By P.J. Parrish
Our critique today is titled “The Last Rose of Summer.” My comments, in yellow, follow.
The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries against a bleached, predawn sky. The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees, loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.
Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees as he scaled the slippery slope. He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.
Despite the freezing temperature, Junior Resnick’s porkish face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here.” He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin’ crazy.”
Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. Wiping the mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, we keep going,” he said.
At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Andrew heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A mockingbird’s haunting call sent creatures scampering from the brush as the wind whistled softly through the trees. The swirling mist floated over the damp ground, creeping over Louis’s shoes. He felt a stir of excitement. It was a fitting day to find a body.
Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. The SUEDE was blanketed? Do we care what the boot is made of? While we’re at it, do we care about algae? Get on with it! Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees What’s wrong with “branches”? as he scaled the slippery slope. We know its slippery; it has algae on it. He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy we KNOW it’s muddy! incline.
Despite the freezing temperature, you already said it was cold Junior Resnick’s porkish this is a loaded word. Tone it down to chubby?face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, more mud? looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. Again, you already told us he’s fat. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, You already told us he’s breathing hard. “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here.” I get the feeling we are in the South somewhere. Dropping G’s to convey geographic dialect isn’t a good idea because it is hard to read over the course of a book and it is staring to establish a stereotype of Southern cops. He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin’ crazy.” I think F word should be used VERY sparingly, as an accent, not as common venacular. It loses its impact when tossed out like this.
Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. If Andrew is our hero, why make him so unlikeable so early?Wiping the mud argh…more mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, need new graph here. we keep going,” he said. New graph here too. At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment The sun is inanimate. It can’t “choose” to do anything. to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Louis heard Junior
Okay, I know. I am being a little hard on this contributor. But I have a right to be because I wrote this way back in 1998. It got published under a new title — DARK OF THE MOON. The hero’s name changed from Andrew to Louis Kincaid. It was the book that launched the series that we are still writing today.
Sorry for not fessing up from the get-go but I just wanted to make a point. I think the critiques we do here are a damn good deal. We all seem to learn something from the give-and-take of the comments. And although it’s useful to read about the craft of writing, it can be really powerful to get feedback and see “before” and “after” writing samples. I got the idea — and courage — to show you this from Stephen King. I’ve been re-reading “On Writing” this week and in the last chapter he tears apart one of his own stories, showing us his raw first draft and the finished chapter. It’s an eye-opener.
I also wanted to share this because we recently got the rights back to our first book and are self-publishing it as an eBook. But in the process of getting it ready, Kelly and I took a hard look and decided that we could make it better. Don’t get me wrong; we’re proud of the book. But it was a freshman effort and, contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there ARE second acts — if not in life than in the life of books. So rather than putting the book out there as it was originally published, we are going through it and changing some things.
Like what? Well, we’re pruning some of the “writer-ly” stuff because in the last twelve years we’ve learned that less is usually more. Here’s a good quote from “On Writing:”
“If you want to be a successful writer you must be able to describe [it], and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition…Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buried him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.”
We’ve also rid our book of bad dialect and gratuitous obscenities. We tweaked the secondary characters so we are not playing directly into the Southern stereotype. Yes, there are truths to be told about race in the South but it is more effective, we think now, to approach it at a thoughtful angle rather than dead-on with a hammer. And because we now know our protagonist better after living with him for twelve books, we are setting up his motivations more thoughtfully.
This has been extremely humbling, this process. It is also gratifying because we can see our trajectory as authors, see how much we have learned. But what does this have to do with me, you might be asking? Well, here’s some things you might want to take away from my first-page self-critique here:
1. Trust in the rewriting process. This is where your book is made. Get that first draft written, set it aside for at least a couple weeks then go back and look at it with a cold eye. If it looks, as Stephen King puts it, “like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can’t remember shopping,” you’re ready to rewrite. You’ll find glaring plot holes, thin character motivation, and lots of cheese. Embrace this process! “The Last Rose of Summer” was rewritten ten times before it found a publisher and now we’re rewriting it again. Your first draft come from your heart. Your second, third, fourth, tenth…those all come from the head.
2. Trust yourself to clean up your messes and misses. The original first chapter of “Dark of the Moon” is about five pages. In our latest rewrite we have cut it to three. Nothing important was sacrificed. But we really upped the pacing in the crucial opening chapters. Stephen King offers this formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.
3. Trust that you will find your “style.” It’s what makes you unique as a writer, your special voice and way of looking at the world through your fiction that no one else has. If you read “Dark of Moon” you will hear P.J. Parrish’s voice but it wasn’t clear and confident. Now, our tone has darkened, our writing style has become leaner, and we’ve found our essential themes. It’s all epitomized in the two titles: Our working title, “The Last Rose of Summer” conveys the end of something but it sounds fuzzy, flowery and better suited to a romance. “Dark of the Moon,” taken from a Langston Hughes poem, hit just the right note.
4. Trust in your ability to learn. Yes, talent is important but so is craft. And craft can be learned. If you are a serious writer, you must be willing to constantly challenge yourself and never be content with what is easy and quick. You can hone your craft and you can get better. And yes, it might take a long time.
I am an old dog. I am still learning new tricks.
Postscript: I decided to include the “new” WIP opening so you can see our “before” and “after.” We used our first two chapters in a recent SleuthFest rewriting workshop we taught and if anyone would like to have a copy of the handout, I’d be glad to mail it to you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put Parrish Handout in the subject line.