Suspense: To Be Exciting,
You Need To Be A Little Dull

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This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.– Oscar Wilde

By PJ Parrish

Sunday, I picked up the latest by a bestselling thriller writer and about halfway through, I realized it was sorta…unthrilling. So I put it aside and tuned into the Broncos-Colts game. I didn’t expect much in the way of entertainment here either because I knew this old story. I mean, Denver was 4-0 and Indianapolis was 3-5. Denver has Manning and Indy has, at best, a little Luck.

But lo and behold! The Colts were winning 17-0. Well, I thought, this is kinda interesting. So I stuck around. And then, Denver returned a punt 83 yards for TD.

Hmmm.

Then Peyton Manning hit for a TD, Denver got a field goal and suddenly, we were all knotted up at 17-all. Early in the fourth quarter, Andrew Luck threw a TD but Manning answered with one of his own and we were tied again! Until Adam Vinatieri, who is 95-years-old and never misses despite having only seven toes, kicked a field goal putting the Colts ahead by three!

Six minutes left. But I was definitely not turning this one off now because Denver was driving. And how’s this for a twist? Peyton was only 30 yards away from becoming the leading passer of all time, surpassing Brett Favre!

Tick…tick…tick.

OH MY GOD! Peyton is picked off!

Can the Colts hang on? There’s four minutes left and Frank Gore is running the ball but he’s 105-years-old and has a habit of putting the rock on the ground. Denver uses its last time out. But here is the back story that I already know about this drama: Peyton leads the league with 43 fourth-quarter comebacks.

Can he do it again? Will he break the passing record? Will the Broncos stay perfect? Will Frank cough up another hairball like he did last week?

The suspense was killing me.

Frank is tackled on third down. Ninety seconds left! Peyton’s going to get the ball back! Wait! Is that a flag? Some guy named Aqib Talib poked a Colt in the eye and Denver gets flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct!

It’s over. Colts win.

{{{Whew}}}

Now that was suspense. After that, I had no desire to go back to my book. Because despite the book’s stellar blurbs and the reputation of the author as the Master of the Twist, it wasn’t near as good as that football game.

The game was classic David and Goliath with a little Joseph Campbell The Hero’s Journey thrown in, yet it still went against my expectations. It had a good mix of pacing, with zip-fast passing attacks and slow grind-it-out running. It had setbacks and surprises. It had heroes and eye-gouging villains. And just enough twists to keep me guessing.

Think there’s a lesson here?

A good sports game has a lot in common with a good book or movie. Sitting on your barstool watching Daniel Murphy commit that error in game four and wondering if the Mets are doomed. Sitting in the triplex watching The Fugitive and wondering if Harrison Ford is going to jump off the dam. Or turning just one more page to find out if Amy is alive or is the girl gone for good. They are all related.

There’s the old Hitchcock formula: 1. A couple is sitting at a table talking. 2. The audience is shown a time bomb beneath the table and the amount of time left before it explodes. 3. The couple continues talking, unaware of the danger. 4. The audience eyes a clock in the background.

The surprise, Hitchcock said, didn’t come from the bomb itself; it came from the tension of not seeing it.

Speaking of formulas, there actually is one for suspense:

Suspense: t = (E t [(µ¿ t+1 – µ t)²])½

I didn’t make this up, believe me. It was created by Emir Kamenica and Alexander Frankel of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It is basically an equation about time and expectations: “t” represents the period of time a moment of suspense is occurring, “E” is the expectations at that time, the Greek mu indicates your belief in the next thing to happen, the +1 is your belief in the future, the tilde represents uncertainty, and the subtracted mu is the belief you might have tomorrow.

That made your brain hurt, right? Mine, too. But hey, you sat through my football metaphor, so stay with me a little longer. The Chicago guys also developed a formula for surprise, which is easier to stomach for us math-challenged types. It boils down to this: what your beliefs are now minus what your beliefs were yesterday.

Their paper “Suspense and Surprise” (co-written with Northwestern University economics professor Jeffrey Ely) was published in the “Journal of Political Economy.” It was inspired by their observation that in various types of entertainment – gambling, watching sports, reading mysteries – people don’t really WANT to know the outcome.

What they DO want is a “slow reveal of information.” As one of them put it in an article in the Chicago Tribune: “To be exciting, we found that things need to get dull.”

Information revealed over time generates drama in two ways: suspense and surprise. Suspense is all about BEFORE, ie something is going to happen. (the ticking bomb under the chair). Surprise is about AFTER, ie you’re surprised that something unexpected happened. (the bomb didn’t go off!) If you are led to believe one thing is going to happen (Broncos will win!) but then are surprised by the unexpected (Colts prevail!) that can be pretty powerful.

So how do you translate this to your own writing?

I’ll let Kamenica explain. He goes back to the Hitchcock formula: “Let’s take that idea and ask a mathematical question: How much suspense can you possibly generate?’ Putting that bomb there generates suspense, but how long can you leave it there? Can you leave it the duration of the movie? Or is that boring? Once you put it there, when do you decide for it to go off? One-third of the way through? One-half? If I am invested, as a viewer, how frequently should uncertainty be resolved? You have a threat, information that (a bomb) will explode, then it gets resolved, the movie continues. But will these people survive the next danger? How often can you do that — change an audience view?”

He has the answer, of course: Three times.

“Say you are writing a mystery,” Kamenica goes on in the Chicago Tribune article, “Zero twists is bad. And one thousand twists is also bad — again, for something to be exciting, it must occasionally become boring. So, three. The math delivers surprisingly concrete prescriptions. That number is constrained to a stylized view, characteristic mystery novel: Is it the maid or butler who did it? Does the protagonist live or die? A novelist must lead you in one direction then …”

Added his colleague Frankel: “The thing is, we also found that you can’t really have a definite number of twists. Three is average. Yet if you know there are three twists, those twists are not actually twists — you are now waiting for the twist.”

And that, to me, is the major lesson here. Not that your book must conform to a three-twist formula. Because if your readers know you have three twists, you’ve lost the suspense. The lesson, to me, is less might just be more.

That’s why I gave up on that book I was reading. Its pacing was overly frenetic, with no slow moments for me to catch my breath. And the writer — excuse me, Master of the Twist — was so intent on forcing me through one more complication, one more bend in the road, one more plot gymnastic, that I began to anticipate his next move. I put the book down because the enjoyment was gone. The fun was leached away. The thrill was gone.

If your readers know you will have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end, then your book will no longer have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end.

So maybe it comes down to this: If you want to be thrilling, you also have to be willing to be boring very so often.

 

 

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Indie Book Store Confidential

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Editor’s note: Kris is up in the wilds of Northern Michigan helping her sister Kelly move into a new condo. She is busy painting the kitchen so Kelly is stepping in today. All these stories are true but the customers’ names have been withheld for obvious reasons.

It was a dark and snowy night. I was working the late shift all alone at Horizon Books in Traverse City. The cavernous store was as empty and quiet as Al Capone’s vault. The windows dripped with sweaty heat. Across the street, the red neon sign of the Milk and Honey Ice Cream shop beat blood-red, like a broken heart.

I was leaning on the counter, reading a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I only cracked it open because it was my job to know what’s hot and I always did my job. But I was only twenty pages in and I was already tired of characters named Thomas.

Suddenly, the air turned cold, sashaying over me like a discarded mink stole. I saw a dame standing near the door. Red heels, silk stockings, red skirt and a high-collared leopard fur coat with a matching hat, cocked with sass. She wasn’t young but I could tell she had paid a lot of money to have folks think otherwise.

Her baby blues jumped left and right and her red lips pursed slightly as she approached the counter. I knew what she was going to ask for. I knew because not only is it my job to know what’s hot, I got a knack for knowing exactly what people want.

She was an easy read. Before she ever reached the counter, I discreetly reached into what we at the store called “The Case.” The Case is where we keep the VHS Porn Movie Guide, Cannabis Culture magazines, Naked Art Books, the Karma Sutra, and a handful of other titles low-lifes have a tendency to sticky-finger out the door.

I wrapped my hand around the slick spine of a trade pulp and laid it silently on the counter. The dame blushed and reached her for dough. It cost her sixteen Washingtons, all shades of green, but I had a feeling that she would’ve paid fifty, one dollar for each shade of Grey.
Then she was gone into the white confetti of the Michigan night, just one of a hundred happy Horizon readers, eager to experience literary new worlds.

I was just being introduced to yet another Thomas in Wolf Hall when the door opened again. This time, it wasn’t milk and honey but milk and cookies. Shirley Temple with red hair and Sock Monkey mittens. She could barely see over the counter.

“Do you have Mable Makes a Move by Anne Mazer?”

I love little kids who read. There are so few nowadays. I punched at a keyboard that was so old it looked brushed with fingerprint dust, and scrolled through our 1990s WordStock system for the title. Yeah, the computer’s as old as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but hey, it works. And indie bookstores don’t have much cash flow. Nothing came up. Section 904 -– younger young adult — is not my area of expertise. I’m a hard-boiled kind of clerk.

“Is that part of a series?” I asked.

She gave me the How-dumb-are-you? eye roll. “It’s the Sister Magic series. Book Six. Anne Mazer. M-a-z-e-r.”

Feeling a hundred years old, I strolled to the 904 aisle to get the book for Miss Sassy Pants. But I found myself standing there in a maze of pink and purple books, all with glittery spines and little blonde girls and unicorns on the covers.

“There it is,” the girl said as she snatched the book from the shelf. She was back at the counter with the exact change before I could bag her up.

“You’ll enjoy that book,” I say to make conversation as she counted her pennies.

“It’s not for me,” she said. “It’s for my younger sister. I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. It’s very old but holds up well. Thank you.”

I sighed in satisfaction as I watched her go, amazed and hopeful for the next generation. Finding the right book for the right reader is the best part of my job. But that’s only part of what goes on in an independent bookstore.

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

We all wear many fedoras here. We shelve new arrivals and ship out the flash-in-the pan hardcovers when they fall off the NYT list. We find impossible-to-find out of print titles for discerning readers. We babysit authors for signings, from the local geezer who wrote a fly-fishing guide to the likes of Steve Hamilton and Mardi Link. We tote books to business luncheons, library fund raisers and school carnivals. And yeah, we make coffee, too. Some of us even know latte art.

You learn a lot working behind the scenes. Some things you might not want to know, like what’s really in a Jimmy Dean sausage. But if you want the dope on how you, as an author, can get the “bulge” (advantage) when working with an indie store, well, maybe this hardboiled old bookseller can give you some hints:

1. Don’t piss off the Author Events Manager.
2. Do not bring in consignment books without being asked.
3. When you first approach the Events Manager, please arrive with sufficient materials in hand so the manager knows what the book is about. A copy of the book might be good.
4. Do not call every Sunday and ask how many books you sold this week.
5. Do not show up late for your event. Maybe, just maybe, people might be waiting.
6. Don’t be a stump. Most events will not require you speak to a group. Your first store events will be done at a table, behind a pile of books. STAND UP. Talk to people, and smile. Have postcards or flyers with a synopsis and let the customer walk away and read your stuff. Pretty good chance they will come back and buy. Flyers can be printed at home!
7. If your book is non-returnable, do not expect your bookstore to carry it on any basis but consignment. You bring it in and get paid only if you sell one.
8. If your book is consignment, do not be surprised if your local store refuses to carry it or do an event. It’s just the way it is. However, even if your book is from Createspace, if it has local interest, many stores are very likely to not only carry it, but actively promote it.
9. If you visit your bookstore as a reader, do not ask a salesperson to look up a book and when you find out the store does not have it but can order it for you, do not tell them you are going to go home and order it from Amazon, where you can get it cheaper. You might find yourself with a boot up your butt as you go out the door.
10. Remember that the folks who work in indie bookstores usually are there because they really love books. And writers. But remember that they are human and just might be having a bad day at the latte machine or just had to deal with a really dicey customer.

Which brings me back to that dark and snowy night. It was near closing and I had already done most my duties: run out the stragglers, reshelved the books people sat and read for eight hours, cleaned the coffee bar, took out the trash, and rolled the pennies for the day shift.

I was this close to a clean getaway when another cold blast of air made me look to the front door.

The kid was standing there wet and bedraggled. As he slurped over toward me, I saw the piercing in his nose and the desperation in his eyes.

“I need a book,” he whispered.

I had already locked up The Case and wasn’t about to open it for another would-be weed farmer.

“We got books,” I said.

“I need it for school,” the kid said. “It’s called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The kid looked like he didn’t have the strength to go get it himself, so I hopped over, came back and slid the slender paperback across the counter. He stared at it like it was a dead walleye.

“Is this hard stuff?” he asked.

“Not too bad.” I paused, feeling a moment of pity for this pathetic creature. “You seen the movie?” I asked.

His eyes brightened. “There’s a movie?”

“Yeah, it’s a little dated but it’s good and has a powerful message on the mental health system in America.”

The light left his eyes.

“Hey, you can’t go wrong with Jack Nicholson,” I said.

“Who’s he?”

I shook my head and picked up the wad of crumbled bills the kid had set on the counter. I bagged up his book and sent him back out into the night, locking the door behind him. I watched him until he disappeared into the swirling snow.

Life wore a man out, wore a man thin. Tomorrow would be a better day.

I pulled the string on the light and the neon – BOOKS! OPEN! – sign went silent.

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Hooks, Lines and StinkersIn Praise of Great Openings

By PJ Parrish

The opening line of your book is the single hardest line you write.

Many writers would disagree with that. But for my money, those writers are:

A. those lucky devils for whom all things come easy;
B. those diligent do-bees who can scribble down anything just to get started and then go back and rewrite or
C. those types who aren’t really very good at what they do or maybe are just phoning it in.

Yeah, C is probably a little harsh. But I truly believe this. I have great respect and envy for writers who create wonderful openings and I also little regard for those who never even try. And can’t we all tell the difference?

I am not talking about “hooks.” I’m talking about those rare and glorious opening moments in stories that are telling us, “OO-heee, something special is about to happen here!” Hooks? I am firmly of the mind that anyone can write a decent hook. You’ve seen them, those clever one-liners tossed out by wise-ass PIs, those archly ironic first-person soliloquies, those purple-prose weather reports that substitute for mood.

We crime writers talk a lot about great hooks and how to get our readers engaged in the first couple pages. We worry about whether we should throw out a corpse in the first chapter, whether one-liners are best, if readers attention spans are too short for a slow burn beginning. This is especially true if you are writing what we categorize as “thrillers.”

But I’m tired of hooks. I’m thinking that the importance of a great opening goes beyond its ability to keep the reader just turning the pages. A great opening is a book’s soul in miniature. Within those first few paragraphs — sometimes buried, sometimes artfully disguised, sometimes signposted — are all the seeds of theme, style and most powerfully, the very voice of the writer herself.

It’s like you whispering in the reader’s ear as he cracks the spine and turns to that pristine Page 1: “This is the world I am taking you into. This is what I want to tell you. You won’t understand it all until you are done but here is a hint, a taste, of what I have in store for you.”

Which is why, today I am still staring at the blank page. We turned in our book last week to our new publisher and now it’s time to start the whole process all over again. I give myself a week off but then I try to get right back in the writing groove. I have an idea for a new book but that great opening?

Nothing has come to me yet. And I know my writer-self well enough by now that I know can’t move forward until I find just the right key to unlock what is to come. So here I sit, staring at the blinking curser, thinking that if I can only make good on my beginning’s promise, everything else will follow. Because that is what a great opening is to me: a promise to my reader that what I am about to give them is worth their time, is something they haven’t seen before, something that is…uniquely me.

Oh hell, I’ll let Joan Didion explain it. I have a feeling she’s given this a lot more thought than I have:

Q: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.

Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Q: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.

Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.

Didion gave this interview around the time she published her great memoir after her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking, the first line of which is: “Life changes fast.”

Here are some more openings I really love:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

That’s from Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex. To me, it’s magic, because there in that one deceivingly simple declarative sentence lies the all tenderness, irony and roiling epic scope of his story.

And then there’s this one:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”

That’s from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. This is the first line of a long paragraph of description that opens the book, yet look at what it accomplishes — puts us down immediately in his setting, conveys the book’s bleak mood and hints with those two words “out there” that he is taking us to an alien place where nothing makes sense (the criminal mind).

And here is the one I always bring up:

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..

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry (out of envy) when I read that one.

What is so terrifying about openings, I suppose, is that you only have so much space to work with: the first line, the first paragraph, that’s it. Because once you’ve moved deeper into that first chapter, that golden moment of anticipation is gone and then you the writer are busily engaging all the gears to move the reader onward. The opening is the moment before the kiss; the rest is relationship. And you only have precious seconds to make a good impression.

I read a lot of crime novels. I do this to keep up with what’s going on in our business but I also do it out of pleasure. But it seems to me that lately I am reading too many genre books that just aren’t trying hard enough, and you really can see it in the openings. Maybe this has something to do with the pressure to put out a book a year. Maybe I am reading the wrong people. But I find myself wishing for less “hook” and more artfulness.

That said, I pulled a couple books from my crime shelf and found some “oldies” that I like:

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped a girl off the bridge. — John D. MacDonald, Darker Than Amber

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. — James M. McCain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

The girl was saying goodbye to her life. And it was no easy farewell. — Val McDermid, A Place of Execution.

Not bad for one-liners. Then there are the more measured openings:

Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker – somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret of dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face. But my rule didn’t protect me.

That’s from my favorite Mike Connelly book, The Poet, and it works because it succinctly captures his protagonist’s voice and the theme of the story.

There is a bullet in my chest, less an a centimeter from my heart. I don’t think about it much anymore. It’s just a part of me now. But every once in a while, one a certain kind of night, I remember that bullet. I can feel the weight of it inside me. I can feel its metallic hardness. And even though that bullet has been warming inside my body for fourteen years, on a night like this when it is dark enough and the wind is blowing, that bullet feels as cold as the night.

Lovely writing from Steve Hamilton. See how the bullet, the setting and the key point of Alex McKnight’s backstory coalese around theme?

These are writers who understand the difference between a hook and an opening. They declare their authority as master storytellers right from the start. When a writer presents me with an opening like this…well, I would follow them anywhere.

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Seasons Greetings

AWREATH3It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During our 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2015. From Clare, Jodie, Kathryn, Kris, Joe M., Nancy, Jordan, Elaine, Joe H., Mark, and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone. See you back here on Monday, January 5. Until then, check out our TKZ Resource Library partway down the sidebar, for listings of posts on The Kill Zone, categorized by topics.

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It’s time once more for…(Gasp! Oooh! Yes! Yes!)The Bad Sex Awards!

By PJ Parrish

Wow, and this could not have come at a better time, right?

I mean, it’s been a sort of depressing year. (Go read Mark’s Saturday post if you need a reminder). And I just got home from my bagel place where I was reading in the New York Times about Congress’s Cromnibus spending bill, which told me that tucked inside the $1.1 trillion is a provision that requires the Obama administration to include white potatoes in government nutrition programs for mothers and infants. Your tax dollars at work…making the world safe for starch.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the important stuff — sex.

Now we have talked here often about how hard it is to write good sex scenes. I  think that most of us crime writers do a pretty good job with sex. We get in and out without much ado and many adjectives. Which is why I get such a big kick out of the annual  Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction awards.  It’s sort of fun to see the literary types muck things up.

This year’s winner is Ben Okri. Never heard of him? Well, he won the prestigious Booker Award back in 1991 but his latest novel The Age of Magic, snagged the big bad sex award. His story follows a team of documentary filmmakers who wind up in a hotel by a lake in the shadow of a looming mountain. The winning scene involves Lao, the film’s presenter, and his main squeeze, Mistletoe.

Are you ready? Small children, sensitive dogs, and those easily offended should now leave the room:

Sky rockets in flight. Afternoon delight!

“When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour.

Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

More? Give me more, you say? Okay, here are some of short-listers who came close but no cigar:

Is that a penguin in your mouth or are you just glad to see me?

“He kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world. As they lost themselves in the circumnavigation of each other, there came from nearby shrill shrieks that ended in a deeper howl. Dorrigo looked up. A large dog stood at the top of the dune. Above blood-jagged drool, its slobbery mouth clutched a twitching fairy penguin.” 
— Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat, and maybe a period

I continued to tell her flesh of its gifts, such pleasure, gently but insistently given, even biting her earlobe with my front teeth, sweeping her hair from her face, her neck, as she cried, and breathed less jaggedly, “It hurts, it hurts.” I did not stop until it stopped hurting, until I heard pleasure articulated from her. Her throat as open as her body, wet everywhere from tears and the coming, and I did hear it, a long high twisting cry and a twisting in my arms as my fingers dove up and up into the full expressive wetness of her. Hold me, hold me. Here and here, she said after she came, placing one of my hands between her legs to press again, another over her breasts. Hold me tight.

 — Amy Grace Loyd, The Affairs of Others

That girl can really do the Rhombus!

The girls entwined themselves lithely around Tsukuru. Kuro’s breasts were full and soft. Shiro’s were small, but her nipples were as hard as tiny round pebbles. Their pubic hair was as wet as a rain forest. Their breath mingled with his, becoming one, like currents from far away, secretly overlapping at the dark bottom of the sea. These insistent caresses continued until Tsukuru was inside the vagina of one of the girls. It was Shiro. She straddled him, took hold of his rigid, erect penis, and deftly guided it inside her. His penis found its way with no resistance, as if swallowed up into an airless vacuum. She took a moment, gathering her breath, then began slowly rotating her torso, as if she were drawing a complex diagram in the air, all the while twisting her hips. Her long, straight black hair swung above him, sharply, like a whip.

 — Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

All the cats who dig striptease prayin’ for a little breeze

Her hair was piled high, but when she shook her head it came cascading down in a glowing wave over her shoulders, and fell as far as her knees. This rippling curtain did not cover her breasts which thrust their way through it like living creatures. They were perfect rounds, white as mare’s milk and tipped with ruby nipples that puckered as my gaze passed over them. Her body was hairless. Her pudenda were also entirely devoid of hair. The tips of her inner lips protruded shyly from the vertical cleft. The sweet dew of feminine arousal glistened upon them.

— Wilbur Smith, Desert God
Like a virgin, baked for the very first time

She was moaning softly now, her breath coming faster. She tasted of apples. Her soft warm flesh was driving me crazy – that dish of delight my tongue was now lapping at frenziedly. Her suppressed cries were coming faster and faster. I unbuttoned my pants, pushing them down past my hips, and my beast, finally released from its cage, sprang up wildly. I started inching my way back up, continuing to stimulate her manually, until the beast found its way in. She opened her eyes and said softly, ‘I’m still a virgin, please be careful.’

I kept myself quiet for a moment, kissed her and said, “I’ll be very gentle, all right?”

Running her tongue over her lips she nodded; she was as hot as boiling water in a distillation flask, and it wasn’t long before I was able to really get going. We both came at the same time. I stayed inside her for a few seconds, gazed at her, and smiled.

— Saskia Goldschmidt, The Hormone Factory

Those are the only ones I can print. Click here for more.  Go on, you know you want to.

So who finds all this dirty stuff? If you want a behind the scenes look at the process the Literary Review goes through every year, watch the video below. But it’s like Bismark said: “Sex is like sausages, it is better not to see it being made.” Or something like that.

Happy holidays, fellow crime dogs. Peace and out.

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Women Doing Men…and Vice Versa

Got a great fan letter the other day from a lady named Rose O’Malley:

Dear P.J.: My husband is a Stephen King fan. Has read all his books and needed a new author. We went to the bookstore and found your first Louis Kincaid book. Well, he is hooked and is always looking forward to the next one. Here’s the funny part. He doesn’t think women can write as good as men. He thinks P.J. Parrish is a black man. I just found out when I went to your website [that you are women]. This is a good one. I can’t wait to tell him.”

Wish I could say this is rare. But we get a lot of fan letters that come addressed to Mr. Parrish. Whatever the reason — that our protag is a man or our style hardboiled — many of our readers assume we are male.

Now I’m a card-carrying feminist. (Well, I would carry one if there WAS a card). And I used to be miffed about this Mr. Parrish thing, believing that I had a duty to carry the standard for female crime writers. (Maybe I did strike a blow for the crime writing sisterhood in the O’Malley household at least.) But you know, after living fifteen years now as the neuter P.J. Parrish, I no longer take offense. I’ll let reader Wade Beeson, in his email to us, tell you why:

“As a compliment, I could not decide if you were male or female, as you seem sensitive and understanding of both sexes. Thank you for a provocative read.”

The women writing men and men writing women thing is a pretty hackneyed subject. It’s dragged out for at least one conference panel a year. And I suspect the men are as tired of explaining how they “do” women as I am tired of talking about how I “do” men.

It boils down to one thing for me: If you can’t slip into the skin of another sex (or race or anyone outside your paltry sphere of experience) you have no business even trying to write. Failure to write believable characters of ANY kind is the supreme failure of the imagination.

Madame Bovary is one of my favorite books. From the first time I read it, I was awed by Emma. And by her creator’s ability to bring her to such vivid life. At that time in my life, I had just run my Visa up buying a designer purse when my rent was overdue. How did Flaubert understand how I sank to that nadir?

Flaubert “did” women well. But when he said “Bovary, c’est moi,” he wasn’t claiming he was his character. Actually, he once admitted he was terrified by “the need to invent.” (Which I find vastly comforting!) He was a literary magpie who read medical textbooks to write about clubfeet, observed the town folks around him, and when he had to write a chapter about an agricultural fair, actually went to one.

It’s said he probably even stole the whole idea for Bovary from a scandal that was going on near his town at the time, buying into the advice of his friends who told him “write what you know.”

For years after his book came out, he peevishly maintained he just made the whole damn thing up.

But Flaubert WAS Bovary in a very basic way. His powers of observation, his imagination, his sensory antennae, his understanding of human nature — all those things that make up what we call writer’s talent — it all allowed him to inhabit other skins. It allowed him to create one of literature’s greatest female archetypes.

This man-woman thing is swirling in my head today as my sister and I write chapter 38 of our new book. The finish line is in sight, but it has been a hard race. See, this book is the first in a new series featuring a female protagonist. Now we wrote a female protag before when we gave Louis’s lover Joe Frye her own stand alone. But this charcacter isn’t a tough homicide cop like Joe. Gaslight.) Also, she is an unreliable narrator, which is a bitch to write well. It is exhausting being in her head. So for the first time in years, I can sympathize with those of you just starting out — those of you still trying to fit into that new skin. She’s a rich socialite whose life goes to hell when she comes to believe her husband is trying to kill her. (Yeah, I know…Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.)

Our new woman is taking shape. As are the men around her. A whole new world is coming to life every day under my fingertips. It is frustrating, frightening all over again. And deeply thrilling. I tapped into something inside myself to become Louis. I will plumb the female side of myself for this new chararacter. (I have never been a rich socialite, after all…despite buying that designer purse.) I’ll willingly lose something of myself.

Here’s Flaubert talking about that process:

“What a delicious thing writing is — not to be you anymore but to move through the whole universe you are talking about. Take me today, for instance: I was a man and woman, lover and mistress; I went riding on a fall afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horse, the leaves, the wind, the words he and she spoke, and the red sun beating on their half-closed eyelids, which were heavy with passion.”

Isn’t that, in a nutshell, why we write?

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First Round Picks…and BustsWhy Big Advances Can Be Bad

By PJ Parrish

I was thinking yesterday how much two of my favorite icons — Dan Marino and John Grisham — have in common. Stay with me on this.

I love the NFL. From the start of training camp in July through Super Bowl Sunday in February, I am in hog heaven. And the fact that my Dolphins and my auxiliary team the Lions are doing well makes things even better. But when football season is over, like many NFL geeks I resort to a sad substitute, The Draft. I read the magazines, check out the websites and listen to the talking jock-heads on ESPN. Will Oregon QB Marcus Mariota go No. 1? Will the Jets take another QB flyer on controversial Seminole Jameis Winston? Will my Dolphins go for tackle La’El Collins to beef up their O line?

Yeah, I know. I need a life.

On a recent Sunday, after the games were over, I turned to the New York Times. There I read about Stephanie Danler. (That’s her at left). She is a young waitress in a upscale French bistro in the West Village. One day, while serving Random House vice president Peter Gethers his steak tartare, she talked him into reading her manuscript about a young waitress who works in an upscale New York bistro. Gethers, used to getting hit on after 30 years in publishing, deflected her with a polite “have your agent sent it to me.”

I bet you know where this plot is going.

Gethers was smitten after reading 10 pages and, to make a long story short (click here to read it), Danler’s novel Bittersweet was acquired by Knopf for “a pre-emptive high six-figure two book deal.”

Now you’d think that with all the challenges traditional publishing is facing these days, that Danler’s dream deal is rare. It’s not. There has been a string of debut novel big deals lately. Random House recently paid $2 million for 25-year-old debut novelist Emma Cline’s The Girls. St. Martins just picked up New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford’s debut novel Everybody Rise for over $1 million. And first-timer Imbolo Mbue got a seven-figure deal with Random House for her book about a West African immigrant who works as a chauffeur for Lehmann Brothers.

Which leads me to wonder: Are Knopf and Random House making shaky bets on future prospects?

Which takes me back to Grisham and Marino. Both were overlooked in their drafts. But both took rejection and turned it into a positive. Both turned out to be huge assets for their bosses. Marino was taken by the Dolphins with the 27th pick. That means 26 teams took a pass on the guy who became the first rookie QB to go to a Super Bowl and is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Five teams chose QBs ahead of him. The Colts drafted John Elway knowing they couldn’t sign him. Kansas City took Todd Blackledge. Buffalo took Jim Kelly. New England took Tony Eason. The Jets took Ken O’Brien.

Now let’s look at John Grisham. He struggled to write his first book A Time To Kill while working fulltime as a lawyer. Grisham was turned down by thirty-some publishers. “Everybody said no,” he recalls. After a year of rejection, his agent sold A Time to Kill to the tiny Wynwood Press. The book sold 5,000 copies, most of them by Grisham hawking them from the trunk of his car. Wynwood went bankrupt leaving Grisham with no one to publish the second book he had been laboring on, The Firm. But then a bootlegged manuscript of The Firm surfaced in Hollywood, and as Grisham has explained: “Some guy ran 25 copies, said he was my agent, and sent them to all of the major production companies. He got nervous when they started making offers. At some point he called my agent in New York, and the rest is history. It was an unbelievably lucky break, and I had nothing to do with it.”

But like Marino, Grisham did go on to have a rather long and productive career.

Traditional publishing is a lot like the NFL draft. Every year, there is buzz, hype and great hopes surrounding a handful of hot prospects. Is what goes on in the booths of BEA so much different than the machinations in the war rooms of the NFL, where team owners place multi-million-dollar bets on unknown kids in cleats? Is a publisher dazzled by a pretty face and a “media platform” any different than a scout besotted by a 4.4 and a good Wonderlick score? And is an editor any better at predicting which writer will have a sophomore slump than a coach is at foretelling which rookie will blow out a knee?

No coach can predict which guy is going to be the next sixth-round steal Tom Brady and which one is the next first-round dud Todd Marinovich. Likewise, no editor can predict who’s going to be the next J.K. Rowlings and who — despite all the money they throw around — is going to be the next John Twelve Hawks. (Remember him?)

Or how about Jonathan Littell? A couple years ago, Harper paid him a cool million for the rights to publish his first novel The Kindly Ones in the U.S. It was published in France first where it won prizes and sold well. But it’s 1,000 pages long, Michiko Kakutani hated it, and the book sold only 17,000 copies out of a 150,000 print run.

Then there’s Gordon Dahlquist. Bantam inked him to a $2 million two book deal but his debut thriller The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters sold only 22,000 copies of a 120,000 print run, earning the publisher about $851,500 back on its gamble.

Now, I am not suggesting that all big-buck debuts are bad. Two of my favorite books of all time were expensive debuts: Chad Harbach got $650,000 for The Art of Fielding. It was named a ten best books of the year by the New York Times, shortlisted for the Guardian first book prize, and almost made it to an HBO series. It sold 117,954 hardcover copies so it made back its advance. Another book I adore is Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner. He was 26 when he got $1.2 million advance for it. It was a bestseller and Werner Herzog optioned it for film.

But here’s the bottom line: According to Time Magazine 70 percent of novels do not earn back their advance, so the higher the advance the greater the sales expectations. And when a debut writer gets a huge deal and sales fall short, well, the writer is less likely to score a big second deal. I have a dear friend who found this out the hard way: She scored a seven-figure deal on her second contract and didn’t come close to earning out.  Her career never recovered. (Click here to read a good overview of the economics of book advances.)

Truth is, the people whose careers depend on drafting players and authors have no real idea how they’ll turn out, if they will be one-season wonders or if they’ll have a long and prolific career. Like my guys Marino and Grisham.

So will Stephanie Danler bring home the Lombardi for Knopf? Or will she just be this year’s Stephen Carter? I dunno, but if there were a fantasy league for writers, I’d be tempted to take a pass on this one and find a couple second-round gems with — as the sports cliche goes — a good upside. But what do I know?

*   *  *

And now, as my other favorite cultural icon Monty Python says, for something completely different:

Kelly and I got some great news Saturday morning. Our latest Louis Kincaid thriller HEART OF ICE won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original at Bouchercon. The award is given out by the Private Eye Writers of America and we are, to say the least, thrilled and honored. Especially since this book was Louis’s swan song as a PI.  Yup, he’s hanging up his gumshoes. (But returning in a new book with a badge again). What a great note to go out on.

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Sometimes You Gotta Suck It UpAnd Write the Darn Outline

By PJ Parrish

Before you read this, I’m going to suggest you back up one day and read Steven James’s Monday post, “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.” It’s a really good argument against outlining and I agree with almost everything Steven says.

I hate to outline. To me, it’s on par with pap smears, getting your teeth cleaned, filing taxes, and watching the Raiders play the Jets. It’s tedious, painful and feels utterly pointless. It’s not fun. It’s a major buzz-kill.

But after reading Steven’s eloquent argument, I abandoned my post-in-progress and decided I needed to respond. Because I believe – hack, hack, hack! – that sometimes you just gotta suck it up and outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

First, some context. I have published, via the traditional New York house route, fifteen books. My first book was bought as a full manuscript and that is the norm. First-timers don’t usually get in the door without a finished book. But for my next book (in a two-book contract), I had give my editor a full outline. This was because I had not yet established my reputation and they needed assurance I wasn’t a one-trick pony. So I did the grunt work and wrote a detailed outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

This outline pattern stayed in place for my second two-book contract, but by book five, I went to contract on the strength of a five-paragraph concept. This was because by this point my editor knew I could write, make deadline, and sustain my series momentum.  But when I switched to a new publisher, I had to go back to outlining because my new editor wanted a stand alone thriller. But for the four books that followed (which were back in my Louis Kincaid series), I was able to go back to contract via concepts.

I haven’t had to slog through the outline exercise for six years. Which brings us to the present. About a month ago, I submitted a detailed concept and 100 pages of my WIP to an editor at a traditional publisher. She loved it but she had to send it to the acquisitions committee, which okays every deal. (This is SOP for traditional publishing houses; everything is run up the flagpole to be saluted by editors, market types and bean counters). To do this, I had to give the editor…an outline.

Now, given my druthers, I am a confirmed pantser. My sister and I start with an idea, flesh out our main characters, then we plot-then-write in chunks of about four chapters at a time. But my new publisher wanted to know the major dramatic arcs of the story so Kelly and I spent two weeks not doing what we love – writing – but doing what we hate — brainstorming and sweating blood creating a plot map.

They bought the book.

Did I mention I hate outlining?

So I’ve swung both ways. Outlining is awful but it can be very useful if it gets you where you want to go. And every writer is different. Some of us thrive on structure; others crave chaos. There is no one path to the truth, grasshopper.

So who outlines? Let’s pull back the curtain and see…

John Grisham starts with 50-page outlines, with a paragraph or two about each chapter, setting out major events and plot points.

Michael Palmer spends four to five months outlining and goes to contract on outlines. His outlines are 40 to 60 single-spaced pages and his editor “clears” the outline before he writes one word. Sez Michael: “When I get down to the actual writing, I feel free to deviate from the outline, but out of courtesy, I will call and discuss any major deviations from what was agreed upon with my editor. There are those writers who can pen a novel and then do it over again if the story doesn’t work. With my busy schedule as a doctor and a daddy, I am not in that group. Reworking a detailed outline is possible for me. Rewriting an entire book would be disastrous.”

James Patterson writes a detailed outline and then hires someone to write the scenes, usually in 30 to 40 page chunks, which he reviews. Patterson describes it: “The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish. I get pages from [the collaborator] every two weeks, and then I re-write them. That’s the way everything works. Sometimes I’ll just give notes. I’ve done as much as nine drafts of a book after the original comes in.”

Self-published eBook phenom Amanda Hocking (now in print with St. Martins) hand-writes her outlines before formatting them. “I’ll write usually about two or three outlines, so by the time I do write the book I’ve got the story completely mapped out in my head,” she says.

Joseph Finder describes writing without an outline like doing a high-wire act without a net, saying that his book Power Play, “took me several months longer than usual, simply because I wasted a lot of time on plot and on characters that I ended up cutting out.”

Robert Ludlum’s outlines routinely ran to 150 pages. I don’t know what he does now that he’s dead. I’d like to think he’s up there being a happy pantser.

Who doesn’t outline? Lee Child, for one. And Harlan Coben, who describes his process thusly: “I usually know the ending before I start. I know very little about what happens in between. It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 80, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stopover in Tokyo but I’ll end up in California.”
 
That driving metaphor is a riff on E.L. Doctorow’s famous quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I’ve written both mysteries and thrillers, some romance and even fat historical sagas. Some came easy; others fought me all the way. And while being a pantser is my default method, I have come to appreciate that outlining can be useful. Here’s why:

1. It helps you get rid of bad ideas. This is very important because we all have bad ideas and bad ideas are like the Devil — they often assume a pleasing shape. (Wow! What if I have the bad guy sneak some plutonium into a White House toilet, then the Senate minority leader comes out of the john with green skin and…)  If you write your bad ideas down they won’t lurk in the shadows of your brain.
 
2. You might have to produce an outline to go to contract with a publisher. If you’re lucky enough to get a multi-book deal, outlining is often specified in contracts. Also, you get paid in lumps: part on signing, part on turning in the manuscript, part on publication. But sometimes, one of the lumps comes via outline.  Also, your editor might have to approve the outline before you begin working on the book.

3. It can speed up the writing process. Just seeing a map on paper can often help you manage your writing time. If you have some idea of the journey, you can budget your time more efficiently. This is important as you get farther into your career and must produce a book or more a year.

4. If you write big complex plots, it can keep you on track. Ken Follett starts with an outline between 25-40 typed pages that details chapter-by-chapter events and includes bios of all characters. He shares this with his editors before he starts writing. He also rewrites his outlines!

I rewrite the outline – and this may happen several times. Typically there will be a first draft outline, a second draft outline and a final outline, so it would twice go through the process of being shown to a number of people. The whole process of coming up with idea, fleshing it out, doing the research, drafting the outline and rewriting the outline comes to about a year all told. There are quite often a couple of false starts within this. I may spend a month working on an idea before I realise that it isn’t going to work and abandon it. But after this whole process, I’m ready to write the first draft.

5. If you’re trying a new genre, it gives you confidence. I have a friend who, after a long and successful career writing a light amateur sleuth series, is making the switch to darker fare. She has always been an avid outliner but with this new project, she found even more extensive outlining gave her sure footing in her new territory.

6. It keeps you motivated and focused. While working on my new book, the hardest thing I had to deal with was my sense of being at sea. Because I was working without the security of a contract for the first time since starting out, I often felt myself drifting into a lot of “what ifs.”  What if I can’t pull this story off? What if no one buys it? What if I’ve run out of good stuff and it’s time to hang up the creative cleats?  But there was something about writing an outline — having to do the elbow grease of the mind and produce on deadline — that injected juice back into my story and resolve back to my spine. If nothing else, I finished the damn outline.

So, yes, outlining is a good thing. But…

Can I add my caveats? If you outline, please don’t let it put a strangle hold on you and your story. It is a guide, a suggested route, one way to go but never the only one. I love this quote from Donald Barthelme:

“Not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of the mind moving in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

So even if you do outline, leave room in your planning for serendipity and detours because, as Steven said so well in yesterday’s post, that is where your story is hiding out waiting for you.

Think of an outline as those colored lines they paint on the linoleum in hospitals to help you find your way. The red will get you to the cardiac unit, the yellow to the cafeteria, the black to the emergency room. But sometimes you just gotta follow the blue and go look at the babies.

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How To Get Out of Story Stall


I think about Paris when I’m high on red wine.
I wish I could jump on a plane.
And so many nights I just dream of the ocean.
God, I wish I was sailing again. 
If you read my last couple of entries here you know I have been struggling to get some mo on my WIP. This week I finally realized I needed something drastic to kick me out of my funk.
So I took a cue from that great Western philosopher Jimmy Buffett and changed my latitude to change my attitude.
I didn’t get on a plane and go to Paris. But I did take a boat to work.
Normally, I work at home, migrating from sofa to chaise to bed with Acer in tow. But I was feeling closed in and my story was reflecting that. So I stuck the laptop in a backpack, put on clean clothes, combed my hair and slapped on enough makeup so I wouldn’t scare the horses and left the condo.
I live in downtown Fort Lauderdale on a river. A couple days ago, the city started up a free water taxi service. So Saturday, I took the boat to my local Coffee Place With Green Mermaid Logo. I got a cappacino, switched off the Wifi and opened Word. In two hours, I wrote 956 words. And most of them were keepers.
Today, I am back. And as soon as I finish this blog post, I am back to chapter twenty-two. And you know what? For the first time in weeks, I am eager to get to work.
Maybe you are one of those writers who thrive on routine and quiet. God bless you. I envy you. But I can’t do it. I don’t have set hours and I seem to produce my best work when I am in a strange place, preferably with the white noise of hissing espresso machines or bar Musak. But I had gotten in the habit of staying at home and it had resulted in a bad case of story stall.
We all have times when we get stuck in neutral, when our mind-wheels are mired in mud or spinning fast and going nowhere. Yeah, we can call it writer’s block, as this New Yorker article does:

Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer. Anthony Burgess…concluded that a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And…the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”

But I think writer’s block is a luxury of literary types. If you write for the commercial market, you can’t afford to wait for the muse to come around every couple years. My story stall and my move to coffee shop got me to thinking about all the ways we can use to un-stick ourselves. I’ll bet you guys have some good tips to add.

Change Your Habits or Habitat

Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop has forced me to treat my writing as more of a job. I also have eliminated all the distractions and excuses of home: dogs, full laundry basket, TV, husband, unfinished crossword puzzle. If you work at home now, go somewhere else. Do you write only in the morning? Try a shift to the afternoon. I know life intrudes (kids, day job, night classes). But even a small change in routine can make you feel renewed.

Switch Point of View

Not just your own, but your narrator’s. When I started my WIP, I envisioned the entire story from my female protag’s POV as she is pursued by a male investigator. But once the guy came on stage, he started stealing the story. I fought him for nine chapters before I realized his story was equally as compelling as hers. In fact, their storylines paralleled thematically. I switched to a dual protag and the story took off.

Simplify Your Plot

There is an urge, when you’re new at novel writing, to use all your best ideas in one book. Maybe it’s because we feel if we don’t, we will never get a second chance. Usually, a simple linear plot works best. (Which is not to say you don’t have complications, obstacles, setbacks, etc.) Two folks in my critique group were wrestling with confusing tangled yarn-ball narratives that overwhelmed their characters. One writer realized he had TWO books in one and has now excised one plot line for a sequel. The other writer realized she was trying to graft an international thriller plot onto what is, at heart, a lovely Romeo and Juliet mystery. Once she jettisoned the over-done thriller elements, the characters began to shine.

Pick a Different Point of Entry

The writer’s saw states, “get into a scene as late as possible.” I’d say that applies to your overall story. As James, Jodie and others have said here often, the optimum moment to begin your story is just before the stuff hits the fan. If you have too much set-up, all the reader “hears” is you clearing your throat. If you come in too late, you can risk losing any chance to build tension. Do you have a prologue? Try cutting it out. I bet you won’t miss it. Click here to read Joe Moore’s useful post on prologues.

Write Your Book’s Back Copy

Lack of focus is one of the biggest reasons for story stall. If you don’t know WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT, how can you know where it is going? I’m not talking about plot points; I am talking about the big picture, the main drama and the stakes, your character’s arcs, and the theme. If you can’t boil your book’s essence down to one sharply written paragraph of about five sentences, I’m betting you don’t have a handle on what you are trying to say. I wrote about this at length a while back. Click here to see tips.

Print Out Your Chapters

It’s scientific fact that looking at a computer screen changes the way our brains work. Print out your pages and read them like a reader. And here’s another twist: Format your chapters in single space, justified, Times Roman, so it looks as close to a real book as possible. I did this once and my problems with pacing and back story jumped off the page. Also, “typesetting” it breaks your mental image of your WIP, taking it out of “rough” draft (I’m struggling!) to “real” book. (Wow, not as bad as I thought.)

Speed Write

This is something I do in my workshops: I give students an opening line and make them write as fast as possible for ten minutes. Sure, it might produce junk, but more often than not, they come up with interesting stuff. Set a kitchen timer or your iPhone and just let it flow fast and furious. You will surprise yourself. Consider it a creative colonic.

Quit While You’re Ahead

This one’s from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” Caveat: This does not work for me. I must finish and light up my metaphoric ciggie.  

Get an Imaginary Dog

This is something I know a lot about: Not writing is like not sleeping. It does no good to lay there at 3 a.m. and stare at the glowing digital clock. Likewise, staring at the blinking curser won’t unblock you. Get out and go for a walk. Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical insights while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Walking is something of a luxury in our go-go world. But science has documented the relationship between walking and thinking, that the rhythm of the body seems to free the mind. The ancient sages even had a phrase for it: Solvitur ambulando. “It is solved by walking.” So walk, don’t run. No iPod. Leave early and take the dog.

Get Some Imaginary Kids

We are Writers (capital W). But sometimes it’s good to go lower case and remember we are first storytellers. In our quest for the perfect sentence, the lovely phrase, the big idea, we often get in the way of our stories. Did your parents or teachers ever read to you? Remember how enthralling it was? John Steinbeck once wrote about being stalled: “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” If you get stuck, imagine you are sitting around a campfire telling a good story to some kids. Would you open with a prologue full of back story? Would you start with some confusing dialogue? No, you’d do something like this: “Every night, before he turned off the light, Jamie would get down on his hands and knees and look under his bed. There was never anything there except the dust bunnies. But on the night of his thirteenth birthday, when he picked up the edge of the bedspread, he saw something he had never seen before.”

Stop Writing

I know, I know. This sounds counter-intuitive. It smells of defeat. But I think we sometimes just need to give ourselves a break and take a break. Maybe your break is only for a day or a week. Maybe it needs to last over a good vacation. Maybe, like I had to do at one time, you need to take a couple months off. The world won’t end. Your WIP will still be there when you go back. But don’t buy into this notion that you MUST write every day. I’ll give the last word to Hilary Mantel:
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ¬music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” 
I like that. Be patient. With your writing and with yourself.

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Riding Out the Rough Spots

By P.J. Parrish

This has been the week from hell. I don’t know what else can go wrong. Here’s what has happened so far:

I hit the wrong button and deleted chapter sixteen and had to recreate it from memory.

I got to chapter eighteen and realized a scene I had written back in chapter five, which I was certain was absolutely brilliant, now makes no sense and I have to cut it.

My plot timeline is out of whack and I have lost three days somewhere, sort of like Ray Milland in Lost Weekend but without the gin anesthesia.

I did a virus scan and it came up with 778 “issues” but apparently none of them are fixable unless I cough up $69.99 for the Super Anti-Spyware Deluxe Version.

I tried to vacuum my crumb-ridden keyboard and sucked up the 4 and + keys.

I really need a vacation. The kind of vacation where I can get away from everything, including my WIP aka The Thing That Is Devouring My Soul. We all get to this point at times, right? (If you don’t, I don’t want to hear about it today, okay?) We get discouraged, disoriented in plot hell, doubtful of our talent, and desperate to just get the damn thing finished.

This is the nature of writing. It isn’t always sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and brighter than a lucky penny. Often, very often, it is long slow slog where the words come hard and the joy comes even harder. This is where I am this week.
 
But here’s the thing: When you’re in a trough, like I am right now, you need to remember that it’s temporary. You need to know that if you just ride it out, you will end up on a crest again where you can survey the wider sea and regain your bearings. I need to be reminded of this every so often. We all do. So I made myself a list. It’s a list of the things I really love about this whacked out business. If you have something you’d like to add, please share.

TWELVE COOL THINGS ABOUT BEING A WRITER
  1. You can drink on the job and no one makes you pee in a bottle.
  2. You can write off trips to New York.
  3. You don’t have to wear a bra at work.
  4. You get to kill people you hate and not go to prison.
  5. You can have mind-blowing sex with whoever you want and not worry about rubbers, disease or your spouse leaving you.
  6. You get to read fan letters (I answer every one I get and save them forever like old love letters.)
  7. You get to be in the Library of Congress. (In 1983, I went there and asked for the librarian to bring me a copy of my paperback romance. She did. Quite humbling.)
  8. You get to walk into a tiny bookstore in Moose-Butt Maine and see your book on the shelf. And then find out the old lady behind the counter has read your entire oeuvre and remembers each character better than you do.
  9. You get to live inside your head for days, weeks, months, at a time and not get carted away in a white jacket.
  10. You get to find a note taped to your bathroom mirror from your spouse or kid saying, “I’m proud of you.”
  11. You get to do something that gives others pleasure.
  12. You get to do something that gives you joy.

Thanks for listening. I feel better now. Hit it, Lesley!

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