About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

Are You a Neurotic Writer? Sometimes You Need to Leave That Stuff At Home.

Fangirling over Elizabeth George.

The Tuesday after I returned from Bouchercon 2019, my therapist congratulated me on experiencing my first non-neurotic conference. No, I don’t mean the conference itself was non-neurotic, because I can think of few things with higher potential for neuroses than 1700 writers, industry professionals, and fans, all gathered in one hotel. I mean, of course, that I was way less neurotic than I usually am at these things. How did I manage it? I decided to have a really good time, and do exactly what I wanted to do the whole six days I was there.

Things didn’t start so great, as I told pretty much everyone I spent more than 10 minutes with. (Okay, maybe that was a little neurotic.) It was a good airline story though. It took me 9 hours, plus an hour’s travel on either side, to fly from Houston to Dallas because of rainstorms. Yes, I could have driven there and back and halfway back to DFW again in the time I spent waiting for a plane. Our first plane got grounded at Hobby Airport before it could head to IAH, and then the crew timed out. I counted 15 “your flight will now depart at…” emails in my box.The 737 we finally got at 5:30 only had 30 people on it, including the crew, because so many people had to rebook. Sweet. Too bad my room service burger that night was nearly raw instead of medium well. They fixed it with reasonable promptness, returning a medium well burger (no bun, as requested), with fries I didn’t order. I confess I ate a few.

One reason conferences can be super stressful for me is my pantser, not plotter, nature. Though I’m pretty shy, this time I made a couple of lunch plans and a dinner plan with friends before I arrived. Those have always been risky asks for me. What if they don’t want to? What if they’re waiting for someone more interesting, more famous to come along and make a date? It turned out that one of the lunches and the dinner fell through, but I didn’t panic. I asked other people. How revolutionary was that?! A couple of them were busy, but several weren’t.

I also gave into the (albeit small) risk-averse side of my nature. Talk about food deserts. There were few restaurants within easy walking distance. To make matters more challenging, the temperature was frequently 60 degrees or lower. In the midwest, where I live, 60 degrees is positively seasonal for late October. But if you’re hanging out with some folks from southern Texas and Atlanta, you’ll soon find that you’ll be taking a lot of cars. because they have little desire to walk in the cold. And that was okay. I just popped up my app and away we went.

Back to the food…The always-delightful Judy Bobalik found us a French restaurant called Bouillon for lunch on Thursday. I liked it so much, that I brought people back for Friday lunch and dinner. Yep. Same restaurant three times, over two days. Did I mention it was delicious? Sadly, I did not receive a frequent diner discount. I also discovered a marvelous restaurant called Saint Ann’s when I perused reviews on the Open Table app.

A thing l did only once: Hang out at the bar in the evening. Conference bars are frequently hard-surfaced, crazy noisy, and crowded. I hate that cocktail party atmosphere where the person you’re talking to is often scanning the room for their next conversation. Though I’d be a horrible prig if I got upset about those situations. They’re perfectly normal and very human.  Now, I do enjoy a bit of gossip, and drunk people are great about leaking things. (I’m shameless, I know!) But I don’t drink much myself. I happily overshare when sober. It’s much more fun to me to visit with people one-on-one, or with groups in the lobby or the coffee bar. Do I sound like a terrible frump? Oh, well. I’ve done my time in conference bars, and once you’ve heard one drunk writer’s story about his 4 hour Viagra priapism (God rest his soul), you’ve heard them all.

More fangirling, this time over Therese Plummer, the FABULOUS audio narrator for The Stranger Inside. She also does Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden books.

A thing I did a lot of: Go to panels and interviews. I’ve attended conferences where I didn’t attend a single panel except the one I was on. This was mostly in the days when I would hide out in my room, freaking out because I was afraid I’d made some horrible faux pas. Or I was simply terrified to be around so many writers. What if they figured out I was a fraud and didn’t belong there? I decided just to get over that–or at least stress about it back at home. Conferences are short. There’s no time for too many neuroses.

I got to see/hear Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth George, and Meg Gardiner on panels or interviews twice each. Elizabeth George practically gave a masterclass in how she writes during her interview. (Brava, Hallie Ephron, for great questions.) I took in a panel on setting, and also one on cozies. I went with my talented friend, Rebecca Drake, to Half Price Books for an evening panel, and we all went out to a 24 hour BBQ place, where they had killer brisket. I’m always surprised when writers disdain going to panels. For probably the first time, I took out the pocket schedule the first day, and marked the panels I didn’t want to miss. And I was careful to include the one I was on and the one I moderated, because I can get distracted.

A thing I didn’t do: Author Speed Dating. I’ve done them the last 3 Bouchercons I attended, but not this one. One, they started at 7 in the morning! 8 is madness, 7 is just cruel to everyone. Also, there was some confusion about whether they were invitation-only because of a publisher’s involvement. If true, that would be a real shame. Bouchercon is a fan conference, and it’s important to seek out new potential fans.

A thing I regret doing: Giving a big, warm hug without warning to a woman I’d only corresponded with a few times. Clearly, I made her afraid. What can I say? I’m a hugger.

A last pitch: Go to conferences if you can. Be friendly, open to new experiences, and leave (most of) your neuroses at home. You’ll have a better time for it!

Do you go to conferences? What’s your favorite thing about them? Least favorite?




My Muse Is Gone


I fear this will be a short, sorrowful Wednesday post.

On Tuesday morning, my husband had to take our much-beloved cat, Miss Nina Garcia Benedict, to be euthanized. Her kidney disease had swiftly advanced from stage 2 to acute in two very short months. She was only 10 years old.

Nina owned us the way that a proper cat owns her people: with complete and utter domination. She was stunning to look at from her kitten days onward, and bore the fact with the humility of a Hollywood starlet.

Whenever I sat down to write, Nina would materialize five to ten minutes later. If she wasn’t standing solidly on my keyboard or peering over the back of the screen, causing it to tilt threateningly towards me, she was on my lap, needling my thighs until I squawked. (Who am I kidding? I could squawk for hours, and she still wouldn’t stop.) She helped me write six novels, many stories, and countless blogs. Perhaps I’d have written even more without her valuable assistance, but those would have been hollow words.

And when I cried–as writers sometimes do–Nina was right there to rub her furry head against me, concerned.

I’m out of town this week, and am already anticipating walking in our front door, and feeling her absence. I can’t even think about writing more stories without her.

See? I told you this would be a brief post. There’s not more that I can bear to say about her right now.

Do you have–or have you had–an animal in your life that helps you with your writing? I want to hear your stories.






When I think about the personal challenges that thriller/mystery series protagonists are saddled with–particularly cops, psychologists, private detectives, and medical examiners–they tend to be emotional and psychological. Or the protagonists are alcoholics or drug addicts. (Sherlock Holmes? Wallander? House? I know, but House solves medical mysteries.) Or they’re irascible jerks who get away with being jerks because they always solve the crime. (Morse, and often Lynley.) Poirot was a fastidious little man, yet not nearly as annoying on the page as on the screen (only in comparison–I’m a fan of both).  Lord, save us from the oft-divorced investigator who’s been damaged by the death of a sibling or (an abusive) parent or has abandonment issues, drinks too much, and can only be saved by a good woman–only he won’t be saved because he always screws up his best opportunities. Then again, never mind. These guys have become tropes because they make good reading.

I confess I’ve read a lot more male investigator stories than female, written by men and women, both. Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, and Val McDermid’s Tony Hill are among my favorites. But when it comes to damage, it’s hard to compete with the devastating pasts of female protagonists Lisbeth Salander (Stief Larsson) and Kick Lanigan (Chelsea Cain).

As usual, I digress.

Psychological and emotional challenges are always interesting. But in the past week I listened obsessively to four novels in Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series. Yes, I started with book number five, of eight. (I often start mid-series and eventually return to the beginning.) Joe O’Loughlin is a psychologist drawn into the profiling game. In addition to having the infidelity, alcohol, and relationship issues common to so many other (fictional) investigators, Joe has early-onset Parkinson’s disease. I find that a fascinating choice on Robotham’s part.

Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that has a survival rate of between 7 and 15 years. It affects men more often than women, and is marked by uncontrollable movements, late-stage dementia, and a host of other troubling symptoms. It’s not a disease that the sufferer can hide for very long.

O’Loughlin’s battle with the disease begins in the very first book of the series, and never ends or gives him a break. He’s suffering, and it negatively affects his marriage, work, and other relationships. More than once, it nearly costs him his life. It’s become a super villain he refers to as Mr. Parkinson, and it’s a villain he can’t fight beyond taking medication and making some lifestyle changes. There is no cure.

Today, a woman who served me lunch at a restaurant had the use of only her right arm, as her left had been amputated at the elbow. She did her job with alacrity and care. However it happened, she just deals. It must be incredibly difficult, but she makes it look easy. She is not fiction.

O’Loughlin is a fictional character about whom Robotham made a significant and possibly unique choice. As a psychologist, O’Loughlin is a character who’s used to guiding other people’s lives, yet he can’t even control his own body. Frustration layered over sadness over tragedy. The deck is, as they say, stacked against him. But isn’t that what excellent thrillers are all about? Ordinary people facing extraordinary odds. Robotham pulls it off.

I’m stymied as to other thrillers in which the protagonist has a significant physical challenge. Of course, there was Jimmy Stewart with his broken leg in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s REAR WINDOW. The break definitely intensified the story.

Can you name other stories/characters in which the writer severely challenged their main character?

Have you created similar situations in your own work?



Things to Rescue From the Water

Possibly the homeliest post pic ever. The busted gray thing was an expansion tank that exploded when our house water pressure regulator suddenly failed.


Forgive my brevity, dear TKZers. The above photo may give you a hint as to what my week has been like. Last Wednesday night, I was practically walking on rarified air after I’d (successfully) interviewed writer Jodi Picoult in front of 900 readers at St. Louis County Headquarters. (Successful being defined as no one laughing me offstage, and I didn’t faint. Others’ definitions may differ!) I was just tucking up in bed when I noticed I had two missed calls from our alarm company. I’d missed them because my phone had gone into sleep mode. Husband was home, alone, with the animals. Talk about alarming.

After the responding police (!) left him (he’s a deep sleeper and didn’t hear the blaring horn sounds coming from the alarm unit), he texted me as he  looked around the inside of the house. Nothing appeared to be amiss–except for an inch of water in the back half of the house. Yes, four bedrooms, a mudroom, and a long hallway were all wet.

I felt helpless being two hours away, unable to do anything besides offer advice. Hero Husband managed to shut off the water to the house, and swept and vacced for several hours. If not for those missed calls and the pounding of the police on the door, the entire house would’ve been a loss. As it was, our biggest loss was flooring.

What did I ask him to rescue? A big box containing…books. Of course. Not that surely soggy box full of professional photos of a previous marriage (mine), and various high school and college certificates and yearbooks. Not the exercise equipment bits and bobs. Not whatever mysterious debris lay sodden on the floor of my son’s room. Only the books felt important.

Once home late Thursday morning, I rescued other damp things. But I made sure my books were safe and dry, first. (Really should’ve gotten rid of those wedding photos 28 years ago anyway, right?)

They weren’t particularly precious books, or rare. Ebay probably has other copies. But they weren’t the same copies. Then, as a good friend and I emptied those four bedrooms of belongings and more books, it occurred to me that life would’ve been a lot easier if all of my books were digital instead of paper. It was a brief thought, which I then banished to the  Outer Dark. I must have been very tired or something to have even had that thought at all.

So, gentle readers, what objects would you save first if your house flooded itself?




Blue Menace: First Page Critique

Photo credit: Canva.com (author pro access)

Greetings, readers, writers, and population at large. Today we have a first page critique of a futuristic story about a young woman with the colorful name of Diamond Blue. Please read the submission, and my comments, then let our dear writer in on your thoughts.

Working Title: Blue Menace

Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.

She looked at her wrist. Crap! Ten minutes to get to the ship, and maybe another twenty before the cops figured out what she had done.

In the bathroom, she held the backpack up to her side of the shelf and swiped everything in. She rested the bag on the vanity and pushed at the jumble inside to close the zip. As she finished, she glanced at the mirror – red face, sweaty, and wild-eyed. Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.

She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.

Deep breaths.

The memory flashed of her best friend, Rina, surrounded by a swarm of armed cops. She shook her head to clear it. If she didn’t get moving, it would all be for nothing.

She turned out of the bathroom, swinging the backpack onto her shoulder, and crossed the living room. She and Rina weren’t messy flatmates, but the remains of yesterday’s hasty planning session was strewn across the coffee table – pizza, wine, chocolate. Diamond grabbed the last few squares of chocolate and popped them into her mouth. Breakfast of champions.

At the front door, she waved her hand over the sensor. It slid across the opening and disappeared into the opposite wall.

Diamond pulled the hood of her sweater over her hair, leaned out and checked the corridor.

Her neighbors in this quadrant of Residential Floor Three liked to start work a little later than most. There was no one around.

Neither was her ride. Of all the times for the damn Sliders to malfunction!

The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.

The chip! Ahh, she was a class-A idiot!

She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.

She had less time than she thought.


This, dear readers, is an example of a quite accomplished opening to a story. We have immediate action occurring in the midst of some troubling event—that desirable in medias res we so often encourage around here. A well-defined setting: sometime in the technological future. Clear, identifiable characters: Diamond Blue and her flatmate, Rina Cavanaugh, the cops. Interesting nomenclature in the story’s world. And a nearly complete scene that doesn’t lose its focus. Check, check and check.

So let’s look at some details, dear writer.

I like the title, Blue Menace. Evocative, and connected to the main character. While I’m not certain, the title and voice make it sound like it’s a YA story.

Opening line:

“Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.”

This is a perfectly good opening line for a chapter. I’m less convinced that it is telling enough for a novel. If this is, indeed, a novel, I’d like to see the opening chapter—even just a paragraph– be an event in the obviously chaotic world outside the building (or whatever where Diamond lives is called). It can be in the past, such as the scene where Rina is surrounded, or some apocalyptic event that we will eventually learn about. Make the stakes of the story bigger right off.

“She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.”

A couple of commas will make the sentence clearer:

She splashed water on her flushed face, and ran her damp hands over her long, sapphire-blue braids.

You could even lose “-blue.” I don’t think anyone would imagine her hair is made of actual sapphires. Though there are a few sapphire stones of other colors (rubies are technically sapphires), they are typically blue. Then again, it occurs to me that her name is Diamond. Is the sapphire reference intentional?

I admire the way you do the reflection description of Diamond, dear writer. Mirrors can be cliché, but it works.

Quoting a character’s thoughts—

Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

Using italics to hear a third-person character’s thoughts is fine. But if you’re going to use quotes or italics, you need to treat thoughts like internal dialogue, and use me instead of her, and I instead of she. It should read:

“Oh sure, they’d let me on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

When you quote this way, you can make the thoughts sound a little more natural, as in,

Sure. Like they’ll let me on board looking like a crackhead after a five mile run, no problem.”

Later, Damn Sliders. Of course they choose now to screw up!” and Holy crap, I’m an idiot!

A matter of agreement—

“The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.”

I had to think about this one a moment. I’m assuming individual Sliders are referred to as “a Slider.” If so, the sentence should read:

(Simpler, preferred version. Don’t get caught up in exact locations.) A Slider, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from a public bay closest to the requester’s location based on the quantum chip in their hand.

 Or, The Sliders, simple hover-platforms with t-bars to steer, were supposed to come from the public bays near the core to requesters’ locations based on the quantum chip in their hands.

(I know I use “their” as singular in the first one. According to some, that usage is still under debate. I’ve made the change in my work.)

 “She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.”

Okay, you’ve got me here, dear writer. I’m lost. Am I supposed to understand that she ordered in her own name originally? If the Slider is supposed to come to her based on the fact that it responds to the chip in her hand, shouldn’t it have located her where she is? What does the cuff have to do with it? I finally understand that Rina is locked up on the Justice floor—good news that she’s not dead—but I don’t get the explanation for the Slider mixup.

Perhaps simply drop the whole mistaken Slider thing, unless it will have an effect on the plot later. If that’s the case, just make it as simple as possible, and put the revelation of Rina’s location somewhere else.

What a great start, dear writer. I would definitely read on.

Have at it, TKZers! What are your thoughts and suggestions?




Good Lists Make Great Stories



On a recent drive to a workshop event, I was listening to Jodi Picoult’s novel, SMALL GREAT THINGS. Near the beginning, Ruth, a Labor and Delivery nurse, describes all the things that need to be observed during a newborn’s physical assessment. It’s a long list of  over a dozen items, including measuring the circumference of the infant’s head, its sucking reflex, the relative softness of its belly, the location of the urethra, etc.

I got very excited when I recognized the list as a list because I was planning an exercise about using lists in fiction during the workshop. (Credit for the exercise goes to my writing prof/writer husband, Pinckney, who is an amazing teacher.)

Do you create lists for yourself? I’m most prone to make lists when I’m very busy around the holidays, need to do a brain dump for all the things I need to do for a project, or I’m packing for travel. Even the least list-like people usually have mental checklists they use. Think: unlock car, get in, turn on engine, buckle up, adjust climate, charge phone, light cigarette, put car in gear. Or, make coffee, unlock door, take dog outside, get paper, lock door, feed dog, make breakfast, read paper. An airplane or helicopter pilot doesn’t fly if their checklist isn’t completed. If you write down all the things you usually do in a particular order, you’ll have a list.

Directions–whether to a particular location or describing how to put something together–are another sort of list.

The glorious thing about using lists in stories and other writing is that they are a perfect shorthand for defining characters and setting scenes.

Some famous lists from literature:

Oft-quoted packing list from Joan Didion’s The White Album

2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe, slippers
bag with: shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap, razor
face cream
baby oil

mohair throw
2 legal pads and pens
house key

“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

So, it’s not fiction. But we get an astonishingly clear picture of Didion, the person and the writer, in a fairly small space. Bourbon, aspirin, Tampax, typewriter–though where’s the underwear? Perhaps it was too delicate a mention for her? If so, that definitely says a lot about her.


Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

“What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatcher, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”

A scathing sentence, isn’t it? Two lists that condemn both practices and and entire philosophy.


Mary Oliver

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

I want, I want, I want…Imagine playing with the form of your short story (it would be too long for a novel), beginning every line with a word or phrase. A list of wants, shaped into a story.

Joyce Carol Oates has a story in which each line begins with “If.” At least I think it was “If.” Anyway, it was a good story, as I recall.


Johnny Cash’s To-Do List


1. Not smoke
2. Kiss June
3. Not kiss anyone else
4. Cough
5. Pee
6. Eat
7. Not eat too much
8. Worry
9. Go see Mama
10. Practice Piano

NOTES: Not write notes”

This says so much about Johnny Cash. Or another sensitive man, musician, lover.


Bridget Jones’s Diary, New Year’s Resolution list

One of the most famous lists in recent literature. Find it. Read it. Even if it’s not your flavor of fiction. Utterly defines her character and is a brilliant precursor for the entire novel.

From my novel, The Stranger Inside

“There are two carefully folded summer dresses, both V-neck and in patterns she might have chosen for herself, one more tailored than the other. Beneath them is a pair of white Capri pants and two pairs of soft linen shorts. Then several linen shirts in pastel colors, one a loose button-down. As she takes the clothes from the bag, she lays them out on the bed. The tags say Nordstrom, and the linen pieces are marked as having been on sale. She smiles when she opens the two shoeboxes to find a pair of buff kitten-heel slides that go with the dresses, and a pair of flat Tory Burch sandals. It’s as though she’s been visited by a fairy, but she knows the fairy was surely Diana.

Opening the third bag, she laughs. There’s more tissue, but it’s wrapped around a clutch of panties that spill out like silky water over her hand and onto the bed. At the bottom of the bag is a diaphanous pink cotton nightgown with satin ties at the shoulders. While everything else is very close to what she’d wear, the nightgown strikes her as bridal and girlish. Still, what a surprise it all is. She realizes she hasn’t really smiled in days.”

(Don’t be fooled. This is one of the novel’s very few quiet moments. After all, there’s a stranger occupying Kimber’s house and he has possession of all her clothes.)



Are those enough lists for you? Think of your own lists: grocery lists, wishlists, self-improvement lists, lists of goals, bucket lists. There are as many lists as people in the world.

Think about what kinds of lists your characters might make. If your character is a serial killer, imagine her Home Depot shopping list. Imagine the prescriptions her elderly victims take.

Every list tells a story. Go make one!

Do you have any favorite literary lists? What lists have you made that could be stories? How have you used lists in your work?



Evolution of a Cover: ISABELLA MOON

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since my first novel was traditionally published in 2007, it’s that a writer needs to be flexible and amenable to change if they want to be successful. My definition of success? I’m still here. Readers still read my stories–often paying for them–and I still write them.

ISABELLA MOON was first published by Ballantine Books, and was/is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. It’s about a woman living in hiding from an abusive husband, and she’s contacted by the ghost of a child who went missing two years earlier. Why am I so attached to my first novel? I wonder if I would even think about it much if the ebook revolution hadn’t happened. Without ebooks, I doubt I would have bothered to republish it once the rights reverted to me. Just think of all the books that (often deservedly) are lost to time because they were published in paper–paper that wasn’t acid-free. The existence of non-expiring digital content, combined with easy access to book resellers, means that pretty much any book can now stay alive a long, long time.

But tastes change. Markets change. And there are always potential new readers to attract. I confess I’m often guilty of picking up a book because I’m drawn to its cover. Thus I feel compelled to update the covers of the few books I re-publish myself.


Cover 1, Ballantine: Hardcover (2007)

This is a beautiful cover. If I’d been a more experienced writer, I might have pushed to have it look a bit edgier. It has a mysterious, dreamlike, feminine, rather timeless vibe. Yet the book has several horror elements.

Cover 2: Trade Paperback, Ballantine (2008)

I love the fuzziness of the title, particularly since the book is a ghost story. The size of trade paperbacks appeals to me.

Covers 3 and 4: Hardcover, Trade paper (export edition) William Heinemann, UK (2008)

The yellow color in this photo is a bit deceiving. It’s actually more of a pale cream, with a glimmering, matte sheen to it. It’s truly stunning, and thematically dead-on.


Cover 5: Ebook, Gallowstree Publishing  (2011) (My publishing company, freelance designer)

Looking back on this one makes me go Hmmmm.  It definitely has more of a horror vibe, and is certainly unsettling. The adult protagonist is obviously in danger.

Cover 6: Ebook, Gallowstree Press (2015?), freelance designer

This is the most literal cover: Ghostly font, ghost, photo of moon. Not sure why it’s basically 3 colors. I think it would make a terrific paperback.


Covers 7 and 8, Gallowstree Press, my designs

I’m going to experiment with two covers for this next update that’s coming in a week or two. One cover has a mystery feel to it, and the other that of a dark thriller. I’m considering adding a horror short story to the edition with the flower cover to differentiate it at the retailers. We’ll see how that works.

Between Vellum, and Canva, and many other helpful sites, it’s shockingly easy to make changes to all of my owned content. And, really, I have little to lose by making those changes. As these last two are for ebooks exclusively, my goal has been to make them great thumbnails. I would love to sell ISABELLA MOON in my own print-on-demand versions, but there are PLENTY of hard and softcover versions available out in the world. No need to add to the world’s post-consumer paper glut.

Why the wide selection of cover styles? ISABELLA MOON is one of those stories that crosses genre boundaries: thriller, crime, gothic, horror, mystery. It’s tough to classify. I’ve always felt that the original cover, though beautiful, put it off on the wrong foot in the market. There’s strong language, sex, and plenty of violence between the covers. The reviews are polarized, so I had to stop reading them.

Of course, I should’ve done all this revamping well before my most recent novel, THE STRANGER INSIDE, was published back in February. There’s lots to do: update the excerpts in the backs of the books. Update the blurbs, and add my most recent four books to the interior bibliography. Oh, and update my author photo. Though I wouldn’t mind being eternally forty-five.

Note: The images in the two latest covers came from Istock. I will have to purchase extended licenses to use them as part of salable content.

TKZers–tell me all your cover successes and woes. And ask me anything!




First Page Critique: The Purple Door



(Purchased photo via iStock)


Greetings, readers and writers all! It’s First Page Critique time. Please take a few moments to read the submission, and my critique–then share your thoughts and advice in the comments.




Thursday, October 1

For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.

So much had happened in a month, most of it bad. But she’d found something unexpected at the Purple Door. This attic room had become home.

She’d made herself a nest.  Up in this high-raftered roost, working on the mural and listening to her records as loud as she wanted, talking to Adam until the sun came up, this place was her whole world. Everything and everyone she needed was here… and all the little things she didn’t need, she’d buried.

She was going to stay right here. So she had to pass this phone call.

Christina dropped the curtain on her faint reflection in the glass, a flash of long blond hair. She had to be ready. She began to pace, staring into the fathomless black face of her phone until it lit up in her hand:


The name leapt off the screen in all caps, a visual shock. It was a trick she used in order to focus, now that the crazy thoughts her meds used to kill were back in bloom.

She’d buried her pills, and several other problematic artifacts, in little holes around the boarding house. In the back yard, a gauzy yellow bag that used to shimmer in the light was now stuffed with tablets of lithium, lamictal, and clozapine, and sealed underground with three feet of dirt. She was up here without a net.


Let’s start this party with a quote from William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States, and 10thChief Justice of the United States:

Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.

This is a big deal when it comes to writing (or speaking), and it’s uniquely critical when a writer is creating a fictional world for the reader. If the reader feels unbalanced by the prose, or more confused than fascinated, the writer may lose them. Below I’ll discuss how this is relevant.

There’s so very much to like about this submission, The Purple Door.

–Christina is a vibrant protagonist. She’s a person of strong will and motivation.

–Dreamlike imagery

–Precise language

-Compelling portrait of a young woman with brain differences



“For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.”


The first thing I imagined when I read this opening was that Christina was either a witch or a superhero who was maybe checking in with her handler. I had no clear idea what kind of this story was. Call me overly literal, but I cannot lie.

The second paragraph, about the Storm, definitely has a supernatural feel. Now, I understand that the drug combination at the end of the piece implies that our protagonist has psychiatric issues that present her with some spectacularly trippy, mind-blowing experiences. And there’s room for them in the story. Maybe just not right off the bat. Don’t give the reader dessert before the meal. UNLESS you’re going to start out with a hugely damaging or significant psychotic episode as the novel’s opening gambit. But that’s not happening here.

I’d like to see the piece start out with the bold facts, and resist being coy. Always resist coy.


Exactly one week ago, Christina had used a rusted hand spade to bury her pills, and other problematic artifacts, in deep holes around the backyard of the boarding house. A gauzy yellow drawstring bag that used to shimmer in the light now lay hidden three feet underground, stuffed with what was left of her lithium, lamictal, and clozapine tablets. They were down there, which meant she was up here, living without a net.

We immediately know who Christina is, and the battle she’s fighting in her brain. It’s a fierce beast. Sure, she has to get by DAD, but he is a secondary foe. No doubt he’s one of many she’ll encounter over the course of the book. The real beast—that brings her both burdens and strange gifts—will be with her all her life.

With that in mind, it’s okay to go on and show us Christina’s current sleepless, exhausted, nervous state. If you’re going to go with a visual of the Storm she experiences as she looks out the window, be straight about it. She knows it’s not real, but she’s also experiencing it. Let the reader know, too.

Now she stood in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It was time to check in. Time to convince him that she was doing just fine on her own. Except, she felt the Storm in her head coming on. It blurred the pane of glass, blended with the real rainstorm lashing the outside of the old house. The topmost leaves of the trees shook with tethered fury… [continue as written]

I very much like the imagery in this section. The splashing lightning made me hesitate, but I think it works.

As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the page works fine—as long as the burying of the pills moves to the beginning. Two minor points:

–Remove the ellipses in the fourth paragraph and replace with a comma, or begin a new sentence.

–Does she really think of her thoughts as “crazy thoughts?” [penultimate paragraph] One of the implications of not being on the drugs appears to be that she feels like herself. It brings into question the concept of normalcy—something that is certainly debatable.

One more significant suggestion. After the first paragraph, try switching to the present tense. Not everyone is a fan, but just try it. It offers an immediacy that I think is appropriate to the subject.

Now she stands in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It’s time to check in.

Sally forth, Brave Author. This is a terrific story!







Don’t Miss Your Deadlines: A Great Big Cautionary Tale

With thriller writer friend Shane Gericke, 2009. Photo by Judy Douglas Knauer via Facebook

This pic with my dear friend, Shane Gericke, was taken at the now-defunct Love Is Murder conference back in 2009, near Chicago. It was February, and I was promoting my second novel, which had come out in the once dead zone between Christmas (2008) and New Year’s Day (now a pretty good time to be published). Why the dead zone? Primarily my own fault because I made the sophomore mistake of being more than a month late getting the book turned in. If I’d been the professional I am now, I would’ve gotten it in on time, published in October, and the book probably would’ve been in paperback as well. Though my #sophomorefail wasn’t helped by the publishing industry’s January 2009 implosion. Everyone in the business was either deeply distracted by waves of bad news, or their hair was on fire.

That winter, I was way too green to realize my novel had been published “dead,” as the description goes. If a book is published dead, nothing happens. I mean nothing. Oh, my book was on library shelves, and made it into bookstores, and there were reviews. (Joe Hartlaub loved it, which is everything to me.) But it was not pushed by marketing, and not embraced by readers. The publicist still took my calls, but my editor was harder to reach. I don’t think I had another conversation with him until an awkward New York cocktail party a couple of years later. As I mentioned above, there was no paperback.

When it came time for the house to review my next book’s proposal and chapters, per my contract, my agent was the contact. The rejection was so swift that I hardly had time to get anxious about the proposal being out. I wish I could say I wasn’t surprised. I wish I could say I wasn’t hurt. I wish I could say I didn’t take it personally. Now, I find myself embarrassed at my naiveté.

Why am I telling you this cautionary tale–aside from the fact that I have an odd confessional streak? A public service announcement about meeting deadlines never goes amiss. Seriously, don’t miss your deadlines! The entire trajectory of my career was (possibly, probably) changed because I screwed up so badly.

Five years ago, maybe even two years ago I wouldn’t have shared this story with you. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to. Yes, I was ashamed and embarrassed. Also, it’s a bad idea to mess with your professional reputation online. You never know what potential editors might think. Potential readers. Then there’s that ego thing. I got the once-in-a-lifetime debut, two book contract. And lost the plot. Nobody wants to be fodder for the Writer Schadenfreude Gossip Machine.

Except that ten years have passed already. I’m what you might call a mid-career author. (Okay, if I die tomorrow, then today I actually would’ve been an end-of-career author. Huh.) These days, I find little value in being opaque. I’m a writer, and I’m human, and I make mistakes. Still.

This whole mid-career thing has taken me a bit by surprise. It feels like no time at all has passed since I sat so nervously in that hotel lobby with Shane. Steve Berry was also there. In fact, I was so nervous about being in public, and around writers and readers whom I didn’t know, that I would go hide in my hotel my room and practically hyperventilate several times a day. But as with so many other things, time brings perspective.

As a writer and human, you will screw up. Accept it, then move on.

If I hadn’t screwed up so badly, I never would’ve taken my rejected novel and started my own little press with my husband. I wouldn’t have learned about self-publishing in the early days, been able to teach my writer friends about it, or gotten to a place where I understand that readers don’t really care who published a book, but mostly just care about the story, and–very occasionally–the author. I might not have pushed myself to come up with a story concept that got me a three book series with a traditional publisher. Or a chance to publish with a truly brilliant young editor. And so on.

You never know.

(And don’t miss your deadlines!)


Dear TKZers–Do you have a cautionary writer’s tale to share?





The Honest Epitaph

Photo: Ben Churchill [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Having recently celebrated a birthday that was (once again) well past my life’s statistical half-point, I’m feeling a bit maudlin. And maudlin is so dull!

So, tell me. What would your honest epitaph be? It’s the very last bit of writing you share with the world. I’m not looking for the reverent words that loved ones will no doubt honor you with, but the words you would put on there if you didn’t mind embarrassing your kids, your partner/spouse, your mom.

Remember, it’s important to put honest bits of yourself into everything you write…

A few of mine:

“She Wasn’t Good, But She Had Good Intentions.” (via Lyle Lovett)

“Wait! That Wasn’t What I Meant to Say!”

“She Was F.I.N.E.”

“Go Away, I’m Reading”

“Of Course I’m Listening”

“She Was Late for Her Own Funeral”


Now it’s your turn, TKZers!