About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

First Page Critique ‘The False Curtain’:
Alone Again…Unnaturally

By PJ Parrish

Why is January feeling like it’s lasting forever? And I don’t even have to deal with snow.  I just wanted to get that off my chest. Now, let’s have some fun and read a First Pager.  Thank you, dear submitting writer, for giving me some diversion this week as I fill out the scary questionaire in preparation for possible grand jury duty next week. If you don’t see me for a couple months, send out the search party to the Tallahassee courthouse.

THE FALSE CURTAIN

A suspense novel

The small, windowless room felt more like a place for an interrogation than a meeting.

Although two plastic chairs sat side-by-side in the middle, I stood. Actually, I paced. It’s what I do whenever I’m uneasy. Mimi had said there was nothing to be nervous about. My appointment with Mr. Smith, the man she owed money to, should be simple and quick.

Finally I heard the doorknob turn. I watched as the door opened. It took a moment for me to realize who stood in the doorway.

I had no idea Mimi’s Mr. Smith was Davey Smith. I never would have put the two together.

I recognized Davey only because I saw him at our 25th high school reunion last year. Back in the day he’d been the quiet, studious kid who tutored math dummies, like me. Someone said he’d done well for himself and he looked it. Seeing him again—now—totally surprised me. He showed no indication of feeling the same.

He took a couple steps forward, stopping just inches away. He cupped my face with both hands and tilted it upward. I watched his face come close. His kiss was soft and persuasive.

After releasing me, he said, “Good to see you again, Lindsey. Sorry we didn’t get to talk at the reunion.”

“Davey, I—”

“I prefer my friends call me David.”

“David. I—.”

“…and my business associates call me Mr. Smith. I haven’t decided which category you’ll be in.” He smiled, just a little, then abruptly turned and walked to the door. “About that kiss. Don’t take it too seriously. You still have to do everything I say. If you don’t, you won’t like what happens to your cousin. You also won’t like what will happen to you.” With that, he left.

I stared at the closed door, stunned.

Davey was no longer the sweet boy I knew in high school.

His attitude….

His threats….

I wanted to start pacing again, but I was too scared to move.

***

After a while, I sat. I don’t know how much time passed because I didn’t have my purse or phone. A man had taken them before I was shown into the room. That was my first clue the meeting wasn’t going to be simple or quick.

My meeting with Mr. Smith was supposed to be a discussion of how I could pay back Mimi’s debt—

________________________

I’m back. Well, what do we think? I think there’s some good stuff here that, with a little tweaking, could be the beginnings of what the writer subtitles “A suspense novel.” (Which I think is superfluous, by the way. Your back copy can carry that load for a potential reader. But that’s a nit.)

What’s good here: We’re picking up the story in a good active moment — a somewhat mysterious meeting that has the protag on edge. There is just enough backstory hints to ground us but no info dumps. I like the way the writer told us who Mimi is — not through a narrative tag (“My cousin Mimi had told me…”) but letting the relationship emerge through dialogue a couple beats later. Smoothly done.  I think the dialogue itself is handled cleanly and reads as believable. David’s kiss is a big creepy surprise, especially when he backs it up with a threat. (More on that in a sec). So, all in all, not a bad opening at all. I would read on.

But…

And this is a caveat I often give. When the writing is solid, I want it to be better. Because good isn’t good enough in today’s market. When you’re as close as this submission is, you need to push yourself even harder to make your story stand out  from the madding crowd.

I try not to rethink a writer’s approach or question their style. But here’s a few suggestions, just one reader’s perspective.

The opening line isn’t bad. But it’s a good example of telling instead of showing. I think you could use a few more choice details to SHOW us this room rather than TELL us it “felt more like a place for an interrogation than a meeting.”

Windowless, small, plastic chairs is not enough, imo. Use description to enhance the MOOD, the apprehension she feels. You won’t lose your momentum by slowing down just a little. How big is this room, exactly? (Calling a room small is like calling a man handsome — It has no currency in our imaginations). What’s the lighting — glaring fluorescent with maybe one bulb giving off that annoying buzzing just before it dies? Industrial carpeting with an odd stain? What color are the walls? Does it smell? It also might not be a bad idea to hint somewhere where we are exactly. Your description is so spare we could be in anything from downtown Houston skyscraper to an anteroom in a airplane hangar meth lab. Make your description make us FEEL something.

Ditto when you get to Davey/David. I like this line: “Someone said he’d done well for himself and he looked it.” But again, that’s telling instead of showing. Does this mean he has money? Is he wearing a Brioni suit and silk tie? Again, you’re missing an opportunity to not only ground your reader in detail but to reveal something about your protagonist by filtering description through her PERCEPTIONS and BACKGROUND. You can tell us a lot about your protag (and help us bond with her) at the same time you tell us something about David. Don’t let these opportunities go by.

Because…right now Lindsey is sort of a cipher. Granted, it is hard for you the writer to give us a sense of her physically when you’re in the first person. But a simple line like “I watched his face come close” gives you a chance to add detail — a small shaving nick on his chin? The smell of clove after-shave? Are his hands, cupping her face, rough or smooth?

One thing that kind of doesn’t make sense. She seems to be surprised by his appearance (ie, the line, someone had said he had made good for himself…). But she saw him herself just a year ago at a reunion. So she would already know he was successful and/or handsome? People at reunions talk about who made it, who failed, who died, etc. You say they didn’t talk at the reunion but did she see him from afar? You say he is NOT surprised to see her. You need to reconcile this.

The kiss is interesting. But the fact she has no reaction or thought (other than saying it was “soft and persuasive”) struck me as odd. Unless these two have a romantic past, it comes across as somewhat unrealistic and weirdly submissive on her part. What is “persuasive” about it? It made me flash back to the dynamic between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Ickiness. Lindsey is, given the 25th reunion time line, about 43 years old and there on some kind of financial mission (ex math dummie or not). Do you really want to paint her as so passive?

That passivity is echoed, too, in these lines after David leaves:

Davey was no longer the sweet boy I knew in high school.

His attitude….

His threats….

I wanted to start pacing again, but I was too scared to move.

The guy just planted a predatory kiss on her, threatened her and her cousin, and left the room with nothing resolved. And this is all she feels and thinks? Now, maybe this is a calculated character arc for Lindsey on your part. Mousy CPA encounters a mystery man from her past and she eventually grows and rises to some challenge? (You titled this a suspense novel, not a romance).  But Lindsey, in this opening at least, doesn’t strike me as a woman who will take her destiny into her own hands. She recalls all the tropes of a bad 1950s bodice ripper).

Which leads me to the last paragraph. (By the way, you don’t need the * * * designation. It is used only when you have a legitimate scene break, not when you don’t know how to transition from one moment in your story to another)

After a while, I sat. I don’t know how much time passed because I didn’t have my purse or phone. A man had taken them before I was shown into the room. That was my first clue the meeting wasn’t going to be simple or quick.

Why did she just sit there? Again, this is passive and not very interesting. And the fact that someone took her phone and purse when she came in should have been in the first graph — it ups the stakes immediately. But unless you set this up better, it isn’t believable. Maybe if you had described this place better in her thoughts — that when she entered the building, she went through a metal detector or given us details about the circumstances of surrendering her purse and phone, I might buy it. But again, she does this without question or even a thought — which makes her passive and almost juvenile.

So, there we are, alone in a windowless room, with a faceless protagonist. Where does Lindsey — and this story — go from here? As I said, I think this set-up has potential and the writer has a decent grasp of craft.  But it doesn’t read real and it feels unnatural, like the weird kiss and threat came out of nowhere, not organically from the situation. Also, we need some flesh on these bones. Create a mood. Give us some details to fire up our imaginations. And most important, give us good reason to want to follow Lindsey for 300 suspenseful pages.

Thank you, dear writer, for letting us see your work. I hope you find this one person’s opinion this helpful. And others here, as always, might have different takes. What say you all?

5+

Eight Ways To Help You
Be A Smarter Writer in 2020

By PJ Parrish

I don’t do resolutions. Well, that’s not completely true. I did make one this year — to read everyday, even if for only a half hour, and only from real tree books.

But maybe you guys, as members of the tortured writers club, do try to start with a clean slate come the new year. You know, the usual stuff like make a daily word quota; write every day no matter what; stop wasting time on Facebook; get a short story published in Ellery Queen.

It’s human to want to try harder. But sometimes, setting new year writing goals can be defeating.  Because the first time you break the resolution, you break out the self-flagellation whip. Believe me, I know.  Which is why I don’t make resolutions about my writing life.

But…

The other day, I read a story called 8 Ways To Help You Live Smarter in 2020. It was in the New York Times business section and was a compilation of tips for business types. What was odd was how each of the eight ideas seemed to be relate-able to our lives as fiction writers.  The italics are from the Times story, followed by my thoughts. Here we go…

1. Find more happiness at work

As many as a third of United States workers say they don’t feel engaged at work. The reasons vary widely, and everyone’s relationship with work is unique. But there are small ways to improve any job, and those incremental improvements can add up to major increases in job satisfaction.

Well, all writers need to heed this one. I read this as don’t let writing become a chore. Approach it with the anticipation of success. That’s not Pollyanna speaking. That’s me telling myself to give in to the simple joy of putting words on paper. Maybe I should make writer resolutions…

2. Use your strengths more wisely

In the past two decades, a movement to play to our strengths has gained momentum in the world of work. It’s a travesty that many people are fixated solely on repairing their weaknesses and don’t have the chance to do what they do best every day. But it’s a problem that many people aren’t thoughtful about when to do what they do best.

How should we relate to this? Every writer has different strengths. Some of us are great plotters; others are great at character development. Some of us revel in historical research; others love the spareness of noir. What do you love to read? Chances are, it might be what your heart wants to write. Don’t write for what you think the market wants. Write what you need to write. Trust that genuinely felt and richly imagined fiction finds an audience.

3. Track — and learn from — your failures

When things go right, we’re generally pretty good at identifying why they went right — that is, if we even take time to analyze the success at all. But falling on our face gives us the rare opportunity to find and address the things that went wrong (or, even more broadly, the traits or habits that led us to fail), and it’s an opportunity we should welcome.

This doesn’t mean to dwell on your failures. It means find the lesson in the rejection letter, the hard critique, even the realization that the story you are working so hard on maybe isn’t good enough. I was dropped by two publishers, got more rejection letters than I can count, and was savaged by a  Kirkus reviewer for my debut novel. Boo hoo. Did I curl up and die? Yeah, for a couple weeks. But each time, I looked for something to help me grow. And the mean Kirkus guy? Well, he was an ass but he was right.

4. Avoid drama

Gossip at work is common, as is the desire to be a part of a group. In a new work environment, this combination can be harmful if you fall in with colleagues who are known for being negative and wasting productive time.

The world of crime writers is small. Don’t sit at the bar at Thrillerfest and bitch about what an washed-up idiot so-and-so is.  Don’t moan and groan about how the traditional publishing world is an evil cabal bent on blackballing you. Don’t wine and whine. And don’t burn any bridges. That editor who rejected you may end up at a new house and become your champion. And if you become a success, extend your hand down the ladder.

5.  Be smarter about asking for advice

It’s a request that experienced people of any industry have gotten: “Can I buy you coffee and pick your brain?” While well-intentioned, execution is everything, and sometimes these unsolicited requests for a casual, informational interviews can come off as entitled and presumptuous. And for the receiver, it can be difficult or even unrealistic for a busy professional to coordinate bespoke consultation appointments for everyone who asks.

Well, what’s our take-away here? Yes, seek out advice from those who can help you. If you go to a writer’s conference, don’t be afraid to talk to published writers and editors. It’s expected. But don’t be noodge. Don’t try to slip your manuscript under the bathroom stall door to an editor. (I actually saw this happen at SleuthFest one year).

 6. Let a friend’s success motivate you

It’s a common situation: a friend’s career is advancing while you’re stuck in what feels like an endless loop of 9 to 5 roadblocks. While it’s easy to grow jealous, you can harness that monster to propel you toward your elusive goal.

We’ve all said it — or thought it: How did that hack get published let alone make the Times list? Okay, go green for a minute but don’t let yourself marinate in envy.  It just makes you feel small and petty. And never do it in public. You’ll look like a fool. (See No. 4)

7. Have kind words for a bad idea

There are ways to turn down someone’s suggestion without being totally brutal. Ask a few questions like “What makes you think this is a good idea?” Applaud the effort. Say why — there’s a big difference between “I don’t like this” and “I don’t like this because…” Pitch an alternative. Have an idea of your own and be prepared to explain why it’s better.

This is for those of us who are in critique groups. It’s easy to tear something apart. But have some tact. Always be constructive. This is something I had to learn to do in my own group and even here with our First Page Critiques.

8. Keep cool while waiting for a response.

After obsessively rewriting an email in draft mode, polishing your resume, or tweaking a pitch, you finally hit send.  But then you’re frantically checking for a reply. Slamming the refresh button all day won’t bring desired results. Pick a replacement behavior to wean you from anxiety. Interrupt your worry spiral — go to the movies or grab a drink with a friend. Hang with select friends. Two people venting ad nauseam about shared stress is called “co-rumination.” Make an effort to lean on friends who won’t drag you into a joint state of panic.

We all need to adapt this to the writing life. Don’t send out one query and sit there refreshing your in-box. Getting a editor response takes weeks; some never respond at all. Don’t wait for an answer from the first one you ask to the prom. Send out as many queries as you can. And that advice about stewing in anxiety soup with like-minded writer friends?  Don’t do it. Stay away from black holes when you’re feeling vulnerable. Find some sunshine.

And a bonus extra 8: Beat those Sunday Scaries

As Maroon 5 famously crooned, “Sunday morning, rain is falling, steal some covers, share some skin.” You look out and realize Monday is just around the corner. The ensuing anxiety is called “Sunday scaries.” Plan an enjoyable (offline) activity like taking a walk or reading a good book. Leave the phone at home. Staying mindful about what’s happening around you will distract you from anxious thoughts about tomorrow. This will help you regain control of your worries and look forward to conquering the week rather than fearing it.

I haven’t had a 9 to 5 job for a while now, but I remember this feeling vividly. Sunday night sweats as I anticipated the horrors of what awaited me at the office in the morning. Part of the sweat came from the fact that, toward the end I was in management and I hated my job.  But I think there is a good lesson for writers in this: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.  Writing a book can be frustrating, lonely, terrifying, maddening. You have to schedule time away from the computer to refresh your spirit. Walking works for me. And when I’m really aggravated about the work in non-progress, I head to the pickleball court and bang the hell out of the whiffle ball for hours. Stop and look at the clouds. Take up the ukulele.  Empty your mind. So there’s room for the plot to run and the characters to start talking to you again.

Live — and write — smarter in 2020, crime dogs.

 

9+

Kids, Don’t Try This At Home:
Some Really Awful Opening Lines

By PJ Parrish

It is a dark and stormy night.  Really.  The wind is wailing against the window panes as I write this.  No snow down here in Tallahassee, but we’re getting the rear end of the big winter storm that is pounding across the country.

I’d say this is as good a time as any to talk about some really really really bad opening paragraphs.  Plus, the holidays are upon us and I have to go to fight the huns and visigoths at the mall soon, and don’t have a lot of time and energy to give you any good craft advice tonight.  My brain is fried.  I’ll bet yours is as well. So…

My last post of 2019 is devoted to one of my favorite writing contests — the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest! It’s held every year by the English Department of San Jose State University. Entrants are invited “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”  The contest is named after the esteemed English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Here’s the opening of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Man, it just doesn’t get any better than that.  Although many writers, since 1982, have been inspired to try. The contest honors bad openings in all genres — click here to read them all. Here’s this year’s Grand Prize winner.  I’m not sure what the genre is, but I think the world is coming to an end.

Space Fleet Commander Brad Brad sat in silence, surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, maintaining the same forlorn frown that had been fixed upon his face since he’d accidentally destroyed the phenomenon known as time, thirteen inches ago. — Maxwell Archer, Mt Pleasant, Ontario, Canada

And since I am sucker for a pun, here’s the Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award:

Emile Zola wandered the dank and soggy streets of a gloomy Parisian night, the injustice of the Dreyfus affair weighing on him like a thousand baguettes, dreaming of some massage or therapy to relieve the tension and pain in his aching shoulders and back, and then suddenly he thought of his Italian friends and their newly invented warm water bath with air jets and he rapturously exclaimed that oft misquoted declaration — “Jacuzzi!” — Robert R Moore, North Falmouth, MA

Geez, I wish I had written that. Here’s the winner in Romance:

The villa in Tuscany is abandoned now, and nature, in the form of invasive vegetation, is reclaiming the small vineyard where Rodolfo and Susannah made love each afternoon, beginning with the creeping Coccinia virginiana, followed by the woody Polemonium gloriosa, and ending, of course, with the drooping Glandularia vulgaris. — Bob Pellicone, Lincroft, NJ

Wasn’t this made into a chick-flick starring Diane Lane and that really hot Italian guy? But I’ve saved the best for last.  Here are the winner and runners-up from the Crime/Detective category. I’ve also added some critiques after each because, as we all know, we can learn a lot from awful writing. Read on, crime dogs, and for the moment at least, feel a million times better about your own work in progress. I know I do.

Realising that his symptoms indicated a virtually undetectable, fast acting neurotoxin, CIA coroner Quinn Abner frantically wrote up the details, lay on the floor and, as a professional courtesy, did his best to draw a chalk outline of himself. Jeremy Das, Loughborough, England.

What’s wrong here? Well, we all know better than to start a novel out with a gerund phrase, right? Tsk, tsk…

 

Olivia followed her breasts into my office where I was studying the dead flies on the window sill and dropped a large brown envelope on my desk, which rearranged the dust as it came to rest next to my right elbow, causing me to lose interest in the flies as I watched her walk away, watched carefully while wondering if the motion of her hips could bring a dead man back to life, which led to wondering what she could do to a man who was still alive. —  Will Dennehy, Cambridge, MD

Oh no, no, no…not another dame walks into the pebbled-glass detective office! This is a cliche, of course. Don’t let this happen to you. (Fred MacMurray could have used that advice).

As he pounded on the door, Billy ‘Four-Toes’ Capalone, wondered, not for the first time, if he wouldn’t have been better off in the joint, or even taking a concrete nap, but instead, he straightened his tie and gripped his bible, determined not to blow his cover in the Jehovah’s Witness Protection Program. — Arlen Feldman, Colorado Springs, CO

How many times has James told us not to open with a character wondering? Egads…

Eyes bleary from yet another night of fruitlessly staking out the Ritz Motel in West Hollywood’s seedier quarter, hoping to get some usable dirt on Mrs. Hennigan’s wayward hubby Bill, Niles Cranworth, P.I., pushed the start button, cranked the wheel over, and pointed his well-traveled Chrysler 300 southward on La Cienega Boulevard (“La Cienega,” he noted with irony, being Spanish for “the cienega”). — Andrew Lundberg, Los Angeles, CA

Well, at least we know where we are in this opening. But I think the writer’s research is showing.

Detective Wilhelm Schmidt’s raspy voice poured through the telephone receiver like a dump truck of gravel unburdening its load—much like the trucks that worked around the clock at Rohrer’s Quarry off of 1-81, transporting payloads of lime, sandstone, crushed rock, and gypsum—though with Detective Schmidt’s heavy German accent, excavation on its own would not suffice, and a second, albeit entirely different industry would need to be invoked to really paint a crystal clear picture of his voice. — Cody Hanna, Lancaster, PA

There’s nothing worse than a writer in love with the sound of his own metaphor.

Prisoner #4420991 selected two large snow cones for his pre-execution last meal, much to everyone’s surprise, but #4420991 knew that death by lethal injection would come as sweet relief when balanced against the snow cone headache he expected to have. — Greg Homer, Diamond Springs, CA

Don’t ya hate it when the bad guy doesn’t have a name?

 

“I remember the moon had a face like Hannibal Lecter and that the wind blowing through the trees reminded me of the music from Psycho,” stated Effie Laudermilk as she sat in the courtroom stand on trial for the murder (which she vehemently denied) of her boyfriend whose partially eaten body was found in his car at the bottom of a pond. –Randy Blanton, Murfreesboro, TN

You know, I sorta kinda like this one. Peace out to all our friends here at the Kill Zone.  An end-of-the-year tip of the hat to all of you who comment on our posts. May all your book ideas be merry and bright, and all your pages not white. (ie blank). And a big shout-out to all our First Page Critique writers. Yoose guys rock. See you next year.

7+

First Page Critique: A Storm Is
Coming Or Is It A Space Ship?

By PJ Parrish

Well, I’m not sure exactly where we are today with today’s submission, but I will say I liked reading this one.  Which is why I’m going to be kinda tough on you, brave writer. Thanks for submitting your work.

(1)The Arrival

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships but not seeing any.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. “Catherine,” he whispered. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed it, making her knuckles white. She started to speak but had trouble. She moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime. Where’s Ruben?”

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. But we can’t wait around. The sounds are getting closer. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.” He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached.

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light and hear booms. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies. That’s where they headed.

____________________

I liked this opening. We are getting into the scene in mid-action, even though the two characters are just awakening. I don’t mind that, because they have obviously, from the description, been through something bad.  I like the unanswered questions of this opening — what happened last night? Why are they in such bad shape? (his injuries, her tattered silk blouse — and the little detail that it is silk is intriguing in itself given their barren surroundings.) What happened to Ruben? Are these two good guys or bad guys? This makes me want to read on.

Here’s what the writer didn’t do that also makes this work for me:  The guy wakes up and we don’t get a bunch of thoughts, musings, rememberings and god forbid, backstory.  The writer immediately gets us into some action. I trust the writer will explain as this chapter progresses what happened and how Billy Watson feels about it.

I don’t yet know exactly where we are, but I get the feeling of desolation. I also trust the writer will soon pinpoint the location. I get the sense that we are in some sort of apocalyptic time, possibly in future, since Watson looks to the sky to see if “ships” are there. I tripped over this sentence in my first quick read, thinking what the heck are ships doing in a desert? But then I got it.  While I like the spareness of the writing, I could use a few other descriptive details to ground me in where we are and what time era. All I can see in my reader’s imagination is sand, a storm-imminent dawn sky, and a rusted car.  One or two more choice details might go a long way here to upping the tension and intrigue.  Give me some hints!

One suggestion: Right now, we are getting the point of view mainly through Billy but with a semi-drift into Catherine.  I think it might be stronger we stayed firmly with Billy. A reader wants to connect with a main character as quickly as possible, and although Catherine may turn out to be just as important, it would help you establish rapport if you began more stronger with Billy.

Let’s go to some line editing so I can show you how.  And address a few minor quibbles.

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. You are in omniscient POV here. This could be stronger if you can filter this moment only through Billy’s sensibility. It’s hard to make someone awakening FEEL real but if you can do it, it can be more powerful. Ask yourself, what is the first thing Billy is aware of?  A brightness that makes him squint (the sun coming up); the stiffness of his body? A smell? Make us feel this moment. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. Same issue here. This could be stronger! A sudden rush of cold-warm-hot? air on his face and the feel of grit in his eyes and mouth. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships.  but not seeing any. He let out a long breath. No ships. It was just thunder. Make us feel his fear and/or trepidation more. But see my comments below about my confusion over what these “sounds” and “booms” are.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. To make this feel more in Bily’s POV, I would not give her full name here.  He wouldn’t be thinking “Catherine Belling.”  Something like: He looked over at the woman slouched in the passenger seat. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. He shook her gently.

New graph is good when you move to a new character. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. Give her a quick line or reaction. Is she scared-jumpy? I might even move up the whole bit with her knife. Also, action-reaction for your characters must be logical. If she is jumpy, her first reaction after someone touches her as she comes out of a fitful sleep might be to pull her knife. And Billy can calm her and then tell her they have to get moving.  That strikes me as more human. It also gives her a more logical reason to pull the knife.  

“Catherine,” he whispered. said. No need for whispers since it’s the two of them alone in a desert. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath on her belt?. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed the hunting knife, her knuckles turning white. She started to speak but had trouble and ran her tongue over her cracked lips. moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime.More details and more visceral.

Where’s Ruben?” she said.

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. Obviously, he’s not back yet. This is a pretty dramatic point. Might she not react? Or say something?

But We can’t wait for him around,” he said. “The sounds are getting closer.” Confusion here. Above, you have him thinking the sounds are “just thunder.” Apparently the “sounds” concern him. Why? We need this clarified. Which doesn’t mean you have to spill all the beans but maybe somewhere in this brief scene he hears another sound that he KNOWS is not just thunder and that elicits this remark. Otherwise it makes no sense. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.”

I would have Catherine put her knife away here, not later. Make this gesture mean something. Is she discouraged? Resigned? Frightened for Ruben? Maybe Billy thinks about her having the knife. The contrast between silk blouse and hunting knife is delicious. Make it work! Make every line of dialogue and every gesture AMPLIFY and ENHANCE your plot and mood.

He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached. What did he start to do exactly? Be specific. How about if he tries to open his door and can’t. Make it mean something to what you’re setting up here. Have it relate to their dire situation. What happened last night to make him so sore he can’t move?  And the phrase “every muscle ached” is meh writing. You can do better. Make us FEEL something of this man’s pain — physical and psychological. 

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open. I’d have her come around and yank his door open. And make it mean something. Is Billy wounded? It gives her a chance to develop some personality.  Maybe you can even have Billy think something about here, which also gives you a chance to drop in her full name.  ie:  Billy flashed back to two nights ago, at the party. When Catherine Belling walked in a room, she always got stares. But that night, dressed in that white silk blouse and red pants, even he couldn’t look away.  That’s corny, but you see where I am trying to go with it?  An effective tool in fiction is compare and contrast.  If you can drop hints at what it was like BEFORE this moment (why do you have Catherine in silk otherwise?) then it can be an effective contrast to the arid and dire position they are in now.  Don’t dwell in backstory, but a brief well-rendered thought can be powerful.  It can also hint at the relationship between these two.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they Billy could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light you’re a good writer so this can be better and hear booms. Again, this “booms” is meaningless. Billy probably knows exactly what this is, since he knows about “the ships.” I think you’re being a little to obtuse here. A few choice details about what they have escaped from will go along way toward heightening your tension. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south the sky was a blinding blue. there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies.

That’s where they headed.  I might put this in dialogue for Billy. But see caveat below.

Your description of the sky is a metaphor. Therefore, I would stay with north and south in that reference above because it’s clean and simple and is symbolic of the past (dark clouds, orange light and booms) and the future (blue skies.)  But be aware that clouds (bad past) and blue skies (good future) is a cliche. As the old saying goes, if you’re gonna use weather, make it mean something. Remember the end of “The Terminator” when Linda Hamilton is sitting in the jeep at the desert gas station and she looks ahead to the roiling storm clouds . A kid tells her in Spanish that a storm is coming. She says, with a heavy dollop of James Cameron portention, “I know.”  The weather must stand for something.   

So, all and all, a pretty good beginning. Which is why I’m being a little tough with you, dear writer, and asking you to stretch even harder. As I said, every line of dialogue, every action, every word of description you choose, must have a reason for being there.  Make every line you write more “muscular.” Make it work harder. You can do it. The story is worth it.

5+

On Writing Fears, Blue Titles,
And Why 6-Figure Advances
Are Bad For Your Health

By PJ Parrish

When you read this, I’ll be somewhere over the midwest, 42,000 feet up, making the annual trek back to Tallahassee, and not a moment too soon since it’s snowing in Michigan now. So I don’t have any wise words from my own brain this week since it’s been hectic.   Plus, I sprained two fingers on my right hand on a DIY project that should have been left to professionals. Kids don’t do this at home. Keyboarding with fingers the size and color of concord grapes is hard. Don’t know how you index-finger hunt-and-pecking writers do it.

So, here’s some good stuff I found this week, by writers about writers or writing. It runs the gamut from an cautionary tale from a novice writer who got two (count ’em two!) six figure advances and was almost ruined financially — to a profile of Lee Child at home in Wyoming, where he owns two cowboys hats, but doesn’t wear them for fear of being laughed at.

Enjoy…Yours truly and my busted phalanges will be back soon.

How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying

A new-to-the-biz writer Heather Demetrios writes about how getting two six-figure advances right out of the gate almost brought her to financial ruin. She has great advice for those of you just starting out on paying attention to the work at hand and not letting your head get turned too fast.  Money quote for me: “Each new book is like a weekend in Vegas: maybe I’ll get lucky, maybe I won’t.”

After that second advance came through, I stepped into my dream life: I quit my day job to write full-time, moved to New York City, bought $15 cocktails, and learned (with astonishing speed) not worry about prices when ordering at a restaurant. I said yes to travel (often book research I wasn’t reimbursed for), concert tickets, new shoes, and finally being able to buy people the kind of presents I felt they deserved. I donated large sums of money to organizations I cared about, and delighted in the feeling that I was making a real difference….

Then she goes into what she would have done differently had she known what was going to happen. Here’s the link. 

Ready, Set, Write a Book

November if National Novel Writing Month. I’ve never tried it, but the NaNoWriMo challenge — writing a complete novel in 30 days — is now into its 20th year. If the thought of cranking out 1,500 words a day makes your blood run cold, this article’s not for you. But it does offer some tips for upping your output.  Here’s the link. 

Oh, Give Him a Home Where The Reacher Creatures Roam 

Speaking of writers who can crank it out, Lee Child has just dropped his 24th book Blue Moon. This feature finds our hero living the good life in Laramie Wyoming and waxing on the new movie Jack Reacher (yes, he’s taller than Tom Cruise), life in the slow lane and getting a new award — Commander of the British Empire. Link here. 

 

 

What’s In a $&%!? Title? 

Hey, we all know how hard it is to come up with a seductive title. But are today’s titles getting a little too…blue?  One editor makes a case for rethinking the current trend to using cuss words in titles. Let’s just say she’s not happy:

While a well-placed colorful word can pack a punch when used sparingly, resorting to vulgar titles is actually an easy, mindless, and lazy knee-jerk marketing approach. In an attempt to reach and speak to the masses, these word choices continue to dumb down book titles and subjects while discouraging any effort to strengthen thinking, meaning, or purpose—let alone a sense of integrity for authors, marketers, or the industry.

Here’s the link to the Publishers Weekly story. Link here. 

Fear Of Flying (As a Writer)

And lastly, I give you Chuck Wendig.  I love his writers blog Terrible Minds. It always makes me laugh — or cry less, depending on how strong a grip the work in progress has on my neck.  Here’s a classic Wendig — about how if you try to play it safe, if you travel the well-trod road instead of trying to find your own true writer’s path, you will fail. I think our own James recently wrote on this topic recently. Money quote:

I’m speaking about a specific kind of fear, which is, fear as the first step of writing. Fear about market. Fear about audience. Fear about how no one will read your stuff. Fear about how you’re never going to be as good as [insert other author name here]. Fear about voice, fear about genre, fear about ideas. You set out on the journey of being a writer and already you have a choice about what direction you choose, right? You get this instinctual pull, as if all your intestinal flora are trying to move you in concert toward something weird, something wonderful, something uniquely your own, but — that way lies grave uncertainty. The other direction, well, that’s more sensible, isn’t it? Other writers have trod those paths. What’s popular right now is [insert trend here, like “YA medical horror featuring canine protagonists” or “grimdark geriatric erotic fantasties”]. Your voice surely isn’t as good as other voices.

So, your foot wavers. And instead of pointing yourself in the unknown direction, into the dark forest, into the layers of fog — you set forth onto the well-lit, well-marked path. The worn path. The trod path. And it’s fear that put you there. It’s fear that’s walking you forward.

Here’s the full article.

I’ll try to reply if you leave a comment. I have a long layover in Charlotte and if I recall, there’s a decent bar in Concource E, owned by Dale Ernhardt Jr. Oh, show me the way to the next whiskey bar…

3+

First Page Critique Redux:
What A little Rewriting Can Do

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” ~Michael Crichton

By PJ Parrish

Hi there, crime dogs. Today I’d like to revisit one of our First Page critiques.  Not because I think that the submitting writer needs to be raked over the coals once more.  This time, I’d like to show (rather than tell) what a little judicious rewriting can do.

Rewriting is dear to my heart. It reminds me, at times, of the despair I used to feel in my sculpture classes when I was a college art major. I was terrible at anything involving three-dimensional design. I aced portraiture, watercolor, acyrlic and oil. But when it came to creating something out of a piece of wood, clay or plaster, I was really bad.  Don’t know why…it’s just the way my brain is wired.  I had to work really really hard in 3D design. It didn’t come naturally to me.

So those of you out there struggling with the structure of your book, I feel your pain.  I know how hard it is to take a lumpy gray mass of hot mess and try to turn it into something with shape, definition and, yeah, even beauty.

Which brings me back to our topic of the day — rewriting.  You can’t fear it. You shouldn’t fight it. You must embrace it.  I read one writer who described rewriting as trying to scrub the basement floor with a toothbrush. But it needn’t be that gruesome. Writing may not come naturally to you, but you can be better at it if you try.  Rewriting is how you get all the bad stuff out of your system.

It’s okay in your first draft to use cliches, stale metaphors, boring chapter endings, bad transitions, unoriginal description.  It’s okay to have potholes in your plot, flaccid character development, turgid backstory.  Get it all out there, keep moving forward, finish the draft. Philip Roth once described a first draft as a floor that, once in place, he could walk upon.

So build your floor. Then go back over it and do the hard work. Don’t despair. Trust that you can do it.  Your pencils should always outlast your erasers. I think Nabokov said that.

Now, back to the First Pager. Last month, I critiqued a submission titled Scarlet Lies. It wasn’t bad, but it had some basic problems. The writer asked if I would read her second attempt. Because her attitude was so receptive, I agreed. I will let you see how things went. First, here’s the original:

SCARLET LIES

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? A few horns blared and she clicked her heels across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug.

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” She hustled, her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance.

She was radiant, elbowing people out of the way to get to him and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away. Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip.

“You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.”

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“I doubt that.”

_______________________

Now here’s the second version she sent to me:

Scarlet crossed six lanes of traffic on East 57th street without looking. New York hadn’t claimed her life yet, but she felt it would be an easier fate than dealing with her mother’s charity gala tomorrow. How was she supposed to find a speaker when she’d only been released for two days? As usual, her mother’s demands were unreasonable.

Tires screeched as she strutted across the road, the sun blazing in her eyes through the smog. A Ferrari skidded to a halt and blared its multi-tone horn.

“Watch it, lady!” A man yelled out the window at her.

She held up her middle finger at him as she stepped onto the sidewalk.

Scarlet walked two more blocks towards her target. A coffee shop, apparently. She double checked the location on her phone as she approached.

Then, serenity. She saw Michael sitting at a cafe table, talking on his phone and flipping through a notebook. Scarlet smiled, knowing her luck at finding him here would probably be considered closer to criminal stalking, but he would benefit from her charming companionship, regardless of what he claimed to believe or what he had said to her the last time they parted. That was two long years ago, and he hadn’t been thinking clearly.

His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance. He was absorbed in his conversation. Next to him, steam curled from a small, cream-colored mug. Her heart pounding, she watched the image of him flicker in and out of view between the gray masses of people elbowing their way around her.

She hadn’t spoken to him since the fire. Since he “swore her off.” Well. Time to change that. She adjusted her skirt and walked through the cafe gate.

“Michael! Hi!”

The man froze in place for a moment and then looked up, his face stony. She was grinning. He was not.

She heard him bark a quick “call you later,” and he slid his phone into his pocket.

“How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She down sat at the table with him, dropping her shopping bags on the ground beside her.

He looked at her for a moment, dread and quiet disbelief on his face. “I’m honestly a bit surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.” He gestured in the air around him.

Scarlet raised her voice an octave and flipped her hair behind her shoulder. “Well! Vacation’s over.”

“Vacation?” He pressed his lips together, eyebrows raised. “I don’t think so. Did you break out, or did your parents pay?”

She smiled again. “I’ve missed you.”

___________________

So, what is improved by the rewriting? Let’s try to break it down. Again, this is just my opinion:

  1. Scarlet is much more likable now. Some of you liked her better than I did, but I found her sort of ditzy and wondered if readers would want to follow her for an entire book. Now, I think she comes across as just high-spirited. Big difference. I don’t know what sort of sub-genre the writer is going for here, but the light tone makes me think this would be appropriate for romantic suspense, straight romance, or cozy. What’s better now is that the tone is more consistent, and that’s important. Some writers never quite grasp the idea that you have to have a tone for your story — light, dark, hard-boiled, historical, whatever — and every word and sentence you write has to support that tone.
  2.  We now know where we are geographically. Important to establish that right away.
  3. The dialogue is much better. Do you notice how just separating the dialogue from surrounding narrative makes it look cleaner? Easier to read for today’s writers. If you go back and read older fiction, you’ll notice this may not be true. But for today’s market seems to demand it. It’s a matter of taste and trends but it’s good to be aware of it.
  4. Point of view: This is where the writer really improved things. In the original, the POV wavered between Scarlet, the man, and wandered up into omniscient. Again, this is a modern trend, but being firmly in one character’s POV at a time is  important in today’s market.

One last thing I pointed out to the writer:  We don’t know what genre she’s working in here, but if it is suspense or mystery, it is crucial to pretty quickly establish some kind of disruption in Scarlet’s life. Something has to go wrong, or you have to drop hints that something ALREADY has gone wrong — and that THIS is what your story is really about. I advised her to not waste too much more time on chit-chat between Scarlet and Michael unless it supports this. His dialogue about the breaking out and her being out in the wild hints at it, but the writer still needs move the CONFLICT closer to the front of the stage. And you don’t want to wait too long to do this.

So, end of object lesson. Thank you — again! — dear writer for letting us learn as you do. And to remind us that in baseball, you only get three strikes. But in writing, you get as many as you need.  I think Neil Simon said that…or maybe it was Yogi Berra.

5+

What’s Your Point? Figuring Out
What Goes Into Each Chapter

By PJ Parrish

I dunno, maybe this is going to sound simplistic to most of you, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway: What should go into a chapter?

I’ve been thinking about this since last week after reading Jordan’s excellent post on narrative drive. In the comments section, BK Jackson wrote this:

The one of these I fumble with the most is having a goal for every scene. Sure, it’s easy when they’re about to confront the killer or it’s about a major plot point or a clue, but what about scenes that just set the stage of story-world and its people? Sure, you don’t want mundane daily life stuff, but sometimes I write scenes of protag interacting with someone in story world and, while I can’t articulate a specific goal for the scene, it seems cold and impersonal to leave it out.

And Marilynn wrote:

Working with newer writing students, I’ve discovered that some write a scene…because they are trying to clarify the ideas for themselves, not for the reader. 

I’ve found writers often struggle with this. It’s as if they just start writing, trying to figure out what the heck is happening, then they just run out of gas. End of chapter. But that’s not how it should go. No, you don’t need to outline, but you really need to stop and ask yourself questions before you write one word: How do you divide up your story into chapters? Where do you break them? How long should each chapter be? How many chapters long should your book be? And maybe the hardest thing to figure out: What is the purpose of each chapter? Or as BK put it, what is the “goal?”

Again, this sounds simplistic but it’s not simple. How you CHOSE to divide up your story affects your reader’s level of engagement.  The way you CHOSE to chop up your plot-meat helps the reader digest it.  The way you CHOSE to parcel out character traits helps your reader bond with people. And the way you CHOSE to manipulate your story via chapter division enhances — or destroys — their enjoyment.

For some writers, this comes naturally, like having an ear in music. But for many of us, it is a skill that can be learned and perfected. So let’s give it a go.

First, do we even need chapters? Marilynne Robinson doesn’t use them. James Dickey’s To The White Sea is one big tone-poem. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road uses a couple dots instead of chapter headings, perhaps to emphasize the in media res feeling of a long journey. (I was so pulled into that book I didn’t even notice it didn’t have chapters!) But most of us mere mortals probably need to break things up a bit.

Why? Chapters give your reader a mental respite. Chapter breaks allow the reader to digest everything that’s happened. They also help build suspense for what is yet to come. If you divide them up artfully instead of willy-nilly.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of each chapter as a dramatic island. (I wrote a whole blog about this a couple years back). Then build bridges (transitions) between them. Or think of each chapter as a mini short-story. Each chapter, ideally, has its own dramatic arc — a beginning to pull the reader in, a middle with meat, and a kicker ending that makes the reader want to turn the page.

But first, ask yourself this about each chapter: What do I want to accomplish?

The first chapter is sometimes the easiest.  We talk about this all the time here, especially in our First Page Critiques. To review: For crime fiction (if not all good fiction, in my humble opinion) an opening chapter should establish time and place, introduce a major character (often the protagonist or villain), set the tone, and at least hint at some disturbance in the norm. (A body has been found, a gauntlet thrown, a character called to action). Yeah, we get all that, right?

But, as BK said, things tend to fall apart after that. The deeper you get into your story, the harder it becomes to articulate what needs to happen within each chapter. For those of you who outline, maybe it’s easier. But I’ve seen even hardcore outliners lose their way. When you sit down to write, sometimes, it just pours out in this giant amorphic blob, until, exhausted, you just quit writing. End of chapter? No, end of energy because you didn’t pace yourself.

So, before you start a chapter, STOP.  Sit there and think, really hard, until blood beads on your forehead. Don’t write a word until you can answer this question:

What do I need to accomplish in this chapter?

Some other things to help you home in on chapter “goals.”

Write a two-line summary before you start each chapter. For a revenge  plot, you might write “In this chapter the reader will find out villain’s motivation for killing his brother.”  Or in a police procedural you might write: “In this chapter, Louis and Joe put together the clues and realize Frank isn’t the killer.”

Look for ways for every chapter work harder, to have secondary purposes. Main purpose: “In chapter four, Louis goes to the UP to find evidence on the cold case of the dead orphan boys.” But also in that chapter: “The reader gets some background on Louis’s years in foster care.”  (character development plus resonates with lost boy theme) Also: “Add in good description of the Upper Peninsula.” (Establishes sense of place and underscores desolate mood.”)

Maybe this is what BK was asking for — how to make those later chapters more muscular. As you go deeper into your plot, keep looking for layers you can add, ways to make each chapter have secondary “goals.”

Use physical tools. Don’t visualize your book as a continuous unbroken roll. Think of it as a lot of little story units you can move around. Think Lego blocks, not toilet paper. Some writers draw elaborate story boards. I’m told there is software for this, but Kelly and I are Luddites. We write the salient points of each chapter on Post-It notes that we color code for POVs and move them around on a big poster board. Vladimir Nabokov wrote chapter notes on index cards and shuffled them until he found a chapter sequence that made sense.

How do you keep your chapters from just petering out? Again, you have to THINK about this before you write. Here’s another tip: Look for logical breaks in your narrative for your endings. Such as:

  • Change of place. Say, you move from New York City to London
  • Change in point of view.  From maybe your protagonist to the bad guy.
  • Change in time. (a couple hours or a couple years depending on your story)
  • Change in dramatic intensity.  Say you just wrapped up a big mano-a-mano fight. The next thing that happens is having your hero recovering and thinking about what just happened. That might be a great place to start a new chapter.  It goes to pacing: Follow up an intense action scene chapter with a slower chapter that allows the reader to catch their breath.

By the end of each chapter, you should resolve at least one thing.  A car chase ends. A victim dies. Two cops figure out a major clue and decide to act. One character tells another something important about their background.  When you end a chapter, you want to send your reader a clear signal that what they just read is important. One trick I love: End a chapter just before the climax of a significant story arc: This is a classic trick of the thriller and mystery novel. You lead your reader right up to the edge of a tense moment then you end the chapter.  They have no choice but to turn the page!

I wish I could remember who said this: A good chapter ending does two things — it closes one door and it opens another one.

Whew. Enough already, you’re saying. I hear you. Okay, let’s move on to some easier stuff.

How long should your chapters be? I wrote a whole blog on this a while back, but if you don’t want to go back and read it, here’s the short answer: As long as each chapter needs to be.

It’s a matter of style — your style.  But, if you are following the idea of a dramatic arc for each chapter-island, the answer should come organically. As you move through your story, you might want to try for a consistency in length — be it 200 words or 2000 words. Why? I think it helps your reader get a sense of your style and pacing. But don’t sweat this too much. If you are moving along at a steady pace of say 1500 words per chapter and suddenly one comes out at 5000 words, you might want to go back in and look for a logical break in your narrative or action.  You might find, with judicious rewriting, that you’ve really got two tight chapters instead of one long one.

Okay, I’m running long again. One more question:

Should you use chapter titles? Lots of writers love these, especially fantasy and YA writers. I’m on the fence about them. I’ve never used them, but for one complex book, we did have three “books” that had titles. When chapter titles are witty, they can be great because they provide hints about what to expect within the chapter. But if they are mundane or obvious, they are just annoying and pretentious.

One story I heard was that before the release of one of her Harry Potter books, JK Rowlings refused to divulge any plot points. But she released three chapter titles — “Spinners End,” “Draco’s Detour,” and “Felix Felicis” — just to tease readers.

Here’s some of my favorite chapter titles:

“Down the Rabbit-Hole.” Chapter 1, Alice in Wonderland. So great it has become a modern metaphor, especially in politics.

“I Begin Life On My Own Account, And Don’t Like It.” Chapter 11, David Copperfield. Didn’t realize Dickens had a sense of humor.

Rick Riordan might be the chapter title king. Here are six from just one novel:

“I Accidently Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher”
“I Play Pinochle with a Horse”
“I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom”
“We Get Advice from a Poodle”
“A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers”
“I Battle My Jerk Relative”

But here’s my all-time favorite from Ian Fleming’s Live And Let Die, chapter 14:

“He disagreed with something that ate him.”

And that is a good place to end.

 

8+

First Page Critique: Where Are We
And Whose Head Are We In?

By PJ Parrish

Morning, crime dogs. We have another First Page submission to chew on today.  It has things to teach us about picking a point of view.  And a big hat tip to our writer who has pushed her/his baby out there for our scrutiny.  Remember…that takes guts.

SCARLET LIES

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? A few horns blared and she clicked her heels across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug.

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” She hustled, her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance.

She was radiant, elbowing people out of the way to get to him and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away. Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip.

“You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.”

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“I doubt that.”

__________________________

Well, right off the bat my first question is: What kind of book am I reading here? Given the description of the woman and the interplay with the mystery man, it feels a little on the romantic suspense side or maybe we’re in cozy territory. Which is fine, if that is where the writer is going.  If this is straight mystery or suspense, then this opening, with its emphasis on the woman’s clothing, shopping bags, shoes etc., is off in tone. It’s hard to tell.  So we are left to judge it as it is, absent the helpful context of cover art or back copy.  The title SCARLET LIES could be anything, but it suggests to me a lighter tone.

Now about point of  view.  We are firmly in Scarlet’s POV at the start because we get her thoughts about the cars not stopping and her wondering if the man is the cafe is “him.”  But as we get deeper into the scene, the POV wavers a tad, floating up into semi-omniscient or even into the man’s POV when the writer starts describing her stilettos and her screeching voice and awkward gait. Who is making these observations?  She cannot, so it is either the man in cafe (which is a head-jumping POV shift) or it is the writer herself (which is a shift to omniscient).  It’s good that the writer is coming up with specifics in the descriptions but they must be grounded in a single POV to be effective.

Now, what is happening in this scene? Not too much really. A woman, apparently just finishing shopping, spots a man in a cafe, someone from her past, and initiates an encounter. The man seems blase, almost irritated.  Oddly, though, he doesn’t seem at all surprised to see her even though it has been “forever.”  Is this enough to make us want to read on? I don’t think so. There’s not enough meat here in the encounter and the woman, to be frank, is ditzy to the point of being annoying. Guy, on the other hand, by his simple  indifference, seems more interesting.  I can’t tell who the protagonist is here.  I hope it’s not the woman because, as I said, I think she comes across as silly.  If Scarlet IS the protagonist, then I think there’s a problem in asking readers to attach themselves to such a flimsy character.

If Guy is the protag, then I suggest the writer switch this scene to his point of view only. It could be much more interesting.  Let me demonstrate:

Guy Talbot ended his call and laid the phone face down on the cafe table. He was tempted to turn the damn thing off because he was tired of being on call and just wanted to be alone. Just for one afternoon. That’s why he had picked the Tiffany Cafe on Rodeo Drive. No one he knew would ever show up here. 

He was about to pick up his coffee cup when a flash of red across the street caught his eye. A trailing blazing of red hair, and a glimpse of tight red skirt visible through the bounce of Prada and Hermes shopping bags. 

Jesus, what that her? Of course it was. No woman on earth had hair that color. He hadn’t seen her in five years. What the hell was she doing here in Los Angeles? 

He picked up his sunglasses to hide behind. Too late. She spotted him.

“Guy! Guy!” she yelled.

She started across Rodeo Drive without looking. No matter. The cars would stop for her. They always did. Sure enough, a guy in a Ferrari stopped, the screech of his tires matching her voice.

I did this not to rewrite your work but to demonstrate what a difference a secure point of view can make. All description needs to be filtered through a solid POV. So pick one and stay in it.  Now I’d like to do some line editing to specifically show where the point of view has issues.

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. Is this a compelling enough sentence to open a book? I think you could do better. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? Ditzy thought…if they don’t stop, she’d get hit. A few horns blared and she clicked her heels She didn’t click her heels; her heels made click-clacking sounds…big difference and it goes to POV across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug. This observation must come from her POV.  She spotted or saw a man sitting in a sidewalk cafe WHERE? You need to tell us where we are. 

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. I don’t understand this. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” Set your dialogue off on its own line before you go into movement.

She hustled, odd and unflattering word. She hurried? her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Here is where you really lose your POV. She would not describe her own voice as a screech nor would she compare herself to a calf. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. This feels like you are now in Guy’s POV. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. Again, you are now in his POV. She hasn’t arrived at his table yet. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance. Now we seem to be in omniscient POV. This is you observing, not Scarlet. It’s good to describe him this way but it MUST come from her not you. 

She was radiant, Another POV lapse. She cannot see herself as “radiant” which is in itself an odd description. elbowing people out of the way to get to him On the sidewalk? and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” Again, separate dialogue from movement. It’s cleaner. 

She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. What happened to all the shopping bags? She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.This is one of her gestures that strikes me as ditsy

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter she’s a woman apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away.  Giving the waitress this line adds nothing. It wastes space in your precious opening moments. Have her just leave.

Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip. More ditziness. “You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” Here’s an example where your dialogue isn’t working hard enough. We are in the first page or two of your story. Make every word count! She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.” I really like this line.  It is the first punch of suspense as it implies she has some kind of weird past.  It also makes Guy interesting. 

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. You really need to amp up the tension in this scene so having him answer nothing after he laid out that great “out in wild” line feels limp. I think you missed a big opportunity to layer in some badly needed background between these two or give him more thoughts about her past or his own. MAKE YOUR DIALOGUE WORK HARDER. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”  Who is talking? Makes a big difference! I’m guessing it’s her given her fawning tone. 

“I doubt that.”  As I said, Guy’s recalcitrance makes him more appealing as someone I would be interested in following for a couple hundred pages. 

Okay, so to sum up, I think you need to brush up on point of view, especially as it applies to description. You also need to make your dialogue more muscular. What do I mean by that? You need to make every line mean something. Every word and line has to contribute to your dramatic point.

Most important, you need to find a way to inject more interest and tension into this scene. A chance meeting between two characters who had a past together isn’t meaty enough unless you layer in some intriguing undercurrents. Ask yourself: What is the POINT of this scene? What am I trying to accomplish? An effective opening has to introduce your main character, tell us where we are (you need to add that) and most importantly, begin to establish some kind of disturbance.

Thanks writer, for letting us get a peek at your work. Don’t get discouraged. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is always junk.” Although trust me, he used a much stronger word. 🙂 Hope you find this helpful.

 

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The Fine Art Of
Giving Out Criticism

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” ~H.G. Wells

By PJ Parrish

For most of my adult life, I made my livelihood in the newspaper business. My dream was to work for the Detroit Free Press, but I had to start out instead at a small suburban weekly called The Eccentric. It was a gift in disguise.

I did everything from taking and processing my own photos, to writing obits, to covering city council meetings where the surest thing to get the blood moving was a hot debate about sewers.  The pinnacle of my career was being named editor of the Women’s Life section, Yeah, I’m that old and that’s what it was called in those days. I got to supervise a small staff of eager beaver stringers.

That was my first experience with learning how to tell others that their writing well, might need some work.

I was not very good at it. It took me a long time to learn that doling out criticism is a learned skill. All writers need honesty but it has to come with a healthy side order of kindness.

We talk a lot here at The Kill Zone about how to take criticism. Or its uglier sibling rejection. As writers, we deal with this at every level of our writing lives. Better grow a rhino hide or you’ll never make it, the conventional wisdom goes. But maybe we need to take a moment and talk about how to give criticism.

If you work with a critique group or if you are someone’s beta reader, then you definitely need to learn the fine art of diplomacy. We here at the Kill Zone deal with this all the time as we critique your First Page submissions. And I think I can speak for all of us that it’s often not easy to do this because there is a fine line between being helpful to a new writer and being discouraging.

Whenever I get a First Page submission, I go through a distinct process:

  1. First, I read the whole 400 or so words quickly, without any eye toward editing. I try very hard to read it as only a reader would who has just bought the book. Does the opening, at the minimum, pique my interest?
  2. Second, I ask myself: Do I have any prejudices against this TYPE of book that would make me unduly negative or even ignorant? For instance, I’m not a big sci-fi fan, and I recognize that I’m a little clueless about what works in YA these days. So I read such submissions with that caveat.
  3. Next, I ask myself if the submission has something to teach all our readers. It’s not enough, I think, for me to just red-ink grammar mistakes or such. I look for a larger issue in each submission that can help all our writers learn.
  4. Sometimes, you get a submission that just isn’t up to snuff enough to critique. The writer hasn’t yet gotten the very basics of the craft down. It’s pointless to teach English until someone knows their ABCs.
  5. I don’t like doing a submission unless I have something good to say about it.

And that last one is important. Because I remember how hard it was to get feedback when I was trying to publish my first mystery back in the late 1990s. Even though I had had four romances published by a big house, I didn’t really know how to write a mystery and my first two attempts were awful. Luckily, I had an agent who was a hard-nosed New York ex-editor. She frankly scared the hell out of me but she knew how to give honest criticism. She told me I was a very good writer but I didn’t understand the distinct structure of a mystery. She told me to go home and read.  “Start with P.D. James and work your way up to Michael Connelly,” she said. So I did.

Once my mystery career took off, I then had to learn to take criticism from editors. I would turn in my manuscript and wait with a strange combination of eagerness and dread.  Eagerness because I was sure I was going to get heaps of praise. (“This is great! We’re pushing it up to our lead title with a 100,000 first press run!”) Dread because I was sure I was a fraud. (“Listen, this isn’t quite what we talked about when you turned in your outline…”)  The reality fell somewhere in between. I have been blessed to have some really great editors in my three decades of writing crime fiction.  Each one of them understood what some have called the Hamburger Model of Criticism:

Start out by staying something nice about the manuscript.

Insert a big juicy slab of criticism.

End with saying something encouraging.

I think every editor I have ever worked with did this. And it always made the meat patty go down a lot easier.  But here’s the the thing about the meat patty: It has to be constructive. Late in my journalism career, I was the Features Editor at a large Florida daily. I had an editor in chief who every morning took a red grease pencil to mark up every section of the paper. The comments were almost uniformly negative, of the type of “I don’t like this.” One day, in frustration, I asked him WHY he didn’t like something. He said he didn’t know. He was like judge who says “I can’t tell you what’s porn but I just know it when I see it.” Luckily, he was canned before I could quit.

A few other things I’ve learned about giving criticism:

  • Resist the urge to fix the problem. Unless you really have the solution, it’s not a good idea to offer up the answer to another writer’s problem. You don’t know their book; you’re not inside their head. You might be able to tell them they have wandered off the trail and that you, as the reader, feel lost. But it is not up to you to show them which is the RIGHT trail to the end. They have to find their way.
  • Watch your tone. Being snarky is, unfortunately, encouraged in our culture today. (I was curious about where the word “snarky” came from so I looked it up. It was coined by the Star Trek actor Richard William Wheaton in a speech he gave before a bunch of online gamers.) If you are asked for input, don’t be mean. Kindness is in short supply today and writers are like turtles without shells — easy to crush.
  • Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. Hey, you’re having a bad day. Your own book is falling apart. Your plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Your Dell died and your geek can’t do a data retrieval.  Don’t vent your anger on someone else’s baby.
  • Don’t boost your own ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that. They are puffing themselves up, challenging others, going all Alpha dog. Nobody likes a bully.
  • Let the person react. Giving a person a chance to explain why they wrote something the way they did helps their ego a bit and often, as they explain, they see where they can improve. It also makes you look fair.
  • Be empathetic. You’ve probably had the same problems the other guy is having. So tell him. Be vulnerable and relate how it was hard for you to understand motivation or the three-act structure. Walk in their shoes.
  • Don’t focus on the person. One of the hardest things beginning writers have to learn is to not take criticism personally. A rejection letter is never about you; it is about your book. So if you’re critiquing something, you might think, “Boy, this guy’s a lousy writer” but never say it. It only makes the other person angry, defensive or hurt. Plus, it makes you look like an ass.

Okay, so you’re done reading a friend’s manuscript. Or you’ve been doing your part in the weekly critique group. You’ve been kind, you’ve been constructive, you’re offering up suggestions that you think might cause a light bulb to go off over the other writer’s head. And then….

They turn on you. They say you don’t understand their genre. Or that if you’re missing the plot points. Or that they intend for you to hate the protagonist. Or that second-person omniscient is the only way the story can be told. I call these folks the Yeah Buts. “Yeah, but if you keep reading, things will get clearer.”  “Yeah but if you read more dystopian Victorian zombie fiction, you’d understand my book…”

You can’t help a Yeah But. Sometimes, they don’t want to hear anything except how great their stuff is. Don’t get angry. Don’t take it personally. You did what you could. Smile and walk away.

As Noel Coward said, “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”

 

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