About PJ Parrish

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

First Page Critique: Pick A Tense
And Then Make Things Tense

By PJ Parrish

A good Tuesday morning to you all out there. Hope you are well and sane. Hope you are getting some writing done. Me, I’ve managed to grow a couple tomatoes. So it was fun to see someone else’s creative juices are flowing nicely. I’m referring to today’s First Page Critique. Let’s give it a read together and then we’ll discuss. Thanks, writer, for submitting.

Carrie’s Secret

I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work. I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work. WHERE I WORK!!! I knew she might talk and that would be a problem, a big problem.

But I am systematic. I am in control. And I will deal with it.

When she was admitted to Danton, Carrie was considered both a flight risk and a suicide risk so that day she was taken directly to the locked ward on the first floor. I had just stepped into the lobby as she came through the front door. She was flanked by an ambulance attendant on one side and a woman from the admitting office on the other, each holding an arm. Her parents, Noah and Marlene Genesen, followed close behind her. Carrie was older surely, about fifteen now, and a little taller with longer hair, but it was her. There was no doubt. I watched as the group turned to my left and entered the locked ward. None of them noticed me then, but I stopped cold.

The situation was urgent. Critical. Carrie would soon be in therapy and she could reveal the truth any time in the course of treatment. I could not let her say anything. Louise Ponte would probably be her therapist. She works with most of the kids. How long could Carrie keep the secret bottled up inside her here? It will tear her apart, I’m sure. A good shrink like Ponte will pull it out of her. And if Carrie said what she knows, would that fucking bitch of a psychiatrist believe her? Yes. Would her parents believe it? Definitely. I cannot take the risk.

So I had to adjust quickly and as soon as I had the opportunity that first afternoon, I confronted Carrie. Change-of-shift had just started so most of the staff were meeting behind the closed door to the nursing office. I went right to her room.

There wasn’t much time. I stood in her doorway, blocking her exit. She was sitting on her bed and she looked up at me. Her big brown eyes were unfocused. She was holding her bandaged arm and dressed in a tight red tank top and extremely short cut-off jeans. I could not help looking at her naked legs for an instant. Then I looked up to her face.

___________________________

There’s some nice things going on here. As we often say here at TKZ, it’s always good to start with a nifty action scene. As James always says, do first and explain later. In other words, show something intriguing going on and then, later, tell us what it meant. Notice that I put two words in red there?

Show, don’t tell.

I love the fact this writer opened with something happening. A person (unnamed and no gender identified…more on that later) is confronted in the hospital where they work by an old “friend.” Or maybe a foe. But at the very least, this person from the past has a secret that our narrator does not wish to be known. Nice set up!

But I think the writer missed a chance to ramp up the tension factor by telling us too much when, with a little restructuring, it could be shown and thus have more dramatic impact.

Plus, we have here a problem with tense. It wavers between past and present, and the overall style is an odd hybrid of action and reminiscence.

The first paragraph, for instance, is refracted through the narrator’s thoughts rather than pure action, and thus feels more like a memory. “I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work.”  And with the capitalization and punctuation of the next line — WHERE I WORK!!! — it’s almost as if the writer subconsciously understood the first line was weak and she or he had to add caps and three exclamation marks to hit us over the head with the narrator’s intensity of emotion.

Might it not have been more effective to go right with action? I don’t know if Carrie, as she is being brought in, is fighting or half-comatose. So I am guessing here when I offer this suggested approach. I give it not as an attempt to rewrite this person’s style but to make a point about how, as an alternative, narration can be reshaped into a pure action scene.

The girl was screaming and kicking, her long dark hair flying around her face. The ambulance attendant had a hard grip on her right arm and a nurse jumped up from the desk to grab the girl’s right arm.  I was standing by the admitting desk, and as they lurched past, the girl’s head shot up.

Her wild brown eyes locked on mine. It was only for a second, but in that moment, I saw her.  

Carrie…

The only person in the world who knew what I had done.

Carrie’s head swung back and she gave me a questioning look that darkened into a glare. Then, with the wheeze of the ward’s door, she was gone.

Seconds later, a man and woman hurried in, not giving me a glance. Carrie’s parents. They didn’t recognize me, thank God.

My heart had stopped but now it was pounding. I took three deep breaths.

I am systematic. I am in control. And  damn it, I will deal with this.

See the difference? Get the action moving first and then start explaining things. And when you do go into the character’s thoughts, make it powerful, pithy and put it in italics.

Because this is a mixture of direct action scene and remembered narration, there are other problems. The narrator, upon merely seeing Carrie come into the hospital, cannot possibly know — yet — that she is suicidal and a flight risk. She cannot know either that a certain doctor Louise Ponte will be assigned to her case.  But these issues are easily resolved by continuing the action forward logically. For instance, the narrator, who apparently works at this facility, can immediately begin inquiries, maybe talk to the EMT when he comes back out? He could relate that she tried to kill herself.  Show us, via action and dialogue, don’t tell us.

Suggestion: Use the first scene — maybe the whole first chapter — to flesh out your great set-up. Play up the narrator’s shock and the fear of what this might bring (why is Carrie here? What happened? Will she tell someone our terrible secret?) You’ve done a good job of creating a sense of peril, so why rush it? Build your tension! Then you move on, logically, to the narrator going to Carrie’s room and confronting her.  That is probably worth a chapter all by itself. A third chapter could be a meeting with Dr. Ponte, wherein you can add some more background on why Carrie is there and why the narrator hates Ponte so much. Layers…it’s all about creating layers.

One problem many writers have is trying to figure out where to begin a chapter. This writer picked a great moment. But an equally vexing problem is figuring out where to END a scene or chapter. This is something this writer needs to work on. End one scene (in the lobby of hospital) and transition to the next scene (Carrie’s room).

Each scene and/or chapter needs to have its own beginning, middle and end. And you must DECIDE what the dramatic point of each individual scene is.  For this story, the point of the first scene is to introduce the protagonist via their shock at seeing someone who harbors a bad secret. This opening scene must also have an ending that then connects (via a smooth transition) to the next scene.

A small thing but important: Don’t bother to introduce character names until it is important. We don’t need to clutter up this great action moment with Carrie’s parents’ names.

Ditto the shrink.  Don’t give us Dr. Ponte’s name until she becomes an actual character in the action rather than in the narrator’s thoughts. Show us Dr. Ponte’s entrance, don’t tell us. I could see a great scene later, maybe chapter 3 or 4, where the narrator reads Carrie’s chart and finds out Dr. Ponte has been assigned to the case. Then maybe she goes and talks to the doctor? Show us, don’t tell us that Ponte is, ahem, a “fucking bitch.”  Remember the great movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest? We didn’t “meet” Nurse Ratched through Randall McMurphy’s thoughts. We met her on the ward, in all her terrible glory, interacting with the patients. Action is showing.

That’s my main points. I’d like to do a line edit to bring things into sharper focus.

I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work. WHERE I WORK!!! I knew she might talk and that would be a problem, a big problem.

But I am systematic. I am in control. And I will deal with it. This submission came to me with a couple graphs in italics, so that’s how I left it. But I see no need for it.

When she was admitted to Danton, This lapses into past tense and sounds like the narrator is remembering this. It disrupts the tension. Carrie was considered both a flight risk and a suicide risk The narrator has no way to know this. And “flight risk” is a legal term meaning a person is thought likely to leave the country before a trial or bail hearing. so that day she was taken directly to the locked ward on the first floor. I had just stepped into the lobby as she came through the front door. Again, the past tense construction “I had just” sounds like she’s recounting something that happened a while ago. She was flanked by an ambulance attendant on one side and a woman from the admitting office on the other, each holding an arm. Her parents, Noah and Marlene Genesen, followed close behind her. Carrie was older surely, about fifteen now, and a little taller with longer hair, but it was her. There was no doubt. I watched as the group turned to my left and entered the locked ward. None of them noticed me then, but I stopped cold.

The situation was urgent. Critical. This is a classic example of the writer TELLING us what the character feels rather than letting the emotions emerge through SHOWING the urgency. Carrie would soon be in therapy and she could reveal the truth any time in the course of treatment. I could not let her say anything. Louise Ponte would probably be her therapist. She works with most of the kids. How long could Carrie keep the secret bottled up inside her here? It will tear her apart, I’m sure. A good shrink like Ponte will pull it out of her. And if Carrie said what she knows, would that fucking bitch of a psychiatrist believe her? Yes. Would her parents believe it? Definitely. I cannot Again, we are shifting between past and present tense. Doesn’t work. take the risk.

So I had to adjust quickly and as soon as I had the opportunity that first afternoon, This is so confusing. Are we in the present day or is this character relating something that happened in the past? This construction suggests the latter. Which is not where we want to be opening a story. I confronted Carrie. Again, you’re telling us; show us. Change-of-shift had just started so most of the staff were meeting behind the closed door to the nursing office. I went right to her room.

There wasn’t much time. I stood in her doorway, blocking her exit. She is on suicide watch. Her door would be locked. She was sitting on her bed and she looked up at me. Her big brown eyes were unfocused. She was holding her bandaged arm and dressed in a tight red tank top and extremely short cut-off jeans. I could not help looking at her naked legs for an instant. Then I looked up to her face. She already looked at her face, her unfocused brown eyes specifically.

Okay, this is important. Whenever you describe something, be it a room as a character enters, or seeing a person, always start with what is first-impression logical and move on to other details from there. What you would logically see — IN ORDER OF YOUR SENSES PROCESSING THINGS?

Carrie was slumped on her bed. Her lank hair covered her face, and she was rubbing her bandaged wrist. For the first time, I noticed what she was wearing — a tight red tank top and short cut-off jeans. I was staring at her long legs when Carrie looked up. 

See the difference in the order of the description? It has to be logical. And use it to up the tension. Also: Never let a chance go by in your description to make it specific and thus salient to character. You said she was “sitting on the bed.” Is she slumped? Curled in a fetal ball? Sprawled? Each suggests something specific about character and mood. And the bandage on her arm. What kind of bandage and where it is? A wrist gauze suggests a slit wrist and is a way for the narrator to get this knowledge of a suicide attempt via showing instead of telling. 

One last thing. We don’t known a thing about the narrator and presumptive protagonist of this story. When working in first person, it’s hard to get in names and such. (Forget description in the early going!).  But it becomes annoying, the longer your scene goes on, for the reader not to have a clue who they are listening to.  We don’t even know the sex of our narrator.  Such “busy work” can be dropped easily in dialogue, maybe as the narrator stands there in shock at seeing Carrie, someone calls out, “Dr. Rogers, are you okay? Jane? Jane, did you hear me?”  A simple “trick” like this would give us A.) the protag’s sex B.) name  C.) profession.

Okay, that’s about it.  Again, I want to give kudos to the writer for picking a good dramatic moment to drop us into the story. I really like the set-up, a teenager from the protag’s past harbors a bad secret that terrifies the protag enough to make them spring into action.

But, dear writer, you need to slow down a tad and give more thought to the structure of each individual scene and/or chapter and to hone in on the dramatic point of each. Good luck and thanks for letting us share your work.

 

9+

Five Easy Fixes For Your Novel

By PJ Parrish

Back in my newspaper days, I applied for a job at the Miami Herald. I was working at the rival Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, but was flattered to be courted, so down I-95 I went. My portfolio was filled with sample clips. Great honking investigative stories. Profiles of the rich and famous. Thoughtful think pieces. Sitting in a big office overlooking Biscayne Bay, I watched the two big cheese editors as they flipped through the pages. Then they stopped and read. One guy looked up:

“I love this story. Was it your idea?”

I craned my neck to read the headline: TEN PLANTS EVEN YOU CAN’T KILL.

I nodded. “I’ve got a brown thumb.”

“We need more of this kind of stuff in our features section,” big editor said. “We’ll definitely be in touch.”

I didn’t get the job. But the experience did teach me that when it comes to getting someone’s attention, keep it short and sweet. Or as Jeff Goldblum says in The Big Chill about his job as a writer for People Magazine: “We only have one editorial rule. You can’t write anything longer than it takes your average person to take an average crap.”

So today, for a change, I’m going to write a short post. But I hope you find something useful in it. You don’t have to read it in your bathroom.

FIVE EASY THINGS THAT WILL IMPROVE YOUR MANUSCRIPT

1. Use More Paragraphs. Many of us, when we write, let the words just flow and flow onto the page. It’s emotional, that first draft. But slow down and take a hard look at what your sentences look like on the physical page. A page that is full of big similar-looking blocks of type looks old-fashioned and well, intimidating. That’s okay if you’re Dickens or Donna Tartt. The rest of us should keep things more eye-appealing. On the other hand, a page of one-sentence paragraphs can look contrived, like you’re trying too hard to be neo-noir or the next James Patterson. (But please don’t ask me to explain what compelled William Faulkner to include a chapter in As I Lay Dying that consisted entirely of one line: My Mother is a Fish.) Be in charge of your readers’ emotional reactions to your prose. Use the occasional longer contemplative graph but break it up with short ones. Writing is like music — one note, either long or short, is boring. I wrote about this subject in length a while back. Click here. 

2. Don’t Use Stock Character Descriptions. Getting readers to picture characters the way you do in your head is important. And it’s hard. Heck, all good description is doubly hard because it comes from your own consciousness AND it has to be filtered through the prism of your characters’ consciousness. Whenever I read something like this: “She looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor” my teeth ache. That’s lazy and obvious. Plus, you can get in trouble if you use culture or age-specific references. ie: He was as hunky looking as Ansel Elgort (That’s Ansel above. Who knew?). You must find a fresh and point-of-view-specific way to describe your people. And if you ever EVER use “handsome,” “sexy” “gorgeous” or, God forbid, “green-eyed vixen” I will hunt you down and confiscate your Acer.

 

3. Get Rid of Useless Dialogue. The exact words you put in your characters’ mouths is precious. But it’s hard to write because great dialogue is essentially a sleight of hand. (or ear?) You have to convey the FEELING of real conversation but without all the dumb and dull stuff we say in normal life. So to that end, never waste space on mundane stuff that is best conveyed in simple narrative. Don’t write:

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Joe.”

“Yeah, I know,” Joe answered. “It’s been a while since I felt like coming back to the station.”

I nodded. “Things been tough?”

“Yeah,” Joe answered. “Had some family issues and been a little under the weather.”

{{{Yawn}}} Sometimes, narrative works better, especially if you can convey some backstory via a character’s thoughts (and illuminate your narrator!).

Word around the station was that Joe had some problems at home. I knew his wife Clara. We had dated years ago and I knew that when it came to men, she had the attention span of a five-year-old in a McDonald’s ball pit.  I knew Joe, too, and in the red of his eyes I could see the bottom of too many glasses of Jim Beam.

4. Ferret Out the Weasel Words. We all have them — awful crutch filler words that seem to come unbidden from our fingers as we type that first draft. They take up space, make our narrative wishy-washy. Here’s a quick list: Just. Some. Most. But. Very. And my personal favorite — Suddenly! Take the word out, and if the sentence still makes sense, well, you’ve killed a weasel. (Caveat: Sometimes a weasel word is needed in dialogue). Watch, too, for wasted action phrases or words i.e. She raised a hand and slapped him across the face. No, she slapped him. Also, look out for weasel words in description or feelings.

Don’t write this:

He saw the car coming toward him down the dark alleyway. He realized there was no room to move, maybe only ten feet wide, and there was no time for thought. He could only react.

Write this:

Headlights coming fast toward him, blinding him. A screech of tires, the crash of the fender as it hit the trash cans. Two second at most, that was all he had.  He jumped for the fire escape above.

 

5. Don’t Overstate The Obvious. This is a common problem I see in many of our First Page Critique submissions. The scene is full of tension; something dire is going on. Good! But you have to then trust the reader to GET IT the first time. The more emotional or action-packed the scene is, the more you need to keep things under control. Sure, you can write this:

The sailboat was being tossed by the churning green waves like a bottle lost at sea. Maggie gripped the tiller harder, her heart racing. She squinted into the driving hard rain, trying to make out what Chuck was doing up at the bow, but she could barely make out his form in the darkness. She thought he might be trying to pull the jib down, but she couldn’t be sure. She shivered and was afraid for a second she was going to be sick. She was so afraid, and she thought again that they never should have ventured out two hours ago when the sky had been so dark and threatening.

First, note how this looks on the page: one long paragraph composed of equal-length sentences. But this is an action scene! Time for short and choppier rhythm, right? (See No. 1) And don’t gild the emotional lily. Maybe something like this:

Maggie couldn’t see a thing through the knife-slashing pelt of the rain. Two hands on the tiler now, too afraid to risk even a quick wipe across the face. She squinted toward the bow but Chuck was just a blur of gray against the mad-flap white of the jib. The sailboat groaned and pitched to starboard and she choked down another rise of nausea. Why the hell had they been so stupid? She had seen the low black clouds as they set out two hours ago. She had been stupid. Stupid to trust Chuck.   

Remember: The more emotional or tense the scene, the more controlled the writing should be. Don’t let your writerly emotions swamp your story boat.

And after that awful last sentence, I should probably add a Number 6 tip here about straining for metaphors, but I promised I’d be short and sweet today.

 

16+

First Page Critique: It’s Time
To Kill Off The Woodpecker

Every thing must have a beginning…and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. — Mary Shelley

By PJ Parrish

Writing is nothing but a series of decisions. Some are big. You decide on your basic genre. (I’m going to write a thriller!) You decide on a main character. (She’s going to be a waitress who lost her job, has two kids to feed and her dead-beat ex owes a ton in child care so she decides to track him down and thus learns to be a PI!).  You decide on a setting. (I lived in San Francisco once so I’ll try that!)

Then, come all the little decisions. Which really aren’t so little over the course of 300 pages or so. Does she have a friend who can act as confidante? Will there be a romantic interest? What does her voice sounds like — ie is she Southern? A bit profane? Did she go to college? See where I am going with this?  Every decision you make affects your story.

But let’s go back to a big decision you’ll have to make really early. One that we here at The Kill Zone deal with all the time with our First Page Critiques. One that can kill your story right from the get-go, if you’re not careful:

WHERE DO I START MY STORY? 

I put that in big red neon because I believe it might be, after character, your most important decision. Because if you start too slow, you bore the reader. If you start to fast, you risk looking like a show-off (Yes, I believe you can start too fast). If you start too early, you get a lot of throat-clearing. If you start to late, you can confuse your reader. Think of it this way: You are asking your reader to enter an imaginary world. They will be taking this plunge on blind faith that you, the storyteller, are skillful enough to lead them clearly and that you are sly enough to seduce them into sticking around.

So, where do you start the story? What is your entry point? What door do you open?

I have battled this with every book I have written. Sometimes, rarely, I see the opening scene like a magnificent movie unreeling in my head. But more often, I feel like I am peering into a mist, waiting for the BIG MOMENT to reveal itself. Some beginnings come easy; most come with only the greatest of brain sweat.

In my last post, I talked about how I am taking a hiatus from novel writing. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about my story. It’s sitting there on the back burner on a slow simmer. I think of it as a nice marinara sauce that is rendering down and will some day be ready to move to the front burner again.   I’ve been thinking a lot about my story this week. Thinking that it took me a long time to find the right door into it.

So, let me try to make my point today about WHERE TO BEGIN YOUR STORY by showing you how I screwed mine up. (So yeah, I mislead you — this isn’t a real First Page submission; it’s my own).

Brief set up: This book is a sequel to our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE. In the first book, Clay Buchanan, is a skip tracer who’s been hired to find the missing wife of a rich lawyer. The wife, Amelia, was in a car accident that left her with amnesia and she’s on the run because she thinks her husband is trying to kill her. Buchanan was supposed to be a minor cog in the story machine but he proved so compelling that he became a secondary protagonist. His wife and infant son are missing, presumed dead eight years ago, and he was the main suspect. He is haunted by their disappearance. Our editor, and quite a few readers, asked us for a sequel focusing on his backstory.  By the way…I love Clay Buchanan. He’s a wounded anti-hero who wants to work his way back to the light.

So, here is the first 400 words of so of Clay’s story:

CHAPTER ONE

He cried when he heard the news. It was rumor mostly, but it came from people he knew and trusted, people with authority and letters after their names. His head told him that it probably wasn’t true, but in his heart…

In his heart, he wanted so much to believe.

She was alive.

Someone had spotted her down in Arkansas. And even though his head was filled with the fuzz of last night’s liquor, he threw a hastily packed bag into his car and headed out into the black Nashville night, not stopping until four hours later when he hit the single blinking traffic light in Brinkley, Arkansas.

These woods was where she supposedly had been last seen –- in a bayou of bleached trees and blue-black water, here in this lonely place that looked as raw as when the world was being born.

Clay Buchanan sat back in the kayak, setting his oar across his knees.

He had been here once before. Ten years. That had been ten years ago.

Why had he returned to this place now? That sighting a decade ago had long ago been discredited.

He closed his eyes and sat as still as he could, even holding his breath, so the softest sounds of the swamp could penetrate his consciousness. But there was nothing except the whisper of the water and the whine of a lone mosquito, and in that huge quiet, his memories moved in with a fierce and fast clarity.

How his heart had quickened when he saw the first reports of the sighting on the news. How the tears had felt hot on his face when he watched the grainy video on the internet. How he had called in sick to Gateway Insurance, saying he wasn’t sure when he would be back to work. And how his wife’s face had looked, waxy in the yellow porch light, as she handed him a thermos of coffee for the trip to Brinkley and told him that she and Gillian would be okay.

His boss didn’t understand. But Rayna always had. Rayna had always understood that his obsession was the only thing that helped him endure his soul-killing job. He could still hear her words that night as he left…

Go chase your ghost, Bucky.

Buchanan let out his breath, long and slow, and opened his eyes.

The ghost bird. That’s what everyone back then called it. Not the experts, of course. To them, it was Campephilus principalis, the ivory-billed woodpecker. But to birders like Buchanan, it was the ghost bird.

____________________

I’m back. Well, there’s some nice stuff in this First Page Submission. It tells me where the story takes place and it’s got a lot of cool atmosphere. But why does it fail? Lots of reasons.

First, the opening line. It’s a come-on. You think I am talking about his missing wife, right? Nope. It’s not his wife. It’s a bird. Clay is an avid birder (bird-watcher to us civilians). He heard about a sighting of the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker and bolted off to see it. I am not playing fair with the reader; it’s a fake, a cheap device. If I were the reader, it would piss me off.  Now, when I wrote this, I thought it would be a cool metaphor — you know, dead missing woodpecker that’s called The Ghost Bird. Dead missing wife who Clay sometimes can actually hear talking to him — the ghost wife. Geez…

Second, it’s not very active. Even though Clay is technically doing something — bobbing around a bayou looking for a bird — it has nothing to do with the real story, and thus is a passive false start.

Third, I larded in a graph of backstory about his old insurance job, which surely can wait until I get the story up and moving.

You can see why I didn’t want to go back to this story with any urgency. I had chosen the wrong moment to drop my readers into the story. And in my subconscious writer brain, I knew it stunk. (Always listen to that voice when it speaks, by the way).

It took me a good two months to finally find the right door into Clay’s world. This is second version:

CHAPTER ONE

 Someone was following him. He had noticed it a couple miles back, but only because he was so good at tailing cars himself and had never been made.

He couldn’t be sure when the car had picked him up. It was too dark, too rainy, and on this part of the road, there weren’t any streetlights. Just a two-lane asphalt road broken by the occasional gate where at the end of long driveways lights from the big houses glowed like fireflies. It was the kind of road that was lined with white rail fencing to keep the horses in during the day and strangers out at night.

The car hadn’t been behind him when he left his apartment in downtown Nashville. Or maybe it had and he just had missed it. That bothered him. Was he losing his edge?

He slowed to thirty. So did the headlights behind him.

Damn.

The road T-boned just ahead. If the car turned left with him, he’d have to do something. For the first time in months, he thought of the nine-mil Nano he had bought from that kid in Oakland. He wished he hadn’t thrown in San Francisco Bay.

Suddenly, the darkness was split with different lights. Red and blue strobes.

Shit. It was a cop…

The cop hit his take-down lights, blinding Clay Buchanan’s vision in the rearview mirror.

There was a driveway on the right and clay pulled in. The cruiser pulled in behind, stopping about fifteen feet behind and just to the left. Clay didn’t move a muscle, just kept his hands high on the steering wheel. Even though his closed window he could hear the squawk of the cop’s radio, turned up higher for even a routine stop.

But no cop stop was ever really routine. Clay knew that.

He stayed frozen, but he could see the play of the cop’s powerful flashlight as it moved over the rear of the car and into the empty backseat. The cop moved carefully, avoiding silhouetting himself in his own headlights. He stopped just to the rear of the driver’s window. Textbook…no chance of getting knocked down by the push of an opening door. This guy knew his shit.

“Roll down your window, please.”

Clay moved his left hand slowly. The window whirred down. He put his hand back on the wheel.

“License, please. Registration and insurance, too.”

“It’s in my wallet, right front jeans pocket.”

“Get it. Slowly, please.”

Clay couldn’t see the guy’s face, but he caught a glimpse of the round patch on the cop’s rain slicker. Davidson County Sheriff Department. He carefully extracted the license and other cards and held them out. The cop took them, holding holding the license under his flashlight. Then he ran the beam over the truck’s interior, past the three manila folders laying on the passenger seat then stopping on the video camera. Clay hoped the guy didn’t know exactly what he was looking at — an Ultra HD infrared night vision full spectrum camcorder. There was a good reason it was nicknamed the Ghost Hunter.

“Your right tail light is out, sir.”

That couldn’t be what this was about. Clay knew what the cop was seeing – a beat-up Toyota Highlander. The camera, together with the rest of the gear in the trunk, cost more than the car was worth. Maybe it was the truck itself – a crappy heap driving slow in this neighborhood was reason enough for a stop.

The flashlight beam hit him square in the face. Clay squinted, resisting the urge to shield his face with his hand.

“You’re that guy,” the cop said.

What?

The light was blinding.

“You’re that guy who killed his wife.”

______________________

Well, I think it’s better. The whole scene is Clay going out to the deserted road where his wife’s car was found — empty with some blood in the front and the empty baby seat in the back. Earlier that night, the anniversary of his wife’s disappearance, he had what Jim calls his Man in Mirror Moment and has decided to find his dead wife and son.

I could have started Chapter one with that Mirror moment, but that would have meant a lot of passive narrative and backstory.  I needed to get him up and moving, DOING instead of THINKING ABOUT DOING.  I can weave in the backstory later.  I hope I also introduced some intrigue and empathy for Clay by having the cop recognize him. Even now, after ten years, he’s still a marked man.

Anywho, that’s my lesson for the day. The take-away for you guys is: Don’t go to the prom with the first guy who asks you. Sometimes, you have to really be patient and wait for the right MOMENT to open your story.

Be willing to throw crap away.

Be willing to try something completely different.

Be willing to admit you were wrong.

Be willing to kill your darlings. Even if they are ivory-billed woodpeckers. Especially if they are ivory-billed woodpeckers disguised as really ugly metaphors.

 

8+

Is It Okay To Quit?

“You get to a point where you get to the edges of a room, and you can go back and go where you’ve been and basically recycle stuff.” — Stephen King

By PJ Parrish

I knew something was up when I started looking forward to pulling weeds.

Every morning, I’d check the Tallahassee weather and plan my day. First, I’d survey the front and back yards to see what needed attention. Then I’d dead-head the rose bushes. The azaleas needed pruning, so that took a good hour. Eventually came the highlight of my day — pulling weeds. A blissful hour of mindless productivity. As the sun dipped lower, it was time to head out to the nursery because you could never have enough mulch or Miracle-Gro tomato food.

By the time I got back, there was just enough time to shower, make a vodka gimlet and take it outside where I’d sit in a lawn chair while I hose-watered the lawn.

I was as happy as a little garden slug — except for a gnawing guilt that seemed to abate as the vodka glass emptied only to return as I went back indoors. The guilt, of course, came because I wasn’t writing.

I passed the whole of last winter this way. My garden flourished as my novel lay fallow in the laptop. And then, one morning, it hit me: I didn’t want to write anymore.

It was gone. The urge, the need, the pleasure. It was all gone. At first, I was upset. For two reasons. First, I write with my sister and thus had a contract, a commitment, to our partnership. And second, well, that’s complicated. So many folks want to be published writers, and I have known that success. It almost felt ungrateful to stop.

But here’s the truth. I want to quit. I have quit. I have not worked on my novel for months now, and after the initial bad feelings, I’m finding I’m relieved.  I’m relieved that I don’t have to worry about getting the book published, be it by traditional means or the hard slog of self-publishing. Relieved that I don’t have to climb on the self-promotion hamster wheel.  Relieved that I won’t have to feel the sting of disappointment if it doesn’t sell or get well-reviewed. But mostly, I feel relieved that I can channel my energy, creativity, time and love into other things.

I’m coming up on my 70th birthday soon. That doesn’t bother me that much, because outside of aching knees and bad eyes, I’ve got good health. We’ve got some money in the bank and not many bills. I have family and friends to sustain me. I have two great dogs to take me on walks.

Phillip Roth said he was done when he was 79 and 27 novels deep. Alice Munro did so at 81, a few months before winning a Nobel for a career that includes 14 short-story collections. Munro told a reporter, “I don’t have the energy anymore.” Roth left a Post-it on his computer reading, “The struggle with writing is over.”

I read up on Munro while writing this post. She gave a fascinating interview about her decision where she said she wanted to rejoin the world. “I think you do get to a stage where you sort of think about your life in a different way,” she said. “And perhaps, when you’re my age, you don’t wish to be alone as much as a writer has to be. It’s like, at the wrong end of life, sort of becoming very sociable.”

I get that. My time now will be given to my real people, not my imaginary ones.

Will I change my mind? Perhaps. Things can happen in your life, things you can’t anticipate, that can alter your universe — and it can happen in a split second.

Stephen King, in 1999, was hit by a car while walking down a road near his Maine home. He almost died. He described the pain of recovery as unbearable.  His wife, Tabitha, knew he was drowning and set up a writing nook downstairs in their house. King didn’t want to try another novel so he decided to write about writing. A year later, he produced On Writing. In it, he writes with brutal honesty about his struggle with drugs and alcohol and how hard it was to recover his love of writing again. He went on to finish a script for the miniseries Rose Red, calling it a therapy that was more effective than any drug the doctors gave him. But once the script was finished, he decided to quit.

“I don’t want to finish up like Harold Robbins,” he said, referring to the pulp novelist who started with well-reviewed works such as A Stone for Danny Fisher, later suffered a damaging stroke and ended his career in steep decline. “That’s my nightmare.”

King found his way back. With last year’s novel The Institute, he’s closing in on 100 novels. He still needs to write. I don’t. At least not now.

What about you guys? Some of you have sturdy careers and a nice back list. Some of you are still working on your first book. Most of you are probably somewhere in between, maybe published but not as successful as you’d like, maybe finished a couple manuscripts and still looking for that one editor who says yes.

You might have considered giving up. How do you know if it’s time to quit?

Well, if you want to read a funny but very truthful take on that question, click here and read Chuck Wendig on the subject.

If you’re thinking of quitting, maybe I offer some things to chew on before you do. Here are some signs, in my opinion, that you SHOULDN’T quit for good.

You’ve got some life issues that are sapping your energy. A divorce? A family health problem? Financial issues that might mean you have to focus harder on your day job? That’s okay. Take some time off and deal with whatever’s distracting you. Work the problem. Then, when the clouds clear, you’ll might find your creative juice coming back. Don’t let anyone try to tell you that you MUST WRITE EVERY DAY.  If something is off in your life, you might need to step away.  Writing is like exercising. Yeah, you should do it every day if you can. But if you’ve got a broken foot, stop and heal first.

Your story is going nowhere and you can’t see a way out.  All writers stall. All writers paint themselves into corners. But some folks stay with a story out of pure stubbornness. (I know this twist will work. I just gotta find a way!) Find a reliable beta reader who will TELL YOU THE TRUTH. They won’t be able to tell you how to fix it (and shouldn’t; that’s your job). But talking about the log-jam will help clear your brain.

You’re writing the wrong book. Here’s a dirty secret: Almost every successful writer has abandoned a book in mid-stream. Quitting is not the sign of a loser; it’s the sign of a professional. You have to face the fact that not every idea is a good one. Let it go. Sometimes, you have to give up on story that’s not working so a new story can move into your brain. I worked on a series book for four months (and hated every moment of it) until I finally tossed it out. Soon after, discouraged and depressed about the book, I went on a scheduled vacation to Paris. A week later, I had an idea for a stand-alone that got me so excited I finished the thing in three months. (click here to see The Killing Song). 

Your character(s) bore you. This sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes, we grab onto a character and gnaw him or her to death. We think he or she sounds fascinating but there’s something fundamentally flawed about them. And I don’t mean in a good, deeply human interesting way, but in a death-to-the-story boring way. Unless you are foaming at the mouth to meet up with your character every day, ready to follow their every move and take down their every word, how can you produce a good story? You have to be in love with your characters, even the black hat ones. If you don’t want to spend time with them, how do you expect a reader to want to?

You’re tired. We all are right now. The forced isolation of the virus, the political climate, the constant slow simmer of dread. Understand that the fatigue you’re feeling might have nothing to do with your book. It’s exterior to that but it’s deep and it’s not going away any time soon. I can’t tell you how to deal with this black cloud; we’re all finding our coping mechanisms. (Mine is a hard break from news, exercise, walks with my dogs.). Get outside. Reconnect with old friends but call, don’t email or text.

Okay, now here are some signs that you should quit, in my humble experience:

You’re not having fun anymore. 

That’s it. There’s only one good reason to quit. The whole process of writing has become something of a chore, a duty rather than a delight. Again, I don’t mean to sound like I’m whining here. Or that I am dismissing all the years of wonderful writing time I’ve had. Or, as I said, that I am ungrateful for the success that has come my way.  I have been blessed; I’ve been lucky. I had a helluva a run for twenty years in the mystery biz, and seven years in romance before that. But I’ll let Chuck Wendig speak for me:

You’re not having fun. This one, too, is tricky, because writing isn’t always an act of eating cotton candy while happy puppies squirm at your feet. Some days are purely reserved for shoveling earth. Some days are like pulling bad teeth. That’s normal. It isn’t always fun. Hell, it isn’t often fun. But there’s also an evaluation you might make — again, after some time with it — where you realize, you’re just not enjoying this. It holds no surprises for you. It feels rote and routine, and if it feels that way to you, it may very well feel that way to a reader. Once again, a strategic retreat is called upon.

With our most recent book, last year’s The Damage Done, I think we left our hero Louis Kincaid in a good place. The circle, for him, feels complete. We done him good. I don’t want to start phoning it in. So I am retreating. Into life, friends, and especially reading, where I am ready to get acquainted with the dazzling spectrum of new writers who are infusing our genre.

I am putting down the pen. Except for this blog and you all, which I have grown to love. I might pick up the pen again. I probably will. But now now, this feels right. Thanks for listening, friends.

 

11+

First Page Critique: Making Us
Care About A Guy Going Bad

By PJ Parrish

We’re off to the hoosegow, the clink, con college, the gray-bar hotel for today’s First Page submission. That much is certain. But I’m gonna need your help on figuring out some of the other things going on here. Please give your time to our writer and don’t be shy about weighing in with some pointers, praise and punditry.

Case Runner

The funny thing is, my folks wanted me to be a lawyer.

It’s a profession. You’ll always make a living. Like Uncle Mike.

That was before Uncle Mike, my father’s older step-brother, went to prison for skimming trusts. He died there, in pretty short order.

After sitting through more of Dad’s drunk disorderly and domestic abuse hearings than I could count, I wasn’t interested in law. I majored in computer science, with a minor in bookmaking, as a runner for Sweet Clete Sojack. I had a little credit card harvesting going on the side: go-go growth businesses practically invited me to grab their transaction data for resale, and in a pinch I could Netstumble my way into wide-open WiFi.

But I was better at getting the info than covering my tracks, so I also did a little time. Unlike Uncle Mike, I not only got out in 18 months, but emerged with a profession, funnily enough related to law, in about the same way as I was related to Uncle Mike.

You can learn a lot of things in prison. Some, a lot, we’ll leave unsaid. But you meet people who see things just a little differently, the spaces between the itch and the scratch where money can be made.

One of these people was Simon Vann, who had been a plaintiffs’ attorney until a case where much of his plaintiff class turned out to have already handed over powers of attorney to out-of-state relatives before signing with him. The houses, the cars, the boat, the sugar on the side, were all gone in a flash. He blamed himself for one thing and one thing only.

“I called the wrong case runner. Tried to save a few bucks.” He waved liver-spotted hands around the prison library. “Worked out great, huh?”

I asked him what a case runner was.

“See, there are laws against an attorney cooking up a cause of action and then finding warm bodies for plaintiffs. They call it ‘champertry’. So there’s a service, kind of a grey area, people who generate leads, finding and referring people whose issues jibe with the theory of the case. For a small fee per head, the attorney gets parties already qualified by the case runner.” Simon stared at the book in his hand, a history of power boats. “He hopes.”

______________________________

I’m back. First off, I really like this writer’s voice. It’s unique, punchy and gives me a pretty decent feel for the narrator’s character — or lack of same. But we need a bit more flesh on the bones, which I will get into in a moment.

This opening is essentially back story. Which is a no-no, yes? Well, not necessarily. What I call character-intro openings can be effective when done well. But the writing must be razor sharp for the reader to be patient and wait for something to happen ie action.

One of the best character openings, which I often cite in workshops, is in Steve Hamilton’s debut A Cold Day In Paradise. He is introducing his series character Alex Knight with this paragraph:

There is a bullet lodged in my chest, less than a centimeter from my heart. I don’t think about it much anymore. It’s just a part of me now. But every once in a while, on a certain kind of night, I remember that bullet. I feel the weight of it inside me. I can feel its metallic hardness. And even though the bullet has been warming inside my body for fourteen years, on a night like this, when it is dark enough and the wind is blowing, the bullet feels as cold as the night itself.

Yes, this is backstory, but the bullet next to heart image is compelling and deeply personal.  Here’s another slow backstory character opening that I like, from Tana French:

My father once told me that the most important thing every man should know is what he would die for. If you don’t know that, he said, what are you worth? Nothing. You’re not a man at all. I was thirteen and he was three quarters of the way into a bottle of Gordon’s finest, but hey, good talk. As far as I recall, he was willing to die a) for Ireland, b) for his mother, who had been dead for ten years, and c) to get that bitch Maggie Thatcher.

All the same, at any moment of my life since that day, I could have told you straight off the bat exactly what I would die for. At first it was easy: my family, my girl, my home. Later, for a while, things got more complicated. These days they hold steady, and I like that; it feels like something a man can be proud of. I would die for, in no particular order, my city, my job, and my kid.

Slow, measured, nothing happening here but the character trying to get into our heads. This goes to French’s style. And here is maybe my favorite character-doing-nothing-but thinking opening, from Mike Connelly’s The Poet.

Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional relationship on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker — somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret to dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face.

But my rule didn’t protect me. When the two detectives came for me and told me about Sean, a cold numbness quickly enveloped me. It was like I was on the other side of the aquarium window. I moved as if underwater — back and forth, back and forth — and looked out at the rest of the world through the glass. From the backseat of their car I could see my eyes in the rearview mirror, flashing each time we passed beneath a streetlight. I recognized the thousand-yard stare I had seen in the eyes of fresh widows I had interviewed over the years.

So yes, you can start by having your character thinking instead of doing. But it damn well better be so compelling that your reader is as well hooked as a fighting marlin. Does the opening to Case Runner succeed? Do you find this Unnamed Man narrator seductive? Does he force you to turn the page?

Well, almost. As I said, the voice has great tone to it. But it lacks the empathy bond that both Connelly and Hamilton forge. Other than the fact Unnamed Man is a bit of wise guy, I don’t get much sense of personality or feel much connection to him. I know that empathy for a character needs to be built over the course of an entire book, but we don’t know quite where we’re going with Unnamed Man here.

And here’s the rub. I think, though I am not sure because the writer isn’t specific enough, that Unnamed Man is going to go to the dark side and become a case runner. Which makes him at best an anti-hero. Will we want to root for him if he’s got the morals of a slug? Is the plot’s trajectory going to create a character arc that has him finding his way back into the light? We can hope.

Couple years ago, Steve Hamilton, on hiatus from his Alex Knight character, started a second series starring an anti-hero named Nick Mason.  Here’s the book’s teaser back copy:

Nick Mason is out of prison. After five years inside, he has just been given the one thing a man facing 25-to-life never gets, a second chance. But it comes at a terrible price.

Nick Mason is out of prison, but he’s not free. Whenever his cell phone rings, day or night, he must answer it and follow whatever order he is given. It’s the deal he made with Darius Cole, a criminal kingpin serving a double-life term who still runs an empire from his prison cell.

Forced to commit increasingly more dangerous crimes, hunted by the relentless detective who put him behind bars, and desperate to go straight and rebuild his life with his daughter and ex-wife, Nick will ultimately have to risk everything–his family, his sanity, and even his life–to finally break free.

See the point I am trying to make for our writer? If your guy starts out as a black hat, you need to make us care that he has a chance. He needs a journey, not just of plot but character. Redemption is a powerful theme in fiction. I hope this is where our writer is taking us.

Okay. But we have a basic structure problem beyond that. And it creates confusion. When and where is this scene taking place? After several paragraphs of backstory, in which we learn that Unnamed Man served 18 months in prison and got out, we get the first “action” scene — Unnamed Man talking to Simon Vann. They seem to be in a prison library, so that made me assume that Unnamed Man is also a prisoner. See the problem? The writer told us he was out, yet here we are behind bars. This is not a flashback; it is poor structure. Plus the writer tipped his plot hand too early by revealing in backstory narrative that he emerged from prison ironically with a new profession related to the law.

If the writer wants to stay with this backstory opening, he needs a way to gracefully transition to the PRESENT IN PRISON. Which is where the story really starts. It can be as simple as “I was thinking of my Dad (or Uncle Milt) or whatever, when I walked into the library and saw Simon Vann sitting at a table surrounded by a twelve volumes of The Supreme Court Reporter. 

Then have Unnamed Man go over and strike up the conversation. The way it is written is so bare bones we can’t easily figure out what is going on, where we are, and why this encounter is even happening. Give it dramatic context.  Has Simon been considering trying to drag Unnamed Man into his case runner scheme? Has Unnamed Man heard that Simon is recruiting? We need context. This is all happening in a plot vacuum.

Now let’s talk about the idea of case running itself. I’ve never heard of it, but then I am not steeped in law or legal thrillers. My sister Kelly knew immediately but she can quote every line of dialogue from Law & Order.  If, like me, you didn’t know what a case runner is, could you figure it out from Simon’s description? I’d guess no. Here is what Simon says:

“There are laws against an attorney cooking up a cause of action and then finding warm bodies for plaintiffs. They call it ‘champertry’. So there’s a service, kind of a grey area, people who generate leads, finding and referring people whose issues jibe with the theory of the case. For a small fee per head, the attorney gets parties already qualified by the case runner. He hopes.”

This sounds like something out of Wikipedia, not like a person would really talk. It needs to be filtered through Simon Vann’s particular personality prism. And again, it needs context. Why did this topic even come up? Why are they talking about it? It is just thrown out there with no reason, so why do we care? It needs to be a scene, with logic and dialogue between the two characters.

I found a good lawyer’s site that explains it better than Simon did — which is saying alot considering how bad lawyers are at breaking things down in real English. Essentially, case running is a fancy name for ambulance chasing. Bear with this long explanation because it goes to a point I want to make, again, about character arc:

More often than not, “ambulance chasing” is carried out not by attorneys, but by others known as “runners”. Case runners are not licensed to practice law. Rather, they are hired by accident attorneys to do whatever is necessary to get accident victims to hire a personal injury lawyer. And it doesn’t stop there. After the runner gets the injured accident victim to hire the lawyer, the victim is then coerced into going to a doctor who also works with the runner.

In order for these predatory “runners” to find their prey, they listen to police scanners; offer significant cash bribes to accident victims; they confuse the injured accident victims with false information; and, before an ambulance arrives, offer them rides right from the accident scene to a medical office, where the runner will get paid a handsome “referral fee” by the doctors- thousands of dollars. Sometimes, the runners don’t get to the accident scene in time to lure accident victims away from proper medical care. But that doesn’t stop these runners from harassing accident victims. Hospital workers, ambulance drivers, even police officers will sell these runners your most personal information for hefty prices. Armed with this information, runners and ambulance chasers will visit houses, text, call, and write accident victims until they relent.

Make no mistake about it- hustling cases like this is illegal and unethical. But since there is more money to be made selling accident victims and their personal, private information to the highest bidder than there is selling drugs on the street; the “runners” aren’t running scared. Instead, they are running all the way to the bank.

Wow…really good fodder for a anti-hero plot, right? He’s a sleazy, Better Call Saul type of dude who preys on vulnerable people and sells your personal info on the street to the highest bidder! Now that’s a great start for any character, so kudos to the writer for recognizing this potential.

But…

If Unnamed Man remains a predator throughout the whole book and learns nothing, what happens? We won’t care about him. And that is death to any book.

So, to go back to structure again, this opening really needs a good scene of extended dialogue between Simon Vann and Unnamed Man explaining what a case runner is and it needs to set up the plot catalyst that Unnamed Man is going to the dark side.

Let me do some quick line editing to make a few other points.

The funny thing is, my folks wanted me to be a lawyer.  I assume the writer means that it’s ironic that his parents wanted him to be a lawyer but then he became a case running sleazo?

It’s a profession. You’ll always make a living. Like Uncle Mike.

That was before Uncle Mike, my father’s older step-brother, went to prison for skimming trusts. He died there, in pretty short order.

After sitting through more of Dad’s drunk disorderly and domestic abuse hearings than I could count, I wasn’t interested in law. Nice bit of sad backstory, but it could be a tad more personalized. After sitting in the back of too many courtrooms next to my crying mother, watching my dad….I majored in computer science, where? We need to know where this story is taking place and this would drop a hint. with a minor in bookmaking, as a runner for Sweet Clete Sojack. I had a little credit card harvesting going on the side: go-go growth businesses practically invited me to grab their transaction data for resale, and in a pinch I could Netstumble my way into wide-open WiFi. Again, this is nice voice but it’s a little thin. Can we have a hint as to why a guy who made it to college felt compelled to run numbers and steal credit card info? The problem is, you are really setting him up as unlikeable.

But I was better at getting the info than covering my tracks, so I also did a little time. Again, a little thin on telling details. What was he busted for? Can you make it more personal and involving for us? Unlike Uncle Mike, I not only got out in 18 months, but emerged with a profession, funnily enough related to law, in about the same way as I was related to Uncle Mike. On first read, this seems like cheeky good writing. But it is really confusing because in a couple graphs, we’re right back in prison. And, dear writer, you gave away your main plot point too easily. Him emerging from prison with a dark side job is a cool BAM! plot moment. Don’t bury it in a tossed-off narrative comment.

You can learn a lot of things in prison. Some, a lot, we’ll leave unsaid. But you meet people who see things just a little differently, the spaces between the itch and the scratch where money can be made. Syntax problem here. Do you mean they see things just a little clearly, like recognizing that space between the itch…

One of these people was Simon Vann, who had been a plaintiffs’ attorney until a case where much of his plaintiff class turned out to have already handed over powers of attorney to out-of-state relatives before signing with him. The houses, the cars, the boat, the sugar on the side, were all gone in a flash. He blamed himself for one thing and one thing only.  How does he know this? 

“I called the wrong case runner. Tried to save a few bucks.” He waved liver-spotted hands around the prison library. “Worked out great, huh?”

I asked him what a case runner was. Again, this conversation must have the structure and context of a dramatic scene. Why are they talking about this? You have to slow down and choreograph your scene with more detail and clarity. 

“See, there are laws against an attorney cooking up a cause of action and then finding warm bodies for plaintiffs. They call it ‘champertry’. So there’s a service, kind of a grey area, people who generate leads, finding and referring people whose issues jibe with the theory of the case. For a small fee per head, the attorney gets parties already qualified by the case runner.” Simon stared at the book in his hand, a history of power boats. “He hopes.” As I said, the definition of case runner is essential to your book. You have to break down in layman terms, even if it’s coming from the mouth of a lawyer. Remember, Unnammed Man is NOT a lawyer, so he can ask “dumb” questions for the reader. First, figure out a reason for this conversation to be happening, then give us DIALOGUE ie action. Example:

I had heard around the exercise yard that Vann was looking to hire someone to work on the outside. It was big money for little work, rumor was. I was getting out in eight weeks and with my record had no chance of scoring something big in the computer biz.

Simon looked up at me as I approached his table. “I hear you’re looking for work,” he said.

How he had figured that out I’d never know. But I took it for a cue to slide into the chair across from him.

Then start the dialogue about what a case runner is. And your plot and character is off and running.

One last nit. You notice how annoying it was for me to keep using the phrase Unnamed Man? You need to find a way to gracefully tell us your guy’s name and quickly.

So, I hope you find this useful and not too discouraging. As I said, you’ve got some writer chops. You just need to figure out the structure issues and more important, how you want to make us want to root for your guy. Thanks for submitting!

 

 

6+

Show Don’t Tell!
But Wait! I’m A Storyteller!

Note: I am unexpectedly tied up with some life-stuff in the last couple days (nothing dire; just confoundingly time-consuming). So I hope you don’t mind if I steal a little from myself and revisit an old topic.  But it’s an evergreen one, so let’s discuss anew!

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

By P.J. Parrish

I don’t remember the first time I heard this piece of writer advice: SHOW DON’T TELL. But I can tell you I didn’t have a clue what the heck it meant. I mean, aren’t writers storytellers? Isn’t that what this gig is all about?

Didn’t we beg for this when we were kids. “Daddy, tell me a story.”

Don’t we all still need this as adults?  “Man, I don’t want to think about anything today. What’s on Netflix?

Tell me a story. Make me forget the daily churn. Take me far from the madding crowd. Whisk me away to an exotic land.

Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.

That’s part of poem by Robert Penn Warren, who knew a little something about storytelling. I’ve always loved that passage because it crystallizes our job as novelists. Tell me a story, in this century, and moment, of mania. 

I’m wandering off topic. Sorry. Less art and more craft, right? Okay, let’s talk about what’s wrong with telling. First off, we shouldn’t confuse the idea of good storytelling and the bad technique of mere telling. They aren’t the same thing.

When you tell your story, you allow your writer-ego to take center stage instead of your characters. You step in and function as narrator instead of letting your story emerge organically through the action, words, thoughts and feelings of your characters.

You might be saying now, so what? Isn’t the writer supposed to take charge? Isn’t the writer supposed to skillfully guide the reader through the story? Yes, it was the norm for most of literature until the 20th century.  Before then, most writers didn’t try to hide their god-like presence. But omniscience voice has become unfashionable and today’s readers seem to crave a personal bond with characters that can come only through a first person or intimate third point of view.

When I was reading up for this, I happened upon a great quote from one of my favorite old-guy authors Flaubert.  He believed that the ideal author should be “present everywhere and visible nowhere.”  Gustave was ahead of his time, I think.

But once again I digress. The concept of show don’t tell is hard to explain. The only way I’ve ever been able to do it is with before and after examples. But first…

A caveat: Not all telling is bad. Sometimes, you have to tell things in your story. Some things are best handled in plain old utilitarian narration:

1. Boring but necessary physical action

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

2. Boring dialogue

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

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

3. Pure description

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

Third person POV detached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, let’s go to some specific examples. These are all from a workshop Kelly and I taught a couple years back. We spent three hours just on this topic. We still didn’t get to everything. But maybe seeing before and after samples will help you grasp the idea of SHOW DON’T TELL.

Number 1. The setup is a cop standing over a dead body in bayou country.

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.

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

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

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

Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him.

Instinctively and unself-consciously, Kramer crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here’s a rewrite of the same scene:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 2. This is the opening of chapter 1 and the setup is a woman overseeing a parade at Disney World. I think this writer does some good things here, and has a nice eye for detail. But notice first, how dull it looks on the page (see old TKZ posts on paragraphing and white space). And keep an ear tuned for places where the writer could have gotten out of the way — even though this is first person! — and let the character carry the tune:

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

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

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

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

Here’s a quick rewrite.

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

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

God, how I loved it here.

My own fairy tale world.

My own private Oz.

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

My own parade – every day.

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

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

Another example. The set up is an unidentified person creeping through a house after already finding one dead body. We do not know who this is, what gender, or why he/she is there.

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

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

Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials.

In the rewrite, I turned the narrative into dialogue — which is a type of action and thus is showing.

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

“Police! Anyone here?”

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

“Against the wall, lady.”

“But —”

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

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

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

Tonight, however, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.

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

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

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

Here’s the rewrite. Again, notice how breaking up big blocks of type make your story feel more urgent, more interesting. Don’t be afraid to paragraph more!

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

Jake…

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

And her…

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

He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.

“You remembered,” she said.

He frowned. “Remembered what?”

“That this is my favorite restaurant.”

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

So, in summary, how do you know when you’ve slipped into telling mode? Look for these pitfalls:

  • Narrating the physical movements without being in character’s head.
  • Use of too many “ly” words in action or in dialog (i.e. She said impatiently, walked slowly, yelled angrily.)
  • Use of stock descriptions, purple prose or lengthy descriptions of places (and people) especially those that have no bearing on the plot.
  • Too many adjectives and cliches.
  • Omniscient point of view. Don’t include details your character can’t see or experience. ie: a man who is pushed through a window would not be focusing on glittering shards of glass as he plummets six stories to the ground. Or this ratty old technique: “Little did Nancy know, as she loaded the Glock, that tomorrow it would be used to kill her.”
  • Here are the strengths of SHOWING:
    Action that uses the senses, stays within the character’s consciousness and uses words and phrases that reinforce the mood of the scene.
  • Strong verbs. (walked vs jogged, ran vs raced, shut the door vs slammed the door.)
  • Original images and vivid descriptions that are filtered through the character’s senses in the present.
  • One compelling adjective vs. a string of mediocre ones.
    Keep POV firmly in character’s head. (Establishes sympathy and connects emotionally.)

One last thought. It’s helpful to think of your story as a movie. Those of you who’ve studied script-writing know exactly what I mean, how you can convey the story ONLY through action and dialogue. (Unless you’re Stanley Kubrick doing “Barry Lyndon”). But for the rest of us, let’s just try to remember what Flaubert said.  Be present everywhere in your story and visible nowhere.

11+

Pulp Diction. What We Can
Learn From The Noir Czars

(Disclaimer: The quiz part of this post I lifted from one my own old posts. Don’t sue me.)

By PJ Parrish

Now pay attention, kittens and bo’s, there’s a quiz at the end of this one.

I had my usual hot date this past Sunday. He’s a dream-boat of a guy and he never disappoints me. We met in a bar in Toronto back in my salad days, and had a Same Time Next Year sort of thing going on. But then we drifted off into other things and lost touch.  But a couple years ago, I ran into him again and it was like…magic.

Okay, before I get in trouble here, I will tell you that my hot date is Eddie Muller. I first met Eddie oh, maybe seventeen years ago at a Bouchercon conference. Back then, he was still writing crime fiction and had won the Shamus Award for his debut novel The Distance. My sister Kelly and I were nominated for our third book Paint It Black. We lost, but I remember Eddie was very sweet to us. Bought me a drink, as I recall.

Fast forward to 2017 and I ran into Eddie again while I was channel surfing. He had a great new gig as the host of Turner Classic Movie’s Noir Alley series. He would introduce each film, drawing on his lifelong love of the genre. We now hook up every Sunday morning on TCM. (This Sunday it’s Underworld U.S.A., starring Cliff Robertson who’s out to avenge the murder of his father even as he falls in love with a femme fatale named Cuddles, whom he just might have to kill.)

It was Eddie who introduced me to what would become my favorite noir film A Kiss Before Dying. It was Eddie who showed me that my teenage crush Dr. Ben Casey was really a creep in Murder By Contract. It was Eddie who led me to the novels of James M. Cain via Double Indemnity.  Here’s Eddie talking about that seminal classic:

I am still trying to catch up on my noir reading. (I didn’t get to The Maltese Falcon until about ten years ago, I confess). Digesting noir, with its emphasis on oppressive mood and shadowed morality, with its lean mean style, has helped me find my own voice as a writer. I am not a true neo-noir practitioner, but I feel a deep connection to its dark heart. One of the best compliments I ever got was when Ed Gorman wrote of our book Thicker Than Water: “The quiet sadness that underpins it all really got to me, the way Ross Macdonald always does.”

A couple Christmases ago, my husband gave me The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. It’s a compilation of the best crime stories from the “golden age” of pulp crime fiction — the ’20s through the ’40s. It’s about the size of an old Manhattan phone book. And to be really honest, parts of it read about as well.

Many of these guys were dismissed as the hacks of their day, churning out their stories for cheaply printed magazines like “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective.” Yeah, they were lurid, the syntax cringe-worthy, the plots thin or nonsensical. But they tapped into a popular need for a new kind of human hero. The most memorable of the heroes became the prototypes for much of what we are seeing in our crime fiction today — lone wolves fighting for justice against all odds but always on their own different-beat terms. Would we have Harry Bosch without the Continental Op? Jack Reacher without Simon Templar? No way…

 

And while we’re at it, let’s not get sucked into the notion that noir was only a guy thing. Valerie Taylor had a career churning out books like The Girls In 3B, a classic ’50s pulp tale showcasing predatory beatnik men, drug hallucinations, and secret lesbian trysts. (Her books, among others, have been reissued by Feminist Press.) And would we have Megan Abbott or Sarah Gran without Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote the twisty indictment of misogyny In A Lonely Place (the source of the Bogart movie)? Doubtful…

To be sure, not all the old stories — like many of the movies — have aged well. The slang sounds vaguely silly now, the sexism and racism we can explain away as anachronistic attitudes. But the armature these writers created is still sturdy.

Especially in pure writing style. I think we can read these stories now mainly to appreciate the streamlined locomotive style that propels these stories along their tracks. When you read them, you can almost hear James M. Cain whispering: “I’m not going to dazzle you with my writing. I’m going to tell you a helluva story.”

These guys sure knew what to leave out. Here’s a passage from Paul Cain’s “One Two Three:”

I said: “Sure — we’ll both go.

Gard didn’t go for that very big, but I told him that my having been such a pal of Healy’s made it all right.

We went.

Not: And then we left the apartment and got in my roadster and set out. We took Mulholland Drive out of the canyon and arrived just before dusk. Just: We went.

How can you read that and not smile? I heartily recommend the Big Book of Pulps. And if you haven’t connected with Eddie on Noir Alley, you’re missing out on some of the best stuff television has to offer.

And now, in honor of our pulp forefathers, I am offering up this little quiz of pulp diction slang for your amusement. Answers at the end. And don’t chance the chisel for a cheap bulge, bo. We Jake?

DEFINITIONS.
1. Ameche
2. Kicking the gong around
3. Wooden kimono
4. cheaters
5. Gasper
6. Hammer and saws
7. Orphan papers
8. Wikiup
9. Bangtails
10. Can-opener

TRANSLATIONS
11. I had been ranking the Loogan for an hour and could see he was a right gee. It was all silk so far.

12. I stared down at the stiff. The bim hadn’t been chilled off. Definitely a pro skirt who had pulled the Dutch act.

13. I got a croaker ribbed up to get the wire.

14. By the time we got to the drum the droppers had lammed off. Another trip for biscuits…

Answers:
1. telephone
2. taking opium
3. coffin
4. sunglasses
5. cigarette
6. Police
7. Bad checks
8. Home
9. Horses
10. Safecracker
11. I had been watching the man with the gun for an hour and could tell he was an okay guy. Everything was cool so far.
12. I stared at the body. The woman hadn’t been murdered. She was definitely a prostitute who had committed suicide.
13. I have arranged for a doctor to get the information.
14. By the time we got to the speakeasy, the hired killers had left. Just another trip for nothing…

7+

First Page Critique: A Hike
That Might Be A Journey?

The trail head at St. Bees Head on the Irish Sea

By PJ Parrish

I don’t know about you, but I am really ready for a good writer to take me away from it all. And I am always up for a bracing hike. So today, come along on our First Page Critique, as our submitting writer takes us to the wilds of northern England across the Coast to Coast Trail. I hope we’re in for some good mischief along the way.

A Lethal Walk in Lakeland 

Chapter One

I settled myself on a weathered oak bench and began securing the laces of my leather walking boots. This was the start of a long-anticipated week’s walk in England’s fabled Lake District, but I was apprehensive. Before me angry waves were hammering the shore, each shaking the ground as if a bomb had exploded. Strong gusts of wind from the north were slashing against us.

“We’re supposed to walk into that?” said the woman beside me, a small grey-haired wisp of a creature named Billie, as she surveyed the roiling waters of the Irish Sea. She should have been wearing a waterproof jacket, but instead had on one of her thick self-knitted sweaters displaying a pattern of squirrels and acorns. The outfit had been fine when we were in the town center–protected from the wind by cliffs to the north–but no longer. It was hard to believe that a few hundred yards could make such a difference.

“We just have to stick in our boots in the water,” I said. “If we do it quickly enough we should be all right.”

Around us our fellow walkers, eight of them, were also eyeing the sea with the trepidation. Yet this ‘christening of the boots’ was a time-honored ritual for anyone about to tackle England’s famed Coast to Coast path, which traverses the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea.

“Everyone ready?” asked Charlie Cross, our white-haired tour guide. Beaming a broad grin, he didn’t seem fazed by the heavy surf. The group followed him down to the water.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” asked Fiona, a beautiful brown-haired woman whom, I learned, was one of the six members of the Upton family from Texas in our group.

______________________

I wish I were going along. I’ve hiked in a couple foreign countries, and one of my dreams has been to hike the Appalachian Trail. I hadn’t heard of the Lake Country’s Coast to Coast path. Something new to put on my bucket list. So, as you can guess, I am predisposed to liking this submission on the location alone. But as much as setting is vital to a good story, it isn’t enough. Does the story itself hold up?

I think this is a pretty darn good start. The writer has chosen to put us literally at the beginning of the action. I love the tradition of dipping the boots into the sea before venturing out. I almost wish the writer had given us just a few more graphs so we could see if this ritual works as a foreshadowing of something dire to come. (I hope it is!)

I like that the writer didn’t start earlier, say with the group meeting in the village with a clearing-the-throat introduction of the whole party getting acquainted. (The writer chose instead to just reference the village in passing). We should learn about the hikers (possible suspects?) as we meander on, not in a group-grope info-dump.

I suspect we are working in a cozy genre here, but I could be wrong. The tone registers on the lighter side, which is fine. As I understand it, the hike takes about a week which is plenty of time for something nefarious to happen.

I don’t know if this was the writer’s intent, but we are almost in the classic Agatha Christie “closed parlor room” genre here: A group of strangers is about to be cloistered on an adventure and I would guess someone will die and whoever our protagonist is will be charged with solving the on-the-road crime. Perhaps the murder takes place in hostel out in the wilds.

Likewise, it is good that the writer mentions only a couple named characters. I trust the writer will find a graceful way to tell us the name (and a little background) of our first-person point-of-view narrator soon.

Notes on craft: The writer is on solid ground here, I think. The dialogue is handled correctly, the paragraphing and syntax fine. But with such an assured hand, I’d like to see the writer work a little harder. I’m always a little tougher on the better submissions,

For starters, I’d like to see the writer work harder at more original description. This is such a stunning setting; it deserves more eloquence than surf that “explodes like a bomb.”  That’s a cliche, dear writer, it doesn’t come from you.  Find something more bracing. Likewise, don’t rely on lazy words like “beautiful” for Fiona. Ditto for Charlie. “White-haired” isn’t vivid enough.

Description is hard. You have to dig deep into your own experience to find the right words or metaphors and then filter it through your protag’s consciousness. I like what you did, for example, with Billie — by telling me, in one line, that she chose to wear an acorn/squirrel sweater instead of something more practical, you sketched an immediately sharp portrait of her.

But in general, I enjoyed this. It is a measured, leisurely beginning and that is okay. Just be aware, writer, that we need some injection of tension in your first chapter, a hint of bad things to come.  Even with a soft opening like this you have to have a portent of ominous things on the path ahead — the literal one the hikers will travel, and the metaphoric one you take your reader on.

Let’s do some line editing:

I settled myself on a weathered oak bench and began securing the laces of my leather walking boots. This was the start of a long-anticipated week’s walk in England’s fabled Lake District, but I was apprehensive. Not a bad first graph but this is an example of telling instead of showing. Instead of telling us she is apprehensive, find a way to showing it via her thoughts or dialogue or actions. Just an example here:

I finished lacing my walking boots and looked up at the roiling green sea. With each crash of the waves, I could feel the wooden bench shake beneath me. I pulled in a deep breath and blew onto my cold hands. A sharp wind was surging in from the north, penetrating the nylon of my coat.

I should have worn gloves, I thought. I should have packed that extra sweater. I should have told someone where I was going. But I hadn’t wanted anyone to know. For once in my life, I wanted to be alone. And I wanted to be brave.

That is corny, but I am trying to make the point that you need to find ways to inject drama and something personal about your protag’s METAPHORIC JOURNEY as early in the story as you can. Make us care about her and attach to her (or is it a him?) as quickly as you can.  And never let a chance go by to layer in her personality.

Before me angry waves were hammering the shore, each shaking the ground as if a bomb had exploded. Strong gusts of wind from the north were slashing against us. Nice verb there. But you could be more active: The angry waves hammered; the wind slashed. 

“We’re supposed to walk into that?” said the woman beside me, a small grey-haired wisp of a creature I rather like that named Billie, as she surveyed the roiling waters of the Irish Sea. Good way to slip in the geography She should have been wearing a waterproof jacket, but instead had on one of her thick self-knitted sweaters displaying a pattern of squirrels and acorns. The outfit had been fine when we were in the town center–protected from the wind by cliffs to the north–but no longer. It was hard to believe that a few hundred yards could make such a difference.

“We just have to stick in our boots in the water,” I said. “If we do it quickly enough we should be all right.”

Around us our fellow walkers, eight of them, were also eyeing the sea with the trepidation. Yet this ‘christening of the boots’ was a time-honored ritual for anyone about to tackle England’s famed Coast to Coast path, which traverses the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea. This sounds a little dry. I know you need to convey this info, but find away to make it sound like it comes from your protag and not Fodors. You can also use it, again, to tell us something about your protag. Example:

I wasn’t from this area of northern England. I had been born and raised in London so a long hike for me was to the tube station. But I had always wanted to do this week-long trip that stretched from the the whatever, crossed the whaterever, and ended wherever.

See what that does? It makes the info personal and lets the reader get to know your protag.

“Everyone ready?” asked Charlie Cross, our white-haired tour guide. Beaming a broad grin, he didn’t seem fazed by the heavy surf. The group followed him down to the water.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” asked Fiona, a beautiful brown-haired woman whom, I learned, was one of the six members of the Upton family from Texas in our group. Would be a nice place to slip in a thought from your protag. How does she feel about the make-up of her group? I went on a hiking trip in Provence once, and the first day I met my motley group — the people I would live with for the next two weeks — I was intensely curious about where they had come from. This is important if someone in this group will be murdered AND if someone is the killer.  Start laying your bread-crumb trail of clues as early as possible.

As I said, I think we’re off to a grand start here, but I know this writer has the chops to dig deeper and do better. Oh, speaking of which, as you go on your writing journey, dear submitter, be on the lookout for a better title. (Good titles often don’t reveal themselves until you’re done with the book). I don’t think this one does your setting and set-up justice. For starters, Americans like me will think of Lakeland, Florida. And “A Lethal Walk” is a touch too spot-on.  Look for something more metaphoric that captures the wild scenery and says something about the journey. One of my favorite quotes about hiking is from the naturalist John Muir: “In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.”  Maybe that’s what your protagonist is after? Find something that speaks to the soul of your story.

Thanks for the submission and letting us share it.

 

9+

Running Away From Home…
It Works Every Time In Fiction

The writer must face the fact that ordinary lives are what most people live most of the time, and that the novel as a narration of the fantastic and the adventurous is really an escapist plot; that aesthetically, the ordinary, the banal, is what you must deal with. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

The first time I tried it I was five. I didn’t get very far, just up to the shopping center where a nice sales lady gave me a lollipop and called the cops. They stuck me in the cruiser and we drove around until I recognized our house. My mom didn’t even realize I was gone. Such dangerous times back in the Fifties…

The second time I tried it was about two years later. I was mad about something, so I took the jar of peanut butter and crawled out the milk chute. But it was really cold and I couldn’t get back in, so I sat on the swing set in the backyard until my mom saw me and let me back in.

I am a wanderer by nature.  Luckily, I am now married to a man who loves to travel as much as I do.  But he still gets upset when I wander too far ahead down the hiking trail.

I am going nuts staying put. Which is why I seem to be gravitating right now to books and movies about trapped people who run away.  I am re-reading one of my favorite books right now — Madame Bovary. It’s beautiful and great for many reasons, but I am particularly drawn to the idea that Emma Rouault , before she became Madame Bovary, had possibilities. But she married a Dick Decent, and now she’s imprisoned by the walls of her house and she’s bored stiff. Her only outlets are shopping and affairs. She tries to run away. Things don’t end well.

Books about women who run away (usually to find a better version of themselves) have always appealed to me.  I loved Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, about her 1,000-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. (made into a decent movie starring Reese Witherspoon). Then there was Richard Yate’s novel Revolutionary Road, a devastating story about a couple trapped in a suburban hell. The tragic character is poor deluded April, who fails as an actress, marries for security, and dreams of running away to Paris:

“Sometimes I can feel as if I were sparkling all over,” she was saying, “and I want to go out and do something that’s absolutely crazy, and marvelous…”

Which reminds me of the line from one of the most famous runaway novels, On The Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who …burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

The main character Sal is depressed after his divorce and wants to run away. (Men running away in stories are seldom seen as neurotic. They are just…adventurous!) So Sal takes off with his friend Dean on a cross-country journey with the hope of finding…something:

“Somewhere along the line I knew there would be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

The trapped character who runs away to find the pearl is a classic fictional archetype/trope.  I created one myself in my stand alone She’s Not There, an amnesiac who, thinking her husband is trying to kill her, takes off on a cross-country run and eventually finds the truth. And herself, of course.

These characters can be really attractive in normal times. Right now, when we all feel so confined and isolated, they might speak to us in especially powerful ways.

I’ve been watching a lot of old movies lately. I doubt the programmers at TCM realize it, but they’ve been scheduling a lot of runaway movies lately.  In just one week, I have watched Kramer vs Kramer, Under The Tuscan Sun and Shirley Valentine.

Tuscan Sun has Diane Lane, freshly divorced and pathetic, taking off on a friend’s ticket to a “Gay And Away” bus tour of Italy. There, on a “bad idea” whim, she buys a broken down villa and tries to unblock herself enough to work on her novel, which she abandoned when she got married, — even as she takes up with the juicy Marcello.

Shirley Valentine is an English matron who was a firebrand in school but life intruded. Now she’s married to a schlub workaholic husband and making cocoa for her ungrateful daughter. She spends her days in her tiny kitchen talking to the walls and staring at a travel poster of Greece. A friend drags her along on a holiday, where she meets Costas and…well, it doesn’t end the way you’d expect.

 

And then there’s poor Joanna Kramer. She gave up a promising career to marry and have a child. But she snaps one day and leaves them both, disappearing into the feminist ether until she realizes she needs her boy — but not her man.

On my last plane ride, I watched Where’d You Go Bernadette? It’s about a self-involved neurotic architect who has lost her creative heart. She hates pretty much everyone because she hates herself. Or the version of herself she has become. Bernadette is really an unlikeable character and after the first half hour, I was ready to give up and watch ESPN, but the story got better. And then really good. And the ending is terrific.

But for women on the run stories, you can’t beat the golden oldie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Anyone who says Martin Scorsese doesn’t get women needs to see this. Newly widowed Ellen Burnstyn packs up her surly pre-teen and heads west, hoping to make it to Monterey Calif where she will go back to the singing career she abandoned when she got married. Marooned in Arizona, she becomes a waitress and finds love in the arms of a hunky woke rancher Kris Kristofferson. But after she tells him to kiss her grits, things don’t turn out like you’d expect.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jFhv9mPqk4

Okay, to be fair, not every great runaway story stars a woman. Remember the ending of Mad Men? Poor tortured Don Draper, drummed out of the ad biz, escapes from New York and goes west of course. In an Eselen therapy session, listening to someone describe himself as food in the refrigerator that nobody wants, Don breaks down. The last image is Don seating in a lotus, smiling. Cue the music: the groundbreaking 1971 TV ad for Coca-Cola,  implying that Don will probably not escape after all.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxtZpFl3pPM

I’d like to buy the poor tired world a Coke right now.

Any favorite runaway books or movies?

 

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The Edgars…In Absencia

By PJ Parrish

The cruel irony of our awful time is that we have all the time in the world and little will to bend it to our means.

Okay, that’s just me talking. I hope it’s not you. I hope you are using this time of isolation to dig deep and find good stories inside you, and that these stories are finding form on your computers and note pads.  I know, from talking to friends, that this is happening. That gives me comfort.

I’m having problems staying focused. I’ve got a lot to be grateful for, that I am retired with some money in the bank (last time I looked), so I don’t worry about basic human needs. That I am not a front-line worker who carries their day into their nightmares. I am among the very lucky.

Still, I am distracted. I have not written anything in weeks.

I can barely concentrate to read.  The papers, yes, I devour them every morning. (After I spray them with Lysol). I spent too much time on Facebook, clicking on links that give me hope or cast me into despair. By venting on FB, I made a new friend who is a hard Republican. I lost a friend who is a Democrat. There is no playbook for this.

Einstein was right — time stretches and bends. April lasted 97 days and today, if it weren’t for the fact that my phone alerted me that my blog was due, I would not have known it was Monday.

Thank God for the Edgar awards. At least I have that.

If you didn’t hear, the winners were announced last week. But the banquet — that grand black-tie atta-boy-atta-girl affair — it was cancelled, of course. The Edgars are always a fun time for me because I am the banquet chair and I love my gig. I edit the program book, which means working with great writers who contribute essays. (Who else can say they have edited Stephen King, Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley, Robert Block, Michael Connelly to name-drop just a few). I produce the Powerpoint that displays the nominees as their names are announced, and it’s really cool seeing your cover on a forty-foot screen in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt while 450 people applaud.

Margery hard at work setting up banquet.

Second, I help MWA’s Executive Director Margery Flax, who is the real force behind all things Edgar, prepare the ballroom, which entails setting out registration tables and name tags, testing the sound systems and unpacking the Edgar awards. (Margery puts tape on the nameplates so, no, I don’t know who wins ahead of time).

Once things are set up, I grab a quick shower, slap on some makeup, dress and heels and head down to man the nominee check in.  I love this part. Some writers are old hands at this but most sidle up to the table and politely ask, “Is this where I’m supposed to be?” It feels great to hand them their ribboned badge and shepherd them to the nominee champagne reception.  When everyone’s checked in, I get to go in and mingle. I am not shy about asking for fan pictures.

Kelly and me with some British guy who was hanging around.

Although I’ve been doing this for more than a decade, I still get nervous that things could go wrong. They have. Dave Barry screwed up and tried to introduce Grand Master Stephen King when it was supposed to be Don Westlake’s job. We had to wave King away and get Westlake on stage, whose first words where, “What am I? Chopped Liver?” And there was the time one of the porcelain Edgar heads arrived in two broken parts but Sandra Brown didn’t miss a beat and said, “And both pieces of the Edgar go to…”

I get  to go to New York, see old writer friends, enjoy the giddiness of the winners. The food is pretty good for hotel fare.

So, how do you hold an Edgar Awards in our times of social distancing? It wasn’t easy. Margery led a great team who live streamed the event as the awards were announced. You can find the winner’s lovely acceptance speeches on YouTube if you type in Edgars 2020.

My sister Kelly, who produces the videos every year, put together a touching tribute to Mary Higgins Clark. Click here to see it.

We are in the process of putting together a special edition program book that will be mailed out to nominees, winners and MWA members.

The only thing missing was…us. I missed the human touch. I missed seeing friends. I missed seeing the faces of the nominees. I missed hearing the tribute to this year’s Grand Master Barbara Neely. I missed hearing the winners’ speeches. I didn’t miss the high heels.

We’ll all be back with each other next year. For now, go here to read the Edgar Award nominees and winners. Buy their books. Then, get busy on writing your own. I am going to try very hard to do that.

 

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