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

Do You Dare To Eat A Peach?
Finding the Perfect Metaphor

I want to paint the way a bird sings. — Claude Monet

By PJ Parrish

I don’t want to burst your bubble, but coming up with metaphors and similes is hard. Bad ones are a dime a dozen and coming up with good ones is like banging your head against a brick wall. You will be tempted to farm the over-tilled soil, tread the road already taken, resort to the tried and true. But you have to look through the rain to see the rainbow.

I guess you know my topic for today. I’ve written about it before here at TKZ, but I read something on this subject yesterday that had an impact on me, and I’d like to share it.

First, I don’t know about you, but I could use a quick primer of definitions.

Allusion: A brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. He’s a real Romeo. She’s on a quixotic quest. This will open a real Pandora’s box

Then we get to the Three Amigos – analogy, metaphor and simile. Even as an English Lit major, I got these confused. Still do. So I found this easy guide on Daniel Miessler’s blog:

Analogies compare things so that you can see a relationship between them. There are many ways to do it, but the key thing is comparing one thing to another.

Similes do this by saying something is “like” or “as” something else. He’s like a wall. She’s as smart as a whip. Her temper was like a storm.

Metaphors do this by saying something “is” something else. That test was murder. The company was a sinking ship. The campaign is a dumpster fire.

Got it? Now here’s what got me thinking about this — a feature called New Sentences in the Sunday New York Times magazine. In it, Sam Anderson analyzes a metaphor from Paul Yoon’s short story “The Mountain.”

She reached down with a gentleness that reminded Faye of an arm underwater, the completion of a stroke.

Anderson then weighs in with the story’s context:

In the middle of the night, a woman sits alone on the ground, ill and exhausted. She is a factory worker in China. A truck full of people happens to pass by. It stops. A woman inside reaches down in a gesture of care – a surprisingly tender moment in an otherwise brutal world. The narrator’s description is perfect.

Describing nonverbal communication is tricky. As human animals we are fluent in a vast, complex language of gesture and posture and expression. But how do we translate that nonverbal language into verbal language? There are plenty of words for it: People smirk, loom, flinch, slump, scowl, tremble, stride, nod, stare. Even such vivid verbs are only rough approximations of the expressive richness of the motions they describe.

An arm reaching down is one of the more familiar movements in the human lexicon. It can express all kinds of things, from menace to boredom to exhaustion. The narrator’s description here transposes that familiar gesture into a different element altogether. The end of a swimming stroke is something we normally don’t see; it happens as a kind of footnote, underwater to the visible part of the stroke. The drag on the arm, which in the swimming stroke would be provided by the resistance of the water, is here a result of an emotion, a gentleness.

I love that. Love the swimming image and love what Sam Anderson saw in it.

Metaphors and similes are maybe the most precise tools in our writer’s toolbox. We all know how much beauty and power they can add to our fiction. But like anything powerful, they can backfire badly. (See first paragraph). When they work, they elevate your story, illuminate your characters and make your readers go, “Yes! I know what that is like!”  When they fail, they make you look like a fool.

Coming up with rich and original metaphors and similes is really hard. No other way to say that. And in the heat of a deadline or the frustration of the daily writing grind, we’ve all veered off onto the cliche road. If you find yourself going there, read THIS. It’s a handy list of bad metaphors. Avoid them like the plague.

Where to go for good inspiration? The Bible is rich in beautiful metaphors. The main one, of course, is Jesus’s description of himself — “I am the good shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep.” — John 10:14-15

Ditto for Shakespeare who told us that our world is a stage and we poor novelists are merely strutting our time upon it. When Romeo describes Juliet, it is with this beautiful Valentine: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Back in my lit classes, I had several forced encounters with TS Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So many in fact, I grew to hate this poem. Last spring, when I was winnowing out my books in anticipation of our move, I found my college copy of Eliot’s collected poems. Don’t know what made me go back to Prufrock, but I did.  Do you remember the opening line?

Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.

And go I did. I couldn’t stop reading after that. The sparkling and startling metaphors and similes kept coming and coming. Sea imagery about mermaids “combing the white hair of the waves blown back.” “I am pinned and wriggling on the wall.” “Ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” And of course, the fog — “a yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.”

Why does the fog image work? It conveys mood. The fog is a menacing beast stalking a city of “one-night cheap motels and streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent.” Eliot has said this was inspired by the yellow smog he saw spewing from factories in his hometown St. Louis. But he was also a cat lover — he wrote the book on which the musical Cats was based – so the feline image is there.

Compare this to Carl Sandberg’s fog which “comes in on little cat feet and sits looking over the harbor on its haunches before it moves on.”

Why does this work? It also conveys mood, in this case mystery and silkiness. It is accurate and immediately recognizable (who hasn’t seen a slinking cat?). Even its alliterative “H” makes you think of softness, like a slow exhale in misty air.

Back to Prufrock…

I always thought this was an odd line — “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” When I was in college, I figured this was a metaphor for indecision, which relates to the opening image of paralysis (etherized patient) and a later reference to Hamlet. But when I read it recently, it was though the lens of a 66-year-old woman, so the metaphors and similes now seem to be more about rationing your time on earth at the expense of experiencing joy. Eliot was a mere pup of a grad student when he wrote this, but said he was imagining his narrator as a “man of about 40.” So who knows?

It does make me think of one of another of my favorite metaphors, from Groucho Marx: “A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.”

So how do you know if your metaphors and similes are working? Boy, I wish I could tell you for sure, but there’s no easy way. It’s a feeling, I think. It’s like that finding that sweet spot in the tennis racket – you can just feel it. Or when you hit a homer. You know you’ve connected and that it’s going out.

Let’s extend the sports metaphor: I don’t play golf but my best friend Linda does. She took a lot of lessons, trying to do all the right things with her grip, stance, breathing, etc. But she could never seem to hit a good tee shot. One day, frustrated and angry, she finally “let it go” and just hit the ball. It went far and true. She realized she was getting so hung up on the all rules about technique that she had lost her natural flow.

The great golfer Bobby Jones tells the story about his father’s frustration during a round of bad ball striking. Angrily he made a perfect practice swing and asked Jones, “Now what’s the matter with that swing?” To which Jones replied, “Nothing. Why don’t you use it sometime?”

My friend Linda got rid of her golf instructor. Her game is improving and she’s having fun. So it is with metaphors and such. If you try too hard, you’ll whiff every time. Many of you participate in the National Novel Writing Month exercise or write poetry, and I’ll bet you come up with some great creative stuff only to tense up when you turn to your novel. I know I’ve seen writers in workshops produce terrific stuff — amazing themselves! — when I give them five-minute writing drills.

Well, maybe you have to learn to use the rhythmic swing you’ve developed during “practice swings” and use them in actual play.  You’ll feel it when it’s good.

And when it’s bad? Come on, you know what that feels like, too, right? When you’ve laid down a metaphoric mound of writing poop, you know in your gut it’s bad. Because it didn’t come from your experience but from somewhere else. Or worse, from somebody else.

Here’s a rule. Yeah, I know, we don’t have rules, but I’m breaking the rule and giving you a rule.

If you’re ever in doubt as to whether or not you’ve pulled a metaphor off, cut it out.

That’s it. Don’t listen to your ego (“But I worked so hard to come up with that!”) Don’t listen to your inner artiste. (“But it’s so beautiful!” Yeah, just like all babies are beautiful, right?) The first goal of fiction is communication, reaching your reader emotionally. You don’t need to dazzle and you don’t want to distract.

Now go hit some tee shots.

 

13+

First Page Critique:
Opening With a Good Bad Guy

In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They want an ordinary human being with failings. — Alfred Hitchcock.

By PJ Parrish

Well, this was fun. Nothing like a good bad guy to get things rolling. Here, for our consideration, is today’s First Page Critique, titled Goodbye Detective.  After you read it, we’re going to dig down into the burnt-cinder souls of villains.

Goodbye Detective

As you are reading this, Detective, know that I did not mean to kill her at first. I do not seek absolution from you, or anyone – we have moved well beyond that by now – but I want you to understand how we arrived at the here and now.

This has not always been about you. I have done this before you came around, and I will continue long after they have called your End of Watch. You were nothing to me – a faceless badge – until you first stepped in front of those microphones. A rising star in the department, youthful and clean-shaven and with your freshly minted shield gleaming in the camera lights, you were quite the sight to behold. You seemed comfortable in the spotlight as you fielded questions and recounted the sparse evidence I allowed to be found. When you delivered your promise to bring me to justice, it was not the first time that I heard those words. But there was something about the way you said them and that fire of determination I recognized in your eyes that made me take notice. You were different than the ones before you, and this would require my full attention.

At first, I simply wanted to throw you off. Let you follow a trail that leads nowhere or deliver you an with an unwitting patsy you can build your case around. This has worked for me in the past, but you saw right through those attempts to lead you astray. You snooped and dug ever deeper, connecting bodies to me that I had all but forgotten and you became all-consumed by this case of yours. By me.

Each time you stepped in front of those cameras – a small update here, a major break in the case there – you looked worse for wear. Gone was the well-groomed youth, his place taken by an ever more disheveled figure, stubble-faced and unkempt. The dark furrows beneath your eyes grew deeper with every long hour you spent on the case. I came to understand that you would not be deterred, and I respected your tenacity. But it meant that for the first time I had to alter my approach. You had become my biggest fan and I had found a playmate

_________________________________

We’re back. This is certainly an interesting start. And I think it’s well-written, so I am not going to do my usual line edits. Got no nits to pick. What I like about this is that the voice is solid, and we get a hint of the villain’s personality. Notice that the word choices, the vocabulary and syntax imply a man of some education. He feels almost Hannibal Lector-ish. Good job with that.

We also get some early glimpses of the protagonist (the detective) through the villain’s sensibility. One of the most effective ways to show your protagonist’s character is to reveal it through the thoughts or others. We are told he was a fresh-faced rising star. But time, and this case, have worn him down. We are told he is tenacious. And he’s not the first man to work this case…there have been a lot of bodies. All of this is smoothly inserted back story. Good job, writer!

The only thing I don’t like — the title. It doesn’t do this justice. But it’s an okay working title and maybe the real title will reveal itself later. It often does.  Shoot, I’d rather see this called End of Watch. Which would work on a couple levels — it’s the end of a policeman’s shift but might it also describe what the detective seeks — the end of the watching (stalking) done by the bad guy.  A good title does two important things — captures the tone of the story and works on several levels of meaning.

I would read on. But I am not sure how much further, if you overstay in the villain’s head. The usual caveat here with our First Page Critiques:  Because the submission has to be short, we don’t really know where this is going.  But the opening pages do illuminate an important point — you have to seduce the reader (be it editor, agent, or reader) in the first page or so and make them want more.  I think this writer succeeds, but I would caution that this opening be short and sweet and get us to the hero soon — or some kind of action because this opening is, essentially, character thinking and not doing.

In film, this kind of opening is called the Establishing Character Moment — a red flag to pay attention to a major character. You can’t wait too long to do this because it breeds impatience. And you can’t dwell on false protagonists or secondary characters too long or the reader will assume this is the hero, get attached, and then be disappointed.  A couple months back, I read a manuscript for the Mystery Writers of America Critique Program and the submission had a fatal flaw — the writer introduced five characters in the first 30 pages, each with their own point of view. Because the book’s title has a subtitle (ie A Sylvia Drake Mystery…not the real name) we know Sylvia is the protag. But poor Sylvia is showing up way too late for her own party. Not good.

Back to the Establishing Character Moment.  Novel writing is a series of choices the writer makes, and who comes on stage first is an important choice. I have no problem at all with the villain in the submission, instead of the hero, getting prime time.  It’s a common trope in thriller books and movies.

The movie Dirty Harry begins with a rooftop close-up of a gun barrel, zooms down to a pretty girl taking a swim in a pool, then zooms back out until we see the sniper take his deadly shot.

Joyce Carol Oates (under her crime novel pen name Rosamond Smith) opens Snake Eyes with a tight-focus scene about her tattooed convict Lee Roy Sears before she pulls her camera back and switches to the suburban couple who fatally take him into their home.

One of my fave Hitchcock’s openings is from Rope with two murderers garroting a victim, stuffing him in a trunk, and sharing a drink — all before James Stewart sets foot on stage. Check it out:

So what do we make of the opening of our submission Goodbye Detective? As I said, I think it’s good. It’s not a normal third-person or omniscient narrative (“The man watched her from the rooftop, aiming his rifle carefully.”)  It’s not even a normal first-person point of view (“I set the barrel of the rifle on the ledge and waited until the girl below drove in before I took aim.”)  No, this is more stylized with the villain (in first person), “talking” to the detective, or perhaps actually writing to him. But in a way, he is also talking to us the readers, like an actor breaking the fourth wall with an audience. I think this is tough style to maintain over 200+ pages, but I will give the writer the benefit of the doubt and hope s/he moves toward a more active first-person voice for the villain.

I tried to think of an example from a published book that was similar to what the writer is attempting here but drew a blank.  But I will offer up one terrific example of an opening featuring the villain. First we get one orgasmic graph describing the moon then comes this:

I had been waiting and watching the priest for five weeks now. The need had been prickling and teasing prodding at me to find one, the next one, find this priest. Three weeks I had known he was it, the next one, we belonged to the Dark Passenger, he and I together. And that three weeks I had been fighting the pressure, the growing Need rising in me like a great wave that roars up and over the beach and does not recede, only swells with every tick of the bright night’s clock.

That’s from Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I know, I know…technically Dexter is both hero and villain. He’s a little like the main character in Jim Thompson’s classic The Killer Inside Me, about a small-town good ol’ boy sheriff who is actually a depraved psychopath. I’m bring them up only to make a point here:

If you open with the bad guy, it better be good. Make  sure his voice is pitch-perfect, original, and that it’s your best possible writing.

Another example of a villain opening, from one of my fave college reads, John Fowles’ The Collector:

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annex. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M.I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in a queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like Burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at the back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.

Let’s talk now about structure.  If you do open with a villain, you have to make choices about how you present him, what form it will take:

  • What point of view — third or third?
  • Prologue or chapter 1?
  • A constant presence throughout the book or limited?
  • Identify by name or leave him a ghostly figure?

Our submitting writer chose first person, and I assume it’s Chapter 1. We can’t tell if this POV will be constant throughout the book, but I will caution that if you do decide to give your villain screen time, you should make him a constant presence throughout your narrative. One opening scene isn’t enough; in my opinion, it feels tacked on, like a false attempt to inject tension in the opening.

If you’ll indulge me, I think a recounting here of my own experience with villain openings might help us understand this. I’ve used a villain POV many times but opened with it only twice. The first time was with our third book Paint It Black. Here it is:

The car was just sitting there, its hazard lights blinking like beacons in the darkness. In a flash of lightening, he could see someone walking around the car, in and out of the shadows.

Stop here? No, no, not right. Rain…too much rain. It wasn’t supposed to happen here. Stop! Stop!

He slowed the truck, pulling onto the shoulder behind the stalled car. A man came around the car and looked back at him, shielding his eyes in the glare of the headlights. 

The wipers beat with the thick pounding in his head. He could see the man’s face. And his eyes, hopeful, as they squinted back to his rescuer.

Yes…oh, yes.

This was Chapter 1, not a prologue because it segued right into the following scene. The killer gets his own scenes in the book, at a ratio of about one-to-three vs the hero. I didn’t name him until Louis figured out who he was.  Choices…

Now I’ll tell you about the villain opening I almost screwed up. But first, I have to talk about the book that inspired my choices — Michael Connelly’s The Poet. If you are considering giving your villain a starring role, you must read this book. Connelly toggles between his reporter hero Jack McEvoy (using first-person) and his villain William Gladden (third-person.)  The first two chapters are from Jack’s POV, but then Connelly opens Chapter 3 with the slow-build tension of Gladden watching kids on the Santa Monica Pier merry-go-round.

When I was writing my first stand-alone thriller, I knew I wanted to toggle between hero and villain. Using Connelly’s template, I also mixed first and third POV. But because I had written a dozen books in third person — my comfort zone — I gave that to my hero, and gave the villain first person.  Can you see the problem?

Well, the fifty pages in, book was a snoozer and I couldn’t figure out why. Luckily, I ran into Mike Connelly at a writers conference and asked his advice. “Give the more intimate first to your hero,” he said. Once I did that, the book wrote itself. I opened with the villain, watching his victim in Saint Chapelle in Paris:

He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

The last rays of the setting sun slanted through the stained glass window over her head, bathing her in a rainbow. He knew it was just a trick of light, that the ancient glassmakers added copper oxide to make the green, cobalt to make the blue, and real gold to make the red. He knew all of this.

But still, she was beautiful.

I loved writing from this villain’s point of view. Which is another caution flag I need to throw out here. Villains are very seductive. They are more fun to write than heroes. So be careful you don’t use up all your writer juice on them.

A couple more tips about villains:

Keep in mind that once you enter the villain’s mind, you risk sacrificing some of your story’s tension because the reader will know what’s going to happen. Find ways to keep them guessing, even when in the bad guy’s head.

 

Make your villain a worthy adversary. In real life, criminals are usually dumb as stumps. But in fiction, a complex villain gives your hero something to push back against. What’s the old quote? Even a villain is the hero of his own story. Develop your antagonist with as much care as your protagonist. Every character must want something. Especially your villain. Figure out what that is and drill deep.

Good job, writer. Thanks for submitting.

 

9+

Cutting Open the Sausage:
A Hard Look at Rewriting

“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” –Vladimir Nabokov.

By PJ Parrish

This is it. This is the third draft. This is the last best chance to get it right.

I’m in rewrite hell this week. Actually, it’s not hell. To me, at least. I love this phase of the process because the really hard work is done — the laying of the foundation, the erecting of the beams, the finishing of the roof.  Now I just have to go back in and make sure the structure is sturdy, the flow from room to room logical, and the style true to my own. Oh, and it would be great if someone gets so emotionally caught up that they maybe want to buy it.

Rewriting is where the book is truly made. No one will ever convince me otherwise. Yeah, my sister and I can turn out a pretty decent first draft, but who wants pretty decent these days? What reader would settle for it? What writer would? So I’m digging back into the coffee-stained third draft this week to up the ante as far as I can.

Now maybe you’re one of those rare birds who can produce a perfect book in a single swoop. (Like Lee Child who told one interviewer: “I don’t want to improve it. When I’ve written something, that is the way it has to stay.”). But most of us need to go back and reassess and rearrange. I always tell my workshop folks that the first draft is written with the heart, but the second, third…tenth, well, that’s written with the head.

Two quick tips: Wait as long as you can stand after you finish your first draft to start rewrites. You need a break from the beast that has consumed your life for eight months or eight years. Also, I always print out a manuscript for rewriting because the eye, so attuned to the screen, becomes inured to error and excess.  Seeing your work in a physical state also gives it a gravitas that the computer can’t imitate. Here’s my big baby in three messy piles:

Now what I’d like to do is show you my draft’s innards. But before I drag out my sausage machine, let’s do a quick review of rewrite basics:

Structural Problems

This is a big issue, so be prepared to spend a lot of time and brain-power on it. You’re going to find plot holes to plug, characters to amplify, a muddy middle to amp up, conflicts to bring into higher relief. Oh yeah….and you might uncover that elusive theme.  Ask yourself all the basic questions that our bloggers here post about: Is your three-act structure sound? Do your characters want something and is it important enough to drive their arcs? Is your central conflict tantalizing enough to support a whole novel? What, at its heart, is your book about? (not plot, but theme.).

Logic Lapses

Does your plot make sense and it is believable? (Those are two different things). Do you resort to a deus ex machina or the Long Lost Uncle From Australia villain reveal? Do your characters act in accordance with their natures or do you have them doing stupid illogical things? Are your police and forensics procedures sound or did you try to fake it? (ie clip and magazine are not the same). Does your research hold up? Is your fantasy, horror or alien world well-rendered and credible?

Confusion and Clarity Issues

Can the reader easily figure out what’s going on? This does not mean artful misdirection or red herrings. This means you choreograph movement and events carefully, everything from small stuff like moving people across a room or a country to big things like why did they did a certain thing (motivation).  Do you make it clear where we are and what time period we’re in? Can the reader discern a mood or tone in your book (dark? hardboiled? humorous? sardonic?)

Flabby Writing

Have you ferreted out all the junk-writing? This includes overwrought and repetitious description, dumb physical moves (“He bent his left arm and brought the beer up to his lips.”…no, he took a drink.)  Do you rely on adverbs instead of muscular dialogue? Have you pruned away all the unnecessary words you can, especially as you near the last third of the story when the reader wants to move faster?

Proof Reading

Spelling, grammar, punctuation…know them or hire an editor who does. Watch out for dumb inconsistencies like changing a character’s eye color or name spelling. Double check for errors (use Google maps to verify that it is, indeed, a four-hour drive from Moose Butt to Manitou).  Did you get rid of all your brain farts? I once read a novel that described the crime as as grizzly murder. Shoot, in one of my first drafts, I had a distraught character balling like a girl…thank God for editors.

Okay, now let’s look at some of my mistakes and I’ll show you how I hope to run ’em back through the sausage-making machine:

Here we are on page 1 and already I have a problem. In my first chapter (indeed, the whole book) I neglected to tell the reader what year we’re in. My series started in year 1981 and has progressed now to 1991.  I have to make sure my readers know this early because the forensics, cell phones, computers are all going to be different. But notice that I DID find a way to tell readers we are in Lansing Michigan.  I have a logic/plot problem here. In the deleted part, the sheriff offers to plant a story about Louis’s case in the local paper, hoping to stir up leads. But if he does this, it will tip off a suspect who I have come forward fifteen chapters later — and it blows up the plot! This sounded good when I wrote it on pg 82 but it doesn’t hold up on page 345.

This one falls under Elmore Leonard’s Kill Your Darlings.  Louis is about to uncover a major gruesome clue and plot point on next page. (Yay! Momentum!) Why in the world do I need him looking around this farm at deer or listening to crows? (Boo! Screeching halt!) It was a pretty image when I wrote it but adds nothing, especially since I had already described the lonely isolation of the place in vivid detail two pages ago.

Nice clean page, right? Except for one bone-headed mistake. One of my main characters is a teetotaler. It’s a big point in his make-up, which my hero Louis knows. So why does Louis set a beer at the man’s side? Always watch for dumb mistakes and inconsistencies. In film, a script supervisor oversees the continuity of a movie including wardrobe, props, set dressing, hair, makeup and the actions of the actors during a scene. You don’t have one of these backing you up. So be careful.

I call this one the Jacqueline Susann problem. The copy after the double space is the beginning of a seven-page scene where Louis goes to a state forensics lab to log in his evidence. It’s interesting in so much as it shows nerdy police procedure. But my book is running long so I have to MAKE DECISIONS about what to put “on camera” and what to recount in narrative. Now some scenes must be on camera (decisive action, great clue reveals) but some stuff can be dealt with efficiently in a character’s thoughts after the fact.  I am going to cut this scene and in the following chapter just say “Louis went to the lab in Marquette and logged in the evidence.”  Back to Jackie Susann: When she turned in one of her potboilers, she devoted an entire chapter to a Democratic National Convention (she had gone to one and was going to show off her research, damn it!). Her wise editor Michael Korda told her to cut it.  She fought him but in the end the book said: “The convention was held.”

See the part in red? During first draft, I was trying to hone the theme (forgiving those who hurt you as a child) so I was acutely aware of all religious references I used. In this scene, Louis has interviewed an ex-priest who took confession from a murderer decades ago. The priest talks about the sanctity of the confessional but how his guilt eventually drove him from the Church. Catholic cops grapple hard with this issue. But after a powerful scene with the priest, do I really need Louis thinking about this? No, it was one theme-bridge too far.  Lesson: Have a theme but don’t preach.

I am a perfectionist. It is hard for me to move on until I get a paragraph, a scene, a chapter right. I am trying hard to change this flaw. My sister flogs me constantly: JUST WRITE! So now I put notes to myself in red to fix it later. This is called faith. {{sigh}} Read the ending of this scene. It sucks, right? I know that. I will fix it. Lesson: Don’t get paralyzed by perfection. Move forward. Chances are excellent that by the time you finish the first draft you will know exactly how to make an early chapter end — or begin — with more punch and precision.

Look at the beginning of chapter 24.  Argh! I opened it with weather. Now, that is okay except that it is April in Michigan and it is raining almost every day in my book. By page 274, the reader GETS that because I have told them at least four times. Lesson: Go easy on weather and don’t repeat the obvious.

I included this page just to make the point about flabby writing. All the stuff I crossed out is fat. Always aim for economy, which is not the same as underwriting (a sin in its own right). When you are just moving characters around in time and space, do it with as few and unflashy words as possible.  Almost half the pages in my manuscript are marked up like this.

I saved the most important one for last. The sin isn’t apparent to you but boy, did it jump off the page when I read it in rewrites. We laid down a very complicated bread-crumb trail of clues in this book about mistaken identities, time-lines, family trees. So it was critical that as the book neared its climax, we explained this so the reader would understand how the puzzle finally fit together.  Well, we didn’t do a good job of ‘splainin. As a major clue, we had two photographs of boys that we thought was a peachy misdirection but it only confused the reader in the end. It came on page 441 and was a major plot mistake that we had to acknowledge and correct. It was major surgery but without it, the book would have died. Lesson 1: Don’t avoid the hardest work. Lesson 2: Don’t confuse the reader. Especially at the end, after they have invested so much time and heart into your story.  Make the ending clear, satisfying and logical.  Your plot twists must be well-earned.

That’s it, crime dogs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.

 

13+

The Rituals of Writing

By PJ Parrish

This one is going to be shorter than my usual Michener-esque meanderings, because two things have happened this week:

  1. We finished the book
  2. Rewrites are needed — bad.

So I thought maybe, for a change, we could talk about something that doesn’t cause us writers angst — the positive little rituals that help get us through our days.  I thought about this today because whenever my sister Kelly and I finish a first draft, we have a special ritual.  First I type a word

THE

Then she types a word

END

Then we crack open an unshabby bottle of wine, preferably champagne, hug each other and get smashed. We started this ritual way back in 2000 after we finished our second book Dead of Winter.  It came about because back then, as we were nearing the finish line, Kelly would routinely come down to visit me in Fort Lauderdale and we would work together in my office, back-to-back on our computers.  Sort of like Ferrante and Teicher, except that Kelly’s two-finger hunt-and-peck key pounding tended to sound more like Keith Moon.

We kept to our ritual for a couple years, but then life started to intrude. Kelly’s life became peripatetic and hectic.  She couldn’t easily get down to Florida.  So we had to resort to ritual-by-email.  I would type THE on the Word Perfect doc and then send it to her.  She would type END and send it back. We’d then get on the phone and toast each other from our respective corners of the world.  It wasn’t as much fun.

Then around book six or nine — I forget — Skype came into being. Now, this was a god-send for our partnership because I could call up a chapter on my screen, share, and she could see it on her screen thousands of miles away while we talked about it. And we were able, when we were finished, at least see each other as we raised our glasses.

This is also how we opened Christmas presents. Better, but it still wasn’t the same.

A couple years ago, Kelly finally made it back to our home state of Michigan, settling finally, after a couple false starts, in beautiful Traverse City.  I was secretly envious because I really didn’t like living in South Florida, but I had put down deep roots. Then last year, my husband Daniel gave me the best gift he’s ever given me — he agreed to leave the place where he had lived for 40 years so I could be happier. We sold our Fort Lauderdale condo and bought a little house in Tallahassee, where we are very content. But then, came the icing on the cake.  Because of the move to Tally, we had enough left over to buy a small condo in Traverse City.  So I’m officially a snowbird.  A very happy one. So’s the husband.  He told me the other day, “Thank you for making me do this. I needed a kick in the ass.”

So for the first time in ten years, Kelly and I were in one place when we finished the book.  We bought a bottle of SEX pink champagne from Mawby vineyards here in TC, typed out THE END, hugged and uncorked.  The wine is only $15 a bottle but tasted like Veuve Clicquot Brut Rose.

I love rituals, especially when they involve family. Like opening presents on Christmas Eve instead of morning.  Deviled eggs for Thanksgiving dinner. Celebrating our sixth-month anniversary every year with my husband because we never thought we’d make it that far.  Rituals are important.  They are the bonds, born of our memories, that keep us from spinning away into the lonely void.

Most of my writer friends have rituals, some silly, some serious. One of my favorite scenes from the movie Misery is the opening, where Paul Sheldon types THE END and then indulges in his own writer-ritual — gently tucking his finished manuscript to bed in his old briefcase, setting out one cigarette, one match and a bottle of Dom. Here’s the scene if you want to watch:

I can relate. Can you? Rituals help us establish a sense of continuity in a business that can make us feel ungrounded and unguarded. And if you think your rituals are weird…

Roald Dahl, when he wants to write, gets into a sleeping bag, pulls it up to his waist and settles into a faded wing-backed armchair. He puts his feet up on a battered traveling case full of logs. This is roped to the legs of the armchair so it’s always at a perfect distance.

Joan Didion holds her books close to her heart—literally. When she’s close to finishing one, she’ll sleep beside it in the same room. “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it,” she said in a 1968 interview with The Paris Review.

The great Greek statesman Demosthenes, to get himself in the writing groove, would shave one side of his head so he wouldn’t be tempted to leave the house until he was finished.

John Steinbeck, who wrote his drafts in pencil, always kept twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. He wore them down to nubs. His editor started sending him round pencils instead of normal hexagonal ones, because Steinbeck had developed such bad callouses.

So…whatever your ritual, wallow in it. It makes you special. It is part of your style, and I hope that something of that uniqueness, that weirdness, shows up on the page every day.

Gotta go. Rewrites await. I’m considering that if I don’t get serious about them pretty quickly here, I might have to go shave half my hair off.  But that might be just the Sex talking.

 

10+

What Do Readers Really Want?

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

And makes me feel for his people —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6+

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

By PJ Parrish

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

INNOCENT VAMPIRE GIRLS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then I’ll have my usual.”

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

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

“She’s on ice.”

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

“That’s partly correct.”

“What part?”

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

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

“That wasn’t a joke Vick.”

“Yeah. Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

I said, “Enforcers?”

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

________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then I’ll have my usual.”

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

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

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

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

“She’s on ice.”

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

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

“What part?”

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

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

“That wasn’t a joke Vick.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for submitting, writer. Comments open!

6+

Time To Start Thinking About Book Two!

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

By PJ Parrish

We really need to talk about your second book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

7+

Do You Write In the Nude?

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

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

Like writing naked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

11+

On Breaking the Writing Rules,
Bad Advice and Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee in his library of 2500 books.

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

By PJ Parrish

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

Or in my case, didn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

Before he painted this

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

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

Don’t use adverbs!

Don’t use passive voice!

Keep backstory under control!

Write every day or you die!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7+

Showing Versus Telling:
So SHOW Me Already!

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

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

(((((ZZZzzzzzzz))))

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

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

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

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

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

Third person POV detached

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

Third person POV intimate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, so show me already!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a rewrite of the same scene:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another way to handle the same material:

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

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

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

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

My own parade – every day.

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

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

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

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

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

Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials.

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

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

“Police! Anyone here?”

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

“Against the wall, lady.”

“But —”

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

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

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

Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.

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

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

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

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

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

Jake…

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

And her…

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

He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.

“You remembered,” she said.

He frowned. “Remembered what?”

“That this is my favorite restaurant.”

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

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

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

TELLING DRAMATIC ACTION

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

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

SHOWING DRAMATIC ACTION

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

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

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

He dropped to his knees and looked up.

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

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

In summary, here are the pitfalls of TELLING

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

Here are the strengths of SHOWING

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

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

8+