Giving Thanks for Dark Blessings







By Debbie Burke

Without villains, there are no heroes. Without conflict, there is no story. Without lies, greed, theft, lust, jealousy, betrayal, rape, and murder, there is no crime fiction.

Those of us who write mystery, suspense, and thrillers embrace evil as a dark blessing to our chosen profession.

Sue Grafton famously admits the inspiration for her alphabet series sprang from an ugly divorce during which she fantasized about killing her ex. She grabbed adversity by the throat and transformed it into a blockbuster series.

TKZ’s Elaine Viets turned her own medical catastrophe into a unique mystery series starring Angela Richman, Death Investigator. Way to go, Elaine!

Dark Blessing #1: In the 1980s, my husband and I were parties in a grueling lawsuit. Our opponents retained a greedy, unethical attorney. During weeks of depositions in his office, I noticed this framed image titled “The Lawsuit” on his wall. In person, the lawyer’s smug mug bore a startling resemblance to the illustration.

He was quite proud of himself as he milked hundreds of thousands in fees from his clients, which naturally raised our own legal costs as we had to fight back.

For five long years, this attorney dragged out the suit, convincing a judge to rule against us for reasons that had flimsy legal basis. We suspected the attorney was paying off the judge, but couldn’t prove it.

Then again, maybe the terrible strain of the lawsuit had made us paranoid. Maybe.

We ultimately won the case, but it nearly killed our bank account…and my spirit.

Some years later, the judge was convicted of bribery and sentenced to prison. Too late to help our case, but our suspicions had been vindicated. We weren’t paranoid after all.

The attorney retired comfortably and later died of cancer. Nope, we didn’t send flowers to his funeral.

In a twisted, unintentional way, the attorney did me a favor.

Because of that ordeal, we moved to Montana. There, I’ve followed my dream of fulltime writing ever since. Plots and villains continue to pour from the cornucopia of that lawsuit. And I’ve repeatedly inflicted fictional revenge on the attorney.

Dark Blessing #2: My adopted mother was a sweet, kind, loving lady. This photo was taken at her birthday several years ago.

She was also ferociously independent and determined to remain in her San Diego home where she’d lived for over forty years. Despite health problems, she refused to move in with her daughter in L.A., nor me in Montana—too cold. She could take care of herself just fine, thank you very much.

My sister and I respected her wishes, but wangled one concession: a visiting caregiver checked on her several times a week. That solution appeared to work until…

Mama had a stroke a month shy of her ninety-first birthday. While she was in the hospital, my sister and I discovered the caregiver had run up more than $15,000 in fraudulent charges on Mama’s credit cards. We confronted the woman who admitted wrongdoing. We also reported the theft to the police and the elder fraud unit. They promised to investigate further.

Dear Mama maintained her independence to the end. Two weeks after the stroke, she died with dignity, on her own terms.

After her death, my sister and I learned to our horror that, despite abundant evidence and the caregiver’s admission, she couldn’t be prosecuted without Mama’s testimony. What???

Eventually, the credit card companies reversed the bogus charges, but the caregiver skipped away free, no doubt looking for her next victim.

Guess who’s receiving her comeuppance in my current WIP about elder fraud.

Justice that eludes us in real life can sometimes be found in fiction.

This Thanksgiving Day, I count many happy blessings. My incredible husband makes sacrifices so I can live the dream. I’m surrounded by a large community of supportive writer friends. TKZ gives me daily valuable lessons in craft, as well as the opportunity to write guest blogs.

And…there have been enough dark blessings in my life to provide endless inspiration for more novels.

Happy Thanksgiving to all at The Kill Zone!

Your turn, TKZers.

If you’re a writer, how have real-life tribulations inspired your stories?

If you’re a reader, what books helped you through difficult trials?

Debbie Burke considers her smartphone a dark blessing that inspired her thriller Instrument of the Devil, available here.


Judging a Book By Its Cover

By John Gilstrap

Whenever I finish a new book, my publisher is kind enough to ask me if I have any ideas for what the cover should look like.  It seems like a reasonable thing to expect, right?  After all, I spent a year writing the thing, so you’d think I have some inclination as to what I want the cover image to be.

Well, I never do.  I testify with neither pride nor shame that my mind simply does not work that way.  I think I’ve mentioned here before that after 11 books in the series, I really don’t know what Jonathan Grave looks like.  I know how he thinks, and I know what his skills are.  I know his strengths and his weaknesses, but, physically, beyond having intense blue eyes and a number of scars, I don’t see him in my head.  If I can’t see him, then I guess it should be of no surprise that I can’t cough up a cover image.  That said, I know a good cover when I see one, and this one for Scorpion Strike (July, 2018) is my favorite of all my books.

I think that the old adage that a book cannot be judged by its cover is at best disingenuous, and at worst a lie.  We all do it, and publishers understand that we do.  That’s why they have art departments. A book’s cover telegraphs more than just the story it tells.  It says a lot about the attitude of the book and its intended audience.  While my book covers are designed to project a Big Commercial Thriller, other covers, such as the one here for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, telegraph quite clearly that they are targeted for a more literary audience.

When my first thriller, Nathan’s Run, was released in hardcover in 1996, I was horrified by the cover.  I was a rookie in the business and afraid to express my opinion, but I thought the cover with its drab brown tones and its weird font expressed nothing about the story while conveying the wrong tone.  This was supposed to be a Big Commercial Thriller, but it projected . . . well, I don’t know.  At best, the message seemed muddled. While the book sold well–certainly for a first novel–it fell short of expectations, and I’ve always thought the cover was a contributor to that.

My British publisher, Michael Joseph, on the other hand, had a vision of the cover that fit way more closely to what I thought a cover should look like.  The bad guy’s sunglasses reflecting a fleeing boy was “too literal” in the view of my peeps at HarperCollins, so I kept my mouth shut, but I loved the UK cover. And the tag line, “At twelve, Nathan has seen just about everything … Now all he wants to see is thirteen,” was a stroke of brilliance.  Per capita, the book did much better in the UK than it did here in the U.S.  We all know that correlation is not causation, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that the cooler cover played a role in the better sales.

Roughly eight years after the paper copies of Nathan’s Run went out of print, Kensington re-bought the publication rights and put it out  as an eBook, along with my second novel, At All Costs.  I’m not sure what I think about this latest cover.  It shows motion, and I can’t complain about the size of my name relative to the title, but, to my eye, this version of the cover is kind of a place holder. It doesn’t really convey anything about the story, but I think it projects that it’s a commercial thriller.  Maybe that’s all it needs.  Again, I don’t know about this stuff.

Ultimately, I think cover art achieves its primary goal if it convinces a reader to pick up the book and take a look at the first page.  After that, it’s all about the writing.

Or is it?

I suspect, in the utter absence of any empirical data, that covers are one of the big obstacles that keep a lot of genre fiction from reaching mainstream acceptance.  We all know the story of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.  In its original printed form–before the movie tie-in version–the cover is clearly literary in its focus, and Western in its setting.  In my busiest days of my fire service career, I wouldn’t have hesitated to carry this book with me and read it in the day room of the fire station. Replace the cover with a picture of a bare-chested man in chaps, though, and not only would I not have carried it, I never would have opened it. (Yes, I’m that shallow.)  I know professional women who are secretly fans of romance novels, but won’t read them on the subway because the bodice-ripping covers.

And, in all fairness, I’m sure there will be professional men and women both who will feel a little uncomfortable toting a cover that features rusted bullet holes.  But, man-oh-man, I do love it.

I’ve learned one fascinating fact about covers over the years–and titles, too, for that matter: They needn’t have much to do with the story the book tells. Friendly Fire, for example, features a picture of the White House on the cover. I think it’s a terrific cover, but it hides a secret: Neither the White House nor the presidency play a role in the story. Once again, I was told that I was thinking too literally. The Jonathan Grave novels are “corridors-of-power” thrillers, and that is the message being conveyed by the cover image. Certainly, no one is going to mistake it for literary fiction or a romance. If it’s an engaging enough cover, people will pick it up.  At that point, the cover will have done its job.

A critical component of any cover design is the title.  Here again, the sole purpose of the title, in combination with the cover design, is to get a potential reader to crack the spine and take a peek inside. Thus, the title needn’t connect directly to the content of the book. Rather, it should convey the feel of the story.  The most obvious example of this in my own career is Hostage Zero, the second in the Grave series. The phrase means nothing. There is no Hostage Zero in the book, but my team at Kensington liked the sound of it–and the look of it, too, when put on the page. In the ten years or so since that book dropped I haven’t heard from a single reader or critic who felt cheated by the asymmetry of title and story.

Now I throw it to you Zoners.  How important are covers to you in your decision to give a book a try?  Any favorites out there we should know about?

Oh, and before you go, please consider subscribing to my YouTube Channel, “A Writer’s View on Writing and Publishing.” I like to think there’s some interesting stuff there.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!



First Page Critique:
Opening With a Good Bad Guy

In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They want an ordinary human being with failings. — Alfred Hitchcock.

By PJ Parrish

Well, this was fun. Nothing like a good bad guy to get things rolling. Here, for our consideration, is today’s First Page Critique, titled Goodbye Detective.  After you read it, we’re going to dig down into the burnt-cinder souls of villains.

Goodbye Detective

As you are reading this, Detective, know that I did not mean to kill her at first. I do not seek absolution from you, or anyone – we have moved well beyond that by now – but I want you to understand how we arrived at the here and now.

This has not always been about you. I have done this before you came around, and I will continue long after they have called your End of Watch. You were nothing to me – a faceless badge – until you first stepped in front of those microphones. A rising star in the department, youthful and clean-shaven and with your freshly minted shield gleaming in the camera lights, you were quite the sight to behold. You seemed comfortable in the spotlight as you fielded questions and recounted the sparse evidence I allowed to be found. When you delivered your promise to bring me to justice, it was not the first time that I heard those words. But there was something about the way you said them and that fire of determination I recognized in your eyes that made me take notice. You were different than the ones before you, and this would require my full attention.

At first, I simply wanted to throw you off. Let you follow a trail that leads nowhere or deliver you an with an unwitting patsy you can build your case around. This has worked for me in the past, but you saw right through those attempts to lead you astray. You snooped and dug ever deeper, connecting bodies to me that I had all but forgotten and you became all-consumed by this case of yours. By me.

Each time you stepped in front of those cameras – a small update here, a major break in the case there – you looked worse for wear. Gone was the well-groomed youth, his place taken by an ever more disheveled figure, stubble-faced and unkempt. The dark furrows beneath your eyes grew deeper with every long hour you spent on the case. I came to understand that you would not be deterred, and I respected your tenacity. But it meant that for the first time I had to alter my approach. You had become my biggest fan and I had found a playmate


We’re back. This is certainly an interesting start. And I think it’s well-written, so I am not going to do my usual line edits. Got no nits to pick. What I like about this is that the voice is solid, and we get a hint of the villain’s personality. Notice that the word choices, the vocabulary and syntax imply a man of some education. He feels almost Hannibal Lector-ish. Good job with that.

We also get some early glimpses of the protagonist (the detective) through the villain’s sensibility. One of the most effective ways to show your protagonist’s character is to reveal it through the thoughts or others. We are told he was a fresh-faced rising star. But time, and this case, have worn him down. We are told he is tenacious. And he’s not the first man to work this case…there have been a lot of bodies. All of this is smoothly inserted back story. Good job, writer!

The only thing I don’t like — the title. It doesn’t do this justice. But it’s an okay working title and maybe the real title will reveal itself later. It often does.  Shoot, I’d rather see this called End of Watch. Which would work on a couple levels — it’s the end of a policeman’s shift but might it also describe what the detective seeks — the end of the watching (stalking) done by the bad guy.  A good title does two important things — captures the tone of the story and works on several levels of meaning.

I would read on. But I am not sure how much further, if you overstay in the villain’s head. The usual caveat here with our First Page Critiques:  Because the submission has to be short, we don’t really know where this is going.  But the opening pages do illuminate an important point — you have to seduce the reader (be it editor, agent, or reader) in the first page or so and make them want more.  I think this writer succeeds, but I would caution that this opening be short and sweet and get us to the hero soon — or some kind of action because this opening is, essentially, character thinking and not doing.

In film, this kind of opening is called the Establishing Character Moment — a red flag to pay attention to a major character. You can’t wait too long to do this because it breeds impatience. And you can’t dwell on false protagonists or secondary characters too long or the reader will assume this is the hero, get attached, and then be disappointed.  A couple months back, I read a manuscript for the Mystery Writers of America Critique Program and the submission had a fatal flaw — the writer introduced five characters in the first 30 pages, each with their own point of view. Because the book’s title has a subtitle (ie A Sylvia Drake Mystery…not the real name) we know Sylvia is the protag. But poor Sylvia is showing up way too late for her own party. Not good.

Back to the Establishing Character Moment.  Novel writing is a series of choices the writer makes, and who comes on stage first is an important choice. I have no problem at all with the villain in the submission, instead of the hero, getting prime time.  It’s a common trope in thriller books and movies.

The movie Dirty Harry begins with a rooftop close-up of a gun barrel, zooms down to a pretty girl taking a swim in a pool, then zooms back out until we see the sniper take his deadly shot.

Joyce Carol Oates (under her crime novel pen name Rosamond Smith) opens Snake Eyes with a tight-focus scene about her tattooed convict Lee Roy Sears before she pulls her camera back and switches to the suburban couple who fatally take him into their home.

One of my fave Hitchcock’s openings is from Rope with two murderers garroting a victim, stuffing him in a trunk, and sharing a drink — all before James Stewart sets foot on stage. Check it out:

So what do we make of the opening of our submission Goodbye Detective? As I said, I think it’s good. It’s not a normal third-person or omniscient narrative (“The man watched her from the rooftop, aiming his rifle carefully.”)  It’s not even a normal first-person point of view (“I set the barrel of the rifle on the ledge and waited until the girl below drove in before I took aim.”)  No, this is more stylized with the villain (in first person), “talking” to the detective, or perhaps actually writing to him. But in a way, he is also talking to us the readers, like an actor breaking the fourth wall with an audience. I think this is tough style to maintain over 200+ pages, but I will give the writer the benefit of the doubt and hope s/he moves toward a more active first-person voice for the villain.

I tried to think of an example from a published book that was similar to what the writer is attempting here but drew a blank.  But I will offer up one terrific example of an opening featuring the villain. First we get one orgasmic graph describing the moon then comes this:

I had been waiting and watching the priest for five weeks now. The need had been prickling and teasing prodding at me to find one, the next one, find this priest. Three weeks I had known he was it, the next one, we belonged to the Dark Passenger, he and I together. And that three weeks I had been fighting the pressure, the growing Need rising in me like a great wave that roars up and over the beach and does not recede, only swells with every tick of the bright night’s clock.

That’s from Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I know, I know…technically Dexter is both hero and villain. He’s a little like the main character in Jim Thompson’s classic The Killer Inside Me, about a small-town good ol’ boy sheriff who is actually a depraved psychopath. I’m bring them up only to make a point here:

If you open with the bad guy, it better be good. Make  sure his voice is pitch-perfect, original, and that it’s your best possible writing.

Another example of a villain opening, from one of my fave college reads, John Fowles’ The Collector:

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annex. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M.I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in a queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like Burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at the back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.

Let’s talk now about structure.  If you do open with a villain, you have to make choices about how you present him, what form it will take:

  • What point of view — third or third?
  • Prologue or chapter 1?
  • A constant presence throughout the book or limited?
  • Identify by name or leave him a ghostly figure?

Our submitting writer chose first person, and I assume it’s Chapter 1. We can’t tell if this POV will be constant throughout the book, but I will caution that if you do decide to give your villain screen time, you should make him a constant presence throughout your narrative. One opening scene isn’t enough; in my opinion, it feels tacked on, like a false attempt to inject tension in the opening.

If you’ll indulge me, I think a recounting here of my own experience with villain openings might help us understand this. I’ve used a villain POV many times but opened with it only twice. The first time was with our third book Paint It Black. Here it is:

The car was just sitting there, its hazard lights blinking like beacons in the darkness. In a flash of lightening, he could see someone walking around the car, in and out of the shadows.

Stop here? No, no, not right. Rain…too much rain. It wasn’t supposed to happen here. Stop! Stop!

He slowed the truck, pulling onto the shoulder behind the stalled car. A man came around the car and looked back at him, shielding his eyes in the glare of the headlights. 

The wipers beat with the thick pounding in his head. He could see the man’s face. And his eyes, hopeful, as they squinted back to his rescuer.

Yes…oh, yes.

This was Chapter 1, not a prologue because it segued right into the following scene. The killer gets his own scenes in the book, at a ratio of about one-to-three vs the hero. I didn’t name him until Louis figured out who he was.  Choices…

Now I’ll tell you about the villain opening I almost screwed up. But first, I have to talk about the book that inspired my choices — Michael Connelly’s The Poet. If you are considering giving your villain a starring role, you must read this book. Connelly toggles between his reporter hero Jack McEvoy (using first-person) and his villain William Gladden (third-person.)  The first two chapters are from Jack’s POV, but then Connelly opens Chapter 3 with the slow-build tension of Gladden watching kids on the Santa Monica Pier merry-go-round.

When I was writing my first stand-alone thriller, I knew I wanted to toggle between hero and villain. Using Connelly’s template, I also mixed first and third POV. But because I had written a dozen books in third person — my comfort zone — I gave that to my hero, and gave the villain first person.  Can you see the problem?

Well, the fifty pages in, book was a snoozer and I couldn’t figure out why. Luckily, I ran into Mike Connelly at a writers conference and asked his advice. “Give the more intimate first to your hero,” he said. Once I did that, the book wrote itself. I opened with the villain, watching his victim in Saint Chapelle in Paris:

He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

The last rays of the setting sun slanted through the stained glass window over her head, bathing her in a rainbow. He knew it was just a trick of light, that the ancient glassmakers added copper oxide to make the green, cobalt to make the blue, and real gold to make the red. He knew all of this.

But still, she was beautiful.

I loved writing from this villain’s point of view. Which is another caution flag I need to throw out here. Villains are very seductive. They are more fun to write than heroes. So be careful you don’t use up all your writer juice on them.

A couple more tips about villains:

Keep in mind that once you enter the villain’s mind, you risk sacrificing some of your story’s tension because the reader will know what’s going to happen. Find ways to keep them guessing, even when in the bad guy’s head.


Make your villain a worthy adversary. In real life, criminals are usually dumb as stumps. But in fiction, a complex villain gives your hero something to push back against. What’s the old quote? Even a villain is the hero of his own story. Develop your antagonist with as much care as your protagonist. Every character must want something. Especially your villain. Figure out what that is and drill deep.

Good job, writer. Thanks for submitting.



Failing the NaNoWriMo Test

So this November I tried for the second time to complete NanNoWriMo (for those unfamiliar with this, it represents an opportunity/challenge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November). Although I never publicly launched a new novel or attended any of the social writing events in either attempt, I did start both challenges with the intention of trying to see if I could knock out a 50,000 word draft in a month. Turns out, I can’t…

This post isn’t really about my failed attempts but rather what I learned about my own writing process as a result. While I think NaNoWriMo is a great exercise for many writers it (obviously) didn’t turn out to be the best for me. In both of my attempts I was in the early stages of a new project and I thought it might be a way to overcome the dreaded internal critic and kickstart my project into high gear. Turns out my creative process just doesn’t work that way…Here is what I learned:

  1. I write quickly anyway. With determination I always finish my projects and the deadlines I set with my agent provides motivation (and fear) enough for me to push through to the end of the first, second, third and fourth (or more) drafts. That being said…
  2. The first 50-100 pages for me are critical. I have to get these right or I cannot (and I mean cannot!) move forward. I often spend the first month or so on these pages alone – making sure they are written, edited, rewritten and re-edited to my satisfaction. NaNoWriMo helped me realize and understand this – the 100 page mark was the exact point in both drafts where my brain froze at the thought of continuing on without fixing what I knew was wrong.
  3. This second failed NaNoWriMo test enabled me to come to grips with the hows and why’s of point # 2. It’s all about the voice. If I don’t get the voice and characterization correct, everything I write from that point forward feels inauthentic and forced. In this last attempt, I found myself going through the motions of writing scenes to satisfy the NaNoWriMo word requirements until eventually my creative process shriveled up and died…until I went back and started working through the voice in the first 100 pages…
  4. Word targets freak me out. I don’t do well focusing on a target number of words to write per day or week.  As a plotter I do much better with setting goals in terms of chapters and scenes than focusing on the number of words. I will often lay out an outline and move along that trajectory until I come to a point where I have to go back, reread everything and make course corrections as necessary. NaNoWriMo taught me to make peace with this…and also to realize that…
  5. Although my internal critic can be a pain in the bum it’s also what helps me craft the voice that I need to move forward with my novel. It was the same with last year’s project (which, by the way, resulted in a novel that is currently out on submission, so my NaNoWriMo failure isn’t all that bad!).
  6. Finally, I realized that I need to trust, accept, and love my own particular creative process.

So, although I think NaNoWriMo is great for kickstarting other people’s writing – I need to accept it isn’t for me. Undertaking the challenge, however, has helped me realize that I have to honor my own creative process and since mine (so far at least!) usually results in a completed novel, then it’s a process that ultimately works:)

So TKZers, are any of you doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this November? How does it work for you and your creative process?


Digital Self-Publishing Saves a World War II Memoir

by James Scott Bell

Gather ’round, children, and let me tell you a story about self-publishing back in the olden days.

Now, I know you kids think it’s always been easy. You just hit “upload” and … Johnny, put down that iPad! I’m telling you about real self-publishing, back when a writer had to have guts and grit! The days when self-publishing meant you paid for an honest-to-goodness print run and … Yes, Jenny? … no, print run was not a 5k. It meant shelling out money for printed, bound books made with pages made of actual paper! And let me tell you, that was not cheap! And at the end of it all, you know what you’d get? A bunch of boxes of unsold books in your garage!

You see, there has always been self-publishing in America. Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman dabbled in it. Heck, Whitman may have been the first sock puppet, writing a glowing anonymous “review” of Leaves of Grass and buying space for it in a literary journal.

But it was in the 1970s and a man named Bill Henderson that modern self-publishing went wide. Henderson’s The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook started a small but growing movement of ex-hippies and frustrated wannabes designing and printing their own work. (This is not to be confused with “vanity publishing,” wherein a company took a whole lot of money from you to produce a print run of books that would, well, remain in boxes in your garage.)

In 1979 Dan Poynter published the first of several editions of his Self-Publishing Manual, bringing a much-needed business sense to the movement.

Which was around the time my dad, L.A. attorney Art Bell, decided to write a memoir of his service in World War II and publish it himself.

Raised in Hollywood, Dad was a star football and baseball player at Hollywood High School. He went on to play catcher for the UCLA baseball team, where his teammate was one Jackie Robinson.

Ensign Art Bell

In college he joined the Navy ROTC program and saw action throughout World War II. He was captain of three ships: the destroyers USS Dallas and USS Kinzer, and his first command and first love, the PC 477.

PCs were 173-foot, steel-hulled submarine fighters. Uncle Sam had thousands of seamen on hundreds of PCs convoying and patrolling in WWII. They were introduced in the desperate days of early 1942, when the waters off America’s Atlantic coast were a graveyard of torpedoed ships. They performed essential, hazardous, and sometimes spectacular missions, yet the PCs were scarcely known at all outside the service.

The Navy didn’t even dignify PCs with names. But the crew of the PC 477 did. They called her “Peter Charlie.”

Which became the title of Dad’s book. It was a true labor of love, and brought him back in contact with many of his shipmates. He collected letters and stories and photos, and organized a couple of reunions.

Dad was already self-publishing a digest on California search and seizure law, which had become the go-to resource in the state, so he had one of his graphics people do the layout of Peter Charlie, which he had typed himself on an IBM Selectric. He then paid a local printing outfit a princely sum for a beautiful hardback edition, with dust jacket and all. I can’t recall how many he had printed up. Maybe 2,000. He sold them himself out of his law office and it found popularity among many ex-Navy men all over the country.

Dad died in 1988 and I took over his practice. And I am proud to report that by 1999 or so, the entire print run had sold out. The book even returned a bit of a profit!

And that might have been the end of things were it not for the most recent iteration of the self-publishing movement: digital. I wanted Dad’s book to live on, and a few weeks ago I set out to make that happen.

First, I had to get the print text scanned. A writer friend recommended BlueLeaf Book Scanning. Per their instructions, I sent them one copy of the hardcover and chose their “destructive” option. That means they take the pages out of the binding for scanning, and you don’t get them back. The entire job cost $37.17. What I got were two Word docs (formatted and unformatted text), two PDFs (one large size, one small), and a JPEG of the dust jacket cover formatted for ebook use.

The scanning job was amazingly good. There was only one minor issue I found and took care of that with a quick find/replace.

Next, I opened up a Vellum project. Vellum is a Mac program for formatting ebooks (and, now, print as well). It is easy to use and creates gorgeous interiors. It will import a docx Word file and create most of the book that way. I went through the formatted Word doc and used cut-and-paste to put it into Vellum. Since there were a lot of block quotes and lists my dad used, this was the best way for me to check the transitions. Once again, Vellum makes the process easy.

I was also able to include photographs from the PDF scan. I copied the photos and saved them as JPEGs, then inserted them into the Vellum file.

Once that was all done, I generated the .mobi file and sent that to my own Kindle so I could go over it on the device and pick up any last formatting issues. I fixed those in Vellum and generated the final .mobi that I used for publication under my imprint, Compendium Press.

The entire project—from the time I shipped BlueLeaf the book to the official pub date—took six weeks.

And so Peter Charlie lives on. My hope is that those who had parents or grandparents who served in World War II and … yes, Billy? … Yes, we won … and anyone interested in a first-hand report of what life was like aboard a naval vessel at that time, will be both edified and educated by this account (I must add a slight language warning here, for the first captain of Peter Charlie was not averse to using God’s name to get the attention of his junior officers, Dad included). It is full of funny stories, historical data, some rare photos, and lots of interesting details.

It’s a Kindle Unlimited title, available here.

So … does anyone else remember the grand old days of self-publishing—before digital and print-on-demand? Anybody got a garage with boxes of unsolds?


The Best Book…Ever…

(c) Copyright 2017, Annalisa Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

I read the best book ever last week. The book in question is titled Dr. Sticksel & the Lucky Umbrella. It is written for elementary school readers by my daughter, Annalisa Hartlaub, who self-published it with a limited print run for a specific purpose. More on that in a moment.

Please let me explain who “Dr. Sticksel” is. He is Dr. Phil Sticksel, a highly regarded meteorologist who worked worldwide for Battelle Memorial Institute, a science and technology research organization based in the Columbus, Ohio. Battelle partnered with Longfellow Elementary Math and Science Magnet School in Westerville, Ohio, which Annalisa attended. A major element of that partnership involved Battelle providing past and present personnel to Longfellow to assist with its science program. My first contact with Dr. Sticksel was at a school function during Annalisa’s first-grade year at Longfellow. He told me by way of introduction that Annalisa was functioning at genius level and was destined for amazing things. He mentored her through elementary school and beyond. He was (to name but one instance) in attendance when Annalisa, at the time a sixteen-year-old high school student, presented a research paper at The Ohio State University School of Medicine. Dr. Sticksel, now well into his eighties, has experienced some decline in health in the last few years but still stays mentally active and has continued through me to keep up to date on Annalisa. He was thrilled to learn that she presented another research paper this past September at the 2017 IEEE VIS Conference in Phoenix. She was the only attendee to do so who did not have a degree. “One of MY students did that?!” Dr. Sticksel asked. Yes, Sir. One of your students.

Annalisa at age twenty will be closing her career at The Ohio State University in three weeks by earning a degree in neuroscience. She did, however, take the time to fulfill a long-held dream. With the assistance of a grant from OSU’s STEP program, Annalisa wrote Dr. Sticksel & the Lucky Umbrella, the book I mentioned at the beginning of this bit of logorrhea. Yes, I might be prejudiced, but it is wonderful. It tells the story of a meteorologist who, with his pet opossum, has a lucky umbrella that keeps the rain away. Every word is true, to one degree or another. Annalisa put it all together — text, artwork, and all — and had the books printed by the fine folks at bookbaby. When the books arrived we took Annalisa several miles north to Dr. Sticksel’s home and surprised him with several copies. He was stunned, overjoyed, and surprised. It is of equal importance to note that, after Annalisa slips a copy or two of Dr. Sticksel & the Lucky Umbrella to Mom and Dad, the remaining copies of the books are being donated to the Westerville Elementary school library system. Dr. Sticksel may be retired, but he will live on in the halls of the Westerville schools and in the hearts and minds of the students for years to come.

Annalisa’s father, of course, sees this new book as the springboard for sorts of potential projects. “What about a Dr. Sticksel series, like Rotten Ralph?! A cartoon show on Netflix! Action figures! A four cup cineplex movie! Greeting cards! Video games! Graphic novels!” Annalisa doesn’t want to hear it, at least not now. Perhaps she will in six months, at which point she’ll convince herself that a spinoff project is her idea. For now, however, she concurs with the observation I made as we drove away from Dr. Sticksel’s home. “You know,” I said, “I think you made him really, really happy.” Annalisa responded, “That’s all I wanted to do.” Amen to that. I can’t think of a better reason to write a book.

Photo (c) Copyright 2017, Lisa O. Hartlaub

So…authors…when the rubber hits the road, why do you write? Other than for filthy lucre, of course?  And readers…why do you read? I mean, really? What is it about reading that entertains you? Tell us, please. And Happy Thanksgiving, from my house to yours.



What Writers Can Learn from “Pork and Beans” – Guest Writer Steven Ramirez

Jordan Dane


Photo Courtesy of Eli Duke

My guest today is Steven Ramirez, the horror thriller author of the series TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD. Catchy. We met on Twitter, like normal people. Steven lives in Los Angeles and has also published short stories as well as a children’s book (this scares me), and he wrote the screenplay for the horror thriller film ‘Killers.’ Welcome to TKZ, Steven.

Steven Ramirez

I first heard Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” when my younger daughter was teaching herself the bass. She would blast it every day, following along on her instrument. Eventually, I found myself listening to the lyrics. I came to love that song and now have it on my phone. Yeah, I know. Talk about late to the party. Well, in my defense, I mostly listen to straight-ahead jazz, so.

But enough about Weezer…

Trying Not to Be a Pompous Ass
As a writer, I can really identify with those lyrics. I won’t quote them here, but you can use this LINK if you want to refresh your memory. The point is, the books I choose to write are a product of my, shall we call it, pork-and-beans attitude. I really don’t give a crap about researching popular genres and writing the kinds of books I think people might like. I notice a lot of “experts” like to give that kind of advice to non-fiction authors. To me, that’s right up there with “write what you know.” Spare me. Now, on the surface, I might sound a little pompous. But stick with me for a sec. I am simply trying to stay true to myself. You know, like Lady Gaga.

I watched a lot of movies and television as a kid. My favorites were horror, sci-fi, and comedy. As I grew older, I came to appreciate thrillers. And in the last few years, I fell in love with Westerns. I guess I can thank Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood for that. I also love foreign films—especially those from Japan and Korea. As you can see, my tastes tend to run the gamut. I do lean toward horror, though. In fact, my first four books revolve around zombies and demons.

Some Really Cheesy Math
Recently, I read a Wikipedia article which stated that, as of April 2017, Amazon’s Kindle Store had nearly seven million titles available in the US. Seven million! I have no idea if that number is accurate. As of this writing, my latest horror novella is at around 41,000 in Amazon’s best sellers rank for paid eBooks. Take a look.

Now, that’s a long way from the top 100, but here’s how I look at it. Keep in mind, I am terrible at math, but I think you’ll get my point. Let’s say, conservatively, that out of the 7,000,000 titles offered at Amazon, half are fiction. I’m guessing it’s more than half, but this is just for the sake of argument. So, that’s 3,500,000 fiction titles—all genres. Now, let’s say that of those, half are free due to a promotion or whatever. That brings the number down to 1,750,000 paid titles. Still with me? Okay. Out of this number—which is shaky at best—my book is at 41,510. This is the only true number based on the screenshot above. So, that means Come As You Are is in the top two percent of paid books. Now, as I said, this whole thing is pure speculation. But at least it’s the kind of voodoo economics that lets me sleep at night. Know what I mean?

Style as Brand
What I am saying is, despite me writing what I want instead of chasing some fad because some expert told me to, I managed to get my book pretty far up the chart. Okay, I’m no Stephen King, but who is? And another thing, let’s forget about the stupid ranking for a minute. What’s really interesting about this exercise is that there are real readers out there who seem to like my work. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Getting people to read your book. It’s about creating a brand through your personal, one-of-a-kind writing style and doing your best to let those folks who enjoy that sort of thing find out about you. It’s what I strive to do every time I sit at the computer and type out another sentence.

The truth is, I currently have more ideas for novels that I could ever possibly write in this lifetime. But I promise you, the books I do manage to write will be always good. Otherwise, I won’t publish. And you may not always like the genre. For example, I’ve been toying with a time travel story—not because time travel is popular, but because I have what I think is an interesting idea and want to see it come to life. What I’m hoping is, there are readers out there who will fall in love with it. You never know.

If I had to leave you with one piece of advice, it would be this. Don’t write what you know. Instead, write what keeps you up at night—something that’s burning a hole in your gut and giving you nightmares until you commit it to the page. In other words, write the thing that comes out when there’s a gun at your head.

For Discussion:

1.) For writers: Have you built your brand on a single genre, or are you comfortable pursuing interests outside the genre?

2.) For readers: Do you prefer authors who stick with a single genre, or are you more interested in the author, no matter the genre?

Come as You Are: A Short Novel & Nine Stories

Links for Steven:






First Page Critique: “Kimberley Creed”


Happy Wednesday!

It’s time to present another First Page critique of a Brave Writer’s work. (Updated to reflect title)


Kimberley Creed

“Are you listening to me?” his dad asked him. He nodded, but he hadn’t been. He had been watching in wonder at the group of chanting demonstrators marching down the main street and the half a dozen or so cops standing by. He’d never seen such a commotion.

His father glared at him, his fearsome black eyes striking terror into David. He knew his father could tell when he lied and cringed as the expected hand struck him hard. Whack! on the cheek, his head jolting, ear ringing as the side of his face throbbed. His eyes opened wide in pain as his throat tightened, stopping him from breathing.

“Don’t miss,” Tracker said. “If you do, you owe me fifty bucks. You got it?”

David nodded, still facing the ground. Finally his throat loosened and he was able to suck in a breath, keeping his mouth open to avoid whimpering.

“Focus! I’ll meet you back in the park soon,” Tracker said, and walked away.

David composed himself, wiped his face and looked up. His father lurked at the back of the crowd, looking for a suitable victim. But most of the people around him were locals, David could tell by the way they were dressed. Locals were too much trouble. Tracker wanted a tourist and wandered off the path onto the long stretch of lawn that separated the street from the beach. Dozens of people lingered there, watching the demonstration. Many wore fashionable beachwear, definitely tourists, and David looked over them, trying to guess which unlucky mug Tracker was going to choose.

An attractive couple was canoodling on a bench, oblivious to their surroundings. Easy, but too young. Not cashed up. Then there was the group of young surfers. Too fit; probably fast runners. There was a young father and two young kids seated around a table having lunch. Perfect, the father won’t leave his kids. But he doesn’t look like the kind of fella to have a thick wallet. Then there was the grey-haired couple enjoying a glass of wine and packed lunch at a portable picnic table. Probably retired. Grey nomads. They’ll be loaded for sure.

David looked at Tracker, who was looking back at him and had been waiting for eye contact. Tracker gave a furtive look to the grey nomads, having already picked them out. David nodded and headed towards them.

Tracker walked behind the couple, reached down to the grass and appeared to pick up a fifty-dollar bill.

“Excuse me,” he said. The couple turned and saw him holding up the note. “I think you dropped this,” Tracker said.

“Oh, goodness,” the woman said. The man pulled his wallet from his pocket.

David took a deep breath.

“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” the man said and took the fifty. That was David’s cue, and he bolted. The old guy stuffed the fifty inside his wallet, and before he could slide it back into his pocket, it was gone – snatched out of his hand, as David shot through.


Brave Author, you’ve got an interesting story here, and a very strong facility for clear, declarative prose. Let’s talk a few housekeeping details:

Don’t make your reader work too hard, especially at the beginning of your story. It’s okay and necessary to identify your characters by name.

So it could open: “Are you listening to me, son?” David’s father asked him.

Or: “Are you listening to me, son?” David’s father clamped a rough hand on his shoulder, jerking him away from the window.

(I had the sense David was looking out a window, but then I wasn’t sure when the father simply walked away. If they were in public, surely his father wouldn’t have whacked him on the head. Perhaps they were in an alley? Or in a copse in the park? Do establish the scene in a quick line or two.)

Though many writers discourage opening a story with dialogue, it’s a rule I break all the time, particularly at the beginning of a chapter. But you might consider another, non-dialogue opening for the beginning of a novel or story.

The sudden mention of the name, Tracker, jarred me out of the moment, and I had to read the beginning again to make sure there weren’t three people in the scene. You can correct that in the second paragraph with something like:

“His father–who was given the nickname Tracker by the uncle who’d started him in the pickpocketing game–glared at him, his black eyes filling David with terror.”

Since you’re telling this story from David’s close 3rd POV, “Tracker” should probably read as “his father” throughout the piece because he wouldn’t think about his father’s first name. It’s the safer approach. Others may disagree. But if you stick with Tracker, establish it quickly.

While “he said” and “she said” can disappear into the background, their overuse can be grating. The same with starting a long series of sentences with “He…” As you read (and you should be reading lots!) pay careful attention to the way writers use bits of action or description of the characters who are speaking to indicate that they are connected to the dialogue. (As above, with David’s father putting a hand on his shoulder, which connects the character and dialogue and also clues us in to his unpleasantness.)

I don’t understand how David could hear what his father and the old couple were saying. Surely he wasn’t standing just a few feet away. You can have him imagining the conversation or reading their lips or simply have him guess at it since he’s seen it happen before.

What are David’s feelings about what he’s seeing? Does it bother him that he’s ripping off old people?

Paragraphs 6 and 7 are outstanding. They beautifully illustrate the process the con men go through to choose their marks. Well done! The cool objectivity of the paragraphs does make David seem cynical and very involved in the game–and that’s not the impression I get from both the opening of the piece, and Tracker’s worry that David might screw up. David seems more sensitive and sheltered, i.e. he’s never seen a demonstration before and doesn’t think murderous thoughts about his father.

Keep at it Brave Writer. You are doing great!

TKZers, what’s your advice for our Brave Writer?