Where Inspiration Comes From

By John Gilstrap

Over the weekend, on the heels of the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, I participated in a small, 20-person writers’ retreat, and I was reminded at how inspirational it is simply to be in the presence of other writers.  No fans, no industry people, just other authors who are doing their best to carve a living out of a crazy business.

I’ve been doing this a long time, yet there’s always another tidbit or two to be learned from others, even if it’s a different squint on a common problem.

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Arizona

Fired up with creativity, Joy and I joined with another couple and headed off for a week in the Great Southwest.  Our final destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico, but our first stopping point was Monument Valley, Arizona.  We stayed at The View Hotel on the Navajo Reservation, and Mother Nature presented us with the very best she had to offer.

I don’t remember the last time I had an unobstructed view of a moonless, entirely dark night sky.  The sight of billions of stars, stretching from horizon to horizon brought tears to my eyes.  It centered me.

And when I awoke the next morning, I was greeted with a sight that turned out to be photo-friendly.  The sun rose slowly against the big sky, and every few minutes the light changed again.  After a couple of snapshots, I realized I was squandering my gift from God.  Moments like that are meant to be experienced. They are meant to be savored.  It sounds corny, but something changed in me.

I’m better because of the experience.

What fleeting moments in your life have had a profound impact on you?

Fair warning: I’ll be savoring Santa Fe when this is published, so I won’t be participating much in the responses.

Our Flawed But Fab Jury System
And a Few Other Favorite Things

By PJ Parrish

When you read this, I will be sitting on a hard plastic chair somewhere in the bowels of the Leon County Courthouse. Duty calls…

People go their entire lives without getting called to serve on a jury. Me, it’s like the common cold. It always finds me. And no matter what I say in voir dire, I have almost always gotten seated. Must be my honest face.

I’ve been called up nine times and been seated on seven juries. A couple cases were settled and the others were pretty ho-hum. A man we convicted of drunk driving, who luckily didn’t kill anyone. A city contractor caught driving a garbage truck without the proper permits who we convicted but knocked down his fine to $30 because he was a working guy. Then there was the woman who was suing a trucking company for hitting her car, claiming extreme emotional and physical distress. It was so bad, her tearful daughter vowed on the stand, that mom became a recluse who couldn’t walk or even reach down to pet her dog Charlie.  So sad…until the insurance company’s lawyer showed us a video of the woman coming out of a strip mall, holding her hands high, a gesture I immediately recognized as someone who had just gotten her nails done. A second video showed her bending down, grabbing the floor mat out of her car and banging the hell out of it against a curb to get the dirt out. I think we awarded her a couple hundred bucks toward medical bills. Or a new manicure..

I always thought these mundane cases had no real effect on people’s lives. Until the last jury I served on. It involved a cop and a black teenager. The cop was accusing the kid of assault after a routine traffic stop. To make a long story short, the cop’s case didn’t hold water and after about an hour of deliberation, we decided the kid didn’t do it. I will never forget the sight of that kid and his mom breaking down and sobbing after the verdict.

Life, when it really hits you in the face, is always stranger and more poignant than fiction.

So tomorrow, as I sip my cup of bad vending machine coffee and await my turn, I will be thinking again of our peer judicial system. Flawed as it may be, as it still has the power to humble me. If you’ve got any stories to tell about your own brushes with it, weigh in today while I am tied up. (I will try to reply as I can, if the wifi is working.)

Or you can have some fun and play the following game. It’s called These Are A Few of My Favorite Weird Things. Hit it, Maria!


(Aren’t you glad I spared you a video of Julie Andews?)

1. Favorite Movie Most People Have Never Seen

Mine is the Bagdad Cafe. It is a 1987 comedy-drama set in a desolate truck stop and motel in the Mojave Desert. I’m told it’s loosely based on Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, but I’ll be danged if I see it. It’s about two women, a lonely German tourist and an irascible black mom, who chuck their husbands and form an unlikely friendship. Jack Palance is great as Rudy Cox, a strange Hollywood set designer who desperately wants to paint the zaftig Frau Münchgstettner.  At first, the movie feels just weird and angry. But it  weaves a magic about how one person can change another’s life. And the song I’m Calling You (nominated for Oscar) is haunting:

2. Favorite Book Nobody Else Has Read

Mine is Time And Again by Jack Finney. I don’t remember how I discovered this book. Probably in a used book store on one of my pre-Kindle travels because I always run out of things to read and have to scout out the nearest English-language bookstore. Actually, lots of folks know about this book. Stephen King calls it “a great time-travel novel” and I think our own James has mentioned it. In a nutshell:

When advertising artist Si Morley is recruited to join a covert government operation exploring the possibility of time travel, he jumps at the chance to leave his twentieth-century existence and step into New York City in January 1882. Aside from his thirst for experience, he has good reason to return to the past—his friend Kate has a curious, half-burned letter dated from that year, and he wants to trace the mystery. But when Si begins to fall in love with a woman he meets in the past, he will be forced to choose between two worlds—forever.

It was written in 1970 and supposedly Robert Redford tried to make a movie out of it. Lionsgate recently optioned it again. In 1980, the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour weeper Somewhere In Time used the exact same time-travel technique as Finney’s book. The book has lots of cool photos of old New York.

3. Favorite Disgusting Food

On my first trip to Paris with husband two, we were young and foolish. Our French was pretty bad back then and there was no such thing as iTranslate. We went to a restaurant called Le Petit Zinc and, feeling frisky, ordered something called ris de veau. It was delicious, tasty meaty morsels swimming in Madeira mushroom sauce. We finally asked the waiter what it was, and he had his fun with us, saying “C’est testicules.”  That we understood.  We didn’t care.

4. Favorite Thing To Do When No One Is Looking

Sing Bohemian Rhapsody in the car. Very loudly.

5. Favorite Opposite-Sex Guilty Pleasure Movie

Okay, guys have to tell their favorite girl flick. Ladies have to come up with a man-movie. I have a couple favorite guy movies, like The Guns of Navarone and all the Dirty Harry movies. But I never turn down a chance to watch The Dirty Dozen. I’ll stop channel-surfing and watch it. Can’t help it. It gets to me every time.

6. Favorite Book I Wish I Had Written

I like everything Joyce Carol Oates writes. Even when she’s off, she’s better than 99 percent of the writers out there. I discovered her with 1986’s Marya and followed her through her normal literary stuff, and her detours into crime fiction and erotica. But the book that always stayed with me is Because It Is Bitter And Because It Is My Heart. Set in the early 1950s, it tells the story of the friendship between a young white girl named Iris Courtney and black teenager Jinx Fairchild. They are united by a murder that they commit in self-defense. I wasn’t writing crime fiction when I read this, but I believe this book planted the seeds in my sub-conscious to want to explore the psychology of murder that colors my own work to this day. Here’s the opening.

“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift from the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It’s the buglelike cries of gulls that alert the fisherman—gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy white heads and tail feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.

Every time I read it, it makes me want to be a better writer.

7. Favorite Weird TV Show

When I was a kid, my dad used to let me stay up late to watch One Step Beyond. It was an anthology about the paranormal and anything that defied logic. The phlegmatic John Newland (“Your guide to the supernatural”) would tee up every episode with the disclaimer that they were based on “the true human record” as this great creepy music played in the background (“Fear” composed by Harry Lubin and covered by the Ventures in 1964. Click here to listen.) This was unlike The Twilight Zone, which debuted nine months later and was fictional. This was REAL! Really cool stories with cool actors (one episode paired Warren Beatty and Joan Fontaine.) My dad loved this show. But then he also sat out in the yard with his binoculars looking for flying saucers.

8. Favorite Bucket List Thing I Probably Won’t Get Around To Doing

I really want to go to the moon. NASA estimates that a round-trip ticket to the ISS on the SpaceX Crew Dragon or the Boeing CST-100 Starliner would cost about $58 million. I don’t have enough Sky Miles for that.  So I will settle for parachuting out of a plane. If George H.W. Bush can do it at age 90, I still have hope. My husband tells me he will veto this, so I will just have to outlive him.


Could Alexa Solve Murders?

Debbie and I were surfing the same wavelength this week. If you didn’t get a chance to read her post, be sure to check it out.

As technology has become more integral to daily life, authorities have increasingly sought evidence from mobile phones, laptops, social media, and even a video game.

Last summer, I heard about a murder case in Arkansas. The high-profile defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner — best known as Steven Avery’s attorney in season two of Making a Murderer — petitioned the court for Amazon Echo recordings.

The Amazon Echo entered the November 2015 murder case after Victor Collins (47), a former Georgia police officer, died in the suspect’s hot tub. An observer told police he’d heard music streaming through the device that evening.

Zellner’s client, James Bates, invited two friends to his Bentonville home to watch college football, drink beer and shots of vodka. After the game, the three men slipped into Bates’ hot tub. Around 1 a.m., Bates said he went to bed. When he woke in the morning, Collins was floating face-down in the hot tub.

The defense contended the death was a tragic accident, stemming from high levels of alcohol. At the time of death, Collins’ blood-alcohol content was at .32, four times the legal limit to drive in Arkansas.

Investigators believed Collins’ body showed evidence of strangulation prior to drowning. Signs of a struggle they’d seen in the house, including a broken shot glass, dried blood on the floor, injuries to both Collins and Bates, and indications that someone hosed down the patio and hot tub before police arrived. They further contended Bates’ water heater, another smart device, recorded an exorbitant amount of water used in the early morning hours, in what investigators believed was an attempt to conceal the crime. The defense argued the same amount of water had been used 12 hours prior to the night in question.

After Amazon released the recordings, the prosecution dropped all charges against Bates. Why? The DA stated, “They cannot meet the legal requirements to proceed.” No further mention of the Echo recordings, but writers don’t need the outcome to envision the story Alexa might tell.

See where I’m going with this? We could spin the recordings anyway we want. Keep that in mind while you read this next case.

Fast-forward to January 27, 2018, when Amazon Echo recordings could solve a brutal double homicide.

In my home state of New Hampshire — a 30-40 minute drive from where I live — two slayings rocked the quaint Farmington community. In the early morning hours of January 29th, Dean Smoronk returned home after a trip to Florida. When he arrived, his live-in girlfriend, Christine Sullivan, and a friend, Jenna Pellegrini, who was staying with the couple at the time, were both missing. He called 911 around 3 a.m., and said he thought there’d been a murder.

When officers arrived at the scene, Smoronk pointed out a large blood stain on the mattress in the upstairs bedroom and dried blood in the kitchen, with a blood smear on the refrigerator. Hours later, New Hampshire State Police found the two women cocooned in tarps, stuffed under the porch. Eight stab wounds littered Sullivan’s body, her skull fractured by a blunt object. Pellegrini’s head, face, and chest showed 48 stab wounds.

During the search, investigators also found several knives wrapped in a flannel shirt — the same flannel shirt worn by Timothy Verrill, caught on the home’s surveillance footage that night. Verrill was a known drug dealer in the area. At the time of the killings, he was friends with Sullivan and Smoronk. Some speculate he was also Pellegrini’s boyfriend, but there’s some conflicting evidence on whether that’s true. Allegedly, Verrill feared the two women were working with authorities on an undercover sting, of which he was the intended target.

State Police seized an Amazon Echo from the crime scene. Had Alexa recorded the murders and subsequent cover-up?

On Oct. 30th, Senior Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward asked the judge to direct Amazon.com to produce any recordings made between Jan. 27 and Jan. 29, 2017, suggesting evidence of the murder and/or hindering prosecution could be found on the device.

In the motion, made in lieu of an application for a search warrant, Ward wrote, “As part of the normal functioning of an Echo electronic device, activated either intentionally or accidentally by ‘wake up words,’ audio recordings are made from the moment when the device is activated. Specifically, when the Echo detects a ‘wake up word(s),’ the device begins audio recording through its integrated microphones, including recording the fraction of a second of audio before the ‘wake up word(s).’”

Wake up words include Amazon and Alexa, but as Debbie pointed out, Alexa records even when those words aren’t mentioned.

Ward’s motion also asked for a wider scope in order to identify cellular devices that paired with the smart speaker within the same time period.

The judge ordered Amazon to hand over the recordings. No word yet on what Alexa overheard that night. The trial begins in May, 2019.

So, TKZers, if you were writing these stories, what would you reveal in the recordings? Get your creative juices pumping by including a jaw-dropping twist!

WINGS OF MAYHEM is on sale for 99c.

“The story spins ahead with escalating velocity and well-rendered literary layers, always leaving the reader pleading for more information while delivering just enough with exquisite timing, always nailing a clear and rationale dissection of what seemed in the moment like insanity or illogic. The craft of the writer is on display from page one, with intense pacing, deeply drawn characters and a matrix of plot elements that never lets you see the big picture as completely as you think you do, thus setting up an ending that demands you stick with it until the final, unexpected twist.” ~ USA Today Bestselling Author Larry Brooks



Jack Kerouac On Writing

by James Scott Bell

Fasten your seatbelts.

We’ve written about Robert A. Heinlein’s rules and Elmore Leonard’s rules. Are you ready for Jack Kerouac’s?

Like most college liberal arts guys in the 70s, I went through a big Kerouac phase. It started, of course, with On the Road, the slightly fictionalized account of Kerouac’s roamings in post-World War II America.

There’s a myth that Kerouac completed his most famous novel in three weeks, on a rolling scroll of butcher paper, so he wouldn’t have to stop to remove pages from the typewriter. Indeed, much of On the Road was written in first draft that way, but Kerouac re-worked the manuscript several times before it was published.

Kerouac’s reputation (and, some might argue, the beginning of his ruin) was made when the New York Times called On the Road “a major achievement.” Not all critics were so moved. Time magazine characterized it as a “barbaric yawp of a book.” And later, Truman Capote would snarkily remark (did he ever remark un-snarkily?) that On the Road is “not writing. It’s typing.”

In any event, at one point Kerouac was asked to memorialize his writing advice. Let’s ride:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Jack Kerouac. Photo by Tom Palumbo

    Blow as deep as you want to blow

  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

This is not exactly the stuff of structure. Indeed, while On the Road is linear in form, Kerouac’s subsequent work became more and more experimental—with the attendant decline in sales. (I will not pause here to once again emphasize the correlation between structure and sales, even though I just did). He died of alcoholism in 1969 at the age of 47, twelve years after publication of On the Road.

What Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers were after was a new kind of prose, a sort of be-bop rhapsody that most truly captured an experience. In that regard, these wild ideas are good for getting out of the way of yourself, to become a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind.” The writing then becomes a kind of “tranced fixation dreaming” and makes writing “for yr own joy” possible.

This is all fine as far as it goes. Kerouac thought that was far enough. But it proved otherwise. For at some point “yr own joy” needs to translate to the readers. On the Road did that. So, too, did his next-most successful novel, The Dharma Bums. After that, things started to get sketchy.

I retain a warm place in my heart for Kerouac. He meant a lot to me in my early formation as a writer. At its best his prose is vibrant, emotional, ecstatic, as in this famous passage from On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

I am literally going to be on the road today, driving back to L.A. from Las Vegas (no, I didn’t put it all on red. Came for a meeting and research for my next novel). I’ll check in, but please talk amongst yourselves. Have you read Kerouac? What do you find of value in his advice?

Three Movies…and What We Can Learn from Them

(My apologies in advance…my internet service has been out to lunch for the last few days. I have been getting by with cell phone tethering but that has been spotty as well. It’s weather related and since we’re going to have more of the same for the next several days I may not be able to respond to comments, etc. I will do so as time and ability might allow. Thank you!)  

I am old enough to remember when Netflix was a DVD rental service. It actually still does that, though it has almost single-handedly transformed and popularized video-streaming. There is so much available that it is easy to acquire decision stress over what to watch. It is also quite easy to become addicted to the point where one lets other, more important things (such as writing) slide.

If you’re going to watch Netflix but you want to justify paying the time bandit instead of following your Muse you can actually learn quite a bit by judiciously choosing what you watch. I’m going to briefly discuss a couple of movies that you can find in Netflix’ nether regions that you either may not have heard of or which flitted across your attention due to not being your type of movie. I’ll also mention another that just hit theaters (remember theaters? Those big cavernous places that you stopped going to because half of the audience thinks they’re on Facebook, and can yell out everything they want?) yesterday. Without further ado:

Train to Busan: I quit watching Walking Dead when Rick’s son lost his eye and then pretty much gave up on the zombie horror sub-genre altogether. Someone recommended Train to Busan on Netflix as a zombie movie for people who were tired of zombies or hated the genre. My friend was right. Train to Busan, a South Korean horror film, hooks you in the first three minutes, giving you a hint of what is to come, stepping back and featuring a bit of human drama, and then putting you on the edge of your seat for an hour and a half or so. The set up is that an overworked hedge fund broker takes the morning off to accompany his young daughter (who is the cutest little kid who ever walked the face of the earth) on a high-speed train to visit her mother. The zombie apocalypse breaks out on the train and off we go. These zombies, by the way, aren’t the usual shambling dodos that can be taken out with a well-placed arrow. They are fleet of foot (they can somehow stumble and run like hell at the same time) and extremely aggressive. My favorite line of the film occurs when a passenger gets on the train intercom and says, “Conductor, we have a situation!” No kidding, Sherlock. The film itself features an excellent example of how to hint at a problem at the beginning of a work, let the problem percolate off-screen (or off the page), and then bring it back with a vengeance. It also is a reminder that light rail, buses, trains, boats, or planes are to be avoided at all costs. 

Hell or High Water: This contemporary western finally made it to Netflix and will cause you to trade in your bird box or whatever. A man gets out of prison to find that the family farm has gone into foreclosure during his absence. He and his brother embark on a scheme to rob the branches of the regional bank which holds the mortgage and then use the money to pay off the loan on the farm. It could have been a comedy — and yes, as an exercise you could rewrite it as a comedy — but it isn’t. Things don’t go exactly as planned and the brothers soon find that law enforcement is after them. Jeff Bridges, in what might be the performance of his life, plays a Texas Ranger who is just weeks away from retirement. His investigation into the robberies will certainly be his last case and he wants to retire on top by identifying the robbers and bringing them in dead or alive. There is plenty of moral ambiguity to be had all around, a few quirky characters, and an ending you won’t see coming. There’s a bit of action and plenty of drama, all of it perfectly placed and paced,  but you will want to take notes on the dialogue, which is first class from beginning to end and which is just as important for what is not said as for what is.

Serenity: I obtained days before its theatrical debut an advance copy of this new Matthew McConaughey vehicle without knowing anything about it. I assumed from the title that it was a film about sobriety, ala Clean and Sober, but contrare mon frere. It’s a noir tale with many of the elements of Body Heat but which, alas, goes adrift. McConaughey plays a charter boat skipper whose ex-wife shows up, telling tales of abuse, drunkenness, and cruelty at the hands of her extremely wealthy new husband. She wants McConaughey to kill the despicable cad, promising great rewards of the material and carnal kind. One can understand why McConaughey loses his wrestling match with temptation but that is the only element that truly works here. The story gets sidetracked needlessly and pointlessly, giving one the feeling that some of the scenes were inserted to make Serenity long enough for theatrical release. There is also a twist to the story that is ridiculous by any standard. The result is a textbook case of what occurs when 1) you try to grow a story with scenes that aren’t the equal of the existing product and 2) throw a shell game into the plot which makes the audience the patsy. The Coen Brothers (who have nothing to do with Serenity) do this occasionally with UFOs, for reasons best known only to themselves. It doesn’t work for them. The cleverness inserted into Serenity doesn’t work either, and the result is a work which robs you of two hours of your life which you will never get back. It’s a great example of a waste of elements and actors, a model of what not to do to your target audience.

My question for you: what film, television show/series, or whatever have you watched recently which provided one or more teachable moments — good or bad —for your writing? And how so?


Process, Schmocess


My trusty, late-night writing companion

I’m shy/not shy about discussing my writing “process.” I actually dislike the word “process” when it comes to writing because it makes writing sound both vaunted and ridiculously precious at the same time.

I’m often shy sharing mine here because the posts on TKZ are created by professional, grown-up writers. Most have regimented schedules, produce work, reward themselves, and move onto the next project. They support families and/or themselves. Writing is a job. They also have other jobs, whether they be at home, or working outside the home. They blow me away every day with their dedication, creativity, and professionalism.

Weirdly, I’m also a professional, grown up writer. Though I’m a professional writer who has resisted schedules all her life. The ADHD is an issue. My brain can truly hyper-focus, but when it’s not hyper-focusing, it’s constantly on fire. It can’t be still at all. It constantly searches for novelty and stimulation. ADHD meds clamp down my creativity like an empty yogurt carton trapping a spider in the front hallway. Oh, and the yogurt carton has the Complete Works of Shakespeare on top of it. No more web-spinning, fly-sucking, or terrorizing the kiddies for that spider! (Hmmm. That about describes my creativity, though I’ve never actually drained a fly. I found myself weirdly desirous of eating a dead one once–but that’s another blog.)

Every so often, I dive into schedules and calendars and self-help books and organization projects. They delight me! The future immediately looks so bright! I love the idea of not writing at two in the morning because I couldn’t settle down all day to the work. (I don’t enjoy overnight writing, but I often do it out of necessity.) Schedules discourage writing right up to deadline. What a brilliant concept.  I’ve actually done it a few times and it was AMAZING. Like Graeter’s Ice Cream amazing. First kiss amazing. (Actually, my first kiss was kind of awful. But that’s also another blog. Or not.) Finding six Hershey’s kisses from last Christmas at the back of the cabinet when you’ve been out of chocolate for an entire day amazing. Dang, that’s a great feeling, isn’t it?

I’ve been in next-book mode for months and have restarted it three times. We’re talking between 30 and 50 pages started. I just couldn’t figure out WHERE the book needed to start because it’s a story with a higher number than my usual amount of turning points. (Hey, I used one of those professional writer terms here. Woot.) This is a big book, a big story. It’s opened in different time periods and with different characters. Also different POVs. Many (more sensible) writers would’ve moved on to another idea by now. Another writer might have been at their desk daily at 8:30 a.m. and gone through the three restarts in a few weeks.

Did I mention I’m 56.5 years old? I’ve been writing for thirty years. Honestly, my meandering process has changed little. I’ve written ten novels (eight of which have been published, 2 will remain unseen), anthologies, short stories, essays, blogs, articles, book reviews. There were even several profitable copywriting gigs. Somehow I’ve produced a reasonably significant amount of work.

But I still hunger for the right schedule. The right way to work. The right amount of finished pieces. I still imagine there’s a Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career out there.

Perfectibility is the eternal illusion. A quest at least as old as the first cave artist who sketched an Ibex that came out looking like a prairie dog, scraped it off and tried again. And again. Funny how we look at so many of those cave paintings now and think them wondrous. Are they perfect? Who’s to say? By what standards can we judge ancient art? We can classify it. Trace developments over time by looking at similar work. Say one artist’s work is somehow better than another. But each effort stands alone. Human creations are imperfectible, just like humans. (My opinion, y’all. I’m not itching to argue religion or philosophy here…) Here’s the cool thing I’ve discovered about the desire for perfection, though: It keeps me striving. As long as I don’t constantly kick myself for not ever being perfect, I still get plenty of satisfaction.

I will probably die with the notion of the Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career in my head. Oh, well. It’s definitely far less difficult to live with than it used to be.

Every time I post on Facebook these days, I get some stupid message about how people really respond better to posts with pictures. “Posts with pictures are more popular than posts without pictures, Laura Benedict. Why don’t you include some pictures in this post? And, by the way, you can go ahead and add your photos to this post, and we will automatically remove any preview links you’ve already included in the post, thus completely destroying it. You may then add pictures to your new post.”

So I’m going to add some pictures here. This is what my life has been like over the past five days in which I was hyper-focusing on the third start on this novel. I’m pretty sure I got it almost right this time, in the tradition of horseshoes and hand grenades.

They’re not lovely pictures. But in my life, creation is messy, and occasionally people have to make their own dinner.

After the photos:  Tell us about your process. Or your quest for perfection. Or creativity/work habits that really work for you. We are always open to new ideas here!

Where I slept last night because it’s not fair to disturb a sleeping husband at 5:00 a.m. when he usually gets up at six.

Trust me. You don’t want to see the front.

Sustenance. All the food groups. Plus, I roasted those pecans on Sunday. No one can say I didn’t cook.

I think a dozen clementines, two apples, and a 1/2 grapefruit count as nutrition, yes?

Uniform. Or as I like to call them, Second Jammies.

Bonus: Sometimes if you take the dog out to pee at 1:30 in the morning, there’s a ring around the moon.

Husbands can feed themselves. Birds can too. But I can’t convince Husband to go out and hop around the pole to entertain me when I look out the window as I write.

Surveillance by Keystrokes – Giving Permission to Snoop

By now, we’re all pretty used to doing a Google or Amazon search, then having ads pop up about the item you searched for.

Take that a step further: Have you walked into a business but didn’t buy anything? Then next time you check Facebook, an ad for that business appears on your feed?

Happened to me for the first time about a year ago. I went into an independent bookstore in Whitefish, Montana to make sure they still had copies of my book in stock. I left without purchasing anything.

When I got home, I happened to check Facebook. An ad popped up for that same bookstore. How did FB know I’d been there? I hadn’t Googled it. No credit card transaction had been processed to connect me to that store.

However, the smartphone in my pocket knew I’d been there.

The amount of data recorded by that device creeps me out…especially when I didn’t knowingly put the information into it.

Recently I made airline reservations on my laptop. When I opened the calendar on my smartphone to enter the flight times and numbers, they were already there. What the…? I purposely haven’t synced the laptop and smartphone to talk to each other.

Yes, it was convenient but it bothered me. What uncomfortable magic suddenly connected the two devices? It hadn’t occurred several months earlier when I last bought tickets from Delta, nor with American Airlines where I’d booked flights a week before. What had changed?

Somewhere hidden in terms and conditions, apparently a new provision allowed access to my phone. By whom? Google? Delta? The phone manufacturer?

If anyone more techie than I am (which means 99% of the population) can explain this, I’m all ears.

Stealth “permissions” sneak past us whenever we check that box: “I agree to the terms and conditions.” When you download a game, an app, or make a purchase, do you read all 47 pages of underlying legalese? Probably not. Additionally, since terms are often subject to unilateral change by the company without notice, what good does it do to read them?

We have traded privacy for convenience, one app at a time.

Smart devices invade our homes. Alexa eavesdrops 24/7 on conversations. In some instances, she has been known to broadcast private conversations to third parties, as happened to this Portland, OR family who learned their discussion about hardwood flooring had been shared with a person on their contact list.


Nicolaes Maes

So…in the privacy of your bedroom, what if you complain to your spouse about your rotten boss? Suppose the oh-so-helpful Alexa sees fit to send that conversation to that boss because s/he happens to be on your contact list. Ouch.

Never mind what else Alexa might overhear in your bedroom!

Lately my husband and I have been listening to a Michigan attorney named Steve Lehto on You Tube. He delivers short, entertaining podcasts about legal issues, specializing in vehicle warranties and lemon laws. Sometimes he goes off on an unrelated topic that catches his interest. This video addresses stealth permissions on smartphone apps.

Steve reveals that when you buy or lease an Android smartphone, it comes preloaded with certain apps including one that keeps track of keystrokes on the phone’s keyboard. Sounds innocuous, right?

Until you realize every text message, every bank PIN, and every credit card number you type is recorded. A record of those keystrokes may be available to whoever pays for that information.

Steve didn’t mention iPhones but it’s not a great leap to imagine they share similar apps.

Older devices like Blackberries have mechanical keyboards rather than electronic. You tap a key and a contact switch causes the letter to appear on the screen.

But smartphone keyboards are different. They record keystrokes electronically (known as “keylogging”) with no mechanical switch. Somewhere in cyberspace, someone is keeping track and storing every keystroke.

I don’t bank or pay bills online because hackers gallop miles ahead of safeguards. Security patches close the breach only after the horse is long gone out the barn door.

http://Embed from Getty Images

However, I do text. And that’s how the keystroke app slapped me in the face.

Last summer, an old friend visited us in Montana and left behind his small, well-worn Bible. A few weeks ago, he died in San Diego. At the time of his death we were away from our Montana home, on vacation in Florida, meaning we had to fly from Tampa to San Diego for the funeral.

We wanted to take his Bible to the memorial so I texted our neighbor in Montana and asked him to look for it among the books stacked on our coffee table. I described it as a small, turquoise Bible. The neighbor found it and mailed it to us. All good.

Shortly afterward, an ad popped up on my Facebook feed…

Amazon ad on my Facebook feed

…for a pocket Bible in turquoise.


That unusual combination of keywords could only have come from the text I typed on my smartphone. Android recorded my private text message and passed it on to Facebook who passed it on to Amazon. Now I’m angry.

If you’re arrested on suspicion of a crime, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant to dump the contents of your phone. The same rules obviously don’t apply to Facebook, Android, Apple, Google, Amazon, etc. because we give up those rights simply by using these convenient devices.

Keylogging apps are sold for legitimate purposes, like checking your minor children’s exploration of internet sites, or to see if they’re texting pals to sneak off to a forbidden kegger.

However, such apps are a hacker’s dream because passwords, bank PINs, credit card numbers, and other sensitive private information can become available to cybercriminals.

It’s like installing a deadbolt on your door then handing out keys to random people on the street.

Crime writers can imagine endless plots arising out of technology scenarios.

My thriller, Instrument of the Devil, was set in 2011 as smartphones first exploded in popularity. In the story, a terrorist hacks into the protagonist’s smartphone. He employs what was then secret technology to eavesdrop on her every word and track her physical location while he sets her up to take the fall for his crime—a cyberattack on the electric grid.

In 2019, those formerly covert apps are widely in use by anyone. They are everyday tools that allow tech giants to mine ever more intimate information about us.

As an author, I’m normally delighted when someone reads what I’ve written. However, as a human being, I resent this invasion into my personal communications.

A wise lawyer once told me, “Don’t put in writing anything you wouldn’t want to be read in open court.” I remember his advice now when I text because…

…Someone is always watching and listening.


Your turn, TKZers. Have you experienced creep-out moments due to technology? What nefarious plots can you imagine where smart devices play a role?


Instrument of the Devil is on sale for only 99 cents during January.

What Books Bring You Joy?

I’m sure by now you’ve all seen the social media flap over Marie Kondo (The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up) and her (much maligned) advice on decluttering books – including the outrage over her supposed instruction to ‘keep only the books that still spark joy’ (ideally less than thirty). The furor was such that I decided to watch the episode on her Netflix show  just to see what all the fuss was about (even though I was sure, no matter her advice, I wasn’t about to part with any of my book collection!)  While I, for one, would never presume to advise anyone on the art of tidying up (even though my husband was super excited by the prospect!), I think the debate over whether you should only keep books that still ‘spark joy’ is a wonderful one…because it reaffirms why so many of us love to live surrounded by our books.

Even though on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram there was a lot of anger and outrage, at the heart of Kondo’s advice there seemed to be some valuable observations about the joy books can continue to spark in people years after they were first read, the benefits of feeling connected to the books you own, as well as the practicalities that every book lover has to face (limited bookshelf space!!!).

I come from a line of book hoarders. Up until recently, almost every available shelf in my parents’ home contained piles of books until they realized the necessity of downsizing meant facing the dreaded task of sorting through their books. I felt their horror. After all, they had decades of book collecting behind them (including amassing a lovely antiquarian collection of English Civil War books which is hopefully going to a museum somewhere). My initial instinct was (of course!) to offer a home to any and all of their ‘orphaned’ books until my husband pointed out that we have no room for our own books let alone anyone else’s…which may be why the concept of books ‘sparking joy’ seems poignantly relevant to me now (not that I’m giving up any of my books yet!!).

In the infamous ‘book’ episode, Marie Kondo asks one of her clients to name the book he will ‘never let go?’ (his answer: To Kill a Mockingbird) and the starkness of this question made me think long and hard (I still have no answer – I have far more than just one book that I’ll ever let go!). Certain books, however, do stand out – like my Chalet School book collection that I obsessively collected into my early 20’s (these school stories were published sporadically and often very hard to find). Although I don’t re-read them anymore, I couldn’t bear to part with them – which must mean they continue to spark joy:)

I’m still resistant to the notion that I could ever declutter that many books (too many bring me joy) or select just ‘one’ to keep – but Kondo’s questions have made me think about why I keep the books I keep – after all, I don’t keep every book – I’ve donated many paperbacks, potboilers, gifts, and duds in the past. I am also an avid library goer (lest you think I’m a complete book materialist!) as well as an e-book buyer (clearly, far less bookshelf space is required for those:)).

According to Kondo, the books I keep on my shelf should (in theory) be those I’ve deliberately chosen as ones that continue to ‘spark joy’…but in practice, this is far more complicated. I keep books that have infuriated and challenged me, classics I was forced to read at school and never really enjoyed but (begrudgingly) learned from, reference books from my past careers (you know, just in case…), books that hold weird sentimental value I don’t quite understand, history books for periods I’ve not written about yet…and the list goes on (not to mention the vast TBR pile!). Sparking joy seems too simplistic a criteria when it comes breadth of emotions literature provides.

What about you TKZers? What do you think about Kondo’s decluttering advice when it comes to books? If she asked you, what is the book you’d never let go?


Unsnagging Your Plot

by James Scott Bell

What is a plot snag?

It’s like when you’re walking along admiring some rose bushes and your coat gets impaled by a thorn. Forward motion halted. You have to stop, go back, and unloose your coat.

Only thing is, when you’re writing a book, you may not so easily identify what has snagged you. All you know is that you’re stuck.

A plot snag is not to be confused with writer’s block or a loss of enthusiasm for a project. Those are separate issues, which can be addressed in their own way.

What we’re talking about here is a point where you don’t know what to write next. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser or a plotter or a ’tweener. The best laid plans o’ mice and writers often go awry.

Let’s say you’re writing a thriller and you’ve got your hero backed into a corner. A literal corner, in an abandoned warehouse where killers are searching for him.

You don’t know how your character is going to get out of it.


Now, maybe you’ve got an outline, and know your plot’s direction, but this little conundrum has come up and you don’t know what to do about it. What you do know is that he’s going to somehow get in the back of a truck heading for Phoenix.

The question now is how to get him there. Try the following:

  1. Make a list

Brainstorm possible ways to get out. Go crazy. List six, seven, eight or more. Make your imagination work. You’ll get the answer. And if you need to plant something in the plot to justify this option (remember how Q always gave Bond the gadgets early in Act 1?) go back and plant.

  1. Do some shadow story

The shadow story is what’s going on “off screen.” It’s what the other characters are doing when they are not in the scene you’re writing. What did you think? That they were all in their dressing rooms sipping Coke, waiting to be called ?

Brainstorm some of the possible actions going on, and one of them might offer something a character in the scene can do to unsnag things.

Going back to our warehouse, maybe one of the assassins is really a secret ally, and engineers our hero’s escape. Why? Because we did some shadow story where the villain discovers there’s a traitor in his camp! Now we can adjust our outline and plans accordingly.

  1. Skip ahead

If you’re stuck but anxious to get on with the writing, skip ahead and write a future scene. Let your subconscious work on the snag. Keep up your writing momentum. Tomorrow or the next day you can come back to fill in the gap.

  1. Write a blazing first draft

It’s possible to whip through a first draft and avoid snags. You must write like a house afire, skipping plot “non-essentials” as you do.

And what is the purpose of this blazing method? Four things:

  • To discover what your book is about
  • To know if you have the major parts of the plot working.
  • To save you time by avoiding endless rabbit trails (are you listening, pantsers?)
  • To identify places where you can fill in material for which you now know the purpose.

Here are some suggestions for a blazing first draft:

Skip transitions

Instead of filling in the information that gets a character from one scene to another, leave a marker in that spot (like *** or &&&) and move on to the next scene. Concentrate on the action and dialogue.

Some writers put in a text reminder in ALL CAPS. For example:

“You’ll never make it in time,” Wally said.

“Just watch me,” Sam said.


“I’m here,” Sam said, fighting for breath.

“Sorry,” the deli manager said. “I had to give your sandwich to somebody else.”

Skip descriptions

Don’t pause for descriptions. Fill those in upon revision. One benefit of this method is that you’ll know the overall tone of your novel and how each scene contributes. You can then tailor your descriptions with more efficiency. You can, for example, plant a symbol to foreshadow what’s coming later.

Skip deep emotional beats

Emotional beats heat up a plot and get us bonded to a character. It’s an important part of the craft, and the deeper the emotion the more attention must be paid to it on the page.

For blazing draft purposes, when you get to such a moment in your story, jot a note, e.g.,




When you revise, you fill those in as needed.

Pro tip: When you go back to revisit emotional moments, look around for a more original emotion than you first envision. Sure, maybe anger is what you need, but what if you brainstormed other possibilities? Like elation or remorse? Perhaps one of these other emotions can conflict with the anger, so that you have that great beat called inner conflict. (Another tip: For brainstorming different emotions and techniques for showing them on the page, consult The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)

So how have you handled your own plot snags? Have you ever blazed through a first draft to discover and solidify your plot?

(For more on fast writing, see this detailed blog post by Janice Hardy.)