About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. 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 – Sofa

Creative Commons usage

Today we welcome an Anonymous Author with a first page that takes place in an unusual location—the East Siberian Sea. Please enjoy this submission. My comments follow.

Title Sofa

August 2007

Overhead clouds cast pale grey shadows over the floating ice chunks adrift on the East Siberian Sea. The Wolf stood at the prow of a crimson, expedition vessel, inhaled the unpolluted air of the Artic, and wondered if this refreshing air existed anywhere else on Earth. He marveled at the inviting crystal-clear water imprinted with cloud shadows, and the magnificent ice shelf that erosion had sculpted into a piece of frozen art. The silence stirred something within him a memory of gentler times, peaceful times.

The Wolf, aka, Dimitri Volkov tore his eyes from the surrounding beauty of nature and focused on a drifting iceberg 100 yards in the distance. He gazed at the NASA Aqua satellite photograph of a massive iceberg floating off the shoreline. He raised his binoculars and zoomed in on his target, inspecting the surface of the immense mountain of ice. A sharp crack vibrated through the air. Startled, he watched as a wall of ice broke off the ice floe and crashed into the sea. It disappeared beneath the icy water and shot an angry spray of seawater hundreds of kilometers into the air.

Dimitri grabbed his satellite phone and punched in a number. “Zdravstvuj, “Its here, but melting,” he said, in Russian. He listened for a moment, nodded several times, and ended the call. He twirled his fingers in the air and pointed to the sea. A sleek Poseidon inflatable boat splashed into the water; The Wolf shouldered a mustard-colored, waterproof equipment bag and lowered himself over the side, jumping the last few feet into the rubber dinghy. He revved the engine and maneuvered the inflatable toward the iceberg.

As he approached the glacial mass, Dimitri noticed the iceberg cast a blue-green sheen, a dead giveaway; the iceberg was melting faster than he thought. He nosed the inflatable to the base of the berg, shut off the engine, and pitched the anchor overboard. He opened his equipment bag and snagged a pickaxe, ice drill, laser, clawed shoe cleats, and a spool gun. Aiming the spool gun at the iceberg, He shot an aluminum wire into the iceberg twenty feet above the waterline.

            The ice creaked, moaned.

Concern clouded Dimitri’s deep-set, black eyes as he glanced up. A crack appeared in the center of the blue-green haze.

Okay, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The setting with ice floes and an expedition ship in arctic waters is exotic and intriguing. But you need to spell Arctic correctly. I’m guessing this is the start of a thriller or Clive Cussler-style adventure about climate change and melting polar ice caps, with the potential for international conflict because of the geographical location, north of Russia near Alaska. That’s compelling.

However, the title Sofa doesn’t hint at anything like that. My first thought was couch? Not compelling. You’ll come up with something better, perhaps relating to the locale, the intrigue, or the conflict.

The second sentence begins with The Wolf. Right away, I thought that was the ship’s name because ship names are italicized while human names generally are not. Why introduce the character in a way that causes momentary confusion?

Instead: Dimitri Volkov, aka The Wolf, tore his eyes from the surrounding beauty…

Whoops, another hiccup. Eyeballs generally stay in their sockets unless someone tears them out. It’s the gaze or focus that can be torn from the surrounding beauty.

Your description is vivid and colorful, but inviting doesn’t feel like an accurate adjective for water that must be near freezing temperature. You do a good job with sensory detail–I can smell and taste the fresh bite of pristine air. Nicely done. His memory of “gentler times, peaceful times” hints that the present is neither gentle nor peaceful–good foreshadowing.

Strengthen the sentence even more by cutting the vague word “something”: The silence stirred something a memory within him, a memory of gentler times, peaceful times. 

Work on more precise word choices (details below). Improve the clarity of action so the reader can see exactly what is happening. Also cut repetitions of ice, iceberg, and icy. Here’s a possible rewrite of the second paragraph to address those issues:

The Wolf, aka, Dimitri Volkov, aka The Wolf, tore his eyes gaze from the beauty of nature surrounding him beauty of nature and focused on a drifting iceberg 100 yards meters in the distance. He gazed at compared it to the photograph he held in his left hand–a the NASA Aqua satellite image taken a year before of photograph of a massive the same iceberg floating off the shoreline. He raised his binoculars and zoomed in on his target, inspecting the surface. of the Although still immense, the mountain had shrunk significantly of ice.

[Paragraph break] A sharp crack vibrated through the air. startled him. He watched as a wall of ice broke off the ice floe and crashed into the sea. It disappeared beneath the surface, icy water and shot an angry shooting spray of seawater hundreds of kilometers into the air.

Watch out for switches between US and metric measurements. The iceberg is 100 yards away, then water shoots hundreds of kilometers in the air. One hundred kilometers equals 62 miles in the air. I’m guessing you mean meters, not kilometers.

Next Dimitri jumps the last few feet into the dinghy and shoots a wire twenty feet above the water line.

Incorrect or inconsistent word choices jar the reader. Suggest you stick with the metric system since presumably Dimitri is Russian.

Need to fix typos in the following:  Dimitri grabbed his the satellite phone from his belt holster and punched in a number. “Zdravstvuj, “Its it’s here, but melting,” he said, in Russian.

This excerpt has been written in fairly close third-person point of view (POV). Yet you deliberately withhold the other side of the phone conversation. That may lead to the reader feeling cheated since the close POV gives him/her the expectation of hearing responses from the person Dimitri called. If the plot requires the speaker to be kept secret (and it probably does), suggest you come up with a different technique to mask that information.

Clarify the action in the below examples:

Why does Dimitri nod several times? That doesn’t make sense because the listener can’t see him unless it’s a video phone, unlikely in 2007.

Make clear when Dimitri twirls his fingers in the air that he is signaling to deckhands and giving the order that they lower the inflatable. As it reads now, the dinghy appears to fall magically from the heavens.

Recommend you replace semicolons with periods. Semicolons belong in nonfiction, not fiction.

Calling him both Dimitri and The Wolf seems unnecessary because, at this point, the reader doesn’t know the significance of the alias or code name. Suggest you defer the nickname until later, for instance, when another character refers to him as The Wolf or it comes up naturally as the plot unfolds. Right now, switching between the two names seems forced and pretentious.

Dimitri first needs to start the dinghy’s engine before he revs it.

Snagged is a good verb but it doesn’t quite fit here because he’s removing a number of items from the gear bag. Snagged sounds more like grabbing one item on the fly.

The following should read: Aiming the spool gun at the iceberg, he…

You say the iceberg cast a blue-green sheen. I like the visual a lot but the verb cast implies a reflection on another object, like the surface of the sea. A paragraph later, you write: A crack appeared in the blue-green haze. Is the reflection cracking or is it the actual iceberg? Suggest you find a more precise verb than cast, perhaps emitted a blue-green sheen or glowed with a blue-green sheen.

Don’t need italics for The ice creaked, moaned. By putting the sentence in a paragraph by itself, you’ve already emphasized it without using italics unnecessarily.  

Concern clouded Dimitri’s deep-set, black eyes is a POV lapse. He can’t see his own eyes cloud or that they’re deep-set. Also black eyes raises a question for the reader. Does he have a pair of shiners? Or is the iris color a very dark brown?

A few paragraphs earlier, Dimitri just watched a massive wall of ice crash into the sea. Now he’s at the base of the same iceberg. It could come down on him. Wouldn’t his reaction to the cracking sound be more extreme than simply glancing up? If it were me, I would jerk back, haul up the anchor, and get the hell out of there!

I realize you’re at the end of the first page but Dimitri should have a stronger reaction to the danger.

Brave Author, you have a colorful setting and you’ve set up a promising conflict that could go in interesting directions. But your attention to detail needs work. Correct punctuation, accurate proofreading, and precise word choice are vital. Once you master those skills, you should have an exciting story.

Be especially careful with word choice. Remember Mark Twain’s admonition:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightningbug and the lightning.”


Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions can you offer our Brave Author?




Book Expo America 2018


The population of my Montana home town is around 25,000—about the same number of people I encountered during six days at Book Expo America (BEA) and BookCon in New York City.

BEA is the biggest annual convention of book publishers, booksellers, distributors, librarians, and authors in North America. With 840,000 square feet of exhibit space at the Javits Center and nearly 500 exhibitors, the show is so big that Publishers Weekly covers it with daily tabloid reports of 70-100 pages each.

The event is open to industry professionals, not the public. I was fortunate to be invited to check out the inner workings of the business. What a learning experience it was!

Big names draw big crowds. Celebrities launching new books stayed busy autographing advance reading copies (ARCs). Some wait lines rivaled Splash Mountain at Disney World. This year’s stars included a couple of guys named Patterson and Clinton who co-wrote a thriller, along with Nicholas Sparks, Sally Field, Barbara Kingsolver, Trevor Noah, and more.

Debbie Burke and Hank Phillippi Ryan


I was delighted to meet the charming Hank Phillippi Ryan at the signing of her new book Trust Me. A few weeks before, I’d watched Hank teach a great online class sponsored by International Thriller Writers (TKZ’s own James Scott Bell also taught a segment of the webinar).

One Librarian’s Bounty



Librarians from all over the country flock to BEA to pick up bagfuls of free ARCs to help them decide what to order for the coming year. Their biggest expense must be the charge for overweight checked baggage!

Important lesson to authors: librarians are your best friends. If librarians get behind your book, their efficient network can put millions of eyes on your work.



Not surprisingly, Amazon isn’t exactly the most popular kid on the BEA playground. The headline of one daily report read: “Amazon’s Actions Remain a Problem,” a quote by the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. The article talked about the impact of “lost jobs, stores, and uncollected taxes” due to the online giant.

The Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) had large showy booths on main aisles. In contrast, Amazon’s booth was in a distant corner, far from the entrance.

Since Amazon’s Kindle Press had published my thriller Instrument of the Devil, I trekked all the way to the rear of the exhibit hall to visit them. But when I got there…..

Black curtains surrounded all four sides of the booth. Through the gauzy fabric, I could see people moving inside. But there was no entrance.


Upon further investigation, I was told Amazon specifically requests a private booth for book publicists to meet with major media to pitch upcoming titles.


In addition to the Big Five, scores of indie publishers had booths, representing niche markets for religious, ethnic, political and social issues, health and fitness, food and cooking, short fiction collections. No matter what off-the-wall subject you imagine, chances are someone has published a book about it that shows up at BEA.

Children’s and YA book publishers were out in force, introducing thousands of new products: print books, graphic novels, puzzles, interactive 3D devices, plus tie-in merchandising like costumes, cuddly stuffed characters, sports equipment, etc. There were even quaint retro items like pens and stationary. Could writing actual letters be making a comeback?

Waiting for autographs from their favorite authors


BEA runs from Wednesday through Friday for industry pros. BookCon follows on the weekend and is open to the public. Thousands of readers crowded the Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday. They pored over new releases, waited in line for autographs from favorite authors…

BookCon 2018


…and posed for photos dressed up as popular book characters.

Older folks (like myself) often complain about young people zombie-walking through life with bent necks, mesmerized by their smartphones. Yet at BookCon, I didn’t notice a single example of that disconnection. Kids engaged with each other and were excited about new adventures in reading. Witnessing that gave me hope.



Audio book sales continue to grow by double digits, 30+% increase in the last year alone.

A major BEA sponsor for 2018 was Blackstone Publishing. In 1987, the family-owned independent audio publisher started producing cassettes in a garage in Ashland, Oregon. They tapped into the town’s renowned Shakespeare Festival for narrating talent.

Three decades later, Blackstone has expanded into a full-service publisher of print and e-books in addition to audio, employing more than 200 people. Still headquartered in Ashland, they’ve increased their presence in NYC with acquisitions editors, audio narrators, and a sound studio that’s second to none.

Blackstone also showed me firsthand what a debut author’s dream launch should look like.

Excited debut author Susan Purvis with the banner of her new book

Last April, I wrote about cadaver dogs and mentioned Susan Purvis’s upcoming memoir, Go Find, which Blackstone is publishing. At BEA, they rolled out the red carpet for Susan, including a 10-foot-tall banner at the entrance of the Javits Center.

At their booth, lighted signs showcased new releases. Book covers were displayed on video screens. During signings, representatives guided people through the waiting line, graciously giving out swag including postcards, book bags, and ARCs.

This contrasted sharply with some author signings sponsored by bigger houses where I wondered if cattle prods might be in use!


Blackstone’s good treatment of authors has resulted in them picking up bestsellers like Orson Scott Card, cozy queen M.C. Beaton, and mother-daughter fantasy writers P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

Despite BEA’s gargantuan scope, it offered opportunities to make personal contacts.

A couple of hours into the first morning, I sank down at a vacant table, already exhausted, eyes glazing over. A woman with a similar dazed expression sat across from me and we commiserated about feeling overwhelmed. Her name was Bee Kapitan, a designer from Vancouver. She had just received an Independent Publisher Award for her interactive e-book How To Say Cheese. I showed her the proposed cover for my new book, Stalking Midas, and she graciously made suggestions. She introduced me to the burgeoning world of interactive book design. We’ll be keeping in touch.

I’m learning from Umair Kazi (l) and Francesco Grisanzio (r)

Another valuable connection occurred with the Authors Guild. I knew of their excellent advocacy for writers but hadn’t gotten around to joining. At their booth, I talked with staff attorney Umair Kazi and digital services coordinator Francesco Grisanzio about rights reversion. Their guidance helped me make a career decision I’d been putting off. Needless to say, after their assistance, I signed up to become a member.

Another service they offer to authors is contract review. Before you sign a publishing contract, AG attorneys will review it and clarify the Byzantine maze of legalese. That alone is worth the $125 annual dues.

Authors Guild has also forged a communication channel into Amazon to register author complaints. Hopefully AG’s advocacy will temper Amazon’s review policies that, to authors, often appear capricious and arbitrary.

BEA gave me amazing insight into the publishing business. If I included all the adventures and interesting people I met in the Big Apple, this post would run into next week!

I’ll stop now and turn it over to TKZers for questions and comments.

A final post script: on the trip home I was privileged to meet a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. That story is too long to add here but it can be found on my blog.


Virtual Vigilantes – Revenge of the Scambaiters

Date: Sun, 06 May 2018, 01:41:36 +0100
Subject: Congratulation You Have Won !!
Hello Dear,
This is to officially inform you that a total of $ 3Million USD has been donated to you by Halliburton Company.

As you can imagine, I was thrilled to receive this message. Such a warm, gracious salutation. They don’t even know me but they address me as “Dear.” How touching.

If you have an email address (and who doesn’t have several?), you’ve probably received numerous 419 scams, named for the Nigerian criminal code section about fraud since many operations originate there and in West Africa.

For your listening pleasure, here’s a catchy tune about 419 scammers entitled “I Go Chop Your Dollar.”

Advance fee schemes are the most popular: the mugu (Nigerian Pidgin for “big fool”) is asked to wire money in order to receive lottery winnings or awards, like the $3MM from my generous friends at Halliburton. Or the fraudster spins a tale of the death of a loved one (often related to a dead dictator like Gadaffi) who’d secretly stashed millions, now inaccessible. If you, dear trusting victim, will help by sending money for bribes, bank fees, etc., the bounty will be split with you. No extra charge for misspellings and fractured syntax in their communications.

Most of us wisely hit “delete” and don’t give spam a second thought.

But there are virtual vigilantes who fight back by scambaiting. The Better Business Bureau defines scambaiting as “getting even with person or a business that has either scammed you or attempted to scam you.”

Some scambaiters tie up criminals in long, convoluted email and phone exchanges with the goal of wasting as much of the scammer’s time as possible to prevent them from targeting other victims.

However, more aggressive vengeance seekers, like 419eaters.com, engage criminals in a “cyber-sport” game to turn the fraud back on the perpetrators. Some scambaiters cooperate with law enforcement to ensnare con artists. Many, however, act as freelance vigilantes.

Initially, the scambaiter pretends to play along with the scheme. He regretfully cannot follow the scammer’s original instructions but offers an alternative plan. For instance, he may answer along these lines:

My dear Friend,

Even though I’ve never met you, I can tell you are a person of the highest integrity. I put my absolute faith in you as my honorable friend that you will guarantee I will receive my reward as soon as I transfer the required fee to you. In order to facilitate that, please fly to London at your earliest convenience where my bank is located, and check into the Ritz (or the Savoy or other expensive accommodations the scammer has to pay for). While you are there, my trusted advisor, the Barrister Dr. Mon T. Python, will meet with you to arrange transfer of my monies into your hands.

Most sincerely with undying gratitude for allowing me to be of service to you,

I. M. Sucker

Except there’s always a slight regrettable hitch…One delay follows another, always with sincere apologies, while the scammer runs up expenses waiting to collect from Mr. Sucker.

Another variation moves the delivery location from place to place, necessitating more travel, time, and cost, sending the eager scammer on a wild goose chase in pursuit of his elusive fortune.

In one elaborate scheme, “Shiver Metimbers,” a well-known scambaiter, strung along the scammer “Mr. Martins” for several weeks. Finally Shiver had a long conversation by cell (recorded and available for listening below) that he was on his way to the Western Union office to deliver the money. In the background, traffic noise indicated a busy urban street.

As Shiver claimed to be entering Western Union, a sudden, loud crash could be heard, along with screeching brakes and blaring horns. The cell remained on so Martins could hear screams of agony, arriving sirens, concerned police and emergency personnel.

Guess who the unfortunate fake victim was?

Poor Mr. Martins remained in limbo for several days. One can only imagine his dilemma. Should he stay, hanging on the chance he’ll still receive the money? Or cut his losses and return home empty-handed?

Finally the frantic Martins reached “Gladys Knight,” Shiver’s pip of a secretary (half the fun seems to be making up names of players). Miss Knight regretfully informed him that her boss had been tragically killed.

Even more tragically, the promised money got lost in the confusion.

In addition to wasted time and money, the scammer is often publicly humiliated as well. He may be required to send embarrassing photos as proof of his “true” identity to receive the promised money. Such photos become “trophies” on the scambaiter’s wall of shame, shared all over the net.

The Better Business Bureau and law enforcement strongly advise against scambaiting. Revenge against criminals can be dangerous. Even experienced scambaiters like Shiver Metimbers warn of the dangers. After all, these folks are criminals. They could wreak vengeance of their own if the scambaiter isn’t highly skilled at hiding his location and true identity.

This topic started plots swirling in my head. Elusive scammers lurking in cyberspace seeking hapless prey; angry victims trying to get back their money; even angrier fraudsters who’ve been suckered.

When I did a Google search for novels about scambaiting, I found none, only a compilation of scambaiting stories by Shiver Metimbers.

Hmmm. Is this an untapped reservoir for crime fiction?

To work, the setting would obviously need to be broader than protagonist and antagonist squaring off at dueling computers. Still the concept intrigued me.

What do you think, TKZers?  Have you read stories about scambaiting? Do you see potential for a new fictional trend?


Update: In last month’s post about cadaver dogs I mentioned a pending search for a skier who’d gone missing last February in Montana. A few days after my post, the mission was launched with dog teams brought from other areas. A couple of hours into the search, a Golden Retriever from Colorado located the skier’s body buried under avalanche debris. Here are more details: Flathead Beacon news story. After months of uncertainty, the family at last has closure.




The Kindle version of my thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $1.99 until the end of May.

Try a cheap thrill!


First Page Critique – The New One

Welcome to today’s brave Anonymous Author with the first page entitled The New One.


“I’m new,” the vampire said.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know she was a vampire.  I didn’t even know vampires existed.

So.  She’d come in off the street.  My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist.  I planned to do paperwork for a while.  I was standing at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman silently watching me.  I jumped involuntarily as she spoke.

“Dr. Gilder, I presume?”

“Yes.  I’m Carrie Gilder.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Office hours are over for today.  You should call the office in the morning and make an appointment.”  I started around the desk.  “Now, if you don’t mind—”

“Please.  It’s important.  I won’t be able to come back in the morning.”

I looked at her, appraising.  She was striking.  Tall, well dressed, elegant.  She radiated power and confidence.  I felt drawn in by her eyes, somehow.  Maybe that’s why, almost against my better judgment, I relented, as if I had no choice.  “Step into my office.”

I watched as she glanced around the room.  What a contrast, I thought.  My office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall.  And she’s so sleek and, what?  Cold comes to mind.  She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger.

She sat in the comfortable overstuffed chair opposite mine.  I was making notes.  Young woman.  Attractive.  Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black.

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

“Thank you?” I said, frowning.  Not something I usually hear from my patients.

“Okay,” I said with a shrug.  “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand, which I found surprisingly cold.  “I am Pica.  Pica Sharp.”  She then settled back in the chair.

I looked at her curiously.  “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I was 27,” she replied.

“Was.”  Odd way to say it, I thought, making a note.


“So, Pica, why are you here?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Well, you’ve got fifty minutes.”

She frowned.  “Yes.  I understand.  Cut to the chase, then.”


OK, let’s get to work. Upfront disclaimer: I’m not well-versed in vampire fiction. Please chime in if you’re more familiar with the genre. Suggestions are in blood red, naturally.

First, the title. While the line– “I’m new,” the vampire said.–piqued my interest, the title did not. The New One sounds vague and colorless—it gives no hint about genre, plot, character, conflict, or theme. Perhaps its significance becomes clear in the book but it doesn’t make a strong first impression on the reader.

A title must grab attention in a few short words, offering a tantalizing taste of what’s inside the book. A vivid cover may prop up a nondescript title. But in today’s competitive publishing world, authors need to make the strongest first impression possible, using every tool at their disposal. Search for keywords that relate to your plot: blood, vampire, undead, immortality, seduction, etc. Check out synonyms to trigger more ideas. Vampire fans, please add your suggestions to the list.

Anon, you quickly and clearly set up the situation: A psychiatrist or psychologist is alone in her office after hours when a vampire enters, seeking treatment. Carrie Lister’s normal world tilts.

The undercurrent of disturbance isn’t overly dramatic—no dead bodies, weapons, or explosions. Yet the reader gets the sense that Carrie’s life will undergo major changes because of her new patient. That is more than adequate to kick off an intriguing tale.

Now to the details:

“I’m new,” the vampire said.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know she was a vampire.  I didn’t even know vampires existed. A short, neat summary w/o wasting time on backstory. Well done.

However, upon re-reading, I wondered about that first line. It’s not clear when Pica actually says this. Kicking off a story with an attention-grabbing first line is important but if that bit of dialogue doesn’t actually occur, it feels like a bit of a cheat. A few paragraphs below, I’ve inserted the line in a different place.

Pica is a great vampire name. I’m guessing, Anon, that you also meant to refer to the disorder–pica–of eating things that are not normally considered food, like…uh…blood.

While you establish the setting and situation clearly, modifiers like “silently” and “involuntarily” are unnecessary. Adjectives and adverbs dilute the power of strong nouns and verbs. I also rearranged the order a bit for clarity.

So.  My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist.  I planned to do paperwork for a while.  I and was flipping through messages at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman silently watching me.  I jumped. I hadn’t heard her enter. I jumped involuntarily as she spoke. She’d come in off the street.

“I need to talk to you. I’m new.” [Inserting the “new” line here may eliminate the feeling of a cheat.]>

Watch out for the proper sequence of action and reaction. In the original, it sounds as if Carrie looks up to see Pica yet it’s Pica’s voice that startles Carrie. However, Pica is “silently” watching. Choose either sight or sound as the trigger: 1) Carrie looks up and sees Pica, then jumps, followed by Pica speaking (which is how I rewrote it); or 2) Pica says, “I’m new,” causing Carrie to jump, then she sees the unexpected visitor.

“Office hours are over for today.  You should call the office in the morning and make an appointment.”  I started moved around the desk to escort her out. “Now, if you don’t mind—”

You follow with a nice subtle reminder that she’s a vampire: ”I won’t be able to come back in the morning.”

Chop unnecessary verbiage. Watch out for words like “was” that often indicate passages that could be rewritten in a stronger way. Cut modifiers like “almost.” Below are several ideas to tighten up the prose:

I appraised her: looked at her, appraisingShe was striking, tall, well dressed, elegant.

Given two choices of how to express a thought, cut the weak and always go with the strongest:  Maybe that’s why, almost against my better judgment, I relented, as if I had no choice. “Step into my office.” Suggest you delete almost against my better judgment because the latter phrase I relented, as if I had no choice does a much better job of illustrating the irresistible pull the vampire has over Carrie. It also hints at her personality (more on that in a minute).

I watched as She glanced around the room.  What a contrast, I thought,.  My to my warm, comfortable office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall. You don’t need I watched as or the separate declaration My office is warm and comfortable… Instead, incorporate the description into Carrie’s ongoing thoughts.

And She’s so sleek and, what?  Cold came to mind.  She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger. The petal fluttered to the floor. Italicize cold to emphasize. I also added a small detail about the petal dropping to underscore Pica’s sinister quality.

She sat in the comfortable overstuffed chair opposite mine.  I made was making notes: Young woman.  Attractive.  Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black.

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

I frowned. “Thank you?” I said, frowningNot something I usually hear from my patients usually say. I shrugged. “Okay, ” I said with a shrug.  “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

Thank you” followed by a question mark makes Carrie sound uncertain, as if she’s not sure how to react. If you intend to show she lacks confidence, that works. But it struck me as odd because a psychologist has likely heard strange statements from new patients and would already have practiced responses.

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand. , which I found It felt surprisingly cold in the warm evening.  “I am Pica.  Pica Sharp.”  She then settled back in the chair.

Strong sensory details, especially touch, add to the mood. The reader not only sees Pica but feels her. Her cold handshake serves as more than simple description—it underscores the vampire theme and unsettling discomfort that Carrie experiences.

Choose a strong verb instead of modifying a weak one. I studied her. looked at her curiously.  “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

She replied, “I was 27.” she replied.  For more impact, place the punchline at the end of the sentence.

“Was?”  Odd. I made way to say it, I thought, making a note. Nice hint of vampire immortality.

The style is minimalist and understated but maybe too understated. First person POV gives an opportunity to showcase a captivating, distinctive voice. However, Carrie’s tone sounds bland and clinically detached. I suggest you exploit the first person voice to give more hints of her personality under the professional demeanor.

Read Jim Bell’s VOICE. His terrific examples show how a character’s background colors her attitude and reactions in ways that don’t slow the story’s action.

Below are some thoughts that might trigger ideas to add depth to Carrie’s attitude.

Is she inexperienced and a little unsure? Is she a sincere healer who believes she can help patients? Or a burnout case putting in her time? Is she a seasoned old hand who’s heard it all? All, that is, except for a patient who’s a vampire.

Why does she make an exception to see an after-hours patient? Is she bored with her life and this piques her interest? Does she need the money? Maybe she has nothing to go home to. Kids are grown and moved out. Or she dreads going home to her mate because he’ll be drunk again.

Why does she succumb to the vampire’s will? What in her character makes her vulnerable to Pica’s allure?

Obviously, Carrie’s full background and experience shouldn’t appear in the first page but her voice must hint at why she is unique and why the reader should turn the page. Carrie must be interesting enough that we’re compelled to follow her journey, the same as she is compelled to listen to this mysterious patient outside normal working hours.

Anonymous Author, you did a good job of orienting the reader to your story world. You present the situation, set the scene, introduce two major characters, hint at the conflict, and raise questions. If you fully exploit the first person POV to amp up Carrie’s voice, you’ll be on your way.

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions can you offer our brave Anonymous Author?


For a cheap thrill, my book Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $1.99 during May.



Cadaver Dogs – The Nose Knows

Gruesome warning – The following contains graphic details about cadavers.

Sage on a water search
Photo courtesy of Stacie Burkhardt

On a bright March day near Anchorage, Alaska, Stacie Burkhardt lifts the lid of a chest freezer in a barn. With gloved hands, she picks up an object wrapped in plastic that’s the size and shape of a deer haunch but it’s not. “This is Revlon,” she says, pointing out perfectly manicured fingernails. Underneath lies a foot which Stacie also grabs. “And this is Tootsie.”

These are not animal parts but human.

The smell from the freezer makes Susan Purvis gasp and pinch her nose, even though she and her search dog Tasha spent a decade in what she calls “finding the stinky”—recovery of bodies.

Their dark humor might sound disrespectful but is necessary to cope in their grim profession.

Their mission: train dogs to help solve crimes and bring closure to grieving families. Both have risked their lives to recover the dead.

Tasha searches avalanche debris
Photo courtesy of Susan Purvis collection

Susan and Stacie are teaching a two-day specialty course in avalanche rescue and HRD—human remains detection—to twenty teams of search dogs and handlers from as far away as Juneau, Bethel and Fairbanks. All are volunteers and work closely with the Alaskan State Troopers, the law enforcement agency that oversees Search and Rescue missions.

During exercises, Tootsie and Revlon are hidden in the snow in the remote Talkeetna Mountains for the dogs to find and alert their handlers.

Sun dazzles on deep pristine snow while the dogs bark and jump, eager to start the hunt. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Despite the gruesome quest, the search is fun, playful, and adrenaline-fueled as shown in TV coverage.

Twenty-three-years ago, Susan had a goal to train her black Lab puppy Tasha as an avalanche dog to save lives. But reality intervened. Susan recalls, “I didn’t plan to make a career out of finding the dead but that’s how it happened. Missions may start as rescues but most often wind up recoveries. At that point, I just wanted to bring missing family members back home.”

In 2001, Susan and Stacie met at a cadaver dog boot camp led by legendary trainer Andy Rebmann. There, dogs learned to find remains on the ground, hanging aboveground, buried, and hidden in objects. They practiced with samples as small as a tablespoon because, in real-life situations, remains can be scattered and tiny: bone fragments, teeth, blood, and adipocere (the post-mortem waxy tissue formed by anaerobic bacteria).

In her own home freezer, Susan kept “Mr. Nub,” a severed finger, along with his tooth, and blood-soaked rags that were the remains of “Kimmy” (clearly marked “Biohazard”) as training aides for Tasha.

According to Andy, 80% of training is human and 20% is dog. “If you’re having problems with your dog,” he says, “look in the mirror.” He wrote Cadaver Dog Handbook – Forensic Training and Tactics for the Recovery of Human Remains, the definitive reference guide in the profession.

Specific words are used to command the dog, such as Find Fred, Mort, or Decomp. The dog’s alert signal can be: eye contact, bark, or lie down. A passive alert is preferred in crime scenes so the dog doesn’t disturb evidence.

Susan recalls a case she worked where a murder victim had been shot, chopped up, burned, then buried under a ton of landscape stone. Tasha’s avalanche training taught her to dig to uncover victims but, in this situation, digging was prohibited. Susan worried her dog might violate that rule but she alerted to the location without digging.

However, Tasha broke the number one rule—she found a small bone and proudly pranced around with it in her mouth, tail wagging. She was forgiven because she found evidence that professional investigators had missed the day before.

Killers may think they can outsmart a dog by hiding and masking the scent with extreme measures like wrapping the body inside an animal carcass. “But the human body is constantly decomposing,” Susan says, “and the dog always knows. That’s why we train for every situation, under every condition, and with every stage of human decomposition.”

Water search guided by Sage
Photo courtesy of Stacie Burkhardt

Stacie recalls a mission on the Pilchuck River for the remains of a murdered female. In the initial search, a trailing dog was able to follow the victim’s fresh scent and locate her lower extremities. Teams searched for the next few weeks but conditions – “the decomp” – wasn’t right. Finally Sage, Stacie’s cattle dog-Lab, caught a whiff and swam across the river, muscling against the current.  Her alert confirmed she wasn’t just taking refuge on a stack of rocks in the river. She was standing on a grave. Even though the victim had been found, the case remains unsolved.

How sensitive is a dog’s nose compared to a human’s? Humans have six million olfactory receptors. Dogs have 300 million receptors. What humans see, the dog smells.

Scent cone

Scent is strongest at the source but water, wind, and terrain move it in a fan shape, called the scent cone. The farther away, the weaker the scent.

Humans shed “rafts,” dead skin cells mixed with bacteria, at the rate of 50 million rafts per second. One-third fall to the ground and two-thirds rise to float in the air. Susan likens it to the character Pig Pen in the Peanuts comic strip, surrounded by a cloud of debris. Each individual gives off a unique scent.

Skin raft



Underwater recoveries are the most difficult. According to Susan, “Currents, temperature gradients, and surface wind can move scent any which way, making it difficult to locate the source.”

For water work, handlers submerge a cage or weighted PVC pipe containing remains to simulate a drowned victim.

In underwater searches a cage protects human remains.
Photo courtesy of Stacie Burkhardt

“Many people don’t realize a dog can locate the scent of a drowned human,” Stacie explains. “The dogs pick up the rising scent after it breaks the water surface, which can be quite far from the subject depending on the wind and current.” Body oils may also gleam on the surface closer in. The handler reads the dog and the conditions to direct the boat and solve the scent puzzle.

Stacie recounts a search for a missing canoer in a local lake: “A newly-acquired sonar was deployed first but soon after came a request to launch the dogs. The conditions were constantly changing but by marking the dog alerts on the GPS and noting the wind direction each time, we were able to narrow down a location. I chuckle because the divers told me my #1 on the map was right where the victim was found, thirty feet down. Dogs 1, Sonar 0.”

Despite popular lore, no particular breed has a corner on keen noses. Stacie and Susan have worked with Labs, Cattle Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Brittany Spaniels, Standard Poodles, German Shepherds, Duck Tollers, as well as mutts. Temperament is more important than breed.

Qualities to look for in a search dog:

  1. Is it friendly to people and other dogs?
  2. Does it crave human attention and want to please?
  3. Will it retrieve a favorite toy despite barriers, obstacles, and uneven surfaces?
  4. Does it love the hunt? 

Drive is a term often used by handlers. Dogs must have a high drive to hunt, search, eat, and play. This doesn’t necessarily translate into a well-mannered pet.

A dog needs to be closely bonded to the trainer but independent enough to follow the scent. Human-canine teams must be tuned in to each other’s signals. Even the slightest nuance in behavior or expression can mean the difference between life and death.

Not all search teams have the temperament to learn HRD. Susan says, “You can screw up a dog if they get confused about the scent of death because of the handler’s negative reaction to it. The process has to be fun for the dog.” The reward is chasing a favorite toy, playing tug of war, or food.

After two days in the Alaskan sun, Stacie lifts the freezer lid and replaces Tootsie and Revlon until next time. Susan and Stacie high-five each other and smile at another successful session—twenty dogs trained, no one injured.

And already there’s another mission poised to launch for a skier in Montana who went missing three months ago….

To read more about Susan’s adventures with her search dog, her memoir Go Find is available for pre-order and will be published in October. www.susanpurvis.com



Book Clubs – The Human Touch in Marketing

Today, algorithms determine the most minute details of our buying habits, down to the finer points of the dental floss we prefer (waxed or unwaxed, plain or minty). Advertising is a constant blitzkrieg of spam, pop-ups, and phone alerts. Those ads are specific, focused, targeted…and totally impersonal.

For all the information that Google, Facebook, and Amazon collect about us, Alexa’s robotic voice will never replace that of a trusted friend who enthusiastically says, “You’ve got to read this book I just finished!”

In bygone days of the last century, the friendly clerk at the neighborhood bookstore introduced customers to new authors s/he knew they’d love. Back then, it was called “hand-selling.” Such word-of-mouth recommendations launched many unknown books that went on to become bestsellers. I, for one, miss those days.

Today, with a billion books competing for attention, how does an author make a personal connection with readers?

Book clubs provide that opportunity.

Serendipity led to my first appearance as the featured author at a book club. While on vacation in Florida, I reconnected with a Zumba class I hadn’t seen for a year. In catch-up conversation, I mentioned my novel had been published. Joan said, “I’m in a book club. Would you like to speak to us in two weeks?”

Would I??!!

In another bit of luck, Amazon had put the Kindle version of my novel Instrument of the Devil on special for 99 cents during that month. Thanks to the upcoming meeting and people talking about it at Zumba classes, sales experienced a nice spike.

On a Friday afternoon, over drinks and snacks, I met eleven accomplished, professional women from their mid-50s to mid-70s. I knew several from Zumba but most were strangers.

Here in front of me sat the exact people I had in mind as I wrote the story.

And, better yet, they were excited to talk with the author whose book they’d just read.

Book club feedback is solid gold. These are real customers who buy books, not just looky-loos. They constantly browse for new works. They know what catches their interest and keeps them up late, as well as what bores them or turns them off. Most of all, they know what makes them click the “Buy Now” button.

These readers were willing to share their reactions with me—a priceless gift for a writer building a fan base.


If you’re an author in search of book clubs, how do you find them?

A Zumba class might not be the first place you’d think to look, but that’s where I’ve gained followers in Florida, Canada, and Montana. Serious readers can be found at work, on the golf course, at your children’s school activities, at Bible study, while volunteering at the animal shelter. At the next gathering or party you attend, ask if anyone participates in a book club. Chances are the answer will be yes.

In my little Montana town, a local microbrewery hosts a regular reading group–Books and Brews. Why not?

Google: “book clubs near me.” Meetup.com is a great clearing house of specific interest groups. Narrow the search by geographical area, genre, and age range. In the greater Tampa area, I located at least two dozen clubs within twenty miles of our vacation spot.

Many more groups exist under the radar of the internet or meet privately.

Visit the library, colleges, and book stores (if you can find one!). Mention you’re an author who’d like to meet with book clubs. Leave business cards with them so groups can contact you.


Once you hook up with a book club, how do you prepare?

Generally, members read your book before you meet them. If they haven’t, practice your fascinating story summary on them, but don’t give away the ending.

Many readers use Kindles or devices, but some still prefer a print edition, which I offer to groups at my cost. At this point in my career, I’d rather build a foundation of loyal readers than worry about a few bucks. Check your contract to make sure that’s permissible.

Expect FAQs: How long did it take to write? What sparked the idea? Did you make up the characters or are they based on real people? Are the sex scenes autobiographical? Here’s your cue to joke about diligent research.

The question you hope they’ll ask: What’s your next book about? If they enjoyed your first book, they’ll be eager customers for your next one.

Readers love insider knowledge. Give them a sneak preview. They might even agree to be your focus group.

Before meeting with the Florida club, I’d been toiling over loglines and blurbs for Death by Proxy, the unpublished second book in my series. Those can be tougher to write than the novel because the author is too close to his/her own story. Input from your critique group or beta readers, while valuable, is limited because they already know the plot.

You want to seek  out the spontaneous reaction of random customers skimming through book descriptions on Amazon.

I asked the ladies if they’d be interested in hearing my proposed blurbs.

Unanimous answer: “Sure!”

They listened to several choices then voted for the one they liked best. Of course, that’s the one I’ll use.

I also read them the opening pages of the story and gauged their reactions. Was it clear and understandable? Did they get lost? Did they laugh in the right places? Were they intrigued enough to continue?

If their reactions are less than enthusiastic, seize that opportunity to ask what specifically turned them off. Were they confused? Bored? Did they find a character dull, flat, or unlikeable? Ask their opinions about your cover. You might find it’s time to freshen the design.

This is not the time to get defensive. Even if you disagree, give their opinions serious consideration.

After all, they are your readers, the most important people in your writing career.

An author has no way to determine why an anonymous browser on Amazon skipped over one book and bought another. But the book club will tell you. Listen carefully because they’ll give valuable feedback that’s impossible to get otherwise. 


What to bring when you meet a book club:

A smile and a friendly manner so they feel comfortable asking questions. If you’re shy or nervous, learn to overcome that. A stand-offish, aloof author makes a poor impression.

Business cards and swag if you have it–bookmarks, pens, etc.

A sign-up sheet to collect contact information to notify them of upcoming books, appearances, etc.

A signed print copy for the host if you meet at a home.

Do a giveaway. Hold a drawing or contest where the prize is the print edition of your book, or a gift certificate for your next book. Make your guest appearance fun and they’ll remember you.


If you can’t meet in person, try other options:

Skype or Facetime allows an author to speak to book clubs anywhere there’s an internet connection.

Include reading group discussion guides at the end of your books. Here are some samples.

Include a special book club link on your website. Engage readers as described in this article from the Alliance of Independent Authors.


As I bid the Florida book club goodbye, Mary, the Zumba instructor, hugged me and said, “I can’t believe I met a real author.” I assured her that she’d earned far more money from Zumba than I ever would as a writer.

But Mary’s comment made me think about how readers view authors. As we toil at our computers, enduring years of frustration and rejection, our lives don’t feel very glamorous.

But the club taught me that readers are excited to meet the person behind the book they just read. They’re interested in the journey, the setbacks, and the triumphs. They like knowing the inside scoop. If their input helps shape your next book, they’re invested in it.

In an impersonal world, humans still crave connection. Book clubs give writers and readers the chance to make that connection.

As Bruce Springsteen sings:

I just want someone to talk to and a little of that human touch.



If you belong to a book club, have authors made personal appearances at meetings? Did that influence you positively or negatively?

If you’re an author, have you spoken to book clubs? What was their response?



I’d love to talk about Instrument of the Devil with your book club, whether in person, by phone, or Skype. Contact me here.


First Page Critique – Topher and Lucy

Another offering from a brave Anonymous Author. See you on the other side.

Topher And Lucy


You lunge, and strike. Three rapid-fire hits. Splintering wood. Three dents in the bathroom door. Your mother’s voice, coming from the living room, shrills in your ears. You move into the hallway. Muscles taut, nostrils flaring and collapsing with your sucked-in-pushed-out breaths, your hands are curled, the knuckles of the right starting to swell. Your eyes lock on the hall wall just as she steps between it, and you.

Quivering, you balance on the balls of your feet. Like a prize-fighter, itching to dance that half step forward and smash your balled fist into the flesh and bone of the face in front of you. You could put that head through the gyproc. One quick, hard punch. She’s daring you to do it. Just like she dares you all the time. Step out of line so I can throw you out. That’s not what she says, but it’s what she means. Breathe! You won’t hit her. Hurt her, you’ll have the cops to answer to, and you’re already way out of line. How did that happen? You in bed, her face over yours, screaming, Where were you last night? I don’t care if your head hurts. Get up! Then she dumped water on you.

Her mouth moves; sound rings in your ears. Get out! she says.

Fuck! You knew she’d do that. You shout, If I go I’m never comin’ back.

I won’t live with this kind of temper, this kind of threat, she says.

You’re gone, cursing her, shaking your bruised hand. Fuck you, mom. You don’t know a thing! Do you hear me? Fuck You!


Lucy leans against the wall beside the door, hearing Topher rant. Then, the crack of more wood breaking—the garage, or the barn, she thinks. It is not an unexpected sound. In a few minutes there may be tears on her part, self-recriminations, regret. Right now she’s numb. Then, relieved. He’s out the door. He’s cost her so much lately, more than she can pay.

Minutes later, her mind wakes up. The earthquake fund. He’s taken it before.

She runs out to the feed shed, checks the freezer where they store the earthquake kit. The shed’s never locked, the freezer’s not locked when they’re home. If an earthquake hit, keys could get lost. The cash-box key’s inside the zippered pillow-pouch of Harvey’s sleeping bag. The money’s gone. Of course.


Today’s Anonymous Author leads with a hard right jab. You certainly grabbed my attention with an explosive, violent character who’s a half-breath away from knocking his mother through a wall. The action is fast and vivid. The conflict is immediately laid out—an out-of-control raging young man (I’m presuming he’s young) and an at-her-wit’s-end mother throwing him out of the house.

In 400 words, you’ve tackled an ambitious task of introducing two clashing characters, each in their own POV.

You’ve further challenged yourself by writing Topher in the unusual second person POV, always a risky proposition. However, I think you pull it off well in the first page. This angry young man is dangerous, barely maintaining control. By using “you” instead of “he” or “I,” you’ve showcased his alienated, fractured personality. He thinks of himself as “you,” an entity separate from himself. I’m curious if Topher remains in second person POV throughout the story.

You carry his psychological quirks even further. He disconnects from the horrific act of wanting to punch his mother by instead referring to the flesh and bone of the face in front of you. You could put that head through the gyproc. He’s objectified her into detached body parts: the face, that head. Chilling.

Another scary aspect is his ability to justify his violent rage by claiming She’s daring you to do it. Just like she dares you all the time. Her peril is real and terrifying.

Yet, he’s oddly fearful of being thrown out of the house, which suggests Lucy has a higher level of power over him. That sets up an interesting dichotomy—his physical strength vs. her superior position. I’m guessing he’s a juvenile who’s still under parental control. While he chafes at that, he’s also scared of being out on his own.

Then you flip into Lucy’s head. You say she’s numb but she has enough presence of mind to know she will have a delayed reaction in the near future. This seems realistic for someone who’s lived under ongoing violence for quite a while—just get through it, get the crazy kid out, and break down later. But she is worried about him stealing her stash of money, which he does. That suggests the family has serious financial problems if she’s so dependent on that.

The earthquake fund introduces another layer of instability (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Where do they live that they find it necessary to set aside money and leave the shed unlocked in case the key gets lost in an earthquake? Although my husband and I used to live near a major fault line in California, we never had an earthquake fund. I want to learn where this scary place is but I’m willing to wait a little longer.

Gyproc was not a familiar term so I Googled it. It’s a gypsum board/drywall material that’s used in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, but apparently not common in the U.S.

Another clue this story might be set outside the U.S. was the lack of quotation marks around dialogue. Depending on where you market this, you might consider using American-English conventions of grammar and punctuation.

For example:

“Get out!” she says.

You shout, “If I go [add comma], I’m never comin’ back.”

“I won’t live with this kind of temper, this kind of threat,” she says.

Here are some small nits:

Is the title Topher And Lucy? If so, you can do better. At first glance, from the whimsical-sounding name of Topher, I thought it might be a children’s story, which obviously it didn’t turn out to be.

Skip the comma in the first sentence: You lunge and strike.

Splintering wood doesn’t match dents in the door. When wood splinters, it generally leaves sharp, ragged edges because of the grain. Dent seems more appropriate to metal or a surface that, when struck, remains largely intact but with an indentation.

The image of nostrils flaring and collapsing and sucked-in-pushed-out breaths is a fresh way to describe hard breathing. Nicely done.

Your eyes lock on the hall wall just as she steps between it, and you. Even though eyeballs can’t literally lock, that usage is common, although incorrect. However, if you still choose to go with it, consider that eyes usually lock with other eyes, not with an inanimate object, like a wall. Maybe instead: Your stare drills into the wall.

Hall wall is an accidental rhyme that doesn’t read well. Also it seems odd that he would be looking at the wall rather than Lucy. If it’s because he can’t bear to face her, maybe rewrite to show that. Your stare drills into the wall so intently that you almost expect to see two round holes in the plasterboard. Instead, your mother’s face appears, right in the line of your aim.

Step out of line so I can throw you out. That’s not what she says, but it’s what she means. These sentences capture the skewed communication between mother and son. Consider putting Step out of line so I can throw you out in italics to emphasize that’s what he imagines she is thinking.

In the following, I added a clearer attribution and changed dumped to dumps to keep tense consistent. Also suggest you rework the paragraphing:

Breathe! You won’t hit her. Hurt her, you’ll have the cops to answer to, and you’re already way out of line.

How did that happen? You in bed, her face over yours, [added] and she’s screaming, “Where were you last night? I don’t care if your head hurts. Get up!” Then she dumps water on you.

Semicolons belong in nonfiction, not fiction. Replace with a period.

Again, if you’re writing for an American audience, adopt quotation marks around dialogue. And fix the capitalization in the following:

“Fuck you, Mom. You don’t know a thing! Do you hear me? Fuck you!” Mom is used as a proper name, therefore capitalized. You might be attempting to show emphasis by capitalizing You, but the epithet followed by an exclamation mark makes the point.

Lucy leans against the wall beside the door, hearing Topher rant. Use this opportunity to ground the reader a little more in the setting. Lucy leans against the kitchen wall beside the back door, listening to Topher rant.

Minutes later, her mind wakes up. I think she’d remain aware of where Topher is until he leaves and the danger is past. Then she can zone out.

Maybe instead:

It is not an unexpected sound. Neither is the too-high revving of the motorcycle’s engine and the crunch and ping of gravel as he pops a wheelie out the driveway, down the road.

After the engine noise fades away, she allows herself a normal breath, a few moments of silence. Peace.

Then her muscles tense again.

The earthquake fund.
He’s taken it before.

For dramatic impact, suggest you make the last two sentences their own paragraphs.

The money’s gone.

Of course.


Anonymous Author, you’ve done an admirable job on your first page. You dug deep into the heads of two troubled characters, hinted at a threatening setting, and kicked off a chilling conflict that promises future violence. This story appears to fall into the Domestic Suspense or YA genre, with two narrators who may be both unreliable and unsympathetic. I don’t have an emotional connection yet with either one, except to feel sorry for Lucy. But I am curious to learn if Topher’s hatred toward his mother is justified.



TKZers, what do you think about Topher and Lucy? Would you turn the page? Are you engaged with these characters? Where do you think this story is going?


The first page of Instrument of the Devil went through TKZ‘s grinder and came out much improved from readers’ insightful comments. It became page 2 instead!

I highly recommend writers embrace this opportunity for honest, constructive feedback.









First Page Critique – Cherry Bomb

Writers are advised to start their story with a bang. The Anonymous Brave Author of today’s first page took that advice to heart…literally! My comments appear at the end.

Cherry Bomb

             Vivienne Rook threw a cherry bomb off the backyard deck, aiming at her deceased husband. “Take that to the moon and back!”

A boom ricocheted off the dense wood that lined her sister’s house as the effigy’s crisp white shirt flailed. “Tsk, just got the arm,” Vivienne sniffled. She’d built “Win” out of a cotton mop and broomsticks, garbing him in his favorite outfit: khaki pants and a white dress shirt with a sports jacket. A charming dickhead in casual business attire.

She turned at the scrambling sound behind her. Clawing a quick getaway from the noise, Spot and Kitty, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat, had wedged themselves together in the pet door, their tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance.



“Chickens.” Vivienne bent over and pushed the pug’s tan rear through the opening, allowing both animals to escape. She heard a bump and then a chair fall as they fled.

Back to work, Vivienne twisted together the fuses of two cherry bombs and set the pair on the railing, her therapeutic arsenal strung along like little missiles of pain.

“Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” her sister, Mirielin, called through the kitchen window. She was flanked by both animals who were standing on the kitchen counter scowling at Vivienne.

“I’ve got you covered,” Vivienne said. “Tell those animals to be less judgy.”

A few minutes later, the screen door creaked as Mirielin stepped onto the deck with a bottle of white wine and two glasses. “Scared us silly, Vivi. Did you break into the twin’s stash of homemade explosives?” Mirielin’s reading glasses were tucked into her updo, next to the chopstick that kept her red-gold hair in a messy bun.

“You betcha. Done at the shelter so soon?”

Mirielin’s sharp blue eyes took in the scene. “I just came home to feed the animals.”

Vivienne tried to sound tough, but her voice caught. “Look, I’ve got Win trapped in the lawn.”

Her sister’s mouth pursed into a sad knot that Vivienne had named the Woe-a-Widow look. It came over people’s faces when they struggled to comfort her over the unexpected death of her husband, and the revelations that followed.


In the first sentence, Anon follows Jim Bell’s excellent dictum: Act first, explain later.” And Vivienne definitely grabbed my attention. Why does a new widow want to blow up her husband’s effigy? Her unexpected reaction to tragedy makes her an interesting character.

Plus you inject a touch of ironic humor. That signals the genre may be a cozy with attitude. Readers admire gutsy characters who maintain a sense of humor in the face of adversity. I’m already on her side, rooting for her, even though I don’t yet know what the conflict is. You avoided the trap of a backstory information dump. Well done.

I didn’t spot any typos or grammar goofs in your submission. Congratulations on a good job of proofreading, the mark of a professional.

However, a few speed bumps stopped me.

The first question arose about the phrase: the dense wood that lined her sister’s house. Initially I wondered if “wood” should have read “woods.” Then the word “lined” confused me. Are you saying the house is in a wooded setting? Or are you trying to describe wood siding over the surface of the sister’s house? Clarify this small detail so it doesn’t sidetrack the reader with questions that are irrelevant to the story.

Because the rest of the page is error-free, I’m guessing “wood” wasn’t a typo, but rather an unclear sentence. Perhaps a better way to express it would be: A boom ricocheted off the dense woods that surrounded her sister’s house as the effigy’s crisp white shirt flailed.

“Garbing” was a distraction because it’s a peculiar verb. Suggest you simplify: She’d built “Win” out of a cotton mop and broomsticks, dressing him in his favorite outfit: khaki pants and a white dress shirt with a sports jacket. That’s a smoother way to say the same thing without using a word that could unnecessarily jar the reader out of the story.

A charming dickhead in casual business attire is a great line that reveals Vivienne’s humor, as well as her disappointment with her husband. Again, you’re pulling the reader into the story with more questions. Why is he a dickhead? What did he do to her?

The next bump that stopped me was:

Clawing a quick getaway from the noise, Spot and Kitty, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat, had wedged themselves together in the pet door, their tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance.




This is a funny visual but when using comedy, timing is everything, and this timing is off. Make this paragraph snappier by removing extraneous words that lessen the impact of the humor.

For instance, readers don’t need to know the pets’ names yet. Delay that information for a moment, as shown in the rewrite below. The sounds of meow and woof aren’t dialogue and don’t need to be enclosed in quotes. Otherwise the reader might think the story is about talking animals.

“Chickens” is meant to be an insult to the pets, but instead made me wonder if there were additional critters, like fowl, in the scene. These small stumbling blocks distracted me for a second.

An alternative rewrite:

Clawing a quick getaway from the explosion, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat had wedged themselves together in the pet door, tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance. Mirielin would be pissed that Vivienne had upset Spot and Kitty. Vivienne bent to push the pug’s rear end through the pet door, breaking the furry logjam. From inside the house, she heard more scuffling, then the bang of a kitchen chair hitting the tile floor. “Cowards,” she muttered.

Another great line is: Her therapeutic arsenal strung along like little missiles of pain. It offers insight into Vivienne, showing her conflicted feelings about Win’s death. You found a fresh way to describe grief, expressing a lot of meaning with only a few well-chosen words.

Next distracting bump:

“Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” her sister, Mirielin, called through the kitchen window. She was flanked by both animals who were standing on the kitchen counter scowling at Vivienne.

Not bad, but could be smoother. How about:

Her sister’s voice came through the open window. “Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” Mirielin stood at the kitchen counter, flanked by Spot and Kitty who were scowling at Vivienne.

One key to great description is to choose specific details. You’ve done an excellent job showing Mirielin: Mirielin’s reading glasses were tucked into her updo, next to the chopstick that kept her red-gold hair in a messy bun. The reader not only sees her, but gets a glimpse of her personality. You neatly slip in the information about her family (twins) and that she volunteers at a shelter, all without slowing the action. Mirielin’s dialogue appears lighthearted on the surface but hints at her underlying concern with her sister’s odd behavior. Even the use of the nickname “Vivi” tells the reader about their relationship.

You wrap up the first page with a brilliant paragraph:

Her sister’s mouth pursed into a sad knot that Vivienne had named the Woe-a-Widow look. It came over people’s faces when they struggled to comfort her over about the unexpected death of her husband, and the revelations that followed.

You’ve gracefully shown the reader a lot of relevant story information. We know about Vivienne’s inner conflict, as well as what she must deal with in her outside world. At this point, I’m intrigued enough with the characters and actions that I would definitely turn the page to find out why Win’s death was unexpected and what revelations she’s referring to, as well as how Vivienne handles her challenge.

You start with action, give brief but effective snapshots of characters, and hint at a conflict that promises to grow. Just a little polishing will turn this into a terrific first page. Well done, Brave Author!


TKZers, any thoughts or suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?


Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil recently became an Amazon Bestseller in Women’s Adventure. 


Five New Year’s Tips to Overcome Butt-in-Chair Syndrome


These gentlemen of bygone days knew how to double up on bad habits–sit and smoke.

“Sitting is the new smoking”Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic.


The writer’s job is to plunk our butts in chairs and produce words day in, day out. As a result, posture suffers, eyes blur, brains fog, carpals cramp, and rear ends keep getting wider. In extreme cases, Butt-in-Chair Syndrome leads to the dreaded Dead Butt Syndrome (you can’t make this stuff up!).

Here’s a countdown of five easy tips to counteract the occupational hazards of our profession:

  1. Breathe

Sitting hunched over a computer leads to shallow breathing. The lungs need to fully expand to allow oxygen to fill the alveoli (little air sacs) and move into the bloodstream. The shallower the breathing, the less oxygen flows through the blood to the brain. The less oxygen, the harder for the brain to solve problems in stories.

According to yoga practitioners, deep exhalation is even more vital than inhalation, because exhalation flushes carbon dioxide out of the body.

If you don’t exhale fully, it’s like sticking a banana in the tailpipe of a car. Fresh air can’t get in, gases build up, and pretty soon the engine stalls and quits.

New ideas, brilliant plot twists, and compelling characters require a fresh intake of oxygen and a full expulsion of carbon dioxide.

Effective breathing is easy:

Sit straight with your butt tucked against the chair back. Lift your chest, arch your spine and pull your shoulder blades together, then allow shoulders to drop. Contract abdominal muscles to press your belly button toward your spine. Place a hand on your belly and inhale for a slow ten-count. Feel your abdomen expand as you draw air in. Hold for a slow ten-count. Then exhale slowly until you completely empty the lungs. Repeat several times an hour. You may feel tingling in the scalp.

  1. Posture

Your mom always told you to sit up straight. Turns out she was right. According to I.A. Kapandji, MD“For every inch of Forward Head Posture, it can increase the weight of the head on the spine by an additional 10 pounds.” In other words, if a normal 12 pound head leans three inches closer to the computer screen, it now feels more like 42 pounds. Yikes!

Over time, that additional pressure can lead to neck and spine problems that may become permanent.

It’s always better to prevent problems than try to reverse them.

To counteract the tendency to slump forward, sit with your rear end tucked firmly against the chair back. Lift your chest, arch your spine and pull your shoulder blades together.

Hmmm, isn’t this the same position for deep breathing? You can take care of two exercises at once—talk about efficient. Your mom would be proud.

  1. Hand and wrist stretches

Caution: Stretching should NEVER be painful; if you feel discomfort, STOP!

Many writers suffer from numbness, tingling, and pain in wrists and hands from carpal tunnel syndrome which occurs when the median nerve to the hand is compressed in the wrist. Treatment options range from NSAIDs (hard on the stomach, liver, and kidneys) to splints/braces (uncomfortable and awkward to type while wearing) to steroid injections (ouch!) to surgery (been there, done that, not fun).

Simple stretches can help alleviate symptoms. Extend your arm in front of you, palm up. Bending your wrist, use your other hand to gently pull the fingers of your extended hand toward you until you feel a mild to moderate stretch in your wrist. Hold for 15-30 seconds. Repeat with the opposite hand.

For more stretches, visit this link.

  1. Vision

Do you have 20/20/20 vision? No, that’s not a typo, but rather an exercise suggested by eye doctors to counteract eyestrain and blurry vision from too much screen time.

Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen to an object at least 20 feet away and focus on it for at least 20 seconds.

For more eye exercises, check out:  http://www.allaboutvision.com/cvs/irritated.htm

 And finally, my favorite exercise…

  1. Go for a walk

When you take your dog for a walk, she knows what she’s supposed to do. The writer’s brain can be trained and reinforced with praise the same way you train your pooch. As you move muscles and increase blood flow, your brain expels waste.

I confess during walks I’ve left many hot, steaming piles along the pathway. The best part is, unlike the dog, I don’t need a baggie to pick them up!

Once waste thoughts are cleared out, there’s room for new ideas and solutions to bubble up from the subconscious (Check out Jim Bell’s classic post about “the boys in the basement”).

Start training your brain with a small problem: let’s say you’re seeking a particular word that’s eluding you, despite searching the thesaurus. Go for a short walk and let the brain relax. After a few minutes of exercise and fresh air, the elusive word often pops up from the subconscious.

Give yourself a pat on the head and praise, “Good brain!”

A Milk Bone is optional, your choice.

 Pretty soon, the subconscious learns that when you take a walk, it’s expected to perform, just like Fifi. While it sniffs the bushes and chases a squirrel, it’s also learning to deliver fresh ideas and solutions. The more you positively reinforce the subconscious for its results, the better and more frequently it comes up with solutions.

Walking works for me 100% of the time because my brain is conditioned. If I’m stumped about what a character should do next, or if the plot gets lost down a rabbit hole, I take a spin around the neighborhood. Before long, the uncertain character now knows her next move; or the rabbit hole has led to an unexpected escape route. I can’t wait to rush back to the keyboard eager to implement the solutions my subconscious offered up.

Wishing you good health and good writing in the New Year!

TKZers, do you have a favorite exercise that helps your writing?


Debbie Burke is often found aimlessly wandering the streets, claiming she’s at work. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale at Amazon for 99 cents during January.