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

What Book Wasted Your Time?
What Book Moved You?
Let’s All Take A Quiz.

By PJ Parrish

Sue’s post yesterday on the need for creativity in our trying times got me to thinking — why has my urge to write anything gone pffft?  I figured it out — all my creative juices lately are going to helping me and my own stay sane.

Not easy in these times of cabin fever, quest for toilet paper, and real fears. I’m walking more than ever, and I gotta tell you, there’s been an unexpected joy in seeing my neighbors and friends out more. And this morning was really lovely — I was all alone with my dogs, a hovering dawn fog and a very loud symphony of birdsong. (Loud because there are no cars).

Yesterday, I ventured out to a toy store to buy a jigsaw puzzle. The sweet young clerk told me they are doing a bang-up business.  Seems even the kids are getting tired of video games and Scrabble is sounding pretty exotic.  I am looking for good things, small as they may be.

I am also reading more. Normally, I cleave to fiction but this week I started Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels. It is a history of our democracy, with every wart revealed and wonder exalted.  It’s beautifully written and very affirming.  We will get through this, Meacham says, we’ve endured worse. You don’t believe me? Well, here’s the sad story of Nathan Bedford Forrest…

Books are so vital right now. Whether you’re escaping to Treasure Island or retreating into the romance of Danielle Steele. (Although I’d vote that you should re-read Judith Krantz. She’s much funnier and very randy). I wish the libraries were not having to close right now.

So, forgive me today if I have no good writing advice. My mind is elsewhere. Let’s play a game instead.

One of my favorite stops in my Sunday New York Times is the By The Book feature in the book review. Famous folks are interviewed, asked the same questions week after week a la the format popularized by the great James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio. (“What sound do you love?” “What’s your favorite curse word?” “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?”)

This week in By the Book, Emily St. John Mandel was questioned. (She’s the author of one of my favorite books Station Eleven.)  So here are the questions, but I am going to give you my answers. That’s because I will never be famous enough to be asked but always wanted to be.  Please weigh in with your comments and answer any of the questions that move you!

What book are on your nightstand? The Meacham book, plus Robert B. Parker’s The Judas Goat. Just added a really ratty copy of Wuthering Heights that I found this week at the GoodWill. I figure it’s time.

What’s the last great book you read? Your first thought is usually your best one. I immediately grasped upon Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I still think about the people in that book sometimes.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, how?).  Somewhere foreign so I can’t understand anything on TV.  It’s raining. My dogs are snoring at my side.

What’s your favorite book no one else heard of?  Well, my tastes aren’t esoteric enough to dazzle anyone and I refuse to make something up to sound important. So I will recommend two: Jim Harrison’s memoir A Really Big Lunch. If you love cooking, wine and great writing, this is for you. (A tip from Jim: Don’t drink and cook at the same time. But if you must, only one glass of prosecco.)

Also, try Di & I by Peter Lefcourt.  Leonard Schecter, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, goes to London, meets the unhappy princess and they run off to travel across America in a mini-van, and end up running a McDonald’s in Cucamonga, California.  I’m a royalist and love books about the twisted Windsors. This made me laugh til I cried.

Which writers working today do you admire most? I will read a grocery list if Joyce Carol Oates writes it. Or maybe I am just envious of her work ethic. So that’s it. Your turn…

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you? This was easy.  My own first book, Dark of the Moon, written with my sister, remade a sibling into a beloved friend.

How do you organize your books? Roughly by subject. Crime fiction on one shelf, my dance books from days as a critic on another, etc.  My husband has shelf with rock biographies. I recommend Keith Richard’s Life because anyone who is more durable than Astroturf deserves to be heard.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? Do I remember? Hell yes, I remember, because these books take up valuable time and energy and leave you angry for months for being so gullible, sort of like a bad blind date. So this gives me yet one more chance to trash Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. (I mentioned it in Jim’s Sunday post).  I love fiction set in old England. But this was first-person pretension and overwrought prose prettified with preface graphics of family trees. Which still didn’t help me keep all the guys named Thomas straight.  A friend told me I have to let this go and suggested I read Infinite Jest to regain some perspective.

What say you, guys? Your turn to talk about books. Stay safe. I know that sounds banal but sometimes banal, like rice pudding, is what works.

 

4+

First Page Critique: Lost At Sea

By PJ Parrish

Good morning, crime dogs. Well, this one will be short. Has to be, because I can barely type. Lost a fingernail in a home improvement accident and my middle digit is swollen and swathed. DIY tip: Don’t try to hang a heavy mirror without proper wall anchors and if you do, make sure you don’t have your fingers underneath when it falls.

So forgive me my typos and here we go with a First Pager that shows some promise — but also some of the common problems we talked about here at TKZ.  Many thanks to our contributing writer. Please help him/her out with your comments.

CALL ME TRANCE

A few years ago, late May.

Atlantic Ocean, East of the Caribbean Sea

In the dark of night a naked woman, battered and bruised, lifted her face from the ocean’s surface, took a couple of breaths, and resumed the dead-man’s float on the waves. She had lost her direction amid broad, moonlit swells. How long had it been? It felt like an eternity.

Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances, she lifted her head again, let her feet sink, and inhaled several slow breaths to steady her nausea.

How long can I keep this up?

Swiping saltwater from her eyes, she leaned to float on her back and released the tension from her quivering muscles. As her toes broke the surface, chilly in the light breeze and her body drifted like corkwood on wave after wave, the gossamer filaments of her anxious thoughts dissolved into nothingness and she dozed, drifting, unaware.

* * *

Caribbean Sea

British Frigate, HMS Donovan

“Bloody war and medicine,” Surgeon Commander Ian MacRorie mumbled as he slumped against the gray treatment room doorjamb in the wee hours of the morn. “I quit. I won’t treat one more patient.” He peeled off his medical gloves and chucked them into the nearby waste bin, regretting once again that he had condemned himself to this soul-wringing existence.

Ian heard the hum of the engines change, signaling the ship nearing Montserrat. According to the itinerary, HMS Donovan would patrol around Montserrat tonight and early tomorrow, and then would move on to do the same at Anguilla.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat, he thought. Whatever got them closer to home.

He rubbed his burning eyes, took a fortifying breath before heaving his carcass off the doorjamb, and trudged across the gray room to the nearby basin to scrub his hands.

God, I need sleep.

The ship’s ubiquitous gray interior dulled his mind. He felt as though he lost a wee bit of himself with each moment that passed in this gloomy, cheerless environment. All he wanted to do was to crawl into bed and withdraw under the covers. Disappear into oblivion. Ah, yes, only in the arms of Morpheus could he find relief for his physical and mental exhaustion, quiet his tormented thoughts, and escape this gray tomb.

Damn my grief.

Chief Petty Officer Jane Beasley swept into the infirmary. “Surgeon Commander MacRorie, here are Ensign Belgrave’s ultrasound images.”

_________________

Okay, let’s give this a good look-see. I liked the opening image — a battered woman floating, apparently lost at sea, is immediately intriguing. There are some point of view issues, mainly that I wish the writer would have stayed grounded in the woman’s POV instead of hovering above in omniscient. (More on that later). But I also wish this opening scene-ette had more to it.  An opening has to seduce us into wanting to read more and become emotional involved. This is just a truncated tease. Consider, writer, of expanding this into a full chapter somehow, even if it’s just a couple pages. Perhaps you got into too late? If you had shown more of what happened to get her to this point (without spilling all the plot beans), I might feel less frustrated when you switch away. Just a thought…

Now, about that POV issue. This opening graph isn’t bad, but it can be better. You need to make us feel the danger of her situation more. SHOW us, don’t TELL us. Show us through her senses, not your own descriptions:

In the dark of night a naked woman, battered and bruised, lifted her face from the ocean’s surface, took a couple of breaths, and resumed the dead-man’s float on the waves. She had lost her direction amid broad, moonlit swells. How long had it been? It felt like an eternity. Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances, she lifted her head again

You tell us it’s dark. Filter that through her:  She could barely make out the moonlit tips of the ocean’s waves. You tell us she is battered and bruised. Have her make us feel that: Her naked skin felt pin-pricked from hours of being in the water. She was so cold she couldn’t even feel the bruises and cuts that she knew were still there. “Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances” is you talking again. Let her tell us:

A new spasm of panic swelled in her chest and she took two long breaths to force it down. It wasn’t working. She licked her salt-swollen lips and began to recite the rosary, something she had not done since childhood but it was the only thing she could remember right now to calm her screaming brain.

That’s not great, but the point I am trying to make is use HER experience, background and emotions to convey the situation. You the writer, need to stay out of her way.

Now let’s go on to Commander Ian. I don’t mind that you switched locations and characters. But as I said, the ocean scene is so bare-bones, that I feel whip-lashed. Again, try to find ways to filter the emotions only through his consciousness. By using phrases like “regretting once again that he had condemned himself to this soul-wringing existence,”  again you are telling us what he feels rather than letting this emotion emerge through action, thoughts and dialogue. You actually do a pretty good job of showing us his frustration, so this type of phrase is overkill. You could easily lose it.

Now I’d like to do a deep-dive line edit.

CALL ME TRANCE

A few years ago, late May.

Atlantic Ocean, East of the Caribbean Sea I usually discourage the use of taglines like this because 99 times out of 100, this info can be — and should be — gracefully integrated into the narrative. But because of the switch in time, place and character, I’m going to give it a pass here. 

In the dark of night a naked woman, battered and bruised, as I said, convey this through her senses; it’s more powerful. lifted her face from the ocean’s surface, took a couple of breaths, and resumed the dead-man’s float on the waves. She had lost her direction This implies she at some point KNEW where she was. Is that correct? Another chance to deepen this scene amid broad, moonlit swells. How long had it been? It felt like an eternity. Cliche. You can do better. Also, because I think this scene needs more meat, why be coy? Can’t you drop a few hints about how she got here? And if, indeed, she has been floating naked in the ocean “for an eternity” she’d be in hypothermia territory by now. She’s not in the Caribbean, she’s in the Atlantic. 

Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances, Very writerly. See above comments about getting inside her head. lifted her head again, let her feet sink, and inhaled several slow breaths to steady her nausea.

How long can I keep this up? When you use direct thoughts like this without attribution, always put in italics.

Swiping saltwater from her eyes, Again, I think you’re missing chances for great detail here. You imply she’s been floating in the ocean for a long time. Her eyes would be nearly swollen shut from saltwater exposure. The scene, as you describe it, feels way too tranquil, like she’s in a floatation tank at some spa. she leaned nit picking here but this seemed the wrong word, she was floating, then righted herself momentarily (?) then returned to floating? to float on her back and released the tension from her quivering muscles. As her toes broke the surface, chilly in the light breeze Sorry, this scene is way too relaxing! and her body drifted like corkwood Don’t think you “drift” like a cork. You bob maybe on wave after wave, Small thing here but waves are different than swells. the gossamer filaments of her anxious thoughts dissolved into nothingness Very pretty but not very compelling. And again, the emotions in this scene are schizophrenic — you can’t be battered, naked, tired, panicked and afraid and have gossamer thoughts. and she dozed, I had to look this up, but yes, apparently you can sleep while floating but again, it makes no sense in this context. AND IT IS ODDLY PASSIVE. When I read the first graph the first time, I immediately started to root for this woman. By the time she falls asleep, I didn’t care anymore because I know nothing about her. drifting, unaware.

* * *

Caribbean Sea

British Frigate, HMS Donovan

“Bloody war and medicine,” Surgeon Commander This is a character title tag. Don’t use them. Find a graceful way to convey this info in the action Ian MacRorie mumbled as he slumped against the gray treatment room doorjamb in the wee hours of the morn. Clumsy construction here. “I quit. I won’t treat one more patient.” He peeled off his medical gloves and chucked them into the nearby waste bin, regretting once again that he had condemned himself to this soul-wringing existence.

It took me a couple reads to figure out what “Bloody war and medicine” meant. I think it’s Ian cursing both the fact there’s a war going on (what year are we in here, by the way?) and the fact he’s a doctor. But I’m not sure about that. If you start a scene with dialogue, please make it mean something. And the graph needs some cleaning up:

“Damn this bloody war.”

Ian MacRorie roughly peeled off his latex gloves and threw them to the waste bin. He missed but made no move from his position slumped around the door of the sick bay. He looked up to the certificate hanging on the wall above the trash bin.

DEPT OF THE NAVY

DR. IAN MACRORIE

“And damn the day I became a doctor,” he said softly. (or something juicier)

By the way, he’s apparently in a sick bay and just peeled off surgical gloves. What was he doing? Is there a body on a table? Is he peering in a microscope? You can’t leave out details like this.

And I don’t understand his line: “I quit. I won’t treat one more patient.” Who’s he speaking to? Is a voiced thought? Is he literally going to quit? 

Ian heard the hum of the engines change, signaling the ship nearing Montserrat. According to the itinerary, He knew the HMS Donovan would patrol around Montserrat tonight and early tomorrow, and then would move on to do the same at Anguilla.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat, he thought. Whatever got them closer to home.

He rubbed his burning eyes, took a fortifying breath before heaving his carcass This is you talking — you really want to call him a carcass? off the doorjamb, and trudged across the gray room to the nearby basin to scrub his hands.

God, I need sleep.

The ship’s ubiquitous gray interior dulled his mind. I like what you’re going for here, using the gray interior of the ship to stand for his state of mind. So do more with it! Don’t you tell us how he feels, let him show us. 

He scrubbed his hands harder, staring at the gray soap bubbles. Gray, everything here was gray. The walls, the floors, the operating tables, even the damn food. He felt like he was disappearing down a gray tunnel that was narrowing, narrowing, always narrowing down to some dark gray hole. In his dreams, the hole was real and he was never able to get out, waking up in the gray dawn covered in sweat.  

Like the woman in the ocean, make us FEEL his emotional claustrophobia. And if you can, try to draw a parallel with the woman — they are both lost, are they not?

He felt as though he lost a wee bit You used wee twice. Wee is a nice word; this isn’t a nice thing he’s feeling of himself with each moment that passed in this gloomy, cheerless environment. More telling. All he wanted to do was to crawl into bed and withdraw under the covers. Disappear into oblivion. Ah, yes, only in the arms of Morpheus could he find relief for his physical and mental exhaustion, quiet his tormented thoughts, and escape this gray tomb. Very writerly. Very uninvolving.

Damn my grief.Whoa. Now this is interesting. Backstory hint. He’s lost someone. This line would be even more effective if you can find a way to link it to his FIRST line, so by the time we get here, we understand that he is not suffering from professional ennui or worries about the war. THIS IS PERSONAL. Which is way more interesting. Good hint..

Chief Petty Officer Jane Beasley Another character title tag. Don’t use these; introduce her title via the action or dialogue. swept Ugh…nobody sweeps into a room. Also, make this happen through Ian’s senses. He hears a bang of a door and turns to LOOK AT HER. into the infirmary.

“Surgeon Commander This is how you introduce a character’s title MacRorie, here are Ensign Belgrave’s ultrasound images.” Also: ALWAYS set off a new character’s dialogue in its own graph.

That’s it. I think I got through with not too many typos. And I hope our brave writer finds this useful and not too discouraging. I like much of what is happening in this opening — the mysterious woman in the ocean and the tormented doctor.  As I suggested, they are both metaphorically lost at sea.  Good chance for drama ahead. (I suspect the ship will rescue the woman and things will get complicated).  But you need to clean up some basic craft problems to make this shine.  Keep going…there’s good stuff to be mined here, writer.

 

7+

How To Rewrite Your Whole Darn Book

“There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” — Desmond Tutu

By PJ Parrish

I know many of you will relate to this. You’ve finished your manuscript. {{{cheering from the peanut gallery}}. You set it aside for the recommended two, three, four weeks, as long as you could stand it. Now, you open that file and…

Rewrite time. Black cloud over the head because the task ahead is daunting. Where to start? Is it worth it? What if it stinks?

I have a little rewriting to do this week. Not just polish the chapter I just finished. Not just fix the problems with my muddy middle. Not just tweak the opening. I have to rewrite The. Whole. Darn. Thing. All thirty-four chapters. All 371 pages. All 102,542 words. Well, not every word. I just stuck that in to get the sympathy vote.

And here’s the kicker: This book has already been published. It is our first Louis Kincaid novel Dark of the Moon, which was published in 1999 by Kensington. A while back, the rights reverted to us, along with six others in the series, and we quickly repackaged them with new covers and put them up on Amazon, where they have enjoyed a nice little renaissance and have helped keep my dogs in Fromm’s Chicken au Frommage.

But when we got to working on Dark of the Moon, we decided to put on the brakes.  Why? Well, as we re-read it, we realized that while it was a smacking good plot with lots of twists and cool clues, and it nicely introduced our series character, it had some issues.

So, what to do? Slap on a new cover and get it out there anyway? Or take a second whack at it and fix the things that didn’t quite work the first time?  We chose the latter. Now, lots of folks might think this is not a good thing for a writer to do, that good, bad or ugly, you should just let your early books live as they came into the world. I don’t buy that. I say, with technology now available to alter and republish your work with minimal sweat, why not improve things?

Don’t get me wrong, it is a good book and got some great reviews (except for Kirkus, who hated it) and some sweet blurbs (including one from our own John Gilstrap who said, “this is a novel not to be missed”). For a freshman effort, it was something I remain proud of.  But Kelly and I have learned so much since that first time out, and after a lot of discussion and soul-searching, we decided the story deserved better than we gave it.

Here’s the nutshell plot.

Louis Kincaid, a bi-racial cop raised in a foster home in Michigan, has to return to his birth place in Mississippi to see to his dying mother. A temporary hire with the sheriff, he lands a big case when a skeleton is found in a shallow swamp grave — with a noose around the neck bones. The case plunges Louis into a cold case and a dark past that no one in the small town of Black Pool wants to talk about. The case will tear the town apart even as it impels Louis to question his own biracial identity.

So what were the issues? I’ll lay them out one by one because I suspect some of you might identify with some of the problems we encountered. Maybe this self-autopsy can help you, maybe not. But I think it highlights a couple of the very problems any novice novelist deals with.

Over-Writing.  I wish I had read Stephen King’s On Writing before we wrote this book. He’s brutally eloquent on the subject of editing out flab and affectations. We had all three going, especially with our descriptions.   King says, “The key to good description begins with clear seeing and end with clear writing, the kind that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”  What it is NOT is trying to be writerly, larding on the adjectives or straining to poop out a metaphor. “Clear seeing and clear writing.” That’s all it takes.

Okay, an object lesson. Here’s the original opening graph of our book:

Chapter 1

December, 1984

The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries against a bleached, pre-dawn sky. The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.

Now I’m gonna do a First Graph critique of it:

The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries Why TWO metaphors? Pick one: vipers or veins! against a bleached, pre-dawn Just clutter here because you say it’s after dawn two graphs later. sky. The ground beneath his feet Where else would the ground be, under his armpits? And who is “he”? was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored I love alliteration! It’s so…writerly. mud. A cold December Ah, you told us it was December in the tagline wind wafted Now here’s some W-alliteration! through the trees loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines. Just say it’s sprinkling and move on.

Here’s the new opening graph:

Chapter 1

The sky was a bleached gray, the bare trees rising like black veins against the clouds. The ground was soft and wet, a mire of dead leaves. With every cold breeze, the three men were sprinkled with the remnants of last night’s thunderstorm.

The rest of the book was in pretty much the same over-wrought style. There was a good reason it ran more than 100K words — we didn’t know when enough was enough.

Lesson 1: Fluff and fart all through your first draft (F-alliteration!). But come rewrite, be ruthless with your imagery. As Coco Chanel said, put on all your jewelry, then take off every piece but one.  Not just images; cut all unnecessary words. If you have King’s book, go to page 275 where he shows you exactly how he edited one of his stories.

2. StereotypingIf you are writing about something controversial, iconic or overly familiar, you have to be on hyper-alert to avoid cliches. We were writing about a small southern town in the early 1980s with a sordid racial history. So many shoals to navigate and we did…okay.  But we decided that we owed this little town better, that our bad guys were too easy to hate, our good guys too self-righteous, and our ideas about the south to glib. (Kelly, for the record, lived in Philadelphia, Miss. for years, the site of the infamous civil rights murders and that was partly her inspiration.) But if you are dealing with such a fraught subject as the south’s racial history, you have to do so with sensitivity and depth. Our sheriff was too bumbling. Our secondary characters too one-dimensional. Our setting was too magnolia-scented. We didn’t look deep enough.

Lesson 2: If your setting is iconic (Paris, Las Vegas) don’t go for the usual visual cliches. Look more closely for what the reader doesn’t expect. Take them to corners  they can’t find in their Fodor’s. This lesson served me well when I wrote our stand-alone set in Paris The Killing Song. The Eiffel Tower is glimpsed only briefly through the trees as our hero is en route to the Gout d’Or Muslim neighborhood where few tourists ever go.

3. Cardboard Characters. I mentioned the sheriff already, but his deputies were even worse. One fellow, Junior Resnick is a plump, lazy good ‘ol boy. And he speaks in dialect. Now, we can do a whole blog titled “Don’t Do Dialects” (and I think we have) but I’m running long, so suffice it to say that if you’re doing Southern, or Cockney, or urban black, don’t try to replicate exact language. Don’t lop off endings like “He was jus’ plum f**kin’ crazy.” (Junior says this). A character can have a distinct regional voice, but do it via syntax and simple word choice and trust the reader to remember it.  Yes, I know about Huck Finn, but you’re not Mark Twain and it’s not 1884.

Now, let’s talk about Southern women. Whee-doggies, did we mess this one up. We have two major female characters, an aging wealthy patriarch named Grace and her beautiful willful daughter Abby. (Paging Miss Scarlett!) We did an okay job with Grace (almost) but we blew it with Abby. She’s a stereotypical prissy belle who throws herself at Louis just to make Daddy crazy. We didn’t understand what made her tick, we didn’t know WHAT SHE WANTED. And if we had asked to go to coffee (see Jim’s Sunday post), she would have sat there like a stump. So Kelly and I did a lot of hard thinking about these two AND their mom-daughter dynamic. Abby is being transformed into a serious somewhat repressed woman struggling to find an identity outside her family’s expectations. (which reflects’s Louis’s own inner struggle as black man). She doesn’t fling herself at Louis but finds in him a porcupine-ish friendship. She is a work in progress right now, but I already like her so much more. And Grace? She’s morphing into a complex character who’s coming to realize she left her true self somewhere in the past and now resents her daughter for being what she herself lacks the guts to be. Which ties into one of our new themes — the painful birth of the new South from the womb of the old.

Lesson 3: When creating a character, whatever your first idea is, stop and question it. Then dig deeper to go for the second or even third incarnation. Pull back their layers until they scream and give up their ugly secrets. That is where the beauty is. That is where your story will spring from. And don’t be afraid of what they reveal. One last quote from Stephen King:

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

Which is a long way to go to finish up my opening elephant metaphor. Now if you’ll excuse me, this post ran longer than I intended and I have a lot of pruning to do.

 

13+

Finding An Opening Line Is Like Seeing
The World In a Grain of Sand

“One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work.” — Gloria Naylor

By PJ Parrish

I just wrote the two most fearsome words in the crime writer’s lexicon:

CHAPTER ONE

There’s nothing after that. Just an empty page. Just whiteness, as desolate and lonely as a snow-covered field in the Michigan woods.

Wait, that’s not bad! Maybe I can use that. . .

No. No, no, no. This book is not set in winter, you moron! You can’t drag out another over-wrought weather opening. Stop it! Besides, you used up all your snowy field metaphors in your second book. Yeah, I know it was 2001 and you’re counting on the fact that no one will remember. But you’re not going to get away with it. You have to be fresh!

I stare at the screen. The curser pulses like a dying heartbeat. Twenty minutes pass. The field of snow is still there. I start rifling through my cerebral filing cabinet for inspiration. I give up and Google quotes about how hard writing is.

Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled. –Dean Koontz

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. — Flannery O’Connor

Writing fiction is for me a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through. The work process is totally different from writing nonfiction. You have to sit down every day and make it up. — Joan Didion

Gee, thanks guys. I feel a whole lot better now. Not. Just knowing that every other writer has the same problems getting traction as I do does not make me feel any less inadequate.

Maybe if I blog about this, it will help. Okay, you can’t write your opening line until you know what your story is about, right? You have to have an idea. Or a concept. Or a note that you scribbled on that pad beside your bed. Or maybe a great title got seared into your brain after those three scotches. See James’s Sunday post here.

Wait, that happened to me once. I got an idea for a title — Island of Bones — and had no idea, concept or plot. All I saw was the title in my head, but everything flowed from there.  That book almost wrote itself.

Mostly though, whenever I start a new book, I stare at the empty white screen with a slow-burn panic building in my chest. Because usually I am one of those pathetic constipated creatures who can’t move forward on a story until I have the first line. (See Gloria Naylor quote at top).

Hey, the first sentence is important. Don’t we preach that all the time here at TKZ? A great opening line is a promise you make to your reader that they are in for something special, a hell of a ride. No pressure, right?

One of my writing heroes, Joyce Carol Oates, says “The first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence is written.” That is not some Buddha-esque mumbo-jumbo. Oates is saying that a great opening line comes from you the writer having a complete understanding of what your book is about at its soul.  And usually that is something you discover not at the first step but during the journey.

Which tells me that I shouldn’t be sweating this first line so much. I should just get something down and move on.  But the habits of this old dog die hard.

{{{Switch back to my other screen. Curser still blinking on snowy Michigan field. Switch back to blog screen.}}}

Maybe it’s helpful to try to pin down the qualities of a great opening line.

It can be vivid or surprising. It immediately sets off a spark in your reader’s imagination.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. — 1984

It can be funny.

“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” — The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

It can presage something bad to come. Which is what our good First Page Critique submission yesterday was doing, I think, by having the main character jump off a building.

Some years later, on a tug boat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were places in a tub of cement. — Live By Night by Dennis Lehane.

Was Lehane paying homage to Gabriel García Márquez?

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. — 100 Years of Solitude

It can introduce the main character, or more specifically his or her voice.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.– Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

It can be a simple statement of fact, like the iconic “Call me Ismael.” But here’s my favorite:

I had a farm in Africa. — Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen. 

Such sadness in the mere use of that past tense.

It can set a mood.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. — The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It can establish the theme.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. — Anna Karenina by Tolstoy

And it can plain beautiful writing. But that beauty has to mean something deeper in the story as it certainly did for Nabokov.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.

Sigh. Now I am really flummoxed. Or maybe just intimidated. Wait, I think something’s brewing. Be right back…

{{{Switch to other screen and type this}}}

CHAPTER ONE

Someone was following him. He had noticed it a couple miles back, but only because he was so good at tailing cars himself and had never been made.

{{{Switch back to blog screen}}}

My protagonist is skip tracer who’s great at finding people who don’t want to be found. But now he’s now trying to find his wife, who is dead — or is she? And everyone thinks he did it.

Okay, it’s not perfect. But it’s a start.

 

11+

First Page Critique ‘The False Curtain’:
Alone Again…Unnaturally

By PJ Parrish

Why is January feeling like it’s lasting forever? And I don’t even have to deal with snow.  I just wanted to get that off my chest. Now, let’s have some fun and read a First Pager.  Thank you, dear submitting writer, for giving me some diversion this week as I fill out the scary questionaire in preparation for possible grand jury duty next week. If you don’t see me for a couple months, send out the search party to the Tallahassee courthouse.

THE FALSE CURTAIN

A suspense novel

The small, windowless room felt more like a place for an interrogation than a meeting.

Although two plastic chairs sat side-by-side in the middle, I stood. Actually, I paced. It’s what I do whenever I’m uneasy. Mimi had said there was nothing to be nervous about. My appointment with Mr. Smith, the man she owed money to, should be simple and quick.

Finally I heard the doorknob turn. I watched as the door opened. It took a moment for me to realize who stood in the doorway.

I had no idea Mimi’s Mr. Smith was Davey Smith. I never would have put the two together.

I recognized Davey only because I saw him at our 25th high school reunion last year. Back in the day he’d been the quiet, studious kid who tutored math dummies, like me. Someone said he’d done well for himself and he looked it. Seeing him again—now—totally surprised me. He showed no indication of feeling the same.

He took a couple steps forward, stopping just inches away. He cupped my face with both hands and tilted it upward. I watched his face come close. His kiss was soft and persuasive.

After releasing me, he said, “Good to see you again, Lindsey. Sorry we didn’t get to talk at the reunion.”

“Davey, I—”

“I prefer my friends call me David.”

“David. I—.”

“…and my business associates call me Mr. Smith. I haven’t decided which category you’ll be in.” He smiled, just a little, then abruptly turned and walked to the door. “About that kiss. Don’t take it too seriously. You still have to do everything I say. If you don’t, you won’t like what happens to your cousin. You also won’t like what will happen to you.” With that, he left.

I stared at the closed door, stunned.

Davey was no longer the sweet boy I knew in high school.

His attitude….

His threats….

I wanted to start pacing again, but I was too scared to move.

***

After a while, I sat. I don’t know how much time passed because I didn’t have my purse or phone. A man had taken them before I was shown into the room. That was my first clue the meeting wasn’t going to be simple or quick.

My meeting with Mr. Smith was supposed to be a discussion of how I could pay back Mimi’s debt—

________________________

I’m back. Well, what do we think? I think there’s some good stuff here that, with a little tweaking, could be the beginnings of what the writer subtitles “A suspense novel.” (Which I think is superfluous, by the way. Your back copy can carry that load for a potential reader. But that’s a nit.)

What’s good here: We’re picking up the story in a good active moment — a somewhat mysterious meeting that has the protag on edge. There is just enough backstory hints to ground us but no info dumps. I like the way the writer told us who Mimi is — not through a narrative tag (“My cousin Mimi had told me…”) but letting the relationship emerge through dialogue a couple beats later. Smoothly done.  I think the dialogue itself is handled cleanly and reads as believable. David’s kiss is a big creepy surprise, especially when he backs it up with a threat. (More on that in a sec). So, all in all, not a bad opening at all. I would read on.

But…

And this is a caveat I often give. When the writing is solid, I want it to be better. Because good isn’t good enough in today’s market. When you’re as close as this submission is, you need to push yourself even harder to make your story stand out  from the madding crowd.

I try not to rethink a writer’s approach or question their style. But here’s a few suggestions, just one reader’s perspective.

The opening line isn’t bad. But it’s a good example of telling instead of showing. I think you could use a few more choice details to SHOW us this room rather than TELL us it “felt more like a place for an interrogation than a meeting.”

Windowless, small, plastic chairs is not enough, imo. Use description to enhance the MOOD, the apprehension she feels. You won’t lose your momentum by slowing down just a little. How big is this room, exactly? (Calling a room small is like calling a man handsome — It has no currency in our imaginations). What’s the lighting — glaring fluorescent with maybe one bulb giving off that annoying buzzing just before it dies? Industrial carpeting with an odd stain? What color are the walls? Does it smell? It also might not be a bad idea to hint somewhere where we are exactly. Your description is so spare we could be in anything from downtown Houston skyscraper to an anteroom in a airplane hangar meth lab. Make your description make us FEEL something.

Ditto when you get to Davey/David. I like this line: “Someone said he’d done well for himself and he looked it.” But again, that’s telling instead of showing. Does this mean he has money? Is he wearing a Brioni suit and silk tie? Again, you’re missing an opportunity to not only ground your reader in detail but to reveal something about your protagonist by filtering description through her PERCEPTIONS and BACKGROUND. You can tell us a lot about your protag (and help us bond with her) at the same time you tell us something about David. Don’t let these opportunities go by.

Because…right now Lindsey is sort of a cipher. Granted, it is hard for you the writer to give us a sense of her physically when you’re in the first person. But a simple line like “I watched his face come close” gives you a chance to add detail — a small shaving nick on his chin? The smell of clove after-shave? Are his hands, cupping her face, rough or smooth?

One thing that kind of doesn’t make sense. She seems to be surprised by his appearance (ie, the line, someone had said he had made good for himself…). But she saw him herself just a year ago at a reunion. So she would already know he was successful and/or handsome? People at reunions talk about who made it, who failed, who died, etc. You say they didn’t talk at the reunion but did she see him from afar? You say he is NOT surprised to see her. You need to reconcile this.

The kiss is interesting. But the fact she has no reaction or thought (other than saying it was “soft and persuasive”) struck me as odd. Unless these two have a romantic past, it comes across as somewhat unrealistic and weirdly submissive on her part. What is “persuasive” about it? It made me flash back to the dynamic between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Ickiness. Lindsey is, given the 25th reunion time line, about 43 years old and there on some kind of financial mission (ex math dummie or not). Do you really want to paint her as so passive?

That passivity is echoed, too, in these lines after David leaves:

Davey was no longer the sweet boy I knew in high school.

His attitude….

His threats….

I wanted to start pacing again, but I was too scared to move.

The guy just planted a predatory kiss on her, threatened her and her cousin, and left the room with nothing resolved. And this is all she feels and thinks? Now, maybe this is a calculated character arc for Lindsey on your part. Mousy CPA encounters a mystery man from her past and she eventually grows and rises to some challenge? (You titled this a suspense novel, not a romance).  But Lindsey, in this opening at least, doesn’t strike me as a woman who will take her destiny into her own hands. She recalls all the tropes of a bad 1950s bodice ripper).

Which leads me to the last paragraph. (By the way, you don’t need the * * * designation. It is used only when you have a legitimate scene break, not when you don’t know how to transition from one moment in your story to another)

After a while, I sat. I don’t know how much time passed because I didn’t have my purse or phone. A man had taken them before I was shown into the room. That was my first clue the meeting wasn’t going to be simple or quick.

Why did she just sit there? Again, this is passive and not very interesting. And the fact that someone took her phone and purse when she came in should have been in the first graph — it ups the stakes immediately. But unless you set this up better, it isn’t believable. Maybe if you had described this place better in her thoughts — that when she entered the building, she went through a metal detector or given us details about the circumstances of surrendering her purse and phone, I might buy it. But again, she does this without question or even a thought — which makes her passive and almost juvenile.

So, there we are, alone in a windowless room, with a faceless protagonist. Where does Lindsey — and this story — go from here? As I said, I think this set-up has potential and the writer has a decent grasp of craft.  But it doesn’t read real and it feels unnatural, like the weird kiss and threat came out of nowhere, not organically from the situation. Also, we need some flesh on these bones. Create a mood. Give us some details to fire up our imaginations. And most important, give us good reason to want to follow Lindsey for 300 suspenseful pages.

Thank you, dear writer, for letting us see your work. I hope you find this one person’s opinion this helpful. And others here, as always, might have different takes. What say you all?

6+

Eight Ways To Help You
Be A Smarter Writer in 2020

By PJ Parrish

I don’t do resolutions. Well, that’s not completely true. I did make one this year — to read everyday, even if for only a half hour, and only from real tree books.

But maybe you guys, as members of the tortured writers club, do try to start with a clean slate come the new year. You know, the usual stuff like make a daily word quota; write every day no matter what; stop wasting time on Facebook; get a short story published in Ellery Queen.

It’s human to want to try harder. But sometimes, setting new year writing goals can be defeating.  Because the first time you break the resolution, you break out the self-flagellation whip. Believe me, I know.  Which is why I don’t make resolutions about my writing life.

But…

The other day, I read a story called 8 Ways To Help You Live Smarter in 2020. It was in the New York Times business section and was a compilation of tips for business types. What was odd was how each of the eight ideas seemed to be relate-able to our lives as fiction writers.  The italics are from the Times story, followed by my thoughts. Here we go…

1. Find more happiness at work

As many as a third of United States workers say they don’t feel engaged at work. The reasons vary widely, and everyone’s relationship with work is unique. But there are small ways to improve any job, and those incremental improvements can add up to major increases in job satisfaction.

Well, all writers need to heed this one. I read this as don’t let writing become a chore. Approach it with the anticipation of success. That’s not Pollyanna speaking. That’s me telling myself to give in to the simple joy of putting words on paper. Maybe I should make writer resolutions…

2. Use your strengths more wisely

In the past two decades, a movement to play to our strengths has gained momentum in the world of work. It’s a travesty that many people are fixated solely on repairing their weaknesses and don’t have the chance to do what they do best every day. But it’s a problem that many people aren’t thoughtful about when to do what they do best.

How should we relate to this? Every writer has different strengths. Some of us are great plotters; others are great at character development. Some of us revel in historical research; others love the spareness of noir. What do you love to read? Chances are, it might be what your heart wants to write. Don’t write for what you think the market wants. Write what you need to write. Trust that genuinely felt and richly imagined fiction finds an audience.

3. Track — and learn from — your failures

When things go right, we’re generally pretty good at identifying why they went right — that is, if we even take time to analyze the success at all. But falling on our face gives us the rare opportunity to find and address the things that went wrong (or, even more broadly, the traits or habits that led us to fail), and it’s an opportunity we should welcome.

This doesn’t mean to dwell on your failures. It means find the lesson in the rejection letter, the hard critique, even the realization that the story you are working so hard on maybe isn’t good enough. I was dropped by two publishers, got more rejection letters than I can count, and was savaged by a  Kirkus reviewer for my debut novel. Boo hoo. Did I curl up and die? Yeah, for a couple weeks. But each time, I looked for something to help me grow. And the mean Kirkus guy? Well, he was an ass but he was right.

4. Avoid drama

Gossip at work is common, as is the desire to be a part of a group. In a new work environment, this combination can be harmful if you fall in with colleagues who are known for being negative and wasting productive time.

The world of crime writers is small. Don’t sit at the bar at Thrillerfest and bitch about what an washed-up idiot so-and-so is.  Don’t moan and groan about how the traditional publishing world is an evil cabal bent on blackballing you. Don’t wine and whine. And don’t burn any bridges. That editor who rejected you may end up at a new house and become your champion. And if you become a success, extend your hand down the ladder.

5.  Be smarter about asking for advice

It’s a request that experienced people of any industry have gotten: “Can I buy you coffee and pick your brain?” While well-intentioned, execution is everything, and sometimes these unsolicited requests for a casual, informational interviews can come off as entitled and presumptuous. And for the receiver, it can be difficult or even unrealistic for a busy professional to coordinate bespoke consultation appointments for everyone who asks.

Well, what’s our take-away here? Yes, seek out advice from those who can help you. If you go to a writer’s conference, don’t be afraid to talk to published writers and editors. It’s expected. But don’t be noodge. Don’t try to slip your manuscript under the bathroom stall door to an editor. (I actually saw this happen at SleuthFest one year).

 6. Let a friend’s success motivate you

It’s a common situation: a friend’s career is advancing while you’re stuck in what feels like an endless loop of 9 to 5 roadblocks. While it’s easy to grow jealous, you can harness that monster to propel you toward your elusive goal.

We’ve all said it — or thought it: How did that hack get published let alone make the Times list? Okay, go green for a minute but don’t let yourself marinate in envy.  It just makes you feel small and petty. And never do it in public. You’ll look like a fool. (See No. 4)

7. Have kind words for a bad idea

There are ways to turn down someone’s suggestion without being totally brutal. Ask a few questions like “What makes you think this is a good idea?” Applaud the effort. Say why — there’s a big difference between “I don’t like this” and “I don’t like this because…” Pitch an alternative. Have an idea of your own and be prepared to explain why it’s better.

This is for those of us who are in critique groups. It’s easy to tear something apart. But have some tact. Always be constructive. This is something I had to learn to do in my own group and even here with our First Page Critiques.

8. Keep cool while waiting for a response.

After obsessively rewriting an email in draft mode, polishing your resume, or tweaking a pitch, you finally hit send.  But then you’re frantically checking for a reply. Slamming the refresh button all day won’t bring desired results. Pick a replacement behavior to wean you from anxiety. Interrupt your worry spiral — go to the movies or grab a drink with a friend. Hang with select friends. Two people venting ad nauseam about shared stress is called “co-rumination.” Make an effort to lean on friends who won’t drag you into a joint state of panic.

We all need to adapt this to the writing life. Don’t send out one query and sit there refreshing your in-box. Getting a editor response takes weeks; some never respond at all. Don’t wait for an answer from the first one you ask to the prom. Send out as many queries as you can. And that advice about stewing in anxiety soup with like-minded writer friends?  Don’t do it. Stay away from black holes when you’re feeling vulnerable. Find some sunshine.

And a bonus extra 8: Beat those Sunday Scaries

As Maroon 5 famously crooned, “Sunday morning, rain is falling, steal some covers, share some skin.” You look out and realize Monday is just around the corner. The ensuing anxiety is called “Sunday scaries.” Plan an enjoyable (offline) activity like taking a walk or reading a good book. Leave the phone at home. Staying mindful about what’s happening around you will distract you from anxious thoughts about tomorrow. This will help you regain control of your worries and look forward to conquering the week rather than fearing it.

I haven’t had a 9 to 5 job for a while now, but I remember this feeling vividly. Sunday night sweats as I anticipated the horrors of what awaited me at the office in the morning. Part of the sweat came from the fact that, toward the end I was in management and I hated my job.  But I think there is a good lesson for writers in this: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.  Writing a book can be frustrating, lonely, terrifying, maddening. You have to schedule time away from the computer to refresh your spirit. Walking works for me. And when I’m really aggravated about the work in non-progress, I head to the pickleball court and bang the hell out of the whiffle ball for hours. Stop and look at the clouds. Take up the ukulele.  Empty your mind. So there’s room for the plot to run and the characters to start talking to you again.

Live — and write — smarter in 2020, crime dogs.

 

9+

Kids, Don’t Try This At Home:
Some Really Awful Opening Lines

By PJ Parrish

It is a dark and stormy night.  Really.  The wind is wailing against the window panes as I write this.  No snow down here in Tallahassee, but we’re getting the rear end of the big winter storm that is pounding across the country.

I’d say this is as good a time as any to talk about some really really really bad opening paragraphs.  Plus, the holidays are upon us and I have to go to fight the huns and visigoths at the mall soon, and don’t have a lot of time and energy to give you any good craft advice tonight.  My brain is fried.  I’ll bet yours is as well. So…

My last post of 2019 is devoted to one of my favorite writing contests — the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest! It’s held every year by the English Department of San Jose State University. Entrants are invited “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”  The contest is named after the esteemed English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Here’s the opening of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Man, it just doesn’t get any better than that.  Although many writers, since 1982, have been inspired to try. The contest honors bad openings in all genres — click here to read them all. Here’s this year’s Grand Prize winner.  I’m not sure what the genre is, but I think the world is coming to an end.

Space Fleet Commander Brad Brad sat in silence, surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, maintaining the same forlorn frown that had been fixed upon his face since he’d accidentally destroyed the phenomenon known as time, thirteen inches ago. — Maxwell Archer, Mt Pleasant, Ontario, Canada

And since I am sucker for a pun, here’s the Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award:

Emile Zola wandered the dank and soggy streets of a gloomy Parisian night, the injustice of the Dreyfus affair weighing on him like a thousand baguettes, dreaming of some massage or therapy to relieve the tension and pain in his aching shoulders and back, and then suddenly he thought of his Italian friends and their newly invented warm water bath with air jets and he rapturously exclaimed that oft misquoted declaration — “Jacuzzi!” — Robert R Moore, North Falmouth, MA

Geez, I wish I had written that. Here’s the winner in Romance:

The villa in Tuscany is abandoned now, and nature, in the form of invasive vegetation, is reclaiming the small vineyard where Rodolfo and Susannah made love each afternoon, beginning with the creeping Coccinia virginiana, followed by the woody Polemonium gloriosa, and ending, of course, with the drooping Glandularia vulgaris. — Bob Pellicone, Lincroft, NJ

Wasn’t this made into a chick-flick starring Diane Lane and that really hot Italian guy? But I’ve saved the best for last.  Here are the winner and runners-up from the Crime/Detective category. I’ve also added some critiques after each because, as we all know, we can learn a lot from awful writing. Read on, crime dogs, and for the moment at least, feel a million times better about your own work in progress. I know I do.

Realising that his symptoms indicated a virtually undetectable, fast acting neurotoxin, CIA coroner Quinn Abner frantically wrote up the details, lay on the floor and, as a professional courtesy, did his best to draw a chalk outline of himself. Jeremy Das, Loughborough, England.

What’s wrong here? Well, we all know better than to start a novel out with a gerund phrase, right? Tsk, tsk…

 

Olivia followed her breasts into my office where I was studying the dead flies on the window sill and dropped a large brown envelope on my desk, which rearranged the dust as it came to rest next to my right elbow, causing me to lose interest in the flies as I watched her walk away, watched carefully while wondering if the motion of her hips could bring a dead man back to life, which led to wondering what she could do to a man who was still alive. —  Will Dennehy, Cambridge, MD

Oh no, no, no…not another dame walks into the pebbled-glass detective office! This is a cliche, of course. Don’t let this happen to you. (Fred MacMurray could have used that advice).

As he pounded on the door, Billy ‘Four-Toes’ Capalone, wondered, not for the first time, if he wouldn’t have been better off in the joint, or even taking a concrete nap, but instead, he straightened his tie and gripped his bible, determined not to blow his cover in the Jehovah’s Witness Protection Program. — Arlen Feldman, Colorado Springs, CO

How many times has James told us not to open with a character wondering? Egads…

Eyes bleary from yet another night of fruitlessly staking out the Ritz Motel in West Hollywood’s seedier quarter, hoping to get some usable dirt on Mrs. Hennigan’s wayward hubby Bill, Niles Cranworth, P.I., pushed the start button, cranked the wheel over, and pointed his well-traveled Chrysler 300 southward on La Cienega Boulevard (“La Cienega,” he noted with irony, being Spanish for “the cienega”). — Andrew Lundberg, Los Angeles, CA

Well, at least we know where we are in this opening. But I think the writer’s research is showing.

Detective Wilhelm Schmidt’s raspy voice poured through the telephone receiver like a dump truck of gravel unburdening its load—much like the trucks that worked around the clock at Rohrer’s Quarry off of 1-81, transporting payloads of lime, sandstone, crushed rock, and gypsum—though with Detective Schmidt’s heavy German accent, excavation on its own would not suffice, and a second, albeit entirely different industry would need to be invoked to really paint a crystal clear picture of his voice. — Cody Hanna, Lancaster, PA

There’s nothing worse than a writer in love with the sound of his own metaphor.

Prisoner #4420991 selected two large snow cones for his pre-execution last meal, much to everyone’s surprise, but #4420991 knew that death by lethal injection would come as sweet relief when balanced against the snow cone headache he expected to have. — Greg Homer, Diamond Springs, CA

Don’t ya hate it when the bad guy doesn’t have a name?

 

“I remember the moon had a face like Hannibal Lecter and that the wind blowing through the trees reminded me of the music from Psycho,” stated Effie Laudermilk as she sat in the courtroom stand on trial for the murder (which she vehemently denied) of her boyfriend whose partially eaten body was found in his car at the bottom of a pond. –Randy Blanton, Murfreesboro, TN

You know, I sorta kinda like this one. Peace out to all our friends here at the Kill Zone.  An end-of-the-year tip of the hat to all of you who comment on our posts. May all your book ideas be merry and bright, and all your pages not white. (ie blank). And a big shout-out to all our First Page Critique writers. Yoose guys rock. See you next year.

7+

First Page Critique: A Storm Is
Coming Or Is It A Space Ship?

By PJ Parrish

Well, I’m not sure exactly where we are today with today’s submission, but I will say I liked reading this one.  Which is why I’m going to be kinda tough on you, brave writer. Thanks for submitting your work.

(1)The Arrival

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships but not seeing any.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. “Catherine,” he whispered. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed it, making her knuckles white. She started to speak but had trouble. She moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime. Where’s Ruben?”

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. But we can’t wait around. The sounds are getting closer. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.” He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached.

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light and hear booms. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies. That’s where they headed.

____________________

I liked this opening. We are getting into the scene in mid-action, even though the two characters are just awakening. I don’t mind that, because they have obviously, from the description, been through something bad.  I like the unanswered questions of this opening — what happened last night? Why are they in such bad shape? (his injuries, her tattered silk blouse — and the little detail that it is silk is intriguing in itself given their barren surroundings.) What happened to Ruben? Are these two good guys or bad guys? This makes me want to read on.

Here’s what the writer didn’t do that also makes this work for me:  The guy wakes up and we don’t get a bunch of thoughts, musings, rememberings and god forbid, backstory.  The writer immediately gets us into some action. I trust the writer will explain as this chapter progresses what happened and how Billy Watson feels about it.

I don’t yet know exactly where we are, but I get the feeling of desolation. I also trust the writer will soon pinpoint the location. I get the sense that we are in some sort of apocalyptic time, possibly in future, since Watson looks to the sky to see if “ships” are there. I tripped over this sentence in my first quick read, thinking what the heck are ships doing in a desert? But then I got it.  While I like the spareness of the writing, I could use a few other descriptive details to ground me in where we are and what time era. All I can see in my reader’s imagination is sand, a storm-imminent dawn sky, and a rusted car.  One or two more choice details might go a long way here to upping the tension and intrigue.  Give me some hints!

One suggestion: Right now, we are getting the point of view mainly through Billy but with a semi-drift into Catherine.  I think it might be stronger we stayed firmly with Billy. A reader wants to connect with a main character as quickly as possible, and although Catherine may turn out to be just as important, it would help you establish rapport if you began more stronger with Billy.

Let’s go to some line editing so I can show you how.  And address a few minor quibbles.

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. You are in omniscient POV here. This could be stronger if you can filter this moment only through Billy’s sensibility. It’s hard to make someone awakening FEEL real but if you can do it, it can be more powerful. Ask yourself, what is the first thing Billy is aware of?  A brightness that makes him squint (the sun coming up); the stiffness of his body? A smell? Make us feel this moment. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. Same issue here. This could be stronger! A sudden rush of cold-warm-hot? air on his face and the feel of grit in his eyes and mouth. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships.  but not seeing any. He let out a long breath. No ships. It was just thunder. Make us feel his fear and/or trepidation more. But see my comments below about my confusion over what these “sounds” and “booms” are.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. To make this feel more in Bily’s POV, I would not give her full name here.  He wouldn’t be thinking “Catherine Belling.”  Something like: He looked over at the woman slouched in the passenger seat. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. He shook her gently.

New graph is good when you move to a new character. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. Give her a quick line or reaction. Is she scared-jumpy? I might even move up the whole bit with her knife. Also, action-reaction for your characters must be logical. If she is jumpy, her first reaction after someone touches her as she comes out of a fitful sleep might be to pull her knife. And Billy can calm her and then tell her they have to get moving.  That strikes me as more human. It also gives her a more logical reason to pull the knife.  

“Catherine,” he whispered. said. No need for whispers since it’s the two of them alone in a desert. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath on her belt?. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed the hunting knife, her knuckles turning white. She started to speak but had trouble and ran her tongue over her cracked lips. moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime.More details and more visceral.

Where’s Ruben?” she said.

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. Obviously, he’s not back yet. This is a pretty dramatic point. Might she not react? Or say something?

But We can’t wait for him around,” he said. “The sounds are getting closer.” Confusion here. Above, you have him thinking the sounds are “just thunder.” Apparently the “sounds” concern him. Why? We need this clarified. Which doesn’t mean you have to spill all the beans but maybe somewhere in this brief scene he hears another sound that he KNOWS is not just thunder and that elicits this remark. Otherwise it makes no sense. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.”

I would have Catherine put her knife away here, not later. Make this gesture mean something. Is she discouraged? Resigned? Frightened for Ruben? Maybe Billy thinks about her having the knife. The contrast between silk blouse and hunting knife is delicious. Make it work! Make every line of dialogue and every gesture AMPLIFY and ENHANCE your plot and mood.

He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached. What did he start to do exactly? Be specific. How about if he tries to open his door and can’t. Make it mean something to what you’re setting up here. Have it relate to their dire situation. What happened last night to make him so sore he can’t move?  And the phrase “every muscle ached” is meh writing. You can do better. Make us FEEL something of this man’s pain — physical and psychological. 

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open. I’d have her come around and yank his door open. And make it mean something. Is Billy wounded? It gives her a chance to develop some personality.  Maybe you can even have Billy think something about here, which also gives you a chance to drop in her full name.  ie:  Billy flashed back to two nights ago, at the party. When Catherine Belling walked in a room, she always got stares. But that night, dressed in that white silk blouse and red pants, even he couldn’t look away.  That’s corny, but you see where I am trying to go with it?  An effective tool in fiction is compare and contrast.  If you can drop hints at what it was like BEFORE this moment (why do you have Catherine in silk otherwise?) then it can be an effective contrast to the arid and dire position they are in now.  Don’t dwell in backstory, but a brief well-rendered thought can be powerful.  It can also hint at the relationship between these two.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they Billy could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light you’re a good writer so this can be better and hear booms. Again, this “booms” is meaningless. Billy probably knows exactly what this is, since he knows about “the ships.” I think you’re being a little to obtuse here. A few choice details about what they have escaped from will go along way toward heightening your tension. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south the sky was a blinding blue. there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies.

That’s where they headed.  I might put this in dialogue for Billy. But see caveat below.

Your description of the sky is a metaphor. Therefore, I would stay with north and south in that reference above because it’s clean and simple and is symbolic of the past (dark clouds, orange light and booms) and the future (blue skies.)  But be aware that clouds (bad past) and blue skies (good future) is a cliche. As the old saying goes, if you’re gonna use weather, make it mean something. Remember the end of “The Terminator” when Linda Hamilton is sitting in the jeep at the desert gas station and she looks ahead to the roiling storm clouds . A kid tells her in Spanish that a storm is coming. She says, with a heavy dollop of James Cameron portention, “I know.”  The weather must stand for something.   

So, all and all, a pretty good beginning. Which is why I’m being a little tough with you, dear writer, and asking you to stretch even harder. As I said, every line of dialogue, every action, every word of description you choose, must have a reason for being there.  Make every line you write more “muscular.” Make it work harder. You can do it. The story is worth it.

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On Writing Fears, Blue Titles,
And Why 6-Figure Advances
Are Bad For Your Health

By PJ Parrish

When you read this, I’ll be somewhere over the midwest, 42,000 feet up, making the annual trek back to Tallahassee, and not a moment too soon since it’s snowing in Michigan now. So I don’t have any wise words from my own brain this week since it’s been hectic.   Plus, I sprained two fingers on my right hand on a DIY project that should have been left to professionals. Kids don’t do this at home. Keyboarding with fingers the size and color of concord grapes is hard. Don’t know how you index-finger hunt-and-pecking writers do it.

So, here’s some good stuff I found this week, by writers about writers or writing. It runs the gamut from an cautionary tale from a novice writer who got two (count ’em two!) six figure advances and was almost ruined financially — to a profile of Lee Child at home in Wyoming, where he owns two cowboys hats, but doesn’t wear them for fear of being laughed at.

Enjoy…Yours truly and my busted phalanges will be back soon.

How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying

A new-to-the-biz writer Heather Demetrios writes about how getting two six-figure advances right out of the gate almost brought her to financial ruin. She has great advice for those of you just starting out on paying attention to the work at hand and not letting your head get turned too fast.  Money quote for me: “Each new book is like a weekend in Vegas: maybe I’ll get lucky, maybe I won’t.”

After that second advance came through, I stepped into my dream life: I quit my day job to write full-time, moved to New York City, bought $15 cocktails, and learned (with astonishing speed) not worry about prices when ordering at a restaurant. I said yes to travel (often book research I wasn’t reimbursed for), concert tickets, new shoes, and finally being able to buy people the kind of presents I felt they deserved. I donated large sums of money to organizations I cared about, and delighted in the feeling that I was making a real difference….

Then she goes into what she would have done differently had she known what was going to happen. Here’s the link. 

Ready, Set, Write a Book

November if National Novel Writing Month. I’ve never tried it, but the NaNoWriMo challenge — writing a complete novel in 30 days — is now into its 20th year. If the thought of cranking out 1,500 words a day makes your blood run cold, this article’s not for you. But it does offer some tips for upping your output.  Here’s the link. 

Oh, Give Him a Home Where The Reacher Creatures Roam 

Speaking of writers who can crank it out, Lee Child has just dropped his 24th book Blue Moon. This feature finds our hero living the good life in Laramie Wyoming and waxing on the new movie Jack Reacher (yes, he’s taller than Tom Cruise), life in the slow lane and getting a new award — Commander of the British Empire. Link here. 

 

 

What’s In a $&%!? Title? 

Hey, we all know how hard it is to come up with a seductive title. But are today’s titles getting a little too…blue?  One editor makes a case for rethinking the current trend to using cuss words in titles. Let’s just say she’s not happy:

While a well-placed colorful word can pack a punch when used sparingly, resorting to vulgar titles is actually an easy, mindless, and lazy knee-jerk marketing approach. In an attempt to reach and speak to the masses, these word choices continue to dumb down book titles and subjects while discouraging any effort to strengthen thinking, meaning, or purpose—let alone a sense of integrity for authors, marketers, or the industry.

Here’s the link to the Publishers Weekly story. Link here. 

Fear Of Flying (As a Writer)

And lastly, I give you Chuck Wendig.  I love his writers blog Terrible Minds. It always makes me laugh — or cry less, depending on how strong a grip the work in progress has on my neck.  Here’s a classic Wendig — about how if you try to play it safe, if you travel the well-trod road instead of trying to find your own true writer’s path, you will fail. I think our own James recently wrote on this topic recently. Money quote:

I’m speaking about a specific kind of fear, which is, fear as the first step of writing. Fear about market. Fear about audience. Fear about how no one will read your stuff. Fear about how you’re never going to be as good as [insert other author name here]. Fear about voice, fear about genre, fear about ideas. You set out on the journey of being a writer and already you have a choice about what direction you choose, right? You get this instinctual pull, as if all your intestinal flora are trying to move you in concert toward something weird, something wonderful, something uniquely your own, but — that way lies grave uncertainty. The other direction, well, that’s more sensible, isn’t it? Other writers have trod those paths. What’s popular right now is [insert trend here, like “YA medical horror featuring canine protagonists” or “grimdark geriatric erotic fantasties”]. Your voice surely isn’t as good as other voices.

So, your foot wavers. And instead of pointing yourself in the unknown direction, into the dark forest, into the layers of fog — you set forth onto the well-lit, well-marked path. The worn path. The trod path. And it’s fear that put you there. It’s fear that’s walking you forward.

Here’s the full article.

I’ll try to reply if you leave a comment. I have a long layover in Charlotte and if I recall, there’s a decent bar in Concource E, owned by Dale Ernhardt Jr. Oh, show me the way to the next whiskey bar…

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