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

Tangled Up With Verbs

“The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering. It cheapens and degrades the human experience, when it should inspire and elevate.” — Tom Waits

By PJ Parrish

To be, or not to be? Nah, that’s too mundane for a novel. Even though it did work for Dr. Seuss. How about “exist?” That’s a nice variation. On second thought, it sounds too Descartes-desperate for a thriller. Sigh. Well, that leaves me with…”I live.” Good grief, as I live and breathe, why is it so hard to find the right verb?

You’d think this would be easy. Pick a noun, pick a verb. Repeat until you’ve written oh, about 300 pages that might resemble a novel.

But it’s not easy. Verbs are the lifeblood of what we do. The good ones juice up our writing and help readers connect with our plots and characters.

Here’s something I’ve found: Inexperienced writers tend to be content with the first verb that pops into their head. Heck, experienced writers, in the blind heat of the first draft, do this. (my go-to crutch verb is “turned.”) Often, when you’ve latched onto a dull verb, your subconscious writer mind knows it and desperately tacks on an adverb. “He said” becomes “he said sagaciously.” Lipstick on a verb-pig.

I’ve been thinking a lot about verbs this week. Partly, because I have been trying to brush up on my French via Babbel online courses. My brain aches because of this. Verbs are  important to the French and they take their conjugations very seriously. One slip of the reflexive and you’re in deep merde. (More on that later).

But verbs are on my mind also because a friend, novelist Jim Fusilli, posted on Facebook a terrific article by music producer Tony Conniff called “In Praise of Bob Dylan’s Narrative Strategies…and His Verbs.”

Now, I am not a huge Dylan fan, but I do appreciate that he is a poet. (officially). And as I read Conniff’s analysis of the song “Tangled Up In Blue,” I understood how powerful the right verb in the right place can be. Take a look at just one verse of the song:

She was married when they first met
Soon to be divorced
He helped her out of a jam,
I  guess, but he used a little too much force

They drove that car as far as they could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best

She turned around to look at him
As he was walkin’ away
She said this can’t be the end
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”

Tangled up in blue.

Conniff says that most of the story is conveyed in vivid verbs — the action, drama, conflict and emotion. “The verbs tell the story,” he writes, “the story of how being with this other woman, probably for a one-night stand, led his thoughts back to the one he couldn’t forget or let go. Every verse, every chapter of the story, leads back to the same woman and the same impossible emotional place—Tangled Up In Blue.”

For my part, I love the title itself because in just four words and one great verb, Dylan captures the entire mood of his story. The man isn’t just upset about losing a woman. He’s not merely sad about an affair gone bad. He’s tangled up in blue, caught in a web of regret over the love he let slip away.

The right verb gives your story wings. The wrong verb keeps it grounded in the mundane.

Now here’s the caveat. (You know I always throw one out there.) Not every sentence you write needs a soaring verb. “Said,” as we’ve said over and over, is a supremely useful verb that, rightfully so, should just disappear into the backdrop of your dialogue. And in narrative, when you’re just moving characters through time and space, ordinary verbs like “walked,” “entered,” “looked” do the job. If you try to make every verb special, you can look pretentious and, well, like you’re trying to hard. Sometimes, smoking a cigar is just smoking a cigar.

Let me give you some examples off my bookshelf of verb-age that works:

Here’s the ending of Chester Himes’s short story “With Malice Toward None.” Himes’s verb choices convey the mood of a defeated man whose soul-killing WPA job is driving him to drink and to distance himself from his materialistic wife:

He wheeled out of the room and downstairs away from her voice but at the door he waited for her. “I’m sorry, baby, I — ” then he choked with remorse and turned blindly away.

All that day, copying old records down at city hall, half blind with a hangover and trembling visibly, he kept cursing something. He didn’t know what exactly it was and he thought it was a hell of a thing when a man had to curse something without knowing what it was. 

This is from John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye, showing how strong verbs can spice up your descriptions. McD didn’t give us much description but when he did it came with sweet economy.

Manhattan in August is a replay of the Great Plague of London. The dwindled throng of the afflicted shuffle the furnace streets, mouths sagging, waiting to keel over. Those still healthy duck from one air-conditioned oasis to the next, spending minimum time exposed to the rain of black death outside. 

Verbs are important in action scenes. Here we are, in a good one from James W. Hall’s Off The Chart: 

On the top rung of the rope ladder, Anne Bonny paused and found her breath. Head down, crouched below the gunwale, she gripped her Mac-10, formed a quick image of her next move, then sprang and tumbled over the rail, ducking a shoulder, slamming into the rough pebbled deck, and rolling once, twice, a third time until she came to rest against an iron wall.

I like the mix of mundane verbs like “paused” and “formed a quick image” next to the hyperactive verbs like “sprang” and “tumbled.”

And here’s a paragraph from SJ Rozan’s novel Absent Friends, where a character remembers the September 11 attack:

Phil had been caught in the cloud on September 11, running like hell with everyone else.

His eyes burned, his lungs were crazy for air. A woman next to him staggered so he reached out for her, caught her, forced her to keep going, warm blood seeping onto his arm from a slash down her back as he pulled her along, later carried her. Somewhere, someone in a uniform took her from him, bore her off someplace while someone else pressed an oxygen mask to his face. He breathed and breathed, and when he could speak, he asked about the woman, but no one knew.

The lesson here is, the more intense your scene, the more measured you should be in your verb choices. Trust the reader to intuit, to imagine between the lines. “Running like hell” is cliche but it works because it is true to Phil’s voice. It sounds like his thoughts. Notice, too, SJ’s repeated use of the ambiguous words — someplace, someone, somewhere — to capture the chaos, rather than hitting the reader over the head with something like: “He felt confused and disoriented.”

And let me add one more quick example that James Bell quoted here on Sunday, in his post about deep back story, from a Stephen King short story. One line jumped off the page for me:

Sometimes they discussed children puddling along the wet sand with the seats of their shorts and their bathing suits sagging.

God, that’s great. It’s not even a real verb, but can’t you just see those kids on the beach?

Okay, an exercise! Let’s use the poor old verb “walk” as a lesson here. Your character is a sophisticated spy entering the Casino de Monte-Carlo to meet the evil villain Emilio Largo. He’s not just walking in; it’s a grand entrance that sets up the next plot point. How do you describe this?

  1. He walked into the casino and paused when he spotted Largo at the baccarat table with his mistress Domino.
  2. He walked haughtily into the casino but then came to an abrupt stop when he saw Largo at the baccarat table. He had to take it slow, assess the man and the situation.
  3. He sauntered into the casino, like a king surveying his realm. But when he saw Largo at the baccarat able, he paused, and then ducked behind a palm and watched Largo, like panther eyeing his prey.
  4. He strode into the casino, but when he spotted Largo at the baccarat table, he slid behind a pillar so he could observe him without being seen.

I like No. 1 for its spare feel. It imparts only the bare choreography. You’d have to find other ways to convey the tension and the hero’s intent. No. 2 relies on a tacked-on adverb to convey Bond’s attitude. It works okay, imho. No. 3 is tone-deaf and over-wrought. “Sauntered” is an okay verb but way too twee for Bond. And then we get hit over the head with the king metaphor, made even worse by the panther nonsense. If your verbs are strong, you don’t need to surround them in a thicket of thorny metaphors. No. 4 works, imho, but I’d try to make it better on second draft.

I will leave you with one last thought about getting your verbs right. When I first started learning French, my teacher warned us that French is filled with faux amis — false friends. Some verbs look correct but become something entirely else if you mess up the pronunciation or use the wrong tense.

One day in class a guy, speaking in halting French, said that last night his girlfriend kissed him goodbye. Our teacher laughed and we all just looked at each other, confused. In French, a kiss is “un baiser.” So the guy assumed the right verb was “baisser.” Which correctly means that last night he was…screwed.

A sigh is just a sigh, But a kiss isn’t always just a kiss.

9+

The Dos and Don’ts
Of A Great First Chapter

By PJ Parrish

Okay, this is going to be old stuff for some of you. But after reading a couple of our First Page Critique submissions lately, I’m thinking we could all use a handy-dandy review of what needs to go into an opening chapter.

Consider this food for thought, no matter where you are in your writing process. If you’re staring at your computer screen and there are only two words on it — CHAPTER ONE — this is for you.  If you’re about 155 pages in and you’re stuck, maybe going back and reviewing your beginning will help you find your way out of the swamp. And if you’ve just typed those wonderful two words — THE END — then this review is really for you. Because THE END is never really the end. It is the beginning. (rewrite time!)

Do: Create a Good Hook

  • The first chapter is where reader makes a decision to enter your world.
  • Needn’t be fast or fancy. But it must make you care about a character and what is happening to him.
  • Large hooks can disappoint readers if the rest doesn’t measure up. If you begin writing at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill.
  • If hook is strange or misleading, you might have trouble living up to its odd expectations.

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.” — agent Daniel Lazar

Do: Come Up With a Juicy Opening Line

  • Your opening line gives you an intellectual line of credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.”
  • A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. No junk language or words.
  • A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.
  • BUT: if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up. It is a teaser, not an end to itself.

The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”       – John LeCarre

Do: Get Into Your Story As Late As Possible

Begin your story just before the interesting stuff is about to happen. You want to create tension as early as possible and escalate from there. Don’t give the reader too much time to think about whether they want to go along on your ride.

Where do you CHOOSE to enter your story time-wise? Think of yourself as a paratroop commander. You’re pushing your jumpers (readers) out of the plane. Where do you want them to land for maximum suspense? Too early you bore your reader (throat clearing) Too late you confuse the reader (coma syndrome).

Do: Introduce Your Protagonist

Never wait too late in the story to give us the hero. And readers have to care about him or her right from the start. And be careful not to give the early spotlight to a minor character because whoever is at the helm in chapter one is who the reader will automatically want to follow. If it is someone minor, reader will feel betrayed and annoyed when you shift the spotlight.

Now, I hear you:  But my first chapter shows the serial killer at work! Or: But I need this world-building prologue first! Okay, okay. So maybe you can wait until chapter 2 to have your heroine walk on stage, but don’t play around too long. The reader won’t wait forever to bond with your main man or woman.

“Sometimes a writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player.”
— Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency

Do: Open With A Disturbance!

Our own James Bell preaches this all the time. Something has to be amiss. Depending on what kind of book you are writing, or your genre, the disturbance can be earthshattering (a thriller about a killer comet heading our way!) or cozy-mild (the owner of  a florist shop finds a corpse in her orchid house!). But you have to tilt the protag’s world off its axis.

  • Conflict drives good fiction. It disrupts the status quo. Your first chapter is
    not a straight line. It’s a jagged driveway up a dark mountain and the
    shadows are full of danger.
  • Don’t fall into the “happy people in Happy Land” trap. Don’t think that if you
    first show the lead character in her normal life, being happy with her family
    or dog, we’ll be all riled up when something bad happens to this nice person.
  • Don’t fall into the “I’m the Greatest Literary Stylist of Our Time” trap. This is
    where a writer tries to display brilliance via pure prose before, somewhere
    down the line, something like a plot kicks in.

“Too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me. The first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who and how.” — Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency

Do: Establish Your Time And Place

This is small but important. You have to tell the reader where we are in the world (or universe) and at least a hint of the time (year, era). If you don’t, the reader flails around, gets coma syndrome and then usually gets aggravated. Also, if you aren’t writing in current day, you need to tell reader. Because details about the culture, police procedure and forensics will be in question.

A word about time and place taglines on your chapter headings: Try to avoid them. They smell of amateurism and say that the writer does not know how to gracefully slip this info into the story – or that they are too lazy to do it. But sometimes, a complex plot needs tags, like if you are jumping around in time and geography.

CHAPTER ONE
Goa India, 1889.

CHAPTER TWO
Paris, France, 1945

Do: Get Your Characters Talking As Soon As Possible

Dialogue is the lifeblood of your story and you need it early. Too much exposition or description is like driving a car with the emergency brake on.  Remember: Dialogue is a from of ACTION.  I’ll let the experts tell you:

“My biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish. — Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter One in which nothing happens.”
— Jessica Regel, Foundry Literary + Media

“What I hate are characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”- — Daniel Lazar, Writers House

Now the next two Dos are up for discussion. Because while both are very important, you might not be able to get this done in your Chapter One. But you must lay the groundwork for both of these elements in the first couple chapters.

Do: Define The Stakes And Your Hero’s Journey 

What is at play in the story? What are the costs? What can be gained,
what can be lost? Love? Money? One’s soul? Will someone die?
Can someone be saved?

What is the journey you’ve set up for your hero or heroine? What is their PERSONAL ARC. How will they change and/or grow?

The first chapter doesn’t demand that you spell out the stakes of the entire book in neon but we do need a hint.

 

Do: Establish Your Tone And Voice

From the get-go, your reader should be able to tell what kind of book he is reading – hardboiled, romantic, humorous, neo-noir. Everything in your book should support your tone, but the first chapter is vital to inducing an emotional effect in your reader. Edgar Allan Poe’s wrote of something he called the UNITY OF EFFECT. Which means that every element of a story should help create a single emotional impact.

Make your own voice loud and clear. This is where you are introducing your story but also yourself as a writer. Your language must be crisp, you must be in complete control of your craft, you must be original! No self indulgent description, no bloated passages, no slack in the rope. Don’t try to be “writerly.” Good writing does not call attention to itself. The reader must feel he is being led by a calm, confident storyteller.

“I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.”  — Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

“Someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief — been done a million times.”  — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Okay…let’s talk about a few DONTS for your first chapter

Don’t: Open With A Prologue (Unless You Really Know What You’re Doing)

Yeah, yeah…I know. This opens a big can of gummie worms. But I am going on record here that 99 prologues out of a 100 are not needed. Prologues, especially if they are nothing but exposition, put a deathly brake on your story.  They force you to start your story twice and most of us can barely get it right once. When bad or even merely okay, a prologue makes the the reader think, “Get on with the story already!”

EXERCISE: Cut your prologue and see if your story opens faster. If you haven’t lost any clarity, you probably don’t need the prologue. Or just label it Chapter 1.

I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.” — Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader that can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”— Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

Don’t: Lard In Too Much Backstory Or Exposition

The first chapter is not the place to tell us everything. Exposition kills drama. Backstory is boring. Incorporating backstory is HARD WORK, but you must weave it artfully into the story not give us an INFO-DUMP in chapter 1.

ACT FIRST, EXPLAIN LATER. In other words, something has to happen! Then you can reflect on it. (This is another homily from Brother Bell)

I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story. A story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.”  — Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘info dump’ in the first few pages, where the author ties to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”- Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary Agency

Don’t: Confuse Readers or Use False Starts 

One of the biggest pitfalls in starting a story is to begin with an opening line that is confusing but might make perfect sense once the reader learns more later. But once confused, few readers will venture further.

This is not to say you can’t include info in your opening that acquires additional meaning once the reader learns more. That technique is often a highly rewarding tool. But the opening should make sense.

You describe something awful but then someone wakes up and reader finds out it was just a dream. DON’T DO IT! Or you kill off someone in first chapter and it is someone we never really hear or care about again. If you begin with an on-camera murder, you must then use the rest of the story to make this person come back to life in our memories and maybe even make us mourn this person.

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.” — Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.” — Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary.

Miscellaneous Don’ts

  • Introduce too many characters too early (See illustration above)
  • Use excessive description The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] land.
  • Use bad weather symbolism (gathering storm clouds)
  • Rely on clichés (detective wakes with hangover)
  • Write: “Years later, Monica would look back and laugh…”
  • Give the spotlight to whiny or disgusting characters
  • Have character directly addressing the reader
  • Open with “Twenty minutes before she died…”
  • Write this: “Little did she know the killer was watching her…”
  • Open with a dream (Bobby in the Shower syndrome)

And that, crime dogs, is my sermon du jour. Don’t get discouraged. Do keep writing. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Do take good care of yourself and your loved ones.

 

21+

First Page Critique: Eddie’s
History But Magic’s Ahead

By PJ Parrish

As I’ve often said here, I am not well read in YA fiction. In my day, A Separate Peace was the big young adult hit, and I recall really liking S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. And a couple years back, stranded in a vacation house, I plowed through three Harry Potters and liked them all. But anything newer or edgier than that, well, I’m at a loss.

That caveat thrown out there, I offer today’s First Pager, and suggest that I have to judge it purely on its own merits as successful storytelling for any age group. And pose the question: Is Lord of the Flies seminal YA? Back in a flash…

Prey For Love

Sean

Eddie passes out before I can dive into the official breakup convo. Now he lies, naked, sprawled on his unmade twin bed that never felt big enough for two. Loud snores fill the apartment while I hunt through his ramshackle studio trying not to forget any small scraps of my life. Once I leave I’ll never be back.

It would be easy to lose something important amidst the piles of record albums, turntables, and DJ equipment—including three giant disco balls—that clutter his tiny apartment. Luckily I didn’t arrive with much.

“Goodbye, Eddie,” I whisper as I brush a lock of hair from his handsome brow.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. My first summer love. My first serious love. My first shattered heart. Four months ago I thought I’d I’d never had a boyfriend. Ever. I mean, I’m no catch.

Antisocial? Hell, yeah. I’d rather snuggle with a book than a boy. Pretty? With my various disabilities, eyebrows as dark as thunderclouds, and a jaw too brickish to look feminine I vote—definitely not. Yet Eddie thought I was gorgeous. But he is, well he is Eddie. Say no more.

Backpack slung over one shoulder, guitar the other I leave. Gently shutting the door, I lock it and slide the tarnished key he gave me beneath. I rummage through my handbag to make sure I have my wallet and phone.

Don’t stall. Get moving. Go before you change your mind.

When I moved to NYC from upstate New York for the summer I moved for him. Well, for him and to take the apprentice exam at the Institute for Magical Conservation. It is there that I will study Lore. My lifelong dream. However, my apprenticeship doesn’t start until the fall. I didn’t need to be in this big, stinking city for any reason except for love.

Now that love is gone. Mostly. Eddie killed it. I turn and hobble down the five flights of stairs I’ve come to know well over the past two months.

“Kat? Kat!” Eddie’s voice rings down from the top of the stairs just as I reach the landing. I dart out the door and into the East Village side street. I limp down the block fast as I can manage. Grabbing my phone I call my aunt.

__________________

We’re back. Well…well, well, well. What can I say? Except that I would definitely read on. And from this old set-in-her-reading-ways wombat, that’s probably the best compliment I can give.

There is so much going on here that’s right in this submission. So, let’s use it as an object lesson to talk about how a good writer tosses the craft balls in the air and keeps them juggling.

Start with voice. (character’s, not author’s…subtle but important difference. More to come on that in a sec.) The narrator’s voice is clear as a bell. We know this girl right from get-go. She’s smart and self-aware, but also very human in her self-deprecation. I’d guess she’s late teens, early twenties, but we needn’t know exactly yet. I like this girl, too, like the fact she’s faced a broken heart and has the gumption to get up and leave. Even though she’s a bit of a coward sneaking off in mid-snore, but that’s human, too, no?

Re character voice vs author voice. Character voice is the speech, thoughts, and actions of your people, conveyed in a consistent and believable narrative pattern so readers buy into the idea they are encountering a “real” person.  When it’s done well, like here, it’s a powerful sleight of hand, maybe the writer’s most powerful tool because it creates the crucial empathetic bond for the reader. Now, author voice refers to a writer’s style, the quality that makes their writing unique, a sort of summation of your view of life and the world. Your writer’s voice should be singularly yours, so much so that your book can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. Not every novel achieves this. But the best ones always do.  In this short sample, we can’t get a true sense of the writer’s voice, but I suspect over 300 pages or so, it might be there.

Let’s talk now about structure. Notice how the writer varies their use of short and long sentences and graphs. It scans well to the eye on the page; that increases interest. The snippets of dialogue are given their own lines to breathe. (with one small exception).

The first graph is juicy. We’re dropped in mid-drama here, Kat sneaking away from a flamed out love. The opening line is good, and I like the last line of the opening: “Once I leave, I’ll never be back.”  (I wonder if that’s true!)

Note how adroitly the writer slips in Kat’s backstory — just enough to intrigue us, ground us in her current status, yet not enough to clog up the narrative. Backstory should tease, never bore.

Okay, let me bring out the red pencil and do a line edit.

Prey For Love I like the title. Double entendres often work well.

Sean the submission came with this tacked on; I assume it’s a subtitle? Not sure it’s needed but would need to see more chapters to say.

Eddie passes out before I can dive into the official breakup convo. I tripped over this but I’m older than dirt and finally figured out it’s slang for conversation. Duh. Now he lies, naked, sprawled on his unmade twin bed that never felt big enough for two. Very nice for two reasons: Goes to character voice and backstory Loud snores fill the apartment while I hunt through his ramshackle studio small and fixable redundancy trying not to forget any small scraps of my life. Once I leave I’ll never be back.

It would be easy to lose something important amidst the piles of record albums, turntables, and DJ equipment—including three giant disco balls—that clutter his tiny apartment. Luckily I didn’t arrive with much. More backstory but also tells us something about the girl herself. She travels light in life. 

“Goodbye, Eddie,” I whisper as I brush a lock of hair from his handsome brow. Dialogue should always be set off by itself. 

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. My first summer love. My first serious love. My first shattered heart. Four months ago I thought I’d I’d never had a boyfriend. Ever. I mean, I’m no catch. More backstory, but the writer stops before it gets turgid. Big thing for beginners to learn: Less is more with backstory in early going. Also, notice how the line “I’m no catch” works as a bridge to the next graph.

Antisocial? Hell, yeah. I’d rather snuggle with a book than a boy. Now, this is important so pay attention: With first person POV it is really hard to give readers a portrait of your narrator because you can only describe her through her own consciousness. Notice how much this character tells you about herself via quick thoughts. She’s no empty-brain Barbie. Pretty? With my various disabilities, should writer be specific here as to what kind of disability? I didn’t get it was physical on first read. See later comment eyebrows as dark as thunderclouds, and a jaw too brickish to look feminine SO HARD to give a physical idea of a protag. But I betcha you can see this girl in your mind. I vote—definitely not. Yet Eddie thought I was gorgeous. But he is, well, need an extra comma here he is Eddie. Say no more.

Backpack slung over one shoulder, guitar the other another character crumb slyly dropped in. This is how you SHOW us she’s a musician rather than having her TELL us with something clumsy like: “I had always wanted to play the guitar…” I leave. Gently shutting the door, I lock it and slide the tarnished key he gave me beneath. I rummage through my handbag to make sure I have my wallet and phone.

Don’t stall. Get moving. Go before you change your mind. Generally, put a stand alone thought like this in itals. 

When I moved to NYC chance to be more specific — you tell me later it’s the East Village. I’d put it here. BUT: take note that the writer has easily told us WHERE WE ARE in the first 400 words. Nice. from upstate New York for the summer I moved for him. Well, for him and to take the apprentice exam at the Institute for Magical Conservation. As far as I can tell, this is made-up but I love it because it poses questions. What kind of world are we in where magic needs to be conserved? When I Googled this, I did find there is an actual course at Lund University in Switzerland called “Fantastic beasts and why to conserve them: animals, magic and biodiversity conservation.”  Is our Kat character is off to study some such esoterica? Again, I would read on…It is there that I will study Lore. My lifelong dream. However, my apprenticeship doesn’t start until the fall. I didn’t need to be in this big, stinking city for any reason except for love.

Now that love is gone. Mostly. Eddie killed it. Not unsure this doesn’t need one more thought. Did she have any role in this bad turn? I turn and hobble Stumbled on this at first then realized you told me earlier she has a disability. Does it need to be more clear? Just asking for the hive here down the five flights of stairs I’ve come to know well over the past two months. Writer has grounded us in time.

“Kat? Kat!” This is a different character talking, so set it off by itself.

Eddie’s voice rings down from the top of the stairs just as I reach the landing. I dart out the door and into the East Village side street. Be specific. Out on to Third Ave or head toward Tomkins Square? I limp down the block fast as I can manage. Grabbing my phone I call my aunt.

So, to sum up, take a read through the submission again and see how the writer juggles these balls in less than 500 words:

  • Told us the first person narrator’s name.
  • Gave us a hint of her appearance and age-range
  • Identified where we are
  • Dropped us into a decisive moment that is impelling the character toward change.
  • Provided enough backstory to define the narrator
  • Gave us a good snapshot of Eddie
  • Told us what the character is striving for — something to do with magic conservation.

Thanks, writer, for a good time. So..would you guys read on?

 

12+

Looking For Your Story’s Heart?
Try To Write Its Headline

By PJ Parrish

When I was in the newspaper biz, part of my job was writing headlines. Great headline writing is a real art because you have to boil a story into maybe ten words that capture the story’s essence but also lure the reader in.

Great headline writers were the royalty of the copy desk. Or maybe the court jesters. The headline writers I knew were always trying to sneak in puns or a double entendre. My husband, an ex sports editor, still loves to talk about his glory days. When the Houston Oilers practiced without their best wide receiver Warren Wells before their game against the Dolphins, he wrote: OILERS DRILL WITHOUT WELLS. But his classic came when Dolphins cut their tight end Jim Cox:  DOLPHINS WAIVE INJURED COX.

I know, I know…men.

The undisputed all-time best headline award, though, goes to the New York Post, which is infamous for its ability to pull readers into their stories:

A psycho had invaded a Queens after-hours joint, shot the owner to death and then — on learning a female customer was a mortician — ordered her to cut off the victim’s head, which cops later found in the madman’s car. The headline was written by Vincent A. Musetto. In memorializing Musetto after his death, a writer noted that the headline was “as witty as it was horrific, it expressed with unflinching precision the city’s ­accelerating tailspin into an abyss of atrocious crime and chaos.”

Which gets me to my point today.  All great stories can be summed up in just a couple words. And if you can’t boil your own story down to a juicy headline, then maybe you don’t really know what your story is about at its heart.

If you’ve ever had to write a concept or produce your own back copy, you know how hard this is. Or if you’ve ever tried to convince an editor at a writers conference to read your manuscript. This is known as “the elevator pitch” — you have to sell an agent your story in time it takes to go up four floors in the hotel elevator.

And when you do get published, it’s useful if you ever find yourself at a book signing and someone asks you, “So, what’s your book about?”

You don’t regurgitate plot. You give them the elevator pitch. And if you can’t answer in three sentences or less, chances are you’ve lost a sale.

Think about advertising. A pithy pitch sells the product. Take the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever,”  which has appeared in every De Beers ad since 1948. Diamonds are inherently worthless. Your ring drops in value 50 percent the moment you leave Zales. But with one slogan De Beers made a diamond into a symbol of wealth and romance. It perfect captures a deep sentiment — a diamond, like your relationship, is eternal.

Coming up with a headline or slogan for your story is a great clarifying exercise. It makes you think beyond mere plot and deep into that sweet spot where story, character and theme mesh.

Okay, enough lecture. Let’s have some fun.

Here is a cool little exercise to get your brain moving to think about story slogans. It was created by screenwriter Nat Ruegger. Take any common advertising slogan, like for Kentucky Fried Chicken or Volvo. Put it into the past tense and make it the first line of your book and see where it takes you.

I struggle coming up with opening paragraphs so I was leery. But I tried this with the Lays Potato Chips slogan — “You Can’t Stop At Just One.” (later changed to “Betcha can’t stop at just one.”)

I couldn’t stop at just one. Believe me, I tried. Maybe it was because I was so hung up on blonde hair, especially when it was braided, falling down a girl’s back like a piece of rope. My first had braided blonde hair. I strangled her with my bare hands, but for all the others after that, I used a yellow rope. I guess because I wanted to get the taste of that first one back again. The first is the most delicious, you see.

I almost went with Nike’s “Just Do It.”  It was inspired by the death row words of murderer Gary Gilmore — “Let’s do it.” Seems to me there’s a good serial killer first-person thriller that opened with “I just did it.”

Then I thought of Taco Bell’s slogan “Head for the Border!” That made me think of consummate storyteller Bruce Springsteen and his song “Highway Patrolman.” It opens with these lyrics:

My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville barracks number 8
I always done an honest job as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain’t no good
Now ever since we was young kids it’s been the same comedown
I get a call on the shortwave, Franky’s in trouble downtown
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way

The song ends with Joe in squad-car pursuit after his brother, who has stabbed a man and is on the run. I could see a story beginning late in the scene with this line: “He headed for the border.” Here’s how Springsteen ended his song:

Well I chased him through them county roads
Till a sign said Canadian border five miles from here
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear

One more. I next tried Clairol’s famous slogan “Does She Or Doesn’t She?” (Only her hairdresser knows for sure). It seemed ideal for a cozy set in a hair salon:

Did she or didn’t she? No one would ever really know. Because when Marcel Marseau, the owner of the chi-chi Palm Beach salon To Dye For, was found floating in the water hazard of the  17th hole of the Everglades Golf Course, we all suspected Lily Van Pulletzer.  But then her body was found stuffed in the butler’s pantry at Mar-a-Lago, and I knew this was going to be the toughest case of my career. 

Okay, now you see why I don’t write humor. But you get the point. A great slogan can get your motor running when you’re stuck in neutral. And maybe if you can write a great slogan or headline for your story, you can figure out what you are really trying to say.

Now it’s your turn. Think of a good slogan and put it in the past tense. Pick first person or third and give us a great opening paragraph to a fabulous crime story. Here’s a list of slogans you can use or come up with your own. I’ve switched the slogans to past tense.

It kept going…and going…and going. Energizer batteries always make me think of The Tell-Tale heart.

Every kiss Began With Kay. Nice start for a romance?

American By Birth, A Rebel By Choice. I love this one by Harley Davidson. I’d change it to “She was American by birth, a rebel by choice” to introduce a vigilante heroine maybe.

There Was No Tomorrow. Past tense and Fedex becomes dystopian YA.

It was the happiest place on earth. (Disneyland) And of course, it was really hell on earth.

What happened there, stayed there. (Las Vegas)

Sometimes he felt like a nut. Sometimes she didn’t. (Almond Joy)

 

11+

It’s STILL A Dark And Stormy
Night…Thank Goodness

By PJ Parrish

I’m a little under the weather this week, so this one will be short and sweet. Okay, not sweet. Maybe snarky. Or snirky with chuckles. Because what else can you be when you are confronted with the utterly stink-ola winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Awards?

You know Edward Bulwer-Lytton, right? (That’s him above, by the way). He’s the writer who gave us the wonderful “It was a dark and stormy night…” It was the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

So many things we could pick apart there, right crime dogs? First, contrary to the advice of Elmore Leonard, he starts out with the weather. Second, contrary to James Bell, he slips in a — gasp! — semi-colon. Third, he TELLS us we’re in London instead of finding a graceful way of showing us his location. And fourth, the rest is just a hot wet mess.

To be fair, Edward Bulwer-Lytton was considered quite the writer in his day, even more popular than Dickens. He coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the almighty dollar.” And he gave us the useful barb “the great unwashed.”  Among Bulwer-Lytton’s lesser-known contributions to literature was that he convinced Dickens to revise the ending of Great Expectations to make it more happily-ever-after.

So how did Edward become a Snoopy cartoon punchline? Back in the ’80s, a San Jose State graduate student named Scott Rice, was sentenced to write a paper on a minor Victorian novelist of his choosing and opted for Bulwer-Lytton. Years later, Professor Rice came up with the idea for the contest. The contest became an international phenomenon, getting thousands of entries every year.

I love reading these every year. (Click here to read them all) The winners are, to me, the Lucille Balls of writing. Lucy Ricardo was infamous in I Love Lucy for being tone-deaf, but Ball herself was an accomplished singer.  Likewise, it takes a pretty darn good writer to write wretched stuff on purpose. So, without further ado, here is the Grand Prize winner for 2020, by Lisa Kulber of San Francisco:

Her Dear John missive flapped unambiguously in the windy breeze, hanging like a pizza menu on the doorknob of my mind.

Now, we critique a lot of opening lines here at TKZ, so let’s examine why this works so well. First, there is the substitution of the word “missive” for the merely banal “letter.” Then we get the nicely active verb “flapped,” but it is gloriously underlined by the adverbial hair ball “unambiguously.” And then, the pièce de résistance — the vivid simile “hanging like a pizza menu” overlaid by the metaphoric wonder “the doorknob of my mind.”  It takes real talent to mix both simile and metaphor…so gleefully gelatinous.  I am in awe.

Okay, a couple more. And this one, crime dogs, is near and dear to our black hearts. The First Prize Award in Detective Crime Fiction this year went to Yale Abrams of Santa Rosa, Ca.

When she walked into my office on that bleak December day, she was like a breath of fresh air in a coal mine; she made my canary sing. 

Man, that’s good. Short, sweaty…definite sense of mood here, right? And notice how gracefully Yale manages to convey that our narrator is male without even telling us? Let’s move on to the Detective Fiction Dishonorable Mentions. And we don’t even have to leave the pebbled-glass office to do it. From Jarrett Dement of Eau Claire:

She sauntered into his smoke-filled office with legs that, although they didn’t go quite all the way to heaven, definitely went high enough for him to see that she was a giraffe. 

What I love about this opening is the amuse-bouche at the end. This is so pedestrian until we get to the unexpected injection of raw animal passion at the end. Here’s another from Paul Kolas of Orlando:

The first thing I noticed about the detective’s office was how much it reminded me of the baggage claim at a nearby airport: the carpet was half a century out of date, it reeked of cigarettes and cheap booze, and I was moderately certain that my case had been lost.

Such an assured sense of voice at work here. You will never mistake this writer for Patricia Highsmith. Onward, to a gem from Leo Gordon of Los Angeles:

The fact that the cantor’s body was covered with a lamb shank, salt water and a mysterious concoction called charoseth, led Chief Passover Homicide investigator Ari Ben-Zvi to describe the pattern of murders as “uneven, perhaps unleavened.”

Kudos to our writer for dropping us right into an action scene — the discovery of a dead body. As James always says, act first, explain later. And I love the symbolic use of the charoseth. It is a sauce used in seders, composed of bitter herbs and sweet fruits, so obviously the writer is using it to set up the idea that this murder will create mixed emotions, a nice motif to support his theme.

And here is our final winner, from Belinda Daly of London.

Handsome French policeman, Andre Poiret, grappled with the puffed-up albino hitman, who was about to shoot the beautiful high-class call girl, Gigi Lamour, who was taking a shower in her apartment, with his big gun. 

Again, we are smack-dad in an action scene. No throat-clearing here. Note the adjective “handsome,” which of course tips us off that Andre is the hero. Ditto “beautiful” which tells us Gigi will be a love interest before she is found floating face down under the Pont Neuf in chapter 20. And leave it to a great stylist to leave the best for last — “with his big gun.”  Obviously, a subtle hint at the sexual tension underscoring the story’s romantic subplot. It couldn’t have been placed more zestfully.

And with that, my friends, I am off to have a good hot shower and a strong martini, one olive and two Advils, please.

 

10+

First Page Critique: Pick A Tense
And Then Make Things Tense

By PJ Parrish

A good Tuesday morning to you all out there. Hope you are well and sane. Hope you are getting some writing done. Me, I’ve managed to grow a couple tomatoes. So it was fun to see someone else’s creative juices are flowing nicely. I’m referring to today’s First Page Critique. Let’s give it a read together and then we’ll discuss. Thanks, writer, for submitting.

Carrie’s Secret

I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work. I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work. WHERE I WORK!!! I knew she might talk and that would be a problem, a big problem.

But I am systematic. I am in control. And I will deal with it.

When she was admitted to Danton, Carrie was considered both a flight risk and a suicide risk so that day she was taken directly to the locked ward on the first floor. I had just stepped into the lobby as she came through the front door. She was flanked by an ambulance attendant on one side and a woman from the admitting office on the other, each holding an arm. Her parents, Noah and Marlene Genesen, followed close behind her. Carrie was older surely, about fifteen now, and a little taller with longer hair, but it was her. There was no doubt. I watched as the group turned to my left and entered the locked ward. None of them noticed me then, but I stopped cold.

The situation was urgent. Critical. Carrie would soon be in therapy and she could reveal the truth any time in the course of treatment. I could not let her say anything. Louise Ponte would probably be her therapist. She works with most of the kids. How long could Carrie keep the secret bottled up inside her here? It will tear her apart, I’m sure. A good shrink like Ponte will pull it out of her. And if Carrie said what she knows, would that fucking bitch of a psychiatrist believe her? Yes. Would her parents believe it? Definitely. I cannot take the risk.

So I had to adjust quickly and as soon as I had the opportunity that first afternoon, I confronted Carrie. Change-of-shift had just started so most of the staff were meeting behind the closed door to the nursing office. I went right to her room.

There wasn’t much time. I stood in her doorway, blocking her exit. She was sitting on her bed and she looked up at me. Her big brown eyes were unfocused. She was holding her bandaged arm and dressed in a tight red tank top and extremely short cut-off jeans. I could not help looking at her naked legs for an instant. Then I looked up to her face.

___________________________

There’s some nice things going on here. As we often say here at TKZ, it’s always good to start with a nifty action scene. As James always says, do first and explain later. In other words, show something intriguing going on and then, later, tell us what it meant. Notice that I put two words in red there?

Show, don’t tell.

I love the fact this writer opened with something happening. A person (unnamed and no gender identified…more on that later) is confronted in the hospital where they work by an old “friend.” Or maybe a foe. But at the very least, this person from the past has a secret that our narrator does not wish to be known. Nice set up!

But I think the writer missed a chance to ramp up the tension factor by telling us too much when, with a little restructuring, it could be shown and thus have more dramatic impact.

Plus, we have here a problem with tense. It wavers between past and present, and the overall style is an odd hybrid of action and reminiscence.

The first paragraph, for instance, is refracted through the narrator’s thoughts rather than pure action, and thus feels more like a memory. “I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work.”  And with the capitalization and punctuation of the next line — WHERE I WORK!!! — it’s almost as if the writer subconsciously understood the first line was weak and she or he had to add caps and three exclamation marks to hit us over the head with the narrator’s intensity of emotion.

Might it not have been more effective to go right with action? I don’t know if Carrie, as she is being brought in, is fighting or half-comatose. So I am guessing here when I offer this suggested approach. I give it not as an attempt to rewrite this person’s style but to make a point about how, as an alternative, narration can be reshaped into a pure action scene.

The girl was screaming and kicking, her long dark hair flying around her face. The ambulance attendant had a hard grip on her right arm and a nurse jumped up from the desk to grab the girl’s right arm.  I was standing by the admitting desk, and as they lurched past, the girl’s head shot up.

Her wild brown eyes locked on mine. It was only for a second, but in that moment, I saw her.  

Carrie…

The only person in the world who knew what I had done.

Carrie’s head swung back and she gave me a questioning look that darkened into a glare. Then, with the wheeze of the ward’s door, she was gone.

Seconds later, a man and woman hurried in, not giving me a glance. Carrie’s parents. They didn’t recognize me, thank God.

My heart had stopped but now it was pounding. I took three deep breaths.

I am systematic. I am in control. And  damn it, I will deal with this.

See the difference? Get the action moving first and then start explaining things. And when you do go into the character’s thoughts, make it powerful, pithy and put it in italics.

Because this is a mixture of direct action scene and remembered narration, there are other problems. The narrator, upon merely seeing Carrie come into the hospital, cannot possibly know — yet — that she is suicidal and a flight risk. She cannot know either that a certain doctor Louise Ponte will be assigned to her case.  But these issues are easily resolved by continuing the action forward logically. For instance, the narrator, who apparently works at this facility, can immediately begin inquiries, maybe talk to the EMT when he comes back out? He could relate that she tried to kill herself.  Show us, via action and dialogue, don’t tell us.

Suggestion: Use the first scene — maybe the whole first chapter — to flesh out your great set-up. Play up the narrator’s shock and the fear of what this might bring (why is Carrie here? What happened? Will she tell someone our terrible secret?) You’ve done a good job of creating a sense of peril, so why rush it? Build your tension! Then you move on, logically, to the narrator going to Carrie’s room and confronting her.  That is probably worth a chapter all by itself. A third chapter could be a meeting with Dr. Ponte, wherein you can add some more background on why Carrie is there and why the narrator hates Ponte so much. Layers…it’s all about creating layers.

One problem many writers have is trying to figure out where to begin a chapter. This writer picked a great moment. But an equally vexing problem is figuring out where to END a scene or chapter. This is something this writer needs to work on. End one scene (in the lobby of hospital) and transition to the next scene (Carrie’s room).

Each scene and/or chapter needs to have its own beginning, middle and end. And you must DECIDE what the dramatic point of each individual scene is.  For this story, the point of the first scene is to introduce the protagonist via their shock at seeing someone who harbors a bad secret. This opening scene must also have an ending that then connects (via a smooth transition) to the next scene.

A small thing but important: Don’t bother to introduce character names until it is important. We don’t need to clutter up this great action moment with Carrie’s parents’ names.

Ditto the shrink.  Don’t give us Dr. Ponte’s name until she becomes an actual character in the action rather than in the narrator’s thoughts. Show us Dr. Ponte’s entrance, don’t tell us. I could see a great scene later, maybe chapter 3 or 4, where the narrator reads Carrie’s chart and finds out Dr. Ponte has been assigned to the case. Then maybe she goes and talks to the doctor? Show us, don’t tell us that Ponte is, ahem, a “fucking bitch.”  Remember the great movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest? We didn’t “meet” Nurse Ratched through Randall McMurphy’s thoughts. We met her on the ward, in all her terrible glory, interacting with the patients. Action is showing.

That’s my main points. I’d like to do a line edit to bring things into sharper focus.

I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work. WHERE I WORK!!! I knew she might talk and that would be a problem, a big problem.

But I am systematic. I am in control. And I will deal with it. This submission came to me with a couple graphs in italics, so that’s how I left it. But I see no need for it.

When she was admitted to Danton, This lapses into past tense and sounds like the narrator is remembering this. It disrupts the tension. Carrie was considered both a flight risk and a suicide risk The narrator has no way to know this. And “flight risk” is a legal term meaning a person is thought likely to leave the country before a trial or bail hearing. so that day she was taken directly to the locked ward on the first floor. I had just stepped into the lobby as she came through the front door. Again, the past tense construction “I had just” sounds like she’s recounting something that happened a while ago. She was flanked by an ambulance attendant on one side and a woman from the admitting office on the other, each holding an arm. Her parents, Noah and Marlene Genesen, followed close behind her. Carrie was older surely, about fifteen now, and a little taller with longer hair, but it was her. There was no doubt. I watched as the group turned to my left and entered the locked ward. None of them noticed me then, but I stopped cold.

The situation was urgent. Critical. This is a classic example of the writer TELLING us what the character feels rather than letting the emotions emerge through SHOWING the urgency. Carrie would soon be in therapy and she could reveal the truth any time in the course of treatment. I could not let her say anything. Louise Ponte would probably be her therapist. She works with most of the kids. How long could Carrie keep the secret bottled up inside her here? It will tear her apart, I’m sure. A good shrink like Ponte will pull it out of her. And if Carrie said what she knows, would that fucking bitch of a psychiatrist believe her? Yes. Would her parents believe it? Definitely. I cannot Again, we are shifting between past and present tense. Doesn’t work. take the risk.

So I had to adjust quickly and as soon as I had the opportunity that first afternoon, This is so confusing. Are we in the present day or is this character relating something that happened in the past? This construction suggests the latter. Which is not where we want to be opening a story. I confronted Carrie. Again, you’re telling us; show us. Change-of-shift had just started so most of the staff were meeting behind the closed door to the nursing office. I went right to her room.

There wasn’t much time. I stood in her doorway, blocking her exit. She is on suicide watch. Her door would be locked. She was sitting on her bed and she looked up at me. Her big brown eyes were unfocused. She was holding her bandaged arm and dressed in a tight red tank top and extremely short cut-off jeans. I could not help looking at her naked legs for an instant. Then I looked up to her face. She already looked at her face, her unfocused brown eyes specifically.

Okay, this is important. Whenever you describe something, be it a room as a character enters, or seeing a person, always start with what is first-impression logical and move on to other details from there. What you would logically see — IN ORDER OF YOUR SENSES PROCESSING THINGS?

Carrie was slumped on her bed. Her lank hair covered her face, and she was rubbing her bandaged wrist. For the first time, I noticed what she was wearing — a tight red tank top and short cut-off jeans. I was staring at her long legs when Carrie looked up. 

See the difference in the order of the description? It has to be logical. And use it to up the tension. Also: Never let a chance go by in your description to make it specific and thus salient to character. You said she was “sitting on the bed.” Is she slumped? Curled in a fetal ball? Sprawled? Each suggests something specific about character and mood. And the bandage on her arm. What kind of bandage and where it is? A wrist gauze suggests a slit wrist and is a way for the narrator to get this knowledge of a suicide attempt via showing instead of telling. 

One last thing. We don’t known a thing about the narrator and presumptive protagonist of this story. When working in first person, it’s hard to get in names and such. (Forget description in the early going!).  But it becomes annoying, the longer your scene goes on, for the reader not to have a clue who they are listening to.  We don’t even know the sex of our narrator.  Such “busy work” can be dropped easily in dialogue, maybe as the narrator stands there in shock at seeing Carrie, someone calls out, “Dr. Rogers, are you okay? Jane? Jane, did you hear me?”  A simple “trick” like this would give us A.) the protag’s sex B.) name  C.) profession.

Okay, that’s about it.  Again, I want to give kudos to the writer for picking a good dramatic moment to drop us into the story. I really like the set-up, a teenager from the protag’s past harbors a bad secret that terrifies the protag enough to make them spring into action.

But, dear writer, you need to slow down a tad and give more thought to the structure of each individual scene and/or chapter and to hone in on the dramatic point of each. Good luck and thanks for letting us share your work.

 

9+

Five Easy Fixes For Your Novel

By PJ Parrish

Back in my newspaper days, I applied for a job at the Miami Herald. I was working at the rival Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, but was flattered to be courted, so down I-95 I went. My portfolio was filled with sample clips. Great honking investigative stories. Profiles of the rich and famous. Thoughtful think pieces. Sitting in a big office overlooking Biscayne Bay, I watched the two big cheese editors as they flipped through the pages. Then they stopped and read. One guy looked up:

“I love this story. Was it your idea?”

I craned my neck to read the headline: TEN PLANTS EVEN YOU CAN’T KILL.

I nodded. “I’ve got a brown thumb.”

“We need more of this kind of stuff in our features section,” big editor said. “We’ll definitely be in touch.”

I didn’t get the job. But the experience did teach me that when it comes to getting someone’s attention, keep it short and sweet. Or as Jeff Goldblum says in The Big Chill about his job as a writer for People Magazine: “We only have one editorial rule. You can’t write anything longer than it takes your average person to take an average crap.”

So today, for a change, I’m going to write a short post. But I hope you find something useful in it. You don’t have to read it in your bathroom.

FIVE EASY THINGS THAT WILL IMPROVE YOUR MANUSCRIPT

1. Use More Paragraphs. Many of us, when we write, let the words just flow and flow onto the page. It’s emotional, that first draft. But slow down and take a hard look at what your sentences look like on the physical page. A page that is full of big similar-looking blocks of type looks old-fashioned and well, intimidating. That’s okay if you’re Dickens or Donna Tartt. The rest of us should keep things more eye-appealing. On the other hand, a page of one-sentence paragraphs can look contrived, like you’re trying too hard to be neo-noir or the next James Patterson. (But please don’t ask me to explain what compelled William Faulkner to include a chapter in As I Lay Dying that consisted entirely of one line: My Mother is a Fish.) Be in charge of your readers’ emotional reactions to your prose. Use the occasional longer contemplative graph but break it up with short ones. Writing is like music — one note, either long or short, is boring. I wrote about this subject in length a while back. Click here. 

2. Don’t Use Stock Character Descriptions. Getting readers to picture characters the way you do in your head is important. And it’s hard. Heck, all good description is doubly hard because it comes from your own consciousness AND it has to be filtered through the prism of your characters’ consciousness. Whenever I read something like this: “She looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor” my teeth ache. That’s lazy and obvious. Plus, you can get in trouble if you use culture or age-specific references. ie: He was as hunky looking as Ansel Elgort (That’s Ansel above. Who knew?). You must find a fresh and point-of-view-specific way to describe your people. And if you ever EVER use “handsome,” “sexy” “gorgeous” or, God forbid, “green-eyed vixen” I will hunt you down and confiscate your Acer.

 

3. Get Rid of Useless Dialogue. The exact words you put in your characters’ mouths is precious. But it’s hard to write because great dialogue is essentially a sleight of hand. (or ear?) You have to convey the FEELING of real conversation but without all the dumb and dull stuff we say in normal life. So to that end, never waste space on mundane stuff that is best conveyed in simple narrative. Don’t write:

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Joe.”

“Yeah, I know,” Joe answered. “It’s been a while since I felt like coming back to the station.”

I nodded. “Things been tough?”

“Yeah,” Joe answered. “Had some family issues and been a little under the weather.”

{{{Yawn}}} Sometimes, narrative works better, especially if you can convey some backstory via a character’s thoughts (and illuminate your narrator!).

Word around the station was that Joe had some problems at home. I knew his wife Clara. We had dated years ago and I knew that when it came to men, she had the attention span of a five-year-old in a McDonald’s ball pit.  I knew Joe, too, and in the red of his eyes I could see the bottom of too many glasses of Jim Beam.

4. Ferret Out the Weasel Words. We all have them — awful crutch filler words that seem to come unbidden from our fingers as we type that first draft. They take up space, make our narrative wishy-washy. Here’s a quick list: Just. Some. Most. But. Very. And my personal favorite — Suddenly! Take the word out, and if the sentence still makes sense, well, you’ve killed a weasel. (Caveat: Sometimes a weasel word is needed in dialogue). Watch, too, for wasted action phrases or words i.e. She raised a hand and slapped him across the face. No, she slapped him. Also, look out for weasel words in description or feelings.

Don’t write this:

He saw the car coming toward him down the dark alleyway. He realized there was no room to move, maybe only ten feet wide, and there was no time for thought. He could only react.

Write this:

Headlights coming fast toward him, blinding him. A screech of tires, the crash of the fender as it hit the trash cans. Two second at most, that was all he had.  He jumped for the fire escape above.

 

5. Don’t Overstate The Obvious. This is a common problem I see in many of our First Page Critique submissions. The scene is full of tension; something dire is going on. Good! But you have to then trust the reader to GET IT the first time. The more emotional or action-packed the scene is, the more you need to keep things under control. Sure, you can write this:

The sailboat was being tossed by the churning green waves like a bottle lost at sea. Maggie gripped the tiller harder, her heart racing. She squinted into the driving hard rain, trying to make out what Chuck was doing up at the bow, but she could barely make out his form in the darkness. She thought he might be trying to pull the jib down, but she couldn’t be sure. She shivered and was afraid for a second she was going to be sick. She was so afraid, and she thought again that they never should have ventured out two hours ago when the sky had been so dark and threatening.

First, note how this looks on the page: one long paragraph composed of equal-length sentences. But this is an action scene! Time for short and choppier rhythm, right? (See No. 1) And don’t gild the emotional lily. Maybe something like this:

Maggie couldn’t see a thing through the knife-slashing pelt of the rain. Two hands on the tiler now, too afraid to risk even a quick wipe across the face. She squinted toward the bow but Chuck was just a blur of gray against the mad-flap white of the jib. The sailboat groaned and pitched to starboard and she choked down another rise of nausea. Why the hell had they been so stupid? She had seen the low black clouds as they set out two hours ago. She had been stupid. Stupid to trust Chuck.   

Remember: The more emotional or tense the scene, the more controlled the writing should be. Don’t let your writerly emotions swamp your story boat.

And after that awful last sentence, I should probably add a Number 6 tip here about straining for metaphors, but I promised I’d be short and sweet today.

 

16+

First Page Critique: It’s Time
To Kill Off The Woodpecker

Every thing must have a beginning…and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. — Mary Shelley

By PJ Parrish

Writing is nothing but a series of decisions. Some are big. You decide on your basic genre. (I’m going to write a thriller!) You decide on a main character. (She’s going to be a waitress who lost her job, has two kids to feed and her dead-beat ex owes a ton in child care so she decides to track him down and thus learns to be a PI!).  You decide on a setting. (I lived in San Francisco once so I’ll try that!)

Then, come all the little decisions. Which really aren’t so little over the course of 300 pages or so. Does she have a friend who can act as confidante? Will there be a romantic interest? What does her voice sounds like — ie is she Southern? A bit profane? Did she go to college? See where I am going with this?  Every decision you make affects your story.

But let’s go back to a big decision you’ll have to make really early. One that we here at The Kill Zone deal with all the time with our First Page Critiques. One that can kill your story right from the get-go, if you’re not careful:

WHERE DO I START MY STORY? 

I put that in big red neon because I believe it might be, after character, your most important decision. Because if you start too slow, you bore the reader. If you start to fast, you risk looking like a show-off (Yes, I believe you can start too fast). If you start too early, you get a lot of throat-clearing. If you start to late, you can confuse your reader. Think of it this way: You are asking your reader to enter an imaginary world. They will be taking this plunge on blind faith that you, the storyteller, are skillful enough to lead them clearly and that you are sly enough to seduce them into sticking around.

So, where do you start the story? What is your entry point? What door do you open?

I have battled this with every book I have written. Sometimes, rarely, I see the opening scene like a magnificent movie unreeling in my head. But more often, I feel like I am peering into a mist, waiting for the BIG MOMENT to reveal itself. Some beginnings come easy; most come with only the greatest of brain sweat.

In my last post, I talked about how I am taking a hiatus from novel writing. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about my story. It’s sitting there on the back burner on a slow simmer. I think of it as a nice marinara sauce that is rendering down and will some day be ready to move to the front burner again.   I’ve been thinking a lot about my story this week. Thinking that it took me a long time to find the right door into it.

So, let me try to make my point today about WHERE TO BEGIN YOUR STORY by showing you how I screwed mine up. (So yeah, I mislead you — this isn’t a real First Page submission; it’s my own).

Brief set up: This book is a sequel to our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE. In the first book, Clay Buchanan, is a skip tracer who’s been hired to find the missing wife of a rich lawyer. The wife, Amelia, was in a car accident that left her with amnesia and she’s on the run because she thinks her husband is trying to kill her. Buchanan was supposed to be a minor cog in the story machine but he proved so compelling that he became a secondary protagonist. His wife and infant son are missing, presumed dead eight years ago, and he was the main suspect. He is haunted by their disappearance. Our editor, and quite a few readers, asked us for a sequel focusing on his backstory.  By the way…I love Clay Buchanan. He’s a wounded anti-hero who wants to work his way back to the light.

So, here is the first 400 words of so of Clay’s story:

CHAPTER ONE

He cried when he heard the news. It was rumor mostly, but it came from people he knew and trusted, people with authority and letters after their names. His head told him that it probably wasn’t true, but in his heart…

In his heart, he wanted so much to believe.

She was alive.

Someone had spotted her down in Arkansas. And even though his head was filled with the fuzz of last night’s liquor, he threw a hastily packed bag into his car and headed out into the black Nashville night, not stopping until four hours later when he hit the single blinking traffic light in Brinkley, Arkansas.

These woods was where she supposedly had been last seen –- in a bayou of bleached trees and blue-black water, here in this lonely place that looked as raw as when the world was being born.

Clay Buchanan sat back in the kayak, setting his oar across his knees.

He had been here once before. Ten years. That had been ten years ago.

Why had he returned to this place now? That sighting a decade ago had long ago been discredited.

He closed his eyes and sat as still as he could, even holding his breath, so the softest sounds of the swamp could penetrate his consciousness. But there was nothing except the whisper of the water and the whine of a lone mosquito, and in that huge quiet, his memories moved in with a fierce and fast clarity.

How his heart had quickened when he saw the first reports of the sighting on the news. How the tears had felt hot on his face when he watched the grainy video on the internet. How he had called in sick to Gateway Insurance, saying he wasn’t sure when he would be back to work. And how his wife’s face had looked, waxy in the yellow porch light, as she handed him a thermos of coffee for the trip to Brinkley and told him that she and Gillian would be okay.

His boss didn’t understand. But Rayna always had. Rayna had always understood that his obsession was the only thing that helped him endure his soul-killing job. He could still hear her words that night as he left…

Go chase your ghost, Bucky.

Buchanan let out his breath, long and slow, and opened his eyes.

The ghost bird. That’s what everyone back then called it. Not the experts, of course. To them, it was Campephilus principalis, the ivory-billed woodpecker. But to birders like Buchanan, it was the ghost bird.

____________________

I’m back. Well, there’s some nice stuff in this First Page Submission. It tells me where the story takes place and it’s got a lot of cool atmosphere. But why does it fail? Lots of reasons.

First, the opening line. It’s a come-on. You think I am talking about his missing wife, right? Nope. It’s not his wife. It’s a bird. Clay is an avid birder (bird-watcher to us civilians). He heard about a sighting of the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker and bolted off to see it. I am not playing fair with the reader; it’s a fake, a cheap device. If I were the reader, it would piss me off.  Now, when I wrote this, I thought it would be a cool metaphor — you know, dead missing woodpecker that’s called The Ghost Bird. Dead missing wife who Clay sometimes can actually hear talking to him — the ghost wife. Geez…

Second, it’s not very active. Even though Clay is technically doing something — bobbing around a bayou looking for a bird — it has nothing to do with the real story, and thus is a passive false start.

Third, I larded in a graph of backstory about his old insurance job, which surely can wait until I get the story up and moving.

You can see why I didn’t want to go back to this story with any urgency. I had chosen the wrong moment to drop my readers into the story. And in my subconscious writer brain, I knew it stunk. (Always listen to that voice when it speaks, by the way).

It took me a good two months to finally find the right door into Clay’s world. This is second version:

CHAPTER ONE

 Someone was following him. He had noticed it a couple miles back, but only because he was so good at tailing cars himself and had never been made.

He couldn’t be sure when the car had picked him up. It was too dark, too rainy, and on this part of the road, there weren’t any streetlights. Just a two-lane asphalt road broken by the occasional gate where at the end of long driveways lights from the big houses glowed like fireflies. It was the kind of road that was lined with white rail fencing to keep the horses in during the day and strangers out at night.

The car hadn’t been behind him when he left his apartment in downtown Nashville. Or maybe it had and he just had missed it. That bothered him. Was he losing his edge?

He slowed to thirty. So did the headlights behind him.

Damn.

The road T-boned just ahead. If the car turned left with him, he’d have to do something. For the first time in months, he thought of the nine-mil Nano he had bought from that kid in Oakland. He wished he hadn’t thrown in San Francisco Bay.

Suddenly, the darkness was split with different lights. Red and blue strobes.

Shit. It was a cop…

The cop hit his take-down lights, blinding Clay Buchanan’s vision in the rearview mirror.

There was a driveway on the right and clay pulled in. The cruiser pulled in behind, stopping about fifteen feet behind and just to the left. Clay didn’t move a muscle, just kept his hands high on the steering wheel. Even though his closed window he could hear the squawk of the cop’s radio, turned up higher for even a routine stop.

But no cop stop was ever really routine. Clay knew that.

He stayed frozen, but he could see the play of the cop’s powerful flashlight as it moved over the rear of the car and into the empty backseat. The cop moved carefully, avoiding silhouetting himself in his own headlights. He stopped just to the rear of the driver’s window. Textbook…no chance of getting knocked down by the push of an opening door. This guy knew his shit.

“Roll down your window, please.”

Clay moved his left hand slowly. The window whirred down. He put his hand back on the wheel.

“License, please. Registration and insurance, too.”

“It’s in my wallet, right front jeans pocket.”

“Get it. Slowly, please.”

Clay couldn’t see the guy’s face, but he caught a glimpse of the round patch on the cop’s rain slicker. Davidson County Sheriff Department. He carefully extracted the license and other cards and held them out. The cop took them, holding holding the license under his flashlight. Then he ran the beam over the truck’s interior, past the three manila folders laying on the passenger seat then stopping on the video camera. Clay hoped the guy didn’t know exactly what he was looking at — an Ultra HD infrared night vision full spectrum camcorder. There was a good reason it was nicknamed the Ghost Hunter.

“Your right tail light is out, sir.”

That couldn’t be what this was about. Clay knew what the cop was seeing – a beat-up Toyota Highlander. The camera, together with the rest of the gear in the trunk, cost more than the car was worth. Maybe it was the truck itself – a crappy heap driving slow in this neighborhood was reason enough for a stop.

The flashlight beam hit him square in the face. Clay squinted, resisting the urge to shield his face with his hand.

“You’re that guy,” the cop said.

What?

The light was blinding.

“You’re that guy who killed his wife.”

______________________

Well, I think it’s better. The whole scene is Clay going out to the deserted road where his wife’s car was found — empty with some blood in the front and the empty baby seat in the back. Earlier that night, the anniversary of his wife’s disappearance, he had what Jim calls his Man in Mirror Moment and has decided to find his dead wife and son.

I could have started Chapter one with that Mirror moment, but that would have meant a lot of passive narrative and backstory.  I needed to get him up and moving, DOING instead of THINKING ABOUT DOING.  I can weave in the backstory later.  I hope I also introduced some intrigue and empathy for Clay by having the cop recognize him. Even now, after ten years, he’s still a marked man.

Anywho, that’s my lesson for the day. The take-away for you guys is: Don’t go to the prom with the first guy who asks you. Sometimes, you have to really be patient and wait for the right MOMENT to open your story.

Be willing to throw crap away.

Be willing to try something completely different.

Be willing to admit you were wrong.

Be willing to kill your darlings. Even if they are ivory-billed woodpeckers. Especially if they are ivory-billed woodpeckers disguised as really ugly metaphors.

 

8+

Is It Okay To Quit?

“You get to a point where you get to the edges of a room, and you can go back and go where you’ve been and basically recycle stuff.” — Stephen King

By PJ Parrish

I knew something was up when I started looking forward to pulling weeds.

Every morning, I’d check the Tallahassee weather and plan my day. First, I’d survey the front and back yards to see what needed attention. Then I’d dead-head the rose bushes. The azaleas needed pruning, so that took a good hour. Eventually came the highlight of my day — pulling weeds. A blissful hour of mindless productivity. As the sun dipped lower, it was time to head out to the nursery because you could never have enough mulch or Miracle-Gro tomato food.

By the time I got back, there was just enough time to shower, make a vodka gimlet and take it outside where I’d sit in a lawn chair while I hose-watered the lawn.

I was as happy as a little garden slug — except for a gnawing guilt that seemed to abate as the vodka glass emptied only to return as I went back indoors. The guilt, of course, came because I wasn’t writing.

I passed the whole of last winter this way. My garden flourished as my novel lay fallow in the laptop. And then, one morning, it hit me: I didn’t want to write anymore.

It was gone. The urge, the need, the pleasure. It was all gone. At first, I was upset. For two reasons. First, I write with my sister and thus had a contract, a commitment, to our partnership. And second, well, that’s complicated. So many folks want to be published writers, and I have known that success. It almost felt ungrateful to stop.

But here’s the truth. I want to quit. I have quit. I have not worked on my novel for months now, and after the initial bad feelings, I’m finding I’m relieved.  I’m relieved that I don’t have to worry about getting the book published, be it by traditional means or the hard slog of self-publishing. Relieved that I don’t have to climb on the self-promotion hamster wheel.  Relieved that I won’t have to feel the sting of disappointment if it doesn’t sell or get well-reviewed. But mostly, I feel relieved that I can channel my energy, creativity, time and love into other things.

I’m coming up on my 70th birthday soon. That doesn’t bother me that much, because outside of aching knees and bad eyes, I’ve got good health. We’ve got some money in the bank and not many bills. I have family and friends to sustain me. I have two great dogs to take me on walks.

Phillip Roth said he was done when he was 79 and 27 novels deep. Alice Munro did so at 81, a few months before winning a Nobel for a career that includes 14 short-story collections. Munro told a reporter, “I don’t have the energy anymore.” Roth left a Post-it on his computer reading, “The struggle with writing is over.”

I read up on Munro while writing this post. She gave a fascinating interview about her decision where she said she wanted to rejoin the world. “I think you do get to a stage where you sort of think about your life in a different way,” she said. “And perhaps, when you’re my age, you don’t wish to be alone as much as a writer has to be. It’s like, at the wrong end of life, sort of becoming very sociable.”

I get that. My time now will be given to my real people, not my imaginary ones.

Will I change my mind? Perhaps. Things can happen in your life, things you can’t anticipate, that can alter your universe — and it can happen in a split second.

Stephen King, in 1999, was hit by a car while walking down a road near his Maine home. He almost died. He described the pain of recovery as unbearable.  His wife, Tabitha, knew he was drowning and set up a writing nook downstairs in their house. King didn’t want to try another novel so he decided to write about writing. A year later, he produced On Writing. In it, he writes with brutal honesty about his struggle with drugs and alcohol and how hard it was to recover his love of writing again. He went on to finish a script for the miniseries Rose Red, calling it a therapy that was more effective than any drug the doctors gave him. But once the script was finished, he decided to quit.

“I don’t want to finish up like Harold Robbins,” he said, referring to the pulp novelist who started with well-reviewed works such as A Stone for Danny Fisher, later suffered a damaging stroke and ended his career in steep decline. “That’s my nightmare.”

King found his way back. With last year’s novel The Institute, he’s closing in on 100 novels. He still needs to write. I don’t. At least not now.

What about you guys? Some of you have sturdy careers and a nice back list. Some of you are still working on your first book. Most of you are probably somewhere in between, maybe published but not as successful as you’d like, maybe finished a couple manuscripts and still looking for that one editor who says yes.

You might have considered giving up. How do you know if it’s time to quit?

Well, if you want to read a funny but very truthful take on that question, click here and read Chuck Wendig on the subject.

If you’re thinking of quitting, maybe I offer some things to chew on before you do. Here are some signs, in my opinion, that you SHOULDN’T quit for good.

You’ve got some life issues that are sapping your energy. A divorce? A family health problem? Financial issues that might mean you have to focus harder on your day job? That’s okay. Take some time off and deal with whatever’s distracting you. Work the problem. Then, when the clouds clear, you’ll might find your creative juice coming back. Don’t let anyone try to tell you that you MUST WRITE EVERY DAY.  If something is off in your life, you might need to step away.  Writing is like exercising. Yeah, you should do it every day if you can. But if you’ve got a broken foot, stop and heal first.

Your story is going nowhere and you can’t see a way out.  All writers stall. All writers paint themselves into corners. But some folks stay with a story out of pure stubbornness. (I know this twist will work. I just gotta find a way!) Find a reliable beta reader who will TELL YOU THE TRUTH. They won’t be able to tell you how to fix it (and shouldn’t; that’s your job). But talking about the log-jam will help clear your brain.

You’re writing the wrong book. Here’s a dirty secret: Almost every successful writer has abandoned a book in mid-stream. Quitting is not the sign of a loser; it’s the sign of a professional. You have to face the fact that not every idea is a good one. Let it go. Sometimes, you have to give up on story that’s not working so a new story can move into your brain. I worked on a series book for four months (and hated every moment of it) until I finally tossed it out. Soon after, discouraged and depressed about the book, I went on a scheduled vacation to Paris. A week later, I had an idea for a stand-alone that got me so excited I finished the thing in three months. (click here to see The Killing Song). 

Your character(s) bore you. This sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes, we grab onto a character and gnaw him or her to death. We think he or she sounds fascinating but there’s something fundamentally flawed about them. And I don’t mean in a good, deeply human interesting way, but in a death-to-the-story boring way. Unless you are foaming at the mouth to meet up with your character every day, ready to follow their every move and take down their every word, how can you produce a good story? You have to be in love with your characters, even the black hat ones. If you don’t want to spend time with them, how do you expect a reader to want to?

You’re tired. We all are right now. The forced isolation of the virus, the political climate, the constant slow simmer of dread. Understand that the fatigue you’re feeling might have nothing to do with your book. It’s exterior to that but it’s deep and it’s not going away any time soon. I can’t tell you how to deal with this black cloud; we’re all finding our coping mechanisms. (Mine is a hard break from news, exercise, walks with my dogs.). Get outside. Reconnect with old friends but call, don’t email or text.

Okay, now here are some signs that you should quit, in my humble experience:

You’re not having fun anymore. 

That’s it. There’s only one good reason to quit. The whole process of writing has become something of a chore, a duty rather than a delight. Again, I don’t mean to sound like I’m whining here. Or that I am dismissing all the years of wonderful writing time I’ve had. Or, as I said, that I am ungrateful for the success that has come my way.  I have been blessed; I’ve been lucky. I had a helluva a run for twenty years in the mystery biz, and seven years in romance before that. But I’ll let Chuck Wendig speak for me:

You’re not having fun. This one, too, is tricky, because writing isn’t always an act of eating cotton candy while happy puppies squirm at your feet. Some days are purely reserved for shoveling earth. Some days are like pulling bad teeth. That’s normal. It isn’t always fun. Hell, it isn’t often fun. But there’s also an evaluation you might make — again, after some time with it — where you realize, you’re just not enjoying this. It holds no surprises for you. It feels rote and routine, and if it feels that way to you, it may very well feel that way to a reader. Once again, a strategic retreat is called upon.

With our most recent book, last year’s The Damage Done, I think we left our hero Louis Kincaid in a good place. The circle, for him, feels complete. We done him good. I don’t want to start phoning it in. So I am retreating. Into life, friends, and especially reading, where I am ready to get acquainted with the dazzling spectrum of new writers who are infusing our genre.

I am putting down the pen. Except for this blog and you all, which I have grown to love. I might pick up the pen again. I probably will. But now now, this feels right. Thanks for listening, friends.

 

12+

First Page Critique: Making Us
Care About A Guy Going Bad

By PJ Parrish

We’re off to the hoosegow, the clink, con college, the gray-bar hotel for today’s First Page submission. That much is certain. But I’m gonna need your help on figuring out some of the other things going on here. Please give your time to our writer and don’t be shy about weighing in with some pointers, praise and punditry.

Case Runner

The funny thing is, my folks wanted me to be a lawyer.

It’s a profession. You’ll always make a living. Like Uncle Mike.

That was before Uncle Mike, my father’s older step-brother, went to prison for skimming trusts. He died there, in pretty short order.

After sitting through more of Dad’s drunk disorderly and domestic abuse hearings than I could count, I wasn’t interested in law. I majored in computer science, with a minor in bookmaking, as a runner for Sweet Clete Sojack. I had a little credit card harvesting going on the side: go-go growth businesses practically invited me to grab their transaction data for resale, and in a pinch I could Netstumble my way into wide-open WiFi.

But I was better at getting the info than covering my tracks, so I also did a little time. Unlike Uncle Mike, I not only got out in 18 months, but emerged with a profession, funnily enough related to law, in about the same way as I was related to Uncle Mike.

You can learn a lot of things in prison. Some, a lot, we’ll leave unsaid. But you meet people who see things just a little differently, the spaces between the itch and the scratch where money can be made.

One of these people was Simon Vann, who had been a plaintiffs’ attorney until a case where much of his plaintiff class turned out to have already handed over powers of attorney to out-of-state relatives before signing with him. The houses, the cars, the boat, the sugar on the side, were all gone in a flash. He blamed himself for one thing and one thing only.

“I called the wrong case runner. Tried to save a few bucks.” He waved liver-spotted hands around the prison library. “Worked out great, huh?”

I asked him what a case runner was.

“See, there are laws against an attorney cooking up a cause of action and then finding warm bodies for plaintiffs. They call it ‘champertry’. So there’s a service, kind of a grey area, people who generate leads, finding and referring people whose issues jibe with the theory of the case. For a small fee per head, the attorney gets parties already qualified by the case runner.” Simon stared at the book in his hand, a history of power boats. “He hopes.”

______________________________

I’m back. First off, I really like this writer’s voice. It’s unique, punchy and gives me a pretty decent feel for the narrator’s character — or lack of same. But we need a bit more flesh on the bones, which I will get into in a moment.

This opening is essentially back story. Which is a no-no, yes? Well, not necessarily. What I call character-intro openings can be effective when done well. But the writing must be razor sharp for the reader to be patient and wait for something to happen ie action.

One of the best character openings, which I often cite in workshops, is in Steve Hamilton’s debut A Cold Day In Paradise. He is introducing his series character Alex Knight with this paragraph:

There is a bullet lodged in my chest, less than a centimeter from my heart. I don’t think about it much anymore. It’s just a part of me now. But every once in a while, on a certain kind of night, I remember that bullet. I feel the weight of it inside me. I can feel its metallic hardness. And even though the bullet has been warming inside my body for fourteen years, on a night like this, when it is dark enough and the wind is blowing, the bullet feels as cold as the night itself.

Yes, this is backstory, but the bullet next to heart image is compelling and deeply personal.  Here’s another slow backstory character opening that I like, from Tana French:

My father once told me that the most important thing every man should know is what he would die for. If you don’t know that, he said, what are you worth? Nothing. You’re not a man at all. I was thirteen and he was three quarters of the way into a bottle of Gordon’s finest, but hey, good talk. As far as I recall, he was willing to die a) for Ireland, b) for his mother, who had been dead for ten years, and c) to get that bitch Maggie Thatcher.

All the same, at any moment of my life since that day, I could have told you straight off the bat exactly what I would die for. At first it was easy: my family, my girl, my home. Later, for a while, things got more complicated. These days they hold steady, and I like that; it feels like something a man can be proud of. I would die for, in no particular order, my city, my job, and my kid.

Slow, measured, nothing happening here but the character trying to get into our heads. This goes to French’s style. And here is maybe my favorite character-doing-nothing-but thinking opening, from Mike Connelly’s The Poet.

Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional relationship on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker — somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret to dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face.

But my rule didn’t protect me. When the two detectives came for me and told me about Sean, a cold numbness quickly enveloped me. It was like I was on the other side of the aquarium window. I moved as if underwater — back and forth, back and forth — and looked out at the rest of the world through the glass. From the backseat of their car I could see my eyes in the rearview mirror, flashing each time we passed beneath a streetlight. I recognized the thousand-yard stare I had seen in the eyes of fresh widows I had interviewed over the years.

So yes, you can start by having your character thinking instead of doing. But it damn well better be so compelling that your reader is as well hooked as a fighting marlin. Does the opening to Case Runner succeed? Do you find this Unnamed Man narrator seductive? Does he force you to turn the page?

Well, almost. As I said, the voice has great tone to it. But it lacks the empathy bond that both Connelly and Hamilton forge. Other than the fact Unnamed Man is a bit of wise guy, I don’t get much sense of personality or feel much connection to him. I know that empathy for a character needs to be built over the course of an entire book, but we don’t know quite where we’re going with Unnamed Man here.

And here’s the rub. I think, though I am not sure because the writer isn’t specific enough, that Unnamed Man is going to go to the dark side and become a case runner. Which makes him at best an anti-hero. Will we want to root for him if he’s got the morals of a slug? Is the plot’s trajectory going to create a character arc that has him finding his way back into the light? We can hope.

Couple years ago, Steve Hamilton, on hiatus from his Alex Knight character, started a second series starring an anti-hero named Nick Mason.  Here’s the book’s teaser back copy:

Nick Mason is out of prison. After five years inside, he has just been given the one thing a man facing 25-to-life never gets, a second chance. But it comes at a terrible price.

Nick Mason is out of prison, but he’s not free. Whenever his cell phone rings, day or night, he must answer it and follow whatever order he is given. It’s the deal he made with Darius Cole, a criminal kingpin serving a double-life term who still runs an empire from his prison cell.

Forced to commit increasingly more dangerous crimes, hunted by the relentless detective who put him behind bars, and desperate to go straight and rebuild his life with his daughter and ex-wife, Nick will ultimately have to risk everything–his family, his sanity, and even his life–to finally break free.

See the point I am trying to make for our writer? If your guy starts out as a black hat, you need to make us care that he has a chance. He needs a journey, not just of plot but character. Redemption is a powerful theme in fiction. I hope this is where our writer is taking us.

Okay. But we have a basic structure problem beyond that. And it creates confusion. When and where is this scene taking place? After several paragraphs of backstory, in which we learn that Unnamed Man served 18 months in prison and got out, we get the first “action” scene — Unnamed Man talking to Simon Vann. They seem to be in a prison library, so that made me assume that Unnamed Man is also a prisoner. See the problem? The writer told us he was out, yet here we are behind bars. This is not a flashback; it is poor structure. Plus the writer tipped his plot hand too early by revealing in backstory narrative that he emerged from prison ironically with a new profession related to the law.

If the writer wants to stay with this backstory opening, he needs a way to gracefully transition to the PRESENT IN PRISON. Which is where the story really starts. It can be as simple as “I was thinking of my Dad (or Uncle Milt) or whatever, when I walked into the library and saw Simon Vann sitting at a table surrounded by a twelve volumes of The Supreme Court Reporter. 

Then have Unnamed Man go over and strike up the conversation. The way it is written is so bare bones we can’t easily figure out what is going on, where we are, and why this encounter is even happening. Give it dramatic context.  Has Simon been considering trying to drag Unnamed Man into his case runner scheme? Has Unnamed Man heard that Simon is recruiting? We need context. This is all happening in a plot vacuum.

Now let’s talk about the idea of case running itself. I’ve never heard of it, but then I am not steeped in law or legal thrillers. My sister Kelly knew immediately but she can quote every line of dialogue from Law & Order.  If, like me, you didn’t know what a case runner is, could you figure it out from Simon’s description? I’d guess no. Here is what Simon says:

“There are laws against an attorney cooking up a cause of action and then finding warm bodies for plaintiffs. They call it ‘champertry’. So there’s a service, kind of a grey area, people who generate leads, finding and referring people whose issues jibe with the theory of the case. For a small fee per head, the attorney gets parties already qualified by the case runner. He hopes.”

This sounds like something out of Wikipedia, not like a person would really talk. It needs to be filtered through Simon Vann’s particular personality prism. And again, it needs context. Why did this topic even come up? Why are they talking about it? It is just thrown out there with no reason, so why do we care? It needs to be a scene, with logic and dialogue between the two characters.

I found a good lawyer’s site that explains it better than Simon did — which is saying alot considering how bad lawyers are at breaking things down in real English. Essentially, case running is a fancy name for ambulance chasing. Bear with this long explanation because it goes to a point I want to make, again, about character arc:

More often than not, “ambulance chasing” is carried out not by attorneys, but by others known as “runners”. Case runners are not licensed to practice law. Rather, they are hired by accident attorneys to do whatever is necessary to get accident victims to hire a personal injury lawyer. And it doesn’t stop there. After the runner gets the injured accident victim to hire the lawyer, the victim is then coerced into going to a doctor who also works with the runner.

In order for these predatory “runners” to find their prey, they listen to police scanners; offer significant cash bribes to accident victims; they confuse the injured accident victims with false information; and, before an ambulance arrives, offer them rides right from the accident scene to a medical office, where the runner will get paid a handsome “referral fee” by the doctors- thousands of dollars. Sometimes, the runners don’t get to the accident scene in time to lure accident victims away from proper medical care. But that doesn’t stop these runners from harassing accident victims. Hospital workers, ambulance drivers, even police officers will sell these runners your most personal information for hefty prices. Armed with this information, runners and ambulance chasers will visit houses, text, call, and write accident victims until they relent.

Make no mistake about it- hustling cases like this is illegal and unethical. But since there is more money to be made selling accident victims and their personal, private information to the highest bidder than there is selling drugs on the street; the “runners” aren’t running scared. Instead, they are running all the way to the bank.

Wow…really good fodder for a anti-hero plot, right? He’s a sleazy, Better Call Saul type of dude who preys on vulnerable people and sells your personal info on the street to the highest bidder! Now that’s a great start for any character, so kudos to the writer for recognizing this potential.

But…

If Unnamed Man remains a predator throughout the whole book and learns nothing, what happens? We won’t care about him. And that is death to any book.

So, to go back to structure again, this opening really needs a good scene of extended dialogue between Simon Vann and Unnamed Man explaining what a case runner is and it needs to set up the plot catalyst that Unnamed Man is going to the dark side.

Let me do some quick line editing to make a few other points.

The funny thing is, my folks wanted me to be a lawyer.  I assume the writer means that it’s ironic that his parents wanted him to be a lawyer but then he became a case running sleazo?

It’s a profession. You’ll always make a living. Like Uncle Mike.

That was before Uncle Mike, my father’s older step-brother, went to prison for skimming trusts. He died there, in pretty short order.

After sitting through more of Dad’s drunk disorderly and domestic abuse hearings than I could count, I wasn’t interested in law. Nice bit of sad backstory, but it could be a tad more personalized. After sitting in the back of too many courtrooms next to my crying mother, watching my dad….I majored in computer science, where? We need to know where this story is taking place and this would drop a hint. with a minor in bookmaking, as a runner for Sweet Clete Sojack. I had a little credit card harvesting going on the side: go-go growth businesses practically invited me to grab their transaction data for resale, and in a pinch I could Netstumble my way into wide-open WiFi. Again, this is nice voice but it’s a little thin. Can we have a hint as to why a guy who made it to college felt compelled to run numbers and steal credit card info? The problem is, you are really setting him up as unlikeable.

But I was better at getting the info than covering my tracks, so I also did a little time. Again, a little thin on telling details. What was he busted for? Can you make it more personal and involving for us? Unlike Uncle Mike, I not only got out in 18 months, but emerged with a profession, funnily enough related to law, in about the same way as I was related to Uncle Mike. On first read, this seems like cheeky good writing. But it is really confusing because in a couple graphs, we’re right back in prison. And, dear writer, you gave away your main plot point too easily. Him emerging from prison with a dark side job is a cool BAM! plot moment. Don’t bury it in a tossed-off narrative comment.

You can learn a lot of things in prison. Some, a lot, we’ll leave unsaid. But you meet people who see things just a little differently, the spaces between the itch and the scratch where money can be made. Syntax problem here. Do you mean they see things just a little clearly, like recognizing that space between the itch…

One of these people was Simon Vann, who had been a plaintiffs’ attorney until a case where much of his plaintiff class turned out to have already handed over powers of attorney to out-of-state relatives before signing with him. The houses, the cars, the boat, the sugar on the side, were all gone in a flash. He blamed himself for one thing and one thing only.  How does he know this? 

“I called the wrong case runner. Tried to save a few bucks.” He waved liver-spotted hands around the prison library. “Worked out great, huh?”

I asked him what a case runner was. Again, this conversation must have the structure and context of a dramatic scene. Why are they talking about this? You have to slow down and choreograph your scene with more detail and clarity. 

“See, there are laws against an attorney cooking up a cause of action and then finding warm bodies for plaintiffs. They call it ‘champertry’. So there’s a service, kind of a grey area, people who generate leads, finding and referring people whose issues jibe with the theory of the case. For a small fee per head, the attorney gets parties already qualified by the case runner.” Simon stared at the book in his hand, a history of power boats. “He hopes.” As I said, the definition of case runner is essential to your book. You have to break down in layman terms, even if it’s coming from the mouth of a lawyer. Remember, Unnammed Man is NOT a lawyer, so he can ask “dumb” questions for the reader. First, figure out a reason for this conversation to be happening, then give us DIALOGUE ie action. Example:

I had heard around the exercise yard that Vann was looking to hire someone to work on the outside. It was big money for little work, rumor was. I was getting out in eight weeks and with my record had no chance of scoring something big in the computer biz.

Simon looked up at me as I approached his table. “I hear you’re looking for work,” he said.

How he had figured that out I’d never know. But I took it for a cue to slide into the chair across from him.

Then start the dialogue about what a case runner is. And your plot and character is off and running.

One last nit. You notice how annoying it was for me to keep using the phrase Unnamed Man? You need to find a way to gracefully tell us your guy’s name and quickly.

So, I hope you find this useful and not too discouraging. As I said, you’ve got some writer chops. You just need to figure out the structure issues and more important, how you want to make us want to root for your guy. Thanks for submitting!

 

 

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