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

How Pickle Ball Helped Me
Up My Writing Game

By PJ Parrish

It’s not easy being a new cucumber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

8+

First Page Critique: A Good Story
Is In Here Trying To Escape

By PJ Parrish

It’s Show and Tell Day here at TKZ school. Some of you might be old enough to remember Show and Tell Day.  (I’m told schools don’t do it much anymore, alas). Like all kids, I loved it because it was a break from the daily grind. You got to sit back and listen to your classmates tell tales and sometimes do tricks. I remember one kid who brought his pet salamander. Another girl showed off her Barbie collection. Then there was the kid who brought in a rock. There was a lot of giggling as he started. What the heck could you say about a rock? But then he told a great story about how he and his family had gone canoeing on the Platt River in northern Michigan on vacation and he had tipped over and almost drowned. He found the rock on the shore and brought it home as a souvenir of his big day. Needless to say, we were enthralled. He almost died! I never forgot him.

With that prelude, let’s take a look at today’s submission. Thank you, dear writer, for letting us learn from your work.

Nephilim of Flame

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery.

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.

_______________________

As you might guess by now, I’m using this as a springboard to talk about showing versus telling in fiction. What we have here is an intriguing idea (a woman who harbors a dark secret about a murder). But the idea is obscured by two problems that are common to many openings — confusion and too much telling. Let’s tackle the confusing part first.

What’s happening on the surface isn’t the problem — Wren Wilson, the putative protagonist, is at a funeral thinking about the dead person, her own status in her community and the secret she carries.

But what’s below the surface is really confusing, especially about the relationship between Wren and the person being buried here. We get this line first:  The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. This implies Wren murdered someone, probably the person being buried? Which makes her a criminal. Then we get this line:  The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Which makes me think that Wren was abducted maybe and she killed him and escaped? So she’s not a criminal; she’s a victim. But if she was abducted, she killed in self-defense, no? So that’s not a murder. It’s a justifiable homicide. 

The town lauds her, “showering her” with “good will and sympathy.” So apparently, she did something really brave and positive? But she feels so guilty about it, she’s cried-out and can’t stand to look out at the cemetery but then she “picked irritably at her black dress.”  I don’t understand what is going on in this character’s head. I also don’t understand who is being buried — the “madman” or someone else who so far has no grounding in the story.  After I re-read this several times, I also wondering if maybe Wren was abducted (by the “madman”) and someone ELSE saved her (“the hero”) but he got killed in the process and now folks are mourning him?

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred.

Who is this “hero”? I thought she was the hero. We go on:

She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.

Other mourners? Why is this person being mourned? Again, I think the confusion is just because the initial implication here is that the “madman” who was “murdered” by Wren is now being buried. But that makes no sense given the use of “hero” and “mourners.”

I get that the writer is going for some misdirection here. Wren was some kind of victim at the hands of a madman but became a “hero” herself by escaping. But apparently, this is not true.  Wren herself tells us it is a lie. So that is a great source of tension and intrigue. But I think the writer needs to clarify the characters here — the “madman,” the “hero” and Wren’s relationship to them. And who is being buried? 

Now let’s talk about the showing versus telling.  There is minimal action here: Wren is driving up to a cemetery where a burial is taking place and walks to the grave site. That is all that happens. Everything else is thinking, remembering, regretting, thinking, sighing, thinking…

Everything is told to us. All the crucial information is conveyed through Wren’s thoughts. The first paragraph — that critical door into the reader’s imagination — is 99 percent backstory. Now, I don’t like trying to rewrite someone’s opening because we all tell our stories in our own voices, but I just want to suggest a different approach to make my point. What if this scene opened at the END of the grave site ceremony? We see Wren standing there, feeling exposed under the TV lights and cameras and the eyes of the people in her town. Maybe a pastor says a quick last word about the person being buried (so we know who it is) and Wren has a BRIEF thought about him. (No long backstory — you dribble that out artfully later!)

Then one by one, a few folks come up to talk to her. DIALOGUE IS ACTION! And this is how you begin to fill in the backstory. Let me take a stab at it:

Wren saw a woman in black moving slowly toward her but it was too late to dodge her. It was her old sixth grade teacher.

“Wren, you poor thing,” the woman said, embracing her. “I don’t know how you can come here today. Not after what that man did to you. You’re so pale. Are you okay?

Wren pulled away. “I’m fine, Mrs. Marsh.” But she wasn’t. She was downing Ambien every night and staring out the window of her florist shop every day, unable to fill the simplest order. (You slip in what she does for a living).

Wren turned to get away, nearly bumping into the tall man. The WMRK emblem of his TV station was emblazoned on his blue blazer. Mark Standish…the reporter who had been there when the police first brought her out, clothes torn, face streaked with blood. She still wondered how he had heard about her escape.

“When you going to give me the story, Wren?” Standish asked.

“I told you all as much as I remember,” she said. But she hadn’t. She hadn’t told anyone what had really happened in that week she had been held captive in that basement. She had told just enough to be called a heroine, just enough to get the sympathy of everyone in town.

Wren pushed past him and went to stand under a tree. She pressed a hand to her chest and shut her eyes tight. FILL IN HER WITH SOME BRIEF FLASHBACKS TO WHAT HAPPENED.  Wren turned to look back at the grave site. The mourners were leaving, heading back to their cars, popping up umbrellas as a light rain began to fall.

Wren waited until they were all gone then walked slowly back through the rows of plastic chairs to the edge of the grave. She looked down at the black casket.

“We know,” she said.  “You and me. We are the only ones who know the truth.”

Well, you get the idea. What I am trying to do here is to convey the same backstory but through the actions and dialogue of the characters. You needn’t have slam-bam death and destruction in your opening. But you need tension and action. Dialogue is action. It is showing. Use it!

Okay, I know I am running long but I like this submission for its potential so let me  quickly go over a few more things in Track Change edits:

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands This is an odd image and sorta cliched. Can you find a more compelling first line? but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero. This is an info-dump of backstory. This needs to come out slowly, gracefully, throughout the first chapter, not in the first graph. The first graph should be a tease not a tell-all confessional.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to stare? blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. I think this odd jump back to childhood clutters things up here. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery. I think this whole graph could cut. It doesn’t add anything.

Wren picked her way watch your choreography here. Did she drive or was driven? She needs to get out of the car. carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero Huh? would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. You already implied this. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. whiplash change of mood She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren Note that you started every graph with her name. You also could use some variation in your graph length. Dialogue would go a long way to breaking up how this gray mass looks on the page sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone. Nice intrigue being placed into the story but you must find a way to convey this through ACTION and dialogue instead of all thought. 

One last thing: I really don’t like the title. When I read this cold the first time, I thought, uh oh…they gave me a fantasy story and I am terrible at those. But this story appears to be contemporary (though we get no sense of time) and set in a big city or a town. (the writer uses both phrases and they imply different places). I had to Google Niphilim. Turns out it is the Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” before the deluge, according to Genesis in the Bible. That’s kinda sorta interesting but for a contemporary murder story? Not so sure. I also don’t get the “of Flame” unless it’s put there for alliteration.  I love biblical and literary allusions in novel titles, but if your reader is sent scurrying to Google to get it, you’re in trouble.  I think it might work for fantasy, or especially dystopian fiction. For this story, as we understand it in 400 words, I think it’s off tone.

Again, thank you writer for submitting and don’t give up.  I sense there is a good story and character here waiting to escape.

6+

Reading For Survival

The man who won’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them. — Mark Twain

By PJ Parrish

Saw a depressing video on Facebook the other day. People on the street were being polled about what was the last book they read.

The guy then asks folks to name an author. Any author. Crickets. Sigh.

I know we here at TKZ are preaching to the choir. But I also think maybe we need to be more worried about this.  I’m not going to talk politics here, rest assured, but I am going to say that our ability to absorb information seems to be questionable, at best, these days. And we need to be smart right now. About a lot of things.

We need to read.

The latest Pew poll I could find on this subject says that  28% of adults ages 50 and older have not read a book in the past year, compared with 20% of adults under 50. . And as a country, we’re at the bottom of the reading pack.

This subject slid to the front of my brain only because I was cleaning out my file drawer in my office. I found a slender little booklet that I had thought I had lost years ago. It’s a copy of an essay that John D. MacDonald wrote for the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s called Reading For Survival.

Now, if you think it’s some dust-dry diatribe, some shrill screed about how we’re raising a generation of morons, well, then you must not have read John D before. It reads like, well, one of his novels. (By the way, I didn’t know James and I would be writing about JDM in the same week. Click here to go back and read his post on what JDM taught him.)

A little background:  Years ago, a friend of mine, Jean Trebbi, had a local TV show in South Florida called Library Edition. Jean was a force in the literary community. She was the head of the Broward County Center for the Book, a tireless supporter of all authors and most any book. In 1985, she interviewed MacDonald on her program, and when the camera stopped rolling, he kept going, but wanting to talk about non-readers instead of his own books.

Jean suggested he should write something on the subject for NEA and the Library Association. MacDonald didn’t want to do it, fearing he would be just preaching to the converted, but he finally agreed — with the caveat that he could use “colorful enough language to it will be quoted, sooner or later, to a great many non-readers.”

Things didn’t go well. “I could not make the essay work and I could not imagine why,” he recalls in the booklet’s forward. “I must have done two hundred pages of junk.”

Does hearing that make you feel any better about your own writing problems?

Jean Trebbi, finally wrote him asking what he hold-up was and MacDonald told her he had written a hot mess. Jean suggested using the device of a conversation between Travis McGee and and his friend Meyer. And that is what he did.

MacDonald called it “a small, mangy, bad-tempered mouse of 7200 words.”  But as I re-read it the other day, I realized its message is as vital today than it must have been thirty-one years ago. MacDonald said the theme of his essay was “the terrible isolation of the non-reader, his life without meaning because he cannot comprehend the world in which he lives.”

If that doesn’t set off in a bell in your head, you haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in our country these days.

The essay opens like a vintage MacDonald novel.  Thunderclouds are gathering over the slips at Bahia Mar and McGee and Meyer are sitting on the deck of the Busted Flush. And next time someone tells you never open with weather, read them this:

The big thunder-engine of early summer was moving into sync along Florida’s east coast, sloshing millions of tons of water onto the baked land and running off too quickly as it always does.

An impressive line of anvil clouds marched ashore on that Friday afternoon in June, electrocuting golfers, setting off burglar alarms, knocking out phone and power lines, scaring the whey out of the newcomers.

The power goes out and Meyer puts down his book, and McGee says that it’s too dark to read anyway. (weather as metaphor!)

“I wasn’t reading, Travis,” Meyer said. “I was thinking about something. A passage in the book started me thinking about something.”

Over the next twenty-two pages, Meyer — whose mind is like a maze — spools out his argument — that man’s brain evolved the way it did, creating a genetic storehouse of memories, out of the pure need to understand his environment and thus survive.

Meyer concocts a prehistoric man named Mog and his modern counterpart Smith. Mog happens upon some fruit but he’s wary of eating it. Using all his memory skills, he decides to not chance it, that it’s a trap. His modern counterpart, Smith, gets a job offer at twice his salary. But using his memory skills, he deduces the employer is in a high risk banking arena with bad management turnover rates. So he says no.

“Back in prehistory,” McGee offers, “man learned and remembered everything he had to know about survival in his world. Then he invented so many tricks and tools, he had to invent writing. More stuff got written down than any man could possibly remember. Or use. Books are artificial memory. And it’s there when you want it. But for just surviving, you don’t need the books. Not any more.”

Books are artificial memory. Don’t you love that? But then Meyer lays it on him:

“So why are we doing such a poor job of surviving as a species, Travis?”

MacDonald goes on to say that the world of prehistoric man was small, limited to what the man could see, hear, taste, eat, kill, carry and use. But to modern man, who can read and remember, the world is huge and monstrously complicated.

“The man who can read and ponder big realities is a man keyed to survival of the species. He doesn’t have to read everything. That’s an asinine concept. He should have access to everything, but have enough education to differentiate between slanted tracts and balanced studies, between hysterical preachings and carefully researched data.”

Makes you wonder what MacDonald would have thought of today’s fake news debate, Facebook’s propaganda problems and the isolated little echo chambers we’ve crawled into. MacDonald and McGee go on:

“To be aware of the world you live in you must be aware of the constant change wrought by science, and the price we pay for every advance. These are our realities, and, like our ancestors of fifty thousand years ago, if we — as a species rather than an individual — are uniformed, or careless, or indifferent to the facts, then survival as a species is in serious doubt.”

So what’s the answer? Meyer thinks he knows:

How do we relate to reality? How do we begin to comprehend it? By using that same marvelous brain our ancestor used. By the exercise of memory. How do we take stock of these memories? By reading, Travis. Reading! Complex ideas and complex relationships are not transmitted by body language, by brainstorming sessions, by the boob tube or the boom box. You cannot turn back the pages of a television show and review part you did not quite understand. You cannot carry conversations around in your coat pocket.

Ha! What would MacDonald have to say about Tivo and iPhones?

Meyer is worried, he tells Travis, that non-readers are disenfranchised, cut off from any knowledge of history, literature and science. And worse, they become negative role models for their children, who will in turn, “become a new generation of illiterates, of victims.”

“The non-reader, Travis, wants to believe. He is the one born every minute. The world is so vastly confusing and baffling to him that he feels there has to be some simple answer to everything that troubles him. And so, out of pure emptiness, he will embrace spiritualism, a banana diet, or some callous frippery like Dianetics.”

Or worse. Name your modern opiate.

MacDonald died Dec. 28, 1986, a few months after finishing the essay. I really wonder what he might think of where we are today, of what he might think watching those blank-eye folks on the beach, trying to think of one author’s name.  What would he make of the fact we are barraged with information twenty-four hours a day, yet we seem to be growing not smarter but more lost and disconnected?

The essay ends with Meyer saying that he has no cure to offer, but that just identifying the disease is a good first step. But then he adds:

“Bleak, my boy. Bleak indeed. And so let us trudge back toward home, and stop at the bar at the Seaview for something tall and cold, with rum in it.”

“Beautifully said,” I told him.

On the way back, I told him that he had made me feel guilty about my frivolous reading fare of late, and what might I read that would patch up my comprehension and my conscience at the same time.

Meyer thought about it until we had our drinks. He took a sip, sighed, and said, “I’ll lend you my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.”

I am halfway through it. And the world has a different look, a slightly altered reality. That fourteenth century was the pits!

I ordered the Tuchman book from Amazon. (My local bookstore can’t get it, I tried). Now I am going to go mix a stiff gin and tonic, crack it open and try to get some badly needed sense of perspective.

Happy reading, folks.  By the way, I am on the road today, probably somewhere near the Michigan-Indiana border as you read this. So if I can’t reply quickly, please chat among yourselves.  Will check in when I get home to Traverse City, MI.

 

9+

First Page Critique: Opening
With A Big Bang…In Theory

By PJ Parrish

Get ready, because we’ve got a lot of action in today’s First Page submission. Explosions! Body parts! Fiery cars!  Whew…

I’ll be back in a…uh, a flash and we’ll talk about this.

Ice Hammer: Invincible

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades.

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons.

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection.

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks.

She pushed her hair out of her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

Youngmi.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, the sight filling him with horror.

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell.

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers around the edge of the armored SUV and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung agape as she realized her own husband had killed her.

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloping her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings.

___________________________

Dontcha just hate slow starts?  I’m kidding, of course. We’re always harping here at TKZ about the need to get out of the gate fast.  Now, if you’re a regular here, you know not to take that literally.  Getting off to a fast start in a thriller is a good idea, and I suspect we’re in thriller territory here. But that doesn’t mean you literally have to start with a car chase or flying body parts. (See Jame’s Sunday post about omniscient point of view openings for one reference). You can create tension with a slower approach.

That, as you can see, is not the case here. Things literally start with a bang. Our writer has dropped us smack into the middle of a crisis — an explosion that propelled the protag (I think) across the room and then he staggers to the window to see all hell breaking loose down on the street. What’s not to like?

Nothing, in my humble opinion. I think this is a good door by which to enter the story.  James’s axiom of “act first, explain later” is in full bore here.  And the part about the wife — supposedly dead but now appearing in the burning car — is intriguing, to say the least.

So, good set-up, writer!  But there are some problems in the execution here. We have some issues with lack of clarity: Where are we? What exactly is going on here? We have some overwriting going on. Here’s a good guideline to keep in mind: The more intense the action, the less “writerly” your writing should be. And at times, the word choices are jarringly tone-deaf, out of tune with the tone of the scene itself. More on that small but important detail in a second. Let me go through this with a fine-tooth pencil:

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Not a bad opening line. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. Not sure I get this image. Maybe burning the inside of the lids? A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. I’d end after hammer. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men I’d lose them for now. Focus on your main guy; the spear-carriers clutter things up esp in the first graph! .in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades. Way too many metaphors in this opening graph. Turn this into action: The window shattered and the shards razored into his face.  

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. This was a big hiccup for me. HIS MEN detonated a lethal bomb in a street? Is Brad a terrorist? Because we have no context — is this a foreign locale? Are we in wartime? — I am confused about Brad’s role here and am not liking the fact he’s the cause of the carnage. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons. You need to tell us how high up he is. I know, it’s a stupid detail but important because he is about to recognize his wife’s face. You say only that vehicles are on fire “in front of the high-rise hotel.” Is Brad in this hotel or it is across the street? 

What blew up? Where was the bomb? (I assume it was a bomb). The Suburban is overturned, but if the bomb was under it, it would have been blown to bits like the other vehicles you mention. (You don’t tell us it’s armored until way too late). And you miss chances to enhance the mood here — where’s the acrid black smoke, which might partially obscure his view? What does this smell like? Screams? People running or staggering away? Why are there weapons laying about on the street? Again, because there is not even a HINT of place or context, this doesn’t add up. 

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, use of “the” implies specificity. So it was the target? Otherwise, it is merely a Suburban. Also, these cars are common in the U.S., the Mideast and only a few other countries, so make sure you’re right on it. It’s also the car of choice of secret service. its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection. Now here is where I think you’ve gone off-key.  This is a hell scape. Brad would not be noticing “glossy” paint “shimmering.”  Watch your tone. 

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. More likely, a hand appeared out of a shattered driver’s side window? A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks. This construction implies Brad is thinking this, but again, its tone is off. Her face is simply covered in blood. 

She pushed her hair out of her eyes She wiped the blood from her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

I think you need a physical beat here before her name. One, the odd name is not easily digested as name on first glance. Two, GET US IN BRAD”S HEAD FIRST.

Brad froze. Brad’s heart stopped. Brad grabbed the edge of the broken window and stared down. Something, anything.

Youngmi. Put this in itals. It’s a direct thought with no attribution. Plus, the stress is nice.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, Another example of off-key tone. This word choice is too soft, too tender for the action. the sight filling him with horror. Show me, don’t tell me. 

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. Problem with clarity here. We need a better transition. I didn’t get this the first time read it. Thinking I was dense, I tried it on two other people. They missed it too, asking me, “so she was already dead? Is she dead now?” When you’re doing a fake-out like this (nothing wrong with that!), you have to make it clear that’s what it is. Something needed here, like:

But it couldn’t be her. She had died two years ago. He had seen her body, seen her slumped behind the wheel of her new Mercedes SUV.  Seen her blood soaking the front of her favorite Bob Seger t-shirt. And when he had finally walked around to the window, he had seen her face — blown apart, opened and peeled back, like some grotesque flower.

He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell. This is you, the writer talking, not Brad thinking. Stay in his sensibility.

You’ve just been in a mini-flashback. You need a transition back: Now, he stared down at the woman in the Suburban. And she stared back at him. Or, the black smoke cleared and he stared down again at the woman in the Suburban.  

Another point: This is an armored SUV in some kind of war-zone place. Yet Brad doesn’t think, what the hell is she doing driving an armored car? 

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. Why would she look up to some random window in the high-rise? Makes no sense. She’s got other things to worry about. Also, the recognition thing has to be conveyed through Brad’s consciousness: 

What was it he saw in her face? Terror…but something more. Brad felt his gut clench. She was looking right at him. Jesus, did she recognize him? (You can do better, but you get the point).

The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers Get out of the way of your story! Too writerly. Stay in Brad’s senses. around the edge of the armored SUV THIS IS AN IMPORTANT DETAIL and this is much too late to toss it in. It implies war but you’ve given us nothing else to support that. and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung open agape as she realized her own husband had killed her. You just shifted to her point of view. You must stay with Brad. You have to filter this revelation through him. Also, SHE’S NOT YET DEAD (at least this time), so the best she can think, “My husband is trying to kill me.”  But again, this doesn’t add up giving the scant info you’ve given us. This implies the Suburban was the bomb target. Was it? Now, because you belatedly mention it being armored, it could survive a bomb, but you must be clear on what is going on here. Maybe before the hand snaked out of the window, you can give Brad a thought about the mission of his team here?  

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloped her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings. There is chaos going on down in the street. Probably sirens by now and screaming. Nothing is going to echo here. 

In summary, we have a bang-up set-up here that needs some work. So what? All of our openings need work. So, dear writer, dig back in and you’ll be on the right track.

Give us a little bit more info about where we are and the context. Are we at war? Is this a terrorist hit by Brad and his men? What are they doing here? What is the mission — we need a hint at least. I really have a problem with a hero-protag being willing to sacrifice innocent lives on a crowded street like this, no matter who he thought was in the Suburban. Clean up the imagery and make this scene feel more visceral. Thanks for submitting and good luck.

2+

First Page Critique: Opening
With a Big Bang…In Theory

By PJ Parrish

Get ready, because we’ve got a lot of action in today’s First Page submission. Explosions! Body parts! Fiery cars!  Whew…

I’ll be back in a…uh, a flash and we’ll talk about this.

Ice Hammer: Invincible

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades.

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons.

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection.

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks.

She pushed her hair out of her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

Youngmi.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, the sight filling him with horror.

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell.

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers around the edge of the armored SUV and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung agape as she realized her own husband had killed her.

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloping her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings.

___________________________

Dontcha just hate slow starts?  I’m kidding, of course. We’re always harping here at TKZ about the need to get out of the gate fast.  Now, if you’re a regular here, you know not to take that literally.  Getting off to a fast start in a thriller is a good idea, and I suspect we’re in thriller territory here. But that doesn’t mean you literally have to start with a car chase or flying body parts. (See Jame’s Sunday post about omniscient point of view openings for one reference). You can create tension with a slower approach.

That, as you can see, is not the case here. Things literally start with a bang. Our writer has dropped us smack into the middle of a crisis — an explosion that propelled the protag (I think) across the room and then he staggers to the window to see all hell breaking loose down on the street. What’s not to like?

Nothing, in my humble opinion. I think this is a good door by which to enter the story.  James’s axiom of “act first, explain later” is in full bore here.  And the part about the wife — supposedly dead but now appearing in the burning car — is intriguing, to say the least.

So, good set-up, writer!  But there are some problems in the execution here. We have some issues with lack of clarity: Where are we? What exactly is going on here? We have some overwriting going on. Here’s a good guideline to keep in mind: The more intense the action, the less “writerly” your writing should be. And at times, the word choices are jarringly tone-deaf, out of tune with the tone of the scene itself. More on that small but important detail in a second. Let me go through this with a fine-tooth pencil:

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Not a bad opening line. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. Not sure I get this image. Maybe burning the inside of the lids? A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. I’d end after hammer. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men I’d lose them for now. Focus on your main guy; the spear-carriers clutter things up esp in the first graph! .in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades. Way too many metaphors in this opening graph. Turn this into action: The window shattered and the shards razored into his face.  

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. This was a big hiccup for me. HIS MEN detonated a lethal bomb in a street? Is Brad a terrorist? Because we have no context — is this a foreign locale? Are we in wartime? — I am confused about Brad’s role here and am not liking the fact he’s the cause of the carnage. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons. You need to tell us how high up he is. I know, it’s a stupid detail but important because he is about to recognize his wife’s face. You say only that vehicles are on fire “in front of the high-rise hotel.” Is Brad in this hotel or it is across the street? 

What blew up? Where was the bomb? (I assume it was a bomb). The Suburban is overturned, but if the bomb was under it, it would have been blown to bits like the other vehicles you mention. (You don’t tell us it’s armored until way too late). And you miss chances to enhance the mood here — where’s the acrid black smoke, which might partially obscure his view? What does this smell like? Screams? People running or staggering away? Why are there weapons laying about on the street? Again, because there is not even a HINT of place or context, this doesn’t add up. 

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, use of “the” implies specificity. So it was the target? Otherwise, it is merely a Suburban. Also, these cars are common in the U.S., the Mideast and only a few other countries, so make sure you’re right on it. It’s also the car of choice of secret service. its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection. Now here is where I think you’ve gone off-key.  This is a hell scape. Brad would not be noticing “glossy” paint “shimmering.”  Watch your tone. 

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. More likely, a hand appeared out of a shattered driver’s side window? A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks. This construction implies Brad is thinking this, but again, its tone is off. Her face is simply covered in blood. 

She pushed her hair out of her eyes She wiped the blood from her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

I think you need a physical beat here before her name. One, the odd name is not easily digested as name on first glance. Two, GET US IN BRAD”S HEAD FIRST.

Brad froze. Brad’s heart stopped. Brad grabbed the edge of the broken window and stared down. Something, anything.

Youngmi. Put this in itals. It’s a direct thought with no attribution. Plus, the stress is nice.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, Another example of off-key tone. This word choice is too soft, too tender for the action. the sight filling him with horror. Show me, don’t tell me. 

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. Problem with clarity here. We need a better transition. I didn’t get this the first time read it. Thinking I was dense, I tried it on two other people. They missed it too, asking me, “so she was already dead? Is she dead now?” When you’re doing a fake-out like this (nothing wrong with that!), you have to make it clear that’s what it is. Something needed here, like:

But it couldn’t be her. She had died two years ago. He had seen her body, seen her slumped behind the wheel of her new Mercedes SUV.  Seen her blood soaking the front of her favorite Bob Seger t-shirt. And when he had finally walked around to the window, he had seen her face — blown apart, opened and peeled back, like some grotesque flower.

He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell. This is you, the writer talking, not Brad thinking. Stay in his sensibility.

You’ve just been in a mini-flashback. You need a transition back: Now, he stared down at the woman in the Suburban. And she stared back at him. Or, the black smoke cleared and he stared down again at the woman in the Suburban.  

Another point: This is an armored SUV in some kind of war-zone place. Yet Brad doesn’t think, what the hell is she doing driving an armored car? 

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. Why would she look up to some random window in the high-rise? Makes no sense. She’s got other things to worry about. Also, the recognition thing has to be conveyed through Brad’s consciousness: 

What was it he saw in her face? Terror…but something more. Brad felt his gut clench. She was looking right at him. Jesus, did she recognize him? (You can do better, but you get the point).

The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers Get out of the way of your story! Too writerly. Stay in Brad’s senses. around the edge of the armored SUV THIS IS AN IMPORTANT DETAIL and this is much too late to toss it in. It implies war but you’ve given us nothing else to support that. and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung open agape as she realized her own husband had killed her. You just shifted to her point of view. You must stay with Brad. You have to filter this revelation through him. Also, SHE’S NOT YET DEAD (at least this time), so the best she can think, “My husband is trying to kill me.”  But again, this doesn’t add up giving the scant info you’ve given us. This implies the Suburban was the bomb target. Was it? Now, because you belatedly mention it being armored, it could survive a bomb, but you must be clear on what is going on here. Maybe before the hand snaked out of the window, you can give Brad a thought about the mission of his team here?  

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloped her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings. There is chaos going on down in the street. Probably sirens by now and screaming. Nothing is going to echo here. 

In summary, we have a bang-up set-up here that needs some work. So what? All of our openings need work. So, dear writer, dig back in and you’ll be on the right track.

Give us a little bit more info about where we are and the context. Are we at war? Is this a terrorist hit by Brad and his men? What are they doing here? What is the mission — we need a hint at least. I really have a problem with a hero-protag being willing to sacrifice innocent lives on a crowded street like this, no matter who he thought was in the Suburban. Clean up the imagery and make this scene feel more visceral. Thanks for submitting and good luck.

2+

Dear Diary: I’m Dead.
Will Anyone Care?

By PJ Parrish

I’ve been having a tough time these days trying to raise the dead.

My work in progress is progressing in fits and starts and the other day I realized part of the problem:  I am not seeing dead people.

Here’s the case in a nutshell: My hero Louis Kincaid now works for an elite cold case squad attached to the Michigan State Police. He has discovered his mercurial boss, Captain Mark Steele, has been obsessed by an unidentified young woman who was brutally murdered ten years ago.  Louis decided to  look into the case at first just to find out what makes his boss tick.  But of course, the cold case — someone hit the woman on the head with a rock and left her to freeze to death in winter in the Michigan sand dunes — comes to obsess Louis as well.

I’ve been struggling to find the best entry point into the story. So for inspiration, I went back and re-read one of the passages from Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing. She talks about how insistent the voices of the dead can be in the solving of a fictional crime and how writers must listen very carefully when the dead begin to talk:

“All writers learn from the dead…because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth. So if you are going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back to the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.”

Get that? The dead control the stories.

We talk here at TKZ often about how to make characters jump off the page, how to make the protagonist compelling, how to make the villain original. But how to you make the victims memorable? How do you make a dead person come alive?

I can hear your question – why bother? They’re dead and gone and they are only a catalyst for telling a story about the protagonist. But I disagree. The hero has to care about the victim or his job is meaningless. Might as well make him a burger flipper in a hairnet. The case has to work on him as he works the case. So if you, the writer, don’t care about the victim, how can you expect the hero to? Or worse, how can you expect the reader to care? You have to create sympathy for the bedeviled.

In our third book, Thicker Than Water, our hero Louis Kincaid is trying to solve the rape and murder of Kitty Jagger. She has been dead for 20 years but Louis talks to her boss, her best friend, the detective who worked her case, anyone who remembers her. He goes to her home and carefully examines everything in her room. What slowly emerges is a Rashamon portrait of Kitty that sends the case in a new direction even as it builds sympathy for the dead girl.

But I can’t do that with this new book because the victim remains unidentified almost to the end. She has no name and thus no past to reconstruct through friends, family or official record. So she has to speak for herself.

And the only way to do it is by using — ack! ack! — the hoary literary device of The Journal.

I fought the idea for a long time. Diaries, journals and letters in fiction can be big clichés. Because they jerk the reader out of the linear narrative, they can jarring. And because they are a brake on the forward motion of the plot, they can be annoying. The reader sees the type change to italics, or sees the tagline: Judith’s diary, April 1, 1943, and they think, “Oh for corn’s sake, just go back to the present!”

I mentioned in my last post here that I was reading an Edgar finalist book, Ragged Lake by Ron Corbett. It’s a juicy first novel about a laconic cop named Frank Yakabusti working the gruesome murder of a man, wife and daughter in a remote cabin in the Canadian wilderness. The cop, in search of suspects, has to find out something about the dead couple’s past but no one seems to know much about them in this Godforsaken place where the collapse of the saw mill industry has left ghost towns and ghost people who’ve been lost and forgotten.

Yak goes to talk to an old Cree woman who is the closest thing this place has to a town elder. The woman tells Yak a young woman came to her three days ago, alone and scared and said someone “had come back for her.” She asked the Cree woman to keep a book for her. It turns out to be a journal. So, of course, the chapter ends with, “Yakabuski turned the journal to the window for better light and began to read.

We then get several chapters of Lucy Whiteduck’s journal that tell us how this lovely lonely girl fell into a black abyss, and how she struggled to get out by sitting in the back of AA meetings and working at McDonald’s – all the while fearing the major creep that she ran away from would find her again.

The first line of the first diary entry is: “I have begun to think I should hide this journal.”

Corbett toggles between these journal entries and Yak working the case. Yak is learning about the victim and who was chasing her, and we are learning to mourn her.

I’ve decided to use this same device in my work in progress but with a slight twist. My opening chapter is written from my victim’s point of view on the last night of her life. She is alive, but she knows what is coming. Here is my opening:

These are my last words. Words are important. That’s why I have left so many for you. Words that I have written to you in the last ten years, so many words. I didn’t even know if you were alive or dead. But still, I had to get them out, all these words, all these things I never was able to say to you in real life.

I’m not writing these words. They are alive only in my head. Alive for as long as I am alive. And I know now that I will soon be dead.

She dies soon after this. But somewhere in the plot, Louis will find the journal and it will lead him to new suspects and a couple of red herrings. This journal will help buck up the murky middle, creating new obstacles, false starts, solid clues and costly detours. The journal will also, I hope, make the reader care about the victim.

But I have to be really careful in trying to pull this off. Because when it’s done badly, it’s deadly.

There are plenty of novels that use journals or diaries. Dracula begins with Jonathan Harker’s journal, goes to Dr. Seward’s diary and to Mina Harker’s journal and Lucy Westenra’s diary. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie writes letters to God. Daniel Keyes became famous on the basis of one diary novella Flowers For Algernon. And then of course, there’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. The Diary of Adrian Mole et al.  But I couldn’t think of any novels wherein the diary writer is dead.

Unless you count the head-fake Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn uses diary entries from Amy to make her “come alive” after we assume she has been abducted and murdered. Chapter 1 is written from her husband Nick’s point of view and he lays out the break domestic landscape we are about to enter. Chapter 2 is titled AMY ELLIOT January 8, 2005. Diary Entry.  In it, Amy recounts in her florid style how she met and fell in love with Nick. The book toggles between Nick in present time and Amy’s diary until the time gap catches up and we then find out Amy is alive and we then get her POV in present time.

Does it work? Well, Gone Girl was a massive hit book. But I have to admit I didn’t like reading Amy’s diary. But I think this was because I found her voice so annoying, like nails-on the blackboard annoying. In contrast, I am fascinated by Lucy Whiteduck in Corbett’s book. Her diary entries are poignant, and make me feel her loss. She’s dead but comes alive on the page.

For my opening of my WIP, I was partially inspired by Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. It isn’t written in diary form — the dead girl speaks directly to the reader. It opens thusly:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like this didn’t happen.

The entire book is narrated by Susie in first person, as she recalls her horrible rape and murder, comments about how life on earth is going without her, and watches her murder case progress. I remember thinking, when I read it years ago, that its opening was dazzling and daring. But as compelling as Susie’s voice was, the book felt claustrophobic to me. That might just go to taste, however. I tend to like multiple points of view.

So, how about you guys? Do diaries and journals in novels work for you? Any advice as I go down this road? I’ve never tried this kind of structure before, but it feels like the right way to tell this young woman’s story. Maybe I do hear dead people after all.  I’ll let you know.

 

5+

Let’s Make a Deal! The Prize?
A Big Stone in Your Shoe

By PJ Parrish

I’d give anything for a nice sharp stone in my shoe right now.

I’m trying to start over with my work in (non)progress. A while back, I threw out the first five chapters. I knew in my gut it was bad, but it took me three months and many sleepless nights to finally admit it.  You know that door metaphor I use here a lot? I like to say that finding the right door through which to enter your story is maybe the most important decision a writer has to make.  Well, I had entered my door — it was a very pretty writerly door — but it turned out to be a dead-end.

Which brings us to our First Page Critique today. I will let you read and then we’ll talk.

Title: Joe Blatz

Joe Blatz put his Bic pen up to his mouth and began to chew on the cap, lightly this time, because he didn’t want to ruin another one. He was thinking about what he should write on his report about his last case. He was trying to stick to the facts and not color his words too much with his attitude toward the slimy perp he had just cornered, cuffed, and stuffed into a patrol car not three hours before. These country crooks really pissed him off, and on some days he had a shorter fuse than others.

He was sitting in his basement office in his log home in the country, about 5 miles from Cannonsville, Tennessee. His basement was paneled with dark wood and had carpet on the floor. The basement was divided into two sections, one toward the back of the house where his office was, and one in the front that was more of an entertainment area that contained a leather couch, big-screen TV, a wet bar, and a full-size refrigerator. He didn’t use the entertainment area that much, preferring to relax either upstairs or on the front porch in one of his rocking chairs.

Joe pushed himself away from his desk and leaned back in his wooden desk chair, an antique he had picked up at a country estate yard sale several years before. It was made of solid oak and was scarred up enough to give it ‘character,’ as Joe put it. He liked scuffed up, half worn out things that other people seemed to shy away from. When someone said something was worn out and needed to be thrown away, he thought it was just getting broken in. He was a man of simple tastes, beer and bourbon, and simple viewpoints.

Joe turned his chair back to the desk and pulled it in and went back to writing. He was almost finished. Then he would fax his report to his client and the local police in Cannonsville, who were interested in it, too. Cannonsville’s police department was shortstaffed and had come to rely on Joe’s reports whenever he wrote them and it involved their jurisdiction. It helped them put together evidence and sometimes help them convince the local district Attorney to prosecute a case. Joe didn’t mind helping out the local police, especially since that’s where he got his dog from.

_________________

I’m back. (By the way, before I forget, that quote about the stone in the shoe is not from Monte Hall. It’s from Chuck Wendig. I just put Monte in there to get your attention.)

About Joe Blatz…

He might be an interesting guy. He might have an interesting job (though we aren’t told what he does, except push perps into cars when the local cops are too busy). He likes bourbon, has a cool old desk and a dog. But what Joe is doing here is not very interesting at all. Nothing is happening. All we’re getting is memory and thoughts. Note the sentence constructions:

“He was thinking about what he should write…”

“He was trying to stick to the facts…”

“He was sitting in his basement office…”

“He was almost finished…”

Now, there is nothing wrong with the writing here, on the surface. Gets the job done. But it is passive, and the situation itself is static. As we always say here, it is hard in a mere 400 words to see where a story is going, but when it starts in a neutral gear like this, it is hard to get excited about the journey ahead. Often, I suggest to writers that they might have entered their scene too early. Here’s an example of this that I made up:

The phone jarred Joe from his sleep and he grabbed the receiver. “Yeah?” he stammered, his voice raspy from last night’s Camels and Christian Brothers.

“We got another one. Young, pretty. Just floated up on Juno Beach.”

“Did she have the pink ribbon around her neck?”

“Yup. Just like all the others.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Joe hung up and swung his feet to the cold floor. He didn’t like the bad feeling that was gathering in his gut.

This is where the same scene begins, in my humble opinion:

The body, nude except for the ribbon around the neck, moved back and forth with the incoming tide. It was like the water was trying to gently rock the girl to sleep. Or back to life. 

Joe stood three feet away, as close as the yellow tape would allow, staring hard at the ribbon. Pink…just like the others, all six of the other girls he had seen dead in the water during the past four months had been the same. 

He turned away. Except for this one. This one he recognized.  

Do we need the phone call? A case could be made for it. (See below). But I think you have a better chance of your story feeling fresh if you enter your scene at a prime moment of disturbance. Show us something happening live. Give us some emotion. Don’t waste the precious opening moments of your book clearing your throat with unimportant action. Get into a scene as late as possible.

However…

The problem with Joe Blatz is that I think the writer perhaps got into the scene too late. Three hours too late, to be exact. What is the most interesting thing mentioned? That Joe busted two creeps in his free-lance cop role. I’d much rather read about that then Joe writing his report and thinking about his old desk.

I started reading an 2018 Edgar nominee this week called Ragged Lake by Ron Corbett. He opens with a two-page omniscient description of a remote cabin in the forest built by an odd family of squatters. A forestry worker discovers the family murdered:

The boy never went inside the cabin. Peered through a window and then took off for Ragged Lake, making good time on his snowshoes, then telling the bartender at the Mattamy something bad had happened by the headwaters of Springfield. Something that shouldn’t have happened, because no cabin should have been out there on O’Hearn timber rights on O’Hearn land. Something evil-bad had happened.

They needed to phone someone.

That’s the end of chapter 1. Chapter 2 opens with a continuation of the close omniscient point of view:

The call was logged in at the  and Cork’s Town detachment of the regional police at 6:17 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. An elderly dispatcher took the call, asked a few questions, then reached for an incident report form and repeated most the questions. After that, the dispatcher hit a key on his computer and a list of names and phone numbers appeared on his screen. He dialed the third on the list.

Note the natural bridge between chapters with “the call.” The next graph is the protag, Frank Yakabuski answering the call and the plot is off and running. The writing is atmospheric and spare, so I don’t mind the lack of a personal point of view and we get to the real case — a true disturbance — quickly, by page 4. The writer could have segued straight into Frank at the cabin, like I outlined in my scene above, but I think this slower move into the case works okay. Especially since it segues smoothly into Frank’s POV and all info is related almost exclusively through crisp dialogue. And we are introduced to Frank’s father, who is wheelchair bound after a freak shotgun accident, who I suspect is going to serve as Frank’s confidant, in the vein of James Garner’s dad Rocky in “The Rockford Files.”

I bring this book up just to point out that there are no hard rules — so, yes, you can ease into a scene and no, you don’t always have to use intimate point of view. But you still have to find a good door into your story. Whether the door swings open fast or creaks slowly ajar just wide enough for the reader to slip in, that’s what we call style.

Compare the measured opening of Corbett’s Ragged Lake with the opening of James Scott Bell’s latest Your Son is Alive:

Your son is alive.

A scrawl in red crayon. Messy block lettering across a piece of 8×10 white bond that had been tri-folded and placed in a blank business envelope.

It had been slipped under Dylan Reeve’s door in the middle of the night.

Dylan, holding the note, stumbled to a chair, sat heavily, his bathrobe bunched up under him. He didn’t know how long he sat there. All he knew was he hadn’t moved, except to wipe his eyes.

Finally, he got up, went to the kitchen where he phone was plugged in next to the coffee maker. He called Erin.

Boom…we’re dropped right into the central conflict of the story. James could have opened at the point when the boy disappeared ten years prior. He could have even opened with — ack ack — a prologue showing the boy getting abducted then jumped ahead to show the Reeves falling apart and getting divorced. But James picked door number 3, no backstory, no preludes. Just a nice big stone in the reader’s shoe.

The door chosen here to enter Joe’s world I don’t think is the best one. I’d bet there is a better one, maybe even later in the book that relates to the real case. I suspect the two perps mentioned have nothing to do with the actual plot. I suspect they are what I call a “false case” injected into the beginning to introduce the protag.

You have to be wary of “false case” openings. I recently beta-read a manuscript for a good friend who has published many thrillers. His chapter 1 features a fascinating protag quickly solving a case, then waiting for his superior to call him about the next one.  It’s well-written and introduces his protag really well.  But I questioned the wisdom of opening with a “false case” instead of going right to the real one, which begins in chapter 3.  I told him that his false start could be justified because 1. It is short and juicy and 2. Its exotic locale would be a nice contrast to the rural American setting for the real case. But I still am not sure he wouldn’t be better off just letting his hero take off on the true path. Law and Order does this “false case” opening sometimes. But they always manage to link it to the real case eventually.  That’s a big difference.

As I read Joe Blatz, I kept thinking of Alice in Wonderland, the part where Alice falls down the rabbit hole into the hall of doors. She’s overwhelmed trying to figure out which one to enter and in the end discovers a door behind a curtain that looks promising. But the door is too small. I think that is this writer’s problem here. The door to Joe Blatz’s world is so small, we’re getting no vision as to what’s on the other side.

Also, the passive construct has the additional problem of being all TELL and no SHOW. Rather than playing out the action “on camera” (Joe cuffing and stuffing the perps), we get his memory of it. Rather than showing us how Joe feels about these low-lifes via his actions on the scene and his live thoughts or better yet, dialogue, we have to rely on the writer telling us,  “these country crooks really pissed him off, and on some days he had a shorter fuse than others.”  Wouldn’t you rather see Joe’s fuse go off? I would. I want to follow a pro-active hero, not a Bic-munching muser.

One more thing. I hope the title is only a working one. This isn’t a title, it’s a label. It’s okay to use a character’s name in the title, but you have to make it mean something. It wasn’t Gatsby. It was, ironically, The Great Gatsby. He is a criminal whose real name is James Gatz, and the life he has created for himself is an illusion. T. Jefferson Parker didn’t call his Edgar-winning thriller about cop-cum-bodyguard Joe. He called it Silent Joe because Joe’s adoptive father taught him: “Mouth shut, eyes open. You might actually learn something.” The “silent” also has a poignant second meaning for Joe personally.

Yeah, I know…Emma, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Carrie, and Lolita. But remember that Nabokov didn’t call her Lola, and for good reason. Here’s his great opening paragraph:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Now that’s a heck of a “door” — to Dolores and the havoc she wreaks on Humbert.

Try to pick the right door. You want your reward to be an engaged reader, not a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax.

4+

Want to Make Your Scenes Come Alive?
Here’s a Cop’s-Eye View

By PJ Parrish

It’s a weird — but illuminating — exercise to go back and read your early works. My sister Kelly and I have been doing this lately as we prep our backlist for re-issue with new covers and better editing (Click here to read James’s salient and funny post on typos from Sunday.)

Sometimes, when you read your early stuff, you get this hard little nub in your gut and you think, “Good grief, what was I thinking?”  Kelly and I sort of feel this way about our first published Louis Kincaid thriller Dark of the Moon. It’s a solid freshman effort, but could have been better. But our second book Dead of Winter was where we began to digest the lessons of craft and find our stylistic stride.

In Dead of Winter, we began to recognize the power of description and mood. We knew the setting — the deep dark of the northern Michigan winter — was critical as a backdrop for the plot of a sniper picking off the cops in a small town. When I was editing the other day, I got to the scene where Louis and his partner Ollie are called out on New Year’s Eve to check out a trash can fire some kids set in the woods. But of course, it’s a trap set by the killer.  Kelly wrote this chapter, and to this day, I think it contains some of the best descriptive writing she has ever done.  She managed to capture not just the dark, cold loneliness of the setting but the visceral terror Louis feels in it.

In an stroke of synchronicity, that same day she also happened to send me a link to a blog post by our friend Lee Lofland.  Lee is a cop who wrote the Writers Digest bestselling book Police Procedure and Investigation. He’s a Macavity Award nominee for best non-fiction mystery, an Edgar Award judge, and is a nationally acclaimed expert on police procedure and crime-scene investigation, working as a writer’s consultant on TV and film. He runs a terrific conference for writers who want a total immersion in the grit of cop work. (Kelly’s going this year for the first time. Click here for more info about The Writer’s Police Academy.) Lee’s motto for writers is “Just Say No to Cordite.” (If you don’t get that, you really need to go read Lee’s posts and a few of John Gilstraps’)

But Lee’s is also a damn good writer in his own right. I’m a regular at his blog The Graveyard Shift. Recently, he had a post that was so compelling I asked him if I could print it for you here. It is about cops, but it is a master class in the power of using your senses, and finding the telling details, to make any scene or character come to life.

Take it away, Lee:

A Cop’s Nighttime Melody: The Sounds of the Graveyard Shift

Many writers have never, not once, set foot inside a police car, nor have they climbed out of bed at 11 p.m. to swap pajamas for a police uniform, Kevlar vest, gun belt, sidearm, and spit-shined shoes. And they’ve not headed out into the night to spend the next eight to twelve hours dealing with the city’s “worst of the worst,” and worse.

Most people have not left home with their family saying, “Be careful, see you when you get home,” and know they’re saying it because they worry the next time they see their loved one will be at their funeral service. “Killed in the line of duty” is what the bloggers and reporters will say.

Sure, you all know what goes on during a police officer’s shift—fights, domestic calls, shootings, stabbings, drug dealers, rapists, and killers of all shapes and sizes.

But what those of you who’ve never “been there, done that” cannot honestly and accurately know are the sounds heard when someone take a shot at you. No, not the actual gunshot. It’s the other noises that help bring super-cool details to your stories.

To learn about those sounds, let’s pretend we’re the officer who’s just been the target of a bad guy’s gunfire. We’re chasing the suspect through alleys and paths that wind through dark wooded areas, all while knowing the guy has a gun and he’s definitely not afraid to use it.

You can’t see your hand in front of your face, so you stop and listen. And then it happens…

That eerie calm.

It causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand tall and straight. Goose bumps come to attention on your arms. A lone pea-sized bead of sweat worms its way down your spine, easing through the space between your pants and the bare skin of your waistline. It feels oddly cool against your fear-warmed flesh.

10-4, I’LL TAKE THIS ONE …

The call came in as “Shots Fired. Suspect is armed with a handgun and caller advises he is still at the residence and is threatening to kill responding officers.”

I was working the county alone, so I asked the dispatcher to request backup from a nearby city and from the state police. The trooper in our county was also working alone. Our roles differed, though. He was out on the interstate writing traffic tickets while I responded to the usual plethora of calls. Either way, we were alone when we approached whatever situation was before us, be it stopping a stolen car with dark tinted windows or heading toward a house where I knew a man was waiting to kill me.

The sound of a police radio is far different when it’s heard late at night as opposed to the same radio traffic during daylight hours. Its an unexplained phenomenon. It could be that dark skies and night air create different acoustics. Or that working the graveyard shift forces dispatchers to work really hard to battle “the thing” that comes out at night to squeeze their emotions into submission. They typically lose the fight which results in a manner of speech that’s without feeling, inflection, and dynamics.

Nighttime radio traffic echoes and travels far. It’s weird and out of place among the stars and creamy moonlight. Dispatchers drone on like robots … “Robbery at …” “Wife says husband hit her …” “Lost child …” “Possible drug overdose at …” “Loud music at …” “Peeping Tom at …” “Customer refuses to pay at …” Shoplifter at …” “Dead body in river …” Dead body in park …” “Shots fired …” “Shots fired …” “Man stabbed at …” Shots fired …”

Back to the man who wanted to kill me.

I acknowledged the call with a “10-4, I’m en route.” Then I hooked the radio mic back into the metal “U-shaped” clip on the dashboard. Next, I pushed one of the many red toggle switches mounted into the center console.

With the push of the button, a faint click occurred simultaneously with the eruption of pulsating blue light. I stepped on the gas and heard the engine come to life. Since I was miles out in the country there was no need for the siren. Not yet.

I pushed the pedal toward the floor until I was cruising along at 70 mph. Believe me, that was pretty fast considering the curvy, hilly road that was before me.

There are no streetlights in the country. It’s super dark. Blue light reflects from trees, shrubbery, houses, mailboxes, passing cars, and telephone poles. It also reflects from the white lines painted on the pavement.

Meanwhile, the radio traffic continues with updates for me and with traffic from city officers and the trooper out on the interstate … “Use caution. Driver of the vehicle is wanted for a homicide in …”

My car radio played in the background. The Oak Ridge Boys went on and on about Bobbie Sue and Elvira while I attempted to straighten the curves by hitting my marks—drive low in the curves, on both sides of the road. Never at the apex. Unless a car is coming in the opposite direction or you cannot see far enough ahead to safely do so.

The blue strobes mounted on top of the car make a clicking sound with the start of each flash. The wig-wag headlamps did the same. The roadway is very uneven with a few cracks and potholes scattered about. They cause the patrol car to dip and roll. The extra pair of handcuffs I and many other cops keep handy by hanging them from the spotlight handle that protrudes from the post between the windshield and driver’s door, sway back and forth and bang together causing a constant click, click, click noise. The sounds are out of sync.

I switched off my lights a ways before reaching the scene—didn’t want to shooter to know I was there—and stopped my car on the shoulder, a bit down the road from the driveway. I called the dispatcher on the phone to let her know I’d arrived. The use of the phone was in case the bad guy was listening to a scanner. I turned down the volume on my police radio. Way down. Remember, the sound travels far. I wished backup didn’t have to do the same (travel far).

I opened my car door slowly to avoid making any noise. The interior light was not operational—disconnected in police cars to prevent illuminating the officer and/or blinding them to goings-on outside the vehicle.

As I slid from the seat my leather gun belt creaked and squeaked and groaned, as leather does when rubbed against other leather or similar material. To me, the sound was as loud as Fourth of July fireworks. My car keys (in my pants pocket) jingled slightly with each step. So I used a hand to hold them against my leg. The other hand was on my pistol.

I walked up to the house to peek into a window before knocking on the door. I wanted to see if I could, well, see anything. But, as I closed in on the side the house a large mixed breed dog stepped into view, showing its teeth and upper gums. The animal with matted-hair and a crooked tail growled one of those slow, easy rumbles that comes from somewhere deep inside. I held out a hand for it to sniff. It backed into the shadows.

A quick peek inside revealed a family of five. A woman with two black eyes and three crying children. Two girls, not quite teenagers, but close, probably, and a wiggling and squirming baby. A man stood near a tattered recliner and tall floor lamp. He held a pump shotgun in his right hand. At the moment, the barrel was aimed toward the floor. He yelled a few obscenities and started to pace. Then he looked straight at me, or at least it seemed like he looked at me.

My heart pounded against the inside of my chest. It bumped so hard I could hear the sound it made with each beat.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

From somewhere deep in the shadows.

Grrrr ……..Growl …..

From inside the home.

A baby crying.

A woman pleads and sobs.

A young girl. “Please, Daddy. No more!”

Sirens wail in the distance, beyond the black tree line that connects sky with earth. Sounds travel further at night, right?

The air-conditioning unit beneath the window snaps on. Its compressor humming and fan whirring. The metal casing rattles slightly. Probably missing a screw or two.

I knew what I had to do and started toward the door with my leather shoes and gun belt squeaking and keys jingling and heart thumping. As I reached for the knob I took a deep breath.

The expansion of my chest pulled at the Velcro that held my vest tightly against my torso.

Crackle. Crackle. Crackle.

Right behind me now.

Grrr …. Growl …

Crying.

Screaming.

Whir.

Thump. Thump. Thump!

Jingle

Squeak.

The door.

Turn and push.

“Drop the gun!”

BANG!

BANG!

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Crying.

And crying.

“10-4. Send the coroner.”

So, my friends, those are the sounds of working the graveyard shift …A Cop’s Nighttime Melody.

Me again. Note Lee’s use of the telling details here: the out of sync jangle of the extra cuffs. The sweep of blue lights on a mailbox in the night. How acoustics seem different in the dark swirl of lethal fear. And notice how he switches his narrative style — slow and legato when the cop is merely driving through the night then moving to a sharp staccato style during the action of t he shooting and take-down. All these are markers of a good novelist. Lee isn’t telling you how much terror a cop feels. He’s showing it to you and making you experience it through your senses.

I’ve never worn a badge, carried a gun or had to go through a door not knowing if I’d make back out alive. But I write about cops every day, so I can only hope to try to live vicariously in the skin of those who do. And then try to make the reader see what I am trying to see. It’s what writers do. It’s what we have to do to make readers feel.

Thanks, Lee. We’re all still learning here.

Postscript: I am traveling to NYC today for Edgar duties, so might be delayed in responding here. Talk amongst yourselves!

11+

First Page Critique: Clear Out Briars
So Style and Story Can Shine

By PJ Parrish

A broken pipe caused a flood in our house, ruining a third of our old pine floors and all of the kitchen.  Bad news — six weeks in a hotel. Good news — I get a new kitchen. So I’m feeling the vibe of the title of our First Page Critique this week.

Thank you, dear writer, for submitting.  Without you, we are nothing. Catch you on the back swing with comments and, as always, please weigh in TKZers, because my opinion is just one voice. It takes choir to do this right.

The Battle At Home

The weary van shuddered to a stop, yet Allie Newland’s body refused to move.

“Allie? Honey? We’re here.” Derek nudged her shoulder.

Allie raised one heavy eye. Derek’s chiseled face and dark, curly hair swirled. Nope,can’t do it. The lid snapped shut. She covered her swollen face with her sweaty palm. Her cheeks flushed. A sigh lifted off her mouth and hung stale like the pool of greasy French fries littering the floor of the ten-year-old minivan. A tear trickled down her cheek and dropped onto her clasped hands. It splattered against a ragged cuticle.

Time.

As much as she didn’t want it to be. As much as she’d never be ready. As much as her arms desired nothing more than to hug her Derek and trap him at her side forever.

It.

Was.

Time.

Allie lifted her eyes and plastered a smile onto her face. A delicious smattering of freckles crinkled across the bridge of her nose. She turned away. Clutched the sticky handle and rested her forehead against the cool pane.

“I guess we should get going.”

“Allie.” Derek cradled her chin and forced her gaze from the window to his eyes. She squirmed away from the chocolate brown pools. He grabbed her hands and kissed the top of her light-brown, shoulder length hair. “You’re strong, Al. The strongest woman I know.”

Allie choked on a grenade-sized lump. Swallowed. It exploded into the walls of her carefully patched together dam of emotion bursting it wide open and sending two salty streams cascading down her cheeks. The tears drenched her stretched-to-the-limit, faded black t-shirt and puddled on top of her post-baby bulge. She sniffed. Wiped. Added a new stain to the dozen or so toddler snot smears decorating her comfy cotton ensemble. She should tell him. Really, she should. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. So instead, she kept silent. She bottled her fears, feigned a tight-lipped smile, and nodded her head.

“I know. We’ll be fine. We’ll miss you like crazy, but we’ll be fine.” Allie squeezed his hand. Her finger wavered on top of the orange button. She pressed. Unbuckled. Opened the squeaky door. She wiped stowaway tears off her face and squinted her brown with little flecks of green eyes as she stepped onto the paved parking lot. She slid open the rear door.

“Hi, Jadey,” she said fake enthusiasm pumping up her sullen words, “time to say bye-bye to Daddy.”

____________________

We’re back. I have to say straight-off, I’m intrigued, and I like this submission. Here’s why: We’re entering at an emotional moment. (no throat-clearing). We have two interesting likeable characters (and only two, which serves to concentrate our attention.)  We get the putative protagonist (at least I hope it’s Allie) right away. We have drama. We have unanswered questions.

I like the subtlety here. Something obviously not-good is going on, but the writer is sly though to not tip his/her hand and hit us over the head with HOW bad it is. It could be something as simple as dad has to go away temporarily. It could be something really dire. Hard to say since we don’t know what kind of genre we’re dealing with here. Could be domestic suspense, could be dystopia. But no matter what the genre, a good opening is a promise. I want to read on here to find out what’s coming.

Second, notice how the writer slips in details that show us things about the characters rather than telling us about them. Yes, s/he could have written something like:

Her daughter Jadey wasn’t yet two, and they had no money and no where to live except a broken down van. How was she going to cope alone with a baby now that Derek was leaving?

Instead, the info is conveyed by describing a swollen belly,  “toddler snot” on her clothes. Emotions are conveyed through actions — tears, caresses, kisses on hair — rather than something like: Allie loved him with all her heart and was going to miss him. She knew Derek felt the same way.  We always talk here about showing instead of telling. Also, we aren’t told they are poor. We learn, again through selective descriptive details, of this couple’s financial situation — a broken down van, greasy take-out bags on the floor, stretched out clothes.

I also love the fact that Allie has something to tell Derek, the implication being she has kept something from this man who seems so good to her. I like that you didn’t tell us what it is, just dropped in that hint, that unanswered question: What is Allie hiding?

So, good job, writer. But there are times when you could do some self-editing to make your writing tighter, more efficient and, in the end, more evocative. The more emotional the scene, the less emotional the writing itself should be. If I can, let me offer a few tweaks for you to consider in line edits:

The weary van careful using anthropomorphic descriptions. Not sure you even need “weary” since you use the great verb-phrase “shuddered to a stop.”. Maybe something specific like the rusty VW van shuddered to a stop. Then break into a new sentence so our focus goes squarely on the charcacter. But Allie Newland’s body refused to move.

“Allie? Honey? We’re here.” Derek nudged her shoulder.

Allie raised one heavy eye. Derek’s chiseled face suggestion: This is a hackneyed description of bad romance novels. You can do better.and dark, curly hair swirled. this implies movement. Is a window open? Or do you mean that his image seemed to swirl in her eyes because she’s so tired? Clear this up.

Nope,can’t do it. Suggest setting this off by itself. Love that you’re using intimate POV!

The lid snapped shut. You have a tic (we all do!): a tendency to over-describe. She cries, she’s sweaty, she’s swollen, she sighs. It’s a couple tokes over the line. Simplify your emotional descriptions — less is often more — and trust your reader to get it. She closed her eyes and covered her swollen face with a sweaty palm. She covered her swollen face with her sweaty palm. Her cheeks flushed. A sigh lifted off her mouth and hung stale like the pool of greasy French fries littering the floor of the ten-year-old minivan. I like that you are using all the senses here but again, simplify this good description: She sighed, and her breath, smelling like the greasy McDonald’s bag on the floor, hung in the stale air of the old van. A tear trickled down her cheek and dropped onto her clasped hands. It splattered against a ragged cuticle. Suggest you save the tears for later. They are more effective below. And again, by layering in too many emotional descriptions (sigh, tears) you dilute the effect. Space them out a tad.

Time.

As much as she didn’t want it to be. As much as she’d never be ready. As much as her arms desired nothing more than to hug her Derek and trap him at her side forever.

It.

Was.

Time. I liked this disjointed structure. It mimics exhaustion. It makes me get the feeling this couple has come a long way and Allie is spent, physically and mentally.

Allie lifted her eyes and plastered a smile onto her face. Again, I think this might be too much here, since she feigns a smile later as well. I like it better below. A delicious smattering of freckles crinkled across the bridge of her nose. Cut this. It jerks us out of that intimate POV you’ve worked hard to establish — she cannot SEE her own face and “delicious” is jarringly out of mood here. Just go right to: She reached for the door handle but couldn’t bring herself to move it. She rested her forehead against the cool window. She turned away. Clutched the sticky handle and rested her forehead against the cool pane.   Here is where I would put in a few quick, well-drawn strokes of what she sees outside. See comment below about this.

“I guess we should get going,” she said or even whispered, given her mood.

“Allie.” Derek reached over and (I think you need to tell us where he is; I assume he’s in driver seat?) cradled her chin and turned her to face him. forced her gaze from the window to his eyes. She squirmed away from the chocolate brown pools. I think this feels romance-cy and it distracts from the mood. He grabbed her hands and kissed the top of her light-brown, shoulder length hair. Again, simplify the movements of your characters:  She tried to squirm away but he pulled her toward him and gently. kissed the top of her head. Delete the description of her hair because you are IN HER INTIMATE POV. Stay there! She would not be thinking about what her hair looks like.

“You’re strong, Al. The strongest woman I know.” Good dialogue so it deserves its own line. Don’t bury it in graph above.

Allie choked on a grenade-sized lump. Swallowed. It exploded into the walls of her carefully patched together dam of emotion bursting it wide open and sending two salty streams cascading down her cheeks. I like the grenade metaphor but it’s so writerly that you have to know when to stop. Again, simplify so the metaphor shines more: It exploded the walls of her carefully constructed emotional dam, bursting it open. She began to cry. The tears drenched her stretched-to-the-limit, faded black t-shirt and puddled on top of her post-baby bulge. Simplify: The tears fell on her faded black T-shirt, puddling on top of her post-baby bulge. She sniffed. Wiped. Added a new stain to the dozen or so toddler snot smears decorating her comfy cotton ensemble. She ran a hand under runny nose, thought about using one of the McDonald’s napkins wadded on the floor, but instead just wiped her hand on her T-shirt. One more stain wouldn’t matter among all the toddler snot smears. 

She needed to tell him. But she couldn’t. So instead, she kept silent. She bottled her fears, feigned a tight-lipped smile, and nodded her head.

“I know. Non sequitur response, I think. Derek said, “You’re strong.” Would she respond “I know (I am?)” She doesn’t feel strong now. What might be a better comeback from her? Or maybe you can even have her thinking something in response to Derek’s compliment, something that laces in a bit of backstory? She didn’t feel strong right now. Whatever strength she had felt when they had started out five weeks ago in WHEREVER we are, had been long lost. We’ll be fine. We’ll miss you like crazy, but we’ll be fine.”

Allie squeezed his hand. Derek should do something in return, I think. His woman is crying now. Her finger wavered on top of the orange button. She pressed. Unbuckled. Opened the squeaky door. She wiped stowaway tears off her face and squinted her brown with little flecks of green eyes as she stepped onto the paved parking lot. She slid open the rear door. This is what I call mundane physical movement. Enough with wiping tears. Just have her get out of the van. And again, she can’t see her own eyes, so don’t stop here to tell us about them. Also, where’s the baby? Have her reach in the back or wherever before you go with following dialogue:

“Hi, Jadey,” she said fake enthusiasm pumping up her sullen words, her words aren’t sullen. Her mood is. “time to say bye-bye to Daddy.

Again, nice start, writer. You’ve got our attention. A few more things to think about: We could use a little grounding in where we are. You can afford to slow down enough to have Allie take note of her surroundings. Readers want to know where the story is taking place. That doesn’t mean you give us a long descriptive narrative here — it would disrupt your mood and your style is, once you clear out the brush, nice and spare.  But find a way to use the surroundings to enhance the mood you’re establishing.  When Allie first opens her eyes and looks out the van window, what does she see? Show us! Is it winter and the heater broke miles ago? Is it hot and stifling in that old van? You’re in No Man’s Land here, one moment telling us she has sweaty hands (implying warm), the next leaning her forehead against cool glass (cold weather?) All we get is “a parking lot.” This opening feels like they have reached a destination, a metaphoric fork in their road since Derek is about to depart for some reason. Don’t neglect your setting — it can be a powerful tool in supporting your mood and increasing suspense.

Thanks for giving us the chance to read your work and learn.

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Writing About What You Know
–Even When It Hurts

Write hard and clear about what hurts. – Ernest Hemingway

By PJ Parrish

Years back, I had the pleasure to hear David Morrell speak as luncheon guest of honor at a writer’s conference. Now, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to hear David or better yet, talk to him, you know he’s a fount of fabulous advice for a writer, no matter where you are on the food chain.

That day I heard him speak, I was well into my own career, so I was munching away on my carrot cake, listening but also mind-wandering. Then he said something that made the hairs stand up on my neck.

“Write about what you fear most.”

I sat there stunned. Tears threatened. Because David had poked a wound in me as a writer. I had been struggling with a short story. It felt artificial and too cool. And I realized, sitting in that ballroom fork in mid-air why. I had been unwilling – or unable – to confront my demons.

I knew the demons were there. That was why I had chosen the story I did. (Or did it chose me?) But I was holding the demons at arm’s length. Or maybe hiding from them. The next day, I went back and started over. It was a hard story to write. But I finished it. I didn’t publish it, but I finished it. And it taught me a great hard lesson.

You have to be willing to open a vein.

David Morrell talks often about a book called The Gift of Fear. The author Gavin de Becker says we should all learn to trust our gut instincts to protect us from life’s traumas and, ultimately violence. But David suggests the book has lessons for writers:

As de Becker says, we have all these signals coming at us all the time, and some people choose to ignore them, and get mugged, or have their car stolen, or terrible stuff, because they say, “I kind of knew there was something wrong there, but I thought, oh heck, it doesn’t matter.” Well, when you feel that, it, it does matter, and basically that’s what my books are about: the gift of fear.

David speaks from experience, and is not shy about sharing this. After his father died in WWII, his mother was forced to put him in an orphanage for a time. When she remarried, his step-father was a brute who hated kids and there was constant fighting in the house. From an interview:

I was in fear for much of my early years. And in my fear, I told myself stories. I was at the time, four years, five years, six years old, and I told myself stories in which I was the hero, and rescuing people or whatever—in effect, rescuing myself.

He carried this into his career as a bestselling thriller writer. If you’ve lived under a rock, you might not know that he is the father of Rambo. He has produced a long, stellar, bestselling list of other novels that range from spy novels to Victorian mysteries. But his theme is always human fear, and his characters’ struggle to suppress it or else give in to it.

He’s not afraid of fear.

In 1987, his teenage son died from complications from a rare bone cancer. David took his panic attacks, despair, grief and deepest fears and turned them into a memoir, Fire Flies. Stephen King wrote of it: “I found myself almost speechless…It left me feeling shaken, uplifted, and terribly moved.”

Many other writers have found their voices in what they fear. John Green, author of The Fault Is In Our Stars, was stricken with severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, unable to escape “the spiral of my own thoughts,” as he put it. With therapy and medication, he recovered and wrote Turtles All the Way Down, a wrenching novel about what it is like to live in constant fear of your own mind.

“Coming out of that, it was difficult to write about anything else,” he told an interviewer. “The topic demanded itself.”

One of my favorite early reads, The Bell Jar, is irrevocably associated with Sylvia Plath’s experience with depression, with the character Esther Greenwood’s mental breakdown mirroring Plath’s own. On the Road is based on Jack Kerouac’s real life drugged out road trip with his friend Neal Cassady. Amy Tan’s brilliant novel Joy Luck Club is based on her immigrant childhood in San Francisco. In an interview, Tan talked about how writing the novel moved her to connect with her difficult mother:

When I was writing, it was so much for my mother and myself…I wanted her to know what I thought about China and what I thought about growing up in this country. And I wanted those words to almost fall off the page, so that she could just see the story, that the language would be simple enough, almost like a little curtain would fall away.”

The story I like most on this subject involves Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Of course.

Fitzgerald, flush from his success with The Great Gatsby, started working on his next novel. It was about a glamorous couple living in the South of France. By this point, his wife Zelda was hospitalized with schizophrenia and Fitzgerald was broke, borrowing money from his editor, and drowning in alcohol. The novel, Tender is the Night, told the sad tale of the self-destructive Dick and Nicole Diver.

A month after it came out, Fitzgerald wrote to Hemingway to ask his friend’s honest opinion of the book. Hemingway wrote back: “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”

There’s a lesson in that for us mortal writers. Yes, write what you fear most. Plumb your life experiences. Use your pain. Write what you know.  But there’s a trick.

I have a writer friend named Jessica Lourey. Jess writes two terrific mystery series, kids books, women’s fiction and fantasy. But her non-fiction book Rewrite Your Life, is what I’d like you to take a look at for our purposes today. Jess writes about how writing fiction can help you heal the wounds in your life. She gives TED talks to non-writers about the power of memoir writing. But her book is full of good advice for novelists:

When writers base fiction too closely on their own experiences, they can sometimes lose the ability to truly play with the story. I think this is because they are not consciously making as many decisions as a writer of “pure” fiction. They can be tempted to simply record what happened in real life (and to skip inventing material to fill in the gaps of their own knowledge about other people’s motivations or bits of the experience that they didn’t notice), instead of pondering how to best tell a good story. I’ve known writers whose story details should have been changed or expanded to better support their theme or create atmosphere, but who resisted the suggestion that they do so because “this is how it really happened.”

Most of us have encountered folks who say, “Boy, do I have a story to tell.” Or “my life would make a great novel.”  Instinctively, all fiction writers know the problem with this. Yes, every human walking the earth has a unique story to tell. But few have the ability to tell it in a way that emotionally touches others.

That’s the trick.

The trick is to face your fear and turn it inside out and upside down. Your own true experiences – be it the horror of war, the loneliness of childhood or the terror of domestic violence – is only fodder. If you spill it out too raw on the page, it can feel strangely trite and, in the case of my short story, artificial. The trick is to take your specific and deeply personal emotions and experiences and make them feel universal. Your pain has to become something bigger.

Your story begins inside you. But in the end, it belongs to your reader.

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