Time Warps and the ING Construction

Time Warps and the ING Construction
Terry Odell

UPDATE: My audiobook narrator, Steve “Captain” Marvel was unable to respond to comments on the post where I interviewed him. He has now replied to those who left comments. You can find the post here.  He’s graciously left his email address in a reply should anyone need to follow up.



Time WarpI’m on my way to Montana to attend the Authors of the Flathead Writing Conference. I did a Zoom presentation for their group at Debbie Burke’s request, and had a good time talking to people who understood the “writer’s mindset.” So much so that I registered for their conference and am looking forward to meeting Debbie in person.

I’m revisiting a topic I’ve addressed before, triggered by a recent read of a traditionally published author’s book. (Why do we feel it’s necessary to differentiate between traditionally published and indie publishers?) Anyway my guess is both the author and the editor didn’t grasp the fine points of the “ing” construction, and this book had countless misusages of the ‘simultaneous action’ that goes along with those “ing” clauses, resulting in numerous time warps.

You don’t have to read science fiction to run into a time warp. At the very first writer’s conference I attended, an agent said she would reject a query with more than 1 sentence beginning with the “ing” construction. Her explanation—it’s too easy to make mistakes with that sentence structure.

But is it wrong? No. You have to be careful, and you have to pay attention. There are different reasons to avoid, or minimize use of those pesky “ing” words.

First, the inadvertent time warp.

Unlocking the door, Fred dropped the mail on the table and poured himself a drink. Using that “ing” phrase shows simultaneous action (or it’s supposed to), and Fred couldn’t have done all that while he was unlocking the door. Time warp!
Better to write After unlocking the door, Fred dropped the mail on the table, then went to the liquor cabinet to pour himself a drink. Time moves forward in that one.

What’s wrong with these sentences?
“Running across the clearing, John rushed into the tent.”
“Opening the door, Mary tripped down the stairs.”

John can’t be getting into the tent while he’s running across the clearing. And Mary needs to open the door before she goes downstairs.

Next, the misplaced modifier

Time Warp
In my first critique group, I held the prize for creating an answering machine that gave neck massages. In my draft of Finding Sarah, I’d written, “Rubbing her neck, the blinking red light on the answering machine caught Sarah’s eye.” Ooops. (But I would like a machine with that function!)

Make sure the noun or pronoun comes immediately after the descriptive phrase. Thus, the above example could be “Rubbing her neck, Sarah noticed the blinking red light on the answering machine.”If your “ing” verb follows “was”, take another look. “John was running across the clearing” isn’t a strong as “John ran across the clearing.” Of course, you’ll want to use stronger verbs, such as raced, sped, or barreled, but the idea is the same.

When you’re looking over your manuscript, you might want to flag words ending in “ing” and take another look to be sure you haven’t made any of these basic errors.
Here’s a quick way to spot them in Word. Click the image to enlarge.
Time WarpIn your document, click the drop down arrow by “Find” then select “Advanced Find.”
Click “More” and then check the “Use Wildcard” Box. Type ing into the find field, then click the “Special” Option, and “End of Word.” This will add a > character. You can use the Reading Highlight to see all of them, and the “Find Next” to deal with them one at a time. You’ll get more than just verbs ending in ing, but it’s still a quick way to spot them. The hard part is determining whether you’ve got a problem!

What grammar “conventions” do you have trouble with? Which bother you when reading?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

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

Name That Car


What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. –William Shakespeare

* * *

Last week Sue Coletta wrote a post in which James Scott Bell facetiously commented his dream job would be to be a wine critic. That got me thinking about a vocation I’ve always said was my dream job: naming new models of automobiles.

Driving down the street is like sailing through a sea of fantasia. Those little boxes that are designed to carry people from here to there in various states of luxury have names that have nothing to do with their engineering.

Take the Aston Martin Valkyrie for example. If there were a contest of fantastic auto names, this would surely be the winner. According to Merriam-Webster, the meaning of VALKYRIE is “any of the maidens of Odin who choose the heroes to be slain in battle and conduct them to Valhalla.”

I have to say I haven’t seen any Valkyries driving around in my neighborhood, but I’m keeping an eye out just to see which end of this car is the front and which is the rear.

* * *

Many automakers prefer animal names for their cars. Here are a few:

  • Chevrolet Impala
  • Plymouth Barracuda
  • Dodge Viper
  • Mercury Cougar
  • Ford Raptor
  • Ford Bronco
  • Ford Mustang — My husband owned one of these when we were married.
  • The Jaguar — I owned a Jaguar XKE when I was young, single, and foolish. To this day, I’m not sure if I owned the car or the car owned me. It seems like I spent a lot of time taking care of its issues.


  • Volkswagon Beetle — A hugely popular car that didn’t follow the ferocious animal paradigm.



* * *

Weather seems to be big in car names. Consider these

  • Mercury Cyclone
  • GMC Syclone — The misspelling was intentional and used to avoid trademark infringement. But who would buy a misspelled name?
  • GMC Typhoon – GMC apparently likes weather names
  • Oldsmobile Toronado – Toronado is not actually a word, so I assume Oldsmobile was looking for a cool name to conjure up the force of a tornado.


  • And then there’s the Renault Wind. I don’t think this one was intended to invoke feelings of a powerful storm:



* * *

Other notable car names:

  • Jeep Gladiator
  • Dodge Stealth
  • AMC Javelin
  • Triumph Spitfire
  • Acura Legend
  • Nissan Armada (One car is an armada?)
  • Aston Martin Superleggera (And the name doesn’t have anything to do with legroom!)

  • Nissan Maxima – Years ago, my husband and I had to replace an old car, and I had picked out a new Maxima as my car of choice. When I took Frank to the dealership to show him the car, the salesman took great pains and a lot of time to describe all the fantastic features. When the spiel finally concluded, Frank asked about the price. The salesman spouted a big number, then said, “But remember, this is a MAXIMA!” Frank didn’t bat an eyelash, but replied, “Do you have a Minima?”

(In case you’re wondering, we bought that Maxima and kept it for over ten years.)

* * *

Another of the great cars I owned in my life was the Audi A4. Uninspired name. Fabulous car.

* * *

I identify the cars my characters drive. Kathryn in The Watch Mysteries drives an old Maxima. Her boyfriend, Phil, owns a car repair shop and drives an Audi. Cassie Deakin in Lady Pilot-in-Command drives a Mustang. None of the cars in my stories have a personal name, but Cassie’s airplane is named Scout.

* * *

So TKZers: What cars were special to you in your life? Do you identify the cars your characters drive? Do you give them names? If you could give a name to a new model car, what would it be?

* * *


Kathryn Frasier prefers running to driving. You can find her training for marathons in The Watch Mysteries. The ebook boxset is on sale for $1.99



Seven Questions to Test Your Characters

By Debbie Burke


How characters act under stress is one of the best techniques to show what they’re made of.

Photo credit: Lisa Brewster, CC-BY-SA 2.0



If there’s a minor hiccup in their routine, do they take it in stride or become a drama llama?









When life delivers an unexpected setback, do they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and make a new plan? Or do they stand around wondering “why me”?






Photo credit: Pixabay



A catastrophe threatens their lives or the lives of others. Do they freeze, flee, or run toward the disaster?





Whether large or small, a crisis brings out new aspects of the character’s personality, thought processes, emotional reactions, strengths, and weaknesses.

Are they courageous? Cowardly? Indecisive? Altruistic? Sneaky? Conniving? Manipulative? Driven by selfish interests?

Do they take charge and tackle the problem head on? Or do they avoid it until forced to face it?

Recently I ran across a 1980 book by Terrence Des Pres entitled: The Survivor-An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. He did extensive research, studying the differing reactions of people who survived the Holocaust vs. those who didn’t.

In the introduction, he wrote:

“It turns out that survival is an experience with a definite structure, neither random nor regressive nor amoral. The aim of this book has been to make that structure visible.”

Two of his conclusions were startling.

First, newly arrived prisoners had the highest death rate.

Second, criminals had the highest survival rate.


Newcomers often froze. They went into shock and denial. They couldn’t adjust physically, mentally, or psychologically to their horrifying new circumstances. That paralysis and inability to adapt led to high death rates.

Criminals, on the other hand, adapted better and survived at a higher rate. Because they were used to living outside of society’s rules and norms, they changed their behavior more easily to avoid being caught in the daily dangers of the camps.

How do your characters handle stress? Do they freeze and withdraw? Do they pivot in a new direction? Do they react impulsively? Do they make a rational plan to overcome difficulty? Do they wait/hope for someone else to solve the problem? Do they seek guidance or cooperation from others, or are they lone wolves? Do they manipulate the situation to their advantage?

Here’s an unscientific quiz to test the mettle of characters in your WIP. The questions range from trivial annoyances to life-or-death disasters.

How characters react to small problems may indicate how they treat more serious trials.

Or not. A character who appears fragile or weak on the surface may rise up to show hidden strengths or talents.

Try running all your major characters through the quiz—protagonist and antagonist, as well as secondary characters who play important roles like partners, love interests, family, coworkers, mentors, etc. See what each one does. Discover what conclusions you can draw from their behavior.

There are no right or wrong, good or bad answers. The only meaningful answer is whether a character’s reaction is authentic and true to their personality.

Question #1 – Your character runs out of shampoo in the shower. What does s/he do?

  1. Screams for someone else to bring more shampoo.
  2. Uses soap instead even though it leaves hair greasy.
  3. Says screw it and finishes with water only.
  4. Wraps up in a towel and drips down the hall to find more shampoo.
  5. Fill in a different answer.

Question #2 – In a remote location without cell service, your character’s car doesn’t start. The only other vehicle around is a stick shift, which your character never learned to drive. What does s/he do?

  1. Tries to call Triple A, hoping for a signal.
  2. Tinkers under the hood to try to start it.
  3. Starts walking.
  4. Drives the unfamiliar vehicle, even though the gears grind.
  5. Remains in the broken-down car with windows up and doors locked.
  6. Jacks the first car that comes along.
  7. Fill in a different answer.

Question #3 – Your character lands in a foreign country and doesn’t speak the language. Luggage is lost and a pickpocket steals passport, credit cards, and cash. What does s/he do?

  1. Screams at airport employees.
  2. Tackles the thief and beats the snot out of them. And is probably arrested.
  3. Uses sign language to report thefts to the authorities.
  4. Contacts the embassy or consulate for help.
  5. Hopes a sympathetic stranger feels sorry enough to offer assistance.
  6. Fill in a different answer.

Question #4 – The electricity goes off and there’s no cell service. What does your character do?

  1. Starts up the generator that s/he bought to prepare for this contingency and proceeds with normal activities.
  2. Ambushes the prepper neighbor who has the generator and takes it away from them.
  3. Reads a book by candlelight and thinks “Gee, this is kinda romantic.”
  4. Hyperventilates. Alternatively, hides under the bed so the bogey man can’t get him/her.
  5. Goes searching for missing family and friends.
  6. Seizes this golden opportunity to commit crimes b/c the chances of getting caught or punished are low.
  7. Fill in a different answer.

Question #5 – The house/apartment catches fire. What does your character do?

  1. Grabs the already-packed bug-out bag which contains medications, passport, flashdrive backups, and cash.
  2. Grabs loved ones and pets and runs like hell.
  3. Grabs a fire extinguisher and fights the blaze.
  4. Stands and watches because s/he just dropped acid and is enjoying the far-out colors, man.
  5. Shoves an abusive partner into the flames, slams and locks the door, and runs like hell.
  6. Fill in a different answer.

Question #6 – Your character’s spouse and child are drowning. S/he can only save one. What does your character do?

  1. Saves the child.
  2. Saves the spouse.
  3. Saves the closest one.
  4. The decision is too impossible to fathom so they all drown together.
  5. Prays for a miracle.
  6. Drowns themselves b/c they can’t live with the guilt.
  7. Fill in a different answer.

Question #7 – Your character is facing death with no possible reprieve and no way out. What does s/he do?

  1. Prays.
  2. Requests a blindfold and a last cigarette.
  3. Weeps.
  4. Sends a last message to loved ones.
  5. Shivers with terror.
  6. Takes down as many enemies as possible.
  7. Screams, “This can’t be happening!”
  8. Fill in a different answer.

Did you learn more about your characters?

Do these insights help your story? Drive it in a new direction?

In a sad, ironic footnote, author Terrence Des Pres died at age 47 by hanging, his death ruled “accidental” by the Madison County (NY) medical examiner’s office.


TKZers: Please share “different answers” you filled in.



By book #4 in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series, I thought I knew the two main characters well. But I learned surprising new facets when they are caught in Hurricane Irma in Dead Man’s Bluff. Stranded in an unfamiliar, flooded Florida landscape without electricity, they must hunt for a missing friend. Soon they discover predators, animal and human, are hunting for them.

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Writing Fiction That’s “Ripped From the Headlines”

by James Scott Bell

The news is obviously a great place to find plot ideas. I used to clip news items from actual newspapers and toss them in an “idea box.” When getting ready to develop a new novel, I’d go through the box looking for something that still grabbed me and could be the basis of a story, or at least provide an interesting subplot.

An example is my latest Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Justice (which, as it happens, launches today, at the deal price of just $1.99. What a coincidence!)

For Romeo’s Justice I riffed off a story I read about the mining of lithium in California’s Salton Sea. That’s obviously timely, as electric vehicles (EVs) are being…encouraged…and lithium—lots and lots of lithium—is needed for manufacturing EV batteries. Thus, there is a rush for “white gold” and the Salton Sea is the new Sutter’s Mill. This provided both a setting and a subplot for my novel.

That’s one way to use the news—find an issue of current moment and either weave it into the narrative or make it the foundation for the main plot. Goodness knows, there are plenty of issues to choose from these days, but a word of caution is in order. A novel is not a sermon, extended rant, or thinly-disguised jeremiad. It is not 80k words worth of Twitterspeak (or should I say Xtalk?).

You’ve got to play fair with the characters. You have a strong opinion, fine, but make sure it is dramatized and not hammered. Give characters with the opposing view a justification (even if it’s just in their own minds) for what they are doing. Otherwise, a good portion of your potential readership will likely skip your other books. If they want to get yelled at they can doomscroll on X for free.

There’s another way to use headline ripping, and that’s taking an actual event and using it as the main plot. Now you’re dealing with real people, and the primary caution here is defamation.

Now, libel cases are notoriously difficult to sustain, especially in the fiction context. Though not impossible. There was the case some years ago of a novel called The Red Hat Club in which the author based a character on her (former) friend. The character in the novel is “an out-of-control alcoholic, who drinks during flights. She has sex with ‘stud puppies’ and married men, dresses provocatively, acts rude and crude, and is labeled as a ‘right wing reactionary’ and atheist with an awful temper.”

The ex-friend was not happy about this. She sued, and since she was not a “public figure” (thus bearing a more favorable burden of proof) she won.

Blue-footed booby

And so, while libel cases against novelists are as rare as the blue-footed booby, there are a few simple things you should do just to be safe.

Of course, put in the standard disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

But also change key facts. For example, if the real person is a man, consider making the character a woman. If he’s a lawyer, you could make him an investment banker. If the event happened in New York, set it in Los Angeles.

At the very least, change the name, for goodness’ sake. The TV show Law & Order uses real events all the time. They always run their disclaimer, then usually do an episode based on a real crime. They change things around, but one time they got lazy. In a story with the headline Was a Law & Order Episode Ripped Too Closely From the Headlines? the Hollywood Reporter documented an episode where a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge accepts cash bribes from a bald, Indian-American lawyer named Ravi Patel.

A bald, Indian-American lawyer named Ravi Batra sued the show’s creator, Dick Wolf. “In real life, Batra had close connections with a New York politician who allegedly accepted bribes and was said to have influence over a a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge.”

Defendant Wolf moved for summary judgment (a dismissal of the suit as a matter of law). But a judge denied the motion, holding that there was “a reasonable likelihood that the ordinary viewer, unacquainted with Batra personally, could understand Patel’s corruption to be the truth about Batra.”

I don’t know what ultimately happened to the case; I suspect it was settled shortly after this. But the show could easily have changed the first name of the character. Or made him a Greek-American named Xander Papadopoulos. It was careless not to.

So remember the two Ds when riffing from headlines: Disclaimer and Differences. Do that and you’re golden. (Memoir writing is another kettle of carp. See this article over on Jane Friedman’s site.)

Speaking of headlines, I can’t resist sharing a few of my favorites, gathered over the years. These are real:

Milk Drinkers Turn to Powder

Iraqi Head Seeks Arms

Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Experts Say

Include Your Children When Baking Cookies

Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

Complaints About NBA Referees Turning Ugly

Do you use the news for inspiration? Or just frustration?

And don’t forget:

Your Own Literary Agency

Life-Seasoned Open Arms Literary Agency

My subscription to a writer’s magazine had expired, and I was flipping through the latest issue to decide if I wanted to renew. The annual agent review was in that issue. Even though I’ve decided to indie publish, I read through the agents to see how many of them might be willing to consider me.

Zero. Nada. Not a single agent listed criteria which would include me (or didn’t exclude me.) So, I decided to “create” my own agency. And today I invite you to do the same. Some of you have agents that are excellent, and I am not asking you to criticize or poke fun at your agent or agency. I’m simply giving you the opportunity to create your own brand-new agency, set the criteria, and have some fun. Here’s mine:


S.P. Holly Life-Seasoned Open Arms Literary Agency

Agent: S.P. Holly

Interested in: Stories by writers who have a life seasoned with a wide variety of experiences, and whose stories grab our eyeballs and steal our hearts, not letting go until the last page is turned.

Does not want: Not interested in your gender identity or sexual preference, age, or heredity and ethnicity. And please don’t list your pronouns.

Inclusivity: Everyone is welcome to submit.

Submission guidelines: Send us a great story.


Okay, your turn. If you wish to play creator, please establish your own agency, give it a name, and tell us what you do and don’t want.

Who knows, you might get submissions from some of us here at TKZ.

The Ultimate Story Checklist

I’ve stumbled upon a writing resource that needs to be shared on the Kill Zone. It’s called the Ultimate Story Checklist, and it’s on a website called Cockeyed Caravan hosted by Matt Bird. If the names aren’t familiar, Matt Bird is an A-List screenwriter who recently published a book titled The Secrets of Story.

While the website and book are aimed at the screenwriting market, there’s a lot of value here for regular storytellers. Matt Bird delivers many great takeaways, one being, “Audiences purchase your work because of its concept but embrace it because of the characters”. I put that quote on my daily affirmation board.

You can download the Ultimate Story Checklist here. However, I’ll list the highlights so you’ll get an idea where this craft book and blog are coming from. Here’s the CliffsNotes version of over 200 sub-points to check off:

Part 1: Concept

The Pitch — Does the concept excite everyone who hears it?

Story Fundamentals — Wil this concept generate a strong story?

The Hook — Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?

Part 2: Character

Believe — Do we recognize the hero as a human being?

Care — Do we feel for the hero?

Invest — Can we trust the hero to tackle the challenge?

Part 3: Structure

1st Quarter — Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?

2nd Quarter — Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?

3rd Quarter — Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?

4th Quarter — Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?

Part 4: Scenework

The Set-Up — Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?

The Conflict — Is this a compelling collision of competing agendas?

The Outcome — Does the scene change the story going forward?

Part 5: Dialogue

Empathetic — Is the dialogue true to human nature?

Specific — Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?

Heightened — Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?

Strategic — Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?

Part 6: Tone

Genre — Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?

Framing — Does the story set, reset, upset, and ultimately exceed its own expectations?

Part 7: Theme

Difficult — Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?

Grounded — Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?

Subtle — Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?

Untidy — Is the dilemma ultimately unsolvable?

As mentioned, there are well over two hundred sub-questions in the parts and categories. I plugged my WIP netstream series City Of Danger into the Ultimate Story Checklist. It’s a well-worthwhile exercise that brings clarity and gives guidance.

Kill Zoners — Has anyone heard of this resource or of Matt Bird? Do you use any sort of checklist or guideline for your storytelling? Please share what works for you and any recommendations you have.

Do You Really Need to Sweat The Commas?

By John Gilstrap

Back in 1994, when I was putting the finishing touches on the manuscript that would become Nathan’s Run, I followed a self-imposed rule that as I read through the final draft, if I came to a substantive change–something other than a typo or minor grammatical thing–I would make the change and then go back to the beginning of the manuscript and read it again, up to and beyond the point of the substantive change. When it happened again, I’d repeat the process. I think it added up to something like 30 editing passes.

After my final pass, I fired up by brand new HP inkjet printer (agents wouldn’t look at dot matrix submissions), and I watched as the manuscript printed out at the blistering rate of six pages per minute. In the end, the book launched a fun career, though I’m not sure those last five or six passes had anything to do with it.

My agent at the time, Molly, told me a story that altered my view of the editing process. A neighbor had a friend who had written a book that the neighbor thought was fantastic. Would Molly give it a look? I imagine this happens a lot in the life of a literary agent. With more than a little hesitation, Molly agreed to give the manuscript a look.

When the neighbor delivered the goods, it came as a stack single-spaced type-written pages (typewritten, as in, clackety-clack, ding) on erasable bond paper. Remember how dirty your hands felt after handling erasable bond? When she was done, Molly was moved to tears, and she instantly took on that brand new author, whose name turned out to be Frank McCourt, and whose manuscript became a little runaway bestseller called Angela’s Ashes.

The guy had broken every rule, yet somehow his talent won the day.

Welcome to the capricious world of the entertainment business. Happenstance and serendipity play huge roles, but such is the case in every professional endeavor. Many a career is launched by an introduction at a party or a business conference. The business world calls it networking. But the seed that makes the serendipity function is the underlying talent of the individual, and that individual’s willingness to work hard to improve.

A number of the regulars here at The Killzone have expressed their frustration with the editing loop. They can never get their chapter to check off all the boxes in the rule books that purport to know more than perhaps they do. This is why I profess that there are no rules to this game of writing fiction.

Of course first impressions matter, and as such, you want every manuscript to be as clean as possible, but if the story is there, it’s there in spite of a misplaced comma. If the characters are compelling, their personalities will transcend the prologue that may or may not survive through publication.

The Forbidden City of traditional publishing, as Brother Bell calls it, is not forbidden at all. Its gates stand wide open for new and experienced talent, and as I have demonstrated several dozen times now, it is not necessary to thoroughly understand how commas work, or the difference between that and which. All that is necessary is good story that is well told.

Plus a willingness to seek opportunities to spark the serendipitous event that can make it all happen. You’ve got the talent and the skill for writing, right? You’re happy with your recently completed manuscript? It’s time to network!

It’s Time To Stop

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” –Fred Rogers

By PJ Parrish

A sequence of events this past month has been making me chew on a pretty important question: When is it time to stop writing?

I don’t mean stop writing whatever you’re working on. That’s a relatively easy decision that might mean abandoning a book that’s going nowhere and finding a new story to tell. I’m talking about the R-word.

Yup, this makes it official, crime dogs. I am retiring.

It is time to stop writing books. I know this now with all my heart. I have been thinking about this for about three years. Back then, like all of you, was feeling really at sea and done-in by the Covid scare. I figured it would pass and I would go back to my work in progress.

But now I know, this is it. Time to stop, hang up the cleats, and ride off into the Michigan sunset. Don’t fret for me. I am really happy with this decision. I just wonder why it took me three years to finally come to terms with it.

Here’s the thing. I am getting old. I am healthy and reasonably well off, thank God. But I want to use my time more wisely, while I still have the marbles and mobility to do so. As I said, some events of late have helped me to this place. I have two dear friends who are fighting cancer battles. Both are doing okay right now (one friend, who was really sick, now is back to skating in his over-65 hockey league!). But my time with them now is especially precious. As it is with my husband and small family. Also of late, I have had several writing friends confess privately that they are worn out and want to pull back from the publishing rat race. All are successful, have nice backlists and contracts. Several came home from the Bouchercon writer’s con with Covid and feelings that there are other ways they want to spend their time and money. I sense a retrenchment among the old guard.

Here’s the second thing. Writing is work. It’s not a physical thing. Writing takes no toll on the body. But it devours your time and energy. Alice Munro said, as she retired, “I don’t have the energy anymore.” Yes, writing is joyful and sure as hell beats filling potholes or waiting tables. But if you’re doing it right, it is a job. More so now that it has ever been, as the traditional publishing support system has deteriorated. You have to punch that time-card, at least five days a week.

John Updike used to rent a one-room office above a restaurant, where he would report to write six days a week. John Cheever famously put on his only suit and rode the elevator with the 9-to-5 crowd, only he would proceed down to the basement to write in a storage room.

I’ve been working fulltime since I was 18. I don’t want a job anymore. I have other things I want to do with those 40-plus hours. For health reasons (chronic back pain), I need a consistent exercise regimen. I want to travel more. I want to devote time to friends, family and my dogs. I want to keep my garden going. I want to learn more languages. I want to go back to the piano lessons I had to give up ten years ago. I want to read for pleasure. If things work out, I’d like to go live aboard for a while.

As Mr. Rogers says, when you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.

I think we make it hard on writers to retire. Maybe it’s because we imagine them as magical machines that produce pleasure just for us. As Don Winslow said, as he announced his retirement a while back, “I think a lot of people don’t expect writers to retire. They expect us to just keel over at the keyboard.”

Stephen King tried to retire but it didn’t take. In 2002, after almost dying in a bad accident, King said he was walking away from his horror show. But he barely slowed down, and just released his 64th book this month. More power to him.

When Lee Child retired, he handed care of Reacher over to his younger brother, and retreated to a ranch in Wyoming, where his only neighbors are moose and mountain lions. He claims he will never write another book.

Child said one reason he’s retiring from his series is because he struggles to identify with a younger audience. “I’m rapidly getting out of date,” Child told the Australian Financial Review, “and Reacher has always been behind the curve with technology.”

The timing was right, he says. “I had made myself a promise based on reading other people’s series … that I would never phone it in, and I never have. I cannot keep this up forever.”

I really get this one. I had a really great run that lasted almost 30 years. I made some money, won some awards, made the bestseller list. I have lovely memories of meeting fans and reading their emails and letters. I never phoned it in. No one wants to be the Brett Favre of crime fiction.

With our last series book, The Damage Done, we left our character Louis Kincaid in a very good place. We didn’t realize at the time it would be the last Louis book, but now as I re-read its ending, I know his character arc has come to a full, almost spiritual, conclusion.

And as Lee says, no one wants to be an anachronism. Through my work with the Edgars, I get a front row seat on the next generation of crime writers. Our genre is changing and as Brian Wilson wrote, I just wasn’t made for these times.

So what does retirement look like for me? Sort of like it does for Lee Child. “I’m going to buy a real comfortable sofa, and I’m just going to read for the rest of my life,” he says. “I was born in Europe. I have no work ethic.”

Like me, he feels the pull of other interests: “I’m an extremely poor guitarist,” he says, “and I may try to get better.”

But what about The Kill Zone? I’d like to stick around, if that’s okay with you all. I won’t have any new books to tout and I can’t contribute a whit about what’s going on with AI, YA, Amazon’s ACX, Binkist, or any other trend with initials. But I can help new folks with critiques and maybe start conversations here about what makes for good storytelling because that never changes.

So, be happy for me. Think of me as Mr. Chips, dawdling in the TZK doorway, going on and on about the value of friendship, the beauty of craftsmanship, and the need for reverence of our grenre’s forebearers. Haec olim meminisse iuvabit. 

Peace out.

The Time it Takes

During a recent book talk, a lady raised her hand. “How long does it take to write a novel?”

Oh boy! I got to use my high school freshman teacher’s taunting question right back at her. “How long is a piece of string?”

She frowned, as did almost everyone in the audience. And like Miss Adams, I had to explain. “My piece of string isn’t the same as yours, or hers, or his. They’re all different.”

“What does that have to do with my question?”

“My first novel took years. I wrote it whenever I had a few minutes, and I’d be willing to bet that most authors will have a similar story. Few of us were able to sit down and hammer out our first book out without stopping.

“Then I finished the novel and lost it in an electronic hiccup. Starting over, it only took three or four years after that to write it from memory. Then I carried it around, polishing here, tweaking there, telling everyone I’d written a novel and basking in the glory of having finished it.

“The truth is, I was still tweaking it even after finding an agent. While she shopped it around, I polished it some more, because I’d read that you have to make the stinkin’ thing shine.”

Nods all around.

“So if you’re asking how long that particular manuscript was under construction, I’ll have to say about ten years.”

Her eyes widened and I nodded knowingly, because I came through the other side.

But here’s the fun part for the rest of you to ponder. After it was accepted for publication, I kinda lounged around, being an author in my mind. About ten days after it hit the shelves, my editor reached out. “You got great reviews! When do I get to see pages for the next one?”


“Your next book comes out in about a year. We already have it on the schedule.”

Wait, what? They have another book scheduled and I haven’t even started it yet? What the hell!!!???

I didn’t have a ghost of an idea for another book and my publisher wanted a finished manuscript to follow the first novel. Stunned, we hung up and I sat at my desk and looked around. What am I gonna do? I’m already a failure.

Then I remembered a novella I’d worked on through the years. Would that work?

I dug the pages from our file cabinet and read them. Yep, I could change the name here, add a character here, throw in the two now-eleven-year-old kids Top and Pepper. Cool! I have a jump on the next book! I can change the location and set the whole thing in my fictional town of Chisum, which I’d modeled on Paris, Texas.

I looked at the word count. I looked at the calendar. I looked out the window and examined my fingernails. Then I went to work.

Burrows, that piece of string, came in at 90,000 words and was finished in six months.

The woman at the book signing was giving me the Hairy Eyeball as I rambled on. “In my case, once I finished the second, I got into a rhythm. I shot for five pages a day, which seems like a lot, but by then I’d retired from a long career in education and was dedicating all my time to writing.

“Some folks’ piece of string is only a page a day. Others might be a thousand words, and I’ve heard of authors who hit their personally established word count and stop in mid-sentence so as not to burn their candle too fast.”

I learned, and now with several different series in the queue, I’ve gotten faster.

One novel birthed in a dream wrapped in six weeks.

I just finished a traditional western that took three months.

I’m working on another traditional western that I believe will wrap in eight weeks. I’ve been averaging four to five thousand words a day on that WIP, on these days I can invest the time. Other days come in at two thousand words. I’ve cracked 30,000 words on that one, and in my mind, I’m almost on the downhill side.

So how long does it take to write a novel?

I don’t know.

Looking online at “master” classes, or dozens of articles, you’ll see different lengths of string. One self-publishing site states with authority that you need eight months to write 80,000 words.

Another says your first draft should only take three months.

The truth is, your piece of string is different. Screw what everyone else says. It’s your work, and your own pace.

J.K. Rowling took six years to write the first Harry Potter.

It took Stephen King “several years” to finish Carrie, and then he worked on The Stand for two years.

Don’t let arbitrary deadlines or timelines to drive your work. Write when you can, as much as is comfortable and still keep the juices flowing. But make no mistake, speed, or the lack thereof, isn’t important. It’s the quality of work that makes a novel readable, and successful.

Write on!