True Crime Thursday – Halloween Phobias

Credit: Myriam Zilles, Pixabay

by Debbie Burke


Halloween is spooky.

Fear can be real, as in these true crimes that occurred on Halloween.

Fear can be from scary movies like these perennial favorites.

Spooky movies can trigger phobias like:

Optophobia – Fear of opening one’s eyes, especially when the sinister organ music gets really loud.

Bogeyphobia – Fear of the bogeyman; or Kinomortophobia – Fear of zombies

Pediophobia – Fear of dolls…like Chucky.

If you’re a vampire, you might suffer from:

Spectrophobia, the fear of mirrors and one’s own reflection; or Alliumphobia, fear of garlic.

If you’re an author, you worry your readers will develop logophobia (fear of reading) or hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (fear of long words).

Some phobias are head scratchers.

Ompholaphobia: Fear of belly buttons

Photo credit: Thorsten Frenzel, Pixabay

Lutraphobia: Fear of otters

Photo credit: hamikus, Pixabay

Anatidaephobia– Fear of a duck or goose watching you

Photo credit: Dighini, Pixabay

Arachibutyrophobia: Fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. Our last dog, a German Shorthair, developed this phobia after I fed him an open-faced peanut butter sandwich. While watching him trying to lick it loose, I dissolved in helpless laughter. Come to think of it, maybe he didn’t have arachibutyrophobia, after all, but rather katagelophobia (fear of being embarrassed).

Photo credit: Robert-Owen-Wahl, Pixabay

Wishing you a safe and happy Halloween–just don’t answer the door or look under the bed! 

TKZers: What’s the weirdest phobia you’ve heard of?




Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas contains no belly buttons, otters, ducks, nor peanut butter. But it does include a scary mountain lion. Check out the Kindle versionFREE today through November 2.

My Muse Is Gone


I fear this will be a short, sorrowful Wednesday post.

On Tuesday morning, my husband had to take our much-beloved cat, Miss Nina Garcia Benedict, to be euthanized. Her kidney disease had swiftly advanced from stage 2 to acute in two very short months. She was only 10 years old.

Nina owned us the way that a proper cat owns her people: with complete and utter domination. She was stunning to look at from her kitten days onward, and bore the fact with the humility of a Hollywood starlet.

Whenever I sat down to write, Nina would materialize five to ten minutes later. If she wasn’t standing solidly on my keyboard or peering over the back of the screen, causing it to tilt threateningly towards me, she was on my lap, needling my thighs until I squawked. (Who am I kidding? I could squawk for hours, and she still wouldn’t stop.) She helped me write six novels, many stories, and countless blogs. Perhaps I’d have written even more without her valuable assistance, but those would have been hollow words.

And when I cried–as writers sometimes do–Nina was right there to rub her furry head against me, concerned.

I’m out of town this week, and am already anticipating walking in our front door, and feeling her absence. I can’t even think about writing more stories without her.

See? I told you this would be a brief post. There’s not more that I can bear to say about her right now.

Do you have–or have you had–an animal in your life that helps you with your writing? I want to hear your stories.




Sneak Peek into Audiobook Narration

Photo courtesy of Basil Sands


Debbie Burke


Jim Bell recently wrote an excellent post about doing his own narration for his audiobook. With training as an actor, attorney, and experienced public speaker, he’s a natural for his craft books.

For memoirs, the author is often the default choice as long as s/he has a good voice. (See recording artist Juni Fisher’s tips for DIY narration at the bottom of this post)

What narration styles do readers prefer for fiction?

In the 1990s, my husband and I browsed racks at truck stops for Books of the Road cassette tapes with great selections of mysteries, thrillers, and historicals. Listening to books made the hours and miles fly by. Several times I really hated to leave a compelling story, even for a dinner break!

Back then, most narrators were male. I recall being annoyed every time a man adopted a falsetto tone for a female character. It totally jerked me out of the story and had a ridiculously comic effect, not the best mood for a tense, life-or-death scene.

Conversely, the female narrator of an early Sue Grafton book sounded so silly when she attempted a phony deep voice for a male character, we ejected the tape.

Audiobooks have grown up a lot since the days of cassette tapes. With their increasing popularity, I went in search of the tastes of today’s listeners.

GoodReads featured a discussion on audiobooks prompted by a two-part question:

In general, would you say you read more books written by male or female authors?

Would you say you listen to, or prefer listening to, more male or female narrators?

Responses were evenly split on whether they read more female or male authors and not necessarily along gender lines.

Many reported they didn’t care which gender as long as the narrator knew what s/he was doing. Quality of performance made the strongest impression.

Several said a book written in first person point of view should be read by a narrator of the same gender.

A number cited irritation with a male narrator who made female characters sound like “bimbos” or a female narrator who sounded “dopey” trying to fake a baritone.

Some respondents had trouble hearing higher-pitched female voices and therefore generally preferred male narrators or females with lower-pitched voices.

A few mentioned preferring a male narrator for male characters and a female narrator for female characters. But a surprising number would rather listen to a single, skillful narrator throughout the whole book, regardless of gender.

Narrators develop their own fan bases. One fan said: “I can fall in love with narrators and try an audiobook simply because they narrated it, even if I’ve never even heard of the author.”

British accents entranced many fans.

Quite a few cited Davina Porter as a favorite. She narrated Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

Others said they would listen to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith read the phone book.


To learn what happens inside the recording studio, I reached out to two well-respected audiobook narrators, one male, Basil Sands, and one female, Marguerite Gavin.

Photo courtesy of Basil Sands

Basil Sands has narrated numerous novels by TKZ’s own James Scott Bell and John Gilstrap. Basil is also the author of the Ice Hammer series. He has his own studio in his Anchorage, Alaska home where he narrates and does post-production editing.

DB: Basil, would you give us an overview of the process of creating an audiobook?

BS: Writing a novel has a great many complex parts and narrating a book into audio format is similar.

The rights holder (author/publisher) contacts the narrator community for auditions. Once the narrator is chosen, contract and script are sent. The narrator should read through the entire text at least once. There will likely NEVER be time to read a book twice, or enjoy a leisurely read ever again. Time crunches may mean cold reads so improv skills are a must.There is literally no time for rehearsing.

In order to make a decent living, a narrator has to do two to four books a month or more.

DB: Do you ever consult with the author?

BS: In most cases, [publishers arrange contracts and] authors are off-limits to narrators. If I can, I love talking to authors to get their take on their characters.

Years ago, I recorded back-catalog books for Piers Anthony (sci-fi/fantasy author with unusual names and spelling). I emailed Piers (now 85). He had no idea his old books were being recorded and was delighted. He gave me free rein to perform as I pleased. I had a lot of fun with his series.

DB: How do you handle female voices and dialogue?

BS: With a fairly deep, resonant voice, I never go falsetto. My tactic is to soften my voice, slide up an octave or two, and give a less masculine impression.

Basil’s summation: Narrating is far from the easiest of acting professions but is one of the best ways an actor can really sink their chops into their trade. Every book is a marathon, playing all the parts, knowing all the details, in full control of the entire show. Did I mention I love my job?


Audiobook narrator Marguerite Gavin

Marguerite Gavin has narrated 600+ books and won multiple awards. She lives on the Delaware shoreline with her 19-year-old daughter. She likes to say she and author Dana Stabenow grew up together since Marguerite narrated Dana’s first Kate Chugak thriller and they’ve worked together for 22 books. Marguerite also brings to life Liam CampbellDana’s male protagonist.

During our phone conversation, when asked how she handles male voices, Marguerite says she narrates many thrillers where, inevitably, “five male cops all from the same hometown with similar accents wind up in a car chase. How do you distinguish among them?” She then demonstrated several voices with slight but distinct differences in tone, diction, and speech patterns.

In addition to narration, Marguerite is an actor/director and jokes, “Audiobook narration supports my theatre habit.”  She also teaches and coaches students “to understand the actor’s instrument of voice and to understand their own range.

If the character is a hulking male truck driver who smokes, “I throw air over my cords. It’s not always about pitch.”

She believes it’s easier for a woman to do male voices because women have more range. “I’m not afraid to sound like a man.” She suspects men have more trouble making the leap to sound feminine.

Marguerite loves to narrate series, watching characters evolve over time. She also enjoys collaborations with authors.

Her enthusiasm for her profession comes through with every word. “I’m fortunate to have the balance of financial stability with my passion. It’s important to keep your joy in your job.”

“The skill is to be inside the story as much as possible. You don’t want people listening to an actor act rather than getting lost in the story.” She always asks, “What makes a good reading experience? What is the feeling?”

Thank you, Basil and Marguerite, for giving us a peek inside audiobook narration! It’s always enlightening to talk with artists whose passion for their profession shines through.


Recording artist Juni Fisher’s tips for DIY narration, quoted with her permission:

  • Print script in 14-16 font, double-spaced, and make notes.
  • Recording can be done a few lines, a paragraph, a page at a time.
  • If you make a small error, clap your hands to make a “mark” so you know where to go back to re-record, and keep going.
  • Use your eyebrows when you read. Be more enthusiastic than you think. The engineer will have you back off if it’s too much.
  • Advice from the music recording industry: “Nice, but do it now so I BELIEVE you.”
  • Sip room-temperature water or warm water (never cold) every couple of pages or paragraphs.
  • No dairy and no sugar.
  • Use sugar-free throat lozenges (not numbing type).
  • Speak as you’d speak to someone you adore, sitting right next to you.



Do you have a preference for audiobook narrators of one gender over the other? If so, what are your reasons?

What audiobook quality is most important to you as a listener?





Debbie Burke’s new book, Stalking Midas, is FREE on Kindle today through November 2.  Here’s the link. 



An Amazing Story of Luck and Persistence

For today’s post I have something a bit different to my usual musings – this post concerns a real life story that impacted my family last week. Even though it truly is a remarkable story in and of itself (one providing a perfect antidote to today’s winter-comes-way-too-early weather in Colorado!), it also offers a heartwarming affirmation that sometimes luck and persistence pays off (a belief all of us writers should embrace, especially in our darkest moments…)

Last Monday, my mother-in-law was out walking her beloved border collie,Tess, in the Australian bush outside the Victorian era mining town she lives in, when the dog literally disappeared. One minute Tess was scampering through the undergrowth, the next minute she was gone. My mother-in-law called for her frantically for nearly an hour, but there was no answer – and no sign of Tess. By the time we received the news in Colorado, Tess had been missing the whole day – and by then the anxious waiting was already taking its toll. Had Tess run off after kangaroo or been bitten by a snake? In an area known for abandoned mine shafts (during Victorian times, this was a huge gold mining area), had she fallen down one and been injured? Another day passed and hope was fading – it’s almost summer in Australia and there hadn’t been any rain for almost a month. How could she survive when there was no water to be found? Three more days passed and we all feared the worst…

Then at midnight we  received the most remarkable call – Tess had been found alive and well after having fallen some 5-10 meters down an abandoned mine shaft. It was a movie-like moment and (as you will see from the photos) a truly remarkable ending that has captured the local imagination (and news!) in Australia. Even now, after a weekend to digest the news, I don’t think any of us can truly believe what just happened. For my mother-in-law it was the kindness of a friend who went back to an area that had been searched 2-3 times and who just happened to be at the right place and the right time to her Tess whimpering from the depths of this mine shaft:

Then they waited for the specialist mine-shaft rescue team (yes, they have one!) to drive over from nearby Bendigo and watched as they winched down a man who grabbed Tess and held her as they winched them both back up:

And here is the lucky dog, herself, looking none the worse for her experience. As far as the vet can tell she suffered nothing more than a scratch on the nose (and some dehydration of course).


This is such a lovely story of how luck and persistence came together to save a dog’s life, that I simply had to share it.

I think we can all take heart, that sometimes, miracles do happen!

For those interested in seeing the news story on Tess’ rescue – I’ve posted the link below:


A Simple Trick to Increase Your Productivity

by James Scott Bell

When my father died in 1988, I found myself the head of a one-man publishing company. Dad, a highly regarded L.A. lawyer, had devoted twenty years to a pet project called Bell’s Compendium on Searches, Seizures & Bugging. It’s a digest of all California and U.S. Supreme Court opinions in this area of the law, updated several times a year, in a unique format that allows lawyers, judges, and law enforcement to find relevant decisions in a matter of seconds.

Thankfully, I’d been working with Dad on his treatise for a couple of years after leaving a big law firm to open my own practice. He taught me everything about the book, which is a good thing, for he was the only one who knew how to do it. If I hadn’t been there, Bell’s Compendium would have died with my father.

Today, over thirty years since Dad’s death, I’m still carrying on his work.

But back in ’88 I had to teach myself—fast—how to operate and expand a business.

So I created a crash course on entrepreneurship—reading books, listening to tape programs, attending seminars, and putting into practice what I learned. One of the first areas I had to master was time management. Luckily I came across Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. This little classic is filled with practical techniques, and one great tip for dealing with the bugaboo that haunts all of us from time to time: procrastination.

We writers have developed many ways to procrastinate. The problem has only grown worse over the last two decades with the rise of the internet, social media, and 24/7 stimuli. When we’re writing and we hit a bad patch, it’s so easy (and dopamine-inducing) to hop onto the net and surf around. We scan our Twitter feed. We see what a favorite blogster has to say. It’s fast and non-threatening (unless you’ve unwisely engaged in a tweet storm with some unhinged mountebank).

But what causes procrastination in the first place? I think it’s simply the prospect of unpleasantness. When we have the ability to choose among tasks, we tend to favor those that are more enjoyable (relatively speaking). Or we simply choose to lollygag about until forced to give a knotty problem some time (which is why bosses and deadlines were invented).

Lakein has an answer for this tendency. He calls it The Swiss Cheese Method. Simply put, instead of looking at the entirety of the unpleasant task, take five minutes to “take a bite” out of it (creating a hole in the task, thus the name of the method).

For instance, when you sit down for a writing session and face the blank page (“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.” Sidney Sheldon), it is sometimes pure joy and there’s no problem. Other times, though, you know you’ve hit a bump—or a wall—and it’s going to take some painstaking keyboard clacking to get you out of it.

Or maybe you’ve got several writing-related things to do in addition to your WIP. There’s editing another manuscript, marketing tasks, getting ready for an upcoming conference, queries to prepare, and so on.

Hmm, maybe I’ll just check my email first. Oh look! Marcie sent me a link to a cat video. Cute!

What’s that YouTube suggestion in the sidebar? A scene from Malcolm in the Middle. I love Bryan Cranston! I’ll just watch it and…


And before you know it, your time management has been turned upside down.

I usually have three projects going at any one time—a novel, a non-fiction, and a short story. So what I do when I first sit down to write is ask myself which project is giving me the most resistance—and then take a bite out of it. I usually aim for just a “Nifty 350” words, and then see where I am. What happens most of the time is I break through whatever barrier there is and keep going.

If for some reason I don’t move on after 350 or so, I’ll switch over to another project for awhile. When I come back to the first one, my “boys in the basement” have been working on it and I’m usually ready to write some more.

To sum up: Tackle your most unpleasant (or challenging) task when you are fresh (this works, BTW, for any enterprise you’re involved in). Take a five-minute bite out of it. If you feel some momentum (and usually, you will) keep going. If you encounter resistance, go to another task for awhile, then come back to the first one and take another “bite.”

All this talk about bites has me feeling peckish, so I’ll turn it over to you. What do you do to combat procrastination?

16 Concrete Tips for Effectively Editing Your Own Fiction

by Jodie Renner, TKZ alumna, fiction editor and author of writing guides    

Are you relatively new at writing fiction? Perhaps you’ve shown your first (or latest) draft to beta readers and been told your premise, plot, and characterization are now pretty solid, but that your pacing is a bit slow and your writing style could use some amping up and polishing. Perhaps it’s overly wordy or just a bit pedestrian.

If so, take a break, then grab a coffee or some chocolate and start going through the whole story again, page by page, to search for any wordy, clunky, hackneyed, or lackluster phrasing and replace it with succinct, fresh, vibrant wording that will entice and delight your readers. The step-by-step list below will help you do a line-by-line self-edit to take your story up a notch or two.

If you want your popular fiction to captivate readers, sell well, and garner great reviews, ferret out and fix these 16 style weaknesses:

1. Meandering, wordy, or repetitive writing. Be on the constant lookout for anywhere you can cut down on wordiness. Don’t bore your readers by having characters going on and on. Avoid lengthy, neutral descriptions—today’s readers don’t have patience with them. And don’t say the same thing several times just to make sure readers got it. Look for areas you’re repeating yourself. Also, watch for “little word pileup.” Can you be more succinct and direct? For example, instead of “It would be a good thing for us to…,” just say “We should….” Here’s an example from my editing:

Before: The man was small and pudgy and he had a full dark beard that he nervously stroked with his hand.

After: The small, pudgy man nervously stroked his full dark beard.

2. Wishy-washy qualifiers that weaken your message. Do a search for words like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, etc., and delete almost all of them. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Even really and very are best avoided—it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

3. Colorless, pedestrian verbs. Do a search for overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus or use the MS Word one to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted. Do searches for walked and ran and replace many or most of them. See Ch. 21 of Fire up Your Fiction for plenty of more expressive alternatives.

4. Overuse of –ing verbs. Best to use -ed verbs instead—they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.

5. Too many -ly adverbs. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.” Instead of “He walked deliberately,” say “He strode.”

6. Pile-up of adjectives. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of descriptors in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Instead of “a very tall, hefty man” say “a giant”; instead of “a beautiful, huge, historic house,” say “a stately mansion.”

Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose”—melodramatic, overly “flowery” writing. For example, here’s an over-the-top description from a novel I edited many years ago, about a sports car in motion: “Every turn of the wheel, the veiled beauty of fortune shadowed him: serpentine and capricious in nature, bestowing pleasure or pain at whim, and enslaving mankind to her fancy.”

7. Telling instead of showing. Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements like, “He found that funny,” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, tone, facial expressions, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she pushed her food around the plate.” Do searches for was, looked, seemed, and felt and reassess and revise.

8. Distracting dialogue tags. Stick with the basic he said and she said­ (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark uttered,” etc. These phrases stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas “said” is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in he shouted, she murmured, he grumbled, she whispered.

Also, you can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead:  He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”

9. Showing a reaction before the action that caused it. Make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actual actions. Describe the action first, then the reaction; the stimulus, then the response. State cause before effect. Instead of “He jumped when he heard a piercing scream,” write: “A piercing scream made him jump.”

10. Passive instead of active voice. Don’t say, “The ball was thrown by the boy.” Say “The boy threw the ball.” Start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct, personalized, active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Instead of: “Fire on them as soon as they’re spotted,” say “Fire on them as soon as you spot them.”

11. Negative constructions. Avoid double negatives as they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

12. Frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. “The assailant closed in on me, eyes blazing. Next thing I saw was his fist closing in, and then making contact.” or “Two big stacks of files were stacked on her desk.”

13. Pet words or imagery you use over and over. Is your character smiling or shrugging or squinting or swallowing or nodding or rolling her eyes or raising her eyebrows a lot? Vary the wording and imagery.

14. Formal sentences and pretentious language. To be avoided in fiction, unless it’s the dialogue of an arrogant or pretentious character. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up distracting and alienating them. Simple words are more powerful and direct, as they evoke an instant image or feeling. Pompous or unfamiliar words feel like the author is trying too hard to impress us.

“Are you excavating a subterranean channel?” asked the scholar. “No sir,” replied the farmer. “I am only digging a ditch.” – Anon

15. Characters starting to do things. Don’t have your characters begin to do something or start to do something. Just show them performing the action. Instead of “She was beginning to feel nauseous,” say “She felt nauseous.” Instead of “His head started to pound” say “His head pounded.”

16. Monotonous sentence structure:

– Don’t start sentence after sentence with “He” or “She” or their name. Rearrange the ideas for a more sophisticated feel:

Before: His headlights found the driveway leading to the rear of the duplex. He parked in the darkness. He closed the car door carefully after him. He drew his gun. He was relieved to see no lights in the windows. He walked quietly up the path to the back door.

After: His headlights found the driveway leading to the rear of the duplex. He drove around, then parked in the darkness. Closing the car door carefully after him, he drew his gun and crept forward. As he walked quietly up the path to the back deck, he was relieved to see no lights in the windows.

– Don’t start sentence after sentence with a gerund:

Creeping to the office door, Eileen stood listening. Hearing nothing, she opened it and peeked out. Seeing no one in the hallway, she headed for the door near the entrance to the showroom. Entering the room, she turned on the light and closed the door behind her. Expecting to see a room filled with stolen artwork, Eileen was disappointed.

– Change up “and” sentences, which can seem clunky and amateurish.

Before: He was tall and thin with a long narrow face and looked exhausted.

After: Tall and thin with a long narrow face, he looked exhausted.

– Combine sentences and reword for better flow:

Before:  Ben Cross was a top-notch investigator. He was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut when Shelley walked in.

After:  Ben Cross, a top-notch investigator, was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut when Shelly walked in.

Or:  Shelly walked in the café and looked around. Ben Cross, a top-notch investigator, was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but working through these tips should definitely result in a more dynamic, engaging writing style and better pacing. For more many more tips with examples for sparking up your story and polishing your prose, check out Jodie Renner’s FIRE UP YOUR FICTION.

For lots more succinct, valuable advice for writing compelling fiction, see links to many of Jodie Renner’s top writing craft posts HERE.

Do you have any style tips to add? Please post them in the comments below. (Let’s leave advice on grammar and punctuation, and also plot, characterization, pacing, tension, intrigue, etc. for other blog posts.) Thanks.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION,CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two handy, clickable, time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. Website:; Blog – Resources for WritersFacebook, Amazon Author Page.

Noir at the Bar

By John Gilstrap

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of attending a conference that is quickly becoming one of my favorites, and has earned a place on my very small must-attend list.  Creatures, Crimes & Creativity (C3 Con) is one of very few writer and fan confabs that is not genre-specific.  In fact, C3 is the only conference on my list that is not specific to the mystery/suspense/thriller genre.  It’s nice to hang out with romancers and science fictioneers.  Hey, writers are writers, and it’s hard to find a smarter, more entertaining group to hang around with.

A popular after-dinner feature of C3 is an event called Noir at the Bar, where writers sign up in advance to read a selection of their work to the assembled crowd, who then vote for the “best” story.  (By way of full disclosure and bragging rights, I won the contest in 2018, but was too crushed by deadline pressure to prepare anything for this year.)  There’s always a time limit to the presented pieces, usually somewhere between five and seven minutes, and at hard core Noirs at the Bar, they cut readers off at the sixtieth second of that final minute.

This year, as I sat in the audience listening and watching authors slash each other with gladiatorial prose, I realized that too many of the presenters didn’t understand the challenge they were facing.  To read a story aloud is to perform a story.  Pushing the competitive element aside, when a writer chooses to read to his audience, he is denying his audience the opportunity to read along.  Whatever the listener gleans from the story must pass through not just the writer’s fingers, but also his vocal chords and his eyes and his body language.

The whole point of taking the stage–any stage–is to entertain the audience.  Hard stop.  That requires eye contact and knowledge of how to use the microphone.  It means knowing your material.  The year I won, I confess I cheated a little bit by reading an epic poem instead of a short story.  (I was just a child, a boy of ten, when I went to the mountain where I’d never been/and I heard the old folks talk and say there’s a monster up here, still lives today/with glowing red eyes and a deathly look/I’m telling you, boy, ’bout Old Mack Cook . . .)

Our time limit was 7 minutes, and I edited the piece and rehearsed it and trimmed it some more until I had it down to 6:45.  I presented from a manuscript that I’d printed out in 20-point Arial, and using the timer on my phone, I tracked my progress through handwritten notes I’d placed during rehearsals that showed me what the time should be at the beginning of key stanzas.  By the time of the performance, I had the piece pretty much memorized, and the manuscript was there just as a reference.

Speaking of using a manuscript as a reference, I learned a valuable trick.  First of all, I never staple or bind the papers.  When I place the text of a presentation on the lectern, I begin with two piles, both face-up, with the bulk of the text on the right, and the current page I’m referencing on the left.  As I get to the bottom of the left-hand page, I slide the right-hand page over to cover it.  This way, if a brain fart happens, I know at a glance both where I’m supposed to be, and where I’m going.  When the presentation is completed, the entire manuscript is stacked on the left, face-up, with the last page on top.

My rationale here is that I want to appear to be as prepared for a presentation as I try to be.  To the degree that I can memorize the presentation, I do, but I think it looks terrible to break the flow of language for a page turn, and I hate the optics of a page flip.  It looks unprofessional to me.  And the flopping page turn necessitated by a staple in the corner is just flat-out awful.

When I’m on tour for a book, I avoid doing readings whenever I can because I find them boring.  But when pressed, I invoke a trick I learned from an author buddy of mine, and read a scene from the book that I’ve rewritten specifically for a bookstore audience.  Since my stories are largely inappropriate for children, yet children are often present at readings, I simplify the language and make it family-friendly.  I’ll make the violence less violent.

While we writers are not in show business, per se, we are in the entertainment business, and we’d all be wise to treat every public presentation as if we were addressing a television audience of millions of people.  Preparation is key.  Obsessive preparation is even better.  Every time you ask people to watch you and listen to your words, you owe them the courtesy of having something to say and being prepared to say it in the most engaging way you can.

Just as writing is about the reader, not the writer, presentations are about the audience, not the speaker.  However many or few are in the audience, every one of those people came for a show, and you owe them the best you can give.

There’s really no downside to writers putting themselves out there as public speakers.  For the most part, the public expectation is low because most writers hate being out in front of audiences–that’s why they sit alone in rooms making stuff up.  If the speaker is boring, he’ll have met expectations and will largely be forgotten.  If he nails it, though–if he makes people laugh a little or cry a little (preferably both)–he’ll be remembered for taking the audience on an unexpected journey.

What say you, TKZers?  Do you have any tips to share on presentation skills?

First Page Critique Redux:
What A little Rewriting Can Do

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” ~Michael Crichton

By PJ Parrish

Hi there, crime dogs. Today I’d like to revisit one of our First Page critiques.  Not because I think that the submitting writer needs to be raked over the coals once more.  This time, I’d like to show (rather than tell) what a little judicious rewriting can do.

Rewriting is dear to my heart. It reminds me, at times, of the despair I used to feel in my sculpture classes when I was a college art major. I was terrible at anything involving three-dimensional design. I aced portraiture, watercolor, acyrlic and oil. But when it came to creating something out of a piece of wood, clay or plaster, I was really bad.  Don’t know why…it’s just the way my brain is wired.  I had to work really really hard in 3D design. It didn’t come naturally to me.

So those of you out there struggling with the structure of your book, I feel your pain.  I know how hard it is to take a lumpy gray mass of hot mess and try to turn it into something with shape, definition and, yeah, even beauty.

Which brings me back to our topic of the day — rewriting.  You can’t fear it. You shouldn’t fight it. You must embrace it.  I read one writer who described rewriting as trying to scrub the basement floor with a toothbrush. But it needn’t be that gruesome. Writing may not come naturally to you, but you can be better at it if you try.  Rewriting is how you get all the bad stuff out of your system.

It’s okay in your first draft to use cliches, stale metaphors, boring chapter endings, bad transitions, unoriginal description.  It’s okay to have potholes in your plot, flaccid character development, turgid backstory.  Get it all out there, keep moving forward, finish the draft. Philip Roth once described a first draft as a floor that, once in place, he could walk upon.

So build your floor. Then go back over it and do the hard work. Don’t despair. Trust that you can do it.  Your pencils should always outlast your erasers. I think Nabokov said that.

Now, back to the First Pager. Last month, I critiqued a submission titled Scarlet Lies. It wasn’t bad, but it had some basic problems. The writer asked if I would read her second attempt. Because her attitude was so receptive, I agreed. I will let you see how things went. First, here’s the original:


Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? A few horns blared and she clicked her heels across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug.

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” She hustled, her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance.

She was radiant, elbowing people out of the way to get to him and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away. Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip.

“You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.”

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“I doubt that.”


Now here’s the second version she sent to me:

Scarlet crossed six lanes of traffic on East 57th street without looking. New York hadn’t claimed her life yet, but she felt it would be an easier fate than dealing with her mother’s charity gala tomorrow. How was she supposed to find a speaker when she’d only been released for two days? As usual, her mother’s demands were unreasonable.

Tires screeched as she strutted across the road, the sun blazing in her eyes through the smog. A Ferrari skidded to a halt and blared its multi-tone horn.

“Watch it, lady!” A man yelled out the window at her.

She held up her middle finger at him as she stepped onto the sidewalk.

Scarlet walked two more blocks towards her target. A coffee shop, apparently. She double checked the location on her phone as she approached.

Then, serenity. She saw Michael sitting at a cafe table, talking on his phone and flipping through a notebook. Scarlet smiled, knowing her luck at finding him here would probably be considered closer to criminal stalking, but he would benefit from her charming companionship, regardless of what he claimed to believe or what he had said to her the last time they parted. That was two long years ago, and he hadn’t been thinking clearly.

His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance. He was absorbed in his conversation. Next to him, steam curled from a small, cream-colored mug. Her heart pounding, she watched the image of him flicker in and out of view between the gray masses of people elbowing their way around her.

She hadn’t spoken to him since the fire. Since he “swore her off.” Well. Time to change that. She adjusted her skirt and walked through the cafe gate.

“Michael! Hi!”

The man froze in place for a moment and then looked up, his face stony. She was grinning. He was not.

She heard him bark a quick “call you later,” and he slid his phone into his pocket.

“How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She down sat at the table with him, dropping her shopping bags on the ground beside her.

He looked at her for a moment, dread and quiet disbelief on his face. “I’m honestly a bit surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.” He gestured in the air around him.

Scarlet raised her voice an octave and flipped her hair behind her shoulder. “Well! Vacation’s over.”

“Vacation?” He pressed his lips together, eyebrows raised. “I don’t think so. Did you break out, or did your parents pay?”

She smiled again. “I’ve missed you.”


So, what is improved by the rewriting? Let’s try to break it down. Again, this is just my opinion:

  1. Scarlet is much more likable now. Some of you liked her better than I did, but I found her sort of ditzy and wondered if readers would want to follow her for an entire book. Now, I think she comes across as just high-spirited. Big difference. I don’t know what sort of sub-genre the writer is going for here, but the light tone makes me think this would be appropriate for romantic suspense, straight romance, or cozy. What’s better now is that the tone is more consistent, and that’s important. Some writers never quite grasp the idea that you have to have a tone for your story — light, dark, hard-boiled, historical, whatever — and every word and sentence you write has to support that tone.
  2.  We now know where we are geographically. Important to establish that right away.
  3. The dialogue is much better. Do you notice how just separating the dialogue from surrounding narrative makes it look cleaner? Easier to read for today’s writers. If you go back and read older fiction, you’ll notice this may not be true. But for today’s market seems to demand it. It’s a matter of taste and trends but it’s good to be aware of it.
  4. Point of view: This is where the writer really improved things. In the original, the POV wavered between Scarlet, the man, and wandered up into omniscient. Again, this is a modern trend, but being firmly in one character’s POV at a time is  important in today’s market.

One last thing I pointed out to the writer:  We don’t know what genre she’s working in here, but if it is suspense or mystery, it is crucial to pretty quickly establish some kind of disruption in Scarlet’s life. Something has to go wrong, or you have to drop hints that something ALREADY has gone wrong — and that THIS is what your story is really about. I advised her to not waste too much more time on chit-chat between Scarlet and Michael unless it supports this. His dialogue about the breaking out and her being out in the wild hints at it, but the writer still needs move the CONFLICT closer to the front of the stage. And you don’t want to wait too long to do this.

So, end of object lesson. Thank you — again! — dear writer for letting us learn as you do. And to remind us that in baseball, you only get three strikes. But in writing, you get as many as you need.  I think Neil Simon said that…or maybe it was Yogi Berra.

Welcome to Murder 101: PG Halloween Edition

With Halloween arriving next week, murder is in the air. It might be the only time of year when “normal” people can fully relate to crime writers and readers. So, ladies and gents, grab your favorite beverage and kick back for a little Murder 101, complete with visual aids.

Let’s say your male character is cheating on your protagonist.

During the confrontation — we can’t ignore that type of behavior, now can we? — take the homewrecker by surprise with one well-placed stab to the carotid artery. Don’t forget to withdraw the hunting knife! We wouldn’t want it to act as a plug.

Notice how the kitty is priming the carotid artery? The subject is nice and relaxed. More importantly, he doesn’t suspect a thing.

There are two carotid arteries in the neck, one on the left side and one on the right. Each carotid artery branches into two divisions:
• Internal carotid artery supplies blood to the brain
• External carotid artery supplies blood to the face and neck

If it were me, I’d aim for the internal carotid, but it’s a personal preference. If you’d rather watch the blood drain from the subject’s face and neck, then shoot for the external. Both will get the job done.

A quiet execution is an effective way to murder…

If you choose this murder method, be sure to use a fast-acting poison. No need to act psychopathic by dragging out your subject’s agony. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re into. No judgments!

May I make a suggestion? Try using Tetrodotoxin, which is a complex biochemical found in two marine creatures, the blue-ringed octopus and the puffer fish. It’s also in slugs, but on a much smaller scale. Garry Rodgers wrote a fantastic article about this deadly poison.

Whether Tetrodotoxin is injected via octopus bite — how might you explain a pet octopus? — or ingested by way of food or drink, the poison will kill the subject within a few minutes, depending on the character’s size vs. the amount of poison administered. Tetrodotoxin first blocks nerve responses and then paralyzes the victim, which prevents the victim from breathing. Finally, it stops the heart. As little as 1 milligram is all you need to accomplish your goal.

Some people prefer a good ol’ fashioned murder method, complete with sound effects.

Ladies, please don’t close your eyes while firing a weapon. I know murder isn’t easy, but if you’re determined to see this through, you may as well do it right. For information on the correct ammunition to use, John Gilstrap, wrote a post about what works best. Hint: hollow points are your friend.

Manual suffocation adds an up-close-and-personal touch.

This method is fairly straightforward. Notice how the sloth covers the kitty’s nose and mouth with one smooth motion? Perfect execution! Only use this murder method on humans please. We’re not savages, after all. ?

Sometimes, you just gotta let loose — and that’s okay.

Nothing screams you’re on the edge of sanity quite like an ax. Don’t you agree? You may want to act this one out at his place to avoid a lengthy crime scene clean up. Notice the plastic coveralls? Get yourself an identical suit but wear the hood. You wouldn’t want to leave hairs behind for the crime scene unit.

I swear, Your Honor, I had nothing to do with it. He tripped.

Do NOT harm the family dog. Please note how Miss White effortlessly pushes her lover down the stairs. So graceful, so ladylike, a little flick of the wrist and her problem is resolved.

Unless, of course, his neck doesn’t snap. Yeah, that could happen. Then what do you do? No problem. Finish him off with a quick slash to the neck like this …

Time is running out, folks. By November 1st some people may not “appreciate” a crime writer/reader’s passion to help others. Before then, it’s perfectly acceptable to say…

I’ll leave you with one final word of wisdom…

For those participating in NaNoWriMo this year, remember that. Happy hunting! I mean… writing. 😉