Pull the Chocks!

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

* * *

In yesterday’s TKZ post, James Scott Bell deconstructed the movie The Fugitive and shared some lessons from it. Today, I want to look at a very different movie for a different reason.

The1957 film The Spirit of St. Louis is the story of Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight from New York’s Roosevelt Field to Le Bourget Field in Paris. Lindbergh hoped to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize by being the first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, but this was no easy task. Six men had already died trying.

Now you would think a movie that follows a thirty-three-hour flight over the ocean would be a huge bore, but the filmmakers came up with a way to present it that engages the audience. Jimmy Stewart in the role of Charles Lindbergh lends authenticity, humor, and occasional hilarity to the film.

Like most stories, this movie is divided into three parts.

Act One covers the night before the flight when Charles Lindbergh is lying awake, dreading the sound of raindrops plunking against the window of his hotel room. This 53-minute act fluctuates between scenes of Lindbergh’s insomnia and flashbacks to his experiences as a U.S. Post Office airmail pilot, and other humorous scenes. From the story-telling point of view, this act provides movie-goers with knowledge of Lindbergh as a man, not a legend. He comes across as a likeable, shy, and determined young pilot.

Act Two recounts the take-off scene in seventeen minutes. I’ll come back to this in detail below.

Act Three is another long segment that follows the flight across the ocean and the landing in Paris, alternating between scenes of the sleep-deprived Lindbergh’s efforts to stay awake, a scary moment when ice forms on the wings and threatens to bring the plane down, and more flashbacks of his life as a barnstorming pilot and as a cadet with the United States Army Air Service.

* * *

But it’s Act Two where the real tension lies. Even though we all know the outcome, I find myself holding my breath whenever I watch the scene.

It begins when Lindbergh arrives at Roosevelt Field on the morning of May 20, 1927. The conditions are awful. The rain has made the field a muddy mess, and the fog renders a successful takeoff over the very tall trees at the end of the runway unlikely. Frank Mahoney, the owner of the Ryan Aircraft Company which built the plane, advises Lindbergh to wait and try again later. But the young pilot thinks there may be a chance, and he places a white marker at a certain point on the side of the sloppy runway. If he tries the takeoff and reaches the marker before the plane gets off the ground, he says he’ll abort the effort.

Only Lindbergh can make the Go/No-Go call, and he knows the odds are not good. He suits up, climbs into the cockpit, and does the runup. You can see the doubt on his face when he raises his hand in a goodbye gesture to the small group of people who came to see him off.

No one would blame him if he decided to wait. But you can almost hear his inner voice say, “This is your moment. Don’t let it pass you by.”

At approximately the exact middle of the movie (and I know James Scott Bell will love this), Lindbergh finalizes his decision by calling out the words that will start the plane forward: “Pull the chocks.” There will be no turning back.

A group of men actually push the plane to get it moving in the muck, and the little aircraft, heavy with fuel and struggling against the poor-to-horrible weather conditions, slogs its way down the field toward a line of trees that look increasingly ominous.

It would be hard to describe the scene of the actual takeoff, so I’ll let you watch this three-minute clip instead:

* * *

Charles Lindbergh was passionate about his chosen profession, and he put in the time to learn his craft. He had honed his experience through years of barnstorming, flying airmail routes, and giving lessons. He went through training with the United States Army Air Service at Brooks Field in Texas and earned his Army pilot’s wings and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve Corps.

But even though he was the sole pilot of The Spirit of St. Louis when he flew across the ocean, Lindbergh’s effort would have been impossible without the support and knowledge of many others.

A group of St. Louis businessmen had financed the building of the aircraft. The owners and employees of the Ryan Aircraft Company supplied the experience and commitment to design the plane that could make a journey of almost four thousand miles. Lindbergh couldn’t have lifted off the ground without their help.

* * *

It seems I find an analogy to writing in just about everything these days, and it’s easy to see the connection between lifting off on a flight where the conditions aren’t perfect and launching a novel.

As everyone here knows, the preparation for bringing a novel to publication is long and difficult. And it isn’t just the hard work of meeting the weekly quota. The background of life experiences, craft books, writing courses, and blogs like The Kill Zone, all combine to prepare the writer for his/her effort.

In most books, only the author’s name is on the cover. But the product is usually the result of many people who willingly came alongside to make the book a success. Friends, editors, mentors, beta readers, endorsers, experts, and supporters from other areas pour their knowledge and expertise into the project.

But at some point, the author has to make the last preparations and commit to the flight. A new book launch may not be as risky as taking off in an airplane to fly a course no one has flown before, but to the author, it is just as exciting.

* * *

So there you have it. Today is launch day for Lacey’s Star: A Lady Pilot-in-Command Novel. It’s been a long, bumpy runway. Now we’ll see how she flies.

* * *

So TKZers: Have you launched a book recently? Tell us about it. What advice do you have for authors about making a book launch successful?

* * *


Private pilot Cassie Deakiin is smart, funny, and determined. She can land a plane safely in an emergency, but can she keep her cool when confronted by a murderer?

Lacey’s Star: A Lady Pilot-in-Command Novel began flying off the shelves today. $1.99 at Amazon   Barnes & Noble   Apple Books   Kobo   Google Play

Have a nice flight, Cassie.

Six Tips for a Book Party on a Shoestring

By Debbie Burke


Art at Tao

In 2018, I was privileged to crash a party in Manhattan hosted by Blackstone Publishing to celebrate their new book launches during an extraordinarily successful year. My pal Susan Purvis was one of Blackstone’s debut authors with her memoir Go Find, and I was graciously included as her guest.

The event took place at the trendy Tao Downtown Nightclub with an open bar and sit-down dinner.

The crowd consisted of publishing industry luminaries, agents, editors, and celebrity authors including the delightful M.C. Beaton.

M.C. Beaton and me

A long stairway led from street level to the nightclub. After a couple of drinks, you could almost see the ghosts of Truman Capote, Maxwell Perkins, and Jacqueline Onassis descending the stairs from a bygone era when publishing was a glamorous business.

It was fun to have a glimpse inside that rarified world but, in reality, most publishers, let alone authors, can’t afford lavish promotion. As an indie author, my budget is on such a short shoestring that a mouse couldn’t hang itself.


Nevertheless, I wanted to host a celebration for my new thriller, Deep Fake Double Down.

The good news is a successful book party can be done without spending a lot of money. It takes DIY work, a little ingenuity, and lots of help from good friends. Here are six tips I learned along the way.

  1. Find an inviting venue that’s low- or no-cost.

Authors and bookstores go together like peanut butter and jelly. The business carries our books. Our events draw new customers. We support each other. Win-win.

Stephanie Pius recently bought The BookShelf in Kalispell. She is eager to build her customer base and offered her shop as a free venue. We decided on a Friday afternoon, 4 to 6 p.m. when people were getting off work and downtown foot traffic was good.

Stephanie dove right in to help, running ads about the party on the store’s social media accounts. The corner location has windows on two streets and she put up posters in all  windows. On the sidewalk in front, a sandwich board invited passersby to meet a “local author.”

She provided tables and folding chairs, and even rearranged heavy, book-laden shelves to make room for seating.

Financial agreement: I delivered books. Stephanie tracked inventory and handled sales, including credit cards. She received 40% of the list price, with 60% to me, which is fairly standard for indie publication.

With a traditional publisher, terms may be different and the bookstore generally orders books from the publisher.

  1. Promotion. 

I printed invitations and handed them out at Zumba classes, at meetings, to the clerk at the post office who helps me mail books.

Additionally, I sent invitations by email. On your guest list, include friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, book clubs, writing colleagues, local media personalities, etc.

Publicize on social media and ask friends to share on their accounts.

Print color posters advertising the event and post them at libraries, coffee houses, and of course at the bookstore.

Send press releases to local online events calendars and newspapers.

Seek out unconventional (and free) outlets for publicity. Montana’s electric co-op magazine features a community events calendar and is sent to customers throughout the state. Surprisingly it has drawn out-of-town attendees to my events.

None of these promotions cost money except for paper and ink.

Here’s where years of connections, networking, and good friends in the writing community paid off.

Renee and Regi drove almost 200 miles from Helena.

My friends rallied round me with support that warmed my heart. They pitched in with planning help, spread the word on social media, helped set up, tear down, clean up, etc., etc.

By fortunate coincidence, a week before the party, a local glossy magazine, Flathead Living, featured a story about the Authors of the Flathead that mentioned me as one of the founders. That was great exposure to readers beyond my immediate sphere.

In another stroke of good luck, I ran into the editor/publisher of Montana Senior News in the check-out line at Costco and invited him. He showed up at the party, had a great time, bought several books, and promised to publish a review of Deep Fake Double Down.

Truthfully, I think it was the butterscotch chip cookies that got to him. (See recipe below.)

Cold promotion is hard for introverted writers. But inviting people to a party shifts the focus from “buy my book” to “come celebrate with me.”

  1. Refreshments! Nothing attracts people like free food and drink.

Critique partners Marie Martin and Betty Kuffel help me set out food.

Wine and cheese are always popular. If feasible, feature a food or beverage from your book, for instance, tea for a cozy mystery, or coffee and donuts for a police procedural. If the setting is a different country, ethnic specialties are fun.

For the hot July evening, I bought bottled water and flavored fizzy drinks and brought an ice-filled cooler. I cut up watermelon, honeydew, and pineapple for fruit platters. (Note: For health/sanitary considerations, provide toothpicks to avoid hands touching food. Remember hand sanitizer, too.)

I baked three batches of cookies. Here’s the recipe the editor liked:

To-Die-For Butterscotch Chip Cookies – makes 3-4 dozen

Stir together 2 ¼ cups flour, 1 teas. baking soda, 1 teas. salt. Set aside.

Mix together 1 cup soft butter, ¾ cup granulated sugar, ¾ cup packed brown sugar, 1 ½ teas. vanilla. Beat until creamy. Beat in two eggs. Add flour mixture and mix well. Stir in 1 to 1 1/2 cups butterscotch chips. Drop by teaspoonfuls on greased cookie sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes. Cool on rack.

Tying into my book title, I also baked “Deep Fake Cakes.” I decorated two sheet cakes with tube icing and added a sign that read, “Calories are an illusion!”

Who got into the cake before I took a photo???

On your shopping list, include paper plates, napkins, cups, disposable cake pans and platters, utensils, etc. They are inexpensive at Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, or similar stores.





4, Freebies! Readers love giveaways.

My novella Crowded Hearts had initially only been available in ebook because it was less than 100 pages. But a significant percentage of my readers prefer physical books so I’d ordered a small stock of POD (print on demand), cost under $5. When book clubs bought multiple copies, I threw in the novella as a bonus. That went over well so I did the same for the party. Anyone who bought two or more books received a free novella.

Quite a few attendees happily took home an extra freebie.

  1. Prizes! People love a chance to win. 

Prize gift packages

Here’s where I really lucked out. Thanks to the generosity of our own Steve Hooley, the prizes were beautiful custom wood pens. Steve handcrafts the pens using salvaged lumber from historic buildings that were torn down or undergoing renovation. The wood dates back to the 18th and 19th century. Here’s the link to the “Legacy Pens” on his website.

Steve even came up with a clever tie-in to Deep Fake Double Down: in the book, a secret Yogo sapphire mine is a treasure worth killing for. Steve designed a limited edition “Deep Fake Sapphire” pen, finished in the same luminous blue as Yogo sapphires.

At the party, I explained the history of the pens, which fascinated people. They eagerly filled out entry forms, signing up for my newsletter for a chance to win a unique pen. That resulted in a number of new subscribers.

Oh yes, I kept busy signing books with my own Deep Fake Sapphire pen.

I can’t thank Steve enough.

Other possible prize options: a signed book, a gift certificate from the store that hosts the party, a package of gourmet coffee, a bottle of wine, a sampler of specialty candy.

  1. Entertainment! Make the party interesting as well as fun.

Engage guests with a short talk about why you wrote the book, along with Q&A. Readers enjoy peeking behind the curtain into the writing process. Relate an interesting anecdote or share a surprise you encountered while doing research. Mention unexpected problems that popped up. Raise curiosity to entice them to buy the book.

Readings can be popular…as long as they’re brief. I confess I’ve slipped out of a few book signings where the author droned on far too long.

But no one sneaked out of this party during the reading of Deep Fake Double Down, thanks to the stellar performance of another good friend, stage actor and audiobook narrator Eve Passeltiner.

Award-winning audiobook narrator Eve Passeltiner emphasizes a dramatic moment.

Eve is recording my series and graciously agreed to read a chapter during the party. Except read isn’t the right word. She brought the characters to vivid, dramatic life, blowing away the audience, as well as the author!


How did the party go?

Turnout: During the two hours, about 40 people came into The BookShelf, including curious passersby who stopped to see what was going on.

Stephanie’s cut from sales made the evening worthwhile for her, plus she welcomed new customers and became better acquainted with existing ones.

Cost: $75 for food, beverages, decorations, gift packaging—well within my shoestring budget.

Time expended: approx. 30 hours in promotion and preparation.

Results: 25+ newsletter signups; 27 books sold that evening plus five novellas as freebies to purchasers of multiple books.

Verdict: The party was a success that guests enjoyed. A local small business reached new customers. Book sales more than covered costs and are continuing a nice steady climb.

Me with critique buddies, Betty Kuffel and Kathy Dunnehoff



And I had a terrific time, surrounded by friends and supporters who are dear to me.

Susan Purvis and me

All accomplished on a shoestring budget.


TKZers: Have you attended book signings/parties? What made the event special? If you were bored and left early, what made it a dud?

Any ideas for future parties?


Deep Fake Sapphire Pens, handcrafted by Steve Hooley


Here’s another chance to win a limited edition Deep Fake Sapphire pen. Join Debbie Burke’s reading group at this link and your name will be entered in a drawing for the pen (postage costs limit mailing to US addresses only, please).

Is It Still a Thrill?

by James Scott Bell

If I may begin today with a toot (no, not that kind). A toot of my own horn. For today is release day for my seventh Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rage. (If you’re new to the series, please note these may be read in any order.) It’s there for you this week at the deal price of $2.99 (reg. $4.99). (Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0BFRP7SQV)

Thank you. Now let’s talk thrills.

We of course specialize in thrillers and suspense here at TKZ. Our archives are filled with tips and techniques on such matters as the grabber opening, scenes that compel readers to turn the page, characters we care to follow, and so on.

We also frequently talk about the challenges writers face when striving to produce (see, e.g., Terry’s recent post). When we do overcome and the writing is flowing again, there’s a thrill in that. And so, too, when we put the final polish on a manuscript and send it to our publishing house, or up to the Kindle store.

And then there’s thrill of the book’s release. It’s like the start of the running of the bulls at Pamplona (as long as you can run fast, that is). It’s the raising of the curtain on opening night on Broadway, with you in the middle of the stage about to intone, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” It’s just before you drop out of the plane with a parachute on your back, or dive off the bridge with a bungee cord around your ankles.

The thrill generally takes three forms.

  1. Working for the Forbidden City, it’s when you open the box of copies the publisher has sent you, and take out your baby and hold it in your hands. The idea may have been conceived a couple of years ago. You finished the book, and it’s been another year to eighteen months for the actual delivery. Here it is at last! You hold it and smell it, like a proud papa or mama.
  2. It’s when you go to the bookstore and see it on the shelf. Even better, on the shelf with the cover facing out. Better than that, on the New Release table. Best of all, if your publisher has laid out the bucks, it’s in a dedicated book display on the floor or in the window.
  3. For the indie writer, it’s when the book is live online.

I’ve experienced all three, and for me it never gets old.

Now comes the waiting, the watching. Your book is out there on its own. The initial thrill begins to fade, replaced by that onerous irritant, expectations. You’re hoping—for sales, great reviews, a bestseller list, a call from Spielberg.

You know what the odds are. The average number of novels sold by traditional publishers is in the mid- to low-four figures, unless, of course, you’re on the A or B+ list. It’s anyone’s guess about ebook sales. We do know the number of ebooks published annually is somewhere north of 4 million. Ack!

But you can’t help hoping. You’re a writer, and every writer desires a growing audience of readers who will become dedicated fans. Yet if your book doesn’t get the foothold you hoped for, the emotional crash is like a rancid tamale in the tummy. (I must be metaphor crazy today.)

As hard as it is to do, Stoic wisdom stresses the management of expectations. You simply cannot stress about the things that are out of your hands! Your hands are for typing (or handwriting). I wrote more about Stoic wisdom here.

You must manage expectations about social media, too. It’s well established now that social media is not the super-duper sales machine people originally thought it would be. Remember the early years of Twitter? Some writers were posting the same “Buy my book!” tweet a dozen times a day. “Hey! I’m reaching millions of people this way! That’s gotta sell some books!”


Of course, if you have 97 million followers on Instagram and 6 million on Twitter, like Billie Eilish, you might be able to move some books (though apparently not enough to cover a large advance).

For the rest of us, social media has its place, but not as the main driver of book sales.

So what happens when that tamale hits your gut? My advice is to cover it with ice cream. Let it hurt for a few hours, but no longer. Get back to your keyboard. For as you type, you’ll begin to feel it once more—the thrill of the new story, new characters, new plot twists and turns. And finally, the thrill of a new baby. The book is done. You’re back in the delivery room. It’s launch day again.

What about you? Do you still feel—or anticipate—a thrill on launch day? Does the prospect inspire you? Sustain you? Does it ever get old?  

Or like B. B. King, are you lately singing, “The Thrill is Gone”? Are you doing anything to get it back?

True Crime Thursday – Eyes of a Killer

Photo credit: perchek industrie-Unsplash

By Debbie Burke



April is National Donate Life Month to promote the importance of organ, eye, and tissue donation. I covered this subject in an article for Montana Senior News. While researching, I spoke with people who had either been recipients of donations or surviving family members who agreed to donate organs, corneas, or tissue from their deceased loved ones.

The stories were bittersweet but also heartwarming. A recurring theme ran through them: the worst day for one family is the best day for another family.


Miranda Denison with the tools of her trade.

A major source for my article was a woman named Miranda Denison, one of six people in Montana with the unusual job of harvesting corneas. When someone dies, she or one of her colleagues goes to the hospital or funeral home to remove the thin, dime-shaped tissue that gives sight. She carefully packages it, then arranges transportation to an eye bank. There, the corneas are medically evaluated and, if viable, sent to hospitals to be transplanted. The surgery has a 95% success rate of restoring vision.

Miranda’s duties are similar to that of a coroner or medical examiner. She undresses bodies and thoroughly examines them, draws blood and other fluids for lab analysis, makes note of injuries, scars, tattoos, needle tracks, and signs of trauma or disease that might affect whether or not the corneas can be transplanted. For instance, IV drug users are excluded as donors, as are people with hepatitis C or who are HIV positive.

Donors’ and recipients’ identities are confidential but a transplant coordinator can act as an intermediary. This allows recipients to send thanks to the surviving donor family. With consent from both parties, they may communicate directly with each other, often forming lasting friendships because of the gift of life that connects them.

What does this have to do with True Crime Thursday?

Sometimes donors are victims of crimes. In such cases, recovery of organs takes place at the crime lab in Missoula, Montana.

Sometimes donors are perpetrators of the crime.

In the early morning hours of January 19, 2022, Kirk Brown, 48, shot and killed his dog and his mother, Florence Brown, 79, in the home they shared in Big Arm, Montana. Then he turned the gun on himself. He didn’t die immediately and was transported to a hospital where he later succumbed to his injury. The case was ruled a homicide/suicide.

Kirk Brown was a registered organ donor. Recovering his corneas was an especially grisly task because of the gunshot wound. Although Miranda didn’t work this particular case, she was familiar with it because her colleague handled it at the Missoula crime lab.

Miranda knows I write thrillers. After she told me about the case, we started talking about fictional possibilities.

If someone received the eyes of a killer, how would that affect them? Would they view life and people differently? Would they take on characteristics of the murderer?

The concept is not new. A 1920 French novel, Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) explored the idea of transplanted body parts. After an assassin is executed by guillotine, his hands are attached to a pianist who had lost his in an accident. The pianist begins to commit crimes because he cannot control the grafted hands. That story inspired several horror films, including Hands of a Stranger (1962).

Other films, including Body Parts (1991), In the Eyes of Killer (2009), told stories of characters who develop criminal characteristics after receiving parts from a murderer.

I’ve never written horror or sci-fi/fantasy. But the idea of a killer’s eyes intrigues me. I may have to give it a whirl.

Kirk Brown’s corneas were indeed successfully transplanted—the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.

Thanks, Miranda, for introducing us to your unusual occupation and for triggering my imagination. 


TKZers: What are some other works of fiction or movies where transplanted body parts are the basis for the story?

How about the opposite scenario? Do you know of fiction where an evil character receives a good person’s organs that redeem the bad guy?



Today is launch day for the seventh book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

An innocent father in prison. A guilty rapist set free. A surprise son from the past.

Investigator Tawny Lindholm and her attorney-husband Tillman Rosenbaum juggle three baffling cases where DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal, triggering a crisis in their marriage and an unimaginable threat to their family.

You can buy UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY from Amazon and major booksellers.

A Book Birthday and Subtitles

A Book Birthday and Subtitles
Terry Odell

In the CrosshairsI hope you’ll indulge a detour for a moment and help me celebrate the my 32nd (give or take) Book Birthday. In the Crosshairs drops today. This book is the fourth in my Triple-D Ranch series. I got my first paperback author copies, and there’s nothing more exciting than holding that baby in your hands. Hands that have been overworked pounding the keyboard. The keyboard’s not too happy, either. More details, including buy links, are here.

To offer a bit of “writerliness” and not turn this post into total BSP, I’ll talk about subtitles. Being discoverable amidst the other million-plus books in the digital e-stores is critical if you want to move away from your tried-and-true readers. If you’re barely (if at all) a midlist author, your circle of auto-buyers is small. Advice is to add a subtitle to the book’s metadata that will show potential readers what’ they’re getting. The thing not to do is turn that subtitle into a tagline. I wish Amazon would simple do away with allowing subtitles like these which I found doing a very basic genre search at Amazon.

A Nail Biting Romantic Suspense Take It Off Standalone Novel
A Sexy, Thrilling Romantic Suspense
An absolutely gripping cozy mystery
A totally gripping and heart-pounding crime thriller
Sci Fi Fantasy and Action Adventure of the Rebel Princess named Lilla

My contrary nature immediately reacts with “Oh yeah? Sez Who?”

What’s the better approach? Show potential readers the genre, or, more importantly, the sub-genre. Odds are they’re already searching by the main genre, such as mystery, romance, science fiction, etc. Show that it’s a cozy mystery, a romantic suspense, a military science fiction.

I went back and added genre-related ones to my books. I didn’t change the cover art, only the metadata where there were fields for subtitles, which saved time and money.

My Triple-D Ranch books are subtitled “A Contemporary Western Romantic Suspense.”
My Mapleton Mystery books now have the added “A Police Procedural Cozy Blend.”
My Blackthornes are tagged “A Covert Ops Romantic Suspense.”
My Pine Hills books are subtitled “A Small Town Police Romantic Suspense”

Does that move help sales? I don’t know? How can anyone know what triggered that “buy now” click? But at least there’s less of a chance of readers returning the book because it wasn’t what they were looking for, or leaving scathing, negative reviews.

Between the  pandemic and being an indie, 95%+ digital author, I’m not holding a physical launch party. Instead, the Hubster and I will get takeout from our favorite sushi restaurant and celebrate at home. Unless it’s snowing, which is the prediction, in which case I’ll be cooking.

In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellAvailable Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy. Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

My Last Pre-Pandemic Novel

by James Scott Bell

Ventura, CA, May 24, 2020

It was oh so nice to be out on the beach last weekend with my wife and daughter, strolling the shoreline, listening to the waves, taking in lots of fresh ocean air. We were in our favorite beach community, Ventura, and everybody was in a good mood—including law enforcement. Our first encounter as we walked toward the water was with a deputy sheriff on a dune buggy. She said, “How you all doing?” I raised my hands in a victory gesture. “I feel the same way!” she replied.

There were kids and babies and hipsters and oldsters. Everyone was respectful of distance, and smiles and nods were plentiful (face coverings outdoors are not mandated in Ventura County). Still, there were restrictions. No sitting on blankets, no lollygagging on dry sand.

Which leads one to wonder what form the post-pandemic society will take. That thought is ever on my mind as I hereby announce my last pre-pandemic novel.*

My fifth Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Stand, has just been published. If this is your first foray into Romeo territory, know that you can read the books in any order, so now’s as good a time as any to jump in.

Yes, this is the last time I write a contemporary setting without reflecting the beliefs and practices that will emerge after lockdowns cease. Some weeks ago I wrote about how fiction will change in the coming years. This is especially true in my town, Los Angeles. Our heads are spinning out here over new rules and regs regarding churches and beaches and dining inside once again. (I’ve really missed Musso & Frank Grill, a Los Angeles institution since 1919, and a favorite spot of famous movie stars and L.A. writers ever since. Ditto Langer’s Deli and their #19, the best hot pastrami sandwich in the world—which includes New York—since 1947).

I can’t imagine a contemporary American novel published in 1946 or ’47 that didn’t even mention things like returning GIs and the post-war economy. We don’t have to make post-pandemia the centerpiece of our novels, but our scenes, to be authentic, will have to include little details like the waitstaff at a restaurant wearing masks and gloves…and perhaps mannequins made up to look like customers! Distancing rules will be enforced at large gatherings, at least for the foreseeable future (speaking of which, I miss a packed Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium).

So what about this latest Romeo, published in the midst of our herky-jerky re-emergence? Your clever author has taken care of that with this opening:

We were an hour from Las Vegas when the plane began to shake.

It was a few weeks before the word pandemic became ubiquitous on our collective lips and America closed up shop with a massive case of the heebie-jeebies. The people on the plane were blithely breathing each other’s air and coughing into their fists. The tourists and players in Vegas were bumping shoulders and sharing dice at the craps tables, unaware that their favorite playground would soon be as empty as a politician’s promise.

We move on to an emergency landing in the desert, a small town with secrets and a nasty sheriff. Then things turn ugly. Which is the wrong way to turn things on Mike Romeo.

You can pre-order the Kindle ebook here. (I sometimes get emails from sad Nook and Kobo readers, and remind them that they can download a free Kindle app for their phone or tablet.) A print version will soon follow.

*However, I reserve the right to write historical fiction—perhaps adding to my Kit Shannon series. I may even try something speculative. One thing I’ve found during this lockdown is that, for short and flash fiction at least, my inner Ray Bradbury/Rod Serling keeps wanting to come out and play. One of the formative books on my writerly journey was The Illustrated Man, which I read in junior high school. And one of my favorite TV shows growing up was The Twilight Zone.

[Rod Serling voice] “Picture if you will a writer, confined to his hovel and wondering what to write next. In a moment he will decide to try something unlike anything he’s written before. But when he submits the book he won’t be hearing from an editor. He’ll be getting a long and detailed message directly from … The Twilight Zone.”

So let’s make this the question for today: Have you thought about writing in a different genre? If so, which one?

Hail Thee, Book Festival Day


With my table mate, the irrepressibly talented Amy E. Reichert (l), at Books by the Banks 2016


If there’s one occupation I never imagined pursuing again, it was being a salesperson. During high school, in between various food service jobs, I worked a Christmas gig selling office supplies in a mall kiosk, and later sold ladies clothes in a rather grim department store. In college, I was hired by a temp agency to cold-call businesses over the phone to get appointments for the woman who did the actual selling. I was petrified of cold-calling. They gave me a script, which I’m sure had been developed by corporate sales professionals. I hated every moment of those calls. I dreaded going to work, and energetically did every other part of my job that didn’t include cold-calling. They should have fired me, but they didn’t, because I worked hard to make myself otherwise indispensable.

I’m on an extended book tour for The Abandoned Heart all this month, and the early part of November. Tours are a lot of fun. I like to drive, so I don’t mind hopping in the car to do a reading, conference, or festival that’s within a one-and-a-half-day traveling radius. When I started touring almost ten years ago, the norm was single- or two-author bookstore appearances. But there are a lot fewer bookstores these days, and a lot more authors looking for readers.

Enter the book festival. Book festivals are a blast, and a win-win-win (-win) for authors, booksellers, libraries, and charities. They foster a love of books and a love of reading in both adults and children. (If you follow this link, you will disappear down a path leading to pretty much every festival in the known world, and may find yourself imagining that you, too, should definitely be invited to the Blenheim Palace Festival in the U.K. or the exclusive The New Yorker Festival. Ignore the fab photos of the famous actors—you know everyone really will be there to meet the writers!) Book festivals enjoy an economy of scale undreamed of by a single bookstore or library. There’s lots of room for authors and their books, and readers are wonderfully motivated to meet their favorite authors and have their books signed. Plus, a festival is a great opportunity to hang out with other writers.

The flip side is, of course, that you’re cheek-by-jowl with your competition. Friendly competition, but still competition. Writers are there to sell books, and readers are there to buy them.

This past weekend, I was at a table at Cincinnati’s wonderful Books By The Banks Festival, which featured around 150 authors. It was the festival’s tenth anniversary, and I’m not surprised that it continues to thrive. The volunteers are incredibly dedicated, the authors seemed delighted to be there, and it was bustling with readers all day long.

I saw three kinds of authors there: 1) Super-famous authors who had all-day lines; 2) Bored-looking authors who waited—often in vain—for people to come and talk to them; and 3) The rest of us—writers who spent most of the day standing, chatting, laughing and, yes, selling.

I didn’t leave my table often, but as a reader, I found myself pretty overwhelmed. Even though I don’t much read YA or children’s literature, I still buy gifts, so every book was a possibility. And there’s something magical about picking up a book and having it signed—right there—by the author. I still geek out about it.

Something about being face-to-face with readers trying to make a choice between one of my books and another writer’s book reminded me how intimate the relationship between reader and writer is. As writers, we are engaged in a kind of seduction. A tease. Our words must immediately entice a reader—bonus points if a killer cover piques their interest first. During a personal appearance, the writer, rather than the book, has to do most of the talking. That’s what she’s there for: to answer questions, to give the inside scoop, to facilitate the decision without being pushy. It’s a sales transaction, but a delicate one. The buyer is purchasing something with which they will spend long, intimate hours. It’s way more like speed dating than going to the local independent for coffee and a browse. Few readers buy carelessly at book festivals.

I found myself a little annoyed by the bored-seeming authors. I wanted to ask why they even bothered to come. It’s entirely possible that they were shy. After all, most of the 150 authors in attendance got there because they spent many, many hours alone in order to get their books written. But shyness isn’t an excuse. Unless you’re Diana Gabaldon, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King, you’re going to need to make an effort to sell books. (To be fair, all three of these writers are engaging and interesting people who speak up about their work.)

As difficult as I find it sometimes to come out from beneath my writer-rock, I love connecting with real live readers, and not just the hypothetical ones in my head. The ones in my head frighten me a little. The ones I meet on the road are always friendly and generous, and they renew my energy for writing for them. Truly, salesmanship is the least of it. There are times when I feel a little silly hawking my wares (books), but when I connect with a reader, and I see that spark of joy in their eyes when they slide a book across the table, saying, “Will you sign this for me?” any thought of selling or having sold something slips away. It’s just the two of us, with happiness in between, and I think, “Yes. Yes, this is why I do it.”


Have you attended a book festival? How do you feel they compare to individual author events?


Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Hearta dark suspense thriller. Learn more about her at laurabenedict.com.

How to Launch a Self-Published Book

James Scott Bell

Ah, the book launch. The nerve-wracking bane of the author’s life. Will my baby make it out there in the big, dark, roiling tsunami of content? Will all that love and attention I’ve lavished on my project finally pay off with some actual readers?
In the traditional world it’s getting harder to launch. Publishers are stingy with marketing dollars. Unless a publisher puts some real money behind a title, it’s not likely it will register as more than a sonar blip in the ocean of books. Your single copy is likely to be shelved in a store (remember those?) spine-out. Your publisher has to pay for better placement, and that’s usually reserved for the A-listers.
Book launch parties and bookstore signings can be fun, but are often depressing. All of us who’ve been published traditionally know the feeling of sitting in a bookstore, stacks of our books on the table, watching browsers amble by with a look of pity in their eyes as they go off to find the new Stephen King. We put out bowls of candy and colorful bookmarks, and end up eating both of them ourselves.
In the new world of self-publishing, however, you have control over the launch. So what’s the best way to go about it?
Last week I came out with my newest book, How to Make a Living as a Writer. The launch was a success. The book hit #1 on Amazon’s Writing Skills list and #2 on Small Business.
Let me offer you the simple formula I use.
1. Write the best book you can
No-brainer. Every time out, do your best writing. Study the craft. Keep working at it. By far the biggest factor in a writing career is producing quality. This is the unavoidable law of all business. You can’t sell what consumers don’t like. Ford put a ton of money behind the Edsel, a famous flop named after Henry Ford’s son (even though it sounds like something you take to cure rumblings in the stomach). The public did not like it. So they did not buy it, despite all the fancy ads. Don Draper himself could not sell Edsels.
Thus, if you give your writing 90% of your concentration you’re on absolutely the right marketing track.  
2. Publish your book
I favor having direct accounts with the major retailers. Others opt for a one-stop distributor like Smashwords or Bookbaby. Some use a combination of the two. For example, some go direct with Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and then via a distributor for other sites. It’s up to you, of course, but the extra effort to upload directly is not onerous and in return you keep all the profit.
What about going exclusive with Amazon? You can find plenty of debate about that online. If you’re just starting out, however, you need eyeballs on your book. The Kindle Select program is one way to accomplish that. C. J. Lyons, self-publishing megastar, put it this way:
Newer authors with limited readership probably have nothing to lose by granting Amazon exclusivity while they use Select to build their audience. Select becomes a tool to build a presence on the bestseller lists, reviews, and solid sales figures, along with an income before expansion, much in the way that smaller presses can serve as a stepping stone to larger publishers.
One more note: Amazon now offers a pre-order option. I have not used it yet, but will probably try it out soon. (Any of you who’ve had experience with this option, please tells us about it in the comments).

3. Mailing list
The best way to announce a book is to an email list of fans. I’ve been building my list for at least a decade. So my message to you is…start now! Make it easy for people to sign up for your updates on your website. Use one of the services, like Vertical Response, Constant Contact, or MailChimp.
Yes, it’s slow going at first. You have to build a base by producing good book after good book. If it’s your first book, go to your family and friends. Send each person an individualized email. Don’t bcc everyone with a blanket announcement. Shape each email to the person and then ask if they wouldn’t mind spreading the word to their own circle of friends. Offer them a free copy of your book in return for this.
In the back matter of your ebooks have a link to your mailing list form. You want pleased readers to be able to sign up immediately. How do you please readers? See #1, above.
Be smart about your emails. You can’t just send out any old message and hope for the best. You are making a presentation. Every email is a chance to grow fan goodwill or … to have someone hit “unsubscribe.” Write, edit, and re-write those messages. 
I use text only, because I want the message to be personal, not graphics laden. The latter strikes me as too much of a “sales” look.
I make my emails short. People don’t have time to sift through War and Peace. I try to make them fun to read. I’ll include some humor, talk about the book a little, then provide links. I try to stick to only one or two calls for action in an email. One is probably best.
I promise my email list that they will always be the first to know when I have a new book. If you want to see how I do it, feel free to sign up here.
My timing is to send a launch email on the Saturday after the book goes live, because of #4:
4. Blog post
On Sunday, my regular stint here at TKZ, I’ll do a content-heavy post about the book. What I mean by that is it’s not just a sales pitch. I want to make the post about something of value to the audience for the book. The least effective way to sell is to be only about the sale. I want to give people proof that the book is worth buying. You can check out my post on How to Make a Living as a Writer here.
This is, of course, a popular blog, one of Writer’s Digest’s top 101 blogs for writers. The great bloggers here, and those who are now emeritus, have been building the brand for over six years. What if you don’t have a blog, or care to create one?
Then specialize in one social media platform. I chose Twitter. Secondarily, I have a Facebook author page.
5. Twitter and Facebook
So I will make mention of the book on FB And then plan some tweets for the week. During a launch week I’ll stick to a 90/10 ratio of real social interaction and “soft” selling. Normally I’m probably about 95/5 on Twitter. That’s really what social media is for. Build your presence around sharing good content and relational communication.
That’s it. That’s my launch plan. And I don’t have to leave home to do it.
I don’t pay for publicity services, blog tours, banner ads and so on. I’m not against these things if you want to give them a go, but for me the return hasn’t been worth the investment. Concentrating on the five items in this post is the best use of my time.
Down the line, of course, there are the deal-alert services like BookBub, BookGorilla, eBookSoda and the like. But remember your best follow-up action is writing your next book. You need to think in terms of 4 – 5 books that readers love before significant momentum starts to kick in. Keep that in mind and keep writing.

Feel free to share any other ideas you think are effective for a book launch, or marketing in general. What has worked for you, either as an author or a buyer of books? 

Giving Good Book Tour

by Michelle Gagnon

In my last post, I mentioned that I was offering a seminar on book events at a writing conference. A few people requested that I post excerpts from what was, if I do say so myself, a brilliant PowerPoint presentation (At least no one fell asleep. Well, the one guy who did wasn’t actually snoring until the very end).

So here are my tips, in a somewhat random order:

The Basics:

Timing is everything, in life and especially in book tours. When planning yours, a few things to bear in mind…

3-6 months before your release date:

  • Contact stores and libraries to set up your tour. There’s a strikingly long lead time for events at some venues, and it’s important to get on their calendar early
  • Partner up (more on this later)
  • Pitch a “theme” event (also, please see below)
  • Convince the booksellers that you’ll be able to draw a crowd, then do your best to fill those seats. Get in touch with the local MWA and SinC chapters of whatever region you’re visiting, and ask nicely if they’d mind posting an announcement about your event. Work those social networks to make sure your followers know that you’ll be coming to their hometown. Call long lost relatives and demand that they show up and buy ten books to make up for that incident in 1992. Whatever it takes.

The week before your book hits shelves:

  • Call a week before to check details. I learned this one the hard way, when my publicist gave me the wrong date for one event, and the wrong time for another. Hell hath no wrath like a bookseller who promoted an event that an author showed up to an hour late. Trust me, checking the details personally in advance can save everyone a lot of tears.
  • Arrive at the venue at least fifteen minutes early to doublecheck the set-up, and (more importantly), to introduce yourself to every bookseller in the store
  • ALWAYS bring extra books. The only times I haven’t also coincided with the times when I packed the place, the bookseller had only stocked a handful of copies, and they rapidly sold out. Times like that, most sellers are happy to buy the books from you on consignment.
  • Remember to bring promotional materials (bookmarks, magnets, pens, etc.) I always tend to remember this one as I’m sitting on a plane, picturing the stack of bookmarks still sitting in a bag by my front door.


I loathe doing a book event by myself, I truly do. Whenever possible, I prefer to share the burden with at least one other author, which has led to some fascinating experiences with a cast of characters ranging from teddy bear aficionados to reformed bank robbers.
Offering an event with one or more other authors has some key benefits:

  • You can interview each other, do a Q & A, or just talk up each others’ books, which tends to be much easier than lauding your own
  • It’s easier to secure a book signing, since booksellers believe (rightly) that two authors are a better draw than one
  • Cross-promotion; your fellow author’s fans learn about your books, and vice versa (and hopefully, they buy copies of both)
  • Worst case scenario, if no one shows up, you have someone to play cards with

Another option to consider: set up an event with more “unconventional” partners. To date, one of my most successful events in terms of sales was at a cocktail party hosted by a friend. She invited me to sell books, a jewelry designer to sell jewelry, and a rep from a kid’s educational toy company to sell toys. And all of us sold out–people came prepared to spend money, and after a few glasses of wine they shopped like mad.

Theme Events:

Booksellers and readers both love novel experiences (no pun intended). If the subject matter of your book naturally lends itself to a theme, fantastic. If not, get creative. Here are some examples:

  • Rhys Bowen hosted “Royal Tea Parties” at bookstores for the release of “Her Royal Spyness.”
  • Kelli Stanley held the release party for her 1930’s era novel “City of Dragons” at a modern day Speakeasy.
  • Heather Graham hosted a séance for “The Séance” release in Salem, Massachusetts.

So if your book involves classic cars, I’d recommend hitting at least as many car shows as bookstores. Same with any craft-related novels–get thee to quilting bees, scrapbooking parties, the works. The teddy bear guy (and no, I’m not making this up, there is a teddy bear guy, and he’s lovely), told me about teddy bear conferences where he’ll set up a table and sell a few thousand books in a single day.

My books don’t tend to have themes, outside of dirty bombs, kidnappings, and terrorists (and those terms don’t naturally lend themselves to mass attendance). At Thrillerfest one year, a group of us were discussing how tough it can be to land events in New York City bookstores.
The following year, we found a way around it– during Tfest, we organized a mass reading at a local Borders with the theme, “Quick Thrills from Out-of-Towners,” asked the extraordinarily gracious Lee Child to serve as our MC, and we managed to pack the place. Creativity can pay off.

In a nutshell, those are my top recommendations. But I’d be curious to hear from both authors and readers: what’s the best book event you ever attended, and what made it so great?

The Reality of Book Promotion

Joe Moore’s post yesterday on the effectiveness of book signings made me think about what does and doesn’t work as far as book promotion goes. With each book release, I try new things, ditch what doesn’t work and constantly look for cost effective ways to reach the largest number of readers. For my debut young adult release, I had a marketing strategy to launch IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS that encompassed four pages of a varied promo effort directed at indie stores, libraries, professional organizations, online social media, my mailing list, etc.

Book promotion has changed over the years and the developments are coming even faster as we trend up in the digital world. I have an e-reader now too, which has drastically changed how I buy books and how I hear about novels that interest me. So how does the average author today promote their own book in this evolving business?

This usually translates to online promotion since it’s free (except for the time you put into it). Focusing your marketing and branding efforts online can be an effective means to get the word out to the right people. On my recent summer read tour with fellow Texas YA authors, we had a tour blog set up a couple of months prior to our events that garnered thousands of hits and counting. Old school thinking on group signings is how many books did you sell. New school thinking is about exposure, perception, name recognition and the number of online hits you get before, during, and after the event if it’s promoted effectively online.

A book signing might have ad promo and get people to come see you, but the exposure is greater online where a website’s traffic can be hundreds or thousands of hits a day with the post continuing to get hits even after the book signing event is over. And with a reader already online, they can click on a link and buy your book, or download a sample on their e-reader that might entice them to buy the rest of your novel. This doesn’t mean the book signing is dead. It just means authors have choices on how they spend their time. And some ingenious folks have devised a way for authors to digitally sign a photo taken at the event or their actual e-book. (Here’s one LINK on that.)

Online Marketing I’ve Found Effective:

1.) A professional looking website or blog – Blogs are free if money is tight and you can share the work by putting together a group blog, like TKZ. My website designer – xuni.com – specializes in authors. For great examples of websites with cool navigation, check out her portfolio.

2.) Twitter – Get to know your regional review bloggers. They can be great support.

3.) Other Social Media – I hate Facebook for many reasons, but there are other sites that could be more effective. I’m trying Tumblr now.

4.) Goodreads – If you don’t have an author page here, why not? It’s free and you can link your blog to your Goodreads author page to keep material fresh without much effort. Any Goodreads member is a reader and your target audience.

5.) Amazon Author Central – Did you know that you can update your own author/book page for reviews, book endorsement blurbs, post book trailer videos, etc.? If your brand is important to you, you may want to take control of your author page.

The simple truth is that most authors won’t see a great deal of promotion dollars from their publishers. You’d think that if a house were taking on a new author and book that they would include a certain amount of money geared for promotion, but the reality is that the publisher spends generic dollars on promoting their line of books or other authors’ work and hope readers will notice your book in the process. They rely on the author doing their own promotion. It’s quite conceivable that the average author will spend more to promote their book than their publisher will, especially given that houses are tightening up on advances and other expenses.

So as authors look seriously at self-publishing and e-books, it’s real tempting to cut back on the time consuming and resource depleting efforts to promote that detracts from the time you have to write. Time literally is money in this empowering new future, but having online marketing supports your digital sales. Many might think that simply having your book available for purchase online is enough and that money will roll in. For the average author, this simply isn’t the case. You have to try things to see if they work for you. Traditional houses are watching the self-published authors with solid sales and offering them contracts because they have a readership and a marketing platform that will come along with them. When I first sold, I had no idea how important my own marketing would become. Self-published authors today will know more than I did when I sold, but they will also have to weigh how important it will be for them to sell traditionally if it means giving up control of their copy rights and business decisions.

In my opinion, the number one best thing you can do—whether you get published traditionally or go the self-published route—is to write a good book. And in either case, you’ll need to build a readership, people who like what you do and will come back for more. Online promotion on various fronts is a good way to get the word out in a cost effective manner to tap into a marketplace of the savvy readers we have today.

For discussion, I’d love to hear. How do you find out about books you want to buy these days? And how important is it for you, as a reader, to make a connection with the author either online or in person? What are your favorite ways to do this?

Specifically for authors—aspiring, self-published, or traditionally published—what methods of promotion have you found most helpful? (Yes, aspiring authors should weigh in. Having an online website/blog presence is important for you, too.)