Marketing Outside the Box

Marketing Outside the Box
Terry Odell

This is my last post before TKZ takes its annual holiday hiatus, and I’d like to wish everyone a happy whatever you celebrate. If things have gone according to plan, I’m in Prague on my way to Vienna to embark on a Danube river cruise. I’m not likely to be around to respond to comments immediately, but I’ll do my best to check in.

In a happenstance of diversity, we’ll be observing Hanukkah on board while stopping at numerous Christmas markets. Another event we’re planning to participate in  while in Prague is Krampusnacht, which celebrates the Norse God of the underworld, although it’s become associated with Christmas. Works for me. Of course, I’ll have trip recaps and pictures when I’m back. And, I hope, notes for a new book.

Speaking of new books, Deadly Adversaries is moving along the pipeline, and it’s time to think more seriously about the (to me) dreaded marketing. As long as I’m here, I’d like to point out that Deadly Adversaries is now available for preorder.)

Even if you’re traditionally published, you’re expected to bear some of the load. Inundating the interwebs with “buy my book” proclamations isn’t my thing. Remember, too, that social media platforms should emphasize “Social.”

Say “Marketing” and people assume you’re talking about running ads. That can be part of it, and depending on the platform, can be very effective, but there are other low-to-no-cost options to build buzz for the book.

What have I been doing?

Creating images that help call attention to the book. Between Canva and MockUp Shots, I’ve made half a dozen or so, using quotes from the book, such as the ones below.

Instead of making everything “buy, buy, buy”, I like to give readers something in return. I’ve been writing vignettes, scenes, and short stories that are companions to the books. These take two forms. For some, I interact on a personal level with my characters, giving readers a chance to peek behind the curtain. Here’s an example showing when Randy Detweiler, of my Pine Hills Police romantic suspense series showed up at my office.

When Randy Interrupted

“Come in, Randy,” I say. We’ve been working together on Finding Sarah for a couple of months now, but I still can’t get used to how tall he is. I’ve written him as six-six, but I have a hunch he’s even taller. But he’s comfortable with his height, walks with an easy grace across my office and settles himself on the couch.

I remember his awkwardness at our initial interview. Like he was afraid it was a stereotypical casting couch, and he might have to ‘buy’ his way into the job, or I was going to make sure he could handle the sex scenes.

“What can I do for you?” I ask.

His lips curve up in a shy smile, and he shoves a lock of hair off his forehead. “I…um…I had a suggestion. For my character.”

I give him my full attention now. He’s never demanded—heck, he’s never even suggested anything. Maybe he’s nervous. We’re about to get into his first real sex scene with Sarah. It’s not like he’s naïve or anything, but I know how characters can get self-conscious when they’re actually asked to perform on cue. At least he’s not one of the cocky ones, no pun intended, who thinks he can take over the scene.

“Well, I was looking at the pages. You know how, afterward, we’re sitting around eating pizza. I’m watching a basketball game, and Sarah’s trying not to be bored. I thought maybe you’d let me play piano for her.”

My jaw drops. I search my memory for his initial interview. “Piano? You play the piano?”

He ducks his head and nods. “Yeah. I haven’t played in a while—long story, old memories. But after working with Sarah on this book thing, well, she’s made me a lot more comfortable with my past, and I’d like to get back into it. I thought it might work for the story.”

“You can really play the piano?” I ask, sounding too much like a babbling idiot than a writer in control of the manuscript.

“Would you like to hear?” he asks.

“No, that won’t be necessary. I believe you. What’s your preference?”

He shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. I play it all. Classical, rock, jazz. I worked my way through college playing in lounges.”

Okay, so now I’m scribbling notes. “You can do Simon and Garfunkel?”

He grins. “Piece of cake.”

“What about something melancholy? One of those things that make the world stop?”

“I can handle that. Beethoven’s Pathetique should work.”

I stand and walk around the desk. He remains seated, not because he’s rude, but because he knows our eyes will be level. I shake his hand. “Take a couple of hours off while I rewrite. See you at three.”

“Will do. I’ll go home and practice.” He stands, towering above me. I study his hands and understand why I described them the way I did on page 26.

I watch him leave, wondering if he’ll like the scene coalescing in my head. It’ll mean a bit of a rewrite. Will he be able to handle an on-scene emotional breakdown, or will I have to write it in Sarah’s POV? I turn back to my computer and open a new document. I hear him whistling Bridge Over Troubled Water as he walks away.

Others works provide back story that doesn’t really have a place in the books themselves. This is my newest one, When Titch Met Gordon, featuring a secondary character who showed up in book 2 fully formed. I thought readers might like to get a closer look at his history. It’s a little too long to include here, but if you’re interested, you can downnload When Titch Met Gordon here. Consider it my holiday gift to you.

What do I do with them?

The images go into my newsletter and onto my blog and Facebook pages.

Randy’s story was offered to my newsletter subscribers as a simple ‘thanks for being here.’

When Titch Met Gordon is going to be a reader magnet, a gift to new subscribers.

How do I get it to them?

BookFunnel is an easy way to distribute works. I have Draft2Digital do the formatting, then upload them to BookFunnel. D2D doesn’t require you put works on sale, so it’s an easy way to use them as gifts or magnets. You also have a choice of collecting emails or not, or having them sign up for your newsletter. For this one, I’ve gone the ‘no string’ route for now. If it’s a reader magnet, they people will have to sign up for the newsletter to get the story, so there’s no point in making them sign up again. BookFunnel will let you make separate landing pages, so you could have one that requires a newsletter signup as well.

What about you? What marketing techniques beyond taking out ads have your found effective?

How can he solve crimes if he’s not allowed to investigate?

Gordon Hepler, Mapleton’s Chief of Police, has his hands full. A murder, followed by several assaults. Are they related to the expansion of the community center? Or could it be the upcoming election? Gordon and mayor wannabe Nelson Manning have never seen eye to eye. Gordon’s frustrations build as the crimes cover numerous jurisdictions, effectively tying his hands.
Available for preorder now.

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

Slang Fun Facts

by Debbie Burke


The saying “two countries divided by a common language” certainly applies to slang.

American and British slang are confusing enough. Throw in Australian slang and one needs a translator with a doctorate in linguistics to interpret.

Here’s an example I recently ran across in an Aussie news story: Dob in a hoon.

Translation: to report a driver who’s reckless and dangerous.

The story reported that the Greater Shepperton City Council and police have a “Dob in a Hoon” tip line where citizens can call in tips about dangerous drivers.

Being a writer fascinated by word origins, I headed down the rabbit hole to learn about this unusual phrase.

Hoon driving means driving recklessly, quickly, and irresponsibly. It includes street racing, fishtailing, burnouts, excessive noise to draw attention of bystanders.

Digging a little deeper into origins, I discovered the word hoon was coined by Aussie author Xavier Herbert in the 1930s and means a “hooligan” or “lout.”

What about the rest of the phrase dob in?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, dob in means to “secretly tell someone in authority that someone else has done something wrong.”

Quick grammar review from Grammarly:

transitive verb needs to transfer its action to something or someone—an object. In essence, transitive means “affecting something else.”

transitive verb is one that makes sense only if it exerts its action on an object.

An intransitive verb will make sense without an object.

That makes dob in a transitive verb, where the verb action of dob in passes to the object noun hoon.

In Australian slang, dob in is comparable to the American slang terms rat out or squeal on.

The person who dobs in someone is often called a stool pigeon, canary, cheese eater, rat, informant, squealer, fink, narc.

While rooting around in the research rabbit hole, more Aussie slang sidetracked me. Here are a few examples:

If someone imbibes too much from the Bottle-O (liquor store) then gets behind the wheel, they could wind up riding in the Booze Bus (police vehicle that chases drunk drivers).

If you visit Australia, beware of the dreaded Drop Bear. This mythical beast is a carnivorous Koala-type bear that drops from trees to prey on creatures walking below.

Drop Bear attack
Photo credit: wikipedia

Aussies enjoy warning unsuspecting tourists about the Drop Bear, along with other fun Furphies (plural).

A Furphy (singular) is defined by as “a false report or improbable story; rumor.”


Furphy water cart, ca 1905

Furphy is an actual brand name for traveling water tanks and sanitary disposal carts manufactured by the Furphy family of Victoria. During World War I, soldiers gathered around Furphies to gossip and spin yarns. That led to widespread slang usage of telling a furphy.

Do you think “sanitary disposal” could have inspired the term? 


Those friendly, helpful Aussies also suggest repellants that supposedly protect from Drop Bear attacks. One method is to spread Vegemite behind the ears.

Vegemite isn’t slang but is an actual food product created and produced in Australia. It is made from leftover byproducts from brewing beer.

Here is a description of Vegemite from “It looks like tar, has the consistency of thick paste, and has a salty/malty/yeasty taste to it that sounds just a bit weird but actually works – if you don’t plaster it too much!”

Applied behind the ears, Vegemite not only protects from Drop Bears, it makes a memorable cologne that’s also edible.

Those Aussies have a wicked sense of humor.

Photo credit: Sultan 11 cc-by-sa-4.0

The Drop Bear is similar to the North American “Jackalope”, another mythical creature with origins in folklore. Imagine a cross between an antelope and a jackrabbit.

Which brings me back to rabbits and falling down the rabbit hole. 

Here’s an entertaining article by Elaine Zelby about the origins and usage of that particular slang.

TKZ emeritus Clare Langley-Hawthorne was raised in Australia. If Clare is online, maybe she’ll chime in with her favorite Aussie slang terms.


Pros of using slang in fiction:

  • Adds authenticity;
  • Adds regional color;
  • Gives deeper dimension to characters and makes them unique and memorable.


  • Slang changes with the times. Twentieth century meaning may be totally different in the 21st century;
  • The same slang can have different meanings in different cultures, causing reader confusion;
  • May require explanation to the reader. Anything that takes them out of the story can be a problem;
  • Overuse of slang is distracting and annoying.

A taste of slang in fiction goes a long way. Like Vegemite, don’t spread it too thickly.


This is my last post for 2023 before TKZ’s annual break. I’m honored to be part of this vibrant writing/reading community.

Warm wishes for a joyous holiday season with family and friends!


TKZers: How much slang do you use in your stories?

What is the most unusual slang term you’ve run across?

Do you research the origins of slang words?  

Please share a few of your favorites.




Deep fakes lead to deep trouble in Debbie Burke’s thriller, Deep Fake Double Down, BookLIfe Prize FinalistClick on the cover for the sales link. 

Wrapping It Up

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” ― T.S. Eliot

* * *

As we approach the end of another year, it’s time to look back on 2023, assess our performance, and make preparations for 2024. If you’re like me, you have a list of goals you set for 2023 that you’re reviewing to see how you did.

I had twenty-eight writing goals for 2023. It was an ambitious list (I tend to be overly optimistic about what I can accomplish) that included books I wanted to write and publish, audiobooks I wanted to have made, and the number of books I intended to read. I also set goals for blog posts, reviews, book sales, X (Twitter) posts and followers, conferences, and other categories.

I reviewed the list a couple of days ago. I accomplished some things (specifically 65% of my goals, depending on how you count them), but others will have to wait until 2024.

* * *

Do you take time at the end of the year to reflect on the past and plan for the future? Here are a few suggestions I came across recently that may be helpful:

  1. Celebrate the accomplishments. Whatever progress was made in 2023 is worth a pat on the back. If you published a book, met your weekly word quota, got more Bookbub followers, or did anything else that moved the ball forward, take time to bask in the joy of your achievements. Chocolate is always a nice reward.
  2. Take a look at areas you want to improve in your writing and make a plan to tackle them in 2024.
  3. Acknowledge the people who helped you with your writing this year by sending them a thank-you note or donating to a charity in their honor.
  4. Decide on the number of words you want to write in 2024 and make a note of it. Tape the note to your desk.
  5. Choose a social media platform you want to concentrate on and decide how many posts you’ll make each week.
  6. Look over the writers’ conference schedules for 2024 and start making plans to attend one.
  7. Decide on promotions you want to run.
  8. Become a part of a blog community by commenting regularly.

Maybe most importantly, remember the words of the great runner Dean Karnazes, who ran a marathon in each of the 50 states in the U.S. on 50 consecutive days: “Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, just never give up.” It’s just as relevant to writing as it is to running.

* * *

Since this is my last TKZ post for 2023, I want to express my gratitude to all of you for the insights, guidance, humor, and friendship I’ve enjoyed here during the past year. I wish you all a Happy Holiday season and best wishes for a productive and joyful writing year in 2024.

So TKZers: Did you achieve your goals in 2023? What accomplishments can you tell us about? What are your plans for 2024?

* * *


“DiBianca launches her Lady Pilot-in-Command series with a spectacular tale of decades-old murder mystery, human drama, and a hint of romance…. a surefire winner.” –Prairie Book Reviews

Lacey’s Star is on sale here.

When Does a Book Become the Next Big Thing?

by James Scott Bell

A few weeks ago I got a text from my daughter. It read: “How often do you think about the Roman Empire?”

A somewhat random question, it seemed, but in my wheelhouse. I texted back: “All the time!” Because I do. Signs of decline and fall abound, and I am mindful of two intractable lessons of history:

  1. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
  2. People do not learn from history (indeed, increasingly they do not even know history).

Anticipating a substantive exchange on current events, I was surprised when my daughter texted back a smiling emoji. What, I wondered, was there to smile about?

A few minutes later she called me and laughingly explained this was a social media “thing.” Women were asking men how often they thought about the Roman Empire.

The hilarity of which escapes me.

But the trend was real. In a couple of weeks the hashtag #romanempire had 1.3 billion views on TikTok (which, far from creating in me peals of laughter, fills me with existential dread).

It prompted (not begged, please) a question: How does something as trivial as this become a “thing”?

A short time later I was talking to my daughter on the phone, when she said, “Isn’t it interesting how Taylor Swift has made Travis Kelce famous?” I immediately rejoined, “Honey, Travis Kelce has been one of the best players in football for years!”

She started laughing. Then explained this was another “thing,” women making that statement to men and watching them defend Travis Kelce.

Again, this is funny? (Okay, Boomer). But I love making my daughter laugh, so at least there was that.

Again I ask: why does something like this become a “thing”? Especially with millions of digital jockeys out there trying to create “things”?

Closer to home, we may well ask, why does one book take off to the stratosphere, and another (perhaps even better written in several ways) does not?

Why, with all the fan fiction out there, did Fifty Shades of Grey become the best-selling novel of the last decade (15.2 million print copies)?

Why, with all the fantasy fiction, does one story about a boy wizard follow this trajectory:

  • J. K. Rowling, living on government relief, writes Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. She gets a $4,000 advance.
  • 500 copies were published in hardcover.
  • 200 were sold, and 300 went to libraries.
  • Scholastic buys the U.S. rights, changes the title from Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone, and releases it in October, 1998.
  • In December it hit the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for 82 consecutive weeks.
  • Worldwide, the print copies of the series are north of 500 million.
  • As of 2021, JK Rowling’s estimated net worth is around $1 billion

Here’s a quiz for you:

At 68, he may no longer be publishing’s fresh young hotshot; his books sell a fraction of the copies that they used to, and it’s been 19 years since he had a feature film made. Yet every fall, like clockwork, [he] publishes a new [book], and every fall it shoots to the top of the bestseller list…[He] has released 48 consecutive New York Times No. 1 bestsellers, a feat no other writer has matched.

Who is he? Answer below.* But more to the point: why him and not another prolific writer?

Timing? Luck? Zeus?

Of course, no one knows the answer.

In the big antitrust case to prevent Penguin Random House from acquiring Simon & Schuster, PRH CEO Markus Dohle testified that publishers are like “angel investors” that “invest every year in thousands of ideas and dreams, and only a few make it to the top.” When a book is a breakout, it allows the company to take risks in acquiring new books and “betting” on new titles.

In other words, publishing is like shooting craps. I’m not a Vegas guy or a gambler—except nickel backgammon—but I had occasion to be in Vegas twice over the past few years.

I shot craps the first time and came away with $250.

The second time I lost $150, and quit.

But each time I rolled those bones, I did it with hope and a flicker of excitement.

That’s us putting out a new book.

Your job, then, is to keep on writing the best book you can before tossing it online (or to a publisher). While the odds are always long against becoming the “next big thing,” they are considerably better for an improving and producing writer coming away from the table with more chips than they started with.

Writing salable books is work, yes. But make part of it a game, bet on yourself, enjoy the excitement, keep writing.

How do you feel whenever you release a new book? Like a gambler? A naif? 

Are you hopeful, excited, nervous, full of dread…or some combination of all?

*Quiz answer: John Grisham.

Brainstorming Words of Wisdom

Today’s Words of Wisdom brings three excerpts from the KZB archives dealing with a very useful tool for writers: brainstorming.

Steven James gives ways to inject creativity into your writing which can help with brainstorming, PJ Parrish shares a classic approach to brainstorming, and James Scott Bell provides more brainstorming tips.

The full posts are especially worth reading this time, since there’s even more advice in the originals. Each is linked from the respective date at the end of its excerpt.

Most of us know what it feels like to be uncreative—our ideas are stale and dry, our writing is boring and predictable. We long to inject our stories with ideas that are fresh, original, inventive, and spontaneous.

But how do you do it?

Here are four ways:

  1. Explore Your L.I.F.E.
    When you don’t know where else to turn, explore L.I.F.E., an acronym for Literature, Imagination, Folklore, and Experience. L.I.F.E. is a limitless well of ideas waiting to be tapped into.
    Coax new stories from classic plots by setting them in a different time and place; examine your imagination for themes that pique your interest; search through the timeless motifs of myth, fairy tale and folklore; scour the expanses of your own experience to spark new ideas. Let your memories come alive!

Some memories inspire us, others haunt us. Some memories cling to things we own, others hover around places we’ve been. Start with what you have, nurture that fragment of a memory: your teacher’s face, the smell of your grandmother’s cookies, the charming way your father used to whistle, the chill in your soul as you rushed to the hospital, the taste of salt spray that summer at the ocean, how it felt to hold your daughter’s hand for the first time. Turn those memories over in your mind, flesh them out, allow them to breathe.

Every vivid memory is a garden of ripe plot ideas waiting to be harvested.

  1. Change Your Perspective
    A few years ago while visiting a hotel in Denver, I noticed “EXIT” signs not only above the exit doors, but also at their base. “How odd!” I thought. “Only someone crawling on the floor would need a sign down there!”


Whoever placed those signs down low had looked at the doors through the eyes of someone crawling for safety during a fire.

Creativity isn’t “seeing what no one else sees,” it’s “seeing what anyone else would see–if only they were looking.” New ideas are born when we view life from a fresh perspective or peer at the world through another set of eyes.

Keep ideas alive by working backwards and sideways, by peering over your shoulder rather than always staring straight ahead.  Remember, you don’t dance in a straight line.

So take a moment and look at your story from another person’s perspective. Step into the shoes of your main character and write a journal entry, a complaint letter, or a love note. Switch your point of view. Write a few paragraphs in first person or third person. Think of how you would respond if you were in the story. Walk through the action, stand on your desk, crawl on the floor. And keep your eyes open for the doors no one else has noticed.

Steven James—February 10, 2014

Here’s my main take-aways from Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming.

  1. Think up as many ideas as possible regardless of how ridiculous they may seem. It’s unlikely you’ll get the perfect solution right off the bat, so he recommends getting every idea out of your head and then go back to examine them afterwards. An idea that may sound crazy may actually turn out to work with a little modification.

Doesn’t this make sense when you’re plotting? I know when Kelly and I talk, we throw everything on the wall. You need to take the same approach with yourself. Write down every idea and let them bake for a while. Sometimes, the most outrageous thing leads to something useful.

  1. Don’t be judgmental.All ideas are considered legitimate and often the most far-fetched are the most fertile. Ideas can be evaluated after the brainstorming session but judgments during the process should be withheld.

Are you sometimes too hard on yourself? Do you think, “Oh, that’s so stupid, no editor will ever buy it.” Or maybe you are a self-doubter, telling yourself, “I don’t have the chops to try this technique.” Or: “This is a great idea but it’s so complex so I won’t even try.”

  1. Go for quantity not quality.Don’t get hung up (like I often do) on coming up with the most clever solution to your writing problem. Let your brain waves flow so the bad stuff bobs up to the surface along with the good. Osborn said: “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud. Forget quality; aim to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.”

Osborn’s books were geared more toward corporate types trying to get their teams to think more creatively on things like how to get traffic flowing better in big cities. But take a look at his suggestions for improving creativity and see if there’s not something here for us mere writers:

  1. Break up the problem into smaller pieces. For writers, this can mean tackling each plot or character problem as manageable bites, not getting overwhelmed by the idea that you’ve got 400 pages to fill. Get that first draft written then go back and fix your plot holes or layer your characters better.
  2. Search for alternatives.If you’ve painted yourself into a plot corner, look for a different way out than the old ways.
  3. What can be borrowed or adapted?Read other writers and learn from them.
  4. Modify with new twists.There aren’t many new plots in crime fiction but there is always a way to put your own fresh imprint on them.
  5. Is there something that can be magnified or minified?Maybe the stakes in your thriller aren’t high enough. Maybe you need to play down a secondary character who is overshadowing your hero. Are you larding in too much research?
  6. What can be substituted?Maybe if you changed your location the story would suddenly come alive. Would your mystery work better in a small town where you could exploit the English village dynamic? Is your setting banal and underwritten? Are you hitting all the wrong clichés if your book is set in Paris or some other iconic place?
  7. What can be re-arranged?Maybe you’re writing in the wrong point of view? Try switching from first to third. Or maybe the guy you think is your hero is really the bad guy?

PJ Parrish—March 10, 2015

She asked, “Would love any brainstorming tips and tricks if you have them! How do you start building your story and characters? And how do you feel productive and intentional when brainstorming is such a creative (often stubborn…at least for me) process?”

It’s a great question. Here is what I wrote to her:

I wonder if part of the deal is what so many of us have expressed over the years with each new book, that it seems to get “harder.” And the reason for that, I believe, is that with each book you’re better and your standards go up. You know what goes into writing a whole book, all the constituent parts, and think, “Man, I’ve got to do all that again! And better!” So every idea in the brainstorming phase gets tested, when it should be a time for getting as many ideas as you can without judgment.

FWIW, I do the following at the beginning of any project.

– A free-form journal, interacting with myself, asking myself questions, going deeper into why I think I want to write this, and also putting down plot and character ideas as they come. I take several days (at least) for this, writing without stopping, but re-reading the journal each day, doing some editing on what I wrote the day before, highlighting the best ideas, and so on.

– At some point I take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to Starbucks and just write down scene ideas. Random. Whatever vivid scene comes to mind. I might prompt myself by playing the dictionary game (opening a dictionary to a random page, picking a noun, and riffing off that). When I have 30-40 scenes I shuffle the deck and pick two cards at random and see what the connection suggests.

– Finally, I want my concept in a three-sentence elevator pitch that I know is absolutely solid and marketable. Sentence 1 is character + vocation + current situation. Sentence 2 starts with “When” and is what I call the Doorway of No Return––the thing that pushes the Lead into the main plot. Sentence 3 begins with “Now” and the death (physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual) stakes. Here’s an example based on The Insider by Reece Hirsch:

James Scott Bell—August 30, 2015


  1. What do you do to juice your creativity?
  2. What do you think of Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming? Is there one approach you want to try?
  3. Do you have tips on brainstorming? What works for you?

Reader Friday: Phrasal Verbs, When an Adverb Is Not an Adverb

JLO two cylinder, two stroke engine

Phrase verb

Phrasal verb

Preposition verb

This information was never discussed in my high school English class, or else I was sleeping that day. With our great disdain for adverbs, I find this subject particularly appealing, like discussing a forbidden topic. So, let’s dive in.

What is a phrase verb? According to Merriam-Webster, “a phrase (such as take off or look down on) that combines a verb with a preposition or adverb or both and that functions as a verb whose meaning is different from the combined meanings of the individual words.”

What is a preposition verb? A phrase verb that combines a verb with a preposition, like call on.

What is a phrasal verb? A phrase verb that combines a verb with an adverb, like call up.

Phrase verbs vs. phrasal verbs vs. preposition verbs?

Constance Hale, in her book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Let Verbs Power Your Writing, discusses this topic in Chapter 11, “Two-Stroke Engines.”

She uses the term “phrasal verb” instead of “phrase verb,” and states that “phrasal verb” can be used to include both adverbs and prepositions. And further, distinguishing between them becomes splitting hairs. So, let’s use “phrasal verb” and include both adverbs and prepositions.

The History

The first phrasal verb recorded, 1154, was to give up. This verb form multiplied greatly in Late Middle English, and in 1755 Samuel Johnson described them in his 1755 dictionary as a “wildly irregular” form. But, it wasn’t until the mid-1920s that Logan Pearsall Smith gave them a name – Phrasal Verbs. And, as an example of how they have exploded in recent history with new creations and word combinations and new uses, in 2012 the verb set (with all its combinations) took up more space in the Oxford English Dictionary than any other word with 60,000 words.

When you start looking, you will find them everywhere, and you’ll be asking, “Is that an adverb or a phrasal verb?”

Here’s a link to an extensive list of phrasal verbs:

Tell us what you think about this “wildly irregular” form.

Fire up your fingers and give a shout out to your favorite mash ups. Or, if you despise these little fast-breeding beasties, lay out your rationale for why we should put our fist down and kick them out of the English lexicon. And let us know in a year how that works out.

Other discussion questions for phrasal verbs:

  • What are some of your favorites?
  • What are some that you detest?
  • What are some that seem to be unique to your region?
  • And, finally, are there any that you would like to invent?

Writing to Think

Charlie Munger has died. Mr. Munger was ninety-nine and lived a long, brilliant life. He was highly successful in many fields. Making money, for sure, but he accumulated and distributed vastly more valuable assets of wealth such as life long learning and influencing others to think by writing.

Charles T. Munger was the multi-billionaire vice president of Berkshire Hathaway, one of the world’s leading financial institutes. He was the man who taught Warren Buffett how to invest and stood giant as a role model for many thought leaders. That includes writers—past and present—who used Munger mental models to help understand and articulate their thoughts.

Shane Parrish is one of those thinkers and writers. Shane hosts the Farnam Street website. It’s named after the lane in Omaha, Nebraska where Charlie Munger lived his entire life.

Farnam Street is a thought-provoking site and publishes every Sunday morning. Last week’s edition included a piece titled Writing To Think. Shane, being a Munger disciple and promoter of works like Poor Charlie’s Almanack and The Psychology of Human Misjudgement, encourages his followers to freely share his material. With that invitation, I’m going to repost Shane Parrish’s article, Writing To Think.

Writing to Think by Shane Parrish

A few weeks ago, my 13-year-old son asked me why writing was so important. He wasn’t happy. One of his teachers had asked him to write an essay and he would rather use AI to generate it for him and be done with it.

The question seemed as natural to him as using a dishwasher is to us. If there is a better, more convenient way to do this, why not use it?

Today’s kids are growing up in a world where they can generate essays in seconds. Many employees are already using AI for a lot of simple tasks like email, catching up after vacation, summarizing meetings, and drafting PowerPoints. While some of these tasks might be accomplished more efficiently by ChatGPT than by human effort, I’d argue there are times when inefficiency is the point.

The reason they teach writing to kids in school is not to generate endless essays on history or books but to create a space to practice reasoning. By delegating writing to AI, my son might be reducing his time spent doing homework. But he’s missing the chance to think more clearly about the topic at hand.

Writing forces you to slow down, focus your attention, and think deeply. In a world where attention is fragmented in seconds, thinking becomes more reactive than reasoned. Only when we have time to play with a problem can we hope to think about it substantially. Writing requires sticking with something a little longer and developing a deeper understanding.

Mortimer Adler once said, “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” We all know someone with this surface level of understanding. They read an article or two and have the confidence of an expert. It’s as if you are having a conversation with someone who tells you they are a hockey player, only to find out they’ve never skated.

Writing is the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about. Of course, you can learn a lot about something without writing about it. However, writing about something complicated and hard to pin down acts as a test to see how well you understand it. When we approach our work as a stranger, we often discover how something that seems so simple in our heads is explained entirely wrong.

Most organizations see PowerPoint and writing as interchangeable. They are not. Powerpoint masks poor thinking. Just because presentations are easy to create doesn’t mean the person creating them understands what they are talking about. If my experience is any indication, about 30-40% of people giving presentations lack more than a surface-level knowledge of what they are presenting.  All the time spent making the presentation look good comes at the expense of wrestling with the problem and developing unique insights.

Pretty graphics don’t only drug the presenter, they also intoxicate the audience. When dressed up, even poor thinking can come off as well thought out. Writing avoids this because it strips away the fancy graphics. Poor thinking has nowhere to hide.

Other than reading them yourself, one way to test your ideas is to let others read them. Strangers reading your writing can’t see all the thoughts in your head, only the ones you put into words and share. It’s easy to assume the people who disagree with you are wrong. Sharing your understanding with the world allows you to not only test your thinking but gain the perspective of others (as the comments here will no doubt do). Writing forces you to step on the ice and skate.

Anyone who’s ever revised a piece of writing and done it well knows the pain of having to kill their darlings. But deleting, in writing and life, is a valuable tool. When you write, you develop an attachment to the text you produced only because you produced it. Choosing to discard writing forces you to reconcile between what is true and what you wrote, which can lead to tremendous personal growth both in writing and in life.

AI-generated text, on the other hand, is disposable by nature. It doesn’t force you to practice attachment and letting go. The most important key on the keyboard and in life is often the one that deletes.

Deciding what to pay attention to and, more importantly, what to overlook and remove, is one of the most critical skills. Breaking a problem down into its essential elements and reassembling it from the ground up helps you to discern fact from opinion. Wisdom is as much about knowing what to ignore as it is about what to pay attention to.

Perhaps the best reason to write is that it offers a vehicle for discovering deeper insights.

Practically speaking, writing forces you to take a complicated and ill-defined problem and compress it into something more manageable. This ‘compression’ is useful. Not only does it help you remember your ideas, but it helps you develop new ones. Paul Graham put it this way: “A good writer doesn’t just think, and then write down what he thought, as a sort of transcript. A good writer will almost always discover new things in the process of writing.”

The insights you discover are not limited to the subject you write about. You also learn about yourself. Writing doesn’t just convey your ideas; it conveys a part of you. Your personality and worldview become part of the work itself. While the reader remembers the story, the writer is forever changed.

Many things can be done by tools that write for you, but they won’t help you learn to think, understand deeper, or solve hard problems.

When it comes to my kids, I told them, “One of the ways we learn to think for ourselves is to write out our thoughts.” When your invisible thoughts become visible, you are forced to wrestle with them in reality and not your imagination. “But Dad,” they protested as they continued to write in their summer journals, “It is so much easier to outsource to AI.”

They’re right. But they aren’t yet smart enough to see that in a world where intellectual labor is increasingly outsourced to tools, the human aptitude for clear thinking and unique insights will become all the more valuable.

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Kill Zoners — Does this piece resonate with you? Please share your thoughts on writing to think—and thinking to write—with our group.

A Cynical View Of Titles & Cover Art

By John Gilstrap

As I read Reavis Wortham’s excellent post regarding titles and covers last Saturday, my first thought was, Hey, I’ve got a different squint on such matters. I think that’s what my post will be about on Wednesday!

My second thought was, Wait. I already wrote that post.

And, as luck would have it, on the day when I should be writing new material for this post, I’m swamped with Life Stuff and don’t have time to pen a whole new post. So, here we go with a post that first appeared on TKZ on November 4, 2020:

Whoever coined the trope that you can’t judge a book by its cover had to have been an academic. Certainly, the trope-coiner was not a reader of novels. Yes, it is true that some great novels come encased in ugly wrappers, but few of them find a broad readership.

What follows is based on zero research and even less science, but it reflects quite a few decades of personal observation.

People buy books in steps.

First, they have to know to look for it. This is the unicorn hair in the mix. I don’t know what drives me to look for a book. Certainly, there’s word of mouth, and I read a lot of books for blurbs, but I don’t remember the last time I went into a bookstore blind–without a target I was looking for–and scoured the shelves, hoping to be attracted to a cover. I don’t think I’ve ever done that in the virtual world, where online bookstores are not, in my opinion, very browsable.

Next, there has to be an instant attraction. Perhaps it’s the author’s name—which highlights the importance of “branding”. But that instant attraction is just that—instant. It’s fleeting. There and gone. This is where the cover comes in, highlighting the reason that genres exist in the first place. The title is important here, too. A thriller has to look and sound like a thriller. Ditto a romance or horror novel. In that brief second of instant attraction, the artwork makes a connection and causes the reader to move to the next step . . .

They read the plot description. In just a few words, the pressure is on to pull the reader into the story. To make them gamble their hard-earned money that the ride you’re going to provide is worth the money. How do they make their final decision?

They read the first pages. Yesterday, PJ Parrish posted a terrific primer on the elements of a good opening. Here’s where that pays off. Boom! Decision made, one way or the other. There’s neither the time nor the real estate to flub the opening and make it better later.

So, where is the cynicism?

Okay, here it is: The covers and titles needn’t have much to do with the actual plot of the book. They work together to accomplish their jobs in a glance, and then they are forgotten. They work in tandem to convince a potential reader to take a chance, and if you, as the writer, do your job to entertain, no one will notice. Some examples from my own work:

Hellfire is the Jonathan Grave book that hit the stands back in July. What does Hellfire even mean? The story is about two kids who are kidnapped to keep their mom from revealing a terrorist plot after she has been arrested. The word itself–Hellfire–is an oblique reference to an air-to-surface missile system. And it sounds cool. It positions the book properly in the minds of readers who generally enjoy the types of books I write.

The red cover makes it distinctive on the shelf–unless or until red becomes the cover du jour for the current crop of cover designers. It also lends itself well as a Facebook cover image. But if you really look at the image and its various elements, it could be for a reprint of All’s Quiet On The Western Front, or it could be a story about Satan.

Other examples from my oeuvre (today is Pretend-I-Know-French Day): The second book in my Jonathan Grave series is Hostage Zero. It’s the title that broke the series out, and the phrase means nothing. None of the hostages are numbered, and none of them launch a plague, as in “patient zero”. It just sounded cool, and that’s why we went with it. The cover of Friendly Fire features the White House, yet neither the president nor his team are involved in the story. What we wanted to do is establish the book and its author as being “inside Washington”.

My point here is that storytelling and marketing are entirely different skillsets, with only distantly related goals. As an author, my job is to entertain my readers by giving them a helluva ride. To get that chance, I need to convince them (trick them?) into picking out my book from among all the others on the shelf.

Your turn, TKZers. Do you have any tricks you’re willing to share about how you convince readers to take the plunge?

Rewriting: Keep Your Eyes
Open And Your Ego Closed

“It is easy to be wise after the event.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes

By PJ Parrish

I’ve been doing a lot of reading of my old stuff lately. It’s all in prep to get the last of our backlist titles re-packaged and up for download. What a chore — and eye-opener — this has turned out to be.

First, it’s a lot of grunt work. Some of our books are so old they hail from the dark ages of Word Perfect. (For the record, the BEST word processing system ever designed). There is no manuscript that I can feed into the Amazon maw. So here’s the primitive process:

  1. Dig around in the dusty bins of the house to find an old paper copy of the book
  2. Send it to our book scanner (Blue Leaf in Ballwin, Mo). Our guy Brad then rips the book apart, scans it, and sends us a Word document.
  3. The manuscript comes back surprisingly clean. But it has quirks. The spacing is off at times, “t” often comes out “st” and Louis’s name is sometimes Louie. So I have to CAREFULLY read every single line. This is hard to do because:
  • I am a bad copy editor.
  • Reading for typos is like taking three Ambiens.
  • I get caught up in the story and miss the typos. This is sometimes a good thing because I hit a passage and think, “Damn, I’m good!” This is sometimes a bad thing because I hit another passage and it’s, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Once I have a clean manuscript, I ship it off to my sister Kelly who has mastered the art of formatting. (If you don’t know how to do this, hire someone who does. Please. If you are self-pubbing, one of the biggest turn-offs to readers is shoddy formatting. It screams amateur.) So, Kelly makes it pretty with perfect chapter breaks, drop-caps, correct page numbering and a table of contents. We write new backcopy and design a new cover  (you can’t use your original publisher’s).

Covers, as we’ve talked about here, are important. Again, hire a pro! If you have series, it’s best to brand them with linking graphic devices, type faces and colors. We chose black backgrounds and an odd type face. Here a sample of the covers, original and new, for book we’ve just finished.


The left one, from our publisher Kensington, was adequate. But it looks dated now (design trends mutate!). I always disliked it because the only image is a nondescript (purple?) house that had no relation to the story. In our re-branding new covers, we’ve used a human figure on every book because we think it gives the reader a person to begin to bond with, be it a victim, protag or villain. (Also the necklace the dead girl wears turnss out to be a big clue).

So Thicker Than Water is available in ebook and very pretty trade paperback. Click here.  Now we take you back to our regular programming.

I’d like to return to my first point, way back in the first paragraph. Because this is what I really want to stress for you guys out there who are struggling with getting your first book out there in the world.


That is my biggest take-away from this experience of getting our old stuff back out there. Because no matter where you are in your writing, rewriting or editing process, you have to be willing to have your eyes opened. And your ego closed.

You really have to be ruthless in rewriting. You have to make hard choices, sometimes about passages or whole chapters that need to be cut. You have to recognize that your plot foundation might be shaky. Or that your characters are cardboardy. I always tell folks one thing, going into a new story:

Write the first draft with your heart. Then write the second, third, tenth or twentieth draft with your head. We’ve now re-published ten of our old books. Yes, we did some rewriting on all of them. The first one, Dark of the Moon, we have yet to re-publish because we believe it has fundamental problems that need more than a normal rewrite can solve. Here’s some of the things we learned in this process with our freshman effort book:

We got preachy. Our protag, Louis Kincaid, is biracial. The issue of race is, at times, important in the plot but more often than not is tangential to the story. Still, a couple times we allowed Louis to sound pedantic. Here’s the thing about themes: The more dramatic your theme, the more you need to underwrite. Go at your theme — be it bigotry, spouse abuse, environment, gay rights — obliquely, and always through the lens of your characters, not through your writerly narrator. You can make your point but you can’t be didactic.

We fell prey to stereotypes. Dark of the Moon is set in a small southern town in 1983. Our dialogue was too dialect-dependent. Our characters came across as one-dimensional. And we managed to have nothing positive to say about the town itself. Remember: your setting is a character. Treat it with respect.

We lost track of “book” time. This was an issue in our first two books, wherein we didn’t account for lapses in time. We neglected to tell readers that X-days had passed or we didn’t account for holidays like Christmas. (Hey, readers notice that little stuff). The sequence of events must be clear in the reader’s mind. We now use timeline boards and chronologies.

We didn’t know what we wanted to say. I’m going out on limb here and say all good books have themes. I don’t think we understood this until about book 4. Yes, you want to entertain readers. But beneath the grinding gears of plot, even light books can have something to say about the human condition. A romance might be “about” how love is doomed without trust. A courtroom drama might be “about” the morality of the death penalty.

We missed the theme in Dark of the Moon. Only now, as we rewrite it, are we understanding that the theme is every person’s search for home. For Louis, it was literally going back to the southern town where he was born and then understanding that it wasn’t “home” at all. The entire series now has a theme — Louis, a man who has walked uneasily in two racial worlds — trying to find his spiritual home.

I know you’re tempted to dismiss theme as mere enhancement. Le cerise sur la gateau, as the French say. But it’s essential. Try this experiment: Write the back copy for your work in progress — three paragraphs at most. Ha! Can’t do it? Well, you might not have a grip on what your story is about at its heart. Now often your theme doesn’t show itself until you’re well into your plot. Well, that’s okay. But when it begins to whisper, listen hard. Good fiction, Stephen King says, “always begins with story and progresses to theme.”

Eyes open, crime dogs.

What type of writer and reader are you?

Back in 2015, I was chatting with a dear writer friend, Paul Dale Anderson, about the different types of writers and readers.

If you’re a new writer searching for your voice, understanding which classification you fall into might help. Professional writers should also find this interesting.

Some of you may be familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Though many call it junk science, most agree with the basic theory behind it: Our brains process information through one of our five senses. Though some rare individuals favor their sense of taste or smell (usually together, and these people are often chefs or perfumers), for most of us, it comes down to either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

Kinesthetic links the process of learning to physical activity. Meaning, kinesthetic people can read or listen to instructions, but deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Obviously, this doesn’t mean kinesthetic readers need to act out the plot — though that’d be cool to watch! — they better absorb the storyline when it relates to experiences and actions.

Clear as mud? Cool. Moving on…

Paul Dale Anderson authored 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He earned graduate degrees in Educational Psychology, taught college-level Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), and earned an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. He also taught creative writing for Writers Digest School (both Novel and Short Story) and for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paul was also a Certified Hypnotist and National Guild of Hypnotists Certified Instructor.

Sadly, the writing community lost our dear friend Paul on December 13, 2018. You can still plant a tree in his honor here, which I just discovered. Seems fitting for such a kind and generous soul. Anyway…

What he shared with me in 2015 is pure gold. And today, I’ll share it with you. The italicized paragraphs below are Paul’s words, not mine.

Even from beyond the grave, his knowledge and expertise still dazzles…

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information.

Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see.

The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory.

The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.

That last line is a killer, right? No pressure. LOL

I fall into the auditory category, both as a writer and a reader. I write with headphones on, but the music becomes white noise that narrows my focus, transporting me into my story worlds. My first drafts consist of mainly dialogue with no tags and minimal narrative and description. After I gain critical distance, I’ll add sensory details and other enhancements.

As an auditory reader, I can’t listen to audiobooks. I need to read the words to hear the story rhythm. Audiobooks rob me of that.

Paul told us readers fall into the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic categories. For fun, let’s look at reading subcategories as well.

  • Motor reader: These readers tend to move their lips and may even mimic speech with their tongues and vocal cords when reading. Their reading range is very slow (150 to 200 words per minute) because they must read word-by-word at the rate they speak.
  • Auditory reader: These readers vocalize minimally or not at all, but they do silently say and/or  hear the words. They read in the 200 to 400 words-per-minute range. Auditory readers are skillful readers with vocabularies large enough that they can quickly recognize words.
  • Visual reader: These readers engage their eyes and minds when they read, but not their mouths, throats, or ears. They can read many words at once because they read ideas, not individual words. They read at a rate of 400+ words per minute.

If we believe Paul, with all his experience and degrees, most people fall into the auditory reader category. If your sentences don’t sing, the auditory reader may DNF your book. We also can’t forget about the visual or kinesthetic reader. Striking the perfect balance for all three can wrench a writer’s stomach, but it’s a goal worth shooting for.

What type of writer are you? What type of reader are you? If you’re an auditory reader, do you enjoy audiobooks? Or can you only hear the story rhythm by reading the actual words?