First page critique:The Last Rose of Summer

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.

* * *
This isn’t too bad. There’s some nice atmosphere established and we can figure out what is going on. But I think this is a tad overwrought, what with “naked” trees and “black capillaries” and “bleached skies.” We also get “a mire” of leaves and “copper colored mud.” The wind isn’t merely blowing, it’s “wafting.” Whew…lot of imagery loaded into the crucial opening graph. Here’s some more comments in yellow:

* * *

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’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A mockingbird’s haunting call sent creatures scampering from the brush not sure this even makes sense…why would the birdsong make “creatures” start? as the wind whistled softly through the trees. The swirling mist floated over the damp ground, creeping over Andrew’s shoes. Enough with the shoes already. He felt a stir of excitement. You don’t need this…it is telling not showing. It was a fitting day to find a body. Nice little ending but this last graph, coming on top of all the other description, feels self-conscious and “writerly.” “Rippling, haunting, shooting, eerie, creatures whistling, swirling mists…this is all TELLING NOT SHOWING.

* * *

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 killzoneblog@gmail.com. Please put Parrish Handout in the subject line.

* * *

December in Mississippi.

No sun, no warmth. 

Just a cold wet breeze, a bleached gray sky and muddy ground.

Louis Kincaid pushed through a thicket of brush and started up a slope. The fog that hovered near the ground blurred the orange vest of the hunter ahead and Louis had to quicken his pace to keep up. At the top of a hill, he looked back, waiting for the last man of the trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.

Despite the freezing temperature, Junior Resnick’s chubby face was beaded with sweat. His brown deputy sheriff’s jacket looked like a sleeping bag wrapped around his belly.

“Man,” Junior said, “I thought he said it was just a ways out here.” He wiped his nose with this forearm. “I’m sore as hell already.”

Louis turned away and started down the hill.  At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the bank of a rippling brown creek. The sun broke through the clouds, shooting streaks of pale light into the morning mist. Louis heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A trill of a mockingbird drifted on the fog.

Louis felt a stir of excitement and he knew it was a macabre thought —  maybe even twisted — but he couldn’t help think that it was a fitting morning to find a body.
0

Ugly Babies

By PJ Parrish
If you could go back and change things, would you?
Not your life. Your first book. That thing that burst from your heart and took flight and lifted you up there with it, making you feel on top of the world.
Until, maybe, you went back and read it again.
Did you still love it? Or did you see its little warts and uneven gait? Did it seem to maybe need a little grooming or a good flea-dip? If you had the chance, would you try to clean it up so it would be more…adoptable?
Our first book was DARK OF THE MOON. It’s a good story that we’re proud of. It got some great blurbs and reviews. But it got one bad review from Kirkus, which is the Life cereal of the publishing world. (“Give it to Mikey, he hates everything!”). Here is part of what Kirkus said:
“Clumsy prose, stereotyped people and a first novelist who has to learn that in plotting the twist is better than the wrench.”
I’ve submitted this review every year to Thrillerfest’s worst review contest but I keep losing to folks like John Gilstrap. The prize is fossilized poop. I really want that damn award.
Here’s the thing: We own the eBook rights to DARK OF THE MOON so my sister Kelly and I started formatting it for Kindle et al. As we were going along, we realized we could tweak things here and there if we wanted. So we started tweaking.
Then we realized it needed more than a tweak. It needed a full-bore heavy-muscle pipe refitting with one of those giant wrenches you see hairy men with butt cracks carrying out of Home Depot.
Here’s the second thing: As good as our freshman book is, it contains transgressions that now, twelve books later, we teach would-be writers in our workshops not to do.
It has heart but no head. That means we wrote with great passion, especially for our hero Louis, but we didn’t have complete control over our craft. What were our sins exactly?
STRUCTURE: We switched point of view in mid scenes. Our transitions between chapters had continuity lapses. We had too many unnecessary scenes “on camera” often showing things we had already covered. And our timeline was confusing. We now keep detailed chronologies and use big story boards to keep track of each “day” in our plot. See picture above of Kelly employing our two vital writing tools –- Post-Its and wine. 
CHARACTER: We veered into stereotypes, an easy thing to do when writing about the Deep South, and we used clunky dialect. Our fictitious Blackpool was also a one-dimensional character. Even the rattiest place on earth has something redeeming about it. We chose not to see it.
THEME: This might have been our biggest sin. We now believe that every good book has a theme, an underground railroad on which your plot progresses. Without a theme, you have nothing to say. Although we were writing about the effect of a 30-year-old lynching on a small southern town, we didn’t really connect this plot to the larger question of what this meant for our hero.
We didn’t ask ourselves the most important question we now ask of every character we create: What does Louis want? It wasn’t that he wanted to identify the lynching victim. It wasn’t even that he wanted to bring the murderers to justice. We didn’t realize that what Louis really wanted was to find his sense of home (and “home” meant his identity as a biracial man). Now this theme colors everything Louis does and every book we write.
So if this book is so awful, why are we putting it out in eBook?
It’s still a good book and readers like it. They forgive us our sins. But for now, we have put it aside and are readying our second book DEAD OF WINTER for eBook. See, we learned a lot by the time we started that one, just as parents learn a lot about babies by the time their second one comes along. DEAD OF WINTER must have been okay. It was an Edgar finalist.
But our first born? I remain undecided, reluctant to send this homely thing out into the world a second time. But my sister, who holds the book much closer to her heart than her writing brain, is not so sure about permanently closing the DOM yellow folder. It is, after all, the story that started a series and career, but also changed our relationship as sisters.
And when something is that special, as writers it’s had to let it just lay unloved and unread by our loyal readers. So, I am sure, one day when we are between books and novellas and conferences, Kelly will convince me to reopen DARK OF THE MOON and together, we will begin the necessary surgery. Maybe with a scalpel instead of a wrench.

0