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

When Should A Story End?

Vincent the Lost dog with dead friend

I suppose sequels are inevitable for a writer of a certain age. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

We’re binge-watching Breaking Bad in my house lately. I know, I know…I am the last one to the party, but now I am hooked. Great characters (and a lesson in how writers can make even the most reprehensible people sympathetic). Great plotting (and a lesson on how writers should strive to make each plot point arise organically from character).  And each episode ends with a cliff-hanger.

We’re almost to the end. So the husband and I looked at each other last night and said, “how in the heck are they going to tie this up?” And the first thing I thought was:

Please, don’t let it be another Lost.

Do you remember Lost? The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were 1,000 miles off course when they crashed on a lush mysterious island. Each person had a shocking secret, but so did the island — an underground group of violent survivalists that made The Time Machine’s Morlocks look like teletubbies.  I loved that show, grooving on its nerdy sci-fi cum mythology thing. But somewhere around season three, things started to get…dumb. I was mentally exhausted trying to make sense of it all (what’s with the polar bear? Who cares how Jack got his tattoos?) and finally, I gave up. Plus I was too worried that Vincent the Labrador Retriever would get killed. One by one, all his owners did.

I think what happened with Lost was that it was so hot that ABC got cynical and said, “Find any way to keep it going!” It felt like the writers were just winging it, with no real thoughtful end ever in sight. (This happened with season two of the original Twin Peaks, you remember). Apparently, I should have toughed it out with Lost. Rabid fans tell me the writers found their focus again and that I missed a great payoff. Today, the series is being reassessed as break-through serial television, giving TV bean-counters the guts to take chances on great stuff like Game of Thrones and yes, Breaking Bad.

All this was on my mind the other day because I read an intriguing article in the New York Times by Amanda Hess called “The Curse of the Never-Ending Story.” Click here to read it. Hess bemoans the trend of turning stories into franchises that trudge across Hulu and populate Amazon like zombies, always alive when they should be dead.

Today, the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book: Stories that extend indefinitely, their plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams. Or maybe every story is a soap opera now: Nobody is dead forever, not Dan Conner of Roseanne and definitely not the superhero genocide victims of Infinity War. To Hollywood’s bean-counters, sequels are mere brand extensions of intellectual property. The logic of the  internet is colonizing everything.

So far this decade, 17 of the top 20 top grossing movies were sequels. Television is eating itself alive with reboots (Lost in Space, Will & Grace, and egad, Murphy Brown wearing a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt). And apparently, there are second acts in American life: Harry Potter made it to Broadway.

I am not sure what this means for us novelists. For those of us who write series crime fiction, it can be a struggle to keep our plots fresh without straining credibility. How many times can our hero get shot or beat up? How many bodies can turn up in Cabot Cove, the apparent murder capital of the world? How deep do we dig into the brains of our hero without looking like that creepy family in Get Out?

But maybe this is really in my thoughts right now for a different reason. One that I don’t want to deal with.

Back in 2015, our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE was published by Thomas & Mercer.  I loved writing this story about Amelia Brody, an amnesiac who is convinced her husband tried to kill her so she goes on the run. It is, at its thematic heart, about what happens to your soul when you try to live an inauthentic life. It is about a woman whose past is erased, so she must painfully reconstruct it before she can have a chance at a future. When I typed THE END, I was convinced I had nothing more to say.

The problem I don’t want to deal with? I think I might be wrong.

In SHE’S NOT THERE, there was a skip tracer named Clay Buchanan who was hired by Amelia’s husband to track her down and kill her. Buchanan was one of those characters who emerge from the ether of the imagination unbidden; he was supposed to be a cameo, but he became a second protagonist. Amelia is desperate to remember her past. Buchanan is desperate to forget his. His wife and infant son disappeared ten years ago and he was accused of murdering them. He was cleared but his life was broken, especially because he lost custody of his daughter. Like Amelia, he can’t move forward until he fully confronts his past. Throughout the book, I use a devise where his dead wife speaks to him — or, in his grief, he believe she does. In one scene, he is looking at a photograph of his wife:

Buchanan stared at the photo then he looked up, into the shadows of his bedroom.

“Are you here, Rayna?”

He heard nothing.

“I need to know something,” he said. “I need to know if it’s too late.”

Still, silence.

For the first time, she is gone. But in this “man in the mirror” moment, Buchanan makes the decision that he will find out the truth about what happened to her. Until he knows for certain, he can’t move forward. This happens on page 362, the second to last chapter. When we wrote this scene, we had no intention of revisiting Clay Buchanan. I believed just having him decide to take action was enough. But then readers weighed in — often and loudly.  They wanted to know what was going to happen. They want to hear Buchanan again. They weren’t content with silence.

I have mixed feelings about this because I’ve always believed that all stories have a logical end, that you shouldn’t over-explain. I’ve always believed in the power of ambiguity, even in unhappily ever after. (I blogged HERE about it a couple years back). I believe in leaving some space at the end of a story for readers to fill in the missing pieces themselves, to imagine what a character’s life is like after they close the book. I like the idea that readers can “write” their own epilogues.

But I think I might be wrong this time. I think I might have to write a sequel.

I’m having trouble getting moving on this book. Partly is it because I don’t want this to feel forced or derivative. I don’t want this to be a soap opera. Maybe I have seen too many bad movie sequels that felt cannibalized or read too many series thrillers that felt phoned in. Maybe I am just worried because, so far, Clay Buchanan isn’t talking to me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not listening hard enough.

My sister Kelly keeps telling me, as she always does when I am blocked, to just have faith, that we will figure it out before we’ve been there before. But with this one, we haven’t. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. As they say in the serials, stay tuned…

3+

First Page Critique:
Floating in Space

By PJ Parrish

I love stories about outer space. Maybe it goes back to when I got to be the papier-mâché planet Venus in an third-grade play.  And in the Fifties, I remember being enthralled with a book called You Will Go to the Moon. (I still want to). My childhood went by in a Raisonette-fueled fog of matinee cheese like Earth Versus the Flying Saucers and The Day of the Triffids.  I own a complete set of original Star Trek videos, and if Contact, Interstellar or either Alien movie comes on at night, I will watch it again. So, yeah, let’s say I am predisposed to like any story that’s spacey.  That said, strap in for today’s First Page Critique.

TITAN

Fynn pressed close to the shuttlecraft’s window, ignoring the cold against his fingertips. “I always dreamed of a trip into orbit. I’m lucky Dad arranged this tour before the fall semester starts.”

They were about to dock at the Herschel. It didn’t look like a classic spaceship. From their approach vector, it looked like a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport by a straw. Beyond the spaceport, the moon loomed huge against a galaxy of stars.

“I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.” His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn. Pushing thirty. But she often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”

Fynn felt like a kid himself, and excitement further agitated his queasy, zero-g stomach.

Once inside the dock, while the other passengers obediently gripped a railing to listen to their flight attendant, Maliah pushed Fynn towards the passageway to the Herschel. “I’ll explain anything you need to know. I’ve been here before.”

“You never told me that.” He scrambled to find handholds, pushed off, and followed her. He’d studied the diagrams. They’d be entering the Herschel’s central core, an open recreational space, so he slapped both hands on each railing ring, gaining speed.

Maliah snagged his arm as he emerged and spun them close to the hull. “Surprise.”

Fynn’s chest tightened. This wasn’t a recreation bay. Streamlined coffins ringed the module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag alongside. Another level of the shiny steel pods hung above them, and another, as far as he could see up the Herschel’s dimly lit core.

Fynn stared through the layers of pods, trying to understand what he saw, and gawked open-mouthed for a moment. “Where are we?”

“The Herschel’s a colony ship.” Maliah’s face glowed. “We’re going to Titan.”

She hugged him tight, losing her handhold, and they floated towards the core’s center.

Fynn gripped her with one arm, twisting for a better view of the endless pods. “But, the Herschel’s a research station, to study the Saturn system.”

“So the mongrels think.”

Despite the ship’s distractions, he winced at the word. “Don’t call them that.”

“You’ve spent too much time at university.”

“University…” Fynn gasped for a lungful of air. “My PhD classes start in two weeks.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

__________________

Okay, we’re back to Earth now. On first quick read (the way I always do a critique, purely as a reader not editor), I thought I was reading young adult or even more likely, a book for a younger-yet crowd. Maybe it was the simplicity of the phrasing and vocabulary. But Fynn feels, on first glance to me, very young, a wide-eyed naif. Which isn’t a bad thing. I rather liked the idea I was going to follow a boy into space, because I went there often as a kid myself.  Fynn’s voice registers as young, enforced by the first graph mention of “Dad” arranging the trip, and the fact his sister challenges him to a race down the gangway — a very childlike thing to do.

But very late in the page, we learn he’s a PhD candidate. Whoa. To my ear, even a twenty-something going into space for the first time would sound more adult, especially if his PhD study was science. (He could be a philosophy major; we don’t know yet if he’s a fish-out-of-water civilian here or an educated traveler.) First impressions of your characters count. A lot.  I am having trouble buying into Fynn as a capable, highly educated adult character.  The actions and dialogue the writer has chosen to use for him do not support the narrative reality — man vs child.

Getting beyond that, the writing here is good but a tad workmanlike for me. There is some good description — I liked the image of  the ship they are docking with as “a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport by a straw.”  But I wish there had been a little more of it.  When you take a reader to foreign locales — and can outer space be any more foreign? — then you must spent good time and effort world-building, so we can enter your conjured realm and easily suspend disbelief or move beyond our limited knowledge. To paraphrase the famous poem about flight, you have to slip the surly bonds of earth, dance the skies on silver wings, join the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –and, most important as a writer, do a hundred things the reader has not dreamed of.

Here’s the opening graphs of Andy Weir’s (The Martian), latest novel Artemis:

I bounded over the gray dusty terrain toward the huge dome of Conrad Bubble. Its airlock, rigged with red lights,stood distressingly far away.

It’s hard to run with a hundred kilograms of gear on — even in lunar gravity. But you’d be amazed how fast you can hustle when your life is on the line.

Notice how Weir sketches in two short graphs his landscape PLUS tells us something bad it happening.  Another terrific opening to learn from is Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity. The first line:

He was gliding on the edge of the abyss.

We are in a tightly confined ship moving through “the vastness of space.” But — surprise! — we are in the deepest parts of the ocean. Which makes her second chapter all the most powerful when she switches to actual deep space, where the plot really takes off. I love how Gerritsen compared and contrasted both hostile frontiers, where there is no air and only darkness.

I also like the second chapter of The Martian Chronicles, which gives us the vivid image of everyday life of a couple, Mr. and Mrs. K.,  whose ancestors have lived by the dead sea on Mars for generations but now, something bad is about to upset their domestic bliss. When I first read this in high school, I totally bought into the idea of was reading about a married Martian couple and not my next door neighbors the Vanderloops.

The best example I could find of a compelling world-building purely descriptive opening is The Dispossessed by the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin. I can’t run the whole opening here because it’s too long, but I beg the writer of our critique today to go read it.  It’s all description, but man, it sets you down into an alien world with the precise beauty of an Elon Musk SpaceX rocket return.

Those are my major points about this submission. Let’s do a little line editing now.

Fynn pressed close to the shuttlecraft’s window, ignoring the cold against his fingertips. “I always dreamed of a trip into orbit. But he’s not merely in orbit of Earth; he is somewhere out in deep space. I’m lucky Dad arranged this tour before the fall semester starts.” Who is he talking to? Himself? You need a quick answer from his sister here I think. BUT…before the dialogue, I suggest you show us what he is seeing outside the window here, filtered through his consciousness. Then go with the dialogue and response.

Also, note that the line about Dad arranging this trip before school starts juvenilizes your hero. This is where I began to picture a boy instead of a man. Yes, any sane human would be entranced by his first sight of this space station out there in the void, but Fynn sounds way too young. 

They were about to dock at the Herschel. It didn’t look like a classic spaceship. Little confused here. From your description that follows, the Herschel sounds to me more like a space station which accommodates many space craft? Plus you later call it a “spaceport.”  From their approach vector, it looked like a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport more confusion. I thought the space station ship was call the Herschel by a straw. Beyond the spaceport, the moon loomed huge against a galaxy of stars. You can do better than this. What does it look like to Fynn? BE ORIGINAL

“I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.Again, I pictured a 12-year-old girl here and she’s 29. Any sane adult on a space mission would not even think this. His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn. Pushing thirty. But she often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”  She seems to have prior knowledge of this place or what is happening yet she sounds like a kid. What does she do for a living? Why not make the dialogue appropriate to her age, station, profession and the action at hand. 

Fynn felt like a kid himself, I understand what you are trying to do here — capture the childlike wonder any adult might feel in this situation but this is TELLING US what he is feeling. Find a way to get in his thoughts, maybe a childhood memory or compare and contrast: It was nothing like he had seen in his textbooks, nothing like he seen through his telescope back on the farm in Iowa. Start layering in some background and context for your characters. and excitement further agitated his queasy, zero-g stomach. I’m a little confused here. Zero-g is weightlessness. Are they strapped in some kind of unit for landing or just floating around like Jody Foster did in the space ball in “Contact”? You can’t get away with such non-specific descriptions in sci-fi.  Readers are too smart.

Once inside the dock, See comment above. You are stinting on needed description. while the other passengers obediently gripped a railing to listen to their flight attendant, Maliah pushed Fynn towards the passageway to the Herschel. “I’ll explain anything you need to know. I’ve been here before.” I don’t know why, but you have an odd habit of not using any attribution. Who said this? 

“You never told me that.” He scrambled to find handholds, pushed off, and followed her. He’d studied the diagrams. Missed opportunity here to insert a little context and backstory. Why did he study the diagrams? Why is he here? For fun? Why did Dad arrange this? I don’t mean this to sound flip, but right now, this sounds like the nice little trip to Europe between college semesters compliments of the parents. They’d be entering the Herschel’s central core, an open recreational space, so he slapped both hands on each railing ring, again, your description is really meager. Are they walking down a tunnel, a hallway? Where’s everyone else? Is it dark, lighted? This sounds as generic as a Newark Airport TSA approach gaining speed.

Maliah snagged his arm as he emerged and spun them close to the hull. “Surprise.” So they are still in a no gravity zone? Why?

Fynn’s chest tightened. This wasn’t a recreation bay. Streamlined coffins How does he know they are truly coffins? They are steel pods, the kind you see in every space movie these days, are they not? He might think they LOOK like coffins, but unless he can KNOW they are, neither can the reader at this point. ringed the module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag alongside. Another level of the shiny steel pods hung above them, and another, as far as he could see up the Herschel’s dimly lit core.

Where did the other shuttle passengers go, by the way? How come they are suddenly all alone? 

Fynn stared through the layers of pods, trying to understand what he saw, and gawked open-mouthed for a moment. “Where are we?”

“The Herschel’s a colony ship.Again, I am confused. They apparently took a shuttle to a ship named the Herschel. But did they first dock at a station called the Collins Spaceport and then somehow get into this ship? You must be clear. Maliah’s face glowed. “We’re going to Titan.”

She hugged him tight, losing her handhold, and they floated towards the core’s center. Still in zero gravity? And Fynn has trouble getting his breath. Are they wearing spacesuits?  

Fynn gripped her with one arm, twisting for a better view of the endless pods. “But, the Herschel’s a research station, Two paragraphs ago, she called it a ship to study the Saturn system.”

“So the mongrels think.” This is a good line of dialogue because it creates the first sense of suspense. Using such an epithet is intriguing, even though we don’t know what it refers to yet. 

Despite the ship’s distractions, he winced at the word. “Don’t call them that.”

“You’ve spent too much time at university.”

“University…” Fynn gasped for a lungful of air. A space station would have its own oxygen supply. “My PhD classes start in two weeks.”

“That doesn’t matter.” No, it really doesn’t at this early point in your story. 

Some final points.  I don’t mind that this story starts a little slow. I can buy into the idea of Fynn, as a first-time space traveler, getting his first view of his destination (or what he thinks it is) and that can be interesting in itself. But Fynn’s point of view is so sparse and underwritten that I don’t see this strange world or feel any of his excitement. If you chose a slow-burn beginning like this, the writing has to really sing. It has to pull us into a new world. The location has to become a character in itself.  But soon after that you have to get your hero into some deep space do-do. Because this opening is perfunctory and the only suspense comes from Fynn worrying he’s not going to get home in time for classes, I don’t think this opening, in the whole, works as well as it could.

So, don’t give up, dear writer. There is the germ of a good idea here — a young man, who apparently isn’t a hard scientist about to embark on a great adventure. It has the makings of a good fish-out-of-water story, which is always appealing. And thanks for submitting to TKZ.

And one last word — taken on my walk downtown — from my northern hometown as I get ready to head back down to Tallahassee on this cold rainy Michigan morning:

 

 

3+

Is Anything Really Taboo
In Today’s Crime Fiction?

I am on book tour in Michigan today, so excuse me if I don’t answer quickly to comments. In meantime, I wrote this recently for the great online mag Criminal Element. (Which coincided with a terrific review for our new Louis Kincaid thriller The Damage Done.) Thanks to my editor at CE, Adam!) 

By PJ Parrish

Taboo. Off limits. That’s a no-no. Don’t go there. Oh man, you can’t do that.

That’s what mystery and thriller writers often hear. Be it from editors, reviewers or readers — especially readers — there are things we aren’t supposed to write about. Things that no one who’s looking for escapist fiction, wants to read about, things that are too sensitive, too controversial, too just plain ick-factor to deal with. After twenty-odd years in publishing and with thirteen thrillers under my belt and a new one just published, this one question never fails to intrigue me.

What is too much? How far can you push the envelope? Where is the line when readers will turn on you? And, maybe most important, as a writer, should you care?

We often hear there are some things you should never do in mysteries and thrillers. Maybe it’s because some folks believe the old boundaries of genre fiction still bind us. Maybe it’s because we’re all hyper-aware of the problems of finding audiences in a world of shrinking shelf space and the blat-blare-honk! of indie-publishing.  Maybe it’s just vestigial adherence to the sad old rule that genre fiction should know its limits. Here’s just a few of the no-no’s I know:

  • Don’t deal with abused children because readers can’t take it.
  • Don’t write about religion because it’s too personal.
  • Don’t write about politics because it’s too divisive and partisan.
  • Steer clear of graphic violence and sex.
  • And never, ever, kill an animal.

I’ve been thinking about this topic since the release of our new book THE DAMAGE DONE. This book heavily stresses the series-long character arc of our protagonist, a biracial PI ex-cop who is desperate to get back to wearing a badge again. Louis Kincaid is mysteriously recruited for a cold-case squad of the Michigan State Police run by an old nemesis who ten years before caused Louis to lose his badge. The “why” behind Louis’s new job is seminal to the plot and tests Louis’s faith in law enforcement.

Faith…

That is the underground railroad that propels the plot of THE DAMAGE DONE. And that means dealing with religion. It is in the foreground when Louis is called upon to solve the murder of a mega-church minister. But in the background, the slow percolation of a second cold case — the remains of two boys are found in an abandoned copper mine —  boils up memories of Louis’s childhood slide through the foster system and tests his complex notion of faith.  Faith in what? Or in whom?

Religion isn’t easy to write about because like anything of import, you can get, well, preachy. But, while many of our characters are people of deep faith, it was important with this story that we didn’t dictate what the reader concludes. And that, I think is how mystery and thrillers can illuminate the social questions of our weird times — deal with hard issues but never be didactic. I’ve been working my way through the John D. MacDonald books for the last year.  In Condominium, MacDonald took on shady real estate developments and crooked politicians. In One More Sunday, he tackles televangelists and moral ambiguity — but never loses sight of telling a ripping good yarn.  Luckily for me, I finished my own novel about faith before I started this one.

I read a crime novel recently by an Edgar-winning writer. The writing was elegant, the plot set-up tantalyzing. I really liked the protag. But about halfway through, I found myself getting irritated. Why? Because the writer started shouting about the devastation of the environment and it was drowning out the story. I don’t like folks banging on my door trying to teach me about Jesus. I don’t like crime writers hitting me over head with a thematic two-by-four about baby seals.

Likewise, I get annoyed by bad women-in-peril books. Now sexual predators are a fixture of crime fiction, and some authors handle the subject graphically. (Karin Slaughter’s Kisscut comes to mind.). But if you can’t bring anything new to the subject, if your female characters are cliched victims, then don’t go there, especially in the red-hot passions of the #metoo movement.  Reality is far more potent than most anything you can put on the page today.

Yes, we should write about politics, sexual violence,  and yes, we even need to kill animals if the story needs it. (Although I had to put down a book by Minette Walters, one of my favorite writers, because she wrote about torturing cats and I had ten cats at the time.). But you have to deal with a touchy subject always with the idea that it must organically support the story.

With our book A Thousand Bones,  we dealt with the devastating rape of the protagonist. Our editor asked us if we really wanted to “go there.” After much agonizing we decided the heroine’s character arc wouldn’t be believable without including the violent act. In the same book, the heroine, a rookie cop, commits an act of vengeance against her rapist. We thought long and hard about the ethics of a law enforcement officer pushing the limits but decided to leave the incident in. We got some emails on this from readers claiming a “a good cop” would never do this. I was at a signing and a man came up holding the book. He said, “I’m a retired Detroit police captain and I need to talk to you about how you ended this story.”  I braced myself. Then he said, “I would have done the same thing she did.”

Not every decision about “taboos” is as difficult. We got a thoughtful email from a regular reader about our book An Unquiet Grave telling us she found the profanity off-putting. We write a hard-boiled police procedurals and thrillers, so we have to reflect the reality of the street and the station house. But we came realize we had become too reliant on profanity to convey intensity of character. It can be a crutch, a poor stand-in for powerful dialogue. Yes, our books still have profanity, but we think about each word we use. Which is sort of what you should do with non-profanity, no?

In the end, after thirteen books and twenty years of crime writing, I’ve decided there is only one real taboo — that the message never overwhelm the plot and characters. The story must always win out.

 

7+

First Page Critique:
Details, Details, Details…

 

By PJ Parrish

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1940’s Switzerland for today’s submission. I won’t do my usual line edit here because I think the issues I have with this opening can be articulated better by analyzing each paragraph. I’m borrowing this technique from agent Jane Friedman, who sometimes analyzes openings. Check out her blog here. I don’t normally like to rewrite submissions, but maybe it’s helpful here. Thanks to our anonymous writer for letting us read, discuss, and learn.

 

The Stranger on Bahnhofstrasse

Jonas Shaw first feared someone tailed him in wartime Zurich on an overcast Sunday morning in late June, 1940. A church bell had sounded the hour of eleven, and he was admiring shoes in a store’s window on the fashionable Bahnhofstrasse when he noticed in the reflection a distinguished man the other side of the street gaze at him. With pedestrians strolling by and trams rumbling past, he couldn’t see the stranger clearly, but he was visible enough in a knee-length coat, gloves, and homburg hat, and gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy.

The stranger was a profiteer, wanting to lure into something illegal. A Nazi spy, hoping to enlist against the Swiss. Or an anti-Nazi, looking to coax into some conspiracy.

Or worst of all, an Englishman, and he had had enough of them. Jonas sensed with an ex-detective’s appreciation for trouble the man probably was up to no good. Ignore him.

He walked on, pausing shortly before the foreign exchange rates shown outside a bank and wished he hadn’t. The British pound had sunk further against the Swiss franc, and he worried how long he could hold out in that pricey city with his small inheritance. Again he caught in the window’s reflection the gentleman eye him the other side of Bahnhofstrasse. This wasn’t any accident, he determined. The stranger definitely observed him.

A tram, rattling down the thoroughfare towards the train station, blocked his view. When it had passed, he looked in the bank’s window. His pursuer had vanished. Alarm gripped Jonas. Where had that man gone? Yet his professional training prevailed. He’d draw out his nemesis, better judge the threat.

At the end of Bahnhofstrasse he wondered left onto Quai Brucke and onto a promontory overlooking the lake. He paused, as if to admire the view, but attuned to danger, considering his next move.

Footsteps on the gravel. Someone approached from his right. His pursuer, he saw when he turned, a man who doffed his hat in greeting, revealing a full head of white hair, and Jonas thought he had vaguely seen him somewhere before.

“Ah Switzerland, Mr. Shaw,” the gentleman noted. “Three things you can always say about it. You’ll always know the time. Always find a bank. Always enjoy its marvelous views.”

Jonas recognized him now and tensed…

______________________

Back to me in the present day. This is a fairly common opening we see in period spy/thriller novels or movies — a main character (we can’t tell yet if Jonas Shaw is our protagonist) being tailed by a mysterious stranger.  My first impression was that it reads okay, meaning I can tell what’s happening and there is a hint of intrigue. But the writing itself creates some unnecessary confusion here and there. Let me break it down graph by graph to show you what I mean.

Jonas Shaw first feared someone tailed him in wartime Zurich on an overcast Sunday morning in late June, 1940. A church bell had sounded the hour of eleven, and he was admiring shoes in a store’s window on the fashionable Bahnhofstrasse when he noticed in the reflection a distinguished man the other side of the street gaze at him. With pedestrians strolling by and trams rumbling past, he couldn’t see the stranger clearly, but he was visible enough in a knee-length coat, gloves, and homburg hat, and gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy.

Does the opening line grab you? Me neither. Why? I suspect it’s because of the line’s construction:  “Jonas Shaw first feared” implies there was a previous encounter, and that Shaw is remembering this. (flashback!) Adding the place and time makes it feel even further in the past. Also saying the church bell “had” tolled puts us in the past. We need to be firmly in the present with Jonas. I THINK the writer means to say Jonas first began to realize someone was following him at the moment when he caught sight of the man in the window.  I could be wrong. But if this scene is, indeed, set in present-time action, then it needs to be clear. Something like:

Jonas Shaw was sure now that someone was following him.

The feeling first hit him when he left his hotel on Fustliststrasse. It stayed with him when he dipped into the Tabak to get his morning copy of Der Volks-Zeitung. And it was with him now as he turned onto Banhofstrasse, using the bustling crowd as a shield to glance over his shoulder.

No one….

Still, the feeling was there, that same feeling he used to get when he worked as a detective back in London.

He stopped, newspaper under his arm, and pretended to look at the shoes in the window of Bally’s. 

But his eyes were fixed on the reflection in the window of the man across the street. Even through the bustle of trams and pedestrians, Jonas could see the man’s details — elegant black overcoat, gloves and a black cane. What he couldn’t see was the man’s face, hidden by the brim of the homburg hat.

The bells of nearby Fraumünster Church began to toll. Jonas counted each one, to eleven, trying to quell his unease.

What I tried to do here is put it firmly in the present. I used details of place (Bally, the famous old Swiss shoemaker, the Fraumunster Church) to hint at where we are rather than hit readers over the head with the clunky expository “wartime Zurich.”  You can easily find a way to insert the exact year soon after.

but he was visible enough in a knee-length coat, gloves, and homburg hat, and gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy.

More confusion here because of displaced modifier. “gripping a cane to leave him feeling uneasy” could refer to the stranger when it apparently refers to Shaw. Moving on…

The stranger was a profiteer, wanting to lure into something illegal. A Nazi spy, hoping to enlist against the Swiss. Or an anti-Nazi, looking to coax into some conspiracy.

Or worst of all, an Englishman, and he had had enough of them. 

I think we are in Shaw’s thoughts here ie intimate point of view. But again, the sentence construction creates confusion. Is Shaw speculating what the stranger COULD BE — is he a profiteer, or a Nazi-spy, or an “anti-Nazi”? (not sure what that is). “Or worst of all, an Englishman.” Also, not sure what this means, other than Shaw (whose name implies English or American) dislikes Brits. Also the verbs “lure” “hoping to enlist” and “coax” all need an object.  You lure someone, you enlist someone, you coax someone to do something. Not sure how this can be reworked, other than something like:

Was the man a profiteer, looking to move melted gold coins through Zurich’s black market? Was he a Nazi spy, running reconnaissance for Operation Tannenbaum? Was he a member of the Spiritual Defense?   

Or worse, was he a fellow Brit? Jonas had had enough them.

What I am asking the writer to do here is to be specific. And by doing so, he can make his setting and story feel more authentic. When you use generalized phrases like “anti-Nazi” or “profiteer” you miss opportunities to plant telling details, and you can’t write historical thrillers without such detail. Such as “Operation Tannenbaum” (a planned German invasion of Switzerland) or the name of the Swiss anti-war movement, Spiritual  Defense. Shoot, you can’t write contemporary thrillers without it. Ditto on the description, which is why I used the Fraumunster Church and Bally (a Swiss company since the 1800s.) Moving on…

Jonas sensed with an ex-detective’s appreciation for trouble the man probably was up to no good. Ignore him.

Earlier, Jonas felt a sense of unease. His detective instincts (nice way to drop in what he used to do but we need to know soon what he does now) are telling him the guy’s up to no good, so why the next thought?  Ignore him.  It makes no sense.

He walked on, pausing shortly before the foreign exchange rates shown outside a bank and wished he hadn’t. The British pound had sunk further against the Swiss franc, and he worried how long he could hold out in that pricey city with his small inheritance. Again he caught in the window’s reflection the gentleman eye him the other side of Bahnhofstrasse. This wasn’t any accident, he determined. The stranger definitely observed him.

A tram, rattling down the thoroughfare towards the train station, blocked his view. When it had passed, he looked in the bank’s window. His pursuer had vanished. Alarm gripped Jonas. Where had that man gone? Yet his professional training prevailed. He’d draw out his nemesis, better judge the threat.

I like the aside about the money exchange because it provides a detail about Jonas (so he’s British?) but it could be cleaner:  He paused again at a bank, but didn’t see the man’s reflection in the window. What he did see was an exchange rate chart that told him the pound had sunk further against the Swiss Franc, and he wondered how long he could hold on here. The rest of this graph should be condensed, since it’s already been said. Just say a tram momentarily blocked his view of the man’s reflection. When the tram passed, the man was gone. Then we have a problem: Jonas, who a moment ago told himself to ignore the guy, gets alarmed again. So he decides to “draw out his nemesis.”  First, he told us he doesn’t know who or what this man is, so he can’t be a nemesis yet.  And second, if the guy disappeared, how does Jonas think he’s going to draw him out?  And this vague reference to “professional training” is where you should tell us what the heck this “former detective” does for a living now.  Why be coy? Give us a reason to want to follow him.

At the end of Bahnhofstrasse he wondered left onto Quai Brucke and onto a promontory overlooking the lake. He paused, as if to admire the view, but attuned to danger, considering his next move.

If you’re writing about foreign places, you have to be accurate. “Quai” usually means a riverside walk or street. Quai Brucke is a bridge, and it’s spelled Quaibrücke. If you leave out the umlaut, you’re misspelling it. And this is a low-slung bridge over Lake Zurich.  So there is no “promontory.”  (a high point jutting over something) Unless you have him cross the bridge and climb a hill. Please, please, don’t play loose with foreign locales. Moving on to the end…

Footsteps on the gravel. Someone approached from his right. His pursuer, he saw when he turned, a man who doffed his hat in greeting, revealing a full head of white hair, and Jonas thought he had vaguely seen him somewhere before.

“Ah Switzerland, Mr. Shaw,” the gentleman noted. “Three things you can always say about it. You’ll always know the time. Always find a bank. Always enjoy its marvelous views.”

Jonas recognized him now and tensed…

Again, confusion here. From the minor — they are in bustling downtown Zurich, so where is this gravel? Did he maybe walk into a park. BE SPECIFIC.  “His pursuer” implies someone was following him. Is this the man in the homburg? Someone else? Be clear. If the former, I’d suggest handling this like so:

Footsteps on the gravel to his right. Jonas spun around.

The man in the black overcoat stopped and doffed his homburg. The sight of his thick white hair caused a ping of memory in Jonas. 

“Ah, Mr. Shaw,” the man said. His accent was German, maybe alsatian.

Jonas tensed. The man knew him. And he knew this man. But from where?

“Switzerland,” the man said. “There are three things you can always count on here — the clocks, the banks, and the beauty.”

I like this comment from the stranger but I almost wish you had added one more thing to up the ante and intrigue.  “There are four things you can always count on here — the clock, the banks, the beauty. And the fact that you can never turn your back.”

That’s corny — I was thinking about Three Days of the Condor when I wrote it — but you get the point.  If the stranger is a foe, give him a cool threatening line. If he’s a friend, give him a telling line that will make your reader want to turn the page. Details!  Even in the dialogue. Especially in the dialogue.

Okay, writer, it’s up to you. You’ve got a nice set-up and setting (Switzerland is much fresher than most wartime cities, rather like post-war Vienna in The Third Man.) Go take a deeper stab at it. Make Zurich come alive with telling details. And be aware that you are working in oft-tilled soil here (wartime Europe), so you must avoid cliches and find your own original descriptions. Make Jonas Shaw come alive by revealing a little more about who he is  and why he is here. Give us a reason, even if it’s just a good strong hint, to want to follow him.

Thanks for submitting and we’re open for comments now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3+

How to Write a Great
Story…in 18 Holes

By PJ Parrish

Read a heck of a story this weekend. It featured a flawed hero on a classic journey. He started out young with the world at his feet, but then he lost it all. The story had villains, a dysfunctional family, a bad love affair, a sordid scandal, and physical hardship.  The hero, I feared, was doomed. But then, against all odds, defying the naysayers, he climbed out of the abyss and triumphed.

Okay, I didn’t really read it. I watched it.  But it had all the human drama and suspense of a great book.

I watched Tiger Woods win the Fed-Ex Cup tournament. It was his first win in five years.  As one of the golf commentators said, “What a great story.”

Maybe you don’t follow golf. I don’t, normally. But the story of Tiger Woods, who had it all, lost it all, and climbed back up again, is the same stuff that makes for compelling fiction.

Great stories…

Let’s stay with the sports metaphor for a second. Let’s talk about pro football — it’s my go-to sport. Pro football’s ratings are way down. There are lots of theories why — the players’ protests and the President’s tweet-poking; bad play from big market teams like the Cowboys and Bears; too many dog games on Monday Night Football; fewer folks (mainly young) watching TV and choosing to cut the cable cord all together and play with their phones.

I’ll add my own theory: Pro football doesn’t have any great stories anymore. Like…

Joe Namath leading the hapless Jets to the Super Bowl win.

The Patriots’ season going to hell when Drew Bledsoe went down. Until some sixth-rounder nobody named Tom Brady stepped in to save the day.

The 1972 Dolphins losing their starting QB but going on to the only perfect season.

The 1985 rock-star Bears march to another perfect season, only to be blocked in game 13 by the 8-4 Miami Dolphins, hell-bent on preserving the old record.

Some guy named Marino breaking every record but never winning the Big One. Kurt Warner, the grocery store clerk who became a three-time MVP. And guys like Michael Oher, the homeless kid whose rise to Titan tackle was told in the Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side.

We’re all suckers for great stories. Cinderella tales. Redemption roads. Inspiring comebacks. Underdogs who triumph. It’s the essence of good fiction. I got to thinking about this today after reading James’s Sunday blog about “pretty writing” as Tiger played in the background on TV.

You want to be a success in this business? Just learn to tell a good story.

Ha! Easier said than done. Let’s break it down into digestible bites. A while back, I wrote a blog about Pixar’s 20 Rules of Great Storytelling.  Pixar knows how to tell great stories. They’ve won 13 Academy Awards, 9 Golden Globes, and 11 Grammys. Pixar movies always involve a deep understanding of human emotion. They know how to move an audience. Here are just a couple of their “rules.”

Great stories are always universal. Take the basic ingredients of human life — birth, love, death, conflict, growth, spirituality — and make it appeal to everyone. Or as Pixar director Pete Docter puts it:

“You write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”

Great stories always have someone to root for. It can be a classic underdog tale. Or a rags-to-riches saga. The hero may not succeed, but often we love their attempt alone. It’s more about their journey than the destination.

Great stories always have structure. One of Pixar’s tips is to use “The Story Spine,” a formula created by professional playwright Kenn Adams. It goes:

Once upon a time there was [blank]. Every day, [blank]. One day [blank]. Because of that, [blank]. Until finally [blank].

Can you see the beautiful simplicity of it? You have a hero, who does this every day. But then something happens until finally he triumphs. Or as we at TKZ preach often: Something is disturbed in your hero’s world and he fixes it. (Or sometimes doesn’t).

Great stories are never dull. Again, go back and read James’s Sunday post for more on this. Great stories are surprising, unexpected. If you can dream up a story that challenges the reader’s usual perceptions of reality, you are on to something good. This is especially true in genre fiction, where stale old formulas are too often the norm. A tip from Pixar: If you’re stuck on coming up with something truly unique, get rid of the 1st thing that comes to mind — and then the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

Well, it’s just after six p.m. on this Sunday as I write this. Tiger Woods just won.  But not without some last-minute drama.  Going into the last round today, he was up five on his nearest competitor, Justin Rose. Tiger’s drives were straight and true, one going the length of three-and-a-half football fields. His putting game was surreal.  But then…

On the back nine, he shanked a couple into the rough. He missed easy putts. He bogied the fifteen and sixteen holes. Justin Rose crept closer, the lead shrinking to two. But Tiger parred the last two holes to win.  So here’s what we have: Tiger Woods, a deeply flawed protagonist, had it all and lost it all. He spent five years wandering in the wilderness. One year ago, Woods had endured three back surgeries and could barely walk, let alone swing a club. One year ago, he was ranked 1,199 in the world. Today he clawed back to win his first tournament in five years and maybe move up into the top ten.

He’s being interviewed right now. The crowd is going nuts. Tiger is tearing up. So am I.

What a great story.

________________________________________________________

THE DAMAGE DONE, the 13th installment in the Louis Kincaid series, now available.

“Louis Kincaid is wearing a badge again—as part of an elite homicide squad. But his return to his Michigan home comes at the bidding of a man who once set out to destroy him. When the cold case deaths of two little boys collides with the white-hot murder of a mega-church minister, Louis finds himself fighting to unearth the secret past of his police captain—and the demons of his own childhood. The past and present come into stunning focus in this brilliantly crafted thriller. Relentlessly plotted yet filled with poignant family emotion, it will grip you from start to finish.”
—Jeffery Deaver.

 

6+

First Page Critique: Can Your
Language Be Too Blue?

By PJ Parrish

We have a new contribution from a writer today. For me, it hit home, because it made me think about something I had been dealing with in my own books. I’ll explain after you take a moment to read today’s submission. Thanks writer!

Darkness

His cell phone buzzed and rattled on the bedside table, forcing Jake Barnes to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep. He slapped blindly in the dark, searching for the offending device. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he looked at the screen. Shit, three thirty in the morning, and of course its work calling. When he had taken the supervisor’s position at the Energy Control Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, he hadn’t expected the phone to ring quite so often. And its always something they could handle on their own if they tried.

He answered the call with a quiet “Wait.” Sliding out of bed, he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. “This is Jake, go ahead.”

“Holy shit, man, I’m glad you answered. We are having some serious problems right now.”

Jake winced and moved the phone an inch away from his ear. “Not so damn loud, Glen,” he said, leaning back against the sink. “Take a few deep breaths and start from the top, OK?” Glen Reynolds was another of the supervisors at the ECC, running the night shift this week.

“Sorry. It’s been a rough night. We were running the Sunday night system scans when the backup went down. As soon as IT hit go, the damn thing went black. We called in Ron to help, but he couldn’t get it running either. So we are down to one SCADA, and we have no idea why we lost the backup.”

The line was silent as Jake thought about the situation. The SCADA were computers used to control complex systems, made by Siemens in Germany.

“Jake, you still there?”

“Sorry, I was thinking. Look, I know things fail, but when is the last time you saw one of the SCADA go down?” He paused, waiting for an answer. When Glen didn’t respond, he continued. “Exactly. Is the primary server still working?”

________________

Okay, let’s start with general observations. First, it’s cleanly written (except for some typos and such). It’s easy to figure out what is going on — guy (protag maybe?) getting roused from sleep with a “situation.”  But here’s the rub: Do we care?

I can’t count the number of times I have read this opening. The person’s job may change (usually, it’s a cop getting called out to a murder scene) but the action-catalyst is always the same — the call that comes to wake someone up and spur them to action. It’s been done to death. The fact that Jake isn’t a cop doesn’t really make it feel any fresher. It’s a tired trope of crime fiction and maybe it’s time to retire it forever.

We talk often here about how an effective, grabber opening conveys a sense of disturbance, how we need to show that something has gone awry in the normal world. The disturbance can seem small (but as the plot plays out, we learn it was important). Or it can be earth-shattering, like a killer comet is heading our way and someone has to save the world.

It can be personal. In fact, I’d say the best disturbance/openings are usually human in scale. I pulled Miami Blues off the shelve to show you this opening from one of my favorite writers Charles Willeford:

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.

Or maybe the disturbance is something that the protag observes. Here’s a dandy from John D. MacDonald:

We were about to give up and call it a night when someone dropped the girl off the bridge.

Maybe the disturbance starts out personal but morphs into something big, like Stephen King gives us in It.

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

This opening gives us a boy who tries to retrieve a paper boat from a drain and gets lured in by a killer clown who cuts the kid’s arm off.

But what an opening disturbance shouldn’t be is trite or tired. It has to be a catalyst for the conflict to come. And it has to feel like you alone among all writers could have put it on paper.  So, if you’re going to start your book out with a phone call, you better make it good, like this:

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage killing a woman.

That’s Richard Stark aka Don Westlake. He knows his way around a juicy opening.

Back to our submission: There’s nothing wrong about it on the surface, as I said. Jake Barnes quite literally takes the proverbial “three a.m. call” challenge. The caller literally says, “We have some serious problems.” I wonder, dear writer, if there isn’t a more original way to begin your story? Just because it’s about computer geeks instead of cops doesn’t make it less hoary. If this big computer failure is your dramatic catalyst, why not start with Jake right on the scene? You can say he had been roused from sleep by a cohort, but why not START with him in action instead of in bed?

Now, let’s talk about the language — specifically the profanity. I’m going to throw this one out for discussion because there are arguments on both sides on this subject. Side 1: People swear. It helps make the dialogue feel more realistic. Side 2: Profanity is a big turn-off for a lot of readers, so why do it?

I come down on this somewhere in between. I write about cops and PIs, so my books have their share of blue language. I even drop the f-bomb when I really feel it’s needed. But over fourteen books now, and yes, after getting feedback from readers, I have really toned it down. In the first draft, I cuss like a sailor. But these days, on rewrites, I almost always take most of it out. Profanity can get old really quick. And not because it is offensive. Because it is can feel forced, almost desperate. If my characters swear, well, hell, they have to be well-rendered, right?

Now, I question every curse word I use. Here’s the original opening of our new book The Damage Done: 

Something was wrong. This wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

Louis Kincaid leaned forward and peered out the windshield. The gray stone building in front of him went in and out of focus with each sweep of the wipers, appearing and disappearing in the rain like a medieval castle on some lost Scottish moor.

But it was just an abandoned church, sitting in a weedy lot in a rundown neighborhood in Lansing, Michigan. Louis picked up the piece of paper on which he had scribbled the directions. It was the right address, but this couldn’t be the place where he had come to start his life over again.

He rested his hands on the steering wheel and stared at the church. A car went by slowly and pulled up to the curb, parking in front of him, maybe fifteen feet away. Louis sat up, alert. It was a black Crown Vic with tinted windows and a small antenna mounted on the trunk. But it was plate that gave it away -– three letters and three numbers, just like all Michigan plates, but this one had an X in the middle.

An unmarked cop car. The driver didn’t get out. But he didn’t have to. Louis knew who it was.

The devil. It was the f–king devil himself.

Now, Louis is looking at the man who once took away his badge. He hates the guy. But on rewrites, I took the f-bomb out. I didn’t need it. Because Louis isn’t an f-bomber by nature. And it works better simply as “It was the devil himself.” I have other f-bombs in the book, mainly uttered by another character because it feels true to his rough nature. But on the first page? I thought it was too in-your-face.

In this submission, we get two “shits” and two “damns.” Is that too much? I dunno. I’m just throwing this issue out for discussion here. Please weigh in with how you handle profanity as a writer — and as a reader.

Now let’s do some line editing:

His cell phone buzzed and rattled on the bedside table, forcing Jake Barnes are you sure you want to use the name of Hemingway’s most famous heroes? to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep. He slapped blindly in the dark, searching for the offending device. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he looked at the screen. and finally grabbed the phone. Shit, three thirty in the morning, and of course its work calling. Is this a thought? Then you should set it off in italics on its own line. When he had taken the supervisor’s position at the Energy Control Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, This is a mini-info dump. You can convey this info more gracefully through dialogue. he hadn’t expected the phone to ring quite so often. And its always something they could handle on their own if they tried. Tense lapse here. Should be: It was always something they could handle on their own if they tried.

He answered the call with a quiet “Wait.” Sliding out of bed, he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. Little confused here. He’s in his own home? He’s alone? Why the need to hide out in the bath? If he had a bed-mate, mention her. “This is Jake, go ahead.”

Holy shit, man, I’m glad you answered. We are having some serious problems right now.” Is there some way to up the stakes here? “Serious problems” isn’t very interesting.

Jake winced and moved the phone an inch away from his ear. “Not so damn loud, Glen,” he said, leaning back against the sink. “Take a few deep breaths and start from the top, OK?” Glen Reynolds was another of the supervisors at the ECC, running the night shift this week.  This might be where you could drop in the backstory: Glen Reynolds was another supervisor at Energy Control Center. (This way you get it OUT of your crucial first graph)

“Sorry. It’s been a rough night. We were running the Sunday night system scans when the backup went down. As soon as IT hit go, the damn thing went black. We called in Ron to help, but he couldn’t get it running either. So we are down to one SCADA, and we have no idea why we lost the backup.”

The line was silent as Jake thought about the situation. The SCADA were computers used to control complex systems, made by Siemens in Germany. Good way to slip in what this is. 

“Jake, you still there?”

“Sorry, I was thinking. Look, I know things fail, but when is the last time you saw one of the SCADA go down?” He paused, waiting for an answer. When Glen didn’t respond, he continued. “Exactly. Is the primary server still working?”

Me again.  So, as I said, it’s not a bad opening. But is a computer going down big enough stakes to make us want to read on? When I get a computer glitch, all I feel is frustration and annoyance. I don’t know if I want to read about one, even on a big scale (as this seems to be) UNLESS you find a way early on to make me care. Like can we get a hint about WHY this thing going down is important? Does it supply the artificial atmosphere for the desecrated planet? (sci-fi).  Does it contain the world data base of moles for the CIA (political thriller). Is it a matchmaking super-computer? (Don’t laugh. Lincoln Child wrote a terrific thriller on this subject called Death Match.) 

Any old computer dying isn’t interesting. If you can find a way to at least hint at what the stakes are here, we might be lured into caring…and reading on.

One last thing. About that title. “Darkness” is much too generic. If you are writing a thriller or mystery set in the computer sphere, why not go with something that tells readers what they’re getting? My computer geek Gary told me about a great slang term called “In the black mirror.”  It is what you see when your screen goes suddenly dark — your own mug reflected back to you in creepy blackness. I always wanted to use it as a title but I have no interest in writing a novel about computers, so hey, it’s up for grabs. You need to stand out from the pack while you shed some light on what your story is about. Simple Darkness won’t do it for you.

Thank, writer, for participating. The line is open for discussion!

4+

Killing Sacred Cows
— Or Maybe Not…

By PJ Parrish

I’m not a big ice cream eater. Take it or usually leave it. But the thing about living up here in Traverse Ctiy, Michigan, is that you must love ice cream. Not just any old Edys or everyday Haagen-Daz. It must be Moomers.

Moomers is a family dairy farm up here that has been around since the glaciers carved out the Great Lakes. Okay, I exaggerate. But Moomers is like dairy manna up here. Maybe it’s because the Moomer cows look so happy. You can watch them grazing as you snarf down your Cherries Moobalee ice cream from the parlor up on the hill.  (see left) Recently I took my 9-year-old grand-niece to the farm and she asked me “Are those cows?” (She lives in Macau so doesn’t see a lot of livestock).  I couldn’t help it. I said, “Those are sacred cows.”

Cheap joke. And this is a long way to get to my point. Moo-mer, me, okay? I’m having a bad week with the galley corrections, among other book stuff, and my brain is like mush.

So, let’s talk about sacred cows in writing. I’d bet you can rattle off a long list of them that you’ve heard in workshops, at conferences, stuff you’ve read in how-to-write books, absorbed from Stephen King, or even seen here at TKZ.  Never use adverbs! Stay away from prologues! Write what you know! Write every day or die!

I dunno. Maybe it’s time to kill off some sacred cows. I’ll start. You guys can add your own.

Never Open With the Weather

I think this one started with Elmore Leonard. I respectfully disagree. Now, if you’re just painting pretty mood pictures on your first page with sunsets or trying to tell readers “bad stuff is coming” with rainclouds, yeah, I’d say you’re edging up to the cliche cliff. But if weather figures into your plot, go for it! In the aftermath of a hurricane, a man walking through the debris on a beach finds a baby skull.  That’s the opening premise of our book Island of Bones, the catalyst of the case for Louis Kincaid. But we first had to show a woman so desperate to escape her killer that she ventured out into the fury of the hurricane in a dingy. Which brings me to the next cow…

 

Prologues Are Bad, Bad, Bad!

I don’t like prologues. I’m on record here with that. You know why? Most prologues are tacked on, like some flabby artificial limb, because 1. The writer couldn’t figure out how to establish world-building (common problem in fantasy) 2. It’s a giant info-dump about the protag’s background. 3. Writer panicked and thought he needed a wham-bam action opener as a hook because someone told him all novels have to open fast. 4. The writer is showing off and can’t stand to cut her beautiful prose. (Been there, done that.) Okay, here’s a rule you can take to the bank: Bad prologues are bad. I’ve read some great thrillers that open with prologues from the villain’s point of view and it works because it sets up the stakes for what the hero is up against. Also, some complex stories jump around in time or space and that can give the reader brain-cramps. And a good prologue can help that. Remember the movie Terminator? It opens with a great prologue.

Los Angeles, 2029: The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight… 

So you might need a prologue set in WWI and then you jump to chapter 1 present day. Maybe. But proceed with caution. Take off “Prologue” and sub in “Chapter 1.” Does it still work? Then ditch the prologue tag; the reader won’t miss it. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land opens by telling us about a martian named Valentine. Then it jumps ahead 25 years. He labels the sections I and II, but to my mind, the Valentine “chapter” reads like a good prologue. Here’s a good post by agent Kristen Nelson on why most prologues don’t work.

Adverbs Are For Amateurs

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” Stephen King said sternly. What we’re talking about is mainly adverbs that end in “ly.” Many writers, especially when first starting out, struggle to find the right words to convey that beautiful chaos in their heads. So often we get stuff like: “You’re my world, baby-child,” she said lovingly. Or “I’m going to rip your head off,” he said menacingly. The problem, of course, is the dialogue should be doing the heavy lifting, and if you need a crutch-word after said, well, take a harder look at your dialogue. But every once in a while, you might need one for simple clarity.  Don’t write: “He shut the door firmly” when you can say “He slammed the door.”  BUT…I can make a case for “He closed the door softly behind him” or “Louis nodded thoughtfully.” So yeah, I think you can toss the occasional adverb into the stew. But as you gain more confidence in your writer’s voice, I’ll bet you use fewer “ly” words.  She said encouragingly.

Show Don’t Tell!

I’m not going to try to kill this sacred cow (I believe in it too strongly). But I might try to tip it over. Telling is one of the hardest things to rid from your story. It’s also one of the hardest things to explain to new writers. I’ve devoted whole Powerpoint workshops to it. Basically, your story (and the reader’s experience of it) will be richer if it is filtered through the actions, words and thoughts of your characters. Simply put, you need to show your character doing things rather than you, the writer, telling the reader what is going on. Fiction is drama; not statement. BUT…to tip the cow, sometimes a little judicious telling is necessary. A novel is not a movie. Sometimes we can be “told” what is going on in a character’s psyche. And sometimes, we just need the clarity and shorthand that pure exposition can supply to move the story forward faster.  “By the time he got to Phoenix, he was tired.” Maybe the journey wasn’t important, so this is all you need to tell. I think our own James pointed out here once that if you “show” everything, there is no modulation, and you end up giving equal weight to all scenes and actions. (Correct me if I’m misquoting you, Jim).

Write What You Know

This cow always kills me. Because if were true, all thirteen of my novels would be about an aging white woman whose biggest dream once was to be a hairdresser and who came THISCLOSE to being a housewife in the Detroit suburbs with at least three red-haired kids. (Don’t worry, I won’t explain that any further).  I get where this hoary piece of advice came from: Don’t write about cultures, people, places or the kinds of stories that you have no affinity for. This is why I don’t attempt YA or sci-fi. But it does not mean you can’t write stories about opposite genders, different races, places you can’t get to physically. You are a writer! Your job is to make things up! See, there’s this wonderful thing in the writer’s chest called the imagination tool. I picture it as an awl drilling a hole into a different dimension. Writers live in this dimension of dreams (and nightmares), where things are easier, harsher, more beautiful, more terrifying, where we can be freer, more daring, than we can ever be in real life.  If you ever feel disconnected from this power, go to a playground or beach and watch some kids play. They are unbound, they are passionate, they are making it up as they go along. Yes, you should use what is unique in your life experience for your fiction. But If you cannot tap into your imagination, if you cannot step outside your own skin and unleash your empathy, you can’t be a writer. I’ve lived inside the skins of six serial killers, a coma victim, a French-Algerian cop, a classical cellist, a fallen Catholic priest, a gay Palm Beach walker and a girl who believed she was a reincarnated slave. To say nothing of living for 20 years now in the skin of a biracial man. Louis Kincaid, c’est moi.

Okay, that was the liver and broccoli. Now let’s have some ice cream.  Here are some “sacred cows” I found that I think are worth keeping around to graze in your brain:

Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go. — Billy Wilder

Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading. — Annie Proulx

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. — George Orwell

Never get drunk outside your own house — Jack Kerouac

Leave out the parts readers tend to skip — Elmore Leonard

Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.– Henry Miller

When in doubt, bury someone alive. — Edgar Allan Poe

Okay, that last one is made-up. So what? So are all my books.

 

8+

Being There: How It Really Feels
To Be Tased…and Amazed

Editor’s note: This is Kris. I am in the weeds today proofing galleys, so my sister and co-author Kelly is taking the wheel. Besides, I had nothing interesting to say today and as you will see, she certainly does.  Enjoy.

By PJ Parrish

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who is telling a long, convoluted anecdote and when they get to the end, the punchline hangs in the air like stale cigar smoke with the audience looking bewildered? And in that uneasy silence, the story-teller will invariably add: “Well, maybe you had to be there.”

As novelists, we want the reader to be there. We want to take him or her into that sweltering swamp, or high on a cliff over some rocky canyon. Most important, we want to reader to walk in the shoes of our protagonist. We want to make the reader feel as if he sometimes IS that character, seeing and feeling what our character does.

Easy, you say. I can write about a detective’s daily life because I am one. Or I have unlimited access to someone who will share with me the techniques and processes of crime investigation, and if I’m really lucky, that person will open up to me and share his inner feelings and insecurities.

If that’s true, you do not need to read the rest of this post.

But the vast majority of new crime writers – and even veteran ones — do not have that unlimited source of cop info in the form of someone sitting next to them in their living room watching the Packers beat the Lions. They can’t just turn and shout: “Hey, Aunt June, you worked in Miami PD. What kind of gun would my bad guy use in this situation?” Or “Hey Pop, you worked homicide. How come my detective just can’t shoot the bad guy in the leg?”

If you are a dogged researcher, you can find some of this info by scouring the web for police discussion boards. Or you can read books like Kathryn Ramsland’s The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds or Lee Lofland’s Police Procedure & Investigation. Another resource is binge watching reality TV shows like the First 48, which offers a unique, realistic look at the officers as their investigation unfolds. My co-author, Kris and I have done all these things. We’re also lucky to have some cop-friends, like Jim, a retired Michigan State Police captain who helped us with our upcoming release The Damage Done.

But last week, I discovered that no matter how much we think we know about someone else’s profession, there is nothing quite like “being there.”

I got to attend the Writer’s Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was founded ten years ago by Lee Lofland, a veteran police investigator who worked in Virginia’s prison system and later became a sheriff’s deputy, earning the highly-prized detective’s gold shield. He also writes a terrific cop-writer blog called The Graveyard Shift. 

Lee Lofland with Guest of Honor Jeffery Deaver.

Imagine how it feels to hold a real nightstick and jab at the belly of a 250-pound man who is approaching you in a menacing manner. Imagine how it feels to realize that your jabs are futile and you have to resort to using that baton in a more aggressive manner, all the while conscious of the laws and department procedures that guide your every thrust or wallop.

Imagine how it feels to drive a police cruiser and attempt what is called a Pit Maneuver by tapping the bad guy’s car on the rear and forcing him to spin out and stop. Imagine how it feels, as one of the students learned, to misread the tap angle at forty miles an hour and completely destroy the bad guy’s test car, all in front of your fellow writers and a team of seriously dedicated law enforcement officers.

Those are just two of the real life experiences we were privileged to enjoy while at the police academy. Others included a stint in the “Shoot, Don’t Shoot” simulator, where we walked through a house or business, looking for an active shooter or armed and violent spouse. We had to decide when — and if — to fire. Yes, we were working in a simulated scenario but the adrenalin rush was real.

Writers at the range

The Glock I shot was heavier than I remembered from my early days of target shooting and its kick was far more intense. The vests are also heavier than I thought they’d be and I learned while they are called ‘bullet proof,” in reality they are not. One officer called them “bullet resistant.”

We learned a little about the history of the taser and how it works. And let me tell you, it is nothing like you see on TV. One of my class members, a brave young lady who really wanted a true experience, volunteered to be tased. I admire her dedication to authenticity but I was very glad I was not on the receiving end of those two little barbs. They say the current only lasts five seconds but I bet the person getting tased would say it feels much longer.

Evan Gilbert and myself getting tazed. Would not like to do that again.

Posted by Devin Reif on Friday, August 10, 2018

We learned about undercover work and outlaw motorcycle gangs. We made a forced entry as a SWAT team. We watched firefighters don backbreaking equipment and enter a smoke filled building. We watched as the Green Bay dive team tried to recover a body from a murky river. We all knew the body was fake but still, we all stood there on the banks of the river with bated breath, for the diver to announce he had located the child.

Being there is what is was all about. To use one of Michael Connelly’s favorite words, it gives verisimilitude to your writing. Because once you have experienced it, once you have felt that fear, smelled the smoke, or trudged under the weight of Kevlar, you cannot help but carry those emotions over to your writing.

But best, the absolute best, were the rare and unscripted moments with the officers after the training.

In today’s climate, there was no doubt these men and women teaching us at the academy had strong feelings on the hot issues. But it was never in the fore front, never presented as a stated point of view. And to me, it was brought up one once.

The moment came after traffic stop training, where we learned how to safely approach a vehicle and more important, why to approach it that way. The officer and I were in the hot sun, sweaty and tired toward the end of the day and I was thanking him for taking the time to do this for us writers, to patiently explain procedures and offer insights into their job.

This officer, who was around thirty maybe, said to me: “We do it because we want you to understand. We want you to see things from our side and we want you to know more about us.”

Then he looked me in the eye and as he wiped sweat from his brow, he added, “I work with a hundred officers in my own department and dozens more in others. I don’t know anyone who sets out in the morning looking to hurt anyone.”

If you’d like to know more about Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy, CLICK HERE to check out his site. I encourage any writer who wants to experience what is really like for their protagonist, to attend WPA or participate in a local Citizen’s Police Academy in their town . And yes, continue to read the books by officers on procedure and investigations. They are pretty good, too. Which brings to mind, one I read many years ago. True Blue by Randy Sutton. When a book makes you cry, you tend to remember it.

Like I said, it’s all about being there.

6+

First Page Critique: Vaulting
Foreign Language Barriers

By PJ Parrish

We’re off to faraway places with strange sounding names today with our First Page Critique submission. So we have a great chance here to talk about how to handle weird words, foreign languages, things the average reader might not know and how you, the writer, have to work hard to make them get it.  I call this, when I talk about this inn workshops, writing for Ms. Peabody in Peoria. Here’s our submission. Thank you, writer!

To Catch a Thief

Air horn blasting, two young men on a Bullet bike tore through lunchtime Mumbai traffic.  The one riding pillion turned to his left and hollered, “Hoy, hoy. Katak maal[1].”

Seema squeaked, barely avoiding having her foot run over. She dropped to the tarred road next to the driver’s side door of the taxi halted in front of the high-rise. “Aey, rund—[2]” Gritting her teeth, she swallowed the gaali[3].  If she could, she would’ve chased after them and shoved her elbow into his puny chest. Unfortunately, she was forced to stay put.

Head kept low, she squinted through the tinted windows of the vehicle at the group by the entrance to the building. Her bulky, black purse was on the ground, an inch from her sandal, but she maintained her firm grip on the straps.

“Arrey[4], madam, get up,” exclaimed the cabbie. “Are you crazy or what? You can’t sit on the street. Some poor fool will hit you and have his license taken away.”

And the last memory she took with her to afterlife would be that of the biker Romeos. Not to mention the heat radiating up from the asphalt and the exhaust fumes headed straight for her nostrils. Her eyes teared.

“Gimme my fifty bucks,” the cabbie continued.

“In a minute,” Seema muttered. If she paid now, the taxi would take off, leaving her exposed.

“You said that five minutes bac— That’s it. You now owe me two hundred.”

“What?”

“Waiting charge.”

Baring her teeth, Seema hissed. “Son of a—”

“Madam,” said the cabbie, shaking a finger. “Watch your language.”

Heaving in an angry breath, Seema said, “Fine. But if you’re charging me extra to wait, I’m waiting inside.”

Without delay, she tugged open the back door and scrambled in. Keeping the purse aside, she peered at the entrance to the office building. Damn. The old fellow was still there, with his entourage.

And so was the tall, leanly muscled man in the light blue shirt and red, power tie. Adhith Verma, the assistant manager at the office where she was currently assigned. Clean-cut good looks, a degree from one of the nation’s elite engineering colleges, family money. The silver-haired gentleman with him was his father, the nation’s finance minister.

When Seema returned from lunch, she hadn’t been expecting to run into the minister. She didn’t want to meet him. If Adhith introduced her as anything other than a colleague, the old man would have her investigated. The whole plan could fall apart.


[1] “Hey, hey. Hot piece of ***.”

[2] “You, son of a whore” is what she’s about to say (incomplete here)

[3] Cuss word

[4] “Hey…”

________________________________________

Okay, I’m back. First, let’s tackle the obvious here.  We know from the first paragraph where we are — smack in the middle of simmering Mumbai, India.  Kudos, writer, for slipping that in nicely. But we are also smack in the middle of a problem — how to convey foreign language without confusing or annoying our readers.

All writers have problems with this. I polled my fellow contributors here at TKZ and they have some solid ideas on how to handle this. More on that in a sec, but first let’s look at the sample:

In the first graph we get this phrase: Hoy, hoy. Katak maal! Then a response from the woman Seema: “Aey, rund—”  The problem, of course, is that most readers won’t have a clue what this means. There is no translation, no context. I wanted to like this submission because it does start out fast and furious and I’ve been to India and the Mumbai setting has great potential to lure me in.  But I couldn’t get past the foreign phrases, especially in the crucial opening moments. It stopped me cold.

The writer compounds this problem by using footnotes. If this were in book form, the reader could, it appears, look down to the bottom of each page to find out what the characters are saying. But do you really want to make them do this?

Your first job as a novelist is to parachute your reader into a conjured world. Whether this world is Mumbai or Montana is irrelevant. You want them to be swept into your story and setting. Forcing them to pause and essentially go “look up” a word jerks them right out of that imagination stream you are trying so hard to immerse them in. This is just my opinion here, but I found this off-putting. A novel isn’t a thesis. It is a seduction. Why would you want to interrupt the mood and the motion?

But, but…

Yeah, yeah, I know. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And David Foster Wallace’s, Infinite Jest!. Hundreds of footnotes in Jest, in very small type, that go on for almost a hundred pages at the end of the book. One of the footnotes, which contains the complete filmography of a fictional filmmaker, goes on for more than eight pages and itself has six footnotes. Someday, I going to try to read this book…again.

Here’s the thing: These authors are juggling with chainsaws, masters of the grand experiment. Now, I’m not suggesting a “mere” mystery or thriller writer can’t push the envelope. But I think it’s good to keep in mind that novelists who use footnotes are sometimes seen as show boaters. I can’t remember who said it in reviewing Wallace, but he compared him to a writer suddenly leaping into your room through a window and dancing around waving his arms, shouting “look at me! LOOK AT ME!”

I don’t think that is what is going on with our submitting writer here. I think he or she just wasn’t quite sure how to organically fold the foreign words into the narrative. Maybe we can help.

But before I go into that in depth, I’d like to do a quick line edit for the writer. As always, these are only my suggestions for edits. I hope others will weigh in. And thank you, writer, for letting us learn.

To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock got there first. Given your colorful locale, you can find a more evocative title)

Air horn blasting, two young men on a Bullet bike tore through lunchtime Mumbai traffic. Good job telling us where we are. The one riding pillion turned to his left and hollered, “Hoy, hoy. Katak maal.”Vivid image here, but these kids aren’t important. Why give them the opening moment?

Seema You’ve shifted point of view here. Open with her, not the boys squeaked, barely avoiding having her foot run over. She dropped to the tarred road next to the driver’s side door of the taxi halted in front of the high-rise. Simplify your phrasing: She dropped to the asphalt behind the taxi door. (we safely assume it’s parked). “Aey, rund—” Gritting her teeth, she swallowed the gaaliThis word is confusing, needlessly so. If she could, she would’ve chased after them and shoved her elbow into his them and his don’t agree. puny chest. Unfortunately, she was forced to stay put. Why “unfortunately?” I assume it’s because she is doing some kind of surveillance? If so, why even start out with the motor bike incident? Get right to the point — the surveillance.  I know you’re trying to convey the flavor of your interesting location but there are other ways. She could be hiding behind a bazaar-like stall that line Mumbai’s streets, which are, by the way, head-ache-inducing, teeming with motor bikes, auto-rickshaws, old buses, and yes…cows. And the miasma of smells and noise is amazing. A quick vivid description of this would underline Seem’a tension.

Head kept low, she squinted through the tinted windows of the vehicle at the group by the entrance to the building. Her bulky, black purse was on the ground, an inch from her sandal, but she maintained her firm grip on the straps. You need to be clearer on your choreography here. Was she hiding behind the parked taxi? Had she been in it and got out? Why even have the exchange with the taxi driver? What does it add?  Again, you can handle this in fewer words:  She peered through the taxi’s windows, watching the group of men at the entrance of the office building. (we don’t care about her purse or shoes.)

Arrey, madam, get up,” exclaimed the cabbie. “Are you crazy or what? You can’t sit on the street. Some poor fool will hit you and have his license taken away.”  I would lose this guy. He’s in the way of your story getting going. And you need to begin setting your plot up — who is this woman and what is she doing?

And the last memory she took with her to afterlife would be that of the biker Romeos. From what I can gather, they were verbally assaulting her, no? Mistreatment (public rape) of women in India is really a hot topic right now in news. Not to mention the heat radiating up from the asphalt and the exhaust fumes headed straight for her nostrils. Her eyes teared. This implies girly-girly reaction. Not sure this is what you want here. Or is she reacting to the smell? Unclear.

“Gimme my fifty bucks,” here, you can safely use “rupees.” He wouldn’t ask for dollars. the cabbie continued. Why is he asking for money? Was she a fare and jumped out? 

“In a minute,” Seema muttered. If she paid now, the taxi would take off, leaving her exposed. It would be pretty easy to hide somewhere else on a crowded Mumbai street. 

“You said that five minutes bac— That’s it. You now owe me two hundred.”

“What?”

“Waiting charge.”

Baring her teeth, Seema hissed. “Son of a—”

“Madam,” said the cabbie, shaking a finger. “Watch your language.”  I would lose all of this and get into your story. It is wasted dialogue.  Dialogue is precious. Use it only to advance plot or illuminate character.  And unless the cabbie is important, don’t let him hog the scene.

Heaving in an angry breath, Seema said, “Fine. But if you’re charging me extra to wait, I’m waiting inside.”

Without delay, she tugged open the back door and scrambled in. Keeping the purse aside, she peered at the entrance to the office building. Damn. The old fellow was still there, with his entourage. Why didn’t she just wait in the cab to begin with? 

And so was the tall, leanly muscled man in the light blue shirt and red, power tie. Adhith Verma, the assistant manager at the office where she was currently assigned. Lost opportunity here to tell me what she does. And why she is watching these men. Clean-cut good looks, a degree from one of the nation’s elite engineering colleges, Be specific when you can. It took me one Google to find out Indian Institute of Technology is Mumbai’s top school. family money. The silver-haired gentleman with him was his father, the nation’s finance minister. This belongs up where you first mentioned him.

When Seema returned from lunch, she hadn’t been expecting to run into the minister. She didn’t want to meet him. If Adhith introduced her as anything other than a colleague, the old man would have her investigated. The whole plan could fall apart. This really needs context. Without telling us what Seema does for a living, why would we care that she’s sneaking around watching this old guy? We need more meat. So my final suggestion, dear writer, is to jettison the cabbie, the biker, and use your first 400 words to get your plot moving forward, more firmly establishing Seema and setting up her conflict

So, to sum up quickly, writer: Love your location! I like Seema, what little I know of her. Yes, it is hard in only 400 words to give us a sense of your setting, protag and the conflict!  Which is why I questioned spending so many words on the cabbie. Find a quicker way into your story and I think you’ll be on your way.

Now, let’s take a deep dive into the problem of incorporating foreign language…

With fiction, you almost can’t avoid the occasional use of non-English. It’s a must with world-scale thrillers. Even if you’re working domestically, our increasingly diverse populace puts our characters in constant contact with all sorts of languages and cultures.  Indeed, our heroes and heroines might well be héroes or heroínas. You want to be authentic, but you don’t want to confuse your readers. So what’s the poor writer to do?

  • Put the language in as it would naturally appear in dialogue and hope the reader can figure it out via context? Creo que eso solo confundiría a los lectores. ¿No estás de acuerdo? (I’m purposely trying to annoy you here).
  • Put it the foreign words and then immediately translate them? Mais cela peut sembler si prétentieux et ça fait monter le nombre de mots. But that can seem pretentious and it makes your word count go up.
  • Or do you just tell the reader the characters aren’t speaking English, write it in English, and move on?

Every writer handles it in his or her own way. I polled our TKZ contributors and here’s their takes:

John Gilstrap just plain avoid foreign words. “Those words stop the story for the reader, I think,” he says. “In Final Target, for example, virtually all of the dialog is in Spanish, because that’s the nationality of the kids being rescued. So, I handle it like this:

“Who are all these people?” Jonathan asked in Spanish. He was fluent in the language, though aware that he had a distinctly Colombian accent, tied to the days when he was the point of Uncle Sam’s spear.

“After that, I write as I normally would. And once I’ve established the model of English-as-Spanish, it would be jarring to throw in a Spanish word.”

Makes sense, n’est-ce pas? Because, as John says, his entire plot hinges on Spanish-speaking kids, so if he toggled back and forth between two languages, it would get old fast.

But sometimes, you have to include foreign phrases to convey verisimilitude. I love this word because it really means something more than mere realism. In fiction it means creating an entire atmosphere that imitates life. Even if the story is far-fetched (fantasy), readers must be willing to suspend disbelief and think that the story could actually occur. In sci-fi, readers will tolerate the “foreign language” of complex science terminology if the writer is skillful at contextualizing it.

I think the same rule applies for foreign languages. I like to insert it in my books because, used judiciously, it helps place the readers into the conjured world. But man, you really have to careful.

Unless you’re a native speaker, get help!  Jordan Dane often uses Hispanic characters because, as she says, she’s “part Hispanic, and I get friends and my father to help with get the language and the slang right, depending on the perceived education of the Spanish speaker.”  She always italicizes the Spanish and tries to explain the meaning directly after the language change. But at times, she leaves it to the reader to figure things out by body language or by the flow of conversation. Here’s one of Jordan’s scenes with her series character, Ryker Townsend, an FBI profiler with psychic abilities who speaks fluent Spanish. In this scene, he is questioning a girl who was smuggled over the Mexican border and left in a sweltering truck to die of heatstroke.

“Amelia? Can you open your eyes, Miss Tejeda?” She raised her voice and leaned over the bed rail.

The Hispanic girl’s eyes fluttered as she struggled to wake up. When her dark eyes opened, she gripped the metal bed rail and pushed back from Lucinda, terrified as if she were still in the hands of her abductors. When her eyes noticed the nurse and the hospital setting, she spoke in Spanish in a fragile voice.

“Yo ne hice nada. No me aresten.”

When Amelia said she had done nothing wrong and pleaded not to be arrested, Lucinda shifted her gaze to me. She didn’t speak the language, but I did.

“¿Por qué te arrestaríamos?” I asked. “Tu no has hecho nada mal.”

Miss Tejeda fixed her pained eyes on me as if I could save her. With shaky fingers, she reached for my hand. I barely sensed her grip. She had no strength left.

“Please help me…find my friend…Fiona.” She strained for every word. “People say…she lived. Her country sent brave men to save her. Is this true? Did she live?”

“Yes. We are leaving soon to find her. How do you know Fiona Storm?”

“She saved my life. I owe her…everything.”

It made no sense that this kidnapped woman had been saved, only to find herself in a worse situation and near death. I wondered if this was the delirium the doctor warned us about.

Dime. ¿Cómo salvó Fiona tu vida?” I had to know. How could Fiona have saved her life?

This is pretty much how I handle foreign languages with my series character Louis Kincaid. I might put in the foreign phrase, but I provide some method of translation. In the Florida books, I often had him interacting with Spanish-speaking characters. Like Jordan, I would use the actual Spanish but there would always be a secondary character there to translate for him and the reader.  In Island of Bones, Louis goes to a migrant camp in search of a missing Mexican girl. Her mother speaks no English and is hostile. But the father speaks enough to translate and tells him that his daughter met a boy shortly before she disappeared.

“She called him a boy, not a man?” Louis asked.

“Yes, a boy. That’s what she said.”

“Did she tell you his name?”

“I do not remember, but I know it was a good Hispanic name.”

“Did she describe him to you?” Louis asked. “Tell you anything about him?”

The man shook his head. “I think she call him…”

He looked to his wife and asked her something in Spanish.

The woman hesitated then whispered two words.

The man turned back to Louis. “She called him Papi chulo.”

“What does that mean?”

“It is something young people say. It means he was handsome, a hunk you would say.”

In my upcoming October release The Damage Done, Louis is hired onto an elite cold case squad and one of the job requirements is to become fluent in a foreign language. Louis, like me, speaks bad college French. Here’s a passage with his new boss, Capt. Steele:

“Louis has been studying to become our in-house expert on unsolved Michigan homicides,” Steele said. He paused with the barest of smiles and added, “Louis has exceptional instincts and a special feel for unsolved cases that you will all come to appreciate.”

Louis held Steele’s hard brown eyes, not happy with the description of his resume. It made his past sound sensational and his investigative skills almost paranormal. That’s the last thing he needed with this group—to be tagged as some sort of celebrity mystic who dug through dusty folders.

 “Louis,” Steele said, “Bienvenue chez toi.

Welcome home? Louis was so surprised it took him a moment to answer. “It’s good to be back,” he said.

So another way to handle foreign words is to have the person who hears it translate it in his head (via italics).

This is how James Scott Bell handles it, agreeing with John’s approach for extended passages. Says Jim: “You can monkey with the diction, too, to give it a ‘formal’ sound in English, as Hemingway does in For Whom the Bell Tolls. For shorter clips, you can have the POV character “hear” the language, like this example from Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre:

Now Teo was speaking to Fuentes in Spanish, Tyler getting some of it. It sounded like Teo wanted to ride one of the horses.

Leonard throws in the occasional Spanish word, always putting it in italics:

“You pronounce it pretty good,” Tavalera said, “but the Guardia are not police during time of war. We’re like those people, the caballería, except we don’t stay in Havana and go sightseeing, we hunt insurrectos.

See the simple beauty of that? The word “guardia” is immediately grasped, as is “caballeria.”. Very graceful!

Or, as Jim points out, you can simply translate, if it’s a one-time exchange:

“Dónde están las armas?” Where are the weapons?

But a more artful way to do this is question and response:

“Dónde están las armas?”

“I have no idea where the weapons are.”

Sometimes, a foreign tongue is, as John Gilstrap pointed out, essential to your plot. For my stand alone The Killing Song, which is set in Paris, I had an amateur sleuth English-only protag and I wanted to stress the fish-out-of-water feeling of anxiety he felt. I had to incorporate French throughout and it had the effect of making him feel confused and frustrated. But you can’t let this go on too long. So I teamed him up with a French detective, so she was always there to help him — and the reader.  Plus, the give-and-take of the language barrier became part of their friendship arc. And even though I can speak French, I ran every sentence by a Paris-born French friend, who also helped me with some spicy slang used by les flics (cops).

A couple more thoughts on odd language. I didn’t even get into American dialects with this, especially “Southern speak,” which I have become more attuned to since moving to Tallahassee, where “y’alls” and “ma’ams” rain down harder than afternoon toadstranglers. Maybe the only thing we need to say about regional American dialects is to avoid trying to duplicate them on the page. It gets old really fast. I’d advise writers to say, “he spoke with a Texan twang” or something and trust the reader to get it. For my new book, I have to acknowledge the peculiar accent of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as spoken by the “Yoopers.”  Here is how Louis hears it:

“Reuben Nurmi. Good to meet ya,” he said in a voice that sounded like it belonged on some late-night jazz station. Except for the distinctive Yooper twang. Louis had always liked the accent , which fell somewhere between the hard nasal vowels of Detroit and the odd lilt of Canada.

Verisimilitude.  Which is Latin in origin, by the way. Quae surrexit?

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How Pickle Ball Helped Me
Up My Writing Game

By PJ Parrish

It’s not easy being a new cucumber.

I think about this every time we here at The Kill Zone critique another First Page submission. I really feel for the writers who send in their work for us to comb over because it’s not easy putting yourself out there when you’re just starting out. Which is what a “new cucumber” is.  When I was a kid, that is what we called the kid who came into the game last, the one who didn’t know the rules, the one who was smallest, slowest or just plain didn’t get it yet.

I was often a new cucumber. It wasn’t so bad when I played baseball because I can switch-hit. But dodge ball…geez, I’m just thankful I got out of fourth grade alive.

I am a new cucumber at pickle ball.  I started playing this game (the fastest growing sport in America!) this summer as a way to get some exercise when my knees started going on me.  Pickle ball is a mix of tennis, badminton and ping pong. It’s played on a small-sized tennis court with paddles and wiffle ball-like things. It’s a blast and great for old farts like me. It takes skill, strategy, stamina, heart, patience….and lots of practice.

Pickle ball looks easy, like anyone could do it. Until you screw up your courage, put yourself out there, and try it. Pickle ball is a lot like writing.

I play every day now, 9 to noon, with a group called The Friendly Pickle Ballers. I am, oh, probably the third-worst person on the courts, but all my teammates are kind and patient, teaching me the game, because I think they realize I am determined to learn. Which is sort of what we do here at TKZ with our First Page Critiques and posts. It’s a little community where any new cucumber can find help and solace. One of my favorite partners is Tom, a retiree who can smash and dink with the best of them. The other day, I learned that Tom is trying to write science fiction. He asked for some advice and I told him to come to TKZ, which he does now. I also told him that learning to write fiction is pretty much like learning to play pickle ball. And it’s helped me remember some stuff we talk about a lot here but that’s worth repeating:

  1. You need to learn the rules. Pickle ball has some funky rules that you need to know before you set foot on a court or you end up wasting time — your own and your fellow players. Ditto for writing, right? Why flail around trying to write a bestseller if you haven’t bothered to even learn the basics of the craft?
  2.  You must be creative.  Yes, learn the underpinnings of what makes for good fiction. But don’t be afraid to try something different. You might surprise yourself.  Like I did when, being a vertically challenged person, I learned to lob over the tall men.
  3. Play with folks who are better than you are. I’ve said this a million times, but don’t get sucked into a bad critique group, which can be pity-parties, bad for your self confidence or they just reinforce your worst habits.  Find folks who can help you up your game and listen to them. My friend Tom has taught me to…wait for this piece of wisdom!…keep my eye on the ball at all times.  Which is what Jan Burke told me once at an Mystery Writers of America meeting when I was grousing about James Patterson.
  4. Stay out of the kitchen.  In pickle ball, The Kitchen is the area just in front of the net and the rules say you can’t smash the ball if you have even one toe in there and you can’t dribble a serve into The Kitchen. I’m not sure what this says about writing except maybe don’t make really stupid mistakes.
  5. Hit hard along the lines.  If you are writing genre fiction (and I don’t happen to think that’s a derisive term), learn everything you can about that type of novel. Read extensively in your genre, be it sci-fi, thriller or YA.  Because you need to be smart about what’s going on in the market.  But then, learn to play hard at the edges of those lines, because the best genre fiction is the stuff that honors the past but points to something in the future. I have, for the record, a heck of a back hand along the line in pickle ball.
  6. Don’t always go for the smash shot. Pickle ball attracts a lot of tennis players. Many of them come in thinking they can beat up on the old guys by smashing the ball down their opponent’s throat. (This is sort of like literary types who try to write thrillers and wiff.) Trouble is, the pickle ball has about as much bounce as a dead chicken. And the smashers quickly learn they will be dinked to death (an ultra soft shot that just clears the net) by 82-year-old women named Norma.  And yes, I play with a real Norma. She’s a killer. For writers, not going for the smash shot means not trying to hit a home run on your first attempt, ie a bestseller. You’re doomed if you try because you’re aiming at a constantly moving market-target.  Just go out there in the beginning and have fun.
  7. Try the dink.  This is a money shot in pickle ball, a sweet little “dink” across the net that causes the smasher-guys (sorry, they are almost always guys) to race desperately to the net and sometimes do a face plant on the asphalt. So, if you feel lost in the middle of your 400-page novel, set it aside and write a short story or even a novella. You might find your rhythm again. It’s good for the confidence.
  8. Practice, practice, practice.  When I first starting playing, I went only once a week. Guess what, I didn’t get any better.  I got discouraged and depressed. To say nothing of putting on weight. When my friend Linda came to visit up here in Michigan, she dragged me to the Friendly Pickle Ballers.  I was terrible at first. But I am quickly getting better. Why? I go every morning now. Do you write every day? Why not?
  9. Keep score but don’t obsess about it.  Sure, I want to win in pickle ball, but right now I mostly lose. I’m trying to learn that this is okay.  For writers, I think the point is you should keep an eye on your sales, your Amazon ranking, your reviews, etc. But you don’t want to let it get to you. Messes with your head…
  10. And last but not least, don’t beat up on yourself.  This has been the hardest thing for me to learn in pickle ball because I am sort of competitive and feel like crap when I let my team mates down. But as my fellow players keep telling me, “there’s no I’m sorry in pickle ball.”  So for you writers out there, yeah, you will fail.  You’re going to hit a lot of balls into the net. Your serves will go wide. You’re going to get rejection letters. Whatcha gonna do? Pack up your pickle ball and go home? No. You’re going to put on the old sports bra, get back out there and try again. You will get better. You will get good. You will get published. Because even a new cucumber can become a pickle baller.

 

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