Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

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...


Anonymous Bob Morris said...

A brilliant system and, not coincidentally, much the same one I use. Only I employ 3 x 5 notecards. And they get thumbtacked onto a big piece of posterboard once used for my son's science project. The only other difference is that I require rum instead of wine ... drink enough of it and it's as if I have two brains working on the same book, too.

4:48 PM  
Blogger JA Konrath said...

That's odd. I once asked Kelly the same question and she said, "My dumb sister doesn't do a damn thing! All she does is some light retyping, then complains about when the royalty check is coming. Do you know anyone with connections that could cause her to disappear?"

At least, I think that's what Kelly said. Or was that you, Kris?

Whoever it was, contact me. I know a guy.

4:48 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Bob and Joe:

Please go back and read my post on Writing Funny. Can I hire you guys to ghostwrite my hen-lit book?

7:04 PM  
Anonymous --john-- said...

"Nice place ya's got here. Is the bar open? The hardboiled board seems to be out of liquor."

Or maybe I should wait until last nights Glenfiddich wears off,as I meant to post in this thread and not the green eyed one. Coffee?

10:10 AM  
Blogger JA Konrath said...

I'd be happy to help you with your hen-lit.

Then you two could help me with this Penthouse Letter I'm working on. Coincidentally, it involves sisters...

11:14 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

John: There's always room for one more. I hear ya re: the Hardboiled room. All the old regs have departed and it's like seeing your favorite neighborhood saloon close down.

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Mark Terry said...

Horror fiction takes a new twist--hen lit by Joe Konrath. Yikes!

Kudos. I doubt there isn't a writer out there who doesn't sometimes wish they were a corroboration (or is that collaboration?), just so they can have someone to tell them what they're doing right as they go on. Or is that doing wrong? Hmmm. Sounds like a country song: "Done Wrong by my Writing Partner Blues."

God, I think I'll go eat breakfast.

Mark Terry

7:40 AM  

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