Cracking The Big Mystery
Behind The Bestseller Lists

 

The bestseller list is the tip of the iceberg. — Michael Korda

By PJ Parrish

William Peter Blatty was hot off the blockbuster success of his book The Exorcist when he met the devil he couldn’t defeat — the New York Times best seller list.

Angered that his novel Legion, the sequel to The Exorcist, didn’t make the list, he sued the Times for $6 million, claiming the Times ignored actual sales figures from his publisher and that Legion was kept off the list because of “either negligence or intentional falsehood.”

It gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.

The Times, which had always claimed that the list was compiled from computer sales,  countered in court that its list “was not mathematically objective but was editorial content and thus protected under the Constitution as free speech.”  Blatty appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Thus the ruling stood that the New York Times bestseller list was “editorial content, not objective factual content” and that they had the right to exclude whatever book they wanted.

And that, crime dogs, is pretty much where we still stand today.  How any book cracks the New York Times bestseller list remains, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous quote about Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in fish wrap.”

I used to dream about being a bestseller.  Because this is what happens: Your publisher takes you to dinner at Le Bernardin. You get a new seven-figure contract with cover approval and world tour. Spielberg buys the rights. Your agent starts to return your calls. And you make so much dough your long-lost brother from Bullhead hits you up for a car loan.

Like I said…it’s just dream. We actually did make the Times list, with our third book Paint It Black. It was only what they call the “extended list” which means we didn’t crack the top 15 but hey, we hung on our toenails for a while.  We made the extended list two other times but have not repeated the feat recently. But that’s okay, because it’s sort of like making Eagle Scout. Once you get your badge, no one can take it away and you can wear that badge until your teeth fall out.

So I am not here to tell you that making a bestseller list is a fool’s goal. It doesn’t open doors so much as widen the crack, and it gives you credibility with readers, booksellers, critics and such. But I am here today to ask you not to think about it much. Because the bestseller list game is sort of rigged.

This is not news to many of you. But whenever I am asked about this subject by readers or some newbie writers, I am always shocked at their naïveté. What, you’re telling me it’s not based on real book sales? they gasp.

I don’t think much about bestseller lists anymore. I don’t even look at them when I read my New York Times book review section. But yesterday I did stop and read the paper’s “Inside the Times” article.  It was titled “We Don’t Have to Like ‘Best Sellers’.”  In it, once again, the Times felt compelled to explain to the world how it compiles its lists.

This controversy is not new. A book industry report in the 1940s found that best-seller lists were a poor indicator of sales, since they were based on “misleading data.” Fast-forward to a 2004 report that quoted a senior book marketing executive who said the rankings were “smoke and mirrors,” and a report in Book History found that many professionals in the book industry “scoffed at the notion that the lists are accurate.”

And writers have been trying to game the Times system since before the quill pen.  Jacquelyn Susann and Wayne Dwyer, among others, bulk-bought their own books to get on the list. And until recently, you could hire a company called ResultSource that would contract with you to manipulate lists through “bestseller campaigns.” (I tried to find their website but apparently ResultSource has since gone dark).

Last summer, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But the YA Twitter community discovered it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem. The author and her publisher bought the book’s way onto the list by strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. The Times quickly removed the book from its list.

So it’s no surprise the Times is still playing defense. Here’s a sample from their Q&A yesterday:

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists.

Translation: The Times has a network of “reporting stores” which include selected independent bookstores and some but not all big-store outlets. The last figure I found was 4,000 stores and “undisclosed wholesalers.” The exact methodology is considered a trade secret. I have been told by store owners that the reporting figures are not even based on actual sales to customers but on the number of books ordered to stock.

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists. A number of variables go into whether a book will rank on a given week. Weeks where there are blockbuster debuts in multiple categories will be different from quieter weeks. Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering.

Do the books have to have been reviewed in The New York Times?

Books that get ranked may or may not get reviewed by the Book Review and vice versa. Our best-seller lists and the editorial decisions of The Times’s book editors and critics are entirely independent. This means our lists are not a judgment of literary merit made by the editors of the best-seller lists, who remain impartial to the results. These are best-seller lists, not best-reviewed lists.

Translation: But if you happen to work at the Times, some critics have charged, your book will not only get reviewed but it has a pretty good chance of being “considered” by the panel of folks who watch over the list. Which leads us to…

How do The Times’s ranking methods ensure objectivity?

The best-sellers desk is staffed by three full-time editors who work independently from our news, opinion and culture desks; from the Book Review and the books desk; and from our advertising department. Our nonfiction lists feature books from authors across ideological and political spectrums. In the last year, politicians and commentators who identify as conservative have performed as well as, if not better than, liberal ones on our lists. Trends depend on publishing schedules and what is happening in the cultural zeitgeist.

One question they don’t address, but one I am asked often is: How many books does it take to crack a list?  It depends…

On who else you’re competing against that week. On what time of year it is. On whether someone has a similar book already out there. And on what list you’re aiming for. The general figure these days (way down from the olden days when I started out) is you need to sell at least 5,000 in one week.  But that means from Monday to Sunday if you want to be a Publishers Weekly best-seller, and from Sunday to Saturday if you want to be a New York Times best-seller.

It’s a jungle out there, Martha. Even if you want to aim a little lower, say for USAToday, The Wall Street Journal, a regional list like the Chicago Tribune or maybe Indiebound, you have a whole different set of hoops to jump through for each. Every bestseller list out there is compiled differently. Here’s a breakdown I found at Vox.com:

Publishers Weekly: Compiles data from the Nielsen service BookScan, which is what most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales. BookScan claims it tracks 80-85  percent of the sales of printed books in the U.S. (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores.) But it does not track books sold at independent bookstores that use older systems incompatible with BookScan’s tracking, or books sold outside of the general bookstore ecosystem, ie, at conferences or gift shops or toy stores, or even sales to libraries. It also doesn’t track the sales of e-books.

USA Today: Gets its data from both a handful of independent bookstores and many of the usual-suspect big sellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, etc. It doesn’t make any claims about what share of books sales it tracks, so it’s a broad sampling of books sold every week from different types of stores. Again, like BookScan, it does not track books being sold outside the bookstore ecosystem.  It doesn’t divide its list into any specific categories, but instead reports the top 150 titles sold across all genres and in all formats except for audio. So your crime novel will compete against Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I know, I know…insane.

Indiebound: This is compiled by the American Booksellers Association. The ABA uses sales data drawn from about 550 independent bookstores to create its list, but it doesn’t rank titles by overall sales volume. Instead, it weights the books on its list according to the sales rank each one reaches at each individual store. I don’t understand that either but there it is…

Amazon: It has two different best-seller lists: Amazon Charts and Amazon Best Sellers. Charts comes out once a week, tracking the books that have sold the most copies in any format (on Amazon, and in its Kindle store, Audible store, and brick-and-mortar storefronts), and the most read or listened-to books on Kindle and Audible. It’s not broken down by category or format, and it only reflects what’s happening on Amazon and its subsidiaries. (Since Amazon has a 65 percent market share, that’s actually a pretty decent sampling.) Amazon Best Sellers, in contrast, is updated once an hour, and it is broken down by categories. This latter one is what we crime dogs fixate on.

Okay, you’re saying, what about us self-published guys? Do we have a chance at getting on any kind of list? Yes, you can crack the Amazon list.  We got to no. 1 briefly in the thriller category when we self-published our back-list title Dead of Winter. And it used to be alot easier before Amazon started messing with their algorhithms. There was a story every week about some self-pubbed phenom. But for reason behind my ken, that has tapered off. (Maybe some of you can explain in comment?) I did see a figure this week that was astonding — that you need to sell between 3,500 to 5,000 copies in a 24-hour period to hit no. 1 on Amazon. But then I also read recently that Lee Child sells a book every eight seconds…

By the way…those three books at the top of this blog today? You might recognize them. You might not know that they were all self-published before they were massive bestsellers.

But what about the Gray Lady? Well, according to their Q&A yesterday, here are the books they don’t track:  “perennial sellers, shopping guides, comics, reference and test preparation guides, required classroom reading, textbooks, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, puzzle books and self-published books.” If if makes you feel any better, this means the Bible doesn’t qualify. Neither does The New York Times Monday Through Friday Crossword Book, even though it is currently #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

So, does this matter? Is this something you should you worry about this?

Well, it’s a gold star on your homework, but it isn’t a true gauge of success. And here’s something weird I found:  Hitting the Times list works better for unknown  authors than the Lee Childs of the world.

According to an economics professor Alan Sorensen, who has studied the effect of bestseller lists on sales of hardcover fiction, relatively unknown writers get the biggest benefit, as much as a 57% increase in sales. But for perennial best-selling authors such as John Grisham, being on the list makes virtually no difference in sales. Most sales occur soon after a book hits the shelves and gradually peter out. “If anything, what appearing on the [bestseller] list does is not so much cause your sales to increase from one week to the next, but rather to decrease at a slower rate,” Sorensen said.

Why can’t the bestseller system be fixed?

With the sophistication of software now, you’d think there would be a better way to keep track of real book sales. The model, some say, is the music industry, with its bestseller list in Billboard. The magazine tracks every single album sold at every single music store in the United States. SoundScan, the company that began tracking CD and tape sales with a bar code system, was the force behind the creation of Bookscan.  But BookScan is too expensive for many bookstore owners.

And here’s the bigger rub: The publishing industry really doesn’t want a single list of what’s really selling. They want lots of different lists that they can manipulate to benefit their own bailiwicks.

So…write your book and kept your heads down, crime dogs. The rest will come.

Which brings us back to William Blatty.  Despite great reviews, The Exorcist laid such a giant sales egg at first that Harper and Row reported getting returns by “the carload.” But then sales took off and the book made the New York Times bestseller list for 57 straight weeks and at the No 1 spot for 17 of them.

And years later, not long after Blatty filed his lawsuit against the New York Times, Legion made it all the way to no. 15 the Times list for one week.

 

9+

It’s Election Day! Choose Wisely
For the Sake of Your Novel

By PJ Parrish

Well, it’s time.  It’s Tuesday, Nov. 8 and you have to make a choice.

No…not that one. We here at The Kill Zone are fiercely apolitical, so what you do today in the privacy of your little curtain or cubbyhole is your business alone. I’m talking about more important choices today -– about your novel.

But first, let’s pause for a short break. I am PJ Parrish and I approve this message:

Shoot, I’d vote for this guy. He makes as much sense as anybody running today. Okay, back to regular programming.

When you sit down to write a novel, you may not realize it,  but you will be — for the next six months to six years it takes you to finish — constantly making choices. Some of these choices will be as big and strategic as picking your characters and plot. Others will be tactical choices like grammar, word choice, use of imagery, punctuation, chapter length, even book length. These latter choices are all really important and we’ve covered all of these topics here at TKZ. But today, let’s hone in on the big choices.

Yes, we’ve covered these a lot here, too. But on this, ahem, really yuge election day, I think it’s a good time for review.

The Ten Most Important Choices You Make About Your Novel

1. Who’s story is this? This sounds simplistic, but you must be clear about who you are going to focus on for your readers to follow. Now usually (but not always), you want to chose a single protagonist, one main person who will be challenged, who will triumph (heroic) or fail (tragic), and who will be the central figure in the story’s plot arc.

Can you have more than one protag? Well, yes. But in my humble opinion, a dual (or multiple protag) book is harder to pull off. Why? Because unless you are really good at weaving the threads of plot and motivation, you will probably understand or even favor one protag over another — and readers will really miss that person when they are “off stage.”

I recently critiqued a manuscript whose author couldn’t make this choice. She had created four equal main characters, but none really captured my interest. I asked the writer why she had done this and she said that her “real” protag was her setting.  I advised her to go read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The “region of supernatural wonder” can be the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or a bar in Cleveland, if you want. But we must have someone to care about, someone we are willing to follow for 300 pages.

2. Where am I? It surprises me how often writers neglect this. Yes, all fiction takes place somewhere, but unless you make that your setting come alive in your reader’s imagination, you are just moving characters against a cardboard backdrop. Do you need to “write what you know?” Not really. You needn’t have lived in Belle Epoque Paris to be convincing, but you need to do your homework and create not reality but verisimilitude (the appearance or being real and convincing). Do your homework (Guest poster Barbara Nickless had a good take on this yesterday.)

And establish your setting very early in your story. Readers need to know where they are from the get-go, and while you don’t want to slow things down in your opening chapter(s) with too much description, you need to begin setting your scene early. And no, hanging one of those pitiful little taglines on chapter one — QUANTICO, VIRGINIA — won’t cut it.

Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.

That’s one of my favorite opening lines from Thomas Harris. He didn’t need a tagline, just those fabulous final five words.

3. What’s your point of view? So who is going to be your narrator? Sometimes, this can be a secondary character. Jay Gatsby is the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s classic, but the story is related by Nick Carraway. Most likely, your narrator will be your protagonist. So do you use first person or third person? Your choice. First-person is more immediately intimate because having your protag relate everything via “I saw”  “I did” or “I thought” you establish a tight bond with the reader. But this is also very limiting as everything must be filtered through one prism. I think first is harder to write than third.  Why? Because if you whiff on motivation, if you don’t grasp every nuance of your protag’s psyche, your narrator will feel flat. And if he’s boring, well, shoot…there goes the reason to turn the page.

Having trouble with this? Switch from first to third or vice versa. You may discover the plot you are dealing with demands the richer variety and complexity of a third-person vantage point. Or you might need multiple third-person POVs. Your protag may be doing a Diana Ross but she might need Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard backing her up.

Time for another break. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:

I’d vote for that guy, too. He’s crazy but at least he’s honest. Back to your book:

4. What’s the best entry point? Let’s start with a premise: A rich teenage girl disappears from in front of a nightclub in London, snatched by a man re-inacting Jack the Ripper murders. A disgraced female cop who’s trying to reconnect with her own estranged daughter gets the case. Where do you start this story?

Bad starts: From victim’s POV: She wakes up, eats breakfast, has testy phone call with mom and later that night goes to nightclub. Cop’s POV: She’s sitting at her desk, thinking about her bad job and her lost relationship with daughter.  From killer’s POV: he is watching girl exit the nightclub thinking about what he is going to do with her.

Why are these bad? The first is throat-clearing. Yes, you might want to establish sympathy for the victim but you can do this after she is gone or even in a few good tense ACTIVE moments in the nightclub. The second example is back story that should be dribbled in as the plot begins to unfold. The third example, while it sounds juicy, it has become a giant cliche.  If you open this way, it must really be original, and you will then need to go back to the killer’s POV at other times in the book or the opening scene feels tacked on and artificial.

When considering where to start:  Get in as late as possible but still be clear in what has already happened. Pick a moment where something is happening or about to happen, where a status quo is changing, where someone is about to be challenged.

Prologues? That’s a whole post in itself. I generally don’t like them because they are almost always mis-used. If you have one, cut it out and see if you can start your story in chapter 1. Betcha it works.

5. What does your hero want? Ray Bradbury said all you have to do is figure out what your hero wants then just follow him. Easy for him to say! Plumbing the depths of motivation is the key to creating characters who live on the page. I’ve written about this often because I think that once you, the writer, can answer this question, everything falls into place. It’s helpful to think of “want” as having many levels.  In Silence of the Lambs, what does Clarise Starling want? Easy — to catch Buffalo Bill.  But go deeper into her psychological basement:

  1. To catch Buffalo Bill
  2. To save Kathryn
  3. To prove she can make it among the boys of the FBI academy
  4. To impress her boss Bill Crawford
  5. To make her dead father proud
  6. To silence the lambs (her demons over being orphaned as an innocent girl)

Do this for your protag, then for your villain and everyone in your book if you can. Remember what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

6. What happened? This is simplistic, too, but needs to restated: Something has to go south fast. As you concentrate on character, don’t neglect story. Your hero needs an obstacle to overcome. As Stephen King says in On Writing: “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”  You must create obstacles for your hero to overcome (Sheriff Brody in Jaws has not just a killer shark to hunt down but he has to deal with a dumb mayor, a rift in his team (Quint and Hooper) and he can’t swim. I love what sci-fi fantasy author Nancy Kress says about plot: “Fiction is about stuff that’s screwed up.”

Uh-oh…we gotta break again. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:

I’d definitely vote for that guy, but I think Ted Cruz might gnaw him down to bones. Back to your choices:

7. What are you trying to say? Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Well, yeah, I sorta of agree with that. Especially since I just finished a mystery that was about meth addiction in Appalachia. It was good but after a while I just thinking, “enough with the drug thing. Who killed that old man?”  The writer was so enamored with his message, it let the story go flaccid.  However…

Great books are always about a theme. Herman Melville said, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” So Moby Dick is not just a fish tale. It is about man’s inability to know God. But merely good books also have something to say. You can hear the theme humming soft and steady beneath the clanging machinery of the plot.  At its best, a theme has some sort of meaning to your protagonist, even in genre fiction. Which brings to mind Joseph Wambaugh’s quote, “It’s not how the detective works the case but how the case works on the detective.”  This is a little facile, but here’s an interesting list of common fiction themes — everything from abuse of power to xenophobia.

8. What do I call this? Let’s talk about titles. I know, I know…you don’t want to because titles are hard. And if I know you, you’ve probably slapped something gawd- awful on your work in progress just so you can find it in your computer. But here’s the thing: A good title can make or break your chances out there. I’d go so far to say it’s the single biggest marketing decision you will make. A good title is a neon sign to your readers, not just luring them in but signaling in shorthand what your story is about. And maybe most important, a good title helps you, the writer, understand at a very basic level what your book is about. You need to think about this until your brain hurts. You need to wake up in a cold sweat at night over this.  Don’t settle.

What makes for a great title? It’s pithy, it has promise. It’s a tease and a tell. It’s memorable, original, and easy to say. It boils your entire story down its essence and conveys its heart. This topic needs its own post to do it justice, so for now, just Google and read up on the good advice out there. Good titles: Hunger Games. The Last of the Mohicans. To Kill a Mockingbird. Bad: I can’t print most of them here. Click here.

Another break? Geez. I’m PJ Parrish and I’m getting tired of approving messages.

It’s all a blur but I am pretty sure I voted for that guy. I like his wife. Maybe she’ll run someday…

Back to your own choices:

9. What is my tone? This is important but sort of slippery to grasp. It’s important, however, because if the tone of your book is off, you’re going to have trouble selling it to agents and editors or, if publishing it yourself, finding your target audience. The tone is your attitude or feelings toward your subject matter. You convey this through your style, word choice, and through the personalities of your characters.  If you’re writing for a genre audience, getting your tone right is important because readers have certain expectations. A reader looking for light romance suspense doesn’t want to open your book and discover halfway through that you’ve started out light and descended to a darker place. Likewise, if like me, you prefer darker fare, you don’t want to be misled in the opposite direction.

Your chosen tone can be whimsical, humorous, gloomy, ironic, hardboiled, neo-noir, …you pick it. But you must be honest and consistent.  Years ago, I wrote an amateur sleuth novel that I thought was peachy.  It was roundly rejected, despite the fact I had a good track record with my current series. What happened? My tone started out light and wacky but veered toward the dark about halfway through. Two editors even used the same words in their rejection letters: “Loved the writing but it’s neither fish nor fowl.”  I learned a lesson — I can’t maintain soprano when my true voice is contralto.

10. Do I finish this book or start over? No one can help you with this, but it’s something you have to ask yourself as you move along.  Not every book needs to be finished. Some are exercises of sorts to help you learn. Others might be short stories instead of novels. And then there is the question of stamina and confidence. If you do believe in your story, then yes, you need to finish it. Even if it never gets published, it won’t be wasted effort.  Every successful writer out there has unpublished manuscripts moldering in bottom desk drawers or lurking on old thumb drives. You need to finish something. Just for the knowledge that you can do it.

I’ll leave you with a telling quote from Erica Jong: “I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”

Yes, you will. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s called being a professional writer.

And finally, one last break. I’m PJ Parrish, and I think this candidate speaks for all of us very weary voters out there:

4+

Suspense: To Be Exciting,
You Need To Be A Little Dull

peyton1

This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.– Oscar Wilde

By PJ Parrish

Sunday, I picked up the latest by a bestselling thriller writer and about halfway through, I realized it was sorta…unthrilling. So I put it aside and tuned into the Broncos-Colts game. I didn’t expect much in the way of entertainment here either because I knew this old story. I mean, Denver was 4-0 and Indianapolis was 3-5. Denver has Manning and Indy has, at best, a little Luck.

But lo and behold! The Colts were winning 17-0. Well, I thought, this is kinda interesting. So I stuck around. And then, Denver returned a punt 83 yards for TD.

Hmmm.

Then Peyton Manning hit for a TD, Denver got a field goal and suddenly, we were all knotted up at 17-all. Early in the fourth quarter, Andrew Luck threw a TD but Manning answered with one of his own and we were tied again! Until Adam Vinatieri, who is 95-years-old and never misses despite having only seven toes, kicked a field goal putting the Colts ahead by three!

Six minutes left. But I was definitely not turning this one off now because Denver was driving. And how’s this for a twist? Peyton was only 30 yards away from becoming the leading passer of all time, surpassing Brett Favre!

Tick…tick…tick.

OH MY GOD! Peyton is picked off!

Can the Colts hang on? There’s four minutes left and Frank Gore is running the ball but he’s 105-years-old and has a habit of putting the rock on the ground. Denver uses its last time out. But here is the back story that I already know about this drama: Peyton leads the league with 43 fourth-quarter comebacks.

Can he do it again? Will he break the passing record? Will the Broncos stay perfect? Will Frank cough up another hairball like he did last week?

The suspense was killing me.

Frank is tackled on third down. Ninety seconds left! Peyton’s going to get the ball back! Wait! Is that a flag? Some guy named Aqib Talib poked a Colt in the eye and Denver gets flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct!

It’s over. Colts win.

{{{Whew}}}

Now that was suspense. After that, I had no desire to go back to my book. Because despite the book’s stellar blurbs and the reputation of the author as the Master of the Twist, it wasn’t near as good as that football game.

The game was classic David and Goliath with a little Joseph Campbell The Hero’s Journey thrown in, yet it still went against my expectations. It had a good mix of pacing, with zip-fast passing attacks and slow grind-it-out running. It had setbacks and surprises. It had heroes and eye-gouging villains. And just enough twists to keep me guessing.

Think there’s a lesson here?

A good sports game has a lot in common with a good book or movie. Sitting on your barstool watching Daniel Murphy commit that error in game four and wondering if the Mets are doomed. Sitting in the triplex watching The Fugitive and wondering if Harrison Ford is going to jump off the dam. Or turning just one more page to find out if Amy is alive or is the girl gone for good. They are all related.

There’s the old Hitchcock formula: 1. A couple is sitting at a table talking. 2. The audience is shown a time bomb beneath the table and the amount of time left before it explodes. 3. The couple continues talking, unaware of the danger. 4. The audience eyes a clock in the background.

The surprise, Hitchcock said, didn’t come from the bomb itself; it came from the tension of not seeing it.

Speaking of formulas, there actually is one for suspense:

Suspense: t = (E t [(µ¿ t+1 – µ t)²])½

I didn’t make this up, believe me. It was created by Emir Kamenica and Alexander Frankel of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It is basically an equation about time and expectations: “t” represents the period of time a moment of suspense is occurring, “E” is the expectations at that time, the Greek mu indicates your belief in the next thing to happen, the +1 is your belief in the future, the tilde represents uncertainty, and the subtracted mu is the belief you might have tomorrow.

That made your brain hurt, right? Mine, too. But hey, you sat through my football metaphor, so stay with me a little longer. The Chicago guys also developed a formula for surprise, which is easier to stomach for us math-challenged types. It boils down to this: what your beliefs are now minus what your beliefs were yesterday.

Their paper “Suspense and Surprise” (co-written with Northwestern University economics professor Jeffrey Ely) was published in the “Journal of Political Economy.” It was inspired by their observation that in various types of entertainment – gambling, watching sports, reading mysteries – people don’t really WANT to know the outcome.

What they DO want is a “slow reveal of information.” As one of them put it in an article in the Chicago Tribune: “To be exciting, we found that things need to get dull.”

Information revealed over time generates drama in two ways: suspense and surprise. Suspense is all about BEFORE, ie something is going to happen. (the ticking bomb under the chair). Surprise is about AFTER, ie you’re surprised that something unexpected happened. (the bomb didn’t go off!) If you are led to believe one thing is going to happen (Broncos will win!) but then are surprised by the unexpected (Colts prevail!) that can be pretty powerful.

So how do you translate this to your own writing?

I’ll let Kamenica explain. He goes back to the Hitchcock formula: “Let’s take that idea and ask a mathematical question: How much suspense can you possibly generate?’ Putting that bomb there generates suspense, but how long can you leave it there? Can you leave it the duration of the movie? Or is that boring? Once you put it there, when do you decide for it to go off? One-third of the way through? One-half? If I am invested, as a viewer, how frequently should uncertainty be resolved? You have a threat, information that (a bomb) will explode, then it gets resolved, the movie continues. But will these people survive the next danger? How often can you do that — change an audience view?”

He has the answer, of course: Three times.

“Say you are writing a mystery,” Kamenica goes on in the Chicago Tribune article, “Zero twists is bad. And one thousand twists is also bad — again, for something to be exciting, it must occasionally become boring. So, three. The math delivers surprisingly concrete prescriptions. That number is constrained to a stylized view, characteristic mystery novel: Is it the maid or butler who did it? Does the protagonist live or die? A novelist must lead you in one direction then …”

Added his colleague Frankel: “The thing is, we also found that you can’t really have a definite number of twists. Three is average. Yet if you know there are three twists, those twists are not actually twists — you are now waiting for the twist.”

And that, to me, is the major lesson here. Not that your book must conform to a three-twist formula. Because if your readers know you have three twists, you’ve lost the suspense. The lesson, to me, is less might just be more.

That’s why I gave up on that book I was reading. Its pacing was overly frenetic, with no slow moments for me to catch my breath. And the writer — excuse me, Master of the Twist — was so intent on forcing me through one more complication, one more bend in the road, one more plot gymnastic, that I began to anticipate his next move. I put the book down because the enjoyment was gone. The fun was leached away. The thrill was gone.

If your readers know you will have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end, then your book will no longer have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end.

So maybe it comes down to this: If you want to be thrilling, you also have to be willing to be boring very so often.

 

 

4+

When a Picture Is Worth
At Least 80,000 Words

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The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.– Graham Greene

By PJ Parrish

Friday, I tried to push the boulder back up the hill again.

You all know the one. James even had a picture of it here last week when he asked us what was the hardest part of writing. It’s that stone on which is engraved CHAPTER ONE. It’s that rock that feels so heavy and looms so large that you are sure it will roll back and crush you dead before you even get traction.

Especially if you haven’t got a good picture of how your story is going to open.

We talk a lot here at TKZ about crafting a good opening for your book. That it has to be compelling, that it has to grab the reader by the throat, that you can’t do this or that. But I think the single most important decision we all need to make boils down to one question:
What is the optimum moment to enter the story door? What is the best angle of approach?

I struggle with this question every time I start a new book because I’ve learned that for me least, finding this prime entry angle affects the whole trajectory of my story. I keep going back to my metaphor of the astronauts in the movie Apollo 13. The three guys are up in the capsule about to make their harrowing re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The guys down in mission control are sweating about finding the right angle of descent. If they come in too fast and deep, they will burn up. If they come in too slow and shallow they will bounce off into the atmosphere.

It’s the same with a book opening, I think. If you come in too hard and fast, you burn up in a blaze of clichéd action and grab-me gimmicks. But if you come in too late and lazy, you lose the reader in backstory and throat-clearing.

So how do you find that right moment?

For me, it always starts with an image. I have to see something in my mind’s eye –- a person who can’t be ignored, a place that has the power to haunt the imagination, a visual that is so compelling that I have to spend 100,000 words explaining it. You often hear writers talk about “seeing” their stories unfold like films. Joyce Carol Oates has said she can’t write the first line until she knows the last. I can’t write one single word until I see the opening of my mind-movie.FINAL COVER

I can trace this process to almost every book my sister and I have written. (I usually get the opening chapter duties after we have talked things over). For our newest book, She’s Not There, the seminal image came from a vivid childhood memory of when I almost drowned at a Michigan lake one summer. I walked out into a lake, the sand gave way under my feet and I felt myself sinking slowly downward in the water until someone yanked me out by the hair. Here is the opening of our book:

 

She was floating inside a blue-green bubble. It felt cool and peaceful and she could taste salt on her lips and feel the sting of it in her eyes. Then, suddenly, there was a hard tug on her hair and she was yanked out of the bubble, gasping and crying.

This is our heroine, Amelia, who is coming out of a coma in a hospital, a literal image. But I knew in my bones that once I had that opening paragraph, I had the whole book, because it is a metaphor for the story’s theme about getting a second chance to live after you’ve lost your way.

Kelly and I take a lot of photographs for our locations and return to them for inspiration as the stories unfold. Other images that inspired our books:

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A potter’s field cemetery in an abandoned asylum outside Detroit, where we found that the old stone markers of the dead inmates (above) had only numbers and had been lost in the weeds. This became An Unquiet Grave.

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This abandoned hunting lodge (left) on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Once Kelly and I saw it, the whole plot of Heart of Ice began to reveal itself.

The odd juxtaposition of a swampy stand of dead trees glimpsed from the road outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, and a nearby old white pillared mansion. This inspired Dark of the Moon.

Sitting in Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle in December, listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” feeling so cold that my teeth chattered like bones, watching a cellist who looked so bored that he wanted to kill someone. Which he did in The Killing Song’s first chapter.

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This creepy old farmhouse near Lansing MI inspired this opening for South of Hell:

It was just south of Hell, but if you missed the road going in you ended up down in Bliss. And then there was nothing to do but go back to Hell and start over again. That’s what the kid pumping gas at the Texaco had told her, at least. Since she had not been here for a very long time, she had to trust him, because she had no memory of her old home anymore.

I feel so strongly about the power of a picture in your imagination that I use this in our writing workshops. Kelly and I have found that one of the biggest hangups for beginning writers is getting over the paralysis of finding the perfect opening. Maybe it’s because it’s been drilled into their heads that they have to come out of the gate at full gallop or no agent or editor will ever buy their books. Or maybe they get intimidated by the “rules” that preach suspense is all about adrenaline. Whatever the reason, they get all constipated and can’t make a decision about when is the right moment to start their narrative journeys.

So we give them pictures and five minutes to write the opening of a story using it. The purpose of the exercise is to get them un-stuck but it is also to force them to tap into their powers of observation. Forced to focus on one photograph, they turn up the volume on their receivers, extend their sensory antennae. They become, in the words of Graham Greene, better spies on the human experience.

The results are always amazing. Freed from the tyranny of their WIPs and under deadline to write something, they lock on an aspect of the image that moves them. And they always come up with really good stuff.  Afterwards, when we read them aloud, I see something change in their expressions, like they realize they do, indeed, have that spark inside them.

In college, I was an art major and I always struggled because I was hung up on making everything look…perfect. Even my attempts to be “modern” were perfect and thus lifeless. Then one of my teachers had us do blind contour drawing. We had to keep our eyes on the subject, never look at the sketch pad, and draw slowly and continuously without lifting the pencil. I was shocked at how good my drawing was. Psychologists call this right brain thinking. Picasso nailed it in one quote:

It takes a very long time to become young.

The idea being, of course, kids know instinctively how to create. We adults…well, the spark fades and most of us live in our left lobes, never finding the synapse that lights the way back across.

I just got back from a month in France. I didn’t write a word. I had been trying hard to begin this new book and I was bone dry and defeated. So I rested and read good books by other writers. And I took photographs. I have a thing about taking photos of people in cafes, especially old ladies with dogs, which is a human sub-species in France.  When I got home, while I was going through my pictures, I happened upon one and sat down and wrote an opening about it. It was pretty darn good. It won’t make it into the new book (maybe it’s a short story?) but it got my right brain buzzing again. I started thinking about the new book again, not with dread but with anticipation. I even got this picture in my head…

But that’s another story.

EXERCISE TIME!

Just for fun, while writing this post, I sent two of my old French lady photographs to some writer friends and asked them to choose a photograph and write an opening. Thanks guys! Here are the results:IMG_0469

The old woman watched the young man cross the plaza towards her. He looked very French — cream colored neck scarf, black blazer, black coiled hair, black jeans, his jaw brushed with just enough of a beard to give the impression he’d spent the last three days in bed with a woman. If she had known how beautiful he would grow up to be, how much he would one day resemble his father, she would not have given him away thirty years ago. — my sister and co-author Kelly

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They’re all I have now that Jacques is gone. I think they miss him as much as I do, but we persevere. At least I know why it happened. Dogs, they do not understand. — SJ Rozan.

 

 

 

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The old woman came to the cafe every morning promptly at nine. She always had the morning newspaper in her right hand, and a blue bag with her small dog in it over her left shoulder. She walked in, spread the paper out on the table, and placed the bag containing the dog on the chair next to her– always the one on the right. The dog never barked, never growled, and never bothered anyone. Her order rarely varied: always a cup of black coffee, sometimes orange juice as well, with a toasted muffin with strawberry jelly, please, and a pat of butter — but she never failed to order a side of bacon for the dog, whose name was Pierre. She would feed him the bacon, cooing his name and gently scratching him behind the ears. Once the bacon was gone, Pierre would curl up inside his carrier and go to sleep while she enjoyed her newspaper and sipped her coffee, tearing the muffin to small pieces. She smelled of lilacs, always left a five dollar tip, and was always gone by ten.— Greg Herren

 

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What an ugly fucking dog, I thought, and even more unhappy than ugly. I wondered how it felt to be shoved into the old lady’s purse like that, like a spare Euro or used tissues as she shoved foie gras down her pie hole. I don’t know, maybe I was reading into it. I probably was. Wouldn’t be the first time. I was the unhappy one. Maybe the dog was Zen about it all, the foie gras eating and the bag. Like I said, I don’t know. But I couldn’t help hoping the dog would leave a present in the old lady’s purse. – Reed Farrel Coleman

 

 

What I found revealing about this exercise is that in each example you can hear the unique voice of each writer. Kelly loves to focus on lost relationships. SJ Rozan’s is just like her books, as lean but emotion-laden as a haiku. Greg’s reflects the same gentleness and attention to detail as his books. And Reed’s — well, if you have read his Moe Prager series, or his new bestselling Robert B. Parker Jesse Stone books, you’ve hear the same gritty authority at work.

Just for fun, go ahead and take your turn. Pick one of the lady pictures and write an opening. Don’t over-think it. Don’t take too long. You might surprise yourself. And if you’ll let me, here is one more picture of an old lady and her dogs in a cafe. (My husband took this one…)  A bientôt, mes amis.

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4+

You Have to Work Hard
To Write This Badly

 

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By PJ Parrish

It is a dark and stormy night. Really.

So in honor of the Erika remnant thunderstorm that is dumping its load on us down here in South Florida tonight, I got inspired and decided I had to go there…

Yes, we have to talk about bad novel openings. Now, we’ve had some really good posts lately about good openings. But it’s time to for me to get down and dirty and show you some examples of some really really really bad opening paragraphs. And for once, I am going to name names because these writers deserve the exposure.

Let’s start with this opening by a writer named Tom Billings, who lives in Minneapolis:

John thought of Kate and smiled – with any luck the tide would carry her body out to deeper water by nightfall.

And how about this gem by Belgian novelist Miriam Nys:

Walking through the northernmost souk of Marrakech, that storied and cosmopolitan city so beloved of voyagers wishing to shake the desert dust off their feet, Peter bought a French-language newspaper and realized, with dizzying dismay, that “Camille” can be a man’s name.

And then there’s this from Margo Coffman:

If Vicky Walters had known that ordering an extra shot of espresso in her grande non-fat one pump raspberry syrup soy latte that Wednesday would lead to her death and subsequent rebirth as a vampire, she probably would have at least gotten whipped cream.

What in the world were these people thinking? That they’d win an award or something?Well, they did. They are all winners or runners-up in this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

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Surely, you remember Edward Bulwer-Lytton? He was an English novelist, poet, playwright, and politician (B: 1873). In his day, he was immensely popular with the reading public and got rich from a steady stream of bestselling novels. He coined the phrases “the great unwashed” “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and the infamous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night.” Here’s his infamous opening in full, by the way:

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.”

{{{A moment of awed silence}}}

Back to our present winners. The contest has been going on for 33 years now, and as the website states, the rules are “childishly simple.” Just craft a really bad ONE SENTENCE opening line in one of many genres that include crime fiction, romance, fantasy and even kid lit. You’d think that after three decades of cheese, things might start turning stale. Wrongo, brie-breath. This year’s crop of winners is, as Spencer Tracy would say, cherse.

The grand prize winner of the 33rd edition of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is Dr. Joel Phillips of West Trenton, New Jersey. According to the contest website, Joel teaches music theory and composition at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He lives in West Trenton with his wife and their three cats, gardens with gusto, and enjoys listening to his rock-star bassist son’s original songs. He can tell you when René Magritte painted “The Castle of the Pyrenees” but not when someone is off sides in soccer.He also purposefully viewed the film “Ishtar” more than once. Here is his winning entry:

Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT Officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene when there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.

God, that’s good.

I love this contest. Almost as much as I love the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. (Sorry, you’ll have to wait until December for me to weigh in on that one). Because you know, you really have to be a good writer to write badly on purpose. It’s like Lucille Ball. In I Love Lucy, she was infamously tone-deaf. But in real life, she was a pretty decent singer.

I sort of understand this. I can’t sing a lick, but for teaching purposes, I often show “before and after” writing examples because it’s easier to see your mistakes if you can see different ways to fix things. The problem is, I will never embarrass another writer in public, so Kelly and I often have to make up “before” examples for our workshops. And you know something? It’s not as easy as you would think.

For example, here is a “before” sample from one of our PowerPoints on the subject of Show Not Tell, that Kelly made up:

She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.

It’s okay, adequate. But here is the “after” version, as it actually appears in one of our books.

She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.

Here’s another example of bad writing we wrote:

“Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, it’s been about two months.”
“That long, eh?”
“Yeah.”
“What you been up to?” he asked.
“I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much. Then I met Sally.”
“Oh really?”

The point we were trying to teach here is to not waste dialogue on dumb stuff, that even though we are told that dialogue is the lifeblood of good writing, sometimes, simple narrative is more effective. Here is the “after” version:

He hadn’t seen Joe for two months. He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures.

But enough serious stuff. let’s go back to our contest winners. I’d like to share some of my favorites. You can find the whole list of winners by clicking HERE. Take a bow, good bad writers!

Grand Prize Runner up Grey Harlowe of Salem, OR

“We can’t let the dastards win,” said Piper Bogdonovich to her fellow gardener, Mr. Sidney Beckworth Hammerstein, as she clenched her gloved hands into gnarly fists, “because if I have to endure another year after which my Royal Puffin buttercups come in second place to Marsha Engelstrom’s Fainting Dove Tear Drop peonies, I will find a machine gun and leave my humanity card in the Volvo.”

Crime Fiction Runner Up from Laura Ruth Loomis:

When the corpse showed up in the swimming pool, her dead bosoms bobbing up and down like twin poached eggs in hollandaise sauce, Randy decided to call the police as soon as he finished taking pictures of his breakfast and posting them on Facebook.

Here’s my personal favorite in the crime fiction category, from E. David Moulton:

The janitor’s body lay just within the door, a small puncture wound below his right ear made with a long thin screwdriver, the kind electricians use and can often be found in the bargain bin at the hardware store and come with a pair of cheap wire cutters that you never use because they won’t cut wire worth a damn and at best will only put a small indent in the wire so you at least bend it back and forth until it breaks.

And because I have never met a bad pun I didn’t love, I will end with my favorite from the Bad Pun Category. God bless you Matthew Pfeifer of Beaman Iowa, you made my day.

Old man Dracula forgot to put his teeth in one night, so had to come home hungry, with a sort of “nothing dentured, nothing veined” look on his face.

Postscript!  I just realized that Friday marked my third anniversary here at TKZ. Time has whizzed by!  So thank you, Kathryn and Joe for inviting me in, thank you to my fellow bloggers for the camaraderie and really thank you to all you crime dogs out there who keep us going and contribute to our conversation.  Even you lurkers. Take it away, Lucy!

7+

Finding the Right Door
to Enter Your Story

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“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

By PJ Parrish

I had a whole ‘nother blog in the works today but Clare’s post yesterday on common amateur mistakes made me want to switch gears. That, and the fact that I was hearing voices in my head the other day and this is a good way to exorcise them.

A while back, I gave a talk to a beginning writers group about what makes for a great opening in a novel. We had a good time analyzing which of their openings had promise or why they had veered off track. It’s a popular topic, as we at TKZ here so well know, but I think it’s one that we all need to revisit constantly. Me included.

See, the other day, as I was pounding around the jogging oval at the park, I heard a strange voice whispering in my head. I had never heard her before, but she was insistent: “Tell my story! Tell my story!” I tried to ignore her, because as Kelly and I await the Sept. 9 launch of our new book SHE’S NOT THERE, we are 16 chapters into a new Louis Kincaid. And one of the commandments of novel writing is Thou Shall Finish One Book Before Starting a New One. But this woman wouldn’t shut up, so I went home and banged out 2,000 words. Wow! I never get out of the gate that fast! I was chuffed.

Well, I re-read it yesterday. Wee-doggies, it stinks. I open with a woman sitting alone in a fishing boat in the Everglades. She is thinking about her life and what brought her to this point. She is sad. She is regretful. She is boring as hell. I also larded in pages of description of the saw grass, the weather, the clouds, the water, even the type of fishing lure she was using. Finally, toward the 2,000-word mark, I reveal she is a Miami homicide detective who turned in her badge when her husband and child were killed in a drug deal gone bad that she was involved in.

This morning, I deleted the chapter. Lesson number 1: Just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you should act on it. Lesson number 2: Even experienced writers have trouble with openings.

Even Stephen King. You think you sweat bullets over openings? He says he spends months and even years before he finds his footing. I read this recently in an interview King gave to The Atlantic magazine. He talks at length about what makes for a great opening, and how hard it is for him to find the right one.

When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.

And he makes a great point, that the right opening line is as important to the writer as it is to the reader:

You can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s 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.

Which is why I deep-sixed my woman in the fishing boat. Maybe her story does need to be told, but I entered via the wrong door. I’m going to set her aside for a while. In the meantime, I am going back to school. Want to come along?

HOOKS

Enthuse or lose! What was the prime crime of my bad chapter? NOTHING HAPPENED! The first chapter is where your reader makes decision to enter your world. Your hook needn’t be too fast or fancy. It can even be quiet — like someone going on a fishing or hunting trip (see example below!).  But it must be suspenseful enough to makes us care about your character. Fancy hooks can be disappointing if what follows doesn’t measure up. If you begin at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill. Also, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you might just make the reader mad.

What about opening with action scenes? I’ve seen it work well; I’ve seen it look silly. I think intense action scenes work only if they have context and reason for happening. Car chase, bullets fly, things explode, dead bodies! But unless you give reader reason to care about someone, it feels cheap and pushy, like a Roger Moore James Bond movie. If you can make us CARE about the person during intense opening action scene, yes. If not, it’s boring and trite.

OPENING LINES

A good one gives you intellectual line of credit from the reader: “Wow, that line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.” A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. One of my fave’s is from Hemingway’s story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:  “It was lunch now and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. But if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up.  Stephen King has two favorite opening lines. One is from James M. Cain’s great novel The Postman Always Rings Twice:  “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”  Here’s King on why he loves it:

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious. This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do.”

GET INTO STORY AS LATE AS POSSIBLE

This is one of my pet peeves about bad writing…throat clearing. Begin your story just moments before the interesting stuff is about to happen. You want to create tension as early as possible in your story and escalate from there. Don’t give the reader too much time to think about whether they want to go along on your ride. Get them buckled in and get them moving. Preferably not in bass boat.

INTRODUCE THE PROTAGONIST

Another pet peeve of mine. Don’t wait too late in the story to introduce your hero. Don’t give the early spotlight to a minor character because whoever is at the helm in chapter one is who the reader will automatically want to follow. I call these folks “spear carriers” after the guys who stand in the background holding the spears in “Aida.”  They aren’t allowed to steal the spotlight when Radamès is belting out Celeste Aida. So don’t let your secondary characters get undue attention or the reader will feel betrayed and annoyed when you shift the spotlight.

IDENTIFY THE CONFLICT OR QUEST

Begin the book with conflict. Big, small, physical, emotional, whatever. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama. Conflict is interesting. Your first chapter is not a straight horizontal line. It’s a jagged driveway leading up a dark mountainside. Don’t put a woman in a fishing boat in the Everglades thinking about how crappy her life is and expect the reader to care.

WHAT IS AT STAKE HERE?

What is at play in the story? What are the costs? What can be gained, what can be lost? Love? Money? One’s soul? Will someone die? Can someone be saved? The first chapter doesn’t demand that you spell out the stakes of the entire book in neon but we do need a hint. And we don’t care that her fishing lure is a 1-ounce jig with a bulky trailer.

CREATE A DRAMATIC ARC

Your whole book has an arc, but every chapter should have a mini-arc. Ask yourself “What is the purpose of this chapter?” and then build your chapter around that. This does not mean each chapter needs a conclusion but it needs to feel complete unto itself even as it compels the reader onto the next chapter. The opening chapter should have its own rise and fall. It is not JUST A LAUNCHING PAD!

GET YOUR CHARACTERS TALKING

Dialogue is the lifeblood of your story and you need it early. Too much exposition or description is like driving a car with the emergency brake on. Likewise, don’t bog down your opening with characters doing menial things. Like fishing. Or thinking about boring stuff. Like fishing lures. Here’s some good advice from agent Peter Miller that I read once on Chuck Sambuchino’s Writer’s Digest blog: “My biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition, when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”

SO DOES THAT MEAN  I SHOULD OPEN WITH DIALOGUE?

This goes to personal taste. I’m not a fan of it, but I have seen it pulled off. But be careful because opening with dialogue tosses the reader into the deep end of the fictional pool with no tethering in time and place. This is like waking up from a coma. Where am I? Who are these people talking? I could be wrong because I haven’t read them all, but even Dialogue Demon Elmore Leonard gives you a quick couple lines or graphs first. (Okay, I’m wrong: LaBrava opens with “He’s been taking pictures three years, look at the work,” Maurice said.) But if your dialogue only leads to confusion, that isn’t good. Which relates to…

ESTABLISH YOUR SETTING AND TIME FRAME

The first chapter must establish the where and the when of the story, just so the reader isn’t flailing around. Yes, you can use time and place taglines, especially if your story is wide in geographic scope or bouncing around in time. But if your story is fairly linear and compact (taking place, say, all within six months time in Memphis), sticking a time tag on each chapter only makes you look like you don’t know how to gracefully slip this info into your narrative.

ESTABLISH YOUR TONE AND MOOD

First impressions matter. From the get-go, your reader should be able to tell what kind of book he is reading – hardboiled, romantic suspense, humorous, neo-noir? Yes, the cover and copy conveys this, but you need to convey it in your opening. Everything in your book should support your tone, but the first chapter is vital to inducing an emotional effect in your reader. I’ve mentioned Edgar Allan Poe’s Unity of Effect often here but it’s worth repeating: Every element of a story should help create a single emotional impact. But remember that a little mood goes a long way – think of a few swift and colorful brush strokes rather than gobs of thick paint.  Did you know that in the Everglades, intense daytime heating of the ground causes the warm moist tropical air to rise, creating the afternoon thundershowers? And that most of the storms happen at 2 p.m.? I should have just wrote “It rained in the afternoon.”

MAKE YOUR VOICE LOUD AND CLEAR

This is where you are introducing your story but also yourself as a writer. Your language must be crisp, you must be in complete control of your craft, you must be original! Shorter is usually better. No florid language or indulgent description, no bloated passages, no slack in the rope. The reader must feel he is being led by a calm, confident storyteller. See quote about by Stephen King about James M. Cain.

BACKSTORY AND EXPOSITION

The first chapter is not the place to tell us everything. Don’t be like a child overturning his bucket of toys — then it’s just a colorful clamor, an overindulgence of information. Exposition kills drama. Backstory is boring. Give us a reason to care about that stuff before you start droning on and on about it. Incorporating backstory is hard work, but you must weave it artfully into the story not give us an info-dump chapter 1.

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To end, let’s go back to Stephen King. So we know he admires James M. Cain. But what is his all-time favorite opening line? It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s novel Shoot. Here’s the set-up: A group of middle-aged guys, all war vets, are on a hunting trip. As they come to a riverbank, they spot another group of guys, much like themselves, on the other side. Without any provocation, one of the hunters on the opposite bank raises his rifle and fires at the first group, wounding one man. Reflexively, one of the first group returns fire, blowing the shooter’s head apart. The opening line: “This is what happened.”

And here is King on why he loves it:

“This has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s 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. A line like “This is what happened,” doesn’t actually say anything–there’s zero action or context — but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.

King loves it so much, he echoed it in the opening of of his own novel Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.”  And guess what? It’s his own favorite opening. Which is a good place to end, I think.

 

21+

Indie Book Store Confidential

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Editor’s note: Kris is up in the wilds of Northern Michigan helping her sister Kelly move into a new condo. She is busy painting the kitchen so Kelly is stepping in today. All these stories are true but the customers’ names have been withheld for obvious reasons.

It was a dark and snowy night. I was working the late shift all alone at Horizon Books in Traverse City. The cavernous store was as empty and quiet as Al Capone’s vault. The windows dripped with sweaty heat. Across the street, the red neon sign of the Milk and Honey Ice Cream shop beat blood-red, like a broken heart.

I was leaning on the counter, reading a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I only cracked it open because it was my job to know what’s hot and I always did my job. But I was only twenty pages in and I was already tired of characters named Thomas.

Suddenly, the air turned cold, sashaying over me like a discarded mink stole. I saw a dame standing near the door. Red heels, silk stockings, red skirt and a high-collared leopard fur coat with a matching hat, cocked with sass. She wasn’t young but I could tell she had paid a lot of money to have folks think otherwise.

Her baby blues jumped left and right and her red lips pursed slightly as she approached the counter. I knew what she was going to ask for. I knew because not only is it my job to know what’s hot, I got a knack for knowing exactly what people want.

She was an easy read. Before she ever reached the counter, I discreetly reached into what we at the store called “The Case.” The Case is where we keep the VHS Porn Movie Guide, Cannabis Culture magazines, Naked Art Books, the Karma Sutra, and a handful of other titles low-lifes have a tendency to sticky-finger out the door.

I wrapped my hand around the slick spine of a trade pulp and laid it silently on the counter. The dame blushed and reached her for dough. It cost her sixteen Washingtons, all shades of green, but I had a feeling that she would’ve paid fifty, one dollar for each shade of Grey.
Then she was gone into the white confetti of the Michigan night, just one of a hundred happy Horizon readers, eager to experience literary new worlds.

I was just being introduced to yet another Thomas in Wolf Hall when the door opened again. This time, it wasn’t milk and honey but milk and cookies. Shirley Temple with red hair and Sock Monkey mittens. She could barely see over the counter.

“Do you have Mable Makes a Move by Anne Mazer?”

I love little kids who read. There are so few nowadays. I punched at a keyboard that was so old it looked brushed with fingerprint dust, and scrolled through our 1990s WordStock system for the title. Yeah, the computer’s as old as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but hey, it works. And indie bookstores don’t have much cash flow. Nothing came up. Section 904 -– younger young adult — is not my area of expertise. I’m a hard-boiled kind of clerk.

“Is that part of a series?” I asked.

She gave me the How-dumb-are-you? eye roll. “It’s the Sister Magic series. Book Six. Anne Mazer. M-a-z-e-r.”

Feeling a hundred years old, I strolled to the 904 aisle to get the book for Miss Sassy Pants. But I found myself standing there in a maze of pink and purple books, all with glittery spines and little blonde girls and unicorns on the covers.

“There it is,” the girl said as she snatched the book from the shelf. She was back at the counter with the exact change before I could bag her up.

“You’ll enjoy that book,” I say to make conversation as she counted her pennies.

“It’s not for me,” she said. “It’s for my younger sister. I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. It’s very old but holds up well. Thank you.”

I sighed in satisfaction as I watched her go, amazed and hopeful for the next generation. Finding the right book for the right reader is the best part of my job. But that’s only part of what goes on in an independent bookstore.

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

We all wear many fedoras here. We shelve new arrivals and ship out the flash-in-the pan hardcovers when they fall off the NYT list. We find impossible-to-find out of print titles for discerning readers. We babysit authors for signings, from the local geezer who wrote a fly-fishing guide to the likes of Steve Hamilton and Mardi Link. We tote books to business luncheons, library fund raisers and school carnivals. And yeah, we make coffee, too. Some of us even know latte art.

You learn a lot working behind the scenes. Some things you might not want to know, like what’s really in a Jimmy Dean sausage. But if you want the dope on how you, as an author, can get the “bulge” (advantage) when working with an indie store, well, maybe this hardboiled old bookseller can give you some hints:

1. Don’t piss off the Author Events Manager.
2. Do not bring in consignment books without being asked.
3. When you first approach the Events Manager, please arrive with sufficient materials in hand so the manager knows what the book is about. A copy of the book might be good.
4. Do not call every Sunday and ask how many books you sold this week.
5. Do not show up late for your event. Maybe, just maybe, people might be waiting.
6. Don’t be a stump. Most events will not require you speak to a group. Your first store events will be done at a table, behind a pile of books. STAND UP. Talk to people, and smile. Have postcards or flyers with a synopsis and let the customer walk away and read your stuff. Pretty good chance they will come back and buy. Flyers can be printed at home!
7. If your book is non-returnable, do not expect your bookstore to carry it on any basis but consignment. You bring it in and get paid only if you sell one.
8. If your book is consignment, do not be surprised if your local store refuses to carry it or do an event. It’s just the way it is. However, even if your book is from Createspace, if it has local interest, many stores are very likely to not only carry it, but actively promote it.
9. If you visit your bookstore as a reader, do not ask a salesperson to look up a book and when you find out the store does not have it but can order it for you, do not tell them you are going to go home and order it from Amazon, where you can get it cheaper. You might find yourself with a boot up your butt as you go out the door.
10. Remember that the folks who work in indie bookstores usually are there because they really love books. And writers. But remember that they are human and just might be having a bad day at the latte machine or just had to deal with a really dicey customer.

Which brings me back to that dark and snowy night. It was near closing and I had already done most my duties: run out the stragglers, reshelved the books people sat and read for eight hours, cleaned the coffee bar, took out the trash, and rolled the pennies for the day shift.

I was this close to a clean getaway when another cold blast of air made me look to the front door.

The kid was standing there wet and bedraggled. As he slurped over toward me, I saw the piercing in his nose and the desperation in his eyes.

“I need a book,” he whispered.

I had already locked up The Case and wasn’t about to open it for another would-be weed farmer.

“We got books,” I said.

“I need it for school,” the kid said. “It’s called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The kid looked like he didn’t have the strength to go get it himself, so I hopped over, came back and slid the slender paperback across the counter. He stared at it like it was a dead walleye.

“Is this hard stuff?” he asked.

“Not too bad.” I paused, feeling a moment of pity for this pathetic creature. “You seen the movie?” I asked.

His eyes brightened. “There’s a movie?”

“Yeah, it’s a little dated but it’s good and has a powerful message on the mental health system in America.”

The light left his eyes.

“Hey, you can’t go wrong with Jack Nicholson,” I said.

“Who’s he?”

I shook my head and picked up the wad of crumbled bills the kid had set on the counter. I bagged up his book and sent him back out into the night, locking the door behind him. I watched him until he disappeared into the swirling snow.

Life wore a man out, wore a man thin. Tomorrow would be a better day.

I pulled the string on the light and the neon – BOOKS! OPEN! – sign went silent.

7+

Everything I Ever Learned
I Learned From Potboilers

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers.

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” — William Styron

By PJ Parrish
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and like a plant with shallow roots, I was always sending out feelers toward solid ground. I found it in libraries. I couldn’t always count on having the same address every year, the same classroom or even the same friends for very long. But I always could count on finding old faces and familiar places in the local library.

Paradoxically, it was in libraries where my love of exotic places and travel was born. No matter what was going on in my little life, I could escape to somewhere else by opening a book. My library card was my first passport.

Novels took me around the world, but they also taught me things — about history, religion, politics, philosophy, human psychology, medicine, outer space – filling in the gaps left by my spotty education. Even after I went to college, made my own money and settled down, novels remained my autodidact keys.

I learned about the American Revolution through John Jake’s Kent Family Chronicles. I studied medieval Japan through James Clavell’s Shogun. I was able to wrap my brain around the complex politics of Israel and Ireland after reading Leon Uris. James Michener taught me about Hawaii and Edna Ferber took me to Texas. Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series sorted out the Church of England for me. Ayn Rand made me want to be an architect for a while, or maybe a lady reporter who wore good suits. (I skimmed over the political stuff.)

And Arthur Hailey taught me to never buy a car that was made on a Monday.

I got to thinking about Hailey and all the others this week for two reasons: First, was an article I read in the New York Times about the Common Core teaching controversy (more on that later). The second reason was that while pruning my bookshelves, I found an old copy of The Moneychangers. This was one of Hailey’s last books, written after he had become famous for Hotel, Wheels, and that quintessential airport book Airport. I interviewed Hailey in 1975 when he was touring for The Moneychangers. I remember him as sweet and patient with a cub reporter and he signed my book “To Kristy Montee, Memento of a Pleasant Meeting.”

I had read all his other books, especially devouring Wheels, which was set in the auto industry of my Detroit hometown. Hailey, like Michener, Clavell, Uris et al, wrote long, research-dense novels that moved huge, often multi-generation casts of characters across sprawling stages of exotic locales (Yes, Texas qualifies). Hawaii, which spans hundreds of years, starts with this primordial belch:

Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principle features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.

How could you not read on after that? But the main reason I loved these books was for their bright promise of cracking open the door on something secret. Here’s some cover copy from Hailey’s The Moneychangers:

Money. People. Banking. This fast-paced, exciting novel is the “inside” story of all three. As timely as today’s headlines, as revealing as a full-scale investigation.

Shoot, that could be copy written for Joseph Finder now.

Many of these books were sniffed off as potboilers in their day. (Though Michener and Ferber both won Pulitzer Prizes). But the writers were, to a one, known for their meticulous research techniques. Hailey spent a full year researching his subject (he read 27 books about the hotel industry), then six months reviewing his notes and, finally, about 18 months writing the book. Michener lived in each of his locales, read and interviewed voraciously, and collected documents, music, photographs, maps, recipes, and notebooks filled with facts. He would paste pages from the small notebooks, along with clippings, photos and other things he had collected into larger notebooks. Sort of an early version of Scrivener.

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For my money, these books were a potent blend of entertainment and information, and they endure today as solid examples for novelists on how to marry research with storytelling. In his fascinating non-fiction book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall analyzes what commonalities can be found in mega-selling books. One of the criteria is large doses of information that make readers believe they are getting the inside scoop, especially of a “secret” society. The Firm peeks into the boardrooms of Harvard lawyers. The Da Vinci Code draws back the curtain on the Catholic Church. Those and all the books I cited delivered one thing in spades — the feeling we are learning something while being entertained.

Which brings me to Common Core.

This is an educational initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. I read this week that as part of the Common Core mandate, English teachers must balance each novel they teach with “fact” material –news articles, textbooks, documentaries, maps and such.

So ninth graders reading The Odyssey must also read the G.I. Bill of Rights. Eight graders reading Tom Sawyer also get an op-ed article on teen unemployment. The standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what English students read must be supplemental non-fiction, and by 12th grade, that goes up to 70 percent.

Now, I’m not going to dig into the politics of this. (You can read the Times article here.) And I applaud anything that gets kids reading at all. What concerns me is that in an effort to stuff as much information and facts into kids’ heads, we might not be leaving room for the imagination to roam free. As one mom (whose fifth-grade son came home in tears after having to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), put it, “If you look at the standards and what they say, nowhere in there does it say, ‘kill the love of reading.’”

One more thing, I then I’ll shut up:

There was a study done at Emory University last year that looked at what happens to the brain when you read a novel. At night, volunteers read 30-page segments of Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii then the next morning got MRIs. After 19 days of finishing the novel and morning MRIs, the results revealed that reading the novel heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Reading the novel also heightened connectivity in “embodied semantics,” which means the readers thought about the action they were reading about. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.

“The neural changes that we found…suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Maybe those poor eighth graders just need to crack open some Jean Auel, SE Hinton or Cassandra Clare.

17+

Blurring the Lines
Between Heroes and Villains

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“Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.” — Roger Ebert

By P.J. Parrish

You think it’s hard to find a good man? Try finding a really bad one.

I’ve been looking for bad men for more than fourteen years now. I’d say my sister Kelly and I are somewhat of experts on the subject of men with, ah…issues. Over the course of our thirteen-novel career, we’ve encountered every kind of twisted, tortured, miserable example of the male species you can imagine.

But they’re our villains and we…well, I won’t say we love them but we do lavish a lot of attention on them. And we need to confess something right now –- it is getting harder and harder to make bad guys good.  Or bad women, for that matter.

Great antagonists loom large in literature. Imagine Othello without his Iago, A Clockwork Orange without the deranged Alex Delarge or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness without Kurtz. Where would Harry Potter be without Voldemort, or Dr. Jekyll without Mr. Hyde? And Milton didn’t lose Paradise without a big push from Satan.

Within the thriller genre, the villain is almost as important as the hero. And creating a truly original villain is one of our prime challenges, mainly because readers are savvy. They’ve read all the good books, seen all the forensic shows, and can smell a Hannibal Lector rip-off a mile away. We’ve always worked hard to make our villains full-bodied characters, especially when we delve into the serial killer sub-genre, which can be cliché quicksand. In reality, most criminals are as dumb as stumps. But the fiction writer’s task is to create a villain who is a worthy adversary for the hero, and in the best of our genre the villain is as complex and textured as the protagonist.

As Roger Ebert recognized, heroes and villains tend to repeat from film to film. It’s the same with mysteries and thrillers. Our fields have been tilled by so many great (and not-so-great) writers, that it’s gotten harder to create truly unique protagonists and antagonists. Just this week I started a new book by a well-known thriller writer but somewhere south of page 100, I was beset with déjà vu. No, I hadn’t read this specific book before (Yeah, I have been stupid enough to do that!) But I had read it a hundred times before by other writers.  It was the same old cop chasing the same old bad guy for the same old reasons. It gave me sympathy for agents and editors and how they must feel when they read the hundreds of queries and manuscripts they get every day. Been there, read that, bought the t-shirt. (But not the book).

img-thingI got to thinking about good villains the other night during a bout of sleeplessness, and while channel surfing happened caught The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a nifty screen adaption (directed by Anthony Minghella) of Patricia Highsmith’s great book. I like both versions for different reasons but mostly for the portrait of the title character. In a way, Ripley is both protagonist and antagonist, in that the story centers around his arc but he also lies and murders in cold blood to get what he wants.

Ripley is smart and a quick study, but he is hollow of heart and soul. In the book, Highsmith sketches out his painful childhood as an orphan, berated by a mean aunt. But the author is more concerned with Ripley the sociopathic chameleon who will assume any shape to get what he wants. There is some of this in the movie, but Matt Damon’s character is more pathetic than lethal, desperate to fit into the world of the rich. You almost get the feeling the Matt Damon Ripley could change — if only he could find someone to love him despite his black heart. (Which he does…but even that doesn’t work out too well.) Highsmith’s Ripley is a serial killer who over the course of four more books continues his amoral ways and keeps one step ahead of the law.  (I’ve just downloaded the second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground where in Tom has resurfaced in France. I’m headed there soon I like to read books set where I am on vacation.)

Partly, I am going back to Ripley because I have an idea for a new book that will depend very heavily on the villain. I want to read Highsmith to see how she did it — sustain a compelling story centered not around a sympathetic traditional protagonist but his polar opposite.

The Killing SongI think we were moving toward this kind of book with our stand alone thriller THE KILLING SONG. We gave equal weight to our protagonist and our antagonist. They each had their own character arc and themes, as well. Theme and character go hand and hand for me. Whenever we start a new book, Kelly and I immediately begin searching for our themes because we believe they are the underground railroads upon which a plot runs — and they illuminate character. In THE KILLING SONG, the theme for our hero Matt Owens is: What happens when you only look away for a moment? His beloved sister disappears from a Miami nightclub when he looks away but the theme has a deeper meaning as Matt pursues her killer.

But we also had a theme for our villain, which emerged from the juxtaposition of beauty and degeneration. We decided our villain would be a classical musician, a man of grace and refined taste living in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We wanted to contrast the beauty of his “upper” world with the horrors of his “lower” world of serial murder. Laurent Demarais was a violinist in our first draft but became a cellist when we realized the cello’s deeper tone just seemed to fit his personality.

Like Tom Ripley, some of his demons were born in childhood. Laurent’s father was an acclaimed conductor who pushed his son so mercilessly to become a prodigy that the beauty of music became twisted, and then a second childhood trauma planted the seed for his evil that took two decades to mature.  Part of the plot for Matt is uncovering the clues from Laurent’s childhood so he can better understand the monster he is now hunting.

But beyond childhood, we had to ask the hard question we ask of every character we create: What does Laurent want? I think this is the most important thing a writer asks herself as she goes along. If you don’t know what your characters want you can’t really articulate on the page what their motivations are. I think of this “want” as coming in layers that move from the most superficial: the hero wants to find the bad guy; to the most complex: He wants to find his own true identity. I wrote about this in length a while back. You can find the post HERE. 

On the superficial level, Laurent wants to kill. But trying to figure out what he wanted in the deepest parts of his soul — yes, even villains have them, though black and withered they may be — helped us plumb his psychological depths and make him less a cardboard monster. Laurent Demarais wears a mask of sanity. I wish I could say that is my phrase but it is the title of a great book about psychopaths written in 1941 by a doctor named Hervey Cleckley. He concluded that killers can seem sincere, intelligent, even charming. But beneath that lies a heart incapable of human emotion.

Even today, seventy years later, that mask of sanity is a great description for the classic villain whether in reality (Ted Bundy) or art. (Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or even Hal the computer in 2001 Space Odyssey. I’m sure you can think of many other examples.)

FINAL COVERIn our new book SHE’S NOT THERE, (comes out Sept. 6 but is now available for pre-orders), we don’t have a traditional villain. There is no obvious struggle between good and evil, no ticking clock, no creep stalking a family at their cabin, no Dr. Evil trying to rule the world. It’s psychological suspense, which meant for us that all “action” had to emerge completely from character motivation. James N. Frey (author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel) calls psychological thrillers a style, rather than a subgenre. He says that good thrillers focus on the psychology of their antagonists and build suspense slowly through ambiguity. If you’re a regular here, you know how much I like ambiguity. (Link HERE).

She’s Not There was very hard to write. Not only does it have an unreliable narrator (Yeah, I loved Shutter Island, too.) It was hard to write because we couldn’t rely on the old tropes of serial killers, pebbled glass PI heroes, or power gone wild to build tension.  When the tension sagged, we couldn’t just fling another corpse onto the page. The story’s theme is: What happens to you when you drift downward into living an inauthentic life? Almost all my characters are struggling with this, pulled down by dark secrets and disappointments, and they are all fighting to break back to the surface and breathe again. Yes, people die. Yes, there are creepy moments, high tension, even a cross-country chase.

But my villain?  He’s not there. At least in the conventional sense. You won’t be able to spot him by his black hat. You won’t see him lurking in the shadows or toting an Uzi.  He’s hiding in plain sight, deep inside each of my characters, even the good ones. And for a long time, you don’t know if the good guy is really the bad guy. Or vice versa. Or both.

 

10+

Want to Be a Writer?
First Be a Mensch

By PJ Parrish

After almost two decades as a crime novelist, working in a business that has seen head-spinning turmoil, I’ve found there is one thing that never seems to change — the menschness of my fellow writers.

I’m pretty sure that menschness is not a word. But maybe it should be. Because what I am trying to describe goes beyond friendliness, kindness and even camaraderie. Sure, you can find all those traits in our community. But the thing that always strikes me when I mingle at conferences, sit on panels or hoist a pinot at the hotel bar is the down-to-earth nice-guy attitudes of my fellow crime dogs.

Okay, I just went and looked up mensch so you don’t have to:

Mensch (מענטש) a Yiddish word that means “a person of integrity.” A mensch is someone who is responsible, has a sense of right and wrong and is the sort of person other people look up to. First known use 1856. In English the word has come to mean “a good guy.”

I have met lots of mensches in the mystery world. Folks who were kind to me in the beginning and gave me advice or a blurb. Big-time writers who, as Lee Child once put it, once they climb high don’t forget to reach down and pull others up a rung. Fellow mid-list authors who shared my pain and talked me off ledges. Beginning writers who sent me thank you notes for something I did or said.  With the exception of one super-successful bestselling toad-guy (who shall remain nameless here) most the people I’ve met along the way have been generous of spirit.

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MWA’s head mensch Margery Flax unpacking the Edgars before the banquet.

This point was driven home to me this past week when I went up to New York for the Edgar awards given out by Mystery Writers of America.  I’ve been chairing the banquet since 2007 and it has put me in touch with some of the biggest luminaries of our genre. (One reason I volunteer for the job!) Bear with me if I go alittle fan-girl here on you, but I want to talk about them, because sometimes us guys on the lower rungs tend to think those stars above us aren’t human.

Lee Child I met at the Las Vegas Bouchercon. During a cocktail party, I screwed up my courage and went over to introduce myself. He looked down at me (everyone does…I’m five-three and shrinking fast) and said, “You stole the title of my book, you know.” I’m standing there thinking WTF? Then Lee told me that his book One Shot had come out the same day as the MWA anthology, in which I had my first short story, “One Shot.”

“I forgive you,” Lee said. And he bought me a beer.

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Kelly and me flanking Mary Higgins Clark at our first Edgars.

Mary Higgins Clark I met at my first Edgar banquet when she came up to me when it was over and said that she had been attending the banquet for decades and this was the best one. She didn’t have to do that. But she’s a mensch.  This year, when I went to get my drink at the cocktail party, the bartender asked me in a whisper, “Is that Mary Higgins Clark over there? I’m her biggest fan.”  Wiping away visions of Misery, I took her over to meet her and Queen Mary was utterly charming.

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With Lisa Scottoline. then MWA prez.

Speaking of royalty, Lisa Scottoline is another good guy. The night she was emceeing the Edgars Prince William was getting married to Catherine Middleton. At the podium, Lisa wore a tiara in their honor. We’re both royalists and bonded over brain-lint on the Saxe-Coburg Gotha family line. Another mensch queen.

Which leads us to kings. Yeah, I got to meet him. It was my first Edgar job back in 2007 and Stephen King was named Grand Master. One of my duties was to greet him, make sure he got to interviews, a book signing and cocktail parties, and wasn’t mobbed in the Grand Hyatt lobby. I was nervous and tongue-tied. He took my hand and told me to relax. Last week, we met again because he was a Best Novel nominee. (He won for Mr. Mercedes). Not only did he remember my name, he asked what I was working on.

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I got to escort Stephen and his wife Tabitha to the nominee party, and when I walked in, you’d think I had the pope in tow. That pic is of me  (looking oddly dyspeptic) with Sara Paretsky and Brad Meltzer. As I watched King work the room (or rather the room work him), I was in awe of how unflaggingly gracious he was to everyone, no matter what their rank.

I wasn’t alone. Best nominee Ian Rankin tweeted: “Well, on the minus side I didn’t win the Edgar award – some young ruffian called Stephen King did. On the plus side I got to meet Mr King.”  From Best nominee (and one of my fave writers) Stuart Neville came this tweet: “I didn’t win the Edgar, but I got to meet Stephen King, who was very gracious in tolerating my fawning.”

Another true mensch is Brad Meltzer. I got to meet him when he was the GOH at SleuthFest and later when he was MWA president and emceed the banquet. He is funny, down-to-earth, and always has time to talk to you, no matter your status.

These are just a few of the good folks I’ve been lucky to meet. So many others have been kind to me on my way to this point in my career — Jerry Healy, Elaine Viets, James Hall, SJ Rozan, Steve Hamilton, William Kent Kreuger, Reed Farrel Coleman, Linda Fairstein, Mike Connelly, Stuart Kaminsky, Eleanor Taylor Bland, and John Gilstrap, who gave me my first blurb.

I wish I could remember who said this, but it was about what “class” was: The ability to make any other person comfortable, regardless of their status and your own. All the folks I’ve mentioned have it in spades. And after a sorta rough year, it was good to go back to New York and be reminded that no matter what winds buffet the book world, our community provides shelter and support.

But ours is a small family with long memories. So no matter where you are on the food chain, play well with others. This post was inspired by a blog I read the other day wherein the author Guy Kawasaki provides five tips on how to be a mensch. After the Edgars, I realized there are lessons in here for writers:

1. When someone has wronged you, continue to treat them with civility. For writers, don’t curl up and die at the easy slight. This happened to me years ago when a fellow writer said something not-so-nice to me in a conference bar. I stewed about it for a long time and finally decided to confront her. She apologized and said she was drunk and had been too embarrassed to bring it up. We’re friends now.

2. Give way more than you take. Volunteer to work at a conference. If you’re published, give someone a critique. Don’t just sit back and bitch; get involved. And if you are a blog lurker, don’t be shy about posting. No one wants to be that creepy guy at the party who sits silent in the corner and just watches. A good blog (like ours here at TKZ) is a conversation. It’s at its best when we all give something back. Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

3. Genuinely acknowledge others. If someone gets published, congratulate them, for God’s sake. If you owe someone a debt, put them in your acknowledgements. If you’re in a critique group, find something to praise. We all need praise. It is high octane fuel for the soul.

4. Embrace diversity.  If you read only light books with happy neat endings, read something dark and difficult. Or better yet, try to write it.  If you’ve never tried to write short stories, now’s the time. If nothing else you will find, as I did, that it’s not as easy as it looks. And lastly, don’t be a genre snob. If you write hardboiled noir, don’t look down your nose at cozies. (Chances are their royalty checks are bigger anyway). When I finally got around to going to Malice Domestic a few years ago, it was like being in a different world, sure, but I came to appreciate more deeply the writing of our less gritty brothers and sisters.

5. Default to kindness. In his blog, Kawasaki says the biggest deficit is not monetary—it is the lack of kindness in our interactions with others. You see this dynamic in action at any writer’s conference. We tend toward cliques. We gather with people of similar status. It’s like high school all over again. But you don’t have to give in to it. If you see someone sitting alone, gather them into your circle. If you are on a panel and someone is struggling, help them out. If you’re sharing an event or signing with someone, talk up their stuff along with your own. And if you ever find yourself in the same room as Stephen King, introduce yourself. He may keep a small boy’s heart in a jar on his desk, but he won’t bite your head off.

Be a mensch. And thank you for putting up with my fan girl pix.

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