TKZ Words of Wisdom

Now and again we reach back into the TKZ archives for some timeless advice and offer them to you for discussion. Please reply, riff, or rant in the comments and interact with each other!

 Today our topics are self-publishing flexibility and options, themes and life lessons, and chasing trends. Let the discussion begin.


This is one reason I love our self-publishing options. We can play. We can go where we want to go without being tied to one brand or type of book. We can write short stories, novelettes, novellas, novels and series. When I’m not working on suspense, I like to challenge myself with a different voice for my boxing stories, my kick-butt nun novelettes, my zombie legal thrillers. I’m currently planning a collection of short stories that will be of the weird Fredric Brown variety. Why? Because I can, and because it keeps my writing chops sharp.

 Do not go gentle into that good night!

Write, write against the dying of the light! (apologies to Dylan Thomas). Refuse to believe you have diminished powers or have in any way lost the spark that compelled you to write in the first place. If they tell you that you just don’t have it anymore, throw your teeth at them. Who gets to decide if you can write? You do. And your answer is, I’ve still got it, baby, and I’m going to show you with this next story of mine!

So just keep writing and never decompose.

What about you? Are you in this thing to the end? – James Scott Bell, January 2014


However, I do know what life lesson my main character has to learn by the end of the story. This is essential for character growth and makes your fictional people seem more real. Usually, I include this emotional realization in my synopsis or plotting notes. It doesn’t always turn out the way I’d planned. Sometimes, this insight evolves differently as I write the story. Or maybe a secondary character has a lesson to learn this time around.

How about you? Do you deliberately devise a theme and the symbolism to support it before writing the story, or does it evolve from the storytelling itself? How do you even tell if a theme is present? Or is it the same as the life lesson learned by one of the characters? – Nancy J. Cohen, January, 2015


I mention this because I don’t think that it’s a good idea to aim at being the “next” of something. I understand that the “next” Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train is precisely what editors — some editors, anyway — are looking for. The entertainment business is reactive, not proactive. The gatekeepers don’t get in trouble for missing a hit; they get in trouble for pushing a project that winds up dead on arrival. The theory is that if a book has a troubled female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator, then readers who bought The Girl on the Train will buy and read that, too. At some point, however, that demand is going to run out, and you don’t want it to run out just before your book gets published.

I’m starting to see a number of Jack Reacher-type books, wherein a strong, silent type with an extraordinary skillset wanders into a town and reluctantly becomes involved in someone’s troubles. They’re not all bad books, but it’s almost impossible to read them with comparing them to Lee Child’s offspring, and to find them at least somewhat wanting. I would submit that one is better served by taking an element here and an element there from stories or series that you admire — whether successful or otherwise — and changing the narrative. P.G. Sturges does an excellent job of this in his “Shortcut Man” series. Dick Henry, the Shortcut Man, is an ex-cop who stays in one place, helping people with everyday problems by utilizing extra-legal means. Henry is Robert McCall, without the gravitas. Tim Hallinan pulls off a similar trick in his Junior Bender series, which features a cat burglar who works for criminals. Bender is Richard Stark’s Parker turned inside out.  Both protagonists are criminals, but likeable guys; they’re anti-heroes without the “anti-”, if you will.

What I would like to know is: what authors — or series — do you go to for inspiration? And I mean “inspiration” as a spark, not a model. – Joe Hartlaub, January, 2016


I will answer comments this morning, but will be away from my computer during the afternoon and will respond to those comments this evening. Thanks.

18 thoughts on “TKZ Words of Wisdom

  1. Good morning, or should I say, good evening, Steve. Thank you for including me in this august group of contributors. I might say, however, that the title of today’s post should be, “TKZ Words of Wisdom…oh, and I included some comments from Joe, too!”

    Approximately six and one-half years down the road, I can only say: that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I enjoyed Gone Girl, but I don’t think we need another variation of it. It’s time for a new trend or no trend at all. Go for it. Somebody’s going to do it. It could be you.

    • Good morning, Joe.

      I should have stated that I would answer comments this morning, but be delayed his afternoon.

      It is an honor to have part of your post from 2016 in today’s review of TKZ wisdom. Your knowledge of so many writers and their books has always amazed me, and your topic is still timely. I should add that your style, which includes the right touch of humor, can teach all of us something about connecting with the reader.

      And I would invite you to respond to any and all comments today. Let’s shake things up.

  2. And…have a great weekend, Steve. I envy your ability to get away from the computer.

    • Thanks, Joe. And a great weekend to you, too!

      I should mention that the way we set up the Words of Wisdom posts now allows me to make it to family gatherings, but it also takes away an excuse that was occasionally handy. Overall, it’s working out wonderfully.

  3. Ah yes, Steve, I remember that giddy feeling of playing and creating and publishing! We were moving into the maturing phase of self-publishing. Writers were figuring out they could make solid, long-term dough if they treated it like a business. And any good business needs R&D, which is what short stories and novellas can be.

    That post was about writing until you die! Featuring Herman Wouk, who had a new book out at age 100. Still inspires me!

    • Thanks, Jim. Powerful words to inspire us. There are more than a few of us here who are reaching our “mature” years, and this is the kind of inspiration and encouragement we need.

      “If they tell you that you just don’t have it anymore, throw your teeth at them.” My favorite line. That should be on a T-shirt. And, there’s another outlet for our writing – one liners for T-shirts.

      Thanks for that great post from 2014.

  4. I recall judging the Edgars a number of years back, and how many titles included the words “Girl” or “Train.” Or were about serial killers. I was so glad our winning book was nothing like any of the others.

    Re: Nancy’s post. That emotional realization sounds a lot like JSB’s mirror moment. I don’t always know what my characters are going to learn, or that turning point when I start, but I use the GMC model, and eventually the character has to decide what they want and what they’ll do to get it. My themes tend to be the same. Character has to understand what’s important to them and come to grips with being themselves.

    As for the joys of being Indie – I don’t like having to stay inside the box, and as JSB said, being able to write genre-crossing books because I like telling those stories is what’s kept me going.

    Enjoy your day.

    • Thanks for your comments, Terry. Great comments all. Your mention of writing genre-crossing books reminded me that there are very successful authors and agents (ex Dean Koontz and Donald Maass) who have recommended that very thing to make our books stand out, or go “mainstream.” So, keep on blurring the lines, make your own genre. It’s certainly working for you.

      I hope your weekend is enjoyable.

  5. I absolutely need to write till the very end of life—I have no choice since I waited so long to start writing in the first place and I’ve got a lot of ideas to work up. 😎 Also loved JSB’s remark in the comments that short stories and novellas are a writer’s R&D. That’s what writing is all about to me—exploration. Being published is certainly awesome, but first and foremost writing is all about exploration—the what if. I couldn’t expend the time on writing if I was just trying to generate a product and get it on the market—which is also why I’m not interested in writing to market (in the strictest sense). Writing is a way for me to find my own path in life.

    • Wonderful ideas, BK. Ditto (for me) to almost everything you said. I wrote a short story for a charity anthology, mainly to explore and try out my idea for my current series’ main character, a young man with weak legs and crutches. I liked the results of the experiment, and used what I learned in my series.

      Ideas and experimentation – exploration – “that’s what writing is all about.”

      Have a weekend full of exploration and discoveries.

  6. Happy Saturday, Steve! Great TKZ Words of Wisdom this morning.

    Like BK above, I’m in this for life. I started young, but it took decades for me to get serious enough and finally walk the path of craft for me to be able to create fiction that works, and I want to milk every day for as long as I have. Which is hopefully a long while still. Not that we have any choice in the manner of our slipping this mortal coil, but being found slumped over my keyboard at 102 years old, having just finished writing a novel would be a fine way to go.

    Digital self-publishing is very much matured now, and no longer the “gold rush” it might have seemed back in 2014, but it remains the path for me. I love the freedom and flexibility of being an indie author and my own publisher. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, so time to get to work 🙂

    Have a wonderful weekend.

    • Happy Saturday to you, Dale!

      It’s exciting to hear of writers’ commitment and enjoyment of the indie path. And, yes, slumped over the keyboard would be the way to go…with one’s final words on the screen telling family, friends, and fans why the book just finished should be read by all.

      So back to the responsibility tasks. Have a productive weekend.

  7. Once upon a time, I had a t-shirt with prison bars and the caption: “Writing is a Life Sentence.”

    Dale, love your image of “being found slumped over my keyboard at 102 years old, having just finished writing a novel would be a fine way to go.”

    Nancy’s: That’s kind of a chicken/egg question. Themes develop with the story but also may start b/c the writer feels strongly about an issue and that bleeds into the plot. Mostly I discover themes on rewrite and am surprised but that means the subconscious was busy dropping breadcrumbs when I wasn’t looking.

    Joe: I totally agree that chasing trends is a mistake. By the time you write/publish a copycat book, the reading world has moved on to the next hula hoop. Write your unique story in your unique voice. That way you have a chance of being the author who starts the next trend.

    • Wise words, Debbie.

      I like that T-shirt. I would add, on the back of the T-shirt, it should say, “And a really hard job.”

      Good points on themes and chasing trends. You would make a great editor.

      Have a wonderful weekend that is free of entrapment.

  8. As the resident contrarian, I disagree with writing forever. It’s okay to stop writing for any number of reasons. Mine was health issues, I just didn’t have the energy anymore or give a sh*t. My career had stalled at that point because the market and audience were moving away from what I wrote. I’d also realized that stupid publishers were busy trashing my career by doing stupid things, and they’d never stop. The last straw, my final published novel got caught in a squabble between my idiot publisher and the only selling platform at the time so it didn’t go up for six months, all my expensive promotion was down the drain, and then the novel was dumped in with dozens of other novels from that publisher so it was essentially never seen again.

    I’m a closet and very discreet literary writer so themes, images, etc., have always been part of my creative process in my popular fiction. Some I do deliberate. Others I discover during my first reread. The ones I discover later that really work are added onto in my first rewrite.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. Marilynn. After all the craziness the publisher put you through, did you ever consider indie publishing? Or is that what you meant by “I’m a closet and very discreet literary writer.”

      With all your experience and knowledge, I hope you continue writing. You have a good supply of background and a lot of antagonists to exterminate.

      Have a good weekend.

  9. I used my literary training to create everything from structural images to writing “Romeo and Juliet” in outer space. I just didn’t throw it into the reader’s face and did it for my own amusement as well as creating more emotional resonance than is found in most popular fiction. One reviewer called me “the thinking woman’s romance writer,” and that made me happy.

    I was a pioneer is small publishing and ebooks so I dealt with the stupidity of people who didn’t understand publishing before they started their own companies. I educated so many. ( Yes, you morons, contractual obligations to third party sellers means you have to follow the contract, too, and you can’t undercut their prices elsewhere.). Self-publishing didn’t exist as a viable option back then, and by the time it appeared, I was so burned out it wasn’t an option.

    Every time I talk about my career-ending choices, somebody starts giving a pep talk and says “have you tried?” After 50 years of banging my head against a wall in this difficult profession, I have a right to quit. People who have been at it a much shorter time have a right to quit, and that’s okay. That was the whole point of my comment. It’s alright to quit.

Comments are closed.