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

On Breaking the Writing Rules,
Bad Advice and Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee in his library of 2500 books.

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. – Bruce Lee.

By PJ Parrish

A couple years ago, I decided I needed to get back in shape. I had gotten lazy, a little flabby and sort of depressed about it. So I decided to go to a personal trainer. John was just what I needed — a kick-butt no-nonsense guy’s guy who knew a lot about how the human body worked. He also knew a lot about how the human mind worked.

Or in my case, didn’t work.

It hit me somewhere around the second month of training that my brain was out of shape. I had lost discipline, fallen into bad habits, and was locked into an inertia of inaction.

You probably know where this is going. I am talking also about my writing life.

My writing routine had gotten slack. My output had declined. I was making excuses to not write. I was getting down about the whole thing.

John was big into martial arts, and his hero was Bruce Lee. He talked often about Lee’s discipline and his approach to his “art.” I pretended to listen as I did my curls and crunches. But stuff started to sink in and I did some research on Bruce Lee. Pretty amazing life, that guy. He was famous for developing his own brand of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do. He took techniques from a wide variety of other disciplines and discarded many of the “rules” of traditional martial arts.

But here’s something that really resonated with the writer in me: Before he got to this point, he spent years training in all the traditional styles like karate, aikido, judo. To find his own unique style, he did all the “basic training” and took no short cuts. He was a little like Picasso, who painted this

Before he painted this

Both Lee and Picasso learned the rules and then broke them.

Writers talk a lot about rules.  We here at TKZ talk a lot about rules. Maybe it’s because what we do is not easy to learn, even if you are a “natural.” We go to workshops and conferences, read how-to books, underline passages in Stephen King’s On Writing, looking for tips and techniques to help our writing. We want to get better, always, at what we do. We want to know the rules, because if you learn the rules, maybe you can get in the game.

Don’t use adverbs!

Don’t use passive voice!

Keep backstory under control!

Write every day or you die!

It’s a wonder we get anything down on the page. Except maybe our own blood.

Writer’s rules aren’t anything new. A guy named S.S. Van Dine’s set down his Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories in 1928. (“There must be a corpse, and the deader the corpse the better.”) Many other famous writers have been compelled to weigh in with their own lists. Here are a few tidbits I culled:

 

  • Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  • George Orwell: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Jonathon Frazen: It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
  • PD James: Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
  • Joyce Carol Oates: Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  • Ian Rankin: Have a story worth telling.
  • Zadie Smith: Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  • Hilary Mantel: Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
  • Henry Miller: Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Mark Twain: Write without pay until somebody offers pay.
  • Richard Ford: Don’t have children.

I can agree with most of that. But then again, I have dogs. There are some rules, however, I found that I can’t endorse:

  • Mario Puzo: Never write in the first person.
  • Robert Heinlein: You must refrain from rewriting except by editorial order.
  • Jack Kerouac: Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.

If someone can explain that last one to me, I’d be grateful.

It used to be that you had to read a book to get advice from the famous on writing. When I first read Annie Dilliard’s The Writing Life, I didn’t learn how to write but I was relieved to learn I wasn’t alone in my self-doubts. But now, thousands of writing tips are available to us at the tap of a finger, and anyone can hang out a how-to shingle. So how do you sift the wisdom from the chaff? I remember when I was first starting out in the romance field, I read dozens of Silhouettes, went to the RWA convention in New York, and searched for the secret formula that would make me rich and famous. I had to learn to write sex scenes, which I hated doing, and back in the 80s, there wasn’t much help on the internet. I could have really used blogger Steve Almond back then.  He calls himself “an internationally famous author celebrated for my graphic portrayals of amour.” He wrote a blog  detailing his rules for writing sex scenes. Here’s one of his rules:

Never compare a woman’s nipples to:
a) Cherries
b) Cherry pits
c) Pencil erasers
d) Frankenstein’s bolts
Nipples are tricky. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and shades. They do not, as a rule, look like much of anything, aside from nipples. So resist making dumb comparisons.

If you want to read his other tips, click here. But be warned, they aren’t all PG-rated.

Rules can be confusing, arbitrary, and deeply frustrating. I guess the only good advice I can offer is what Bruce Lee suggests in the quote at the beginning of this post. Adapt what you find useful, reject what is useless, and find your own path. I’ve been writing novels professionally for about thirty years, and whenever I see someone — famous or not — laying down rules, my hairs go up.  Still, I have discovered a few “rules” along the way that I have found deeply useful:

Kurt Vonnegut: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.  This taught me to dig deep for motivation for every character I put on the page, especially the villains.  Later, I heard Les Standiford preach the same principle when he said that until you understand what your character wants, not just on the surface but at his deepest levels, you can’t write a good story.

Linus Pauling: The way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. This taught me that not every story idea will work.  Some are good maybe for a short story. Some are ugly babies that might need a few years to blossom into beauties — ie, you might not be ready to tackle that story at that point in your life or technique. And many ideas  are just dumb or dull and you have to let them go. Sometimes you have to drown them.

David Morrell: Know your motivation. I’ve heard David speak at conferences about this and he has lots to teach writers. But this one always stuck with me. Here’s more from him: “Before I start any novel, I write a lengthy answer to the following question: Why is this project worth a year of my life? If I’m going to spend hundreds of days alone in a room, I’d better have a good reason for writing a particular book.” I urge you to click here and read the full post. It’s instructive and poignant.

Ernest Hemingway, who didn’t put his rules on paper, but did confide this to his friend Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of sh*t. I try to put the sh*t in the wastebasket.”

So yes, study the rules. Learn the rules. Many even write a few unpublished stories that adhere to rules and old formulas so you can see the departure point. But then have the courage to break the rules. I don’t read much sci-fi and I don’t read any YA. But this blog was inspired by a story I heard about recently about a debut author named Marissa Meyer. She wanted to write a Cinderella story. Pity the girl…not even published yet and she was breaking a big rule:  Don’t rely on stale old plots! Agents and editors want something fresh!

Meyer’s book is called Cinder. Yes, it’s based on the old fairy tale — Cinder is an outcast with nasty stepsisters. She’s also an Asian cyborg. The book became a New York Times bestseller. Why did I like this? Because one of my “rules” is to say something unique or say it uniquely. This is what Meyer did – took something old and made it new and her own. She broke the rule. And somebody came up with a slamming cover.

One last rule. It comes from one of my favorite new-to-me authors:

Neil Gaiman: The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

What are some “rules” that you’ve found that work for you? What are the ones that you’ve rejected? And how did the rules help you find your own way?

 

7+

Showing Versus Telling:
So SHOW Me Already!

Good morning crime dogs. Well, thank the good Lord for Joe’s post Saturday asking you all for your input on topics. Because I don’t have anything fresh today, but I do have a good excuse — I got a bum right paw.

I am living up in Traverse City, Michigan these days, a bucolic town a Petosky stone’s throw from Lake Michigan.  It is a law here in TC that you have to bike everywhere. Well, not a law, but TC is sort of like an American version of the Netherlands. Folks here love their two-wheelers. So when we got here last month, I duly went out and bought a new bike.  Haven’t had one in oh, 15 years or so. Well, on my second outing, I fell and badly sprained my wrist.  Embarrassing. Especially since I was standing still at the time waiting for the light to change.  Anywho, I can’t type a lick. My husband Daniel is typing this for me as I dictate.  So, I hope you will bear with me as I heal and let me run an old blog post.  It is about SHOW DON’T TELL.  And I am re-posting this especially for one of our readers Eric Beversluis, who was flummoxed by what he saw as too much “telling” backstory in a Mike Connelly book and asked for an “empirical” analysis of “show, don’t tell.”  My sister and I have covered this topic often in workshops, and it always comes up. So, here’s my attempt, Eric.  Hope it helps.  And get well, Joe!

By PJ Parrish

How many times have we all heard this: SHOW DON’T TELL!

I put it all in nice bright letters because those three words are so commonplace in writing workshops that shoot, we might as well put them in neon, right? Ask a writing coach or an editor what the cardinal sin of bad writing is and “telling” is right up there with procrastination. We really get our panties in a wad about it. But let’s stop and take a deep breath here

((((Breathe in pink, breathe out blue…)))

and figure out what SHOW DON’T TELL really means.

Okay, let’s start with a definition because it’s always good to start with specifics.

Show don’t tell means writing in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description. The idea is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead.

(((((ZZZzzzzzzz))))

And that, my friends, is me telling you what “show don’t tell” is. And now, I’m going to try to show you. But first, a caveat: Not all telling is bad. Sometimes, you have to tell things in your story. Not every thing that happens in your story is worthy of showing. Some things are best handled in narration:

Boring but necessary physical action
You don’t waste words on stuff like this : “He stared at the phone then slowly depressed the little red button to disconnect the line.” You write: “He hung up.” Also, you don’t write: “He slowly swung his bare feet to the cold wood floor, scratched himself, yawned, and got out of the bed in an existential funk.” You write: “He got up.”

Boring dialogue
You don’t write:
“Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, it’s been about two months.”
“That long, eh?”
“Yeah.”
“What you been up to?” he asked.
“I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much.”

Write (tell) this: He hadn’t seen Joe for two months. He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures.

Pure description
This is where you the writer can step in and shine because it is you telling us (in your unique voice), what things look, smell and sound like. But usually, description works best and is more involving for the reader if you can filter it through a character’s point of view. Here are two examples. You tell me which one works best.

Third person POV detached

She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.

Third person POV intimate

She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.

Backstory
There are a lot of great posts in our TKZ archives about how to deal with backstory. But in terms of “show don’t tell” we have to concede that backstory is essentially telling. And that’s okay. Just do it well, be evocative and be brief because your reader wants to get back to the forward plot momentum. Example:

The first image that usually came to him when other people started talking about their childhood was a house. Other things came, too. Faces, smells, emotions, mental snapshots of events. But those kinds of memories were fluid, changing for good or bad, depending on how, and when, you chose to look back on them.

But a house was different. It was solid and unchanging, and it allowed people to say “I existed here. My memories are real.”

His image of home had always been a wood frame shack in Mississippi. It was an uncomfortable picture, but one he had held onto for a long time, convinced it symbolized some kind of truth in his life about who he was, or what he should be.

Notice that although this is TELLING, the reader is emotionally involved with the narrating character. And it is short. The very next sentence takes us right back to the present plot.

Okay, so show me already!

Now I’m going to try to show you what I mean by all this with some before and after samples from a workshop I teach on this subject. Number 1 is an excerpt where the setup is a cop standing over a dead body in bayou country.

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.

And at his feet in the vermin-ridden humus lay a young woman. A woman who, until a day or two ago, had hoped, planned, and dreamed. Maybe even loved.

Now she lay dead. Violently wrestled from life before her time. And it was his job to find her killer.

He started when, with a flap of wings, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. As the regal bird disappeared from sight, Kramer couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was his Jane Doe’s soul wafting to the Land of the Dead. The way the dove in Ulysses had carried Euripides’ soul.

Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him. Instinctively and unselfconsciously, Kramer crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here’s a rewrite of the same scene:

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide and seek behind dark clouds. Distant rain scented the still air and Spanish moss hung like wet netting on the giant oaks. The cloying acridness of the bayou was everywhere.

Kramer wiped the sweat from his brow and looked down at the dead woman and drew a shallow breath .

She was the third young woman this year who had been left to rot in the muddy swamps of Louisiana.

With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. Against the slanting sun it appeared little more than a ghostly white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.

Then, with a small sigh, he looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.

“God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”

Why does the second one work better? Why does it hit our emotions harder? Because the writer got out of the way and let the character’s actions and words move the story along.

Here’s example 2. This is the opening of chapter 1 and the setup is a woman overseeing a parade at Disney World. It’s long but it’s worth analyzing.

Dorothy Gale got it wrong. Even as a kid, I didn’t understand why she was so hell-bent to hustle herself out of Oz to return to Kansas. Was she crazy? I ached to leave ordinary behind and devoured every magical Frank Baum book in the library. When I was nine, I vowed I’d find the Emerald City one day and I did. The Wizard—or rather Orlando’s theme park industry—set a shiny, incredible Land of Oz at the end of my personal yellow brick road.

Ten years ago, with a fresh college diploma—Go Terps—I’d found my niche and myself when I snagged my first job at Oz. Work felt like play in my fairytale world. And my disappointed parents stopped blaming themselves for those library trips when Oz promoted me to assistant department manager for process improvement. Tonight, we were rolling out a new parade, and for me, the excitement rivaled Christmas Eve.

Churning the humid Florida air, the dancing poppies whirled by in a swirl of red, plum, and purple, so far a flawless debut. Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.

“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.

Here’s another way to handle the same material:

The red and pink poppies danced in the humid Florida air. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.

Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. So far, it was a flawless debut. I pressed my clipboard to my chest and smiled.

God, how I loved it here. My own fairy tale world. My own private Oz.

“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.

My own parade – every day.

Dorothy got it wrong. Even as a kid, I never understood why she was so hell-bent to get out of Kansas.

I think the writer got into the scene way too early and it’s way too much exposition “telling” backstory so early in the book. And I think it’s often good to save your best line for last. In this case, it was “Dorothy got it wrong.” The writer opened with it and as such, it’s not not bad. But I think it works better AFTER we know we’re at Disney World. Plus, I like the technique of ending a scene with your best line because it works as an emphasis of the point you are trying to make with your scene. And every scene does have a point, right?

Here’s one more for you to chew on. The set up is an unidentified person creeping through a house after already finding one dead body. We do not know who this is, what gender, or why he/she is there.

In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid. She, too, was dead. From the marks on her neck, my guess was someone had strangled her. As I completed my trip around the downstairs, I heard a noise from the front of the house, then a call of, “Police. Anyone here?” I took a deep breath and started toward the front room.

The cops met me in the hall with the obligatory order to drop my weapon and assume the position against the wall. I complied and a young patrolman named Johnson explored areas I preferred not touched by a stranger. However, I understood. I’d have done the same if I had found anyone during my search, and I wouldn’t have concerned myself about his or her privacy.

Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials.

In the rewrite, I converted the “telling” into “showing,” mainly by handling things in dialogue.

In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid. She was face down on the marbled floor, arms splayed, feet part, still dressed in her baby blue cotton uniform. I knelt and when I moved her thick pony tail, I saw a tattered clothesline wrapped tight around her neck. She had no pulse. It hit me that I met her three times on previous visits and yet I could not remember her name.

“Police! Anyone here?”

I turned toward the echo of voices, toward the long cavernous hallway that led to the living room. Before I could take a step, I felt a jab of steel against my temple and someone’s hot breath in my ear.

“Against the wall, lady.”

“But —”

“Shut up,” the cop said as he patted around my ass for a weapon. He found my gun, ripped it from its holster and roughly turned me around. I didn’t know the officer in front of me but I saw Sgt. Randy Rawls standing in the doorway, trying not too hard to stifle his snicker.

“She’s okay, Jim,” he said. “Her name is Jenny Smith. She’s a local P.I.”

One more example but it’s one of my favorites. The setup is a TV anchorwoman looking forward to meeting her boyfriend after work. I like it because the writer was so close to getting it right. But he needed to focus in on what I call special details and actions that show (ie illuminate) character.

Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.

Jacob “Jake” Teinman employed a wicked, take-no-prisoners wit. She found his sense of humor engaging, and delighted when he would elevate one eyebrow while keeping the other straight alerting his target to an oncoming barb. Corrie truly liked Jake, a lot, but experience taught hard lessons and she had qualms about the two of them as a couple.

They were awfully different — she: a public persona, trim, career driven, self-centered, frenetic and Irish Catholic; he: private, stocky, successful with a controlled confidence that drove her nuts, and Jewish. At least that’s how she pictured the two of them. She wondered if Jake’s version would agree.

She’d noted they’d been dating exactly one year and he had made reservations at “The 95th” just six blocks from the WWCC studios. It was sweet of Jake since he knew it was one of her favorite places.

Notice how the rewrite below works better because the same info is conveyed through tighter action and dialogue rather than the writer telling us what is happening.

Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake. And as she watched him come in the restaurant door, she smiled. It used to annoy her when people said how different they were. But it was true.

Jake…

Stocky. Dark. Jewish. Coming toward her with that confident swagger.

And her…

Tall. Blonde. Irish-Catholic. Sitting here wondering if he’d show up.

He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.

“You remembered,” she said.

He frowned. “Remembered what?”

“That this is my favorite restaurant.”

He glanced around before the puppy-dog brown eyes came back to hers. “Sure, babe,” he said. “I remember.”

So what do we get from all this? The point I am trying to make here is that whenever you can, filter the story through the consciousness of your character(s). Don’t waste words on dumb physical stuff. Be evocative and fresh in your description. And when it comes to backstory narrative, don’t dwell in the past too long.

Okay, that was telling. Let me show you one more time, this time in an action scene (where you should always show not tell).

TELLING DRAMATIC ACTION

As he was walking slowly down the hotel corridor, someone hit him on the back of the head and pushed him forward. He felt the world go black. His body flailed, hitting the plate glass window and shattering it. The glittering shards caught the throbbing glow of red neon as they fell, like the tails of fading fireworks.

He fell to his knees and looked up into the chiseled face of his attacker.

SHOWING DRAMATIC ACTION

He walked with his head bent, scanning the front page of the New York Post. The hallway was dim, the slow blink of the red neon from the lone window lighting his way.

The blow came out of nowhere. So quick, so hard, blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. He stumbled forward, his head hitting the window.

An explosion of sound and glass. A rush of cold air. A flood of warm blood.

He dropped to his knees and looked up.

The face above him pulsed red. Then it was gone.

What’s the main problem with the first one? The “telling” is slow-paced and un-viscereal. And if the guy just went through a plate glass window he probably can’t see the glass falling and it sure as heck wouldn’t register in his senses as “glittering shards” and “fading fireworks.” (that’s the writer talking) In the second version, the POV is fixed and every detail that IS possible is filtered through the man’s senses.

In summary, here are the pitfalls of TELLING

  • Narrating the physical movements without being in character’s head.
  • Use of too many ‘ly’ words in action or in dialog (i.e. She said impatiently, walked slowly, yelled angrily.)
  • Use of stock descriptions, purple prose or lengthy descriptions of places (and people) especially those that have no bearing on the plot.
  • Too many adjectives and cliches.
  • Omniscient POV (distancing, describing from an all-seeing POV) The man getting hit on the head cannot see the glass as it falls six stories to the ground.)

Here are the strengths of SHOWING

  • Action that uses the senses, stays within the character’s consciousness and uses words and phrases that reinforce the mood of the scene.
  • Strong verbs. (Walked vs Jogged, Ran vs Raced, Shut the door vs Slammed the door.)
  • Original images and vivid descriptions that are filtered through the character’s senses in the present.
  • One compelling adjective vs. a string of mediocre ones.
  • Keep POV firmly in character’s head. (Establishes sympathy and connects emotionally.)

That’s it, Eric…and all you crime dogs. Going to go ice my paw now.

8+

First Page Critiques: Making
It Feel Fresh…and Refreshed

All writing is a campaign against cliche. — Martin Amis

By PJ Parrish

This must be the week for catching up on our First Page backlog.  Because here is another entry from one of our faithful contributors. This one is titled OTTER ROCK and appears to be a village mystery (though set in Alaska) in the grand tradition of PD James. In fact, it reminds me of the James novel Unnatural Causes in which Adam Dagliesh deals with a body in a boat on a windswept deserted shore. (More on that later) Thanks, dear anon-author, for participating.

Also, I am adding a second entry, KEEP IT SAFE, after this one. It is a longer version of an entry I critiqued a couple weeks ago. Click here to see it.  I lamented that the author should have included more sample and he/she resubmitted, so here is a longer rewritten version.  This second sample deserves a second look because it shows the value of good rewriting.

OTTER ROCK

Prologue

No one saw the paint-chipped, wood dory drifting out to sea. They were intent on what the ocean placed in their net.

The old fisherman hobbled along on the charcoal sand beach toward his three adult sons. They waited patiently for him to help them pick salmon from the gill net they had just hauled from the sea, on the east side of Cook Inlet, Alaska. The old man spilled his coffee when he tripped on a rock, disguised by wet, grey mud and volcanic grit. He cussed, turned around, and ambled back for a refill, when urgent shouting diverted his attention.

One of the sons motioned him over and pointed at the tide line. The old man forgot the coffee. He gimped toward them, as they stood grouped around the tangled net on the beach. Their two-hundred-foot, monofilament net lay partially in the water, the other half clumped around something at the low tide line. The tide ebbed, leaving the beach fresh and clean.

As the old man approached, one of his sons moved to meet him.

“Dad, we have a body in the net.”

The old man stepped over to scrutinize the snarled remains. The small body curled in a fetal position, as if asleep in a womb. Layers of moss-covered nylon obscured the face, and he was thankful for it. He inspected a small, bloated foot, then noticed a pink Hello Kitty image on an ocean-stained tee shirt. Sun glinted something poking through strands of tangled hair and citrine seaweed. An earring.

“Dear God. Son, call the troopers,” said the old man, stepping back. His son retrieved a cell phone from his jacket and called 911.

____________________________________

Well, this one’s a little short as well, but we have enough to go on, I think. What we have here is a pretty traditional opening for a mystery — body washes up on shore of remote location, discovered by colorful local person. The disturbance is there from the get-go (yay!) and I trust we will meet the hero in the next chapter or scene. But because this opening has been done-to-death, (see PD James, Benchley’s Jaws, Simon Brett’s The Body on the Beach, Chris Grabanstein’s Whack a Mole) the scene really needs something fresh, and I don’t see it here.  Yes, genre fiction is partially about working within a respected formula, but the formula must constantly be challenged to work anew. There is nothing overtly wrong with this opening. But there is nothing aha! right about it. Which makes me think that an agent, editor, or reader sampling this would take a pass. You don’t take an old house, slap on a new coat of paint, and expect to sell it for 2.5 mil — or 99 cents on Kindle even. If you’re working with old architecture — which is okay in itself — you really need to strip things down to the foundation and find a way to imprint your own unique style on it.

Quick digression: Speaking of dead things in the water, check out the beginning of Raymond Carver’s So Much Water So Close to Home and try not to bang your head on the keyboard next time you write an opening. 

I waded, deepening into the dark water. Evening, and the push and swirl of the river as it closed around my legs and held on. Young grisle broke water. Parr darted one way, smolt another. Gravel turned under my boots as I edged out. Watched by the furious eyes of King Salmon. Their immense heads turned slowly, eyes burning with fury, as they hung in the deep current. They were there. I felt them there, and my skin prickled. But there was something else. I braced with the wind on my neck. Felt the hair rise as something touched my boot. Grew afraid at what I couldn’t see. Then of everything that filled my eyes — that other shore heavy with branches, the dark lip of the mountain range behind. And this river that had suddenly grown black and swift. I drew breath and cast anyway. Prayed nothing would strike.

Back to Alaska. What could have made the set-up for our writer’s story work better? A few suggestions:

  • Make it feel like it’s a story only you can tell.  This is set in a real place in Alaska. But strike the literal reference and this could be Anyplace USA, from Maui to Montauk. (One detail I do like is “volcanic grit.”  If the writer knows this place, it doesn’t come across. Neat setting but not exploited enough.
  • Turn the cliche on its head. Okay, dead body on beach. Is there some way to make this unique? I go back to PD James’s Unnatural Causes. She dressed her corpse to the nines — “a dapper little cadaver, its shroud a dark pin-striped suit.”  But…wait for it…beneath the white cuffs of the dress shirt, the hands had been cut off at the wrists. Our writer almost gets there with the baby’s earring but we need more.
  • Slow down. I know that sounds counter-intuitive here but this story doesn’t appear to be a ramrod thriller; it’s probably a “village mystery.” So I am hoping this story is not just about a murder but about its effect on the people of this town.  A little more scene setting could go a long way once you wade deeper into your story. I’d suggest the writer go read Val McDermind’s splendid A Place of Execution and dissect how she handles this. Or read Jonathan Buckley’s excellent dead-Brit-on-the-beach novel So He Takes the Dog, which delves into the psychology of death on a small town. (Creepy detail: Things begin to go bad when a beachcomber discovers his dog isn’t chewing on a piece of driftwood; it’s a human hand.) Please don’t buy into the idea that every mystery must bolt out of the gate. That can be boring in itself.  A well-set scene with local color and mood can be more effective. Every story has its own unique pace. Let your story unfold and seduce, not pounce and poke.

That’s it for my main points. Now let’s go to the edits.

Prologue  Chapter One. Why not?

No one saw the paint-chipped, wood dory drifting out to sea. They were intent on what the ocean placed in their net. I’m not totally against omniscient POV but if you use it, stay with it and milk it for all it’s worth. (click here to read opening of James’s Unnatural Causes. Also check out the omniscient opening of Jim Crace’s body on the beach novel Being Dead. By quickly switching to old man’s POV, this just feels like a gimmick. Why not USE the boat? What if the old man (who knows every inch of this beach) sees the empty dory bobbing out in the water and sense something’s adrift in his universe. (hint of disturbance! Give him a thought about it that tells us something unique about this place.)

The old fisherman hobbled along on the charcoal sand beach toward his three adult sons. Nit to pick: I got tripped up with the image of these guys fishing from the beach and not out in a boat. What kind of fishermen are they? Take a moment to explain that they are set-netting salmon from shore with a gill net and how this works. Again, this can say something special about your setting. Never assume your reader in landlocked Iowa knows anything about fishing. It can also illuminate character. The old man is really tired because they had been out since four setting the heavy nets, etc. Slow down…They waited patiently for him to help them pick salmon from the gill net they had just hauled from the sea, on the east side of Cook Inlet, Alaska. Find a way to insert the place more gracefully. This is you the writer TELLING me where we are; let the old man SHOW us through his thoughts and senses. The old man spilled his coffee when he tripped on a rock, disguised by wet, in the grey mud and volcanic grit. Neat detail! I Googled Cook Inlet and found it is rife with volcanoes! He cussed, turned around, and ambled back for a refill, when urgent shouting diverted his attention. More you telling. Show it. How about:

“Pop! Pop! Come quick!”

The old man turned at the sound of his son’s shouts. 

One of the sons motioned him over and pointed at the tide line. The old man forgot the coffee. He gimped might be just me but this verb feels nasty… limped? toward them. , as they stood grouped around the tangled net on the beach. You’re leaching the tension out of the discovery here. “as they stood…” is boring. Have the man draw up short and SHOW US what he sees. Their two-hundred-foot, monofilament don’t waste detail on the NET; give it to the horror of the baby’s body. The net needs to be described before the body discovery. net lay partially in the water, the other half clumped around something at the low tide line. The tide ebbed, leaving the beach fresh and clean.  The man isn’t there yet. He can’t relate this in his POV; you’ve slipped into the sons’ POV.

As the old man approached, “As” construction deflates tension. Get him there and move on. one of his sons moved to meet him.

“Dad, we have a body in the net.” Can we give this son better dialogue? He sounds like a jaded cop.  “Jesus,” the son whispered. “Sweet Jesus, it’s a…..” And maybe he can’t say it. So you give the old man the next line.

 A baby…it was a baby.

And where’s the kid’s reaction as seen through the dad’s POV?  The son might turn away, even retch? Slow down and give me some human emotion here.  Where’s the other two sons? What are they doing?

The old man stepped over he’s already there. to scrutinize the snarled remains. Snarled? Remains? It’s the body of a baby. This is not a cop or coroner talking. It is a fisherman who has seen many weird things in his net, dead things, but never a human. Get out of YOUR head and into his. This is a horrible moment, ripe with drama but we need to experience through the old man, not you the writer. The small body curled in a fetal position, as if asleep in a womb. Layers of moss-covered nylon the nylon net obscured the face, and he the old man was thankful for it. He inspected did he touch it? Unclear. a small, bloated foot, then noticed a pink Hello Kitty image on an ocean-stained ????tee shirt. If the body is in fetal position, he can’t see the image on the t-shirt. Sun glinted off? something poking through strands of tangled hair and citrine seaweed. An earring. This is a cool telling detail, especially since most babies don’t have earrings. Slow down and give him a thought about it! And maybe it is a thought that says something about this unique place.  A baby with a pierced ear? Nobody in this town did that to their babies. Or do they? I believe it’s common for Alaskan native-Americans to have piercings. Could this figure in? 

Note that you’ve placed your characters in a high-anxiety horror-filled scene. Yet they have no emotions, thoughts, reactions. Slow down and humanize this moment.

“Dear God. Not enough. See above. Son, call the troopers,” police? said the old man, stepping back. His son retrieved a cell phone from his jacket and called 911.  Again, these people feel like robots. And where are the other sons? Maybe just one son to simplify the choreography? 

So, dear writer. Find a way to make your unique setting work to your advantage so the body-on-the-beach feels new. Slow down and humanize your people because we need to feel the horror through them. Good luck and keep going!

_________________________

And here is that revisit of  Keep It Safe.  I like this more on second look. There is a unique voice at work here and with the longer length and careful rewrite, we get some details and context that makes me want to read more.  I admit that my first critique was biased against this style. That wasn’t fair. You should critique something for what it is, not what is isn’t. Compare this version with the first version. Comments welcome, TKZers!

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

There was that bottle or Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example. Like the opening but I still maintain this is one joke over the line after the first graph. Get back to the action at hand.  I would still hold this kicker for later. The chard I misread this as a misspelling of shard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on distressed walnut planking.

There I was, face down, flat on a cold floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps squeegee love it! their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman rubber soles here. All I was grateful for at this point is I still wore my bullet proof vest from work. No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like along those lines. I work in a dentist’s office. Name’s Wowjewodzic, by the way. I like this. I had said initially that I didn’t like the backstory thoughts in an action scene. But this writer is going for something specific in style and it’s working. Almost an old pebbled glass detective era feel. Or like he’s Kevin Spacey in the movie American Beauty where he’s already dead and he’s telling us how it happened.  I trust Wowje is very much alive here but this high-style narrative voice works really well for this story and mood. Contrast this with the Alaska story above.  The dead baby on the beach story begs for a slower start with more scene setting and natural emotion from the old man.  This entry is going for something completely different so this smart-alec voice works.

I stayed still, bit the inside of my cheek to distract me from the pain in my back and waited. Waited for the, what’s it called, the ‘coup de – something or other,’ love this line as well. Funny and says something about the man where the bullet enters the back of the skull and you don’t care where it goes next because you’re dead.

Then it occurred to me, this guy, or gal, probably not likely due to the heavy feet, suggest a clean-up here  this guy — not likely a gal, due to the heavy feet — didn’t use a silencer. didn’t use a silencer. This was a full on, make-a-lot-of-noise, gunshot. He wasn’t concerned about the blast drawing attention from the neighbors. Then again, my nearest neighbor was three miles away. And it was raining. It does that a lot in Portland, Oregon. Now THIS is how you gracefully insert the place. And thank you for not using a tagline: PORTLAND, OREGON. A rainy Night in April.

I waited was waiting to take my last breath of air on this planet, when my would-be killer walked away. No kill shot, no turning me over to confirm his success and my death. nice construction here. He just walked away. A stroll in the park. Go figure. I didn’t even try. My thoughts were about how I managed think you need a had managed here to get myself into this mess in the first place. The answer was simple. I offered to help out a friend.  Very nice. Smooth as good scotch.

Notes: Notice the writer’s pacing here, the use of long sentences balanced with sentence fragments. And look how much info he had packed into his beginning: Action (the hero is down), place (Portland), character (he loves good wine and he works in a dentist’s office of all things!) Plus he tried to help someone out and it has backfired (so to speak.)  Thanks, writer, for resubmitting and giving us a quick lesson in the power of rewriting.

 

4+

Do You Have the Title Gene?

Purposely bad cover created by my sister Kelly to go with bad title

By PJ Parrish

Let me run something by you, just for your opinion. Which of these titles grabs you for a thriller/mystery?

Somebody’s Daughter
Hunger Moon
A Walk in the Woods

We’ll get back to those in a second. But now, let’s talk about one of the most important things you need to succeed in this business. Forget talent, forget perseverance, forget craftsmanship. Even forget luck. I’m thinking today that what you really need is The Title Gene.

Okay, I am being a little flip here (That happens when you’re coming off a bad writing day and no sleep). Of course you need all those other things. But I am beginning to think that you just can’t discount having the knack for great titles. It’s a different talent than book writing. It’s akin to headline writing in journalism. (I once made my living doing this). You have to sum up in one to five words the heart and soul of your story. And make it sound sexy, exciting and oh-so different from every other book screaming for attention on the shelves.

I think we give good title. But I tell you, it is getting harder and harder to come up with something fresh in the crime writing business. How many variations are there on all the usual buzzwords — death, black, darkness, grave, murder, cold, midnight, evil? You get the point.

Titles are a little bit like bras. Finding the right one is a deeply frustrating, uncomfortable exercise and you have to try on a bunch of them to find one that really fits. (Men, you’re on your own here — jockstraps?)

Our first book Dark of of the Moon began life as The Last Rose of Summer (Yuck…and too romancy) and mutated into Circle of Evil (not bad but a little heard-that-before) before I found the Langston Hughes poem “Silhouette” that inspired it.  The line was: “Southern gentle lady, do not swoon. They’ve just hung a black man in the dark of the moon.”

Our third book Paint It Black? Well, just listen to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ song and you get the shivers. We went back to the Stones for our first stand alone thriller, in their song “Too Much Blood.” We wanted to use that as our title but our editor nixed it and came up with The Killing Song.  I still like the Stones title better.

Then there’s our book Thicker Than Water. It’s a good story, one of my faves, but man, what a lousy title. And guess what? It was our worst-seller. Its original title was Flesh and Blood but Jonathon Kellerman had a book coming out the same time with the same title and our editor told us, “Your book will suffer.” Lisa Gardner had a book called Gone, same title as Kellerman. I wonder if she suffered?

We followed up with Island of Bones. Can’t go wrong with “bones” on a title and frankly, we hit on the title before we had a plot for this one. It sold really well.

Then came A Killing Rain. We didn’t have a title until we were almost done, and while writing a synopsis for the marketing people, I wrote: “The story takes place during a Florida cold snap, what the farmers here call a killing rain.” Well, duh. But here’s a postscript. M Continue reading

9+

Breaking the Rules the Right Way

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little did they know…

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

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

Here is the opening of chapter 2:

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

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

And then, after a moment of shock and disorientation:

The plane has crashed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11+

First Page Critique: Beethoven
And the Well-Aimed Bullet

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

A Thriller – KEEP IT SAFE

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

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

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

________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5+

Getting Out of Rewrite Hell Alive

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

By PJ Parrish

I hate Lee Child.

Well, at least I got your attention.

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

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

He’d only written two words. CHAPTER ONE.

“Oh,” I said. “What is it then?”

“It’s the only draft!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Where do you think it should go?

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

Me: Good idea.

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

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

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

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

Now do you understand why I hate Lee Child?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes to fix it, you have to break it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

11+

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

By PJ Parrish

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

Avenue M

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

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

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

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

______________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AVENUE M

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

4+

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

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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First Page Critique: A Primer
On Prologs and Wavering POV

By PJ Parrish

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

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

Chapter 1
TEMPLE LAKE PA
Temple, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rocking stopped.

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

The rocking started again.

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

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

He yelled, “What the hell, man?”

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

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

“Jerome?”

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

She shouted his name louder. “Jerome?”

Dead silence.

_________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1
TEMPLE LAKE PA
Temple, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rocking stopped.

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

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

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

He yelled, “What the hell, man?”

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

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

“Jerome?”

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

She shouted his name louder. “Jerome?”

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

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