Reaching Out to New Writers


Debbie Burke



Columbia Falls Junior High NaNoWriMo students

It’s Tuesday morning at Columbia Falls Junior High School in northwest Montana. Approximately 75 eighth graders troop into the library where a massive glass wall faces Glacier National Park, shrouded in clouds that promise early snow. The students are gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) led by English teachers Rubianna Masa and Cecilia Byrd-Rinck.

Since 2012, Rubianna has shepherded her students through the November writing marathon. “I will not lie,” she says. “Some of my students are excited to write while others think this is the craziest and worst thing a teacher has ever made them endeavor.”

Prior to the challenge this year, she invites two local authors to talk to the kids.

The lucky guest authors? Memoirist Susan Purvis (Go Find: The Journey to Find the Lost and Myself) and yours truly.

As students trail into the library, I chat briefly with Brookann who tells me she uses her dreams to inspire her writing. We discuss harnessing the power of the subconscious to find answers to story problems. I’m instantly impressed.

Sue kicks off the talk. “It all starts with a promise. I promised to train my Lab puppy to be a search dog that never leaves anyone behind. And I promised to write a book about it. That was my dream.” She draws parallels between her true-life story and fiction the kids will write, starting with an inciting incident, the roller coaster of setbacks, finally building to the climax, then the resolution.

Since Sue’s book is set in high mountains, she asks the kids, “What’s your Everest? What is your goal or dream?” followed by the question, “What’s standing in your way?”

Aspen answers: “Be an artist. But I have to do schoolwork instead of draw.”

Emma answers: “To love somebody. But society is in the way.”

Sue then describes the story problem in her memoir: “Why is it easier for me to jump out of helicopter with my search dog onto a 13,000-foot mountaintop to recover a dead body than to talk to my husband about our marriage?”

Tristan answers: “Because your dog doesn’t judge.”

Sue and I stare at each other, blown away by his insight.

When I ask the kids who are the antagonists in Sue’s story, they shoot off more great answers:

“Her dog that didn’t want to be trained.”

“The other search guys who didn’t want a woman around.”

“Her husband.” 

This is one smart crowd.

Next we focus on their stories and ask:

Who’s your main character? What do they want? Who opposes them? What’s at stake if they fail?

And the toughest question of all: How do you distill your entire novel into a 30-word elevator pitch?

They take a few minutes to write their answers. Then several read their summaries to the group.

Hailey: “My main character is a 14-year-old boy who wants his mom to stop using drugs. If he fails, she will get sicker and sicker.”

Sarah: “My story is about a girl and her best friend who want to change the world by getting rid of trash. Then the best friend is killed in a school shooting and my main character falls apart. Her new mission is to stop future attacks.”

Whoa. Serious writers with serious themes.

We invite them to meetings of our local group, the Authors of the Flathead, whose motto is writers helping writers.

I talk about how brainstorming with others can get you out of a corner; how it’s hard to judge your own work because you’re too close to it; how asking others read your story gives you honest assessments, even if they’re painful.

I encourage them to grasp unexpected opportunities that may divert from the original plan yet lead to greater rewards.

Sue and I arrive with the intention of helping young writers but we receive an unexpected gift in return. We are co-writing an adventure book for young readers and ask if they’ll give us feedback on our synopsis. They enthusiastically agree and proceed to shoot off penetrating questions like:

“Are you going to use alternating points of view?” That has not occurred to us until Jasmin brings it up! And we’ll certainly consider it.

Other comments: “Tell us more adventures in the mountains.”

“What happens to people in avalanches?”  

“I want to hear about the science of how dogs smell lost people.”

We’re on it, guys!

We ask if they’ll be our focus group to offer suggestions and opinions as we write the book. “Sure!”

Ninety minutes have flown by and the bell rings for their next classes. Off they go, hopefully with a few new tools to help them survive NaNoWriMo.

Novelist/screenwriter Dennis Foley mentored Sue, Rubianna, and me (see earlier post here). He always urges us to “pass it on.”

As so often happens in life, you set out to help others and instead wind up being the one who’s helped.

Sue and I leave Columbia Falls Junior High School with full hearts and two notes from students.

Brookann writes to me (with a follow-up email that afternoon, condensed here): Goal is to be a writer of anime books. Elisbeth wants to save the human race and defeat the villains to make a better world…I am writing this story because I love anime and I am basing it off multiple scenes from different anime series, to make the perfect character for the perfect book. I hope this book will succeed in the way I want it to. I hope you can help me progress and succeed with this book. Thank you.

This eighth grader understands more about researching her market and making her book stand out in the crowd than most adult authors! 


Terrance writes to Sue: “My dream is to be like ski patrol, like Susan Purvis. I want to change the world by saving lives. I want to become an Avalanche Rescuer. My writing is going to be like Susan Purvis.”


It’s a good day to be an author.




TKZers: What’s your favorite way to pass it on? 




You can find Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas on Amazon.


The Age for Loving (or Hating a Book)

In this weekend’s NYT Book review’s ‘By the Book’ I saw two questions (this week for YA author John Green) that I don’t recall seeing before and which started me mulling about the impact of timing (and one’s age, specifically) when in comes to appreciating certain books. The two questions were:

  • What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
  • What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

Great questions – right? Not because I believe that anyone should prescribe a particular book to a particular age group but because I’ve begun to realize just how much age has been a factor in terms of appreciating certain books in my life. This realization came as I was trying (unsuccessfully I might add!) to cull some overflowing book shelves, and I started leafing through books that I absolutely adored when I read them but now, as I began to flip through them, all I could think was ‘huh?’.

My book group a few years ago did an experiment where we chose a book that everyone had read years before and which we wanted to revisit only to have us all recoiling in horror, unable to believe that (a) We’d actually read the book before (so much had been lost to the mists of time…) and (b) That we’d actually loved it (the book BTW was The Magus by John Fowles). I remember our discussion circling round whether age was the main factor in our changing tastes in literature – and, although we all instinctively knew this to be true, it still surprised us just how much impact it had. Going through my shelves the other day, I was surprised how many books I’d loved in the 1980s and 1990s now seemed dated, not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of themes and emotional resonance. If I were to read these same books today I have little doubt that my reaction to them would be completely different…Actually, it made me sad to think of the books I no longer loved:(

So the questions in the NYT book review got me thinking – both about books that I think everyone should have read before turning 21 as well as those I don’t think people should tackle until they’re at least 40…The first question seemed easier as I immediately thought of To Kill A Mockingbird (as well as a myriad of children’s books, like the Narnia series). The second question was harder…much harder…although I recently read Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot and I’m pretty sure this would have made zero impact if I’d read this as a younger woman. Some books touch on themes that really only resonate at certain points in your life with both age and experience (and What Alice Forgot is definitely one of those books). Other than that though I was stumped… so I thought, why not turn to my TKZers for guidance and input…

So if you had to answer these two questions what would you say? What book do you think everybody should read before the age of 21? What book should nobody read until the age of 40?



How to Describe Your Main Character

by James Scott Bell

Going to be a long post today, so pack a lunch. And be prepared to add to the discussion. The issues are important and come to me by way of an email (quoted with permission):

I know what 3rd Person Limited is, how it works, etc. based on the books and writing groups, etc. One issue that keeps coming up in my critique group about my characters is I don’t describe them early on (i.e. first couple of chapters) as the three POV characters haven’t met or interacted as of yet. I know the reflection scenario is cliche, etc.

The question- do you know some different techniques that could be used to provide character description in the 3rd Person POV? For example, would something like this be okay?

Maxwell rubbed at the double cleft of his chin or His thick fingers combed through his mop of black hair picking up the oily grease used to mat it down.

The issues raised are these:

1. How much description of a main character do you need?

2. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

3. What role does genre play in all this?

  1. How much description?

In days of yore, authors often began in an omniscient voice for a description of the protagonist before dropping down into Third Person POV. For example, here’s the first paragraph of Gone With the Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin — that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

And the opening of The Maltese Falcon: 

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

And this from page 2 of For Whom the Bell Tolls: 

The young man, who was tall and thin, with sun-streaked fair hair, and a wind- and sun-burned face, who wore the sun-faded flannel shirt, a pair of peasant’s trousers and rope-soled shoes, leaned over, put his arm through one of the leather pack straps and swung the heavy pack up onto his shoulders.

There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these. It’s a style choice. And I don’t think readers care that much, as long as the description is short and sweet, and we get to some action soon.

But styles change, and today the preferred method is to keep the POV consistent from the jump.

The real question is this: how much detail do we need? And I’m going to say: not much.

Why not? Because all readers form an immediate picture of a character the moment they appear on the page. Without any description at all, we create a visual image, usually based on the actions and dialogue going on.

And you know what else? That picture will usually defy writerly details. Does anyone really picture Sam Spade as a “blond satan”? (I know, it’s probably because of Bogart…but even so, I can’t imagine Spade ever as being blond.) My picture of Spade emerges from the way he talks and how he treats the other characters.

In Dean Koontz’s Sole Survivor, Joe Carpenter wakes up in the middle of the night, clutching his pillow, calling out his dead wife’s name in the dark. Koontz describes the spare apartment he’s in. No bed, just a mattress. No other furniture. He goes to the refrigerator and gets a beer. He sits on the mattress and drinks.

We never get a physical description of Joe. We don’t need one. Just reading the first few pages I have a picture of Joe in my mind. It’s not the same picture you have, or any other reader, and that doesn’t matter. I see him, but more importantly, I sympathize with him. I don’t need to know the color of his eyes, or his hair, or his height.

There is, however, one detail that is usually important for the reader to know, and that’s age. Readers will assign an age to a character. They will “see” a picture in their minds. You can help them along by giving them dialogue and actions commensurate with the character’s age in the story. For example, a cop arriving at a crime scene and jumping out of his cruiser is not going to be pictured as Walter Brennan.

But sometimes the age must be specific. If so, find a place where the character might logically think about his age. For example, he’s about to walk into his workplace. At thirty-three, he was in his fifth year with the company. So why was he feeling like a complete newbie?

What we would call normal physical features are not usually crucial for the reader. What is important are any unique features that help to characterize: A scar on the cheek. A broken nose. Long, unkempt hair. Being tall. Being short. These are the details you’ll want to emphasize.

  1. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

The general rule is, never describe something in words the character himself wouldn’t use. In the example from the email, above, would the character think, “I’m rubbing my thick fingers through my black hair”? No. He knows his fingers and he knows his hair color. I recently read an opening page that had something like this:

Haskins looked around the room with his piercing, blue eyes.
“Over here, chief,” one of the cops said.
Lifting his lanky frame out of the chair, Haskins walked over to the cop.

Would Haskins think this way? No, this description is coming from the “outside,” that is, from the author, which makes it omniscient POV. Is this some egregious violation? I wouldn’t say so (though some editors might label it “author intrusion”). I just don’t think it’s that effective.

So what’s the alternative? Try a dialogue exchange. Have another character do the describing for you. In my first Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rules, I wanted readers to know this is a guy who is strong and in shape. On page one Mike is jogging when he stops to admire the flowers being tended by a woman who is around sixty. After some initial chat:

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.
“Mike,” I said.
“Happy to meet you, Mike. Except …”
“You don’t look like a flower man.”
“What do I look like?”
“Football player, maybe?”
I shook my head.
“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”
“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”

This is First Person POV, of course, but is equally applicable to Third Person.

The other physical detail crucial to Romeo is the tattoo on his left arm. It’s Latin script: Vincit Omnia Veritas. Other characters naturally ask about it. One character wants to know if his name is “Vincent.” Another character can actually read Latin. And so on. The tat is remarked on in each book, giving me a chance to naturally reiterate what Mike Romeo’s drive in life is all about—Truth Conquers All Things.

Be sure to give these distinguishing details early in Act 1. If you wait until page 240 to reveal that your hero has one green eye and one blue eye, the change will be jarring. The reader will actually feel cheated. Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?

Yet it doesn’t have to be on page one either. If it’s early enough, readers will happily adjust their picture as needed. In the first Jack Reacher, Killing Floor (which is told in First Person), Reacher is sitting in a diner when cops come in to arrest him. He’s taken to a station for questioning. It’s not until page 16 that we get any description of Reacher. A cop explains that a murder took place, and a man was seen, “a white man, very tall, wearing a long black overcoat, fair hair, no hat, no baggage.” This gives Reacher as narrator a natural way to drop in the following:

Silence again. I am a white man. I am very tall. My hair is fair. I was sitting there wearing a long black overcoat. I didn’t have a hat. Or a bag.

Or, in the alternative, the cop could have said, “Just like you. What’d you do with the hat and the bag?”

So, the fundamentals are:

– Use description only for unique features.

– Use other characters to spell them out or, in the case of First Person, have a legit reason to mention them.

– Drop these details in early enough in the book that it won’t jar the reader later.

  1. What role does genre play?

My friend, bestselling author Deborah Raney, reminds me that in a romance eye and hair color (even if vague like “pale” or “dark”) are important because those are things the heroine will notice about the hero and vice versa.

In a literary novel where style is often a selling point, a lush description of the main character is more acceptable.

In a historical novel, the way a character dresses is usually important because it shows the reader something about the era the story is set in.

And in an experimental novel there are no rules, so do whatever the heck you want.

Whew. Okay, enjoy your lunch now. And take over from here. What questions or comments do you have about main character description?


The Final Cuts

By Mark Alpert

I’d like to share a foolproof writing tip. It can be applied to any genre of fiction, and it works for nonfiction as well. It’s a tip for perfecting your latest manuscript. More precisely, it’ll make your manuscript even better than perfect.

At first glance, this kind of advice might seem a little ridiculous. In fact, it reminds me of comedian Steve Martin’s famous advice about how to make a million dollars tax-free.

Do you remember the joke? Here’s the step-by-step advice:

  1. Make a million dollars.
  2. When it comes time to pay your taxes, just don’t do it.
  3. When the IRS asks why you didn’t pay your taxes, just say, “I forgot.”
  4. When the IRS asks how you could forget such a thing, just say, “Well, excuuuuuse me!”

Okay, now here’s my strategy for making a manuscript even better than perfect:

  1. Make your manuscript perfect. (That is, do everything you can to improve it. Get feedback from anyone willing to read the thing. Revise and revise and revise.)
  2. Make the final cuts. Get rid of at least ten percent of the words.
  3. You’ll probably think, “Wait, I already made the manuscript perfect! It can’t get any better!”
  4. Make the cuts anyway. Just pretend that an editor has said to you, “I’ll publish this book, but only if you can cut ten percent of the words.” Pore over the manuscript and get rid of ANYTHING that isn’t absolutely necessary.
  5. If you can’t trim at least ten percent of the word count, read the manuscript again. Are you sure you need all those adjectives? Do you really have to mention the color of the walls?
  6. Pay particular attention to the dialogue. In real-life conversations, people usually don’t go on and on. Keep it snappy.
  7. Once you’ve hit the ten-percent mark, try to keep cutting. You may get diminishing returns with each successive review of the manuscript, but it’s still worth doing.
  8. Now read the manuscript one more time after you’ve made the final cuts. It’s better, right?

First Page critique: Dance with Death

By Elaine Viets

Writers, I feel your pain! As you struggle with your first pages, I’ve had my own writing fight – six weeks crafting the first chapter of my new Angela Richman mystery. I had to introduce my death investigator, Angela Richman, describe her job, her age, explain where she lives, say what time of year it is – and hope people will keep reading.
That’s why I congratulate the anonymous author of the following first-page critique. AA has achieved most of those goals.
First, let’s read it, next I’ll discuss it, and then you tell me what you think.

First Page Critique: Dance with Death

Alle fought off the death grip of the sheets, flung her feet over the side of the bed, and tried to shake the dream as she searched for her slippers. She noticed Gulliver; the pink stuffed pig Sasha had given her and that she’d slept with every night for the last ten years, laying on the floor. She must’ve knocked him off the bed during her struggle with the sheets. Her heart sank seeing him there, like a discarded toy that meant nothing. A tear ran down her cheek as she picked him up.

Still half-drunk from her sleep meds she stumbled toward the bathroom, smacking her funny bone against the half-open bathroom door. Cursing, she made it to the toilet just in time. Still holding her elbow, she shut her eyes for what she thought was only a moment; but jerked awake when she lost her balance and fell against the vanity. Out of childhood habit, she looked up and pleaded, please don’t let this be a sign for today.

She kicked her way through the clothes littering the hallway and made her way from the bathroom to the kitchen and more importantly coffee. Leaning against the counter, head down and shoulders slumped, she listened to the drip, drip, drip of the Keurig.

Every night, it seemed, she dreamed of Sasha. She didn’t just dream she relived the day Sasha died. She drank her coffee and thought about those people who over the years had lied and told her it would get easier with time. “They don’t have the damn guilt.”

Carrying her second cup of coffee to the bathroom, she ran a hot bath, not something she normally did since she was always running late. The tension in her back and shoulders melted away as she slid into the almost scalding water. She drifted off into a semi-peaceful, dreamless sleep. The water turned cold and she woke up disoriented, panicking when she realized it was a workday. Her phone showed the time as 8:00. Damn it, I’m going to be late again!

Elaine’s critique:
This is a fine first page. I’d like to make a few tweaks.
The first sentence trails off and loses its impact. What if AA wrote that first paragraph this way?
Alle fought off the death grip of the sheets, flung her feet over the side of the bed, and tried to shake the dream. As she searched for her slippers, she noticed Gulliver, the pink stuffed pig laying on the floor. Sasha had given her Gulliver. Alle had slept with the stuffed pig every night for the last ten years.
Note the comma after Gulliver in this version. You don’t need that semicolon. Put a comma after “Still half-drunk from her sleep meds, she stumbled toward the bathroom . . .”
Later, you have another semicolon. The sentence might have more impact if you made that two complete sentences:
Still holding her elbow, she shut her eyes for what she thought was only a moment. She jerked awake when she lost her balance and fell against the vanity.

Next, Alle has “kicked her way through the clothes littering the hallway . . .” This would be a good place to tell us the season. Are these heavy woollen winter clothes? Summer shirts and swimsuits? You could also give us a hint of the season in the second sentence – is she searching for her slippers on a cold floor – or a warm one?

In the kitchen, Alle “listened to the drip, drip, drip of the Keurig.”
Do Keurigs drip? The ones I’m familiar with burble and blurp. They’re too noisy for polite drips.

This next paragraph sets up the death of Sasha. Can you give us more hints about that?

Every night, it seemed, she dreamed of Sasha. She didn’t just dream, she relived the day Sasha died. She drank her coffee and thought about those people who over the years had lied and told her it would get easier with time. “They don’t have the damn guilt.”
Give us some clues about Ali: How old is she? What does she look like?
You’re off to a good start, AA. What do you think, readers?

Win the new e-version of RUBOUT, Elaine Viets’ Francesca Vierling newspaper mystery set at the Leather and Lace Bikers Society Ball. Click contests at


Let’s Talk Shotguns

By John Gilstrap

Let’s say you’ve got a character in your story who had no background in firearms, yet needs to engage an armed bad guy.  A shotgun may be your character’s best choice, especially at close quarters.  Because every pull of the trigger sends multiple high-velocity projectiles downrange simultaneously, marksmanship is less of an issue when it comes to killing the enemy, but more of an issue when it comes to shooting only the enemy.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about rifles and pistols, so this week, I thought I’d devote some time to shotguns.  As a first step, forget much of what you’ve learned about rifles and pistols.  The rules of Newtonian physics all remain the same, but much of the terminology seems counter-intuitive when you deal with smooth-bore weapons.

Okay, what’s a smooth-bore weapon?

Whereas modern rifles and pistols fire bullets, shotguns fire either pellets or slugs.  As a bullet is propelled down a rifle’s barrel, the lands and grooves that have been cut into the metal to form “rifling” impart a spin on the projectile that stabilizes it in flight and allows for greater range and accuracy.  Standard shotguns, on the other hand, have no rifling down the bore.  The barrel is simply a smooth tube.  (Note: there is such a thing as a rifled shotgun, but I won’t be addressing that here.)  Basically, a smooth-bore barrel is merely an extended pressure vessel that allows the projectile(s) to accelerate.

Think gauge, not caliber.  Think spheres, not bullet-shaped.

It’s common to refer to rifles and pistols by the diameter of the bullets they fire.  A “.30 caliber” rifle fires a bullet that is three-tenths (.30) of an inch in diameter at its widest point.  A “.45” fires a bullet that is 45/100ths of an inch at its widest point.

Shotguns, on the other hand, are referred to by their “gauge” and the term has nothing to do with linear measurement.  To understand the reason why, we need to geek out a little:

One characteristic of elemental lead is that when melted, its physical volume is a constant, relative to it’s weight.  Thus, a one-pound sphere of lead will always be 1.66 inches in diameter (assuming I did the math correctly).  From the days of the Napoleonic Wars through the American Civil War and beyond, one of the primary artillery cannons was the “twelve-pounder”, which, predictably, I suppose, fired a twelve-pound ball (also called a “shot”–as in the shot put event in track-and-field, get it?) out of a barrel that was 4.62 inches in diameter.

The concept of “gauge” is based on the same principle, but in this case dealing with fractions of a pound.  The bore of a 12 gauge shotgun is the diameter of a lead sphere that weighs 1/12 of a pound, or 0.727 inches.  A 20 gauge shotgun has a bore of 0.617 inches, which is the diameter of a lead sphere that weighs 1/20 of a pound.

Still with me?

One of the most counter-intuitive parts of discussing shotguns is the fact that unlike calibers, higher gauges actually mean smaller projectiles.

Buckshot, Birdshot, Slugs.

So, we’ve got our smooth-bore shotgun of a chosen gauge–for our  purposes here, we’ll assume 12 gauge if only because it the most common shotgun deployed by law enforcement officers.  The size of the bore is largely just a reference point; it has little to do with the weight of the projectile being sent downrange.

One of the strengths of a shotgun as a weapon platform is its versatility.  The same gun can be used to hunt doves and deer, and then when you come home, it can be a great home defense weapon.  Different applications require different ammunition, though, and here’s where things get complicated again.

Starting with the basics, each round of ammunition is called a “shell”, not a “bullet” or a “cartridge”, as would be case with rifle and pistol ammo.  Inside the shell, the pellets (or “shot”) are separated from the propellant (or “powder”) by a plastic cup that is call the “wad.”  Each pull of the trigger sends a “load of shot” or a “slug” downrange.  Once spent, the “hull” is ejected.

When the load reaches the muzzle on its way downrange, the pellets are tightly grouped together, but as they travel through the air, they separate to form a spray of projectiles.  The width of the spread and the terminal performance of individual projectiles has everything to do with their size and their weight.  “Birdshot” refers to smaller, lighter pellets that are designed to kill smaller, lighter prey.  “Buckshot”, on the other hand, is designed for larger prey.  Within, say, 10 feet, both are equally lethal.

Here again, smaller is bigger.  The size of individual pellets is described by industry-accepted numbers.  On paper, you might read “#4 buck”, but you would pronounce it as “number four buck.”  And #4 buck is smaller than #3 buck.

What most people think of when they’re talking about buckshot is #00 buck, which is commonly referred to as “double aught buck.”  (Note: It’s NOT double ought.)  Individual pellets are 0.33 inches in diameter (.33 caliber) and there are nine of them in an ounce.  By contrast, #4 buck pellets are 0.24 inches in diameter (24 caliber) and there are 24 of them in an ounce.

Bird shot is also categorized by numbers, but on a different scale.  For example, No. 4 bird shot pellets are 0.13 inches in diameter, and there are 135 of them in an ounce.

A slug is a single projectile that essentially turns the shotgun into a less accurate rifle and hits with enormous force.  Slugs come in many different forms and perform many different functions.  For example, when you hear of riots being dispersed by the use of “rubber bullets”, those “bullets” are really rubber slugs, or sometimes beanbag slugs.

Types of Shotguns.  

Double barrel shotguns have been around for a very long time, back to the days of the flintlock.  The classic arrangement for the barrels was “side-by-side”, as characterized by bird hunters and stage coach security guys.  You know that’s where the phrase “riding shotgun” originated, right?

The second configuration of a double-barrel shotgun is the “over and under” configuration, where the barrels are stacked.  As a bit of trivia, you’ll note that there’s only one trigger on the gun.  The act of closing the breech cocks the gun.  The lower barrel shoots first and the recoil re-cocks the gun so the top barrel will fire.

Semi-automatic.  As with its rifle counterpart, you can load the magazine to whatever its capacity may be, and every pull of the trigger sends a new load downrange until the magazine is empty.

Pump-action.  This is the mainstay of cop shows and sound effects crews.  Also called a “shucker”, this configuration requires the shooter to work the pump to eject one hull and put the next shell into battery.

So, there you have it, TKZers, this quarter’s offering of gun porn.  All questions, comments and observations are welcome.



What’s Your Point? Figuring Out
What Goes Into Each Chapter

By PJ Parrish

I dunno, maybe this is going to sound simplistic to most of you, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway: What should go into a chapter?

I’ve been thinking about this since last week after reading Jordan’s excellent post on narrative drive. In the comments section, BK Jackson wrote this:

The one of these I fumble with the most is having a goal for every scene. Sure, it’s easy when they’re about to confront the killer or it’s about a major plot point or a clue, but what about scenes that just set the stage of story-world and its people? Sure, you don’t want mundane daily life stuff, but sometimes I write scenes of protag interacting with someone in story world and, while I can’t articulate a specific goal for the scene, it seems cold and impersonal to leave it out.

And Marilynn wrote:

Working with newer writing students, I’ve discovered that some write a scene…because they are trying to clarify the ideas for themselves, not for the reader. 

I’ve found writers often struggle with this. It’s as if they just start writing, trying to figure out what the heck is happening, then they just run out of gas. End of chapter. But that’s not how it should go. No, you don’t need to outline, but you really need to stop and ask yourself questions before you write one word: How do you divide up your story into chapters? Where do you break them? How long should each chapter be? How many chapters long should your book be? And maybe the hardest thing to figure out: What is the purpose of each chapter? Or as BK put it, what is the “goal?”

Again, this sounds simplistic but it’s not simple. How you CHOSE to divide up your story affects your reader’s level of engagement.  The way you CHOSE to chop up your plot-meat helps the reader digest it.  The way you CHOSE to parcel out character traits helps your reader bond with people. And the way you CHOSE to manipulate your story via chapter division enhances — or destroys — their enjoyment.

For some writers, this comes naturally, like having an ear in music. But for many of us, it is a skill that can be learned and perfected. So let’s give it a go.

First, do we even need chapters? Marilynne Robinson doesn’t use them. James Dickey’s To The White Sea is one big tone-poem. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road uses a couple dots instead of chapter headings, perhaps to emphasize the in media res feeling of a long journey. (I was so pulled into that book I didn’t even notice it didn’t have chapters!) But most of us mere mortals probably need to break things up a bit.

Why? Chapters give your reader a mental respite. Chapter breaks allow the reader to digest everything that’s happened. They also help build suspense for what is yet to come. If you divide them up artfully instead of willy-nilly.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of each chapter as a dramatic island. (I wrote a whole blog about this a couple years back). Then build bridges (transitions) between them. Or think of each chapter as a mini short-story. Each chapter, ideally, has its own dramatic arc — a beginning to pull the reader in, a middle with meat, and a kicker ending that makes the reader want to turn the page.

But first, ask yourself this about each chapter: What do I want to accomplish?

The first chapter is sometimes the easiest.  We talk about this all the time here, especially in our First Page Critiques. To review: For crime fiction (if not all good fiction, in my humble opinion) an opening chapter should establish time and place, introduce a major character (often the protagonist or villain), set the tone, and at least hint at some disturbance in the norm. (A body has been found, a gauntlet thrown, a character called to action). Yeah, we get all that, right?

But, as BK said, things tend to fall apart after that. The deeper you get into your story, the harder it becomes to articulate what needs to happen within each chapter. For those of you who outline, maybe it’s easier. But I’ve seen even hardcore outliners lose their way. When you sit down to write, sometimes, it just pours out in this giant amorphic blob, until, exhausted, you just quit writing. End of chapter? No, end of energy because you didn’t pace yourself.

So, before you start a chapter, STOP.  Sit there and think, really hard, until blood beads on your forehead. Don’t write a word until you can answer this question:

What do I need to accomplish in this chapter?

Some other things to help you home in on chapter “goals.”

Write a two-line summary before you start each chapter. For a revenge  plot, you might write “In this chapter the reader will find out villain’s motivation for killing his brother.”  Or in a police procedural you might write: “In this chapter, Louis and Joe put together the clues and realize Frank isn’t the killer.”

Look for ways for every chapter work harder, to have secondary purposes. Main purpose: “In chapter four, Louis goes to the UP to find evidence on the cold case of the dead orphan boys.” But also in that chapter: “The reader gets some background on Louis’s years in foster care.”  (character development plus resonates with lost boy theme) Also: “Add in good description of the Upper Peninsula.” (Establishes sense of place and underscores desolate mood.”)

Maybe this is what BK was asking for — how to make those later chapters more muscular. As you go deeper into your plot, keep looking for layers you can add, ways to make each chapter have secondary “goals.”

Use physical tools. Don’t visualize your book as a continuous unbroken roll. Think of it as a lot of little story units you can move around. Think Lego blocks, not toilet paper. Some writers draw elaborate story boards. I’m told there is software for this, but Kelly and I are Luddites. We write the salient points of each chapter on Post-It notes that we color code for POVs and move them around on a big poster board. Vladimir Nabokov wrote chapter notes on index cards and shuffled them until he found a chapter sequence that made sense.

How do you keep your chapters from just petering out? Again, you have to THINK about this before you write. Here’s another tip: Look for logical breaks in your narrative for your endings. Such as:

  • Change of place. Say, you move from New York City to London
  • Change in point of view.  From maybe your protagonist to the bad guy.
  • Change in time. (a couple hours or a couple years depending on your story)
  • Change in dramatic intensity.  Say you just wrapped up a big mano-a-mano fight. The next thing that happens is having your hero recovering and thinking about what just happened. That might be a great place to start a new chapter.  It goes to pacing: Follow up an intense action scene chapter with a slower chapter that allows the reader to catch their breath.

By the end of each chapter, you should resolve at least one thing.  A car chase ends. A victim dies. Two cops figure out a major clue and decide to act. One character tells another something important about their background.  When you end a chapter, you want to send your reader a clear signal that what they just read is important. One trick I love: End a chapter just before the climax of a significant story arc: This is a classic trick of the thriller and mystery novel. You lead your reader right up to the edge of a tense moment then you end the chapter.  They have no choice but to turn the page!

I wish I could remember who said this: A good chapter ending does two things — it closes one door and it opens another one.

Whew. Enough already, you’re saying. I hear you. Okay, let’s move on to some easier stuff.

How long should your chapters be? I wrote a whole blog on this a while back, but if you don’t want to go back and read it, here’s the short answer: As long as each chapter needs to be.

It’s a matter of style — your style.  But, if you are following the idea of a dramatic arc for each chapter-island, the answer should come organically. As you move through your story, you might want to try for a consistency in length — be it 200 words or 2000 words. Why? I think it helps your reader get a sense of your style and pacing. But don’t sweat this too much. If you are moving along at a steady pace of say 1500 words per chapter and suddenly one comes out at 5000 words, you might want to go back in and look for a logical break in your narrative or action.  You might find, with judicious rewriting, that you’ve really got two tight chapters instead of one long one.

Okay, I’m running long again. One more question:

Should you use chapter titles? Lots of writers love these, especially fantasy and YA writers. I’m on the fence about them. I’ve never used them, but for one complex book, we did have three “books” that had titles. When chapter titles are witty, they can be great because they provide hints about what to expect within the chapter. But if they are mundane or obvious, they are just annoying and pretentious.

One story I heard was that before the release of one of her Harry Potter books, JK Rowlings refused to divulge any plot points. But she released three chapter titles — “Spinners End,” “Draco’s Detour,” and “Felix Felicis” — just to tease readers.

Here’s some of my favorite chapter titles:

“Down the Rabbit-Hole.” Chapter 1, Alice in Wonderland. So great it has become a modern metaphor, especially in politics.

“I Begin Life On My Own Account, And Don’t Like It.” Chapter 11, David Copperfield. Didn’t realize Dickens had a sense of humor.

Rick Riordan might be the chapter title king. Here are six from just one novel:

“I Accidently Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher”
“I Play Pinochle with a Horse”
“I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom”
“We Get Advice from a Poodle”
“A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers”
“I Battle My Jerk Relative”

But here’s my all-time favorite from Ian Fleming’s Live And Let Die, chapter 14:

“He disagreed with something that ate him.”

And that is a good place to end.



Can Writers Lose Their Fingerprints?

By Sue Coletta

In a recent chat with Jordan, she mentioned that when she went for her TSA pre-check ID for her upcoming trip, they couldn’t detect her digital fingerprints.

They said since she spent so much time at a computer keyboard as a writer, she’s deteriorated her ridge detail.

Could this be true of all professional writers?

As you might have guessed, this question sent me down a rabbit hole of research, because I’ve had trouble with my iPhone’s digital fingerprint scan. It only recognizes my thumbprint, not any other finger. Which I figured was just a glitch with the phone. Now, I’m not so sure.

Before we can prove or disprove TSA’s conclusion, we first need to know the basics.

What is a fingerprint?

A fingerprint is a pattern of friction ridge details, comprised of ridges and valleys. A ridge is a high point, a valley is a depression or low point. Friction ridges are also found on our palms, feet, and toes. “Pattern” equals the unique characteristics of the ridges and valleys that make up the print, defined by the spatial relationship of multiple lines, their beginning and terminating points, and the unique pattern they create.

Each ridge contains tiny pores connected to sweat glands beneath the skin. When we touch an object, sweat and oils release from these pores and leave behind a print, latent or visible. The genes from our parents determine the general characteristics of the pattern.


Fun fact: Like human fingerprints, a dog’s nose has a unique identifiable pattern. In fact, many dog clubs now keep nose prints on file.

If you’d like to learn how to print your dog’s nose, see this post. 🙂



Sir Francis Galton was the first person to classify fingerprints into different types based on the three basic features: loops, arches, and whorls. Learn more about points, types, and classifications HERE.

Fingerprints form before birth and remain unchanged until the body decomposes after death.

There are two exceptions to “remain unchanged”…

If, say, someone sliced the tip of their finger with a knife, it may leave behind a scar. But then, their fingerprint would be even more distinguishable because of that scar.

Along similar lines, severe burns can also damage the deep layers of skin and obliterate the ridge detail. However, much like the knife injury, the scars that form would become the injured party’s unique identifiers.

The other exception has to do with the elderly. As we age, we lose skin elasticity, which may affect ridge detail. The fingerprints become wider; the spaces between the ridges narrower. Even though the fingerprint still exists, fingerprint technology may find it more difficult to detect.

Can someone be born without fingerprints?

In a few rare cases, yes. One condition called adermatoglyphia — also known as “immigration delay disease” — can result in a child being born without fingerprints. In some cases, these infants have almost no other health issues. In other cases, this condition could cause skin abnormalities, including tiny white bumps on the face, blistering of the skin, and/or a lack of sweat glands. Adermatoglyphia has only been documented in four families worldwide.

Naegeli Syndrome is another rare condition that halts the production of fingerprints in utero. Said syndrome is characterized by reticular skin pigmentation (meaning, mottled, purplish, and lace-like splotches), diminished function of the sweat glands, and the absence of teeth. Individuals with Naegeli Syndrome have sweat gland abnormalities. Not only do they lack fingerprints but they also suffer from heat intolerance due to a decrease or total inability to sweat.

Do Twins Have the Same Fingerprints?

No. Twins do not have identical fingerprints. Our prints are as unique as snowflakes. Actually, we have a 1 in 64 billion chance of having the same fingerprints as someone else.

Sci-fi writers could potentially take advantage of these odds, but it’s such a longshot that it’d be tricky to pull off.

Who’s most at risk for losing their fingerprints?

Patients undergoing chemotherapy — such as capecitabine (Xeloda), for example — are most at risk. With prolonged use of this medication, the finger-pad skin can become inflamed, swollen, and damaged to the point of erasing the ridge detail, according to DP Lyle, MD, author of Forensics for Dummies. Chemotherapy may also cause severe peeling of the palms and soles of the feet. The medical term for this condition is called Hand-Foot Syndrome.

Skin diseases like scleroderma, psoriasis, and eczema also have the potential to obliterate the ridge pattern.

Which professions cause the most damage to fingerprints?

Bricklayers and other heavy manual laborers can wear down their fingerprint ridges to the point where no pattern is visible. Secretaries and file clerks who handle paper all day can have a similar thing occur. Typists (Writers!) and piano players can suffer the same alterations. Hairstylists, dry cleaning workers, and those who work with lime (calcium oxide) are often exposed to chemicals that dissolve the upper layers of the skin, thereby flattening the ridge detail.

So, to answer our initial question, was TSA correct?

Yes! Pounding on the keyboard can wear away a writer’s fingerprints.

How might the lack of fingerprints cause problems?

Losing one’s prints can cause issues with crossing international borders and even logging on to certain computer systems.

Fortunately, fingerprint technology is always evolving and improving.

As more and more careers require hours of keyboard time, someday retinal scanners, facial recognition, and voice prints will replace the current technology.

Have you ever been told you have no digital fingerprints? Have you experienced any problems with fingerprint technology?


Great Art is About Killing Dragons

by James Scott Bell

Earlier this year I spent three days at Disneyland with the fam, including the two grandboys, ages 4 and 2. Let me tell you, it may be the happiest place on Earth, but for three days it’s also an endurance test. My daughter told me, via her FitBit, that we averaged 21,000 steps each day. My dogs were screaming for mercy.

But we had a stupendous time. I mean, how can you not when you experience the park through the wide-eyed wonder of two small boys?

In Fantasyland there are five indoor rides within close proximity of each other. The most popular is Peter Pan. There’s always a long wait to get into this one. Right across the way are two rides for which there is virtually no wait time: Snow White and Pinocchio.

So as I waited in the Peter Pan line, I wondered, Why should this be?

I have some theories. For one thing, Peter Pan seems the most magical because you’re whisked away in a pirate ship to go flying through the sky—over Victorian London and then Never Never Land itself. There’s just something about flying that every kid loves.

Yet why should poor Snow White and Pinocchio be so lonely? There might be one reason parents don’t take their little ones on these rides—they’re scary!

I mean, in Snow White, there’s a sudden turn from happy dwarfs and singing birds to a frightening old crone who turns on you holding out a poisoned apple. From there it gets even darker, with thunder and lightning, and the crone appearing at the top of the hill wanting to smash you and the seven dwarfs with a big rock! (Confession: I recall going on this ride when I was little, with my big brother, and I was terrified.)

Pinocchio has more of a house of horrors type of scare. Pinocchio and Lampwick are taken to Pleasure Island where they smoke cigars, play pool and such. But as a consequence they are turned into donkeys. That’s not all. Just around the corner a giant whale jumps out at you, jaws agape! Sure, you end up safely back in Geppetto’s workshop, but it was one hairy journey to get there.

So I wonder if concerned parents simply don’t want their younger children to be frightened. I also wonder if that might be an opportunity lost. For fairy tales don’t exist in a vacuum. They are meant to be didactic. As G. K. Chesterton observed:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. (Tremendous Trifles)

Which invites the question: is great fiction always moral? We know there’s plenty of darkness swirling around, especially since anyone can upload a book or video. But is it “art” to wallow in the darkness?

The respected editor Dave King mused about this at Writer Unboxed:

Why are so many gifted writers drawn to the dark side of life? Why are they driven to present characters who are hard to love or lovable characters in situations that are either hard to follow or hard to endure? Why does it feel like work to read them? And why are they winning awards for this?

The best art, from painting to fairy tales to commercial fiction must have, in my view, a moral vision. John Gardner put it this way: “I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life . . . that is worth living. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.” (On Moral Fiction)

And turning again to Chesterton:

All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul. Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante, to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell. It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has probably been made. (G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions, 1911)

There are dragons everywhere. Sometimes they have form, as in, say, a villain wanting to kill good people. Or there might be inner dragons, psychological beasts keeping a character from full form and function in life. Readers read to experience the battle, and the outcome. If the dragon is slain, it’s upbeat. If the dragon wins, it’s a tragedy but also a cautionary tale. In either case, there’s lesson to be drawn (the “return with the elixir” in mythic terms) that helps us make it through this vale of tears.

Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason), once said:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

(The above, BTW, is the governing philosophy of my Patreon site.)

So I offer this up for discussion. Do you think art should have a moral compass? (Yes, we can disagree about what vision is moral; but good art should at least be about making an argument for the vision, don’t you think?)

By the way, I was greatly pleased recently to learn that my oldest grandboy’s favorite bedtime story is “St.George and the Dragon.”