Why you need an editer. Ah, make that an editor…

By. P.J. Parrish

Editors have been weighing heavily on my brain of late. Mostly because right now I don’t have one. And don’t it always seem as though you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?

Kelly and I are between contracts and are working on a stand alone that is sort of different for us. So we don’t know if it will ever find a home in the traditional publishing arena. This is fine with us. It’s exciting (and scary) to work without a net. We haven’t done this in more than a decade, so I remember now what many of you are going through – that feeling of walking alone in a dark forest, not knowing for sure if you are on the right path.

But I also read a couple of things this week that got my brain churning about the value of good editors.

I read a comment on a writing blog from a self-published author who wrote: “When I finished the novel, I put it into the hands of a few big-time publishing houses. They all told me the same thing. ‘We like the writing, but in order for us to sell it, you have to rewrite this and rewrite that, then send it back to us.’ I wasn’t about to start rewriting my book so that maybe some traditional publisher would take it.”

And, I just got an email from an unpublished writer whose manuscript I critiqued for charity a while back. This writer had a good idea, an engaging character, even a nice voice. But all that was obscured by the usual craft problems (wavering POV, throat-clearing opening, unclear physical action, too many characters introduced too quickly, adverbitis…) But this writer stuck to it, rewrote and rewrote, got an agent who made her rewrite some more. She just sold that mystery as part of a three-book deal and was writing to tell me the good news.

Which of these two has the right attitude? (Put aside the question of whether you should go traditional vs self-publishing for a moment). This is not a trick question. It if were, why don’t more writers get it?

You need an editor.

I need an editor.

Every writer needs an editor.

Now before I go any further, let’s get our terms straight. I don’t mean a copy editor (the comma and lay/lie arbiter). I am talking about the first reader of your book after you turn it in, the person who can tell you if you’ve tangled your plot in digressions, misunderstood your hero’s motivation, or picked the wrong bad guy. The Big Picture Guy or Girl who understands what you are going for in your book and helps you get there.

Let me get back to my own experience for a moment. Because we collaborate, Kelly and I edit each other’s writing. But we know that isn’t enough, as Joe Moore here can attest. We know we need the entity we have come to call The Cold Third Eye.

Why? Because we, like all writers, we live our story with every breath we take, intimately for months on end. Every day, it is playing on those screens in our heads, and we can see everything so clearly. But as with any writer, there is often a disconnect between that screen and our fingers as they hit the computer keys. Something misfires, something is lost in translation.

That is where the Cold Eye comes in. This is the person who tells you where you have gone astray. The Cold Eye (aka the editor) usually communicates in the form of the dreaded Revisions Letter, a document that can run as long as a legal brief and be just as scary. Even more scary these days with the advent of Word Review Mode. Now, getting this feedback is tough and sometimes writers get a tad defensive about it. Here are the kind of comments you might see in a revision letter — and how some writers might react:

Editor: Think about making this a prologue.
Author: What? Prologues are strictly bush-league! It’s the crutch of every bad writer! I won’t do it! You can’t make me!

Editor: I think X is a wonderful complex character but her relationship with Y is underwritten.
Author: But X doesn’t really love Y, so it’s supposed to be without passion!  I’m not writing romantic suspense here! Geez…

Editor: Is all this stuff between Y and Z necessary? Cut as much as possible.
Author: But I need this scene because it illuminates Y’s motivation while introducing two quirky secondary characters who help convey the small-town setting! 

Editor: Unclear whether X or Y is asking this. And they just don’t seem to be as concerned about the evidence tampering as the reader will be. This whole plot element doesn’t land properly.
Author: Doesn’t this guy watch Cops? Police do this kind of stuff all the time! It’s completely believable!

Editor: Timeline problem: Is this the same day or a week later?
Author: This is a simple linear plot! A ten-year-old could follow this, for god’s sake. 

Editor: “X pursed her lips.” You use pursed lips too many times.
Writer: (sigh…)

Editor: Think about making this an epilogue
Writer (Gigantic sigh…)

Okay, for the record, these are actual comments from one of our editors for our book A Thousand Bones. His revision letter was seven pages, single-spaced. And you know what? Once we got over ourselves and went back into the manuscript to see what he was talking about, we realized he was spot-on about everything.

Chapter 1 works better as a prologue, making us rethink the advice we have given to other writers over the years that prologues don’t work. Sometimes they do. In other words, there are no fast rules.

The romantic relationship we had set up in our book WAS underwritten. Our experience writing hard-boiled stuff had made us squeamish about mucking about in such emotions, so we had tried to ignore it. Result? Anemic character development that didn’t set up the impact we were going for at book’s end.

The scene he asked us to cut with our beloved quirky secondary characters was nicely written but useless. We had fallen in love with the sound of our own words and disobeyed one of our own prime tenets of crime writing: If it does not advance the story in some way, take it out.

The part about the evidence tampering? Technically, we were right in that the scene we had written was true to life. We knew this; we had done our homework. But sometimes the truth isn’t true in fiction. If your reader can’t buy into the reality you are creating on the page, you have to bend reality enough to make it feel right and help your plot. Or as Stanley Kubrick once said: “It may be realistic, but it’s not interesting.”

The timeline problem our editor noted? Here is the perfect example of author blindness. Kelly and I saw our story perfectly in our heads. We had even story-boarded it and charted the timeline on a graph. But the way we had written it was confusing, and we couldn’t see it. You have to slow down and stick in enough time and place signposts so your reader doesn’t get lost. Lost = confused. Confused = angry. Angry = book thrown across the room.

Pursing lips? Well, that’s our Author Tic. Every writer has one or two. You just don’t see ’em. The Cold Eye does.

And yes, we changed the last chapter to an Epilogue.

So, what’s the lesson here? Find your Cold Eye. Unfortunately, it may not be easy. Being published by a “real” publisher is no guarantee you’ll get a talented editor. And in today’s Wild West self-publishing world, there are some scammers out there ready to take your money for no real help. Our own Jodie Renner had a great post on this recently. Click here to read it. And some editors, truth be, are just bad and meddling. Raymond Chandler once wrote to his publisher:

“Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.”

But that rare good editor? That person won’t kill your style. But neither will he tell you you’re brilliant (that’s mom’s job) or that your stuff is a million times better than James Patterson’s (that’s your hopeful spouse). A good editor — your Cold Eye — will tell you how to be better than you already are.

I leave you with one more quote, this one from James Thurber:

“Editing should be a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The [editor] should say to himself, ‘How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?’ and avoid ‘How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?'”

P.S. I have no editor for this blog. It is self-published. Any mistakes are mine alone, God help me…

0

Write crap and grieveWrite? Crap! And grieve…

By P.J. Parrish

The other day I caught an interview with Tony-winning playwright Terrance McNally. His new play Mothers and Sons is now on Broadway and he and its star, Tyne Daly, were talking about it:

Daly: Terrance is great at punctuation.
McNally: Punctuation is very important.
Daly: If you follow what he does, it’s like a musical score.
McNally: That would be in my notes, that it’s a comma not a semi-colon. I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.

To which I said: “Yes!”

Did you notice that I used an exclamation mark there? That is because when I heard McNally talk about punctuation, I got really, really excited. Because I am one of those old-fashioned writers who believe that all those little marks we pepper in our fiction:

. ; : ? ! ( ) , “” 

all those little marks make a big difference. So forgive me if I go in the weeds today (yeah, I know, I do this often) but I want to talk about getting the little stuff right.

But first, I’m thinking we need a definition of “right.” Because even though all of us savvy folks here at TKZ know we need to be up on our grammar so our editors will accept our manuscripts and our readers won’t flame us with Amazon one-star reviews, we also know that when it comes to fiction, rules can be bent.

In fact, sometimes they need to be bent. Sometimes, you the writer are going for a particular mood or effect or style, and if you do that with confidence, then grammar police be damned!

Take a look at this opening line of a famous book:

Marley was dead: to begin with.

That’s the opening line of A Christmas Carol. I’m not sure what Dickens was trying to do with it, and technically it’s a misuse of the colon. It probably should be “Marley was dead, to begin with.” But that’s flat and prissy. That oddly placed colon is like slamming up against a brick wall in the fog. I think it works in a weird sort of way. (Hat tip to blogger Kathryn Schulz for this example).

Here’s another strange one that I’m sure you’ll recognize:

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

Again, misplaced commas, an inflamed colon, fragments and a plethora of periods. But it is music, no?

One more and then we’ll move on:

Grogan’s is not the oldest pub in Galway. It’s the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.
While as the rest go
     Uni-sex
     Low-fat
     Karaoke
     Over-the-top
it remains true to the format fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seat, no-frills stock. The taste for
    Hooches
    Mixers
    Breathers
hasn’t yet been acknowledged.

I can just hear the grammar gurus grinding their teeth over that one. This is from Ken Bruen’s Edgar-nominated The Guards. This is classic Ken, a style that ignores convention to create its spare lilt. Like George Saunders and Joyce Carol Oates, Ken plays with sentence structure, indention,  and makes up new uses for all the old punctuation symbols. Because when he hears his story in his head, he hears a singular rhythm that you or I would not if we tried to tell the same story set in that Irish pub.

But here’s the thing: (colon!) These writers all knew the rules before they broke them. Charles Ives was a church organist before he broke away to write The Unanswered Question.


Picasso painted this

Before he felt free enough to paint this

William Strunk, the éminence grise of grammar, says: “The best writers sometimes disregard the rules. Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.” Or, as I often tell folks in my workshops: Don’t start juggling machetes if all you can control is two tennis balls. So maybe we should take a moment — pause em dash — to look at some of those little marks and decide which ones we can play around with without slicing ourselves to bits.

The Period

This is my favorite punctuation mark. It is concise and emphatic without being overbearing. You always know where you stand with periods. Periods give you simple sentence structure and clear syntax. Periods can also create lovely sentence fragments, which can be a nifty stylistic tool. You can write a really great novel with just periods, quotes and maybe some question marks. Unless you’re James Joyce. Cormac McCarthy once said of Joyce: “[He’s] a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”  But hey, Joyce is juggling chainsaws in Ulysses. Don’t try this at home.

Commas

Wars have been waged over the poor comma. Some people are very strict about them, sticking them in every little compound sentence crevice. Others feel less is more, that fiction’s narrative voice allows you the freedom to “feel” your way around a phrase without the pause a comma injects. If you publish traditionally, your editor will have style manual and will inflict many commas on you. Some are bad:

Woman, without her man, is nothing

But some are good:

Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

The Colon
This is a pretty clear-cut fellow. It introduces text that amplfies something previously said or it tells you a list is coming up. I don’t think colons have much place in fiction, except maybe for that second use. A colon finds a better home in non-fiction. I think a better, less stodgy substitute for the colon is:

The Em Dash

I adore the em dash because to my eye and ear, it feels more like people really talk and think. Our thoughts tend to move forward and there is something pure and lively about seeing this     instead of this :  A colon bring your eye to a stop while a dash implies there is more movement ahead. Two examples:


“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds: the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.’

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.”

I think the second is better because it is dialogue. You also can use the em dash to show an abrupt break in the dialogue, when one person is cutting off another:

“Define insubordination.”
Louis wet his lips. “I did something — ”
“I don’t care what you did. Define the word.”

Which leads us to the ellipses. It’s a cousin of the em dash in that you see it used in dialogue often. But there’s an important difference. Whereas a dash implies an abrupt break in the dialogue, the ellipses implies a trailing off. It can also imply a slowing of thoughts.

“Why didn’t you quit?” Jesse asked quietly.
Louis shook his head. “Can’t…”
“Why?”
“He’s still out there.”

The Exclamation Mark

This thing can be like a rabid ferret…hard to control. Yes, you need a rare one to convey extreme emotion. But like a dash or italics, it can lose its effectiveness if you overuse it. As Elmore Leonard said: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

And last but least:

The Semi-Colon

I saved this one for last because I hate the damn things. Semi-colons are like some professor-types. They’ve got an inflated sense of importance from living in the academic world. Or maybe they’re like literary novelists who like to go slumming in crime fiction. I think I’ve used maybe two semi-colons in sixteen books and both times I had to take a shower right after. I am not alone in my attitude. Let’s go back to what the playwright Terrance McNally said for a moment: “I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.”

Our own James Bell called semi-colons the eggplant of punctuation. (Click here to read it). Why are semi-colons bad? Because the beautiful business of fiction is replicating real life on the page and in real life people don’t think or talk in semi-colons. Unless they’re using emoticons. And c’mon, don’t you want to punch out those people anyway?

Postscript: After I finished this, I was proofing one of my back list titles. It is filled with em dashes! The Em seems to be my default punctuation. That got to wondering why I hate the semi-colon so much and what this says about me as a person. So…

What Your Favorite Punctuation Says About You

Period: You are emphatic, decisive, fearless. In the life raft, everyone looks to you to figure a way out.  You bowl overhand.

The exclamation mark: You’re dramatic and get a lot of invitations to parties. You wear purple. You’re probably the person people glare at for talking on your cell phone too loud at the bagel store.

The Em Dash: You are creative and optimistic. Life is a cabaret, old chum. You keep fresh kale in your fridge, wait for a Kraftwerk comeback and you root for the Knicks.

Question mark: You are deeply spiritual and people in meetings always wait to hear what you think. You have read and understood everything George Saunders has written. Your favorite color is tweed.

Colon: You’re organized and make to-do lists. People always ask you to arrange the Christmas office party but no one grabs you under the mistletoe.  You do the Times crossword in ink.

Semi-colon: You are cautious and methodical but you change your mind easily. You have trouble ordering at a restaurant and often resort to eating off other people’s plates because you think you made a mistake in getting the sea bass. You think Rand Paul makes a lot of sense.

0

Is Your Book Tone-Deaf?

By. P.J. Parrish

I don’t get to read for pleasure often, so when I ducked away to Sanibel Island last week, I took a couple paperbacks and my Kindle, all loaded up with stuff I’ve been meaning to get to.

It was like a unleashing a starving stray dog on a smorgasbord table. I finished Joyce Carol Oates’s short story collection “The Female of the Species,” woofed down a couple old John D. MacDonalds, Tom Franklin’s “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” and Gilbert King’s “Devil in the Grove.”

When I ran out of stuff, I turned to the shelf of ratty paperbacks in our rented bungalow. There was a book by an author I hadn’t heard of before. I love discovering new authors, so I read the back copy. Good premise. I skimmed the first page. She had me. I took it down to the beach, lathered up with sun block, and settled in. I was ready. I wanted to be seduced. The first chapter was really good. A female cop, a grisly setup, a clear narrative voice, taut writing that teased me to turn the page.

So I did. And damn, I wish I hadn’t because things went downhill fast. This female cop suddenly turned into a blithering mess. Worse, her ex-boyfriend came sniffing around and after she took him back, he took over the case. HER case! Suddenly, this cop — traumatized though she might have been — allowed weasel boy to take charge of everything. Worse, the writer LET HIM DO IT! Every time there was a new twist in the case, it was weasel boy who led the charge. Where was our heroine? Weeping and whining on the sidelines, a pathetic Hamlette, torn by indecision.

The thing degenerated into a mass of bad romantic cliches. Complete with a see-it-coming-a-mile-away pregnancy that by book’s end gives our girl a good reason reason to quit her police job and make waffles for weasel boy. I was furious. Do you ever have the urge to throw a book across the room? I was sitting on the beach and would have heaved this one into the sea oats but I might have hit a turtle nest so I got up and threw it in the Dumpster.

Why?

It wasn’t because I hate women in distress books. The female in jeopardy is a standard of our genre and in the right hands, this can sometimes rise above cliche. But this author was dishonest. She started out with a premise that promised a woman of strength and depth. And I had expectations that this character would rise above her awful trauma through her own grit and courage. As I read this book, I found myself thinking about another book I had read, Theresa Schwegel’s “Officer Down,” which won Best First Edgar. This author also had a damaged heroine whose lover muscles in. But Schwegel let her heroine solve her own problems. The woman cop wasn’t waiting for Dudley Do Right to right her ship.

In the end, I decided I was angry about this other book because I had been misled. I don’t begrudge readers romantic escapism. Hell, I used to write it. But this book was so schizophrenic it was like the first three chapters were written by Germaine Greer and the rest by Phyllis Schlafly. (Yeah, I’m showing my age there). If your setup is a dark tale of a woman cop’s redemptive journey, you can’t switch tones mid-book and start going for the Rita Award.

Tone is so important. And it’s not really the same as mood. Tone is the narrator’s attitude toward the subject — be it playful, ironic, dark, hardboiled, romantic — whereas the mood is what the reader feels by virtue of the setting, theme and voice. And I think tone is something often overlooked by some beginning writers. You, the writer, have to know in your heart what kind of book you are setting out to write. And then you should bend all the powers of your craft to that end. Poe called it Unity of Effect and wrote about it in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition.” He believed that a work of fiction should be written only after the author has decided which emotional response, or “effect,” he wishes to create. And once that was decided, everything else — theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot — should serve the effect.

We do this via the countless choices we make as writers. What words we use, what imagery is in play, what the sentence structure is, what details we put in (as well as those we leave out). Here’s a visual.:

Both are photos of the Everglades. I’m choosing them because I also went on a “swamp walk” hike in the Corkscrew Swamp this week. The first photograph is by Susan Schermer. The second is by Clyde Butcher. Schermer’s is lush and color-saturated, with emphasis on the birds and setting sun. Butcher’s is desolate, empty of all apparent life and in stark black and white. The first is somewhat sentimental; the second almost existential. Both artists made choices about what details they wanted to include — or leave out — in their work, how they lit their landscapes, the types of trees, the quality of the water.

Same subject, different tones. Each is successful in its own way. But you can’t mistake one for the other.

So what’s my point? I’m not asking anyone to buttonhole their work. It isn’t necessary to try to psyche out editors and the folks who shelve the books at Barnes and Noble. (Is this neo-noir? Is it chick lit? Is it teen dystopia? Do we even care anymore?) I’m not even talking about all the sub-genres we tend to impose upon crime fiction. Some of the best stuff being written in crime fiction right now crosses so-called divides and genres.

What I am asking for, I think, is consistency. And honesty. Be honest with your readers. I don’t mean be predictable. Being honest means finding a tone for your work and sticking with it so that the reality you create on your pages is believable and satisfying. If you want to write romance or romance suspense, go for it and do it well.

But don’t promise me Katniss Everdeen and then give me Donna-Too-Dumb-To-Live. The book will end up in the Dumpster.

0

Are You Ready For Your Mystery Agent Date?

By P.J. Parrish

I was at SleuthFest last week and after my panel was over, a woman came up to talk. We had met the previous year, and she wanted to thank me because evidently I had said something that inspired her to quit her soul-killing job and finish her book.

Now, I remembered her but I didn’t remember what I had said to her. If you read this blog regularly you know I am a realist about this business so I’m pretty sure I didn’t pull a Pollyanna with her. I’ll do what I can to encourage other writers just starting out, but I won’t give false hope because that is just cruel.

So last week, I didn’t really know what to say to this woman. I mean, just because I might like skydiving and have managed to get seven or eight jumps under my belt, I’m not going to push someone else out of the plane. Only they know if they have the guts and can afford the parachute. But she was very excited, and said she was very happy with her decision, so we talked some more.

It went something like this:

“So, are you submitting it yet?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “And I got a letter from Big-Name Agent at the Gigantoid Talent Management. He asked to see some sample chapters.”

“Great! That’s farther than most folks get,” I said. “What about the others?”

“Others?”

“Other agents. What did they have to say about your query?”

“Well, I only sent out two. And Big-Name said he had to have an exclusive. So I’m not doing anything until I hear back from him.”

“Oh,” I said. “How long has Mr. Big had your chapters now?”

“About four months.”

Okay…can you figure out where I’m going with this?

This woman had worked hard for three years to write her book. She had gone to writing conferences and workshops. She had done her homework. She had quit her job so she had enough time to follow her dream. (Don’t worry; she had other means of support, so that’s not the issue here).

But then she fell for the first guy who said “maybe.” As in, “Yeah, maybe we’ll hook up. Maybe I’ll give you a call someday, baby. I don’t know when exactly — maybe even never. But in the meantime, I don’t want you to talk to any other guys.”

Now I realize Mr. Big was her Dream Date. And it’s easy to get blinded by good biceps and blue eyes. Or in this case, a 212 area code and a client list heavy with bestselling authors. But would you wait around for this guy?

Of course not. If your book is finished and you’re ready to send it out into the cold, cruel world, why would you do anything that lessens your chances of success? Finding a good agent — no, let’s correct that; not just a good agent but the right agent — is maybe the single most important business decision you make as a writer. This person will be your advocate, your guide, your champion, your career-coach. And the best agent for you might not be Mr. Big at Gigantoid Talent Management. The best agent for you might be Miss Sincere at Small But Personal Inc. Maybe even Mr. Cassius at Lean And Hungry House. But most definitely, the best agent for you is the one who sees something so special in your work that he or she plucked you out of the 200 to 300 queries they get every week. The best agent for you is someone who will believe in you even in those dark moment when you don’t even believe in yourself anymore.

Exclusives are bad things — for writers. Why? Because you are giving that one agent the power to tie up your manuscript for months. Odds are, the sample chapters you sent will be rejected. (Maybe for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality remember). But by agreeing to an exclusive, you have lost six to eight precious months in what is a long and tortuous process even in the best of circumstances. Until an agent agrees to take you on as a client, they just don’t have the right to control your work like that.

If you won’t take my word on this, I bow to a higher source. Here is Miss Snark Literary Agent on the subject.:

“Exclusives stink…To ask an author to tie up his/her work on open ended terms is disrespectful and counter productive. It’s also a lazy ass way to do business. You can’t provide her an exclusive read and you shouldn’t. If she doesn’t see the merit of that, why would you want to work with her?”

But, you say, Mr. Big said he liked her stuff. What if she turns around now and sends out a hundred queries and he finds out?

Worse case scenario: No other agent is interested. She is back sitting by the phone waiting for Mr. Big to call.

Best case scenario: She gets responses from forty agents who want to see her sample chapters. Then ten want to sign her up. She now has the luxury of choice. She can talk to them all, make a measured thoughtful decision and find the agent who is the best fit — for her.

I wouldn’t sit home waiting for Mr. Big to call. Don’t know about you, but I had enough of that crap in high school.

So don’t give away your power to the first pretty face that says “maybe.” Beneath that pretty face there could be a true Poindexter.

0

Sympathy For the Bedeviled

You’re a crime writer. You see dead people. But are you listening to them? And are you letting them talk?
I had a real light bulb moment during my critique group session  last week. The five of us exchange pages ahead of our meeting and then offer input to each other. It’s always lively, constructive and fun. My peeps have given me some great guidance on my WIP.  But last week, while I was critiquing someone else’s work, I had an epiphany about character.
The manuscript I was critiquing, by an experienced published author, is very good. Compelling voice, great protagonist, and itt was rich with humor and a pretzeled plot. But something was off and I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was. Then it hit me what was missing:
The voices of the dead.
There were three murders in the first half of what is a serial killer plot. We were given only the sketchiest of details about them, that they are high school kids, and two didn’t even have names. Here’s the thing: I was so dazzled by the plot, the wit, and the well-rendered setting, and I so swept away by the charm of the heroine, that I didn’t realize I had no sense of the victims.
So I started to ask myself why did I care? They’re dead, they’re gone, and they’re really just catalysts to get the plot up and moving, right?
Oh, so wrong. Because if the reader is not forced to care about the dead, how can we believe that the heroine does?
When I got home from Starbucks that day, I went right to my bookshelf and pulled down Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating With the Dead:  A Writer on Writing.
I was given this book years ago as a gift when I was first venturing into crime fiction, and to be honest, I sort of skim-read it, finding it a little flowery for my taste. It’s a compilation of a series of lectures Atwood gave at Cambridge. It’s not a book on how to write; it’s a book on what it is like to write. (I prefer Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life for this sort of thing). But one chapter in Atwood’s book that did stick with me was the final one titled “Descent: Negotiating with the dead. Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?”
Atwood sets up her idea in this essay with this: “Perhaps all writing is motivated, deep down, by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.”
She talks about how insistent the voices of the dead can be in the solving of a fictional crime and how writers must listen very carefully when the dead begin to talk: 

“All writers learn from the dead…because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth. So if you are going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back to the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.”

This, in a nutshell — well, a lovely quote — is what was off about my friend’s story. Because she had not given her victims a voice in the book, we were missing a vital part of the narration. She needed to bring these victims back to life so there would be a reason for the heroine to solve their murders. Yes, the protag can be self-motivated (a cop looking for glory, husband bent on vengeance, a Poirot who wants to unravel the puzzle). But that is usually intellectual and protag-centered. It is not reader-centric and visceral. And the best crime fiction pulls readers in emotionally, thrusting them deep into the interior lives of the characters. So the victims must be a tangible presence in the story even though they are never “on camera.”

How do you do this? Well, once I was able to articulate this to my friend, our critique group had plenty of suggestions. Maybe the other students hold a memorial service, as kids are wont to do. Perhaps the heroine needs to interview parents or friends who offer memories and mementos. Culling through a victim’s possessions can be incredibly evocative and emotional, as any of us who has ever had to sort through a relative’s things after a funeral knows. Yearbooks, photographs on a mantel, journals, letters, a Facebook page…it can all be fodder for making a victim come back to life on a page.

Now that I think back on my critique session, I am surprised that this should have been such a revelation to me. My own series hero, Louis Kincaid, is one of those investigators who is drawn to cold cases and is compelled, at his core, to “speak for the dead.”

In our third book, Thicker Than Water, he is trying to solve the rape and murder of Kitty Jagger. She has been dead for 20 years but Louis talks to her boss, her best friend, the detective who worked her case, anyone who remembers her. What slowly emerges is a Rashamon portrait of Kitty that sends the case in a new direction even as it builds sympathy for the dead girl.

The most moving scene, I think, is when Louis visits the girl’s ailing father, who allows Louis to examine Kitty’s bedroom, which has been untouched for 20 years. We give a full three pages of description to the room and its contents. The scene ends with:

He picked up one of the half dozen perfume bottles. It was called Heaven Scent. He brought it up to his nose and drew back. It was cloyingly sweet. It was the smell that still clung to the room after twenty years.

He set the perfume down, letting out a long breath.

Time had stopped. He could almost see her, jumping out of bed, late for school, coming back and dumping her books, changing into her uniform before hurrying off to work.

His eyes traveled slowly around the tiny room. They had just left everything. Why hadn’t anyone packed her things away? And that old man sitting out there in his lounge chair, like he was still waiting for her to walk in the door and make him grilled cheese. 

Of course Louis is looking for clues here in the bedroom. But more to the point, he is letting Kitty tell her own story. He is letting her come back to life. He is forcing us, the reader, to care. And I hope, by the time the reader closes the book, we mourn the one who is gone.

0

For downward facing writers:Exercises to keep you focused

By P.J. Parrish

Starting a new book always puts me in a funk. Part of this comes from the post-partum blues of finishing the previous book and I sit around in a stew of depression and doubt until I get traction on a new book. I was doing okay with the WIP until recently when I hit a stall. I realized I had to do something drastic, something preferably not involving pharmaceuticals. So last week, I went back to my yoga class.

I used to be a very attentive yogi. It seems to sooth my demons, make me braver at facing the computer. The best thing about yoga is that there is no way to compete, no way to measure your worth by outside standards. If you get hung up on the fact that the woman next to you can do a better lotus than you? Well, you’ve missed one of the points of yoga. Which is:
You. And your own progress. At your own pace.
Which, when you think about it, is great advice for any writer.We tend to get all bent out of shape by worrying about things outside our control. Like, how come Author X got a huge advance when he writes crap? Like, why did Author Y get a starred review in PW and I can’t get any notice? Like, why does Author Z get a a tour and I can’t get a card table outside my local Books-a-Thousand?
Because of the big changes in publishing, we’ve become obsessed with the non-writing parts of the business. We spend so much creative energy trying to manage expectations and trying to separate ourselves from the pack, it’s a wonder we have any juice left for writing.
I’ve told this story here before but it bears repeating: When I was just starting out back in the late 1990s, I found myself at an MWA luncheon sitting next to Jan Burke. This was not long after she won the Edgar for Bones. I was an awed newbie, and I said something stupid about how the bad writers seemed to get all the attention. She was kind and said all writers get jealous. And she added something I will never forget:
“You have to keep your head down and just write your books.”
Which is a good lesson if you find yourself slipping into a downward facing writer pose. Remember that the only person you are in competition with is you. So, with that in mind, today I offer you…
YOGA FOR WRITERS

This is the King Dancer position. This is very good at helping you build balance. To do this pose, fix your gaze on something that doesn’t move so that you can stay focused. Like maybe writing the best book you can?

The Fish Pose: It is good for developing flexibility. Because sometimes, you have to go in directions you didn’t consider. Like abandoning a moribund story or trying a new POV or publishing an original e-novella. Or maybe adapting a pen name. If you need help with this pose, put a towel under your head. Or read a book by an author you admire.

The Goddess: This pose helps you open yourself up. If this feels uncomfortable, use a wall for stability. Or find a good critique group to give you feedback and support.

The Crow: This is a hard one, but worth learning. Do not let your head drop! This will cause you to tip forward and fall. But remember: Everyone falls, even the great writers. You just have to keep trying.

The Headstand: Very good for getting the blood to your head and increasing overall circulation. Practice the pose at the wall. Try to move a little further from the wall each time. You can’t master this one in one try. And you can’t become a successful writer overnight. It takes years of hard work, patience and practice.

The Tree: Another good balance pose. If you cannot bring your foot high inside the thigh like this dude, put it lower. Lowering your expectations isn’t always a bad thing. You don’t have to write a long multiple POV saga. You don’t have to hit a home run on your first at bat. Just tell a compelling linear story. And if you don’t make the New York Times or Kindle bestseller list on your first three books — What? You’re gonna quit? No, you keep trying and eventually your leg (or book) will go higher than you ever thought it could.

The Wheel: This is an advanced pose, mastered only after you’ve achieved strength and balance. Same goes for a writing career. You hang around long enough and work hard enough, you might become a big wheel. Or a little wheel. Need help with this pose? Have someone stand by you so you can hold their ankles instead of putting your hands on the floor. Likewise, if you’ve got a spouse or family behind you, you can conquer the world.

And lastly…
The Pose of the Child: Take a rest in this pose any time you get tired and feel like you’re tied in knots. In other words, don’t forget to take some time off, kiss your wife, play with your kids, practice the piano or whatever it is that refloats your boat. Writers often forget the value of recharging the old batteries. You can’t write about roses if you never take time to smell them.

Namaste, my friends…

0

The Muddy Middle: Where good plots go to die


Well, I don’t know how I got here tonight

I got the feeling that something ain’t right
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down those stairs.
Plot holes to left of me
Bad action to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with goo
First off, apologies to the rock group Stealers Wheel whose song “Stuck in the Middle With You” has been rolling around in my brain this week because I am now about 80K words into my book and I am stuck in the middle with goo.
Ah, yes…the middle of the book. The quicksand bog of fiction. The sinkhole of despair. The sand pit that swallowed up that poor lad in Lawrence of Arabia.
I call it the Muddy Middle. It is the place where good plots go to die. It’s not that hard, I think, to craft a attention-getting beginning, and it isn’t that difficult to come up with a slam-bang climax. But what about that looooong stretch in between? How do you keep suspense taut, how do you keep the pages turning? Maybe this is why we have so many serial killer books, because when all else flags, toss out another body, right? This is also why most serial killer books are god awful stale. Because usually the suspense is not organic and hard-earned. It is a failure of imagination.

The classic dramatic plot

Recently, I re-read Gone with the Wind. It clocks in at 63 chapters. The first five are what I’d call the opening and the story essentially wraps up in one chapter. So what did Margaret Mitchell fill the 57 chapters in between with? Challenges, obstacles, reversals of fortune for her characters, especially for Scarlett O’Hara. This is the essence of plotting, what keeps the story from bogging down. And it has a definite trajectory. A good plot is like Woody Allen’s shark — if it’s not constantly moving forward — and upward — it dies. (Warning: more shark analogies ahead!)

There are lots of different kinds of plots. Picaresque plots like Shogun or Tom Jones, where the main point is to trail behind the protag’s adventure. Disaster movies like The Towering Inferno have multiple plots that intersect and sometimes mesh at the end. There are even novels without plots, though I’d venture that most are unsatisfying because readers have an innate craving for order and purpose that they don’t find in real life. But for those of us who write thrillers or mysteries, well, you can’t go wrong with the tried and true classic dramatic plot.

Let me give you a visual. Which of these plot lines is the best?

The one at top left is a flat line. If you’ve got one of these you’re in big trouble. (Or maybe writing bad literary fiction…sorry, cheap shot). That one below it is almost as bad, a plot that is a yawner until the writer gives you a paddle-jolt climax that comes out of nowhere. The one at top right looks like it would be a nifty thriller — nonstop action! — but it also doesn’t work because the pacing is too frenetic. Think about a roller coaster. Why do people love them? Because the heart-stopping plunges are balanced with quiet moments when we can catch our breath and anticipate the next thrill. And that leaves us with the jagged plot line at the bottom.

You give me fever!
I call it The Fever Chart Plot because it is graph that charts the protagonist’s fortunes. The trajectory of the story moves forward AND always upward toward the climax but between A and Z it and dips and rises. The beginning A represents an attention-grabbing opening scene. Then there’s a slight dip as we establish characters and setting and define the problem (in crime fiction, usually a murder to be solved). The line dips because as the problem is more clearly defined, it seems increasingly unlikely the hero will ever solve it.

But then the line goes up as the hero begins to cope, fighting his way through a thicket of complications. Sometimes, the plot hits an early high because it looks like the hero has things in hand but then there is a dip — something goes wrong, there is a reversal of fortune. The hero climbs out again only to be confronted with new obstacles along the way. We get another hard climb and more dips. Eventually, the hero achieves a summit of sorts (toward the end) when it looks like he will be triumph BUT…

He is plunged into a final abyss of despair (the last major setback before the climax). This is where your classic tragic plot usually ends. (Hamlet dies). But we’re talking heroic plots here, so just when it looks like all is lost, the hero, through bravery, smarts and fortitude, recovers and soars back, solving the problem once and for all. That little line at the end? That’s just the denouement where little threads are tied up.

This might seem obvious almost to the point of simple-mindedness, but it is the sturdy scaffolding on which most mysteries and thrillers are built. Your book might have fewer or more dips and rises, depending on the complexity of your story. I once charted out all the plot points of our book A Killing Rain and this is what it looks like:


Tools to dig out of the Muddy Middle

So what can you use if you find yourself bogged down in the middle of your story? There are some nifty tried and true devices and to illustrate them, I’m going to use a movie we all know instead of a book — Jaws. A couple years ago, I got to know Jaws really well when I contributed an essay on the Benchley book to Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell. I hadn’t read Jaws since it first came out and when I dissected it for the essay I was surprised at how flabby the book is. (lots of bad subplots about class warfare, mafia kingpins, and a really icky affair between Chief Brody’s wife and  Hooper). But the screenplay — well, it’s one of the best thrillers written, and I’ve used it when I teach workshops on thriller plotting. Jaws uses six devices that keep the middle of the story moving forward:
  • Setbacks
  • Pendulum swings of emotion
  • Raising the stakes
  • Obstacles
  • Rift in the team
  • Isolation of the hero
So let’s go cut open that shark and see how each works…
First, there was that great attention-getting opening scene.
Then we meet the hero, who is a classic dramatic archetype: the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Chief Brody is an outsider on the insular little vacation island — and he can’t even swim. In the setup, he is confronted with the problem, and the girl’s death forces him into action.
The SETBACKS keep coming as the victims pile up. And since Jaws is basically a serial killer plot, each new body plunges Brody deeper into despair. But then — TA-DA! — we hit a peak when local fishermen snag a great white and every one is happy.
But then we get A PENDULUM SWING OF EMOTION when Brody’s own son is almost attacked. And another when a dead boy’s mother confronts Brody and castigates him for her son’s death.
Another SETBACK occurs when Hooper tells him the bite radius of the captured shark is off and when they cut open the shark, they don’t find any body parts. Brody gets proactive and moves to close the beaches until they can catch the killer shark. But then he faces a new OBSTACLE.

The Amity mayor who’s hellbent on saving the island’s lucrative July Fourth weekend. Brody’s overruled, the beaches stay open and all Brody can do is sit on the beach and sweat. We get a slight rise in the plot graph when Hooper and Brody go out  on a night hunt (Hooper is a perfect foil character for Brody, there to give him hope and pull him out of the dips). But then they find that dead guy in the submerged boat and things look increasingly grim. Until we get a major up-thrust for Brody. He gets the money to hire a professional shark hunter — Quint.

Our hero has things under control now, right? Not so fast. Quint is a great character, and he represents one of the most effective devices you can use to beef up your middle — THE RIFT IN THE TEAM. As the three men hunt the shark, the escalating tension between them threatens the quest. You see this device used a lot in cop novels — the errant hard-drinking guy bumping heads with his partner. Think of every partner Dirty Harry ever had. Or watch the sparring between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective. Rifts in the team. Brody is pulled down in another dip as he tries to cope with crazy Quint, who at one point even smashes the boat’s radio.

The plot goes into fever pitch after this, with dips and rises as they chase the shark. The STAKES ARE RAISED as their weapons prove futile, and the boat starts to fall apart and the shark even starts to gnaw on it.

We’re entered the final big trough when Hooper decides the only option left is for him to go down in the shark cage. (STAKES ARE RAISED AGAIN). Hooper disappears, presumed dead. And then we begin the final plunge into the abyss for poor Brody. Quint goes out in a blaze of gory…

And there is our hero, alone on a sinking ship, staring into the maw of death. Which brings us to one of the most effective ways to beef up your plot — ISOLATION OF THE HERO.   Think of Clarise Starling alone in that creepy basement. We’ve use this device often, putting our hero Louis in abandoned asylum tunnels, on frozen ice bridges on Lake Huron, gator-infested Everglades, and yes, on a sinking boat in the Gulf. It gives your hero that final chance to prove himself  — through guts and brains — and triumph over evil. Remember how Brody did it?

Blasted the bad guy to bits. With his final bullet. And he couldn’t even swim. What a guy. What a climax. What a roller coaster ride.

One last note: In the book, Peter Benchley lets the shark just swim away never to be seen again. Which is a really really bad ending. But that is a blog for another day.

0

You wanna be a writer? Get real!

By P.J. Parrish

Way way back in the 1980s, when I was first starting out, I got asked by a local writers group to speak at their luncheon. The group had bagged some big-fish speakers in the past (I remember Les Standiford giving a particularly inspiring talk). But I guess they ran out of literary types so they asked me — a minnow of a romance writer at the time.

I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to tell this group of as-yet unpubbed writers. I finally decided to focus on the marketing and business end of having your book published — the underbelly stuff like co-op advertising, how “bestseller” slots in drugstores were bought by publishers, how the New York Times bestseller list wasn’t really based on sales. I thought they needed to know what they were up against. (Remember, this was pre-Amazon days when if you self-published you were automatically assigned to the eleventh ring of hell).

Well, you’d thought I had brought a dog onto the podium and shot it there in front of them. During the Q&A, they turned on me like rabid bats, each one saying, in different words the same thing: We don’t need to hear this. We need encouragement. One guy actually stood up and said — I will never forget this — “If you are so bitter about writing, why do you even do it?”

Maybe things were different back in the 80s. Maybe writers could afford to be mushrooms — keep in the dark and fed a steady diet of manure. But not anymore. Today, if you want to survive, you have to be smart, tough and tenacious. All of you who are steady Kill Zone readers know this already. But sometimes we all — including me — need to hear it anew.

As the great western philosopher John Wayne once said: If you wanna be a pony soldier, you gotta act tough.

I still speak at alot of writers groups and on panels and such. And now that I am more battle-tested, I try hard to be kinder. But damn, if someone asks me for advice about getting published, I just can’t coddle him or her with empty platitudes and pat their hands. I believe every writer needs a Dr. Phil in their life. Someone who will tell you the truth about why your plot sucks, why your characters aren’t compelling and even why you should throw away your manuscript and start over. Someone who will read your stuff, stare you straight in the eye and say, “what WERE you thinking?”

So, as we start off into this fresh new year, let me be your Dr. Phil. Let’s start with The 15 Things You Should NEVER Do.

1. Don’t procrastinate. You must choose to write. That might mean giving up something else, like golf or sleep. Too bad. Don’t jump from idea to idea. Pick one and ride it to the end. Don’t let the first wind that blows through your life distract you. Don’t wait for inspiration to come. Inspiration comes only WHILE you’re writing. It’s so much more fun to HAVE WRITTEN a book than to actually write one. (believe me, I know…this is my worst sin.) Writing the actual book is hard. Deal with it.

2. Don’t talk your story away.  I am also guilty of this but not as much as I used to be. Writers love to yak about writing instead of actually doing it. I got this great idea about a cannibal serial killer, yada yada… Pretty soon all your yadas are used up and you can’t stand your book anymore. Talk is cheap…or in this case, costly. As Lawrence Block once said, don’t book Carnegie Hall if all you do is sing in the shower. Shut up and write.

3. Don’t try to hit a home run on your first at bat. Don’t sit down to write the Great American Novel or the next Chick Lit Bestseller. First you have a better chance of hitting the lottery than landing on the NYT’s list. Give yourself permission to write badly as you find your narrative legs. Don’t get hung up on the perfect beginning. That’s what rewriting is for. I am really struggling with this one right now because my WIP is a totally departure for me and I am sort of flailing in the dark and I think I am losing sight of the “fun” part of writing.

4. Don’t beat yourself up as you go along. Trying to craft the perfect sentence can create paralysis. If you keep going back over the stuff you’ve already written YOU WILL NEVER FINISH. Write a first draft THEN go back and rewrite. And get intimate with that delete key. It is your best friend.

5. Don’t lean on adjectives. Most of us know this mantra but it always bears repeating. Adjectives weaken writing, and a string of them is deadly. Don’t use crap like “tall dark and handsome.” Find one apt word. But the real strength in writing is found in verbs. You’re not Proust.

6. Don’t overcook your words. It’s so easy to slip into cliches and overworked words. Don’t say “white as snow.” It’s not yours. Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock, overcome with grief.” Don’t make do with time-eroded words like “beautiful, wonderful, interesting, lovely.” Find your own words and voice. And for god’s sake, stay away from dialects. Few writers can pull it off without looking silly, y’all…. (I committed this sin in my first book).

7. Don’t over-punctuate. This is my pet peeve. Some writers use alot of exclamation marks, semi-colons and dashes. Maybe it’s because they LOOK so cool — active, even — on paper. But they are crutches to prop up weak action, poor narrative and badly organized thoughts. Worse, they are signposts demanding reactions from readers (Okay, reader, now here I want you to feel excited!) You can write a whole book with just periods, question marks, quotes and a couple commas. Try it! Make your words do the work!!!!

8. Don’t neglect your theme. Theme is WHY you are writing the book. Even genre novels — well, the best ones — have themes. Steinbeck said an author should be able to state his theme in one sentence. But don’t get didactic. Maybe your book is about a body found in the Everglades, but your theme is about environmental destruction. But if you get preachy, readers will turn off no matter how many bodies turn up in the sawgrass.

9. Don’t get personal. This is a big mistake beginners make. Save your self-expression for your journal or blog. What’s wrong with self-expression? It is general, boring, trite, sentimental. NO ONE CARES about your years operating a bar in Queens. But they might care about a Queens man who loses his bar in a poker game and then kills to get it back. NO ONE CARES about your war experience. But they might care about an army unit sent to rescue the last member of the Ryan family. The trick of good fiction is taking your personal experience and making it universal.

10. Don’t be dishonest. Great fiction is always honest. Which is not the same as personal. You don’t have to “write what you know.” But you have to be able to tap into your powers of empathy to “know” the characters and world you create. To write honestly is also to take emotional risks. We’ve all read books where the characters don’t move us. Usually it is because the writer was holding back, unwilling to spill some blood on the keyboard.

11. Don’t get seduced by research. First, it is a time-killer (See no. 1). Do your homework but don’t let it get in the way. It is easy to get blogged down in research and then you feel obligated to use it in the book. The result: James Michener book bloat.  Now sometimes, research can open new doors in your plot but be careful you don’t use stuff just because you worked so hard to find it.

12. Don’t obsess about trivial stuff. 
Will a publisher steal my idea if I submit it?
Should I get Windows 9?
Do I need an agent?
What if they want me to change it?
Can I use White-Out on the manuscript?
Should I wait until I have better conditions at home to write?

You get the idea…
Answers:
No, if your book is good, they will buy it.
Work with what you already have.
Just write the damn book first.
They will…don’t sweat it.
You’re actually worried about this?
No. Poe was penniless and died in a sewer. He didn’t wait til he had the right desk lamp.

13. Don’t listen to your wife/husband/hairdresser/mother. Someday, when you are accepting the Edgar, you can thank all the folks who love you. But while you are trying to write, keep them at arms length. Sometimes, they can get inside your head in two disparate ways. First, they can criticize you and say you will never get published. Second, they can tell you everything you write is brilliant. Both are bad for you. Find feedback from someone who will be honest with you. (And yes, sometimes, that cold eye person IS someone who loves you!) But avoid writers group if all they do is sit around and bitch and moan about how its all a big conspiracy to keep them out.

14. Don’t be afraid to rewrite. The temptation is huge, after you type THE END, to ship that puppy out. Don’t. Let it bake in the thumb drive for at least a week, then go back and read it cold. The crap will jump out at you — huge gobs of smelly stuff. You must rewrite. As many times as it takes. The first draft is made with the heart. The second, fifth and tenth, are made with the head.

15. Don’t give up. Never up, never in. Not at the plate, no chance to hit. One of the main differences between the published and unpublished writer (besides talent — duh!) is that the latter packed it in. This is a cruel, difficult, god-awful business. There is no secret formula for what editors want. There is no big conspiracy to keep you out of the club. There are, however, overworked, badly paid people sitting behind desks in New York who are overwhelmed with manuscripts but are still willing to pay money for a well-told story. There are readers out there waiting to find a new author who has a great story to tell. The trick is to find them — through a combination of talent, craftsmanship, perseverance and luck. Especially luck.

This is Dr. Phil, signing off. Now get back to that computer before I come over there and cut off your fingers….

0

Is your book a Christmas sweater?

So there I was, standing in the corner at the Christmas party Friday, nursing my apple-tini and watching the crowd, when my friend Trent sidled up.
Trent’s dream job is to be Clinton Kelly on “What Not to Wear” so at the party he was mentally undressing the women and then re-dressing them. He is also a disciple of the Alice Roosevelt Longworth axiom “If you can’t say anything nice about somebody, come sit by me.” (Teddy’s daughter once described Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle.”) And this being a Christmas party, you can imagine that Trent had a lot of material.
He says that there’s something about dressing up that just confounds some women down here in South Florida, particularly during the holidays. I have to agree with him. Women start out okay with maybe a little black dress. But then too many pile on every button and bow, every piece of bling they own. Trent calls it “the Full Boca.”
Okay, I’m picking on the women here, but men have it easy when it comes to formal wear; you have to try really hard to mess up a tux. But women? Some of them just don’t know when to leave well enough alone.
And standing there at the party with Trent, I realized a lot of writers have this same problem. Me, included. So let’s talk about description and how to keep your book from turning into an ugly Christmas sweater. 
Description is maybe the most potent tool in our narrative toolbox. It sets a mood, signposts a sense of place, and renders characters into flesh and blood. Description has the crucial function of letting the reader sense — see, hear, smell, feel and taste — what it going on in your story. If your description is truly compelling, it can make a reader believe in things that are otherwise incredible. Think of what Stephen King does with “Salem’s Lot.” By making his mythical Maine town come alive through description, we are willing to suspend disbelief when the vampires start showing up.

Speaking of King, here’s what he says in his book “On Writing”:

“Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It is far from easy. We’ve all heard someone say, ‘Man, it was so great (or horrible/ strange /funny)…I just can’t describe it!’ If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this well, you will be paid for your labors. If you can’t, you’re going to collect a lot of rejection slips.”

“Prickle with recognition.” Isn’t that a great way to put it?

Why do so many of us struggle with description? I think it’s because many writers don’t know how much description to use. Some don’t use enough. But usually, they have way too much. Description is narrative and narrative disrupts action. So a little goes a long way.
Which brings us back to the little black dress. When description is working well, it is concise and evocative. It also concentrates on a few well-chosen specific details that imply a host of other unspecific details. When Holly Golightly got dressed to go visit Uncle Sally in prison, she didn’t junk up her Givenchy. Just sunglasses and that great hat.
So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you’ve gone too far or haven’t gone far enough? How do you resist gilding the lily? There are no easy answers but here are a few things to think about:
Don’t generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it’s Monopoly. Instead of a “bad smell” use the specific “like sour milk.” But again, don’t reach too hard or you look silly.
Don’t forget to compare and contrast. The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you’re describing something green, it’s your job to come up with something fresher than “grass.” Here’s one of my faves from Steinbeck: “The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.” And come to think of it, Alice’s description of Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle” is pretty good. But again, don’t strain for originality or you just sound pretentious.
Don’t lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don’t strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn…not a “verdant sward.”
Don’t use cliches: It’s easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can’t use “white as snow.” It’s not yours! Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock” or even “overcome with grief.” Time has eroded all those. It’s your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.
Yeah, it’s tough to dress your writing for success. But don’t despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them. But then my sister told me one day that I was — ahem — dressing to impress. I made every writer’s biggest mistake: I fell in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be “writerly.” 
Finding your style — be it writing or fashion — is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out. In fact, I have gone too far with my WIP so my critique group friends tell me I am now underwriting and they are advising me to add more description.

Here is Stephen King again: 

“Description is a learned skill, one of the reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It is not a question of how-to, you see; it is also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can only learn by doing. “

I’ll leave you with one final fashion icon as metaphor. If you try hard, you can get better at this. If she could go from this:

To this:

So can you.

0

Rejection: A little chin music

By P.J. Parrish

This isn’t going to be news to most of you who are regular readers of The Kill Zone but it’s good advice for anyone who is trying to get published. Heck, it’s good advice if you are trying to STAY published. And we all need to be reminded of it once in a while. Here it is:

You have to be tough.

How tough? You have to have the hide of a

The tenacity of a

And the drive of a

But even with all those qualities, you are going to get rejected. It happens to all of us. And it never stops. Even after you sign your first contract, you will deal with it. Your editor will make you rewrite. The marketing department will veto your title. (Heck, one of ours got nixed by the buyer at Walmart). Barnes & Noble will stock you but Costco won’t. You won’t get reviewed or worse, you’ll get panned. You work like a dog to put your ebook on Amazon and you sell four books…three of them to your mom. And someday, you will be stalking some poor reader in the bookstore, see him pick up your book [YES! THEY LIKE ME, THEY REALLY LIKE ME!] and he will put it back on the shelf [NO! WHY DO YOU HATE MY BOOK?]

Rejection is a staple of the writer’s life, so no matter where you are on your path, you might as well begin to come to grips with it. Even after you are published with a decent track record, you can still get dumped on.

Rejection begins, of course, with query letters. This is a painful thing, the query process, because the agents who are rejecting you are usually maddeningly oblique about why they are giving you the thumbs down. Here’s some examples of coded rejections I have seen:

1. “This doesn’t fit my needs at this time.”
2. “Your writing is strong but I don’t feel I can be enthusiastic enough to fully get behind this project.”
3. “I’m afraid I will have to take a pass. But I am interested in seeing other projects…”

What they really mean:

1. You can’t write.
2. I already have four authors who write zombie Lesbian detective series.
3. DaVinci Code rip-offs are yesterday’s news. Have you considered paranormal YA?

I don’t mean to make light of your woes if you are going through any phase of rejection now. But believe me, I have been there. My entry into this business took place during the Ice Age when it was possible to still submit to editors without having an agent. (ie the Slush Pile). But the rejections were still as awful. I used to have all of them — kept them in an old manila envelope in a desk drawer. Then when we moved a couple years ago, I finally threw all the rejection letters away. Except for the first one I ever got, which I keep framed above my desk:

It is a classic. It doesn’t reproduce well here, so let me point out some really nifty things about this particular rejection letter. First, it’s a form letter. Second, there is no date. Third, there is no signature. But someone WAS kind enough to pencil in my last name and even take a moment to cross out “Sir.” I think this rejection letter is circa 1980. But you’ll notice the language has not changed since. The inserts are how I felt at the time:

Dear Ms. Montee,

We thank you for the opportunity [yeah, right!] to consider your proposal or manuscript. [what, they can’t figure out WHICH?]. We are sorry [I’ll bet!] to inform you that the book does not seem a likely prospect [how elegant!] for the Dell Book list. Because we receive many individual submissions every day [you think I care how overworked you are?] it is impossible for us to offer individual comment [I’d say so since there is no human being attached to this letter to begin with!] We thank you for thinking of Dell [insert sound of raspberry here] and we wish you the best of success [ie don’t darken our doorstep again with your crap] in placing your book with another publisher. [you’ll be sorry some day!]

Sincerely, [you’re kidding, right?]
The Editors [aka the evil Manhattan cabal trying to keep me unpublished]

So why did I keep this one? Well, with the passage of more than two decades I have gained a certain perspective about it. The manuscript I sent to Dell was really really bad. It had no business going out in the world in the state it was in. I know, because I kept it. Like this rejection letter, I kept it to remind me that this is a learning process. It still is. It always will be.

So if you are feeling blue today about rejection, just know this one thing: You are not alone. Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth” was rejected on the grounds that Americans were “not interested in anything on China.” A editor passed on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” explaining it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” And let’s not forget the agent who dumped Tony Hillerman and told him to “get rid of all that Indian stuff.”

Keep plugging away at your craft. Grow a tough hide, be brave, don’t give up, don’t be too timid to send your book out there for scrutiny. You can’t hit a home run — or even a blooper single — if you never step up to the plate. And even if you are in the batter’s box, don’t keep backing out because you’re afraid of getting beaned. Derek Jeter’s been hit by a pitch 184 times in his career. You think he’s afraid of a little chin music?

And lastly, have a little faith. Shoot, have a lot of faith:

Because it only takes one “yes” to make all the no’s bearable.

0