More Escapism, Please

by James Scott Bell

Erle Stanley Gardner

Say, just wondering, but have any of you awakened lately and felt like you’re not in your own bed, but rather inside the trash compacter from Star Wars?

That’s what I thought. Thus the word escape comes to mind. And isn’t that what good, solid, entertaining fiction is about? I believe in escapism. It’s as necessary for human flourishing as good food, good sleep, and good company.

Erle Stanley Gardner, said:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

Dean Koontz said:

“In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.”

And this from our own Brother Gilstrap:

“I want to make their hearts beat a little faster and I want to make them laugh and sometimes cry. I want to earn those occasional emails I get from readers who share that my stories have been welcome diversions from the problems stacked up by real life.”

That can be said of all of us here at TKZ. Nothing pleases us more than transporting readers into a fictive dream.

And yet, it isn’t always easy to escape into fiction these days. When was the last time you “got lost” in a book? So much so that all considerations of time and other pursuits went completely away?

It was a lot easier in the days before computers, smart phones, social media, cable and satellite TV with a gazillion channels, endless content streams, 24/7 news cycles and on and on.

In spite of all that—nay, because of it—we all have a craving for regular escape.

So here’s what I’ve done. I have a special chair in my family room, set by a window, which is my reading chair. Having the same physical location for my reading sets off a Pavlovian response in my mind, i.e., that here is where I don’t have to check my phone, scan the internet, or worry about anything. The only concession to technology is putting on smooth jazz via the Pandora app on my phone.

Also, in this chair I prefer to read a physical book. I like that old-school feeling of having pages in my hands and a to-be-read stack on the table. (When I’m not in my chair, but in bed or waiting in an office, I do utilize my Kindle, with its 99¢ collection of the complete works of Dickens, and so on. I’m no Luddite.)

Next comes the “getting lost” part. There’s a certain mental practice required here, I believe. For example, when I start a novel I give the author the benefit of all doubt. I am pulling for them to pull me in. When they do, it’s magic. If the opening chapters aren’t stellar, I still give the author some space, hoping things will change for the better. This space is limited, however; I am more prone to setting aside a book that doesn’t hold me than I used to be.

What if you don’t have a lot of time to escape? Or you’re in the midst of a pressing day and you need to snatch some relief?

The answer is the short story. In the bookshelf near my reading chair are several collections of short stories. Everything from Hemingway (who I consider the undisputed master of the form) and Irwin Shaw, to collections of classic pulp, such as The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (ed. Otto Penzler).

I can always grab one of these and go for a satisfying ride. When I return to “real life,” I feel refreshed.

In that regard, please indulge me in a short commercial. I’ve got a project for escapism over at Patreon. My product is short stories. I write stand-alone suspense, stories that tug the heart, and on occasion something speculative, a la Ray Bradbury. I also have a series character who is a troubleshooter for a movie studio in post WWII Los Angeles (written in classic pulp style). These stories are exclusively for patrons, and cost less than a Starbucks drip. (I also do flash fiction—under 1k words—for ten-minute escapes.)

And for the price of a fancy-dancy frothy drink, you get the stories plus advance review copies (ARCs) of my full-length fiction.

All the details can be found here. I would be most grateful for your support.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program, with some questions from our host:

When was the last time you got lost in a book? Is finding time to read more difficult for you these days? Do you have a preferred place to read? Are you a “physical” or “ebook” or “doesn’t matter” reader?


Border Collie Syndrome

Border Collie Syndrome (not Border Collie Collapse)

Transitioning to a Writer’s Life


Dear Writer,


I recently retired from a busy job/occupation and began “settling in” to what I had long desired, a “writer’s life.” The only problem, I was having trouble settling in.

I looked around and saw things that I should have done 10-20 years ago, and I was tempted to work on them. (I didn’t say I did them.) I was distracted by other creative pursuits I wanted to work on. But most of all, I felt like I should be busy every moment—continuously—industriously. Doing something “productive.”


My wife and I saw something similar in our youngest son when he graduated from basic training in the Air Force. He was off base with family for the first time in weeks. He was nervous, constantly checking that his shirt was tucked in correctly, that his pants weren’t wrinkled. He didn’t want to sit down. He couldn’t relax.

Stockholm Syndrome

He acted like a prisoner set free who didn’t know how to feel or act. Was that what was happening to me? I thought of post-prisoner syndrome. Oh, yeah, Stockholm Syndrome. But that was prisoners identifying emotionally with their captors. And Stockholm Syndrome wasn’t actually an official syndrome in the psychiatric diagnostic codes. Plus, I wasn’t a prisoner of a captor. I had been the boss at work. Hmm. Maybe I was a prisoner to myself.

Retirement Syndrome (“CEO Blues”)

I looked up Retirement Syndrome. Now, here was something that was beginning to fit, at least some components of it:

  • Loss of public exposure and contact
  • Loss of influence and control
  • Loss of steady income

I certainly missed contact with people. And, even though my wife and I had saved for retirement, I worried about the end of a steady income. I had worked to support myself for over fifty years. There was something about letting go that was a little scary.

Workaholic Syndrome

What about Workaholic Syndrome? For many years I worked ten-hour days, and still went home to paperwork in the evenings. I was self-employed. If I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done, or wouldn’t get done right. Yes, I fit the mold of feeling compelled to work, and that work had gotten in the way of my family life and social life. My ex-wife had definitely convinced my two oldest sons to not even consider a career in medicine.

Border Collie Syndrome (not Border Collie Collapse)

And finally, I remembered something I had learned about dogs. My wife decided she wanted to have a dog, and raise it from a puppy. She researched the different breeds and was intrigued by the intelligence of Border Collies. She visited a local breeder who screened prospective buyers of her puppies very carefully.

“Do you have plenty of room for your dog to roam?” was the first question.

My wife answered yes.

“Do you have work to keep your dog busy, like herding sheep?” was the second question.

My wife answered no.

“Oh, Honey,” the lady said, “if your Border Collie doesn’t have work, he’ll find or make work, even if it’s chasing cars.”


Well, it was all beginning to fit together. I had Workaholic-Retirement Syndrome with underlying Border Collie Syndrome as a co-morbidity.

Fortunately, I’m learning to “settle in.” I look at the unfinished projects and shrug my shoulders. I’ve been able to stay away from my office for three days at a stretch. I’ve given up the evening paperwork. And…I’ve stopped chasing cars.


Since writing the rough draft for this post, I’ve pulled out some books and reread them. I’m happy to announce I’ve had my mirror moment. I’ve seen the light.

Transitioning to a writer’s life is not “retirement.” It is a “transition.” It’s not about “settling in.” No, it is about girding up your loins for battle. (The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell)

I love what Olin Miller said. “Writing is the hardest way of earning a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.” (The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, Andrew McAleer)

So, Dear Writer, if you’re considering “retiring” and “settling in”  to a writer’s life, stop right there. We must reprogram your thoughts. Remember, it is “TRANSITIONING.” “Settling in” will hereby be removed from acceptable vocabulary.

And if you are still determined to “transition,” please buy/borrow and read the following:

  • The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell
  • How to Make a Living as a Writer, James Scott Bell
  • Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel, Lawrence Block
  • The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, Andrew McAleer


Dear Writer,

If after reading the above books, you still choose to follow this ill-advised journey, please take two aspirins and call me Monday morning. We will schedule an appointment for a long discussion. And if that does not dissuade you, we will arrange for a psychiatric consultation.

On a more serious note:



  • For those of you who have already transitioned to a writer’s life, please share with us the barriers you had to overcome. What advice would you offer to those who are contemplating such a change?
  • For those of you who are dreaming of or contemplating transitioning to a writer’s life, what questions would you like to ask? Here’s your opportunity to ask a great group of writers.

Reader Friday: Sympathy for the Devil

“The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.” – Dean Koontz (see also Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)

Do you agree with Koontz? Is there an example in book or film that comes to mind? Do you think about the sympathy factor for the bad guys in your fiction?

True Crime Thursday – COVID 19 Scams

Photo credit: Mika Baumeister – unsplash

By Debbie Burke


The pandemic has provided new opportunities to enrich scammers. For today’s True Crime Thursday, I’m highlighting two popular schemes that thieves developed to profit from COVID 19.

First scheme: Economic Impact Payments. 

Your phone rings and caller ID says it’s the IRS.

Gulp! Your heart speeds up.

The caller claims to be an IRS agent. He or she sounds authoritative and convincing, offering a name (fake) and ID badge number (also fake). They may even already know some personal information about you.

They claim you owe the IRS money and demand you make immediate payment.

But, being compassionate, understanding folks, they offer several options they’ll accept for payment–such as a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer…


You can sign over your economic stimulus payment check and send it to them, endorsing it as “payment for past debts.”

If you don’t comply, the formerly compassionate, understanding caller becomes aggressive and threatens you with arrest.

Variation: They claim you’re owed a refund but they need personal information before they send it to you.

Reality: Scammers can easily spoof the supposed IRS number. They often impersonate IRS agents, law enforcement, or other officials to intimidate their targeted victim. 

The IRS may call you but their first contact is generally by mail.

They do not demand payment by pre-paid debit cards. They do not request credit or debit card numbers over the phone.

If the caller becomes abusive, the IRS advises you to hang up immediately.

Variation: phishing by email or text – You receive an email, text, or message through social media, claiming to be from the IRS. The sender address appears similar to but may be IRSgov (no dot).

It claims you need to update your information or that you’re owed a refund. It instructs you to click on a link that takes you to an official-appearing IRS site. There, you are prompted to enter personal information like Social Security number, bank accounts, PINs, etc.

Reality: The IRS will never contact you by text or social media. They do however use email to contact you. Always study the sender’s address carefully.

If you click on a phony link and answer the questions, thieves have your personal information. They can then file fraudulent tax returns to obtain refunds.

Even worse, clicking on the link may install malware that gives criminals access to your computer where they can steal sensitive information like passwords.

If you have doubts that a call or email is legitimate, the IRS advises you contact them directly through the website.

Here’s a link to IRS scam warnings:

Another wrinkle in economic stimulus payments is causing confusion. Your second payment may come in a different form than your first payment did.

The first payment may have been direct-deposited into your bank account or you might have received a check from U.S. Treasury.

But the second payment may arrive by mail as a VISA debit card. Because the envelope does not look like the typical IRS check, many people think it’s advertising or a solicitation and toss it.

Here’s what it looks like (click to enlarge):

The return address on the envelope has a Dept. of Treasury logo and says Economic Impact Payment Card from a P.O. Box in Omaha, NE.

Even though it looks peculiar, the VISA card is valid. 


Second scheme: Vaccine scams

You receive a phone call from the Social Security Administration or Pfizer, the drug company manufacturing COVID 19 vaccines.

At least that’s what Caller ID says.

The caller invites you to sign up to receive the vaccine.You only need to give them your Social Security number, Medicare number, bank account, and credit card information.

Further, the caller claims you can be placed higher on the priority list to receive the vaccine if you pay a fee.

Reality: According to attorney Steve Weisman in a recent Saturday Evening Post article

“The truth is that the Social Security Administration is not calling anyone about getting the vaccine, and no one is being asked to pay a fee to be put on a priority list to receive the vaccine. This is just a scam to get your personal information and use it to make you a victim of identity theft.”

Vaccine scammers also employ email messages and texts, like those described above by the IRS, to trick the recipient into clicking on malicious links.


Yes, in fact, there is a special list that gives preferential attention to seniors. Unfortunately, it’s the Scammers’ Roster of Favorite Prey.

Please watch out for vulnerable friends and family who might be on that most-favored list.


TKZers: Have you been contacted by someone impersonating the IRS, Social Security Administration, or a drug manufacturer?

Do you know anyone who’s been defrauded by COVID 19 scams? Please share that experience.




Debbie Burke’s new thriller Flight to Forever features a pair of plucky senior outlaws on the lam. Please check out the book here.


Are You A Phil Or A Doug?

By John Gilstrap

I dedicated most of my high school years to the pursuit of nerdhood. I was editor of the Valor Dictus, our school newspaper, I sang 1st tenor in the choir and I was a district champion debater. Home life was a bit odd, so I spent as much time away from it as I could, and despite doing crazy stuff that would get teens thrown in jail these days, I managed to stay mostly out of trouble.

During my senior year, I decided it was time to shift gears, so I threw my hat into the ring of the musical theater. I was cast as Lamar in one of the world’s first amateur productions of Godspell. The show was so popular that it sold out its initial weekend run and we extended to a second weekend of sold-out shows. Quite the head rush.

One of my fellow cast members was a guy named Phil. For whatever reason, we never crossed paths outside of rehearsals and performances, but I was fascinated by his skills on the piano. He could play anything, including a rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” that rivaled the great Jerry Lee Lewis. After he heard a song once–whether Beatles or Beethoven–he could make the ivories sing. But he couldn’t read a lick of music. Didn’t know a quarter note from a crescendo. I have no idea what happened to him or where he went after high school, but he expressed no interest in studying music.

By contrast, my brother knew a guy in his high school–Doug–who could read a symphonic score the way you or I would read a book. The staves on the page transformed into music in his head as he read them. Some years later, I learned that he was a teenager before he understood that not everyone could do that. He went on to Julliard and later earned two PhDs in music. He recently retired from being the artistic director for one of the premier choral organizations in the DC area.

Unlike Phil, Doug has never enjoyed being the guy at the party hammering out show tunes and Beatles favorites while people sing around the piano. I don’t know why, and I won’t presume to guess. I have a number of friends who love to play their instruments of choice, but need to have the music in front of them to make it happen, and so would likely sell an unimportant body part to be able to play anything anywhere.

There’s an analogy here to writing prose. We have our own Dougs and Phils. On one end of the spectrum you have that set of MFAs and PhD grad school professors who know everything there is to know about literature and writing theory, yet are unable to publish works that appeal to the masses. On the other end, you have the lawyers (or safety engineers) whose study of literature begins and ends with what they like to read and somehow are able to hammer out stories that find an audience. Most writers toil somewhere in the middle.

I’m a Phil. I’m not especially proud of that, but I’m not ashamed of it, either. Early on in my writing career, when the inevitable question came up about what authors most influenced me, I would lie to avoid the dismissive looks and talk about Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens. To be sure, those were wonderful authors and I have enjoyed their works, but none of them carried the clout of Alistair MacLean, Stephen King or even Franklin W. Dixon. These days, I tell the truth and endure the dismissive eyerolls. A few years ago, I was introduced to an MFA class as “only a commercial fiction writer”, but with the modifier that I had some thoughts worth listening to. Boy howdy, did I! Curiously, I have not been invited back. Must be the pandemic.

I have always read to be entertained, and have always written to return the favor. My job begins and ends with taking readers on a great pretend adventure. I want to make their hearts beat a little faster and I want to make them laugh and sometimes cry. I want to earn those occasional emails I get from readers who share that my stories have been welcome diversions from the problems stacked up by real life.

I’m being completely honest when I tell you that of the few implements I recognize in my writer’s tool box, I use precious few of them. I understand the major parts of speech like nouns and verbs and adjectives, but don’t ask me what a participle is, dangling or otherwise. That knowledge is of no use to me. If you groove on that stuff, then God bless you. It’s certainly not harmful, but it’s stuff I just don’t need to know. Ditto the three act structure, which to me means a beginning, a middle and an end.

I understand very little about the process of writing stories. I don’t know how I know that action and dialogue drive character development, but that’s how it works for me. I often tell people that I don’t want to think too hard about the creative process for fear of breaking a machine that I don’t know how to fix. If it ain’t broke . . .

Remember the motto of the famed Faber College: Knowledge is good. My preference is to learn craft by reading books that I wish I’d written, but I would never discourage anyone from studying craft. We all learn differently and we all follow divergent paths.

But formal study is not for everyone. For some, it can be harmful. Remember always that the voice in your head is unique to you. Even a well-meaning teacher can ruin that voice if you’re not steadfast in your defense of it. Any creative advice that includes the phrases “you must” or “you cannot” is wrong. Hard stop. If you’re in school and such is the opinion of your teacher, then earn the A by giving him or her what they’re looking for, but then erase the rules from your brain. If something inside you is driving you to create–if something inside you won’t let you not create–then trust that the same driving force will help you find your own way, whether through schooling or sheer force of will.

Irrespective of which route(s) you follow, the one constant is that your early efforts are going to suck. Everyone you ask to help you un-suck it will have bits of advice that vary from others’ bits of advice. That’s a lot of well-meaning voices in your head. At the end of the day, you’ll still be stuck with the task of choosing on your own which is the best path to take.

What say you, TKZ family? Are you a Phil, a Doug, or somewhere in between?

What’s The Best And Worst
Advice You Got About Writing?

Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now. — The Byrds

By PJ Parrish

Just for yucks, I did a search on Amazon books today for “writing advice.” I got this response — “over 50,000.” No surprise to this veteran observer. Advice is plentiful and cheap. Well, not so cheap in one author’s case: He’s charging $39.95 for his self-published eBook on self-publishing.  First piece of advice for writers: Don’t over-charge for your stuff.

I’ve gotten lots of advice in my novel writing career. Some of it good. Much of it stupid. It just took me a while to figure out which was which.

My first romance was published by Ballantine Books in 1984. Since then, I’ve worked with two traditional New York houses and Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. I’ve had at least twelve editors and two agents. I switched from romance to crime. I’ve won two Shamus Awards, two Anthonys, one Thriller Award and was nominated for an Edgar. I’ve been dropped by three publishers, including a French one, which really stung. I’ve self-published original books and backlist titles on Amazon. I’ve chaired writers conferences and felt lonely at others. I’ve given a couple keynote speeches and endured sharing a signing table at Bouchercon with Charlaine Harris, whose line wound out the door and into the hotel lobby while I had oh, maybe five people. (Charlaine is a real lady BTW…kept talking up my books). I’ve cracked bestseller lists and had royalty checks that wouldn’t buy a can of dog food. I currently do not have a publisher. I sometimes think I don’t even have a good idea.

So what did I learn?

That advice about writing is to be taken with a shaker of salt. Here’s some of the best and worst I’ve collected over the last 37 years:

Best: Just Write A Good Book. When I was just starting out and hanging around the periphery at writer’s cons, this was the one thing that was always said on panels. Don’t worry about anything else. Just write the book and make it come from your heart. I still consider this great advice because you can’t fake quality, craft and passion. Editors don’t want less-than, and readers don’t like junk. (Okay you might fool them once but they won’t buy your second book and nobody loves a one-trick pony). Hone your craft. Write the kind of book you want to read. Don’t expect shortcuts to success.

Worst: Just Write A Good Book. Because of industry contraction, it’s no longer enough to just write. Today’s crime novelists must be active participants in the marketing, promotion and even publishing process. When I started out, writers were the proverbial mushrooms — kept in the dark, fed a lot a manure and everyone hoped they’d somehow magically sprout into bestselling fungi. My early editors balked at any questions I had and never sought my input. Today, publishers routinely send writers lengthy questionaires asking for input on everything from cover design, book tone, and market strategy. And if you’re self-publishing, I don’t have to tell you what a hydra-headed beast you must be to survive.

Best: Get Out! I’m convinced that most writers are naturally introverts. We want to hide in our writer caves with our coffee and imaginary friends. Early on, I was too scared to do signings. I didn’t network or go to conferences. When I finally did go, I was too intimidated to talk up other writers, agents or editors. Big mistake. Our community is generous of spirit and the advice of those who’ve gone ahead is invaluable. Get over yourself and get out there. (And yes, some day we will all meet again face to face, I promise. First round is on me).

Worst: Write What You Know.  This sounds good. In theory. If I had heeded it, I would have never had the success I did because what do two middle-aged white female Yankees know about a biracial 20-something man in the South? Yeah, if you’re just starting out, you might want to sow more familiar ground. It gives you confidence. But it doesn’t mean that if you’re a car mechanic in Des Moines, you can’t write about a tribe of Amazon zombies in Belle Époque Paris. It means you must invest your characters with genuine emotions and experiences. It means you must build a world that is believable even if it is fantastical. Madame zombie, c’est moi. 

Best: Writing Will Bring Out The Worst In You. I heard this from a famous writer in the Hyatt bar post-Edgars eons ago. He was two sheets to the wind but what he said still resonates with me. What he meant was is that unlike regular jobs. writers don’t have easy ways to gauge our success — no weekly paychecks, no performance reviews, no boss breathing down our necks. This tends to magnify whatever is strong — or weak — within us. Are you a procrastinator? Wait until you paint yourself into that plot corner. Are you a conflict-avoider? Well, being at the mercy of a publishing house is going to drive you nuts. Are you a tangled yarn-ball of self-doubt? That first bad Amazon review is going to have you in tears. Are you full of yourself? No one will sit next to you at the bar. Know your faults and don’t let them cripple your writing.

Worst: Outline Your Book Before You Write One Word. For my second and third books, our editors required a full outline. Ours ran 20-30 pages. This is common if you’re just starting out because editors are investing in an unseen product from an untested manufacturer. (you). They give you an advance, however paltry, and hope you can produce a great book ON A DEADLINE. So traditional pubs usually want to see where the story’s going before they commit. Now, I abhor outlining. It feels like torture in a straitjacket. (Best advice I got from my agent: Just make something up that sounds good to make them happy then go ahead and change it).  I get that many of you must outline. But those of you, like me, who can’t but must — well, fake it.  You’d be surprised (as I was) that sometimes looking at a map makes you want to take that detour.

Best: Read Well and Widely. I’m ashamed to say I never read crime novels before I tried to write one. Guess what? My first attempt was awful. So I started reading P.D. James, Michael Connelly, SJ Rozan, Steve Hamilton, Ross Macdonald. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley was a revelation. When I read Jeff Deaver, I underlined the parts that solved my craft questions. I also read some bad stuff. (no names!) which gave me confidence. Yesterday, the 2021 Edgar Award nominees were announced. Click here and maybe go buy a book or two.

Worst: Do What You Love And The Money Will Follow. This one actually comes from my friend Shane Gericke who points out that more than a million books are published every year and 95 percent of their authors still require a day job. That you love to write does not mean you will make any money at it. When I published my little romance in 1984, I was sure I was going to get rich. Didn’t take me long to wise up.

Okay, enough from me. I want to hear what you all have to say. What was the lousiest advice you ever got about this wacky business? And what was the best advice, the stuff that makes you put your butt in the chair and keep trying?

And yes, I was much much older in 1984. I’m so much younger than that now.

How To Animate Book Covers

Animated book covers are all the rage. Yes, they’re gimmicky, but they also draw readers’ attention. All over social media Fiverr folks announced animated book covers as a new service. Some writers rave about Fiverr, but I am not one of them. Aside from sending cash to a virtual stranger, what’s to stop them from slipping a trojan horse into the metadata? The moment I downloaded the image I’d be hacked. Once was enough, thanks. I’d rather figure out how to do it myself. And thanks to my friend, Harmony Kent, and her Story Empire post, I spent an afternoon refining the art of animated book covers. Now, I’m paying it forward to you, my beloved TKZers.

For those of you who aren’t comfortable with sites like Photoshop, not to worry. Animating book covers is a lot easier than it looks. It’s also addicting, so play with your book cover after you’ve met your writing goals for the day. If you’re still working on your first novel/novella or short story/anthology, don’t fret. Use this tutorial to animate blogging and/or social media images.

Ready to get started? Super. Let’s do this.

Step 1: Upload your book cover to Canva. Click “Create a design.” In the dropdown menu choose “Start with an image.”






Step 2: Once you’ve uploaded your book cover, click “Use in a design” and choose Instagram Post (the most universal size for social media).

Canva should stretch your book cover to fit corner to corner. If it doesn’t, as is often the case, then add a background. For my animated book cover, I used the background image of my book cover as the background, but a solid color also works.

Step 3: Save as PNG for best quality.






Okie doke. Here’s where it gets fun. On your iPhone or iPad, download Motionleap from the app store. They do have a free plan but the pro version only costs $19.99/yearly, which unlocks a lot more features. On non-Apple smartphones and tablets the same app could be under its former name, Pixaloop.

Step 4: In the app, click the photo icon at the top, and then New Project.

Step 5: Upload the Instagram Post book cover you saved from Canva and choose Animate (lower left corner).

Step 6: Then Select. Touch the area of the photo you want to animate.

As you can see, I chose to animate the background, headdress, and crystal in his hand. I don’t recommend animating text as it gets wonky if you do. If you make a mistake, click the white erase button (right side).

Step 7: Next, choose the direction of your animation.

The white line under the book cover adjusts the speed and the play button allows you to preview the effect. I erased the animation in the background. Sometimes less is more. Plus, I wanted to show you another cool feature.

To the left of Select, click the arrow button and a whole new menu pops up.

I want the headdress to break apart, so I chose Dispersion and positioned the circle around the headdress. There’s also tons of overlays and effects you can choose.

Step 8: Back out and save as GIF.

And that’s it. Want to see the finished project? Hopefully, the gif will work on TKZ. Otherwise, *awkward.* LOL

Because I broke down each step, it seems like a lot of work. It isn’t. Once you get comfortable, you can animate a book cover in 5 minutes.

Do you like animated book covers? Love ’em or hate ’em, it looks like they’re here to stay, but I wonder if they actually sell books. Have you ever bought a book because of an animated book cover?

Stretch That Tension

by James Scott Bell

Here’s a first page up for critique. Put on your muskrat-fur ushanka and join us in the bowels of Moscow’s busy transit system. And watch your back.


Death was close, following him like a ghost’s lingering presence.

District court judge Konstantin Reznikov felt it deep in his bones as he rushed along the platform of Komsomolskaya metro station. He clutched his briefcase like his life depended on it. And in a way it did. If he could pass the evidence to the man he was meeting, he might live to see another day.

People were swarming into the station from all sides that early Monday morning and there was barely enough room to put one foot in front of the other. A stranger’s warm breath grazed his neck and frozen fingers brushed his hand—the one holding the briefcase. He shuddered as a chill coursed through his body. Ignoring the angry protests as he pushed through the crowd, Konstantin searched for his contact. All he’d been able to find were some old newspaper photos, but he couldn’t have changed much.

“Damn it,” he muttered when a train entered the station and more people flooded in. Right then and there, he hated the Russian subway system and its 1 minute time-lapse between trains during rush hours. As the sound momentarily deafened him, he hated himself even more for choosing this place as the rendezvous point.

Komsomolskaya metro station was one of the busiest stations in Moscow. Even tourists came to visit due to its breathtaking architecture. Once upon a time, when he’d been a student from the province coming to attend law school, he’d been one of these awed people. But that was long before cynicism and corruption rotted away his innocence. For so long he’d been unable to live with himself, but this last case was too much. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to this one too.

Ironically, the theme of the station’s eight large ceiling mosaics was the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence. Maybe that’s why his subconscious had chosen this particular place. Maybe this was his attempt to fight and rebel against the system that had trapped him for years in a golden cage adorned with money and accolades.

There it was again: malevolent eyes boring into his back. His time was running out and the man was nowhere to be found.

Inhaling deeply, steeling himself, Konstantin stopped next to the escalator, clutching the banister until his knuckles turned white and looked around once more. Finally, he saw him.


JSB: This is good fodder for a grabber of an opening page. I love the uniqueness of the setting and the description of it. And what’s not to like about a Russian judge in the grip of an opening disturbance of the most basic sort—life and death? The writing is cinematic. I can see this on the big screen. Brian Cox as Konstantin.

So let’s do some editing.

Death was close, following him like a ghost’s lingering presence.

There’s nothing really wrong about this opening line. It acts like a teaser for the scene to follow. That’s a technique many a writer has used before. For example, Ken Follett in The Pillars of the Earth:

 The small boys came early to the hanging.

So it’s fine as is, but I’ll suggest an alternative for future reference. Instead of telling us in narrative what’s about to unfold, just start off with the unfolding:

District court judge Konstantin Reznikov rushed along the platform of Komsomolskaya metro station. He clutched his briefcase like his life depended on it. And in a way it did. If he could pass the evidence to the man he was meeting, he might live to see another day.

In this way, you drop the reader into the story in medias res—into the action itself.

He shuddered as a chill coursed through his body.

Two descriptions, side by side, of the same thing dilute the overall effect. Sol Stein called this the “1 + 1 = 1/2” mistake. I would go with shuddered. Chills coursing through bodies or up spines is a cliché.

All he’d been able to find were some old newspaper photos, but he couldn’t have changed much.

This needs more clarity. The pronoun he is used twice in the sentence, but applied to different people, so it slows us down (we recently discussed the importance of grammar, and this is a good example of the need). Put in another sentence or two about when and where this research was done, and a line explaining why this person “couldn’t have changed much.” People change their appearance all the time, often instantly, if they don’t want to be recognized, etc.

“Damn it,” he muttered when a train entered the station and more people flooded in. Right then and there, he hated the Russian subway system and its 1 minute time-lapse between trains during rush hours. As the sound momentarily deafened him, he hated himself even more for choosing this place as the rendezvous point.

I’m not getting why he would choose this place if he hated it so much. Later you say it might be his “subconscious.” That’s a little hard to buy considering this man is a judge who seems careful about planning things out, and knows that what he’s doing could get him whacked.

Also, as a general rule, spell out numbers under ten. And don’t hyphenate time lapse, as I believe that always refers to time-lapse photography. Thus: … Russian subway system and its one-minute time lapse between trains…

For so long he’d been unable to live with himself, but this last case was too much. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to this one too.

Another confusing sentence. If he’d been unable to live with himself, then this last case really didn’t push him anywhere. I’d suggest this fix: For so long he’d been fighting to live with himself, but…

Ironically, the theme of the station’s eight large ceiling mosaics was the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence.

This sounds a bit too author-ish. Almost like a line out of an essay. I do like the detail here, so filter it through the character. Something like:

For a moment he looked at the eight large ceiling mosaics depicting Russia’s historical fight for freedom and independence. He choked on the bitter irony, trapped as he was in a golden cage adorned with money and accolades.

There it was again: malevolent eyes boring into his back. His time was running out and the man was nowhere to be found.

Here, I think, is a good place to do some stretching of the tension. That is, whenever you have a suspense situation, do not resolve it too soon. In fact, in a first draft, overwrite these scenes. You can always trim them later. But the more skilled you become at tension stretching, the more you’ll be writing what all us scribes are after—a page turner (or page swiper or page clicker, as the case may be nowadays).

So instead of telling us Konstantin’s time is running out, show us. Instead of a feeling of “malevolent eyes,” give us more to see on the page, like Konstantin spinning around, desperately looking for his stalker. Maybe spotting one who might be him! Approaching! But then the guy jumps on a train, or just walks by. Etc.

Inhaling deeply, steeling himself, Konstantin stopped next to the escalator, clutching the banister until his knuckles turned white and looked around once more.

The POV police will let you off with a warning this time, but watch it from now on. We are in Konstantin’s POV, so he is not looking at his white knuckles (in any event, the cliché squad will come after you, too). But he can feel his knuckles. (Note, escalators have handrails; stairways have banisters). Thus: …clutching the handrail until his knuckles ached… 

Finally, he saw him.

I would definitely turn the page. But I get the feeling the scene (a prologue?) is soon to end, with Konstantin getting iced. Maybe not. Maybe this is our lead character. Assuming for the moment he is not, let me leave you with a suggestion about using strategic backstory.

This scene could go on for two, three, maybe more pages. You could stretch the tension with added beats, but also drop in Konstantin’s internal thoughts and more details about his backstory. Does he have family? How did he get put in the gilded cage? Does he have hope for the future?

What this does is build up empathy and even a little sympathy. We as readers get more invested in this character. So if he does indeed get sent to the marble orchard we’ll feel some emotion. And that is the key to popular fiction, after all—it is primarily an emotional ride.

To see how a master stretches tension with strategic backstory in what is essentially a prologue, and creates sympathy for a character who is being stalked, have a look at the opening of Dean Koontz’s Midnight (below).

Again, writer, good setting and situation. I hope these notes and the comments to follow help you on your scribal journey. Keep writing!


Click “Preview” to read the Koontz opening.

“We Know You’re Great…”

Photo by Jarkko Arjatsalo/The Leonard Cohen Files

I have an odd relationship with the songs of the late Leonard Cohen. If I am depressed I can usually put his music on shuffle and feel better after a while, such as two or three months. If I’m feeling fine and happen to hear one of his songs — and they are all over the place, in movies and television series and commercials — I go so deep into the gloom cave that I think I’m never going to crawl out. 

So it is that I recently came across a quotation that instantly became my all-time favorite, in part because it so perfectly describes, however indirectly, the desk-to-market process of bringing art — and that would most definitely include your book, my friend — to the masses, even in this age of do-it-yourself. 

Cohen was initially signed to Columbia/CBS  Records (“CBS”) in the mid-1960s and remained with it right up to his death in 2016. He spent a great deal of his early career acquiring a cult following (and almost universal critical acclaim) based upon a series of album releases that to this day sound either compelling, unique, unusual, or unlistenable, depending on whose ears are being used. CBS, to its credit, never dropped Cohen, even when the sales of his new releases — which were not huge until much later in his career —declined for several years in the run-up to the point when he became a household name. CBS nonetheless at one point declined (initially) to release one of his albums. Cohen in 1984 presented to CBS a collection of songs which was ultimately released by a small label — and somewhat later by CBS — under the title Various Positions. Walter Yetnikoff was President and CEO of CBS Records at the time. Yetiknoff, as a preamble to telling Cohen that his label would not be releasing Various Positions, famously said: 

“Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” 

Various Positions contains a little four and one-half minute tune titled “Hallelujah,” that — like Cohen’s “Suzanne” a few decades before — eventually became to megachurch youth services (with a couple of the verses edited) and to funerals what “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was and is to weddings. The song became so popular as a licensed property that Cohen at one point somewhat meekly asked that a moratorium be observed on placing the song in commercials, movies, and television. Various Positions also includes a deceptively jaunty little number named “Dance Me to the Edge of Love,” which is considered to be a modern standard. 

Let’s consider that again…“Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.”  

So what does that mean, exactly?

Trust me on this. Every stranger who looks at your work with an eye toward becoming part of the publishing process on your behalf — be it agent, editor, and publisher —  may personally be in awe of your work. They might well think that you’re great. The issue is whether you’re “any good.” That term is another way of asking/guessing whether your creation will sell enough to make whatever might and majesty the prospective agent, editor, or publisher can throw behind it be worth their while, “while” being their time, effort, and money. 

Such a conclusion is often — actually, almost always — a guess. The odd thing is that most of the time whoever makes the decision is wrong in all of the ways it can possibly be. Great books are turned down. Books that are worthy, or “great,”  are published and then ignored by the reading public. They are great books, possibly, but by the objective standard of sales numbers they are not “any good.” The “right” choices pay for the “wrong” ones which is how the whole industry, whatever it may be, keeps rolling along until it doesn’t.

This state of affairs doesn’t exist only in the arts. There are all sorts of products that seem like great ideas but never make it out of the design room for one reason or another. The ones that do aren’t always successful, either. I used to think that if I liked a particular product — Rice Chex cereal bars? —my preference almost certainly spelled its doom. I don’t think that anymore. I am totally convinced of it. 

So how do you get around it? You ignore it. You cannot really control it.  Focus on being great. Write your own story, instead of a variation of your favorite author’s, or what is “hot” right now. Shine it up nicely.  Get yourself an editing program to go through your work. This past Wednesday our very own Terry Odell discussed an editing program named Smart Edit that seems to fill the bill. Don’t rely entirely on that, however. Go through it yourself and then have two other literate, nitpicking people review your review for you to find what you missed. When you think that everything is as perfect as you can make it send it to a prospective agent or editor Then sit back and say the short form of the Serenity Prayer, which is “(Expletive deleted) it. Just (expletive deleted).” Keep sending it out. You will know soon whether someone thinks that you are any good. Just don’t stop. Remember Mr. Yetnikoff, who wasn’t sure if Mr. Cohen was any good after listening to an album with two songs on it that are still popular almost three decades later. While you’re waiting, remember what Audrey Hepburn said: “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’!” Just so. Illegitimi non carborundum.

One postscript to this: I had the good fortune to see and hear Cohen perform in the early 1970s at a small club named The Smiling Dog Saloon in west Cleveland. I went to the men’s room between what turned out to be the two best sets of live music I’ve ever attended and was taking care of things when the urinals on either side of me simultaneously became occupied. I glanced  — yes, at eye level! — to my left and there stood Dave Mason (of Traffic), dressed entirely in bright red, grinning beerily back at me. I nodded, somewhat embarrassed for whatever reason, then glanced away to my right. There stood Leonard effing Cohen. A few seconds later we went to the sinks and, after washing up, somewhat uneasily introduced ourselves — not that the company I was in needed any introduction — and shook hands all around. 

I stumbled back to my table, bumping into chairs and people all the way there. The lady I was with looked at me when I finally sat down, smiled, and said, “Wow. What happened to you? You look like you got hit on the head. Did you, like, run into Leonard Cohen or something?” She laughed, took a sip of her beer, and said, “Oh. I heard someone say that Dave Mason is here…we should try to find him.” Done. And done. 

Thanks for being here once again. If you’d like to share your best acceptance or worst rejection, please do. It doesn’t have to be book- or even art-related. Let the games begin!