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

I Hear A Symphony

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or in our terms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Disconnecting From The World
So You Can Create Your Own

By PJ Parrish

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

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

There I said it. Yeah, I’m hooman.

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

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

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

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

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

He quotes Josoeph Campbell in The Power of Myth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Performance Anxiety.
Yeah, Even Writers Get It

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love this quote from screenwriter Robert McKee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By PJ Parrish

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

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

Death at the Tenderloin

Another senseless murder was by no means unfamiliar to me.

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

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

Four yellow stripes unquestionably a captain, I thought.

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

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

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

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

You’ve seen nothing yet, I thought.

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

_____________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

This submission? Old cop paired with relatively inexperienced female.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want a closer look, Jackson?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you see, O’Reilly?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

A quick summary. Here are the pitfalls of TELLING

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

Here are some strengths of SHOWING.

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

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

 

Searching For That Great Title? Dig Deep Into Your Theme

You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal. — William S. Burroughs.

By PJ Parrish

Would it have been the same if Freddy Mercury had gone with his first instinct and called it Mongolian Rhapsody?

I dunno. I don’t see Mongolians as a very rapturous bunch. But yes, that was the original title of Bohemian Rhapsody. This tidbit came out recently when Mercury’s handwritten lyric sheets for his magnum opus surfaced as part of an upcoming Sotheby’s auction. Mercury wrote with pencil on stationery from the defunct airline British Midland Airways. On one sheet, an early draft of Bohemian Rhapsody can be seen with the title Mongolian Rhapsody, which was later crossed out and replaced with “Bohemian.”

I love this story. Because I love stories about bad titles that almost saw the light of day. Desert Song doesn’t fire the imagination like A Horse With No Name does. Van Morrison started out singing about a Brown Skinned Girl until taming it down to a brown-eyes girl for radio station play. The Big Bopper was calling it What I Like before he decided Chantilly Lace was sexier. When Mick Jagger set out to write a song about political violence he titled it Did Everyone Pay Their Dues? (huh?) before changing it to Street Fighting Man. And my favorite Beach Boys’ song, the gorgeous paeon to lost love Caroline No began as Carol, I Know. So glad you changed it, Brian.

Titles are important, friends. Especially if you’re writing a novel.

Your book’s title is the most important marketing decision you will make. You can self-publish or go traditional. It doesn’t matter. You can have a great professionally produced cover. You can have a killer opening line. But if your title is bad, you’ve lost that vital chance to make a great first impression.

I don’t get it. I don’t get why so many writers don’t pay more attention to this. I see so many dull, flaccid, trite titles these days. Like the writer used up all their energy on the story and there was nothing left so they slapped a dried-up and usually alliterative mishmash of words on their manuscript and hoped no one noticed.

Why give up so easily?

I know why. Coming up with a great title is really hard work. I used to write headlines for a living back when I was in the newspaper business. Great headline writing is an art. Try boiling down a news or feature story to its crux in less than ten words — words that will grab the reader and pull them in.

It’s even harder titling a novel. The best titles work on multiple levels. Things you want your title to do:

  • Be unique. You need a title that readers will instantly remember, whether they are looking for it in a bookstore or on Amazon. And it can’t be something someone else came up with already.
  • Summarize your story.  A good title gives a reader an idea of what kind of book to expect. It is a hint, a headline if you will, about what lies inside.
  • Convey your mood. Which also gives the reader an idea of what genre of sub-genre you’re working in. A juicy thriller title won’t sound the same as a somber historical title will.
  • Define your theme. This is the hardest and deepest level to plumb. The greatest titles manage to capture the underlying theme, the human message that you, as a writer, are trying to communicate.

Easy, right? Yeah, right. But I am here today to beg you — don’t settle. Dig deep and find the right combination of words that capture your story’s heart. A great title is like haiku — emotion pruned to its beautiful essence.

I feel so strongly about this that I’ve devoted whole workshops to this subject. So I’ve collected lots of stories about how writers come up with their titles. One of my favorites concerns Philip K. Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I haven’t found a satisfying explanation of how or why Dick came up with this title. His working title was Electric Shepherd. Which makes some sense given the fact the protag is actually the proud owner of an electrified ewe, but it’s sort of dorky and dull. I love the wink-wink to counting sheep in the final title.

And then there’s the question of how, when it came to Ridley Scott’s movie adaption, Dick’s title morphed into Blade Runner.

The film’s title also changed several times. During the script-writing process, it was called Dangerous Days. (Zzzzz). How it became Blade Runner is a long and convoluted story involving an obscure 1974 sci-fi novel called The Bladerunner by Alan E. Nourse and the profane Beat Generation guru William S. Burrough. (An aside: Sometimes you can improve a title by merely dropping “the.”)

So what should you consider when searching for that perfect title? I repeat, look to your theme. But let’s allow other novelists to weigh in.

Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter began life as The Mute. Prosaic, harsh, resonant of nothing. McCullers found her final title in a poem called “The Lonely Hunter” by Fiona MacLeod:

What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.

 

 The Heart is a Lonely Hunter captures the novel’s essential message: that each character is a “hunter,” wanting a different thing out of life, therefore sending them into this spiral of loneliness and isolation from others and the outside world. Theme!

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was originally titled Strangers From Within. The latter isn’t a bad title, but Golding dug deeper. Lord of the Flies is another name for the devil. He is also called the Lord of Filth and Dung. Throughout the novel, the children grow dirtier and dirtier, an outward reflection of their inner state. As their savagery and evil increases, they seek a symbol, a god to worship. Theme!

Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s first title was Atticus. Which tells us nothing. The book isn’t even really about Atticus; he is only the plot-propellant. The book is about innocence destroyed by evil. Where does the mockingbird come in? In many cultures or folklores, the bird is a totem of good omens, even seen as guardian angels or animal spirits encouraging us to protect those we love. The longest reference to the title comes in chapter 10 when Scout explains: “‘Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” She’s referring of course to Tom Robinson and Boo Radley who, like the mockingbird, only wish to bring happiness. Theme!

Well, as usual, I have flapped my gums and run long here. Can’t help it. I love this topic. I should have added some good tips, some practical how-to advice. But I don’t have any easy answers for this, any quick fixes and I am not going to give you links to those awful title-generators.

All I can do is implore anyone of you out there struggling to find your great title to dig deeper. Your title is not to be found in worn-out adjectives. It’s not there in a string of cheap alliteration. It’s not to be found in your place or your protagonist’s name. (Sorry, you’re not Stephen King and Peyton Place has been taken). Look to your theme. Your title in waiting there, waiting for you to discover it.

You can’t fake a quality title any more than you can fake a good meal.

Starting Over.
It Never Gets Easier

By PJ Parrish

Today is Monday. As good a day as any to die. Well, die figuratively. I started a new book today. The curtain has gone up. My stomach hurts. It isn’t my diverticulitis flaring up. I’m sweating. And it’s way past menopause.

Man, this never gets easier, does it. Staring at that field of white. Watching that damn  curser blinking like a heart monitor. Ka-thump. Ka-thump. Ka-thump…

Writing is painful for me. Not just psychically painful. Physically painful. Although I have been noodling around with this new book idea for weeks now, I have been putting off actually starting it. I have good excuses. First there was the Edgar banquet. Then there’s this conference first novel contest I’m judging. Then the dogs needed their dental cleanings. Then there was the Heat and Panthers semi-finals. Then friends came up for Memorial Day and I had to take them on a winery tour. And man, look at that load of laundry over there waiting to be folded,

But you know, don’t you. The longer you wait, the worse it gets. Because writing is like exercising, or practicing the piano or learning a language. If you stop, your energy flags, your muscles atrophy, your mind grows cobwebs.  You get fat and lazy. Then get you depressed because you’ve gotten fat and lazy.

It’s a confidence thing. Every time I start a new project, I am scared. Scared that I’ve run out of gas, scared that I will become one of those pathetic writers who phone it in. I’m worried that, because I’m not a pup anymore, I don’t have the energy to go the distance and the new kids coming up are so damn clever. I’m thinking that this plot is pallid, that this story is shapeless. I will be revealed as the fraud that I am,

But…

Then I remember. I remember that once things get going — oh, around chapter 20 or so — it will start to gel. It will become fun again. I remember that I have been here before and have come out the other end okay. I remember that every book feels like you are pushing a mammoth boulder up a hill until that beautiful moment when you crest and then you race downhill in an exhilarating rush. And I remember that I am so damn lucky to get paid (well maybe) to think stuff up, to have readers who buy still our books and write us emails of thanks. I remember all of this and try to stop whining and do my job.

The good thing is, there is redemption even for scofflaws. There is always another day, a new chance. Another Monday.

Today is Monday. Today, I took a detour and wrote this blog instead. I know this is  procrastination of sorts. But this blog has also been like a quick set of jumping jacks. See, I figure just the fact that I have to come here and move my fingers over the keyboard might get my lard ass in gear again for the heavy lifting of fiction.

And I looked this up: I’ve been hanging around here now since 2012. You guys are my peeps.

So, thanks for letting me vent today. You’re cheaper than therapy and a lot more fun. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s back to work. That page is still blank. That curser is still blinking. I’m not getting younger. Every journey starts with one keystroke.

 

Protagonists Who Come
Out Of Nowhere

“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so f–n’ heroic.” — George Carlin

By PJ Parrish

One of the most important decisions a novelist faces is: Who is going to tell this story?

Well, that’s easy, you say. That’s the job of the protagonist, right? Well, it isn’t always that simple, I am here to plead today. This is on my mind lately because I’m watching an excellent TV series called A Small Light, which is the retelling of the Anne Frank story.

The story of the teenage diarist is ingrained in our culture. What’s the point of rehashing it? But A Small Light is told entirely from the point of view of Miep Gies, a young Dutch woman who risked her life to shelter Anne Frank’s family from the Nazis.

Miep is just an ordinary girl trying to grow up in hard times. She’s a twentysomething slacker with no husband and no job prospects. She charms her way into a job working for Otto Frank at his company. But as the Nazis advance, Miep finds herself smuggling the Franks to the annex above Otto’s Amsterdam offices one at a time.

Anne is relegated to the margins as the story focuses on the growing relationship between Miep and Otto Frank. By shifting the spotlight to a secondary character,  the story comes alive and feels very fresh, even though we know the tragic outcome.

We mystery and thriller writers often use the word “protagonist” as a synonym for “hero.” The protag is the person who gets the call to action, solves the murder, rescues the missing child, saves the world from the incoming comet. But it’s often more complicated than that, especially given how much genre-bending and style experimentation is going on these days. The standard old blond with the great gams who asks the private dick to find her missing husband just isn’t the standard anymore.  We’ve grown beyond that.

I’m not even sure I even know what a protagonist is anymore. So let’s try some definitions. From Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop: The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story. I definitely buy that.

But the writer’s website Dramatica takes it one step further:

  • A Main Character is the player through whom the audience experiences the story first hand.
  • A Protagonist is the prime mover of the plot.
  • A Hero is a combination of both Main Character and Protagonist.

Confused? Yeah, me too. Let’s go to an example most of us know — the movie The Shawshank Redemption. But let’s look at it through its source, Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.  In King’s iconic book, Andy Dufresne’s story of injustice and escape is narrated entirely by fellow inmate Red (Morgan Freeman in the movie). The book opens with a long recitation by Red on how he got to prison and ends thusly:

I have enough killing on my mind to last me a lifetime. Yeah, I’m a regular Neiman-Marcus. And so when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked if I could smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I said it would be no problem at all. And it wasn’t.

And later, Red summarizes Andy’s opaque character:

I knew him for close to thirty years, and I can tell you he was the most self-possessed man I’ve ever known. What was right with him he’d only give you a little at a time. What was wrong with him he kept bottled up inside. If he ever had a dark night of the soul, as some writer or other has called it, you would never know. He was the type of man who, if he had decided to commit suicide, would do it without leaving a note but not until his affairs had been put neatly in order.

So in the book, who is the protagonist? I would vote for Red. Andy Dufresne is the story-driver, but Red, even though he is a “secondary” character, is the one whose heart and mind we are living in. More important, he is the one who changes the most over the course of the story. At the end, we shed tears not for Andy, but for Red.

A couple more prime examples of secondary characters who act as narrator-prisms for main characters and thus almost become “main” characters in their own right:

  • Dr. Watson. The Sherlock Holmes books are written from his point of view, all observations of Sherlock solving the crimes. Witness:

“You have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world.” My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty.”

  • Chief Bromden. In Key Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the primary conflict is between McMrphy and Nurse Ratched, but the chief is the consciousness through which we view this and Kesey’s views on mental illness.

I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.

  • Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. The true “hero” of the story is her father, Atticus, who defends an innocent man, confronts a lynch mob, and faces retaliation against his family. But the story emerges from the emotional prism of the narrator Scout. Like Red in Shawshank, Scout is the one who changes over the story. Thanks to Atticus’s heroism, she learns that evil can be lessened by compassion.

Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

While researching this post, I found out screenwriters have a name for this type of character — Supporting Protagonist. Some writers chose someone who does NOT have a central role to narrate the story. A Supporting Protagonist is someone who would normally be a secondary character but is actually the main character. It can, as in A Small Light, put a fresh spin on what’s expected.

There’s another type of protagonist that I love — what I call The Hero To Be Named Later. This is a character who emerges out of the pack or obscurity and is called upon to save the day. The reasons might vary:

Shlubb turn savior (Chief Brody in Jaws who can’t even swim)

I Didn’t Raise My Hand! (Han Solo in Star Wars, essentially a jerk who wants nothing to do with anything where he might get hurt).

Default Diva. (Ellen Ripley in Alien, who just wants to collect her paycheck and go home with her cat)

Not So Innocent Bystander. (Michael Corleone in The Godfather who sulks in the shadows until the Sonny sets).

Let’s look at the last two (two of my favorite movies, by the way). Alien opens with an ensemble cast — the crew aboard the salvage freighter Nostromo. We assume the protagonist is Captain Dallas, given his cool stewardship. But as the xenomorph picks off crewmen one by one, Ripley emerges as the badass leader.

I’ve saved the best for last. The Godfather trilogy, taken as a whole, is about Michael taking over the family business and losing his soul. But in the first movie, Vito Corleone is vividly the protagonist, with his sons in orbit around him. Sonny dismisses Michael as “that sad thing over there.” It’s not until halfway through the movie that it becomes clear that Michael is the protagonist. His father shot, abandoned in the hospital, Michael whispers: “Just lie here, Pop. I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now. I’m with you.”

Michael has looked in mirror. A protagonist is born.

 

First Page Critique: Point
Of View Is A Powerful Tool

By PJ Parrish

Our submission today is designated as a “thriller” so that’s all we know going in. The presumed protag is a 17-year-old young man. This is a rather spare sample, clocking in at just over 300 words and I wish the writer had gone on some more, up to our 400 word limit. But the beginning has promise. Let’s dive in.

WHERE PIECES FALL

Kellen Koufax sensed no pleasure in the stranger’s gaze. The young Middle Eastern woman’s straight-lined lips knotted his stomach the way he felt on Christmas morning eight years ago. No positives came from firmed expressions. Reluctance secreted in hers. The woman broke her pause inside the classroom door at Skyline High School and approached the teacher.

The woman’s blazer bulged at her waist. It identified her as someone seventeen-year-old Kellen preferred not to encounter. Not on his birthday, and not because he had committed any unforgivable crime. He chose to avoid anyone who relied on firearms to further their careers.

The teacher approached and whispered, “Kellen, this lady is from Idaho Falls Police.” Concern and curiosity infected the teacher’s tone. “She asked to speak to you in private.”

Kellen glanced at a Grizzly football teammate, shrugged, and paced to the detective’s squish-squash footfalls from the classroom to the principal’s office. The school’s guidance counselor waited with a uniformed officer. The counselor ushered Kellen and the detective into her adjoining office. The officer followed and posted himself near the door.

The detective motioned Kellen to sit in one of two chairs in front of a small desk. She sat and leaned forward. “My name is Detective Sahar Osman. I work in Idaho Falls Police Department’s Crimes Against Person’s Unit. Officers responded to a fire this morning at Sandy Downs. I’m sorry to have to tell you your father and mother did not survive.”

Kellen bowed his head. The detective’s words burst into the whoosh of red-orange flames sucking oxygen from the air while they lashed his parents who struggled to inhale their final breaths and flailed arms to beat off the flames. He flinched when a hand touched his left shoulder from behind. It was the only part of his body to sense warmth besides the tears on his cheeks. Everything else stiffened and ached as if the detective’s statement sealed him in cryonic suspension.

_________________________________

There are some good things going on here. We definitely have a disturbance in the norm — what can be worse than being called out of class to hear your parents have died in a fire? Too often, writers feel they must first world-build a “normal” day in order to make the disturbance, when it comes, feel more dreadful. I used to think this was the way to go early in my writing career. But I learned to make waves first and then explain later what was left behind in the wake. So kudos, writer, for not falling into that trap.

Other things that are good: We know who we are following, the protag’s gender, how old he is, and where we are (a real high school in Idaho Falls…I looked it up). You’d be surprised how many writers leave out this basic info.

Given the shortness of the scene, we don’t have much time to get to know Kellen or establish empathy with him. I’m sure that will come later. I wish the writer had taken the care and time to slip in a few telling details about Kellen. How do you do this? Maybe he nervously fiddles with a brand new class ring (which tells us he is about to graduate). Maybe he exchanges a nervous glance with someone specific before he leaves. (which tells us he has a good friend or even a girlfriend). Or maybe everyone stares at him weirdly or even laughs (which, in his reaction, tells us he’s a loner).  I mention this because of this line:

The woman’s straight-lined lips knotted his stomach the way he felt on Christmas morning eight years ago. No positives came from firmed expressions.

Someone happened to Kellen when he was seven that must have scarred him to the point that this stranger’s expression made his stomach knot again. This is good! This is a tease of backstory! I found it the most interesting thing in the whole submission. This opening needs a few more dabs of this kind of intrigue. The TELLING DETAIL is so important. These imprint on the reader’s mind, providing flesh on your character’s bones, a hint of intrigue and the promise of more to come. Slow down in your writing, dear writer, and look for opportunities to provide this.

Also, this is his birthday! So important for someone so young. At 17, you’re on the cusp of manhood. Kellen surely feels this. And he is being thrust, on this very special day, into a nightmare. Surely some thought crosses his mind about this as he is being ushered out by a policewoman. Again, slow down and let the drama play out more.

Okay, now I have to talk about confusion. There were a few times, I had to stop and think about what I was reading and figure it out. We call these hiccups. You don’t want hiccups in your opening. You want clarity and conveyance of plot.  I was a little confused by the opening paragraph:

Kellen Koufax sensed no pleasure in the stranger’s gaze. The young Middle Eastern woman’s straight-lined lips knotted his stomach the way he felt on Christmas morning eight years ago. No positives came from firmed expressions. Reluctance secreted in hers. The woman broke her pause inside the classroom door at Skyline High School and approached the teacher.

First, he has no reason at this point to know the policewoman is there for him. That info comes later from the teacher. UNLESS…you make a point of the teacher looking directly at him first and then the detective does. Only then would he feel targeted.

“Young Middle Eastern woman” is also confusing. Coming in the second line of the book, I hiccupped and thought we were in the Mideast somewhere. And I don’t know how Kellen can realistically pinpoint her ethnicity at a glance. Unless she’s wearing a head scarf? (Yes, women cops wear them). What’s the point of even bringing this up?

The second graph has issues as well.

The woman’s blazer bulged at her waist. It identified her as someone seventeen-year-old Kellen preferred not to encounter. Not on his birthday, and not because he had committed any unforgivable crime. He chose to avoid anyone who relied on firearms to further their careers.

The woman’s blazer does not “identify her as someone Kellen preferred not to encounter.”  The gun, which is hidden, does. Detectives wear guns on their belts, and badges. Why be coy? It’s more interesting that he sees them. And that the detective keeps staring at him!

What’s going on in the class right now? Wouldn’t there be a low hum of curiosity? Wouldn’t heads be craning toward him by now? Given our gruesome times, a cop showing up in a classroom is not a good thing for anyone. Again, you’re missing chances to up the drama and tension in your scene by moving through it too fast.

Next graph:

Kellen glanced at a Grizzly football teammate, shrugged, and paced to the detective’s squish-squash footfalls from the classroom to the principal’s office. The school’s guidance counselor waited with a uniformed officer. The counselor ushered Kellen and the detective into her adjoining office. The officer followed and posted himself near the door.

So Kellen plays football? I almost missed that detail because the wording “glanced at a Grizzly football teammate” is so awkwardly phrased. Maybe something like:

Kellen looked over at Ted. His friend’s eyes were wide with questions, Kellen looked down at his teammate’s sweatshirt, focusing on the logo of the bear print until the word GRIZZ was just a blue blur.

Personalize! Be specific. Connect. (I looked up Skyline HS, home of the Grizz) Make us feel what Kellen is feeling right now. All we get is a shrug? This, after what you told us about a knot in the stomach? I recognize teen boys can be laconic. But again, I think you’re missing a chance to inject drama.

Next graph:

The detective motioned Kellen to sit in one of two chairs in front of a small desk. She sat and leaned forward. “My name is Detective Sahar Osman. I work in Idaho Falls Police Department’s Crimes Against Person’s  Persons Unit. Officers responded to a fire this morning at Sandy Downs. I’m sorry to have to tell you your father and mother did not survive.”

Again, I have to advise the writer to slow down. Because here’s another missed opportunity to add tension. Split the detective’s dialogue into parts and let Kellen react to each new piece of info. I think she would be less blunt, for starters. And second, it gives you a beat — a second or two for Kellen to react and readers to learn something more. There’s no reason to race through this crucial scene. Sandy Downs is a real place, a equestrian arena and popular concert site. Maybe something like this:

“My name is Detective Shar Osman. I work in Idaho Falls Police Department’s Crimes Against Persons Unit.”

Kellen stared at her, not understanding. Crimes against persons?

“Our officers responded to a fire this morning at Sandy Downs,” she went on.

Sandy Downs? The horse place, the arena where they hold rodeos? I was there once, That’s where Ted and I went and saw The Cure. It burned down?

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your parents were involved and did not survive.”

One aside: Most average people (outside us crime dogs) don’t know “crimes against persons” is another name for homicide et al.  Why is a homicide detective going to a school when the crime here is arson? Since the fire was “this morning” it would not realistically be ruled homicide yet. At some point very soon this has to be addressed.

Now, you are at a critical point. Kellen’s reaction is everything here. And depending on your plot, you have to be clear on his emotions. Did his parents work there? If not, why were they there in the middle of a school day? If they DID have good reason to be there, THAT is where his thoughts go first. If they DIDN’T, then his reaction is completely different.

And I think, at 17, he’d almost not understand what she’s saying: “Did not survive” is a cop’s way of couching bad news. I can imagine him thinking:

Did not survive. Did not survive what? Wait….a fire. There was a fire. Does she mean they’re dead?

Such moments need to be that strange. People, especially kids, process awful news in an almost detached away, like they’re trying to tune in a bad radio station signal. Which leads us to the last paragraph:

Kellen bowed his head. The detective’s words burst into the whoosh of red-orange flames sucking oxygen from the air while they lashed his parents who struggled to inhale their final breaths and flailed arms to beat off the flames. He flinched when a hand touched his left shoulder from behind. It was the only part of his body to sense warmth besides the tears on his cheeks. Everything else stiffened and ached as if the detective’s statement sealed him in cryonic suspension.

I don’t think this works, for the reasons I cited above. You must give words to Kellen’s thoughts. I can buy that dreadful news creates a “whoosh” in the brain. But nothing as articulate and “writerly” as what is in this graph.

The detective’s words burst into the whoosh of red-orange flames sucking oxygen from the air while they lashed his parents who struggled to inhale their final breaths and flailed arms to beat off the flames.

What has happened here, dear writer, is that you have abandoned the view point of a 17 year old boy and lapsed into omnisicient. This is you being writerly, not Kellen feeling and reacting.

Then you need a new graph:

Kellen closed his eyes. He flinched when a hand touched his left shoulder from behind.  It was the only part of his body to sense warmth besides the tears on his cheeks. Everything else stiffened and ached as if the detective’s statement sealed him in cryonic suspension.

I think that last line needs to go. It’s a toke over the line after flames, warmth, stiffening. I doubt a 17 year old teen who’s just gotten such news thinks in terms of “cryonic suspension.”  Again, that is the writer talking, not the character thinking.

I’m not going to red line edit today because I don’t think we need it. I’ve tried to cover the main points and hope the writer takes my critique in the spirit it is intended. This is one person’s opinion, dear writer, and meant only to help you down your path. I like this set-up and would definitely read on.  But you need to get inside this young man’s head more and see this terrible event through his eyes only. Point of view is a potent tool. Put it to work for you more precisely and you’ll add more power to your story.

 

How To Tell Someone
That Their Baby Is Ugly

“I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.” — Noel Coward

By PJ Parrish

So your friend whips out the phone and before you can slither away, out come the pictures of the new baby.

“Look at that face! Have you ever seen a prettier little girl?” new dad beams.

She looks like Karl Malden. What do you say?

  1. “What a beautiful child!”
  2. “Yup, that’s some baby you’ve got there.”
  3. “Are you still within the return period?”

I ask this today because a good friend of mine has an ugly baby problem. The son of her best friend has just published his first book, a sci-fi thriller about the world maybe sorta coming to an end. She read the book while here and says it is terrible. Like terrible in cardboard characters and incomprehensible plot. And now she has to go back and face her friend. Avoiding the writer’s mom is no-go because they play pickleball every week. She asked me what to say because she knows I’ve done a ton of manuscript evaluations and I once made my living as a dance critic.

What did I tell her? I suggested that she say that the genre was not her cup of chai, and thus she isn’t the best person to judge. Which was a true lie. She never reads crime fiction, and the idea of the world ending in ether gives her the creeps. Just to be safe, I read the first couple chapters, and yeah, the book is awful. So I think I told her the right thing. I dunno. I hope so.

I have been in her position. Over the decades, many friends and co-workers have asked me to read their mystery manuscripts, and while none were butt-ugly, not a one was publishable. I gently told them their work needed work before it could be seen in the harsh light of day. (This was mainly in pre-self-pubbing era). Most took it well. Some kept trying, a few quit, one guy never spoke to me again. A good friend, who was trying to write a mystery about retired NFL players, switched to non-fiction and got published by a good small press to great blurbs and national reviews .

Ugly Dog winner Phoebe with proud parents

Brief digression. I don’t have any ugly kids. I have an ugly dog. So ugly she won the Ugly Dog Contest in Williamston, Michigan. First prize was three bags of golf-ball sized kibble, which I donated to the police canine unit. I also won a gift certificate to J&B Boots, which got me a nice pair of Italian kicks. They wrote a story about my dog in The Williamston Enterprise, which hangs framed in my office.

Giving criticism is a fine art. Our own John Gilstrap wrote about his adventures in critique groupland recently. Click here. It’s a little easier when the person you’re critiquing is a stranger and there’s no face-to-face time. But the basic rule still applies: You need to fair and you can’t crush someone’s spirit. I think about this every time I do a First Page critique here at The Kill Zone. I have a process I always go through:

  1. First, I read the whole 400 or so words quickly, without any eye toward editing. I try very hard to read it as only a reader would who has just bought the book. Does the opening pique my interest?
  2. Second, I ask myself: Do I have any prejudices against this TYPE of book that would make me unduly negative or even ignorant? For instance, I’m not a big sci-fi fan, and I’m clueless about what works in YA these days. So I read such submissions with that caveat.
  3. Next, I ask myself if the submission has something to teach all our readers. It’s not enough to just red-ink grammar mistakes or such. I look for a larger issue in each submission that can help all our writers learn.
  4. Sometimes, you get a submission that just isn’t up to snuff enough to critique. The writer hasn’t yet gotten the basics of the craft down. I decline to do these.
  5. Finally, I do a submission only if I can find something good to say about it.

That last one is important. Because I remember how hard it was to get any feedback when I was trying to publish my first mystery back in the late 1990s. Even though I had had four romances published by a big house, I was clueless about mysteries. When I showed my agent my freshman attempt, she told me I didn’t understand the unique structure of a mystery. “Go home and read,” she said. “Start with P.D. James and Michael Connelly.”

Today, when I do a critique, I use the Hamburger Method:

  • Start out by staying something nice.
  • Insert a big juicy slab of criticism.
  • End with saying something encouraging.

A few other things I’ve learned about giving criticism:

Resist the urge to fix the problem. Unless you really have the solution, it’s not a good idea to offer up the answer to another writer’s problem. You don’t know their book; you’re not inside their head. They have to find their way.
Watch your tone. Being snarky is, unfortunately, encouraged in our culture today. Be firm but kind.
Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. Your own WIP is falling apart. Your plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Your Acer died and your geek can’t do a data retrieval. Don’t take it out on someone else’s baby.
Don’t boost your own ego. Don’t go all alpha dog, using criticism to show how sharp you are. Nobody likes a bully.
Be empathetic. You’ve probably had the same problems the other guy is having. So tell him how you fixed your book’s issues.

Okay, so you’re done reading a friend’s manuscript. Or you’ve been doing your part in the weekly critique group. You’ve been kind, you’ve been constructive, you’re offering up suggestions that you think might cause a light bulb to go off over the other writer’s head. And then…

They turn on you. You don’t understand their genre. You’ve missed their plot points. You’re supposed to hate their protagonist. You’re just biased against second-person omniscient. I call these folks the Yeah Buts. “Yeah, but if you keep reading, things will get clearer.” “Yeah but if you read more dystopian Victorian zombie fiction, you’d understand what I’m going for.”

You can’t help a Yeah But. They don’t want to hear anything except how great their stuff is. Don’t get angry. You did what you could. Smile and walk away. Sometime, an ugly baby is nothing but an ugly baby with an ugly parent.

 

Mystery Cover Trends:
The Bold And The Beautiful

By PJ Parrish

Maybe it’s my art background — or more likely because I write books that I hope get noticed — but I really pay attention to book covers. I’ve been known to pass by a good book with a what-the-hell? cover (Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted) or get seduced by a meh book with a sexy cover (Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight)

Cover design is also on my mind because I’m working on my Edgar banquet stuff this week. This is my 15th year as banquet chair, and one of my duties is to put together the PowerPoint presentation of all the nominees’ book covers. I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go over that time. Some have become classic. Others, well, they belong down there with Juicy tracksuits and Nik Nik shirts. (Score yourself 5 pts if you wore a Nik Nik, 10 if you went out in public.)

Most authors are at the not-so-tender mercies of their publishers when it comes to cover design. But a lot of us also do our own covers or hire someone. A bad cover can really torpedo a book. I’ve seen some butt-ugly covers among the Edgar nominees. This year there doesn’t seem to be a dog in the bunch. So, I figure this is a good time for a quick survey course of what’s hot. (I’m covering only fiction here).

I’m thinking that fiction cover trends have stabilized in the last couple years, maybe because the industry seems to have figured out what a marketable cover should look like. Why reinvent the wheel? But then again, that kind of thinking gave us years of black covers. (Après Amy Dunne, le déluge). Those of you who publish your own stuff know the drill: Make sure your cover looks professional, reflects your book’s tone and meets genre standards. Those of you traditionally published — pray.

For a couple years now, we’ve been seeing minimalism in crime fiction covers — nothing fussy, maybe a plot-symbolic graphic, and strong typefaces with author name and title. This is baked in now, but there are some interesting break-aways as well. Here’s my rundown featuring this year’s nominees from the Edgars and the specials (Mary Higgins Clark, Lilian Jackson Braun and Sue Grafton awards):

San Serif Type. This has become the default design. Note that this approach translates well when reduced to a thumbnail on Amazon. Although I’m not sure about the white type against that pale background.

Written Type Faces. This trend emerged a couple years ago, and is still with us.

Note: All three are from the young adult category. Looking pretty scary, there.

One Strong Graphic. Another evergreen trend that has become a hallmark of crime fiction. It is seen as being symbolic of the plot usually. Many strong examples in this year’s mix. (Click any image to see larger)

Sense of Place. Conveying the story’s geographic place also continues to be popular. Some authors revel in setting (William Kent Krueger brands all of his book covers in this way). We used to do this with our Louis Kincaid series, but it started to feel dated, so we repackaged around the symbolism idea. But setting remains a favorite this year.

A Building Block. A similar device — tried and true for decades now — is to use a house or cabin as the central graphic. I’m not really crazy about this, as it always feels sort of vague to me, like the designer couldn’t quite grasp what the writer was doing. Our worst cover had a house graphic so maybe I’m just prejudiced.

But what if your setting isn’t all dark and creepy? Well, beneath that Don Johnson pink Armani lies a black heart, wouldn’t you know. I love both these covers. I’d rent a VRBO in these towns, even if there was a serial killer a-lurk.

There are also some eye-popping pure graphic design going on this year:

And some successful attempts to capture a book’s tone. Notice the nice marriages of color, typeface and graphics that convey a mood. You know immediately what kind of books these are.

One of my favorite categories, as far as cover art goes, is juvenile. One trend that remains classic in this genre is use of protagonists’ images. Maybe because kids like to identify with them so closely? Hey, I was dark, chubby and had to babysit the Heller brats, but in my dreams I was that blonde in the blue roadster.

Which leaves us with some splendid covers that defy categorization. There’s a retro vibe this year, redolent of Gorky Park, shivering spies, dicks with gats and those fun-loving Corleone boys.

To see all the nominees on Mystery Writers of America’s website, click here. And that, crime dogs, is a wrap.