About PJ Parrish

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

First Page Critique: A Storm Is
Coming Or Is It A Space Ship?

By PJ Parrish

Well, I’m not sure exactly where we are today with today’s submission, but I will say I liked reading this one.  Which is why I’m going to be kinda tough on you, brave writer. Thanks for submitting your work.

(1)The Arrival

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships but not seeing any.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. “Catherine,” he whispered. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed it, making her knuckles white. She started to speak but had trouble. She moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime. Where’s Ruben?”

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. But we can’t wait around. The sounds are getting closer. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.” He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached.

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light and hear booms. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies. That’s where they headed.

____________________

I liked this opening. We are getting into the scene in mid-action, even though the two characters are just awakening. I don’t mind that, because they have obviously, from the description, been through something bad.  I like the unanswered questions of this opening — what happened last night? Why are they in such bad shape? (his injuries, her tattered silk blouse — and the little detail that it is silk is intriguing in itself given their barren surroundings.) What happened to Ruben? Are these two good guys or bad guys? This makes me want to read on.

Here’s what the writer didn’t do that also makes this work for me:  The guy wakes up and we don’t get a bunch of thoughts, musings, rememberings and god forbid, backstory.  The writer immediately gets us into some action. I trust the writer will explain as this chapter progresses what happened and how Billy Watson feels about it.

I don’t yet know exactly where we are, but I get the feeling of desolation. I also trust the writer will soon pinpoint the location. I get the sense that we are in some sort of apocalyptic time, possibly in future, since Watson looks to the sky to see if “ships” are there. I tripped over this sentence in my first quick read, thinking what the heck are ships doing in a desert? But then I got it.  While I like the spareness of the writing, I could use a few other descriptive details to ground me in where we are and what time era. All I can see in my reader’s imagination is sand, a storm-imminent dawn sky, and a rusted car.  One or two more choice details might go a long way here to upping the tension and intrigue.  Give me some hints!

One suggestion: Right now, we are getting the point of view mainly through Billy but with a semi-drift into Catherine.  I think it might be stronger we stayed firmly with Billy. A reader wants to connect with a main character as quickly as possible, and although Catherine may turn out to be just as important, it would help you establish rapport if you began more stronger with Billy.

Let’s go to some line editing so I can show you how.  And address a few minor quibbles.

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. You are in omniscient POV here. This could be stronger if you can filter this moment only through Billy’s sensibility. It’s hard to make someone awakening FEEL real but if you can do it, it can be more powerful. Ask yourself, what is the first thing Billy is aware of?  A brightness that makes him squint (the sun coming up); the stiffness of his body? A smell? Make us feel this moment. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. Same issue here. This could be stronger! A sudden rush of cold-warm-hot? air on his face and the feel of grit in his eyes and mouth. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships.  but not seeing any. He let out a long breath. No ships. It was just thunder. Make us feel his fear and/or trepidation more. But see my comments below about my confusion over what these “sounds” and “booms” are.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. To make this feel more in Bily’s POV, I would not give her full name here.  He wouldn’t be thinking “Catherine Belling.”  Something like: He looked over at the woman slouched in the passenger seat. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. He shook her gently.

New graph is good when you move to a new character. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. Give her a quick line or reaction. Is she scared-jumpy? I might even move up the whole bit with her knife. Also, action-reaction for your characters must be logical. If she is jumpy, her first reaction after someone touches her as she comes out of a fitful sleep might be to pull her knife. And Billy can calm her and then tell her they have to get moving.  That strikes me as more human. It also gives her a more logical reason to pull the knife.  

“Catherine,” he whispered. said. No need for whispers since it’s the two of them alone in a desert. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath on her belt?. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed the hunting knife, her knuckles turning white. She started to speak but had trouble and ran her tongue over her cracked lips. moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime.More details and more visceral.

Where’s Ruben?” she said.

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. Obviously, he’s not back yet. This is a pretty dramatic point. Might she not react? Or say something?

But We can’t wait for him around,” he said. “The sounds are getting closer.” Confusion here. Above, you have him thinking the sounds are “just thunder.” Apparently the “sounds” concern him. Why? We need this clarified. Which doesn’t mean you have to spill all the beans but maybe somewhere in this brief scene he hears another sound that he KNOWS is not just thunder and that elicits this remark. Otherwise it makes no sense. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.”

I would have Catherine put her knife away here, not later. Make this gesture mean something. Is she discouraged? Resigned? Frightened for Ruben? Maybe Billy thinks about her having the knife. The contrast between silk blouse and hunting knife is delicious. Make it work! Make every line of dialogue and every gesture AMPLIFY and ENHANCE your plot and mood.

He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached. What did he start to do exactly? Be specific. How about if he tries to open his door and can’t. Make it mean something to what you’re setting up here. Have it relate to their dire situation. What happened last night to make him so sore he can’t move?  And the phrase “every muscle ached” is meh writing. You can do better. Make us FEEL something of this man’s pain — physical and psychological. 

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open. I’d have her come around and yank his door open. And make it mean something. Is Billy wounded? It gives her a chance to develop some personality.  Maybe you can even have Billy think something about here, which also gives you a chance to drop in her full name.  ie:  Billy flashed back to two nights ago, at the party. When Catherine Belling walked in a room, she always got stares. But that night, dressed in that white silk blouse and red pants, even he couldn’t look away.  That’s corny, but you see where I am trying to go with it?  An effective tool in fiction is compare and contrast.  If you can drop hints at what it was like BEFORE this moment (why do you have Catherine in silk otherwise?) then it can be an effective contrast to the arid and dire position they are in now.  Don’t dwell in backstory, but a brief well-rendered thought can be powerful.  It can also hint at the relationship between these two.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they Billy could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light you’re a good writer so this can be better and hear booms. Again, this “booms” is meaningless. Billy probably knows exactly what this is, since he knows about “the ships.” I think you’re being a little to obtuse here. A few choice details about what they have escaped from will go along way toward heightening your tension. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south the sky was a blinding blue. there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies.

That’s where they headed.  I might put this in dialogue for Billy. But see caveat below.

Your description of the sky is a metaphor. Therefore, I would stay with north and south in that reference above because it’s clean and simple and is symbolic of the past (dark clouds, orange light and booms) and the future (blue skies.)  But be aware that clouds (bad past) and blue skies (good future) is a cliche. As the old saying goes, if you’re gonna use weather, make it mean something. Remember the end of “The Terminator” when Linda Hamilton is sitting in the jeep at the desert gas station and she looks ahead to the roiling storm clouds . A kid tells her in Spanish that a storm is coming. She says, with a heavy dollop of James Cameron portention, “I know.”  The weather must stand for something.   

So, all and all, a pretty good beginning. Which is why I’m being a little tough with you, dear writer, and asking you to stretch even harder. As I said, every line of dialogue, every action, every word of description you choose, must have a reason for being there.  Make every line you write more “muscular.” Make it work harder. You can do it. The story is worth it.

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On Writing Fears, Blue Titles,
And Why 6-Figure Advances
Are Bad For Your Health

By PJ Parrish

When you read this, I’ll be somewhere over the midwest, 42,000 feet up, making the annual trek back to Tallahassee, and not a moment too soon since it’s snowing in Michigan now. So I don’t have any wise words from my own brain this week since it’s been hectic.   Plus, I sprained two fingers on my right hand on a DIY project that should have been left to professionals. Kids don’t do this at home. Keyboarding with fingers the size and color of concord grapes is hard. Don’t know how you index-finger hunt-and-pecking writers do it.

So, here’s some good stuff I found this week, by writers about writers or writing. It runs the gamut from an cautionary tale from a novice writer who got two (count ’em two!) six figure advances and was almost ruined financially — to a profile of Lee Child at home in Wyoming, where he owns two cowboys hats, but doesn’t wear them for fear of being laughed at.

Enjoy…Yours truly and my busted phalanges will be back soon.

How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying

A new-to-the-biz writer Heather Demetrios writes about how getting two six-figure advances right out of the gate almost brought her to financial ruin. She has great advice for those of you just starting out on paying attention to the work at hand and not letting your head get turned too fast.  Money quote for me: “Each new book is like a weekend in Vegas: maybe I’ll get lucky, maybe I won’t.”

After that second advance came through, I stepped into my dream life: I quit my day job to write full-time, moved to New York City, bought $15 cocktails, and learned (with astonishing speed) not worry about prices when ordering at a restaurant. I said yes to travel (often book research I wasn’t reimbursed for), concert tickets, new shoes, and finally being able to buy people the kind of presents I felt they deserved. I donated large sums of money to organizations I cared about, and delighted in the feeling that I was making a real difference….

Then she goes into what she would have done differently had she known what was going to happen. Here’s the link. 

Ready, Set, Write a Book

November if National Novel Writing Month. I’ve never tried it, but the NaNoWriMo challenge — writing a complete novel in 30 days — is now into its 20th year. If the thought of cranking out 1,500 words a day makes your blood run cold, this article’s not for you. But it does offer some tips for upping your output.  Here’s the link. 

Oh, Give Him a Home Where The Reacher Creatures Roam 

Speaking of writers who can crank it out, Lee Child has just dropped his 24th book Blue Moon. This feature finds our hero living the good life in Laramie Wyoming and waxing on the new movie Jack Reacher (yes, he’s taller than Tom Cruise), life in the slow lane and getting a new award — Commander of the British Empire. Link here. 

 

 

What’s In a $&%!? Title? 

Hey, we all know how hard it is to come up with a seductive title. But are today’s titles getting a little too…blue?  One editor makes a case for rethinking the current trend to using cuss words in titles. Let’s just say she’s not happy:

While a well-placed colorful word can pack a punch when used sparingly, resorting to vulgar titles is actually an easy, mindless, and lazy knee-jerk marketing approach. In an attempt to reach and speak to the masses, these word choices continue to dumb down book titles and subjects while discouraging any effort to strengthen thinking, meaning, or purpose—let alone a sense of integrity for authors, marketers, or the industry.

Here’s the link to the Publishers Weekly story. Link here. 

Fear Of Flying (As a Writer)

And lastly, I give you Chuck Wendig.  I love his writers blog Terrible Minds. It always makes me laugh — or cry less, depending on how strong a grip the work in progress has on my neck.  Here’s a classic Wendig — about how if you try to play it safe, if you travel the well-trod road instead of trying to find your own true writer’s path, you will fail. I think our own James recently wrote on this topic recently. Money quote:

I’m speaking about a specific kind of fear, which is, fear as the first step of writing. Fear about market. Fear about audience. Fear about how no one will read your stuff. Fear about how you’re never going to be as good as [insert other author name here]. Fear about voice, fear about genre, fear about ideas. You set out on the journey of being a writer and already you have a choice about what direction you choose, right? You get this instinctual pull, as if all your intestinal flora are trying to move you in concert toward something weird, something wonderful, something uniquely your own, but — that way lies grave uncertainty. The other direction, well, that’s more sensible, isn’t it? Other writers have trod those paths. What’s popular right now is [insert trend here, like “YA medical horror featuring canine protagonists” or “grimdark geriatric erotic fantasties”]. Your voice surely isn’t as good as other voices.

So, your foot wavers. And instead of pointing yourself in the unknown direction, into the dark forest, into the layers of fog — you set forth onto the well-lit, well-marked path. The worn path. The trod path. And it’s fear that put you there. It’s fear that’s walking you forward.

Here’s the full article.

I’ll try to reply if you leave a comment. I have a long layover in Charlotte and if I recall, there’s a decent bar in Concource E, owned by Dale Ernhardt Jr. Oh, show me the way to the next whiskey bar…

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First Page Critique Redux:
What A little Rewriting Can Do

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” ~Michael Crichton

By PJ Parrish

Hi there, crime dogs. Today I’d like to revisit one of our First Page critiques.  Not because I think that the submitting writer needs to be raked over the coals once more.  This time, I’d like to show (rather than tell) what a little judicious rewriting can do.

Rewriting is dear to my heart. It reminds me, at times, of the despair I used to feel in my sculpture classes when I was a college art major. I was terrible at anything involving three-dimensional design. I aced portraiture, watercolor, acyrlic and oil. But when it came to creating something out of a piece of wood, clay or plaster, I was really bad.  Don’t know why…it’s just the way my brain is wired.  I had to work really really hard in 3D design. It didn’t come naturally to me.

So those of you out there struggling with the structure of your book, I feel your pain.  I know how hard it is to take a lumpy gray mass of hot mess and try to turn it into something with shape, definition and, yeah, even beauty.

Which brings me back to our topic of the day — rewriting.  You can’t fear it. You shouldn’t fight it. You must embrace it.  I read one writer who described rewriting as trying to scrub the basement floor with a toothbrush. But it needn’t be that gruesome. Writing may not come naturally to you, but you can be better at it if you try.  Rewriting is how you get all the bad stuff out of your system.

It’s okay in your first draft to use cliches, stale metaphors, boring chapter endings, bad transitions, unoriginal description.  It’s okay to have potholes in your plot, flaccid character development, turgid backstory.  Get it all out there, keep moving forward, finish the draft. Philip Roth once described a first draft as a floor that, once in place, he could walk upon.

So build your floor. Then go back over it and do the hard work. Don’t despair. Trust that you can do it.  Your pencils should always outlast your erasers. I think Nabokov said that.

Now, back to the First Pager. Last month, I critiqued a submission titled Scarlet Lies. It wasn’t bad, but it had some basic problems. The writer asked if I would read her second attempt. Because her attitude was so receptive, I agreed. I will let you see how things went. First, here’s the original:

SCARLET LIES

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? A few horns blared and she clicked her heels across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug.

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” She hustled, her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance.

She was radiant, elbowing people out of the way to get to him and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away. Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip.

“You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.”

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“I doubt that.”

_______________________

Now here’s the second version she sent to me:

Scarlet crossed six lanes of traffic on East 57th street without looking. New York hadn’t claimed her life yet, but she felt it would be an easier fate than dealing with her mother’s charity gala tomorrow. How was she supposed to find a speaker when she’d only been released for two days? As usual, her mother’s demands were unreasonable.

Tires screeched as she strutted across the road, the sun blazing in her eyes through the smog. A Ferrari skidded to a halt and blared its multi-tone horn.

“Watch it, lady!” A man yelled out the window at her.

She held up her middle finger at him as she stepped onto the sidewalk.

Scarlet walked two more blocks towards her target. A coffee shop, apparently. She double checked the location on her phone as she approached.

Then, serenity. She saw Michael sitting at a cafe table, talking on his phone and flipping through a notebook. Scarlet smiled, knowing her luck at finding him here would probably be considered closer to criminal stalking, but he would benefit from her charming companionship, regardless of what he claimed to believe or what he had said to her the last time they parted. That was two long years ago, and he hadn’t been thinking clearly.

His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance. He was absorbed in his conversation. Next to him, steam curled from a small, cream-colored mug. Her heart pounding, she watched the image of him flicker in and out of view between the gray masses of people elbowing their way around her.

She hadn’t spoken to him since the fire. Since he “swore her off.” Well. Time to change that. She adjusted her skirt and walked through the cafe gate.

“Michael! Hi!”

The man froze in place for a moment and then looked up, his face stony. She was grinning. He was not.

She heard him bark a quick “call you later,” and he slid his phone into his pocket.

“How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She down sat at the table with him, dropping her shopping bags on the ground beside her.

He looked at her for a moment, dread and quiet disbelief on his face. “I’m honestly a bit surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.” He gestured in the air around him.

Scarlet raised her voice an octave and flipped her hair behind her shoulder. “Well! Vacation’s over.”

“Vacation?” He pressed his lips together, eyebrows raised. “I don’t think so. Did you break out, or did your parents pay?”

She smiled again. “I’ve missed you.”

___________________

So, what is improved by the rewriting? Let’s try to break it down. Again, this is just my opinion:

  1. Scarlet is much more likable now. Some of you liked her better than I did, but I found her sort of ditzy and wondered if readers would want to follow her for an entire book. Now, I think she comes across as just high-spirited. Big difference. I don’t know what sort of sub-genre the writer is going for here, but the light tone makes me think this would be appropriate for romantic suspense, straight romance, or cozy. What’s better now is that the tone is more consistent, and that’s important. Some writers never quite grasp the idea that you have to have a tone for your story — light, dark, hard-boiled, historical, whatever — and every word and sentence you write has to support that tone.
  2.  We now know where we are geographically. Important to establish that right away.
  3. The dialogue is much better. Do you notice how just separating the dialogue from surrounding narrative makes it look cleaner? Easier to read for today’s writers. If you go back and read older fiction, you’ll notice this may not be true. But for today’s market seems to demand it. It’s a matter of taste and trends but it’s good to be aware of it.
  4. Point of view: This is where the writer really improved things. In the original, the POV wavered between Scarlet, the man, and wandered up into omniscient. Again, this is a modern trend, but being firmly in one character’s POV at a time is  important in today’s market.

One last thing I pointed out to the writer:  We don’t know what genre she’s working in here, but if it is suspense or mystery, it is crucial to pretty quickly establish some kind of disruption in Scarlet’s life. Something has to go wrong, or you have to drop hints that something ALREADY has gone wrong — and that THIS is what your story is really about. I advised her to not waste too much more time on chit-chat between Scarlet and Michael unless it supports this. His dialogue about the breaking out and her being out in the wild hints at it, but the writer still needs move the CONFLICT closer to the front of the stage. And you don’t want to wait too long to do this.

So, end of object lesson. Thank you — again! — dear writer for letting us learn as you do. And to remind us that in baseball, you only get three strikes. But in writing, you get as many as you need.  I think Neil Simon said that…or maybe it was Yogi Berra.

5+

What’s Your Point? Figuring Out
What Goes Into Each Chapter

By PJ Parrish

I dunno, maybe this is going to sound simplistic to most of you, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway: What should go into a chapter?

I’ve been thinking about this since last week after reading Jordan’s excellent post on narrative drive. In the comments section, BK Jackson wrote this:

The one of these I fumble with the most is having a goal for every scene. Sure, it’s easy when they’re about to confront the killer or it’s about a major plot point or a clue, but what about scenes that just set the stage of story-world and its people? Sure, you don’t want mundane daily life stuff, but sometimes I write scenes of protag interacting with someone in story world and, while I can’t articulate a specific goal for the scene, it seems cold and impersonal to leave it out.

And Marilynn wrote:

Working with newer writing students, I’ve discovered that some write a scene…because they are trying to clarify the ideas for themselves, not for the reader. 

I’ve found writers often struggle with this. It’s as if they just start writing, trying to figure out what the heck is happening, then they just run out of gas. End of chapter. But that’s not how it should go. No, you don’t need to outline, but you really need to stop and ask yourself questions before you write one word: How do you divide up your story into chapters? Where do you break them? How long should each chapter be? How many chapters long should your book be? And maybe the hardest thing to figure out: What is the purpose of each chapter? Or as BK put it, what is the “goal?”

Again, this sounds simplistic but it’s not simple. How you CHOSE to divide up your story affects your reader’s level of engagement.  The way you CHOSE to chop up your plot-meat helps the reader digest it.  The way you CHOSE to parcel out character traits helps your reader bond with people. And the way you CHOSE to manipulate your story via chapter division enhances — or destroys — their enjoyment.

For some writers, this comes naturally, like having an ear in music. But for many of us, it is a skill that can be learned and perfected. So let’s give it a go.

First, do we even need chapters? Marilynne Robinson doesn’t use them. James Dickey’s To The White Sea is one big tone-poem. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road uses a couple dots instead of chapter headings, perhaps to emphasize the in media res feeling of a long journey. (I was so pulled into that book I didn’t even notice it didn’t have chapters!) But most of us mere mortals probably need to break things up a bit.

Why? Chapters give your reader a mental respite. Chapter breaks allow the reader to digest everything that’s happened. They also help build suspense for what is yet to come. If you divide them up artfully instead of willy-nilly.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of each chapter as a dramatic island. (I wrote a whole blog about this a couple years back). Then build bridges (transitions) between them. Or think of each chapter as a mini short-story. Each chapter, ideally, has its own dramatic arc — a beginning to pull the reader in, a middle with meat, and a kicker ending that makes the reader want to turn the page.

But first, ask yourself this about each chapter: What do I want to accomplish?

The first chapter is sometimes the easiest.  We talk about this all the time here, especially in our First Page Critiques. To review: For crime fiction (if not all good fiction, in my humble opinion) an opening chapter should establish time and place, introduce a major character (often the protagonist or villain), set the tone, and at least hint at some disturbance in the norm. (A body has been found, a gauntlet thrown, a character called to action). Yeah, we get all that, right?

But, as BK said, things tend to fall apart after that. The deeper you get into your story, the harder it becomes to articulate what needs to happen within each chapter. For those of you who outline, maybe it’s easier. But I’ve seen even hardcore outliners lose their way. When you sit down to write, sometimes, it just pours out in this giant amorphic blob, until, exhausted, you just quit writing. End of chapter? No, end of energy because you didn’t pace yourself.

So, before you start a chapter, STOP.  Sit there and think, really hard, until blood beads on your forehead. Don’t write a word until you can answer this question:

What do I need to accomplish in this chapter?

Some other things to help you home in on chapter “goals.”

Write a two-line summary before you start each chapter. For a revenge  plot, you might write “In this chapter the reader will find out villain’s motivation for killing his brother.”  Or in a police procedural you might write: “In this chapter, Louis and Joe put together the clues and realize Frank isn’t the killer.”

Look for ways for every chapter work harder, to have secondary purposes. Main purpose: “In chapter four, Louis goes to the UP to find evidence on the cold case of the dead orphan boys.” But also in that chapter: “The reader gets some background on Louis’s years in foster care.”  (character development plus resonates with lost boy theme) Also: “Add in good description of the Upper Peninsula.” (Establishes sense of place and underscores desolate mood.”)

Maybe this is what BK was asking for — how to make those later chapters more muscular. As you go deeper into your plot, keep looking for layers you can add, ways to make each chapter have secondary “goals.”

Use physical tools. Don’t visualize your book as a continuous unbroken roll. Think of it as a lot of little story units you can move around. Think Lego blocks, not toilet paper. Some writers draw elaborate story boards. I’m told there is software for this, but Kelly and I are Luddites. We write the salient points of each chapter on Post-It notes that we color code for POVs and move them around on a big poster board. Vladimir Nabokov wrote chapter notes on index cards and shuffled them until he found a chapter sequence that made sense.

How do you keep your chapters from just petering out? Again, you have to THINK about this before you write. Here’s another tip: Look for logical breaks in your narrative for your endings. Such as:

  • Change of place. Say, you move from New York City to London
  • Change in point of view.  From maybe your protagonist to the bad guy.
  • Change in time. (a couple hours or a couple years depending on your story)
  • Change in dramatic intensity.  Say you just wrapped up a big mano-a-mano fight. The next thing that happens is having your hero recovering and thinking about what just happened. That might be a great place to start a new chapter.  It goes to pacing: Follow up an intense action scene chapter with a slower chapter that allows the reader to catch their breath.

By the end of each chapter, you should resolve at least one thing.  A car chase ends. A victim dies. Two cops figure out a major clue and decide to act. One character tells another something important about their background.  When you end a chapter, you want to send your reader a clear signal that what they just read is important. One trick I love: End a chapter just before the climax of a significant story arc: This is a classic trick of the thriller and mystery novel. You lead your reader right up to the edge of a tense moment then you end the chapter.  They have no choice but to turn the page!

I wish I could remember who said this: A good chapter ending does two things — it closes one door and it opens another one.

Whew. Enough already, you’re saying. I hear you. Okay, let’s move on to some easier stuff.

How long should your chapters be? I wrote a whole blog on this a while back, but if you don’t want to go back and read it, here’s the short answer: As long as each chapter needs to be.

It’s a matter of style — your style.  But, if you are following the idea of a dramatic arc for each chapter-island, the answer should come organically. As you move through your story, you might want to try for a consistency in length — be it 200 words or 2000 words. Why? I think it helps your reader get a sense of your style and pacing. But don’t sweat this too much. If you are moving along at a steady pace of say 1500 words per chapter and suddenly one comes out at 5000 words, you might want to go back in and look for a logical break in your narrative or action.  You might find, with judicious rewriting, that you’ve really got two tight chapters instead of one long one.

Okay, I’m running long again. One more question:

Should you use chapter titles? Lots of writers love these, especially fantasy and YA writers. I’m on the fence about them. I’ve never used them, but for one complex book, we did have three “books” that had titles. When chapter titles are witty, they can be great because they provide hints about what to expect within the chapter. But if they are mundane or obvious, they are just annoying and pretentious.

One story I heard was that before the release of one of her Harry Potter books, JK Rowlings refused to divulge any plot points. But she released three chapter titles — “Spinners End,” “Draco’s Detour,” and “Felix Felicis” — just to tease readers.

Here’s some of my favorite chapter titles:

“Down the Rabbit-Hole.” Chapter 1, Alice in Wonderland. So great it has become a modern metaphor, especially in politics.

“I Begin Life On My Own Account, And Don’t Like It.” Chapter 11, David Copperfield. Didn’t realize Dickens had a sense of humor.

Rick Riordan might be the chapter title king. Here are six from just one novel:

“I Accidently Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher”
“I Play Pinochle with a Horse”
“I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom”
“We Get Advice from a Poodle”
“A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers”
“I Battle My Jerk Relative”

But here’s my all-time favorite from Ian Fleming’s Live And Let Die, chapter 14:

“He disagreed with something that ate him.”

And that is a good place to end.

 

8+

First Page Critique: Where Are We
And Whose Head Are We In?

By PJ Parrish

Morning, crime dogs. We have another First Page submission to chew on today.  It has things to teach us about picking a point of view.  And a big hat tip to our writer who has pushed her/his baby out there for our scrutiny.  Remember…that takes guts.

SCARLET LIES

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? A few horns blared and she clicked her heels across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug.

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” She hustled, her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance.

She was radiant, elbowing people out of the way to get to him and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away. Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip.

“You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.”

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“I doubt that.”

__________________________

Well, right off the bat my first question is: What kind of book am I reading here? Given the description of the woman and the interplay with the mystery man, it feels a little on the romantic suspense side or maybe we’re in cozy territory. Which is fine, if that is where the writer is going.  If this is straight mystery or suspense, then this opening, with its emphasis on the woman’s clothing, shopping bags, shoes etc., is off in tone. It’s hard to tell.  So we are left to judge it as it is, absent the helpful context of cover art or back copy.  The title SCARLET LIES could be anything, but it suggests to me a lighter tone.

Now about point of  view.  We are firmly in Scarlet’s POV at the start because we get her thoughts about the cars not stopping and her wondering if the man is the cafe is “him.”  But as we get deeper into the scene, the POV wavers a tad, floating up into semi-omniscient or even into the man’s POV when the writer starts describing her stilettos and her screeching voice and awkward gait. Who is making these observations?  She cannot, so it is either the man in cafe (which is a head-jumping POV shift) or it is the writer herself (which is a shift to omniscient).  It’s good that the writer is coming up with specifics in the descriptions but they must be grounded in a single POV to be effective.

Now, what is happening in this scene? Not too much really. A woman, apparently just finishing shopping, spots a man in a cafe, someone from her past, and initiates an encounter. The man seems blase, almost irritated.  Oddly, though, he doesn’t seem at all surprised to see her even though it has been “forever.”  Is this enough to make us want to read on? I don’t think so. There’s not enough meat here in the encounter and the woman, to be frank, is ditzy to the point of being annoying. Guy, on the other hand, by his simple  indifference, seems more interesting.  I can’t tell who the protagonist is here.  I hope it’s not the woman because, as I said, I think she comes across as silly.  If Scarlet IS the protagonist, then I think there’s a problem in asking readers to attach themselves to such a flimsy character.

If Guy is the protag, then I suggest the writer switch this scene to his point of view only. It could be much more interesting.  Let me demonstrate:

Guy Talbot ended his call and laid the phone face down on the cafe table. He was tempted to turn the damn thing off because he was tired of being on call and just wanted to be alone. Just for one afternoon. That’s why he had picked the Tiffany Cafe on Rodeo Drive. No one he knew would ever show up here. 

He was about to pick up his coffee cup when a flash of red across the street caught his eye. A trailing blazing of red hair, and a glimpse of tight red skirt visible through the bounce of Prada and Hermes shopping bags. 

Jesus, what that her? Of course it was. No woman on earth had hair that color. He hadn’t seen her in five years. What the hell was she doing here in Los Angeles? 

He picked up his sunglasses to hide behind. Too late. She spotted him.

“Guy! Guy!” she yelled.

She started across Rodeo Drive without looking. No matter. The cars would stop for her. They always did. Sure enough, a guy in a Ferrari stopped, the screech of his tires matching her voice.

I did this not to rewrite your work but to demonstrate what a difference a secure point of view can make. All description needs to be filtered through a solid POV. So pick one and stay in it.  Now I’d like to do some line editing to specifically show where the point of view has issues.

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. Is this a compelling enough sentence to open a book? I think you could do better. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? Ditzy thought…if they don’t stop, she’d get hit. A few horns blared and she clicked her heels She didn’t click her heels; her heels made click-clacking sounds…big difference and it goes to POV across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug. This observation must come from her POV.  She spotted or saw a man sitting in a sidewalk cafe WHERE? You need to tell us where we are. 

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. I don’t understand this. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” Set your dialogue off on its own line before you go into movement.

She hustled, odd and unflattering word. She hurried? her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Here is where you really lose your POV. She would not describe her own voice as a screech nor would she compare herself to a calf. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. This feels like you are now in Guy’s POV. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. Again, you are now in his POV. She hasn’t arrived at his table yet. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance. Now we seem to be in omniscient POV. This is you observing, not Scarlet. It’s good to describe him this way but it MUST come from her not you. 

She was radiant, Another POV lapse. She cannot see herself as “radiant” which is in itself an odd description. elbowing people out of the way to get to him On the sidewalk? and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” Again, separate dialogue from movement. It’s cleaner. 

She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. What happened to all the shopping bags? She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.This is one of her gestures that strikes me as ditsy

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter she’s a woman apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away.  Giving the waitress this line adds nothing. It wastes space in your precious opening moments. Have her just leave.

Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip. More ditziness. “You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” Here’s an example where your dialogue isn’t working hard enough. We are in the first page or two of your story. Make every word count! She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.” I really like this line.  It is the first punch of suspense as it implies she has some kind of weird past.  It also makes Guy interesting. 

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. You really need to amp up the tension in this scene so having him answer nothing after he laid out that great “out in wild” line feels limp. I think you missed a big opportunity to layer in some badly needed background between these two or give him more thoughts about her past or his own. MAKE YOUR DIALOGUE WORK HARDER. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”  Who is talking? Makes a big difference! I’m guessing it’s her given her fawning tone. 

“I doubt that.”  As I said, Guy’s recalcitrance makes him more appealing as someone I would be interested in following for a couple hundred pages. 

Okay, so to sum up, I think you need to brush up on point of view, especially as it applies to description. You also need to make your dialogue more muscular. What do I mean by that? You need to make every line mean something. Every word and line has to contribute to your dramatic point.

Most important, you need to find a way to inject more interest and tension into this scene. A chance meeting between two characters who had a past together isn’t meaty enough unless you layer in some intriguing undercurrents. Ask yourself: What is the POINT of this scene? What am I trying to accomplish? An effective opening has to introduce your main character, tell us where we are (you need to add that) and most importantly, begin to establish some kind of disturbance.

Thanks writer, for letting us get a peek at your work. Don’t get discouraged. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is always junk.” Although trust me, he used a much stronger word. 🙂 Hope you find this helpful.

 

2+

The Fine Art Of
Giving Out Criticism

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” ~H.G. Wells

By PJ Parrish

For most of my adult life, I made my livelihood in the newspaper business. My dream was to work for the Detroit Free Press, but I had to start out instead at a small suburban weekly called The Eccentric. It was a gift in disguise.

I did everything from taking and processing my own photos, to writing obits, to covering city council meetings where the surest thing to get the blood moving was a hot debate about sewers.  The pinnacle of my career was being named editor of the Women’s Life section, Yeah, I’m that old and that’s what it was called in those days. I got to supervise a small staff of eager beaver stringers.

That was my first experience with learning how to tell others that their writing well, might need some work.

I was not very good at it. It took me a long time to learn that doling out criticism is a learned skill. All writers need honesty but it has to come with a healthy side order of kindness.

We talk a lot here at The Kill Zone about how to take criticism. Or its uglier sibling rejection. As writers, we deal with this at every level of our writing lives. Better grow a rhino hide or you’ll never make it, the conventional wisdom goes. But maybe we need to take a moment and talk about how to give criticism.

If you work with a critique group or if you are someone’s beta reader, then you definitely need to learn the fine art of diplomacy. We here at the Kill Zone deal with this all the time as we critique your First Page submissions. And I think I can speak for all of us that it’s often not easy to do this because there is a fine line between being helpful to a new writer and being discouraging.

Whenever I get a First Page submission, I go through a distinct process:

  1. First, I read the whole 400 or so words quickly, without any eye toward editing. I try very hard to read it as only a reader would who has just bought the book. Does the opening, at the minimum, pique my interest?
  2. Second, I ask myself: Do I have any prejudices against this TYPE of book that would make me unduly negative or even ignorant? For instance, I’m not a big sci-fi fan, and I recognize that I’m a little clueless about what works in YA these days. So I read such submissions with that caveat.
  3. Next, I ask myself if the submission has something to teach all our readers. It’s not enough, I think, for me to just red-ink grammar mistakes or such. I look for a larger issue in each submission that can help all our writers learn.
  4. Sometimes, you get a submission that just isn’t up to snuff enough to critique. The writer hasn’t yet gotten the very basics of the craft down. It’s pointless to teach English until someone knows their ABCs.
  5. I don’t like doing a submission unless I have something good to say about it.

And that last one is important. Because I remember how hard it was to get feedback when I was trying to publish my first mystery back in the late 1990s. Even though I had had four romances published by a big house, I didn’t really know how to write a mystery and my first two attempts were awful. Luckily, I had an agent who was a hard-nosed New York ex-editor. She frankly scared the hell out of me but she knew how to give honest criticism. She told me I was a very good writer but I didn’t understand the distinct structure of a mystery. She told me to go home and read.  “Start with P.D. James and work your way up to Michael Connelly,” she said. So I did.

Once my mystery career took off, I then had to learn to take criticism from editors. I would turn in my manuscript and wait with a strange combination of eagerness and dread.  Eagerness because I was sure I was going to get heaps of praise. (“This is great! We’re pushing it up to our lead title with a 100,000 first press run!”) Dread because I was sure I was a fraud. (“Listen, this isn’t quite what we talked about when you turned in your outline…”)  The reality fell somewhere in between. I have been blessed to have some really great editors in my three decades of writing crime fiction.  Each one of them understood what some have called the Hamburger Model of Criticism:

Start out by staying something nice about the manuscript.

Insert a big juicy slab of criticism.

End with saying something encouraging.

I think every editor I have ever worked with did this. And it always made the meat patty go down a lot easier.  But here’s the the thing about the meat patty: It has to be constructive. Late in my journalism career, I was the Features Editor at a large Florida daily. I had an editor in chief who every morning took a red grease pencil to mark up every section of the paper. The comments were almost uniformly negative, of the type of “I don’t like this.” One day, in frustration, I asked him WHY he didn’t like something. He said he didn’t know. He was like judge who says “I can’t tell you what’s porn but I just know it when I see it.” Luckily, he was canned before I could quit.

A few other things I’ve learned about giving criticism:

  • Resist the urge to fix the problem. Unless you really have the solution, it’s not a good idea to offer up the answer to another writer’s problem. You don’t know their book; you’re not inside their head. You might be able to tell them they have wandered off the trail and that you, as the reader, feel lost. But it is not up to you to show them which is the RIGHT trail to the end. They have to find their way.
  • Watch your tone. Being snarky is, unfortunately, encouraged in our culture today. (I was curious about where the word “snarky” came from so I looked it up. It was coined by the Star Trek actor Richard William Wheaton in a speech he gave before a bunch of online gamers.) If you are asked for input, don’t be mean. Kindness is in short supply today and writers are like turtles without shells — easy to crush.
  • Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. Hey, you’re having a bad day. Your own book is falling apart. Your plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Your Dell died and your geek can’t do a data retrieval.  Don’t vent your anger on someone else’s baby.
  • Don’t boost your own ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that. They are puffing themselves up, challenging others, going all Alpha dog. Nobody likes a bully.
  • Let the person react. Giving a person a chance to explain why they wrote something the way they did helps their ego a bit and often, as they explain, they see where they can improve. It also makes you look fair.
  • Be empathetic. You’ve probably had the same problems the other guy is having. So tell him. Be vulnerable and relate how it was hard for you to understand motivation or the three-act structure. Walk in their shoes.
  • Don’t focus on the person. One of the hardest things beginning writers have to learn is to not take criticism personally. A rejection letter is never about you; it is about your book. So if you’re critiquing something, you might think, “Boy, this guy’s a lousy writer” but never say it. It only makes the other person angry, defensive or hurt. Plus, it makes you look like an ass.

Okay, so you’re done reading a friend’s manuscript. Or you’ve been doing your part in the weekly critique group. You’ve been kind, you’ve been constructive, you’re offering up suggestions that you think might cause a light bulb to go off over the other writer’s head. And then….

They turn on you. They say you don’t understand their genre. Or that if you’re missing the plot points. Or that they intend for you to hate the protagonist. Or that second-person omniscient is the only way the story can be told. I call these folks the Yeah Buts. “Yeah, but if you keep reading, things will get clearer.”  “Yeah but if you read more dystopian Victorian zombie fiction, you’d understand my book…”

You can’t help a Yeah But. Sometimes, they don’t want to hear anything except how great their stuff is. Don’t get angry. Don’t take it personally. You did what you could. Smile and walk away.

As Noel Coward said, “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”

 

5+

How To Be Your Own Co-Author


By PJ Parrish

The most common question I get from readers is how do my sister Kelly and I manage to write books together without killing each other.  So here’s a little dramatization:

Chapter 1

The first hurricane season of 1987 season, called Alina, left the beach a mess. Ex-cop Louis Kincaid walked along the beach in front of his Captiva Island cottage, watching the shell collectors who were picking up their post-storm prizes.

KELLY: Wait a minute. You really want to open your book like that? You only have a couple pages to get readers’ attention.
ME: What’s wrong with this? It’s tight. It gives reader info. Sets the weather.
KELLY: Elmore Leonard says never open with weather.
ME: But I have to open with it. The story has to open after the hurricane because Louis is about to find something cool on the beach which gets the case going.
KELLY: I get you. But weather has to mean something. It can’t just lay there. What about the prologue you wrote where that woman dies? Can you make it relate better to that?
ME: Wait…let me try again.

Her name was Alina…

KELLY: Better. Now we think this is the dead woman.
ME: Her name was Alina. The first hurricane of the 1987 season was…
KELLY: No no…good idea but you didn’t do anything with the image. Take it another level. Treat Hurricane Alina like a human being.
{{{ME: Fingers frozen over keyboard}}}
KELLY: Don’t think. Just write.

Chapter 1

Her name was Alina. She was born during a sultry summer thunderstorm somewhere near Mali, a thing no one cared about in a place few had heard of. In Senegal, she inhaled the cool ocean breezes, and in the Cape Verde islands she found her fury. By the time she reached Hispanola, she was a killer.

The first hurricane of the 1987 season turned out to be the most deadly in decades, littering the beaches of Haiti with fishing boats and bodies. Then she slammed into the southwest coast of Florida and turned due north. Finally Alina died, drifting away as a depression somewhere over Chesapeake Bay.

And now the shell seekers were out, celebrating her wake. Louis Kincaid watched them as they walked the beach.

KELLY: Now there’s a book I’d read. It’s got a hook. It sets the tone of the book. It has atmosphere and it came from YOU.
ME: Me?
KELLY: Yeah, you. You listening to your passionate writer self but taming it with craft.

Okay, the skit is over. This is pretty much how Kelly and I work. It’s not easy having a co-author. Most writers don’t want to share their vision. Or their royalty checks. But that means you’re very alone.

How many of you feel alone? How many of you paint yourself into corners with plots? Procastinate. Lose confidence? Beat yourself up? Re-read to the point of paralysis?
My whole author persona is based on co-authorship. But something evaporates when you are going alone. You feel like your safety net is gone. You feel like you have no one you can trust to tell you the truth, the good or the bad. You alone are responsible for what is on the page. And who do you turn to when you’re at your lowest? Mother, spouse, friend? Who will push you to finish when you can’t stand looking at the Thing That Is Consuming Your Soul?

How, if you are alone, can you get beyond this? Maybe if I try to explain how it works for us, maybe you can learn to listen to your inner co-author.

It all starts with an idea. But not all ideas are created equal. How do you know when you’ve got a good idea for a book? For us, we toss around plot ideas and decide whether they work for our character Louis. Not all do. Ask your inner co-author: Is this story juicy enough? Has enough meat to carry 300 pages or is it just a short story? Is it fresh? If your hero or story is not new, is it at least a different angle? Don’t chase a trend, especially if you don’t care about it.

Inner co-author voice: Meh. I think John Sandford wrote this story ten years ago. And does the world really need another alcoholic detective with a thing for Thelonious Monk, Rooster ties and redheads in leopard leggings?  And if you even think about writing an unreliable girl book, I will never speak to you again.

Okay, so you’ve got a juicy idea and you’ve written those heavy words CHAPTER ONE. Now what? Did you start your story at a prime dramatic moment?  Or is your beginning just a lot of throat-clearing? Like, did you lard in a couple pages of your protag’s backstory? Did you open with paragraphs of scene-setting description because you didn’t really KNOW where to begin the action? And why are you wasting so much time and valuable pages on some minor character who isn’t even important to your story?

Inner co-author voice: I think you need to start over. See that little black key at the top right of your laptop — it says DEL?  Press down hard and don’t let up til your screen is clean again.  Don’t worry. It only hurts for a minute or two.  You’ll thank me in the morning.

Well now. You’re on your way. You’ve got a fresh idea and a cool protag no one has seen before. You’ve figured out the best moment to open your story. You’re ten chapters in and roaring along. Then…you hit the wall. Or the muddy middle, as I like to think of it. You’re being sucked into the sand like that poor kid in Lawrence of Arabia or sinking in a  swamp in the trunk of a ’57 Ford like Marion Crane in Psycho.  How do you make the story’s middle come alive?

Inner co-author voice: There’s a bunch of cool tricks you can use! Create a rift in the team, like the three guys in Jaws.  Give one of your main characters a big secret that when revealed, sends the story in an unexpected direction. You don’t get what I mean? Go read William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.  Introduce a new character, but make darn sure they deserve to be on stage.  Better yet, kill someone off! Just don’t make it the dog.  OR…now don’t get mad at me because I know how much you hate this: STOP AND OUTLINE!  Stop yelling at me.  I know you’re a free spirit who goes where the muse leads you. But sometimes, you have to stop at the Texaco station and ask for directions. You don’t have to follow them. But the exercise of STOPPING AND THINKING AND WRITING THINGS DOWN might show you where the road begins again.

Ah, lookie here. You finished the manuscript! Seven months have gone by. Maybe seven years.  It’s time to take the baby out for a stroll and get all the ooohs and aaahs you’ve been waiting for.

Inner co-author voice: Are you nuts? You finished the first draft, Buckie! Now the hard work begins.  No, no…don’t even think about writing a query letter to Meg Ruly. Print out the whole messy thing and — stop it, just stop it. You have to do this. Print out the thing, take it to Starbucks or your favorite bar with a pencil and a bad attitude. Cross out all the stupid words, flabby dialogue, florrid descriptions.  Look for plot holes and fix them. Make your character’s motivations deeper.  Cut that dumb prologue. And while you’re at it, you use a passive voice too often.  Voice is like being good in bed. Think about that.

Whew.  You made it. You rewrote the book, at least three times. It’s 2,000 words shorter and you’ve shined it to within an inch of its life.  Now you have to send it out and get…probably ignored, very likely rejected, maybe even mauled. This is part of the process.

Inner co-author voice: Huh, you got another rejection letter? And you’re sitting there, sniffling and reading it for the hundredth time trying to find its hidden meaning. There is none. A rejection letter means 1. Your book wasn’t quite ready.  2. The editor recently accepted a manuscript too similar to yours. 3. You queried the wrong agent or editor for the genre you’re writing. 4. The agent has too many clients already. 5. The editor’s slate is too full.  So what? Query someone else and then more. Send out as many queries as you can stomach because it’s a huge waste of time to send out ONE query and wait to be asked to the prom.  Oh yeah, and while you’re waiting the eight weeks or more it takes to get an answer, start writing the next book. And remember: No one is rejecting YOU. They are rejecting your story, often for reasons that have little to do with its quality. Do. Not. Take. This. Personally.

One last thing about having an inner co-author. You really need to listen to them closely. Because they will tell you the truth. And they will keep you going when you feel like giving up and getting a job driving the cart at the airport.

Inner co-author: Don’t give up. We can do this. Have some faith. Work hard. Word harder. But when you do something well, when the words come together, pat yourself on the back. In the immortal words of Stuart Smalley. You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And doggone it, people will like your books.

 

6+

First Page Critique: There’s A Man With A Gun Over There

By PJ Parrish

Good morning crime dogs. We have a new submission from a fellow writer to go over today that had me thinking about the movies Aliens and Blue Velvet.  I’ll be back in a flash with my input.  Please chime in with helpful hints, encouragement, and insights.

Chapter 1

Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Hopefully he wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, twenty-four hours a day – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.

The house he parked across from was a two-story semi-detached, and looked, from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a small yard, the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The sun was heavy and bright, blanketing the street in a searing white light. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door, raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw no movement through the glass. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere.

He rapped his knuckles on the door.No answer. He knocked again, harder and louder. Still nothing. He waited a few more seconds then went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. The screen on the face of it instantly lit up, snapping to life. On it was a computer rendered map of the neighborhood he was in. A flashing green dot represented exactly where he was standing. Another dot, this one flashing red, appeared on screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor.

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We’re back. This one really left me flummoxed. On first read, it’s not bad. We identify what I am guessing is a main character, maybe the putative protag, and we can tell what is happening, except for a couple lapses. A man is casing out a tidy home in a nice neighborhood. He has a Glock G22, which is the most common service pistol for cops, so I’m guessing he’s a good guy. But beyond this, I am lost. And worse, I am not sure I care about what is going on here.

Here’s my problem: The writer spent a lot of precious words describing things and using wasteful sentence construction when he or she could have been building some tension and dribbling in some choice backstory details so we get a sense of who this guy Carter is. But, you say, there’s a man with a gun over there! Not enough. Especially in today’s hard-to-crack crime fiction market. A guy sitting in a car casing a building has been done and done and done. And the problem is complicated by the fact that what this guy is, and what he is there for, is hazy.  Now, I hear you — we don’t WANT or even NEED to know every detail of the action in the first couple pages. But we have to have enough telling details to be intrigued.

And here’s a thing about description of your setting. If you are going to use it in your opening two or three pages, make it mean something. USE the setting to enhance mood and create tension. I think the writer was going for the juxtaposing of the neighborhood’s NORMALCY with the ABNORMALITY of lurking danger (either from Carter or whoever is inside that house).  But it doesn’t quite come across.

This made me remember the brilliant opening of David Lynch’s movie Blue Velvet. As the old song plays on, Lynch gives us lovely images of suburban life — rose gardens, picket fences, kids coming home from school, a man watering his lawn. Then…the man is bitten by something and falls. Lynch then takes the camera below the flowers, underneath the green grass and shows us these horrible insects eating each other alive. What lies beneath…

We need to be in Carter’s thoughts more. Why is the street deserted in broad daylight? Someone obviously just mowed their lawn, so why can’t we have some human beings in sight? Maybe Carter could be looking around this nice little neighborhood, watching a kid bounce a basketball, or an old lady walking her terrier. Or maybe the guy mowing his lawn stops and the sudden quiet SAYS SOMETHING about the mood. Maybe the lawn mower’s growl mimics the noise in Carter’s head and then when it cuts out, he hears this deafening silence that SAYS SOMETHING about his mood?  See what I am asking for here, dear writer? Make your setting work harder. It isn’t just there — it has to say something.

There’s a few weird things going on that I don’t get.  Carter says he has been awake for three years and eight months, 24-7.  That makes no sense. Unless he’s a zombie or something, and I don’t think that’s the genre we’re dealing with here.  We SEEM to be in present time (ie Glock and Dodge Charger).  If Carter is some kind of machine, droid or something un-human, you have to give us a clue. Also, you say it’s the shank of the day — broad harsh sunlight — yet he thinks  “The last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight.”

Now, because we don’t know what he is — cop? special ops?  assassin? — it’s hard to understand some of his actions. He has some kind of special human locator device.

First off, you have to be more specific about what the heck it is. If you’re making it up, that’s cool, but make us believe it! It can’t be a mere “small rectangular device.” Carter would know exactly what it’s called, so get in his head and tell us. I was picturing that thing in the movie Aliens that showed the monsters on a tiny screen as pulsating blobs. (See photo right).   Now, this technology doesn’t yet exist, as far as I know, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t in Carter’s world. You just have to make us believe it.  Have him think something like, “He pulled out the Arious Motion Tracker X40. There were only three in the world that he knew of. Hell, even the military didn’t know about them yet. He flipped the switch and pointed it at the house. Immediately, a white pulsating dot came on the small green screen. No big deal. That was his own infrared shadow.  But then a second red dot drifted onto the green. Carter started hard at it then looked up at the house. Someone was inside.”

And while we’re at it, why did Carter wait until he was on the porch to use this vital device? He seems to be concerned about his safety and not blowing his assignment again. (You have him thinking in the car: “He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close.”)

But here’s where you sort of lost me in the believeability.  Carter is obviously experienced in whatever it is he’s doing. He has reason to suspect someone is in the house. Yet he casually walks up in board daylight, knocks on the door, peers in the window, and sees nothing. This guy would be casing this house within an inch of his life. He’d look for security cameras. He’d see if a car was in the garage. And he’d wonder if this nice suburban house, like so many today, has a doorbell with a camera to ward off mayhem.  The worst thing you can do is make your hero look inept.

Now, I’d like to do some line edits for some clarity, mainly to show how you can eliminate some clutter-words. Also, dear writer, be more aware of your paragraph lengths.  You have only three, each almost exactly the same length. In an action scene like this (as quiet as it is), shorter graphs can heighten tension. I’m going to add a few paragraphs to show you what I mean.

Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Not sure this is your best opening line. For one, it’s a tad cliched. Also, you need to tell us he is parked outside a house sooner. He could be in a dark alley in Newark, a dessert hovel in Iraq, a brothel in Brooklyn.   

Hopefully Now, I’m not going grammar cop on you; you can use this. But why would you? It feels weak and wish-washy. I don’t think Carter is either. Try something like: Maybe, with a little luck, he wouldn’t have to fire one bullet. But he was never one to depend on luck.

He wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, Again, relief sounds weak, like he’s not experienced at carrying. and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, Hwenty-four hours a day I just don’t get this. – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, this means nothing. the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. ???He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, He knew because it had almost cost him his life two years ago in Istanbul. Drop in a dollop of backstory please. and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.

The house he parked across from This is passive construction. Establish higher up that he is casing a house. was a two-story semi-detached, and looked, from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a The grass in the small yard was freshly mowed., the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The noon? sun was heavy and bright, blanketed the street in a searing white light. It would also create deep shadows, making things stand out in high relief. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door and peered in. , raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw He could see only a foyer but there was no movement. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere. Nice sensory detail but it is out of place here, where you are trying to escalate tension. Put all your description in one graph above and move on.

He rapped his knuckles on the door.knocked. No answer.

He knocked again, harder and louder. Still nothing.

He waited a few more seconds then went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. pulled a device the size of a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. It was a ….whatever you want to call it. The screen on the face of instanttly lit up, snapping to life. with On it was a computer rendered a map and of the neighborhood he was in. a pulsating flashing green dot that showed represented exactly his position. where he was standing.Another Then a second red dot this one flashing red, moved onto the screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor. He can discover this later. Make your sentences short and staccato to mimic tension. 

New graph: Someone was inside.

Okay, dear writer. Don’t be discouraged. There is good material here. I just want you to work harder because I have a hunch this is a good story just off to a slow start. And Carter is a guy I want to know more about. Just make him come more alive. Because you — and he — get only one chance to make a good impression.

 

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A Sense of Place:
We’re Lost Without It

Winterfell from Game of Thrones

A novel doesn’t begin to glow until its setting comes to be accepted as true. — Eudora Welty.

By PJ Parrish

I am bingeing on Game of Thrones. I know, I know…I’m the last one to the ceremonial beheading. But that’s the way I roll these days with television. I’m in season six, about halfway through. SO! Don’t any of you DARE include any spoilers in your comments or I will hunt you down and run a Valyrian Longclaw sword up your gut.

Now, I didn’t read any of George R.R. Martin’s books, but a writer friend of mine read them all, and he tells me he has learned a lot from analyzing how Martin sets up his characters and builds his worlds in just a few pages. Martin made his chops as a short story writer before hitting it big with A Song of Ice and Fire, so that tells you something there. And if you watch GOT, you get whiplash from trying to keep everyone — and every place — straight. There’s even a Game of Thrones For Dummies.

Sometimes, the internecine family story lines feel disjointed and the subplots suffer from kitchen-sink syndrome. I had planned to write today’s blog about what happens when you have too many subplots — as GOT often does — but I couldn’t get my brain wrapped around it. Besides, James already wrote a good post on that years back — click here. 

I want to talk, instead, about GOT’s sense of place. It’s pretty darn amazing. I’m not a  fantasy-phile. (Although I really do have a mad crush on King Arthur). But I have totally bought into the world GOT lays out.  The world feels vaguely medieval  British-Isles-centric, with seven warring kingdoms with knights, ladies, eunuchs, whores, and more rolling royal heads than you can shake a broadsword it. But it’s also got dashikis, deserts, and dragons, oh my.

And don’t even get me started on the blue-eyed zombies living out there beyond The Wall as everyone cryptically mumbles that “winter is coming.”

A short digression: I love great opening TV credits, especially the ones that act as intros to the episode. (Six Feet Under might be my favorite.) The opening of Game Of Thrones is brilliant, not just for its dark throbbing cello score, but because it underscores how important PLACE is in the story. In his piece for Thor.com, analyzing GOT’s sense of place, Brad Kane points out that the opening shows each of the warring kingdoms popping up in a whirring montage of mechanical gears and castles. They are game pieces on a world map (read chessboard).  There, in mere seconds, the complex, conjured world is literally built before your eyes — and if you’re clever, you’ll catch imbedded clues of what’s to come in the plot.

Even if you’re not a GOT fan, go watch the opening for a second to see what I mean:

Sense of place is dear to me. I love books that have it.  I try to write books that honor it. I never start a new book until I can see the world where it takes place.  This has meant actual traveling, down into the Paris catacombs, through San Francisco’s dive bars and the Florida Everglades and up to the farthest tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It has meant cyber traveling into ruined Scottish castles, British police stations, and into the dark tunnels below abandoned mental asylums. It also meant one really long Google Street View ride across America on I-80 from New Jersey to Oakland California.

All because I had to see it to make you believe it.

Eudora Welty understood the importance of world building. In her essay “Place in Fiction,” she argues that a sense of place is as important as character or plot or symbolic meaning. She tells of how she was struggling with her short story “No Place For You, My Love” — until she took a trip.

“What changed my story was a road trip with a friend down south of New Orleans to see that country for the first (and so far, only) time. When I got back home, full of the landscape I’d seen, I realized that without being aware of it at the time, I had treated the story to my ride, and it had come into my head in an altogether new form.”

“Full of the landscape I’d seen.”  What a great turn of phrase.

But Welty is full of such wisdom. She says the primary responsibility of the writer is to “establishing a chink-proof world of appearance.” Couldn’t help but think of Game of Thrones after reading that line.

Which, at risk of turning off you non-GOTers, I must now return to.  If you read the books or watch the series, you will understand immediately what I mean when I praise GOT’s world building power.  If you’re not a fan, I’ll let Brad Kane explain it. Martin and the TV series create three distinct and disparate worlds — and they have nothing in common. But, as Kane points out:

Yet they are all part of the same story. And that’s the genius of George RR Martin. You’d never confuse the barren lands of Winterfell with the towering peaks of the Vale. You’d never mix up the volcanic crag of Dragonstone with the dangerous shores of Great Wyk. Every story world in Westeros and Essos feels visually, culturally, and thematically distinct—and yet it all ultimately fits together.

He accomplishes this through close attention to detail. You may have read fantasy books where nations are defined as “the people who build ships,” or the “folks who smoke the good tobacco.” Not so in Game of Thrones. The world of the Starks is very different from the world of the Lannisters, which is very different again from the worlds of the Targaryens or the Greyjoys. Local attitudes, ways of speech, tools of war, sexual mores—they all change radically from country to country.

The telling details. Specifics. Verisimilitude. That is what goes into the best fictional world building. It doesn’t matter if the world you’re building is as small as a rural Virginia police station, or as grand as a ninth century Venetian dukedom. Our jobs as novelists is to make that Virginia cop shop sound, smell, feel, look, like no other place on earth. Our jobs as novelists is to make the long forgotten world of the Venetian doge feel, smell, look and sound as fresh and believable — nay, relate-able — as our own neighborhood of today.

If you make the place come alive in your readers’ minds — if you make them feel it with all their senses — they will follow you to the ends of the earth.

Or at least as far as Winterfell.

 

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On Fan Mail And Diving Down
Into The Research Rabbit Hole

By PJ Parrish

One of the best things about being a published writer is getting mail.  Your day can be going to hell in a hand basket, your work in progress making none. And then you get an email from a reader.  It’s like a tonic.  Or, sometimes, after you read it, you need a gin and tonic.

Back in my salad days as a romance writer, before we had the internet machine and even before computers, I used to get real paper letters, written in long-hand. I took a class in handwriting analysis and it came in handy in trying to figure out my letter writer’s personality or mood.  I never got anything written in red crayon or worse. Mostly, readers were kind, supportive and, when I screwed something up, pretty forgiving.

Now, all we get are emails. Something has been lost in this process. I can’t discern the personality behind the letter anymore. Alas. Not all technological advances are good. Still, even emails can brighten my day.  Here’s a sample of some I got this week:

Is there anything new coming out soon for Louis. I have read them all. I getting withdrawals. I have loved them all. Benny

Hi, hope you are both enjoying writing another story for Louis to work his way through.

Thank you for all of your wondrous stories, which I have read over and over, and probably will get to again one day. God bless you both and may you keep on bring him and Joe to life for those of us who love them. Most Sincerely, Sheryl

And then there was this one:

I enjoy Louis Kincaid immensely. However, in the interest of authenticity, I feel the need to share a couple of disagreements in dialectic choices…in several places in the book, you used the word “kin” to describe relatives. In my experience as a 64 year old woman who has been a Michigander most of her life, (third generation), I have to say that I have never heard relations referred to in that way, except by southern transplants who came up for the auto industry jobs, in the middle and eastern part of the state. We, and everyone we knew, said “family” as in, “I have family in Michigan.” I know these are small details that may seem inconsequential, but they felt jarring to me and definitely took me out of the rhythm of the story.

Well, okay. Technically, she’s right. Maybe. Sorta. Perhaps. I need a gin and tonic.

Today, I got a really strange email. First thing, he identified himself as a professor at Ohio University Athens. Rut-roh. What grammar rule did I violate now? What lousy syntax did I use this time? Did I screw up my geography again?

I read on and breathed a sigh of relief. I was off the hook. And this one was really interesting.

Dear Ms. Montee. Forgive me for writing you out of the blue, but I am hoping you will agree to help me with a project I am working on this summer. I am producing a podcast about the life and work of the Austrian polymath Robert Eisler. This podcast is based on a biographical afterword I wrote for an Italian translation Eisler’s Man into Wolf (which appears in your novel Island of Bones), published by Adelphi Edizioni earlier this month. Part of the podcast will consist of conversations about how Eisler’s ideas have affected the work and thought of others. Is there some story of how you discovered Man into Wolf?

The book he is referring to is one of my favorites, not just for its convoluted plot but for the strange rabbit holes our research took us deep into. Like many books, this one started out with a “what if?”

About 15 years ago, Kelly and I were manning the card table at a Fort Myers Barnes & Noble signing and we weren’t exactly busy with a long line snaking out the doors. We used the time to brainstorm about the next book, but all of our ideas stunk.  Then a nice lady came up and in talking, we learned she was a sociologist writing a non-fiction book about the pressures exerted on large extended families forced to live together.

“Sometimes, they just can’t take it. They flip out,” she said.

That was the germ for ISLAND OF BONES.  We knew it had to be set on Southwest Florida’s coast, and that place has a wonderful geography.  Off the coastline are dozens of little islands, squatting out there in the Gulf like green turtles.  Some are privately owned.  What if...there was a weird family living on an island out there that had a dark secret?

Then I remembered one of my favorite songs by the J. Geils Band called “Monkey Island.”  Here’s the first verse:

No one could explain it
What went on that night
How every living thing
Just dropped out of sight
We watched them take the bodies
And row them back to shore
Nothing like that ever
Happened here before.

Oh yeah. A strange landscape. An isolated island. A family maybe going a little insane. I had heard of a rustic restaurant out on a private island in the Gulf so Kelly and I took the ferry over one day to check it out.  Yes…now we were beginning to see it. Here’s the second verse of “Monkey Island.”

On the east side of the island
Not too far from the shore
There stood the old house
Of fifty years or more
All the doors and windows
Were locked inside and out
The fate of those trapped in there
Would never be found out.

Because of Florida’s unique history, we knew our family had to be of Spanish origin, so we came up with the island’s name — Isla de Huesos, Spanish for island of bones. But over the centuries, the original name was lost, corrupted by the locals  into Away So Far Island. And the weird old family out there was left to do whatever it was they did.

Now comes the last piece of serendipity.  While we were plotting this book, I was scheduled for a long-planned trip to Spain. So off I went to Madrid. My husband and I are seat-of-the-pants travelers, so we just rented a car and headed north. We ended up, by happenstance, in a coastal region called Asturias. It’s gorgeous and mysterious, isolated between the Picos de Europa Mountains and the sea.  I knew I had found my family’s mother home.

When I returned home, I dove into the research rabbit hole. Asturias was influenced by the Celts and Romans and remains stubbornly isolated and rich in old traditions. Some of their ancient customs still survive in the villages today.  One of them is called the Beleno Ride. The village men go up into the mountains, put on wolf skins then ride down into the villages, simulating the abduction and rape of women. The custom comes from Roman times and is related to the pagan Lupercalia festival.

Wolves…

Oh yeah.

But I didn’t want to go into woo-woo werewolf territory, and the psychology of criminals fascinated me. So I pulled a couple more loose research threads, trying to figure out why these Asturian men still do this. Deep in Google, I found Dr. Robert Eisler.

Eisler was a renaissance man. He lectured on economics, philosophy, religion, art history, and philology, spent fifteen months in Dachau and Buchenwald, was once arrested for art theft in Italy, testified at hearings on currency reform in front of the British Parliament and U.S. Senate, and never held any university position beyond temporary lectureships at Oxford and the Sorbonne.

And he wrote a book in 1951 called Man Into Wolf. The subtitle tells you everything any writer needed to know: “An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy.”  Basically, Eisler believed that human urge to violence stems from Ice Age food shortages that forced ape-men to imitate wolves and take up pack hunting. He claims this is the historical basis of the werewolf legends found in many cultures.

I ordered the book from Alibris and read it. Louis finds it on the shelf of his prime suspect and his pursuit of the “wolf man” leads him right to the Island of Bones.

My Ohio professor, Brian, and I have exchanged several emails. Turns out he’s a big fan of crime fiction and read our book. We did a phone interview a couple days ago for his podcast and ended up chatting far longer than we meant to. Interesting postscript Brian told me: In Man Into Wolf, Dr. Robert Eisler used the term “serial killer.”  Which is a good 55 years before it is credited to FBI profiler Robert Ressler.

Cue a little woo-woo music. Or maybe some Warren Zevon.

________________________________

Special credit to the first person who can tell why I used that photo of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

 

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