About PJ Parrish

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

First Page Critique:
Naked Came the Stranger

John William Waterhouse’s “Naiad.” (1893)

By PJ Parrish

I am way behind on my First Page duties, so I hope you all don’t mind taking a look at another, coming right behind yesterday’s submission by Clare. This is an odd one, in that I am not quite sure what to make of it.  I know it’s a mere 400 words or so, but it’s hard to tell what kind of book we are dealing with here.  Your comments, TKZers, are always welcome.

The Artist and the Model

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs. Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. At that point, gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked.

“Hi there,” she waved.

“High yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?”

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.”

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?”

She cupped her breast in both hands, “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?”

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

“I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said.

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing.

“No harm done—the truth is: I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled.

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”


Okay, we’re back and all goose-pimply from our nude dip in the sea. As I said, I haven’t the foggiest idea what genre we’re in here, so I will assume the story will reveal, eventually, a crime element given our bent here at TKZ.  Or maybe it’s romance. So let’s consider our usual basic question about good openings: Has something been “disturbed?” Well, I guess seeing a naked woman emerge from the surf is disturbing, so yes, we might read on.

But there’s a strange lack of emotion on Blake’s part about all this. I write a series about a male protagonist, so I have to, well, try to think like a man. I’ve been living in Louis’s head for 15 years, so usually it’s not an issue. If you want to write fiction, you must be able to write credibly outside your own experience and gender. But once, I got stumped. I was writing a scene where Louis comes upon a woman sunbathing topless. I knew he had to react, but I couldn’t figure out exactly how. So I asked my husband, “what would you do?”  He said, “I would look but pretend not to.”

I guess what I am looking for in this submission is some kind of reaction from Blake — and not just about a naked woman. We are TOLD that he loves to paint. We are TOLD that he enjoys this particular cove. He seems charmed by otters. Yet when a naked naiad appears before him, he has no thoughts, no emotions, no nothing. Even when the woman makes the oddly sexual motion of cupping her breasts.

Also, there’s a little bit of throat-clearing. Why begin at the morning with all the busy-business of him setting up, stopping for lunch, etc? Pick up the scene later, maybe when he pauses to take a drink of beer and then sees the woman? There are also some logic issues. What exactly is this woman wearing? I’m thinking it’s some kind of red bathing suit, bottoms only? But from a distance, he mistakes the “figure” as a brown otter?

We also have myriad typos and mistakes in here. Yes, we all make them, but we have to strive for a certain level of professionalism, even in a rough draft submission. Let’s take a closer look:

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. You’re telling me; show me this through his thoughts and actions. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters why capped?playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming swam off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.  Maybe I can add the otters in later to today’s painting, Blake thought. Don’t use “academic” punctuation like colons to convey thought.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. I’d suggest starting here. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Don’t need to tell us that. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: His first thought was that the otters were back and he reached for his sketchpad. But then he realized it was a person. The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, how far? he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs then Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. A little confusing here. When he first noticed the figure, it was so far away he couldn’t tell it was a naked woman. She swam 100 yds out and came back, but somehow ended up 10 yds from Blake? I thought she began way down the beach? 

 At that point, Go right into a reaction here. gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked. A tense lapse.

“Hi there,” she waved. “waved” is not an attribution verb. She waved and then said. 

“High ???yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?” Seems a strange thing for a man to say to a naked lady. Unless you made it a visual point that maybe her skin is all goose-pimply? You don’t give us much visual to go on here at all. You missed a chance to SHOW us what the woman looks like via his thoughts. This whole scene is oddly bloodless. It might work to tell us before this how cold the day is. 

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.” Again, this seems an odd thing to say. I am dying to know what this man is THINKING! Go into his thoughts a little. What is he feeling? Shy? Embarrassed? Turned on? He’s not even curious! At the very least, you are missing a chance to slip in a little backstory ie: He had been painting at Smuggler’s Cove every morning since he had moved here two years ago. He knew everyone in the village, from the old woman at the post office who remembered he liked bird stamps to the skinny kid who never seemed to remember he liked his newspaper tossed on the porch.  But this woman…he had never seen her before. WHERE ARE WE? Blue Hill, Maine? North Vancouver? There are always ways to gracefully slip this info in early on.

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. This is the first indication of intrigue. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?” Again, this begs for a quick thought. Maybe this is where you can tell us where we are? He can think that up the coast in Mendocino (or whatever), there had been trouble with kids on the beach…or something. Don’t miss small opportunities to insert details about setting.

She cupped her breast in both hands, I think you mean she cupped her breasts? Or do you mean she is trying to cover herself? Cupping is provocative. Folding her arms across her chest implies modesty. “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?” A bunch of punctuation mistakes here and/or missing attribution.

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

I’m only thirty-four, he thought. (slips in backstory!)  But he guessed that the woman was maybe twenty, so perhaps she considered him old.  We also get NO description of the woman other than she’s wearing a red bathing suit bottom. Perfect place to SHOW us what she looks like via Blake’s point of view. “I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said. What does that mean, I’m fair and reasonable? 

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing. This woman, given her provocative actions thus far, does not strike me as someone who blushes easily.

“No harm done—the truth is: Lose the colons! I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled. What context?

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, period. “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”


As I said, we’re handicapped by our 400-word limit, so it’s hard to tell where we’re going or what kind of world we’re entering here. But my main suggestion, dear writer, is that you slow down and little and add some emotional meat to these bones. The situation is intriguing, but because you haven’t given much of a context in setting or in your main character’s thoughts and emotions, I feel…well, at sea.


Yes! Yes! (Oh no…)
The Bad Sex Awards Are Back

By PJ Parrish

The competition this year was…well, hot.

Yes. You’re way ahead of me. You know what’s coming. I thought about not giving in to my basest instincts and ignoring it this year. But then I read the winning entries and knew this was too special not to share it it with you all. And hey, we all really could use a good laugh right about now, right?

So, without further ado, I give you The Literary Review’s Bad Sex In Fiction Awards. I will try to keep things clean. Which is more than the writers did.

The magazine said this year’s crop of contenders was particularly strong. The finalists included Prix Goncourt-winner Laurent Binet (who, to paraphrase, compared the male organ to something just emerging from a steel forge); Venetia Welby (who compares female “landscaping” to vines and throws in something about “orange spillage”); and Wilbur Smith, who I will quote in full because you won’t believe how bad it is: (“He kissed her and she responded and the boundaries between them blurred, like two watercolours on a piece of paper, joining as one to create something entirely new”).

We Americans, can hold our heads up high, because one of our own took top prize this year. And fellow crime dogs, hold your heads up even higher!  The winner is Christopher Bollen whose novel The Destroyers, is a literary thriller, described by Jay McInerney as invoking “the shades of Lawrence Durrell and Graham Greene.”

Judges said they were persuaded to give Bollen the award by a scene in which the protagonist and his former girlfriend are rekindling their relationship on the island of Patmos. Cover your eyes if you blush easily because here comes a winning passage:

She covers her breasts with her swimsuit. The rest of her remains so delectably exposed. The skin along her arms and shoulders are different shades of tan like water stains in a bathtub. Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.

I am going to just let that last line lay there. But I will tell you that the judges noted they “were left unsure as to how many testicles the character in question has.”

The award aims to “draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.”  But apparently, bad sex is getting…better.

“There’s plenty of sex around,” the Literary Review’s Frank Brinkley told The Guardian. “Maybe we are having an effect – definitely literary fiction’s changing and the ‘Oh sod it, I’ll put in a sex scene’ attitude that prompted the creation of the award has pretty much fallen by the wayside. Maybe publishers aren’t pushing for it in the way that ‘sex sells’ was used as a prompt 15 years ago, either. All to the good.”

Still, that didn’t keep many writers from giving it the old college try. And it won’t prevent me from sharing the best of the finalists entries.

Breathe in pink, breathe out…blue, blue, oh God, blue!

Light filters in from the ravaging streaks of the dawn. It splits into fragments of every hue the world has hidden as it strikes the prism of their shelter. Tera’s eyes expand and reflect, crystal orbs of time and space. She moans in colours as he pushes the white dress away and beyond the angelic flesh, luminescent against the damp, mossy bed.

                             — Mother of Darkness by Venetia Welby


Plato’s retreat…and Socrates didn’t want to go there, either

Looking down, she unbuckled his belt. ‘We’re grown-ups.’

Perhaps he wasn’t quite in the moment, because he thought of Kierkegaard and Socrates. If there wasn’t great wisdom gained by lust, by love, its consummation – the aesthetics of all this – then you were doing it wrong.

‘Kiss me again.’

– As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths


Making Wookie

A clothed body is always human or human-like, a naked body always animal or animal-like. Only at close quarters is the full extent of a body’s wildness revealed, like when a bird gets trapped inside a house. One is moved to not entirely human thinking then. One goes towards its animalness.

– Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe


What’s your major? Landscape panting…

He puts his hands on Bianca’s shoulders and slips off her low-cut top. Suddenly inspired, he whispers into her ear, as if to himself: ‘I desire the landscape that is enveloped in this woman, a landscape I do not know but that I can feel, and until I have unfolded that landscape, I will not be happy …’

Bianca shivers with pleasure. Simon whispers to her with an authority that he has never felt before: ‘Let’s construct an assemblage.’

        — The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet

Okay, enough. I’m exhausted.  So we don’t end on a negative note, I found a counter-balance.  A couple years ago, Salon magazine decided to go Literary Review one better and came up with the Good Sex in Writing Award.  Their winner was the critically acclaimed James Hynds’s novel Next.  Here’s a winning passage:

Then Lynda murmurs “Wait” right in his ear, and as he clutches her waist under her dress she unbends first one leg and then the other over the railing, settling tightly against him, taking him in even deeper. She tightens her calves against the railing and squeezes with her thighs, and he groans, because he’s deeper inside this girl than he’s ever been inside any girl before, and he presses his open mouth against the long, salty curve of her neck. He’s inhaling her humidity, she’s panting like an animal just above the top of his head. They can’t move much — if she thrusts too hard against him she’ll topple them into the bushes — but the song has finished with words and now it’s just a driving sax, and they rock together to the beat, her sweat dripping into the dress bunched at her waist, her hands kneading his back, his face pressed between her salty breasts, her heart thumping against his lips.

Not bad, not bad. At least I can figure out which part is going where, and the only metaphor is a musical instrument. And as they always say, we should all need to practice sax sex.




The Latest Trends In
Cover Design: Think Pink?

By PJ Parrish

Cover design is taking up space in my brain lately.  Partly because our upcoming Louis Kincaid thriller THE DAMAGE DONE (July this year) is in production right now.  But also because I am gearing up for my annual duty as Edgar banquet chair.

The Edgar gig involves me putting together a Powerpoint presentation that we run throughout the banquet, with the biggest part given over to displaying all the covers of the nominees as they are announced from the stage. I decided to introduce this to the Edgars in my first year because I remember, as a nominee, how thrilling it was to just BE there.  But there’s a real thrill to seeing your actual book  — oh, about three-feet high — flashed up on a Jumbotron screen in the grand ballroom of New York City’s Grand Hyatt, filled with agents, editors and fellow writers. Here’s two samples from my Powerpoint from last year’s banquet. (Click to enlarge):

Sitting in the back of the room at my laptop controls, I never fail to be amazed by the beauty of some of the nominee covers.  It’s fun to compare and contrast the styles. And I never fail to think about how a great cover — or a bad one — can affect a book’s chance to make a good first impression.

A while back, I did a long post about covers in which I cited a survey about what factors made a potential reader pick up a book.  Guess what was no. 1? You betcha — cover design.

So when my sister Kelly sent me an article the other day about newest trends in book cover designs, I knew I had to pass it along to you. The article talks about all kinds of books, but maybe there’s some take-aways for us crime dogs as we self-publish or dicker with our editors. But first, let’s take a trip in the Way Back Machine…

Remember when having huge raised foil letters was a must, a la any book by Patterson? Well, apparently that is yesterday’s news.

Remember when neon was the way to go, a la Harlan Coben’s breakout book Tell No One?  It’s not enough these days….

And remember when all the girls wore basic black? It’s been done so much that it’s no longer the way to separate yourself from the pack. But apparently, I didn’t get the message…more on that in a moment.

Here, according to Lindsey Vontz of 99Designs, is what’s hot.  (Click HERE for whole article.) And for fun, I took a look at this year’s Edgar nominees to see if I could find any parallels in our little genre.

Bold Typography

A hyper-trendoid thing is to have your cover dominated by the type, usually incorporating what Vontz calls “organic elements” like brush strokes rather than traditional clean fonts. This has been going on for years — Jonathan Safran Foer has made it a trademark — but it’s showing up everywhere now.

And voila! Here’s an Edgar nominee in this year’s Best First Novel category, Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love:

Keeping It Simple

Many cover designers now are going for a minimalist approach, using one graphic element with a lot of white space. In the example below, the absence of two letters draws in the reader’s curiosity, the designer says.

My sister Kelly, who still works parttime at Horizon Books in Traverse City, Michigan, says she remembers seeing this book come in and how it stuck in her mind and made her think how the missing letters telegraphed the book’s content.

Here’s The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a nominee for Best Young  Adult Edgar. I love this cover, but then I was always a sucker for negative space in art class.

Hand-Drawn Covers

These have been popular for a couple years but the trend will continue, the article’s author says. Mostly, this has been the realm of more “feminine” books, the covers featuring a lot of florals and such. But there’s a trend toward more “masculine” design in hand-drawn covers, like the one below:

I’ve seen this style pop up in the Edgars in recent years but this year, alas, no examples. But here are a couple from past nominees that I remember, the first in Best True Crime, the second in Best Young Adult:

Throwback Styles

Just when you thought it was safe to stop being nostalgic for the Sixties or, God forbid, the Seventies, new trends in book covers are reminding us that our past is never far enough behind us. Funky ’70s typography and colors straight out of plastic flower decals are the hot new things. Check these new novels out. Sex and Rage is a reissue of a 1979 novel, but Goodbye Vitamin is a slacker family drama that got rave reviews. Somewhere, Jacqueline Susann is laughing her butt off.  And Philip Roth is thinking he retired just in time…

I couldn’t find any of this in the Edgar nominees.  But I have noticed that in the Young Adult and Best Juvenile categories in past years, bright citrus colors and a touch of whimsy seem to be popular.

All Things Pink

Remember the musical number in Funny Face  “Think Pink?” Apparently, it’s showing up on book cover design. Ah, but not any old bubblegum pink. It has to be — wait for this! — Millennial Pink. This means it has to be muted and dusty, which, come to think of it, is sort of how I see my millennial nephew. Here’s some examples:

Lo and behold, look what I found in the Edgar’s Best First Novel category this year:

Collage It Up

This dredged up another memory for me from my college art classes.  I was terrible at anything three-dimensional but I do remember getting kudos for a collage I did. Maybe I’m just good at throwing stuff together and seeing what sticks. As for covers, I’ve always kind of like collages, but like juggling with chain-saws, this is not for amateurs designing their own covers.

The closest I came to this among the Edgar nominees was this striking cover which superimposes what appears to be elevator down buttons over a man’s face. This is Jason Reynold’s Young Adult nominee Long Way Down.

Photo-Heavy Covers

Photo images have been a mainstay of mystery and thriller covers for as long as I can remember. Self-published authors know all the ins and outs of finding stock images. And you can find just about anything you need to express your story in Getty Images. (Just type “Lonely woman on beach” in their search bar and for $395 you’ve got your cover.) But the trend now is to go beyond the literal stock image (silhouetted man running in dark alley = international thriller) and to find one really compelling, more artistic, image that might convey the tone or theme of the book instead. Here’s an example for a book of poetry:

And here’s a striking cover from one of this year’s Edgar nominees in Best Paperback Original, Penance by Kanae Minato:

Now, for an object lesson. I’d like to show you what my sister Kelly and I have been up to.  In recent years, we’ve been getting the rights back to our backlist titles in our Louis Kincaid series and have self-published several of them.  And since you can’t legally use the original covers, we’ve had to come up with our own.  We knew we had to have a consistent look for all the books — same type fonts, same general look. But we struggled to find a singular style that we thought captured the series’s tone (hard-boiled police procedural/private eye).  Plus, we aren’t rich. We didn’t have a lot of money to blow on designers or artwork. This is what we came up with (except for PAINT IT BLACK, which was done by Kensington Books and was always one of our favorites). You can click on the line-up to enlarge.

But we were never really happy with what we came to call our “dead tree” books. A moody landscape just didn’t convey our books’s tone. And they look a little dated now. I lobbied for something darker, and I really wanted to go with strong photos with humans in them to convey a sense of the books’s dark tones. And I wanted more negative space in the design to give the type and images room to breath. We also wanted it to match the upcoming cover design for our July 2018 release THE DAMAGE DONE. After weeks of searching for the right photos and playing with fonts, this is what we came up with. (Click to enlarge):

Yeah, yeah…I know. They’re black. So’s my wardrobe and my writer’s heart. As Jessica Rabbit says, I can’t help it, I’m just drawn that way.

So what say you? Do any of these trends float your boat? Can you see your new serial killer book wearing pink? Hey, it worked for John D. MacDonald and Erle Stanley Gardner.  Share your trials and triumphs about cover.

Postscript: James’s comment below about Harlan Coben’s Tell No One got me curious so I Googled the cover to see if other designs came up.  Publishers usually repackage for paperback and foreign publishers put their own spin on things. Here’s a couple more versions of Tell No One, including a “dead tree” version!


First Page Critique: The Unanswered Questions

By PJ Parrish

Good morning all.  We’re on a roll with First Pagers this week and now I’ve got another teed up and ready to go. Catch you on the back swing. (Sorry…husband is watching golf sudden death playoff in background as I write).

Days of Mean

Revenge was like scotch. The longer it matured, the more satisfying the taste. Bradley Thomson’s stepfather taught him that.

Bradley walked through the opened French doors of his Key Biscayne home, coffee cup in hand, and stepped onto the lanai that overlooked the Bay. No matter how many times he viewed the Bay, he loved seeing the estuary in the morning. Its beauty pleased the poet in him. His younger self would have laughed at such sentiment. That was the benefit of middle-age. One appreciated the little things in life.

Bradley set his coffee on a bistro table, next to a throwaway cell phone. He picked up the burner and half-smiled. Out of respect for his late wife, he’d waited twelve years to make this call.

While most people craved instant gratification, Bradley savored anticipation more. He’d been known to admire the beauty of a 30-year-old Highland Park single malt for weeks, even months, before breaking the seal and relishing the first sip. The longer the delay, the better the satisfaction. That’s how he regarded the situation with Juliette. He doubted she’d recognize his voice after all this time, but to ensure she didn’t, for several weeks he’d practiced a Midwestern accent to camouflage his natural Bostonian.

Bradley took a moment to mentally recite his script. The words had changed over the years but their gist remained the same—one extortion to avenge another.

Two months ago, immediately after his wife died, Bradley thought about approaching Juliette in person. Although seeing her wither before his eyes would gratify the vindictive part of his nature, he decided a blind threat would be more menacing. If he remained anonymous, she’d never know which of her victims held her by the throat. He liked that.

Bradley tapped eleven numbers onto the prepaid phone. A few seconds later she said, “Hello.”

When he heard her voice, fond memories of their nights together didn’t suddenly flood his mind. Her deceitfulness had murdered any chance of that.

Juliette…. ”

“Yes. Who’s calling?”

Bradley smiled. “You can call me Mr. Boogey.”


I was thinking that maybe I’ve been doing too many critiques lately (recently judged a contest for MWA and read about forty entries of the first 50 pages and am also prepping for a workshop where I’ve asked attendees to send in their first 400 words.) So maybe I am going manuscript-blind-and-deaf.  But this entry, well, I think it’s pretty darn good. That sounds like a back-handed compliment to our submitter, so let me try to be nicer and more articulate.

First off, the writing is tight and fluid with only one hiccup (more on that later). Dialogue (what there is) is handled cleanly. No dumb typos, grammar lapses etc. But that’s the basics, the first bar to clear. What about the bigger issues?

We always talk here about picking the prime dramatic moment to enter a story. It need not be violent or action-packed. But it must do essential things — introduce a prime character (usually the hero but sometimes the black hat) and it must seduce us on some level.  A good opening is a promise to the reader — here’s a hint of what is to come so stick around and see if I, the storyteller, will deliver. I think the writer here accomplishes that.

I really like that first graph. We get a prime character’s name, a dollop of backstory —  he loves nice scotch, has a significant step-father in his past and is out for revenge of some kind. It has tone and voice…it has a certain “bite,” sort of like a good scotch. (I don’t drink scotch but during research, I once read an article about 50-year-old Glenlivet described as tasting like “tingle and burn.”)

The next graph is descriptive but also tells us where we are, about how old Bradley is, and a bit more about his personality. This submission is a good example of how to dribble in backstory. Then we find he’s using a burner cell phone, which SHOWS us rather than the writer TELLING us that he has secrets to hide and is up to no good.

Then he makes the call to Juliette, who we are told, with the sparest of details (good!) has a past with Bradley, apparently did him wrong, and now he’s out for vengeance.

But what I like about this submission the most, I think, are the Unanswered Questions. Sometimes, it is not so much what the writer tell us, but rather what s/he withholds that helps create a tension in the early going of a story. Look what questions this writer laid out:

What did Juliette do that was so awful that Bradley is now out to get her?

Why does Bradley refer to himself as one of her “victims?”

Why is he using an untraceable phone and disguising his voice? (and, backstory, we find out he’s Bostonian by birth.)

What happened to his wife?

And why has he waited 12 years to get his revenge?

One of the most effective ways to create tension early in a story is to lay down a bread-crumb trail of questions like this to lure us in and then you can spend the rest of the book slowly answering them. All these questions are a tease. They make me want to read on.

So good stuff! But I think we have a hiccup with the dead wife. Everything was going down so smoothly here until I got to: “out of respect for his late wife, he had waited 12 years to make this call.”  And: “Two months ago, immediately after his wife died, Bradley thought about approaching Juliette in person.”  I think by inserting the wife into the scenario with the named Juliette, the writer creates unnecessary confusion.  Might the opening not flow better if we left the wife out of things for now? She can always be brought up a little later, maybe after the phone call? It might create even MORE tension to withhold this bit of Bradley’s backstory until he has finished his call and then perhaps thinks about the “why” he had waited…something to do with a dead wife.

When you are laying down the questions, don’t double-dip them. The fact he has a dead wife and it probably has something to do with the nefarious Juliette is too juicy a fact to be buried amid the other backstory, I think. The dead wife deserves her own introduction. Just as an exercise, writer, take out all references to the wife and see how it reads. One woman at a time…

One last thing: Maybe it’s just me, but after all this good stuff about middle-aged Brahmin poets, great scotch, and Key Biscayne views, would Bradley pick a prosaic kiddie name like “Mr. Boogey?”  I almost laughed when I read it. Maybe there’s a good reason. Just asking…

Ready to hear some counter-views, TKZers.  Please weigh in. In the meantime, I have a habit of picking music for the movie versions of my books and those of others. Here’s some mood music for today’s submission. Hit it, Charles…


The Agony and Ecstasy of Starting Over

If the wine is sour, throw it out. — Michelangelo

By PJ Parrish

Have you ever wanted to just say the hell with it and give up?

I have. I’ve been publishing fiction in one form or another since 1980 and I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pack it in and go drive the cart at the airport for a living. Sometimes it was a bad editor who brought this on. Or being dropped from a publisher (twice). Or doing too many book signings where the only people who showed up were the staff and a homeless guy trying to get out of the rain. Or being caught in the dreaded Barnes & Noble Death Spiral. (this is an official term for the dynamic of mediocre-sales-so-we-won’t-stock-you-but-no-way-to-increase-sales-because-we-won’t-carry-your-books.

Or sometimes it was simply because I thought I had run out of energy or worse, ideas. But maybe the worst kind of giving up is the one where you have invested a lot of time and energy into a book and there’s this little voice inside your head whispering, “This is pure crap.”  And you know the voice is telling you the truth.

When is it time to give up on a story and start over?

Michelangelo is the one who got me thinking about this. Or actually, Charleton Heston. Last weekend, my bad cold had me mainlining old movies and I happened upon The Agony and the Ecstasy.  Charleton Heston as the artist and Rex Harrison as the pope who commissions him to paint the Sistine Chapel. Good movie, based on the bestselling novel by Irving Stone. Michelangelo is maybe a couple hundred feet into his backbreaking project but he’s haunted by self-doubt — especially over the fresco he has painted depicting the face of God. He retreats to a tavern, where he sketches the peasants as models for apostles. But it’s God’s face who taunts him. Michelangelo takes a drink of wine, spits it out and yells, “This wine is sour!”  The tavern owner tastes it, agrees, and uncorks the cask onto the floor, saying, “If the wine is sour, throw it out!”

Michelangelo has his epiphany. He goes back to the chapel and takes a scythe to God’s face, scraping it off.  A year of work demolished. He starts over.

If the wine is sour, throw it out.

Flashback to 1998. I am writing my first attempt at a mystery. My first chapter opens with a Miami homicide detective sitting in a fishing boat in the Everglades. She is thinking…mourning…remembering…her husband who got blown up in a drug deal gone bad. Do you see the problem? She is thinking. She is…doing nothing. If you don’t get it, go back into TKZ archives and search for any of James Scott Bell’s posts on characters thinking and not doing.

I finished that first book and sent it out to agents. I got oh, maybe twelve rejections. Not one agent was kind enough or smart enough to tell me what was wrong. I tossed the whole book and started over. About two years later, the first book in the Louis Kincaid series got published. (For the record, it opens with Louis unearthing a shallow grave in rural Mississippi and finding a skeleton with a rotted noose around its neck).

Okay, flash forward to now. After our book She’s Not There was published last year by Thomas & Mercer, they asked to see a sequel that centered on a subplot featuring a secondary character named Clay Buchanan. Six chapters poured out of my laptop. I was on a roll.

Then this little voice started whispering. I ignored it, plowing on through a hundred pages. Finally, I went back and re-read Chapter 1.

I had opened with my protagonist Clay Buchanan sitting in a boat in an Arkansas bayou. He is a skip tracer by trade but also an avid bird-watcher.  He has come looking for a woodpecker that’s supposedly extinct. But he is thinking about his wife and infant son who disappeared ten years ago. This quest is supposed to a metaphor for his hopeless search for something lovely that he knows is really dead. Beautiful chapter, full of poignancy, dripping with Spanish moss and symbolism.

You’d think I would have learned something in twenty years.

Yesterday, I threw it out, all hundred pages.  It took me five months to get to this point. That’s a lot of wine on the floor.  But it had to be done. The idea for the book is solid but the first five chapters are not working. I knew it in my heart.

Why do we resist starting over? Well, after twenty years, I’ve got my thoughts.

Deadlines: It may be an actual contract deadline, or one you set yourself (I will finish this book by July! I will write 1500 words per day!) It is also the pressure of our genre, the idea that you won’t get noticed or survive unless you can produce good books at a steady clip.

Deadlines can be bad — the tyranny of the ticking clock can make you burp out some bad stuff.  But deadlines can be good — a finite amount of time forces you to write instead of playing Spider Solitaire or folding laundry).  Deadlines can make you angry. Deadlines can make you feel frustrated and exhausted. As a classic procrastinator, I’ve learned it’s best to try to embrace a deadline. Think of it as having a pet porcupine.

Self-doubt: This can be bad because it can eat away at your soul. (I’ll never get published. I can never write as well as fill-in-the-blank. I’m out of good ideas.). But self-doubt can be good because it forces you to slow down, reassess and reflect. When things look dark, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to pump the brakes so you don’t drive off the cliff. If your novel is going badly, you might need to set it aside, let the frustration cool, and go back later. Divorce or reconciliation? It’s easier to decide with a clear head instead of a heavy heart.  Some books can, with hard work, be saved. Others have to be abandoned.

Negative people: This can be bad because sometimes you have to literally live with these folks. Your spouse might not be supportive enough. Your friends might tell you your wasting your time. Your “real” job screams at you like a harpy. But it can be good if you’ve got someone in your life who can, with a clear critical eye and kind heart, tell you when your book has lost its way. All of us want praise. But what we really need are folks –a trusted beta reader or a good critique group — who will tell us “This ain’t working.”

Now I can hear some of you saying, “Okay, that’s the agony. When does the ecstasy kick in?”

I can’t say. It’s a personal thing. Each of us handles disappointment and defeat in his or her own way.  I can only say that once I made the decision to throw away the first hundred pages of Clay’s story, I felt…good.  Like Michaelango, I had a clean white canvas again. I’ve been here before. I can do it again. I’ve only got, oh, about 100,000 words to go…



New Year First Page Critique:
Resolutions We Shouldn’t Break

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. — Neil Gaiman

By PJ Parrish

Welcome to the new year, crime dogs. Are we all rested, refreshed and ready to go? I should be since I did nothing during the holiday week except eat, sleep, drink and binge-watch Turner Classic Movies. (I think I have finally completed the Lana Turner oeurve).  The only “writing” thing I did was to judge a contest for non-published thriller writers.  It reminded me of our First Page Critiques, only amped up to 50 pages.

So, before I go into today’s First Pager, I’d like to share some of things I learned while reading these entries.

Two entries were really first rate. Like publishable now. What a joy to read them! I think this is what editors feel when they find a gem in the slush pile.

Most were, well, not publishable. Mostly it was due to the usual stuff we talk about here all the time, but when you read 50 pages, you get a better idea of how things can go off the rails. They made me come up with some writer’s resolutions you don’t want to break.

Don’t give readers the same-old same-old. Maybe it’s because there are so many novels out there now but it’s getting harder, I think, to come up with something truly fresh. As I heard one agent put it once, “Say something unique or say something uniquely.”  Which means you either have to come up with a fabulous new twist on the old formulas (Andy’s Weir’s The Martian = Robinson Crusoe in space or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven = The Road with Shakespeare). Or you need great writer’s chops to dazzle with singular style. (see Michael Chabon).

In my contest, I had an entry that read like a really cheesy James Bond knock-off, complete with macho hard-drinking spy and dumb redhead CIA agent who whined about her broken high heel and needed saving (Jill Saint John in the movie, I guess).

Don’t confuse the reader.  This was a common sin among the entries. Our stories spool out like David Lean epics in our imaginations, but often there is a short-circuit between brain and typing fingers and the result is an un-tempting ball of confusion. Some scenes I read were so poorly choreographed I had to read them several times before I figured out the action. Some entries never bothered to tell me — in 50 pages! — where the story was taking place or what time frame we were in. And a couple entries had bad head-hopping point of view issues, one so weird I mistakenly thought a third new character had come on stage when it was only the second man’s “sub-conscious” talking. And then there were just big lapses of logic. Like, how in the heck did a housewife from Iowa end up in that Iranian prison? (never explained!).

Don’t give hateful or boring characters the early spotlight. Now, I’m not saying all heroes should be Shane or Charlotte the spider. And yes, many a fine crime novel opens with the killer’s point of view. But don’t waste your precious opening pages on dirt-bags or deadbeats or dumb-as-a-stump bad guys. Unless, as in Lee Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble, they are tossing a man out of a helicopter or something equally cool.  One of my entries I read had this problem — exacerbated by the weakness that the protagonist didn’t show up until almost page 50. At least I think he was the protag.

Don’t crowd the stage too early. One entry had fourteen named characters in the first chapter. And three points of view. Nuff said, right?

Okay, okay, no more with the negative. So what about the two good ones? What set them apart? Well, the characters were flawed but immediately relate-able and even intriguing. Their voices were all distinct, especially one poignant twelve-year-old boy who is about to hang himself until someone stops him. The settings were well rendered but the stories never felt overpowered by description. Backstory was gracefully eye-dropped in at opportune times in the action rather than splatted down via info-dumps. And even though both entries had slow-build openings (no wham-bam shoot-em-up mechanics), I didn’t care because the characters were so rich I really wanted to see what was going to happen to them.

Enough resolutions. Let’s go to a First Pager.  I wanted to get this in because it somehow got lost in my hard-drive and the writer has been patiently waiting. Sorry about that, dear writer. And thanks for submitting. I’ll be back in a moment with comments.



He took three more steps before he jumped over the railing. She followed and landed hard on the lobby floor two stories below. Her right shoulder dislocated on impact. The pain was undeniable. She pushed the pain down and got up.

The front door hit the outside railing when he kicked it open and ran down the stairs. Following after him she didn’t slow down when she deliberately smashed into the door frame popping her shoulder back in place. The sound that emanated from her throat was so high pitched she even scared herself. Exiting the building she slipped on the wet step bouncing on her ass, but she didn’t loose a beat in her pursuit.

Jordon, approaching on her left, called out. “Which way did he go?”

“I’ve got him. Waverly’s been shot. Fourth floor. Stay with him,” she shouted. Turning right she jammed her way through the opening in the fence.

Ahead of her the man was still running along the sidewalk, but with a distinctive limp he did not have when the chase began. Two blocks later he turned south. Only the quick reflexes of the bus driver saved him from being flatten on Humbolt Street. In that instance she managed to cross to the other side of the road before him.

There were only a few people out that time of night. Most moved aside as they passed them, but she didn’t get a clear shot until he reached the corner. She fired and his body jerked. He went down and fell into the street. She was still closing in on him when she heard the tires screeching and then the crunching sound she knew she would never forget.

She could hear sirens approaching from every direction. A car pulled up next to her and two women got out. One approached the body, ran a scanner over it and confirmed the obvious; the man was dead. The other went to check on the driver.

“Sheriff, you alright?” asked Jordan approaching from behind.

“I’m fine. What? Do you think this old lady can’t handle it?” she joked.

“Never doubted it for a second,” he said. “It’s just that you’re bleeding.”

The moment she saw the blood on her thigh her leg began to hurt. However she would never admit it, not even to the EMT who arrived a few minutes later to examine her. She refused to go to the hospital. She accepted the pain killers, ‘Just in case’.


Not bad, not bad at all. This has potential. What’s good is that we open with some hard action. I wasn’t confused and could, for the most part, see what was going on as this chase ensued. There are some nifty active verbs peppered in, which you always want in an action scene. The dialogue is clean. We stay in the protag’s POV and see the scene play out from her senses only.  I also like the way the writer slipped in the fact via dialogue that this woman is the sheriff.  All and all, I don’t have big complaints with this. So let me resort to Track Edits to make a few minor points and mere suggestions (my comments in blue).

He took three more steps before he jumped over the railing. She do we maybe want her name here since she’s the heroine? followed and landed hard on the lobby floor two stories I had to Google to find out if this is possible. Jumping onto hard surface from two stories without really bad injury strains credibility. Maybe cut it to one floor? below. Her right shoulder dislocated on impact. The pain was undeniable. This is you, writer, telling me. You can do better. Show me ie describe the FEELING from her POV. She pushed the pain down and got up.

The front door hit the outside railing when he kicked it open and ran down the stairs. Following after him she didn’t slow down as she followed, when she deliberately smashing into the door frame to pop her shoulder back in place. The sound that emanated from her throat was so high pitched she even scared herself. This woman doesn’t strike me as scaring easily. Is there a better way, more fitting her nature, to express this? Exiting the building she slipped on the wet step bouncing on her ass, but she didn’t loose a beat in her pursuit. If she fell, she lost a beat. Maybe it even works better if she’s on her butt when Jordan skids to a halt near her?

Jordon, approaching on her left, awkwardcalled out. “Which way did he go?”

“I’ve got him. Waverly’s been shot. Fourth floor. Stay with him!” she shouted. Turning right not sure you need this she jammed her way through the opening in the fence.

Ahead of her the man was still running along the sidewalk, Of course he’s still ahead of her; be more descriptive? The guy was running along the sidewalk but with a limp now. but with a distinctive limp he did not have when the chase began. Two blocks later he turned south. Only the quick reflexes of the bus driver Might want to imbed this image more firmly in her POV ie She rounded the corner just in time to see a bus swerve, and get a glimpse of the driver’s panicked face. saved him from being flatten on Humbolt Street. In that instance she managed to cross to the other side of the road before him. Again, exploit the moment. The man smacked into the back of the bus and almost went down. It gave her just enough time to catch up (or something).  Another possible thing to add to the tension etc — her police radio, pinned on her shoulder most likely, would be going crazy. 

There were only a few people out that time of night. Most moved aside as they passed them, She never took out her gun. Also, get in HER pov. Might be cool here to have her thinking about trying to get off clear shot, maybe raising the gun but stopping as a guy walks out of a bar. This part of your story lacks a grit and visceral-ness that gives us a sense about WHAT SHE’S THINKING and FEELING. Just because you’re in action mode, doesn’t mean you can’t give us a fleeting thought. but she didn’t get a clear shot until he reached the corner. New graph? She fired and his body jerked. He went down and fell into the street. She was still closing in on him when she heard the tires screeching and then the crunching sound she knew she would never forget.

I think you need to tell us he got run over. And again, can we have a quick reaction or thought from her? Pretty gruesome to see a guy run over. It would really draw us into HER instead of merely the action.

She could hear sirens approaching from every direction. You can do better. The sirens aren’t really approaching (ugly verb that). They are wailing, keening, screaming. A car pulled up next to her and two women got out. You need to slow down here. Who are these people? I thought they were onlookers at first. Have the sheriff go to the body FIRST. She is your heroine; don’t move your spotlight away from her and onto two spear-carriers. Have the sheriff go stand over the body. She can tell from looking he’s dead. Give her thought. Maybe give the reader a hint about who he is and why they were chasing him. We need a little context here, which could also ratchet up your intrigue. If he’s a high-stakes runner, drop a hint! If he’s an everyday dirt-bag, tell us that and what she thinks about it, that she just jumped down a lobby and dislocated her shoulder for THIS? You’re missing chances to pepper in some plot points. One approached the body, ran a scanner over it and confirmed the obvious; By writing this, you’re taking the “gun” out of your protag’s hand. Give HER this moment. the man was dead. The other went to check on the driver.

“Sheriff, you alright?” asked Jordan approaching there’s that ugly verb again from behind. She ordered him to go check on Waverly, remember. How about this?

Sheriff, you okay?”

She turned and it took her a moment to focus on deputy Jordan’s face.

“I’m fine. What? Do you think this old lady can’t handle it?” she joked. said. Let us read our own interpretation into this line. Don’t spoon feed the reader. Love that you hint at her age here. (This is good example of how dialogue can SHOW instead of the writer telling us in narrative that she’s forty-five.)

“Never doubted it for a second,” he said. “It’s just that you’re bleeding.”

The moment she saw the blood on her thigh her leg began to hurt. However she would never admit it, not even to the EMT who arrived a few minutes later to examine her. She refused to go to the hospital. She accepted the pain killers, ‘Just in case’.  My only comment here is to slow down and let this really play out on camera. Show us, don’t tell us! You need a good transition out of this high-fueled action scene, so why not play it out at the scene as the tension and action wind down. She watches as the CSI people do their thing and the EMT pulls up. One of the techs would routinely check her out and she might resist but in the end, maybe sit on the EMT truck bumper as they maybe try to treat her wound or whatever. This might also, in what I call a quiet moment, give you a chance to tell us what is going on, why the chase? Either she can think about it, or talk to Jordan or someone about it.  Don’t jerk her (and the reader) roughly out of the action and to the hospital. Pace yourself, and your scene. Think of pacing as a roller coaster. You took us up and then plunged us down a steep action hill, so we could use a “quiet moment” after that to catch our breath before we head into the next hill or turn. quiet slow moments are just as important as the fast ones. 

Again, this is a good start, but what you are lacking is feeling, emotion and thoughts from your main character.  We might admire her ballsiness in this foot pursuit, but because you’ve given us not one thought or emotion, we have no reason to emotionally attach to her.  Find that thread and begin weaving it in and you’ll be on your way!

Happy New Year all.




Do You Dare To Eat A Peach?
Finding the Perfect Metaphor

I want to paint the way a bird sings. — Claude Monet

By PJ Parrish

I don’t want to burst your bubble, but coming up with metaphors and similes is hard. Bad ones are a dime a dozen and coming up with good ones is like banging your head against a brick wall. You will be tempted to farm the over-tilled soil, tread the road already taken, resort to the tried and true. But you have to look through the rain to see the rainbow.

I guess you know my topic for today. I’ve written about it before here at TKZ, but I read something on this subject yesterday that had an impact on me, and I’d like to share it.

First, I don’t know about you, but I could use a quick primer of definitions.

Allusion: A brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. He’s a real Romeo. She’s on a quixotic quest. This will open a real Pandora’s box

Then we get to the Three Amigos – analogy, metaphor and simile. Even as an English Lit major, I got these confused. Still do. So I found this easy guide on Daniel Miessler’s blog:

Analogies compare things so that you can see a relationship between them. There are many ways to do it, but the key thing is comparing one thing to another.

Similes do this by saying something is “like” or “as” something else. He’s like a wall. She’s as smart as a whip. Her temper was like a storm.

Metaphors do this by saying something “is” something else. That test was murder. The company was a sinking ship. The campaign is a dumpster fire.

Got it? Now here’s what got me thinking about this — a feature called New Sentences in the Sunday New York Times magazine. In it, Sam Anderson analyzes a metaphor from Paul Yoon’s short story “The Mountain.”

She reached down with a gentleness that reminded Faye of an arm underwater, the completion of a stroke.

Anderson then weighs in with the story’s context:

In the middle of the night, a woman sits alone on the ground, ill and exhausted. She is a factory worker in China. A truck full of people happens to pass by. It stops. A woman inside reaches down in a gesture of care – a surprisingly tender moment in an otherwise brutal world. The narrator’s description is perfect.

Describing nonverbal communication is tricky. As human animals we are fluent in a vast, complex language of gesture and posture and expression. But how do we translate that nonverbal language into verbal language? There are plenty of words for it: People smirk, loom, flinch, slump, scowl, tremble, stride, nod, stare. Even such vivid verbs are only rough approximations of the expressive richness of the motions they describe.

An arm reaching down is one of the more familiar movements in the human lexicon. It can express all kinds of things, from menace to boredom to exhaustion. The narrator’s description here transposes that familiar gesture into a different element altogether. The end of a swimming stroke is something we normally don’t see; it happens as a kind of footnote, underwater to the visible part of the stroke. The drag on the arm, which in the swimming stroke would be provided by the resistance of the water, is here a result of an emotion, a gentleness.

I love that. Love the swimming image and love what Sam Anderson saw in it.

Metaphors and similes are maybe the most precise tools in our writer’s toolbox. We all know how much beauty and power they can add to our fiction. But like anything powerful, they can backfire badly. (See first paragraph). When they work, they elevate your story, illuminate your characters and make your readers go, “Yes! I know what that is like!”  When they fail, they make you look like a fool.

Coming up with rich and original metaphors and similes is really hard. No other way to say that. And in the heat of a deadline or the frustration of the daily writing grind, we’ve all veered off onto the cliche road. If you find yourself going there, read THIS. It’s a handy list of bad metaphors. Avoid them like the plague.

Where to go for good inspiration? The Bible is rich in beautiful metaphors. The main one, of course, is Jesus’s description of himself — “I am the good shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep.” — John 10:14-15

Ditto for Shakespeare who told us that our world is a stage and we poor novelists are merely strutting our time upon it. When Romeo describes Juliet, it is with this beautiful Valentine: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Back in my lit classes, I had several forced encounters with TS Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So many in fact, I grew to hate this poem. Last spring, when I was winnowing out my books in anticipation of our move, I found my college copy of Eliot’s collected poems. Don’t know what made me go back to Prufrock, but I did.  Do you remember the opening line?

Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.

And go I did. I couldn’t stop reading after that. The sparkling and startling metaphors and similes kept coming and coming. Sea imagery about mermaids “combing the white hair of the waves blown back.” “I am pinned and wriggling on the wall.” “Ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” And of course, the fog — “a yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.”

Why does the fog image work? It conveys mood. The fog is a menacing beast stalking a city of “one-night cheap motels and streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent.” Eliot has said this was inspired by the yellow smog he saw spewing from factories in his hometown St. Louis. But he was also a cat lover — he wrote the book on which the musical Cats was based – so the feline image is there.

Compare this to Carl Sandberg’s fog which “comes in on little cat feet and sits looking over the harbor on its haunches before it moves on.”

Why does this work? It also conveys mood, in this case mystery and silkiness. It is accurate and immediately recognizable (who hasn’t seen a slinking cat?). Even its alliterative “H” makes you think of softness, like a slow exhale in misty air.

Back to Prufrock…

I always thought this was an odd line — “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” When I was in college, I figured this was a metaphor for indecision, which relates to the opening image of paralysis (etherized patient) and a later reference to Hamlet. But when I read it recently, it was though the lens of a 66-year-old woman, so the metaphors and similes now seem to be more about rationing your time on earth at the expense of experiencing joy. Eliot was a mere pup of a grad student when he wrote this, but said he was imagining his narrator as a “man of about 40.” So who knows?

It does make me think of one of another of my favorite metaphors, from Groucho Marx: “A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.”

So how do you know if your metaphors and similes are working? Boy, I wish I could tell you for sure, but there’s no easy way. It’s a feeling, I think. It’s like that finding that sweet spot in the tennis racket – you can just feel it. Or when you hit a homer. You know you’ve connected and that it’s going out.

Let’s extend the sports metaphor: I don’t play golf but my best friend Linda does. She took a lot of lessons, trying to do all the right things with her grip, stance, breathing, etc. But she could never seem to hit a good tee shot. One day, frustrated and angry, she finally “let it go” and just hit the ball. It went far and true. She realized she was getting so hung up on the all rules about technique that she had lost her natural flow.

The great golfer Bobby Jones tells the story about his father’s frustration during a round of bad ball striking. Angrily he made a perfect practice swing and asked Jones, “Now what’s the matter with that swing?” To which Jones replied, “Nothing. Why don’t you use it sometime?”

My friend Linda got rid of her golf instructor. Her game is improving and she’s having fun. So it is with metaphors and such. If you try too hard, you’ll whiff every time. Many of you participate in the National Novel Writing Month exercise or write poetry, and I’ll bet you come up with some great creative stuff only to tense up when you turn to your novel. I know I’ve seen writers in workshops produce terrific stuff — amazing themselves! — when I give them five-minute writing drills.

Well, maybe you have to learn to use the rhythmic swing you’ve developed during “practice swings” and use them in actual play.  You’ll feel it when it’s good.

And when it’s bad? Come on, you know what that feels like, too, right? When you’ve laid down a metaphoric mound of writing poop, you know in your gut it’s bad. Because it didn’t come from your experience but from somewhere else. Or worse, from somebody else.

Here’s a rule. Yeah, I know, we don’t have rules, but I’m breaking the rule and giving you a rule.

If you’re ever in doubt as to whether or not you’ve pulled a metaphor off, cut it out.

That’s it. Don’t listen to your ego (“But I worked so hard to come up with that!”) Don’t listen to your inner artiste. (“But it’s so beautiful!” Yeah, just like all babies are beautiful, right?) The first goal of fiction is communication, reaching your reader emotionally. You don’t need to dazzle and you don’t want to distract.

Now go hit some tee shots.



First Page Critique:
Opening With a Good Bad Guy

In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They want an ordinary human being with failings. — Alfred Hitchcock.

By PJ Parrish

Well, this was fun. Nothing like a good bad guy to get things rolling. Here, for our consideration, is today’s First Page Critique, titled Goodbye Detective.  After you read it, we’re going to dig down into the burnt-cinder souls of villains.

Goodbye Detective

As you are reading this, Detective, know that I did not mean to kill her at first. I do not seek absolution from you, or anyone – we have moved well beyond that by now – but I want you to understand how we arrived at the here and now.

This has not always been about you. I have done this before you came around, and I will continue long after they have called your End of Watch. You were nothing to me – a faceless badge – until you first stepped in front of those microphones. A rising star in the department, youthful and clean-shaven and with your freshly minted shield gleaming in the camera lights, you were quite the sight to behold. You seemed comfortable in the spotlight as you fielded questions and recounted the sparse evidence I allowed to be found. When you delivered your promise to bring me to justice, it was not the first time that I heard those words. But there was something about the way you said them and that fire of determination I recognized in your eyes that made me take notice. You were different than the ones before you, and this would require my full attention.

At first, I simply wanted to throw you off. Let you follow a trail that leads nowhere or deliver you an with an unwitting patsy you can build your case around. This has worked for me in the past, but you saw right through those attempts to lead you astray. You snooped and dug ever deeper, connecting bodies to me that I had all but forgotten and you became all-consumed by this case of yours. By me.

Each time you stepped in front of those cameras – a small update here, a major break in the case there – you looked worse for wear. Gone was the well-groomed youth, his place taken by an ever more disheveled figure, stubble-faced and unkempt. The dark furrows beneath your eyes grew deeper with every long hour you spent on the case. I came to understand that you would not be deterred, and I respected your tenacity. But it meant that for the first time I had to alter my approach. You had become my biggest fan and I had found a playmate


We’re back. This is certainly an interesting start. And I think it’s well-written, so I am not going to do my usual line edits. Got no nits to pick. What I like about this is that the voice is solid, and we get a hint of the villain’s personality. Notice that the word choices, the vocabulary and syntax imply a man of some education. He feels almost Hannibal Lector-ish. Good job with that.

We also get some early glimpses of the protagonist (the detective) through the villain’s sensibility. One of the most effective ways to show your protagonist’s character is to reveal it through the thoughts or others. We are told he was a fresh-faced rising star. But time, and this case, have worn him down. We are told he is tenacious. And he’s not the first man to work this case…there have been a lot of bodies. All of this is smoothly inserted back story. Good job, writer!

The only thing I don’t like — the title. It doesn’t do this justice. But it’s an okay working title and maybe the real title will reveal itself later. It often does.  Shoot, I’d rather see this called End of Watch. Which would work on a couple levels — it’s the end of a policeman’s shift but might it also describe what the detective seeks — the end of the watching (stalking) done by the bad guy.  A good title does two important things — captures the tone of the story and works on several levels of meaning.

I would read on. But I am not sure how much further, if you overstay in the villain’s head. The usual caveat here with our First Page Critiques:  Because the submission has to be short, we don’t really know where this is going.  But the opening pages do illuminate an important point — you have to seduce the reader (be it editor, agent, or reader) in the first page or so and make them want more.  I think this writer succeeds, but I would caution that this opening be short and sweet and get us to the hero soon — or some kind of action because this opening is, essentially, character thinking and not doing.

In film, this kind of opening is called the Establishing Character Moment — a red flag to pay attention to a major character. You can’t wait too long to do this because it breeds impatience. And you can’t dwell on false protagonists or secondary characters too long or the reader will assume this is the hero, get attached, and then be disappointed.  A couple months back, I read a manuscript for the Mystery Writers of America Critique Program and the submission had a fatal flaw — the writer introduced five characters in the first 30 pages, each with their own point of view. Because the book’s title has a subtitle (ie A Sylvia Drake Mystery…not the real name) we know Sylvia is the protag. But poor Sylvia is showing up way too late for her own party. Not good.

Back to the Establishing Character Moment.  Novel writing is a series of choices the writer makes, and who comes on stage first is an important choice. I have no problem at all with the villain in the submission, instead of the hero, getting prime time.  It’s a common trope in thriller books and movies.

The movie Dirty Harry begins with a rooftop close-up of a gun barrel, zooms down to a pretty girl taking a swim in a pool, then zooms back out until we see the sniper take his deadly shot.

Joyce Carol Oates (under her crime novel pen name Rosamond Smith) opens Snake Eyes with a tight-focus scene about her tattooed convict Lee Roy Sears before she pulls her camera back and switches to the suburban couple who fatally take him into their home.

One of my fave Hitchcock’s openings is from Rope with two murderers garroting a victim, stuffing him in a trunk, and sharing a drink — all before James Stewart sets foot on stage. Check it out:

So what do we make of the opening of our submission Goodbye Detective? As I said, I think it’s good. It’s not a normal third-person or omniscient narrative (“The man watched her from the rooftop, aiming his rifle carefully.”)  It’s not even a normal first-person point of view (“I set the barrel of the rifle on the ledge and waited until the girl below drove in before I took aim.”)  No, this is more stylized with the villain (in first person), “talking” to the detective, or perhaps actually writing to him. But in a way, he is also talking to us the readers, like an actor breaking the fourth wall with an audience. I think this is tough style to maintain over 200+ pages, but I will give the writer the benefit of the doubt and hope s/he moves toward a more active first-person voice for the villain.

I tried to think of an example from a published book that was similar to what the writer is attempting here but drew a blank.  But I will offer up one terrific example of an opening featuring the villain. First we get one orgasmic graph describing the moon then comes this:

I had been waiting and watching the priest for five weeks now. The need had been prickling and teasing prodding at me to find one, the next one, find this priest. Three weeks I had known he was it, the next one, we belonged to the Dark Passenger, he and I together. And that three weeks I had been fighting the pressure, the growing Need rising in me like a great wave that roars up and over the beach and does not recede, only swells with every tick of the bright night’s clock.

That’s from Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I know, I know…technically Dexter is both hero and villain. He’s a little like the main character in Jim Thompson’s classic The Killer Inside Me, about a small-town good ol’ boy sheriff who is actually a depraved psychopath. I’m bring them up only to make a point here:

If you open with the bad guy, it better be good. Make  sure his voice is pitch-perfect, original, and that it’s your best possible writing.

Another example of a villain opening, from one of my fave college reads, John Fowles’ The Collector:

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annex. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M.I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in a queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like Burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at the back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.

Let’s talk now about structure.  If you do open with a villain, you have to make choices about how you present him, what form it will take:

  • What point of view — third or third?
  • Prologue or chapter 1?
  • A constant presence throughout the book or limited?
  • Identify by name or leave him a ghostly figure?

Our submitting writer chose first person, and I assume it’s Chapter 1. We can’t tell if this POV will be constant throughout the book, but I will caution that if you do decide to give your villain screen time, you should make him a constant presence throughout your narrative. One opening scene isn’t enough; in my opinion, it feels tacked on, like a false attempt to inject tension in the opening.

If you’ll indulge me, I think a recounting here of my own experience with villain openings might help us understand this. I’ve used a villain POV many times but opened with it only twice. The first time was with our third book Paint It Black. Here it is:

The car was just sitting there, its hazard lights blinking like beacons in the darkness. In a flash of lightening, he could see someone walking around the car, in and out of the shadows.

Stop here? No, no, not right. Rain…too much rain. It wasn’t supposed to happen here. Stop! Stop!

He slowed the truck, pulling onto the shoulder behind the stalled car. A man came around the car and looked back at him, shielding his eyes in the glare of the headlights. 

The wipers beat with the thick pounding in his head. He could see the man’s face. And his eyes, hopeful, as they squinted back to his rescuer.

Yes…oh, yes.

This was Chapter 1, not a prologue because it segued right into the following scene. The killer gets his own scenes in the book, at a ratio of about one-to-three vs the hero. I didn’t name him until Louis figured out who he was.  Choices…

Now I’ll tell you about the villain opening I almost screwed up. But first, I have to talk about the book that inspired my choices — Michael Connelly’s The Poet. If you are considering giving your villain a starring role, you must read this book. Connelly toggles between his reporter hero Jack McEvoy (using first-person) and his villain William Gladden (third-person.)  The first two chapters are from Jack’s POV, but then Connelly opens Chapter 3 with the slow-build tension of Gladden watching kids on the Santa Monica Pier merry-go-round.

When I was writing my first stand-alone thriller, I knew I wanted to toggle between hero and villain. Using Connelly’s template, I also mixed first and third POV. But because I had written a dozen books in third person — my comfort zone — I gave that to my hero, and gave the villain first person.  Can you see the problem?

Well, the fifty pages in, book was a snoozer and I couldn’t figure out why. Luckily, I ran into Mike Connelly at a writers conference and asked his advice. “Give the more intimate first to your hero,” he said. Once I did that, the book wrote itself. I opened with the villain, watching his victim in Saint Chapelle in Paris:

He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

The last rays of the setting sun slanted through the stained glass window over her head, bathing her in a rainbow. He knew it was just a trick of light, that the ancient glassmakers added copper oxide to make the green, cobalt to make the blue, and real gold to make the red. He knew all of this.

But still, she was beautiful.

I loved writing from this villain’s point of view. Which is another caution flag I need to throw out here. Villains are very seductive. They are more fun to write than heroes. So be careful you don’t use up all your writer juice on them.

A couple more tips about villains:

Keep in mind that once you enter the villain’s mind, you risk sacrificing some of your story’s tension because the reader will know what’s going to happen. Find ways to keep them guessing, even when in the bad guy’s head.


Make your villain a worthy adversary. In real life, criminals are usually dumb as stumps. But in fiction, a complex villain gives your hero something to push back against. What’s the old quote? Even a villain is the hero of his own story. Develop your antagonist with as much care as your protagonist. Every character must want something. Especially your villain. Figure out what that is and drill deep.

Good job, writer. Thanks for submitting.



Cutting Open the Sausage:
A Hard Look at Rewriting

“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” –Vladimir Nabokov.

By PJ Parrish

This is it. This is the third draft. This is the last best chance to get it right.

I’m in rewrite hell this week. Actually, it’s not hell. To me, at least. I love this phase of the process because the really hard work is done — the laying of the foundation, the erecting of the beams, the finishing of the roof.  Now I just have to go back in and make sure the structure is sturdy, the flow from room to room logical, and the style true to my own. Oh, and it would be great if someone gets so emotionally caught up that they maybe want to buy it.

Rewriting is where the book is truly made. No one will ever convince me otherwise. Yeah, my sister and I can turn out a pretty decent first draft, but who wants pretty decent these days? What reader would settle for it? What writer would? So I’m digging back into the coffee-stained third draft this week to up the ante as far as I can.

Now maybe you’re one of those rare birds who can produce a perfect book in a single swoop. (Like Lee Child who told one interviewer: “I don’t want to improve it. When I’ve written something, that is the way it has to stay.”). But most of us need to go back and reassess and rearrange. I always tell my workshop folks that the first draft is written with the heart, but the second, third…tenth, well, that’s written with the head.

Two quick tips: Wait as long as you can stand after you finish your first draft to start rewrites. You need a break from the beast that has consumed your life for eight months or eight years. Also, I always print out a manuscript for rewriting because the eye, so attuned to the screen, becomes inured to error and excess.  Seeing your work in a physical state also gives it a gravitas that the computer can’t imitate. Here’s my big baby in three messy piles:

Now what I’d like to do is show you my draft’s innards. But before I drag out my sausage machine, let’s do a quick review of rewrite basics:

Structural Problems

This is a big issue, so be prepared to spend a lot of time and brain-power on it. You’re going to find plot holes to plug, characters to amplify, a muddy middle to amp up, conflicts to bring into higher relief. Oh yeah….and you might uncover that elusive theme.  Ask yourself all the basic questions that our bloggers here post about: Is your three-act structure sound? Do your characters want something and is it important enough to drive their arcs? Is your central conflict tantalizing enough to support a whole novel? What, at its heart, is your book about? (not plot, but theme.).

Logic Lapses

Does your plot make sense and it is believable? (Those are two different things). Do you resort to a deus ex machina or the Long Lost Uncle From Australia villain reveal? Do your characters act in accordance with their natures or do you have them doing stupid illogical things? Are your police and forensics procedures sound or did you try to fake it? (ie clip and magazine are not the same). Does your research hold up? Is your fantasy, horror or alien world well-rendered and credible?

Confusion and Clarity Issues

Can the reader easily figure out what’s going on? This does not mean artful misdirection or red herrings. This means you choreograph movement and events carefully, everything from small stuff like moving people across a room or a country to big things like why did they did a certain thing (motivation).  Do you make it clear where we are and what time period we’re in? Can the reader discern a mood or tone in your book (dark? hardboiled? humorous? sardonic?)

Flabby Writing

Have you ferreted out all the junk-writing? This includes overwrought and repetitious description, dumb physical moves (“He bent his left arm and brought the beer up to his lips.”…no, he took a drink.)  Do you rely on adverbs instead of muscular dialogue? Have you pruned away all the unnecessary words you can, especially as you near the last third of the story when the reader wants to move faster?

Proof Reading

Spelling, grammar, punctuation…know them or hire an editor who does. Watch out for dumb inconsistencies like changing a character’s eye color or name spelling. Double check for errors (use Google maps to verify that it is, indeed, a four-hour drive from Moose Butt to Manitou).  Did you get rid of all your brain farts? I once read a novel that described the crime as as grizzly murder. Shoot, in one of my first drafts, I had a distraught character balling like a girl…thank God for editors.

Okay, now let’s look at some of my mistakes and I’ll show you how I hope to run ’em back through the sausage-making machine:

Here we are on page 1 and already I have a problem. In my first chapter (indeed, the whole book) I neglected to tell the reader what year we’re in. My series started in year 1981 and has progressed now to 1991.  I have to make sure my readers know this early because the forensics, cell phones, computers are all going to be different. But notice that I DID find a way to tell readers we are in Lansing Michigan.  I have a logic/plot problem here. In the deleted part, the sheriff offers to plant a story about Louis’s case in the local paper, hoping to stir up leads. But if he does this, it will tip off a suspect who I have come forward fifteen chapters later — and it blows up the plot! This sounded good when I wrote it on pg 82 but it doesn’t hold up on page 345.

This one falls under Elmore Leonard’s Kill Your Darlings.  Louis is about to uncover a major gruesome clue and plot point on next page. (Yay! Momentum!) Why in the world do I need him looking around this farm at deer or listening to crows? (Boo! Screeching halt!) It was a pretty image when I wrote it but adds nothing, especially since I had already described the lonely isolation of the place in vivid detail two pages ago.

Nice clean page, right? Except for one bone-headed mistake. One of my main characters is a teetotaler. It’s a big point in his make-up, which my hero Louis knows. So why does Louis set a beer at the man’s side? Always watch for dumb mistakes and inconsistencies. In film, a script supervisor oversees the continuity of a movie including wardrobe, props, set dressing, hair, makeup and the actions of the actors during a scene. You don’t have one of these backing you up. So be careful.

I call this one the Jacqueline Susann problem. The copy after the double space is the beginning of a seven-page scene where Louis goes to a state forensics lab to log in his evidence. It’s interesting in so much as it shows nerdy police procedure. But my book is running long so I have to MAKE DECISIONS about what to put “on camera” and what to recount in narrative. Now some scenes must be on camera (decisive action, great clue reveals) but some stuff can be dealt with efficiently in a character’s thoughts after the fact.  I am going to cut this scene and in the following chapter just say “Louis went to the lab in Marquette and logged in the evidence.”  Back to Jackie Susann: When she turned in one of her potboilers, she devoted an entire chapter to a Democratic National Convention (she had gone to one and was going to show off her research, damn it!). Her wise editor Michael Korda told her to cut it.  She fought him but in the end the book said: “The convention was held.”

See the part in red? During first draft, I was trying to hone the theme (forgiving those who hurt you as a child) so I was acutely aware of all religious references I used. In this scene, Louis has interviewed an ex-priest who took confession from a murderer decades ago. The priest talks about the sanctity of the confessional but how his guilt eventually drove him from the Church. Catholic cops grapple hard with this issue. But after a powerful scene with the priest, do I really need Louis thinking about this? No, it was one theme-bridge too far.  Lesson: Have a theme but don’t preach.

I am a perfectionist. It is hard for me to move on until I get a paragraph, a scene, a chapter right. I am trying hard to change this flaw. My sister flogs me constantly: JUST WRITE! So now I put notes to myself in red to fix it later. This is called faith. {{sigh}} Read the ending of this scene. It sucks, right? I know that. I will fix it. Lesson: Don’t get paralyzed by perfection. Move forward. Chances are excellent that by the time you finish the first draft you will know exactly how to make an early chapter end — or begin — with more punch and precision.

Look at the beginning of chapter 24.  Argh! I opened it with weather. Now, that is okay except that it is April in Michigan and it is raining almost every day in my book. By page 274, the reader GETS that because I have told them at least four times. Lesson: Go easy on weather and don’t repeat the obvious.

I included this page just to make the point about flabby writing. All the stuff I crossed out is fat. Always aim for economy, which is not the same as underwriting (a sin in its own right). When you are just moving characters around in time and space, do it with as few and unflashy words as possible.  Almost half the pages in my manuscript are marked up like this.

I saved the most important one for last. The sin isn’t apparent to you but boy, did it jump off the page when I read it in rewrites. We laid down a very complicated bread-crumb trail of clues in this book about mistaken identities, time-lines, family trees. So it was critical that as the book neared its climax, we explained this so the reader would understand how the puzzle finally fit together.  Well, we didn’t do a good job of ‘splainin. As a major clue, we had two photographs of boys that we thought was a peachy misdirection but it only confused the reader in the end. It came on page 441 and was a major plot mistake that we had to acknowledge and correct. It was major surgery but without it, the book would have died. Lesson 1: Don’t avoid the hardest work. Lesson 2: Don’t confuse the reader. Especially at the end, after they have invested so much time and heart into your story.  Make the ending clear, satisfying and logical.  Your plot twists must be well-earned.

That’s it, crime dogs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.



The Rituals of Writing

By PJ Parrish

This one is going to be shorter than my usual Michener-esque meanderings, because two things have happened this week:

  1. We finished the book
  2. Rewrites are needed — bad.

So I thought maybe, for a change, we could talk about something that doesn’t cause us writers angst — the positive little rituals that help get us through our days.  I thought about this today because whenever my sister Kelly and I finish a first draft, we have a special ritual.  First I type a word


Then she types a word


Then we crack open an unshabby bottle of wine, preferably champagne, hug each other and get smashed. We started this ritual way back in 2000 after we finished our second book Dead of Winter.  It came about because back then, as we were nearing the finish line, Kelly would routinely come down to visit me in Fort Lauderdale and we would work together in my office, back-to-back on our computers.  Sort of like Ferrante and Teicher, except that Kelly’s two-finger hunt-and-peck key pounding tended to sound more like Keith Moon.

We kept to our ritual for a couple years, but then life started to intrude. Kelly’s life became peripatetic and hectic.  She couldn’t easily get down to Florida.  So we had to resort to ritual-by-email.  I would type THE on the Word Perfect doc and then send it to her.  She would type END and send it back. We’d then get on the phone and toast each other from our respective corners of the world.  It wasn’t as much fun.

Then around book six or nine — I forget — Skype came into being. Now, this was a god-send for our partnership because I could call up a chapter on my screen, share, and she could see it on her screen thousands of miles away while we talked about it. And we were able, when we were finished, at least see each other as we raised our glasses.

This is also how we opened Christmas presents. Better, but it still wasn’t the same.

A couple years ago, Kelly finally made it back to our home state of Michigan, settling finally, after a couple false starts, in beautiful Traverse City.  I was secretly envious because I really didn’t like living in South Florida, but I had put down deep roots. Then last year, my husband Daniel gave me the best gift he’s ever given me — he agreed to leave the place where he had lived for 40 years so I could be happier. We sold our Fort Lauderdale condo and bought a little house in Tallahassee, where we are very content. But then, came the icing on the cake.  Because of the move to Tally, we had enough left over to buy a small condo in Traverse City.  So I’m officially a snowbird.  A very happy one. So’s the husband.  He told me the other day, “Thank you for making me do this. I needed a kick in the ass.”

So for the first time in ten years, Kelly and I were in one place when we finished the book.  We bought a bottle of SEX pink champagne from Mawby vineyards here in TC, typed out THE END, hugged and uncorked.  The wine is only $15 a bottle but tasted like Veuve Clicquot Brut Rose.

I love rituals, especially when they involve family. Like opening presents on Christmas Eve instead of morning.  Deviled eggs for Thanksgiving dinner. Celebrating our sixth-month anniversary every year with my husband because we never thought we’d make it that far.  Rituals are important.  They are the bonds, born of our memories, that keep us from spinning away into the lonely void.

Most of my writer friends have rituals, some silly, some serious. One of my favorite scenes from the movie Misery is the opening, where Paul Sheldon types THE END and then indulges in his own writer-ritual — gently tucking his finished manuscript to bed in his old briefcase, setting out one cigarette, one match and a bottle of Dom. Here’s the scene if you want to watch:

I can relate. Can you? Rituals help us establish a sense of continuity in a business that can make us feel ungrounded and unguarded. And if you think your rituals are weird…

Roald Dahl, when he wants to write, gets into a sleeping bag, pulls it up to his waist and settles into a faded wing-backed armchair. He puts his feet up on a battered traveling case full of logs. This is roped to the legs of the armchair so it’s always at a perfect distance.

Joan Didion holds her books close to her heart—literally. When she’s close to finishing one, she’ll sleep beside it in the same room. “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it,” she said in a 1968 interview with The Paris Review.

The great Greek statesman Demosthenes, to get himself in the writing groove, would shave one side of his head so he wouldn’t be tempted to leave the house until he was finished.

John Steinbeck, who wrote his drafts in pencil, always kept twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. He wore them down to nubs. His editor started sending him round pencils instead of normal hexagonal ones, because Steinbeck had developed such bad callouses.

So…whatever your ritual, wallow in it. It makes you special. It is part of your style, and I hope that something of that uniqueness, that weirdness, shows up on the page every day.

Gotta go. Rewrites await. I’m considering that if I don’t get serious about them pretty quickly here, I might have to go shave half my hair off.  But that might be just the Sex talking.