What Happens to Your Books When You Die?

by James Scott Bell

“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” – Last words of American author William Saroyan

Now what indeed! We all have to face it. While Blue Oyster Cult tells us not to fear The Reaper, we at least have to respect his use of the scythe.

Which brings up the subject of estate planning for writers. It’s a big topic, all the details of which can’t be covered in a single post. I hope to give you a broad outline which you can use for more focused attention. While I am a lawyer, and even played one on TV once, take this as the standard admonition to consult with your own lawyer and CPA as you make plans.

Don’t have a lawyer? You can get one, or you can use a resource like LegalZoom.com. For a modest price LegalZoom will help you prepare estate planning forms. For a bit more, they offer you phone consultations. They even have an estate plan bundle that starts at $249.

Now, before you go to your Final Edit there is an in-between possibility we don’t like to think about but must—incapacitation. You attend ITW in New York and a brick falls on your head, rendering you unable to handle your finances or have a Martini with Gilstrap. You should have in place a Durable Financial Power of Attorney appointing your spouse, or someone you trust, as your agent to take care of these matters. See this article from Nolo. (I’m not going into Advance Care Directives, but you should have that, too.)

First Things First

Start a notebook for your heirs—a physical notebook—which will hold originals or copies of your important documents (e.g., will, trust, publishing contracts) along with a master document detailing things like bank accounts, internet passwords, social media sites, and people to contact for help in dealing with various matters, e.g., your CPA, your lawyer, your agent, your website admin, a friend who knows about online publishing. You want your heirs to not to feel overwhelmed, and knowing who to ask for help will be a tremendous relief.

Your books are Intellectual Property (IP) and as much a part of your estate as your furniture, fine china, and collection of Beanie Babies. Create a list for your notebook of all your literary properties, where and by whom they are published, and include both ASIN and ISBN numbers.

The copyrights stay in your name. After you shuffle off this mortal coil the clock starts ticking. Your copyrights (under current law) last another 70 years.

At the front of your notebook have a simple letter to your heirs, detailing how you’d like your IP to be handled.

Update this notebook as needed, and keep it in a secure location. Put a copy of your notebook on a thumb drive and put that somewhere else, like a safety deposit box or fireproof case.

Oh yes, and tell your heirs where they can find these items when you’re dead.

Will and/or Trust

You should have a will or a trust (or both). The decision on which to choose includes a number of factors you’ll need to discuss with your tax person and estate planner. One benefit of a trust is that it avoids probate. Another is that you can control how you want your IP handled, rather than have your heirs end up doing what they want with it. Your IP is placed in the trust and is governed by your specific instructions, not the whims of infighting heirs. (You may not think this could happen in your family, but I well remember the first words from my Gifts, Wills and Trusts professor in law school: “This course is about greed and dead people!” As with contracts—even (maybe especially) among friends and family—the wisest course of action is to get things down in writing. This goes a long way toward staving off ugly misunderstandings down the line.)

The executor (will) or the trustee (trust) should be someone who can understand the publishing business in order to keep watch on—and bucks flowing from—your IP. If you have a mature and trustworthy child you can train in the biz, that’s one option. A friend or colleague conversant with publishing is another. It takes time and effort to perform this service, so you’ll set up a fee. How much is a fluid concept. It can be an hourly rate, or a percentage of the net writing income (10% is a suggested baseline). For more details, see this article.

Then there is email to deal with—fan mail, requests for interviews, speaking requests. An auto responder can be set up to deal with most of these, but your executor/trustee should be prepared to respond to requests that can result in book sales (e.g., permission to reproduce a blog post).

And then there’s the matter of social media. You’ll want your website to stay live, but you have to figure out what to do with whatever else you’re involved with: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Pinterest, Goodreads, YouTube. If you have many of these plates spinning and you want to keep them going, you might consider appointing a distinct social media executor. Anne R. Allen has a tremendous post on that subject.

My social media advice is to pick one or two you enjoy and forget the rest. But that’s another subject altogether. Sue has some good notes on social media here.

Where The Money Goes

The money you make from writing goes into a bank account, hopefully yours. This can be a personal account or a corporate account. Regardless, you’ll need to set things up so the flow continues and the monies can be dispersed to your heirs. Consider making the executor/trustee a signer on your bank account. That way they become the “surviving primary account owner” and can continue using the account, and the money in it, without complications.

I know that’s a lot to think about. But the time to start thinking about it is now. Do a little bit each week. Read helpful articles online (three good ones are here, here, and here).

Take the steps. Because contra Woody Allen’s dictum (“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens”) we’re all going to be there. Your heirs will be thankful that you made the proper preparations.

Comments welcome.


Story Idea, Soul, or Personality of the Writer – What Makes a Book Successful?

Some great thoughts on pursuing a story idea that you know is good, putting your soul into the story, and how your personality affects your chances of success. Below are excerpts from three great articles from the archives on what makes a book successful. Links are provided to the articles. Consider reading them. Then give us your thoughts below in the comments. Feel free to comment on other’s comments and strike up a discussion.

When I first met Kurt Muse about eight years ago, and he told me the story of his clandestine efforts to topple Manuel Noriega, and of his subsequent arrest and escape at the hands of Delta Force, I confess that I didn’t believe him. The story was too spectacular—too big—not to have been written about already. But it all checked out.

After Kurt and his wife, Annie, met with my wife, Joy, and me at the always-wonderful Café Renaissance in Vienna, Virginia, we shook hands and a pact was made. Together, we would write a book about courage and patriotism; about success over outrageous odds. It would be a story of public servants who truly serve the public, about people who risk everything for strangers with no expectations of recognition or thanks.

No one would touch it. – John Gilstrap – January 30, 2009


On a recent writer’s forum, someone asked the basic question: “what makes a good book?” Or, better yet, why is it that some books are hard to put down while others are easier to put down than a bucket of toxic waste?

From a technical standpoint, we could analyze the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, command of the language, and a dozen other things we studied in school. (Which begs the question: why aren’t all English professors bestselling authors? But that’s something for another blog post.)

We could also discuss the book’s premise, theme, plot, voice, style, pacing, point of view, accuracy, and all those issues that were topics at the last writers’ conference workshop.

But my answer to what makes a good book is simple: soul. By that, I mean the soul of the writer. The more a writer involves or reveals his or her soul in the writing, the more the reader can and will relate to the story. Since soul is what separates us from the chimps and fish, it’s the element of a story for which we can all connect. – Joe Moore – January 28, 2009


I have been pondering the sticky issue of looks, personality and success and how this translates in the world of publishing.

I remember reading a story in the New York Times a few years ago on the anatomy of a bestseller and it compared two books coming out that year that had received huge advances and marketing budgets – one was The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and the other was (and this is prophetic…) something I can’t even remember. Anyway, the gist of the article was that the author of The Historian had been willing to do a great deal of publicity and ‘be out there’ while the other author was virtually a recluse. While The Historian went on to make millions the other book sunk like a stone despite all the publisher money thrown at it. The moral of the story (I think) was that to be a bestseller a writer had to throw aside introversion to be successful. Basically, this article suggested, a writer could no longer afford to sit behind a typewriter or a computer. Nowadays that’s a no-brainer but still it got me thinking about the thorny question of writer personality (and let’s face it looks) and success.

So, throw aside your political correctness and ponder this question…is it easier to be an attractive outgoing writer than a shy, ‘more homely’ one?

Perhaps it’s a crass question but not one I think that is without foundation – especially when photographs are on book jackets and websites and your personality is judged in a range of venues – from online blog entries to in-person panel presentations. How would some of the literary stars of yesteryear fare in our current media-centric environment? Can a writer even afford to be introverted these days? How much is publishing success like a throwback to high school – when many yearned to be the prettiest and bubbliest of them all? – Clare Langely-Hawthorne – January, 12, 2009

Please give us your thoughts.

True Crime Thursday – Federal Gas Relief


Photo credit: rock staar, unsplash

By Debbie Burke



Something for nothing is the bait that lures many people to fall for scams. Even more insidious are the ones that promise to solve a bona-fide problem. When there is pending legislation about that problem, the scam becomes even more convincing.

With skyrocketing gas prices, the stage is set for enterprising fraudsters who never let a good crisis go to waste.  

Attorney Steve Weisman, creator of Scamicide.com, is consistently on the forefront of new scams that surface faster than lawn mushrooms after a rain. (His alerts have spawned several True Crime Thursday posts and he graciously agreed to be quoted again.)

The latest scam he highlighted is the Federal Fuel Relief Program.

Except there is no such program.

The FTC reports an uptick in calls, emails, and texts supposedly from government representatives who offer rebates or relief checks to soften the impact of high gas prices.

According to Steve: “All you need do, they tell you, is provide some personal and financial information in order to be eligible for the program.”

Sounds simple, right? Simple for scammers to steal your information to commit further fraud.

Why do people continue to fall for these tricks? Because it’s increasingly confusing to parse out actual facts from the news/rumor mill.

It’s even more difficult when some municipalities are in fact paying out such rebates, as described in this article on GoBankingRates.com:

The city of Chicago has already started issuing some of the 50,000 prepaid $150 gas cards and 100,000 prepaid $50 transit cards approved by the city council.

North Carolina and California have pending legislation for similar measures. Californians could qualify for up to $1050 in relief.

The proposed Gas Rebate Act of 2022 is currently being discussed in the U.S House of Representatives, potentially with payments of $100/month or higher to qualified households during every month that average gas prices are above $4/gallon.

Photo credit: boopathi-rajaa-nedunchezhiyan-unsplash

Whether these or other proposals pass is up in the air. Some end up only being hot air.

But people often assume they’ve gone into effect. Next thing they know, that friendly, helpful “government employee” calls up, offering to expedite the process. Just verify your Social Security number and bank account number so they can direct-deposit the rebate.

Steve’s tagline is “Trust me, you can’t trust anybody.” That includes the caller ID that claims the IRS or Social Security is on the line or a link in an official-looking email or text that takes you to a fraudulent site masquerading as a government agency.

Scammers continue to refine their tactics and grow ever more sophisticated and convincing with their frauds.

Warn family and friends, particularly seniors who are prime targets, NEVER to give out personal information when someone calls, emails, or texts, without first verifying the sender is legitimate.

The Federal Fuel Relief Program is pure flatulence. The only relief is to hang up or hit delete.


TKZers: What’s the latest scam you or someone you know has been targeted by?

Feel free to share horror stories. The more we know, the less likely we are to be victimized.



Please check out my thriller Stalking Midas about a glamorous con artist who targets an addled millionaire with nine feral cats.


Major online bookstores

What’s Your Name Again?

By John Gilstrap

Of the countless moving parts in a story, an element I find among the top five most annoying is the naming of characters.

A famous romance writer said in an article I read years ago that she cannot type the first word of her stories until she knows the characters’ names. The names, she said, say so much about the characters and their personalities, and without that bit of creative data locked into her brain, none of the other stuff works.

To me, characters’ names–particularly the minor ones–are little more than labels. I have to call them something, right? There are practical considerations, too. Many of those are tied to the fact that I want to make this writing business as simple as possible for myself.

I keep the names short.

I’m going to be typing the letter sequence of a name dozens, if not hundreds, of times in a manuscript. Typing four letters hundreds of times is easier than typing 12 or 15 letters hundreds of times.

I keep the names pronounceable. 

When I read silently, I actually read aloud but without making noise. I pronounce every word in my head as I plow through, and when I stumble onto a name that I can’t pronounce, the story stops for me. This is one of the primary reasons why I don’t read fantasy stories. In my own writing, one of the reasons why I don’t deal with Middle Eastern terrorists–other than the fact that every other writer in my corner of the thrillerverse is doing it–is I don’t want to get bogged down with Middle Eastern names.

I avoid homophonic names.

At the beginning of each book, I tackle the administrative task of updating my auto correct to automatically capitalize my characters’ names. Thus, when I type jonathan, it automatically converts to Jonathan. Thus, you’ll never find me writing a book with a character named Robin. If I did, then the bird version of the road would be capitalized. The reason why my recurring character named Boxers has an S at the end is so it doesn’t conflict with the pugilistic version of the word.

Google is my friend.

The drug cartels of Central and South America are frequent enemies of Jonathan Grave, which means I create POV characters who need Hispanic names. To find them, I turn to Google and type “Colombian (or Mexican or Venezuelan) surnames” and “Colombian (etc.) first names.” Then I shop for names from those lists.

Excel is also my friend.

My Victoria Emerson series is a true series, where each story builds on the one that preceded it. At this point, having just submitted White Smoke (the third book in the series, following Crimson Phoenix and Blue Fire), I’m about 900 pages into the story. Between main characters, secondary characters and walk-ons, I’ve introduced about 150 named players. The only way to keep them straight was to create a spreadsheet that documented their names, a descriptor, and which subplot they’re a part of.

So, TKZ family, are character names important to you? How do you choose them?

Sexual Reeling

By PJ Parrish

Today I want to talk about sex. The dirty deed. The two-backed beast. The Nasty. Le Freak. Riding the Pony. Rock ‘n’ Rolling. Aardvarking. Boinking. Shagging. Doing the No-Pants Dance.

And I want to ask just one question: Why are crime writers such wusses when it comes to sex?

I had to lay aside a nice post I had started for today about settings, and now I have to talk about sex because of the current book I am reading. It’s by a well-known thriller writer and I was having a good time with it until last night. That’s when he got to the sex scene. It was awful. No, worse than awful. I laughed. And now I am having trouble getting back in the mood. So forgive my testiness today.

What the heck happens to some writers when they have to write about sex?

l tell you what I think happens. They get as self-conscious as pimply prom dates. Crime writers can meet murder head on and not flinch, can even render death poetic. But faced with having to describe copulation — especially in the context of — gasp! relationships — they can turn out the most dreadful, unbelievable, embarrassing treacle.

Let’s crack open a page here:

“But the hand was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns — oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest — no, the hand was cupping her entire right — Now!”

That wasn’t from the book I was reading last night. That writer shall remain nameless. I might have to face him someday in the Bouchercon bar. That passage above was written by Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons.

Otorhinolaryngological caverns? Did this guy EVER get laid?

At the risk of being offensive here, I will suggest that it is usually the guys who fall apart when sex rears its ugly head in their books. Not that women crime writers haven’t turned out some leaden bedroom prose. But I’m thinking it might have something to do with the “guy relationship” thing. Male crime writers tend to get squeamish when they have to write about the emotional stuff. So when the impulses of the heart (or even just loins) propel the hero(ine) into bed, things get icky fast. And guys, especially thriller writer guys, tend to chomp onto the cliches like a rabid Jack Russell. Like: Why is the woman always hot to trot with no warmup? (This was the basic problem with the book I was reading last night).

Believe me, I sympathize with any of you who have problems writing sex scenes. Before I turned to writing mysteries, I used to write what in the Eighties was euphemistically called Women’s Contemporary Fiction. (Big fat sagas about internecine family intrigue with sex scenes). I became pretty good at sex, if I do say so myself. So I know how hard it is to write about it without looking silly. For starters, you have get your folks out of their clothes. And then you have to get the plumbing connections right. And then — and here’s where most writers lose it — you might have to write dialogue that doesn’t sound like two four-year-olds making mud pies.

Okay, I have a confession to make. For six books into our series, we had managed to avoid our hero Louis Kincaid having sex, probably on purpose. Once, I even got a fan letter from a lady in Maine asking me why Louis never had sex. But in A Killing Rain, he fell in love with a woman, Joe Frye, and it was finally time for Louis to get some. My co-author sister Kelly and I knew the scene was coming, and we decided it had to be on camera. No wussy fade to black this time. So there we were, sitting in my office with our Ferrante and Teicher computers. I had drawn duty to write the sex scene, but man, I just couldn’t do it. It just seemed so darn…yucky, given our hardboiled style. But there was Louis and his woman and it was my duty to light their fire. And I froze.

Writing together in my office. Not sure if this was the actual day of the sex scene but from the look on my face, it probably was.

Kelly, hearing no typing, turned and asked, “Okay, what is it now?”
“I can’t do this. I got them out on the dark porch. You take it.”
So we switched chairs and Kelly gave it a go. After a moment, I realized I hadn’t heard any typing. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I got their clothes half off. You take it.”
I rolled back and gave it another shot. Nada. Dry as dust. I had lost that lovin’ feeling.

Finally, we sat side by side and sweated it out. It was brutal. But eventually, Louis got laid without us resorting to a From Here To Eternity beach cop-out.

Now, lest I be accused of guy-bashing, I’ll allow some men to weigh in here. Here’s C.J. Box, at the Montana Festival of the Book, talking about how he does it: “My protagonist is married, so there are no sex scenes.”


Here’s Neil McMahon, in an interview talking about his first book, Twice Dying, where his man and woman ended up in a motel room. He tried to slide by with a few sentences. But his editor demanded a full-blown sex scene, saying, “All right. This is it. You’re going to have to write this. It’s going to have to be explicit. This is a deal-breaker.” So I wrote it, McMahon said.

Brave man…

For a more thoughtful take, let’s go to my good friend Jim Fusilli, talking about his book Tribeca Blues: “Sex is a theme in Tribeca Blues — covert sex, back-alley sex, the ramifications of that kind of thing. So there had to be a sex scene between two people who have genuine affection for each other. In the context of the story, I think it works. It’s sensual but not salacious. It wasn’t easy to write. I felt a little squeamish. I don’t know. I’m not a prude, but maybe I had too many years of Catholic school or something. You know, if you’re going to write it, you have to write it well. You’ve got to feel it and make it real. You can’t be saying “wee-wee” and “boobies” any more than you can say “throbbing member” or “heaving love mounds” or some bullshit like that. It’s got to be as believable as when you’ve got him walking down the street.”

At least Jim has the guts to meet the subject head on.

Not all guy crime writers shy away from sex. Some embrace it. Max Allan Collins and Jeff Gelb have produced some sophisticated erotic mysteries. But those are the small exceptions.

In closing, I’ll give the last word to a woman –veteran mystery novelist and Edgar winner Dana Stabenow: “There are a ton of people, critics and writers alike, who say that in detective fiction it should be the classic Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe character who have to be loners. That’s changed a lot with the advent of women writing in the mystery field, because women tend to emphasize relationships. For about 5,000 years that was pretty much all we had, our lives revolved around relationships and our husbands and our families and our children. So there are a lot of women reading mystery fiction and I think publishers are going to publish what they can sell — and if they can sell mysteries that have an element of relationship in them, then that’s what they’re going to solicit writers to produce.”

And damn it, that includes sex.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe we need convention panels or workshops to teach this stuff. All I know is I am glad I don’t write romantic novels anymore. Frankly, sex just wears me out. Writing it, that is. I’m too old now. And you know, I am much happier killing people than having sex. But maybe that is a female thing.


First Page Critique: My Girl is a Dog

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. See ya on the flip-side.

Title: My Girl is a Dog

Genre: Mystery/Thriller 


A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail, as I walked and dwelled on past sins and future amends, Girl hunted.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.” I wedged the glove in a pine tree branch and headed toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscross the snow and Girl runs in circles.

But her guttural vocals, dog-talk I call it, told me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow; instead of a glove or purse, I saw a bare hand and forearm: black hair and white skin. I wondered if Girl pulled the ski glove off the hand as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive: SEXUEL TABOU.

I brushed snow off the face: a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

My breath clouded in the frigid air as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory of the last pulse I checked—five years ago, an unconscious man prone on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife and I busted a beer bottle over his head and held the jagged edge to his throat—accompanied me down the snow-covered trail.

I checked that guy’s pulse out of self-interest to ensure I hadn’t killed him. Then I walked out of the bar into a dusty street under a hot-as-hell sun and onto a bus heading out of town, leaving a job as a deckhand on a sportfishing boat without notice or collecting pay. Better than getting locked up again.


Brave Writer, we have a little colon/semicolon problem that needs to be addressed. With a few rare exceptions, they’re not necessary in fiction. If you pretend they don’t exist, you won’t use them as a crutch. That’s not a dig, btw. There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t have crutch words, phrases, or punctuation they fall back on. The trick is learning our crutches so we can kill our darlings during edits.

Let’s dive right in…

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail (Is the day of the week important? If it is, fine. If it isn’t, delete), as I walked (use a stronger verb. Hiked?) and dwelled on past sins and future amends, [my dog] Girl hunted. Added “my dog” for clarity.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl [had a] always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: (change colon to em dash) dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills. <–  Here’s your opening line.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

Condense all of the above, like this…

My dog Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

On the snowy hiking trail of Mount Whatever, Girl slalomed around pine trees in search of prey. I threw a snowball for her to fetch, but she returned with a ski glove instead.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.”

With only a pet character to chat with, be careful your dialogue doesn’t become too on-the-nose. Less is more. Example: “Huh. That’s odd. Somebody must be looking for it.”

I wedged the glove between two in a pine tree branches and headed (be precise. Hiked, clomped, plodded, lumbered, strode…) toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscrossed the snow and Girl runs ran in circles (if she’s running in circles, she’s not digging a hole, yet you say she dug a hole three lines below. Easy fix. End the sentence after “snow”).

But her Girl’s guttural vocals, dog-talk I called it, told (alerted?) me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

Girl bounced on her front paws, then took off, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds to ensure I followed (to give her some personality).

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow.; instead of a glove or purse, I saw (saw is a telling word. Start the paragraph here –>) A bare hand and forearm protruded from a snowbank.: (lose the colons and semi-colons) Black hair, pale and white skin. I wondered (wondered is also a telling word. Rewrite into a question.) Did Girl pull the ski glove off the hand? as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. (<– Nice!) After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive.:  Rather than that pesky colon, set the next line apart like this…

SEXUEL TABOU. (Do you mean Sexual? Also, don’t change fonts. Use italics instead.)

I brushed snow off the face: (you’re killing me with these colons!) a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered (rewrite into a question to remove “wondered”) if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

Why would the MC assume the tattoo and his death are related? If it is a clue, don’t tell us yet. Let the reader wonder if there’s a connection and move on. Later, the MC can circle back to this clue. For more on how to use misdirection, read this post.

My breath clouded in the frigid air (<– great imagery) as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory (reminder?) of the last pulse I checked. (Don’t use an em dash here. It muddies the sentence.) Five years ago, an unconscious man lay prone (you know prone means facedown, right?) on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife. (This paragraph and ones after it can all be summed up in two sentences. Otherwise, it’s a flashback, and it’s much too early for a flashback.) He’s the reason I left a good-paying job and fled to [insert where we are]. Better than getting locked up. Again (I separated Again into a staccato to give it a little added punch, but it’s also fine as one sentence).

Hope I wasn’t too hard on you, Brave Writer. My only goal is to help you succeed. Once you clean up the few issues I mentioned, you’ll have a compelling storyline. I’d flip the page to find out what happens next. Best of luck, Brave Writer!

Favorite line: My breath clouded in the frigid air…

TKZers, please add your suggestions/comments.

What do you think of the title? Would you turn the page?

Dialogue, Dashes, and Details

by James Scott Bell

Today’s first-page critique is labeled biblical fiction. Let’s have a look:

It Fell From the North

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled – and threw a cold look across the table – “What’s the matter with you, boy – breezing into my house without a knock? –”

“Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

“What else can I be,” Meshach retorted, “When you barreled through my door like a whirlwind and destroyed my vase and quiet –”

“It’s unlike you –”

“You’ve better manners than that,” he admonished.

“Sir!” Kittim pleaded, “I’ve got some urgent and disturbing news which you need to hear.”

“Kittim!” Meshach said – gesturing dismissively – “What could be more urgent than what I sent you to fetch from where you are supposed to be at now? But here you are! –”

“You need to go back and get it.”

“Sir! Please!” Kittim implored, “You need to hear what I heard out there.”

“Why would I want to? You know I don’t like gossip…and for that reason gossipers too.”

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your –”

“So! Tell me! Of what concern is it to me that I should hear what you heard?” he asked sardonically.

“– Y – Your name came up, Sir.” Kittim stuttered.

Meshach furrowed his brow and seemed surprised. “My name was mentioned? –”


“Are you sure you heard right?” he asked again still not convinced.

“Yes! It was. More than once. So I thought, maybe you’re somehow involved in it, and you’d want to know what’s going on. That’s why I rushed back here,” Kittim replied.

Meshach placed his thick arms on the table and cupped his chin with his right hand. He scratched the week-old stubble on his jaw for a time and then he muttered, “There’s got to be a sound reason for all of this….”

“What was that, Sir?”

The old man stopped scratching and sighed.

“Eh! Just ignore that, Ok! –”

“Now then, speak! I’m listening. Try to make it quick and brief, there’s no time. In thirty minutes, I’ve to be somewhere else attending to other affairs, and I can’t be late.”

“Sir!” Kittim squeaked, “The King has finally lost it.”

Meshach stiffened and turned pale at the news. He felt his heart pounding loudly against his chest, his breathing coming in short but quick bursts.

The old man rose and headed for the door.


JSB: Here’s what I like about this opening. It starts with dialogue, which automatically makes it a scene. It’s not description or exposition. We get right into the action. (Remember: Dialogue is a compression and extension of action. It’s a physical thing characters engage in to pursue an agenda.)

The dialogue is confrontational. That means the scene starts off with the lifeblood of fiction, conflict. This automatically means there is a disturbance to the character’s ordinary world.

Now we have some cleaning up to do.

Don’t Confuse the Reader

With dialogue there has to be absolute clarity about who is speaking and what their attitude is. Thus, at the start, we’re confused:

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled – and threw a cold look across the table – “What’s the matter with you, boy – breezing into my house without a knock? –”

“Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

So we have two characters, Kittim and Meshach. The latter is chewing out the former. Meshach speaks first. But then there’s a second line of dialogue which is still Meshach.

No: A new paragraph starting with an open quote is always—always—another character speaking. (Yes, in the past it was the style to break up a character’s long speech into two or more paragraphs, where you did not close the quote at the paragraph break, and then began the new paragraph with an open quote. But that’s hardly done anymore and might seem like a “typo” to many readers.)

I’m going to rewrite this for you, taking care of the issue. There will be others that we get to, so let’s do this one step at a time.

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled – and threw a cold look across the table – “What’s the matter with you, boy – breezing into my house without a knock? Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

For the same reason, you’ve got to rewrite this:

“What else can I be,” Meshach retorted, “When you barreled through my door like a whirlwind and destroyed my vase and quiet –”

“It’s unlike you –”

“You’ve better manners than that,” he admonished.

That should be one paragraph, and you don’t need the second attribution (he admonished). (You do it again with the line: “You need to go back and get it.”)

There’s a typo (vase should be peace). You’ve also got a mixup on the punctuation. You really have to nail this stuff! First line should read:

“What else can I be?” Meshach retorted. “When you barreled through my door like a whirlwind and destroyed my peace and quiet.  It’s unlike you. You’ve better manners than that.” 

Now we have to talk about..

…Em Dashes

I love the em dash. It’s a great tool when used correctly. The author here is using an en dash, which is exclusively for dates (e.g., 1958–1963). Make sure you know how and why to make an em! (Please see my post on the subject.)

In dialogue, the em dash is used for interruptions, not for pauses in the dialogue itself. For that, a simple comma suffices. Thus:

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled, and threw a cold look across the table. “What’s the matter with you, boy, breezing into my house without a knock? Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

Every other em dash on this page should be cut, save one:

“Why would I want to? You know I don’t like gossip…and for that reason gossipers too.”

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your –”

“So! Tell me! Of what concern is it to me that I should hear what you heard?” he asked sardonically.

That’s an interruption. But note two things. Make it a real em dash, and stick it right up against the dialogue:

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your—”

Aside: Here’s a little Word trick with smart quotes. If you just type the close quote after the em dash, it’ll come out backwards, like this:

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your—“

So after the em dash, use Shift-Option-[ and it’ll come out right.

Unnecessary Dialogue Tags

Now let’s get into the overuse of tags. My advice is simple:

  • Use said or asked as defaults. They do their job and get out of the way.
  • As much as possible, make it clear from the dialogue itself, or an action beat, how someone is speaking. Then you won’t need any tag at all. Thus:

“Kittim!” Meshach threw a cold look across the table. “What’s the matter with you, boy, breezing into my house without a knock? Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

We don’t need snarled. It’s obvious from the exclamation point and the cold look. Here are the other tags used, as if the writer has been told not to use said too much, and to crack open the thesaurus:








These simply aren’t necessary, and anything unnecessary in fiction becomes what I call a “speed bump.” These mount up and make the fictional journey less than smooth for the reader. We want smooth!

Here’s one example

“– Y – Your name came up, Sir.” Kittim stuttered.

First of all, no em dashes! Stuttering is shown by ellipses, and because of that you don’t need any tag at all.

“Y…your name came up, Sir.”


You’ll hear it all the time, and it’s worth repeating—cut the adverbs. Almost always, especially with dialogue tags, you should let the action or dialogue itself do the work. Now, I’m not the adverb sheriff, and there are some occasions when it may be needed. But be ruthless. First see if you can strengthen the verb. Here you have:

sardonically (not even sure how many readers understand what that is anymore)

dismissively (this one you can probably keep)

loudly (he feels his heart. Can he really hear it?)

Details for Time and Setting

With historical fiction, you’ve simply got to weave in a few descriptive details to let us know where we are. I’m not sure where that is with this piece. Since it’s biblical fiction, and Kittim references a king, we’re probably somewhere in Old Testament times. But are we in Israel? Judah? Babylon? Persia? Cyprus?

Many authors simply use a setting and time stamp, e.g.,

595 BC

Or you can drop in details a bit at a time. As an example, you might mention the name of the king:

“What could be more urgent than what I sent you to fetch from King Nebuchadnezzar, may he live forever!”

From John Jakes’ historical novel, The Furies, which begins:

About four o’clock Abraham Kent woke from a fitful sleep and realized he couldn’t rest again until the day’s action was concluded, in the Legion’s favor or otherwise.

His heart beat rapidly as he lay sweating in the tiny tent. He heard muted voices outside, saw a play of flame and shadow on the tent wall. Campfires, burning brightly in the sweltering dark. No attempt had been made to conceal the presence of three thousand men on the north bank of the Maumee River. The Indians already knew that the general who commanded the arm of the Fifteen Fires had arrived, and meant to fight. The only question was when.

POV confusion

It seems that Meshach is your POV character because we never get into Kittim’s head. But some of your choices confuse us

Meshach furrowed his brow and seemed surprised.

Seemed? The only one it could seem to is the other character, Kittim. Another speed bump.

and turned pale at the news.

A POV character can’t see his own face (unless looking at a reflection). Again, this is Kittim’s POV.

Make it clear which character the reader should follow, and stay firmly inside that head.

Whew! That’s a lot to think about, writer. Let me conclude with the happy note I began with. You’ve got a handle on the most important narrative strategy for opening pages: a scene with disturbance and conflict. What you have to do now is get rid of the clutter that gets in the reader’s way. If you take to heart these fundamentals, you’ll be well on your way to engaging fiction.

Comments welcome.

Influential Books and Films

I wonder, are writers born with the gift of lying…uh, natural storytelling on paper, or is it inspired by some event in our lives?

In my opinion, a lot of it has to do with our interest in reading and gathering a lifetime of stories. Anyone who’s heard me speak knows I grew up in rural Chicota, Texas, where the old men up at the store loafed on the porch and talked about the world while I drank RC Colas and listened in silence.

My maternal grandparent’s little frame farmhouse had two bedrooms. Back in my larval stages, I slept with my mother in the room with two beds. My grandmother slept in the other. Being country folks, we turned in with the chickens and after lights out, they talked quietly in the darkness while a soft breeze and the call of a whippoorwill flowed through the rusty screens.

And I absorbed every word from every one of those old folks.

I think all those stories planted a seed that morphed into the obsession to spin my own fictional tales. Choosing what to write about might have been hard for some budding authors, but not for me. I fell into mysteries before migrating to thrillers and now, westerns both traditional and contemporary.

Looking back, my life and ultimate genre choices came from books and movies. Stephen King can point to the comics and horror movies he read and watched as a youngster. I’d bet a dollar to a donut that John Grisham writes law thrillers because of his profession, though I imagine he always wanted to be an author. Louis L’Amour wrote his westerns because he loved cowboys, honor, and the west.

Mine came from different sources.

I guess I was pretty malleable back in 1963 when the Old Man took me to see a movie that significantly impacted my life. Y’all likely know the story that started with Earl Hamner Jr.’s novel and eventually became the successful television series, The Waltons. The original movie, though, was filmed in God’s Country, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and featured Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara.

In Spencer’s Mountain, Clay and Olivia Spencer are the fourth generation of a family living on Spencer’s Mountain in the Snake River Valley. Though a solid family man with high morals, Clay distains religion while Olivia raises their nine children in the church. They live with his parents, and he promised to build her a dream palace on the mountain to replace their small house.

Their goals are redefined when Clay Jr. is the first Spencer to ever graduate from high school at the top of his class. He wants to continue his education so he won’t have to work in the quarry like his father, but money is issue. Clay Jr.’s teacher, Miss Parker, and the newly arrived Preacher Goodman, do what they can to help him achieve his goal.

An engaging, yet simple movie, but here are my similarities. Dad promised to build mom their dream house, but due to financial difficulties, it never happened. I went to college to become an architect (they helped and I paid the rest), the Tetons are my favorite place to visit and I was once offered a principal’s position in nearby Jackson (which I turned down when I found they had the lowest income and the highest cost of living in the state). I was the first on Dad’s side of the family to graduate college. I live by Clay Sr.’s moral code, though up until I met the Bride I wasn’t much of a churchgoer. I was inspired to read and write by teachers who took an interest me. Clay and I love to fish, especially for trout, and like him, I don’t mind a drink or two…

So, did that movie become the foundation for my life, like the often-seen framing structure of the Spencer house? Did that story spark an interest in becoming an author? Houses and the land are always significant items in every book I write. Hummm….

Before we recline on the couch while a doctor lights a pipe and takes notes, let’s look at another significant movie in my life, Junior Bonner.

One of Director Sam Peckinpah’s lesser successful novels, this rodeo picture skewed me into an entirely different direction the year I graduated in 1972.

Junior Bonner is an almost over the hill rodeo rider. He first appears on the screen taping his injuries after an unsuccessful ride on an ornery bull named Sunshine. He returns to his home town to ride at the annual Fourth of July Prescott rodeo in Arizona to find his brother Curly, a disreputable real-estate developer, is bulldozing the family home in order to build a trailer park. Junior’s womanizing father Ace, and down-to-earth, long-suffering mother, Elvira, are estranged. Ace dreams of emigrating to Australia for once last chance at finding his fortune, but he’s broke.

Junior eventually floors his arrogant brother with a punch and bribes rodeo owner Buck Roan to again let him ride the bull that broke his ribs, promising him half the prize money. Buck thinks he must be crazy, but Junior actually manages to pull it off this time, going the full eight seconds.

Junior walks into a travel agent’s office and buys his father a one-way, first-class ticket to Australia, asking for it to be delivered with the line, “Tell ‘em Junior sent you.” The film’s final shot shows Junior leaving his hometown, his successful ride on Sunshine continuing to put off the inevitable end of his rodeo career.

After seeing that movie a couple of times, I launched a brief, unsuccessful rodeo career that ended when a doctor taped my own ribs after being thrown (familiar, huh?). “You need to find another job, kid. You’re not too good at this one.”

The  movie, Junior Bonner, also taught me pacing, style, dialogue, and action. There are tiny moments in that film that have made their way into my work. If you haven’t seen it, buy the blue ray and listen to the comments, especially about a scene involving a typewriter. It’s an education in filming, directing, and character motivation.

I think both of these films helped me see my work cinematically as it progresses through the evolution of a manuscript. Reviewers often comment that my novels have a cinematic quality, and the comes from watching well-crafted movies.

You won’t get that with today’s super hero pablum.

What I am good at is collecting ideas and writing, and I have the feeling those movies, experiences, teachers, mentors and friends have all guided me toward my success. Oh, and don’t forget those early books I read like The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark.

Now that book truly did change my life and sparked a dream to write novels.

The Two-Ton Albatross by William C. Anderson, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp (eventually filmed as Die Hard), Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry, and Recollection Creek by Fred Gipson, and dozens, if not hundreds more, established a solid path to writing.

So the question is to published and budding authors alike. Do you have a movie or book, or a combination of both, that sent you on this interesting and frustrating road?

Oh, and I have a follow up. Is there a movie, or book, that mirrors your life?