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

A Writer’s Greatest Super Power

By PJ Parrish

If you had to name one characteristic that all great writers have, what would you say?

Imagination? Yeah, can’t get very far down the road without it. Well, actually you can write a decent legal brief, but that won’t get you many fan letters.

Persistence? Well, if you’re going to quit after one rejection letter, bad review or paltry royalty check, you weren’t meant for this business in the first place.

Discipline? Sure, I’d agree you need this, mainly because I am not very good at this.  

Good vocabulary? A passion for reading? Clarity of thought?

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

I’ve always thought that fiction writers have a lot in common with painters. Back in college as an art major, I spent hours in life drawing classes staring at nude women and men, trying to make my hand capture in charcoal what my eyes were seeing. The exercise was meant to not just replicate reality but to strengthen that weird wiring in the brain that produces hand-eye connection. Most artists must go through this academic phrase.

Here’s an early nude drawing by an artist done in 1897:

Which lead him to create this nude in 1907:

And this one a few years later:

Which eventually led him to his apotheotic iconic style.

The point I am trying to make here is that yes, imagination, persistence, reading, discipline are all important. But the greatest power you might need as a writer is simple observation. Like Picasso, your ability to observe and study human life gives you the raw material from which you spin your stories. 

One of my favorite writers, David Sedaris, is known for turning his acute observational skills into hilarious essays about the human experience. (My favorite is “Me Talk Pretty One Day” about his sad efforts to learn French). He has some great tips on how writers can tune into their surroundings to enhance their fiction. Click here.

You need observation to create description, to establish mood, and make your setting come alive. This is especially important if you’re working in a genre like sci-fi or fantasy where you are literally building a world from scratch. But let’s go with simple description. Many writers, in my opinion, skimp on this, thinking a cursory brush stroke or two will do the trick. Take, for example, a sunset over a lake. You could write:

The water glittered like molten gold in the light of the setting sun.

Yeah…but meh. If you’re gonna use a metaphor or simile, it better be fresh as a…(you fill in the blank).

We used the power (or lack thereof) of observation for a scene in our book Island of Bones. In it, an ex-cop named Mel Landeta, who is slowly going blind, is sitting on the beach with Louis as the sun is setting.  

The breeze was kicking up. Louis closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath of the tangy salt air. He listened to the breaking waves.
“Tell me what it looks like,” Landeta said.
Louis opened his eyes. “What?”
“The sunset.”
“I’m not falling for that again. I know you can see it, some of it anyway.”
“All I can see is a big blur of color.”
“Well, that’s all it is.”
Landeta laughed as he shook his head. “Christ, you’re hopeless. Tell me what it looks like.”
Louis looked back at the sky and shrugged. “I told you, it’s colorful.”
“Try again,” Landeta said.
Louis took a deep breath. “Okay, it’s red at the bottom and kind of yellow at the top.”
Landeta shook his head. “You can do better than that.”
“It’s really red and really yellow. Shit, Mel, you tell me.”
Landeta lifted his face to the sky, his eyes closed. “The clouds are wispy, and it’s like someone tossed a bunch of yellow and pink feathers against a freshly painted red wall. And the sun is laying itself down on the water, giving in, like you would if you were going to sleep and knew you had nothing but good dreams ahead.”
Louis looked at Landeta, then back out at the sky.
“I can’t do better than that, man,” he said.

This is the ending of the book, which circles back to a minor chord theme about Mel trying to teach Louis to slow down and observe (ie enjoy) life. Louis, as a cop, is very observant in his work, picking up on human tics, crime scene idiosyncrasies, and the tiniest bread crumb of clues. But there isn’t a creative bone in his body. You, as a fiction writer, need to be what Mel Landeta is — both cop and poet.

You also need observation powers to write great dialogue. As we’ve said here many times, dialogue is not real conversation. Real conservation is banal and bloated. Good dialogue is sleight of ear, a trick really, wherein you the writer listen to real folks talking and then recast it into stylized “conversations” between characters.  You must observe real speech patterns, idiosyncrasies, idioms, dialect, and accents to make each character you create feel real and singular.  

A few good examples that I could find:

From Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

“Good morning,” began the woman.

“I beg to differ.”

“My name is Gwendolin Bendincks.”

“Don’t blame me.”

And an example from one of my favorite books, Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road.

Do you know where we are Papa?

Sort of.

How sort of.

Well. I think we’re about two hundred miles from the coast. As the crow flies.

As the crow flies?

Yes. I means going in a straight line.

Are we going to get there soon?

Not real soon. Pretty soon. We’re not going as the crow flies.

Because crows don’t have to follow roads?

Yes.

They can go wherever they want.

Yes.

Do you think there might be crows somewhere.

I dont know.

But what do you think?

I think it’s unlikely.

I like this because it feels so authentic, this conversation between father and son and also because its bare-branch construction mimics the apocalyptic wasteland. 

When you observe, be it humans or nature, always be on the lookout for what we here at TKZ call “the telling detail.” Don’t lard on adjectives, metaphors and such. (Go back and read James’s recent take on this in his post Don’t Gild Your Lilies.

I remember listening to Mike Connelly talk about how he looks for telling details in creating his characters. He talked about how he wanted to convey that an outwardly taciturn detective (I forget which book) was actually an emotional mess inside. How did this manifest in description? He has another character observe that the ends of the detective’s glasses were chewed to nubs. 

Here’s a great quote from Raymond Chandler about the power of the telling detail on readers:

“The things they remembered, that haunted them, was not, for example, that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.”

A couple other hints about using your powers of observation before I go.

Use All Your Senses.  Beginner writers tend to rely too much on sight alone. Smell, science tells us, is far more evocative. Here’s the opening of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat:

We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausage and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters.

Never Generalize. Be specific: I find this is a common weakness in our First Page Critiques, that the writers opt for generalizations like “handsome” or “hot weather” when a well-observed specific would be more powerful. Here’s Gabriel García Márquez describing his village is One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.

Or Hemingway setting his scene in A Farewell To Arms.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

And this this sharply observed description from Jack London in White Fang inspired some of my own description of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula:

Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.

To close, I’ll go back to Picasso. Here is one of his earliest drawings, from his childhood.

As a student, he filled the margins of his notebooks with pencil drawings of the birds, animals and people he had seen. One of these notebooks is in a museum in Barcelona, along with a note his first grade teacher sent home to his mama:

“Pablo should stop drawing in class and pay attention to his lessons”

Luckily, his mama didn’t listen. And Picasso never stopped paying attention to the details, to what was really important. 

How To Properly Introduce
Your Protagonist

Pleased to meet you! Hope you guess my name.
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.
— The Rolling Stones, Sympathy For The Devil

By PJ Parrish

Life is a cocktail party, as Mike Jagger once sang. So is fiction when it comes to introducing your protagonist. (tortured metaphor alert. More to come.) I’ve noticed a trend in our First Page Critique submissions of late. Our submitting writers are having trouble introducing their main characters to their readers.

Most recently, James dealt with this issue in his Sunday critique of a self-described “comic noir” submission titled The Book Shop. James wrote:

The narrator is passive. Maybe that’s intended at the start, but at least give him some feeling—annoyance, aggravation, mad because his wife left him—anything. (Note: We don’t know what sex the narrator is, and that’s a problem. I’ll assume for discussion purposes that it’s a man. But do something on this page to clue us in.)

I had exactly the same reaction on the two points James mentions. First, I assumed the narrator was a woman! Which tells you there is a very basic problem. And second, as James says, the narrator is passive in feelings and thought. And the other character, the old woman, is vividly drawn, which intensifies the problems.

Maybe this post is going to sound too basic for some of you. But I think we need to review how to properly introduce your protagonist. This came up in a thread on my Facebook feed recently. Here’s some interesting comments from both readers and writers:

  • Mary Ellen Hughes: I tend to get a mental image pretty quickly. Some physical description will come into that mental image, but other parts get ignored. And I can’t tell you which parts my brain picks up on and which it doesn’t. My only request, as a reader, is that you give me a hint quickly. Don’t tell me on p 250 that the MC is a short redhead if you haven’t told me that before — b/c she’s already a tall blonde to me.
  • Anonymous reader: I like getting a few clues, especially about things like height and weight that will affect their ability to do certain things or anything that would make them stand out in a crowd.
  • Barb Goffman: As a reader, I don’t love a lot of description. I often will find that even with description, the image I get of a character in my mind is different. What I often tell my clients is to very early on, when we first meet a character, tell the reader one memorable thing about the character’s appearance. And let the reader decide the rest for themselves. Too much detail annoys me. About the third time you describe your character’s “startling turquoise eyes” as being “startling” and “turquoise,” I’m going to get a little techy. I like a moderate amount of details.
  • Steve Liskow: Behavior is much more important than description, unless you’re talking about a giant or a dwarf. I submitted a story to a market last week, and only as I was writing the email, did I realize that not only did my character have no description (except male, by implication), he didn’t even have a name.

So how do you do a proper how-do-you-do? It’s not as easy as you might think. Consider first, what point of view you’re working in. If you’re using first person, you are greatly limited in what you can describe because everything must be filtered only through your protagonist’s “camera.” But there are pitfalls even in third-person POV.

Now, not all books open with the protagonist. Some might have a prologue or an opening chapter say, from the villain’s POV. But whenever your protag does appear, you must establish two things immediately:

  • Gender
  • Name

Here’s another thing that bugs me. Gender-neutral unisex names are popular now. Especially in fiction. So if you’ve chosen a first name like Blair, Casey or Jordan, you darn well better be clear if it’s a he or she. I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. Loved it more than I can say, but the first chapter is titled “Vincent In The Ocean” and it took me at least four chapters to get used to the conceit that Vincent is a woman. (a rather twee reference to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay).  Don’t be coy about this, please. It just annoys readers.

So how do your gracefully slip in your protag’s name? Third person is no problem, just slip it in as soon as possible. I always put “Louis Kincaid” somewhere on my first page. But for Heart of Ice, he doesn’t show up until chapter two:

He stood at the railing of the ferry, the sun warm on his shoulders but the spray on his face cold.

Twenty-one years ago he had stood at the bow of a ferry much like this one. Then, the air had been filled with the smell of diesel but now the ferry left nothing in its wake but a plume of white water and shimmering rainbows.

Then, it had all been about leaving behind the ugly memories of his foster homes in Detroit and going “Up North” to the magic island just off the tip of the Michigan mitten. It had been about eating all the fudge his stomach could hold, seeing a real horse up close and racing the other foster kids around the island on a rented Schwinn.

Now, it was all about her.

Louis Kincaid looked down at Lily. She was peering toward the island so he couldn’t see her face. But he didn’t need to. He knew what this trip meant to her. He wondered if she had any idea what it meant to him.

Only seven months ago had he found out he was a father. It had been a shock, but from the moment he saw Lily he was grateful Kyla had not done what she had threatened to do that night in his dorm room. He could still hear their angry words.

Hers—I’ll get rid of it.

And his—Go ahead.

He looked down again at Lily’s crinkly curls.

Thank God…

This book is about Louis connecting with the daughter he didn’t know he had. So I felt compelled to go a little heavy with backstory to “introduce” both Louis and Lily. But this is all you get. The forward plot takes over.

But first person is much harder. One graceful way is to deal with it in dialogue via a second person. James does this in his first book Romeo’s Rules on the first page:

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.

“Mike,” I said.

“Happy to meet you Mike. Except…”

“Yes?”

“You don’t look like a flower man.”

“What do I look like?”

“A football player, maybe?”

Name. Gender. Done. And a nice little physical descriptive detail to boot. Harlan Coben uses this technique often. Here’s an example from The Woods.

You can also be direct as Sue Grafton famously did in her opening of chapter one, book one:

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the State of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday, I killed someone and the thought weighs heavily on my mind.

Likewise, Jack Reacher needs no introduction. Yet Lee Child is always careful to insert the guy’s name at the get-go. Although we have to add a caveat here: In Killing Floor, Child switches to first person for Reacher and we never get his name. When you’re a international bestseller with 25 books under your belt, you can do this, too.

In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn is working in first person, toggling between husband Nick Dunne and Amy Dunne POVs. She titled each chapter with their names. This obvious ploy works mainly because she is also using a ticking-clock timeline with the fake abduction. Not recommended for beginners.

Another thing to establish as early as possible: exact age or age-range of your protag. And you should begin to establish the world view, education level or sophistication (or lack). Readers want to bond with and root for your protag and the sooner you can give them elements to grab onto, the better.

What should you not do when introducing your character?

  • Too much physical description. A nice hint, as James does with Mike Romeo above, is always good. We get a quick visual that Romeo is a muscular kinda guy. That’s enough to tweak our interest. But don’t get bogged down in this too early.
  • Too much backstory. I gave you my own example from Heart of Ice above as an example that is borderline maybe too much. But I thought it important to clarify Louis’s anxious feelings toward his daughter. Think of backstory as going to a cocktail party. When a stranger introduces himself to you do you want to hear this?

Hello, my name is Norman Feckless. I’m a really successful gynecologist with a practice in LA. But I grew up in Fresno and I can’t tell you what a hell hole that was. God, you should meet my mother… Nothing like my wife Janet. Janet is hot, man. But I meet a lot of gorgeous women in my line of work. In fact, I married three of my patients. Of course, not all at once. Did I mention that Janet left me last month? Just ran off with her yoga instructor, Nancy. I got to keep her cat, though. That damn cat hates me…

Another issue to consider — ethnicity. My protag Louis Kincaid is biracial. It is pertinent to his character arc and in a couple books directly figures in the plot. But via reader feedback, I found over the years that if I don’t somehow slip this fact in early, readers feel misled. I recently did a critique for charity and in 30 pages, the writer failed to convey the fact that her protagonist was Black. I mention this only because race was directly related to her plot, especially in the tense interactions with her white husband. Is “white” now a vestigial default in fiction? Given the dazzling and expanding range of ethnicity of crime fiction protagonists, do we still need to mention it? I would like to hear what you all think about dealing with this.

Last point, and this goes back to the problem James had with his First Page submission: It is important, when introducing your protag, that he or she not be a cipher. In the submission, the secondary character, an older chubby chatty woman is well drawn with idiosyncratic dialogue and description. The protag, by comparison is pale and emotional impotent.

I was engaged by the seal woman. The poor soul with no name — well, he’s that guy lurking alone in the shadows with a scowl and a glass of scotch.. Don’t leave your protag sitting on the sidelines. Introduce him with a few good lines and get the party going.

First Page Critique: Using Setting And Action To Inject Suspense

By PJ Parrish

Well, this First Page submission is a little more in my bailiwick than ones I’ve been doing of late. I got my start in romance, segued into the more generalized “women’s fiction” and ended up in suspense. I’m in my comfort zone. And I like anything involving armadillos. So, let’s take a look.

How To Eat An Armadillo
Chapter One, Hank and Betty

She had to keep walking. The afternoon sun threw a blast of heat onto the black asphalt and bounced it up into her face and neck, smothering her with a blanket of misery. Aggravated by the continuing soreness in her foot, Marley was determined to find some shade so she could sit down someplace and untie her boot to relieve the pain. It felt bruised and achey. It never healed right after the accident years ago. She didn’t want to be on the ground when a car came by even though there wasn’t much traffic on this old Texas country road. Marley figured it would be a while before she could thumb it and hitch a ride heading west. She didn’t want to stop just yet, risking being caught off guard by limping or sitting down. Any sign of weakness could invite trouble.

This way of life had gotten tougher over the years. Older now and thick in the middle, she didn’t attract the drivers like she used to do. In the past, they’d hit the brakes pretty quick when they saw the sweet young thing sticking out her thumb for a ride. Marley’d made a life out of hitching rides. She got into pretty much every vehicle that ever stopped for her, trucks, cars, RVs, and trailers. Young men, crazy families, lonely women, and sorry-ass old men. The worst of course was that coven of ‘nasty people,’ as she called them. The ones who wanted to put their gritty hands, mouths, and objects on her or in her. It made her feel slimy and dirty when they touched her. They’d all changed her. She was a good girl until the thing happened. Every ride was a risk.

Sometimes she felt her life was hanging in a thread, like a spider on a web in a hailstorm. Vague, disturbing memories crept into the crevices of her mind, shielding her consciousness, shoving her into this solitary journey. She didn’t know if she was running from them or to them. Once in a while she wondered what could’ve made her life different, made her different.

No use thinking about that.

She had to keep walking and get out of this blistering heat.

Better to keep my head up and stay alert. One foot after the other.

She’d shake her right foot every few steps, trying to shake off the pain.

__________________________

First off, I’m intrigued enough to keep reading. I already like the protagonist, although we can only assume Marley is, indeed, the main character. Keep in mind she could be a potential victim here. Always hard to tell in only 400-plus words. But given that the writer has invested in some backstory so early here, I’m guessing Marley’s the protag.

I like that the writer has plopped Marley right down in a bad situation. Extreme heat, a lonely Texas road, and a sorta kinda vague feeling that she has already recently endured something — I read that from her hurt foot. To say nothing of  bigger trauma at the hands of a “coven.”  So, yes, I’d read on.

There is also some nice but not over-done backstory here. We are told she’s been a vagabond for a long time and that makes me wonder why. Wondering why a character had gotten to a certain point can be an effective launching pad for your story. Also we are told she was the victim (as a “good girl” no less) of a coven of “nasty people.”  So she’s damaged goods in a sense. Which is also an effective device for future character development. I barely know her but I already want to root for her. So, good job, writer.

On a pure craft note, the writing itself is solid, direct and unpretentious. Everything is clearly detailed, the physical movements, the thoughts. Well done.

But…

Can this be improved? Is there a way to ratchet the tension? I think so. This may only go toward style, and others who weigh in might think this opening is fine as it is. But I’m going to suggest two things for the writer:

  1. Give me a bit more sense of place and atmosphere. I sound like a broken record in my First Pagers because I am always asking the writers to not neglect their settings. Our writer tells us we are in Texas, on an “old country road.” I’ve been to Dallas. That’s all I know of Texas. Other than the old movie Giant. So I’m going to ask the writer to take me there with some select description. I don’t want a lot. Just enough to make me smell, see and even hear this pace. WHY? Not just because I like description but because when it’s done well, it enhances suspense and helps establish character. More on this in a moment.
  2. I’d like to see the writer SHOW me Marley’s mood and backstory, rather than TELL me. What do we know from these 400 or so words: Marley is tired and achy as she walks a Texas road. She’s got a bad history hitching. And one particular episode with the “nasty people” changed her in a fundamental way — she was a “good girl” ie an innocent and now she is not.  I’ll get back to this.

Setting: I love the potential of this desolate opening. But what does it look like? You TELL me only that it’s “lonely.” Use your writerly skills to SHOW me what this loneliness looks like, feels like. Is the sky that crushing bright blue you get in a desert? (I always feel claustrophobic in wide open arid spaces). Are there thunderheads building? Is the air so dry your nose bleeds? Does that asphalt road reel out like a dry black ribbon leading to nowhere? And you need to be more specific geographically — are we in the flat nothingness of the panhandle or the scrublands of the Mexican border or the hill country? “Texas” means nothing to a reader.  Be specific.  And make it dovetail with Marley’s state of mind! Make the setting MEAN SOMETHING.  The fact that you chose to drop Marley in this place tells me you KNOW it’s important. So make it come alive.

Showing instead of telling. Marley’s backstory is great, but it’s your only source of tension right now. I know you want to stress that no one is coming by to pick her up, but nothing is really happening here. It’s all Marley thinking, mainly about her past.  You need some action here, which can then TRIGGER backstory. What if you use a passing car or truck to create some action? A fancy RV goes by and doesn’t stop for her. That can trigger a memory. A car stops and a creepy guy wants to give her a ride but she tells him she’d rather walk. (Dialogue is action!) And then maybe a beat up truck chugs by, slows down and Marley gets a good look at the occupants and THAT triggers the awful seminal memory of the “nasty people.” See what I am trying to do? I’d like you to consider converting mere memory, thoughts and backstory into action.

Especially because you are using hitchhiking as an existential device. You TELL us that all her life Marley had gotten “into pretty much every vehicle that ever stopped for her.”  Which is a helluva metaphor for her life, no? But she’s not young anymore. She’s thickened around the middle, as you so greatly put it, but she’s no longer as thick in the head. I have to hope she doesn’t get into every vehicle now because she got into one once that changed her forever, no? Make us feel this inner struggle for this woman.

Okay, let me do a quick line edit. Not much, because your submission is pretty clean.

She had to keep walking. I like this opening line because it captures her near desperate mood and I suspect sums up her life thus far. The afternoon sun threw a blast of heat onto the black asphalt and bounced it up into her face and neck, smothering her with a blanket of misery. This is telling us she’s miserable. Find ways to show us. Aggravated by the continuing soreness in her foot, More telling. Why not have her stop, take off a boot and show us a blistered foot? Marley was determined to find some shade this is why you need to describe where we are. Are there some trees in the distance? so she could sit down someplace and untie her boot to relieve the pain. It felt bruised and achey. It never healed right after the accident years ago. Nice dollop of backstory; makes me want to read on. She didn’t want to be on the ground when a car came by even though there wasn’t much traffic on this old Texas country road. Where are we? Marley figured it would be a while I have to wonder why she chose this road if she knew her chances of getting a ride were nil. before she could thumb it and hitch a ride heading west. She didn’t want to stop just yet, risking being caught off guard by limping or sitting down. Any sign of weakness could invite trouble. I like this line because it insinuates tension but it needs some context. Has her long experience hitching taught her this? You can do so much more with your hitchhiking metaphor. 

This way of life had gotten tougher over the years. Older now and thick in the middle, she didn’t attract the drivers like she used to do. great line. You’re hinting at her age. In the past, they’d hit the brakes pretty quick when they saw the sweet young thing You missed a great opportunity to tell us what she looks like! How about “the men especially would hit the brakes when they saw the leggy redhead in cutoff jeans sticking out her thumb for a ride. Marley’dawkward. Just go with Marley had made made a life out of hitching rides. She got into pretty much every vehicle that ever stopped for her, trucks, cars, RVs, and trailers. Young men, crazy families, lonely women, and sorry-ass old men. The worst of course was that coven of ‘nasty people,’ as she called them. The ones who wanted to put their gritty hands, mouths, and objects on her or in her. Eww in a good way since you made me want to know more. Can we be a tad more elegant and visceral in the construction: “The ones who wanted to put their wet hands and mouths on her and those sharp objects in her. (Don’t pull punches with the nasty people as it is your best source of interest and tension.) It made her feel slimy and dirty when they touched her. They’d all changed her. She was a good girl until the thing I would cap this since it’s seminal — The Thing. happened. Every ride was a risk. Every ride AFTER THAT was a risk? Clarify. And because The Thing was so life-changing, why didn’t it change her behavior? You might want to briefly allude to this. Otherwise it implies she learned nothing from her encounter with the nasty people. 

Sometimes she felt her life was hanging in a thread, like a spider on a web in a hailstorm. A nice spider metaphor but again, you’re telling us a lot and showing us little. Vague, disturbing memories crept into the crevices of her mind, shielding her consciousness, shoving her into this solitary journey. This line sounds great but what does it mean? Are you refering to the nasty people? You told us in previous graph she vividly remembers the feel of their hands and mouths and the objects she was violated with, but now the memories are “vague”? Be precise. She didn’t know if she was running from them or to them. Once in a while she wondered what could’ve made her life different, made her different. Also not clear to me what you mean here. Again, the memories appear to be of the nasty people episode in her life and I can understand why her vagabond existence is an escape FROM that. But why did you say she is “running to them?” 

No use thinking about that.

She had to keep walking and get out of this blistering heat.

Better to keep my head up and stay alert. One foot after the other. There’s that metaphor again!

She’d shake She shook her right foot every few steps, trying to shake off two shakes in one sentence. the pain.

Okay, brave writer. I need you to know that I really liked this. The set up is fresh and full of potential tension. I like Marley and want to know more about her and her past journey — to say nothing of what lies ahead for her. Just ground her in the setting more and sort out her feelings about the nasty people coven and what they did to wound her. And find a way to use action in the place of mere thinking and remembering. You’ve got a really good start here. Keep going — one foot in front of the other.

How To ReBoot

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you. — Anne Lamott.

By PJ Parrish

A wail of agony came from the man cave. Followed by a chain of profanities. It was only 3 o’clock but the thought crossed my mind that maybe I needed to serve the husband his gin and tonic a little early.

Five minutes later, he emerged from the cave red-faced angry. “I. Need. Some. Help.” It came out in a strangled whisper.

I set aside my laptop and followed him into the cave. He had been working for hours on a long free lance document and it had…just disappeared, he said.

“Did you save it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I think so.”

I know from experience that he never saves anything. Except his old underwear and tax returns from the 1990s. “Well, let me take a look,” I said.

“Just tell me what to do and I will do it.”

Cut to the chase. I finally got him away from the computer and found the doc for him. He had saved it in the wrong place. This happens with his underwear occasionally. He assumed the helm and I started back out of the cave.

“Also, the printer’s broke,” he said. “It won’t printing anything.”

“Well, let me take a look.”

The printer was brand new, and because it is wireless, it sometimes just gets in a bad mood. I tried to print the doc. Nothing. I fiddled with the commands. Nada. I copied the doc and tried again. Just a blinking “error” message.  I turned the printer around and yanked out the cord.

“What are you doing?” the husband yelled.

I plugged the cord back in. The printer spit out the doc. I went to the kitchen and made myself a vodka tonic.

Sometimes you just gotta unplug.

I have writer’s block. It’s been going on, oh, maybe three weeks now. Actually, I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s an excuse. I just can’t seem to write anything worth saving. I know the idea for the story is good. But I am about 10K words in and I seem to have lost my way. So I unplugged.

I stopped writing. Instead, I’m playing pickleball every morning for two to three hours. I’m getting pretty good. I’ve taken up running again. I’m getting stronger. I’ve also been reading a lot. Right now, I’m lost in the stars of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel.  I loved her dystopic masterpiece Station Eleven, and this one’s equally enthralling. She’s a master storyteller, the pacing is breakneck and she breaks every rule in the book. She jumps back and forth in time. She switches points of view fearlessly. It’s fragmented, elegant and deeply moving.

Few writers bring out the envious in me. As a writer, I’m a fair juggler, and can keep four or five balls in the air. Mandel juggles flaming chain saws. And this virtuoso performance has left me even more paralyzed in my own work.

Don’t worry. I will finish The Glass Hotel soon, and I know that I will find my way out of my thicket and back onto my path.

I will plug back in.

I know this because I have also been re-reading a lot of Anne Lamott’s work. She’s my go-to cheerleader when I get a little low about writing. If you haven’t read her, please do. Start with Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life. Therein you’ll find great advice on everything from how to follow your outline to how not to worry about your crappy first drafts.

Looking for other things she had written, I found some of her essays. One was titled “Dust Jacket.” It was about reissuing her first not-very-successful book. This resonated with me because my sister and I are re-editing our book Dark of the Moon for self-publishing. It’s tough going because as our freshman effort, it has warts, stray chin hairs and occasional flashes of rosacea. Lamott made me feel so much better with this passage:

This book of mine, “Joe Jones,” is the street person of my books. It’s my raw, wolfy child…My great friend Jane Vandenburgh helped me edit it slightly — not with a fine-tooth comb, but with an afro pick, big spaces between the teeth so as not to tug too hard. I hadn’t read it in 17 years, and when I finally did, this winter, I could see why it had not done well. It wobbled and flopped, and didn’t fly in the upward trajectory that I had hoped, and certainly my readers and critics must have hoped. It’s in the present tense, which I don’t like, but I do love the characters. And I can see its part in my evolution as an artist: All of the elements of what were eventually going to lift me out of the swamp are there, beating against the walls of the cafe.

Don’t you love that? That in your early work (published or un), you can glimpse the writer that you will become. And she offered this, an encouragement, against all pressures of our business, to be the writer you need to be:

It’s like meeting the girl I was in high school or in my 20s, with all those affectations, those tics and vague accents, who knew more then than I ever would again; who tried to be like other young women, because everyone said to be — as e.e. cummings said, “Being nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight.”

But the passage I really liked was from her 1996 essay titled “How To Be A Writer.” This really hit me where I needed to be hit:

Here’s the best advice I can give you: go read the book of Ezekiel. Trust me on this. Read about him coming upon the dry bones of a people who had given up, who were lifeless, without hope; until, because of Ezekiel’s presence, breath came upon them, and they came back to life.

The message is, Have heart, don’t panic: spirit revives us. A people were made whole again by breath, by the breeze of attention being paid. That’s so incredible. Find a community of writers with whom you can belong, who will read your stuff and help you get better. Maybe you can encourage them to keep on writing, as they encourage you. And pay closer attention to life. Get your best work done every day. Be the breeze.

Peace out, TKZ friends. Thanks for being here to listen. Be the breeze.

Plot Or Character? What’s
Your Starting Point?

By PJ Parrish

If you write long enough, you will eventually get this question: Where do you get your ideas?

Readers seem to be fascinated by the novel writing process, thinking it some mysterious alchemy, stories arising from the ether of the writer’s soul. (Which, of course, it is). But where the ideas come from is often quite prosaic and, well, practical.

I’ve never really given much thought to where my story ideas come from. They just do. Thank God. But I ran across a good blog at Jane Friedman’s site the other day that got me to thinking that maybe the kernels of our stories are an either-or thing.

Guest blogger Susan DeFreitas posits that, in her experience as a book coach, novelists fall into two camps: those who start with character and those who start with plot or story concept. To quote DeFreitas:

CHARACTER: Writers who start with character tend to be empathetic people—“people people,” you might say. A new story for these folks may arrive in the form of a certain voice in their head, or a line or two that seems promising. Or they might be struck at first by a type of character—for instance, a character who’s a bit like an intriguing person they happen to know, or a bit like a character in a book or movie they loved.

PLOT: Plot people, generally speaking, are idea people. A new story may arrive in the form of a concept they’re fascinated by—say, the idea that aliens might be symbiotic beings, in much the same way that lichens are—or an intriguing question: What if two twins, dissatisfied with their lives and marriages, decided to pass as each other for a year? Or they might be interested in writing a type of story. Say, a thriller that revolves around the trafficking of endangered species, or a story that combines elements of space opera and noir.

Well, my Louis Kincaid series, of course, started with my protagonist. He’s a biracial man with a rough childhood as a foster kid who gets kicks off the police force and spends most of ten books trying to reclaim his badge — and his tortured past. Which dovetails with what James wrote about Sunday: backstory as conflict catalyst. So I am character driven, right?

I always thought I was. But as I read DeFreitas’s blog, I realized I am more plot-driven when it comes to inspiration. Which was something of a revelation to me. I seem to fall head-over-heels for the big “what if…?”

Example: My sister and I were doing a book signing in Ft. Myers years back. Kelly and I had just returned from lunch at a rustic inn way out on a tiny island in Pine Island Sound. The waters around Ft. Myers are dotted with hundreds of islands, most just green tufts, but a couple privately owned and quite secretive. We were jawing about setting a book on such a remote place but getting nowhere with an actual plot. A woman came up to our table to get a book and we chatted. She said she was a psychologist who specialized in the sociopathology of extended families forced to live in close quarters.

What if…

There was a big family living out on one of the sound’s remote islands. What if they ran a run-down restaurant to make ends meet but no one knew anything about them? What if one of the women tired of the forced isolation and tried to run away by stealing a boat? What if a hurricane was coming? What if her body was found washed up in the mangroves near Ft. Myers? What if no one could identify her but she was wearing a strange ring carved from coral? What if there were, Louis discovered, a list of unsolved cases of missing teenage girls from the area that extended over thirty years?

So was born Island of Bones. It turned out to be one of our best sellers and won the International Thriller Award.

As I think back now, I realize almost all our stories were plot-hatched. Quite a revelation to this writer who prides herself on character development.

To get back to Susan DeFreitas’s blog: She makes some interesting points about the strengths and challenges for writers of plot versus character inspiration. See if any of this resonates with you:

PLOT INSPIRED

Strength: It’s inherently high-concept

Writers can describe their book in a sentence or two that will get the attention of both readers and publishing professionals, because the story concept speaks for itself.

Strength: Readers love plot

Yes, there’s a solid market for character-driven fiction—but the market for plot-driven fiction is substantially larger, encompassing genres like speculative fiction and mysteries/thrillers. Writers with an intuitive sense of plot don’t struggle to keep their readers turning the pages. In their stories, A leads to B leads to C, and D is that mind-blowing twist that keeps the reader up way past her bedtime. Such writers tend to have a lot of rabbits hidden up their sleeve, so to speak, and for the reader, there’s a real sense of delight when one after the next is revealed.

Strength: There’s no question of what happens

Writers who excel with plot are really people who excel at ideas: they know the field they want to traverse, so they pick the path that hits all the vistas they want to reveal. That’s a very different—and easier—proposition than trying to figure out what a given character or characters should do, or what should happen to them.

Challenge: Lack of character arc

The characters often start as a means to an end, the who that will discover the what. In order for the story to develop a sense of meaning and depth, these writers have to dig deeper with their characters in revision, exploring who these characters really are, what makes them tick, and the emotional journey they’ll make over the course of the story. Plot keeps the reader turning the pages…[but] it’s the characters, and the way they’ve either learned and grown over the story or, tragically, failed to. This is the part that writers who start with plot often have to figure out, and layer in, in revision.

Challenge: The incredible expanding plot problem

The thing about being good at plot is…it’s hard to know when to stop. One thing leads to the next, leads to another, leads to a fascinating subplot, and then another, and then, before you know it, you’ve got 160,000 words of something that may not in fact be publishable. Writers with this problem either have to train themselves how to outline in a way that addresses character arc or develop an eagle eye in revision for what’s really important in the story and what’s not.

Challenge: Lack of a real ending

Writers who tend to start with plot often find themselves writing a series. One pitfall of this tendency is that such writers often don’t know how to actually end their first book in a way that will be satisfying for the reader. Such writers often want to hold onto some big development until Book Two, or even Book Three. My response to that is this: Don’t hold your best cards for some imagined future story, because if you don’t end Book One in way that’s satisfying for the reader, and brings all the major threads of the story through to compelling climax and resolution—even if that resolution is just the troubled situation that will begin the next book in the series—there won’t be another book in the series, because the first one won’t get published.

CHARACTER INSPIRED

Strength: Characters make us care.

Writers who start with character don’t struggle to create characters who seem alive on the page, whose struggles touch upon universal themes, and who exhibit the sort of complexity that makes us as readers really feel what it is to be human.

Strength: There’s a solid market for character-driven fiction.

The vast majority of novels that fall into the genres known as contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction are character-driven. Which is to say, there’s a solid contingency of readers who read fiction for exactly what writers who start with character are generally able to deliver, on every single page: The sense of being someone else, seeing the world through their eyes, and going through a meaningful transformation or change over the course of the story. Writers who start with character generally don’t struggle to determine if there’s a market for the sort of thing they do, because that market is broad and well defined.

Strength: There’s no question whose story it is.

Other types of writers may spend some time in the planning stages of a novel wrestling with the question of who their protagonist should be. But for writers who start with character, this generally isn’t an issue (unless there are so many compelling characters in their head that it’s just hard to choose among them). These type of writers are not like directors looking for actors to play a part in their story—they’re more like directors making a biopic, with the story as a whole built around a certain character.

Challenge: Too many POVs

If you do something well as a writer, why not do more of it? That’s often the position taken by writers who start with character, whether they realize it or not, by adding many different POVs in their novels. POV comes easily to such writers, and they generally find it fun, because they don’t struggle to get inside the heads of the protagonist’s husband, for example, or her kids, or even the checkout clerk at the grocery store where she shops. These other POVs [can be] compelling and well written. But that doesn’t mean they serve the story. sometimes these other POVs are no more than game trails that lead the story off on tangents without contributing to the main story line.

Challenge: Lack of arc

Sometimes writers have so much love and sympathy for their protagonists that they have a hard time imagining a real flaw for that character, or some real issue in the way that person sees the world. But without an issue or flaw there’s no real character arc, no clear way that the story will push the protagonist to grow and change.

Challenge: Episodic or slow plot

Readers in general find deep character work compelling. But that doesn’t mean a novel can just rely on character to keep the reader turning the pages. For that to happen, there needs to be a causally linked series of events, with emotional stakes, that escalates over the course of a story to a distinct breaking point—in other words, a real plot.

So…which compels you — plot or character? And do you find yourself sometimes struggling with some of the challenges of either as outlined by Susan DeFreitas? Maybe you’re a hybrid like me. Yeah, I seem to start with plot, with some big idea. But for me, character must win out in the end.

A really great story is like juggling. You have to be able to keep all the balls in the air. And make it look like the easiest magic trick in the world.

 

First Page Critique: A High Dive
And A Hike To Somewhere

“First sentences are doors to worlds.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

By PJ Parrish

Good morning, folks. We have today a submission from a contributing writer that shows some great promise. It comes to us with the genre designated as Christian teen romance. I’ll be back in a moment.

When Love Calls You Home 

I broke the surface of the waters of Colten Springs and gasped for breath before swimming to shore. Jumping off the high-dive was the stupidest thing I’d ever done. Now I had a headache. When would I learn I couldn’t do normal things like everyone else. Not with my sinuses.

“She twirls, she sings, she swims!” Heather Gleason’s Canadian accent made her sound like a foreign news reporter on the scene. “What will she do next?” Her freckled face beamed down at me from her five-foot-eight frame as I trudged out of the lake, my brown hair clinging like cellophane to my head, shoulders, and back, my hands slinging water with every step.

“Your turn to try the high-dive,” I said, puffing as if I’d swum the English Channel. The matted hair on my cheeks felt yucky. I pushed it back and dried the droplets of water clinging to my eyelashes with the beach towel Heather threw at me.

“There’s not enough time. We’re leaving pretty soon, and you promised to show me that spring with the little waterfalls.”

“Oh, yeah. We better change clothes first. I’ll meet you at the paddle boats.”

The dressing area was uphill. Heather scrambled to the top while I followed like a little old lady. I had no zip, no zest, nothing. I wasn’t looking forward to paddling across the lake. But a promise was a promise.

Fifteen minutes later, Heather and I pulled our blue-and-white paddle boat to the bank’s edge and tied it to an old stump about three hundred yards from where the Lindell High School band buses were parked. Then we carefully climbed a grass-covered slope covered with dead leaves, spurts of grass, and dotted with native shrubbery. By the time we reached the top, I’d broken a sweat and felt weak as water, but Heather was depending on me. I kept going. Twenty paces took us inside the hundred-thousand-acre national forest that surrounded us. A weathered, wood-planked bridge with waist-high guardrails stood about five yards away.

Somehow, I made it. Leaning slightly over rails that were rough and splintery, we looked down into a gully filled with several layers of dead leaves, dried branches, and rust-colored pine straw. A gray rabbit scooted out from under the bridge, scattering a few brown leaves as he crossed the gully and leapt into the woods on the other side.

_______________________

First off, this is competently written. The writer has a good grasp of dialogue, description and basic craft. I like the interplay between the two characters. I like the contrast between the narrator’s physical reticence and the braver countenance of her friend. It reminds me a lot of the scenes about female friendship in the movie Julia. In the movie, Jane Fonda’s character “Lily” is shy, tentative and afraid of life in general. Her friend Julia, played by Vanessa Redgrave, is brash and fearless, always pushing Lily to be brave. The dynamic plays out in great flashback scenes of the two as girls, but develops into the movie’s theme when the adult Lily is asked by Julia to smuggle money out of Nazi Germany to save Jews.

This opening page of the narrator being goaded by Heather to be physically brave reminded me of a scene from Julia where Julia coaxes the terrified Lily to ford a river via a downed log. Alas, no clips. Just this one picture of the two girls, but it shows the shy Lily and the beaming Julia.

I like stories about friendship. But what I am not getting from our submission today is what many here at TKZ call “the telling details.” I’d like to see our writer try harder to use her grasp of description and dialogue to give us more character layers. More on that in a second.

Since we are in “Christian teen romance” genre here and not mystery or suspense, some of our usual “rules” might not apply here. For example, we always suggest of suspense stories that we need to get a sense that the main character’s world has been upended somehow. Jim Bell calls this “a disturbance.”  It can be a death, a crime, or more subtly, a vague feeling of dread. But what happens when we are dealing with a romance? A romance is essentially an emotional journey, centered on your protagonist. So what elements do we need in the opening 400-500 words?

Well, it’s been four decades since I wrote romance, but I’ll try to give this a crack. Three things I think a romance (or any story needs) in the early pages:

Establish a connection with a main character.  I wish I could remember where I read this so I could credit the writer but she suggested this exercise: Read the first five or six pages of your novel then stop and write down whatever you learned about that character. Not what you the writer know in your head; just what you put on the page. If you list only one or two things, you need to revise.

In this submission we learn what about the narrator?

  1. She’s female
  2. She’s a little tentative and perhaps lacks physical stamina.
  3. She has brown hair.

That’s it, folks. We don’t know her age or her name. We get only one detail about what she looks like. Now what do we know about her friend?

  1. She’s female
  2. Her name is Heather.
  3. She’s Canadian
  4. She’s five-eight
  5. She has freckles.
  6. She’s physically brave

Do you see the issue here? Heather is far more vivid than the unnamed narrator. Now, I recognize that when you are in first person point of view, it’s hard to insert descriptions etc. of your narrator. (egad, don’t resort to having your heroine look in a mirror and tell us what she sees!) And our narrator is, by nature, not flashy like Heather. But you have to find ways to make her come alive in the readers’ imagination. You can easily slip her name into Heather’s dialogue. You can find a way, via her thoughts to tell us her age, where she lives, how long she’s known Heather, etc. Always look for ways to insert telling details in your narration.

But here’s something the writer did really well. One way to illuminate character is to contrast it with someone else’s.  By making Heather so ballsy and out-there, it allows the writer to show us (rather than tell us!) that the other girl is rather meek and cautious. The writer could have written something bad like this:

I had always been timid, afraid to do even the smallest physical thing. And I had been sickly since birth, barely able to climb a small hill.

Instead, we learn this through her actions. Good job there.

Establish tension. Something must grab the reader’s attention immediately. This can be an unusual use of language, a unique voice, great description (although not too much too early), establishment of a mood.

Or maybe one great opening line. Here’s one from the YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. (A young friend gave me this book and I am enjoying it. Well, as much as I can, as it transports me back to the zits and awful zeitgeist of my teenage years.

The problem with my life is that it was someone’s else’s idea.

Why does that work? Great voice, for starters. The story is about teenage first loves and self-discovery. This line feels bleak but once the story gets moving, it’s uplifting.

Although I really like the opening of this submission with the character jumping off the high drive (It’s action! It’s symbolism!) I don’t feel “grabbed” yet by this submission. As I said, the friendship interplay is interesting, but I am really hoping something is going to happen pretty soon. 

Establish your setting. I don’t know where we are in this submission. Outside of “Colten Springs” there is no clue. Remember: You’re asking the reader to enter a conjured world, so try to work in these elements:  Geographic location. I get that we are in woods/lake but is it rural South? Upstate New York? Oregon? You mention a “dressing area” — what is this exactly? Are we at a park because I had envisioned a rural swimming hole location. And is the “high dive” off a cliff or a diving board? Again, be specific in your details. Time of year (They’re swimming so I’m guessing summer? Can you slip in a telling detail to ground me?) And always SHOW this through your narrator’s senses and experience. 

Okay,  before I go to a line edit, one last thing. Living up in northern Michigan, you’d think I’d have a frim grasp of what a “Canadian accent” sounds like. But outside of a few obvious things — like saying “aboot” instead of “about,” I’m kinda clueless. So telling me your character has a Canadian accent isn’t helpful. Can you find a way to show me? I don’t mean you should resort to trying to duplicate a dialect. That gets annoying to readers fast. But find a way to suggest it via your dialogue and thoughts. Something like:

I had known Heather for a year but at times the way she talked could still make me giggle. “It’s about four.” Came out “It’s aboot four.” Until I met her, I never knew Canadians had an accent. Living all my XX years in Colton Springs, Kentucky, I had never even met a foreigner.

See what this also does? It adds character layers to your girls. You can sneak in her age, and where she lives. (Important things to reveal as early as you can in your story). If she lives in the South, you can have even more fun with the accent thing, especially if your main character has one herself or maybe has never been exposed to “foreigners.” If the accent is worth mentioning, make it mean something. Make your details work harder.  

Now some quick comments in line edits.

When Love Calls You Home I like your title. It mean several things and has emotion

I broke the surface of the waters of Colten Springs and gasped for breath before swimming to shore. Jumping off the high-dive I am a little confused. You said they were swimming in Colten Springs but is there a diving board? Clarify your setting. was the stupidest thing I’d ever done. Now I had a headache. When would I learn I couldn’t do normal things like everyone else. Not with my sinuses.

“She twirls, she sings, she swims! What will Connie Grant do next?” I’d set this dialogue off by itself. And here is where you can tell us your protag’s name. 

Heather Gleason’s Canadian accent made her sound like a foreign news reporter on the scene. See comments about/aboot accents. And what does a foreign news reporter sound like? “What will she do next?” Her freckled face beamed down at me from her five-foot-eight frame as I trudged out of the lake, my brown hair clinging like cellophane to my head, shoulders, and back, my hands slinging water with every step.

“Your turn to try the high-dive,” I said, puffing as if I’d swum the English Channel.

Heather tossed me a towel. I dried my face but my matted hair clung to my shoulders and back like wet cellophane. Open the graph with a physical motion — Heather and the towel. The matted hair on my cheeks felt yucky. I pushed it back and dried the droplets of water clinging to my eyelashes with the beach towel Heather threw at me.

“There’s not enough time,” Heather said. We’re leaving pretty soon, and you promised to show me that spring with the little waterfalls.” So we ARE in a woodsy park area somewhere? Again, here is where you could slip in details. Never let a chance go by to illuminate character. And maybe add some tension, intrigue, suspense or dollop of backstory. Something like:

The waterfall had always been my secret place. It was where I hid when mom started in on me. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to share it with anyone. Even Heather.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. We better change clothes first. I’ll meet you at the paddle boats.” So is she going to show her the waterfall? Unclear.

The dressing area was uphill. Now this suggests to me a park with a cabana changing room? Don’t be afraid to slow down just a tad and ground us better in your setting. Heather scrambled to the top while I followed like a little old lady. I had no zip, no zest, nothing. I wasn’t looking forward to paddling across the lake. But a promise was a promise.

Fifteen minutes later, If you’re going to use the paddleboats, have it mean something in the scene. Maybe you use it for a conversation that moves the plot forward. Otherwise, I would take them straight to the parking lot. Heather and I pulled our blue-and-white paddle boat to the bank’s edge and tied it to an old stump about three hundred yards from where the Lindell High School band buses were parked. Again, I am a little confused about this setting. Apparently, this is a school outing? Buses are waiting in the parking lot. But I was visualizing a more rural swimming hole locale. Then we carefully Why? Is it steep, rock-strewn? Your woods setting is good! But use it to amplify whatever is going on in your character’s head/emotions climbed a grass-covered slope covered with dead leaves, spurts of grass, and dotted with native shrubbery. Huckleberry bushes? Lady ferns? Michigan holly? Be specific! Don’t let a chance go by to use TELLING DETAILS. By the time we reached the top, I’d broken a sweat and felt weak as water, but Heather was depending on me. I kept going.

New graph needed here I think. Twenty paces took us inside the hundred-thousand-acre national forest Huron National Forest (Mich)? Sierra National Forest (Cal)? White Mountain National Forest (New Hamp)? that surrounded us. Okay, they’ve just climbed a big hill of some kind and are apparently now looking DOWN on a forest? What do they see? What is your character thinking? Why are you taking us there? Make the setting SAY SOMETHING ABOUT CHARACTER or MAKE IT RELATE TO PLOT. A weathered, wood-planked bridge with waist-high guardrails stood about five yards away.

Somehow, I made it. We went over to the bridge and I leaned on it, still trying to catch my breath. I looked down Leaning slightly over rails that were rough and splintery, we looked down into a gully filled with several layers of dead leaves, dried branches, and rust-colored pine straw. How deep? A gray rabbit scooted out from under the bridge, scattering a few brown leaves as he crossed the gully and it disappeared into the woods on the other side.

One last note. I like this submission and feel it has great potential. Because I sense that the relationship between Heather and unnamed girl is important. But I am hoping that the writer has a good reason for taking us readers on a hike up the hill into the forest and to this bridge. Something must happen soon. Or I am not sure we’re going to be willing to go any further down the trail.

Thank you, dear writer, for submitting. I hope you don’t find this discouraging. Given some well-placed details, character layers, and a more focused sense of what you are trying to accomplish in this scene, you’re on the right track.

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!