First Page Critique – The Halcyon Vengeance

By John Gilstrap

Another brave anonymous writer has submitted a first page for review and comment.  Y’all know the drill by now: First the piece, and then comments on the other side.  NOTE: The italics are all mine, a way to differentiate whose writing is which.


              Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”


              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

              He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

              “You mean –?”

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”


              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

It’s Gilstrap again.  First, by way of full disclosure, I had some real formatting issues transferring the original email onto the blogging platform.  So, Anon, if I screwed up any of the paragraph breaks, I apologize.

First, the positives.  I like the tone of this story.  It has a very Cold War Ludlum feel to it.  No one trusts anyone.  I like that stuff.  I also like the flow of the dialogue for the most part.  It feels like a real scene, populated with believable characters.

On the downside, I have some quibbles with the prose, which I’ll discuss below, but the most urgent issue here is the fact that it’s confusing.  So, let’s get to all of that.

First things first: I hate the title. It doesn’t mean anything. Titles are supposed to draw a reader in.  It’s among your most important marketing tools. 

Now let’s go section by section:

           Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

I get that it’s not my place to rewrite Anon’s work, but I think the opening line should be “Adrian Steele was in Moscow.  In winter.  Again.  He stared out the 10th floor . . .”  More people have heard of Moscow than have heard of Sheremetyevo, so the quicker you anchor the reader’s head to the setting, the better off you’ll be.

Anon, I urge you to cleanse your work of -ly adverbs. “Snow drifted lightly down” implies that snow can “drift” through the air heavily.  In this case, the word, drift, is strong enough to carry the entire image you’re looking for.

The image of Steele tracing his finger through the condensation implies to me that he is very close to the window, yet he’s receiving a mission brief.  This confuses me.  Is there something outside that he must watch? Is there a reason for him not to be fully engaged in what Natalya is telling him?

This is the paragraph where the confusion starts.  An assignment in Cuba could be a job as a missionary as well as an assassin.  I think you should plant something more specific as to the nature of what he’s going to do, just so the reader can get his head in the right place.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

More confusion for me.  Natalya’s admonition seems unearned.  To me, there’s no indication that he’s not remembering why he’s there. It doesn’t help that we the reader don’t know, either.

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

A one-sentence explanation could clarify who Pierce is.  Alternatively, Natalya could respond with a pithy remark like, “Impossible.  His voice is much higher than mine.”  Anything that would give us a hint of character.

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

Here again, the grimace feels unearned.  Is she in pain?  As she steps to the knapsack, where is she stepping off from?  In my mind, they were sitting, so she would have to rise before she steps.  We need more description of the setting.

If she’s briefing him, why is the knapsack someplace other than where she is?

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”

Until this line, I thought Natalya was the boss.  Also, shouldn’t there be some reaction from Steele?  A few lines later, we learn that he’s confident that she’s a liar, so it makes sense that he wold have some kind of cynical reaction to her fear that she might lose her job.  Given that Steele is risking his life, wouldn’t he be a little bit snarky, if only in his head?


              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

Here we have back-to-back non-sequiturs (sp?). Steele asks a one-word question and Natalya gives a non-responsive response.  Is Steele naked?  What does he need the clothes for?  Is he asking if clothes are in the knapsack?  

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

Yes!  I like this bit.  I’m not fond of the word, doubtlessly, but the sentiment works.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

More confusion.  Changing clothes from what to what?  Why?  That she’d seen him without clothes implies that they are (or were) lovers, so why turn away?  Again, this seems unearned.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

I have no idea what a ushanka is, so therefore I have no image.  Without an image, the next line makes no sense.

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

He knew what?  That he’d look like a pussy?

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

This is the best line of the entire piece.  I would break it into two parts, though:

“And don’t die.  Or get wounded.”

“I can’t,” he said.  “I’ve got an 0300 flight to Havana.”  He put . . .

             He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

Okay, the Makarov PM is a clue. Unless the assassin is using old surplus equipment, the story must be set sometime between the late ’40s and early ’90s.  Now that he’s got his pistol, what does he do with it?  Is there a holster?  Does he slip it in his pocket? Surely he must load it (unless the two magazines Natalya hands him are extras).  My point here is that once you introduce an object, yhou can’t just let it disappear from the page.

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

Jim Bell blogged last Sunday on using dialect and foreign words in manuscripts.  “Spasiba do . . .” translates in my head as blah, blah, blah.  Also, where’s the emotion?  They talk about the weather, and then Steele just walks away.

This section highlights a lack of point of view.  Whose scene is this? I’d like to be in someone’s head, but instead, I’m just watching the players move around on the set.  I’d like to feel something from someone.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

What is the lie?

              “You mean –?”

I’m lost.  I don’t know what they’re talking about.

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”


              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

I sense that here at the end, I’m supposed to be fearful, but I’m not.  Dialogue can carry a scene only so far.  As a reader, I don’t want to feel like I’m merely eavesdropping on someone’s conversation.  I want to understand what’s going on.  I want to understand the stakes.

What say you, TKZers?  It’s your turn.




Cracking The Big Mystery
Behind The Bestseller Lists


The bestseller list is the tip of the iceberg. — Michael Korda

By PJ Parrish

William Peter Blatty was hot off the blockbuster success of his book The Exorcist when he met the devil he couldn’t defeat — the New York Times best seller list.

Angered that his novel Legion, the sequel to The Exorcist, didn’t make the list, he sued the Times for $6 million, claiming the Times ignored actual sales figures from his publisher and that Legion was kept off the list because of “either negligence or intentional falsehood.”

It gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.

The Times, which had always claimed that the list was compiled from computer sales,  countered in court that its list “was not mathematically objective but was editorial content and thus protected under the Constitution as free speech.”  Blatty appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Thus the ruling stood that the New York Times bestseller list was “editorial content, not objective factual content” and that they had the right to exclude whatever book they wanted.

And that, crime dogs, is pretty much where we still stand today.  How any book cracks the New York Times bestseller list remains, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous quote about Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in fish wrap.”

I used to dream about being a bestseller.  Because this is what happens: Your publisher takes you to dinner at Le Bernardin. You get a new seven-figure contract with cover approval and world tour. Spielberg buys the rights. Your agent starts to return your calls. And you make so much dough your long-lost brother from Bullhead hits you up for a car loan.

Like I said…it’s just dream. We actually did make the Times list, with our third book Paint It Black. It was only what they call the “extended list” which means we didn’t crack the top 15 but hey, we hung on our toenails for a while.  We made the extended list two other times but have not repeated the feat recently. But that’s okay, because it’s sort of like making Eagle Scout. Once you get your badge, no one can take it away and you can wear that badge until your teeth fall out.

So I am not here to tell you that making a bestseller list is a fool’s goal. It doesn’t open doors so much as widen the crack, and it gives you credibility with readers, booksellers, critics and such. But I am here today to ask you not to think about it much. Because the bestseller list game is sort of rigged.

This is not news to many of you. But whenever I am asked about this subject by readers or some newbie writers, I am always shocked at their naïveté. What, you’re telling me it’s not based on real book sales? they gasp.

I don’t think much about bestseller lists anymore. I don’t even look at them when I read my New York Times book review section. But yesterday I did stop and read the paper’s “Inside the Times” article.  It was titled “We Don’t Have to Like ‘Best Sellers’.”  In it, once again, the Times felt compelled to explain to the world how it compiles its lists.

This controversy is not new. A book industry report in the 1940s found that best-seller lists were a poor indicator of sales, since they were based on “misleading data.” Fast-forward to a 2004 report that quoted a senior book marketing executive who said the rankings were “smoke and mirrors,” and a report in Book History found that many professionals in the book industry “scoffed at the notion that the lists are accurate.”

And writers have been trying to game the Times system since before the quill pen.  Jacquelyn Susann and Wayne Dwyer, among others, bulk-bought their own books to get on the list. And until recently, you could hire a company called ResultSource that would contract with you to manipulate lists through “bestseller campaigns.” (I tried to find their website but apparently ResultSource has since gone dark).

Last summer, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But the YA Twitter community discovered it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem. The author and her publisher bought the book’s way onto the list by strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. The Times quickly removed the book from its list.

So it’s no surprise the Times is still playing defense. Here’s a sample from their Q&A yesterday:

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists.

Translation: The Times has a network of “reporting stores” which include selected independent bookstores and some but not all big-store outlets. The last figure I found was 4,000 stores and “undisclosed wholesalers.” The exact methodology is considered a trade secret. I have been told by store owners that the reporting figures are not even based on actual sales to customers but on the number of books ordered to stock.

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists. A number of variables go into whether a book will rank on a given week. Weeks where there are blockbuster debuts in multiple categories will be different from quieter weeks. Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering.

Do the books have to have been reviewed in The New York Times?

Books that get ranked may or may not get reviewed by the Book Review and vice versa. Our best-seller lists and the editorial decisions of The Times’s book editors and critics are entirely independent. This means our lists are not a judgment of literary merit made by the editors of the best-seller lists, who remain impartial to the results. These are best-seller lists, not best-reviewed lists.

Translation: But if you happen to work at the Times, some critics have charged, your book will not only get reviewed but it has a pretty good chance of being “considered” by the panel of folks who watch over the list. Which leads us to…

How do The Times’s ranking methods ensure objectivity?

The best-sellers desk is staffed by three full-time editors who work independently from our news, opinion and culture desks; from the Book Review and the books desk; and from our advertising department. Our nonfiction lists feature books from authors across ideological and political spectrums. In the last year, politicians and commentators who identify as conservative have performed as well as, if not better than, liberal ones on our lists. Trends depend on publishing schedules and what is happening in the cultural zeitgeist.

One question they don’t address, but one I am asked often is: How many books does it take to crack a list?  It depends…

On who else you’re competing against that week. On what time of year it is. On whether someone has a similar book already out there. And on what list you’re aiming for. The general figure these days (way down from the olden days when I started out) is you need to sell at least 5,000 in one week.  But that means from Monday to Sunday if you want to be a Publishers Weekly best-seller, and from Sunday to Saturday if you want to be a New York Times best-seller.

It’s a jungle out there, Martha. Even if you want to aim a little lower, say for USAToday, The Wall Street Journal, a regional list like the Chicago Tribune or maybe Indiebound, you have a whole different set of hoops to jump through for each. Every bestseller list out there is compiled differently. Here’s a breakdown I found at

Publishers Weekly: Compiles data from the Nielsen service BookScan, which is what most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales. BookScan claims it tracks 80-85  percent of the sales of printed books in the U.S. (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores.) But it does not track books sold at independent bookstores that use older systems incompatible with BookScan’s tracking, or books sold outside of the general bookstore ecosystem, ie, at conferences or gift shops or toy stores, or even sales to libraries. It also doesn’t track the sales of e-books.

USA Today: Gets its data from both a handful of independent bookstores and many of the usual-suspect big sellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, etc. It doesn’t make any claims about what share of books sales it tracks, so it’s a broad sampling of books sold every week from different types of stores. Again, like BookScan, it does not track books being sold outside the bookstore ecosystem.  It doesn’t divide its list into any specific categories, but instead reports the top 150 titles sold across all genres and in all formats except for audio. So your crime novel will compete against Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I know, I know…insane.

Indiebound: This is compiled by the American Booksellers Association. The ABA uses sales data drawn from about 550 independent bookstores to create its list, but it doesn’t rank titles by overall sales volume. Instead, it weights the books on its list according to the sales rank each one reaches at each individual store. I don’t understand that either but there it is…

Amazon: It has two different best-seller lists: Amazon Charts and Amazon Best Sellers. Charts comes out once a week, tracking the books that have sold the most copies in any format (on Amazon, and in its Kindle store, Audible store, and brick-and-mortar storefronts), and the most read or listened-to books on Kindle and Audible. It’s not broken down by category or format, and it only reflects what’s happening on Amazon and its subsidiaries. (Since Amazon has a 65 percent market share, that’s actually a pretty decent sampling.) Amazon Best Sellers, in contrast, is updated once an hour, and it is broken down by categories. This latter one is what we crime dogs fixate on.

Okay, you’re saying, what about us self-published guys? Do we have a chance at getting on any kind of list? Yes, you can crack the Amazon list.  We got to no. 1 briefly in the thriller category when we self-published our back-list title Dead of Winter. And it used to be alot easier before Amazon started messing with their algorhithms. There was a story every week about some self-pubbed phenom. But for reason behind my ken, that has tapered off. (Maybe some of you can explain in comment?) I did see a figure this week that was astonding — that you need to sell between 3,500 to 5,000 copies in a 24-hour period to hit no. 1 on Amazon. But then I also read recently that Lee Child sells a book every eight seconds…

By the way…those three books at the top of this blog today? You might recognize them. You might not know that they were all self-published before they were massive bestsellers.

But what about the Gray Lady? Well, according to their Q&A yesterday, here are the books they don’t track:  “perennial sellers, shopping guides, comics, reference and test preparation guides, required classroom reading, textbooks, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, puzzle books and self-published books.” If if makes you feel any better, this means the Bible doesn’t qualify. Neither does The New York Times Monday Through Friday Crossword Book, even though it is currently #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

So, does this matter? Is this something you should you worry about this?

Well, it’s a gold star on your homework, but it isn’t a true gauge of success. And here’s something weird I found:  Hitting the Times list works better for unknown  authors than the Lee Childs of the world.

According to an economics professor Alan Sorensen, who has studied the effect of bestseller lists on sales of hardcover fiction, relatively unknown writers get the biggest benefit, as much as a 57% increase in sales. But for perennial best-selling authors such as John Grisham, being on the list makes virtually no difference in sales. Most sales occur soon after a book hits the shelves and gradually peter out. “If anything, what appearing on the [bestseller] list does is not so much cause your sales to increase from one week to the next, but rather to decrease at a slower rate,” Sorensen said.

Why can’t the bestseller system be fixed?

With the sophistication of software now, you’d think there would be a better way to keep track of real book sales. The model, some say, is the music industry, with its bestseller list in Billboard. The magazine tracks every single album sold at every single music store in the United States. SoundScan, the company that began tracking CD and tape sales with a bar code system, was the force behind the creation of Bookscan.  But BookScan is too expensive for many bookstore owners.

And here’s the bigger rub: The publishing industry really doesn’t want a single list of what’s really selling. They want lots of different lists that they can manipulate to benefit their own bailiwicks.

So…write your book and kept your heads down, crime dogs. The rest will come.

Which brings us back to William Blatty.  Despite great reviews, The Exorcist laid such a giant sales egg at first that Harper and Row reported getting returns by “the carload.” But then sales took off and the book made the New York Times bestseller list for 57 straight weeks and at the No 1 spot for 17 of them.

And years later, not long after Blatty filed his lawsuit against the New York Times, Legion made it all the way to no. 15 the Times list for one week.



TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing


Before the holidays, one of our beloved TKZers requested a blog post that offered helpful tips in series writing.

Rather than sharing only my views, I thought it’d be cool to gather advice from all TKZ members. That way, we’d be sure to cover the subject in more depth.

It’s a monster post, but it’s packed with fantastic advice. Ready? Here we go …

From Jordan Dane:

  1. Create a large enough world to sustain a series if it gains traction by planting plot seeds and/or character spinoffs in each individual novel. With the right planted seeds, future stories can be mined for plots during the series story arcs. An example of this is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole PI series where his main character Cole is plagued by his past and his estranged father until THE FORGOTTEN MAN, a stellar novel in the middle of the series that finally provided answers to the mystery.

Crais often plants seeds that he later cultivates in later books. It takes organization & discipline to create these mysteries and track the seeds to save for later.

  1. Endings of each novel in a continuing series are important to readers if your book release schedule has long lags in time. A major cliffhanger can be frustrating for readers to discover at the end of a book before they realize the next novel won’t be released for 6 months to a year.

If your planned series isn’t limited to a certain number of stories (ie Hunger Games – 3 novels) where the overall story arc will be defined, an author might consider writing series novels that read as standalones with a tantalizing foreshadowing of the next story to hook readers. Creating an intriguing mystery to come will pique reader’s interest, rather than frustrate them with a huge cliffhanger they may have to wait a year to read.

See these tips in action in Jordan’s Mercer’s War Series.

From James Scott Bell:

  • Give your series character one moral quest that he or she is passionate about, to the point where it feels like life and death. For example, my Mike Romeo series is about the quest for TRUTH. This is the driving force for all he does. It gives both character and plot their meaning. A quest like this will carry from book to book.
  • Give your series character at least one special skill and one special quirk. Sherlock Holmes is a skilled stick fighter (which comes in handy). But he also shoots up cocaine to keep his mind active. Mike Romeo has cage fighting skills. He also likes to quote literature and philosophy before taking out a thug.

From Joe Hartlaub:

Sue, I love Jordan’s suggestions, particularly #2, about the works being standalones with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Who among us read Stephen King’s Dark Tower trilogy and got to the end of The Dark Tower III; The Waste Land to find the cast aboard a sentient, suicidal choo-choo heading toward oblivion? That was all well and good until we all had to wait six friggin’ years to find out what happened next in Wizards and Glass. 

  • I have one suggestion, which I call the Pop Tart model. Pop Tarts started with a basic formula; they were rectangular, were small enough to fit into a toaster, large enough to pull out, used the same pastry as a base, and started with a set of fillings and slowly added more and different ones over the years. So too, the series.
  • Design a character with a skill set consisting of two or three reliable elements, decide whether you are going to make them a world-beater (Jason Bourne), a close-to-homer (Dave Robicheaux), or something in between (Jack Reacher), and bring in a couple of supporting characters who can serve as necessary foils (Hawk and Susan from the Spenser novels) who can always be repaired or replaced as necessary. Your readers will know what to expect from book to book but will be surprised by how you utilize familiar elements.

From Laura Benedict:

The best series do a good job of relationship-building, along with world-building.

  • Give your main character …
  1. someone to love and fight for,
  2. someone to regret knowing,
  3. someone to respect,
  4. someone to fear.
  • Be careful about harming your secondary characters because readers get attached. If you’re going to let a beloved character go—even a villain—make the loss mean something.

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

  • Add the possibility of exploring lesser characters like Tana French did in her Dublin Murder Squad series — each installment focused on a different lead character that we’d met as a lesser character in another installment. I thought she did this in a masterly way that helped enhance the series.

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

I went wild in my first novel “Backstab” in my Francesca Vierling series, and killed off a secondary character I could have used in other books — Lee the Rehabber. I had versions of Lee, but they were pale imitations.

From me: Rather than repeat previous tips, I focused on subplots and character development.

  • Whatever happens to your character in a series must be reflected in future books. Our past affects us. Take for example my Mayhem Series. In Book 1, Wings of Mayhem, Shawnee Daniels learns a shocking secret about her past. It’s a seed I planted for Book 3, but I couldn’t pretend she didn’t learn about it. So, in Book 2, I hinted at it (in the form of dialogue) to remind the readers who knew about it. At the same time, I needed to show how this secret affected Shawnee i.e. she become even more distrustful and broken.

In Book 3, Silent Mayhem, this secret explodes Shawnee’s life. It also became the catalyst for more secrets, a conspiracy, and an underlying mystery that ran parallel to the main plot. If someone read the books out of order, it was imperative that I let the cold reader know why and how this scenario was taking place without dumping the information in one chunk. Instead, we need to either sprinkle the (now) backstory in over time (a slow build toward the explosion) or use dialogue between two characters. I chose the latter, in the form of a confrontation.

  • Think of all potential readers. Do all aspects of the book make sense? Will they understand the subplot and character development without reading the previous novels? At the same time, have you hinted enough but not so much that you’ve ruined a previous twist? It’s a dance that can knot your stomach muscles, but we need to be cognizant of the cold reader who picks up Book 3 or 4 or 5, as much as the dedicated fan whose read all the books in order.

From Mark Alpert:

  • My favorite series characters are those who learn something in
    each new book. And this knowledge changes them, sometimes
    dramatically, sometimes more subtly, but always noticeably. Think of
    Harry Potter. He’s different in each book. It prevents the series from
    getting stale.

From PJ Parrish:

  • As you progress through your story keep a running chronology of dates and salient plot points that happen in each chapter. This is invaluable come rewrite time. You can consult the chronology and at a glance know where to find something in your plot. It also helps you keep track of the passage of time in your story.

Example from my own book:


Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

Louis shows up at church in Michigan ready to start new job on homicide task force. Introduce his boss, Mark Steele. Set up personality conflict between men and Louis’s fear, he has made Faustian bargain.


Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

First meeting of task force. They get assigned cold cases as tests. Louis picks “boys in the box” case.

From Debbie Burke:

  • If your character is in a happy marriage/career/friendship, destroy that; if he is an orderly homebody, drop him into an unfamiliar, unpredictable universe he can’t escape from; plunk her into situations she would never enter voluntarily but must b/c of circumstance. Whatever your characters’ personal comfort zones are—physical, mental, psychological, spiritual—yank them out of it and throw them into conditions they have never encountered before. Keep them off balance, straddling an earthquake fault.

From John Gilstrap:

  1. Remember that successful series thrive as much on character as they do on plot—perhaps even more on character than on plot.  So, make that protagonist as interesting and unique as you can.  I would argue that the world might not need another divorced ex-cop with a drinking problem and anger issues—unless your take on the old trope is somehow unique.
  1. Take your time when building the world in Book #1.  Plant seeds in that first outing that will allow for plots in the future.  In No Mercy, the first entry in my Jonathan Grave series, I intentionally seeded his world with details that might (or might not) bear fruit for future novels:
  • His substantial wealth comes from his father’s illegal activities;
  • Said father, Simon Gravenow, is serving a life sentence in prison;
  • Jonathan Grave donated the mansion that was his childhood home to St. Kate’s Catholic Church so that it could serve as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents;
  • He is intensely loyal to his friends as they are to him;
  • And more.
  1. Know the intended tone of your series.  Yeah, okay, you’re writing a thriller, but what kind of ride do you intend to give your reader?  This is important because those readers will come to expect a certain consistency from book to book.  The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, is relentlessly dark because everyone we care about is miserable.  Jim Bell’s Romeo series, on the other hand, is lighter in tone without sacrificing any of the thrills.  That tone—that voice—is important to the reader.


Amazing advice, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this puppy. A huge thank you to my fellow TKZ members!

For discussion …

Do you write a series? Writers, please share any tips we might have missed.

If you haven’t branched into series writing, are you considering it?

Do you prefer to read a series or standalones? Readers, please share your views!



Rendering Dialects and Accents in Dialogue

by James Scott Bell

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about dialogue is how to render dialect and accents without bogging down the text with phonetic indicators and apostrophes all over the place, as in:

“Say, Mose, ah reckon there’s a-gonna be a shootin’ or a hangin’ over ’ta the saloon.”

“Ah reckon yer right ’bout that.”

“Ah reckon the whole town’s ’bout ’ta ’splode.”

“Reckon so.”

“Yep, this shore is a day of reckonin’.”

Or a conversation between an Alabama farmer and a New York writer:

“Thar’s a far out yonder.”

“A what?”

“A far.”

“Oh, you mean fire.”

“Ah said far, didn’t ah?”

Too much of this is going to wear a reader out. That’s why heavy dialects and accents in dialogue are out of favor with editors and readers. (Note: A dialect is based on word choices particular to a region; an accent is the “sound” of the speaker when saying the words.)

But what if you do want the character to have a heavy accent? Be clever about it. Give the reader an indication of the speech pattern the first time the character speaks, then use a few sprinkles of it every now and then as a reminder.

For instance, you can do a dialect-heavy first line and then pull it back in subsequent lines. Liz Curtis Higgs does this in Thorn in My Heart, a novel set in 18th century Scotland. A local shepherd greets a lost horseman with:

“D’ye ken whaur ye’re goin’, lad?”

You have to look that over a couple of times, but that’s what Higgs wants you to do. The heavy brogue is now implanted in our minds. After that she keeps the odd spellings to a minimum.

You can also use straight narrative to tell us what the accent sounds like. This was Stephen King’s choice in Pet Sematary. At the beginning of the novel, Louis Creed and his family have just moved to a little town in Maine. There they meet a neighbor, an older gentleman named Jud Crandall, a native of the region. Here is part of the introductory conversation:

Crandall nodded. “Course you are,” he said, which came out: Coss you awe.He glanced at Rachel. “Why don’t you take your little boy and your daughter over to the house for a minute, Missus Creed?”

Instead of making the pronunciation part of the dialogue itself, King tells us directly what it sounded like. The dialogue then proceeds without phonetic spellings. But the sound is now in our heads. We can “hear” Crandall in his unique fashion.

A few paragraphs later, King drops in a reminder:

“Not at all,” he said. “Lookin forward to having young ‘uns around again.” Except the sound of this, as exotic to their Midwestern ears as a foreign language, was yowwuns.

It’s interesting to note that for the word Lookin King does not use an apostrophe. This is true throughout the novel when gs are dropped. I like that. It doesn’t bother me a bit, and actually is pleasing to the eye.

I brought this up with a group of writers recently, indicating that if I ever wrote a Western, I’d like to give that a try. But one of the astute younger scribes reminded me that there are typo hunters out there now who will downgrade their reviews over such things.

Good point. So if I ever write Day of Reckoning I reckon I’ll be puttin’ in them little marks.

Thus, for dialects and accents:

  • Keep odd spellings to a minimum.
  • Do some of rendering up front to plant the sound, then minimally after that as a reminder.
  • Use well-chosen regionalisms. For example, the Scottish shepherd would say Aye instead of Yes, and Lass instead of Woman.

If ya feel a bit o’ sharin’ comin’ over ya, then be doin’ it in the comments, if ya please.




Comic Relief

Photo courtesy Natalia Y on

Happy New Year! I hope that your holiday was as good as mine. I learned something which may have some major repercussions for me going forward.

I am not sure how what follows originally came up for discussion. The source, however, was my twelve-year-old granddaughter. She talks quite a bit about some things and not at all about others, with the border between the two constantly shifting and changing. Sometimes it is hard for me to keep up, which is okay. It gives her the freedom to chatter away and me the impetus to keep trying to figure it out. So it is that during one day of her Christmas vacation she was at one moment talking about a manga character and the next was talking about something she called “comic sans.”  I assumed at first that she was referring to comic book character that she particularly revered. As she continued for a bit longer, however, I realized that she was referring to a type font.

We each and all have a favorite font. Actually, that’s wrong. We each and all have a font that we use by default. Mine, since Jesus was in short pants, has been the boring and predictable but nonetheless popular Times New Roman. Many prefer Arial. It’s not something we usually even think about, particularly when reading. A great number of books make a point of referencing, usually on a page at the back, the font in which the book is printed and providing a three or four sentence summary of its history. To wit:

This book was printed using the Beelzebub font designed by a group of renegade Tantric monks in the early 18th Century. It was once popular but fell out of favor due to the spread of a superstition that the Universe would end upon the setting of the one-billionth charact

I in any event never really paid much attention to the topic other than to occasionally check out the pull-down menu on whatever word processing software I am using and to marvel for a moment at all of the choices. I realize that my choice of Times New Roman is similar to walking into Baskin-Robbins, checking out the thirty-one flavors of the month, and choosing vanilla. Most editors and the like prefer Ariel or Times New Roman, however, so it’s a safe bet. Only…only…there seems to be a bit of discussion among the younger set regarding “Comic Sans MS.” or “Comic Sans” for short. It was originally developed as a typeface for comic book narration and word balloons in 1994. A short, light-hearted video about it with a sample can be found here: One doesn’t use it for formal documents such as a will, a contract, or an all-important postgraduate thesis. But. But. The discussion taking place among the young ones concerns the use of Comic Sans as a creative tool. Proponents say that there is something about it that aides the creative process, one that seems to cause words to flow almost unbidden from brain to fingers and beyond. Opponents (my younger daughter, among them) say it doesn’t do any such thing and looks like crap besides.


Photo courtesy Raphael Schaller on

I checked Google Drive to see if I had Comic Sans as a choice and sure enough, there it was, theretofore unnoticed in the menu. It looked godawful though somehow familiar. The familiarity should not have been a surprise, given that it mimics the text that was popular in comic books, which I read by the boxfuls for decades. I opened up a new document and started writing with it. Two hours later I was still writing, stopping only after being entreated to make a pizza run. I was, as they say, in the zone. I found that for the first time in my life I actually preferred writing to reading. The words simply seem to flow, just like the kiddies say with Comic Sans than with Times New Roman or anything else I have used. God forbid that I would submit anything in Comic Sans unless it was specifically called for, but it is certainly easy enough to convert into another format for a submission or final copy.

Check it out, particularly if you are having problems, as we all sometimes do, with getting things going in the grammar mine. I can’t really explain why it works for me and apparently for others, but work it does. I find that writing with purpose is often a struggle — as with many things (but not all) it’s a lot more fun to want to do it than have to do it — but the line has been blurred. I’ve been writing and writing quite a bit, each and every day, since I have made the change. If you would, please check out the typeface — I’m having a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem so I can’t duplicate Comic Sans here — and please tell us what you think.

Photo courtesy Ilnur Kalimullin on

I have to mention something else. I think it is terrific that young people, or at least a segment of them, even give a flying fig about a font, what helps them write, and what makes them better writers. My generation at that age really didn’t care or even think about fonts. We only thought about the print being large or small. We knew there was a difference in fonts among newspapers, books, comics, and instructions but we didn’t remark on it or give a flying fig. Younger folks do and they’re talking about it and other elements on their way to writing the best stories that they can. They are not just writing. They are reading, which is encouraging, or should be, for all of us.



Know What You’re Writing

By Elaine Viets

What kind of mystery are you writing?
I ask this question whenever I give a talk to writers, and I’m surprised how many people can’t answer it – at least fifty percent of the audience doesn’t know.
You need to know your sub-genre to sell your book to an agent, or to promote it.
Here are a few types of mysteries. Remember, some of these categories can cross over. Your police procedural may also be a hard-boiled novel.

Cozy mysteries are written in the style of Agatha Christie. The murder takes place offstage, there’s no blood or gore, no graphic sex or cussing. Animals and children are never harmed in a cozy, though Dame Agatha killed at least one Girl Guide. Agatha is the queen of cozies. Cozies are not all tea and crumpets. Many of them address social issues, including racism, poverty and pink-collar inequality. A good example is Margaret Maron’s cozy series featuring Judge Deborah Knott. Long Upon the Land won an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel.

Chick lit is light mysteries, usually written for women readers. Chick lit centers around female friendships, with a splash of romance and a dash of murder. I’ve written ten chick lit mysteries in my Josie Marcus mystery shopper series, and I have a contest give-away at the end of this blog. Kellye Garrett writes award-winning chick lit. Her first novel was Hollywood Homicide.

Soft-boiled mysteries are between cozies and hard-boiled: some violence and the occasional four-letter word. The best example is Sue Grafton’s alphabet series.

Police procedural. The name says it all. This is a mystery that gives a realistic look at some type of police work, including criminal investigations, forensics, search warrants, and interrogation. Michael Connelly writes top-notch police procedurals, especially his Harry Bosch novels. Start with The Black Echo and keep reading.

Hard-boiled. These mysteries are much darker than cozies. Readers may encounter violence, sex scenes and graphic language. Children and animals can be kidnapped and killed. Hard-boiled mysteries often take place in cities. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross MacDonald write first-rate hard-boiled mysteries.

Noir, with its dark view of life, is closely related to hard-boiled mysteries. The protagonist is often up against a corrupt system or a wicked world. Women are often viewed as betrayers and heartless temptresses. Many protagonists are self-destructive. Don’t expect a happy ending. Cornell Woolrich writes true noir.

Thrillers are action novels with high stakes: Someone wants to kill the President, blow up New York City, or kidnap a busload of school children. The protagonist races against the clock to save them. My favorite thriller is Thomas Harris’ Black Sunday.

Win an e-book of High Heels Are Murder, my Josie Marcus, mystery shopper mystery. Click Contest at


Creating Characters: You Can Always Start With the Car


Stock photo via GoDaddy


So. You’re ready to create a character.

What does your character look like? Eat? Worship?

Do they exercise? Do they jump up on boxes and grunt, or are they a mall walker?

What high school did they go to? Freak or geek, prom king/queen, or regular Jane?

Do they color their hair? Clip joint, or fancy salon?

Gluten-free? Dairy free? Pescatarian?

Do they eat creamed corn? Do they look at porn? (Obviously I went for the rhyme there.)

Shoplifter, despite having millions?

Boxers, briefs, thongs, or commando?

Tampons or pads?

401K or under the mattress?

Acid reflux, heart palpitations, heartbreak of psoriasis?

Wrist watch, pocket watch, no watch, sundial?

Fast talker?

Lousy lover?

De-canterer of wine before guests arrive to hide how cheap they are?

You figure out all this stuff before you sit down to write, right? If you do, congratulations are in order. You’re about a hundred steps ahead of most writers—Okay, when I say most writers, I mean me, at least.

I envy writers who spend lots of time defining their characters, then put them onstage with ready-made conflicts. You bought me briefs instead of boxers? Are you even my wife?!

Goodness knows I torture encourage my writing workshop participants with character-building exercises. It’s a lot of fun, especially when they begin to see their character as something more than a mannequin with brown eyes, curly dark hair, a cruel mouth, and wearing a nose ring and expensive jeans. You only have to look around you to see that there is no such thing as a generic human. Family members make excellent character models, and the nice thing is that they rarely recognize themselves—Particularly if the character is unlikable. And there’s nothing like taking revenge on a dreaded former coworker or high school frenemy by putting them in a book.

Sometimes all your imagining will be for naught when it comes time to get into writing the story. Thriller and other genre writers don’t necessarily have the luxury of languorous character development because the action tends to move fairly quickly. This is where series characters really shine. A series gives a writer many opportunities to grow and deepen their personalities and habits. At the moment I’m reading Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White. Strike is a solid, well-defined character whose enormous, damaged body looks amazing in a well-tailored suit. And I think he likes squash soup? Okay, maybe I made that part up, but he’s not too shy to engage in a bit of dress-up roleplaying behind closed doors with his current girlfriend. Seriously, I could not have made that up.

I rarely did even minimal character sketches before I started using Scrivener about six years ago. Its template is on the minimalist side, with blank spaces for a character’s role in the story, physical description, occupation, mannerisms, internal conflicts, external conflicts, and background. This approach gives you plenty of latitude, without driving you crazy. I confess, I don’t often even fill these templates out completely. BUT I am one to go back and fill them in as I write the book. I like for the character to surprise me. It’s also extremely useful to keep track of all those details, like when two of your characters hook up and you’re not sure what color your heroine’s eyes are.

If you ever get stuck, I have a simple fix. Decide what sort of cars (if any) your characters are driving. Americans often express their personalities via their cars, and we all have ideas about what kind of people drive a particular model.

The protagonist of The Stranger Inside, my suspense novel that’s coming out the first week of February, drives a Mini-Cooper. Kimber isn’t quite forty, and she likes the option of being able to drive away with speed when she wants to escape her problems.

There really is no wrong way to design your characters, as long as you’re telling the story they want to tell.

What’s your process for creating and defining characters? Tell us about a favorite character that you created.


How Authors Can Help After a Disaster


by Debbie Burke


NASA Goddard Photo of the Camp Fire, Paradise, CA

The Camp Fire in Paradise, California killed scores of people and destroyed 13,972 homes, 528 commercial structures and 4,293 other buildings (according to NPR, 11/27/18).

Our nephew and his wife were among those who lost their homes, barely escaping with old family photos and two pairs of pants—the size 36 jeans he was wearing, and the size 28 US Navy trousers that had belonged to his grandfather (my father-in-law) when “Pop” served on the USS Enterprise during World War II.

The fire destroyed countless memories, mementoes, and relics of history—the foundations upon which people build their lives, identities, society, and culture.

Amid the devastation, the Paradise Library remained standing, although damaged.

Beth Zimmerman, a national expert on disaster recovery says, “The library will be a key to providing [survivors] a known place to gather and take time to commune with their neighbors. Libraries can soothe children’s fears and help them cope, especially if they are used to going there.”

When everything familiar and comforting is lost, books can help recreate a sense of safety and security.

Melanie Lightbody, head of the Butte County Library System says, “The library is one of the few buildings which survived and therefore will be even more crucial to the community as it rebuilds. A symbol of possibility and hope.”

Efforts are underway to rehabilitate the structure and contents. Author Phil Padgett is spearheading a pledge drive for books to repopulate the library’s shelves. A former FEMA reservist who deployed to New York after Hurricane Sandy, Phil understands the complex, long-term logistics of rebuilding.

Unlike immediate necessities, such as bottled water, food, clothing, and construction materials, books fall into the category of way-down-the-road work. Yes, they are needed but what do you do with them in the mean time when there is no place to put them?

For now, Phil is compiling a list of authors who have pledged to donate their books. In coming months, he will coordinate collection, cataloguing, and storage. Later, when the library is ready to receive the books, he will arrange for shipping.

Books can be solace in time of tragedy, taking people’s minds off their troubles.

One of the best compliments I ever received came from a reader in Florida. My thriller Instrument of the Devil was released at the same time Hurricane Irma hit. The woman said my book had helped her pass the long, difficult week when she (and millions of others) had no electricity.

As authors, we don’t necessarily run bulldozers or nail up plywood but we can help rebuild lost culture.

If you’re an author who would like to donate to the Paradise Library, Phil’s email is: 




Does your Amazon holiday gift card have spare change left on it? Catch the January sale of Debbie Burke’s award-winning thriller Instrument of the Devil  for only 99 cents. Or read for free on Amazon Prime. Click here.


Morality and the Modern Writer

Happy New Year!

I’m going to dive right into 2019 by raising the tricky and controversial topic of what I’m calling ‘morality and the modern writer’. I’d been mulling over aspects of this issue ever since the MWA controversy over Linda Fairstein, when yesterday (quite serendipitously) the NYT published an article entitled ‘Must Writers be Moral?’. This article got me thinking (again) about how we deal with, and differentiate between, the actions and ‘morality’ of an artist as opposed to their work. In the Fairstein controversy, the MWA withdrew her Grand Master award following an outcry over her involvement in the infamous Central Park Five case. While I don’t intend to discuss this particular case in any detail, it highlights the very public way we are now seeing the line between art and artist play out in society today.

The NYT article (a link to which is provided here) adds a further dimension to the discussion by highlighting the increasingly widespread use of ‘morality’ clauses in publishing agreements today (something, I must admit, I was completely unaware of!). The article details the use of clauses that release publishers from their obligation to publish a book if (in the words of a Penguin Random House contract) “past or future conduct of the author inconsistent with the author’s reputation at the time this agreement is executed comes to light and results in sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.” Some contracts go even further, requiring authors to return advances should their contract be terminated. As this article outlines, even though publishers’ concern over the marketability of their authors is understandable, the issue of ‘immorality’ can be a slippery concept (especially if the publisher has sole discretion over determining an alleged infringement) and, when it comes to public condemnation, often a moving target. Some prominent writers, such as Masha Gessen, have refused to sign these clauses arguing that there is too much ambiguity involved in these kinds of ‘morality’ clauses, not to mention concerns over censorship as well as public vitriol.

In 2018 there were some very public book cancellations (most notably Milo Yiannopoulos) and scandals involving authors such as Junot Diaz that reflect the post #MeToo era. While I don’t want to engage in a heated discussion about these particular controversies, I am trying to get my head around the distinction (especially when it comes to ‘morality’) between the artist/writer and their work. Any student of literature knows that many famous writers were hardly angels – instead history is strewn with womanizers, drunks, addicts, racists, anti-semites, misogynists..and the list goes on. So how do we separate the person from his or her work? Should we judge an artist solely on their works or is the work inextricably linked to them as people (and thus, their behavior and attitudes)? In the current publishing environment it seems that writers are being held up to scrutiny in both their professional as well as their private lives.

So TKZers, what do you think about these so-called ‘morality’ clauses in publishing contracts? How do you view the distinction between a ‘writer’ and his or her ‘work’? Is such a distinction even relevant in today’s social media age?