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

The Pros and Cons of Using Profanity In Your Stories

By PJ Parrish

Note: This post contains some salty language. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Besides you, you mean,” Ahnert replied.

Louis took a moment to answer. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you stop investigating?” Louis asked.

“I was told to to stop,” Ahnert said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Besides you, you mean,” Ahnert replied.

Louis took a moment to answer. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you stop investigating?” Louis asked.

“I was told  to stop,” Ahnert said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Besides you, you mean.” 

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“Why did you stop investigating?” Louis asked.

“I was told to.”

“I don’t believe that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

Good cooks often make lousy bakers, and vice versa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creamy Chicken Thighs 

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

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

8 boneless chicken thighs, skin on

2 onions cut up into thin slices.

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

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

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

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

2 tbsp Dijon mustard. That grainy stuff works best. 

1 large tomato diced up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon appetit!

 

+5

What We Can Learn From
Movies About Failed Writers

By PJ Parrish

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

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

…the Sahara Desert.

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

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

{{{Argh!}}}}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

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

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

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

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

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

Watch a supercut of typewriters being used on screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

+12

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

By PJ Parrish

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

Catch you on the flip side, fiends.

Dark Things 

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

“Dr. Gilder, I presume?”

“Yes. I’m Carrie Gilder.

“I need to talk to you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

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

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

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

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

“I was 27,” she replied.

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

___________________

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Corleone, a portrait in dark and light

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

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

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

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

Let’s do some quick line edits:

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

“Dr. Gilder, I presume?”

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

“I need to talk to you.”

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

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

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

“Step into my office.” need new graph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

+10

Making Up Words

By PJ Parrish

It’s raining here today. And I just finished my French Babbel lesson, which happened to focus on weather. Both things made me realize how much I love words.

I love learning new ones. This morning, reading a newspaper opinion piece on the grid crisis going on in Texas, I found out what a kakistocracy is.

I love finding out where words come from. Geezer is cool example. It comes from the obsolete word guiser, meaning someone who walks around in disguise, a performer in a masquerade. So a word that was used in the Middle Ages to refer to an actor now means a crabby old dude. Unless you’re British, then it’s just slang for bloke.

I love idioms. They give special spice to the places where we live. Like I said, it’s raining here in Tallahassee today. It’s raining cats and dogs. If I were in Tupelo, where my friend Philip was born, it would be raining harder than a cow pissing on a flat rock. If I were in Toulouse, Il fait un temps de chien. (The weather would have gone to the dogs).

I love the sounds some words make. Splat! Kaboom! Murmur…hiss…sizzle. There is a ten-dollar word for this I learned in high school — onomatopoeia. The French, I have learned via Babbel, have their own versions of sound-effect words. Badaboum! means crash! Patati patata is their version of yada yada yada. Miam Miam is French for yum-yum although to my ear it sounds like a cat who’s digging his Fancy Feast.

I love how we take a word that means one thing and make it stand for something else. Metaphors and similes tickle me to death. A boxer has cauliflower ears. Same in French, by the way: oreilles en feuille de chou. A CEO might be a big wheel, but in France he’s une grosse legume (a fat vegetable, which seems very fitting in many cases).  And there are all the great variations on a theme for not-so-bright folks: He’s not the brightest bulb on the tree, sharpest knife in the drawer, a few fries short of a Happy Meal, dumber than a bag of hammers. And from my Tupelo-born friend Philip: If she were any dumber we’d have to water her. Or as the French say, elle a une araignée au plafond. Which means she has a spider on the ceiling. Which makes me think of our own idiom bats in the belfry. I had to go look up where that came from, of course. You fellow crime dogs are gonna like this. It dates back to 1897, from an article in the Paducah Daily Sun:

                 CHARGED WITH LUNACY.
Jane Jones Seems to Have Bats in Her Belfry.
Constables Patton and Futrell Have a Time Taking Her.

 

Jane Jones, who stood guard over the putrid remains of her daughter, Ella Jones, at her home on South Fourth street yesterday, and would not suffer them interred until Coroner Nance went to the house with a police officer, to enforce a burial, was arrested this morning by Constables Patton and Futrell on a writ of lunatico inquirendo and taken to the county jail. The aged woman evidently “has bats in her belfry,” and will be tried before Judge Bishop at 3 o’clock this afternoon.

Might be a book in there somewhere.

Which brings us full circle. Mostly, I love the process of trying to put a bunch of words together in just the right way so as to make someone else try to understand the world as I do. That is true of any of you who are reading this post now. You love to play with words. You love to stitch them together to make stories.

The rain is still coming down hard here in Tally, a steady tattoo backed up with a low rumble of base drum thunder. I’ve taken the laptop out to sit on the screened in porch so I can listen to it. I am filled with a deep, delicious feeling of chrysalism.

Don’t know that word? It means the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm. It was coined by a John Koenig, a student at Macalester College in Minnesota. He was trying to write poetry and instead created The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The idea was that it would contain all the words he needed for his poetry, including emotions that had never been linguistically described. He’s since created a website that one writer called “delightful for etymologists and wordsmiths…a beautiful experiment on the fine line between babble and Babel.”

You won’t know these words from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, but I bet you’ll recognize the feelings:

  • Sonder: The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.
  • Opia: The ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.
  • Monachopsis: The subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.
  • Énouement: The bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.
  • Rubatosis: The unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat.
  • Kenopsia: The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.
  • Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
  • Jouska: A hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head.
  • Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening
  • Ellipsism: A sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out.
  • Kuebiko: A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence.
  • Exulansis: The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.
  • Rückkehrunruhe: The feeling of returning home after a trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness.
  • Liberosis: The desire to care less about things.
  • Altschmerz: Weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same boring flaws and anxieties that you’ve been gnawing on for years.
  • Occhiolism: The awareness of the smallness of your perspective

And there’s this one: Nodus Tollens: The realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.

I’ll finish with my favorite: Vellichor: The strange wistfulness of used bookshops.

The rain has stopped finally. And so have I. Go make up some words.

 

+9

First Page Critique: Whose Face
Is Behind That Pebbled Glass?

By PJ Parrish

I think we’re stepping back in time with today’s First Pager. Back to an era when men were right gees, women were dames, a gun was a gat, but cigar was always just a cigar. And the view of the world comes through the slats of Venetian blinds and a swirl of smoke. But whose view is it?

Fatal Infraction

Chapter 1 — Offensive Planning

THE BOSS’S OPEN HAND slammed against his desktop with an ear-splitting smack. Every ornament, pen, and even the desk phone jump and then rattled back into place. “Damn it all! I didn’t want it to come to this!”

The huge man standing on the other side of the desk remained unfazed. His pectoral muscles stretched at the fabric of his black t-shirt, thick forearms crossed across his chest, biceps bulging above the short sleeves. Maintaining a placid expression required more self-control than most of his duties, which tended toward knocking heads together. A protruding vein, just visible above his left ear throbbed with increasing frequency. He hoped the boss would not notice. Being cool under pressure was his identity.

The early evening sunlight filtering in through a gap in the Venetian blinds. A recently smoked cigar lingered in the air.

“We knew he was a wild card, boss.” Not a quiver from the big man’s arms as he spoke. His voice was even; detached.

“Yeah, I know. But I still feel like we could have handled it better.” He sighed as he spun in his leather chair and reached for a cut-glass tumbler sitting on a polished credenza next to a crystal decanter. He poured himself two fingers of The McCallan 12. His companion stood stoically as he savored a sip, then turned back around. “You don’t think there are any other options?”

The big man shrugged, “That’s not my call, sir.”

“It’s really a shame. He had potential. He could have made us a lot of money.”

“That’s why you picked him. But, like you said, we can’t tolerate his actions.”

The boss took a long draught, then set the glass down with a clink. “I know. The time is right. You take care of it.”

“I will.”

The man behind the desk leaned forward and reached for his telephone handset as the big man left. He mumbled to himself, “It’s a damned shame.”

___________________________

I’m just guessing here because the scene-setting is bare bones, but I think we’re in the era of the pebbled glass door. The tone of this opening suggests the bygone era of pulp novels — Venetian blinds, smoke, whiskey, a desk phone rather than iPhone.  The tone also comes from the clipped macho dialogue, the physical descriptions (bulging biceps, throbbing veins). If I’m wrong, then I think the writer has a problem going in.  We can’t really tell where we are in time or place. More on than in a moment.

But the main problem here is one of point of view. There isn’t one. Sure, you can make a case for omniscient but it’s not consistent. And as we’ve said here often, omniscient POV just doesn’t cut it in today’s crime fiction where readers are looking for intimacy and connection with characters.

First off, the set-up itself is interesting. Two mugs are talking about a deal that has apparently gone off the rails because somebody screwed up. Someone off-camera is in trouble. Trouble is good. But because of the point of view problem, we don’t really care. Not caring is bad.

We have a classic case of head-hopping here. It feels like we are in The Big Man’s POV because we get some thoughts and details filtered through his consciousness. But the POV is not solidly grounded because we have omniscient intrusion with details like a throbbing vein in his head, stretching pec muscles (which the Big Man cannot see). Then, in the last graph, we are yanked out of Big Man’s POV with this:

The man behind the desk leaned forward and reached for his telephone handset as the big man left. He mumbled to himself, “It’s a damned shame.”

Whose head are we in now? Marginally, The Boss’s. This just doesn’t work.

Establishing empathy, sympathy, or at least INTEREST IN THE ACTION is essential to any opening. Because we are not grounded in any character’s POV, we can’t bond. Because the set-up is so bare bones, we can’t care what happens next. This feeling is intensified by the writer not giving us any names. It’s coy, in my opinion, and serves no real purpose.

Whose story is this? That’s the big question here.

Now, here’s a caveat:  I could be wrong, but I don’t think the protagonist of this story is on stage yet. I have a feeling the writer is using the device of showing us the danger or villain before we meet the hero. The fixer Big Man (bad guy) is sent on a mission to track down and deal with the protagonist. Let’s call the protag Jack Evans. This structure could work. Given more details in this set-up, we might begin to wonder about Jack. All we are told is he did something wrong and he’s a “wild card.” Maybe we need to start worrying about Jack. We need a reason to turn the page.

I think this could be a good opening if the writer dropped in some more details. Big Man needs a name because I suspect he’s going to have more scenes and POVs and it’s going to get really tedious to keep him nameless. The man he will be hunting down needs a name here. What kind of business is this? Why withhold that info? At least give us a hint of that and what got screwed up. Also, WHO screwed up? The Boss at one point says, “I still feel like we could have handled it better.”  Yet Big Man is sent to go after Jack the wild card.

The dialogue is not working hard enough. The writer needs to pack more information into it.  Let me give you an example of how that could work.

“We knew he was a wild card, boss.” 

“Yeah, ex-cops always are.” He sighed and spun around in his chair to pick up the decanter on his credenza. He poured out two fingers of The McCallan 12 but didn’t take a drink. “Why do you think Jack turned on us?” he asked.

The Big Man didn’t answer. He knew Jack’s kid was really sick with leukemia and that Jack was desperate to get him to that big hospital up in Rochester. He needed money bad. Bad enough, maybe, to even cross The Boss. Note drops of backstory that tell us something about Jack and make us care. Note too that by not telling The Boss about this we are learning something about Big Man as well.

“I don’t know why he did it,” Big Man said. 

The Boss swung back toward him. “Jack Evans had potential. Could’ve made us a lot of money. Damn shame.” He finally took a drink of the whiskey then set the tumbler down. “You think there are any options?” he asked. 

The question sounded almost like a plea. The Big Man remembered that The Boss had taken to calling Jack Evans “son.” More backstory nugget that deepens the relationship and makes us wonder what’s the dynamic here.

“That’s not my call, sir.” Big Man said.

The Boss shook his head slowly. “I’ve put up with enough. It’s time,” he said quietly. “Take care of it.” 

Okay, I’m running long. Here’s a quick line edit to cover some other things.

FATAL INFRACTION I like the title!

Chapter 1 — Offensive Planning

The Boss’s open hand slammed against his desktop with an ear-splitting smack. Cleaner: The Boss slammed his hand down on the desktop. You get rid of the ugly ss possessive and it’s active and not passive. Don’t need ear-splitting smack because it’s not in anyone’s POV. Every ornament, pen, and even the desk phone jump and then rattled back into place. “Damn it all! I didn’t want it to come to this!”

The huge man standing on the other side of the desk remained unfazed. His pectoral muscles stretched at the fabric of his black t-shirt, thick forearms crossed across his chest, biceps bulging above the short sleeves. Omniscient POV…Big Man can’t describe himself. Maintaining a placid expression required more self-control than most of his duties, which tended toward knocking heads together. A protruding vein, just visible above his left ear throbbed with increasing frequency. Ditto POV but easily fixed with “He could feel a vein throbbing in his temple. He hoped the boss didn’t notice it. He hoped the boss would not notice. Being cool under pressure was his identity.

The early evening sunlight filtering in through a gap in the Venetian blinds. A recently smoked cigar lingered in the air. A nice description here but can you filter it thru Big Man’s consciousness? He squinted against the sunlight slanting through the Venetian blinds and resisted an urge to swat away the cigar smoke lingering in the air. SMOKE lingers in the air, not the cigar itself btw.

“We knew he was a wild card, boss.” Not a quiver from the big man’s arms as he spoke. His voice was even; detached. It was a struggle to keep his voice even and detached because he knew what was coming and he didn’t know if he could do it. Again, drop in some hints here of intrigue. These men are flesh and blood. Show us some emotion.

“Yeah, I know. But I still feel like we could have handled it better.” He sighed as he spun in his leather chair and reached for a cut-glass tumbler sitting on a polished credenza next to a crystal decanter. He poured himself two fingers of The McCallan 12. His companion stood stoically as he savored a sip, then turned back around. Again, he can’t tell “his companion” (odd phrase) is stoic because his back is turned. And Big Man would not think to himself “I’m standing here stoically. You don’t think there are any other options?”

The big man shrugged, “That’s not my call, sir.”

“It’s really a shame. He had potential. He could have made us a lot of money.”

“That’s why you picked him. But, like you said, we can’t tolerate his actions.”

The boss took a long draught, then set the glass down with a clink. “I know. The time is right. You take care of it.”

“I will.”

The man behind the desk leaned forward and reached for his telephone handset as the big man left. He mumbled to himself, “It’s a damned shame.” Final POV issue here. You’ve switched to the Boss’s POV in mid-scene. I would end this scene with Big Man. He’s the bridge to what comes next — the hunt and chase to find Jack Evans. So you should end with him leaving and doing something outside. Which might give you the chance to tell us where we are. Also, the sentence construction itself is bulky — He leans forward, reaches for his phone AS the other guy leaves. Big Man leaves. Then you can move on.  But again, I would stay with Big Man — he’s potentially more interesting at this point because he’s OFF TO DO SOMETHING.

Remember: The last line of a chapter is as important as the first line because it is the bridge to the next chapter. Don’t give your exit line to someone who doesn’t matter to what comes next.

So, brave writer. My main two suggestions is that you chose a point of view and run with it. Make your men come alive. And although I recognize you’re going for a spare neo-noir style here, we still need a little more meat. Don’t be afraid to slow down and give us a dollop of backstory and more description. We need a sense of your setting here beyond the old tropes of a smoke-filled office (that’s been over-done). Maybe take the scene outside via Big Man and let him — and your scene — breathe a little more.

That’s it for today. Thanks to our writer for submitting their work. And I hope you find this and other comments helpful.

+10

What’s The Best And Worst
Advice You Got About Writing?

Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now. — The Byrds

By PJ Parrish

Just for yucks, I did a search on Amazon books today for “writing advice.” I got this response — “over 50,000.” No surprise to this veteran observer. Advice is plentiful and cheap. Well, not so cheap in one author’s case: He’s charging $39.95 for his self-published eBook on self-publishing.  First piece of advice for writers: Don’t over-charge for your stuff.

I’ve gotten lots of advice in my novel writing career. Some of it good. Much of it stupid. It just took me a while to figure out which was which.

My first romance was published by Ballantine Books in 1984. Since then, I’ve worked with two traditional New York houses and Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. I’ve had at least twelve editors and two agents. I switched from romance to crime. I’ve won two Shamus Awards, two Anthonys, one Thriller Award and was nominated for an Edgar. I’ve been dropped by three publishers, including a French one, which really stung. I’ve self-published original books and backlist titles on Amazon. I’ve chaired writers conferences and felt lonely at others. I’ve given a couple keynote speeches and endured sharing a signing table at Bouchercon with Charlaine Harris, whose line wound out the door and into the hotel lobby while I had oh, maybe five people. (Charlaine is a real lady BTW…kept talking up my books). I’ve cracked bestseller lists and had royalty checks that wouldn’t buy a can of dog food. I currently do not have a publisher. I sometimes think I don’t even have a good idea.

So what did I learn?

That advice about writing is to be taken with a shaker of salt. Here’s some of the best and worst I’ve collected over the last 37 years:

Best: Just Write A Good Book. When I was just starting out and hanging around the periphery at writer’s cons, this was the one thing that was always said on panels. Don’t worry about anything else. Just write the book and make it come from your heart. I still consider this great advice because you can’t fake quality, craft and passion. Editors don’t want less-than, and readers don’t like junk. (Okay you might fool them once but they won’t buy your second book and nobody loves a one-trick pony). Hone your craft. Write the kind of book you want to read. Don’t expect shortcuts to success.

Worst: Just Write A Good Book. Because of industry contraction, it’s no longer enough to just write. Today’s crime novelists must be active participants in the marketing, promotion and even publishing process. When I started out, writers were the proverbial mushrooms — kept in the dark, fed a lot a manure and everyone hoped they’d somehow magically sprout into bestselling fungi. My early editors balked at any questions I had and never sought my input. Today, publishers routinely send writers lengthy questionaires asking for input on everything from cover design, book tone, and market strategy. And if you’re self-publishing, I don’t have to tell you what a hydra-headed beast you must be to survive.

Best: Get Out! I’m convinced that most writers are naturally introverts. We want to hide in our writer caves with our coffee and imaginary friends. Early on, I was too scared to do signings. I didn’t network or go to conferences. When I finally did go, I was too intimidated to talk up other writers, agents or editors. Big mistake. Our community is generous of spirit and the advice of those who’ve gone ahead is invaluable. Get over yourself and get out there. (And yes, some day we will all meet again face to face, I promise. First round is on me).

Worst: Write What You Know.  This sounds good. In theory. If I had heeded it, I would have never had the success I did because what do two middle-aged white female Yankees know about a biracial 20-something man in the South? Yeah, if you’re just starting out, you might want to sow more familiar ground. It gives you confidence. But it doesn’t mean that if you’re a car mechanic in Des Moines, you can’t write about a tribe of Amazon zombies in Belle Époque Paris. It means you must invest your characters with genuine emotions and experiences. It means you must build a world that is believable even if it is fantastical. Madame zombie, c’est moi. 

Best: Writing Will Bring Out The Worst In You. I heard this from a famous writer in the Hyatt bar post-Edgars eons ago. He was two sheets to the wind but what he said still resonates with me. What he meant was is that unlike regular jobs. writers don’t have easy ways to gauge our success — no weekly paychecks, no performance reviews, no boss breathing down our necks. This tends to magnify whatever is strong — or weak — within us. Are you a procrastinator? Wait until you paint yourself into that plot corner. Are you a conflict-avoider? Well, being at the mercy of a publishing house is going to drive you nuts. Are you a tangled yarn-ball of self-doubt? That first bad Amazon review is going to have you in tears. Are you full of yourself? No one will sit next to you at the bar. Know your faults and don’t let them cripple your writing.

Worst: Outline Your Book Before You Write One Word. For my second and third books, our editors required a full outline. Ours ran 20-30 pages. This is common if you’re just starting out because editors are investing in an unseen product from an untested manufacturer. (you). They give you an advance, however paltry, and hope you can produce a great book ON A DEADLINE. So traditional pubs usually want to see where the story’s going before they commit. Now, I abhor outlining. It feels like torture in a straitjacket. (Best advice I got from my agent: Just make something up that sounds good to make them happy then go ahead and change it).  I get that many of you must outline. But those of you, like me, who can’t but must — well, fake it.  You’d be surprised (as I was) that sometimes looking at a map makes you want to take that detour.

Best: Read Well and Widely. I’m ashamed to say I never read crime novels before I tried to write one. Guess what? My first attempt was awful. So I started reading P.D. James, Michael Connelly, SJ Rozan, Steve Hamilton, Ross Macdonald. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley was a revelation. When I read Jeff Deaver, I underlined the parts that solved my craft questions. I also read some bad stuff. (no names!) which gave me confidence. Yesterday, the 2021 Edgar Award nominees were announced. Click here and maybe go buy a book or two.

Worst: Do What You Love And The Money Will Follow. This one actually comes from my friend Shane Gericke who points out that more than a million books are published every year and 95 percent of their authors still require a day job. That you love to write does not mean you will make any money at it. When I published my little romance in 1984, I was sure I was going to get rich. Didn’t take me long to wise up.

Okay, enough from me. I want to hear what you all have to say. What was the lousiest advice you ever got about this wacky business? And what was the best advice, the stuff that makes you put your butt in the chair and keep trying?

And yes, I was much much older in 1984. I’m so much younger than that now.

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Editing: The Three Levels Of Hell

(Note: This post will be a little harried, so forgive me if it’s badly edited. I lost a crown Sunday night and my dentist was good enough to get me in Monday morning. Be good to your teeth or they’ll turn on you…)

By PJ Parrish

I like to think I’m a pretty decent writer. But man, I am a lousy editor. And this from a person who spent a good portion of her journalism career working a copy desk.

Try as I might, I am just not very good at ferreting out typos, keeping names of characters straight, and understanding all the variations of lie and lay. This was not a huge problem when my books were published by reputable houses with great line editors and wonderful in-house copy editors. But with the contraction in the industry over the past two decades, most publishers began to farm out editing duties to free-lancers. Not to bash them — many were refugees from staff cuts — but the father workers wander from the main source, the harder it to keep things from going awry. This is partly why print newspapers now have so many errors and typos in them; local copy desks are a thing of the past and stories are edited not in the towns where they are produced but in centralized mother-ship offices. This is why, when I was working in Fort Lauderdale, an editor in our Chicago office changed the color of key lime pie in my story from yellow to green. In all fairness, maybe she didn’t get out much.

But I digress. This week, I am trying to edit one of my old books, Thicker Than Water, as we ready to self-pub it on Amazon. We have done this to most of our backlist titles as we get the rights back to them.

Now here’s the thing: This book, like all the others, went through the rigorous thresher of our previous publishers — first Kensington, then Fawcett, Simon & Schuster, Thomas & Mercer, and some excellent foreign houses. Boy, I had some great editors along the line, including my very first, John Scoglamiglio, who is now editor in chief at Kensington Books.

Still, I am aghast at the errors, typos and flab I am finding. My blood runs cold at this because I know that while readers can be understanding about such things, their trust only can stretch so far.

My point (yes, I have one!) is that whether you hope to be traditionally published or go it on your own, you must do whatever you can do get good editing. How? Well, that’s the problem, right? How to find a good editor is a blog for another day. The good ones don’t come cheap. But I gotta say this: Only a fool thinks they can edit their own book. If you disagree, go read Terry’s January 8 post here on how she tackles editing.

So let me try to set the table by reviewing the three different types of editing you will need and maybe have to fork over good money to pay for. Basically, there are three levels to editing — LINE EDITING, COPY EDITING AND PROOF-READING.

One of the best explanations of the differences I’ve run across comes from publishing expert and teacher Jane Friedman. (Her blog is a must-read for any writer at any level.)

If you’re thinking of hiring an editor, you have to be clear on exactly what the editor will do. I recommend you read Jane’s entire blog on the subject. Click HERE. It is a guest post from Sandra Wendel, book doctor, editor, and author of the book, Cover To Cover: What First-Time Authors Need to Know about Editing. Here are some highlights:

LINE EDIT: an editor examines every word and every sentence and every paragraph and every section and every chapter and the entirety of your written manuscript. Typos, wrong words, misspellings, double words, punctuation, run-on sentences, long paragraphs, subheadings, chapter titles, table of contents, author bios—everything is scrutinized, corrected, tracked, and commented on. Facts are checked, name spellings of people and places are confirmed.

Me here: This is the heavy-lifting of editing. My professional editors would send me lengthy letters that made me want to cry. But the editors were doing their jobs — suggesting plot changes, character enhancements, digressions to fix, time-time errors to correct, places where the pace flagged. If you ever had a good line editor, you know they can make or break a book. Back to Sandra (with bold face from me!)

COPY EDIT:  There is confusion about what a copy edit includes. Most of the time, authors want that thorough line edit. If a manuscript is so clean, so squeaky clean, so perfectly written with lovely paragraphing and fine-tuned punctuation, then maybe the manuscript just needs a copy edit. Like never. I can’t even recall a manuscript that has come to me this clean that it would need just one pass for a polish for mechanical issues. Never. Not even books written by professional writers. And not even my own book. I hired out my line editing, and it’s a humbling process. So let’s just agree that when someone says copy edit, they really mean a much deeper and more thorough edit than putting commas in the right place. A copy edit is the lowest level of edit. Rarely does a manuscript need “just” a copy edit. Sometimes a copy edit is a final step performed separately by your editor or someone else with fresh eyes. Some editors (like me) do copy editing all along looking for these types of errors, and a copy edit is part of the line edit.

Here is a checklist of what Sandra says goes into a copy edit:

  • Correct any typos, which would include misspelled words.
  • Fill in missing words.
  • Format the manuscript before production, and that includes just one space between sentences (I don’t care what you learned in typing class in high school, the double space messes up the document when it is converted into real book pages).
  • Streamline punctuation and properly use commas, periods, and em dashes—like this.
  • Avoid overuse of ellipses to denote a break in thought … when they are really used to show missing text. And those exclamation marks! I allow authors about five in each manuscript. Overuse them, and they lose their punch.
  • Make sure the names of characters and places are spelled consistently throughout (Peterson in chapter 1 may or may not be the same Petersen in chapter 6).
  • Find and replace similarly sounding words that have different meanings (for example, effect and affect).
  • Conduct a modest fact check (perform a Google search to find the exact spelling of Katharine Hepburn or the capital of Mongolia). This isn’t Jeopardy!, so you do get to consult resources. I keep a window open to Google just for such searches.
  • Make new paragraphs to break up long passages.
  • Question the use of song lyrics and remind the author to get written permission.
  • Point out, in academic work, that footnote 6 does not have a reference source in the citations.
  • Remove overuse of quotation marks. For emphasis, use italics, but sparingly. Books generally do not use boldface.
  • Impose a consistent style for the text (this means using a style guide for capitalization and hyphenation, treatment of numbers, heading levels). The Chicago Manual of Style is preferred unless the work needs to conform to an academic convention such as APA, AMA, or MLA.

Me again. Whew. See the difference? A good copy edit is vital to any book. But don’t confuse it with a line edit. A line edit is a deep tissue massage, and sometimes surgery. A copy edit is a mani-pedi. Which leaves us with the last editing step. From Sandra again, talking about proof-reading, a k a getting your galleys:

PROOF-READ: Let’s say your manuscript is fully edited (no matter which level you chose, sometimes even a developmental followed by a line edit with the same or different editors). Your work will need a proofread either in manuscript format or after it is designed in pages as PDFs. Should you proofread your own work? The short answer is later, if you’re in writing mode. The shorter answer is never. Why? Because it’s your work. And your brain plays funny tricks on you. It will fill in your words, and you’ll be completely shocked when a professional editor returns your edited manuscript. What? How could I miss that?

Me here. (Back from the dentist with a temp crown and a jaw full of novocaine) Okay, that’s the breakdown of what to expect from editing, in a nutshell. Again, I urge you to go read the entire blog. It’s filled with good advice. Hope I’ve left you something good to chew on.

 

 

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The “Last” First Page Critique:
It’s A Jungle Out There

By PJ Parrish

This is my last post of the year before we take our annual holiday break. That means I have an excuse to post a picture of my dogs. Merry Christmas from Phoebe and Archie! Woof.

It also means I have the pleasure of reading my final First Page Critique of 2020, and offering it up to the TKZ hive for comments. It’s a medical thriller, and we’re off to the jungles of Jakarta. The plane is on the runway. Catch you on the return trip, crime dogs.

The Lazarus Outbreak

Republic of Nanga Selak, 650km Northwest of Jakarta

The scientists were late for their pickup.

Danni Lachlan swore and checked her watch again. She paced back and forth while staying in the shadow cast by her Cessna. The nose of the twin-engine plane pointed resolutely down the ribbon of dirt that barely qualified as a takeoff and landing strip.

Palm-leafed trees and vines dotted with colorful orchids still clung to the edges of the recently cleared space. Smells of rotting vegetation and jungle flowers hung in the air. The odd mix of scents reminded Lachlan of a perfumed burial shroud.

A shiver ran down her spine at the thought.

“Never should’ve taken this damn job,” she muttered under her breath.

She dug into a pocket before coming up with a cigarette and a lighter. She took a moment to light up before drawing breath and exhaling a cloud of smoke. The nicotine habit and the bush pilot company were all her ex-husband had left her. She’d made the best of both to keep sane and put food on the table.

Lachlan’s head jerked up as she heard a cry.

It could’ve been a human cry, but the jungle had a hundred ways of distorting sound. Her pulse started to pound as something made a loud rustle.

Suddenly, three people in silvery protective clothing tore free of the underbrush. The name CLARK had been stenciled in black across the chest of one, WIJAYA on another. The silver-suited one in the middle hung limply in the arms of the other two. The name HAYES was barely visible as the other two dragged their companion along.

A demented howl erupted from the tree line. Then a flicker of movement came from the bushes nearby. Clark and Wijaya traded a glance.

They dropped Hayes in the dirt and ran towards the plane.

“What is it?” Lachlan shouted. “What’s going on?”

The two scientists tore off their respirator masks and tossed them away as they ran. Wijaya’s coppery face stared blankly in fear. Clark’s was a mirror image in pale white.

“Start the plane!” Clark cried. “Get us out of here!”

Lachlan stared a moment longer.

Hayes’ body lay face down. It began to quiver. Arms and legs drummed mindlessly against the moist earth.

More flickers of moment in the underbrush. The sounds of something tearing its way through the underbrush. That finally broke Lachlan’s horrified stare and got her moving.

_________________

Let’s start with what works. We’re at a good dramatic moment, which is often a great entry point for a story. (Caveat: You needn’t always start with something this “action” oriented. A dramatic movement can be more subtle). The writer chose a good moment, just before the proverbial $%&^ hits the propellers.

I like how we get just the barest snippet of backstory — that she’s got a bad marriage behind her that makes her a bit bitter. I don’t mind that at all…it intrigues me, character-wise. Notice that the writer did not feel compelled to belabor Danni’s past or state of mind. Get the plot moving first! You can always layer in her past in “quiet” moments later.

A note: The writer could have opened right with the sound of the men breaking through the brush dragging their comrade toward the plane. That’s certainly more action-y. But I like the fact we get to “meet” the heroine first, as she waits for the rendezvous.

I like the location. Never been to Jakarta (closest I got to a jungle was my backyard in South Florida). The atmosphere and sense of isolation is nicely rendered. Good uses of senses beyond sight. Smell is oft-neglected in description. Wondering how the air feels, though. Like standing in a sauna, I would guess. Maybe she’s feel the press of her sweat-damp shirt? Brush away a wet strand of hair? The writer makes a point of saying Danni is pacing in the “shadow of her Cessna.” Good detail but it can be sharper by making the point that it’s the only shade from the searing sun?

Description is important, especially if you’re using a foreign locale. Don’t let any chance slip by to make us feel we are there. Description, used well, can enhance the sense of peril, fear, anticipation (whatever mood you’re going for).  But keep it razor-sharp, never over-wrought or too long in the early pages.

The writer is in firm grasp of basic craft, like dialogue, action choreography. We can tell pretty much what is happening here, so kudos there.

Something that confuses me. Danni is waiting for a team of scientists, as stated in the first sentence. Is she part of the team? Is she merely a pilot and thus doesn’t know them? Might want to drop in a clarifying hint. (See comments below about increasing tension)

About that first sentence. The writer sets it off all by itself in its own graph. When you do that, you’re telling the reader it is extra important. Yet the sentence itself is sort of flat and matter-of-fact. Like: “Well, damn, they’re late, so here I am again just cooling my heels.”  It lacks enough drama to set up what happens next. Especially since you make a big point of Danni’s impatience. Why is she pacing? Does she know there is danger in getting this team out? The word “pick up” is just sort of blah as well. Because we don’t know Danni’s exact role here, we can’t get the full effect of the urgency you’re trying to create with this scene.

I don’t know what might work better (ideas welcome!), but I think, given the excitement of this opening scene, you can come up with a better first line.

Let’s do a quick line edit so I can bring up some other points. My comments in red.

The Lazarus Outbreak The title works fine for a medical thriller. Even if you don’t know your Bible, that Lazarus rose from the dead, it’s interesting. I just hope the use of the biblical reference ties into the plot. Like, if you’re infected, you die then are reborn ie zombies? 

Republic of Nanga Selak, 650km Northwest of Jakarta I’m not a big fan of location tags but this one is okay because the action comes on so quickly, the writer doesn’t have an easy way to tell us where we are. 

The scientists were late for their pickup. As I said in comments, this is too blah for this good of a scene. You’d be better off just cutting it and opening with the second graph and finding a way to slip in the “scientists” info. Maybe something like:

Danni Lachlan swore and checked her watch again. She paced back and forth, careful to stay in the shadow of her Cessna, the only relief from the blazing sun. She looked down the ribbon of dirt in front of the plane, wondering again if there was enough room to take off. The landing had been hard enough. 

She came out of the shade and brought up a hand to shield her eyes as she peered into the dense jungle just ten yards away.

Where the hell were they? They knew they had only a half-hour window to get out of here.

A sharp crack made her spin to the other side of the brush.

Two men in silver hazmat suits stumbled into the open, dragging a man between them. 

 

Danni Lachlan swore and checked her watch again. She paced, back and forth while staying in the shadow cast by of her Cessna. The nose of the twin-engine plane pointed resolutely means admirably purposeful; too human for a machine and clutters things up. down the ribbon of dirt that barely qualified as a takeoff and landing strip. Do more with this image; ie she had barely made the landing…

Palm-leafed trees and vines dotted with colorful orchids still clung to the edges of the recently cleared space. This implies knowledge on her part, so she has been here before? Or is she a team member? Clarify if you use it. ALSO: how far away is the brush from the plane? We need to know to understand the action when the scientists come running out. Smells of rotting vegetation and jungle flowers hung in the air. The odd mix of scents reminded Lachlan of a burial shroud. Again, I love that you use smells here, but can you make this sing more, be specific? The still heavy air smelled of rotting vegetation and jasmine. (I checked; it’s common in Jakarta). The mixture reminded Lachlan of a burial shroud.  I don’t think this works. It sounds like YOU the WRITER describing something, not your character. Would this woman think in those images? Not unless it is in her specific sensory bank of memories. ALWAYS KEEP COMPARISONS, METAPHORS, SIMILES specific to your character’s experience. It feels more real and it helps you establish character traits. I can’t say what smell in her memory comes to her; that is for you to decide, but it has to connect to HER. 

A shiver ran down her spine a cliche at the thought. BUT…if that awful smell you describe above made her shiver then that means it RESONATES with something in her past. What in her memory made her shiver at that smell? It wasn’t a burial shroud, as they aren’t common anymore. 

“Never should’ve taken this damn job,” she muttered under her breath. I like this line here. 

She dug into a pocket for before coming up with a cigarette and a lighter. She lit up and pulled in a quick deep breath. took a moment to light up before drawing breath and exhaling a cloud of smoke.  Don’t waste words on routine actions. The nicotine habit and the bush pilot company were all her ex-husband had left her. Good! She’d made the best of both to keep sane and put food on the table.

Lachlan’s head jerked up as she heard a cry. The cry comes first, then her reaction. 

It could’ve been a human cry, but the jungle had a hundred ways of distorting sound. Her pulse started to pound as something made a loud rustle. Again, action causes her reaction. Also gives you a way to get rid of the clumsy “as.” You overuse the “as” construction. 

Suddenly, three people in silvery protective clothing I think she’d recognize hazmat suits and you have to put the fact they are wearing masks HERE not later because that is what she would notice first. And a note about breathing masks: They are in a jungle, it’s as hot as hell and these guys are in MASKS? What might she think? Use this moment to increase tension. SOMETHING ISN’T RIGHT HERE. EXPLOIT THAT. tore free of the underbrush. The name CLARK had been stenciled in black across the chest of one, WIJAYA on another. The silver-suited one in the middle hung limply in the arms of the other two. The name HAYES was barely visible as the other two dragged their companion along. This is important: When choreographing action, you must keep the order of the character’s recognition logical. What would Danni notice first? Names? Nope. She’d notice the men struggling to drag the third guy. If they are dragging a man, who’s apparently dying, they’d be crouched over; impossible to see their names. Plus, is it important to name them right now? Does she know them? If not, why bother? 

A demented howl Not sure demented works here. It means angry or crazyerupted from the tree line. Then a flicker of movement came from the bushes nearby. Refract this through her POV somehow. Danni saw the fronds on the low palms behind the three men moving.

Clark and Wijaya traded a glance. Too casual sounding. Stay in action phrasing.

The two men heard it, too. They looked back at the jungle then at each other. They dropped the third man and ran toward the plane. 

They dropped Hayes in the dirt and ran towards the plane.

“What is it?” Lachlan shouted. “What’s going on?”

This stretch of action implies they have a lot space to cover, yet you said the “runway” was a narrow ribbon carved from the jungle. Clarify this. The two scientists men tore off their respirator masks and tossed them away as they ran. Wijaya’s coppery face stared blankly in fear. Clark’s was a mirror image in pale white. This could use some work. Coppery face? Is he foreign? And he’s running for his life so I don’t think he’d have a blank stare. At this point the name CLARK on his suit might register in her consciousness but ONLY at this late point. Which might be where you to drop in the plot point that she’s ferrying out scientists. Waiting to tell the reader until now that they are scientists is a way to increase intrigue…dole out your plot one bread crumb at a time. Sometimes you want to hold facts back to make more impact later. It all about layering…

His dark face was contorted with fear. She saw the name CLARK stenciled across the front of his suit. Clark…Duane Clark, one of the three scientists she had been hired to fly out here.

“Start the plane!” Clark cried. “Get us out of here!”

Lachlan stared a moment longer. At what? Where is the second man? Again, keep her impressions of the action in a logical order. They dropped the third guy so she can’t possibly see his name. Something simple like:

The second man stumbled to the Cessna, but Lachlan’s eyes were locked on the man they had abandoned. He lay twenty feet away, face down in the dirt. His body was quivering, arms and legs drumming in the red dirt. 

Hayes’ body lay face down. It began to quiver. Arms and legs drummed mindlessly against the moist earth.

More flickers of moment in the underbrush. The sounds of something tearing its way through the underbrush. That finally broke Lachlan’s horrified stare and got her moving. I think we’ve got too many “flickers” in the brush. Maybe save the howl for here so you get a fresh punch. And make it really awful. Then don’t TELL me she gets moving. SHOW me her moving. 

Danni jerked open the door of the Cessna. Clark half-carried the second men the final yard to the plane and together they pushed him inside. Jumping into the pilot seat, she pushed the throttle in and hit the master switch. The Cessna roared to life, drowning out the sound of…WHATEVER THAT AWFUL HOWL WAS.  

So, this is what I would call a good first draft. Nice action, an exotic location, an interesting protag. (assuming Danni is such) and lots of juicy unanswered questions. Don’t be discouraged by my bleeding red all over your pages, dear writer. As I said, this is good stuff and we all find ways to improve as we go through various rewrites. Mine is just one opinion.

Thank you, anon writer, for letting us share your work. I know how hard this is, to put your baby out there for scrutiny. I’ve had some tough editors over the years, and it took me a while to realize they were tough because they wanted me to succeed. We’re here for you.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, all, and may the next year be…well, let’s just say brighter, healthier and a helluva lot more huggable.

 

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