About PJ Parrish

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

The Fine Art Of
Giving Out Criticism

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start out by staying something nice about the manuscript.

Insert a big juicy slab of criticism.

End with saying something encouraging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5+

How To Be Your Own Co-Author


By PJ Parrish

The most common question I get from readers is how do my sister Kelly and I manage to write books together without killing each other.  So here’s a little dramatization:

Chapter 1

The first hurricane season of 1987 season, called Alina, left the beach a mess. Ex-cop Louis Kincaid walked along the beach in front of his Captiva Island cottage, watching the shell collectors who were picking up their post-storm prizes.

KELLY: Wait a minute. You really want to open your book like that? You only have a couple pages to get readers’ attention.
ME: What’s wrong with this? It’s tight. It gives reader info. Sets the weather.
KELLY: Elmore Leonard says never open with weather.
ME: But I have to open with it. The story has to open after the hurricane because Louis is about to find something cool on the beach which gets the case going.
KELLY: I get you. But weather has to mean something. It can’t just lay there. What about the prologue you wrote where that woman dies? Can you make it relate better to that?
ME: Wait…let me try again.

Her name was Alina…

KELLY: Better. Now we think this is the dead woman.
ME: Her name was Alina. The first hurricane of the 1987 season was…
KELLY: No no…good idea but you didn’t do anything with the image. Take it another level. Treat Hurricane Alina like a human being.
{{{ME: Fingers frozen over keyboard}}}
KELLY: Don’t think. Just write.

Chapter 1

Her name was Alina. She was born during a sultry summer thunderstorm somewhere near Mali, a thing no one cared about in a place few had heard of. In Senegal, she inhaled the cool ocean breezes, and in the Cape Verde islands she found her fury. By the time she reached Hispanola, she was a killer.

The first hurricane of the 1987 season turned out to be the most deadly in decades, littering the beaches of Haiti with fishing boats and bodies. Then she slammed into the southwest coast of Florida and turned due north. Finally Alina died, drifting away as a depression somewhere over Chesapeake Bay.

And now the shell seekers were out, celebrating her wake. Louis Kincaid watched them as they walked the beach.

KELLY: Now there’s a book I’d read. It’s got a hook. It sets the tone of the book. It has atmosphere and it came from YOU.
ME: Me?
KELLY: Yeah, you. You listening to your passionate writer self but taming it with craft.

Okay, the skit is over. This is pretty much how Kelly and I work. It’s not easy having a co-author. Most writers don’t want to share their vision. Or their royalty checks. But that means you’re very alone.

How many of you feel alone? How many of you paint yourself into corners with plots? Procastinate. Lose confidence? Beat yourself up? Re-read to the point of paralysis?
My whole author persona is based on co-authorship. But something evaporates when you are going alone. You feel like your safety net is gone. You feel like you have no one you can trust to tell you the truth, the good or the bad. You alone are responsible for what is on the page. And who do you turn to when you’re at your lowest? Mother, spouse, friend? Who will push you to finish when you can’t stand looking at the Thing That Is Consuming Your Soul?

How, if you are alone, can you get beyond this? Maybe if I try to explain how it works for us, maybe you can learn to listen to your inner co-author.

It all starts with an idea. But not all ideas are created equal. How do you know when you’ve got a good idea for a book? For us, we toss around plot ideas and decide whether they work for our character Louis. Not all do. Ask your inner co-author: Is this story juicy enough? Has enough meat to carry 300 pages or is it just a short story? Is it fresh? If your hero or story is not new, is it at least a different angle? Don’t chase a trend, especially if you don’t care about it.

Inner co-author voice: Meh. I think John Sandford wrote this story ten years ago. And does the world really need another alcoholic detective with a thing for Thelonious Monk, Rooster ties and redheads in leopard leggings?  And if you even think about writing an unreliable girl book, I will never speak to you again.

Okay, so you’ve got a juicy idea and you’ve written those heavy words CHAPTER ONE. Now what? Did you start your story at a prime dramatic moment?  Or is your beginning just a lot of throat-clearing? Like, did you lard in a couple pages of your protag’s backstory? Did you open with paragraphs of scene-setting description because you didn’t really KNOW where to begin the action? And why are you wasting so much time and valuable pages on some minor character who isn’t even important to your story?

Inner co-author voice: I think you need to start over. See that little black key at the top right of your laptop — it says DEL?  Press down hard and don’t let up til your screen is clean again.  Don’t worry. It only hurts for a minute or two.  You’ll thank me in the morning.

Well now. You’re on your way. You’ve got a fresh idea and a cool protag no one has seen before. You’ve figured out the best moment to open your story. You’re ten chapters in and roaring along. Then…you hit the wall. Or the muddy middle, as I like to think of it. You’re being sucked into the sand like that poor kid in Lawrence of Arabia or sinking in a  swamp in the trunk of a ’57 Ford like Marion Crane in Psycho.  How do you make the story’s middle come alive?

Inner co-author voice: There’s a bunch of cool tricks you can use! Create a rift in the team, like the three guys in Jaws.  Give one of your main characters a big secret that when revealed, sends the story in an unexpected direction. You don’t get what I mean? Go read William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.  Introduce a new character, but make darn sure they deserve to be on stage.  Better yet, kill someone off! Just don’t make it the dog.  OR…now don’t get mad at me because I know how much you hate this: STOP AND OUTLINE!  Stop yelling at me.  I know you’re a free spirit who goes where the muse leads you. But sometimes, you have to stop at the Texaco station and ask for directions. You don’t have to follow them. But the exercise of STOPPING AND THINKING AND WRITING THINGS DOWN might show you where the road begins again.

Ah, lookie here. You finished the manuscript! Seven months have gone by. Maybe seven years.  It’s time to take the baby out for a stroll and get all the ooohs and aaahs you’ve been waiting for.

Inner co-author voice: Are you nuts? You finished the first draft, Buckie! Now the hard work begins.  No, no…don’t even think about writing a query letter to Meg Ruly. Print out the whole messy thing and — stop it, just stop it. You have to do this. Print out the thing, take it to Starbucks or your favorite bar with a pencil and a bad attitude. Cross out all the stupid words, flabby dialogue, florrid descriptions.  Look for plot holes and fix them. Make your character’s motivations deeper.  Cut that dumb prologue. And while you’re at it, you use a passive voice too often.  Voice is like being good in bed. Think about that.

Whew.  You made it. You rewrote the book, at least three times. It’s 2,000 words shorter and you’ve shined it to within an inch of its life.  Now you have to send it out and get…probably ignored, very likely rejected, maybe even mauled. This is part of the process.

Inner co-author voice: Huh, you got another rejection letter? And you’re sitting there, sniffling and reading it for the hundredth time trying to find its hidden meaning. There is none. A rejection letter means 1. Your book wasn’t quite ready.  2. The editor recently accepted a manuscript too similar to yours. 3. You queried the wrong agent or editor for the genre you’re writing. 4. The agent has too many clients already. 5. The editor’s slate is too full.  So what? Query someone else and then more. Send out as many queries as you can stomach because it’s a huge waste of time to send out ONE query and wait to be asked to the prom.  Oh yeah, and while you’re waiting the eight weeks or more it takes to get an answer, start writing the next book. And remember: No one is rejecting YOU. They are rejecting your story, often for reasons that have little to do with its quality. Do. Not. Take. This. Personally.

One last thing about having an inner co-author. You really need to listen to them closely. Because they will tell you the truth. And they will keep you going when you feel like giving up and getting a job driving the cart at the airport.

Inner co-author: Don’t give up. We can do this. Have some faith. Work hard. Word harder. But when you do something well, when the words come together, pat yourself on the back. In the immortal words of Stuart Smalley. You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And doggone it, people will like your books.

 

6+

First Page Critique: There’s A Man With A Gun Over There

By PJ Parrish

Good morning crime dogs. We have a new submission from a fellow writer to go over today that had me thinking about the movies Aliens and Blue Velvet.  I’ll be back in a flash with my input.  Please chime in with helpful hints, encouragement, and insights.

Chapter 1

Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Hopefully he wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, twenty-four hours a day – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.

The house he parked across from was a two-story semi-detached, and looked, from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a small yard, the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The sun was heavy and bright, blanketing the street in a searing white light. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door, raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw no movement through the glass. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere.

He rapped his knuckles on the door.No answer. He knocked again, harder and louder. Still nothing. He waited a few more seconds then went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. The screen on the face of it instantly lit up, snapping to life. On it was a computer rendered map of the neighborhood he was in. A flashing green dot represented exactly where he was standing. Another dot, this one flashing red, appeared on screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor.

____________________________

We’re back. This one really left me flummoxed. On first read, it’s not bad. We identify what I am guessing is a main character, maybe the putative protag, and we can tell what is happening, except for a couple lapses. A man is casing out a tidy home in a nice neighborhood. He has a Glock G22, which is the most common service pistol for cops, so I’m guessing he’s a good guy. But beyond this, I am lost. And worse, I am not sure I care about what is going on here.

Here’s my problem: The writer spent a lot of precious words describing things and using wasteful sentence construction when he or she could have been building some tension and dribbling in some choice backstory details so we get a sense of who this guy Carter is. But, you say, there’s a man with a gun over there! Not enough. Especially in today’s hard-to-crack crime fiction market. A guy sitting in a car casing a building has been done and done and done. And the problem is complicated by the fact that what this guy is, and what he is there for, is hazy.  Now, I hear you — we don’t WANT or even NEED to know every detail of the action in the first couple pages. But we have to have enough telling details to be intrigued.

And here’s a thing about description of your setting. If you are going to use it in your opening two or three pages, make it mean something. USE the setting to enhance mood and create tension. I think the writer was going for the juxtaposing of the neighborhood’s NORMALCY with the ABNORMALITY of lurking danger (either from Carter or whoever is inside that house).  But it doesn’t quite come across.

This made me remember the brilliant opening of David Lynch’s movie Blue Velvet. As the old song plays on, Lynch gives us lovely images of suburban life — rose gardens, picket fences, kids coming home from school, a man watering his lawn. Then…the man is bitten by something and falls. Lynch then takes the camera below the flowers, underneath the green grass and shows us these horrible insects eating each other alive. What lies beneath…

We need to be in Carter’s thoughts more. Why is the street deserted in broad daylight? Someone obviously just mowed their lawn, so why can’t we have some human beings in sight? Maybe Carter could be looking around this nice little neighborhood, watching a kid bounce a basketball, or an old lady walking her terrier. Or maybe the guy mowing his lawn stops and the sudden quiet SAYS SOMETHING about the mood. Maybe the lawn mower’s growl mimics the noise in Carter’s head and then when it cuts out, he hears this deafening silence that SAYS SOMETHING about his mood?  See what I am asking for here, dear writer? Make your setting work harder. It isn’t just there — it has to say something.

There’s a few weird things going on that I don’t get.  Carter says he has been awake for three years and eight months, 24-7.  That makes no sense. Unless he’s a zombie or something, and I don’t think that’s the genre we’re dealing with here.  We SEEM to be in present time (ie Glock and Dodge Charger).  If Carter is some kind of machine, droid or something un-human, you have to give us a clue. Also, you say it’s the shank of the day — broad harsh sunlight — yet he thinks  “The last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight.”

Now, because we don’t know what he is — cop? special ops?  assassin? — it’s hard to understand some of his actions. He has some kind of special human locator device.

First off, you have to be more specific about what the heck it is. If you’re making it up, that’s cool, but make us believe it! It can’t be a mere “small rectangular device.” Carter would know exactly what it’s called, so get in his head and tell us. I was picturing that thing in the movie Aliens that showed the monsters on a tiny screen as pulsating blobs. (See photo right).   Now, this technology doesn’t yet exist, as far as I know, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t in Carter’s world. You just have to make us believe it.  Have him think something like, “He pulled out the Arious Motion Tracker X40. There were only three in the world that he knew of. Hell, even the military didn’t know about them yet. He flipped the switch and pointed it at the house. Immediately, a white pulsating dot came on the small green screen. No big deal. That was his own infrared shadow.  But then a second red dot drifted onto the green. Carter started hard at it then looked up at the house. Someone was inside.”

And while we’re at it, why did Carter wait until he was on the porch to use this vital device? He seems to be concerned about his safety and not blowing his assignment again. (You have him thinking in the car: “He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close.”)

But here’s where you sort of lost me in the believeability.  Carter is obviously experienced in whatever it is he’s doing. He has reason to suspect someone is in the house. Yet he casually walks up in board daylight, knocks on the door, peers in the window, and sees nothing. This guy would be casing this house within an inch of his life. He’d look for security cameras. He’d see if a car was in the garage. And he’d wonder if this nice suburban house, like so many today, has a doorbell with a camera to ward off mayhem.  The worst thing you can do is make your hero look inept.

Now, I’d like to do some line edits for some clarity, mainly to show how you can eliminate some clutter-words. Also, dear writer, be more aware of your paragraph lengths.  You have only three, each almost exactly the same length. In an action scene like this (as quiet as it is), shorter graphs can heighten tension. I’m going to add a few paragraphs to show you what I mean.

Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Not sure this is your best opening line. For one, it’s a tad cliched. Also, you need to tell us he is parked outside a house sooner. He could be in a dark alley in Newark, a dessert hovel in Iraq, a brothel in Brooklyn.   

Hopefully Now, I’m not going grammar cop on you; you can use this. But why would you? It feels weak and wish-washy. I don’t think Carter is either. Try something like: Maybe, with a little luck, he wouldn’t have to fire one bullet. But he was never one to depend on luck.

He wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, Again, relief sounds weak, like he’s not experienced at carrying. and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, Hwenty-four hours a day I just don’t get this. – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, this means nothing. the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. ???He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, He knew because it had almost cost him his life two years ago in Istanbul. Drop in a dollop of backstory please. and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.

The house he parked across from This is passive construction. Establish higher up that he is casing a house. was a two-story semi-detached, and looked, from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a The grass in the small yard was freshly mowed., the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The noon? sun was heavy and bright, blanketed the street in a searing white light. It would also create deep shadows, making things stand out in high relief. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door and peered in. , raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw He could see only a foyer but there was no movement. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere. Nice sensory detail but it is out of place here, where you are trying to escalate tension. Put all your description in one graph above and move on.

He rapped his knuckles on the door.knocked. No answer.

He knocked again, harder and louder. Still nothing.

He waited a few more seconds then went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. pulled a device the size of a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. It was a ….whatever you want to call it. The screen on the face of instanttly lit up, snapping to life. with On it was a computer rendered a map and of the neighborhood he was in. a pulsating flashing green dot that showed represented exactly his position. where he was standing.Another Then a second red dot this one flashing red, moved onto the screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor. He can discover this later. Make your sentences short and staccato to mimic tension. 

New graph: Someone was inside.

Okay, dear writer. Don’t be discouraged. There is good material here. I just want you to work harder because I have a hunch this is a good story just off to a slow start. And Carter is a guy I want to know more about. Just make him come more alive. Because you — and he — get only one chance to make a good impression.

 

5+

A Sense of Place:
We’re Lost Without It

Winterfell from Game of Thrones

A novel doesn’t begin to glow until its setting comes to be accepted as true. — Eudora Welty.

By PJ Parrish

I am bingeing on Game of Thrones. I know, I know…I’m the last one to the ceremonial beheading. But that’s the way I roll these days with television. I’m in season six, about halfway through. SO! Don’t any of you DARE include any spoilers in your comments or I will hunt you down and run a Valyrian Longclaw sword up your gut.

Now, I didn’t read any of George R.R. Martin’s books, but a writer friend of mine read them all, and he tells me he has learned a lot from analyzing how Martin sets up his characters and builds his worlds in just a few pages. Martin made his chops as a short story writer before hitting it big with A Song of Ice and Fire, so that tells you something there. And if you watch GOT, you get whiplash from trying to keep everyone — and every place — straight. There’s even a Game of Thrones For Dummies.

Sometimes, the internecine family story lines feel disjointed and the subplots suffer from kitchen-sink syndrome. I had planned to write today’s blog about what happens when you have too many subplots — as GOT often does — but I couldn’t get my brain wrapped around it. Besides, James already wrote a good post on that years back — click here. 

I want to talk, instead, about GOT’s sense of place. It’s pretty darn amazing. I’m not a  fantasy-phile. (Although I really do have a mad crush on King Arthur). But I have totally bought into the world GOT lays out.  The world feels vaguely medieval  British-Isles-centric, with seven warring kingdoms with knights, ladies, eunuchs, whores, and more rolling royal heads than you can shake a broadsword it. But it’s also got dashikis, deserts, and dragons, oh my.

And don’t even get me started on the blue-eyed zombies living out there beyond The Wall as everyone cryptically mumbles that “winter is coming.”

A short digression: I love great opening TV credits, especially the ones that act as intros to the episode. (Six Feet Under might be my favorite.) The opening of Game Of Thrones is brilliant, not just for its dark throbbing cello score, but because it underscores how important PLACE is in the story. In his piece for Thor.com, analyzing GOT’s sense of place, Brad Kane points out that the opening shows each of the warring kingdoms popping up in a whirring montage of mechanical gears and castles. They are game pieces on a world map (read chessboard).  There, in mere seconds, the complex, conjured world is literally built before your eyes — and if you’re clever, you’ll catch imbedded clues of what’s to come in the plot.

Even if you’re not a GOT fan, go watch the opening for a second to see what I mean:

Sense of place is dear to me. I love books that have it.  I try to write books that honor it. I never start a new book until I can see the world where it takes place.  This has meant actual traveling, down into the Paris catacombs, through San Francisco’s dive bars and the Florida Everglades and up to the farthest tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It has meant cyber traveling into ruined Scottish castles, British police stations, and into the dark tunnels below abandoned mental asylums. It also meant one really long Google Street View ride across America on I-80 from New Jersey to Oakland California.

All because I had to see it to make you believe it.

Eudora Welty understood the importance of world building. In her essay “Place in Fiction,” she argues that a sense of place is as important as character or plot or symbolic meaning. She tells of how she was struggling with her short story “No Place For You, My Love” — until she took a trip.

“What changed my story was a road trip with a friend down south of New Orleans to see that country for the first (and so far, only) time. When I got back home, full of the landscape I’d seen, I realized that without being aware of it at the time, I had treated the story to my ride, and it had come into my head in an altogether new form.”

“Full of the landscape I’d seen.”  What a great turn of phrase.

But Welty is full of such wisdom. She says the primary responsibility of the writer is to “establishing a chink-proof world of appearance.” Couldn’t help but think of Game of Thrones after reading that line.

Which, at risk of turning off you non-GOTers, I must now return to.  If you read the books or watch the series, you will understand immediately what I mean when I praise GOT’s world building power.  If you’re not a fan, I’ll let Brad Kane explain it. Martin and the TV series create three distinct and disparate worlds — and they have nothing in common. But, as Kane points out:

Yet they are all part of the same story. And that’s the genius of George RR Martin. You’d never confuse the barren lands of Winterfell with the towering peaks of the Vale. You’d never mix up the volcanic crag of Dragonstone with the dangerous shores of Great Wyk. Every story world in Westeros and Essos feels visually, culturally, and thematically distinct—and yet it all ultimately fits together.

He accomplishes this through close attention to detail. You may have read fantasy books where nations are defined as “the people who build ships,” or the “folks who smoke the good tobacco.” Not so in Game of Thrones. The world of the Starks is very different from the world of the Lannisters, which is very different again from the worlds of the Targaryens or the Greyjoys. Local attitudes, ways of speech, tools of war, sexual mores—they all change radically from country to country.

The telling details. Specifics. Verisimilitude. That is what goes into the best fictional world building. It doesn’t matter if the world you’re building is as small as a rural Virginia police station, or as grand as a ninth century Venetian dukedom. Our jobs as novelists is to make that Virginia cop shop sound, smell, feel, look, like no other place on earth. Our jobs as novelists is to make the long forgotten world of the Venetian doge feel, smell, look and sound as fresh and believable — nay, relate-able — as our own neighborhood of today.

If you make the place come alive in your readers’ minds — if you make them feel it with all their senses — they will follow you to the ends of the earth.

Or at least as far as Winterfell.

 

7+

On Fan Mail And Diving Down
Into The Research Rabbit Hole

By PJ Parrish

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.

Wolves…

Oh yeah.

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.

 

5+

Guilty Pleasures: Goodbye To
Two Of My Favorite Writers

“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?

 

9+

First Page Critique: Is It Good
To Open With A Bad Guy?

By PJ Parrish

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 

CHAPTER 1
The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale
Onyx Bar

Monday, October 20, 2019

“Hurl! Loser!”

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 sat Was 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 snogging  Why 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. 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.

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. 

Thanks for submitting!

6+

First Page Critique: When Is It
Time To Let A Story Idea Die?

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:

Lucky Lady

Chapter 1

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.

Wrongo, keno-breath.

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:

  1. They self-publish. (Not a bad thing if your idea is good)
  2. 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.

But…

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.

 

6+

Before And After: Does Your
First Draft Look Good Naked?

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 BEFORES and 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.

 

11+

It’s A Gas! Things We Can Learn
From Good Openings In Movies

By PJ Parrish

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. Paula watches 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…

 

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