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First Five Pages: Love, Hate, and Murder and Mendelssohn

Have you ever read a book you loved and hated at the same time?Kerry Greenwood, Murder and Mendelssohn: A Phryne Fisher Mystery

Kerry Greenwood’s, Phryne Fisher Mystery, Murder and Mendelssohn, fell into that category for me.

I picked up the book from the new-book shelf at our local Mays Landing Library and decided to read it because I loved its exquisite cover: an exotic damsel wearing an elaborate, colorful, parrot-hibiscus-fern fringed shawl.

And I loved the title. Murder and Mendelssohn. Mystery and music. Nice alliteration.

As soon as I got home from the library, I snuggled down in my cozy reading chair all set to be enthralled by a mystery with musical overtones.

Disaster. But only at first.

Being an editor myself and a fan of Noah Lukeman’s book, The First Five Pages, A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, I read the first five pages of Greenwood’s book, unfortunately, with a critical eye.  (My bad habit: I can’t separate editing and reading!)

Here’s what grabbed me.

1. First Five Pages: Too many characters

Perhaps I am too much of a critic and not enough of a story line follower, but I got lost in the shuffle of at least eleven characters sprawled on the first two pages. Thirty choristers came ten pages later.

The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher; tired-out police detective Jack Robinson (unnamed until page 3); Dot, Phryne’s companion who was set to marry Detective Sergeant Hugh Collins; Tinker and Jane, Phryne’s adopted children; Mr and Mrs Butler, butler and cook (what a handy name!); Ruth, of unknown and unexplained personage; Ember, the black cat; and Molly, the sheepdog.

Why so many people (and animals) on the first two pages? Can all these people be essential to the plot? (No.) Where is the hook to keep me reading?

My initial thought was that this might be a first novel of a self-pubbed writer. I checked the book’s spine. Hmmm. Poisoned Pen Press, an established publisher of mysteries (since 1997) with numerous awards to their credit.  Greenfield is an Australian author so favors different spelling on words like colour and favourite. Perhaps they published an early draft, and perhaps there are more differences between American English and Australian English than I had realized. I will check on that.

Turns out that this book is Greenwood’s twentieth in her Phryne Fisher Mystery series and her 62nd book(!). These characters in M & M join the parade of characters from earlier books. Although series readers might enjoy an update on Phryne’s household menagerie, as a stand-alone book, these characters form a roadblock, deadening the beginning of the story.

But wait. Read on, and you will find a great story.

2. Verb Tense: Overuse of past progressive, with a switch to simple past

Notice the verb tense starting with the second sentence on page 1: the boring past progressive tense. Greenfield uses it to catalog the activities going on in her home, making her writing wordier than need be.

The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher was sitting…
She was wearing…
She was nibbling…
[Ember, her cat} was waiting…(in two sentences of 63-words) …[and] was contemplating…
She [Miss Phryne] was reading an autopsy report…
…the tired-out police detective was eating… [We don’t find out the detective’s name until page 3.]
Dot…was embroidering…
Tinker and Jane were playing chess…
Ruth was in the kitchen with Mrs. Butler shelling peas and discussing ways to cook pineapple.
Molly (the sheepdog) was lying under the table…

The deadly clue: overuse of the word was (seven times in eleven lines on the first page alone) with the progressive -ing form on verbs. This quickly becomes tedious reading because of its repetitive monotone nature.

But then. a switch:

…Mr. Butler sat down on his comfortable chair and sipped his after-breakfast cup of coffee.

What happened? Why the switch to simple past tense? Why not use simple past from the beginning and declutter the opening?

3.  Too much description

A barrage of details of Miss Phryne’s glamorous (ostentatious?) garden, morning outfit, and breakfast fill page one, leading one to believe that the main character is, well, quite a character.

The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher was sitting in her jasmine bower, drenched in scent. She was wearing a pale green silk gown embroidered with golden phoenixes, the symbol of the empress. Flaming pearls of longevity burned their way, comet-like, upon her fluttering sleeves. Her hair was as shiny as patent leather, cut in a neat bob which swung forward as she read. She was nibbling a croissant and drinking café au lait. With her pink cheeks and red lips and green eyes, she looked like a hand-coloured French fashion plate.

Other equally eye-catching and attention-getting outfits throughout the book receive similar mention. But not to be identified as a policewoman or inspector, Phyrne packs her .22 Beretta in her petticoat pocket.

A Queenscliff fisher boy, a minor character who “had attached himself at heel, like a small scruffy terrier” to the Fisher household, receives almost a full-page of description detailing why each member (including the pets) of this extended family likes him. Quite a lot of info for a minor character who occasionally brings fish for dinner. His role in the story: He occasionally asks questions that help move the mystery-solving process along because he is, as Phryne says, “endearingly intelligent.”

4. The Plot (or should I say Plots?)

A lot happens in Murder in Mendelssohn.

For me, the story started on page 2 with Miss Phryne reading an autopsy report. Immediate questions popped into my head that drew me into the story.

The much-hated and maligned choir director, Hugh Treggennis, gets murdered. Twice? Two murderers? Phyne called the murderer “flamboyant” and “with a point to prove.” Subtle humor throughout this book adds to its increasingly delicious flavor.

Someone has stifled an orchestral conductor with really quite a lot of sheets of Mendelssohn’s Elijah stuffed down his throat.

Seems excessive, even as musical criticism, ” commented Phryne.

The antics of the eccentric choir members ring true. They hated Tegennis (caricatured as a pig-in-a-suit by one anonymous chorister) and didn’t mind that he was dead, and all proclaimed their innocence in the matter. Of course.

Miss Phryne takes on the case. Oops. Miss Phryne gives tired-out police detective, Jack Robinson, assistance in solving this musical mystery. Let’s keep the record straight on that. Okay? *wink *wink.

One subplot has our heroine aiding and abetting John Willson, her former and current pro tem lover (complete with clothing ripped off in a frenzy of passion), in his bid to gain the attention of his currently unresponsive heart’s desire, Mr. Rupert Sheffield. This subplot comes with its own complete back story.

Mr. Rupert Sheffield is highly suspect for other possible international crimes, and hit men are on his trail attempting to silence him, that is, until John Wilson inadvertently foils their plans. Phryne unselfishly jumps in to solve the heart-throb problem when she realizes John is hopelessly enamored with Rupert.

Along the way to solving this mystery, you will receive music, etiquette, French cuisine, and French language lessons, all thrown in for extra measure. Phryne had been a poor nude artist’s model in France after the war so she is well-versed in all of these areas. Sorry, no recipes.

5. Overuse of Adverbs

Tinker, the fish boy, may be “endearingly intelligent,” but the adverbs in this book sound a bit high schoolish. Check these examples.

would undoubtedly award
occasionally making
confidingly laying her head
unexpectedly stung
endearingly intelligent
slightly failed
confidingly laying her head
reliably voracious
utterly uninterested
pleasantly free
rather meanly taken
really unsafe to eat
brooding darkly
particularly
extremely bitter
naturally bitter
unusually fraught rehearsal
thinking deeply
really quite a lot

Honest, I found all these adverbs in Chapter One. Greenfield uses “really quite a lot” of them. Treasure-hunting for adverbs added to the fun of reading this book! A sneak peak into Chapter Two tells us that Phryne had a “slightly sprained” ankle causing her to walk a little “gingerly” up the stairs,  dressed in a “decently quiet turquoise dress.” Well, you get the idea. The adverbs march on and on.

Move over Tom Swift!

Reviews

I checked Amazon reviews of this book and found a range of love-hate opinions. Die-hard Greenwood fans love the book; first-time Greenwood readers hate the book.

Personally, I love Phryne’s quirky and flamboyant personality, and I even got to love her adverbs. The solid plot kept me invested in the book from page three to the end.  And, to be honest, I really love those flaming pearls of longevity. I have got to have some for myself!

Obviously after twenty Phryne Fisher books, Greenwood is onto something. She has steady followers who look for the next title in the series despite (my) perceived writing problems in this volume.

Now, excuse me, I’m heading to the library to see if I can find more of Greenwood’s books. Her writing style intrigues me, including her bad habits. But as Novelist Elizabeth McCracken says “A writer’s voice lives in his or her bad habits” (quoted in Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page). That’s what makes Greenwood’s book memorable for me. But please, don’t copy her. Go find your own bad writing habits.

Related article: I is for Izzies, Arzies, Wazzies, and Werzies

Janice Hall Heck, retired educator and now nitpicky editor of On the Horizon, a bi-monthly community newsletter for Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, NJ, is quite possibly a grammar geek. You can also find her at    janiceheck.wordpress.com., on Twitter @janiceheck, and on Facebook at Janice Hall Heck.

One Tired, Tarnished Writing Tip…with Six Twists

Read.

That’s It. That’s the tired tip.

Read.

Probably the most common piece of advice given to wannabe and novice writers. The advice is generic…read, read, read.

Yes, and then . . .?

What does reading do for our writing?

Pat Conroy, author of My Reading Life (2010), suggests this:Conroy My Reading Life

Now when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf.

The unstated purposes of “read, read, read” for writers are

  •  to explore all genres of writing,
  •  to identify qualities in writing that appeal to us as readers,
  •  to emulate those fine qualities in our own writing, and
  •  ultimately, as Conroy suggests, to internalize our reading so we change and become better persons ourselves.

How can you read more, high quality writers without spending a fortune at Books-a-Million, Amazon.com, Ex Libris, or other on-line purveyors? Try these six twists based on that one tired tip.

1. Scour the new book shelves at your local library.

I walk through the swinging doors of my library in Mays Landing, NJ, a small town at the headwaters of the Egg Harbor River, and immediately face the new book shelves, right next to the BiblioCafé with its selection of teas, coffees, and snacks. Four twelve-foot long shelves showcase the newest book acquisitions—both fiction and nonfiction. A veritable storehouse of treasure.

2. Let the titles grab you.Craig Childs, Finders Keepers

Here’s one title that grabbed my attention a while ago: Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession (2010) by Craig Childs. (Okay, I admit it. I gravitate to non-fiction books.) These strong words in the title grab my attention: finder-keepers (flashback to childhood arguments with my siblings); tale (here comes a good story); plunder (who’s going to make off with the money, the jewels, the damsel in distress?); obsession (in the desert? What?) What drama. What tension. Don’t you want to know more about this?

This book is cram-packed with Childs’ exquisite writing. Look carefully.  Study his voice. Analyze his craft.

3. Read first pages.

Pick up random new books with titles that catch your eye and interest and read the first few pages while standing at the shelves. Which snippets beg you to read more? What questions pop in your mind? Don’t you want to know the answers? Would you like to write like this?

Pat Conroy in My Reading Life says,

I consider myself a small-time aficionado of first and last pages.

Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, suggests that the first five Noah Lukeman, First Five Pagespages, first five sentences even, of a manuscript can tell an editor whether he or she should pursue reading the whole book. Look at these new books and ask yourself, “What is in these first five pages that made the editor choose this book for publication.” Look for the author’s voice, ideas, art and poetic flair, of course, but also look for writing craft.

4. Follow the Trail. Request books.

The Mays Landing, NJ, our big small-town library, casts a wide net when it comes to borrowing books. I wanted to read more of Chris Child’s writing, so Librarian Sue checked and found Childs’ The Secret Knowledge of Water (2000) in a college library some miles away. Through inter-library Loan, I got the book the next day. Dried out water holes in a dessert? What could be more boring? But listen to the language.

An early memory of the low Sonoran Desert where I was born is of my mother walking me out on a trail. I remember Craig Childs, Secret Knowledge of Waterthree things, each a snapshot without motion or sound. The first is lush, green cottonwood trees billowing like clouds against the stark backdrop of bluffs and boulders. The second is a tadpole worrying the mud in a water hole just about dry. Each tadpole, like the eye of a raven, waited black and moist against the sun. The third is water streaming over carved rock into a pool clear as window glass. These three images are what defined the desert for me. At an early age it was obvious to me that water was the element of consequence, the root of everything out here.

Childs’ first person point of view makes this narrative personal. You can almost touch the early morning scene he describes: mom and child walking hand-in-hand to hunt for treasures obscured by years of desert dust. I not only like the description, I like the orderliness and tightness of the writing. And I like the profound concluding statement that portends surprising things to come. I want to read more.

5. Savor exquisite writing.

As you read, look for exquisite language: precise choice of words and phrases, well put-together sentences, original similes and metaphors, and surprising elements. Copy these selections into your writer’s quote notebook and decide why you like them. (You do have a personal quote book, don’t you?)

6. Mimic good writers.

When you read an exquisite selection, mimic it. You will grow as a writer. Can you write a similar scene using your own words and experiences?

William Caine, in Write Like the Masters, Emulating the Best of Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, and Others, says this:William CAine, Write Like the Masters

You cannot become a terrific writer just—poof!—out of thin air. It takes something pre-existing, some structural savvy, some foundational in technique, some underlying sense of the possibilities of language before you can strip off your topcoat and tap dance across the pages like Fred Astaire.

So, yes, wannabe writers, read, read, read. Make friends with your local library and librarians. They will quickly learn your interests and suggest other good reading possibilities. Then collect words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and mimic them. Make that tired tip—read—help you become a better writer!

Something Else To Read:

Two Writing Teachers: Beginning of the Year Read Alouds This blog’s tagline: “A Meeting Place for a World of Reflective Writers.” That sounds good to me. I am not teaching now, but these ideas are still good for mature developing writers.

Don’t forget to look at children’s books. Some of them have exquisite vocabulary and sentence structure use. The TWT blog suggests read alouds to use in the classroom, but you can review these same books to see why TWT recommendsthem.

Two Writing Teachers: Setting Up the Reading Journal for a Year of Writing About Reading

TWT gives excellent suggestions for helping students keep reading logs. You have a reading log, don’t you? Reading logs are the perfect place to jot down your reflections on what you read and to copy words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that appeal to you.

 Something Else to View: How [Reading] Fiction Makes Our Brains Better

Your Turn:

What’s your favorite quote from a book you have read recently?

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