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

Would I Lie To You? A Case Against The Unreliable Narrator

By PJ Parrish

I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott’s movies. Yeah, even that smaltzy one A Good Year, with Russell Crowe as a heartless London banker who chucks it all to live in a moldy French villa with Marion Cotillard. So I was a happy clam when I unwrapped a Christmas gift from the husband — the director’s cut of Blade Runner. 

The husband had never seen the seminal 1982 cyber-noir masterpiece so I was thrilled to introduce him to it. But then…

Toward the end of the movie, there are two scenes that Scott had reinserted. In one Harrison Ford’s character Deckard has a dream about a unicorn. Later, when he’s escaping with his lady-love replicant Rachael, he finds an origami of a unicorn, left by his ex police partner Gaff.  This signals that Gaff knows about Deckard’s dream because it’s not really Deckard’s. The dream is fake, implanted to give a “back story” needed to stabilize the replicant’s artificial personality.

So Deckard is really an android? I had always seen him as human. But with this latest viewing, now I have to question everything he says and does.

This debate, I’ve discovered, has been raging for more than three decades. I haven’t read the Philip Dick story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” but it’s said Dick wrote Deckard as a human in order to explore the increasing similarity of humans and replicants. Harrison Ford has long maintained that Deckard is human. (One reason is that replicants are super-strong and Deckard gets the snot kicked out of him throughout the movie). But Ridley Scott is on that record saying Deckard’s a droid.

Does it matter? In terms of my enjoyment of the movie, no. But in terms of Deckard’s reliability as a narrator, it certainly does. The story takes on completely different tones depending on whether you see him as man or machine — and whether or not Deckard himself does.

Which is a long way to go to introduce what I wanted to talk about — unreliable narrators.

We’ve had many great posts here on the subject. But I’m sort of obsessed with this today, given that now I am dreaming of electric sheep. Plus I just cracked open Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I loved the movie so thought I should finally read the book with it’s uber-liar Briony Tallis.

Reading a well-conceived unreliable narrator is a treat. Writing one can be a nightmare. It’s a hard technique to pull off, and frankly, it’s become a bit stale in crime fiction and thrillers since Gone Girl.  So if you’re thinking of trying this at home, give me a chance to try and talk you out of it.

What exactly is an unreliable narrator? It’s not a matter of just fibbing. Simply put, this is a character whose account of the story is supposed to be authoritative for whatever reason, is suspect.

There are as many reasons for this as there are demons in the human heart and head. Unreliable narrators can be just pathological liars like Verbel Kent in The Usual Suspects and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Or they might be biased in some way that affects their thinking and ability to give the reader a clear picture. Some unreliable archetypes:

Mentally ill: Chuck Palahnick’s narrator in Fight Club has debilitating insomnia that makes him sound irrational. Amnesia is a trope on verge of cliche. I used it myself in my thriller She’s Not There and you find in the cult movie Memento. Vonnegut warns us about Bill Pilgrim’s unreliability in Slaughterhouse Five’s great opening line: “All of this happened, more or less.” And in A Beautiful Mind, we don’t find out until the movie is well along that John Nash is schizophrenic and that his version of reality cannot be trusted.

Children: By virtue of their limited experience and gullibility, kids can’t be trusted narrators. I loved the 9-year-old boy in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close who is searching for his dad post 9/11. But I didn’t buy the narration of the boy trapped with his mother in Emma Donoghue’s celebrated Room. In the latter, the boy tells us, “When I was a kid I thought like a kid, but now I’m five and I know everything.” Right…

The Naif. The narrator here has a limited world view, naive in nature, as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or in Winston’s Groom’s innocent in Forrest Gump. I’d even put Huck Finn in this category.

Dead People or Ghosts: Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones is the best example here, although I wasn’t crazy about the book. A little sentimental for my taste. Amy Tan has a great ghost character in Saving Fish From Drowning. This trope is popular in movies — Kevin Spacey’s first person narrative in American Beauty, for example. And of course, poor Bruce Willis is in deep denial over his protoplasmic presence in The Sixth Sense. This is not a device for beginners, I’d say. Unless you’re solidly in paranormal land.

Okay, so you still are determined to try to do this in your book? I haven’t scared you off or convinced you to go with an easier method? Sigh. All righty then. Let’s ask some tough questions:

Can you write well in the first person? In a way, all first-person POVs are unreliable in the sense that all the info the reader gets is filtered only through one consciousness. Most unreliable narrator novels are in the first person. So unless you can sustain a normal first person POV, taking the next leap to a true unreliable narrator will be above your pay grade.

Are you going for a gimmick? Be honest. If you’re writing from a kid’s POV or using amnesia or a mental illness, you have to ask yourself if you’re merely looking for a crutch to prop up a weak plot. Or are you looking for easy way to get noticed?

How much stamina do you have? I’ve written one first-person POV book and it was exhausting because I had to find so many other methods of providing depth. It will be even harder with an unreliable narrative because you, the writer, have to constantly assess how much — or how  little — information you are dribbling out to the reader. Also and this is very important: You must be in total control of a character who is not in control of himself. If you’re a pantser who believes that characters just lead the writer around by the nose, you’ll be lost with an unreliable guide. Consider, too, that it is not easy for a rational person (you, the writer) to “become” an irrational person. This is why so many serial killers feel wooden.

Can you act someone else’s age? If your narrator is too young or immature, it’s hard to entrust them with the full weight of an entire story. Teens are easier to pull off, but children can be wearying. Why? Because everything you write — words, syntax, description — must be filtered through a child’s mind and eye. This is why I couldn’t finish Room. I just got tired of listening to a 6 year old.

And the last and most important thing to ask yourself:

Confess or conceal? You must decide whether to reveal that the character is unreliable up front or make it a twist deep in your story. In one of my fave books, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, we are told that everything Odd Thomas says should taken with a grain of salt:

Understand, I am not a murderer. I have done nothing evil that I am concealing from you. My unreliability as a narrator has to do largely with the tense of certain verbs.

Don’t worry about it. You’ll know the truth soon enough.

The unreliable narrator is one of the trickiest literary devices to get right. Get it wrong, and your plot falls apart and the reader gets bored or frustrated. It can feel manipulative, confusing, and often pretentious. When it’s done right, though, it can be powerful.

Believe me, I know. Would I lie to you?

p.s. No matter what Ridley Scott says, I still think Deckard was human.

What I Learned From Nora, David and Jean: You Have To Connect

You better make them care…It better be quirky or perverse or thoughtful enough so that you hit some chord in them. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. I mean we’ve all read pieces where we thought, “Oh, who gives a damn?” — Nora Ephron.

I feel like now people want more of a mirror. They want to see themselves in the book that they’re reading. — David Sedaris

By PJ Parrish

Well, it’s officially Christmas season. I know this because Ralphie is whining about getting a Red Ryder air rifle. Every time A Christmas Story comes on, I am reminded of my own childhood. But I’m also reminded how dependent writers are on our powers of observation and also our storehouses of life experience. And how we use that to connect with our readers.

This point is especially clear to me because I’ve been reading Nora Ephron’s Wallflower at the Orgy, her dispatches as a reporter about the cultural upheavals of the late ’60s. Here’s the opening:

Some years ago, the man I am married to told me he had always had a mad desire to go to an orgy. Why on earth, I asked. Why not, he said. Because, I replied, it would be just like the dances at the YMCA I went to in the seventh grade—only instead of people walking past me and rejecting me, they would be stepping over my naked body and rejecting me. The image made no impression at all on my husband. But it has stayed with me—albeit in another context. Because working as a journalist is exactly like being the wallflower at the orgy. I always seem to find myself at a perfectly wonderful event where everyone else is having a marvelous time, laughing merrily, eating, drinking, having sex in the back room, and I am standing on the side taking notes on it all.

Nora Ephron, director (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage)

Which pretty much summarized how I often felt during the ’60s and later when I worked as a reporter. But that’s the beauty of a great writer like Ephron, and why I am drawn to essayists. They see things more sharply than average folk. And they spin what they see into great stories that anyone can relate to. Which is pretty much what we novelists should be trying to do.

You have to connect. But easier said than done, as any writer knows. I remember reading a First Novel Edgar winner a couple years back. Man, the writing just sang! Gorgeous description, a lean neo-noir sensibility. But I always felt as if the writer was holding back emotionally. And this arms-length style eventually left me thinking, “who gives a damn?”

You have to connect. Some things to think about as you grapple with this.

Make your subject relatable in experience. Nora Ephron wrote a terrific essay called “A Few Words About Breasts.”  It was about her agony, as a tomboy, waiting for her breasts to “develop.” When she begged her mother for a bra, her mom said “What for?” She recounts the horror of going alone to the department store and getting fitted for a size 28AA. When I read it, I was smiling, nodding and ultimately crying.

Many moons later, I happened upon her essay on aging gracefully called  “On Maintenance.” Best line about how getting hair highlights changed her life: “…a little like that first brandy Alexander Lee Remick drank in Days of Wine and Roses.”

Use Your Experiences to Find Your Own Voice. Another of my favorite writers is also an essayist — David Sedaris. Why do his essays connect with readers? Because he writes with wit and humility of his own experiences. He is a storyteller you want to spend your hours with. His essay on learning French “Me Talk Pretty One Day” articulated all the terror I felt in my first French adult ed course: “Learning French is a lot like joining a gang in that it involves a long and intensive period of hazing.” I’m now taking online Babbel courses now and every time I am “buzzed” for incorrect pronunciation — I have a heavy Detroit/Michigan accent, so I will never say anything in French pretty — I think of Sedaris.  He’s got some really good advice for writers. Click here. This one is among my favorites:

Sad stories, dashed dreams, and memorable mistakes are ammunition for writers. Any experience can be converted into a story, and rough experiences often make the best stories. As a writer, failure is soil for growing heartfelt stories. Vulnerability is a powerful draw. Write down your biggest failures, then review the list to see which ones can be marshaled into relatable stories for your readers.

And about that voice thing? Don’t sweat it too much. When you’re just starting out, you might not be able to articulate exactly what you are trying, in your heart and soul, to get across. So be content with trying to become the best damn storyteller you can. If you are successful at that, the voice thing will emerge by itself. As Neil Gaiman says:

After you’ve written 10,000 words, 30,000 words, 60,000 words, 150,000 words, a million words, you will have your voice, because your voice is the stuff you can’t help doing.”

Which leads me to my final essayist who influenced me as a writer. I first encountered Jean Shepherd’s writing in the ’70s when I was reading Car & Driver magazine. (don’t ask…my ex-husband, a race car nut from Indy was a subscriber.) I loved his columns. He went on to write for Playboy, New York Times and others. Time magazine once described him as a “comic anthropologist.” His talent was noticing and using the mundane details of daily life to tell his stories, filtering them through a sensibility that was, by turns, funny, absurd, sarcastic, and often sad. (For the record, Shepherd hated the word “nostalgia.” I found this out when I interviewed him for a profile in the Fort Lauderdale News.)

I loved his short story about the awful rites of prom-going, “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories” because every detail is acute. And also because I was poor pitiful Wanda:

I began to notice Wanda’s orchid leering up at me from her shoulder. It was the most repulsive flower I had ever seen. At least 14 inches across, it looked like some kind of overgrown Venus’s flytrap waiting for the right moment to strike. Deep purple, with an obscene yellow tongue that stuck straight out of it, and greenish knobs on the end, it clashed almost audibly with her turquoise dress. It looked like it was breathing, and it clung to her shoulder as if with claws.
As I glided back and forth in my graceful box step, my left shoulder began to develop an itch that helped take my mind off of the insane itch in my right shoulder, which was beginning to feel like army of hungry soldier ants on the march. The contortions I made to relieve the agony were camouflaged nicely by a short sneezing fit brought on by the orchid, which was exhaling directly into my face. So was Wanda, with a heady essence of Smith Brothers cough drops and sauerkraut.

But Shepherd is best known for A Christmas Story. You’ve seen it. It runs on a loop during the holidays, the 1983 movie about Ralphie, his long-suffering chenille-robed mom and his old man who lusts after a lamp in the shape of a fish-netted gam.  The movie is based on some chapters from Shepherd’s first book In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash), which were based on Shepherd’s childhood in Hammond, Ind. Why is the movie evergreen? Here’s what Shepherd told an interviewer in 1971:

“You can tell a story about anything. But the only stories that have any fidelity, any feeling, are stories that either did happen to you or conceivably could have happened to you.”

In other words, to be a great storyteller, you have to connect. Merry Christmas, y’all.

 

 

 

First Page Critique: Time to Stop
Thinking And Start Screaming

By PJ Parrish

Happy post-Thanksgiving, folks. If you traveled, hope all went well and you enjoyed some good family time. As you read this, I am probably somewhere in the air, returning from Lansing, Michigan, where I had a quiet dinner with my bestie-in-life Linda. No turkey. Just a couple hens sharing a couple hens and some good pinot noir.  Back to work! Here’s a First Page Critique for us to gnaw on. No turkeys here either, I’m glad to say. Just a homing bird.

THE HOMING BIRD

Heather
Victoria, Vancouver Island
Friday, October 6, 2017
7:05 AM

Every morning, I take a forty-five minute drive to my favorite screaming beach.

Its rocky shoreline spills discretely off the edge of a remote provincial park. Decades ago, someone must’ve pulled heavy cargo ashore, because there’s a sandy clearing on the beach between the large rocks. It’s my runway to the sea, a path to the place where the tide meets the shore. It’s where I stand every day, all year round, fiercely emptying my lungs at the horizon.

I get out of my truck, donning the gumboots that are always tucked under the passenger seat. I wait until my eyes adjust to the dawn’s low light, then walk through the long grass, over the crunchy seaweed, and along the sandy path that leads me to the water’s edge. I wait for a moment, allowing the roar of the sea to wash over me like an auditory embrace.

The water is rough today, and the wind stings my eyes, lifting my long, salt-soaked hair around my head like the strings of a puppeteer. Autumn is my favourite season; it’s the time when everything slows down and goes inward.

It also means that less tourists stroll the beach, so I can spend as long as I like throwing my screams out into the vast foamy sea.

I look around to check that the beach is deserted, that there are no early morning kayakers who could pick up on the sounds of my laments crossing the waves. I don’t want to draw attention to myself; it’s not about that. It’s about sending a loaded missive to the God or Universe or Spirit who’ve failed me. It’s the only ritual and the only form of catharsis that I allow myself.

I’ve never been very good at therapy. It makes me too nervous. I sit like a specimen, like an inexperienced, malnourished mountaineer, in front of a kindly stranger who invites me to explore my twisted internal topography. Demons wait around every corner, popping out of crevices, reminding me of my many failures: not living up to my mother’s impossible standards, not protecting my sister, and the pathetic way I begged to stay in the Fellowship after I was deemed an apostate.

“No one,” a therapist once said to me, “is more qualified to heal you, to mother you, than you.”

___________________

This came in with no particular sub-genre other than “mystery,” so that’s what we’ll assume here. We can also assume our writer is Canadian, given the location, spellings (ie favourite) and words like “gumboots” instead of the American term galoshes and “provincial park” instead of “national park.”

There is much I really like about this submission. I love the opening line. It starts out so ho-hum and ends with a hammer of an image. There’s a fancy word for this —  Paraprosdokian. It means an unexpected shift in meaning at the end of a sentence. Here, the writer sets us up with the calm words “Every morning I take a drive…” And then adds “to my favorite screaming beach.”  Love this effect. It pulled me in from the get-go.

What does the opening line also accomplish? A hint to the sense of place (shoreline). A not-so-subtle hint that Heather is deeply troubled; the mood is tense. And third, we get a clear voice. So bravo, writer.

The writer is also skillful in her/his descriptions, and you know I am always asking for more than we usually get. The beach “spills off” the edge of a park. Seaweed is “crunchy” underfoot. Not much meat here, but what’s there is cherse.

I do think the writer gets a little bogged down as the paragraphs pile up, however, in trying to look more writerly than necessary.  The simple and very effective images of the opening beach imagery give way to some borderline overwrought imagery when we get to Heather’s thoughts.  On the beach, we are hearing Heather’s voice, but when we get inside her head, the writer’s voice begins to intrude some. It’s a fine line, but an important one. For example, in one graph, we are given THREE images to digest: first Heather as “specimen,” presumably being examined under the shrink’s microscope. Then comes the laden image of Heather as a “malnourished mountaineer” befriended by a stranger. And finally, Heather as a victim of harpy-like demons screaming out her inadequacies.

Do you see the problem I have with this? As impressive as the writing seems on first glance (and this is a deft writer), as you begin to digest it, the three images compete with each other in a sort of dyspeptic stew. Dear writer, you are too good to let this happen, so I’d suggest a hard second look and that you select one metaphor/image to burnish.  I rather like your phrase about twisted internal topography because it echoes the beach location. Remember: Your setting should also MEAN something. You chose a craggy windswept beach for a reason — perhaps because it mirrors Heather’s tortured and lonely psyche? Something to think about.

Now, we should address the fact that nothing much is really happening here. We have a woman with a dark past walking down a beach stalked by demons. I’m okay with slow-build openings, but only to a point. Heather isn’t doing. She’s thinking. And while your set up is intriguing, if you stay in this woe-is-me reminiscence too much longer, your reader will get antsy for action.  Also, you cite the idea of a “screaming beach” in four versions.. You need to trust the reader to get it the first time and move on. Something has to happen. And thinking about your past isn’t enough. You must move the PRESENT plot forward. I’m going to show you an example of how this might work in the following edit. My comments are in red.

Heather
Victoria, Vancouver Island
Friday, October 6, 2017
7:05 AM I am an avowed-not-a-fan of taglines like this. Unless you are going to switch into multi-POVs and settings or time frames, I’d suggest finding a way to incorporate this info into the narrative. You do this well already by telling us it’s dawn and it’s fall, so just find a way to weave the locale. 

Every morning, I take a forty-five minute drive to my favorite screaming beach. Love love love this. But “favorite” implies she has more than one screaming beach. More powerful if you delete “favorite” imo, so it becomes the creepily possessive and deeply personal “my screaming beach.” 

Its rocky shoreline spills discretely Discrete means distinctive or unique. Discreet is means secret or modest. Because most folks confuse the two I’d find a better word off the edge of a remote provincial park. Decades ago, someone must’ve pulled heavy cargo ashore, because there’s a sandy clearing on the beach between the large rocks. It’s my runway to the sea, a path to the place where the tide meets the shore.   Second line is redundant. Love the runway image but maybe it could be stronger? It’s not just a path to the sea but rather a runway to, in her sad state, what the sea represents — freedom? Oblivion? You’ve missed a chance to make the metaphor mean more.  It’s where I stand every day, all year round, fiercely emptying my lungs at the horizon.  Another “screaming beach” reference. You’ve already told us she does this. Move on.

I get out of my truck, donning the gumboots that are always tucked under the passenger seat. I wait until my eyes adjust to the dawn’s low light, then walk through the long grass, over the crunchy seaweed, and along the sandy path that leads me to the water’s edge. I wait for a moment, allowing the roar of the sea to wash over me like an auditory embrace. Very pretty phrase but you call it a roar, so isn’t that at odds with the gentle phrase “auditory embrace”? Isn’t a sea-roar more of an sensory assault? I know this sounds like picking nits, but description must be precise for it to ignite the reader’s senses. As Poe said, every word, phrase and sentence you write must work to create a UNITY OF EFFECT to create consistent mood.  

The water is rough today, and the wind stings my eyes, lifting my long, salt-soaked hair around my head like the strings of a puppeteer. Autumn is my favourite season; I’d lose all the semi-colons. Nobody thinks in semi-colons. it’s the time when everything slows down and goes inward. Also, here is where you can tell us it’s October rather than relying on a tagline. It’s more connective to your character to have this info emerge via her thoughts and senses rather than in a bland tagline. Something like “October is my favorite month, a time when everything slows, blurs and begins to go inward. This time of year, it feels like the whole of Vancouver Island is retreating into the mist. (That’s awful but you get the idea). 

It also means that less fewer tourists stroll the beach, so I can spend as long as I like throwing my screams out into the vast foamy sea. This is the third reference to what she is GOING to do. We want to see her do it. 

I look around to check that the beach is deserted, that there are no early morning kayakers who could pick up on the sounds of my laments crossing the waves. Fourth reference. We get it. I don’t want to draw attention to myself; it’s not about that. It’s about sending a loaded missive missive is a letter, a rather passive little word. Is there a more powerful one? Grievance? Screed? Rant? What emotion are you trying to convey here exactly from Heather? I am not quite getting it. Your scene is SO personal and emotional. Make your word choices all go to that unity of effect! to the God or Universe or Spirit who’ve failed me. It’s the only ritual and the only form of catharsis that I allow myself.

Pause here for a second and consider this: You need to have something happen in the present time, to get us out of her thoughts. How about if you put the primal scream right here on camera? Does it help her? Does it bring relief? The fact that she is compelled to do it EVERY DAY implies to me that it’s not working. It might make a very powerful scene here if you give us the scream NOW.  Then give us an emotional reaction from Heather. THEN go into the backstory below. Whatever she feels AFTER the scream would then logically make her think about how therapy was no help either. I don’t like to rewrite anyone’s work but allow me to give an example so you see why this might work:

I close my eyes and the scream erupts from me, ringing in my head but lost in the roar of the waves. I scream, scream, scream until my lungs burn and my throat is raw. When I open my eyes, my face is wet from the wind and my tears.

I should feel empty but I don’t. It’s still there. That black box deep inside me is still there and all the winged-things have escaped from it again and are beating hard to burst out of my chest. I choke back a sob, trying to force them back into the box. 

It doesn’t work. It never does. 

I think of Dr. Martin and what she told me two months ago, the last time I showed up for one of our sessions.

No one is more qualified to mother you than you.

By giving us the scream now, this would then logically lead Heather — and your readers — into her backstory, especially if it involves something amiss about her mother. I love that line about no one can heal you but yourself, which is why I set it apart by itself. I might be wrong, but I think it’s one of your themes. But put that scream in your first 400 words, please.  Act first and then explain!

I’ve never been very good at therapy. It makes me too nervous. I sit like a specimen, like an inexperienced, malnourished mountaineer, in front of a kindly stranger who invites me to explore my twisted internal topography. I’m not sure I get this mountaineer reference. Do you mean to imply she lost her way on a steep journey? Okay. But for the “kindly stranger” to work, you need to balance the metaphor — the therapist is metaphorically a guide who finds her on the mountain? Demons wait around every corner, popping out of crevices, reminding me of my many failures: not living up to my mother’s impossible standards, not protecting my sister, and the pathetic way I begged to stay in the Fellowship after I was deemed an apostate. This is very interesting because you giving us hints of backstory — that her mom was difficult, she failed to protect (nicely loaded word!) her sister and that she was a member of “the Fellowship” which kicked her out. (intriguing! Religion? Cult? Makes us want to read on) 

Also: Something to reconcile. A paragraph ago you had her yelling at the gods who you say “failed” her. And now you say the demons are reminding her that she herself failed. She can’t blame fate if she believes it is her fault. 

“No one,” a therapist once said to me, “is more qualified to heal you, to mother you, than you.” So did the scream work or not?

Okay, let’s summarize. This is good stuff. You’re truly a good writer. I am engaged by the scene you’ve set up with the screaming beach. Terrific idea. But I started to get impatient with being stuck only in Heather’s thoughts, and I think this great beginning could be energized by a healthy primary scream. Let go, Heather!

Thanks so much, dear writer, for brightening my day with The Homing Bird. Vancouver  is one of my favorite spots on earth (though I’ve never seen the sunrise on Victoria Island!) and I would read on, definitely. My suggestions are merely that, one reader’s opinion. Please know that the better you are, the harder I am on you. Good luck!

 

Faraway Places With Strange Sounding Memes

Place is character. And all writing is regional. — John Dufresne.

By PJ Parrish

Man, do I need a vacation.

Like most of you, I haven’t been much of anywhere these past 18 months, and my itch to travel has gone from wanderlust to wander-horny. I love to go places I’ve never been before — anywhere! Be it the wooded path in Michigan I’ve never jogged down before to the Camargue in southern France.

We were scheduled to go to Provence last fall but that was cancelled. So I’ve had to content myself with binging on Escape To The Chateau and Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy.  And I’ve read a lot of books.

Nina George took me to favorite old haunts and beyond in The Little Paris Bookshop. Georges Simenon took me to a Normandy fishing village in Maigret et la Vielle Dame.  Stuart Neville took me to northern Ireland in The Ghosts of Belfast. And I have just embarked to Newfoundland, piloted by Jim DeFede who recounts the true story of the villagers of Gander who took in 7,000 passengers stranded in the wake of 9/11 in his book The Day The World Came To Town.

These journeys and many others have helped keep me sane. The books have also gotten me to thinking about what makes for a great location in a novel. I’m a sucker for sense of place. I can almost forgive poor characterizations or lazy plotting if the location is well rendered.

I think sense of place is often neglected by writers who are just finding their feet. Maybe they believe that like description, it slogs down the plot. I believe, however, that if you don’t ground your reader in a sense of place, the characters never truly come alive.

As John Defresne says in his splendid writing fiction book The Lie That Tells The Truth:

“Place connects characters to a collective and personal past, and so place is the emotional center of story. And by place, I don’t simply mean location. A location is a dot on the map, a set of coordinates. Place is location with narrative, with memory and imagination, with history. We transform a location into a place by telling its stories.

The chapter that passage comes from is titled: “You Can’t Do Anything If You’re Nowhere.”  No place, no plot, nowhere man.

So, let’s try to get practical here. What can I tell you that might help you as a fiction writer, get a better sense of your place? That’s tough. I can only go by my own experience writing and reading. Place is often my jumping off point. In my Louis Kincaid series, I move him between southwest Florida and Michigan. But within that macro, I try to find specific mini-locations that speak me and help me put a frame around my character. These mini-locations have been: The Everglades, an abandoned insane asylum, a remote island in the Gulf, the vast emptiness of the Sleeping Bear sand dunes, and the rugged loneliness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with its abandoned copper mines. I have a thing for abandoned places.

For our stand-alone A Killing Song, Paris was the macro-location. The mini-location was the creepy network of catacombs beneath the city. We also took our readers to the Arab enclave called La Goutte d’Or, the strange park Buttes-Chamont, a dive bar tucked behind the Pantheon called El Melocoton.

We didn’t take our readers to the Eiffel Tower, the Tuileries gardens, or Cafe Deux Magots.

Why? Here is the best piece of advice I can give you regarding creating a sense of place: Don’t go with the obvious. Steer clear of all clichés. The more well-known and iconic your setting is, the harder you have to work to find within it the telling details that make it come alive in your reader’s imagination. Make your setting FRESH.

Writing about New York City? Take me places I haven’t seen in TV. Writing about Hong Kong? Give me the smells and sounds that movies cannot. Miami? Stay away from South Beach and Little Havana. San Francisco? No Wharf, Alcatraz, cable cars and go light on the fog. Stay away from tired place memes that are over-used so much they lose all emotional impact.

Your postcards from the edge must have an edge.

Okay, enough beating you over the head about cliches. What else can I offer?

Write what you know. This does not mean you have to visit all your locales. It helps. Boy, does it help. I’ve got a very good working knowledge of Paris but I had never been to La Goutte D’Or. I traveled every inch of its streets via Google Street View. But you can create a great location if you do your research the people, language and culture. Remember: What may be colorful and exotic to you as a writer is just normal life to the people who live there.

Compare and contrast. If your character is a stranger in strange land, use his experiences and memories of his normal world and contrast it with what he is observing. I did this often in The Killing Song with my American Matt, a Floridian who had never been abroad. I used his naivete, frustration, and fears to create the same feelings for readers.

What is the scene about? You need to pin this down before you begin piling in details of location.  Don’t just say to yourself: I’m going to set a scene at Muir Woods because I was there once and the old trees were cool. Figure out what needs to happen to your character FIRST and then make the setting enhance the plot and the mood. Watch this great scene in Vertigo where Kim Novak wanders among the ancient trees, says she’s thinking about “All the people who have lived and died while the trees went on living.” The haunting setting reflects her confused mood.

Use All Your Senses!

This is a tenet of all good description but especially for creating settings. The smells of an exotic street bazaar. The sounds of shrieking wild parrots in the palm trees of Miami Beach. The fusty smell of cold earth in a graveyard.  The simple sense of feel became critical in our book The Killing Song. Near the climax, Matt is forced to crawl through the narrow tunnels of the catacombs. He is claustrophobic, due to a childhood accident, and he’s terrified.

Shivering, I got up and moved on. I was dismayed to see the passageway starting to narrow again, and before long I was forced to my knees. The passageway continued to shrink until I was flat on my belly, looking into a hole about the size of a large heating vent.

I wiggled forward and twisted my body so I could shine the flashlight into the hole.

Bones. As far as I could see.

A brown, jagged carpet of them in a passageway no larger than a coffin.

I closed my eyes, fighting back nausea. I pulled in a deep breath and slithered forward into the hole. Eyes closed, I started a soldier’s crawl across the bones. I could feel the sharp edges rip at the sleeves of my jacket. I could hear the dry crunch, like beetles being crushed, as the bones broke under the weight of my body.

Don’t Overdo It.  It’s easy, during research, to fall hopelessly in love with your setting. You must know what to leave out. Dan Brown, who some might say never met a location he didn’t love, puts it this way: “Readers are interested in your characters and plot, so information about your world is best conveyed through a character’s sensory experience or through action.”

Use Visual Aids. I did this often with our Louis books. I made many treks into the Everglades or locations around Ft. Myers and took hundreds of photos that found their way onto an inspiration wall as I wrote. I found this photo of a “cataphile” while researching the Paris catacombs and it inspired the scene above with Matt:

I also keep old fashioned fold-up physical maps handy, which oddly give me a better sense of where I am in a book than any Google Map ever could. I often created my own maps of places I had made up, like the grounds of the abandoned insane asylum.

Imagine Your Story Is a Movie

Some of you have actually screenwriting experience. I do not. But I often can visualize my scenes as movies. I can see in my mind an establishing setting shot, long, medium or close up. If you can visualize this, you can really get your reader grounded in a reality of location.

One last example before I leave. I also re-read To Kill A Mockingbird this past year. I had to go back and find this for you, but it still strikes me as one of the best opening descriptions of place that I can remember:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop, grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then . . . bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

This is, of course, seen through Scout’s point of view. It not only establishes Maycomb as a tired place, but it is written as a recollection of Scout as an adult. We get a sense of poverty, idleness, and oppression that comes to underscore the story’s themes.

I’m off to research things to see near St. Remy de Provence. Yes, we are planning to go this fall. So I’ll let John Defresne have the last word:

“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to write, so let’s write. We’ll chat later. Get out your pen and paper or fire up the computer. Pour yourself a coffee. Unplug the phone. Once you start, you can’t stop. Give yourself a half hour. Relax. Don’t think too much. You’re starting a journey, and you don’t know where you’re going. But you do know you’re going someplace you haven’t been before.”

 

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.