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:
From the Mouths of Babes

By PJ Parrish

Good morning crime dogs. Today, for our First Pager we’re back in the land of the young again, this time with a five-year-old as our tour guide. I’ll let you take a read and then we’ll regather to talk.  In the meantime, I’m going to try to get Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell” out of my head.

Love Kills

“Eww! What stinks, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, Squirt.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m not a squirt.” Five-year-old Mandy thrust out her lower lip. One, because Daddy called her squirt, which meant he didn’t think she was a big girl at all, and two, because he was trying not to laugh and that made her mad.

“Am I allowed any kind of nickname?” her father asked

Mandy thought about it. It wasn’t like you could shorten Mandy into much, but having a nickname that didn’t make her feel bad would be nice. Everybody called her cousin Jason, Sport. That wasn’t a wimpy nickname. She decided it might take time to pick the right one. It was important. “I’ll let you know.”

“Okay, Squi….Mandy.” He squeezed her hand a little tighter as they walked the narrow path at the edge of the Sugar River. A silvery layer of frost covered the ground and it felt crunchy beneath her rubber boots. She pictured animals using the trail to get a drink of the river water and wondered if any of them ever slipped on the icy edges and tumbled in. The trees and bushes were still bare and the weather was what Aunt Jenny called iffy, which meant even though it was spring break her dad still dressed her in a winter coat on adventures like this first day of fishing.

Daddy held her hand and carried fishing poles and a tackle box in the other as he searched for the perfect spot to drop their lines in. Maybe she shouldn’t have made a big deal about her nickname. After all, she was the one Daddy took fishing. Not Jason.
“Let’s try the other side of that big rock.” He pointed a few feet ahead at a giant stone sticking up on the bank.

The breeze picked up and the smell got worse. Even worse than when her dad forgot the thawed chicken in the microwave and it took him two days to figure out what was stinking.

“Pee-ewe, what is that?” Mandy wrinkled her nose.

“Whew. No idea, but you’re right baby girl, that reeks.”

Another nickname she hated. Baby girl. No one in Kindergarten wanted to be called baby-anything. Mandy bit her tongue and forged ahead over the uneven land.

“Must be a dead animal around somewhere. Should we move or can you handle it?” he asked.


Okay, a caveat. I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t ask our contributors to tell us what genre or sub-genre they are working in.  It would make critiquing a submission clearer and maybe fairer. Given we have only 400 or so words here, I have to guess at the writer’s attempt, with few clues. The title Love Kills suggests crime fiction and I’d bet my last brass farthing that the eww-worthy smell isn’t a dead fish but a ripe body bobbing in the water. But beyond that, I can’t begin to guess who the target audience is for this book.  Children?  Doubt it.  Young adult? The narrator’s too young for that. Adults? That’s my guess here, and if that’s the case, we have to talk about the viability of child narrators.  But first…

I like this. It is cleanly choreographed, meaning I can tell exactly what’s going on. The interaction between father and daughter is sweetly rendered. My dad used to take me fishing when I was a tadpole and I treasured the time with him. There are some nice spare details like the crunch of boots on ice that tells us it’s cold, maybe in the netherworld months of early November or March.

But what I really like is that the writer has successfully captured the voice of the narrator Mandy. The simple syntax and apt word choices conjure up a five-year-old who is beginning to assert independence and wants to be seen as older. I like the line about weather that her aunt called “iffy.”  Kids are aural magpies — they pick up on the odd things adults say. I like that Mandy is worried about the animals. All nice telling details! I think the writer does a spot-on job of creating a believable and winsome 5-year-old girl.


If we are reading crime fiction intended for an adult market (I am assuming here), then I question the wisdom of opening from a very young child’s point of view. The opening scene or chapter of your book is critical to getting your reader to bond with the character, and who you choose to put in the spotlight in the early going tends to signal to the reader that this is your protagonist, the person whose journey they are about to share. Is Mandy the protagonist? I don’t know.  But the spotlight is square on her in this scene.

Which leads to the next question. Can Mandy carry an entire book on her tiny shoulders? Few child narrators can.  And few writers can successfully pull off an entire novel written only from the point of view of a very young child like Mandy. Child narrators are common in kid’s literature. But not so much in fiction for adults. It can feel very liberating to write from a child’s POV.  They usually don’t have an ax to grind and they see the world in matter-of-fact ways. But because they are limited in experience and sophistication, they can’t be a truly reliable narrator. 

When I read this submission, I wracked my brain for examples of similar-aged narrators but came up short. The only example I could remember is Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) It is narrated by 5-year-old Jack who has been confined to a single room all his life, knowing only his mother (who was also captured and confined at an early age). His vocabulary and understanding of the world is very restricted.  Room has been roundly acclaimed. I couldn’t finish it.

I book I did love was Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). It opens with an unnamed 5-year-old girl running scared through the woods, separated from her cave family during an earthquake. She survives a bear attack and is found, near death, by another clan. But Auel used a third-person omniscient point of view, so the reader can trust exactly what is happening.

Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch, the first person narrator, is only six years old when the novel begins, and eight years old when it ends. But the narrative has almost a memoir feel to it, as if we’re listening to a much older Scout telling us a story about what happened. It is a masterful sleigh-of-hand on Lee’s part that we believe we are hearing the blended voices of a 6-year-old (who, very childishly, calls her 50-year-old father “feeble”) and her older more knowing self.

Back to our writer’s story:  As I said, given the small sample here, we can’t know if Mandy will remain the sole narrator.  My instincts tell me she won’t. But if she is not meant to carry the story’s narrative weight, then I question the wisdom of opening with her voice, as sweet as it is. Where can you go from here?

Some things to remember if you’re contemplating using a child’s point of view:

  • You need a compelling reason why a child is the right person to narrate your novel.
  • You need to make sure the child is old enough to reliably convey information and events for the reader. Children younger than six aren’t developed enough for this. Even teens have their limits. (There’s an understatement!)
  • Do some research to get the child’s voice tone-perfect. Many of you have kids, so this is easy. The rest of us, well, we need to hang out at Chuck e Cheese maybe. And keep that voice consistent over the course of the story.

If the writer is available, I would appreciate hearing from him/her as to why they chose to open with Mandy as narrator and whether she will continue on into the book. The rest of us — what say you?



Pacing and Spacing:
The Power Of Artful Paragraphing

“All my stories are cinematic…every paragraph is a shot.” — Ray Bradbury

By PJ Parrish

The woman in my workshop had a question. I didn’t have an answer.

“How long should my paragraphs be?” she asked.

In years of teaching writing workshops and doing too many critiques to count, I had never really thought about that. I weaseled my way through the answer, saying that it was a feeling of sorts, that you just had to trust your instincts, find your style. More word gumbo about gotta have rhythm and there were no rules…

It wasn’t until I got home from the conference that I remembered Ray Bradbury. I had lost his book Zen In the Art of Writing years ago, maybe had lent it to someone. But I sorta remembered he mighta maybe said something about paragraphs. So I got a new copy of the book.  Here is what he said in his essay “Shooting Haiku in a Barrel.”

“All the paragraphs are shots. By the way the paragraph reads, you know whether it’s a close-up or a long shot…I may be the most cinematic novelist in the country today. All of my short stories can be shot right off the page. Each paragraph is a shot.”

I didn’t realize that his idea that each paragraph of a story was a camera shot had been the basis of my own writing for decades. It was a sub-conscious thing. Or was it? Was hitting the ENTER key actually a conscious choice? I dug deeper and found Joyce Carol Oates:

One of the qualities of writing that is not much stressed is its problem-solving aspect, having to do with the presentation of material: how to structure it, what sort of sentences (direct, elliptical, simple or compound, syntactically elaborate), what tone (in art, “tone” is everything), pacing. Paragraphing is a way of dramatization, as the look of a poem on a page is dramatic; where to break lines, where to end sentences.

Which led me to Ronald Tobias’s “The Elements of Fiction Writing: Theme & Strategy,”

The rhythm of action and character is controlled by the rhythm of your sentences. You can alter mood, increase or decrease tension, and pace the action by the number of words you put in a sentence. And because sentences create patterns, the cumulative effect of your sentences has a larger overall effect on the work itself. Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive. If your writing a tense scene and use long sentences [me here: or long paragraphs], you may be working against yourself.

Then I thought, maybe we should ask a lawyer.

(Pause while I wait for you to stop laughing).

If you’ve ever tried to read a legal brief, you know about bad writing. But here are two pretty decent lawyers on the subject of pacing:

We simply don’t have time to ferret out one bright idea buried in too long a sentence. — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

You want [a brief] to be a little bit of a page turner, to have some sense of drama, some building up to the legal arguments. — Justice John Roberts

Maybe it was all those piano lessons, but when it comes to pacing, I always used to think of writing in musical terms. Composers use punctuation to speed up or slow down pace and musicians use types of “articulation” to enhance whatever mood they are going for — intense? dangerous? romantic? thoughtful?

Sound familar? Good writers have similar tools — punctuation, length of sentences and paragraphs (short and choppy or longer and measured?) to create an emotional response in their readers. The best writers understand this not only creates emotion, it provides variety on each page and over the whole book.

But pacing is also a visual thing. Which brings us back to the humble ¶.  Which has, I just found out today, a fancy name — the pilcrow.  I don’t think most writers devote enough brain power to the pilcrow. But to my mind (and eye) it is a potent little tool that can really help you pace your story.  How many paragraphs you use per page, and how long or short your paragraphs are should be conscious choices you make. Consider this:

Fragments, the length of sentences, punctuation, and how often you paragraph can all work to give a particular pace. If you really think about, you’ll realize that you can use sentence and paragraph structure to create a feeling of speed or slowness, depending on what kind of emotional response you want to induce in your reader.

Or how about this:

Think of it! You can move a reader through a story fast. Their hearts will race!

Or you can slow them down and make them use their heads.

It’s all in how your sentences look on the page.

The same thought but expressed two different ways. The first is measured, more academic in pace, meant to make you slow down and digest the thought. The second is lively and urgent, making you anticipate an important climax-point. Neither is correct. They are just two different styles of pacing, word choice, sentence length and paragraphing to different affect. Here’s another example from a real novel:

There was less than an hour of daylight left, and Louis had the thought that maybe they could set up roadblocks and operate them through the night. But even as that thought moved through Louis’s mind, so did doubt. Maybe they were just chasing air. And if they were, he couldn’t help but worry about his future, and that of his boss, Captain Steele.

Louis heard a sudden rustling in the trees. He drew his Glock, but all he saw was a squirrel scampering across a fall log and leaves skittering in an eddy of wind. But then he heard something else. What was it? A voice? Shut, shut, shut…

What was he hearing? Was it real words or was it just the freakish whistling sound of the wind in the iron train trestle below? The sound came again. Shut up…

He could tell now it wasn’t the wind. It was real words, someone talking. Suddenly, two men bolted from the trees near the entrance to the trestle. One was dressed in camouflage, and the other man was wearing dark pants and a yellow dress shirt. The men ran away, stumbling toward the trestle in a clumsy run, with one man pulling the other man along.

“Captain Steele!” Louis shouted.

Compare that to this version:

They had less than an hour of daylight left. Maybe they could set up roadblocks and operate them through the night. But Louis had his doubts. Maybe they were just chasing air. And if they were, he couldn’t stop thinking about his future. And Steele’s.

A rustle in the trees came to him on the wind.

Louis drew his Glock and turned, scanning the brush. A squirrel scampered away. Leaves skittered across the path.

Then something else…a voice?

Shut, shut, shut…

Words? Or was it just the freakish whistle of wind in the iron train trestles below?

The sound came again.

Shut up…

No wind. Real words. Louis spun.

Two men bolted from the trees. One in camouflage, the other in dark pants and yellow shirt. They stumbled toward the trestle in a clumsy run, one pulling at the other.

“Captain!” Louis shouted.

The second one is from our most recent Louis Kincaid thriller The Damage Done as it actually appears on the page. The first one I rewrote to make it purposely turgid. Why is the second one better? Lots of reasons. First, we’re at the climax, deep into an action scene. We’re deep in Louis’s point of view (where we should be). It’s cold, getting dark, everyone’s on edge. Louis’s adrenaline is pumping. We need you to feel that.  So we need you to read fast.  We kept every sentence as short as possible to simulate Louis’s nervous thoughts.  We have eliminated every descriptive word possible because this isn’t the moment to be “writerly” about wind eddies, squirrels or even the fact the man is wearing a dress shirt (it registers to Louis only as a flash of yellow.) We don’t even need to repeat the captain’s name in the last line because in this frantic action, Louis would just yell out “Captain!”  And we kept the paragraphs as short and punchy as possible.

Now, notice how each scene looks on the “page.”  As I said, writing is aural, but it’s also visual. Why?

  • Too many long paragraphs per page are hard on the eye. It can read “old-fashioned” or worse, “textbook.” Long graphs worked for Dickens and Bronte. Not so well for today’s mysteries and thrillers.
  • White space on a page spells relief. It balances the larger blocks of expository writing. If you don’t believe me, ask any artist about the value of negative space. Or go read Elmore Leonard.  Dialogue provides “white space.”
  • Paragraphs pack emotional punch. Longer ones make the reader slow down, which you want them to do at times. But short paragraphs, say for an action scene, quicken the pace and the reader’s pulse.
  • And something to consider: Ebooks are often smaller in format than tree books, often giving the illusion of a blockier text per page.

Last week, one of our First Page Critique folks submitted his sample called Samuel’s Mine.  It got some good reviews, and I liked it as well. But I thought it could have used some judicious paragraphing, so I asked the author for permission to re-run it here as a lesson.  Here is how he wrote it:


Oddly enough her fingernails were left unbroken. Each nail remained intact, as sharp and fresh as they had been right before Julia went to sleep. The bright pink polish now served as a beacon of hope in this otherwise despondent room. She looked around, unbelieving, and still trying to figure out the situation. How did she get here? Where is here? She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone. She remembered painting her nails sitting on the edge of her bed. All else was a fog, like unrecognizable shadows in the poorly lit recesses of her brain. Something was there but yet nothing.

She turned her head. Her neck seized instantly with stiff pain. Oh dear Christ! A thick perspiration began its slow descent down her forehead. She lay across the floor with a dull but growing pounding building inside her head. She rarely got headaches. I fell, she thought. The fog in her head was drifting away as her surroundings grew clearer. I fell..how could I fall? Sharp jabs of pain filled her upper body. No, No, I couldn’t have. This isn’t right. She winced while moving her head to the left. The room was dark and she could smell mildew. The perspiration slid a smooth path down her face although a chill ran through her. The fog finally lifted from her head leaving the remnants of ache and confusion. How did I get on the floor?

Her body shuttered, skin prickled, as a chilling draft surfaced. She could hear the faint shuffle of footsteps above her. Julia’s legs; however, were cramped and stiff pressed on the cold floor. In fact, the floor she was on was not a floor, but rather stones. She can see them now – large cobblestones like the ones that used to line the streets in the City. They were now biting against her body and left prickles on her skin. Goosebumps. This is not right. She scanned the room fighting the ache, unknowing where she was. Stone block walls now came into her ever-strengthening sight. And that smell was more than mildew, but what?

The thick moisture moving down from her brow found her parched lips and with a fine swoop of her tongue, Julia tasted it. At first the sheer moisture was soothing to her mouth, but shortly the taste surfaced. It was not sweat. This tasted coppery. She had her fair share of fights and busted her lip a few times playing hockey. Julia was tough and knew this taste well. It was the taste of blood.

Now I’m going to simply delete a few words and sentences and add more paragraphs:


Oddly enough her fingernails were left unbroken.

Each nail remained intact, as sharp and fresh as they had been right before Julia went to sleep. The bright pink polish was like a beacon of hope in this dank and dim room.

She looked around, trying to figure out the situation. How did she get here? Where is here? She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone. She remembered painting her nails sitting on the edge of her bed. All else was a fog, like unrecognizable shadows moving through her brain. Something was there, yet nothing was there.

She turned her head. Her neck seized up with pain.

Oh dear Christ!

She was laying down, her legs were twisted painfully underneath. A dull pounding was building inside her head. 

I fell…

The fog in her head was drifting away as her surroundings grew clearer. 

How could I fall? No, No, I couldn’t have. This isn’t right.

She slowly moved her head to the right, wincing. Now she could see that the walls were made of stone. And she could smell something awful, worse than mildew. Sweat slid down her face even as a chill ran through her. She became aware of the coldness of the floor beneath her. She reached out and felt it. No, not a floor — rough, more like cobblestones.

She heard the sound of footsteps above and lay still, holding her breath.

The sweat was moving down her cheek. Her parched lips parted and she tasted it.

Not sweat. It tasted…metallic, like copper.

Then she knew. She had busted her lip a few times playing hockey. It was blood. Her own blood.

Notice how the first version LOOKS on the page. Each paragraph is of almost equal weight. Why did I add these graphs? Well, this is an action scene, quiet though it is. We want to feel the tension. The woman is just gaining consciousness so her thoughts should be fuzzy and fragmented, so the pacing should reflect this “dreamy” state of mind. To enhance the intimate point of view, her thoughts should be paragraphed and italicized rather than imbedded in the narrative and attributed with “she thought.” Notice, too, how more urgent the second version looks on the page. And there are a couple of cool moments that just need to stand out on their own.  Like the first image of the fingernails and the last image of her blood.  If you land upon a good image, sometimes you need to let it sing solo high in the trees.

Now, I am not saying my version is the best, because paragraphing also goes to the point of individual style. And some writers have a more legato (connected) style while others favor more staccato (shorter and punchier).  But I do think good pacing is a combination of both. You gotta know when to hit ENTER.

Because, as Ray Bradbury said, each paragraph is a mini-scene and when you hit ENTER you are helping your reader enter a new scene, thought or action. I’ll leave you with one more example. It’s from one of my favorite opening pages from a novel.


It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

That’s the opening to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I love the way the first line sits there all alone, like a roadside sign that you’re entering hell.  I love the juxtaposition of the next long graph with its gorgeous imagery and the nonchalance of the unnamed man. And then, a third paragraph that bam! gives us our arsonist-star by name. I love the way this page looks and sounds. Bradbury could have made this all one graph. But no, he chose three.

That, folks, is master pilcrowing.



First Page Critique:
What Color Is Your Story?


By PJ Parrish

I’ve been bingeing on all things British lately, so I was predisposed to like this tale. Plus, it appears to be about evil spirits to boot. I think…but I’m not sure. But that’s not the only issue. I also can’t tell what mood and tone the writer is going for here. And that, dear friends, is our dilemma, and lesson for the day.

Fox Blood and Family Anchors

Chapter 1

By the time she got home, Marte’s hands and feet ached with the cold, and her empty stomach was nauseated by the stink of the wharf. Her backpack clinked as she climbed the front steps. She’d found a few useful bits. Abalone shells, sea urchin spines, driftwood—the sort of trinkets the Life and Death folk could make use of but couldn’t get close enough to the water to gather for themselves.

In the early evening light, the ghostly chalk tracings of hexafoils—that surrounded the door frame and continued in paint across the threshold—seemed almost to glow. A comforting sign of protection. Turning her key in the lock, Marte leaned forward, set her shoulder to the swollen door and gave it a sharp bump. It squeaked inward slightly, showing only a crack of the familiar floorboards beyond. The damp Autumn nights were taking a toll on all the old houses.

She stepped up to have another crack, when gravity lurched away, the solidity of the door giving way beneath her as it was jerked open. From the hallway, came the hacksaw tone of her mother’s voice; “About bloody time!”

Off balance, Marte stumbled to the floorboards, swearing at the unexpected bolt of pain that ran up through her left knee and into her hip. Reaching up, she grasped the door handle to pull herself to her feet, trying her best to get a grip on the situation.

Her baby sister, Eve, was a squalling bundle in their mother’s arms, face red and rigid, as if about to implode, while their mum, Irena, was just as flushed, her usually pale skin mottled an ugly vermillion and white. Dressed to go out in the cold, she wore her pea-coloured coat, but both her temperature and mood were clearly on the rise. Irena’s fingers were gripped into tense claws behind Eve’s shoulders and she jiggled the baby painfully up and down, as though that might quieten the infant bleat somehow.

Treating herself to a deep breath and squaring off, Marte readied herself for the onslaught. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“I’m going to be late. Again!” Irena practically stamped her foot as she spoke.

Marte recoiled from the cool fleck of spit on her face. Months of pent-up frustration were bound up inside that one word and waiting to be let loose. Again. She fought the urge to look heavenward. “Okaaay…” they both heard the squeak of enamel as she gritted her teeth, barely containing it, her knuckles blanching as she throttled the door instead of something else. “And why is that my fault?”


As we’ve often noted with our First Pagers, it’s hard to get your bearings as a reader in a mere 400 words. We lack the clues of cover art and back copy to ground us, so we critiquers often have to guess where we are, what year it is, and what genre we’re reading. All this said, you can still wrangle in readers with a well-written tease, even lacking context.

So what do we have here? Where are we? What era is it? I’m not sure. I’m guessing it’s England (“You’re bloody late!”), somewhere near the sea (Marte has gathered shells). What year is it? We get an enticing clue — hexafoils on the door. If you don’t know the term hexafoil, you’re not alone. I suspected it was an old marking of some kind but I had to look it up. Hexafoils are designs that appear in religious art and architecture (ie stained glass windows) but they are also medieval graffiti found in barns, churches, rural buildings, scratched in wood or stone to ward off evil spirits.

Way cool! I’m in. Love reading about darkly lit corners of British folklore. I’m an Anglophile, especially if it’s the old stuff. (Just got done watching Elizabeth and Lion in Winter again and am currently reading Minette Walter’s doorstop of a novel about the black plague, The Last Hours. 

Problem is, with this submission are we in medieval England or present time? I can’t tell. The house is old, the door warped, but there is nothing else to tell us if this is 1769 or 2019. The proper names are vaguely old-fashioned sounding. Hexafoils (also called daisy wheels) are ancient but can still be seen everywhere in the England countryside. Marte is carrying a “backpack,” which is a modern word of American derivation. (as opposed to rucksack or knapsack). And when confronted by angry mother, she says, “Okaaaay,” which sounds like a petulant modern teen. So…we have confusion here, right off the bat.

old door with hexafoil carving

Which is a shame, because, like I said, I want to like this based on the small clues dropped about the daisy wheels and the mysterious Life and Death folk. I wanted to know more about them and why Marte was collecting trinkets for them.

But where does Marte go? Home — which needs a bit more description so we can tell where we are in time and space — and straight in the arms of a rather boring domestic scene. Yes, there is tension created when Mom begins to rag on Marte, but given the fact that Marte’s character is still a mere sketch so far, I didn’t care. My only emotion was to want to go back out that door as fast as possible.

I’m a bit at sea with this submission, because I am not sure what would make it stronger. And because there is some confusion about era and geography, I’m finding it hard to advise about a better way to begin this story. I can’t figure out what kind of person Marte is (even her age range) and why we, as readers, are being asked to enter her life at this particular point.  Especially since the clues about evil spirits and Life and Death folk are far more interesting than a crabby mom and squalling baby.

Maybe the writer is trying to show us Marte’s “before” life so when something does happen to her — the “after” — we will be intrigued and care about her journey.  But that, as James often points out, is a fatal mistake of many opening pages. Don’t show us the normal life and then up-end it. Get to the conflict and then you can go back and explain what happened.

Maybe you all can help me out here and be more articulate about this submission. It’s not bad, but there is something just off about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Let’s go to some specific points now:

Fox Blood and Family Anchors Not crazy about this title. If you’re writing about medieval ancient spirits in old or new England, you can do better.

By the time she got home, Marte’s hands and feet ached with the cold, and her empty stomach was nauseated by the stink of the wharf. So, does she live right by the wharf? Be more specific about where we are. Her backpack clinked as she climbed the front steps of her house. She’d found a few useful bits. Abalone shells, sea urchin spines, driftwood—the sort of trinkets the Life and Death folk could make use of but couldn’t get close enough to the water to gather for themselves.This, to my ear, is the most intriguing phrase in your opening. So somewhere there is a coven of weird folks who do magic with talismans from the sea but they can’t get near the water! 

In the early evening light, the ghostly chalk tracings of hexafoils—that surrounded the door frame and continued in paint across the threshold—seemed almost to glow. Another nice image, but a tad confusing. If they are chalk, that means they were put there recently since they would be erased in rain. So these are NEW daisy wheels? Who put them there? Did she do it? Why not tell us? A comforting sign of protection. Turning her key in the lock, Marte leaned forward, set her shoulder to the swollen door and gave it a sharp bump. It squeaked inward slightly, showing only a crack of the familiar floorboards beyond. The damp Autumn nights were taking a toll on all the old houses in where? Here is where you can slip it in.

She stepped up to have another crack, when gravity lurched away, the solidity of the door giving way beneath her as it was jerked open. Too much with the door, just get her inside. From the hallway, came the hacksaw tone of her mother’s voice; Not bad aural image there but could clean it up a bit. From the hallway came her mother’s hacksaw voice. And no semi-colon needed. “About bloody time!”

Off balance, Marte stumbled to the floorboards, swearing at the unexpected bolt of pain that ran up through her left knee and into her hip. Reaching up, she grasped the door handle to pull herself to her feet, trying her best to get a grip on the situation. Again, too much with the door. And what does “trying her best to get a grip on the situation” mean? She doesn’t even know what the situation is yet. Unless you had hinted before now that she KNEW she was late, that she had purposely lingered on the beach, not wanting to go home to this hell. As I said, you gave us so little about Marte before this, that it’s hard to care. 

Her baby sister, Eve, was a squalling bundle in their mother’s arms, face red and rigid, as if about to implode, while their mum, Irena, was just as flushed, her usually pale skin mottled an ugly vermillion and white. Mottled means marked with color, so you’ve double-stated the flushed/white/pale thing. Her pale face mottled with red spots. Dressed to go out in the cold, she wore her pea-coloured coat, but both her temperature and mood were clearly on the rise. Irena’s fingers were gripped into tense claws behind Eve’s shoulders not sure what you mean here. Isn’t she holding the baby? and she jiggled the baby painfully only the baby can feel the pain and you’re not in her POV. up and down, as though that might quieten the infant bleat somehow. The way you phrased this sentence sounds very old-fashioned, which is fine — if we are deep in the past.

Treating herself to a deep breath Treating herself? She just pulls in a deep breath. and squaring off, Marte readied herself for the onslaught.  Don’t overstate. If she pulled in a deep breath, that implies she is readying herself for something. Say it once and trust the reader to get it. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“I’m going to be late. Again!” Irena practically stamped her foot she either does or does not. as she spoke.

Marte recoiled from the cool fleck of spit on her face. Months of pent-up frustration were bound up inside that one word and waiting to be let loose. Again. Move this up before months and italicize it. She fought the urge to look heavenward. “Okaaay…” they both heard the squeak of enamel as she gritted her teeth, You’re letting your POV waver again. Stay with Marte. But rolling eyes heavenward, spittle, white knuckles and teeth gnashing is going overboard. We get it. We know she’s upset. Move on. barely containing it, her knuckles blanching as she throttled the doorwhy are we back with the door? instead of something else. “And why is that my fault?”

Again, I really liked the opening image of this person coming back from the beach bearing these things for the mysterious Life and Death folks. I’m almost thinking you came into your scene too late and I might even want to meet Marte on that lonely cold beach searching for her odd treasures. We might think she is a normal shell seeker but then you can start dropping hints as she thinks — is this bit of abalone the thing that will save me? Will this sea urchin spine set me free?

I think you might need to slow down and do a bit of world building here before you take her into mom-hell.

Consider, for a second, how much more compelling the beach scene could be — green roiling waves, cold wind, the sickly white sun sinking in the sea. Marte is hurrying to finish her chore of finding things for the weird people before dark.  Because evil things happen in the dark.  What is her mood? Is she scared of something? Is she depressed about going home? Yes, she can be thinking, but may be she sees someone strange watching her on a cliff? Or you can stage a scene on the beach with a stranger, so you get some dialogue. It might give you a chance to tell us something about the Life and Death people. You can imply danger, begin foreboding, and mirror Marte’s thoughts by using your unique location.  Instead of opening in a claustrophobic house amid a petty domestic scene (small canvas) maybe you need the outdoor backdrop (big canvas) to humanize your character and make us worry about what is going to happen to her. Does she have to take these weird trinkets to the Life and Death people? What is she thinking about THAT?  You need to inject an element of mystery.

A beach opening would also help you set your scene geographically better AND establish a mood, tone, and atmosphere. As it is, you have none of this yet. Remember, all good openings do several things:

  1. Introduce your main character.
  2. Set us in time and place.
  3. Establish a mood
  4. Begin to establish the central conflict (or at least hint at it)

You’ve done 1. but need to work on the other three. Here’s a test exercise: What color is your book? If you were designing the cover, what colors would you use? I have a hunch this book isn’t pink or periwinkle blue. Which is why I chose the stock photo I did at the top of this post. I feel a neo-gothic vibe here. 🙂

Chapter 2, you take her home…maybe. Because I don’t think your main story conflict is about mother-and-daughter. I hope it is something larger and more compelling.

Ask yourself: What does Marte want? Peace with mom? No, that’s too small, so why open with it?  What does Marte want in the deepest part of her soul? That is your story. That is what you have to hint about (the conflict) in the opening.

I know this is counter to what we often preach here about beginnings having to get out of the gate fast. But not every tale is a thriller. Your mood might be darker, your pace more measured. So go for it! Depending on your story and location, sometimes slower might be better.  IF…and this is a big if…you can find a way to make us care about Marte and wonder “what in the heck is that girl up to down there on that beach?”

Thanks writer, for letting me visit England again. Just make it — and Marte — come alive more!



Our Flawed But Fab Jury System
And a Few Other Favorite Things

By PJ Parrish

When you read this, I will be sitting on a hard plastic chair somewhere in the bowels of the Leon County Courthouse. Duty calls…

People go their entire lives without getting called to serve on a jury. Me, it’s like the common cold. It always finds me. And no matter what I say in voir dire, I have almost always gotten seated. Must be my honest face.

I’ve been called up nine times and been seated on seven juries. A couple cases were settled and the others were pretty ho-hum. A man we convicted of drunk driving, who luckily didn’t kill anyone. A city contractor caught driving a garbage truck without the proper permits who we convicted but knocked down his fine to $30 because he was a working guy. Then there was the woman who was suing a trucking company for hitting her car, claiming extreme emotional and physical distress. It was so bad, her tearful daughter vowed on the stand, that mom became a recluse who couldn’t walk or even reach down to pet her dog Charlie.  So sad…until the insurance company’s lawyer showed us a video of the woman coming out of a strip mall, holding her hands high, a gesture I immediately recognized as someone who had just gotten her nails done. A second video showed her bending down, grabbing the floor mat out of her car and banging the hell out of it against a curb to get the dirt out. I think we awarded her a couple hundred bucks toward medical bills. Or a new manicure..

I always thought these mundane cases had no real effect on people’s lives. Until the last jury I served on. It involved a cop and a black teenager. The cop was accusing the kid of assault after a routine traffic stop. To make a long story short, the cop’s case didn’t hold water and after about an hour of deliberation, we decided the kid didn’t do it. I will never forget the sight of that kid and his mom breaking down and sobbing after the verdict.

Life, when it really hits you in the face, is always stranger and more poignant than fiction.

So tomorrow, as I sip my cup of bad vending machine coffee and await my turn, I will be thinking again of our peer judicial system. Flawed as it may be, as it still has the power to humble me. If you’ve got any stories to tell about your own brushes with it, weigh in today while I am tied up. (I will try to reply as I can, if the wifi is working.)

Or you can have some fun and play the following game. It’s called These Are A Few of My Favorite Weird Things. Hit it, Maria!


(Aren’t you glad I spared you a video of Julie Andews?)

1. Favorite Movie Most People Have Never Seen

Mine is the Bagdad Cafe. It is a 1987 comedy-drama set in a desolate truck stop and motel in the Mojave Desert. I’m told it’s loosely based on Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, but I’ll be danged if I see it. It’s about two women, a lonely German tourist and an irascible black mom, who chuck their husbands and form an unlikely friendship. Jack Palance is great as Rudy Cox, a strange Hollywood set designer who desperately wants to paint the zaftig Frau Münchgstettner.  At first, the movie feels just weird and angry. But it  weaves a magic about how one person can change another’s life. And the song I’m Calling You (nominated for Oscar) is haunting:

2. Favorite Book Nobody Else Has Read

Mine is Time And Again by Jack Finney. I don’t remember how I discovered this book. Probably in a used book store on one of my pre-Kindle travels because I always run out of things to read and have to scout out the nearest English-language bookstore. Actually, lots of folks know about this book. Stephen King calls it “a great time-travel novel” and I think our own James has mentioned it. In a nutshell:

When advertising artist Si Morley is recruited to join a covert government operation exploring the possibility of time travel, he jumps at the chance to leave his twentieth-century existence and step into New York City in January 1882. Aside from his thirst for experience, he has good reason to return to the past—his friend Kate has a curious, half-burned letter dated from that year, and he wants to trace the mystery. But when Si begins to fall in love with a woman he meets in the past, he will be forced to choose between two worlds—forever.

It was written in 1970 and supposedly Robert Redford tried to make a movie out of it. Lionsgate recently optioned it again. In 1980, the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour weeper Somewhere In Time used the exact same time-travel technique as Finney’s book. The book has lots of cool photos of old New York.

3. Favorite Disgusting Food

On my first trip to Paris with husband two, we were young and foolish. Our French was pretty bad back then and there was no such thing as iTranslate. We went to a restaurant called Le Petit Zinc and, feeling frisky, ordered something called ris de veau. It was delicious, tasty meaty morsels swimming in Madeira mushroom sauce. We finally asked the waiter what it was, and he had his fun with us, saying “C’est testicules.”  That we understood.  We didn’t care.

4. Favorite Thing To Do When No One Is Looking

Sing Bohemian Rhapsody in the car. Very loudly.

5. Favorite Opposite-Sex Guilty Pleasure Movie

Okay, guys have to tell their favorite girl flick. Ladies have to come up with a man-movie. I have a couple favorite guy movies, like The Guns of Navarone and all the Dirty Harry movies. But I never turn down a chance to watch The Dirty Dozen. I’ll stop channel-surfing and watch it. Can’t help it. It gets to me every time.

6. Favorite Book I Wish I Had Written

I like everything Joyce Carol Oates writes. Even when she’s off, she’s better than 99 percent of the writers out there. I discovered her with 1986’s Marya and followed her through her normal literary stuff, and her detours into crime fiction and erotica. But the book that always stayed with me is Because It Is Bitter And Because It Is My Heart. Set in the early 1950s, it tells the story of the friendship between a young white girl named Iris Courtney and black teenager Jinx Fairchild. They are united by a murder that they commit in self-defense. I wasn’t writing crime fiction when I read this, but I believe this book planted the seeds in my sub-conscious to want to explore the psychology of murder that colors my own work to this day. Here’s the opening.

“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift from the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It’s the buglelike cries of gulls that alert the fisherman—gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy white heads and tail feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.

Every time I read it, it makes me want to be a better writer.

7. Favorite Weird TV Show

When I was a kid, my dad used to let me stay up late to watch One Step Beyond. It was an anthology about the paranormal and anything that defied logic. The phlegmatic John Newland (“Your guide to the supernatural”) would tee up every episode with the disclaimer that they were based on “the true human record” as this great creepy music played in the background (“Fear” composed by Harry Lubin and covered by the Ventures in 1964. Click here to listen.) This was unlike The Twilight Zone, which debuted nine months later and was fictional. This was REAL! Really cool stories with cool actors (one episode paired Warren Beatty and Joan Fontaine.) My dad loved this show. But then he also sat out in the yard with his binoculars looking for flying saucers.

8. Favorite Bucket List Thing I Probably Won’t Get Around To Doing

I really want to go to the moon. NASA estimates that a round-trip ticket to the ISS on the SpaceX Crew Dragon or the Boeing CST-100 Starliner would cost about $58 million. I don’t have enough Sky Miles for that.  So I will settle for parachuting out of a plane. If George H.W. Bush can do it at age 90, I still have hope. My husband tells me he will veto this, so I will just have to outlive him.



Cracking The Big Mystery
Behind The Bestseller Lists


The bestseller list is the tip of the iceberg. — Michael Korda

By PJ Parrish

William Peter Blatty was hot off the blockbuster success of his book The Exorcist when he met the devil he couldn’t defeat — the New York Times best seller list.

Angered that his novel Legion, the sequel to The Exorcist, didn’t make the list, he sued the Times for $6 million, claiming the Times ignored actual sales figures from his publisher and that Legion was kept off the list because of “either negligence or intentional falsehood.”

It gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.

The Times, which had always claimed that the list was compiled from computer sales,  countered in court that its list “was not mathematically objective but was editorial content and thus protected under the Constitution as free speech.”  Blatty appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Thus the ruling stood that the New York Times bestseller list was “editorial content, not objective factual content” and that they had the right to exclude whatever book they wanted.

And that, crime dogs, is pretty much where we still stand today.  How any book cracks the New York Times bestseller list remains, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous quote about Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in fish wrap.”

I used to dream about being a bestseller.  Because this is what happens: Your publisher takes you to dinner at Le Bernardin. You get a new seven-figure contract with cover approval and world tour. Spielberg buys the rights. Your agent starts to return your calls. And you make so much dough your long-lost brother from Bullhead hits you up for a car loan.

Like I said…it’s just dream. We actually did make the Times list, with our third book Paint It Black. It was only what they call the “extended list” which means we didn’t crack the top 15 but hey, we hung on our toenails for a while.  We made the extended list two other times but have not repeated the feat recently. But that’s okay, because it’s sort of like making Eagle Scout. Once you get your badge, no one can take it away and you can wear that badge until your teeth fall out.

So I am not here to tell you that making a bestseller list is a fool’s goal. It doesn’t open doors so much as widen the crack, and it gives you credibility with readers, booksellers, critics and such. But I am here today to ask you not to think about it much. Because the bestseller list game is sort of rigged.

This is not news to many of you. But whenever I am asked about this subject by readers or some newbie writers, I am always shocked at their naïveté. What, you’re telling me it’s not based on real book sales? they gasp.

I don’t think much about bestseller lists anymore. I don’t even look at them when I read my New York Times book review section. But yesterday I did stop and read the paper’s “Inside the Times” article.  It was titled “We Don’t Have to Like ‘Best Sellers’.”  In it, once again, the Times felt compelled to explain to the world how it compiles its lists.

This controversy is not new. A book industry report in the 1940s found that best-seller lists were a poor indicator of sales, since they were based on “misleading data.” Fast-forward to a 2004 report that quoted a senior book marketing executive who said the rankings were “smoke and mirrors,” and a report in Book History found that many professionals in the book industry “scoffed at the notion that the lists are accurate.”

And writers have been trying to game the Times system since before the quill pen.  Jacquelyn Susann and Wayne Dwyer, among others, bulk-bought their own books to get on the list. And until recently, you could hire a company called ResultSource that would contract with you to manipulate lists through “bestseller campaigns.” (I tried to find their website but apparently ResultSource has since gone dark).

Last summer, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But the YA Twitter community discovered it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem. The author and her publisher bought the book’s way onto the list by strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. The Times quickly removed the book from its list.

So it’s no surprise the Times is still playing defense. Here’s a sample from their Q&A yesterday:

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists.

Translation: The Times has a network of “reporting stores” which include selected independent bookstores and some but not all big-store outlets. The last figure I found was 4,000 stores and “undisclosed wholesalers.” The exact methodology is considered a trade secret. I have been told by store owners that the reporting figures are not even based on actual sales to customers but on the number of books ordered to stock.

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists. A number of variables go into whether a book will rank on a given week. Weeks where there are blockbuster debuts in multiple categories will be different from quieter weeks. Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering.

Do the books have to have been reviewed in The New York Times?

Books that get ranked may or may not get reviewed by the Book Review and vice versa. Our best-seller lists and the editorial decisions of The Times’s book editors and critics are entirely independent. This means our lists are not a judgment of literary merit made by the editors of the best-seller lists, who remain impartial to the results. These are best-seller lists, not best-reviewed lists.

Translation: But if you happen to work at the Times, some critics have charged, your book will not only get reviewed but it has a pretty good chance of being “considered” by the panel of folks who watch over the list. Which leads us to…

How do The Times’s ranking methods ensure objectivity?

The best-sellers desk is staffed by three full-time editors who work independently from our news, opinion and culture desks; from the Book Review and the books desk; and from our advertising department. Our nonfiction lists feature books from authors across ideological and political spectrums. In the last year, politicians and commentators who identify as conservative have performed as well as, if not better than, liberal ones on our lists. Trends depend on publishing schedules and what is happening in the cultural zeitgeist.

One question they don’t address, but one I am asked often is: How many books does it take to crack a list?  It depends…

On who else you’re competing against that week. On what time of year it is. On whether someone has a similar book already out there. And on what list you’re aiming for. The general figure these days (way down from the olden days when I started out) is you need to sell at least 5,000 in one week.  But that means from Monday to Sunday if you want to be a Publishers Weekly best-seller, and from Sunday to Saturday if you want to be a New York Times best-seller.

It’s a jungle out there, Martha. Even if you want to aim a little lower, say for USAToday, The Wall Street Journal, a regional list like the Chicago Tribune or maybe Indiebound, you have a whole different set of hoops to jump through for each. Every bestseller list out there is compiled differently. Here’s a breakdown I found at Vox.com:

Publishers Weekly: Compiles data from the Nielsen service BookScan, which is what most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales. BookScan claims it tracks 80-85  percent of the sales of printed books in the U.S. (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores.) But it does not track books sold at independent bookstores that use older systems incompatible with BookScan’s tracking, or books sold outside of the general bookstore ecosystem, ie, at conferences or gift shops or toy stores, or even sales to libraries. It also doesn’t track the sales of e-books.

USA Today: Gets its data from both a handful of independent bookstores and many of the usual-suspect big sellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, etc. It doesn’t make any claims about what share of books sales it tracks, so it’s a broad sampling of books sold every week from different types of stores. Again, like BookScan, it does not track books being sold outside the bookstore ecosystem.  It doesn’t divide its list into any specific categories, but instead reports the top 150 titles sold across all genres and in all formats except for audio. So your crime novel will compete against Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I know, I know…insane.

Indiebound: This is compiled by the American Booksellers Association. The ABA uses sales data drawn from about 550 independent bookstores to create its list, but it doesn’t rank titles by overall sales volume. Instead, it weights the books on its list according to the sales rank each one reaches at each individual store. I don’t understand that either but there it is…

Amazon: It has two different best-seller lists: Amazon Charts and Amazon Best Sellers. Charts comes out once a week, tracking the books that have sold the most copies in any format (on Amazon, and in its Kindle store, Audible store, and brick-and-mortar storefronts), and the most read or listened-to books on Kindle and Audible. It’s not broken down by category or format, and it only reflects what’s happening on Amazon and its subsidiaries. (Since Amazon has a 65 percent market share, that’s actually a pretty decent sampling.) Amazon Best Sellers, in contrast, is updated once an hour, and it is broken down by categories. This latter one is what we crime dogs fixate on.

Okay, you’re saying, what about us self-published guys? Do we have a chance at getting on any kind of list? Yes, you can crack the Amazon list.  We got to no. 1 briefly in the thriller category when we self-published our back-list title Dead of Winter. And it used to be alot easier before Amazon started messing with their algorhithms. There was a story every week about some self-pubbed phenom. But for reason behind my ken, that has tapered off. (Maybe some of you can explain in comment?) I did see a figure this week that was astonding — that you need to sell between 3,500 to 5,000 copies in a 24-hour period to hit no. 1 on Amazon. But then I also read recently that Lee Child sells a book every eight seconds…

By the way…those three books at the top of this blog today? You might recognize them. You might not know that they were all self-published before they were massive bestsellers.

But what about the Gray Lady? Well, according to their Q&A yesterday, here are the books they don’t track:  “perennial sellers, shopping guides, comics, reference and test preparation guides, required classroom reading, textbooks, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, puzzle books and self-published books.” If if makes you feel any better, this means the Bible doesn’t qualify. Neither does The New York Times Monday Through Friday Crossword Book, even though it is currently #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

So, does this matter? Is this something you should you worry about this?

Well, it’s a gold star on your homework, but it isn’t a true gauge of success. And here’s something weird I found:  Hitting the Times list works better for unknown  authors than the Lee Childs of the world.

According to an economics professor Alan Sorensen, who has studied the effect of bestseller lists on sales of hardcover fiction, relatively unknown writers get the biggest benefit, as much as a 57% increase in sales. But for perennial best-selling authors such as John Grisham, being on the list makes virtually no difference in sales. Most sales occur soon after a book hits the shelves and gradually peter out. “If anything, what appearing on the [bestseller] list does is not so much cause your sales to increase from one week to the next, but rather to decrease at a slower rate,” Sorensen said.

Why can’t the bestseller system be fixed?

With the sophistication of software now, you’d think there would be a better way to keep track of real book sales. The model, some say, is the music industry, with its bestseller list in Billboard. The magazine tracks every single album sold at every single music store in the United States. SoundScan, the company that began tracking CD and tape sales with a bar code system, was the force behind the creation of Bookscan.  But BookScan is too expensive for many bookstore owners.

And here’s the bigger rub: The publishing industry really doesn’t want a single list of what’s really selling. They want lots of different lists that they can manipulate to benefit their own bailiwicks.

So…write your book and kept your heads down, crime dogs. The rest will come.

Which brings us back to William Blatty.  Despite great reviews, The Exorcist laid such a giant sales egg at first that Harper and Row reported getting returns by “the carload.” But then sales took off and the book made the New York Times bestseller list for 57 straight weeks and at the No 1 spot for 17 of them.

And years later, not long after Blatty filed his lawsuit against the New York Times, Legion made it all the way to no. 15 the Times list for one week.



Does Your Cover Need
a New Year’s Makeover?

“A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” — Chip Kidd, Random House cover designer

By PJ Parrish

Welcome back, crime dogs. It’s the new year! Out with the old, in with the new!

So today, as you think about how you might want to improve yourself this year — botox? go blond? organize the sock drawer? — maybe you should take a moment to re-look your book branding.

Oh dear…Just hours into 2019 and I’ve lost some of you already. Branding…ugh. I can barely think about what’s going on in chapter 12 let alone worry about how I am going to make splash (or even a ripple) in the ocean of books that will be published this year.  Let’s get the bad news out of the way first:

That chart shows the number of self-published books from 2008 through just 2017. I know, I know. Discouraging. So how do you increase your chances of getting noticed and maybe even making a few shekels? Let’s restate the obvious:

  1. Be a bestselling writer already
  2. Get a James Patterson co-author gig
  3. Get lucky.
  4. Write a really good book
  5. Do everything in your power to give it a good launch.

The only two you have any control over are 4 and 5. So let’s start there. Let’s also not go into promotion and marketing right now because that hydra-headed monster is too much for me to handle here. And besides, it depresses the hell out of me, and my only new year’s resolution this year is to try to focus on positive stuff because the negative stuff will find me at every turn.

Let’s talk, instead, about one of my favorite subjects — great covers. This is foremost in my writer brain in this new year because my sister Kelly and I are hard at work getting our back list titles ready to post. Our oldest came out 18 years ago (geez…) so, it’s time for a make-over. Besides, when you get your rights back and want to reissue your books, you legally can’t use the same covers your old publisher did. Which, as many of you poor souls know, can turn out to be a good thing.  More on that later…

How important are  covers? Industry folks believe a cover is the single most important thing in determining a book’s initial chance for success. A great cover makes a book stand out and thus easier to sell. For you the author, it is your only chance at a first impression. It’s like your own face, capable of conveying emotion, inner feelings, mood — what’s inside!

So, how do you make a great first impression?

If you are traditionally published, you have little or no control over this. Publishers have teams of marketing folks and artistic types that agonize over this (or in some sad cases, don’t). I’ve worked with Big Six publishers, small presses, Amazon’s mystery imprint Thomas & Mercer, plus many international imprints. In 30-plus years publishing romance, mysteries and thrillers, I’ve had some terrific covers and some howling dogs.

(See image at left…arf! arf!) My involvement in the cover process has ranged from no input, cover consultation written in my contract, and being asked to fill out an extensive questionaire about what I thought my cover should convey (by Thomas & Mercer, who also asked us to send photos we liked and allowed us to chose between two final covers).

But what about those of you who are self-publishing? That’s why I am writing this today, because, as I said, I am now a publisher myself and Kelly and I have been agonizing over this.

Here are some qualities of good covers, suggested by the site Trending/Packaging, with a few comments from me in red italics.

  • It needs a good title/ subtitle. Which is why I rail so often in my First Page critiques about innocuous or trite titles.
  • It must draw the potential reader’s attention towards the book. Like a great billboard does as you sped by in your car.
  • It should communicate with the reader on an emotional level. So important! Generic doesn’t cut it.
  • It must be unique. All books are different from each other, similarly, every book cover should also be unique to make it different from other covers. Easier said than done.
  • It should look professional. Well, duh. But just go look at some of the free offerings on Amazon to see how many fail at this. Or this site, subtitled Just Because You CAN Design Your Own Cover Doesn’t Mean You Should. 
  • It should clearly give an idea of the category of the book whether it is a horror story or a love story etc. What is your tone? Dark, lighthearted, noir, romantic?
  • It should communicate the message about the quality of the book. There is a huge difference between the covers of different qualities of books. Again, click here for what not to do. 
  • It should tell the reader what your genre or sub-genre is — fiction, non-fiction, biography, romance, thriller, etc. Readers want to know what kind of story they are getting and don’t like to be confused.

To be sure, publishers tend to be lemming-like when it comes to cover design. Hey, if basic black worked for Gone Girl, why not all its sisters? Liane Moriarity’s Little Big Lies unleashed an explosion of lollipop covers. And this trend seems evergreen — the imperiled girl/woman in the red coat:

As this is a favorite theme among man books — the shadowy guy with the gun.

Please note I show these not as any reflection of the quality of the books. I know many of these folks and they are talented all. I have read many of these books. I’d guess few of these writers get heavily involved in their cover design. Just showing that publishers themselves tend to run in packs. (Oh…I will send a free book to the first person who can tell me why the Lee Child book is somewhat out of place here).

Speaking of trends, a while back, I wrote a post about what was hot in cover design in 2018. Click here to see examples but to sum up:

  • Bold typography
  • Minimalist covers
  • Hand-drawn covers
  • Seventies and eighties designs
  • Millennial Pink
  • Collages
  • Authentic photography
  • Upscale finishes

I think we can all breath a sigh of relief that “millennial pink” is probably passe by now. The others, I believe, still stand. I see them holding true every time I pass through a bookstore or browse Amazon. But I don’t think we crime dogs should get too hung up on this.  What I think we should pay attention to is:

  • Professionalism
  • Consistency of brand
  • Messaging

Professsionalism means you can’t get away with a lousy, cheap-looking cover. Because it yells in neon to a potential reader “I am an amateur!” This applies especially if you are just starting out. Like they used to tell us in “women’s magazines” — dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Don’t design your own cover unless you have solid graphic background and even then — GET INPUT! Would you edit your own story? No…you get beta-readers, you hire copy editors. (If you do edit your own books, you’re a fool). You might have to hire a pro to do this. There are lots of good ones out there. Please don’t skimp on this. Please.

Consistency of Brand means your books have to look alike. I don’t mean literally, but they have to all be of a kind so potential readers can immediately sense a unified brand.  All good authors do this. And periodically, they go back in and re-design their older books en masse to give them face lifts. Time for an object lesson….

My friend Neil Plakcy (a member of my old critique group) has been publishing his Golden Retriever mystery series for about ten years now. His books are a lot of fun (the dog helps solve the crime), light in tone, but also deal with some serious issues. (his hero did prison time for computer crimes.) Recently, Neil decided he needed a make-over.  The first line is before, the second line is after. Click to see enlarged.

What was wrong with the first ones? Inconsistency in type-faces. Type too small. The main important image (the dog!) was usually too small and static (the dog is just sitting or standing around mainly). No one compelling image for the eye to focus on. The pictures didn’t capture the books’ playful tone. Dull colors. And hard to find Neil’s name!

What is right with the second ones? The type is consistent and DOG is set bigger and in contrasting color to drive home the content in a glance. The subtitle “A Golden Retriever Mystery” is always the same size and in the same place. Neil’s name is consistent and authoritative. There is negative space for blurbs. And the dogs are so cute they make you want to adopt them. These covers look designed, not slapped together.

Disclaimer time: My sister Kelly designed the new covers. She does this as a side business and this is not an infomercial to get her work because I don’t want her attention on anything else but our stuff for now. But she and I also are redesigning our own back list covers.  And, I gotta tell you, it’s not been easy. 

Our departure point was our newest book, THE DAMAGE DONE. It has a very distinctive cover. And we decided we wanted all our previous books — which had been published by three different companies —  to be “branded” with the same look.

I was always impressed with the covers of Stephanie Meyers Twilight series. Stark black backgrounds each with one strong image and interesting type. They were beautiful, simple, revolutionary at the time and still copied to this day.  I suspect they were in my back-brain when we started redesigning our old books. These books were about vampires yet the covers had a dark elegance. The tone was spot-on.

Our first decision was tone. Our Louis Kincaid books are PI/police procedurals, rather dark in tone. We didn’t want to look too “thriller” with screaming type. We wanted each book to have a person on it because we think readers relate to books with human beings rather than say, a static photo of the Capital building or a rundown farmhouse. This is just our taste. Yours is different, so you must figure out what TYPE OF GRAPHIC IMAGE best conveys your story. We decided to go with black backgrounds and red title type. I studied advertising design in college and red and yellow on dark background is the most eye-grabbing combo. Red conveys power and immediacy. (Blue conveys trust; orange is hip and fun; purple signals prestige and elegance). Black is a powerful neutral but adds drama when paired with the right contrasting color. I think this is why Katherine Hepburn liked to wear red scarves and Nancy Reagan wore red. (She was barely 5-foot-4 and claimed it made her feel more powerful. I get that…)

Second, we had to find the right images. I can’t count the hours Kelly and I paged through the stock photo sites looking — praying — to find that one great photograph. And we paid for them — ranging from a splurge of $375 for a Getty Image photo to $35-$70 from such sites as iStock, Stutterstock, Deposit Photo, Dreamstime. All these latter are very reasonable with clear licensing guidelines. You get what you pay for. Invest wisely.

Big caveat: You have to look beyond the original photo sometimes. Sometimes, a creative cropping can make it more powerful. Or you play around with it, lightening, darkening etc. This is why you need design help because a successful cover is often made in tweaking the details.  Here’s an example: We are also putting out a collection of our short stories. Here is the photo we bought for the cover. Pretty cool looking dame, huh? Just as is, it could have worked. But…

But we wanted an off-kilter, more mysterious feel and needed some negative space for type. And sometimes, a glimpse of stocking (or a woman’s face) can be much more shocking. So here is what we did with it:


We continued our lady’s face around the spine and onto the back for effect. Here’s the final full cover, spine and back art.

If you work with a good designer, you and she can tweak things until you get what you want.

Third, we were very particular about the type we wanted. Like colors, typefaces have their own psychological effect. Look at the different moods you can create just from basic Word software:

I love typefaces. But I fell really hard for Luca Pacioli Rough.  It was used in the credits for House of Cards. It’s elegant but edgy. (which is what we were going for overall). Kelly found it and downloaded it free. (Some fonts are restricted, however).

Okay, time for another object lesson.  On the top row are some of our books as they were put out by the original publishers years ago. The bottom row are our new designs, all made to meet our three criteria of professionalism, consistency of brand and messaging. Click to enlarge.

All the new covers are consistent in tone. They all use one strong graphic element and same fonts. Notice, in particular, THE KILLING SONG. This is one of our stand alones and we always thought the original cover was weak. Yes, the letters are bold and there’s some dripping blood on what looks like a weathered farm house or something. But the story takes place mainly in Paris and is about a sophisticated cellist who just happened to have a habit of killing woman and leaving bizarre musical clues. The original cover missed the mark on tone and on conveying anything about setting or story. Music was the main point. Somebody at our publishing house had a tin ear.

If you’ll bear with me, let me give you one more example from our own collection. Call it the Evolution of a Cover.  Our tenth Louis Kincaid book was called The Little Death.

At left is the original cover: I defy you to tell me what it is about or where it takes place. It appears that some kind of plant is burning, but what does that mean? What the heck is this book about? Well, the story takes place in Palm Beach society. It is about a clique of rich women who take young male lovers then things go wrong and they must “dispose” of them. The title is a French idiom, “La Petite Mort,” for orgasm.  Our French publisher came a lot closer to getting the point. All his covers for our books were well-branded, featuring the same typefaces, and one strong graphic image against black backgrounds. In this case, it was an orchid — which is a major clue in the book and the means by which Louis finally cracks the case. It also looks sort of sexy. 

At left, is what we have come up with so far. We are still working on this cover — it was really hard to find the right image — but here is what we started with. We are tweaking this image, however, because we think it is a little too, forgive the pun, in your face. We might take out the dripping blood. We might go with something else entirely. But at least it won’t be a burning bush…

Whew…boy, did I run at the mouth today. Must have been holding all this in during the holiday hiatus. Anywho, that’s it for Cover Art 101 today. I could rail on this subject for hours. But I’d rather hear what you all think — as readers and writers.  What turns you on, what turns you off? Can you truly judge a book by its cover?



How To Increase Your Daily
Word Count — Stop Eating!

By PJ Parrish

Every year about this time I start thinking about Lee Child. Dontcha just hate the guy? Here’s why:

  1. He’s an international mega-bestseller.
  2. He’s put out a book a year for 21 years and they are good.
  3. He’s got that good Brit thing going. David Beckham not Boris Johnson.
  4. He’s the first guy to pick up the bar tab, even if it’s for a hundred people.
  5. He’s tall. (ask him where he came up with the name Jack Reacher)
  6. He’s charming. (see reason 3)
  7. He writes 2,000 words a day. Every day.

That last one is the reason I really hate the guy. Okay, I don’t hate him. But I do envy him for his work ethic, consistency, and  productivity. He is always on my mind as we edge up toward January 1 and begin to make resolution lists. He’s a role model for any of us, wherever we are on the publishing food chain. Write often, write well. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Lee was among the contributors to Fastcompany.com’s “Secrets of the Most Productive People” series. His routine is simple: He starts each new book on September 1. It’s sentimental, he says, but also forces structure. He gets up between 7 and 8 a.m., has the first of his thirty cups of daily coffee.  He writes before he eats. “If I’m hungry, then I’m on the ball,” he says. He has two computers at different ends of his room. One is connected to the internet and one is not. Guess which one he writes on? “When I want to go online, I have to walk across the room, which usually disincentivizes me,” he says. He goes to bed between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. The last thing he does at night is smoke a joint.

So, take what lessons you will from that. The lesson I get is that he has a forced structure. He is focused. He approaches his writing like a job. Which is pretty basic, but something that eludes many of us who are blown away by the first distracting breeze. The laundry needs folding. The kids sound like they’re killing each other. That thing in the Tupperware has now grown a coat of fur. Speaking of fur, I need to send my sister that video of dancing pugs I saw on Facebook…

Are there truly any “secrets” to productivity? I don’t think so. If you ask successful people how they do what they do, their answers tend to repeat and are duh-fully common-sense.

1. Turn off the internet.  It’s a time-sucking Circe. If you, like me, turn to it to get a fix when the writing is going badly, well, Bunky, it’s time to cut the cord. Don’t check your email. Don’t answer that text alert. And don’t call up Google in the name of research when you’re really afraid to face chapter 6. The trick that works for me is to take my laptop to a place with no internet. Amazing how interesting your novel gets when all you have to look at is the wall. Maybe you don’t have the luxury of two computers like Lee, but you can disable your browser during work time.  There are even programs that do it for you: StayFocused, Anti-Social, SelfControl and my favorite — Write or Die.

2. Figure out your peak writing hours. In my salad days, I was a night owl. I wrote my first novel between 9 p.m. and midnight while I was working full-time. Somewhere around age 55, I started getting up at dawn, so now I am an annoying morning person. I read the paper, have my coffee, walk the dogs, then get to work around 11 a.m. My batteries conk out about  3 p.m. so I usually quit. Now if you have a job, you have to carve out time — one to two hours a day with maybe Sunday off is enough to finish a book if you’re consistent.  You have to make your family understand this.

3. Show up.  Yeah, sounds pretty basic, but this one is the hardest for me. I am not a daily writer. There, I said it.  I am trying very very hard to change this. Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up. He’s right. If you hit 80 percent, you’re doing good. And you have to show up on the bad days, even if you don’t feel like writing, especially when you don’t feel like writing. Another one of Fastcompany.com’s contributors is P.K. Subban, who plays for the Nashville Predator’s hockey team. “Sometimes you get out there and your body is feeling great, and you don’t have to push it,” he says. “Sometimes you get out there and your legs feel like they’re 80 pounds apiece, and you gotta do a little extra.”

4. Quit trying to be so damn perfect. This is my other downfall, the quest for the pretty page. Maybe Hemingway really did sit down every day and sweat out one true sentence. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Just turn on the faucet and let it flow. You can weed out the roughage later. Jodi Piccoult sticks a pin in the need for perfection: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

5. Be accountable to someone. This is easy if you are under contract. You’ll know how much trouble you’re in by the intensity of your editor’s emails. But if you’re flying on Spec Air, the sky is, unfortunately, limitless. If you’re on your first book with no contract, set a deadline and appoint someone as your “editor.” You need a nag, someone to hold your nose to the grindstone.  Laura Vanderkam, an author and time management expert (oxymoron?) says, “You’re not going to want to share with a friend, co-worker or career coach that you did not reach your goal this week, month, etc. So recruit a friend or family member or hire someone to help improve your productivity.” Critique groups work wonders if the group is well-structured. So can a nagging spouse. Mine is yelling at me right now telling me to finish this blog and get back to the book.

 6. Let the house or yard (or whatever you obsess over) go to hell. The average American spends about 30 minutes per day on household chores (not counting food prep and cleanup). I have trouble with this because I am a neat freak. But I grit my teeth and try to ignore it or I set one afternoon aside and do my dervish-dirt routine. Set a 15-minute timer for tidying up. If it doesn’t happen during this time, it wasn’t important. Except that moldy thing in fridge.

7. Turn off the TV: Americans with full-time jobs still manage to watch more than two hours of TV per day. Even if you trim that to 90 minutes that leaves 30 minutes to write. I was never more productive than the week up in Michigan this summer when our cable went out. You can only watch so many Gunsmoke reruns before the WIP starts to look really interesting.

8. Find time for down time.  We talk about this one a lot here, but it’s important. Get out and take a walk. It’s scientifically proven to increase productivity. Maybe it’s just around the block, but it’s better than logging onto Facebook.  Run or do yoga. Just move. Your book will thank you for it.

9. Reward yourself.  This one is nothing more than a blatant excuse to show you a picture of my new dog Archie. He’s a rescue and he’s got some issues, like peeing in the laundry room and barking at everyone he meets. The peeing thing is because he’s got a tiny bladder and eventually he’ll get that under control. The barking, well, that’s a bad habit. And like all bad habits, it can be changed. I researched how to  retrain him and found out dogs can be incentivized by — wait for it — food!  When someone approaches, I say a key word (ours is “focus!”) and hold out a kibble. It gets his attention away from the person and onto the reward.  It is working. Strange, isn’t it, that I chose “focus!” as the trigger word. So, whatever turns you on — Gummi Bears, a deep-muscle massage, an hour of uninterrupted Gunsmoke reruns — set that as your reward but only after you have banged out 2,000 words.  Be like Archie — focus then eat a kibble.

10. Stay positive.  Being negative is counterproductive. Whether the negativity comes from the outside (relatives who tell you your wasting your time on that book) or inside (I will never get published).  It’s bad for your health, it’s bad for your book. Yeah, your book sucks at times (we all feel like that), but you have power over it. And remember that even Lee Child has doubts:

When I start a book, I have no idea what the plot is going to be. I try to come up with a good opening sentence, and then I think, “Great,” and go from there. I write about 2,000 words a day. I don’t revise, because I have this mental oddity where I think once the story is written, changing it would feel dishonest. You can’t do that in real life. I get clarity from doing hypnotic tasks. Many writers get ideas in the shower. You don’t have to concentrate, so you can let your mind wander. I feel the same way when I drive. It clears my mind.

We are nearing January 1 resolution time. Go forth, my children, and be productive…








When Should A Story End?

Vincent the Lost dog with dead friend

I suppose sequels are inevitable for a writer of a certain age. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

We’re binge-watching Breaking Bad in my house lately. I know, I know…I am the last one to the party, but now I am hooked. Great characters (and a lesson in how writers can make even the most reprehensible people sympathetic). Great plotting (and a lesson on how writers should strive to make each plot point arise organically from character).  And each episode ends with a cliff-hanger.

We’re almost to the end. So the husband and I looked at each other last night and said, “how in the heck are they going to tie this up?” And the first thing I thought was:

Please, don’t let it be another Lost.

Do you remember Lost? The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were 1,000 miles off course when they crashed on a lush mysterious island. Each person had a shocking secret, but so did the island — an underground group of violent survivalists that made The Time Machine’s Morlocks look like teletubbies.  I loved that show, grooving on its nerdy sci-fi cum mythology thing. But somewhere around season three, things started to get…dumb. I was mentally exhausted trying to make sense of it all (what’s with the polar bear? Who cares how Jack got his tattoos?) and finally, I gave up. Plus I was too worried that Vincent the Labrador Retriever would get killed. One by one, all his owners did.

I think what happened with Lost was that it was so hot that ABC got cynical and said, “Find any way to keep it going!” It felt like the writers were just winging it, with no real thoughtful end ever in sight. (This happened with season two of the original Twin Peaks, you remember). Apparently, I should have toughed it out with Lost. Rabid fans tell me the writers found their focus again and that I missed a great payoff. Today, the series is being reassessed as break-through serial television, giving TV bean-counters the guts to take chances on great stuff like Game of Thrones and yes, Breaking Bad.

All this was on my mind the other day because I read an intriguing article in the New York Times by Amanda Hess called “The Curse of the Never-Ending Story.” Click here to read it. Hess bemoans the trend of turning stories into franchises that trudge across Hulu and populate Amazon like zombies, always alive when they should be dead.

Today, the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book: Stories that extend indefinitely, their plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams. Or maybe every story is a soap opera now: Nobody is dead forever, not Dan Conner of Roseanne and definitely not the superhero genocide victims of Infinity War. To Hollywood’s bean-counters, sequels are mere brand extensions of intellectual property. The logic of the  internet is colonizing everything.

So far this decade, 17 of the top 20 top grossing movies were sequels. Television is eating itself alive with reboots (Lost in Space, Will & Grace, and egad, Murphy Brown wearing a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt). And apparently, there are second acts in American life: Harry Potter made it to Broadway.

I am not sure what this means for us novelists. For those of us who write series crime fiction, it can be a struggle to keep our plots fresh without straining credibility. How many times can our hero get shot or beat up? How many bodies can turn up in Cabot Cove, the apparent murder capital of the world? How deep do we dig into the brains of our hero without looking like that creepy family in Get Out?

But maybe this is really in my thoughts right now for a different reason. One that I don’t want to deal with.

Back in 2015, our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE was published by Thomas & Mercer.  I loved writing this story about Amelia Brody, an amnesiac who is convinced her husband tried to kill her so she goes on the run. It is, at its thematic heart, about what happens to your soul when you try to live an inauthentic life. It is about a woman whose past is erased, so she must painfully reconstruct it before she can have a chance at a future. When I typed THE END, I was convinced I had nothing more to say.

The problem I don’t want to deal with? I think I might be wrong.

In SHE’S NOT THERE, there was a skip tracer named Clay Buchanan who was hired by Amelia’s husband to track her down and kill her. Buchanan was one of those characters who emerge from the ether of the imagination unbidden; he was supposed to be a cameo, but he became a second protagonist. Amelia is desperate to remember her past. Buchanan is desperate to forget his. His wife and infant son disappeared ten years ago and he was accused of murdering them. He was cleared but his life was broken, especially because he lost custody of his daughter. Like Amelia, he can’t move forward until he fully confronts his past. Throughout the book, I use a devise where his dead wife speaks to him — or, in his grief, he believe she does. In one scene, he is looking at a photograph of his wife:

Buchanan stared at the photo then he looked up, into the shadows of his bedroom.

“Are you here, Rayna?”

He heard nothing.

“I need to know something,” he said. “I need to know if it’s too late.”

Still, silence.

For the first time, she is gone. But in this “man in the mirror” moment, Buchanan makes the decision that he will find out the truth about what happened to her. Until he knows for certain, he can’t move forward. This happens on page 362, the second to last chapter. When we wrote this scene, we had no intention of revisiting Clay Buchanan. I believed just having him decide to take action was enough. But then readers weighed in — often and loudly.  They wanted to know what was going to happen. They want to hear Buchanan again. They weren’t content with silence.

I have mixed feelings about this because I’ve always believed that all stories have a logical end, that you shouldn’t over-explain. I’ve always believed in the power of ambiguity, even in unhappily ever after. (I blogged HERE about it a couple years back). I believe in leaving some space at the end of a story for readers to fill in the missing pieces themselves, to imagine what a character’s life is like after they close the book. I like the idea that readers can “write” their own epilogues.

But I think I might be wrong this time. I think I might have to write a sequel.

I’m having trouble getting moving on this book. Partly is it because I don’t want this to feel forced or derivative. I don’t want this to be a soap opera. Maybe I have seen too many bad movie sequels that felt cannibalized or read too many series thrillers that felt phoned in. Maybe I am just worried because, so far, Clay Buchanan isn’t talking to me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not listening hard enough.

My sister Kelly keeps telling me, as she always does when I am blocked, to just have faith, that we will figure it out before we’ve been there before. But with this one, we haven’t. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. As they say in the serials, stay tuned…


First Page Critique:
Floating in Space

By PJ Parrish

I love stories about outer space. Maybe it goes back to when I got to be the papier-mâché planet Venus in an third-grade play.  And in the Fifties, I remember being enthralled with a book called You Will Go to the Moon. (I still want to). My childhood went by in a Raisonette-fueled fog of matinee cheese like Earth Versus the Flying Saucers and The Day of the Triffids.  I own a complete set of original Star Trek videos, and if Contact, Interstellar or either Alien movie comes on at night, I will watch it again. So, yeah, let’s say I am predisposed to like any story that’s spacey.  That said, strap in for today’s First Page Critique.


Fynn pressed close to the shuttlecraft’s window, ignoring the cold against his fingertips. “I always dreamed of a trip into orbit. I’m lucky Dad arranged this tour before the fall semester starts.”

They were about to dock at the Herschel. It didn’t look like a classic spaceship. From their approach vector, it looked like a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport by a straw. Beyond the spaceport, the moon loomed huge against a galaxy of stars.

“I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.” His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn. Pushing thirty. But she often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”

Fynn felt like a kid himself, and excitement further agitated his queasy, zero-g stomach.

Once inside the dock, while the other passengers obediently gripped a railing to listen to their flight attendant, Maliah pushed Fynn towards the passageway to the Herschel. “I’ll explain anything you need to know. I’ve been here before.”

“You never told me that.” He scrambled to find handholds, pushed off, and followed her. He’d studied the diagrams. They’d be entering the Herschel’s central core, an open recreational space, so he slapped both hands on each railing ring, gaining speed.

Maliah snagged his arm as he emerged and spun them close to the hull. “Surprise.”

Fynn’s chest tightened. This wasn’t a recreation bay. Streamlined coffins ringed the module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag alongside. Another level of the shiny steel pods hung above them, and another, as far as he could see up the Herschel’s dimly lit core.

Fynn stared through the layers of pods, trying to understand what he saw, and gawked open-mouthed for a moment. “Where are we?”

“The Herschel’s a colony ship.” Maliah’s face glowed. “We’re going to Titan.”

She hugged him tight, losing her handhold, and they floated towards the core’s center.

Fynn gripped her with one arm, twisting for a better view of the endless pods. “But, the Herschel’s a research station, to study the Saturn system.”

“So the mongrels think.”

Despite the ship’s distractions, he winced at the word. “Don’t call them that.”

“You’ve spent too much time at university.”

“University…” Fynn gasped for a lungful of air. “My PhD classes start in two weeks.”

“That doesn’t matter.”


Okay, we’re back to Earth now. On first quick read (the way I always do a critique, purely as a reader not editor), I thought I was reading young adult or even more likely, a book for a younger-yet crowd. Maybe it was the simplicity of the phrasing and vocabulary. But Fynn feels, on first glance to me, very young, a wide-eyed naif. Which isn’t a bad thing. I rather liked the idea I was going to follow a boy into space, because I went there often as a kid myself.  Fynn’s voice registers as young, enforced by the first graph mention of “Dad” arranging the trip, and the fact his sister challenges him to a race down the gangway — a very childlike thing to do.

But very late in the page, we learn he’s a PhD candidate. Whoa. To my ear, even a twenty-something going into space for the first time would sound more adult, especially if his PhD study was science. (He could be a philosophy major; we don’t know yet if he’s a fish-out-of-water civilian here or an educated traveler.) First impressions of your characters count. A lot.  I am having trouble buying into Fynn as a capable, highly educated adult character.  The actions and dialogue the writer has chosen to use for him do not support the narrative reality — man vs child.

Getting beyond that, the writing here is good but a tad workmanlike for me. There is some good description — I liked the image of  the ship they are docking with as “a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport by a straw.”  But I wish there had been a little more of it.  When you take a reader to foreign locales — and can outer space be any more foreign? — then you must spent good time and effort world-building, so we can enter your conjured realm and easily suspend disbelief or move beyond our limited knowledge. To paraphrase the famous poem about flight, you have to slip the surly bonds of earth, dance the skies on silver wings, join the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –and, most important as a writer, do a hundred things the reader has not dreamed of.

Here’s the opening graphs of Andy Weir’s (The Martian), latest novel Artemis:

I bounded over the gray dusty terrain toward the huge dome of Conrad Bubble. Its airlock, rigged with red lights,stood distressingly far away.

It’s hard to run with a hundred kilograms of gear on — even in lunar gravity. But you’d be amazed how fast you can hustle when your life is on the line.

Notice how Weir sketches in two short graphs his landscape PLUS tells us something bad it happening.  Another terrific opening to learn from is Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity. The first line:

He was gliding on the edge of the abyss.

We are in a tightly confined ship moving through “the vastness of space.” But — surprise! — we are in the deepest parts of the ocean. Which makes her second chapter all the most powerful when she switches to actual deep space, where the plot really takes off. I love how Gerritsen compared and contrasted both hostile frontiers, where there is no air and only darkness.

I also like the second chapter of The Martian Chronicles, which gives us the vivid image of everyday life of a couple, Mr. and Mrs. K.,  whose ancestors have lived by the dead sea on Mars for generations but now, something bad is about to upset their domestic bliss. When I first read this in high school, I totally bought into the idea of was reading about a married Martian couple and not my next door neighbors the Vanderloops.

The best example I could find of a compelling world-building purely descriptive opening is The Dispossessed by the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin. I can’t run the whole opening here because it’s too long, but I beg the writer of our critique today to go read it.  It’s all description, but man, it sets you down into an alien world with the precise beauty of an Elon Musk SpaceX rocket return.

Those are my major points about this submission. Let’s do a little line editing now.

Fynn pressed close to the shuttlecraft’s window, ignoring the cold against his fingertips. “I always dreamed of a trip into orbit. But he’s not merely in orbit of Earth; he is somewhere out in deep space. I’m lucky Dad arranged this tour before the fall semester starts.” Who is he talking to? Himself? You need a quick answer from his sister here I think. BUT…before the dialogue, I suggest you show us what he is seeing outside the window here, filtered through his consciousness. Then go with the dialogue and response.

Also, note that the line about Dad arranging this trip before school starts juvenilizes your hero. This is where I began to picture a boy instead of a man. Yes, any sane human would be entranced by his first sight of this space station out there in the void, but Fynn sounds way too young. 

They were about to dock at the Herschel. It didn’t look like a classic spaceship. Little confused here. From your description that follows, the Herschel sounds to me more like a space station which accommodates many space craft? Plus you later call it a “spaceport.”  From their approach vector, it looked like a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport more confusion. I thought the space station ship was call the Herschel by a straw. Beyond the spaceport, the moon loomed huge against a galaxy of stars. You can do better than this. What does it look like to Fynn? BE ORIGINAL

“I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.Again, I pictured a 12-year-old girl here and she’s 29. Any sane adult on a space mission would not even think this. His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn. Pushing thirty. But she often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”  She seems to have prior knowledge of this place or what is happening yet she sounds like a kid. What does she do for a living? Why not make the dialogue appropriate to her age, station, profession and the action at hand. 

Fynn felt like a kid himself, I understand what you are trying to do here — capture the childlike wonder any adult might feel in this situation but this is TELLING US what he is feeling. Find a way to get in his thoughts, maybe a childhood memory or compare and contrast: It was nothing like he had seen in his textbooks, nothing like he seen through his telescope back on the farm in Iowa. Start layering in some background and context for your characters. and excitement further agitated his queasy, zero-g stomach. I’m a little confused here. Zero-g is weightlessness. Are they strapped in some kind of unit for landing or just floating around like Jody Foster did in the space ball in “Contact”? You can’t get away with such non-specific descriptions in sci-fi.  Readers are too smart.

Once inside the dock, See comment above. You are stinting on needed description. while the other passengers obediently gripped a railing to listen to their flight attendant, Maliah pushed Fynn towards the passageway to the Herschel. “I’ll explain anything you need to know. I’ve been here before.” I don’t know why, but you have an odd habit of not using any attribution. Who said this? 

“You never told me that.” He scrambled to find handholds, pushed off, and followed her. He’d studied the diagrams. Missed opportunity here to insert a little context and backstory. Why did he study the diagrams? Why is he here? For fun? Why did Dad arrange this? I don’t mean this to sound flip, but right now, this sounds like the nice little trip to Europe between college semesters compliments of the parents. They’d be entering the Herschel’s central core, an open recreational space, so he slapped both hands on each railing ring, again, your description is really meager. Are they walking down a tunnel, a hallway? Where’s everyone else? Is it dark, lighted? This sounds as generic as a Newark Airport TSA approach gaining speed.

Maliah snagged his arm as he emerged and spun them close to the hull. “Surprise.” So they are still in a no gravity zone? Why?

Fynn’s chest tightened. This wasn’t a recreation bay. Streamlined coffins How does he know they are truly coffins? They are steel pods, the kind you see in every space movie these days, are they not? He might think they LOOK like coffins, but unless he can KNOW they are, neither can the reader at this point. ringed the module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag alongside. Another level of the shiny steel pods hung above them, and another, as far as he could see up the Herschel’s dimly lit core.

Where did the other shuttle passengers go, by the way? How come they are suddenly all alone? 

Fynn stared through the layers of pods, trying to understand what he saw, and gawked open-mouthed for a moment. “Where are we?”

“The Herschel’s a colony ship.Again, I am confused. They apparently took a shuttle to a ship named the Herschel. But did they first dock at a station called the Collins Spaceport and then somehow get into this ship? You must be clear. Maliah’s face glowed. “We’re going to Titan.”

She hugged him tight, losing her handhold, and they floated towards the core’s center. Still in zero gravity? And Fynn has trouble getting his breath. Are they wearing spacesuits?  

Fynn gripped her with one arm, twisting for a better view of the endless pods. “But, the Herschel’s a research station, Two paragraphs ago, she called it a ship to study the Saturn system.”

“So the mongrels think.” This is a good line of dialogue because it creates the first sense of suspense. Using such an epithet is intriguing, even though we don’t know what it refers to yet. 

Despite the ship’s distractions, he winced at the word. “Don’t call them that.”

“You’ve spent too much time at university.”

“University…” Fynn gasped for a lungful of air. A space station would have its own oxygen supply. “My PhD classes start in two weeks.”

“That doesn’t matter.” No, it really doesn’t at this early point in your story. 

Some final points.  I don’t mind that this story starts a little slow. I can buy into the idea of Fynn, as a first-time space traveler, getting his first view of his destination (or what he thinks it is) and that can be interesting in itself. But Fynn’s point of view is so sparse and underwritten that I don’t see this strange world or feel any of his excitement. If you chose a slow-burn beginning like this, the writing has to really sing. It has to pull us into a new world. The location has to become a character in itself.  But soon after that you have to get your hero into some deep space do-do. Because this opening is perfunctory and the only suspense comes from Fynn worrying he’s not going to get home in time for classes, I don’t think this opening, in the whole, works as well as it could.

So, don’t give up, dear writer. There is the germ of a good idea here — a young man, who apparently isn’t a hard scientist about to embark on a great adventure. It has the makings of a good fish-out-of-water story, which is always appealing. And thanks for submitting to TKZ.

And one last word — taken on my walk downtown — from my northern hometown as I get ready to head back down to Tallahassee on this cold rainy Michigan morning:




Is Anything Really Taboo
In Today’s Crime Fiction?

I am on book tour in Michigan today, so excuse me if I don’t answer quickly to comments. In meantime, I wrote this recently for the great online mag Criminal Element. (Which coincided with a terrific review for our new Louis Kincaid thriller The Damage Done.) Thanks to my editor at CE, Adam!) 

By PJ Parrish

Taboo. Off limits. That’s a no-no. Don’t go there. Oh man, you can’t do that.

That’s what mystery and thriller writers often hear. Be it from editors, reviewers or readers — especially readers — there are things we aren’t supposed to write about. Things that no one who’s looking for escapist fiction, wants to read about, things that are too sensitive, too controversial, too just plain ick-factor to deal with. After twenty-odd years in publishing and with thirteen thrillers under my belt and a new one just published, this one question never fails to intrigue me.

What is too much? How far can you push the envelope? Where is the line when readers will turn on you? And, maybe most important, as a writer, should you care?

We often hear there are some things you should never do in mysteries and thrillers. Maybe it’s because some folks believe the old boundaries of genre fiction still bind us. Maybe it’s because we’re all hyper-aware of the problems of finding audiences in a world of shrinking shelf space and the blat-blare-honk! of indie-publishing.  Maybe it’s just vestigial adherence to the sad old rule that genre fiction should know its limits. Here’s just a few of the no-no’s I know:

  • Don’t deal with abused children because readers can’t take it.
  • Don’t write about religion because it’s too personal.
  • Don’t write about politics because it’s too divisive and partisan.
  • Steer clear of graphic violence and sex.
  • And never, ever, kill an animal.

I’ve been thinking about this topic since the release of our new book THE DAMAGE DONE. This book heavily stresses the series-long character arc of our protagonist, a biracial PI ex-cop who is desperate to get back to wearing a badge again. Louis Kincaid is mysteriously recruited for a cold-case squad of the Michigan State Police run by an old nemesis who ten years before caused Louis to lose his badge. The “why” behind Louis’s new job is seminal to the plot and tests Louis’s faith in law enforcement.


That is the underground railroad that propels the plot of THE DAMAGE DONE. And that means dealing with religion. It is in the foreground when Louis is called upon to solve the murder of a mega-church minister. But in the background, the slow percolation of a second cold case — the remains of two boys are found in an abandoned copper mine —  boils up memories of Louis’s childhood slide through the foster system and tests his complex notion of faith.  Faith in what? Or in whom?

Religion isn’t easy to write about because like anything of import, you can get, well, preachy. But, while many of our characters are people of deep faith, it was important with this story that we didn’t dictate what the reader concludes. And that, I think is how mystery and thrillers can illuminate the social questions of our weird times — deal with hard issues but never be didactic. I’ve been working my way through the John D. MacDonald books for the last year.  In Condominium, MacDonald took on shady real estate developments and crooked politicians. In One More Sunday, he tackles televangelists and moral ambiguity — but never loses sight of telling a ripping good yarn.  Luckily for me, I finished my own novel about faith before I started this one.

I read a crime novel recently by an Edgar-winning writer. The writing was elegant, the plot set-up tantalyzing. I really liked the protag. But about halfway through, I found myself getting irritated. Why? Because the writer started shouting about the devastation of the environment and it was drowning out the story. I don’t like folks banging on my door trying to teach me about Jesus. I don’t like crime writers hitting me over head with a thematic two-by-four about baby seals.

Likewise, I get annoyed by bad women-in-peril books. Now sexual predators are a fixture of crime fiction, and some authors handle the subject graphically. (Karin Slaughter’s Kisscut comes to mind.). But if you can’t bring anything new to the subject, if your female characters are cliched victims, then don’t go there, especially in the red-hot passions of the #metoo movement.  Reality is far more potent than most anything you can put on the page today.

Yes, we should write about politics, sexual violence,  and yes, we even need to kill animals if the story needs it. (Although I had to put down a book by Minette Walters, one of my favorite writers, because she wrote about torturing cats and I had ten cats at the time.). But you have to deal with a touchy subject always with the idea that it must organically support the story.

With our book A Thousand Bones,  we dealt with the devastating rape of the protagonist. Our editor asked us if we really wanted to “go there.” After much agonizing we decided the heroine’s character arc wouldn’t be believable without including the violent act. In the same book, the heroine, a rookie cop, commits an act of vengeance against her rapist. We thought long and hard about the ethics of a law enforcement officer pushing the limits but decided to leave the incident in. We got some emails on this from readers claiming a “a good cop” would never do this. I was at a signing and a man came up holding the book. He said, “I’m a retired Detroit police captain and I need to talk to you about how you ended this story.”  I braced myself. Then he said, “I would have done the same thing she did.”

Not every decision about “taboos” is as difficult. We got a thoughtful email from a regular reader about our book An Unquiet Grave telling us she found the profanity off-putting. We write a hard-boiled police procedurals and thrillers, so we have to reflect the reality of the street and the station house. But we came realize we had become too reliant on profanity to convey intensity of character. It can be a crutch, a poor stand-in for powerful dialogue. Yes, our books still have profanity, but we think about each word we use. Which is sort of what you should do with non-profanity, no?

In the end, after thirteen books and twenty years of crime writing, I’ve decided there is only one real taboo — that the message never overwhelm the plot and characters. The story must always win out.