What This Old Dog LearnedFrom Teaching New Writers

By P.J. Parrish

You can, it seems, teach an old dog new tricks. I don’t mean the one above. That’s my dog Bailey. She’s as smart as a whip, but at fourteen, she’s not about to let me balance a Wishbone on her nose. I am talking about myself here. Let me first stipulate that I am an “old dog” (way past AARP induction age and been published now since 1985). Yet I am definitely still learning new tricks.

This point was driven home to me last week when my sister Kelly and I were up in Michigan teaching a two-day fiction writing workshop at Saturn Booksellers. It was pretty intense and we worked our charges hard, giving them Powerpoints on the twin pillars of plot and character, and on the finer points of transitions, pacing, theme and voice, rewriting, and what “show vs tell” really means.

But we also forced them to actually write, giving them quick exercises on a host of topics. We would show them a photograph and give them the opening line. Then they had five minutes to write to the assignment.  I was surprised at the quality of the short pieces they produced. I think they were, too.

Almost all of them, they admitted, felt bogged down and somewhat defeated by their works in progress — all for different reasons. But there was something liberating about doing those short-burst exercises that recharged their confidence and got their mental muscles moving again. (For some reason, this photo below, for the dialogue exercise, really inspired some great offbeat writing. Go figure!)

We also offered to critique the first ten pages of their manuscripts. There was some good stuff in their submissions and the mistakes tended to be the usual ones of craft that we here at The Kill Zone talk about all the time. But it was the big-picture issues that I found myself thinking about afterwards. Because even after ten years of teaching, after publishing twenty novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories, this old dog is still learning — from my students.

Here are my top big picture points from our Michigan workshop.

Chose your entry point carefully


Where do you begin your story? This is, to my mind, maybe the most important choice we make as writers and one I struggled with mightily on my WIP. I changed my opening five times before I finally hit upon the right moment to begin my tale. It’s like those astronauts in “Apollo 13”: You come in too late you burn up. If you come in too shallow you skim off the atmosphere and fly off into space. Many folks pick a point too early and the reader gets bored waiting for something to happen. This is why prologues usually fail; it’s just the writer clearing his throat or doing a backstory dump. Here’s what agent Dan Lazar hates to see: “Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”  But if you come in too late, you create confusion for the reader aka “coming out of a coma syndrome.” (ie where am I? Who is that? What the heck is going on?”)

Things to consider when picking your entry point: Early on, tell us who the protag is and make us care about her. Create a conflict for the protag in the opening pages. Establish the stakes. And make the opening scene compelling enough that we must read on. But don’t get too clever. Here’s Dan Lazar again: “A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”

Don’t try too hard


Nothing’s more cringe-inducing than a writer who’s swinging for the fences and whiffing. Whether it’s lame humor, groddy sex scenes, overly didactic themes, ten-dollar vocabulary, or cutesy attempts to be different (“Look, Ma! No punctuation!”), writing that calls attention to itself is just…bad writing. Yes, we all admire inventive writing, but there’s only one George Saunders. You are not him. Neither am I, alas. Remember what Nathaniel Hawthorne said: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Just tell a compelling story about characters we care about. Get out of the way of your story. This is something, my friends, that I need to have tattooed on my forehead.

Read. Read. Read some more


Our students, who ranged from a 17-year-old writing vampire YA to a great-grandfather writing a WWII novel, were all pretty good on this account. But we stressed to them that they have to read with an analytical eye, dissecting how other writers spin their magic. I have gotten lazy on this account lately, telling myself that I just don’t have time to read. But up in the Michigan woods, I read two terrific books — Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and The Blue Hour by T. Jefferson Parker. From Koontz I re-learned  the importance of rich characterization and how to handle an unreliable narrator. (Which I am grappling with). From Parker, I got a great lesson in how to handle dual protagonists. If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader.

Don’t be afraid


One of the hardest things for our students was exposing themselves and their writing. This is why we made them write in class and share. Fear is a common affliction among writers. I’m not immune; I’m afraid I don’t have the chops to pull off my WIP story. For the yet-unpublished, the fears are more basic. They are afraid of scrutiny, criticism, ridicule, rejection — you fill in the blank. I know folks who have slaved for years over their books (aka The Thing That Has Eaten Up Ten Years of my Life) who have never worked up the courage to show it to anyone. Yes, we get personal gratification from the process. But the purpose of writing is communication. You have to put it — and yourself — out there.

Make your story compel someone to say, “Wow, that’s exactly how I feel.” If you do that, well, then you can relax a little. Because you’ll know then that you really are a writer. Peace out. Woof.

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Need a juicy plot? Can’t find your tone?Just listen to some good music

By P. J. Parrish

Last week, I hit the zone. It’s that wonderful stretch in the writing road when the asphalt is smooth and straight and the tires are humming and you know, you just know, you’re on the right track.  This is what writers live for, I think, this special moment when all the cylinders are firing, the top is down and the wind is in your hair, and the music is blaring out of the radio.

I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning,
Very, very frightening me.
(Galileo) Galileo!
Galileo Figaro
Magnifico…

Sorry…got carried away there for a moment.

When I write, I hear music in my head. Sure, I see the movies, see the scenes playing out. But the music? That’s something special. I know I’m not alone in this. I suspect many of you “hear” your books as well as “see” them in your heads. But let’s make one big important distinction here.

I’m not talking about the music you might chose to listen to WHILE you write. I’m one of those folks who can’t listen to music when I am pounding the Acer keyboard. It’s like the voices of singers drown out the voices of my characters. And I need to listen to those characters very very carefully.

What I am talking about are the soundtracks that play softly in the background of your brain as your book comes to life. All my books seem to have soundtracks that help me define my themes and motifs and maybe more importantly, capture the right tone. Think of all the great movies you have seen in your life. Most had great soundtracks that even when not actively playing on the screen murmured in your mind.

Take that mournful lone trumpet that opens The Godfather. The song’s title is “The Immigrant,” though it’s sometimes called “The Godfather Waltz.” (Did you even realize it’s in three-quarter time?) It’s the first thing we hear when the movie opens, a slow foreboding melody that lasts for only seconds. But it identifies two big themes — the use of power and fear — and it sets film’s chiaroscuro mood.

“The Immigrant” is a motif, appearing throughout the film, sometimes almost sweetly but usually with foreboding. Most memorably in this scene:

Or consider the score of Lawrence of Arabia. Sweeping, magestic, yes. The moment you hear it you are there in the vast scorched beauty of the desert. But the theme song is also elegaic, so we somehow know what we are seeing and hearing is all grand metaphor for our tragic hero’s torment and self-delusion.

But we’re supposed to be talking about books, right? How can we apply this magic to the static page? Well, eBooks have given writers to ability to embed sound and images in their novels. A couple years ago, Stephen Smoke, author of 19 novels and a film director, published Cathedral of the Senses, which is supposedly the first novel with its own embedded soundtrack.

Maybe I’m a Luddite, but I’m not too keen on this idea because I’m thinking that it’s the writer’s job to create a world so vivid in the reader’s imagination that the reader himself can make up his own movies and soundtracks. That’s what reading is all about, no?

But I do think we writers have an obligation to plant the seeds in the reader’s head that enhance the imaginary experience. Our powers of description must be acute so the reader can see, smell, taste and hear things. But we also need to pay very close attention to what the reader is feeling.  And this is where the music comes in.

I’ve written here before about how important tone is to a book’s success. (Click here) Like that moviegoer watching The Godfather for the first time, your reader should be able to know immediately what kind of world they are entering. But if you don’t know the tone of your book — what its soundtrack is — your reader can’t either. Your reader might enjoy the plot, like the characters, have a chuckle or scare or two. But they won’t truly invest themselves emotionally in your story.

Thinking about your book as having a soundtrack can help you identify themes and motifs. A theme is what you are trying to say behind the mechanics of plot; it’s an underground railroad propelling your story and people forward. Likewise, a motif is an element in your story that, through repetition, enhances mood and theme. Think of the green light on Daisy’s deck in The Great Gatsby or the washing of hands in Macbeth.  Or that trumpet solo in The Godfather.

Sometimes, music can inspire the story itself. Years ago, Kelly and I were stuck trying to come up with a plot for our next Louis Kincaid thriller. Then one day I was listening to my favorite J. Geils song Monkey Island.  

It starts out as this funky jazz instrumental but then it slows into this really creepy song:

No one could explain it
What went on that night
How every living thing
Just dropped out of sight
We watched them take the bodies
And row them back to shore
Nothing like that ever
Happened here before.

There ain’t no life on Monkey Island
No one cares and no one knows
The moon hangs out on Monkey Island
The night has dealt the final blow.

We asked ourselves what the hell had happened out there on Monkey Island? Eight months later, we had our sixth Louis Kincaid book finished, Island of Bones. 

The same thing happened with our standalone thriller The Killing Song. My husband Daniel and I were sitting in a cafe in Paris drinking kir royales and I was bemoaning the fact I couldn’t think of a plot set in Paris.  Daniel, a big Rolling Stones fan and a cheap drunk, began to sing the Rolling Stones song, Too Much Blood:

A friend of mine…had a girlfriend in Paris. 
You know he took her to his apartment, cut off her head. 
Put the rest of her body in the refrigerator, ate her piece by piece. 
Put her in the refrigerator, put her in the freezer. 
And when he ate her and took her bones to the Bois de Boulogne….

We didn’t end up writing that book for more three more years and it had nothing to do with those actual lyrics. But that song, with its darkness and dread, was always there in my head, percolating a plot and pushing me along.

Oddly enough, I haven’t been hearing much music of late when I write. Maybe that’s why I’ve been in a bit of a slump. We’re working on two new books right now and both have been going more slowly than normal. One of them is a stand alone that, as I have mentioned here before, is a departure for me. So I am struggling.  I was trying to hear music but it was like I was thirteen again, laying in bed with my transitor radio, trying to pick up the fading in-and-out signal from Cousin Brucie in New York. Only one song was coming through to me: Lucky Man by Emerson Lake and Palmer. I realized it was the theme song for my protagonist’s husband, Alex, who does indeed, have white horses and ladies by the score.

But my heroine Amelia? I wasn’t hearing her at all.

Then, about four weeks ago, I was running with the old iPod and Ruby Tuesday came on. But it wasn’t the Stones version. It was Marianne Faithfull’s rendition. I had heard the Stones song a million times and didn’t particularly like it because it struck me as one of their mildly misogynistic odes to loose women (in this case, it is said, a Keith groupie.) But the song is utterly transformed by Faithfull’s ravaged weary voice:

“There’s no time to lose”, I heard her say
Catch your dreams before they slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind
Ain’t life unkind?

Suddenly, I knew who my protagonist was, what she had lost, and what she had to do about it. The theme of my story came into sharp focus. And the motifs, which were there in my pages but not fully exploited, started to glow like neon. Last week, I went back and started over on the book.  I have written four chapters in four days. Where once I dreaded opening the file, now I look forward to it. And I am sure it is because I found the soundtrack.

Listen to your book’s music. You have to hear it or your reader never will.

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You Can’t Bulls**it a Baby:Kids and the Writing Life


“When people say they don’t have time to write with small children, well, for me it was the opposite. I didn’t write anything before I had them. They gave me that.” —Toni Morrison

By PJ Parrish

I don’t have kids. Would I be a better writer if I did?

Let’s leave that one for you shrinks out there for the moment. I have my own ideas about it, which I will answer at the end. Normally, a topic this personal wouldn’t even be on my writer radar; you guys know I prefer stomping around in the weeds of craft. But I read an interesting blog over the weekend by the novelist Lev Grossman called “Fatherhood Ruined My Life Plan – And Made Me The Writer I Am.” Here’s the money quote:

 When I came back to my book, after Lily was born, I saw it for what it was: cold, dull, lifeless, massively overthought – a labyrinth with no minotaur inside. I told myself I was just taking a break from it, but the truth was I binned it and started something new. I picked up an idea I’d had years before but hadn’t taken seriously at the time, because it was fresh and weird and risky and different from anything I’d ever tried before. Six months after Lily was born, I took a week off from work to explore it, and I wound up writing 25,000 words in five days. I’d hit an artery, and the story came surging out hot and strong. Not only was it the most productive week I’d ever had, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed doing anything for literally years. I was more proud of it than anything I’d done in my entire life.

Something was afoot. I was waking up. Somewhere inside me the emotional pack ice was cracking and melting, ice that had formed long ago in the Fimbulwinter of my childhood, and feelings that I’d been avoiding for decades were thawing out and leaking through, both good and bad: joy, grief, anger, hope, longing. I was like some frozen extrasolar planet, where even gases exist only in neat, handy solid forms. But now I was warming up, and buried things were surfacing.

Interesting stuff. And it poses a question for writers. But not the obvious one about how do you find the time and energy to write when you have kids? But rather:  How do life experiences mold our fiction? Grossman’s essay is part of a book called When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. In it, writers such as Dennis Lehane, Rick Moody and Justin Cronin talk about the transforming power of parenthood. To be honest, most of it is of the pedestrian “you can’t be cool with drool on your jacket” variety. But there is the occasional insight about the writing life. And it turns out that perhaps playing pretend and singing along silly songs is what every writer needs to bring some emotional depth to their characters.

What interests me most about this topic is the deeper question that Grossman is getting at: What are the primal forces that make us open a vein and bleed our emotions onto the page?

I used to work in the newspaper business. Every reporter and editor I knew either wanted to write a novel or already had tried to.  After I got published, I read quite a few manuscripts as favors to friends. For the most part, they weren’t bad. But something was always missing. For a long time I couldn’t figure out what it was then it hit me: The writers were not willing to expose themselves emotionally on the page. Journalism trains you to be detached and impartial. And you can’t be that way with fiction. Unless you are willing to crawl inside another person’s head and heart — and muck about in all the messiness, gore, grief and passion that is there — you can’t make characters come alive on the page.

For some, becoming a parent might be the catalyst to make this happen. Years ago, I read an essay by Michael Connelly in which he said that having a daughter made him a better writer. (Sorry, I can’t find it). It also changed his character Harry Bosch. Nine books into the series, in Lost Light, Connelly gave Bosch a daughter he didn’t know about: Here’s Connelly on the why:

Up until Bosch became a father, I had been creating a character who viewed himself as being on a mission. He was someone who was skilled enough and tough enough to go into the abyss and seek out human evil. To carry out this mission, he knew he had to be relentless and bulletproof. By bulletproof, I mean he had to be invulnerable. Nobody could get to him. It was the only way to be relentless. And this idea or belief bled into all aspects of his life. He lived alone, had no friends, and didn’t even know his neighbors. He built a solitary life so that no one could get to him. All that suddenly changed in one moment (one page) when he locked eyes with his daughter in Lost Light. Harry suddenly knew he could be gotten to.

Did having kids (fictional and real) make Connelly a more humane writer? I don’t know. It made him a different one at least.

I might be wrong about this (and I hope you all will weigh in), but I think this question is different for women writers. I think women look at the effects of children on their creative life more practically. Some claim it forces discipline. P.D. James, mother of two, got up at 5 a.m. every morning to find time to write. The novelist Candia McWilliam once said, “Every baby costs four books.”  I asked my sister and co-author Kelly if having kids (she has three) makes you a better writer. “Only if you write tragedy,” she said. (she was joking. But barely.)

I do think the fiction of women writers is maybe uniquely shaped by motherhood. Jane Hamilton’s novel A Map of the World is about the effects of the drowning of a child on a family and a community. Jacquelyn Mitchard’s bestseller The Deep End of the Ocean is about a kidnapping. Both were written after the authors had their children. Who can say if the stories were possible before that?

Abby Fruch’s novel Polly’s Ghost is about a woman who dies in childbirth and returns as a ghost to guide her son. Fruch has said she “softened” after her daughter was born and couldn’t read anything violent. She rewrote her novel Blue Water to change its theme from betrayal to forgiveness.

The poet A. Manette Ansay wrote a fascinating essay called “Drowning the Children: To a Writer, Interruptions Are Life. Yes, she talks about the time suck that kids create. But like Lev Grossman, she taps into a larger realization. After having kids, she says…

…I found myself louder and more unkempt than I used to be, more interested in food, physical activity and sexual pleasure, more interested in the physical pleasure of words, their sound and sensation in the mouth and throat. The poems I had written before were tentative and cerebral; the new ones were confident, maybe funny, and full of physicality. Being with children made me matter-of-fact. Like dogs, babies and small children don’t swerve from their attention to the present moment and they take no shame in the expression of strong feeling. They have an undisciplined sense of humor. Having children didn’t give me confidence in my writing but I learned to write whether the result would be good or not — as parents, too, we learn to abandon hopeless perfectionism.

Boy, I can relate to that — the idea that writers need to live in the moment and give up the idea that they can make everything perfect. Like I said, I don’t have kids but after I adopted two stray mutts, I did learn to slow down and savor a nap in the sun. (That’s my snoop doggies above) And where once I couldn’t go to bed if there was a dirty glass in the sink, now I don’t sweat dog barf on the sofa. I write faster, enjoy the process for what it is, and I no long try to torture each sentence into perfection.

A couple years ago, Amanda Craig created a dust-up when she wrote in the Telegraph that bestselling Irish author Maeve Bichey would have been a better novelist if she had kids. It was a snarky thing to write and I don’t agree.  Because here is where I come down on this whole thing:

Having kids might make you a more honest writer. As Lev Grossman says in his essay, “You can’t bullshit a baby.” (Or your readers). But I don’t think making a baby will make you a better writer.

I truly believe that your unique voice is the sum of all your life experiences, but that what really makes you a good writer is being able to tap deep into your powers of empathy and observation.  Then having the courage to cut open your vein.

____________________

Postscript: I hope you all will indulge me and allow for a little BSP.  I got word a couple days ago that our book Heart of Ice has been nominated for the Shamus Award. (Private Eye Writers of America). Just made my rezzie to go to Bouchercon…haven’t been there in years. Kelly and I are thrilled, needless to say.

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You Can’t Bulls**it a Baby:Kids and the Writing Life


“When people say they don’t have time to write with small children, well, for me it was the opposite. I didn’t write anything before I had them. They gave me that.” —Toni Morrison

By PJ Parrish

I don’t have kids. Would I be a better writer if I did?

Let’s leave that one for you shrinks out there for the moment. I have my own ideas about it, which I will answer at the end. Normally, a topic this personal wouldn’t even be on my writer radar; you guys know I prefer stomping around in the weeds of craft. But I read an interesting blog over the weekend by the novelist Lev Grossman called “Fatherhood Ruined My Life Plan – And Made Me The Writer I Am.” Here’s the money quote:

 When I came back to my book, after Lily was born, I saw it for what it was: cold, dull, lifeless, massively overthought – a labyrinth with no minotaur inside. I told myself I was just taking a break from it, but the truth was I binned it and started something new. I picked up an idea I’d had years before but hadn’t taken seriously at the time, because it was fresh and weird and risky and different from anything I’d ever tried before. Six months after Lily was born, I took a week off from work to explore it, and I wound up writing 25,000 words in five days. I’d hit an artery, and the story came surging out hot and strong. Not only was it the most productive week I’d ever had, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed doing anything for literally years. I was more proud of it than anything I’d done in my entire life.

Something was afoot. I was waking up. Somewhere inside me the emotional pack ice was cracking and melting, ice that had formed long ago in the Fimbulwinter of my childhood, and feelings that I’d been avoiding for decades were thawing out and leaking through, both good and bad: joy, grief, anger, hope, longing. I was like some frozen extrasolar planet, where even gases exist only in neat, handy solid forms. But now I was warming up, and buried things were surfacing.

Interesting stuff. And it poses a question for writers. But not the obvious one about how do you find the time and energy to write when you have kids? But rather:  How do life experiences mold our fiction? Grossman’s essay is part of a book called When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. In it, writers such as Dennis Lehane, Rick Moody and Justin Cronin talk about the transforming power of parenthood. To be honest, most of it is of the pedestrian “you can’t be cool with drool on your jacket” variety. But there is the occasional insight about the writing life.

What interests me most about this topic is the deeper question that Grossman is getting at: What are the primal forces that make us open a vein and bleed our emotions onto the page?

I used to work in the newspaper business. Every reporter and editor I knew either wanted to write a novel or already had tried to.  After I got published, I read quite a few manuscripts as favors to friends. For the most part, they weren’t bad. But something was always missing. For a long time I couldn’t figure out what it was then it hit me: The writers were not willing to expose themselves emotionally on the page. Journalism trains you to be detached and impartial. And you can’t be that way with fiction. Unless you are willing to crawl inside another person’s head and heart — and muck about in all the messiness, gore, grief and passion that is there — you can’t make characters come alive on the page.

For some, becoming a parent might be the catalyst to make this happen. Years ago, I read an essay by Michael Connelly in which he said that having a daughter made him a better writer. (Sorry, I can’t find it). It also changed his character Harry Bosch. Nine books into the series, in Lost Light, Connelly gave Bosch a daughter he didn’t know about: Here’s Connelly on the why:

Up until Bosch became a father, I had been creating a character who viewed himself as being on a mission. He was someone who was skilled enough and tough enough to go into the abyss and seek out human evil. To carry out this mission, he knew he had to be relentless and bulletproof. By bulletproof, I mean he had to be invulnerable. Nobody could get to him. It was the only way to be relentless. And this idea or belief bled into all aspects of his life. He lived alone, had no friends, and didn’t even know his neighbors. He built a solitary life so that no one could get to him. All that suddenly changed in one moment (one page) when he locked eyes with his daughter in Lost Light. Harry suddenly knew he could be gotten to.

Did having kids (fictional and real) make Connelly a more humane writer? I don’t know. It made him a different one at least.

I might be wrong about this (and I hope you all will weigh in), but I think this question is different for women writers. I think women look at the effects of children on their creative life more practically. Some claim it forces discipline. P.D. James, mother of two, got up at 5 a.m. every morning to find time to write. The novelist Candia McWilliam once said, “Every baby costs four books.”  I asked my sister and co-author Kelly if having kids (she has three) makes you a better writer. “Only if you write tragedy,” she said. (she was joking. But barely.)

I do think the fiction of women writers is maybe uniquely shaped by motherhood. Jane Hamilton’s novel A Map of the World is about the effects of the drowning of a child on a family and a community. Jacquelyn Mitchard’s bestseller The Deep End of the Ocean is about a kidnapping. Both were written after the authors had their children. Who can say if the stories were possible before that?

Abby Fruch’s novel Polly’s Ghost is about a woman who dies in childbirth and returns as a ghost to guide her son. Fruch has said she “softened” after her daughter was born and couldn’t read anything violent. She rewrote her novel Blue Water to change its theme from betrayal to forgiveness.

The poet A. Manette Ansay wrote a fascinating essay called “Drowning the Children: To a Writer, Interruptions Are Life. Yes, she talks about the time suck that kids create. But like Lev Grossman, she taps into a larger realization. After having kids, she says…

…I found myself louder and more unkempt than I used to be, more interested in food, physical activity and sexual pleasure, more interested in the physical pleasure of words, their sound and sensation in the mouth and throat. The poems I had written before were tentative and cerebral; the new ones were confident, maybe funny, and full of physicality. Being with children made me matter-of-fact. Like dogs, babies and small children don’t swerve from their attention to the present moment and they take no shame in the expression of strong feeling. They have an undisciplined sense of humor. Having children didn’t give me confidence in my writing but I learned to write whether the result would be good or not — as parents, too, we learn to abandon hopeless perfectionism.

Boy, I can relate to that — the idea that writers need to live in the moment and give up the idea that they can make everything perfect. Like I said, I don’t have kids but after I adopted two stray mutts, I did learn to slow down and savor a nap in the sun. (That’s my snoop doggies above) And where once I couldn’t go to bed if there was a dirty glass in the sink, now I don’t sweat dog barf on the sofa. I write faster, enjoy the process for what it is, and I no long try to torture each sentence into perfection.

A couple years ago, Amanda Craig created a dust-up when she wrote in the Telegraph that bestselling Irish author Maeve Bichey would have been a better novelist if she had kids. It was a snarky thing to write and I don’t agree.  Because here is where I come down on this whole thing:

Having kids might make you a more honest writer. As Lev Grossman says in his essay, “You can’t bullshit a baby.” (Or your readers). But I don’t think making a baby will make you a better writer.

I truly believe that your unique voice is the sum of all your life experiences, but that what really makes you a good writer is being able to tap deep into your powers of empathy and observation.  Then having the courage to cut open your vein.

____________________

Postscript: I hope you all will indulge me and allow for a little BSP.  I got word a couple days ago that our book Heart of Ice has been nominated for the Shamus Award. (Private Eye Writers of America). Just made my rezzie to go to Bouchercon…haven’t been there in years. Kelly and I are thrilled, needless to say.

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Seasons Greetings!

It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During oAWREATH3_thumb[1]ur 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 2014. 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 6. 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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Dutch Treat: Ten rules of writing

Elmore Leonard is gone. A moment of silence, she intoned gravely.
If you don’t get where I am going with that opening line then you definitely need to read on – at least as far as Nos. 3 and 4 below. The rest of you can go play Spider Solitaire if you’d like, but I’d really like it if you stick around. Because today, I’d like to talk about Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. 
Now I have to admit right off here that I haven’t read a lot of Leonard’s books; he’s one of those titans whose stuff is part of my cram-course in belated crime education. (I just downloaded “Glitz” on my Kindle in fact).  But like all writers, I’ve heard that he’s a master stylist, the Picasso of crime fiction, whose dialogue, in the words of one critic, is “like broken glass, sharp and glittering.”
But do his rules hold up? Well, I think this is a good time to go back and take a look. And I’ll be the first one to admit, I have broken almost all of them. 

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
I opened my book ISLAND OF BONES with a woman so desperate to escape her killer that she took off in a skiff in the middle of a hurricane. But generally I agree with Leonard here that in too many books, weather is a metaphoric crutch meant to telegraph the hero’s conflict or a mood of foreboding. (Blatant self-promotion alert: We have published the eBook of BONES this week.  Click here to read my “weather” opening — or you can even Click here buy the darn thing for $2.99!.)

2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
Sigh. Broke this one, too. In my book A THOUSAND BONES, I am telling the story of Louis Kincaid’s lover, Joe Frye. The entire book is a flashback to Joe’s rookie year but I felt I had to connect it to Louis so I book-ended it with a prologue (wherein she tells Louis about a crime she committed ten years ago) AND an epilogue (wherein Louis accepts what she did). But again, I think prologues are usually unnecessary; they almost always indicate the writer is not in control of back story or the time element of their plot (linear is almost always best). Or the writer tacks on a prologue where he throws out a body to gin up suspense because the early chapters are slooooow.
3.  Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.  The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
Have broken this one, too. But only with the greatest trepidation. I’ve used “shouted” and “asked.” But I’m convinced that if you feel compelled to use something stronger, that means that what you are putting between the quote marks ain’t up to snuff.

4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said”… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”
Guilty again. I have used “whispered,” “shouted” and “asked.” But I always hate myself in the morning.

5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. 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.
I hate exclamation marks! But yes, I have used them. Mainly when I have someone shouting. And what’s worse, I have probably written, “Get out of here!” he shouted. 
6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.” This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
I have never used “all hell…” That’s really amateur hour, akin to “little did he know that…” But yes, “suddenly” has appeared in my books. I didn’t realized what a stupid tic it was until I re-read Leonard’s rules. Suddenly, “suddenly” looks really bad in my chapters. And I now see that the action feels more immediate without it.

7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”
We did this in our first book “Dark of the Moon.” Set in the deep South, we felt compelled to drop some “g’s” and use some dumb idioms, and at least one reviewer took us to task for it. Here’s the thing: Dialect is hard on the reader’s eye. You can convey the feeling of it by judicious word choice, mannerisms, and sentence rhythm. We are in the process of preparing “Moon” for eBook and this has given us a second chance to go back and rewrite things. So y’all can bet we’re fixin’ to fix our mistakes. 
8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

Whew. Finally, one sin I don’t commit. I am a strong believer in less is more when it comes to character descriptions. I think if you tread too heavily in the reader’s imagination, you stomp out some of the magic from your book. Here is how I let readers know what my heroine Joe Frye looked like:

She had a flash of memory, of sitting next to her dad in a gymnasium during her brother’s basketball game, watching the cheerleaders.
I’m ugly, Daddy.
You’re beautiful.
Not like them, I’m not.
No. They’re easy to add up. They’re plain old arithmetic.
So what am I?
Geometry, Joey. Not everyone gets it.

 9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
This one is hard for me because I love to write setting descriptions. But I have learned to pull back some. The best advice I ever heard on this comes from Coco Chanel who said you should put on all your accessories and then take almost all of them off before you go out. So yeah, I over-describe but then I go back and pare it down.

10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
Like all writers, I struggle with this one. When we’re deep in the writing zone, we can fall in love with the sound of our own voices. And sometimes, a passage will come so hard that you just can’t bring yourself to delete it. But you must kill your darlings. Lately, my sister tells me I am “underwriting,” so maybe I am pulling back too far. But I still think it’s better to leave ‘em wanting more, not less.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

I have nothing to add to that last one. It might be the single best piece of writing advice out there. If you’re working too hard, your reader will as well.  Here’s the quote that hangs over my desk: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  It was good enough for Nathaniel Hawthorne — and Dutch — so it’s good enough for me.


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Dazzle and dead bodies:What goes into a great opening?

I am about to give you the single best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard:
Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end, then stop.
It comes from the King of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland.” But it is one of my favorite writing mantras. And I really believe that within the quote’s Zen simplicity are three huge lessons about how to write a good book:
  1. Pick the exact right moment in time to start telling your story. Too soon and you end up with pages of throat-clearing. Too late and you might miss the story’s moment of catalytic power. You have to time your entry into your story just right or, like those astronauts in Apollo 13, you’ll skip off the atmosphere and bounce into nothingness.
  2.  Persevere through the second act. Making it through what I call “the muddy middle” is the hardest part of writing a solid book. You have to use all the tricks of the trade to keep the story moving forward and maintain suspense. 
  3. Earn your climax (ahem) and know when it’s time to leave. Deliver a resolution that is logical, fair and emotionally satisfying. But resist the temptation to tie everything up too neatly.  

But let’s go back to beginnings. What makes a great opening for a book?
It’s pretty subjective, and there’s lots of good advice out there. Click here to go to our archives and read Elaine Viet’s take on it. We writers all have our favorite opening lines, which all seem to circle back to “Call me Ishmael.” (Click here to read famous authors talking about their favorite opening lines.)
I especially like Stephen King’s favorite: 
“This is what happened.”
It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s out of print novel, Shoot. King likes it because, “It is as flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.”
King says he struggles with all his opening lines, sometimes for years. I guess that should make us mere mortals feel better as we stare at that blank screen and sweat blood trying to get the right mix of words to snag the reader’s attention. Back to Stephen King:

“[A good opening] is not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”

King is talking about opening lines in context of his new book, Doctor Sleep. (Click here for the whole article). Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, picking up with now adult Danny. Here is the opening King came up with:

“On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground.”


As King himself says, it’s pretty workmanlike, neither grand nor elegant. But look what it does: It immediately sets the reader in time and place and creates a bridge between the past book and the new one. I think this is a great lesson for all us writers — you don’t always need dazzling wordplay or a dead body in your opening. Sometimes you just need a solidly build doorway the reader can step through.
I mean, don’t you get a little tired sometimes reading the tortured openings some writers give us? Crime novelists might be the worst offenders because we are led to believe that we have to shock and awe in the opening graph or the story is DOA. As a reader, I hunger for books lately that open in a lower gear. As a writer, I am trying hard to follow the lead of King (and the King of Hearts) and just begin at the beginning.
I am not happy with the opening chapter of my WIP. I think I am trying too hard. So recently, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out few of my favorite books to see how others handled things. Here are four opening lines that I found:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

“Who’s there?” 
“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.” 

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
The four books? Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White; Hamlet by Shakespeare; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.  
Great openings, all for different reasons. White gives us suspense worthy of Dean Kootz in a children’s book! Shakespeare gives us foreboding and the existential call to self identify. Eugenides sums up his gender theme but makes us wonder: Haven’t we all been born twice? And Plath leads us right to her heroine’s “electric nerves” and lost soul.
Can I offer one last favorite of mine? It’s on almost everyone’s list of great openings but so what?
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
But I love the next few lines even more:
“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.”

Yes, it is about Humbert’s obsession with his nymphet . But it is also about Nabokov’s obsession with words. Lo. Lee. Ta…a narcotic chant and a prose poem. I’ll never forget the first moment I read that paragraph. I was sixteen, standing in the public library during a sweltering Detroit summer. I’m sure I didn’t really understand the story. What I understood was the magic of those words. True confessions: A couple years ago, I actually tried to riff on Nabokov’s Lo-Lee-Ta in a mystery I was writing. The character was describing Florida (Flor-ee-dah!) and well…you can imagine how bad it was. Thank God my editor told me to rewrite it.
Okay, one last Nabokov sample and then I’ll shut up. It is the SECOND paragraph in Lolita:

“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” 

The first paragraph of Lolita made me want to be a writer. That second paragraph, when I read it today, makes me want to be a better writer. 
(((INTERMISSION!)))
We’re back. I can’t resist this coda. Because as I was getting ready to hit the button to post this, I found out that the 2013 winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced. This contest, begun in 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University, honors opening sentences in novels. It is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1830, wrote these now famous lines:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” 

Yes, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest recognizes the worst possible opening lines for novels in all genres. (Here’s the link if you want to read them all, God help you.). For all us crime dogs out there, I’ll give you the winner in crime fiction:

“It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.”

Here’s the winner in my favorite category, Vile Puns:

“What the Highway Department’s chief IT guy for the new computerized roadway hated most was listening to the ‘smart’ components complain about being mixed with asphalt instead of silicon and made into speed bumps instead of graceful vases, like the one today from chip J176: “I coulda had glass; I coulda been a container; I coulda been some bottle, instead of a bump, which is what I am.” 

And here is this year’s grand prize winner:

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.

I think I actually saw that last one on Amazon the other day. If you hurry, you can get it for 99 cents.
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What writers can learn from movies about writing

Sleepless in South Florida last night — I’ve lost control over chapter five — so I retreated to the sofa and the remote. And there, thank God, was “Wonder Boys.” I am beginning to think my muse speaks to me through the Turner Classics. 
“Wonder Boys” is one of my favorite movies about writers. Others are “Barton Fink,” “My Brilliant Career” and “Swimming Pool.” (Charlotte Rampling retreats to Provence to finish her crime novel…ah yes.) These movies have stuck in my brain through the years not just because they entertain me but also because they teach me about this weird profession I have chosen. Here are a few my favorite lessons:

Wonder Boys: Make choices!

Based on the novel by Michael Chabon, “Wonder Boys” stars Michael Douglas as professor Grady Tripp, a novelist who teaches creative writing but, after winning the Pen award for his first novel, is stalled on his second, a 1400-page hot mess. (Will he ever publish again? Does he still have anything left to say? Is he a one-hit wonder?) A student tells him it is because he has not “made any choices” as a writer. Well, you HAVE to make choices as a writer; writing a novel is nothing if not a series of choices. Yet this is often the biggest obstacles, especially for first attempts. Maybe it’s because the writer fears he will never get a second chance so he crams everything he knows into one story. With experienced writers, it might be because the writer just sits down and starts writing without first thinking. (Which is really the hard part). You have to think about what your book is about. You have to think about how to structure it and what kind of characters you need. And you have to cut out the stuff that you don’t need. The stuff that is not in service to your story and theme. You have to make choices. In every chapter, page, sentence…and word.

Throw Mama From the Train:  Know what you write

If you’re writing a thriller set in a nuclear sub, it is a good idea — as Billy Crystal’s character Larry tells his writing class — to know the name of the “thing the captain speaks through.”  This is basic stuff — that crime and thriller writers get the details about forensics, police procedure, military protocol, and such right. But aren’t you dismayed at how often writers get this stuff wrong? I think it’s pure laziness. Because it is not hard to get experts to help you, to go watch a YouTube video of an autopsy, tour Edinburgh on Google Street View, to do research to find out how guns or Elizabethan government works. Verisimilitude — it’s a lovely word. (Yeah, I had to look it up to spell it right). We work hard to create fictional worlds that readers eagerly enter. They don’t like it when we rudely jerk them out of that world by dumb mistakes.

As Good As It Gets: Write what you know

When the poor secretary asks romance writer Jack Nicholson how we writes such great women, he delivers one of the greatest comebacks in all of moviedom (above clip). The lesson here is that yes, the chestnut “write what you know” is useful but only to a point. A fiction writer MUST be able to write outside her gender, race and limited world. But unless you have deep empathy and acute powers of observation, and, maybe most important, the ability to take a specific experience (especially if it’s your own) and make it universal so it connects with Everyman, you won’t succeed. I am not sure this can be learned. It might just be the special province of talent.

Adaptation: Know when to quit

Not quit writing. Just what you are writing. “Adaptation” speaks to all of us writers on many levels, but its most gut-wrenching lesson is about the despair of trying to be passionate about a book you don’t really care about. I’ve had to make the hard choice to abandon a book in midstream. But I’ll let my friend Sharon Potts tell you about this valuable lesson:

“For the past year, I’ve been struggling with a book that frequently feels like more than I can handle. Too many subplots that are all tangled up and I can’t seem to bring them to a satisfying resolution.  And then I realized, my problem is more than plotting. It’s my protagonist.  I don’t ‘feel’ her anymore.  I don’t care if she saves herself and the world. So how can I write if I’m not passionate?  And if I don’t feel it, will readers care when I finally finish the book?  In the meantime, another story has been poking at me.  A story that ties to my mother’s past and to historical events I’ve always cared about.  Even before I write a word, I can already see my protagonist clearly. She’s so real to me that she overpowers the heroine in the book I’ve been struggling to finish.  So I made a decision.  After a full year and over 100,000 words, I’m putting aside my ‘frustration’ novel.  I’m going to write the story my heart wants to tell.” 

Deconstructing Harry: Know when to keep going

This is not my favorite Woody Allen movie; it’s a vulgar uneven portrait of a self-serving user who turns everyone in his life into fictional fodder. (Sorry, can’t get this video link to work!) One character tells him, “This little sewer of an apartment is where you take everyone’s suffering and turn it into gold.” Tough to watch. But I like the ending because it strikes the only note of light when Harry Block realizes “his writing, in more ways than one, had saved his life.”
Not a bad lesson, all in all. What are your favorite writer movies and what did you learn from them?  
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Getting pecked to death:Are critique groups worth it?

By P.J. Parrish

I recently joined a critique group. Those who know me might think that’s weird. I’ve been published professionally for more than 20 years. I’ve done my share of teaching and should know how to do this by now. And I have a built-in critique group with my co-author sister Kelly.

So why do I need the tsouris?

Three reasons really. First, just because you’ve written some books doesn’t mean it gets any easier. Second, I now have a second home in the suburbs of the ebook Wild West and you need all the neighbors you can find out here among the wolves and cacti. And third…I’m lonely.

We’ll get back to that last one in a second.

But let’s ask the main question here: Are critique groups worth it? Worth it in time, energy and the bruising your ego will surely take? Should you expose your hatching to the cruel world to be pecked at before it’s barely had the chance to sprout feathers let alone wings?  (Whew, labored metaphor alert there).

I used to think critique groups were a waste of time. Maybe that’s because early in my writing life I got involved in one that was really bad. We met at a local bar once a month. (first mistake: combining wine and whine). The members weren’t very good at articulating what was wrong (or even right) in stories and a one guy was really defensive about being rejected by the “Manhattan cabal.” That’s what he actually called New York publishers. I left the group after two sessions, figuring it was cheaper to get depressed at home with a bottle of pinot.

But I think writers are better these days at taking constructive criticism. Maybe it’s because the new world of self-publishing has stripped us of the delusions we might have about how easy it is to write (and sell) a book.  Maybe it’s because in these days of change and turmoil, good editors (even those in the Manhattan cabal) are worth their weight in gold. Whatever the forces at work, I think we’re seeing a shift among writers, a new willingness to get help and get better.

So I’ve come to believe that a critique group can be one of the best tools a developing writer can use. Even experienced writers can benefit from them. But there’s a bunch of caveats that go with this. And I’ll get to those in a second too.

First, let me tell you about my little group. There’s four of us and I was the last to join about two months ago after one of the group, Christine Kling, literally sailed off into the sunset. (She’s an avid sailor and decided to pull up anchor and cruise the Caribbean, though she’s back now). That left Sharon Potts, Neil Plakcy, Chris Jackson…and me, the new cucumber.

We meet every two weeks at a Starbucks but in the week prior we send each other our 10 pages. We each then read and “red pencil” our comments on the pages. We use Word’s TRACK CHANGES function. It’s an editing program that lets you insert comments on a document. Track Changes is a little hinky to learn at first but it’s a cool tool. And most editors in publishing are now using it for their author revisions and expect you to know it as well.

Why just 10 pages at a time? Well, too much makes you skim over surfaces. You can really focus down on a book’s problems if you take it in small bites.

What things? We try not to nitpick and line-edit. That’s for second and third drafts and hopefully copy editors. What we try to help each other with is the Big Picture. Where the plot is going into the ditch, where the character development is lacking, and what — and this is important — to the cold eye seems confusing. But we try to stay flexible. We made an exception to our 10-page rule last week for one of our members. She is struggling with a very complex thriller. Her plot had become a hyrdra-beast and she wanted help simplifiying it. So she gave us a concept and we went from there.

At Starbucks, we pick one author to critique and we take turns going over our Track Change comments (we bring printed-out copies to give to each writer). We also encourage the other critiquers to jump into the conversation if they want to add something to the point at hand. These sessions run about four hours, three lattes and at least one pee break.

Have they helped me? Immensely. I am working on a new Louis Kincaid series book and after I offered up my opening chapter, I was told the tone was completely at odds with where I had left my hero in the previous book. That was a major revelation that has made me rethink my first six chapters. I also came to realize I’ve lapsed into a lazy habit of underwriting. My critique mates want a little more description and detail from me. (Ironically, my sister tells me the same thing). I also learned my treatment of my series backstory (always a tricky thing) was deficient. I was mentioning characters and situations from previous books that weren’t explained enough in the present one to stave off confusion.

What’s really good about getting this kind of feedback is not that they are trying to tell me how to write my book. It’s that this will save me valuable time. In rewrites, of course, but also later when I am deeper into the plot. It’s like hiking through a forest. Alone, I might have gotten far into those dark woods, realized I had  lost my way back on that first turn, and now I have to backtrack to find my way out. Without falling off the ridge.

My hiking mates aren’t telling me where to go. They’re just keeping me on the path I have already chosen.

So, is a critique group for you? I can’t answer that, of course. But I can pose some questions for you:

1. What kind of group do you need? Ideally, face-to-face. If you can stay within your genre, also good but not essential. Good writing is the same whatever the genre. But I’d stay with fiction. Non-fiction folks have their own unique needs.

2. Where are you in your skill level? You need to find like-minded writers but it’s always better if you can link up with some folks who’ve been published. As the saying goes, you want to play tennis with someone better than you or you never improve your game. But be willing to take the heat. If the group seems like a mere pity-party — ie, everyone bitching about their lack of success — get out as soon as you can. It’s cathartic to exchange tales of woe but it should be limited to small-talk after the hard work is done.

3. Where can you find a critique group?  If you’re isolated geographically, there are online groups but it’s pretty gnarly out there, almost like cyber-dating. (There’s one group, Ladies Who Critique, that’s females-only).  Start here for a list. The best way, I think, is through writers organizations. I found my group via contacts I made through my Mystery Writers of America Florida chapter. If the organization doesn’t offer critiques, network and start one yourself. All you need is two or three other committed people. Here’s some good advice on starting your own.

I can also give you some advice on how to handle yourself if you do decide to join a group:

1. Make a commitment. You’ll get only as good as you give. If you join up, be willing to spend whatever time it takes helping the others with their WIPs. Nobody likes the guy who shows up at the party empty-handed, drinks all the good booze and sits in the corner with nothing to say.

2. Be tough but kind. The best editors I’ve had always know how to make revision letters sound like they are really praise letters. They always tell you what you did brilliantly before they smack you upside the head and tell you where you royally screwed up.

3. Don’t get defensive. We are all soft-shelled about our writing but if you can’t take constructive criticism, don’t join a group. Hell, don’t even try to be a real writer for that matter. At our last session, I got defensive about fried pickles. My hero Louis orders a basket of fried pickles. It was one throwaway line but one of my critique buddies wanted more about the pickles. (It’s hard to explain but she was right.) I spent five minutes trying to justify why I didn’t want to write more about those friggin pickles. Later, I realized it had nothing to do with pickles and everything do to with me being prickly.

4. Don’t ever say “Yeah, but…” This is a variation on No. 3. One of your critique mates says, “I can’t figure out what is going on in this scene where the guy is stealing the fried pickles.” And you say, “Yeah but if you just wait until chapter 26, it will all be explained.”   If someone is confused by what you’ve written you should listen to them.  Misdirection is a great writer’s tool. But it is not the same as confusion.

5. Don’t get depressed. Having folks tell you what is wrong with your story is not easy to hear. But a good critique group can be really inspiring.  It can teach you that all writers struggle, that first drafts are never meant to be perfect, and that you can, despite what all the demons in your head are whispering, fix it. Yeah, you might feel like that guy in the picture at the beginning of this blog — that’s Prometheus, who Zeus tied to a rock and sent down an eagle to peck the guy’s liver to shreds. But you can also get a big dose of camaraderie through a good critique group.

And that brings me back to my last point — the thing I said about feeling lonely.

We all do, right? We sit here in our old yoga pants and Bob Seger t-shirts, poking away at our keyboards, hoping this STUFF we are storing away each day might actually coalese into a book and be read someday. We surf the internet, read articles about how to improve our craft and blogs about how to market them. But sometimes, as that great western philosopher Bruce Springsteen says, all we really need is some human touch.

We need to know we’re not alone. We need to hear other footsteps behind us on the path.

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Killing off good characters

WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS
Yesterday, I killed the dog.
I didn’t want to do it but it had to be done. The creature had been hanging around far too long and I had sort of grown to regret ever allowing it into my life. So I killed the dog.
I waited as long as I could — chapter twenty-two to be exact. But then I just typed the words and the mutt was gone. Now I have to endure the after-wrath. It won’t come for months because the book won’t be published until next year but I know it will come. There’s an unwritten rule in our genre that you never kill animals. Because if you do, your readers turn on you like, well, rabid dogs.
It’s not just dogs. It can be cats. I am a big fan of the British writer Minette Walters, read every book she put out. Until “The Shape of Snakes” and she had a character who tortured cats to death with duct tape. Repulsed, I threw the book across the room. I had seven cats at the time.
This rule about animals is not just limited to cats and dogs. It’s birds, hamsters, horses. I refused to see the movie “War Horse” until a friend assured me the horse didn’t die. And don’t get me started about what those damn pigs did to Boxer the Horse in “Animal Farm.” 
The killing of the good and innocent. It’s the toughest thing we writers do. I am often asked what books have influenced me most as a writer and my first answer is “Charlotte’s Web.” It taught me that yes, sometimes you just have to kill off a really good character for the sake of the story, even if it’s only a spider. 
Is it harder if it’s a human being?

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

That’s King Lear speaking. He’s grieving for the dead Cordelia. She was the good daughter, if you recall. Now Shakespeare had no qualms about killing off the good. (That’s why they called them tragedies.) We writers are still learning from him after all these years, especially those of us in the crime genre where death is the main machine in our plots. 
I’ve been thinking hard about this lately. Not just because of the dog thing but because of “Downton Abbey.” When Matthew Crawley bought the farm on that country road my mouth dropped open. Damn! They killed the good guy! He’s never coming back. Unless Mary steps into the shower and declares that his death was just a dream.
I felt the same way when Bobby Simone did his Mimi bit on “NYPD Blue.” Ditto when Col. Henry Blake’s helicopter went down in “M*A*S*H.” And I was upset that Lane Pryce hanged himself in “Mad Men” before he had a chance to make things right in his sad life.
Is it different in novels? Do readers feel less invested than viewers? Or are the attachments they form in the pure ether of their imaginations even stronger than those forged by film?
Consider Charles Dickens. He delivered his novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” chapter by chapter to his fans and when he killed off his heroine, Little Nell, all hell broke loose. One critic wrote, “Dickens killed Nell just as a butcher would slaughter a lamb.”
Author Conan Doyle always wanted to kill off Holmes. (“I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him,” he once grumbled.) When Doyle finally did Holmes in, thousands canceled their subscription to The Strand. Doyle eventually gave in and resurrected Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Closer to home, a few years ago crime writer Karin Slaughter killed off one of her beloved characters. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. Slaughter felt compelled to post an explanation on her website. 
Readers take these things personally. At least they do if you, the writer, are doing your job. It broke my heart when Beth died in “Little Women.” I was mad at Larry McMurtry for weeks after he killed Gus in “Lonesome Dove.”  It took me decades to understand why Phineas had to die in “A Separate Peace.”
In fact, I didn’t really get what Fowles was doing with that book until fairly recently when I finally got around to reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Finney, I realized, had to die so Gene could find a way to live.
I wish I could say that in those decades between “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Hero’s Journey” that I have learned how to the handle death of the good. That is what the best books are supposed to do, after all, teach us about such big questions. But I think I have become a better at dealing with death as a writer. So let me offer a few suggestions for anyone who is struggling with this.
Make it worth something. You must create a bond between the doomed character and the reader so when that character dies, it has value. The death has to propel the plot forward or affect the emotional arc of another character. Check out this stellar passage from one of my favorite books “Smiley’s People” by John le Carré.

Slowly, [Smiley] returned his gaze to Leipzig’s face. Some dead faces, he reflected, have the dull, even stupid look of a patient under anaesthetic. Others preserve a single mood of the once varied nature – the dead man as lover, as father, as car driver, bridge player, tyrant. And some, like Leipzig’s, have ceased to preserve anything. But Leipzig’s face, even without the ropes across it, had a mood, and it was anger: anger intensified by pain, turned to fury by it; anger that had increased and become the whole man as the body lost its strength.

The death has to be organic. Make sure there is enough time for the reader to come to know the character. The death may be a surprise but there should be a subtle feeling of foreshadowing about it. Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men” strikes an empathetic chord with the reader. That’s why his death at the hands of his best friend George to spare him from a lynch mob, is so powerful.
Don’t do it to fix a weak plot. We’ve all read books where another corpse is dropped and we go “meh.” Mercifully, I won’t include any examples here.
Keep true to your book’s tone. How do you want your readers to feel about this? Fearful? Deep sense of personal loss? Generalized feeling of human tragedy? Maybe you want them to laugh. Yeah, can be appropriate. I can’t think of any book examples but here’s an image I can’t forget from “L.A. Law”: Villainess Rosalind Shays accidently stepping to her doom in that open elevator shaft.
Don’t preach. Let the readers make their own conclusions about what the death means. Don’t tack on one of those awful codas where the hero stands around telling us what truths he has learned. And don’t, for corn’s sake, have someone say something like, “well, I guess we should steer clear of cannibals in the future.”
Be sure of what you are doing. Unless you’re in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s league, you can’t undo a death. At least not without some silly deus ex machina thing. I mean, I am glad that Spock didn’t really die from radiation poisoning in the warp drive tube. But I thought his rebirth was cheesy. I recently read a really good mystery by a successful author and I am pretty sure that the character he killed off isn’t really dead. (Can’t tell you the title; the author would kill me). I hope I am wrong. I hope the character is dead because it feels truer to this writer’s voice. Which leads me to my final point…
Let the end make room for beginnings. Pay attention to the survivors in your story and make sure death affects their lives. Leave room for redemption. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what’s so disturbing about Tom Robinson’s death is its awful inevitably. After falsely being found guilty of rape, he tries to escape but is shot by prison guards. But are we left in despair? I don’t think so because through this experience, Jem and Scout are learning about the dark complexities of the adult world. And at the end, there is Jem, keeping Scout from squishing that little roly-poly bug. There is hope in his need to protect the most vulnerable. There is hope for us all.
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