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.

No Risk It, No Biscuit

by James Scott Bell

If everything seems under your control, you’re not going fast enough. – Mario Andretti, legendary race car driver

Bruce Arians

Recently we had a bit of a discussion on taking risks, as part of Terry’s post on rules for writers. Today I’d like to give risk more focused attention.

Remember back in 2021 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl by destroying the favored Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9? With a 43-year-old quarterback named Brady. And the oldest coach ever to win the big game, 67-year-old Bruce Arians.

Arians had followed a long and rocky career path as a quarterbacks coach in the NFL. He got hired and fired several times. His first year as head coach for the Bucs the team went 7–9. Then along came Brady and the Super Bowl.

Through it all, Arians had a saying that kept him and his teams motivated. He actually got it from a guy at a bar at a time when Arians thought his dream of being a head coach would never be realized. That saying is: No risk it, no biscuit.

Now doesn’t that sound like a quintessential football coach axiom?

As Arians’ cornerback coach, Kevin Ross, explained it, “If you don’t take a chance, you ain’t winnin’. You can’t be scared.”

What might this mean for the writer?

Risk the Idea

I think each novel you write should present a new challenge. It might be a concept or “what if?” that will require you to do some fresh research. My new Mike Romeo thriller (currently in final revisions) revolves around a current issue that is horrific and heartbreaking. I could have avoided the subject altogether. But I needed to go there.

My next Romeo, in development, came from a news item about a current, but not widely reported, controversy. It’s fresh, but I’ve got a lot of learning to do. I’m reading right now, I’ll be talking to an expert or two, and soon will be making a location stop for further research.

I do this because I don’t want to write a book in the series where someone will say, “Same old, same old.”

Admittedly, writing about “hot-button” issues these days carries a degree of risk. Especially within the walls of the Forbidden City where increasingly the question “Will it sell?” is overridden by “Will it offend?”

But as the old saying goes, there is no sure formula for success, but there is one for failure—try to please everybody.

Craft Risk

Are you taking any risks with your craft? Are you following the Captain Kirk admonition to boldly go where you have never gone before?

There are 7 critical areas in fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning.

You can take one or all of these and determine to kick them up a notch. For example:

Plot—Have you pushed the stakes far enough? If things are bad for the Lead, how can you make them worse? I had a student in a workshop once who pitched his plot. It involved a man who was carrying guilt around because his brother died and he didn’t do enough to save him. I then asked the class to do an exercise: what is something your Lead character isn’t telling you? What does he or she want to hide?

I asked for some examples, and this fellow raised his hand. He said, “I didn’t expect this. But my character told me he was the one who killed his brother.”

A collective “Wow” went up from the group. But the man said, “But if I do that, I’m afraid my character won’t have any sympathy.”

I asked the group, “How many of you would now read this book?”

Every hand went up.

Take risks with your plot. Go where you haven’t gone before.

Characters—Press your characters to reveal more of themselves. I use a Voice Journal for this, a free-form document where the character talks to me, answers my questions, gets mad at me. I want to peel back the onion layers.

How about taking a risk with your bad guy? How? By sympathizing with him!

Hoo-boy, is that a risk. But you know what? The tangle of emotions you create in the reader will increase the intensity of the fictive dream. And that’s your goal! In the words of Mr. Dean Koontz:

The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.

Dialogue—Are you willing to make your dialogue work harder by not always being explicit? In other words, how can you make it reveal what’s going on underneath the surface of the scene without the characters spelling it out?

Voice—Are you taking any risks with your style? This is a tricky one. On the one hand, you want your story told in the cleanest way possible. You don’t want style larded on too heavily.

On the other hand, voice is an X factor that separates the cream from the milk. I’ve quoted John D. MacDonald on this many times—he wanted “unobtrusive poetry” in his prose.

I’m currently reading the Mike Hammer books in order. It’s fascinating to see Mickey Spillane growing as a writer. His blockbuster first novel, I, The Jury, is pure action, violence, and sex. It reads today almost like a parody. But with his next, My Gun is Quick, he begins to infuse Hammer with an inner life that makes him more interesting. By the time we get to his fourth book, One Lonely Night, Hammer is a welter of passions and inner conflict threatening to tear him apart. His First-Person voice is still hard-boiled, but it achieves what one critic called “a primitive power akin to Beat poetry.” And Ayn Rand, no less, put One Lonely Night ahead of anything by Thomas Wolfe!

In short, Spillane didn’t rest on his first-novel laurels. He pushed himself to be better.

He risked it for the biscuit. And he ate quite well as a result.

Over to you now. Are you taking any risks in your writing? Are you hesitant, all-in or somewhere in between? How much do you consider the market vis-à-vis trying taking a flyer?

Ten Tips from a Chiropractor for Writers

By Debbie Burke


Disclaimer: nothing is this article should be construed as medical advice.

Writing can harm the body. Okay, it’s not as bad as logging, or bull riding, or bomb dismantling. But sitting all day hunched over a computer is not a healthy lifestyle.

Recently I had an enlightening conversation with a chiropractor, Dr. Erika Putnam, shown here consulting with her office manager, Hartty.

Dr. Erika has unique insight into the particular physical problems that beset our profession because she herself is a writer. In addition to her chiropractic practice and operating a yoga studio, she contributed to the Ultimate Guide to Self-Healing Volumes 1-5. She is also working on her memoir and a how-to manual for yoga instructors.

So…I asked her for tips specifically to help writers.

Her overall approach is to develop a “long-term vision of our health and career path.” She says, “Value your wellbeing and work toward preserving that. Think prevention rather than fixing damage.” She believes for optimal health, humans need fresh air, sunshine, the earth…and time away from staring at electronic devices. 

People who spend long hours sitting at a computer tend to develop tight chests, tight hip flexors, and are weak in the core and the butt.

What can we do about that?

Here are Dr. Erika’s 10 tips:

  1. Undo what you do. If you use muscles in the front of the body, you need to counteract by using muscles in the back. Below is a good exercise to undo writer’s slump.


2. Strive for anatomical neutral: This means good posture with shoulders back, head up, chest up, arms at your sides with hands extended. For yoga aficionados, this is similar to mountain pose.

3. Neck care: a head-forward posture is hard on the neck. The farther forward your head is, the more strain on your neck. Sit straight with your head in line with your shoulders and pull your head and chin back. Try the old balance-a-book-on-your-head trick.

4. More Neck Care: At least once an hour, turn your head from side to side, looking over your shoulders.

5. Breathing: When shoulders curl forward, breathing becomes shallow. Take deeper breaths to improve posture. Stretch arms over your head to move/open the ribs to allow deeper breathing. Repeat several times/hour.

6. Neutral spine: When seated, rock your pelvis to find the correct neutral spine posture.

7. Sitting posture: If you sit on the back of the “sit bones,” pressure on the pelvis over time wears out disks in the spine.

Instead, sit up on sit bones. A pillow behind your back may help.


8. Hand care: Typing uses finger flexion which tends to curl hands into claws. To counteract, open your hands, stretch fingers, and press palms together.

9. Get up and move around at least once an hour. Take a walk. Do stretches. Dr. Erika suggests: “Go outside and play with dirt.”

10. I’ll take credit for this tip which came about after my visit with Dr. Erika.

After spending an hour with her, I became much more aware of my posture, standing straighter, shoulders back, chest up, head up. When I got into my car to leave, I noticed the rearview mirror was tilted too low. It had seemed fine while driving to her office. But, after an hour of consciously improving my posture, I realized I now sat a couple of inches taller in the seat. I needed to adjust the mirror upward.

I decided to leave the mirror in the higher position as a reminder to sit up straight.

The more reminders the better.

 One final note: Dr. Erika says she can’t back up the following observation with scientific studies but she has frequently noticed that people with a right-side head tilt often have a great deal of left-brain activity.

Here’s a discussion of right brain/left brain from Medical News Today.

JUST FOR FUN — Here’s a totally unscientific experiment to try:

If you’re having problems with plot organization, see what happens if you tilt your head to the right. Does that activate your left (analytical) brain?

If your story needs more feeling, trying tilting your head to the left. Does that activate your intuition and emotion?

Does head tilting make any difference in your thinking process? Please share your results in the comments.


TKZers: What helps keep your writer’s body in good condition? Do you have favorite exercises?

Trending or Trendy?

By Elaine Viets

Before this day is over, more than fourteen new English words will be created. The Global Language Monitor says “around 5,400 new words are created every year.” Only about a thousand are “deemed to be in sufficiently widespread use to make it into print.”
Here are a few of them. Are they trending or trendy? Which do you have think have staying power?

According to the Urban Dictionary, this latest use of “bands” was created by rapper Ray Vicks. He “coined the term in his mixtape 36 O’s Later (track 4) when he said, ‘I got 10 bands on me.’” A band is a thousand dollars, so ten bands is ten thousand bucks.
Other sources claim “bands” are a big stack of money, often wrapped in rubber bands. Either way, the word is used in rap and hip-hop.

A “buycott” is when you buy a company’s products because you support their policies. Hello, Ben and Jerry’s, with its campaigns to support gay marriage, the Great Barrier Reef, and much more. Activism has never been sweeter. Don’t agree with their policies? Boycott ’em!

“Cool” is once more cool again. It’s safe to use.

Webster has given its stamp of approval to both these words. Here’s how they’re defined. “Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. Many people are finding themselves reading continuously bad news about COVID-19 without the ability to stop or step back.”
Yep, I’ve spent many a morning “doomscrolling.” Even cat videos couldn’t pull me out of my funk.

“Fit” has a number of alternative meanings. In teenage slang, it’s short for outfit, as in “She looks so hot in that black leather ‘fit.’”

Flex means to show off, to brag. If someone shows up way overdressed, dripping diamonds, you might wonder why they’re “flexing on you.” The Urban Dictionary says it’s “used by many rappers, most notable Ice Cube and the Geto Boys. “…no flexin’, didn’t even look in the nearest direction as I ran the intersection. (This is said because Ice is trying to get away from some people who tried to kill him the other day. In the song, of course)”– Ice Cube, “It Was a Good Day.”


Shades of Casper, but not as friendly. Now, when it’s used as a verb, it means to stop talking to someone, to ignore them. “I thought my first date with Ron went well, but after he brought me home, Ron totally ghosted me.”

“NFT” is an abbreviation for “non-fungible token,” and the idea is puzzling, at least to me. NFTs have been around since 2017, and the term is in Webster’s. One website says an NFT is “a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible.” Even the explanation is confusing.
People pay big bucks for NFTs. When Christie’s auction house sold an NFT by the digital artist Beeple for $69 million, it set a new record for digital art. Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey sold an NFT of the first tweet, which said, “just setting up my twttr.” This historic tweet was published on March 21, 2006 and has been shared more than 120,000 times. Still, it sold for $2.9 million bucks. I’ll give you a free peek here:

If you spend three million for a painting, you expect to have something unique. You can hang it on your wall and never show it, except to your friends.
But NFTs can – and are – duplicated. Everyone’s seen them. Genuine NFTs come with “a digital certificate of ownership that can be bought and sold.” Evidently, that’s enough for NFT lovers.

“Savage,” when used as a noun means “insanely hardcore. Incredibly cool.” Usually describes someone’s skill or talent, as in:

Lindsey Jacobellis is a savage at snowboarding. No wonder she snagged the gold at the Olympics.

Here’s my favorite example from a website: “Jill is a savage at drawing.”
I can see Jill at her easel, wielding a mean palette knife.

A combination of sheep and people, meaning “those who blindly follow the herd.” Used as an insult.

Slang for “sketchy,” which means “questionable or iffy.” If you and your friends accidentally make a wrong turn into a dark, rat-infested alley, you might say, “Let’s get out of here. This place is sketch.”

Slang for “suspicious.” If I get an email from a Nigerian prince promising me a million bucks, I would instantly know that was “sus.” The last one offered me two million.

An expensive, flashy car:
“Wow, that’s some whip you got there, Josh. That Ferrari must have cost you a stack of bands.”

WTF? Another texting acronym is invading the language. “WYA” is short for “Where you at?”
It can have a double meaning. For instance, if a young woman is looking to hook up with her boyfriend, she might text him “WYA.” Just between friends, WYA really does mean, “Where are you at?” And if your parents text you that, report in instantly.


Fans of J.A. Jance and Lisa Gardner will love this exploration of the little-known job of death investigator in small-town Missouri where Angela Richman finds herself investigating the lives and secrets of the one percenters in Chouteau Forest.

Life without Parole, my new Angela Richman, death investigator mystery, is now on sale in hardcover. Buy it here:


For Love or Money?

jc cards pixabay

By Debbie Burke


Has anyone ever said to you: “How nice that you enjoy writing. It’s such a wonderful hobby.”

Did you bristle?

Yeah, me too.

“Writing is not a damn hobby! I just don’t get paid for it!” 


Considering the amount of work, study, and time we put into our writing, the term “hobby” sounds insulting. Yet, try to convince the IRS that a new computer and a research trip to Greece are valid expenses to write off if one’s income is a measly three figures.

The tug of war between writing as vocation vs. avocation never ends.

A keynote speaker at a Colorado conference I attended in the 1990s posed a question: If there was no possibility you’d ever be published, would you still write?

Like most of the 400 diehards in the audience, I raised my hand.

An updated version of that question might be: If there was no possibility you’d ever be paid, would you still write?

The answer is still yes.

Way back in the last century, long before Kindle was even a gleam in Bezos’s eye, I decided to become a full-time writer. Aside from a few short stories published in long-ago college literary mags, I had zero experience.

The plight of the unpublished writer is like the job where you need experience in order to be hired, yet how do you get that experience if no one will hire you?

To jumpstart my new career, I gave away articles and short stories. Someday, I hoped, someone would think my writing was good enough to pay me.

The love of writing sustained me for years when I earned exactly zero.

Meanwhile, though, I took classes, joined critique groups, attended conferences, and studied craft books. In other words, I did my homework and paid my dues.

My first sale was a short story to a little literary magazine for the princely sum of $5. At last, I had a published clip!

However…the check bounced.

Oh well.

For years, I kept that check to remind myself never to become too cocky. It also taught me the transitory nature of the writing business. One day, you summit the mountain; the next day, you drown in the gutter of rejection.

During the time when I gave away my work, a full-time travel freelancer named Jacquie spoke to our writing group. She was the consummate pro. She shared how to earn more money by re-purposing the same article for many different markets; how to take photos that sell an article; and how to develop ongoing relationships with editors who called her whenever they needed a story. She made a good enough living from writing that she could afford a lovely riverfront condo and enjoy exotic travel with expenses she deducted on her taxes.

Jacquie also made a point that I had not yet considered at the time. She said when writers give away their work, it undermines the ability of professionals to earn a living.

That made me pause. Now I felt guilty for giving away work because that deprived someone trying to support a family. Yet that’s how most writers must do their apprenticeship.

I finally broke the pay barrier when a journalist friend couldn’t fulfill an assignment and  asked me to cover the story for her. That led to an infrequent but regular paying gig with a prestigious state magazine.

With published clips under my belt, I queried other markets and got to know more editors. Because I always met deadlines and didn’t require major rewrites, soon I was on staff for several periodicals and became a quarterly columnist for a glossy wildlife magazine. Pay ranged from a penny to a dime per word.

Do the math—no riverfront condo.

My all-time best pay came from a little 300-word profile of a jazz pianist named Nina Russell for the AARP Magazine (then called Modern Maturity).

A dollar a word. In 1995. Wow!

Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice. But my going rate rose to 20 cents a word.

That paid for printing costs and postage to submit my novels to agents and editors. Yes, back in the last century, writers mailed paper manuscripts via the post office.

But… the internet and electronic publishing spelled doom for many print magazines. I used to joke that I’d personally put at least 20 of them out of business but I can’t take all the credit.

The early 2000s saw a sea change in the market from print to electronic format. The advent of Kindle Direct Publishing in 2007 revolutionized the book world.

By 2010, some authors who jumped on board early were making a decent living by self-publishing. One friend remodeled her house with KDP earnings. A few became wealthy.

But the law of supply and demand rules the market. With millions of writers publishing millions of books, articles, blog posts, etc., the market quickly became glutted.

On top of that, why pay for what you can get for free?

Thousands of websites, blogs, newsletters, and platforms like WattPad offer  information and entertainment…for free.

Articles and short stories that, back in the 1990s, would have commanded four figures from The Atlantic and The New Yorker are now available for only a mouse click.

More outlets than ever need content but millions more writers are also clamoring to fill those needs, often without pay.

Despite the low market value of writing itself, an entire cottage industry has sprung up to support the self-publishing community with marketing, editing, cover design, book formatting, coaching, etc. Although I don’t have verifiable proof, I firmly believe most authors pay more to these support businesses than readers pay to authors for their books.

Don’t forget Bezos, who’s done just fine servicing authors.

Remember the dollar/word I made in 1995? More than a quarter century later, here’s a link to top-paying markets for freelancers. Fifty cents is about the max you can expect today. Some are down to a penny or dime/word, same rates as when I started.

Yet the gallon of gas that was $1.15 in 1995 now costs $4.

Factor in the disaster of 2020 and writing incomes dropped further. According to the Authors Guild, “…by January [2021], over two thirds [of writers surveyed] had lost a significant portion of their income—almost half of their pre-pandemic incomes on average—due to the loss of freelance journalism work, speaking engagements and teaching jobs, as well as low book sales due to bookstore closures.”

Highly respected writing/marketing guru Jane Friedman never shrinks from shining a light on cold, hard reality. She tackles the uncomfortable subject of current author earnings in this post.

Jacquie the successful travel journalist is no doubt spinning in her grave. The nice living that she once made as a freelancer nowadays translates more accurately to the revenue from your kid’s lemonade stand.

There are more authors with 15-year-old Subarus than chauffeur-driven limos.

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer but that’s the reality of the profession we’ve chosen.

Yet…there are other forms of payment.

“Your character totally captured how I felt.”

 “I could see the place like I was right there.”

“I’m a crusty old Marine but your story brought tears to my eyes.”

“I’m disabled and don’t get out much. Your books make me forget my troubles for a little while.”

“Your book kept me up all night. I couldn’t put it down.”

How much are the above reader comments worth?

Well, they won’t buy a new laptop or pay for a research trip to Greece.

But there’s something about making that connection with readers that feeds my soul.

This year, I’ve concentrated more on marketing than in the past and book sales are gradually rising. But I’m not ready to sign a contract for a riverfront condo yet.

Meanwhile, I continue to treat writing as a profession, working as hard for unpaid stories as I do for paid ones.

Will I keep writing even though the pay is lousy?



TKZers: Would you keep writing if you never got paid? What’s the best reader comment you’ve ever received?