About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, and Flight to Forever. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

True Crime Thursday – Easter Bunny Didn’t Bring THESE Eggs

Photo credit: Pawel Czerwinski – Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

On Palm Sunday 2020, residents of Flagler County in Florida found small plastic eggs in their mailboxes. Had the Easter Bunny arrived early?

Not exactly.

When recipients cracked open the eggs, they found each one contained a sheet of toilet paper, a goldfish cracker, fizzy drink powder, and…a crumpled page of pornography.

Even by 2020 weirdness standards, this incident rated high on the Bizarro-meter.

Sheriff Rick Staley asked the community to check their home surveillance cams and call leads into Crimestoppers to try to determine the identity of the perverse egg dispenser.

The following Thursday, based on a tip, deputies arrested Abril Cestoni, 42, a supermarket employee who reportedly had delivered about 400 plastic eggs to area mailboxes. She had created the pornographic pages using a computer program.

The reason is not exactly clear.

Here’s bodycam video from the arresting officer.

If there was an explanation in the footage, I missed it.

Ms. Cestoni was charged with multiple counts of distributing obscene materials, failure to appear on a traffic summons, and violating the governor’s stay-at-home order.

According to the Inmate Detail form, charges were later dismissed or she was sentenced to time served.

To the relief of Flagler County residents, on Easter Sunday, the legitimate Easter Bunny delivered regular Easter eggs.

~~~

TKZers: Have you run across any particularly bizarre and/or inexplicable crimes in the past year or so? Please share in the comments.

~~~

 

$.99 on sale from July 29 through August 1, 2021! Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky is available for Canadian friends on Kobo plus other online stores. 

Please check out the international links here and for Kindle. 

True Crime Thursday – You Got the Wrong Guy

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Alex Galloso, Unsplash

We’re all aware of the staggering rise of identity theft that can screw up our credit. According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2020, the FTC received 4.8 million reports of identity theft and fraud, a 45% increase from 2019.

But if a criminal claims to be you, does that mean you could be locked up for an outstanding warrant?

In the case of Jonah Scott Miller, yes.

When Zin Mali McDade, a transient, was arrested in Brevard County, Florida, he claimed his name was Jonah Scott Miller, who had been a childhood acquaintance. Both were born in December, 1985, six days apart. However, Jonah is 6’2” and Zin is 5’7”.

The real Jonah, who works security for a hospital, was arrested during Bike Week in Daytona Beach in 2019 on a failure to appear warrant for shoplifting, a warrant actually meant for Zin.

When Jonah told police they had the wrong man and he had never been to Brevard County, the arresting officer accused him of lying. According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, she said:

“I suggest you get a lawyer because somebody’s lying. If it’s not you lying to me, it’s somebody you know because they know way too much about you. They knew your date of birth, your social, where you were born, your address and they have your tattoos.”

Jonah protested his tattoos couldn’t match anyone else’s because they were the names of his kids.

Apparently, no one at the scene brought up the mugshot from Zin’s arrest.

Jonah was booked into Volusia County Jail. There, officers discovered the mugshot on file didn’t match the real Jonah. The fingerprints on record also didn’t match the real Jonah. Yet, despite the obvious mistake, the innocent victim of identity theft spent the night in jail.

Attorney Steve Weisman of Scamicide.com recommends being proactive if someone impersonates you. Contact a lawyer, law enforcement, and the prosecutor/district attorney to file a report that you are the victim of identity theft. Show your driver’s license, passport, or other photo ID to prove who you are. Request a letter from the district attorney explaining the situation. In some states, you can request an Identity Theft Passport that may help if you are detained because a criminal steals your identity.

Booking photo of Zin Mali McDade

 

Whatever happened to Zin Mali McDade (alias Jonah Scott Miller)? He currently resides at the Brevard County Jail in Cocoa, FL.

~~~

TKZers: Have you ever been the victim of mistaken or stolen identity? Would you obtain an Identity Theft Passport?

POP QUIZ ON ADJECTIVES

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When we first learned to talk, most likely we never gave a second thought to the order of words. We just mimicked our parents until the sentences that came out of our mouths made sense and were understandable.

If a five-year-old said, I kicked over the fence the ball, most likely Mom, Dad, or a kindergarten teacher would tell the child it sounded better to say: I kicked the ball over the fence.

We instinctively knew how to place the words in the right order, even though we didn’t realize exactly what it was we knew or how we knew it. 

[Side note: English is a particularly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn because it’s full of inconsistencies and contradictory rules. If you didn’t learn English as a first language, please accept my condolences for the misery you’re going through.]

 

At some point in our language development, we learned that adjectives make sentences more descriptive. For those of us destined to become writers, adjectives became fun new toys.

Consider the three examples below:

The Jack Russell tan frisky terrier chased a mouse.

Hey, wait a sec. That sounds awkward. What’s wrong?

Instead, how about:

The frisky tan Jack Russell terrier chased a mouse.

Sounds natural.

A hot-air red massive balloon floated above farm land.

Awkward.

A massive red hot-air balloon floated above farm land.

Natural.

A new silver shiny Cadillac was parked in the murky dark shadows of the concrete parking high-rise garage.

Awkward.

A shiny new silver Cadillac was parked in the dark murky shadows of the high-rise concrete parking garage.

Natural.

In these examples, one flows easily off the tongue while, in the other, words come out in halts and jerks.

What is the difference?

The order of the adjectives.

Huh? Who even thinks about that?

Writers, that’s who.

Turns out there are actual rules about the correct order of adjectives.

Recently I learned that new lesson when TKZ regular Chuck sent me an interesting article that quotes The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth. In his book, Forsyth separates adjectives into eight different types of descriptors and their proper order:

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Age
  4. Shape
  5. Color
  6. Origin
  7. Material
  8. Purpose

There is even a handy little acronym to remind you of the correct order, using the first letter of each type: OSASCOMP.

Cambridge Dictionary doesn’t want the rules to be that simple so they offer an alternate option that divides adjectives into 10 classifications in slightly different order.

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Physical quality
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Color
  7. Origin
  8. Material
  9. Type
  10. Purpose

Translated to an acronym: OSPSACOMTP.

Hmm, I think I’ll stick with Forsyth’s version.

In Elements of Eloquence, Forsyth illustrates the correct order with this complicated yet coherent phrase:

A lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.

Take a moment to experiment. Can you rearrange the adjectives in a different order that makes sense and sounds better?

Me neither.

Of course, no author would dare string that many adjectives together without a stern reprimand from the editor.

Photo credit: Isaak Alexandre Karslain, Unsplash

Let’s have some fun with a quiz. Read the following jumbled descriptions and put them in the correct order. Your choice of either Forsyth’s or Cambridge Dictionary’s rules.

  1. The wicked old shriveled witch cast a permanent vengeful curse on the young innocent maiden.
  2. The black-and-tan huge guard German Shepherd dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The parchment ancient yellowed fragile scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the silk designer black sexy strapless dress.

Below are my answers. If you disagree, please share in the comment section.

  1. The wicked (opinion) shriveled (physical quality) old (age) witch cast a vengeful (opinion) permanent (type) curse on the innocent (opinion) young (age) maiden.
  2. The huge (size) black-and-tan (color) German Shepherd (origin) guard (purpose) dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The fragile (physical quality) ancient (age) yellowed (color) parchment (material) scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the sexy (opinion) strapless (shape) black (color) designer (origin) silk (material) dress.

Here’s a shortcut for when you’re writing a sentence with several adjectives but can’t remember the rules:

Read the sentence out loud.

If it sounds awkward, rearrange the order of the adjectives until the sentence flows smoothly and naturally.

If you’re still not sure, read the sentence out loud to someone else. Ask how the adjective order sounds best to their ears.

If you can’t remember the rules or would rather ignore them, here’s the easiest option of all: don’t string more than two adjectives together.

Your editor will appreciate it and so will your readers.

~~~

TKZers: Did you know there were rules for the order of adjectives?

As a writer, do you love adjectives? Or would you rather discard them in the same wastebasket with adverbs?

~~~

Debbie Burke is an absentminded (opinion) aging (age) blond (color) Montana (origin) thriller (purpose) writer who never uses more than two adjectives in a row. You can verify that if you read Debbie’s six-book series at this link.

WHAT MY HORSE TAUGHT ME ABOUT CHARACTER ARCS – Guest Post by Kay DiBianca

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today, I’m pleased to host cozy mystery author Kay DiBianca who shares her fun and unique perspective on character arcs. Kay is a familiar name around The Zone, offering frequent, insightful comments. Welcome to Kay and the horse she rode in on! 

It was a day for speed. A wind-at-your-back, smile-on-your-face day when a youthful gallop overruled frumpy caution, so we barreled down the dirt trail into the park and around a blind turn. As the bushes on our right gave way and the road ahead came into view, a terrifying specter suddenly loomed up in the middle of the trail, no more than fifty yards in front of us.

Dixie, my high-strung, prone-to-panic filly, slammed on the brakes. I had no idea a horse could stop like that. Two stiff-legged hops – thump, thump — to a dead halt.

I went straight over her head. Turns out an English forward seat saddle is particularly ill-suited for sudden deer sightings.

As I was flying through the air, anticipating an unpleasant reacquaintance with Mother Earth, Dixie began some kind of crazy cha-cha in reverse, trying to flee the tiny deer creature. I was still holding on to the reins, however, so she couldn’t turn and run. Instead, she made a determined dart backward, dragging me along in her wake.

You might be wondering why I didn’t just let go of the reins and save myself from a mouthful of dirt and a painful awareness of my sudden change in circumstances. I’ll be honest with you. I would have let my horse drag me into the next county before I allowed her to return riderless to the barn. I have my pride, you know.

Body-surfing down a dirt trail at the whim of a frightened animal is an excellent way to focus one’s mind.  I’m older now, but sometimes I still get that urge to gallop furiously into the next adventure, no matter what form it takes. But when I recall that day in the park, the awful taste of grit in my mouth, the look of terror in Dixie’s eyes, and the acrid scent of fear in the air, I pull back the reins on my emotions and proceed at a deliberate trot.

Whether dramatic or not, we each have a set of experiences that have transformed the way we view the world. Likewise, we all know the characters we write about must change from the beginning of the story to the end, and the change must be meaningful.

So TKZers: Tell us about a character in one of your novels that went through a metamorphosis. Was it a dramatic, once in a lifetime experience? Or a slow coming to grips with reality over the course of the story? How did you accomplish the change in a way that would grab your readers?

I’m deeply grateful to Debbie Burke for giving me the opportunity to post to the Kill Zone Blog. And thanks to all the TKZ contributors and commenters for allowing me to be part of the journey.

~~~

 

SAVING ONE LIFE IS LIKE SAVING THE WHOLE WORLD.

Kay’s delightful cozy mystery, Dead Man’s Watch, features characters the reader cares about.

Available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books.

True Crime Thursday – Follow the Money

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Jake Blucker – Unsplash

When Alvin Schottenstein died in 1984, employees of Schottenstein Department Stores wept, describing their boss as kind and compassionate. Alvin and his brothers had built the Columbus, OH retail business, started by his father in 1917, into a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate.

Alvin was well known as a dedicated family man who said: “The time I get to spend with my grandchildren is the greatest time of my life.” (7/8/84 Columbus Dispatch article)

Almost four decades later, Alvin’s widow Beverley, now 94, sued two of those grandsons, Evan and Avi Schottenstein, along with J.P. Morgan Securities, in an elder fraud case. Her claims included financial fraud, abuse of fiduciary duty, and fraudulent misrepresentations and omissions.

Beverley is the matriarch of the Scottenstein empire whose holdings include American Eagle Outfitters, American Signature Furniture, DSW, and others. In 2015, the Schottenstein family was named #100 of the richest families in America by Forbes.

But…money does not guarantee happiness.

In 2014, Beverley’s grandsons Evan and Avi were employed by J.P. Morgan as brokers. During their five-year tenure handling her account, they made hundreds of stock trades, reportedly earning millions in commissions. But, despite Beverley’s many requests for information, they refused to tell her details of the transactions, stating only that they were doing well for her.

According to Bloomberg News, while the grandsons were supposedly growing her investments, Evan would challenge Beverley over charges she made with her own credit cards, which he evidently monitored. He criticized her for patronizing a non-Kosher restaurant and scolded her for watching TV on Shabbat.

Beverley’s son (Evan and Ari’s father) lives a few floors below Beverley in the same condominium building in Bal Harbour, FL, putting the grandsons in convenient proximity to her.

Evan reportedly entered Beverley’s home unannounced and shredded documents relating to J.P. Morgan. Charges appeared on her credit card statements that Beverley had not made. Her seven-million-dollar diamond engagement ring disappeared from a safe deposit box to which one grandson had a key. A check to her caregiver bounced because the bank had frozen her account.

What happened to the money her grandsons were handling for her?  

After several years of suspicions and unanswered questions, Beverley insisted they had to consult her before making trades on her account. Her banking, credit card, and stock statements from J.P. Morgan mysteriously stopped being mailed to her.

Despite a phone conversation with J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Beverley’s requests for reports and proper accounting were ignored.

In 2019, she’d had enough and consulted a lawyer. After an audit of her finances, an accountant concluded: “It appears that Ms. Schottenstein’s broker sold her these risky, illiquid products without regard for her financial wellbeing to generate extraordinary income for him and for his employer.” 

The unauthorized buying and selling of securities amounted to more than $400 million.

Assisted by her granddaughter Cathy Schottenstein (cousin to Evan and Avi), Beverley sought help from FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) because “retail investors can’t take their brokers to court.” (Source: NextAvenue.org)

Shortly before the case was filed in 2019, J.P. Morgan terminated Evan and Avi. According to the FINRA letter of acceptance, waiver, and consent, Evan Schottenstein was “[d]ischarged” and provided a termination explanation stating, “[c]oncerns relating to trading activity for the account of a family member, and the accuracy of the records regarding the same.”

After arbitration, in February 2021, FINRA found J.P. Morgan and Evan liable for elder abuse according to Florida statutes.

FINRA awarded Beverley $19 million, ordering “J.P. Morgan to pay $8.9 million, Evan Schottenstein to pay $9 million as the chief beneficiary of the scheme, and Avi Schottenstein to pay $620,000. They were also ordered to pay legal fees and Finra hearing costs.” (Source: fa-mag.com)

Beverley’s granddaughter Cathy Schottenstein has written a soon-to-be-published memoir entitled Twisted, chronicling her grandmother’s ordeal.

This determined nonagenarian didn’t allow herself to be victimized by her own flesh and blood and refused to give up against one of America’s largest banks.

Beverley followed the money. Unfortunately it led to the discovery of family betrayal that would have devastated Alvin Schottenstein, Evan’s and Avi’s doting grandfather.

~~~

Thanks to Ann Minnett for alerting me to this case.

~~~

 

 

A glamorous predator zeros in on an aging millionaire until investigator Tawny Lindholm interferes. Then elder fraud turns deadly in Debbie Burke’s thriller, Stalking Midas

Buy links: Amazon     Major online booksellers

First Page Critique – Little League; Huge Trouble

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Good morning and welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted the first page of a mystery for discussion. Please enjoy the following then we’ll talk about it.

~~~

Little League; Huge Trouble 

Genre: Mystery

The streets were empty, black puddles filling the trench where they dug up the gas line. It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood.

If anyone was walking through the neighborhood, they would have seen him. He was running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, according to the police report, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 magazines and down 220 yards of wooded trails to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, which descends through three quick curves and a patch of native rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high and exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses and just beyond the fourth home, the midcentury showplace, he was shot. The bullet entered behind his left ear, severing the spinal cord and the slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment to the water that collects in the culvert after every strong rain.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

~~~

I confess to mixed feelings about this page. There are some really nice, evocative visuals—black puddles in trenches, hard plastic soles slapping the pavement, etc. Rather than an info dump to describe the town, Brave Author blends action with  description. Well done.

However, the POV is awkward and off-putting, switching from omniscient to first person. More on that in a moment.

Title: Little League; Huge Trouble sounds catchy, light, and humorous, as if this might be a cozy or a story for young readers. But the title is at odds with the vivid, gritty description of a bullet tumbling in a little boy’s brain like an angry worm, which, BTW, is an excellent simile.

I’m not a fan of semicolons in fiction and especially not in a title. It’s distracting and appears pretentious. Suggest you replace it with a comma or a dash:

Little League, Huge Trouble or Little League–Huge Trouble.

Point of View: The drone’s eye view of the streets, houses, and the boy fleeing from his killer is a cinematic effect that can be intriguing.

Omniscient POV is one way to show the overview of the setting. However, omniscient keeps the reader at a distance and delays introduction of the “I” character.

Tone: I felt off-balance and unsettled because the tone is uneven and inconsistent. It skips from an almost-flippant travelogue of an idyllic town featured in 40 magazines to the horrifying death scene of a little boy. Rather than becoming engrossed in the story, I spent too much time trying to figure out what direction the author was going.

This opener fouled out for the following reasons:

In parts, the tone tries to sound like a detailed official police report with precise factual details: “40 magazines”, “220 yards of wooded trails”, “three quick curves”, “rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high”, “seven houses”, “fourth home.”

But those cold facts feel in conflict with the wonderful, sensory descriptions that evoke emotion: “running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement”, “exploding with faded pink blooms”, “burrowing…like an angry metal worm.”

Further, the observations about 40 magazines and midcentury showplace sound like authorial intrusions, further muddying the mood.

The contrast technique can work but must be carefully constructed so the reader doesn’t feel like a pinball bouncing from hard facts to the narrator’s flippant observations to strong emotions.

Likeability:  When the POV shifts from omniscient to “I”, the character’s reaction to the murder strikes out big time.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

Gotta tell ya—The character may hate himself or herself but not nearly as much as I hate the character for that selfish, self-absorbed attitude. A child has been murdered and s/he worries how that affects their team’s chances to win.

Even the hardest-boiled noir treats a child’s murder more gently.

S/he may be a snarky anti-hero whose character arc eventually leads to redemption. But, after reading this beginning, I wouldn’t continue. No matter how much I want to see a child’s killer brought to justice, it isn’t worth spending 300 pages with a character whose values are so crass and selfish.

The Brave Author may be trying for irony, a technique that can be used to great effect. But it must be done deftly when dealing with a sensitive, emotionally-charged subject.

Writing: Overall, the craft is skillful and well done with excellent descriptions. There are some repetitious words (neighborhood twice in the first two paragraphs) and phrases (leadoff hitter and best catcher). Several times, the tense shifts from past to present within the same sentence (It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood). That may be deliberate but it’s jarring.

The unevenness of tone and an unlikable narrator hit a grounder instead of a fly ball out of the park.

But this page is easily salvageable and can be rewritten into a home run.

In the example below in red, I tinkered with reordering and refocusing the tone to put more emphasis on irony: the contrast of a brutal murder in an idyllic setting; and the contrast of the promising sports career of a young boy who’s suddenly and violently cut down.

According to the police report, the streets were empty, the quiet time after school but before commuters wound through the neighborhood on their way home. Black puddles filled a trench where the gas line had been dug up.  

No witnesses had come forward yet. If anyone had been walking through the area at the time, they would have seen him, heard his hard, plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 lifestyle magazines. He continued an eighth of a mile down a wooded trail to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, through three quick curves, passing 30-foot-tall native rhododendrons exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses. Just beyond the fourth home, a mid-century showplace, he was shot.

The bullet entered behind his left ear and severed the spinal cord. The slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment into the water that collected in the culvert after every strong rain.

That evening, I learned the news that my leadoff hitter and best catcher had been murdered—a boy who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

By starting the first paragraph with a reference to the police report, readers immediately know a crime has been committed. Then they follow the victim as he flees, setting up the contrast between the storybook setting and the horrific crime.

Lastly, the shock that the victim is a little boy is revealed but the “I” character’s reaction is not as off-putting. S/he may later admit disappointment that the team’s chances have been dashed IF that’s an important detail. But I suggest delaying that until the reader is much more invested in the story.

Brave Author, there is a lot of potential here for a compelling mystery but I think you need to decide on an overall tone that’s appropriate for the subgenre you choose.

Is this a small-town cozy? Unlikely because a child’s graphic murder takes it out of cozy realm.

A traditional whodunit mystery? More likely.

An amateur sleuth tale where a youth sports coach must solve a murder? This seems like the most appropriate slot.

What audience do you hope to appeal to?

Once you answer these questions, you can focus on a tone and title that are consistent and appropriate for that subgenre. Then the reader won’t feel off-balance. Instead s/he will be pulled into the story.

Thanks, Brave Author, for submitting this promising first page.

~~~

Over to you, TKZers. What are your impressions? Do you have suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?

~~~

 

Try the first book in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series for FREE. Available at Amazon and major online booksellers. 

The Reluctant Book Marketer – Guest post by Mark Leichliter

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Alex Loup, Unsplash

In May, Steve Hooley and I surveyed TKZ contributors about marketing and how they promote their work. Links below:

Part 1    Part 2

For most of us, marketing holds the same appeal as a kale and rutabaga smoothie.

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with Mark Leichliter, author, writing instructor, and editor. I mentioned what writers really need is advice about how to overcome our aversion to marketing.

Mark took up the challenge. He probed into why we hate it so much and offered some solutions.

I thought his ideas would make a good companion post to our recent marketing discussion.

Today please welcome Mark to the Zone.

~~~

If a tree falls in the forest…okay, we all know how this old philosophical question goes. How about this one? If an author publishes a book and no one knows about it… Easy to answer, right? A book without readers is still a book in the metaphysical definition, but its existence is pretty pointless. With one exception, the person who wrote it—you. But what if you are the sort of person who would rather hang around in the forest awaiting the sudden tree toppling than face marketing your book?

Count me as a forest dweller. The thought of promotion sends me scurrying into the deep timber. But unless you’re one of the eleven and a half writers around the world that a Big 5 publisher runs full page Times ads for, the work is going to fall to you. Big press, small press, no press, if we want to expand our audience beyond our own front door, we’ve got to face down marketing, even if we hate it.

I’ve got a few counts against me when it comes to book promotion. Perhaps you do as well. First, I’m shy. Students in classes or participants in workshops I’ve taught might not guess this to be true, but it is. Give me a business dinner where it’s all small talk, and I’m a disaster. It takes me ten minutes of chanting mantras to make a phone call. Second, my parents raised me—and I thank them—to be humble. And I grew up in the Inter-mountain West, a culture where people respect my right to be an individual but they’d rather not hear about my individuality. Third, I openly despise consumer culture. It’s apparently the marriage partner to an open capitalist market, but why must we constantly be sold everything? Ads stalking us on our phone, our clothing, in our music and movies and emails. Why would I want to participate in something so intrusive?

Here’s the thing. We’ve got to think about that silent forest again. Unless you are content with your audience of one, you’ve already entered the marketplace. So how do we take our reluctance to promote our books and change our approach to marketing? And how do we rise out of the din? Here are some tips I’ve learned for those of us who become physically ill at the thought of book promotion.

  • Distinguish between the book you’ve created and your role as its creator. Yes, in the vernacular of the marketplace, you’ve got a product to distribute now. But it’s also a book, something that can defy demographic typecasting and time. Books are unique products, so treat them that way. It starts by letting the thing exist separately from you. Sure, you poured yourself into it but now it exists (more metaphysics!). So do it a favor. Here’s a simple analogy; you might be reluctant to share some tiny triumph at work or some personal accomplishment, but if one of your children scored a goal or won a ribbon at the science fair, you’re going to shout it from the rooftops, right? Doesn’t your book-child deserve the same?
  • This is key; change the game. Don’t see your actions as marketing. More to the point, don’t reduce the book to only being a product you’re trying to sell. You’re used to flipping psychological switches in your brain on slow writing days in order to remain productive, so flip a different switch in how you see interacting with readers. It’s really a matter of respect for them. People seldom want to buy “products” anyway. They want to participate in a lifestyle they value. They want to follow passions. They want to be associated with things in which they place importance. You didn’t spend the years and the drafts writing your book while lukewarm about its themes, characters, and ideas. See promotion as an opportunity to engage others with those fronts. Don’t sell a product to consumers, enter a conversation with readers. Even if you are shy like me, when speaking about the topics I’m passionate about, I come out of my shell without thought. I can’t stomach that trivial cocktail party chitchat, but find the person at the party who shares interest in something we both find meaningful, and we’ll be there all night. Instead of “marketing” your book, look for venues where you can have conversations about mutual passions. There are thousands of bloggers and podcast hosts who run author interviews. Readers like to know the person behind the page. They like to engage with a writer because they love books. Find venues that take reader questions. Reach out to book clubs. Provide readers something of value and neither they, or you, will see your outreach as a sales job.
  • Control what you can control and work from your strengths. If the idea of appearing on a podcast makes you cringe, then focus on print interviews instead. You’re a writer aren’t you, then the prospect of providing written answers to questions for a blog actually offers you the chance to be creative, probe topics you care about, and do so from the comfort of your writing desk. Get more creative still. Propose a “day in the life” first person post from the viewpoint of one of your characters. Interview one of your characters. Or present the city your write about from the lens of your book. Or get yourself off the hook entirely and use an actual human source you turned to as a consultant for your book and interview them. There are plenty of fun, creative ways that feed your imagination and give readers something original in the process.
  • “See your friends.” My favorite soccer coaching colleague was a wonderful Thai guy who was a genius at simplifying the game. His go-to expression to players during scrimmage was, “See your friends.” Shy? Uncomfortable? Humble? Rather than go it alone, reach out to other writer friends or other authors from your publishing house. There’s tremendous comradery among writers, probably because we’re the only ones who truly understand how difficult writing and marketing a book really is. Propose dual blogger posts or offer a book site a conversation between you and another author. Suggest a multi-author panel for a podcast, a remote event, or a live appearance. There’s strength in numbers, for you, and for your audience. I guarantee that you will enjoy the conversation that emerges, and it won’t feel like marketing because it really isn’t. Sales and exposure are the offshoot. Moreover, you can share the workload.
  • Champion others rather than yourself. Remember that comradery comment. It’s real. And I know you’ve found other writers you want to see succeed. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to help find an agent for a writer friend simply because I believe in him and his book. Put some energy into broadcasting reviews, recommendations, and announcements about books by writers you admire or have learned from. Stand up for books you love. You’ll be doing a valuable service for readers. Do it because you care. Maybe the author will reciprocate. Don’t worry if they don’t. That shouldn’t be your motivation. You’re a participant in a bigger writing community, so be a good neighbor. We live in times where we need more kindness, so do someone else a solid. Put awful things like social media to some good use instead. Or take that five minutes to write a review on a seller’s site or a book community site. If people value what you have to say about books you love, many are going to want to know about your work as well.

You don’t have to become a PR cliché to produce effective promotion for your book. Look, you really do believe your book has value, right? Whether that’s simply entertainment value for a reader or a book that will challenge how they perceive the world, surely you are producing work that you are proud to have written—a book that deserves an audience. The thing is, you’re going to have to go out and find that audience. There’s a first step that has to happen before we can have the contemplative conversation about whether an unopened book on a bookshelf has value; first we’ve got to get it on the shelf, or better yet, in a reader’s hands.

~~~

Thanks for your insights, Mark! 

TKZers: Do you have mind tricks that help overcome your aversion to marketing? Please share.

~~~

 

Mark Leichliter’s new novel The Other Side debuts today, June 8. Sales links here.

How do you start an investigation when you have no evidence a crime has been committed?

 

True Crime Thursday – Smuggling Contraband into Prison by Drone

 

Photo credit: Kal Visuals-Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

So, you’re back on the street after doing time in the federal pen in Fort Dix, New Jersey. You want to earn a little extra income, presumably to pay your defense attorney, and to supply your buddies who are still inside. Nothing big, just cigarettes, cell phones, heroin, and fentanyl.

Why not use a drone to deliver packages—just like Amazon?   

Jason Ateaga-Loayza, AKA “Juice”, must have thought that was a good business plan even though he was on supervised release from Fort Dix, a low-security federal correctional facility.

Between October 2018 and June 2019, Juice and several co-conspirators smuggled contraband by drone into the prison. Juice communicated by cell phone texts with an accomplice who was still incarcerated. The accomplice took orders from inmates and collected payments. Juice gathered the requested items and stored them in his home. Then he and other accomplices hid in the woods surrounding Fort Dix and operated a drone from there, dropping packages inside the prison at night. They taped over the lights on the drone to prevent detection.

Evidently the operation succeeded for a while…until FBI agents searched Juice’s home. Officers turned up a closetful of empty cell phone boxes and tobacco containers matching items that had previously been dropped inside the prison. They also found enough heroin and fentanyl to charge him with possession with intent to distribute.

In April, 2021, Juice pleaded guilty to several charges and is scheduled for sentencing in September, 2021.

His high-flying entrepreneurial venture has been grounded.

~~~

 

 

Bad guys use a drone to surveil the good guys in Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky

Buy at Amazon or major online retailers. 

TKZ Marketing Survey – Part 2

By Debbie Burke

 @burke_writer

 

On Saturday, Steve Hooley kicked off Part 1 of the TKZ Marketing Survey. Today, I’ll cover the rest of the results and sum up our findings.

Before we get started, please indulge me for a moment. Back in November, I wrote about my good friend astrophysicist Sarah Rugheimer who’d been selected to deliver a TED talk. Several readers asked when her talk would go live. Yesterday was the day! Congratulations, Sarah! Here’s the link. 

~~~

Garry Rodgers’s answers (indie pub):

What is your goal with marketing?

 Two things which are intertwined. One is to sell more books (products). The other is to increase discoverability. Increasing my discoverability by distributing my brand in as many places as possible organically sells more books. By selling more books, I create read-through which increases my discoverability. Never underestimate the power of “word-of-mouse”.

What marketing do you do?

 I’ve appeared on many podcasts and blog interviews. I can’t say I’ve ever struck gold from one, but each exposure increases discoverability. (“You are the worst writer I’ve ever heard of.” “Yes. But you have heard of me.”)

 Blogging – Website

 Blogging is *BY FAR* the best ROI I’ve ever had. That includes my own blog at DyingWords, the Kill Zone posts, and many guest pieces I’ve done on other sites. Recently, I was “found” by a NYC film producer who landed on one of my old posts.  It led to discussions and to a potential NetFlix series which I’m outlining a proposal for as we speak.

 Newsletter

 I have 2100 subscribers on my mailing list, and I send out a new blog post every second Saturday – consistently. I get about 500 click-throughs so I’m happy with that. I’m in a publishing cycle of 1 book every 2 months so I put a post out promoting the release. However, when I look at my sales stats right after a newsletter, I don’t see any spike. I know the gurus say “Mailing List Mailing List Mailing List” but I’m not seeing it directly tied to sales spikes – It’s the long term exposure and a slow reader growth that pays off.

 Which social media platforms?

I do Facebook for personal laughs and Twitter for sharing writing stuff and making connections. I have an author FB page but haven’t done anything with it which is likely why there’s no return on it. I have a friend who writes under the pen name Chevy Stevens (because her real name is too hard to pronounce) who has killer FB returns and is her main reader connection. Twitter has been good for making personal connections in the writing business, but I can’t say it’s sold anything directly.

Paid ads

Now we’re talking returns. Pay-to-play ads are THE Thing that works for me. My money-maker is my based-on-true-crime series which is at Book #8. I have about 20 publications out there, but the read-through from the series is working very well. I have book 1 as perma-free and pay to advertise it on the discount newsletters – Ereader News Today (ENT) is the best payback. Last campaign resulted in 5K downloads and generated a read-through which brought a 3 to 1 return on investment. The other good returns are from Robin Reads, Fussy Librarian, Free Booksy, Bargain Booksy, Book Doggy, and Book Gorilla. I’ve tried one BookBub ad which was a flop and I have yet to try FB and AZ ads.

Conferences – networking

I’ve never been to a live writing conference. I was going to go to Bouchercon last year but you-know-who showed up and threw a wrench into the travel spokes. I’ve taken in a bunch of online conferences and webinars but you don’t get personal connections this way – at least not from my experience. I’ve cold-called high profile people on Twitter and have had surprisingly good results in having them guest appear on my blogsite.

Others

Absolutely nothing beats building a backlist and creating read-through. “Write More Books” is the best advice I’ve ever gotten, and that’s where I put most of my efforts at the moment. I changed my mindset last February to treat my writing like a business and not a hobby. I credit Adam Croft for this. Adam and I have been personal friends for ten years – I say back when Adam wasn’t famous and I still had color in my hair. Adam’s book, The Indie Author Mindset, https://www.amazon.com/Indie-Author-Mindset-changing-transform-ebook/dp/B07FZ3X349/  is a MUST-READ for any indie who intends to “make it” in this biz.

 “Going Wide” is another must-do tactic. I started on Kobo and Nook last April and have had over 30K downloads in 66 different countries since then. Yes, many are freebies but the discoverability and read-through in paid sales has been remarkable – truly rewarding and motivating to write more books.

For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?)

I keep a journal/daily log where I track my time in 15 minute blocks. On a good writing day, I get in 3,000 – 3,500 words and I write about 1,000 words per hour so that’s 3 – 3.5 solid writing hours per day. Most days I put in 8 – 10 hours of solid time in what I call the four Ps – Production, Publishing, Promotion, and Perfection. Production is about 5 days per week. Publishing goes in spurts – 1 book every 2 months. Promotion is all the time – here, there & everywhere – every action is some sort of promotion (like this). Perfection never happens but what I mean by this is craft improvement. I read a lot and across the board, not just genre specific. I just finished a book titled “Profiles In Folly” which is about world-changing stupid things done by influential people. Hopefully, I don’t appear in the sequel.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective?

Write more books is the most effective. Pay-to-play ads is second. Networking with influencers who can increase discoverability is a close third.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above?

These publications: “Indie Author Mindset” – Adam Croft, “On Writing” – Stephen King, “Elements of Style” – Strunk & White, “Wired For Story” – Lisa Cron, “Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us” – Jessica Page Morrell, “Self-Editing For Fiction Writers” – Dave King & Renni Browne, and “Think And Grow Rich” – Napoleon Hill.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic?

I have to say the pandemic was the best thing ever for my writing business. It was coincidental that I changed my mindset last February just before this thing hit, but I increased my output and promotions. I think more people had more time to read and were looking for new stuff as well as more people turning to ebooks because they couldn’t get out to the bricks & mortar stores – plus they also got comfortable with ereading devices. So it was the perfect storm that propelled me from zero to hero. I can’t wait for the next wave. Bring it!  J

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over?

I would have taken this more seriously far earlier. You can’t turn back the clock of reality – only go forward with the flow and write more books. Write, publish, repeat – as they say.

Where do you sell your books?

Amazon – 70%. Kobo – 29. Nook – 1%. I’m going to publish on Apple and Google this year. Plus look into print and audio options. Amazon is strong in the US and the UK, but Kobo (Rakutan) has immense world-wide reach. Nook is barely worth the effort however I hear great things about Apple.

 Series with a permafree first issue really works. And you’ve got to keep your name out there – you never know when Netflix comes calling.

~~~

Joe Hartlaub’s answers (trad pub):

What is your goal with marketing? Get my name out there.

What marketing do you do or participate in? Zoom interviews, blogging at killzoneblog.com,

Facebook, networking at Bouchercon.

For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Irregularly, unfortunately.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? Blogging and networking.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? Just getting out there and learning along the way.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? No Bouchercon!

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? I would have started getting involved with the writing community earlier than I did.

~~~

Sue Coletta’s answers (trad pub):

What is your goal with marketing? To reach a wider audience.

What marketing do you do or participate in? Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews – Blogging – Website – Newsletter – Social media – Conferences – networking

All of the above. I’ve done Zoom book events, appeared on podcasts, blog tours, interviews, and in-person appearances (in the nice weather). I blog on TKZ and my site, Murder Blog. If it weren’t for my website/blog, I would’ve missed out on so many amazing opportunities. Some authors say writers don’t need to blog, but I disagree. We all need a home base where readers/agents/publishers can find you, and social media is NOT a home base. Last year, I buckled down to write a separate newsletter for readers (I’ve always sent blog-related newsletters), and the response has been positive so far. Networking with other writers is key. The writing community is a generous, kind, funny, little crazy tribe, and I wouldn’t trade any of them. J

 For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Depends if I have a new release or what I’m doing. Zoom events take a lot longer than, say, social media marketing.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? I think it’s all important. I view marketing as a sum of its parts (blogging, social media, book signings, etc). Most effective? Appearances, either in person or virtual.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? Other writers. Nine times out of ten, a writer will share advice with another writer. It’s what we do.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? I’ve done a lot more virtual events than in person. Now that I’m fully vaccinated (yay!) I’ve booked my usual venues for the upcoming season.

 Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? Too many things to mention. Top answer: Plan where you want to see your career in five years, ten years, fifteen years. Then be patient and choose an agent or house that can help you achieve your goals.

~~~

Debbie Burke’s answers (indie pub):

What is your goal with marketing? Connect PERSONALLY with as many readers as possible b/c I strongly believe in old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations. That is more rewarding to me than 10K followers I’ll never meet. I’d like to sell more books but thankfully I don’t depend on writing income to survive.

What marketing do you do? Zoom discussions with book clubs and educational presentations for writing groups. Radio and newspaper interviews in my local area.

Blogging – Website Not as much as I should for my own blog/website. Most blogging is for TKZ.

Social media – Twitter only for name recognition. I doubt that generates sales.

Paid ads – In the past, I’ve bought cheap ads ($50 and under) directed to mystery/thriller genre readers. Never broke even. Trying out some of Garry’s strategies and will report back later. 

A personal observation – I’m deluged with constant ads and am sick of them. I rarely buy any product solely b/c of an ad. Most of the time, I delete w/o reading them. I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling. 

Conferences – In the past, in-person appearances/workshops at conferences.

Networking – most speaking invitations come from networking with people I know or have met from previous appearances.

Others – I have had good luck partnering with other authors for appearances. Two other authors and I give presentations as the “Montana Women of Mystery.”

For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?)

Speaking, classes, workshops – 5+ hours prep time per event plus presentation time. Blogging – 10+ hours/month.

Social media – 1 hour/month.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? At book clubs, close to 100% of participants buy books, but numbers are small since most clubs have fewer than 20 members. For general speaking appearances, 20-25% of participants buy books. In 2017-2019, blogging on TKZ resulted in significant sales spikes but tapered off in 2020-2021. I suspect any TKZ regulars who are interested have already bought my books so that market is somewhat saturated. However, exposure and repetition are still important. When readers see my name regularly, like blogging on TKZ every other week, they think of me. I just spoke to a mystery group in Arizona that found me through TKZ.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? JSB’s book Marketing for Writers Who Hate Marketing; Jane Friedman’s blog; Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur; Authors Guild discussion groups; asking other authors what works for them; trial and error.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? Zoom instead of in-person appearances. Zoom allows meeting with groups outside my local area. I’m increasing those promotions b/c appearances work better for me than advertising. 

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? I wish I’d gotten my rights back sooner from the original publisher and rereleased the book independently.

My sales are not great but I only have so much time and energy. I’d rather concentrate on writing more books. Now that six are available, I’m increasing promotion and see a gradual but steady increase in sales. Readers of my prior books are repeat customers. My following is small but loyal and growing. I still feel producing more product is more important than advertising.

Where do you sell your books? For several years, my books were exclusive with Amazon but there is no longer any advantage to exclusivity. Several months ago (prompted by Garry and Terry), I “went wide” and books are now for sale at B&N, Kobo, Apple, and other online markets through Draft2Digital – too soon to see results but wider availability can’t hurt; local indie bookstores sell paperbacks; I sell paperbacks at book signings and presentations.

~~~

What do all these results add up to?

Besides increased sales, several consistent themes for the goal of marketing were repeated: name recognition, discoverability, word-of-mouth, and building customer loyalty.

Seven contributors mentioned Zoom as an important development that’s replaced in-person appearances. Two additionally mentioned doing Zoom appearances in partnership with other authors.

According to all nine survey respondents, blogging is definitely not dead. Several said they’d cut back on other blogging but continue with TKZ.

Six authors use newsletters.

Paid ads yield the most varied responses, with some authors having good results while others didn’t believe ads were worth the cost. BookBub was mentioned several times as the most effective advertising.

Social media is viewed by the majority as a necessary evil that doesn’t generally sell books but increases name recognition. Several complained SM wastes too much time but needs to be done. Facebook and Twitter are the most used venues, although a couple of authors mentioned You Tube and podcasts.

Jim Bell offers wise advice about social media in his book Marketing for Writers who Hate to Market:

“Here is my advice regarding social media.

Pick one platform to specialize in.

One.

Pick the one you enjoy most, or think you can handle best.

If you want to have a presence on other platforms, to experiment, go ahead. But place your focus on one.

Use it to the extent you enjoy it, and no more.

Use it for actual engagement with those who follow you.

Be a good content provider, and a good listener.

Avoid venting your spleen on social media. Because besides being a lousy place to sell books, it’s a horrible place to take controversial positions. There is no true discussion here, because that’s not what social media is set up for.

Don’t post drunk.

Make all people glad they follow you.

Earn trust. When it’s time to mention a book, you’ll have earned the right to do so.”

Nearly all authors lamented the loss of in-person conferences. Two have not previously attended conferences and expressed disappointment over cancellations.

Networking at conferences was cited as enormously important because those contacts often opened up other opportunities as well as marketing avenues.

Two indie authors mentioned “going wide” to other sales outlets besides Amazon.

“Write more books” was noted by most respondents as the best marketing tool.

This survey confirmed that there is no marketing magic bullet. It’s time-consuming, long-term work. Results don’t happen overnight. But, if we want to sell books, we gotta do it.

 Steve, thanks for coming up with this topic and including me as your co-conspirator. Thanks also to the TKZ family who answered questions and shared helpful insights.

~~~

Over to you, TKZers. What type of marketing is most productive for you? Did you learn any new methods from this survey you’d like to try?

~~~

Note: I’m taking Garry’s advice on “permafree” for the first book in my series. So far, results look very promising. Thanks, Garry! 

 

 

Instrument of the Devil is now FREE. Please give it a read. If you like it, come back and check out five more books in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. 

First Page Critique – A Jealous God

Photo credit: Stefan Ringler, Unsplash

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Good morning, TKZers, and welcome to another Brave Author who submitted the first page of a domestic thriller entitled A Jealous God. Please enjoy then we’ll discuss.

~~~

Alice

1979

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible and declared God was not their friend. Thirty seconds into his sermon and sweat already dripped from his forehead. Black polyester stuck to his chest. Beside the pulpit, Alice’s father nodded in agreement from his throne, legs crossed and hands draped over the armrests and a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet. Poor Gilroy was about to melt into a puddle, but at least her father was comfortable.

“If I offer you an apple today,” Gilroy said. “Or promised you an orchard tomorrow, land and trees stretched out so far you can’t even count them all, just as certain as the sun rises in the East you’d choose the apple in my hand. Your hunger consumes you.”

Last week it was a penny over a dollar, the week before a lamb over the flock. God still wasn’t their friend.

Alice waited from her usual spot in the back pew near the side door where no one dared to join her. Her mother and four siblings squeezed into the front rows with the rest of the congregation, a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

Gilroy held an apple up to the heavens. “You want—you need—something you can see, touch. You want to squeeze it in your hand, hear a crunch as you bite into the skin, feel the warmth in your empty belly.”

A man Alice had never seen before stood guarding the side door. After Tom went away, she noticed strangers, took inventory of their details to keep them real. Mid-twenties, short dark brown hair, clean-shaven, and a long thin scar above his right eye. A dry, starched white shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into ironed dark blue trousers. Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

“So you hold out your hand and take all that Satan has to give,” Gilroy said. “You’re proud, arrogant. Condemning your immortal soul into everlasting torment.”

Alice slid closer to the aisle. The stranger followed.

~~~

Okay, let’s dig in.

This is a strong example of how to start off a story with conflict and tension even though there’s minimal action. The scene is set, several characters are introduced with brief but effective descriptions, and questions are immediately raised in the reader’s mind.

What the heck is going on with a teenage girl in church who’s being shunned by family and perhaps menaced by a stranger?

What struck me most about this beginning was the author’s excellent use of sensory detail to set the scene. The reader feels the sticky, oppressive humidity and perspiration running down his or her torso. Not only is the temperature stifling, so is the mood. As the preacher instills fear of eternal damnation in his congregation, the reader feels something horrible will soon occur.

Let’s go through a few lines (in blue) in closer detail. My suggestions are in red.

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible and declared God was not their friend.

Punch up the first line by showing Gilroy’s exclamation rather than telling:

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible. “God is not your friend!”

 

Black polyester stuck to his chest.

That’s a great image—who hasn’t felt clinging, sweaty fabric that doesn’t breathe? But perhaps add a more specific detail:

The black polyester clergy shirt stuck to his chest.

The foreboding is already strong but Brave Author might add smell—the rank odor of nervous sweat.

When the focus shifts from Gilroy to Alice’s father, suggest you drop down and start a new paragraph:

Beside the pulpit, Alice’s father nodded in agreement from his throne, legs crossed and hands draped over the armrests and a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet. 

Maybe add a few words of explanation about the throne and why Alice’s father enjoys the elevated status.

Suggest you get inside Alice’s POV as soon as possible.

Alice watched her father nodding in agreement from his throne beside the pulpit. His legs were crossed and hands draped over the armrests, a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet.

 

Alice waited from her usual spot in the back pew near the side door where no one dared to join her.

“No one dared join her” nicely conveys not only her physical position in the church but also her social position in the congregation. She is separate from her family and shunned for reasons not yet known. The reader wants to find out why. Well done.

Nice job of slipping in Alice’s age, 17, as well as time reference with the Bozo the Clown Pez dispenser. Bozo adds irreverent humor—another hint at Alice’s attitude toward these pious folks.

…a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

 

Suggest you move the line highlighted in red to its own paragraph. It’s clearly an important hint to the story conflict and shouldn’t be buried in the middle of a paragraph. The reader wonders who Tom is, what was his relationship with Alice, what accident, and did the accident happen in the “old” church.

…a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident.

 

The next paragraph offers more vivid sensory details.

Gilroy held an apple up to the heavens. “You want—you need—something you can see, touch. You want to squeeze it in your hand, hear a crunch as you bite into the skin, feel the warmth in your empty belly.”

While the pastor talks, the reader sees the image, feels the apple, hears and tastes the crunch. The verb choices squeeze and bite reinforce the underlying message of punishment. Good job.

 

A man Alice had never seen before stood guarding the side door. After Tom went away, she noticed strangers, took inventory of their details to keep them real. Mid-twenties, short dark brown hair, clean-shaven, and a long thin scar above his right eye. A dry, starched white shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into ironed dark blue trousers. Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

A stranger on guard foreshadows more conflict for Alice. Nice tight description of the man, especially the scar which makes him more threatening. His dry, starched shirt suggested he’s cool and removed, compared to everyone else who’s sweating.

But the last sentence of that paragraph was confusing.

Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

The reader’s attention is jerked from the man’s description to five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps. Is the mud inside or outside the church? If there’s mud at the entrance, why are his boots still clean?

Suggested rewrite in Alice’s deep POV:

How had his brown leather boots stayed so polished and shiny after slogging through five inches of mud at the entrance steps?

 

This line was confusing: Alice slid closer to the aisle. The stranger followed.

The stranger is standing guard at the side door. Alice is sitting in the last pew. When she slides across the pew, apparently intending to escape, how does the stranger follow? Does he sit in the pew with her and slide closer? Rewrite so the reader can visualize exactly the position of each character and how they are moving in relation to each other, the pew, and the side door.

Big picture: This unfortunate teenager apparently committed an unknown sin and is shunned by her family and the congregation. The reader wants to find out what she did. Her wry comments on the fire and brimstone sermon, the minister, and her pompous father show her rebellious spirit and make her likable.

What transgression was so serious that a stranger follows Alice and tries to keep her from escaping?

The title A Jealous God is compelling and effective. It conjures up fearful wrath and vengeance, fitting themes for the domestic thriller genre. Deuteronomy 4:24 reads: “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”

I did a short search and found only two novels with that title, one by John Braine published in 1964, and one by Simon Mawer published in 1996. Surprisingly, the title hasn’t been used that often, making it a good choice.

The exact locale isn’t specified but I’m intrigued enough to wait a few pages to find out where the story happens.

The heading “Alice 1979” sets the time period. It also might indicate this scene is a flashback.

The tweaks are minor. Clarify a few points mentioned above. Rearrange several sentences to increase the dramatic impact.

The Brave Author starts with action, introduces a sympathetic character in trouble, sets the scene, shows conflict, and raises questions. A lot of tension and suspense thrum in this first page.

The writing is vivid and full of sensory detail that puts the reader into the stifling, oppressive atmosphere beside Alice. I want to escape as much as she does. I also want to find why she’s in this situation and if she can get out of it. Compelling start!

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TKZers: What do you think of this first page? Would you keep reading? Any suggestions for the Brave Author?