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

On Chandler, Dilettantes, Getting Paid, And The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Writer

“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.” — Raymond Chandler

By PJ Parrish

I am not feeling hollow or empty today, but damn, I do love that Chandler line. More on him in a moment.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this past fortnight, of newspapers, websites, scientific journals. It’s the times, I guess. Forcing me to focus more on the tough realities of life rather than the simple rewards of the creative process. Yet…amidst the gloom and doom, I’ve dug up some ores of joy. I hope you don’t mind me sharing a miscellany of writing wisdom today.

A Case For Being Merely Good

Sunday, Jim Bell wrote about inspiring quotes for writers, words that might help us all be better professionals. Sue followed that with inspiring rituals of great writers. So allow me to now offer something for the dilettantes among us.  This comes from Kurt Vonnegut, no less.

“When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.
And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”
And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”
And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.”

I just love this. Because here are some things I love that I am pretty good at but not great at:  Piano playing, pickleball, cooking, gardening, oil painting, speaking French, juggling. It used to bother me that I did not excel at these things, but Vonnegut was onto something here. Being “good at things” is not the point. Enjoying the ride is.  I’m sure all of you have a similar list to mine. And to all of you still struggling with your first attempts at writing, or are feeling, like Vonnegut, “inundated with the myth of talent,” remember to take joy in the process.

Book Sales Soar

News we can use! From Publishers Weekly: In the first half of 2020, unit sales of print books surprised many in the industry by posting a 2.9% increase over the same period in 2019 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan, overcoming a slump in sales in early spring following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Print sales finished 2020 up 8.2% over 2019, and that strong performance continued into 2021, with units jumping 18.5% in the first six months over the comparable period in 2020. With the exception of the juvenile nonfiction category, all the major publishing categories had double-digit sales increases in the first half of the year. Backlist had the strongest gains, up 21.4%, but frontlist sales were also solid, rising 12.4%.

People are reading! And they are buying old books of published authors. I know this for a fact because I got an Amazon royalty check this week for $45.87 and spent it on diet dog food. Seriously, this is good news. YA fiction showed the biggest jump. Click here for full report.

Never Sell Yourself Short

When I was first starting out in the novel biz decades ago, I would accept any gig that came my way. Luncheon speaker for women’s club? I’m there! Book signing at mall craft fair? Count me in! Set up a card table at a street market even though it meant driving four hours one way? No problem!  Problem is, there was a problem. I thought that I had to accept every event possible to get the word out about my books. The problem was I wasn’t getting paid for my time, or reimbursed for travel or expenses. The problem was, I didn’t sell that many books. The problem was, I was exhausted, cannibalizing myself — my limited energy and TIME — and getting very little in return.

This sad history came back to me this week via a thread on an author-friend’s Facebook page. Louis Baynard asked the hive whether it was worth it to accept most invitations to sign or promote books. Most the published authors said the line they heard most was: “The exposure will be good for you.”  To which I wrote, nuts to that. It was my good friend Elaine Viets who set me straight and said that any organization that wanted to book me as a lunch speaker had to buy X-copies of my book and include it in the price the attendees paid. I took her advice and it worked. And I also learned how to gracefully say no.  Got more writing done and was happier for it. So, those of you just starting out, I advise this: Say yes to libraries because they will shelf your books. Say yes to indie bookstores because they will hand sell you. Say no to everyone who wants to pay you in “exposure.”

Don’t believe me? Well, listen to Harlan Ellison. Warning: The language gets a little…blue.

I Wanted To Be A Literary Novelist But I Realized I Liked Plot. 

Jean Hanff Korelitz was exhausted by wrestling with the second draft of a novel that was refusing to come together. She was nervous about a meeting with her editor, who had already turned the book down once. At the meeting, an idea for a thriller popped into her head and that was the beginning of a new writing life, complete with a blurb from Stephen King.  Not sure how I feel about this one. You tell me!  Click here. 

From Chandler With Love

A couple day ago was the 133rd anniversary of the birth of Raymond Chandler, patron saint of Los Angeles noir and perhaps the most famous crime fiction writer of all time. I came very late in life to Chandler, well after I had begun my own crime fiction journey. Probably just as well that I didn’t read him early on or I would have said, “screw this” and been content to take Vonnegut’s advice and be an unpublished bad poet. But darn, Chandler’s stuff just dances.

Over at Literary Hub, Dan Sheehan went through Chandler’s nine books and pulled out some of his most iconic lines. Just a sampler:

From The Big Sleep:

  • Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
  • It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.
  • I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.

From Farewell My Lovely:

  • It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
  • She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.
  • The coffee shop smell was strong enough to build a garage on.

Click here to read more. You won’t regret it. Or, if you’re in the middle of wrestling your WIP to the mat, maybe you will.

And Just So You Won’t Feel Alone…

I leave you with a TikTok tidbit from another Facebook writer friend Jon Merz. Turn on your sound. You’re going to like his take on “What It’s Like Writing A Novel.” Although I do think Hendricks is far superior to Sapphire gin when things are going south.

@jonfmerz

True story. #booktok #booktoker #authortok #authorsoftiktok #fyp #fypシ #foryourpage #read

♬ original sound – Jon F Merz

 

What’s It All About, Alfie?
Figuring Out Chapter Arcs

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. — William Butler Yeats.

By PJ Parrish

Recently I did a manuscript critique for charity. This was a much longer version of what we regularly do here at TKZ with our First Page Critiques, about 30 pages. But it’s funny…some of the same issues we talk about in 400-word samples are also readily apparent in this longer sample.

But one thing really strikes me about both: Often the writer doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on what their scene is “about.”  And this is a fatal flaw that affects your plot structure and your characterizations.

I was going to do a full-throttle post on this for today when I realized (with that little nagging voice that comes with older age) that I might have covered this before. Sure enough, there in the archives was my post from October 2019: “What’s Your Point? Figuring Out What Goes Into Each Chapter.

It’s worth a revisit, I think. Back in 2019, one of our regulars here BK Jackson, posted this comment:

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

And Marilynn added:

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

This is exactly what was going on with my recent critique. The writer offered three completed chapters. In Chapter 1, he seemed to have a good grasp of where he was going: A man (I’ll call him Dan) returns to his small hometown of Tomales, California on a visit but learns about the mysterious death of a college friend. Interweaving personal revelations about his family is this possible murder and Dan begins to feel compelled to investigate. Good! Amateur sleuth sub-genre. A mysterious murder. Family secrets mixed in. Nice start.

But then came chapter two. It flashbacks 20 years prior (with a time tagline to alert us) and we get the 18-year-old version of Dan who, on scholarship, is entering Stanford University, where he feels inferior. The only action in this chapter seems to be when a roommate drags him to a cigar-frat party, telling him he needs to better himself so he can get in with “the right people.” (The title of the book). Dan, in his cheap suit and bad haircut, feels out of place among the swells and the beautiful coeds. The chapter ends with him yearning to be in this fancy world.

Chapter 3 goes back to the present. Dan, now a lawyer with a family, meets his old friend (and four other men in their circle from Stanford) for drinks. As the alcohol flows, the past (and Dan’s jealousy and inferiority complex) flairs anew. Dan tries to bring up with the death of the college friend (a shy kid who the others knew but was not part of their group) and everyone cuts him off. Most of the chapter is backstory on each of the men in the frat circle — how successful they are now. Dan leaves the bar and meets his wife for dinner. The end of the chapter is Dan thinking that someone in his old cigar group knows something about the murder and he thinks that no matter how far you get in life, you’re just an older version of your young insecure self.

That’s it.

Now, there was some good writing in the chapters. But do you see the issue? I got the feeling the writer, after the decent set up of Chapter 1, wasn’t sure where to go plot-wise. It was as if he was thinking, “Oops! I’ve hit 2000 words, I better wrap this up!” and just stopped.  I told him, gently but firmly, in the critique, that he didn’t have a firm grasp of the PURPOSE OF EACH SCENE AND CHAPTER.  The short synopsis that came with the submission seemed to verify this.

Now, I am a confirmed pantser. I don’t outline. But I never start writing a chapter until I have figured out exactly what I need to accomplish in each. To quote myself from my old post:

How you CHOSE to divide up your story affects your reader’s level of engagement. The way you CHOSE to chop up your plot-meat helps the reader digest it. The way you CHOSE to parcel out character traits helps your reader bond with people. And the way you CHOSE to manipulate your story via chapter division enhances — or destroys — their enjoyment.

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

No, you don’t need to outline, but you really need to stop and ask yourself questions before you write one word: How do you divide up your story into chapters? Where do you break them? How long should each chapter be? How many chapters long should your book be? And maybe the hardest thing to figure out: What is the purpose of each chapter? Or as BK put it, what is the “goal?”

The first chapter is relatively easy. To review what we talk about all the time with our First Page Critiques: An opening chapter should establish time and place, introduce a major character (often the protagonist or villain), set the tone, and set up some disturbance in the norm. (A body has been found, a gauntlet thrown, a character called to action).

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

Each chapter needs a good beginning, an arc, and a satisfying ending. I don’t know if this is helpful, but as I told my critique person, I think of each chapter as an island. I figure out the “geography” of each island and then — and this is important — I build bridges between them.

Here are a few other techniques I’ve found helpful:

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

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

Don’t visualize your book as a continuous unbroken roll. Think of it as a lot of little story units you can move around. Think Lego blocks, not toilet paper. Some writers draw elaborate story boards, others use software. I use Post-It notes, color coded for POVs, and shuffle them around on a poster board. I love this cartoon from Jessica Hatchigan’s blog on how to storyboard your plot:

Yes, it’s that easy. 🙂

Look for logical breaks to end and begin chapters. You might change locations. Or point of view. Or there’s a change in time (hours or years depending on your story). Maybe there is just a change in dramatic intensity. Say you just wrapped up a big mano-a-mano fight. The next chapter might be your hero licking his wounds as he pours over old police files (what I call a “case chapter or info chapter.”) It goes to pacing. Not every chapter has to be wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Follow up an intense action scene chapter with a slower chapter that allows the reader to catch their breath. Just make sure it advances the plot!

Think resolution or big tease. As I said, every chapter has its own mini-arc that fits into the major overall arc of your story. So, in a sense, most chapters should “resolve” themselves in some way. A car chase ends. A victim dies. Two cops figure out a major clue and decide to act. One character tells another something important about their background. However: It’s also effective to stop just before the climax. You lead your reader right up to the edge of a tense moment then you end the chapter. Just make sure you deliver in the next one.

So, in summary, as I told my critique writer, you have to get the elbow grease of the brain working before you write. Every chapter needs clear goals, things you need to accomplish in it.  Stop. Look. Listen to your inner voice and those of your characters. Then…write right.

 

Collecting Moments of Pleasure,
Thanks To A Favorite Author

By PJ Parrish

It was going to be a tough crowd. They had gathered out on the docks of the Bahia Mar resort in Fort Lauderdale — a pelican-glide away from the Busted Flush’s slip F18, no less.

The plaque at slip F18 at Bahia Mar.

It was hot, and the audience was sweating under the October sun. But no one was sweating more than me. Because I was there as part of a panel of mystery writers to talk about what John D. MacDonald meant to me, and I had never read one of his books.

I could have lied. But I didn’t. I fessed up, and after the gasps died, I talked about the stuff I had read -– the good old stuff -– John D. MacDonald’s short stories.

I hadn’t read them all. He turned out nearly a million words worth of stories in his life, and many were lost to time. But I had read everything I could get my hands on because in those days, I was teaching myself how to write short-form fiction, and sticking to Carver, O’Conner, Oates just wasn’t doing it for me. I found a copy of MacDonald’s collection, The Good Old Stuff in a used book store in Fort Lauderdale. When I read those stories, it was like someone smacked me aside the head with an oar, forcing new synapses to fire in my writer-brain.

Most these stories were begun after MacDonald returned from the army as a way to support his family. He worked eighty hours a week, writing across a style spectrum that included crime pulp, westerns, sci-fi and fantasy, keeping as many as thirty-five submissions in the mail at all times.

He also wrote love stories for women’s magazines, usually about hapless husbands. I still remember this scene from “She Tried to Make Her Man Behave,” where a wife confronts her husband with this: “The marriage book said a good marriage is a case of both people making adjustments.” To which the husband relies, “That sounds as if I’m due to make one.”

Cheever might have liked that one.

In 1950, in “Breathe No More,” MacDonald gave us the McGee prototype Park Falkner, an eccentric sarong-wearing millionaire who lives on Grouper Island in Florida. Falkner’s gal-pal is Taffy Angus, who is the sun-kissed rough draft for every McGee woman who drifts off or dies horribly.

So, back to that sweaty day at Bahia Mar. I told the audience what I had learned from reading the good old stuff. I told them that these stories had everything — vivid characters in diamond-bright settings, elegance and economy, wryness and wit, and that sense of inevitability that I search for in all good fiction. And every one of them, even the flawed efforts, had that strange music, what MacDonald himself called “a bit of unobtrusive poetry.”

For my reward, the organizer of the event presented me with pristine copy of The Deep Blue Goodbye. I read it that night in one sitting and I didn’t look back as I made my way across the MacDonald rainbow. On my beside table now is The Scarlet Ruse. 

Maybe it is because I am getting old, but when I read this passage recently, it really got to me. It is classic Travis and undoubtedly classic MacD himself (who was a mere pup of 56 when he wrote it):

I collect moments of total subjective pleasure, box them up, and put them in a shed in the back of my head, never having to open them up again, but knowing they are there.

So what would be a gem in the collection?

A time when I am totally fit and I have just come wading through one the fringes of hell, have been stressed right up to my breaking point, have expected to by whisked out of life, but was not. I am out of it, and if there is any pain, it is too dwindled to notice. I am in some warm place where the air and sea are bright. There are chores to do when I feel like it, but nothing urgent. I am in some remote place where no one can find me and bother me. There is good music when and if I want it. There is a drink I have not yet tasted. There is a scent of some good thing a-cooking slowly. There is a lovely laughing lady, close enough to touch, and there are no tensions between us except the ones which come from need. There is no need to know the day, the month, or the year. We will stay until it is time to go, and we will not know when that time will come until we wake up one day and it is upon us.

The passage resonates with me because this past annus horribilis has made me cling ever more tightly to the few things in my life that matter. Like Travis, I am in a remote place (northern Michigan) where no one can bother me. I am happy with good music, a little drink of the locally distilled whiskey, perch cooking in butter, friends and family held close. Like McGee, I am comforted in the notion that I am lucky to have survived, hell, even thrived, for six decades and counting. That, and the fact that I as I slide into…ahem…the late autumn of life, I, too, am more determined than ever to “collect moments of total subjective pleasure, box them up, and put them in a shed in the back of my head.”

And to not fret about the future, to just “stay until it is time to go, and we will not know when that time will come until we wake up one day and it is upon us.”

I love the fact that I can still mine nuggets like this from old books. I love the fact that I can count on certain writers to still make me laugh, teach me things, inspire me, and reaffirm what is important when it is easy to forget. I love the fact that the MacDonald rainbow remains ever green.

TKZ hive: What books or writers do you return to again and again? What writers tickle your brain and enlarge your heart?

 

First Page Critique: What
Is The Key To Rebecca?

By PJ Parrish

Good morning, folks. Hope your long weekend was spent with family and friends and connections were reborn. I’m up in Michigan now for half the year and it has been wonderful seeing family again. It’s great to get hugs and go out for a hamburger. But now it’s time to get back to work, so on this Tuesday, I offer up a First Pager from one of our contributors. Give it a read and we’ll talk.

Girl in the Leaves

“How are you feeling today, Rebecca?” Dr. Ashley Riley asked, seated behind a large pine desk. “It’s been eleven months since our last session.” She walked from around the desk, took a seat in the leather chair across from me and placed a recording device on the table separating the two of us. Doctor Riley was a lean, bright-eyed woman in her mid-fifties.

Her long, chestnut hair had been pulled into a ponytail.

My eyes burned from lack of sleep. “Peachy-keen, Doc.”

“Nice try. Now tell me the truth.”

This woman had always been direct—a quality I both liked and disliked about her. Soft music played in the background. A large flat screen television displayed a fireplace, its flames moving in harmony with the melody. I never understood the benefit of listening to the sounds of sitar music, but never enough to ask to stop it.

My right knee trembled. I thought about sipping the iced coffee but decided against it. I have a ruby birthstone where my wedding band used to be. Sometimes, like now, when I’m nervous I twist it around my finger.

“I’ve been having dreams. Nightmares would be more accurate.”

“What kind of nightmares?”

“My mother getting away with murder.”

She stared at me. “The trial date been scheduled?”

“No. And that’s disconcerting.”

“How long has she been awaiting trial?”

“Eighteen months and counting.”

Doctor Riley pursed her lips, taking in the information. She never responded too quickly. I wondered if this was a skill taught by her professors at school or honed over time. “In the grand scheme of things, eighteen months for a high-profile case is not uncommon. As a homicide detective, you know this. So why don’t you tell me what’s eating at you.”

I stood. My legs went all rubbery and for a moment I worried they might give out. They didn’t and I walked over to an aquarium. A variety of marine life called this home. My favorite was the Oscar who seemed to rule the tank. As a child my father, my biological one not the animal who molested me, bought me a fishbowl when I turned six. He helped pick out a Beta. But after my father’s death, I could never bring myself to own another fish tank.

_____________________

There’s a lot I like about this beginning, so most my thoughts, dear writer, are focused on subtle ways to perhaps refine what is already here. Although the opening is not action-packed, it has a good quiet tension about it that would make me want to read on. I’ve read a lot of these kind of openings in recent years — a troubled protagonist is in a doctor’s office and the doctor’s questioning is our portal into the plot. It’s a common trope now, so there’s a chance this can feel stagey and trite. I’ll let you all weigh in on that, but I’m willing to give the writer some time to develop Rebecca’s story a bit more.

I like that the writer is conveying necessary backstory info via dialogue rather than merely relying on narrative. (She/he is using both here). For example, the writer could have written something like this:

I had been having nightmares for months now and they were always the same — some variation that my mother, who had killed my father, had broken out of prison and was now coming for me. The thing was, I didn’t even know where my mother was and the trial wasn’t scheduled for another eighteen months. But I still was plagued by bad dreams.

(I took some plot liberties to make a point.) What’s wrong with this? Eh, it’s all narrative and while it’s okay, it’s much more compelling to dole out this info via dialogue, as our writer does. Always remember: DIALOGUE IS ACTION.  So kudos writer! Yes, it’s okay to move into pure narrative at times, as this writer does with this:

As a child my father, my biological one not the animal who molested me, bought me a fishbowl when I turned six. He helped pick out a Beta. But after my father’s death, I could never bring myself to own another fish tank.

The revelation about the mother comes via dialogue, so I like the change-up when the writer switches to narrative/memory for the father backstory. It’s all about controlling your pacing and giving the reader variety. Narrative = slowing down. Action/Dialogue = speeding up and immediacy. So use each wisely when it comes to pacing.

Now, let’s talk about the opening graph. I’m not crazy about it. If you open with a quote, especially from the non-protagonist, it darn well better be a good one. “How are you feeling today?” just doesn’t rock my boat. It has no resonance, no juicy hidden meaning. With the rest of the scene being so good, I’d like the writer to try to find something less banal. Now the NEXT line, wherein the doc tells us Rebecca’s been AWOL from her therapy for nearly a year IS interesting. And I would think that this fact is foremost in the doctor’s mind. Weigh in if you disagree!

Also, I think we have a problem with focus here. The doctor gets the first line, the first full name, and the first physical action. Which takes our focus OFF Rebecca at the very time when we need to establish a connection with her. We need the reader’s full attention on Rebecca. Even if the writer choses to give the doctor the first line, I’d take her name and physical movement out of the equation. This is easily fixed, something like:

“You’ve been away a long time, Rebecca. What happened?”

I stared at the woman across the desk from me, trying to figure out how to answer. Dr. Ashley Riley was a lean, bright-eyed woman in her mid-fifties. The last time I had seen her, her chestnut hair had been short, but now she was wearing it in a ponytail. I realized I couldn’t remember how long ago our last session had been — six months, a year?

How the doc wears her hair is not important — unless you MAKE it mean or relate something, in this case, Rebecca’s absence. Description needs to have purpose. Don’t lavish description and dialogue on secondary characters at the expense of your protagonist. (especially in first person POV).

Now, let’s do a quick line edit.

“How are you feeling today, Rebecca?” Dr. Ashley Riley asked, seated behind a large pine desk. “It’s been eleven months since our last session.” She walked from around the desk, took a seat in the leather chair across from me and placed a recording device on the table separating the two of us. Doctor Riley was a lean, bright-eyed woman in her mid-fifties. This is what I mean by wasting description on a secondary character, which created a false-focus in the reader’s mind.  Ditto the detail about the ponytail below.

A note about the doctor placing a “recording device” on the desk. I asked a psychiatrist friend about this and she said that sessions are not routinely recorded and that most doctors just take notes. If recordings are needed, they must be with the consent of the patient to be legal. So the writer has to eliminate this or clarify it.

Her long, chestnut hair had been pulled into a ponytail.

My eyes burned from lack of sleep. Nice detail. “Peachy-keen, Doc.”

“Nice try. Now tell me the truth.” Dialogue is brisk and note lack of attribution. Not needed!

This woman had always been direct—a quality I both liked and disliked about herMight be a good place to drop in backstory: How long has she been seeing this doc?  Soft sitar music played in the background. A large flat screen television displayed a fireplace, its flames moving in harmony with the melody. I never understood the benefit of listening to the sounds of sitar music, but never enough to ask to stop it. Something missing here. “but was never brave enough…? 

My right knee trembled. I thought about sipping the iced coffee where did it come from? but decided against it. I have a ruby birthstone where my wedding band used to be. Nice way to slip in backstory! Sometimes, like now, when I’m nervous I twist it around my finger.

“I’ve been having dreams. Nightmares would be more accurate.”

“What kind of nightmares?”

“My mother getting away with murder.” Well, this makes me want to read more, as does the next exchange. Mom’s up on a “high profile case” maybe a murder charge? But apparently, she’s out on bail? Unclear. Also, IF indeed mom is up for murder, she can’t get bail pending trial. (Very rare exceptions). Check the facts in your state where your story takes place, writer. 

She stared at me. “The trial date been scheduled?”

“No. And that’s disconcerting.”

“How long has she been awaiting trial?”

“Eighteen months and counting.”

Doctor Riley pursed her lips, taking in the information. She never responded too quickly. I wondered if this was a skill taught by her professors at school or honed over time. Given she’s in her mid-fifties, this is an odd thought.

New graph needed her since it’s doc talking, since the last thought was Rebecca’s. “In the grand scheme of things, eighteen months for a high-profile case is not uncommon. As a homicide detective, you know this. Great way to convey what the protag does! The writer could have put this in Rebecca’s thoughts ie  “As a homicide detective, I knew that…” But that is so clumsy. Note how much more adroit this is. So why don’t you tell me what’s eating at you.”

I stood. My legs went all rubbery and for a moment I worried they might give out. They didn’t and I walked over to an aquarium. Note that by saving a physical movement for here and giving it to Rebecca rather than the doc, you train focus on REBECCA! Keep the doc stationary and in the background where she belongs. A variety of marine life called this home. My favorite was the Oscar who seemed to rule the tank. Remember, she’s been away from this office for almost a year. I’d have her look for him, almost as a comfort. (Oscars can live 20 years btw) So if the fish is gone now, that could mean something, even just metaphorically, to Rebecca. Who, btw, lost her father, who at one point ruled the tank/home. As a child my father — my biological one not the animal who molested me  — I’d use dashes here to set this important thing apart bought me a fishbowl when I turned six. He helped pick out a Beta. But after my father’s death, I could never bring myself to own another fish tank.

Small fix needed for this: As a child, my father…bought me. Change this to: When I was six, my father — my biological one not the animal who molested me — bought me a fishbowl.  

Some might find this passage about the fathers heavy-handed but I like it. It’s a shocking revelation, but because the writer wisely couched it in a benign memory-association of a the fish tank, it worked, imho. It also makes me wonder if mom killed dad! But that’s good — to make me wonder!

So, dear writer, I like what you’re doing here. You’ve got an adept hand at gracefully inserting info and backstory. The dialogue is good and the opening promising. As I said, I would read on. But give some thought to massaging that opening graph. There’s a better one in you and Rebecca will thank you for it.

BTW, I like your title because I trust that it comes to really mean something in the context of your plot. Thanks for submitting, keep writing, and good luck!

 

Give A Writer Enough Trope
And They’ll Hang Themselves

By PJ Parrish

I was an English literature major way back in college and I now am going on record that not once did I ever encounter the word “trope.”

Now it’s possible I might have dosed off during my 8 a.m. Post-Colonial British Literature class and missed it. But all these decades later, I can safely say that the word “trope” has never taken a front seat in my writer brain. Motif. Theme. Allegory. Irony. Even synecdoche I can remember. But trope…nope.

Yet I’ve run across the word at least six times in recent months, usually in book and movie reviews, which forced me to the Google machine to find out what the heck I’ve been missing. So, to save you the trouble…

literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.

I added the red there because that second definition sort of pissed me off.  One of my pet peeves is when a perfectly good word gets corrupted by misuse and comes to mean both sides of something, and thus means nothing.  Examples:

Hellacious. It began life as college slang in the 1930s, a combo of “hell” and “bodacious” and it was used as a negative. “What a hellacious storm!” Now, it can mean either good or bad. Which renders it impotent.

Fulsome. It used to be negative, starting out (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) as “filling” then “tending to cause nausea,” then finally “wearisome from excess or repetition.” Now, I guess because “full” sounds good, it has come to be misused as “generous.” The beloved professor received fulsome praise. A good word gone to meh.

Okay, okay, I am being pedantic, I know. English is a gloriously elastic language. “Girl” was just a young lady once, then it became a sort of pejorative, to put women down or even men, as in “You throw like a girl.” But of late, women have (thankfully, I say) reclaimed it as a power badge. And then there is the word “fizzle.”  We use it today to mean something just sort of peters out, right? In the 1500s, it meant to silently pass gas. Which is now called “crop dusting.”

But I digress. Back to trope.

As I noted above, it has two divergent definitions. At its best, a trope is a time-honored technique or classic theme. Good literary tropes honor genre traditions. At its worst, a trope is a cliché, something overused that shows a lack of original thought.

Now I for one, think “genre” itself is not a dirty word. I think of crime fiction the same way I think of ballet. (I spent 18 years as a dance critic). In ballet, there are only FIVE arm positions and FIVE foot positions. Everything in ballet emerges from that.  Yet from that tight formula came love stories as old as Petipa’s romantic “Swan Lake” to the new of George Balanchine’s abstract “Agon.”

We crime dogs honor the formulas of our genre, yet the best of us, like Balanchine, color outside the lines. But here’s the point of all this: As you ponder your plot and characterizations, the hard part is distinguishing between what is a good and useful trope of our genre and what is just tired cliché. Let me give it a try and then I hope you all will weigh in, please.

Bad Clichés.

The Alcoholic Detective or Cop. This is an attempt, I think, to show that the protag has a hard job or worse, hates his job. Or it’s a lazy stand-in for “tortured past” or “deep soulfulness.” Bull hockey. Now, we were guilty of this our in my first mystery, Dark of the Moon. We had our protag Louis Kincaid hitting the cheap brandy way too often. I don’t think we realized way back in 1998 that it was a cliche, but there it was. To our credit, we built on this and had Louis recognize his fault, especially when a child entered his life. If you are going to use this, it darn well be part of a very believable character arc. Teresa Schwegel created a great portrait of cop Samantha Mack in her 2005 Edgar-winning debut Officer Down.

Eager Rookie Assigned to Bitter Veteran. Way back in 1976, Clint Eastwood grumbled about being teamed up with noobie Tyne Daly who is, gasp! also a woman. (Dirty Harry: “If she wants to play lumberjack, she’s going to have to learn to handle her end of the log.”)  And of course, the rookie always ends up teaching the burned-out cop a valuable life lesson. (Or she gets offed. To his credit, Harry felt really bad about this). I’d steer clear of this one unless you’ve got a really fresh slant.

The Cop or Detective With Bad Marriage or Alienated Kid. Yeah, law enforcement is tough on relationships, but this has been done to death. In the hands of a great writer (think Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River), it’s deeply knitted into the plot. But don’t use this as a crutch to slap a veneer of emotional depth on your protag. I’ve seen veteran writers who should know better stumble with this one. Oh, and the divorced cop always seems to find a new hot woman to save him.

The Dumb Sidekick. A sidekick is a very useful plot device, as it gives your protag someone to talk to (dialogue is action!) and bounce ideas off. I wrote a post about creating good sidekicks a while back. Click here. But a clueless foil, put there just to make your protag look clever, contributes nothing. At best, these secondary characters should have talents and life experiences of their own. Think Spenser’s friend Hawk, McGee’s cerebral Meyer or Elvis Cole’s sociopath Joe Pike who was so cool he got his own book. And yes, we could spend a whole post here debating whether Watson is really as dense as he sometimes seems.

Good Tropes. (These are purely my taste!)

Creepy Settings. I am a sucker for anything decaying, neglected or isolated. (My favorite Nancy Drew was Clue in the Crumbling Wall). Whenever Kelly and I begin a book, we think hard about the setting, almost always leaning toward the neo-gothic.  In An Unquiet Grave, we trap Louis in tunnels below an abandoned insane asylum. In Heart of Ice, it’s a ruined hunting lodge on Mackinac Island. In Island of Bones, it’s a remote private island in the Florida Gulf, peopled by a family time has left behind. I think I was influenced by Daphne du Maurier’s stories, especially Don’t Look Now, a chilling tale of a father who keeps seeing his dead child running through the dank alleyways of Venice. (Made into an eerie movie with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.)

Trouble in Paradise. Ah yes. Everything is beautiful, until it’s not. Agatha Christie might have started this trope when she sent Poiret on a cruise down the Nile. But this idea has been recycled with great freshness, notably by Ruth Ware in The Woman In Cabin 10. One of my favorites is Noah Hawley’s Edgar-winner Before The Fall, wherein a picture-perfect family departs Martha’s Vineyard in their private plane and only a down-on-his-luck painter and a little boy survive a crash into the ocean.

Coming Out of the Fog. This is a classic in medias res opening. A character wakes up in a place they don’t recognize. How did they get there? Why are they there? There is a feeling (vague or real) of peril. And of course, getting out is what sets the plot in motion. Sometimes the character has no memory, or can recall an abduction, being drunk or in an accident. I ventured close to cliche with She’s Not There, wherein my protag wakes up in a hospital with amnesia. And it took a lot of plot effort and thought to backstory to make it work. Tread carefully here, but it can be a really great way to fast-break your story from the gate.

Over at GoodReads, they’ve got their own list of classic tropes and some good examples of current cirme fiction under these categories:

  • The Locked Room.
  • We’re All Trapped Here Together!
  • Help! These Kids Are Creepy
  • I Think My Spouse Is Out To Get Me
  • The Inheritance Plot

And last, we have to deal with…

The Unreliable Narrator. Okay, I recognize its lineage: Poe begat Roger Ackroyd who begat Holden Caulfield who begat Teddy Daniels who begat Amy Dunne who begat legions of liars.  But I’m tired of the trickery. Trope or cliche? What say you?

 

The Pros and Cons of Using Profanity In Your Stories

By PJ Parrish

Note: This post contains some salty language. 

Got an interesting fan email the other day. It was from a long-time reader who had just gotten around to getting our most recent Louis Kincaid book The Damage Done. She started off by telling us how much she loved our books but then went on to lament our use of…blue language. Here’s the nut graph of the letter:

I’m not a prude and my reading tastes go more toward more hardboiled authors than cozies.  In your latest book I counted 35 “damns” or “dammits,” 40 “hells,” almost as many “sh*ts” and 10 f-bombs. I realize that criminals and police officers use profanity. But I wonder if in your attempt to be realistic in your writing, you go too far in trying to mimic their speech.

First, I was sort of impressed that she took the time to count all the bad words. But second, and more important, I understood what she is saying. And it got me thinking — not for the first time because I’ve gotten letters like this before — about how we crime dogs deal with profanity in our novels.

Early in our series, my sister and I salted our dialogue with more profanity than we did later. I think it was because we did, indeed, get sucked into the notion that such language gave our books the imprimatur of “hardboiled.” (read that as “serious,” which is a really misguided distinction that many in our business still cling to.)

But as we got better at our craft, we realized that while yes, cops and bad guys swear and use un-PC vulgarities, we didn’t have to. At least as much as we were doing. Profanity, like adjectives, needs to be used sparingly, in my humble writer-opinion. You don’t need purple prose descriptions. So maybe you don’t need blue language crutches?

My writing life seems peppered with synchronicities, and sure enough, as I was working on this post yesterday, I happened upon a TV interview with John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He was on TV to promote his latest book, Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now, and Forever.

Fascinating guy. He talked about how our favorite nasty words (up two from George Carlins’ infamous Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television) have evolved over time to the point that even the shock value of the f-bomb has become diluted and it’s now commonplace.

He pointed out that, over the centuries, what we think of as nasty has evolved. In medieval times, when religion was the center of life, swearing to God was “a big deal.” But over the years, “God damn him” was shortened to “damn” and became less a “command to condemn,” as much as a “mere bark of annoyance,” McWhorter says.  To my mind, “damn” has faded from navy blue to soft denim.

McWhorter went on to say that as the power of religion waned, our obsession with our body functions — especially sex and excrement — became the focus of our profanity. Growing up in the Fifties, I remember just some kid whispering “fart” brought on a spasm of giggles. I don’t think I ever even heard the f-bomb until late high school. I suspect most elementary school kids today have a working, if clandestine, relationship with it.

Digression alert: If you want to blame someone for f—k, you can look to the Vikings, McWhorter says. When they invaded England in 787, they came armed with the f-bomb.

“A now obsolete Norwegian word like fukka would have been a fine candidate for what became our four-letter word of choice,” he said in an interview with the New York Post. “No squinting is necessary — fukka meant exactly what it looks like.”

It became common in England after that. One of the earliest recorded uses was in 1528 when a nameless monk was critiquing Cicero’s De Officiis and lamented the annoying  annotations of “a f-kin’ abbott.”

“After the 1500s, ‘f–k’ is rarely printed, not even appearing in dictionaries from 1795 to 1965,” McWhorter writes. I just checked my own 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1 and no f-bomb. The English have apparently cleaned up their act. Although I don’t think my English friend Crazy Tim got the memo since he peppers his emails with such a panoply of purple prose that I have to resort to Googling “Dirty Brit Slang” to translate.  I’ve learned such useful insults as pillock, wanker, tosser to add to my favorite — twit.

Digression alert: Children’s author Roald Dahl wrote a book called The Twits – a twisted tale of a vicious married couple who love to torment their pet monkeys and each other. (Mrs. Twit loves to take out her glass eye and drop it in Mr. Twit’s beer.) “Twit” has lost its original punch, and now is used, rather sweetly, for someone who’s being silly.

McWhorter thinks we make too much of profanity. In our long evolution of what we accept, he thinks the real forbidden words today are slurs, such as the N-word or “f—-t,” which originally meant a bundle of sticks but morphed into an insult for homosexuals.

So what does this mean for us crime dogs? Well, as I said, I thought it was good for me to clean up my act. Any time I find myself typing a blue word, I stop and think: “Do I really need this here?” I think it’s up to each of us to find our own paths, based on our writing styles, the tone of our books and yes, our personal beliefs.

Your writing should never call undue attention to itself, I think. Sure, your protag or bad guy might be profane, and well-placed small doses of profanity can add verisimilitude to your story. But your goal is to create believable characters, not make your readers get their knickers in a twist.

I have good friends who cringe when I let out a modest “damn” because they are deeply religious and consider it blasphemous. I try to respect that. I have other friends who use the f-bomb in daily speech with complete abandon. I myself use it. I guess because, as Professor McWhorter notes, swearing sometimes just feels good. He says that’s the way our brains process language and studies have shown that when humans swear, the right side of our brains — the area associated with emotion and cathartic expression — lights up on imaging scans.

“Curse words are not words, in a sense,” McWhorter says. “They’re eruptions.”

So, before I leave and let you all weigh in on where you stand about eruptions in your writing, I give you one last thing. It is from Monty Python, who elevate irreverence to a high art. I love this skit. But then, I am such a twit…

 

Here Are The Words You Need
To Kill, She Advised Ruthlessly

“Put down everything that comes into your head, and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” — Colette.

By PJ Parrish

I’m in editing mode this week. After getting the rights back to one of our older series books Thicker Than Water, we’re getting ready to self-publish it on Amazon. It’s been fun going back and reading a work that we wrote nineteen years ago. (yikes…nineteen years?)

It’s also eye opening. Because even though I had always thought this was one of our tightest written books, I’m finding a lot of detritus, lint, and junk wordage. Which led me to start thinking hard about Colette’s advice.

Yeah, put down everything that comes into your head. That’s the hot-flash passion of the first draft. But then, cool down and start the cold-hearted process of killing your darlings. Write with your heart. Edit with your head.

Sue’s post from yesterday offered this tasty morsel from writing instructor Gary Provost:

When writing…remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without.

Gary’s advice extends of course, to every word you cannot do without. This is a concept that many novelists struggle with, even us old dogs with twenty or more books under our belts. I see this regularly with most of our First Page Critique submissions. Often, I ask the writers to put more in — to establish a sense of place and time frame, to begin creating a mood, to begin layering in character with well-placed snippets of backstory. But more often, there are many words — let’s call them junk words — that should be sliced out because they contribute nothing.

So…you’ve got that first draft done. You’ve let it bake in the hard drive for at least a week. You’re ready to edit with the head. What should you look to cut?

Filler Words. First, get the easy stuff out of there, words like “really,” “very,” “that,” “suddenly,” and my favorite foible — “then.”

  • “Suddenly, a shot whizzed by my head” becomes “A shot whizzed by my head.” Gun shots tend to come at you pretty suddenly. No need to gild the Glock.
  • “And then Louis lowered himself into the dark cavern” becomes “Louis lowered himself into the dark cavern.”
  • “His dog Stella was very excited to see him as he came in the door” becomes “Stella was excited to see him come in the door.” Or even better: “Stella’s tail whirled like a helicopter rotor when he came in.”   Show, don’t tell whenever you can.

Redundancies. We all do this — we just stick these junk words in and move on. It’s almost like we don’t even see the insidious little suckers. Things like: The armed gunman ran down the alley. The gunman didn’t realize he was in close proximity to the cop. But he got back to the parked Fiat and make his getaway in the sleek little foreign import. After ditching the Fiat, he snuck into the estate, stopping at the pool to toss in his Glock. He went inside, mingling among the the invited guests. When the cop spotted the Glock at the bottom of the pool, he knew it was a major breakthrough in the case.”

Adverbs. Yeah, we’re going to beat up on poor old adverbs again. But with good reason. Yes, you can use one once in a blue moon but you rarely need to. The presence of an adverb usually means the absence of something else.  Nine times out of ten, if you need an adverb, your verb is puny and you need to work harder.

  • “She wept uncontrollably” becomes “She sobbed.”
  • “He walked jauntily into the bar as if he owned the place.” This becomes “He sauntered into the bar.” BTW, stuff like “as if he owned the place” is cliche. You didn’t invent it so don’t try to steal it.
  • “Stella the dog ran quickly across the lawn to get the ball” becomes “Stella raced to get the ball.”

Watch out for adverbial “said” tags. They are crutches we all use when we’ve written lazy dialogue.

  • “You’re crazy to think you can get away with this,” he said angrily becomes “You’re nuts! You can’t get away with this!” he yelled. (Yes, you can use the occasional exclamation point.)
  • “I like you,” she said flirtatiously becomes “You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.” (One of Matty’s best lines just before she seduces Ned Racine in Body Heat.) If your dialogue is as sinewy as this, you don’t need said tags.

Be aware that, given our pulp ancestors, we modern crime fiction writers can fall prey to the purple adverbs of yore. “He smiled thinly.”  “She frowned grimly.”  And yes, this is from The Maltese Falcon, which means Hammett can pull this off but the rest of us can’t anymore: “Sorry,” Spade said, and grinned wolfishly, showing his jaw teeth.”

And if I ever see any of you writing things like “She whispered softly” or “He screamed loudly” I will hunt you down and smash your Acer. She said mercilessly.

Okay, time for an object lesson. Here is the ending of a chapter in the book I am editing. Quick set-up: Louis Kincaid is trying to crack an old case — the murder of a teenager named Kitty Jagger. He has sought out the original detective from the case, Bob Ahnert, who’s been demoted and is exiled to an out-station on the edge of the Everglades. Here is the scene, as we wrote and as it was published in 2003:

“I think you still want to solve this case,” Louis said. “In fact, I think you’re the only one who does.”

“Besides you, you mean,” Ahnert replied.

Louis took a moment to answer. “Yes.”

Ahnert was silent for a long time, looking out over the desolate landscape.

“It’s over for me,” he said finally. “She’s yours now.”

Louis was surprised to hear a hint of relief in Ahnert’s voice. He wondered what the hell had happened to this man twenty years ago. He suspected that Ahnert had been so obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer that it had destroyed his career and the rest of his life. He suddenly could hear Sheriff Mobley talking to him as he leaned over the bar at O’Sullivan’s.

He stole an item that belonged to the victim. A gold necklace. Some kind of heart-shaped locket. Guess Ahnert needed the money.

But Louis knew that Ahnert had not needed the money a cheap locket would have brought, and he also suspected now that he had been wrong about Ahnert being obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer. Ahnert was obsessed with Kitty herself.

“Why did you stop investigating?” Louis asked.

“I was told to to stop,” Ahnert said.

Louis shook his head. “I don’t believe that.”

Ahnert finally looked back at Louis. “I was hung up on a dead girl,” he said, then looked away. “That’s really sick, isn’t it.”

Louis ran a hand over the back of his neck and looked up at the sun. But it wasn’t the sun that was making him sweat. It was his own growing suspicion that he, too, was hung up on Kitty Jagger. 

“I’m just trying to give her some justice,” Louis said quietly.

Ahnert tossed his cigar into the sand and ground it out with his boot. Then he picked a piece of tobacco off his lip and flicked it away.

“Here’s some advice,” he said. “Forget justice. Just give her some peace.”

Now here’s my editing. I took out every filler word, every dumb hiccup-word, every extraneous emotion-word that I could.

“I think you still want to solve this case,” Louis said. “I think you’re the only one who does.”

“Besides you, you mean,” Ahnert replied.

Louis took a moment to answer. “Yes.”

Ahnert was silent for a long time, looking out over the desolate landscape.

“It’s over for me,” he said finally. “She’s yours now.”

Louis was surprised to hear a There was a hint of relief in Ahnert’s voice. He wondered What the hell had happened to this man twenty years ago? He suspected that Ahnert Had been so been so obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer that it had destroyed his career and the rest of his life? He suddenly could hear Sheriff Mobley talking to him as he leaned over the bar at O’Sullivans.  Mobley’s words came back to him.

He stole an item that belonged to the victim. A gold necklace. Some kind of heart-shaped locket. Guess Ahnert needed the money.

But Louis knew that Ahnert had not needed the money a cheap locket would have brought. and he also suspected now that he had been wrong about And Ahnert wasn’t being obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer. Ahnert was obsessed with Kitty herself.It was Kitty Ahnert was  He was obsessed with her.

“Why did you stop investigating?” Louis asked.

“I was told  to stop,” Ahnert said.

Louis shook his head. “I don’t believe that.”

Ahnert finally looked back at Louis. “I was hung up on a dead girl,” he said, then looked away. He looked away. “That’s really “It’s sick, isn’t it.”

Louis ran a hand over the back of his neck and looked up at the sun. But it wasn’t the sun that was making him sweat. It was his own growing suspicion that he, too, was hung up on Kitty Jagger. 

“I’m just trying to give her some justice,” Louis said quietly.

Ahnert tossed his cigar into the sand and ground it out with his boot. Then He picked a piece of tobacco off his lip and flicked it away.

“Here’s some advice,” he said. “Forget justice. Just give her some peace.”

Here’s how it looks, edited. Notice how much cleaner it looks on the page and how much more active it feels in terms of pacing:

“I think you still want to solve this case,” Louis said. “I think you’re the only one who does.”

“Besides you, you mean.” 

“Yes.”

Ahnert was silent, looking out over the desolate landscape. “It’s over for me,” he said. “She’s yours now.”

There was a hint of relief in Ahnert’s voice. What the hell had happened to this man twenty years ago? Had he been so been so obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer that it had destroyed his career and the rest of his life? Mobley’s words came back to him.

He stole an item that belonged to the victim. Some kind of heart-shaped locket. Guess Ahnert needed the money.

Ahnert had not needed the money a cheap locket would have brought. And he wasn’t obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer. He was obsessed with her.

“Why did you stop investigating?” Louis asked.

“I was told to.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I was hung up on a dead girl,” He looked away. “It’s sick, isn’t it.”

Louis ran a hand over the back of his neck. It wasn’t the sun that was making him sweat. “I’m just trying to give her some justice,” he said.

Ahnert tossed his cigar into the sand and ground it out with his boot. He picked a piece of tobacco off his lip and flicked it away.

“Forget justice,” he said. “Just give her some peace.”

The original version is 347 words. The edited version is 250. Did we lose anything important? Nope. In fact, the edit trusts the reader to “get” what Louis is thinking and feeling. Specifically the fact that Louis himself is becoming obsessed with the dead girl. Which is showing instead of telling. Which is leaving something unsaid and trusting the reader to get it.

That’s it for today. I’m back to editing. Please weigh in and tell us what your worst junk-word habits are. Even old crime dogs need to learn new tricks.

P.S. Below is the original cover for Thicker Than Water and our redesign mock-up.

 

What Kind Of Writer Are You?
Wild Cook Or Precise Baker?

By PJ Parrish

I love to cook. I love the whole process of finding a new recipe or riffing on an old one. I love shopping for ingredients or adlibbing and using say dill for chives. I love making a hot mess in the kitchen, knowing that a detour can sometimes lead to delicious surprises, like the time I subbed dry vermouth for wine in a chicken recipe and it made for the best meal we’ve had in years.

I hate to bake. I hate the precision of it. I hate the math required to make a souffle rise. I hate having to follow exact directions with no room for error or surprise. The last time I tried to bake a cake I almost burned down the kitchen because I didn’t have any parchment paper and thought — “Wax paper! Why not?”

Cooking is an art. You’re not bound by limitations. If a recipe calls for “a little wine” you don’t sweat it; you just make sure you have enough for the glass you drink while you cook. If a dish calls for shallots, you know you can use scallions in pinch. And if it tastes a little flat, add more garlic! Your errors can become triumphs.

Baking is a science. You are bound by its laws. And deviations usually mean disasters. Like the time I brain-farted and used baking soda instead of baking powder then wondered why my biscuits came out like hockey pucks.

Good cooks often make lousy bakers, and vice versa.

Part of this is basic human psychology. I hate being told what to do. I’m not good at following “you-must” directions. I also hate that if something is not coming together as it should, it’s because I didn’t understand the chemistry.

Does this have implications for writers? I think so. The cook vs baker paradigm applies to how we approach our way of doing business, as pointed out by Damon Brown, who writes a blog on start-ups:

  • Certainty vs. agility: “Bakers” aim for certainty, repeating a process until it is virtually guaranteed to produce the same result, while “cooks” focus on agility, adapting and maximizing to new circumstances as quickly as possible
  • Routine vs. schedule: “Bakers” get energy from routine, knowing what they are going to do and when they are going to do it. “Cooks” thrive under a to-do list that provides guidance but is flexible enough for improvisation.
  • Precise measurements vs. slight variations: “Bakers” love precise measurements, thriving in the beautiful details. “Cooks” prefer room for last-minute insights once they are deep in the process.

You can probably guess that I am devoted pantser. I never outline. I plan oh, maybe four chapters ahead and often deviate from that as the plot moves me. I don’t keep any records of word counts and have no set goals for daily or weekly output. As a newspaper reporter, I was a captive to hard deadlines and I seldom missed one. But as a fiction writer, I find I have to roll at my own odd pace — sometimes I can turn out 5K words in a torrid heat. Other days I can barely manage a tepid page.

Being a cook-writer does have its problems. Recently, I had to toss out two chapters because I had fallen in love with a secondary character who had led my story off the rails. But a baker-writer friend of mine recently had to start his book over because, ten chapters in, he realized that he had dutifully followed his outline into a plot cul de sac.

I sort of envy those of you who keep to a set schedule or word count. I get that it imposes discipline and engenders the deep satisfaction of accomplishment. I’ve tried to do this, but I just can’t.  When forced to a schedule or word count, I get resentful and crabby. Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy? No, and don’t make her or she’ll bite your head off.

Perhaps there is something to be gained from both the “baker” and “cook” models. We cook-writers might benefit from trying to outline, if for nothing else than getting the bad ideas out of our cluttered heads and into the cruel light of day. We cook-writers can also be lazy or procrastinators in absence of any deadline. But you baker-writers out there might benefit from being more open to the unknown path even if it feels like it’s going to lead you off a cliff. Maybe you need to build in room for agility over certainty.

Maybe it’s just a matter of recognizing your own personal style and making your writing model more aligned with it. Neither cook or baker is right or wrong. What’s wrong is thinking you have to be what you aren’t.

I will leave you with one more thing to chew on. Here is my favorite chicken recipe. I think I got it from France magazine years ago. It’s super easy but very impressive. I guarantee you will have clean plates. Rock on, bakers!

Creamy Chicken Thighs 

Serves 4-6 but you won’t have anything left over.

1/2 lb. thick-cut bacon, sliced into small pieces. Don’t use gawd-awful turkey bacon. Plain old Oscar Meyer will do but any quality unflavored (ie no “applewood smoked” or such) is best.

8 boneless chicken thighs, skin on

2 onions cut up into thin slices.

3 large cloves garlic. Can’t ever have too much garlic.

1 cup of dry white white. Yes, you can use something cheap.

1 cup chicken stock. Whatever you have handy, even from a can. I keep Better Than Bouillon my pantry.

1/2 cup heavy cream. No, don’t sub milk or worse 2% milk. We’re going for creamy here not healthy.

2 tbsp Dijon mustard. That grainy stuff works best. 

1 large tomato diced up.

4 cups of baby spinach. But adult spinach will work.

1 tbsp thyme. Don’t leave this out..it gives it a nice kick. You can use dried bottled herbs.

2 tbsp lemon juice. I just squeeze one lemon in when the time comes.

In large pot over medium heat, cook the bacon until brown but not too crisp. Use a slotted spoon to take it out and set it on a plate so you have some bacon grease still in the pot.

Season the chicken on both sides generously with salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the pot and brown it on both sides, about 15 mins. Don’t worry if it’s not cooked thru cuz it gets cooked more in the sauce. Take the chicken out and put it with the bacon.

Cook the onions in the remaining fat until brown and soft, about 10 mins. Add the garlic for 2 more mins. Add the wine and deglaze the pot. This just means you scrape any bits off the bottom. Add the stock, whisk in the cream (yeah, a whisk works best but use a spoon if you must). Add the tomatoes. 

Bring the sauce to a soft boil then turn down the heat to med-low. Return the bacon and chicken thighs and simmer, no lid, until chicken is cooked through and sauce gets a little thicker. This should take about 25-30 mins.

Try the sauce and add salt and pepper if you think it needs it. It’s up to your taste buds!

Last minute before you get ready to serve: Stir in the spinach and cook until it’s just wilted, about 3 mins. Stir in the thyme and lemon juice. 

I like to serve this in a deep dish plate over any kind of noodles, like pappardelle or good old Muellers egg noodles. But you can serve with rice or taters if you like.

Bon appetit!

 

What We Can Learn From
Movies About Failed Writers

By PJ Parrish

So I’m trying to start a new short story the other day. I am determined to open with the weather. Well, the story takes place in the aftermath of a hurricane, so Elmore Leonard be damned.

But nothing is coming, man. I am as dry as…

…the Sahara Desert.

…as a half-gnawed Milk Bone discarded by a toothless chihuahua.

…as a lasagna that’s been sitting in the back of the fridge for a month and the foil has come off and now it has a brown miasmic crust as dry as…

{{{Argh!}}}}

I gave up and turned on the tube. I swear I am not making this up, but guess what movie was just coming on? Throw Mama From the Train.  Where Billy Crystal has a bad case of writer’s block trying to open his novel with weather. “The night was…”

You’ve been there. I know you have. You stare at the screen, your brain turning to sludge. And you get stuck with one bad opening line that, like a terrible earwig, won’t let go. The night was…humid. The night was hot and sticky. No, that’s humid!

I love this movie because it has so much to teach us about how not to write. There are dozens of great movies like this. And each, in its own way, communicates the agony and yeah, the ecstasy of this crazy little thing called fiction. Let’s review. Roll that beautiful bean footage!

Wonder Boys. This is my favorite writer’s movie. Michael Douglas is a one-hit wonder writer/creative writer professor who’s mired in his 2,500-page second novel. He copes by toking up and bedding his students. But then one of his ladies reads his manuscript and tells him: “Grady, you know how you tell us in class that writers make choices? And even though your book is beautiful, at times it’s very…detailed. With the genealogy of everyone’s horses and the dental records and so on. It sort of reads like you didn’t make any choices.”

The Lesson: Good fiction comes from making a very long series of good decisions. About your plot, your characters’ motivations, what tone you’re going for, what your theme might be. Every sentence is a choice; every verb is a choice. One of the hardest decisions, as Grady discovers, is what to leave out. I often, in our First Page Critiques here, ask writers for more description or mood. But sometimes, you have to trust the reader and leave stuff out. Like leave out adjectives that over-amplify mood and let it emerge through action and dialogue (Show don’t tell).

Finding Forrester. Not my favorite writer flick but it has one good scene. Sean Connery is mentoring a prodigy who can’t get started for fear of failure. The young man sits staring at his computer until Connery hands him one of his own stories and says “Start typing this. Sometimes the simple rhythm of typing gets us from page one to page two. And when you begin to feel your own words, start typing them.”

The Lesson: Don’t just sit there paralyzed. Write something. Write anything. Just get started. Perfection is your enemy. A complete first draft is your goal. It won’t be great. But it will be the raw material out of which you will find your way toward the true story. To paraphrase Woody Allen, a writer is like a shark. If it doesn’t keep moving, it dies.

The Swimming Pool. Charlotte Rampling is memorable as a burned-out sexually repressed mystery novelist who retreats to a house in France and…psycho-sexual mischief ensues. And she finishes her book.

The Lesson: Sarah tells her editor she is “fed up with murders and investigations.” Her editor says, “Well, why don’t you confront your critics and write something completely different?” The idea of turning to something new helped get me out of my doldrums years ago when I felt the juice going out of my series. I wrote my first stand-alone, set in Europe, The Killing Song. It re-energized my need to tell stories again. If you are in a similar dark spot, switch gears. Try a short story. Change genres.

Misery. James Caan, sick and tired of churning out his series, gets trapped in fan-girl hell by Kathy Bates and is forced to resurrect the character he killed off. “You…you dirty bird. How could you? She can’t be dead. Misery Chastain cannot be dead!”

The Lesson: Changing genres can be good. Or it can get your legs broken. Also, be careful who you decide to kill off in your books, especially if the character is sympathetic. Yeah, sometimes you have to kill your darlings but don’t be rash.

The Royal Tennenbaums. About a depressed family of former child geniuses with a great parody of writer-ego-writ-large by Owen Wilson as Eli Cash, who poses for photos holding snakes, wears a cowboy hat and turns out dreck like:  “The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. ‘Vámonos, amigos,” he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.”

The Lesson: If you do find success, don’t take yourself seriously. Your work, yeah. But when you show up at Bouchercon, leave the cowboy hat at home, Bucky.

Sunset Boulevard. William Holden’s portrait of down and soon dead screenwriter Joe Gillis is one for the ages. Courtesy of Billy Wilder’s whip-snap dialogue like “Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be.”

The Lesson: Be wary of collaborations. And if another writer asks you to read their stuff, be kind. Or you might find yourself face down in a swimming pool, and not a nice sexy one in Provence.

Honorable Mentions:

Kill Your Darlings. Only because it stars Harry Potter as Allen Ginsberg.

Julia. Only because Jane Fonda, playing Lillian Hellman, gets so mad while writing she throws her typewriter out the window. Have so wanted to do that.

Adaptation. Only because Nicolas Cage gives me the creeps with his pitch-perfect personification of the neurotic writer.

Postscript: After you all offered your faves, I have gone back in and added one more. I can’t believe I forgot this one. Talk about neurotic sad writers….how can we forget Miles from Sideways?  He calls his agent to find out what’s up with his novel and well, the publisher has decided to “take a pass.”  Miles doesn’t do rejection well.

Okay, time for you all to weigh in. What movies about writers have moved you? And fora fun, here’s a very clever mash-up video about our favorite writing tool — the good old typewriter!

Watch a supercut of typewriters being used on screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Page Critique:
She Sees Dead People But We Need To See Them, Too

By PJ Parrish

Thanks to my dad, I was really into woo-woo stuff as a kid. But back then, we didn’t have a whole genre to ourselves like they do today — YA vampires, urban fantasy, speculative fiction, you name it. So I had to cadge my dad’s Dell paperbacks — I remember one in particular called The Witching Night — before I graduated to Shirley Jackson. My dad loved the old TV show One Step Beyond and of course, The Twilight Zone. So for today’s submission, in the paranormal genre, we’ll let Rod Serling guide us in: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone!”

Catch you on the flip side, fiends.

Dark Things 

She’d come in off the street. My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist. I was standing at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman watching me. I jumped. I hadn’t heard her enter.

“Dr. Gilder, I presume?”

“Yes. I’m Carrie Gilder.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Office hours are over for today. You should call in the morning and make an appointment.” I started around the desk. “Now, if you don’t mind—”

“I won’t be able to come back in the morning. Please. It’s important.”

I narrowed my eyes, appraising. She was striking. Tall, well dressed, elegant. Her bearing radiated power and confidence. I was irritated at her presumption that I would take a walk-in. I had no desire to stay later and intended to encourage her to go back out the door she’d come in through, but something stopped me. I’m used to usually being the one controlling the situation, and I was aware of the control slipping out of my hands. I felt drawn in by her eyes, somehow, unable to look away. Maybe that’s why I relented, as if I had no choice. “Step into my office.”

She glanced around the room. What a contrast, I thought. My office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall. And she’s so sleek and…what? Cold comes to mind. She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger. My eyes widened when the petal she touched fluttered to the floor.

She sat in the overstuffed chair opposite mine. I jotted down a few quick notes. Young woman. Attractive. Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black.

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

I frowned. Not something I usually hear from my patients.

“Okay,” I said with a shrug. “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand, which I found surprisingly cold. “I am Pica. Pica Sharp.” She settled back in the chair.

I studied her. “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I was 27,” she replied.

“Was?” Odd, I thought, making a note. Is she trying to be funny? My patience wasn’t increasing with this woman, and I found myself wondering how I’d gotten sucked into letting her in.

___________________

Some good creepy stuff going on here. I like that it’s a twist on the old dectective cliche — beautiful dame walks in the door and messes up the protag’s life. But the protag’s a doc not a dick and it’s a she not a he. So far, so good.

I like the voice and writing style — clean, crisp with spare but insinuating dialogue. For instance: It’s intriguing that the femme fatale here comments on another woman’s looks. I like the casually tossed out line “I won’t be able to come back in the morning.” It makes me think we’re in Vampireville here, but the writer is too sly to just come out and say that. It reminds me of that great moment in the Frank Langella Dracula when at the dinner table he is offered wine and Langella says, “I don’t drink (pause a half beat) wine.”

And then there is that zinger line: “I was 27.”  Very very nice. That one line makes me want to read on because it tells me the stranger is either crazy…or dead.

I would definitely turn the page here. So kudos, writer, you’re off to a great start. But there are a couple things I might offer for you to chew on.

Your style is so spare that I think you can afford to stitch in some description. Yes, your dialogue is muscular and is working hard for you, but what you’re lacking here is mood. Can we have some telling details about the setting? What does Carrie’s office feel like as it nods off to sleep? What is the light like? It’s just past quitting time, around 6 pm and where are we in the world? It would be dark in Chicago in winter but still light in Miami in summer. You can use description here to slip in some missing details like that. Your style is so tight you can risk slowing down a tad. We need feeling here. We need mood and tone. Especially in paranormal.

Michael Corleone, a portrait in dark and light

Here’s an exercise: Imagine this scene as a movie and you are the cinematographer. What colors are you filming in? Is everything shadowed with the gold pooled light of a lone desk lamp? Is a bloody setting sun seeping through the blinds? Remember how Francis Ford Coppola used chiaroscuro lighting (the interplay of light and dark) for drama and suspense in The Godfather? Sometimes he lit only half a subject’s face. It was a metaphor for the protagonist’s inner conflict, Michael Corleone’s own struggle between light and dark—good and bad.  You have to think of your book in those same terms — description is your cinematography. Exploit it to create mood and maybe metaphor.

Another point about description: Don’t let an opportunity slip by to use it to illuminate character. You TELL us this: “She was striking. Tall, well dressed, elegant. Her bearing radiated power and confidence.”  SHOW us this in details. At risk of sounding sexist here, women appraise women differently than men might. What specifically would Carrie notice? Is Pica wearing a close-cut Italian suit a la Prada? A flowing red caftan a la vintage Pucci? How is her hair styled? A severe chignon? Botticelli curls? See what I am asking for here? TELLING DETAILS.

And remember: Every detail you put in tells us two things: How the strange woman thinks of herself via her style and how Carrie perceives her via her prism of experience and taste. With details, you begin layering in character.

One last thing before I go to line edits. I really like this submission. I am not so crazy about its opening line — “She’d come in off the street.” I can’t think of a better one, but I feel it doesn’t do justice to the great set-up you’ve got going. It lacks punch, mystery and feels too matter-of-fact.  Maybe our commenters can help out here?

Let’s do some quick line edits:

She’d come in off the street. My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist. I was standing at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman watching me. I jumped. I hadn’t heard her enter.

“Dr. Gilder, I presume?”

“Yes. I’m Carrie Gilder. Slipped in the protag’s name up high! Bravo.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Office hours are over for today. You should call in the morning and make an appointment.” I started around the desk. “Now, if you don’t mind—”

“I won’t be able to come back in the morning. Again, this feels flat on first read but then we find out later she’s dead! So it works. Please. It’s important.”

I narrowed my eyes, appraising. She was striking. Tall, well dressed, elegant. Her bearing radiated power and confidence. This is a classic example of telling instead of showing. There’s nothing wrong with it on its face but this writer is better than this! I was irritated at her presumption that I would take a walk-in. I had no desire to stay later and intended to encourage her to go back out the door she’d come in through, but something stopped me. I’m used to usually being the one controlling the situation, and I was aware of the control slipping out of my hands. Not sure this works because we are not far enough into the scene for Carrie to feel threatened of losing control. I felt drawn in by her eyes, somehow, unable to look away. This is borderline cliche. If you can show somehow what is so seductive about Pica’s eyes it might feel more fresh. Depending on the lighting and the MOOD YOU ARE GOING FOR! Also, this is where you tell us what her eyes look like, not later as you do. It belongs here when it is part of the action. Maybe that’s why I relented, as if I had no choice.

“Step into my office.” need new graph.

She glanced around the room. Get them in the room first then filter this through Carrie’s POV. Something along the lines of: She didn’t automatically head for the plush wing chair near the fireplace as most my patients did. She paused in the doorway then came in warily, like a stray cat assessing whether it wanted to move in or take its chances out on the street. I watched as she slowly took in my office. I wondered what she was seeing in my country decor with its braided rug, old white-washed desk and the wood bookcase crammed with wicker baskets and the antique teapots I had collected from my foraging in New England estate sales.  Well, that’s not great but see what I am trying to do? USE DETAILS TO ILLUMINATE CHARACTER. What a contrast, I thought. Again, this is TELLING when if you SHOW, you can trust the reader to pick up on the contrast via details. My office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall. And she’s so sleek and…what? Cold comes to mind.

She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger. My eyes widened when the petal she touched fluttered to the floor. A nice telling moment here but again, make it mean something. What KIND of flowers. Always be specific if you can. Later summer flowers (good way to tell us it’s summer btw) Are they from her own garden? Don’t miss any chance to tell me something about this woman. And why did her eyes widen when the pedal dropped? It’s natural for flowers to drop petals. Unless you can give me a good reason to think otherwise. 

She sat in the overstuffed chair opposite mine. I jotted down a few quick notes. Young woman. Attractive. Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black. You’ve already mentioned her looks so it’s filler here. Have her do something else if you need a physical motion break. And the eyes, which are so important, belong way up above when Carrie first notes them. 

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.” This, of course, is predatory. 

I frowned. Not something I usually hear from my patients. She might think, even the male ones.

“Okay,” I said with a shrug. “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand, which I found surprisingly cold. Did they shake hands? Don’t skimp on simple details of physical choreography. In fact, make the gesture MEAN something. ie: She held out her hand. I hesitated then took it. She didn’t shake my hand so much as hold it tenderly. Her hand was soft but ice cold. I pulled my hand away.

“I am Pica. Pica Sharp.” She settled back in the chair. I’d flip these to: She settled back in the chair. “I am Pica Sharp.”  Which is a cool name if a tad too on-point given the severe portrait you’ve painted. Unless you’re going for the Full Vampire Monty here because Pica is an eating disorder where a person craves or eats nonfood items, such as paint chips or sand. Or other people…

I studied her. She’s a doctor. She would know what pica is. No reaction? “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I was 27,” she replied. Boom, there it is! Really good line. 

“Was?” Odd, I thought, making a note. What did she write down? Odd is putting it mildly.Is she trying to be funny?

Pica was asked a question. She needs to answer. Or gesture or something. You can’t just leave that hanging there.

My patience wasn’t increasing with this woman, and I found myself wondering how I’d gotten sucked into letting her in. She didn’t let Pica in; she materialized out of thin air you said. Which is why we need to return and re-examine your opening line. Which is why I don’t think it works. Because given all the cool stuff you’ve now revealed in this scene, Carrie cannot have known “She’d come in off the street.” 

One more thing about your opening line. To paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates, you sometimes can’t know your book’s opening line until you’ve written the book’s last line. At its best, an opening line foretells your whole story or its theme. Like this from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.” As I read through your first 400 words, I began to get pulled into your story, especially when I hit the line that Pica WAS 27. But I’d like to see you come up with an opening that pulls me in from the get-go. You’ve got it in you, dear writer!