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.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Booky Noise IV: The Yeah But Defense

Welcome back to the Booky Noise workshop, where we analyze the openings of some of our regulars here. I don't let the writer preface their openings here, don't let them "tell" you anything about the book because it is important that we read it cold, just like anyone picking it up at a bookstore might. Why? Because too often, when Kelly and I do writing workshops, we hear what I call the "Yeah But Defense." This tactic usually goes something like this:

Me: I really like your description but I find am I confused about where this is taking place and who is talking.

Writer: Yeah but if you read on to page 10, it becomes very clear that...

Here's the problem, and this is common to ALL writers (including moi): When we write, we have this wonderful thing going on in our brains. To me, it is like a movie I am seeing in my head. To you, it might be a soundtrack of people talking or maybe a storyboard of scenes. Whatever you are experiencing, it is probably very vivid and exciting. But then something happens as you begin to translate those images from your brain screen to the computer screen. Sometimes there is a disconnect between brain and fingers. Something becomes lost in translation.

We writers, often can't see this. But readers can. They aren't privvy to the creative process; all they care about is can they follow the story you are trying to tell? Is it emotionally involving for them? Is it dramatically compelling? Does it make sense?

And then there is the ego thing. We writers are big writhing gooey masses of ego. We are easily bruised and we are never so vulnerable as when we throw our new stuff out there for the first rounds of feedback. We want to be told our stuff is Great! Fabulous! Better than anything Paterson does! We don't want to hear our babies are homely. Even when we suspect they are.

So, next time you are offered feedback -- here, from your critique group or an editor, resist the urge to explain. Someday, when your book is on the shelf at Borders and a customer picks it up, reads the first page and puts the book down, you're not going to be there to say "Yeah but..."

Enough lecturing.

Let's take a look at Jude's opening. I am not suggesting Jude has a Yeah But issue here at all. (Jude was in one of our workshops at SleuthFest once and takes feeback like a trouper). But does this opening make you want to read on? Does it reel you in? (Apologies, Jude, given your fishing theme here!) Can it be improved? Let him know what you think:

My stepfather, drunken bastard that he was, taught me two important survival skills: How to use a baitcaster reel, and how to filet a bass. On August 16, I had gotten up at six A.M. and exercised the first. By nine, I stood under the shade of a very large pine tree, busy with the second. I wore khaki shorts, no shirt, a pair of topsiders and a ball cap that said Guinness. Typical north Florida fishing attire. I’d run out of Barbasol three days ago, so my razor was on vacation until further notice.

I scraped the scales off my third and final fish, looked up and saw a little red car turning from Lake Barkley Road onto my gravel driveway. It was one of those cars I call a Bic. Like the lighters, they’re cheap and disposable. You buy one fresh off the lot, and by the time it needs new tires it’s ready for the junk yard. An internal timing device insures that all working parts take a dive at the precise moment the warranty expires.

It struggled up the hill and parked beside my GMC Jimmy. The driver’s side door opened and a young woman got out, wearing what at first appeared to be a hearing aid. It was one of those cell phone gizmos you hang on your ear so everyone thinks you’re loony tunes walking around talking to yourself. In the future, they’ll implant a computer chip directly into your brain and you’ll be perpetually connected, via satellite, to people you don’t want to talk to anyway. I was hoping I’d die before anything like that ever happened when the woman said, “Is this where you live?” She surveyed my home sweet home--a 1964 Airstream Safari travel trailer, parked on lot 27 at Joe’s Fish Camp--my ten year-old SUV, my blood-stained picnic table littered with catch-of-the-day carcasses. She had an expensive-looking hairstyle, clipped shoulder-length, brown with streaks of caramel, and a dubious look on her face. She wore a navy blue skirt and jacket, a thin white silky shirt, some sort of shoes that didn’t tread well on my sandy yard and a white leather purse. I doubted she was old enough to drink.

“If you’re selling something, I’m broke so don’t bother. If you’re from the loan company, I’m really broke so really don’t bother.” I was six weeks behind on my car payment. I expected to wake up any day now and find Jimmy not there. A tow truck hadn’t followed her in, so I figured I was safe for the moment.

“I’m looking for Nicholas Colt,” she said. “The private eye. Is that you?”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Gobble gobble

It's time to pause and give thanks.
I am thankful to have a great sister and co-author.
I am thankful to be doing what I love to do.
I am thankful someone actually pays me for it.
I am thankful there are still people out there who love books.
I am thankful that I still have ideas.
I am thankful for you all for coming here and sharing.

Now, I am off to Michigan for my annual turkey day bacchanalia. Back next week with more Booky Noise workshops. Have a great thanksgiving, all.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Are you ready for your mystery date?

I was at the Miami Book Fair yesterday and after our panel, a woman came up to talk. We had met the previous year, and she wanted to thank me because evidently I had said something that inspired her to quit her soul-killing job and finish her book.

Now, I remembered her but I didn't remember what I had said to her. If you read this blog you know I am a realist about this business so I'm pretty sure I didn't pull a Pollyanna with her. I'll do what I can to encourage other writers just starting out, but I won't give false hope because that is just cruel.

So, I didn't really know what to say to this woman. I mean, just because I might like skydiving and have managed to get seven or eight jumps under my belt, I'm not going to push someone else out of the plane. Only they know if they have the guts and can afford the parachute. But she was very excited, and said she was very happy with her decision, so we talked some more.

It went something like this:

"So, are you submitting it yet?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," she said, "And I got a letter from Big-Name Agent at the Gigantoid Talent Management. He asked to see some sample chapters."

"Great! That's farther than most folks get," I said. "What about the others?"


"Other agents. What did they have to say about your query?"

"Well, I only sent out two. And Big-Name said he had to have an exclusive. So I'm not doing anything until I hear back from him."

"Oh," I said. "How long has Mr. Big had your chapters now?"

"About four months."

Okay...can you figure out where I'm going with this?

This woman had worked hard for three years to write her book. She had gone to writing conferences and workshops. She had done her homework. She had quit her job so she had enough time to follow her dream. (Don't worry; she had other means of support, so that's not the issue here).

But then she fell for the first guy who said "maybe." As in, "Yeah, maybe we'll hook up. Maybe I'll give you a call someday, baby. I don't know when exactly -- maybe even never. But in the meantime, I don't want you to talk to any other guys."

Okay, I realize Mr. Big was her Dream Date. And it's easy to get blinded by good biceps and blue eyes. Or in this case, a 212 area code and a client list heavy with bestselling authors. But would you wait around for this guy?

Of course not. If your book is finished and you're ready to send it out into the cold, cruel world, why would you do anything that lessens your chances of success? Finding a good agent -- no, let's correct that; not just a good agent but the right agent -- is maybe the single most important business decision you make as a writer. This person will be your advocate, your guide, your champion, your career-coach. And the best agent for you might not be Mr. Big at Gigantoid Talent Management. The best agent for you might be Mr. Sincere at Small But Personal Inc. Maybe even Mr. Cassius at Lean And Hungry House. But most definitely, the best agent for you is the one who sees something so special in your work that they plucked you out of the 200 to 300 queries they get every week. The best agent for you is someone who will believe in you even in those dark moment when you don't even believe in yourself anymore.

Exclusives are bad things -- for writers. Why? Because you are giving that one agent the power to tie up your manuscript for months. Odds are, the sample chapters you sent will be rejected. (Maybe for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality remember). But by agreeing to an exclusive, you have lost six to eight precious months in what is a long and tortuous process even in the best of circumstances. Until an agent agrees to take you on as a client, they just don't have the right to control your work like that.

If you won't take my word on this, I bow to a higher source. Here is Miss Snark Literary Agent on the subject.:

"Exclusives stink...To ask an author to tie up his/her work on open ended terms is disrespectful and counter productive. It's also a lazy ass way to do business. You can't provide her an exclusive read and you shouldn't. If she doesn't see the merit of that, why would you want to work with her?"

But, you say, Mr. Big said he liked her stuff. What if she turns around now and sends out a hundred queries and he finds out?

Well, worse case scenario: No other agent is interested. She is back sitting by the phone waiting for Mr. Big to call.

Best case scenario: She gets responses from forty agents who want to see her sample chapters. Then ten want to sign her up. She now has the luxury of choice. She can talk to them all, make a measured thoughtful decision and find the agent who is the best fit -- for her.

I wouldn't sit home waiting for Mr. Big to call. Don't know about you, but I had enough of that crap in high school.

So don't give away your power to the first pretty face that says "maybe." Beneath that pretty face there could be a true Poindexter.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Booky Noise III: I'm having a flashback!

I love the idea of time travel.

One of my favorite old TV shows was Time Tunnel, that cheesy series from the Sixties where James Darren would fling himself into a swirling vortex and be transported back to solve crimes.

One of my very favorite movies was "The Time Machine" with Victorian hero Rod Taylor traveling to the future to save sweet thing Weena from the Worlocks.

And my favorite cartoon? You guessed it. Mr. Peabody and his dim bulb boy assistant Sherman who used the Way Back machine to travel back in time.

Time travel is way cool. I'd give anything to go back to Fin de siecle Paris or maybe ahead to the someday when we can hop JetBlue to Mars.

But time travel in novels? I don't like it, man. I don't like it when a writer plays loose with my linear sensibilities. In short, as much as I loved the Sixties, I am not a big fan of the flashback. Acid or otherwise.

Now, flashbacks in novels aren't always bad. Sometimes, they serve a very true and useful purpose. But they are not easy to work into your story and even the most seasoned writers can stumble when they leave the linear line and move backwards.

Believe me, I know. Kelly and I are just tonight finishing the final rewrite of our new book. And here I was, reading along in chapter 48 and I hit a patch of writing that made me come to a screaming halt. Note: I said chapter 48. At this very late point in the book -- nay, in ANY book -- the story should be roaring along to its inevitable climax, pulling the eager reader in its wake. But what did we do? In a key scene, we had inserted a flashback for our heroine. It was short, only a half page or so, but when I read it cold today, it stopped me like a brick wall. I didn't WANT to go back and hear this stuff. I wanted only to keep going on the trajectory that had been established.

Flashbacks, as I said, are useful. Even necessary. But every writer must bear in mind that no matter how well they are written, no matter how experienced the author, they are a brake. They bring your forward motion to a stop. So think twice before you use your Way Back machines.

Here are some general rules for using flashbacks:

1. No matter how well written, they stop the story, so use sparingly. They have to be related to the PRESENT action of your story.
2. Don't rely on flashbacks to fill in your backstory. There are many other more effective ways of giving your readers needed background info.
3. Never EVER put a flashback in the middle of a scene of great emotion or action.
4. Like, never use flashbacks in your climax. Do you even need to ask why?
5. When you do use a flashback, keep it very short. Then get back to the story as fast as you can.

Now, let's move on to today's Booky Noise Workshop. And I will pose the question: Can flashbacks work in an opening?

Today' s entry for our consideration comes from Gregory. He acknowledges that his flashback opening might be tricky, but he would like your feedback:

The first time I died, I was too young to fully appreciate it.

There was no tunnel of bright light. No chorus of angels. No movie of my life playing as I rose up, freed from corporeal form.

It began with a warning: “You better get down from there. You’re not Superman, you know.”

At seven years old, Chrissy had already perfected the hands-on-hips posture of authority. My other friends didn’t give her a second glance. A dozen sets of eyes followed my rapid ascent up the oak tree.

“Do it,” Donnie said, flashing a wicked grin. “I double-dog dare you.”

“I d-d-don’t think he-he-he’ll make it.” Sanjay’s treacherous tongue glowed fruit-punch red.

Eighteen years later, I still can’t smell Hi-C without getting nauseous. Funny how the mind works.

It took one more boost to reach a clearing between the canopy of leaves.

“My mom said to wait 20 minutes before going in the pool.” Timmy, the birthday boy, pointed to an egg timer.

My altitude provided a direct view into the second-story windows of the McDade house. There was Timmy’s bedroom, with a pile of unwrapped gifts left on his bed. Adult voices mingled with cheers for a televised football game.

I shimmied onto an overhanging branch, which bowed under my weight.

The task at hand was tricky: clear the patio railing, carry the concrete deck, miss the diving board, and dry my sneakers before mom picked me up at three.

A breeze excited the decorative helium balloons, swaying my thin perch.

“I’m gonna tell,” Chrissy said.

“You’d better not, Prissy,” I shot back.

“If you come down, I’ll give you one of my new Transformers,” Timmy said.

Donnie chimed in, “If he jumps, I’ll give him two.”

Before Timmy could raise the stakes, the egg timer buzzed. Like any good performer, I took the cue and pushed off the branch — launching into space.

No problem clearing the patio and pool deck, but my trajectory was off the mark. Instead of splashing into the deep end, I fell towards the steel ladder.

Arms flailing, I tried to air-brake. Missed the ladder, but unexpectedly landed on a floating boogie board.

On impact, the foam board shot out from under my feet and I tumbled backwards. A glimpse of sky, then black.

Weeks later, Timmy visited me in the hospital. He said it sounded like a cherry bomb when my head hit the diving board. Evidently, I sank before you could say: “Marco Polo.”

To me, it was all dark. No thoughts, no feelings. Don’t even remember swallowing water.

It took numerous reports to piece together what happened next. Timmy turned out to be the least reliable source, as he was primarily concerned with how this would affect his Nintendo privileges. He took one look at me, curled in the fetal position at the bottom of his pool, and promptly hid behind his parents’ BBQ.

Chrissy took her hands away from her mouth long enough to scream, “Call Nine-One-One! Call Nine-One-One!”

Nobody else moved. Donnie wet his pants.

The little bastard never did cough up those Transformers.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Booky Noise II

Aimless Writer has submitted an opening for our consideration. Let's give him/her some feedback!

My eyes stung from the smoke as I stood across the street watching the flames roar out of control. Although twilight was settling in, the sky was lit like high noon. The intense heat from the fire warmed my face and bare shoulders even from this distance. Ash drifted about and the air tasted of acid and smoke, burning my nose and settling a nasty taste in the back of my throat.

“I didn’t start this fire.”

Officer Larry Schneider, one of Angel Fall’s finest, gave me a disgusted snort and walked away. I whispered it again, more to myself then anyone else, “I didn’t start this fire.”

And no one believed me.

My name is Riley Margate, a twenty-eight year old hairdresser and mostly average in all respects. My shoulder-length, blond hair is on the dark side (I have it highlighted regularly—one of the perks of the job), I have average hazel eyes that leaned more toward blue, then green. I go to work, sometimes a movie and then home to live out my quiet life. It’s a boring life, but I like it that way. I was never a drama-mama and prefer to be the fly on the wall instead of the one in the middle of a cat fight. I stay home most nights as a choice. Although my mother thinks I’m hiding, that’s just not true. I’ve just decided that I like things better at home.

No dating, no wackos and no problems. Average, like I said, but twenty-four hours ago I made a really bad decision and now the fire in front of me seemed to be the least of my problems. Fires burn, firemen put them out, but what that man on the beach made me do won’t go away as easily. I pulled the blanket up and hugged it to me. I thought about my bed at home and how good it would be to put on my flannel pajamas and get under the covers. Hide from the world and never come out. Then maybe this nightmare would go away.

NOTE TO Gregory Huffstutter: Please resend your Booky Noise excerpt and cut it down at least in half. We only want to deal with opening hooks, not whole pages. Thanks!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Booky noise I

Let's do this right. As I get samples from you all of your book openings, I will post them separately as "exercises" so we can chew on them and comment. We'll call this the Booky Noise Writers Workshop. If you want to submit your opening for us to critique, just add it to the comment section on this post. It will come directly to me and I will re-post it under a new heading.

And now, the first session of the Booky Noise Workshop opens. Here for your consideration and comments is Mark Terry's opening from his fourth Derek Stillwater novel THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS.

Islamabad, Pakistan
October 20

The new guy said, “Do you trust any of these people?”

Agent Dale McHutchins, standing in front of his locker in the FBI headquarters in Pakistan’s capital city, adjusted his flak jacket and took a moment to consider the question. He had been working in Pakistan for five years, at first directly with the National Police Bureau, but finally they had set up their own headquarters.

“Some of them,” he finally said. McHutchins double-checked his SIG-Sauer P220 for the fifth time, and slipped it into his tactical holster. McHutchins leaned down and double-tied his boots. He was wiry, rather than big-boned, his graying dark hair cut close to his scalp, his jaw angular with a deep cleft in the middle.

The new guy, Jason Barnes, said, “You want to give me a hint? Who can I trust at my back, man?”

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Booky noise

What makes for a great beginning in a thriller or mystery? Ah, what a question. I know you -- like me -- probably think about it alot. All writers do, no matter if they are on their first book or their fifteenth. It is drilled into us by editors, writing books, conventional wisdom, and book reviewers who write stuff like, "After a slow beginning, Parrish's latest picks up speed..."

To be slow is to sin. It's like some Eleventh Commandment:

(Cue James Earl Jonesesque voice)

Thou shalt not commit a slow opening.

Generally, Kelly and I buy into this. Our books tend more toward suspense than the traditional mystery, so we are very aware of this need to get out of the gate fast. Our editors in the past have packaged us as "thriller" writers. We even teach this gospel in our workshops and our manuscript critiques. But lately, I've been thinking maybe we writers sometimes give this one commandment a little too much credence. Maybe our concerns about pacing are being skewed too much by the current trend toward thrillers dominating the bestseller lists. Maybe we are too worried that today's reader is too torqued up by TV, Tom Cruise movies and video games to tolerate a more measured entry into a story.

This thing is weighing heavily on me this week because our editor has asked that we ratchet up the action in our new book a tad. Kelly and I immediately understood his reasoning; we had already chewed on this issue between ourselves before he brought it up. Although there is plenty of low-burn suspense in the beginning of our story, there are no corpses, no murders, no high octane action until well into the story. Then things explode. But it is too late?

So we wrote a new opening and sent it on its way last night for our editor to consider.

Then today, I got a fan letter from Mike Bienkowski, a college professor up in Albany. Mike had just finished our book "An Unquiet Grave" and wrote to say: "The first paragraph was one of the best I've read a long while and it kept me reading. Congrats on breaking through all the booky noise out there. A very impressive performance."

"Booky noise." What a great phrase. But what did it mean?

So I wrote Mike back and asked. He replied: "By 'booky noise' I was referring to the standard, paperback writer opening page that I read (like the typical opening scene of a movie). I get so tired of explosions, muggings, love-fests, et al, that it was refreshing to read and see Christmas lights bouncing on branches in the breeze. The rest is all booky noise to me."

To which I could only think: Well, shoot...

Here is the opening of "An Unquiet Grave" that Mike is talking about:

The Christmas lights were already up. He had the top down on the Mustang and he could see them as he drove up, a cluster of small white lights that someone had strung on the coconut palm in his yard. A stiff breeze was blowing in from the gulf, moving the fronds and sending the lights bobbing and dancing like fire-flies on a hot summer night."

When I wrote that opening, I knew I wanted something quiet and evocative, something that spoke to the itchy out-of-kilter feeling a northerner transplanted to the tropics feels every time December comes around. It was slow but I knew it. And it was intended to portend something bad to come.

The next couple paragraphs are just as slow:

Louis Kincaid turned off the engine and just sat there, looking at the lights.

Fireflies. July Fourth. Michigan.

But there were no fireflies here. It was November, not July. And he was in South Florida.

His mind was playing tricks on him.

That last line is important. Because this book, on its surface, was about a murder in an abandoned insane asylum. But the underground railroad theme was about how even the mind of a healthy person can play tricks and cause a sane person to wonder where the line marking insanity starts.

So yes, the story started slow. And Kelly and I let it, trusting that we could create tension without carnage, trusting we had the ability to pull the reader through the story without tricks. And most important, trusting the reader to have the patience to let a story find its legs and rhythm.

But this newest book? Did we do the right thing by rewriting our opening and opting for a grabber? I wish I knew. The stakes are so high these days in our genre, the pressures so heavy to keep pace. The temptation to sin is great.

Maybe I just need to listen to my heart and tune out its own version of "booky noise." Until I work up that courage, I leave this blog entry without a clue, closure or any neat little summary. But thanks for listening.