Permission To Make A Mess



I write a lot about creative permission because permission is a big deal. As kids we have to obtain permission to do things. As adults, the permission must come from inside of us.

Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, I heard a woman tell a story in a counseling group. It moved me deeply, and I’ve never forgotten it because it feels elemental to the notion of creativity and giving oneself permission to be creative. Let’s call the woman Eleanor (after one of my favorite, very inhibited characters from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House).

Eleanor had a much younger brother named Joshua. Like many oldest children, Eleanor was a rule-follower, cautious about interacting with the world because she wanted to do everything just right. Joshua, she said, was a free spirit and into everything. She loved him, but she didn’t understand why he seemed to be allowed to get away with doing things that she wasn’t allowed to do. One thing that truly tormented her was Joshua’s habit of building pretend “fires” that he set up around the house. The “fires” were heaps of toys and shoes and pillows that he gathered into great, unwieldy piles. I imagine what it must have been like, gathering all those things, pretending that they were a giant blaze, right in the middle of the living room. It kind of sounds like a lot of fun to me. Kind of is an important qualification here. While I am no neatnik, the idea of making a mess on purpose stresses me out.

Because Eleanor was older, she was required to help Joshua put out his fires. Read: clean up the mess. From a parenting perspective, this is problematic. While it’s a great idea to let kids have free reign with their creativity, it’s not fair (maybe not quite the word I’m looking for) to make your other kids pay for it. Eleanor was not invited in on the fun of building the fires. Ever. They were her brother’s privilege, and she felt like–indeed she was–the clean up crew. As the adult Eleanor talked about the fires, her anger, frustration, and sadness were in her voice and written on her face. Inside, her little kid was obviously heartbroken.

The leader of the session suggested that Eleanor build a fire in the middle of our meeting room. She was reluctant, but we cheered her on and contributed our shoes, neckties, purses, notebooks, coats…anything we had on hand. It was fun and silly and interesting to watch another adult playing that way. Her tears disappeared as she built the fire. They were back after it was all over, but they were happy tears.

Those of us who often feel inhibited creatively can come up with a million reasons why we feel that way. I’m a big fan of psychological therapy because it helps answer the why questions. It feeds the part of my brain that wants answers and loves to build a narrative. But what happens after you recognize the whys? Recognizing them doesn’t make them go away. We’re still Eleanor, angry at ourselves and often others because we can’t seem to give ourselves permission to build fires, write books, paint pictures, dance…dream.

Eleanor received permission from the counselor to make a mess. But she didn’t have to do what he said. She made the choice to gather up our things and put them in a pile in the middle of the room. How easy it would be if we all had a counselor, a therapist, a BFF, a coach, a PARENT there every moment to tell us it was okay to go ahead and DO THE SCARYFUNWILDINTERESTINGCHALLENGINGPROFITABLERISKY THING. But, no. It’s not healthy for adults to have someone tell them what to do every moment. It has to come from inside us.

Where’s the self-trust to do risky, creative things if it didn’t come boxed with our Adult Operating System? That’s a toughie. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you make it.

Sometimes we have to play a role. Fool ourselves. Pretend that we don’t think that what we’re going to do will be an utter and absolute failure and that someone is going to yell at us if we leave a big, flaming, awesome MESS right out there where everyone can see it. That we don’t care if someone else has to help clean it up. (Writer Protip: professional editors!)

We have to be Joshua. Joshua unleashed. Joshua at play.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent an awful lot of time being Eleanor. Afraid. Worried. Even angry. As much as I write, I’ve never quite been able to be Joshua. Joshua never holds back. Joshua has a great time, and his only concern is the height of his fire. I’ve held back, even when I thought I was being my most creative and pushing at the limits. They were limits, yes, but they were limits set by the Eleanor inside me. Safety limits. Comfort limits.

Here’s the thing: If you’re Eleanor, and you decide one day you’re going to take a chance and let your inner Joshua out to play, don’t worry that you’ll go too far. Eleanor will still be there, watching, setting limits, not letting you run out into traffic (even if sometimes she secretly wants to throw you into it). You have nothing to lose. I promise.

As writers, we need to play, play, play. That’s what we’re here for–to entertain. To have fun so our readers can have fun with it too.

Are you Joshua? Are you Eleanor? Both? Do you have to reign yourself in, or give yourself a big kick in the permission pants to get those words on the page?


Happening now over at Goodreads: To get ready for the October 11 release of my latest gothic suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, enter to win all three standalone books in the Bliss House series.


Animas, Kappas, and Crow Mothers, Oh My!


By Kathryn Lilley

The history of human culture is rich with cautionary tales that warn the unwary against invoking the wrath of mythical creatures or vengeful spirits. In Japanese folklore, rude people  risked being dragged to a watery grave by scaly, aquatic creatures called “river children,” or Kappas. It was accepted wisdom that the  only way to escape a Kappa was to overwhelm it with politeness and good manners. In Hopi lore, the Crow Mother spirit, as represented by her masked kachina doll, was said to initiate youngsters with a ceremony that involved ritualistic flogging with a yucca blade. Continue reading


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A Case of Self-Publishing PTSD

By Larry Brooks

Sometimes at night, lying wide-eyed in a bed of regret, I imagine a headline that reads like this:

Former Mid-List Hack Succumbs to Anxiety During Self-Publishing Push, is Hospitalized and Delusional.

Even that much publicity really is a delusion in the self-publishing realm. And the hospital part, that’s just fiction. But the PTSD is real. Sort of.

It all started with this crazy idea to write a book that matters.

I know, completely nuts, right? I’m just a writing guru-type wannabe tugging at Jim Bell’s coattails, a novelist with six mainstream-published (and republished) books nobody in my audience has ever heard of… who am I to think I can write a non-fiction book about love and relationships that will make a difference to anybody?

Right away I knew what was wrong with that plan. I don’t have Ph.D. behind my name on the cover. Publishers love Ph.Ds. I would be writing from the school of hard knocks about lessons learned and the scars to show for it.

Not a memoir though. This would be a bona fide how-to, one that breaks down the relationship proposition into its component parts in much the same way I’ve done in my three writing books.

That’s when it came to me, the moment of no return: I’d do it anyway. I’d self-publish it, just like what everyone else out there seems to be doing. And—this is being the strategic cherry on top—l’d find a credentialed doctor-type to write the foreword and put their name and MD/PhD on the cover with mine.

I found two, actually. And while I thought the book was pretty good, as did my wife (a pretty important endorsement considering the topic), it was when those two professionals confirmed my suspicion  (that it is good, and that it matters) that I actually began to visualize something big.

Big plans, big dreams, big ambitions. Just like every other ex-midlist author who takes the leap into the self-publishing darkness.

Writing the book was rewarding. And easy when compared to the steeple-chase obstacle course of actually getting it self-published.

That’s when the crazy began.

Two things reared their heads immediately. I’m not all that technically-savvy, and my proofreading skills sort of suck. Both would haunt me through this process.

The plan was: hire an editor, then a proofreader. Because that’s what I’d read, and it made sense.

Of course I ignored that. I rationalized that a non-fiction book wouldn’t require outside editing (because I am, in my day job, an editor of sorts) beyond what would be obvious to my eagle-eyed wife (the queen of cutting), and that she and I could do the proofing (she’d proven herself in this realm), thus saving about 500 bucks along the way.

And then it all went South.

A writer friend offered to proof the manuscript as a favor. Wouldn’t take my money. Meanwhile, both my wife and I would undertake multiple proofing passes (her list of notes was well in excess of 100 recommendations for cuts, changes and corrections), including submitting the thing to Grammarly, which is an app that bolts onto MS Word and promises to find anything an editor might identify as “iffy.” For free.

Grammarly found 1,244 “issues” among the 288 pages of the manuscript.

That’s when the anxiety really kicked in.

Meanwhile, my proofreading friend got back to me, after investing much time and energy into the project. I opened the file… nothing was there beyond the words themselves. No red ink. No notes. From that I assumed she’d actually changed the manuscript, fixing typos and doing little edits, all of which would remain invisible (and thus, useless, a waste of her time) unless I did a line-by-line comparison. Which meant, I would have nothing to compare to the editing my wife and I were doing.

After a few days of squirming, working through those Grammarly catches (among those 1,244 “issues” were less than 50 actual typos and about a dozen questionable wording choices—if, that is, you are a middle-grade English teacher—leaving 984 “issues” that escaped me, things like “potential misuse of dangling participle” or some such nonsense.

I never really listened to my English teacher about that stuff, and I wasn’t about to go there now. Grammarly… out.

When I worked up the courage to ask my friend where the edits were, she told me (with much patience) that they were in Track Changes. Which I’d heard of. Which I’d actually used during the editing process with Writer’s Digest Books on myhree writing books.

Thing is, though, those manuscripts had arrived with Track Changes already open.

And on this manuscript, on my new computer with its new Windows 10 operating system and its brand new MS Word 8.1, which I’d never seen before and looked to me like a page from Pravda, there was no obvious way to find and open Track Changes.

Google didn’t help.

Oh, it was there, all right. I just couldn’t find it. And thus, couldn’t access her edits and comments. Which were plentiful and astute. When I finally did find it (with her help after my humiliating confession), and after I’d implemented all sorts of edits from Grammarly, my wife and from my own proofing, thus began another pass to cross-check and implement from those four different sources.

All this took about two insane weeks, neither of which I’d planned for. My day job as a story coach went on hold and my clients were getting impatient, I was eating like crap and couldn’t sleep… my God, this was a wonderful experience so far.

During this time I had been going back and forth with the cover designer, after purchasing a generic version that was really killer. You wouldn’t think adding titles and my name and the back copy would be that hard. It wasn’t, actually, but then came the next curve ball.

Createspace needs to know the exact interior page count to calibrate the width of the spine. Actually, the designer needs to know that first. It’s a different number than the manuscript pages, this is the actual number of book pages. So with my book in about five simultaneous stages of revision, the cover had to sit on hold until I finally received the first proof copy of the paperback from Createspace.

Which was several unexpected hurdles away, consuming about two more unplanned weeks.

When you finish writing a book you are impatient to get it out there. Brevity of release ramp up is one the attractions of self-publishing (versus the full year or more a publisher will make you wait), so I was itchy to get this up and running. With all those typos and fixes in place, I could smell the finish line.

This was the raw grist, the sum and total, of the emotions that were making me crazy.

Upon finishing what I thought was the final draft of the manuscript of CHASING BLISS, I went to the Amazon author site, set up the book and submitted it to their online formatting tool. It looked like a bored cat had been playing with the space bar, separating paragraphs and inserting inexplicable white space everywhere. Of course that was my fault, using the wrong keys in the wrong way, imparting secret coded messages to the formatting gods… because that’s what writers do, we use the keys on the keyboard.

Couldn’t get it to work. I had been told I could skip paying a formatter and do it myself, correcting these issues myself and resubmitting until I got it right. Maybe. But I couldn’t see that finish line.

And so, following trusted advice (which I should have done earlier), I found a formatter on Fiverr.

Eighty bucks for three versions: Kindle/mobi, Smashwords/epub (which covers bookstores and iBooks), and a locked-down PDF for the paperback inside the Createspace template. It took five days to get the mobi back from my Fiverr guy, with a note (from a land far, far away) to “please check manuscript.”

Right. Got it. Did that, with the same Amazon previewer. Resulting in the same chaotic lack of symmetry spiced with random acts of white space. It was as if the formatter hadn’t even touched it.

Sent it back to him. A day later he said it was fine. Try it again.

Same outcome. Pass the Tums.

Another day later he asked what previewer I was using to do these checks,, as if there was a choice among previewers. Turns out there was. He sent a link to another stand-alone previewer, a deluxe version, which allowed me to see an accurate visual layout in all three formatted editions. Which, when downloaded there, looked beautiful and perfect to my anxious eyes.

I downloaded the mobi to Amazon and hit the Publish button within five minutes. Five more minutes it was in the Smashwords system.

Next day I anxiously bought the first copy of the Kindle. Started reading. Found three typos in the first one hundred pages.

Now, you would think you could just open the mysterious “mobi” file (or the ePub file, which is different) and simply correct the typo, right? But no, that’s too easy. So I googled how to do this, and I ended up with a video by Hugh Howey, who is the king of all things self-publishing and way smarter than me. He explained that you had to download two other pieces of mysterious software, neither of which was “mobi,” open it in one, then open it the other and somehow magically merge those files, and then you can make the changes, and then convert it all back to mobi. Somehow.


Easy right? Yes, if you went to M.I.T. The narration of this process sounded like a Boeing engineer explaining flap resistance coefficients to an FAA inspector.

Wasn’t gonna happen.

So I went back to the format guy who was out there somewhere to ask if he could do these corrections. Two days later, a simple, “yes, tell me corrections.”

Did that. Two more days later, I get the files back. Good to go, all three typos fixed. I checked them on his magic previewer, and it looked… wonderful.

Back to Kindle. I downloaded the updated version, which they would swap out for the one already published in twelve hours. Meanwhile, I logged on at Createspace, opened an account (not as hard as I anticipated), and downloaded the formatted manuscript.

Surprise: they needed to send me a proof copy (which I had to pay for) for my approval, before the actual publishing process could begin. That would take three to five days. This was like being in labor (I imagine), and the doctor telling you not to push for three to five days until they can get you into an empty O.R.

The proof/ARC finally came. It was like opening a Christmas present. The cover was beautiful. Hope returned in a rush of anticipation.

I began to read. My heart sank. I am embarrassed to confess what I found. But I will, because that’s why we’re here. Piece by piece, my brain shattered into 95 little pieces.  Because…

Ninety-five more changes were required.

I sh*t you not. Not all of them typos, but awkward moments in the narrative, missing punctuation, and little opportunities for upgrades. It was as if the process had gone back in time and deleted everyone who had set eyes on the thing.

Back to the formatter dude. Offering him more money to get me out of this mess. Another 80 bucks–he sort of had me– which I happily coughed up. I compiled a summary of the changes, with very explicit (I thought) instructions on what was to be changed, and how.

Got a message that it would take 8 to 10 days. By now I would miss my target release date by about a month (good thing nobody was on the edge of their seat out there). All because I didn’t hire a professional proofer, and couldn’t find the Track Changes done by my very generous friend, who was as good as one.

Five days later the changes arrived. With questions, because he said my instructions weren’t clear. I clarified and sent it back him, consuming another three days.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the ultimate test of a writer’s patience, spiced with the certainty that it was all my fault. And, that my subcontractor was on another planet.

Got the changes back. Checked the magic previewer. All looked well.

Back to Kindle to upgrade… except (and this one is hard to swallow), over 50 copies had by now been sold. Fifty people swallowing 95 mistakes or weaknesses. Turns out that Amazon promises that when you submit a revision to a Kindle book, it will automatically update for all who already have the book on their device (provided a specific setting has been made on the device). So not to worry, at least my reader/buyers would get the corrected version, though for many it would happen after they’d read the flawed version.

As I write this, it has been three weeks since the corrected version went online on Amazon. And I still haven’t yet received an “automatic update” on the three devices I use for Kindle books. And yes, I had the proper selection.

Amazon has no explanation. Actually, they won’t even answer my inquiry on this.

Now it was time to submit another version of the manuscript, the clean one, to Createspace for the paperback. Which required another cycle of sending a proof copy (which I again paid for), three days later.

You’d think this was over. It wasn’t.

I found two more typos. Big whopping ones that would have required me to be in a coma to have missed.

Back to the formatter. Three more days. Twenty more dollars. I received the corrected versions, read them front-to-back twice on the magic formatter, and did yet another round of resubmissions to Amazon, Createspace, and Smashwords (which had for this entire time refused to accept me into their “premium” level because the resolution on the cover wasn’t adequate; so as this proofing chaos was going down my cover guy, who had gone AWOL in whatever off-shore land he lived, finally got to and fixed, claiming he’d sent that version to me already)… thus electing not to receive another printed copy, in favor of using Createspace’s online previewer to make sure those final two fixes were, in fact, fixed.

They were.

I had my shrink and my pastor on speed dial by now.

So the book is done.

I won’t promise that it is glitch free, but so far so good.

Meanwhile, I’ve already heard from two people that believe the book will save their marriage, and a reviewer who says it is the best book she’s read in… well, she didn’t specify that window. And another couple who, upon merely hearing about the book, had a Major Conversation and have decided to reinvent their relationship.

The book is comprised of several lists that might rock your world:

  • Ten reasons HE is going to cheat on you.
  • Ten reasons SHE is going to leave you.
  • Five common every-day scenarios that almost always create problems.
  • Seven realms of relationship that always apply, and will either make or break you.
  • A list of really dangerous questions to ask each other, but if you have the courage and the ability to work through them, they might just change everything for you.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my trip to the funny farm. I’m better now, calm and reflective, looking forward to getting back to writing fiction with a new novel I’ve promised my wife I would write.

At least I’ve written something that matters.

And at least now you know what you might be getting into if you opt for self-publishing. Hire a pro to proof your stuff, or find a friend like mine who can do that. Hire a great cover designer and formatter that is not only good, but responsive and fast. Avoid the temptation to do-it-yourself, unless you know that you really can.

Your book is worth it, after all.


Check out the new website for the book (70% done) at Check out the really cool (and really intimate) author interview (by Sue Coletta, also available on her website) under the INTERVIEW tab.

Available on Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, iBook, and in paperback from or Createspace.

Or, your bookseller can order you a copy.

Chasing Bliss FRONT cover final jpeg (2)



My Seven Years on Kill Zone

by James Scott Bell


Hard to believe it’s been seven years frolicking in the blog fields of Kill Zone.

Seven years of putting out a regular Sunday post on writing and the writing life. With time off for good behavior (i.e., our regular Christmas break), I’ve done about 350 posts.

My first post was on July 26, 2009. I was so pleased to have been invited to join the regular crew, which at that time was made up of Kathryn Lilley, Joe Moore, John Ramsey Miller, Michelle Gagnon, Clare Langley-Hawthorne, and a fellow named Gilstrap. Good times! And they’ve only continued.

It’s been so cool to watch our readership grow, attesting to the quality of our contributors, both present and emeriti. Writer’s Digest and several online sites have taken notice of this, handing us their highest recommendations. We also have a robust community in our regular readers, who consistently post superb insights in the comments.

So how on earth does somebody come up with 350 topics on writing without repeating himself?

I’ll tell you: It’s easy if you love what you write about, and I love the craft of fiction. It’s endlessly fascinating to me to dig in and analyze what writers do and how they do it. I can write about the same topic –– for example, scenes or dialogue –– because I’m always noticing new things that work. I get excited because I can apply what I learn to my own writing, and then share it with others.

I also enjoy, from time to time, taking a look at the publishing industry. I came aboard TKZ just as digital self-publishing was starting to boom. In January of 2010 I wrote my first post on this topic right after Amazon announced its 70% royalty for indie authors. Looking back, I modestly note that my analysis seems pretty right on, except in one regard –– how the traditional publishers would react. I saw a great opportunity for new partnerships with authors. But the industry dug in and in many cases tried to prevent their authors from self-publishing anything.

Then came what I called The Eisler Sanction in March of 2011. That’s when everybody began to recognize that self-publishing was here to stay and that Amazon was going to be the 800-pound gorilla.

I’ve also posted the occasional personal reflection. I think it’s important that those of us who’ve been around the block, so to speak, give newer writers the benefit of our experience. There isn’t a writing obstacle or mental hurdle a writer faces that we here at TKZ haven’t gone through ourselves.

For the record, the post that got me the most hits was The Ten Events of the Highly Successful Writer.

Seven years!

And you know what? I’m ready for another seven. I’ve got a dozen ideas already queued up. And if this blog lasts, and the creek don’t rise (not really an issue here in Southern California), I’ll be coming up with many more.

Thanks to my blogmates for their consistent professionalism over the years. And thanks to you, our loyal readers, for helping make TKZ one of the premiere spots for writers to hang out.

So what brought you to Kill Zone for the first time? Any reflections on the site you’d like to share?


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by Jodie Renner, editor and author    Captivate w Silver decal2

Ellipses vs. Dashes; Hyphen, Em Dash and En Dash

In my editing of fiction manuscripts, I often find writers using ellipses (…) where they should use dashes, or hyphens instead of dashes, etc. Here’s a brief run-down on the use of these punctuation marks.

A. Ellipsis (…) or Dash (—)?

In fiction,

An ellipsis (…) is used to show hesitation:

“What I meant is… I don’t know how to begin…”

or a trailing off:

“She came with you? But I thought…” She paused.

“You thought what? Come on, spit it out.”

(Also, usually in nonfiction, indicates the omission of words in a quoted text.)

A dash (—), also called em dash, is used to show an interruption in speech:

“But I—”

“But nothing! I don’t want to hear your excuses!”

or a sudden break in thought or sentence structure:

“Will he—can he—find out the truth?”

The dash is also used for amplifying or explaining, for setting off information within a sentence, kind of like parentheses or commas can do:

“My friends—I mean, my former friends—ganged up on me.”

Note: To  use dashes this way, make sure that if the information between the dashes is taken out, the rest of the sentence still makes sense and flows properly. Also, avoid three dashes in a sentence. Rewrite the sentence to avoid that.

B. Hyphen vs. En Dash vs. Em Dash:

The en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash (the normal dash).

A hyphen (-) is used within a word. It separates the parts of a compound word: bare-handed, close-up, die-hard, half-baked, jet-lagged, low-key, never-ending, no-brainer, pitch-dark, self-control, single-handed, sweet-talk, user-friendly, up-to-date, watered-down, work-in-progress, etc.

Dashes are used between words.

An en dash (–) connects numbers (and sometimes words), usually in a range, meaning “to”: 1989–2007; Chapters 16–18; the score was 31–24 for Green Bay; the London–Paris train; 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.

An em dash (—) is used to mark an interruption, as mentioned above (“What the—”), or material set off parenthetically from the main point—like this. Don’t confuse it with a hyphen (-). In fiction, the em dash almost always appears with no spaces around it. Some authors, publishers, and companies prefer an en dash with spaces on each side of it for this: ( – ). This is more common in nonfiction.

C. How to Create Em Dashes and En Dashes:

Em dash (—): Ctrl+Alt+minus (far top right, on the number pad). CMS uses no spaces around em dashes; AP puts spaces on each side of em-dashes.

En dash (–): Ctrl+minus (far top right, on the number pad)

D. Advanced Uses of the Dash (Em Dash):

According to the Chicago Manual of Style (6.87), “To avoid confusion, no sentence should contain more than two em dashes; if more than two elements need to be set off, use parentheses.”

Also, per CMS, “if an em dash is used at the end of quoted material to indicate an interruption, a comma should be used before the words that identify the speaker:

“I assure you, we shall never—,” Sylvia began, but Mark cut her short.

But: “I didn’t—”

No comma after it here, as that’s the end of the sentence, and no tagline.

The Chicago Manual of Style also says (6.90) that if the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks: “Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”

Using an em dash in combination with other punctuation:

CMS 6.92: “A question mark or an exclamation point—but never a comma, a colon, or a semicolon, and rarely a period—may precede an em dash.

All at once Jeremy—was he out of his mind?—shook his fist in the officer’s face.

Only if—heaven forbid!—you lose your passport should you call home.

Do you have any questions or comments about the use of ellipses, dashes, and hyphens that I can help you with? Please mention them in the comments below.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-Fire up Your Fictionwriting guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. Jodie recently organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the Valleys and Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers, created to help reduce child labor in Asia. You can find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, at or, and on her blog Resources for Writers.


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On Vacation

By Mark Alpert

I’m in beautiful Northern Michigan and not thinking about writing at all. My only concern is to make my wife and children happy. So far, so good. Hope you’re also having a wonderful summer!


Reader Friday: What Color Is Your Aura?

imageEveryone, Some people say, has an aura. And every aura radiates a different color. Take the following quiz, and tell us which color your aura reflects! And how would you guess your aura’s color affects your writing style, if at all?

What Color Is Your Aura?

Example: Yellow Aura

You are optimistic and intelligent, with a friendly, creative presence. A yellow aura signifies that you are full of life and energy, an inspiring and playful person. You may be on the brink of a new awakening, close to finding new meaning in your current life.


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First Page Critique – Inside Moves

Jordan Dane

Wikimedia Commons Image

Wikimedia Commons Image

Today we have an anonymous submission from a gutsy author, titled Inside Moves. Read and enjoy. I’ll be on the flip side with my feedback. Join in the discussion with constructive criticism for the author.

Chapter One

The ambulance screeched around the corner—its light bar flashing and siren screaming—toward Santa Barbara General Hospital’s emergency-room entrance.

An older couple sitting on the bus-shelter bench at the corner was startled by the sounds of the vehicle, along with the knowledge of what that meant.

The man looked to be in his midseventies. He took the woman’s hand in his; she had been startled more severely than he was. “Sweetheart, since we’ve lived in Santa Barbara nearly all our lives, I’d say there’s a very good chance we might know whoever’s in that ambulance.”

But they didn’t.

Desperate to keep the man alive, EMT David Ortega kept his eye on the heart-rate monitor for any changes to Bobby Wainwright’s vital signs.

“We’re losing him!” he yelled to his partner, Tom, who pushed the accelerator of the ambulance.

David felt the ambulance lunge forward. Tom liked to drive fast when the siren and flashers cleared his path. Regaining his balance, David prepared to do CPR while speaking to Dr. Richard Kiersten through his headset. The doctor was standing by in the OR, awaiting their arrival at SBGH.

“Give him Narcan IC,” he instructed David.

David hated giving intracardiac injections because they could produce complications. Besides that, just the idea of stabbing someone in the heart with a long needle was ugly. But he did it anyway. With nothing to do but watch the monitor and the patient, David read the notes Tom had taken at the accident site.

Bobby Wainwright. Just a few years older than me. Huh? Owner of Wainwright Erectors. Not from around here. Bet he makes a ton more than me. Accident on the job…Man, something really big fell on this dude. Goose bumps jumped out on his arms. No matter how much he makes, I sure don’t want to be him right now.

At the emergency entrance, David and Tom prepared Bobby for the operating room and Dr. Kiersten. As David jumped out of the ambulance, he saw an elderly couple at a bus shelter watching him. The old lady looked scared to death. Dear God, don’t let her suffer a heart attack before I get this guy into the OR.

The first responders had brought Bobby to the hospital closest to the construction site where he had been injured. Right now, it didn’t appear that this hospital was close enough.


There is nothing like a speedy ambulance ride to start an exciting action scene and get the blood pumping for a reader. This author’s instincts to begin the story there has merit, but the omniscient point of view (or author intrusion/head hopping) had me distracted.

A.) POINT OF VIEW – From the first line, I’m wondering who is watching this ambulance as it screeches around a corner. The older couple waiting for a bus seem almost caught off guard and startled by its sudden appearance. From their reaction, more author intrusion follows when an unknown narrator estimates the older man’s age. After his dialogue line, this unknown narrator answers his remark of “…we might know whoever’s in that ambulance” with the line – But they didn’t. The action and pace of this intro is diminished by the insertion of this couple too. They add nothing to the scene.

From the point where the older couple are left behind, the author tried to stay in the POV of David but veered out big time when David, the EMT riding in the ambulance, can somehow “see” the doctor he’s listening to on his headset with this next line – The doctor was standing by in the OR, awaiting their arrival at SBGH. I suspect that rather than this author deliberately using Omniscient Point of View, there is more “head hopping” going on here.

Recommended reading on POV – Here is an excellent prior post from TKZ’s Joe Moore on Narrative Voice that explains more about Point of View and the author’s voice.

B.) WHERE TO START – I would recommend this intro start with David the EMT and stay within his head, whether he’s a main character or not, at least until we get through the action and settle into the story. Begin with the line, “We’re losing him!” he yelled to his partner, Tom, who pushed the accelerator of the ambulance. Get the reader to feel the jostling ride as David is on his headset talking to a doctor at the hospital, as his patient is dying.

C.) RESEARCH – There is no short cut for research. If the scene calls for medical knowledge, any reader knows some jargon and can discern what is believable. Leaving out the details only highlights that the author has not done the research.

1.) Get the medical right – I would advise giving more medical detail on what David sees. Are there broken bones, collapsed lung, patient in shock, etc? David is an EMT and would know more than is shown. His objective should be to stabilize the victim enough for the ride to the hospital. There appears to be an accident but a medical person would look at the injuries and not be focusing on the accident so vaguely. This is obviously an attempt to introduce backstory in a “telling” fashion. If these details are necessary, it would be best to include them in dialogue, maybe as the EMT speaks to the doctor. But focus on the resulting injuries. I’m no medical person, but I can’t imagine that CPR is how an EMT would describe resuscitation. They have drug remedies (medical therapy), airway management, or equipment to use, like defibrillators.

2.) Mystery elements draw readers in – I’d suggest revealing the patient’s condition through dialogue, with David being the POV character. (One POV per scene is highly recommended, otherwise it reads like head hopping and would be a red flag to editors and agents.) Is there conflict between the EMT and the doctor? Is David resentful of the man? Does David see ambiguity between the patient’s condition and “the accident” explanation? Readers can be drawn into a story by elements of mystery. Have patience with laying these out. Raising the mystery is enough and it will foreshadow things to come.

3.) Drama builds on the risky stakes and tension – Where is the drama when the heart stopped and flat lined? Too much is missing and it is apparent that the author has avoided the details needed for this scene to be believable.

4.) Suggestion – I would do the research and include some details in David’s dialogue to make this work, but if the author didn’t have a desire to do this, I would suggest having the POV be in the head of someone who is brought on the ambulance who is an unreliable narrator and doesn’t have a medical background. This could be a loved one or a co-worker, but if David is a main character, I wouldn’t make the first scene about a secondary character that won’t be important to the story.

D.) RESEARCH RESOURCES – Below are a couple of good resources sites for medical and crime scene research.

1.) Medical – Whenever I think of medical research, one name pops into my head and I have his books in my research library. Doug P. Lyle, author. He has written many non-fiction books on forensics and medical research for writers and he’s gracious with his replies on his website. Look for his books and contact info HERE.

2.) Crime Scenes – Another good resource link is Crime Scene Writer on Yahoo Groups. It is a group of professional crime scene people of various experiences – ie crime scene techs, law enforcement, FBI, EMTs, firemen, etc. HERE is the site for the group and this is the email to contact them and request to be subscribed as a member. Send an email to: (Be sure to read their rules of etiquette for members.)


E.) WAINWRIGHT NOTES – With imminent resuscitation or a medical crisis happening, how would David have time to read any notes on the patient? Supposedly the patient is dying, yet David is reading over notes and casually thinking about the patient’s age, job, money status, as it relates to him, etc. Very unprofessional and inappropriate timing. given the action and urgency of the scene. (Side Note – EMTs have ice water running through their veins. They have ways of dealing with extreme injuries and distancing themselves to allow them to do their jobs.)

Bobby Wainwright. Just a few years older than me. Huh? Owner of Wainwright Erectors. Not from around here. Bet he makes a ton more than me. Accident on the job…Man, something really big fell on this dude. Goose bumps jumped out on his arms. No matter how much he makes, I sure don’t want to be him right now.

F.) FORCED UNREALISTIC DETAILS – Below is a sentence that ripped me from the reading. With the scene starting at the bus stop and the elderly couple, the end of the scene with a racing ambulance somehow comes back full circle, as if they spun their wheels in place? I don’t see the point in this, but more importantly, an EMT would be focused on his patient and not looking around and down the street to get a bead on a couple at a bus stop. The urgency of the medical situation is completely deflated. Here is the sentence:

As David jumped out of the ambulance, he saw an elderly couple at a bus shelter watching him. The old lady looked scared to death. Dear God, don’t let her suffer a heart attack before I get this guy into the OR.

The next and last line has the same feel to it – that the ambulance had spun its wheels in place. It drags the reader into backstory that is out of place to the present action. Plus the POV isn’t David anymore and the reader gets another dose of author intrusion. Here is the sentence:

The first responders had brought Bobby to the hospital closest to the construction site where he had been injured. Right now, it didn’t appear that this hospital was close enough.

OVERVIEW – The fixes on POV and proper medical research can be done. That’s the good news. There are no shortcuts for solid research when the scene is a medical one. The author could find a non-medical character to insert one POV for the scene, but a better scenario would be to make the scene believable with the proper research. If the focus is on the emotion of an EMT about to lose a patient, the medical could be woven into the scene without going overboard. (Note: Less is more – a regurgitation of all your research can be tedious and boring to a reader. Moderation is key.) But get the lingo right and the sequence of events in proper order so the scene is believable. Show how the stakes are high and focus on the humanity of the EMT in a life or death situation and this author will have the reader turning the pages.


Anything to add, TKZers? What had the author done right? What would you recommend for improvements?


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Scotty, I need more words!

By Joe Moore

Captain Kirk was always demanding more out of his Chief Engineer on Star Trek by saying, “Scotty, we need more power.” And his response was always, “But Captain, I’m doing the best I can.” Predictable and fun. But what if you’ve finished your manuscript and Scotty-Star-Trek-IV_cleanedsubmitted it to your agent or publisher, and were told you needed more words. You’re under contract to deliver a certain amount of words, and you’ve come up short. What do you do? Do you “pad” the writing—go in and add a lot of stuff just for the sake of word count. Padding usually involves “staging” or additional extraneous actions by your characters as they move around the “stage”. But doing it too much will call attention to the padding and wind up getting sliced out by your editor. Intentional padding is not the answer. But there are some legitimate ways to increase word count without bloating your story.

One suggestion is to build up your story’s “world” by conducting additional research and adding a few bits and pieces of atmosphere throughout. Let’s say your scene takes place in Miami Beach. Your character is having breakfast on the balcony of her hotel room overlooking the Atlantic. Without slowing down the story, add a few lines about the history of the hotel. Since most of the hotels on Miami Beach have been around for decades, certainly something might have happened years ago at the same local that could reflect on or be pertinent to the story’s plot or situation.

Another method is to utilize your character’s five senses. Are you making good use of them? Sitting on that balcony, your MC must be able to smell the fresh sea breeze and hear the gulls calling from overhead. Or she notices the ever-present container ships slipping along the horizon in the Gulf Stream. Could be that she can feel the film of salt coating the arms of her chair. How does her freshly squeezed OJ taste? You don’t want to use all 5 in every scene, but engaging the senses is a great way to expand the prose and take advantage of an opportunity to further develop your character.

The skill in expanding a manuscript is to do so without appearing to pad the writing. And you want to avoid going down a new rabbit hole and suddenly winding up with too many words such as introducing a new subplot. Always consider the two basic criteria for any additional words: they must either advance the plot or further develop the character. Otherwise, they don’t belong.

What about you? Have you ever come up short on contractual word count or just felt your story was too short? How did you expand the story without it becoming blotted or obviously padded?


Emotional Resonance

Following on from Jim’s great post yesterday on describing characters, I was prompted to think about characters with emotional resonance while reading the great children’s book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. My kids had been urging me to read this book for a while now and as soon as I started reading it I could see why. Absolutely every character (even the mean ones!) in this book resonated with me on a deep emotional level. I think this is the reason many adults enjoy children and YA books – because, when they succeed, they provide a huge emotional wallop that stays with a reader long after they have finished reading.

Few adult books have had the same impact on me in recent years, but I think, as a writer, the issue of emotional resonance when it comes to character development, is a critical one. Almost every book I’ve failed to finish or which has left me disappointed, has failed because I haven’t been able to care enough about the characters. Even in books where the plot has become thin or events have stretched credulity, emotionally deep and resonant characters have kept me reading.

In some ways, the process of providing emotional resonance mirrors the way a writer describes a character because it focuses on the feelings the character inspires in a reader. Those feelings don’t have to always be warm and fluffy, but they do need to strike a chord with a reader. The most powerful characters stay with a reader long after the book is finished.

All too often at writing classes or conferences the pieces that I’ve read or critiqued have had one major failing – the characters themselves. They are often flat on the page, cliched or simply do not ring true. So how do you create emotionally complex, relatable and ultimately resonant characters? Maybe the best starting point is to identify what not to do and work up from there.

Many new writers may feel the urge to create a quirky, one-of-a-kind character or perhaps they hope to create characters similar to those that have proven most popular in their genre (here’s where the recovering alcoholic, down at heel PI often comes into play). In either case, a writer should beware of using standard character tropes and cliches as well as going too far the other way by creating the most ‘out there’ character who sounds nothing like anyone a reader would ever meet in real life. if a character is nothing more that a series of quirks or tics then a reader is going to be just as dissatisfied as if the character is little more than a carbon copy of the stock-standard genre character. The key is (I think) to get into the head and emotions of a character in a way that displays the writer’s own unique perspective. In some ways, perhaps you have to place a little of yourself in each character (maybe not in a literal sense but certainly in an emotional sense).

Striking a chord in readers can be tricky as each reader also brings their own perspective, background, and emotions to the books they are reading. One character’s actions may pack an emotional punch for some readers and yet leave others cold. I find, for example, that parents in books often pack a huge emotional whallop for me, especially in books like Wonder or The Fault in our Stars. If I’d read these books when I was younger, I suspect different characters would have evoked a very different kind of emotional reaction. Yet there are some universal truths out there and characters that evoke strong emotions will go on to have wider resonance.

It’s hard to provide any kind of definitive ‘tip list’ for creating this kind of emotional resonance, simply because it is an illusive target (we only know it when we feel in the gut) but I think some of the elements include:

  • Going deep within a character’s psyche to understand their motivations;
  • Drawing upon your own past experiences and interactions to add depth;
  • Using action as well as interaction to draw out a character rather than description alone (this helps readers experience a character rather than just reading about them in a static sense);
  • Finding the humanity within all the characters (even your villains);
  • Exploring the inhumanity within all your characters (we all have weaknesses and foibles, prejudices and flaws that make us who we are – even if we’re not proud of them);
  • Looking for the universality of experience that strikes a chord in you the writer as you describe your characters and take them on their unique journey through your book;
  • Avoiding thinking or describing characters in terms of what they should be but rather what they are – try to step back from relying on conventions or mimicking other writer’s characters and remember no one is superhuman or a psychopath in their own mind.

These are just a few ways I think writers can start to inhabit their characters to provide a level of feeling that will hopefully resonate in readers. What tips do you have?