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.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

"Heed this advice!" she said desperately

I was sitting in a restaurant the other day when my friend and fellow author, Tom Swift, happened to stop by and ask if he could join me.

"Yes," I said cordially.

He sat down, his eyes slipping secretly to the paperback book lying wantonly near my wine glass. "I see," he said insightfully, "that you are reading a popular author."

"Yes," I said affirmatively, nodding energetically.

"Do you like the book?" he asked inquiringly.

I wasn't sure how to answer. Both of us had just returned from SleuthFest, which was geared for aspiring writers. There was a lot of good advice about plot structure, the differences between thrillers and mysteries, and character building.

My friend wisely picked up on my silence. "So," he said flatly. "I take it you don't like the book?"

"It was hard to read," I said effortlessly.

"In what way?" he asked inquisitively.

"Well, I'm not sure what it was," I said perplexedly.

"How was the plotting?" he asked ploddingly.

"The plot was okay. But it kind of fell apart toward the end," I added brokenly.

"That's too bad," he said sympathetically. "Anything else?"

"The characters were okay but kind of cardboard," I added woodenly.

"Really?" he said shockingly.

"Yes," I acknowledged.

"But the book was a New York Times bestseller," he interjected suddenly, jabbing at the book pointedly. "You are suppose to love the bestsellers. This one got great blurbs. And all the reviewers loved it."

"Well," I said deeply. "I just don't know what it was about the book that I found tiresome but there was something."

Tom Swift gave me a nod of his head, shaking it up and down, and then added a small, understanding smile, displaying his Hollywood teeth. "Well," he said philosophically. "Some books are just like that."

And with that, Tom sauntered away, slowly and casually disappearing into the misty dark inky black night.

I was left with my thoughts -- and that bad book. I was thinking about all the good advice I had heard at SleuthFest. Really good stuff, even a great debate about talent versus technique. But one thing kept coming back to me -- the thing all the good authors stressed. Robert Crais had said it best in his keynote speech: "Adverbs are not your friend.”

He didn't say it lightly. He didn't it dramatically. He didn't even say it succinctly. He just said it.


Blogger Mark Terry said...

As a reader and as a book reviewer--especially as a book reviewer--I have this little screen or wall I pull down from time to time to wall off my "I really like this book" from the "this book is good but I don't much like it."

The one that comes to mind for me is Dean Koontz, actually, and how I describe it is: "He's a good writer and I've enjoyed his books, but he just doesn't punch my buttons."

Sure enough. And sometimes, it's just hard to dig into a book. And sometimes you change or the author changes. James Lee Burke comes to mind. I looooved his books. Then I reviewed his first book about the Texas Ranger, whose name eludes me, and something went snap! in my head and now I no longer read James Lee Burke. I don't know why, exactly, but it may be that even though as a writer I'm aware of the skeleton/formula writers tend to use, I can ignore it. But it was impossible to ignore it after I read that book, and what something in my subconscious seemed to be saying was, "He's writing the same book over and over." Maybe.

Or perhaps Ian Rankin. I can safely accept how good he is and what he does, but it's just not my cup of tea, for whatever reason.

And then there's the lazy writers who are bestsellers... I have to wonder about the latest Robert B. Parker. I enjoy his books--I'm a huge fan--but I couldn't help but feel that his latest Jesse Stone novel had been phoned in, needed another round of rewriting (or A round of rewriting), and sure as hell could have benefited from a copy editor. For god sakes, he's got a character going into a restaurant, coming outside to get his girlfriend, then has her going alone into the restaurant to find him waiting at a table for her--it's not a sci fi novel!

Oh well.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

You knocked the point home. Dramatically.

I traded critiques a while back with someone who actually writes like this. She holds an MFA and, somehow, won a contest that gave her a single hardback title from a major publisher.

"You need to ditch the adverbial dialogue tags," I told her.

"They show how my protagonist hears the other characters," she defensively retorted.

Someone owes her a big fat apology for teaching her how to write...badly.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

"Mark, you seem to have completely missed the point of this article," Jude bluntly snickered.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yes, and now that I re-read this blog entry, I wonder what the hell I thought you were saying that inspired me to write so encompassingly about, uh, something else. In my family we call this Fuzzy Brain Disease.

Perhaps you were visited by author Tom Swift?

"How's St. Louis?" he said archly.

"How sharp is your knife?" he asked pointedly.

"I hate flying," he said airily.

"How was your visit to the proctologist?" he asked cheekily.

"She hates sex!" he ejaculated.

"Can you fit between those buildings?" he asked narrowly.

"I'm a brain surgeon," she said mindfully.

"Get your finger out of your nose," she said nastily.

Mark Terry

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This is hilarious!" I said laughingly.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I wonder what I thought I had been reading when I went on that little tangent? Fuzzy brain disease, indeed.

Ah, adverbs.

"Do you like St. Louis?" he asked archly.

"How sharp is your knife?" he asked pointedly.

"Have you been to a proctologist?" he asked cheekily.

Mark Terry

9:30 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

"They show how my protagonist hears the other characters," she defensively retorted.

ARGH! I would say I can't believe there are writers who really think this way, but then I have seen too many IN PRINT.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

You're right, PJ. I won't name any names, but a certain #1 New York Times bestseller writes crap like this all the time. I can't read it, but she's probably lounging on the deck of her yacht right now, sipping a martini and not thinking about her critics much.

Here's a question up for grabs: If you had the chance to be her editor, would you insist that she get rid of all the superfluous dialogue tags? The books sell in huge numbers, so would you dare change them?

I ask this with blue pencil in hand, reaching for my copy of...

Whoops! I promised not to name any names.

So what would you do?

3:56 PM  
Blogger DZ Allen said...

Along with all the "ly" words, I loved "misty dark inky black night."

That was awesome.

It's so funny because I read so many books that have this kind of stuff in them! It's frustrating sometimes, I read this crappy writing that is selling like crazy. I wonder how bad my stuff must be to not get any nibbles.

11:45 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

To Jude:
Well, if I were the editor and didn't want to rock the bestseller boat, I would slowly tone the author down and make subtle suggestions on how to improve her overall writing. Because in the long run, it will extend the author's career. Besides, as an editor, it is MY JOB to make people write better. I get the feeling some editors of bestselling authors abdicate this role at times.

But despite the title of this blog, I AM NOT king so I can't do any of this. I can only control what comes out of my own C drive. That is all any of us can do.

1:20 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


Gee, I wish I had the answer. All I can say is don't fall prey to the notion that dumbing down or writing badly will net you more readers. If you set out to tell a good story in the clearest, most affecting way you can, you can't go wrong. We are in the business of entertaining readers, but you don't have to stoop to conquer.

Learn your craft by studying good writers, those you personally like to read, not bad ones. Aspire to be among the best and if you work hard, you'll hit your own mark -- wherever that might be.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Good answer, Kris.

DZ: We're in the same boat, my brother.

12:09 AM  
Blogger Bernita said...

"I enjoyed this," she smiled, lurkingly.

6:55 AM  

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