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

Misjudging A Book By Its Cover,
Getting Back In The Saddle,
And In Praise of Bad Writing

By PJ Parrish

We should all have such problems…

I read a story in the New York Times this week about a debut author whose novel became an international bestseller with rights sold in 40 countries, was named Barnes & Noble’s book of the year, and is on track to be the bestselling debut novel of 2022. Oh yeah, an Apple TV+ adaption is in the works.

But she’s getting a lot of hate mail because of her….cover.

The book, Lessons In Chemistry, is about a woman scientist in the 1960s who is opinionated, funny and intelligent, but she’s cheated out of her doctorate and brutally sidelined by male colleagues who, as one reviewer put it, make Don Draper look like a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy). Think of The Queen’s Gambit set in the macho labs of abiogenesis. The heroine wears a sharp No. 2 pencil in her chignon not for style but as a weapon against sexual advances.

 

But then there’s that cover.  Bubble-gum pink, with a cartoonish woman’s face peering over a pair of cat-eye sunglasses. Some readers picked it up as a quick beach read, expecting — I hate this phrase — “women’s fiction.” What they got was a serious look at the frustrations of a generation of women, who were relegated to the corners, ignored, or worse.

Garmus is able to laugh about the hate mail from some readers, saying, “They were like, ‘You’re the worst romance novelist ever!’”  She says the cover has turned off a few men, admitting that during an talk to an all-male book club, members were dissuaded by the cover’s Necco Wafer shell. “But as I’m fond of saying,” Garmus said, “the book isn’t anti-men, it’s anti-sexism.”

It’s also, by all accounts, a fun read. There’s a mystery, mixed in with a shrewd  look at politics, and a dysfunctional bad local TV station. The heroine has an addiction to her rowing machine, loves her daughter and her dog Six-Thirty.

James Daunt, chief executive of B&N, admits that aiming the novel at a female readership is “a bit pigeonholing….but the book has dominated the cover.”

Love that phrase — dominated its cover. As a writer who has had her share of bad covers, I sympathize. It’s an eye-catching cover, to be sure. But the dissonance between it and its message is jarring. I’m glad Garmus can joke about it. She had more than 100 rejections of other manuscripts before Lessons In Chemistry. Nice to break through — at the ripe young age of 65.

How To Get Back To Writing

Back from a long and lazy vacation where eating, drinking and reading were the only things on my brain, I’m having a devil of a time opening the file of the WIP. So when Jane Friedman’s latest blog popped up in the mailbox the other day, I clicked.  It was by an author who, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, found a way to grease the wheels again.

Matthew Duffus writes: “When I finished my MFA in 2005, I didn’t write for a year. Between exhaustion from completing a readable draft of a novel on deadline and the confusion caused by having too many critical voices in my head (thanks, workshop), I didn’t know where to begin, let alone how to get to The End of something. I’d burned out on my thesis, realizing it would be my “novel in the drawer,” and had no idea what to do next. After the first few maddening weeks, I tried embracing Richard Ford’s concept of ‘refilling the well.’ When this stopped working, I knew I needed to try something new.”

Duffus has three easy steps. And yeah, I’ve tried all three.

  1. Set a challenge. Forget stuff like NaNoWriMo. He says, “had I known about that event in 2005, I would have crawled into bed and not come out until December 1st.” Instead, he read like a maniac — English classics mainly. It made him eager to write again. I get that. After my vaca, I was sated on reading. My fingers longed for the keyboard again.
  2. Start small. Says Duffus, “Instead of aiming for 1,000 words per day, as I’d done in grad school, I bought a pack of three-by-five index cards and numbered the first thirty. I filled the lined side of one index card per day for the next month. By the end of that period, I had the beginnings of a longer piece that I was already dedicated to pursuing further.” For me, my small stuff was returning to a short story I had been stalled on, and sweating the deadline for an anthology.
  3. Try a new style. Focusing on his notecards forced Duffus to go slower rather than obsess about hitting a daily word count. He also switched a stalled novel from third to first person and it gave him momentum. That led him to finally set aside a novel he had worked on for 15 years and begin a new one. He finished it. I had a similar experience with my short story. It wasn’t working. I switched it from third to first and reset the time from the present to the 1960s, using John D. MacDonald’s style as my inspiration. I finished it this weekend. It was fun.

You’ve Gotta Be Good To Write This Badly

Finally, I give you the year’s best in really bad writing. No, no…not the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. They’ve cancelled them because as the judges wrote: “The public has been subjected to too many bad things this year to justify exposing it to bad sex as well.” Well, we’ll just have to go back and re-read our John Updike, right?

That leaves us with the Bulwer-Lytton Dark and Stormy Night contest. Since 1982 the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest has challenged participants to write an atrocious opening sentence to the worst novel never written. The contest honors Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I forgot to report these earlier this year, but attention must be paid. Especially since the grand prize winner this year is a fellow crime dog.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER by John Farmer Aurora Col.

I knew she was trouble the second she walked into my 24-hour deli, laundromat, and detective agency, and after dropping a load of unmentionables in one of the heavy-duty machines (a mistake that would soon turn deadly) she turned to me, asking for two things: find her missing husband and make her a salami on rye with spicy mustard, breaking into tears when I told her I couldn’t help—I was fresh out of salami.

CRIME AND DETECTIVE FIRST PLACE by Jim Anderson, Flushing, Mich.

The detectives wore booties, body suits, hair nets, masks and gloves and longed for the good old days when they could poke a corpse with the toes of their wingtips if they damn well felt like it.

Dishonorable Mentions 

They called Rock Mahon the original hard-boiled detective, and it wasn’t because of his gravelly voice, or his crusty manner, or his chiseled jaw, or his cement-like abs, or his feldspar fists, or his iron incorruptibility, or his calcite cynicism, or his uzonite unsentimentality, but because of his goddamned, geezly, infuriating habit of polluting every crime scene with shells dropped from the hard-boiled eggs he munched without surcease.– Barbara Stevenson, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

As detective Harry Bolton knelt down looking at the fifth murdered prostitute in as many weeks, he thought his was a cold cruel city and that maybe he should have taken that job in rural North Carolina but he didn’t think he could be like sheriff Andy Taylor all in black and white, plus he couldn’t stand Aunt Bea’s falsetto voice, and who names their kid Opie anyway, he had to know it rhymed with dopey, you might as well just call him dipstick, that doesn’t rhyme with much. — Doug Self, Brunswick, ME

The heat blanketed the small village in much the same way a body bag blankets a murder victim, except that a body bag is usually black, which the heat wasn’t, as heat is colorless, and the village wasn’t dead, which a murder victim usually is. — Eric Rice, Madison, WI

In honor of all the winners, I leave you with the queen of real talent laboring in the pursuit of artful awfulness — Lucille Ball. She made an enduring and endearing shtick about her caterwauling attempts to get on the stage. In real life, she was a pretty okay singer. Hit it, Lucy.

 

What We Can Learn About Writing From Reading On Vacation

The Abbey Bookshop in Paris

Cars are not nouns. They’re adjectives. — Fredrik Backman

By PJ Parrish

The best thing about vacationing in a foreign country is not being able to understand what’s on television. During our month-long stay in France, I was limited to the reality show Master Chef in French. A deflated souffle is the same in any language — pack your knives, knave!

So I got to read. A lot. I don’t use Kindles or tablets so I have to rely on tree books. I took three but burned through them fast. Restocked at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, but still ran out of good stuff by the time we got to Provence. Luckily, our rental house had bulging bookshelves. Unluckily, most of it was non-fiction or Italian novels. Including Stephen King’s L’Ombra dello Scorpione. (No clue…)

I read 22 books in three weeks. Some were as great as the Basque Pikorra cheese we had. A few were as forgettable as Velvetta. One I tossed into the pool (yes, I will name names). Another, a bestseller from a great series, put me, and my dog, to sleep. Most entertained me. And almost all of them taught me something about this maddening thing we call writing.

Here’s a sampling and what I learned from each. Apologies for the long post today, and I forgive you if you skim read.

The Financial Lives of the Poets. By Jess Walter. Matthew Prior quits his newspaper job to gamble everything on a quixotic notion: a web site devoted to financial journalism in the form of blank verse. Before long, he’s in debt, six days away from losing his home — and spying on his wife’s online flirtation. Then, one night on a desperate two a.m. run to 7-Eleven, he falls in with some local stoners. Havoc follows.

I loved this book. It’s gasp-out-loud funny. Surprising at every turn. Darkly satirical yet achingly tender. You ever get a book you start to read more slowly because you don’t want it to end? This was it for me. I’ve read only one other Walter book, Beautiful Ruins, his paean to crazy love starring a weird Italian trying to build a golf course on a Ligurian cliff, Burton and Taylor trysting during Cleopatra, and a doomed starlet. Richard Russo called it “an absolute masterpiece.” Walter has written only 10 novels, snapped up countless awards, and won the Edgar for his crime novel Citizen Vince. (I’m off to get it today).

THE LESSON. Trust in your ability to be original. Don’t be a pale copy of someone else. Take chances. The two Walter books I read are blazingly different yet both quirky and deeply affecting. As Walter told the New York Times: “I judged a contest once — 200-some books — and another judge said: ‘You’ll be surprised how many good books there are, and how few great ones.’ Indeed, there were many ‘well-written books’ but the great ones stood out for other qualities: audacity, originality, thematic weight. I think writers sometimes fall in love with this idea of “the gorgeous sentence” and it becomes their only definition of writing. But other elements are also part of writing; to me, an elegant narrative shape is every bit as beautiful as great prose.” Amen to that.

Me and Archie and Ian Rankin.

A House Of Lies. By Ian Rankin. Retired detective John Rebus gets pulled back in when a skeleton of a private eye is found in the woods. His old friend, Siobhan Clarke is assigned to the case.

I’ve enjoyed other Rebus novels and was eager to sink back into this evergreen series. But the pacing was glacial and too many characters are introduced too early — except for Rebus who shows up late for his own party. The Scots are said to be folks of few words. Not here. The cop banter is numbing. It’s the 22nd outing for Rebus, so maybe the old fellow was a bit tired. I don’t know. I gave up on page 72. Very put-downable.

THE LESSON: Keep the focus in the early pages on your protag. Establish a compelling fissure in the norm immediately. Don’t crowd your stage with minor characters too soon. Make your dialogue advance the plot — less talk, more action. And never forget that you’re only as good as your last book.

A Man Called Ove. By Fredrik Backman

Ove, an ill-tempered, isolated retiree who spends his days enforcing block association rules and visiting his wife’s grave, has finally given up on life just as an unlikely friendship develops with his boisterous new neighbors.

I plucked this off the shelf not expecting much. The ho-hum opening line: Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. And the Ove character is just really nasty and off-putting. Plus it’s set in Sweden. But this quirky, funny, dark book unfolds with grace and perfect pacing, toggling between the present and Ove’s childhood. It’s heartbreaking and ultimately life-affirming. I’ve since found out it’s a word-of-mouth international bestseller. (where have I been?) And it will be released this Christmas as a movie starring — who else? — Tom Hanks (renamed as Otto from Pittsburgh). I love it when I stumble upon a book having no expectations and then am blown away. Oh, as for that opening line: The author says his editor all but demanded that he change it — you need something juicier, editor said. Backman fought for the Saab line.

The Lesson: Yes, an unlikeable character can carry a story. But you must, as Fredrik Backman does with Ove, give your hero a sturdy and believable arc, allowing the plot and other characters to affect his development.  Other lessons: Pay attention to your other cast members. Each one in this book has an impact — some small some major — on Ove’s life. Each is rendered with love and vividness.

A final lesson: Don’t agree with everything an editor tells you to do. Opening lines, at their best, telegraph to your readers the thematic heart of your story. The opening line about the Saab is a splendid example of what we here call “the telling detail.” The Saab comes to symbolize Ove’s very soul. Backman talks about this in a wonderful essay he wrote called “Something About a Saab”: Quote: “It’s a pretty weird process, writing a book…a lot of compromises are made, sometimes between the writer and the publisher…but mostly between the writer and the writer. Ideas are edited, dialogues are shortened, characters are fired. Editors like to call this process killing your darlings. If there is one thing in this whole novel process that wild horses and armed men could have never convinced me to get rid of it was that second sentence: He drives a Saab. I could have written twenty pages and never gotten as much said about Ove as with those four words…Above all you know exactly  what men who drive Saabs would have said about us. Because cars are not nous. They’re adjectives.”

Which is why, when I finally divorced my first husband, I got rid of my Honda Accord and bought a TR6 convertible.

Sea of Tranquility and Last Night In Montreal. By Emily St. John Mandel. 

You might know from my previous posts that I’m a big fan of this writer. Her Station Eleven and Glass Hotel are two of the best books I’ve read in the past five years. I splurged on a hardcover of her latest Sea of Tranquility. It involves time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space. Loved this book! So I grabbed a used copy of her first book Last Night in Montreal at the Abbey Bookshop, ready to be entranced again. Oh brother, what a hot mess. The main character Lilia was abducted in the night by her father. As an adult, Lilia wanders from city to city, lover to lover, eluding a PI who’s obsessed with finding her. There’s a second character Eli, also obsessed with her, trailing her like a sick puppy. Lots of dark hints about a tortured childhood, a bad mom, and such. But mainly, it’s Lilia and Eli whining about their useless lives, as the detective — totally without motivation –lets his relationship with his own daughter wither and die.

The Lessons: Sea of Tranquility taught me that you can indeed whiplash readers through time but only when you’ve got the firmest grasp of your craft. Mandel never gets you confused. Plus she’s a master at world-building. I totally believed her scenes set on the moon colonies. Last Night in Montreal taught me that SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN. (Boy, you haven’t heard that here before, right?) And that whining isn’t deep. It’s just boring. Oh, and that big secret about her bad childhood? A big meh at the end. Lesson: Don’t set up some juicy plot tease and then not follow through. (Montreal is the book that landed in the pool.)  And a final lesson for you all just starting out: Yes, your first book might be flawed but put it behind you and keep moving forward. There’s maybe a Station Eleven — it won the PEN and National Book Award and was an HBO series — waiting to claw its way out of you.

La Sentence By John Grisham

By my final three days, I had exhausted the rental house’s English novels. There was just John Grisham left. Now, I’m not a Grisham fan. I concede he’s a good storyteller but his writing sounds clunky to my ear. Also, this book was in French. It was called La Sentence, a translation of Grisham’s 2018 family saga cum mystery cum war novel The Reckoning. 

Thanks to years of adult ed and Babbel, I have a passable reading knowledge of French. So, dictionary in hand, I cracked open La Sentence, ready for a long slog. The story hooked me immediately. It is 1946 and wounded war hero Pete Banning has returned to his family cotton business in small town Mississippi. Page one: On a cold morning, Banning wakes before dawn and decides today is the day he will kill someone. He knows it will change the lives of everyone he cares for, but “the killing became as inevitable as the sunrise.”

I’ve tried to read French novels before — mainly Georges Simenon’s Maigret series — but the native language’s nuances frustrated me. But this was easier reading, maybe because it is so plot-driven. Also, I began to wonder if Grisham’s translator had added something, making the description and emotion more musical. When I got home, I got a used copy of The Reckoning in English and compared the two.

Take this line in the French version, from a scene where Banning is heading toward town, surveying the cotton fields and workers as he drives.

Les fleurs de coton, emportées par le vent, saupoudraient la route derrière les charrettes.

Here is how I translated it (and checked it via Google):

The cotton flowers, carried away by the wind, powdered the road behind the carts. 

But here is how it appeared in The Reckoning (original English) as Grisham actually wrote it:

Cotton blown from the trailers littered the shoulders of the highway.

Note the difference in word choice: “flowers” instead of cotton balls. “carried away by the wind” instead of “blown” and “littered.” And there’s the use of that verb saupoudre, which in French is used most often to describe powdering a cake with white sugar.

THE LESSON: Word choices matter. Given his massive success (and The Reckoning was well reviewed), maybe Grisham needn’t worry about finding the great word or well-turned phrase. But given this book’s sad opening and almost elegiac tone, I wish he had tried harder to give Pete Banning a better soundtrack. I’m going to finish the book, but sticking with the French version. I like a little powdered sugar with my plots.

So, what have you all been reading lately? And what did you learn from your reading that helped you as a writer?

 

The Dénouement: Tying Up
The Yarn Strands Of Your Story

(Morning, crime dogs. I am en route from Paris to Tallahassee today. I hope. Airports are crazy these days. Will try to check in here if I make it to Atlanta.)

It is the loose ends with which men hang themselves. — Zelda Fitzgerald.

By PJ Parrish

Another sleepless night. Another search for a good old movie on TCM. Tonight, I caught the last half hour of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Right at the climax when the tensions and heat in the Brooklyn neighborhood boiled over, leading Mookie to throw a trash can through the window of Sal’s pizza joint. All hell then breaks loose.

Spike Lee choreographs this climax with chilling precision. But what interested me was what came after. The next day, Mookie and Sal, standing in front of the smoldering ruins of the pizza joint, argue then reach a tepid reprochement. But Lee adds a coda of the local DJ (Samuel Jackson) greeting his listeners with the admonishment “Wake up! Up you wake, up you wake, up you wake! It’s gonna be another hot day.” Then before the credits roll, Lee gives us two quotes — from Martin Luther King Jr. on peaceful protest and Malcolm X on violence as self-defense.

That’s when I got up and jotted some notes for this blog. Because I think the ending of Do the Right Thing is a great departure point for a talk here about the dénouement.

De-noue-what?

You’ve probably heard this term bouncing about in craft books or maybe on conference panels. But I’m not sure we really know what it is or how we should use it in our books.
First, let’s learn how to say the sucker: It’s day-new-moh.

It comes from the Old French word desnouer, “to untie” and the Latin word nodus for “knot”. It’s the part of the story that comes after you’ve built up your conflicts in a rising arc of tension and blown up your plot in a giant fireball of gun fights, car chases, lovers’ quarrels, dying zombies or melting Nazis. The dénouement is where you the writer have to tie up those loose plot ends, slap on some salve, leach out the suspense and resolve things into a nice satisfying conclusion.

Or maybe not. But we’ll get back to Spike Lee in a second. For now, let’s stick with conventional dénouements.

Above is a slide from one of our workshops. A good plot is never a flat line or even a comet-shot straight upward. It is like that fever chart at the bottom — a series of triumphs and setbacks for your hero but its main thrust is always upward toward the climax. And that little downward line out to Z is the dénouement.

Think of the dénouement as a coda to the big movements that precede it. It is a tail on the plot beast, but still important because it is where things are explained (if necessary) and secrets revealed (sometimes). Shakespeare was big on dénouements: In Romeo and Juliet, after the lovers are dead, the Montagues and Capulets gather and Escalus lays a big guilt trip on them all telling them their feud is to blame. At the end of Hamlet, with the stage strewn with bodies, Horatio shows up to remind us that the voices of angels will carry Hamlet to his heavenly rest, meaning his story – and thus he – will live forever.

To use a metaphor: Your climax is well, like a climax. The dénouement is smoking the cigarettes afterward.

Maybe it’s useful to stop here and think about the THREE-ACT STRUCTURE. James and others here at TKZ talk about this a lot, so if you aren’t familiar with it, pick up James’s books on plot structure or go troll through our archives. Here’s the skinny over-simplified: The first act is your set-up wherein you introduce characters and their world, set up your plot, and define the main conflict that is the hero’s call to action. The second act is “rising action,” a series of events and setbacks that build up to the climax. The third act is the turning point and climax that requires the hero to draw on strengths, confront the antagonist and solve the problem at hand. Then we move into “resolution” where conflicts may be fixed, normalcy restored, and anxiety (for the reader) released.

The dénouement is a big deal in traditional detective stories. At the end, you will often get Holmes or Poiret laying out the clues and explaining how they figured things out.
One of my favorite detective dénouements is from Psycho. The climax has Norman, dressed up as Mother, trying to stab Lila in the creepy cellar. But what comes next is the scene where the psychiatrist explains what happened to Norman.

It’s hokey, yeah, but we need to understand how Norman got so twisted. Likewise, you might need such a useful scene to help untangle the yarns of your plot at the end.

There’s a great example of dénouement in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. After the climatic fight between Biff and Willy and Willy’s suicide (to get insurance money) there is a final scene called “Requiem” where the family gathers at Willy’s funeral. Sadly, no one has come to pay their respects. Biff laments that Willy had “the wrong dreams.” And Willy’s wife, who has been able to cry, breaks down, sobbing that the house is now paid for, repeating “We’re free…we’re free.”

Both Terminator movies have nice dénouements. In the first one, Sara Conner in her Jeep, guns and dog in tow, pulls into a last-stop desert gas station where a young boy points to the darkening sky and says “a storm is coming.” Sara’s last line before she heads off toward the apocalypse — “I know. I know.” In the sequel, the dénouement is the “good” Terminator lowering himself into the fire pit to destroy his microchip and thus save the world.

Another of my favorites is from The Shawshank Redemption. After Andy Dufresne escapes from prison and disappears, the story is essential over and all is resolved. But no…we are treated to his friend Morgan Freeman’s touching narration about going free: “I hope the Pacific Ocean is as blue as it is in my dreams.”

I think a denouement is different than an epilogue. An epilogue is an animal unto its own world, a specific literary device that has a special purpose, often yoked with a prologue. The denouement usually takes places immediately following the climax and resolution; an epilogue is usually separated by time — week, months or years later. Sometimes it hints at a sequel to come, or it serves as a commentary of sorts on what has happened. It might sum up what happened much later to the characters. Think of way George Lucas used this device in American Graffiti — as the credits rolled, he shows graduation pictures of each character and listed what happened to each i.e. “Curt Henderson is a writer living in Canada.”

A good denouement is subtle. What you don’t want to do is end up with an extended “Now I have to explain why I have to kill you” speech. This is not a true denouement; this is just a bad climax. The skeins that you weave as you move through your story should come together in a logical and satisfying pattern. And if you have some little loose threads that might poke out after that — well, that’s what the denouement is for.

But then there’s the big question: Do you have to untie every knot? Do you have to snip off every loose thread? No, of course not. I love ambiguity in endings. I don’t like anal books that clean up everything. And truth be told, I don’t really enjoy those classics mysteries where the detective gathers everyone in the dining car and lays it out there. I want to figure some things out for myself. And I crave some messiness in my fiction. Not all stories are neat; not all storytellers color within the lines.

Which brings me back to Spike Lee and his denouement for Do the Right Thing. It doesn’t tie up anything in a pretty bow. In fact, Lee rejects the whole idea of traditional closure. Mookie and Sal are left in a wary face-off that personifies the unease of race relations in this country. The mayor (Ossie Davis) tells Mookie to “do the right thing” but no one in this story really knows what that is, which is the only thing that is clear at the end. So what can Spike Lee leave us with except the denouement he offers — two powerful and deeply conflicting quotes from King and Malcolm X. And a final picture of them shaking hands?

Some knots just defy untying.

Transitions: Building Bridges
Between Your Plot Islands

(I am still out of the country, folks, so here’s another old post, one of my favorites about making smooth transitions between chapters. I am wandering the countryside in Provence today but will try to check in via iPhone. No computers on this trip, on purpose!)

By PJ Parrish

Put on your waders because we’re going deep into the craft bulrushes today. I want to talk about one of my favorite micro-topics — transitions. Actually, maybe it’s quicksand we’re wading into, because if your book doesn’t have good transitions, it can sink faster than Janet Leigh’s ’57 Ford in Psycho.

We talk a lot here at TKZ about how important pacing is, and transitions go along way to creating that seamless narrative flow you need as your story shifts in time, location, or point-of view. Transitions look easy but they can be tricky to get right.

I dwell on transitions so much because I work with a co-author. Kelly and I write our books by talking out the plot then writing alternating chapters. So we don’t have the normal one-brain flow of a unified writing procedure. We always know the purpose of each chapter but often we write with no clear idea of what the links between the chapters will be. Sometimes we just leave red-ink pleas like this for each other —INSERT BETTER ENDING HERE — then we deal with links in rewrites.

I used to think this was nuts but then I read an interview with Katherine Anne Porter wherein she described her writing process as “creating scene islands” and “building bridges” between them. This gave me great comfort, knowing I could approach writing like a good engineer. Getting my chapters to flow became akin to making the long journey to Key West. It also made me think that maybe the island-bridge analogy is useful for those of you who work alone. Because the scene (and by extension chapter) is the terra firma of your plot structure and once you have that solid you can always go back and figure out the best ways to move between those plot clots.

I think some writers don’t know where to end a chapter for maximum impact. And that leads to not knowing where to pick up the next one. It is helpful for writers who struggle with this to concentrate on figuring out what the MAIN PURPOSE of each scene/chapter is, write that plot clot, and then fine tune the bridges later.

So what exactly is a transition? Well, there are all kinds. Most are straightforward and literal; some are complex and sophisticated. But all good transitions do one thing: They strengthen the internal logic of your story by moving readers from idea to idea, scene to scene, and chapter to chapter with grace and ease.

Here are some transitions I’ve identified:

TIME TRANSITION: This is when you want to move forward (or occasionally backward) in time with your story. These are pretty workmanlike but very useful in that they simply bridge time from your previous scene. Examples:

Chapter 4

It was nearly three by the time Louis met Flowers at the docks.

Chapter 7

Just over an hour later, Dagliesh had left the headland and was driving west along A1151. (P.D. James)

A word about time stamps. These are the tags you see at chapter beginnings ie “Sunday” or “November 1967” or even just “Later that day.” I have a bias against time stamps because too often they are a cop-out by a writer who can’t figure out how to gracefully weave time changes in the narrative. But sometimes you really need them, especially you thriller writers who work on big canvases. If your story is happening at two different times, time stamps help the reader move between the threads, i.e. “New Orleans, 1855” or “Kabul 1999.”  Time/location tags can be pretty elaborate. In her complex novel about 9/11, Absent Friends, S.J. Rozan weaves multiple narratives together by using tags like so:

PHIL’S STORY
Chapter Six
___
The Invisible Man

Steps Between You and the Mirror

This is grad school stuff; Rozan knows what she’s doing. Another good use of time stamps is found in Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn must find a way to bring the missing wife Amy to life so Flynn alternates the husband Nick’s present-day narrative with his wife’s diary entries, all clearly marked with time/name stamps.

POINT OF VIEW TRANSITION: When you move between characters, you could just pick up with the new character’s voice. But the flow can be enhanced if you find a way to subtly link them. Here is Louis talking to a police chief about the abandoned hunting lodge where they just found old bones.

End of Chapter 6

“Nobody comes here. It’s just a broken down old dump,” the chief said.
Louis shook his head. “No, it’s important. It’s his Room 101.”
“What?”
“It’s from Orwell…1984.”
“Never read it.”
Flowers moved away and Louis looked back at the lodge. He could still recall the exact quote from the book – maybe because it reminded him of things in his foster homes he wanted to forget.
The thing in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.

Chapter 7

There were thousands of them. Small, black jelly-bean creatures crawling around the plastic bin, piggybacking one another to get to that one last shred of meat on the bone.
The beetle larvae were hungry today.
This skull would be ready by nightfall.
Danny Dancer made sure the lid was secure on the bin and left the room.

By using the Orwell “room” quote we tried to lead the reader to the horror of what they were about to see in Danny Dancer’s room. Change of POV but bridged with purpose.

CONTINUED NARRATIVE TRANSITION: Here, the story simply picks up after what came in previous chapter. The main artistic choice you make is how much time elapses between scenes. It can be minutes, days or years. Here’s John Sandford:

End of Chapter 14

“He tried to hang Spivak, for Christ’s sake,” Lucas said, exasperated.
“That was just part of the job,” Harmon said. “You can understand that.”

Chapter 15

Lucas couldn’t. He got off the phone, breathing hard for a few minutes, then backed off the gas.

Sometimes, the continued narrative transition can be deep in a character’s psyche. Here’s a nice transition from Jeff Lindsay’s Dearly Devoted Dexter:

End of Chapter 10

The only reason I ever thought about being human was to be more like him.

Chapter 11

And so I was patient. Not an easy thing, but it was the Harry thing.

With this transition, you the writer have to make calculated decisions on where to pick up the action and what you can leave out in the lapse. Say you end a chapter with a cop getting a call at home to come to a crime scene. Where do you pick up the thread? Do you show him strapping on the gun, getting in the car, walking up to the yellow tape? Or is it more effective to begin the next chapter with “As Nick took his first look at the woman’s body, he realized with a start he had seen her face before.” Here’s exactly such a passage from Val McDermid’s splendid A Place of Execution:

End of Chapter 11

The door to the caravan burst open and Grundy stood in the framed doorway, his face the bloodless grey of the Scardale crags. “They’ve found a body,” he said.

Chapter 12

Peter Crowther’s body was huddled in the lee of a dry-stone wall three miles due south of Scardale as the crow flies. It was curled in on itself in a fetal crouch, knees tucked up to the chin. The overnight frost that had turned the roads treacherous had given it a sugar coating of hoar.

ACTION/REACTION TRANSITION: When you have a juicy action scene it can be very effective to break at just after the action peak and open next chapter with a character-focused reaction. This is VERY useful in helping you pace your story. You shouldn’t blog down a good action scene with thoughts, regrets, musings. Save that for a quiet moment later. Action…then reaction. Here, Louis is at the scene of a police chief getting ambushed:

End of Chapter 17

“Clear! We’re clear! Get the ambulance in here now!”
Louis’s heart was finally slowing but he still had to blink to clear his head. Joe was kneeling by Flowers, and from somewhere down the dirt road sirens wailed.
He heard a whimper and looked down at Danny Dancer. The bastard was crying. Curled up like a baby and crying.

Chapter 18

How could he have been so stupid? He knew that anyone who showed an abnormal interest in a crime scene was someone who needed to be treated with suspicion.
Yet he had allowed Flowers, who was blind to the idea that anyone on his island could be a cold-blooded murderer, walk into a crazy man’s line of fire.

At beginning of Chapter 18, an hour has elapsed and Louis is waiting in the hospital as Flowers lays dying. We chose this transition because the “quiet” moment of Chapter 18 provides relief for the reader after the tension of the ambush, much like letting you catch your breath after the steep drop of a roller coaster. It’s all about pacing.

DESCRIPTIVE TRANSITION: This is another way to alter your pacing. Say you had a explaining-the-case chapter with heavy dialogue between investigators. It’s often effective then to go from staccato to legato and open the next chapter with a descriptive passage. And yes, you can use weather — in moderation! It is also a good way of telling your readers where we are. Be careful using description too early in your story because they can slow things down before your plot gets moving. Here’s Elaine Viets in Murder With Reservations, opening with a description that also slips in some protag’s backstory:

Chapter 3

Helen grew up in St. Louis, where houses were redbrick boxes with forest green shutters. To her, the Coronado Tropic Apartments were wrapped in romance. The Art Deco building was painted a wildly impractical white and trimmed an exotic turquoise. The Corondado had sensuous curves. Palm trees whispered to purple waterfalls of bougainvillea.

ECHO TRANSITION: This is one of my faves, a nifty little device wherein you end a chapter stressing a certain word then use that word again as your bridge to the next. It’s like a grace note in music. Lee Child is a master of this:

End of Chapter 6

“You have to do something.”
“I will do something. Believe it,” Reacher said. “You don’t throw my friends out of helicopters and live to tell the tale.”
Neagley said, “No, I want you to do something else.”
“Like what?”
“I want you to put the old unit back together.”

Chapter 7

The old unit. It had been a typical Army intervention. About three years after the need for it had become blindingly obvious to everyone else, the Pentagon had started to think about it.

THE PARALLEL TRANSITION: This can be really cool but if you whiff on it, it just looks like you’re showing off. This is used when you are shifting POV’s. It is conscious repetition of an idea, image or symbol between two chapters. Like the Echo Transition, it creates an almost musical connection in the reader’s mind, like a good hook in pop music. And it doesn’t always come at the end/beginning of chapters. Here’s the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of our thriller A Killing Song. We are in the killer’s POV in Paris as he watches his next victim:

Chapter 1

He couldn’t take his eyes off her. The last rays of the setting sun slanted through the stained glass window over her head, bathing her in a rainbow. He knew it was just a trick of light, that the ancient glass makers added copper oxide to make the green, cobalt to make the blue, and real gold to make the red. He knew all of this. But still, she was beautiful.

Here is the first graph of chapter 2, shifting to the protagonist’s POV as he watches his sister dancing in a Miami Beach nightclub:

Chapter 2

I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Maybe it was because I hadn’t seen her in two years and in that time she had passed through the looking glass that separates girls from women. Whatever it was, Mandy was beautiful and I couldn’t stop staring.

This was a calculated thing for us because the book’s theme is partly about the two men whose lives spiral out of control and the fine line between violence that is driven inward and outward. (And yes, we mixed first and third POV but that’s a different post for another day.)

Two last thoughts about building bridges. First, transitions are just a tool, a part of your writer’s technique, and can learn to use them with flair and confidence. Study writers you admire. Go grab a book and open to the blank spots between chapters. Then analyze how the writer has moved through time and space, how he has bridged the gaps between his chapters. You’ll find that most of the time, the best writers adhere to the golden rule: KISS. They keep it simple, stupid. Which leads me to my last thought:

Don’t over-think this. Resist the urge to build this:


When all you need is this:


Your first job as storyteller is to just keep the reader moving between your islands. You don’t want them to stop and admire turrets, filigree and gargoyles. More often than not, a sturdy little span is the best way across.

Making Mistakes: It’s a
Mistake Not To Make Them

(Morning, crime dogs. I am out of the country and purposely out of computer contact for four weeks on a two-year-delayed vacation. When you read this, I hope to be sitting in a Paris cafe, sipping vin de maison and stuffing my face with a croque monsieur. So forgive me, but I’m posting a couple of old columns. I will try to check in via iPhone. À bientôt!)

Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. — John Cleese.

By PJ Parrish

I’ll never forget this piece of advice I got from my agent: “No one is waiting for your stand alone thriller.”

Immediately, my hackles went up. (As I wrote that, I realized I didn’t really know what a hackle even was so I Googled it. It is the hairs on the back of dog that shoot up when he’s angry). I said nothing to the agent, but hackles erect, I hung up the phone, and opened the laptop to finish my stand alone thriller.

See, we were eleven books deep into our Louis Kincaid series at the time, and the series had done pretty good thus far. We had a loyal fan base who really loved our character. We’d won some awards and cracked some bestseller lists. But here’s the thing: I had this idea for a serial killer book set in Paris and I couldn’t let go of it. The bad guy — a professional cellist — haunted my dreams at night and kept my imagination afire during the day. I couldn’t get anything done on the series book. The stand alone was a siren call.

Would it crash us on the rocks? Well, maybe. At the time, we were coming up on a contract renewal with our publisher and they were expecting a new Louis book. But Louis was, well, being sort of recalcitrant. The story wasn’t moving along because he just wasn’t talking to me. We clearly needed a vacation from each other.

So I took up with the killer cellist. The book poured out of me, uncharacteristically. (I am a really slow writer). And it was really good. I’m not being immodest here. Every writer just knows when they’re onto something. it was solid plot-wise, filled with cool pretzelly stuff. It had a haunted protag, a prickly side-kick woman cop, and a charming villain who just had a hangup about garroting women with e-strings. It also had Paris’s catacombs, Miami’s decaying art deco hotels and crumbling Scottish castles.

What wasn’t to love?

The publisher grudgingly put it out. No promotion, small press run and an ugly cover. (see above left for original cover and right for new cover when we re-issued it). It got some nice reviews and didn’t sell well (though it sells fine now as a back list title). It remains one of my favorite books. We were dropped by the publisher not long after that.

Did I make a mistake?

My agent was probably just trying to tell me that we didn’t have the star-power name to write whatever we wanted, that we needed to rely on the safety our our serial reputation. Stay with what brung you to the dance, right? But no, I don’t think it was a mistake. Here’s my take-away for any of you out there who might be struggling with the fear that you might make a mistake:

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Okay, that’s not my words. Albert Einstein said them. But I believe them. If you write in fear of doing something wrong, you are doomed. Whether you are venturing into a new genre, experimenting with a different plot structure, or trying to write a short story for the first time, or just switching from the comfort of first person to third, you can’t be afraid to fail.

I had to write that book. I just had to.

But how do you know when you’re onto something good? How do you trust your instinct to stay with a story when your brain might be telling you to jump on the neo-fem-jeop bandwagon? (female in jeopardy but with a new twist, of course).

That’s a hard one. No one can answer that one except you. It’s part of that chimeric thing we call voice. Why would you want to be a poor man’s Jeff Deaver? Or another sad clone of Gillian Flynn? Write the book that only you can write.

Here’s something else to chew on: Sometimes doing something the wrong way is the only way to find the right way. Writing fiction is not a straight-forward process. Yes, there are basic tenets of what makes a story work — plot structure, dialogue, all the craft stuff we talk about all the time here. But even if you follow every “rule” to the letter, there’s no guarantee you’re going to succeed. If you concentrate on what is safe, what is trendy, what is sell-able (revelation: No one really knows what will sell) you will produce junk.

Maybe, after all your work, no editor will want to publish your book. Maybe, after you work hard to get it up on Amazon yourself, not enough readers will find it. Was it a mistake?

  • Not if it helped you grow as a writer. Maybe you rushed your book into print before it was ready (ie not well edited or formatted). Sloppy doesn’t cut it.
  • Not if it made you stronger. No one is ever going to be harder on you and than you are. Rejection comes with the business at every turn. Mistakes help you grow a shell.
  • Not if it helps you find your way to your next story. And there always had to be a next book.

So, what’s my final takeaway from all this? What did I learn from my mistake of writing the stand alone thriller that no one was waiting for?

Don’t write the book you think might sell. You have to write the book that is tearing at your insides to get out.

Write the book that keeps you up at night.

 

When You Enter A Scene,
Use Your Senses Sensibly

The five senses are the ministers of the soul.– Leonardo da Vinci

By PJ Parrish

When you enter someone’s house, what is the first thing you notice? The feng sui alignment of the furniture? The chatter of their chihuahuas? The stink of the morning’s burnt toast?

I’d bet on the toast. Of the five senses, smell is the one with the best memory. I wish I had said that. But it’s by writer Rebecca McClanahan from her book Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively.  If you’ve read my posts here, you know I love good description. In our First Page Critiques, I often implore the submitters to pay more attention to this. But it’s not enough, I think, to come up with juicy phrases, the bon geste metaphor or even the telling detail. Good description is also…logical.

In James’s post Sunday, he wrote about stimulus and response. I’d like to riff a little on that today. In a comment, Kay DiBianca mentioned Jack M. Bickham’s book Scene and Structure: How to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability. I confess I didn’t know of this book, but now wish I had. It’s a fountain of great advice on the need for LOGIC in your fiction narrative.

In our First Page Critiques here, we often take a writer to task for inserting backstory too early in a story. We preach about the need to weave backstory in as the plot progresses. But do folks really understand what that means?

Bickham clarifies this, for me. He suggests thinking of your plot in terms of scenes and sequels. If you do, backstory fades as an issue as you’re freed to focus on narrative thrust. Think of it this way: Scenes are long; sequels are short. Scenes are active; sequels let your character catch their breath. The SEQUEL, not the scene, is where you should be putting any reflection, thought, remembering, musing, reacting and most backstory.

This also goes to the point of pacing. An action-packed chapter (scene) focuses on what is happening only in the moment. A reflective chapter (sequel) focuses on the characters(s) reflecting on what just happened or considering what their next step might be. One is fast; the other is slower.

The green one at beginning is a prologue. We later threw it out.

Kelly and I, when plotting, play close attention to the mix of action (scene) vs reaction (sequel) chapters. We plot using Post-Its and use different colors for each type of scene — usually yellow for action and blue for reaction. If we see too many blues in a row, we know we’re in trouble. Likewise, too many yellows call for a breather for the reader.

I’d like to talk about another subtle but important point that’s related to James’s post on stimulus and response. One of my pet peeves is lack of sensory logic in description. What does this mean? It means that the writer — who might be seeing a scene unfold with cinematic clarity in their head — does not adhere to basic SEQUENTIAL LOGIC in describing something.

I’ve concocted a scenario here to make my point. The set-up: A middle-aged woman is returning to an old Manhattan townhouse for the first time since childhood. It is the home of her beloved grandfather, who just died. It is one of those once-grand homes that has gone to decay as her uncle aged into senility. She opens the door to his study, where as a child, she had enjoyed hearing her grandfather read her stories from his vast book collection. What is the sensory sequence of events as she opens that door?

The heavy drapes were drawn against the bright January day, but she could still make out the blue upholstered chair where her grandfather used to sit. She could also see the towering oak shelves lining the walls, filled with all those enchanting books that took her to places she only dreamed about. Places that, as a grown woman, she had visited without joy, checking them off in her passport like so many obligatory duties. 

The study was ice cold. It was musty, too, she realized now, with a harsh undertone of a sickly smell, something foul and medicine-like. Still, in her imagination, she could smell the aroma of her grandfather’s cherry pipe tobacco. In the dim light, she made her way to the chair and was shocked to realize it wasn’t Paw-Paw’s reading chair. It was one of those hospital chairs draped in a blue blanket.  

This isn’t bad, is it. It’s there. It’s workmanlike. It gets the descriptive job done. But it lacks sensory logic and the backstory memories, while poignant, bog things down. Remember: stimulus and response. I think this version is better.

The smell hit her first, the moment she opened the door, sickly and swirling outward. Not of animal rot or mold. Something worse — chemical and acrid, almost like the acetone she used to remove her nail polish. 

The room was dark and ice cold. Her grandfather had been found dead in this room only yesterday. Why was the heat turned off? She drew her coat tighter around her and went to the heavy drapes. She pulled one open, unleashing a storm of dust. She coughed, blinking against the hard January sun.

She turned. She hadn’t been in the room in thirty years. It was smaller than it was in her memory. Wasn’t that always the trick of childhood? Still, the old oak shelves seemed to tower over her, the book spines standing at attention in their dim uniforms, waiting for orders. 

Where shall they take us today, Ellie?

Anywhere, Paw-Paw, anywhere but here.

Ah, then they’ll whisk us off to Treasure Island.

The medicine smell was making her head hurt. She looked around, focusing finally on a large blue chair in a shadowed corner. It was her grandfather’s favorite place it sit, with a matching footstool where she perched to listen to him read. She went over to it. It wasn’t Paw-Paw’s chair, she realized. It was one of those ugly medical recliners, covered with a blue hospital blanket. The footstool was gone.

The old pedestal side table was still there, though. It was piled with books. When she picked up the top book, she noticed the ashtray. It held a pipe, a tiny knife and a pouch. She picked up the pipe, bringing it up to her nose. Maple syrup. He was there, suddenly, with her. Her eyes welled with tears.  

See the difference? When you enter a scene, don’t go to the default sense of sight. Take your time and try to walk in your character’s shoes. What are they aware of first? This scene is quiet, so I couldn’t use hearing. It’s dark in the room, so clear vision comes later. But smell — that is the most potent and often most poignant sense. Smell has the best memory.

Is your character a cop coming upon a crime scene? What registers foremost in his senses? A dead body on a summer seashore creates a different first impression than a body hanging from a rafter in a cold dimly lit barn. Is your character following a bad guy down into a basement? Every creak of the stairs is like a shot. Every sound is magnified by fear. Go watch the scene where Clarisse has to go down into the basement after Buffalo Bill. Each sense is exploited — the faint bark of the dog, the fluttering buzz of moths, the blaring music. And that’s before everything goes black.

A few tips to help you use senses more effectively:

  • Don’t rely on sight. I know you are seeing your story in your head. But go past that to experience it. Don’t just paint a picture. Immerse your reader in the moment. In her book on writing description, Rebecca McCalahan suggests this exercise: Describe a character as a blind person might describe him; use every
    sense except sight.
  • Filter your sensory description through your character’s prism of experience — not your own. A child might smell bubble gum whereas an old woman smells Estee Lauder’s Tuberose perfume.
  • Be original. Good description is hard writing. Don’t settle. Rain has a specific sound and smell, depending on the mood of your scene. Cherry Chapstick changes the taste of a kiss. My dog’s ears feel like worn velveteen. I heard two otters playing in my lake and they sounded like shrieking pre-teen girls. A newborn’s head smells like fresh baked bread (to me, at least!)

Let me leave you with one more example, if you want to take some time to read. This is from my book Paint It Black. The set-up: Louis’s partner FBI rookie Emily Farantino has been knocked out by the killer and abducted, tied up in a fish shanty. Kelly and I worked hard to imagine what she feels as she wakes up. We even put cloth bags over our heads to get in her head.

Blackness. She was floating up from the blackness to consciousness. She opened her eyes. Dark. It was still dark and she gave a terrified jerk.

The thing — it was the thing covering her face. The cloth was still there. She could smell its musky odor, and when she drew in a breath, the soft fabric touched her lips.

She became aware of a sharp throbbing in her head, and a faint nausea boiling in her stomach. Her heart was pounding. 

Think…think! Calm down. Use your head, use your senses.

She tried to move her arms. They were bound at the wrist, palms up. She could feel the hard wood of the chair. She strained to hear something or someone.

Nothing. Just water lapping and a soft groaning sound. Pilings? The air was still and smelled of mildew and fish. And old building of some kind near the docks? Was she still near the wharf? Something kicked on…like a motor, faint.

She tried to stay calm, tried to quiet the pounding of the blood in her ears so she could hear better. Nothing. No cars, no voices. Just the droning motor sound. It stopped and it was quiet again, except for the lapping water.

The floor creaked. She jumped.

Footsteps on wood, coming closer. 

Then it stopped. But she could hear someone moving.

“Motherf—er.”

She jumped. A man, it was a man. 

“Damn it, damn it.”

More footsteps. Pacing.

Louder this time. She tried to draw on what she knew, tried to remember what the training books said. But nothing was coming, just the feeling of panic gathering in her gut. She gulped in several breaths to push the panic back. The cloth billowed against her face. She let out a small cry and the pacing stopped.

It was quiet. Water lapping. She held her breath. 

Stop. Listen. Smell. Hear. Touch. Taste. And then look. Take it all in with logical sensory sequence. That’s it for today, crime dogs. To paraphrase David Byrne, start making sense.

 

What Lucy Taught
Me About Writing

Morning crime dogs: I am a little under the weather this week. The big bad virus finally caught up with me. I am multi-vaxed, have a mild case and am on the mend. But not thinking too well. So, if you don’t mind I am going to honor the TENTH anniversary (four days ago!) of my joining The Kill Zone (thank you Joe Moore for the invite) and re-post my very first post. See you next time.

By PJ Parrish

It’s three in the morning and I can’t sleep — again. My story is a giant hairball in my brain but it’s more than that. I am obsessing about the world of publishing and my little place within it. There is so much uncertainty in our business right now. Bookstores are closing, advances are shrinking, houses are paring their lists down to sure-fire bestsellers, and we are all groping for something to grab onto as the publishing earthquake rumbles beneath our feet.

I retreat to the sofa, remote in hand, searching for something to quiet the questions in my head.

Have I used up all my good plot ideas?
Is it too late to switch to erotica?
Should I take out a loan to go to Thrillerfest?
How did that hack get a movie option?
What should I write about for my first Kill Zone blog?
Did I remember to give the dogs their meds?

In the darkness, the ceiling shimmers with fifty-seven channels of nothing on. Then, suddenly, there she is — Lucy Ricardo. My muse, my all, my Ambien. Before I know it, eight episodes have passed and the sky is lightening with a new day. I have an epiphany. Everything I need to know about surviving in publishing today can be learned from “I Love Lucy.”

SPEED IT UP!
When Lucy needed to make money she went to work in a chocolate factory but found out it wasn’t easy keeping up. Time was we could get by doing one book a year. Not anymore. Maybe we can blame James Patterson who is fond of comparing novels to real estate — i.e., the only thing that matters is how much room your books take up on the shelf (real or virtual). But the eBook age has accelerated the metabolism of publishing and many of us are pulling extra shifts, churning out novellas, short stories and even an extra book a year. Lisa Scottoline in ther New York Times interview, called it “feeding the maw.” What I call it can’t be printed here. Sigh. But I get it.

The Lesson from Lucy: Try not to obsess about keeping up or about other people’s success. Measure progress by your own achievement not by other writers. Yes, you have to produce well and often but try to keep your wits about you and set a good daily pace. Yes, daily. Do as I say, not as I do.

REINVENT YOURSELF

What did the artistically thwarted Lucy do when she wanted to be in the movie “Bitter Grapes?” She went to a vineyard and became Italian. Is your series on life support? Are you in midlist limbo? Maybe you just need a change of identity. If you write dark, try light. Jump-start your brain by switching to short stories. Leave your amateur sleuth and write a standalone thriller. Got the bad numbers at Amazon blues? Adopt a pen name and start over. Or it might be time to try self-publishing. Yes, it’s a tough route, and you’ll work your butt off doing things that have nothing to do with the real joy of writing. But sometimes you have to start over. Just do your homework. (Our archives here are filled with tons of great self-pubbing advice.)

MAKE FRIENDS
When Ricky and the Mertzes forgot her birthday, Lucy joined the Friends of the Friendless. (“We are friends of the friendless, yes we are! We are here for the downtrodden and we sober up the sodden!”). Truth is, publishers aren’t putting out anymore (publicity-wise). So we writers just need to get ourselves out there more. No, a pretty website isn’t enough. Now you need to be on Facebook et al. You might need to Tweet even if you’re a twit with nothing to say. Beyond that, make REAL friends in the business. I know you’re probably an introvert at heart. Most writers are. But try to get out and meet other writers. Go to conferences if you can afford it. Join a good critique group. Find support wherever you can because this business can be pretty rough and sometimes very lonely.

I need a nap. Or maybe a glass of good Sancerre. Probably both. All this advice about what we should be doing to sell ourselves and our books. And you know whose voice I keep hearing? Neil Nyren. He’s the (now retired) president of Penguin-Putnam books and a friend of mine. (Yeah, I’m namedropping.) At SleuthFest one year, Neil said, “all the time you’re doing that other stuff you could be writing a better book.” I need to remember that. I need to believe it.

What about Lucy? She tried too hard and ended up too sick to eat chocolate and dyed too blue to get in that Italian movie. And then there is the episode where she tries to write a novel. Ricky and the Mertzes pooh-pooh her ambitions (does that sound familiar?). She sends out her manuscript, and an editor contacts her saying he wants to publish her novel. He waves a check in front of her face. All is lovely until he tells her he wants to publish her book as non-fiction and change the title. The new title:

“Don’t Let This Happen To You!”

See, it could be worse.

 

 

Four Mistakes That Will Doom
Your Mystery. They Did Mine

By PJ Parrish

I’m going to tell tales out of school today. About some of the dumbest mistakes I’ve made in trying to write. Some mistakes died sad deaths in my C-drives. Others got fixed before I made a fool of myself in print. Maybe my confession here will help keep you on the righteous path.

Digression alert: I love idioms. I love their silliness, their creativity, their origins, and the slivers of insight within them. As you’ve read here, I’m trying to bone up on my French via online Babbel courses and yesterday’s lesson was idioms. La fin des haricots (the end of the beans) means “Well, that’s over!” And if you want to say someone is knee-high to a grasshopper, it’s haut comme trois pommes. As high as three apples. To have a hangover is avoir la gueule de bois — to have a wooden face.

So, telling tales out of school? It dates back to 1530, appearing in William Tindale’s The Practyse of Prelates: “What cometh once in may never out, for fear of telling tales out of school.”  It used to refer to kids gossiping about what they heard at school, but now we use it mean divulging secret information.

The tales I am going to tell out of school today all involve mistakes my sister Kelly and I made in our writing journey. Digression two: One of my favorite I Love Lucy episodes is “Lucy Writes A Novel.” She sends it off to a publisher, and he shows up with a check wanting to buy her book. But he wants to change the title to “Don’t Let This Happen To You!”

So pay attention, crime dogs. Don’t let any of these mistakes happen to you.

Introducing Too Many Characters Too Soon.

My sister’s first stab at a novel was a long historical family saga set in the Nevada casino world. She was working in the business back then and had tons of stories, great characters, and had boned up on her history of the birth of gambling. Her first chapter set-up was terrific — the offspring and four ex-wives of a rich patriarch (think Steve Wynn) are gathered at his gravesite at dawn as the lights of the Strip blink off in the distance.  Everyone there has a reason to hate the guy and an even better reason to kill him. Kelly’s mistake? She introduced every single one of the family members, giving each a name, thoughts, dialogue. I think I counted 32 characters in the first ten pages.

The lesson: Don’t flood your stage in the opening moments of act 1. It confuses the reader, makes them feel stupid, like they need a family tree. Give your reader a couple characters to digest at most. Please don’t make their names sound alike. And never wait too long to introduce your hero. From the get-go, readers search for characters to invest their emotions in, and you run the risk of them attaching to what I call a “false hero” if you’re not careful.

Nothing Happens

Flash back to 1989. Miami Vice is on TV and I’m trying to make the switch to mysteries after getting dropped as a romance writer. I had a terrific idea for a character — the lone woman detective working in the homicide division of the Miami PD. Lots of sexism, tokenism, testosterone poisoning. And to make her baggage even heavier, her husband and daughter died in a horrible boat crash in Biscayne Bay (that may have been a revenge murder for her busting a bad guy).  My first chapter opens with my heroine fishing at dusk in the Everglades. And she’s thinking. And remembering. And mourning. And thinking. And sighing. End of chapter. My agent, after reading it, told me to go home and read some Michael Connelly and PJ James.

The lesson? We belabor it here, especially James: Get your characters UP AND DOING in the opening moments. The thinking, remembering, musing, pondering, reflecting….save it for later. Please. I’m begging you. Something must happen. Action, then reaction. Oh, and don’t try to follow the zeitgeist — Miami Vice went off the air before I finished my first draft.

Larding In Backstory

Back to the casino…Kelly and I wanted to take a break from our Louis Kincaid series and we had an idea for this crusty-but-lovable character named Bailey. (The crusty-but-lovable bit should have been our first warning.) She’s a housewife who falls into an amateur detective gig at a run-down Nevada casino owned by her crusty-but-lovable father. We had a pretty good opening graph:

It’s not easy starting your life over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it. Especially in a place like Morning Sun, Iowa.

But then we got mired in backstory. This is what followed:

The folks in Morning Sun — there’s only about four hundred of them — don’t have much tolerance for weird people, especially a rattlebrained housewife who tries to bail out of her marriage after a couple of little marital “tiffs.”

But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when my husband Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife we had just bought off a late-night infomercial, I didn’t figure I had a lot of options.

The police believed I killed him on purpose. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. But fortunately for me, the jury didn’t believe any of them.

So I walked. Actually, I ran. Three thousand miles to be exact, all the way to Las Vegas. I had to get out of Morning Sun and I figured Las Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances. It’s the kind of place where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.

Okay, it’s not horrible, but it wasn’t good enough to get published. Our publisher passed. Our agent shopped it around and everyone passed. This, after we had made the New York Times list with our regular series. Why? Because it’s all backstory, it’s all telling. And it goes on this way for almost the entire first chapter. Nothing is happening in the present. Bailey is telling us her past rather than letting it emerge organically as the plot — plot? Now there’s a concept! — begins to unfurl. We tried to rewrite and have something happen earlier — a showgirl eventually falls off the casino tower. But it was bogged down with backstory and thus fatally flawed.

Don’t Take The Weapon Out Of Your Hero’s Hand

Thank God this mistake didn’t make it into print. And I owe it all to my sister’s blood lust. We’re racing to the finish line on our fourth Louis Kincaid mystery Thicker Than Water. We’re riding something of a wave because our second book got an Edgar nomination, and our third, Paint It Black was the one that got us on the Times list and got us nominated for the Shamus and Anthony. Thicker is what I call our “quiet” mystery, since it’s about a cold case and no one dies in the present. It’s heavy on character development, awash in nefarious lawyers and twisted family secrets. I treasure the review of it Ed Gorman gave us in Mystery Scene: “The quiet sadness that underpins it all really got to me, the way Ross Macdonald always does.”

So what was our mistake? In the climax, our hero Louis confronts the villain in a cemetery at the grave of the cold-case dead girl. Louis knows the guy killed her but can’t prove it. The guy, being a slimy but slick lawyer, knows Louis can’t prove it. In the first draft, Louis has to let him just…walk away.

Kelly wouldn’t sit for it. I still remember her words: “He’s has to DO something! Louis would never let him get away with this!” She was right, of course. I had taken the weapon out of Louis’s hands. There was no justice done, no circle closed. Yes, it was true to life, but it felt lifeless. We went back into the plot, rewrote the entire book, and finally figured out a twist that allowed Louis to nail the bad guy through some nifty legal machinations. But that still wasn’t enough for Kelly. Here’s how the conversation went when we got to that grave scene the second time:

“Louis can’t just walk away,” she said.

“But he’s got the evidence on the guy now. The guy’s going to prison,” I said.

“I don’t like it.”

“It’s reality.”

“I don’t care. I’m going to have Louis beat the sh– out of him first.”

And she did. We spent 300 pages building intense sympathy for a dead girl. The guy couldn’t walk away untouched. So Louis lost his temper and wailed on him. The scene gave an emotional catharsis that was missing.

The lesson: Never let your hero fall into passivity. You don’t have to do what we did, but always look for opportunities in your plot to make your protag sound clever, find a special clue, make a vital connection or, literally use the weapon. I’ve seen this flaw in many manuscripts I’ve critiqued wherein a writer allows a secondary character, usually a colorful sidekick, to outshine the hero. Yes, your hero needs to be human and make mistakes. But don’t ever let him or her be a bystander in your plot parade.

Postscript. I was originally going to call this Ten Mistakes That Will Doom Your Novel. I have enough material, believe me. I didn’t even get to my awful attempts at erotica. But I’ve flapped my gums enough for today. Good writing!

 

First Page Critique: When Being Too Coy Creates Confusion

By PJ Parrish

Good day, crime dogs. We have an interesting First Pager today. I am going in cold with this one so as to not prejudice you with any preludes. Your first impressions are valuable here, so please weigh in for our writer. No title. But the submitter alerts us that we are in the genre of “Historical Romantic Suspense.”

Chapter One. November, 1954

Her picture was in the paper today.

I would have known her anywhere. Fair hair, tucked neatly under her hat. The same pearls around her delicate neck. A chic woolen suit topped by a short jacket. White gloves. A smile of pure joy on her face. She strode forward with the same confident, take-on-the-world step I once admired so much, a woman ready to cast the old order aside and charge into the future.

Once we had charged into that future together. Then it arrived, rotten with terror and torture and murder. Did she truly not see that? Was it possible she still didn’t? Was that why, even now, she could look so proud of the man beside her?

There was no doubt that the world was still fighting a war for the future. There was also no doubt, or at least not much doubt, that I had chosen the losing side.

I no longer fight for the future. Now I fight only for my family.

Aside from our shared lofty goal of changing the world, we couldn’t have been more different. She was American born; we were immigrants. Her family were genteelly Protestant; mine were Russian Jews. She was private schools, Bryn Mawr, and Yale; I grew up in my father’s candy store, helping out behind the counter .

None of that mattered. We were confidantes, soul mates.

Because who else could understand our lives? Who else knew the dreams and the fears, the resolute denial of the sickening rumors? How could any outsider understand what that cost us?

Then everything changed. A chasm opened between us that could never be breached.
For years there was a hole in my heart where Priscilla used to be. Was it still there?
The picture again. There was her handsome husband, towering over his petite wife. The only hint of the years he had been away was he was a shade thinner. Otherwise, he looked the same. The same boyish charm, the same disarming smile he had flashed at the jury at every opportunity during the trial.

He wore a broad-brimmed fedora, a natty tweed coat, a white scarf round his neck; trousers perfectly creased, shoes buffed to a high shine. A gloved hand under his wife’s arm. He could have been walking out of the pages of Esquire.

He was walking out of federal prison.

__________________________________

Whenever I approach a First Pager, I try to do my first read purely as a reader who might have picked up the book in a store and is reading the opening pages to see if I want to buy the book. Yes, I do this in real life. If there’s enough craft and a certain je ne sais quoi I take the book home, always with a hopeful heart.

I’m drawn to characters with damaged pasts, so I liked this at first blush. I thought, well, it’s a little slow and I don’t mind slow, but I’m not sure it has that intangible “I don’t know what” distinctive quality that will make me want to go on. Let me try to be more precise.

The writing here is clean and solid. The opening line is interesting in that it promises at least an emotional reaction from the narrator. But then what follows it essentially backstory. A lot of it. And it’s all in a style of “telling.”  The narrator is telling us what happened — that some major event caused a schism in their relationship, that the narrator no longer feels compelled to “fight,” that there is a hole in his/her heart where his friend used to be — or is there?

More backstory “telling” is slipped in with this paragraph: “She was American born; we were immigrants. Her family were genteelly Protestant; mine were Russian Jews. She was private schools, Bryn Mawr, and Yale; I grew up in my father’s candy store, helping out behind the counter.”

In short, the entire opening is one moment of present-time action: Someone is looking at a photograph in a newspaper of what I think is an ex-lover with her ex-con husband. The rest is all the narrator thinking, remembering, musing, lamenting. Nothing is happening. There is no sense of being grounded in any present-time reality. Everything is past-tense. By the time I got to the line about the man coming out of federal prison, I was losing interest.

There are other issues, I think.

I can’t tell the gender of the narrator. It feels like a man, given the somewhat generic description of the photograph of Priscilla — “chic suit, white gloves, pearls, fair hair tucked neatly under a hat.”  So I am thinking that Priscilla is a lost love. But then we get this line: “She strode forward with the same confident, take-on-the-world step I once admired so much.”  That sounds like a friend remembering a girlfriend. So I then wondered if the narrator was female. Especially since we get this line soon after: “We were confidantes.” Which signals two females.  (It’s confidants if a man is the narrator but this could just be a typo.)

Regardless, the uncertainty about the narrator’s emotions toward Priscilla — not fully romantic, not clearly friendship — confused me. I can tell he/she is unhappy and maybe rueful. But the tone is like a weak radio signal, wavering annoyingly just beyond my ear.

Another thing that confused me. The writer gives us a time tag of November 1954. Then devotes a good portion of the backstory and thoughts to some crisis:

Then it arrived, rotten with terror and torture and murder. Did she truly not see that? Was it possible she still didn’t? Was that why, even now, she could look so proud of the man beside her?

There was no doubt that the world was still fighting a war for the future. There was also no doubt, or at least not much doubt, that I had chosen the losing side.

Terror, torture and murder. That implies war. And what to make of this line: “There was no doubt that the world was still fighting a war for the future. The world is still at war in 1954? The Cold War between the U.S. and Russia? Confusing.

So, the set-up of someone seeing an old flame/friend’s photo in a newspaper isn’t bad. The writing is solid if a bit bland. I’d like the writer to try harder to insert what we here at TKZ call “the telling detail,”  unique description that paints a picture of your characters and your setting. (The latter, by the way, is non-existent. Where are we?) See line edit for examples of this.

Final point: The heavy backstory has your story stuck in neutral gear. Also, the confusion created by the coyness of the style is off-putting to me. Key: what exactly is the relationship between Priscilla and the unnamed narrator? Why withhold this? Your back copy will spill the beans anyway.  As an exercise, try to write your back copy:

Jack Steiner lost the love of his life in the gray chaos of post-war London. But when he sees Priscilla’s photograph in a New York newspaper twenty years later…

Janice Steiner never forgot her first love and the ugly rumors that tore them apart. But when she sees a photograph of Priscilla with her husband….

As we often say here, there is a big important difference between artfully withholding details from the reader to create suspense and being obtuse. And keep in mind, dear writer, even in romantic suspense, something needs to happen to someone soon. Apologies to Joseph Heller.

Let me do a quick line edit. My comments in red:

Her picture was in the paper today. If you had told me what newspaper, you’d do a big favor and tell us where we are geographically. Her picture was in the New York Herald Tribune today. 

I would have known her anywhere. Suggestion: Ten years had passed since I last saw her, but I would have known here anywhere. We need better grounding in time. Fair hair, tucked neatly under her hat. The same pearls around her delicate neck. A chic woolen suit topped by a short jacket. White gloves. A smile of pure joy on her face. She strode forward a photo can’t show a present-tense action. Perhaps: “The photograph had caught her in confident mid-stride….with the same confident, take-on-the-world step I once admired so much, a woman ready to cast the old order aside and charge into the future.

Once we had charged into that future together. Then it arrived, is “it” the future? rotten with terror and torture and murder. Did she truly not see that? What does this refer to? Because you write this in the present tense, it implies the narrator is seeing something in the photograph. Or do you mean to say: “Had she truly not seen what happened? Confusing. Was it possible she still didn’t? Was that why, even now, she could look so proud of the man beside her? I like this line, especially since we later learn hubbie’s been in federal prison. 

There was no doubt that the world was still fighting a war for the future. There was also no doubt, or at least not much doubt, that I had chosen the losing side. Again, I find this confusing. What war? 

I no longer fight for the future. Now I fight only for my family.

Aside from our shared lofty goal of changing the world, This is somewhat of a non sequitur transition. This line about the family is interesting but it feels tacked on considering his/her next thoughts. we couldn’t have been more different. She was American born; we were immigrants. Her family were genteelly Protestant; mine were Russian Jews. She was private schools, Bryn Mawr, and Yale; I grew up in my father’s candy store on Orchard Street (lower east side NYC or wherever it was)…always be alert for places to drop in TELLING DETAILS. Your opening could use some, helping out behind the counter.

None of that mattered. We were confidantes, soul mates. Again, this feels like friends, not lovers. 

Because who else could understand our lives? Who else knew the dreams and the fears, the resolute denial of the sickening rumors? How could any outsider understand what that cost us? Shades of Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour.” Are we in Martha and Karen territory here?  

Then everything changed. A chasm opened between us that could never be breached.
For years there was a hole in my heart where Priscilla used to be. Was it still there?

The picture again. There was her handsome husband, towering over his petite wife. The only hint of the years how many? We really need a few concrete detailshe had been away was he was a shade thinner. Otherwise, he looked the same. The same boyish charm, cliche. And “charm” isn’t the right word for a photograph. the same disarming smile he had flashed at the jury at every opportunity during the trial.

He wore a broad-brimmed fedora, a natty tweed coat, a white scarf round his neck; trousers perfectly creased, shoes buffed to a high shine. A gloved hand under his wife’s arm. He could have been walking out of the pages of Esquire.

He was walking out of federal prison. Nice kicker line. But you could slip in another grounding location detail by telling us which one. We’re floating in the geographic ether here.  

As I said, I like certain things about this opening. But it could do with some good details to make it feel less generic and more emotionally involving. And, dear writer, I think you’d be well served to not hold your readers at such arm’s length, especially working in your chosen sub-genre. The best definition I’ve heard of romantic suspense is “a story that is driven by the threat of danger and the promise of romance.” In the best ones, there is a tension between the two. The protagonist is in danger (or someone she or he loves). The romance builds at the same time as the jeopardy, until both reach a crescendo. Mystery solved, bad guy defeated and the main characters live happily ever after.

Sound simple? Ha. This is why my own efforts at romantic-suspense have never seen the light of day. I sense you can tell a good story, dear writer. Clear up the confusion, tell us where we are, jump into your story with more heart and gusto and get things moving. Thanks for sharing with us.

 

Sexual Reeling

By PJ Parrish

Today I want to talk about sex. The dirty deed. The two-backed beast. The Nasty. Le Freak. Riding the Pony. Rock ‘n’ Rolling. Aardvarking. Boinking. Shagging. Doing the No-Pants Dance.

And I want to ask just one question: Why are crime writers such wusses when it comes to sex?

I had to lay aside a nice post I had started for today about settings, and now I have to talk about sex because of the current book I am reading. It’s by a well-known thriller writer and I was having a good time with it until last night. That’s when he got to the sex scene. It was awful. No, worse than awful. I laughed. And now I am having trouble getting back in the mood. So forgive my testiness today.

What the heck happens to some writers when they have to write about sex?

l tell you what I think happens. They get as self-conscious as pimply prom dates. Crime writers can meet murder head on and not flinch, can even render death poetic. But faced with having to describe copulation — especially in the context of — gasp! relationships — they can turn out the most dreadful, unbelievable, embarrassing treacle.

Let’s crack open a page here:

“But the hand was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns — oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest — no, the hand was cupping her entire right — Now!”

That wasn’t from the book I was reading last night. That writer shall remain nameless. I might have to face him someday in the Bouchercon bar. That passage above was written by Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons.

Otorhinolaryngological caverns? Did this guy EVER get laid?

At the risk of being offensive here, I will suggest that it is usually the guys who fall apart when sex rears its ugly head in their books. Not that women crime writers haven’t turned out some leaden bedroom prose. But I’m thinking it might have something to do with the “guy relationship” thing. Male crime writers tend to get squeamish when they have to write about the emotional stuff. So when the impulses of the heart (or even just loins) propel the hero(ine) into bed, things get icky fast. And guys, especially thriller writer guys, tend to chomp onto the cliches like a rabid Jack Russell. Like: Why is the woman always hot to trot with no warmup? (This was the basic problem with the book I was reading last night).

Believe me, I sympathize with any of you who have problems writing sex scenes. Before I turned to writing mysteries, I used to write what in the Eighties was euphemistically called Women’s Contemporary Fiction. (Big fat sagas about internecine family intrigue with sex scenes). I became pretty good at sex, if I do say so myself. So I know how hard it is to write about it without looking silly. For starters, you have get your folks out of their clothes. And then you have to get the plumbing connections right. And then — and here’s where most writers lose it — you might have to write dialogue that doesn’t sound like two four-year-olds making mud pies.

Okay, I have a confession to make. For six books into our series, we had managed to avoid our hero Louis Kincaid having sex, probably on purpose. Once, I even got a fan letter from a lady in Maine asking me why Louis never had sex. But in A Killing Rain, he fell in love with a woman, Joe Frye, and it was finally time for Louis to get some. My co-author sister Kelly and I knew the scene was coming, and we decided it had to be on camera. No wussy fade to black this time. So there we were, sitting in my office with our Ferrante and Teicher computers. I had drawn duty to write the sex scene, but man, I just couldn’t do it. It just seemed so darn…yucky, given our hardboiled style. But there was Louis and his woman and it was my duty to light their fire. And I froze.

Writing together in my office. Not sure if this was the actual day of the sex scene but from the look on my face, it probably was.

Kelly, hearing no typing, turned and asked, “Okay, what is it now?”
“I can’t do this. I got them out on the dark porch. You take it.”
So we switched chairs and Kelly gave it a go. After a moment, I realized I hadn’t heard any typing. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I got their clothes half off. You take it.”
I rolled back and gave it another shot. Nada. Dry as dust. I had lost that lovin’ feeling.

Finally, we sat side by side and sweated it out. It was brutal. But eventually, Louis got laid without us resorting to a From Here To Eternity beach cop-out.

Now, lest I be accused of guy-bashing, I’ll allow some men to weigh in here. Here’s C.J. Box, at the Montana Festival of the Book, talking about how he does it: “My protagonist is married, so there are no sex scenes.”

Wuss…

Here’s Neil McMahon, in an interview talking about his first book, Twice Dying, where his man and woman ended up in a motel room. He tried to slide by with a few sentences. But his editor demanded a full-blown sex scene, saying, “All right. This is it. You’re going to have to write this. It’s going to have to be explicit. This is a deal-breaker.” So I wrote it, McMahon said.

Brave man…

For a more thoughtful take, let’s go to my good friend Jim Fusilli, talking about his book Tribeca Blues: “Sex is a theme in Tribeca Blues — covert sex, back-alley sex, the ramifications of that kind of thing. So there had to be a sex scene between two people who have genuine affection for each other. In the context of the story, I think it works. It’s sensual but not salacious. It wasn’t easy to write. I felt a little squeamish. I don’t know. I’m not a prude, but maybe I had too many years of Catholic school or something. You know, if you’re going to write it, you have to write it well. You’ve got to feel it and make it real. You can’t be saying “wee-wee” and “boobies” any more than you can say “throbbing member” or “heaving love mounds” or some bullshit like that. It’s got to be as believable as when you’ve got him walking down the street.”

At least Jim has the guts to meet the subject head on.

Not all guy crime writers shy away from sex. Some embrace it. Max Allan Collins and Jeff Gelb have produced some sophisticated erotic mysteries. But those are the small exceptions.

In closing, I’ll give the last word to a woman –veteran mystery novelist and Edgar winner Dana Stabenow: “There are a ton of people, critics and writers alike, who say that in detective fiction it should be the classic Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe character who have to be loners. That’s changed a lot with the advent of women writing in the mystery field, because women tend to emphasize relationships. For about 5,000 years that was pretty much all we had, our lives revolved around relationships and our husbands and our families and our children. So there are a lot of women reading mystery fiction and I think publishers are going to publish what they can sell — and if they can sell mysteries that have an element of relationship in them, then that’s what they’re going to solicit writers to produce.”

And damn it, that includes sex.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe we need convention panels or workshops to teach this stuff. All I know is I am glad I don’t write romantic novels anymore. Frankly, sex just wears me out. Writing it, that is. I’m too old now. And you know, I am much happier killing people than having sex. But maybe that is a female thing.