Reader Friday: Your First Novel

“Most people think they have a book inside them. That’s usually the best place to keep it.” – James Scott Bell

What was the first full-length novel you ever wrote, whether it was published or not? How did it turn out? What did you learn? What did it tell you about yourself as a writer?

Ethics, Integrity & Trust for Writers

Several days ago, my writer friend Adam Croft and I were exchanging emails. We keep in regular touch, and Adam serves as a mentor to me. For those of you who don’t know the name, Adam Croft is a highly successful indie crime writer from the UK. I brag that Adam and I go back long before he became famous and when I still had hair.

Adam had just come off a bad experience with an online scammer who offered kick-back money—big money—to other unethical online scammers who recommend scams like useless writing courses sold at ridiculous prices. Adam vented to me about the downward spiral of suckering-ins going on, and how well-intended, trusting writers get thoroughly hosed by unscrupulous shysters.

“With you, dude,” I replied to Adam, as the old cop in me has long detected some of these writing “gurus” who produce online courses sell snake oil from Brother Love’s Travellin’ Salvation Show. Then, yesterday morning, I clicked on the Indie Author Mindset Facebook Group that Adam Croft facilitates and saw this post. I PM’d Adam and asked if I could share it with Kill Zoners and he said, “Yes, absolutely fine posting stuff on the blog.”

So here it is:


Ethics, Integrity & Trust. (By Adam Croft)

Last night, I received an email which — for me — summed up many of the ways in which this industry has taken a wrong turn.

I’ve attached a screenshot (with names redacted) as an image on this post.

It’s nothing new or revolutionary. These things come through all the time. But it symbolizes something we need to address.

Look at the wording. There’s no mention whatsoever of helping authors, providing education, or doing our best to help those at the start of their journey. Instead, the main (and only) selling point is that it’ll ‘generate big payouts’ for me.

I repeat: this email is nothing new or revolutionary. And do you know why? Because our industry is absolutely full of this.

Promoting and referring other people’s products and services is big business. I know providers and ‘gurus’ who make thousands upon thousands each month purely by telling new and inexperienced authors to take certain courses or buy certain products.

Many courses — even the really expensive ones — pay referrers 50% as a kickback. Of course these people recommend them to their followers — they get hundreds of dollars each time someone signs up. Why wouldn’t they?

Because when you see someone recommending a product, you will likely assume it’s a genuine recommendation. Sometimes it might be. But the vast majority of products and services in this industry are recommended because they pay well for the person recommending them.

When I started The Indie Author Mindset, I was very clear that I would only recommend products and services I’ve used myself, and would recommend otherwise. Affiliate and referral fees were irrelevant. Money and ‘big payouts’ don’t motivate me. Ethics, integrity, and trust do.

Those three words have always been difficult ones. They’re the reason I wavered for two years before setting up The Indie Author Mindset. They’re the reason I was extraordinarily cautious about what paid content I offered for a short while. And they’re the reason I stopped doing so.

So let me be clear about a few things:

1. I receive absolutely no financial inducements, incentives, or rewards from any products, services or resources I recommend. My integrity and your trust mean far more to me than money.

2. I do not provide paid courses, coaching, or any other form of ‘upsold’ products. You are not a commodity to me.

3. I have always modelled my career on ensuring I am financially — or otherwise — beholden to nobody, allowing me to speak freely and honestly.

I choose to operate this way for three reasons:

1: It allows me to give advice with complete integrity and transparency.

2. It allows you to trust my advice. You know absolutely that my only interest is in helping you and your books, not lining my pockets.

3. My fiction books do very well indeed, so I don’t need to top up my earnings by taking money from other authors.

I love helping authors at all stages of their careers. When I started publishing more than a decade ago, the advice just wasn’t there. I was one of the early writers fumbling through the mists, trying to work out how on earth we could make this work.

The issue then was a lack of information. Now the opposite is true. Many authors mention being overwhelmed with stuff. And the reason for a lot of that is because it’s impossible to know what’s good advice and what someone is pretending to advise because they get a financial kickback for doing so.

I hope The Indie Author Mindset helps you cut through that crap. I hope that by sharing this email and writing this post I can reinforce that I won’t have any part in it. That I put my personal integrity and your trust before all else.

I’ve spent too many years at the forefront of this industry to prioritize ‘big payouts’. My focus will always be on levelling, improving, and preserving a strong indie publishing industry for authors like you for years to come. I’d far rather my legacy be visible in that way, than on a balance sheet. My fiction books do just fine on that front, and I don’t need to exploit anybody in doing so.

It all comes back to those three words: Ethics. Integrity. Trust.


Bio from Adam Croft’s Website

With over two million books sold to date, Adam Croft is one of the most successful independently published authors in the world, and one of the biggest selling authors of the past few years, having sold books in over 138 different countries.

To date, Adam has achieved seven Amazon storewide number 1 bestsellers, in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia.

His 2015 worldwide bestseller Her Last Tomorrow became one of the bestselling books of the year, peaking at number 12 in the combined paperback fiction and non-fiction chart.

His Knight & Culverhouse crime thriller series has seen huge popularity worldwide, with his Kempston Hardwick mystery books being adapted as audio plays starring some of the biggest names in British TV.

In 2016, the Knight & Culverhouse Box Set reached storewide number 1 in Canada, knocking J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child off the top spot only weeks after Her Last Tomorrow was also number 1 in the same country.

During the summer of 2016, two of Adam’s books hit the USA Today bestseller list only weeks apart, making them two of the most-purchased books in the United States over the summer.

In February 2017, Only The Truth became a worldwide bestseller, reaching storewide number 1 at both Amazon US and Amazon UK, making it the bestselling book in the world at that moment in time. The same day, Amazon’s overall Author Rankings placed Adam as the most widely read author in the world, with J.K. Rowling in second place.

In January 2018, Adam’s bestselling book to date, Tell Me I’m Wrong became a worldwide bestseller and quickly went on to outsell Her Last Tomorrow.

Adam is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on independent publishing and has been featured on BBC television, BBC Radio 4BBC Radio 5 Live, the BBC World ServiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe Bookseller and a number of other news and media outlets.

In March 2018, Adam was conferred as an Honorary Doctor of Arts, the highest academic qualification in the UK, by the University of Bedfordshire in recognition of his services to literature.

Adam presents the regular crime fiction podcast Partners in Crime with fellow bestselling author Robert Daws.


Note from Garry Rodgers: I’ve known Adam Croft for nearly a decade and I can personally vouch for his outstanding ethics, integrity, and trustworthiness. Two years ago, Adam developed his Indie Author Mindset program which was completely game-changing for me. The program consisted of two books, a series of tutorial articles, and a Facebook group page.

Adam Croft’s two books, The Indie Author Mindset and The Indie Author Checklist, are available through major online retailers. Unfortunately, Adam has discontinued his tutorials, but his Facebook site still thrives and is open to everyone who believes in making the indie writing world a better place.

Kill Zoners — What’s your experience with paid-content recommendations sent your way? And poor-value material? We’d all like to hear.

Character Descriptions – Part 1

Character Descriptions, Part 1
Terry Odell

When I decided to address self-description, I found that it would make for a very long post. Since everyone’s time is valuable, I opted to split it into two posts, so you’ll get more on the topic when it’s my turn again. Today, it’s a few tips for writing character descriptions.

A while back, I started reading a book I’d received at a conference. I’d never heard of the author, and was looking forward to adding this one to my collection. I love discovering new authors and new characters, and since this book was part of a series, I knew, if I enjoyed it, there would be more.

I settled in to meet the characters. The first paragraph immediately punched some of my buttons. I prefer a “deep” or “close” point of view, and if the first time I meet a character, she’s brushing her thick auburn hair away from her face, I get antsy. People don’t normally think of themselves that way. This says, “outside narrator” to me. Not a deal-breaker, but not my taste. I’m a Deep POV person.

These descriptions went on with more self description—shoving white hands into the pockets of her black jeans. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about what color my hands are—unless I’ve been painting.

I moved on to Chapter 2. My twitchiness increased when in the first paragraph, the introduction to the character had her capturing her long raven hair and fastening it into a ponytail. When the first sentence of chapter 3 introduced a new character pulling her long blond hair into a ponytail, I hit my limit.

Yes, understand that readers like to “see” characters, and if you’re not writing in a close POV, you can describe them the way an outside narrator would see them, but readers would like to see that you can get beyond hair—or at least vary more than the color. By now, I’m not seeing different characters, I’m seeing pages full of clones of faceless, shapeless, long-haired women with ponytails.

There’s more to describing a character than hair color. There are other physical features one can mention, as well as emotional states. Here are a couple of examples, all including hair and more.

From “An Unquiet Grave,” by PJ Parrish, where the protagonist is observing another character, one he knows from the past:

“She was standing at the stove, her hands clasped in front of her apron. She had put on a few more pounds, her face round and flushed from the heat of the oven. Her hairstyle was the same, a halo of light brown hair, a few curls sweat-plastered to her forehead.”

Another, this from “Rapture in Death” by JD Robb, who writes in an omniscient POV:

“The man was as bright as Roarke was dark. Long golden hair flowed over the shoulders of a snug blue jacket. The face was square and handsome with lips just slightly too thin, but the contrast of his dark brown eyes kept the observer from noticing.”

Or here, from “Rain Fall” by Barry Eisler, written in 1st person POV, where hair is a major part of the description of the main POV character, but it’s showing more than a simply physical description—and readers haven’t “seen” the POV character before this from page 7—we don’t need to know what he looks like from page 1, paragraph 1.

“When I returned to Tokyo in the early eighties, my brown hair, a legacy from my mother, worked for me the way a fluorescent vest does for a hunter, and I had to dye it black to develop the anonymity that protects me now.”

When I’m writing, I prefer to use very broad strokes and wait until another character does the describing. My editor and I go back and forth about how much time I should spend describing my heroine in my opening paragraphs “because readers like it” versus “it’s not how people think of themselves.” I know we’ll see her through the hero’s eyes in chapter 2, just as we’ll see him through her eyes. So, in my first chapter, in paragraph 1, readers see her emotional state. The only description comes in the second paragraph:

Or (not to put myself in a league with the above quoted authors), a quick sample from one of my books. The character is on her way to a job interview.

“She refreshed her makeup, then finger-combed her hair, trying to get her curls to behave.”

Does it matter what color her hair is? She certainly knows and isn’t going to be thinking of it—unless she’s changed it for a reason, such as in the Eisler quote. We know she cares about grooming because she’s stopped to check her appearance before her interview. She wears makeup, which reveals something about her character, and she’s got unruly curls. That’s enough for page 1.

My tips:

  1. Remember the POV of the character.
  2. Avoid “mirror” type self-descriptions.
  3. Less can be more. Readers like to fill in the blanks.
  4. Don’t be afraid to wait for another character to do the describing.
  5. Have your descriptions do double-duty, such as revealing character.
  6. Don’t show the same traits for every character, and remember to make your characters different!

Do you have any other tips to share? Pet peeves?

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

Introducing Audiobook Narrator Eve Passeltiner

by Debbie Burke


Audiobook narrator Eve Passeltiner

Gifts sometimes fall into my lap from benevolent angels who watch out for writers. During a book appearance last summer, good fortune smiled on me.

The venue was an outdoor bar/café on the shoreline of the Swan River in Bigfork, Montana.

About 30 people sat on socially-distanced lawn chairs, noshing, sipping, and soaking up sunshine while listening to me and three other authors chat about our books. For most of us, it was the first gathering since the pandemic began and everyone’s spirits were high.

Afterward a woman approached me and introduced herself as Eve Passeltiner, a stage actress who’d performed for years in New York and New England. She’d recently moved to Montana, had read my work, and said, “I’d like to narrate your books.”


Although I was flattered, I sidestepped. Readers often ask about audio versions but I wasn’t ready to take the plunge yet.

When we later met for coffee, I let her know my concerns but, bless Eve, she persisted. She had more faith in my books than I did and convinced me that an audiobook was worthwhile.

Market stats back her up and mirror the continued rise in audiobook popularity. According to a June, 2020 article in Publishers Weekly:

The Audio Publishers Association’s [APA] annual sales survey found that sales from 24 reporting companies rose 16% in 2019 over 2018, reaching $1.2 billion. The survey also found that unit sales increased by 16%. The gain in 2019 was the eighth consecutive year in which audiobook revenue rose by double digits, the APA said.

Another PW article about the 2020 online BookExpo stated:

APA retail member Chirp reported an initial dip in listening during commuting hours at the start of the lockdown, but it rebounded quickly as people discovered their new routines at home, and listenership has in fact increased to above the pre-shutdown level.

Authors need to put ourselves into the minds of our readers and figure out what they want.

Although I personally prefer written words over spoken ones, many book buyers choose to listen.

Eve convinced me I need to consider those buyers…and the sales I was missing.

During more coffee dates, I learned that Eve had been a flashlight-under-covers young reader who saved her babysitting money to buy books. Her early love of reading provides a solid grounding for audiobook creation.

In addition to performing and directing theatre, Eve is also an accomplished voice-over actor (video games, commercials and more). One of her most treasured projects was being the featured voice actor for the Washington Post’s Webby Award Honoree multimedia piece “The Women of Kabul” where she portrayed three different Afghan women, bringing each to life with a unique vocal quality and energy.

Eve Passeltiner with her Audie medal

In 2020, she was part of audiobooks that were nominated for awards including the Audie (the Oscars of the audiobook world) and an Independent Audiobook Award from the Audiobook Publishers Association (think Sundance Film Festival). She has also been reviewed in AudioFile Magazine, the source for everything audiobook.

Because Eve has traveled extensively, lived in big cities and small towns, and speaks several languages, she is skillful with accents and dialects (British, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, German, French, Russian, New York, Southern and more). She says, “Accents are a wonderful flavor that add to the work, but they shouldn’t overpower the storytelling.”

What is a day in the life of a narrator like?

Like most narrators, Eve wears several hats—researcher, actor, director, and engineer. Roughly half of Eve’s jobs come from publishers and half from indie authors. Although she does the initial engineering to record the book, publishers either have in-house staff or contract out the final editing, mastering, and proofing of the audiobook.

When I visited her home studio, it was a beautiful, carpeted, walk-in closet with a high ceiling. Eve says its unusual trapezoid shape is ideal because of the way sound waves move, making it preferable to a square room.

Hanging garments, covered with curtains, surround a desk with recording equipment. Eve says, “Clothing is a great sound dampener, along with the carpet.” Sound-absorbing pillows and blankets give the room a tranquil feeling. The studio is in the center of the house which acts as a natural barrier to noises from the outside world.

“What you want,” she says, “is a good dead sound, not boxy [echo or hollow].”

Dead sounds appropriate for crime fiction, doesn’t it?

When recording, Eve turns off the furnace, leaves her phone in another part of the house, and shoos Marco the cat out of the bedroom.

“Narrators are always looking for the sweet spot in terms of hydration and eating,” Eve says. “I start drinking water hours before I record—but not too much. And, of course as far as food goes, I want to avoid stomach gurgles. It is amazing how many sounds the body can make once you tune in to them.”

Eve does extensive preparation before she even starts to record. She reads the book, maps the story, casts the characters in her mind, studies relationships, character and story arcs, and looks up unfamiliar words and locations. She does a lot of the same in-depth research that writers do.

One of her favorite tools is her iPad. From it, Eve creates the master document for performance and recording. Using a special application, she inserts character notes, differentiates narration from dialogue, and includes correct pronunciation of names, places, or foreign words. She adds either an audio clip with pronunciation or types out the phonetic spelling.

For example, the name Kahlil Sharivar is noted as Kaw-LEEL SHAH-ree-var. She’ll be saying that name a lot as she records Instrument of the Devil, the first thriller in my series.

For each character’s dialogue, she color-codes the script: women’s voices are often highlighted in pink, orange, or purple, with the female lead in yellow. Men’s voices are often blue, green, or brown. She uses harsher colors for dangerous characters.

In addition to the script on the iPad screen, she monitors another screen in her studio that displays Twisted Wave, an editing software program for audio. Punch and roll is the industry standard for recording long-form audio and allows her to re-record or make changes to the audio file. If Eve misspeaks, coughs, or hears a car drag-racing in the distance, she can go back, reset the cursor, and start recording again. This allows for a seamless wave file that is ideal for editing, mastering, and proofing once the book is recorded.

On the tech equipment side, Eve is a big fan of Audio-Technica AT4047 microphones (she has two, one as a backup) because it perfectly matches her rich alto voice. Her Beyerdynamic headphones are easy (literally) on the ears and her pre-amp (a magic box that is a conduit between mic and computer) is an Audient iD4.

She prefers to sit when recording because it gives a more intimate feel, like telling a story to a good friend over coffee. Sessions last between 45-90 minutes, usually to the end of a chapter. During breaks, she stretches and uses a foam roller for massage. Then it’s back to the studio.

When asked how long it takes to record an audiobook, Eve gives the same answer that authors often give when asked how long it takes to write a book: “It depends.”  Variables include how many accents, the number of characters, and the writing style of the author. Plus, of course, the length.

Similar to acting, the narrator “lives” in the world the author created. She must get to know characters well enough to portray them with convincing, engaging voices. To differentiate the sound of a character, she uses pitch, speed, and even body placement to create an individual voice. To indicate internal thoughts, she may change her tone or volume.

My Tawny Lindholm Thrillers are set in northwest Montana where both Eve and I live. To further capture the story mood, Eve went the extra mile, checking out locations in the series, including the classic Craftsman bungalow that I’d used as a model for Tawny’s home and Hungry Horse Dam, the scene of the climax in the first book.

As a self-described “student of humanity,” Eve travels extensively and has a lifelong love of learning. New experiences help her relate to characters and make them feel more real.

Eve performs in three dimensions as if she’s on stage. Her body position and facial expression reflect what’s happening in a scene, whether she arches her back or hunches over, is wide-eyed or squints, etc. She says, “Stage actors make great narrators because they have endurance and know how to inhabit the character.”

During one of our visits, I saw firsthand how convincingly Eve inhabits a character.

The male lead in my series is a brilliant, intimidating lawyer named Tillman Rosenbaum who’s 6’7”, with a James Earl Jones voice, and an intense, dark stare that skewers his opponents.

How the heck could this pretty, petite, blue-eyed woman pull that off?

At the time, she was reading the second book in the series, Stalking Midas. She mentioned how much she liked my female lead, Tawny, and hated to see her suffer.

I made the smartass crack, “Wait until you read the later books where I really beat her up.”

Eve’s entire demeanor changed. In a flash, she grew larger and imposing. She leaned toward me and pierced me with a stare that was so threatening, it sent a shiver up my neck.

She became Tillman—a man who would kill to protect his beloved Tawny. 

At that moment, any doubts I’d had about Eve’s ability to capture Tillman  evaporatedNow we joke often about the “Tillman Stare.” 

Hearing my book for the first time is an author’s milestone that feels much the same as the first time holding the physical copy of my published books.

Here’s a small sample performed by Eve:

I didn’t go in search of an audio narrator but, by good fortune, I found one. Eve is not only hard-working and talented but is also a genuinely nice person who’s become a good friend.

How did I get so lucky? 


TKZers: Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like most about them? What, if anything, do you dislike?

Any authors with audio versions, please chime in with your experiences.


Stay tuned for the launch of the audio version of Instrument of the Devil. 


Meanwhile you can read ebooks or paperbacks in the series, Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart…and Sass.

For sale at Amazon and online retailers. 

Character Name Crisis!

I’m at the point in my current WIP where I’m having a ‘naming crisis’. Although I’m happy with the names of my key protagonists, my antagonist currently has a name that just doesn’t fit (sigh…) so I’m in the throes of character naming angst. Being the type of writer that finds it hard to write a character until I have adequately ‘christened’ him or her, this angst is causing me quite a headache as well as producing a weird kind of writer’s block as I write and rewrite the antagonist’s name in various scenes as I struggle to get it right.

Finding the right name for a character is always a critical first step for me. I can’t just put in a placeholder or any old name in a first draft, I really have to be sure of at least the main character’s name before I can find the right voice. Usually female character names are easy – they come to me right away, or at least after just a little historical research (when you write historical like I do, the last thing you want is a modern name that’s completely wrong for the period). When it comes to male characters, however, there’s always some degree of angst. For example, in my current WIP I’ve only just realized that I’m using the same name for my principal male protagonist as in a book a wrote a few years ago – so obviously I have some favorites that I need to eliminate:) I also avoid names of ex-boyfriends or former colleagues (I find it difficult to separate the real person from the imaginary one when using particular names). When it comes to female characters I don’t seem to have the same sensitivity (I also accidentally named a maid after my sister and had no idea until she pointed this out to me…). In my current WIP I can’t work out exactly why the name of the antagonist doesn’t fit (my beta readers are happy with it after all), all I know is that it doesn’t…and I’m struggling to find a name that does.

This character angst has got me desperately looking for new naming strategies including scouring my bookshelves for random author and character names in the hope that these strike some inspiration (nope…) and resorting to baby naming websites (also with little success). So what to do when a character’s name is so elusive?? Honestly, I’m not sure (but maybe you TKZers can help!).

When starting a first draft I often ‘try on’ a couple of character names for my main protagonist (or protagonists) as I work through accessing their voice and POV. Usually this isn’t a major hurdle, but with my current WIP every time I try on a name for the main antagonist it just doesn’t seem right (ugh!)…So TKZers, any advice? What is your character naming process? Have you ever had a ‘naming crisis’ and if so, how did you eventually find just the right name in the end?



Using Pop Culture References in Fiction

by James Scott Bell

Monty’s Steakhouse, photo courtesy of JSB Studios

The other night Mrs. B and I did something we hadn’t in over a year—went out to eat inside a real restaurant with real friends! This may not sound like much to you in your neck of the woods, but we live in the lockiest of lockdown states, frustratingly trying to claw our way toward a sense of normalcy. Well, as the man who was digging to the center of the earth was heard to say, “I’m closer than I was yesterday.”

So we went to one of L.A.’s classic steakhouses, Monty’s. Technically, their “inside” also includes a large tent with acrylic windows, which was where we were seated. We had an early reservation and by the time we were finished the place was packed. Grand it was to hear chatter, laughter, and clinking silverware in a full venue once again.

Making it all the nicer was a young server, about twenty-five-years old, who had a sense of humor and, I would guess, a lovely smile whenever she got out from behind the face mask.

The friends were from our theater days, and it was so much fun to share memories face-to-face—of shows we were in, and favorite performances we’d seen. I talked about being front-row-center for the original Chicago in New York (featuring the legendary Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach). That got us onto the subject of musicals, and Guys and Dolls came up. I told them about my recent discovery that the character Sky Masterson was named for Damon Runyon’s friend Bat Masterson, the gunslinger-turned-New York sports reporter.

We then debated whether Marlon Brando was right for that role in the movie (Frank Sinatra wanted it, but Brando was the bigger star, leaving Sinatra with the part of Nathan Detroit). I was offering the pro side of the argument when our server checked on us.

Feeling cheery, I looked at her and said, “What do you think of Marlon Brando?”

She blinked. “Who?”

Thinking she hadn’t heard me right, I said, “Marlon Brando, the actor.”

She shook her head.

Friend Cris said, “He was the old godfather in The Godfather.

“I haven’t seen that,” the server said.

I bent over and recovered my chin from the floor.

When the server left us I asked the table, “How in the heck does a twenty-five-year old not know who Marlon Brando was?” Even though he died in 2004 and his best acting days were over around 1980, still…I mean, come on…it’s Brando! He changed the face of acting in America. He was the biggest onscreen star of the 1950s. And even twenty-five-year olds have access to TCM!

But then again, when Brando was big, we only had three TV networks. There was no Google, YouTube, social media. Today you have to digitally sprint every day just to keep up with what’s current. And what’s current will probably be dated in a month. Anything older than five years is ancient history.

Which brings up the question of using pop culture references in your fiction. Should you use them if a future reader won’t know what—or who—in blue blazes you’re talking about?

Here are my thoughts:

1. A pop culture reference is usually more realistic than something generic.

She plopped in a chair and watched TV.

Is not as effective as:

She plopped in a chair and watched Wheel of Fortune.

2. Using a pop culture reference is no different than using some current technology.

Remember when flip phones with cameras hit the market? Several thriller writers hopped on that. Now it seems so quaint. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been used at the time.

3. Most readers will subliminally appreciate the specificity even if they don’t know the reference.

4. If a reader wants to know a reference, they can look it up just by going to CompuServe….I mean AskJeeves…I mean AltaVista…I mean Dogpile…I mean…

5. Consider using one or two pop references in a character’s backstory.

I like letting someone know that as a little girl the character was a devoted fan of Animaniacs and could rock The Macarena.

6. As with anything, you can overdo it.

How much is too much? It’s entirely up to you. If you feel a reference is valid, put it in. Reassess during the editing phase. Ask your beta readers about it.

I have but one last comment: Marlon Brando! I mean, come on!

So how do you feel about pop culture references in fiction? Like or dislike? Use or don’t use? How do you make the decision?

Style – The Spectrum

by Steve Hooley

After reading JSB’s post on 2/21/21, Who is on Your Writing Rushmore? – I have been working on my remedial reading list. If you missed that post, it is worth reviewing for the list of “Greatest of all time” (GOAT) authors, presented in the article and in the comments.

Here is the list of GOAT Authors (compiled from the post and comments) if you want to copy and paste:

  • Dostoevsky
  • Twain
  • Hemingway
  • Raymond Chandler
  • Faulkner
  • McCarthy
  • Agatha Christie
  • Jane Austen
  • Charlotte Bronte
  • George Eliot
  • Tolkien
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Conrad
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Chekhov
  • Dickens
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Steinbeck
  • Ray Bradbury
  • George Orwell
  • Elmore Leonard
  • H. G. Wells
  • Jules Verne
  • O. Henry

The reason for the topic today – “Style, the Spectrum”: I read Raymond Chandler and Hemingway back-to-back. Talk about different styles. Hemingway’s writing has been described as “spare, tight prose.” Chandler’s style is saturated with description. At the beginning of The Big Sleep, every other sentence contains a simile. I exaggerate, but description definitely gets your attention.

So, what is “style” in writing?

According to –

“The style in writing can be defined as the way a writer writes. It is the technique that an individual author uses in his writing. It varies from author to author, and depends upon one’s syntax, word choice, and tone. It can also be described as a “voice” that readers listen to when they read the work of a writer.”

The author of the article lists four “basic” styles: expositive or argumentative, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. For our discussion today, we are focusing on descriptive and narrative.

Descriptive style: “In descriptive writing style, the author focuses on describing an event, a character or a place in detail. Sometimes, descriptive writing style is poetic in nature, where the author specifies an event, an object, or a thing rather than merely giving information about an event that has happened. Usually, the description incorporates sensory details.

Narrative: “Narrative writing style is a type of writing wherein the writer narrates a story. It includes short stories, novels, novellas, biographies, and poetry.”

I remembered JSB describing John D. MacDonald’s style as having just the right amount of literary poetry (“unobtrusive poetry”) sprinkled in for seasoning, and went back to reread John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-by. I found a style somewhere in the middle, between Chandler’s and Hemingway’s.

In a review of The Kill Zone blog I found tributes to MacDonald by JSB and Kris:

Kris’s comment on MacDonald’s style –

His style “had an ease and breeze as fresh as the ocean winds”

JSB’s comment on MacDonald’s style –

“The first lesson I picked up from a wide reading of MacDonald is what he termed “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. You don’t want a style that calls so much attention to itself that’s all the reader is thinking about. On the other hand, it’s not stripped-down minimalism of the Hemingway-Cain school.”

I didn’t see MacDonald’s name on the GOAT list, but I greatly enjoyed his style.

And I realized that I definitely liked his style better than many others, and it would influence which books I wanted to read in the future. I then wondered, does my favorite style for reading affect the style I seek to attain in my writing?

And that is our discussion for today.


Which author’s writing style do you most enjoy reading? Does that affect which books you plan to buy or read? And does that style, influence the voice and style you seek to attain in your own writing?

Reader Friday: Inspiration

“If you wait for inspiration to write you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” — Dan Poynter

What role does inspiration play in your writing? Do you need it? What happens if you don’t have it? How do you get “up” for writing when it isn’t there?

Crime or Not?

by Debbie Burke


On March 20, an unidentified man rode a horse into the Town Pump convenience store in Bozeman, Montana.

I’m not sure if this constitutes a crime. After all, in Montana, it’s not unheard of to ride a horse into a bar and sometimes even a hotel lobby.

There is also the fuzzy legal question of whether or not DUI laws apply to horseback riding. The Montana code reads:

61-8-401 states that it is unlawful for any person to operate or be in physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, intoxicants or any combination thereof with a blood alcohol concentration of .08% or greater.

One can argue the law doesn’t apply because the horse is not a motor vehicle. Also, the horse is quite likely to get the intoxicated rider home safely. So, ensuring public safety seems to come down on the side of Ole Dobbin.

That raises another question: if this rider is sober, what crime, if any, should he be charged with? Trespassing? Misdemeanor showing off?

What do you think, TKZers? Should this prank be considered a crime? If so, what’s the charge? 

Shut Up And Write Stories

By John Gilstrap

These are interesting times to be a writer. Last night, I was chatting with four other writers when one took another to task for including the phrase “had no dog in this fight” in the body of his story. The one who called the other out worried that because the phrase traced its origins to the practice of siccing dogs on one another to watch them fight to the death, the reference was likely trigger pushback from sensitive readers.

I had two thoughts on this in rapid succession. First: You’ve got to be kidding. Second: Okay, so what? My squint on the world is such that the harder an individual searches for a reason to be offended, the more responsibility the offended must take for his own discomfort.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a live two-hour Zoom seminar for a writer’s group in the Midwest. My topic was a craft-oriented one that focused on some of the granular elements of writing a tight, tense story. During the final Q&A, an attendee (whose camera was turned off, of course) asked me what efforts I take in my stories to make sure I include a cast of characters that is widely inclusive of ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

I confess I was not ready for that one, but I was fully aware that my camera was on, and I was in closeup. I defaulted to the truth: I don’t do anything along those lines. I don’t write sex scenes, so what difference does their orientation make? And I rarely–rarely–describe the ethnicity of even my primary series characters. If an ethnic reference does not directly affect the story, then I see no reason to include it. Obviously, when Chechen terrorists are the bad guys, we can conclude the ethnicity, but I see no reason to mention if they are Muslim or Christian. It doesn’t affect the story, so I don’t care. My answer seemed to work because there was no follow-up.

As an interesting side note, one of the primary characters in my Jonathan Grave series (Stealth Attack will hit the stands on June 29) goes by the codename Boxers. He’s close to 7 feet tall, bends the needle on most household scales, and is deeply lethal. I’ve never described his ethnicity, but I was surprised to learn that everyone–including my editor and my agent–assumes that Boxers is black. He is not. Do I mind that people see him as they do? Not a bit.

Last week, I received this email from a fan:

Hi John,

I just purchased “Against All Enemies” and am looking foreword to reading it. Tell me, what are your views on the 2nd amendment?

That was the entirety of the email. I smelled a trap. I considered ignoring the email, but I promise on my website to reply personally to every email I receive, and, well, a deal’s a deal. Here’s my reply:

Hi, [Name].

I hope you enjoy the book. Thanks for the support. As for the Second Amendment, I have little respect for entertainers who expound on political issues. I just tell stories and try never to write politics. My characters have strong feelings about many issues. I agree with some, disagree with others. I figure I’m doing my job if readers can’t tell one from the other.
This is the new standard I wish to set for anyone in the entertainment business. For the life of me, I do not understand why a non-expert with a readership (or viewership) would consider his or her views as more relevant or nuanced than a non-expert who has no “platform”. I cannot count the number of writer colleagues whom I’ve watched commit professional suicide during the weirdness of the past 15 months by posting diatribes that are guaranteed to anger 50% of their potential audiences.
It’s interesting that the focus of an audience on a writer or presenter is called a “bully pulpit” because too many people use it to bully others. It’s a gift to enjoy a facility with words and images, but by definition, anything on the page is a one-sided conversation. Sure, there are comments sections tagged to the end of op-ed screeds, but we all know that’s not the same. Readers with huge hearts and different world views often do not have that same gift to express their thoughts in writing or to gain the attention of others. All to often, such people feel aggrieved and silenced. And angry.
I think that the bullying is especially pernicious when it blindsides the audience. When someone opens one of my books–or reads blog posts like this–they have certain expectations. With the books, they expect an exciting, entertaining ride through fictional thrills. Here, I presume they expect to be given something to think about. In neither case do I think they want to hear about my half-baked thoughts on social or political issues.
Now, as I write this conclusion, I feel that I must apologize if I inadvertently did that very thing.