The Project Plan

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

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Last week, Garry Rodgers wrote a TKZ post about Leonardo da Vinci that explored the idea of using both sides of the brain: the left (analytical) and the right (emotional). Today’s post on project plans is all about the left side.

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Let’s start with software. Software development projects are carefully planned and tracked. At least they should be. A large deliverable may involve many actors including developers, documenters, administrators, and testers. A good project manager will maintain a gantt chart much like the one pictured below (intentionally blurred), to document the various deliverables, dependencies, and milestones.

Gantt charts can contains hundreds of line items, so they’re a good way to keep track of everything. But there are pitfalls. Some project managers become so enamored with the bells and whistles of project planning software that they end up managing the plan rather than managing the project.

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So what does this have to do with writing? Although writing is considered a right-brain function, the tasks that go into publishing a book are lefties.

My first book was traditionally published. Once the publisher offered a contract and I signed, they took the steering wheel. They had their own editors that I worked with. They also came up with several different cover designs for me to choose from. They purchased the ISBN and arranged for the copyright. They also decided on the release date and took care of uploading the book to the retail sites as well as Ingram Spark. I didn’t have a lot to do during that phase except ask some people for endorsements and review the situation whenever the publisher contacted me. There was no need for me to have a formal plan. But then things changed, and the rest of this post has to do with all the things that go into self-publishing a novel.

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When my husband and I decided to self-publish the next book, we established our own publishing company, Wordstar Publishing, LLC. The process of publishing a book became a lot more difficult.

I started with a simple to-do list, and things went fairly well, but I only had one book to worry about. It soon became clear that I needed a project plan to keep track of all the threads.

So now I have a project plan for each book. I don’t use a gantt chart, but I maintain an excel spreadsheet with categories. Each category has a list of tasks and each task has a target date, completion date, and notes.  Although I’m an avid follower of the KISS principle, there are well over a hundred line items on the plan for my latest book, and it will grow as I add book promos and feedback.

Here are the major categories and a brief description of each one:

  • Writing / Editing – Everything it takes to get the ms ready for publication. Original ms, dev editor, revisions, line editor, proofreader, text to speech.
  • Beta Readers – List of all the wonderful people whose feedback makes it a better book.
  • Endorsers – More wonderful people who add credibility to the book.
  • Cover Design – Work with the designer, finalize the image, provide back cover copy
  • Copyright & Library of Congress – Get copyright and Library of Congress number. Send copies to gov agencies.
  • Wordstar Publishing tasks – ISBN, barcode, contract with author
  • Website – Update with book info
  • Format and Finalize – Format in Vellum, finalize front and back matter
  • Launch-related activities – Identify launch team, finalize emails, newsletters, images
  • Prep for Pre-order and Final ebook – Choose ebook release date, prepare pre-order and upload to retail sites. Upload final version.
  • Prep for Release of Print copy – Choose print release date for retail sites. Upload final version.
  • Ingram Spark and Draft2Digital – Upload ebook and print to Ingram Spark. Upload to Draft2Digital for library distribution.
  • Editorial Reviews – Identify and contact orgs for editorial reviews
  • Marketing – Promos, giveaways, book store contacts
  • Mail books – Send copies to all the folks who helped along the way

So there you have it. A way to keep organized and stay on-target.

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Over to you, TKZers. How do you organize publishing your books? Do you maintain a project plan? What other activities do you track beyond what I have on my list? 

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Cassie Deakin has one item on her to-do list: find out why two ex-cons attacked and almost killed her beloved uncle. But can she complete the task before she becomes the next victim?

Lacey’s Star: A Lady Pilot-in-Command Novel.


Do You Have Dirty Links?

All our links need to work. Especially buy links. What if the link to your new release prevents your ARC readers from leaving reviews on Amazon? What if the link prevents all your readers from leaving reviews on Amazon, even verified purchase reviews? Or worse, Amazon shuts down your account because you’re violating their rules.

It happens more often than you may think, and many times the violation stems from a dirty link — the link you used in your marketing. That’s how important it is to clean your links. Trad-pub authors, don’t think this subject doesn’t apply to you. It does. In fact, that’s where I learned about dirty links, from my very first publisher.

What is a dirty link?

Your new book baby goes live on Amazon. If you search for the title on Amazon rather than go through your KDP dashboard, you’ll get a link that looks like this:

That is a dirty link. It even looks ugly, right?

I want to draw your attention to this half of the link:


Everything after “ref” is filled with information for Amazon, information that can bite you in the butt. This tells Amazon who searched for the book. If the author conducted the search, then everyone who uses that link must be friends or family of said author.

Though you and I know that’s a ridiculous statement, Amazon disagrees.

If you have a connection to a reader, even if it’s on social media, Amazon presumes they’ll rate your book favorably. Doesn’t matter if you have 1M friends or followers. If someone buys your book from that dirty link, you are friends and/or family in Amazon’s eyes. Period. Hence why it’s also never a good idea to link your Goodreads (Amazon owned) to your Facebook.

As you probably know, Amazon doesn’t allow friends and/or family to review your book. If they do, Amazon can delete it from your book’s page. If you continue to violate this rule, Amazon can shut down your account.

So, the first thing you should do is delete everything from “ref” forward, leaving you with this:

Looks better, right? That link is now clean, but we can shorten it even more. The title and author are also irrelevant as far as the link is concerned. Let’s delete both.

If you’re working with limited space, you also don’t need “www.” You’ll end up with this:

Now that’s a spotless link! A far cry from the original, right? And with no added information for Amazon to track.

While we’re on the subject of links…

Most profile sections on social media only allow you to include one link. Wouldn’t it be great if you could house all your books, website, blog, newsletter sign-up, etc. under one link rather than choosing which one to include? You can!

The creative minds behind LinkTree solved the one-link problem.

Did I mention it’s free? When you sign up, they’ll ask you to customize your link with your name. Don’t use your book title or a clever alias. That defeats the purpose. You could use your pen name if that’s the only name you write under. Or create a new link for additional pen names.

Personally, I only want one link, but you do you.

Here’s how mine looks:

You can customize the links inside, with headings, color, button style, thumbnail images, etc.

Of course, you can upgrade for statistical data and other bells and whistles, like affiliate marketing. Though the free account does accept affiliate links for books without the upgrade.

Are you using affiliate links?

 If you’re unfamiliar with affiliate marketing, here’s what Amazon says about its program:

Amazon’s affiliate program, also known as Amazon Associates, is an affiliate marketing program that allows users to monetize their websites, blogs, or social media. Amazon affiliate users simply place links to Amazon products on their site, and when a customer makes a purchase via one of their links, the user receives a commission.

Every time we pay for a promo spot, you can bet the book site is including their affiliate ID in your link. Which is fine. It’s their site.

Quick funny story…

When my debut released, I thought a certain book site was the cat’s meow for sending me a universal book link to use in all future marketing. So nice, right? Yes and no. What I discovered later was they included their affiliate ID in the universal link. So, for well over a year, I gave away commissions that I could’ve earned. Kudos to them. They got me good. Now, the only links I use are the ones I create. If anyone’s gonna earn commissions from my marketing efforts, it’s me.

Do you use affiliate links? Do you clean your links? Have you ever had reviews removed by Amazon? Has a book site ever created a universal link for you? 😉 

How To Read Body Language

As writers, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that even while silent, our bodies speak volumes. Nonverbal cues — body language — are the physical behavior, expressions, and mannerisms that communicate how we really feel.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our bodies are sending nonverbal signals when we interact with others. By analyzing gestures, posture, tone of voice, level of eye contact, etc., we can learn many things. Body cues enhance dialogue between characters.

Are you reading those same signals in the real world?

Members of the Animal Kingdom rely on body language to warn each other of potential danger. Crows are especially attuned to their environment. Just sayin’. 😉 I believe animals are our greatest teachers. We can learn a lot by studying how they interact with their environment and with different species. Matters not if a squirrel doesn’t speak crow, raven, or blue jay. That squirrel still knows how the birds are feeling, and vice versa, by reading their body language.

When we say one thing, but our body language says the opposite, the listener may conclude we’re being dishonest. And rightfully so. For example, we may say “yes” while wagging our head from side to side. Because body language is a natural, subconscious act that broadcasts our true feelings and intentions, the nonverbal signal is more accurate than spoken words.

Being cognizant of our own body language and perfecting how to communicate more fully is a valuable skill to learn for interviews, sales, book signings, video marketing, etc…anywhere we interact with others. Profilers and investigators rely on body language to help them dig for the truth.

Face Facts

The human face is extremely expressive, able to convey countless emotions without saying a word. Unlike other forms of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are universal. Indistinguishable across cultures, facial expressions show happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust, to name a few.

Say Cheese

Not everyone smiles the same way. Some favor a close-lipped smile over a toothy grin. In general, when someone’s authentically happy, their whole face lights up and smile lines extend up to the corners of their eyes. On the flipside, a closed mouth smile may mean they’re masking their real emotion or appeasing their audience to avoid conflict.

Un-kissable Lips

Another mouth-related clue, pursed lips almost always indicate dissatisfaction or anger.

Eye of the Tiger

Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an important nonverbal body cue. The way we look at someone communicates many things, including interest, affection, hostility, or attraction. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s interest and response.

If you’re chatting with someone and they narrow their eyes, their body language portrays anger, confusion, or suspicion, and in some cases, deep concentration.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

When someone is being dishonest, they’ll look up to their upper right (your left when facing them). The right side of the brain is our creative side (as you probably know). That glance upward allows them to access that part of the brain, thus thinking more creatively while fabricating the truth. They may also pause—stall—to buy time while constructing a more convincing lie.

Can You Hear My Body Language?

Consider how you perceive others by the way they sit, walk, stand, or hold their head. The way we carry ourselves nonverbally communicates a wealth of information. This type of body language includes posture, stance, and more subtle movements (as shown below).

Hot Crossed Buns Arms

How someone holds themselves says a lot about what they’re thinking, especially when it comes to their arms. A closed-off position indicates self-protection and blocking out a negative source. When we’re comfortable or open to communication, we’re more likely to stand with relaxed arms.

Space Shot

Have you ever had someone invade your personal space? Made you uncomfortable, right? We all need physical space, though that distance differs depending on the culture, situation, or closeness of the relationship. We use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages, including intimacy, affection, aggression, or dominance.

If someone’s uncomfortable or disinterested, they may slightly turn away from the conversation—whether they realize it or not.

Footprints in the Sand

Take note of the feet. Subconsciously, we tend to point our toes in the direction of where we’d like to go. If someone’s enjoying your company, their feet should point toward you. But if they desperately want to bolt, their feet will likely point toward the nearest exit. One caveat to this research is pain. Hence why we need to consider the person we’re talking to as well as the context of the encounter.

Nervous Nellie

When someone is nervous, they’ll often sit with their ankles crossed. Surprising, right? One exception is when the rest of their body portrays openness. For example, lacing fingers behind their head, reclined, with ankles crossed straight out in front of them. But if they lean back with their arms crossed it signals objection. Hence why you may want to reconsider how the interaction is going. If you’re trying to win someone over, engage them with questions and see if they lean forward instead.

Pat-A-Cake, Pat-A-Cake, Baker’s Hands

Gestures are woven into the fabric of daily life. A wave, point, or animation of hands often express emotion. Interestingly, some gestures vary between cultures. For example, flashing the “okay” hand signal conveys a positive message, but it’s considered offensive in Germany, Russia, and Brazil, for example. Should we discuss raising the middle finger? Hand signals don’t get much clearer than that. 😉

Stroking the chin often indicates a high interest in the conversation. Likely that person will ask probing questions to learn more. If you spot this cue, you’ve piqued interest among a captive audience.

Reach Out & Touch Someone

We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the message behind a weak handshake, or a warm bear hug, a patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip of the arm.

The Nose Knows

Many people touch their nose, sniff, or breathe heavier when stressed. Breathing regulates the body, eases tension while we communicate, and helps us to regain composure. If we pay attention to these behaviors in others, it’ll help unearth the truth. Again, context is key. If someone is ill or has a health issue, we can safely disregard sniffing. But repetitive sniffing or quickened breaths indicate the person feels unbalanced or is trying to remain composed.

Watch Your Tone of Voice

Never is it a matter of what we say, but how we say it. When we speak, others read our voice while listening to our words. Timing, pace, volume, tone, inflection, and utterances that convey understanding, such as “ahh” and “uh-ha” are all good indicators to watch for. Think about how your tone changes when you add sarcasm, anger, affection, or confidence.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Keep in mind, body language is not always 100% accurate. The context of the situation as well as the individual we’re speaking to are both key factors to consider.

Writing aside, are you aware of body language in the real world? Funny stories always welcome!

On a personal note, I regained full control over my Mayhem Series. Woohoo! Created my own imprint and Indie pubbed all five books. What an amazing feeling! Book 6 is with my editor and I’m working with my cover designer now. Gotta share my new logo. You’ll get a kick outta it. 😉 Still waiting for Amazon to transfer my reviews. Other than that, I’m having a blast with my newfound freedom.


Murder! Murder!

By Elaine Viets

Several years ago, when I was chosen for jury duty in St. Louis, we were asked if we’d ever had any connection to a murder: did we have a friend or relative who was a murder victim? Did we know someone who was convicted of murder?
I was astonished at how many people raised their hand – almost two-thirds of that massive jury room. Those who raised their hands seemed to be so-called solid citizens – well-dressed men and women, old and young, black and white. The last people you’d think would be involved with violent crime.
Including the grandmotherly woman next to me, who’d brought her knitting. She told me her brother was murdered. He was a kindhearted man who gave a co-worker a ride home on a dark, rainy night. The colleague’s husband shot and killed him. He was convinced his innocent wife was having an affair.

Murder seems to touch us all. When I thought about it, I realized I’d watched a murderer grow up in my city neighborhood. We lived on a shady street with big, old redbrick houses. One house, halfway down the block, was known as “the trouble house.” The police were there two or three times a week. The neighbors often called the cops on the boy, who I’ll call Billy, because that’s not his name. Billy broke windows, supposedly stole things out of yards, and may have tortured a stray cat.
The neighbors would call the cops, who would show up at the house and talk to Billy’s mother. Billy’s father was long gone. Soon after the complaint, there would be a fire in a trash can at the home of the person who complained – or a mysteriously broken garage window. After awhile, the neighbors quit complaining, but many lived in fear of the trouble house.
Then one morning, Billy was in the newspaper. He 18, and arrested for murdering a man in the neighborhood park. Supposedly, the man was gay and paid Billy for sex. Billy stabbed him to death.
Shortly after that, Billy’s mother sold the house to pay for her son’s legal bills, and moved away. Billy went to jail for murder.

In 2020, some 17,754 people were murdered in the USA. More than 40 people are murdered every day in the US. That statistic led to a jury room full of raised hands, and lives filled with sorrow and regret.
As mystery writers, we deal with murder professionally. But how many of us have dealt with murder personally? Tell us your story.

Late for His Own Funeral “ is a fascinating exploration of sex workers, high society, and the ways in which they feed off of one another.” — Kings River Life. Buy it here: 


Having trouble posting a comment? We’re sorry. We’re having technical problems and are working to resolve it. –Elaine

Your Writer Obituary

by James Scott Bell

Phyllis A. Whitney

Back when I was starting out on this journey, reading book after book on the craft, one of my favorites was Guide to Fiction Writing by Phyllis A. Whitney. It was just what I needed. No fluff and flowers, just practical techniques that work. I review that book every year or so, reading the portions I highlighted.

The other day I did a search for Phyllis Whitney and came across her 2008 obituary:

Novelist Phyllis A. Whitney, whose romantic suspense tales sold millions of copies and earned her top accolades from the Mystery Writers of America, has died. She was 104.

Whitney wrote more than 75 books, including three textbooks, and had about a hundred short stories published since the 1940s.

“I’ve slowed down in that I only write one book a year,” she said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press, when she was 85. “A writer is what I am.”

Can you relate to that? Can you see yourself at 85, 90, even 100 (Herman Wouk) still writing books? Of course, we are all subject to this mortal coil and the various infirmities, slings and arrows to which it is subject. But if relative health is yours, would you continue to write because “a writer is what I am?”

Whitney’s last novel, “Amethyst Dreams,” was published in 1997. She began working on her autobiography at 102.

In 1988 Whitney was named a Grand Master, the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor. In 1990, she received the Agatha award, for traditional mystery works typical of Agatha Christie, from Malice Domestic.

Time magazine in 1971 called Whitney one of “the best genre writers” and the only American woman in the romantic suspense field with a major reputation.

In 20th century lit circles the term “genre writer” was a putdown, a close cousin of “hack.” Even if a writer sold millions of books—a la Erle Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane—they were not counted as “real authors.” That distinction has largely been erased now, except among those handing out literary awards. Readers don’t think about it at all. What they want is what Whitney gave them:

She said her books were successful because “I tell a good story.”

We all agree that this is our goal. What things did Whitney do to accomplish it in book after book? That’s what Guide to Fiction Writing is about, but she does have a chapter called “The Plus Factor: That Certain Something.” There’s a lot in there, but if I can attempt to sum up it is, in Whitney’s words, a novel that says something worth saying. You find that something in a subject or theme that grabs you, then work it until you are fully, emotionally invested. “If you don’t have this emotional involvement, throw the subject away. You can’t fake conviction.”

One item more from Whitney’s obit:

“I offer optimism,” she said. “All my books have happy endings. I don’t see any point in letting my readers down at the end. I’m an optimist – people feel that in my books.”

Not every author offers an HEA (happily ever after) ending. There is great moral value in tragedy, too. The Greeks knew that. But the point of classic tragedy was to serve as a warning, and an incentive to live a life avoiding the “tragic flaw.” There’s a certain optimism in that, too. You can always offer, as the novelist John Gardner put it, “A vision of life that is worth living.”

With that, I ask you:

What would you want your writer obituary to say?

As you ponder, here are some gems from Whitney’s book:

These days in my writing I try to offer, as a “plus factor,” something unusual in the way of background or profession, and something significant in what my characters must learn in the course of the story—always remembering that reading fiction should be entertaining, and that I must first tell a story.


Probably the best way to start any story, long or short, is to show a character with a problem doing something interesting….Long expositions, descriptions, philosophizing, may entertain you, but are unlikely to grip a busy reader today. In the past we could be more leisurely.


While you’re writing, you should be satisfied to reread only whatever you wrote the day before. You do this in order to recapture your mood, reacquaint yourself with what happened last, and thus regain impetus to move ahead with the next scene.


Climax and Ending are two different things. The Climax is the big dramatic scene in which almost everything is resolved. The Ending is the wrap-up where lovers used to embrace and walk happily into the sunset. If possible, it’s a good idea to leave a thread of question in the reader’s mind right up to the last paragraph. Then let the sun go down fast, give your blessings to the characters and let them go. Let the whole book go. After all, another novel is waiting to be written, and you are eager to get to it!

Killer Deadlines

By Elaine Viets

Throughout my writing career, I’ve lived by deadlines. I started as a newspaper reporter and then became a columnist, where I often had four deadlines a week – with no time off. When the holidays rolled around, I had to write my columns ahead of time. That meant six or even eight deadlines a week.
As a mystery writer, I still have deadlines, but the pace seemed easier. Newspapers moved swiftly, like a cold through a kindergarten. Publishing seemed slower than a Manhattan traffic jam.
At first, I wrote two novels a year. Now I’ve cut back to one a year.

No problem with deadlines, right?
Wrong. No matter how much time I have to write a novel, the last week is always jammed up.
This August 31, I turned in my new Angela Richman, death investigator mystery to my London publisher, Severn House. This time, I spent that final stretch writing twelve-hour days, trying to finish. As I read through the book, a straggling subplot had to be cut. Its crabgrass-like tendrils were deep in the book. I dug them out.
Errors popped up – difficult characters deliberately changed their hair color and didn’t tell me. One nasty customer gave himself two different names. Typos appeared out of nowhere.
As I struggled to finish on deadline, I wrestled with my recalcitrant manuscript. I could feel it squirming. It refused to settle neatly in place.
I read and reread it until my eyes were blurry. Finally, I pressed the button and emailed it off to London, hoping all was well. I couldn’t read the book one more time.
Exhausted, I slept for two days.
Then I waited and worried, my head buzzing with questions:
Would my editor like the new book? Would she want a rewrite? What if she rejected it?
Finally, I got a brief note two weeks later – that’s lightning speed for publishing. My editor was reading the manuscript and “enjoying it hugely.”
Whew. I felt so much better. What was I going to do while I waited?
I could write a short story. Clean off my desk. Answer my emails. Plot my next book.
I could do that, but I didn’t. I couldn’t get up the energy.
My editor didn’t like the working title, so I came up with a new one – “The Dead of Night.”
I didn’t do much else. I just need to lie fallow, I told myself. I was so fallow I was turning into a puddle of goo. I moped around my home. I’ll get my energy back soon, I thought.
I got it back this Tuesday. My editor emailed me the copyedited manuscript. It needs some tweaking and a small rewrite. And I have one week to finish. It’s due next Tuesday.
Suddenly I was awake. Galvanized. Ready to work. I quit moping. I had a purpose.
Better yet, I had a deadline.

What about you, writers? Do you need deadlines?

PS: I’m also working under another deadline. Hurricane Nicole is heading this way, and I’m going to drag in the plants on the balcony. Wish us luck.

I’m celebrating! My short story, “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About,” in the anthology, “The Great Filling Station Holdup: crime fiction inspired by the songs of Jimmy Buffet,” edited by Josh Pachter, won Silver at the Royal Palm Literary Award.
Buy the anthology here:

Writing Lessons From Sidney Sheldon

by James Scott Bell

Before there was James Patterson there was Sidney Sheldon.

His second novel, The Other Side of Midnight (1973) was a monster bestseller. A string of #1 NYT bestsellers followed. Sheldon sold an estimated 400 million books before he died.

And he didn’t start writing fiction until he was in his early 50s!

Before that Sidney Sheldon led, if you’ll pardon the expression, a storied life.

He was born in Chicago in 1917, to Russian-Jewish parents. He almost committed suicide at age 17 (it wasn’t until decades later that he was diagnosed as bipolar). What pulled him back from the brink was writing. He pursued it with passion, and the results were astounding.

He had two hit shows on Broadway at the age of twenty-seven.

After World War II, he became a studio writer in Hollywood. His screenplay for the Cary Grant comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer won the Academy Award for best screenplay of 1947. Sheldon was 30 years old.

Not that all this was a smooth trajectory toward the top. Far from it. Sheldon suffered as many setbacks as he had triumphs. He described the writer’s life (especially in Hollywood) as being on an elevator. Sometimes it’s up. Sometimes it’d down. And if it stays down, you need to get off.

Sheldon continued to ride that elevator in the 1950s. Up and down. He even had a great idea for a Broadway show ripped off from him.

In the early 60s he decided to take a crack at television. He created the hit series The Patty Duke Show, and get this: Sidney Sheldon himself wrote virtually every episode himself. Over 100 in all!

Do you know how absolutely amazing that is? To be that sharp and funny week after week? And all this while suffering from what at the time was called manic-depression.

But even more amazing was the personal strength and courage he and his wife showed through two highly emotional tragedies.

They had a baby girl born with spina bifida and, despite all the best medical care, she died in infancy. After a long period of mourning they decided to adopt a child. An unwed mother whose boyfriend had left her gave the baby up. They brought her home and for six months loved her and bonded with her.

But under California law at that time, the biological mother could change her mind within six months. This mother did, and one day the authorities came and took the Sheldon’s baby daughter away.

Sheldon and his wife turned to religion for solace. Sidney (now being treated with Lithium) continued to work. He started developing a new television show from an idea he’d had for a long time. It was about an astronaut who finds a bottle on the beach and frees a genie. But this genie would not be the big, lumbering, male giant of tradition. Oh no. This one would be a babe. That’s how I Dream of Jeannie was born.

During this time, the 1960s, Sheldon kept noodling on a thriller idea about a psychiatrist who is marked for murder though he has no enemies. He must use his professional skill to figure out who is stalking him. That became Sheldon’s first novel, The Naked Face. It was published in 1970 and won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Sheldon caught the novel-writing bug, big time. Here he could create whatever world he wanted, without regard to budgets, sets, actors, or restrictions of any kind—especially the story-by-committee nonsense of Hollywood.

He had an unsold screenplay in his drawer and turned it into The Other Side of Midnight. Sheldon was 56 when this novel rocketed him into the literary stratosphere.

His last thriller, Are You Afraid of the Dark, was published in 2004, when Sheldon was 87.

Sidney Sheldon is the only writer ever to have won a Tony, an Oscar, and an Edgar Award. Let’s see if anybody ever does that again!

In The Writer’s Handbook 1989, Sheldon talked about his method. Here’s some of what he said.

The Secret

Sheldon was asked, What are some of the devices you have found most successful in getting your readers to ask breathlessly, “What’s next?”

The secret is simple: Take a group of interesting characters and put them in harrowing situations. I try to end each chapter with a cliffhanger, so that the reader must turn just one more page to find out what happens next. Another thing I do is to cut out everything that is extraneous to the story I am telling.

Simple to understand, yes. To put into practice book after book, well, that’s something else again. But you can learn how to write more interesting characters, how to make a form of death (physical, professional, psychological) hang over every scene (“harrowing situations”), and ways to end a scene or chapter with what I call a “Read On Prompt.” This is all to be filed under Craft Study.


Sheldon was a “discovery writer” or “pantser.” But let’s hear what that actually meant.

When he began a book, all he had in mind was a character. He then dictated to his secretary, developing the character, bringing others in, letting them interact. “I have no idea where the story is going to lead me.”

But that is only for the first draft. Then came the work.

The first rewrite will be very extensive. I will discard a hundred or two hundred pages at a time, tightening the book and clarifying the characters.

A hundred to two hundred pages? Yikes! There’s more: “I usually do up to a dozen rewrites of a manuscript.” Yikes and gulp!

He would spend a year or year-and-a-half rewriting and polishing a book. This paid off, of course. Big time.

He did have a caveat:

I want to emphasize that I do not recommend this way of working for any but the most experienced writers, since writing without an outline can lead to a lot of blind alleys. For a beginning writer, I think an outline is very important…It is a good idea to have a road map to tell you where you are going.

The Leave-Off Trick

Like Hemingway, Sheldon would end his day’s work after beginning a new scene. Sometimes he’d quit mid-sentence. “In the morning, when you are ready to go to work, you have already begun the new scene.”

Also, he would begin his writing sessions by lightly going over the previous day’s work.

The Mid-Plot Blues

Sheldon said he usually wanted to give up in the middle of his novels. I experienced this early in my career and came to call it the 30k Brick Wall. I found that several successful writers reported the same thing.

Why should this be? Maybe because by 30k you’ve got the engine revved up and are now staring at that long middle, wondering if you’ve got the right foundation and enough plot to make it to the end. The writing willies, if you will.

Formerly, my solution was simply to take a day to brood and imagine and jot notes, maybe adding a new character or two. Then, once I started up again, one scene at a time, I would get back into the flow. That works.

Now I find that if I have my signpost scenes in place, especially the mirror moment, I don’t hit the wall anymore.

The Emotion Quotient

You get your readers emotionally involved in your characters by being emotionally involved yourself. Your characters must come alive for you. When you are writing about them, you have to feel all the emotions they are going through—hunger, pain, joy, despair. If you suffer along with them and care what happens to them, so will the reader.

Wise words with which we all should agree.

Minor Characters

I refer to minor characters as “spice.” They are an opportunity to delight readers, so don’t waste them by making them clichés.


Every character should be as distinctive and colorful as possible. Make that character physically unusual, or give him an exotic background or philosophy. The reader should remember the minor characters as well as the protagonists.

I’ll close by recommending Sheldon’s memoir The Other Side of Me. I love reading bios of authors. This one is entertaining, instructive, and inspirational.

What do you think of Mr. Sheldon’s advice?

The Quadruple-Threat Writer

by James Scott Bell

The 20th Century gave us an explosion of legendary entertainers. So many on that list. A sampling in song would have to include Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra. Music: Gershwin, Ellington, Glenn Miller. Comedy: Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy. Dance: Astaire, Kelly, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. You can fill in your own favorites.

But there’s one name that deserves to be mentioned here, for he was a quadruple threat: he could sing, dance, and act equally well in comedy or drama. His star flew across stage, screen, TV, and Vegas.

His name was Sammy Davis, Jr. (the image capture is Sammy, age 6).

I recall seeing two of his movies as a kid. In Sergeants 3, a 1962 remake of Gunga Din set in the Old West, Davis plays Jonah (the Gunga Din role). He’s the company bugler. At the crucial moment the wounded Jonah crawls up to a cliff to sound an alarm on his bugle, saving the day. I don’t remember any other scene in the movie except that one.

The other movie is Robin and the 7 Hoods, a 1964 musical set in Prohibition-era Chicago. It has Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Bing Crosby. But it’s Davis who steals the show, especially with the song “Bang! Bang!” (again, the one scene I remember).

Davis began as a child-prodigy dancer, and moved easily into singing. His career took off in the 1950s. He made memorable appearances on TV shows—variety, drama, comedy—all the more notable because of two things: the entrenched racism of the time, and the near-fatal car accident that took one of his eyes.

He also battled inner demons, drugs, and alcohol—yet whenever he performed, he gave his all. Audiences knew that.

Which brings me to today’s subject. Are you a quadruple-threat writer?

Can you plot?

I love plot and its mate, structure. We all know there are two preferred methods to go about this. “Discovery writers” find their plot while wearing loose pants. “Plotters” develop it before the journey.

But find it you must, which means driving along Death Road.

The stakes of the plot must be death—physical, professional, or psychological. The road must have certain signposts, the markers of structure. You must know when and how to drive through the Doorway of No Return, stop for a look in the Mirror, and how to race to a surprising and satisfying ending where the reader will thank you and ask when your next book comes out.

Yes, some writers disdain the idea of plotting. I recall an article by a “literary writer” who admitted she was one of these. But then she learned the value of plot, and fell in love with it. Her book sales went up as a result.

Like Sammy Davis, Jr.—learning the basic steps in tap before he could start to set loose with his own style—you can learn the basic elements of plot. I humbly refer you to my book on the subject.

Can you character?

Do you have a Lead worth following? Is your Opposition stronger than the Lead, with a compelling reason to oppose? Are both these characters fresh in surprising ways?

Are the other members of you cast orchestrated—sufficiently different so they may be in potential conflict with everyone else?

Are even your minor characters delightfully distinct to add spice to the plot?

Characterization can be equated with the unique steps a dancer adds in tap. The fresher, the better.

Can you dialogue?

Is your fiction talk crisp? Do the characters use it as a compression and extension of action? Do they have different cadences so they don’t sound the same? Are you skilled at planting exposition and subtext within dialogue?

I’ve long held that dialogue is the fastest way to improve any manuscript. In you first-drafting, it’s where you can really play and improvise, like a great actor might in a scene. Then you can craft it into the kind of fiction talk that gets the attention of readers, agents, and editors.

Can you scene?

Are your scenes structured to include a clear objective, obstacles, and an outcome that is a setback (or a success that leads to a setback)? Do you get into most scenes in medias res (the middle of things) and end them so the reader is prompted to read on? Do you plant mysteries and secrets? Is there tension throughout, even when friends are involved?

Let’s watch an example.

This is Sammy in his last performance, in the joyous movie Tap. At this time he had the throat cancer that would kill him just a year later. Yet here he is, going toe-to-toe with the late, great Gregory Hines. The setup: a group of aging tap dancers live together in a combo rooming house and dance studio run by Mo (Davis). Max (Hines), just out of prison, comes for a visit. He and Mo get into some banter over dance style, when Max shades him with, “You ain’t got no legs.” Mo takes that as a “challenge.” A challenge is when all the tappers get together and try to outdo one another. Mo calls the oldsters in for the challenge. The subtext is that Mo is sick, and is not supposed to dance anymore. This is enforced by Mo’s daughter, Amy (Suzanne Douglas), who conveniently is not around. Every one of these tap dancers, in their 70s and 80s, are legends of the form, from Howard “Sandman” Sims to Harold Nicholas (not to mention another prodigy, young Savion Glover, watching). They proceed to strut their stuff, and oh, what stuff it is!

And then, at the end, Sammy Davis, Jr., the quadruple-threat entertainer, gives his all one last time:

Get proficient in plot, characterization, dialogue, and scenes. Then you, too, will become a master tapper…of the keyboard! You’ll be a quadruple-threat writer.


Walking with the Wise

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise” – Proverbs 13:20a


Over the past several years, I’ve been privileged to conduct interviews on my blog at with many highly-respected authors of books on the craft of writing. One question I’ve asked almost every interviewee is “What advice would you give a new writer?” Here are some of their answers:


James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure) “It’s the same answer every time: write to a quota. Get in the habit of writing a certain number of words every week, week in and week out. You have to practice what you learn in craft books and classes. You have to exercise your imagination. You have to produce the pages if you want to make it in this game.”

Steve Laube (The Christian Writers Market Guide) “To quote a line from the movie “Galaxy Quest”: Never give up. Never Surrender. Seriously. This is an industry that demands excellence. Few writers are born as a perfect writer. Instead, most writers are marked by a dogged determination to improve their craft, learn the industry, build relationships, and create great ideas.”

Randy Ingermanson (How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method) “Create a habit of writing every day. You can analyze author success mathematically, and there are four crucial factors. One of the factors of a successful career is production. A habit of writing every day drives production. One of the other factors is quality. A habit of writing every day builds quality. So write every day. Every single day.”

Renni Browne (Self-editing for Fiction Writers) “Don’t self-edit your first draft. Let the story pour out, unimpeded by self-editing points, grammar, anything you’ve read or heard from famous writers, and so on. Story first, style later.”

Dave King (Self-editing for Fiction Writers) “Writing is hard.  It doesn’t take long to learn the basics of writing well enough to write competently, especially if you have the help of a professional editor (ADVT).  But to really develop the writer’s gifts – the insight into people you need to create layered characters, the awareness of how your readers will react to your story, the ability to make all the different aspects of your novel work together – takes time to develop.”

Angela Ackerman (The Emotion Thesaurus) “Tough to narrow it down to a single piece of advice, lol. I think what I would probably say is to not be in a rush. Developing strong storytelling skills takes time. Can anyone belt out a book and publish it? Yes. Should they? Not if their intent is to have a satisfying career if their skills are not at the level needed for that to happen.”

H.R. D’Costa (Story Stakes) “The advice I’d give is to make sure that you work on cultivating the right mindset. In fact, I’d put that above even developing plotting and marketing skills. With a healthy mindset, when you run into a thorny plot problem, you won’t give up on the manuscript (or perhaps on writing itself). Instead, you’ll persevere. You’ll power through.”

Jodie Renner (Fire Up Your Fiction) “Don’t be in a rush to publish your novel or send it off to agents. Be sure to go through it several times, then get some volunteer beta readers to go through it and give you their impressions. Then, if you can afford a professional editor, that would be invaluable. Agents and small publishers are flooded with submissions, so the slightest off-putting issue (wordiness, repetition, bland characters, stilted dialogue, not enough intrigue or tension, typos, punctuation errors, bloopers, etc.) will quickly land your story in the “rejects” pile.”

K.M. Weiland (Creating Character Arcs) “Find the process that works best for you. Explore and experiment and figure out what best unleashes your creativity. For example, outlines aren’t one size fits all. My outline won’t look anything like someone else’s outline. So just because one outlining approach doesn’t do it for you, don’t give up right away. Play around and see if you can find the right blend of tools and techniques for you.”

Martha Alderson (The Plot Whisperer) “Understand that writing a novel from beginning to end takes you on an epic journey. You’ll learn as much about yourself as you do about stories the longer you write. Keep going. Trust the process.”


So, TKZers: What advice would you give to new writers?


                    It’s About Time

The Watch Series of cozy mysteries is available here.

On the Other Side of the Microphone

By Elaine Viets

I’ll admit it. Being interviewed terrifies me. I was a reporter for more than twenty-five years. When I have to sit on the other side of the notebook, or the microphone, my palms sweat, my throat is dryer than Death Valley and my knees go weak.
Recently, I had a TV interview in St. Louis that was painless. The reporter did her research, and she read my books – most interviewers don’t do that.
We talked about books, writing, research and more and it became a conversation. I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I did.

Today, I’m traveling to the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Minneapolis. If you’re going to Bcon, please stop by my panel on 4:15 Saturday, September 10. It’s called “House of Cards: Power and Privilege: Power is everything . . . or is it? Like a house of cards, one false move causes everything to come crumbling down.”
You’ll see many of your favorite authors, including moderator Jason Allen, Joseph Finder, Vera Kurian, Rick Mofina, Hannah Morrissey. Oh, yeah, and me.