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

Rewriting: Keep Your Eyes
Open And Your Ego Closed

“It is easy to be wise after the event.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes

By PJ Parrish

I’ve been doing a lot of reading of my old stuff lately. It’s all in prep to get the last of our backlist titles re-packaged and up for download. What a chore — and eye-opener — this has turned out to be.

First, it’s a lot of grunt work. Some of our books are so old they hail from the dark ages of Word Perfect. (For the record, the BEST word processing system ever designed). There is no manuscript that I can feed into the Amazon maw. So here’s the primitive process:

  1. Dig around in the dusty bins of the house to find an old paper copy of the book
  2. Send it to our book scanner (Blue Leaf in Ballwin, Mo). Our guy Brad then rips the book apart, scans it, and sends us a Word document.
  3. The manuscript comes back surprisingly clean. But it has quirks. The spacing is off at times, “t” often comes out “st” and Louis’s name is sometimes Louie. So I have to CAREFULLY read every single line. This is hard to do because:
  • I am a bad copy editor.
  • Reading for typos is like taking three Ambiens.
  • I get caught up in the story and miss the typos. This is sometimes a good thing because I hit a passage and think, “Damn, I’m good!” This is sometimes a bad thing because I hit another passage and it’s, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Once I have a clean manuscript, I ship it off to my sister Kelly who has mastered the art of formatting. (If you don’t know how to do this, hire someone who does. Please. If you are self-pubbing, one of the biggest turn-offs to readers is shoddy formatting. It screams amateur.) So, Kelly makes it pretty with perfect chapter breaks, drop-caps, correct page numbering and a table of contents. We write new backcopy and design a new cover  (you can’t use your original publisher’s).

Covers, as we’ve talked about here, are important. Again, hire a pro! If you have series, it’s best to brand them with linking graphic devices, type faces and colors. We chose black backgrounds and an odd type face. Here a sample of the covers, original and new, for book we’ve just finished.


The left one, from our publisher Kensington, was adequate. But it looks dated now (design trends mutate!). I always disliked it because the only image is a nondescript (purple?) house that had no relation to the story. In our re-branding new covers, we’ve used a human figure on every book because we think it gives the reader a person to begin to bond with, be it a victim, protag or villain. (Also the necklace the dead girl wears turnss out to be a big clue).

So Thicker Than Water is available in ebook and very pretty trade paperback. Click here.  Now we take you back to our regular programming.

I’d like to return to my first point, way back in the first paragraph. Because this is what I really want to stress for you guys out there who are struggling with getting your first book out there in the world.


That is my biggest take-away from this experience of getting our old stuff back out there. Because no matter where you are in your writing, rewriting or editing process, you have to be willing to have your eyes opened. And your ego closed.

You really have to be ruthless in rewriting. You have to make hard choices, sometimes about passages or whole chapters that need to be cut. You have to recognize that your plot foundation might be shaky. Or that your characters are cardboardy. I always tell folks one thing, going into a new story:

Write the first draft with your heart. Then write the second, third, tenth or twentieth draft with your head. We’ve now re-published ten of our old books. Yes, we did some rewriting on all of them. The first one, Dark of the Moon, we have yet to re-publish because we believe it has fundamental problems that need more than a normal rewrite can solve. Here’s some of the things we learned in this process with our freshman effort book:

We got preachy. Our protag, Louis Kincaid, is biracial. The issue of race is, at times, important in the plot but more often than not is tangential to the story. Still, a couple times we allowed Louis to sound pedantic. Here’s the thing about themes: The more dramatic your theme, the more you need to underwrite. Go at your theme — be it bigotry, spouse abuse, environment, gay rights — obliquely, and always through the lens of your characters, not through your writerly narrator. You can make your point but you can’t be didactic.

We fell prey to stereotypes. Dark of the Moon is set in a small southern town in 1983. Our dialogue was too dialect-dependent. Our characters came across as one-dimensional. And we managed to have nothing positive to say about the town itself. Remember: your setting is a character. Treat it with respect.

We lost track of “book” time. This was an issue in our first two books, wherein we didn’t account for lapses in time. We neglected to tell readers that X-days had passed or we didn’t account for holidays like Christmas. (Hey, readers notice that little stuff). The sequence of events must be clear in the reader’s mind. We now use timeline boards and chronologies.

We didn’t know what we wanted to say. I’m going out on limb here and say all good books have themes. I don’t think we understood this until about book 4. Yes, you want to entertain readers. But beneath the grinding gears of plot, even light books can have something to say about the human condition. A romance might be “about” how love is doomed without trust. A courtroom drama might be “about” the morality of the death penalty.

We missed the theme in Dark of the Moon. Only now, as we rewrite it, are we understanding that the theme is every person’s search for home. For Louis, it was literally going back to the southern town where he was born and then understanding that it wasn’t “home” at all. The entire series now has a theme — Louis, a man who has walked uneasily in two racial worlds — trying to find his spiritual home.

I know you’re tempted to dismiss theme as mere enhancement. Le cerise sur la gateau, as the French say. But it’s essential. Try this experiment: Write the back copy for your work in progress — three paragraphs at most. Ha! Can’t do it? Well, you might not have a grip on what your story is about at its heart. Now often your theme doesn’t show itself until you’re well into your plot. Well, that’s okay. But when it begins to whisper, listen hard. Good fiction, Stephen King says, “always begins with story and progresses to theme.”

Eyes open, crime dogs.

First Page Critique: Little
Tweaks Make Big Differences

Good morning, crime dogs. It’s been a while since I tackled a First Pager but this one intrigued me. It’s a mystery, the submitter tells us. And within the mystery are things we can unearth, to learn, as always. Catch you on the flip-side.

By PJ Parrish 

If Only Twice

Cora Jean sat in her new apartment, piled high with boxes of her belongings, wondering where to start and asking herself why she was even here. The musty odor of damp cardboard filled her lungs adding to her melancholy. She clenched her hands, stood up and paced the floor. “The boxes, the boxes,” she said. “The never-ending pile of smelly boxes.” She kicked one. Her eyes teared up. She reached into her jean pocket and pulled out a box cutter. She stared at her wrist. Her hand trembled. She pushed the button extending the blade. The shiny blade. The inviting blade. The mesmerizing blade. She inhaled, held her breath and closed her eyes.

“Be careful with that boxcutter.” A voice from behind her said.

She twisted around, tripped over a box and dropped the box cutter. The stranger caught her before she hit the floor. He helped her to a chair.

“Those things can be tricky to use,” the stranger said.

“Who are you?”

“Your door was ajar. It looked as though you might need help.”

“I know how to use this.” She picked up the boxcutter and held it tightly in her hand.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Lew. I was checking on someone in apartment 12 B.”

“You have friends living in this building?”

“Mr. Whitley in 12 B can be cantankerous at times but, most are friendly. Here, give me that.” Lew reached for the box cutter, gently took it from her hand and retracted the blade.

“I know how to use that thing.”

“I will help you open your boxes.” He put the box cutter in his back pocket. “Let’s see, you have five boxes. Where do you want to start?”

She rolled her eyes. “Five boxes! Where did you learn to count?”

“I see only five. How many are there?”

She turned her head slowly examining every corner of the apartment. She moved to the bedroom door. On the bed were two boxes.

“There are a bunch in here. See you’re wrong.”

“Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t look in the bedroom.”

“There are so many I don’t know where to start.”

“Let’s start with the living room.”

“But they’re so big.”

“You can do it. One box at a time. I’ll help you.”

“The living room.” She compressed her lips. “Um, the living room maybe a good place to start.”

“Yes, the living room,” Lew said.


As I said, this one interested me. There are some issues with it, especially with the critical opening paragraph and we’ll get to those. But let me say that I think this writer has potential and that this set-up scene can, with some work, make for a good opening. This is a great example of a submission that is pretty good but with some effective tweaking, can shine. First, what I like:

We know who were dealing with from the get-go. The two characters interacting here are named and their voices are distinct from each other — Cora Jean timid and troubled and the interloper Lew mysterious and vaguely creepy in his earnestness to help. I also like that the writer chose to place us directly in a disruptive situation — Cora feeling lost and even suicidal in a new home and confronted by a strange man. I mention this because many writers, dealing with a troubled character like Cora, would have given us paragraphs or a whole scene/chapter of her sitting amid her boxes moping, thinking, fretting and/or remembering what brought her to this point.

But no. This writer rightly drops us into the messiness and saves the backstory and “why” for later. If nothing else, that is a lesson to take away here. So, dear writer, you’re on the right road.

But…you can do better. The opening scene can be better. You can hook your reader with more tension. None of it requires major surgery. It’s a matter of little things adding up to big changes. Let me make a few suggestions.

Take a hard look at that first paragraph. It’s way too long and you’ve crammed way too much info and emotion into it. I have a hunch you felt it necessary to compact everything into one graph because Cora Jean is alone at this point. And maybe if you just kept going, in a sort of stream of consciousness, it would feel more urgent. But the effect is just the opposite. The opening line and graph should be a PROMISE of the mystery to come. A hint is always more powerful than a hammer.

And let’s talk about that box cutter. I love it! It’s so powerful but you missed an opportunity to make it work on two levels. (More to come on that). A box cutter is one of those “homey” but nasty gadgets. It’s so useful and well designed. Yet inside is hidden an awful weapon. One slip and your Ikea bookcase looks like blood-spatter scene. (Been there, cut that)

So Cora has a box cutter: Is it a benign tool to open something — or is it a deadly means to close something — i.e. her life. Chilling.

Yet you’ve buried this great detail amid the physical choregraphy of the opening graph. Let me suggest how powerful simple paragraphing can be:

Cora Jean sat in her new apartment, piled high with boxes of her belongings, wondering where to start and asking herself why she was even here. The musty odor of damp cardboard filled her lungs adding to her melancholy.

“The boxes, the boxes,” she said. “The never-ending pile of smelly boxes.”

Her eyes teared. She stood up and kicked a box. She reached into her jean pocket, her fingers curling around the peice of metal. She pulled out the box cutter and stared at it.

She raised her left arm and looked at her wrist. She pushed the button on the box cutter, extending the blade.

The shiny blade. The inviting blade. The mesmerizing blade.

Good stuff. But it can be even better. Some suggestions to work on:

Try harder to come up with a more compelling opening line. “Cora Jean sat…” is so passive and blah. And “her new apartment” and “her belongings” are superfulous. It is implied by the packing boxes.

Also, “wondering where to start and asking herself why she was even there” is you, the writer, telling us her state of mind, rather than showing the reader through her thoughts and actions. You need a bit of description! The smell of damp cardboard is good, but think harder about using Cora’s other senses to give us a FEEL for where she is, physically and mentally. Don’t tell us she feels “melancoly.” SHOW US. Something like:

The room was dark, yet she knew it was only just past three.  Shadows moved across the gray walls. Just the reflection of the bare tree branches outside the window, yet she felt like they were fingers reaching in to touch her. 

The room smelled stale, not just from the musty cardboard boxes piled all around her, but from something else, like an old woman’s perfume. She stared at the moving boxes, wishing she had remembered to label them. She had been in such a hurry, she had no idea what was in them. Her eyes welled with tears, as the thought came back to her again.

I have no idea of what I am doing here.

Use descrption and her sensory prism to show us her mood and emotions.

After you’ve established Cora’s emotions more vividly, then it’s time to move on to the action — the introduction of the mysterious stranger. You’ve done a pretty good job with this part. Nice dialogue, but watch that you don’t waste it on repetition or unecessary chattter. And make sure it is logical in its progression. I rewrote this a little:

“Be careful with that boxcutter.” A voice from behind her said.

She twisted around, tripped over a box and dropped the box cutter. “Who are you?”

“I’m Lew. “Your door was open and –”

She grabbed the boxcutter from the floor and held it out. “I know how to use this.”

He took one step back. “I was here to check on someone downstairs and walked by your door. You looked like you needed some help.”

“You have friends living in this building?”

He nodded but his eyes were still on the boxcutter. “Mr. Whitley in 12 B. He’s cantankerous at times but most folks here are friendly.”

He paused, seeming to stare at the piles of cardboard boxes. “You look like you could use some help with those.” He nodded to the boxcutter in her hand. “I know how to use that,” he said with a smile.

Cora Jean hesitated then retracted the blade.

I changed the dialogue up a little to stress a couple things. First, I don’t think it’s believable that Cora, being so sad and stressed at first, would allow a strange man to simply take the blade from her. It also makes her look weak. Why not let her keep it as she warily retreats (retracts the blade).

And this is the kicker: Note that I tried to make the line “I know how to use that” work harder for your characters. It now has a double meaning. Is Lew a good samaritan or a slasher? Well, read on to find out…

Also, one last point about your dialogue. You know how to craft it. But make it work harder. The dialogue you have after the blade thing is just taking up space. It is doing nothing to advance your scene or add to the tension. Good dialogue does one of two things: Says something unique or says something uniquely. Sure, sometimes people have to say mundane things to move your story along. But try hard not to use it in this fashion. Use simple narration instead: Cora knew there were six boxes in the living room and at least three more in the bedroom. She slipped the boxcutter back into the pocket of her jeans. “Some of them are heavy,” she said softly. “Yeah, I could use some help.”

So, good start, writer. Rework that opening paragraph to squeeze as much tension-juice out of it as you can. Make your dialogue work harder. Use some description to enhance mood. But based on this, I would read on, if for no other reason than to find out what Lew is up to. Thanks for letting us read your work.

I Broke Almost All Of Elmore Leonard’s Rules Of Writing

“There are 500 million people on Facebook, but what are they saying to each other? Not much.” — Elmore Leonard

By PJ Parrish

Elmore Leonard was trending big on my Facebook feed this week. Everyone was quoting, but mainly misquoting, his famous Ten Rules Of Writing.

True confession time, she intoned gravely, I have read only two Leonard books. (ten bonus points if you get that reference).

Leonard is one of those titans whose stuff has been part of my cram-course in belated crime education. But like all writers, I’ve heard that he’s the Picasso of crime fiction, whose dialogue, in the words of one critic, is “like broken glass, sharp and glittering.”

But do his rules hold up? Well, I think this is a good time to go back and take a look. And I’ll be the first one to admit, I have broken almost all of them.

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

I opened my book Island of Bones with a woman so desperate to escape her killer that she took off in a skiff in the middle of a hurricane. But generally I agree with Leonard here that in too many books, weather is a metaphoric crutch meant to telegraph the hero’s conflict or a mood of foreboding. Hey, it works in The Tempest, right? In the play, the small ship atoss in a raging storm is a metaphor for the characters, high-born and low, all at the mercy of natural events.

2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

Sigh. Broke this one, too. In my book A Thouand Bones, I am telling the story of Louis Kincaid’s lover, Joe Frye. The entire book is a flashback to Joe’s rookie year but I felt I had to connect it to Louis, so I book-ended it with a prologue (wherein she tells Louis about a crime she committed ten years ago) AND an epilogue (wherein Louis accepts what she did). But again, I think prologues are usually unnecessary. They almost always indicate the writer is not in control of back story or the time element of their plot (linear is almost always best). Or the writer tacks on a prologue where he throws out a body to gin up suspense because the early chapters are slooooow.

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

Have broken this one, too.   See no. 4. But if you’re into “grumbled, bellowed, snapped, begged, moaned” and the like, then I’m pretty sure that the stuff you’re putting between the quote marks isn’t up to snuff. And if I ever catch you using “he barked” I will hunt you down and bite you, she yelped doggedly.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said.” To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

Guilty again. I have used “whispered,” “shouted” and “asked.” But I always hate myself in the morning.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

I hate exclamation marks! But yes, I have used them. Mainly when I have someone shouting. And what’s worse, I have probably written, “Get out of here!” he shouted.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.” This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

I have never used “all hell…” That’s really amateur hour, akin to “little did he know that…” But yes, “suddenly” has appeared in my books. I didn’t realized what a stupid tic it was until I re-read Leonard’s rules. Suddenly, “suddenly” looks really bad in my chapters. And I now see that the action feels more immediate without it.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

We made this mistake in our first book Dark of the Moon. Set in the deep South, we felt compelled to drop some “g’s” and use some dumb idioms, and at least one reviewer took us to task for it. Here’s the thing: Dialect is hard on the reader’s eye. You can convey the feeling of it by judicious word choice, mannerisms, and sentence rhythm. We are in the process of preparing “Moon” for eBook and this has given us a second chance to go back and rewrite things. So y’all can bet we’re fixin’ to fix our mistakes.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

Whew. Finally, one sin I don’t commit. I am a strong believer in less is more when it comes to character descriptions. I think if you tread too heavily in the reader’s imagination, you stomp out some of the magic from your book. Here is how I let readers know what my heroine Joe Frye looked like:

She had a flash of memory, of sitting next to her dad in a gymnasium during her brother’s basketball game, watching the cheerleaders.
I’m ugly, Daddy.
You’re beautiful.
Not like them, I’m not.
No. They’re easy to add up. They’re plain old arithmetic.
So what am I?
Geometry, Joey. Not everyone gets it.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

This one is hard for me because I love to write setting descriptions. But I have learned to pull back some. The best advice I ever heard on this comes from Coco Chanel who said you should put on all your accessories and then take all of them off except one before you go out. So yeah, I over-describe but then I go back and take off the pearls and leopard hat.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

Like all writers, I struggle with this one. When we’re deep in the writing zone, we can fall in love with the sound of our own voices. And sometimes, a passage will come so hard that you just can’t bring yourself to delete it. But you must kill your darlings. Lately, I feel myself “underwriting,” so maybe I am pulling back too far. But I still think it’s better to leave ‘em wanting more, not less.

11. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

I have nothing to add to that last one. It might be the single best piece of writing advice out there. If you’re working too hard, your reader will as well. Here’s the quote that hangs over my desk: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” It was good enough for Nathaniel Hawthorne — and Leonard — so it’s good enough for me.

Phoebe ready for trick or treating

Postscript: I am en route today from Michigan back to Tallahassee, two dogs in tow. If I don’t answer to your comment it is probably because I am somewhere over Cinncinati or stranded in Big Daddy’s Burger Bar in the Charlotte airport. Happy Halloween!


The Most Potent Little Gadget
In Your Writer’s Toolbox

Paragraphing is a way of dramatization, as the look of a poem on a page is dramatic; where to break lines, where to end sentences. — Joyce Carol Oates.

By PJ Parrish

Yesterday, Sue posted her critique of a First Page submission. Click here to review. On first read, I thought it was pretty good but something about it was bugging me. Then I just looked at it instead of reading it. It hit me that the paragraphing wasn’t quite right.

Paragraphing? Who cares about paragraphing? You just hit enter when it feels right, right? Nope. Proper paragraphing is one of the most underrated tools in your writer’s box. So allow me to wander into the weeds today and talk a little inside baseball. (I worked hard on that mixed metaphor, by the way)

Two main problems with the submission yesterday: The writer had made the common mistake of burying thoughts and dialogue within narrative.

Second problem: All the paragraphs are about the same length. Why is that a problem? Because it goes to pacing and rhythm. No variation in paragraphs is boring to the eye and that translates to boring for the reader’s imagination. But if you learn to master the fine but subtle art of judicious paragraphing, you can inject interest and even tension into your story.

Let’s address problem one first. This opening paragraph is essentially narrative. But inserted within that is both dialogue and thoughts. Here’s the paragraph:

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe, locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. I deserve a second chance. 

Dialogue and thoughts are ACTION. They deserve to be lifted out of narrative and given lines of their own so the reader can emotionally latch onto them, and by extension, your character. This opening paragraph would be more effective (and more interesting to the eye) if it were deconstructed with better paragraphing:

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation, and stared hard at her boss.

“Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.”

Matt Updike shoved his chair backward, rose and closed the distance between them in two strides.

“I’m not kidding. You are doing this,” he said. “You don’t have a choice.”

She could smell his stale coffee breath and see a vein bulging in his neck, but she resisted the urge to step back. Her boss had clearly lost his mind. But she wasn’t going to take this. She deserved a second chance.  

See the difference? The drama of the scene is enhanced by allowing the thoughts and dialogue to stand out — all by simple paragraphing. Here’s something interesting: The rewrite is LONGER but it reads FASTER. Why? Because the reader doesn’t need to ferret out the important thoughts and dialogue. It’s your job, as the writer, to mine out the nuggets for them.

Now let’s consider the basic question of length of paragraphs and how that affects your reader. How long should your paragraphs be? Sounds like a dumb question, but it’s not. You need to consider it deeply.

About five years ago, I did a very long post on paragraphing with a lot of examples, Click here if you want to review.  But let me re-quote this from Ronald Tobias’s The Elements of Fiction Writing: Theme & Strategy,

The rhythm of action and character is controlled by the rhythm of your sentences. You can alter mood, increase or decrease tension, and pace the action by the number of words you put in a sentence. And because sentences create patterns, the cumulative effect of your sentences has a larger overall effect on the work itself. Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive. If your writing a tense scene and use long sentences [me here: or long paragraphs], you may be working against yourself.

I often liken writing to music. Composers use punctuation to speed up or slow down pace and musicians use types of “articulation” to enhance whatever mood they are going for — intense? dangerous? romantic? thoughtful?

Good writers use similar tools — punctuation, length of sentences and paragraphs (short and choppy or longer and measured?) to create an emotional response in their readers. The best writers understand this not only creates emotion, it provides variety on each page and over the whole book.

Pacing is not just aural, it’s visual. How your writing LOOKS on the page is important. Which brings us back to the paragraph. How many you use per page, and how long or short your paragraphs are should be conscious choices you make. Here is the same thought, expressed two different ways:

Fragments, the length of sentences, punctuation, and how often you paragraph can all work to give a particular pace. If you really think about, you’ll realize that you can use sentence and paragraph structure to create a feeling of speed or slowness, depending on what kind of emotional response you want to induce in your reader.

Okay, that gets my point across, right? But what if I structured the same thought this way:

Think of it! You can move a reader through a story fast. Their hearts will race!

Or you can slow them down and make them use their heads.

It’s all in how your sentences look on the page.

The first is measured, more academic in pace, meant to make you slow down and digest the thought. The second is lively and urgent, making you anticipate an important climax-point. Neither is correct. They are just two different styles of pacing, word choice, sentence length and paragraphing to different affect.

I think most of us here, being in the crime business, know we shouldn’t write a lot of long paragraphs. You can get away with some, especially in description. But these days, too many long paragraphs per page looks “old-fashioned” or worse, “textbook.” It worked for Dickens and even for a stylist like Delillo. Not so much for the rest of us today.

Are any of you out there art folks or designers? Then you understand the value of “white space” or “negative space.” Simply put, negative space is the area around and between a subject. It appears in all drawings, paintings and photographs. The “subject” below is enhanced by the negative space surroudning him. (Notice, too, the crop lines that make for an even more compelling negative/positive composition!)

Paragraphing provides white space. Don’t believe me? Go read Elmore Leonard.

Ray Bradbury said that each paragraph is a mini-scene and when you hit ENTER you are helping your reader enter a new scene, thought or action. I’ll leave you with one more example. It’s from one of my favorite opening pages from a novel.

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

That’s the opening to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I love the way the first line sits there all alone, like a roadside sign that you’re entering hell. Then he gives us this amazing loooong graph with gorgeous imagery and the nonchalance of the unnamed man. And then, a third paragraph — BAM! — he gives us our arsonist-star by name.

Bradbury could have made this all one graph. But no, he chose three. Your turn. Choose wisely when to hit enter.


First Page Critique: A Death In Vegas, And It’s Not The Corpse

By PJ Parrish

Today’s submission is a second attempt. I read the first draft of this a couple years back and I thought it was a hot mess back then. We didn’t print it here because I thought the writer needed a second chance. So here is the new version. Give it a read and we’ll talk. The writer calls this a light mystery with serious intent.


It’s not easy starting your life over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it. Especially in a place like Morning Sun, Iowa.

The folks in Morning Sun — there’s only about four hundred of them — don’t have much tolerance for weird people, especially a rattlebrained housewife who tries to bail out of her marriage after a couple of little marital “tiffs.”

But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when my husband Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife we had just bought off a late-night infomercial, I didn’t figure I had a lot of options.

The police believed I killed him. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. But fortunately for me, the jury didn’t believe any of them.

So I walked. Actually, I ran.

Three thousand miles to be exact, all the way to Las Vegas. I had to get out of Morning Sun and I figured Las Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances. It’s the kind of place where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.

Like I was doing now.

I rubbed my neck, pushed Brad out of my head and myself out of my chair. My Payless pinchers were where I had kicked them off when I came back to the office and hour ago. I glanced up at the surveillance monitor. So was Mr. Cranko. He was still planted like a Buddha at blackjack table 15, his sausage fingers ruffling his chips, the ash of his Marlboro about to fall to the green felt.

A tap on the door drew my eye to the door. Pete, my night manager, came in and tossed a yellow paper on my desk.

“Hey boss,” he said. He glanced up at the monitor. “How much is Cranko in?” he asked.

“Twenty-seven thousand,” I said.

Pete shook his head. “How does a Searchlight plumber get that much to play with?”

I shook my head even though I knew Cranko was a meth dealer. Half the lizard people in the desert were. I looked down at the yellow paper.

“How many?” I asked, giving the paper a poke.

Pete shrugged. “Just two. One for panhandling. The other for soliticting.”

“Male or female?”

“We couldn’t tell.”

Okay, we’re back. What is the basic problem here? C’mon, I know you all pay attention when we preach about this at The Kill Zone.

Yup, that’s right. Too much backstory. Too much thinking, remembering, musing, regretting. I wish I had enough room here to show the original version because this is actually much better. But this still isn’t ready for prime time. The protag’s past is interesting, but it’s just that — past tense. We’re already about 350 words in and nothing much is happening IN THE PRESENT. Sure, we get some dialogue and I suppose Pete coming in and interrupting the protag’s thoughts might pass for “action”. But it is interesting? Where is the disturbance in the norm, as James always pleads for?

Okay, true confession. My sister Kelly and I wrote this. It was one of our freshman attempts many many years ago. I found it while cleaning out the hard drive the other day and we decided to drag it out, hit it with the paddles and see if it could be resusitated.

Sigh. I dunno. I really like this protag and the arc of the story we wanted for her — she’s trying hard to make up for some bad life decisions, she’s in a dead-end job in Vegas, and she can’t find a new road forward. Her arc involves not just reinventing herself but also rebuildingg a badly damaged relationship with her dad. But this first chapter is fatally flawed because our desire to impress you with her backstory is getting in the way of the forward motion. SOMETHING HAS TO COMPELL HER TO CHANGE.

But no. We go on for about seven more pages describing the drab old-fashioned casino where she works, her sad attempts to start dating again, and how envious she is of the glamorous new casino, The Monolith, opening next door. So she opens her window and watches the klieg lights, the red-carpet crowds next door. More thinking, regretting, sighing…

Then, guess what happens at the end of chapter 1? Here it is:

I started away from the window.
That’s when I heard the scream.
A second later, I heard the thud of something against metal. My first thought was that something had fallen on the Dumpster in the alley.
But things, inanimate things, didn’t scream.
I went back to the window, and looked up. Nothing but the klieg lights waving like windshield wipers against the navy blue sky. I forced myself to look down.
It was so close to my open window, I could smell the blood.

To make a too long story short, a showgirl has fallen off the roof of the Monolith. Or was she pushed? Well, that’s where the story — and our protag’s story — finally begins to come alive.  Here’s the opening of Chapter 2:

I knew she was dead, but her eyes spoke to me.
They were green, probably from contacts she didn’t need, but an emerald green nonetheless. A red and gold sequined headdress covered her blonde hair, and her long legs were contorted under her. Her black fishnet stockings were caught on the chain-link fence like a giant spider web.
I watched as red feathers floated down, one settling on her forehead, right next to the line of blood that ran from her ear.

So, why am I sharing this? Not for sympathy. We know that if we want to do something with this story, we have a lot of work to do. I’m sharing this so you really understand a couple things about effective openings:

  1. Yes, your character’s backstory is important because it provides a context for their arc in your present-tense plot. And you want the reader to care about your protag. BUT…something in the present must trigger the protag’s journey out of the past.
  2. Act first and explain later. I think our opening paragraph is fine — it’s a good tease. But we need to find a way to get to the catalyst event — the dead showgirl — more quickly and weave our protag’s backstory into the plot later.
  3. Don’t waste time on dialogue and secondary character that do nothing to move your plot along. This means the stuff with Pete and Mr. Cranko has to go. They add nothing. Remember: Your real estate is precious in the early pages. Don’t clutter it up with flaccid dialogue and spear-carriers.
  4. Make your protag pro-active not re-active. Part of our character arc is that our protag has always dreamed of being a private detective. But we need to hint at this in chapter 1. Right now, she’s boring. We need to juice her up.
  5. First person is tough. Everything is filtered through one POV and man, if your character is moping and groping, who’s gonna care? If you chose first person, make your narrator sing. Even if it’s off-key at first.
  6. Don’t make this common mistake: Spend time, pages and energy world-building the norm, then when something bad happens to disrupt it, the reader will care even more. Nope. Hint at a norm but don’t belabor it. Get your plot moving and later, you can layer in the “norm” that has been lost.
  7. And find a way to tell us your protag’s name. Big duh for us….we don’t tell you her name until page 23.

Whelp, there you have it. Oh, I forgot one more thing I’d like you to take away from this lesson, maybe the most important thing:

8. Everyone writes crap. We had already published two of our Louis Kincaid series books when we wrote this. What’s weird is neither of our Louis books had these flaws. What happened to us? [I am laughing as I write this] Shoot, I don’t know. I think we got so enamoured of our character and her sad little life back in Morning Sun, Iowa, that we forgot that we needed a plot. In trying to save her, we lost our story. So when you do write something bad — and you will — set it aside, let it bake a few weeks, months or years in the drawer or hard drive. Then pull it out and give it a whiff.

Does it smell like cheese? Then it is. Admit it and try again. To paraphrase Woody Allen, sharks and writers die if they don’t keep moving.


It’s Time To Stop

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” –Fred Rogers

By PJ Parrish

A sequence of events this past month has been making me chew on a pretty important question: When is it time to stop writing?

I don’t mean stop writing whatever you’re working on. That’s a relatively easy decision that might mean abandoning a book that’s going nowhere and finding a new story to tell. I’m talking about the R-word.

Yup, this makes it official, crime dogs. I am retiring.

It is time to stop writing books. I know this now with all my heart. I have been thinking about this for about three years. Back then, like all of you, was feeling really at sea and done-in by the Covid scare. I figured it would pass and I would go back to my work in progress.

But now I know, this is it. Time to stop, hang up the cleats, and ride off into the Michigan sunset. Don’t fret for me. I am really happy with this decision. I just wonder why it took me three years to finally come to terms with it.

Here’s the thing. I am getting old. I am healthy and reasonably well off, thank God. But I want to use my time more wisely, while I still have the marbles and mobility to do so. As I said, some events of late have helped me to this place. I have two dear friends who are fighting cancer battles. Both are doing okay right now (one friend, who was really sick, now is back to skating in his over-65 hockey league!). But my time with them now is especially precious. As it is with my husband and small family. Also of late, I have had several writing friends confess privately that they are worn out and want to pull back from the publishing rat race. All are successful, have nice backlists and contracts. Several came home from the Bouchercon writer’s con with Covid and feelings that there are other ways they want to spend their time and money. I sense a retrenchment among the old guard.

Here’s the second thing. Writing is work. It’s not a physical thing. Writing takes no toll on the body. But it devours your time and energy. Alice Munro said, as she retired, “I don’t have the energy anymore.” Yes, writing is joyful and sure as hell beats filling potholes or waiting tables. But if you’re doing it right, it is a job. More so now that it has ever been, as the traditional publishing support system has deteriorated. You have to punch that time-card, at least five days a week.

John Updike used to rent a one-room office above a restaurant, where he would report to write six days a week. John Cheever famously put on his only suit and rode the elevator with the 9-to-5 crowd, only he would proceed down to the basement to write in a storage room.

I’ve been working fulltime since I was 18. I don’t want a job anymore. I have other things I want to do with those 40-plus hours. For health reasons (chronic back pain), I need a consistent exercise regimen. I want to travel more. I want to devote time to friends, family and my dogs. I want to keep my garden going. I want to learn more languages. I want to go back to the piano lessons I had to give up ten years ago. I want to read for pleasure. If things work out, I’d like to go live aboard for a while.

As Mr. Rogers says, when you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.

I think we make it hard on writers to retire. Maybe it’s because we imagine them as magical machines that produce pleasure just for us. As Don Winslow said, as he announced his retirement a while back, “I think a lot of people don’t expect writers to retire. They expect us to just keel over at the keyboard.”

Stephen King tried to retire but it didn’t take. In 2002, after almost dying in a bad accident, King said he was walking away from his horror show. But he barely slowed down, and just released his 64th book this month. More power to him.

When Lee Child retired, he handed care of Reacher over to his younger brother, and retreated to a ranch in Wyoming, where his only neighbors are moose and mountain lions. He claims he will never write another book.

Child said one reason he’s retiring from his series is because he struggles to identify with a younger audience. “I’m rapidly getting out of date,” Child told the Australian Financial Review, “and Reacher has always been behind the curve with technology.”

The timing was right, he says. “I had made myself a promise based on reading other people’s series … that I would never phone it in, and I never have. I cannot keep this up forever.”

I really get this one. I had a really great run that lasted almost 30 years. I made some money, won some awards, made the bestseller list. I have lovely memories of meeting fans and reading their emails and letters. I never phoned it in. No one wants to be the Brett Favre of crime fiction.

With our last series book, The Damage Done, we left our character Louis Kincaid in a very good place. We didn’t realize at the time it would be the last Louis book, but now as I re-read its ending, I know his character arc has come to a full, almost spiritual, conclusion.

And as Lee says, no one wants to be an anachronism. Through my work with the Edgars, I get a front row seat on the next generation of crime writers. Our genre is changing and as Brian Wilson wrote, I just wasn’t made for these times.

So what does retirement look like for me? Sort of like it does for Lee Child. “I’m going to buy a real comfortable sofa, and I’m just going to read for the rest of my life,” he says. “I was born in Europe. I have no work ethic.”

Like me, he feels the pull of other interests: “I’m an extremely poor guitarist,” he says, “and I may try to get better.”

But what about The Kill Zone? I’d like to stick around, if that’s okay with you all. I won’t have any new books to tout and I can’t contribute a whit about what’s going on with AI, YA, Amazon’s ACX, Binkist, or any other trend with initials. But I can help new folks with critiques and maybe start conversations here about what makes for good storytelling because that never changes.

So, be happy for me. Think of me as Mr. Chips, dawdling in the TZK doorway, going on and on about the value of friendship, the beauty of craftsmanship, and the need for reverence of our grenre’s forebearers. Haec olim meminisse iuvabit. 

Peace out.

I Hear A Symphony

Writing prose without thinking about cadence is like trying to seduce a man by handing him your résumé. The facts are there, but the electric charge isn’t.—Meaghan O’Rourke

By PJ Parrish

I was listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony the other night.  And it suddenly struck me how similar it is to a really good mystery. It has a specific structure. It has themes. It has peaks and valleys of emotion. And it builds to a rousing climax wherein all that has come before makes perfect sense, even if you didn’t hear it coming.

And here’s the cool part: Although a symphony adheres to a formula, within that is room for endless variety. Sound familiar? That’s what we do when we write crime fiction.  We are working within an old and venerable tradition with a time-honored structure. Yet look at the variety we come up with!

You’re not going to mistake Brahams for John Adams. You won’t mistake P.D. James for S.A. Cosby.

So, I was wondering, are there lessons for us from say, Beethoven?

Now, I have studied music some, but not symphonic structure. So I had to go do some research. Bear with me here for a moment. I’ll try not to get obtuse and artsy-fartsy.

A symphony is usually divided into four parts that conform to a standard pattern — The first movement is lively and sets a mood. The second is slower, more thoughtful and develops the theme. The third is an energetic dance or has boisterous surprises. The fourth is a rollicking finale.

Or in our terms:

Movement 1. The action set-up. Or as James Scott Bell often calls it “the disturbance in the norm.” The first “movement” often poses an unanswered question that gets answered by the novel’s’ end.  Here’s some good examples, as presented by Hallie Ephron in her essay for Mystery Writers of America:

  • A baby is found abandoned on the steps of a church. Unanswered question: Who left the baby and what happened to the mother? (In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming)
  • A criminal defense attorney meets her new client— a woman accused of killing her cop boyfriend. The woman extends a hand and says, “Pleased to meet you, I’m your twin.” Unanswered question: Is this woman the attorney’s twin sister and is she a murderer? (Mistaken Identity, Lisa Scottoline)
  • PI Smith receives a late night telephone call from the NYPD, who are holding his 15-year-old nephew Gary. Unanswered question: Why would Gary ask for Smith, whom he hasn’t seen for years? (Winter and Night, S. J. Rozan)

Movement 2. Complications and conflicts. The pace slows down some as the hero investigates. Obstacles fall in his path and clues are dropped. Character is layered in with backstory to deepen our connection with the protag.

Movement 3. The pace quickens as the plot moves toward the final conflict. Roadblocks and problems escalate. You put your protag in physical danger. (Indiana Jones, who hates snakes, ends up in the snake pit). Inner demons affect protag’s ability to act. (but of course you’ve established those demons back in part 2). The stakes keep rising. The clock keeps ticking.

Movement 4. The final conflict and climax. The last shoes drop. The puzzle is solved.. The final face-off happens. The bad guy is vanquished. The world is put back on its correct axis. The orchestra (and you) are now at full power bringing everything to a rollicking and satisfying finale. After your opening, it’s the most important part of your book.

Take a moment and listen to just the first minute or so of the opening movement to Beethoven’s Ninth. (Or if you’re bored with this post, listen to the whole Ninth. I won’t mind).

Isn’t this like the opening chapter of a really juicy thriller?

First, there’s a nervousness in those trembling opening notes. Like we’re looking into this dark place and the hairs are raising on our necks. Then this tiny melody seeps in (the theme in its earliest form). Then suddenly, an explosion of sound that grabs you and says “I have something to show you! Pay attention!” (A body has been discovered? A gun has gone off in the dark?) But then the music pulls back — it’s a scream followed by a regrouging. (The hero has now arrived).

I won’t go into each other movment with such detail. But if you love the Ninth as much as I do, I urge you to listen as if you were reading great mystery. Listen to where the themes are repeated. Listen to where the complications appear. And listen for the echoes and layers of backstory. And listen to that triumphant but poignant ending.

I’ve written here before about how much I think good writing and music are intertwined. Sure, you can write a pretty good book without rhythm. You can even get famous. But you won’t write a book that people remember.

Those who write with rhythm do it in such a subtle way that you, the reader, don’t even realize you’re being moved along a current, oarred along by master with a great ear. Often you’ll hear a book’s style described as “lyrical.” James Lee Burke is the usual reference here. Here’s a graph from Bitterroot:

I picked up my fly rod and net and canvas creel from the porch of Doc’s house and walked down the path toward the riverbank. The air smelled of the water’s coldness and the humus back in the darkness of the woods and the deer and elk dung that had dried on the pebbled banks of the river. I watched Doc Voss squat on his haunches in front of a driftwood fire and stir the strips of ham in a skillet with a fork, squinting his eyes against the smoke, his upper body warmed only by a fly vest, his shoulders braided with sinew.

I don’t think “lyrical” is the same thing as having rhythm. The former is more about description (see above). The latter is more about cadence sustained over the book’s whole structure. Not every sentence or paragraph needs to have rhythm. In fact, if you overdo it, you look, well, pretentious. Sort of like Foreigner or Robert James Waller. Sometimes, good rhythm is just moving your characters through time and space with clarity, brevity and precision.

Good writing is an aural thing. But to get that aural vibe right, you have to be visual. You have to pay attention to how your writing looks on the page. Your rhythmic tools are:

  • Sentence length
  • Paragraph length
  • Sentence fragments
  • Punctuation
  • Pacing.
  • Alliteration. This is a potent spice. Use it sparingly.

Too many long paragraphs? It looks old-fashioned and boring. Too many short paragraphs? That makes your rhythm choppy and nervous. (BUT…if you’re writing dialogue, you want short paragraphs to mimic speech. Also, in action scenes, where you want to rhythm to be tense, of course you go shorter.) Longer paragraphs and lush sentences convey a slowing down, good for description. A tense scene might begin slow but escalate into shorter sentences.

And watch out you don’t fall into the trap of nice writing. This is passage after passage of nice, even-paced, unoffensive prose with neat, grammar-perfect, complete sentences. I had to call Delta yesterday. I was on hold for 20 minutes lisening to this nice mundane melody, over and over. I was really to blow my brains out. Note to Delta CEO Ed Bastian: Why don’t you slip Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs” into your Musak?

E.L. Doctorow was obsessed with music when it came to his writing. His father ran a small music shop and his mother was an excellent pianist. When upset, she would play Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” — a wild piece whose chords Doctorow always interpreted as a signal to get out of the house. He once told an interviewer:

At a certain point, the difference between music in music, and music in words became elided in my mind. I became attentive to the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences in some way that I’m not even aware of.

Indulge me and allow me one more quote. It’s from an essay I ran across about 20 years ago and I still have the yellowed old copy. In it Haruki Murakami, a musician and novelist, describes the role that music plays in his writing (I’ve condensed it some):

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work.Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm.  Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow.

And lastly, he speaks of that magic that happens when all the music comes together:

Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

And on that note, I leave you. Hit it, Frederic.


Disconnecting From The World
So You Can Create Your Own

By PJ Parrish

I’ve been having a bad time of late trying to get in a writing mood. It was really getting me down and I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why. I’m up in my Michigan home now, far from the heat waves. It’s 70 degrees and the only thing I can hear is birdsong and the sweet wheeze of my dog Archie snoring at my side.

So what is wrong? I should be rolling on the WIP. But no. I am trolling Marketplace looking for a bookcase. I am researching air fares to Italy. I am doing Wordle and old crosswords. I’m hanging out on Spelling Bee, hellbent to get to Queen Bee status. And spending way too much time on Facebook salvating over people’s dinners, watching three German Shepherds tasting hooman food, and being jealous of other writers’ success.

There I said it. Yeah, I’m hooman.

The other day, I saw a Facebook post from my friend Joseph Finder. I like Joe a lot. We’ve been on panels together. He writes good books that sell really well. He’s a really nice guy. But this photo at left that he posted the other day made me want to…heck, I don’t know what. This is Joe’s writing office. It’s perfect. How would someone NOT get inspired sitting in a place like that?  Why can’t I have a writing house like that? Maybe I’ll go up to Cape Cod and TP his…

But then I realized that even if I had a cool writer’s shed like his, it wouldn’t make any differennce. Because my problem is not where I AM when I try to write. It is where MY HEAD IS when I try to write.

And that led me to realize something important: The world is too much with me. (Apologies to William Wordsworth). I need to find what Joe has — but within myself. I need to re-find quietude and solitude. I need my hurly-burly brain to calm down before something creative can start growing there again.

There’s a lot of talk these days about how many of us are trying to find a way to wean ourselves off our phones and social media. Here in my small northern Michigan town, the school board bucked high schoolers and some parents and banned phones from the classrooms. (Guess who didn’t object? Teachers, grade-school kids and middle-schoolers). We know we have to turn off the TV, ignore the cable Babel, stay away from Facebook, Instagram and whatever Musk is calling his enterprise these days.

Sometimes things come your way in weird ways just when you need them. When I was rummaging around Facebook the other day, wasting precious time, I ran across an old article called The Bliss Station.  In it, writer Auston Kelon advocates for making “a daily appointment to disconnect from the world so that we can connect with ourselves.”

He quotes Josoeph Campbell in The Power of Myth:

You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

I really love this idea. Sure, a fine Finder office is nice. Yeah, a she-shed with a mini-fridge stocked with fume blanc would be nice. But as Kleon points out, this isn’t about having the right PHYSICAL space. It’s about creating the right MENTAL space. From his article:

The deluxe package would be having both a special room and a special hour that you go to it, but we started wondering whether one would make up for not having the other.

For example, say you have a tiny apartment that you share with small children. There’s no room for your bliss station, there’s only time: When the kids are asleep or at school or day care, even a kitchen table can be turned into a bliss station.

Or, say your schedule is totally unpredictable, and a certain time of day can’t be relied upon — that’s when a dedicated space that’s ready for you at any time will come in handy.

Kleon himself admits that his “time vampire” is turning on his phone first thing every morning. “The easiest way I get my feelings hurt is by turning on my phone first thing in the morning. And even on the rare occasion I don’t get my feelings hurt, my time is gone and my brains are scrambled.”

Again, to repeat: What’s needed is that we make a daily appointment to disconnect from the world so that we can connect with ourselves.

Back to “The World Is Too Much With Us.” Wordsworth’s words are worth heeding. He wrote the poem during the First Industrial Revolution, when technological innovation was transforming 18th century life. He was saddened by the mad rush from one new thing to the next, and said we had lost our ability to find tranquility in nature.

So, no advice tacked on here today. I haven’t got any. And I don’t think any of you need it. In your hearts, you know what you need to do to find your own Bliss Station. It’s a stunning morning up here in Michigan. I am going to go talk a long walk in the woods (no ear-bud music, please) then come back and try again.


Performance Anxiety.
Yeah, Even Writers Get It

If you have stage fright, it never goes away. But then I wonder: is the key to that magical performance because of the fear? — Stevie Nicks

By PJ Parrish

So I competed in my very first pickleball tournament on Sunday. How’d I do? Eh…

About as well as I did the first time I had to play the piano in front of real people. Sweaty hands, dry mouth, pounding heart. Then lots of dumb little mistakes, missing the notes, not watching Valerie, my violinist friend I was accompanying. So it was at the pickleball gig. Hitting too hard, no soft touch on the dinks. Too hung up on the folks watching me. And the worst — feeling like I was letting my partner down,

I kept flashing back to that piano performance. I was so sure I was going to screw up that I forgot to just stay in the moment and have a good time.

Which brings me to our topic today: You guys just have to relax!

By you guys I mean all of us crime dogs. We’ve got to get over our performance anxiety.  Yeah, we get it, just like actors, dancers, speechifiers. I mean, look at the clinical definition:  Performance anxiety is fear about one’s ability to perform a specific task. People experiencing performance anxiety may worry about failing a task before it has even begun. They might believe failure will result in humiliation or rejection.

Sound familiar? No matter where you are in your writing career, long-published to working on your first manuscript, you’ve probably had feelings of doubt. And you may have even (like me at several points in my decades-long career), worked yourself into a lather over the idea that you will be rejected, or worse, humiliated.

We writers don’t get stage fright of course. But WRITERS PERFORMANCE ANXIETY (WPA…I made that up) can manifest itself in some very real and harmful ways:

  • Fear of confronting the daily task of writing itself. (God, this is so bad! What am I even thinking? That I can actually write something someone wants to read?)
  • Fear of letting someone read your stuff. (I can’t face feedback from a critique group. I don’t want anyone to see this because they’ll know I’m a fraud)
  • Fear of finishing. (Because what comes next?)
  • Fear of sending your work out into the world. (Because that opens you up to possibility of…)
  • Fear of rejection.

Is WPA the same as writer’s block? I don’t think so. Writer’s block is a temporary lull in your momentum. It comes usually because you’ve plotted yourself into a blind alley or you’ve lost touch with your characters. It can be fixed. You can go back and find the true path. You can delete. You can rewrite.

But WPA goes to something deeper, I think. It comes from a fear that what you’ve made isn’t good enough. And, by extension, that who YOU are isn’t good enough.

And lest you think you’re unique in your WPA, get a load of this confession from novelist Anne Lamott:

I love readings and my readers, but the din of voices of the audience gives me stage fright, and the din of voices inside whisper that I am a fraud, and that the jig is up. Surely someone will rise up from the audience and say out loud that not only am I not funny and helpful, but I’m annoying, and a phony.

So first, you have to separate you and your work. I know, I know…that’s tough because your work comes from your heart and soul. But you’ve got to get away from the idea that this is personal. If your book isn’t working, it’s not because you’re not. If your story is flawed, it isn’t because you are.

Second, you have to let go of the idea of being perfect. (Trust me, I know a lot about this one). We all try to write something we hope everyone will love. We sweat every sentence, masticate every metaphor, spinning our wheels in mid-rewriting muck instead of moving forward. We try to be too writerly, too clever, too neo-whatever-is-popular-now. We forget that our first task is to tell a cool story that connects with readers.

I love this quote from screenwriter Robert McKee:

When talented people write badly, it’s generally for one of two reasons: Either they’re blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they’re driven by an emotion they must express. When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.

Okay, so maybe you’ve got WPA. What do I think you should do about this? Well, to be blunt, you’ve got to grow a pair. You’ve got to be brave about letting others see your stuff. We’ve said this here at TKZ a million times but here it comes again: Find someone you can trust to tell you the truth. Listen to them. Then go back to work.

When you’ve finished — and I mean really finished, like your seventh or twelfth draft, and you’ve turned it into a beautiful manuscript with the best grammar and formatting you can manage — send that baby out into the world. Playing the piano alone in your little room is what amateurs do. Writing just for yourself is pointless. You’re a pro. You need an audience. They’re out there. Go find them.

I’ll let the therapists have the last word here. Because I think the “treatment” they suggest for stage fright is good for us writers.

  • Stand in a relaxed but confident pose. (You the writer need to relax, then face that blank page every day with faith and conviction)
  • Make eye contact with the friendliest faces in the audience. (Find a great beta reader!)
  • Maintain momentum rather than dwelling on mistakes. (Don’t keep rewriting the same chapters. Move forward through your plot and go back only if you really need to correct something that is making forward momentum impossible. And remember that REWRITING is where the hard work is done)
  • Focus on the act of performing rather than the audience’s reaction. (Try to remember why you got into this weird business in the first place — the joy of putting words to paper and making readers feel something.)
  • Visualize success. (Your slot on the bestseller list? Your book cover-out at Barnes & Noble? Hordes waiting for you to sign your book? Okay, how about your finished book, with a good cover, finally up for sale on Amazon?)

And remember: As Stevie Nicks says, a little rational fear is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes. Just don’t let it define you. Or ruin your game.

Postscript: Yesterday, the second day of the Friendly Pickleballers Charity Tourament, my partner Keith and I won our game, 11-4. Things are looking up. I’m visualizing a trophy. Stay frosty out there, friends in the heat zones.


First Page Critique: Don’t
Tell Me He’s Dead. Show Me

By PJ Parrish

Well, I’m back. Sorry I missed my slot last time around, but I had to bury another laptop. My Microsoft Surface gave me The White Screen of Death. After a mild panic (I am bad about backing up) I bundled it off to my geek. He looked at the white screen and said, “Huh. Never seen that before.” You don’t want to hear those words from your dentist, your geek, or your lover the first time you’re doing it. Anywho, he got all my data and taught me how to retrieve it from the cloud-thingie. So, I just want to give you some advice, if you are computer-stupid like me: BACK UP YOUR DATA. There are a million good programs out there that do this.

Now back to our regular programming. Here’s a First Page Submission in what the writer calls “mystery crime fiction.” Give it a read and let’s talk.

Death at the Tenderloin

Another senseless murder was by no means unfamiliar to me.

As a San Francisco cop, I’ve seen cruelty to humanity for over a decade. As a seasoned detective, I’m desensitized—It’s just another death in the city.

The victim was a middle-aged man with a fair complexion and wavy graying black hair. He was average height, somewhat thin, and wearing what appeared to be an old worn-out pilot’s uniform with yellow stripes on his button-up jacket sleeves. He was found behind the Black Bunny Bar sitting, and arms crossed on his lap, legs splayed out straight, leaning against a dumpster as if taking a nap before hopping into the cockpit. If it were not for the apparent blunt-force trauma to his skull, a passerby could easily tag him as a homeless drunk.

Four yellow stripes unquestionably a captain, I thought.

The uniform sparked memories. I joined the U.S. Air Force Academy and graduated from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit program. The positives were two-fold. One, I became an elite of the elites. Second, it distanced me from a San Francisco street detective who ruled with an undeniable force on the street and at home—a retired vet who expected the utmost discipline from his only son. Instead of improving our father-and-son relationship, my triumphs worsened it. I was living in Quantico, Virginia, when my father succumbed to cancer, and three months later, I laid him to rest. Precious time had passed between us—an act I later questioned.

I looked at my partner, Brynn, to see her reaction to this atypical scene.

“What do you see?” I asked as I put on my floater mask to filter out the foul odors of decomposition.

Brynn was kneeling beside the body, her cracked lips slightly open. She lifted her palm in a give-me-a-moment gesture, perhaps trying to digest the gruesome scene.

You’ve seen nothing yet, I thought.

Brynn O’Reilly is a petite woman at 120 pounds. She is of Irish-American heritage with long ash-brown hair. She favors a black blazer as the Unit uniform, complemented with flared-bottom jeans and sage color boots to match her eyes. Only two years as a street cop and six months at the Major Crimes Unit, Brynn is known as a pit bull investigator. Her quick rise through the ranks came compliments from her family lineage, namely her father and grandfather, the current and retired chief of police. Nevertheless, she is a good detective with keen instincts and a thirst for sleuthing—from dissecting blogs to graffiti on public restroom stalls. Everyone leaves a footprint of clues is her modus operandi.


Okay, let’s start with some obvious stuff. You have one chance to make a good first impression and hook your reader, There are four things you always want to avoid in your opening pages:

Don’t Be Boring. Whatever your opening dramatic moment is, don’t choose something that’s been done to death. Don’t open with a bad dream. Don’t open with your cop getting a phone call in the middle of the night. Don’t open with the protag navel-gazing. (ie thinking, musing, remembering, regretting the past).

This submission? Borderline. If you are opening with a cop checking out a dead body, you really have to work hard to make it feel fresh. Although I like one thing about the crime scene, other problems diminish it, for reasons outlined below.

Avoid the dreaded info-dump. Don’t bore your reader with information about the protag’s past in the early pages. Capture their imagination with a compelling character and an intriguing situation. Background info can be woven in later.

This submission: Two chunky paragraphs of backstory inserted too early before the dramatic opening scene has a chance to gel.

Steer clear of cliches. Crime fiction is fertile ground for this, and nothing will turn an editor off more quickly than stale Wonder Bread. Tropes that need to die: crusty vet cop teamed up with rookie (usually female). Vet cop whose wife or kid died so he’s drowning himself in booze. Crabby old boss chewing out rogue cop (Dirty Harry was there first). Vet cop with bitter ex-wife who tells him “you’ll never see your kid again.” The psycho sidekick who does the dirty deeds the hero won’t do. We could go on.

This submission? Old cop paired with relatively inexperienced female.

And last but most important: Don’t tell when you can show.  I’ve written several blogs on this subject because it’s so important yet so difficult to explain well. If you have problems with this, go back into the TZK archives. Lots of good advice there.

This submission? This is its basic problem. This opening is not badly written. It just relies too heavily on telling rather than showing.

What was the one thing that made me want to read on? The dead guy.

An apparent homeless man is found propped in an alley with his head bashed in. Nothing really interesting there. But the writer uses A TELLING DETAIL (not to be confused with show not tell). The air force uniform — especially the captain’s stripes —  is the best thing in this submission. It grabbed my interest in a way the protag did not.

But here’s the caveat: We see the victim not through an immediate and well-crafted scene of SHOWING via the protag’s sensory “camera.” We get the victim info book-ended by the protag’s backstory. We get lots of thoughts from the protag — about his state of mind (“desensitized”), about his education (air force academy), about his success at the FBI (he’s “elite”), about his father (estranged and dead from cancer), and waaaay too much details on his partner, right down to her weight.

What we DON’T get is a clear picture of the crime scene and a reason to care enough to turn the page. We are TOLD we are in an alley in San Francisco. But we can’t see it because there are no details, no description. We are TOLD the murder is “senseless” but there is no hard evidence of that yet. I normally don’t like to rewrite someone else’s material, but I want to make a point. What if we got out of the protag’s thoughts and started right with what the “camera” of his consciousness can show us?

The dead man was propped up against the Dumpster behind the Black Bunny Bar, legs splayed out, head bowed on his chest. He could have been a homeless guy sleeping off a drunk. Except for the black oozing crack in his head. And the uniform he was wearing.

It was black, the dress shirt drenched dark blue in the heavy rain. For a moment, I thought he was one of ours. Then I noticed the four yellow stripes on his left sleeve.

I recognized those stripes. My father was wearing that same uniform the day I buried him ten years ago. The dead man wasn’t a San Francisco cop. He was air force. A captain.

“You want a closer look, Jackson?” 

I looked over at my partner Brynn O’Reilly. Even in dim light of the alley, I could see the eagerness in her eyes. But she was waiting for me to move first. I didn’t want to. This was the fourth homicide I had been called to in the last month here in the Tenderloin. But that wasn’t what was holding me back.  

The point I am trying to make here is that it is always more powerful to SHOW your scene and your character’s reaction via action and dialogue rather than TELL the reader what is happening via thoughts. It’s okay to drop a HINT of backstory. That’s often intriguing and starts setting up your character layering. But never waste precious moments in the first pages with long backstory and always try to make it relate to what is happening in present time.

Okay, let’s do a quick line edit. My comments in blue

Another senseless murder was by no means unfamiliar to me. “Senseless murder” is a media-created cliche. The idea of “senseless” refers to homicides that lack an objective external motivation. There is no way the detective here can yet determine this. Also, it’s just not an interesting opening line. And it’s TELLING. If the cop does indeed think it is “senseless” SHOW us this via his action or dialogue.

As a San Francisco cop, more telling. His actions SHOW us he’s a cop. And find a more graceful way to SHOW us where we are geographically. I’ve seen cruelty to humanity for over a decade. As a seasoned detective, I’m desensitized—It’s just another death in the city. You are TELLING us his state of mind. SHOW it via action and dialogue.

The victim was a middle-aged man with a fair complexion and wavy graying black hair. He was average height, somewhat thin, and wearing what appeared to be an old worn-out pilot’s uniform with yellow stripes on his button-up jacket sleeves. He was found behind the Black Bunny Bar sitting, and arms crossed on his lap, legs splayed out straight, leaning against a dumpster as if taking a nap before hopping into the cockpit. If it were not for the apparent blunt-force trauma to his skull, a passerby could easily tag him as a homeless drunk.  Seeing a murder victim is a visceral thing, even for a vet cop. Way too much extraneous description. Hone in on the telling detail quickly.

Four yellow stripes.  unquestionably A captain, I thought. Most interesting line in the opening. And you don’t need “I thought.” You’re in first person POV. 

The uniform sparked memories.Don’t tell us. Go right into a memory. But man, keep it brief as possible! All the rest of this is numbing backstory. Yes, it is important to establishing your protag’s character, but find ways to weave this in later as the action dictates. This really brings your plot to a halt. I joined the U.S. Air Force Academy and graduated from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit program. The positives were two-fold. One, I became an elite of the elites. Second, it distanced me from a San Francisco street detective who ruled with an undeniable force on the street and at home—a retired vet who expected the utmost discipline from his only son. Instead of improving our father-and-son relationship, my triumphs worsened it. More telling…I was living in Quantico, Virginia, when my father succumbed to cancer, and three months later, I laid him to rest. Precious time had passed between us—an act I later questioned. Conflict with a father figure is always interesting but this is, again, telling us. 

I looked at my partner, Brynn, to see her reaction to this atypical scene. Nothing is atypical except that uniform. Exploit this more!

“What do you see?” I asked as I put on my floater mask to filter out the foul odors of decomposition. You didn’t mention he was in decomp mode above. Depending on the weather, it might not be there yet. Get your forensics in order. 24-72 hours postmortem: internal organs begin to decompose due to cell death; the body begins to give off harsh odors; rigor mortis subsides. 3-5 days postmortem: as organs continue to decompose, bodily fluids leak from orifices; the skin turns a greenish color. So make your protag look smart. Have him zero in on the state of the body and SAY SOMETHING INTERESTING to his partner. He’s experinced enough to be able to estimate time of death. Right now, your protag isn’t very active. He’s reactive and  passive. Start making him a hero. 

Brynn was kneeling beside the body, her cracked lips slightly open. She lifted her palm in a give-me-a-moment gesture, perhaps trying to digest the gruesome scene. Perhaps? Again, make him look smart. Here is where you can insert something about her background.

I knew O’Reilly had been in homicide here less than three months. Before that, she had two years in as a street cop down in Altherton. Riding a nice safe alpha unit, answering false alarms. Not much chance to see dead bodies there. 

You’ve seen nothing yet, I thought. Not sure what this means. 

Brynn O’Reilly is a petite woman at 120 pounds. She is of Irish-American heritage with long ash-brown hair. She favors a black blazer as the Unit uniform, complemented with flared-bottom jeans and sage color boots to match her eyes. Only two years as a street cop and six months at the Major Crimes Unit, Brynn is known as a pit bull investigator. Her quick rise through the ranks came compliments from her family lineage, namely her father and grandfather, the current and retired chief of police. Nevertheless, she is a good detective with keen instincts and a thirst for sleuthing—from dissecting blogs to graffiti on public restroom stalls. Everyone leaves a footprint of clues is her modus operandi. Again, everything is TELLING. “Pit bull investigator” is a TELLING cliche. SHOW us that she’s tough. He TELLS us she’s good, has keen instincts and a “thirst for sleuthing.” (no cop talks like that, that’s you the writer talking). “Everyone leaves a footprint of clues” is kind of interesting, although it’s pretty standard thinking and this protag is supposedly FBI trained? If you want to use it, SHOW us via dialogue. Which you don’t have enough of in these pages, by the way. DIALOGUE IS ACTION.

“What do you see, O’Reilly?” I asked.

“Blunt force trauma. Maybe with an ax-like instrument.”

“The body was moved afterward. Somebody took the time to prop him up like that.”

She looked up at me then scanned the garbage littered aspalt. “Everyone leaves a footprint,” she said. 

So, forgive me, dear writer, for rewriting your opening some. I only wanted to make a point about how you can turn telling into showing. You’ve got some good stuff here. But find ways to make your protag (what’s his name, BTW?) do less thinking and more action. He’s coming off as an extra in his own movie.

A quick summary. Here are the pitfalls of TELLING

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

Here are some strengths of SHOWING.

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

Think of this way. I just got back from Italy. Do you want to listen to me describe it? Or would you rather go see it, smell it, taste it for yourself? Yeah, I thought so. Make your reader feel like they are there.