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 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?”


Blogger Shannon said...

This would keep me reading, Mark. I like how you jump right into the dialog, although I think I would just start it with "Do you trust any of these people?" and then put in the information that he's the new guy somewhere else. Like maybe "...took a moment to consider the new guy's question." I definetly got a feel for the potential danger considering the location. Can't wait to read more.

4:32 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I agree with Shannon; it like it. Opening with a quote can be risky business. The quote has to bear a lot of weight in that so much is invested in so few words. I have seen this technique fail more often than succeed.

Let's look at a couple examples -- without the author names. Do they work for you or not?

1. "Drive hard, Joe. Mary Ann's blue again, so I want to be home by ten."

2. "Do you do divorce work?" the woman said.

3. "Rosato & Associates," Mary diNunzio said into the receiver then kicked herself for answering the phone.

4. "It would be so easy to kill you while you sleep."

5. "You think we've got a case?" Mercer Wallace asked me.

6. "Forget it, Steve, I'm not having sex in the ocean."

I know which ones would make me want to read further and which ones make me go "eh."

So back to Mark's sample from his book. I really like the tension that is implied in the first line. Right away, we know someone's in danger. But would it LOOK better on the page like so:

"Do you trust any of these people?" the new guy said.

Or maybe this variation in two paragraphs:

"Do you trust any of these people?"

Agent Dale McHutchins turned from his locker to look at the new guy.

"Some of them," he answered. "Some of them I don't." (or whatever. I feel this comeback needs to be stronger and it needs to somehow SAY something about this hero we are about to meet.

Here's something else to consider: When you use quotes to open, you have to keep that tension-rope taut for a couple graphs or so before you start moving into narrative, scene-setting and information. In Mark's case, is there perhaps so much information between the question and the answer, that we feel a slight lessening of the tension created by that nicely spare opening line? And if you are signposting with "Islamabad, Pakistan" before you begin, do you need to repeat it in the body of the secod graph?
And do we need to know so high up in the crucial opening graphs of your story that the FBI has finally set up headquarters somewhere? There is probably a way to more gracefully slip that tidbit in later.

Just my two cents.

Answers to the opening lines above:
1. Silent Joe by T. Jeff Parker
2. Bad Business by Robert B. Parker
3. Killer Smile by Lisa Scottoline
4. Bloody Mary by Joe Konrath
5. Death Dance by Linda Fairstein
6. The Deep Blue Alibi by Paul Levine

5:40 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

All good points and I like Jude's edits, as well. Like I said when I sent it to you, it may change. It's essentially a rough draft of a prologue I haven't completed yet, so I expect to move information around. And I don't much like lengthy physical descriptions of people if I can avoid it. Jude cuts it entirely. I will probably get it in somewhere later on a more active fashion.

And I very much agree on the issue about having too much information, like the new FBI HQ. This is really a product of how I work, which is research as I go. I will often put an info dump into early versions, which get trimmed and moved around so they're not info dumps. In early research I have found that the FBI started out working with the Pakistani police, etc., but eventually set up their own FBI headquarters, which when you think about it is pretty strange and one can guess why they do it that way, since we're there to hunt down Muslim terrorists that may be infiltrating their country or who are being supported by people in Pakistan... which explains the situation in the prologue in general, doesn't it?

Anyway, thanks for the comments and I'll stop back in periodically to see what else folks might say.

Mark Terry

5:50 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Kris asked me to put this up again under this post, so here it is with some explanations of the edits I made:

Islamabad, Pakistan
October 20 (I see this at chapter headings in published books sometimes, but I think it’s better if you can incorporate time and place into the narrative somehow)

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.(This sentence would read better to me if the verbs were put into parallel construction. As is, sounds too much like an info dump)
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.(See my revision on this sentence)

“Some of them,” he finally (use of “finally” in two consecutive sentences) said. McHutchins double-checked his SIG-Sauer P220 for the fifth time(He DOUBLE checked it five times? That’s ten checks!), and slipped it into his tactical(not sure what this is) holster. McHutchins leaned down and double-tied(double-check, double-tie. Watch for word repeats in a short space) 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.(All telling, no showing, and you switch to omniscient POV with this description)

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

And with the edits:

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

Agent Dale McHutchins stood in front of his locker, adjusted his flak jacket and considered the question. He had been working here for five years, at first directly with Pakistan’s National Police Bureau and now in the FBI’s own headquarters.

“Some of them,” McHutchins finally said. He checked his SIG-Sauer P220 for the fifth time, slipped it into its holster, leaned down and double-tied his boots.

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

I agree with the others. I would read more. Just needs tightening up a bit. Good luck with it, Mark!

6:12 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Just a comment on the Islamabad and the date. Like in my first Derek, THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK, the prologue takes place before the story temporally. The story itself takes place in a very short period of time. In PITCHFORK, about 24 hours. In SHADOWS, they actionable intelligence two weeks before, but due to translation, etc., they only have 48 hours to act, which is where the story begins.

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Philip Hawley said...

I apologize for the off-topic question, but I wanted to confirm that you received my e-mail yesterday (sent through your website). I'm asking only because of the message on your website describing recent e-mail problems.

And by the way, AN UNQUIET GRAVE is the reason I'm not getting any work done tonight. Your book held the same evil influence over me last night as well.

What a terrific novel.

7:24 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I may, indeed, have gotten your email but they go thru my "Cabana Boy" husband first. Rest assured I still answer my own email (and always will!) but he screens them first and sends me the non-spams. I will reply soon!

8:28 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I like that it says "the new guy says" because I get the tingle that he's a bit nervous. Then I want to know why.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

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.

9:43 PM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...


Let me be the next to throw my first 500 words to the wolves...

This is from an as-yet unpublished mystery I just completed called "Katz Cradle."

It begins with a flashback, which is always dicey. But hopefully it's strong enough to keep the reader's interest.

Gregory Huffstutter


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.

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

Hi PJ,

I'm a lurker that's decided to come out of hiding and sponge some help and advice from your "Booky Noise" group. This one's a first draft of wip and i'm not sure whether it's going to stick to suspense thriller or veer off into sheer chaos.:) All comments critical or otherwise would be gratefully received. I don't have a blog but will happily supply an email address if anybody wants it. Thanks

“They’re out there.”
She sat in the darkened room, eyes straining, as if seeking to catch them unawares. “They’re out there and waiting.” She turned as she spoke, framed for a moment in the moonlight, a picture of absolute composure except for the eyes. God the eyes…iridescent black pearls, it was like looking into the flames of hell.
She stood up and moved to the window as if about to close it. Before we could do anything, she was gone. A fleeting touch on the windowsill, a scraping noise like rats scuttling behind a wall, then silence. We rushed to the window expecting to see a body, but nothing there. We sealed the building and checked the area thoroughly. No body, no bloodstains, nothing. She had vanished.
He switched the tape recorder off; there was nothing else to be gleaned from the officers’ report. Sitting back in the chair he studied the room and tried to visualise the sequence of events. How could a seventy-year-old woman jump out of a window five stories up and just disappear?

8:52 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...


The day is warm with the smells of cut grass from Bertram Beal’s riding mower. On the shell road leading to the house, a baby water moccasin sprawls like a torn fanbelt. A horse bangs his water pail in the stable. And in Mrs. St. Clair’s abandoned hothouse, its windows ironed opaque by the Gulf sun, the horticultural inmates left behind press their searching hands against the windows, trying to get out. The thought could keep you up all night.

Billy Junior’s widow sits in her aunt’s Taurus on the road outside. The air conditioner is broken and blows only hot air. Jenny St. Clair peers through the passenger-side window at the tangle of trees and the octagonal house beyond; from here, the house looks like a yellow and white wedding cake. Jenny touches the rosary beads hanging from the rearview as the drone of the lawn mower comes in through the open window. She wonders if the rosary beads ever work.

The hot air in the car finally propels her out of the Taurus and onto the verge, where she stands still and pale, her arms crossing and uncrossing as she strains for glimpses of the life she once had.

It has taken her weeks to get to this point.

12:53 PM  

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