was the tall, leanly muscled man in the light blue shirt and red, power tie. Adhith Verma, the assistant manager at the office where she was currently assigned. Clean-cut good looks, a degree from one of the nation’s elite engineering colleges, family money. The silver-haired gentleman with him was his father, the nation’s finance minister.

When Seema returned from lunch, she hadn’t been expecting to run into the minister. She didn’t want to meet him. If Adhith introduced her as anything other than a colleague, the old man would have her investigated. The whole plan could fall apart.


[1] “Hey, hey. Hot piece of ***.”

[2] “You, son of a whore” is what she’s about to say (incomplete here)

[3] Cuss word

[4] “Hey…”

________________________________________

Okay, I’m back. First, let’s tackle the obvious here.  We know from the first paragraph where we are — smack in the middle of simmering Mumbai, India.  Kudos, writer, for slipping that in nicely. But we are also smack in the middle of a problem — how to convey foreign language without confusing or annoying our readers.

All writers have problems with this. I polled my fellow contributors here at TKZ and they have some solid ideas on how to handle this. More on that in a sec, but first let’s look at the sample:

In the first graph we get this phrase: Hoy, hoy. Katak maal! Then a response from the woman Seema: “Aey, rund—”  The problem, of course, is that most readers won’t have a clue what this means. There is no translation, no context. I wanted to like this submission because it does start out fast and furious and I’ve been to India and the Mumbai setting has great potential to lure me in.  But I couldn’t get past the foreign phrases, especially in the crucial opening moments. It stopped me cold.

The writer compounds this problem by using footnotes. If this were in book form, the reader could, it appears, look down to the bottom of each page to find out what the characters are saying. But do you really want to make them do this?

Your first job as a novelist is to parachute your reader into a conjured world. Whether this world is Mumbai or Montana is irrelevant. You want them to be swept into your story and setting. Forcing them to pause and essentially go “look up” a word jerks them right out of that imagination stream you are trying so hard to immerse them in. This is just my opinion here, but I found this off-putting. A novel isn’t a thesis. It is a seduction. Why would you want to interrupt the mood and the motion?

But, but…

Yeah, yeah, I know. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And David Foster Wallace’s, Infinite Jest!. Hundreds of footnotes in Jest, in very small type, that go on for almost a hundred pages at the end of the book. One of the footnotes, which contains the complete filmography of a fictional filmmaker, goes on for more than eight pages and itself has six footnotes. Someday, I going to try to read this book…again.

Here’s the thing: These authors are juggling with chainsaws, masters of the grand experiment. Now, I’m not suggesting a “mere” mystery or thriller writer can’t push the envelope. But I think it’s good to keep in mind that novelists who use footnotes are sometimes seen as show boaters. I can’t remember who said it in reviewing Wallace, but he compared him to a writer suddenly leaping into your room through a window and dancing around waving his arms, shouting “look at me! LOOK AT ME!”

I don’t think that is what is going on with our submitting writer here. I think he or she just wasn’t quite sure how to organically fold the foreign words into the narrative. Maybe we can help.

But before I go into that in depth, I’d like to do a quick line edit for the writer. As always, these are only my suggestions for edits. I hope others will weigh in. And thank you, writer, for letting us learn.

To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock got there first. Given your colorful locale, you can find a more evocative title)

Air horn blasting, two young men on a Bullet bike tore through lunchtime Mumbai traffic. Good job telling us where we are. The one riding pillion turned to his left and hollered, “Hoy, hoy. Katak maal.”Vivid image here, but these kids aren’t important. Why give them the opening moment?

Seema You’ve shifted point of view here. Open with her, not the boys squeaked, barely avoiding having her foot run over. She dropped to the tarred road next to the driver’s side door of the taxi halted in front of the high-rise. Simplify your phrasing: She dropped to the asphalt behind the taxi door. (we safely assume it’s parked). “Aey, rund—” Gritting her teeth, she swallowed the gaaliThis word is confusing, needlessly so. If she could, she would’ve chased after them and shoved her elbow into his them and his don’t agree. puny chest. Unfortunately, she was forced to stay put. Why “unfortunately?” I assume it’s because she is doing some kind of surveillance? If so, why even start out with the motor bike incident? Get right to the point — the surveillance.  I know you’re trying to convey the flavor of your interesting location but there are other ways. She could be hiding behind a bazaar-like stall that line Mumbai’s streets, which are, by the way, head-ache-inducing, teeming with motor bikes, auto-rickshaws, old buses, and yes…cows. And the miasma of smells and noise is amazing. A quick vivid description of this would underline Seem’a tension.

Head kept low, she squinted through the tinted windows of the vehicle at the group by the entrance to the building. Her bulky, black purse was on the ground, an inch from her sandal, but she maintained her firm grip on the straps. You need to be clearer on your choreography here. Was she hiding behind the parked taxi? Had she been in it and got out? Why even have the exchange with the taxi driver? What does it add?  Again, you can handle this in fewer words:  She peered through the taxi’s windows, watching the group of men at the entrance of the office building. (we don’t care about her purse or shoes.)

Arrey, madam, get up,” exclaimed the cabbie. “Are you crazy or what? You can’t sit on the street. Some poor fool will hit you and have his license taken away.”  I would lose this guy. He’s in the way of your story getting going. And you need to begin setting your plot up — who is this woman and what is she doing?

And the last memory she took with her to afterlife would be that of the biker Romeos. From what I can gather, they were verbally assaulting her, no? Mistreatment (public rape) of women in India is really a hot topic right now in news. Not to mention the heat radiating up from the asphalt and the exhaust fumes headed straight for her nostrils. Her eyes teared. This implies girly-girly reaction. Not sure this is what you want here. Or is she reacting to the smell? Unclear.

“Gimme my fifty bucks,” here, you can safely use “rupees.” He wouldn’t ask for dollars. the cabbie continued. Why is he asking for money? Was she a fare and jumped out? 

“In a minute,” Seema muttered. If she paid now, the taxi would take off, leaving her exposed. It would be pretty easy to hide somewhere else on a crowded Mumbai street. 

“You said that five minutes bac— That’s it. You now owe me two hundred.”

“What?”

“Waiting charge.”

Baring her teeth, Seema hissed. “Son of a—”

“Madam,” said the cabbie, shaking a finger. “Watch your language.”  I would lose all of this and get into your story. It is wasted dialogue.  Dialogue is precious. Use it only to advance plot or illuminate character.  And unless the cabbie is important, don’t let him hog the scene.

Heaving in an angry breath, Seema said, “Fine. But if you’re charging me extra to wait, I’m waiting inside.”

Without delay, she tugged open the back door and scrambled in. Keeping the purse aside, she peered at the entrance to the office building. Damn. The old fellow was still there, with his entourage. Why didn’t she just wait in the cab to begin with? 

And so was the tall, leanly muscled man in the light blue shirt and red, power tie. Adhith Verma, the assistant manager at the office where she was currently assigned. Lost opportunity here to tell me what she does. And why she is watching these men. Clean-cut good looks, a degree from one of the nation’s elite engineering colleges, Be specific when you can. It took me one Google to find out Indian Institute of Technology is Mumbai’s top school. family money. The silver-haired gentleman with him was his father, the nation’s finance minister. This belongs up where you first mentioned him.

When Seema returned from lunch, she hadn’t been expecting to run into the minister. She didn’t want to meet him. If Adhith introduced her as anything other than a colleague, the old man would have her investigated. The whole plan could fall apart. This really needs context. Without telling us what Seema does for a living, why would we care that she’s sneaking around watching this old guy? We need more meat. So my final suggestion, dear writer, is to jettison the cabbie, the biker, and use your first 400 words to get your plot moving forward, more firmly establishing Seema and setting up her conflict

So, to sum up quickly, writer: Love your location! I like Seema, what little I know of her. Yes, it is hard in only 400 words to give us a sense of your setting, protag and the conflict!  Which is why I questioned spending so many words on the cabbie. Find a quicker way into your story and I think you’ll be on your way.

Now, let’s take a deep dive into the problem of incorporating foreign language…

With fiction, you almost can’t avoid the occasional use of non-English. It’s a must with world-scale thrillers. Even if you’re working domestically, our increasingly diverse populace puts our characters in constant contact with all sorts of languages and cultures.  Indeed, our heroes and heroines might well be héroes or heroínas. You want to be authentic, but you don’t want to confuse your readers. So what’s the poor writer to do?

  • Put the language in as it would naturally appear in dialogue and hope the reader can figure it out via context? Creo que eso solo confundiría a los lectores. ¿No estás de acuerdo? (I’m purposely trying to annoy you here).
  • Put it the foreign words and then immediately translate them? Mais cela peut sembler si prétentieux et ça fait monter le nombre de mots. But that can seem pretentious and it makes your word count go up.
  • Or do you just tell the reader the characters aren’t speaking English, write it in English, and move on?

Every writer handles it in his or her own way. I polled our TKZ contributors and here’s their takes:

John Gilstrap just plain avoid foreign words. “Those words stop the story for the reader, I think,” he says. “In Final Target, for example, virtually all of the dialog is in Spanish, because that’s the nationality of the kids being rescued. So, I handle it like this:

“Who are all these people?” Jonathan asked in Spanish. He was fluent in the language, though aware that he had a distinctly Colombian accent, tied to the days when he was the point of Uncle Sam’s spear.

“After that, I write as I normally would. And once I’ve established the model of English-as-Spanish, it would be jarring to throw in a Spanish word.”

Makes sense, n’est-ce pas? Because, as John says, his entire plot hinges on Spanish-speaking kids, so if he toggled back and forth between two languages, it would get old fast.

But sometimes, you have to include foreign phrases to convey verisimilitude. I love this word because it really means something more than mere realism. In fiction it means creating an entire atmosphere that imitates life. Even if the story is far-fetched (fantasy), readers must be willing to suspend disbelief and think that the story could actually occur. In sci-fi, readers will tolerate the “foreign language” of complex science terminology if the writer is skillful at contextualizing it.

I think the same rule applies for foreign languages. I like to insert it in my books because, used judiciously, it helps place the readers into the conjured world. But man, you really have to careful.

Unless you’re a native speaker, get help!  Jordan Dane often uses Hispanic characters because, as she says, she’s “part Hispanic, and I get friends and my father to help with get the language and the slang right, depending on the perceived education of the Spanish speaker.”  She always italicizes the Spanish and tries to explain the meaning directly after the language change. But at times, she leaves it to the reader to figure things out by body language or by the flow of conversation. Here’s one of Jordan’s scenes with her series character, Ryker Townsend, an FBI profiler with psychic abilities who speaks fluent Spanish. In this scene, he is questioning a girl who was smuggled over the Mexican border and left in a sweltering truck to die of heatstroke.

“Amelia? Can you open your eyes, Miss Tejeda?” She raised her voice and leaned over the bed rail.

The Hispanic girl’s eyes fluttered as she struggled to wake up. When her dark eyes opened, she gripped the metal bed rail and pushed back from Lucinda, terrified as if she were still in the hands of her abductors. When her eyes noticed the nurse and the hospital setting, she spoke in Spanish in a fragile voice.

“Yo ne hice nada. No me aresten.”

When Amelia said she had done nothing wrong and pleaded not to be arrested, Lucinda shifted her gaze to me. She didn’t speak the language, but I did.

“¿Por qué te arrestaríamos?” I asked. “Tu no has hecho nada mal.”

Miss Tejeda fixed her pained eyes on me as if I could save her. With shaky fingers, she reached for my hand. I barely sensed her grip. She had no strength left.

“Please help me…find my friend…Fiona.” She strained for every word. “People say…she lived. Her country sent brave men to save her. Is this true? Did she live?”

“Yes. We are leaving soon to find her. How do you know Fiona Storm?”

“She saved my life. I owe her…everything.”

It made no sense that this kidnapped woman had been saved, only to find herself in a worse situation and near death. I wondered if this was the delirium the doctor warned us about.

Dime. ¿Cómo salvó Fiona tu vida?” I had to know. How could Fiona have saved her life?

This is pretty much how I handle foreign languages with my series character Louis Kincaid. I might put in the foreign phrase, but I provide some method of translation. In the Florida books, I often had him interacting with Spanish-speaking characters. Like Jordan, I would use the actual Spanish but there would always be a secondary character there to translate for him and the reader.  In Island of Bones, Louis goes to a migrant camp in search of a missing Mexican girl. Her mother speaks no English and is hostile. But the father speaks enough to translate and tells him that his daughter met a boy shortly before she disappeared.

“She called him a boy, not a man?” Louis asked.

“Yes, a boy. That’s what she said.”

“Did she tell you his name?”

“I do not remember, but I know it was a good Hispanic name.”

“Did she describe him to you?” Louis asked. “Tell you anything about him?”

The man shook his head. “I think she call him…”

He looked to his wife and asked her something in Spanish.

The woman hesitated then whispered two words.

The man turned back to Louis. “She called him Papi chulo.”

“What does that mean?”

“It is something young people say. It means he was handsome, a hunk you would say.”

In my upcoming October release The Damage Done, Louis is hired onto an elite cold case squad and one of the job requirements is to become fluent in a foreign language. Louis, like me, speaks bad college French. Here’s a passage with his new boss, Capt. Steele:

“Louis has been studying to become our in-house expert on unsolved Michigan homicides,” Steele said. He paused with the barest of smiles and added, “Louis has exceptional instincts and a special feel for unsolved cases that you will all come to appreciate.”

Louis held Steele’s hard brown eyes, not happy with the description of his resume. It made his past sound sensational and his investigative skills almost paranormal. That’s the last thing he needed with this group—to be tagged as some sort of celebrity mystic who dug through dusty folders.

 “Louis,” Steele said, “Bienvenue chez toi.

Welcome home? Louis was so surprised it took him a moment to answer. “It’s good to be back,” he said.

So another way to handle foreign words is to have the person who hears it translate it in his head (via italics).

This is how James Scott Bell handles it, agreeing with John’s approach for extended passages. Says Jim: “You can monkey with the diction, too, to give it a ‘formal’ sound in English, as Hemingway does in For Whom the Bell Tolls. For shorter clips, you can have the POV character “hear” the language, like this example from Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre:

Now Teo was speaking to Fuentes in Spanish, Tyler getting some of it. It sounded like Teo wanted to ride one of the horses.

Leonard throws in the occasional Spanish word, always putting it in italics:

“You pronounce it pretty good,” Tavalera said, “but the Guardia are not police during time of war. We’re like those people, the caballería, except we don’t stay in Havana and go sightseeing, we hunt insurrectos.

See the simple beauty of that? The word “guardia” is immediately grasped, as is “caballeria.”. Very graceful!

Or, as Jim points out, you can simply translate, if it’s a one-time exchange:

“Dónde están las armas?” Where are the weapons?

But a more artful way to do this is question and response:

“Dónde están las armas?”

“I have no idea where the weapons are.”

Sometimes, a foreign tongue is, as John Gilstrap pointed out, essential to your plot. For my stand alone The Killing Song, which is set in Paris, I had an amateur sleuth English-only protag and I wanted to stress the fish-out-of-water feeling of anxiety he felt. I had to incorporate French throughout and it had the effect of making him feel confused and frustrated. But you can’t let this go on too long. So I teamed him up with a French detective, so she was always there to help him — and the reader.  Plus, the give-and-take of the language barrier became part of their friendship arc. And even though I can speak French, I ran every sentence by a Paris-born French friend, who also helped me with some spicy slang used by les flics (cops).

A couple more thoughts on odd language. I didn’t even get into American dialects with this, especially “Southern speak,” which I have become more attuned to since moving to Tallahassee, where “y’alls” and “ma’ams” rain down harder than afternoon toadstranglers. Maybe the only thing we need to say about regional American dialects is to avoid trying to duplicate them on the page. It gets old really fast. I’d advise writers to say, “he spoke with a Texan twang” or something and trust the reader to get it. For my new book, I have to acknowledge the peculiar accent of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as spoken by the “Yoopers.”  Here is how Louis hears it:

“Reuben Nurmi. Good to meet ya,” he said in a voice that sounded like it belonged on some late-night jazz station. Except for the distinctive Yooper twang. Louis had always liked the accent , which fell somewhere between the hard nasal vowels of Detroit and the odd lilt of Canada.

Verisimilitude.  Which is Latin in origin, by the way. Quae surrexit?

3+

How Pickle Ball Helped Me
Up My Writing Game

By PJ Parrish

It’s not easy being a new cucumber.

I think about this every time we here at The Kill Zone critique another First Page submission. I really feel for the writers who send in their work for us to comb over because it’s not easy putting yourself out there when you’re just starting out. Which is what a “new cucumber” is.  When I was a kid, that is what we called the kid who came into the game last, the one who didn’t know the rules, the one who was smallest, slowest or just plain didn’t get it yet.

I was often a new cucumber. It wasn’t so bad when I played baseball because I can switch-hit. But dodge ball…geez, I’m just thankful I got out of fourth grade alive.

I am a new cucumber at pickle ball.  I started playing this game (the fastest growing sport in America!) this summer as a way to get some exercise when my knees started going on me.  Pickle ball is a mix of tennis, badminton and ping pong. It’s played on a small-sized tennis court with paddles and wiffle ball-like things. It’s a blast and great for old farts like me. It takes skill, strategy, stamina, heart, patience….and lots of practice.

Pickle ball looks easy, like anyone could do it. Until you screw up your courage, put yourself out there, and try it. Pickle ball is a lot like writing.

I play every day now, 9 to noon, with a group called The Friendly Pickle Ballers. I am, oh, probably the third-worst person on the courts, but all my teammates are kind and patient, teaching me the game, because I think they realize I am determined to learn. Which is sort of what we do here at TKZ with our First Page Critiques and posts. It’s a little community where any new cucumber can find help and solace. One of my favorite partners is Tom, a retiree who can smash and dink with the best of them. The other day, I learned that Tom is trying to write science fiction. He asked for some advice and I told him to come to TKZ, which he does now. I also told him that learning to write fiction is pretty much like learning to play pickle ball. And it’s helped me remember some stuff we talk about a lot here but that’s worth repeating:

  1. You need to learn the rules. Pickle ball has some funky rules that you need to know before you set foot on a court or you end up wasting time — your own and your fellow players. Ditto for writing, right? Why flail around trying to write a bestseller if you haven’t bothered to even learn the basics of the craft?
  2.  You must be creative.  Yes, learn the underpinnings of what makes for good fiction. But don’t be afraid to try something different. You might surprise yourself.  Like I did when, being a vertically challenged person, I learned to lob over the tall men.
  3. Play with folks who are better than you are. I’ve said this a million times, but don’t get sucked into a bad critique group, which can be pity-parties, bad for your self confidence or they just reinforce your worst habits.  Find folks who can help you up your game and listen to them. My friend Tom has taught me to…wait for this piece of wisdom!…keep my eye on the ball at all times.  Which is what Jan Burke told me once at an Mystery Writers of America meeting when I was grousing about James Patterson.
  4. Stay out of the kitchen.  In pickle ball, The Kitchen is the area just in front of the net and the rules say you can’t smash the ball if you have even one toe in there and you can’t dribble a serve into The Kitchen. I’m not sure what this says about writing except maybe don’t make really stupid mistakes.
  5. Hit hard along the lines.  If you are writing genre fiction (and I don’t happen to think that’s a derisive term), learn everything you can about that type of novel. Read extensively in your genre, be it sci-fi, thriller or YA.  Because you need to be smart about what’s going on in the market.  But then, learn to play hard at the edges of those lines, because the best genre fiction is the stuff that honors the past but points to something in the future. I have, for the record, a heck of a back hand along the line in pickle ball.
  6. Don’t always go for the smash shot. Pickle ball attracts a lot of tennis players. Many of them come in thinking they can beat up on the old guys by smashing the ball down their opponent’s throat. (This is sort of like literary types who try to write thrillers and wiff.) Trouble is, the pickle ball has about as much bounce as a dead chicken. And the smashers quickly learn they will be dinked to death (an ultra soft shot that just clears the net) by 82-year-old women named Norma.  And yes, I play with a real Norma. She’s a killer. For writers, not going for the smash shot means not trying to hit a home run on your first attempt, ie a bestseller. You’re doomed if you try because you’re aiming at a constantly moving market-target.  Just go out there in the beginning and have fun.
  7. Try the dink.  This is a money shot in pickle ball, a sweet little “dink” across the net that causes the smasher-guys (sorry, they are almost always guys) to race desperately to the net and sometimes do a face plant on the asphalt. So, if you feel lost in the middle of your 400-page novel, set it aside and write a short story or even a novella. You might find your rhythm again. It’s good for the confidence.
  8. Practice, practice, practice.  When I first starting playing, I went only once a week. Guess what, I didn’t get any better.  I got discouraged and depressed. To say nothing of putting on weight. When my friend Linda came to visit up here in Michigan, she dragged me to the Friendly Pickle Ballers.  I was terrible at first. But I am quickly getting better. Why? I go every morning now. Do you write every day? Why not?
  9. Keep score but don’t obsess about it.  Sure, I want to win in pickle ball, but right now I mostly lose. I’m trying to learn that this is okay.  For writers, I think the point is you should keep an eye on your sales, your Amazon ranking, your reviews, etc. But you don’t want to let it get to you. Messes with your head…
  10. And last but not least, don’t beat up on yourself.  This has been the hardest thing for me to learn in pickle ball because I am sort of competitive and feel like crap when I let my team mates down. But as my fellow players keep telling me, “there’s no I’m sorry in pickle ball.”  So for you writers out there, yeah, you will fail.  You’re going to hit a lot of balls into the net. Your serves will go wide. You’re going to get rejection letters. Whatcha gonna do? Pack up your pickle ball and go home? No. You’re going to put on the old sports bra, get back out there and try again. You will get better. You will get good. You will get published. Because even a new cucumber can become a pickle baller.

 

8+

First Page Critique: A Good Story
Is In Here Trying To Escape

By PJ Parrish

It’s Show and Tell Day here at TKZ school. Some of you might be old enough to remember Show and Tell Day.  (I’m told schools don’t do it much anymore, alas). Like all kids, I loved it because it was a break from the daily grind. You got to sit back and listen to your classmates tell tales and sometimes do tricks. I remember one kid who brought his pet salamander. Another girl showed off her Barbie collection. Then there was the kid who brought in a rock. There was a lot of giggling as he started. What the heck could you say about a rock? But then he told a great story about how he and his family had gone canoeing on the Platt River in northern Michigan on vacation and he had tipped over and almost drowned. He found the rock on the shore and brought it home as a souvenir of his big day. Needless to say, we were enthralled. He almost died! I never forgot him.

With that prelude, let’s take a look at today’s submission. Thank you, dear writer, for letting us learn from your work.

Nephilim of Flame

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery.

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.

_______________________

As you might guess by now, I’m using this as a springboard to talk about showing versus telling in fiction. What we have here is an intriguing idea (a woman who harbors a dark secret about a murder). But the idea is obscured by two problems that are common to many openings — confusion and too much telling. Let’s tackle the confusing part first.

What’s happening on the surface isn’t the problem — Wren Wilson, the putative protagonist, is at a funeral thinking about the dead person, her own status in her community and the secret she carries.

But what’s below the surface is really confusing, especially about the relationship between Wren and the person being buried here. We get this line first:  The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. This implies Wren murdered someone, probably the person being buried? Which makes her a criminal. Then we get this line:  The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Which makes me think that Wren was abducted maybe and she killed him and escaped? So she’s not a criminal; she’s a victim. But if she was abducted, she killed in self-defense, no? So that’s not a murder. It’s a justifiable homicide. 

The town lauds her, “showering her” with “good will and sympathy.” So apparently, she did something really brave and positive? But she feels so guilty about it, she’s cried-out and can’t stand to look out at the cemetery but then she “picked irritably at her black dress.”  I don’t understand what is going on in this character’s head. I also don’t understand who is being buried — the “madman” or someone else who so far has no grounding in the story.  After I re-read this several times, I also wondering if maybe Wren was abducted (by the “madman”) and someone ELSE saved her (“the hero”) but he got killed in the process and now folks are mourning him?

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred.

Who is this “hero”? I thought she was the hero. We go on:

She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.

Other mourners? Why is this person being mourned? Again, I think the confusion is just because the initial implication here is that the “madman” who was “murdered” by Wren is now being buried. But that makes no sense given the use of “hero” and “mourners.”

I get that the writer is going for some misdirection here. Wren was some kind of victim at the hands of a madman but became a “hero” herself by escaping. But apparently, this is not true.  Wren herself tells us it is a lie. So that is a great source of tension and intrigue. But I think the writer needs to clarify the characters here — the “madman,” the “hero” and Wren’s relationship to them. And who is being buried? 

Now let’s talk about the showing versus telling.  There is minimal action here: Wren is driving up to a cemetery where a burial is taking place and walks to the grave site. That is all that happens. Everything else is thinking, remembering, regretting, thinking, sighing, thinking…

Everything is told to us. All the crucial information is conveyed through Wren’s thoughts. The first paragraph — that critical door into the reader’s imagination — is 99 percent backstory. Now, I don’t like trying to rewrite someone’s opening because we all tell our stories in our own voices, but I just want to suggest a different approach to make my point. What if this scene opened at the END of the grave site ceremony? We see Wren standing there, feeling exposed under the TV lights and cameras and the eyes of the people in her town. Maybe a pastor says a quick last word about the person being buried (so we know who it is) and Wren has a BRIEF thought about him. (No long backstory — you dribble that out artfully later!)

Then one by one, a few folks come up to talk to her. DIALOGUE IS ACTION! And this is how you begin to fill in the backstory. Let me take a stab at it:

Wren saw a woman in black moving slowly toward her but it was too late to dodge her. It was her old sixth grade teacher.

“Wren, you poor thing,” the woman said, embracing her. “I don’t know how you can come here today. Not after what that man did to you. You’re so pale. Are you okay?

Wren pulled away. “I’m fine, Mrs. Marsh.” But she wasn’t. She was downing Ambien every night and staring out the window of her florist shop every day, unable to fill the simplest order. (You slip in what she does for a living).

Wren turned to get away, nearly bumping into the tall man. The WMRK emblem of his TV station was emblazoned on his blue blazer. Mark Standish…the reporter who had been there when the police first brought her out, clothes torn, face streaked with blood. She still wondered how he had heard about her escape.

“When you going to give me the story, Wren?” Standish asked.

“I told you all as much as I remember,” she said. But she hadn’t. She hadn’t told anyone what had really happened in that week she had been held captive in that basement. She had told just enough to be called a heroine, just enough to get the sympathy of everyone in town.

Wren pushed past him and went to stand under a tree. She pressed a hand to her chest and shut her eyes tight. FILL IN HER WITH SOME BRIEF FLASHBACKS TO WHAT HAPPENED.  Wren turned to look back at the grave site. The mourners were leaving, heading back to their cars, popping up umbrellas as a light rain began to fall.

Wren waited until they were all gone then walked slowly back through the rows of plastic chairs to the edge of the grave. She looked down at the black casket.

“We know,” she said.  “You and me. We are the only ones who know the truth.”

Well, you get the idea. What I am trying to do here is to convey the same backstory but through the actions and dialogue of the characters. You needn’t have slam-bam death and destruction in your opening. But you need tension and action. Dialogue is action. It is showing. Use it!

Okay, I know I am running long but I like this submission for its potential so let me  quickly go over a few more things in Track Change edits:

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands This is an odd image and sorta cliched. Can you find a more compelling first line? but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero. This is an info-dump of backstory. This needs to come out slowly, gracefully, throughout the first chapter, not in the first graph. The first graph should be a tease not a tell-all confessional.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to stare? blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. I think this odd jump back to childhood clutters things up here. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery. I think this whole graph could cut. It doesn’t add anything.

Wren picked her way watch your choreography here. Did she drive or was driven? She needs to get out of the car. carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero Huh? would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. You already implied this. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. whiplash change of mood She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren Note that you started every graph with her name. You also could use some variation in your graph length. Dialogue would go a long way to breaking up how this gray mass looks on the page sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone. Nice intrigue being placed into the story but you must find a way to convey this through ACTION and dialogue instead of all thought. 

One last thing: I really don’t like the title. When I read this cold the first time, I thought, uh oh…they gave me a fantasy story and I am terrible at those. But this story appears to be contemporary (though we get no sense of time) and set in a big city or a town. (the writer uses both phrases and they imply different places). I had to Google Niphilim. Turns out it is the Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” before the deluge, according to Genesis in the Bible. That’s kinda sorta interesting but for a contemporary murder story? Not so sure. I also don’t get the “of Flame” unless it’s put there for alliteration.  I love biblical and literary allusions in novel titles, but if your reader is sent scurrying to Google to get it, you’re in trouble.  I think it might work for fantasy, or especially dystopian fiction. For this story, as we understand it in 400 words, I think it’s off tone.

Again, thank you writer for submitting and don’t give up.  I sense there is a good story and character here waiting to escape.

6+

Reading For Survival

The man who won’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them. — Mark Twain

By PJ Parrish

Saw a depressing video on Facebook the other day. People on the street were being polled about what was the last book they read.

The guy then asks folks to name an author. Any author. Crickets. Sigh.

I know we here at TKZ are preaching to the choir. But I also think maybe we need to be more worried about this.  I’m not going to talk politics here, rest assured, but I am going to say that our ability to absorb information seems to be questionable, at best, these days. And we need to be smart right now. About a lot of things.

We need to read.

The latest Pew poll I could find on this subject says that  28% of adults ages 50 and older have not read a book in the past year, compared with 20% of adults under 50. . And as a country, we’re at the bottom of the reading pack.

This subject slid to the front of my brain only because I was cleaning out my file drawer in my office. I found a slender little booklet that I had thought I had lost years ago. It’s a copy of an essay that John D. MacDonald wrote for the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s called Reading For Survival.

Now, if you think it’s some dust-dry diatribe, some shrill screed about how we’re raising a generation of morons, well, then you must not have read John D before. It reads like, well, one of his novels. (By the way, I didn’t know James and I would be writing about JDM in the same week. Click here to go back and read his post on what JDM taught him.)

A little background:  Years ago, a friend of mine, Jean Trebbi, had a local TV show in South Florida called Library Edition. Jean was a force in the literary community. She was the head of the Broward County Center for the Book, a tireless supporter of all authors and most any book. In 1985, she interviewed MacDonald on her program, and when the camera stopped rolling, he kept going, but wanting to talk about non-readers instead of his own books.

Jean suggested he should write something on the subject for NEA and the Library Association. MacDonald didn’t want to do it, fearing he would be just preaching to the converted, but he finally agreed — with the caveat that he could use “colorful enough language to it will be quoted, sooner or later, to a great many non-readers.”

Things didn’t go well. “I could not make the essay work and I could not imagine why,” he recalls in the booklet’s forward. “I must have done two hundred pages of junk.”

Does hearing that make you feel any better about your own writing problems?

Jean Trebbi, finally wrote him asking what he hold-up was and MacDonald told her he had written a hot mess. Jean suggested using the device of a conversation between Travis McGee and and his friend Meyer. And that is what he did.

MacDonald called it “a small, mangy, bad-tempered mouse of 7200 words.”  But as I re-read it the other day, I realized its message is as vital today than it must have been thirty-one years ago. MacDonald said the theme of his essay was “the terrible isolation of the non-reader, his life without meaning because he cannot comprehend the world in which he lives.”

If that doesn’t set off in a bell in your head, you haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in our country these days.

The essay opens like a vintage MacDonald novel.  Thunderclouds are gathering over the slips at Bahia Mar and McGee and Meyer are sitting on the deck of the Busted Flush. And next time someone tells you never open with weather, read them this:

The big thunder-engine of early summer was moving into sync along Florida’s east coast, sloshing millions of tons of water onto the baked land and running off too quickly as it always does.

An impressive line of anvil clouds marched ashore on that Friday afternoon in June, electrocuting golfers, setting off burglar alarms, knocking out phone and power lines, scaring the whey out of the newcomers.

The power goes out and Meyer puts down his book, and McGee says that it’s too dark to read anyway. (weather as metaphor!)

“I wasn’t reading, Travis,” Meyer said. “I was thinking about something. A passage in the book started me thinking about something.”

Over the next twenty-two pages, Meyer — whose mind is like a maze — spools out his argument — that man’s brain evolved the way it did, creating a genetic storehouse of memories, out of the pure need to understand his environment and thus survive.

Meyer concocts a prehistoric man named Mog and his modern counterpart Smith. Mog happens upon some fruit but he’s wary of eating it. Using all his memory skills, he decides to not chance it, that it’s a trap. His modern counterpart, Smith, gets a job offer at twice his salary. But using his memory skills, he deduces the employer is in a high risk banking arena with bad management turnover rates. So he says no.

“Back in prehistory,” McGee offers, “man learned and remembered everything he had to know about survival in his world. Then he invented so many tricks and tools, he had to invent writing. More stuff got written down than any man could possibly remember. Or use. Books are artificial memory. And it’s there when you want it. But for just surviving, you don’t need the books. Not any more.”

Books are artificial memory. Don’t you love that? But then Meyer lays it on him:

“So why are we doing such a poor job of surviving as a species, Travis?”

MacDonald goes on to say that the world of prehistoric man was small, limited to what the man could see, hear, taste, eat, kill, carry and use. But to modern man, who can read and remember, the world is huge and monstrously complicated.

“The man who can read and ponder big realities is a man keyed to survival of the species. He doesn’t have to read everything. That’s an asinine concept. He should have access to everything, but have enough education to differentiate between slanted tracts and balanced studies, between hysterical preachings and carefully researched data.”

Makes you wonder what MacDonald would have thought of today’s fake news debate, Facebook’s propaganda problems and the isolated little echo chambers we’ve crawled into. MacDonald and McGee go on:

“To be aware of the world you live in you must be aware of the constant change wrought by science, and the price we pay for every advance. These are our realities, and, like our ancestors of fifty thousand years ago, if we — as a species rather than an individual — are uniformed, or careless, or indifferent to the facts, then survival as a species is in serious doubt.”

So what’s the answer? Meyer thinks he knows:

How do we relate to reality? How do we begin to comprehend it? By using that same marvelous brain our ancestor used. By the exercise of memory. How do we take stock of these memories? By reading, Travis. Reading! Complex ideas and complex relationships are not transmitted by body language, by brainstorming sessions, by the boob tube or the boom box. You cannot turn back the pages of a television show and review part you did not quite understand. You cannot carry conversations around in your coat pocket.

Ha! What would MacDonald have to say about Tivo and iPhones?

Meyer is worried, he tells Travis, that non-readers are disenfranchised, cut off from any knowledge of history, literature and science. And worse, they become negative role models for their children, who will in turn, “become a new generation of illiterates, of victims.”

“The non-reader, Travis, wants to believe. He is the one born every minute. The world is so vastly confusing and baffling to him that he feels there has to be some simple answer to everything that troubles him. And so, out of pure emptiness, he will embrace spiritualism, a banana diet, or some callous frippery like Dianetics.”

Or worse. Name your modern opiate.

MacDonald died Dec. 28, 1986, a few months after finishing the essay. I really wonder what he might think of where we are today, of what he might think watching those blank-eye folks on the beach, trying to think of one author’s name.  What would he make of the fact we are barraged with information twenty-four hours a day, yet we seem to be growing not smarter but more lost and disconnected?

The essay ends with Meyer saying that he has no cure to offer, but that just identifying the disease is a good first step. But then he adds:

“Bleak, my boy. Bleak indeed. And so let us trudge back toward home, and stop at the bar at the Seaview for something tall and cold, with rum in it.”

“Beautifully said,” I told him.

On the way back, I told him that he had made me feel guilty about my frivolous reading fare of late, and what might I read that would patch up my comprehension and my conscience at the same time.

Meyer thought about it until we had our drinks. He took a sip, sighed, and said, “I’ll lend you my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.”

I am halfway through it. And the world has a different look, a slightly altered reality. That fourteenth century was the pits!

I ordered the Tuchman book from Amazon. (My local bookstore can’t get it, I tried). Now I am going to go mix a stiff gin and tonic, crack it open and try to get some badly needed sense of perspective.

Happy reading, folks.  By the way, I am on the road today, probably somewhere near the Michigan-Indiana border as you read this. So if I can’t reply quickly, please chat among yourselves.  Will check in when I get home to Traverse City, MI.

 

9+

First Page Critique: Opening
With A Big Bang…In Theory

By PJ Parrish

Get ready, because we’ve got a lot of action in today’s First Page submission. Explosions! Body parts! Fiery cars!  Whew…

I’ll be back in a…uh, a flash and we’ll talk about this.

Ice Hammer: Invincible

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades.

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons.

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection.

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks.

She pushed her hair out of her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

Youngmi.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, the sight filling him with horror.

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell.

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers around the edge of the armored SUV and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung agape as she realized her own husband had killed her.

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloping her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings.

___________________________

Dontcha just hate slow starts?  I’m kidding, of course. We’re always harping here at TKZ about the need to get out of the gate fast.  Now, if you’re a regular here, you know not to take that literally.  Getting off to a fast start in a thriller is a good idea, and I suspect we’re in thriller territory here. But that doesn’t mean you literally have to start with a car chase or flying body parts. (See Jame’s Sunday post about omniscient point of view openings for one reference). You can create tension with a slower approach.

That, as you can see, is not the case here. Things literally start with a bang. Our writer has dropped us smack into the middle of a crisis — an explosion that propelled the protag (I think) across the room and then he staggers to the window to see all hell breaking loose down on the street. What’s not to like?

Nothing, in my humble opinion. I think this is a good door by which to enter the story.  James’s axiom of “act first, explain later” is in full bore here.  And the part about the wife — supposedly dead but now appearing in the burning car — is intriguing, to say the least.

So, good set-up, writer!  But there are some problems in the execution here. We have some issues with lack of clarity: Where are we? What exactly is going on here? We have some overwriting going on. Here’s a good guideline to keep in mind: The more intense the action, the less “writerly” your writing should be. And at times, the word choices are jarringly tone-deaf, out of tune with the tone of the scene itself. More on that small but important detail in a second. Let me go through this with a fine-tooth pencil:

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Not a bad opening line. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. Not sure I get this image. Maybe burning the inside of the lids? A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. I’d end after hammer. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men I’d lose them for now. Focus on your main guy; the spear-carriers clutter things up esp in the first graph! .in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades. Way too many metaphors in this opening graph. Turn this into action: The window shattered and the shards razored into his face.  

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. This was a big hiccup for me. HIS MEN detonated a lethal bomb in a street? Is Brad a terrorist? Because we have no context — is this a foreign locale? Are we in wartime? — I am confused about Brad’s role here and am not liking the fact he’s the cause of the carnage. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons. You need to tell us how high up he is. I know, it’s a stupid detail but important because he is about to recognize his wife’s face. You say only that vehicles are on fire “in front of the high-rise hotel.” Is Brad in this hotel or it is across the street? 

What blew up? Where was the bomb? (I assume it was a bomb). The Suburban is overturned, but if the bomb was under it, it would have been blown to bits like the other vehicles you mention. (You don’t tell us it’s armored until way too late). And you miss chances to enhance the mood here — where’s the acrid black smoke, which might partially obscure his view? What does this smell like? Screams? People running or staggering away? Why are there weapons laying about on the street? Again, because there is not even a HINT of place or context, this doesn’t add up. 

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, use of “the” implies specificity. So it was the target? Otherwise, it is merely a Suburban. Also, these cars are common in the U.S., the Mideast and only a few other countries, so make sure you’re right on it. It’s also the car of choice of secret service. its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection. Now here is where I think you’ve gone off-key.  This is a hell scape. Brad would not be noticing “glossy” paint “shimmering.”  Watch your tone. 

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. More likely, a hand appeared out of a shattered driver’s side window? A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks. This construction implies Brad is thinking this, but again, its tone is off. Her face is simply covered in blood. 

She pushed her hair out of her eyes She wiped the blood from her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

I think you need a physical beat here before her name. One, the odd name is not easily digested as name on first glance. Two, GET US IN BRAD”S HEAD FIRST.

Brad froze. Brad’s heart stopped. Brad grabbed the edge of the broken window and stared down. Something, anything.

Youngmi. Put this in itals. It’s a direct thought with no attribution. Plus, the stress is nice.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, Another example of off-key tone. This word choice is too soft, too tender for the action. the sight filling him with horror. Show me, don’t tell me. 

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. Problem with clarity here. We need a better transition. I didn’t get this the first time read it. Thinking I was dense, I tried it on two other people. They missed it too, asking me, “so she was already dead? Is she dead now?” When you’re doing a fake-out like this (nothing wrong with that!), you have to make it clear that’s what it is. Something needed here, like:

But it couldn’t be her. She had died two years ago. He had seen her body, seen her slumped behind the wheel of her new Mercedes SUV.  Seen her blood soaking the front of her favorite Bob Seger t-shirt. And when he had finally walked around to the window, he had seen her face — blown apart, opened and peeled back, like some grotesque flower.

He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell. This is you, the writer talking, not Brad thinking. Stay in his sensibility.

You’ve just been in a mini-flashback. You need a transition back: Now, he stared down at the woman in the Suburban. And she stared back at him. Or, the black smoke cleared and he stared down again at the woman in the Suburban.  

Another point: This is an armored SUV in some kind of war-zone place. Yet Brad doesn’t think, what the hell is she doing driving an armored car? 

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. Why would she look up to some random window in the high-rise? Makes no sense. She’s got other things to worry about. Also, the recognition thing has to be conveyed through Brad’s consciousness: 

What was it he saw in her face? Terror…but something more. Brad felt his gut clench. She was looking right at him. Jesus, did she recognize him? (You can do better, but you get the point).

The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers Get out of the way of your story! Too writerly. Stay in Brad’s senses. around the edge of the armored SUV THIS IS AN IMPORTANT DETAIL and this is much too late to toss it in. It implies war but you’ve given us nothing else to support that. and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung open agape as she realized her own husband had killed her. You just shifted to her point of view. You must stay with Brad. You have to filter this revelation through him. Also, SHE’S NOT YET DEAD (at least this time), so the best she can think, “My husband is trying to kill me.”  But again, this doesn’t add up giving the scant info you’ve given us. This implies the Suburban was the bomb target. Was it? Now, because you belatedly mention it being armored, it could survive a bomb, but you must be clear on what is going on here. Maybe before the hand snaked out of the window, you can give Brad a thought about the mission of his team here?  

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloped her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings. There is chaos going on down in the street. Probably sirens by now and screaming. Nothing is going to echo here. 

In summary, we have a bang-up set-up here that needs some work. So what? All of our openings need work. So, dear writer, dig back in and you’ll be on the right track.

Give us a little bit more info about where we are and the context. Are we at war? Is this a terrorist hit by Brad and his men? What are they doing here? What is the mission — we need a hint at least. I really have a problem with a hero-protag being willing to sacrifice innocent lives on a crowded street like this, no matter who he thought was in the Suburban. Clean up the imagery and make this scene feel more visceral. Thanks for submitting and good luck.

2+

First Page Critique: Opening
With a Big Bang…In Theory

By PJ Parrish

Get ready, because we’ve got a lot of action in today’s First Page submission. Explosions! Body parts! Fiery cars!  Whew…

I’ll be back in a…uh, a flash and we’ll talk about this.

Ice Hammer: Invincible

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades.

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons.

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection.

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks.

She pushed her hair out of her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

Youngmi.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, the sight filling him with horror.

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell.

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers around the edge of the armored SUV and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung agape as she realized her own husband had killed her.

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloping her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings.

___________________________

Dontcha just hate slow starts?  I’m kidding, of course. We’re always harping here at TKZ about the need to get out of the gate fast.  Now, if you’re a regular here, you know not to take that literally.  Getting off to a fast start in a thriller is a good idea, and I suspect we’re in thriller territory here. But that doesn’t mean you literally have to start with a car chase or flying body parts. (See Jame’s Sunday post about omniscient point of view openings for one reference). You can create tension with a slower approach.

That, as you can see, is not the case here. Things literally start with a bang. Our writer has dropped us smack into the middle of a crisis — an explosion that propelled the protag (I think) across the room and then he staggers to the window to see all hell breaking loose down on the street. What’s not to like?

Nothing, in my humble opinion. I think this is a good door by which to enter the story.  James’s axiom of “act first, explain later” is in full bore here.  And the part about the wife — supposedly dead but now appearing in the burning car — is intriguing, to say the least.

So, good set-up, writer!  But there are some problems in the execution here. We have some issues with lack of clarity: Where are we? What exactly is going on here? We have some overwriting going on. Here’s a good guideline to keep in mind: The more intense the action, the less “writerly” your writing should be. And at times, the word choices are jarringly tone-deaf, out of tune with the tone of the scene itself. More on that small but important detail in a second. Let me go through this with a fine-tooth pencil:

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Not a bad opening line. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. Not sure I get this image. Maybe burning the inside of the lids? A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. I’d end after hammer. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men I’d lose them for now. Focus on your main guy; the spear-carriers clutter things up esp in the first graph! .in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades. Way too many metaphors in this opening graph. Turn this into action: The window shattered and the shards razored into his face.  

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. This was a big hiccup for me. HIS MEN detonated a lethal bomb in a street? Is Brad a terrorist? Because we have no context — is this a foreign locale? Are we in wartime? — I am confused about Brad’s role here and am not liking the fact he’s the cause of the carnage. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons. You need to tell us how high up he is. I know, it’s a stupid detail but important because he is about to recognize his wife’s face. You say only that vehicles are on fire “in front of the high-rise hotel.” Is Brad in this hotel or it is across the street? 

What blew up? Where was the bomb? (I assume it was a bomb). The Suburban is overturned, but if the bomb was under it, it would have been blown to bits like the other vehicles you mention. (You don’t tell us it’s armored until way too late). And you miss chances to enhance the mood here — where’s the acrid black smoke, which might partially obscure his view? What does this smell like? Screams? People running or staggering away? Why are there weapons laying about on the street? Again, because there is not even a HINT of place or context, this doesn’t add up. 

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, use of “the” implies specificity. So it was the target? Otherwise, it is merely a Suburban. Also, these cars are common in the U.S., the Mideast and only a few other countries, so make sure you’re right on it. It’s also the car of choice of secret service. its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection. Now here is where I think you’ve gone off-key.  This is a hell scape. Brad would not be noticing “glossy” paint “shimmering.”  Watch your tone. 

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. More likely, a hand appeared out of a shattered driver’s side window? A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks. This construction implies Brad is thinking this, but again, its tone is off. Her face is simply covered in blood. 

She pushed her hair out of her eyes She wiped the blood from her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

I think you need a physical beat here before her name. One, the odd name is not easily digested as name on first glance. Two, GET US IN BRAD”S HEAD FIRST.

Brad froze. Brad’s heart stopped. Brad grabbed the edge of the broken window and stared down. Something, anything.

Youngmi. Put this in itals. It’s a direct thought with no attribution. Plus, the stress is nice.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, Another example of off-key tone. This word choice is too soft, too tender for the action. the sight filling him with horror. Show me, don’t tell me. 

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. Problem with clarity here. We need a better transition. I didn’t get this the first time read it. Thinking I was dense, I tried it on two other people. They missed it too, asking me, “so she was already dead? Is she dead now?” When you’re doing a fake-out like this (nothing wrong with that!), you have to make it clear that’s what it is. Something needed here, like:

But it couldn’t be her. She had died two years ago. He had seen her body, seen her slumped behind the wheel of her new Mercedes SUV.  Seen her blood soaking the front of her favorite Bob Seger t-shirt. And when he had finally walked around to the window, he had seen her face — blown apart, opened and peeled back, like some grotesque flower.

He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell. This is you, the writer talking, not Brad thinking. Stay in his sensibility.

You’ve just been in a mini-flashback. You need a transition back: Now, he stared down at the woman in the Suburban. And she stared back at him. Or, the black smoke cleared and he stared down again at the woman in the Suburban.  

Another point: This is an armored SUV in some kind of war-zone place. Yet Brad doesn’t think, what the hell is she doing driving an armored car? 

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. Why would she look up to some random window in the high-rise? Makes no sense. She’s got other things to worry about. Also, the recognition thing has to be conveyed through Brad’s consciousness: 

What was it he saw in her face? Terror…but something more. Brad felt his gut clench. She was looking right at him. Jesus, did she recognize him? (You can do better, but you get the point).

The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers Get out of the way of your story! Too writerly. Stay in Brad’s senses. around the edge of the armored SUV THIS IS AN IMPORTANT DETAIL and this is much too late to toss it in. It implies war but you’ve given us nothing else to support that. and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung open agape as she realized her own husband had killed her. You just shifted to her point of view. You must stay with Brad. You have to filter this revelation through him. Also, SHE’S NOT YET DEAD (at least this time), so the best she can think, “My husband is trying to kill me.”  But again, this doesn’t add up giving the scant info you’ve given us. This implies the Suburban was the bomb target. Was it? Now, because you belatedly mention it being armored, it could survive a bomb, but you must be clear on what is going on here. Maybe before the hand snaked out of the window, you can give Brad a thought about the mission of his team here?  

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloped her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings. There is chaos going on down in the street. Probably sirens by now and screaming. Nothing is going to echo here. 

In summary, we have a bang-up set-up here that needs some work. So what? All of our openings need work. So, dear writer, dig back in and you’ll be on the right track.

Give us a little bit more info about where we are and the context. Are we at war? Is this a terrorist hit by Brad and his men? What are they doing here? What is the mission — we need a hint at least. I really have a problem with a hero-protag being willing to sacrifice innocent lives on a crowded street like this, no matter who he thought was in the Suburban. Clean up the imagery and make this scene feel more visceral. Thanks for submitting and good luck.

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

Get that? The dead control the stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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