The Churn of the Screw

Photo by Steve Johnson courtesy of

Last week I received one of those letters from the “Department of the Treasury.” It was not, alas, an invitation to apply for employment with the Secret Service. It was instead a letter from the Internal Revenue Service advising me that I owed additional money with regard to my 2018 federal tax return, and giving me three weeks to pay it.

Some of you may have had the pleasure of dealing with such a notice personally. If you are an author or derive at least some of your income from self-employment, your return almost automatically gets a bit of extra attention which may ultimately generate such a notice to you. Others among you may have friends or relatives who have for one or more reasons been on the receiving end of a letter. This particular letter wasn’t my first rodeo. I have worked for fifty-one years and filed an equal number of federal returns. I have in that time received five letters of this type which isn’t too bad a track record, I guess, but I’ve learned a little about what and what not to do as a result.

I am today accordingly going to provide some very basic advice about how you can deal with such a situation, and possibly save yourself some money in the process. I offer this to those of you who prepare and file your own tax returns, as opposed to having a local or national tax service do that for you. Some of those will represent you before the IRS. If so, contact your preparer immediately upon your receipt of the letter.

To begin: eat the frog first. If you don’t want to read the rest of this post, fine, because you’ve just read my most important piece of advice. Open the letter and read it immediately upon your receipt of it. Do not ignore it, set it aside, or assume that it is a mistake. Doing so will simply cause the generation of more notices to you. Interest will accumulate. Matters will escalate. Open the letter, read it, and see what the IRS wants.

Next. When you receive such a notice it is probably because the IRS wants money. The amount is usually stated up front. Forget that for a moment. You want to know the basis for the determination that you are deficient. That is usually buried deep in the notice but it’s there.

Find it. Then get out your Federal tax return for the appropriate year and review it, particularly with regard to the area which the IRS says is causing the deficiency. If you see that the IRS is correct, waiting or ignoring action will not cause the matter to go away. You will continue to receive letters. Your file will eventually be assigned to an agent and the letters will become more personal. The matter will become more difficult to settle. Instead, pay the amount owed if you are able. If not, there is a telephone number that will be listed on the notice which you can call to work out a payment plan. Interest will still accrue, but if you work out a plan and stick to it the letters will (or at least should) stop.  

What happened in my case is that the IRS said that I made a computational error resulting in a deficit. I got out my return and the IRS was wrong. I had actually made TWO computational errors. Whoever or whatever reviewed my return found one. I found a second error which substantially mitigated the first error. I accordingly set all of the paperwork aside and streamed the fifth season of Black Mirror, knowing that the IRS would eventually locate the second error and send a second letter with a recalculated deficiency.

Not really.

I got to work. The notice listed a number I could call if I disagreed with the agency’s determination. I got my ducks lined up in front of me in writing and called. I was on hold for forty-five minutes before I was told that due to a “network error” my call could not be handled and that I should try to call again later. “Network error,” I discovered, is agency-speak for “lunch.” Don’t call at or near the hours of 11:00A – 1:00P central time. Everyone is at lunch.

I called back at 2:30P EDT and after approximately a quarter-hour I spoke with a very businesslike but civil call center person.  I politely explained my position and stated that I was of course (of course) willing to immediately pay the resulting (lesser) deficiency plus interest. I also asked for the best way to proceed in order to prevent correspondence from crossing. I was told to put my position in writing and (snail!)mail it to the address from which I received the original notice. Done and done.

Next. If you receive a decision in your favor, all to the good. If not, you do have appeal rights. If the dispute has its basis in an issue of tax law that you are going to run into frequently going forward — a business deduction, for example — you may want to obtain representation. If it is a smaller amount arising over a one-time mistake (or two) or a misunderstanding, you may wish to attempt to resolve it yourself. If so, keep in mind that if you run into an IRS representative who won’t budge off of the one-note, thank them for their time and politely ask to speak to their supervisor. Primary level agents are firmly ensconced within the sinecure of the agency’s position. Supervisory level agents are more conciliatory toward the taxpayer. They are not giving anything away, by any means, but are more often more receptive to a taxpayer with regard to a contested issue. Just remember your polite words.

Oh. One more thing. You call the IRS. It does not call you. If you get a call from somebody purporting to be from the IRS (or, as I have in the past, the FBI, or the U.S. Attorney’s office) telling you to go to Wal Mart and buy Visa gift cards or whatever to pay off your account, don’t. It’s a scam.

Hopefully, you will never need any of this information and have never needed it. That said, does anyone have any tax stories they want to share? If so, please do. Whether you do or not, Happy Father’s Day to all of you dads!




Confessions of a Book Reviewer

By Elaine Viets

A reviewer for a major print magazine complained to me about a novel he was reading, when it dawned on me – this was news writers could use. If we know what’s wrong, we can fix it before the reviewer writes about it, for all the (mystery) world to read.
This reviewer is not some crank who looks for excuses to rip writers. If he has to give a book a bad review, he agonizes over that decision.
But here are some writing wrongs that upset this reviewer.

(1) Padded Middles. This is my reviewer’s number one problem – novels that slow down in the middle. “The padding doesn’t advance the narrative,” the reviewer said. “It’s pages and pages of the thoughts and feelings of people who aren’t very interesting. They offer no valuable insights. Sometimes, I wonder if editors make writers add this unnecessary information because big books are so popular. Most books I’ve read recently are 20 to 30 pages too long. Often, there’s a good book buried in that excess fat.”

(2) Switching names. “The character is introduced as Joseph Smith. Then the author proceeds to call him Joe, Joey, Joseph, and sometimes just Smith. It’s hard to figure out who the writer is talking about.”

(3) Who’s talking? “A character is introduced in the first 50 pages, and then shows up 200 pages later with no ID.” Take tax accountant Mary Rogers. She has a brief scene in chapter 2 and then in chapter 25 we see this line: “I think the suspect embezzled half a million dollars,” said Mary Rogers.
“I’m frantically pawing through the book, trying to figure out who Mary Rogers is and why she’s saying that. If the author said, ‘I think the suspect embezzled half a million dollars,’ said tax accountant Mary Rogers’ that would make it easier for readers.”

(4) Writers who fixate on a certain word. “Like ass. I read an author who used ‘ass’ constantly. His character fell on his ass, showed his ass, got his ass kicked and had his ass handed to him. He dealt with asshats, ass clowns and of course, assholes.” Cuss words are necessary for realism, but don’t overdo it.

(5) Dumb and proud of it. “Writers who want to assert their real-people identities trot out lowbrow snobbery. Their favorite phrase is ‘I don’t know anything about . . .’ Then you can choose one or more of these – opera, classical music, gourmet food, Shakespeare.” Assume your readers are intelligent – after all, they bought your book.

(6) The hero with the drinking problem. He – or sometimes she – “is haunted by the awful things they did when they were on the sauce. Yes, people drink. And some authors handle this well. But most of these characters are tiresome cliches.” Reading these novels is like getting your ear bent by the garrulous drunk at the end of the bar.

(7) Writers who don’t do their research. If you really want to frost this reviewer, have your hero open a Heineken with a twist-off cap – there’s no such animal. And Jack Daniel’s whiskey always has an apostrophe. If you’re writing a thriller set in Nazi Germany, you’ll score extra points with this reviewer if you don’t say “Hitler was elected president in a democratic election.” You’ll find plenty of people who’ll write that, but the Website says it’s complicated.
“In America we hear ‘Hitler was elected President in a Democracy’ a lot,” the Website says, “but the sentence is so semantically wrong . . . In summary, the whole thing is almost too complex to apply the ol’ ‘Hitler was elected democratically’ quip to, but since it is important, perhaps it is best phrased as, ‘Hitler and the NAZI party seized power in a democratic system.'”
Got that? Good.

(8) Basic copyediting errors. “These are turning up in books by major authors,” our reviewer said. “I’ve seen ‘grizzly murders,’ when I’m quite sure the local bears are innocent. Clothes are tossed down a ‘laundry shoot,’ and people ‘tow the line.'” If you really want to see steam come out of this reviewer’s ears, mix up “it’s” with “its” and “your” with “you’re.” Granted, we all make mistakes, especially when we’re writing quickly. But somebody should catch those errors before the book is printed.

(9) TMI in the first chapter. Nearly every one of us at TKZ has written about this problem. Overcrowded first chapters slow the pace of your novel. Our reviewer said, “It stops a good book dead when the first chapter has an overlarge cast of characters and I can’t keep them straight.”

That’s all for now. Readers, what stops you when you’re reading a novel?



–GoDaddy Stock Photo

When my kids were ten and three years old, I ran away from home for a week. Given all the pre-trip planning, list-making, grandparent arrivals, and pantry-stocking, it might have looked like I was about to take a solo vacation, but appearances can be deceiving. Inside, I was holding my breath, telling myself I could get it all done, hold out until the day I would pack up the ridiculously large, white, American sedan I’d rented, and cruise onto the highway, the “Girls Singing for Your Trip” mixtape cd my bff had made me cranked up on the stereo. The first song was Vacation by The Go-Go’s [sic]. The second was Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles. By the time I was actually in the car, blowing bye-bye kisses to the kids, I felt like a teenage bandit who’d stolen Grandma’s Buick and could only count on a few hours of freedom before the cops pulled me over and ushered me home.

Did I feel guilty? Yes, I did. But I also knew that if I didn’t get away—my stated reason was that I wanted time to myself to write—I would either collapse into a useless puddle of mommy-shaped goo, or have to take refuge in a small closet and refuse to ever come out again.

Roanoke, Virginia to Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, is a long drive—though I confess I thought it wouldn’t be. They looked so close together on the map. It was a good thing I liked driving alone. The ferry ride that ended my journey was a kind of revelation, a reminder that I was, indeed, far from home. Ocracoke is overwhelmingly beautiful, with pristine, protected beaches, and (at least back then) a small-town vibe that made me feel comfortable and safe. I felt Very Far Away from my life.

Now, I had a pretty darned good life back home. I loved my husband and children intensely. It wasn’t like I couldn’t take time to write. I had part-time childcare, and a lovely house set up on a hillside, among trees. And I liked my kids. It didn’t matter that they occasionally vomited on me, or threw the occasional floor-pounding tantrum in the post office, or didn’t pick up their room. They were still mine, and I loved them. But every mother has her limits, and as much as I loved my family, I knew I had to go away for a little while so I could remain in love with them.

Have you ever felt that way? Perhaps not about children, but about your work, or your partner, or circle of friends?

A couple of months ago, I stopped writing. Oh, I didn’t stop completely. I showed up here, and also wrote a couple of blurbs. I journaled just a bit. But for the most part, my computer screen was fallow. At first, the stoppage wasn’t intentional. I’d had a professional disappointment that left me deeply frustrated. But like so many things that look grim on the outside, it was hiding something useful on the inside. It led me to take a good hard look at my work and career, and what they meant to me. And that’s when I decided that my writing sabbatical needed to continue for a while.

I love writing. I really do. It’s the only thing I ever set my heart on. I’m terrible at goal-setting because I’m easily distracted. There’s a story I heard once about a distinguished scientist who told himself he was going to count the steps he took walking to work every day. He did it successfully the first day. On the fourth day he remembered that he’d made that plan earlier in the week, but had only counted his steps that very first day. His is the story of my life. The good news is that I mostly get distracted in good ways, by new projects. But writing is the thing I’ve never been distracted from for very long. When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided I wanted to write fiction, and I’ve been trying to learn to be a better writer ever since. [Note: If you’ve stopped learning, go back to where you left off, and begin again.] It is the only vocation I have ever truly wanted to pursue because it’s the most challenging, maddening, rewarding work I’ve ever done.

Sometimes writing (and often publishing) will vomit on you. It will wring you out of every emotion, and leave you panting for inspiration. It will break your heart, and flip you the bird on the way out the door. It will whisper or shout your shortcomings. But then it will snuggle you like a puppy or a two-year-old wanting comfort. It will bring you bright and shiny presents—a brilliant detail, or the perfect sentence. Most of all, it will make much of itself. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes it can be too much of a muchness.

I’m not fond of crises. I panicked when I realized I wasn’t writing. For a while, I thought I might never write again. (Did I type that out loud?!) Fortunately, that panic didn’t last forever. But I did let myself feel the panic while it was happening. Yes, that old touch-feely feelings stuff. I let myself see that there could be a life beyond writing. I don’t have to write! Ever! In fact, there are already plenty of writers. I could clean houses, dig ditches, paint portraits, design video games, become a professional birdwatcher or baker or phlebotomist. In fact, if I stop writing and get a 9 to 5 job—or even take a permanent copywriting gig—it would be a financial boon to the family coffers.

I could have run away from my family. I could have stayed on that island beach until my money ran out, then gotten a job somewhere in the mid-Atlantic area. But I loved my family. Deeply. I just needed to be by myself for a little while so I could build up the energy to give them more, love them more. I hope I came back a slightly better parent.

During my writing sabbatical (a gentle word), I read some, watched television, bought furniture, decluttered the house quite a bit. I still have some power washing to do. And more reading to do. After two years of lightening the tone of my reading, and, to some extent, my writing, I’ve delved back into much darker stuff (the astonishing Mo Hayder has changed my life, I think). It’s got me thinking, and doing some unexpected planning. I’m still in love, but perhaps a bit wiser. That’s never a bad thing.

Have you ever had to get away just so you could stay?




Voices Lost and Found plus Two New Writing Tricks


Debbie Burke

Recently, a wonderful, unexpected opportunity came my way.

My pal, Susan Purvis, was invited to be the keynote speaker at the St. Eugene Writers Conference near Cranbrook, British Columbia. She invited me to tag along and share the hotel room the organizers had graciously provided for her.

Writing workshop, free room, and a favorable exchange rate—what’s not to like?

To Honor “The Children” at St. Eugene Mission School


Surrounded by snow-tipped mountains with the St. Mary River flowing past, the St. Eugene Hotel had a once-dark history and was supposedly haunted.

Built in 1910, on a road to hell paved with good intentions, the Canadian government and the Catholic Church operated St. Eugene as an Indian boarding school. First Nations’ children were separated from their families, not allowed to speak their native tongue, nor practice cultural traditions and customs.

The boarding school system broke down traditional family structure, resulting in generations of poverty with staggering rates of alcoholism and chronic unemployment. The school was closed in 1970.

For the next few decades, the building languished in decay—deserted, vandalized, and flooded. But the spirit of the Ktunaxa people prevailed.

In 1984 Elder Mary Paul said, “Since it was within the St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”

Mary Paul’s vision of rebirth was carried forth by Chief Sophie Pierre, who had herself been a student at the school. The chief spearheaded years of rehabilitation of the old building.

St. Eugene is now a world-class resort hotel, beautifully refurbished with conference rooms, restaurants, and a casino. A championship golf course and KOA campground occupy former pasture lands.

Teepees at the St. Eugene Resort campground

Today, the resort employs more than 250 people; many are descendants of former students of the boarding school.

Sophie’s son, Joe Pierre, is the current elected chief and delivered a moving blessing at the keynote dinner in both the Ktunaxa language and English.

Photos from the past decorate the hallways, including one that appears to capture a ghostly figure among the solemn faces of school children. A presence has been sensed in various rooms of the hotel.

In a location so steeped in history, how could a writer not be inspired?


Now to what I learned:

Renowned playwright/novelist Anosh Irani divides his time between Vancouver, where he teaches, and his native India. Anosh introduced two new writing terms I hadn’t heard before.

The first concept Anosh talked about was The Wound.

The wound can be literal, like a physical problem, a disease, an injury, a chronic condition that restricts and constrains the character’s ability to function. The wound can also be mental, emotional, or psychological. Unseen wounds often affect the character more deeply than physical ones.

Questions to ask while you’re writing:

Is the story driven by a deep-seated wound in the main character?

Is the story about healing that wound?

Is the character free if s/he cures the wound/achieves the goal?

The second term Anosh talked about was The Crucible, which immediately brought to mind the Arthur Miller play about the Salem witch trials.

Photo credit: skeeze at pixabay


However, crucible also means: “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures.”

In playwriting, the author places the main character inside a container (the stage) under extreme pressure and temperature. The character is trapped. Unless s/he wins, there is no way out of that cage.

Before this workshop, I had not been mindful of a major difference between novels and plays:

In novels, characters may roam all over the globe in search of adventure or a solution to their problems.

But in plays, actors are literally trapped within the confines of the stage and cannot escape. The setting may change but the stage remains a limited space—a crucible.

That concept resonated with me. As novelists, we can borrow that crucible technique and put it to work in our stories. The more trapped your character, the more heat and pressure they are under, the greater the story tension.


For a marketing perspective, YA novelist/editor Jeff Giles entertained us with his funny essay about how not to promote a book. “See More About Me” describes a debut novelist who wrote 326 Amazon reviews for books by other authors but, in each review, shamelessly promoted his own novel.

Also during the weekend, Anna-Marie Sewell, Poet Laureate of Edmonton (2011-2013), and Danielle Gibson, a teacher and YA author, workshopped with half a dozen talented high school students. At the group open reading, the kids performed their work with the confidence and charisma of veteran public speakers. We in the audience listened in awe and muttered to each other, “I could never have done that at that age!”

St. Eugene was once a place where children lost their voices. There’s a sweet irony that new generations now find their voices there.

Conference organizer Keith Liggett, a ski journalist and award-winning cookbook author, sets up several writing events each year at St. Eugene. Top-name speakers draw participants from across Canada and the U.S. The next gathering will be in February, 2020.

St. Mary River flows past St. Eugene Resort

St. Eugene nearly descended into ruin as a relic haunted by dark memories. In the new century, it has experienced a renaissance, emerging as a major employer in the region and a thriving recreation destination and cultural center.


Elder Mary Paul would be pleased.




TKZers – Have you attended a writers gathering in an inspirational setting? What did you take away from the experience? 


Adventures in India

I’ve long been interested in India and its history and, as an early ‘big’ birthday present this year, my husband organized an amazing trip to India for the whole family. We knew that given the boys’ school commitments, the only real time we could all go was in the summer, which meant facing the scorching heat, outrunning the monsoon, but also (luckily) avoiding the tourist crowds. We also discovered that, although this time of year most Indians think you’re crazy to be visiting, it’s the best time to go if you want to glimpse tigers in the wild (which has long been a dream of mine).

We tried to expose our twin boys to as many of the cultural contrasts and contradictions of India as we could – from walking through the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, visiting the historical sites via public transport in Delhi, to seeing the Taj Mahal at daybreak, going on safari in Ranthambore national park in search of tigers, and walking through Amber Fort outside Jaipur in 116 degree heat. All in all, I think we managed to pack a lot in on our two weeks away!

I can’t wait to someday incorporate what we experienced in a book (or two)…though at the moment I feel I’m still in absorption mode. But rather than rant on about all of our amazing experiences, I thought I’d share just some of the photos of our time away.

Sunset over Mumbai:

A nearly deserted Taj Mahal at dawn:

Overtaking a camel on the road to Ranthambore:

Close encounter with tiger on safari (he was about ten feet from our jeep):

‘Basking’ in the scorching heat at Amber Fort:

They say travel broadens the mind but I think this trip, more than any other we’ve taken as a family, opened our eyes to another country and culture. So fellow TKZers, has any adventure done the same for you?




Should You Write Dreck?

by James Scott Bell

Last week we talked about the “telling detail,” and the power it adds. We gave some tips on how to craft such moments. That requires a thing called work.

Today we’re going to ask: is it worth the effort?

This query comes out of a post by Mr. Joe Konrath. He was, most of you will remember, one of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of self-publishing. He was also a prolific blogger, and not one to shy away from a strong opinion. Then, a couple of years ago, he went silent. Now he’s back, and clearly he’s lost none of his verve, as evidenced by his post On Writing S*** (this being a family blog, I have made a slight edit to the title).

The gist of the piece is that it may be pointless for today’s writer of indie fiction to spend too much time trying to improve the quality of his writing:

My first drafts are pretty good. They’re lean, and fast, and the character arcs and plot rarely need tweaking. The rewrite polish is mostly spent on housekeeping stuff; adding color, exploding certain scenes, adding more drama to the climax, salting in a few more jokes, changing word choices, putting in a few more clues or callbacks.

And sometimes a book is short, say around 60k words, I’ll spend time expanding some scenes or adding a few to beef it up to 70k+, because I want to give good value to the readers who still pay for my stuff rather than read it via KU.

So I spend a full 1/3 of my time as a writer trying to make a grade B book into a grade A book.

I think I’m wasting my time.

He goes on to say that readers of an author will stick with that author even if subsequent books in a series are not as good as the first few. His argument, broken down, goes like this:

Better isn’t actually better.

More is better.

Faster is better.

Flash beats substance.

Loyalty trumps all.

Konrath’s main exhibit is his wife’s reading habits. She will stick with an author she has liked in the past, even if the author’s new books aren’t so hot.

To be clear, Konrath’s post does not actually advocate its title. He does not think you can write pure dreck and get away with it. He says he couldn’t live with producing a work that’s “less than a grade C … But I could live with Bs. I was fine with getting Bs in school. Why put in all that extra work to turn a B into an A when I won’t lose readers for a B?”

It’s a good question, so let’s talk about it. A few reflections:

  1. Several A-list, traditionally-published writers have, over the last several years, “mailed it in.” Some have kicked up their output to satisfy publishers, who need them more than ever for the ol’ bottom line. Some of these more recent books have wider margins and fewer total words. Yet still they sell…though perhaps with some fall off, if reviews are any indication.
  2. A little fall off from an A-list writer still brings in big bucks.
  3. More is better does not always pay off. You still have to meet a certain minimum of storytelling skill.
  4. There many prolific indies (Konrath is one) who do have the skill and thus make more money the more they produce.
  5. For me, pride plays a role. I worked hard on a traditionally published legal thriller trilogy I’m very proud of. Indeed, I think the last line of the last book is the most perfect ending of my career. I re-wrote that last scene at least a dozen times. I’d do it again to gain the same effect. (FYI, the first book of the trilogy, Try Dying, is free today in the Kindle store).
  6. I write a book and work on it until I think it’s the best I can do within a time limit. I’ve got SIDs (self-imposed deadlines) and readers who want more of my stuff. Sometimes I miss a SID.
  7. If I miss a SID, I don’t cancel my contract. I do give myself a stern talking-to.
  8. I write to entertain, and for me that includes going for what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. This requires, once again, work.
  9. I also like being prolific which, in the “old days,” meant a book a year. As an indie, I can do more, and also include a regular output of short fiction.
  10. “The most critical thing a writer does is produce.” — Robert B. Parker.

So…where do you come out on this scale of craft, care, prolificity, faster, better?

Do you stick with an author or series no matter the quality of recent books?


Funniest Book Ever?

By Mark Alpert

My son is home from college for the summer, and my daughter is finishing up her senior year of high school, so it’s a special time for the Alpert household. We were all watching the Raptors-Warriors game tonight, along with three of my daughter’s friends, and in between the amazing displays of basketball virtuosity, we started telling jokes. And that got me thinking about how difficult it is to write a funny novel.

You know what they say: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.” That’s especially true for novels. Think how difficult it must be to keep a humorous voice or situation going for hundreds of pages. It’s like doing a standup routine that lasts for 16 hours. (If you read at a rate of twenty-five pages per hour, then a 400-page novel is equivalent to a 16-hour routine.)

Here’s a rough indicator of the difficulty: When was the last time you laughed out loud while reading a novel? It’s happened to me only a few dozen times over a whole LIFETIME of reading. But those occasions were memorable. I’ll try to recall them as best as I can. (I can’t check the exact wording of the funny books right now because most of our novels are in the living room, and several teenagers are sleeping in there.)

The funniest novel ever written (in my opinion): A Confederacy of Dunces. The book’s hero, Ignatius Reilly, is so absurdly grotesque and brilliant. One moment he’s yelling at his mother to leave his bedroom so he can masturbate, the next moment he’s musing about the Mississippi River and railing at his nemesis, “that dreary fraud, Mark Twain.” He gets a job selling footlong hot dogs from a cart in the French Quarter (while dressed in a pirate’s costume) but he eats the hot dogs instead of selling them, and when his employer docks his pay he tries to negotiate a better price for the wieners he’s eaten (“I am, after all, your best customer.”) I know plenty of people who hate this book because Ignatius is so cheerfully repulsive. But I love it.

Second funniest novel: Portnoy’s Complaint. This book has plenty of masturbation jokes too (and why are they so amusing? Has anyone ever studied this?) but in my opinion the best bits are the descriptions of the narrator’s father, the hard-working beaten-down insurance salesman who suffers from chronic constipation. He’s jealous of his teenage son because he’s spending so much time in the bathroom (the father wrongly assumes that the boy is moving his bowels). “If only I could do my business like that!” the old man cries. “I’d do it in Macy’s windows!” To which his wife responds, “Macy’s doesn’t need your business.”

On the opposite end of the humor spectrum, I also have a great fondness for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels. And Kurt Vonnegut, especially Cat’s Cradle. (“Ah, God, what an ugly city Ilium is! ‘Ah, God,’ says Bokonon, ‘what an ugly city every city is!'”)

What about you? Have you ever dared to write a novel that’s laugh-out-loud funny?


If You Want Pace & Tension – Stick with the Action – First Page Critique of ESCALATION




A brave anonymous author has submitted their first 400 word beginning to their novel for feedback. My thoughts will follow the author’s submission. Please add your constructive criticism in your comments. Enjoy!



Chapter 1

Conversation was almost impossible over the sound of the siren and the roar of the ambulance’s diesel engine. Zach felt with his right hand for the siren tone switch without taking his eyes off the road. He flipped the switch to change the siren from the long monotonous wail to the rapid repetitive yelp that would alert the motorists in the busy intersection they were quickly approaching. Ana also intermittently hit the air horn to add another dimension to the sound.

Threading the needle of these busy intersections had become second nature to Zach. He had worked for the Sova County ambulance service for the past three years and had seen the increase in traffic with the county’s growth. His calm expression never changed as he muttered, “You stupid ass!” when a pale yellow late model Toyota Camry plowed through the light. The driver, bobbing his head in time with some unheard beat, was oblivious to the ambulance’s flashing lights and blaring siren. Zach came to a stop and made eye contact with the other drivers before proceeding through the intersection. A red Bronco came barreling around the curve and almost collided with a dark blue Honda pulled to the curb to allow the ambulance to pass. Zach steered through the maze of skewed vehicles with practiced precision. Once they were clear of the traffic, he gunned the engine. Fortunately, the day was bright and clear. It was better not to have the weather as a hazard; the traffic was definitely enough.

“Are you familiar with the area we’re going to?” Ana asked while shading her eyes from the gleam of sunlight reflecting off the side mirror of the truck. Her face felt just short of sunburned from the early morning sun beating down on her side of the ambulance.

Analyn Michaels, a pretty, petite girl with wavy light brown hair that fell just below her shoulders, had been partnered with Zach for the past eleven months. She tugged at the seatbelt cutting into the side of her neck and glanced over at him.



OVERVIEW – There is a sense of urgency as the ambulance races through the streets in the first paragraph. The heavy wordiness of that paragraph and the longer sentences contradict the urgency and I will rewrite that intro to show what I mean. (See the feedback below in – FIRST PARAGRAPH REWRITE.)

With the start of paragraph 2, the story action slows to a crawl with a backstory dump and the county history on traffic patterns. There is plenty of time to explain the guy’s resume and add to the setting of the story, but if the author dares to write a suspenseful opener, I always recommend – STICK WITH THE ACTION and explain later.

That long heavy paragraph shows Zach fighting traffic, but the sense of urgency is gone. He can be calm by nature of his character, but it’s the author’s job to convey the adrenaline rush to the reader. We can all imagine how tense Zach must be and how hard it must be to deal with bad drivers at busy intersections. Make the reader feel the tension and that a life is on the line.

By the time we get to Ana, the pace is gone as she shades her eyes from the sun and thinks about her sunburn. The description of her is another form of backstory that can wait, if the author’s intention is action and a medical urgency that has the ambulance weaving through traffic with sirens blaring. Ana also reflects on how long she’s been partnered with Zach as the seat belt cuts her neck because of their high speed race.

This introduction is conflicted between the stifled action and bad writing habits that slow the pace, but there is good news. We have ALL made these errors and sought improvement.

These are only my thoughts based on my assumptions on where this story might be going. Take any of my advice for what it is worth, dear author. FREE! I tend to imagine your intention and try to work with what is written. I offer advice based upon what I would edit in my own work. You may not like what I have to say and that’s okay.

TITLE – ESCALATION is not a bad title. I can visualize an action-packed cover and the sense of a thrilling medical drama, but I wanted this introduction to match the adrenaline surge of an EMT/Ambulance driver racing through traffic with the life of a patient on the line. Not all medical fiction books will have a title to match the intro, but this one makes sense since it appears to focus on the EMTs.

POV – I can’t see a particular point of view in this short intro. No telling if Zach is the lead/main character or Ana. Since we get Ana’s full name, it could be that SHE is the one to tell this story, but the focus is on Zach. I would recommend picking a main POV character per scene. Zach may not be the HERO of this story, but I would advise the author to clearly pick ONE POV and stick with it.

At present, this intro is not in Zach’s POV, not when Ana flips the air horn switch in the first paragraph, without being seen from Zach’s eyes. Also, Zach can’t know that the seat belt is cutting Ana’s neck at the end. This intro reads like “head hopping.” Even though we don’t know who the main character is, we still need ONE POV to see this action through.

I tend to pick the character with the most to lose or who has the best emotional vantage point. In this intro, that could be Ana, who has to watch as Zach barrels through traffic like a mad man. Or it could be Zach as he battles the traffic while watching Ana cringe, but pick a point of view and work the emotion.

NAMES – I’m not sure why Ana has a full name AND a nickname, but Zach has only a first name. I would suggest giving characters their full names as soon as you can, even if these characters aren’t the hero or heroine. By giving each character a name, it gives context to the reader and an author can write a fuller characterization with more voice if the character has a name.

On the second book I sold, I had a anonymous bad guy get killed in the intro. It wasn’t until I christened him with a full name, that I could tap into his inner voice and give him an arrogance where he deserved to die. It became more interesting.

FIRST PARAGRAPH REWRITE – I tried picturing a white knuckle ride through a busy intersection as I thought of how to rewrite this. With an action scene, the sentences should be shorter, punchy and filled with action imagery. Fragments are fine. You are conveying a sense of urgency to the reader and pulling adrenaline from them as they read, to get a visceral response. I also added DEEP POV, which are Ana’s thoughts in italics, that inner voice we all have. Mine are usually curses.


Analyn Michaels gripped an armrest and held her breath. Oh, God! Streetlights had changed. Cars ignored the blaring siren. In seconds their ambulance would hit the busy intersection. Watch it! She winced. Ana wanted to trust Zach behind the wheel, but it wasn’t easy.

“Hold on. This’ll be tight.” He glanced at her sideways with a smirk. Smart ass!

An SUV lurched in front of a butt ugly Camry to make a turn. Damn it! The driver of the SUV never saw their flashing emergency lights. Ana reached for the air horn and flipped the switch. At the sound, the SUV screeched in front of them. Ana braced her body as Zach swerved to miss the bastard.

The roar of the ambulance engine rumbled in her gut. Ana fought the adrenaline surging through her veins. When they cleared the worst intersection, Zach gunned the diesel engine. Precious seconds ticked by.

Ana hoped they’d make it on time.

This is a quick rewrite. I would normally play with this more and go back to add layers of emotion, but I hope this conveys urgency and action and puts the reader in the front seat. There are smells to add of burned rubber or diesel fumes or beverages spilling on a tight turn. I made the assumption they were heading TO an emergency and not hauling someone to the hospital, since both of them are in the front. But imagine that you have an emergency of someone having a heart attack. Every second could make a difference.

WHITE SPACE ON THE PAGE – In an action scene, it is especially important to have white space on the page. Readers tend to skim the heavily worded paragraphs. Make paragraphs shorter, sentences shorter, and don’t embed dialogue. In my rewrite, it changes from one heavier paragraph to 5 bursts of action.

Over the years, I have cut back on the length of my chapters and my scenes. I give the reader more white space on the page and use deep POV to break up the prose. Call it “shorter reader attention span,” but that’s what I’ve noticed and changed my style accordingly. My paragraphs tend to be shorter too, but it’s the same idea. Long heavy narratives can appear daunting to a reader these days. Don’t give them a reason to skin.

VOICE – I like the character voice where we get a sense of dark humor in Zach. EMTs have seen it all. They can be adrenaline junkies. I like Zach cursing as he drives, not giving an inch, yet staying calm.

PACE WRECKING LINES – There are a number of lines that cut the pace and stop the action in this short intro.

He flipped the switch to change the siren from the long monotonous wail to the rapid repetitive yelp that would alert the motorists in the busy intersection they were quickly approaching. Ana also intermittently hit the air horn to add another dimension to the sound.

The two lines above are too focused on the details of sound and they lose any momentum for the action. It’s not as important to get the nitty gritty detail of what is physically happening. It’s mainly important to write a smattering of action (see an example of ‘smattering’ in my rewrite of paragraph 1) to give the reader a sense of it. Keep it punchy and focus on the bare essence of the action.

Fortunately, the day was bright and clear. It was better not to have the weather as a hazard; the traffic was definitely enough.

In an action scene, if you have to stop to write about the weather, you’ve lost the pace. In this case, the weather is “bright and clear,” not even a factor, so why bring it up? Since an author is in control of the weather, why NOT make the roads slick with rain and with lightning?

“Are you familiar with the area we’re going to?” Ana asked while shading her eyes from the gleam of sunlight reflecting off the side mirror of the truck.

I would imagine that ambulances have GPS to direct them into areas of the city they aren’t familiar with. Ana’s line doesn’t seem authentic. Also, this is an example of too much unnecessary detail that doesn’t add to the action. We authors are tempted to write details to put the reader in the scene with us, but the details should not be a distraction, as these sentences are.

To make this side mirror glint of light work, I can see Ana searching for cross streets as Zach barrels through an intersection.


As the ambulance lurched, the sun blinded Ana. She kept one eye on the GPS screen and raised a hand to block the glare. Can’t see, damn it.

Are we close?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I missed it.” Ana craned her neck to spot another sign. “Don’t stop. I’ll catch the next one.”

I’m sure you can do better, dear author, but I wanted you to see the difference in how to pick action that works and doesn’t detract from the action.

Her face felt just short of sunburned from the early morning sun beating down on her side of the ambulance.

“Just short of sunburned” means NOT SUNBURNED. We’ve all been on long drives where our skin gets burned from the sun. Yes, but does Ana’s condition add to this scene? Not so much. Stick with the action to keep the pace and the attention of the reader. You can always bring in a sunburned trucker’s tan later.

ENCOURAGEMENT – We have all been here, dear author. You have a good sense of description. The details can come in handy, but be judicious about where you put them. With action, you should stick with the flow and keep the pace. Be patient with back story and descriptions. You WILL get a chance to strut your stuff.

I like your EMTs. Zach has a hint of personality & humor that I want to know more about. Ana can be fleshed out more, but I get a good sense of how you might write her. Being an EMT is heroic stuff. You have good instincts to start with action. Hang in there and keep writing. With every page, you will get better. Writing is the gift that keeps giving. I’m happy to read your work.


1.) What do you think, TKZers? Do you have feedback for this author?

2.) Anyone with experience as being an EMT? I had a technical adviser who had all sorts of great life experiences. He was an EMT and a volunteer firefighter. The stories he told about how these emergency calls had ice flowing through his veins, until one of the 911 calls turned out to be about his wife and he had to respond–the most harrowing ride of his life. Or the time he was doing CPR on a guy and took the time to notice the man had really bad dandruff. EMTs are a HOOT!