Reader Friday: Holiday Treats

Every family has a holiday tradition, whether it’s a special treat or favorite dish.

In the Coletta household, I bake dozens of almond biscotti. They’re everyone’s favorite snack. My father-in-law devours a plateful in one sitting, my grandchildren grab one after another — sometimes a biscotti in both tiny fists! — and before the family arrives I’m constantly slapping my husband’s hand away from the Tupperware container. They take me hours to make, yet they disappear in minutes.

What’s the one treat or dish that you make (or look forward to eating) every year? How long have you had this tradition? 

SEVEN AT ODDS: First Page Critique

GoDaddy stock phot

Greetings, fellow travelers! Today we venture into a fantasy land of Rwothtyll trees and First Blood Ceremonies. Doesn’t that pique your curiosity? (It did mine.)

Buckle up. Off we go to meet our Brave Author with our First Page Critiques!


At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket.

A peal of laughter erupted from Jilly. “Oh, Alek, you are such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully beneath the harvested leaves. She threw Alek a teasing smirk. She tossed the basket back to him and looked up. “You going to be up there all day, Vo?”

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall.


I like a good fantasy story, and I’m impressed by the author’s particularly close observation of the story’s idyllic setting and the detailed interactions of the characters. This is a vivid, lush world that offers up a number of compelling curiosities that I’d like to know more about. Plus, a Goddess!

Here at the Zone, we operate at a bit of a disadvantage when we do critiques. We have little information as to intended audience. But that’s part of the fun of it!

I’m going to say that SEVEN AT ODDS is a YA fantasy novel about Vo, Alek, Jilly, and–perhaps–four other characters who are at odds with some villain or god(dess) or invader? They feel a little like young superheroes who haven’t yet discovered they’re superheroes, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

I’ll get to edits in a moment, but I first want to say that–and maybe it’s just me–I wanted more tension, more action, a sense that something tense and important and dangerous is about to happen. As it stands, it simmers a bit too low, but can easily be pumped up. Thoughts:

At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. 

Stakes! Tension! Flow!

We have weird, spooky sounds. An unpredictable goddess. And our friend Vo doesn’t seem particularly alarmed, but goes on to harvest his lemony leaves…My curiosity was initially piqued, but I kind of lose interest when Vo does.

(Forgive me if my rewriting bits don’t track or you find repetitions–I took each paragraph and messed with it and didn’t go for a full rewrite.)

It’s not a bad idea to start with a mysterious sound. But NEVER start with a character thinking. Or wondering. *yawns” I believe this was mentioned on another recent critique. Give our hero something interesting to do, or at least have him reacting physically or psychologically. I was also bugged because I had to assume he was up a tree and didn’t get it until Alek and Jilly were positioned below.

“Animal mating calls” is a bit too general. And let us know immediately why it’s the wrong time of year.

Simplify actions and reactions. Keep dialogue natural. No need to repeat names. erupting peals. Keep it simple.


High above the forest floor, Vo stilled his harvest knife in the middle of sawing a cluster of Rwothyll leaves from their branch, and turned his head to listen. Faint ululations, like animal cries, arose in the distance. He guessed they might be the mating calls of some mountain creature. Except it was autumn—a brutally hot autumn—not mating season. It was hard to know for certain what they were. They might even be some trick or riddle of the Goddess, whose ways were often a mystery to Vo and his fellow villagers. Turning back to the tree’s silver-green leaves, he finished sawing through the branch, sending the cluster tumbling down to where Alek and Jilly waited below.

Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair out of his eyes, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. Jilly laughed and gave Alek a playful push. “You’re such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Alek has a basket, so how is he waving? Vo returning the gesture is awkward as well. It’s all a bit too happy, happy.

Vo smiled down at his friends. But his smile faltered as a cloud suddenly dimmed the sunlight. Despite the heat, he shivered. Something’s wrong. Something’s coming, he thought. Or had he just had too much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the previous night? He tried to shake off the tension by cutting another cluster-filled branch. Focusing on the work. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Give Jilly and Alek more interaction. They are oblivious to what is going on with Vo.

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully to catch the falling bundle. She gave a little curtsy, and, smirking, she tossed the full basket back to Alek. “No big deal,” she said. Alek shrugged, obviously pretending to be unimpressed, and called up to Vo. “Come on down. We’ve got enough.” Jilly stuck out her tongue behind his back.

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall. 

Oh, no, Vo! The head shaking and groaning is a bit much as a response to Jilly or Alek asking if he’s coming down soon. He has other more important stuff on his mind–establish earlier that he’s feeling like crap.

I love the description of the terraced hillside. But save it for a page or two because here it diminishes the occurrence of the new sounds. You’ve ramped up the tension, so keep it tense. You don’t have to deliver everything in the first page. Here’s what I would do with the last paragraph:

Vo sheathed the knife, and had just gripped the rope to shimmy down, when more haunting cries, louder now, floated down the hillside brooding over the village. This time they were accompanied by the blast of a [name a local type of horn here] horn, and what sounded like the thrumming of a thousand heartbeats. No. The cries definitely weren’t animal noises. He glanced down to see if Alek and Jilly had heard, too. They had. Their upturned faces were filled with fear.

Yes, I have had lots of opinions about this piece. But I definitely feel it was worth an edit. Good job, Brave Author. Hope this is useful.

TKZers! Thoughts?

First Page Critique – Zip & Millie: Siberian Adventure

by Debbie Burke


Please welcome today’s Brave Author who’s submitted a first page entitled:

Zip&Milly: Siberian Adventure

Russian train – courtesy of Wikimedia

“Raccoon” — an inquisitive legal assistant from Ducklingburg, U.S.A., appeared in the car of a speeding Siberian commuter rail quite unexpectedly.

Appeared being the operative word. Raccoon was not exactly sure how he got there.

He did not board the rail; did not catch the rail; did not even wake up there with a start. He just . . .  appeared.

A gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air shifted and carefully inserted Raccoon’s body into a tight spot between two groups of bulkily dressed people . . . then, before he could get oriented, that same fresh-smelling waft nudged on and pushed him forward, along the swaying length of swiftly moving train, down the narrow corridor with a row of closed compartment doors on one side.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in . . . and, finding no grounding point to balance himself, fell in into the closest compartment.

First thing he saw was Zip — or, more precisely, Spaniel Zip’s rear quarters.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down. Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg.

The Spaniel lay stiffly in the most unflattering position. Head buried deep under the train bench, black hind paws and short un-wagging tail sticking out on the floor, spread like a dead frog, and Zip’s most embarrassing part — the bright-yellow spot of fur under his tail that made him look like he — was not to careful doing business — was shining in full view.

Not like Zip at all, Raccoon plopped on the floor, sinking feeling in his stomach. Anybody who met Zip knew: Zip would rather die than let his rear side be seen in public.

Raccoon caught a glimpse of red under Zip’s hind paws . . ..

“Zippy?!” Raccoon hunted under the bench, hooked his arm around the dog’s neck and, scooping Zip, pulled gently, cajoling, “Zippy, why are you hiding — come outta — OUCH! Don’t bite!”

Zip whimpered, and scrambled, burrowing deeper under the bench, from where he growled with an unapologetic menace.

“Alive!” breathed out Raccoon, and for the first time, glanced up. Where are we?”

The train definitely looked like nothing that connected through their native Ducklingburg.


Let’s get to work.

This story appears to be a humorous fantasy about teleportation directed at young readers. The POV character is described as an inquisitive legal assistant named Raccoon from Ducklingburg, USA. He suddenly appears in a speeding Siberian commuter train without knowing how he got there. Kudos to the brave writer for starting with action and minimal backstory.

Animal names set a playful, lighthearted tone but also raise a question: is Raccoon the nickname of a human character or is he actually a furry, four-legged critter with a black mask across his eyes?

In all genres, pictures from the writer’s vivid imagination must translate to the page. In fantasy, that’s even more important because the world is unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, in this first page, the reader feels as lost and confused as poor Raccoon.

A scene in a fantasy world must be made clear to the reader. How does Raccoon know he’s on a Siberian commuter rail as opposed to, say, a New York subway?

The laws of physics in a fantasy world must also be clear.

How does a gentle waft of air carefully insert a person into a crowd? How does it then push him along a corridor? A waft isn’t powerful enough to move a person. Waft means “a gentle movement of air,” so adding gentle is redundant. Perhaps “force field” would be a better term to describe it.

The compartment doors are closed. How does Raccoon physically move through a closed door? Or do you mean a door is ajar and he falls through the opening? Clarify. Delete the extra word: fell in into.

There are too many modifiersquite unexpectedly; was not exactly sure; gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air; carefully inserted. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs dilutes the power of the prose.

You’ve chosen some good verbs, like nudged, hooked, scooping, but they’re used awkwardly. Suggest you simply say nudged, rather than nudged on. Also you don’t need pushed in addition to nudged.

The description of Raccoon attempting to steady himself on the swaying train confused me.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in

He’s actually steeling his stance, not his gait, which describes movement (walking, running).

Head forward, chin in sounds inherently off-balance, which is how I felt reading this submission. Try physically acting out the movements in order to more clearly explain what’s happening.

Next, Raccoon spots Zip, a spaniel that belongs to an important client. However Raccoon’s dialogue causes confusion.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down.

“Score!” is an odd word to use when Raccoon first sees the dog, unless it’s made clear earlier that Raccoon has been searching for him and finally finds him.

“Get here!” should read “Get over here!”

Why does Raccoon feel the need to whisper? Is there someone else in the compartment he doesn’t want to overhear him? If so, you need to show that character.

Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg is a good summation of the story problem but seems misplaced. Suggest you move the sentence earlier in the page.

Was not to careful doing business should read Was not too careful doing his business.

When Raccoon sees blood, he worries Zip is dead. But the dog quickly proves he’s alive by nipping, scrambling away, burrowing under the bench, and growling. At the end of all these actions, Raccoon says, “Alive!” The timing of that exclamation is too long after the reader understands Zip isn’t dead.

Here’s one way the page could be rewritten:

Zip the spaniel was missing. Raccoon, an assistant at the Ducklingburg Law Firm, sat at his desk, wondering how to tell his boss that their best client’s dog had disappeared. He took a deep breath. From nowhere, a smell of spring flowers filled his nostrils.

Without warning, a gust of wind whisked Raccoon from his chair and set him down inside the crowded passenger car of a speeding train. The swaying movement made him stagger. He stumbled into a woman dressed in a bulky, fur-trimmed parka. She glared at him and spoke in a language that sounded like Russian. Outside the train windows, snow drifted across tundra.

Before Raccoon had time to steady himself–let alone wonder how he’d gotten there–the sweet-smelling wind shoved him into a corridor with compartments lining one side. He tried to stop the force by planting his feet but the gust tumbled him like a fallen leaf. He fell through the open door of a compartment, landing with a jolt on the floor, sprawled on his hands and knees.

Under the bench seat, he saw a dog’s hindquarters, stained with red, black rear paws spread out like a dead frog. Raccoon zeroed in on a bright yellow spot that looked as if the dog hadn’t been careful while doing his business—the embarrassing spot under his tail that Zip always tried to keep hidden.

“Zippy!” Raccoon reached under the bench to scoop him out but the spaniel sank sharp teeth into his hand. He jerked back. “Ouch! Don’t bite!” Blood seeped from the punctures. “Thank goodness you’re alive. But what are you doing here?” Dazed and dizzy, Raccoon glanced around the compartment. “What are we doing here?”

Odd punctuation was distracting. Insert spaces between Zip & Milly. The “s” in spring-smelling isn’t capitalized. Semicolons are generally not used in fiction. Try Googling punctuation rules to see when dashes, ellipses, and italics should be used. Here’s one helpful link:

Be careful with your choreography. Movements have to make sense, be clear, and occur in the correct order that they happen. Action comes before reaction. Cause leads to effect.

I suggest you pretend to be on a swaying train and examine exactly how your body feels as you stagger and fall. Kneel on the floor and reach for an imaginary dog under a bench. When it nips, your arm will instinctively jerk back before you yell, “Ouch!”

By physically acting out the movements, rather than simply visualizing them in your head, you’ll have a better idea how to explain each step to the reader.

Brave Author, your humor comes through. Play up that quality. The story premise is fun. Your description of the dog’s hindquarters “spread like a dead frog” is spot on.

You’ve already taken an important step by submitting this first page. Opening yourself to feedback takes courage.

Critique can hurt as much as Zip’s bite. Read these suggestions. Feel free to jerk back in pain and yell “Ouch!” Wash the wounds and put on Band-Aids.

Then come back later and reread. Suggestions don’t hurt as much the second time around. At TKZ, we want to help you make your story as good as it can be.

Most important, please don’t be discouraged. Keep writing.


Your turn, TKZers. Any ideas to help out our Brave Author?



First page critiques work. Shortly after Debbie Burke submitted to TKZ‘s review, her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and was published.

The Value of Libraries

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert” – Andrew Carnegie

My local library is a hive of activity with a bustling cafe attached, a used book sale area, and a busy downstairs where almost every table is occupied by 10am with people working on laptops, reading newspapers, or logging on to the free wifi on the row of public computers available. Upstairs, there is wonderful children’s section with story time and other parent-children activities, and meeting rooms that hold an array of community events and speakers. I remain thankful that my local community and government values a library such as ours because in many other places, the very existence of community libraries is under threat. In the UK for example, nearly 500 libraries have closed since 2010 and many libraries are now being run by volunteers due to budgetary costs and restrictions. The results of this are heartbreaking, especially since, by many accounts library use is actually on the increase (see The Guardian’s report on library closures here).

After seeing posts on Twitter about the rise in volunteer-run libraries in England, I began to think more carefully about what libraries mean to me and my community. They are more than just a place to borrow books or DVDs or CDs – for some it’s a safe, warm, place to read or study, for others it may be a way to find social connection in their lives, and for some people it might be their only way of accessing the internet (which could be crucial in terms of a job search or education). The more I thought about libraries, the more I realized how lucky I was to have such a fantastic one in my community.

Growing up in Australia, our local library was really my only source of research (yes, this was in the dark ages before the internet) and it was a family outing to go there to borrow books or to get material needed for dreaded homework assignments. Now, although I can access much of my book research online, I still find myself drawn to my local library – and I’m frequently seen laden down with books as I struggle back to my car. Our library recently updated their online ebook lending system (the app is called Libby) which makes it easy to borrow ebooks and download them to my Kindle. So for me the library has immediate, work related value, in that it enables me to undertake research without completely draining my bank account:) For my twin boys, the library is still their ‘go to’ place for books and they have discovered many new series and authors simply by making a decision to try something new (no risk as no money was expended!).  For many others, the library provides intangible benefits too – offering a means of attaining social mobility, self-improvement and providing opportunities to reach beyond the limitations of social or economic class.

Still, I wonder in this day and age whether people still value libraries the way I do – so I was heartened to read the American Library Association’s annual report (which you can view here) that indicates that American libraries are still receiving the funding and attention they deserve (though that’s not to say there aren’t still challenges or threats to that!).

So TKZers, I’d love to know what libraries mean to you. Do you still visit your local community library on a regular basis? What do you think is the value of a library today?


What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing

by James Scott Bell

Next year will be my 24th as a professional writer.

When my first book hit the shelves nobody used a cell phone (Seinfeld had that big brick handset with the antenna, remember?) O.J. Simpson had been found not guilty and Bill Cosby was still America’s most beloved dad. Microsoft released Windows 95. And a guy named Bezos launched a website that was purportedly going to sell books to consumers right over the internet! Everybody thought he was nuts.

For the seven years previous I’d been studying the craft of screenwriting and fiction, and writing every day. I devoured books on writing and gobbled up each monthly issue of Writer’s Digest. I have several shelves of my beloved writing books (and binders full of WDs), all highlighted and sticky-noted in some form or fashion. Every so often I like to pull one off the shelf to see what I highlighted, and relive some of the excitement of discovering something that worked for me.

The other day took down The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction by Barnaby Conrad, published by Writer’s Digest Books. It’s a collection of articles and interviews from the famous Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which Conrad directed for many years.

There was something tucked inside the book. It was a pamphlet titled 12 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Writing by Ben Bova, the science-fiction writer and editor. I think this came as a freebie with a book ordered from the Writer’s Digest Book Club, of which I was an enthusiastic member. So I had another look at Bova’s lessons and thought I’d reflect on them with you today. The first two are unsurprising:

  1. Write every day.
  2. Read widely.

All serious writing students know this, though I would edit the first one thus: write to a weekly quota. Figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, then up that by 10% for your goal.

  1. Write about WHO you know.

Bova stresses the importance of well-rounded characters. Basic, of course, but coming from the sci-fi genre Bova knows it’s a temptation to overemphasize world-building.

  1. Character + Problem = Story.

I would change Problem to Plot, where plot is defined as a life-or-death battle which the character meets by strength of will.

  1. No villains.

This is Bova’s most important tip. The “villain” does not see himself that way. “Every tyrant in history was convinced that he had to do the things he did, for is own good or for the good of the people around him,” Bova writes.

I always counsel writers to know the bad guy’s “closing argument.” If he were on trial, what would he say to defend himself? And mean it?

  1. Start in the middle.

My heart sang. Had Bova anticipated Write Your Novel From the Middle? Ahem. No. He was talking about the opening pages, and he echoes one of my constant refrains: act first, explain later. Bova explains:

[Start] your story in the midst of brisk, exciting action. Start in the middle! Don’t waste time telling us how your protagonist got into the pickle he’s in. Show him struggling to get free. You can always fill in the background details later.

Particularly in a novel, it’s tempting to set the scene, explain the protagonist’s background, describe how she got to where she is. Cut all that out. Or, at least, save it for later. Start in the midst of action. Hook that reader right away or you won’t hook him at all.

  1. The chain of promises.

Don’t present a problem on page one and then solve it. Pile them up. “Each problem you present to the protagonist is a promise to the reader that there will be suspense, excitement, adventure in solving that problem.”

  1. Use all five senses.

Bova rightly notes that writers tend to favor sight and sound. Add touch, taste, and smell.

  1. Point of view.

Bova makes a case for close 3d Person, so you can be intimate with a character in one scene, then cut away to another character, and so on. He does not favor First Person because he finds it too limiting. Hmm. Tell that to Raymond Chandler.

The last three tips come from another world, when hard-copy manuscripts were submitted to agents and editors. Imagine that!

  1. Make your manuscript readable.

“Typed, whether on a typewriter or a computer printer.”

Remember when that was an actual choice?

  1. Study the markets.

“Publishers think in categories. You must too.”

  1. Cover letters.

“And always remember to include the SASE.”

(For you kids out there, SASE stands for “Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.” Ask your parents what that means.)

All this got me thinking: what is something I wish I’d known when I started out? I’ll give you a twofer:

  1. Scene Structure.

I wrote four or five screenplays that didn’t generate any interest. What finally broke me through was an epiphany while reading Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. Specifically, his chapter on scene and sequel. More specifically, understanding the scene beats of Goal, Conflict, Disaster. No more weak or meandering scenes after that. The next script I wrote got me an agent.

  1. The Mind is as Important as the Keyboard

The initial thrill of being published eventually ran into a new set of challenges familiar to all writers who make it inside the gates of the Forbidden City. Stuff like comparison, envy, self-doubt, bad reviews. All of which interfere with the joy of writing. Faith and family were in place for me, but I also studied specific topics like gratitude, contentment, focus, and discipline. So important are these that I wrote a book to help writers prepare for and deal with the mental game of writing.

So, TKZers, if you’ve been around the block, what is something you wish you had known when you were starting out?

And if you are just starting out, what is something you want to know? Ask away, and one of our crack team of bloggers will take a flyer at an answer—for I am in travel mode today and my check-in may be sketchy.


Series, -Ogy, or Stand-Alone?

By John Gilstrap

I am often asked about the business and creative considerations of writing a thriller series as opposed to writing stand-alone thrillers.  The truthful answer is a shrug and a heartfelt “I don’t know.” But having written both over the course of my career, I guess I have some thoughts to share.

An -ogy is not a series.

A trilogy or a quintilogy is not a series.  It is a single story broken up into parts.  As I understand it, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was originally a single manuscript.  There being no market for a 900,000-word book, however, he broke the one story into multiple parts.  I don’t know if that story is true, but I like it because it proves my point.  In an -ogy, there’s no anticipation from the reader for a completed story at the end of any volume but the last one.

The Harry Potter saga is another example–one with which I’m more familiar because I actually read the books.  Not to be confused with Hobbitty stories, which I have not.  Book One of the septilogy (is that a word?) is dedicated mostly to establishing the wizarding world, along with establishing relationships between the kids.  The whole business of the Sorcerer’s Stone is more of a MacGuffin.  At the end of that volume, while there is a sense of continuing peril, Harry’s immediate world is stable.  Looking back on those books, I believe that Rowling wrote Sorcerer’s Stone in a way that it could have lived on as a stand-alone if the market had not embraced Harry and Hogwarts.

Beginning with Book Two, and continuing all the way through to the end, the Potter story was a continuous one.  Even though Harry resolved the immediate crisis of each book, the last pages always revealed more impending doom.  There was no real resolution.

A series is more episodic.

My Jonathan Grave thriller series is not a continuing story, but is rather a collection of stand-alone stories that involve recurring main characters.  Jonathan Grave’s character arc over the course of eleven books now is very long and slow, while the arcs of the characters he interacts with are completely developed within each book.  There are Easter eggs for readers who have read all the books in order, but I am careful to make each episode as fulfilling for a reader who picks up  Book Ten as their first exposure to the series as it is for a reader who’s been with me from the beginning.

Writers like the always-fabulous Donna Andrews write series that are driven as much by place as by characters.  The people in her fictional town of Caerphilly, Virginia, are a hoot, even though an extraordinary number of people are murdered there.

Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme solves a new crime by the end of every book.  While Rhyme’s medical progress as a quadriplegic is continually evolving from book to book, as is his relationship with Amelia, a new reader is well-grounded in any story, without benefit of having read the previous ones.

A stand-alone, well, stands alone.

When I finished Nathan’s Run, the story was over.  There was no place I could feasibly have taken Nathan or the other characters to tell a new story.  That was the case with each of the following three novels and, of course, with my nonfiction book.  I think the primary characteristic of a stand-alone is that “The End” means the end.  The character and story arcs have all been driven to ground.

A series takes planning.

When I was writing No Mercy, the first book in the Grave series, I knew in my heart that I had finally landed on a character who could support a series.  What I didn’t know was whether or not a publisher would buy it, and if they did, whether they’d support the idea of developing the one story into many.  Still, I made a conscious effort to plant as much fodder as I could for potential use in future stories.  For example:

  1. Jonathan is a former Delta Force operator, leaving the potential for stories dealing with his days in the Unit.
  2. His hostage rescue activities are a covert part of a legitimate private investigation firm that does work for some of the largest corporate names in the world.  This sets up potential stories set in the world of more common private investigators.
  3. Jonathan is the primary benefactor for Resurrection House, a school for the children of incarcerated parents.  When every student has parents with lots of enemies, there’s lots of potential for future stories.
  4. His home, Fisherman’s Cove, Virginia, is the town where he grew up.  This puts him in the midst of people who already know the darkest secrets of his childhood and accept him for who he is.  Or they don’t.  This sets up the potential for small  town conflicts.

There are many more such seeds, but there’s no need to highlight them all.  The point is that unlike a stand-alone, a series needs to be engineered not just for the current book, but for future books as well.

What do y’all think?  Do these resonate with you?  What have I forgotten?

And finally, tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the United States.  For those who celebrate, I wish you a wonderful time with whatever your holiday traditions may be.  For those of you who read this from somewhere other than America, I wish you a great day with lots of high-calorie food and televised sports!

When Should A Story End?

Vincent the Lost dog with dead friend

I suppose sequels are inevitable for a writer of a certain age. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

We’re binge-watching Breaking Bad in my house lately. I know, I know…I am the last one to the party, but now I am hooked. Great characters (and a lesson in how writers can make even the most reprehensible people sympathetic). Great plotting (and a lesson on how writers should strive to make each plot point arise organically from character).  And each episode ends with a cliff-hanger.

We’re almost to the end. So the husband and I looked at each other last night and said, “how in the heck are they going to tie this up?” And the first thing I thought was:

Please, don’t let it be another Lost.

Do you remember Lost? The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were 1,000 miles off course when they crashed on a lush mysterious island. Each person had a shocking secret, but so did the island — an underground group of violent survivalists that made The Time Machine’s Morlocks look like teletubbies.  I loved that show, grooving on its nerdy sci-fi cum mythology thing. But somewhere around season three, things started to get…dumb. I was mentally exhausted trying to make sense of it all (what’s with the polar bear? Who cares how Jack got his tattoos?) and finally, I gave up. Plus I was too worried that Vincent the Labrador Retriever would get killed. One by one, all his owners did.

I think what happened with Lost was that it was so hot that ABC got cynical and said, “Find any way to keep it going!” It felt like the writers were just winging it, with no real thoughtful end ever in sight. (This happened with season two of the original Twin Peaks, you remember). Apparently, I should have toughed it out with Lost. Rabid fans tell me the writers found their focus again and that I missed a great payoff. Today, the series is being reassessed as break-through serial television, giving TV bean-counters the guts to take chances on great stuff like Game of Thrones and yes, Breaking Bad.

All this was on my mind the other day because I read an intriguing article in the New York Times by Amanda Hess called “The Curse of the Never-Ending Story.” Click here to read it. Hess bemoans the trend of turning stories into franchises that trudge across Hulu and populate Amazon like zombies, always alive when they should be dead.

Today, the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book: Stories that extend indefinitely, their plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams. Or maybe every story is a soap opera now: Nobody is dead forever, not Dan Conner of Roseanne and definitely not the superhero genocide victims of Infinity War. To Hollywood’s bean-counters, sequels are mere brand extensions of intellectual property. The logic of the  internet is colonizing everything.

So far this decade, 17 of the top 20 top grossing movies were sequels. Television is eating itself alive with reboots (Lost in Space, Will & Grace, and egad, Murphy Brown wearing a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt). And apparently, there are second acts in American life: Harry Potter made it to Broadway.

I am not sure what this means for us novelists. For those of us who write series crime fiction, it can be a struggle to keep our plots fresh without straining credibility. How many times can our hero get shot or beat up? How many bodies can turn up in Cabot Cove, the apparent murder capital of the world? How deep do we dig into the brains of our hero without looking like that creepy family in Get Out?

But maybe this is really in my thoughts right now for a different reason. One that I don’t want to deal with.

Back in 2015, our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE was published by Thomas & Mercer.  I loved writing this story about Amelia Brody, an amnesiac who is convinced her husband tried to kill her so she goes on the run. It is, at its thematic heart, about what happens to your soul when you try to live an inauthentic life. It is about a woman whose past is erased, so she must painfully reconstruct it before she can have a chance at a future. When I typed THE END, I was convinced I had nothing more to say.

The problem I don’t want to deal with? I think I might be wrong.

In SHE’S NOT THERE, there was a skip tracer named Clay Buchanan who was hired by Amelia’s husband to track her down and kill her. Buchanan was one of those characters who emerge from the ether of the imagination unbidden; he was supposed to be a cameo, but he became a second protagonist. Amelia is desperate to remember her past. Buchanan is desperate to forget his. His wife and infant son disappeared ten years ago and he was accused of murdering them. He was cleared but his life was broken, especially because he lost custody of his daughter. Like Amelia, he can’t move forward until he fully confronts his past. Throughout the book, I use a devise where his dead wife speaks to him — or, in his grief, he believe she does. In one scene, he is looking at a photograph of his wife:

Buchanan stared at the photo then he looked up, into the shadows of his bedroom.

“Are you here, Rayna?”

He heard nothing.

“I need to know something,” he said. “I need to know if it’s too late.”

Still, silence.

For the first time, she is gone. But in this “man in the mirror” moment, Buchanan makes the decision that he will find out the truth about what happened to her. Until he knows for certain, he can’t move forward. This happens on page 362, the second to last chapter. When we wrote this scene, we had no intention of revisiting Clay Buchanan. I believed just having him decide to take action was enough. But then readers weighed in — often and loudly.  They wanted to know what was going to happen. They want to hear Buchanan again. They weren’t content with silence.

I have mixed feelings about this because I’ve always believed that all stories have a logical end, that you shouldn’t over-explain. I’ve always believed in the power of ambiguity, even in unhappily ever after. (I blogged HERE about it a couple years back). I believe in leaving some space at the end of a story for readers to fill in the missing pieces themselves, to imagine what a character’s life is like after they close the book. I like the idea that readers can “write” their own epilogues.

But I think I might be wrong this time. I think I might have to write a sequel.

I’m having trouble getting moving on this book. Partly is it because I don’t want this to feel forced or derivative. I don’t want this to be a soap opera. Maybe I have seen too many bad movie sequels that felt cannibalized or read too many series thrillers that felt phoned in. Maybe I am just worried because, so far, Clay Buchanan isn’t talking to me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not listening hard enough.

My sister Kelly keeps telling me, as she always does when I am blocked, to just have faith, that we will figure it out before we’ve been there before. But with this one, we haven’t. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. As they say in the serials, stay tuned…

Let’s Talk About the Skeleton in the Room


I’ve seen way too many medical professionals in the last six months (living with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis isn’t always easy). As Joe pointed out Saturday—beautifully, I might add—life as we know it can change in an instant. In short, remember to have fun. Laughter really is the best medicine.

One way I’ve amused myself while waiting in the exam room is by analyzing the skeleton suspended by a metal pole. You know the one … the staff usually names it Fred, or something equally common, as though the name will somehow lessen the impact of bad news.

What I find fascinating is the fact that the vast majority of doctors and nurses don’t know the sex of their skeleton, evident by the female skeletons tagged with a male name.

Determining the Sex of a Skeleton

Many differences exist between the two sexes, and the variations run as deep as our bones. This becomes especially important for corpses found in an advanced stage of decomposition. All that might remain is the skeleton, perhaps teeth, and possibly some hair. Even if the pathologist has teeth and hair to work with, that doesn’t mean enough DNA material remains to identify the victim.

This is where the skeleton offers more information. The only exception would be that of a pre-adolescent, where sexual dimorphism is slight, making the task much more difficult. Need to buy time in your story? Murder an adolescent. (Oh, no, she didn’t just say that.) Or have the killer shatter the key areas of the skeleton.

The most common way to determine a skeleton’s sex is by bone size. Not the most accurate, but it’s a starting point. Male bones are generally larger than female bones because of the additional muscle that increases on the male through adolescence and into adulthood.

Another good inclination of sex is the pelvic area.

The sub-pubic angle (or pubic angle) is the angle formed at pubic arch by the convergence of the inferior rami of the ischium (loop bone at the base) and pubis (top of loop) on either side. Generally, the sub-pubic angle of 50-60 degrees indicates a male. Whereas an angle of 70-90 degrees indicates a female. Women have wider hips to allow for childbirth.



There are also distinctive differences between the pubic arches in males and females. A woman’s pubic arch is wider than a male’s as is the pelvic inlet to allow a baby’s head to pass through.

The pubic arch is also referred to as the ischiopubic arch. Incidentally, this difference is noticed in all species, not just humans.



The area around the pelvic inlet (middle of the pelvic bone) is larger in females than in males. A female skeleton who has given birth naturally will be identifiable because this space widens during childbirth. Even though it contracts afterward, it never fully returns to its original size. In the picture above notice the heart-shaped space.


If you don’t want the pathologist to easily ID the victim, perhaps the neighborhood bear takes off with the pelvis bone. You could also have him return for the rest of the body as the coroner is examining the corpse. Talk about adding conflict to the scene! Just remember, most black bears don’t eat human flesh (in my area, anyway). So, do your homework. Grizzly bear, anyone? How about a Kodiak brown bear?

Other Body Clues

The acetabulum—the socket where the femur (thigh bone) meets the pelvis—is larger in males. Also, the head and skull have several characteristics that help the pathologist (or crime writer) determine male from female.

  • In males, the chin is squarer. Females tend to have a slightly more pointed chin.
  • The forehead of males slant backward, where females have a slightly more rounded forehead.
  • Males tend to have brow ridges; females do not.

These differences and more tell the pathologist the sex of the deceased.

So, the next time you’re sitting in an exam room, get friendly with the skeleton in the room. Who knows? You may even sell a book or two when you educate the staff. Do it nicely, though. Some medical professionals don’t like to be schooled by a crime writer, as weird as that sounds. 🙂

Wishing you all a joyous Thanksgiving!