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

Show Don’t Tell!
But Wait! I’m A Storyteller!

Note: I am unexpectedly tied up with some life-stuff in the last couple days (nothing dire; just confoundingly time-consuming). So I hope you don’t mind if I steal a little from myself and revisit an old topic.  But it’s an evergreen one, so let’s discuss anew!

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

By P.J. Parrish

I don’t remember the first time I heard this piece of writer advice: SHOW DON’T TELL. But I can tell you I didn’t have a clue what the heck it meant. I mean, aren’t writers storytellers? Isn’t that what this gig is all about?

Didn’t we beg for this when we were kids. “Daddy, tell me a story.”

Don’t we all still need this as adults?  “Man, I don’t want to think about anything today. What’s on Netflix?

Tell me a story. Make me forget the daily churn. Take me far from the madding crowd. Whisk me away to an exotic land.

Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.

That’s part of poem by Robert Penn Warren, who knew a little something about storytelling. I’ve always loved that passage because it crystallizes our job as novelists. Tell me a story, in this century, and moment, of mania. 

I’m wandering off topic. Sorry. Less art and more craft, right? Okay, let’s talk about what’s wrong with telling. First off, we shouldn’t confuse the idea of good storytelling and the bad technique of mere telling. They aren’t the same thing.

When you tell your story, you allow your writer-ego to take center stage instead of your characters. You step in and function as narrator instead of letting your story emerge organically through the action, words, thoughts and feelings of your characters.

You might be saying now, so what? Isn’t the writer supposed to take charge? Isn’t the writer supposed to skillfully guide the reader through the story? Yes, it was the norm for most of literature until the 20th century.  Before then, most writers didn’t try to hide their god-like presence. But omniscience voice has become unfashionable and today’s readers seem to crave a personal bond with characters that can come only through a first person or intimate third point of view.

When I was reading up for this, I happened upon a great quote from one of my favorite old-guy authors Flaubert.  He believed that the ideal author should be “present everywhere and visible nowhere.”  Gustave was ahead of his time, I think.

But once again I digress. The concept of show don’t tell is hard to explain. The only way I’ve ever been able to do it is with before and after examples. But first…

A caveat: Not all telling is bad. Sometimes, you have to tell things in your story. Some things are best handled in plain old utilitarian narration:

1. Boring but necessary physical action

You don’t waste words on stuff like this : “He stared at the phone then slowly depressed the little red button to disconnect the line.” You write: “He hung up.” Also, you don’t write: “He slowly swung his bare feet to the cold wood floor, scratched himself, yawned, and got out of the bed in an existential funk.” You write: “He got up.”

2. Boring dialogue

You don’t write:
“Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, it’s been about two months.”
“That long, eh?”
“Yeah.”
“What you been up to?” he asked.
“I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much.”

Write (tell) this: He hadn’t seen Joe for two months. He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures.

3. Pure description

This is where you the writer can step in and shine because it is you telling us (in your unique voice), what things look, smell and sound like. But usually, description works best and is more involving for the reader if you can filter it through a character’s point of view. Here are two examples. You tell me which one works best.

Third person POV detached

She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.

Third person POV intimate
She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.

4. Backstory
There are a lot of great posts in our TKZ archives about how to deal with backstory. But in terms of “show don’t tell” we have to concede that backstory is essentially telling. And that’s okay. Just do it well, be evocative and be brief because your reader wants to get back to the forward plot momentum. Example:

The first image that usually came to him when other people started talking about their childhood was a house. Other things came, too. Faces, smells, emotions, mental snapshots of events. But those kinds of memories were fluid, changing for good or bad, depending on how, and when, you chose to look back on them.

But a house was different. It was solid and unchanging, and it allowed people to say “I existed here. My memories are real.”

His image of home had always been a wood frame shack in Mississippi. It was an uncomfortable picture, but one he had held onto for a long time, convinced it symbolized some kind of truth in his life about who he was, or what he should be.

Notice that although this is TELLING (simple narrative), the reader is emotionally involved with the character. And it is short. The very next sentence takes us right back to the present plot.

Okay, let’s go to some specific examples. These are all from a workshop Kelly and I taught a couple years back. We spent three hours just on this topic. We still didn’t get to everything. But maybe seeing before and after samples will help you grasp the idea of SHOW DON’T TELL.

Number 1. The setup is a cop standing over a dead body in bayou country.

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.

And at his feet in the vermin-ridden humus lay a young woman. A woman who, until a day or two ago, had hoped, planned, and dreamed. Maybe even loved.

Now she lay dead. Violently wrestled from life before her time. And it was his job to find her killer.

He started when, with a flap of wings, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. As the regal bird disappeared from sight, Kramer couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was his Jane Doe’s soul wafting to the Land of the Dead. The way the dove in Ulysses had carried Euripides’ soul.

Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him.

Instinctively and unself-consciously, Kramer crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here’s a rewrite of the same scene:

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide and seek behind dark clouds. Distant rain scented the still air and Spanish moss hung like wet netting on the giant oaks. The cloying acridness of the bayou was everywhere.

Kramer wiped the sweat from his brow and looked down at the dead woman and drew a shallow breath.

She was the third young woman this year who had been left to rot in the muddy swamps of Louisiana.

With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. Against the slanting sun it appeared little more than a ghostly white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.

Then, with a small sigh, he looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.

“God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”

Why does the second one work better? Why does it hit our emotions harder? Because the writer got out of the way and let the character’s actions and words move the story along.

Example 2. This is the opening of chapter 1 and the setup is a woman overseeing a parade at Disney World. I think this writer does some good things here, and has a nice eye for detail. But notice first, how dull it looks on the page (see old TKZ posts on paragraphing and white space). And keep an ear tuned for places where the writer could have gotten out of the way — even though this is first person! — and let the character carry the tune:

Dorothy Gale got it wrong. Even as a kid, I didn’t understand why she was so hell-bent to hustle herself out of Oz to return to Kansas. Was she crazy? I ached to leave ordinary behind and devoured every magical Frank Baum book in the library. When I was nine, I vowed I’d find the Emerald City one day and I did. The Wizard—or rather Orlando’s theme park industry—set a shiny, incredible Land of Oz at the end of my personal yellow brick road.

Ten years ago, with a fresh college diploma—Go Terps—I’d found my niche and myself when I snagged my first job at Oz. Work felt like play in my fairytale world. And my disappointed parents stopped blaming themselves for those library trips when Oz promoted me to assistant department manager for process improvement. Tonight, we were rolling out a new parade, and for me, the excitement rivaled Christmas Eve.

Churning the humid Florida air, the dancing poppies whirled by in a swirl of red, plum, and purple, so far a flawless debut. Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.

“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.

Here’s a quick rewrite.

The red and pink poppies danced in the humid Florida air. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.

Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. So far, it was a flawless debut. I pressed my clipboard to my chest and smiled.

God, how I loved it here.

My own fairy tale world.

My own private Oz.

“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.

My own parade – every day.

Dorothy got it wrong. Even as a kid, I never understood why she was so hell-bent to get out of Kansas.

I think the writer got into the scene way too early and it’s way too much exposition “telling” backstory so early in the book. And I think you always save your best line for last. In this case, it was “Dorothy got it wrong.” The writer opened with it and as such, it’s not not bad. But I think it works better AFTER we know we’re at Disney World. Plus, I like the technique of ending a scene with your best line because it works as an emphasis of the point you are trying to make with your scene. And every scene does have a point, right?

Another example. The set up is an unidentified person creeping through a house after already finding one dead body. We do not know who this is, what gender, or why he/she is there.

In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid. She, too, was dead. From the marks on her neck, my guess was someone had strangled her. As I completed my trip around the downstairs, I heard a noise from the front of the house, then a call of, “Police. Anyone here?” I took a deep breath and started toward the front room.

The cops met me in the hall with the obligatory order to drop my weapon and assume the position against the wall. I complied and a young patrolman named Johnson explored areas I preferred not touched by a stranger. However, I understood. I’d have done the same if I had found anyone during my search, and I wouldn’t have concerned myself about his or her privacy.

Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials.

In the rewrite, I turned the narrative into dialogue — which is a type of action and thus is showing.

In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid. She was face up on the marbled floor, still dressed in her baby blue cotton uniform. I knelt and when I moved her thick pony tail, I saw a clothesline wrapped tight around her neck. She had no pulse. It hit me that I met her three times on previous visits and yet I could not remember her name.

“Police! Anyone here?”

I turned toward the voices, toward the long cavernous hallway that led to the living room. Before I could take a step, I felt a jab of steel against my temple and someone’s hot breath in my ear.

“Against the wall, lady.”

“But —”

“Shut up,” the cop said as he patted around my ass for a weapon. He found my gun, ripped it from its holster and roughly turned me around. I didn’t know the officer in front of me but I saw Sgt. Joe Highland standing in the doorway, trying not too hard to stifle his snicker.

“She’s okay, Jim,” he said. “Her name is Jenny Smith. She’s a local P.I.”

One more example but it’s one of my favorites. The setup is a TV anchorwoman looking forward to meeting her boyfriend after work. I like it because the writer was so close to getting it right. But he needed to focus in the special details and actions that show (ie illuminate) character.

Tonight, however, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.

Jacob “Jake” Teinman employed a wicked, take-no-prisoners wit. She found his sense of humor engaging, and delighted when he would elevate one eyebrow while keeping the other straight alerting his target to an oncoming barb. Corrie truly liked Jake, a lot, but experience taught hard lessons and she had qualms about the two of them as a couple.

They were awfully different — she: a public persona, trim, career driven, self-centered, frenetic and Irish Catholic; he: private, stocky, successful with a controlled confidence that drove her nuts, and Jewish. At least that’s how she pictured the two of them. She wondered if Jake’s version would agree.

She’d noted they’d been dating exactly one year and he had made reservations at “The 95th” just six blocks from the WWCC studios. It was sweet of Jake since he knew it was one of her favorite places.

Here’s the rewrite. Again, notice how breaking up big blocks of type make your story feel more urgent, more interesting. Don’t be afraid to paragraph more!

Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake. And as she watched him come in the restaurant door, she smiled. It used to annoy her when people said how different they were. But it was true.

Jake…

Stocky. Dark. Jewish. Coming toward her with that confident swagger.

And her…

Tall. Blonde. Irish-Catholic. Sitting here wondering if he’d show up.

He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.

“You remembered,” she said.

He frowned. “Remembered what?”

“That this is my favorite restaurant.”

He glanced around before the puppy-dog brown eyes came back to hers. “Sure, babe,” he said. “I remember.”

So, in summary, how do you know when you’ve slipped into telling mode? Look for these pitfalls:

  • Narrating the physical movements without being in character’s head.
  • Use of too many “ly” words in action or in dialog (i.e. She said impatiently, walked slowly, yelled angrily.)
  • Use of stock descriptions, purple prose or lengthy descriptions of places (and people) especially those that have no bearing on the plot.
  • Too many adjectives and cliches.
  • Omniscient point of view. Don’t include details your character can’t see or experience. ie: a man who is pushed through a window would not be focusing on glittering shards of glass as he plummets six stories to the ground. Or this ratty old technique: “Little did Nancy know, as she loaded the Glock, that tomorrow it would be used to kill her.”
  • Here are the strengths of SHOWING:
    Action that uses the senses, stays within the character’s consciousness and uses words and phrases that reinforce the mood of the scene.
  • Strong verbs. (walked vs jogged, ran vs raced, shut the door vs slammed the door.)
  • Original images and vivid descriptions that are filtered through the character’s senses in the present.
  • One compelling adjective vs. a string of mediocre ones.
    Keep POV firmly in character’s head. (Establishes sympathy and connects emotionally.)

One last thought. It’s helpful to think of your story as a movie. Those of you who’ve studied script-writing know exactly what I mean, how you can convey the story ONLY through action and dialogue. (Unless you’re Stanley Kubrick doing “Barry Lyndon”). But for the rest of us, let’s just try to remember what Flaubert said.  Be present everywhere in your story and visible nowhere.

11+

Pulp Diction. What We Can
Learn From The Noir Czars

(Disclaimer: The quiz part of this post I lifted from one my own old posts. Don’t sue me.)

By PJ Parrish

Now pay attention, kittens and bo’s, there’s a quiz at the end of this one.

I had my usual hot date this past Sunday. He’s a dream-boat of a guy and he never disappoints me. We met in a bar in Toronto back in my salad days, and had a Same Time Next Year sort of thing going on. But then we drifted off into other things and lost touch.  But a couple years ago, I ran into him again and it was like…magic.

Okay, before I get in trouble here, I will tell you that my hot date is Eddie Muller. I first met Eddie oh, maybe seventeen years ago at a Bouchercon conference. Back then, he was still writing crime fiction and had won the Shamus Award for his debut novel The Distance. My sister Kelly and I were nominated for our third book Paint It Black. We lost, but I remember Eddie was very sweet to us. Bought me a drink, as I recall.

Fast forward to 2017 and I ran into Eddie again while I was channel surfing. He had a great new gig as the host of Turner Classic Movie’s Noir Alley series. He would introduce each film, drawing on his lifelong love of the genre. We now hook up every Sunday morning on TCM. (This Sunday it’s Underworld U.S.A., starring Cliff Robertson who’s out to avenge the murder of his father even as he falls in love with a femme fatale named Cuddles, whom he just might have to kill.)

It was Eddie who introduced me to what would become my favorite noir film A Kiss Before Dying. It was Eddie who showed me that my teenage crush Dr. Ben Casey was really a creep in Murder By Contract. It was Eddie who led me to the novels of James M. Cain via Double Indemnity.  Here’s Eddie talking about that seminal classic:

I am still trying to catch up on my noir reading. (I didn’t get to The Maltese Falcon until about ten years ago, I confess). Digesting noir, with its emphasis on oppressive mood and shadowed morality, with its lean mean style, has helped me find my own voice as a writer. I am not a true neo-noir practitioner, but I feel a deep connection to its dark heart. One of the best compliments I ever got was when Ed Gorman wrote of our book Thicker Than Water: “The quiet sadness that underpins it all really got to me, the way Ross Macdonald always does.”

A couple Christmases ago, my husband gave me The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. It’s a compilation of the best crime stories from the “golden age” of pulp crime fiction — the ’20s through the ’40s. It’s about the size of an old Manhattan phone book. And to be really honest, parts of it read about as well.

Many of these guys were dismissed as the hacks of their day, churning out their stories for cheaply printed magazines like “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective.” Yeah, they were lurid, the syntax cringe-worthy, the plots thin or nonsensical. But they tapped into a popular need for a new kind of human hero. The most memorable of the heroes became the prototypes for much of what we are seeing in our crime fiction today — lone wolves fighting for justice against all odds but always on their own different-beat terms. Would we have Harry Bosch without the Continental Op? Jack Reacher without Simon Templar? No way…

 

And while we’re at it, let’s not get sucked into the notion that noir was only a guy thing. Valerie Taylor had a career churning out books like The Girls In 3B, a classic ’50s pulp tale showcasing predatory beatnik men, drug hallucinations, and secret lesbian trysts. (Her books, among others, have been reissued by Feminist Press.) And would we have Megan Abbott or Sarah Gran without Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote the twisty indictment of misogyny In A Lonely Place (the source of the Bogart movie)? Doubtful…

To be sure, not all the old stories — like many of the movies — have aged well. The slang sounds vaguely silly now, the sexism and racism we can explain away as anachronistic attitudes. But the armature these writers created is still sturdy.

Especially in pure writing style. I think we can read these stories now mainly to appreciate the streamlined locomotive style that propels these stories along their tracks. When you read them, you can almost hear James M. Cain whispering: “I’m not going to dazzle you with my writing. I’m going to tell you a helluva story.”

These guys sure knew what to leave out. Here’s a passage from Paul Cain’s “One Two Three:”

I said: “Sure — we’ll both go.

Gard didn’t go for that very big, but I told him that my having been such a pal of Healy’s made it all right.

We went.

Not: And then we left the apartment and got in my roadster and set out. We took Mulholland Drive out of the canyon and arrived just before dusk. Just: We went.

How can you read that and not smile? I heartily recommend the Big Book of Pulps. And if you haven’t connected with Eddie on Noir Alley, you’re missing out on some of the best stuff television has to offer.

And now, in honor of our pulp forefathers, I am offering up this little quiz of pulp diction slang for your amusement. Answers at the end. And don’t chance the chisel for a cheap bulge, bo. We Jake?

DEFINITIONS.
1. Ameche
2. Kicking the gong around
3. Wooden kimono
4. cheaters
5. Gasper
6. Hammer and saws
7. Orphan papers
8. Wikiup
9. Bangtails
10. Can-opener

TRANSLATIONS
11. I had been ranking the Loogan for an hour and could see he was a right gee. It was all silk so far.

12. I stared down at the stiff. The bim hadn’t been chilled off. Definitely a pro skirt who had pulled the Dutch act.

13. I got a croaker ribbed up to get the wire.

14. By the time we got to the drum the droppers had lammed off. Another trip for biscuits…

Answers:
1. telephone
2. taking opium
3. coffin
4. sunglasses
5. cigarette
6. Police
7. Bad checks
8. Home
9. Horses
10. Safecracker
11. I had been watching the man with the gun for an hour and could tell he was an okay guy. Everything was cool so far.
12. I stared at the body. The woman hadn’t been murdered. She was definitely a prostitute who had committed suicide.
13. I have arranged for a doctor to get the information.
14. By the time we got to the speakeasy, the hired killers had left. Just another trip for nothing…

7+

First Page Critique: A Hike
That Might Be A Journey?

The trail head at St. Bees Head on the Irish Sea

By PJ Parrish

I don’t know about you, but I am really ready for a good writer to take me away from it all. And I am always up for a bracing hike. So today, come along on our First Page Critique, as our submitting writer takes us to the wilds of northern England across the Coast to Coast Trail. I hope we’re in for some good mischief along the way.

A Lethal Walk in Lakeland 

Chapter One

I settled myself on a weathered oak bench and began securing the laces of my leather walking boots. This was the start of a long-anticipated week’s walk in England’s fabled Lake District, but I was apprehensive. Before me angry waves were hammering the shore, each shaking the ground as if a bomb had exploded. Strong gusts of wind from the north were slashing against us.

“We’re supposed to walk into that?” said the woman beside me, a small grey-haired wisp of a creature named Billie, as she surveyed the roiling waters of the Irish Sea. She should have been wearing a waterproof jacket, but instead had on one of her thick self-knitted sweaters displaying a pattern of squirrels and acorns. The outfit had been fine when we were in the town center–protected from the wind by cliffs to the north–but no longer. It was hard to believe that a few hundred yards could make such a difference.

“We just have to stick in our boots in the water,” I said. “If we do it quickly enough we should be all right.”

Around us our fellow walkers, eight of them, were also eyeing the sea with the trepidation. Yet this ‘christening of the boots’ was a time-honored ritual for anyone about to tackle England’s famed Coast to Coast path, which traverses the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea.

“Everyone ready?” asked Charlie Cross, our white-haired tour guide. Beaming a broad grin, he didn’t seem fazed by the heavy surf. The group followed him down to the water.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” asked Fiona, a beautiful brown-haired woman whom, I learned, was one of the six members of the Upton family from Texas in our group.

______________________

I wish I were going along. I’ve hiked in a couple foreign countries, and one of my dreams has been to hike the Appalachian Trail. I hadn’t heard of the Lake Country’s Coast to Coast path. Something new to put on my bucket list. So, as you can guess, I am predisposed to liking this submission on the location alone. But as much as setting is vital to a good story, it isn’t enough. Does the story itself hold up?

I think this is a pretty darn good start. The writer has chosen to put us literally at the beginning of the action. I love the tradition of dipping the boots into the sea before venturing out. I almost wish the writer had given us just a few more graphs so we could see if this ritual works as a foreshadowing of something dire to come. (I hope it is!)

I like that the writer didn’t start earlier, say with the group meeting in the village with a clearing-the-throat introduction of the whole party getting acquainted. (The writer chose instead to just reference the village in passing). We should learn about the hikers (possible suspects?) as we meander on, not in a group-grope info-dump.

I suspect we are working in a cozy genre here, but I could be wrong. The tone registers on the lighter side, which is fine. As I understand it, the hike takes about a week which is plenty of time for something nefarious to happen.

I don’t know if this was the writer’s intent, but we are almost in the classic Agatha Christie “closed parlor room” genre here: A group of strangers is about to be cloistered on an adventure and I would guess someone will die and whoever our protagonist is will be charged with solving the on-the-road crime. Perhaps the murder takes place in hostel out in the wilds.

Likewise, it is good that the writer mentions only a couple named characters. I trust the writer will find a graceful way to tell us the name (and a little background) of our first-person point-of-view narrator soon.

Notes on craft: The writer is on solid ground here, I think. The dialogue is handled correctly, the paragraphing and syntax fine. But with such an assured hand, I’d like to see the writer work a little harder. I’m always a little tougher on the better submissions,

For starters, I’d like to see the writer work harder at more original description. This is such a stunning setting; it deserves more eloquence than surf that “explodes like a bomb.”  That’s a cliche, dear writer, it doesn’t come from you.  Find something more bracing. Likewise, don’t rely on lazy words like “beautiful” for Fiona. Ditto for Charlie. “White-haired” isn’t vivid enough.

Description is hard. You have to dig deep into your own experience to find the right words or metaphors and then filter it through your protag’s consciousness. I like what you did, for example, with Billie — by telling me, in one line, that she chose to wear an acorn/squirrel sweater instead of something more practical, you sketched an immediately sharp portrait of her.

But in general, I enjoyed this. It is a measured, leisurely beginning and that is okay. Just be aware, writer, that we need some injection of tension in your first chapter, a hint of bad things to come.  Even with a soft opening like this you have to have a portent of ominous things on the path ahead — the literal one the hikers will travel, and the metaphoric one you take your reader on.

Let’s do some line editing:

I settled myself on a weathered oak bench and began securing the laces of my leather walking boots. This was the start of a long-anticipated week’s walk in England’s fabled Lake District, but I was apprehensive. Not a bad first graph but this is an example of telling instead of showing. Instead of telling us she is apprehensive, find a way to showing it via her thoughts or dialogue or actions. Just an example here:

I finished lacing my walking boots and looked up at the roiling green sea. With each crash of the waves, I could feel the wooden bench shake beneath me. I pulled in a deep breath and blew onto my cold hands. A sharp wind was surging in from the north, penetrating the nylon of my coat.

I should have worn gloves, I thought. I should have packed that extra sweater. I should have told someone where I was going. But I hadn’t wanted anyone to know. For once in my life, I wanted to be alone. And I wanted to be brave.

That is corny, but I am trying to make the point that you need to find ways to inject drama and something personal about your protag’s METAPHORIC JOURNEY as early in the story as you can. Make us care about her and attach to her (or is it a him?) as quickly as you can.  And never let a chance go by to layer in her personality.

Before me angry waves were hammering the shore, each shaking the ground as if a bomb had exploded. Strong gusts of wind from the north were slashing against us. Nice verb there. But you could be more active: The angry waves hammered; the wind slashed. 

“We’re supposed to walk into that?” said the woman beside me, a small grey-haired wisp of a creature I rather like that named Billie, as she surveyed the roiling waters of the Irish Sea. Good way to slip in the geography She should have been wearing a waterproof jacket, but instead had on one of her thick self-knitted sweaters displaying a pattern of squirrels and acorns. The outfit had been fine when we were in the town center–protected from the wind by cliffs to the north–but no longer. It was hard to believe that a few hundred yards could make such a difference.

“We just have to stick in our boots in the water,” I said. “If we do it quickly enough we should be all right.”

Around us our fellow walkers, eight of them, were also eyeing the sea with the trepidation. Yet this ‘christening of the boots’ was a time-honored ritual for anyone about to tackle England’s famed Coast to Coast path, which traverses the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea. This sounds a little dry. I know you need to convey this info, but find away to make it sound like it comes from your protag and not Fodors. You can also use it, again, to tell us something about your protag. Example:

I wasn’t from this area of northern England. I had been born and raised in London so a long hike for me was to the tube station. But I had always wanted to do this week-long trip that stretched from the the whatever, crossed the whaterever, and ended wherever.

See what that does? It makes the info personal and lets the reader get to know your protag.

“Everyone ready?” asked Charlie Cross, our white-haired tour guide. Beaming a broad grin, he didn’t seem fazed by the heavy surf. The group followed him down to the water.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” asked Fiona, a beautiful brown-haired woman whom, I learned, was one of the six members of the Upton family from Texas in our group. Would be a nice place to slip in a thought from your protag. How does she feel about the make-up of her group? I went on a hiking trip in Provence once, and the first day I met my motley group — the people I would live with for the next two weeks — I was intensely curious about where they had come from. This is important if someone in this group will be murdered AND if someone is the killer.  Start laying your bread-crumb trail of clues as early as possible.

As I said, I think we’re off to a grand start here, but I know this writer has the chops to dig deeper and do better. Oh, speaking of which, as you go on your writing journey, dear submitter, be on the lookout for a better title. (Good titles often don’t reveal themselves until you’re done with the book). I don’t think this one does your setting and set-up justice. For starters, Americans like me will think of Lakeland, Florida. And “A Lethal Walk” is a touch too spot-on.  Look for something more metaphoric that captures the wild scenery and says something about the journey. One of my favorite quotes about hiking is from the naturalist John Muir: “In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.”  Maybe that’s what your protagonist is after? Find something that speaks to the soul of your story.

Thanks for the submission and letting us share it.

 

9+

Running Away From Home…
It Works Every Time In Fiction

The writer must face the fact that ordinary lives are what most people live most of the time, and that the novel as a narration of the fantastic and the adventurous is really an escapist plot; that aesthetically, the ordinary, the banal, is what you must deal with. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

The first time I tried it I was five. I didn’t get very far, just up to the shopping center where a nice sales lady gave me a lollipop and called the cops. They stuck me in the cruiser and we drove around until I recognized our house. My mom didn’t even realize I was gone. Such dangerous times back in the Fifties…

The second time I tried it was about two years later. I was mad about something, so I took the jar of peanut butter and crawled out the milk chute. But it was really cold and I couldn’t get back in, so I sat on the swing set in the backyard until my mom saw me and let me back in.

I am a wanderer by nature.  Luckily, I am now married to a man who loves to travel as much as I do.  But he still gets upset when I wander too far ahead down the hiking trail.

I am going nuts staying put. Which is why I seem to be gravitating right now to books and movies about trapped people who run away.  I am re-reading one of my favorite books right now — Madame Bovary. It’s beautiful and great for many reasons, but I am particularly drawn to the idea that Emma Rouault , before she became Madame Bovary, had possibilities. But she married a Dick Decent, and now she’s imprisoned by the walls of her house and she’s bored stiff. Her only outlets are shopping and affairs. She tries to run away. Things don’t end well.

Books about women who run away (usually to find a better version of themselves) have always appealed to me.  I loved Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, about her 1,000-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. (made into a decent movie starring Reese Witherspoon). Then there was Richard Yate’s novel Revolutionary Road, a devastating story about a couple trapped in a suburban hell. The tragic character is poor deluded April, who fails as an actress, marries for security, and dreams of running away to Paris:

“Sometimes I can feel as if I were sparkling all over,” she was saying, “and I want to go out and do something that’s absolutely crazy, and marvelous…”

Which reminds me of the line from one of the most famous runaway novels, On The Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who …burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

The main character Sal is depressed after his divorce and wants to run away. (Men running away in stories are seldom seen as neurotic. They are just…adventurous!) So Sal takes off with his friend Dean on a cross-country journey with the hope of finding…something:

“Somewhere along the line I knew there would be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

The trapped character who runs away to find the pearl is a classic fictional archetype/trope.  I created one myself in my stand alone She’s Not There, an amnesiac who, thinking her husband is trying to kill her, takes off on a cross-country run and eventually finds the truth. And herself, of course.

These characters can be really attractive in normal times. Right now, when we all feel so confined and isolated, they might speak to us in especially powerful ways.

I’ve been watching a lot of old movies lately. I doubt the programmers at TCM realize it, but they’ve been scheduling a lot of runaway movies lately.  In just one week, I have watched Kramer vs Kramer, Under The Tuscan Sun and Shirley Valentine.

Tuscan Sun has Diane Lane, freshly divorced and pathetic, taking off on a friend’s ticket to a “Gay And Away” bus tour of Italy. There, on a “bad idea” whim, she buys a broken down villa and tries to unblock herself enough to work on her novel, which she abandoned when she got married, — even as she takes up with the juicy Marcello.

Shirley Valentine is an English matron who was a firebrand in school but life intruded. Now she’s married to a schlub workaholic husband and making cocoa for her ungrateful daughter. She spends her days in her tiny kitchen talking to the walls and staring at a travel poster of Greece. A friend drags her along on a holiday, where she meets Costas and…well, it doesn’t end the way you’d expect.

 

And then there’s poor Joanna Kramer. She gave up a promising career to marry and have a child. But she snaps one day and leaves them both, disappearing into the feminist ether until she realizes she needs her boy — but not her man.

On my last plane ride, I watched Where’d You Go Bernadette? It’s about a self-involved neurotic architect who has lost her creative heart. She hates pretty much everyone because she hates herself. Or the version of herself she has become. Bernadette is really an unlikeable character and after the first half hour, I was ready to give up and watch ESPN, but the story got better. And then really good. And the ending is terrific.

But for women on the run stories, you can’t beat the golden oldie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Anyone who says Martin Scorsese doesn’t get women needs to see this. Newly widowed Ellen Burnstyn packs up her surly pre-teen and heads west, hoping to make it to Monterey Calif where she will go back to the singing career she abandoned when she got married. Marooned in Arizona, she becomes a waitress and finds love in the arms of a hunky woke rancher Kris Kristofferson. But after she tells him to kiss her grits, things don’t turn out like you’d expect.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jFhv9mPqk4

Okay, to be fair, not every great runaway story stars a woman. Remember the ending of Mad Men? Poor tortured Don Draper, drummed out of the ad biz, escapes from New York and goes west of course. In an Eselen therapy session, listening to someone describe himself as food in the refrigerator that nobody wants, Don breaks down. The last image is Don seating in a lotus, smiling. Cue the music: the groundbreaking 1971 TV ad for Coca-Cola,  implying that Don will probably not escape after all.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxtZpFl3pPM

I’d like to buy the poor tired world a Coke right now.

Any favorite runaway books or movies?

 

4+

The Edgars…In Absencia

By PJ Parrish

The cruel irony of our awful time is that we have all the time in the world and little will to bend it to our means.

Okay, that’s just me talking. I hope it’s not you. I hope you are using this time of isolation to dig deep and find good stories inside you, and that these stories are finding form on your computers and note pads.  I know, from talking to friends, that this is happening. That gives me comfort.

I’m having problems staying focused. I’ve got a lot to be grateful for, that I am retired with some money in the bank (last time I looked), so I don’t worry about basic human needs. That I am not a front-line worker who carries their day into their nightmares. I am among the very lucky.

Still, I am distracted. I have not written anything in weeks.

I can barely concentrate to read.  The papers, yes, I devour them every morning. (After I spray them with Lysol). I spent too much time on Facebook, clicking on links that give me hope or cast me into despair. By venting on FB, I made a new friend who is a hard Republican. I lost a friend who is a Democrat. There is no playbook for this.

Einstein was right — time stretches and bends. April lasted 97 days and today, if it weren’t for the fact that my phone alerted me that my blog was due, I would not have known it was Monday.

Thank God for the Edgar awards. At least I have that.

If you didn’t hear, the winners were announced last week. But the banquet — that grand black-tie atta-boy-atta-girl affair — it was cancelled, of course. The Edgars are always a fun time for me because I am the banquet chair and I love my gig. I edit the program book, which means working with great writers who contribute essays. (Who else can say they have edited Stephen King, Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley, Robert Block, Michael Connelly to name-drop just a few). I produce the Powerpoint that displays the nominees as their names are announced, and it’s really cool seeing your cover on a forty-foot screen in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt while 450 people applaud.

Margery hard at work setting up banquet.

Second, I help MWA’s Executive Director Margery Flax, who is the real force behind all things Edgar, prepare the ballroom, which entails setting out registration tables and name tags, testing the sound systems and unpacking the Edgar awards. (Margery puts tape on the nameplates so, no, I don’t know who wins ahead of time).

Once things are set up, I grab a quick shower, slap on some makeup, dress and heels and head down to man the nominee check in.  I love this part. Some writers are old hands at this but most sidle up to the table and politely ask, “Is this where I’m supposed to be?” It feels great to hand them their ribboned badge and shepherd them to the nominee champagne reception.  When everyone’s checked in, I get to go in and mingle. I am not shy about asking for fan pictures.

Kelly and me with some British guy who was hanging around.

Although I’ve been doing this for more than a decade, I still get nervous that things could go wrong. They have. Dave Barry screwed up and tried to introduce Grand Master Stephen King when it was supposed to be Don Westlake’s job. We had to wave King away and get Westlake on stage, whose first words where, “What am I? Chopped Liver?” And there was the time one of the porcelain Edgar heads arrived in two broken parts but Sandra Brown didn’t miss a beat and said, “And both pieces of the Edgar go to…”

I get  to go to New York, see old writer friends, enjoy the giddiness of the winners. The food is pretty good for hotel fare.

So, how do you hold an Edgar Awards in our times of social distancing? It wasn’t easy. Margery led a great team who live streamed the event as the awards were announced. You can find the winner’s lovely acceptance speeches on YouTube if you type in Edgars 2020.

My sister Kelly, who produces the videos every year, put together a touching tribute to Mary Higgins Clark. Click here to see it.

We are in the process of putting together a special edition program book that will be mailed out to nominees, winners and MWA members.

The only thing missing was…us. I missed the human touch. I missed seeing friends. I missed seeing the faces of the nominees. I missed hearing the tribute to this year’s Grand Master Barbara Neely. I missed hearing the winners’ speeches. I didn’t miss the high heels.

We’ll all be back with each other next year. For now, go here to read the Edgar Award nominees and winners. Buy their books. Then, get busy on writing your own. I am going to try very hard to do that.

 

4+

Making Mistakes: It’s a
Mistake Not To Make Them

Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. — John Cleese.

By PJ Parrish

I’ll never forget this piece of advice I got from my agent: “No one is waiting for your stand alone thriller.”

Immediately, my hackles went up. (As I wrote that, I realized I didn’t really know what a hackle even was so I Googled it. It is the hairs on the back of dog that shoot up when he’s angry).  I said nothing to the agent, but hackles erect, I hung up the phone, and opened the laptop to finish my stand alone thriller.

See, we were eleven books deep into our Louis Kincaid series at the time, and the series had done pretty good thus far.  We had a loyal fan base who really loved our character. We’d won some awards and cracked some bestseller lists. But here’s the thing: I had this idea for a serial killer book set in Paris and I couldn’t let go of it.  The bad guy — a professional cellist — haunted my dreams at night and kept my imagination afire during the day. I couldn’t get anything done on the series book.  The stand alone was a siren call.

Would it crash us on the rocks? Well, maybe. At the time, we were coming up on a contract renewal with our publisher and they were expecting a new Louis book. But Louis was, well,  being sort of recalcitrant. The story wasn’t moving along because he just wasn’t talking to me.  We clearly needed a vacation from each other.

So I took up with the killer cellist. The book poured out of me, uncharacteristically. (I am a really slow writer). And it was really good. I’m not being immodest here. Every writer just knows when they’re onto something.  it was solid plot-wise, filled with cool pretzelly stuff. It had a haunted protag, a prickly side-kick woman cop, and a charming villain who just had a hangup about garroting women with e-strings. It also had Paris’s catacombs, Miami’s decaying art deco hotels and crumbling Scottish castles.

What wasn’t to love?

The publisher grudgingly put it out.  No promotion, small press run and an ugly cover. (see above left for original cover and right for new cover when we re-issued it). It got some nice reviews and didn’t sell well (though it sells fine now as a back list title).  It remains one of my favorite books. We were dropped by the publisher not long after that.

Did I make a mistake?

My agent was probably just trying to tell me that we didn’t have the star-power name to write whatever we wanted, that we needed to rely on the safety our our serial reputation. Stay with what brung you to the dance, right? But no, I don’t think it was a mistake. Here’s my take-away for any of you out there who might be struggling with the fear that you might make a mistake:

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Okay, that’s not my words. Albert Einstein said them. But I believe them. If you write in fear of doing something wrong, you are doomed. Whether you are venturing into a new genre, experimenting with a different plot structure, or trying to write a short story for the first time, or just switching from the comfort of first person to third, you can’t be afraid to fail.

I had to write that book. I just had to.

But how do you know when you’re onto something good? How do you trust your instinct to stay with a story when your brain might be telling you to jump on the neo-fem-jeop bandwagon? (female in jeopardy but with a new twist, of course).

That’s a hard one. No one can answer that one except you. It’s part of that chimeric thing we call voice. Why would you want to be a poor man’s Jeff Deaver? Or another sad clone of Gillian Flynn? Write the book that only you can write.

Here’s something else to chew on: Sometimes doing something the wrong way is the only way to find the right way. Writing fiction is not a straight-forward process. Yes, there are basic tenets of what makes a story work — plot structure, dialogue, all the craft stuff we talk about all the time here. But even if you follow every “rule” to the letter, there’s no guarantee you’re going to succeed. If you concentrate on what is safe, what is trendy, what is sell-able (revelation: No one really knows what will sell) you will produce junk.

Maybe, after all your work, no editor will want to publish your book. Maybe, after you work hard to get it up on Amazon yourself, not enough readers will find it. Was it a mistake?

  • Not if it helped you grow as a writer. Maybe you rushed your book into print before it was ready (ie not well edited or formatted). Sloppy doesn’t cut it.
  • Not if it made you stronger. No one is ever going to be harder on you and than you are. Rejection comes with the business at every turn.  Mistakes help you grow a shell.
  • Not if it helps you find your way to your next story. And there always had to be a next book.

So, what’s my final takeaway from all this? What did I learn from my mistake of writing the stand alone thriller that no one was waiting for?

Don’t write the book you think might sell. You have to write the book that is tearing at your insides to get out.

Write the book that keeps you up at night.

 

11+

Spider Bites And Randy Monkeys:
Time For The Bad Sex Awards

By PJ Parrish

So I was cleaning out my old external drive the other day (I’m running out of things to organize during our sheltering time).  And I found one of my unfinished manuscripts. It’s called Tarantella. 

Yeah, yeah, I know. We should be careful about using foreign words in titles. (See Sue’s post yesterday).  But this is a really great title, trust me. A tarantella is an Italian courtship dance that gets its name from peasant women working in fields and getting bit by the tarantula spider. The venom makes the women fall into a trance and the only cure is to sweat out the poison through a frenzied sexy dance.

Did I mention my manuscript was erotica?  (A repressed American woman goes to Italy and meets a hot guy…fill in the cliches here). Now, when I was publishing romance and family sagas, I wrote a lot of sex scenes, but they were pretty tame, Burt-and-Deborah-on-the-beach stuff.  Erotica, well, that’s a whole nother can of spiders.

It’s not easy writing really steamy sex.

Some writers are naturals at it. I remember reading Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying when I was twenty-two and being stunned. (Go here for first chapter excerpt…it gets good when she gets to Italian men). I wasn’t an erotica connoisseur, but every once in a while, I’d happen upon a writer who got it right.  Like Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus. Like Joyce Carol Oates in her Monroe homage Blonde. Or like Anne Rice. Her vampire books are just a more upfront take on the eroticism that pulses through Bram Stoker’s Dracula. From Rice’s The Witching Hour: 

She closed her eyes, feeling his lips on the back of her neck, feeling his fingers tracing the length of her spine. There came the pressure of a warm hand clasping her sex, fingers slipping inside her, lips against her lips. Fingers pinched her nipples hurtfully and deliciously … She felt herself being lifted, her feet no longer touching the floor, the darkness swirling around her, strong hands turning her, and stroking her all over. There was no gravity any longer; she felt his strength increasing, the heat of it increasing … She was floating in the air. She turned over, groping in the shadowy tangle of arms supporting her, feeling her legs forced apart and her mouth opened. “Yes, do it…”

So back to Tarantella. The only good thing about it is the title.  The writing itself is cringe-worthy. Really bad. Just plain icky.

Which brings me to my topic for today — The annual Literary Review’s Bad Sex In Fiction Awards. I apologize, but I think I have a duty to bring this to light every year. We mere crime dogs need to know that even the literary lions can whiff bad at the plate.

Before we get to the winners, here are the short-listed entries:

I Told You To Take A Left At The Pancreas…

“He clung to her, crying, and then made love to her and went far inside her and she begged him to go deeper and, no longer afraid of injuring her, he went deep in mind and body, among crowded organ cavities, past the contours of her lungs and liver, and, shimmying past her heart, he felt her perfection.” –The River Capture by Mary Costello

I Hear That Train a Comin’

Then I felt it. There was a sensation occurring here that I didn’t even know could occur. I took the sharpest inhale of my life, and I’m not sure I let my breath out for another ten minutes. I do feel that I lost the ability to see and hear for a while, and that something might have short-circuited in my brain – something that has probably never been fully fixed since. My whole being was astonished. I could hear myself making noises like an animal, and my legs were shaking uncontrollably (not that I was trying to control them), and my hands were gripping down so hard over my face that I left fingernail divots in my own skull.

Then I screamed as though I were being run over by a train, and that long arm of his was reaching up again to palm my mouth, and I bit into his hand the way a wounded soldier bites on a bullet.” — City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert 

Don’t Know What a Slide Rule Is For…

“The actual lovemaking was a series of cryptic clues and concealed pleasures. A sensual treasure hunt. She asked for something, then changed her mind. He made adjustments and calibrations, awaited further instruction.” –Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel

Now to our winners. Yes, plural.  In a shock announcement, the judges awarded the grand prize to two authors this year: Didier Decoin for The Office of Gardens and Ponds and John Harvey for Pax. 

Decoin is a French writer who received the Prix Goncourt in 1977 for his novel John l’Enfer. In 1995 he became secretary of the Académie Goncourt. Harvey is a writer and a Life Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He has written five novels, as well as essays and books on visual culture.

The judges said, “Faced with two unpalatable contenders, we found ourselves unable to choose between them. We believe the public will recognise our plight.”

Indeed, we will. Take a deep breath, we’re going in.

Global Warming

“She was burning hot and the heat was in him. He looked down on her perfect black slenderness. Her eyes were ravenous. Like his own they were fire and desire. More than torrid, more than tropical: they two were riding the Equator. They embraced as if with violent holding they could weld the two of them one.” — Pax

 

Spank that Monkey!

Katsuro moaned as a bulge formed beneath the material of his kimono, a bulge that Miyuki seized, kneaded, massaged, squashed and crushed. With the fondling, Katsuro’s penis and testicles became one single mound that rolled around beneath the grip of her hand. Miyuki felt as though she was manipulating a small monkey that was curling up its paws. –The Office of Gardens and Ponds

It just doesn’t get any better than that.

 

4+

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+