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 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.


Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

Boy, you guys speak to me a lot. I've been thinking, with the new book I'm working on, that I need to--exactly as you put it--get out of the gate faster. Because I, too, write on the thriller side of mystery.

To continue the metaphor, it's hard to know if we're taking our horse out of the race. Read Michael Connelly. He doesn't start out with a bang. But he draws you in until you are addicted, and can't stop reading. But that usually doesn't happen in the first chapter, at least for me. I think there are some writers who are natural "builders", and they build their way to a point of critical mass.

It's good to sharpen things up, and some books require wilder openings than others, but at the same time, I feel I have to dance with the one what brung me. Me. I try not to edge too far from what I feel has been successful so far, although I try to go a little farther each time.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Daniel Hatadi said...

It's hard to care about terrible things happening to characters you barely know. Nothing can build fear better than a slow burn.

I'd rather be placed firmly in a different world than have 'something big' happen to pull me into a story.

12:03 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I think this is a wonderful post (albeit with no conclusions). I'm all for a great start, but what strikes me about your entry into "Unquiet Grave" is how we're in the middle of things, even if we're not in the middle of a crime scene. We're right at the moment in which your main character has to make a decision, and that does draw the reader in.

If anything, I think we've all gotten a little too good at the big bang opener, the: "The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming" (Elmore Leonard), or: "I don't think my stepfather much minded dying." (Dick Francis) It's important to, I think, but it always does cause a problem for those stories that need to build or require a certain kind of backstory in order to make sense.

I don't think the publishing world does a service to readers by having stricter and stricter adherance to a formula (must start out in the middle of action, have three acts with a major twist after the second act, and a sex scene involving two hookers a poodle and McDonald's takeout on page 218). That's TV, not novels, and part of the beauty of novels is that we have the room and time to take different paths.

Still, haven't you read some books that you wished would start a little quicker? I know I've read a few supposed thrillers that I wished had been 40 or 50 pages shorter, mostly at the beginning.

Mark Terry

7:57 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


Interesting comment about not caring about people you don't "know" in a book. I hadn't thought of it that way but you are exactly right. Which is why so many fast starts -- particularly those written from a killers POV -- leave me cold.

9:45 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


I am reading a "thriller" right now that has an opening that is what I would kindly call unengaging. It creates no mood, no sense of place, and the pure quality of the writing itself isn't enough to whet my interest. (I'll often go along for a slow ride -- to a point -- for great writing.) What's worse, this book is giving me all the usual cliches that are popular in neo-noir right now. It is about as fresh as yesterday's bagels. I'm going to give it 20 more pages...

9:52 AM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

What I hate most are those suspense books that have been going since the eighties, where the killer is stalking the victim. Often, he's gleeful and has a quirk - the little bit of "character business" that's supposed to set the book apart. It's all been done a thousand times before, even though the author thinks it's original.

One example of turning that on its head was a book written by Michael Prescott, MORTAL FAULTS, which has the killer going after this woman--she's kind of an unexpected opportunity. There's a wonderful moment when he asks the woman her name and she says, "Abby". Abby is an ongoing character and she's one tough customer. I got a chill reading that because I knew the tables had been turned and this guy was in deep trouble. I can't remember where his body was found.

I agree that character is the most important thing in the beginning. I just reread some Harlan Coben beginnings - he really has it down - and so much of it is knowing the character. Like the woman who finds an old photo of her husband among the photos taken of a family outing. In a very short period of time we get the important parts of her history, her attitude toward other people, and her incredible strength and courage. All framed in simple suburbia. The book is JUST ONE LOOK.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Shannon said...

Hi PJ. I was so glad to read this post because it is one of my million dollar questions right now. How can we, who aim to be published, not be "skewed by the current trend" toward thrillers. If it's working, it's obviously what readers want, right? But, on the other side of that, I wonder if we aren't challenging the readers enough. What if we are just giving in to the short-MTV-style attention spans like a parent giving in to their child screaming for cookies?
Just some food for thought.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

My current wip starts with:

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.

Not a "Big Bang" opener at all. Honestly, I get weary with those one-liner hook openings that are supposed to draw you in. If every thriller opens like a James Bond movie, then readers quickly become numb to the effect. I think it's better to set the tone, let the reader know when and where they are, provide some initial insight to the character.

Does my opening work? Any opinions here?

11:26 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I like your opening for several reason. You establish a place and mood. You tell me alot about this character thru small details. I suspect he's your hero, but even if he's the bad guy, I am interested in where he is going.

But what I really like it the filet knife. A seemingly benign object injected into an otherwise gentle opening graph is not unnoticed, even if it never resurfaces. Already the reader is on alert: Is it just for fileting fish or did the writer put it there to portend something sinister?

We did the same exact thing recently in an opening with a knife. The person holding it stops, distracted by a sound, and we describe the knife pausing in mid-air. (You don't know what the knife's motion had been before). Two paragraphs later, we find out it was being used to spread peanut butter, but the suggestion of malice is established.

Anyone else have an opening they want to test out here? Let's have some fun!

11:43 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

What bugs me about so-called "great opening lines" (GOL) is that some writers labor hard and mightily to create them. But then it is all downhill from there. I have never believed in the GOL. It's like starting out a fireworks display with your best shot. Where can expectations go from there?

And GOLs are so utterly self-conscious. It's usually the writer screaming, "Look how clever I am!"

Anyone can write one great line.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Kris!

And I LOVE the way you used that peanut butter knife to create suspense.

Looking forward to seeing openers from others here!

12:14 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Okay, I'm game. This lead may very well change, since I've just started on this book, but here:

This is the start to the 4th Derek Stillwater novel that won’t be out until fall of 2008, but which I need to have handed in early in the fall of 2007. It’s titled 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?”

1:20 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I like it, Mark. If I were an editor (and I'm not, so take this for what it's worth), I would make the following changes:

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?”

2:32 PM  
Blogger Daniel Hatadi said...

I don't get told I'm exactly right too often, so I'll just bask in that glow for a moment by sharing with you all a link to my current WIP's opening.


Yes, it's NaNoWriMo. In my defense, a bottle of 12 yr old Scotch is my reward for winning.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I look for most in openings is voice. So that's what I usually concentrate on in my own work. I don't care about suspense or action or anything else, I just want to hear a good voice and know that I'm going to be in good hands for the next 300 pages or so.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Daisy said...

Thanks for bringing this up. I've also been feeling like "start with the action" is one of those pieces of good advice that has congealed into a Rule, even when it doesn't work with the natural structure of the book (hence the profusion of pointless prologues (not to mention aimless alliteration) that only serve to get some violence up front). I say start with something interesting, even if it's setting or *gasp* backstory.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

Fantastic post, not that I have any answers. I worry about this constantly. THE KILL had a slower opening, but it was necessary to establish my heroine's ordinary world before giving her the bad news, otherwise it wouldn't have had context.

I think it has to do more with voice and the tone of the individual book whether starting with a bang is more beneficial than not. I don't consider this a "trick"--but the bang has to make sense if it's going to work.

I've already rewritten the first chapter of my April release four times, and am about to dive in and rewrite it again. Not because its too slow or too fast, but that it didn't start at the right place.

The first hundred pages are hardest part of the book for me to write. After that, I wouldn't say the rest was "easy", but compared to the beginning the rest is a breeze!

9:40 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Just my theory, but I think society is becoming a bit ADD. I'm a worse than the normal person, and I keep getting worse with every birthday.

When I walk into a bookstore, I'm completely overwhelmed. I'm like a kid when they first walk into that giant toy store in New York, who can't stop running up and down the stairs, from floor to floor, and section to section.

I try to pick up authors I don't know now and then, and sadly, I'm as bad as the worst consumer. Cover needs to hook me, so I'll pick up the book. Title and flap copy help me turn to the first page, but once there ... I need to be hooked by the voice, style, or pacing immediately.

If I'm not wow-ed in the first paragraph or two, I can't help but pick up the other twenty that I'm just dying to try.

I think it's a necessary evil, but ... when does it cross the line into gimmicky?

4:21 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Hey Allison, welcome!

You rewrote your opening chapter four times? Man, do I hear you.

As an update to my original post, Kelly and I turned in our new more charged opening, but we weren't at ease because we knew in our hearts it disrupted the continuity we had established between our prologue and chapter 1. We called our editor and told him our misgivings. Being a good editor, he told us to take the weekend and think it over, that the final decision was ours.

After a sleepless night, we got together on the phone yesterday and hit upon a compromise solution that we are VERY happy with. Weirdly enough, this second change, while a pain in the pass to do because it means rewriting later chapters as well, will significantly strengthen the book.

Like I always say, God watches out for travelers, fools -- and sometimes writers.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find that so many novels start like a frayed end of a rope and only tighten up after two or three chapters. I think this is because the pressure to write the big opener causes us to over-write or labor out of proportion to the rest of the book. Think about it. Don’t you sweat and toil over the beginning more than the rest of the book combined?


4:21 PM  

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