Long Distance Death

By Joe Moore

Dear friends and blogmates. Today I am retiring as a regular TKZ blogger. After 8 years of posting writing advice and tips, I have run out of things to say—you now know as much as I do about the mysterious black art of writing novels. It’s been a good run. I’m happy to announce that my friend and TKZ emeritus, John Gilstrap, will be returning to take over my slot every other Wednesday. John is a great thriller author with tons of advice and insight to share with all the Zoners out there. I wish John success and I thank all of you for the kind words over the years. Keep writing and keep coming to TKZ.


I’ve killed a lot of people. I’ve shot down a fully loaded commercial airliner, set Moscow on fire, infected thousands with an ancient retrovirus, massacred an archeological dig team in the Peruvian Andes, assassinated a Venatori agent, killed a senior cardinal along with a Vatican diplomatic delegation, murdered the British royal family, and even brought down the International Space Station. I know I’m responsible for more deaths–I just can’t remember them all.

So I confess, I’m a killer.

It’s not always easy. Some of these people I really cared about. The dig team members were likable folks except for the chief archeologist who got on my nerves. I didn’t mind seeing him bite the dust. I really grew to like the Venatori agent, but he wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do, so he “slipped in the shower”. And the British Royals? Well, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But being a killer comes with the territory when writing suspense thrillers.

In real life, death is serious. Whether it’s by natural causes or violence, it’s not to be taken lightly. If the deceased is a loved one or friend, the emotional impact can be staggering, even debilitating.

But there’s a different level of death that we all come in contact with every day that rarely causes us a second thought: Long distance death.

Several hundred passengers drown in a ferry accident off the coast of India. Thousands are trapped in an earthquake in China. Millions starve in Darfur. A Russian jet crashes and kills all on board.

Do we care? Of course we do, but unless those victims were family or friends–unless we have an emotional connection with them–we only care for as long as it takes to turn the page of the morning paper or switch channels.

In developing our main fictional characters, it’s vital that the reader care about them enough to show emotion. Whether they’re heroes or villains, the reader must love or hate them. Neutral is no good.

And that’s a problem I see all too often in books, movies and TV shows. Sometimes I just give up reading or watching because I don’t care enough to care. The characters may be interesting but they get buried in the plot (or CGI effects) to the point that it doesn’t matter to me if they win or lose, live or die. And that’s the kiss of death for a writer. The wheels come off the story and the book winds up in the ditch.

I utilize long distant deaths in my books because I write high concept thrillers that span the globe–what some have called telescope stories rather than microscope stories. I need long distance deaths to support the big threat. But when it comes to the main characters, they better be worth caring about or the wheels just might come off.

Eat, Drink, Read

The only advice I can give to aspiring writers is don’t do it unless you’re willing to give your whole life to it. Red wine and garlic also helps. — Jim Harrison

By PJ Parrish

Yesterday was perfect. I am visiting my sister Kelly up in northern Michigan for three months, in a land of cherry orchards, turquoise bays, rolling vineyards, and prehistoric sand dunes that rise out of Lake Michigan like giant tawny bears.


My day started at the Breakaway Café, with strong coffee, a cherry scone, and the Times crossword. It ended on the patio with a glass of Cabernet Franc from the local Black Star winery and a copy of Jim Harrison’s novel The Beast God Forgot to Invent.

When in Rome, eat the local food, drink the local wine. When in Rome, read about where you are.

I love to travel. I love to read. And it has been my habit to try to read a novel set in whatever place I am visiting. My very first venture from home was to San Francisco way back in 1969, and along the way I read Frank Norris’s 1899 novel about the murderous dentist McTeague. On subsequent trips, I’ve gone through nearly every great San Francisco novel, including Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which contains this passage:

It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time.


My first trip to Paris in 1985 was with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast as my guidebook. It was a cold spring and I was renting a fifth-floor apartment behind the Pantheon, and I think Hemingway and I frequented the same café:

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. You would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. It was a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness.

On another trip to Paris, I slogged through The DaVinci Code, but that was fun only because of all the mistakes Dan Brown made. I mean, dude, you head south from Sacre Coeur to cross the Seine, not north.


On a three-week road trip through the French countryside,  I was able to visit Nantes by reading Madame Bovary. And when I went to India for my nephew’s wedding, I probably should have taken Forster’s Passage to India,  but I punked out and opted for The Life of Pi and, for some strange reason lost to me, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Oddly, McCarthy’s book ended up feeling more attuned to Chennai, where gaunt cows played chicken with cars in the dusty roads, the air felt too thick to take into my lungs, and humans pressed so close it felt as if we were all at the edge of the tired world with no where left to go but down.

VancouverWhen I took a trip to Vancouver, I couldn’t find a good local novel. But in the Paper Hound bookstore on Pender Street, a clerk sold me a copy of Vancouver, by David Cruise and Allison Griffiths. These interconnected short stories had a Michener-esque sweep that captured the city and its history so well I left it in our rental for the next tenant with a note “better than that guidebook you brought.”

Then there was Italy. Again, I should have gone with Forster (A Room With a View is one of my favorite movies.) But I was writing mysteries by then, so it was Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a great book, but Ripley is so indelible, Italy can never really compete. But because I got food poisoning in Lucca, I did go look up this one passage for you:

Tom had dinner that evening at a restaurant down on the water called Zi’ Teresa. He had a difficult time ordering, and he found himself with a first course of miniature octopuses, as virulently purple as if they had been cooked in the ink in which the menu had been written.


If you are going to Italy, especially the Cinque Terre, I recommend you take Jess Walter’s wonderful novel The Beautiful Ruins. It’s a social satire about ’60s Hollywood but oh, those descriptions of the “rumor of a town” clinging to the cliffs above the Ligurian Sea.

A tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel and the town’s only commercial interest – the tiny hotel and café owned by Pasquale’s family – all huddled like a herd of sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs.

But then here is this: I was born and raised in Michigan. So how it is then that I have missed Michigan’s own Jim Harrison?


Harrison in photo from his New York Times obit

My friend Phillip, of Tupelo Mississippi, had to be the one to introduce us. Maybe it takes one good ol’ boy to know another.

Phillip gave me The Beast God Forgot to Invent just after Harrison died last March. In his 78 years, Harrison produced 21 novels, 14 books of poetry, a children’s book and a memoir. He was best known for his novella “Legends of the Fall,” which was turned into a not-awful Brad Pitt movie.

Harrison is not famous in the usual sense, though for some odd reason he’s a cult figure in France, maybe because he wrote well about food, including his account of flying to France for the sole purpose of having a lunch that lasted 11 hours, 37 courses and 19 wines. He was a man of huge appetite. His work -– what little I have read so far — is vivid, lusty, darkly comic, oft-lyric and unrepentantly violent. He writes about hunting, fishing, eating, drinking, smoking, screwing, mainly set in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He writes with a sort of hyper-masculine sensibility that might come off as corny if it weren’t so poignant, self-effacing, and even tender. Think Hemingway without pretentions.

I’m told he’s considered misogynistic. But Beast is one of his later books, so maybe he learned some lessons along the way. And in it he gives us some really strong women, who often get the best lines, including one from a woman complaining about life in Manhattan:

“There’s no nature in New York, and the closest you can get is an orgasm.”


We took a drive up into the Leelaunau Peninsula the other day. We stopped for tastings at vineyards, had lunch by a raging waterfall, and visited a rare book store, tucked around back of white clapboard house in the tiny village of Leland. The owner, an old guy who bore a passing resemblance to Jim Harrison, proudly showed me his shelf of Harrison first editions. I was sorely tempted, but $595 for “Legends of the Fall” was too rich for my blood. I’ll be seeking out a good trade paperback of that and the rest of those 20 other novels.

Maybe it’s best that I come to Harrison so late in my reading life. I have not lived here in Michigan since I left for Florida in 1973. Yet now, I am feeling a pull to this place that is very powerful. I think there is a part of me that needs to be reminded how beautiful this place is. How the birds, the sky, the smells, the food, even the variety in the color of the squirrels — it’s all unique here. Harrison’s book feels very real to me, like he is writing it only for me, explaining my soul-place to me, taking me deep into the dark woods and showing me things I have forgotten and, at this moment in my life, need to remember.

You can go home again. Sometimes, you have to. And it’s always best to go with a good guide.

Handling Reviews

An article in the New York Times last week got me thinking (again) about reviews (hey, I bet most authors have a small part of their brain devoted to the ever-present background angst about past or future reviews/criticism of their work). The article (which you can find clicking on this link) is an interview with the author Curtis Sittenfield on the thorny issue of how professional authors handle criticism.

Now we’ve all heard of the unfortunate instances where authors have directly responded to negative reviews or criticism – usually through an ill-advised rant on twitter or a hot-headed response on Goodreads or Amazon. If you’ve forgotten or unsure of what some authors have stooped to doing, I recommend reading some of The Guardian’s book blog posts on the matter (see: how not to handle reviews; how not to respond to a bad review for example).

Curtis Sittenfield provides a useful quadrant tool that many authors could use. Basically she divides up reviews into four quadrants: smart and positive (definitely read!); smart and negative (still read); dumb and positive (read for the ego’s sake); and dumb and negative (do not read!). Many authors get into the greatest hot-water when they allow themselves to get embroiled in a debate over what they consider to be ‘dumb and negative’ reviews. Now, maybe it’s too hard to resist the temptation to read these kind of reviews but it’s up to every professional author worth their salt to resist the temptation to respond to them. You just can’t take it all so personally (being a professional writer means recognizing this is a business after all). As Curtis Sittenfield notes: ” I literally don’t think I’ve ever read a letter from a writer complaining about his or her negative review that made the writer look good. You’re better off just biting your tongue.”

Too true!

But, as Curtis goes on to point out, there are many instances in which harsh criticism can identify a real weakness in a book or an author’s approach to their material that, while humiliating, can all be part of the process of learning to be a better writer. Even in these instances though, the best response from a writer is no response at all. For Curtis, her nightmare reviewer is one who has an agenda that precludes them from responding sincerely to the book – and I think this is (again) where many authors come unstuck. There’s a lot of mean people on the internet who have their own agenda when it comes to reviewing a book or adding comments on a thread regarding someone’s work. Sometimes they are angry and bitter, sometimes they may be jealous, sometimes they want to indulge in a personal attack just for the hell of it (some are just plain trolls after all). But there can be nothing gained from responding to a scathing comment or a harsh review regardless of the reviewer’s real (or imagined) motive. Anyone who’s been on Facebook or other social media recently can attest to the fact that you are never going to change someone’s mind through an ill-advised post, comment or flamewar!

As professional author, how should we behave when it comes to the question of negative reviews or criticism (no matter whether they fall in the ‘smart and negative’ or the ‘dumb and negative’ quadrant)? By biding our time, biting our tongue, retaining our dignity and ignoring them (maybe the ‘smart and negative’ can inform our development as better writers but even so, that doesn’t mean anyone has to know this!).

So what do you think TKZers, how should authors approach the issue of reviews and criticism? As  a writer do you also review books and if so, how do you approach the issue from the other side? What are your expectations as to how an author should (or should not) respond? And if you have any horror stories from the tenches  feel free to share (hey, it might be be cathartic!)…


The Night I Met Ray Bradbury

by James Scott Bell

Author-Ray-Bradbury-dies-8H1K9JO0-x-largeOur Reader Friday this week paid tribute to the late, great Ray Bradbury. He lived in L.A. so I got to hear him speak on a number of occasions. One time I got to meet him.

This was back when I was an unpublished writer unsure if I had the goods. Two books that had helped me keep my hopes up were Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

Bradbury was set to speak at the Woodland Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, the very branch I grew up in. I couldn’t wait. I’d gobbled up The Illustrated Man in junior high school, and it was one of those transcendent reading experiences you get only once in a great while. This collection of stories is a glorious imagination on fire. It certainly turned up the heat on my own nascent desire to someday write stories myself.

So I took my well-thumbed and underlined copy of Zen to the library and settled in with a packed room. Bradbury arrived, walking slowly and wearing his white hair long and a bit wild. His hair was a metaphor for his writing approach––let it go, untamed, and put off a neat cut for as long as possible. “Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow,” Bradbury wrote in Zen. “But today––explode––fly apart––disintegrate!”

Bradbury spoke about his love of libraries, and it was great to hear from his own lips the well-known tale of how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library. (You can hear the man himself tell that story here.)

Then he talked about writing, and I took notes. Here they are:

  • Do word associations, as a way of letting your subconscious tell you what is inside you.
  • Creating is NOT about fame, NOT about money. It’s about having fun.
  • Just do it.
  • Writing every day for 57 years. That wasn’t work. That was fun!
  • The intellectuals want us to believe it’s no good unless it’s tortured. The hell with that!
  • Do what you love. Let it out into the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some money. But if you don’t, do it anyway.
  • “I work for free. I haven’t made any money on any of my plays. But I love theatre. And I put up productions around town. And when I see the actors who’ve been in them on the street, we embrace, because we did what we loved and we had this experience together. For free. All the money went to my actors.”
  • Don’t think while you’re doing it. Think after it’s done.
  • He uses no outlines. He wakes up in the morning and lays in bed until his characters, his voices, compel him to “scramble to the typer” and record them before they get away.

He signed books after his talk, so I stood in line with my treasured copy of Zen. I introduced myself and we shook hands.

“Are you a writer?” he asked.

I quoted from the book: “‘Stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.'”

He laughed and said, “Oh, you must!”

I asked him if he set himself a daily quota, and he said, “I let my love determine how much I write.”

“Ah, so you fall in love daily?”

“That’s right.”

He signed my book. “Do you write every day?” he asked.

“Five days a week,” I said. “Weekends are for my family.”

He laughed again. “That’s the way to do it!”

He offered his hand once more and said, “God bless you.”

And off I went into the night, feeling blessed indeed for having had the chance to chat with one of the legends of our literature –– Ray Bradbury, American original.

Have you had the chance to talk to an author you admire? Who would be at the top of your list of writers you’d love to meet?

Lost Volumes, Missing Pages

storm over louisiana

Photo: Storm over Louisiana by Joe Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

(Note: Before we get into today’s post…I am writing this while sitting in a very nice, dry place, probably somewhat similar to where you are reading it. Over 100,000 households were destroyed in the Baton Rouge area last week leaving people without nice, dry places to do anything. The area needs contractors, money, and building and cleaning supplies. It will be YEARS before the area recovers, and it might never recover totally. IF you can help, please do so: http://www.samaritanspurse.com; also, Billy Graham Ministries has sent a rapid response team to the area: https://billygraham.org/what-we-do/evangelism-outreach/rapid-response-team/about/.) Thank you.

What follows will no doubt seem depressing, though I don’t mean it to be. I’ll bookend what I’m about to tell you with the proposition that we should each and all count our blessings and not waste one moment of one day. Each minute counts. Things as we age will eventually get worse or they’ll get over. It’s just how life works. Live in the now and enjoy it.

I returned to New Orleans this week after an absence of about three years. I’m attending a legal seminar that is held annually and visiting my many friends here, some of whom attend the seminar and others who reside here. Many are in the process, alas, of leaving the building. The change, which seems more dramatic after having not seen them for nigh on three years, is sudden. One, a goodhearted guy who jousts tirelessly at windmills and is often unappreciated by those he champions, has skin cancer which continues to advance despite painful surgeries. Another has had two strokes which have left him debilitated but nonetheless cheerful. A third, a woman who means well but who has suffered from a lifetime of impulsive choices, has succumbed yet again to addiction.

The saddest, however, is a friend in nearby Baton Rouge who has experienced a sudden onset and subsequent rapid decline secondary to Alzheimer’s Disease. His twin brother died with the condition in December of last year. My friend said to me then, “Gee, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.” He started slipping away in April. I visited with him at his home and then drove him around Baton Rouge, where he has lived all of his life. He pointed out many familiar landmarks but couldn’t remember the restaurant where he had eaten lunch several times a week before he had to stop driving. He’s an author who at one point co-owned a publishing company and was a mover and shaker in state politics. He had a million stories, including one where I accidentally almost got both of us arrested during a visit to the state capitol building. A conversation with him now jumps and drops and skips. I listened to him and thought of pages missing from a book, library volumes lent and never returned, with only gaps in the shelves to mark their presence. His decline is such that when I come back in three weeks he may no longer recognize me or otherwise remember me. That’s not a big deal, in the general scheme of things, but it marks a deterioration for him (even though he is only somewhat aware of it) and for his family. The term “tragic” doesn’t quite cover the extent of it.

So, that bookend: let us each and all count our blessings and not waste one moment of one day. Each minute counts. Things as we age will eventually get worse or they’ll get over. It’s just how life works. Live in the now and enjoy it.

I will be unavailable for most of the day today but will attempt to respond to comments intermittently or later. Enjoy yourselves. And visit someone you haven’t seen for a while, or with whom you’ve lost touch. You don’t know how much longer you’ll have them. Time, alas, is short and the sand runs ever more quickly through the hourglass.



Use Your Writing, Editing, or Reading Skills to Make a Difference in the World

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E-book is 99 cents today!

By Jodie Renner, Editor, Author, and TKZ Emeritus 

Have you thought about using your skills to help the less fortunate? Here’s a project I decided to try, and an easy way that you can help, too, if you’re interested.

I’ve been a freelance editor since 2007, when I retired early from a career as middle-school teacher and school librarian. Over the nine years since, I’ve continually increased my editing skills, and about a year and a half ago, I started thinking about how I could use those skills to give back, to help victimized people in the world, especially children.

I was doing a Google search when I came across the true story of a young Pakistani slave worker who was murdered for daring to protest against the inhumane conditions of Asian child laborers.

In 1986, when Iqbal Masih was four years old, his father sold him to a carpet weaver for $12. Iqbal became a slave, a bonded worker who could never make enough money to buy his freedom. In that carpet factory in Pakistan, this preschool-age boy began a grueling existence much like that of hundreds of thousands of children in other carpet factories in Pakistan, India, and Nepal. He was set to weaving rugs and tying tiny knots for more than twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with meager food and poor sleeping conditions, while being constantly beaten and verbally abused.

Six years later, at the age of ten, Iqbal managed to escape and was fortunate to be able to attend a school for freed bonded children, where he was a bright and energetic student. Iqbal began to speak out against child labor. His dream for the future was to become a lawyer, so he could continue to fight for freedom on behalf of Pakistan’s seven and a half million illegally enslaved children. One day, while riding his bicycle with his friends, Iqbal was shot and killed. He was twelve years old. It is widely thought he was killed by factory owners for trying to change the system.

Even though Iqbal’s story is over two decades old, conditions haven’t changed much for impoverished children in developing countries since then, as I found out through more research.Even today, throughout Asia and elsewhere, children as young as four or five are routinely forced to work seven days a week, for twelve to sixteen hours each day, in factories, quarries, rice mills, plantations, mines, and other industries, many of them hazardous, often with only two small meals a day. Most are not allowed out, and they often sleep right where they work. When inspectors come, the children are quickly hidden or told to lie about their age.

Not only are these children denied a childhood and schooling, so most are illiterate, but they very often end up with crippling injuries, respiratory disorders, and chronic pain.

I decided to use my background as teacher of children aged 10 to 14 to organize an anthology of stories aimed at that age group, in hopes that librarians, teachers, and students could influence others to take action. All net proceeds would go directly to a charity that works to help these children regain their childhood and a much better future.

As it would be too difficult to find or write true stories about any of these children, I decided that the best approach would be to organize a variety of well-researched, compelling fictional stories that would appeal to readers from age 12 and up.

To find writers, I called for submissions through my blog, Facebook, and emails. I was extremely lucky that one of the first people I contacted was Steve Hooley, whom I’d first met through TKZ, then in person while presenting at a conference organized by Steven James in Nashville. Steve is an active member of the TKZ community, a talented writer, and an all-around awesome guy! He helped get the word out to others, including the ACFW. Steve also researched and wrote three fabulous stories for the anthology, depicting South Asian child workers in different situations – a 9-year-old boy who works in a carpet factory, a 12-year-old welder who comes up with an ingenious plan, and a girl who works in a clothing factory that collapses.

Story ideas came in from writers across North America and also from Europe, Australia, and India. Caroline Sciriha from Malta, an educator for whom I was editing a story, got on board early on and contributed two stories and has helped spread the word to educators in Europe. Both Caroline and Steve also acted as valued beta readers for stories from other contributors, helping me decide which to accept and which needed revisions. Steve also talked The Kill Zone’s Joe Hartlaub into reading and reviewing the anthology. TKZ founder Kathryn Lilley was also kind enough to read the stories and write an endorsement.

I was thrilled by the quality of stories submitted by talented  writers from all over. Other story contributors include Tom Combs, MD, thriller author, also a regular reader/commenter here at TKZ, and award-winning international journalist Peter Eichstaedt, whose contribution is based on true events he encountered. We were also fortunate to entice prolific, talented author Timothy Hallinan to write a powerful Foreword to the book.

Other talented contributing writers not already mentioned above: Lori Duffy Foster, Barbara Hawley, D. Ansing, Kym McNabney, Edward Branley, Fern G.Z. Carr, Eileen Hopkins, Sanjay Deshmukh, Della Barrett, E.M. Eastick, Rayne Kaa Hedberg, Patricia Anne Elford, Hazel Bennett, Sarah Hausman, and myself.

My challenges as organizer and editor included helping with research to make sure the stories depicted real situations in a broad cross-section of labor sectors where children are used as slave workers. And, for the stories to get widely read, I needed to make sure that, although true to life, they weren’t all depressing. The talented writers created characters that came to life and found a variety of realistic ways to insert hope into each story.

The stories needed to be evaluated and edited, with versions going back and forth several times. The contributors, besides having an opportunity to be published in a high-quality anthology, all gained by working with a professional editor and receiving advice that would improve their writing skills in general. Our dedicated, talented beta readers included other contributors and volunteer readers from South Asia.

Surprisingly, one of my most difficult tasks was to find a charity that would allow us to use their name on the book in exchange for donating all net proceeds to their cause. Having a specific, respected charity on board of course increases credibility and sales. Many charities, such as GoodWeave.org, replied that they just didn’t have the personnel to read the book carefully to make sure the children’s stories were handled appropriately and sensitively. Fortunately, we were finally accepted by SOS Children’s Villages, a highly reputable charity that helps impoverished and disadvantaged children all over the world.

As a writer, submitting to an anthology, besides an opportunity to work with an editor to polish your writing and get a story published, can also broaden the scope of your writing, let you experiment with different voices, and, in the case of an anthology for a good cause, provide you with a great way to make a difference in the world.

A little about this project:

Childhood RegainedStories of Hope for Asian Child Workers aims to bring to life some of the situations children in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh still face today, in 2016. The captivating, touching stories, each told from one child’s point of view, depict situations for children and young teenagers in garment factories, stone quarries, brickyards, jewelry factories, carpet factories, farms, mines, welding, the service industry, hotels, street vending, sifting through garbage, and other situations. The book also includes several appendices, including factual information on each topic and story questions and answers, as well as lists of organizations that help these victimized kids to regain their childhood.

How you can help child laborers in developing countries: Spread the word about this anthology, especially to teachers of 11- to 14-year-olds and school librarians. I’ll be glad to send a free PDF or e-copy of this book to any interested middle-grade or junior high school teachers, other educators, or librarians. I’ll also send out free sample print copies to educators and librarians in North America. Please have them contact me at: info@JodieRenner.com. We’re in the process of creating a MIDDLE SCHOOL EDITION, so we especially welcome feedback from middle-grade teachers. Thanks for your help!

For more information on Childhood RegainedStories of Hope for Asian Child Workers, go to its page on my website or on Amazon. The e-book is ON SALE for $0.99 today through Monday.

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

Permission To Make A Mess



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Animas, Kappas, and Crow Mothers, Oh My!


By Kathryn Lilley

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

A Case of Self-Publishing PTSD

By Larry Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when the crazy began.

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

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

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

And then it all went South.

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

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

That’s when the anxiety really kicked in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google didn’t help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same outcome. Pass the Tums.

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

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

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

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


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

Wasn’t gonna happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninety-five more changes were required.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’d think this was over. It wasn’t.

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

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

They were.

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

So the book is done.

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

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

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

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

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

At least I’ve written something that matters.

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

Your book is worth it, after all.


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

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

Or, your bookseller can order you a copy.

Chasing Bliss FRONT cover final jpeg (2)