On Producing My Own Audiobook

by James Scott Bell

We all know audiobooks are booming. As reported by Forbes:

The publishing industry’s 2018 year-end results are here, and audiobooks did astoundingly well. According to the Association of American Publishers, which collects and reports on data shared by many publishers across the country, estimated publisher revenue for downloaded audio increased 28.7% over 2017. Downloaded audio was worth an estimate of 13.7% of publishers’ online sales.

Downloaded audio has long seen increases of this magnitude; the 2018 report reiterates this, estimating that publisher’s revenues in the category grew 181.8% from 2014 to 2018.

This growth, too, is continuing into 2019, which has already seen massive increases: in the first three months of this year, downloaded audio revenues increased 35.3% over the same period last year.

While the industry as a whole is seeing much more modest increases (or, in some categories, small decreases), audiobooks have a ways to grow, providing publishers with an exciting market for many months to come.

And an exciting extra income stream for authors. As many of you know, Amazon offers indie authors an audio platform called ACX. It’s like Kindle Direct Publishing for spoken-word books. ACX was developed by Audible, which was purchased by Amazon in 2008.

Thus: audiobooks created on ACX are sold on Amazon.com, Audible.com, and iTunes (which will soon undergo a transition).

ACX is extremely easy to navigate. For the overwhelming majority of indie authors it is a way to hook up with voice talent for audiobook narration. Here’s an overview of the process. There are two types of deals you can make with the narrator/producer: 1) royalty sharing; 2) cost per-finished-hour.

With the former, you share the royalty with the narrator. ACX pays out a 40% royalty (of the retail price), which you then split with the narrator. [NOTE: This 40% is if you are exclusive with ACX and not distributing elsewhere; if you go non-exclusive, the royalty drops to 25%]. You audition narrators via the ACX dashboard and there’s plenty of talent out there. Like a fellow by the name of Basil Sands who drops by TKZ on occasion.

With option #2, you pay the narrator/producer per finished hour (PFH) for their time and effort. In return, you keep all the royalties. This of course involves a hefty up-front cost. Let’s say you have a 10 hour book and the narrator charges $400 PFH. That’s four grand out of your pocket before you start selling. Just remember to think in terms of sales over years, not just months. You can certainly find excellent voice talent out there. One way to do this is to listen to audio samples on Amazon or Audible of books in your genre. When you find a voice you like go to the narrator’s website and make contact.

I opted for a third way—producing and narrating my own books. Why? Because I’m cheap. Also because I spent a good part of my early years developing my voice for stage and television commercials. Why let the pipes that once proclaimed, “What from the cape can you discern at sea?” in an Off-Broadway production of Othello go to waste?

My big hangup was the technical aspect. I didn’t have a recording studio or sound equipment. I could rent a studio and engineer, but once again…cheap!

So I did some research and found I could put together a workable mini-studio right on my desk. The two main pieces of equipment I needed were a good microphone and sound panels—that soft, foamy material that usually covers entire walls. I found a small, adjustable “sound shield” for under a hundred bucks and got a Blue Snowball microphone and a foam mic cover to go with it.

Next I needed recording software. I’m a Mac guy and thus already have GarageBand. But how to set it up with the right parameters for ACX was going to be a challenge. I was not at all sure I understood what the heck that entailed.

Fortunately, a gentleman named Rob Dircks has generously made available, for free download, his pre-set GarageBand settings for an ACX book. Thanks, Rob!

Finally, I started narrating Write Your Novel From the Middle and uploading the finished chapters to ACX. I created a cover image (the parameters are square, like a CD cover), and filled out all the metadata. When I was all done I hit publish and waited two weeks for the quality review. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe some technical issue I wasn’t aware of would require a re-work of the whole thing. Ack!

But I passed the inspection. And now Write Your Novel From the Middle is an honest-to-goodness audiobook.

As I mentioned earlier, I am exclusive with ACX because it hits the largest slice of the audio distribution pie and pays a generous royalty. I know there are indies who have gone “wide” via other companies, but that is beyond the scope of my current experience. (Anyone who has info along these lines, please feel free to share it in the comments.)

Is narrating your own books an option for you? Many “experts” warn that authors who are not voice trained shouldn’t make the attempt. I say, “Bosh.” (I don’t say “bosh” often, but when I do, I mean it.) ACX has a helpful video and other info for authors as narrators. It does get easier after you’ve done it once. I’m now prepping How to Write Dazzling Dialogue and it’s like an assembly line of audio chapters. I plan to press on and produce all my books in audio.

In traditional publishing contracts, the audio rights are always defaulted to the publisher, with a clause like: Publisher, at its sole discretion, shall have the right to publish a recorded audio version of the Work, for which the author receives 10-15% of net. I’m no math whiz, but 40% of retail sounds a tad more favorable. If you are going to sign with a publisher, you ought to try to reserve the audio rights and create the audiobook yourself. Especially since hard copies (CDs) of audio are rapidly becoming obsolete. In other words, you don’t need Barnes & Noble shelf space to get the most out of your audio rights.

Of course, retaining these rights is going to be tougher going forward because all publishers know audio is the growth area. Discuss this with your agent. Go for the rights; in the alternative, negotiate a higher royalty.

Just don’t put your head in the sand, because audio is a major part of the future.

So what’s been your experience with audio versions of your books? Have you ever thought about doing it yourself? Have you ever said “Bosh” in mixed company?

All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned from my Parents

Jordan Dane

If you’ve never read humorist Robert Fulghum, treat yourself by buying his books. His most famous one is ‘All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.’ More than 17 million copies of his books are in print, in 31 languages, in 103 countries.

On the downloads tab of his website, he had a delightful offering – Argentina Tango Chronicles – tales from a solo traveler. Since I am traveling solo to northern Italy in the fall, I can’t wait to read how Fulghum makes the most of his trips where he reinvents himself in foreign lands. Yes, he even changes his name.

Robert Fulghum grew up in Waco, Texas. In his youth he worked as a ditch-digger, newspaper carrier, ranch hand, and singing cowboy. After college, he had a brief career with IBM, but he wasn’t satisfied. After completing his graduate degree in theology, he served 22 years as a Unitarian parish minister in the Pacific Northwest. He’s taught drawing, painting, art history and philosophy. He’s also an accomplished painter and sculptor and sings, plays guitar and mando-cello. Fulghum even marches in parades, playing cymbals and tambourine.

Now that’s a diverse resume. He’d be a blast to hang out with.

His good-natured stories about families and life lessons are told with subtle ‘feel good’ humor. I love reading his short stories at bedtime, particularly after a long, trying day. His humor, and his ways of structuring a short story, always makes me laugh.

Fulghum’s work makes me think about my own upbringing and what I’ve learned from my parents. I’ve been blessed with a loving family and wanted to share my parents with you, my TKZ family.


My parents (Ignacio & Kathryn) have been married 68 years. They had a picture-perfect wedding in San Antonio at one of the oldest active cathedrals in the United States, the stunning San Fernando Cathedral, founded in 1731. We are blessed that they are still healthy and active and thriving. Good genes.

My dad is 93 years old and still going strong. I call him ‘the renaissance man’ because there is NO TOPIC that doesn’t interest him or that he wouldn’t try. He gave me my love for art and self-expression. He also gave me a competitive spirit and a ‘never say never’ attitude at trying new things. In his career, he designed and built things – an architect who became influential in developing downtown San Antonio. He actually named the Riverwalk – the Paseo del Rio. He retired early, but that didn’t stop him from exploring his love for the many things that still interest him. He has a mind like a sponge, always learning. I hope I have a fraction of his ability. He loves to cook, especially gourmet food and exotic recipes. This is the guy who dug a pit in our backyard to cook game on a spit or who wrapped fish in banana leaves to cook in an underground oven.

To this day, my dad studies food and painting techniques as if he were a young man. He’s a constant inspiration on how to grab life and hang on tight. He loves mind puzzles and the strategies of playing chess. Despite having hearing problems–due to his stubbornness at wearing hearing aids–he’s quick with a joke that makes me laugh. I usually say that my worst habits, I got from my dad, but I’m thankful I inherited other things too.

My mother is 90 years old. From her, I learned my lifetime love for reading. I have many fond memories with my mom, but she literally taught me how to devour books and planted the seed for my love of writing. Summers off from school were spent at the library (in the stacks) and I came home with dozens of books to read. My mom’s compassion for people and her generosity helped me see the world in a different way. That certainly gave me the insight to write about the lives of others in my books. She’s my best friend. We talk several times a day and I am their primary care giver, living only minutes away. Quite a change from when I was an angry rebellious teen. Even with our age difference, she has an intriguing mind that has adjusted over the years. She accepts a great deal and tries to understand things. We have long talks about how everything has changed, but she is curious and I love it.

Both my parents have a great deal of humor, but they are different. That doubles down the fun. I buy my mom the latest in Youtube (she calls it U2) viral video-wear, like her ‘Honey Badger Don’t Care‘ shirt or the Weiner Dog tee she’s wearing in this pic. Dad tries not to be seen with her in public when she’s wearing them. (Isn’t she cute?)

But on a day of weakness, even dad can be persuaded to do crazy family stuff, like the time we did a retreat to celebrate Willie Nelson. Long story. Even my dogs have headbands and braids.

1.) Please share what you learned from your parents or your childhood that has influenced you as an adult.

2.) Any funny stories to share?

Now if you’ll excuse me. My tambourine lesson is in thirty minutes.

National Shooting Sports Month

By John Gilstrap

August is National Shooting Sports month!

Okay, so it doesn’t rate a special tree in the living room or lights in the window, but National Shooting Sports Month provides unique opportunities for writers to familiarize themselves with the weaponry their characters use.

Sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF, the same group that puts on the massive SHOT Show every year), the month-long celebration encourages shooters, gun stores and range owners to make special efforts to introduce more people to hunting and the shooting sports.  Have questions?  Walk in and ask some questions.

There will even be special events.  On August 17, I will be giving a presentation on the weapons Jonathan Grave uses, at Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Virginia.  The details are still in play, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to do any live fire exercises.  That would have made the even really fun.

I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here on TKZ over the years discussing gun stuff.  Guns handling and gun play are nearly impossible to describe accurately unless you’ve done some shooting.  There’s a feel to the grip and the recoil.  There are weight and balance issues peculiar to different weapons.  There’s a method to loading magazines.  National Shooting Sports Month will provide perfect opportunities for you to get hands-on training.

A couple of years ago, my publicity team from Kensington traveled from New York to Virginia–and then on to West Virginia with me–as part of a publicity plan to shoot copies of Scorpion Strike, whose cover featured a number of bullet holes.  These young ladies were as anti-gun as you’d expect from New York City.  As we entered the range complex at Echo Valley Training Center, they mocked the shooters they saw and cowered at the sight of firearms being carried out in the open.

When I got them on the trigger, though, everything changed.  After hundreds of rounds apiece, they were enthralled by the sport.  By the end of the day, I had them advancing and shooting at steel targets.  When their magazines ran dry, they dropped them and slapped in another.

In four hours at the range, their world view of shooting–and shooters–had changed.  They’d learned new skills and had had a fun day outdoors in the fresh West Virginia air.

Marksmanship is about precision.  Just like golf or tennis, your number one competitor is yourself, and experience combined with good instruction is the only way to advance your skills.  Here’s a website that will direct you to a shooting range in your area.  Even if you have no experience–especially if you have no experience–drop in and sign up for some beginner instruction.

If you’re afraid of the weaponry, embrace your fears.  A firearm is just a tool and your instructor won’t let you pose a danger to yourself or others.  Don’t worry about recoil.  It’s never as violent as what you see on movies or television.  (I know, right?)  Just hang on to everything tightly and keep a balanced stance.

For your first outing, shoot with either a small caliber or a big gun.  Preferably both.  Physics lesson: The heavier the gun, the less the felt recoil, and the smaller the load, the less energy to trigger that equal and opposite reaction.

So . . . Who’s game?

On Fan Mail And Diving Down
Into The Research Rabbit Hole

By PJ Parrish

One of the best things about being a published writer is getting mail.  Your day can be going to hell in a hand basket, your work in progress making none. And then you get an email from a reader.  It’s like a tonic.  Or, sometimes, after you read it, you need a gin and tonic.

Back in my salad days as a romance writer, before we had the internet machine and even before computers, I used to get real paper letters, written in long-hand. I took a class in handwriting analysis and it came in handy in trying to figure out my letter writer’s personality or mood.  I never got anything written in red crayon or worse. Mostly, readers were kind, supportive and, when I screwed something up, pretty forgiving.

Now, all we get are emails. Something has been lost in this process. I can’t discern the personality behind the letter anymore. Alas. Not all technological advances are good. Still, even emails can brighten my day.  Here’s a sample of some I got this week:

Is there anything new coming out soon for Louis. I have read them all. I getting withdrawals. I have loved them all. Benny

Hi, hope you are both enjoying writing another story for Louis to work his way through.

Thank you for all of your wondrous stories, which I have read over and over, and probably will get to again one day. God bless you both and may you keep on bring him and Joe to life for those of us who love them. Most Sincerely, Sheryl

And then there was this one:

I enjoy Louis Kincaid immensely. However, in the interest of authenticity, I feel the need to share a couple of disagreements in dialectic choices…in several places in the book, you used the word “kin” to describe relatives. In my experience as a 64 year old woman who has been a Michigander most of her life, (third generation), I have to say that I have never heard relations referred to in that way, except by southern transplants who came up for the auto industry jobs, in the middle and eastern part of the state. We, and everyone we knew, said “family” as in, “I have family in Michigan.” I know these are small details that may seem inconsequential, but they felt jarring to me and definitely took me out of the rhythm of the story.

Well, okay. Technically, she’s right. Maybe. Sorta. Perhaps. I need a gin and tonic.

Today, I got a really strange email. First thing, he identified himself as a professor at Ohio University Athens. Rut-roh. What grammar rule did I violate now? What lousy syntax did I use this time? Did I screw up my geography again?

I read on and breathed a sigh of relief. I was off the hook. And this one was really interesting.

Dear Ms. Montee. Forgive me for writing you out of the blue, but I am hoping you will agree to help me with a project I am working on this summer. I am producing a podcast about the life and work of the Austrian polymath Robert Eisler. This podcast is based on a biographical afterword I wrote for an Italian translation Eisler’s Man into Wolf (which appears in your novel Island of Bones), published by Adelphi Edizioni earlier this month. Part of the podcast will consist of conversations about how Eisler’s ideas have affected the work and thought of others. Is there some story of how you discovered Man into Wolf?

The book he is referring to is one of my favorites, not just for its convoluted plot but for the strange rabbit holes our research took us deep into. Like many books, this one started out with a “what if?”

About 15 years ago, Kelly and I were manning the card table at a Fort Myers Barnes & Noble signing and we weren’t exactly busy with a long line snaking out the doors. We used the time to brainstorm about the next book, but all of our ideas stunk.  Then a nice lady came up and in talking, we learned she was a sociologist writing a non-fiction book about the pressures exerted on large extended families forced to live together.

“Sometimes, they just can’t take it. They flip out,” she said.

That was the germ for ISLAND OF BONES.  We knew it had to be set on Southwest Florida’s coast, and that place has a wonderful geography.  Off the coastline are dozens of little islands, squatting out there in the Gulf like green turtles.  Some are privately owned.  What if...there was a weird family living on an island out there that had a dark secret?

Then I remembered one of my favorite songs by the J. Geils Band called “Monkey Island.”  Here’s the first verse:

No one could explain it
What went on that night
How every living thing
Just dropped out of sight
We watched them take the bodies
And row them back to shore
Nothing like that ever
Happened here before.

Oh yeah. A strange landscape. An isolated island. A family maybe going a little insane. I had heard of a rustic restaurant out on a private island in the Gulf so Kelly and I took the ferry over one day to check it out.  Yes…now we were beginning to see it. Here’s the second verse of “Monkey Island.”

On the east side of the island
Not too far from the shore
There stood the old house
Of fifty years or more
All the doors and windows
Were locked inside and out
The fate of those trapped in there
Would never be found out.

Because of Florida’s unique history, we knew our family had to be of Spanish origin, so we came up with the island’s name — Isla de Huesos, Spanish for island of bones. But over the centuries, the original name was lost, corrupted by the locals  into Away So Far Island. And the weird old family out there was left to do whatever it was they did.

Now comes the last piece of serendipity.  While we were plotting this book, I was scheduled for a long-planned trip to Spain. So off I went to Madrid. My husband and I are seat-of-the-pants travelers, so we just rented a car and headed north. We ended up, by happenstance, in a coastal region called Asturias. It’s gorgeous and mysterious, isolated between the Picos de Europa Mountains and the sea.  I knew I had found my family’s mother home.

When I returned home, I dove into the research rabbit hole. Asturias was influenced by the Celts and Romans and remains stubbornly isolated and rich in old traditions. Some of their ancient customs still survive in the villages today.  One of them is called the Beleno Ride. The village men go up into the mountains, put on wolf skins then ride down into the villages, simulating the abduction and rape of women. The custom comes from Roman times and is related to the pagan Lupercalia festival.


Oh yeah.

But I didn’t want to go into woo-woo werewolf territory, and the psychology of criminals fascinated me. So I pulled a couple more loose research threads, trying to figure out why these Asturian men still do this. Deep in Google, I found Dr. Robert Eisler.

Eisler was a renaissance man. He lectured on economics, philosophy, religion, art history, and philology, spent fifteen months in Dachau and Buchenwald, was once arrested for art theft in Italy, testified at hearings on currency reform in front of the British Parliament and U.S. Senate, and never held any university position beyond temporary lectureships at Oxford and the Sorbonne.

And he wrote a book in 1951 called Man Into Wolf. The subtitle tells you everything any writer needed to know: “An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy.”  Basically, Eisler believed that human urge to violence stems from Ice Age food shortages that forced ape-men to imitate wolves and take up pack hunting. He claims this is the historical basis of the werewolf legends found in many cultures.

I ordered the book from Alibris and read it. Louis finds it on the shelf of his prime suspect and his pursuit of the “wolf man” leads him right to the Island of Bones.

My Ohio professor, Brian, and I have exchanged several emails. Turns out he’s a big fan of crime fiction and read our book. We did a phone interview a couple days ago for his podcast and ended up chatting far longer than we meant to. Interesting postscript Brian told me: In Man Into Wolf, Dr. Robert Eisler used the term “serial killer.”  Which is a good 55 years before it is credited to FBI profiler Robert Ressler.

Cue a little woo-woo music. Or maybe some Warren Zevon.


Special credit to the first person who can tell why I used that photo of Rocky and Bullwinkle.


How To Write Nonfiction Book Proposal


Remember my last post, entitled Why Waiting is Difficult? Well, I’m happy to report that my wait is over!!! And now, I can share my good news.

In May, Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield) reached out to me about writing a true crime novel about female serial killers of New England who were active prior to 1950.

Some of you may have read the story on my blog, so I won’t bore you by repeating all the details here. Suffice it to say, Pretty Evil, New England: Female Serial Killer’s of the Region’s Past is anticipated to hit stores Fall 2020. Yay!!!

For those of you who missed the announcement on my blog, the acquisitions editor gave me two weeks to send her a book proposal. And like any professional writer, I assured her that a two-week deadline would not be a problem. When I hung up, panic set in.

What did I know about writing a nonfiction book proposal? Not a darn thing!

Plus, I now had mountains of research into historical female serial killers. I’ve written true crime stories on my blog many times, but never a novel-length true crime book. This was a huge opportunity, with a well-respected publisher in a new-to-me genre. All I kept thinking was, if you blow this chance you’ll regret it forever.

Once I managed to get my breathing somewhat regulated, I contacted my dear friend, Larry Brooks. You probably know this from his time on TKZ, but it bears repeating — he is amazing! Not only did he assure me that the editor didn’t contact the wrong author for the job, he explained in detail what she was looking for in the proposal. Most importantly, he told me why she’d asked for certain things, from a nonfiction publisher’s point of view. Knowing “the why” helped me focus on what to include. Incidentally, Jordan was also a godsend through the entire process.

See why it’s important to befriend other writers?

On TKZ, we’ve talk a lot about the business side of writing. In nonfiction, it’s important to show how and why the proposed book will be profitable for the publisher. My situation was a little different, since they came to me, but I still followed the same format as if I’d cold queried. After all, the acquisitions editor still needed the board to approve the project before offering a contract.

So, today, I’d like to share the proper format for a nonfiction book proposal. If you find yourself in a similar situation, perhaps this post will save you some agony.

Each heading should start a fresh page.

Title Page



Author’s Name

If you’re cold querying an agent and/or publisher, then also include your address, website, phone number, blog address, and agent contact info, if applicable.

Table of Contents for the Book Proposal

Keep this basic format and chapter headings unless the publisher/agent guidelines asks for something different. Next, I’ll break down each chapter to show what to include.


Overview …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Target Market …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Competitive Titles …………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Author Bio …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Marketing Plan …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Length & Special Features …………………………………………………………  (page #)

Chapter Outline …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Sample Chapter …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)


You need to hook the agent/editor with a strong opener and establish why the subject of the book is of interest to a definable audience and what your book offers to this market. A sales representative has an average of 14 seconds to sell a title to a bookstore buyer, and the editor in a publishing board meeting has only a few minutes to convince colleagues of the potential of a book.

A few questions to consider …

What’s the book about? What’s your pitch? Does the book fill a need? Why are you the right author to write this book? Are you passionate about the subject matter?

Target Market

You cannot say “this book will appeal to men and women from 18-80,” because it won’t. Instead, you need to provide an actual target audience with real figures to back it up.

Where do we gather these statistics? Social media is a great place to start. Search for Facebook groups about the subject of your book. For example, I included Serial Killer groups, True Crime groups, Historical groups, and groups related to New England, like the New England Historical Society. For each group, I listed the subscribers and, where available, a breakdown of the members’ gender, age group, etc. Next, I went to YouTube and searched for podcasts related to my subject matter. I also included a brief psychological study of why true crime attracts women.

See what I’m saying? Think outside the box to find your audience.

What if you’re proposing a cookbook? You can still use social media as a jumping off point, but I’d also search for culinary classes. Are your readers likely to subscribe to certain magazines? List the circulation numbers. Is your book geared toward college students? Call the universities.

Take your time with this section. It’s vitally important to prove there’s an audience for your book. Publishing board meetings sound more like product development meetings. By providing accurate, measurable data, you’re helping the acquisitions editor convince the board to approve your project.

Competitive Titles

Search bookstores, Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, Books in Print, and libraries. You want to show at least five title that would be considered competitive or at least somewhat related to the subject of your book. For each competitive title, provide author’s name, title, price, publisher, publication date, ISBN, any known sales figures, rankings, or other indications of the book’s success.

I also used this section to show why I chose to focus on five serial killers instead of ten (as proposed by the editor), with titles that proved my theory.

Author Bio or “About the Author”

Unless you’re proposing a memoir, write your bio in third person. Include why you’re qualified to write this book, as well as previous publishing credits and accolades. If you’re short on publishing credits, then include tidbits about yourself that show your passion and/or expertise in the subject matter.

Marketing Plan

How do you plan to market this book? Does your blog get lots of traffic? List how many hits per month. Also include the number of email subscribers, social media followers, etc. List speaking engagements. For example, I included a list of venues I appear at every year (all in New England).

If you’re writing a how-to, do you teach courses? Workshops? Have media exposure?

Length & Special Features

Here, you include word count, photographs, or other special features of the book. I can’t divulge the special features for my book, but again, I thought outside the box to make the book unique.

Table of Contents

There is no pantsing in nonfiction. You’ll have to outline each chapter, with eye-catching headlines, and list them here. To give you some idea of the work, I had 50 chapters in my book proposal, each chapter meticulously plotted. Will they change once I complete my research? Maybe, but the publisher expects you to stick fairly close to the original. After all, that’s the book you sold.

Sample Chapter(s)

Follow the agent/publisher guidelines on length, etc. They’re looking for writing style, tone, and voice. Now that the business side is completed, this is your chance to shine!

And that’s about it, folks.

Nonfiction writers, did I miss anything? Please share your tips.

Fiction writers, have you considered writing nonfiction? If so, which subject/genre are you interested in?


What Are We Missing?

by James Scott Bell

The other day I did an incomprehensible, dreadful, noxious, scandalous thing—something so shocking to the conscience that it threatens the gossamer social fabric that tenuously binds us together as a people and a nation.

I left the house without my phone.

I know, I know! But hear me, please.

My daughter was visiting us from Denver. As is our tradition on such occasions, we get a meal from that Southern California institution—the envy of hamburger lovers everywhere—In-N-Out. I looked at the clock and saw it was 11:15 a.m. On a Saturday. Which meant the cars would be lining up and I’d better get going to snag our grub.

I grabbed my wallet and keys and hopped in the car. As I pulled out of the driveway I patted my pocket.

No phone!

Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. (Job 1:21)

Halfway down my street I thought, Should I go back and get it? Nay, I must go get in line! Also, In-N-Out is only five minutes away from my house. What could happen in that span of time that would necessitate communication? An earthquake? Possibly! This is L.A., after all. But that was a chance I was now willing to take.

When I pulled in behind a moderate line of cars, I wondered, Now what? I couldn’t check email, scan Feedly, or play a quick game of app backgammon. Why, I could not even tweet!

What to do, what to do? Well, here you are. In line. Waiting to order. Why don’t you try something different, like observing something? 

Good idea. What did I see? A parking lot. Wait … next to the In-N-Out building itself—three lovely palm trees.

One of the things I love most about my hometown is the palm trees. You see them everywhere, often in serried rows observable from the freeway. Nothing says L.A. more than a burnt-orange sunset with palm trees silhouetted against the sky.

Okay, so what else did I see? Nearby those palms was one of the ugliest eyesores of our current landscape—a cellular transmission tower. Is there any man-made thing on earth more opposite Michelangelo’s David or the Venus de Milo than one of these dull, gray snarls of protuberant antennae and parabolic receptors?

The symbolism was not lost on me. Here was a perfect metaphor of our hyper-connected state, the loss of appreciation of beauty due to digital pervasiveness.

There! I now had irony to go with my observations!

And soon I would have grilled onions to go with my cheeseburger. I observed the young man who was tasked with taking orders from car windows. During peak times, In-N-Out uses a real live person to speed up the ordering process. It’s the toughest duty in the whole operation, especially when the sun is beating down on the asphalt, as it was that day.

But the young man could not have been more pleasant. In-N-Out trains their people well. I have not met one sourpuss there. Unlike many other places these days.

I started to ask What if about this fine fellow. What if he took an order from a guy in a black sedan, and saw a gun on the seat? What if someone passed him a sealed envelope (and what would be in it)? What if a flying saucer got in the car line and a green alien asked for a Number 2 with a Diet Coke?

Story sparkers from observation. What a concept!

Which brings up the idea of a diary or journal. I have it on no less an authority than Ward Cleaver that this is a good thing for a writer. I give you this excerpt from a Leave it to Beaver episode called “Beaver’s Secret Life.” Beaver’s 6th grade teacher asks the class what they’d all like to be when they grow up. Beaver chooses writer. That evening, the subject comes up at dinner:

What made you decide to be a writer?

I think it’d be neat making up stuff and getting paid for it.

Sure, Beav. They got guys in the publishing company that fix up your grammar and spelling and stick commas in and junk. Some writers don’t even have to write at all, they just holler their whole book into a machine.

Gee, Dad, that’s really neat. Can you get me one of those machines so I can start being a writer?

I don’t think it’s quite that easy.

That’s right, Beaver. I think your first step should be to do what Somerset Maugham did.

Was he a writer?

With a name like that what do you think he was? A linebacker for the Colts?

He kept a diary, Beaver. He jotted down everything that happened, you know, people he met, interesting things he did.

Then when he was ready to write he had all that background he could get stories from.

Would you get me a diary so I can start making up junk?

Sure we will, Beaver.

So what about you? Do you keep a journal or diary to record interesting things and people?  

How are your powers of observation these days? Has your smartphone atrophied them?  

Do you feel naked if you don’t have your phone with you?


The Graveyard of Stories

Photo by Chris Liu, unsplash.com

I have at least once before mentioned in passing how what we see with respect to a published novel — or for that matter, any work of art — is but the tip of the spear, the polished, honed, and sharpened result of a whole lot of effort. I happened across something recently that everyone who labors in the arts to whatever degree of success needs to read over and over about again about getting to that tip. 

You may know of John Clarkson. He is an extremely talented author whose novels, particularly those in his current James Beck series, stand as an example of what the job of writing looks like when it is perfectly and professionally done. John intermittently blogs and recently told a story about his current work-in-progress. I will summarize it but you really need to read John’s brief dissertation to get the full flavor of what happened. John describes the process of writing what would have been the third novel in the Beck series, and realizing, upon completion, that it didn’t work (and why). He concluded that it could not be fixed so he trashed it and started over. His account is illuminating, tragic, hopeful, and ultimately inspiring. Oh, and it is very brave, too. John, in workmanlike, understated prose gives us the reasons why what would have been his latest novel didn’t come together. Ouch. How many of us would willingly and intentionally exhibit what we perceived to be a screwup on the internet town square in a forthright manner and without reservation? I know of at least one person who would pause before doing so. He’s typing these words right now. 

The truth is that John is not alone in what he went through, though he is certainly walking point when describing the experience. Not every written volume of every successful series makes it to the finish line.  They lay on the blacktop and the finish line rises up to meet them. Sometimes being successful is as much knowing what doesn’t work as what does work, and being brave enough to pull the pin, rather than hoping that no one will notice. There is a term used for these books which don’t make pass the author’s own white glove test. Such manuscripts are called “trunk novels.” I am reasonably sure that every successful author has at least one. I daresay that we will probably not walk with Jack Reacher down every mile of middle America that he traverses, or that we see the account of every mystery that Spenser or Bryant and May encounter and/or solve. What is different here is that John takes us through the process of determining whether the book goes to the agent or the trunk. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s an informative one.

It doesn’t just happen with books.  Music? It happens all the time. I personally know of one band that was huge in the 1980s and labored for seven months on their fifth album. They spent well into six figures while doing so. There was a change of personnel at their record label and the new sheriff decided to pull the plug on the new record on the theory that the label wasn’t going to chase good money after bad. The band was informed of this in the middle of a tour. The same thing happens in the film industry. At least with books you can sometimes and to some extent control that portion of your destiny, as John has.

My best advice? Be like John. Confront the failure, embrace the suck, and try again. Oh, and you might pick up a book or five of his to see what he is striving for and will no doubt achieve once again. You won’t be sorry.

That is all I have for today. How is your summer going? Are things humming along or are you turning a project into compost and trying again? Good luck and best wishes either way. 


Reader Friday: Hard Time

“Why shouldn’t you have a hard time? If it was easy, any little mug could chisel in on the racket, and it wouldn’t be any good for anybody. It doesn’t take brains, certainly, to be a freelance fiction racketeer… but it takes an ironclad intestinal tract.” — Jack Woodford


First Page Critique: Reluctant

By Elaine Viets

Here’s another first page from the prolific pens of our TKZ readers. I’ll make my comments after you read it.

Galilee Medical Center, Nahariya, Israel
11 November 1982

The child lay limp and pale on the gurney like a cast-off doll. Blinking hard, I terminated the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure.

Block it out doctor! But the brutal images of another little girl clutching a Raggedy-Ann doll mocked me, and refused to give way. The little one I tried to save. The one I was forced to leave, to die, alone.

No Moshe. Not now. Save this one!

“Okay Dr. Sabin, we’re ready to go,” said Lydia, giving her a few more breaths with the ambu-bag. The self-recrimination momentarily halted, I slid the laryngoscope blade into her mouth, and gently lifted.

“Suction please.”

I cleared the tiny girl’s pharynx of bloody sputum. She smelled of smoke, dust, and something……what, urine? I was just about to pass the endotracheal tube, when the emergency-room doors burst open. Two medics exploded into the room, pushing another gurney, violently jolting the stretcher under my patient, nearly causing me to lose visual of her vocal cords.

“What the hell?” I blurted, but quickly slipped the slender tube into her trachea and removed the laryngoscope blade before glaring up at the offender. Instantly, the acrid, sharp stench of burned flesh and violence hit my nostrils.

“Burn patient doc,” grunted an IDF medic.

“Hannah!” I shouted to another nurse, “Grab the burn kit. I’ll be right there!” Commanding shouts rang out from beyond the double doors, followed by the high-pitched whine, and whop, whop, whop of an approaching helicopter.

“Huh?” I gasped, taping the ET tube to my patient’s face.

“We’re expecting more casualties, some sort of bombing.” Lydia said, as she attached the ambu-bag to the little girl’s airway. I squeezed the bag delivering a few quick breaths. A blush of pink replaced the dusky, ashen hue of the girls face, as oxygen-enriched air filled her lungs.

The doors crashed open again, and a barrage of wounded IDF soldiers cascaded through.

“You! Doctor!” barked a stocky, red-faced IDF captain, one hand holding a blood-drenched trauma pad against his neck. “Get your hands off that Palestinian dog and treat my men now!”

With that, the captain grabbed the end of the girl’s gurney and gave it a fierce yank, launching the stretcher into the back wall, and ripping the airway right out of her trachea.

Elaine Viets’ critique:
I assume, since the date is written European style, that the author is not an American. The story feels authentic and starts off with a bang. However, it quickly loses its impact when the second sentence trips over Dr. Moshe Sabin’s memories as he tries to save the life of the little girl on the stretcher. That sentence (Blinking hard, I terminated the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure) is hard to read.

Rather than loading the action-packed beginning with extra information, why not wait until the little girl is breathing? That would be a good time to add the back story about the doctor’s previous failure.

The story is also slowed by medical jargon. Since many of us watch hospital dramas, we have a pretty good idea what an ambu bag is and we may even know where an endotracheal tube goes, but the phrase “lose visual of her vocal cords” should be in plain English.
Why not say: “nearly causing me to lose sight of her vocal cords”?

A laryngoscope is a fearsome-looking contraption. It would be a good idea to briefly describe it and the difficulties and dangers of using it – especially the blade.
What is an IDF medic? Tell us what those letters stand for.

Suppose the author began this way:
The child lay limp and pale on the gurney like a cast-off doll.

“Okay, Dr. Sabin, we’re ready to go,” said Lydia, giving the child a few more breaths with the ambu-bag.

“Suction please.”

I cleared the tiny girl’s pharynx of bloody sputum. She smelled of smoke, dust, and something . . .what, urine?

I was just about to pass the endotracheal tube (AUTHOR, TELL US WHERE ARE YOU PASSING THIS TUBE), when the emergency room doors burst open. Two medics exploded into the room, pushing another gurney, violently jolting my patient’s stretcher, nearly causing me to lose sight of her vocal cords.

“What the hell?” I blurted, but quickly slipped the slender tube into her trachea and removed the laryngoscope blade before glaring up at the offender. Instantly, the acrid, sharp stench of burned flesh and violence hit my nostrils.

“Burn patient doc,” grunted an IDF medic.

“Hannah!” I shouted to another nurse, “Grab the burn kit. I’ll be right there!”

Commanding shouts rang out from beyond the double doors, followed by the high-pitched whine, and whop, whop, whop of an approaching helicopter.

“Huh?” I gasped, taping the ET tube to my patient’s face.

“We’re expecting more casualties, some sort of bombing,” Lydia said, as she attached the ambu-bag to the little girl’s airway. I squeezed the bag delivering a few quick breaths. A blush of pink replaced the dusky, ashen hue of the girls face, as oxygen-enriched air filled her lungs.

Blinking hard, I tried to terminate the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure.

Block it out doctor! But the brutal images of another little girl clutching a Raggedy-Ann doll mocked me, and refused to give way. The little one I’d tried to save. The one I was forced to leave, to die, alone.

No Moshe. Not now. Save this one!

The doors crashed open again, and a barrage of wounded IDF soldiers cascaded through.
“You! Doctor!” barked a stocky, red-faced IDF captain, one hand holding a blood-drenched trauma pad against his neck. “Get your hands off that Palestinian dog and treat my men now!”

With that, the captain grabbed the end of the girl’s gurney and gave it a fierce yank, launching the stretcher into the back wall, and ripping the airway right out of her trachea.


Anonymous Author, the last three paragraphs are outstanding. Congratulations on an intriguing first page. I’d really like to read this novel.
What do you think, TKZ readers?

Win Backstab, the first e-book in my Francesca Vierling newspaper series. The police say the deaths of the St. Louis columnist two friends were accidental, but Francesca is searching the city for their killer — before he finds her. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com