Writing Novels in a Minor Key:Where Are All the Good Tear-Jerkers?

By P.J. Parrish

Have you ever cried reading a novel?

No, I don’t mean your first draft. I mean, has someone’s work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears? Movies…that’s easy. We all have our favorite cinematic tear-jerkers. Here’s just a few of mine:

Breakfast At Tiffany’s: Holly searches for Cat in the rain.
Roman Holiday: The Princess and the pauper Peck. Hopeless love.
The Vikings: Kirk Douglas gets his Viking funeral.
Field of Dreams: Costner plays catch with his father’s ghost.
Sophie’s Choice: Stingo reciting Dickinson over the death bed.
Spartacus: “Please die, my love… die, die now my darling!”  
The Incredible Journey: Yes, even the old dog makes it home.

But the number of books that have made me cry I can maybe count on one hand. I cried when Jack the dog, reaching old age, had to be put down by Pa in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Books. I cried when Charlotte the spider died (but her babies lived on!) I remember reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club on a plane and when I got to the scene where the mother explains why she abandoned her babies by the side of the road, I had to go hide in the bathroom and compose myself.

Are novelists more leery of the “cheap” reaction of tears? I think that is certainly true in crime fiction today. It is rare to find a novel, in these days of neo-noir aping and dick-lit posturing, that appeals to the emotions. We deal with the themes of death and loss all the time. We describe blood and guts with clinical accuracy. Why do we pull our punches when it comes to showing the emotional outfall of death?

I don’t believe it is just because movies are visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today’s crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart. But to my mind, something very special happens when crime writers decide to write in a minor key.

Time out! Quick music lesson here. There are basically two ways you can compose something — in major and minor keys. And they sound distinctly different. In the western musical tradition, major-key music is played at times of celebration (think of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March or Happy Birthday), and fun times (Celebration by Kool And The Gang). Minor-key music is used to mark mourning (Chopin’s Funeral March), heartache (Back To Black by Amy Winehouse) and despair (Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday).

That memorable score to The Godfather, the one that captures the despair, bloody history, horror and complicated family love? It was written in C Minor. Now here is how it sounds when rewritten in a MAJOR key (Listen to just a couple seconds and you’ll be shocked.)

I’ll make him an offer that he…aw heck, on second thought, buy the old man a new horsey. ((Sunshine, lollipops and tommyguns every day…)))

Excepting many cozies, the tone of most crime fiction is minor key. (Although I find it interesting that the haunting theme for Dennis Lehane’s dark classic Mystic River is in C Major. Maybe because director Clint Eastwood wanted to go against grain and convey majesty and hope?) If you want to continue the music analogy, even romantic suspense doesn’t shy away from a darker feel at times. Yet I have found few crime novels that had me reaching for the Kleenex, that elicited from me a genuinely earned emotional response. Here are a couple:

Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker. The hero, a victim of child abuse, hunts for a kidnapper but every path leads him right back to uncovering the secrets of his own childhood. Sparse as a haiku but powerful and haunting.

Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook. Beautifully written like all his works but what starts out as a mundane murder trial with a semi-repulsive protag becomes a wonderfully humane love story. Think Gone Girl with a heart.

Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. Not technically a crime novel but I’m including it anyway here. It took me a while to get into this book, which slides back and forth between the real and woo-woo worlds as it tells the story of a wife coping with the aftermath of her writer-husband’s death. It is slow-building but powerful magic, King writing in B minor, about gently accepting one’s fate.

A pretty short list.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor at a New York cocktail party last year. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hard-boiled “guy books.” And the continued strength of romantic suspense. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hard-boiled stuff being written right now, books that don’t turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romance suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really treacly about the romance part. But where are the crime novels that hit you in the heart?

Maybe I am wrong. Or just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today’s crime fiction?

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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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The Eternal Fire…I Mean, Kindle Unlimited

The rumors started earlier this week, but it became official on Friday morning: Amazon’s home page trumpeted something new called “Kindle Unlimited.” It’s the Kindle version of Oyster and Scribd, or the book version of Netflix and Hulu Plus.  Kindle Unlimited is simple for the readers: pay $9.99 per month, and one can select from “over 600,000 books” (more on that in a minute) and thousands of audio books (not so much about that in a minute) as many times per month as one wishes. Are you one of those readers who like to have two or more books going at once? Step right up, my friend; you can have up to ten books at once from Kindle Unlimited on your reader and for as long as you want (so long as you keep forking over that $9.99 per month, of course). Finish a book, and you return it with a click or two and pick another book of you want, or finish up what you have and then select away again.  Do you read a book a day? Two books a day? Help yourself. The first month is free, and yes, I joined. Amazon makes it easy (is that a surprise?). Click on the sign up button, log into your account, and all of a sudden every book that is part of the Kindle Unlimited plan has a red button next to it that 1) indicates that it is part of the Kindle Unlimited plan and 2) announces that it can be read for free.

I was pleased to see that every book that Hachette has ever published is included in Kindle Unlimited. Just kidding, of course; THAT woke you up, didn’t it? Actually, none of the big five traditional publishers are represented on Kindle Unlimited. All of the Kindle imprints are present, as one might expect, and Open Road Media (mysteriouspress.com, anyone?), HMH, Algonquin, and Bloomsbury are there, as are authors’ works which are exclusive to Amazon. I also found a goodly portion of T. Jefferson Parker backlist to be part of it, and, if you are so inclined, The Hunger Games series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Seven Habits…you get the idea. You know that business dispute between Hachette and Amazon? I am sure  that the participation of Hachette (and, down the road, the other major publishers) is an important element of it.

There is also an audiobook component to Kindle Unlimited through audible.com but at this point anecdotal reports indicate that there are only two thousand titles or so are included in Kindle Unlimited. This number will undoubtedly increase.  Further, if you borrow an eBook that has an audiobook version which is part of the program, the audiobook is included automatically. And, of course, there is also the whisper sync feature included with many books. So there is plenty for everyone.

Kindle Unlimited is not Amazon Prime. There’s no long-term commitment with Kindle Unlimited; it’s for books only; and if you are already an Amazon Prime member, Amazon apparently is not folding Kindle Unlimited into your Prime membership. The only elements both programs have in common are 1) uh, Amazon and 2) borrowing books. With regard to the latter, Prime lets you read a book per month for free and lend books you’ve purchased; Kindle Unlimited is, well, unlimited; but you can’t lend other books you’ve purchased.

There is an additional consideration, of course, for the authors among us: how are the royalties for those authors whose works are included in Kindle Unlimited get paid? I did some searching for the answer, and even made a few telephone calls. Responses ranged from “Amazon isn’t releasing that information” to “I don’t know.” One source told me that for an independent author to receive royalties the “borrower” has to read at least ten per cent (10%) of the book (and yes, as an aside, it kind of creeps me out that Amazon would have a way of knowing how much of a particular book I have, or haven’t read). Once the author has accomplished that threshold through the reader, royalties are calculated along the lines of an equation which looks something like 5(x)+3(y)-42+(-7)=zippideedoodah. To put it another way, no one who is talking is really sure at this point. Authors who are free to do so might want to seek further information before committing, which of course is a good idea before entering into any contract, agreement or commitment.

There will be more — much more — to be said about Kindle Unlimited in the coming weeks and months. For the moment, however…are you interested? Did you sign up for a free trial? Have you given it a test run? And what would you like to see? I’ve already answered all of the questions but the last. I’d like to be able to borrow…graphic novels. I think that will happen when we land a man on the sun, but I’ve been surprised, pleasantly and otherwise, before. One can always hope.

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The Stars Are Out at ThrillerFest

by Boyd Morrison

I would love going to an actors’ convention where I could have dinner with Sandra Bullock, take an acting class from Michael Caine, audition for a role in the next Spielberg movie, and share laughs at the bar with the cast of Castle. Won’t ever happen. It sounds too good to be true because it is. But that kind of dream conference does exist for thriller writers and fans. It’s called ThrillerFest, which will be held in New York City on July 10-13, 2013.

The attendees this week include writers who live on the New York Times bestseller list. The five spotlight guests alone–R.L. Stine, Anne Rice, Michael Connelly, Michael Palmer, and T. Jefferson Parker–have sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 million books. And everywhere you look at the conference, you’re blinded by the star wattage: Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, Lee Child, Catherine Coulter, Douglas Preston, Heather Graham, Brad Meltzer, Joseph Finder. It’s as if you could get into the Oscars merely by paying a registration fee.

But the really amazing thing about ThrillerFest is that you get to meet and talk to these people, not just ogle them from afar. When I was a newbie unpublished author at the inaugural ThrillerFest in Phoenix seven years ago, I didn’t know a soul. At the opening cocktail reception, I spent most of the time ambling about, listening in on snippets of conversation as I tried not to spill red wine down my shirt. Then I spotted Jon Land, an author I’d been reading for years. I gathered up my courage and nervously introduced myself, telling him that I was a huge fan. To my shock he asked me to join his group for dinner, where we had a fantastic time. In what other entertainment medium could that happen?

While I’ve mentioned some of the big names you can hobnob with, there are also plenty of up and coming writers who attend, some of whom will be household names in a few years. Imagine getting to know Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer just before they hit it big. And because I’ve gone to the convention every year, I’m lucky to count many of these future publishing phenoms as friends.

ThrillerFest is also a great deal for unpublished authors looking to break into the business. Through an event called AgentFest, aspiring writers can pitch their novels to a who’s who of the biggest agents in publishing. I was fortunate enough to find my own agent there. Before I met her my manuscripts barely got a nibble. Now I’m the director of AgentFest, my sixth thriller, THE LOCH NESS LEGACY, has just come out, and my novels are published in 22 languages. If I hadn’t attended ThrillerFest, who knows what I’d be doing?

For those looking to hone their writing skills, CraftFest offers a wealth of knowledge that is available nowhere else. You can actually take writing classes from legendary authors like Connelly, famed for books such as THE POET and THE LINCOLN LAWYER, and David Morrell, the creator of Rambo. The biggest problem is the information overload you might experience trying to cram every nugget of wisdom into your brain.

The best part of the conference is hanging out with these authors at the bar, the central gathering place. At first you’ll regard them with awe that they have descended from the heavens to walk amongst us. Then when you’re introduced to them, you’ll realize that they’re just people, too–although extremely talented, friendly, fascinating people. They’re happy to greet fans and share their insights about the business. Buying them a drink doesn’t hurt, either, though this being New York you’d better hang onto your wallet for a bumpy ride.

If you do get some of these writers liquored up, don’t be surprised if you laugh yourself silly as they spin wild tales of publishing wackiness, crazed fans, and book tours gone wrong. After all, these people know how to tell a story.

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