Your Reading Habits

by James Scott Bell

I was an early adopter of the Kindle. Like everyone else, I was amazed that I could have, say, the complete works of Charles Dickens—for 99¢ yet!—sitting inside this little device. And I could keep adding books to it, many of which came via deals in the Amazon store. Why else would I have downloaded Cybill Shepherd’s autobiography if it hadn’t been free?

The Kindle was my constant companion when I traveled by plane. In those early years it was a great conversation starter. People in adjoining seats would say things like, “Is that one of them Kandles?” I would happily expound on the volume and cost of my electronic library.

The Kindle has evolved, of course, and now comes in several styles and sizes, including a tablet. The coolest, and therefore most expensive, model is the Oasis. I’ve been toying with buying this for over a year…but then noticed something. I’ve been spending more and more of my reading time with the following:

1. The Kindle app on my phone. I rarely use my old Kindle now because the phone is always with me and I can easily access my library that way. The downside is I’m not reading e-ink, and therefore can’t read in sunlight. But I don’t do that much reading outside anyway. When I read on my phone I make sure I have my blue-light filter on and the screen a bit dimmer than normal, so my peepers don’t get overtaxed.

2. Audio books. Great for the treadmill or a long drive. The way I get most of these titles is via the Libby app on my phone.

3. Actual, honest-to-goodness physical books, with paper pages and everything! This has been the most surprising development for me. When I first got the Kindle I thought that’s how I—and everybody else—would be reading books from now on. But I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of holding a physical book in a comfortable chair. And so have younger readers. Millennials, for example, overwhelmingly prefer print books, and make healthy use of the local library. Imagine that.

So…how do you do most of your reading on these days? Do you use a dedicated e-reader (e.g., Kindle, Nook, Kobo)? A reading app on your phone? Or do you still like to crack open a physical book?

How much of your reading time is with audio books?

Are you mostly a book buyer or book borrower?

I am going to be on the road—literally, driving a car on a long strip of asphalt—most of the day. So please, talk amongst yourselves! I will try to check in later.


Listening to Your Inner Voice

(Image Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

I am still working away — in fits and starts — on The Lake Effect, my genre-bending novel. I became stuck a couple of weeks ago on what is a common problem for writers. There was something about the narrative that I didn’t like. It had to do with the backstory. I had been dropping parts of it like breadcrumbs throughout the narrative and it kind of worked. I decided, however, was that I have no business putting something out there that “kind of” works if I want someone to spend their time and lucre on it.  I wasn’t quite sure how to fix it or even if it could be fixed without some major surgery.

I was at about the same time conducting an unofficial Taylor Sheridan film festival for myself. Sheridan’s name may not be familiar to you but his fingerprints show up here and there as an actor (he had a recurring role for a couple of seasons in Sons of Anarchy) and as a screenwriter (the films Sicario and Hell or High Water, and a television drama series named Yellowstone). Sheridan’s main strength as a screenwriter is in his dialogue and character development. I wasn’t looking for hints when I started binging his work. I was just watching all of it because I like it. I kept coming back, however, to a movie he scripted named Wind River. 

Wind River is a contemporary western set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The plot is simple enough. Cory Lambert is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracker tasked during a bitterly cold winter with tracking down a predator which is slaughtering Reservation livestock. While doing so he comes upon the bruised and frozen body of a young Native woman named Natalie Hanson. She is ill-dressed for the weather — barefoot, in thin clothing — and miles from any building. An autopsy concludes that Hanson died of exposure but also sustained head trauma and sexual violence.  FBI Special Agent Jane Banner is assigned to investigate the case, which ultimately cannot conclusively be found to be a homicide. Banner is a fish-out-of-water — she is a Florida native and assigned to the Las Vegas FBI office — but her lack of preparedness for Wyoming’s winter weather and relative inexperience in investigative matters is more than made up for by her drive to make sure that the right thing is done on Natalie’s behalf. 

The film does a good job of simply but effectively presenting the clusterfig that federal and tribal jurisdictional differences create as Banner decides to pursue the case, even if she is probably on shaky legal ground in doing so. She persuades Lambert to help her, given his knowledge of the area. Their investigation moves in a straight line but seems to reach a dead end. The audience meanwhile knows nothing more than Lambert and Banner do. About three-fourths of the way into Wind River, however, the present segues smoothly into the past, and the audience learns what occurred over the course of a very intense few minutes that led to Natalie’s tragic end. The story then reverts to the present and a few seconds later all hell breaks loose, again and again. My description does not do justice to what occurs, but on the off-chance that you borrow the video from the library (it also pops on and off the streaming services from time to time), I don’t want to even come close to spoiling the plot for you. 

I watched the movie four times over a period of an equal number of days before it hit me that the solution to my dilemma was in front of me. Rather than drop flashback breadcrumbs throughout the story, I gathered them into a small loaf, coated that with a bit of garlic butter, and served it up warm, steaming, and all at once about two-thirds of the way into my own narration. It worked wonderfully. Thank you, Mr. Sheridan. 

I am sure that my primary reason for watching Wind River over and over was that I like it. I do the same thing with Hell or High Water, which I previously mentioned here. I have concluded, however, that it is entirely possible that my subconscious was trying to steer me toward a possible solution to my writing problem. It just took me a bit of time to pick up the visual and verbal cues. It figures. I have always been a slow study. 

How about you? Has an outside source — one that you were drawn to by chance or whimsy — given you an unexpected solution to a difficult problem, or at least a different way of looking at/approaching something? If so, please share your episode with those of us here assembled. Thanks as always for visiting.




Kobo — A Truly International Indie Publishing Platform

Eight years ago, if I told you I was an internationally-published indie author with a global scale you’d go, “Right. You can’t find an agent or traditional publisher to peddle your pages so you’re forced to self-pub through a vanity press and you mailed five copies to your Scottish-bred mother.” I’d lower my eyes and mumble, “…. …” Today, that’s no longer my self-conscious indie state—thanks to Kobo.

Kobo (an anagram for Book) is a godsend for indie authors like me who operate a growing online publishing business. I avoid the word “self-publishing” because no one in this business truly publishes by themselves. It takes a team to produce a book, whether that’s in print, eBook, or audio form. That includes a cover designer, editor, proofreader, formatter, narrator, writer, and of course, the folks at Kobo who distribute the final product to a worldwide reading audience.

Before going into how Kobo operates and what Kobo has done for me, let me tell you a bit about this leading-edge publishing company. Kobo started in 2009. It was a Toronto, Canada-based online start-up promoting ShortCovers as a cloud e-reading service for Indigo/Chapters. In 2012, Kobo merged with the Japanese e-commerce conglomerate Rakuten, and the e-publishing company is now officially listed as Kobo-Rakuten Inc. Most call it Kobo for short.

Kobo has grown enormously in the past eight years. It’s absorbed brand-names like Waterstones, Borders, Sony Books, and W.H. Smith. In 2018, Kobo partnered with Walmart intending to make Amazon nervous. After all, Rakuten is the Asian version of the American ’Zon.

Today, Kobo-Rakuten has well over 5 million titles in their store. They’re available online in 190 countries and 97 different languages. If that isn’t a truly international indie-publishing platform, then I don’t know what is.

How Kobo is Structured

Kobo-Rakuten focuses on its core products. That’s electronic publication. Their business model, or structure, has three parts. One is digital printing or eBooks. Two is electronic audio books. Three is electronic reading devices like Kobo e-readers and Kobo tablets. At this time, Kobo does not do print-on-demand like Amazon and Ingram. That may happen through Walmart’s Espresso machines.

Kobo’s corporate statement says it’s a “company built by booklovers for booklovers through talented and passionate people taking the top of their game to the next level”. Kobo’s primary management team is in Toronto, and it has a prominent software development division in Dublin, Ireland. International sub-teams work in the US, UK, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Japan, Brazil, and Australia.

Besides corporate white-shirts and hipster geeks, Kobo has a down-to-earth bunch of ladies in their reader and writer service department. It’s these with-it women that an indie like me communicates with. And by communicate, I mean I can send them an email or arrange a phone call and I’ll get prompt human contact with someone whose accent I understand.

Publishing on Kobo

I have indie-publishing experience in three electronic platforms—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. I’m here to tell you that Kobo is far superior to the other two when it comes to diminished operator frustration. I think the Kobo techs must indie-publish themselves because they’ve built a dashboard that doesn’t suck.

Kobo’s user-friendly dashboard has five distinct parts laid-out in this easy-to-follow order:

Part 1  Describe Your Book — This is where you enter “metadata” into the boxes. It’s basic information like title, series number, author name, publisher, ISBN, etc. You’re allowed up to three placement categories to check off from a comprehensive drop-down list. You also copy & paste your synopsis (product description/blurb) into an html-friendly format. It’s far better than Amazon’s product description block that makes you write html by letter-code.

Part 2  Add Your eBook Content — Here is where you upload your manuscript e-file. Kobo is so easy to add content to. Unlike Amazon that dictates a proprietary e-file called Mobi or AZW, Kobo lets you upload a Microsoft document directly, and it uses its own e-Pub conversion program to convert your document into an e-Pub file. Kobo will convert .doc, .docX, .mobi, and .ode files automatically. They also have a pay-to-convert affiliate called Aptara.

Note: If there’s one secret to successful Word-to-e-file conversion, it’s making sure your Word.doc is properly formatted to start with. This is crucial! I covered the steps in a previous Kill Zone post titled Top Ten Tips on Formatting eBooks From MS Word. Once your file is uploaded to Kobo, they have a one-click preview feature.

Part 3  Determine Your Rights and Distribution — This is straightforward but necessary metadata. Leave your Digital Rights Management (DRM) slide off. Activate your slide for Geographic – Own All Territories. Allow Kobo Plus Subscription. (This is akin to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU). It’s only available in a few countries but will probably go worldwide.) Also, allow library purchases through Overdrive. Just make sure to increase your price from your regular retail listing. If libraries want your works, they’ll gladly pay $4.99 instead of $2.99. (It’s called a profit center.)

Part 4  Set Your Price — Setting your price point is entirely up to you. It depends on what you think you can charge to get the maximum return from sales. I’ve found my sweet spot is $2.99 per e-Book. If I bump up the price to $3.99 or $4.99, I find my sale numbers drop considerably so I actually make less net income by charging more.

I’ve refined my eBook prices to $2.99 everywhere. That includes all publications on Amazon (20 eBooks), Kobo (8 eBooks), and Barnes and Noble (7 eBooks). I have one perma-free on all platforms, and I could write another entire post on how beneficial perma-frees can be.

Kobo pays 70% royalty on $2.99 and over which is the same as Amazon. Drop below $2.99 and Kobo pays 45% where Amazon squeezes you to 30%. Them’s the rules… and so you must play.

A distinct advantage of publishing “Wide” with Kobo is they won’t penalize you if you’re not exclusive the way Amazon enslaves you under the Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDPS) program. Trust me. The advantages you lose by moving off exclusive KDPS are far exceeded by publishing perks on Kobo. The only issue might be if you have a large KU page reading and you’ll stop this income stream if you go wide. I didn’t, and I have absolutely no regrets going Wide and hooking up with Kobo.

I’ve been told that using the “.99” trick is important when pricing eBooks, and I believe it. This is a tried & true marketing technique that’s been around forever. That’s because it works. Kobo is truly an international publishing platform that allows you to set individual prices per country and in its currency. Kobo also has an automatic currency converter built-in to the dashboard. However, don’t let Kobo automatically convert and post a $2.99 USD equivalent in a foreign currency or it’ll look like doggy-doo with ugly-weird figures, ie 2.31, 8.47, 28.01, etc.

To get the 70% royalty at $2.99 USD and keep with the “.99” strategy, here’s how I manually set pricing on my Kobo international dashboard:

United States Dollar – 2.99
Canadian Dollar – 2.99
United Kingdom Pound – 2.99
Australian Dollar – 2.99
New Zealand Dollar – 2.99
Brazilian Real – 9.99
European Euro – 2,99
Hong Kong Dollar – 19.99
Indian Rupee – 99.99
Japanese Yen – 299.00
Mexican Peso – 99.99
New Taiwan Dollar – 79.99
Philippine Peso – 99.99
South African Rand – 29.99
Swiss Franc – 2.99

By the way, Kobo pays in half the time Amazon does. You’ll receive your Kobo direct deposit 45 days after the last day of the month. This becomes a monthly cycle and is disbursed provided you make at least $50.00 in sales during that period. Otherwise, Kobo will defer payment until you have a $50.00 payable account. Don’t worry about not getting paid if you have a slow month. It’s like money in the bank, and it motivates you to promote sales and get regular checks.

Kobo Promotions

Kobo has a unique promotion program built into your dashboard. When you first open a Kobo account, the promo tab won’t appear. You have to send Kobo a quick email request and… presto! It’s there and really easy to understand, never mind use.

Kobo’s internal e-Book promotion system is entirely pay-to-play. You have to apply for a particular Kobo promotion feature and you get declined more times than accepted. Looking at my Kobo dashboard, I have 2 active promos running, 1 forthcoming, 7 completed, and I was declined 19 times. Don’t get hurt feelings over being declined for a Kobo promotion. You have to apply quite a bit in advance (2-4 weeks) and they’ll overlook you if they think you’re trying to game or monopolize the system by hogging spots. It didn’t take me long before I got that memo.

Kobo has two promotion packages. One is a flat rate where you pay a fixed-fee (up-front) for a particular exposure. Two is a shared percentage based on sales volume that’s deducted from your pay. Here’s a sample of Kobo promotions and costs:

Daily Deal Homepage – $100.00 flat rate
Free Page – Fiction and Non-fiction – $5.00 or $10.00 flat rate
Double Daily Deal – 10% share
First in Series – $10.00 or $30.00 flat rate
Editor’s Pick – $30.00 flat rate

Kobo has no restrictions about you running independent ads on the email list discount sites. You just have to make sure you adjust your Kobo price to match your privately-advertised promo price. If you don’t, they’ll cut your Kobo promo in a flash. The algorithm-powered bots have a way of knowing this… so be diligent here.

Be aware that “FREE” is the most-searched word in Kobo’s engine. Kobo readers love their free stuff, and it’s a wise move to offer a freebie from time to time… or a .99 cent discount. I only have one free book on Kobo. That’s the first in a multi-book series, and it’s a very profitable loss-leader. The read-through sales rate triggered by a free offering is significant.

Kobo Resources

Kobo-Rakuten is here to help indie authors and publishers. The Kobo dashboard has great links to all sorts of practical assistance. The “live voice” is also only a click or call away. Value-added author/publisher services on the dashboard include:

ISBN issuance
Review sources
Cover designs
Editor referrals
Language translation
Rights management
Audio book recording

Kobo has another excellent writer/publishing portal. It’s called Kobo Writing Life (KWL) which is a blog about writing and self-publishing. Besides the dozens and dozens of helpful posts, KWL has an excellent podcast series featuring their help-ladies, inspiring success stories, and featured events.

So, how is Garry Rodgers Doing on Kobo?

Very well, thank you. That’s considering the short time I’ve been indie-publishing there. I was told by other Kobo indies to be patient and promote. They said it takes a while to gain Kobo traction… give it six months before assessing Kobo’s worth, they said.

It’s been six months now. I put out my shingle at Kobo on April 24, 2020. The first bit… crickets… nuthin’… zilch. Then, I ran some strategic promotions and Kobo took right off for me. I originally started with 5 Kobo publications. I added 3 more eBooks in the summer and, by August 2020, it was all worthwhile.

In July and August, I ran “stacked promotions” on Kobo along with paid ads on sites like Booksy, EReader News Today, and Robin Reads. My Kobo sales jumped to an average of around 20 downloads per day or 600 for the month. Now, in mid-October, I’ve had 3,849 all-time Kobo downloads in 68 international markets. This is growing exponentially, and it’s key to eBook sales success. It’s the same principle as compound interest.

Here are stats on where Kobo sold books for me in the last 6 months. Note: These figures include all regular priced sales and discounted promotions.

Canada – 1817
United States – 510
United Kingdom – 466
Australia – 290
South Africa – 160
New Zealand – 106
India – 69
Netherlands – 45
Nigeria – 33
Ireland – 30

The remaining 58 countries range from 1 to 30 downloads each. In no particular order, they are:

Mexico, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, St. Vincent & Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Tonga, Belgium, Germany, Andorra, France, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Romania, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Malta, Libya, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Cocos Islands, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Kobo is a Truly International Indie-Publishing Platform

A marvelous feature built into Kobo is their deep-analytics distribution map of the world. It shows your total sales volume per country represented in blue circles. The bigger the circle, the more books you’ve sold in that country. The more circles you have on the world map, the wider your global distribution is. You can custom-adjust your stats review by the day, the week, the month, or all-time.

Seeing my Kobo sales growth is encouraging and rewarding. I still have limited experience in Kobo publishing, but what I’ve found is consistent with what more experienced (and much more successful) indies have told me about working with Kobo. These are the factors that’ll make Kobo work for you on an international scale… not possible with any other publisher:

Multiple Products — This includes eBooks and audio books (which I haven’t tried yet). It’s unrealistic to expect decent and expanding sales figures from one stand-alone product. Indie writing and publishing is a “numbers game”. The more products you offer for sale, and the more platforms you offer them on, the more you stand to sell.

Series Production — Most of my Kobo downloads are in a series. I have 6 books in a Based-On-True Crime Series and 2 stand-alone products offered on Kobo. The series beats the stand-alones ten-fold. I see a read-through sales pattern, and it’s growing with more readers recognizing my brand and being confident enough to buy into it.

Pay-To-Play — You have to spend money to make money in the indie writing and publishing business. Paid promotions work. That includes Kobo’s in-house program (which isn’t expensive) and boosting the Kobo promos with “stacked” independent ads. Those include the discount email sites and click-through ads on BookBub. I haven’t tried FaceBook yet, and Amazon won’t allow you to say “Kobo” in their presence.

A Positive Indie Author/Publisher Mindset — This is the most important factor of all. Once I made the decision (February 17, 2020) to treat my indie writing and publishing as a business, things really changed. It takes time and persistence, but it’s worth it. It fits with this quote I have on my writing space wall:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to drawback. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in ones favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would have come their way. ~ Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

How about you Kill Zoners? Do you have any words to share about Kobo or writing and publishing in general? Let us know in the comments!


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second run as a forensic coroner investigating unexpected and unexplained human deaths. Now, Garry has reinvented himself in a third career as an indie author/publisher and admits at struggling to make sense of it all.

When not being indie, Garry Rodgers spends his of time putting around the Pacific saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast. Follow Garry’s regular blog at and connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.


Using Apostrophes

Using Apostrophes
Terry Odell

apostrophesA pet peeve of mine is incorrect apostrophe usage, something I see all the time while driving around, or scrolling the internet. I’m sure everyone here at TKZ is well aware of the rules, but just in case someone needs a refresher course, I thought I’d mention it. If you’re starting out, or get confused, I hope this helps.

Use 1. It shows possession. Something belongs to someone or something.

The man’s hat. The dog’s leash. My biggest trouble-spot with this is dealing with plurals. There’s a difference (as my crit partner loves to point out) between the Detective’s office and the Detectives’ office. But then, I can never remember if I’ve given each of my detectives his own office.

I also have to stop and think about housing. You know, like when you go to the house that belongs to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Since it belongs to both of them, it’s the Smiths’ house, not the Smith’s house. Our neighbors across the street have a lovely carved sign that says “The Cochran’s.” I cringe every time I walk by.

Words that already end in “s” can be a problem. I go out of my way to avoid naming characters with names ending in “s” to bypass the head-scratching. And here, I’ve seen it both ways. In my first book, my editor, whom I fear was overworked, didn’t catch that I’d written both Doris’ and Doris’s throughout the manuscript. Luckily, I noticed it in edits. She really didn’t care which one I used as long as they were all the same. My inclination is to leave off the final ‘s’ after the apostrophe simply because it looks cumbersome and when I read it “aloud in my head” I keep added “s” sounds.

Okay, that’s one use of the apostrophe. The other:

Use 2. Replaces other stuff.

Apostrophes are used in contractions to show you’ve combined two words and taken away some of the letters.

Examples: Don’t. I’ve. Shouldn’t. He’d. We’ll.

I taught apostrophes when I was tutoring in adult literacy. It was very common for students to see the word don’t and read it aloud as do not. They knew what the apostrophe meant even if they couldn’t use one when writing.


You CANNOT use an apostrophe to create a plural.

One last point:

apostrophesA major hangup for people seems to be with its and it’s. I know it’s very easy to have the fingers outpace the brain, and first-draft typos are common, but if you remember it’s = it is, you’ll be fine. The apostrophe stands for a missing letter.

Which means its is possessive, which is the exception to Rule 1.  The tree lost its leaves. The leaves belonged to the tree.

The only other ‘exception’ I can think of is one I discussed with my editor (not the one who missed my Doris inconsistencies). My characters can mind their Ps and Qs. But when it comes to dotting I’s , she prefers the apostrophe because it avoids the confusion with the word Is. And, for consistency, she included the apostrophe with crossing T’s. So, it’s dotting I’s and crossing T’s. The caps, I think, are a matter of preference.

But PLEASE. Don’t kill any more puppies!

One more hint, related to formatting:

There’s a difference between an apostrophe and a single quotation mark. Trust me.

If you’re using Word, when you want to start a word with an apostrophe because it’s a contraction, abbreviation, as when you’re using dialect, Word assumes that you want a single quote there, because that’s how the program works.

Thus, if your character uses em for them you’re going to get ‘em. What you want is ’em. There are codes, or keystrokes for getting that apostrophe instead of the single quote, but I’m lazy and forgetful, so I just copy an apostrophe from another word and paste it where it needs to be.

To find them, you can search on a space before a single quote/apostrophe, and that should bring them up.

I’m sure you have some apostrophe observations to share. The floor is yours.

Heather's ChaseMy new Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is now available at most e-book channels. and in print from Amazon.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


Ten Tips on How (NOT) to Manage Your Email List


By Debbie Burke



A good, solid email list is the cornerstone for marketing books.


Those names are customers and potential customers who may buy your books.

As a business owner in the 1980s, I managed lists of more than a thousand customers and vendors. Using my trusty Kaypro 10, I knew how to create, organize, and keep those lists up to date.

But, as a 21st century author, did I apply those same principles to building a list of readers?

Uh, no. (Hangs head in shame)

Instead, I collected business cards and scribbled names on yellow legal pads and scratch paper. I threw them in a folder without any logic or organization.

Alphabetize? I’ll get around to it one of these days (hah!).

Imagine looking for a particular name when the order on the page read: Helen, Laura, Roger, Holly, Barb, Eli, etc. Talk about wasting time.

How I used to keep an email list

If I’d maintained a sloppy customer list like this (see photo) in business, I’d have fired me.

My writing career should have been treated as a business, not a muddled jumble. I knew such tasks needed to be done but always put them off because I’d rather write.

After publishing five books, I finally decided to create an organized, alphabetized Master Email List.

If you haven’t published a book yet, start building your list now because you will need it in the future.

The rest of you pros with published books already have your master email list, right?

Below are 10 items I SHOULD have done and didn’t. Or DID and shouldn’t have. Don’t follow my bad example.

Best practices and worst practices to build an email list:

1st – Good practice: collect business cards from people at conferences, classes, workshops, book club meetings, etc.

Today, with virtual events on Zoom, collect names and emails from the chat box of participants.

Bad practice: put those cards in a drawer and forget about them.

2nd – Good: at book appearances or discussions, always have a sign-up sheet for attendees’ names and email addresses. With Zoom, log names and emails of registrants and add to your Master List.

Bad: stick those sheets in a file and forget about them (see a pattern here?).

3rd – Good: when launching a new book, send announcements to everyone on your email list.

Bad: your list consists of names and emails scrawled on cocktail napkins, yellow legal pads, scrap paper, backs of envelopes, and the palm of your hand.

4th – Good: type your entire email list in a Word file or Excel spreadsheet. Alphabetize and number it.

Sidebar: how to alphabetize in Word. After years of using Word to write, I just learned this handy tip. To alphabetize, go to Home, go to Paragraph box, find A-Z. Click on that icon and a window opens (see photo). Click Sort by Paragraph, choose text, ascending, then click okay.

Voila, the names are alphabetized so you can easily locate them. Big time saver.

If you use Excel, here are instructions about how to alphabetize.


Alphabetize either by first name or last name, although last name is most common. Mine is alphabetized by first name because that’s how I remember people. Often I never know the last name of casual acquaintances.

However, first names can be a bit confusing. My list includes 5 Anns or Annes; 6 Barbaras (Barb, Babs); 7 Janets or Janices; 5 Karens; 10 variations on Catherine-Kathryn (Cathy, Katie, etc.); 6 Pats (Patrick or Patricia); 8 variations of Susan (Sue, Suzanne, Susie, etc.); 6 Terrys (male and female).

First names work fine for me but you may prefer to alphabetize by last names.

Use the method that’s easiest for you to track.

5th – Good: make a notation where you met the person, e.g. writing conference, book club, library appearance, etc. That helps when you want to tailor a specific message to a specific group (“Dear Book Club Friends”, “Dear Zumba Buddies”, etc.).

If you use Excel, enter those notations in their own column.

With Word, just tab to a blank space and make a note where you met.

Again, use the method that works best for you.

Bad: Depend on your memory. Was that “Jeff” from the continuing ed class or “Jeff” from sophomore year? Doesn’t work—trust me.

6th – Good: create subcategories within the main list, e.g. book club contacts, conference contacts, coworkers, writing colleagues, friends and family, old school buddies, etc.

Bad: Same caution about memory in #5.

7th – Good: tailor the message to each category. In other words, write in a different tone to coworkers than to your pals from high school.

Bad: send out an impersonal, mass email blast that smells like spam.

Special note: For critique buddies, beta readers, researchers, and consultants, always send a thank you message for their assistance and a gift copy of the book.

8th – Good: organize the Master List by name.

Bad: Organize the list by email address. In many cases, the email address gives no clue to the person’s name and the “search” function may not help you find who the address belongs to.

For instance, when I wanted to contact an old friend, Barry, I couldn’t locate him because his email handle is “Azuki,” which I didn’t remember.

Or worse, who the heck is “” and why didn’t I record his/her name? After serious digging through piles of paper, it turned out I’d met her at a bookstore signing two years ago. Her name was “Trish” and she’d specifically asked to be notified when new books are released—definitely someone who should be included on the Master List.

9th – Good: add new names and emails as soon as you receive them.

Bad: wait to update your list until you collect a big batch of names. If you don’t add them right away, you may lose the contact. Take, for example, the woman I met in the supermarket who loves thrillers and scrawled her email address on my grocery list…which ended up in the trash, gone forever. (Sigh)

10th – Good: Update changes to email addresses immediately and delete the old.

Bad: keep outdated email addresses so you’re guaranteed lots of bounce-backs.


Miscellaneous helpful hints:


How to number in Word: in Home, go to paragraph box, choose numbered list (see photo).

Now you know exactly how many people are on your email list. You may be pleasantly surprised that it’s more than you expected.

How to number in Excel: here are instructions.



Caution: The contact list in your computer or phone does not necessarily include everyone who should be on your Master List.

For Gmail, use their prompt system. Click on “Compose” and type the first few letters of a name. If you’ve ever sent or received an email using those initial letters, a drop-down list of names appears, up to six or seven choices.

Among those may be names you’ve forgotten about. That’s how I’ve caught many people who don’t appear in my contacts but should be on the master list.

Other email servers, like Yahoo, MSN, and Hot Mail, may also have ways to prompt but I’m not familiar with them. TKZers, if you know, please chime in.

The best practice of all:

No matter what system you use (Word, Excel, etc.), create your Master Email List in the format you’re most likely to keep up-to-date.


 In 2017, when my first thriller (Instrument of the Devil) was published, I sent out about 100 announcements.

Today, with five books published, my newly-organized email list numbers more than 300.

It took almost three days of concentrated effort to unsnarl my previous sloppiness. How much easier would the task have been if I’d properly set up the list back in 2017 then added to it?

Now that my Master List is done, adding a name/email address is a simple matter of opening that Word file and entering changes—takes 30 seconds.

Learn from my mistakes.

Start your Master Email List off on the right foot.


TKZers: Do you have a Master Email List?

What are your favorite tricks to keep the list organized?




Debbie Burke’s new novella, Crowded Hearts, is not a typical wedding story. Available FREE from October 13-17, 2020. Please check out the link here.


Crafting Your Narrative

This year I’ve been exploring the world of art through painting as well as writing – partly as a result of the pandemic lockdown, partly as a culmination of years of ‘dabbling’ in acrylics. A few weekends ago I decided to take the first step to taking my art to the next level and enrolled in a class about turning your creativity into a business. I was pretty nervous as my painting still feels very new and fragile, but came away feeling inspired and, perhaps more importantly, with the realization that this new approach to painting could also inform my writing career as well. The first exercise in the class was entitled ‘crafting your narrative’ and it became such an important exercise (for me at least) that I wanted to blog about it!

So what is ‘crafting your narrative’? Well, basically it is an initial exercise designed to make you think about your own creative narrative – what makes you and what you craft unique. Honestly, I can’t say I’d ever thought of looking at myself this way. All my elevator pitches and synopses have been focused on a particular book I’ve written and what makes it ‘unique’, rather than focusing on myself as a writer. When it came to my painting, the class prompts examined not only the media and mode of expression I use, but also what inspired me and how I thought my work made other people feel. In the end the (rough draft) that I came up with for myself as a painter was “I create abstract acrylic paintings that explore color, symmetries, shapes, and the relationship between the natural world and our interior selves…” Not bad I thought for a first attempt, but then I immediately began to think about how I would craft a similar narrative about myself as a writer…and soon realized just how much harder that would be!

Crafting your own narrative is, I discovered, much more challenging than summarizing a book for an elevator pitch – yet it makes perfect sense. As we discussed in class, when you are trying to differentiate yourself as any kind of creative, it’s vital to know who you are and what makes your work unique. So I set about trying to craft a narrative the same way I had for myself as a painter…and so far I’ve really only come up with a very rough statement that I am a fiction writer ‘who writes about bold, intriguing women against a backdrop of real and re-imagined histories’. Of course this doesn’t sound like most of my books at all – or me – so crafting my own narrative is definitely still a work in progress:)

So TKZers, how would you craft your own narrative as a writer? How (in one sentence of two) would you describe yourself as a writer and what makes your work unique? Do you find this exercise as challenging as I do?

Quick note: It’s fall break this week and we’re embarking on a driving trip round our beautiful home state of Colorado, so my internet access will be a little bit more limited today than usual – but I will be checking in!





Should a Fiction Writer Use a Thesaurus?

by James Scott Bell

Dr. Peter Mark Roget

In college my roommates and I used to play a game with a dictionary. We cleverly called it “The Dictionary Game.” It was played with a big dictionary and scraps of paper. When it was your turn you’d look through the dictionary until you came across a word no one was familiar with. You wrote down the correct definition. The other players made up fake definitions that sounded right. The object was to fool as many people in the game as you could. You got a point if you guessed the correct definition. You got a point if somebody guessed your fake definition. The person who chose the word would get a point for every wrong guess.

I learned some cool words this way. The one that has stayed with me for over forty years is borborygmus. It means a “rumbling in the bowels caused by gas.”

This still cracks me up. It’s an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like the thing it describes (although onomatopoeia itself is definitely not an onomatopoeia). And it makes for a great insult: You borborygmic swine! That’ll stop a bad guy in his tracks!

Which brings me to the subject of word choices. We have them. We have a whole passel of them (passel: a large number or amount). We even have a resource dedicated to word choices—the thesaurus (brainchild of Dr. Peter Mark Roget [1779 – 1869], a British physician and lexicographer).

Which invites (not begs) the question: should a fiction writer use a thesaurus? Mr. Stephen King has an oft-quoted opinion on this matter, as expressed in “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes.” This article appears in the 1989 edition of The Writer’s Handbook, which I just happen to have on my shelf (you can also find King’s essay here).

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Well now! What are we to think … I mean, what are we to surmise, suppose, conjecture, conclude, and determine about Mr. King’s rule?

Some might call it bunk (balderdash, bosh, codswallop, twaddle). But the context of this quote comes under the heading: Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft. King wants you to get that story down, in flow. So much so that he has advice on another form of flow:

When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else but go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.


Anyway, I mostly agree with King. When you’re first setting down your tale, you should do so as expeditiously (swiftly, rapidly, efficiently) as possible. Don’t stop and go looking for a ten-dollar word when a buck or a fiver will do the job.

But I will offer a wee (used in the sense of little) exception. When King wrote his piece we were only in the beginnings of the personal computer age. At the time, King was using a dedicated word processor—a big (huge, bulky, Brobdingnagian) machine that did only one thing: saved your typing on floppy disks. Thesauruses (Thesauri?) were bound, paper books. It would take you precious flow-minutes to look up a word.

Now, of course, we all have personal computers with a Dictionary/Thesaurus app. I use mine most often to find a synonym for something mundane, like walk. Sure, a character can walk into a room. That doesn’t do much for the reader. So I open my computer thesaurus and in five seconds find: stroll, saunter, amble, trudge, plod, dawdle, hike, tramp, tromp, slog, stomp, trek, march, stride, sashay, glide, troop, limp, stumble, and lurch.

Recently, I was working on my NIP (novella in progress). I was writing a scene with a drug kingpin and his pet monkey. The monkey keeps shrieking. But I didn’t want to use that same word over and over. So I popped open the thesaurus and immediately found: scream, screech, squeal, squawk, roar, howl, shout, yelp. Just what I needed. I used five of them.

The alternative to using the thesaurus in this manner is that you sit at the keyboard for several minutes trying to come up with alternatives. But in this case “the hunt”— to use Mr. King’s term (expression, phrase, idiom, locution) — is faster and more efficient with a thesaurus app.

Is there another exception to Mr. King’s rule? I think so. I like to lightly edit my previous day’s work before jumping back into the first draft. When I do this I’ll sometimes find a spot where I wish to apply Mark Twain’s dictum: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” A minute or two here pays off in stylistic coin that will please your readers.

So I’m not ready to discard (jettison, scrap, chuck, dump, dish) my thesaurus.

What about you?


In Praise of Diverse Reading

By Mark Alpert

My reading habits usually align with my writing habits. I write thrillers and science fiction because those are my favorite genres. Reading novels by Stephen King, Lee Child, and Liu Cixin is more entertaining, in my opinion, than almost anything else.

But I recognize that I sometimes stick too close to my favorites. By focusing so much on familiar authors and styles, I’m surely neglecting a slew of amazing novels that are just as good and maybe better. So every now and then I try to diversify my reading list. Earlier this year, for instance, right after I finished reading a thriller by a long-time favorite author (The Night Manager by John le Carré) I started a somewhat experimental literary novel I’d heard raves about (Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders).

And sometimes I try to get the best of both worlds by exploring the innovative fringes of familiar genres. Science fiction is a particularly good field for this kind of exploration because many sci-fi authors aren’t afraid to strike out in new directions. This year I finally got around to reading the works of Ursula Le Guin, one of the pioneers of the so-called New Wave science fiction of the Sixties and Seventies, starting with her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

It’s a fantastic book, decades ahead of its time. Le Guin imagines a planet named Gethen whose inhabitants are very similar to humans except for one important difference: they’re neither male nor female. For the great majority of their lives, they’re asexual individuals with neutral, indeterminate genitalia, or maybe no genitals at all. (Le Guin doesn’t go into the anatomical details in The Left Hand of Darkness, but I thought of the crotches of my boyhood GI Joe dolls, which had nothing but blank skin between their legs.) Every month or so, the Gethenians go into a four-day-long state called “kemmer” during which they temporarily develop male or female genitals and feel a strong desire to have sex. What’s more, the transition to male or female isn’t a matter of choice, and it isn’t fixed for a lifetime; a Gethenian could become male during kemmer at the beginning of the year, then female the next month, and so on. You could be a mother to some of your children and a father to others. Cool idea, right?

Like many sci-fi ideas, this one makes you wonder: What would society be like if there were no permanent gender identities? Le Guin does a great job of envisioning this society, describing it from the point of view of an outsider, an emissary from Earth. I enjoyed the book so much, I decided to read Le Guin’s Earthsea books, the beloved fantasy series that’s a bit like The Lord of the Rings and just as well-written.

Le Guin’s literary successor, I believe, is Margaret Atwood, who also enlivens science fiction with provocative ideas and wonderful writing. She’s most famous for The Handmaid’s Tale because that novel was turned into a hit television series, although the book is actually much better than the TV adaptation. This past summer I read Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, which starts with the 2003 novel Oryx and Crake. It’s a dark, mordant story of a genetically engineered apocalypse that destroys a near-future society so corrupt and polluted that it probably wasn’t worth saving. But the second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, is even better, because it tells the same story from the point of view of a whole new set of characters, members of a back-to-nature religious cult that seems to be involved in engineering the apocalypse.

I’ll mention two other inspiring writers who demonstrate how you can lift genre fiction to the level of literary greatness. The first is Brooke Bolander, who writes award-winning novelettes and short stories. My introduction to her work was the story, “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” which is such an arresting title that I had to read the story immediately. Luckily, the whole text is on the Web, and you can read it too, right here. It’s only a thousand words long, but I think it’s one of the most breathtaking thousand-word passages ever written in the English language. But don’t take my word for it. Read it right now.

The second remarkable sci-fi writer I’ve discovered in the past year is N.K. Jemisin, who recently won a MacArthur Fellows Program Genius Grant. The short story that grabbed my attention was “The City Born Great,” which is also available online. I’m not even going to try to describe this story. Just read it.

Next on my reading list is Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. But last night I took some time to reread an old favorite, a very old favorite: Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss. I found a copy in my daughter’s bedroom. (She’s off on her own now, like her brother, but I still linger in their old bedrooms and stare at the books I used to read to them.) And this particular book, my God, is so attuned to the present moment in American history, it’s positively eerie. So I’ll end this post with Horton’s desperate exhortation to the minuscule inhabitants of a dust speck as they struggle to make themselves heard:

“Don’t give up! I believe in you all!

A person’s a person, no matter how small!

And you very small persons will not have to die

If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!


Reader Friday: Songs and Memories

“Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” — Steven Wright

What song brings back a vivid memory, every time you hear it? “It’s Too Late” from Carole King’s album Tapestry always takes me back to a high school summer, driving my Ford Maverick to Zuma Beach with my best friend, Randy Winter. Everything was so right then.