…I was hoping you’d have a look and tell me if I’m on the right track.
…I was hoping you’d tell me the best way to self-publish so it will have a chance to sell.
These are all variations on a theme in emails I’ve received over the years. I’ve answered each one, but calculate that in the cumulative expenditure of time I could probably have written a novel or two. I thought I’d write this blog post so the next time I get such an email I can simply send a link!
So … Hello, hopeful first-timer! And thanks for your email.
A few thoughts:
You are not ready for an agent. Most likely, that is, for an agent is not looking for a book to sell. An agent is looking for a writer to represent, one who will be able to produce quality books (plural). And by quality, I mean something that stands out, is bold and beautiful, but also has a reasonable chance to capture a significant market share. Can you say that about this first novel? And by the way, are you developing a second novel? Have you got a great idea for a third?
I can’t read your manuscript. I am a working writer, and there are only so many hours in a day. If you attend a conference where I am reading manuscripts as part of the deal, I will have a look at your first 3000 words or so. I can tell a lot about a writer in 3k…so, by the way, can an agent or editor. But outside of that limited venue, I just don’t have the time, and I don’t read for a fee. There are good teachers who do. One of them is blog brother Larry Brooks via Storyfix.
You are probably not ready to self-publish. You could be the exception, but generally speaking your first novel is going to need a lot of work. By the way, have you heard that writing is work? Making money self-publishing is work. Tossing up books that aren’t ready for prime time is not the way to make money. Becoming a professional about things is (and I use professional in the sense of doing productive things in a systematic way). You need a plan, and business sense. Here I can recommend a book.
But you’ve finished your first novel. Congratulations! That is a big step. There are more:
Let your manuscript sit for three weeks or so. Print out a hard copy and read it as if you had just purchased the book and it’s from a brand new author. Take minimal notes, but be looking for places where things slow down or don’t work for some reason. Mark those places.
Do any fixing you can. If something’s not working, try to figure out for yourself what to do about it. Books on revision, for example, can help you here. You will learn invaluable lessons that will serve you in the future.
Write a second draft.
Show your second draft to beta readers, people you know and trust to give you specific feedback. It helps to give them a checklist of questions, like this one.
As this is your first novel, a pass from a good professional editor is a good investment.
You’re here? You’ve done all that? Good going! I trust, then, that you are at least halfway through the first draft of your next novel.
“Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.” – E.B. White
By PJ Parrish
Writers are often asked what their favorite book is. Or which one most influenced them as a writer. The first question has always been easy for me — my favorite book is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. But it has only been in the last couple years that I realized Charlotte’s Web might be one of the biggest influences in my writing life.
I fell in love with this book the first time I read it. I was maybe eight or nine, just around the age of the heroine Fern. But a couple years back, on the 60th anniversary of its publication, I decided to read it again.
What a revelation. It is, of course, maybe the most famous kid book ever. It won the Newbery and remains the bestselling children’s paperback even today. But what I didn’t realize is that it is a terrific story for adults. Like the Harry Potter books, it has a magic that transcends age and a theme that resonates deeper the older you become.
I pulled out my copy last week and read it yet again. Yes, it still holds up for me. But I also tried to look at it with different eyes and dissect how it works as a novel. It has lessons to teach any writer working in any genre.
First off, it teaches us to write from our inner selves, from the most shadowed places of our hearts. I think this is what the adage “write what you know” really means. It does not mean write about your narrow everyday world. It means write about what is essential to your unique soul.
E.B. White has said the story came from his childhood memory of being unable to save a piglet. But in his book The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims explains that in 1949, White found an spider egg sac in his Maine barn and cut the sac out of the web with a razor blade. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York. Weeks later, hundreds of spiderlings began to escape through the holes and spun webs on his hair brush, nail scissors and mirror. Thus was hatched White’s magical meditation that teaches us about life, death and the beauty of friendship.
But the book has many other things to teach us as writers.
Let’s start with the opening. I talk here often about picking the right moment to inject your reader into your conjured up world. And James writes often here about how you need to build your opening chapter around a “moment of disturbance.” Something has to happen. And it has to happen early enough in your plot to engage the reader’s interest. So how does Charlotte’s Web begin?
It’s breakfast time at the Arable family farm. Fern comes in to the table to see her father heading out to the barn with an ax. Mom tells her that one of the piglets is a runt and father is going out to do away with it.
Yikes. Gets my attention! Notice White didn’t start his story with Fern waking up in her little bedroom and thinking about the cute piglets that were born yesterday. He didn’t start it with a beautiful description of the Arable family farm. He went right for the dramatic heart. And what a great contrast he set up in our imagination: The warmth of a morning kitchen and a man leaving it with an ax on his way to a “murder.”
And is there a more chilling opening line in all of fiction: “Where’s father going with that ax?” Fern asked.
THE LESSON: Don’t waste time with pages of gorgeous description. Find the right moment to parachute the reader into your story. Build tension as quickly as you can.
Fern runs outside and we learn in a quick brushstroke that “the grass was wet and the earth smelled like springtime.” The crying Fern confronts her father that killing the piglet isn’t fair. To which dad says “you have to learn to control yourself.” Which is backstory, right? We now know Fern has a history of impetuousness. Dad relents and tells her she can bottle-feed the runt so she’ll learn how hard life can be.
THE LESSON: White sets up the protagonist’s challenge and has begun Fern’s character arc. And he starts plumbing the first level of the most important question an author must answer about motivation: What does the character want? Well, level one: Fern wants to save the pig.
We then meet her brother Avery, who wants to know why he can’t have a pig, too. Dad says “I only distribute pigs to early risers. Fern was up at daylight trying to rid the world of injustice.” (Level two: Fern wants the world to be just)
White then slows things down with a nice narrative about how Wilbur the pig thrived under Fern’s care. But then Dad says that Wilbur is old enough to be sold to the Zuckermans. Fern cries but Wilbur is banished to a manure pile.
THE LESSON:Your plot must have a series of setbacks for the heroine to deal with and overcome.
Chapter 3 opens with a long and lovely description of the Zuckerman barn. Because the plot is chugging along now, readers will be willing to slow down.
THE LESSON: Good pacing isn’t just a matter of full speed ahead. You have to know when to slow down and let the reader catch his breath. A good plot is a roller coaster with a series of tense climbs, terrifying plunges, and areas where you coast along – “whew!” – while you anticipate the next dip.
We then switch to Wilbur’s point of view as he meets the barnyard animals, each one indelibly drawn, especially the goose who helps Wilbur escape and Templeton the rat who steals his food. Fern hasn’t been to see him and Wilbur feels lonely and friendless.
THE LESSON: Don’t neglect secondary characters. Make them vivid and useful to the main character, be it a sidekick, foil, confidante – or a nefarious rat. Good secondary characters are prisms through which reader “see” the main character.
Speaking of secondary characters…has there ever been a finer one then Charlotte the spider? From her first lines – “Do you want friend, Wilbur? I’ve watched you all day and I like you” – we can’t help but love her. She’s smart (“Salutations! It’s just my fancy way of saying hello!”) and pretty and good at catching flies.
Wilbur is appalled by the fact she traps and eats bugs. He thinks she’s cruel. But in a matter-of-fact monologue, Charlotte explains that is what her kind has always done, that flies would take over the world if not for spiders, and besides, she fends for herself while he depends on the farmer to bring a slop pail.
THE LESSON: Never be content to create cardboard characters. Make every character as rich as you can — they are lightness and darkness — and find ways to make readers understand your characters’ complexities.
Next, the plot turns dark when the goose tells Wilbur he’s being fattened up to become Christmas ham dinner. Wilbur is distraught but Charlotte says, “Don’t worry, I’ll save you.”
THE LESSON: All good plots are a series of setbacks. Wilbur thickens and so does the plot.
In Chapter 9, in what feels like a digression with no relation to the plot, Charlotte explains to Wilbur and Fern why she has so many legs and how she makes a web.
THE LESSON: Readers like to learn things about how the world works, but you have to weave such narratives subtly into your plot or they are boring or worse, preachy. Don’t show off your research. Have it relate to your characters. White slips in this factoid: It took eight years to build the Queensborough Bridge but Charlotte says this only to comment that men “rush rush rush every minute…”
Then we come to the “The Miracle.” Charlotte conjures up a plan to save Wilbur by weaving the words SOME PIG into her web. The Zuckermans are gobsmacked and decide Wilbur is special. People flock to see the miracle pig.
THE LESSON: Give your characters setbacks to overcome, but a good plot also includes triumphs, which usually escalate as the climax nears.
Charlotte worries that people are getting bored with SOME PIG so she gets Templeton the rat to go fetch some words from magazines that she can copy into the web. She weaves TERRIFIC and then RADIANT. The excited Zuckermans think of ways to exploit their pig.
THE LESSON: Always look for ways to up the ante, increase the stakes.
Chapter 14 is titled “The Crickets.” It’s a lovely descriptive dirge about the dying of summer. School would start soon. The goslings are growing up. The maple tree turns red with anxiety. “The crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.”
THE LESSON:A little foreshadowing and mood is good but don’t be heavy-handed. Let it flow naturally from your setting. This is also White telling us what the theme of his story is – that life is about the inevitability of sadness and change.
The Zuckermans take Wilbur to the county fair for display. Charlotte, who needs to lay her eggs, reluctantly agrees to come along. At the fair, Wilbur is worried about a rival pig taking top prize and tells Charlotte to spin a special word for him. Charlotte confides that she’s not feeling well – “I feel like the end of a very long day” — but she promises to try. The cool of the evening comes and everyone is bedding down. White give us this wonderful dialogue between two old friends.
“What are you doing up there, Charlotte?”
“Oh, making something,” she said.
“Is it something for me? ” asked Wilbur.
“No,” said Charlotte. “It’s something for me, for a change.”
“Please tell me what it is,” begged Wilbur.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” she said. “When the first light comes into the sky and the sparrows stir and the cows rattle their chains, when the rooster crows and the stars fade, when early cars whisper along the highway, you look up here and I’ll show you something. I will show you my masterpiece.”
THE LESSON: Yes, you should tug on the heartstrings. But whatever emotion you are going for must be well-earned. We have come to know and love these characters and as White moves us toward his climax, we have a soft dread in our hearts. Every emotion he has invested in this scene has come organically. Nothing feels tacked-on or artificial. Everything has pointed toward this logical end.
The fair opens and Wilbur, standing under Charlotte’s latest spun-word HUMBLE, wins a special prize. At night, left alone, Wilbur listens to fading Charlotte deliver her poignant speech about death and renewal:
“Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world…Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur, this lovely world, these precious days…”
“Why did you do all this for me? ” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
THE LESSON: Don’t neglect your theme. It is the heart of your machine, purring beneath the grind of your plot. When you are asked, “What is your book about?” the answer is never about its plot. It is about its theme.
Then, of course, Charlotte dies. Here is how White ends this chapter:
“Good-bye!” she whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him. She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.
THE LESSON: Sometimes you must kill off a sympathetic character. If it serves your plot and it is not gratuitous, the reader will accept it. But it must have a feeling of inevitability so that when the readers comes to this point they are sad but acknowledge there was no other way.
Chapter 22 is titled “A Warm Wind.” Life at the farm resumes its cycle. The snows melt, the sparrow chicks hatch. The last remnants of Charlotte’s tattered web float away. Wilbur misses Charlotte but one morning, her egg sac – which he had carefully brought back to the farm in his mouth – erupts and her babies emerge. Wilbur is happy to meet the new spiders but one day Zuckerman opens the barn and a soft wind carries the babies away. Wilbur is crushed, thinking he has lost his new friends. But three of Charlotte’s daughter stay and begin weaving webs above him.
THE LESSON: Don’t neglect the denouement. A powerful story doesn’t end at the climax. There should be a tail to the tale wherein you wrap up some loose ends if needed, update readers on time passage and what has happens to some of the characters. In White’s story, of course, the denouement is also a coda of hope. Life goes on. Depending on the tone of your story, a happy ending might not be in your recipe. But a hint of redemption or hope is never a bad thing.
Which goes to the point of theme. In the final chapter, the narrative recounts the passage of months and years. Fern, growing up, doesn’t come to the barn much. But every year, Wilbur has new spider friends – the offspring of his good friend Charlotte. Here’s the last graph of the book.
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.
THE LESSON: Bring it home. Your ending graphs are as important as your opening ones. A good story is circular in that it wraps back around itself, weaving a web of logic and emotion that captures your reader and leaves them with a feeling of satisfaction.
Well, it’s time. It’s Tuesday, Nov. 8 and you have to make a choice.
No…not that one. We here at The Kill Zone are fiercely apolitical, so what you do today in the privacy of your little curtain or cubbyhole is your business alone. I’m talking about more important choices today -– about your novel.
But first, let’s pause for a short break. I am PJ Parrish and I approve this message:
Shoot, I’d vote for this guy. He makes as much sense as anybody running today. Okay, back to regular programming.
When you sit down to write a novel, you may not realize it, but you will be — for the next six months to six years it takes you to finish — constantly making choices. Some of these choices will be as big and strategic as picking your characters and plot. Others will be tactical choices like grammar, word choice, use of imagery, punctuation, chapter length, even book length. These latter choices are all really important and we’ve covered all of these topics here at TKZ. But today, let’s hone in on the big choices.
Yes, we’ve covered these a lot here, too. But on this, ahem, really yuge election day, I think it’s a good time for review.
The Ten Most Important Choices You Make About Your Novel
1. Who’s story is this? This sounds simplistic, but you must be clear about who you are going to focus on for your readers to follow. Now usually (but not always), you want to chose a single protagonist, one main person who will be challenged, who will triumph (heroic) or fail (tragic), and who will be the central figure in the story’s plot arc.
Can you have more than one protag? Well, yes. But in my humble opinion, a dual (or multiple protag) book is harder to pull off. Why? Because unless you are really good at weaving the threads of plot and motivation, you will probably understand or even favor one protag over another — and readers will really miss that person when they are “off stage.”
I recently critiqued a manuscript whose author couldn’t make this choice. She had created four equal main characters, but none really captured my interest. I asked the writer why she had done this and she said that her “real” protag was her setting. I advised her to go read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The “region of supernatural wonder” can be the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or a bar in Cleveland, if you want. But we must have someone to care about, someone we are willing to follow for 300 pages.
2. Where am I? It surprises me how often writers neglect this. Yes, all fiction takes place somewhere, but unless you make that your setting come alive in your reader’s imagination, you are just moving characters against a cardboard backdrop. Do you need to “write what you know?” Not really. You needn’t have lived in Belle Epoque Paris to be convincing, but you need to do your homework and create not reality but verisimilitude (the appearance or being real and convincing). Do your homework (Guest poster Barbara Nickless had a good take on this yesterday.)
And establish your setting very early in your story. Readers need to know where they are from the get-go, and while you don’t want to slow things down in your opening chapter(s) with too much description, you need to begin setting your scene early. And no, hanging one of those pitiful little taglines on chapter one — QUANTICO, VIRGINIA — won’t cut it.
Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.
That’s one of my favorite opening lines from Thomas Harris. He didn’t need a tagline, just those fabulous final five words.
3. What’s your point of view? So who is going to be your narrator? Sometimes, this can be a secondary character. Jay Gatsby is the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s classic, but the story is related by Nick Carraway. Most likely, your narrator will be your protagonist. So do you use first person or third person? Your choice. First-person is more immediately intimate because having your protag relate everything via “I saw” “I did” or “I thought” you establish a tight bond with the reader. But this is also very limiting as everything must be filtered through one prism. I think first is harder to write than third. Why? Because if you whiff on motivation, if you don’t grasp every nuance of your protag’s psyche, your narrator will feel flat. And if he’s boring, well, shoot…there goes the reason to turn the page.
Having trouble with this? Switch from first to third or vice versa. You may discover the plot you are dealing with demands the richer variety and complexity of a third-person vantage point. Or you might need multiple third-person POVs. Your protag may be doing a Diana Ross but she might need Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard backing her up.
Time for another break. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:
I’d vote for that guy, too. He’s crazy but at least he’s honest. Back to your book:
4. What’s the best entry point? Let’s start with a premise: A rich teenage girl disappears from in front of a nightclub in London, snatched by a man re-inacting Jack the Ripper murders. A disgraced female cop who’s trying to reconnect with her own estranged daughter gets the case. Where do you start this story?
Bad starts: From victim’s POV: She wakes up, eats breakfast, has testy phone call with mom and later that night goes to nightclub. Cop’s POV: She’s sitting at her desk, thinking about her bad job and her lost relationship with daughter. From killer’s POV: he is watching girl exit the nightclub thinking about what he is going to do with her.
Why are these bad? The first is throat-clearing. Yes, you might want to establish sympathy for the victim but you can do this after she is gone or even in a few good tense ACTIVE moments in the nightclub. The second example is back story that should be dribbled in as the plot begins to unfold. The third example, while it sounds juicy, it has become a giant cliche. If you open this way, it must really be original, and you will then need to go back to the killer’s POV at other times in the book or the opening scene feels tacked on and artificial.
When considering where to start: Get in as late as possible but still be clear in what has already happened. Pick a moment where something is happening or about to happen, where a status quo is changing, where someone is about to be challenged.
Prologues? That’s a whole post in itself. I generally don’t like them because they are almost always mis-used. If you have one, cut it out and see if you can start your story in chapter 1. Betcha it works.
5. What does your hero want? Ray Bradbury said all you have to do is figure out what your hero wants then just follow him. Easy for him to say! Plumbing the depths of motivation is the key to creating characters who live on the page. I’ve written about this often because I think that once you, the writer, can answer this question, everything falls into place. It’s helpful to think of “want” as having many levels. In Silence of the Lambs, what does Clarise Starling want? Easy — to catch Buffalo Bill. But go deeper into her psychological basement:
To catch Buffalo Bill
To save Kathryn
To prove she can make it among the boys of the FBI academy
To impress her boss Bill Crawford
To make her dead father proud
To silence the lambs (her demons over being orphaned as an innocent girl)
Do this for your protag, then for your villain and everyone in your book if you can. Remember what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
6. What happened? This is simplistic, too, but needs to restated: Something has to go south fast. As you concentrate on character, don’t neglect story. Your hero needs an obstacle to overcome. As Stephen King says in On Writing: “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.” You must create obstacles for your hero to overcome (Sheriff Brody in Jaws has not just a killer shark to hunt down but he has to deal with a dumb mayor, a rift in his team (Quint and Hooper) and he can’t swim. I love what sci-fi fantasy author Nancy Kress says about plot: “Fiction is about stuff that’s screwed up.”
Uh-oh…we gotta break again. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:
I’d definitely vote for that guy, but I think Ted Cruz might gnaw him down to bones. Back to your choices:
7. What are you trying to say? Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Well, yeah, I sorta of agree with that. Especially since I just finished a mystery that was about meth addiction in Appalachia. It was good but after a while I just thinking, “enough with the drug thing. Who killed that old man?” The writer was so enamored with his message, it let the story go flaccid. However…
Great books are always about a theme. Herman Melville said, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” So Moby Dick is not just a fish tale. It is about man’s inability to know God. But merely good books also have something to say. You can hear the theme humming soft and steady beneath the clanging machinery of the plot. At its best, a theme has some sort of meaning to your protagonist, even in genre fiction. Which brings to mind Joseph Wambaugh’s quote, “It’s not how the detective works the case but how the case works on the detective.” This is a little facile, but here’s an interesting list of common fiction themes — everything from abuse of power to xenophobia.
8. What do I call this? Let’s talk about titles. I know, I know…you don’t want to because titles are hard. And if I know you, you’ve probably slapped something gawd- awful on your work in progress just so you can find it in your computer. But here’s the thing: A good title can make or break your chances out there. I’d go so far to say it’s the single biggest marketing decision you will make. A good title is a neon sign to your readers, not just luring them in but signaling in shorthand what your story is about. And maybe most important, a good title helps you, the writer, understand at a very basic level what your book is about. You need to think about this until your brain hurts. You need to wake up in a cold sweat at night over this. Don’t settle.
What makes for a great title? It’s pithy, it has promise. It’s a tease and a tell. It’s memorable, original, and easy to say. It boils your entire story down its essence and conveys its heart. This topic needs its own post to do it justice, so for now, just Google and read up on the good advice out there. Good titles: Hunger Games. The Last of the Mohicans. To Kill a Mockingbird. Bad: I can’t print most of them here. Click here.
Another break? Geez. I’m PJ Parrish and I’m getting tired of approving messages.
It’s all a blur but I am pretty sure I voted for that guy. I like his wife. Maybe she’ll run someday…
Back to your own choices:
9. What is my tone? This is important but sort of slippery to grasp. It’s important, however, because if the tone of your book is off, you’re going to have trouble selling it to agents and editors or, if publishing it yourself, finding your target audience. The tone is your attitude or feelings toward your subject matter. You convey this through your style, word choice, and through the personalities of your characters. If you’re writing for a genre audience, getting your tone right is important because readers have certain expectations. A reader looking for light romance suspense doesn’t want to open your book and discover halfway through that you’ve started out light and descended to a darker place. Likewise, if like me, you prefer darker fare, you don’t want to be misled in the opposite direction.
Your chosen tone can be whimsical, humorous, gloomy, ironic, hardboiled, neo-noir, …you pick it. But you must be honest and consistent. Years ago, I wrote an amateur sleuth novel that I thought was peachy. It was roundly rejected, despite the fact I had a good track record with my current series. What happened? My tone started out light and wacky but veered toward the dark about halfway through. Two editors even used the same words in their rejection letters: “Loved the writing but it’s neither fish nor fowl.” I learned a lesson — I can’t maintain soprano when my true voice is contralto.
10. Do I finish this book or start over? No one can help you with this, but it’s something you have to ask yourself as you move along. Not every book needs to be finished. Some are exercises of sorts to help you learn. Others might be short stories instead of novels. And then there is the question of stamina and confidence. If you do believe in your story, then yes, you need to finish it. Even if it never gets published, it won’t be wasted effort. Every successful writer out there has unpublished manuscripts moldering in bottom desk drawers or lurking on old thumb drives. You need to finish something. Just for the knowledge that you can do it.
I’ll leave you with a telling quote from Erica Jong: “I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”
Yes, you will. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s called being a professional writer.
And finally, one last break. I’m PJ Parrish, and I think this candidate speaks for all of us very weary voters out there:
Well, well. It’s been awhile since I wandered into the Killzone. I love what you’ve done with the place. I figure it’s been about six years since I took my hiatus from these halls. I see lots of familiar faces, and a happy number of new ones as well. Now, if you’ll excuse me for just a second, let me go to the fireplace and turn my coffee cup around so it’s facing front again.
When I departed the Killzone after its first three years, I did it in part because the pressures of my day job—which required an insane amount of overnight travel—combined with my annual book contracts left me with too little time to do justice to everything. Something had to go, so the voluntary commitment bit the dust.
Effective January of last year, I departed that day job after 10½ years, and while I’m still busy as hell, there’s room again in the schedule for blogging. When I reached out to my buddy Jim Bell to see if there might be room for a returning emeritus, I learned that Joe Moore was planning his departure, and here we are.
I thought it appropriate for my first foray back into blogdom to talk about making the decision to quit the day job. Most artists have dreamed of turning their back on the workaday world and throwing their entire being into writing or singing or painting or . . . well, you get it. How do you know when it’s time (or if it’s okay) to pull the trigger on a job—or, in my case, on a 35-year career? (I am/was a safety engineer by training and degree, with a special emphasis on explosives, hazardous materials, firefighting and various metals processing operations.)
As a rule, I discourage people from making the jump to full-time writing unless they have a financial backstop—a working spouse, perhaps, with a dependable income stream and employer-paid insurance. I for sure discourage people who have never published a book, or who perhaps have published only one or two okay-performers from making the leap.
Full disclosure: I’m a planner and a risk avoider. I don’t roll the dice on important stuff.
In my world view, you always take care of family first. The baby’s got to have food and diapers, the teenagers have to have as good a shot at a great launch as you can give them. My own experience shows that writing success can be achieved just as well as a part-time endeavor as it can be from a full-time commitment. For me, it played out like this:
Books 1 & 2: Written part time, while working 60 to 80 hours a week.
Books 3, 4 & 5: Written full-time, but supplemented by income from screenplays and insurance paid for by the Writers Guild of America.
Books 6 thru 14: Written part time while working a day job that required nearly 200 nights of travel per year.
Books 15 & 16: Written full-time.
If you’ve got a passion for writing, you’ll find a way to make it work, one way or another. In the vast pantheon of people who tell stories on the page, relatively few of them do so full time. And of those who do, my experience shows that they have a working spouse, or have retired and have an additional source of income. In my own case, I spent 20 years investing and saving for this moment, to the point that if the book market crashes, we’ll still make ends meet.
So, how do you know if you’re ready for the switch to full-time writing? Well, obviously mileage will vary, but here are a few questions to ask yourself.
Can you afford it?
Only you know what your lifestyle needs are, and how much cash flow you require to support it. Only you know how much risk you’re willing to take, and what sacrifices you’re willing to make. Still, here are some realities to consider (We’ll assume that you’re married without dependent children, you’re a 50-year-old sole bread-winner making $100,000 per year from writing alone, and that you live in Fairfax, Virginia):
1. 15% comes off the top for agent commission, leaving you with $85K in taxable income.
2. The $85K puts you in the 25% tax bracket, so $21,250 goes to Uncle Sam.
3. Of the remaining $63,750, you’ll owe another $4,400 to Virginia.
4. That brings us to $59,350.
5. Now remember that since you’re self-employed, you need to cover both the employer and employee share of FICA, so that’s another 15% of taxable income, or $12,750, leaving you with $46,600 to pay bills.
6. Don’t forget health insurance, which is far too moving a target to guess at a number, but plan on about $1,000 per month, provided you stay healthy.
7. Of your $100,000, then, you’ve only got about $34,600 left in truly discretionary income.
The killers here are the 7.5% employer’s share of FICA and the health insurance. For my wife and I, who are both healthy yet take some medications, our insured healthcare costs will approach $30,000 per year until we reach the age of 65.
If you’re on the edge of making the move to full-time artist, invest in both a good lawyer and a good accountant to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of incorporation, and on the structure of the corporation you form.
Can you handle the loneliness?
The first time I left a day job to write full-time, loneliness proved to be my Achilles heel. It’s not that I’m not content keeping my own company, but rather that as a Type A extrovert, I missed the water cooler action. Spending the day playing with your imaginary friends can get to be pretty isolating if you let it.
Are you ready to turn your passion into a real job?
It’s a big deal to entrust your financial future to an industry as capricious as the entertainment business, where your reputation and paycheck are literally tied to your latest effort. Readers’ tastes change, publishers go out of business, editors and agents retire. Any one of those events—or any one of a bajillion others, for that matter—can turn current success on its ear. And you’ll have to adapt. It’s no different than any other business, but in my experience, creative people start a writing business with far less preparation and due diligence than the average entrepreneur. Don’t make that mistake.
Whether you’re traditionally published or you choose the far more challenging self-publishing route, this job is as much about marketing and business management as it is about creativity. While your expenses are tax deductible, they are not free. Those expense reports you used to turn in to the accounting office for reimbursement are now paid out of your own funds. That short story that you used to squeeze out free of charge for a charity anthology now represents real opportunity costs that are measured in real dollars.
Will you be happy with your decision five years from now?
Back when Joy and I were first married, my mother counseled that if we waited to have children or buy a house until we thought we could afford them, we’d never have children and we’d be renting forever. Sometimes, making the decision casts the future. Failure is not an option.
There’s no such thing as security in any job market these days. We all know people who have been laid off without ceremony after having dedicated decades of their lives to the company they loved. Business is business, after all, and there’s rarely room for mercy from the corner offices.
It could be argued that shifting from what I used to call a Big Boy Job to a creative job is no more or less risky than leaving Google to go to work for Apple. They’re all big steps.
Don’t give up at half time. Concentrate on winning the second half. — Bear Bryant
By PJ Parrish
Are you ready for some football?
Wait, wait! Come back! Give me second chance. I promise this will be about writing. But it is the first week of the season and I really love football. This is how much:
I have a collector’s Plexiglas box of Wheaties with Dan Marino on the front.
I used to have Dolphin season tickets and on December 16, 2007, when Cleo Lemon threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Greg Camarillo to end a 16-game losing streak, I cried like Wayne Huizinga.
I was for years the proud coach of the Killer Chihuahuas, (see logo above) my fantasy football team that made the playoffs four straight years and would have won in year four if Brett Favre hadn’t gone south on me in the last three games.
Okay, okay…I promised to talk about writing. If you hang here at TKZ, you know I love a good metaphor, so I am going to offer up some football strategy that might help you get your Work In Progress down the field, into the red zone and over the goal line. I feel compelled to do this because I myself need a good locker room talk right now. I am up in Michigan staying at my sister Kelly’s place, working on our book. We are on page 244 and we are struggling badly. It feels like we’re deep into the fourth quarter, we’ve been trudging up and down the field in the mud forever, we’re tired and sore, and haven’t scored a point.
Team Parrish can’t SEE the end zone, let alone get into it.
This past Sunday, while we worked, we had the Lions-Colts game on mute in the background. Toward half-time, dispirited and disgusted, I closed the lap-top and told Kelly, “I need a break.”
I popped a Faygo Rock and Rye, turned up the sound and watched the game.
Then came half time. But I wasn’t hearing Kenny Albert and Moose Johnston. I was hearing our own James Scott Bell in his post a while back about how every writer should take a break around the halfway mark and assess how far they had come and where they needed to go.
So I told Kelly that we needed to go back and see what had gone wrong (and right) in the first half and make adjustments. She went to Walgreens and came home with a poster board and some Post-Its. We spent the next two hours laboriously mapping out, chapter-by-chapter, day by day, where our story had gone. It looked like this: You’ll see that we seemed to make a lot of mistakes and needed a bunch of different colored Post-Its. (More on that to come). And that toward 6 p.m., we were compelled to strengthen our beverage of choice from Faygo to wine. But by laying out this PHYSICAL map of our book, we were able to see things that we couldn’t see on the computer screen or even on the printed manuscript. Things like:
We had a good juicy set-up, we laid out the hero’s problem, and we sent him off on his quest. But…
We had four chapters in a row of slow build-up and scene setting that could easily be winnowed down to two chapters. Foul: lazy writing.
We had one day (in book time) that ran three chapters and it defied the laws of physics for Louis to go where he did and accomplish what we needed him to do without him stopping for eat and sleep. Foul: stuffing 10 pounds of plot into a 1-pound calendar day.
We forgot to introduce a character early on who magically shows up later. Foul: brain-farting.
We had a subplot going on off camera that, in calendar-time, did not match up with the on-camera plot. We needed the sub-plot character to drive from Michigan’s upper peninsula to mid-state in time to do a nefarious deed. Problem was, it takes a minimum of 8.5 hours for this drive to happen and this guy would’ve needed wings to get down-state. Foul: Not doing homework via a simple Google Maps check.
Some of you TKZ regulars might recognize our Post-It Method of Plotting. I’ve written about it here before. But for some reason, Kelly and I neglected to do it for this WIP, and here we are, well into the third quarter, and we need to make Bill Belichick-worthy game adjustments if we are going to pull this one out of the dumpster. Here is a close-up of the finished map:
What’s with the colors? The chapter-by-chapter plot map is done in pale yellow. The gold Post-It is sub-plot that is going on at the same day(s) of what yellow note it is next to. This is how we found out our bad guy couldn’t make that long drive in time. The pale pink note is the time-line of the central murder that happened in the near-past. The blue notes are back-story dates of everything that happened BEFORE the story begins. The purples are just inserts and correx that we will make later. This book is third-person single point of view (Louis, who always gets pale yellow). In past books, we have used multiple POVs and switch to other colors for each POV so we can make sure at a glance that no one character, especially a secondary one, is getting too much on-camera time and stealing the spotlight from Louis.
So how does Team Parrish feel coming out of this half-time locker room break and strategy session? Full of cautious confidence. We started out this book full of hope and ambition. But as the game wore on, we just sort of flailed and fumbled around out on the field, hoping we could make progress by blind luck and maybe a last-minute field goal. This is how the Jets play every single year. Or the Browns, whose fans show up at games carrying banners saying “We Still Have LeBron.” You want to be Seattle. Or the Pats, who find a way to win even with Brady on the bench for four games.
What am I trying to say here? Well, it’s a variation on what all the good folks here at TKZ preach. Have a good work ethic. (you don’t want to be giving up in mid-season just because you’re a little gassed). Have a good strategy going in. (a great idea or at least a fresh take on an old one). Devise a game plan and keep to it. (that means for some of you out there outlining). Stop at each quarter or at least half-time and see what has gone right and what had failed. Be flexible enough to make adjustments. Don’t quit, because as the great sports sage Yogi Berra said, it ain’t over til it’s over.
And with that, I leave you with a few classic football cliches that are actually good advice for us writers:
You gotta work with what’s working. This is a variation on the more erudite “You go with what brought you to the dance.” If you’re a hard-boiled type at heart, maybe you shouldn’t try YA romantic zombie fiction just because it’s hot. Yes, stretch yourself, but don’t be crass. Readers smell insincerity a mile away.
It’s important to give the ball right back to the guy who lost it. Yes, you can make mistakes. In fact, they help you grow. If you’ve had a setback, be it a rejection letter, a bad review or just loss of confidence, don’t let it defeat you. Favre is the leading career fumbler of all time. You think that when he put the rock on the ground, he thought about quitting? Heck no. The guy took risks. (Though the Killer Chihuahuas never forgave him for that last season…)
He heard footsteps. This is the wide receiver who feels a defender gaining on him so he takes his eye off the ball. For you, this means, don’t let distractions cripple you. This can mean anything from the little — social media, chores, research — to major distractions — envy over other’s success, people who tell you that you’ll never get published.
He ran east and west instead of north and south. Or as Dan Dierdorf put it: “You gotta keep the axis of your body perpendicular to the goal line.” For writers, this means always moving forward and maintaining momentum. This is my biggest problem because I become stalled in an insane quest for perfection when I should be grinding out that first draft. I spent too much time running east and west instead of heading toward the goal line. Don’t be like me. Be a downhill runner.
It’s a game of inches. Success in publishing almost always comes hard and gradually. You pound away at that keyboard, bang your head up against big forces that feel like they are bent on keeping you back. You spend months, years, on your WIP and only manage to move a few yards forward. But this is how it’s done. Slow and steady. And you never, ever, come prepared to play only one game because you must…
Take it one game at a time. Finish that book, get it out there somehow and then start the next one. And as you do this you will…
Leave it all on the field. You gave it everything you had because, of course…
There’s no tomorrow.
Here’s to a good, healthy season. And hey, the Lions won. That is enough to give anyone hope.
I write a lot about creative permission because permission is a big deal. As kids we have to obtain permission to do things. As adults, the permission must come from inside of us.
Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, I heard a woman tell a story in a counseling group. It moved me deeply, and I’ve never forgotten it because it feels elemental to the notion of creativity and giving oneself permission to be creative. Let’s call the woman Eleanor (after one of my favorite, very inhibited characters from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House).
Eleanor had a much younger brother named Joshua. Like many oldest children, Eleanor was a rule-follower, cautious about interacting with the world because she wanted to do everything just right. Joshua, she said, was a free spirit and into everything. She loved him, but she didn’t understand why he seemed to be allowed to get away with doing things that she wasn’t allowed to do. One thing that truly tormented her was Joshua’s habit of building pretend “fires” that he set up around the house. The “fires” were heaps of toys and shoes and pillows that he gathered into great, unwieldy piles. I imagine what it must have been like, gathering all those things, pretending that they were a giant blaze, right in the middle of the living room. It kind of sounds like a lot of fun to me. Kind of is an important qualification here. While I am no neatnik, the idea of making a mess on purpose stresses me out.
Because Eleanor was older, she was required to help Joshua put out his fires. Read: clean up the mess. From a parenting perspective, this is problematic. While it’s a great idea to let kids have free reign with their creativity, it’s not fair (maybe not quite the word I’m looking for) to make your other kids pay for it. Eleanor was not invited in on the fun of building the fires. Ever. They were her brother’s privilege, and she felt like–indeed she was–the clean up crew. As the adult Eleanor talked about the fires, her anger, frustration, and sadness were in her voice and written on her face. Inside, her little kid was obviously heartbroken.
The leader of the session suggested that Eleanor build a fire in the middle of our meeting room. She was reluctant, but we cheered her on and contributed our shoes, neckties, purses, notebooks, coats…anything we had on hand. It was fun and silly and interesting to watch another adult playing that way. Her tears disappeared as she built the fire. They were back after it was all over, but they were happy tears.
Those of us who often feel inhibited creatively can come up with a million reasons why we feel that way. I’m a big fan of psychological therapy because it helps answer the why questions. It feeds the part of my brain that wants answers and loves to build a narrative. But what happens after you recognize the whys? Recognizing them doesn’t make them go away. We’re still Eleanor, angry at ourselves and often others because we can’t seem to give ourselves permission to build fires, write books, paint pictures, dance…dream.
Eleanor received permission from the counselor to make a mess. But she didn’t have to do what he said. She made the choice to gather up our things and put them in a pile in the middle of the room. How easy it would be if we all had a counselor, a therapist, a BFF, a coach, a PARENT there every moment to tell us it was okay to go ahead and DO THE SCARYFUNWILDINTERESTINGCHALLENGINGPROFITABLERISKY THING. But, no. It’s not healthy for adults to have someone tell them what to do every moment. It has to come from inside us.
Where’s the self-trust to do risky, creative things if it didn’t come boxed with our Adult Operating System? That’s a toughie. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you make it.
Sometimes we have to play a role. Fool ourselves. Pretend that we don’t think that what we’re going to do will be an utter and absolute failure and that someone is going to yell at us if we leave a big, flaming, awesome MESS right out there where everyone can see it. That we don’t care if someone else has to help clean it up. (Writer Protip: professional editors!)
We have to be Joshua. Joshua unleashed. Joshua at play.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent an awful lot of time being Eleanor. Afraid. Worried. Even angry. As much as I write, I’ve never quite been able to be Joshua. Joshua never holds back. Joshua has a great time, and his only concern is the height of his fire. I’ve held back, even when I thought I was being my most creative and pushing at the limits. They were limits, yes, but they were limits set by the Eleanor inside me. Safety limits. Comfort limits.
Here’s the thing: If you’re Eleanor, and you decide one day you’re going to take a chance and let your inner Joshua out to play, don’t worry that you’ll go too far. Eleanor will still be there, watching, setting limits, not letting you run out into traffic (even if sometimes she secretly wants to throw you into it). You have nothing to lose. I promise.
As writers, we need to play, play, play. That’s what we’re here for–to entertain. To have fun so our readers can have fun with it too.
Are you Joshua? Are you Eleanor? Both? Do you have to reign yourself in, or give yourself a big kick in the permission pants to get those words on the page?
Happening now over at Goodreads: To get ready for the October 11 release of my latest gothic suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, enter to win all three standalone books in the Bliss House series.
Mysteries give us more than a cracking good story. They give us the justice we can’t get in real life. Consider what happened to me: Brain Storm is my new Angela Richman death investigator mystery. Like me, Angela went to the ER after four days of blinding migraines. Angela and I didn’t go to any hick hospital. Oh, no. Our temple of healing proclaimed itself one of the “50 best hospitals” in America. The neurologist on call was a respected and honored physician. He told Angela – and me – that we were “too young and fit to have a stroke,” then ordered us to come back four days later for a PET scan.
Never happened. Angela and I had six strokes, including a hemorrhagic stroke, and were hauled back to the hospital. The ER doc told my husband I’d be dead by morning. The paramedics said, “Sorry about your wife, man.” But a brash brain surgeon said he could save us, and he did. Angela and I were in a coma for a week, and spent three months in the hospital. It took me nearly four years to fully recover.
During that recovery, Angela and I were buried under an avalanche of bills. We discovered that top-ranked hospital excelled at billing scams. The billing office charged Angela and me $3,000 for a hysterectomy we didn’t have. I can’t tell you how many blood tests or X-rays I had in the hospital, but a womb is a body part a woman keeps track of.
And that’s where our stories diverge. The truth, I’m sorry to say, is far less satisfying than fiction. If you want to write accurate mysteries, you need to know what happens in real life. Then you can decide how realistic you want to make your fictional world.
The hospital was indicted for scamming me, right?
Nope, they’re still ripping off patients. When I saw the insurance company’s Explanation of Benefits (EOB), I called the hospital billing office, figuring they’d made an honest mistake. I told the BO woman,”You’ve billed me $3,000 for a hysterectomy. I was in for brain surgery. Wrong end.”
Ms. BO said, “Oh, honey, we didn’t bill you. We billed your insurance company.”
Wrong answer, sweetheart. I wrote a letter to every member of the hospital board and then filed a complaint with the insurance company. The insurance company requested a copy of every paper, record, and file with my name on it. The paperwork filled a double-wide copy-paper box. The hospital removed the names of their board members from their Website. If you call and ask for the board’s names, they won’t tell you.
In Brain Storm, the feds come down on that hospital like a ton of bedpans, and lawsuits popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.
The brain surgeon who saved my life was commended by the hospital and the neurologist who misdiagnosed me was suspended and lost his privileges to treat patients.
Nope. In real life, the doctor who misdiagnosed me is still a respected physician at that same hospital. In his spare time, he happily testifies on behalf of insurance companies. His colleagues refused to testify against him. I hope he’s on call if they show up at the ER with stroke symptoms.
The brain surgeon who saved my life was banished from the hospital. Granted, Dr. Tritt, as I call the brain surgeon in Brain Storm, didn’t have the best bedside manner: He confessed that when I was in a coma he’d come into my room at night and say, “Elaine! Wake up! This is God!” The nurses made him quit. But hey, the man saws open skulls for a living and he did an incredible job when he opened mine.
In Brain Storm, Dr. Tritt is rewarded and I kill the doctor who misdiagnosed me. I wish his death wasn’t so quick. He should have suffered more.
So why didn’t I sue the bastard who misdiagnosed me?
It’s not that easy. Remember this when you write your novels: It’s hard to sue doctors and win. I went to every malpractice lawyer in South Florida, from Palm Beach to Miami, and then consulted out-of-state attorneys.
The main problem? I’d made too good a recovery. I didn’t look or sound damaged. I could walk, talk, and write again. “Now if you’d died,” one lawyer told me, “we would have had one hell of a case.”
Excuse me for living. 888888888888888888888888888888888888888888888888888888888888888888888 “Haunting and creepy, with a fast-paced twisty plot, and a protagonist you will not soon forget – this is Elaine Viets at her most deliciously dark.” – David Ellis, Edgar Award winner and author of Breach of Trust. Brain Storm is on sale for $9.99. Buy it now:amzn.to/2awPsIe
When I wrote Brain Storm, the first novel in my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator series, I went through ten rewrites and a year-long debate: Should this novel of psychological suspense be first person or third person? Brain Storm is a very personal story. Angela, my death investigator, had the same medical crisis that I did – six strokes, brain surgery and a coma, plus months of rehab. I thought first person would reflect that. But third person is better for conveying information, and this new, darker series has complex forensics that would be impossible in a first-person narrative.
I worked out a compromise: the first two chapters of Brain Storm were in first person, which I thought gave the novel a personal introduction. The rest of Brain Storm was in third. And that’s how I sold it.
When I sent out the manuscript for blurbs, thriller writer Jeff Abbott said, “Do you really want to switch POVs like that?” Jeff almost never – and I mean never – gives blurbs, and I admire his writing. After many emails, phone calls, and meetings with my editors, they decided I should recast the first and second chapters into third person, so the whole novel was in third person.
Here is the original first-person Chapter 1 of Brain Storm:
The doctor who nearly killed me was buried today. The Missouri medical establishment turned out to honor him. The eulogies were heartfelt: doctors, nurses and patients praised Dr. Porter Gravois s compassion and skill as a neurologist. Their tears were genuine. His funeral cortege was nearly a mile long on the road named after his powerful St. Louis family. Everyone called him by his nickname, Chip, as if they were all part of his inner circle. Chip made them feel that way.
I didn’t attend his funeral. I was still in the hospital, recovering from the damage he did to me. I’d been in there three months. But I was glad he was dead, and so were the people who knew the real Dr. Gravois. None of us called him Chip.
As I lay on the scratchy hospital sheets, I wondered how Dr. Gravois looked in his coffin. He had a long pale face and a knife blade nose, like a stone figure on a British tomb. Did the mortician manage to duplicate the fatherly smile that fooled so many? That smile didn’t quite reach Dr. Gravois s hard blue eyes, but those were closed forever.
Which suit was he buried in? Chip wore Savile Row suits from Kilgour in London. Chip pronounced it Kilgar, and said only parvenus called the tailor Kilgore. His Kilgour suits were lovely silk and light wool. It was a shame to put one in the ground. But I had no qualms about shoveling Dr. Gravois six feet under.
What about Dr. Gravois s bitter enemy, Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt?
He and his awful off the rack suits were barred from the funeral. No matter how much he paid for his suits, he still looked more like a small town insurance agent than a neurosurgeon.
His unwed mother had named him after her favorite country music star. Dr. Jeb was a country boy, from his badly cut hair to his thick-soled brown shoes.
Was he wearing a jail jumpsuit now? We’d all heard Dr. Jeb threaten Dr. Gravois. He called him a crook and a killer and said the best thing Porter Gravois could do for his patients was die.
The next day, Dr. Gravois was murdered.
That’s the voice of my protagonist, Angela Marie Richman. She was misdiagnosed by Dr. Gravois as “too young and healthy to have a stroke” and sent home, where she had the medical catastrophe that nearly killed her. Dr. Gravois, the man who misdiagnosed her, is the bitter enemy of the talented, gauche Dr. Tritt, who saved Angela’s life. Bald, crippled, and hallucinating after her surgery, Angela has to use to her death investigator skills to save the man who saved her life.
Here is the rewrite of that same Brain Storm chapter in third person:
The doctor who nearly killed Angela Richman was buried today, and the Missouri medical establishment turned out to honor him. The eulogies were heartfelt: doctors, nurses, and patients praised Dr. Porter Gravois’s compassion and skill as a neurologist. Their tears were genuine. His funeral cortege was nearly a mile long on the road named after his powerful St. Louis family. Everyone called him by his nickname, Chip, as if they were all part of his inner circle. Chip made them feel that way.
Angela didn’t attend his funeral. She was still in the hospital, recovering from the damage he’d done to her. She’d been in there three months. Angela was glad Porter was dead, and so were the people who knew the real Dr. Gravois. They didn’t call him Chip.
As she lay on the scratchy hospital sheets, she wondered how Dr. Gravois looked in his coffin. He had a long, pale face and a knife-blade nose, like a stone figure on a British tomb. Had the mortician managed to duplicate the fatherly smile that fooled so many? That smile didn’t quite reach Gravois’s hard, blue eyes, but those were closed forever.
Which suit was he buried in? Chip wore Savile Row suits from Kilgour in London. Chip pronounced it Kilgar and said only parvenus called the tailor Kilgore. His bespoke suits were lovely silk and light wool. It was a shame to put one in the ground. But Angela had no qualms about shoveling Gravois six feet under.
What about Dr. Gravois’s bitter enemy, Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt?
He and his awful, off-the-rack suits were barred from the funeral. No matter how much he paid for his suits, he still looked more like a small-town insurance agent than a neurosurgeon.
His unwed mother had named him after her favorite country music star. Dr. Tritt was a country boy, from his badly cut hair to his thick-soled brown shoes. Is he wearing a jail jumpsuit now? Angela wondered. Everyone heard Tritt threaten Gravois. He’d called him a crook and a killer and said the best thing Porter Gravois could do for his patients was die.
The next day Dr. Gravois was murdered. ********************************************************************************************
My editor felt that writing those two chapters in first person, then changing them to third, gave the book a more intimate feel. What do you think? Is reversing the points of view a way to add depth to your writing?
PS: Jeff Abbott gave Brain Storm this blurb: “Elaine Viets’s newest is both a timely medical drama and a compelling mystery. Brain Storm gives us a detailed look at the shattered life of a determined death investigator. Readers will want more of Angela Richman’s adventures.”
TKZ’s PJ Parrish said, “I’m stoked to see Elaine venture into darker territory with Brain Storm, a multilayered mystery that is rich in its sense of place and character and propelled with medical intrigue. Brain Storm has everything I love in crime fiction – complexity, intelligence, pretzel plotting, and a touch of dark humor.”
“The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average — or only slightly above average — detective story does…. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.” — Raymond Chandler
By PJ Parrish
Okay, it’s time to talk about the F-word.
But before we do, I have to back up a little and first talk about ballet.
Back in my newspaper days, I spent 18 years as a dance critic. I was privileged to see every great ballet company in the world, and interview wonderful dancers. I also took a lot of classes, starting when I was a tubby little 12-year-old to around 35 when I finally hung up the toe shoes. I didn’t know it at the time, but ballet was really good training for becoming a crime novelist. Because both are based on finding magic within the formula.
A quick primer for all you ballet-adverse types out there. Bear with me, because you will need this when I get to Raymond Chandler:
Everything in ballet can be boiled down to five positions. There are only five ways to position your feet, five ways to hold your arms. But…
Everything in ballet -– from the classical precision of Swan Lake (1875) through the sassy sweep of Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs (1982) — flows out of this. Think about that for a second: Within one strict formula can be found myriad unique opportunities for self-expression.
One of my favorite ballets is George Balanchine’s Serenade. Balanchine was a genius. He sort of did for dance what Raymond Chandler did for the detective novel, building a bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries, finding new permutations within the old formula, and changing everything that came after forever. Serenade was the Rosetta Stone for a new kind of dancer. Philip Marlowe, likewise, held the DNA for a new kind of hero.
The opening of Serenade is breathtaking in its simplicity and promise. Seventeen dancers stand motionless on stage, one arm raised, feet parallel. Then, slowly, their arms come down together in first position, and a beat later, their feet turn out. With that one motion, they mutate from mere women into dancers, standing in the first position from which all movement flows. Go watch it and come back. It will only take 53 seconds.
Now, here’s the opening of Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Like Serenade, this opening is breathtaking in its simplicity and promise. Right away, we know we are beginning a journey with a very special guide. And oh, those telling details. Who but a man who’s been on too many benders would point out that he was sober this time? And that last line? A lesser writer would have been content with: “I was going to see a rich guy.” Such delicious sarcasm and attitude!
Both Serenade and The Big Sleep are exemplars of two master artists working within the confines of their genres even as they explore and expand the formula.
So back to the F-word. Let’s talk about formula. I think it’s become a dirty word in our crime writing world, tossed around as a pejorative by folks who want to put us in our place. Some want to draw distinctions between genre fiction and literature. (“Her novel transcends the blah-blah-yada-yada.”) And some, even within our own circle, want to diminish writers who hew too closely to the bones. (“He’s working the tired old formula.”)
Years ago, I was on a panel about the future of the PI novel. There was a strange undercurrent to it, like it was put on the program almost as an apologia. It was like the conference organizers were accommodating the private eye novelist as the goofy cousin you seat at the kid’s table at Thanksgiving. Chandler himself, in a great interview with Ian Fleming put it this way: “In America, a thriller, a mystery writer as we call them, is slightly below the salt.” (Click here to hear the entire fascinating exchange.)
But I think the PI formula — and indeed, the entire crime fiction blueprint — has much to recommend it. Mainly because, as with ballet, once you master its fundamentals, once you understand the underlying structure and learn the basic “rules,” you are freed to swing for the fences.
I guess we should stop and take a hard look at that word “rules.” It’s a scary word because some of us think we don’t know the rules and others think the rules are there only to be broken. There have been a lot of rules doled out over the years regarding crime fiction. S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” written in 1928, might be the most famous. Van Dine prefaced his rules thusly:
The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more—it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws—unwritten, perhaps, but nonetheless binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.
My favorite Van Dine-ism: “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better.”
T.S. Eliot was a big fan of detective novels, and was compelled to publish his own set of rules, in 1927 in his literary magazine The Criterion:
The story must not rely upon elaborate and incredible disguises.
The criminal’s motives should be fairly predictable. “No theft, for instance, should be due to kleptomania (even if there is such a thing).”
The solution should not involve the supernatural or “mysterious and preposterous discoveries made by lonely scientists.
Elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance. Detective writers of austere and classical tendencies will abhor it.
The detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman. We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him.
Even Raymond Chandler himself couldn’t resist laying some laws. Here are his Ten Commandments For the Detective Novel:
It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law….If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
It must be honest with the reader.
Now of course you can see that Chandler’s “rules” are more in tune with our own modern sensibilities. He, like ballet’s Balanchine, pointed the way to the future. He, like Balanchine, took the old formula and made it new. Which is why we still read him today and we don’t read S.S. Van Dine or Ronald Knox.
It’s often said that we writers only recycle the same plots over and over. There are, in fact, only seven stories in the world, according to the writer Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch. Here they are:
man against man
man against nature
man against himself
man against God
man against society
man caught in the middle
man and woman
So Romeo and Juliet is reborn as West Side Story. Moby Dick resurfaces as Jaws. King Lear becomes A Thousand Acres in the hands of Jane Smiley. And don’t get me started on what Bram Stoker unleashed on us.
This post was inspired by Larry Brook’s post here last week on concept vs premise. Go back and read it if you haven’t already. As I said in my comment there, the current hit movie The Martian is really just an old plot, one Sir Arthur himself would recognize as Man vs Nature but transported to Mars. Before The Martian, we had Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, PD James’s Children of Men, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which was recycled into thecheesy Charleston Heston movie Omega Man.
Formulas are not, in themselves, bad things. And given the long and glorious history of the crime novel, it is something we should honor, not disdain. The “trick” for us is to find within the universal human experience, fresh things to say about our own times and situations.
The ballet Serenade ends on a mournful note, a man borne off by a female dancer who, to my mind, is a symbolic angel.
And then, there is the equally elegiac ending paragraphs of The Big Sleep.
I went quickly away from her down the room and out and down the tiled staircase to the front hall. I didn’t see anybody when I left. I found my hat alone this time. Outside, the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though small wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in its light. I got into my car and drove off down the hill.
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.
On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again.
There is nothing new. Just new ways of making us feel.
I had been storing this blog to run around Thanksgiving, but John D. MacDonald forced my hand this week, so I’m posting early. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the books and thank the authors who have helped me along the way.
Recently, I was asked by a writer friend Don Bruns to contribute to an ongoing series that has been running in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune called “John D and Me.” Cool beans, I thought, since other contributors included Stephen King, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Heather Graham, JA Jance, David Morrell…the list went on and on. Click here to read my article. Don’t worry…it’s short. I chose to write about MacDonald’s short stories because, truth be told, I hadn’t read many of the guy’s novels back then. But I had found a yellowed dog-earred copy of his short story collection The Good Old Stuff in a used book store, and at that time, I was struggling mightily to write my first short story.
Actually, it wasn’t my first. My first short story was way back in eighth grade. I was an inattentive student, but I had a lovely teacher Miss Gentry, who made us write a short story. The only touchstones in my little life at that point were The Beatles and my only dream was to run away to London. So I wrote about a lonely cockney boy who painted magic pictures. It was called “The Transformation of Robbie.” I got an A on it.
After class, Miss Gentry pulled me aside and said, “you should be a writer.” Twenty-five years later, I dedicated a book to her.
It should be noted that my sister and future co-author Kelly was also churning out short stories in those days. Her most notable effort was called “The Kill.” It was about a serial killer who knocks off The Beatles, one by one. We joke now that nothing much has changed: She still likes to write the gory scenes, I like doing the psychological stuff. I don’t have my early efforts, but she kept hers – see photo below right for the stunning cover she designed at age 11.
Fast forward to 2005. I am trying to write a story for the Mystery Writers of America’s anthology, edited by Harlan Coben. In addition to the big-name writers the editor invites, the anthology holds out 10 spots for blind submissions from any MWA member. I had a good idea for my story and four published mysteries under my belt. But I couldn’t get a bead on the short story’s special formula. What came so easy at age 14 wasn’t coming so easy at age 54.
So I cracked open The Good Old Stuff. Maybe it was because I had been reading Cheever and Chandler and was getting intimidated. But MacDonald made it look effortless. His stories, culled from his pulp magazine career, had an ease and breeze as fresh as the ocean winds. I realized I had been fighting an undertow of expectations, so I flipped over on my back and floated. The words flowed, the story formed. My first adult short story, “One Shot” got picked for MWA’s anthology Death Do Us Part. It was the second proudest moment of my writing life, right after Miss Gentry’s A.
Writing about MacDonald this month got me thinking about the debts I owed to other writers. Here are a couple I should thank:
E.B. White.Charlotte’s Web remains my favorite book of all time. I love it as pure story, but it taught me a very valuable lesson that all novelists should take to heart: Sometimes, you just have to kill off a sympathetic character.
Joyce Carol Oates. Lots of lessons from this woman about productivity and having the courage to write outside the boundaries of whatever box they try to put you in. But one book of hers had a huge impact on me — Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart. From this murky violent story of murder and race, I learned about the power of ambiguity, about the need to leave room in a story for the reader’s imagination to breath, to resist the urge to tie everything up in a neat bow. Also, she just makes me want to write with more metaphoric power. Check out her opening paragraph:
“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift form the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It’s the buglelike cries of the gulls that alert the fisherman – gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy heads and tails feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I still think about this story years after I read it. From it, I learned about spare writing and especially the power of one indelible image. Michael Connelly talks about this, too, about how one gesture, word or image can have so much more impact than an avalanche of description. Connelly talks about how he wrote about a cop who seemed the paragon of cool, how nothing about the horrors of his job seemed to bother him. Except for one telling detail – the stems of his glasses were chewed down to the nubs. In The Road, the image I can’t get out of my head, the one thing that stands in my mind as the symbol of post-apocalyptic survival, is canned peaches.
In the story, a man and the boy discover a cache of supplies in an abandoned farmhouse. Among them is canned peaches. Yes, it’s a delicacy in a time of starvation, but McCarthy also uses it as a symbol marking the split in the world between the fruit-eating “good guys” and the cannibalistic “bad guys.” Here’s an exchange between man and boy:
He pulled one of the boxes down and clawed it open and held up a can of peaches. “It’s here because someone thought it might be needed.” “But they didn’t get to use it.” “No. They didn’t.” “They died.” “Yes.” “Is it okay for us to take it?” “Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like we would want them to.” “They were the good guys?” “Yes. They were.” “Like us.” “Like us. Yes.” “So it’s okay.” “Yes. It’s okay.” They ate a can of peaches. They licked the spoons and tipped the bowls and drank the rich sweet syrup.
I can’t eat canned peaches anymore because of this. I want to cry just thinking about.
Neil Gaiman. When I was working on our latest book She’s Not There, I needed to find just the right children’s book that resonated with my adult heroine. It was happenstance that I found Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It follows the adventures of a boy named Bod after his family is murdered and he is left to be brought up by a graveyard. Which metaphorically is what happened to my heroine. I just started Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which, like my own book, is about the fragility of memory. I think what I am learning from Gaiman is the need to be original, to not follow the pack, to be true to yourself as a writer. He sums it up in this quote:
Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.
David Morrell. Several years ago, David was the guest of honor at our writers conference SleuthFest here in Florida. This talented teacher, prolific writer, and editor of the anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, and creator of Rambo no less, had tons of great advice. But here is the single line that impacted me as a writer.
Find out what you’re most afraid of, and that will be your subject for your life or until your fear changes.
David credits this lesson to another writer Phillip Klass (pen name William Tenn) who told David that all the great writers have a distinct subject matter, a particular approach, that sets them apart from everyone else. The mere mention of their names, Faulkner, for example, or Edith Wharton, conjures themes, settings, methods, tones, and attitudes that are unique to them. How did they get to be so distinctive? By responding to who they were and the forces that made them that way. And all writers are haunted by secrets they need to tell. David talks about this in his book The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing. Click Here to read the first chapter.
And last but not least…
Unamed Romance Novel. I read this eons ago as part of my education back in the days when I thought I was going to make a million bucks writing for Harlequin. This novel (I won’t use the title here) taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, one that every writer – published or un – should take to heart. Here is the line from the book that did it:
She sat on the sand on Miami Beach and watched the sun sink slowly into the ocean in a blaze of orange and pink.
When I read that line, I threw the book across the room. But then I picked the book up and put it on my shelf, where it still sits today. (Well, on my bathroom shelf). Because this book taught me that no matter how brilliant your metaphors, how original your story, how beguiling your prose, how deep your unexplored fears, if you have the sun setting in the east, nothing else is gonna work.
So who were your teachers, what were their books, and what did you learn?