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
One of the best things about being a published writer is getting mail. Your day can be going to hell in a hand basket, your work in progress making none. And then you get an email from a reader. It’s like a tonic. Or, sometimes, after you read it, you need a gin and tonic.
Back in my salad days as a romance writer, before we had the internet machine and even before computers, I used to get real paper letters, written in long-hand. I took a class in handwriting analysis and it came in handy in trying to figure out my letter writer’s personality or mood. I never got anything written in red crayon or worse. Mostly, readers were kind, supportive and, when I screwed something up, pretty forgiving.
Now, all we get are emails. Something has been lost in this process. I can’t discern the personality behind the letter anymore. Alas. Not all technological advances are good. Still, even emails can brighten my day. Here’s a sample of some I got this week:
Is there anything new coming out soon for Louis. I have read them all. I getting withdrawals. I have loved them all. Benny
Hi, hope you are both enjoying writing another story for Louis to work his way through.
Thank you for all of your wondrous stories, which I have read over and over, and probably will get to again one day. God bless you both and may you keep on bring him and Joe to life for those of us who love them. Most Sincerely, Sheryl
And then there was this one:
I enjoy Louis Kincaid immensely. However, in the interest of authenticity, I feel the need to share a couple of disagreements in dialectic choices…in several places in the book, you used the word “kin” to describe relatives. In my experience as a 64 year old woman who has been a Michigander most of her life, (third generation), I have to say that I have never heard relations referred to in that way, except by southern transplants who came up for the auto industry jobs, in the middle and eastern part of the state. We, and everyone we knew, said “family” as in, “I have family in Michigan.” I know these are small details that may seem inconsequential, but they felt jarring to me and definitely took me out of the rhythm of the story.
Well, okay. Technically, she’s right. Maybe. Sorta. Perhaps. I need a gin and tonic.
Today, I got a really strange email. First thing, he identified himself as a professor at Ohio University Athens. Rut-roh. What grammar rule did I violate now? What lousy syntax did I use this time? Did I screw up my geography again?
I read on and breathed a sigh of relief. I was off the hook. And this one was really interesting.
Dear Ms. Montee. Forgive me for writing you out of the blue, but I am hoping you will agree to help me with a project I am working on this summer. I am producing a podcast about the life and work of the Austrian polymath Robert Eisler. This podcast is based on a biographical afterword I wrote for an Italian translation Eisler’s Man into Wolf (which appears in your novel Island of Bones), published by Adelphi Edizioni earlier this month. Part of the podcast will consist of conversations about how Eisler’s ideas have affected the work and thought of others. Is there some story of how you discovered Man into Wolf?
The book he is referring to is one of my favorites, not just for its convoluted plot but for the strange rabbit holes our research took us deep into. Like many books, this one started out with a “what if?”
About 15 years ago, Kelly and I were manning the card table at a Fort Myers Barnes & Noble signing and we weren’t exactly busy with a long line snaking out the doors. We used the time to brainstorm about the next book, but all of our ideas stunk. Then a nice lady came up and in talking, we learned she was a sociologist writing a non-fiction book about the pressures exerted on large extended families forced to live together.
“Sometimes, they just can’t take it. They flip out,” she said.
That was the germ for ISLAND OF BONES. We knew it had to be set on Southwest Florida’s coast, and that place has a wonderful geography. Off the coastline are dozens of little islands, squatting out there in the Gulf like green turtles. Some are privately owned. What if...there was a weird family living on an island out there that had a dark secret?
Then I remembered one of my favorite songs by the J. Geils Band called “Monkey Island.” Here’s the first verse:
No one could explain it What went on that night How every living thing Just dropped out of sight We watched them take the bodies And row them back to shore Nothing like that ever Happened here before.
Oh yeah. A strange landscape. An isolated island. A family maybe going a little insane. I had heard of a rustic restaurant out on a private island in the Gulf so Kelly and I took the ferry over one day to check it out. Yes…now we were beginning to see it. Here’s the second verse of “Monkey Island.”
On the east side of the island Not too far from the shore There stood the old house Of fifty years or more All the doors and windows Were locked inside and out The fate of those trapped in there Would never be found out.
Because of Florida’s unique history, we knew our family had to be of Spanish origin, so we came up with the island’s name — Isla de Huesos, Spanish for island of bones. But over the centuries, the original name was lost, corrupted by the locals into Away So Far Island. And the weird old family out there was left to do whatever it was they did.
Now comes the last piece of serendipity. While we were plotting this book, I was scheduled for a long-planned trip to Spain. So off I went to Madrid. My husband and I are seat-of-the-pants travelers, so we just rented a car and headed north. We ended up, by happenstance, in a coastal region called Asturias. It’s gorgeous and mysterious, isolated between the Picos de Europa Mountains and the sea. I knew I had found my family’s mother home.
When I returned home, I dove into the research rabbit hole. Asturias was influenced by the Celts and Romans and remains stubbornly isolated and rich in old traditions. Some of their ancient customs still survive in the villages today. One of them is called the Beleno Ride. The village men go up into the mountains, put on wolf skins then ride down into the villages, simulating the abduction and rape of women. The custom comes from Roman times and is related to the pagan Lupercalia festival.
But I didn’t want to go into woo-woo werewolf territory, and the psychology of criminals fascinated me. So I pulled a couple more loose research threads, trying to figure out why these Asturian men still do this. Deep in Google, I found Dr. Robert Eisler.
Eisler was a renaissance man. He lectured on economics, philosophy, religion, art history, and philology, spent fifteen months in Dachau and Buchenwald, was once arrested for art theft in Italy, testified at hearings on currency reform in front of the British Parliament and U.S. Senate, and never held any university position beyond temporary lectureships at Oxford and the Sorbonne.
And he wrote a book in 1951 called Man Into Wolf. The subtitle tells you everything any writer needed to know: “An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy.” Basically, Eisler believed that human urge to violence stems from Ice Age food shortages that forced ape-men to imitate wolves and take up pack hunting. He claims this is the historical basis of the werewolf legends found in many cultures.
I ordered the book from Alibris and read it. Louis finds it on the shelf of his prime suspect and his pursuit of the “wolf man” leads him right to the Island of Bones.
My Ohio professor, Brian, and I have exchanged several emails. Turns out he’s a big fan of crime fiction and read our book. We did a phone interview a couple days ago for his podcast and ended up chatting far longer than we meant to. Interesting postscript Brian told me: In Man Into Wolf, Dr. Robert Eisler used the term “serial killer.” Which is a good 55 years before it is credited to FBI profiler Robert Ressler.
Cue a little woo-woo music. Or maybe some Warren Zevon.
Special credit to the first person who can tell why I used that photo of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
“I’ve discovered writers by reading books left in airplane seats and in weird hotels.”— Lee Child
By PJ Parrish
Some days, you just don’t want sushi, free range chicken, or, god forbid, kale salad. You want…Goldfish Crackers, Gummi Bears, Pepperidge Farm Milanos, Kraft Mac and Cheese, McDonald’s french fries, with two scoops of Moomer’s Cherries Moobilee ice cream, washed down with Faygo Rock & Rye.
Some days, your soul cries out and the only thing you can do is give it what it craves — junk food. But it has to be good junk food, I say. Life is too short to eat a Wendy’s Quad Baconator.
Some days, you also need to read junk-food books. Sometimes called airplane books, the idea being that flying is so grotesque now that you need something soothing or numbing to get through it. I can’t read bad junk-food books on planes. I need the hard stuff. And the hard stuff — really good junk-food books — are in a category all their own. They…endure.
Two of my favorite “junk-food” writers died recently — Judith Krantz and Herman Wouk. Now, don’t get all huffy with me for calling them junk-food writers. I mean that as a sincere compliment. Krantz and Wouk had amazing, long careers creating hugely entertaining books. They got me through countless hard nights in high school, one divorce, the time I was fired from a job I loved, and the week my cat died. They took me to far away places with strange sounding places.
Judith Krantz died in her Bel Air home on June 22. She was 91. She didn’t publish her first book until she was 50 — the seminal Scruples. It’s the story of Wilhelmina Hunnewell Winthrop — first nicknamed Honey, then called Billy — and her journey from a chubby “poor relation” in an aristocratic Boston family to a thin, rich Beverly Hills glamazon — with stops in Paris and New York along the way. (So described by Jezebel, the self-proclaimed Supposedly Feminist Website, which recommends it as a “juicy retro read.”).
God, I loved that book.
Why? It’s a take on the classic Cinderella tale. I was a pretty naive 27 when it came out and it took me to worlds I had no hope of ever knowing — Paris, New York, Beverly Hills, French couture, and rich folk. (I eventually got to all those places, and found out hanging with rich folks isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but that a vintage Chanel bag can change your life). It was really fun and often very funny. It also had some really hot sex:
After that first time he used every art he knew to bring her to an orgasm, as if that might be the key that would unlock the door between them. Sometimes she achieved a fleeting little spasm, but he never knew that it came from her one recurring sexual fantasy. In her mind she was being made love to by an anonymous lover, lying on a low bed surrounded by a ring of men who were watching her avidly…
I can’t print the rest of the paragraph since we are a G-rated blog. Scruples was made into a mini-series starring Lindsey Wagner. Rumor has it Natalie Portman is doing a remake. Bad idea. Just read the book. It’s great junk-food. As Jezebel points out, why settle for Fifty Shades of Garbage when you can get the real deal?
Or as Krantz herself once put it:
“It’s not Dostoevsky. It’s not going to tax your mental capacities. It’s not ahhrtt.”
Now, Herman Wouk, well, most folks wouldn’t classify his books as junk-food. But the critics were brutal to him. Still, many of them begrudgingly gave him props for his propulsive narrative style. He died May 17, a couple days short of his 104th birthday.
Wouk became a bestseller with his shipboard drama The Caine Mutiny. I didn’t read that as a youngun, but I did feast on his page-turners Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke. The first was another coming-of-ager set in the ’30s with a feminist theme (a girl trying to become an actress in a male-centric world). When I read it, somewhere around age 13, I didn’t even know a Jewish person. (Yes, my childhood was that white-bread). But back then, when I was dreaming about getting out of the Detroit suburbs alive, I loved Marjorie’s grit and related to her big dreams.
Youngblood Hawke was also about a striver — a Kentucky boy who dreams of being a novelist and becomes the toast of New York — but there’s a tragic fall from grace. I read this one when I was maybe 35 and thinking of trying to write a novel. Wouk supposedly had second thoughts about making his protag a writer. “Writers are the world’s dullest people!” he wrote in his notes. Dull this book is not. It’s got sex, money, betrayal, and characters that live on in your head after you close the book.
And then were Wouk’s World War II epics The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. At 814 pages and 941 pages, they were door-stops! Wouk originally intended them to be one book but decided to break it into two when he realized it took nearly 1000 pages just to get to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The appeal of these books for me was their vastness. I love meaty historical fiction, but with Wouk the history lessons were overlaid by a grand drama about the gnarly family tree of Pug Henry, naval officer and FDR confidant. I learned more about the wars from Wouk than from any of my history classes. Ditto for the Irish conflict and the founding of Israel from another of my favorite authors Leon Uris. Yes, Wouk had things to teach me but he always, first, entertained me.
Which can make critics, well, crabby. One guy, Stanley Edgar Hyman, described Wouk’s readers as “yahoos who hate culture and the mind.” Wouk, for his part, had this to say about his oft-nasty critics:
“I’ve been absolutely dead earnest and I’ve told the story I had in hand as best as I possibly could. I have never sought an audience. It may be that I am not a very involved or a very beautiful or a very anything writer, but I’ve done the level best I can.
“In the short run geniuses, minor writers and mountebanks alike take their chance. Imaginative writing is a wonderful way of life, and no man who can live by it should ask for more.”
Rest in peace, Judith and Herman. And thanks for all those sleepless nights.
So, crime dogs, who are your guilty pleasure writers?
We’re off to sunny Arizona today for our First Pager, and into the shady heart of a bad girl. Thank you, writer, for letting us read your submission today and, as always, learn along with you. And this has left me with a yen for a blue margarita. Cheers!
Cartel Queen Veronica Valdez
The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale
Monday, October 20, 2019
Eight twenty-something male golfers sat on the patio crushing beers and trading insults.
Veronica Valdez glared at the window. I didn’t come here for party-till-you-puke feral males. She sat at a high-top table and ordered a blue margarita.
An ASU freshman, Veronica’s fake driver’s license identified her as twenty-two year old Shirley Smith. Designer clothes and accessories gave the impression of a sophisticated professional.
With a smile as fake as a TV game-show host, a man appeared. “I’m Tommy Thompson. May I join you?”
“Of course, I’m Shirley Smith. What’s your first name?”
“Orville,” he whispered.
“Orville, this will be our secret.”
Swaggered over here. Has a room. Luxury watch.
Veronica nudged her scarlet Valentino tote bag off the table, and Thompson retrieved it. “Thanks, the least I can do is buy you a blue margarita.”
“Okay, but they’re on me.”
On you? You’ll forget your name when we’re finished.
Their drinks arrive minutes later.
“The Blue Curacao liqueur gives the margarita its color.” I won’t tell him it hides the Roofie’s blue tint.
They played where-are-you-from and what-do-you-do, and during an awkward lull Veronica’s left hand pulled Thompson’s head close, and the snogging began. She circled her tongue inside his mouth, dropped her left hand, and slid it under his crotch. Still kissing, she squeezed his crotch and when he whimpered, her right hand dropped a tasteless pale-green and blue-speckled, fast-dissolving roofie tablet into his blue margarita.
“Bet you can’t drain yours, Tommy.” If he’s trying to get into my pants, he’ll over-compensate. That’s what men do. Thompson finished his blue margarita in three gulps.
The bartender’s generous pour combined with an anesthetic dose of Rohypnol affected Thompson. “Thizz marga uh uh is thong. Not too thong for me. Hah!” Now you’re on your ass. Right where I want you, Orville.
Veronica paid the check and walked a babbling, unsteady Thompson to his room where she undressed him, and tucked him in bed. After checking his pulse and respiration, she left with his $30,000 White Gold Rolex GMT Master II along with his wallet, iPhone, and $789. She’d keep the cash and sell the watch, credit cards, iPhone, and driver’s license on the dark web.
Behind the wheel of her truck, Veronica rubbed herself with the watch until she moaned and shivered.
I’m back. Well, looks like we’re dealing with a femme fatale here. Which gives us a chance to talk about opening your story with the antagonist. Is it a good idea or just a cliche? Should you give that first spotlight to the villain or introduce your hero first? And, to make it more complicated, what if your protagonist is also an antagonist? Books and movies are rife with successful examples of this hybrid: Darkly Dreaming Dexter, American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Interview With the Vampire, and one of my favorite books-cum-movies The Talented Mr. Ripley.
So who do you shove out onto the stage first?
In movies, this is called the Establishing Character Moment. Often it’s given to the protag, but sometimes, the villain goes first. I was watching Dirty Harry the other night, and of course, I was analyzing the heck out of it. It’s about a serial killer called Scorpio. The opening is terrific. (A lot of credit needs to go to cinematographer Bruce Surtees, whose seminal chiaroscuro style was artful-creepy). The scene opens with the sound of church bells. Then we get a shot of a pretty girl, sighted through a rifle scope, swimming in a rooftop pool. The shot pulls out to show the shooter taking aim…
Indulge me a moment more while we talk about how Darkly Dreaming Dexter opens. First, we get a brief orgasmic ode to the moon then comes this graph:
I had been waiting and watching the priest for five weeks now. The need had been prickling and teasing prodding at me to find one, the next one, find this priest. Three weeks I had known he was it, the next one, we belonged to the Dark Passenger, he and I together. And that three weeks I had been fighting the pressure, the growing Need rising in me like a great wave that roars up and over the beach and does not recede, only swells with every tick of the bright night’s clock.
The bad guy as protag! One of my favorite books from high school was John Fowles’s The Collector, much of it written from the abductor’s POV. Here’s the opening graph:
When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annex. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M.I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in a queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like Burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at the back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.
I am pretty sure this paragraph was swimming around in my subconsciousness when I wrote my stand-alone serial killer The Killing Song, which opens with the murderer admiring his next victim as she sits in a concert in Paris’s Sainte Chapelle. So…if you’re going to open with the bad guy, you better be able to get into your killer’s skin, no matter how warty it is.
Which brings us, at last, to our submission today. (Thanks for your patience, writer, but I really needed to make a point about opening with bad guys first).
Now, in such a short sample, we can’t be sure Veronica is our villain. She could be the protagonist dressed up in anti-heroine Prada. Given the title, that’s my guess. Maybe the writer can weigh in with some insight? But we can still comment on the effectiveness of this opening in catching our attention and maybe what can be done to improve things. Some general observations first:
There’s some potential here. But I really think this writer needs to slow things down. Here is what happens, just in the plot-events: We’re in a bar where we meet the main character Veronica. She is clearly there to prey on someone, complete with fake ID and fancy togs. She hones in on a victim and they have drinks, small talk, and she sort of seduces him. She slips him a roofie, and he gets woozy and can barely talk. Somehow, they get upstairs to his room where she undresses him and tucks him into bed. She steals his watch, wallet, phone and cash. She goes downstairs and out to the parking lot to her truck. She masturbates with his Rolex.
All this in…385 words. Way too fast.
What doesn’t happen is: establishment of location. (other than a superfluous tagline); any description of surroundings (and we’re in a beautiful desert luxury hotel!); what anyone looks like or sounds like (other a fakey-smile and roofie-drunk slurring); why Veronica is there, outside of ripping off men; basic choreography of moving the characters around in space. How do they get up to his room when he’s half-passed out? How does she get to her truck? And there is not even a hint of character motivation or insight.
That last one is a biggie. Because if you are dealing with an antagonist/protagonist or an anti-heroine, you darn well better be prepared to plumb the depths of her deepest needs, wants, fears and yes, loves. And that begins at the beginning.
If the antagonist is important enough to get her own point of view, she ought to have goals and motives driving her — same as any other character, and we need to see the beginnings of this layering in the first chapter in which she appears. One trick to writing a solid bad guy is to make him the hero of his own story. (I think this is a James credo). Few people actually consider themselves evil or bad, so even if Veronica has an iota of conscience, she will at least rationalize it.
Right now, Veronica is a cipher. The fact she’s female doesn’t make her any less a cliche in today’s crime fiction. When you find a way to make her feel like a real woman with real problems, readers will want to follow her — even if she’s a bad girl. I suggest the writer read T. Jefferson Parker’s L.A. Outlaws. I It’s about a rookie cop who gets caught up in an affair with a Robin-Hoodish bad girl. Here’s the opening of Chapter 1, written from the female antagonist’s POV:
Here’s the deal: I am a direct descendent of the outlaw Joaquin Murrieta. He was a kickass horseman, gambler, and marksman. He stole the best horses, robbed rich anglos at gunpoint. He loved women and seduced more than a few during his twenty-three years. Some of his money went to the poor, but to be truthful most of it he spent on whiskey, guns, expensive tailored clothes, and on the women and children he left behind.
I got Joaquin Murrieta’s good looks. I got his courage and sense of justice for the poor. I got his contempt for the rich and powerful. I got his love of seduction. Like Joaquin used to, I love a good, clean armed robbery. I steal beautiful cars instead of beautiful horses.
Right now I’m about to stick up a west-side dude for twenty-four thousand dollars in cash. He won’t be happy, but he’ll turn it over.
And I’ll be richer and more famous than I already am.
My name is Allison Murrieta.
So my main advice, dear writer, is to slow down. All the action you cover in 385 words would make a good entire first chapter. And that’s not even accounting for adding better character development. Even poor Orville merits a physical description. Beyond this, you have some problems with simple confusion. Let’s do a line edit and clear up some of that up.
The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale Onyx Bar
Monday, October 20, 2019
Generally, you should use this device for big complex plots that ricochet around in time and place. All this info could be — should be — woven into the narrative. (ie: The Onyx Bar was almost deserted, except for a quartet of young guys just coming in from the 18th green. Their cleats clacked on the wood floor and their drunken laughter echoed off the adobe walls. Veronica watched them for a moment then swiveled on her bar stool to look out huge windows. The sun was just dipping below Pinnacle Peak. God, she loved The Four Seasons. The best resort in Scottsdale. Best views, best food, and best place for hunting men who weren’t too smart.
That’s bad but you get the idea. SHOW us where we are with choice details. Don’t TELL us in a wooden tagline.
“Hurl! Loser!” Do you really want to use up your precious first line on a nameless frat-boy who has no bearing on anything? Put the spotlight on Veronica. She is there for one thing — to find a male mark. Make her ACTIVE rather than reactive to the barf boys.
Eight twenty-something male golfers sat on the patio crushing beers and trading insults.
Veronica Valdez glared at the window. I didn’t come here for party-till-you-puke feral males. She satWas she standing and just now sat down or already sitting? at a high-top table and ordered a blue margarita.
An ASU freshman, Veronica’s fake driver’s license identified her as twenty-two year old Shirley Smith. Another example of TELLING instead of showing. Turn it into action, something like this:
When the waitress came over, Veronica said, “I’ll have a blue margarita.”
The waitress’s eyes narrowed. “Can I see some ID?”
Veronica pulled out her wallet and flipped it open to her license. She stayed cool, knowing the stupid girl couldn’t tell it was fake. Behind the license was her Arizona State student ID. That was real. As real as her Valentino Hobo Bag, Chanel boucel jacket and her Louboutin booties.
Designer clothes and accessories gave the impression of a sophisticated professional. See above blue comment. SHOW us with telling details that she presents a sophisticated front. You also might be able to slip in hints of her physical appearance. The blonde hair wasn’t real, but the breasts were. You can do something with this real vs fake thing. Which might end up standing for something larger symbolically about this woman. Plumb her depths.
With a smile as fake as a TV game-show host, a man appeared.From where? Also, she is a predator so wouldn’t she notice him first? She’s trolling for a mark, so make her ACTIVE. What does he look like? A Chiclet smile isn’t enough. SHOW us through her eyes. “I’m Tommy Thompson. May I join you?” Do you realize all your names are alliterative? I’d change that.
“Of course, I’m Shirley Smith. What’s your first name?” I don’t understand. He just told her his name was Tommy.
“Orville,” he whispered.
“Orville, this will be our secret.” Again, confusing. What is the secret?
Swaggered over here. Has a room. Luxury watch. Tell us here what kind, not later. And how does she know he has a room? Maybe she sees him slip a key into his jacket before he comes over? She’s the predator here, so make her smarter. Has she done this before? Here’s a good opportunity to slip in a hint of backstory. She needs it. And be careful that she’s not a regular here or management would note. Which can also be a good backstory note, something like:
She knew all the best hotel bars, from San Francisco to Savannah. The Onyx had always been her favorite, though she was careful not to show up too often. Bartenders noticed women who drank alone. They remembered. And she couldn’t risk that.
Veronica nudged her scarlet Valentino tote bag off the table, and Thompson retrieved it.Confusing. Did he catch her bag as it fell off the table? “Thanks, the least I can do is buy you a blue margarita.” She already ordered one. Perhaps it’s more interesting to have him ask what’s that blue thing she’s drinking? Also, your dialogue here is a little anemic. Make it work harder. Make it SAY something about Veronica. Maybe he makes some lame pick-up remark like, “What? You ordered that because it matches your eyes?” Which gets you a way of slipping in what she looks like. Or maybe she wears blue contacts? I suggest you go back and read James’s post on how Telling Details can enliven your story.
“Okay, but they’re on me.”
On you? You’ll forget your name when we’re finished.
Their drinks arrive minutes later. Whoa. You need to slow down here. You just had these two meet, so you really can’t jump ahead with an empty time-bridge like this. What do they do? What did they say? You’re missing chances to flesh out your set-up and your main character.
“The Blue Curacao liqueur gives the margarita its color.” I won’t tell him it hides the Roofie’s blue tint. A non sequitur — of course she wouldn’t tell him she’s drugging his drink. The italics tells us we are in her head, and because the sentences are joined in one graph, we assume she said the thing about the Curacao? But it’s unclear.
They played where-are-you-from and what-do-you-do, and during an awkward lull Veronica’s left hand pulled Thompson’s head close, Because this “seduction” is so rushed, I’m not buying this action. You need to set it up better to make it believable. Also, they are sitting at a high-top table in full view of a classy bar, so this is borderline unbelievable. and the snoggingWhy use British slang for making out? began. She circled her tongue inside his mouth, dropped her left hand, and slid it under his crotch.Under? Still kissing, she squeezed his crotch and when he whimpered, her right hand dropped a tasteless pale-green and blue-speckled, fast-dissolving roofie tablet into his blue margarita drink..Here is an example of wrong details. Just describe the salient action. She dropped the roofie into his glass. It dissolved before he had time to open his eyes.
“Bet you can’t drain yours, Tommy.” If he’s trying to get into my pants, he’ll over-compensate. That’s what men do.You need a new graph here: Thompson finished his blue margarita drink in three gulps. The bartender’s generous pour combined with anesthetic dose of the Rohypnol affected Thompson. Again, why tell us when you can show us? New graph needed for dialogue “Thizz marga uh uh is thong. Not too thong for me. Hah!” New graph needed because you change to her thoughts.Now you’re on your ass.Did he fall off the chair? Right where I want you, Orville.
Re: Roofies. I did a lot of research on this drug for one of my own books, and you need to be careful in your description here. They are a depressant. Depending on the dose, it takes a good 20 to 60 minutes for them to take affect, maybe more for a man. Also, because of date rape abuse, they are no longer legally available in U.S. Maybe she got it in Mexico? Again, this could be a telling detail about your character.
Veronica paid the check and walked a babbling, unsteady Thompson to his room where she undressed him, and tucked him in bed. You really need to slow your action down here. The roofie would make him almost unable to walk. Is he large? Is she small? Was he hard to maneuver? No one noticed this in the bar? How did she get his key card? They don’t have room numbers on them so how does she know where the room is? Sorry if this sounds niggling, but you can’t just gloss over details like this. Afterchecking his pulse and respiration, she left with his $30,000 White Gold Rolex GMT Master II along with his wallet, iPhone, and $789. She’d keep the cash and sell the watch, credit cards, iPhone, and driver’s license on the dark web.
I have a question about iPhones that is above my pay grade. I know they are big targets of thieves who resell them, but there are also ways to guard against that and they can be traced. This makes me wonder — what kind of criminal is Veronica? The scenario here describes a petty theft because she’s not going to make a fortune reselling this stuff. Is she up to bigger things — like she’s part of phishing scheme? Then keeping the iPhone makes sense. This goes to my point about the need to start layering in some backstory here. Because a college girl drugging older guys in bars just to steal their watches and wallets isn’t very interesting. The stakes need to be bigger, I think.
Then…out to the parking lot we go. Slow down! One sec we’re in a hotel room, next in a car. Whiplash!
Behind the wheel of her truck,rusty Ford flatbed? Platinum Silverado?Vintage Jeep? Veronica rubbed herself with the watch until she moaned and shivered. Well, that’s quite an image, but again, slow down! Nobody likes to be rushed in a seduction, even if it’s a solo act. She gets in the truck. Give her a thought or two. Have her watch the sun go down. Maybe she thinks about poor Orville “roached-out” (that’s slang for being high on roofies) up in his fancy room (which you never described). Maybe she takes out his wallet and sees a photo of the kids. Give us something! Humanize these characters! And then, she leans back in the seat and gazes out at the beautiful Scottsdale sunset. It’s been good day at the “office.” She reaches into the Hobo bag and pulls out the watch. She admires it. She admires herself. She thinks something, anything! Okay, maybe we can go with the sex thing then, but it would be better with some kind of human context. Even if her heart is black, you have to show it to us because as I said in the general comments, a villain has to be believable and multi-dimensional. She’s as blank as a blow-up doll right now.
A final thought. Roofies are called “the forget-me-pill.” Boy, I’d sure do something with that given your scenario. Every chapter needs a good kicker. Poor Orville will forget, given the lasting effects of roofies. But who’s really trying to “forget-me” here? Maybe your bad girl herself? Look for depths to plumb in your characters, especially your villains.
That’s about it. If this sounds harsh, please know, dear writer, I am not doing this to discourage you. I think you’re onto something here, and the spareness of your writing shows some talent. (though I still think it’s too spare). You’ve got something potent going here but I’m not sure you know what’s truly inside Veronica. I want to know more about her. Strangely enough, I even want to like her because there’s nothing like a dame gone wrong who maybe, just maybe, finds a way to right herself. I really encourage you to check out T. Jeff’s L.A. Outlaws. Reading good writers helps us find our way. And don’t give up. I’m hard on you because this has potential.
Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing. — Sylvia Plath
By PJ Parrish
We have a special First Page Critique to talk about today. Because I think it is a splendid example of a question all writers have to ask themselves at one time or another: When it is time to let go of a bad story? I’ll be back in a second with my comments. First, here’s our submission:
It’s not easy starting your life over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it.
Especially in a place like Morning Sun, Iowa. The folks in Morning Sun — there’s only about four hundred of them — don’t have much tolerance for weird people, especially a rattlebrained housewife who tries to bail out of her marriage after a couple of little marital “tiffs.” But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when my husband Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife we had just bought off a late-night infomercial, I didn’t figure I had a lot of options.
The police believed I killed him on purpose. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. But fortunately for me, the jury didn’t believe any of them. So I walked.
Actually, I ran. Three thousand miles to be exact, all the way to Las Vegas. I had to get out of Morning Sun and I figured Las Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances. It’s the kind of town where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.
I’m back. I have real mixed feelings about this submission. On one hand, I like the sassy voice. And the opening line isn’t bad. But I found myself longing for less thinking and musing and more live action. And the title? Well, it’s really meh.
Okay, I’m messing with you here. This is an opening for one of my own books, unpublished. Kelly and I wrote this (in fact, we wrote the entire 367-page manuscript) years ago, when we were well along into our Louis Kincaid series. We wanted to try our hand at a female protag and a style that was lighter and humorous. Also, Kelly had decades of experience in the Nevada casino business and we figured we couldn’t go wrong.
We couldn’t sell this book to save our souls. Our own publisher passed on it (nicely) and then, when our agent shopped it around, we got at least ten rejections. And there was a common thread to all of them — that the book’s tone was off, that it was “neither fish nor fowl” as two editors actually said. What they were telling us was that we couldn’t sustain a consistent tone over the course of the story, that it seesawed between humor and seriousness (a theme was sexual abuse), light and dark. (And to be honest, it was larded with backstory in the first chapter).
We put the manuscript away and took this lesson out of the disappointment: That our writers’s hearts are dark, and we can’t fake otherwise. I’ve come to think of it as our “Shelf Book.” This is a term coined by John Connelly for a story that you have to write and complete just to get it out of your system so you can move on.
I guess that’s the lesson I am trying to convey here today. That some ideas are toxic. And even if you slave away and finish the manuscript, sometimes you just have to admit defeat and let a story idea die.
I know how hard this is to do. Like me, many of you probably have variations of this:
1. A manila folder swollen with newspaper clippings, scribblings on cocktail napkins, pages torn from airline magazines, notebooks of dialogue overheard on the subway, stuff you’ve printed off obscure websites. At some point, you were convinced all these snippets had the makings of great books. (I call my own such folder BRAIN LINT.)
2. A folder icon in your computer called FUTURE PLOTS. These are sylphs that came to you in the wee small hours of the morning, whispering “tell my story and I will make you a star!” So you jumped out of bed, fired up the Dell and tried to capture these tiny teases. Or maybe you’re one of those bedeviled souls who keeps a notepad by the bed — just in case.
3. Manuscripts moldering in your hard-drive. Ah yes…the stunted stories, the pinched-out plots, the atrophied attempts, the truncated tries. (Hey, better I get rid of my bad alliteration here then in my book) These are the books you had so much hope for and they let you down. These are the books you went 30 chapters with but couldn’t wrestle to the mat for the final pin. These are the books you grimly finished even as they finished you. Maybe you even sent these out to either agent or editor and they were rejected. At last count, I have six of these half-birthed monsters still breathing in my hard-drive. And at least four others finally died when my former Acer did, lost to mankind forever. Thank god. Geez…one was called Tarantella and it was erotica. Can it get any worse?
So what do you do with all these ideas?
You expose them to sunlight and watch them burn to little cinders and then you move on. Because not every idea is a good one. Not every idea makes for a publishable book. And sometimes, you just gotta let go.
Or you just bite the bullet and let them exist as your Shelf Books. Mike Connelly had three completed manuscripts before he sent out The Black Echo. L. Frank Baum wrote four adult novels before The Wizard of Oz, and his son records in his memoir that his mother burned them all. Hunter Thompson’s first writing attempt was a rejected novel called Prince Jellyfish about a boy from Louisville trying to make it in the big city. Thomas Hardy’s first novel The Poor Man and the Lady, was rejected by five publishers and the manuscript later destroyed. And before Stephen King hit it big with Carrie (rejected by 30 editors) he wrote a novella The Aftermath, and The House on Value Street, based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping.
Sometimes, bad ideas can birth new life. Michael Chabon abandoned his novel titled Fountain City after 1,500 pages, but then used it as inspiration for his fabulous Wonder Boys. John Cheever wrote 150 pages of a novel called The Swimmer, then decided it was better as a 12-page short story.
I have known some unpublished writers who’ve lock their jaws onto one idea like a rabid Jack Russell and chew it to death. These writers become paralyzed, unable to give up on their unworkable stories, unable to open their imaginations to anything else. I think it is because they fear this one bone of an idea is the only one they will ever have. Two things happen when writers reach this point:
They self-publish. (Not a bad thing if your idea is good)
Or they get smart, take to heart whatever lessons that first manuscript taught them, put that book on the shelf, and move on to a new idea.
You have to know when to let go. And you have to trust that yes, you will have another idea. Maybe a good one. Maybe even a great one.
So, what do Kelly and I do with our Lucky Lady? Yeah, we’ve thought about self-publishing it. We even designed a cover for it. We have a base readership and we might get some sales. But whenever I go back and re-read that book — which I’ve done a couple times now with something close to hope — I find it still has warts. And worse, it isn’t true to our writers’s hearts and our readers will sense that.
We could sent it to Canada. To the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, which is devoted to unpublished manuscripts. The library’s inspiration came from the 1971 novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance by Richard Brautigan, in which the protagonist works at a library of unpublished manuscripts. In the novel, no one is allowed to visit the library and read the unpublished works. But in the library it inspired, that’s the whole point. You can go there and read the 300 manuscripts. They are also open to submissions. But I think your toxic story would look better on your own shelf.
Books aren’t written — they are rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it. — Michael Crichton.
By PJ Parrish
I am a sucker for make-overs. I cut my teeth on Glamour magazine’s Do’s & Don’ts. I never missed an episode of What Not To Wear and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. I binge-watch the Home & Garden channel for house renovations.
Which is probably why I love rewriting. It is the ultimate make-over. The only way that your ugly duckling novel becomes a sell-able swan is through the painful surgery and ruthless eye of rewriting. And to answer the question posed by the headline — no, your first draft does not look good naked. No one’s does.
We’ve covered this subject often here at TKZ. To review: Rewriting is done on two levels. First, you rewrite at the sentence level, tightening your paragraphs, deleting and switching words around. It’s what’s call line editing. But you also rewrite at the structural level. You ask the big picture questions: Is the plot sturdy and believable? Are the characters well-drawn? Is the setting well-rendered? Have you chosen the prime dramatic moment and best point of view from which to begin the story?
Most beginning writers get bogged down in line rewriting. They get hung up finding the right adjectives or rearranging sentences, and they never step back and look at the big picture. They’re too busy picking out the color of the wallpaper or what kind of flooring they like when they should be worrying about how strong the foundation is and whether the walls are plumb.
To recap, here’s are some things you watch for in rewriting:
Stereotypes in personalities, looks and even settings. When creating a character or a place, go against the norm, fight the instinct to use the expected.
Too easy/stock description. Avoid words like tall, beautiful, handsome, etc. Be creative, be original.
Writing clichés: Character looking in mirror for physical description. References to celebrities for character description.
Confusion in your timeline.
Wasted dialogue, unnecessary adverbs, extended or overwrought description.
Repetition of the story’s hidden message or theme, or constant references to a character’s flaws or demons. Trust your readers to “get it” the first time.
Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Rewriting is hard work. And sometimes, when you’re so close to your story, it’s difficult to see what needs to be done. So today, I want to give you some BEFORESand AFTERS. To borrow from another one of our favorite TKZ tropes, I’m going to try to SHOW you how to rewrite, instead of TELLING you. Let’s look at our first ugly duckling:
The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries against a bleached, predawn sky. The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees, loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.
Louis stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees as he scaled the slippery slope.
He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Louis rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.
Here’s the AFTER:
The sky was a bleached gray, the bare trees rising like black veins against the clouds. The ground was soft and wet, a mire of dead leaves. With every cold breeze, the three men were sprinkled with the remnants of last night’s thunderstorm.
Louis Kincaid stumbled, cursing softly as he pulled his boot free of an old vine. The fog that hovered near the ground had thinned, but it was still opaque enough to mask his view of the orange vest of the hunter ahead. Louis quickened his pace.
At the top of a hill, the hunter in view again, Louis paused and pulled up the collar of his deputy’s jacket. He turned and looked back, waiting for the last man of the trio to puff his way up the hill.
If you can’t guess, this is from one of our own books. The rewrite is not only shorter, it also is more emotionally involving. If you’re into word counts: Our first draft of this chapter clocked in at 1,864 words. The rewrite was 969. Every word counts.
Here’s our next make-over candidate BEFORE:
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, 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, Jon Abellard crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.
Here’s the rewritten AFTER:
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 rotten-egg smell of the bayou was heavy when he took a deep breath.
Jon Abellard wiped the sweat from his brow and looked down at the body. She was the third young woman this year who had been left to decay in the Louisiana swamps.
With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. Against the slanting sun, the bird was little more than a white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.
Abellard looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.
“God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”
I got rid of the “writerly” junk and made the scene feel more active. (ie turning the Godspeed reference from thought to dialogue.) I changed “cloying acridness” into the more specific “rotten egg smell” and pruned extraneous words like “now,” “and.” Most folks know egrets are regal so it’s unnecessary. Ditto for “swampy” (a bayou is by definition marshy). And “instinctively and unselfconsciously” crossing himself is a waste of precious words. Also, I deep-sixed the overwrought imagery, like the egret bearing the dead woman’s soul to the Land of the Dead like the dove did for Ulysses. Why lose that image? Because we are in a scene where a man is looking down at a dead girl. Unless he’s a literature professor, would he be thinking of Euripides? Doubtful…he’s a rookie cop and the writer’s effort to impress is getting in the way of what should be a good set-up scene. I also added “ma cherie” to drop the hint that the protag is Creole and I told readers where we are (Louisiana). More info, more emotion…in twenty fewer words.
Our third candidate isn’t quite ready for her close-up. BEFORE:
It was the first time Tina had ever been to a fancy restaurant and she so wanted to impress Nancy Browne. She’d only known her a few days but if there was any chance that she’d be allowed to join the exclusive Orchid Book Club, Tina knew she had to prove herself worthy. And at this moment, proving herself worthy meant knowing what all the utensils were for and what kind of wine to order.
And it didn’t start well. Nancy Browne didn’t order for her, as she had hoped. She was left there, staring at the menu as if she couldn’t read English and when she finally ordered a Pinot Noir wine, she knew it was wrong by strange expression on the waiter’s face. Then she asked for Hidden Valley ranch dressing and — good grief! — ice in her wine. She had had known this was going to be disaster and she was right.
God, she was just a white trash orphan from Marked Tree, Arkansas and there was no sense in pretending she was anything else. When the waiter brought the key lime pie – wasn’t it supposed to be green not yellow? — she rushed from the restaurant in tears.
I like the idea behind this fish-out-of-water scene, which creates empathy for the protag Tina. But this is a classic example of telling not showing. This was a chapter from a romantic suspense novel my sister Kelly wrote eons ago. (unpublished). Here’s how she rewrote it once she grasped the concept of show not tell. AFTER:
“What are you doing, dear?” Tina looked across the table at Nancy Van Horn. In the dim light, the sixty-six year old woman looked as well preserved as a corpse in an upscale funeral home. Every time Nancy picked up her wine glass, Tina got a whiff of lilacs from the rustle of Nancy’s chiffon sleeve. Tina discreetly tried to smell her armpits, wondering if Nancy could smell her fear-sweat. “So, why do you want to join our book club?” Nancy asked. Tina had a mouthful of peas. What should she do? Swallow quickly, hold up a finger or calmly keep eating? Nancy saved her by looking away and signaling the waiter. He was young, with a lock of black hair that coiled over his forehead. The kind of man Tina knew would never give her a second look. Handsome men in Nashville – even waiters — could smell the Delta mud on a woman, no matter how much Chantilly cologne she splashed over it. “I’ll have a Pinot,” Tina said, remembering the name of the wine from the Real Housewives of Atlanta TV show. “Grigio or Noir?” the waiter asked. Tina stared at him, her mind blank. He was staring back, laughter swimming in his brown eyes though his lips were drawn in a impatient line. And Nancy…she was staring, too.
What are you doing in Cabrelli’s, little girl? Who do you think you are? Dirty white trash, she thought as she pushed from the table. Just dirty white trash.
Yes, this is longer. But it’s more telling in its details, which adds layers to the characters, especially Tina. And it takes GENERAL information that was conveyed only via thought and converts it to SPECIFIC dialogue.
Got time for more? Here’s another cop on the scene BEFORE:
The sight of the body sickened him but the possibility that the murderer could be hiding in the house geared him into action. He checked the bathroom and closet on the second floor then searched the first floor but found no one. Opening the back door, he shouted for Healey, but there was no response. Until this instant, Palm Avenue had been his favorite place in Palm Vista. In all of Florida, as a matter of fact. Neat green lawns bordered large single-family homes set back from wide curving streets. There was old money here. Front doors featured beveled glass. Windows edged by white curtains. Wide entry halls crowned by large chandeliers.
And here’s the AFTER:
The sight of the body sickened him but the possibility that the murderer could be hiding in the house geared him into action. He drew his gun and went quickly but quietly down the hall. Lots of closed doors, too many places to hide. He kicked open the first one. A marble bath. Empty. The next two were vast bedrooms but something told him this wasn’t where the killer would go because there was no way out. He looked down the staircase then slid along the wall, gun raised. No one downstairs either. Where the hell was the killer? And where the hell was his partner? “Healey!” His voice echoed in the cold marble foyer. No response.
What’s the lesson here? Two points: Convert narrative into action and dialogue. (SHOW us the cop shouting for his partner via in dialogue instead of embedding it in narrative. Dialogue is action. Dialogue breaks up blocks of narrative. Also, when you’re in a tense action scene, keep the writing style short and sweet and don’t take detours of the neighborhood in thoughts.
Action scenes are good places to look for rewriting opportunities. Like the example above, this next one is a tense physical scene. But it can be better in rewrites. BEFORE:
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.
And here’s the AFTER:
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 was improved in the rewrite? The wavering point of view was eliminated. The first version shifted into omniscient and a man falling out of a window wouldn’t notice “glittering shards in the throb of red neon” or that his attacked had a “chiseled” face. That’s the writer getting in the way. And the second version puts the POV firmly in intimate third. It’s more exciting and visceral.
So, don’t dread rewriting. Think of it as BEFORE and AFTER. Write your first draft as quickly as you can and pour your heart and soul into it. Make mistakes and move on. Put it aside for at least three weeks. Then go back, print out your book (on paper!) and get out a red pencil. Read your book with a hard cold eye, looking for plot holes, digressions, flaccid or stereotyped characters, and anything that is even slightly confusing. Oh, and look for boring stuff. If it seems even a little boring to you, you can bet your royalties it will be ten times as boring to a reader.
Go forth and rewrite your novel with a happy eager heart, my swans. Oh, and you might want to rethink that man-bun.
Just back from the Edgars. As banquet chair, one of my duties is to run the PowerPoint, so I stay as sober as a nun until it’s all over. Then, like everyone else, I head to the bar to see old friends and talk about the business.
I met one of the winners, Donald Joh, who won best TV episode for The Romanoffs. His writing partner was Matthew Weiner. You might have heard of him – he created Mad Men, and has won a van-load of Emmys and Golden Globes.
Donald and I got to gabbing about the differences between screenwriting and novel writing. One thing we agreed on was that both need to have a great set-up. I told him I had recently watched Gaslight, the great study in paranoia with Charles Boyer trying to drive his wife Ingrid Bergman crazy. Gaslight falls under what I call the Bad Husband genre. Others include Dial M For Murder (Bad Husband Ray Milland trying to off Grace Kelly), Suspicion (Bad Husband Cary Grant gets miffed when he finds out his heiress wife Joan Fontaine is really poor), and Bad Fiancé Robert Wagner who’s just plain mean and tosses his pregnant girlfriend Joanne Woodward off a roof).
The golden era of the Bad Husband genre seemed to end in the Fifties. We’ve got a few bad seeds now, like Nick Dunne in Gone Girl, but they pale in comparison to guys like Cary. I guess you could include Jack Torrance in The Shining but he was possessed by evil spirits, so that doesn’t count in my book. But I can make a good case for throwing in Guy Woodhouse from Rosemary’s Baby and greedy little Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, dontcha know?
But back to Gaslight. I told Donald Joh I have trouble watching movies for pleasure because I analyze the good ones for what they can teach me about how to set up a story, how to convey plot only through action and dialogue, and how to establish important things like place, atmosphere, and begin layering in character motivation. So if you’ll indulge me, let me give you a quick breakdown of how Gaslight does this.
The opening image is a foggy London street and a lamplighter making his rounds. Atmosphere and main motif of gaslight planted. Next we see a sign — 9 Thornton Square and look over the shoulder of a man reading a newspaper THORNTON SQUARE MURDER UNSOLVED. Place identified and first good hook is thrown out just via an image. The door of No. 9 opens and a girl comes out. She looks shell-shocked as the gawkers whisper. Her elderly guardian turns down the remaining gaslight and they leave in a carriage. He tells her not to look back and delivers the movie’s first lines:
“You’ve got to forget everything that happened here. You’re going to Italy to see Verbaldi. He was the best friend your aunt had. He will make you a great singer just like your aunt was.”
Another hook is thrown out, a dribble of backstory, and we’re off and running.
That opening scene could be a prologue. Because we next jump ahead ten years and to a new location. But you could also just call it “Chapter 1”. So, we cut to the next “chapter.” A sign in the window says “Verbaldi Music Lessons.” Neat location seque. Inside, the now-adult girl (Ingrid Bergman) is finishing up her lesson. Her teacher tells her she has worked so hard all these years but seems distracted.
Teacher: “You look like her.” Paula: “But I don’t sing like her, I know. I haven’t a voice, have I?” Teacher: “Your heart is not in your singing anymore.”
Efficient character development and time/locale bridge. Paula, we understand, feels inferior to her famous aunt and very alone in the world. “I haven’t a voice” is a pitiful recognition of her own insubstantial character. The movie is, in fact, partly about Paula finding her “voice” even as her husband tries to break her down. Paula confesses she is in love. The teacher tells her she needs a vacation. Paula leaves and outside, she embraces the man who had been accompanying her on piano — Gregory Anton. Dialogue:
Paula: “But I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you.” Gregory: “Are you afraid?” Paula: “Yes, of happiness.”
Again, character development layered in. Paula is being portrayed as a weakling. Which enforces her powerful character arc by the time we get to the movie’s climax. You have to give your heroine a point to begin so she can fight her obstacles and grow. Both plot and character need arcs from A to Z. She tells him she needs to go away for a week to know what she is doing. He tells her that he has waited for her so long and he can wait a little longer.
In the next chapter-scene, we are on the train to Lake Como. In her compartment, Paula chats with an old woman who is reading a murder mystery about a man who marries a girl and has six wives buried in the cellar. reinforces the plot. The old woman reveals she lives in London, in Thornton Square. Aha!
“Do you know it? You know we had a real live murder there.”
“Yes, I’d heard of it.”
The old lady then recounts the event: Ten years ago a famous singer named Alice Alcast was murdered. So now we know what was going on in that opening scene! It’s a good lesson for novelists on how to use ACTION to tell the backstory. In a novel, we would probably have our heroine THINKING/REMEMBERING what happened 10 years ago. Much more effective to find a way to convey this info in action/dialogue if you can
The train is pulling into Lake Como. Paula is agitated and the old woman tells her that traveling alone is dangerous and to be careful. foreshadowing. When Paula gets off the train, we see a hand clasp her sleeve. Creepy! The camera pulls back to reveal it is her lover Gregory. He tells her he has followed her to Lake Como.
Gregory: “You’re not angry with me, are you?” Paula: “Angry? If you hadn’t come I’d have sent for you.”
They kiss as the train moves out. The final shot is of the old woman in the train’s window looking concerned. More foreshadowing.
New scene: In the villa, Gregory confesses he has always dreamed of living in a quiet house in London.
Paula: “I have a house like that, at 9 Thornton Square. That house comes into my dream, a house of horror. Strange, I haven’t dreamed of it since I’ve known you. I haven’t been afraid since I’ve known you. For years I’ve been afraid of something nameless. But I’ve found peace since I found you. I could even face that house with you. You shall have your dream, Gregory. You shall have your house in the square.”
The main characters have been well introduced. We sense that Gregory is a Bad Husband, but we are intrigued to know what he is up to. Poor Paula has to face the demons of her past by re-entering the murder house. It’s like we’re screaming at the screen of a slasher movie: DON’T GO IN THE BASEMENT! The stage is set.
New chapter: We are at 9 Thornton Square. Gregory pushes open the creaky door and Paula enters her dark house of horrors for the first time in 10 years, and says:
“Will you light the gas, please?”
Oh, indeed he will. The gas light works as a theme throughout the movie on many levels and images. Paulawatches as the shadows move across the parlor of the gloomy room and says:
“It is all dead in here. The whole place seems to smell of death.”
She pulls off a dusty sheet from a grand portrait of her opera singer aunt as Gregory watches from the shadows. She whispers:
“It was there I found her, there in front of the fire, in front of her own portrait. I came running downstairs. She had been strangled.”
She gets distraught and says she can’t stay here. Gregory comforts her and says they will shut all the old furnishings away so nothing can remind her of the past. Make the house full of parties and life again.
And the set up is complete. The newlyweds begin to create a life together at 9 Thornton Square and though the aunt’s portrait is locked away in the attic, you know the ghost has not been banished.
Now, I’ve heard folks dismiss Gaslight as corny. But for my farthings, it’s an effective thriller and character study. The director George Cukor was labeled “a woman’s director” but he directed a couple sturdy noirs along the way including A Double Life with Ronald Colman as an actor who gets way too into his role as Othello and offs his ex-wife who’s playing Desdemona. But that’s for a Bad Husband for another day…
Edgar Awards waiting to come out of hiding last year.
By PJ Parrish
I’ll be on a plane to New York when you read this. (Or maybe sitting in Charlotte…it’s not easy getting out of Tallahassee to the rest of the world). I’m off to my annual Edgar Awards duties. I am the chair of the banquet, which is the easy fun part. The hard part of Edgar duties is being a judge.
I’ve never been one but I did judge best first novel for the ITW Thriller Awards one year. Hundreds of books…they just kept coming. In the beginning, it was a trickle but by June it was a deluge. Three-hundred-plus of them by Christmas. I grew to dread the sound of the FedEx truck. And yeah, I read every one of them. Not always to the end, I will admit. But I always gave each book at least 100 pages to find its legs before I assigned it to the “yes” or “maybe” or “not as good as maybe” pile in my office (actually, I had to end up also using the top of my baby grand). Then I had to winnow the “yes” pile (I think it was about thirty books) down to five nominees.
One thing I remember was that all the “yes” books had a good opening. And you know, the principles I applied then to moving a book to the “yes” pile are the same ones I use when I critique one of our First Page submissions. Sure, the published thriller writers had more craft over the course of the entire book than some of our submissions here, but the basic principles behind a good opening were the same.
Yesterday, I was putting together the PowerPoint for the Edgars. As usual, my attention was mainly on the visuals of the covers, which we flash up on a giant screen in the Grand Hyatt ballroom as the nominees as announced. Here is what the Best Novels look like this year:
Nice covers, right? (You can see all the covers in every category on MWA’s Edgar website here). But then I got to wondering, what are they like inside? How do these writers handle the openings of their stories? Just for fun, I thought we could take a peek here today.
The stories include a legal thriller with a tortured heroine who’s fighting the government and her own demons; an Irish thriller about a girl who falls for a convicted serial killer only to find out ten years later he’s not what he seemed; a fixer whose client is a big-time politician with secrets someone will murder to protect; a cop-cum-PI who’s trying to find the man who framed him and cost him his badge; a resurrection of the iconic Philip Marlowe, now 72 and retired in LA; and a Victorian adventuress trying to unravel of web of intrigue at an Egyptian dig.
Here’s the first page (not titled chapter 1, by the way), of Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Liar’s Girl.
This is a tricky opening in that the writer is playing loose with point of view. In the first graph, it feels like we are in Jen’s POV, but by the second graph we realize we are seeing Jen coming to from the POV of the man watching her. This goes on for the whole chapter until she finally staggers out of the party room and he follows her. You just know he’s going to kill her. Or is he? There is a double-spaced scene break and then the title “will, now.” We are in the POV of a man named Will and very slowly we learn he is a patient listening to a radio broadcast about a girl who has been found dead in a canal. And he is concerned that this is related to something that happened to him ten years ago. Other chapters are titled “Alison, now” etc., which recalls the Rashomonesque structure of Gone Girl. You can read the full sample here.
Here is the opening, labeled Prologue, of House Witness by Mike Lawson:
We get about a page more where he says he need to take a walk and his wife tells him it’s too cold and he’s had too much to drink but he insists on going anyway. Then comes this line to end the scene:
John Mahoney had just been told that his son had been killed — and his wife didn’t know he had a son.
Good kicker! The rest of the prologue is Mahoney on his walk, wherein we learn he is the disposed speaker of the House who had an affair years before with an aide Connie. After some extensive backstory, we learn the call was from Connie who tells him their son was shot in a Manhattan bar and berates Mahoney into making sure the dead son’s in-custody killer is convicted. Mahoney thinks about all the mistakes he has made and calls his “fixer” Joe DeMarco. DeMarco calls back the next day and assures Mahoney the killer’s prosecution is a “slam dunk.” The last line of the prologue is “DeMarco was dead wrong.” The chapter 1 goes back to the night the son was murder from the killer’s point of view. This is the 12th book in the Joe Demarco series. But because the Amazon sample is short, I don’t know when the protagonist DeMarco makes his entrance. Read the sample here.
Next up is Chapter 1 of A Gambler’s Jury by Victor Methos.
This scene is a classic introduce-the-protag opening. After this, she goes to see another potential client whose future is so dim, she advises him he should just pack up and high-tail it to Mexico. A brief Chapter 2 takes us to her office, until she decides instead to detour to a bar, where we meet her friend Michelle, the owner. In Chapter 3, it’s the next morning at her apartment where we meet another friend who is concerned about Dani’s lifestyle before Dani goes to another court proceeding. You can read the sample here.
Now take a look at Walter Mosley’s latest, Down The River Unto the Sea.
This first-person point of view narrative is from the protagonist Joe Oliver. He talks about how he’s too influenced by his sex drive and that leads us, after a double-space break to this sentence “Her name was Nathali Malcolm.” (Nice bridge!) So with this type of opening we are firmly in intimate POV in what I suspect might be a cherchez la femme character-driven noir as only a master like Mosley can tell it. Read the sample here.
Speaking of noir, guess who’s back? Philip Marlowe himself in Lawrence Osborne’s resurrection Only To Sleep. Marlowe is 72, retired, and swilling margaritas on his patio when two men walk in with a case that has the Marlowe name written all over it. Osborne’s opening, once it gets going, is redolent of night-blooming jasmine, gin, and that signature rude Chandler wit:
It’s a bit disconcerting to find Marlowe still taking cases from men who “smile with the small contempt of company men” in Reagan-era LA. But it’s fun and the voice is assured. Take a look here.
From Los Angeles in 1988 on to London in 1888. Here’s the opening of our final Edgar Best Novel nominee A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn:“
Now, if you’ve read my critiques before, you know I don’t like chapters that open with dialogue. This one is, ah, rather interesting. Not just for the sexual word play but because, I think, we get a quick bead on the personalities of our protagonist Miss Veronica Speedwell and her partner-foil Stoker. The chapter continues, after some repartee, with backstory about their partnership and how they’ve come to take on their latest case. The chapter is longish and leisurely in pace. Yet I was pulled in. And I am not a regular fan of historical crime fiction. You can read the sample here.
As I said, I don’t envy the task of judges. There were 595 entries in the Best Novel category this year. That’s a lot of reading and thinking.
So what do you think? Any openings here that would lure you in? I haven’t the foggiest idea who will win Best Novel this year. I never do. But around 10:30 Thursday night, one of these writers is going to be very very happy, holding court in the bar of the Grand Hyatt, clutching an ugly little porcelain statue. Congrats to all the nominees. Well done. Here’s the full list.
We’re heading into dark territory with today’ s First Page Critique. Literally. This submission gives us an object lesson on spare writing technique — when to leave things out to rev up suspense but also when to ask yourself if you’ve left the reader too much in the dark. Thanks, writer, for submitting your baby for scrutiny. We all learn when you do.
Absence Of Light
Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension. I have no idea how I have arrived here. Not this place per se, but rather the circumstance I now find myself in.
I am told “you’ve been processed, Dr. Davids, I’ll escort you from this point. We’re goin’ straight through those doors.”
After shuffling a short way down the corridor with my hands bound, the young man in a neatly pressed uniform then announces from behind me, “Here.” In front of me is an impossibly heavy, steel door. It suggests something dangerous has been secured behind it.
Then, clanging of metal upon metal. The door opens. I am prompted to enter by polite but clumsy commentary from my escort, “I just want you to know that I think placing you in here is a bit overkill. Unfortunately, those decisions are well beyond my paygrade. To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t ‘ve said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right? Of course not.” He laughs nervously.
“No worries,” I reply.
“You’re not gonna cry, are you?”
His question surprises me because I feel absolutely stoic. “No. I’m not. I’m not sad. I’m in agreement with the commander. This is where I should be.”
“Really?” he asks. I study his facial expressions as he frees my hands.
“Yea. Really.” I try to gently feign a slight, cordial, smile and then offer a plausible explanation since I’m still processing this myself, “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.”
Silent awkwardness hangs in the air for a moment as he considers my response. He then says, “Look, uh, I’m not involved with the investigation or anything, so I’m not acquainted with all the details, but I think you’re probably being too hard on yourself. You know, things can happen. Anything you need before I leave?”
“No. Just. Tell me your name?”
“MP Jones. Oh and, um, do you want the light on or off? I’m just askin’ because most people who’ve never experienced a solitary type situation – well, having the light on sorta helps’em adjust- you know, to the space and all.”
There is much to like about this submission. We are thrust right into what appears to be a dangerous situation for the protagonist. (I assume Dr, Davids is such). Which is always a good thing. The writer has the basics down (how to structure dialogue, establish point of view). There is some deft “showing” rather than “telling,” but maybe a couple lapses in the other direction. There is a voice at work here in that this writer has a definite narrative style.
First, let’s talk about the entry moment. In yesterday’s First Page Critique by Sue, I wondered if the writer could have found a more compelling point for starting the story. We don’t have that issue here. This writer has chosen a dramatic moment — a bound man is being marched into a cell (or worse!). He is apprehensive but stoic. There is a suggestion he himself is dangerous, crazy, or at least canny enough to escape. I was intrigued. I want to know more. So kudos, writer, on finding a good door into your story.
Now let’s consider the tone and voice. The protagonist’s thoughts and dialogue have a cool, almost academic tone. We are firmly in the protag’s point of view, but it has a vaguely old-school feel to it, like something out of a Graham Greene opening –detached, erudite, self-aware. It reminded me a little of Eric Ambler or maybe Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus books. I don’t dislike this. I think it’s a nice change from much of today’s choppy neo-noir with their monosyllabic heroes. I wonder if this “reads” a tad old-fashioned for today’s market. I think goes more to the issue of taste.
I also like the way the writer imparts important information about the prisoner and the surroundings. He/she does not TELL us the prisoner is a doctor or even his name; it is dropped in the dialogue: “You’ve been processed, Dr. Davids.”
We also get this intriguing detail about the doctor’s character: “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.” The writer could have given us a narrative graph like: I knew what the guard was thinking, that he had heard the talk about me being homicidal, maybe even possessed. But what he didn’t know was that I myself didn’t know what was wrong with me. No, the writer relates this in DIALOGUE not thoughts — which is a type of action.
Other details that are tossed in deftly: The guard identified himself as MP Jones. Which I think means we’re dealing with military police? Not sure. The place is described in spare but vivid detail — the heavy clanging door, the fact that light here is a luxury. I often take writers to task for not giving enough sense of place. Although I think we could use a little more description here — it would enhance the horror of the place — I get that the writer is going for a spare style. Is this too spare? You all can weigh in.
Another thing to note: I applaud the fact the writer did not feel compelled to tack some lazy place/time tag atop the chapter, like: Abu Ghraib, April 2015. The locale and time period will emerge soon in the narrative, I trust.
A few miscellaneous observations: The guard’s dialogue — the ums…dropped G’s, gonna, kinda, sounds country-hickish. He sounds like a cliche of a small-town jailer. The protag is getting locked in solitary, a place that seems to have experience with terrorists, so I think it would enhance the suspense if the guard was more military in demeanor, as crisp in his speech as his uniform. He can still tell the prisoner what he thinks, but perhaps in a less cliched way. Remember the Nazi guard who kept locking up Steve McQueen in The Great Escape? He never said a word, but he had a memorably stern, don’t-mess-with-me, slightly bemused countenance. Creating something idiosyncratic about this guard would really add a nice side character if the guard comes and goes through the story. Even if he doesn’t, don’t make even your minor spear-carriers cliches.
I’m going to go to blue-line edits for the rest of my comments:
Absence Of Light decent title. It’s a riff on the myriad quotes about absence of light being the definition of evil but it works on a second level for the literal situation the protag finds himself in. All good titles work on multiple levels.
Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension. I have no idea how I have arrived here. I think we are missing a comma here? Writer: Be careful to proof your work. Not this place per se,this might annoy some but I think it helps establishes the narrator’s tone but rather the circumstance I now find myself in. I like the restraint of this opening graph.
I am told “you’ve been processed, Dr. Davids, I’ll escort you from this point. We’re goin’ straight through those doors.” Not sure I like the passive “I am told…” Why not just have the guard say it? And maybe Dr. Davids has a thought about that chilling phrase “processed” in reaction, some details about what that was like? You could do more with that to amp up the tension.
After shuffling a short way down the corridor with my hands bound, Here’s a spot where we need more detail. Bound by what? Rope suggests something different than handcuffs. Why is he shuffling? Is he shackled? I assumed he was. You might be missing small chances to increase the drama. the young man in a neatly pressed uniform then announces from behind me, “Here.” In front of me is an impossibly heavy, steel door. It suggests something dangerous has been secured behind it. This line feels portentous at first but it’s really just obtuse. He is obviously going into a cell of some kind. Every prison has a heavy metal door so what it is about this that signifies “something dangerous” behind it? And why the verb “secured?” Not sure that makes sense. Because I like this submission, I am asking that the writer work harder at being precise. I think you can do better.
Then, clanging of metal upon metal.Good use of deep POV here. The writer could have said, “I heard the clanging of the door opening” but did not. The door opens. I am prompted to enter by polite but clumsy commentary from my escort,Again, this stilted construction goes to the cerebral tone of the narrator/prisoner. I don’t dislike it. “I just want you to know that I think placing you in here is a bit overkill. Unfortunately, those decisions are well beyond my paygrade. To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists.Nice way of dropping some intriguing detail in dialogue. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t ‘ve said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right? Of course not.” He laughs nervously. Now, the writer is being purposely vague about what KIND of facility we are in here, maybe to be point of being coy. But why withhold clarity? Why would the guard be nervous? Can’t the reader be given a little more detail? Are we in an Alabama jailhouse or a military prison? We need a little more grounding, I think.
“No worries,” I reply.
“You’re not gonna cry, are you?” I like this line but I think it could be more precise. It suggests that the guard has seen others before him break down. But I wonder if “cry” is the right word. If Dr. Davids is about to enter a really bad place and he knows it, would he cry? I doubt it. What kind of reaction would this place elicit from a “stoic” man?
His question surprises me because I feel absolutely stoic.At first, I thought this was at odds with the “apprehension” remark of the first graph but it’s correct usage. Stoic means the ability to withstand or hide pain. “No. I’m not. I’m not sad. Why would he be sad? Terrified maybe, but sad? I’m in agreement with the commander. This is where I should be.” Another good tidbit!
“Really?” he asks. I study his facial expressions as he frees my hands. of what?
“Yea. Really.” I try to gently feign a slight, cordial, smile and then offer a plausible explanation since I’m still processing this myself, “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal.Proof your work! Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another personAgain, less is more. The use of pass tense here is a choice by the writer. It implies this man has a bad past without spilling the beans too early about what happened. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.”
Silent awkwardness hangs in the air for a moment as he considers my response. He then says, “Look, uh, I’m not involved with the investigation or anything, so I’m not acquainted with all the details, but I think you’re probably being too hard on yourself. You know, things can happen. Anything you need before I leave?”
“No. Just.Just…tell me your name?”
“MP Jones. Oh and, um, do you want the light on or off?I liked this line on first reading because it is, on its face, intriguing. But when you think about it, does it make sense? Does any prisoner in such a dire place want the lights out? I’m just askin’ because most people who’ve never experienced a solitary type situation – well, having the light on sorta helps’em adjust- you know, to the space and all.”
“On.” There is something anemic, almost puny, about this response. Given the title, we’re entering a world of light/dark, goodness/evil. Light, I think, stands for something in this story. So some kind of thought, however brief, from Dr. Davids about the importance of light might really add some meat here. Especially since the writer has given us very little emotional meat from the character himself. UNLESS…Dr. David is the bad guy and we won’t meet our true hero until chapter 2 or later. Hard to tell in 400 words. If Dr. Davids is a black hat, a thought about the absence of light is almost essential. We need to start knowing who — or what — we are dealing with here. A villain would have a different thought about an absence of light than a hero might. Think about that…exploit it.
Okay, so in conclusion, I think we are off to a good start here. I want to know more about Dr. Davids and why he has been brought here. (although I do hope we aren’t getting a Hannibal Lecter clone here — cultured homicidal maniac). And because the writing is solid, I am trusting the writer will soon begin fleshing this out so we know where we are, what time period we are in, and what is happening. This is, as the title suggests, all shadows and suggestion right now. Good stuff. But the ultra-spare style of the opening can test the reader’s patience and it can’t sustain an entire story. We need some illumination soon. Good work, writer.
“Short fiction seems more targeted — hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.” ― Paolo Bacigalupi
By PJ Parrish
I’m of the age now where I can’t run like I used to. I walk instead, sometimes for hours at a time, but it’s not as satisfying. I miss the endorphin buzz of intense running. So lately I’ve taken to interval training. This is where you walk, and then you run like hell for a long as you can, then you walk again.
This is, I have found, a lot like writing a novel versus a short story. A novel is a long calculated walk. A short story is a sprint. I am clinging to this metaphor as I try this week to finish a short story. Things are not going well. I really struggle with short stories. I can count on two hands the number I have published. (If you’re interested, you can find my petite oeuvre here.)
Desperate to get out of second gear, I started re-reading Cheever. Didn’t help. Got moody and found myself drinking too many gin and tonics. Went back to John D. MacDonald’s The Good Old Stuff but it felt too familiar. So I went to the library and got a copy of Welcome to the Monkey House. I have read very little of Kurt Vonnegut’s work and none of his short stories. It was like a good bracing walk on a wintery beach, maybe in Barnstable Village, Massachusetts.
There is something about coming cold to a writer’s work that makes you see your own work in new ways. Vonnegut had things to teach this old dog. Although he’d maybe call that rot. In the preface to Monkey House, he writes:
I have been a writer since 1949. I am self taught. I have no theories about writing that will help others. When I write, I become what I seemingly must become. I am six feet two and weigh nearly two hundred pounds and am badly coordinated, except when I swim. All that borrowed meat does the writing.
In the water, I am beautiful.
Even before reading the first story, I felt better just reading that. Because no matter how clumsy you might be in daily life, how hobbled you might feel because you can’t run anymore, you can still feel beautiful in the water. Isn’t that how you feel when the writing is going well, that you’re effortlessly swimming?
I’m only a couple stories into the collection, but I wanted to share a couple thoughts about what I have read so far. The second story, “Harrison Bergeron,” appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1962. It’s a dystopian domestic mini-drama set in the year 2081, told almost totally in dialogue. It is funny and deeply disturbing. There is a moment where a man is lifting a ballerina and Vonnegut gives us this line:
They leaped like deer on the moon.
It hit me almost physically. A metaphor is a perfect stab of recognition, and that’s what I felt. Then I got to one of Vonnegut’s most famous stories, “All The King’s Horses.” Completely different style, but just as gut-wrenching. A pilot is shot down in Asia during the Cold War. On board are his crew as well as his wife and 10-year-old twin sons. As in all great short stories, we are dropped into a fast-moving narrative river, and all we can do is hang on. The pilot’s Russian captor offers a bargain — the pilot must play a chess game for the lives of his crew and family. Then comes the awful twist — the pilot’s men, wife and sons are to be the living chess pieces, moved on a checkerboard floor in a throne room. That’s all I will tell you, except that I gasped at one point.
When I started this post, I had forgotten that Vonnegut had — despite his disclaimer of having nothing to teach other writers — issued his Eight Tips For Writing a Good Short Story. So of course, I looked them up. I think they work well for any kind of fiction, actually. With a few caveats for us crime dogs, maybe. Some you might have heard before, but they bear repeating:
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
The first one is great advice no matter what you’re writing — even a memo.
The second one I believe in wholeheartedly. Which is why I gave up on The Americans.
Number three we’ve quoted many times here at TKZ when we talk about motivation. And the deeper you can plumb the depths of what a character wants, the richer your story will be.
Rule four is important. Every sentence should do something, be on the page for a reason. I read somewhere that Vonnegut disliked television, except for Cheers, which he called a comic masterpiece. He said, “I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written. Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny.”
Now, we get to number five, which is critical for short stories but troublesome for novelists, given that we like to flap our gums sometimes before getting to the dramatic point. (ie weather, description, backstory). But if you really think about it, you should never start your novel at too early a juncture. You should always find that prime dramatic moment to drop your reader into the action.
Six is a given. As James says here often, something must be disturbed in your protagonist’s world.
Number seven is about authenticity. If you set out to be James Patterson, you will fail. Yeah, be smart about today’s market, but write the book you were meant to write.
Now the last one is tricky. I am not quite sure what Vonnegut is talking about here. Because on its face, it goes against much of what we talk about here about NOT larding your early pages with too much information. You want some mystery in the beginning. You want to pose questions that beg answers. Maybe Vonnegut is just arguing for clarity in the writing itself? The choreography (moving characters through time and space) must be clear. Confusion should be avoided. Maybe you all can help me out on this one.
As for me, it is back to the drawing board. While reading Vonnegut’s stories, I realized I had chosen the wrong point of entry for my own story. I was approaching my story too much like I would a novel. I need to figure out the end so I can begin closer to it. I need to sprint instead of walk.
I want to leave you with one more Vonnegut metaphor. In the preface to Monkey House, he questions where the creative impulse originates from:
The New Yorker said that a book of mine, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, was a ‘series of narcissistic giggles.’ Perhaps it would be helpful to the reader to imagine me as the White Rock girl, kneeling on a boulder in her nightgown, either looking for minnows or adoring her own reflection.
I remember the White Rock girl well. When I was a kid, I thought she was Tinkerbell’s mother. And I always wondered what the heck she was looking at. I still do. But ah, that’s the mystery, no?
p.s. If you’re wondering about the title of this post, listen to this “short story”:
Good morning crime dogs. Today, for our First Pager we’re back in the land of the young again, this time with a five-year-old as our tour guide. I’ll let you take a read and then we’ll regather to talk. In the meantime, I’m going to try to get Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell” out of my head.
“Eww! What stinks, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Squirt.”
“Don’t call me that. I’m not a squirt.” Five-year-old Mandy thrust out her lower lip. One, because Daddy called her squirt, which meant he didn’t think she was a big girl at all, and two, because he was trying not to laugh and that made her mad.
“Am I allowed any kind of nickname?” her father asked
Mandy thought about it. It wasn’t like you could shorten Mandy into much, but having a nickname that didn’t make her feel bad would be nice. Everybody called her cousin Jason, Sport. That wasn’t a wimpy nickname. She decided it might take time to pick the right one. It was important. “I’ll let you know.”
“Okay, Squi….Mandy.” He squeezed her hand a little tighter as they walked the narrow path at the edge of the Sugar River. A silvery layer of frost covered the ground and it felt crunchy beneath her rubber boots. She pictured animals using the trail to get a drink of the river water and wondered if any of them ever slipped on the icy edges and tumbled in. The trees and bushes were still bare and the weather was what Aunt Jenny called iffy, which meant even though it was spring break her dad still dressed her in a winter coat on adventures like this first day of fishing.
Daddy held her hand and carried fishing poles and a tackle box in the other as he searched for the perfect spot to drop their lines in. Maybe she shouldn’t have made a big deal about her nickname. After all, she was the one Daddy took fishing. Not Jason.
“Let’s try the other side of that big rock.” He pointed a few feet ahead at a giant stone sticking up on the bank.
The breeze picked up and the smell got worse. Even worse than when her dad forgot the thawed chicken in the microwave and it took him two days to figure out what was stinking.
“Pee-ewe, what is that?” Mandy wrinkled her nose.
“Whew. No idea, but you’re right baby girl, that reeks.”
Another nickname she hated. Baby girl. No one in Kindergarten wanted to be called baby-anything. Mandy bit her tongue and forged ahead over the uneven land.
“Must be a dead animal around somewhere. Should we move or can you handle it?” he asked.
Okay, a caveat. I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t ask our contributors to tell us what genre or sub-genre they are working in. It would make critiquing a submission clearer and maybe fairer. Given we have only 400 or so words here, I have to guess at the writer’s attempt, with few clues. The title Love Kills suggests crime fiction and I’d bet my last brass farthing that the eww-worthy smell isn’t a dead fish but a ripe body bobbing in the water. But beyond that, I can’t begin to guess who the target audience is for this book. Children? Doubt it. Young adult? The narrator’s too young for that. Adults? That’s my guess here, and if that’s the case, we have to talk about the viability of child narrators. But first…
I like this. It is cleanly choreographed, meaning I can tell exactly what’s going on. The interaction between father and daughter is sweetly rendered. My dad used to take me fishing when I was a tadpole and I treasured the time with him. There are some nice spare details like the crunch of boots on ice that tells us it’s cold, maybe in the netherworld months of early November or March.
But what I really like is that the writer has successfully captured the voice of the narrator Mandy. The simple syntax and apt word choices conjure up a five-year-old who is beginning to assert independence and wants to be seen as older. I like the line about weather that her aunt called “iffy.” Kids are aural magpies — they pick up on the odd things adults say. I like that Mandy is worried about the animals. All nice telling details! I think the writer does a spot-on job of creating a believable and winsome 5-year-old girl.
If we are reading crime fiction intended for an adult market (I am assuming here), then I question the wisdom of opening from a very young child’s point of view. The opening scene or chapter of your book is critical to getting your reader to bond with the character, and who you choose to put in the spotlight in the early going tends to signal to the reader that this is your protagonist, the person whose journey they are about to share. Is Mandy the protagonist? I don’t know. But the spotlight is square on her in this scene.
Which leads to the next question. Can Mandy carry an entire book on her tiny shoulders? Few child narrators can. And few writers can successfully pull off an entire novel written only from the point of view of a very young child like Mandy. Child narrators are common in kid’s literature. But not so much in fiction for adults. It can feel very liberating to write from a child’s POV. They usually don’t have an ax to grind and they see the world in matter-of-fact ways. But because they are limited in experience and sophistication, they can’t be a truly reliable narrator.
When I read this submission, I wracked my brain for examples of similar-aged narrators but came up short. The only example I could remember is Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) It is narrated by 5-year-old Jack who has been confined to a single room all his life, knowing only his mother (who was also captured and confined at an early age). His vocabulary and understanding of the world is very restricted. Room has been roundly acclaimed. I couldn’t finish it.
I book I did love was Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). It opens with an unnamed 5-year-old girl running scared through the woods, separated from her cave family during an earthquake. She survives a bear attack and is found, near death, by another clan. But Auel used a third-person omniscient point of view, so the reader can trust exactly what is happening.
Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch, the first person narrator, is only six years old when the novel begins, and eight years old when it ends. But the narrative has almost a memoir feel to it, as if we’re listening to a much older Scout telling us a story about what happened. It is a masterful sleigh-of-hand on Lee’s part that we believe we are hearing the blended voices of a 6-year-old (who, very childishly, calls her 50-year-old father “feeble”) and her older more knowing self.
Back to our writer’s story: As I said, given the small sample here, we can’t know if Mandy will remain the sole narrator. My instincts tell me she won’t. But if she is not meant to carry the story’s narrative weight, then I question the wisdom of opening with her voice, as sweet as it is. Where can you go from here?
Some things to remember if you’re contemplating using a child’s point of view:
You need a compelling reason why a child is the right person to narrate your novel.
You need to make sure the child is old enough to reliably convey information and events for the reader. Children younger than six aren’t developed enough for this. Even teens have their limits. (There’s an understatement!)
Do some research to get the child’s voice tone-perfect. Many of you have kids, so this is easy. The rest of us, well, we need to hang out at Chuck e Cheese maybe. And keep that voice consistent over the course of the story.
If the writer is available, I would appreciate hearing from him/her as to why they chose to open with Mandy as narrator and whether she will continue on into the book. The rest of us — what say you?