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

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.

 

13+

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+

The Dénouement: Tying Up
the Yarn Strands of Your Story

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

By PJ Parrish

Another sleepless night. But – hazzah! – another idea for a Kill Zone post. Two nights ago, unable to stop the hamster wheel in my head, I took my pillow out to the sofa, hit the remote, and trolled for a good movie. Nothing except…

The last half hour of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Now I hadn’t seen the movie since it came out in 1989 and while I didn’t remember all the characters and plot points, I did remember that climax. And that is where I came in the other night, right 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 (I also watched Raiders of the Lost Ark this week). The dénouement is what comes after the climax, wherein 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. We’re making the point here that 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 just the denouement.

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. You will often get at the end of the story 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 in the courthouse 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.

My sister Kelly and I are struggling with this notion right now with our WIP.  We’re at the climax wherein our hero confronts the bad guy and triumphs, of course. The bad guy has to die. But we realized that while we knew why our antagonist had rotted from within (and you need to know this!) we had no one in our cast of characters to explain it to the reader.  Yes, the hero can surmise things about the bad guy, and you need to sow the clues of personality throughout the story. But sometimes, in the end, someone — like the shrink in Psycho — has to give it context and history.  So we went back and inserted a new character early in the book — hidden in plain sight — who will, in a denouement, give testimony.

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.”

We can debate this, but 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 general 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.

 

4+

How to Take a Great Author Photo
Rule No. 1: Be True to Yourself

A lot of writers, especially crime writers, have an image that we think we’re trying to keep up with. You’ve got to be seen as dark and slightly dangerous. But I’ve realized that I don’t need to put that on. People will buy the books whether they see a photo of you dressed in black or not. — Ian Rankin

By PJ Parrish

I wish I had read that quote from Ian Rankin before I had my first author photograph done. It would have saved me a lot of embarrassment and the phone call I got from an old friend who I hadn’t seen in a couple years (call paraphrased here due to aging memory cells):

Him: “Are you…okay?”
Me: “Okay? What are you talking about?”
Him: “I saw your book in Barnes and Noble.”
Me: “Did you buy a copy? Tell me you bought a copy.”
Him: “I did. But it made me worried about you.”
Me: “Good lord, it’s not that bad, is it?”
Him: “I haven’t read it yet.”
Me: “But you’re worried…”
Him: “Yeah. You look so, so…angry.”
Me: “Angry? Why would I be angry? I finally got published!”
Him: “Or maybe you’re sad. I can’t really tell. What are you so depressed about? Did you get a divorce? I can give you the name of my shrink.”

That’s when it hit me. My friend had seen my author photograph on the back of my book. I knew the picture was bad. I knew it the moment the photographer sent back the contact sheet with all those mini-me’s scowling out at the world. But I was in denial and he was a pro who had taken many author photos, so I chose one and ordered the prints anyway. But I’ll let you be the judge. Here’s the photo:

It’s okay. You can say it. I look awful. I got my hair and makeup done, yes. And I wore my black leather jacket and my best frown because I was a woman writer in the hard-boiled world where the men who came before me and those who now crowded around me smoked Camels, drank scotch and wrote things like, “I won’t play the sap for you, angel.”

I wanted to look serious.  I ended up looking mean.

I’m not mean. Or sad or angry. Below left is my very first author, from 1984, way back when I was writing romance and family sagas. Who would you rather buy a book from? That hopeful wry writer in white at left or that crabby miscreant in black above?  What happened to me?

I’ll tell you what happened. I really thought, when I switched genres, I needed to look tough and distant, like I could chew glass. I didn’t realize that what I really needed to do was just be myself. Which is actually what I was doing when my photographer and I went out for beer and pizza at John’s in the Village and he captured this candid moment that became my official author photo.

What can you learn from my experience?  Lots, I hope. Because whether you are published or still trying to get there, this isn’t just about getting a good author photograph. It’s a lesson in being true to yourself.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, an author photo is worth oh, maybe a million? Readers buy books for myriad reasons. They heard from a friend that the book was good. They read the reviews on Amazon or Good Reads. A clerk in a bookstore recommended it. Or very often, they picked up the book, read the blurb, maybe the first page. And maybe they looked at the picture of the person who wrote the book. Now I’m not suggesting that the wrong author photo can make or break a sale.  I’m with Ian Rankin on this one, believing that if you continually produce good stories, looks don’t matter. But in this competitive market place, it’s not a bad idea to get a good author photo. Here’s why:

  • You’ll need one for publicity purposes. Unless you’re a star at a large publishing house, you probably won’t get the photo done for you. But you will be expected to provide one for publicity and promotion. If you are self-publishing, you must have a website and that means you must have a good photo of yourself on it.
  • It engages the reader in a sub-conscious way. The right photo can send a positive signal to a potential reader. First, that you are a professional. Second, that you are approachable i.e. the Consciousness behind the characters they will be spending the next couple weeks or months with.
  • It establishes you as a recognizable “product.” I know this idea is repugnant to some folks, but the most successful authors make themselves sell-able with a consistent image. Think Mr. Peanut or Colonel Sanders. Think of this guy:
  • It conveys the tone of your work. This is important. We have talked often here at TKZ of the importance of tone consistency in your work. Many elements — cover art, type-faces, and of course the writing style itself — help readers grasp what kind of writer you are. Are you writing YA or adult? Are you hard-boiled or lighthearted? All of this needs to show in your own face in that author photo. But don’t make the mistake I did and put on a leather coat and a sneer, thinking that will help. It’s more subtle than that.

Here are some examples of conveying the right tone in author photos. Chris Grabenstein started out writing his adult Ceepak mysteries loosely set around a carnival theme but branched out to a children’s series. Below are his two author pics. Guess which one goes with which series:

And then there’s Nora Roberts aka J.D. Robb.  Nora has written more than 200 romances. But when she puts on her thriller cloak as J.D. Robb, she has a different look. Same woman, yes, with a definite brand. But with a subtle difference in the photos that appear on the back on her books:

I think it might be easier for guys in crime fiction to come up with a good pic. They just have to slap on a shirt, maybe a blazer and good jeans and lean up against a brick wall. (See below).

Women who write hard-boiled or more serious crime fiction have it a little harder, what with the make-up, hair, and the expectations of the genre. Where is the sweet spot for us between serious and…mean? I think these two found it:

Regardless of gender or sub-genre, getting the right photo isn’t easy, and there are plenty of bad ones out there, even when they are done by professionals guided by publishing house promotion staffs. My favorite blogger, Chuck Wendig, just ran his Awkward Author Photo contest Click here to go see the entries and the winner, but don’t get any bright ideas, okay?

There are also some pretty bad author photo cliches:

  • Hand under the chin, at side of forehead or anywhere in vicinity of face. It worked for Oscar Wilde but now looks silly.
  • Manual typewriter in the picture. Who are you kidding?
  • Big shaggy dog to soften image or distract from author.
  • Soft focus. You really want to look all Vasolined like Doris Day?
  • Cigarettes. I think Ian Fleming was the last guy to pull this one off successfully but that didn’t stop photographer Szilvia Molnar from getting a great Twitter feed off the subject “The Man, The Writer, and his Cigarette.” 
  • The vacant stare into space. Jack Kerouac did this a lot but maybe he was writing this line in his head: “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”

Given my bad experience with author photos, I am probably the last person who should be giving you advice on what to do with your own. But I am going to give it a try, based on some research I did and some tips I got from some author friends. First off, there’s the big question: Hire a pro or do-it-yourself?

Hire a professional, if you can. Yeah, it can get expensive. And you don’t always get what you pay for (see my experience above). But you will get a basic level of quality and selection that you won’t get doing it yourself or having your brother take a pic of you with his iPhone. Ask fellow authors for recommendations. I ended up getting a photo done by my late great friend Barbara Parker, who when she wasn’t writing mysteries was a professional photog.

Take your own pic. Yes, it can be done but it’s a giant pain, and there’s a good chance the results will look amateurish. But if it’s all you can afford at first, so be it. Click here for  some good tips I found on line.

Get both black and white and color versions. Or make sure the quality is good enough that you can convert color to gray tone prints. VITAL: The original must be high-resolution. Let’s say you get a gig at a library and they need your mug. If that little image you put on your website can’t be downloaded and blown up for a flyer or poster, you’ve lost out. And if you ever meet my sister Kelly in a bar at a writer’s conference, don’t get her started on the topic of author photos. She does a lot of program books for conferences and has been sent blurry snapshots, high school portraits, and family group shots wherein she has to figure out which one is the writer. One guy just told her to photoshop out the family dog he was holding. This is how the guy appeared in the program book:

Portrait or environment? You can do a simple head and shoulders photo. But you might want to consider a second photo of you in some kind of environment that matches the tone or content of your book(s). And that don’t-do I mentioned about dogs? Well, if you write a series about a dog or maybe a cozy series that suggests a softer tone, including your pet can work for you, make you look accessible to your readers.

Here are two photos of my friend Reed Farrel Coleman. One is a portrait but the second reflects the New York setting of his books.

If you can’t afford a stylist, take along a friend who has a good eye. I am getting ready to put my condo on the market and I hired a professional photographer to come take photos for Zillow, Realtor.com and the MLS listing. He was amazing, right down to repositioning electrical cords and hiding my bath mats. Don’t do less for your own face. You don’t want a plastic plant growing out of your head, your tie askew or lipstick on your teeth. A good photographer should be helpful here but don’t count on it.

Be careful what you wear. Stay away from prints and fussy clothes. Keep your look simple so readers notice your face, not your fashion choices. I don’t care that Dan Brown has sold a zillion books. Someone should have told him dad jeans are ugly.

Don’t over-photoshop. Yes, you can retouch some because even if you look like her, you don’t want to come off like Norma Desmond. But you’re not a super-model so don’t over-do it with erasing wrinkles and taking out that double-chin. You’re trying to sell books not link up on Match.com.

Don’t wear weird jewelry or any variation on lingerie. When Anne Rice was starting out, she was often photographed looking like a cross between Stevie Nicks and Morticia. Now she has this elegant-mystery vibe going in her pics, with black tops, one great necklace, and a smart bob. And even if you write romance, keep the pink and pearls under control until you have published 722 novels like the woman pictured below did. Then, like George R.R. Martin, you can wear whatever you want.

Consider getting a third horizontal format photograph that includes some negative space. Position yourself to one side and leave the rest blank. This negative space can then be used by you or a designer in your website header. You can insert type easily into the photograph. I love this photo below of Walter Mosley, not just because it conveys his personality but also for its negative space. And yes, he’s staring off into space but I don’t care.

And speaking of personality…how much is good and how much is over the top? It depends on you as an author, how good your photographer is, what kind of books you write, and what mood you want to present to the world.  Sometimes, going against what is expected can work wonders. When Kareem Abdul Jabbar began writing books, he didn’t do the standard author head and shoulders VERTICAL shot. Look at this gorgeous horizontal photograph. Look at those hands.

Speaking of hands, I love this photograph below by romance writer Maya Rodale. It’s glamorous and sexy, probably like her books. But notice those wire rim glasses she’s holding…what a nice touch!

And then there is this author photo…

That’s YA author Maggie Steifvater who has some stunning photos on her website. Click here to see more. But oddly, she doesn’t have one photo of herself that you can download, so if someone needs a publicity picture, they have to hit the internet and search for one. Rule No. 2 about author photos: Never make someone who is selling your book work harder than they have to.

So, that’s it. I know, I know…you don’t want to think about this. You have too much on your author plate already and you don’t like having your picture taken anyway. Well, it goes with the turf. You don’t have to get a Annie Liebovitz-quality portrait when you’re just starting out. Just get a good, clear, high-resolution head shot that tells the reader what kind of person you are and what kind of books you write. The rest is gravy.

I will leave you with two final images that should give you hope.

If this guy’s author photo went from this:

To this…

Well, maybe yours can, too.

_________________________________________

P.S. Chuck Wendig just posted the winners of his bad author photo contest. Click here to see them but don’t have a mouthful of coffee when you do.

 

5+

You Know You Want It…
It’s the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards!

By PJ Parrish

You’ve been waiting for it all year with bated breath. Your pulse rises every time you think about it. Some of you, oh faithful TKZ regulars, have even been emailing me begging to know when I was going to post my one annual post you can’t live without.

issue-449-dec-2016-600x800

Yes, friends, just in time for Christmas, wrapped up here in a big blue-language bow, is THE LITERARY REVIEW’S BAD SEX IN FICTION AWARDS!

This is the 24th year the Literary Review has honored an author who has written the most “outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel.” Past winners have included Norman Mailer, David Guterson, and Thomas Wolfe and the nominees pretty much include every big literary name you’ve heard of. I like presenting this every December because, if nothing else, it makes us mere mortal writers understand that when it comes to sex, we’re all human — or, in one case this year, maybe bovine. The award was announced at a lavish ceremony Nov. 30 at the In & Out Club in London. No, I did not make up the name of that club. It is a distinguished private gathering place for members of the British armed forces.

But let’s get on with it, what say?

Here are the finalists first, so we can work ourselves up into a good lather waiting for the winner. And don’t write blaming me for any of this. I’m just the messenger here. I stopped trying to write sex scenes decades ago.

gas

But  a loose ball bearing was his downfall…

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin
As she talked Andret would make gentle, two-fingered tugs all the way around the hem of her dress to expose the lacy parts of her undersuit, like a child pulling candles from the rim of a birthday cake. Then he would begin kissing the frills. This she found beguiling. During sex she would quiet, moving suddenly on top of him like a lion over its prey. Her eyes stayed wide, Andret liked to keep his own closed; but whenever he opened them, there she would be, staring down at him, her black pupils gyroscopically inert. Again: leonine. He couldn’t help thinking that her gaze, even as she bent over him and strained her shoulders like a collared beast, was in fact an indictment.

The act itself was fervent. Like a brisk tennis game or a summer track meet, something performed in daylight between competitors. The cheap mattress bounced. She liked to do it more than once, and he was usually able to comply. Bourbon was his gasoline.

age-of-cigar-box-label-beach-mercuria

Is that a cigar rack in your back or are you just glad to see me?

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

She looked him in the eyes, and, very slowly, brought her face up close to his, and when he felt her breath on his mouth and saw the delicate trembling of her puckered top lip, a shudder of joy passed through him with such force that he would almost certainly have fallen backwards into the cigar rack if Anezka hadn’t caught him at the last moment and pressed him firmly against her body. He closed his eyes and heard himself make a gurgling sound. And as his trousers slipped down his legs all the burdens of his life to date seemed to fall away from him; he tipped back his head and faced up into the darkness beneath the ceiling, and for one blessed moment he felt as if he could understand the things of this world in all their immeasurable beauty. How strange they are, he thought, life and all of these things. Then he felt Anezka slide down before him to the floor, felt her hands grab his naked buttocks and draw him to her. ‘Come, sonny boy!’ he heard her whisper, and with a smile he let go.

sawing-logs-on-the-airport-floor-podolux-flickr

I could have lasted longer if we hadn’t used TSA Pre-Check.

Men Like Air by Tom Connolly
The walkway to the terminal was all carpet, no oxygen. Dilly bundled Finn into the first restroom on offer, locked the cubicle door and pulled at his leather belt. ‘You’re beautiful,’ she told him, going down on to her haunches and unzipping him. He watched her passport rise gradually out of the back pocket of her jeans in time with the rhythmic bobbing of her buttocks as she sucked him. He arched over her back and took hold of the passport before it landed on the pimpled floor. Despite the immediate circumstances, human nature obliged him to take a look at her passport photo.

cows

Cow-A-Bung-Her!

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis
I slide my hands down his back, all along his spine, rutted with bone like mud ridges in a dry field, to the audacious swell below. His finger is inside me, his thumb circling, and I spill like grain from a bucket. He is panting, still running his race. I laugh at the incongruous size of him, sticking to his stomach and escaping from the springing hair below. All the while, we stifle our noise and whisper like a church congregation during the sermon. He pinches my lips when I yelp, I shove my fingers in his mouth when he opens it to howl.

‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.’ He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.

how-to-last-longer-in-bed

Like a virgin, knock-knocking for the very first time

Leave Me by Gayle Forman
Once they were in that room, Jason had slammed the door and devoured her with his mouth, his hands, which were everywhere. As if he were ravenous.

And she remembered standing in front of him, her dress a puddle on the floor, and how she’d started to shake, her knees knocking together, like she was a virgin, like this was the first time. Because had she allowed herself to hope, this was what she would’ve hoped for. And now here it was. And that was terrifying.

Jason had taken her hand and placed it over his bare chest, to his heart, which was pounding wildly, in tandem with hers. She’d thought he was just excited, turned on. It had not occurred to her that he might be terrified, too.

Whew…

And finally, here is our winner, the Italian author Erri De Luca, who has been called by critics “the writer of the decade.” Proving, as the judges said, that even in the wake of Brexit, bad sex knows no borders.

hula

Paradise by the dashboard light

The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca
She looked at me, her eyes wide open, and brought her bloody lips to mine, pushed her mouth inside mine until I could feel it in my throat. My prick was a plank stuck to her stomach. She eased the pressure of the kiss, broke off. With a swerve of her hips, she turned me over and I was on top of her. She unwound her arms from my shoulders and guided my hands to her breasts. Opened her legs, pulled up her dress and, holding my hips over her, pushed my prick against her opening. I was her plaything, which she moved around. Our sexes were ready, poised in expectation, barely touching each other: ballet dancers hovering en pointe.

We stayed like that. Anna looked down at them. She pushed on my hips, an order that thrust me in. I entered her. Not only my prick, but the whole of me entered her, into her guts, into her darkness, eyes wide open, seeing nothing. My whole body had gone inside her. I went in with her thrusts and stayed still. While I got used to the quiet and the pulsing of my blood in my ears and nose, she pushed me out a little, then in again. She did it again and again, holding me with force and moving me to the rhythm of the surf. She wiggled her breasts beneath my hands and intensified the pushing. I went in up to my groin and came out almost entirely. My body was her gearstick.

Happy holidays, TKZers! Good health and good writing to you in the coming new year. Peace out.

7+

First Page Critique:
The Dragon Within

Photo from Game of Thrones

Photo from Game of Thrones

By PJ Parrish

Top of the morning to you all.  I’m prepping to get out of town for turkey day up in Michigan so I am offering up a submission from one of our fellow writers. It’s titled The Dragon Within. Many thanks to our writer-submitter for letting us use his/her story for our learning purposes here. My comments follow, but please weigh in, fellow TKZers, with your input.

The Dragon Within

“Are there dragons in the elven lands?” Matthew whispered, his gaze lingering on the wooden boat carrying their mother’s body towards Illethia.

Shael ignored their eldest brother’s derisive snort. With the tip of her thumb, she wiped a tear off Matthew’s cheek. “I don’t know,” she said. “But Mum’s in the arms of Zy’el now, and He’ll protect her.”

Shael glanced at the tiny group of neighbours and friends who had accompanied them to the beach to bid Joella farewell. She knew each one well, had known them since she was a child, but life had taught her the worse dragons were those posing as friends. She squeezed Matthew’s hand and drew him closer. He was only ten. With Mum’s passing, she had to be both sister and mother to him. And she had to keep him safe.

The boat with the eye of Zy’el painted on its bow, drifted towards the elven lands. Ripples expanded from the vessel and broke up on the sand by Shael’s feet.

The waves did not bring Mum back.

Why had Mum insisted on a traditional sea burial and wanted her remains sent towards Illethia, towards the land of the enemy? The brooding outline of Illethia, a mass of darkness against the early morning orange-grey horizon, was a constant reminder of what had been and what could return to threaten the Inner Lands. Mum’s choice of funeral was bound to give rise to talk. Talk led to questions. Mum had known more than anyone what the elven had done to their family. To Shael. She knew that mere suspicion could get the whole family executed.

Yet Mum had secretly continued to love and respect them, even after it became a crime punishable by death. If only Mum had told her more about the elven. It was too late to ask now. Not that she ever answered Shael’s questions about them.

Shael raised her hand to her headscarf. The wind was picking up, but practice had taught her the best way to tie the scarf tight around her head. The scarf was in place and their secret safe. For now.

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First, a qualifier from me: I am guessing this story falls into the fantasy realm, given the “dragon” reference and what might be a nod to Tolkien’s “Elven lands.”  Full disclosure, this genre is not my main cup of tea. But that shouldn’t matter. A good story is a good story is a good story.  So let’s see if it works on that basis.

I like that the writer opened with a dramatic moment — a funeral that places our protagonist (I assume Shael is such) at the brink of a life-changing conjuncture. We get the sense that Shael is facing two challenges: the new responsibility of raising her young brother and that her mother, for unknown reasons, has left her in a fix by conspiring with the enemy elven. (at least I think that’s what’s going on here…more on that in a moment.)

I also like that the writer is using “dragons” on two levels.  Dragons are a real threat in the mind of the boy (he asks, do they even exist?). Dragons are also a metaphoric threat to Shael, who sees her neighbors as dangerous if they learn the truth about Mum. And there is even a richer, possible third meaning to “dragon.” More on that later..

But all of this is a bit cloudy in the telling. I am not totally certain of what is going on in this critical opening scene and I need to be.  The narrative tells me this:

Why had Mum insisted on a traditional sea burial and wanted her remains sent towards Illethia, towards the land of the enemy? The brooding outline of Illethia, a mass of darkness against the early morning orange-grey horizon, was a constant reminder of what had been and what could return to threaten the Inner Lands. Mum’s choice of funeral was bound to give rise to talk. Talk led to questions. Mum had known more than anyone what the elven had done to their family. To Shael. She knew that mere suspicion could get the whole family executed.

Yet Mum had secretly continued to love and respect them, even after it became a crime punishable by death. If only Mum had told her more about the elven. It was too late to ask now. Not that she ever answered Shael’s questions about them.

I am left to guess that this “viking” burial at sea is not usual, especially since the boat is apparently being cast off toward the enemy land across the bay. Why would Mum want this when apparently it was a betrayal of some kind since the elven had harmed Shael and the family at one time.  And Mum had apparently “secretly” loved the elven, even though it was a crime. This is all fine and good for establishing a sense of intrigue and potential conflict but I wish the writer wouldn’t be so obtuse in the telling.  We need a little more context and less confusion here.  Maybe this is just because I am not “versed” in fantasy, but don’t we need to know what the elven are? Is this a tribe? A different race? An adjective for elf? If the last one, are Shael and her ilk human? Those of you who are big fantasy readers out there please comment and let me know if I am just being dense here.

Another point: When you are creating an un-real world (heck even a real one!) you have to give us the context of setting. Outside of one image of what Illethia looks like across the water, I don’t know where the heck I am — or what era we are in. What does this place look like? What are the people wearing (one head scarf reference, that for a moment, sent me careening into the mid-east). Please don’t neglect your setting.  I call this the coma-victim-syndrome: Where am I? Who are these strange people? What year it is? Who am I? Which begs the important point…

I need a few more hints about our protagonist. How old is she? Can you drop some clues in that give us a picture? Also, we could use some more emotion from her. I don’t get a sense of what kind of person she is.

Before I go into my line edits, one last word on names. What you call your characters is so very important, as proper names help ground the reader in the world you are creating. If this protag were named Jackie Gilmore, well, we know we’re not in Elven land. So this writer, by choosing the odd names, signposts that we are in fantasy-land. That’s good! But I got hung up on the fact that both Matthew and Shael are Hebrew names. And “Mum” is straight out of England’s Cotwolds. Then we get the land names: Zy’el, which sort of sounds Hebrew or maybe sci-fi, and Illethia, which is also the name of a video game warlord.  Here’s my take on this: When you are conjuring up un-real worlds, when you are working in sci-fi or fantasy, you must be doubly cautious about your naming. You need to have a consistency in tone that acts as a bridge for the reader when he ventures from the real world to your un-real one.  These names sound a bit too magpie-picked to me.

Let’s go to the line edits…

“Are there dragons in the elven lands?” Matthew whispered, his gaze lingering on the wooden boat carrying their mother’s body towards Illethia. Yes, you can open your story with a quote and this one is pretty darn good — there be dragons! — because it works on several levels. But I think it is diluted in its impact by attaching that phrase afterward and by using the confusing elven reference too soon.  How about this:

“Are there dragons out there?”

Shael looked down to the source of the tiny voice, down to her brother Matthew standing at her side. He wasn’t looking at her. He was watching the small wooden boat drift away from shore, the boat that held the body of their mother.

She reached down and wiped a tear off Matthew’s cheek. “I don’t know,” she said. “But mother’s in the arms of Zy’el now. He will protect her.”

But even as she said it, Shael feared it wasn’t true. Through the orange-gray morning mist, she could just make out the brooding outline of Illethia across the bay. The boat bearing her mother’s body was heading toward the land of their enemies. And that was the way their mother had planned. It had been her last wish.

I think a down-and-dirty summary of the central conflict needs to be stated quickly and up high. Then you can move on and flesh in some details. Moving on…

Shael ignored their eldest brother’s derisive snort. I find the insertion of this other brother intrusive in the nice moment between Shael and Matt. Bring him in later. With the tip of her thumb, she wiped a tear off Matthew’s cheek. “I don’t know,” she said. “But Mum’s in the arms of Zy’el now, and He’ll protect her.”

Shael glanced at the tiny group of neighbours and friends who had accompanied them to the beach to bid Joella farewell. She knew each one well, had known them since she was a child, but this line about neighors being dragons it important. Set it off in its own sentence! She had known them since she was a child. But life had taught her that the real dragons were those posing as friends. life had taught her the worse dragons were those posing as friends. She squeezed Matthew’s hand and drew him closer. He was only ten. With Mum’s passing, she had to be both sister and mother to him. And she had to keep him safe.

The boat with the eye of Zy’el painted on its bow, drifted towards the elven lands. Ripples expanded from the vessel and broke up on the sand by Shael’s feet. Here’s a place to drop in a hint about setting and culture: Is she wearing sandals, fur winter boots, barefoot?  The waves did not bring Mum back. Nice ripple image above but what does this line mean? Of course they can’t. Turn it around maybe, and say, the waves were pushing mother ever farther away?  And maybe that can work as a segue to Shael’s next thought — that maybe something else, an even stronger force, had been pushing her mother away long before now? Pushing her away from even Shael? Make your imagery mean something!

And we really need something to break up the backstory it’s-all-in-her-head narrative section that comes next. Show me this, don’t tell me. How about having one of people in the crowd come up and say something to Shael about this odd funeral? That could more gracefully illicit her thoughts. How about…

An old man came up to stand next to them. Matthew backed away but Shael held her ground. 

“Why did she do this?” the old man muttered.

Shael tensed. There was no way he could know what mother had done, how she had really loved the Elven. But the anger in the old man’s eyes was real.

“Why did your mother insist on this old sea burial?” the old man pressed.

Then go into Shael thoughts about it.  Find a way to break up the backstory. And slowly build the tension in it. Maybe she gives a vague answer to the old man and then she can try to analyze this situation in her head. Mother knew this ritual funeral would make people talk. People had always been suspicious of her anyway. And maybe hint that Shael herself might harbor some suspicions about her dead mother like, why would she do this, why would she love the enemy, even after what it did to our family. Even after what it did to ME.  Again, by setting that ME on its own, you give Shael’s personal conflict weight.  You must make the story be about your protag’s journey, whether it is back to Illethia to fight the enemy, or find out the truth about her mother. WHAT DOES SHAEL WANT? At a superficial level, to protect her family. But what about the deeper levels — why did mother betray me and love the enemy that hurt me? 

Why had Mum insisted on a traditional sea burial and wanted her remains sent towards Illethia, towards the land of the enemy? The brooding outline of Illethia, a mass of darkness against the early morning orange-grey horizon, Lovely image here but what is lacking? We have no sense of what our surroundings look like. Are we in a fjord? English countryside? It is summer? How about the people dressed? We have no sense of setting at all here, alas, and I sense this is an interesting place geographically. was a constant reminder of what had been and what could return to threaten the Inner Lands. Is this the name of her country? Mum’s choice of funeral was bound to give rise to talk. Talk led to questions. Do more with this? Questions about the past? Mum had known more than anyone what the elven had done to their family. To Shael. She knew that mere suspicion could get the whole family executed.  This is very important and you need to set this apart so we understand it.  In newspaper talk, this is called burying your lead. When you are listing a litany of ills like this, put your most important one, the one that impacts your protag most, LAST.  Try this…

The people in the town, the people Shael had known all her life, they had only suspicions about what had happened. But Mother knew. She knew what the elven had done. She knew what the elven had done to their family.

Shael looked out at the water, to the boat that was now just a small dark smudge in the mist.

Mother knew what they did to me.  

Yet Mum had secretly continued to love and respect the Elven, even after it became a crime punishable by death. If only Mum had told her more about the elven. It was too late to ask now. Not that she ever answered Shael’s questions about them. Again, you are being a tad too obtuse about this central important conflict between mother and daughter. Ask yourself: What is my story about?  I suspect, at its heart, it is about family secrets and how a daughter comes to grips with something bad her mother did. Great stuff!

Shael raised her hand to her headscarf. The wind was picking up, but practice had taught her the best way to tie the scarf tight around her head. The scarf was in place and their secret safe. For now.  I’m not sure what this means. The simple act of tying a scarf tight keeps a lid on things? The metaphor is a bit too spot-on.  Find a way to SHOW me this thought, rather than tell me.  Maybe it works better if the scarf flies away? And maybe that draws a reaction from the old man or crowd?  Make things happen in your narrative that illuminate the interior actions (thoughts and backstory). 

Well, that’s it. In summary, brave writer, I like where you are going with this. I love that you open with a funeral that sets up the conflict. But I sense that you might not yet know your protagonist well enough YET to articulate what she wants, what her essential inner struggle and journey will be.  As James always asks, what will be her “woman in the mirror” moment deep in your book? What will she face that will change her in some fundamental way? What is your story about? It’s not about war between Illethia and the Inner Lands. It’s not even about a young woman protecting her family. It’s about something deep inside the woman herself.  Find that truth and you will find your story’s heart. It’s never about the action; it is about character. It is always about the DRAGON WITHIN.

Thanks for submitting and keep moving onward!

 

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