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

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

Books aren’t written — they are rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it. — Michael Crichton.

By PJ Parrish

I am a sucker for make-overs.  I cut my teeth on Glamour magazine’s Do’s & Don’ts. I never missed an episode of What Not To Wear and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. I binge-watch the Home & Garden channel for house renovations.

Which is probably why I love rewriting. It is the ultimate make-over.  The only way that your ugly duckling novel becomes a sell-able swan is through the painful surgery and  ruthless eye of rewriting. And to answer the question posed by the headline — no, your first draft does not look good naked. No one’s does.

We’ve covered this subject often here at TKZ. To review: Rewriting is done on two levels. First, you rewrite at the sentence level, tightening your paragraphs, deleting and switching words around. It’s what’s call line editing. But you also rewrite at the structural level. You ask the big picture questions: Is the plot sturdy and believable? Are the characters well-drawn? Is the setting well-rendered? Have you chosen the prime dramatic moment and best point of view from which to begin the story?

Most beginning writers get bogged down in line rewriting. They get hung up finding the right adjectives or rearranging sentences, and they never step back and look at the big picture. They’re too busy picking out the color of the wallpaper or what kind of flooring they like when they should be worrying about how strong the foundation is and whether the walls are plumb.

To recap, here’s are some things you watch for in rewriting:

  • Stereotypes in personalities, looks and even settings. When creating a character or a place, go against the norm, fight the instinct to use the expected.
  • Too easy/stock description. Avoid words like tall, beautiful, handsome, etc. Be creative, be original.
  • Writing clichés: Character looking in mirror for physical description. References to celebrities for character description.
  • Confusion in your timeline.
  • Wasted dialogue, unnecessary adverbs, extended or overwrought description.
  • Repetition of the story’s hidden message or theme, or constant references to a character’s flaws or demons. Trust your readers to “get it” the first time.

Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Rewriting is hard work. And sometimes, when you’re so close to your story, it’s difficult to see what needs to be done. So today, I want to give you some BEFORES and AFTERS.  To borrow from another one of our favorite TKZ tropes, I’m going to try to SHOW you how to rewrite, instead of TELLING you. Let’s look at our first ugly duckling:

The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries against a bleached, predawn sky. The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees, loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.
Louis stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees as he scaled the slippery slope.
He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Louis rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.

Here’s the AFTER:

The sky was a bleached gray, the bare trees rising like black veins against the clouds. The ground was soft and wet, a mire of dead leaves. With every cold breeze, the three men were sprinkled with the remnants of last night’s thunderstorm.
Louis Kincaid stumbled, cursing softly as he pulled his boot free of an old vine.  The fog that hovered near the ground had thinned, but it was still opaque enough to mask his view of the orange vest of the hunter ahead. Louis quickened his pace.
At the top of a hill, the hunter in view again, Louis paused and pulled up the collar of his deputy’s jacket. He turned and looked back, waiting for the last man of the trio to puff his way up the hill.

If you can’t guess, this is from one of our own books. The rewrite is not only shorter, it also is more emotionally involving. If you’re into word counts: Our first draft of this chapter clocked in at 1,864 words. The rewrite was 969.  Every word counts.

Here’s our next make-over candidate BEFORE:

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou. 
And at his feet in the vermin-ridden humus lay a young woman. A woman who, until a day or two ago, had hoped, planned, and dreamed. Maybe even loved.
Now she lay dead. Violently wrestled from life before her time. And it was his job to find her killer.
He started when, with a flap of wings, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. As the regal bird disappeared from sight,  couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was his Jane Doe’s soul wafting to the Land of the Dead. The way the dove in Ulysses had carried Euripides’ soul.
Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him. Instinctively and unselfconsciously, Jon Abellard crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here’s the rewritten AFTER:

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide and seek behind dark clouds. Distant rain scented the still air and Spanish moss hung like wet netting on the giant oaks. The rotten-egg smell of the bayou was heavy when he took a deep breath.
Jon Abellard wiped the sweat from his brow and looked down at the body. She was the third young woman this year who had been left to decay in the Louisiana swamps.
With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. Against the slanting sun, the bird was little more than a white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.
Abellard looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.
“God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”

I got rid of the “writerly” junk and made the scene feel more active. (ie turning the Godspeed reference from thought to dialogue.) I changed “cloying acridness” into the more specific “rotten egg smell” and pruned extraneous words like “now,” “and.” Most folks know egrets are regal so it’s unnecessary. Ditto for “swampy” (a bayou is by definition marshy). And “instinctively and unselfconsciously” crossing himself is a waste of precious words. Also, I deep-sixed the overwrought imagery, like the egret bearing the dead woman’s soul to the Land of the Dead like the dove did for Ulysses. Why lose that image? Because we are in a scene where a man is looking down at a dead girl. Unless he’s a literature professor, would he be thinking of Euripides? Doubtful…he’s a rookie cop and the writer’s effort to impress is getting in the way of what should be a good set-up scene. I also added “ma cherie” to drop the hint that the protag is Creole and I told readers where we are (Louisiana). More info, more emotion…in twenty fewer words.

Our third candidate isn’t quite ready for her close-up. BEFORE:

It was the first time Tina had ever been to a fancy restaurant and she so wanted to impress Nancy Browne. She’d only known her a few days but if there was any chance that she’d be allowed to join the exclusive Orchid Book Club, Tina knew she had to prove herself worthy. And at this moment, proving herself worthy meant knowing what all the utensils were for and what kind of wine to order.
And it didn’t start well. Nancy Browne didn’t order for her, as she had hoped. She was left there, staring at the menu as if she couldn’t read English and when she finally ordered a Pinot Noir wine, she knew it was wrong by strange expression on the waiter’s face. Then she asked for Hidden Valley ranch dressing and — good grief! — ice in her wine. She had had known this was going to be disaster and she was right.
God, she was just a white trash orphan from Marked Tree, Arkansas and there was no sense in pretending she was anything else. When the waiter brought the key lime pie – wasn’t it supposed to be green not yellow? —  she rushed from the restaurant in tears.

I like the idea behind this fish-out-of-water scene, which creates empathy for the protag Tina. But this is a classic example of telling not showing. This was a chapter from a romantic suspense novel my sister Kelly wrote eons ago. (unpublished). Here’s how she rewrote it once she grasped the concept of show not tell. AFTER:

“What are you doing, dear?”
Tina looked across the table at Nancy Van Horn. In the dim light, the sixty-six year old woman looked as well preserved as a corpse in an upscale funeral home. Every time Nancy picked up her wine glass, Tina got a whiff of lilacs from the rustle of Nancy’s chiffon sleeve. Tina discreetly tried to smell her armpits, wondering if Nancy could smell her fear-sweat. 
“So, why do you want to join our book club?” Nancy asked.
Tina had a mouthful of peas. What should she do? Swallow quickly, hold up a finger or calmly keep eating?
Nancy saved her by looking away and signaling the waiter. He was young, with a lock of black hair that coiled over his forehead. The kind of man Tina knew would never give her a second look. Handsome men in Nashville – even waiters — could smell the Delta mud on a woman, no matter how much Chantilly cologne she splashed over it.
“I’ll have a Pinot,” Tina said, remembering the name of the wine from the Real Housewives of Atlanta TV show.
“Grigio or Noir?” the waiter asked.
Tina stared at him, her mind blank. He was staring back, laughter swimming in his brown eyes though his lips were drawn in a impatient line. And Nancy…she was staring, too.  
What are you doing in Cabrelli’s, little girl? Who do you think you are?
Dirty white trash, she thought as she pushed from the table. Just dirty white trash.

Yes, this is longer. But it’s more telling in its details, which adds layers to the characters, especially Tina. And it takes GENERAL information that was conveyed only via thought and converts it to SPECIFIC dialogue.

Got time for more? Here’s another cop on the scene BEFORE:

The sight of the body sickened him but the possibility that the murderer could be hiding in the house geared him into action. He checked the bathroom and closet on the second floor then searched the first floor but found no one.
Opening the back door, he shouted for Healey, but there was no response.
Until this instant, Palm Avenue had been his favorite place in Palm Vista. In all of Florida, as a matter of fact. Neat green lawns bordered large single-family homes set back from wide curving streets. There was old money here. Front doors featured beveled glass. Windows edged by white curtains. Wide entry halls crowned by large chandeliers.

And here’s the AFTER:

The sight of the body sickened him but the possibility that the murderer could be hiding in the house geared him into action. He drew his gun and went quickly but quietly down the hall. Lots of closed doors, too many places to hide.
He kicked open the first one. A marble bath. Empty. The next two were vast bedrooms but something told him this wasn’t where the killer would go because there was no way out.
He looked down the staircase then slid along the wall, gun raised. No one downstairs either.
Where the hell was the killer? And where the hell was his partner?
“Healey!”
His voice echoed in the cold marble foyer.
No response.

What’s the lesson here? Two points: Convert narrative into action and dialogue. (SHOW us the cop shouting for his partner via in dialogue instead of embedding it in narrative. Dialogue is action. Dialogue breaks up blocks of narrative. Also, when you’re in a tense action scene, keep the writing style short and sweet and don’t take detours of the neighborhood in thoughts.

Action scenes are good places to look for rewriting opportunities. Like the example above, this next one is a tense physical scene. But it can be better in rewrites. BEFORE:

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

And here’s the AFTER:

He walked with his head bent, scanning the front page of the New York Post. The hallway was dim, the slow blink of the red neon from the lone window lighting his way.
The blow came out of nowhere. So quick, so hard, blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. He stumbled forward, his head hitting the window.
An explosion of sound and glass. A rush of cold air. A flood of warm blood.
He dropped to his knees and looked up.
The face above him pulsed red. Then it was gone.

What was improved in the rewrite? The wavering point of view was eliminated. The first version shifted into omniscient and a man falling out of a window wouldn’t notice “glittering shards in the throb of red neon” or that his attacked had a “chiseled” face. That’s the writer getting in the way. And the second version puts the POV firmly in intimate third. It’s more exciting and visceral.

So, don’t dread rewriting. Think of it as BEFORE and AFTER. Write your first draft as quickly as you can and pour your heart and soul into it. Make mistakes and move on. Put it aside for at least three weeks. Then go back, print out your book (on paper!) and get out a red pencil. Read your book with a hard cold eye, looking for plot holes, digressions, flaccid or stereotyped characters, and anything that is even slightly confusing. Oh, and look for boring stuff. If it seems even a little boring to you, you can bet your royalties it will be ten times as boring to a reader.

Go forth and rewrite your novel with a happy eager heart, my swans. Oh, and you might want to rethink that man-bun.

 

8+

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

By PJ Parrish

Just back from the Edgars. As banquet chair, one of my duties is to run the PowerPoint, so I stay as sober as a nun until it’s all over. Then, like everyone else, I head to the bar to see old friends and talk about the business.

I met one of the winners, Donald Joh, who won best TV episode for The Romanoffs. His writing partner was Matthew Weiner. You might have heard of him – he created Mad Men, and has won a van-load of Emmys and Golden Globes.

Donald and I got to gabbing about the differences between screenwriting and novel writing. One thing we agreed on was that both need to have a great set-up. I told him I had recently watched Gaslight, the great study in paranoia with Charles Boyer trying to drive his wife Ingrid Bergman crazy. Gaslight falls under what I call the Bad Husband genre. Others include Dial M For Murder (Bad Husband Ray Milland trying to off Grace Kelly), Suspicion (Bad Husband Cary Grant gets miffed when he finds out his heiress wife Joan Fontaine is really poor), and Bad Fiancé Robert Wagner who’s just plain mean and tosses his pregnant girlfriend Joanne Woodward off a roof).

The golden era of the Bad Husband genre seemed to end in the Fifties. We’ve got a few bad seeds now, like Nick Dunne in Gone Girl, but they pale in comparison to guys like Cary. I guess you could include Jack Torrance in The Shining but he was possessed by evil spirits, so that doesn’t count in my book. But I can make a good case for throwing in Guy Woodhouse from Rosemary’s Baby and greedy little Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, dontcha know?

But back to Gaslight. I told Donald Joh I have trouble watching movies for pleasure because I analyze the good ones for what they can teach me about how to set up a story, how to convey plot only through action and dialogue, and how to establish important things like place, atmosphere, and begin layering in character motivation. So if you’ll indulge me, let me give you a quick breakdown of how Gaslight does this.

The opening image is a foggy London street and a lamplighter making his rounds. Atmosphere and main motif of gaslight planted. Next we see a sign — 9 Thornton Square and look over the shoulder of a man reading a newspaper THORNTON SQUARE MURDER UNSOLVED. Place identified and first good hook is thrown out just via an image. The door of No. 9 opens and a girl comes out. She looks shell-shocked as the gawkers whisper. Her elderly guardian turns down the remaining gaslight and they leave in a carriage. He tells her not to look back and delivers the movie’s first lines:

“You’ve got to forget everything that happened here. You’re going to Italy to see Verbaldi. He was the best friend your aunt had. He will make you a great singer just like your aunt was.”

Another hook is thrown out, a dribble of backstory, and we’re off and running.

That opening scene could be a prologue. Because we next jump ahead ten years and to a new location. But you could also just call it “Chapter 1”. So, we cut to the next “chapter.” A sign in the window says “Verbaldi Music Lessons.” Neat location seque. Inside, the now-adult girl (Ingrid Bergman) is finishing up her lesson. Her teacher tells her she has worked so hard all these years but seems distracted.

Teacher: “You look like her.”
Paula: “But I don’t sing like her, I know. I haven’t a voice, have I?”
Teacher: “Your heart is not in your singing anymore.”

Efficient character development and time/locale bridge. Paula, we understand, feels inferior to her famous aunt and very alone in the world. “I haven’t a voice” is a pitiful recognition of her own insubstantial character. The movie is, in fact, partly about Paula finding her “voice” even as her husband tries to break her down. Paula confesses she is in love. The teacher tells her she needs a vacation. Paula leaves and outside, she embraces the man who had been accompanying her on piano — Gregory Anton. Dialogue:

Paula: “But I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you.”
Gregory: “Are you afraid?”
Paula: “Yes, of happiness.”

Again, character development layered in. Paula is being portrayed as a weakling. Which enforces her powerful character arc by the time we get to the movie’s climax. You have to give your heroine a point to begin so she can fight her obstacles and grow. Both plot and character need arcs from A to Z. She tells him she needs to go away for a week to know what she is doing. He tells her that he has waited for her so long and he can wait a little longer.

In the next chapter-scene, we are on the train to Lake Como. In her compartment, Paula chats with an old woman who is reading a murder mystery about a man who marries a girl and has six wives buried in the cellar. reinforces the plot. The old woman reveals she lives in London, in Thornton Square. Aha!

“Do you know it? You know we had a real live murder there.”

“Yes, I’d heard of it.” 

The old lady then recounts the event: Ten years ago a famous singer named Alice Alcast was murdered. So now we know what was going on in that opening scene! It’s a good lesson for novelists on how to use ACTION to tell the backstory. In a novel, we would probably have our heroine THINKING/REMEMBERING what happened 10 years ago. Much more effective to find a way to convey this info in action/dialogue if you can

The train is pulling into Lake Como. Paula is agitated and the old woman tells her that traveling alone is dangerous and to be careful. foreshadowing. When Paula gets off the train, we see a hand clasp her sleeve. Creepy! The camera pulls back to reveal it is her lover Gregory. He tells her he has followed her to Lake Como.

Gregory: “You’re not angry with me, are you?”
Paula: “Angry? If you hadn’t come I’d have sent for you.”

They kiss as the train moves out. The final shot is of the old woman in the train’s window looking concerned. More foreshadowing.

New scene: In the villa, Gregory confesses he has always dreamed of living in a quiet house in London.

Paula: “I have a house like that, at 9 Thornton Square. That house comes into my dream, a house of horror. Strange, I haven’t dreamed of it since I’ve known you. I haven’t been afraid since I’ve known you. For years I’ve been afraid of something nameless. But I’ve found peace since I found you. I could even face that house with you. You shall have your dream, Gregory. You shall have your house in the square.”

The main characters have been well introduced. We sense that Gregory is a Bad Husband, but we are intrigued to know what he is up to. Poor Paula has to face the demons of her past by re-entering the murder house. It’s like we’re screaming at the screen of a slasher movie: DON’T GO IN THE BASEMENT! The stage is set.

New chapter: We are at 9 Thornton Square. Gregory pushes open the creaky door and Paula enters her dark house of horrors for the first time in 10 years, and says:

“Will you light the gas, please?”

Oh, indeed he will. The gas light works as a theme throughout the movie on many levels and images. Paula watches as the shadows move across the parlor of the gloomy room and says:

“It is all dead in here. The whole place seems to smell of death.”

She pulls off a dusty sheet from a grand portrait of her opera singer aunt as Gregory watches from the shadows. She whispers:

“It was there I found her, there in front of the fire, in front of her own portrait. I came running downstairs. She had been strangled.”

She gets distraught and says she can’t stay here. Gregory comforts her and says they will shut all the old furnishings away so nothing can remind her of the past. Make the house full of parties and life again.

And the set up is complete. The newlyweds begin to create a life together at 9 Thornton Square and though the aunt’s portrait is locked away in the attic, you know the ghost has not been banished. 

Now, I’ve heard folks dismiss Gaslight as corny. But for my farthings, it’s an effective thriller and character study. The director George Cukor was labeled “a woman’s director” but he directed a couple sturdy noirs along the way including A Double Life with Ronald Colman as an actor who gets way too into his role as Othello and offs his ex-wife who’s playing Desdemona. But that’s for a Bad Husband for another day…

 

6+

First Page Critiques:
A Look At The Edgar Nominees

Edgar Awards waiting to come out of hiding last year.

By PJ Parrish

I’ll be on a plane to New York when you read this. (Or maybe sitting in Charlotte…it’s not easy getting out of Tallahassee to the rest of the world). I’m off to my annual Edgar Awards duties.  I am the chair of the banquet, which is the easy fun part.  The hard part of Edgar duties is being a judge.

I’ve never been one but I did judge best first novel for the ITW Thriller Awards one year. Hundreds of books…they just kept coming.  In the beginning, it was a trickle but by June it was a deluge. Three-hundred-plus of them by Christmas. I grew to dread the sound of the FedEx truck.  And yeah, I read every one of them.  Not always to the end, I will admit. But I always gave each book at least 100 pages to find its legs before I assigned it to the “yes” or “maybe” or “not as good as maybe” pile in my office (actually, I had to end up also using the top of my baby grand).  Then I had to winnow the “yes” pile (I think it was about thirty books) down to five nominees.

One thing I remember was that all the “yes” books had a good opening. And you know, the principles I applied then to moving a book to the “yes” pile are the same ones I use when I critique one of our First Page submissions.  Sure, the published thriller writers had more craft over the course of the entire book than some of our submissions here, but the basic principles behind a good opening were the same.

Yesterday, I was putting together the PowerPoint for the Edgars. As usual, my attention was mainly on the visuals of the covers, which we flash up on a giant screen in the Grand Hyatt ballroom as the nominees as announced.  Here is what the Best Novels look like this year:

Nice covers, right? (You can see all the covers in every category on MWA’s Edgar website here). But then I got to wondering, what are they like inside? How do these writers handle the openings of their stories? Just for fun, I thought we could take a peek here today.

The stories include a legal thriller with a tortured heroine who’s fighting the government and her own demons; an Irish thriller about a girl who falls for a convicted serial killer only to find out ten years later he’s not what he seemed; a fixer whose client is a big-time politician with secrets someone will murder to protect;  a cop-cum-PI who’s trying to find the man who framed him and cost him his badge; a resurrection of the iconic Philip Marlowe, now 72 and retired in LA; and a Victorian adventuress trying to unravel of web of intrigue at an Egyptian dig.

Here’s the first page (not titled chapter 1, by the way), of Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Liar’s Girl.

This is a tricky opening in that the writer is playing loose with point of view. In the first graph, it feels like we are in Jen’s POV, but by the second graph we realize we are seeing Jen coming to from the POV of the man watching her. This goes on for the whole chapter until she finally staggers out of the party room and he follows her. You just know he’s going to kill her. Or is he? There is a double-spaced scene break and then the title “will, now.” We are in the POV of a man named Will and very slowly we learn he is a patient listening to a radio broadcast about a girl who has been found dead in a canal. And he is concerned that this is related to something that happened to him ten years ago. Other chapters are titled “Alison, now” etc., which recalls the Rashomonesque structure of Gone Girl. You can read the full sample here.

Here is the opening, labeled Prologue, of House Witness by Mike Lawson: 

We get about a page more where he says he need to take a walk and his wife tells him it’s too cold and he’s had too much to drink but he insists on going anyway. Then comes this line to end the scene:

John Mahoney had just been told that his son had been killed — and his wife didn’t know he had a son. 

Good kicker! The rest of the prologue is Mahoney on his walk, wherein we learn he is the disposed speaker of the House who had an affair years before with an aide Connie. After some extensive backstory, we learn the call was from Connie who tells him their son was shot in a Manhattan bar and berates Mahoney into making sure the dead son’s in-custody killer is convicted. Mahoney thinks about all the mistakes he has made and calls his “fixer” Joe DeMarco.  DeMarco calls back the next day and assures Mahoney the killer’s prosecution is a “slam dunk.” The last line of the prologue is “DeMarco was dead wrong.”  The chapter 1 goes back to the night the son was murder from the killer’s point of view. This is the 12th book in the Joe Demarco series. But because the Amazon sample is short, I don’t know when the protagonist DeMarco makes his entrance. Read the sample here. 

Next up is Chapter 1 of A Gambler’s Jury by Victor Methos.

This scene is a classic introduce-the-protag opening. After this, she goes to see another potential client whose future is so dim, she advises him he should just pack up and high-tail it to Mexico. A brief Chapter 2 takes us to her office, until she decides instead to detour to a bar, where we meet her friend Michelle, the owner. In Chapter 3, it’s the next morning at her apartment where we meet another friend who is concerned about Dani’s lifestyle before Dani goes to another court proceeding.  You can read the sample here.

Now take a look at Walter Mosley’s latest, Down The River Unto the Sea.

This first-person point of view narrative is from the protagonist Joe Oliver. He talks about how he’s too influenced by his sex drive and that leads us, after a double-space break to this sentence “Her name was Nathali Malcolm.”  (Nice bridge!) So with this type of opening we are firmly in intimate POV in what I suspect might be a cherchez la femme character-driven noir as only a master like Mosley can tell it.  Read the sample here. 

Speaking of noir, guess who’s back? Philip Marlowe himself in Lawrence Osborne’s resurrection Only To Sleep. Marlowe is 72, retired, and swilling margaritas on his patio when two men walk in with a case that has the Marlowe name written all over it. Osborne’s opening, once it gets going, is redolent of night-blooming jasmine, gin, and that signature rude Chandler wit:

It’s a bit disconcerting to find Marlowe still taking cases from men who “smile with the small contempt of company men” in Reagan-era LA. But it’s fun and the voice is assured. Take a look here. 

From Los Angeles in 1988 on to London in 1888. Here’s the opening of our final Edgar Best Novel nominee A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn:

Now, if you’ve read my critiques before, you know I don’t like chapters that open with dialogue. This one is, ah, rather interesting. Not just for the sexual word play but because, I think, we get a quick bead on the personalities of our protagonist Miss Veronica Speedwell and her partner-foil Stoker. The chapter continues, after some repartee, with backstory about their partnership and how they’ve come to take on their latest case. The chapter is longish and leisurely in pace. Yet I was pulled in.  And I am not a regular fan of historical crime fiction.  You can read the sample here.

As I said, I don’t envy the task of judges. There were 595 entries in the Best Novel category this year. That’s a lot of reading and thinking.

So what do you think? Any openings here that would lure you in? I haven’t the foggiest idea who will win Best Novel this year. I never do. But around 10:30 Thursday night, one of these writers is going to be very very happy, holding court in the bar of the Grand Hyatt, clutching an ugly little porcelain statue.  Congrats to all the nominees. Well done. Here’s the full list.

6+

First Page Critique:
Shadows And Suggestion

By PJ Parrish

We’re heading into dark territory with today’ s First Page Critique. Literally. This submission gives us an object lesson on spare writing technique — when to leave things out to rev up suspense but also when to ask yourself if you’ve left the reader too much in the dark. Thanks, writer, for submitting your baby for scrutiny. We all learn when you do.

 

Absence Of Light

Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension. I have no idea how I have arrived here. Not this place per se, but rather the circumstance I now find myself in.

I am told “you’ve been processed, Dr. Davids, I’ll escort you from this point. We’re goin’ straight through those doors.”

After shuffling a short way down the corridor with my hands bound, the young man in a neatly pressed uniform then announces from behind me, “Here.” In front of me is an impossibly heavy, steel door. It suggests something dangerous has been secured behind it.

Then, clanging of metal upon metal. The door opens. I am prompted to enter by polite but clumsy commentary from my escort, “I just want you to know that I think placing you in here is a bit overkill. Unfortunately, those decisions are well beyond my paygrade. To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t ‘ve said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right? Of course not.” He laughs nervously.

“No worries,” I reply.

“You’re not gonna cry, are you?”

His question surprises me because I feel absolutely stoic. “No. I’m not. I’m not sad. I’m in agreement with the commander. This is where I should be.”

“Really?” he asks. I study his facial expressions as he frees my hands.

“Yea. Really.” I try to gently feign a slight, cordial, smile and then offer a plausible explanation since I’m still processing this myself, “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.”

Silent awkwardness hangs in the air for a moment as he considers my response. He then says, “Look, uh, I’m not involved with the investigation or anything, so I’m not acquainted with all the details, but I think you’re probably being too hard on yourself. You know, things can happen. Anything you need before I leave?”

“No. Just. Tell me your name?”

“MP Jones. Oh and, um, do you want the light on or off? I’m just askin’ because most people who’ve never experienced a solitary type situation – well, having the light on sorta helps’em adjust- you know, to the space and all.”

“On.”

______________________________

There is much to like about this submission.  We are thrust right into what appears to be a dangerous situation for the protagonist. (I assume Dr, Davids is such).  Which is always a good thing. The writer has the basics down (how to structure dialogue, establish point of view). There is some deft “showing” rather than “telling,” but maybe a couple lapses in the other direction.  There is a voice at work here in that this writer has a definite narrative style.

First, let’s talk about the entry moment. In yesterday’s First Page Critique by Sue, I wondered if the writer could have found a more compelling point for starting the story. We don’t have that issue here.  This writer has chosen a dramatic moment — a bound man is being marched into a cell (or worse!). He is apprehensive but stoic. There is a suggestion he himself is dangerous, crazy, or at least canny enough to escape. I was intrigued. I want to know more. So kudos, writer, on finding a good door into your story.

Now let’s consider the tone and voice. The protagonist’s thoughts and dialogue have a cool, almost academic tone. We are firmly in the protag’s point of view, but it has a vaguely old-school feel to it, like something out of a Graham Greene opening  –detached, erudite, self-aware. It reminded me a little of Eric Ambler or maybe Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus books. I don’t dislike this. I think it’s a nice change from much of today’s choppy neo-noir with their monosyllabic heroes.  I wonder if this “reads” a tad old-fashioned for today’s market.  I think goes more to the issue of taste.

I also like the way the writer imparts important information about the prisoner and the surroundings. He/she does not TELL us the prisoner is a doctor or even his name; it is dropped in the dialogue: “You’ve been processed, Dr. Davids.”

We also get this intriguing detail about the doctor’s character: “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.” The writer could have given us a narrative graph like:  I knew what the guard was thinking, that he had heard the talk about me being homicidal, maybe even possessed. But what he didn’t know was that I myself didn’t know what was wrong with me.  No, the writer relates this in DIALOGUE not thoughts — which is a type of action.

Other details that are tossed in deftly:  The guard identified himself as MP Jones. Which I think means we’re dealing with military police? Not sure. The place is described in spare but vivid detail — the heavy clanging door, the fact that light here is a luxury. I often take writers to task for not giving enough sense of place. Although I think we could use a little more description here — it would enhance the horror of the place — I get that the writer is going for a spare style. Is this too spare? You all can weigh in.

Another thing to note: I applaud the fact the writer did not feel compelled to tack some lazy place/time tag atop the chapter, like:  Abu Ghraib, April 2015. The locale and time period will emerge soon in the narrative, I trust.

A few miscellaneous observations: The guard’s dialogue — the ums…dropped G’s, gonna, kinda, sounds country-hickish.  He sounds like a cliche of a small-town jailer. The protag is getting locked in solitary, a place that seems to have experience with terrorists, so I think it would enhance the suspense if the guard was more military in demeanor, as crisp in his speech as his uniform. He can still tell the prisoner what he thinks, but perhaps in a less cliched way. Remember the Nazi guard who kept locking up Steve McQueen in The Great Escape? He never said a word, but he had a memorably stern, don’t-mess-with-me, slightly bemused countenance. Creating something idiosyncratic about this guard would really add a nice side character if the guard comes and goes through the story. Even if he doesn’t, don’t make even your minor spear-carriers cliches.

I’m going to go to blue-line edits for the rest of my comments:

Absence Of Light  decent title. It’s a riff on the myriad quotes about absence of light being the definition of evil but it works on a second level for the literal situation the protag finds himself in. All good titles work on multiple levels.

Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension. I have no idea how I have arrived here. I think we are missing a comma here? Writer: Be careful to proof your work. Not this place per se, this might annoy some but I think it helps establishes the narrator’s tone but rather the circumstance I now find myself in. I like the restraint of this opening graph.

I am told “you’ve been processed, Dr. Davids, I’ll escort you from this point. We’re goin’ straight through those doors.” Not sure I like the passive “I am told…” Why not just have the guard say it? And maybe Dr. Davids has a thought about that chilling phrase “processed” in reaction, some details about what that was like? You could do more with that to amp up the tension.

After shuffling a short way down the corridor with my hands bound, Here’s a spot where we need more detail. Bound by what? Rope suggests something different than handcuffs. Why is he shuffling? Is he shackled? I assumed he was. You might be missing small chances to increase the drama. the young man in a neatly pressed uniform then announces from behind me, “Here.” In front of me is an impossibly heavy, steel door. It suggests something dangerous has been secured behind it. This line feels portentous at first but it’s really just obtuse. He is obviously going into a cell of some kind. Every prison has a heavy metal door so what it is about this that signifies “something dangerous” behind it? And why the verb “secured?” Not sure that makes sense. Because I like this submission, I am asking that the writer work harder at being precise. I think you can do better. 

Then, clanging of metal upon metal. Good use of deep POV here. The writer could have said, “I heard the clanging of the door opening”  but did not. The door opens. I am prompted to enter by polite but clumsy commentary from my escort, Again, this stilted construction goes to the cerebral tone of the narrator/prisoner. I don’t dislike it. “I just want you to know that I think placing you in here is a bit overkill. Unfortunately, those decisions are well beyond my paygrade. To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists. Nice way of dropping some intriguing detail in dialogue. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t ‘ve said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right? Of course not.” He laughs nervously. Now, the writer is being purposely vague about what KIND of facility we are in here, maybe to be point of being coy. But why withhold clarity? Why would the guard be nervous? Can’t the reader be given a little more detail? Are we in an Alabama jailhouse or a military prison? We need a little more grounding, I think.

“No worries,” I reply.

“You’re not gonna cry, are you?” I like this line but I think it could be more precise. It suggests that the guard has seen others before him break down. But I wonder if “cry” is the right word. If Dr. Davids is about to enter a really bad place and he knows it, would he cry? I doubt it. What kind of reaction would this place elicit from a “stoic” man?

His question surprises me because I feel absolutely stoic. At first, I thought this was at odds with the “apprehension” remark of the first graph but it’s correct usage. Stoic means the ability to withstand or hide pain. “No. I’m not. I’m not sad. Why would he be sad? Terrified maybe, but sad? I’m in agreement with the commander. This is where I should be.” Another good tidbit!

“Really?” he asks. I study his facial expressions as he frees my hands. of what?

“Yea. Really.” I try to gently feign a slight, cordial, smile and then offer a plausible explanation since I’m still processing this myself, “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Proof your work! Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person Again, less is more. The use of pass tense here is a choice by the writer. It implies this man has a bad past without spilling the beans too early about what happened. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.”

Silent awkwardness hangs in the air for a moment as he considers my response. He then says, “Look, uh, I’m not involved with the investigation or anything, so I’m not acquainted with all the details, but I think you’re probably being too hard on yourself. You know, things can happen. Anything you need before I leave?”

“No. Just. Just…tell me your name?”

“MP Jones. Oh and, um, do you want the light on or off? I liked this line on first reading because it is, on its face, intriguing. But when you think about it, does it make sense? Does any prisoner in such a dire place want the lights out? I’m just askin’ because most people who’ve never experienced a solitary type situation – well, having the light on sorta helps’em adjust- you know, to the space and all.”

“On.” There is something anemic, almost puny, about this response. Given the title, we’re entering a world of light/dark, goodness/evil. Light, I think, stands for something in this story. So some kind of thought, however brief, from Dr. Davids about the importance of light might really add some meat here. Especially since the writer has given us very little emotional meat from the character himself. UNLESS…Dr. David is the bad guy and we won’t meet our true hero until chapter 2 or later.  Hard to tell in 400 words. If Dr. Davids is a black hat, a thought about the absence of light is almost essential. We need to start knowing who — or what — we are dealing with here. A villain would have a different thought about an absence of light than a hero might. Think about that…exploit it.

Okay, so in conclusion, I think we are off to a good start here. I want to know more about Dr. Davids and why he has been brought here. (although I do hope we aren’t getting a Hannibal Lecter clone here — cultured homicidal maniac). And because the writing is solid, I am trusting the writer will soon begin fleshing this out so we know where we are, what time period we are in, and what is happening.  This is, as the title suggests, all shadows and suggestion right now.  Good stuff. But the ultra-spare style of the opening can test the reader’s patience and it can’t sustain an entire story. We need some illumination soon.  Good work, writer.

4+

A Short Ride In A Fast Machine

“Short fiction seems more targeted — hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.” ― Paolo Bacigalupi

By PJ Parrish

I’m of the age now where I can’t run like I used to.  I walk instead, sometimes for hours at a time, but it’s not as satisfying. I miss the endorphin buzz of intense running.  So lately I’ve taken to interval training. This is where you walk, and then you run like hell for a long as you can, then you walk again.

This is, I have found, a lot like writing a novel versus a short story. A novel is a long calculated walk. A short story is a sprint. I am clinging to this metaphor as I try this week to finish a short story.  Things are not going well. I really struggle with short stories.  I can count on two hands the number I have published. (If you’re interested, you can find my petite oeuvre here.)

 

Desperate to get out of second gear, I started re-reading Cheever. Didn’t help. Got moody and found myself drinking too many gin and tonics. Went back to John D. MacDonald’s The Good Old Stuff but it felt too familiar. So I went to the library and got a copy of Welcome to the Monkey House. I have read very little of Kurt Vonnegut’s work and none of his short stories.  It was like a good bracing walk on a wintery beach, maybe in Barnstable Village, Massachusetts.

There is something about coming cold to a writer’s work that makes you see your own work in new ways. Vonnegut had things to teach this old dog.  Although he’d maybe call that rot. In the preface to Monkey House, he writes:

I have been a writer since 1949. I am self taught. I have no theories about writing that will help others.  When I write, I become what I seemingly must become. I am six feet two and weigh nearly two hundred pounds and am badly coordinated, except when I swim. All that borrowed meat does the writing.

In the water, I am beautiful.

Even before reading the first story, I felt better just reading that. Because no matter how clumsy you might be in daily life, how hobbled you might feel because you can’t run anymore, you can still feel beautiful in the water.  Isn’t that how you feel when the writing is going well, that you’re effortlessly swimming?

I’m only a couple stories into the collection, but I wanted to share a couple thoughts about what I have read so far. The second story, “Harrison Bergeron,” appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1962. It’s a dystopian domestic mini-drama set in the year 2081, told almost totally in dialogue. It is funny and deeply disturbing. There is a moment where a man is lifting a ballerina and Vonnegut gives us this line:

They leaped like deer on the moon.

It hit me almost physically. A metaphor is a perfect stab of recognition, and that’s what I felt. Then I got to one of Vonnegut’s most famous stories, “All The King’s Horses.” Completely different style, but just as gut-wrenching. A pilot is shot down in Asia during the Cold War. On board are his crew as well as his wife and 10-year-old twin sons. As in all great short stories, we are dropped into a fast-moving narrative river, and all we can do is hang on.  The pilot’s Russian captor offers a bargain — the pilot must play a chess game for the lives of his crew and family.  Then comes the awful twist — the pilot’s men, wife and sons are to be the living chess pieces, moved on a checkerboard floor in a throne room. That’s all I will tell you, except that I gasped at one point.

When I started this post, I had forgotten that Vonnegut had — despite his disclaimer of having nothing to teach other writers — issued his Eight Tips For Writing a Good Short Story.  So of course, I looked them up. I think they work well for any kind of fiction, actually.  With a few caveats for us crime dogs, maybe. Some you might have heard before, but they bear repeating:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The first one is great advice no matter what you’re writing — even a memo.

The second one I believe in wholeheartedly. Which is why I gave up on The Americans.  

Number three we’ve quoted many times here at TKZ when we talk about motivation. And the deeper you can plumb the depths of what a character wants, the richer your story will be.

Rule four is important. Every sentence should do something, be on the page for a reason. I read somewhere that Vonnegut disliked television, except for Cheers, which he called a comic masterpiece.  He said, “I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written. Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny.”

Now, we get to number five, which is critical for short stories but troublesome for novelists, given that we like to flap our gums sometimes before getting to the dramatic point. (ie weather, description, backstory).  But if you really think about it, you should never start your novel at too early a juncture. You should always find that prime dramatic moment to drop your reader into the action.

Six is a given. As James says here often, something must be disturbed in your protagonist’s world.

Number seven is about authenticity. If you set out to be James Patterson, you will fail. Yeah, be smart about today’s market, but write the book you were meant to write.

Now the last one is tricky. I am not quite sure what Vonnegut is talking about here. Because on its face, it goes against much of what we talk about here about NOT larding your early pages with too much information. You want some mystery in the beginning. You want to pose questions that beg answers. Maybe Vonnegut is just arguing for clarity in the writing itself?  The choreography (moving characters through time and space) must be clear. Confusion should be avoided. Maybe you all can help me out on this one.

As for me, it is back to the drawing board. While reading Vonnegut’s stories, I realized I had chosen the wrong point of entry for my own story. I was approaching my story too much like I would a novel. I need to figure out the end so I can begin closer to it.   I need to sprint instead of walk.

I want to leave you with one more Vonnegut metaphor. In the preface to Monkey House, he questions where the creative impulse originates from:

The New Yorker said that a book of mine, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, was a ‘series of narcissistic giggles.’ Perhaps it would be helpful to the reader to imagine me as the White Rock girl, kneeling on a boulder in her nightgown, either looking for minnows or adoring her own reflection.

I remember the White Rock girl well. When I was a kid, I thought she was Tinkerbell’s mother. And I always wondered what the heck she was looking at.  I still do. But ah, that’s the mystery, no?

p.s. If you’re wondering about the title of this post, listen to this “short story”:

 

3+

First Page Critique:
From the Mouths of Babes

By PJ Parrish

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

Love Kills

“Eww! What stinks, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, Squirt.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________

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

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

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

However…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7+

Pacing and Spacing:
The Power Of Artful Paragraphing

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I thought, maybe we should ask a lawyer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or how about this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain Steele!” Louis shouted.

Compare that to this version:

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

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

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

Then something else…a voice?

Shut, shut, shut…

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

The sound came again.

Shut up…

No wind. Real words. Louis spun.

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

“Captain!” Louis shouted.

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER ONE

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER ONE

Oddly enough her fingernails were left unbroken.

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

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

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

Oh dear Christ!

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

I fell…

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

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

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

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

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

Not sweat. It tasted…metallic, like copper.

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

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

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

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

PART I

It was a pleasure to burn.

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

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

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

That, folks, is master pilcrowing.

 

12+

First Page Critique:
What Color Is Your Story?

 

By PJ Parrish

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

Fox Blood and Family Anchors

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________

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

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

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

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

old door with hexafoil carving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7+

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

1. Favorite Movie Most People Have Never Seen

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

2. Favorite Book Nobody Else Has Read

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

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

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

3. Favorite Disgusting Food

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

4. Favorite Thing To Do When No One Is Looking

Sing Bohemian Rhapsody in the car. Very loudly.

5. Favorite Opposite-Sex Guilty Pleasure Movie

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

6. Favorite Book I Wish I Had Written

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

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

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

7. Favorite Weird TV Show

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

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

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

 

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Cracking The Big Mystery
Behind The Bestseller Lists

 

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do The Times’s ranking methods ensure objectivity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why can’t the bestseller system be fixed?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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