Tuesday, October 29, 2013

First page critique:
The Last Rose of Summer


By P.J. Parrish
Our critique today is titled "The Last Rose of Summer." My comments, in yellow, follow.
* * *

The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries against a bleached, predawn sky. The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees, loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.

Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees as he scaled the slippery slope. He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.


Despite the freezing temperature, Junior Resnick’s porkish face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here.” He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin’ crazy.”


Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. Wiping the mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, we keep going,” he said.


At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Andrew heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A mockingbird’s haunting call sent creatures scampering from the brush as the wind whistled softly through the trees. The swirling mist floated over the damp ground, creeping over Louis’s shoes. He felt a stir of excitement. It was a fitting day to find a body.

* * *
This isn't too bad. There's some nice atmosphere established and we can figure out what is going on. But I think this is a tad overwrought, what with "naked" trees and "black capillaries" and "bleached skies." We also get "a mire" of leaves and "copper colored mud." The wind isn't merely blowing, it's "wafting." Whew...lot of imagery loaded into the crucial opening graph. Here's some more comments in yellow:

* * *
Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle,  the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae.  The SUEDE was blanketed? Do we care what the boot is made of? While we're at it, do we care about algae? Get on with it! Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees What's wrong with "branches"? as he scaled the slippery slope. We know its slippery; it has algae on it.  He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy we KNOW it's muddy! incline.

Despite the freezing temperature, you already said it was cold Junior Resnick’s porkish  this is a loaded word. Tone it down to chubby?face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, more mud? looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. Again, you already told us he's fat. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, You already told us he's breathing hard. “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here." I get the feeling we are in the South somewhere. Dropping G's to convey geographic dialect isn't a good idea because it is hard to read over the course of  a book and it is staring to establish a stereotype of Southern cops. He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin' crazy." I think F word should be used VERY sparingly, as an accent, not as common venacular. It loses its impact when tossed out like this.

Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. If Andrew is our hero, why make him so unlikeable so early?Wiping the mud  argh...more mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, need new graph here. we keep going,” he said. New graph here too. At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment The sun is inanimate. It can't "choose" to do anything. to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Louis heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A mockingbird’s haunting call sent creatures scampering from the brush not sure this even makes sense...why would the birdsong make "creatures" start? as the wind whistled softly through the trees. The swirling mist floated over the damp ground, creeping over Andrew’s shoes. Enough with the shoes already. He felt a stir of excitement. You don't need this...it is telling not showing. It was a fitting day to find a body. Nice little ending but this last graph, coming on top of all the other description, feels self-conscious and "writerly." "Rippling, haunting, shooting, eerie, creatures whistling, swirling mists...this is all TELLING NOT SHOWING.
* * *
Okay, I know. I am being a little hard on this contributor. But I have a right to be because I wrote this way back in 1998. It got published under a new title -- DARK OF THE MOON. The hero's name changed from Andrew to Louis Kincaid. It was the book that launched the series that we are still writing today.

Sorry for not fessing up from the get-go but I just wanted to make a point. I think the critiques we do here are a damn good deal. We all seem to learn something from the give-and-take of the comments. And although it's useful to read about the craft of writing, it can be really powerful to get feedback and see "before" and "after" writing samples. I got the idea -- and courage -- to show you this from Stephen King. I've been re-reading "On Writing" this week and in the last chapter he tears apart one of his own stories, showing us his raw first draft and the finished chapter. It's an eye-opener.

I also wanted to share this because we recently got the rights back to our first book and are self-publishing it as an eBook. But in the process of getting it ready, Kelly and I took a hard look and decided that we could make it better. Don't get me wrong; we're proud of the book. But it was a freshman effort and, contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there ARE second acts -- if not in life than in the life of books. So rather than putting the book out there as it was originally published, we are going through it and changing some things.

Like what? Well, we're pruning some of the "writer-ly" stuff because in the last twelve years we've learned that less is usually more. Here's a good quote from "On Writing:"  
"If you want to be a successful writer you must be able to describe [it], and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition...Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buried him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium."
We've also rid our book of bad dialect and gratuitous obscenities. We tweaked the secondary characters so we are not playing directly into the Southern stereotype. Yes, there are truths to be told about race in the South but it is more effective, we think now, to approach it at a thoughtful angle rather than dead-on with a hammer. And because we now know our protagonist better after living with him for twelve books, we are setting up his motivations more thoughtfully. 

This has been extremely humbling, this process. It is also gratifying because we can see our trajectory as authors, see how much we have learned. But what does this have to do with me, you might be asking? Well, here's some things you might want to take away from my first-page self-critique here: 

1. Trust in the rewriting process. This is where your book is made. Get that first draft written, set it aside for at least a couple weeks then go back and look at it with a cold eye. If it looks, as Stephen King puts it, "like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can't remember shopping," you're ready to rewrite. You'll find glaring plot holes, thin character motivation, and lots of cheese. Embrace this process! "The Last Rose of Summer" was rewritten ten times before it found a publisher and now we're rewriting it again. Your first draft come from your heart. Your second, third, fourth, tenth...those all come from the head. 

2. Trust yourself to clean up your messes and misses. The original first chapter of "Dark of the Moon" is about five pages. In our latest rewrite we have cut it to three. Nothing important was sacrificed. But we really upped the pacing in the crucial opening chapters. Stephen King offers this formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%. 

3. Trust that you will find your "style." It's what makes you unique as a writer, your special voice and way of looking at the world through your fiction that no one else has. If you read "Dark of Moon" you will hear P.J. Parrish's voice but it wasn't clear and confident. Now, our tone has darkened, our writing style has become leaner, and we've found our essential themes. It's all epitomized in the two titles: Our working title, "The Last Rose of Summer" conveys the end of something but it sounds fuzzy, flowery and better suited to a romance. "Dark of the Moon," taken from a Langston Hughes poem, hit just the right note. 

4. Trust in your ability to learn. Yes, talent is important but so is craft. And craft can be learned. If you are a serious writer, you must be willing to constantly challenge yourself and never be content with what is easy and quick. You can hone your craft and you can get better. And yes, it might take a long time.

I am an old dog. I am still learning new tricks. 

Postscript: I decided to include the "new" WIP opening so you can see our "before" and "after." We used our first two chapters in a recent SleuthFest rewriting workshop we taught and if anyone would like to have a copy of the handout, I'd be glad to mail it to you. Email me at killzoneblog@gmail.com. Please put Parrish Handout in the subject line.

* * *

December in Mississippi.

No sun, no warmth. 

Just a cold wet breeze, a bleached gray sky and muddy ground.

Louis Kincaid pushed through a thicket of brush and started up a slope. The fog that hovered near the ground blurred the orange vest of the hunter ahead and Louis had to quicken his pace to keep up. At the top of a hill, he looked back, waiting for the last man of the trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.

Despite the freezing temperature, Junior Resnick’s chubby face was beaded with sweat. His brown deputy sheriff’s jacket looked like a sleeping bag wrapped around his belly.

“Man,” Junior said, “I thought he said it was just a ways out here.” He wiped his nose with this forearm. “I’m sore as hell already.”

Louis turned away and started down the hill.  At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the bank of a rippling brown creek. The sun broke through the clouds, shooting streaks of pale light into the morning mist. Louis heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A trill of a mockingbird drifted on the fog.

Louis felt a stir of excitement and he knew it was a macabre thought --  maybe even twisted -- but he couldn’t help think that it was a fitting morning to find a body.

23 comments:

  1. Excellent, Kris. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Aw, cut this writer a break, will you?

    Actually, I'm glad you 'fessed up, because I'm freer now to say that I think you cut too harshly.

    I LIKED the detail of the suede. That characterizes.

    I LIKED "porkish." It's much more descriptive, has more voice.

    I don't mind at all that you emphasize freezing. And so on....

    Some of the cuts are good, like the "black capillaries," the sleeping bag bit and, esp., the F words.

    But mainly, I liked a lot of it, because I do think we need to let "voice" live and breathe a little. This author shows real promise! I don't want to rain on her parade too much!

    Now, there is one suggestion I was going to make, and that is to establish POV before descriptive elements. Thus I'd begin it:

    The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees, loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.

    and

    Louis Kincaid pushed through a thicket of brush and started up a slope. The fog that hovered near the ground blurred the orange vest of the hunter ahead and Louis had to quicken his pace to keep up.

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    Replies
    1. Good pt about establishing the POV, James. It is a small but very important thing that we tend to get wrong because as writers, we are "seeing" everything in our minds and sort of forgetting to filter it through a character's consciousness with clarity.

      As for the detail description thing. I don't disagree with your points about liking some of the "before" stuff. But it was us 12 years ago...we have changed a lot as writers. It is interesting to go back to an early book in that way.

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    2. I liked that point of Jim's about establishing POV right away, too.

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  3. Ha! I loved the twist in your critique! I definitely think the rewrite is better, but I also agree a bit with JSB. The first write definitely has a rich voice while the second is much more stark. That said, the first has a voice like deep-fried cheesecake floating in hot fudge. It's too rich. The second write also gives us an important bit of information: Junior is a deputy sheriff.

    I just finished King's "On Writing" a short while ago. I loved it, though I didn't agree with his advice against outlining.

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    1. King is against outlining? Huh...I missed that, I guess, Eric. I'm with you...outlining can be a valuable tool. But my own experience has shown that while we needed to outline extensively for our early books, we did less and less as we went deeper into the series. Some of that, I suspect, is from getting to know your protag well.

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  4. Thank you. This is great. I'm too afraid to look back at my first work. Mine will definitely be worse.

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  5. Very nice, Kris. The rewrite is spot on, too. In the original piece, there was a lot of distance from what was happening. Almost an insulation. I suspect this is a curse new writers have to face. There's a certain amount of fear of showing what you really mean. Maybe it won't fly. Maybe it will sound dumb. So you (the writer) step back, and step back, again, attempting to hide behind description and repetition, when you just need to say it, get on with it. The book Art and Fear brings out many surprising dimensions to this thyme. At least it amazed me.

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    Replies
    1. Jim, interesting you should mention fear. That's where my bookmark is right now in King's "On Writing:"

      "I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing...Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was in him."

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    2. You make some great points here, Jim! And so well-expressed!

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  6. Kris, thank you for being courageous enough to allow us to benefit from your freshman effort. I knew something was up as I read your comments in yellow -- you're never that harsh in other critiques, and always very positive and constructive. :)

    My radar dinged when I hit the last paragraph of the sample and came across Louis -- thought to myself, "Hmmm, this author is using the same name as PJ Parrish's main character. Interesting. " Haha.

    I like the revised version much better. The first version had too much detail and description for my personal taste. To me, it read as if a woman were giving me a "fluffy" version of a man's experience -- the narrative seemed out of place.

    Again, thank you for sharing this so newbies like me can accelerate our learning curve!

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    1. Interesting, Diane, your comment about it being "fluffy" ie feminine. Which could be a whole nuther post about ying-yang styles, no?

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    2. Yes, very interesting, Diane. And a great topic for another post, Kris!

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  7. Wow, I can't believe that I didn't finish reading this entire post until I scanned back through the first page at least 5 times trying to find Louis! I was thinking, who the hell is Louis, the guy that was way ahead of them in the orange vest? Did they switch POV on me here?

    I get it now, but dang. :D

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    Replies
    1. Diane, I screwed up and inserted Louis's name by accident. Sorry about that!

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  8. A mysery critique.
    You're way too rough on your writing, Kris. It could have used a little pruning, but you created a solid series that's still going.

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  9. I actually loved the first version as well! Very moody. I can understand why you cut some of the redundancies, though. Very fun that we can see how you've changed it from publication until now. Thanks for the great post.

    I'd love to receive the handout, but

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  10. What a great piece. I had to re-read the part about this was your opening. I like both of them, but for different reasons. The first one has that slow, affected richness of the old south. I could see where you start with that language as part of setting, then move onto a faster, leaner text. A real keeper.

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  11. This was excellent from start to finish, Kris. At first I was a bit taken aback by the tone of your critique - so glad to discover it was of your own work! LOL. I prefer the revised version.

    And kudos to both of you for revising the first book in the series. I haven't read it, but the decision to rework it shows a high degree of professionalism and dedication to the craft. No wonder you're such excellent writers!

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  12. Thanks for posting this. I agree with all the previous comments, the revised version probably reads better overall… maybe you’re sacrificing part of your voice, what makes your stuff unique.

    My first drafts are as basic as a "Dick & Jane" primer. Often the dialogue drives everything. Utterly cringe-worthy, and I forget every verb known to mankind other than “walk” or “run,” and my bracketed notes include genius references like, “Dude chases heroine.”

    In fact, one of my nightmares involves some yahoo pilfering my laptop files and blackmailing me. "I'll post this tripe on the Internet and let the haters eviscerate you!”

    The screaming you hear is not from a zombie or Halloween party, it’s one of my critique partners reviewing my opening.

    Angela Merkel worries about her phone, I worry about the NSA getting my hideous first draft.

    Thank goodness you’re human, though. I sometimes think bestselling writers knock out a brilliant first draft while I crawl along and “get good” around draft 5 or 6.

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  13. If new writers study your self-analysis of a long-ago draft, they can't help but gain from it. Learning to apply such a level of rigor--being one's own toughest critic--is priceless.

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  14. I liked "porkish," too. I had the same thought about feminization with the cocoa brown jacket. The rewrite was great and on target. Wow, I really hope I get enough distance from my work, someday, to go back and eviscerate it like this. In a good way, of course.

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  15. Although I agree with those who said the cuts are a little deep in places, there are two points that came to mind as I was reading the initial paragraphs. One is, this Andrew is not necessarily our protagonist; he's just the person we see in the opening paragraphs. Therefore, I neither like him nor dislike him, and to be honest, I think the idea of automatically having to 'like' one's protagonist is worn out. I want to be free to dislike them if I feel like it; they're human, and I'd like to see more rounded characters.

    The other thought is, even in the South, cold December winds do not 'waft.' 'Waft' is a word I associate with warmth, or warm air. Perhaps that is a personal peculiarity, but there it is.

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