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

What Do Readers Really Want?

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ― William Styron

By PJ Parrish

A writer friend of mine, Tim Hallinan, had an interesting post on Facebook the other day. Well, all his posts are interesting, but I thought this one you all at TKZ might really enjoy. Plus, I read it at a special point while my writing my new book. Here’s the post. Then I’ll be back and we’ll talk.

Bruce Springsteen in the NY Times today, talking about his goals for his one-man Broadway show:

“I think an audience always wants two things. They want to feel at home and they want to be surprised.”

If I had a single writing space, I’d put those words on the wall.

I think book readers want the same things, except that by “at home” they mean knowing instinctively that they can trust the writer not to violate the covenant between them, the sort of handshake made in the first few pages, that says the writer will do his/her best throughout the considerable amount of time the reader is generously volunteering to the experience. The reader needs to “feel at home” in their expectation of the kind of story and the level of quality and commitment the writer is attempting to bring to the experience. (It’s actually more like an airbnb, in that readers might expect different kinds of experiences from different spaces or books.)

But in addition to that level of comfort, they also want to be surprised — the book needs to take them places they weren’t expecting to go. And I think that covers everything from major story developments to tiny moments of grace among individual characters, maybe just a new way to say something.

I can’t think of anything, from a mild chuckle to a moment of illumination, that this doesn’t imply.

 

Isn’t that great stuff? Both from Bruce and Tim.  A couple years back, I read Tim’s Edgar-nominated book The Queen of Patpong. Normally, I don’t go for Asian settings, but I really was transported by his rendering of his location and the arc of his character Rose, village girl turned sex worker. Her story reminded me of another book that took me east, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, another tale of a girl sold into sex trade. (Click here to read the opening of The Patpong Queen to get a taste of of what it’s like in a Bangkok lap bar. Tim’s latest release, by the way, is coming in November — Fools’ River)

I’m also a big Springsteen fan. Not just for the tunes. Mostly it’s because he’s a great storyteller. So many of his songs are short stories, filled with damaged characters and locations painted with Van Gogh virtuosity. With just a few quick impasto strokes, Springsteen makes me see his places —

New Jersey Turnpike riding on a wet night
‘Neath the refinery’s glow out where the great black rivers flow.
License, registration, I ain’t got none
But I got a clear conscience ’bout the things that I done

And makes me feel for his people —

My name is Joe Roberts I work for the state
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville barracks number 8
I always done an honest job as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain’t no good

Now ever since we was young kids it’s been the same come down
I get a call over the radio Franky’s in trouble downtown
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way

Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’ nothin’ feels better than blood on blood
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”

I catch him when he’s strayin’ like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good

Like a good novelist, Springsteen honors the covenant between writer and reader. He makes us feel at home in his genre and his world, yet his song-stories can surprise through their ability to ignite a memory, touch a heart, or thrum a fear.  I’ve cried listening to him perform Independence Day, a song about a son’s inability to connect with a father. This is what great books do as well — they resonate, they connect, they make you think when you read them, yes, that is exactly how I feel!

As Tim so nicely puts it, a novel “is a handshake in the first few pages” that the writer will do everything in her power to keep up her side of the bargain. And as for that element of surprise both Bruce and Tim talk about, well, that’s the magic, isn’t it.

“Surprise” isn’t just a mere plot twist (though that can be fun). It isn’t just the final revelation of who did, indeed, do it. (though that can be satisfying). It isn’t the colorful rendering of your location (though who doesn’t want to visit far away places with strange-sounding names, like Bangkok and Bayonne?) “Surprise” is, as Tim says, the magic dust you spread throughout your entire book, from the care you put in your plotting, to the love you invest in your characters, even the bad ones, maybe especially the bad ones.

I’m one chapter shy of finishing the latest book.  This book has taken my sister Kelly and I “home” in that we have returned to our series character Louis Kincaid, and I am hopeful this story will make Louis’s fans feel a comfort that maybe they didn’t feel with our previous stand alone thriller. And we’ve worked really hard — and long — on this one to strengthen the covenant by producing what we really hope is a subtle and mutli-layered psychological mystery.

But I also hope the readers will be surprised. We’re taking them up to the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where small skeletons are found buried in abandoned copper mines, and into the arcana of the Catholic religion, where good cops struggle to reconcile the sanctity of the confessional with their need for justice.

This is why Tim’s post resonated with me. It is also why I started out today with one of my favorite quotes from Styron. We’re about ready to type THE END. I’ve had some experiences. I’m a little exhausted. And I’ve lived a couple lives while writing it. I can only hope the readers will feel the same.

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First Page Critique:
Let’s Get Logical, Logical!

By PJ Parrish

We have a submission today that is a good object lesson for all of us on the need to create an opening set-up that doesn’t leave the reader doing a Scooby-Doo. I’ll be back in a second to explain. Thanks to the writer for submitting!

INNOCENT VAMPIRE GIRLS

My name is Victoria Milford. According to The Sunset Heat, a local newsletter, I’m “The 24 year old, dark haired, sexy part owner, of the Sunset Strip nightclub; ‘Climaxes’.”

We serve drinks and we have live entertainment on the weekends. On weeknights, 25 year old Harry Edelstein is in the D/J booth.

Around 9 P.M. on a Tuesday night, business was slow. Less than half the tables were occupied. The recorded music blared, but not loud enough to drown out any conversation.

I was seated at the bar, going over some paperwork, when a guy sat on the stool beside me.

“Evening Victoria.” He spoke cheerfully. “Can I buy you something to drink?”

He was Jake; a mean looking dude in his late 20s, wearing a black leather jacket. He had a firm build and curly, light colored hair. He’d been showing up almost every night for the past two weeks, with a ditzy blonde chic named Rosalyn. She also had a mean look to her, but neither of them had caused any trouble. Tonight he was alone.

“Thank you Jake.” I told him, “Maybe you haven’t heard, but I’m part owner of the Club. I’m the one who buys drinks for customers. Not the other way around.”

“Then I’ll have my usual.”

I said, “That was slick, but you’re the one who has to pay for the drinks first.”

Then I asked, “So where’s your girlfriend, what’s her name? Rosalyn?”

“She’s on ice.”

“‘On ice’?” I said scornfully, “You mean you haven’t broken up with her, but you’re now on the prowl?”

“That’s partly correct.”

“What part?”

“When I said ‘She’s on ice’, I meant that literally. Right now she’s hanging upside down and naked, inside a freezer with the lights off.”

I laughed. “If that’s what dating you leads to, forget it. I don’t mind a little bit kinky, but risking death…”

“That wasn’t a joke Vick.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“You see, our employer doesn’t take any lip from any of their employees.”

“Don’t you think that’s kind of excessive? Every now and then I have to give somebody a good talking to, and that’s enough.”

“I said I wasn’t joking. We are employed by the Legal Department of Vidamort Corp. Our employer enforces Company rules, in a way that we employees never forget.”

I said, “Legal Department? You don’t look like a lawyer to me; and Rosalyn just doesn’t seem like someone who could pass any kind of a bar exam.”

“Roxy and I aren’t lawyers.” He told me, “She and I enforce company policy, in a way that our clients never forget.”

I said, “Enforcers?”

He said, “Vidamort Corp. wants me to explain Company policy to you Ms. Milford, in a way you’ll never forget.”

________________

I’m back. There are probably some of you out there who don’t remember Scooby-Doo. He was the Great Dane mascot in a 1960s cartoon featuring a band of young detectives. He was easily confused, and his favorite response was “huh?” Whenever I see a passage in a manuscript (including my own) that doesn’t quite make sense, I call it a Scooby-Doo Problem.  This, I think, is what we’re dealing with here in this submission.

I know we don’t cotton to hard and fast rules here at TKZ. But there is a cardinal rule in writing fiction: Don’t confuse the reader. Confusion is not the same as misdirection. The latter is a terrific tool in the novelist’s bag, especially for mysteries and thrillers.  Artful writers use misdirection to slip in vital information without hitting readers over the head, to change up pacing, to plant clues that may or may not later blossom (see Red Herrings), and to create characters that are not what they really seem to be (see Unreliable Narrator).  Some examples off the top of my head: the movies The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects and Pulp Fiction. Novels: Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, and in The DaVinci Code, the villain Aringarosa (whose name translates almost literally as red herring.)

Think of misdirection as the sleight-of-hand you see in magic acts. A great magician might do something to grab the audience’s attention. And in those moments of distraction, he is able to set up the trick’s pay-off.

So misdirection — good. But confusion? That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of red herrings. If your writing is simply unclear, you frustrate readers and they give up. What constitutes “unclear”?  Maybe we can’t tell what is physically happening, like a fist fight that is badly choreographed or simple movements of characters in place or time. Maybe the dialogue makes no sense in that a man says something and a woman responds with a non sequitur.  Maybe the writer hasn’t given us enough information for us to figure out where we are geographically or in time.  So we are left, like Scooby-Doo, going “huh?”

Okay, let’s apply this to today’s submission.  On first glance, this isn’t bad. We know who our protag is likely to be (because we get a Sue Grafton “My name is Kinsey Millhone” first-person opening graph.)  We know where we are — in a nightclub, maybe a strip club? — because the character tells us, also in the first graph.

But then things sort of get murky fast. When a mean-looking dude shows up, the dialogue begins to drift into illogical-land. Suddenly, things just don’t add up, the main character’s believability becomes compromised, and the set-up of the dead woman in the cooler veers off toward comedy.  Let’s take a look at this with Track Change edits:

My name is Victoria Milford. According to The Sunset Heat, a local newsletter, a newsletter is usually an in-house organ I’m “The 24 year old, dark haired, sexy part owner, of the Sunset Strip nightclub; ‘Climaxes’.” I’m not crazy about this opening.  We’ve seen it a million times, and it’s a prime example of “telling” ie  the newsletter used as a device to convey age, physical description, job, and that she’s “sexy.”  Find a way to SHOW this through the dialogue and plot.

We serve drinks and we have live entertainment on the weekends. On weeknights, 25 year old Harry Edelstein is in the D/J booth. You are wasting critical space on irrelevant info. Of course a nighclub does all of this. Lose this. Especially since adding Harry’s name (he’s a spear-carrier) clogs things up.

Around 9 P.M. on a Tuesday night, business was slow. Less than half the tables were occupied. The recorded music blared, but not loud enough to drown out any conversation.  Maybe the story starts here? Drop us smack into the place and moment. And you really need some scene-setting here. 

I was seated at the bar, going over some paperwork, This is where you SHOW us what her job is. I was seating at the bar signing the payroll checks. I hated the busy work but it had fallen to me, as half-owner of Climaxes, to do it since my partner Joe Blow went to prison (or whatever) when a guy sat slid? onto the stool beside me.

“Evening Victoria.” He spoke cheerfully. You call him mean-looking. That’s at odds with “cheerful.” Find a better way to convey his mood.  His voice had the bounce of too much booze. “Can I buy you something to drink?”

He was Jake; I smiled when I read this because “Jake” is actually an adjective meaning a good guy in old detective lingo. a mean looking dude this is generic. Can you describe what “mean” looks via Victoria’s consciousness? She works in a nightclub and “mean” probably means something very different to her than it would to a woman who works at Macy’s. in his late 20s, wearing a black leather jacket. He had a firm build and curly, light colored hair. He’d been showing up almost every night for the past two weeks, with a ditzy blonde chic named Rosalyn. She also had a mean look ditto to her, but neither of them had caused any trouble. Tonight he was alone.

“Thank you Jake.should be no thanks, Jake. I told him, “Maybe you haven’t heard, but I’m part owner of the Club. We know this and so does Jake if he’s regular enough to call her by first name I’m the one who buys drinks for customers. Not the other way around.”

“Then I’ll have my usual.”

I said, “That was slick, but you’re the one who has to pay for the drinks first.”

Hit pause: Here’s where the dialogue gets really fuzzy. Vick said I buy the drinks but then she says HE has to pay for it?

More logic lapses. I THINK Victoria could care less about this apparent loser, yet she is the one who keeps the conversation going below. And what happened to the paperwork she was doing? Maybe give Jake a line or two more that rachets up the tension (we don’t have any yet, by the way). Why is Jake here tonight? Why has he chosen to sit down by the owner and spill his guts? You need to set this up better for us to buy it or get interested.

Then I asked, “So where’s your girlfriend, what’s her name? Rosalyn?”  Both she and we already know this.  Just go with: “So where’s Rosalyn?” But why would she care? Is she just making small talk? This question is not logical. 

“She’s on ice.”

“‘On ice’?” I said scornfully, show me don’t tell me. Maybe she lets out a snort of derision. “You mean you haven’t broken up with her, but you’re now on the prowl? I am not sure what Vick means here.

“That’s partly correct.”  Again, this is a non sequitur. It doesn’t logically follow what she said above. She asked if they had broken up, so what is “partly correct” about that? Dialogue must be logical in its statements and responses.

“What part?”

“When I said ‘She’s on ice’, I meant that literally. Right now she’s hanging upside down and naked, inside a freezer with the lights off.” Okay, finally we have tension. We have  disturbance in the norm. But again, I have to ask, why is he telling her this? Vick has to AT LEAST have a thought about this.  Like:  Jake had been coming into the club for weeks but I could count on one hand the number of times he had talked to me. Why the hell was he getting so personal all of a sudden?  WHAT IS SHE THINKING? The guy just said his girlfriend is hanging in a meat locker and Vick has no thoughts? Don’t be afraid to go into internal monologues in your character’s mind. It is a great way to convey plot and you really really need it in first person POV. 

I laughed. More logic problems. I can’t tell what the tone of this book is going to be. Light and humorous? Sassy? Dark and moody? I THINK we might be in fantasy land but I am guessing that only because of the overly literal title with “vampires.” Why would a statement that Rosalyn might be dead elicit a laugh? “If that’s what dating you leads to, forget it. I don’t mind a little bit kinky, but risking death…” Another huh? moment here. Why would Victoria even mention dating? 

“That wasn’t a joke Vick.”

“Yeah. Right.” The dialogue really needs to work harder to advance the set-up.

You see, our employer doesn’t take any lip from any of their employees.” This doesn’t sound like Jake talking. He’s a borderline low-life. “You see…” is rather academic. I don’t see him using that. Pay attention to character’s voices. “Well, my dumb-ass boss doesn’t take no lip from the workers.”  (or whatever works)

Also logic again. This sort of implies (in Vick’s lack of logical response) that she already knows what he does. There is no graceful transition from what came right before.  Find a way for Jake to LOGICALLY segue into talking about his job.  Find a way to link Roz in the freezer to his boss.  And why doesn’t Jake seem to have no response of his own to the fact that his girlfriend is hanging naked in a meat locker? Is this meant to be humorous? Vick has to at least think it’s weird that he talks about it so casually.   

“Don’t you think that’s kind of excessive? Every now and then I have to give somebody a good talking to, and that’s enough.” Logic again. What is “kind of excessive”?  The last thing Jake said was his employer doesn’t take lip.

“I said I wasn’t joking. We are employed by the Legal Department of Vidamort Corp. Our employer enforces Company rules, in a way that we employees never forget.”  Clunky exposition here. Again, Jake wouldn’t talk like this — “we are employed?”…”We work for.” And they only thing relevant is that he works on the down-low for the legal department of a corporation. And I have to ask yet again — why is Victoria even wasting time with this guy? You need to set-up this interchange between two characters to be more believable.

I said, “Legal Department? You don’t look like a lawyer to me; and Rosalyn just doesn’t seem like someone who could pass any kind of a bar exam.” Me-ow. 🙂

“Roxy and I aren’t lawyers.” He told me,She and I  We enforce company policy, in a way that our clients never forget.”

I said, “Enforcers?” He never used the word “enforcers.” All we’re getting here is talk talk talk.  If you are using first person, you must go into the character’s head. What is she thinking about this creepy guy? 

He said, “Vidamort Corp. wants me to explain Company policy to you Ms. Milford, in a way you’ll never forget.”  Man, I am totally confused by now.  Jake has suddenly morphed into a threatening figure. It comes out of nowhere.  Maybe if you set it up better via Vick’s thoughts — she mentions that he never gave anyone trouble yet suddenly he’s coming on like a mafia hit man. And why did he suddenly go from calling her “Vick” to “Ms. Milford”? Give this some context.  Make it make sense. 

Some last general comments.  We talk often here about finding the optimal moment to begin your story. I call this the parachuting-in moment.  I think the writer got into this scene way too early with graphs of throat-clearing. S/he could also use a few quick brush-strokes to show me where we are. You TOLD me it’s a nightclub (with a raunchy name) yet I can’t see it, smell it, hear it.  Full disclosure: I have been in strip clubs on slow Tuesday nights (doing a story in my newspaper days) and it’s a pretty depressing scene but ripe for writers. Again, this goes to tone.  We can’t tell what kind of book this is because we get no descriptive details or thoughts from the protag. You can also slip in hints about how she feels about her job — good, bad, indifferent?  Start building your character’s onion layers as early as you can. Right now, Victoria is sort of a cipher. All we know is that she is “sexy,” according to a newsletter.  It might be fun, if you use that, to give us a zinger line about how SHE feels about that.

Thanks for submitting, writer. Comments open!

6+

Time To Start Thinking About Book Two!

“Everyone has a novel in him or her. Not everyone has a SECOND novel.” – Jeremiah Healy.

By PJ Parrish

We really need to talk about your second book.

What? Are you nuts? I’m still working on the first! I’ve been working on it for five years and it’s killing me!

Yeah, I know. But you really have to trust me on this one. Even if you haven’t published squat yet, you really need to hear me out on how important it is to starting thinking now about your sophomore effort. Why? Two reasons.

  1. Your first book might not get published. What then? You going to curl up and die? Or will you live to write another day?
  2. Your first book might get published. What then? No one can ride a one-trick pony to a successful career. Not even a scribbling monkey scribe.

All of us here at TKZ are at different points on the writing path. Some of us are just starting out. Some are mid-road and mid-list. Some are published but stalled. Some are gliding along with dozens of titles up on Amazon. But all of us need to think about that “second” book…or for some of us, the “next” book, always the next book, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. So even if you are sitting there at Book I, Chapter 4, this is still something you need to think about. Because being a successful writer isn’t about playing checkers. It’s all about chess, and looking a couple moves ahead, even if you’re stuck on moving out your pawn.

There’s a ton of advice out there on what’s called Second Novel Syndrome. Some of it is good. Some of it is dumb because as we’ve learned here, not every path is your path, Grasshopper, and advice is cheap and cheap anything is often bad.

Books are like kids. Some slip out easy. Some come out kicking and fighting only after months or years of labor. Your first book, like your first kid, is fraught with tension, tenderness, and outright terror. Oh God, what if I drop him on head? What if my kid is ugly and dumb? Should I switch him from Gerbers to Sprout Organic? The second book, if you’ve learned anything from the first experience, is more like second kid. It’s bath time and dinner! Ah, just set him out in the backyard in the rain with a handful of Cheerios.

Let’s go back to that one-trick pony. Because if you get hitched up with an agent or editor and they buy your book, the first question out of their mouths will be, “What else you got in your pipeline?”  The second question is “How soon can you get it to me?” This is because we are primarily talking about the mystery/thriller genre here and that means you have to be prepared to turn out quality on a regular (like annual) basis.

Even if you are self-publishing you must do this.  Especially if you are self-publishing, because you are going to have an even harder time of getting noticed, and the more real estate you occupy out there, the more often you can feed your readers, the better your chances.

Like my good buddy Jerry Healy said, you have to have more than one novel in you. You don’t want to Question Mark and the Mysterians. You want to be Elvis. Okay, that’s overly ambitious. You want to be Billy Joel. Or maybe Phil Collins but only after he left Genesis.

History is paved with the graves of one-hit wonders in every arena, from music to sports to tech inventions (like the guy who invented the computer mouse prototype and never came up with anything else.).  Maybe the saddest one-hit wonder was a guy named Harvey Bell. He was a graphic artist who created the smiley face in 1963 for an insurance company ad campaign. More than 50 million smiley buttons alone were sold in the 60s. Bell was paid $240 for his design and never hit it big again.

Music is filled with one-hitters. Rick Astley made a career of it. Here’s a whole list of musical one-hitters. Some of my faves are Wooly Booly, I’m Too Sexy by Right Said Fred, and Popsicles and Icicles by the Murmaids. And I have a soft spot in my heart for Funky Town.

In acting, there’s a term called the One-Scene Wonder. This is a character who has one good scene then disappears (not to be confused with a cameo or spear-carrier). My favorite One-Scene Wonder comes in Pulp Fiction when Christopher Walken tells a gross story about his father’s watch. There’s also a terrific One-Scene Wonder in Four Weddings and a Funeral when Rowan Atkinson, as the priest, keeps screwing up his lines.

Sports has its share. Joe Namath, Mark Fidrych and my favorite Ickey Woods, the Bengals running back who scored 15 TDs one season, had a hit dance with The Ickey Shuffle, then shuffled off to Buffalo. (actually, he got hurt and retired).

Which takes us back to books. Now any one of you out there can name a One-Hit Wonder in fiction, but the list toppers include Margaret Mitchell, Salinger, Emily Bronte, Boris Pasternak et al. If you want to know what the New York Times Bestselling One-Hit Wonders of all time are, click here where you find Richard Simmons sharing space next to Stephen Hawking.

This post today was inspired by synchronicity. My writer friend Rick Helms posted some advice on Facebook (and reminded me of Jerry Healy’s quote) on the same day I read a story about a writer named James Ross. I had never heard of Ross, but he published only one novel in his life, They Don’t Dance Much.  It wasn’t really a hit in in 1940. In fact, Flannery O’Connor, who met Ross at a writers conference, wrote to her agent to say, “Ross is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.”  The book later became a cult hit, though, with the Washington Post calling it “a hardboiled gem.”

But I am not sure any one of us wants our one novel, gem that it is, discovered 35 years after its birth. So I really urge you to think now about book 2, 3…and 10. For what it’s worth, here’s some things I have learned along the way about this. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t. But I offer it in good faith as someone whose first mystery came after her third finished (unpublished) manuscript and whose first published book didn’t sell for beans but whose second book is still selling (and got an Edgar nomination).

 

  • Don’t be shy about getting feedback mid-stream as you write. Whether from an editor, agent, critique group or trusted beta reader. Test the waters.
  • Don’t wait. Get going on your sophomore effort as early as you can. Literary folks can maybe afford the luxury of a Donna Tartt layoff. The rest of us, not so much.
  • Don’t write the same book twice. You have to have a flow of fresh ideas. But if you are writing a series, you have to have continuity between books and still be fresh with your second plot.
  • Don’t be afraid. Because you probably learned something from writing book one. You’ve improved. You’ll have some discipline and a better idea of your writing routine.
  • Do understand that you might make the same mistakes. Go back and read your first book and look for what you did wrong. (I did this and boy, what a lesson!) Don’t repeat your mistakes. Watch out for your “writer tics” and try to correct them before they become full blown bad habits. Like using “And then…” (one of mine)
  • Do understand that your second book might gestate and be born in a completely different way. You have to treat each in its way yet impose the same discipline upon your approach to it. (Back to that kids metaphor again, right?)
  • Do establish a deadline. A first book has the luxury of taking as long as it wants to finish. You can’t do that with a second book because if you want to be published, you have to be able to produce on a regular basis that might be at least a book a year. If you give yourself deadlines – daily, monthly, and final – you might have a chance of success. Stephen Fry said of second novels: “If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
  • Do know that second times are often the charm. Mike Connelly completed four manuscripts before he sent out his debut novel The Black Echo. Alice Sebold’s first book was Lucky, a raw memoir about rape survival. It got no attention. But her second book was The Lovely Bones.  You might have heard of it.
  • Don’t get discouraged if the first book doesn’t fly. Or even gets off the ground. Erosion of confidence is common after a first stab, especially if you didn’t get it placed with a publisher or got a lot of rejection. Well, you gotta toughen up. Maybe it wasn’t you the writer, maybe it was the story. It wasn’t fresh enough. It wasn’t unique. You didn’t quite have your craft under control. You put it out there before it was really ready. If you are knocked down by one blow, you will never be a writer.

Which leads me to one of my favorite One-hit Wonder songs of all time. Hit it, boys!

7+

Do You Write In the Nude?

Supposed photo of JD Salinger but debunked. It’s really nudist writer Jason Loam.

Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public. — Paulo Coelho

By PJ Parrish

So there I was, sitting on the sofa in my old sweat pants and my Bob Seger Get Out of Denver tour t-shirt and things were going south fast.  Actually, they weren’t going south. They were going nowhere.  I was mired mid-scene in a chapter about halfway through the WIP.  Getting no traction. Feeling hopeless. Ready to give up and go watch Shark Tank.

Then I had an idea.  All I needed was a change of habit.  It had worked before. Back when I lived in Fort Lauderdale, I would pack up the lap top, hitch a ride on the water taxi and go to my favorite coffee bar or bar, depending on the lateness of the hour and the depth of my desperation.

But I live up in northern Michigan now. And we were in the middle of a chilly-for-August two-day rainstorm. I had to improvise.  So I combed my hair, slipped into a leopard print lounging robe and locked myself in the bedroom, without the dogs or the TV remote.

It didn’t work.  But the bad patch did get me to thinking about writing rituals, and the weird things we writers do to prime the pump.

Like writing naked.

Lots of writers have resorted to going buff when blocked. Hemingway, it is said, wrote naked standing up at his typewriter, which I can somehow see (but unfortunately can’t un-see). James Whitcomb Riley had his friends lock him up naked in a hotel room with only pen and paper, so he wouldn’t be tempted to go down to the bar.  Victor Hugo, when facing a killer four-month deadline, had his servant take away all his clothes. He bought one bottle of ink and huge gray shawl, so he couldn’t go outside.

I’ve tried other things to get the juices going.  Usually, I go for a long run. Clears the brain and you can write dialogue while you pound around. I’ve relocated to places without internet. Once, when my sister Kelly and I were struggling with an early book in the series, we rented a tiny cottage near Hot Springs, Ark. Faced with nothing but each other’s voices and the whine of mosquitoes, we got a lot done. I would do this all the time if I could afford it, though not in rural Arkansas again.

Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections in a rented office, stripped of all distractions. He used an old Dell laptop  that had no wireless card and a blocked ethernet port. I prefer how Maya Angelou does it. When writing, she checks into a hotel room every day, taking legal pads, a bottle of sherry, playing cards, a Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus. She writes twelve pages before leaving in the afternoon, then edits the pages that night.

The weirdest ritual might have belonged to Franz Kafka. Every time he got ready to write, he would first do ten minutes of what was called the “Müller technique” — a series of swings, stretches, and body-weight exercises. After he was finished writing, he did another ten minutes. Did I mention that he did this naked?

Water is supposed to enhance creativity, they say.  And lots of famous folks wrote in bathtubs, including Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Edmond Rostand, and Ben Franklin, who also liked to take what he called “air baths,” where he’d sit around naked in a cold room for an hour or so while he wrote.

Woody Allen, on the other hand, is strictly a shower guy, telling interviewer Eric Lax:

This sounds so silly, but I’ll be working dressed as I am and I’ll want to get into the shower for a creative stint. So I’ll take off some of my clothes and make myself an English muffin or something and try to give myself a little chill so I want to get in the shower. I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot. Then I get out and dry myself and dress and then flop down on the bed and think there.

I am writing this post today lying in bed. Lots of famous writers wrote in bed — James Joyce, Proust, Twain, and one of my favorites, Truman Capote. “I am a completely horizontal author,” Truman Capote told The Paris Review. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.”

William Styron was a real piker. He would sleep until noon, then read and think in bed for another hour or so before lunch with his wife at 1:30. He finally got around to begin writing about four.  I can relate.

But let me get back to my own problems with that recalcitrant chapter. How did I finally get going again? What was the magic ritual that unlocked my creativity? There wasn’t one. After four frustrating days of typing, deleting, typing, deleting, I finally printed out the chapter and took it to my favorite watering hole here in Traverse City, Sleder’s Travern.  I ordered one glass of wine and sat there and just read.

It took maybe half a glass for me to realize what was wrong. It wasn’t my ritual. It was my unwillingness to be naked. I was at a crucial point in the story when my character was facing what our own James Scott Bell called the Man in the Mirror moment, and I was pulling my punches. I was holding back emotionally in what should have been a really emotional point in my story.  Maybe it was a fear of being sentimental. Maybe it was because I didn’t truly understand what had brought my character to this point. But for some strange reason I was holding back.  And as Anne Rice once said, to write you have to risk making a fool of yourself.

It took me another week  to get that scene right. But it’s there and it’s what it needs to be now. Sometimes, you gotta get naked.

Oh, I should finish telling you about what happened to Victor Hugo.  He completed his book weeks before his deadline.  He used up the entire bottle of ink. He thought about calling his book What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually came up with a better title — The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 

 

11+

On Breaking the Writing Rules,
Bad Advice and Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee in his library of 2500 books.

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. – Bruce Lee.

By PJ Parrish

A couple years ago, I decided I needed to get back in shape. I had gotten lazy, a little flabby and sort of depressed about it. So I decided to go to a personal trainer. John was just what I needed — a kick-butt no-nonsense guy’s guy who knew a lot about how the human body worked. He also knew a lot about how the human mind worked.

Or in my case, didn’t work.

It hit me somewhere around the second month of training that my brain was out of shape. I had lost discipline, fallen into bad habits, and was locked into an inertia of inaction.

You probably know where this is going. I am talking also about my writing life.

My writing routine had gotten slack. My output had declined. I was making excuses to not write. I was getting down about the whole thing.

John was big into martial arts, and his hero was Bruce Lee. He talked often about Lee’s discipline and his approach to his “art.” I pretended to listen as I did my curls and crunches. But stuff started to sink in and I did some research on Bruce Lee. Pretty amazing life, that guy. He was famous for developing his own brand of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do. He took techniques from a wide variety of other disciplines and discarded many of the “rules” of traditional martial arts.

But here’s something that really resonated with the writer in me: Before he got to this point, he spent years training in all the traditional styles like karate, aikido, judo. To find his own unique style, he did all the “basic training” and took no short cuts. He was a little like Picasso, who painted this

Before he painted this

Both Lee and Picasso learned the rules and then broke them.

Writers talk a lot about rules.  We here at TKZ talk a lot about rules. Maybe it’s because what we do is not easy to learn, even if you are a “natural.” We go to workshops and conferences, read how-to books, underline passages in Stephen King’s On Writing, looking for tips and techniques to help our writing. We want to get better, always, at what we do. We want to know the rules, because if you learn the rules, maybe you can get in the game.

Don’t use adverbs!

Don’t use passive voice!

Keep backstory under control!

Write every day or you die!

It’s a wonder we get anything down on the page. Except maybe our own blood.

Writer’s rules aren’t anything new. A guy named S.S. Van Dine’s set down his Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories in 1928. (“There must be a corpse, and the deader the corpse the better.”) Many other famous writers have been compelled to weigh in with their own lists. Here are a few tidbits I culled:

 

  • Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  • George Orwell: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Jonathon Frazen: It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
  • PD James: Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
  • Joyce Carol Oates: Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  • Ian Rankin: Have a story worth telling.
  • Zadie Smith: Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  • Hilary Mantel: Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
  • Henry Miller: Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Mark Twain: Write without pay until somebody offers pay.
  • Richard Ford: Don’t have children.

I can agree with most of that. But then again, I have dogs. There are some rules, however, I found that I can’t endorse:

  • Mario Puzo: Never write in the first person.
  • Robert Heinlein: You must refrain from rewriting except by editorial order.
  • Jack Kerouac: Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.

If someone can explain that last one to me, I’d be grateful.

It used to be that you had to read a book to get advice from the famous on writing. When I first read Annie Dilliard’s The Writing Life, I didn’t learn how to write but I was relieved to learn I wasn’t alone in my self-doubts. But now, thousands of writing tips are available to us at the tap of a finger, and anyone can hang out a how-to shingle. So how do you sift the wisdom from the chaff? I remember when I was first starting out in the romance field, I read dozens of Silhouettes, went to the RWA convention in New York, and searched for the secret formula that would make me rich and famous. I had to learn to write sex scenes, which I hated doing, and back in the 80s, there wasn’t much help on the internet. I could have really used blogger Steve Almond back then.  He calls himself “an internationally famous author celebrated for my graphic portrayals of amour.” He wrote a blog  detailing his rules for writing sex scenes. Here’s one of his rules:

Never compare a woman’s nipples to:
a) Cherries
b) Cherry pits
c) Pencil erasers
d) Frankenstein’s bolts
Nipples are tricky. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and shades. They do not, as a rule, look like much of anything, aside from nipples. So resist making dumb comparisons.

If you want to read his other tips, click here. But be warned, they aren’t all PG-rated.

Rules can be confusing, arbitrary, and deeply frustrating. I guess the only good advice I can offer is what Bruce Lee suggests in the quote at the beginning of this post. Adapt what you find useful, reject what is useless, and find your own path. I’ve been writing novels professionally for about thirty years, and whenever I see someone — famous or not — laying down rules, my hairs go up.  Still, I have discovered a few “rules” along the way that I have found deeply useful:

Kurt Vonnegut: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.  This taught me to dig deep for motivation for every character I put on the page, especially the villains.  Later, I heard Les Standiford preach the same principle when he said that until you understand what your character wants, not just on the surface but at his deepest levels, you can’t write a good story.

Linus Pauling: The way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. This taught me that not every story idea will work.  Some are good maybe for a short story. Some are ugly babies that might need a few years to blossom into beauties — ie, you might not be ready to tackle that story at that point in your life or technique. And many ideas  are just dumb or dull and you have to let them go. Sometimes you have to drown them.

David Morrell: Know your motivation. I’ve heard David speak at conferences about this and he has lots to teach writers. But this one always stuck with me. Here’s more from him: “Before I start any novel, I write a lengthy answer to the following question: Why is this project worth a year of my life? If I’m going to spend hundreds of days alone in a room, I’d better have a good reason for writing a particular book.” I urge you to click here and read the full post. It’s instructive and poignant.

Ernest Hemingway, who didn’t put his rules on paper, but did confide this to his friend Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of sh*t. I try to put the sh*t in the wastebasket.”

So yes, study the rules. Learn the rules. Many even write a few unpublished stories that adhere to rules and old formulas so you can see the departure point. But then have the courage to break the rules. I don’t read much sci-fi and I don’t read any YA. But this blog was inspired by a story I heard about recently about a debut author named Marissa Meyer. She wanted to write a Cinderella story. Pity the girl…not even published yet and she was breaking a big rule:  Don’t rely on stale old plots! Agents and editors want something fresh!

Meyer’s book is called Cinder. Yes, it’s based on the old fairy tale — Cinder is an outcast with nasty stepsisters. She’s also an Asian cyborg. The book became a New York Times bestseller. Why did I like this? Because one of my “rules” is to say something unique or say it uniquely. This is what Meyer did – took something old and made it new and her own. She broke the rule. And somebody came up with a slamming cover.

One last rule. It comes from one of my favorite new-to-me authors:

Neil Gaiman: The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

What are some “rules” that you’ve found that work for you? What are the ones that you’ve rejected? And how did the rules help you find your own way?

 

7+

Showing Versus Telling:
So SHOW Me Already!

Good morning crime dogs. Well, thank the good Lord for Joe’s post Saturday asking you all for your input on topics. Because I don’t have anything fresh today, but I do have a good excuse — I got a bum right paw.

I am living up in Traverse City, Michigan these days, a bucolic town a Petosky stone’s throw from Lake Michigan.  It is a law here in TC that you have to bike everywhere. Well, not a law, but TC is sort of like an American version of the Netherlands. Folks here love their two-wheelers. So when we got here last month, I duly went out and bought a new bike.  Haven’t had one in oh, 15 years or so. Well, on my second outing, I fell and badly sprained my wrist.  Embarrassing. Especially since I was standing still at the time waiting for the light to change.  Anywho, I can’t type a lick. My husband Daniel is typing this for me as I dictate.  So, I hope you will bear with me as I heal and let me run an old blog post.  It is about SHOW DON’T TELL.  And I am re-posting this especially for one of our readers Eric Beversluis, who was flummoxed by what he saw as too much “telling” backstory in a Mike Connelly book and asked for an “empirical” analysis of “show, don’t tell.”  My sister and I have covered this topic often in workshops, and it always comes up. So, here’s my attempt, Eric.  Hope it helps.  And get well, Joe!

By PJ Parrish

How many times have we all heard this: SHOW DON’T TELL!

I put it all in nice bright letters because those three words are so commonplace in writing workshops that shoot, we might as well put them in neon, right? Ask a writing coach or an editor what the cardinal sin of bad writing is and “telling” is right up there with procrastination. We really get our panties in a wad about it. But let’s stop and take a deep breath here

((((Breathe in pink, breathe out blue…)))

and figure out what SHOW DON’T TELL really means.

Okay, let’s start with a definition because it’s always good to start with specifics.

Show don’t tell means writing in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description. The idea is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead.

(((((ZZZzzzzzzz))))

And that, my friends, is me telling you what “show don’t tell” is. And now, I’m going to try to show you. But first, a caveat: Not all telling is bad. Sometimes, you have to tell things in your story. Not every thing that happens in your story is worthy of showing. Some things are best handled in narration:

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

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

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

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

Third person POV detached

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

Third person POV intimate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, so show me already!

Now I’m going to try to show you what I mean by all this with some before and after samples from a workshop I teach on this subject. Number 1 is an excerpt where the setup is a cop standing over a dead body in bayou country.

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.

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

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

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

Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him. Instinctively and unselfconsciously, Kramer crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here’s a rewrite of the same scene:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s example 2. This is the opening of chapter 1 and the setup is a woman overseeing a parade at Disney World. It’s long but it’s worth analyzing.

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

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

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

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

Here’s another way to handle the same material:

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

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

God, how I loved it here. My own fairy tale world. My own private Oz.

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

My own parade – every day.

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

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

Here’s one more for you to chew on. The set up is an unidentified person creeping through a house after already finding one dead body. We do not know who this is, what gender, or why he/she is there.

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

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

Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials.

In the rewrite, I converted the “telling” into “showing,” mainly by handling things in dialogue.

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

“Police! Anyone here?”

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

“Against the wall, lady.”

“But —”

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

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

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

Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.

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

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

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

Notice how the rewrite below works better because the same info is conveyed through tighter action and dialogue rather than the writer telling us what is happening.

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

Jake…

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

And her…

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

He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.

“You remembered,” she said.

He frowned. “Remembered what?”

“That this is my favorite restaurant.”

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

So what do we get from all this? The point I am trying to make here is that whenever you can, filter the story through the consciousness of your character(s). Don’t waste words on dumb physical stuff. Be evocative and fresh in your description. And when it comes to backstory narrative, don’t dwell in the past too long.

Okay, that was telling. Let me show you one more time, this time in an action scene (where you should always show not tell).

TELLING DRAMATIC ACTION

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

He fell to his knees and looked up into the chiseled face of his attacker.

SHOWING DRAMATIC ACTION

He walked with his head bent, scanning the front page of the New York Post. The hallway was dim, the slow blink of the red neon from the lone window lighting his way.

The blow came out of nowhere. So quick, so hard, blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. He stumbled forward, his head hitting the window.

An explosion of sound and glass. A rush of cold air. A flood of warm blood.

He dropped to his knees and looked up.

The face above him pulsed red. Then it was gone.

What’s the main problem with the first one? The “telling” is slow-paced and un-viscereal. And if the guy just went through a plate glass window he probably can’t see the glass falling and it sure as heck wouldn’t register in his senses as “glittering shards” and “fading fireworks.” (that’s the writer talking) In the second version, the POV is fixed and every detail that IS possible is filtered through the man’s senses.

In summary, here are the pitfalls of TELLING

  • Narrating the physical movements without being in character’s head.
  • Use of too many ‘ly’ words in action or in dialog (i.e. She said impatiently, walked slowly, yelled angrily.)
  • Use of stock descriptions, purple prose or lengthy descriptions of places (and people) especially those that have no bearing on the plot.
  • Too many adjectives and cliches.
  • Omniscient POV (distancing, describing from an all-seeing POV) The man getting hit on the head cannot see the glass as it falls six stories to the ground.)

Here are the strengths of SHOWING

  • Action that uses the senses, stays within the character’s consciousness and uses words and phrases that reinforce the mood of the scene.
  • Strong verbs. (Walked vs Jogged, Ran vs Raced, Shut the door vs Slammed the door.)
  • Original images and vivid descriptions that are filtered through the character’s senses in the present.
  • One compelling adjective vs. a string of mediocre ones.
  • Keep POV firmly in character’s head. (Establishes sympathy and connects emotionally.)

That’s it, Eric…and all you crime dogs. Going to go ice my paw now.

8+

First Page Critiques: Making
It Feel Fresh…and Refreshed

All writing is a campaign against cliche. — Martin Amis

By PJ Parrish

This must be the week for catching up on our First Page backlog.  Because here is another entry from one of our faithful contributors. This one is titled OTTER ROCK and appears to be a village mystery (though set in Alaska) in the grand tradition of PD James. In fact, it reminds me of the James novel Unnatural Causes in which Adam Dagliesh deals with a body in a boat on a windswept deserted shore. (More on that later) Thanks, dear anon-author, for participating.

Also, I am adding a second entry, KEEP IT SAFE, after this one. It is a longer version of an entry I critiqued a couple weeks ago. Click here to see it.  I lamented that the author should have included more sample and he/she resubmitted, so here is a longer rewritten version.  This second sample deserves a second look because it shows the value of good rewriting.

OTTER ROCK

Prologue

No one saw the paint-chipped, wood dory drifting out to sea. They were intent on what the ocean placed in their net.

The old fisherman hobbled along on the charcoal sand beach toward his three adult sons. They waited patiently for him to help them pick salmon from the gill net they had just hauled from the sea, on the east side of Cook Inlet, Alaska. The old man spilled his coffee when he tripped on a rock, disguised by wet, grey mud and volcanic grit. He cussed, turned around, and ambled back for a refill, when urgent shouting diverted his attention.

One of the sons motioned him over and pointed at the tide line. The old man forgot the coffee. He gimped toward them, as they stood grouped around the tangled net on the beach. Their two-hundred-foot, monofilament net lay partially in the water, the other half clumped around something at the low tide line. The tide ebbed, leaving the beach fresh and clean.

As the old man approached, one of his sons moved to meet him.

“Dad, we have a body in the net.”

The old man stepped over to scrutinize the snarled remains. The small body curled in a fetal position, as if asleep in a womb. Layers of moss-covered nylon obscured the face, and he was thankful for it. He inspected a small, bloated foot, then noticed a pink Hello Kitty image on an ocean-stained tee shirt. Sun glinted something poking through strands of tangled hair and citrine seaweed. An earring.

“Dear God. Son, call the troopers,” said the old man, stepping back. His son retrieved a cell phone from his jacket and called 911.

____________________________________

Well, this one’s a little short as well, but we have enough to go on, I think. What we have here is a pretty traditional opening for a mystery — body washes up on shore of remote location, discovered by colorful local person. The disturbance is there from the get-go (yay!) and I trust we will meet the hero in the next chapter or scene. But because this opening has been done-to-death, (see PD James, Benchley’s Jaws, Simon Brett’s The Body on the Beach, Chris Grabanstein’s Whack a Mole) the scene really needs something fresh, and I don’t see it here.  Yes, genre fiction is partially about working within a respected formula, but the formula must constantly be challenged to work anew. There is nothing overtly wrong with this opening. But there is nothing aha! right about it. Which makes me think that an agent, editor, or reader sampling this would take a pass. You don’t take an old house, slap on a new coat of paint, and expect to sell it for 2.5 mil — or 99 cents on Kindle even. If you’re working with old architecture — which is okay in itself — you really need to strip things down to the foundation and find a way to imprint your own unique style on it.

Quick digression: Speaking of dead things in the water, check out the beginning of Raymond Carver’s So Much Water So Close to Home and try not to bang your head on the keyboard next time you write an opening. 

I waded, deepening into the dark water. Evening, and the push and swirl of the river as it closed around my legs and held on. Young grisle broke water. Parr darted one way, smolt another. Gravel turned under my boots as I edged out. Watched by the furious eyes of King Salmon. Their immense heads turned slowly, eyes burning with fury, as they hung in the deep current. They were there. I felt them there, and my skin prickled. But there was something else. I braced with the wind on my neck. Felt the hair rise as something touched my boot. Grew afraid at what I couldn’t see. Then of everything that filled my eyes — that other shore heavy with branches, the dark lip of the mountain range behind. And this river that had suddenly grown black and swift. I drew breath and cast anyway. Prayed nothing would strike.

Back to Alaska. What could have made the set-up for our writer’s story work better? A few suggestions:

  • Make it feel like it’s a story only you can tell.  This is set in a real place in Alaska. But strike the literal reference and this could be Anyplace USA, from Maui to Montauk. (One detail I do like is “volcanic grit.”  If the writer knows this place, it doesn’t come across. Neat setting but not exploited enough.
  • Turn the cliche on its head. Okay, dead body on beach. Is there some way to make this unique? I go back to PD James’s Unnatural Causes. She dressed her corpse to the nines — “a dapper little cadaver, its shroud a dark pin-striped suit.”  But…wait for it…beneath the white cuffs of the dress shirt, the hands had been cut off at the wrists. Our writer almost gets there with the baby’s earring but we need more.
  • Slow down. I know that sounds counter-intuitive here but this story doesn’t appear to be a ramrod thriller; it’s probably a “village mystery.” So I am hoping this story is not just about a murder but about its effect on the people of this town.  A little more scene setting could go a long way once you wade deeper into your story. I’d suggest the writer go read Val McDermind’s splendid A Place of Execution and dissect how she handles this. Or read Jonathan Buckley’s excellent dead-Brit-on-the-beach novel So He Takes the Dog, which delves into the psychology of death on a small town. (Creepy detail: Things begin to go bad when a beachcomber discovers his dog isn’t chewing on a piece of driftwood; it’s a human hand.) Please don’t buy into the idea that every mystery must bolt out of the gate. That can be boring in itself.  A well-set scene with local color and mood can be more effective. Every story has its own unique pace. Let your story unfold and seduce, not pounce and poke.

That’s it for my main points. Now let’s go to the edits.

Prologue  Chapter One. Why not?

No one saw the paint-chipped, wood dory drifting out to sea. They were intent on what the ocean placed in their net. I’m not totally against omniscient POV but if you use it, stay with it and milk it for all it’s worth. (click here to read opening of James’s Unnatural Causes. Also check out the omniscient opening of Jim Crace’s body on the beach novel Being Dead. By quickly switching to old man’s POV, this just feels like a gimmick. Why not USE the boat? What if the old man (who knows every inch of this beach) sees the empty dory bobbing out in the water and sense something’s adrift in his universe. (hint of disturbance! Give him a thought about it that tells us something unique about this place.)

The old fisherman hobbled along on the charcoal sand beach toward his three adult sons. Nit to pick: I got tripped up with the image of these guys fishing from the beach and not out in a boat. What kind of fishermen are they? Take a moment to explain that they are set-netting salmon from shore with a gill net and how this works. Again, this can say something special about your setting. Never assume your reader in landlocked Iowa knows anything about fishing. It can also illuminate character. The old man is really tired because they had been out since four setting the heavy nets, etc. Slow down…They waited patiently for him to help them pick salmon from the gill net they had just hauled from the sea, on the east side of Cook Inlet, Alaska. Find a way to insert the place more gracefully. This is you the writer TELLING me where we are; let the old man SHOW us through his thoughts and senses. The old man spilled his coffee when he tripped on a rock, disguised by wet, in the grey mud and volcanic grit. Neat detail! I Googled Cook Inlet and found it is rife with volcanoes! He cussed, turned around, and ambled back for a refill, when urgent shouting diverted his attention. More you telling. Show it. How about:

“Pop! Pop! Come quick!”

The old man turned at the sound of his son’s shouts. 

One of the sons motioned him over and pointed at the tide line. The old man forgot the coffee. He gimped might be just me but this verb feels nasty… limped? toward them. , as they stood grouped around the tangled net on the beach. You’re leaching the tension out of the discovery here. “as they stood…” is boring. Have the man draw up short and SHOW US what he sees. Their two-hundred-foot, monofilament don’t waste detail on the NET; give it to the horror of the baby’s body. The net needs to be described before the body discovery. net lay partially in the water, the other half clumped around something at the low tide line. The tide ebbed, leaving the beach fresh and clean.  The man isn’t there yet. He can’t relate this in his POV; you’ve slipped into the sons’ POV.

As the old man approached, “As” construction deflates tension. Get him there and move on. one of his sons moved to meet him.

“Dad, we have a body in the net.” Can we give this son better dialogue? He sounds like a jaded cop.  “Jesus,” the son whispered. “Sweet Jesus, it’s a…..” And maybe he can’t say it. So you give the old man the next line.

 A baby…it was a baby.

And where’s the kid’s reaction as seen through the dad’s POV?  The son might turn away, even retch? Slow down and give me some human emotion here.  Where’s the other two sons? What are they doing?

The old man stepped over he’s already there. to scrutinize the snarled remains. Snarled? Remains? It’s the body of a baby. This is not a cop or coroner talking. It is a fisherman who has seen many weird things in his net, dead things, but never a human. Get out of YOUR head and into his. This is a horrible moment, ripe with drama but we need to experience through the old man, not you the writer. The small body curled in a fetal position, as if asleep in a womb. Layers of moss-covered nylon the nylon net obscured the face, and he the old man was thankful for it. He inspected did he touch it? Unclear. a small, bloated foot, then noticed a pink Hello Kitty image on an ocean-stained ????tee shirt. If the body is in fetal position, he can’t see the image on the t-shirt. Sun glinted off? something poking through strands of tangled hair and citrine seaweed. An earring. This is a cool telling detail, especially since most babies don’t have earrings. Slow down and give him a thought about it! And maybe it is a thought that says something about this unique place.  A baby with a pierced ear? Nobody in this town did that to their babies. Or do they? I believe it’s common for Alaskan native-Americans to have piercings. Could this figure in? 

Note that you’ve placed your characters in a high-anxiety horror-filled scene. Yet they have no emotions, thoughts, reactions. Slow down and humanize this moment.

“Dear God. Not enough. See above. Son, call the troopers,” police? said the old man, stepping back. His son retrieved a cell phone from his jacket and called 911.  Again, these people feel like robots. And where are the other sons? Maybe just one son to simplify the choreography? 

So, dear writer. Find a way to make your unique setting work to your advantage so the body-on-the-beach feels new. Slow down and humanize your people because we need to feel the horror through them. Good luck and keep going!

_________________________

And here is that revisit of  Keep It Safe.  I like this more on second look. There is a unique voice at work here and with the longer length and careful rewrite, we get some details and context that makes me want to read more.  I admit that my first critique was biased against this style. That wasn’t fair. You should critique something for what it is, not what is isn’t. Compare this version with the first version. Comments welcome, TKZers!

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. A lousy spot where if you have a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a seizure of some sort. If I had known this was the night someone was out to kill me, I would have brought something up from the cellar more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it.

There was that bottle or Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example. Like the opening but I still maintain this is one joke over the line after the first graph. Get back to the action at hand.  I would still hold this kicker for later. The chard I misread this as a misspelling of shard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on distressed walnut planking.

There I was, face down, flat on a cold floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps squeegee love it! their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman rubber soles here. All I was grateful for at this point is I still wore my bullet proof vest from work. No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like along those lines. I work in a dentist’s office. Name’s Wowjewodzic, by the way. I like this. I had said initially that I didn’t like the backstory thoughts in an action scene. But this writer is going for something specific in style and it’s working. Almost an old pebbled glass detective era feel. Or like he’s Kevin Spacey in the movie American Beauty where he’s already dead and he’s telling us how it happened.  I trust Wowje is very much alive here but this high-style narrative voice works really well for this story and mood. Contrast this with the Alaska story above.  The dead baby on the beach story begs for a slower start with more scene setting and natural emotion from the old man.  This entry is going for something completely different so this smart-alec voice works.

I stayed still, bit the inside of my cheek to distract me from the pain in my back and waited. Waited for the, what’s it called, the ‘coup de – something or other,’ love this line as well. Funny and says something about the man where the bullet enters the back of the skull and you don’t care where it goes next because you’re dead.

Then it occurred to me, this guy, or gal, probably not likely due to the heavy feet, suggest a clean-up here  this guy — not likely a gal, due to the heavy feet — didn’t use a silencer. didn’t use a silencer. This was a full on, make-a-lot-of-noise, gunshot. He wasn’t concerned about the blast drawing attention from the neighbors. Then again, my nearest neighbor was three miles away. And it was raining. It does that a lot in Portland, Oregon. Now THIS is how you gracefully insert the place. And thank you for not using a tagline: PORTLAND, OREGON. A rainy Night in April.

I waited was waiting to take my last breath of air on this planet, when my would-be killer walked away. No kill shot, no turning me over to confirm his success and my death. nice construction here. He just walked away. A stroll in the park. Go figure. I didn’t even try. My thoughts were about how I managed think you need a had managed here to get myself into this mess in the first place. The answer was simple. I offered to help out a friend.  Very nice. Smooth as good scotch.

Notes: Notice the writer’s pacing here, the use of long sentences balanced with sentence fragments. And look how much info he had packed into his beginning: Action (the hero is down), place (Portland), character (he loves good wine and he works in a dentist’s office of all things!) Plus he tried to help someone out and it has backfired (so to speak.)  Thanks, writer, for resubmitting and giving us a quick lesson in the power of rewriting.

 

4+

Do You Have the Title Gene?

Purposely bad cover created by my sister Kelly to go with bad title

By PJ Parrish

Let me run something by you, just for your opinion. Which of these titles grabs you for a thriller/mystery?

Somebody’s Daughter
Hunger Moon
A Walk in the Woods

We’ll get back to those in a second. But now, let’s talk about one of the most important things you need to succeed in this business. Forget talent, forget perseverance, forget craftsmanship. Even forget luck. I’m thinking today that what you really need is The Title Gene.

Okay, I am being a little flip here (That happens when you’re coming off a bad writing day and no sleep). Of course you need all those other things. But I am beginning to think that you just can’t discount having the knack for great titles. It’s a different talent than book writing. It’s akin to headline writing in journalism. (I once made my living doing this). You have to sum up in one to five words the heart and soul of your story. And make it sound sexy, exciting and oh-so different from every other book screaming for attention on the shelves.

I think we give good title. But I tell you, it is getting harder and harder to come up with something fresh in the crime writing business. How many variations are there on all the usual buzzwords — death, black, darkness, grave, murder, cold, midnight, evil? You get the point.

Titles are a little bit like bras. Finding the right one is a deeply frustrating, uncomfortable exercise and you have to try on a bunch of them to find one that really fits. (Men, you’re on your own here — jockstraps?)

Our first book Dark of of the Moon began life as The Last Rose of Summer (Yuck…and too romancy) and mutated into Circle of Evil (not bad but a little heard-that-before) before I found the Langston Hughes poem “Silhouette” that inspired it.  The line was: “Southern gentle lady, do not swoon. They’ve just hung a black man in the dark of the moon.”

Our third book Paint It Black? Well, just listen to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ song and you get the shivers. We went back to the Stones for our first stand alone thriller, in their song “Too Much Blood.” We wanted to use that as our title but our editor nixed it and came up with The Killing Song.  I still like the Stones title better.

Then there’s our book Thicker Than Water. It’s a good story, one of my faves, but man, what a lousy title. And guess what? It was our worst-seller. Its original title was Flesh and Blood but Jonathon Kellerman had a book coming out the same time with the same title and our editor told us, “Your book will suffer.” Lisa Gardner had a book called Gone, same title as Kellerman. I wonder if she suffered?

We followed up with Island of Bones. Can’t go wrong with “bones” on a title and frankly, we hit on the title before we had a plot for this one. It sold really well.

Then came A Killing Rain. We didn’t have a title until we were almost done, and while writing a synopsis for the marketing people, I wrote: “The story takes place during a Florida cold snap, what the farmers here call a killing rain.” Well, duh. But here’s a postscript. M Continue reading

9+

Breaking the Rules the Right Way

Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. — Picasso

By PJ Parrish

So I cracked open a new thriller the other day. Starting a new read is like going on vacation. You buy your ticket and you’re filled with excitement and expectations. Where am I going to go? What cool sights will I see? What fascinating people will I meet? What great adventures await me?

I had heard this book was really good, and I haven’t been swept away by a novel in a long time. I was ripe for seduction.

Then I started reading it.  And the writer in me took over the reader in me. I started to analyze what the author was doing.  Good grief…he broke every rule we here at TKZ talk about:

  • The opening graph was slow and boring.
  • The style mixed past and present tense
  • The writer cut away at a crucial peak moment in the set-up action scene and didn’t show it “on camera.”
  • The first four chapters are heavy with backstory info dumps
  • The point of view head-hops between characters in mid-scenes
  • One chapter ends with “little did he know that…” (death was coming for him)

But I couldn’t put the book down. See all those bullet points above? I didn’t care about any of them because the story was so darn compelling that the writer in me was elbowed aside by the reader in me. I’m now about halfway through the book and it’s getting better and better.  I’m totally invested in the characters, even the detestable ones. I can’t foresee what is going to happen. And I can’t wait to see how this all plays out.

I guess you want to know the title. It’s Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.  It won the Edgar for Best Novel this year.

Now Hawley isn’t exactly a novice. He’s written four novels before this, including two that could be classified as thrillers.  He’s also a screenwriter, best known for creating and writing the television series Fargo and Legion.

Before the Fall definitely has the bones of a good screenplay. Here’s the setup: A privileged family sets off on foggy night from Martha’s Vineyard with a down-on-his-luck painter tagging along for a ride back to Manhattan.  The plane goes down into the ocean and only two survive — the painter and the family’s four-year-old boy.

The story then moves into flashback, with detailed dossier chapters on the main characters, and the driving ideas and themes start emerging — the harsh price of our 24-7 media culture, the twists fate takes, how ordinary people become heroes, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.

Let’s go back for a moment and the rules that Hawley broke. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The private plane sits on a runway in Martha’s Vineyard, forward stairs deployed. It is a nine-seat Osprey 700SL, built in 2001 in Wichita, Kansas. Whose plane it is is hard to say with real certainty. The ownership of record is a Dutch holding company with a Cayman Island mailing address, but the logo on the fuselage say GULLWING AIR.  The pilot, James Melody, is British. Charlie Busch, the first officer, is from Odessa, Texas. The flight attendant, Emma Lightner, was born in Mannheim, Germany, to an American air force lieutenant and his teenager wife. They moved to San Diego when she was nine.

Snooze-fest, right? I mean, none of these people is important. They all die within sixteen minutes of takeoff. Who cares where the plane was built? If this showed up on one of our First Page Critiques we’d tear it to shreds.  Here’s the second paragraph:

Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens every day. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless. 

Again, this breaks the usual thriller rules. It is omniscient point of view, the writer telling us something about the book’s theme. It’s a tad portentious. The protagonist artist won’t even come on scene for another nine pages and even then he’s a blip on the narrative radar. Yet I was very willing to let the writer rather than the characters steer the story at this point.

The plane takes off.  At the end of what is essentially a prologue (untitled as such) we drift into the wife’s POV:

As she does at a thousand random moments of every day, Maggie feels a swell of motherly love, ballooning and desperate. They are her life, these children. Her identity. She reaches once more to readjust her son’s blanket, and as she does there is that moment of weightlessness as the plane’s wheels leave the ground. This act of impossible hope, this routine of suspension of the physical laws that hold men down, inspires and terrifies her. Flying. They are flying. 

Then here is the last sentence of the “prologue”:

And as they rise up through the foggy white, talking and laughing, serenaded by the songs of 1950s crooners and the white noise of the long at bat, none of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from now their plane will crash into the sea.

Little did they know…

Maybe Hawley deserve a small wrist slap for that one, but I was willing to let him get away with it. It fit in with the tone he was using, like he had gathered us all around a campfire and was pulling us in. We know from the back copy what is going to happen, so he’s not stepping on any surprise here.

Back to the broken rules.  In the next chapter, Hawley switches from present tense to a more conventional past tense. And it is all backstory on the artist, Scott Burroughs, starting with a key childhood memory of Scott going on a family vacation to San Francisco that culminates in the boy watching Jack LaLanne swimming from Alcatraz pulling a boat in his wake. The chapter is laden with details and ends with the author telling us that as soon as Scott got home, he signed up for swimming classes. We are left to understand that this memory chapter is here to underscore the theme of heroism and doing the impossible. But we really want to return to that plane crash, right?

Here is the opening of chapter 2:

He surfaces, shouting. It is night. The salt water burns his eyes. Heat singes his lungs. There is no moon, just a diffusion of moonlight through the burly fog, wave caps churning midnight  blue in front of him. Around him eerie orange flames lick the froth.

The water is on fire, he thinks, kicking away instinctively.

And then, after a moment of shock and disorientation:

The plane has crashed.

Why didn’t Hawley show us the crash “on camera?” He’s a screenwriter! We should have seen the whole crash, like that terrifying scene with Tom Hanks in the film Castaway? Yet Hawley CHOSE to withhold it. As a reader, I initially felt deprived of a visceral experience. But when I got to a later chapter, I understood why he did it.  When Scott the artist is finally safe and has to recount the crash for authorities, the horror of the crash feels even more vivid and it becomes a tool for Hawley to comment on the fragility and unreliability of memory.

The chapter is all action (again in present tense) that intensifies when Scott happens upon the little boy clinging to a cushion. Scott, dislocated shoulder and desperate, takes the child on his back and starts swimming for a shore he can only see in his hopes. The chapter after takes place in the hospital and starts dealing with the media frenzy and Scott’s realization that he is man who has been hiding from a failed life and now has been pushed into the light.

The next chapter is titled DAVID BATEMAN, April 2, 1959 — August 23, 2015. This reverts to past tense and is devotes to the backstory of the dead father, who is a younger, handsomer version of Roger Ailes in that he created a Fox News type network.

The rest of the book jumps back and forth between present (Scott and the boy) and the past (backstories on all the key dead  characters). Again, the rule is broken: Stay with the linear more visceral plot.  But I wanted to know, needed to know, what had brought the dead characters to their tragic ends. There is reason the book is called Before The Fall. Yes, it can be a biblical allusion, that people are innocent until they are corrupted. But it is also a comment on the novel’s structure and the choice Hawley made: What happened BEFORE is just as important as what happened after.

I didn’t realize until I went back and looked at the notes I had made in the margins that Hawley broke another basic rule.  He has no chapter numbers. Most chapters are titled: “Storm Clouds,”  “Orphans” “Funhouse” and such. But the titles are not what they seem; they all have double meanings.

I wish I had finished the book so I could comment more fully on it here for you.  But as I said, I am halfway through and it is keeping me turning the pages and the characters are very alive in my mind when I put the book down. So yes, you can break the rules. In fact, sometimes you must.  I will probably go back and read Hawley’s other novels now, because I am interested not only in what the author has to say but how he says it.

But for now, I’m off on an adventure.  I’ll let you know how it turns out when I get back.

11+

First Page Critique: Beethoven
And the Well-Aimed Bullet

To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable —  Ludwig van Beethoven

By PJ Parrish

A new First Pager found its way to my in-box Sunday, and it had such an immediate impact on me that I decided to postpone my post-in-progress and use the submission. I think it offers us a good departure point for a discussion about using pacing to keep the reader in the reality of the moment.  The fact that I was listening to Beethoven’s Ninth as I wrote this well, I’ll get to that in a sec.

First, a huge thank-you to the writer for letting us learn from your first page. (And I wish you had sent us a bit more. Your line spacing bar must be set at 3!) Before I talk, take a moment to read today’s submission:

A Thriller – KEEP IT SAFE

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. A lousy spot where if you have a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a seizure of some sort. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. There was that bottle or Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

Anyway, the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman rubber soles here.

________________________________

Short and sweet, right? Well, it’s not bad. I like that we are immediately in a dramatic moment, but I think the writer has two problems here, and by addressing them this opening might go from adequate (I’ve read this setup before) to unique (Yes, I have read this before but this reads so well that I’ll stick around a little longer).

What are the problems? I think the issues are with point of view and pacing — or more to the point, that sweet spot where the two intersect.

This opening is pure action scene, right? But the only action is the uncorking of a bottle and then a bullet in the back. We get no setting and no sense of who this man is, although because this is first person, I am guessing he’s the protagonist. (If not, that’s another issue for another post). Now, I don’t mind this lack of information — it’s sort of intriguing — but with such an abbreviated submission, I can’t tell if the writer will soon give us the context we need to care about this poor guy.

Pacing is important in your whole story, but when you are in an action scene like this, it is extra-critical.  When you move into an action scene, you the writer need to shift gears, changing your style (word choice, syntax, size of sentences and paragraphs) so the reader gets a sense of speed, urgency (which is different than speed) and intensity. Action scenes are meant as a contrast to slower scenes of information. They are meant to be ingested quickly in smaller and sharper bites rather than digested in more leisurely paced scenes. Think staccato not legato.

But, but…my overall writing style is more legato! Yeah, I hear you. I know. I’m a legato by nature, too, but I’m learning (still!) when I need to switch to staccato.

Okay, think Beethoven. I’m going to him because as I said, he was my soundtrack today as I wrote. Beethoven was a genius, an original. But like any good genre writer, he worked within a “formula” — the classic symphony. The classic symphony has four movements: The opening (allegro or “lively”), the second (adagio or “slow”), the third (scherzo or “quick) and fourth (allegro presto or molto or “really fast!”)

This roughly translates to crime fiction’s three-act structure: a quick intriguing opening that hints at the story and theme to come; the middle where motivations, backstory, clue-trail and complications are laid out; and the climax where the action peaks, the hero usually triumphs, themes are echoed, and all is resolved.

Now by the time Beethoven got to his magnum opus ninth, he knew all the ropes and tropes so he played with the structure a little, moving the scherzo ahead of the adagio, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Let’s start with Beethoven’s “First Page.” He specified the tempo of the ninth’s opening as allegro ma non troppo, which means “quickly but not too fast.” Which is what you want in a book thriller or mystery — a quick-paced intriguing setup but with something held in reserve for the climax. Bear with me, but please go listen to a few moments of how the ninth begins:

Hear that cool quiet introduction? It’s almost creepy with its build-up of tension. But then, thirty seconds in — BAM! — Beethoven hits us with a bullet in the back. This is what I wish our writer had given us.  Before the man gets shot, give us maybe a graph or two that serves as a quick line-sketch of where we are and who we are watching. Maybe a bit of mood. I can’t tell if this man is a seasoned operative or cop who senses that someone is coming to kill him tonight or if he’s a civilian oenophile who’s just unlucky. A few well-placed bars could have gone a long way here, and then when we do get the bullet in the back, it would sting even more.

Let’s move on to Beethoven’s adagio. Again, listen to just a few bars and come back.

Here, Beethoven is laying out the theme. Here, we crime writers would use this middle to give us the context for what we witnessed in the opening, tell readers about our characters and their motivations, slip in backstories, begin addressing theme, and set up complications. But even when the tempo is slower, you still need to watch pace. The ninth’s 14-minute third movement is all in slow tempo, yet if you listen to the 9:30 moment, you hear a definite building of tension, a dark foreshadowing, and a hint of the ninth’s booming climax.

Then we get to the fourth movement of the ninth, and boy, what a doozy of a climax. Beethoven opens with a rush of urgent sound — the car chase has begun, the hero is in pursue down the unlit hall — but then he backs away and the mood goes dark and swirly. If you know the ninth, you know how the story ends — as it should in redemptive triumph. But check out the opening moments for now:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXOG4X-6bz8

Now back to our submission and that sweet spot where pace and point of view intersect.

The main issue I have with the submission is that it is neither staccato or legato but a curious hybrid of the two that fails to deliver on the premise promised by the setup. It’s like the writer was listening to the adagio instead of the allegro as he wrote it. The plot event (getting shot) is intrinsically fast yet the style of this opening is leisurely, almost as if the character is sitting in a bar ten years later telling a friend what happened to him. Let’s go to Track Changes. The comments in red are mine:

I levered I rather like this verb choice here though it’s technically incorrect the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. A lousy spot where if you have a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a seizure of some sort. These thoughts are out of place. there is no time for such navel-gazing when you are in mortal danger. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me A character can’t know what he can’t know ie: Little did he know…. I would have brought something up from the cellar more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. Again, he’s about to die so he’s not  thinking about bouquets. There was that bottle or Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

When I first read this, I wondering if the writer was going for satire here, maybe doing an homage to old detective movies.

Anyway, anytime you have to resort to his word, your transition is weak. the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. Again, if you’re shot, you aren’t likely to be thinking in terms of “chard” and “amber liquid.” As for me, another weird transition that jerks me out of the moment the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck. He just falls to the floor. Also, he‘s outdoors? I thought he was on a hardwood floor.

There I was, another of those weird transitions. face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch rubber crunches on wood? their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman rubber soles here.

So see the problem here? This is an adagio tempo imposed on what should be an allegro moment.  It’s hard enough to mix tempos between scenes and keep the pacing good. But when you mix the two within a scene, we hear only noise, not the special music of your style.

My sister Kelly is good at writing action scenes, better than I am. So I asked her to give this a quick rewrite while still honoring the writer’s setup and style. I offer this not because I believe one writer’s style should be imposed on another — you need to find your own voice! — but to show how to keep a character’s point of view firmly in the reality of the moment.

Just as I levered the cork from the Chardonnay, I heard a sharp crack and felt something hit my back — a hard, hot poke that I instantly knew was a bullet.

I dropped the bottle, heard it clunk but not break, as it hit the kitchen floor. I grabbed for the counter, trying to stay upright, trying hard to breathe, but my legs caved and I hit the floor.

The pooled wine felt cool against my face and though I knew I had taken a bullet, knew someone outside my window had just tried to kill me, I had the strangest thought — I should have brought up the bottle of Nieto Senetiner Malbec, because that would be a much more dignified wine to die in.

The difference here is that Kelly has included only those things that would register in the man’s consciousness given the dire circumstances. She saved that odd thought about the Malbec for a kicker…and it comes only AFTER the man is down and bleeding. If you are lying on the floor with a bullet in your back, well, yeah, you might have a weird existential thought — I should’ve, I could’ve, I didn’t, I never… But save it for when there is a “quiet” moment in your action scene, make it quick, and then get back to the action at hand.

I’ll leave you with a few, ahem, bullet points about pacing and point of view.

  • Never include unnecessary details that can disrupt the flow of the action. If you have a helicopter crash into a mountain, don’t stop and have the pilot tell me that in his long history of flying with the army, including that tour in Nam, this helicopter model always had a history of tail-rotor failure.  If a wounded man finds himself face down in a pool of wine, don’t stop and give me a detailed memory of that year he spent in his twenties backpacking through France.
  • Describe the scene only through what your character can know. If he is lying on the floor dying, he can only see what is in front of him — the steel tip of an approaching boot comes slowly into focus. And use all the senses! Beginning writers are overly reliant on sight. In action scenes, other senses are often more powerful. A blindfolded man hears a sloshing sound then smells gasoline.  A woman victim feels the featherly caress of a cold gun against her cheek.
  • Make your physical movements clear and concise.  Moving characters around in space is grunt work but you have to pay attention. He walked into the bedroom, she turned the corner…etc.  But in action scenes, you have to be careful that you choreograph each step on the page so the reader has no doubt what is happening to whom.
  • But don’t over-describe. In your head, your action scene is playing out like the slow-mo shoot-out in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. On your first draft, sure, go ahead and bleed purple. But then go back and clean things up. Remember — as in sex scenes, which are also action scenes, less is usually more.

Thanks again, dear writer. I would like to read more. The set-up is intriguing. And a character who would rather have a majestic Malbec from Argentina instead of a plunky Chardonnay from Trader Joe’s is worth following.

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