Dear Diary…

The last time I kept a personal diary I was twelve years old. Since then I’ve kept various travel journals documenting trips and stays overseas, but I’ve never revisited the idea of keeping a personal diary. I know many writing teachers advise aspiring writers to keep a journal but, to be honest, I’ve never been very good at documenting the day-to-day. Recently, due to some health issues, my doctor said that it might be a good idea to journal but my immediate thought was ‘I’d much rather kill people off in a novel’…so obviously, for me, fiction is far more cathartic than diary entries!

In yesterday’s NYT Book Review there was an article about the German novelist, Christa Wolf, who kept a diary over 50 years recording the events of only one day each year – September 27th (the link to the article is here). Apparently she kept this diary until her death in 2011, jotting down everything she did and everyone she saw (even everything she ate) on that day. From the article, it sounds like she was a careful diarist rather than a confiding one – giving plenty of detail on the day, and some deep commentary on the meaning of time, but less in the way of sharing her innermost thoughts or emotions.

I’ve often wondered about writers who keep detailed journals or diaries and how they tackle the delicate balance of writing for themselves as well as writing in a medium that might ultimately be made public (especially if they become famous). I certainly admire anyone who has the discipline to keep a diary/journal as well as their other writing. I  would find maintaining a personal diary challenging – in part, because, I’d always feel a constraining hand, as if someone was reading the entries over my shoulder. I think I would censor my entries or indulge in creating a ‘fictionalized’ account of my life rather than being open and honest (this may also be why I find it hard to write anything in public areas like coffee shops – I need to have the absence of ‘others’ in order to write).

So TKZers, do any of you write a personal diary or journal on a regular basis? If so, how do you maintain the momentum for this? Do you censor or hold yourself back in any way? Do you find it helps your fiction writing? If, like me, you don’t write a journal or diary, why not?

The Great American Novel That Wasn’t

by James Scott Bell

The 1950s was a robust decade for American letters. The letter B had a particularly good run.

In the other kind of letters—literature—there were two tracks that fed a voracious reading public: the mass market paperback, and the middlebrow-Book-of-the-Month-Club-style hardback.

With paperbacks, dozens of writers made good money writing crime, Westerns, mysteries, Sci-Fi, etc. Most covers were salacious, for these were marketed as impulse buys on wire spinners in drug stores, bus stations, and truck stops. Real bookstores did not carry titles like these:

Ignoring the paperback original neighborhoods, the literati were about hardcovers and reviews in the New York Times. This was where the “important” novels were to be found. Perhaps even that white whale, The Great American Novel.

Those who put themselves in the running for this prize were authors like Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, John Steinbeck, Ayn Rand, John O’Hara, Irwin Shaw. And one of the ways they measured the potential was pure, raw page count. These authors put out doorstops. Some of the pantagruelian publications—like East of Eden, Marjorie Morningstar and Atlas Shrugged—were big bestsellers. Others, however, no so much.

Perhaps the biggest flopperoo of all weighed in at a staggering 1,230 pages—the longest novel published by an American author to that date (1957). It was Some Came Running by James Jones, a novel that took six years to write and was absolutely savaged by the critics.

Jones was, of course, the author of another big book that was a smash success as both novel and movie: From Here to Eternity. It was his first novel, too, which put enormous pressure on him to produce a fitting follow-up. Didn’t happen. A sense of the critics may be found in a clip from one of the reviews:

From Here to Eternity was both moving and comic because of the herculean efforts of its hero to fight the System; Some Came Running fails because the hero’s resistance to the system has now been elevated into a philosophical principle. Jones’s new determination to lay down doctrine is doubtless due to his inflated sense of his role as a novelist, a result of his first success.

Because of Eternity, the movie rights to Some Came Running were gobbled up by MGM well before the book came out. I wonder what the boss at MGM, Joe Vogel, thought when he read the novel … or at least looked at it sitting on his desk.

Fortunately, the project was given to Vincente Minnelli and turned into a commercial hit. It starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, and Martha Hyer. A highly abridged paperback (!) was released to go along with the movie.

The book soon fell out of print. But in the new digital age is has been brought back by Open Road Media.

I read it. At least most of it. Well, maybe 75% of it, because I did a lot of skimming starting around page 500. What went wrong with this novel? For me, the following:

First, Jones made an odd stylistic choice to eschew apostrophes in the conjunctions. So you get lines like this through the whole novel:

“Ill probably never get another chance,” Dave had said, “but if I did, I still dont think Id take it.”

Second, about 85% of the book is narrative summary. In other words, the great majority of the novel is not presented in immediate scenes, given beat by beat on the page. Rather, we get page after page of the author telling us what happened.

The biggest problem, though, is that I didn’t bond with any of the characters. The protagonist, Dave Hirsh, is a novelist and war vet (a thinly-veiled James Jones) returning to his home town after nineteen years. He finds it hard to write, but not to drink. And brood. That wasn’t enough for me.

The movie succeeds, in my opinion, mainly because of Shirley MacLaine as Ginnie. In the book, Ginnie is a “floozy” who falls for Dave. Dave marries her only because the other woman, the virginal Gwen, rejects him. Ginnie does not wear well on Dave, who is let out of the marriage …


… by getting murdered at the end of the novel.


MacLaine, on the other hand, earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. She’s wonderful and heartbreaking, especially in the final scene (quite different from the book).

So what’s the point of all this ruminating on a novel from the 1950s? Let’s see if I can figure it out:

  1. It doesn’t matter how many pages a novel has, without character bonding there’s no reason to read them.
  2. “Show, Don’t Tell” is a fundamental (rule?) for a reason.
  3. Every author needs a good editor (note: see the unedited, author’s version of The Stand).
  4. Still, you have to admire James Jones. He had the nearly impossible task of following From Here to Eternity. The sheer effort in writing Some Came Running is something only another writer will understand. All authors write books that don’t make it, but few take six years to do so. Credit James Jones with the grit to keep on writing, eventually producing two other books in his war trilogy that will stand the test of time—The Thin Red Line and Whistle. All three are now available in one set from Open Road.
  5. The writing life is one of highs and lows, with a few sprinkled in-betweens.

So how are you dealing with the highs and lows?

NOTE: I wrote a book about such dealings if you’d care to have a look.

Playing It by Ear

Photo by Dragne Marius courtesy

I am going to be uncharacteristically brief today. I experienced two weeks ago the return of what seems to be a chronic viral ear infection which causes me 1) occasional balance problems 2) frequent hearing difficulties and 3) sudden sharp pains in my left ear. With regard to 3), I thought that the etiology might be my guardian angel jabbing me when I had impure thoughts, but then I realized that a) I would be getting jabbed every thirty seconds and b) it still wouldn’t stop me. I’m accordingly chalking the pain up to the physical problem. I get along just fine, except for having occasional periods when I can’t drive; difficulty listening to music; and perceptual difficulties. I call myself GE: sixty “whats” per conversation.

All of this will go away eventually (and, alas, return) as it has in the past, but the problem is that my concentration is shot at the moment. I as a result don’t really have a topic to write about today. I am accordingly asking you, our loyal TKZers who visit us (and me every other Saturday): what would you like us at TKZ to write about? You can name more than one topic. I just ask that you be specific as possible. We try to cover a wide range of things here but there is always a chance that we’re missing something that folks would like to read about and then discuss. I can’t guarantee that one of us will cover something that you mention, but we’ll certainly think about it. Let us know. Thank you for filling the void today.

Reader Friday: Drunk on Writing

Photo by Alan Light via Wikimedia Commons


“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”  – Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Do you agree with Ray? Do you ever feel like the act of writing itself is good, or even crucial, for you?

KINDLE SCOUT –Amazon’s Kindle Scout program will cease as of 4/3/18

By Debbie Burke

Kindle Scout is Amazon’s innovative program where readers “scout” for new books and vote for ones they believe should be published. Back in April, I covered the basics of Scout for TKZ. Since then, I submitted my thriller Instrument of the Devil and went through my own 30-day campaign. Today, let’s open the Scout door and take a tour inside.

To submit to Scout, Amazon requires a cover (at author’s expense), a complete, never-before-published, edited manuscript of 50+K words, a 45-character one-liner (logline), a 500-character book description, author bio, and a thank-you note to readers who nominated the book (more on this later).

After Scout accepts the submission, they select the dates for the 30-day campaign, and provide a link that shows the preview exactly as it will appear on the Scout site. The first 25 or so pages of the book are excerpted as a sample for readers to vote on.

The contest is ongoing, with new entries appearing each day. At any given time, more than 150 books are in various stages of their campaigns. Categories include: literature/fiction, mystery/thriller/suspense, romance, sci-fi/fantasy, and teen/young adult.

Entries are further classified as “Hot and Trending,” “Recently Added,” and “Ending Soon.”

Readers love FREE. Amazon rewards anyone who nominates a Scout entry that’s selected for publication with a FREE eBook.

The hardest part for many authors, who are often averse to self-promotion, is what I call begging for votes. It’s a tough balance to strike, asking people to nominate your novel without sounding cheesy. You’re requesting a favor, but fortunately you’re able to offer something in return—a free book.

Publicity drives your campaign, using social media like Facebook and Twitter, business cards and bookmarks printed with your Scout link, and direct emails. My email list started with 130+ names, which I divided into different categories, each receiving a different message tailored to that particular group.

First tier consisted of close writing associates, critique buddies and beta readers who’d been intimately involved with the book’s creation. All previously promised support, so asking them to nominate and share on social media was easy, and they came through like true friends.

Second Tier listed other writers, people I’d met at conferences or had interviewed for articles, and business acquaintances. Their note specifically addressed our mutual writing interest and asked them to take a peek at the excerpt.

Third Tier were friends who don’t write—and who think writers are a pretty weird bunch! That was the trickiest email to craft. Mass mailings can be mistaken for spam or scam, especially to people with whom contact is infrequent. In fact, my college roommate wrote back, asking, “Is this email really from you?” because the IT guy at her job warned her about clicking on an unknown link. We wound up having a nice catch-up conversation by phone.

After I sent out 130+ emails, friends responded with terrific support. Instrument of the Devil hit “Hot and Trending” (H&T) off and on during the first six days.

Scout provides statistics you can access privately (not accessible to others) that count how many views your entry has received. However, views are not the same as nominations, and Amazon doesn’t reveal the number of nominations. The stats are further broken down by how many hours in H&T, number of views from internal links (the Scout site) compared to external links (social media, your website, other websites, etc.), plus how many hits from each source. The stats are updated daily, while H&T updates approximately hourly.

Facebook generated more than half the views from external sources. I’m not even on FB, but after seeing these results, I’ll be joining!


Click on picture to open




That loud smack you heard were my stats hitting the wall. After the initial rush of 200-300 views per day, they dropped to six on one day, nine the next, with a high of 19 that second week. Zero time in H&T. Underwhelming and discouraging.3

Kboards are online discussion groups specifically focused on publishing through Kindle. At this low point, I dug deep in Kboards, especially one thread devoted to Scout experiences and requests for nominations.

Many Scout entries come from multi-published authors with substantial backlists. They discovered Scout is a great no cost launching pad for a new book. Some authors don’t even care if their book is chosen because they parlay reader views into a larger customer base when they publish it themselves.

That’s the philosophy of Lincoln Cole, previous Scout winner and author of the indispensable Kindle Scout Guide, as well as an excellent vetted list of marketing resources. With 12 books published, and refined promotional skills, his most recent Scout entry garnered more than 11,000 views with over 90% of the time on H&T. When the book wasn’t selected, Kboard members were stunned.

Although Amazon describes Scout as “reader-powered publishing,” great stats are not the only factor that determines if a book is chosen or not, as Lincoln’s experience demonstrates. But the reasoning behind their editorial choices remains mysterious.

Nevertheless, Lincoln shrugged off the rejection and plans to launch The Everett Exorcism himself on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), fortified by his thank-you note.

At the end of the Scout campaign, the note you’d submitted with your entry is sent to everyone who nominated the book, win or lose. If it’s chosen, they receive a free copy. If it’s not chosen, Amazon still sends nominators a notice when the book goes on sale through KDP.

Lincoln takes that one step further. His thank-you note promises a free book, win or lose, if readers sign up at his website. He understands a large email subscription list is vital to authors, who use it to keep in touch with fans, make special offers, and announce new releases. Plus readers who discover him on Scout may also buy from his backlist. This guy knows how to maximize marketing.

Since my own website subscription list was at the high one-figure level, I rewrote my thank-you note, making the same free-book offer, and resubmitted it to Scout. Considering the dismal second-week stats, I prepared to self-publish Instrument of the Devil on KDP.

Those words of wisdom came from Scout veteran Julianne Q. Johnson, whose fifth entry Ghost in the Park is now up for nominations. Cash-strapped authors are understandably reluctant to front money on advertising, particularly for books they’re giving away.

According to Julianne, “Stats don’t get you selected, but better numbers get you much more attention when you launch it yourself.” She invested only $15 in her last campaign, generating a respectable 3800 views and 90+% of the time on H&T. Although not selected by Scout, Nick of Time is her highest ranked book so far, with thousands of page views on Kindle Unlimited (a subscription program that pays the author based on how many pages are read).

I consulted Lincoln’s list of marketing resources for promotions specifically tailored to Scout. My advertising budget totaled a whopping $40—$10 to boost a friend’s Facebook reach to 9800 readers, $20 on a one-day social media promo by Just Kindle Books, $10 to Author Shout for a 30-day newsletter campaign. All three delivered significant bumps in page views, but the best ROI came from Author Shout.

I re-contacted my email list, with a follow-up offer of the free eBook, win or lose. This also served as a subtle reminder to people who might have forgotten to nominate without bugging them. Friends responded positively and again shared on Facebook.

Meanwhile, back at Kboards, I contacted more Scout winners to learn about their experiences.

Jada Ryker’s mystery Take the Body and Run was published by Kindle Press in 2016. “Before Scout,” Jada says, “I was lucky to break even on cover and editing costs, let alone paid promotions. I’ve sold more copies of the KS winner than all my other books combined.” She adds, “Winning the contract tells me the book was good enough to stand out in a field of excellent offerings, and be chosen for publication. That feeling is priceless.”

William Bernhardt has over 40 published titles, with more than 10 million books sold, yet still entered Scout with his new novel, Justice Returns. Why? Bill’s answer: “I think Amazon Publishing is the best place to be today, and Kindle Scout was the quickest and agent-free way to get there. NYC publishers are not offering anything close to a 50% royalty. And I’m retaining most of my subsidiary rights.” Although Bill still pursues traditional contracts, he says, “More and more, Scout is attracting professionals who see it as a way to attract attention to their books and get them into the Amazon Publishing network quickly and without giving away a large percentage of their profits to an agent.”

The last eight days of the campaign gave me new hope. The book jumped into Hot & Trending and stayed there until the end.


Click on picture to open



The final tally was 3000+ views, far lower than many Scout submissions, but I was happy and had discovered tricks I planned to use when self-publishing the book on KDP. Then I learned…

Two days after my Scout campaign ended, at 10:30 on Saturday night, the email arrived.

Congratulations! Our readers have spoken, and your book Instrument of the Devil has been selected for publication.

Talk about gob-smacked!

Why did the unseen gods of Amazon smile on my book instead of any number of books with thousands more views? Danged if I know.

But I’m not about to argue. And I agree with Jada Ryker—that feeling is priceless!

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil is currently in production with Kindle Press. Check her website for the launch date.

Writer, Stretch Yourself (Like a Big Black Cat)


My own green-eyed black cat, Sylvie

I’m on summer vacation. No, I’m not taking any beach trips, darn it. I enjoyed a fun birthday/writing retreat in Nashville at the beginning of July, and spent the weekend of the 16th in Cincinnati with my parents for their 57th anniversary, instead of going to Thrillerfest. Mostly my vacation means I’m making only occasional excursions to social media, and I’ve given my daily blog a rest. Okay, the rest is really for me, not the blog. Oh, and I’ve been writing a novel.

Yes, that is what I do for work, too. But somehow writing this novel feels less like work and more like a summer enrichment project I might have worked on for fun when I was a kid. (One elementary summer I did a public television school math course where we had to order the workbook by mail, and I loved it. Geek much?)

For years I’ve wanted to write a cozy mystery. My existing novels are so far from being cozies that when I tell people of this desire, they give me looks that range from alarm to puzzlement. But for me, it’s just a matter of wanting to try something new. The novel I’m publishing with Mulholland Books next year, ONE LAST SECRET, is straight suspense, without any supernatural elements–and that is new for me. The cozy I’m working on is simply me trying another new thing.

Have you ever done a modeling writing exercise? I had a workshop teacher who often gave us exercises in which we would try to write in the style/voice of a famous writer: Flannery O’Connor, Dashiell Hammett, Hemingway. Hemingway was my favorite. We wrote as less distinctive writers, too. It’s an excellent exercise for emerging writers because it’s rather like walking in the shoes of the greats. Those shoes never fit, of course, but it’s as fun as being a four-year-old in Mom’s high heels. It’s useful, too. Developing one’s singular writing style takes a long time, and the exercise puts you immediately into the head of an established voice.

While I’m not particularly mystical, I have a strong belief in Things Happening For A Reason. So when my good writer friend, Carolyn Haines–who has written around 850,000 books and stories in the past few decades–said she was in search of writers to be a part of her new black cat detective mystery series, Familiar Legacy, featuring Trouble, the black cat detective, I said I’m in! before I’d even heard the details.

I mean, why not? I’d never written a black cat detective mystery, but I sure wanted to try.

The Trouble books have a familiar formula that includes girl meets boy, and a mystery-loving critter. Trouble the cat is the son of cat-hero detective, Familiar, who was the star of of Carolyn’s long-running Harlequin Intrigue book series, Fear Familiar. She rereleased many of the Fear Familiar books this spring, and launched her first Trouble novel, Familiar Troubleon July 10th. The second in the new series, Trouble in Dixie by Rebecca Barrett, comes out in August.

My first job was to come up with a synopsis, and a title. The synopsis blossomed into a detailed outline. For me, it was a very detailed outline. I usually write skeletal outlines for my own books, but I rarely know how the book will end before I start writing. Then there’s that messy middle bit. For Small Town Trouble I pretty much know every turn, from beginning to end. There have been a few changes as I write, but nothing too substantive. And they’ve enhanced and deepened the story.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to imagine complete stories, but then told myself that since I knew the ending it would be boring to write it out. With this book, I’ve found the complete opposite is true. It’s a huge challenge for me to follow a story I’ve put together ahead of time–but it’s also a huge amount of fun. When I sit down to write, it’s a relief to take out my outline and note which scene I’m going to write, because I’ve already done the hardest part. It relieves me of those fearful blank moments, the ones in which I’m not sure what I’m about to write–if I can write anything–is going to move the story along.

The other big challenge is to keep the voice of Trouble consistent. The good news is that Carolyn is such a pro that the voice is clear and vibrant throughout her book, so I have an excellent model. That’s where my love of the modeling exercise comes in–it’s enjoyable to have the voice ready-made for me. I simply keep Familiar Trouble open on my desktop for reference. Carolyn has read my first chapter, and approved the voice, so I’m headed in the right direction. I’m only halfway through the writing, so let’s hope it sticks.

I’m loving this new challenge. I feel like I’m growing as a writer. Learning to write in a different style grows bran cells. I’m sure of it!

I’m anxious to finish writing Small Town Trouble to see how my first cozy experiment has gone. I could write more here about how writing this book is different from others I’ve written, but I’ll save that for another day, perhaps on my own blog, Notes From the Handbasket (you can go there even though I’m on sabbatical–I think I have 8 years’ worth of posts).

Do tell. What new projects have you taken on to encourage yourself to grow as a writer?

Tips For Crediting Photos Used In Blogs

Admin Note: Our trusty admin assistant has put together a list of resources and guidelines for using and crediting photos in the public realm. (Thanks, Lynne!)

Images released under Creative Commons CC0 are free of copyrights. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required.

If you are unsure if the image was released under CC0, indicate the photo’s source, and whether it was purchased or provided as a courtesy.

Getty Images –  You can use Getty Images if you follow their embed instructions: Embedding their images provides a legal way to utilize premium content while respecting creators’ rights, including the opportunity to generate licensing revenue.

Unsplash  – Free (do whatever you want) high-resolution photos. Unsplash grants you a nonexclusive copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.

Flickr – Many Flickr users have chosen to offer their work under a Creative Commons license, and you can browse or search through content under each type of license.

– All images and videos on Pixabay are released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required

Pexels –  Best Free Stock photos in one place. Issued under Creative Commons CC0. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required.
– a collection of 39,727,644 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute – Almost all content hosted on Wikimedia Commons may be freely reused subject to certain restrictions (in many cases). You do not need to obtain a specific statement of permission from the licensor(s) of the content unless you wish to use the work under different terms than the license states.

  • Content under open content licenses may be reused without any need to contact the licensor(s), but just keep in mind that:
    • some licenses require that the original creator be attributed;
    • some licenses require that the specific license be identifiedwhen reusing (including, in some cases, stating or linking to the terms of the license);
    • some licenses require that if you modify the work, your modifications must also be similarly freely licensed; and finally.

Shutterstock – Discover over 125 million royalty-free images, video clips and music tracks.  – free images and some for purchase.

– Photos for purchase.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

by Larry Brooks

A few of you know that I used to play professional baseball. During my very first spring training, all the pitchers were subjected to sprints and conditioning drills in the humid Florida heat, to the extent many of us were losing our breakfast on the third base line. Every day, as many of us were near collapse, hands on knees, visibly sucking oxygen, one of the coaches would yell with glee, “Are we having fun yet?”

Various forms of cursing ensued between the collective desperate gasps and the heat exhaustion. But we were professionals, and nobody dared quit the process.

Only later, when my career was over and I was treading water in the real world, did I realize how much fun I actually was having.

One of the first pieces of business I tend to when I begin a writing workshop is throwing out this question:

Who here wants to write for money?

Almost every hand goes up. Some dislocate a shoulder, such is the urgency of their response. There are, of course, the one or two arms-crossed resisters who like to believe they’re different, or perhaps above participating. Maybe they just don’t understand the question.

Then: Who here wants to make this their day job?

Same hands, same slackers. Or perhaps, the rare (very) hobbyist writing stories for the grandkids who is merely curious.

Then this: Those of you with your hands in the air either consider yourself a professional, or you want to become one… yes?

I then assure them that the first step to becoming a professional isn’t to cash a check, but rather, to go about the business as if they were already a professional author.

The only criteria for being a writer is to write. That said, there is a right way and a less-right way to go about it… and the right way can be darn hard.

And if you find hard something that isn’t fun, then perhaps you exist within a paradox unique to us.

Writing may indeed be a different breed of profession.

Because it seems that some writers who would enthusiastically raise their hand claim that they are selecting their process and perhaps their criteria for excellence based on something that would get you fired in any other job.

They do things their way, because their way is fun.

And they happily, almost proudly, claim to skip the hard parts in the name of fun.

There continues to be a loud debate, here and elsewhere, about the writing process.

And within that debate, one opening line shows up in the comment thread of almost every post on this topic. In it the writer says something like this: I don’t outline. I tried it once, but it took all the fun out of it. It’s more fun to just let the story emerge as I write. Which is why I don’t really know much about my story as I write it. It’s fun to figure it out as I go.

Okay, that’s a mash-up of the common forms of this opening push-back.

It happened yesterday in the thread from Jim’s post. It’s happened in response to my posts many times, because I’ve written about this subject many times (check this out, it’s a virtual wrestling match).

Imagine, though, other professions in which fun is never spoken aloud.

Every summer a hundred young men gather at Fall Camp to see if they can make the roster of an NFL team. This experience is nothing short of an exercise in torture, all in context to seeing who is fit enough, tough enough and resilient enough to play at that level.

Imagine a first round draft choice saying this: Well, camp would be a lot of fun if we didn’t have to do all those conditioning drills, because I’ll just be strong enough when the real game happens. It’s just not fun. Games are fun, but all this preparation stuff, I dunno, it’s just a lot of hard work.

Flip this analogy to medical school. Law school. Architecture school. Prepping for the CPA exam. Training to be a pilot. Or a teacher. Or a checker at Safeway. Or just about anything else that presents an expectation of what the skill set and end output needs to be.

That’s the key, right there: the skill set and end outcome of writing a novel are not something you get to negotiate or short-change. Your process, yes… it’s yours for adopt, it is what it is, and that fact is what is different about writing. And part of what makes it hard, as well. Because the product you put out… that’s not something you get to negotiate. Rather, you need to reach for a bar that already exists.

If your process doesn’t get you there, then perhaps you need to look at that process. If you want to play at a professional level, then you need to summon and master professional-level skills, for professional-level output.

And if the hard work of doing that strikes you as something that’s not fun, and if you use that excuse to do it your way, even when your way presents a compromise… that’s actually fine. You get to choose.

But the end-product, and the marketplace into which you intend it to go, won’t cut you even the tiniest bit of slack.

The requisite form and function of a novel applies to pantsers and planners alike, those who put in the time to study and those who are just having fun, alike. No difference whatsoever.

So if writing an outline isn’t fun for you, fine. If you can make your story functional that way, have at it. Thing is, that very decision has derailed more writers than you know. Not because of the outline itself as a tool, but rather, the nature of the process you substitute for it.

Here’s my point. If you truly understand the criteria of a story that works…

yes, these criteria can be defined, listed and learned… and if your process, facilitates the reaching of that high bar, then you’re fine. You may have elected the long road to get there, because without exception, writing a draft in which you don’t know the essential parts, transitions and end-game of your story is merely one of the several ways to search for your story, rather than the execution of draft itself.

And if you’re shorting that pursuit because it’s not fun for you… well, this is like your surgeon skipping the part about anesthesia because she doesn’t find anesthesia all that much fun.

A bad analogy, perhaps, for this reason: the surgeon has someone next to them in the O.R. that does find the practice of anesthesia, if not fun, then rewarding enough to practice it. But novelists are alone in a room with the patient (your story), and if you don’t find the requisite best-practices to be fun – and if you’re not really qualified yet to count on them to emerge organically on their own – then this disconnect can become a factor in the outcome.

It can explain why you may be frustrated.

But wait, says about 40 percent of the writers reading this. I don’t outline because it doesn’t work for me. Well…

Outlining is only one aspect of this cause-and-effect dynamic.

First of all, “not being able to outline” is not something to brag about. It’s not a good thing, it’s actually a blind spot in your storytelling. It’s like a pilot saying, I am afraid of heights. Please blindfold me until we get to cruising altitude and I’ll take it from there.

Outlining, in a broader sense, is simply the means, a proactive effort, of creating a vision for the story, front to back. A plan, even though that word isn’t fun for you. It, too, is what it is. A vision or a story plan is not a contract you sign that commits you to it (a common rationale for it not being fun, but that’s a story you’re making up, but a plan is totally flexible), because certainly you may evolve that vision toward an even better outcome as you go along.

Great storytellers than don’t outline absolutely do have a vision for the story in their head. And they almost always add and revise as it unfolds on the page. They also command a functional working knowledge of how to drive the story ship… because they’ve earned it. However they learned it.

The alternative – discovering your story as you write a draft – is (the forthcoming redundancy is deliberate, because not the context may be clearer) merely a means of story development. One of several. And as such, the requisite forms, functions, parts (including the ending) and impact (story physics like emotional resonance, nature and source of conflict and antagonism, extent of vicariousness, hero empathy and an optimized narrative strategy) that apply to every other form of story search apply to the make-it-up-as-I-go option, as well.

If you’re in this for the fun of it, first and foremost (and if you’re skipping over important steps, then it is first and foremost for you), then you may be missing the essence of the professionalism required. Which is exactly that roster of forms and functions… stuff you don’t get to make up, not even for a moment.

Perhaps it might better serve you if, instead of the fun of it, you’re in this for the rewarding experience of writing a story that really kicks butt. That knocks readers out of their chair.

Like any surgeon or pilot, the reward is when the patient survives and the plane lands safely.

And if your response to that is, Well, writing a novel isn’t brain surgery, ask an experienced professional if they agree… now you’re just counter-punching. In fact, ask a doctor who has attempted to write a novel if they agree.

It just might be as complex as brain surgery after all. I’ve actually had a brain surgeon tell me it is, once he encounted the moving parts required of it.

That old meme about “the journey is the reward?” Maybe not. That’s the rationalization of a legion of unpublished writers who tried to do their way, when their way is, primarily, the fun way.

When your way embraces that list of parts and essences, aligned and combined at the level required, then you’ll be within your next 400 pages of that rewarding experience.

A final story… that is not an analogy.

My son was his high school’s valedictorian, and it enabled him to get into a prestige university. But during his freshman year he did what so many freshman do… he partied.

Because it was fun. For a while he was sure this was what college was all about.

Meanwhile, he and I had an agreement in place from day one, and it wasn’t unreasonable or negotiable: earn a GPA that at least meets the academic requirement of your fraternity, which frankly, shouldn’t be all that challenging to you. Yes sir, he said. No worries, he said.

All freshman year long he told me he was killing it in class.

But then the finals happened in May.

No surprise… he was far short of the bar we had set. I mean, far short. Like, frat house probation kind of short.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to have fun in college – certainly, his socialization was part of the mission at hand – but in any endeavor that is worth tackling, something that will become the foundation of a dream that will spring from it, “fun” becomes a lesser calling.

Wrapping your head around the fundamental principles of writing stories is like that, too. It isn’t’ about what is fun. If that’s your priority, work at Disneyland.

Because in college and with writing a novel, the ultimate reward will require a massive amount of hard work – not just effort, but mastering some really tough principles in an artful way – leading to a higher understanding that informs an ability to take those skills forward into a professional marketplace.

A marketplace teeming with professionals who have mastered those very principles.

There isn’t a professional in any occupation out there – and this includes writing novels – that isn’t informed by a keen understanding of certain core fundamental principles… and sooner or later, fun has to acquiesce to a higher pursuit of an ultimate reward.

And when you hold that in your hands… now that is really fun.

Nobody ever hired a college graduate because they had fun at school.

Nobody ever sold a novel because they did it the fun way. Unless for that writer, the fun way embraced a complete integration of an understanding of what is required… and when that happens, it’s almost certain that the true fun of it all stemmed from it, and not skipping the hard parts.

Outlining is not required. But understanding the terms of what your vision for a story becomes… that is required. Because it’s too complex to just back into.

How do you know what is required? Where do you get that list? If you have to ask, then maybe you’re already shorting yourself in the proposition.

And so – back to my son for a moment – the contract had been violated. The terms of coming up short called for him to find funding – in the form of loans that he’s still paying off to this day, and for a few more years to come – to cover his second year at this school.

All hell broke loose at home…

… until it didn’t. He finally got it. In fact, he embraced his accountability for his end of our agreement, refusing to do it any other way. As a result, his GPA in the first semester of his sophomore year was 3.65. And while we celebrated that, he understood that a higher goal remained: to graduate with a GPA above 3.00.

Which he did.

He also had fun that year. It was all a question of priorities and the willingness to do the hard stuff.

Cut to his final week of school concluding his senior year. He had worked as a campus tour guide for incoming high schoolers (most of whom were also valedictorians… it was that kind of school), and on his final day of leading the tours a bunch of us, including my wife and I, were there.

In a classroom that concluded the tour with a Q&A session, one of the new Dads asked my son to tell us what his most rewarding experience had been over the last four years at this institution.

He thought a moment. You could hear a pen drop.

And then he told the group this story, the one I’ve just told you. He looked right at me when he concluded by saying, “I had a lot of fun here, especially at first. But that fun was taking me down the wrong road, littered with the discarded college dreams of many like-minded freshman. My Dad almost literally picked me up off the wrong road and put me onto a better one, a higher road, and while I had an immense amount of fun over the last three years here, the answer to your question is that the most rewarding part of it all was the realization that fun isn’t the point. The work is the point. Doing the hard stuff is the point. Changing into something higher and better is the point. And realizing that the world has opened up for me because of that learning… that while the journey was a blast, the real reward was in the final outcome.”

Needless to say, this Dad was a bit of a puddle.

So go ahead, have fun.

But if you’re skipping the hard parts, it may not be because you can’t do it, but rather, that it isn’t what you signed up for.

Reading a story by a pro makes it all look so easy. Maybe that’s what you signed up for.

But writing great sentences and paragraphs… that’s not the hard part.

Unspooling a story that nails all the moving story elements in the right way at the right level, with all those story physics humming with the grace and the growl of a cheetah at full speed…

… that’s the hard part, and the best part of the work. Worth every sleepless night and deficient draft it takes.

That’s why you’re here.

Because you put your hand into the air to claim your dream of becoming a professional.

And I’ve never once, in thirty years of doing this, heard a proven professional or anyone who teaches the craft to those who aspire to be one, say that they did it for the fun of it. Or that fun was even part of the process.

Rather, they’ll tell you how rewarding it all can be.

Understand the difference and live into that understanding, and everything about what has frustrated you will change, while everything you once considered fun will have evolved into something even more satisfying.


If you’re interested in going deeper, I have a book on those forms and functions and essences that goes beyond structure, called Story Physics.

Eventually, You Have to Bring Order to the Story Stuff

by James Scott Bell

Last week my lovely wife and I were in New York for ThrillerFest, and as usual found time to enjoy some of the city. We did the Strand bookstore (where I scored an autographed Mickey Spillane from a spinner of used paperbacks), then walked up Park Avenue to my favorite building in all of New York: Grand Central Station, the beaux-arts beauty of midtown.

Why do I love it? Start with the clock tower sculpture, because it captures the robust spirit of classic New York, back a hundred years ago when the city was the unapologetic colossus of commerce. That’s why you have the three Greek gods above the clock. Mercury, god of merchants, dominates the piece, with Hercules (representing strength) and Minerva (representing the arts and professions) on either side. I love coming out of the subway stop, looking up and seeing this magnificence.

Inside Grand Central, the main concourse always seems larger than I remember. You can’t help thinking of Cary Grant at the ticket window in North by Northwest, or any of a number of movies from the 30s and 40s featuring New Yorkers getting on trains. There’s a dining concourse below, with our favorite oyster bar. Cindy and I shared a dozen, along with a nice chardonnay.

And we attended the International Thriller Writers Awards banquet, where I was honored to receive the award for Best E-Book Original (for Romeo’s Way). (And thank you for all the kind comments that have already been posted here at TKZ.) It was a delight for Cindy and I to share a table with the amazing Joanna Penn and her husband, Jonathan (Joanna, writing as J. F. Penn, was a Best E-Book Original finalist for her novel Destroyer of Worlds.)

The coolest thing about ThrillerFest is all the off-the-cuff conversation with fellow writers, usually at the hotel bar following the day’s proceedings. That, in fact, is where I caught up with brother John Gilstrap and one of our longtime TKZ commenters, Basil Sands. We were soon joined by weapons expert Chris Grall, and it wasn’t long before John and Chris were instructing us on the best way to cut people to ribbons with a sharp knife … and exactly what a body does when hit by a blast from a shotgun.

Also got to chat with TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and current blogmate Mark Alpert.

Reed Farrel Coleman (photo by Adam Martin)

Another guy I always like to see at these conventions is Reed Farrel Coleman. Reed was an ITW Award finalist for his novel Where It Hurts. At the Awards “after party” I had a chance to ask him about his writing method, as I’d read in interviews that he describes himself as a pure “pantser.”

I started by asking what his novel was about, and Reed gave me the backstory of his lead character, Gus Murphy. How he was a cop with a family, but now is divorced and off the force, working a low-end job, drowning in grief due of the death of his son. “That’s where the book starts,” Reed said.

“So you start with a character and a set-up, and then start writing?” I asked.

Reed nodded, then added that he goes “over and over” the first fifty pages until he feels they are just right. Then he moves on.

“How many drafts to you do?”

“One,” he said, with a definite twinkle in his eye. Then he quickly added that he revises and revises as he goes along, so in effect he’s doing multiple “drafts” by the time it’s all wrapped up.

I wrote Reed a follow-up email. “My thought is that as you are making your way through after those first fifty pages, your brain is starting to come up with future scenes. IOW, the ‘outline’ is taking shape organically, in your imagination, and you start to write toward those scenes.”

Reed answered, “Yes, unconsciously, at least, knowing those early pages cold lets my mind work on an outline for the rest of the book. I don’t think of it that way, but it’s a fair assessment of what’s going on.”

And Reed, of course, understands beginning, middle, and end. He knows what has to happen for a character to pass through the “Doorway of No Return” and into the confrontation of Act 2. When I teach, I tell students the main character better be through that doorway, at the latest, by the 20% mark, or the book will start to drag.

Guess what happens at the 20% mark of Where It Hurts? Yep:

When I heard the sirens, I went back around to the front of the house and waited. But I was through waiting to make up my mind. I was in now, with both feet.

And just to amuse myself, I went looking to see if Reed, by way of his storytelling DNA, had included a mirror moment. You bet he did, and right in the middle where it belongs:

Was this, I wondered, what it was like coming out of a coma? Is that what Krissy, Annie, and I were doing? Were we coming around at last? Had enough time elapsed? Had we all finished acting out? Had we finally proved to ourselves and one another that no amount of pain or grief or self-flagellation or magical thinking or deals with God or guilt or fury would restore to us what we had lost? Was it okay to live again?

My goal as a writing instructor is to “pop the hood” on what writers have technically accomplished (even if they don’t realize how they did it), take it apart, and explain how any writer can assemble similar parts for a similar effect.

Reed’s method is one way to go about things. (See? I come in peace, my pantsing brothers and sisters!) By churning over those first fifty pages, Reed is firming up the foundation for his entire novel. By rewriting his previous day’s work, he’s letting his mind suggest scene possibilities that build upon that foundation. “Plotters” do the same thing, only the churning comes before the writing as they prepare a map, strategy and tactics.

The important thing is that the writer, sooner or later, brings order to the story stuff. That’s what structure is all about. It’s getting things lined up so the readers can best relate to the tale you want to tell them. Even more, the story you want to move them. Without order, no matter how “hot” or “creative” you feel about what you write, most readers are going to be frustrated or, worse, annoyed.

My advice: try to avoid that.

I love New York, but it’s always great to get back to L.A., where I am currently in the process of bringing order to my next Mike Romeo thriller.

What about you? Where are you in the “ordering” process?