Plan B

By Debbie Burke


In Montana, Labor Day weekend is summer’s last hurrah for camping, hiking, and outdoor recreation.

It’s also the date for “Rumble by the Bay,” a classic car and truck show where the streets of Bigfork are closed to display more than a hundred vintage vehicles with glossy enamel paint, fender skirts, and wide whitewalls.

At the same time in Bigfork, local authors Leslie Budewitz, Mark Leichliter, and I were preparing for our panel discussion about crime fiction entitled “Mystery and Murder Under the Big Sky.”

This was our fourth year doing the popular panel. In the past, we followed Plan A: we spoke from a covered pavilion stage while the audience sat in Adirondack chairs on a large lawn adjacent to the bakery/bar that hosts us. While the lovely Swan River flowed past, they enjoyed pastries and beverages and we revealed how we kill people on the page.

Photo credit: Kay Bjork

Here’s a photo of a previous year.

I also wrote about the gathering in this post.

For three years, Plan A was successful.

However, weather doesn’t pay attention to human plans.

And this year, it rained.

While gearheads across the street rushed to put up convertible tops, we writers moved to Plan B.

We and our audience got cozy under the awning in the bar’s patio. 

A lady I didn’t know approached holding my book Deep Fake Double Down and asked me to sign it. Her name was Susan but that’s all I knew about her. Then she settled in with the rest of the audience.

In the past, we had talked from the stage and needed sound equipment. Now we sat at chairs and tables in an area small enough that people could hear us without mics.

Plan B worked great. The atmosphere was intimate, like a gathering of friends chatting about reading and books. The questions were intelligent and thought-provoking. People felt free to comment and expand the discussion.

Susan mentioned I was scheduled to appear at her book club that’s led by one of my Zumba teachers. I said, “Oh, cool. I’m looking forward to the Zumba Book Club.” The audience laughed because apparently no one had heard of a Zumba book club. That also led to a discussion about how authors often find readers in unexpected places.

Leslie, Mark, and I were thrilled to enjoy spirited interaction with avid readers who share the interests and concerns that our books address.

Mark Leichliter, Debbie Burke, Leslie Budewitz.
Behind us, the Swan River is flowing by.

We weren’t performers elevated on a stage but guests at a book club in the home of a gracious host.

In prior years, car show folks had drifted through on their way to the bar, causing a bit of distraction. Of course, we want the venue to make money, but that lent a different tone to our presentation.

This year, Leslie made the observation: “…a good percentage of the audience had come to hear us. They didn’t just happen on us and that increased their engagement. The rain may have washed away the other folks and left us with that core audience.”

I can’t speak for the others, but my book sales were better than in past years!

One attendee commented to Mark, “It was like the three of you were in my living room.”

Sometimes Plan B turns out better than Plan A.

Post script: After our presentation and book signing, the sun came out and we enjoyed a stroll through real steel classics and shiny chrome. Here’s what I have my eye on as soon as my books sell a million copies.









Post-post script: Yesterday I met with the Zumba Book Club and Susan was there. I offered a Steve Hooley Deep Fake Sapphire pen as the prize for people who signed up for my newsletter (thanks again, Steve!). As I scanned the entry slips, I recognized Susan’s last name and asked her, “Are you related to Dr. Fxxxxx?” 

“That was my husband.” 

Dr. Fxxxxxx had been our wonderful dentist for many years until he passed away. He was so gentle that my father-in-law would fly all the way from San Diego to Montana for Dr. Fxxxxx to do his dental work. I was happy to share that story with Susan and it obviously pleased her to hear that patients still remembered her husband’s kindness. 

Time for the pen drawing. The winner was (drumroll) Susan Fxxxxx. 

You can’t always plan a happy outcome. Sometimes it just happens. 


TKZers: Did you ever need to change plans at the last minute for an event, either as a presenter or as an attendee?

Did the change cause things to go awry?

Or did a rain cloud show a silver lining?



“This is a truly unique mystery with a distinctive, all-too-plausible premise and memorable characters.” – BookLife Prize

Available at major booksellers at this link.

Rinse and Repeat

Remember JSB’s post about public speaking? Well, before an exciting opportunity two weeks ago, I reread his tips a gazillion times. What he failed to mention was a bizarre side effect of stress—dry mouth. I noticed it when I did my first Zoom book signing. Which is odd, right? I’ve never had a problem with in-person book signings, but on Zoom? I dried up like the Sahara. Halfway through the event it went away, so I didn’t give it another thought. I Zoomed a few more times without incident.

And then, an Emmy award-winning true crime series asked me to appear on their show. (Can’t tell you which one yet, sorry!) I was fine on the drive over. Nervous as all heck, but other than a thundering heartbeat, I could hide my anxiety. After all, that’s what a professional does. They don’t let nerves get the better of them. Plus, I knew this case inside out. How hard could it be? So what if a camera crew would be focused on me.

My confidence waned on the walk inside, but I was still holding my own. Head held high, shoulders back.

Then I sat in the interview chair.

With that one simple act, all the saliva in my mouth turned to dust. And I mean all of it. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, my lips puckered, and words refused to roll off my tongue with ease. Me on the day of my debut TV appearance…

They offered me bottled water—gallons of it through two and half hours of taping. After the second or third bottle, I think they might’ve figured out I wasn’t an old pro at this TV stuff. 😉 Thankfully, I’d spoken to the producer on the phone several times prior, so he had faith in me. “Get her more water please!” And I drank, and drank, and drank.

Mr. Producer told me several times I did an excellent job. I’ll be the judge of that, thank you…in six months when the episode airs. We did have a lot of laughs. But when you’re discussing a shooting and can’t spit out the word “caliber” because your tongue feels like it’s three sizes too big for your mouth…

Well, let’s just say it isn’t a good look. The more I stressed, the drier my mouth became. Throughout the interview I fluctuated between Lord, give me strength and Someone—anyone—please shoot me! But most of all, I needed more water STAT.

On the plus side, the nice part of working on a true crime show is it’s not taped in front a live audience. All I had to do was string together one good sentence at a time and the editor would grab what s/he needs.

Mission accomplished. That’s a rap!

Shamefaced, I crawled into the passenger seat of our truck—and all at once my mouth regained its moisture. Ain’t that a b*tch? I can hardly wait to see what happens next time. Maybe I’ll grow some weird lump on my forehead. Or better yet, my saliva glands will over-stimulate, and I’ll show up looking like this…

I think it’s fair to say no one will ever ask me to do a TedTalk. Probably best.

To understand my body’s reaction to stress, I researched the subject the next morning to find out why this occurred and what to do about it in the future. Turns out, dry mouth isn’t an uncommon reaction.

Researchers have studied this phenomenon.

The term stress refers to a series of events that lead to a reaction in the brain (perceived stress), activating the physiological fight-or-flight response in the body. Anxiety is also a generalized unpleasant and vague sensation of fear and concern with an unknown origin.

Makes sense.

Psychological conditions might affect both salivary flow rate and xerostomia. Furthermore, it was observed that salivary cortisol levels increased during stress, followed by changes in the composition of saliva.

In simpler terms, stress plays a significant role in reducing the salivary flow rate.

So, what’s my advice in case you experience something similar? Hope you’ve got a nice strong bladder. You’ll need it to hold all the water. No, seriously, pack lozenges. If all else fails, smile! Works every time.

I’m a big believer in laughter. If we can’t poke fun at ourselves, we’ll dwell on the negative. I appeared on an Emmy award-winning true crime show (!), and have spoken to the producer several times since. For me, it’s a dream come true. 🙂

Let’s discuss embarrassing moments! Your turn. Extra points if it relates to writing, reading, acting, etc.

Public Speaking for Writers

by James Scott Bell

Mark Twain

On occasion here at TKZ we’ve posted on the topic of public speaking for writers. Examples are here (Gilstrap) and here (Burke). Today I’ll add a few of my own tips for the scribe who gets a yakking gig. The first comes by way of Mr. Mark Twain.

Before his books and stories began to appear, Twain gained celebrity as a lecturer. Working as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union newspaper, he’d sent in dispatches on what were then called The Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). These proved wildly popular. When he returned stateside in 1866, he pondered how he might use this bit of renown to expand his wallet.

One possibility was delivering a lecture based on his columns. Encouraged by a friend, Twain rented a San Francisco opera house and charged $1 a ticket. He wrote up an advertisement for the newspapers:





In which passing mention will be made of Harris, Bishop Staley, the
American missionaries, etc., and the customs and characteristics
of the natives duly discussed and described. The great volcano of
Kilauea will also receive proper attention.

is in town, but has not been engaged

were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned

may be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please

Dress Circle, $1.00 Family Circle, 50c
Doors open at 7 o’clock The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock

Twain was nervous that evening, sure he’d be facing a mostly empty house. In fact, the place was packed. But when he first stepped out into the lights he was sandbagged by stage fright. He was, as one biographer put it, “wobbly-kneed and dry of tongue.” As the introductory applause died down, he told himself, “These are my friends.” His nerves began to calm. He spoke to the audience as if he were seated with pals around a cracker barrel in some old mining town.

The lecture was a hit.

Afterward, and older man found his way to Twain and asked, “Be them your natural tones of eloquence?”

Which is my first bit of advice for a speaker: Be yourself. Use your natural tones of eloquence. Don’t sound like a speechifier. Speak as you would to a group of friends.

Second bit of advice: Your address should have one main point. I wrote some time ago about my ride with Justice Thurgood Marshall, who told me the best oral arguments in the Supreme Court were designed around winning one, primary point.

Knowing the single point you want to make will take care of 50% of your nervousness. Write down that point in a sentence. For example: Anyone can improve as a public speaker if they will follow a few fundamentals.

Then design your speech to “prove” that point and inspire your audience to take action.

How do you prove a point? With evidence. In a speech, anecdotal evidence is best, because it’s a story, and stories make lectures come alive. In a speech about the above point, I might bring Mark Twain in again as “evidence” for the fundamental “Always leave them wanting more.”

In a 1901 lecture Twain reported:

“Some years ago in Hartford we all went to the church on a hot, sweltering night, to hear the annual report of Mr. Hawley, a city missionary, who went around finding the people who needed help and didn’t want to ask for it. He told of the life in the cellars where poverty resided, he gave instances of the heroism and devotion of the poor … Well, Hawley worked me up to a great state. I couldn’t wait for him to get through. I had four hundred dollars in my pocket. I wanted to give that and borrow more to give. You could see greenbacks in every eye. But he didn’t pass the plate, and it grew hotter and we grew sleepier. My enthusiasm went down, down, down – $100 at a time, till finally when the plate came round I stole ten cents out of it.”

Third tip: If you can get a laugh, it always helps. The easiest way to get a laugh is with a good anecdote, like the above. That way it doesn’t seem like you are trying to tell a joke, which can sometimes fail. Pepper your speech with a few choice quotes, too.

Fourth tip: Take off your name badge when you speak. It’s distracting.

Fifth tip: Don’t mangle the opening. The audience sizes you up within the first seven seconds. So don’t waste time with impromptu thanks (“Thanks, Fiona, for that lovely introduction”) or currying favor (“It’s so nice to be here tonight”) or, egad, confession (“I’m a little nervous, so I hope you’ll forgive me.”)

Instead, when you get to the podium, pause for three seconds. Then launch with one of the following:


“It was Mark Twain who said, ‘It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.’ ”


“Eighty-three percent of Americans fear public speaking more than they do death. According to Jerry Seinfeld, that means if they go to a funeral they’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”


Arriving at a small town to give a lecture, Mark Twain went to a local barber for a shave. When Twain mentioned it was his first visit to the town, the barber said it was a good time to be there, because Mark Twain was going to give a lecture that night.

“You’ll want to go, I suppose,” the barber said.

“I guess so,” said Twain.

“Well, it’s sold out,” the barber said. “You’ll have to stand.”

“Just my luck,” Twain said. “I always have to stand when that fellow lectures.”

Where do you find such material? Research, of course, which is rather easy these days via the internet. But I’ll mention one favorite resource I’ve used for years—The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes.

And now, lest you be tempted to remove a dime from the collection plate, I’ll stop.

You’ve all heard some great speeches. What have you noticed about them, and the speaker?

12 Tips for New Public Speakers

By Debbie Burke

Just before the holiday break, TKZ regular Steve Hooley posed a question about public speaking for new authors. He asked:

“I would love to see some discussions here, by TKZ’ers, on the ins and outs, strategies, fine points, etc. etc. of public speaking as part of the marketing of books.”

Photo credit: Visual Hunt

Glossophobia or the fear of public speaking affects an estimated 75% of people…the other 25% just won’t admit to it!

TKZ’s James Scott Bell and John Gilstrap are seasoned public speaking pros and John discussed the subject in this excellent 2017 post.

I’m writing from a slightly different slant as a relative novice, dealing with newbie problems. I’m fortunate to have a mentor in Susan Purvis, who’s been an educator for decades, speaking on different continents under sometimes primitive circumstances.

Here are a dozen tips I’ve stolen from Susan, mashed up with a few hard lessons I learned myself.

The first six are psychological tricks to ease the anxiety. The rest are practical suggestions to keep presentations running smoothly.

Photo credit: Visual Hunt

1. Start small with audiences that aren’t intimidating.

For years, I’ve taught workshops to other writers. Because I share their concerns and curiosity, I’m comfortable around them. Those talks feel less like public speaking and more like yakking with colleagues, even if they are strangers. That made the transition easier to larger groups.

Ask a group of friends, coworkers, or family to help you hone your presentation. Once you gain confidence, speaking to strangers feels less awkward.

2. Use low attendance to your advantage.

New authors are usually discouraged when they don’t draw crowds. Instead of feeling disappointed, take that opportunity to get to know your readers on a more intimate basis. Ask questions. What are their interests? What are their favorite books? Why do they love them? Listen and learn. Their likes and dislikes will help you slant future talks to engage your audience.

3. Determine who your audience is.

Steve mentioned his books are middle-grade fantasy. He might offer to talk at his grandchildren’s schools. He can discuss the writing process, where the inspiration comes from, how to world-build, etc. Teaching is not only fulfilling but offers students a different experience that opens new doors in their education. Last fall, Susan and I had a blast talking with junior high students about Nanowrimo.

4. Seek out book clubs and offer to speak to them.

Many are eager to meet the author. The book club atmosphere is less intimidating than an auditorium setting, offering a painless way to ease into public speaking, especially if wine is involved!

5. Use the buddy system.

Bring a pal. A friendly face in the audience is a big confidence helper. Start out addressing that friend as if the two of you are having a conversation. Once you overcome initial jitters then expand to eye contact with more people.

6. Tag team.

Do a joint presentation with another author. If you share a good rapport with your co-presenter, the audience picks up on that. Play off each other. Make the time fun and entertaining.

Photo credit: Visual Hunt

Here are the nuts-and-bolts practical tips:

7. Learn Power Point.

It’s an easy program that even non-geeks can figure out. Use lots of photos in the presentation. Audiences enjoy seeing locations of the story, maps of the protagonist’s journey, pictures of models who inspired the physical appearances of characters, etc. Even tables of information or fun facts are interesting.

Pictures serve two purposes: first, they provide visual stimulation to the audience; second, they take some of the pressure off you as the speaker since you’re not the entire focus of their attention.

8. Practice, practice, practice.

Time your presentation with a stopwatch.

While you’re speaking, advance the slides so the mechanics of talking and clicking at the same time become automatic. During the live presentation, you may need to return to earlier slides to make points or answer questions. Know the slide order so you don’t waste time madly clicking to find the right place.

9. Don’t wear pearls.

In my first presentation before a large group, I wanted to make a good appearance and dressed up with jewelry I didn’t normally wear. To my horror, every time I gestured, my pearl necklace clacked against the lapel mic. Lesson learned. Avoid dangling or noisy jewelry that interferes with the mic.

Wear comfortable, non-binding clothes. Practice in front of a mirror. Make sure you’re not flashing underwear as you gesture.

10. Dress rehearsal. Testing, testing, one, two, three.

We’ve all attended presentations where the display screen remains black as the speaker fiddles with slides. Next, he or she keeps asking, “Can you hear me?” The mic either stays silent or lets out an eardrum-splitting screech.

To avoid being that embarrassed speaker, visit the venue prior to the presentation. If possible, I go the day before. At a minimum, arrive 30 minutes early to work out the kinks. Don’t show up three minutes before your scheduled start and trust all will be well. It won’t be…guaranteed. 

Bring a muffin or latte for the tech person. He or she is your new best friend.

If you use your own computer, make sure the cords have the proper connections to hook up to the venue’s system.

If available, a better option is to put your Power Point on a thumb drive. That way you can test its compatibility with the venue’s computer.

Check out the audio options—podium mic, handheld, or lavaliere. Many devices are wireless but not all. Hook up the mic and figure out if you are tethered by wire or if you can walk around.

11. Tie your book talk into a topic of current news interest.

My recent thriller, Stalking Midas, deals with elder fraud–a charming but ruthless con artist preys on seniors and she’s not afraid to kill to get what she wants.

Elder fraud is a growing problem, affecting not only the victim but families trying to protect them. I created a public service talk based on the fraudster who bilked my adopted mother. The presentation included warning signs and tips to protect oneself and loved ones, connecting the subject to parallels in the novel.

The talk has been well-received by senior communities and I plan to branch out to service organizations.

Relating your book to a timely news event accomplishes two goals—you reach audiences beyond the narrow group of your target readers. It also takes the selling pressure off.

I have trouble asking people to buy my books. But if my talk gives them value because they learned something, it’s easier to say, “Oh, by the way, my books are for sale at the table in the back.”

12. Giveaway bonuses.

People love freebies. The prize doesn’t need to be large. Susan brings a bag of wrapped candies to her talks. When she asks questions, she tosses a treat to the person who gives the correct answer. That promotes fun interaction with the audience and loosens them up.

Incorporate a contest into your talk. The winner can be random (“Who has a birthday today?”) or it can be a reward for an audience member who asks a great question or shares a fascinating anecdote.

A signed paperback copy or a gift code for a free download of your book makes a memorable prize.

Generally, the more interaction a speaker has with the audience, the better received the presentation is.


How about you, TKZers?

What scares you the most about public speaking?

Do you have a favorite tip to ease anxiety?


M.C. Beaton and Debbie Burke

A memorial shout-out to Scottish-born author M.C. Beaton who passed away on December 30, 2019. She wrote hundreds of novels, from Regency romances to detective series. Her books have sold more than 21 million copies worldwide. Two of her characters, Hamish MacBeth and Agatha Raisin, inspired popular TV series.

I had the good fortune to meet this delightful lady in New York City in 2018. She is an inspiration to us late-blooming authors, proving age is no barrier and can, in fact, be an asset to successful writing.

Per a statement from her publisher Little, Brown: “She hated being referred to as a ‘cosy’ writer, saying that if anyone called her books cosy she’d give them a Glasgow Kiss.

Gotta love that spirit!




Eyes in the Sky, book #3 in the series Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart by Debbie Burke, is now available for pre-order (publication date January 23, 2020) at this link.


The Performance Side of Writing

By John Gilstrap

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were among the hundreds in attendance when Stephen King addressed an audience at George mason University as part of Fairfax, Virginia’s Fall for the Book Festival.

By way of full disclosure, seeing Stephen King live is to me analogous to what I imagine it would be for a classical actor to see Kenneth Branaugh.  Or Laurence Olivier.  While many of King’s stories don’s appeal to me anymore (I read Pet Sematary when Joy was pregnant–‘Nuff said?), he works the English language exactly the way I wish that I could.

He also worked the audience with supreme grace and skill.  The fact that he was entirely at ease on the stage confirmed for me that his spontaneity was well-rehearsed.  If that read as snarky, please re-read. I meant it as a statement of supreme admiration.  As one whose Big Boy Job requires dozens of speeches a year–a few to standing O’s, I hasten to add–I can attest to the importance of hard work to making things easy.

Sooner or later, we all find ourselves alone on stage–or something like a stage–and I thought I’d share some of the tricks of the trade when it comes time to entertain an audience.

First, notice the E-word.  Embrace the fact that successful speakers are first and foremost entertainers.  I don’t care if you’re delivering a eulogy or a paper on astrophysics.  People will remember you if you’re entertaining.  And they will forget you if you are not.

We all work too hard to be forgotten.  So, how can we be memorable?

Step One:  If you truly hate public speaking and are not willing to work for it, turn down the public speaking gigs.  Your audience and your replacements will both be grateful.

Step Two:  Remember that ain’t none of this about you–iy’s about the audience.  Give thme a good ride, and they’ll love you forever.  Turn to navel-gazing bullshit about your muse and your struggles, and you’ll turn everybody off.

Step Three:  Have something to say.  This is where preparation and rehearsal pay dividends.  And remember that making feel good is better than making them feel bad.  Know where your laugh lines are and wait for them.  If you don’t know how to do this part, sign up with your local chapter of Toast Masters and learn how to structure and deliver a decent speech.  (See Step Two above.)  Every person in your audience gave up the sure thing entertainment option of watching a Seinfeld rerun for the ninth time.  You owe them at least as good a ride as that.

Step Four:  Talk to your audience, not at them.  Make eye contact.  Smile.  Invite input.  The fact that this is the 4,784th time you’ve delivered this speech doesnt change the reality that it’s the first time for each of your audience members.

Step Five (and this one’s a personal bugaboo):  Yes, you need a microphone.  I don’t care if you’re James Earl Jones on crack; you’re easier to hear in the back of the room if you’re amplified.  (See Step Two–again.)

Step Six (actually, it’s 5-A):  The microphone is a voice amplification device.  It is not a pointer, a magic wand, or an extension of your Italian gesticulation hand.  To work, it needs to be pointed at your mouth.  We’re talking straight-on.  Ninety degrees.  If you’re speaking from a podium, think in arcs as you look from one side of the audience to the other.  As your head moves, the mouth-to-mike distance should remain constant.

When using a lavalier microphone (always my preference), take time to hide the cord and the transmitter.  Having that black cord swinging around gets in the way and looks ugly.  Neatness matters to the audience.  If you have an audio technician working with you, trust his advice.  If you don’t, put the microphone a fist’s width from the underside of your jaw.  For guys, that will be between the second and third buttons on your shirt.  For ladies, that means that you have to dress in anticipation of a microphone.

There’s more, of course, but I think these are the basics.  What do y’all think?  What are your tricks or cardinal rules for presentations?