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

Breaking the Rules the Right Way

Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. — Picasso

By PJ Parrish

So I cracked open a new thriller the other day. Starting a new read is like going on vacation. You buy your ticket and you’re filled with excitement and expectations. Where am I going to go? What cool sights will I see? What fascinating people will I meet? What great adventures await me?

I had heard this book was really good, and I haven’t been swept away by a novel in a long time. I was ripe for seduction.

Then I started reading it.  And the writer in me took over the reader in me. I started to analyze what the author was doing.  Good grief…he broke every rule we here at TKZ talk about:

  • The opening graph was slow and boring.
  • The style mixed past and present tense
  • The writer cut away at a crucial peak moment in the set-up action scene and didn’t show it “on camera.”
  • The first four chapters are heavy with backstory info dumps
  • The point of view head-hops between characters in mid-scenes
  • One chapter ends with “little did he know that…” (death was coming for him)

But I couldn’t put the book down. See all those bullet points above? I didn’t care about any of them because the story was so darn compelling that the writer in me was elbowed aside by the reader in me. I’m now about halfway through the book and it’s getting better and better.  I’m totally invested in the characters, even the detestable ones. I can’t foresee what is going to happen. And I can’t wait to see how this all plays out.

I guess you want to know the title. It’s Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.  It won the Edgar for Best Novel this year.

Now Hawley isn’t exactly a novice. He’s written four novels before this, including two that could be classified as thrillers.  He’s also a screenwriter, best known for creating and writing the television series Fargo and Legion.

Before the Fall definitely has the bones of a good screenplay. Here’s the setup: A privileged family sets off on foggy night from Martha’s Vineyard with a down-on-his-luck painter tagging along for a ride back to Manhattan.  The plane goes down into the ocean and only two survive — the painter and the family’s four-year-old boy.

The story then moves into flashback, with detailed dossier chapters on the main characters, and the driving ideas and themes start emerging — the harsh price of our 24-7 media culture, the twists fate takes, how ordinary people become heroes, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.

Let’s go back for a moment and the rules that Hawley broke. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The private plane sits on a runway in Martha’s Vineyard, forward stairs deployed. It is a nine-seat Osprey 700SL, built in 2001 in Wichita, Kansas. Whose plane it is is hard to say with real certainty. The ownership of record is a Dutch holding company with a Cayman Island mailing address, but the logo on the fuselage say GULLWING AIR.  The pilot, James Melody, is British. Charlie Busch, the first officer, is from Odessa, Texas. The flight attendant, Emma Lightner, was born in Mannheim, Germany, to an American air force lieutenant and his teenager wife. They moved to San Diego when she was nine.

Snooze-fest, right? I mean, none of these people is important. They all die within sixteen minutes of takeoff. Who cares where the plane was built? If this showed up on one of our First Page Critiques we’d tear it to shreds.  Here’s the second paragraph:

Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens every day. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless. 

Again, this breaks the usual thriller rules. It is omniscient point of view, the writer telling us something about the book’s theme. It’s a tad portentious. The protagonist artist won’t even come on scene for another nine pages and even then he’s a blip on the narrative radar. Yet I was very willing to let the writer rather than the characters steer the story at this point.

The plane takes off.  At the end of what is essentially a prologue (untitled as such) we drift into the wife’s POV:

As she does at a thousand random moments of every day, Maggie feels a swell of motherly love, ballooning and desperate. They are her life, these children. Her identity. She reaches once more to readjust her son’s blanket, and as she does there is that moment of weightlessness as the plane’s wheels leave the ground. This act of impossible hope, this routine of suspension of the physical laws that hold men down, inspires and terrifies her. Flying. They are flying. 

Then here is the last sentence of the “prologue”:

And as they rise up through the foggy white, talking and laughing, serenaded by the songs of 1950s crooners and the white noise of the long at bat, none of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from now their plane will crash into the sea.

Little did they know…

Maybe Hawley deserve a small wrist slap for that one, but I was willing to let him get away with it. It fit in with the tone he was using, like he had gathered us all around a campfire and was pulling us in. We know from the back copy what is going to happen, so he’s not stepping on any surprise here.

Back to the broken rules.  In the next chapter, Hawley switches from present tense to a more conventional past tense. And it is all backstory on the artist, Scott Burroughs, starting with a key childhood memory of Scott going on a family vacation to San Francisco that culminates in the boy watching Jack LaLanne swimming from Alcatraz pulling a boat in his wake. The chapter is laden with details and ends with the author telling us that as soon as Scott got home, he signed up for swimming classes. We are left to understand that this memory chapter is here to underscore the theme of heroism and doing the impossible. But we really want to return to that plane crash, right?

Here is the opening of chapter 2:

He surfaces, shouting. It is night. The salt water burns his eyes. Heat singes his lungs. There is no moon, just a diffusion of moonlight through the burly fog, wave caps churning midnight  blue in front of him. Around him eerie orange flames lick the froth.

The water is on fire, he thinks, kicking away instinctively.

And then, after a moment of shock and disorientation:

The plane has crashed.

Why didn’t Hawley show us the crash “on camera?” He’s a screenwriter! We should have seen the whole crash, like that terrifying scene with Tom Hanks in the film Castaway? Yet Hawley CHOSE to withhold it. As a reader, I initially felt deprived of a visceral experience. But when I got to a later chapter, I understood why he did it.  When Scott the artist is finally safe and has to recount the crash for authorities, the horror of the crash feels even more vivid and it becomes a tool for Hawley to comment on the fragility and unreliability of memory.

The chapter is all action (again in present tense) that intensifies when Scott happens upon the little boy clinging to a cushion. Scott, dislocated shoulder and desperate, takes the child on his back and starts swimming for a shore he can only see in his hopes. The chapter after takes place in the hospital and starts dealing with the media frenzy and Scott’s realization that he is man who has been hiding from a failed life and now has been pushed into the light.

The next chapter is titled DAVID BATEMAN, April 2, 1959 — August 23, 2015. This reverts to past tense and is devotes to the backstory of the dead father, who is a younger, handsomer version of Roger Ailes in that he created a Fox News type network.

The rest of the book jumps back and forth between present (Scott and the boy) and the past (backstories on all the key dead  characters). Again, the rule is broken: Stay with the linear more visceral plot.  But I wanted to know, needed to know, what had brought the dead characters to their tragic ends. There is reason the book is called Before The Fall. Yes, it can be a biblical allusion, that people are innocent until they are corrupted. But it is also a comment on the novel’s structure and the choice Hawley made: What happened BEFORE is just as important as what happened after.

I didn’t realize until I went back and looked at the notes I had made in the margins that Hawley broke another basic rule.  He has no chapter numbers. Most chapters are titled: “Storm Clouds,”  “Orphans” “Funhouse” and such. But the titles are not what they seem; they all have double meanings.

I wish I had finished the book so I could comment more fully on it here for you.  But as I said, I am halfway through and it is keeping me turning the pages and the characters are very alive in my mind when I put the book down. So yes, you can break the rules. In fact, sometimes you must.  I will probably go back and read Hawley’s other novels now, because I am interested not only in what the author has to say but how he says it.

But for now, I’m off on an adventure.  I’ll let you know how it turns out when I get back.

10+

First Page Critique: Beethoven
And the Well-Aimed Bullet

To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable —  Ludwig van Beethoven

By PJ Parrish

A new First Pager found its way to my in-box Sunday, and it had such an immediate impact on me that I decided to postpone my post-in-progress and use the submission. I think it offers us a good departure point for a discussion about using pacing to keep the reader in the reality of the moment.  The fact that I was listening to Beethoven’s Ninth as I wrote this well, I’ll get to that in a sec.

First, a huge thank-you to the writer for letting us learn from your first page. (And I wish you had sent us a bit more. Your line spacing bar must be set at 3!) Before I talk, take a moment to read today’s submission:

A Thriller – KEEP IT SAFE

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. A lousy spot where if you have a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a seizure of some sort. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. There was that bottle or Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

Anyway, the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman rubber soles here.

________________________________

Short and sweet, right? Well, it’s not bad. I like that we are immediately in a dramatic moment, but I think the writer has two problems here, and by addressing them this opening might go from adequate (I’ve read this setup before) to unique (Yes, I have read this before but this reads so well that I’ll stick around a little longer).

What are the problems? I think the issues are with point of view and pacing — or more to the point, that sweet spot where the two intersect.

This opening is pure action scene, right? But the only action is the uncorking of a bottle and then a bullet in the back. We get no setting and no sense of who this man is, although because this is first person, I am guessing he’s the protagonist. (If not, that’s another issue for another post). Now, I don’t mind this lack of information — it’s sort of intriguing — but with such an abbreviated submission, I can’t tell if the writer will soon give us the context we need to care about this poor guy.

Pacing is important in your whole story, but when you are in an action scene like this, it is extra-critical.  When you move into an action scene, you the writer need to shift gears, changing your style (word choice, syntax, size of sentences and paragraphs) so the reader gets a sense of speed, urgency (which is different than speed) and intensity. Action scenes are meant as a contrast to slower scenes of information. They are meant to be ingested quickly in smaller and sharper bites rather than digested in more leisurely paced scenes. Think staccato not legato.

But, but…my overall writing style is more legato! Yeah, I hear you. I know. I’m a legato by nature, too, but I’m learning (still!) when I need to switch to staccato.

Okay, think Beethoven. I’m going to him because as I said, he was my soundtrack today as I wrote. Beethoven was a genius, an original. But like any good genre writer, he worked within a “formula” — the classic symphony. The classic symphony has four movements: The opening (allegro or “lively”), the second (adagio or “slow”), the third (scherzo or “quick) and fourth (allegro presto or molto or “really fast!”)

This roughly translates to crime fiction’s three-act structure: a quick intriguing opening that hints at the story and theme to come; the middle where motivations, backstory, clue-trail and complications are laid out; and the climax where the action peaks, the hero usually triumphs, themes are echoed, and all is resolved.

Now by the time Beethoven got to his magnum opus ninth, he knew all the ropes and tropes so he played with the structure a little, moving the scherzo ahead of the adagio, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Let’s start with Beethoven’s “First Page.” He specified the tempo of the ninth’s opening as allegro ma non troppo, which means “quickly but not too fast.” Which is what you want in a book thriller or mystery — a quick-paced intriguing setup but with something held in reserve for the climax. Bear with me, but please go listen to a few moments of how the ninth begins:

Hear that cool quiet introduction? It’s almost creepy with its build-up of tension. But then, thirty seconds in — BAM! — Beethoven hits us with a bullet in the back. This is what I wish our writer had given us.  Before the man gets shot, give us maybe a graph or two that serves as a quick line-sketch of where we are and who we are watching. Maybe a bit of mood. I can’t tell if this man is a seasoned operative or cop who senses that someone is coming to kill him tonight or if he’s a civilian oenophile who’s just unlucky. A few well-placed bars could have gone a long way here, and then when we do get the bullet in the back, it would sting even more.

Let’s move on to Beethoven’s adagio. Again, listen to just a few bars and come back.

Here, Beethoven is laying out the theme. Here, we crime writers would use this middle to give us the context for what we witnessed in the opening, tell readers about our characters and their motivations, slip in backstories, begin addressing theme, and set up complications. But even when the tempo is slower, you still need to watch pace. The ninth’s 14-minute third movement is all in slow tempo, yet if you listen to the 9:30 moment, you hear a definite building of tension, a dark foreshadowing, and a hint of the ninth’s booming climax.

Then we get to the fourth movement of the ninth, and boy, what a doozy of a climax. Beethoven opens with a rush of urgent sound — the car chase has begun, the hero is in pursue down the unlit hall — but then he backs away and the mood goes dark and swirly. If you know the ninth, you know how the story ends — as it should in redemptive triumph. But check out the opening moments for now:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXOG4X-6bz8

Now back to our submission and that sweet spot where pace and point of view intersect.

The main issue I have with the submission is that it is neither staccato or legato but a curious hybrid of the two that fails to deliver on the premise promised by the setup. It’s like the writer was listening to the adagio instead of the allegro as he wrote it. The plot event (getting shot) is intrinsically fast yet the style of this opening is leisurely, almost as if the character is sitting in a bar ten years later telling a friend what happened to him. Let’s go to Track Changes. The comments in red are mine:

I levered I rather like this verb choice here though it’s technically incorrect the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. A lousy spot where if you have a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a seizure of some sort. These thoughts are out of place. there is no time for such navel-gazing when you are in mortal danger. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me A character can’t know what he can’t know ie: Little did he know…. I would have brought something up from the cellar more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. Again, he’s about to die so he’s not  thinking about bouquets. There was that bottle or Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

When I first read this, I wondering if the writer was going for satire here, maybe doing an homage to old detective movies.

Anyway, anytime you have to resort to his word, your transition is weak. the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. Again, if you’re shot, you aren’t likely to be thinking in terms of “chard” and “amber liquid.” As for me, another weird transition that jerks me out of the moment the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck. He just falls to the floor. Also, he‘s outdoors? I thought he was on a hardwood floor.

There I was, another of those weird transitions. face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch rubber crunches on wood? their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman rubber soles here.

So see the problem here? This is an adagio tempo imposed on what should be an allegro moment.  It’s hard enough to mix tempos between scenes and keep the pacing good. But when you mix the two within a scene, we hear only noise, not the special music of your style.

My sister Kelly is good at writing action scenes, better than I am. So I asked her to give this a quick rewrite while still honoring the writer’s setup and style. I offer this not because I believe one writer’s style should be imposed on another — you need to find your own voice! — but to show how to keep a character’s point of view firmly in the reality of the moment.

Just as I levered the cork from the Chardonnay, I heard a sharp crack and felt something hit my back — a hard, hot poke that I instantly knew was a bullet.

I dropped the bottle, heard it clunk but not break, as it hit the kitchen floor. I grabbed for the counter, trying to stay upright, trying hard to breathe, but my legs caved and I hit the floor.

The pooled wine felt cool against my face and though I knew I had taken a bullet, knew someone outside my window had just tried to kill me, I had the strangest thought — I should have brought up the bottle of Nieto Senetiner Malbec, because that would be a much more dignified wine to die in.

The difference here is that Kelly has included only those things that would register in the man’s consciousness given the dire circumstances. She saved that odd thought about the Malbec for a kicker…and it comes only AFTER the man is down and bleeding. If you are lying on the floor with a bullet in your back, well, yeah, you might have a weird existential thought — I should’ve, I could’ve, I didn’t, I never… But save it for when there is a “quiet” moment in your action scene, make it quick, and then get back to the action at hand.

I’ll leave you with a few, ahem, bullet points about pacing and point of view.

  • Never include unnecessary details that can disrupt the flow of the action. If you have a helicopter crash into a mountain, don’t stop and have the pilot tell me that in his long history of flying with the army, including that tour in Nam, this helicopter model always had a history of tail-rotor failure.  If a wounded man finds himself face down in a pool of wine, don’t stop and give me a detailed memory of that year he spent in his twenties backpacking through France.
  • Describe the scene only through what your character can know. If he is lying on the floor dying, he can only see what is in front of him — the steel tip of an approaching boot comes slowly into focus. And use all the senses! Beginning writers are overly reliant on sight. In action scenes, other senses are often more powerful. A blindfolded man hears a sloshing sound then smells gasoline.  A woman victim feels the featherly caress of a cold gun against her cheek.
  • Make your physical movements clear and concise.  Moving characters around in space is grunt work but you have to pay attention. He walked into the bedroom, she turned the corner…etc.  But in action scenes, you have to be careful that you choreograph each step on the page so the reader has no doubt what is happening to whom.
  • But don’t over-describe. In your head, your action scene is playing out like the slow-mo shoot-out in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. On your first draft, sure, go ahead and bleed purple. But then go back and clean things up. Remember — as in sex scenes, which are also action scenes, less is usually more.

Thanks again, dear writer. I would like to read more. The set-up is intriguing. And a character who would rather have a majestic Malbec from Argentina instead of a plunky Chardonnay from Trader Joe’s is worth following.

5+

Getting Out of Rewrite Hell Alive

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” – Truman Capote

By PJ Parrish

I hate Lee Child.

Well, at least I got your attention.

Okay, I don’t really hate the guy. He’s actually one of the menschiest men in our business. But about once a year, right around the same time, I really really really hate the guy.
Why? He claims he never rewrites. He says he writes one draft and that is what makes it into print. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave to a reporter for the Independent newspaper in Britain:

“This isn’t the first draft, you know.”

He’d only written two words. CHAPTER ONE.

“Oh,” I said. “What is it then?”

“It’s the only draft!”

Right then, he sounded more like Jack Reacher than Lee Child. More Reacher than writer.

“I don’t want to improve it. When I’ve written something, that is the way it has to stay. It’s like one of those old photos you come across. From the 1970s. And you have this terrible Seventies haircut and giant lapels on your jacket. It’s ridiculous – but it’s there. It is what it is. Leave it alone.”

Okay, let me try to qualify this a little. This week I am starting rewrites on our latest Louis Kincaid thriller. Now, we’re pretty clean writers. We write so slowly that things tend to fall in place as we go along. But this newest book was different. It didn’t chug nicely along, with a little lurch or two along the way. This one was a big Victorian locomotive that would speed ahead for three chapters, hit a hill, careen backwards, smack into a tree and then start groaning forward again, all the while belching out noxious clouds of purple smoke.

But at least it is done. And while we normally now would be going in with a light heart and an Allen wrench to fine-tune, this time we are going back into the manuscript with grim determination and a scalpel in one hand and sledgehammer in the other.

I know the story is solid. In fact, it might be the best book we’ve written. But I also know we have weeks of rewrite hell ahead. How did this happen? Partly because this book came when both Kelly and I had a lot of life stuff going on. For my part, I moved to a new city after living in the same place for 40 years, so I often had to break my vow of writing daily and thus I had to leave my imaginary world and live in the real world of closing statements and cardboard boxes. The main man in my life wasn’t my hero Louis Kincaid but Two Men and a Truck.

Writing tip of the day no. 1: Even when life intrudes, do everything you can to maintain daily contact with your novel. Visit your imaginary world every day, even if it’s just to go back and read what you already wrote.

But that wasn’t the only problem. The story we chose this time was very ambitious, both in plot, characterization and theme. This time out, for book no. 14, we weren’t just juggling with fire torches, we were juggling with chainsaws. And at times, we lost our way in both the arcs of the case (plot) and its people (character).

Writing tip of the day no. 2: Even if you’re a pantser like me, create a road map for your story. You don’t have to stick to the outline or template, but when you get distracted, it can be a path back to the main story road.

Sometimes, learning about how other writers do things – watching how someone else makes their sausage – can help you find your own process. So let me share some things I’m facing as I go into rewrites this week. It won’t be your tao, but it might spark a how.

First, we have to deal with the little stuff. Things like changing a character name or setting up the bread crumb trail of your clues better. Kelly and I deal with these small potatoes by creating Post-It notes. Here’s a typical Skype conversation for us:

Kelly: We need to beef up the FBI dossier on Steele that Emily gives Louis.

Me: Where do you think it should go?

Kelly: How about in the first restaurant scene where they first talk about the team?

Me: Good idea.

Kelly: Make a sticky note or you’ll forget it.

So I scribble out a note on a Post-It and slap it up on a board in my office. But as I packed up my office, I had to stuff all the “sticky notes” in an envelope .

Today, I got them out of the box and spread them on the glass door of my desk so at least now I can see what awaits me.

This is only part of them. I ran out of room. It gets worse. While we were in mid-move, we were still trying to work so I had to resort to making Microsoft sticky notes that I slapped onto my desk top:

Now do you understand why I hate Lee Child?

What’s weird about this is that normally I love rewriting.  At this point for me, the grunt work is done, the sweat has dried, and I am merely redecorating, pulling weeds, repainting, and repositioning the furniture. But this book needs a new entry door, a couple walls knocked down, a massive new support beam around chapter 25, and a new addition built onto the back.  It’s not Property Brothers; it’s This Old House.

Writing tip of the day no. 3: Sometimes you don’t see the real problems until you have finished the whole book.

It wasn’t until we got around page 400 that Kelly and I realized just how much big structural work was ahead of us. We couldn’t see these issues until we had traveled the entire course of the story. We had been in the PLOT trees for so long that it wasn’t until we emerged back out into the open that we could look back and clearly see the CHARACTER/THEME forest.

So what do we need to fix? Here’s just a few things:

Chapter 1: Yeah, I hear your groans. Because if you read our First Page Critiques here, you know how important the opening moments of your story are. Our story starts slowly, with Louis returning to his home state of Michigan to take a job with a new prestigious cold case squad led by the police captain who, eight years before (in book 2), had caused Louis to lose his job.  Okay, that’s a good obstacle for Louis but it’s not a sexy opening for a thriller. So we wrote a “prologue” in which two young boys are running for their lives from an unknown person who wants to seal them in a box.  Well, THAT’S attention-grabbing.  But as we neared the end of the book, we realized the scene felt artificial, like we were desperate to inject action into the opening. We were trying to gin up the story, but the scene was not organic to what came after — Louis on the first day of the job.

So we’ve axed the boys scene and are writing a scene between Louis and his new boss that will play on the tension between the men and stress the high stakes for Louis.

Writing tip of the day no. 4: Don’t be afraid of the slow opening as long as it has tension, hints at a major conflict, or  conveys that something has been disturbed.  You don’t have to throw a boulder into a lake to make waves; sometimes a well-aimed rock creates ripples enough to make the reader want more.

Another thing we need to fix is our characters’s motivations. Okay, I’ve been married for 35 years and just when I think I know my husband, he does something that makes me think, blink or just laugh my ass off. So it should be with your characters. You won’t know everything about them when you start, so don’t expect to. Keep control of them, yes, but be open to their surprises and their growth.  Kelly and I found we didn’t know really know what drove our villain until he was vanquished around page 350.  Now we have to go back and build up his early scenes — putting in that crucial beam or two! — so his final actions make sense. Even the bad guys deserve this respect.

Then there’s the last thing we need to  fix — our theme. This one is maybe the hardest because theme is a slippery thing. I think theme is really important to good books. It is what your book is really about at its heart. It isn’t plot. Here’s Stephen King on the subject:

Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal. If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered–why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what’s it all about, Alfie?

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book–at least every one worth reading–is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft–one of them, anyway–is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails

We weren’t sure what this book was about, to be honest. It is about the murder of a mega-church minister — and how that murder ties into the little boys who were nailed into a box and left to die. But that’s just plot. What does all this mean? We knew the theme was loosely about religion. But It wasn’t until Kelly wrote one line of dialogue in chapter 34 that we found the theme. The line came from an atheist whom Louis interviews:

What does a man do with his guilt if he doesn’t believe in God? 

That line made us realize our book’s heart was about how people who are damaged — and people who inflict damage on others — still find a reason to believe in something.  But now we have to go back and carefully calibrate each character, through their actions, thoughts and words, to reflect that main idea. And yes, there is an answer even for the villain.

So, if you’ll excuse me I have some heavy lifting to do. If you are about to finish your book — huzzah, huzzah! — let me leave you with a couple miscellaneous bullet points about surviving rewrite hell.

Don’t get caught in ego-trap that your first draft is great. Hemingway himself said the first draft is always crap. (well, he used a different word).

Sometimes to fix it, you have to break it.

Let your first draft bake. I call this the de-cheesing time. Finish the book, let it sit for at least two weeks, then print it out and read it. The bad parts will stink like bad Brie.

Be courageous but careful. Rewriting is like eating an elephant. It’s one bite at a time.

Take out all the dumb words. Figure out what your writer tic is — mine is an overuse of “then” and “suddenly.” Excise all the flabby physical movements like, “He nodded his head.” (He just nodded.) Don’t keep repeating physical attributes. Once you tell me the lady has sea foam green eyes, don’t tell me again.

Hire an editor if you need one. And most of us need one badly. There is nothing more valuable than a trained reader who will tell you the truth and whose only interest is the quality of your book.

Sometimes you have to add, not subtract. Contrary to what Truman Capote, not every rewrite needs scissors. Sometimes you need to put more meat on the plot bones or inject blood into anemic characters. Stop obsessing about word count. The book will be as long as it needs to be.

Have a plan going in. After you’ve let the draft bake and given it a fresh read, write down the things — big and small — that you have to deal with. Here’s Chuck Wendig on the subject in his usual colorful style:

You write your first draft however you want. Outline, no outline, finger-painted on the back of a Waffle House placemat in your own feces, I don’t care. But you go to attack a rewrite without a plan in mind, you might as well be a chimpanzee humping a football helmet. How do you know what to fix if you haven’t identified what’s broken? This isn’t the time for intuition. Have notes. Put a plan in place. Surgical strike.

And as you eat the elephant, keep an eye out for that theme. Or as Dorothy Parker put it in her book on writing:

I would write a book at least three times–once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.

 

But, after all this, after all this advice I’ve set out here, isn’t it fair to let the King of the Perfect Draft have the last word? Take it, Lee Child…

My honest answer is ignore advice because it’s got to be your product. It’s got to be an organic product with a vital, vivid integrity of its own and you’ll never get that if you’re worried about what other people are telling you to do.

10+

First Page Critique: Last Night I
Dreamed of Going Back to Brooklyn Again

By PJ Parrish

Time for a First Page Critique, this one titled Avenue M.  This submission has much to teach us about backstory, developing a writer’s voice and it poses that oft-debated question here:  When does a slow start work?  A big thank you to our writer for letting us read this work and learn from it.  Please weigh in with comments!

Avenue M

I want to go back to Brooklyn, Avenue M East 3rd. If I say it enough times, will that happen? If I am very specific with the address, sit quietly, visualize the street? I want to see grandma one more time; smell the mothballs on her sweater, take her hand walking back from Maggio’s Deli on the corner, trip over the cracks in the uneven sidewalk, past Ms. Johnson’s house – “Wave to Mrs. Johnson, Sugar” – and onto the stoop of the attached two-family home where I had spent each summer as a little girl. I want to have more patience with Aunt Billie and be kinder to grandpa. I want to go back to Brooklyn, just one more day.

The night before the wake, my mother told me how grandma, at fifteen – Elizabeth – grandpa called her Ella – had gotten pregnant with Aunt Billie, my “slow” aunt. Grandma had just died the week before, propped up in bed, a half jelly jar of warm Budweiser, a crushed filtered Camel in the ashtray on the bedside table, and an empty box of Whitmans, you know, the kind that hold four different chocolate pieces with the little drawing of each and a description on the back of the box? She was reading one of her Harlequin Romance novels, fell asleep, and just didn’t wake up the next day. That is when I started dreaming of grandma, of going back to Avenue M.

I’m a forty year old grown woman, for heaven’s sake, with two great kids and a loving husband, so why do I constantly think of grandma and feel her presence, and while driving, worrying over something or another about one of my boys, put my hand on my own shoulder as if she were caressing mine and I were caressing hers? Dreaming of Brooklyn, Avenue M, the dead-end street with the baseball field behind the chain link fence, walking to the EL with grandpa – a trip to Coney Island, – eating ice cream at the foot of grandma’s bed watching television with Aunt Billie.

I just want one day, one more day, nine years old but knowing, knowing everything and in that knowing, able to hold her and comfort her. I would be such a good girl. I wouldn’t give her any grieve and I wouldn’t be fresh to grandpa and I would hug Aunt Billie more, I promise.

______________________________________

Okay, I suspect you are all one step ahead of me here with some salient questions. But I’ll try to lay them out as I see them:

What kind of book is this? Because The Kill Zone is about mysteries and thrillers, I have to start with the premise that this writer knows that and thus this story will fall within the genre parameters. But I can’t tell from this sample what kind of story we are reading. This has the feel of general fiction, maybe leaning toward a literary attempt.  If it is, indeed, a mystery, this beginning is, I think, much too leisurely for readers’ expectations.

What is happening here? Not much, really. I don’t mean that snarkily but as an observation that dovetails with the first question. I am all for a slow build beginning. In fact, in these days of wham-bang-blow-it-up-and-dump-a-corpse openings, I have gotten to prefer a writer who takes their time with a slow tease.  But even a slow beginning has to beguile and at least hint at the central tension of the story. This opening is all reminiscence.  It is all about the past. It is all memory with no forward movement. A 40-year-old woman is lamenting that she can’t go home again.

What is the central conflict?  Every good story has one. Every protagonist faces a life-altering challenge. But we get no sense of this woman’s problem.  All we know is that she misses Brooklyn and her grandmother.  This is far too generic to fire our imaginations. Did this woman (girl) do something dire that hastened her grandma’s death? That’s interesting! But we need a strong hint of it here. Even it is one devastating line. Give us a reason to turn the page. Nothing here is disturbed.

What does this character want?  This relates to the question above and I maintain must be asked — and answered by the writer — of every major character, but especially for the protagonist.  What does this woman want? To turn back time. To see her grandma one more time. It’s there at the end of the crucial first graph: “I want to go back to Brooklyn.” That’s not enough to sustain 300 pages.  Now I know this is only 400 words, but we still must get a hint of this woman’s journey to come.

Now let’s talk about some good things in this submission.  There is a definitely voice at work here.  The writer has a nice feel for what I call the telling detail.  The writer hones in on small things that bring her characters alive — the smell of a mothballed sweater, warm beer served in a jelly jar, the little drawings on the lid of the Whitman’s candy box. Very nicely observed.  I wish the details about Brooklyn had been a little less generic — ie, cracked sidewalks, chain-linked baseball field could be Anywhere USA.  Make me feel, smell, and hear the uniqueness of Brooklyn the way you made me feel grandma.

Now let’s go through the opening quickly with Line Edits.

AVENUE M

I want to go back to Brooklyn, Avenue M East 3rd. Might this abbreviated line be more interesting rather than reading like Google Maps direction? How about: Last night, I dreamed I went back to Avenue M again. I stood by the chainlink fence at the end of the dead-end street and I found I couldn’t go in for the way was barred to me. Apologies to Daphne DuMaurier but you get my drift.  Make the memory sound mystical! If I say it enough times, will that happen? If I am very specific with the address, sit quietly, visualize the street? I want to see grandma one more time; hiccup here with that semi-colon. You don’t need it. smell the mothballs on her sweater, take her hand walking back from Maggio’s Deli on the corner, trip over the cracks in the uneven sidewalk, past Ms. Johnson’s house – “Wave to Mrs. Johnson, Sugar” – and onto the stoop of the attached two-family home where I had spent each summer as a little girl. I want to have more patience with Aunt Billie and be kinder to grandpa. I want to go back to Brooklyn, just one more day. I like repeating the first line, what I call an echo, but it means nothing here. It sounds flat.  Hint at the WHY.

The night before the wake, my mother told me how grandma, at fifteen – Elizabeth – grandpa called her Ella – had gotten pregnant with Aunt Billie, way too many names in one phrase to digest. I’d lose BOTH mom’s names and Aunt Billie. my “slow” aunt. Grandma had just died the week before, Whoa. Grandma died the week before giving birth to Billie? That’s how this reads propped up in bed, a half jelly jar of warm Budweiser, a crushed filtered Camel in the ashtray on the bedside table, and an empty box of Whitmans, you know, the kind that hold four different chocolate pieces with the little drawing of each and a description on the back of the box? Where is this box of candy? On the table? You don’t say. She was reading one of her Harlequin Romance novels, fell asleep, and just didn’t wake up the next day. No need to slip into “yesterday” here. Stay in the present:  A Harlequin romance was open across her chest, “Her Family Betrayal” by Janet Jackson. (Or make up a title that says something about your story! That is when When is “when?” After the wake? After grandma’s body was found? Very confusing. I started dreaming of grandma, of going back to Avenue M.

I’m a forty year old grown woman, for heaven’s sake, with two great kids and a loving husband, so why do I constantly think of grandma and feel her presence, and while driving, worrying over something or another about one of my boys, put my hand on my own shoulder as if she were caressing mine and I were caressing hers? You need to get us in the present moment and get your story OUT OF HER HEAD and moving forward.  What if here, you switch to this woman (give her a name by the way somehow) actually driving somewhere. To pick up her boys at baseball practice? She actually feels a presence in the car, a hand on her shoulder. Give us something except dreaming! Dreaming of Brooklyn, Avenue M, the dead-end street with the baseball field behind the chain link fence, walking to the EL with grandpa – a trip to Coney Island, – eating ice cream at the foot of grandma’s bed watching television with Aunt Billie.

I just want one day, one more day, nine years old but knowing, knowing everything and in that knowing, able to hold her and comfort her. I would be such a good girl. I wouldn’t give her any grieve ???and I wouldn’t be fresh to grandpa and I would hug Aunt Billie more, I promise. Well heck, we all wish we had been better kids.  This feeling is universal but not terribly interesting for fiction.  Find this woman’s real source of pain and give us at least a hint of it in these first 400 words.

Back to me again: Thanks again, dear writer!  I think your main issue here is to find a way to get out of the past and into the present.  We want to follow characters in their real lives and watch them doing things rather than just thinking, remembering, lamenting. Get out of this woman’s head and get her moving. Good luck!

 

 

4+

The Lessons for All Writers
Woven into ‘Charlotte’s Web’

“Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.” – E.B. White

By PJ Parrish

Writers are often asked what their favorite book is. Or which one most influenced them as a writer. The first question has always been easy for me — my favorite book is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  But it has only been in the last couple years that I realized Charlotte’s Web might be one of the biggest influences in my writing life.

I fell in love with this book the first time I read it. I was maybe eight or nine, just around the age of the heroine Fern.  But a couple years back, on the 60th anniversary of its publication, I decided to read it again.

What a revelation. It is, of course, maybe the most famous kid book ever. It won the Newbery and remains the bestselling children’s paperback even today. But what I didn’t realize is that it is a terrific story for adults.  Like the Harry Potter books, it has a magic that transcends age and a theme that resonates deeper the older you become.

I pulled out my copy last week and read it yet again. Yes, it still holds up for me. But I also tried to look at it with different eyes and dissect how it works as a novel. It has lessons to teach any writer working in any genre.

First off, it teaches us to write from our inner selves, from the most shadowed places of our hearts.  I think this is what the adage “write what you know” really means. It does not mean write about your narrow everyday world.  It means write about what is essential to your unique soul.

E.B. White has said the story came from his childhood memory of being unable to save a piglet. But in his book The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims explains that in 1949, White found an spider egg sac in his Maine barn and cut the sac out of the web with a razor blade. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.  Weeks later, hundreds of spiderlings began to escape through the holes and spun webs on his hair brush, nail scissors and mirror. Thus was hatched White’s magical meditation that teaches us about life, death and the beauty of friendship.

But the book has many other things to teach us as writers.

Let’s start with the opening. I talk here often about picking the right moment to inject your reader into your conjured up world. And James writes often here about how you need to build your opening chapter around a “moment of disturbance.” Something has to happen. And it has to happen early enough in your plot to engage the reader’s interest. So how does Charlotte’s Web begin?

It’s breakfast time at the Arable family farm. Fern comes in to the table to see her father heading out to the barn with an ax. Mom tells her that one of the piglets is a runt and father is going out to do away with it.

Yikes. Gets my attention! Notice White didn’t start his story with Fern waking up in her little bedroom and thinking about the cute piglets that were born yesterday. He didn’t start it with a beautiful description of the Arable family farm. He went right for the dramatic heart. And what a great contrast he set up in our imagination: The warmth of a morning kitchen and a man leaving it with an ax on his way to a “murder.”

And is there a more chilling opening line in all of fiction: “Where’s father going with that ax?” Fern asked.

THE LESSON: Don’t waste time with pages of gorgeous description. Find the right moment to parachute the reader into your story. Build tension as quickly as you can.

Fern runs outside and we learn in a quick brushstroke that “the grass was wet and the earth smelled like springtime.” The crying Fern confronts her father that killing the piglet isn’t fair. To which dad says “you have to learn to control yourself.” Which is backstory, right? We now know Fern has a history of impetuousness. Dad relents and tells her she can bottle-feed the runt so she’ll learn how hard life can be.

THE LESSON: White sets up the protagonist’s challenge and has begun Fern’s character arc. And he starts plumbing the first level of the most important question an author must answer about motivation: What does the character want? Well, level one: Fern wants to save the pig.

We then meet her brother Avery, who wants to know why he can’t have a pig, too. Dad says “I only distribute pigs to early risers. Fern was up at daylight trying to rid the world of injustice.” (Level two: Fern wants the world to be just)

White then slows things down with a nice narrative about how Wilbur the pig thrived under Fern’s care. But then Dad says that Wilbur is old enough to be sold to the Zuckermans. Fern cries but Wilbur is banished to a manure pile.

THE LESSON: Your plot must have a series of setbacks for the heroine to deal with and overcome.

Chapter 3 opens with a long and lovely description of the Zuckerman barn. Because the plot is chugging along now, readers will be willing to slow down.

THE LESSON: Good pacing isn’t just a matter of full speed ahead. You have to know when to slow down and let the reader catch his breath. A good plot is a roller coaster with a series of tense climbs, terrifying plunges, and areas where you coast along – “whew!” – while you anticipate the next dip.

We then switch to Wilbur’s point of view as he meets the barnyard animals, each one indelibly drawn, especially the goose who helps Wilbur escape and Templeton the rat who steals his food. Fern hasn’t been to see him and Wilbur feels lonely and friendless.

THE LESSON: Don’t neglect secondary characters. Make them vivid and useful to the main character, be it a sidekick, foil, confidante – or a nefarious rat. Good secondary characters are prisms through which reader “see” the main character.

Speaking of secondary characters…has there ever been a finer one then Charlotte the spider? From her first lines – “Do you want friend, Wilbur? I’ve watched you all day and I like you” – we can’t help but love her. She’s smart (“Salutations! It’s just my fancy way of saying hello!”) and pretty and good at catching flies.

Wilbur is appalled by the fact she traps and eats bugs. He thinks she’s cruel. But in a matter-of-fact monologue, Charlotte explains that is what her kind has always done, that flies would take over the world if not for spiders, and besides, she fends for herself while he depends on the farmer to bring a slop pail.

THE LESSON: Never be content to create cardboard characters. Make every character as rich as you can — they are lightness and darkness  — and find ways to make readers understand your characters’ complexities.

Next, the plot turns dark when the goose tells Wilbur he’s being fattened up to become Christmas ham dinner. Wilbur is distraught but Charlotte says, “Don’t worry, I’ll save you.”

THE LESSON: All good plots are a series of setbacks. Wilbur thickens and so does the plot.

In Chapter 9, in what feels like a digression with no relation to the plot, Charlotte explains to Wilbur and Fern why she has so many legs and how she makes a web.

THE LESSON: Readers like to learn things about how the world works, but you have to weave such narratives subtly into your plot or they are boring or worse, preachy. Don’t show off your research. Have it relate to your characters. White slips in this factoid: It took eight years to build the Queensborough Bridge but Charlotte says this only to comment that men “rush rush rush every minute…”

Then we come to the “The Miracle.” Charlotte conjures up a plan to save Wilbur by weaving the words SOME PIG into her web. The Zuckermans are gobsmacked and decide Wilbur is special. People flock to see the miracle pig.

THE LESSON: Give your characters setbacks to overcome, but a good plot also includes triumphs, which usually escalate as the climax nears.

Charlotte worries that people are getting bored with SOME PIG so she gets Templeton the rat to go fetch some words from magazines that she can copy into the web. She weaves TERRIFIC and then RADIANT. The excited Zuckermans think of ways to exploit their pig.

THE LESSON: Always look for ways to up the ante, increase the stakes.

Chapter 14 is titled “The Crickets.” It’s a lovely descriptive dirge about the dying of summer. School would start soon. The goslings are growing up. The maple tree turns red with anxiety. “The crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.”

THE LESSON: A little foreshadowing and mood is good but don’t be heavy-handed. Let it flow naturally from your setting. This is also White telling us what the theme of his story is – that life is about the inevitability of sadness and change.

The Zuckermans take Wilbur to the county fair for display. Charlotte, who needs to lay her eggs, reluctantly agrees to come along. At the fair, Wilbur is worried about a rival pig taking top prize and tells Charlotte to spin a special word for him. Charlotte confides that she’s not feeling well – “I feel like the end of a very long day” — but she promises to try. The cool of the evening comes and everyone is bedding down. White give us this wonderful dialogue between two old friends.

“What are you doing up there, Charlotte?”
“Oh, making something,” she said.
“Is it something for me? ” asked Wilbur.
“No,” said Charlotte. “It’s something for me, for a change.”
“Please tell me what it is,” begged Wilbur.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” she said. “When the first light comes into the sky and the sparrows stir and the cows rattle their chains, when the rooster crows and the stars fade, when early cars whisper along the highway, you look up here and I’ll show you something. I will show you my masterpiece.”

THE LESSON: Yes, you should tug on the heartstrings. But whatever emotion you are going for must be well-earned. We have come to know and love these characters and as White moves us toward his climax, we have a soft dread in our hearts. Every emotion he has invested in this scene has come organically. Nothing feels tacked-on or artificial. Everything has pointed toward this logical end.

The fair opens and Wilbur, standing under Charlotte’s latest spun-word HUMBLE, wins a special prize. At night, left alone, Wilbur listens to fading Charlotte deliver her poignant speech about death and renewal:

“Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world…Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur, this lovely world, these precious days…”

“Why did you do all this for me? ” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

THE LESSON: Don’t neglect your theme. It is the heart of your machine, purring beneath the grind of your plot. When you are asked, “What is your book about?” the answer is never about its plot. It is about its theme.

Then, of course, Charlotte dies. Here is how White ends this chapter:

“Good-bye!” she whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him. She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

THE LESSON: Sometimes you must kill off a sympathetic character. If it serves your plot and it is not gratuitous, the reader will accept it. But it must have a feeling of inevitability so that when the readers comes to this point they are sad but acknowledge there was no other way.

Chapter 22 is titled “A Warm Wind.” Life at the farm resumes its cycle. The snows melt, the sparrow chicks hatch. The last remnants of Charlotte’s tattered web float away. Wilbur misses Charlotte but one morning, her egg sac – which he had carefully brought back to the farm in his mouth – erupts and her babies emerge. Wilbur is happy to meet the new spiders but one day Zuckerman opens the barn and a soft wind carries the babies away. Wilbur is crushed, thinking he has lost his new friends. But three of Charlotte’s daughter stay and begin weaving webs above him.

THE LESSON: Don’t neglect the denouement.  A powerful story doesn’t end at the climax. There should be a tail to the tale wherein you wrap up some loose ends if needed, update readers on time passage and what has happens to some of the characters. In White’s story, of course, the denouement is also a coda of hope. Life goes on. Depending on the tone of your story, a happy ending might not be in your recipe.  But a hint of redemption or hope is never a bad thing.

Which goes to the point of theme. In the final chapter, the narrative recounts the passage of months and years. Fern, growing up, doesn’t come to the barn much. But every year, Wilbur has new spider friends – the offspring of his good friend Charlotte. Here’s the last graph of the book.

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

THE LESSON: Bring it home. Your ending graphs are as important as your opening ones. A good story is circular in that it wraps back around itself, weaving a web of logic and emotion that captures your reader and  leaves them with a feeling of satisfaction.

 

16+

First Page Critique: A Primer
On Prologs and Wavering POV

By PJ Parrish

Hello crime dogs! Today’s offering from one of our brave contributors doesn’t have a title but it does have things to teach us.  Thank you, writer, for letting us share your work. My comments follow and I hope you will all weigh in.

PROLOGUE
BARRY MARSHALL
I’ve been a police detective for six years. One thing this job teaches you is that nobody is really what they pretend to be. It’s a lesson you learn over and over — and that changes you. With this case, the learning was crippling. I’d like to say it changed me for the better, but that would be a lie…

Chapter 1
TEMPLE LAKE PA
Temple, Texas

Friday, March 6th, 4:10 P.M.

The mint-green Mini Cooper sat in the parking lot about fifty feet from the shoreline of Lake Belton. Inside the car, the young couple kissed and fondled each other. Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.

The young man pulled back when he heard someone whistling a tune. His arm slid off her. His head cocked to one side, listening.

“What is it?” Her brow furrowed as she brushed a tendril of hair off her forehead.

“Shhh.” He held up a finger. “Listen.”

He wiped the condensation off the driver’s side window using his sleeve. A glance outside. Nothing.

“I don’t hear anything,” she whispered.

A few moments of dead silence passed, broken only by the faint whirring of an outboard motor in the distance.

“Humph.” He shrugged. “Thought I heard somebody whistling.”

“C’mere,” she said, pulling his head over to her. “I got something that’ll make you whistle.”

The back end of the car began rocking up and down. Slow at first, then faster.

“Who’s doing that?” the driver asked. He looked out his side window, then hers, as if he could actually see anything through the steamed-up window.

The rocking stopped.

He twisted his body to look out the rear window, but it was no clearer than the others.

The rocking started again.

“Okay, that’s it.” He pushed open the door and crawled out.

She hugged herself as chilly air flooded the inside of the car.

He yelled, “What the hell, man?”

A loud grunt, followed by a thud. The car shook for a split second.

The young woman’s eyes widened. She leaned toward the driver’s seat and peered out the open door.

“Jerome?”

A couple of seconds passed. A gurgling sound reached her ears.

She shouted his name louder. “Jerome?”

Dead silence.

_________________________

Back to me again. I’m guessing that a lot of you are way ahead of me on this one, because if you are regular here, you are well-versed in the gospel according to James et al about picking a point of view and staying with it to establish that vital reader-writer bond. So what is the main issue with this opening? (Forget the prologue. We’ll deal with that in a second. Focus for now on the main action between the two lovers).

It has no point of view. Well, actually it has three, count ’em, three. (Four if you count the prologue). The opening graph is omniscient POV with the writer hovering above the car and TELLING us what is happening below in the car. And we have these two lines:  “Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.”

Lots of problems here, right? First, omniscient POV is quaint. It was a mainstay of 19th century fiction and rears its grizzled head in some modern literary stuff. But it doesn’t work in today’s crime genre where there is an expectation of creating a bond between character and reader quickly and cleanly.  And then there’s that hoary device of “Little did they know what awaited them…” These victims can’t know what they don’t know. They can’t SEE the cedar trees or the slinking man. They can’t know death is coming for them.

You don’t need this false foreshadowing, dear writer.  Use your power of description to create a mood of impending horror, doom, intrigue, whatever you’re trying for here. But don’t TELL us death is coming. SHOW US. Make us feel it. You really need more description in this opening, not just to establish where we are but to make us feel a mounting sense of suspense.  I don’t know why some writers stint on description in their openings. Maybe they feel it will slow things down? It doesn’t if it is evocative and fuels the intrigue.  (Tip to writer: Go read Poe’s essay on the unity of effect.)

But omniscient POV isn’t the only issue here.  After that, the writer moves into the man’s POV as he hears a sound and feels the rocking. And after he exits the car, we slide into the woman’s POV as she hugs herself and cries out Jerome’s name.  This is called head-hopping. This is not good.  Why? Because we don’t know whose story this is.  I suspect what we are getting with this opening scene is a set-up and these two die. The next chapter might be the true protag then dealing with the aftermath, be it a cop, detective or someone who then has to begin facing the challenge and conflict of whatever this story is about.

And that leads us to yet another issue I have with this opening. It isn’t very fresh. Outside of the terrifying lovers-at-the-lake scene in Zodiac, this scenario is a cliche. Such set-ups are so corny that they were lampooned in a 1999 movie called Lover’s Lane. (“There’s no such thing as safe sex!”).  And how many of us growing up heard the “true” story about the hook-handed mental patient escapee who murdered teens making out in the woods but one couple didn’t realize they had narrowly escaped doom until they got home and saw…wait for it…a hook hanging off the car door!  But I digress…

In today’s sophisticated and crowded crime fiction market, you can’t get attention with old chestnut plots, especially about serial killers. Maybe there is a way to make a lover’s lane murderer feel fresh but I wouldn’t want to try it. It is true that crime fiction is dependent on formula and there are only so many variations on plots. But I have to go back to something I heard an agent say once about how she is always looking for freshness within the formula: Say something unique or say something uniquely.

Some other quibbles here: I really really really don’t like prologues. Why? Because nine times out of ten, they are just throat-clearing, or evidence that the writer has not figured out how to grab the reader legitimately so he/she tacks on a preamble teaser. (Caveat, I have seen good prologues that really work, so I am not blindly biased, just burned by bad examples).  I am not sure what this prologue is trying to do.  Is it introducing the protag Barry Marshall? If so, I’m not intrigued.  I’d rather meet Barry the detective on the job, maybe looking at the bloody hook hanging on the car door. (Just kidding!)  If Marshall is the protag, find a way, dear writer, to SHOW HIM in action at what James here calls a critical moment of disruption.  Don’t let our first encounter with your hero be a paragraph of navel-gazing. Yes, I get that Marshall is damaged in some way — what he learned was “crippling” — but get your story moving first and then let us learn about Marshall’s damage through the action of the story. Don’t TELL us he is in pain — SHOW us. How? Via his reactions to the case, via his interactions with other characters, via his own arc over the story, via his thoughts as they relate to the ongoing action.  This is what I meant in my comments about point of view: Your job as a writer is to make us feel Marshall as a human being and bond with him.

But…

Here’s the thing like about this submission — the potential implied in the protagonist.  I am somewhat intrigued by Marshall by this teaser. I have a feeling that he’s an interesting protag with a powerful story to tell. Something happened to this man to leave scars.  That’s always good.  But it is your job, writer, to pull us deep into his soul and make us care about his journey. Because it’s never about the dead. It’s about the living.

And while we’re talking about Marshall — is this story in first person or third? If I were you, I’d pick one and stick with it.  Switching between first and third can be very effective but you really have to be in control of your craft to pull it off.  Don’t juggle with chain saws until you’ve mastered bowling pins.

That’s it for general comments. Here’s my Track Changes edits if you want more.

PROLOGUE
BARRY MARSHALL  If you have a chapter from his POV find a way to insert his name into the text.  Even Sue Grafton, who starts out nearly every story with “My name is Kinsey Millhone…”  finds a way to make this feel graceful.
I’ve been a police detective for six years. One thing this job teaches you is that nobody is really what they pretend to be. It’s a lesson you learn over and over — and that changes you. With this case, the learning was crippling. I’d like to say it changed me for the better, but that would be a lie…

Chapter 1
TEMPLE LAKE PA
Temple, Texas

Friday, March 6th, 4:10 P.M.  Why do you need this time/place tag? One of my pet peeves is the overuse of this device because it usually indicated the writer can’t figure out a graceful way to integrate this info into the narrative flow. And are we in Pennsylvania or Texas? 

The mint-green Mini Cooper sat in the parking lot about fifty feet from the shoreline of Lake Belton. Inside the car, the young couple kissed and fondled each other. Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.  Get out of the way of your story, writer.

The young man pulled back when he heard someone whistling a tune. His arm slid off her. His head cocked to one side, listening.

“What is it?” Her brow furrowed as she brushed a tendril of hair off her forehead.

“Shhh.” He held up a finger. “Listen.”

He wiped the condensation off the driver’s side window using his sleeve. A glance outside. Nothing. Missed opportunity to show us the surroundings, just a little. You can use this moment to even tell us where we are…He had been coming to Belton Lake since he was ten, the year his family had moved to Texas. It had always been a place of barbecues and tubing until he grew older and realized its shadowed pine coves were the best places in the little town of Temple to bring girls to make out.  Now, as he looked out into the window, the trees moving in the wind, seemed to be alive. (That’s bad but you get the idea!)

“I don’t hear anything,” she whispered.

A few moments of dead silence this doesn’t cut it as suspense. passed, broken only by the faint whirring of an outboard motor in the distance.

“Humph.” He shrugged. “Thought I heard somebody whistling.”

“C’mere,” she said, pulling his head over to her. “I got something that’ll make you whistle.” Can you find a way to insert her name?

The back end of the car began rocking up and down. Put this in his sensibilities. Slow at first, then faster.

“Who’s doing that?” the driver asked. The driver? He’s not driving. He looked out his side window, then hers, as if he could actually see anything through the steamed-up window. There’s a slight problem here. It’s 4 in the afternoon. The sun is probably nice and bright, starting to come in at a slant. No way could he not see anything, even with steamy windows.  Change the scene to night?

The rocking stopped.

He twisted his body to look out the rear window, but it was no clearer than the others.
The rocking started again.

“Okay, that’s it.” He pushed open the door and crawled got out.

She hugged herself Rut-Roh…POV whiplash. as chilly air flooded what time of year is it? I was thinking summer but it’s chilly at 4 p.m.? the inside of the car.

He yelled, “What the hell, man?”

A loud grunt, followed by a thud. The car shook for a split second.

The young woman’s eyes widened. She leaned toward the driver’s seat and peered out the open door.

“Jerome?”

A couple of seconds passed. A gurgling sound reached her ears. She heard…

She shouted his name louder. “Jerome?”

Dead silence. This is a cliche. Too many others before you have used it so it is devalued as an attempt to inject suspense.  It is just silence.  And if you have made the scene creepy enough, by building in tension with good description (you’re too spare on that account!) you don’t need this. 

5+

Night Terrors: Winning the Battle With Self-Doubt

“Writing fiction…is like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.” — Stephen King

By PJ Parrish

The new book is almost done. First draft, that is. I haven’t read it through since we started the thing more than a year ago. I am afraid to. I have this really bad feeling that it is a heaping, stinking, fetid, rancid pile of crap. I dream about it now, this pile of crap, almost every night, like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I wake up in a sweat over it. My only consolation is knowing that I feel this way with every book. And that I am not alone.

Years ago, during one of my bouts of self-doubt, I read an entry on Lee Goldberg’s blog in which John Connelly talked about his own demons:

There is always that fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not have been started. The idea isn’t strong enough. The plot is going nowhere. I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and now have to try to find the right path again.

To which Lee responded:

This happens to me, too…but less often if I have a strong outline to start with (though an outline is no insurance policy against realizing 35,000 words into your book that it’s crap and you’re a complete fraud). In talking with other writers, I’ve noticed that the ones who hit the wall the most are the ones who make up their plot as they go along, preferring to be “surprised” by their characters and the turns in the story. Of course, this means the turns may lead to a creative dead end.

My night terrors are especially bad this time out for two reasons. We’re writing this book on spec with no publisher lined up. And both my sister and I have had some life intrusions lately that have knocked us off our usual book-a-year schedule, so we’re worried readers have given up on us and gone elsewhere.

Maybe there are writers out there who never have any doubts. Maybe Nora Roberts or Joyce Carol Oates never break out in a cold sweat at night. But I suspect there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of you out there who are in the same sweaty boat as I am. Because getting published is the easy part. (I know, those of you who aren’t don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.) Staying published is what’s tough. That means consistently writing good books that people want to read. And did I mention trying to always become a better writer?

Here’s Chuck Wendig on the subject of self-doubt. He’s my favorite go-to-guy when I am feeling alone and fraudulent:

You’re sitting there, chugging along, doing your little penmonkey dance with the squiggly shapes and silly stories and then, before you know it, a shadow falls over your shoulder. You turn around.

But it’s too late. There’s doubt. A gaunt and sallow thing. It’s starved itself. It’s all howling mouths and empty eyes. The only sustenance it receives is from a novelty beer hat placed upon its fragile eggshell head — except, instead of holding beer, the hat holds the blood-milked hearts of other writers, writers who have fallen to self-doubt’s enervating wails, writers who fell torpid, sung to sleep by sickening lullabies.

Suddenly Old Mister Doubt is jabbering in your ear.

You’re not good enough.

You’ll never make it, you know.

Everyone’s disappointed in you.

Where are your pants? Normal people wear pants.

You really thought you could do it, didn’t you? Silly, silly penmonkey.

And you crumple like an empty Chinese food container beneath a crushing tank tread.

There’s no easy way to cope with this. But here are some things I have found that have helped me over the decades. If you have some remedies, pass them on. We can all use the help.

  1. Talk to other writers. Be it through a critique group or at a writer’s conference, or just hanging out at blogs like this — make human contact with those who understand. One of the hardest lessons I learned was that, although writing is a solitary pursuit, it’s not a good idea to go it alone.
  2. Get away from your WIP.  Which is NOT to say you should abandon writing for days or weeks because it you do that you lose momentum and risk being exiled from that special universe you are creating in your head.  But it is a good idea, when you a stuck or in deep doubt, to feed your creative engine. Go for a good hike (leave early and take the dog). Read a good book or better yet some poetry. Go see some live theater  or a concert. You will come back refreshed. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle: You can sit there and stare at 19-across for days and not get it, but if you put the puzzle down for awhile then pick it up, you see the pattern and can move on.
  3.   Stay in the moment.  Don’t project your fears forward or your regrets backward: What if I spend the rest of the year working on this story and it turns out to be a heaping pile of poop? What if no editor ever buys it? What if I only sell four copies on Amazon? If only I had started doing this when I was younger or before I had kids (or fill in the blank) I might be successful by now.  As a therapist friend of mine once told me: If you stand with one leg in the past and the other in the future, all you’ll do is piss on your present.    
  4. Don’t be afraid to fail.  Because you will, at some time and at some level. If you spend all your energy worrying about this, you will never be a writer. Failure can often lead you in new directions. Margaret Atwood took a vacation to work on her novel but six months later, she realized the story was a tangled mess with “badly realized characters” and she abandoned it. But soon after that, she began her dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale. As she put it:

Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.

For you penmonkeys who’ve been at this gig for years, you know what I’m talking about. For those of you just starting out, this is what awaits you: Days spent staring at your computer screen, deep in thought and doubt. You will run on cold coffee and warm faith. And you will have nights spent twisting in damp percal. What can I tell you? Yes, you will have self-doubt, so you learn to push though it and persevere. I offer the same two words of advice I give to my youthful female friends about menopause: cotton pajamas.

 

6+

Blubbering Over Books

By PJ Parrish

Have you ever cried reading a novel?

No, I don’t mean your first draft. I mean, has someone’s work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears?

It doesn’t happen often to me. Although I am a sucker for an emotional one-two punch. I remember reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club on a plane and getting to a scene where the mother explains why she abandoned her babies by the side of the road. Well, I had to get up and go into the bathroom to compose myself. What a wuss. What a good book.

I cry at books, movies, and commercials (that old one where the Army guy comes home for Christmas and wakes the house up making coffee gets me every time.)

Maybe it is because movies are more inherently commercial, but they seem to evoke tears more readily than books. Why is that? Are novelists more leery of the “cheap” reaction of tears? The last crime novel I can remember actually bringing a lump to my throat was T. Jefferson Parker’s Silent Joe. Why is that? We are dealing with the themes of death and loss all the time. We describe blood and guts with clinical accuracy. Why do we pull our punches when it comes to showing the emotional outfall of death?

I was thinking about the place emotion had in fiction tonight because I happened to catch the last half-hour of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Now I know that movie feels quaint in today’s world, but that scene where Spencer Tracy delivers his speech saying, “If what you feel for each other is half of what I felt for my wife, you’ll be all right.” With Katherine Hepburn all misty eyed in the background…great stuff.

Another movie that always gets to me is Breakfast At Tiffany’s: Even though I know it’s coming, I always sob during the scene where Holly searches for Cat in the rain. Now when I read Truman Capote’s novella that the movie is based on, I didn’t shed a tear. But the book’s ending is very different and, well, not as satisfying emotionally as the movie.

Other movies I get the Kleenex out for:
Roman Holiday: Princess Audrey, pauper Gregory Peck. Hopeless love.
The Vikings: Dead Kirk Douglas getting his Viking funeral sendoff.
Field of Dreams: Kevin Costner playing catch with his father’s ghost. Waaaa…
Sophie’s Choice: Stingo reciting Emily Dickinson over the death bed.
Old Yeller: Well, you know what happened to the dog.

Why doesn’t fiction evoke the same response as film? I don’t believe it is because movies are more visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today’s crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor a while back. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hard-boiled “guy books.” And the continued strength of romantic suspense. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hard-boiled stuff being written right now, books that don’t turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romantic suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really treacly about the romance part. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today’s crime fiction?

_______________________

P.S. I am moving today. The movers came yesterday and packed us up. This morning, they are hauling all my earthly possessions down to the big truck. In two days, our little family will be starting a new life in Tallahassee.  The dogs, who’ve lived their whole lives in a condo, will like the new yard. Me, too. So, if I don’t get a chance to answer here…talk amongst yourselves and see you in two weeks!

6+

Your Story As Sculpture:
What to Leave In? What to Carve Out?

Perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

By PJ Parrish

Two weeks ago, I posted a critique from one of our TKZ First Page writers. I liked the submission but I thought the writer erred on the side of being a little too spare in her writing. I called it “skeletal,” in fact. Click here to go back and review it.

It got me thinking, though, about sculpture. Back in college, I was briefly an art major, and while I was pretty decent in drawing and painting, I floundered in anything involving three dimensions. My final project in sculpture class was titled “Nude With a Dixie Cup Head.” I called it that because after carving away at my lump for weeks it still looked like hell, so during one long desperate night in the dorm bathroom, I filled a Dixie Cup with plaster, jammed it onto the torso, and called it a night. I got a D in the class.

But that class did teach me something that later helped me when I became a writer: You have to know what to leave in and what to carve away.

Usually, we think of novel writing as a pretty linear endeavor.  We don’t chisel away at marble or plaster until something emerges from the crude material. We start with nothing (the blank page) and add and pad until our vision is realized.

Writing a novel is a long series of questions and answers that you constantly ask yourself as you move through your story. As you do so, maybe it’s helpful to think about writing in terms of three-dimensional design. Consider…

Setting: Did I establish where my story takes place concretely enough so the reader feels transported to coastal Maine or does the setting feel like some generic Anywhereville? Am I wasting too many words describing this old insane asylum or do I need more to enhance the mood, to achieve what Poe called “the Unity of Effect”? If a setting is, indeed, like a character, is mine a quick line sketch or is it a well-rendered life-drawing? Or worse, is it not a character at all but just a sloppy caricature of Paris, Las Vegas, Miami…fill in the place with whatever postcard image you can come up with.

Backstory: How much do I reveal about Joe’s tortured past and do I deal with it in one long flashback scene or do I dribble it in slowly?  Am I boring my reader with all this family-tree data or do they need it to understand the dynamics between mother and daughter? And if you write a series — how much about a character’s past from previous books do you need to add?  Too much and you bore loyal fans; too little and you confuse new converts.  If you go back and read the submission I mentioned above, you’ll see that I asked the writer, even in her first 400 words, to include a few more tidbits about her characters to add intrigue.

Description: Do I tell the reader what my protag looks like or do I let it fall to their imagination? Have I successfully conjured up this police station so the reader feels the atmosphere or does it add nothing to the narrative? Have I exploited my description?  This is a subtle tool of fiction but important:  Do you make your descriptions mean something? Do they somehow enhance and reflect what is going on in your action?

Years ago, at Thrillerfest, I heard David Morrell talk about this brilliantly. He talked about how the novelist John Barth used a method call “triangulation.” (James Hall teaches this as well). When describing your setting, you take the sense of sight for granted, but then you add two other senses from among the remaining four. If your characters merely “see” everything, your writing will feel one-dimensional. So you “triangulate” and emphasize the other senses.

Tattoo this line from Morrell on your forehead: “The flaw of an amateur is to assume what’s in our head is what’s on the page.”

Think of Hemingway, a master of spare writing, yet you always got a sense of where his characters were, be it Havana, Africa or Key West. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” opens with five paragraphs of dialogue but then we get this:

The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick-moving shadows as they passed.

So lean…yet Hemingway knew what to carve away and what to leave in. Not too much. Not too little. Such a delicate balance.

What to leave in and what to carve away is foremost in my brain lately because I am nearing completion of my first draft and rewrites loom. What I know awaits me…

I have to add some stuff:  I need to go back and beef up the backstory of a key character or his motivation in chapter 33 will make no sense. I have to add a little more color and work harder to make my setting come alive for the reader in Peoria who has never been to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

I need to subtract some stuff: The book is too long in sheer page count. And without even opening the early chapters, I can smell some cheese that needs cutting. I have to cut some passages that are larded with research, even though I worked really really hard to educate myself on copper mining, Catholic ritual and obscure whiskeys.  I need ferret out my writer tics, do a delete on extraneous attributions, and kill such darlings as “the road rose before him in a vampiric mist.”

Kill your darlings…

Faulkner supposedly said it first, but I like how Stephen King put it:  “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Now, what does that mean, really? That you’re supposed to cut away all your best, most writerly stuff? I dunno. If you struggle with rewrites as I do, if you don’t know whether to approach it with a sledgehammer or a scalpel, I recommend you start by reading Chuck Wendig’s essay “25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story. 

A darling is often ill-defined as those things in your story that you love, but that’s daft. Don’t kill those things. Might as well say, “Murder your wife, burn your house down, YOU DO NOT DESERVE SUCH THINGS.” No, a darling is something that you love but that cannot justify itself in the text. You write a chapter in the middle of the book that has no bearing on the rest of the book and it drags down the pacing but you love-love-love it, well, that chapter might need two bullets in the chest, one in the head. Behead those precious, preening peacocks. I tend to do this at the very end, often because that’s when I actually have enough context and instinct regarding the draft that I can see those divots and nodules at a healthy distance. That said, it’s something to be aware of throughout the entire writing and editing experience.

I highlighted that part in red, because I think it gets to the nub of what I am trying to articulate here. (And forgive me if this feels obtuse but I can’t quite get this nailed down).

What to leave in? What to leave out? Are you a builder or a sculptor? Do you start with nothing or maybe a bare armature pf a plot? Or do you start with a big heaping mound of wet clay and pare away until your story is revealed?

I can leave you only with one last quote, this one from Elie Wiesel: “Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.”

 

 

9+

First Page Critique:
‘Life-Line to a Killer’

By PJ Parrish

I’m up to my armpits in cardboard boxes this week, readying for our move to Tallahassee. I have 16 boxes of books under my piano, and I haven’t  even started in on the books still on the shelves.  What better time to stop and read another story?  This post might be a little long because I like the submission and think the premise has potential. A caveat, dear brave writer: The better you are, the harder I am on you! My comments follow with my Track Change edits, but please weigh in, TKZ folks! A tip of the hat to my sister Kelly who helped me with this via Skype. And thank you, writer, for allowing us all to learn from your work.

Life-Line to a Killer

Blake Ford grinned as he watched his wife on his laptop web cam from his motel room. His heart thumped in his chest with anticipation. Laura, the love of his life, unbuttoned her blouse and performed a tantalizing striptease dance. She slid the blouse off, let it drop to the floor and turned slowly to give him a full view of her black lace bra.

“Your turn,” she said.

“Is that how you’re going to play it tonight?” he said.

“Yes. I’ve changed the rules. If I lose a hand and have to strip, you have to remove a piece of clothing, too.”

“I like it. It’ll make the game go faster.”

She laughed. “I know. You’re impatient.”

She leaned toward her computer that he saw was set up on the desk in the living room of their home and pressed her lips on the screen. A kiss for him.

Blake stood up and performed his best rendition of a Chippendale dancer. He peeled off his shirt and exposed a strong toned physique. His wife whooped and clapped with delight. Encouraged, he whipped the shirt over his head and flung it across the motel room and struck a pose.

“I wish you were here,” she said.

“Maybe, next time you can tag along with me on the road.”

He saw her hesitation.

“We’ve talked about this. I have a career, too. I thought you were okay with our date nights?”

“I am. I was just saying.” What he didn’t say was how difficult it was for him to be away from her so often. “I could get a different job that would keep me home.”

Was that panic he saw on her face?

“Why would you do that? I mean…you love your work.”

“I love you more, Laura.”

Her face softened. “I love you.”

Blake touched her face on the computer screen and blew her a kiss.

“Ready to finish the game?”

“You better believe it, big guy.”

Laura lost the next hand of poker.

Blake leaned back in his chair and enjoyed her sexy moves as she unzipped her skirt, slid it over her hips, and took her sweet time doing it.

Something behind Laura caught his attention. He moved in close to his computer. She had left the living room lights off and it was hard to see. The glow of the computer illuminated her but didn’t cast enough light to see beyond her.

____________________________________________________

General comments: Well, I think this is a heck of a set-up. We are dropped into a scene at an intriguing moment (the writer didn’t arrive too early or too late) and while the idea of a married couple having cyber-sex isn’t original, what the writer does with it has some great potential.  Why?  It goes back to what James and others here preach as the essential ingredient to a great opening: SOMETHING HAS TO BE DISTURBED.

What is disturbed here? Two things, really. One disturbance is subtle but important to the character arc and the second disturbance is more conventionally dramatic to a crime fiction plot. The second one is the more obvious: Blake sees “something” odd in the background of his wife’s computer image. (More on that “something” later).  The other disturbance is when Blake gets an uneasy feeling that there is something amiss with the “love of his life” wife and there might be crack in his marriage. This marital disturbance might be the more interesting one, actually.  Because if there is a dark undercurrent in the relationship (disturbance), that makes a murder (disturbance) even more interesting.  So kudos on roiling the water twice, writer.

I think we are entering the sub-genre of “domestic suspense” here.  Harlan Coben has built a whole career around this, and this is the thematic backbone of our spate of “girl” thrillers. If this is what the writer is going for, then the writer should be aware that this soil is pretty plowed over lately, so whatever happens to Blake (plot) has to be fresh, and he has to be interesting enough to carry the load.

And while we’re on the subject of Blake:  Because you filter through his point of view from word one, I have to assume he is going to be your protagonist.  I don’t know what he does for a living (more on that in a moment!) and I’m guessing he is going to be an Everyman Hero. This kind of protag can be great fun for readers to follow because we love to root for an ordinary person who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances and must rise to the challenge to 1. Save the future human race  (waitress Sara Conner). 2. Kill the man-eating shark (wimpy Chief Brody) 3. Find the real killer to prove his innocence (ad man Cary Grant in North by Northwest).  I am guessing that Blake’s wife is going to be murdered or abducted and Blake will A. Be blamed and have to find the real killer to save himself or B. Find the real killer because no one will listen to him.   Like I said, this can be fertile plot territory.  Here’s Harlan Coben’s take on getting big thrills from “little” plots.

[In my books] there’s not a lot of violence, there’s not a lot of blood or anything like that. I’d rather the suspense come from something smaller. It’s a placid pool, and you drop a pebble in there and boom, it’s what you can make it. It’s not choppy waters, it’s that placid pool, and the small thing that can ripple. Normally what I try to do is take an ordinary situation and ask ‘what if?’ All fiction writing comes down to asking ‘what if?’ So for example, friends of mine told me that they were worried about their child’s online activities, and they decided to put a little spy camera on his laptop, a spyware on his laptop. And I said to myself ‘well what if? What if they get a message that changes their lives?’ and just keep asking the ‘what ifs’, turn them around a little bit, twist it, look at it a different way.

But back to Blake: He can be an ordinary as orange juice on first glance. But you must make us respect him and want to root for him. But as you have written him, he is a real cipher.  Your style is so spare that we get no sense of what this man does, where he lives, what he is like, and most important, what he feels.  Now, I don’t want a complete dossier in the first 400 words (that’s called a backstory info-dump and is a giant no-no).  But I think you missed some chances to begin dribbling in some details about Blake (and his wife) that will ratchet up the intrigue and support your nice “disturbance.”  I also think he is inching toward wimpy in a couple of his lines.  Be careful there. It’s okay for an Everyman to start out wimpy-ish (Chief Brody couldn’t even swim!) but the reader must intuit that he will grow over the course of the story.

Regarding style.  I love a clean style, with good lean dialogue, and spare description. Less is usually more, and one of the biggest lessons of writing fiction is learning what to leave out. But I think you’ve erred on the other side, to the point where your narrative is near-skeletal. This is, as I said, a set-up with great potential for mood and even a sense of dread.  But there is no setting, no mood, no description at all. I appreciate what style you are going for here, but things feel tepid and detached, like you are holding the reader at arm’s length. I’d advise you to go back and look for a few well-chosen places to insert just a few telling details about BOTH your setting and your characters.

Here is all we know from this opening: Blake is alone in a hotel room. You’ve missed some opportunities to use the setting to enhance the mood and shed some light on the character. Is it nighttime or morning? Is the hotel room lit only by the blue glow of his computer screen? Is rain pelting on the window? Is the TV on in the background, the sound muted? If it’s an expensive hotel, that says something about Blake — Is there a tray from room service with the remains of his lonely $25 hamburger dinner? Five little mini-bar Johnny Walker Red bottles laying on the nightstand, all empty? Ditto a cheap motel also tells us something about Blake — Does the room reek of Lysol?  Does the cheap bedspread feel slippery from the sweat of a thousand tired travelers?  Is the TV bolted to the cabinet?

Think of Hemingway, a master of spare writing yet you always got a sense of where his characters were, be it Havana, Africa or Key West.

Here’s another thing you need to work on, dear writer:  Less telling and more showing. Cliches like “heart thumping in his chest” aren’t yours; too many others have pounded them into mush. Plus that is you the writer telling me how Blake feels. Ditto: “She was performing a tantalizing striptease dance.”  SHOW us this via her motions and his reactions. We don’t need a whole paragraph on it but we need to see something. She is teasing him but we don’t feel teased. How do you do this? Maybe he clicks to go to full screen so he can see better. That action SHOWS us something instead of telling us “his heart thumps in anticipation.” Maybe he moves his chair closer to the screen. For a scene about sex, this feels oddly asexual. I’m not asking for Fifty Shades of Gray here, just a little color from this man. Stay in his head (and body).

Now let’s look at this in mark-up.  My comments are in red:

Blake Ford grinned as he watched his wife on his laptop web cam from his motel room.  This opening line is awkwardly constructed and feels rushed. You are packing so much into it, you’ve drained it of any tension. Go at it more obliquely! Try something like: She was just a blur of flesh and black lace. Blake impatiently jiggled the ethernet cord, cursing the motel’s cheap internet connection. But then the picture cleared and Laura, his beautiful nearly naked wife came into focus on his laptop. His heart thumped in his chest with anticipation. Laura, the love of his life, unbuttoned her blouse and performed a tantalizing striptease dance. She slid the blouse off, let it drop to the floor and turned slowly to give him a full view of her black lace bra.

“Your turn,” she said.  This is confusing. Did something end?

“Is that how you’re going to play it tonight?” he said.

“Yes. I’ve changed the rules. Again, a little confusing. Don’t neglect the little details of “character choreography,” moving your people through time and space. Are they playing strip poker? Do they each have a deck of cards? Slow down a tad and make this clear; you won’t lose us!. And how did the rules change? you have to remove a piece of clothing, too.”

“I like it. It’ll make the game go faster.” why does he want it to go faster? I would think he’d want it to last. But then again, I’m a woman… 🙂

She laughed. “I know. You’re impatient.”

She leaned toward her computer that he saw was set up on the desk in the living room of their home and pressed her lips on the screen. A kiss for him. Like the first paragraph, this construction is a little clunky. Slow down, clean it up and SHOW us details rather than TELL us. She leaned closer toward her computer.  The room was dark but he could make out the Matisse print that hung behind her desk, so he knew she was in the living room. And why do we care where the computer is set up? Make the fact its in the living room mean something. 

Blake stood up and performed his best rendition of a Chippendale dancer. So he was sitting? Or laying on that ratty bedspead? You never told us. And this is important — Is he embarrassed by this? Totally into it? Make it say something about him. By inserting just one or two lines of SHOWING how he feels about this, you are illuminating his character and making me care about him. Chippendale dancer is sort of a cliche, unless you can make it SAY something about him — like he had once gone to a woman’s strip club?  He peeled off his shirt and exposed a strong toned physique. This is a point of view lapse. He can’t see himself — that is you talking. Maybe “he peeled off his shirt, hoping she would say something about how good he looked. He had been practically living in hotel gyms during the month he had been away. This also dribbles in a detail of backstory about why he is away from home. His wife whooped and clapped with delight. You can do better. Make her response say something about HER, just as his reaction says something about him. The fact that he is “encouraged” implies something about their sex life and relationship. What it is? Drop a hint. Encouraged, he whipped the shirt over his head and flung it across the motel room and struck a pose. Of what? Bodybuilder? Rodin’s The Thinker? 

“I wish you were here,” she said.

“Maybe, next time you can tag along with me on the road.” Again, I wish you gave him a quick thought before this line. Is he lonely? You can also give us a hint of why he is traveling, which starts the building process of creating a context and backstory for your characters.

He saw her hesitation. A hesitation happens when you are talking. Convey her reluctance or whatever is going on in her some physical way. Her smile fades. She sort of draws back from the computer.

“We’ve talked about this. I have a career, too. I thought you were okay with our date nights?”  Again, a lost chance to drop in a detail about him. If you had hinted in his thoughts at the length and frequency of his trips, we would understand this situation better. Make your dialogue work harder!

“I am. I was just saying.” What he didn’t say was how difficult it was for him to be away from her so often. “I could get a different job that would keep me home.”  This reads very young for your character. This could also be a way of inserting something about what he does.  “I could ask for a transfer back to marketing.”  “I could go back to my own law practice, if that’s what you want.”  “We could move back to Kansas.” See, what I am suggesting? Whatever the backstory of this couple is, find places to start revealing it to us a little at a time.

Was that panic he saw on her face? Panic is pretty strong. We need a reaction/thought from him here. Something is cracking apart right in front of him. DISTURBANCE!  Is he confused? Is he upset? Is he scared? This is the “love of his life” remember. The first moment you realize your marriage isn’t perfect, that there might be crack, even if you think you are imagining it, is very powerful.

Which is why the next line should come from him, not her.

“Why would you do that? I mean…you love your work.”

“I love you more, Laura.”

Her face softened. Since you didn’t really SHOW us what her face looked like from his POV, we can’t “read” that it has now “softened.”  Did her face grow suddenly hard above? “I love you.”

Blake touched her face on the computer screen image and blew her a kiss. I’m feeling a little emotional whiplash here. A second ago he was worried about the “panic” he saw in her face. (Oh my God, she doesn’t love me any more.)  It doesn’t feel believable that he went from that powerful emotional moment and now he blows a kiss and wants to go back to the game? It feels false. AND, more important, it drains out the great tension you were building on the marital disturbance front.

“Ready to finish the game?”  You need attribution here.

“You better believe it, big guy.”

Laura lost the next hand of poker. You never told us they were playing cards. I know it feels unnecessary to explain this, but you can’t omit the “silly” details of moving your characters thru time and space logically.

Blake leaned back in his chair and enjoyed her sexy moves if you’re going to write this kind of scene, go for it. Again, this is you the writer TELLING us what is going on, rather than the characters SHOWING us. as she unzipped her skirt, slid it over her hips, and took her sweet time doing it.

Something behind Laura caught his attention. Okay this is very important! You are entering the BIG DISTURBANCE moment of your opening. Yay!!! But this isn’t enough. Did something move? A shadow? If not movement, it has to be an object or something that normally isn’t there. This is his living room so he knows what it in it — and what shouldn’t be. There is no punch to this graph’s opening line and you need one because you are now introducing tension and intrigue. This is your dramatic high point but it feels flat because “something” is such a nothing word. He moved in close to his computer. She had left the living room lights off and it was hard to see. This is the closest you come to providing setting and mood. This should have been in the first paragraph, The glow of the computer illuminated her but didn’t cast enough light to see beyond her.

Me again…

Man, I wish you had given me one more paragraph on this submission, writer.  Because despite the fact I just bled all over your pages, I like this. I wanted to read more. I want to know more about Blake and Laura.  I want to hope that there ares all these terrific dark things swimming below the surface of this marriage. (And maybe there’s a girl on a train watching it? Just kidding…)  I think you have a terrific set-up here and if you put some emotional meat on these bones, you have the makings of a great story.

8+