How do you do what you do?
I don't know what readers are most surprised about when they discover who P.J. Parrish really is -- that we are women or that there are two of us. See, we get a lot of emails from readers who are just discovering us and many of the emails are variations on this theme:
I am a retired peace officer Santa Barbara County District Attorneys Office Chief Investigator). I recently discovered your books and have just finished my second one. I was very impressed with your knowledge of police procedure. I was also impressed with your black detective. You created a unique character and two great plots. Curiosity got the best of me and I went to your website to see if you were black. I was very surprised to find out that not only were you not black but that PJParrish is two white sisters. Your insight into law enforcement is terrific but your ability to present a black character with such understanding is really remarkable. Well done. I really enjoy your work. – Ralph Thomas, April 25, 2005
Our readers are okay with us being two old white Yankee women writing about a young black man from the South. But when they find out we are a writing team, they have trouble wrapping their brains around the idea. One lady told us that if she had known ahead of time our book was "written by committee" she never would have bought it. For the record, she enjoyed it. But she was confused because she "couldn't see the seams." I guess that is a compliment.
So, how do Kelly and I do it? That is the most common question we are asked. I'll try to explain the best I can. The lofty answer is that we share a common vision of what we want to accomplish with our books. We know the tone we are striving for, the dramatic arc of each story and arc of the entire series. We also know our character Louis Kincaid from his heart out. Everything we do is in service to this vision. And when you have that dynamic going, there's no room for ego.
Now, here is the less lofty answer. We do it with wine and Post-Its. Yeah, you heard me. Booze and little slips of gummy paper. See that picture above? That is Kelly hard at work on our latest book An Unquiet Grave, due out this coming February. I'm sure you can guess how wine enters our creative process. But what about Post-Its?
Here's how it works: We start with a doughball of an idea, then we roll it out into a concept (we don't do complete outlines anymore). Then we work about 3-5 chapters ahead using a template of each chapter's purpose(s). We choose "assignments" (ie. I might take the opening scene-setter chapters, description and narrative; Kelly favors action scenes and dialogue). We write down each chapter's main points on Post-Its and stick them on our big boards. Each Post-It is one major scene -- kind of like how Katherine Anne Porter once described her way of writing as creating scene islands and then building bridges of transitions to connect them. Since we live in separate states, we each keep a Post-It board going. We write our chapters, exchange them over AOL and edit each other.
But once a year, as we sprint madly for the finish line, Kelly comes down to my place in Fort Lauderdale and we do the hard work of finishing and rewriting. That's when our Post-Its really come into play. We then switch to three-color system. The Yellows are for major plot points. Blue is for backstory. Purple or Pink is for changes we have to go back and make during rewrites. (We don't rewrite until we are finished with a complete first draft. To paraphrase Woody Allen, writers are like sharks; they have to keep moving forward or they die)
This all started by accident. A couple books ago, we were struggling to get the arrangement of plot points in the right order. I got frustrated and went to the store (probably to buy more wine). I came home and there was Kelly, sitting on the floor with dozens of scraps of torn-up paper, moving them around like pieces of a big puzzle. I grabbed my Post-Its and we found an old piece of cardboard. Voila! The PJ Parrish Method of Post-It Plotting was born.
Post-Its is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. And the PJ Plotting Method is going to be featured in a special comemmorative book. Maybe the nice folk at 3M will send us a couple free packages. Now, if we could just get Turning Leaf on board...