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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I have been absent this week. I know this isn't a good thing when you are trying to build your blog audience. But I needed this week off. I needed to be with friends and family, needed to eat, drink, think about nothing and listen to the Michigan snow melt off the eaves. That's the thing about Thanksgiving for me. It makes me, well, sentimental.

So, indulge me, please. Because I want to give thanks.

Those of us in the publishing world, well, we tend to complain a lot. We complain about what is wrong with this business. We talk about flacks making millions while talented writers languish in the back stacks. We talk about bad editors, indifferent marketing people, how the business is going to the dogs, and how damn bloody hard it all is.

I'm not immune. I bitch and moan as much as the next writer. But tonight, something hit me. And I realized, Jesus, I am so lucky. I am not making a ton of money. I am not a habitue of the New York Times list. I am, like all the rest of you, only as good as my next book, living on the edge of bad numbers and the whim of the accounting department.


I got a Christmas card today. A standard card that said on the front: Remembering You At Christmas. Then I opened it. Here is what someone wrote:

Dear P.J. Parrish: Thank you ever so much for the hours upon hours of spellingbinding exciting reading throughout the year. You certainly have been gifted with something special. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a healthy and prosperous new year.

It was signed by someone named John whose last name was lost in a flourish of odd penmanship.

I get emails and letters but there was something about this one that stuck. Something about it that made me remember: Damn, I get PAID to make people happy. I get paid to entertain people. I get paid to tell stories.

Thank you John. I needed that.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

More bad sex

I just can't let this go without sharing some links with you guys. Did you know there are actual awards for bad sex scenes? For nine years now, the Literary Review has been handing out its Bad Sex award to "draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it."

Thought you'd like to see some of my favorite contenders. The comments in bold are mine...

Is that a salmon in your pocket or you just glad to see me?
"The wind thrust between her legs, its icy blast displaced by solid warmth as he covered her like a dog. The thing inside her jerked and threshed, a rising salmon, plunging home to spawn. "Yes!" she shouted, relishing the scarlet pain in her knees as he kept grinding them against the barnacled surface of the groyne."
-- From Dreams, Demons and Desires by Wendy Perriam (Peter Owen)

Ah, hold the anchovies, please...
"She confiscated the zapper and slid my hand between her thighs. It was wet and warm down there, which was only to be expected, but she might just as well have deposited my hand on a pizza for all the effect it had. I actually found my self wondering if I would be able to tell a pizza and my wife apart by touch alone..."
-- From Where Do We Go From Here? by Doris Dörrie (Bloomsbury)

The Tom Cruise Special Award
"His lips mesh into mine and we're kissing so hard I can't tell them apart. He scrabbles with his flies and then sinks into me. I stare into his eyes and he stares back, never losing me. Not for a second. It feels amazing. It feels important. It feels right. He's climbing, he's filling, he's plugging. He completes me..."
-- From Game Over by Adele Parks (Viking)

But the German judge only gave it a 7.5
"His hand reached through the armhole of her halter-neck top and pulled it to one side to expose her breast. She let out an involuntary gasp as his tongue flicked the aroused nipple and his left hand caressed the other through the flimsy material. The double breast stroke had always been a winner for Jo..."
-- From Fourplay by Jane Moore (Orion)

Always did think those Stanley Steemer guys were hot
"He was kneeling at the feet of his chaise and sniffing its plush minutely, inch by inch, in hopes that some vaginal tang might still be lingering eight weeks after Melissa Paquette had lain here. Ordinarily distinct and identifiable smells - dust, sweat, urine, the dayroom reek of cigarette smoke, the fugitive afterscent of quim - became abstract and indistinguishable from oversmelling, and so he had to pause again and again to refresh his nostrils. He worked his lips down into the chaise's buttoned navels and kissed the lint and grit and crumbs and hairs that had collected in them. None of the three spots where he thought he smelled Melissa was unambiguously tangy, but after exhaustive comparison he was able to settle on the least questionable of the three spots ..."
-- From The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate)

And my absolute favorite....

Get that woman a Brazilian rain forest wax
. . . the most tousled, tangled pubic patch through which I have ever had to find my way. A near impenetrable little forest, a small private Amazon to get lost in. But when one finally got down to the river, slipping and sliding through reeds and weeds and rushes and undergrowth, one could slither through the mud and dive in, wholly immerse oneself, stay down for an impossibly long time, nearly drowning, before coming up again, panting and heaving. . .
-- Before I Forget by André Brink (Secker & Warburg)

And they make fun of us genre writers.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Sexual reeling

Tonight I want to talk about sex. The dirty deed. The two-backed beast. The Nasty. Le Freak. Riding the Pony. Rock 'n' Rolling. Aardvarking. Boinking. Shagging. Doing the No-Pants Dance.

And I want to ask just one question: Why are crime writers such major wussies when it comes to sex? What the hell happens to most of them when they have to write about it?

I'll tell you what happens. They turn trite and sentimental. Or they become boring and flaccid. And they get as self-conscious as pimply prom dates. Crime writers can meet murder head on and not flinch, can even render death poetic. But faced with having to describe copulation -- especially in the context of, gasp! relationships -- they can turn out the most dreadful, unbelievable, embarrassing treacle.

Let's crack open a few pages here:

"But the hand was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns -- oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest -- no, the hand was cupping her entire right -- Now!"

Okay, this is cheating because the above quote was NOT written by a crime writer. I could name names in the crime world here, but I have to bend elbows with my fellow writers at conventions. And according to one drunken broad at Bouchercon, I already have the reputation for being "offensive." So forgive me for chickening out and not quoting directly from some of the books on my shelf. But you people know who you are....

As for the lyrical passage above, it was upchucked onto the page by none other than Tom Wolfe in his latest, "I am Charlotte Simmons."

Otorhinolaryngological caverns? Did this guy EVER get laid?

Seriously, -- and we MUST be serious when it comes to sex, mustn't we? -- I've read some really bad sex scenes in mysteries and thrillers lately. And okay, I WILL risk being offensive here and suggest that it is usually the guys who fall apart when sex rears its ugly head in their books. Not that women crime writers haven't turned out some leaden bedroom prose. But I'm thinking it might have something to do with the "guy relationship" thing. Male crime writers tend to get squeamish when they have to write about the emotional stuff. So when the impulses of the heart (or even just loins) propell the hero(ine) into bed, things get icky fast. And guys (especially thriller writer guys) tend to chomp onto the cliches like a rabid Jack Russell. Like: Why is the woman always hot to trot with no warmup? And why is she always on top?

I understand why there is so much clumsy sex going on in crime novels. I used to write what in the 80s was euphemistically called Women's Contemporary Fiction. (Big fat sagas about internecine family intrigue with sex scenes). I became pretty good at sex, if I do say so myself. So I know how hard it is to write about schtupping without looking silly. For starters, you have get your folks out of their clothes. And then you have to get the plumbing connections right. And then -- and here's where most writers lose it -- you have to have sex talk. Oh, baby, oh...yes, yes, yes!

Okay, I have a confession to make. In my last book, "A Killing Rain," my hero Louis Kincaid was finally going to get some. My co-author sister Kelly and I knew the scene was coming, and we decided it had to be on camera. No wussy fade to black this time. So there we were one night, sitting in my office with our Ferrante and Teicher computers. I had drawn duty to write the sex scene, but man, I just couldn't do it. It just seemed so darn...yucky, given our hardboiled style. But there was Louis and his woman and it was my duty to light their fire. And I froze.

Kelly, hearing no typing, turned and asked, "Okay, what is it now?"
I said, "I can't do this. I got out them on the dark porch. You take it."
So we switched chairs and Kelly gave it a go. After a moment, I realized I hadn't heard any typing.
"What's the matter?"
"I got their clothes half off. You take it."
I rolled back and gave it another shot. Nada. Dry as dust. I had lost that lovin' feeling.

Finally, we sat side by side and sweated it out. It was brutal, man. But eventually, Louis got laid without us resorting to a Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr beach scene.

Now, lest I be accused of guy-bashing, let's allow some of the men to weigh in here:

Here's C.J. Box, at the Montana Festival of the Book, talking about how he does it: "My protagonist is married, so there are no sex scenes."


Here's Neil McMahon, talking about his first book, "Twice Dying," where his man and woman ended up in a motel room. He tried to slide by with a few sentences. But his editor demanded a full-blown sex scene, saying, "All right. This is it. You're going to have to write this. It's going to have to be explicit. This is a deal-breaker."

"So I wrote it," McMahon said.

Brave man...

For a more thoughtful take, let's go to Jim Fusilli, talking about his book Tribeca Blues in a recent interview: "Sex is a theme in Tribeca Blues --- covert sex, back-alley sex, the ramifications of that kind of thing. So there had to be a sex scene between two people who have genuine affection for each other. In the context of the story, I think it works. It's sensual but not salacious. It wasn't easy to write. I felt a little squeamish. I don't know. I'm not a prude, but maybe I had too many years of Catholic school or something. You know, if you're going to write it, you have to write it well. You've got to feel it and make it real. You can't be saying "wee-wee" and "boobies" any more than you can say "throbbing member" or "heaving love mounds" or some bullshit like that. It's got to be as believable as when you've got him walking down the street."

At least Jim has the guts to meet the subject, ah, head on.

Not all guy crime writers shy away from sex. Some embrace it. Max Allan Collins and Jeff Gelb have produced some sophisticated erotic mysteries. But those are the small exceptions.

In closing, let's allow a woman a perspective here. Sez veteran mystery novelist Dana Stabenow in a recent interview: "There are a ton of people, critics and writers alike, who say that in detective fiction it should be the classic Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe character who have to be loners. That's changed a lot with the advent of women writing in the mystery field, because women tend to emphasize relationships. For about 5,000 years that was pretty much all we had, our lives revolved around relationships and our husbands and our families and our children. So there are a lot of women reading mystery fiction and I think publishers are going to publish what they can sell -- and if they can sell mysteries that have an element of relationship in them, then that's what they're going to solicit writers to produce."

And damn it, that includes sex.

I don't know what the answer is. Maybe we need convention panels or workshops to teach this stuff. All I know is I am glad I don't write romantic novels anymore. Frankly, sex just wears me out. Writing it, that is. I turn 55 years old this week. And you know, I am much happier killing people than having sex. But maybe that is a female thing.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Wanna be a writer? Get REAL!

Back in the 1980s, I got asked by a local writers group to speak at their luncheon. The group had bagged some big-fish speakers in the past (I remember Les Standiford giving a particularly inspiring talk). But I guess they ran out of literary types so they asked me -- a minnow of a romance writer at the time.

Well, I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to tell this group of would-be writers. I finally decided to focus on the marketing and business end of having your book published -- the underbelly stuff like coop advertising, how "bestseller" slots in drugstores were bought by publishers, how the New York Times bestseller list wasn't really based on sales. I thought they needed to know what they were up against.

You'd thought I had brought a dog onto the podium and shot it there in front of them. During the Q&A, they turned on me like rabid bats, each one saying, in different words the same thing: We don't need to hear this. We need encouragement. One guy actually stood up and said -- I will never forget this -- "If you are so bitter about writing, why do you even do it?"

Maybe things were different back in the 80s. Maybe writers could afford to be mushrooms -- keep in the dark and fed a steady diet of shit. But not anymore. Today, if you want to survive, you have to be smart, tough and tenacious.

And you have to get real.

I still speak at alot of writers groups and on panels and such. And I try to be kind. But damn, if you ask me for advice about getting published, I am not going to coddle you with empty platitudes and pat your hand. I believe every writer needs a Dr. Phil in their life. Someone who will tell you the truth about why your plot sucks, why you should throw away your manuscript and start over, and why you should not sell your soul to the POD people. Someone who will read your stuff, stare you straight in the eye and say, "what WERE you thinking?"

So, let me be your Dr. Phil. Let's start with The 15 Things You Should NEVER Do.

1. Dont procrastinate. You must choose to write. That might mean giving up something else, like golf or sleep. Too bad. Don't jump from idea to idea. Pick one and ride it to the end. Don't let the first wind that blows through your life distract you. Don't wait for inspiration to come. Inspiration comes only WHILE you're writing. It's so much more fun to HAVE WRITTEN a book than to actually write one. Writing the actual book is hard. Deal with it.

2. Don't talk your story away. Writers love to yak about writing instead of actually doing it. I got this great idea about a cannibal serial killer, yada yada... Pretty soon all your yadas are used up and you can't stand your book anymore. Talk is cheap...or in this case, costly. As Lawrence Block once said, don't book Carnegie Hall if all you do is sing in the shower. Shut up and write.

3. Don't try to hit a home run on your first at bat. Don't sit down to write the Great American Novel or the next Chick Lit Bestseller. First you have a better chance of hitting the lottery than landing on the NYT's list. Give yourself permission to write badly as you find your narrative legs. Don't get hung up on the perfect beginning. That's what rewriting is for.

4. Don't beat yourself up as you go along. Trying to craft the perfect sentence can create paralysis. If you keep going back over the stuff you've already written YOU WILL NEVER FINISH. Write a first draft THEN go back and rewrite. And get intimate with that delete key. It is your best friend.

5. Don't lean on adjectives. Adjectives weaken writing, and a string of them is deadly. Don't use crap like "tall dark and handsome." Find one apt word. But the real strength in writing is found in verbs. You're not Proust.

6. Don't overcook your words. It's so easy to slip into cliches and overworked words. Don't say "white as snow." It's not yours. Neither is "thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock, overcome with grief." Don't make do with time-eroded words like "beatiful, wonderful, interesting, lovely." Find your own words and voice. And for god's sake, stay away from dialects. Few writers can pull it off without looking silly, y'all....

7. Don't over-punctuate. This is my pet peeve. Beginners use alot of exclamation marks, semi-colons and dashes. Maybe it's because they LOOK so cool -- active, even -- on paper. But they are crutches to prop up weak action, poor narrative and badly organized thoughts. Worse, they are signposts demanding reactions from readers (Okay, reader, now here I want you to feel excited!) You can write a whole book with just periods, question marks, quotes and a couple commas. Try it! Make your words do the work!!!!

8. Don't neglect your theme. Theme is WHY you are writing the book. Even genre novels -- well, the best ones -- have themes. Steinbeck said an author should be able to state his theme in one sentence. But don't get didactic. Maybe your book is about a body found in the Everglades, but your theme is about environmental destruction. But if you get preachy, readers will turn off no matter how many bodies turn up in the sawgrass.

9. Don't get personal. This is a big mistake beginners make. Save your self-expression for your journal or blog. What's wrong with self-expression? It is general, boring, trite, sentimental. NO ONE CARES about your years operating a bar in Queens. But they might care about a Queens man who loses his bar in a poker game and then kills to get it back. NO ONE CARES about your war experience. But they might care about an army unit sent to rescue the last member of the Ryan family. The trick of good fiction is taking your personal experience and making it universal.

10. Don't be dishonest. Great fiction is always honest. Which is not the same as personal. You don't have to "write what you know." But you have to be able to tap into your powers of empathy to "know" the characters and world you create. To write honestly is also to take emotional risks. We've all read books where the characters don't move us. Usually it is because the writer was holding back, unwilling to spill some blood on the keyboard.

11. Don't get seduced by research. First, it is a time-killer (See no. 1). Do your homework but don't let it get in the way. It is easy to get blogged down in research and then you feel obligated to use it in the book. The result: James Michener book bloat.

12. Don't obsess about trivial stuff.
Will a publisher steal my idea if I submit it?
Should I get Windows XP?
Do I need an agent?
What if they want me to change it?
Can I use White-Out on the manuscript?
Should I wait until I have better conditions at home to write?

You get the idea...
No, if your book is good, they will buy it.
Work with what you already have.
Just write the damn book first.
They will...don't sweat it.
You're actually worried about this?
No. Poe was penniless and died in a sewer. He didn't wait til he had the right desklamp.

13. Don't listen to your wife/husband/hairdresser/mother. Someday, when you are accepting the Edgar, you can thank all the folks who love you. But while you are trying to write, keep them at arms length. They can get inside your head in two disparate ways. First, they can criticize you and say you will never get published. Second, they can tell you everything you write is brilliant. Both are bad for you. Find feedback from someone who will be honest with you. But avoid writers group if all they do is sit around and bitch and moan about how its all a big conspiracy to keep them out.

14. Don't be afraid to rewrite. The temptation is huge, after you type THE END, to ship that puppy out. Don't. Let it bake in the C drive for at least a week, then go back and read it cold. The crap will jump out at you -- huge gobs of smelly stuff. You must rewrite. As many times as it takes. The first draft is made with the heart. The second, fifth and tenth, are made with the head.

15. Don't give up. Never up, never in. Not at the plate, no chance to hit. One of the main differences between the published and unpublished writer (besides talent -- duh!) is that the latter packed it in. This is a cruel, difficult, god-awful business. There is no secret formula for what editors want. There is no big conspiracy, despite for the POD people might want you to believe. There are, however, overworked, badly paid people sitting behind desks in New York who are overwhelmed with manuscripts but are still willing to pay money for a well-told story. The trick is to find them -- through a combination of talent, craftsmanship, perseverance and luck. Especially luck.

This is Dr. Phil, signing off. Now get back to that computer before I come over there and cut off your fingers....

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Do you really need talent?

It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous. --Robert Benchley

Okay, pop quiz time. Question 1: See that painting of the altar boy over there? A free bag of Orville Redenbaucher's Smart Pop to anyone who can name the artist.


I'm sorry your time is up. I'll tell you the answer later. But now let's move on to our discussion du jour -- talent vs technique. Our topic today comes via my friend Reed Coleman who wrote an article recently in Crime Spree Magazine . The article, titled "The Unspoken Word, was about his experience as an author-panelist at SleuthFest last March. Reed was upset because he thought the conference emphasized technique to the exclusion of talent.

Sez Reed: "To listen how successful writing was presented at SleuthFest, one might be led to believe that it was like building a model of a car or a jet plane. It was as if hopeful writers were being told that if everyone had the parts, the decals, the glue, the proper lighting, etc. to build this beautiful model and then all they needed was the instruction manual. Nonsense! Craft can get you pretty damned far, but you have to have talent, too. Writing is no more like building a model than throwing a slider or composing a song."

Time out for Question 2: Who painted that lady at the right over there? Wrongo, gesso-breath. Moving on...

In the interest of full disclosure, I am prez of Mystery Writers of America Florida chapter, which sponsors SleuthFest. I even got duped into chairing it three years ago. That was the year our board decided, after much debate, to purposely steer SleuthFest toward the writers "workshop" conference it has become. We did it because attendees told us they didn't want any more authors getting up there and flapping their lips telling their tired war stories. They wanted authors to pull back the green curtain and show how it is done. They wanted to hear authors talk about how they created memorable characters, how they maintained suspense, how they built a structure, why they chose a particular sub-genre. That's what we gave them.

So yeah, we teach writing at SleuthFest. And you know what? I see no reason to apologize for that. In fact, I'm going waaaay out on a limb here and say that there are some published crime writers who could learn a trick or two at SleuthFest. I'm not sure how we could handle the notion of talent at SleuthFest other than having a panel where everyone nods sagely and agrees that yeah, you need some, the more the better. Maybe we could have a panel called Genetic Engineering and the Genre Writer. Just a thought...

But Reed did inadvertently raise an interesting question in his article -- can novel writing really be taught? I think it can and should be. I think unpublished folks can learn a lot from great teachers like Carolyn Wheat who wrote "How to Write Killer Fiction." (We brought Carolyn to SleuthFest one year). I think unpublished folks can go to workshops and learn the basics about plotting, character development, the arc of suspense, the constructs of good dialog. Now, does that mean they have the stuff they need to be a successful writer? (WARNING: That was a loaded question and does NOT signpost another of my churlish diatribes against James Patterson). No, it only means they might -- if they work hard -- have a chance of mastering their craft. And I don't care how talented you are, you aren't going anywhere without craft.

Question No. 3: This one is a bit tougher....who did that black and white thing over at the right? Da-da-da-da-da-DI-da...da-da-da-di-DA-dadada (Jeopardy theme). Sorry, we haven't got all day here. Back to the blog entry.

When I teach writing workshops, I preface everything with this one statement: I can teach you the elements of craft but I can't teach you talent. Anyone can learn to hit a baseball. But only a few are going to have Ted Williams' eye. The rest are going to be the Dave Madagans of the world -- competent major league role players. And what's wrong with that if you can have a backlist at B&N and maybe take the kids to Disney World on your royalties?

I think the big problem is a lot of beginning writers are trying to run before they can walk -- things like having multiple POVs when they can't even handle one, or interweaving flashbacks when they can't create a clear linear narrative. I tell them that writing a novel is like juggling. If you can juggle two balls well -- plot and character -- you have a good shot at getting published and maybe having a writing career. But don't worry about those other balls -- voice, style, lyricism, theme -- until those first two balls are flying high. Cuz if you drop one of those original two, nobody is gonna care how gorgeous your prose is.

As the great acting coach Stella Adler said, "Technique makes talent possible."

Okay, last question. Now, who painted that picture on the right? Ha! That's easy, you're saying. Any fool knows that's by Picasso. So are all the others shown above. Except for the last one, they were all painted very early in his long and illustrious career. Picasso had talent. Major league talent. And Pablo broke the rules. But not until he had the basics down first. Technique made his singular talent possible.

Tomorrow, I'm going to start a series of entries about craftsmanship. I invite you to send me some questions about whatever is bugging you -- plot, character development, dramatic arc, theme, voice. We can talk about whatever you want. But I am not going to baby you. I believe too many writing books and courses -- and writers groups! -- coddle writers. I believe that if you're going to teach writing you have to be brutally honest. Because that is the way it is in the real world, bunkie. No one's gonna baby you out there in the cold cruel world of publishing.

We'll start with the Most Common Mistakes Writers Make. Shoot, that ought to keep me blogging through the new year. Now, if you'll excuse me, I am going back to my own chapter 4. I'm having a little problem keeping that plot ball up in the air.