Hooks, Lines and StinkersIn Praise of Great Openings

By PJ Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some more openings I really love:

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

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

And then there’s this one:

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

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

And here is the one I always bring up:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stealing From Other Writers

By P.J. Parrish

When I write, I don’t read. Because I know, from experience, what happens when I do.  I steal.

Now, don’t get me wrong. All writers steal. At least, the smart ones do. Because this is partly how you learn to write a novel, by reading other novels, figuring out how the person structured the story, analyzing how the characters were layered, how the motivations were laid out, how the words were put together to elicit an emotional response. We learn by digesting the craftsmanship of others.

Here’s the thing though:  You have to steal in the right frame of mind. And for me at least, that is NOT when I am working on my own book. If I see a way of structuring a scene or chapter that is clever, I will try to replicate it in my own book. If I read a passage that sings, I will try to mimic it even if it’s not my style. When I am writing, I am in this weird fugue state and my brain is very porous and open. The temptation to take things that really don’t belong to me is too great.

But something changes once I am done writing my own book. I binge read for pleasure. Freed from my own insecurities and writer ego, I hear other writers more clearly. And when that happens, I learn more about writing in general and the lessons sort of sit in my brain, baking and bubbling, until I need them.

So, yes, I steal from other writers. Here are some of the things I have taken and the people I took them from:

Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action. I stole this from Kurt Vonnegut. About ten years ago, I was struggling mightily to write my first short story.  I went back and read Cheever, Hemingway, Saki and O Henry. I discovered John D. MacDonald’s The Good Old Stuff.  But it wasn’t until I got to Vonnegut’s Bagombo Snuff Box that I hit pay dirt. In the preface, Vonnegut laid out his eight rules for writing. (Click here to read them all.) His idea that every sentence must reveal character or advance plot was a light bulb moment for me. It now informs everything I write.  And when I teach, I try to impress on writers that every scene, every chapter, must work hard in service to the twin poles of character and plot.

Kill Your Darlings. Nope, I didn’t get this one from Faulkner. I stole this from E.B. White. And by “darlings” I mean good characters.  Charlotte’s Web is my favorite book, maybe the one that most influenced me as a writer. It has many great lessons but the most enduring is that a writer can – must – be brave enough to kill a good character. I’ve written about this before, so click here if you want to read more.

Fall in love with the sound of language.  Stole this one from Truman Capote after reading Music for Chameleons. This is a miscellany of stories and essays published in 1980 after a 14-year drought following Capote’s brilliant In Cold Blood. It contains passages of exquisite beauty and it taught me, when I was just starting to write, to pay attention to what words sounded like. Like those chameleons in the lead story, I was mesmerized by the music, and have spent all the years since trying to make my own. (In his preface, Capote writes: “When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip for self-flagellation.” Ha!)

Don’t be afraid! This one I got from Mike Connelly’s The Poet. For most of our Louis Kincaid series, we have stayed mainly with a third-person intimate POV because we think filtering the story through our hero’s consciousness enhances the reader’s bond with him. But when we started our first stand alone thriller, The Killing Song, we realized our protag and villain were equally important. We needed something special to drive home their dichotomy of good and evil, so we decided to copy Connelly’s The Poet and mix first and third POVs. Our first chapter was written in first-person from the killer’s POV and the second chapter switched to third-person from the hero’s POV. But it wasn’t working. And we couldn’t figure out why.  I ran into Mike at Bouchercon and told him I stole his idea. He smiled, shook his head and said, “But give the first-person to your hero. It’s his story.” We took his advice and the story took off. But I wouldn’t have had the guts to try without reading The Poet. 

There have been other lessons learned from my life of crime. From Stephen King, who has tried everything from horror to westerns, from eBooks to novellas, I learned not to let expectations box me into one genre or style. This has given me the courage to use an unreliable narrator in my WIP. As E.B. White said, “Sometimes a writer, like an acrobat, must try a trick that is too much for him.”

From Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I stole the idea that a protagonist can be deeply flawed. From Jane Austen’s Emma I learned to pay attention to secondary characters because they might hold the key to the story (In the end, George Knightley won Emma’s heart). From Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout, I got the revelation that all good crime stories are not about the crime but rather its rippling effect on the people and the town. And last but not least, From Anne Lamott, I learned that my quest for perfectionism is death. She wrote in Bird by Bird: “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”  Which might be the best advice for writers I have ever heard.

Who do you steal from? And what treasure did you get?

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Type Hard, Type Fast

First, I want to thank everyone for the launch of my new book last week. I spent most of Sunday chatting up the book in social media. A “virtual book tour” so to speak. Then I sort of watched to see what would happen. It’s only been one week and one book, but the results have exceeded my expectations. 
And I have more of this material in my pipeline. A lot more. Because as I mentioned last week, I love the old pulp days when writers really wrote, fast, because they had to.
Fast does not mean hack work (it can, of course, but not necessarily). I’m not discussing the editing process, either. Concentrated effort is what I’m talking about. I contend that many young writers would actually improve their craft –– and chances of getting published –– if they would write faster, especially at the beginning of their learning curve.
First, a few facts. Some of the best novels of the past century were produced at a rapid clip by authors who found writing time each day, and went at their task with singular resolution:
— William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.
— Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.
— John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 50s and 60s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows – brilliant (the others were merely splendid). Over the course of the decade he wrote many more excellent and bestselling novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which is the basis for the title of this blog entry.
So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.
John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.
–Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”
I’ve counseled many writers at conferences who have come with a single manuscript yet haven’t got another project going. I tell them, “That’s wonderful. You’ve written a novel. That’s a great accomplishment. Now, get to work on the next one. And as you’re writing that next one, be developing an idea for the project after that.”
You see, publishers and agents are not looking for a book. They are looking for solid, dependable writers. They invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.
The best advice I ever got as a young writer was to write a quota of words on a regular basis. I break my commitment into week-long segments (anticipating those days when I ride a bike into a tree or some such). I believe this discipline has made all the difference in my career. The testimony of so many other professional writers attests to its value.
One such testimonial comes from Isaac Asimov, author/editor of 500+ books. He was once asked what he would do if were told he had only six months to live.
“Type faster,” he said.

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ASK ME ANYTHING …AGAIN AND AGAIN


John Ramsey Miller

Most published authors are asked to speak to groups of one sort or another. I am flattered when I am asked to address people who are interested in what I have to say. As I was preparing a yak-up about my work (and authoring in general) I’m going to be giving next week to people gathered up to support a university library, I thought about the most frequent questions I am asked. After addressing non-writers, readers, book lovers, funders and innocent bystanders, there is invariably a Q & A exchange. No matter where I am speaking, or what aspects I blather on about, when it’s time for questions people ask the same ones.


Q: Who are your favorite authors?

A: There are so many I never know where to start. I usually say it depends on the genre and when I read them. Truman Capote, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsythe, Ken Kesey, John Carre, Ira Levin, William Golding, James Brady, William Styron, Mario Puzzo, Willie Morris, Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, J.D. Salinger, J. G. Ballard, John Cheever, Tolkien, James Clavell, Tom Wolfe, Frank Herbert, and then we have contemporary authors, none of whom I can list here without fear of leaving out someone and hurting feelings. There are so many truly great authors out there.



Q: What are your favorite books?

A: IN COLD BLOOD, EYE OF THE NEEDLE, THE GODFATHER, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, FRANNY & ZOEY, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, LORD OF THE RINGS, DUNE, NORTH TOWARD HOME, CANNERY ROW, WHY I LIVE AT THE P.O., DOGS OF WAR, SMILEY’S PEOPLE… (Books by the people listed above)



Q:Do you write every day (on a schedule)?

A: Yes, but not always at the keyboard. These days I write when I want or need to.



Q: Where do you get your ideas?

A: Rarely from the same place twice



Q: What is your process?

A: I think a lot. I write. I think a lot more. I write. Like that. Over and over. It’s sort of a cycle that speeds and slows but never stops.



Q: Do you outline or follow characters where they lead you?

A: I never let my characters decide where to take me. I give them a road map and expect them to go exactly where I have made the marks. I am the choreographer. I think it is pretentious to say one’s characters are so alive they take over. As the author, unless you are either in control or on LSD. Your characters are in your imagination and on the page and are not actually alive and acting independent of your mind.



Q: When did you decide to become an author?

A: I have no idea when it started. I have told made-up stories and written since I was very young. Over time I more or less got increasingly familiar with an old friend.


Q: What advice would you give an aspiring author?

A: If you are published, yours will be one of 400,000 books published that year. If you don’t have a way of effectively promoting your book, it will not be widely read.



Q: Do you believe that everybody has at least one book in them?

A: In my experience, yes. And as often as not it’s a very bad book. Most people can start a book, but few have the drive to finish one, and fewer still have any idea how to write effectively. And of the books written only about one to two percent are worth reading. In my experience, the worst are autobiographies of normal people who think their experiences are going to interest other people, followed closely by humorous or inspiring stories they have collected.



Okay gang, are there any others you are asked that I’ve missed?

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All That Clutters, Isn’t Just A Family Name

By John Ramsey Miller

Once a year I get a call from a local high school English teacher inviting me to come and speak to her students for 90 minutes or so, to allow them to hear an actual author talk about the life of his kind, and answer their questions. The first year I told the students that I would answer honestly any question they wanted to ask, and truthfully at the end of the session I fully expected never to be asked back, but maybe it’s the fact that I’m their only choice of a local fiction author with books in print. I am the end of the year cap on a class that includes Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and studying a few great books. This year the teacher told me her students read IN COLD BLOOD.

Some things you never forget. The book that actually made me want to become a writer was Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD. I was a sophomore in High School and I went to a bookstore in 1965 and bought the book and I paid like $6.95 for it, plus tax. The cover is frayed from being carried around for decades and being stored here and there. I know it is a first edition, but a second or third printing, I think. Presently I have it in one of my crates in the shed, but haven’t seen it in two years.

I remember, not just reading it, but reading it straight through. I didn’t put it aside for more than a few minutes at a time to go to the bathroom or eat a few bites. In those days sleep was sometimes secondary to entertainment, and that book was astounding. The first True Crime written as a novel. Who wasn’t fascinated by the author, Truman Capote, and how this odd little man could go to a small community in rural Kansas and ingratiate himself to the community in order to gather the necessary information. A tiny, lisping squeak toy of a man––a Chihuahua running between the legs of wolves.

It’s two great stories, the crime and the authoring, and how Capote finished the book, but waited for the execution so he’d have the ending he (perhaps not prayed for) needed to give the book a knockout punch. I think the two films of that era that were true to the books were IN COLD BLOOD, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Close friends and brilliant writers, both. Mrs. Lee never published another novel, and vanished from publishing in the way of JD Salinger. Truman, on the other hand, was everywhere. Truman Capote was reduced from serious novelist to social butterfly gossip spreader––a court jester of the rich and bored. Truman stopped drinking long enough to write a few stories over the years, and he kept talking about his great work to come, ANSWERED PRAYERS, but what was published (in my opinion) lacked the Capote flair, energy or purpose.

I suppose Harper Lee said everything she needed to say, and had nothing else to write that she hadn’t already put on paper. Truman Capote made a millions with COLD BLOOD, became a lazy fop, in the company of shallow people, drowning in booze and prescription medications. He’s tragic cautionary tale on many levels, but you can’t take IN COLD BLOOD away from him, or diminish its impact the reading public or on thousands of aspiring authors. Capote’s career after ICB is why I have such admiration for Dan Brown, JK Rolling, John Grisham, and the other authors who have a wildly successful book and keep writing despite their success and the additional attractive distractions flooding in around them. I have been lucky and have made a good living writing since 1995, and I always figured that if I couldn’t sell books any longer, I’d open myself a nice Chrysler dealership. Now I’m having to look at new alternatives…

I bet most of us can remember what book flipped our “Man, I bet I could do that!” switch?

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