The Ultimate Story Checklist

I’ve stumbled upon a writing resource that needs to be shared on the Kill Zone. It’s called the Ultimate Story Checklist, and it’s on a website called Cockeyed Caravan hosted by Matt Bird. If the names aren’t familiar, Matt Bird is an A-List screenwriter who recently published a book titled The Secrets of Story.

While the website and book are aimed at the screenwriting market, there’s a lot of value here for regular storytellers. Matt Bird delivers many great takeaways, one being, “Audiences purchase your work because of its concept but embrace it because of the characters”. I put that quote on my daily affirmation board.

You can download the Ultimate Story Checklist here. However, I’ll list the highlights so you’ll get an idea where this craft book and blog are coming from. Here’s the CliffsNotes version of over 200 sub-points to check off:

Part 1: Concept

The Pitch — Does the concept excite everyone who hears it?

Story Fundamentals — Wil this concept generate a strong story?

The Hook — Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?

Part 2: Character

Believe — Do we recognize the hero as a human being?

Care — Do we feel for the hero?

Invest — Can we trust the hero to tackle the challenge?

Part 3: Structure

1st Quarter — Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?

2nd Quarter — Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?

3rd Quarter — Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?

4th Quarter — Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?

Part 4: Scenework

The Set-Up — Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?

The Conflict — Is this a compelling collision of competing agendas?

The Outcome — Does the scene change the story going forward?

Part 5: Dialogue

Empathetic — Is the dialogue true to human nature?

Specific — Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?

Heightened — Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?

Strategic — Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?

Part 6: Tone

Genre — Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?

Framing — Does the story set, reset, upset, and ultimately exceed its own expectations?

Part 7: Theme

Difficult — Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?

Grounded — Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?

Subtle — Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?

Untidy — Is the dilemma ultimately unsolvable?

As mentioned, there are well over two hundred sub-questions in the parts and categories. I plugged my WIP netstream series City Of Danger into the Ultimate Story Checklist. It’s a well-worthwhile exercise that brings clarity and gives guidance.

Kill Zoners — Has anyone heard of this resource or of Matt Bird? Do you use any sort of checklist or guideline for your storytelling? Please share what works for you and any recommendations you have.

Long Forgotten (But Cool) Medieval English Words

They say, whoever they is, that even the most verbose writers know only 25 percent of the English language. Given that the latest edition of the Oxford dictionary lists 171,476 words, that means guys like Stephen King have only 42,000 in their gray matter data bank. So, the average scribe like me probably draws on maybe 10,000, not including slang, jargon, and swear.

They also say that 3,000 words covers 95 percent of daily writing—emails, blogs, and books. And English, of the 6,909 distinct languages in the world, is far from wordy. Apparently, the Inuit have over 100 words for “snow”.

I stumbled on a trivial piece the other day on a site called The Morning Brew. It’s a regular stop in my daily routine. I got a kick out of it, and I hope you will, too. It’s a list of long forgotten (but cool) medieval English words.

PEEKGOOSE (english, noun) someone who is silly or a simpleton

MEROBIBA (latin, noun) a woman who enjoys very strong wine

SCORTOR (latin, verb) to spend time in the company of harlots

CUCURBITARIUS (latin, noun) a lover of gourds and squash

GILEYSPEKE (english, noun) a cunning trick or illusion

NOUMBLES (english, noun) the entrails of a beast, especially a deer

STERILIS AMATOR (latin, noun) a lover who has no money

GADELING (english, noun) a comrade, fellow, or vagabond

GRAVILOQUUS (latin, noun) a man who speaks gravely and seriously

LINGULACA (latin, noun) a woman who speaks excessively

ORGULOUS (english, adj.) proud or haughty to excess

DEARWORTH (english, adj.) precious or very valuable

MAGNALIA (latin, noun) great things to be wondered at

LIVERSOON (english, noun) food or sustenance

PROSERPERE (latin, verb) to creep about like a serpent

AGAINWEND (english, verb) to retreat

BESMUT (english, verb)to defile

OVERWERP (english, verb) to boil over, as a pot

WREKER (english, noun) one who avenged

WRAKEFUL (english, adj.) wicked

MALEFICUS (latin, noun) one who does harm to others

OBIURGATRIX (latin, noun) a woman who loves to chide or rebuke

METHFUL (english, adj) peaceful, quiet, or modest

Kill Zoners — Do you have any cool words to add? If you don’t, just go ahead and make something up. Sorry for not responding to comments today, folks. I’m off the internet grid and hunkered in place of tranquility. +48.869 North -123.316 West

The Pareto Principle for Writers

The Pareto Principle is the 80/20 Rule. It’s an economic concept stating roughly 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. Put otherwise, 20 percent of input accounts for 80 percent of output.

The name comes from its conception maker, Vilfredo Pareto, who was a nineteenth-century Italian polymath. Story goes that one day old Vilfredo was out working in his garden and observed that about 80 percent of his peas came from around 20 percent of his pea plants. That got him thinking, and he applied his 80/20 observation to economics.

Pareto discovered that 80 percent Italy’s wealth was held by 20 percent of the Italian population. Note this was in 1900, so adjusting for today’s imbalance via the mega-lopy of Gates, Musk, Bezos & Zuckerberg ‘et al’, the real ratio might be more like 90/10 or 95/5. You get my drift.

I’ll partially quote from the Pareto holy grail authority which is a 273-page academic paper titled The Pareto Principle — The Secret to Achieving More With Less by Richard Koch. You can download it for free here.

The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or efforts usually leads to a majority of results, outputs, or rewards. Taken literally, this means that, for example, 80 percent of what you achieve in your work comes from 20 percent of the time spent. Thus, for all practical purposes, four-fifths of the effort—the dominant part of it—is largely irrelevant. This is contrary to what people normally expect.

So, the 80/20 Principle states there’s an inbuilt imbalance between causes and results, inputs and outputs, and efforts and rewards. A good benchmark for this imbalance is provided by the 80/20 relationship: a typical pattern shows that 80 percent of outputs result from 20 percent of inputs, that 80 percent of consequences flow from 20 percent of causes, and that 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of efforts.

In business, many examples of the 80/20 Principle have been validated. 20 percent of products account for 80 percent of dollars per sale. So do 20 percent of customers.

In society, 20 percent of criminals account for 80 percent of crimes. 20 percent of drivers account for 80 percent of accidents. 20 percent of students attain 80 percent of the educational qualifications available.

In the home, 20 percent of carpets receive 80 percent of wear. 20 percent of your clothes, you’ll wear 80 percent of the time. And if you have a burglar alarm, 80 percent of false alarms will be set off by 20 percent of the possible causes.

Another example of the 80/20 rule is the internal combustion engine in your car. 80 percent of the fossil fuel energy input is wasted with only 20 percent of output energy being delivered to the drive wheels.

So, what about applying the Pareto Principle to writers?

For writers, the Pareto Principle is a time management and production output tool. It’s not meant to be precise… as it in can’t be 60/40 or 75/25, only 80/20… it’s not that bracketed… not that prescriptive… not that anal. But it’s a good rule of thumb to know about avoiding time distractions and focussing on the important, yet small percentage, of tasks that give the highest return in creating value.

It comes down to managing what available time you have to effectively produce and promote a product. That might be a blog post like this, a novel manuscript, a screenplay, or whatever you have on the go. Your WIP.

Here’s a link to another piece on the Pareto Principle from Simply Psychology that gives direct examples of how to manage time, minimize distractions, and complete tasks. I like this quote:

When used correctly, the Pareto Principle helps prioritize tasks, optimize resources, and improve overall efficiency. It provides a useful framework for understanding complex systems and identifying key areas for improvement.

When not used correctly, the Pareto Principle can lead to an excessive focus on short-term gains over long-term planning and stability.

The 96 Minute Rule

A great point from Simply Psychology that puts time consumption in context is the 96-minute rule. 20 percent of an 8-hour workday is 96 minutes. According to the Pareto Principle, 80 percent of your daily work accomplishments come from 96 minutes of your time. As a writer, what high-value tasks do you most accomplish in those 96 minutes that push forward your long-term goals?









To wrap, the Pareto Principle’s 80/20 rule isn’t a magic formula. It’s a hypothesis to be aware of and use as a tool to get where you want to go in your writing world just a little more efficiently. And maybe it’ll free up time to have fun in the rest of your life.

Kill Zoners — Do you consciously apply the 80/20 rule in your workday? What’s your experience with it? Any direct tips on making it work? And does anyone have other production aids and/or time management suggestions? Please comment.

How to Read a Book

Is this title a bit condescending? After all, one thing we’ve in common at the Kill Zone is we’re avid readers. We enthusiastically read books, ergo: All writers are readers, but not all readers are writers. Right? (said in a mock-condescending tone) “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write. Simple as that.”  ~Stephen King in On Writing.

I’m not sure where, but I recently stumbled across a book titled How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It was published in 1940 and remained in print ever since. That speaks for itself, so I bought a Kindle version to see what the fuss was all about. Here’s Amazon’s blurb:

With half a million copies in print, How to Read a Book is the best and most successful guide to reading comprehension for the general reader, completely rewritten and updated with new material.

A CNN Book of the Week: “Explains not just why we should read books, but how we should read them. It’s masterfully done.” –Farheed Zakaria

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Also included is instruction in the different techniques that work best for reading particular genres, such as practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science works.

Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list and supply reading tests you can use measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension, and speed.

What I found was a compressed guide to improving reading skills and getting maximum value from any publication, whether that be fiction or non-fiction. It’s a timeless resource for anyone seeking efficiency and thoughtfulness in their reading approach. The authors emphasize reading should be an active process that demands full engagement and critical thinking where a reader should be aware of their methodology which they break into these four categories:

Elementary Reading — This level is the most basic skill where readers grasp the primary surface content and simple meaning of the book. (Fun)

Inspectional Reading — This level allows readers to scan the material, particularly the preface, index, and chapter openings/closings to assess the book’s structure and main ideas. (Curiosity)

Analytical Reading — This level engages a deeper examination of the book’s core content such as the author’s arguments, key concepts, and presented evidence to support the book’s point. (Research)

Syntopical Reading — This level is the highest reading form where multiple books are read so the reader can fully understand the entire subject matter delivered from multiple sources across the knowledgeable spectrum. (Eggheadism)

So far, I’ve done a Level One go-over on How to Read a Book. It intrigues me enough that I’m going straight to Level Three and understand this information, but I thought I’d share my new find with folks at the Kill Zone. So, let’s discuss how we read books. Fiction and non-fiction.

Do you have a process that’s similar to these four methods, maybe a combination, or possibly an entirely novel approach (don’t excuse the novel pun) to reading? What’s your way of enjoying, comprehending, and retaining stuff in the books you read?

The Great Canadian Bank Bombery

Kenora is a small town of about 15,000 on the Lake of the Woods at the west edge of Ontario, a prominent province in Canada. Normally, Canadian towns are pretty quiet and orderly but on May 10, 1973, a masked gunman robbed a Kenora bank and then blew himself to smithereens with a bomb strapped to his chest. I call it a bombery.

You’d think this was something on a movie set, but it’s a true crime story with no ending. The bombed robber has never been identified. That’s beside having a full set of fingerprints, some twisted teeth, and a beautiful DNA profile available. Briefly, here’s what happened.

At opening time, the robber entered the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce on Kenora’s main drag. He wore a black balaclava and was armed with a pistol, a rifle, and packing a homemade bomb built with six dynamite sticks. The detonator was a clothespin device which he could operate through his mouth.

Instead of just “grab the money and run”, the robber made a huge spectacle He took the bank employees hostage and began negotiation with the police. This resulted in a plainclothes officer exchanging himself for the hostages. The robber demanded a get-away truck be supplied and for the vault to be opened. About $100,000 in bills were stuffed into three duffle bags the robber brought with him.

This ordeal lasted two hours. During that time, word quickly spread, and a large crowd assembled outside the bank with the police holding them back. The media arrived, and the outside scene was reported live on radio and filmed for TV.

When the robber and the officer came out of the bank, a police sharpshooter shot him— the bad guy, not the cop. He went down and the bomb went off, with blood and body bits and bills flying everywhere. It was chaos. The officer was injured—no doubt saved from death by being shielded with the money-filled bags strung on his back. Remarkably, most of the $100,000 was recovered and not scooped by frenzied folks.

To this day, no one knows the robber’s identity. His description was a while male about 45-years-old, 5’6” to 5’8”, and around 160 lbs. Despite his fingerprints being circulated through Interpol, dental records checked, and when DNA came along in the 1990s – there was no lead. Today, his body lies in a Kenora graveyard, and the case of the Great Canadian Bombery is closed.

Now, this case hits home for me. I grew up near Kenora and was in a Grade 12 class when it happened. My girl-friend-at-the-time (now known as she-whose-name-must-not-be-mentioned)—her mother’s car was parked outside that bank. Rosie’s Impala got splattered with the blood and the bits and the bills.

Watch the explosion on film as it happened.

Listen to the live radio broadcast.

Kill Zoners — Have you ever experienced a close-to-home crazy crime? Do you know anyone who has? Or can you think of a crime that can top this? Tell us about it in the comments.

Improving Your Creativity

Creativity is the phenomenon of finding imaginative ideas and turning them into reality. It’s the process of bringing something new and original into existence. The results can be intangible products, like theories and songs, or tangible products such as inventions and the new crime-thriller novel I’m struggling to create. Creativity appears to come easier to some folks than others, and we tend to see high achievers as gifted, natural creators rather than nurtured normals.

But is that so? Are there a chosen few, born with greater creative ability? Or can creativity be learned—a skill that can be taught, practiced, and mastered?

Back in the Greek and Roman days, creativity was seen as facilitated by a muse who connected individual human minds to the gods. Daemons were the Greek equivalent of guardian angels. They accompanied a soul from birth to death, some being highly creative which manifested themselves in outstanding and intuitive people like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Romans saw these paranormal intermediaries as Geniuses—disembodied messengers from a heavenly intelligence, delivering divine wishes to mortals.

The Renaissance era disagreed. Creative individuals were enlightened, they posed. Creativity came from within the self and gifted ones—DaVinci, Beethoven, and Shakespeare—were born intellectually superior with unique abilities to create. They were the geniuses; being able to connect directly with a plane of higher intelligence rather than having an imaginary genius translate for them.

Today’s neuroscience has another view on this. It sees creativity as a complex psychological process that occurs via the brain’s ventral striatum and amygdala and can be enhanced through neuroplasticity or rewiring the brain through practiced behavior. In other words, a planned and continual workout program for your brain can definitely improve your creativity.

Improving creativity starts with a foundation of subject knowledge, learning a discipline, and mastering a proper way of thinking. You build on your creative ability by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, using imagination, and synthesizing information. Learning to be creative is like learning a sport. You need a desire to improve, develop the right muscles, and be in a supportive environment.

You need to view creativity as a practice and understand five key behaviors:

  1. Associating—drawing connections between questions, problems, or ideas from unrelated fields.
  2. Questioning—posing queries that challenge common wisdom.
  3. Observing—scrutinizing the behavior of others in, around, and outside your sphere.
  4. Networking—meeting people with both common and different perspectives.
  5. Experimenting—constructing interactive experiences and provoking unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge.

Read this as — listen, watch, ask, mingle, and stir. Sir Richard Branson has a mantra that’s bred into the corporate DNA of his Virgin staff — A-B-C-D — Always Be Connecting Dots. Branson swears that creativity is a practice and if you practice these five behaviors every day, you will improve your skills in creativity and innovation.

Now, if these five behaviors put you in the right direction for improving creativity, then there must be behaviors to avoid. I found eight:

1. Lack of courage—being fearful of taking chances, scared of venturing down new roads, and timid about taking the road less traveled. Fear is the biggest enemy of creativity. You need to be courageous and take chances.

2. Premature judgment—second-guessing and early judgment of outcome severely restrict your ability to generate ideas and freely innovate. Let your initial path expand and follow it to its inevitable destination.

3. Avoidance of failure—you can’t be bold and creative if you fear failure. Creativity requires risk and making mistakes. They’re part of the process.

4. Comparing with others—this robs your unique innovation and imagination. Set your own standards. Be different. Something new is always different.

5. Discomfort with uncertainty—creativity requires letting go and the process doesn’t always behave rationally. Accept that there’s something akin to paranormal in real creativity.

6. Taking criticism personally—feedback is healthy, even if it’s blunt and harsh like 1&2-Star Amazon reviews. Ignore ridicule. Have thick skin, a tough hide, and don’t let criticism get to you.

7. Lack of confidence—a certain level of uncertainty comes with any new venture. Some self-doubt is normal but if it becomes overwhelming and long-lasting, it will shut down your creative abilities. The best way to create is to first connect with your self-confidence.

8. Analysis paralysis—overthinking renders you unable to make a decision because of information overload. “Go with your gut” is the answer to analysis paralysis.

Aside from positive and negative behaviors, there is one overall and outstanding quality that drives successfully creative people.


Passion is the secret to creativity. It’s the underlying feature that’s laced the successes of all prominent creators in history.

Passion is a term we’ve heard over and over again. Chase your passion, not your pension. But few understand what passion implies. The word comes from the Latin root “pati“ that means “to suffer“. Passion is what perseveres in getting to your goal despite fear, discomfort, unhappiness, and pain. It’s the determination—the motivation—to push through suffering for the sake of the end result. And this passionate feeling of motivation has its source in your brain.

A study released in the Journal of Neuroscience identified the ventral striatum, in connection with the amygdala, as the brain’s emotional center that controls the motivation feeling—the higher degree of motivation you feel, the higher the activation will be in this part of your brain. So that intense feeling of motivation you feel when you are in a creative state—that feeling of euphoria when engaging in something you feel truly worthwhile and meaningful to you—is real and is something physiological occurring in your brain. It’s one of the least researched areas of psychology yet has the biggest impact on your creativity.

I sense you’re wondering if there’s a trick—a method to stimulate your ventral striatum and amygdala—in improving your creativity. Well, yes there is. It’s long been known and practiced by the greats:

Relaxation, along with definite purpose.

Relax. Put your thoughts and desires out to the ether. Relax and wait. Creative ideas will come.

I’m a life-long student of the Napoleon Hill Philosophy of Personal Achievement which is the psychology behind one of the world’s bestselling self-help books, Think and Grow Rich. Hill clearly outlines the path to unlimited creativity which he postulates comes from the source of Infinite Intelligence that we all can tap. To get creative ideas from Infinite Intelligence, first you must know what you want, then you must relax and let Infinite Intelligence deliver ideas or answers to you.

Relaxation can be done in many ways. Meditation. Workout. Vacation. Change of environment. Retail therapy. Long showers. Reading. Music. Deep breathing. Long walks in nature. Maybe a stiff drink or two. The methods are varied but whatever you choose, it needs to put you in a headspace receptive to creative ideas.

Napoleon Hill didn’t have the anatomical knowledge of how the ventral striatum and amygdala worked, but he sure understood that definite purpose, motivation, and relaxation opened the doors of creativity. Hill described this part of the brain as being like a radio transmitter and receiver which exchanged creative thought with Infinite Intelligence.

So, if I can give one single piece of advice on how to improve your creativity it’s to read, understand, and practice the seventeen principles of success Napoleon Hill outlined in Think and Grow Rich.

A postscript to this article—while I was researching this piece, I came across a TED Talk with well-known author, Elizabeth Gilbert. Her presentation on creativity for writers is a fascinating look at the process. Click Here to watch it.

Kill Zoners: Enough of me preaching T&GR. How do you find and improve your creativity?

The Red Queen Effect — For Writers

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” ~The Red Queen to Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

The Red Queen effect means that staying in the same place is falling behind. Surviving to write another day means we have to co-evolve with the systems we interact with. And the systems in our writing world are evolving in a fast-paced race.

Think about the changes in writing and publishing over the past decade. We’ve moved from the Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) submissions to digital rejections. Most of us write electronically—maybe a few die-hards still draft in cursive longhand—and most use some form of app to help with spelling and grammar.

And now we have Artificial Intelligence (AI) coming at us in the high-speed lane. We’ve had tools like Google and Word for some time, but this ChatGPT thing is about to rewrite the rule book. When you get on this bus, there is no stop and you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

I suppose all writers (being human) tire of running fast. However, to be “successful” in today’s writing world—success being defined as “they with the biggest backlist win”—it’s vital to accept change and work with it, not against change. Here’s a quote I dug up while researching this piece and, no, I didn’t prompt it through Chat:

Applied to our careers, we might think about adaptation and evolution as embracing change and pursuing continuous learning and development. In this realm, the imperative to evolve comes not from aspirational pursuits, such as a promotion, but from the need to continue providing value in an environment where even running our fastest as per the Red Queen effect might not be enough.

Adaptation. Continuous learning. Development. Embracing change. Providing value.

Given that change can affect a writer’s sense of value and belonging, why is it that so many of us are resistant to the community’s natural flow of evolution and are content to run with the Red Queen? Maybe these bullet points from the Journal of Applied Psychology sum it up:

  • Reluctance to lose control.
  • Unwillingness to think differently.
  • Lack of psychological resilience when coping with change.
  • Intolerance of the adjustment period involved in change.
  • Tendency to perform poorly outside familiar framework.
  • Reluctance to give up old habits.

Now, I admit to being an old dog trying to learn new tricks. But I also plead (somewhat) guilty to all the above. What’s really driving me forward, though, is the concept of value. Creating something from nothing and repeating as necessary.

I look at writing and publishing evolution not as a linear process but rather as a dynamic and ongoing race. It’s like an infinite game that never ends and whose purpose isn’t to win, but to keep playing as long as possible. The key to surviving in this game is proactive evolution where you anticipate future changes to fundamentally transform your products and/or strategy before you’re forced to do so. And by doing so, you don’t just survive—you also benefit from it.

So, all this “Blah” is fine and dandy. The question is how to beat the Red Queen. Here are some practical Queen-beating tips I sourced.

Continuous Learning — Committing to life-long learning is essential to staying ahead of the Red Queen. Fortunately for writers, there’s a pleasantly overwhelming amount of material to learn from.

Adaptability — The Red Queen effect highlights adapting to perpetual change. It’s the core survival principle in the evolution of every species, including the writer.

Persistent Practice — Developing routines, setting goals, and meeting deadlines are part of the business. Missing these is a sure sign of falling behind the Red Queen.

Networking and Collaboration — The saying “we’re all in this together” definitely applies to writers. The Kill Zone is a good example of collaboration and networking where we regularly discuss changes and advances in the writing world.

Embracing Feedback and Criticism — Can anyone say “Arc” and “Beta”? Ask these guys how you can better your work and stay ahead of the Queen.

Resilience and Perseverance — This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. Pace yourself, accordingly, but do not get behind the Red Queen.

Embrace Technology — This part of the game is moving faster than the sum of all the parts. And it shows no sign of slowing down.

Personal Brand — There’s a lot of misconception about what a “brand” really is. I think it’s simply how others see you and, in this race, it’s critical to be seen.

Innovation and Experimentation — Have some fun during your evolution. Try new things. Explore other writing forms and see what you can work into your WIF (Work In Future)

Standing Out — Do you know how Alice beat the Red Queen? She teamed up with the Queen and used the combined momentum to push ahead. Alice made up her mind—took the mindset—to stand out. And she won.

Kill Zoners: Where do you run in the race with the Red Queen? Please share some thoughts and some tips! BTW, what changes in writing and publishing do you foresee on the horizon?

Time Billionaires

Time is our most precious commodity. Regardless of inequities in life, each day we have equality—exactly the same amount of time allotted to all. 24 hours. 1,440 minutes. 86,400 seconds.

In many ways, it’s not about the amount of time we have. It’s how we use our time. Time being the ultimate tool; a finite and non-renewable resource.

I’m short of time today (so to speak). I have little time to deliver a meaningful piece, and by meaningful, I mean something of value that folks following The Kill Zone can take away. So, I’m writing a short, meaningful piece about time value.

I’m short of time because I’ve created a writing monster that’s frothed like a sack of Mentos dunked into a Diet Coke vat. I’m enjoying the fizz but, man, is it ever sucking time. There’s no foreseeable end in sight.

So, I’m tapping an article I recently read on The Free Press (Bari Weiss—hate her or love her). It was titled The Time Billionaires and went like this:

A million seconds is 11 and 1/2 days. A billion seconds is slightly over 31 years. In our western culture, we’re so, so obsessed with money. We deify dollar billionaires when we really should be fan girls and fan boys of time billionaires. For instance, most 20-year-olds have two billion or better seconds left in their lives. But few look at it that way and don’t relate to themselves as being time billionaires. Many people fail to realize this asset’s value until it’s gone.

The piece had a nice quote from Stoic philosopher Seneca that read, “We are not given a short life, but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”

The article also linked a “Life Calendar”. It exposes a blank 90-year lifespan by each year listed vertically with 52 squares across the horizontal representing weeks in a year. It’s downloadable, and you can print it as an 8 ½ x 11 worksheet. See the pic below.

I drew out, or charted, my life calendar. It was an interesting exercise that made me reflect on where I’d spent the last 2 billion seconds of my life and where I’m going. I’m 66 now and, if my genes are predictive, I might have a billion seconds remaining.

Yes, still time to be a time billionaire. It’s what I do with forthcoming seconds that count. But if it goes like my Coke & Mento project is going, I might never get done.

How about you, Kill Zoners? Have you looked at your Life Calendar and worked on it? Also, if anyone has time management tips, I’d love to hear them. God knows, I need some.

Mindset, Motivation, and Tchotchkes

Writer’s block.

I had writer’s block.

I’d sat down, opened a blank page, and stared at the screen. I’d realized, on short notice, that I had a Kill Zone post due the next morning and it was four in the afternoon. I knew I had limited time to do a decent job as I skipped through my Kill Zone idea list.

Storytelling in Totem Poles   Nope, too long.  The Pareto Principle for Writers   Same. Uh-uh.  Multi-Tasking vs Mono-Tasking   Can’t do it justice.  The Psychology of Neckties for Homicide Investigators.   Not today.  Neurodivergent Authors   Phhh…  Sturgeon’s Law of 90%   Not possible.  Do You Read Your Reviews?   Naw.  Effective Book Covers with Elle J. Rossi   Geeze, I haven’t even started Elle’s questionnaire.

I sat with the blank page open, leaned back, and looked around my writing room for alternative ideas. My space is full of sayings for stimulus as well as tchotchkes for mindset and motivation. I’m a big believer in the muse, and my muse (since rehab) shows up sober, dressed, and ready to help when required.

Not this afternoon.

I got up and searched for a topic I could bang out fast and still provide value to whomever might so read. Nothing came. Yet I knew it was out there—not far out there—actually very close by.

I’m a nostalgist… if there is such a word. I have a nostalgic yearn for things old and bygone. Like the 1920s, for instance. Part of my studio is set up like a 1920s private detective office. (See the pic)

It’s got authentic props or tchotchkes like a rotary phone, an Underwood No. 5 typewriter in perfect working condition, a suspended metal warehouse lamp with a brown Edison bulb, a blown-glass ashtray and a fired-clay, Sears Roebuck coffee cup dated 1924, a corkboard pinned with relevant stuff, and a framed photo of some floozie who’s my idea of the perfect femme fatale.

Above and to the left are other motivational tchotchkes to set the mindset. A 1920s Electrohome tube radio that sort of works. (I can only dial a Vancouver traffic station on it, and I promise you the zoo-on-wheels in this place is not like a calm and orderly ‘20s road.) A bunch of flash cameras. Leather-cased binoculars. A violin case containing a Thompson .45 machine gun, or at least a reasonable facsimile. A prized, original silkscreen Maltese Falcon movie poster. And vintage neckties. I swear I have 500 ties, and there’s a profound psychological secret for that which I’ll reveal to you in some future piece.

I sat at my 2020s workstation and stared at the screen. Nothing was on it. I looked to my left at three framed affirmations I read every morning. One is deeply personal, and it reflects why I do this stuff. Words like financial, sense of purpose, sense of accomplishment, recognition, learning, opportunity, and legacy—leaving something behind when I’m gone.

The second affirmation is a quote on commitment by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe that’s supposed to bust through the ice of writer’s block like a massive polar bear snatching a fat little seal. It mentions Providence moving when one commits. But this afternoon, it appeared Providence was working at St. Elsewhere.

My third framed factoid is The Muse from Stephen King in On Writing. I won’t bore you with the entire thing ‘cause most of you writers know it by heart. I re-read it for the second time this day and came to the guy with the cigar and the little wings has a bag of magic part.

“Come on, buddy. Open the bag, man.” I said it out loud. “Help me out, O Twisted One.”

And then it happened. Out of nowhere, my muse said, “Just write about what you’re seeing around you and thinking in the moment. Experiencing. Call it Mindset, Motivation, and Tchotchkes or something like that.”

So, this post appeared, and it took me under an hour.

I’m a big believer in mindset, motivation, and tchotchkes. I think my muse pulled something of value from the magic bag and got its point across this afternoon, but I’d like to leave you with something from hardboiled & noir crime writer, Megan Abbott. She said this in a CrimeReads Shop Talk interview:

“Tchotchkes are stuff I look at to stimulate my imagination. When I look at all the tchotchkes above and around my desk—it’s weird. Writing is weird. You have to trust that you’re going to create this mental path so that readers can tunnel into your brain and experience this thing. So, for me, that’s really weird on its own. Deep down, though, I know I need discipline, mindset, and motivation in order to produce. Tchotchkes help me do that.”

Kill Zoners—Does this ring true to you? Do you have certain props or tchotchkes to help stimulate your imagination? Please share how you get into the right mindset and get motivated.

BTW, tchotchke is pronounced ‘chach-kee”. Sort of how a New England crime writer  😉  would say “church key”.

Romans, Horse Asses, US Railroads, Space Shuttles, and Common Writing Paper

Kill Zoners — Bear with me. I promise this headline will make sense. I belong to a police veteran group where this piece was recently posted. Yes, I’m plagiarizing sharing it here because I can’t say it better in my own writing. So please read away, digest the logic or humor, and be sure to comment.

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The United States standard railroad gauge (distance between the inside flanges of the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches or 56 ½ inches wide. That’s an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Well, because that’s the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

So, why did ‘they’ use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particularly odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break more often on some of the old, long-distance roads in England. You see, that’s the spacing of the long-established wheel ruts.

So, who built those old, rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since.

And what about the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Therefore, the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches, or 56 ½ inches wide, is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

Bureaucracies live forever.

So, the next time you’re handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder What horse’s ass came up with this? you may be exactly right.

For perfect balance, Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the outside width of the rear ends of two harnessed and pulling war horses. (Two horse asses wide.)

Now, here’s the twist to the story.

When you saw a United States Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad in Florida, you noted the two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. Those were solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.

The SRBs were made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the Florida launch site.

The railroad line from the Utah factory happened to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is as wide as two horse behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature, of what was arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of horse asses.

And you thought being a horse’s ass wasn’t important?

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Kill Zoners — This chariot-becoming-shuttle story makes sense to me, but what doesn’t make sense (in a completely unrelated way) is why the common paper size we writers use is 8 ½ by 11 inches. Can anyone explain the reason or logic of this? (Wikipedia, Google, Quora, and/or ChatGPT cut ‘n pastes not allowed.) BTW, debunk the horse backside story if you’d like, but remember this is a writers’ site where girls just wanna have fun.