About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Heart...and Sass. 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

First Page Critique – Rene Out on a Limb

Photo credit: evilpeacock cc by-nc-sa 2.0

By Debbie Burke


 Happy 2021 and welcome back to TKZ after the annual holiday break!

Today, we kick off the new year with the first page of Rene Out on a Limb, a humorous middle-grade mystery. Please enjoy this submission then we’ll discuss it:




Rene Out on a Limb – First 400 words

The branch of the tree makes a creaky noise when I wriggle out on it, and the ground looks really far away. I’m not worried, though. Oak tree limbs don’t break … do they?

“Psst.” My cousin Joanie tries to whisper, but it sounds more like a moose wheezing. Joanie is nine years old, but she never learned how to whisper properly. She’s sitting on a low branch like she’s glued to the trunk.  A squirrel pokes its head out of a knothole and gnaws on an acorn while he stares at me. Like he’s surprised to see a girl halfway out on a limb. But this is my life. An investigative reporter knows no fear.

“Psst. Rene, stop.” Joanie’s voice gets a little louder and scaredier as I inch my way along the branch.

“Shh.” I whisper back with much better form. “I want to hear what they’re saying.” It’s good practice for a reporter to eavesdrop on possible subjects, and I’d radared in on Nate Peterson as he walked across campus with his girlfriend. They were so wrapped up in each other, they didn’t even see us. They stopped next to that big elm tree a few feet away, and the girl stood with her back against the trunk while he leaned toward her with his hand on the tree and a goofy expression on his face.

I’ll never understand adults. If Nate’s trying to impress his girlfriend, he’d do better if he stood on his head or did a couple of cartwheels. At least it would show a little talent. Maybe he could buy a yo-yo.

I creep another couple of inches forward, ease the notebook out of my pocket, and strain to hear. He calls the girl “Cassie.” I write it down.

Cassie was saying something about Reverend Newton. I know him. He’s the minister at the university chapel. She says, “He asked me to stop by today after lunch. It’s about Mr. Myet.”

Mr. Myet? Wasn’t he the librarian who died in that fire?

Cassie frowns. “Reverend Newton thinks there may have been foul play.”

Murder! My heart pounds and my ears become antennae. Maybe I can solve the mystery and expose the killer. I could be famous. I’ll be the youngest person who ever won a Pulitzer Prize!

I try to ease forward, but my foot gets caught.


This story blasts right out of the gate. In three short paragraphs, the author introduces Rene, the first-person protagonist, establishes her approximate age, and introduces her goal—she wants to be a famous investigative reporter.

By the ninth paragraph, she presents the mysterious death of the librarian, Mr. Myet. Rene’s mission grows more ambitious with that revelation. She’s determined to solve the crime.

The Brave Author includes another important detail: Rene is already in danger because the tree limb she’s clinging to could break. If that happens (and I’m fairly sure it will in the next page or two), Rene might be injured. But a more serious consequence: she will be discovered by the people she is surveilling. Her covert mission is blown.

That sense of risk propels the reader to turn the page. We need to find out Rene’s fate.

Does she survive? Once she’s discovered, can she talk her way out of her dilemma? Can she continue with her mystery-solving mission?

The Brave Author sidestepped the common problems we see on many TKZ first pages—lack of conflict, lack of action, too much backstory, difficulty with point of view (POV), unclear characterizations. In this excerpt, character, action, and conflict combine smoothly to engage the reader immediately. Effective pacing moves the story forward, inducing the reader to keep turning pages. Well done!

Humor is a bonus in writing stories for most age groups but particularly, it seems, for young readers. Rene’s voice is wry, witty, and delightful. She makes observations that sound appropriate for an intelligent child without being too advanced. Although her exact age is not mentioned, her mildly superior attitude toward her nine-year-old cousin suggests she’s perhaps a year older.

Joanie as the cautious sidekick contrasts with the fearless Rene, showing the personalities of both characters quickly and efficiently.

Rene pokes fun at Nate’s attempts to impress Cassie. Further, she inserts her own suggestions that standing on his head, turning cartwheels, or doing yo-yo tricks would be much more effective. Young readers can follow her child’s logic and older readers should find her lack of sophistication amusing and endearing.

I do suggest rearranging that paragraph a little, grouping all Rene’s suggested alternatives together and then drawing her conclusion.

I’ll never understand adults. If Nate’s trying to impress his girlfriend, he’d do better if he stood on his head or did a couple of cartwheels. If he’s super cool, he could demonstrate yo-yo tricks like The Elevator or Walking the Dog. At least that would show a little talent. Maybe he could buy a yo-yo.



The paragraph below works better if it’s split into two paragraphs. Joanie’s inability to whisper should be a separate thought from the squirrel’s action and Rene’s reaction.

“Psst.” My cousin Joanie tries to whisper, but it sounds more like a moose wheezing. Joanie is nine years old, but she never learned how to whisper properly. She’s sitting on a low branch like she’s glued to the trunk. 

A squirrel pokes its head out of a knothole and gnaws on an acorn while he stares at me. Like he’s surprised to see a girl halfway out on a limb. But this is my life. An investigative reporter knows no fear.

Let’s talk about verb tense. The story begins in present tense, which is common in children’s books. That sense of immediacy appeals to young readers.

Then there’s a switch to past tense. That is understandable for events that have already happened, like this paragraph:

I’d radared in on Nate Peterson as he walked across campus with his girlfriend. They were so wrapped up in each other, they didn’t even see us. They stopped next to that big elm tree a few feet away, and the girl stood with her back against the trunk while he leaned toward her with his hand on the tree and a goofy expression on his face.

Then the tense switches back to present as Rene makes her entertaining observations about how Nate should impress his girlfriend. Present tense is appropriate because the reader is inside her head, thinking her thoughts as they occur to her.

This is followed by Rene’s actions of creeping further out on the branch and taking notes, also in present tense.

But then, in the next paragraph, a change to past tense causes a slight clunk:

Cassie was saying something about Reverend Newton.

It might read more smoothly this way:

Cassie is saying something about Reverend Newton.

Here’s another tense change that tripped me:

Mr. Myet? Wasn’t he the librarian who died in that fire? 

The thought in Rene’s head should be in present tense, in the moment that it occurs to her:

Mr. Myet? Isn’t he the librarian who died in that fire?

These nits are tiny. Yet they make a subtle difference. When the author avoids small bumps like these, the reader stays totally engaged in the story, without even a millisecond’s distraction from the fictive dream.

I had a hard time finding ways to improve on this already-excellent submission. Maybe other readers can see places to change but I was entirely caught up in the story and would read further.

A young girl who wants to become a crime-solving reporter is an appealing premise. I discovered Rene has a real-life counterpart, Hilde Lysiak.

The ambitious young lady, originally from Selinsgrove, PA, started a local newspaper when she was seven as a homeschooling assignment. By age ten, she had scooped conventional media with her coverage of a grisly murder committed with a hammer.

Because of that story, she was publicly criticized on social media. Her response to criticism from (so-called) adults was posted on You Tube and went viral.

Hilde made headlines again when the marshal in Patagonia, Arizona (where she now lives) challenged her right to shoot video, claiming she broke the law. She repeatedly asked him what law she had broken.

She did not back down despite his threats. Gutsy Hilde was acting within her First Amendment rights.

The officer’s false assertion led to a formal apology from the town mayor.

Along with her father, former NY Daily News reporter, Matthew Lysiak, Hilde scored a six-book series, along with a new Apple TV show chronicling her adventures as a kid reporter.

Judging by Hilde’s success, the appeal of a young female reporter who solves crime is certainly commercially viable.

With the excellent quality of writing and storytelling skills in Rene Out on a Limb, the Brave Author should be able to grab the attention of children’s publishers and enthusiastic young readers.

Thank you for submitting this fun piece, Brave Author. I thoroughly enjoyed it!


TKZers: Does this first page capture your interest? What suggestions can you offer the Brave Author?


Flight to Forever by Debbie Burke is coming soon!

Nobody tells Vietnam veteran Lou Belmonte he can’t hug his wife of 50 years. When pandemic restrictions won’t let him visit his beloved Cameo in a memory care lockdown, he busts her out, injuring two employees who try to stop him. The couple flees to a remote fire lookout in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.

With cops in pursuit, investigator Tawny Lindholm and her defense attorney husband, Tillman Rosenbaum, race to find the aging outlaws first because Lou won’t go down without a fight.

Flight to Forever is the sixth book in Debbie Burke’s Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. Check out a sneak preview at this link.  


The “Other” Debbie Burke

by Debbie Burke


Debbie Burke is not that unusual a name. But what if there are two Debbie Burkes who are both authors? Hmm.

About a year ago, I googled “Debbie Burke.” As expected, my thrillers, TKZ blog posts, news articles, and website came up.

But I did a double-take when I saw “Debbie Burke” was the author of jazz articles and a novel entitled Glissando.

I hadn’t written any of those.

Dug a little deeper and checked out the other Debbie Burke’s website which is debbieburkeauthor.com. Mine is debbieburkewriter.com. How confusing is that!

I discovered she is from the Poconos and now lives in Virginia Beach, VA.

For simplicity’s sake, from here on, I’ll refer to us at “Montana Debbie Burke (MT DB)” and “Virginia Debbie Burke (VA DB).”

A few months ago, I started to receive odd emails addressed to “Debbie Burke” that I initially thought were spam and deleted. More messages came from someone named Magdalena, who said she had texted me several times and wanted to talk about a jazz award. I realized Magdalena must be trying to reach VA Debbie. I replied that she had contacted the wrong Debbie Burke but I didn’t know an address for VA Debbie.

Then I received an email from “Debbie Burke” and, no, I wasn’t cc’ing myself.

VA Debbie had seen a comment by “Debbie Burke” on the Authors Guild discussion thread that she didn’t write, so she reached out to me. Turns out we’re both AG members. How confusing must that be for AG?

We had a good laugh about the mix-up and struck up a correspondence. Being writers, we inevitably played “What if?”

What if Debbie Burke interviews Debbie Burke?

So, today, here we are.




It’s my pleasure to introduce…Debbie Burke from Virginia. 




MT DB: I’ve described how I learned about you. How did you first learn about me?

VA DB: I was setting up my profile in Goodreads and saw that your name popped up with a book…something about the devil…I said hey, that’s not me!

MT DB: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

VA DB: Born in Brooklyn, now living in Virginia Beach. Most of my career has been in communications, either in printing, publishing, PR, media and so on. I was a columnist for my local paper when we lived in Pennsylvania and I became the editor of a regional business journal there, then the editor of a lifestyle magazine.

My first book came about in 2011 when I joined a community band at a local university, playing sax (I had lessons in at The New School for Social Research in NYC the 1980s. Yes, I’m dating myself).

Anyway, I was in the band and hearing all about these very famous musicians who were said to live nearby. Wow, I thought, I’d love to find out more about the jazz legacy of this area, where can I find a book on that? Surely the local library had something on it. But nobody had written about it. The more I dug, the more I found out about the area’s connections to jazz from the 1920s onward. No book? No problem, I decided to write my own. That was the start of something beautiful. That was The Poconos in B Flat and others have followed. I love writing about jazz.

MT DB:  Where can your articles and blog posts be found?

VA DB: My blog (www.debbieburkeauthor.com) is all about the jazz world. I’ve done over 400 interviews of not just musicians but also jazz photographers, artists, record execs, promotions people and authors. I have published some articles that are deep in the archives at All About Jazz and wrote for the Jamey Aebersold blog a while back.

MT DB: Your first novel is Glissando. What inspired you to write it? How did you develop the main character Ellie? 

VA DB: Ellie is a composite of a middle-aged woman who’s found that she’s had just about enough of men, period. She joins a university band (that is the only similarity, I promise) where she meets a musician whom she falls very, very hard for. He’s married, and his wife has just graduated from college. A whole lot of drama ensues and Ellie has to make some tough choices about the musician and another man she’s become involved with.

I was inspired, I am inspired, by the dating (mis)adventures of women my age. The difficulties of finding somebody good, the idea of falling in love and in lust when you’re past your mid-point. It’s fascinating to me. I like to write strong women who are more than a little flawed. I don’t agree with all the things Ellie does in the book, but she sure feels real to me.

MT DB: You’re working your second novel. Care to share details?

VA DB: Sure! It’s about a stolen song, a stolen kiss and a stunning family legacy. A jazz bassist finds out his ancestor was enslaved on one of the biggest plantations in Georgia, and miraculously comes across a song that he had written. A shocking secret bubbles up and he embarks on a journey to face it and make things right.

MT DB: You also collaborated on a book that was published in the UK about under-representation of women in the field of jazz. What was that experience like?

VA DB: Yes, Gender Disparity in UK Jazz – A Discussion. The experience was amazing times two. Sammy Stein is the consummate interviewer and knows the UK jazz scene with an enviable thoroughness. She’s a great writer and has excellent contacts who made the content very honest and accessible.


I needed to deal first with the logistics of the language itself; avoiding the instinct to “correct” certain words that are spelled differently in the UK than in the US, and the same goes for idioms and expressions of speech. The other major task was creating it and developmentally editing it as we went along. I think we hit all the right notes, if you pardon the pun. Within three days of uploading it to Amazon, it made number 6 in the very competitive category of “Jazz Books.” 

MT DB: What is your main strength as a writer?

VA DB: Hearing my characters’ voices telling me the story.

MT DB: What quality as a writer do you need to work on?

VA DB: I’m a “pantser” – no outline in my fiction, writing by the seat of my pants. Well, I’ve come to find out the hard way that the more story threads you have, the more challenging this is. Actually, for me right now as I finish my WIP, it’s hellish. Though I feel like an outline could be suffocating, one guy I watch on YouTube (Michael LaRonn) made a great suggestion in one of his videos, which is to make the outline as you go. So it’s a roadmap that’s informed by your ongoing experiences of writing, not something that had been imposed on you before you knew how the book was going to unfurl.

MT DB: You recently started an editing business. What prompted you to hang out an editing shingle? What type of editing do you offer?

VA DB: I’ve been doing this for many years, and just decided to formalize it with Queen Esther Publishing LLC. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, but also very intimidating. Being organized is the key. I have an idea of what I’ll work on each day, and even if everything doesn’t pan out exactly, I’ve stuck to it with broad strokes.

The editing I do – book manuscripts, professional articles, theses, and anything else really – goes all the way from proofing to line edits to developmental editing. I also coach authors in self-publishing and building an author platform.

MT DB: Any other information you’d like to add? 

VA DB: It was so nice to “meet” you and read some of your books. I had no idea how you wrote or what you wrote about and was hoping I wouldn’t have to change my name! I’m kidding of course, but I’m sure you felt the same relief. If somebody were to mix us up and look for our books on Amazon, they’d be in for a treat, regardless of which Debbie they got.

 MT DB: I couldn’t agree more!

On Twitter: @jazzauthor

On Instagram: @jazzauthor

On Facebook: debbieburkejazzauthor

Blog: www.debbieburkeauthor.com

Editing Services: www.queenestherpublishing.com


Recently VA Debbie posted her interview with me on her blog. If you’d like to read it, here’s the link: https://bit.ly/DebbieBurkethrillerwriter 


To paraphrase P.T. Barnum: “Say anything about us as long as you spell our name right.”

That’s D-E-B-B-I-E    B-U-R-K-E! 


Holiday note: Today is my last post for 2020 before the annual two-week break. Warmest wishes to the TKZ family for happy holidays. May you share this season with loved ones and enjoy it in good health! See you in 2021. 


 TKZers: Do you have a “name twin,” or “alter ego,” or “doppelganger”?


Please check out Tawny Lindholm Thrillers by the Debbie Burke from Montana.


True Crime Thursday – How Not to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner

By Debbie Burke


Photo credit: TheKohser CC by SA-3

Happy Thanksgiving!

In case you haven’t yet put your turkey in the oven, here are a couple of new variations on cooking poultry—one legal, one illegal.

The legal technique:

Instant pots are the current go-to appliance for many meals but I hadn’t thought about trying to cram a turkey into one. According to this blog, apparently, it is doable.

Since today is True Crime Thursday, I’m compelled to also include the illegal technique:

This case involves chickens rather than turkeys. But I suspect, if enough alcohol is involved, someone will eventually try this with the larger bird.

Last August, Eric Romriell and Eric Roberts, both of Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Dallas Roberts, of West Valley City, Utah, visited Yellowstone National Park. The three men are in their forties and fifties. Romriell is an ophthalmologist.

Photo credit: Clarence Alford-Pixabay

While there, they decided to cook dinner…by boiling two chickens in the hot springs at Shoshone Geyser Basin.

They were observed carrying cooking pots to a remote location. There, they put two whole raw chickens into a burlap sack and lowered them into the steaming water.

A park ranger responded to the location. When asked what their intention was, Eric Roberts answered, “Make dinner.”

The ranger probed further and inquired which one had come up with this idea. Roberts answered, “It was kind of joint thing.”


The article didn’t say but one guess is the “joint” idea was cooked up with the help of an unidentified adult beverage.

Earlier this November, the judge ordered fines of $540 and $1250 and banned the three would-be chefs from Yellowstone for two years.

No report what happened to the chicken dinner.


TKZers, what are your favorite culinary tips for Thanksgiving?


Today—and every day—I give thanks for the energetic, talented, and encouraging TKZ community. You make writing fun and I’m constantly learning.

Wishing everyone in the TKZ family a healthy and happy Thanksgiving!


The Perfect Word – Eight Qualities to Look For

by Debbie Burke


Image purchased from Shutterstock

I can now claim credit for contributing to a TED talk about the search for life on distant planets. Sounds impressive, right? 

My contribution?

One word.

Not an important insight. Not a blinding revelation. Not a ground-breaking development.


One word, and not a particularly important one.

But it was the right word.

Dr. Sarah Rugheimer, an astrophysicist at Oxford (whom I’m privileged to call friend) was selected to give a TED talk about her research into detecting alien life. While preparing her speech, one line she’d written bothered her. She sent it to me for suggestions.

The concept was complicated. The sentence was awkward and ambiguous with double negatives. It lacked parallel construction.

We spent the morning texting variations back and forth. We finally whittled it down to an easy-to-understand line except for one stinkin’ word—something.

Something in fact means nothing. It’s a convenient catch phrase that’s vague and can refer any number of things. We fall back on it in conversation because it’s easy and we’re too lazy to be specific.

But this talk was too important to take the lazy way out.

The discussion with Sarah made me think more deeply into how to find the perfect word. I’ve edited a lot but never really analyzed the process.

In early drafts, don’t worry about perfection. Use whatever words come to mind, even if they’re not very good. These tips are useful after you’ve completed the manuscript when you edit and fine-tune.

What qualities does a writer and/or editor search for that make up perfect word choices?

Here are eight I came up with:

  1. Specific

Take a common word like road. That doesn’t convey much to readers. To create a vivid picture in their mind, consider alternatives: lane, trail, byway, path, street, interstate, thoroughfare, boulevard, avenue, alley, artery.

All mean road but notice how each variation conjures a different type of road.

Laser focus on exactly what you want to express. She wore a sexy dress becomes The silk chemise clung to her body.

Keep narrowing your list of possible words until you hit on the word that exactly reflects what you want the reader to visualize.  

  1. Descriptive

Verbs are perhaps the most important word choices writers make because they push, shove, and elbow the characters into actions that advance the plot. To convey action vividly requires precise verbs.

Crime writers have particular vocabulary needs.

How many ways can you say kill, murder, slaughter, butcher, dispatch, smoke, stab, strangle, garrote, assassinate, terminate, rub out?

How about kidnap, abduct, snatch, capture, shanghai, victimize?

Or con, bilk, swindle, bamboozle, fool, defraud, sham, exploit, deceive?

Jim Bell recently discussed using a thesaurus. I use it often to find verbs that are vivid …as long as they’re not pretentious!

  1. Appropriate

I’m not talking about adult language or NSFW (not suitable for work), although those are important considerations for a writer.

Rather, is a particular word in keeping with the setting, character, and circumstances?

A rural farm locale has a different cadence and rhythm than a noisy, bustling street in Hong Kong.

A preschool teacher probably won’t talk the same way a construction worker does.

In the middle of the flashing strobes of a rave, the character likely isn’t meditating about the meaning of life…although the setting may prompt an existential question: What the &*$# am I doing here?

Choose words that are appropriate for each scene.

  1. Sensory

Smell, taste, and touch are often neglected yet they add great texture to storytelling.

Smell can be flowery, acrid, pungent, stinky, musky, fragrant, mouth-watering, decaying, cloying, wet-dog.

Taste can be bitter, tart, sweet, salty, peppery, sour, rotten, nauseating, rich, creamy.

Touch can be a slap, blow, swat, caress, stroke, punch, slam, hug.

  1. Evocative

What kind of mood do you want to create for different scenes in your story? If a scene is mysterious, chilling, and foreboding, word choices are far different from a cheerful, sunny, carefree picnic.

Is the character slogging through a sweltering, stifling, claustrophobic jungle?

Or hiking in crisp, bracing, autumn air?

Is the character melancholy over the loss of a loved one?

Enraged by a driver who cuts him/her off?

Quivering with anticipation for a reunion with a lover?

  1. Emotional

Saying Rose felt sad or Bill was elated is not good enough. Telling emotions rather than showing them makes flat characters and flat writing.

Readers seek a vicarious emotional experience in books. Our quest as writers is to make readers feel as if they’re inside the character’s skin.

No one wants to be pushed off a cliff in real life. But when they read about a character whose hands are torn by sharp rocks and whose feet flail to stop their free fall, they get to have that experience vicariously…without broken bones and traumatic brain injuries!

Music is an effective conveyor of emotion. Think of songs that make goosebumps rise or carry you back to a forgotten time or experience.

The goal is to find words that evoke emotional reactions as strongly as music does.

In this 2014 article from Frontiers in Psychology, authors Ai Kawakami, Kiyoshi Furakawa, and Kazuo Okunoya state:

“We consider musically evoked emotion vicarious, as we are not threatened when we experience it, in the way that we can be during the course of experiencing emotion in daily life. When we listen to sad music, we experience vicarious sadness.”

What do you want the reader to feel in any given scene? Heartened, hopeful, distressed, depressed, ecstatic, puzzled, disappointed, awed, furious, impatient, frustrated, terrified. Choose the emotion then find ways to depict that feeling through carefully selected words that show the emotion.

  1. Accurate

When using jargon, be sure to use it correctly. Readers are fussy about terminology, meaning writers have to be fussier.

Is it a gun, rifle, shotgun, carbine, pistol, revolver? If you slip up and call a magazine a clip, John Gilstrap will bust you.

Is your character going to arraignment, trial, hearing, sentencing, inquiry, tribunal, proceeding?  Is s/he being questioned, deposed, interrogated, grilled?

Is the job title a prosecutor, county attorney, state’s attorney, district attorney, solicitor?

Is the character facing jail time or prison time? One hint: jail generally indicates minor offenses for a term less than a year. Prison generally means felony offenses with sentences for more than a year.

Even if you think you know the meaning of a particular term, double check.

  1. Resonant

When you find the perfect word, it’s like hitting a high note or that special crack of a bat that sends the ball into the stands.

You know it when you find it.

And readers know because your story is on pitch and memorable.


My one-word contribution to Sarah’s TED talk?


See, I told you it wasn’t earth-shattering. But if we’d settled for a lazy, sloppy, meaningless word like something, listeners might not notice but they would be aware that something was off.


TKZers: Please share the resources and tricks you use to find The Perfect Word.


Before It’s Too Late – Six Tips to Speed Up the Pace

Image purchased from Shutterstock


By Debbie Burke


Recently I read an excellent post about flash fiction written by Nancy Stohlman on Jane Friedman’s blog.

One line leaped off the screen:

“Flash fiction has an almost desperate need to tell a story before it’s too late.

Before it’s too late? What does that mean? Too late for what?

See what Nancy just did?

Something terrible could occur and you better keep reading to find out what it is.

Although Nancy was talking about flash fiction, the same principles apply to longer works.

Thrillers particularly are known for the breakneck pace that grabs readers by the throat and drags them along as the story unfolds.

But other genres can also achieve that compelling, can’t-put-it-down quality.

How does an author capture that sense of urgency?

Try these six tools:

1. Threats

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote about the Sword of Damocles:

There was a sharpened sword above his head
That hung there by the thinnest simple thread.


Notice how just reading those lines makes you uneasy. That is the quality you want to provide for your readers.

Threats can start out minor but build to major.

Minor: being late to work.

Major: being late to work after the boss swore to fire you if you’re ever late again.

Minor: getting pulled over by a cop

Major: getting pulled over by a cop with a body in your trunk.

Threat level should increase as the story progresses. You might start with a petty annoyance. By the middle of the story, that annoyance has snowballed into a serious problem. At the climax, that problem has led to utter catastrophe for the character.

Threats need to maintain a consistent undertone of worry throughout the story. They may not always be front and center in the action but they should remain in the back of the reader’s mind, nagging and chafing like a popcorn kernel stuck between teeth.

Readers need to feel the thread is fraying and getting thinner with each chapter.

Is your pacing off or irregular? If so, the cause could be that a small threat occurs after a larger one. That causes a dip in the danger, a lessening of tension. Consider rewriting so each threat is progressively worse than the one before.

Exercise: Make a list of threats in your WIP. What is the overarching threat? What are the lesser threats?  Do they build one on top of another, escalating the danger?

2. What else can go wrong? 

Image purchased from Shutterstock

Each scene needs a purpose or goal for the character to work toward.

By the end of the scene, the character has either achieved the goal or failed.

Or, if s/he achieves the goal, that success leads to new unexpected complications.

At the end of each scene, ask yourself what else can go wrong?

Then make it happen.

Use failure or unexpected complications to propel them into the next scene.

Exercise: Analyze the ending of each scene. How did your protagonist fail? How can you make that failure even more devastating?

3. Juice up the action.

There’s a reason that chase scenes are a popular device in movies. Pursuits make watchers hold their breath at one moment and gasp at the next.

Just for fun, here’s the greatest car chase ever filmed. To skip the preliminaries, jump ahead to 3:30 for the screeching tires.

Unfortunately, car chases don’t translate well to novels. But the concept of “pursuit” can still be applied. Harking back to #2, the character is in pursuit of a goal.

Obstacles block his/her pursuit of the goal. They don’t have to be as dramatic as the near-misses, biker slide, or shotgun blasts in Bullitt. But they do have to thwart the character and prevent him/her from achieving the goal of the scene.

Exercise: What hurdles must your character leap over? Don’t have a hurdle? Invent one. When the character leaps, s/he can stumble and fall, physically or metaphorically.

A hint: The faster the action, the more the writer should slow down the description. This sounds counter-intuitive but check out a memorable slow-motion scene from The Untouchables.


Exercise: write this scene, using the same pacing and attention to detail that the camera did. In writing, can you include additional sensory details like smell, taste, and touch?

4. Employ the Hitchcock Factor

Photo credit: Andy Li, Unsplash

Alfred Hitchcock was famous for letting the audience in on secret knowledge that the character onscreen didn’t know.

Think of ways for the reader to know more than the character does. The character opens a door and descends the basement stairs, believing s/he is on the way to do laundry. But the reader knows the villain is lurking under the stairs.

To accomplish that, you might go into the antagonist’s viewpoint and reveal his/her plans to derail the protagonist. The reader knows but the protagonist doesn’t.

Exercise: In your WIP, do you let the reader in on a secret your protagonist doesn’t know? How?

5. Set the alarm

Photo credit: Elena Koycheva, Unsplash

The ticking clock is a standard device to ratchet up tension. But it doesn’t have to be a bomb planted under the baby’s crib, counting down to zero.

Set up a deadline the protagonist must meet. If s/he doesn’t, complications happen, leading to more grief that ultimately could cause him/her to lose everything.

Exercise: If your story doesn’t already have a ticking clock, can you insert one?

Before it’s too late!



6. Cliffhangers

Photo credit: Tobias Tullius, Unsplash

Cliffhangers don’t necessarily mean fingers slipping off the edge.

Unanswered questions are great ways to propel the reader into the next chapter. When you end a scene with a question, the reader must turn the page to learn the answer.

But finding the answer to one question isn’t enough. In the next chapter, the author poses more new questions. Again, the reader must turn the page to find answers that lead to…more questions. And so on and so on to the last chapter when the author finally answers all questions and resolves all problems…or not!

Exercise: Study your chapters. Do they end with questions? Can you think of more intriguing ways to tantalize the reader into the next chapter?


Try these six tools to grab your reader’s attention…before it’s too late! 


TKZers: Have you used any of these techniques? Do you have other tips to add? 


Debbie Burke uses the six tools in the Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart Series. Quotes from customer reviews: “Getting ready for bed? Don’t start this story!” “Kept me reading all night long.”  “Read it in one sitting.” “Impossible to put down.” 

Cover art by Brian Hoffman


First Page Critique – Murder for the Sleep Deprived



Please welcome today’s Brave Author who submitted Murder for the Sleep Deprived a dark comedy mystery.

Enjoy this excerpt then we’ll discuss.



Kevin Mills-Greene wasn’t a nice young man when he was alive.

He wasn’t exactly any nicer when he was dead, either.

The sun was beating down and reflecting off the pool in the Harding’s back garden, the sky a swathe of pale blue that was dotted with fluffy clouds, as the dappled sunlight fell through the leaves of the trees that brushed the edges of the garden.

Nice weather.

The sort of weather that the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be – “Ah, this is lovely.”

The weather was nice the morning after Kevin Mills-Greene was murdered, even if he wasn’t. The teenager was lying on his back, unblinking, unmoving, and utterly, entirely dead. To be fair, dead people aren’t exactly famous for moving and blinking. You mustn’t hold that against him.

The twitching of a curtain from inside the Harding household.

No blood-curdling scream.

Not yet.

The grass was soft and a luscious emerald shade – the entire garden practically radiating elegance, overlooking the corpse – even the small shed in the corner has neatly painted a shade of chestnut brown, the brightly colored plastic bottles creating as stained glass effect through the frosted windows as the sun reflected through. The burnished wood of a bench under the cover of a tree glinted in the sunlight.

One of those rare, perfect days; the kind of day that makes people forget to worry.

Perfect and worry-free, for everyone except Kevin Mills-Greene, obviously.

The buzzing of flies was a thick blanket of sound as they swirled like a rain-heavy cloud around the body, the twittering of birds in the trees overshadowed. The flies crept over his stiff limbs, his purpled, blueish skin mottled and paling.

Believe it or not, Kevin had been a relatively handsome young man.


The Brave Author categorized this as a “dark comedy mystery” and it certainly fills the bill. The ironic, understated humor has a tone that might be British. The idyllic description of the Harding yard and lovely weather contrasts effectively with the ugliness of the crime. A beautiful, peaceful setting is not where you expect to see the dead body of a teenager with flies feasting on him. That juxtaposition works well because it’s unexpected and surprise is a necessary component of humor.

Title: Good job! It caught my attention, which is a title’s main task. It establishes the genre and tone and piques the reader’s curiosity. Who’s sleep deprived and why? How does that connect to murder?

Time period: Now indicates a contemporary story.

First line: We’ve talked at TKZ about starting a story with a body.

It’s an attention grabber.

But it’s also a risk because the reader doesn’t know anything about the character yet. At this point, he is a two-dimensional being without personality, loves or hates, flaws or strengths. Why should the reader care if he’s dead?

However, I think the author pulled it off because of the intriguing opening line:

Kevin Mills-Greene wasn’t a nice young man when he was alive.

Why does that line work? It immediately raises a reader’s curiosity. Why wasn’t he a nice young man? Why is he dead?

What not-nice thing did he do that provoked someone to kill him? Who was that person?

There’s a hint at revenge, a very human, relatable theme for anyone who’s ever dreamed of retribution against somebody who wronged them. If this is a story of the ultimate comeuppance, what motive is behind it? How did an angry thought turn into murder?

The author took a risk and I think it paid off. I’ll keep reading to find those answers.

Point of View: The author took another risk here. The POV is omniscient which is difficult to pull off successfully. An all-seeing being floats above the scene and describes it, directly addressing the reader:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down…


You mustn’t hold that against him.

Many readers dislike when an author uses “you” and talks directly to the audience. Personally, I don’t mind it. But it’s a matter of taste. In the comments, maybe TKZers will weigh in if they like “you” or not.

Back to the omniscient POV. Here, it sets the scene and gives context that would not otherwise be known to the reader. The narrator informs the reader that Kevin was not nice. How does s/he know? Is the narrator the god of the story issuing divine proclamations with dark wit? Or will the narrator soon become a character in the play?

Omniscient is not a popular choice for POV because readers don’t identify with a detached voice. They generally want to get inside the skin of characters, to experience the senses and emotions more directly. Omniscient is also difficult to sustain through an entire book.

This may be an introductory chapter where the problem is laid out, similar to the stage manager in the play Our Town. In this submission, perhaps the narrator makes the introduction then steps back and turns the rest of the story over to the characters and their POVs. If handled well, that could be an effective technique.

Does this POV work for the first page? Because of the humor, I think mostly it does. But the author should be wary of trying to maintain omniscience through the rest of the story because of the reasons mentioned above.

Here’s my biggest problem with the submission:

Where’s the body?

The statement about Kevin’s death is immediately followed by a detailed description of the pool. That led me to believe the body was floating in the pool, like William Holden at the beginning of the classic film Sunset Boulevard.


But, in the sixth paragraph, Kevin is lying on his back. That stopped me because generally bodies float face down in water. That sent me on another false trail: why is he floating face up?

In the tenth paragraph, there is a detailed description of a lush lawn and a beautifully landscaped back yard.

Okay, does that mean the body is lying on the grass?

No, wait.

The next sentence reads:

…the entire garden practically radiating elegance, overlooking the corpse.

How is the garden overlooking the body? Does the garden have eyes? Or is the body lying below the garden? If so, where? What or who is overlooking?

The last paragraph is a good, vivid description of the thick cloud of flies around the body.

But…I’m still not sure where the body is.

The author led me to several assumptions that turn out to be wrong. After going down false trails, I feel disoriented. Now I don’t quite trust the author. Do I really want to embark on a journey deeper into this book when I’ve been misled?

I don’t believe this was intentional misdirection on the author’s part. More likely, s/he saw the scene vividly in his/her head but something got lost between brain and keyboard. It happens to all of us! 

Details:  The twitching curtain raises the reader’s curiosity more. Who’s behind the curtain? Why doesn’t s/he react to the dead body? A blood-curdling scream is foreshadowed. These all increase tension and suspense. Well done.

There are several passages of detailed description of the setting–the shed, colored bottles, the burnished wood bench glinting in sunlight. Do these details play a significant role in the murder? If not, readers may become impatient because they want to know more about Kevin’s death.

…even the small shed in the corner has [typo-should be was] neatly painted a shade of chestnut brown, the brightly colored plastic bottles creating as [typo-should be a] stained glass effect through the frosted windows as the sun reflected through [repeated word]. The burnished wood of a bench under the cover of a tree glinted in the sunlight.

How much detail is enough? How much is too much that bogs down the story? This is a tightrope for authors. Because the author does a good job seducing the reader with the title and first line, I hope these details have significance.

But, if they’re not important, would the space be better used to describe what killed Kevin? Gunshot? Rodent poison? Garden trowel? Unknown cause?

Beware of –ly: In one page, I counted nine modifiers that ended with –ly.

Exactly, utterly, entirely, exactly, practically, neatly, brightly, obviously, relatively

Perhaps it’s a stylistic choice but they occurred often enough to be distracting.

Precision of language: The word choices sometimes don’t work.

…dappled sunlight fell through the leaves

Fell doesn’t accurately describe rays of sun.

I already mentioned the garden overlooking.

The twittering of birds in the trees overshadowed

Does that mean the twittering overshadowed? Or the trees?

Small punctuation nit:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be – “Ah, this is lovely.”

 Normally, quotation marks are used for spoken dialogue. Since this line describes a thought, what if you use italics instead, like this:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be: Ah, this is lovely.

 Humor: For humor to work well, it needs to be tack-sharp and spot on target.

The narrator’s statement:

One of those rare, perfect days; the kind of day that makes people forget to worry.

Perfect and worry-free, for everyone except Kevin Mills-Greene, obviously.

Since Kevin’s dead, he’s free of worries, so the line doesn’t quite work.

Here are a couple of suggestions but you can do better:

Perfect and worry-free. Kevin was no longer perfect but his worries were certainly gone.


Perfect and worry-free. At least, until the discovery of Kevin Mills-Greene’s body.

Overall, the Brave Author did an excellent job of teasing us. The reader wants to learn why Kevin wasn’t nice. Who is looking out from behind the curtain? Why the lack of reaction to a murder?

The fixes are small: sharper wit, more precise word choices, and pinning down the actual location of the body.

I’ll be interested to hear how the author handles POV through the rest of the story.

I would keep reading. How about you, TKZers?

What are your suggestions for the Brave Author?


True Crime Thursday – A Little Birdie Told Me

By Debbie Burke



Photo credit: imtfi CC BY-SA2.0

The day is lovely and you’re out for a walk in the fresh air and sunshine. Homes, stores, buildings, and traffic intersections are far away and so are security cams. You think you’re by yourself (except for the smartphone in your pocket that constantly broadcasts your location).

There, up in the blue sky, you spot a dove circling above you as it floats and dips on wind currents.

Except…it might not be a bird.

Surveillance drones masquerading as birds have been around for almost a decade (that we know of!).

In China, the Northwestern Polytechnical University Dove Program has flown to new heights. Weighing in at seven ounces, with a wing span of 20 inches, the Dove drone is indistinguishable in size from a real bird. It is also nearly silent and virtually undetectable, even by radar.

According to a 2018 article in Business Insider:

“Each of the drones has a built-in high-definition camera, a GPS antenna, a flight control system and data link with satellite communication capability.”

The “birds” are lifelike enough to fool real birds. The same article reports:

“…these robotic birds can go undetected in the presence of other animals, with some birds even flying alongside them.”

China is using Dove drones for domestic surveillance and law enforcement.

According to the UK publication AI Daily:

“The AI [artificial intelligence] in the robotic bird allows it to fly completely unaided, whilst taking measurements allowing it to compensate for the wind and to avoid other objects. If the camera detects something, the bird can simultaneously interpret this data and it will lock onto anything it perceives to be ‘suspicious’.”

AI Daily goes on to say:

“Cameras will no longer just record video, they will autonomously analyse and interpret the footage live…

After a sufficient amount of this data has been inputted, [web platform] Ella’s AI will be able to autonomously detect criminal activity and will be designed to subsequently alert the police.”

In other words, a fake bird may soon make decisions whether or not someone is arrested for an alleged crime.



TKZers: What plot can you conjure where a “bird” is watching?

Can you think of ways to trick such surveillance? (asking for a friend)




No crime? No murder? What the heck is Debbie Burke doing in her new novella? Check out Crowded Hearts for only $.99 at this link.


Ten Tips on How (NOT) to Manage Your Email List


By Debbie Burke



A good, solid email list is the cornerstone for marketing books.


Those names are customers and potential customers who may buy your books.

As a business owner in the 1980s, I managed lists of more than a thousand customers and vendors. Using my trusty Kaypro 10, I knew how to create, organize, and keep those lists up to date.

But, as a 21st century author, did I apply those same principles to building a list of readers?

Uh, no. (Hangs head in shame)

Instead, I collected business cards and scribbled names on yellow legal pads and scratch paper. I threw them in a folder without any logic or organization.

Alphabetize? I’ll get around to it one of these days (hah!).

Imagine looking for a particular name when the order on the page read: Helen, Laura, Roger, Holly, Barb, Eli, etc. Talk about wasting time.

How I used to keep an email list

If I’d maintained a sloppy customer list like this (see photo) in business, I’d have fired me.

My writing career should have been treated as a business, not a muddled jumble. I knew such tasks needed to be done but always put them off because I’d rather write.

After publishing five books, I finally decided to create an organized, alphabetized Master Email List.

If you haven’t published a book yet, start building your list now because you will need it in the future.

The rest of you pros with published books already have your master email list, right?

Below are 10 items I SHOULD have done and didn’t. Or DID and shouldn’t have. Don’t follow my bad example.

Best practices and worst practices to build an email list:

1st – Good practice: collect business cards from people at conferences, classes, workshops, book club meetings, etc.

Today, with virtual events on Zoom, collect names and emails from the chat box of participants.

Bad practice: put those cards in a drawer and forget about them.

2nd – Good: at book appearances or discussions, always have a sign-up sheet for attendees’ names and email addresses. With Zoom, log names and emails of registrants and add to your Master List.

Bad: stick those sheets in a file and forget about them (see a pattern here?).

3rd – Good: when launching a new book, send announcements to everyone on your email list.

Bad: your list consists of names and emails scrawled on cocktail napkins, yellow legal pads, scrap paper, backs of envelopes, and the palm of your hand.

4th – Good: type your entire email list in a Word file or Excel spreadsheet. Alphabetize and number it.

Sidebar: how to alphabetize in Word. After years of using Word to write, I just learned this handy tip. To alphabetize, go to Home, go to Paragraph box, find A-Z. Click on that icon and a window opens (see photo). Click Sort by Paragraph, choose text, ascending, then click okay.

Voila, the names are alphabetized so you can easily locate them. Big time saver.

If you use Excel, here are instructions about how to alphabetize.


Alphabetize either by first name or last name, although last name is most common. Mine is alphabetized by first name because that’s how I remember people. Often I never know the last name of casual acquaintances.

However, first names can be a bit confusing. My list includes 5 Anns or Annes; 6 Barbaras (Barb, Babs); 7 Janets or Janices; 5 Karens; 10 variations on Catherine-Kathryn (Cathy, Katie, etc.); 6 Pats (Patrick or Patricia); 8 variations of Susan (Sue, Suzanne, Susie, etc.); 6 Terrys (male and female).

First names work fine for me but you may prefer to alphabetize by last names.

Use the method that’s easiest for you to track.

5th – Good: make a notation where you met the person, e.g. writing conference, book club, library appearance, etc. That helps when you want to tailor a specific message to a specific group (“Dear Book Club Friends”, “Dear Zumba Buddies”, etc.).

If you use Excel, enter those notations in their own column.

With Word, just tab to a blank space and make a note where you met.

Again, use the method that works best for you.

Bad: Depend on your memory. Was that “Jeff” from the continuing ed class or “Jeff” from sophomore year? Doesn’t work—trust me.

6th – Good: create subcategories within the main list, e.g. book club contacts, conference contacts, coworkers, writing colleagues, friends and family, old school buddies, etc.

Bad: Same caution about memory in #5.

7th – Good: tailor the message to each category. In other words, write in a different tone to coworkers than to your pals from high school.

Bad: send out an impersonal, mass email blast that smells like spam.

Special note: For critique buddies, beta readers, researchers, and consultants, always send a thank you message for their assistance and a gift copy of the book.

8th – Good: organize the Master List by name.

Bad: Organize the list by email address. In many cases, the email address gives no clue to the person’s name and the “search” function may not help you find who the address belongs to.

For instance, when I wanted to contact an old friend, Barry, I couldn’t locate him because his email handle is “Azuki,” which I didn’t remember.

Or worse, who the heck is “rawkiwi@xxx.com” and why didn’t I record his/her name? After serious digging through piles of paper, it turned out I’d met her at a bookstore signing two years ago. Her name was “Trish” and she’d specifically asked to be notified when new books are released—definitely someone who should be included on the Master List.

9th – Good: add new names and emails as soon as you receive them.

Bad: wait to update your list until you collect a big batch of names. If you don’t add them right away, you may lose the contact. Take, for example, the woman I met in the supermarket who loves thrillers and scrawled her email address on my grocery list…which ended up in the trash, gone forever. (Sigh)

10th – Good: Update changes to email addresses immediately and delete the old.

Bad: keep outdated email addresses so you’re guaranteed lots of bounce-backs.


Miscellaneous helpful hints:


How to number in Word: in Home, go to paragraph box, choose numbered list (see photo).

Now you know exactly how many people are on your email list. You may be pleasantly surprised that it’s more than you expected.

How to number in Excel: here are instructions.



Caution: The contact list in your computer or phone does not necessarily include everyone who should be on your Master List.

For Gmail, use their prompt system. Click on “Compose” and type the first few letters of a name. If you’ve ever sent or received an email using those initial letters, a drop-down list of names appears, up to six or seven choices.

Among those may be names you’ve forgotten about. That’s how I’ve caught many people who don’t appear in my contacts but should be on the master list.

Other email servers, like Yahoo, MSN, and Hot Mail, may also have ways to prompt but I’m not familiar with them. TKZers, if you know, please chime in.

The best practice of all:

No matter what system you use (Word, Excel, etc.), create your Master Email List in the format you’re most likely to keep up-to-date.


 In 2017, when my first thriller (Instrument of the Devil) was published, I sent out about 100 announcements.

Today, with five books published, my newly-organized email list numbers more than 300.

It took almost three days of concentrated effort to unsnarl my previous sloppiness. How much easier would the task have been if I’d properly set up the list back in 2017 then added to it?

Now that my Master List is done, adding a name/email address is a simple matter of opening that Word file and entering changes—takes 30 seconds.

Learn from my mistakes.

Start your Master Email List off on the right foot.


TKZers: Do you have a Master Email List?

What are your favorite tricks to keep the list organized?




Debbie Burke’s new novella, Crowded Hearts, is not a typical wedding story. Available FREE from October 13-17, 2020. Please check out the link here.


First Page Critique – The Recruiter

Photo credit: Thomas Quine, Creative Commons lic.


Please welcome today’s Brave Author who submitted the first page of The Recruiter for feedback. Enjoy the excerpt then we’ll talk about it.


The butt of the revolver smashed into my face, slicing open a half-inch gash above my left eyebrow. I pressed a hand to my bleeding forehead and cursed.

“You have a smart mouth,” Mr. White said.

“And you’re wasting my time,” I replied, feeling the sting of sweat in the wound. As soon as I pulled my hand away, I could feel the blood begin to pool again. In a few seconds it would trickle down and stain both my shirt and suit jacket a deep red.

Shit. I just had them both dry cleaned.

“Your time is my time,” Mr. White said. With his thick Eastern European accent, the line sounded more cartoonish than I bet he intended.

“Not until you pay me it isn’t. And for the past half-hour I’ve sat here and answered questions about everything from my shoe size to my favorite porn star.” I turned to the hired muscle standing behind me, the one whose gun now had drops of my blood on its handle. Guy was wearing Ray Bans even though it was 1:30 in the morning and we were inside an empty bar. Douchebag. “By the way,” I said to him, “my favorite porn star? It’s your Mom.”

This time the butt came down on the back of my neck. I almost passed out but bit my tongue until the gray spots in my vision disappeared. I spat a mouthful of pink saliva onto the dirty floor and sat up.

“I’m a thorough businessman,” Mr. White said as he twisted a pinkie ring between his thumb and forefinger. Another unintentionally cartoonish move. “And I don’t make deals with someone based solely on their reputation without asking some questions of my own.”

“Cut the shit. My reputation is the only reason your boy hasn’t blown my brains out all over this table and we both know it.” To that, neither man had a reply. “So if you’re done with the HR interview, let’s talk about why I’m sitting here, because it sure as hell isn’t for the company.”

Mr. White twisted his pinkie ring a few more times–gold, of course, and shiny–before he finally smiled. He nodded to Ray Bans and a black briefcase fell on the table in front of me. A thin cloud of dust from broken peanut shells and cigarette ash puffed up where it landed.


First off, congratulations to today’s Brave Author for an action-packed start. Nothing like the protagonist being pistol whipped to catch the reader’s attention.

Immediately following are a couple of great lines that firmly establish the genre as gritty and hard-boiled:

“In a few seconds it would trickle down and stain both my shirt and suit jacket a deep red.

Shit. I just had them both dry cleaned.”

Clearly, this ain’t the first rodeo for the as-yet-unnamed protagonist. For now, let’s call him Tough Guy or TG.

TG is no stranger to violence. In fact, he provokes it:

“By the way,” I said to him, “my favorite porn star? It’s your Mom.”

That earns TG another thump on the back of his neck.

The Raymond Chandler vibe predisposes me to like this page because Chandler is my all-time favorite author. The writing is crisp, clear, and error-free. The voice is strong and sardonic. The description is sparse but still paints a vivid picture of a grimy, low-end bar.

“A thin cloud of dust from broken peanut shells and cigarette ash puffed up where it landed.”

Good job of drawing the reader deeper into the story with action and unanswered questions. We want to learn who these people are, why they’re meeting, and what’s at stake.

We know Tough Guy isn’t tied up since his hand is free to wipe away blood. That raises more questions: Why does he tolerate being smacked around? Why does he bring more abuse down on himself? To prove his toughness?

Cops, private investigators, and fixers in 1930s and ’40s movies behaved that way and the audience bought it. But contemporary readers will wonder about TG. If he’s really that good, he could–and would–disarm Ray Bans after the first blow. Further, a pro would not risk unnecessary injury simply for the sake of hurling a snarky insult…even though the line about mom being a porn star is very funny. 

Here’s a possible different approach: TG baits Ray Bans with the insult about his mom, knowing the guy will retaliate. He’s prepared for the attack and takes the gun away, making RB look stupid in front of his boss. TG also makes himself look smarter and more competent to the reader.

Suggest you identify the protagonist on the first page by having Mr. White address him by name. Two possible opportunities: “You have a smart mouth, Mr. XYZ.” Or “Your time is my time, Mr. XYZ.”

A few small nits:

A revolver is generally perceived as a weapon from an earlier era. Semi-auto pistols with high capacity magazines are more likely to be today’s gun of choice for the well-armed thug.

Unless Tough Guy can see himself, he can’t know the gash is a half-inch long. Suggest you just use “gash” without the measurement.

“I could feel the blood begin to pool again.” Blood wouldn’t pool if it’s running down his face. Blood generally pools on a horizontal surface like a floor or table.

The blood on the gun butt is more likely to be smears than drops.

None of these issues is significant and all are easily fixed.

My biggest concern is the portrayal of Mr. White which veers into clichés. Mr. White’s thick Eastern European accent, pinkie ring, and stock dialogue have been done in countless books and films. The Brave Author even acknowledges that by calling him “cartoonish.”

Unless this is meant to be a satire, like Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), the author might consider a fresher approach to describing the heavy.

There are some great humorous lines.

“Guy was wearing Ray Bans even though it was 1:30 in the morning and we were inside an empty bar. Douchebag.”

“So if you’re done with the HR interview…”

Overall, this page is well written, strong, and compelling. I’m sure Brave Author will find a fresher way to characterize Mr. White.

The excerpt was a pleasure to read. It was also difficult to critique because I found so few problems. All were minor and readily fixable by this obviously capable writer.

A fine job, Brave Author! Thanks for submitting. Let us know when this is published.


TKZers: What are your thoughts on The Recruiter? Any ideas for the Brave Author? Would you keep reading?




Coming soon! Debbie Burke’s new novella, Crowded Hearts, will be FREE for a limited time. Watch for the announcement here at TKZ.





True Crime Thursday – How to Murder Your Husband

by Debbie Burke


This case sounds like an episode of Murder She Wrote.

Nancy Brophy Booking Photo

On June 2, 2018, Dan Brophy, 63, a chef and instructor at the Oregon Culinary Institute in Portland, was shot once in the back and once in the chest. Both shots went through the heart, killing him.

In September 2018, Dan’s wife, romance novelist Nancy Brophy, was charged with the murder of her husband of 27 years.

Nancy has been held without bail in Multnomah County Inverness Jail since her indictment. Here’s a link to her booking record.

In April 2020, her attorneys requested Nancy, now 70, be released due to danger from COVID 19. The judge denied the request.

Here is the State’s Memorandum in Support of a Denial of Bail.

The memorandum asserts the alleged motive is more than a million dollars in life insurance, policies which Nancy apparently sold to herself. She reportedly paid more than $16,000 in premiums to keep the policies current while falling $6000 behind in mortgage payments on the couple’s home.

Portland Monthly recounted the chronology of Dan’s murder on June 2, 2018:

[Nancy] had told police she was home when she learned something happened at the culinary institute the day her husband was killed. But a surveillance camera recorded her driving her Toyota minivan west on Jefferson Street, directly in front of the school, at 7:08 a.m.

At 7:21, Dan disarmed the school’s alarm. At 7:28, the surveillance camera again captured Nancy driving on Jefferson Street. At 7:30, Dan’s colleague arrived at OCI, and at 8, his body was discovered as students entered the kitchen.


The murder weapon is believed to be a Glock 9 mm handgun but it has not been found.

The state’s memorandum also asserts that Nancy owned a Glock 9 mm but a forensics expert did not think that particular weapon fired the fatal shots. However, before the murder, Nancy had purchased a different Glock barrel and parts on eBay, giving rise to speculation she swapped parts.

A search of Dan’s phone revealed a bookmarked article on their shared iTunes account entitled “10 Way to Cover Up a Murder.”

A short story written by Nancy entitled “How to Murder Your Husband” appeared on the blog SeeJanePublish in 2011. That site is not now publicly accessible.

The website Nancy Brophy Writer does not appear to have been updated since early 2018. The “About” page includes this passage:

I live in the beautiful, green, and very wet, Northwest, married to a Chef whose mantra is: life is a science project. As a result there are chickens and turkeys in my backyard, a fabulous vegetable garden which also grows tobacco for an insecticide and a hot meal on the table every night. For those of you who have longed for this, let me caution you. The old adage is true. Be careful what you wish for, when the gods are truly angry, they grant us our wishes.

Nancy Brophy’s trial is scheduled to begin September 28, 2020. Stay tuned.



Debbie Burke’s new novella, Crowded Hearts, is unlike her other thrillers–no crime, no murder, but lots of suspense. Crowded Hearts will soon be released in ebook for FREE to say “thanks” to loyal readers of Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart.

Cover design by TKZ regular Brian Hoffman.