Yes! Yes! (Oh no…)
The Bad Sex Awards Are Back

By PJ Parrish

The competition this year was…well, hot. You can be assured that none of the Madrid escorts came anywhere near to being on this list.

Yes. You’re way ahead of me. You know what’s coming. I thought about not giving in to my basest instincts and ignoring it this year. But then I read the winning entries and knew this was too special not to share it it with you all. And hey, we all really could use a good laugh right about now, right?

So, without further ado, I give you The Literary Review’s Bad Sex In Fiction Awards. I will try to keep things clean. Which is more than the writers did, which seems like they took some scenes right out of a Tube V sex video.

The magazine said this year’s crop of contenders was particularly strong. The finalists included Prix Goncourt-winner Laurent Binet (who, to paraphrase, compared the male organ to something just emerging from a steel forge); Venetia Welby (who compares female “landscaping” to vines and throws in something about “orange spillageâ€); and Wilbur Smith, who I will quote in full because you won’t believe how bad it is: (“He kissed her and she responded and the boundaries between them blurred, like two watercolours on a piece of paper, joining as one to create something entirely newâ€).

We Americans, can hold our heads up high, because one of our own took top prize this year. And fellow crime dogs, hold your heads up even higher! The winner is Christopher Bollen whose novel The Destroyers, is a literary thriller, described by Jay McInerney as invoking “the shades of Lawrence Durrell and Graham Greene.â€

Judges said they were persuaded to give Bollen the award by a scene in which the protagonist and his former girlfriend are rekindling their relationship on the island of Patmos. Cover your eyes if you blush easily because here comes a winning passage:

She covers her breasts with her swimsuit. The rest of her remains so delectably exposed. The skin along her arms and shoulders are different shades of tan like water stains in a bathtub. Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.

I am going to just let that last line lay there. But I will tell you that the judges noted they “were left unsure as to how many testicles the character in question has.â€

The award aims to “draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.†But apparently, bad sex is getting…better and Incredible sex tube is now free, visit for some great video reference.

“There’s plenty of sex around,” the Literary Review’s Frank Brinkley told The Guardian. “Maybe we are having an effect – definitely literary fiction’s changing and the ‘Oh sod it, I’ll put in a sex scene’ attitude that prompted the creation of the award has pretty much fallen by the wayside. Maybe publishers aren’t pushing for it in the way that ‘sex sells’ was used as a prompt 15 years ago, either. All to the good.â€

Still, that didn’t keep many writers from giving it the old college try. And it won’t prevent me from sharing the best of the finalists entries.

Breathe in pink, breathe out…blue, blue, oh God, blue!

Light filters in from the ravaging streaks of the dawn. It splits into fragments of every hue the world has hidden as it strikes the prism of their shelter. Tera’s eyes expand and reflect, crystal orbs of time and space. She moans in colours as he pushes the white dress away and beyond the angelic flesh, luminescent against the damp, mossy bed.

— Mother of Darkness by Venetia Welby

Plato’s retreat…and Socrates didn’t want to go there, either

Looking down, she unbuckled his belt. ‘We’re grown-ups.’

Perhaps he wasn’t quite in the moment, because he thought of Kierkegaard and Socrates. If there wasn’t great wisdom gained by lust, by love, its consummation – the aesthetics of all this – then you were doing it wrong.

‘Kiss me again.’

– As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths

Making Wookie

A clothed body is always human or human-like, a naked body always animal or animal-like. Only at close quarters is the full extent of a body’s wildness revealed, like when a bird gets trapped inside a house. One is moved to not entirely human thinking then. One goes towards its animalness.

– Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe

What’s your major? Landscape panting…

He puts his hands on Bianca’s shoulders and slips off her low-cut top. Suddenly inspired, he whispers into her ear, as if to himself: ‘I desire the landscape that is enveloped in this woman, a landscape I do not know but that I can feel, and until I have unfolded that landscape, I will not be happy …’

Bianca shivers with pleasure. Simon whispers to her with an authority that he has never felt before: ‘Let’s construct an assemblage.’

— The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet

Okay, enough. I’m exhausted. So we don’t end on a negative note, I found a counter-balance. A couple years ago, Salon magazine decided to go Literary Review one better and came up with the Good Sex in Writing Award. Their winner was the critically acclaimed James Hynds’s novel Next. Here’s a winning passage:

Then Lynda murmurs “Wait†right in his ear, and as he clutches her waist under her dress she unbends first one leg and then the other over the railing, settling tightly against him, taking him in even deeper. She tightens her calves against the railing and squeezes with her thighs, and he groans, because he’s deeper inside this girl than he’s ever been inside any girl before, and he presses his open mouth against the long, salty curve of her neck. He’s inhaling her humidity, she’s panting like an animal just above the top of his head. They can’t move much — if she thrusts too hard against him she’ll topple them into the bushes — but the song has finished with words and now it’s just a driving sax, and they rock together to the beat, her sweat dripping into the dress bunched at her waist, her hands kneading his back, his face pressed between her salty breasts, her heart thumping against his lips.

Not bad, not bad. At least I can figure out which part is going where, and the only metaphor is a musical instrument. And as they always say, we should all need to practice sax sex.

Micro-Progress Your Novel

A few weeks ago I spotted an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started’ (you can read it here) and realized it was tailor made for us writers (especially after I’d seen a number of posts on my writing groups about writers writers feeling overwhelmed about their projects).

The idea of ‘micro-progress’ is simple: For any task you have to complete, break it down to the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time.

In many ways, it’s an obvious concept. But what caught my eye, was the fact that studies had shown that micro-progress (or establishing micro-goals) can actually trick the brain into increasing dopamine levels, providing satisfaction and happiness. Sounds like the perfect plan for anyone facing the daunting prospect of completing a novel:)

Online I was seeing posts from people who felt overwhelmed by revisions, who were despairing that their novel had run aground mid way through, or who were experiencing chronic writer’s block and desperate for advice. In all of these situations, focusing on ‘micro-progress’ seemed a useful place to start.

The concept of ‘micro-progress’ has also helped me. I currently have a number of projects out on submission and a couple of ones with my agent – so it was time to start a new WIP. I faced a dilemma though – I had the first 50 pages of a YA novel that I’ve been noodling over (actually driving myself insane over is probably more apt) and yet I was concerned it still wasn’t quite ‘there yet’. I struggled with whether I really knew what the book was about (despite a synopsis and outline, mind you). So I decided it was best to put it aside and start a completely new project – yet at the back of my mind I still couldn’t quite let the old project completely die. Enter ‘Micro-Progress’!

I decided to use the advice in the NYT article and tackle both projects but with a different mindset. For the brand new WIP I’d sit down and get started in the usual way. I have the synopsis and outline so it was time to face the blank page and get writing. I’d focus on this everyday except Friday – when I’d allow myself to tackle the old project but with a ‘micro-progress’ approach. I’d just take it scene by scene in Scrivener and see what happened – without placing too much pressure on myself. The regular WIP could progress in the usual fashion – but for this one I’d be happy setting smaller, more manageable goals to see how it would all come together. In this way a ‘micro-progress’ mindset helped overcome my confidence issues as well my concerns about abandoning the project all together.

A ‘micro-progress’ mindset could be helpful in almost all our writing as it focuses on the smaller more manageable steps that can be taken. The evidence also seems to demonstrate that this approach can stimulate our brains, enabling us to continue, progress and feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction – rather than becoming overwhelmed by the totality of the task ahead. But I guess the key question is – TKZers – what do you think about ‘micro-progress’?


Get Some Blood Pumping in Your Prose

by James Scott Bell

Here’s another first page for our review. See you in a few.

The Scorn of Time

“Time,” Hickstead McCarty said as he stepped onto the elevator and rode toward the third floor. His cart projected 13:40 into the air in front of him. That gave him twenty minutes. He hadn’t been inside Apartment 310 since early April. When was that? Six months ago? Not many women made it to the third trimester anymore, leaving the third floor deserted most of the time. He closed his eyes and envisioned the layout of the apartment, ticking off the areas he’d already searched. He’d stripped everything out of the bathroom, knocked on every square inch of the walls and flooring, and even snaked the drains. Nothing unusual there, unless you consider a large clump of matted, muck-covered hair that had wrapped itself around a simple gold earring, a special find. The year before that, he’d searched the bedroom. Twenty minutes was a lot of time, but once the clock hit 14:00 there’d be no spare time for anything other than work – his boss made sure of that, so there was no time to waste. If he planned it right, he might be able to cover most of the kitchen or go through the entire living room. Sure, the place had been searched many times before, by professionals even, but they must have missed something. They must have, because the Armit files were still there. He could feel it.

He nodded to himself as the old elevator inched its way upward. First, he’d move the couch and chairs away from the fireplace. Then he’d have room to check the hearth, then tap on the bricks in the firebox. Most people wouldn’t think to look there. Probably think it too hot to hide digital files, but the way he figured it, if those damn chips weren’t in the obvious places, then it made sense to look in places that weren’t so obvious. Fred Armit could have created some sort of special container to protect them from heat… or whatever else could happen to them in eighty years.

Hickstead’s heart beat faster with possibilities as he opened the door.


He froze, his ears straining to hear through the wall that divided the entrance hall from the kitchen area. All he could hear was the tinny, metallic sound of … a bowl maybe? Spinning against the tile floor.

No one should be in this apartment.


JSB: First, the good. The opening paragraph raises questions that makes me want to read on. What sort of building is this? Trimesters? Why this one room constantly searched? Who is Armit? Why is there time pressure on the search?

However, as written, the paragraph is dry. No blood coursing through its veins. (More on that in a moment.) Another practical matter is the lack of “white space.” In today’s low-attention-span world, large blocks of text are a challenge for readers. The simple fix is to break big paragraphs into two, three or four. (James Patterson often does this on a macro level, too, by chopping what would logically be one long chapter into two, three, or four “chapters.”)

The second paragraph is mostly the character’s thoughts about what he is going to do (as opposed to actually doing it). It telegraphs action, but is not action itself. Thus, it slows us down considerably.

The page does end with a disturbance—the crash. An intruder. But it’s taken us a long time to get there.

Solution? Start with the crash! Start with McCarty listening. We don’t have to know why he’s there at the get-go. Dribble that in as the action continues.

Act first, explain later. Readers will go a long way with you if the character is doing something in response to a disturbance.

But there’s a larger issue, one that can haunt the pages which follow: we’re missing a sense of who this man is. We’re outside, not inside. The narrative is coolly objective. It delivers information but no sensation. You have one line— Hickstead’s heart beat faster—that is tiptoeing toward emotion, but it’s a cliché. Readers want more, because they are pulling for you! They want to get caught up in a character’s life and challenges.

Compare your piece to the opening of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

See that? Every word is more than just a beat of the character’s heart. This is a full-on burst of blood and passion and soul. And notice that the blood is pumping within the action. Montag isn’t thinking about what he’ll be doing in a few pages … he’s doing it.

Try this: re-write the scene by starting with the crash. Then keep McCarty in forward motion, at the same time give us a sense of what he’s feeling as he’s acting. You can “marble” in some of those intriguing questions I mentioned earlier, too.

Here’s a tip: Re-write this first chapter in first-person POV. Feel it as you do. Then convert it back to third-person. I think you’ll find this wonderfully instructive. And I’m certain I will then want to follow McCarty into that apartment!

Final notes:

  • When characters are alone, watch out for this construction: He nodded to himself. The to himself is superfluous, since there’s no one else in the scene. He nodded
  • his ears straining to hear. Ears don’t do anything. The fellow between the ears does. (My favorite example of this type of physical mistake comes from a published novel of yesteryear: His eyes slid down her dress. Eww!)

Time to turn this over to you, Zoners. Any other tips for our writer?

Forgotten. But Not Gone.

I’m traveling today through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey…wait a minute. Let me begin again. I kind of feel the way that I did the first time I walked into a Rocket Fizz store a couple of years ago and saw all sorts of different brands of candy that I hadn’t seen the 1960s.  I’m not talking about candy, however. I’m talking about books. To be more precise, I’m talking about buying books through the mail, long before something called “Amazon” became a business.

This feeling occurred while I was trying to decide what to write about for my blog post this morning. That would be the one you are reading right now. I had four — yes, four — different topics going but they all each and all kind of meandered into nowhere. I got on a tangent involving how the science fiction genre has changed and got nostalgic for The Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC). Those of you of a certain age will remember book clubs. There was Book of the Month Club, SFBC, and the Mystery Guild (MG). There might have been a club for romance books as well. I belonged to the SFBC for almost fifteen years, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. It was easy to join. You perused an ad insert— usually in a science-fiction magazine — tore it out, filled out a membership card, selected a certain number of books for a few dollars plus postage, and mailed it and  your check to the club. You agreed to buy two or four books at the regular price sometime over the following two years. Every three weeks or so you were sent (there was no email in those days, no Amazon, no internet, no cable television) a catalog offering two feature offerings, a backlist, and a few exclusive three-in-one volumes or some such thing. If you wanted the two feature books, they made it soooooooo easy! You didn’t have to do anything!  You just waited and the SFBC would send you the books. If you didn’t want one or both of them, however, the cat was on your back to send a pre-printed card back by a certain date, affirmatively stating that you didn’t want the books. The card also gave you the opportunity to order other books if you wished. It was kind of an honor system. It was cool, but it was also a bit of a pain to send the cards in on time. If you didn’t do so for a couple of months your front porch soon resembled that of Mickey Mouse’s in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” except with books instead of brooms. I kind of lost interest in the whole concept when the science fiction genre began to change and while the idea of The Mystery Guild was intriguing I was kind of sour on the whole mail order thing. I could pretty much get whatever I wanted from bookstores. I quit hearing about book clubs and the like in the 1990s and assumed they had gone the way of the phone booth.

And I was wrong!

I discovered not one-half hour ago that the SFBC and MG have bravely and mightily soldiered on, in updated fashion. They both have changed a bit. No more catalogs, and no more honor system (you submit your credit card information when you join). They do have a couple of enticements to get you to join and to remain a member, and, most importantly, to continue buying books. I have to give them credit for staying with the mail order game for books. I mean, after all, that they had a hand in creating the concept of books and with The Book of the Month Club more or less ruled the territory, until ol’ Chrome Dome from Seattle,, genius that he is, kind of moved in and took over the sandbox. Both clubs continue to stake out their genre niche, however. You can access the Mystery Guild website here and the Science Fiction Book Club website here.

I’m kind of wondering…why don’t more readers talk about this? Why don’t I see more of a MG presence at reader/author conventions like Bouchercon and Thrillerfest? Or are they there and hide when they see me coming? Is the fact that these businesses have continued to operate well known to everyone but me, kind of like the Channel Zero anthology on the SyFy Channel?  And…if you don’t feel like answering those questions…tell me if you would one or more things that you loved as a child (or teenager) that you thought was gone forever, but have discovered is still around. Please. And thank you.

First Page Critique – Cherry Bomb

Writers are advised to start their story with a bang. The Anonymous Brave Author of today’s first page took that advice to heart…literally! My comments appear at the end.

Cherry Bomb

             Vivienne Rook threw a cherry bomb off the backyard deck, aiming at her deceased husband. “Take that to the moon and back!”

A boom ricocheted off the dense wood that lined her sister’s house as the effigy’s crisp white shirt flailed. “Tsk, just got the arm,” Vivienne sniffled. She’d built “Win” out of a cotton mop and broomsticks, garbing him in his favorite outfit: khaki pants and a white dress shirt with a sports jacket. A charming dickhead in casual business attire.

She turned at the scrambling sound behind her. Clawing a quick getaway from the noise, Spot and Kitty, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat, had wedged themselves together in the pet door, their tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance.



“Chickens.” Vivienne bent over and pushed the pug’s tan rear through the opening, allowing both animals to escape. She heard a bump and then a chair fall as they fled.

Back to work, Vivienne twisted together the fuses of two cherry bombs and set the pair on the railing, her therapeutic arsenal strung along like little missiles of pain.

“Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” her sister, Mirielin, called through the kitchen window. She was flanked by both animals who were standing on the kitchen counter scowling at Vivienne.

“I’ve got you covered,” Vivienne said. “Tell those animals to be less judgy.”

A few minutes later, the screen door creaked as Mirielin stepped onto the deck with a bottle of white wine and two glasses. “Scared us silly, Vivi. Did you break into the twin’s stash of homemade explosives?” Mirielin’s reading glasses were tucked into her updo, next to the chopstick that kept her red-gold hair in a messy bun.

“You betcha. Done at the shelter so soon?”

Mirielin’s sharp blue eyes took in the scene. “I just came home to feed the animals.”

Vivienne tried to sound tough, but her voice caught. “Look, I’ve got Win trapped in the lawn.”

Her sister’s mouth pursed into a sad knot that Vivienne had named the Woe-a-Widow look. It came over people’s faces when they struggled to comfort her over the unexpected death of her husband, and the revelations that followed.


In the first sentence, Anon follows Jim Bell’s excellent dictum: Act first, explain later.” And Vivienne definitely grabbed my attention. Why does a new widow want to blow up her husband’s effigy? Her unexpected reaction to tragedy makes her an interesting character.

Plus you inject a touch of ironic humor. That signals the genre may be a cozy with attitude. Readers admire gutsy characters who maintain a sense of humor in the face of adversity. I’m already on her side, rooting for her, even though I don’t yet know what the conflict is. You avoided the trap of a backstory information dump. Well done.

I didn’t spot any typos or grammar goofs in your submission. Congratulations on a good job of proofreading, the mark of a professional.

However, a few speed bumps stopped me.

The first question arose about the phrase: the dense wood that lined her sister’s house. Initially I wondered if “wood” should have read “woods.” Then the word “lined” confused me. Are you saying the house is in a wooded setting? Or are you trying to describe wood siding over the surface of the sister’s house? Clarify this small detail so it doesn’t sidetrack the reader with questions that are irrelevant to the story.

Because the rest of the page is error-free, I’m guessing “wood” wasn’t a typo, but rather an unclear sentence. Perhaps a better way to express it would be: A boom ricocheted off the dense woods that surrounded her sister’s house as the effigy’s crisp white shirt flailed.

“Garbing” was a distraction because it’s a peculiar verb. Suggest you simplify: She’d built “Win” out of a cotton mop and broomsticks, dressing him in his favorite outfit: khaki pants and a white dress shirt with a sports jacket. That’s a smoother way to say the same thing without using a word that could unnecessarily jar the reader out of the story.

A charming dickhead in casual business attire is a great line that reveals Vivienne’s humor, as well as her disappointment with her husband. Again, you’re pulling the reader into the story with more questions. Why is he a dickhead? What did he do to her?

The next bump that stopped me was:

Clawing a quick getaway from the noise, Spot and Kitty, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat, had wedged themselves together in the pet door, their tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance.




This is a funny visual but when using comedy, timing is everything, and this timing is off. Make this paragraph snappier by removing extraneous words that lessen the impact of the humor.

For instance, readers don’t need to know the pets’ names yet. Delay that information for a moment, as shown in the rewrite below. The sounds of meow and woof aren’t dialogue and don’t need to be enclosed in quotes. Otherwise the reader might think the story is about talking animals.

“Chickens” is meant to be an insult to the pets, but instead made me wonder if there were additional critters, like fowl, in the scene. These small stumbling blocks distracted me for a second.

An alternative rewrite:

Clawing a quick getaway from the explosion, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat had wedged themselves together in the pet door, tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance. Mirielin would be pissed that Vivienne had upset Spot and Kitty. Vivienne bent to push the pug’s rear end through the pet door, breaking the furry logjam. From inside the house, she heard more scuffling, then the bang of a kitchen chair hitting the tile floor. “Cowards,” she muttered.

Another great line is: Her therapeutic arsenal strung along like little missiles of pain. It offers insight into Vivienne, showing her conflicted feelings about Win’s death. You found a fresh way to describe grief, expressing a lot of meaning with only a few well-chosen words.

Next distracting bump:

“Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” her sister, Mirielin, called through the kitchen window. She was flanked by both animals who were standing on the kitchen counter scowling at Vivienne.

Not bad, but could be smoother. How about:

Her sister’s voice came through the open window. “Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” Mirielin stood at the kitchen counter, flanked by Spot and Kitty who were scowling at Vivienne.

One key to great description is to choose specific details. You’ve done an excellent job showing Mirielin: Mirielin’s reading glasses were tucked into her updo, next to the chopstick that kept her red-gold hair in a messy bun. The reader not only sees her, but gets a glimpse of her personality. You neatly slip in the information about her family (twins) and that she volunteers at a shelter, all without slowing the action. Mirielin’s dialogue appears lighthearted on the surface but hints at her underlying concern with her sister’s odd behavior. Even the use of the nickname “Vivi” tells the reader about their relationship.

You wrap up the first page with a brilliant paragraph:

Her sister’s mouth pursed into a sad knot that Vivienne had named the Woe-a-Widow look. It came over people’s faces when they struggled to comfort her over about the unexpected death of her husband, and the revelations that followed.

You’ve gracefully shown the reader a lot of relevant story information. We know about Vivienne’s inner conflict, as well as what she must deal with in her outside world. At this point, I’m intrigued enough with the characters and actions that I would definitely turn the page to find out why Win’s death was unexpected and what revelations she’s referring to, as well as how Vivienne handles her challenge.

You start with action, give brief but effective snapshots of characters, and hint at a conflict that promises to grow. Just a little polishing will turn this into a terrific first page. Well done, Brave Author!


TKZers, any thoughts or suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?


Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil recently became an Amazon Bestseller in Women’s Adventure. 

First Page Critique: I Wish I Had Her Job



Greetings, fellow travelers! Welcome to the latest installment of First Page Critiques.

Our brave writer has submitted the opening to “I Wish I Had Her Job” for your comment. Read closely. There’s a lot going on here.

I wish I had your job…

Alone at last! Loretta thought. I’m home! I’ve finished dinner. Now I can relax.

Today as always at Demon Investigators, there’d been too much to do, not enough time, too much criticism, and never enough pay.

Today, on top of everything else, her manager James Manetti got a call from the Global Center of Anti-Demonic Operations. They said that they had lost track of most of the Potential Vampire Stakers. Over the past two months, they’d all just disappeared, from wherever they were in the world. No one had any idea where they were.

I have no idea, Loretta thought, what they expect Jimmy to do about it. He promised them that we’d all look into it, and see what we (meaning me) could come up with.

After he hung up, she’d asked Jimmy, “If the Global Center of Operations can’t find them, what do they expect from us?”

He’d shrugged and said, “Who knows?”

There’d also been another annoying call from the Feds; routinely asking again if we’d heard anything about the whereabouts of Sylvia Demarco.   Sylvia, the former Vampire Staker, who’d been convicted of armed robbery and murder, had disappeared from her prison cell about a year ago.  The Feds had no idea where she was.  Nobody who worked at Demon Investigators, her former place of employment, had any idea where she was either.

This evening, 23 year old Loretta Carolton sat alone on the sofa in the living room of her apartment. She’d finished her dinner of canned ravioli that she’d heated in a microwaveable container in the microwave oven, and was now sipping from a half full glass of red wine.

The trim figured woman, with expensively coiffured black hair, remained dressed in the stylish white outfit that she’d worn to work that day. She’d turned on the TV and sat watching CNN.

I’m having wine with Wolf Blitzer again. She thought, I’ve got to get a life!

After the News, she switched to the Demonic Entertainment Network on Channel 666. That was recommended viewing for demon fighters, like herself and everyone else who worked for Demon Investigations. Tonight, something she saw might give her a clue as to the whereabouts of the missing Potential Stakers.

She now sat watching this week’s episode of that Network’s highly rated Travel Series: “Bloodthirsty Traveler”. The show was a documentary. Everything she was about to see actually occurred.


Brave writer, I can tell from this small sample that you’ve got a fully imagined world for us to enter. And I get a picture of Loretta as a positive, yet overworked Demon Investigator. These are real plusses, but let’s explore some changes that could help convince the reader that the story you’re telling is compelling and interesting.

In medias res. This is a narrative concept that puts the reader in the story’s action from the very first scene. You’re telling a story about a demon investigator, so show us immediately how dangerous and interesting that life might be. It’s okay to give your character genuine rest and reflection time, but we don’t need to see her at home, recalling her day right off the bat. Put us in her day, wrapping up a case, or even returning home to find a demon in her rose bushes that she has to deal with before she can have her glass of wine.

Thoughts. As it stands, we are only bystanders for Loretta’s thoughts as she tells us what happened that day. The old standard advice to “show” rather than “tell,” is still sound.

Many folks will tell you it’s wrong to open with dialogue. Personally, I do it all the time, though opinions differ. If you open with any kind of dialogue–especially internal–make sure it grabs us. You can also lose the she thoughts by simply writing internal dialogue in italics.


Where in the world are you, Sylvia? Where does a rogue Vampire Staker hide? 

Loretta Carolton poured herself another glass of Burgundy, and returned to the chair in front of her laptop. The bowl of canned ravioli she’d heated up two minutes after she’d walked through the front door sat beside her, the sickly-sweet sauce congealing into an unappealing mess. She no longer had an appetite. Sylvia DeMarco was loose, and she had to find her before she killed again.

Note: Save your few allowed exclamation points for action dialogue. Even at our most anxious, we don’t really think in exclamation points.

Keep the action in an easy-to-follow order. You have so much information here that’s filtered through Loretta, that you’ll want us to understand it. Lay out the events for yourself, line by line, in chronological order, to take a look at all you’re trying to convey on the first page. Then pare down to one solid event that motivates her to get to work, and illustrate that fully.

There are two flashbacks that occur within moments of the beginning. You do a great job with the writing in the flashbacks, but they act to slow down the story.

Point of view. This excerpt is written primarily in limited 3rd person. We see nearly everything through Loretta’s eyes, and so we will get no additional information that she doesn’t get or have.

Be careful to adhere to this single POV. There are a couple places where you use the word “we.” This is okay if it’s in her thoughts, as in the first instance. But here’s the second: “There’d also been another annoying call from the Feds; routinely asking again if we’d heard anything about the whereabouts of Sylvia Demarco.” You’ve slipped into first person with that “we’d.” With third person, it would be “they’d.”

“This evening, 23 year old Loretta Carolton sat alone on the sofa in the living room of her apartment. She’d finished her dinner of canned ravioli that she’d heated in a microwaveable container in the microwave oven, and was now sipping from a half full glass of red wine.

The trim figured woman, with expensively coiffured black hair, remained dressed in the stylish white outfit that she’d worn to work that day. She’d turned on the TV and sat watching CNN.

I’m having wine with Wolf Blitzer again. She thought, I’ve got to get a life!” [Again, you can use italics and drop the “She thought.”]

I’m wondering why, dear writer, you would have the above section in the middle of the first couple pages. It works as an introduction, which is odd that given that we already have some sense of her. If you’re going to go the contemplative route, this is a better start than what you have now (minus the “This evening”).

Forecasting. It seems evident to me that Loretta will see something useful on “Bloodthirsty Traveler.” If not, you can lose much of the explanation about the show/network. Also, “documentary” already implies that the story is true. No need to reiterate.

In all, I think this is a fun, interesting story. Good job, brave writer!

Zoners: What did I miss? What are your thoughts?


Better Book Descriptions in 3 Easy Steps


Let’s be honest. Writing a book description isn’t fun. It’s grueling, mind-numbing work that I detest with every inch of my being. Mastering the art of back cover copy-writing is an important skill. Therefore, I’m always on the lookout for tips.

Saturday, I sat through yet another webinar on the topic, and a formula emerged, a formula that finally resonated with me (after 11 books, it’s about time). So, I figured I’d share my discovery with you, my beloved TKZers, in the hopes that it’ll work for you, as well.

I should preface this post with, do as I say, not as I do. After my Ah-ha! Moment, I now need to rewrite all my descriptions. Oy. I’d prefer a bullet to the brain.

A 3-Step Formula

Back cover copy follows a simple three-step formula, but we do have wiggle room to experiment. With readers’ short attention spans these days, the advice is to keep the entire description to roughly 150-200 words. If your description runs 25 words longer than the desired range, I wouldn’t sweat it too much.

Step 1: Headline/Hook

To find our hook we need to look at the main conflict of our story. We want readers to identify with said conflict, so don’t shy away from the emotional impact it causes the hero. Don’t dwell on it, either. Every word counts.

The following books sit on Amazon’s Top 10 Bestsellers List in Psychological Thrillers, and each description employs this exact formula. These authors worked hard on their hooks, and it shows.

What would it take to make you intervene? I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll 

It begins with a phone call. It ends with a missing child. Guilty by Laura Elliot

When family secrets are unearthed, a woman’s past can become a dangerous place to hide… Twist of Faith by Ellen J. Green

Every time Gwen closed her eyes, she saw him in her nightmares. Now her eyes are open, and he’s not going away. Killman Creek by Rachel Caine

They were all there the day your sister went missing. Who is lying? Who is next? The Reunion by Samantha Hayes

She’s a daughter he didn’t know he had. Until she calls him… from death row. 30 Days of Justis by John Ellsworth

What if you discovered your husband was a serial killer? Tell Me I’m Wrong by Adam Croft

Side note: Adam Croft is a master at hooking readers. This next book he wrote after he created the hook. What a doozy, too!

Could you murder your wife to save your daughter? Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft

Wow. Right? If that hook doesn’t grab fans of the genre, nothing will.

Step 2: Short Synopsis

The synopsis also follows a micro-formula…

  1. Introduce the protagonist by showing what defines their role in the story.
  2. What is that character up against?
  3. What’s standing in their way?
  4. Transition paragraph or as Kris called it in a 2014 post, “The Big But.”
  5. End with a cliffhanger.

Let’s go back to our examples to see if this micro-formula has merit. The red-bracketed numbers correspond to steps 1-5.

Synopsis of Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft

Nick and Tasha are a couple held together by their five-year-old daughter [1]. Until one ordinary morning, when Ellie vanishes amid the chaos of the school run [2].

Nick knows she can’t have gone far on her own, which can mean only one thing: she’s not on her own. Who would take his daughter, and why? With no motive and no leads, Nick is thrown into a tailspin of suspicion and guilt. Like Tasha, he doesn’t know what to think, or whom to trust… [3]

But then someone starts doing the thinking for him. Confronted with an impossible choice, Nick will have to make a decision, and both options will leave him with blood on his hands. But perhaps that’s to be expected. [4]

After all, Nick’s not quite as blameless as he seems. [5]

I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll

When Ella Longfield overhears two attractive young men flirting with teenage girls on a train, she thinks nothing of it—until she realises they are fresh out of prison and her maternal instinct is put on high alert.[1] But just as she’s decided to call for help, something stops her. The next day, she wakes up to the news that one of the girls—beautiful, green-eyed Anna Ballard—has disappeared. [2]

A year later, Anna is still missing. Ella is wracked with guilt over what she failed to do, and she’s not the only one who can’t forget. Someone is sending her threatening letters—letters that make her fear for her life. [3]

Then an anniversary appeal reveals that Anna’s friends and family might have something to hide. Anna’s best friend, Sarah, hasn’t been telling the whole truth about what really happened that night—and her parents have been keeping secrets of their own. [4]

Someone knows where Anna is—and they’re not telling. But they are watching Ella. [5]

Synopsis of Guilty by Laura Elliot

On a warm summer’s morning, thirteen-year-old school girl Constance Lawson is reported missing. [2]

A few days later, Constance’s uncle, Karl Lawson, suddenly finds himself swept up in a media frenzy created by journalist Amanda Bowe implying that he is the prime suspect. [1]

Six years later … [4]

Karl’s life is in ruins. His marriage is over, his family destroyed. But the woman who took everything away from him is thriving. With a successful career, husband and a gorgeous baby boy, Amanda’s world is complete. Until the day she receives a phone call and in a heartbeat, she is plunged into every mother’s worst nightmare. [3]

* * *

Even though Guilty played with the order, the description works. The formula still holds. Hence why I mentioned the wiggle room at the beginning of this post. *grin* Also note: some authors put their characters’ names and/or important details in bold, and the words catch the reader’s eye.

Step 3: Selling Paragraph

The selling paragraph answers two variations of the same question that readers ask themselves:

It sounds good, but how do I know it’s for me?

Sounds good, but will I like it?

There’s two ways we can go here, by showing similar books — if you enjoyed X, you will love Y — or by simply mentioning the genre.

A psychological thriller that keeps you guessing till the last chilling page.

If you like heart-hammering suspense, this book is for you!

A third option is to use clips of reader reviews or blurbs from authors in your genre.

CLEAVED by Sue Coletta



How far would you go to save your child?

CLICK HERE to look inside CLEAVED.





Over to you, TKZers. Do you use this formula for your book descriptions? If not, are you tempted to try it? Any tips of your own to share?

What is Your Unique Selling Proposition?

by James Scott Bell

Steven Wright (Wikimedia Commons)

If I had to name my favorite comedian, the one I’d most like to see in concert, it would be Steven Wright.

Because he’s a true original, not your typical “Hey, what’s the deal with airline peanuts?” standup guy. He has a hangdog look and deadpan delivery. He specializes in one- or two-liners that are language-bending riffs that twist reality into an existential pretzel. He says things like:

I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn’t park anywhere near the place.

I stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.

I went to a restaurant that says they serve breakfast at any time. So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.

There have been many one-liner comedians, like Henny Youngman (“A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.”) and Rodney Dangerfield (“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I told him I wanted a second opinion. He said, Okay, you’re ugly, too.”), but Steven Wright has carved out a unique niche and loyal following.

He knows his unique selling proposition (USP). He probably wouldn’t use that term, which comes from the world of marketing. But the concept is the same.

In brief, the USP is that special something that sets your product apart from the competition. It’s a market differentiation strategy. And it’s necessary because we have markets stuffed with similar products vying for attention.

There were several delivery services available when Federal Express came along. What did FedEx offer that was different? Overnight delivery. It became the center of all their advertising: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

In the 1990s a fellow named Bezos thought this internet thingy was going to be important someday. He also knew people liked reading. What if he could create a way for readers to browse for books online, order the ones they wanted, and have them delivered right to their door?

Amazon went live in 1995. In 1999, Barron’s Magazine wrote a cover story called “Amazon.Bomb” predicting the company couldn’t possibly sustain itself.

I wonder whatever happened to Amazon? I’ll have to look it up.

The point is, Jeff Bezos is a true visionary, and the first thing a visionary does is develop a USP.

You should too, writer. What is it you bring to the table that a reader can’t just as easily get from some other scribe?

Part of this calculus is voice. But beyond that, it’s what you care about most in your writing. What do you want readers to feel, to know, to awaken to? What themes do you find yourself gripped by?

Write out a mission statement. A mission statement is a one- or two-line encapsulation of what you do, why you do it, and why the market should take notice. For example, here’s Amazon’s current version: “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.”

What’s yours?

Now take USP to each book you write. Look at your plot and characters and ask, How can I do something different? Even a little difference can make … a difference.

When I started thinking about my series character Mike Romeo, I knew I wanted him to be a “down these mean streets” character. We’ve had a lot of those. So I asked myself how I could set him apart. After considering several options, I landed on one of my own special interests, philosophy. I made Mike a genius kid who went to Yale at age fourteen and received specialized training in both the Eastern and Western intellectual traditions—before circumstances sent him on the off-the-grid trajectory. He’s still a seeker of wisdom, but wrapped inside a fighter’s skin. He will try to reason with you, but if you insist on being mean will employ more gladiatorial methods of persuasion. That was enough to get me excited about launching the series.

Another area where authors can strike rich veins of uniqueness is the supporting cast. Don’t ever write “throw away” secondary or minor characters! Use them to add spice to the plot. This is one of the things that makes Janet Evanvoich’s Stephanie Plum series so popular. For my Ty Buchanan legal thriller series I concocted a cast that includes a basketball playing nun (who is not shy about using her elbows), and a former college professor who went nuts for awhile and now runs a coffee house and raises butterflies for funeral ceremonies.

In short, friends, you are the CEO of a company trying to compete in a crowded market. The company is you. Your product is books. So do what all successful companies do—develop that USP. Set yourself apart. Strive to become an original.

Like Mr. Steven Wright:

I’m traveling today, so may not be able to drop by much. Talk amongst yourselves:

  1. Do you have a unique spin as an author?
  2. How is your WIP a little different than what’s been done before?
  3. What authors do you admire who bring a unique quality to their work?